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!

 

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.

How to find a good baseball instructor or coach for your player

This is easy:

  1. Move in next door to a former player, preferably a major league baseball alum.
  2. Make sure he has exclusive access to an indoor training facility, and guaranteed field time at a local park when the weather is nice.
  3. Ask him to coach up your kid.
  4. Make sure he’ll do it for free.
  5. Make sure he’s available on-demand.
  6. Make sure he won’t yell at your kid or criticize him in any way.
  7. Make plans to spend the future millions that your child is sure to earn as a first-round draft pick.

Right?

I wish.

This topic of private baseball instruction is a big one in the game.  When to start, where to go, how much to pay, how often to go, and when to stop are all components that go in to the decision-making process here.

When to Start

I was 9 or 10 when I first went to camp, 12 when I first started taking specific lessons.  Surely that makes sense now.  Not even close.  Youth sports and baseball in particular are barely recognizable now to the game I played as a youngster.  The key factor in determining when to start looking for an instructor is less tied to a specific age as it is to specific needs in the player’s development. Often parents believe they can teach the game as well as they know it.  This is good so long as the child is receptive to the instruction, but if things get to a point where the player is simply not picking up the lessons, or when the aspects of the game become more complex with new age groups, it may be time to consider a private instructor.

Where to Look

Aside from Googling for instructors or baseball schools in your area, there are additional resources available.  Perhaps the best to use would be to ask around on your team or in your circle of friends to see if any one can recommend an instructor who works well with their child.  Additionally, attending different camps can allow you to see instructors and how they approach group sessions and instruction to gauge how they might work out for your player.

What to Look For

This is a tricky one, right?  Presumably you’re looking for someone who can provide objectively correct instruction, while also being able to develop a rapport with your player and personalizing their delivery to them.  This may sound pretty “new school”, but every player is different and communication in a one-on-one setting should be tailored to the individual.  If a coach can recognize this and tailor their communication to the personalities (and even moods) of different players, then you may have found a winner.  This is where you can “test drive” different coaches to see who knows what they’re talking about, and who your player responds well to.

Cost

Rates can be anywhere from $40-$50 for 30 minutes to over $100 for hour-long sessions.  Pay what you think makes sense.

What to Expect to Get Out of It

At minimum, warning track power and 10+ MPH on the fastball after 2 sessions.  AT MINIMUM!  Seriously, as with any skills that a person develops, the ability to execute the skill can differ between different scenarios.  A player may struggle to pick up a principle in a lesson, then execute perfectly on it in the final innings of a bracket championship game 3 days later.  And we’ve all seen the opposite be true as well.  The key here is patience and trust in the process.  If the coach is teaching the right concepts and the player is enjoying the instruction and learning from it, it’s sometimes a matter of time before the results come.

The Parent’s Role

If you’re paying for the instructor, you kind of have two choices:

  1. Reinforce his or her concepts in no-instructional scenarios
  2. Undercut the lessons by trying to impart contradictory principles on your child.

If you choose #2, just save your money and either find a new instructor or resume teaching the child yourself.


Personally I’m a proponent of private instruction so long as it makes sense for the player.  In my experience, it’s helped me learn the game better seeing it be taught by professionals, and also helped my communication in different scenarios.