Practice Planning for Coaches with Notes from a Minor League Manager
The snow is melting, and winter sports are FINALLY coming to a close, which means we are oh-so-close to the youth baseball season. A lot of coaches are preparing for the youth baseball season by working through the end of their off-season training program and guiding their players through indoor workouts.
The Metro Baseball League is committed to helping coaches and one way we hope to do this is by providing insight from some of the best instructors across the country. In preparing for the youth baseball season, practice planning is crucial no matter what time of year it is. Below are some key notes from a great presentation by Baltimore Orioles minor league manager Roberto Mercado at the American Baseball Coaches Association convention this past January. The best coaches are excellent listeners and are continually LEARNING from other coaches!
Coaching Tips for a Great Youth Baseball Season
Coach Mercado emphasized meeting in the preseason with your coaching staff to identify areas of focus for the season. These may obviously change as the season progresses, but you should identify the main staples you want to work on. Maybe you know some things your team struggled with last year that you want to address this year. Conversations with your coaching staff are invaluable. Whether you’re at someone’s home on a Saturday night, in the parking lot after a practice, or even over a text chain, communication with your coaches is vital.
Examples of things to discuss when preparing for the youth baseball season:
- Team Defense
Coach Mercado stressed planning your practices in advance – as opposed to creating the plan at the field when practice is supposed to begin. Some things to consider while planning:
- How will you present the plan to your coaches?
- How will you present the plan to your players?
- How will you EVALUATE the plan?
- How will you create an elite learning environment?
- What is your philosophy? Can it change? SHOULD it change?
- Who’s attending practice today? Where are we practicing and what equipment do we need?
Why You Should Have a Practice Plan
One thing Coach Mercado has used to guide his practice planning over his many years of coaching is a simple question: What happens the most in a game?
For example, we tend to practice 1st and 3rd plays a lot, but that doesn’t happen as much as a nobody-on-nobody-out situation. In the younger ages of youth baseball, coaches tend to focus a lot on situations where kids made mistakes in past games. Not that we don’t want to teach the correct decision on a certain play or situation but consider how often that situation actually happens. Compare that amount of time to how often kids hit. Another coach phrased it this way:
“In practice, we need to hit. A lot. We need to throw. A lot. We need to field. A lot. Because these things all happen a lot.”
Simply stated, the things that happen the most in a baseball game are the things you should spend the most time working on: hitting, throwing, and fielding.
Delegating Responsibilities During Practice
Coach Mercado sums up the importance of preparation this way:
“If WE aren’t prepared, we can’t expect our PLAYERS to be prepared. Deciding to just freelance a practice usually doesn’t result in a great practice.”
Your practice plan should always be presented to the players – whether formally, in advance of practice, or verbally, seconds before the drills begin. Even if you don’t think you are actually “presenting” the plan, there’s always a moment when you’re introducing it to your young athletes. The plan should always be simplified for players. Make it easy to understand, especially at younger ages. The plan you present to your coaches will be VERY different than what you present to the players. Your coaches can handle more detail, including specific things to look for during practice.
In youth baseball, delegating responsibilities to assistant coaches during practice is beneficial. It’s important to remember that youth coaches are almost exclusively volunteers with regular jobs and they don’t have ample time to pour into practice planning. Delegation can be the answer.
“Trust your assistant coaches,” says Mercado. “Give other coaches or parents time at a station. Let them create their own plan. You don’t need to micromanage it.”
Evaluate Practice for Improvement
As you are preparing for the youth baseball season, keep in mind that it’s important to evaluate your practices after the fact. Just as when you prepared practice with your coaching staff, you should discuss how practices are going.
Talk to your coaches. Ask your players what they think of practice. Self-evaluate. Was practice efficient? Do we need to make changes? And most importantly for youth baseball: was the practice FUN?!
Coach Mercado stressed the idea of making practice fun. “We want guys to keep coming back. So many kids stop playing baseball at 10 or 11 years old and we have a lot of late bloomers who stop playing because they aren’t having fun,” he said. “We want to keep those kids engaged and keep them coming back every single year, so when they do turn 13, 14 or 15 years old, something clicks, and they become a pretty good ballplayer. Our job is to keep guys coming to the field every single day.”
Coach Mercado wrapped up his presentation with some of his beliefs on coaching – many of which can be key tenets as you are preparing for the youth baseball season.
Coaching Words of Wisdom for Youth Baseball
Be yourself and be consistent.
“Whether you (coach) are 5-0 or 0-5, be who you are.”
Team stats; not individual.
“I’m a big believer in team stats over individual. At the end of the season, I might give individual stats to our players, but during the season we only talk about what we did well and what we struggled with as a team.”
Create pressure/opportunity … not stress.
Punishment for errors? Why?
“I think it’s just silly when coaches make players run for making errors.”
Little things are the big things. Praise them!
“Something as simple as your left fielder backing up third base after a double down the RF line, tell them when they get back to the dugout. Great job!”
Player is the golfer; coach is the caddie.
“They hold the clubs. We are there to guide them.”
Get 1% better every day.
“As coaches, we all want to get better. We learn from other coaches. Keep improving as a coach.”
And finally, as you finish preparing for the youth baseball season, remember to tell your players to compete with confidence.
“Trick your mind to feel great. Walk with confidence. This is really tough for kids,” says Mercado. “When they are struggling, tell them you BELIEVE in them. Tell them you have confidence in them.”