Practice … practice … practice. I think it was said over 20 times by former NBA All Star Allen Iverson in a press conference with respect to him not going to a team practice. At that time, he was arguably the best at his position and maybe the best player in the NBA.
He was being questioned on his desire to work at the game and work with his teammates and coaching staff to get better. In other words, lead by example, show some leadership, but instead it became apparent, he wanted no part of this. The myth developed that he didn’t care about practice, however he claimed that he only missed one of them all year and agreed with its importance. But the damage was done – “practice” became a bit of a mocking point for a little while afterward, when the opposite could not be more true. Yes, competition will be the best setting to bring out the best (and worst) in your skills, but a well run practice setting is an unparalleled environment for development that all too often gets squandered.
In this blog I want to briefly key on some critical concepts that can help with the flow, tempo, organization and philosophy of how a good baseball practice operates:
Organization - A good baseball practice begins with the writing out what the coach needs to try get accomplished. This however has to be modified pending a few critical pieces of the puzzle: number of coaches; number of players; access to certain equipment, cages, machines, baseballs or screens. What coaches can’ t do is make up things to do on the fly. Write it up, confer with coaching staff, stick to it and modify only slightly. Be prepared.
Awareness/Communication - Next, prior to practice make sure all kids are aware of what will occur in the time lines of the baseball practice. It is also critical each player is attentive to the start and finish of the practice, to ensure they understand time is everyone’s equal enemy and there is lots to cover in order to master a skill. Furthermore, as most kids get rides from parents to practice, informing them as to the length of practice will help them (parents) co-ordinate their schedules. It is important there are no surprises and all parties are on board.
You don’t want to surprise them nor do you want them to surprise you with an early departure from practice. Each player needs to know exactly where to go and at what time; this will improve efficiency of each practice. Remember, time is everyone’s equal enemy. He who uses the time best will have success.
Effective Warm Up Time - Now, this may be the MOST critical element of any baseball practice…the coach to player relationship during the warm up. This component may very well be the worst ingredient that occurs in practice. This is where the flow of practice starts, but more importantly, it is where the bonding of the team and coaching staff occurs. I truly believe this area is the beginning of where team unity and team philosophy comes to the forefront. This is NOT the time for the coaching staff to be sitting on the bench hanging out, talking about everything but baseball. It is a time when the coaches or Head Coach makes visual and verbal eye contact with each player.
It should be a time for a coach (or coaches) to become interactive with his (their) players by engaging in small talk that is centered around school, family, friends or simply a few positive remarks thrown at the kids or group so each can feel better before practice really starts. Moreover, by being out there with the kids as they are warming up, rest assured a proper warm up will occur. Bottom line, as a coach, if you wish to get more out of each kid, use the critical component of warm up to ensure this happens. One positive word, phrase or sentence goes a long way with kids prior to practice. Use this time to set the tone for practice responsiveness. Sit back on bench away from the players and watch them warm up…and what you will get is talking, needless chatter, unresponsiveness, poor body demeanor and presence.
Minimize “Stand Around” Time - The next critical concept is ensuring each practice contains movement and flow. Just think about the times you have seen all 12 or 13 players lined up fielding ground balls, with each player fielding one ground ball every two minutes or so. Wow! That is a waste of the valuable time we can’t bring back. Find ways to keep kids moving with as little standing around as possible. Geez, they stand around enough during games, why punish them with the same at practice? Never use the excuse, “not enough coaches”. That is the easy way out. Find ways to get all players involved in the execution of practice, even if the coaching staff bench is short and thin that day.
Sandwich Theory - During practice, the sandwich theory is always good. Throw out some positives, mix in a negative (not to emotionally affect kid, but to ensure he is getting what is being asked), followed by positives. Pretty simple and easy.
End on a High Note - Finally, conclude practice with some positive reinforcement. A coach should not let a player depart from practice feeling bad about themselves, no matter how rough a day they had. Find a way to get them to bounce back on the positive side if they have a poor practice. It happens to all of us. Kids are thriving for positive feedback, we as coaches need ensure it is handed out when needed, while at same time, not forgetting about the constructive assessments. Don’t let these constructive comments turn into a negative; you have lost the kid and maybe the team by then.
Good Luck with practice organization and if you have any of your own Cardinal Rules, please share them in the comments below.
Rick Johnston, Head Coach & Instructor
The Baseball Zone
PS: Not overlooked in practice but not indicated in the blog was what each practice should contain as far as batting practice, team defense/offense, practice by position or baserunning. Those, in themselves, are based on the needs of team.