October 7, 2016 • BaseballCoaching

Playing & Practicing: Why you can’t have one without the other

Baseball is an individual sport played within a team concept. It was that way when Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839 and remains that way here in 2016. It’s a constant of the game’s blueprint that likely won’t ever change.

baseball-pitcherWhat has changed is the manner by which those players and teams are cultivated together. Gone are the days when the neighborhood kids gathered at the local park to play a pickup game. Rarely do you see kids going outside to play catch, for no other reason than to just play catch. No longer are city streets filled with stickball games where concrete stoops act as bases, and street lights and stop signs act as fences. Back in the day, before $150-an-hour private lessons and 12-month travel programs, that’s how we learned how to play.

The game probably won’t ever be like it was, and while it’s sad to think about, that’s OK. Life and sports evolve. Today, people are playing baseball more than ever, but their knowledge of how to play the game has diminished — and that’s not OK.

The disconnect lies in the relationship between practice and games. There’s not nearly enough of one, and far too much of the other.

Professional baseball teams play just about every single day from April to early October. Professional baseball teams also practice nearly every day during that same time. Visit any professional stadium during the spring or summer, and you’ll find players on the field as early as six hours before the first pitch.

During that time, players are going through very specific drill work to improve their individual skills. They are in the batting cage hitting off of a tee, maintaining their swings. They are in the bullpen, perfecting their deliveries. And, they are on the infield working on their backhand. Entire teams are learning how to execute a rundown or understand the fundamental responsibilities of cutoffs, relays and backup positions. Every day that professionals spend playing the game, they are also learning how to improve.

If the very best of our sport have found a healthy balance between practicing and playing, then there is no reason why the amateur levels of the game can’t follow that lead.

In Latin America, 15- and 16-year-old players are paraded around from tryout to tryout, after having spent years working to develop their individual tools. Pitchers are taught and trained to throw a baseball as hard as they possibly can but are the furthest thing from being an actual pitcher. Hitters are taught to swing with an undisciplined violence, hitting a batting practice fastball a country mile, but they are far from being an actual hitter. They train with the primary goal of getting signed by a professional team, not with the idea of learning to play so they can help a team win.

In the United States, we call this showcasing. And sadly, this type of baseball has become commonplace on the amateur level, where players are given the opportunity to take 10 swings, field five ground balls and run a 60-yard dash. The coaches and scouts in the stands have to figure out if these players can actually play the game.

Showcasing tools has little to do with actually knowing how to play the game, regardless of how good those tools can be. Tools are great, but so is the ability to play the game, turning those tools everyone loves into usable baseball skills. A 90-mph fastball is worthless if it can’t be thrown for a strike. Light-tower power displayed in batting practice is wasted when the hitter can’t put the ball in play. Those tools need to develop during practice with the idea of shaping them into fundamental skills useful during competition.

During the summer months, kids ages 8 to 18 find themselves spending most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays playing in various tournaments across the country. Many boast playing more than 60 games over the course of the summer. Few brag about the work they put in by practicing for those games, and that’s because it’s not happening.

Those games offer feedback to teams and players on the things they’re doing well and what needs work. It’s the coach’s responsibility to identify and address each. Was a game won because of a textbook relay? Relate the win to the fundamentals from practice. Is a hitter struggling to make contact at the plate? Discuss how practice is the way to address the issue, not more games. Was yesterday’s loss a result of someone not backing up the correct base? Make it a point to discuss the importance of doing the little things, and go out and practice them.

If all you are doing is playing, you are wasting valuable time that your club could and should be practicing. Games are the reward for all the practice time put in — they are the players’ time. Practice is the time to work on all the specific skills needed for the game — it is the coaches’ time. Repetition in practice is preparation for the game. The less practice, the less prepared.

If the only thing athletes do is play, their individual skills develop at a snail’s pace. If all they do is practice, their abilities to play the game will lag far behind. But if they play and practice, not only will they improve, but they will have an understanding of how their individual skills fit within the framework of a team game.

Darren Fenster is manager of the Greenville Drive (South Carolina), a Class-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Following a six-year professional playing career with the Kansas City Royals, where he was twice named a Minor League All-Star, he spent six years on the baseball staff at Rutgers University, where he was a two-time All-American shortstop. Find him on Twitter at @CoachYourKids.

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