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NFCA Instructional Corner: On-Field Coaching

A Few Tips for the Rookie Base Coach

By Jeff Aumend, Head Coach
Montana State University, Billings

In my early days as a head coach, I had some fears about coaching third base. After all, I had been to numerous hitting clinics, nearly as many pitching clinics and a host of other skill-related learning sessions. In my first game as a head coach, I realized that I had only coached third base in recreational leagues where I wasn't being paid to perform my task. My players practically needed a VCR, with slow motion, to catch the signs. Many young coaches can relate.

Now coaching the bases is second nature. I still have room for improvement as the classic "pacer," but some of the following tips helped me ease the youthful fears of being thrust into the decision-making box 45 feet from the hitter.

First of all, get rid of distractions. The field may not be lined as neatly as you wanted it. Forget about it. Your player's dog that is tied to the fence has to go. Don't keep your team's scorebook. Someone can keep it loosely and you can always fix it between innings. Would you want to miss a run scored in your book or on the field?!

Keep your signs simple. I haven't changed my signs in nine years and won't unless I coach against my previous institution. In one instance, I had to coach against one of my former players. People thought we would change our signs. We didn't. My first base coach and I both gave signs to the hitter who watched each coach, successively. We told our hitters before they went into the box which coach would be giving the signs that inning. The assistant coach and I discussed possible scenarios before the inning started so that he would execute my choice of calls. Againstanother opponent, my players suspected the other team was stealing our signs. We changed our indicator (a sign that tells the hitter an actual sign is coming). Using indicators and wipe-off signals seem like additional, unneeded signs but actually are very helpful to the athlete. She really perks up and knows for sure she's getting a sign if she sees the indicator. She's also sure she did not get a sign or miss a sign if she gets the wipe-off (a sign that makes all previous signs insignificant). Have your player tap her helmet if she misses a sign.

In giving signs, people often ask me why do you face your runner at first base when giving a sign to the hitter. It's a little technique I use to remind myself that the runner also needs the sign. It also ensures that she is actually looking at me. Runners tend to drift off into "never-never land" while hitters get into the habit of stepping out after every pitch. Be certain, however, your batter does not assume that she has time granted by the umpire. She should remove one foot from the box and raise her hand. Most umpires will honor that and not allow a pitcher to "quick pitch" the hitter.

Keep verbal cues simple and consistent -- "Up! Up! Up!" "Down! Down! Down!" "Round it!" "Find it!" Remember, verbal cues are not as vital as actual hand or body signals. If I yell up, up, up, our players know there is no threat of being thrown out and we want them to remain on the base. Hands are high in the air. In a sliding situation, hands are motioning down and body language can be very beneficial. Go all the way to your knees and pat the grass or dirt in the coach's box. Your athlete will not miss your emphatic slide signal. Always let your athletes know the situation. I'm always amazed when I watch a World Series baseball game or an Olympic fastpitch game. There are some of the greatest athletes in the world on the field, yet, the first base coach always reminds them of outs, situations, etc. The same should happen at third base. If you need to call timeout to go over a situation with your hitter, get the runners in the huddle also.

Last of all is decision-making. Like our athletes, we hope that we make good decisions regarding baserunning. Much of that should be predetermined. We tell our athletes they have two major rules. One, the coach is the "stop" sign not the "go" sign. Two, the runner decides how many bases to go based on the hit location. If it's down either foul line or in either outfield gap, the runner must be on go with the intention to advance two bases at full speed. The coach will stop her if necessary. Inexperienced baserunners often take a "station-to-station" approach looking for a go sign from the coach when they arrive at the next base. Runners have to be conditioned to be on go until they're stopped (except, of course, for fly ball, tag-up situations).

Another predetermined rule is two-fold regarding leading off when the ball is released. We use a standard lead and a late-game lead (i.e. 1-1 tie score in the sixth inning). The late-game lead is crucial, especially for your most aggressive runners. A line-drive double play may squelch your only scoring opportunity. The late-game lead at first base, for us, is two steps and not three.

On scoring the runner rounding third, our first thoughts are predetermined as well. How many outs are there? Do I have a fast or slow runner at second base? Who is my next hitter? I started using a whispering reminder to myself that has really helped score or hold up runners rounding third. I repeat to myself, before the ball is pitched, "Slow-Go. Slow-Go." A ball that is hit through the infield on the ground or just over the infielder's head is often slow getting to the outfielder. I'm looking for a slow ball to give the runner a go. That go signal is a violent, long arm circle that doesn't stop until she has passed me headed for home plate. Also, all balls hit down a line or in a gap get an immediate go signal.

Despite the rules calling for the coach to remain in the box, the third base coach should always get down the line beyond the box toward home plate. This will enable you to have more decision-making time for keeping the go sign on or putting up a stop sign (two hands in the air). Also, getting down the line helps the runner to have more space to stop or read the play from. Thus, an errant throw or a ball that caroms off the fielder's glove can be recognized and scored on with a higher success rate.

Don't be afraid to be aggressive, especially early in the game. Practice coaching bases in practice. You'll rid yourself of fears and become a great base coach.