It is more important than ever today to design attainable, team-oriented goals for your players in the team setting. These goals should involve a wide array of skills, plays, and opportunities to help your team win the game. Too often players get caught up in their individual stats and create a narrow perception of what their success as a ball player looks like. Everyone wants their base hits, but few realize the importance of beating out a double play, keeping the double play in order, or picking a teammate up after an error.
To create enthusiasm for the little things that help win baseball games, we stole an idea from former MLB player/manager Bobby Valentine and have implemented “Check a Box” with our older team. Each player has a laminated sheet of 12 goals we have put together for practices and games. After every single team event, players are instructed to check off a box if they accomplished a specific goal for the day. Our goal is to check off at least 50 percent of the boxes for practices and games. The goals are as follows below:
- Learn something new
Practices are all about teaching. Players should be picking up new things every time you’re together on a ball field. Whether it helps them on the field or off the field, every bit they can pick up is important. If kids aren’t learning, they aren’t improving.
Every one of our players has a notebook that is used for journaling and notetaking at all of our practices and games. We pull them out at the beginning of practices when we share our message of the day with the kids. We constantly utilize them throughout the practice and have kids write things down that they were focusing on/helped them. We realize that we forget a lot of the things we don’t put down on paper, so using the notebook whenever we’re covering something new is a premium for us.
- Intentional Catch Play
Catch play is the most important part of practice - yet it’s the most butchered in most practice environments. Coaches must police it, but the biggest enforcers must be the players themselves. Get kids to own their catch play and do it the right way (hence, intentional).
- Focus/concentration throughout practice
In the words of former MLB manager Chuck Tanner, you can only teach instincts if you can teach players how to concentrate. A 3+ hour baseball game is played live just a few minutes. If you don’t have the ability to keep focus throughout the course of a 2 hour baseball practice, you don’t have a chance doing it for hundreds of pitches in a game. Be where your feet are.
- Did I have a goal?
In Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, Coyle discovered a specific type of practice that all high performers share: deliberate practice. Being able to practice deliberately starts with having a goal. If kids don’t have a goal for the day, they don’t have anything to work towards. Don’t let kids get away with meaningless repetitions. Every kid needs a goal, a process to achieve that goal, and feedback to tell them how close they are to it.
- Teach someone something new
The best teams in the world are player-driven. Athletes are extensions of their coaches on the playing field. Teaching shouldn’t always come from you - empower your players to help others every chance they get. Your job as a coach is to eliminate your job. Besides, would you rather have two coaches or 22?
- Did I fail at something?
Don’t take this out of context: Failure is not what we’re trying to achieve. What we’re trying to do is push our athletes to the brink of their abilities. In these situations, failure is an indication of someone truly grappling a problem and making an effort to find a solution. This line is different for every athlete, but is a crucial element when refining skills. The environment must be hard enough to engage learning, but not hard enough to destroy enthusiasm.
- Ask a question
Asking questions is one of the greatest forms of engagement - and one of the easiest to teach. Encourage participation at all points throughout your practices and games. Praise kids when they bring up great thoughts and try to break down what you do in practice. Don’t shame kids when they ask “stupid questions.” You’re trying to build life-long learners - not kids who are scared of looking stupid in front of their peers.
- Did I have a growth mindset?
If it’s not growing, it’s dying. Putting a premium on developing a growth mindset helps kids avoid the pitfalls of a fixed mindset. Don’t allow statements such as “I can’t do this,” or “It’s not my fault,” or “I’m just not good at this.” Coaches and athletes should be in a constant state of growth. The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both usually right.
- Pick up a teammate after a mistake
We’re all going to make them - it’s about how we respond to them. We’re all in this struggle together. Don’t ostracize your teammates for not getting the job done. Let them know you appreciate their effort, you have their back, and they’re going to make the next play. A few genuine words can go a long way for someone who’s having a tough day - and it’s contagious with everyone else.
- Did I practice my routines, mental approach, or process?
If the mental game is really 90 percent of this game, we need to practice it accordingly. Our BP turns into wasted swings if we’re not actively practicing our breath, routines, or approach. Our bullpens are worthless if we’re not picking up a target, breathing, and executing with 100 conviction. Practice the way you play.
- Did I compete with confidence today?
If you were to ask athletes what they feel like when they’re at their best, there’s a really good chance you’ll hear them talk about being confident. Our belief in our abilities is going to fuel us throughout the ups and downs in our career - and is arguably the biggest barrier we face into becoming a great player. If we can’t compete with confidence in a controlled practice environment, we have no chance when it comes to an uncontrolled game setting.
- Quality at-bat
This includes a base hit, hard hit ball, walk, hit by pitch, driving in a run, working a 9+ pitch at-bat, or reaching base via error. Batting average is a trap in baseball. Jonny can hit a ball on the screws right at the CF for an out, but bloop one his next at-bat and earn himself a hustle double. If you put a premium on quality at-bats and eliminate the need to get a base hit, the knocks will come (process over outcome). Don’t track batting average - track quality at-bat percentage.
- Cause havoc on the bases
Offense outside the batter’s box is a critical element to maximize run production. Get big leads, force errant pick off throws, get pitchers to balk, take infielders out of position, create a distraction, swipe a bag, get into scoring position, and find ways to create a distraction. If the pitcher is spending their effort thinking about you on the basepaths, their ability to execute quality pitches is significantly diminished. This helps put hitters into favorable counts and can steal them a few good pitches to do damage with.
- Dirt ball read
If the ball hits the ground, we’re running. It is incredibly tough for catchers to block/pick a ball out of the dirt and make a strong, accurate throw on the bag. This puts pressure on the pitcher to execute good pitches and can take certain pitches out of the mix (two strike chase breaking balls). Great counts to get dirt ball reads are when the pitcher is ahead (0-2, 1-2) when the hitter is expecting a breaking ball/offspeed.
- Break up or beat out a double play
Don’t sulk because you rolled over a cookie in a hitter’s count - bust your ass down the line and break up the double play. Run hard into second base and force the middle infielder to create a lane around you. You never know how a few more hard steps can impact the following throw. Taking pride in breaking up a double play can keep an inning going by stealing your team an out and potentially a run. Outs are a premium - don’t give any away.
- Take extra 90 feet
The name of the game is scoring runs. Any chance we have to take 90 feet helps us do that. Baserunners should force the defense to play at an uncomfortably fast pace. Take advantage of errant throws, go first to third and score from second on base hits, steal bags when the defense isn’t paying attention, advance on passed balls, and find any chance you can to take an extra base. If you hit a fly ball/pop up, run hard through second base in case it falls. Don’t expect the defense to make any play - but expect to take advantage of every mistake.
- Make a play
Great teams play great defense. They catch, they throw, and they eliminate free-bees in the field. If your team is making three or more errors per nine innings, you don’t have a chance to be a championship ball club. If your practices don’t place a premium on defense, you’re playing from behind. The bat will come and go - the glove won’t if you practice like it.
- Move a guy into scoring position
Another extension of a quality at-bat with the goal of maximizing run production. Get your runners to third with less than two outs. Get guys to second base with two outs. Create opportunities for the bulk of your lineup to drive in runs.
- Score/drive in a run
It doesn’t matter how - just find ways to get guys across home plate.
- Pick up a teammate after a mistake
Similar to above - the game does a great job of making you feel small at times. Offer a supporting hand to those who could really use it.
- Keep the double play in order, hit a cut
The number one job of the outfield is to keep the double play in order. In other words, don’t surrender an extra 90 feet. Hit cuts on base hits to keep runners at first base and keep them out of scoring position. Don’t lose the battle of 90 feet - fight for every inch.
- Routines, mental approach, process
Same as above - just because it’s a game doesn’t mean you can throw everything you’ve practiced out the window. Slow the game down.
- Did I compete with confidence?
One of the most important things you should evaluate at the end of every single performance. Each game experience should be used as a way to build confidence in our abilities. We either win or we learn. Build yourself up by checking off boxes and finding ways to help your team win. Don’t make it about you and your stats.
Feel free to adopt a similar strategy with your teams. Make sure the goals are attainable, fuel in-game success, and build a desirable culture. You’re not going to change the world with one practice or game, but you have a chance to if you take a consistent, long-term approach to the development of your athletes.
Build them up one box at a time.
Feel free to reach out with any questions, thoughts, or similar strategies. Keep learning and growing.
This article was written by Andrew Parks.