With the early months of the year comes the start of two things: great weather and youth baseball. For first-time coaches, training baseball and softball teams can be daunting.
Where, essentially, all new baseball coaches have experience playing the sport, veteran coaches will attest to how different playing and coaching actually are. Playing the game is but a very small part of teaching it.
Kids new to baseball know very little if anything about the keys to the game and how to play. This means they must be taught everything from the ground up. Understanding the essentials of coaching the youth will help you maximize you and your team’s experience and in turn help to hone your players’ individual skill sets.
If you are steadily approaching your first day of practice as a coach, it’s critical to build a program that not only teaches and develops kids into players but also keeps them engaged and having fun.
This guide will walk you through the 10 essentials to making sure your team leads off with the right foot.
1. Draw Up A Practice Plan
In order to be an effective baseball or softball coach, especially in the youth field, you must prepare a practice plan. Age and skill level aside, you should always have a plan and you should always stick to it.
Most rookie coaches show up to the field with no practice plan whatsoever. This leads to the same old structured practice regiment: stretch, warm up, conditioning, and letting one player practice batting while the others stand around. Developing a plan gives the team an opportunity to grow together and reach goals.
It’s important to have a specific practice plan that follows a minute-by-minute schedule. Doing so will keep you, as a coach, on point as well as keep your team on a tight schedule that allows them to use practice time more efficiently.
A set schedule will keep your practice moving along. When you are aware of how much time you should be spending on each drill you can monitor progress and make adjustments.
Practice plans are practice plans. Keep in mind, they don’t have to be set in stone. Changing drills and timing is perfectly okay when developing practice plans from day to day.
2. Keep Your Players Active
How many times have you heard a young, active athlete refer to baseball as “boring?” This is because of their experience with baseball / softball practice. Most coaches have their teams stand around the diamond or wait in the outfield to catch fly balls. Sometimes this goes on for the entire duration of practice.
The key to keeping players engaged and goal-oriented is to keep them moving by limiting downtime. Yes baseball is a slow-moving game but practices don’t have to be slow as well.
The best thing you can do to keep your team moving is to create drills that give all of your players something to do at all times. Create stations with smaller groups that keep everyone active.
Another great way to limit downtime is to limit the amount of time spent transitioning between drills. Instead of taking 15 to 20 minutes migrating and bringing equipment to the next station, try to set up your practice in a way that eliminates this excess time.
Remember to bring a whistle. Using a whistle will not only save your voice from going hoarse, but will also provide a quick, easy signal for your team to shift gears with the swiftness.
3. Skip Conditioning
When you’ve put together a delegated plan that keeps your team active and engaged throughout the practice, you won’t need to rely on conditioning to keep your team in shape.
Science has shown us that the age-old practice of conditioning isn’t all that it’s chopped up to be among youth baseball programs. Improving one’s physical conditioning requires consistency and form over time. Running sprints and doing excessive cardio a few times a week at softball practice will have virtually no impact on your youth teams’ performance.
Conditioning your players is also unnecessary because if you’ve designed the appropriate practice plan, conditioning will already be integrated into your drills. Rather than have your player use their energy running in circles, it’s better to have them do so while practicing baseball-oriented activities.
4. Preserve the Arms, Limit Throws
Rarely do baseball coaches caution against overuse of the arm. Preserving the throwing arms of our young ones is crucial. With a recent rise in pitching injuries, like “Little League elbow,” it’s important to limit the total number of throws while at practice.
Even the most elite baseball programs monitor and limit the number of throws their pitchers make during practice. Big league programs, specifically collegiate baseball, often map out a very specific number of throws per drill based on the distance the pitcher will be throwing. And rarely do these numbers break 50-60 pitches in a day.
Youth and little league coaches rarely take precautions when it comes to their players’ throw totals. Our kids are easily clocking 50-60 pitches before practice even starts, and regularly are throwing 200-300 pitches any given practice.
The mentality is the more you throw, the more you grow, when in reality the excessive strain is detrimental to a young player’s development and arm health.
It’s essential for youth coaches to stay on top of their players’ throw totals. Build a throwing limit or load into your practice plan. Design practice with your pitcher’s goals in mind, but be conscious of them overthrowing.
5. Bring Equipment
An effective practice revolves around equipment. Literally.
Do not fret if you do not have access to all the newest, latest training equipment. You will be able to run an efficient and fun practice with gear that is cheap and accessible.
While players should be bringing their own glove and cleats, you and your coaching staff should provide baseball bats as well as some extra youth gear just in case a player leaves something at home or somehow breaks something during practice.
Next to this obvious baseball apparati (i.e. gloves, balls, bats, softball backpacks, catchers bags) it’s essential to bring plastic cones.
Use smaller plastic cones as markers for your player drills. They also can be used to show specific routes and angles taken when running to fly balls and grounders.
Small plastic cones are easy to find and are inexpensive. They will keep your players in the place and space out your practice area properly.
Tennis balls are also great accessible and inexpensive practice tools that can be used for honing different skills on the diamond.
Tennis balls are commonly used for bare-hand fielding drills as well as hitting where limited space is available.
6. Movements Over Mechanics
Most youth baseball coaches do not have a studied background in sports performance and kinesthetics. In fact, even among the big leagues, most don’t know what actually constitutes proper baseball mechanics. It’s safe to say if you’re a new coach you don’t either.
At the most basic level of the game, the key is to teach movement rather than mechanics.
Understand that movements are general, whereas mechanics refer to the specifics that go into those movements. The mechanics of swinging a bat and hitting a ball are complex. But the movements are simple. Teach the movements, the mechanics will follow.
The age old list of batting mechanics: where to hold the elbow, how to grip the bat, how big of a step to take through the swing. Results have shown that young players have a hard time processing all of these minute details at once.
Instead, coach your players through the movement of hitting. Let their natural mechanics takeover before instilling detailed ones. This will allow them to develop personal technique which will later be honed by mechanics as they grow and play.
7. Be a Coach to All the Players
During practice, all players should be treated equally. Try to avoid viewing players as “good” or “bad.”
Many coaches often tend to internally label certain players as “bad” and deem them as counterproductive to the team’s progress without realizing it. In the same way, they view “good” players as the ones they equate to success and winning.
Be sure to build a practice plan that avoids skill biases and actively integrates “bad” players into the training day. This will help everyone improve, not only the player who needs work. In turn, it will create lasting team chemistry and give your kids the opportunity to do what they love most: have fun.
Of course, players can and should be run through drills that are suited to their specific skill level. But it is important to give the rest of the team the same chances.
8. Dress Code
Enforce a dress code. Simply put, dress code is important because it will engage your players with instruction, and will also build a sense of identity among them. A demand for attention to detail will carry onto the playing field.
We recommend setting a very basic dress code: forward-facing baseball caps, baseball pants, shirt (tucked-in), and baseball cleats. All things that can be easily stored in a softball backpack or bag.
9. Encourage Team Spirit
It’s important to encourage youth players to work as a team and support each other out on the diamond. Playing any team sport is an awesome way for youth and teens to gain social skills and learn how to work well with others. As the coach, it’s your job to make sure everyone understands the importance of being a team!
One sure fire way to help your team really feel like a team is uniform wheeled bags, softball backpacks, duffle bags and catchers bags that match the team colors. Suggest a baseball bag that comes with the option to embroider a player’s name or number!
All in all the main thing to remember when coaching a youth baseball team is to keep it positively positive. Positivity. Positivity. Positivity!
If you haven’t learned by now, negative reinforcement does not work. Instead of helping your players to improve, it diminishes their spirit, takes away motivation, and fills them with self doubt and anxiety.
That being said, criticism for lack of hustle or effort is validated. It’s okay to criticize when you are being corrective. Helping a player to acknowledge when they are not finishing a play or going full speed, is what being a coach is all about.
Steer clear of criticising and singling out individual players. Hold the team accountable as a unit and if you feel you need to talk to a single player about their behavior or focus, address the issue in private.
Also avoid criticising very young players (9 and under). You’ll often find them picking grass and losing concentration. They’re 9. Regroup in a positive manner to keep the younglings engaged. Remember, with a solid practice plan they should be kept moving regardless.
The goal with being positive is to guide players into changing their poor habits and behaviors on their own, rather than forcing them in order to avoid punishment.
Keep it positive and your players will follow suit!
Taking that step onto the youth baseball diamond won’t be the first when you sign up to be a coach. There are several different approaches to coaching, but when it comes to youth and Little League, the approach is up to you! We hope these tips help you as you get started with youth team training.