Over the past couple years, I've become aware of two prominent baseball colleges (Vanderbilt, Michigan) that have classroom instruction for their players that is distinct from traditional on-field practice. I'm guessing there are more colleges doing this that I don't know about.
What these schools do is have a dedicated time in the classroom, complete with binders for the players. Coaches teach and discuss in a formal classroom environment. Then the team heads to the field to work on the things discussed in the classroom.
For some coaches, this seems like overkill. Practices have been done for a long time in baseball with coaches and players teaching while on the field. Even for me, when I first heard about Vanderbilt doing this, I thought, "Good for them. But that won't work at the youth level."
The past few weeks, as I was preparing youth baseball practice plans, I noticed how much time I was devoting to instruction in these practice plans. Explaining what skill the kids were about to learn. Why the kids should want to learn this. How this new skill differs from what they may currently be doing instead. Demonstrating the skill so there is no confusion what I'm explaining verbally. Explaining how the drill will work.
This all takes a fair amount of time if you're not going to rush it. If I'm teaching two new things that practice, and I spend 5-10 minutes explaining each new thing, that's 10-20 minutes that I'm talking instead of the kids working. (Some of you coaches like to talk so your talks may end up longer than that.) In a 90-minute practice, 20 minutes of talking is 22% of my practice—almost a quarter of my practice time!
Additionally, consider that, typically, more instruction will take place early in the season compared to the end of the season because late-season practices tend to introduce fewer new concepts than early-season practices. And unfortunately, early-season practices tend to be in colder weather, when a lot of talking is not fruitful. Kids will be shivering, which affects their attention span. More action and less talking when it's cold outside helps keep kids warm. So you have a catch-22: you need to instruct more when it's early in the season but kids won't be paying attention as well when you talk a lot in the cold.
And, not to pile on, but all that talking (even when it's warm outside) means less on-field reps and work.
Then it dawned on me how much sense the classroom-vs-on-field distinction makes, and I started to really think: should youth and high school coaches also adopt this model? And if so, how can this work in the youth baseball world?
As I pondered this, it became clear that there is no good reason NOT to adopt this model. And that's why I'm advocating for a BIG change in the way youth and high school coaches conduct their practices: to separate teaching from reps by putting teaching in a classroom and leaving reps on the field.
Youth and high school coaches should have a dedicated time of instruction that does not eat up precious on-field practice time.
So that leaves the $64,000 question: how would this work for youth & high school coaches?
Well, let's address the low-hanging fruit first: high school coaches can easily adopt this classroom vs on-field separation because high school coaches have access to classrooms in their high school, just as college coaches have access to classrooms in their college. You don't need a dedicated baseball classroom like Vanderbilt does; any classroom in the school will do.
The trickier part is for youth coaches, who don't have easy access to a classroom.
Here's my proposal for a generic format for youth coaches:
- Meet as a team indoors for classroom instruction. Being indoors means classroom time can't be rained out, unlike if you were simply to meet as a team outside the field before practice. You can reserve a meeting room at your local library. Or meet at someone's house. Or maybe even meet a fast-food restaurant where kids can also order some fries, ice cream or other cheap food item to eat during the meeting...could be more distracting but also could be more fun
- If you can't find an indoor location for your team to meet, have a Zoom meeting. Zoom meetings have the benefit of making it easier on parents, so the kids don't need to be chauffeured again. And everyone is familiar with using Zoom thanks to the pandemic
- Assistant coaches and parent helpers should be required to attend also, so everyone can be on the same page about what you're teaching (i.e., have fewer "telephone" game issues with assistants not understanding what you're trying to do)
- The meeting should be about 10-20 minutes tops, just enough time for you to teach one or two topics. And at just 10-20 minutes, most parents shouldn't be rioting in the streets about their player doing this, especially if it's over Zoom
- The meetings should be weekly (once per week at the youth level; could do once or twice per week at the high school level)
- Make the meetings required. Emphasize its importance to the kids. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin tells his players they cannot participate in the on-field practice if they did not attend the classroom instruction. I'm not saying you need to copy that rule; I'm just showing you how important Vanderbilt stresses these classroom meetings
- Encourage (or require, if you're a travel team) kids to have a binder where they take notes and keep any handouts you might give (if doing Zoom, you'd give the handouts at practice)
- Make theses meetings interactive: be sure to ask kids if they have questions
I think you'll be pleasantly surprised how much smoother new drills are run once you do hit the field after classroom instruction, how much more time you have on the practice field for actual work, and how much more active/less lethargic kids are when it's cold outside at practices.Time to separate instruction from on-field practice and put in the classroom instead #GoClassroom Click To Tweet
Bonus tip: you can show MLB videos to your players during your classroom time to visually show certain plays—something harder to do on the practice field. Need a source for those MLB videos? Baseball Savant has a searchable database of thousands of MLB plays. Enter your search parameters and if you get search results, click on a player name to drill down to specific plays matching your search for that particular player. Then click the videocamera icon at the far right to watch the video, which you can download if you right-click and select "Save video as..."
Want to show your kids videos of infielder footwork on routine ground outs? Doubles in the gap with runners on base? Where infielders position themselves at the 2B bag on steals of 2B? The Baseball Savant search feature is a treasure trove of information that you could literally sink hours into.
Need help using the search function? Here are three tutorials: part 1, part 2 and part 3. (I'm still having difficulty figuring out how to search for pickoff plays, so if you figure that out, let me know!)
So that's my pitch (no pun intended) for you to make a substantial change in how you run your practices. I hope you'll at least consider it for the upcoming season.
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