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Do you think you run the perfect practice? Think again. How do we as coaches maximize our practice time effectively? The answer is preciseness and efficiency. Lay out what you want to accomplish and spend only the amount of time needed to work on that specific skill. I promise you it's always less than you think. Spending 20 minutes on rundowns at an 8u practice isn't efficient. No matter how many times you practice it, they're going to mess it up. Just look at how often it happens at the big league level.
One article we wrote was JK’s “5 Ways Players Get Worse From Team Practice”. This article explained all the ways a practice can be failed and actually make players worse. Topics included things such as bad front toss, quick pitching the hitter, and even not hitting at all (yes it does happen). Team practice can be extremely beneficial for the development of a player. Even more so for youth players whose development relies upon what they do in a team practice or lesson environment. Today, we flip the script with 5 Ways to Improve From Team Practice.
At Baseball Rebellion we pride ourselves on teaching each hitter the optimal movements from both a rotational power and adjustability stand point. Notice I didn’t say anything about hitting. This is a quite different approach than most player development facilities. We believe in training similar to how you would in a weight room. Teach the movements, then load the movements appropriately. You would never have an athlete load up a squat and hope they “figure it out” and self organizes to get the weight up. We believe in teaching proven movement patterns then loading that pattern once considered appropriate.
So why in team practice format would you never work and train these movement patterns? I realize that time is a major constraint in team practice, however, I think it’s safe to say we can sacrifice the 1,000th tee swing of the week for a five-minute movement station. It also doesn’t have to be over-the-top fancy. No baseballs are required for a detailed movement station. We have the luxury at BR of a movement wall which includes: taped lines on the floor, mirrors, Rebels Racks, dowel rods, resistance bands, and so on (see picture above). Adjust your station for whatever works for your team practice setting. This station is guaranteed to break up the monotony of hitting off a tee or front toss and is vital in your hitter's development.
In the article mentioned above, JK pointed out not only do some team practices not include Batting Practice at all but often are filled with majority situational hitting. Now I completely understand the need for situational hitting. I even include it in my individual hitting lessons as needed. There comes a time in the game where certain things are needed, whether it’s hitting behind the runner, elevating the ball over a drawn-in infield, or even just putting the ball in pay. As a coach, you want to feel confident in your team's ability to hit in any situation needed. However, if we look at the sheer percentage of your team's at-bats, it's obvious that the majority of at-bats are in more of an open situation setting. The ability to drive the ball needs to be taught and taught more than the ability to hit behind the runner which might happen once a game.
How your team takes batting practice impacts the confidence and aggression they hit with. If they are kicked out of their round for not getting the bunt down, how can you expect them to maintain their aggression to get it down when they know if they don’t, they don’t get to hit. If they aren’t allowed to hit with aggression in BP and are forced to push the ball opposite field for fear of rolling over, how can a coach expect them to hit that RBI Double they are ecstatic for in the game? Imagine going to a Golden State Warriors game and Steph Curry doesn’t attempt a single three-pointer in warmups. If you want your players to drive the ball in the game, they have to work on that daily in batting practice.
One great way to motivate your players to drive the ball is to do something similar to what the Tampa Bay Rays did in spring training. The great wall of ground ball prevention, with screens set up across the infield, players were instructed to drive the ball over the screen and into the outfield. This simple tactic can motivate your players to be aggressive and train to drive the ball. This isn’t about home runs or pop-ups, it’s about emploring your hitters to be aggressive and swing with the intent to drive the ball.
One thing I find interesting about hitting and how we train it is there are multiple sides of development. Training can be either training a movement pattern, challenging and loading that pattern, or just preparing for competition. I think all three are vital for development. However, the outcome that we all want is results in a game.
In that game you get on average four at-bats worth of results and in those at-bats you are allowed one fair ball per at-bat. So on average, our results stem from roughly four batted fair balls. However, in training, you often see rounds of ten, fifteen, even twenty. I understand the need for long rounds when training or changing a movement pattern, however, that usually occurs in an off-season. So why in a team practice setting would a player get a round of ten swings to try to groove their swing for results?
A hitter must be able to make adjustments from pitch to pitch not just rely on nine bad swings to finally feel good about the tenth. That tenth may never come in a game. Any decent hitter can hit when they are in a groove or in rhythm. How do we train them to be successful when they don’t have that rhythm of a ten pitch round? Rounds should be no longer than five pitches. Instead of the generic four rounds of eight, make it eight rounds of four. Give the hitter time to take their swings, make immediate adjustments and then have to do it again and again.
The aggression and intent of the swing will go up as well as their ability to make adjustments on the fly. This could be frustrating for hitters who struggle to make adjustments. However, those are the exact hitters who don’t understand why they struggle to make adjustments in a game. Shorten the rounds and take the rhythm out of batting practice. It’s not available in a game.
We all know the 5 o’clock hitter and the front toss All-American who can light it up during BP. Yet those hitters tend to struggle when the lights come on and competition stiffens up. How do we as coaches provide a practice environment that trains that? The first step is to challenge your hitters during practice. A practice environment should be full of failure. The goal should be to make at least one station at practice, harder than a game setting. The difficulty level should change with the age group as well as how often a hitter is challenged.
A youth player benefits much more from movement work and aggressive rounds of batting practice than being challenged off a machine. However, it is important for them to feel the anxiety that comes with a challenge. The feeling should be similar to the one they feel when in the batter's box come game time.
As the age group gets older the challenge should become more frequent and difficult. A high school hitter has to learn how to be successful against higher velocities or sharper breaking stuff. This is where a pitching machine can come into play.
We use the Spinball Pitching machine daily. This should provide that feeling of anxiety that overhand BP can’t simulate as it does for younger ages. And the challenge doesn't have to be provided by a machine. Live at-bats from pitchers who need to get work in, or even simulated batting practice with the pitcher mixing pitches from a shorter distance can provide the same challenge. As long as the movement basics are remaining intact, it is vital to challenge your hitters and have them learn how to deal with the anxiety associated with difficult tasks.
Want to rev up the energy and get the most out of your hitters? Put them in a competition. Head to head or split them up in teams. Any time you can hold a competition you can grab the hitters attention and focus. Break up the normal day of batting practice and push the hitters for the results you want.
Whether it is the least amount of ground balls wins or most balls hit over an outfielder, whatever it is, give the hitters a goal and make them compete to win. This increases the focus of the hitters and can make hitting enjoyable for everyone.
You can even make the competition weekly or monthly. The more focus and intent the hitter swings with, the more they get out of their BP. Live at-bats are my favorite way to get the most out of both hitters, and pitchers during lessons.
We utilize competition in lessons by having “cage battles” at the end of lessons. This places one-hitter against the other with the goal often being distance battles. Using HitTrax to see who hits it the farthest one swing at a time.
The goal can change as it did with two sixth graders last week. Their goal was a line drive into right field (both right-handed hitters). These hitters struggle pulling off with their front shoulder and needed to learn how to drive the ball the other way. It is surprising how many times a hitter sets a personal distance or exit velocity record in these “battles”. The parents and awaiting hitters often get involved as well as instructors.
The goal of this exercise is to challenge the hitter and put them in a situation that they may not be comfortable in. Hitters have to learn how to hit when they’re not comfortable.