All of our previous articles have been about how to play Game Speed Defense by describing how communication, anticipation and correct movements come together for athletes to play at the speed of the game. These concepts sound great on paper, however as coaches, we know that how you practice is how you play. Therefore this month's article talks about Game Speed Coaching, or ways to structure practice so that players develop correct habits and a quick paced tempo to move at the speed of the game.
A seven inning softball game can move very slowly if you let it. Fielders can fall asleep in the scorching heat in the middle of the 5th inning and BOOM, the ball is hit right through the defense when they're not ready for it.
There is no constant movement and action like running up and down a basketball court. Therefore the most challenging part of fastpitch sofball is being mentally tough enough to focus throughout seven innings of play. As you develop an understanding of the intricacies of the game, you begin to realize that there is a tone of information to concentrate on between every single pitch. Once your mind is locked in and focused, the game starts to move rather quickly, deserving of its name, fastpitch softball.
As coaches it is our job to educate our players on the types of things they can center their focus on throughout the game. Since changes are not made during the game, practice is the best opportunity to teach this. For example, at practice a coach can hit ground balls to an infield and have them make through around the horn. If there is no communication amongst the players on the infield of where throws should be made, that is the exact time when a coach can pause the drill and make the team start again with audible communication around the diamond. Practice is only worthwhile if it reinforces good habits, therefore let's keep drilling until it's done the right way. Some players are loud and out-going, others will be shy and can go unheard throughout the entire season. The coach can repeat the drill until all players are heard, even the shy ones. There is nothing wrong with having a quiet and calm personality, however everyone's voice needs to be heard on a softball field in order for a team to make plays so let's ingrain this standard at every practice.
Once we have our entire team communicating, let's spruce up our infield ground ball drill with a little more action. Coaches should never hit ground balls to a single line of fielders in practice. This gets players standing around waiting with nothing to do, which is usually when the loss of focus happens. Instead, get the ground ball reps done in a few rounds of Crossfire in which two separate coaches and receivers on each side of home plate hit ground balls to the opposite middle infielders, now standing in shorter lines. As long as you keep the ground balls hard and deep, the middle infielders can make a catch and throw without getting hit by the ball from the other coach in the Crossfire Drill. Now we have eliminated waiting in long lines for ground ball reps. You can advance this drill by having the fielders rotate in between lines after their rep to add in a cardio workout. Adding constant movement to the tempo of practice is the best way to develop a standard of hustle amongst players.
A team that hustles on and off the field in between innings is usually a team that has an intent to play hard and win. Often times we see teams sluggishly walk in and out of the dugout in between innings which equates less time to warm up arms and lest time to prepare for an at-bat. That loss of time holds value and we need to utilize that time wisely for preparation within a short seven inning game that moves quickly. Therefore as coaches, let's incorporate a drill at practice that makes the defense hustle off the field after three outs. To make it interesting, we can include base runners, situations and outs. The Three Out Drill, for example, is when a coach hits various ground balls and pop flies to the defense as two or three runners round the bases. After three successful outs are made, the defense has 15 seconds to sprint back to home plate, communicate to elect new base-runners, and sprint back out to a new defensive position before the coach completes the 15 second countdown and repeats the drill.
The drill continues for the next cycle of three outs in which the defense sprints back in before switching again. After three (3) or four (4) rounds of the Three Out Drill, the offense and defense has had an opportunity to make many plays in continuous game speed tempo. Again as coaches, we can make a rule that the out does not count if there is one player on the field that is not communicating during the play. Once everyone is talking, let's push them further and incorporate the three (3) B's which stand for Ball, Base and Back-up. In other words, the out does not count if there is a player on the field that is not either fielding the ball, covering a base, or backing up a throw or a potential throw. Once we instill the three (3) B's, we will realize that every person on the field is somehow involved in each and every play.
A drill such as the Three Out Drill eliminates standing around and down time. The best satisfaction comes when the team takes this hustle on and off the field during games. As coaches, it sure feels great to not have to yell at the players to run hard during game time because suddenly there is no difference between game speed and practice speed. It is all the same. Once the cleats hit the dirt it is time to fly!
Practice doesn't always have to move quickly. Batting practice, for example, should not be rushed. However small rotating hitting groups and stations can keep the players constantly focused on different tasks. The more goal oriented and focused we become at practice, the more likely we will be communicating in between every pitch and seeking for opportunities to score during competition. In the end, most athletes want to be challenged, to be in top physical shape, and want to stay focused. It is our job as coaches to create a challenging learning environment at practice that gets their minds and bodies moving at the same speeds they will face in the game.