You are coaching a youth baseball or softball team and wrap up another game with more mistakes than expected. You’ve done a good job getting your team ready and practices have run well, but the team’s efforts are not translating to games. What could be missing in your preparation?
Many youth baseball and softball coaches run solid practices, do a great job teaching skills and taking their kids through drills, but don’t see that effort in practice translate to game success. One aspect of practice that many coaches leave out is practicing playing the game.
Failing to include a Scrimmage as part of a practice plan may be the missing link in a team’s formula for success in games.
The first reaction to the idea of including a scrimmage in practice is that it is not a productive use of time; ‘the kids are just playing around and not getting better’. That can be true if the scrimmage does not have a clear objective and is not structured properly. On the other hand, if a scrimmage is structured and managed as a teaching tool, it can be the activity that ties everything together.
Three Benefits of Ending Each Practice with a Scrimmage
1. Kids don’t sign up to practice baseball and softball; they sign up to PLAY.
Kids understand the need to practice, but we can’t lose site of the fact that playing is what they really want to do.
There is much talk of the need to make drills fun and competitive to keep kids engaged. However, in many cases, trying to instill these elements into drills detracts from their true objective, which is to get the kids the reps they need to develop their skills. Ending each practice with a scrimmage provides fun and competition.
Knowing that practice will conclude with a scrimmage helps with discipline in drills and other practice activities. Players are more motivated to follow directions and move quickly between drills when they know doing otherwise scrimmage time.
2. Players learn to translate skills to the variations speed of a game during scrimmage
Actual game situations can vary quite a bit from a structured drill environment. The combination of the placement of the ball off the bat and the speed and location of the runners is unique for most every play. Kids can master drills and skills in practice, but if they are not experienced in applying those to the unique situations and pace of a game they are not as prepared as they could be.
3. Learning to coordinate as a unit on defense
Drills, as they should, break the game down into smaller segments. Scrimmage creates an environment where all nine players must participate to ensure the defense functions properly regardless of what comes up over the course of a play.
At the youth level broken plays occur often. When these circumstances come up in a scrimmage players learn to regroup on the fly and bring the play under control. Early in the season players will be slow to cover a base, be in position to back up throws and get into position to execute a relay. Through scrimmage they quickly recognize how each player contributes to defensive play.
In the scrimmage format outlined below, we maintain a fast pace that engages all nine defensive players throughout the activity. On each play there will be mistakes; corrections are made and learning within the context of the game takes place.
Our feedback during scrimmage is not limited to correcting and teaching. On each play we also have the opportunity to acknowledge the kids doing things well. When we point out what our kids are doing right, no matter how basic, we build their confidence.
Specifics regarding feedback during a scrimmage are covered in detail following the next section.
1. Nine on defense, one batter, two base runners
Players do not sit out waiting their turn to bat. Extra offensive players are on the bases getting base running experience. Including base runners on each play also requires increased decision making on the part of the defense; a big factor in learning the game.
Later, after the players get used to the flow of scrimmage and making a quick transition from the conclusion of one play to the next batter, we can utilize the option of having only one base runner and an on-deck batter, who steps in to bat as soon as the previous play is over.
2. Players don’t pitch during scrimmage
Scrimmage is not the place for developing pitching skills. A coach pitches from 20’-30’ away (we still have a player at the rubber fulfilling the defensive responsibilities of the pitcher). The closer the coach-pitcher, the higher the percentage of hittable pitches. I urge coaches to pitch from a knee (instructional video: watch 0:38 – 1:20 for Baseball; 1:20 – 2:10 for Softball).
Keys to maximizing scrimmage time is a providing a high percentage of strikes and limiting the amount of time between the end of one play and pitching to the next batter. At the conclusion of a play our players quickly get back to their positions, receive brief feedback and then the coach pitches to the next batter.
3. Positions on defense
Early in the season we give players reps at a lot of different positions during scrimmage. My philosophy is for kids to get experience at as many positions at possible. But as the season progresses we need to be mindful of getting players reps at the positions they’ll most likely be playing on game day.
4. Assistant coaches spread out on the field to provide feedback following each play
Position one coach between the third baseman and left fielder and they communicate with those two positions as well as the shortstop. A second coach stands between the first baseman and right fielder focusing on the three players closest to them. If an additional coach is available, put them in the area behind second base where they can give feedback to players in that area.
The coach doing the pitching (usually the head coach) focus their feedback on the pitcher, catcher and batter. Comments to the batter should be limited to simple reminders of what has already been taught and trained ie, ‘turn fast’, ‘head in place’, ‘balance’, etc. Scrimmage is not the place for detailed batting instruction.
In our first few scrimmages we let many mistakes go because not much content has been taught. As the season progresses, and the kids are exposed to more information, our feedback during scrimmage covers more aspects of the game.
5. Use a batting tee for scrimmage (sometimes)
Because the objective of scrimmage is to get the players massive game repetitions in a short period of time, using a tee can help achieve this goal. A tee guarantees a strike 100% of the time, which speeds up the pace of the scrimmage.
When using a tee, we can change the relationship of the batter to the ball/contact point and have some control of where the ball is hit (pull, middle, opposite field).
Most scrimmages have the coach pitching, but it’s important to recognize the tee as an option. Also, when we are short coaches, using a tee with a coach at home plate instead of pitching, with their back to the defense, they can keep their eyes on all the action.
Team development needs and which point of the season you are in dictates how much time is invested in scrimmage. Early in the year scrimmage may be only 15-20 minutes, giving each player one time to bat. As the season progresses, scrimmage time can bump up to 30 minutes with each player batting multiple times.
Making an Instructional Scrimmage a Powerful Teaching Tool
Below are guidelines for setting up and running a productive instructional scrimmage. This is not a complete list, but the fundamental aspects of play that a youth team wants to be executing by the latter parts of their season.
Rules for Teaching
- Only correct what has been taught and drilled in practice
- Be on the lookout for things the kids do correctly and acknowledge their accomplishments.
- Keep comments directed towards actions, not results
Focus Points for Teaching
- The teaching and reinforcement points that your coaching staff is concerned with depends on the age of your kids, their level of play and the amount of content that has been taught and drilled in your practice sessions.
Common Physical Mistakes and Addressing Those Mistakes
- Errors and other physical mistakes are going to happen often. Kids know when they have missed a ground ball or made a poor throw. We want to help our players learn from their mistakes, so how do we address them? Use action focused talk when giving feedback. Examples:
- Keep your feet moving through the fielding action and you’ll make that play next time.
- Follow your head after the throw and it will be straighter next time
- “Reach forward to catch” and you’ll make that play next time
The Primary Goal of a Scrimmage is Improving Team Defensive Play
Often in youth baseball games, when the ball is put in play, many of the players do not move. The fact is that each player on defense has a role on every play and needs to be moving. Scrimmage exposes kids to this fact multiple times in a short period of time.
From the time the ball is put into play until it is returned securely to the pitcher at the play’s conclusion it is usually handled by 3 or 4 players and sometimes more. At our level of play, managing the ball as it moves around the field is a challenge. Base runners add to the complexity of the defensive responsibilities. In a game (and scrimmage) there are no do-overs, so the players are pressed to make decisions quickly while executing the physical requirements as well.
The points below are few and brief, but constitute the core aspects of team play that we are working to improve in our scrimmage.
Identify the Situation
- Number of outs
- Location of runners
- The bases a force out can be made
- Three B’s: Play the Ball, Cover a Base or Back-up a Throw
- “Cover the base with your eyes”
- Players must move quickly and with purpose the moment the ball is put into play
- Keep the ball moving at all times
Dealing with Base Runners
- Conscious of all options for getting an out
- Stop the runners by getting the ball to a point on the field where they see they are at risk if they try to advance
- Quickly and securely get the ball back to the pitcher at the conclusion of each play
- Catcher calls out what to do with the ball when it is in play
- Infield echos to the outfield what to do with the ball
- Fly balls between two players
- Positioning of the cut-relay player
- Communication between players involved in the play
- Outfielders always ‘hit the cut’
- Cut-relay player footwork: “Move Feet to Catch”, “Move Feet to Throw”
- Recognizing when to not relay the ball (runners either stop or are safe the majority of the time in relay situations)
Teaching and Feedback – Individual Skills
The primary objective of the instructional scrimmage is to keep things moving. Given this goal, a scrimmage is not the place for detailed teaching of individual skills. Our comments are limited to quick reminders of aspects of the skills that have already been taught and trained in drills. It is likely we will identify aspects of skill technique that need further work. In these cases we make a mental note and address those needs in an upcoming practice(s).
- Lower Half Turn
- Head in Place
- “Let the ball get to your feet”
- Aggressive on balls hit to the outfield (always looking to advance two bases)
- Proper technique running to and through first base
- Don’t watch the ball; put attention on the base (or base coach)
Fielding Ground Balls
- Get to the ball quickly (‘Charge the ball’, etc.)
- Reading hops
- Hand and glove position
Fielding Fly Balls
- Drop step
- Beat the ball to a spot or running through the catch
- Extend the glove arm to catch (catch the ball away from the body)
- Move feet to power the throw
- Keep head straight and pointed towards the target
- Momentum to continue towards the target following the throw
- Wrist snap for better accuracy
Proper Type of Throw for the Situation
- Underhand toss on short distance throws (more accurate and easier to catch)
- Was a throw necessary?
- Could the player fielding the ball carry it to the base before the runner arrives?
- When the runners stop trying to advance, a defensive player can run the ball in or run it to a point close enough where a sure throw and catch can be made
- “Ready Position” – be prepared to “Move feet to catch”
- “Reach forward to catch”
- “Ball first, base second”
- Wait until the ball is on its way and is accurate before committing to a ‘stretch position’
Developing our players’ skill and knowledge through drills and the teaching of the finer points of batting, pitching and fielding are important parts of any well planned practice. Adding a scrimmage to the end of each practice makes the day’s learning the complete.