When a youth baseball coach wants his team to practice, he always calls it a "practice".
"Our next practice is..."
"At our next practice, we will..."
"Let's work on that in practice..."
"That was a great practice!"
And so forth.
But is that the best term?
What is 'practice'?
The dictionary definition of practice is:
repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it."
If you're a coach, ask yourself this question: do my "practices" allow repeated exercise in an activity to skill to acquire or maintain proficiency in said skill or activity?
For pretty much every coach, the answer is no. Let me explain.
Most coaches today—thankfully—use a station or small group format for their "practices". That is, the coach breaks up the team into groups of 3-4 kids who rotate through 3-4 stations, with each station focusing on a separate and discreet skill. This is a good thing. Hopefully, gone are the days when practice is simply a coach pitching to one kid while the rest of the team is in the field waiting for something to happen.
But even so, let's see how much "repeated exercise" occurs for any one kid in such a situation.
The optimal time for each station is said to be about seven minutes. Some coaches might do less, but let's stick with seven minutes as a conservative estimate. And let's say there are only three kids instead of four at each station as another conservative estimate.
The number of reps each of the three kids get at each station is 7 minutes divided by 3 kids = 2 minutes, 15 seconds of reps per kid. Let's be further generous and assume the clock doesn't start until all the kids have actually arrived at each new station. The first 45 seconds will likely be the coach reminding the new group of kids what the station is about. So the actual time to run the drill is about 2 minutes per kid.
If they're learning to hit, the kid might hit off the tee or soft toss. In the most optimistic outlook where the kids know how to properly setup for the drill, don't misbehave, and are eagerly ready for the next swing, they might take ten seconds per swing. So in two minutes, the player will take a total of 12 swings.
12 swings! And that's with the most optimistic and utopian view of what happens in stations.
But in real life, 12 swings would be even less...more like 6-8 swings. A soft toss might be a bad toss so no swing takes place (or worse, a swing is still made at a bad soft toss), or a kid misses the ball while trying to hit off the tee. Or you may need ball pickup for the next kid in the group. Or coaches need to take time to give feedback and correction. Or coaches are telling misbehaving kids who are waiting in the group to "knock it off". In short, each kid will almost certainly get less than the idealistic 12 swings per station.
(And if we're talking non-hitting drills like catching/throwing/fielding/pitching, the reps will realistically be far fewer than 12 per kid per station to account for retrieving missed catches, bad throws, missed grounders, etc.)
Making things worse, many coaches don't repeat drills from practice to practice for fear of boring the kids (that could be why books touting hundreds of drills are popular sellers). So for some skills, those reps on that particular day may be the only ones they get all year.
Is that really "practice"? Is that "repeated exercise"? If I tried a complex skill 6 times, I don't think I would acquire that skill very well.
How are skills acquired in other areas of expertise?
Consider music lessons.
Learning a musical instrument, like learning baseball, is also challenging. The way most kids learn to play a musical instrument is they take a 30 to 60 minute lesson each week, and then are strongly encouraged to practice what they learned at home. The #1 question of all parents of music students is "How long should s/he practice at home?" And the answer is typically some variation of "at least 30 minutes a day; an hour is preferred...or more if you want to be good at it."
Notice the terminology.
In music, learning from the teacher is called a "lesson". In baseball, learning from the teacher (coach) is called a "practice."
In music, supplemental work through "repeated exercise" at home is called "practice". In baseball, supplemental work through "repeated exercise" at home is never required so it's not called anything–although I guess you can call it "nothing".
In music, teachers expect and require all students to "practice" at home the concepts learned in the teacher's lesson—and usually for lengthy periods of time every day. In baseball, since there is no expectation or requirement to "practice" at home, nothing happens ever, much less "every day".
No wonder many kids don't improve their baseball skills much by the end of the season.
As a youth baseball coach, your "practices" are really lessons. You're teaching the kids baseball concepts and skills and they try it a little (<12 reps per station per kid) at "practice"—just as a music student in his/her lesson learns some music concepts and skills and tries it a little during the lesson. However, your "practices" are definitely not giving the players enough reps for them to truly practice something. [bctt tweet="Should baseball coaches stop calling practices 'practices'?"]
Do I call my 'practices' lessons from now?
Now, I'm not advocating that you as a coach should starting calling your practices "lessons", even though that's really what they are. That change would sound very foreign to most of your team parents. So here are the two things I am advocating you do going forward.
- Your practices should be called "team practices".
- Insist that your players "practice" at home.
This is a natural linguistic transition since you do practice team concepts and skills at your practices, and you're gathering together as a team to learn individual skills.
(Musicians likewise call their own 'team practices' as such, except their terminology is "orchestra rehearsal", "quartet practice", "band practice" or something similar.)
You don't need to publicly announce the change in terminology from "practices" to "team practices" (unless you really want to); just start referring to them that way.
What are the players practicing at home? The skills you taught at your "team practices". They should practice them on days where there are no "team practices".
When parents ask "How long?" You can say something similar to what music students are told: "30 minutes as a minimum." Hey, moms happily become the enforcer for their kids' everyday music practices; so likewise, both moms and dads can be the enforcer for their kids' everyday baseball "practices" at home.
And as a coach, follow up with your kids to see if they are practicing at home every day. If they're not, remind them they need to do it, just as music instructors do.
Of course, there will be times when the kids won't be able to practice at home every day. During the school year, kids may have too much homework, school projects, etc. That's ok. But if you can get your team to practice at home for 30 minutes on most days, you—and they—will see a faster, more substantial increase in their skills.
Why should you do this if you're a coach? Quite simple. When kids attend a "practice", they think they are done working on baseball skills until the next "practice". If you asked your players to do more practice at home, either the players or their parents (or both) probably would probably balk at the idea. After all, they already did practice with you.
But when kids attend a "team practice", now you can insist they also do individual practice at home on their own—and it won't sound weird. How we label things (like "practice" vs "team practice") can impact how others perceive those things.
The bottom line
The goal of this post is to find a way for you as a coach to encourage your players to practice at home without causing a mutiny.
OK, I exaggerate about the mutiny part, but I do believe a simple change in terminology is the easiest way to change players' and parents' mindsets about what is "practice."
For your baseball team, whereas before you had "practice" (with the coach) and nothing at home, you now have "team practice" (with the coach) and "practice" (at home).
This simple and subtle shift in terminology and methodology will help your team improve faster than the best run "practices".
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