A team’s defense can either be a pitcher’s best friend or her worst nightmare. Throwing errors or spectacular catches are often the difference between getting out of the inning and being taken out of the game.
The problem, says Stephen F. Austin softball coach Nicole Dickson, is many coaches cut corners when teaching the fundamentals. As a result, fielding is often relegated to the end of practice or ignored altogether.
“The concept is a little backwards,” said Dickson, who’s beginning her first season with the Lady Jacks. “They’re out there to win games instead of teaching them to have a good foundation.”
Prior to Stephen F. Austin, Dickson, a former pitcher who split her time between Eastern New Mexico and Howard College, started the softball program at Tyler (TX), Junior College. In just its second season, the Apache Ladies went 60-6, taking the conference championship and placing fifth in the NJCAA Tournament.
Dickson recommends six drills that easily fit into practices. Most can be modified according to age level, and each drill seamlessly progresses into the next. If you use them to start practice, be sure your players warm up properly with jogs, dynamic stretches, and overhanded throwing to get loose.
The objective of this drill is to isolate glovework. Each player should start in a kneeling position on grass, with her knees together. Fielders can either use a flat paddle or bare hand for their glove hand, keeping it in front. Each fielder should have a partner about five feet in front of them, and roll the ball to the center, forehand, and backhand about five times each.
“I prefer to use the paddle, (because) it forces the kids to make sure they stay down, put their hand all the way down on the ground and catch the ball,” Dickson explained.
This drill progresses into combining footwork with glovework. Have each player draw a triangle in the ground two to three steps in front of them, with its base where her right and left foot end up when she steps into fielding position. The glove should end up at the top, or peak.
“We don’t want the ball to get on top of us too much, so we teach our kids to take steps with their right and left foot, get their feet on the base of that triangle, get the glove in front all the way on the ground, and receive the ball,” Dickson said.
Have all your players form a line at third base, each player two to three steps behind the one in front of her. Position yourself or a designated volunteer about 15 yards in front of them with a bucket of balls. Roll the ball slowly to the first player, have them field it, then go to the back of the line. Once you’ve rotated through the line three times, move everyone to shortstop, then third base, second, and first, repeating the process at each base.
This drill focuses on side to side range. Set up three cones five yards apart, at either shortstop or second base. Position a fielder at the middle cone and roll a ball to their glove side. As soon as they field it, immediately roll another to the opposite side. Each player should field 10 balls in a row in quick succession. Make sure each fielder stays in front of the cones. You can even make it competitive to see how many they can get. This drill can also be practiced with fly balls.
Three Man Down
Teaching players to communicate with one another is crucial to good defense. Using the same three cones five yards apart, place a fielder at each cone. Have them lie down on their stomachs, facing the person who’s rolling the ball. As you roll it, each player should pop up. The fielder closest to the ball must catch it, then “call off” the others. Younger players can start out facing the coach in a standing position.
Last Man Standing
This final drill can be both fun and competitive. Place a fielder at each infield position, including a pitcher. The coach can hit the ball anywhere on the infield. If a player fails to catch it, she’s out of the drill. As each player is eliminated, the remaining fielders must cover their side of the field.
“You get a lot of diving, a lot of hustling, and it’s a lot of fun; the kids really get into that one,” Dickson said.