A critical review of my practice plans

I’m coaching a 5U team at Fountain Valley Pony. That means, we hit off the blue flame machine for five pitches, and then bring the tee out. Roughly 10 of my 13 players had never played organized baseball before, so we were very inexperienced as a group. I actually intended for my son Kobe to play tee-ball, only to find out he was too old after registering. One huge positive, we have GREATLY improved! I mean, leaps and bounds. We’ve gotten rained out twice already, so we’ve only played two games. However, we have had 13 practices. So, there’s been plenty of opportunity (and completely necessary opportunity) to work and grow and improve.

Planning Practices

As a user of Dugout Captain, I’ve treated my squad as a hybrid between tee ball and 6U. I typically pull up DC Plan – Tee Ball #x… and compare notes with DC Plan – 6U 60min #x to construct MY practice. Using either the Tee Ball or 6U DC plan as a template, I re-save it as my own practice plan, and then start modifying. I have:

  • Pulled a drill from the 6U practice plan and inserted it into the Tee Ball template (using Plan Tools).
  • Added a drill based on my team’s needs, such as when I realized we had two practices left until a game.
  • Removed a drill because there was no chance that my team could do it (any sort of playing catch)
  • Modified times because whoever wrote these plans somehow thought that 5-year olds pay attention for longer than 13 seconds (me… I wrote them :))

Following are links to my practice plans, as well as thoughts and feedback specific to what happened when I attempted to run them:

Practice Plan #1

Early Activity – We DID set up early activity, but only my own kid and my assistant coach’s kid were there. In an effort to check the ‘practice-what-you-preach’ box, I DID have my buddy toss wiffle balls to our kids prior to starting practice. But the real learning at this point was just how difficult it was going to be to start a practice at 4pm.

Warm Up – I had intended to do a more involved Obstacle Course meets Relay Race… but quickly realized that we needed to learn how to (1) line up and (2) move from one line at a cone to another line at another cone. Thus, our “warm up” consisted of walking from red cone, through white cone, to blue cone… and then doing the same thing in the reverse order. Then we jogged, then we ran. However, we did high-five every time we went past a teammate and we all wore name-tags to help everyone meet each other.

Throwing – For throwing, we did Hula Hoop Throwing. This was painful at the time, and involved lots of manual corrections. As in me (coach), picking your (athlete) foot and moving it into the position that I wanted. Apparently, the coaching cues of “right, left, right” are a bit more difficult for an athlete that doesn’t know which foot is “right” and vice versa. In addition, our focus wasn’t good as we had 13 kids divided into only two lines. That said, man oh man, am I glad that we persevered and battled through the drill. We ended up running a similar drill at Practice #2, but this time we ran it with ground balls. More importantly, the keywords from this drill have become commonplace and great verbal cues for the athletes: ankle eye (back foot), power step (front foot), point (glove arm), etc. Encouragement: Early pain will reap huge rewards later. Breathe deep and keep smiling.

Quick Defense – Two-Spot Receiving, even this drill was too advanced for my guys. On the fly, we simplified to only glove-side tosses in an effort to keep all baseballs away from the body. I also grabbed a third coach and went to three lines on the fly. By Practice #2, a drill like this would have four lines. Fast forward a dozen more practices, we run Four-Corner Receiving and I like to include it as an additional station during batting practice.

Drill – How to Coach Infield #1 – Honestly, I can’t remember if we ran this or not 🙂 If we did, it certainly wasn’t memorable. I do remember, however, running this drill at Practice #2 and utilizing hula hoops. Teaching point: While the focus of the drill was fielding triangle, right foot, left foot, shuffle and throw we made sure to include Hula Hoops as a tool to gather focus, create fun competition, and build upon the instruction laid down at Practice #1.

Drill – Hitting Grip & Stance – This drill became batting practice structure 101, with a sprinkle of pay attention to your feet. Structure was important to learn for athletes, coaches, and parents. We established the rules for handling a bat, where and when to swing, and how to safely wait in line until your turn. We used two tees (which meant one line of 7 and the other with 6), and that was the last time I would ever do hitting with only two stations. Thank you Amazon Prime for shipping me a $20 third tee next day. Other coaching notes:

  • I involved two additional parents to serve as line-monitors. They stood in between the action and the athletes – meaning, if a bat was thrown, it was going to hit an adult rather than a kid. They also allowed the coaches to coach. We didn’t have to be as concerned about keeping the kids safe and monitoring the goof-off levels.
  • Swing Hard Rule – I hammered home the philosophy of swinging hard. No fear – yes. Let it rip – yes. Aggressive – yes! This was a huge message for practice #1, and I repeated it as much as I possibly could.
  • Repetitions – We got six swings per kid at Practice #1. And while our focus was primarily on structure and establishing expectations for batting practice going forward, I did realize that we would need to use as many adults as assistant coaches as possible. At our last practice, batting practice had 4 stations: Machine#1, machine #2, tee work, front toss, and receiving.

Baserunning – The primary focus of baserunning at the first practice was also structure. I used two side-by-side cones and took the needed 4 minutes to get all athletes lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. Then, I used a coach behind first base as well as two cones to serve as our “goal.” We had another adult stand 10-15 feet away, where a fence would be, and instructed the athletes to run around coach, then continue to run behind the backstop as they returned to line. I took a mental inventory as 75 percent of the athletes missed first base and nearly every one struggled to take a verbal command and execute it. Even with 10 athletes in front of them doing the same exact thing. Note: Placement of the feet was (and remains) one of the more challenging tasks for my players. I think I’m going to invent some sort of product to help train athletes to line their feet up to home plate. But the “invention” has to force athletes to think on their own. It simply doesn’t matter how many times I say, “Check your feet,” or “Step up to home plate.”

Finish – The Life Lesson of Hard Work was addressed. However, it was addressed to all members (players and parents) with an emphasis on practice expectations. I laid down team rules and did so firmly. However, I explained to parents that our firm structure will provide for a better practice experience. And so I appealed to them really, “Help us, help your kids!” Parents loved hearing our rule: “Eyes up, mouths closed” when a coach is talking. They loved hearing that we were going to ask a lot of them. And then loved hearing how excited the athletes were to work hard and get better.

After the fact, I was exhausted. Legitimately, exhausted. My notes from the plan read this: REPS. For me, that meant recruiting other parents, digging up more gear from my garage, and buying an extra batting tee. Repetitions were going to be hard to come by.

Practice Plan #13

Now, let’s fast-forward a dozen practices to the mighty, mighty Padres Practice #13.  I’ve since saved this plan as DC Practice Plan #8 for 6U. You’ll see all that’s changed:

  • Run the Bases as Warm Up – I do this all the time as I think it helps us combine two segments – we get the kids a sweat (warm up), while we teach baserunning. We also reinforced the athletic position I want athletes to take prior to “breaking” from 1st and 2nd base (see Breaks in the DC Library).
  • Run a Drill for Throwing – Again, we combine two segments here. First, we are warming up the arms. But we are doing so while also running a full drill.  There’s a throw to the coach, followed by a ground ball (and a second throw to the coach), followed by a quick-catch (and a third throw to the coach). Thus, each athletes tosses three balls to the coach on each turn. Go through the line 4-5 times and that’s 12=15 throws. For my 5U squad, that’s as warmed up as I need them to be! As for the drill we run, this is the Buffet Drill. It’s been one of the more popular drills at Dugout Captain, and I can now confirm that fact – the kids like the action and the challenge. We run this drill with 3-4 coaches.
  • DrillsCuts & Relays – Yep, we are running this drill even though my athletes can’t catch a thrown ball. Why? It’s important to teach baseball concepts. And at the games, we are working on a HUUUUGE challenge. Stay with me here: I want my players to recognize their roles!! When a ground ball gets past the infielders, that infielder has two options:  #1 – Chase the heck out of that ball and tackle the outfielder.  #2 – Become a relay-man or bag-man. I love the fact that I can stand in the middle of the field on defense and help my kids to think on-the-fly. And I am super excited to watch them improve the ability to recognize their roles as we practice it. I actually did a cuts & relays demonstration station during our team defense at Practice #12. So, for this practice we focused on the fundamentals of a Cut & Relay. For those keeping score at home, those are (1) Big X, (2) Be Vocal, (3) Turn Glove-Side.
  • DrillsDouble Play Feeds (SS) – Both of my assistant coaches looked at me sideways when I explained we were running this drill. I quickly explained this fact: “This drill is another opportunity to drill ground ball fundamentals. However, we get to hide behind the underhand flip as **something new**.”  Yaaaaay, something new. It’s the carrot on the stick, the trick to get the kids to focus for 8-10 ground balls each. And yes, I fully intend my shortstop to field a ground ball using an epic fielding triangle, and underhand flip to a waiting second baseman for a force out. I’m hereby calling my shot that this happens by game #8. Coaching Note: We set up one catch net for both of these drills. First, we ran Cuts & Relays with two groups throwing into the same catch net from opposite directions. Second, we moved the coach to a side angle and ran the ground ball drill so that all athletes tossed the underhand flip to the catch net on their left.
  • Hitting – We have a good rhythm where all adults know they either need to get busy holding a younger sibling, or I’m going to put them to work. We had four stations:  Machine BP + Front Toss Wiffles + Tee Work (instruction) + Receiving. For instruction, I really want to get the hips firing and the back foot to turn. I tried to introduce this at Practice #12, with very limited success. So, my approach this practice was to focus on simply holding the finish. I want all my hitters to be able to hold a follow through and do so WITHOUT slowing down the swing. Then, and only then, will I start to adjust that finish. Having the athlete turn, turn, turn the back foot so that the belt-buckle faces the pitching mound and the back knee faces their front foot. As you would expect, about 1/3 of my hitters are doing this well and the other 2/3’s really can’t hold their follow through (or simply aren’t interested in doing so!!!).
  • Finish – I rarely use my own Life Lessons. Typically, there’s something on my mound/tongue by the time practice ends. Today it was focus, as we were really, really squirrely. That’s definitely not my fault as coach 😉 Hahahahaha. Here was my point: Those athletes that focused got twice as many swings as those that did not focus well. Meaning this, if YOU want more swings, then pay attention. Have the desire to set your feet. Understand that the next ball will come as soon as YOU are ready. And if YOU spend a bunch of time watching the ball, then take your sweet old time getting ready for the next ball (and require a coach to prompt your feet and hands), then you are wasting your opportunity for swings. I think this hit home pretty well. Note: I only called out athletes by name positively. Meaning, I specifically complimented Graham, Jimmy, and Michael… but didn’t call out the athletes that didn’t focus as well by name.

Fun coaching notes: I did tee work + wiffle balls at my hitting instruction station, where I was focused on holding the finish and engaging the legs and hips. One of our studs smoked a line drive off of the helmet of one of my defenders. I saw it, parents saw it… that defender had no clue. One thing we did structure-wise, kept our helmets on during defense. Even though we were hitting wiffle balls, these defenders were protected. I was able to use it as a lesson-learned, while no one got hurt. AND the parents all know that I’ve done my part to protect their rugrats. If one of them simply can’t pay attention and takes one off the dome… well, that is not due to my mismanagement or irresponsibility (translation = it’s not my fault!). It should be noted that I never had more than two defenders at any time. We had 11 kids at practice and four active stations.  We rotated individually, with the machine serving as our trigger. Machine coach finished with an athlete, he sent one to receiving… who sent one to tee work (me)… who sent one to front toss… who sent one over to machine. Our batting practice took 20-25 minutes, which means each athlete had no more than 2 minutes at the machine. Crazy how easily practice time adds up.

2 thoughts on “A critical review of my practice plans

  1. Hi Dan,
    What distance and settings are you using with your Blue Flame pitching machine for your 5U players? I’m thinking of using ours for our 6U Rookie Baseball program this year.

    Thanks for posting your own review. I’ve seen the same results you describe – I always spend more time on one of the drills than I expect to. But the results are worth it. Persistence has been key.

    Thanks,
    Harley

    1. Oh man Harley, I’d have to check. Our league rulebook has settings predetermined – something like 4 / 2 / 3, but I’d have to look at the machine to see which knob was set to which number 🙂 Fairly certain that the distance is set to 35 feet though. I’m warming to the machines as our kids improve, but it sure is a challenge for those that haven’t played baseball before. Huge recommendation to use Front Toss as a drill to improve upon anticipation and thus success hitting off the machine.

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