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Getting Players to Engage in Practice

The reality of being a baseball player who isn’t a professional is that far more time is spent on the practice field than in live-game situations. While your favorite major leaguer plays a grueling 162-game schedule over the span of about 180 days, the reality is that for young players, they’re likely practicing three or four days per week while playing just one or two.
That makes the time spent practicing every bit as valuable as the time spent trying to win games. Or perhaps it’s better phrased as the time spent between games is best used learning how to win games.

It can be difficult to get young players of any age to engage in this concept.

That’s something coach David Hieb is aware of and something he has to be able to overcome across a number of age levels. Not only is Coach Hieb entering his 22nd year at the helm of the University of Northwestern (Minnesota) Eagles, but he’s spent roughly 30 years total coaching in some fashion. In addition to spending his springs guiding the Eagles toward a UMAC title, he spends the rest of the year working in the Woodbury, Minnesota youth baseball system. Not only does he coach the U-15 Triple-A team — the highest level at that age — but he’s also the director of player development for the city.

In short: he lives, sleeps, eats, and breathes baseball.

As a result, he’s got a very solid foundation on how and when to get kids to hone in on the “work” that takes place between games. “I typically draw the line if they’re playing travel baseball,” Coach Hieb said on when he really feels the need to keep kids focused on what they’re working on.

Travel baseball — or in Hieb’s case, his Triple-A team — means the top team at each age level.

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“If you’re the top-line team, we’ll set a level where we’re going to practice at,” he said. In essence, Coach Hieb suggested he’ll let the skill level of the kids dictate how strictly their practice reps will be monitored.

Hieb also made an interesting point regarding older, but perhaps less-skilled players. “The Single-A kids are out there to have fun,” he said. “We’re going to make this enjoyable. We’re going to enjoy the heck out of this.”

What works with this theory is that it not only allows kids to play at a level that doesn’t discourage them, but it also helps foster the love of the game for younger players who may not be ready to compete at the highest level. Some players will be “for fun” for as long as they continue to pursue the game, but for late bloomers this also allows them to learn the game at their own pace while growing into their bodies or honing their skills at a pace comfortable to them. That should not be understated.

The ultimate line, Hieb says, is drawn at seventh grade. “The higher levels are going to be a bit more serious here,” he noted. “When we get into the kids who are in ninth grade — the 15-year-olds — at that point we’re playing serious baseball. We have to get ready for that next level.”

Kids can be molded as players at very young ages. “What I typically do with the top-line kids is I’ll explain (the processes) to them when they’re in elementary school,” Hieb said. “This is how we’re going to be.”

Hieb added that at a very young age — as early as tee ball — a coach or parent can see that a player is just wired for baseball.

“It’s a kid that just loves to be out there,” he said. “They want to go to the park, ‘Throw me fly balls,’ and they never get tired of it.”

At that age, Hieb said, you want to encourage it.

“You’re going to say, ‘Please stop,’ because you’re worn out, but they’ll just want to keep going and going. Those are the kids who are wired for it.”

These are the kids, Hieb says, that play baseball all night and all day. When they aren’t playing baseball proper, they’re inventing games like baseball. “You invent games that involve a bat and a ball,” he said. “One of the things I did as a kid was hit rocks from the sand pile on our farm out into the pasture while pretending to be Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, or Tony Oliva,” he added, hearkening back to the Minnesota Twins heroes he had as a young boy.

So at that very young age, that’s when Hieb says it’s important to just encourage the kids. “It’s not, ‘Hey guys, let’s go out and throw and hit,’” he said, “But rather, ‘Hey, what do you feel like doing today?”

As far as instruction goes for young players, it can be hard to deal in concrete, specific terms. “Try to simplify it with younger kids. I do a lot of painting the picture, so to speak,” Hieb said. “When I’m talking about throwing technique, I’m not going to say I’m leading with my hips and exploding through. Instead, I might say something like, ‘If you really want to crack a whip,’ and have them pretend they have a big bull whip. I try to paint that picture for them.”

A little imagination can turn a run-of-the-mill practice into a fun skill-building exercise.

From GameChanger and Brandon Warne

Baseball, Baseball Player Development