Set Objectives and Have a Practice Plan
Come to every practice with a plan. Well-run softball practices should achieve three objectives:
Players need to learn how to handle the many situations that can come up in a game. Young players’ instincts for making the right play are sharpened by giving them the opportunity to make as many different plays as possible in practice. Repetition is the key. Looking back runners and knowing when to take the extra base are just two of many situations that must be practiced over and over before players can execute the plays routinely in a game.
Organize Each Practice to Work on Elements of All Three Objectives
The practice plan should be divided into three components — basic skills work, advanced skills training, and game situations. Skill-enhancing drills should be conducted with intensity. Players should be split into small groups and rotate through stations that emphasize basic and advanced skills. Besides routine skills like catching fly balls and grounders and teaching fundamental hitting and base running techniques, the players should also work on more advanced skills, depending on their age, that involve hitting cut-offs, looking back runners, and taking the extra base on throws from the outfield. The advanced skills must be practiced over and over in an isolated environment to be sure the players know how to execute them routinely.
The third component, practicing under game-like conditions, is an extremely important part of every practice. It can be boring unless the coaches keep it moving properly. Players like to be base runners, so be sure everyone gets that opportunity. Rotate players in and out of defensive positions so everyone has an opportunity to play positions they may play in a game. Make sure all players are engaged in the learning process. If you are instructing the first baseman, make sure all players who may play first base are listening. Freeze players in place occasionally and discuss where they should be, and why, if they’re not in the right position. Two points to keep in mind:
Set up for game situations by having players assume all nine defensive positions and putting helmets on the others. Have one coach hit balls from home plate and call out where the runners are and how many outs there are. Other coaches can roam the field to observe and teach. Runners can be placed on particular bases to teach players how to react to certain situations — e.g., runner on third, no outs, and a ground ball to an infielder. Or you can begin with no one out and the runners starting at home plate; then let the situations unfold as they would in a game.
Recognize that Practice is Not Enough; During Games, Maintain Your Focus
While game situations should be an integral part of every practice, the coach’s responsibility doesn’t end there. A coach must know the capabilities of her players. Depending on their age, commitment to the game, and skill level, some players may instinctively know what to do most of the time; others can forget the number of outs and base runner locations between every pitch. A good coach knows the capabilities of the players and reminds them to think through situations before the batter hits the ball. Players should tell each other how many outs there are and where the runners are. Very young players may need to be reminded on almost every pitch in crucial situations, particularly after the flow of the game has been interrupted by a foul ball or a conference. It’s the coach’s job to keep them thinking about where to make the next play if the ball is hit to them or to someone else. As the players get older and more experienced, the coach should wean them from using her as a crutch and get them to do more of the thinking for themselves. But this is an evolutionary process and coaches shouldn’t expect the average ten year old to instantly grasp all the nuances of the game.
Examples of Game Situations to Cover in Practice
The following are just a few ideas for the game situations part of a practice:
Of course, there are many other situations to cover. After every game, coaches should reflect back on what happened to come up with a list of areas to cover in the next practice. Or have an assistant coach or parent make notes of things to cover while the game is in progress. Remember that repetition is the key. As you continue to emphasize game situations in practice, you will see a marked improvement in execution on the field.