Keeping young players focused is a challenge in any sport but can be especially challenging in baseball because of the amount of time players stand around. There is not constant action or as much physical exertion in baseball as there are in other sports. Because of the amount of time in between pitches and the amount of pitches that are not put in play, it is easy for players’ minds to wander. Coaching little league is a constant process of reminding young players to “keep their heads in the game.” This is easier said than done, of course. Some young players have great sports instincts and are very focused and others are not mentally in the game at all. Most little league players are somewhere in between, where their focus comes and goes.
This is the reason why coaching little league baseball can be more challenging than coaching any other youth sport. Because of the lack of good little league coaching, many of the good athletes gravitate to other sports after playing little league baseball. It is a shame when good athletes choose another sport because coaches do not know positive coaching practices that will help young players stay focused. Following are good positive coaching practices that will help players remain focused during games.
First though, good coaches run fast moving practices with lots of attention given to each player and to the fundamentals of the game. Good little league coaches do not miss opportunities to teach game strategy during practice, as well as in games.
For keeping hitters focused, coaches should:
1. Never teach mechanics during a game at-bat.
2. Simply remind hitters to “see’ the ball.
3. Teach the mentality to expect every pitch to be their pitch unless they see otherwise – with this in mind little league coaches should use a take sign sparingly, if at all.
4. Remind hitters they can only control one thing when hitting – talking good swings at good pitches.
5. Never get upset when players are aggressive and swing at bad pitches, just remind them to learn from that the next time.
For keeping fielders focused, coaches should:
1. Teach little league players how to get into ready position as the ball is being pitched.
2. Teach players to think two things before each pitch: what am I going to do with the ball if it is hit to me and what am I going to do if the ball is hit somewhere else. Of course, practice time is where players are taught the responsibilities at the various positions.
3. Teach pitchers to get in a quick rhythm, this will keep fielders on their toes and not allow minds to wander in between pitches.
4. Get in the habit of asking players, “Who wants the ball hit to them?” This mentality is slightly different than expecting the ball to be hit to them. I want players to want the ball hit to them.
5. Practice communication methods so players can remain aggressive, but safe, when going for batted balls.
For keeping pitchers focused, coaches should:
1. Explain to pitchers the importance of working quickly. After receiving the ball from catcher and taking a deep breath, pitchers should pitch the next ball. (Have pitchers watch Chicago White Sox pitcher, Mark Buerhle, to get the idea.)
2. Teach pitchers to focus on the glove and not the batter.
3. Teach pitchers what poise is about – the ability to stay in the moment and only worry about the things they can control – the next pitch.
4. Remind pitchers that they are a fielder after releasing the ball. Good fielding pitchers can help win games.
For keeping base runners focused, coaches should:
1. Remind players to be attentive to the scoreboard at all times – the score of the game, the count on the hitter and, most important, the number of outs in the inning.
2. Allow base runners to make their own decisions during games. This will force them to focus on the situation more, knowing they cannot rely on the coach to make decisions for them.
3. Work-on game-situation base running, rounding and leadoff technique as often as possible in practice.
Finally, it is always a good idea for coaches, before and after practices, to give players in-game scenarios and ask players what they would do in those situations. Players will begin to draw up the scenarios in their heads and will be more focused and prepared for those situations when they happen in games. This type visualization-challenge process is a good first step for players to focus their mind on baseball even when away from practice.