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Pressure-Packed Practices: Simulating Game Day Stresses

pressure-practicesFrom GameChanger and Clay Latimer, a freelance reporter for Red Line Editorial, Inc.

It’s a scene that plays out too often: the infielder who scoops up every grounder in practice but boots balls in games. The hitter who rips off line shots in batting practice but struggles to make contact when it matters.

Game pressure often tends to overwhelm young players, which is why Arapahoe (Colo.) High School coach Luke Muller — the Colorado High School Coach of the Year in 2008 and a Minnesota Twins draft choice — says the most important factor in running a good practice is to recreate tense game settings. The Muller Method begins in the locker room, continues through warm ups, drills and batting practice, and hopefully transfers to games.

“We’re trying to duplicate the speed of the game and the stresses of the game in everything we do,” he said. “It’s high-speed pressure-packed.”

Even a simple game of warm-up catch comes with pressure.

“If you throw the ball away or drop a throw, you have to run — and it’s a decent little run. It forces them to focus,” said Muller, who requires players to stand 90 feet apart to mimic the distance between bases. “In a baseball game, what you’re ultimately doing is playing catch.”

Muller ratchets up the tempo and pressure during individual defensive drills, the next phase of practice. Infielders, for example, field from 75-100 ground balls in a 20-minute span.

“We feel if we can get ‘em breathing hard while forcing them to concentrate, things will slow down a bit once a game actually starts,” he said.

To simulate real-game situations, Muller turns to a game called 21 Outs. The coach places eight defensive players in their respective positions, a pitcher on the mound and at least one player on base. The pitcher soft tosses a ball to home plate and immediately assumes his defensive position. Once the catcher has caught the ball, Muller, at the plate, yells out a situation.

“Sixth inning, runner at third base, we lead by one run,” for example.

Muller, using a fungo bat, then hits the ball. The situations keep changing, of course.

The idea is for the defense, playing at game speed, to record 21 outs.

The catch: they have to make those 21 outs consecutively without an error. As soon as a ball is booted or thrown away, the out-count goes back to zero. In the course of the drill the team works on rundowns, alignments, pop-fly priorities, bunt defense, etc.

“Anything you see in a game we’ll do in this drill,” Muller said

“We play it like a game, so guys are loud and vocal. There is pressure because no one wants to be the guy who makes us start over. And after 21 outs we go to batting practice and everyone is eager to hit.”

Eliminating the distinction between a practice and a game is also the aim in batting practice, an activity that also includes outfielders, base runners and other players. For outfielders, shagging fly balls off the bat in live batting practice is an ideal way to simulate real-game reads and angles. Base runners work on their leads, making turns, ”reading” the batted ball, etc.

When batting practice ends, players head to the locker room.

“Unless we haven’t practiced hard,” Muller said. “If we haven’t practiced at game speed, we will do conditioning.”