Teach the skills first- Compete later
A couple of months ago I began teaching a group of 8-year-old girls the game of softball. It all started when a group of parents asked to meet with me about the best way to help their kids keep playing without having to jump into super competitive travel ball. Ultimately, we elected to spend the fall winter working on their skills only. No tournaments, no games, just skills.
Having coached youth baseball and softball for more than 40 years, it is clear to me that not only was this the right decision for these families, but I am convinced that it is the best course of action for all young athletes and here’s why: we weren’t born knowing how to throw and catch correctly.
My 7-year-old grandson played Little League for the first time this year. The coach, a young guy in his 30s and former baseball player himself, showed up at the first practice and had a great talk with the boys. After the chat, Coach sent the team out to warm-up by playing catch. Here’s what happened after that:
- After a few minutes Coach put a line of boys at shortstop and a line at 1st
- Then he hit a ball to the shortstop who inevitably chased it down, very rarely fielding it cleanly, and threw it to 1st
- The 1st baseman didn’t know how to catch the ball so he tried really hard, and then chased after it as it flew by.
- Finding the overthrown ball from somewhere behind the dugout or in the outfield, their 1st baseman would attempt to throw it back to the coach occasionally hitting his target.
- Repeat 12 times.
This was pretty much how the entire practice ran for the hour that we were there.
The problem with that practice is that nobody spent time on proper throwing, catching or fielding techniques. They didn’t actually teach the boys anything. The coach simply went into drills where the kids just did what came naturally. In fairness to all volunteers who coach short seasons, I do understand that there really isn’t much time and many coaches don’t have the necessary skills to teach proper techniques. Perhaps there is an opportunity, however, for program leadership to prioritize teaching, especially at the younger levels?
Let’s compare a 7-year-old playing soccer to a 7-year-old playing baseball or softball. A child can go onto a soccer field having virtually no skills and kick a ball and play the game. You can literally put the players on the field and let them play without a fear of injury. Contrast that with baseball and softball, which require basic skills of throwing and catching before they can safely and effectively play the game. It is necessary for players to be able to catch and throw adequately before you can even run an effective drill.
I believe in the philosophy that practice does not necessarily make perfect but it does make permanent. For the purposes of baseball and softball, every time we allow our players to throw, catch or field a ball or swing a bat incorrectly they get worse not better. As athletes get older it becomes more difficult to correct bad habits than create good habits in the first place.
A systematic approach to teaching foundational skills of throwing, catching and fielding before ever competing would help kids develop good habits early, improve performance and allow kids to have more fun playing the game. I have no doubt that such a system would benefit our young people in so many ways and believe that a commitment to player development should be a part of every youth baseball and softball program in the country.