This is an excerpt from Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Baseball by Daniel Keller.
Understanding how to field a ground ball is entirely different than teaching infielders how to do it. To teach the actions of proper ground-ball technique, you need to use a structured plan over several practices—and you must have plenty of patience. Begin by using slow rollers from the hand (no batted balls), and focus your instruction on footwork. Over time, break down the fundamental steps, giving the athletes time to understand and execute the various movements before you increase the pace and ultimately hit ground balls.
Note that there is a time for teaching and a time for repetitions. In this case, this means that you may not hit ground balls off the bat when you are working on instruction. However, kids also need to field ground balls, even if their technique isn’t perfect. They need the practice, and they need to learn about long hops, short hops, different spins, and so on. This helps ensure that the kids are having fun (all work and no play makes a grumpy ballplayer), and it enables them to gain invaluable real-life experience by having a ball go through their legs, off of their chest, or in and out of their glove.
Order of Instruction
Before covering specific fielding drills, you need to understand the proper order of instruction. Although it is important to make sure that all material is covered, your main goal is helping the athletes improve. By understanding the order of operation, you can drastically increase the collective level of retention and increase the team’s chance of successful learning. This coaching process will take place over the course of several practices, a number of drills, and a variety of exercises. However, a station dedicated to only teaching is necessary before and during all the practice drills. Here is the suggested order of instruction for effective coaching:
1. Slow rollers. Underhand slow rollers while providing little instruction. Establish a relaxed pace so that the athletes are not rushing, and observe tendencies and habits. In the instruction process, you will next break down each part of the fielding motion before returning to working on a full ground ball.
2. Fielding triangle. Discuss the fundamentals needed to properly field a ground ball. Explain body positioning and the fact that this position helps the fielder receive a good hop (no bobbles).
3. Execution rollers. Provide slow rollers and focus on teaching the fielding triangle, the correct separation of the hands, and an aggressive shuffle along with a throw to a target. Start slow and increase the pace. Insert pauses or freezes at some of the positions to make sure the athletes feel their body moving through the phases of fielding a ground ball correctly.
4. Ready position and approach. Describe the big picture and put the ground-ball process together: “What happens before the ball is actually in your glove?” The ready position allows an athlete to get a good break on the ball, and a banana curve approach ensures that the body is in front of the ball and in a proper fielding triangle. Momentum will be gathered toward the target with a subtle curve around the baseball.
5. Batted balls. Now athletes are ready to receive ground balls off of the bat. Instruct the athletes to get into ready position when the ball is tossed up. Next, they execute the approach, field, and throw.
Keep your energy high and your instruction simple, focusing on footwork and fundamentals first. The pace of instruction should be slow enough that the athletes stay under control and experience the act of fielding ground balls correctly. Create an atmosphere where the athletes do not rush their hands and feet. Drill athleticism first, and speed up the pace as improvements are seen. Once the athletes are able to execute consistently, you should apply drills that will focus on these movements.
Infielders should be encouraged to be aggressive and not fear failure. Errors are a part of the game, and an athlete must know that he is free to make an aggressive movement and throw without being yelled at. Coaches need to understand the difference between physical and mental errors, and they should focus more on correcting the mental errors. Train infielders from the ground up, focusing on clean and controlled footwork at a smooth pace. Increase speed, difficulty, and intensity as appropriate.
Five Minutes for Fielding
When you are using the practice-planning methods described in chapter 2, the fielding portion of a practice can start immediately after playing catch. After a good throwing session, the athletes are in perfect position to work on a fielding drill (ground ball or quick catch, box drills, or even basic receiving). For younger age groups, the athletes can break into small groups to work on simple throwing or receiving drills using tennis balls or soft baseballs. Whether this takes 5 minutes or 50 minutes, the time between throwing and taking the field can be very productive.
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