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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Coaching Tip - Skill Development Trumps Everything

When you are working with young baseball players, skill development is the most important aspect of the training routine. Teaching young players how to develop the proper mechanics and then working with them through repetitions to train the muscles with the proper response sequence prepares them for game situations. Many coaches believe that “game situation” drills are the most important drills to use in teaching their players. There is definitely a place for these drills, it comes after you have already worked the skill development side. For example, I have seen coaches take 8 and 9 year olds to a practice field and immediately work on turning the double play at second, with live runners, so that they will learn to make the play at game speed. More often than not, the ball was ending up in the outfield or an over throw at first. Why, because the coach was trying to teach the whole play before the players had worked on the fundamental skills. Always begin with the fundamental teaching, helping athletes train their muscles to operate properly, developing the coordination skills, before attempting complex systems or plays. With many coaches, the success measurement is the team’s won-loss record. Winning is fun, and coaches will brag about their winning percentage, but it’s the wrong measurement. The better measurement is how much the young athletes have progressed, how their skills have improved. Very hard to measure, but obvious if you follow the players closely through the course of the year. Skill development has the long term benefit of a more prepared player, a player with more skill, who can compete at higher levels. In the long run, a team that focuses on skill development will improve their performance throughout the course of the season. Some coaches are reluctant to spend time on skill development drills, maybe because they don’t have the knowledge to properly assess a players mechanics, or because they are not competent in demonstrating the drill themselves. This should never be an excuse. In the day of the Internet, there are many good skill development websites and online tools available, for free or for purchase. Take the time to research a few skill tools, a good hitting tool, a good fielding tool, throwing mechanics, and pitching skill development and help your players develop at a faster rate. Skill development trumps all other coaching priorities.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Focus on Mechanics – Throwing Footwork

What causes most throwing errors? Arm too low? Throwing too hard? Trying to aim the ball? No, none of those. They certainly can cause bad throws, but the biggest cause of throwing errors lies beneath, it is poor footwork. Footwork maybe the most overlooked aspect of baseball coaching for infielders. When you watch professional shortstops field a ground ball, watch how effortless they look, and watch their footwork for it is the key to making it look easy. Good footwork accomplishes three things, it puts the fielder in the proper position, creates a strong base, and establishes momentum towards the target. The hardest throws, and the throws most often thrown away, are when a player has to compromise their footwork to make a throw such as running sideways and releasing the ball across their body. One of the most convenient times to have your players work on improving their footwork is every session of warm-ups, pre-game or at practice. Don’t let your players become lazy in warm up. Every throw from their partner should be caught with good footwork in mind, every throw. Finish off each warm up session with players no more than half a base length apart and work on the “quick hands” drill. Pay special attention to the footwork. Each catch should be made with quick feet as well. Read more on this in our Drill Tips Article on Quick Feet Make Quick Hands.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Drill Tips - Quick Feet Make Quick Hands

Your feet are connected to your hands, eventually, in every fielding activity. Good fielders use their feet to their advantage. Poor fielders are often disadvantaged with slow feet to begin with. Also, tall players have a more difficult time developing quick feet as their longer legs tend to result in their feet being spread apart further and therefore end up traveling further in each fielding play than their shorter team mates. Regardless of size, and initial agility, all players can benefit from developing quicker feet. Your body tends to work in a progression of movements, beginning at the base and working through to the furthest point of extension and control. Therefore, better quicker, feet will help produce better quicker fielding mechanics. A great drill for infielders to develop quick feet is to work with a partner, 6 to 12 baseballs, and two pylons. Position the two pylons about 10 feet apart, the fielder positioned slightly behind them and centered. The partner starts about 30 feet away and begins tossing easy ground balls to the outside of the pylons, ½ the balls one direction then half the other direction. After each ball is tossed, the fielder quickly positions himself behind the ball, fields the ball and tosses it back to the partner. The key teaching points are the initial stance, feet just slightly wider than shoulders, bend in the knees, head up, hands out, and the all important first step. With a ball thown (hit in a game) to the right of the fielder, the first movement by the fielder is with the right foot taking a very small opening step towards the ball. Sometimes this is called a jab step because it is very short and quick. Then the left leg will take a crossover step. This step should be short and quick as well. Initial steps should be short and quick. The fielder fields the ground ball then returns to the center position for the next ground ball. It is important to tell the fielder which direction the ball will be thrown. This is not a see and react drill, it is a drill to train the muscles to open to the ball and make a decisive quick movement.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Stance

In the world of sports, everything begins with the stance. Call it the starting position, the ready position, the stance, it goes by many names. Basic mechanics drills all begin from the stance, regardless of the sport. Watch a hockey skating instruction clinic and the first thing they show the young players is the hockey stance, feet about shoulder width, knees bent, slight bend forward at the waist, head and chest up, hands out front. Hmmmm….sounds just like the infielder ready position in baseball. Sounds just like the guarding position in basketball and the running back stance in football. The reason it sounds familiar is because all of these starting points are designed for the same purpose, to prepare the athlete for quick and powerful movements in any given direction.

The stance is important because it provides the base for power and quickness. Variations of the stance provide the base for other sport specific movements. Take an infielder from the fielding stance, or the ready position, shift his weight to the back foot and move his hands together, up, and back and now you have a strong batting stance. Let’s talk a bit more about the batting stance and how to coach a young player into the proper position.

The purpose of the batting stance is the same as any other stance, to prepare the hitter for a quick and powerful movement, in this case, a swing of the bat. Watch a great major league baseball hitter in slow motion and you can watch the transfer of power up from the base (their feet) through their body and finally extending to their hands and bat. Without a strong base, a strong stance, they would have nothing to support the torque they create through the rotation of their hips and their core which would result in a swing out of balance and likely a slow bat.

To place a hitter in the proper batting stance, and proper position relative to the plate, work through these easy steps. Step 1, have the batter lay their bat, with the middle of the barrel, on the back point of home plate. The bat should lie parallel to the front edge of home plate. Step 2, have them place their front foot, the ball of their foot, on the back side of the knob of the bat. Place their back foot just slightly wider than their shoulders, directly in line with the pitching mound and their front foot. Step 3, reach down and pick up the bat, without moving their feet, and hold it waist high in front of them. (We discuss grip and other preparation mechanics in a separate article). Step 4, take their hands and place them approximate even with the back shoulder. Step 5, now have them shift their weight slight to the inside of their back foot. Have them work through this routine as many times as needed to create familiarity with creating a strong batting stance. You have now helped your young baseball players with a routine to ensure they begin in a strong batting stance. As they become more familiar with the routine, they should be able to eliminate laying the bat on the ground and begin with a proper placement of their front foot.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Spotlight on Mechanics - Ground Ball Hands

Imagine a triangle that is formed with your two feet and your hands. This triangle, like many aspects in sports, is the basic for good groundball fielding mechanics. The position of the points is critical to successful fielding. The lower points, the feet, should be slightly wider than the shoulders. The hands are the key point in the triangle and should be positioned well ahead of the feet. To establish the perfect ground ball triangle, bend down at the knees and slightly forward at the waist, with feet shoulder width or wider, place your glove on the ground approximately 12 inches in front of your feet. This puts you in the correct fielding triangle to receive a ground ball. As the ground ball travels towards you, “give” with the hands in a slight upward motion to adjust to the height of the ball. Always start below the ball and move upwards. It is much more difficult to move the hands downwards to the ball and then to have to come upwards again to make the throw. Starting down prepares you to raise your glove to the ball and continue upwards with the hands and upper body into throwing position.

Drill Tip – Soft Hands Drill

Everyone has heard the descriptive term “hands of stone”. This refers to a fielder who tends to block the ball rather than receive the ball with a stiff set of hands. With stone hands, the ball also will occasionally bounce out of the glove and result in an error. “Soft hands” refers to a fielder who seems to cradle the ball or draw the ball inwards when they are fielding. Watch Derek Jeter and you will see what soft hands are all about. Perform the Soft Hands Drill without a glove. A pair of fielders uses one baseball and positions themselves roughly 20 feet apart. To isolate only the hands in this drill, have the fielders positioned on both knees. One partner rolls the ball towards the other. The receiving partner reaches towards the ball with the catching hand below their throwing hand and draws their hands back towards their body.

Welcome to the Coach Baseball Insider

Welcome to the first edition of the Coach Baseball blog and newsletter. Each month we will deliver a new set of articles on the topics of Drill Tips, Coaching Tips, and a Spotlight on Mechanics. Feel free to suggest a topic you would like us to comment about. Send us your favorite drill or mechanical tip and we will mention here (and give you credit of course).