April 8, 2019 • BaseballCoachingSoftball

Practice with a purpose

Challenging your players to create a competitive atmosphere outside of just games

Red Sox Andrew Benintendi
Photo: Arturo Pardavila III, Flickr

It’s a hot summer day, and you just finished mowing the lawn and washing the car. With sweat still dripping from your forehead, you head into the house and sit down on your favorite recliner to relax.

With the remote in one hand, you turn on the TV and discover your team is playing an exciting afternoon baseball game. All that’s missing from this becoming the perfect day is that ice cold, frosty beverage in your other hand. But at this point, you’re way too comfortable in your Lazy Boy.

Your son saddles up next to you for some quality bonding time, cheering every time Derek Jeter comes through with a clutch hit. An idea pops into your head.

… If you find creative ways to make your workouts competitive, things will start moving in the right direction.

“Hey son,” you say. “Want to do your dad a big favor and get him a drink from the fridge?”

Crickets. Not even a flinch to indicate that he heard you. And if he did, that 7-year-old of yours has learned the fine art of selective hearing that took you decades to perfect. So you ask again, this time making sure to grab his attention.

“Hey buddy, daddy is really thirsty. Can you please grab me a drink from the kitchen?”

In an annoyed tone, your son moans, “no.”

Suddenly, you get an idea.

“Hey son,” you say. “I’ll bet that you can’t bring me a drink in less than 10 seconds.”

Like a lightning bolt, you watch your son race into the kitchen and a mere seven seconds later, there’s a drink in hand. You’ve now discovered a way to quench your thirst without moving an inch. The simple challenge of time just completely motivated your kid to enthusiastically do something that he originally wanted no part of.

The same rule can be applied to your practices, often times garnering a similar result.

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Any successful coach will tell you how much they love the competitiveness that comes with playing games, and the desire they have to do whatever it takes to beat their opponents. That same coach, however, will likely tell you how much they live for practice, because it’s during practice where a coach can truly leave a mark on his or her team, seen both collectively in wins and losses, as well as individually in their players’ athletic development.

One of the greatest challenges in coaching is getting our players to embrace practice as much as we do. While there’s no cookie-cutter way of doing so, if you find creative ways to make your workouts competitive, things will start moving in the right direction.

By consistently putting together practice plans that force the players on your team to go up against one another and against themselves, when it come times to go to battle against a true opponent with one another, their inner fighter will likely elevate to another level. The reason is they have been practicing the competition even though they haven’t actually been playing.

The minor league baseball season consists of 140 games played in a matter of about 150 days. Add a month or so of spring training, and then another few weeks for fall mini-camp, players spend well over 200 days on the field, honing their craft, trying to get better every day in an effort to get to the Major Leagues.

It’s every bit of a grind physically, and maybe even more so mentally, as players work through the many ups and downs of the year. Keeping guys just as engaged on a sweltering July day as they were the first day of spring training in February is not an easy task, but it is an achievable one.

In Greenville, South Carolina, we work with a group of 19 to 24 year olds, many of which are experiencing their first full professional season as members of the Greenville Drive, a Class-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. One of our primary points of emphasis is teaching these guys how to get into a routine and work properly where they are getting something out of every rep they take every single day.

A daily routine helps create the consistency in their day-to-day business that allows them to develop their skills. It is within their daily routine where our staff is challenged to find those ways to keep guys enthusiastic about the work necessary to get better. We do that by varying our drills in addition to adding some kind of game within those drills that forces competitiveness and focus.

The different aspects of baseball give us some pretty good flexibility to allow our creativity to take over in all of our pregame work, which is done as many as five hours prior to the first pitch.

Here are a few examples of how we try to get the most out of our guys both competitively and developmentally. The general concepts from these examples can be applied to any sport.

10 Means 10

Infielders take ground balls every day. They are as much a part of the daily routine as batting practice is for hitters or playing catch is for pitchers.

While most in sports love to play, the best also love to practice.

As we get into the grind — months into the season or several weeks without a day off — the day-to-day work can get monotonous. It’s up to coaches to keep that work productive. This concept we use with infielders has a number of different variations. One can entail 10 ground balls for the player, with the stipulation that each is taken with 100% focus and technique.

Another variation pins two infielders up against one another at the same time to see who can cleanly field the most of 10 grounders. By keeping reps at a minimum, you can ensure a player’s best concentration to do each rep right, since they are not being asked to lock in for a prolonged period of time.

Target Practice

Over the course of our season, hitters can take upwards of 20,000 swings. That’s not including all of the work most do at home during the offseason.

With that much of a workload, and with the goal of keeping guys strong for the entire year, we need to find a balance between making sure they are getting enough reps to improve without completely wearing them down. To do that, we set up various drills that force a level of concentration that breeds development, with a side of competition.

We take two protective screens and stand them up in the middle of the field, one on each side of second base about 50 feet from one another. The goal is simple: Get players to hit the ball between the screens.

We don’t speak a word of mechanics, yet by putting the emphasis on a specific result those mechanics of the swing have to fall into place. This is a drill that is done in small groups, with each player striving to beat the next. By the end of the drill, the result is often three or four players that just made their swing better through competitive work.

Game on the Line

Baseball is such a unique team sport because of the fact that a single individual has a disproportionately large impact on wins and losses.

That individual is the pitcher. They control everything.

With that kind of a burden on one person’s shoulders, there is a natural pressure that comes with the position. In between outings, pitchers work in the bullpen, throwing to a catcher with no hitter in the batter’s box. That in itself does not simulate a game-type atmosphere, but when specific game situations are presented to the pitcher, they are now practicing under pressure to execute a certain pitch in a certain location. That way, when the game does come along, and that specific situation just practiced in the bullpen presents itself, it will be easier to work through.

For whatever reason, practice carries a negative connotation amongst athletes. While most in sports love to play, the best also love to practice. Allow your players to stay in the comfort of their daily routines, but enable them to grow each and every day by making those routines more productive with the added element of competition.

No matter the sport, and no matter the level, the competitiveness of an athlete will always come into play. We’ve long believed that if a guy is not willing to compete, then his natural ability does not mean a thing. Some players innately have that gene to battle, and for the others who don’t, it’s our job as coaches to ingrain it in them, and we can do that every single day in practice.

Darren Fenster is the minor league outfield/baserunning coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. He’s the former manager of the Portland Sea Dogs (Maine) and former manager of the Greenville Drive (S.C.), both Minor League affiliates of the Boston Red Sox. Find him on Twitter at @CoachYourKids.

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