Any high school coach knows the dilemma: How to balance the need to develop young players’ skills with putting the best personnel on the field to win?
Turnover is a part of any high-level youth program, and the best coaches constantly develop younger players, both their skills and their confidence, to establish a winning culture.
In more than a decade of coaching baseball at various levels, I've established “3 Intolerables” that a player must master before he is allowed to play:
Hustle: If the player can’t play hard every day, then he can’t play every day.
Awareness: Knowledge of the game, knowledge of the system. The player doesn’t constantly have to be told when/where to be.
Failure: It’s part of the game. Players must be able to learn from failure, make the adjustments and move on.
Once I feel comfortable the player can do these three criteria, only then will I consider the player for playing time.
Here are some other tips for finding the right balance.
Get them In
You want to find opportunities to get the younger players game experience. You want to put them in situations where they can build their confidence and have success. With experience comes confidence, and with confidence comes success.
The easiest time to get younger players on the field is when there’s a lopsided score. This is a good time for young players because there is less pressure. Of course, they are held to the same expectations as the starters, but a mistake shouldn’t jeopardize the outcome of the game.
Find the Right Situation
Identify what each player does well, and then find the right situation in the game for each player to help you. If a player is a good bunter, put him in to bunt. If a player is an exceptional defender, put him in as a defensive replacement late in the game. If a player hits left handed pitching well, give him an opportunity to face the lefthander.
Focus on the Prime Time Innings
I like to call innings 5-9 the “prime time innings.” These innings are later in the game, when there is more pressure and mistakes can be more costly. They are reserved for “prime time players.” In other words, let a young player start the game and get that experience, and then bring in the more experienced player to close out the game.
Having a young player go for the first four or five innings allows him to get a couple of at bats and plenty of time on defense. This method also allows the younger player to build some confidence, because you have showed confidence in him by giving him a start.
Don’t Lose Sight of Winning
With all of that said, you shouldn’t be constantly changing your lineup or making substitutions for the sake of young player development. You might start only one young player per game, or you might find only one situation per week that presents the right opportunity. After all, you are trying to win, and the starters are starters for a reason.
But still, you also have a responsibility to develop your younger players. So look for situations and opportunities to help build their confidence. After all, isn’t that why we do what we do?
From GameChanger and Andrew Morgan. Morgan is an assistant baseball coach and recruiting coordinator at Murray State University. He has been coaching baseball at various levels since 2004.