This is an excerpt from Practice Perfect Softball by National Fastpitch Coaches Association.
Building a team involves developing a plan and working to execute it. Your practice plans are one of main ingredients in that blueprint. Practices have many components, and they will vary based on the coach’s or program’s philosophies. Three areas are important to consider with regard to practice. The first is establishing your practice foundation and environment. The process is like building a building, laying each brick with a purpose and then cementing the bricks together. My philosophy involves preparation, preparation, and more preparation. You need to settle on your philosophy and then set your standards or expectations for practice. Some of my expectations for my players every year are to be prepared, to be in the moment, to be accountable, to be positive, to be competitive, and to be on time (15 minutes early). Some of the building blocks (absolutes) of a practice plan include the development of a checklist or specifications for each area of the game. After you develop this checklist, you can them break it down to a more specific position list under each area. For example, defensive skill work could be broken down by position to include infield, outfield, catchers, and pitchers and then to specific skills such as forehands, backhands, and so on. Several areas may be included in a daily practice:
- Daily announcements and quotation of the day
- Warm-ups - dynamics, speed ladder, stretch cords
- Throwing progression
- Dailies - defensive drills
- Defensive skill work
- Offensive work - hitting, bunting, slapping
- Team situational drills or competitive game situations
- Mental skills
- Vision drills
- Weights and conditioning
- Extras - team building or videos
Within each practice plan, you should specify the time you want to dedicate to that drill or situation, the players who will be involved in the drill, and the equipment and staff you need to execute the drill. You also want to identify the emphasis or goal and a standard for that drill and a potential consequence if the standard is not met.
Developing your practice plan requires time and thought. Each practice plan should have goals or objectives for each segment of it. These goals are a map to steer you in designing and molding your team. Some keys to a good practice are being productive and efficient. Most coaches have absolutes for their program in a number of areas, but to grow your program, you have to make adjustments daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.
We meet as a staff on Mondays to develop a weekly plan. We have various points of emphasis for practice each week. The weekly plan involves determining what you think is important to accomplish in all areas of your program. The plan gives you a framework to use for the week. As you go through the week, you will often have to adjust your weekly plan as you work through your daily plan because you may have had to spend more time on one element of your practice than you planned. You may have to eliminate something from your daily plan and insert it the next day. Making those adjustments in the moment is okay.
Your daily plan should be specific. For each practice, you should set daily standards and expectations, establish specific time frames for each area to be covered, specify equipment setup, and communicate expectations and responsibilities of staff and managers. By honestly assessing each practice and continually evaluating and adjusting practices, you will become more successful. As a coach or staff, you cannot be afraid to change and adapt. The sooner you do the assessment after practice, the better off you will be. Looking at and talking about how effective your practice was that day will help you improve as a coach and elevate your team.
In developing my program goals, I begin with the end in mind. So my starting point comes at the end of each year. An important question to ask yourself is, What do you want to accomplish in all phases of your program? I evaluate what we have done as a program overall - things we have done well and things we need to improve on. After I determine that from my perspective, I get my staff to weigh in on it. One area that always makes the list is how we run our practices and what we include in practice. More times than not, we conclude that we want to make the practices more challenging by adding more competitive elements and more consequences and accountability. I have learned that you need to be flexible when executing a practice. You may have planned an awesome practice on paper but then realize as it unfolds that a drill is not working or that you forgot to include a particular element. So as you are giving direction to players, you may change one part of what you are doing. The change may not be listed on the practice plan, but you know at that moment that it is the right thing to do. I am not afraid to make changes. You can’t be so stuck on your plan that you can’t tweak it on the fly if necessary. I know that many coaches post practice plans for their players, but for a number of reasons I don’t do that. Posting practice plans puts you in a box with your players. If you have to make changes within the practice, they may question why. Additionally, if they are not fond of a drill, they may predispose themselves to an attitude about it. But I do share with them for each drill what our goal and standard is for that particular drill or segment of practice. You should also set time frames for each area of practice. For example, we allot 15 to 20 minutes for our warm-up, which includes a dynamic warm-up, ladder drills, and stretch cords for arm care. Following that, we spend about 10 to 15 minutes throwing and doing our dailies defensively. So I know that the first 30 to 35 minutes is devoted to warm-ups before we get into the meat of our practice.
At times I have a certain time frame planned for a drill and wind up cutting it shorter or extending it. Likewise, during a hitting drill I may realize that the activity needs a more competitive element in it, so on the second round I change it up. For example, we may be doing an angle toss hitting drill in the cage. For a right-handed hitter, we toss at an angle to simulate a curveball on the outside part of the plate. In the first round I let them hit it without any consequences. In the second round, they are out and lose reps if they pull the ball or roll it over. I wanted more accountability in the drill, so I made an adjustment that was not in my plan. You have to be willing to be flexible. You may want to use a specific drill but realize as you are doing it that the team or individual is not executing it as you had hoped, so you need to make an adjustment. Things often look better on paper than they do in the execution. As a rule, I always plan more than I need and put an extra drill in practice - a drill to use if time allows, as a backup.
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