If you ever watched the Spiders play, I hope you noticed something unique that you rarely see in youth baseball. Coaches were rarely directing kids. Coaches weren’t calling pitches or plays. Instead, if you watched closely, you’d notice that it was the kids who were calling nearly everything.
It’s not anarchy. It’s not chaos. And when it’s done right, it can be an absolute joy to watch.
The response to this approach may be, “But what are you doing as a coach? Isn’t the whole point that you should be COACHING THEM?” Actually, I’d say that this is a complete misunderstanding of the coaching that is required.
When you give kids control of the game, you must coach them in order to do it right. This takes a ton of work. Your teaching skills will be put to the test as you’ll need to practice patience and understanding. Your job will be to help them understand how and why a play or pitch is called.
When you do this, there’s a much clearer goal for practices and games. During practices, we provide the structure. We work on plays. We discuss situations and help them understand what to look for when they decide what to call.
In games, we let the boys play. We let them fail. And then we talk about what happened, and we fix what they didn’t execute.
Calling Pitches and Pickoffs
Something many coaches can’t quite understand is why we as coaches wouldn’t want to call pitches and pickoffs. The catchers call the game. It’s all part of the plan to help these catchers become better players and leaders.
We don’t throw them out there unprepared. A coach works with the pitcher and catcher on a strategy before the game. They may discuss what they saw in between innings or after the game. But the catcher makes every call.
The coaches never called pickoffs to first. This is instead based on feel from the pitcher. The catcher can also notice a big lead and signal for a pick.
The same goes for pickoffs at second. This was all communication between the pitcher and the middle infielder — verbal and nonverbal communication. The middle infielder decided when it was time to hold the runner close.
Sure, there were times when we desperately wanted the kids to pick off somewhere. It was hard! But, we’d use that as something to talk about in between innings, after the game, or at practice.
“Did you notice when we were in this situation and we could’ve picked off? Here’s what I saw. And here’s what we could have done…”
This, to me, is coaching. Helping them understand what to do and why as opposed to telling them what to do on every pitch.
Plays in the Field
Every team has plays they may call for handling runners in the field. Most common are the various plays you may call for the first and third situation.
Our coaches don’t make these calls, believe it or not. Originally, when the boys were younger, we called them. We put together five different plays and worked on executing them in practice.
We also discussed with them which situation was ideal for each play and why. It helped them understand, over time, which plays we called in which situation. The truth is that’s also so fluid. You could make different calls for the same situation and have it be the right decision.
Eventually, at 13u, we turned this over entirely to the kids. They made the calls without our input. When this situation came up, our catcher called time and our players congregated on the mound and agreed on a play. The catcher took charge, but all infielders had a voice.
It was beautiful to watch these boys make calls and see them execute. Often they’d call something different than I would, and it worked! These were some of my proudest moments as a coach. But even if a call didn’t work, it gave us something to talk about after the game that everyone could learn from.
Create structure for your players by putting together defensive plays that you work on in practice. But, allow your players to call these plays when you think they’re ready — and they are likely to be ready before you think.
We discussed in the past how you should have very few signs. Keep it simple. When given the option, let the player rely on their own instincts.
Give steal signs, but allow for green lights when possible. Allow players who earn your trust to run based on spotting their own opportunities because of a pitcher’s move, catcher’s arm, or anticipated pitch.
Give very few take signs and encourage aggressiveness. Allowing players to swing the bat shows your confidence in them.
The more signs you have, the more control falls to the coach and the more players are constantly looking to you for direction. Limit restrictions by limiting signs. You can and should still talk about game situations and what they should do.
The End Goal
The game becomes so fun to watch when you take this approach. When you limit your control and put the game into the hands of the kids, it becomes their game.
It can feel chaotic because you almost become a spectator, unsure of what they’re going to do. But when the players control the game — or have enough structure and trust to control most of the game — they truly become baseball players.
They think about the strategy and situation rather than letting their coach think about these things for them. What they do won’t always work (and what you’d have them do won’t always work either!), but instead of that falling on the coach, they learn from it.
The end goal of a coach isn’t to win games because you’re a master strategist and all of your players do what you tell them to do (or I hope it’s not). A good coach wants his players to see the things that most other people don’t see. A good coach wants his players to think about the situation. And a good coach wants his players to fail and learn and execute their game, not the coach’s call.
Your Game Plan
This is easier for older ages, of course. But, my advice for coaches is to start simple.
Trust your players with the call and execution of a basic play. If you don’t trust that they understand when to run that play, work on it! Talk about it in practice. That’s the whole point of practices in the first place.
They will very likely make mistakes and fail to execute at first. Do not take this as evidence that the approach doesn’t work. Allow them to fail and allow them to try again.
When it works, celebrate with them!