Video Blog: Softball Practice #1

I signed up to coach my daughters’ softball team this year and just wrapped up practice #1 over the weekend.  This is 8U coach-pitch rec softball, with some players who are brand new and others who have played for several years.  The first practice was an hour long, and my objective was to evaluate the players to understand their skill levels and begin to assess what we’ll need to work on in preparation for the season.

Enjoy!

Here’s a summary of the 60-minute practice agenda:

  1. 00-05 minutes – Introductions and team rules
    • Rule #1 – listen
    • Rule #2 – hustle
  2. 05-15 minutes – Baserunning
    1. Home to first to run through the bag
    2. Home to second to learn how to round first base on an extra base hit
  3. 15-18 minutes – Water Break
  4. 18-50 minutes – Stations
    • Hitting: players hit 15-20 balls (plastic balls) off a tee
    • Throwing: players stood by a cone on the foul line, and threw past a cone 50 or so feet in front of them in fair territory
      • Emphasis on proper footwork, throwing hard, and aiming for a target
    • Fielding: groundballs, throwing the ball bag to the coach
      • Emphasis: “Alligator” technique, quick release of the ball to throw back to the coach
  5. 50-55 minutes
    • “Tour” of the defensive positions
  6. 55-60 minutes – Relay race
    • half the team started at home plate, the other at second base

All in all I think practice went OK; thinking back the throwing station could have been better.

 

Looking forward to practice #2 in a couple days!

How to run your first baseball or softball practice: ideas for the new coach

hardball_9532For the new baseball or softball coach (or even seasoned veterans) the first practice of the year can be a daunting challenge to get through.  Getting to know new players, families, setting expectations and routines for the team, and establishing a culture are all objectives for the coach to try to accomplish in the first session with the team.

This post focuses on what a new coach should try to assess from his or her players during the first practice, and some suggested activities to achieve these goals.  This assumes that the coach has group of players that he or she is not fully familiar with.  If the coach is new but has a good understanding of the players’ abilities, a different approach would be preferable for the first practice.

Areas to Evaluate

By the end of the practice the coach should have an idea of how each player performs in the following areas:

  1. Athleticism/Coordination/Mobility of each player
  2. Defense
    1. How a player throws
    2. How a player catches
    3. How a player fields groundballs and flyballs/popups
  3. Offense
    1. How a player swings the bat, including stance, balance, and coordination
    2. Whether the player seems to have an eye for the ball (either from the tee or via soft toss)
    3. How a player runs the bases
  4. Attitude
    1. Which players may require additional motivation
    2. Which players are eager for each new challenge

Activities

Here’s a sample agenda for a 60-minute introductory practice for a coach at the beginning levels of the sport with a 12-player roster and 2 assistant coaches.  Coaches should maintain a positive energy and a good pace for the practice, especially for young players who can be easily distracted or lose interest:

00 – 05 Minutes: Introductions

What to do: Ask each player to introduce him or herself, and introduce your self to them.  Let them know you’re looking forward to a season with them where they’ll work hard and have a ton of fun learning baseball or softball.  Make sure they understand expectations around effort, attentiveness, and any other team guidelines/expectations.

What to assess: Start to see personalities of the children, who is outgoing, who is shy, who is respectful, who has a shorter attention span, etc.

05 – 15 Minutes: Baserunning

What to do: Have the players run home-to-first a couple times at full speed, let them go home-to-second a couple times, and then close it out with an inside-the-park home run.

What to assess: This will give you a gauge on athleticism, speed, coordination, and stamina.

What to watch for: Make sure the players maintain discipline in the line, keep their hands to themselves, and pay attention.  It’s recommended to keep the line moving and the activity fast-paced so the players maintain interest and focus.

15-18 Minutes: Water Break

18-48 Minutes: Stations Activities

This is where you’ll start to get an idea of the baseball skills each player possesses and begin to formulate what coaching points you’ll need to emphasize throughout the first part of the season

What to do: Use your two assistant coaches and yourself to set up 3 stations

  1. Hitting: This can a combination of swings from a tee or from soft-toss, and this is the station that sets the pace and keeps everything on track. Over the course of 10-15 swings, the coach should be able to gauge whether the player watches the ball, can make contact consistently, has any kind of power, has a balanced approach, etc.  Only one or two players are needed here.  
  2. Throwing: The second station can focus on throwing.  There are many ways to do this, but the players at this point at beginning levels should be throwing to a coach only, and not to their teammates.  Using wiffle balls if safety is a concern or real baseballs if there is a reasonable level of trust.  The coach can simply have the players pick up a ball from a bucket or pile, and throw the ball to the coach.  The coach should be able to tell whether players use correct footwork and arm-path, can focus and throw to a target area.  Four or five players at a time can be at this station.
  3. Fielding: This final station will be to gauge the defensive abilities of the players.  For beginners and players at lower levels, there are good reasons to simply have players field the ball in an activity like this, and not necessarily make a throw after fielding it.  Basically the skills of fielding and throwing are separate and distinct for new players, and can be developed in parallel without always combining them in an activity.  For this, a coach can line players up 20-25 feet away and start by rolling each player a ground ball when it is their turn in line.  The players can then run the ball to the coach and run back in line, or they can drop the ball in a bucket and run back in line.  The idea is to get each player a many repetitions as possible while avoiding wasted time retrieving bad throws or missed balls.  The coach should be able to identify which players have a sense of how to move to the ball and field it, and whether they can follow directions and get the ball to correct location (either the coach or the bucket) after they make the play.  The coach can mix in light pop-ups for new players to see how  each approaches a ball in the air vs. a ball on the ground. Four or five players at a time can be at this station.

What to assess: The general skill level of your players when it comes to hitting, fielding, and throwing.

What to watch for: Players that are attentive and follow directions, and that move quickly between stations when it is time for them to switch.

What to strive for: Repetitions!  While a player may only take 10-15 swings, they should be able to get in 20-30 throws and 20-30 fielding plays.  The pace of the coaches is important to keep things moving and keep the players engaged.

48-50 Minutes: Water Break (additional breaks can be mixed in the station rotations as reasonable)

50-60 Minutes: Competitive activity

Here is where a coach can get creative, but the idea is to begin building a competitive spirit in the players and help them have fun while or practicing skills.  Sample activities for a first practice include:

  • Relay race
  • Longball contest: each player gets 3 swings off a tee, furthest hit wins
  • Long-throw contest: same as above, but with throwing

Wrap-up

At the end of practice the coach should bring the team together for a 1-2 minute wrap up.  Let them know how excited you are about their effort and all the things they are going to learn over the course of the season, and remind them of the next practice, and to work on the sport at home in between team sessions.

Again, the first practice of the season can present a challenge for a new coach, but having a plan (and being flexible) can help him or her get through jitters and make the first event a success!

 

Should beginning softball and baseball players play catch in practice? 

catch-ball_large

No. Absolutely not. When it comes to softball and baseball players, 4,5,6 and even most 7-year-olds at the beginner level simply do not have the coordination or skillset to have a productive round of catch.

I see it time and again. A coach tells a team to go play catch to warm up and it turns into a game of fetch. A very slow game of fetch. A player throws the ball, her partner misses it, he chases it, picks it up and throws it back, and she misses it and the cycle goes on. Eventually the coach wastes 5-10 minutes of valuable practice time, the players are no better off than when they started, and the team moves on to something (maybe) more productive.

You might be saying get out of here it’s baseball/softball, they need to play catch!

No, no they don’t.

Look at this video of a top-5 google video search result for “baseball throwing drills for youth”

Regardless of whether you agree with the coach’s principles and what he’s teaching the players, it’s easy to see that the players were unable to consistently throw and catch successfully.

A solution:

The skills of throwing and catching are related but independent. As a coach you need to recognize that and at these early age groups set up your practice to emphasize each independently until such point the players have the skills and experience to make it productive.

Instead of wasting time with these players on a non-productive and inefficient activity, split them up into groups and have one assistant work on teaching players how to throw, and another one can teach them how to catch. It’s better at this level for a coach to be throwing to a player because the coach can (hopefully) have better control over where the throw is going such that the player has a higher chance at catching it.

Baseball and softball are all about confidence. Build the players’ confidence  up so when they are physically ready to play catch down the road (a month or 2,maybe a couple years), it’s a worthwhile activity.

TBB Essential Drills Series #4 -Fastpitch Softball Outfield Drills – Carol Bruggeman

This is a longish watch so buckle up, but in it Carol Bruggeman, Executive Director- National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), gives some great drills to work with for outfielders.  I’ve incorporated several of these into practice sessions, and the players love them.  The competitive and fast paced nature of the activities adds a pace and urgency to practice and allows participants to really focus on producing great results.

TBB Essential Drills Series #3 – Jen Schro Catching Army

 

Shoutout to my buddy Blake Paul for sharing this with me!  Here’s a cool quick clip from softball player Jen Schroeder showing an easy fundamental drill for catchers.  Emphasizing the importance of being strong in the stance, tracking the pitch, framing it, blocking it, etc., WITHOUT EVEN THROWING A SINGLE BALL, Jen is able to demonstrate how to teach and instill key elements of the position in a short period of time.

This example also goes to show how drills and activities need to be simplified to allow players to focus on consistent execution without having to memorize a complex set of instructions.

TBB Essential Drills Series #2 – How To Run Through First Base

 

Here we have TCU Baseball Coach Randy Mazey breaking down one of the elemental aspects of baserunning.  The first thing a runner has to worry about as they learn to play is busting it down the line to beat out a groundball.  This video provides great advice on that as well as some iconoclastic tips on how which way to turn when heading back to first.  Every coach needs to watch this because we’d avoid stupid arguments every weekend about tagging somebody out just because they turned in without making an attempt.

TBB Essential Drills Series #1 – Mike Candrea Ground Ball Work

I’ve liked this drill since the first time I saw it.  The principles Coach Candrea covers related to progression, precision, and energy are terrific.  I especially like the back to back to basics approach of simply rolling the balls to the players for several rounds before hitting to them.  Mixing in forehands, backhands, choppers, one-hoppers, slow rollers, etc, is a great way to give players experience in different scenarios, and the throwing aspect reminds them that a complete defensive play consists of two parts – the catch, and the throw.


 

The TBB Great Drills series is where I’ll list out some drills that I’ve found incredibly useful in my years.  Feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments!