Baseball and softball aren’t sports that are naturally easy for most children. Even Ted Williams said that making good contacting with a round ball and a round bat is one of the hardest things to do in sports.
Today, we’re going to look at some great drills to improve the skills of a young ball player. Some of these will be true drills while others will be games to help practice certain skills. After all, young players won’t have any interest if they’re not having fun.
These basics are the fundamentals that you’re going to build from. Make sure that your players understand the fundamental ideas and you’ll see their growth accelerate. One key thing that you’ll see throughout this article is that we suggest using a tennis ball frequently.
Many younger players have a fear of getting hit by a ball. Using a tennis ball should alleviate some of that fear. Tennis balls also allow us to practice without a glove. It’s something that hammers fundamentals home. A fielder has to stay down on the ball when not using a glove because he/she doesn’t have the extension of the webbing to help them.
A final benefit is that a tennis ball is more bouncy than a baseball. That means that it’s more likely to pop out of the glove if it’s not secured properly. This means that, in game action, trying to handle a baseball will be easier and muscle memory should decrease the errors that young players make.
Remember, the beauty of working with young players is that they don’t have expectations of the best equipment in the world. If you’re a parent trying to help your child get better, you can set up bases using old shirts or pillows or anything else you have lying around the house.
Hitting off a Tee
This is a fairly obvious option to start with. By teaching your youngster some of the proper mechanics, you’re setting them up for success. By using a tee, you’re increasing the chances of early success because young players will find it easier to hit the ball when it’s not moving. This helps develop muscle memory and hand-eye coordination.
I would start by using a tee near a fence. By doing so, you decrease the time and hassle of running to get the ball after it’s hit. The focus is solely on allowing a young player to feel the joy of making contact. Minimizing down time is a great way to do that.
When you feel that your young player can consistently make contact, you can turn it into a game. At this point, you can make this a competition. Rather than trying to hit the ball into the fence, let a group of kids see who can hit the ball the farthest. This can also provide the added benefit of fielding practice for the rest of the team.
Note: If you’re working with T-ball aged players, the first few practices should focus on not throwing the bat. You should also make sure that no one is “on deck”. Because of how easy it is for a young hitter to lose their grip, I’d keep all other players far away from the batter’s box.
As kids become a little more advanced, you can use soft toss to build their hand-eye coordination even more. They’re not quite ready for true pitching, but soft toss will help them develop skills that they’ll need later on.
This is a simple toss that comes from a parent or coach who is set off to the side. I generally like to be about a foot in front of and three to four feet to the side of a hitter when throwing soft toss.
This, generally, keeps me out of harm’s way. It also allows me to watch as the hitter swings. I can see if they’re making any fundamental mistakes (like dropping their shoulder) and address it immediately.
When you reach this phase, try to remember that some issues, like dropping their shoulder, could be the result of equipment. Bad mechanics can come from a bat that is too heavy.
Like hitting off of a tee, I start with a fence and work my way to a field, then a competition.
When you feel that you’ve reached a level that young players are confident, you can move on to a true coach pitch. It’s similar to soft toss, except that the coach is pitching from 30 feet or more in front of the hitter. This should help build confidence with young players.
Teaching fielding can be difficult because each position is so different. What’s more, there are so many assignments that change with every pitch.
Think about a second baseman; his top priority is to field a ball that is hit to him. Sometimes he’ll throw to first, others to second, and in more advanced levels, even to home.
When the ball isn’t hit to second base, he may cover first or second, but he could also go out to take a cutoff throw. Then he has to know where to throw the ball.
While I’d love to get into some of those details, we want to keep this guide as simple as possible. It is, after all, being written for younger players.
We should start by practicing with young players learning how to catch and throw the ball. There’s nothing special about this. I like to use tennis balls the first few times out as it decreases the chances of a player getting hurt.
You’ll probably want a few coaches or parents out there to help make sure players are following the proper fundamentals.
- Bring your arm back.
- Move your arm forward, near your ear.
- Step toward your target (make sure they step with the proper foot).
- Release the ball (and hope it goes toward your target).
These seem really simple because we’ve been practicing for decades. Our youngest players lack muscle memory. So, while they’re playing catch or warming up, we need to ensure they use the proper technique. They’re going to develop muscle memory, and we’d like it to be the right muscle performing the right actions.
Something else I like to point out to young players when they’re “playing catch” is that there are different ways to move the ball.
I explain that if they were trying to get the ball to me from about a foot away, they’d just hand it to me. During a game, I’d prefer they step on a base than hand it to another player. If they’re 5-7 feet away from me, they’d probably make an underhand toss to me. This is a great idea during a game. Anything more than about 10-15 feet, they’d make an overhand throw.
After explaining this, I encourage the players to practice this at their own pace. My warm-up lines frequently vary in distance because of this, but it’s important to make sure a young player knows that an overhand throw from 3 feet away isn’t the best idea.
The Crab Grab
This is a bit more advanced, but I’m a big fan of it. Using a tennis ball is crucial here because we’ll be telling the players to take off their gloves.
You should have two players line up 8-10 feet apart. Each player should set up in the proper fielding position (hands in front of them, bent knees, facing their partners) and be ready to field a grounder. Next, the players take turns tossing grounders back and forth to each other.
This is also a drill that is great to do at home. A young player can do this with friends and parents with ease because there isn’t a lot of equipment involved.
At home, it’s also something that can become a competition. Each time someone fields the ball cleanly, they get a point. You can tally how many points each person gets.
If I’m coaching T-ball, I like to start by telling the kids to do their best crab impression. It’s something that usually makes them laugh, but gives me a solid starting point for what proper fielding position is.
Note: When you’re doing this drill, make sure you remind your players that they’re throwing ground balls to each other. Even with a tennis ball, you don’t want them trying to throw line drives or fly balls to each other.
The focus here is developing a young players hands. It’s essentially a step up from the crab grab game. In the same way that we go from soft toss to live pitching, on defense the crab grab game becomes infield practice without a glove.
You must use tennis balls for this drill as well!
Some coaches argue the idea of infield practice without a glove, but it worked for Omar Vizquel. He didn’t have a glove growing up, so he practiced fielding bare handed and he went on to win 11 gold gloves. If it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
So, this drill is simple. You set your players in the field like they’re playing a normal game, then a coach either hits the ball softly or just throws a grounder out to his defense.
This allows kids to get a feel for what fielding really looks like. This is also a perfect way to teach kids to get in front of the ball.
Using a tennis ball means that taking a grounder off the leg or the chest isn’t going to be painful. I’m convinced that young players develop a fear of the ball because their coaches didn’t take baby steps.
The Bucket Drill
When your players seem to have a good grip on fielding, I’d suggest moving to something a bit more difficult. We can finally start using baseballs (though you don’t have to).
Have your players line up next to second base. Place a bucket on the bag. Hit them a soft grounder for them to field, then toss to second base. This is a simple drill focused on teaching kids to stay down on the ball.
This is also a good drill because you can do it anywhere. You don’t have to be at second base. If you’re running stations, this drill easily moves to the outfield.
If you want to take it a step further, you can set the bucket up a bit further away. Have a player standing at the bucket to take throws. Then, when you hit a ground ball, the fielder has to catch the ball and make the throw.
It’s an added step that lets you work on fielding and throwing at the same time.
It’s always amazed me how we forget about the basics. Most of us don’t realize that we have to teach kids how to run the bases. There was a time when we didn’t know that first meant we run to that base before the others. So, we need to start as basic as we can and then move on.
Before you ever have a player run to first base, you need to teach them what first base is. I’ve seen countless six year-olds run in the wrong direction during a game. So, that’s the first problem you have to attack.
I like to do that by explaining the process. For T-ball, I explain that home is where you come from and that is why we call it “home plate”. I then explain first base, second base, and third base as identifiers – those names explain where you go.
When I feel that the kids have figured it out, I have someone come up to the plate and take a practice swing. After they swing, I call out a number and have them run to that base. As an example, if I call out “3”, they have to run as if they hit a triple.
I never have them run directly to third base. I’ll mix it up a bit to keep things “fresh”. This is also a great chance to remind players that they have to drop the bat before they can run.
Note: This is usually something that I end practice with as it can wear the kids out pretty quickly. It’s also something that the parents love because of all of the energy it uses.
Base Running Relay
This is another great option for burning up energy. Make sure that the players understand the basics. You don’t want to confuse them by starting at second base until they have mastered the concept.
Split your team in half and place one group at home plate and another group at second base. The first person in each line should have a baseball in their hand. On the word go, the player with the ball in their hand must run the bases. When they reach where they started, they pass the ball to the next player and that player runs the bases. They continue until their entire team has completed a circuit.
This drill will improve teamwork, push the kids to run the bases harder, and reinforce the order that they run the bases. You’ll see that this drill also brings out a bit of a competitive streak for most players. No one wants to lose.
Who’s Pushing Me?
There aren’t many drills that teach the fundamentals of base running, but I think this one works well. It’s more of an addition that a drill in itself.
When I think players have learned the order and the concept of running bases, I explain the idea of “forcing a runner” except that I call it pushing the runner.
As I work through station identification, I’ll have a coach stand on each base if possible. After a player has reached the base I identified, I ask them if they are pushing the coach or if a coach is pushing them.
As an example, let’s say that I called out 3. I’ll wait for the player to reach third base, then have a coach stand on first. I’ll ask that player if he’s being pushed. The answer should be no because the coach is on first base; meaning there is no force.
Likewise, I’ll call out the number 1 and when the player reaches first, I’ll ask him if he’s “pushing” the coach who is on third base. Again, the answer should be no.
It’s a bit of a thinking game, but as your players grow to understand more of the game, it becomes an important part of their knowledge base. At some point, you want players who can handle situations on their own rather than running because there’s a coach telling them to.
We realize that some of these ideas may seem a little different from the norm, but we firmly believe that they’re the best way to build fundamental skills.
When looking at hitting, even professional players use tees on a regular basis. As for fielding, we want players to know the fundamentals before we try to move forward and we believe that gloves are a tool that enhance the skills a player has. Learning that skill without a glove will help any player who trains that way.
Base running, it’s the most difficult to develop drills for. There are obvious drills for practicing going half way on a fly ball or developing better base running technique, but there just aren’t many drills for teaching the fundamentals.