Spring is finally upon us, and baseball is back in full swing. On diamonds all across the land, tomorrow’s generation of the game is being born today. Coaches have a direct impact on our players as to whether baseball is just a small blip of their lives, or if it becomes an incredibly meaningful part of their lives.
No matter what the level, it is our responsibility as coaches to make the game fun for our players. Now that means different things for different levels, but the same premise remains from tee-ball all the way up to the Big Leagues. As a general rule of thumb, the younger the player, the more the emphasis needs to be placed on fun.
The different levels of the game present different ways coaches are evaluated. Under the bright lights of the Big Leagues, winning is the only thing that matters when it comes to whether or not a club’s manager is considered successful. At the collegiate level, a head coach is likely judged on his ability to graduate his student-athletes, while creating a positive environment that promotes personal growth within the program. For high school or travel team coaches, their success may lie in their ability to prepare their players for the rigors of college baseball.
But the sign of a great Little League coach won’t be found in trophies or wins, but rather in a number: the number of kids who sign up to play again the following year. Think about that for a second. At an age where most are all over the map with what they like and what they want to do, for them to want to pick up the bat and glove again a year later, that means their coach created an environment that made the game fun for those kids. No matter what the level, we can all learn from that real success of those coaches on the grass-roots diamonds of our game.
For coaches, the game should never be about showing off their knowledge; it should always be about the player, and making their experience on the field fun and productive. As a minor league manager, coaching some of the best players in the world, many of which will become Major Leaguers, it is always a challenge for me to find different ways to keep players mentally engaged on a daily basis in order to get better with each of our 140-plus days on the field over the course of the season.
Here are four ways to create a fun environment to help your players get better:
MAKE IT COMPETITIVE
The second you turn something into a game is the moment when the effort and focus of a drill or practice reaches higher levels. Athletes by nature are competitive people, so when they are working with something on the line- which may be as simple as their pride- they tend to hone their craft that much more seriously. Challenge your players to have a perfect day defensively when fielding ground balls, and give the winner a Gatorade. During your club’s daily game of catch, offer a day off from conditioning for the two who play catch the best. When BP comes along, use protective screens as targets all over the field to promote bat control, and give the player with the highest score a “sharpest sniper” t-shirt. When reviewing team fundamentals defensively, break out the stopwatch and sit back and enjoy how the entire complexion of the drill changes when your players have to record outs under a specific pre-set time.
GIVE THEM OWNERSHIP
Players come to practice every day and are used to coaches telling them what to do from start to finish. Instead of us dictating every second of the workout, get input from players as to what they want to do on that particular day. Let them decide the drills they perform. Give them the opportunity to make up their own batting practice groups. When we give our players a voice, and allow them to have an input our days, they will be locked in mentally in a completely different way because they have helped build our practice.
Every coach has their staple of drills and routines that they know help develop players. But no matter how good those practice segments are, without any variety or creativity, before long, your guys will become tired of the same ‘ole, same ‘ole. With just a little thought and research, every day presents an opportunity for entirely new and different drill packages that breed development, the variety of which will make it fun for your players who know that they’ll be something different when they get on the diamond. Between the many social media outlets that kids live on these days, in addition to many simple internet inquiries or YouTube searches, it’s easy to find a smorgasbord of drills to add to your practices in every facet of the game.
As much as players may become bored of doing the same exact thing every single day, so too they will get tired of being able to master the same thing every single day. Athletes love being challenged. They love the idea of being the underdog for something that others think they can’t do. And they love to get up after being knocked down, from everything from tough losses to challenging drills. When we push our players further than they can do, they often welcome those times as a chance to get better.
Set up the pitching machine to throw a fastball with the velocity that even Aroldis Chapman would be jealous of. For pitchers, record every single pitch they throw in their very best game, and challenge them to be even better by throwing more strikes and less balls. The best athletes in the world are never satisfied with the status quo, and it’s our job to push them beyond their previously conceived limits.