Friday, October 26, 2007

Uptempo T-Ball:
“Speeding up the game to keep players involved”
By:  Jerry Kreber, Omaha Benson Little League

For years I have coached high school baseball, but this summer I got the chance to coach my son’s tee ball team at the neighborhood little league.  Previously, I heard people recount their horror stories on coaching young players.  After hearing these stories, I compared my high school experience with their complaints and chalked it up to their inability to deal with youngsters.  From my first day coaching, I could tell my attitudes were totally wrong.  The team, consisting of nine players from the ages of three and four years old, played games twice a week from April to June.  Each game lasted approximately 35 minutes, letting each player hit every inning.    
One idea that struck me was these players were going to experience baseball for the first time.  Sure, many played whiffle ball in their yard or thrown the ball around with a brother or sister, but this experience would shape how they looked at baseball in the future.  In high school baseball, pressure comes from different angles.  Parents, fans, and expectations for victories supply enough pressure for an entire season.  But, these expectations come with the territory of coaching at that level.  Nevertheless, the anxiety I felt from knowing this experience would have a lasting impact on these players weighed heavily on my shoulders.  

The question became” How can I make this game fun, while still teaching the basic fundamentals of play?”   To coach effectively, the game must move at a fast pace.  Kids have to constantly move or their attention will be diverted.  Transitioning between innings is a major time drain for tee ball.  Players trying to find their equipment and run to their defensive spots can take forever if not done in an organized manner.  This alone can add 30 minutes to each game.  To eliminate this problem, I had the players place their hats and gloves in a pile outside the dugout.  Therefore, players could move to a central location and equip themselves quickly and get back onto the field.  

When players come into bat is another time drain.  To speed things up, players were lined with close proximity to home plate.  Before the game, helmets were placed on the ground so players could quickly grab.  We had six helmets; so only three players did not have them on.  When a player scored they would immediately pass their helmet off to the three unprotected players.  By getting players organized, I was able to be a more productive coach in the batter’s box and help players run the bases.  

Communication is another obstacle.  Coaches must be absolutely clear on what they want to convey.  Voice tone is an area where coaches must be careful.  On one hand players must receive the message over the excitement of players and fans.  On the other hand, if players view their coach as yelling they are likely to get scared and shut down.  

Speeding the game up and clear communication are imperative to coaching tee ball effectively.  Both of these themes contribute to the players overall enjoyment of the game.  But coaches must to learn ways to make the game fun.  If they do not, players will not be excited to attend games.  Since we did not practice, players arrived 15-20 minutes early for games.  That way, players worked on their individual skills before the contest.  These skills were practiced in a manner which occupied each player’s attention.  

Baserunning is one area which players loved.  In each pre-game session, our team ran out a single, double, triple, and home run.  The players loved to practice sliding.  To incorporate this tactic, players were allowed to slide into second and third base.  All nine players were engaged in this activity.  It seemed to add enthusiasm to their demeanor before the game’s start.  Catching and throwing were other skills our team addressed.  To efficiently practice, players need proper repetition and instruction in a fast paced setting to eliminate boredom.  I tried to accomplish this task by having two balls going at once during a catching drill.  Players moved into a line and received an underhand tossed ball.  As they threw the ball back, I had another ball ready.  I caught the ball thrown and flipped the other to the next player.  Each player received numerous repetitions with little time to become distracted.  

Hitting was the last element our team addressed.  About halfway through the season, our hitters switched from the tee to coach pitch.  This continued to help peak interest in the game.  During the pitching format, one mistake I witnessed coaches make occurred during the actual pitch.  Many times, coaches lobbed the ball to the plate producing a large arch.  This method proved difficult for players to hit because they had to follow the ball on different vertical planes.  To give an inexperienced hitter a chance to be successful, coaches should keep the ball on the same plane as the batter’s hands.  Also, the ball should be thrown will some velocity to fight gravity’s pull downward.  The slower a coach throws, the more the ball will drop on its way to the plate creating a difficult hitting situation.  Furthermore, when a young player swings and misses too many times a chain reaction occurs throughout the game.  First, the batter’s confidence, interest, and enthusiasm in the sport diminish.  Also, the game is slowed down and the defensive players start to lose focus.  That is why coaches must do everything possible to set players up for success.  

Finally, coaching tee ball was definitely a learning experience for me.  Many of the lessons I learned centered on making the sport fun for the players involved.  Too often as players move up the ladder this concept vanishes as winning becomes the major priority.  As I look back on this summer and compare my high school experience it easy to see that both of these concepts walk hand in hand.                       

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