You show up to practice. Get your glove out of your bag and join your teammates on the field.
“Wanna throw?” you ask. A nod. You grab a ball.
Throw. Catch. Throw. Catch. Overthrow… Walk out to the ball. Walk back. Throw. Catch.
Cracking jokes. Throwing — or attempting — curveballs. Off of your heels.
Throw. Catch. Throw. Miss…
Why do you practice?
Go to your positions, the coach says. He grabs a fungo and starts knocking grounders to his infielders.
The first third baseman fields it… Throws on a hop to first.
Second third baseman boots it. Another ball hit. Fields it… Throws to first.
First shortstop boots it. Another hit ball. Boots it. Another hit ball. Fields it… Throws to first.
Second shortstop fields it… Throws wide of first.
Now you’re up. Flat footed. Slow, high-hopper coming your way. Fielded cleanly, easy throw to first.
Wait for another 230 seconds until your next ball.
What is your purpose?
Get a drink. Grab a helmet and a bat. Wait in line…
Third in line. Ping. Second in line. Ping. First in line. Ping. Your turn…
Swing away… Foul. Same swing as last weekend… popup. Same swing you’ve had all season… Same result. Ten swings, nothing changes.
Why are we even doing this?
Far too many kids see practice as a necessary evil. Far too many coaches don’t embrace this for what it should be: Time wisely spent refining skills.
I realize that all coaches think they are using practice time wisely. They have good intentions. But most are wasting that time. Kids aren’t getting better.
It’s not just the coaches. The kids have the wrong frame of mind and expectations. The facilities often don’t allow for efficient drills that allow everyone to move at once. And coaches — volunteers who rarely played beyond high school and aren’t paid — are ill-equipped.
This is really nobody’s fault. I grew up on practices like these. I spent many of my coaching days instructing practices like these. But it’s time to take a look in the mirror and make a change.
Why Do You Practice?
The answer to this question may seem obvious, but I encourage you to ask it. The reality may be that you practice because it is expected.
Like most coaches, you should practice to get better. So that your players are prepared. And it’s a good plan.
But how successful are your practices at achieving this? Do your players warm up with a purpose? Are they focused? Are they applying hitting and fielding drills that attempt to fix their specific flaws? Are they standing around, waiting, while others go first? Are they going through the motions?
A good practice doesn’t last a specific amount of time. Don’t feel like you have to work these kids to the bone. The truth is that most three-hour practices are two hours of standing around.
A good practice has purpose. Everything players do has the purpose of reinforcing good habits and fixing bad ones.
Set the Tone Early
Remind your players that they are at practice for a reason. They are there to get better. You are there to help them succeed.
You may think you don’t need to say this, but you do. These kids are conditioned by years of going through the motions at pointless practices.
Before practice even starts, establish a reason for being there. An upcoming tournament. A hypothetical championship game after a long weekend.
Put them in a good frame of mind. What they do today will help them be better players tomorrow. They may not notice it. But every time they reinforce good mechanics and productive actions, they are teaching their bodies to be better baseball players.
Use their competitiveness as their fire. Remind them that other teams are working harder than them. Remind them that their teammates are playing for the same positions and opportunities that you are. Now is the time to push yourself forward.
Every time it seems as though the boys are going through the motions, ask a simple question: Why are you here?
Warm-ups Are More than Warming Up
I’ve seen it too many times. Most teams don’t know how to warm up, so kids have the wrong expectations for the purpose of warm-ups in the first place.
When your team throws to warm up, what do they look like? Are they throwing in unison, at the same distance? Are they practicing good form and mechanics? Are they focused?
Or are they all doing their own thing? Throwing off of their back foot or sidearm? Joking and chasing baseballs?
Most teams warm up poorly. But the entire purpose of warm-ups is more than simply getting your arm warm. It’s to remind your body of proper throwing motions, habits and mechanics.
I’ve found that a good way to reinforce productive warm-ups is to ask my team about how the opposing team is warming up before a game. How do they look to you? Do they look organized? Do they look focused? Is this a team that intimidates you?
You can win the mental game before the actual game begins. It starts with warm-ups that actually have a purpose.
Drills vs. Reps
As coaches, we think of practice as a time to get reps. But the reality is that this is the time to fix flaws and reinforce proper process and mechanics.
Simple reps won’t help if they don’t fix a problem. Only productive reps do. This seems obvious, but think about how most teams practice.
Hitting practice is a bunch of kids getting to hit. That’s it.
Fielding practice is a bunch of kids in the field getting to field. That’s it.
Have your players practice hitting drills that teach their bodies to be in the proper hitting position. Give them throwing drills that train their bodies to use good throwing mechanics. Provide fielding drills that remind them of efficient fielding motions.
If you can, customize those drills to suit each player’s flaws and areas of improvement.
Stop Showing and Telling
For years, I was a “shower and teller.”
When you hit, stand like this. Keep your hands here. Use your hips like this. Lead with your hands. Follow through like this.
This method DOES NOT WORK.
Kids have been doing the same thing for years. Even if they’re young, they’ve been doing the same thing long enough that simply TELLING them to do something different isn’t going to fix it.
They can’t see themselves as they hit, throw, or field. And their bodies don’t understand how or why they should do it the way you’re saying.
That’s the purpose of drills. Without these players knowing it, a drill — when properly executed — teaches a player’s body exactly how it needs to move.
Next time you hear a coach yelling about how a player’s hands are here or hips are there, kindly ask them to try a more productive approach.
Keep Kids Moving
I understand that this can be easier said than done. Sometimes, you’re sharing a field or have access to a facility with limited space.
The goal, though, should be to minimize standing around. Eliminate it altogether, if you can. Every moment spent standing around is a moment wasted.
Fielding drills can involve a partner. Hitting drills can involve fieding. Pitching drills can involve a catcher.
Avoid lines at all costs.
Imitate Live Action
Our indoor practices involve mostly drills. Repetitive actions to train the body to move the ways that we want.
That said, you can’t use only drills and then expect to perform well in a game. You need to imitate live game action.
Add stress and competition. Give them something to fight for. Bring out their competitive fire. Do your best to imitate the pressure they will face in an actual game.
You can do this with simple hitting and fielding competitions. You can also imitate live action by splitting your team in half and running a scrimmage.
That may sound crazy, but it actually makes for a fun game. The Spiders only have 11 players. That may mean putting a coach or two in the field. But it’s important to practice live pitching, catching, hitting and fielding.
Your pitchers need to face live batters. Your hitters need to face live pitchers (other than coaches). Your catchers need to face live runners. And your fielders need to field live hitting.
The Spiders have a playbook. You may have seen a version of it. All of our players have and study this playbook.
But we also set aside classroom-style “chalk talk” sessions to discuss situations. What would you do, as a pitcher, in this case? Why? What are you thinking as a hitter here? Where would you go as a fielder if this happens?
It’s more than memorizing responsibilities. It’s understanding why you should do the things you need to do.
Most teams don’t have these classroom sessions, but I truly believe that this is where kids become cerebral baseball players.
More to Come
This is an overview of how most practices happen now and how I believe a prodictive practice happens. In the coming days, I plan to provide examples of some of the drills that we use in our practices.
How does your team practice? Let me know in the comments below!