We’ve recently started a series of drills to help improve every players skillset. Our first article was directed towards players who are just learning the game. The drills use tennis balls most of the time and focus on developing the fundamentals of the game.
Today’s article will focus on the next step. How can we help players that are 8-12 years old take that next step?
Hitting can be difficult for young players. This article is going to focus on players hitting “straight pitches”. The players that we’re directing this article toward shouldn’t be throwing breaking balls yet, so we’re not going to work about drills for hitting a curve ball in this one.
Double Tee Hitting
The goal of this drill is to help batters understand the swing plane. Place one batter’s tee on home plate. Place another tee immediately behind the first tee. Place a ball on the front tee and ask the hitter to try to hit the ball.
By having two tees in place, we can see if a player has a “loop” in their swing. The goal is to consistently have the player hit the ball off the front tee without ever hitting the back tee.
While doing this drill you should also be looking for the typical hitting progression. You should see a trigger, stride, rotation, and follow through.
Rapid Fire Hitting
The goal of this drill is to focus on the footwork of hitting. You can probably find a player with an exaggerated leg kick on ever team in Major League Baseball these days. That’s exactly what we want to avoid. If a player develops a leg kick when they’re older, that’s fine. For now, we’re focusing on fundamentals.
For this drill, I set two tires out and have a hitter put one foot in each tire. This cuts down on how far a batter can stride. I then throw a normal soft toss session with them. Soft toss is key because I like to pitch quickly. I don’t take time to step out of the box. I want this to be a quick twitch process where your muscles are taking over.
You should be looking for a good swing path and teaching the idea of “squashing the bug”. That is, players should be rotating their front foot as they rotate their hips.
This is an interesting game that players can start on their own when they have a bit of free time. You should set up a tee near a fence or a large net (if possible).
You should place either 4 or 6 targets in a square/rectangular shape. If the player hits the target, the next player comes up and attempts to hit the same target. If they miss, they get a letter.
Just like the basketball game, if they spell horse, they’re eliminated. I’ve found that this works best with 4-5 players. Otherwise, it gets a bit overcrowded.
This is a great drill because it builds competition, comradery, and a focus on putting the ball where you want it. Players will find that it’s more difficult than they expected.
It’s also a game that players can run on their own. A coach who wants to meet with parents or have a discussion with other coaches can set this game up, then watch at a distance.
Note: Another way to play this game is to make it a competition of accuracy. Have a player hit all of the targets and count how many swings it required. Then let the next person come in. It becomes a running competition that you can carry throughout the season.
This drill seems popular among college players, but young players can use it as well. It’s another game that can have varying degrees of supervision.
I’d suggest having groups of 4 or less. Each player grabs a bat and a baseball. The group must agree on a target. Then they take turns trying to hit the target.
This drill is done by having a player toss the ball up and hit it. I generally encourage targets at a distance. It may take 4 or 5 hits to reach, but that’s part of the goal.
For example, if a player is trying to reach the foul pole on the right field line from home plate, their approach will change with each hit. From home plate, they’re likely to try to hit a long line drive. As they get closer, they may not even want to take a full swing.
This one drill forces a player to think about how they want to approach their next hit. Much like a real game, trying to hit a homerun isn’t always a good idea. Sometimes a bunt is the best option, and this game will help them see that in a real way.
This is a drill within a drill. I’m a big fan of live BP during our field drills. As a coach, I don’t really need much practice hitting. I’d much rather give that time to our players. There’s also a benefit of having the fielders ready on every pitch. I can control where the ball goes, most 9-year-old players can’t.
For this drill, I try to attack that concept. I get about 10 baseballs and I bring a player to the plate. The catch is, we close off one part of the field. So, I may tell a player that he can’t hit the ball to right field. I move my right fielder to another part of the field, and I start pitching. I let the batter go until he has 5 hits to right field.
Most young players really enjoy hitting, so they’ll make a concerted effort to avoid the “closed area” on the field. If you have a player who is really skilled at this, you may want to create a cutoff point so they aren’t getting 100 swings.
I also like this drill because I can change where the “closed area” is based on each batter. If I have a player who always pulls, I can close his pull-side and try to teach him to go opposite field.
Fielding seems to be more important with every passing year. In 1980 the league-wide fielding percentage was .978 meaning that there was an error on 2.2% of the balls put into play.
In 2018, the league-wide percentage was .984 meaning there was an error on 1.6% of plays. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a reduction of nearly 25%.
With that in mind, we’ve got a few simple drills to really help developing fielding prowess.
Developing the Pocket
This is another very easy drill that will help young players get a better feel for catching the ball and holding on to it. Have players lay on the ground next to a coach or volunteer. They should extend their arm toward the sky and have their glove facing the sky (that will make their glove parallel to their body).
When they’re ready, a coach should drop a ball into the pocket of their glove. It’s an incredibly simple drill, but it develops muscle memory for catching the ball in the pocket of the glove, then securing the ball.
I would not recommend letting players partner up for this drill. Having an adult do this decreases the chances of a player getting hit in the face with the ball.
We’re going to continue fundamental drills. Most adults remember the circular Velcro pads that we played catch with when we were kids. It was just a circle of Velcro that you strapped to your hand and then threw a tennis ball back and forth.
If you have any younger players who are struggling, this is the perfect solution. It eliminates the concern of closing the glove, and because you’re using a tennis ball, it decreases the fear of being hit.
Just like you did when you were a kid, have your players throw the ball back and forth. They won’t have to think about it, but they’ll get in great fielding position. Those “mitts” only catch and hold the tennis ball if they have their hand in a fielding position. This will develop muscle memory and hand eye coordination.
The science behind this drill is difficult to understand, but it works like magic and it can be a bit of a comedy show while you’re doing it.
After you’ve given your team plenty of time to warm up, challenge them to drop their gloves and throw with their opposite hand. When they do this, it forces their brain to think about the throwing process.
It doesn’t come naturally so the brain must break down the process (step, arm back, point, throw, follow through). By forcing the brain to break down the process with their non-dominant hand, it allows their dominate hand to go through the process without thinking as hard.
Give them a few minutes (and consider taking a few videos) then let them throw normally again. You’ll be amazed at how much more accurate their throws are.
This is a tried and true method of developing hand eye coordination, reaction timing, and form for fielding. You take a group of about 5 players and have them form a semi-circle around the hitter.
1 player gets the ball and tosses it toward the hitter. The hitter takes a check-swing to hit the ball back. The goal is to hit the ball soft enough to avoid injury, but hard enough to allow someone to field the ball.
If you’re using this drill with 7-8 year old players, I would recommend having the hitter be a coach to avoid injury. If you’re working with 11-12 year old players, you could progress to making this a game. Allow a player to be the hitter.
The hitter’s goal is to keep the ball on the ground. If the ball is caught in the air (after a pop-up or line drive) then the player who caught the ball becomes the batter.
This is a progressive drill that will help players learn to track and run down flyballs and pop ups. In the picture to the right, the line with an arrow is the team. The next player would go to circle number 1, field a pop up, then run toward circle 2. They’d catch the ball and progress through the “course”.
When you first start with this, it may be best to have them run to the next circle, stop, and field the fly ball. As players get better, you can start throwing the ball to them as they’re running.
This will help develop the skill of tracking flyballs over their shoulder. It’s best to run this drill with a coach throwing the ball rather than trying to hit the ball.
Three Balls at Third
This is an interesting drill that develops high energy, encourages competition, and forces players to perform under pressure. You should have a rotation of fielders and runners.
Set three baseballs near third base. They should be 5 to 10 feet apart. Have a fielder at first base and another at third base. Have a runner near home plate and a coach standing close.
When the coach calls go, the player at home takes off for first and tries to run the bases as if they hit a homerun. The player at third base should pick the first ball up and throw it to third. Then the first baseman should throw it back. After doing so successfully, they should repeat with the second and third baseball.
As an additional difficulty if you have players who are good in the field, you can have the third baseman throw the ball to the coach at home plate. This adds one more step and makes it more realistic as they’re trying to make a play at home plate.
With this being a fielding drill, the goal is to have the player in the field throw all three balls successfully before the runner reaches home plate.
We realize that some of these drills may seem a bit simple, but the truth is, when you nail down all the fundamentals, there will be a lot less time trying to fix things later. When a player knows how to properly field and throw a ball, you don’t need to change much once the games begin.
At this age, players really shouldn’t be throwing breaking balls. Research shows that throwing breaking balls to early can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s elbow. That’s why so many players are getting Tommy John surgery these days.
Because of that, we’re not going to include anything about how to throw a curveball or slider. I’m a firm believer that young players should throw a fastball and a “change up”. I use that term loosely as I think a change up should result from players holding the ball deeper in their hand.
The Paper Cup Drill
The beauty of baseball is that you can use drills that don’t cost much money. This drill literally uses the field and a paper cup. Have your pitcher go to the mound and prepare to throw a pitch. Set a paper (or plastic) cup in front of their back leg and have them go through their motion.
The goal is to avoid knocking the cup over. It seems like common sense, but there are a number of players who drag their back foot when throwing. This slows down their pitch, adds pressure to their arm, and increases the risk of injury.
By avoiding the leg drag, your pitchers are going to land in a better fielding position and they’re going to reduce stress on their arm. This significantly decreases the chances they get hurt from their mechanics or a batted ball.
Behind the Back
This drill focuses on hip rotation, follow through and balance. Have a pitcher grab a bat and head to the area you decide. I wouldn’t start with the pitcher’s mound.
For this drill, the pitcher is going to place the bat behind his back, running along his hips, and hold it at both ends as shown to the right. Next, the pitcher will simply go through his motion while holding the bat.
This will seem a bit weird at first, especially with the pitcher not actually using his arm to go through the motion of throwing. But the focus is on the lower body and core. This drill will make sure that your player has good balance as he goes through his motions. It also highlights where the pitcher is facing at all times.
At this age, we don’t want a pitcher’s back facing home plate at any point during the drill. By the time the pitcher is following through, the bat should be points close to home plate. If it’s pointing directly at home, the pitcher is finishing a bit too closed and won’t be able to field a ball hit back at them.
Note: I would only to about 10 reps with this drill as it can get tiring on a player’s lower back. To ensure maximum benefit, make sure that the player is keeping both hands on the bat from beginning to end. Make sure you start off slowly. You may even want to break their pitching mechanics into segments to focus on. Over time, you can move this drill to a pitcher’s mound.
Throw in the Towel
This is more of a style than a drill. It’s a way to cut down on the stress on a young pitcher’s arm. We know that the average major league player can handle about 100 pitches in a start. We also know that they throw a bullpen session once per week.
There aren’t such specific answers on how much a young pitcher can handle. Most little leagues have specific rules on how many pitches a player can throw, but how do we build skill without stressing their arms out?
That’s where this idea comes in. While working through the mechanics and the drills that build our pitchers up, I suggest using a dish towel or a kitchen towel.
Have them hold one end of the towel, then work through most pitching drills the same as they would if they had a ball in their hand. This minimizes the stress on the shoulder while still allowing us to develop muscle memory and fundamental mechanics.
The Towel Snap
Like the throw in the towel drill, I strongly suggest using a towel to focus on follow through for pitchers. This drill cuts down on something called recoil. Recoil is when a pitcher follows through and his arm “bounces back” after the pitch. It’s a sudden stop to the natural motion and causes a great deal of stress on the shoulder and elbow.
The drill focuses on finishing and letting a pitcher’s arm stay “down”. The pitcher should go through the same motion that they would in a normal drill, but use a towel instead of a baseball.
As they finish their pitch, they snap the towel down toward the ground and follow through. This ensures that they’re not “recoiling” and should help them to minimize injury.
The stress of throwing a baseball isn’t natural to the body because of how much stress it creates. Making the movements as natural as possible is key to a young player avoiding injury.