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Drill Development: Four Steps to Improve Player Skills

Having been a teacher and a coach for over 10 years, there is one thing I can tell you that I have found to be true. Teachers and coaches are the biggest thieves known to mankind.

As coaches, we have all taken a drill from another coach and used it with our own team because we believe it will make them better players. At the same time, we have also found that many drills don't have the desired outcome of improving the skills of our players.

Having said that, drill development is something we all do as part of coaching, but do you have a system to introduce drills into your program? What purpose do the drills that you use have? Do the drills replicate game situations? Do they develop fundamental skills? These questions, and others, will help you develop drills that will help your athletes become better softball players.

1. Age and Ability Level of the Athlete:

Obviously it is important to have a set of basic skills that each player needs to master in order to be competitive at each level. I have always believed that it is much better to master basic skills and make the average play every time, than to try to teach advanced skills to players who have either not mastered the basics or are not mature enough mentally or physically to know how and when to use a particular skill.

Depending on the age level and competitive level of your players, as a coach you should identify a set of skills for your athletes, both offensively and defensively, to master. You should create drills that develop these skills. Several fundamental skills build upon each other and make the acquisition of more difficult fundamentals impossible without the base underneath. A good rule of thumb when working with a player new to your program is to run them through the beginning drills you have and review the terminology that you will use to evaluate each particular skill. This allows you to introduce your style at a slower tempo and allows you to evaluate the playerís actual skill level.

2. Types of Drills:

Development of fundamentals: Drills that develop fundamental skills can be slowed down and/or broken into smaller pieces for the players to master until they can complete the entire skill. Fundamental skills can also be performed in miniature to allow for a greater number of repetitions. An example of this would be the four corners drill many of us use with our infielders, throwing the ball around the bases. When my players' arms are tired or I want to teach and emphasize the movement of catching the ball and foot movement, I will bring the players in from 60 feet to approximately 20 or 30 feet. This way I can communicate coaching points with all of the athletes in the drill and emphasize the fundamental movement of the hands and feet.

Team drills: These drills coordinate the work of the athletes in their individual drills and teach the athletes to work together. Anywhere the coordinated effort of two athletes is necessary is a team drill. Bunt rotations or tag plays are examples of team drills. These drills simulate game situations, but usually don't initially have a time or performance standard to meet. A coach works with the group to give emphasis to specific coaching points in the execution of the drill. This is also a situation where the coach will set up the drill in miniature and explain coaching points, so that everyone involved in the drill can hear the coaching points for each athlete and understand how their part of the drill affects the whole. The coach can run the drill for a few repetitions so the athletes understand the drill and recognize the coaching points. These drills lead to working on game situation drills.

Game Situation: In a drill that simulates a game situation, the player is usually put under a time constraint or has a performance standard to meet in order to successfully complete the drill. We need to create some sort of feedback that will replicate game situations for the athlete to measure their performance of that skill. Having runners on base in a bunt drill, a target on a soft toss screen to get the player to hit the ball a certain direction are ways to provide feedback to the athlete.

3. Feedback:

There are several different ways to give athletes feedback on their performance in drills performed during practice.

Verbal: Using a few key words or phrases to either reinforce or correct the player's performance of the skill. Keep your verbiage to a minimum. When you introduce a new drill, you need to spend extra time explaining the coaching points you are looking for in the drill, after the first time, your verbal feedback should be limited to a few words or a short phrase. (Two hands, eyes up, highest point, etc.) In this way you can maximize the number of repetitions each player gets in each drill.

An experiment I'd like to have all of you try is to eliminate the word "no" from the feedback you give to your players. Coach from the positive; "Tell them what you want them to do, not what they did wrong." You will really be surprised with the results. I did this about seven years ago and found that it completely changed my coaching style for the better. Eliminating the word "no" and rephrasing the verbal feedback you give your players will change your relationship with them.

Along with coaching from the positive, you also want to communicate instances when you observe they have performed the skill correctly and take steps to reinforce that behavior, besides just telling the athlete that she did a good job or that's perfect, you also might want to add a little something extra to create vividness in the player's mind. Remember how that feels, Keep that one in your scrapbook, Remember what that sounds like coming of the bat, etc. Anything you say that can make that one perfect repetition stand out in the athlete's mind, you create the likelihood that she will do it again. By doing this, you create a frame of reference the athlete can use to be self-correcting, and learn how to make adjustments themselves. 

Non-verbal: Non-verbal feedback can take several forms. As mentioned earlier, it can be a time constraint, a correctly executed repetition with a visual outcome the player can see. (Hitting a target with a batted ball, throwing a ball to a target or within a certain distance to a base, bunting a ball within a certain area marked on the field.) Non-verbal feedback also has the ability to teach the athletes how to be self-correcting and create vividness for them to be able to replicate that "perfect" repetition.

Video: If you are fortunate to have access to a video camera and a VCR that allows play back in a slow-motion mode, you have another form of feedback for your players. Sometimes, it's just important for the athlete to see herself doing something on video for her to realize that she needs to make corrections. Most importantly, it is a way for her to be able to compare herself with peers and learn from watching teammates, both in successful and unsuccessful attempts at mastering a particular skill. The athlete can now take steps on her own to make adjustments in her performance of a skill. Video also has the greatest benefit of the player and coach being able to review each repetition several times and eliminates any doubt about the correct or incorrect performance of a skill. I know all of us have had players tell us that they are doing something correctly, when they are not. Video does not lie.

Coaching style: Regardless of how we as individual coaches feel we are able to reach every player we have, there is always going to be someone that one of the assistants, or another coach is going to relate to better than you. It could be as simple as hearing the same thing coming out of a different mouth with different voice inflections, tone and pitch. The way something is phrased or at what time it is presented also may have a lot to do with how the athlete will respond. (We're starting to get into Sports Psychology here, weíll save that for another time.) But realize it might be time for someone else to deal with the player regarding that skill or drill. Donít take it as a knock against your coaching style, it might just be the ìwrongî time.

Use of training aids: There are certain training aids that will require the athlete to perform a skill correctly. There are several types of training aids that you can use successfully to develop the correct execution of the skill. Examples would be: a stride box, a swing path trainer, a double batting tee, etc. My favorite training aids are what I call paddles; pieces of half-inch plywood in the shape of a ping-pong paddle without the handle, with elastic or velcro straps on the back and placed on the player's hand instead of a glove. Some coaches will make their paddles out of a styrofoam or other semi-rigid substance; the idea is the same. Paddles used in drills force the athletes to do many things that I consider crucial to being a good softball player: 1) they force the athlete to field the ball with two hands; 2) they force the athlete to make contact with the ball away from the body and bring the ball into the "cradle" position. (Infielders fielding ground balls in the "shovel" position and outfielders catching the ball at the highest point) and 3) a wooden paddle teaches the athlete to use soft hands in taking in the ball (cushioning the ball as they receive it). Using training aids require the athlete to perform the skill correctly and create "muscle memory" when they are performing the skill without the training aid.

4. Motivation:

Motivation is something, as coaches, we have to deal with all of the time. The players don't feel like doing a particular drill, they are "bored" with it, want to do something else, etc. How do we maximize the amount of work we need to get done in any one particular day and how can we keep the attention of the players focused on the task at hand?

Keep things moving: This sounds easy, but I can tell you that I have seen many practices and there have been players standing around looking for something to do. You can maximize the amount of activity of your players by grouping your players by position or in any other way and then listing the drills that each group needs to do and how many repetitions they need to perform.

Make sure you have the equipment, training aids, pitching machines, etc. close at hand. Also make sure that you have enough equipment to have multiple stations of each drill at the same time. Having to shag balls or look around for the equipment takes time and decreases the effectiveness of your practice and the interest of your players. So, the fewer times you have to move things or pick things up, the more steamlined your practice will be. You should have enough balls, etc. to allow one athlete to complete the drill and then have the entire group shag and have the next athlete go through the drill. You can also have one member of the group shag while the drill is going on to increase the number of repetitions. Any more than one person shagging allows little "chatting circles" to form and will slow down the execution of the drill.

Create competition in practice: Have the athletes keep score in some way when they are working on a particular drill. How many correct repetitions can an athlete perform in one minute? In 20 swings, how many times can a player hit a target? You can award more points for a bull's-eye, and fewer for repetitions that are slightly off the mark. Depending on the ability level of your players, you can create all types of games and competitions for your players to have fun with. One I like is to set up a pitching machine on the mound and have "Suicide Squeeze Championships". every player has a helmet and a bat and goes in order and must at least foul off the pitch, regardless of the position of the pitch. I usually award the winner a coke or some other nominal prize, but it has been a lot of fun for everyone on the team. By the end, there are usually cheering sections for the last two or three participants.

Vividness: I mentioned vividness during the segment on feedback, but it also applies here. Any term you can use to make your drill stand out or sound like fun will help the athletes remember the coaching points of the drill and increase their desire to do the drill again. One drill I use at second base is called "Disco Fever". Now don't get too out of hand, but the athletes know that the emphasis of the drill is on the footwork and getting the ball back to second base. If I used the term "Second Base Footwork Options," the players wouldn't be as eager to perform the drill; the phrase is too long and the drill doesn't sound like a lot of fun. Your coaching points should also be as vivid as possible. We all have terminology that we use to teach our players. My point is to make the process sound as fun as possible. 

I have by no way listed everything you should think about when developing drills for your players, but I believe that any coach can create drills that are effective, fast paced and fun. It just takes a little time, imagination and ingenuity to create a practice that your players will maximize their repetitions, be motivated to work hard and have a lot of fun going to practice. I hope that you will find ways to do this for your athletes. Good luck and have fun!