The Importance of Teaching Written By Mike Adams
There are several types of coaches. The coach I prefer is the coach that likes to teach. I became involved in coaching, like many coaches, at a young U level because I didn’t agree with the way my daughter was being coached. I watched the coach for her 6U team be more involved in achieving the “W” than teaching the players how to play. Beginning the next year, I worked within the local rec league to help define the season’s rules to promote the learning process further. We attempted a couple of times to get all of the coaches on board as a collective group on how and what skills we were going to apply. A core group emerged eventually that met in preseason to establish the game play. Where I grew up this idea was actually implemented by the high school varsity coach. He was tired of reteaching and training players in high school with different philosophies and gamemanship after years of what he considered faulty coaching priorities. His answer was to become highly involved in the little league process and ran coaching clinics all the time. He networked with the other coaches so well that his high school teams were his kids from the moment they set foot on the field and they knew what was expected of their play and how to go about achieving those standards.
Ok, My ADD started to go off track. Where it becomes relevant again is that one of the things I see with my daughter at the U14 level is quite a few players are always focused on the out at first. I even hear parents say they should always go to first. Well, in my opinion, that works fine only at younger levels. When players are starting out, you don’t want to confuse them with too many instructions. After all, making sand castles is one thing they are already concentrating on!So you teach them to “go one”. This gets drilled into their head until they don’t think about it anymore. A few years later, you throw the next piece into the puzzle. This can vary between a few options with the two most popular being get the lead runner or get the closest out first. We, as coaches, know there are certain times that one is better than the other, but remember, this is a learning process. You really need to pick one of the above mentioned plays and stick with that strategy until the players understand it and the why. After they do, and we are not talking 2-3 games here, then you introduce the third method. Keep in mind when you teach these methods, make sure the understanding of why you want them to do it is part of the drill. This helps them to development their mental game.
The reason for throwing to 1st is because it is always a force out with the batter-runner not having a lead off and therefore usually takes the longest to get to base. It is ALWAYS a play and requires the least thought which is why we teach that first. Closest runner is important because there are times that tagging someone running by just makes more sense. If you are 4 feet from second and second is a force, then going there is a safe and easy out. This play definitely takes more thought than just going to first. Before the pitch, the player must assess where everyone is, knowing that if the balls goes to “x” I am going to do “y”. Getting the lead runner out is very important, especially when there are less than 2 outs. Again, these are my opinions. I have gotten into it with parents when there were less than 2 outs, runner on second and third, ball is bunted and pitcher runs up and stays stoning the girl at third. With sideline parents yelling the throw should go after the girl out at first. By going for the safe out though the girl on third easily would have made it home, unless completely ignoring her base coach, who would undoubtedly be watching for the play to move across field. There is a philosophy that defense wins games; to a point I agree. If they never score, you will never lose. You may tie (depending on your league rules), but you will never lose. Plus, at that point, I have the bases loaded for the next play which makes it very easy to get outs. Barring a grand slam, of course, which wouldn’t be that great. Another way to see how this strategy works is look at it from the offensive side. The goal of offense is to score. Getting on base is a step in scoring but scoring is the ultimate goal. Stopping them from achieving this goal will win the game.
Getting back to the preseason rule setting. One of the questions we kept in mind when changing the rec rules was what would promote learning. One of the biggest fights was over overthrows. The situation was when learning (remember all of these are at the lower age groups) there are a ton of overthrows. Anyone disagree? Well, in leagues that didn’t limit the amount of overthrows, the coaches just had the players always hold the ball essentially teaching them to stop play as soon as they got the ball. The second popular thing was to get it to the pitcher. Which is better than holding the ball, but what if there are plays to be made? We altered the rules to allow advancing to the next base on an overthrow once per at bat. This allowed us to teach the players to throw to first (for example) and if it is overthrown, hustle to the ball and attempt the next out without fear of the runner advancing another base because you made another overthrow. This simple tweak got the players hustling, got them keeping track of what game play is going on as well. The other 2 methods didn’t really get taught that year; the focus was made on fielding the ball and making good throws. Players just beginning will not be able to throw perfectly, it comes with time, confidence and practice. If you don’t put that time into game play they may never learn.
Further in my daughter’s career, she had a coach that had the girls bunting like crazy. I was really perplexed at first. Trying to figure out the method to his madness nearly made me mad as well. At first always bunting cost us the game. Hard to watch. Later on in the season, I noticed he had the girls that were doing a good job bunting start hitting. That is when I got it. Learning is more important than the win. By the end of the season, most of the girls could bunt…a very valuable skill in my book. Seeing girls the same age on other teams struggle with it makes me appreciate the coach that took the loss in order to teach. I am sure that the players next coach was very excited to be able to take a batter and know they can bunt, as well as hit.
Another mistake I see with coaches paying more attention to the win rather than teaching is positioning. I have heard it from both parents and other coaches “at sometime the player needs to stay at a position to hone that skill” Although I agree that staying in one position will allow a player to really play that position well, it will also lock that player into only that position. Which player would you rather have on your team, a superstar 3rd baseman that can’t play any other position, or a player who knows how to play, and has played every position. I don’t know about your teams, but mine has players getting hurt. The versatile player is gold in my book. How many of you have said “I like so-and-so, I can put them anywhere”? I thought so…. There is another advantage to putting players in different positions. They get to learn perspective and the challenges of the different positions. For example, try putting your pitcher at catcher. Heck at the same time have the catcher pitch! I am going to guess that the pitcher had no idea how fast the catcher has to react. I am going to guess the catcher had no idea how hard it is to aim at a spot with the catcher not being consistent with the glove. Does second base (or shortstop) understand how annoying it is for a catcher to go to throw down and not see anyone paying attention or running to second looking for the throwdown? Going the opposite way, does the catcher know how annoying it is for second or shortstop to have the catcher wait until they are there until they throw? (FYI, you save serious time by having the catcher throw down to the bag and having the cover catch it on the fly) Having a cut off infielder swap with an outfielder and see how they do when the cut off isn’t vocal helping the outfielder. The swaps are endless and there are plenty of things to learn. I already mentioned in a previous blog, the added benefit of finding that a player is really good at a position they haven’t tried.
Players also get caught up with the need to win mindset as well. Every team has better players and players that need work. When you tell them to pair up, I am betting that the best players match with the best players. They want to look good, so they pair up with the one that makes them look the best. What they should be taught is to want to bring the lesser players up to their level. I have heard “I don’t like playing catch with X because she can’t catch my fast throws”. What that means to me is during a game if X needs to catch a ball either it won’t be thrown hard or it will be thrown hard and they won’t know how to catch it. There are multiple ways to deal with this issue depending on how the players accept instruction. If you have great leaders on the team then just mentioning it to them may fix the issue. Other times I have had to “randomly” move girls around. When I hear a player say something about how a player needs work, I ask what they have done to help that player. I usually get blank stares or worse they told the player they were doing it wrong. Time for the coach to teach the player how to be a better player-coach.
Sometimes we get so caught up with what will get the “W” we forget about what gets us there. Am I saying that you shouldn’t care about winning? No, not at all. I am saying there is a time and place to place the importance of winning vs losing. Regional Championship game is NOT the place I would put people in new positions. Playing a regular season game and up by 6 or 7 runs? That might be the time to swap around. Just remember, in order to play well you must learn. When you don’t continue to learn, you are stagnant.