Organize to Maximize
By Darren Fenster
It’s the most valuable commodity in the world.
We may have the fortune of living our entire lives without ever going hungry. We may be blessed to never have to struggle with our finances. We may not go a single day worrying about where we are going to sleep. But every single one of us at one point or another will run out of time.
On the diamond, our time is just as precious. Division I baseball programs have very specific rules as to how many hours a week they are permitted to spend on the field with their student-athletes. At the youth level, with teams sharing the same few complex fields, every minute counts when it comes to teaching kids the game for the first time, while sharing our passion for it to the next generation of players. In professional baseball, playing every single day for six to seven months forces us to actually limit our time on the field so that they are able to physically get through an entire season.
All said and told, there is a common theme: regardless of the level, we want to maximize whatever time we do have on the field to help our players and teams develop to the very best of their abilities. In order to do that, coaches need to be both organized and creative when it comes to putting together their practice schedules.
The worst possible thing we can do as coaches is just roll the balls out and take batting practice with one player hitting and the rest of the team out chasing balls in the field. The more standing around there is, the quicker players will become bored, not just at practice, but of the entire game. And we want to give them a reason to come and be excited for the next practice, not a reason to stay away and quit the sport.
While there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to practice, keep the following two words at the front of your mind: fun and active. No matter what is on the schedule for the day, if a workout is fun for players and it keeps them active on the field, they will be engaged and attentive, and they can’t help but get better. When we create a practice that is both fun and active, we are creating an environment where players will willingly want to practice.
So how exactly do we do that?
First, we must take inventory on the following five things:
PLAYERS. How many are on the team and will be at practice?
COACHES. How many can attend practice, and offer knowledgeable help in one area or another?
FACILITY. What amenities does a field offer, i.e. batting cages, pitching mounds, open space?
EQUIPMENT. How many baseballs? Do you have training tools? Protective screens or catch nets?
TIME. How long do you have your players for?
Once we are able to take account of what exactly we have to work with from the list above, we can then get moving on a detailed schedule. Most college and professional teams break down their practice time into a handful of specific segments, from individual defense to team fundamentals, cage work to batting practice, throwing program to bullpen sessions. College and professional teams also have anywhere from 25 to 35 players, with three or four coaches on staff to help turn a big group into smaller groups with a very manageable number of players. But even with smaller rosters of 12 to 15 players, that same premise should apply: by creating smaller groups (with a coach or parent to lead/supervise each), every player is offered more reps, and the entire team becomes more active, one of our two vital elements of practice organization.
With smaller groups, practice can be organized into specific station rotations, each working on one part of the game, like defense, hitting, baserunning, or pitching. Ten minutes of each baseball skill, plus another 15-20 allotted for warming up and playing catch, and you can have a well planned and efficient hour-long practice with all of your players moving around all of the time. Those shorter segments created within practice breeds more focus, and in turn, a higher quality and effort of work from players when they know that a specific period is only going to last for a set, condensed block of time.
The fun aspect to the time spent on the field has two different parts to it, both of which do take some thought. The first part is developmental, which is the reason why we practice in the first place, to get our players better. Because of the fact that every player on a team is at a different ability level, with the gap the greatest at the lowest of levels, it’s important to meet each player at the level they are at. We can do that by putting together more challenging drills for our more advanced players, and some simpler activities for those who have limited talent. The fun side of all of this comes into play because we are different elements to practices where our players can be successful, and it’s that success that players obviously enjoy. That kid who struggles to make contact will go home miserable if he spent his entire time swinging and missing during normal batting practice. But that same kid will go home with a smile on his face after hitting every ball off of the tee or soft toss.
The second part of making our practices fun is by adding a competitive component to them. We can turn every single part of practice into some sort of a game, and by doing so, that simple extra part to the same drill or activity changes the entire complexion of the drill or activity. Take for example a daily staple of every baseball practice: playing catch. Rather than just throwing the ball back and forth, often without focus or care, by creating a simple point system for each throw with two points for every ball at the head and one to the chest, our players’ concentration level is taken to a whole new level. And that happens when just playing for pride… Imagine the focus when you offer some kind of a prize at the end. Any kid loves to play any game, and when we give them the opportunity to do that in practice, not only will they naturally start having fun, but we are also improving their focus and building their competitive gene without them even realizing it.
Practice is a coach’s opportunity to leave his mark on his team and players. That can be good, or bad. When we put some genuine thought into how we want to approach and organize that time on the diamond, we not only maximize our productivity, but we are giving our players every reason in the world to want to come back. And that’s what the game is all about.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.