“Coaching is about helping young people have a chance to succeed. There is no more awesome responsibility than that. One of the greatest honors a person can have is being called Coach.” – Lou Holtz
Most people that know me know that I would rather practice than play games. Especially at the youth level. Kids need work, and in most cases, the only place for them to get it is in practice. But, I feel many kids have the perception that practice is boring; and they would rather just play games. For kids that have this mindset, I believe the blame falls on the coach. Practices should be upbeat, and kids should feel as though they are getting better when they attend practice. Practices should not be boring for kids. And practices don’t need to last more than two hours. 120 minutes is a lot of time to get a lot done.
The following paragraphs address areas that need to be considered if we’re going to run an efficient practice, and keep our players wanting more.
The more a coach knows the more they can help their players with their skill development during practice. There are plenty of opportunities for Coaches to increase their knowledge, with the most prevalent being Coaches Clinics. While an Assistant Coach at William & Mary, I had the opportunity to present at a few Clinics. The clinics were well-attended and lots of great information was exchanged. Unfortunately, there was too much information passed down to coaches in short intervals. There simply wasn’t enough time for coaches to truly understand the concepts that were being taught. In the coaching world I see a lot of coaches know a little bit about many areas. When this happens, they find it hard to explain why kids should be doing things a certain way. Or why they shouldn’t do things another way. So, it’s hard for them to truly sell their players on performing skills a certain way. As a coach, we should make every effort to understand what we’re teaching and be able to explain why we teach it. We don’t need to know everything; but what we do know, we need to know it well. If we can’t tell kids why they should perform a skill a certain way, then we shouldn’t teach it.
In one of our February posts, “Take Command”, we discussed the importance of having an agenda for every practice. Taking a few minutes out of your day to prepare for your practice will go a long way in keeping the kids focused. You can’t expect to run an efficient practice when you try to run things on the fly. When your practice is fully planned out, the transitions between drills is quicker and easier as you don’t have to spend time thinking about what’s next. Preparation allows you to set up your drills (or stations) before practice begins; which leads to quicker transitions between drills as you don’t have to waste time during practice to set up a drill. And we all know what happens to kids when you give them a minute. They take 5 minutes. Quick transitions between drills removes the possibility that kids will get distracted. Once a kid becomes distracted, it’s hard to get their attention back on you. One last word about preparation. When you take the time to plan an agenda, it allows for you to reflect on what drills are needed to improve your team. During that reflection, you get to understand what your team has been struggling with. What are their weaknesses. Who are you playing next and what do you need to do to prepare for the opponent. Not taking the time to prepare increases the likelihood that your practice won’t address the immediate needs of the team. You are likely to do the first thing that comes to your mind.
Passion and Energy
We’ve all been in a class where the teacher lacked energy. Within 5 minutes of the start of class we found ourselves fighting to stay awake. And to aid in our efforts; we would doodle; or fool around with the kid next to us. And at the end of the class, we would wonder what the teacher just taught during class.
Unfortunately, there are too many coaches out there that do the same. They lack the passion and energy that are needed to hold the players’ attention. And just like a bored student in a classroom, the players will do anything to pass the time. Playing with dirt or watching what’s going on at the next field are a few of the more common activities a bored player will demonstrate. In these instances Coaches are likely to dismiss the player as one that “isn’t interested in getting better”. However, it’s the coach that needs to improve. Hold their attention and you’ll see players improve.
Coaches don’t need to be “rah-rah” or constantly screaming and yelling. But, their voice needs to command attention. Kids don’t want to be yelled at. No one does. But, they do want to be led. And there is a big difference in a commanding voice versus a yelling voice. Coaches also need to work quickly in practice. Coaches want players to move quickly between drills. So should the coach. Throughout the entire practice, the coach must be ‘on’. Just as a lack of preparation will allow for a player’s attention to fade, so will an unenthusiastic coach. Set the example for how you want your players to act. Be high-energy and show enthusiasm for the game.
The last topic that we’ll focus on may be the most common issue you see in a practice. Coaches need to design a practice around drills that don’t promote boredom. It’s not uncommon to see a youth practice where eleven kids are standing in the field while one kid hits. This will consume at least 30-45 minutes of practice time. And it’s likely that a few kids will fade into boredom. Here is where you’ll see the grass-pulling; or two kids chasing each other in the outfield.
Your practice will need to include batting practice and/or infield/outfield; two drills that could cause some players to lose interest. But, you need to make sure that your team is fully engaged in each. During batting practice, instead of having all kids in the field; break the team into groups. There can be a running group on the bases, a fielding group; and a hitting group. If a player is in the hitting group and not on the field, they should be working on their timing in the on-deck circle. There should always be something for a player to do. Infield/Outfield is easier. No matter where the ball is hit, each player on the field has a job. No one should be standing still even though you’re hitting the ball to a single player. Teach the players where they should be moving. You keep them moving and you’re likely to hold their attention.
There are many simple drills that a coach can work into their practice that can keep players engaged and working. We have a library on our site; but the internet is a vast resource of drills for a coach that is willing to prepare.
I mentioned earlier that practices don’t need to be more than 2 hours. As kids get older and into high school, you will want to stretch the time to allow for the occasional intersquad. However, keep practices short at the youth level. If you focus on the items above: improving their skill sets; run a well-prepared practice; approach each practice with high energy; and keep the kids active, you’ll find that the kids will want more. After practice you’ll find that the kids will want to stay and play catch, or field ground balls, or take more batting practice. That’s when you know that you’ve run a good practice…when the kids don’t want to leave.