Ready for this upcoming softball season to be the one where your team runs roughshod over the rest of the league? You’re going to have to practice better. It’s such a cliche, but drills really are the only way to get better.
That’s because so much of softball is about muscle memory. The closer you can get to making the core skills of the game second nature, the easier it becomes to execute the finer details of good softball strategy.
How Do You Run a Good Softball Practice?
Running a good softball practice is all about balance and consistency. Develop a routine with your players. It’s the key to building trust and skill at the same time. There are four pillars that any good softball practice is built on. Let’s talk about them.
Warm Up Properly
Your team can’t practice well if their bodies aren’t primed first. Help them get going with dynamic stretches that progress from walking to running from set to set. This will help your team increase their core body temperatures and loosen up their muscles.
Don’t forget about the arms. Throwing arms aren’t at as great of a risk of injury in softball as they are in baseball, but they still need to be protected. Start with arm circles, then move onto stretches that work the rotator cuff and elbow.
Each warmup session should end with players pairing up to play catch. Make sure they start throwing close together, gradually getting farther apart. After each pairing has thrown ‘long toss’ for several minutes, you can commence with drills
Make Everything a Drill
Muscle memory doesn’t just develop on its own. It takes tons of repetition to get your team to a point where the fundamentals of the game are automatic.
As such, it’s important to break down the things that make up solid defense, hitting, and pitching into digestible mechanics your players can understand. These are the building blocks of a good team, so make sure your players are all around the same level of ‘softball IQ’ before moving onto more complex concepts.
Fielding Ground Balls
Strategically speaking, defense in the youth ranks of softball is all about mitigating risk. The risk of errors piling up is that they lead to longer innings, which can stress out and frustrate players.
This isn’t me advocating for any sort of ‘win at all costs’ mentality. Young players will make mistakes, and that’s okay! It’s all a part of the learning process. But I’ve been on (baseball) teams where the bad feelings from one mistake compound into the next play, in part because some of the players just don’t feel comfortable on defense.
As a coach, you want to put them in the best mindset for success. That means ensuring they’re doing as little thinking as possible when the ball is hit to them.
And they’re going to want to think a lot about grounders. Part of that is because fielding a grounder is a little bit unnatural at first. You have to get your glove in the dirt, and your chest square to the ball. Your players can’t be afraid to get hit by a ball that takes a weird hop, and that takes some getting used to.
Hit grounders to your team early and often, at every position, with a focus on the basic mechanics of fielding them cleanly.
The more they practice fielding them, though, the less they’ll have to think about doing it come game time. Instead of waiting in fear that the ball will be hit to them, your players will treat grounders as just another part of the game. That confidence will lead to quicker half-innings in the field, and more enjoyment from your players.
Fly balls are a little bit trickier to improve your players on, in part because you yourself have to be pretty adept at hitting fungo. That aside, the mechanics of catching fly balls are a little simpler than fielding grounders, as they aren’t all that different than playing catch:
However, that doesn’t mean fly balls are sure outs every time they’re hit. The wind and the sun can wreak havoc on outfielders, especially at the lower levels.
Keep that in mind when you assess how much time you’ll spend on each fielding skill in practice. Catching fly balls and handling grounders are both important, but a slight emphasis on grounders will likely result in better team play, and quicker overall defensive improvement.
Is there any player who doesn’t want to be a great hitter? For your players, it can be one of the most fun aspects of the game, or totally freak them out. Give them the basic stance and grip to help them feel more comfortable in the batter’s box.
Now, every player will likely have some sort of variation on their stance and grip at the plate. Let them, as it will help them feel less rigid and more focused at bat. When a player starts slumping, or develops obvious flaws in their swing, you can begin to help them make small adjustments to improve.
For your fastest left-handed players, you might want to consider introducing them to slap hitting, which is pretty much the coolest technique in softball hitting:
Slap hitting can give your team a leg up on the competition, and serve your players well beyond their time on your team.
Drills to Develop Better Hitters
Hitting off a batting tee. It helps your players develop the muscle memory needed to take effective swings.
Soft toss. A coach flicks the ball underhand to the batter, and the batter tries to make contact with a solid swing. Helps improve hand-eye coordination. Best practiced with wiffle balls for safety purposes.
Pepper. A game that develops bat control and encourages short, quick swings. Three fielders stand at least 20 feet away from a batter. One of the fielders throws a slow pitch to the batter, and the batter must hit it to one of the other fielders.
Batting Practice. A drill that emulates a real at-bat while offering each player the repetition they need to improve their swing. Each batter gets the same number of balls pitched to them, usually delivered via a pitching machine.
Attention to Defensive Specialization
As a coach, you want every player to be well-rounded. This gives you versatility when setting your lineup, and flexibility in the event of an injury.
Still, certain positions require special skills that need to be worked on in smaller groups, or even individualized sessions. The farther up in the ranks players go, the more specialization there will be. For now, break your team down into groups to focus on the finer points of the game in these areas.
Pitchers need practice as much as anyone, and while you need to monitor their workload a bit more than other players (in order to prevent arm injuries), practice time gives them an opportunity to improve on pitches they may feel less confident about. It also gives them a chance to work with the catchers and develop a rapport, which will be invaluable when it comes to high-pressure situations.
A pitcher-catcher battery needs to be on the same page when it comes to pitching strategy (i.e. what pitches to throw in different situations), and pick up one another when the going gets tough. The more time they spend together, the better this connection will be, and the easier it will be for them to work in unison.
Catchers’ Sessions. Catchers have a massive amount of responsibility, even at the 12u level. It isn’t enough to just be the receiver of every pitch.
A Non-Exhaustive List of the Catcher’s Responsibilities
– If the pitcher has multiple pitch types, call the pitches
– Provide a good target for the pitcher to aim at.
– Prevent the ball from getting past (if it’s too high or in the dirt)
– Throw out runners trying to steal bases
– Communicate with the infield and outfield to make sure the defense is motivated and engaged
With so many different aspects of the position to work on, your catchers don’t really have time to take extra grounders or fly balls. Working on these elements will help them build mental and physical endurance, and thrive behind the plate as a result.
It doesn’t matter how strong of an arm your outfielder has. If they don’t use proper form, it will be tough for them to challenge overaggressive baserunners. Heck, even getting the ball back into the infield will be an adventure.
The same goes for players who are maybe lacking in the arm strength department. Breaking your outfielders into a separate group will enable them to work on the proper approach and technique behind catching a fly ball and transitioning to a powerful throw.
It’s also crucial to practice fielding grounders that make their way into the outfield by charging them, picking them up cleanly, and throwing back into the infield. Outfielders should practice throwing to second, third, and home via relays (more on those in a bit).
Throwing in the infield is a different beast from throwing in the outfield. Infielders have to generate the power they need to throw to each base much more quickly and in a much smaller space compared to outfielders.
Most of the time, these throws don’t require the same amount of strength, but some can be particularly tricky. The throw from third to first requires coordination that only comes from repetition. Second and shortstop need to work on their chemistry to turn double plays.
Even first base (which more often receives throws than has to make them) should practice throwing to the bags, in order to prevent moments like this one, which still haunts my dreams.
Relays and Communication
The odds that one of your players will have a cannon for an arm like Vlad Guerrero is something approaching zero, which is why it’s a good idea to make relay situations a regular part of your practice. A relay is when your outfielder throws to one of your infielders who has left their position to make the throw to the desired base shorter (also known as a “cut-off”).
The best way to practice this is by holding joint infield-outfield practice, where you hit fungo and have the players react as though they’re in a real game. You can simulate different scenarios where your team will need to work together to perform a relay.
Key Relay Scenarios
-Runner on first and second
-Runner on third
-Runner on first and third
Run through each of these scenarios with zero and one out, for both ground and fly balls. Check to make sure your players communicate with one another about who will take the relay throw, as well as what base the throw should go to. In general, the more scenarios you go through in practice, the better prepared your players will be when they happen in-game.
To the uninitiated, spending practice time on running the bases sounds like a waste. In reality, however, what you do on the basepaths can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Getting from home to home is about more than sprinting as hard as you can from one base to the next. Teaching your players about the physical act of getting around the bags, as well as baserunning and base stealing strategy, will make your half-innings at bat longer– translating to more opportunities to score.
Every athlete needs to stay hydrated, so water breaks should be a regular part of every practice. But a break doesn’t have to be disruptive to the flow of practice.
Schedule one or two water breaks for each practice. While your players get hydrated, don’t be afraid to quiz them on different situations they might experience in the field. This will help them rest, but keep them engaged with game.
You could also take this time to review and revise signals, which all of your players should be familiar with well before they have to interpret them in a game.
How Do You Make Softball Practice Fun?
Let’s be honest: drills can get kind of boring. Too much repetition without any sort of variance can make it hard for your players to buy into the program you set out for them.
You have to make room for fun. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to spice up practice in productive ways.
Team Building Exercises
Building team chemistry is important. It helps your players develop accountability for their actions, as well as support for one another. These activities don’t have to be softball-specific, but they should help players get comfortable with one another.
Balance Ball. This simple game takes communication and coordination, and can help build chemistry between teammates. It’s simple to set up, too.
-Divide the team into pairs.
-Have each pair sit back-to-back with a ball in between their backs. Their legs should be outstretched.
-Each pair has to stand up without dropping the ball or touching it with their hands.
Once everyone has completed the drill successfully, you can emphasize the importance of teamwork, and discuss team goals for the season, or just the game ahead.
Icebreaker Scrimmage. This one is just like the icebreakers you used to play your freshman year of college, or the first time you went to youth group, except the ice is broken over the course of a friendly intrasquad game.
When a player gets up to bat, they have to answer a question, if a player catches a fly ball, they have to answer a question. Field a grounder? Answer a question! These questions should be to help the players get to know each other better. Obviously, keep the questions light, with a focus on favorite things, so that you don’t make things uncomfortable.
There are plenty of ways to practice fundamentals while feeding your team’s competitive side. Here are some player-approved favorites.
I’ve seen a version of this game at every level of both baseball and softball. It’s exciting and competitive, but also works as a good cool down for the end of practice.
– Players line up at one position in the infield or outfield.
-A coach hits a ball to them, either grounder or fly
-If a player fields it cleanly and makes a good throw, they go to the back of the line
-If a player doesn’t field it cleanly or makes a poor throw, they’re out.
-The last player standing is the winner.
The fast and flexible format of a home run derby helps your players get their cuts in while motivating them to improve. At the youth level, you don’t necessarily want to encourage swinging for the fences, as it can mess up a player’s approach at the plate.
Taking the sole pursuit of home runs out of the equation rectifies the situation, though. A ‘hitting derby’ works like batting practice, except points are assigned for each hit. Some ways you can assign points are:
-by how far a pitch is hit (think wiffle ball rules)
-by which area of the field it’s hit to (good for developing bat control)
-by how many hits they get (good for improving overall contact)
Sweeten the pot for this game (and Survivor) by offering a custom shirt as the prize for winning the most times!
This one doesn’t necessarily have winners and losers, but it is a nice shot of adrenaline for your players. Here’s how to play:
-Stand at home plate with a bucket of balls (and a bat, if you’re coaching older players)
-Have your team take the field in their main position.
-Each player should lay down on their stomach, eyes fixed on home.
-At random, roll (or hit) balls to each player on the field.
-The players have to get to their feet as fast as possible to field the ball and throw to first base (or second, for outfielders)
Throwing accuracy is critical come game time, but it can also be super fun to practice– particularly if you’re trying to hit something that makes a cool noise!
-Stack up a bunch of plastic buckets.
-Split your team into two groups, each an equal distance away from the buckets
-The team to hit the buckets the most times wins!
-The losing team has to clean up at the end of practice
Quick ball movement is an essential part of the game. To put your players in the mindset of fielding the ball both quickly and cleanly, try this game.
-One player starts at home, acting as the runner.
-The other players divide up into four groups, with each one occupying one of the bases.
-When the coach says ‘go,’ the runner takes off to run around the bases (using the ideas about baserunning that we discussed before)
-The team occupying home, first, second, and third has to throw the ball from home to first to second to third to home, then in reverse order, before the runner can reach home.
-The player last occupying home then becomes the runner, and the game starts over again.
Practice these drills and team building activities, and you’re bound to have a great season!
About the Author
Kyle Greco is the resident writer at RushOrderTees, where he blends word nerdery with his love for T-shirts. A graduate of The College of New Jersey, he is interested in exploring the intersection of clothing and culture. In his spare time, he makes music, builds guitars, and cooks with his wife. He enjoys hot dogs, sports, and collecting too many hats.