Every Little Thing is Important

I feel that too many coaches see little mistakes in practice and, rather than address them, just let them slide because they don’t feel they are important enough to stop practice. However, by not addressing these we often miss great opportunities to teach. I believe in pointing out the minute details and letting everyone learn from the instruction. When you stop a practice to make a teaching point and have all of your players give you their attention you can often provide valuable instruction that can be used by everyone in a short period of time. Before I do this however, I ask myself if the point I am going to cover meets the following two criteria:
• Does it apply to nearly everyone on the team?
• Does it pertain to something that will likely happen on numerous occasions?
When I feel I have a chance to teach something that gets a “yes” answer to both those questions, I’ll use that opportunity to my advantage. Here is an example of a recent coaching experience I had:

I’d been teaching a group of newly-drafted players how to field a ground ball in the outfield by taking a knee. Some of them had clearly never learned this before and were having trouble grasping it. There were two boys in particular, Steve and Max, who I had to correct several times. At one point in the practice a sharp, bouncing ball was hit to Steve in centerfield. He got down on a knee with nice technique, but the ball bounced over his shoulder to the fence. I’m sure some coaches would have let that go and continued practice; figuring it was just a bad hop. Other coaches might have simply yelled, “Don’t go down on a bouncer like that,” or “You’ve got to knock that ball down,” which would have only confused Steve more.

I stopped the practice for a moment and said to everyone on the team, “When I say I want you to take a knee on a ball hit to the outfield, I mean a grounder, like this.” I then threw a ground ball to Max, who was in left field. He fielded it with a knee, but facing the wrong way. “Steve,” I asked the center fielder, “Why don’t you want to take a knee on a ball that is bouncing up high?” Steve answered correctly that it was because it may go over his shoulder. “What should you do on one like that?” I asked. “Show me.” Steve demonstrated how next time he would get in front of the ball, but not go to a knee. “Good!” I said. “And Max, your knee needs to be facing this way, not straight, so that you cover more area…throw it here.” I threw him another grounder and he fielded it correctly. “Perfect!” I said.

That entire sequence took no more than one minute, but quite a bit was accomplished. Everyone on the team learned which balls we want them to kneel for, and which we want them to stay up on. I found out that Steve understands what he did wrong and what to do next time. Max got two additional practice opportunities, and in the process showed the team the improper way to field a grounder and then the proper way, providing a great learning point. And I’ll bet from now on, Max does it right. Finally, notice how I asked Steve a question and let him answer it, instead of just telling him my point of view and hoping he’s listening. If you ask players questions, just like asking them to show you how to do something, it forces them to think, and reveals whether they understand. Again, it would have been easier to let the play go without comment and maybe tell Steve “don’t worry about it,” but a coach’s job is to correct the small mistakes before they become habits.

Add a Positive to Every Negative

As a coach, when making corrections to young players, it is a good idea try to temper any criticism with something else positive. Think of it as dessert after making a child eat their vegetables. For example, if I see a player field a ground ball off to the side when he could have gotten in front of it, I may say, “Good job getting your mitt down but remember to get in front of it next time.” I’ll typically reinforce the comment by demonstrating what I mean and, in this example, saying, “Not here,” while showing him what he did, (field the ball off to the side), “Here.” (Showing the proper technique).
Though it’s not always easy, do your best to communicate with your team on their level, with an upbeat, positive attitude and remember that for every bite of “broccoli” they have to eat, you should try to also slip in a piece of “apple pie.”