The most successful coaches in any sport, who get the most out of the talent they have year to year are coaches who run effective practices. In youth sports, and especially in youth baseball, we need to teach the kids skills in practices and reinforce them in games. In my division, it has always amazed me how many coaches start practicing when the weather breaks sometime in March, and once the season starts they practice very little, or in many cases not at all. Then just before the playoffs start, they start practicing again. I am not that good of a coach. I need to practice, conduct numerous drills, and have repetitions combined with fun to have a successful season. In fact, in my baseball: “Baseball Coaching: A Guide For The Youth Coach & Parent,” I have a chapter titled: “Drills, Repetition & Fun Are The Key Ingredients For Youth Baseball.”
I maintain this is true for most levels of youth baseball. The number one goal I have at practice is to make sure the kids want to come back to the next practice wanting more. I have spent a good portion of my coaching career studying coaching techniques, and not only in baseball but I observe other sports and have picked up great tips. One of the best coaches I observed was a very successful high school basketball coach in New York and I got tremendous tips on drills and motivating players just watching a few of his practices. I was able to take many of the drills and transform them with a baseball theme. I am a really big NFL fan and I go out to some of the team’s summer training camps. I love to watch the receiver’s coach and the line coaches teach techniques. Even from football practices I have picked up ideas for drills that I transformed for baseball. There is absolutely no reason in the world why creative practices can’t be done in t‒ball. It takes some preparation, and yes, it does take some work and hustle to get the practices in, but it is so rewarding when it is done correctly. It is not just in the improvement you see in your players over the course of the season. You will get enormous satisfaction in any number of ways. It can be following a talented athlete who goes on to have success on the high school baseball team who you may run into at the local deli and he may say, “Hi Coach Marty! You’re the reason I stayed with baseball. The fun I had at your practices always made me want to come back for more and eventually I got better.”
If you coach as long as I have you may run into another former player who might say, “Hi Coach Marty! You’ll never believe it but I’m coaching my son’s t‒ball team, and I’m trying to do it the same way you did it!”
Both scenarios have happened to me and this isn’t why I still coach but I can’t lie and say stuff like this doesn’t affect me. It does! In t‒ball there are certain steps I would recommend for coaches to try when it comes to practice.
1. Get as many volunteers as possible as your league permits with the necessary qualifications and background checks. On any youth sports team, volunteers are a huge part of running a smooth season. In t‒ball volunteers are even more important. A t‒ball team can have up to 14 players and more sometimes. Kids naturally pick up bats that are on the ground no matter how many times you tell them not to. Just for the safety aspect, the more volunteers the better.
2. Have drills for the whole team but also have drills where you divide the team up. There are different levels of ability. As coach you can determine who is advanced and who is a beginner. When you divide the kids into groups, never give the group a name by ability. It can be group 1 and group 2 or the red group and the blue group.
3. Early in the season, in parts of the practice, separate the different skills from each other. First have players catch without throwing. Have them throw without catching. Have them hit without running and run without hitting. As the season moves on, you should combine the skills that go with each other.
4. Keep practices short and upbeat. The practices I run for kids 10, 11, and 12 run from 60 minutes up to 90 minutes but never longer. Young kids have short attention spans and at some point the practice becomes counter productive if it goes on too long. I would say a t‒ball practice should run 45‒60 minutes and no longer.
5. Have drills and activities prepared. Have alternate ones if some don’t seem to be working. Don’t try to over teach with too much detail. Young kids can only retain a certain amount of information. Also integrate skill drills with fun drills. Kids love to hit! So let them! There are endless types of drills that you can do and create yourself.
6. Be creative with the places you practice. Never cancel a practice once you have the whole team there. If there is a conflict with another team that was at the field first, just move to an area where you can run a creative practice. Areas such as a parking lot can be used.
7. Try to have your kids get in the habit of bringing their own water bottle to every practice. Have at least one water break during a 45 or 60 minute practice. Don’t use the water break just to socialize and talk about last night’s game on television. Use this time to talk to your team and maybe reinforce a good hit or play in the field from the last game.
8. Safety trumps all! Drop everything and scream as loud as you can the moment you see another player in a potentially unsafe situation.
9. Never berate any t‒ball player for a baseball mistake. Use mistakes as teaching tools. Nothing is better when the players see a good or not so good play and the coach can explain it to the team.
10. Challenge your players, especially at the end of the season. I always want my players to play up in age. I tell my parents that I want my 10, 11, & 12 year‒old kids to play like they are 13, 14, and 11. We want all t‒ball players to try coach‒pitch sometime during the season if the league permits this.
Coaching t‒ball can be one of the most rewarding experiences as a parent. If you have the time and are a little industrious, keep track of all your practices. I’m kind of old fashioned and instead of using my computer or a hand‒held device, I write down my practices on an index card and refer to the card during the practice. I try to keep all these index cards. One thing I also learned is to be flexible. If you become inventive in the middle of a t‒ball practice and see a possible drill you think you can create, do it! This is how I created most of my drills. I’d see the players set up in a particular way and a drill would go through my head and I would try it.