For a Little League coach, there are few things more important than teaching players the fundamentals of baseball. But that’s easier said than done. Baseball is not a sport that kids naturally pick up and even if you’ve got the basic throwing, catching, and hitting skill set, there’s a lot to keep in mind. That’s why repetition is so key for young players, which is why smart coaches try to teach kids to operate on something between muscle memory and autopilot. Really good coaches accomplish this by running Little League drills.
But not all drills are created equal. Many commonly used Little League drills have little efficacy. Others frustrate players. The key, it turns out, is to find one that let kids practice not only specific skills, but success itself. This is how Craig Ahrens, the author of No Bad Team: Management Techniques Honed from Coaching Youth Sports and a 15-year veteran coach thinks about developing athletic strengths and how Robert Herbst is a 19-time world champion powerlifter who has trained youth baseball players for more than 30 years, develops pure strength. Fatherly spoke with the pair about the Little League drills that make stronger players. They recommended the following five.
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The Unzip and Release Drill
There is perhaps no warm-up drill in baseball more common than a pre-practice game of catch. But Herbst says that for young kids, there is a version of catch that “breaks down each component of the throw” to help them throw with precision and accuracy. Herbst has kids line up across from each other, tossing the ball back and forth but has them freeze in various parts of a typical game of catch in order to think about the motions.
“As one line is getting ready to toss, I will tell them to ‘unzip,’ which means they will mimic the exaggerated motion of unzipping a jacket as they are winding up to throw and freeze with the ball as far back as they would have it go if they were throwing.”
Herbst will then go down the line and examine form to correct anyone who isn’t doing the wind-up properly. Once he has gone through everyone, he will tell them to ‘release’ and they will throw the ball to the teammate across from them.
“And they will go back and forth tossing the ball. It can seem unnecessary but it gets the kids really thinking about the process of making the throw, which will limit the number of times they accidentally overthrow the ball or throw it in the dirt. It’s great for keeping kids focused.”
The Bucket Drill
One of the most difficult things to teach a young player is how to properly handle a ground ball. It requires a high amount of patience and focus, two things that young kids are not known for having. For teaching kids to handle grounders, Ahrens has found a simple drill called “The Bucket Drill” that helps kids learn the fundamentals necessary to field any grounder that might come their way.
It works like this: Place a Home Depot or work bucket on second base and you have the kids line up at shortstop and to the right of second base. Then you just start hitting grounders to each kid and they will field it, run it over to the bucket, and then switch lines.
“It’s an incredibly simple game that teaches an important skill because young kids especially don’t usually get enough time learning how to field a grounder,” Ahrens says. “But it’s equally useful for high schoolers because they might be so focused on improving their game that they forgot about the basic fundamentals. Nobody is too good for the bucket game.”
The Pop Fly Drill
Kids are almost always instinctively opposed to the idea of catching a baseball because, as Ahrens so aptly explains, “getting hit in the head with a baseball hurts.” So when Ahrens is first teaching kids to catch pop flies, he starts by throwing or hitting tennis balls, which kids know won’t hurt them.
“With baseballs, young kids will typically just stick their glove up in the air and hope they don’t get hit in the head. But if you hit tennis balls, you remove that fear and the kids will learn how to properly catch a fly ball, which is an essential skill.”
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But Ahrens says using tennis balls does more than just remove the threat of injury, it will also help improve their skill in a way that baseballs won’t.
“Not only does a tennis ball take away the pain factor, it actually will teach kids great hand-eye coordination,” Ahrens explains. “Because while a baseball will often settle into a glove naturally, a tennis ball will fall out if you don’t make the grab at the right time. Then, in a real game, catching an actual baseball will seem so much easier.”
The Squash the Bug Drill
Teaching a young kid to swing a bat is often difficult and frustrating and so plenty of coaches will try to come up with creative ways to teach kids how to swing. However, Herbst says that there is no secret to getting a kid comfortable with swinging.
“Nothing is better for hitting than hitting. Whether they are just learning to swing or have been hitting for years, let the kids get out there and hit. It’s a subjective experience but when a manager can watch a kid swing, they can help adjust technique. It’s honestly that simple.”
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One of the few things Herbst has found that can help is teaching to properly plant their feet by having them mimic squashing a bug. By having them imitate smushing an ant with their front foot, they will unknowingly start to learn the form of putting weight on the balls of their feet, which is a tremendous way to improve their batting stance and, as a result, their swing.
“A lot of kids won’t get their legs involved, which is a shame because that’s where you can get a lot of your power. They won’t place their feet properly and that will kill the momentum of the swing.”
The Cut-Off Relay Drill
A well-executed cut-off throw can save a team from giving up big plays but managers know that kids will often try to make the big throw instead of trusting their cut-off man, allowing the other team to get extra bases and runs because of the defense’s mistakes. To teach kids about the importance of the cut-off man, Herbst has a relay-based competition that relies on kids ignoring the deep throw and giving the ball to the player closest to them.
Herbst has the kids lined up in two parallel lines that stretch from home plate all the way to the outfield fence, with one coach at home plate as the designated catcher for both teams. Each kid is about 20-25 yards away from the next closest player.
“Basically, the goal of the game is to be the first team to get the ball from the outfield fence to the catcher at home,” Herbst explains. “So it becomes a relay race of sorts.”
The game is simple. The deepest player on each team starts with the ball and throws to the player closest to them, who will then turn and throw the ball to the next closest player and so on until the ball gets to the coach. First time to get the ball to the coach, wins.
“It’s a fun and easy way to get players thinking about the cut-off man, which is an overlooked part of the game, especially with young kids.”
Interested in Little League? Check out Fatherly’s complete guide to all things Little League and youth baseball related. We’ve got great coaching tips, funny stories about life in the dugout, and features about the past and future of one of America’s great athletic institutions.