Hot Or Cold, Why Practice Matters

All youth league baseball seasons have begun, even in the most northern areas of the country. In the warmer southern climates, the playoffs are just a short month away. No matter what stage of the season you’re in, you want to either get hot or stay hot as a ballplayer.

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity; that’s a quote from an ancient Roman philosopher named Seneca. What it means is that when the ball ball is pitched to you right down the middle of the plate when there are two runners on and your team is down by one in the last inning, you not only know what to do with the pitch, but you are confident that you can make something happen. That’s why practice is important.

Keep practicing. If you’re hitting the cover off the ball, you should keep hitting the ball as often as you can to stay sharp. If you haven’t been as successful as you’d like, then practice will sharpen your skills. The same with taking fly balls or ground balls. The professional shortstops that I’ve admired most are the ones that take 100 ground balls (half to their glove side, and half to their arm side) every day. And as far as throwing / pitching, as long as you’re not performing that at 100% intensity every day for all throws, you will get more accurate and stronger by throwing.

Players, parents, and coaches want more games. Games are the performance, like the school play or the concert. Imagine how many times that violinist practiced that piece and compare it to the number of concerts in which he or she gets to play it for an audience. We don’t seem to have that level of commitment or patience in sports, and maybe it doesn’t need quite that ratio. But whenever the ratio of practice to performance is higher, you get more success.

The game (or the concert) is normally more fun than practice. But no one gets better in games. You don’t get enough chances to handle the ball during the game, with the exception of the pitcher. And even the pitcher is concerned with controlling the game (and their opponent) more than working on a changeup or a different pitch. So practice.

One more thing on practice. The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” This has been co-opted by baseball coaches at all levels; I’ve heard the legendary Ripken brothers use it many times. But I submit to you that there is no such thing as a perfect practice. It’s impossible because I haven’t met any perfect coaches, never seen a perfect practice plan, and even if those existed there are no perfect ballplayers. So let’s get real.

And practice does not make permanent either. Because humans constantly change and adapt and become more or less adept at tasks over time. However, practice absolutely does make for habits and tendencies, good or bad. So practice good habits.

Plan Practices by Focusing on the Basics

I get a number of questions each year about structuring practices, what to teach, what drills to use, etc.  It can be difficult to answer these questions because there are a ton of great drills, many important things to teach, and of course a very limited time to try and accomplish everything you want to accomplish.  This post is really geared toward the youth team that is starting practice in the spring and the season ends at the beginning of summer.

For those short seasons with young players, I’ve learned over the years that it’s much more important to continually work on basic skills than it is to try and cover a lot of situations.  Simply put, if your team can field well, play catch, hit, and run the bases then you’re going to be okay.  If you mess up on the occasional cut-off play or bunt situation, that probably isn’t going to make or break your season.

So if you buy into that philosophy for your team, then it really simplifies your practice planning.  Rather than trying to cram in a bunch of situational baseball, you can instead focus in on basic skill improvement that your team will use every inning of every game.

The danger of working on the same basic skills most of the time is that your practices can quickly become routine and boring to the kids.  Telling a young player to field 30 ground balls so they can get better doesn’t work with most kids.  Instead come up with different drills and games to work on those skills.  Kids love to try and achieve goals and compete against other kids on the team.

For example instead of simply hitting ground balls to the infield and have them make a throw to first, use the bucket of balls drill that accomplishes the same thing but gives the kids a goal and something to work for.  This is just one example, but almost any drill can be modified slightly to have the kids either work toward a goal, a personal or team best, or as a fun competition.

In the end if you can get kids focusing on the basic skills during practice because they have an interest in achieving a goal, then you’ll see a big improvement when they are in similar situations during games.

Top 3 Essentials for Good Outfield Play

Outfield can be a difficult position for kids to play well for a number of reasons but if you can get your kids to accomplish the next 3 items, you’ll see your outfielders play improve throughout the season.

“Expect the ball to be hit to me on every pitch”. This basically means that they need to be ready and expect the ball. Easier said than done! Often kids who play in the outfield get bored because they may not get many balls hit to them, especially if there is a good pitcher on the mound. So how do you keep them in the game and ready?
Help them develop a pre-pitch routine that involves movement. As the pitcher starts his motion, they should be moving and getting into a position where they are ready to move as the ball crosses the plate.
Communication. Get your outfielders talking to each other. They should be saying how many outs, what’s the count. Where to throw the ball on a base hit. Where to throw it on a fly ball.
Empower them and expect them to adjust where they play based on the hitter. How many times does a big hitter step up to the plate and the coaches are yelling to the outfield to get back or a bottom of the order hitter comes up and you move them in. Try your best to get them to make those adjustments. If you expect them to adjust based on the pitcher, where the opposing team is in the lineup, what the batter did last time up, then your are forcing them to focus and think. It keeps them in the game and gets them thinking about where the ball would most likely be hit by each batter.

Get Behind the Ball! This is true on fly balls as well as ground balls hit into the outfield. Keeping the ball in front of you is an important part of playing outfield effectively. On a fly ball hit directly to a player work with them on trying to catch it moving forward. This will not only help them in not having a fly ball drop behind them, it also helps them setup to make a good throw back to the infield. On a ball hit to the side try to get your players to circle the ball rather than taking a direct path. This will help prevent balls from making it to the fence because the outfielder misjudged the speed of the ball and took the wrong angle.

Backup Everything – Not only will this save your team from giving up extra bases on overthrows, it will be another thing to keep your outfielders moving and in the game. Almost every play in a game where the ball doesn’t go to the outfield, can be backed up by the outfield. Ground ball to third, left fielder is backing up third in case the ball gets by him, right fielder should backup the throw to first, center fielder can move toward second in case there is an error and the runner tries to advance to second. If you want this to work you really need to set the expectation and then give a lot of praise for the kids that hustle and meet that expectation.

Playing outfield can be difficult for kids and difficult for a coach to keep kids involved. Hopefully you can use these tips and try to motivate your outfielders to be active and engaged throughout the game.

Little League Baseball Players – Conflicts

Being a coach means handling far more than baseball drills and plays.  Your little league baseball players will often have conflicts.  You deal with the immediate problem but then you need to look at what causes it. Little League Baseball Players

Coaches often feel that their job is to put out fires.  This is one style of management that is effective, but it is not the only one, nor the best one.  When two of your players get in a fight, you must put out the fire and break up the fight.  However, a good coach will not just leave the situation and assume that the problem is resolved.  Every issue that you deal with comes from some larger, underlying problem that you may not have recognized yet.  It is your job to discover those tensions and resolve them before they surface in other ways, such as a fight.

Many coaches say that they have so many little issues to deal with that they do not have time to address larger ones, which often cause smaller ones.  It is not so important to them to teach their athletes to respect each other, because they need to make sure their players do not sabotage each other in the short term.  However, this style of leadership leads to more conflicts, because your players never learn the more important lessons of sports.

When you find yourself in a situation where you have to fix an immediate problem, give yourself time to discover the larger problem as soon as possible.  If you do not address the tensions that build within your team, you will have small, frequent explosions that consume your life as a coach.

Wall Ball Hitting Drill

This drill is actually a hitting game that allows players to build skills, learn to perform under pressure, identify strikes, and develop a line drive swing.

Teams of 2 or 3 players compete against other teams. The first team to score 11 runs wins. The drill can be used indoors or outdoors. The games requires a wall, curtain, or sections of fence. The rules are outlined before competition begins. The wall or fence should have a “top line” that represents the top of the scoring zone. Any ball that hits the wall, curtain, or fence above that line is an “out”. To score, the batter must hit a line drive that hits the scoring zone without touching the ground. The batter that hits a ground ball keeps the inning alive. He does not score, but he also does not make an out. Each player gets only one swing per bat. He is either going to hit a score, hit a ground ball or make an out. Any ball that is caught by the defense before it touches the wall or ground is an out. All pop ups, foul balls, and missed swings are counted as outs. Bats are not allowed to touch the ground. Batters must stay alert and jump in to bat as soon as the other batter swings. Each team gets 3 outs per at bat. Defensive players are allowed to “knock down” balls to prevent scoring. Any ball that hits the “scoring zone” without touching the ground is a score. The defense must learn to react quickly and catch the ball or knock it down.

This drill is best done in a tournament format. Reward the winning team in some way. This is a great drill for indoor hitting. Players get to take a lot of swings. The competition becomes fierce. It will build a competitive fire in your timid players, and teach players to be aggressive. Make sure to use foam or wiffle baseballs.

The Pitch Behind Drill

The purpose of this drill is to prevent timid hitters from backing out at the plate.

The timid little league batter always seems to assume that backing out will automatically prevent him from being hit by the pitch. He usually starts his getaway before he has any notion of where the pitch is really headed. I have had some success against this tendency by throwing behind the timid batter’s back. After all, he will get plenty of these pitches at the little league level, and you don’t want him backing into them and getting hurt.

Start out using spalding or tennis balls. At first, throw a lot of pitches behind him, then gradually decrease the frequency of these pitches as he starts to break the habit. Soon he will realize that he had better not back up until he sees where the ball is really going.

This will make him safer and more confident at the plate. And while he’s watching the ball more closely, he’s going to realize that he doesn’t have to hide from the good pitches, but can stay put and hit them.

How To Crush The Curveball

How To Crush The Curveball

 

Crushing the Curveball

This week I want to discuss exactly what pitchers are trying to do with the breaking ball when they are attacking hitters. I believe that if you as a hitter understand how the pitcher is trying to go after you with the breaking ball, you will be better prepared to hit it OR lay off of it.

First lets deal with a RHP vs a RHH or LHP vs LHH

Generally speaking, early in the count the pitcher is trying to throw the curve for a strike. In doing so they are usually going to start by throwing the curve at you, usually at your waist and let it break over the plate. The idea being, if they start it at you they can raise doubt in your mind and get you to bail out or at least freeze. This pitch is actually a good one to hit because it is intended to be thrown for a strike which means it is going to cross the plate around mid-thigh level. This is an elevated curve that you can get good wood on. (as long as you don’t bail out)

Once the pitcher has two strikes on you he does not want to throw you a strike. He wants to throw a breaking ball that starts as a strike then breaks out of the zone. See the final pitch of the world series for a perfect example. By starting this breaking ball in the zone, the pitcher gets the hitter to start his bat, by breaking it out of the zone he gets the hitter to chase a bad pitch, which he is either going to miss or hit weakly. This breaking ball usually starts down the middle and breaks low and away out of the zone, often in the dirt. If as a hitter you know this, you can train yourself to take this pitch and force the pitcher to bring the ball up in the zone. Anytime you get the pitcher to bring the ball up in the zone it is going to work in your favor.

Next lets talk about the RHP vs. LHH or LHP vs. RHH

In these match-ups the breaking ball is no longer going away from the hitter but actually coming towards the hitter. Because of this, the pitcher has to adjust how he attacks the hitter with the curve. In these match-ups, the pitcher usually will try to throw a backdoor curve for a strike early in the count. Meaning he will throw the breaking ball by starting it off the outside corner of the plate then break it over the outside corner for a called strike. The thought being he will get the hitter to give up or quit on the pitch because he thinks it is a ball, and then drop it in late for an easy called strike. As long as you don’t give up on this pitch too soon, it is a good pitch to hit because it it elevated and easily shot into the opposite field.

With two strikes, the pitcher will try to break the curve at your back big toe. He will start the breaking ball middle-in at strike height, but get it to break low and in under your bat. Usually the hitter will either swing over the top of it, foul it off his foot or dribble it weakly on the ground. Again as a hitter you must train yourself to lay off of this pitch and make the pitcher bring the ball up in the zone. If you get the pitcher bringing the ball up in zone you will have a great chance of getting a good pitch to hit.