More Fun is More Effective in Youth Baseball

My son really enjoyed the year I managed his 9-10-year old baseball team. When I asked him what he liked so much, he said that I was good at organizing. But that’s not what this post is about.

He especially liked that practices were really fun. He takes baseball very seriously. Yet, at age 9, he wanted practices to be fun . . .

Cubs players dog pile
“Of course I want to have fun!” says Milo

In this post I describe how I organized 9-year-old youth baseball practices for fun. Even if you aren’t a coach, there’s a few things here you can do at home with your little leaguer, though some of them require another kid or two.

Organized Free Play

This article was inspired by John O’Sullivan, author of Changing the Game and ChangingTheGameProject.com. I listened to one of his podcasts and read an article in which he described different approaches for developing young athletes, what science has to say about these approaches, and how important it is for young kids to have fun:

The Fourth Path: Rethinking early player development in the U.S.

I strongly suggest you read that article then return here for step-by-step practical advice. From the article:

Organized free play must not be an oxymoron. Coaches must ensure half of their practices or more are free play, especially when coaching kids 12 and under.

O’Sullivan frequently requotes the following from Jay Coakley, sports sociologist:

Kids in baseball say they want to hit, catch, and run. Yet, what do parents do as soon as they take over? Eliminate the hit, catch, and run by maximizing use of a pitcher who strikes everyone out. They eliminate the basis for fun.

I had not known what either of these two people had to say during the first year I managed a team. However, most of my athletic experience in life comes from organizing and playing Ultimate Frisbee at the intramural level and on college teams.

Ultimate is way more relaxed and fun than baseball. There is something called the “spirit of the game” that encourages competitive play, but never at the expense of mutual respect, adherence to rules, or the basic joy of play. Therefore referees aren’t needed.

Steeped as I was in Ultimate culture, it was only natural that I would run practices and games a little differently. While there wasn’t “free play” in the sense of kids running around doing whatever they wanted, I did keep drills to less than half of most practices. Many activities were much more like games than drills. And I did everything I could to keep practices and games fun and positive.

In the rest of this post I describe specific practice activities and (to a lesser extent) game routines that most players enjoyed.

Fun Activities at Baseball Practices

ABC: We spent more time at practices doing simulated baseball games with the “ABC” drill than any other activity. This was usually done as the last major activity of the practice as the kids always looked forward to it. Here’s how it works:

Divide 12 kids into 3 teams (A, B, and C). Team A players are designated base runners, while B and C are on the field occupying 8 of the 9 positions. Coaches hit or throw the ball to a fielder while a runner from Team A starts behind a line and starts running when the bat contacts the ball. It’s mostly regular baseball rules but because there is no pitching and no hitting, steals are simulated by dropping the ball in front of the catcher and yelling “steal!” Teams and positions rotate after 3 outs. Change after 5 outs if fielding is great.

This activity had so many benefits. A real baseball game can go minutes at a time between balls hit in play, which means hardly any opportunities for base running and fielding, two of the activities that sports sociologist Jay Coakley believes are most fun for kids. In this activity the coach keeps the pace very high by giving the kids 2-3 balls in play per minute, which means each player will run the bases at least 5 times during this half-hour drill. While this is obviously less efficient than the 10-12 reps/minute you can get by well-organized grounder drills, ABC is way more fun, way more competitive, and way more game-like. Therefore, at least at the 10 and under age level, it is way more effective, despite fewer reps.

Relay Races: Running is important for becoming physically fit, playing outfield, and of course running the bases. However, kids get bored running laps around a field. Make it into a competition and they can’t wait. We devoted the last 5 minutes of most practices to this common drill. Divide into two teams, evenly matched. One team lines up behind second base, the other behind home plate. When the coach says, “go,” the first player takes a turn around the bases. This player tags the next player who then takes a turn around the bases and so on. You can also do this by having the kids hand a baseball to the next player. Players often begged to do it again at the end of a 90 minute practice even after having already run two relay races!

Ultimate Baseball: This idea actually came from a player, not me. We ended several practices this way, instead of relay races, as it’s another running game. You simply set up an Ultimate field with cones, explain the rules, pick teams, and let the kids play for 20 minutes or so, using a baseball instead of a disc. To discourage excessive “long bombs” we had a rule that you had to do at least 3 throws before a score. Alternatively, you could have a rule that every player must get the ball at least once before each score. My original thought was this was a purely “fun” activity with little baseball benefit. But something really surprising happened. You’d see some kids with less throwing and catching skill really pick up their game as they stopped thinking, started doing and had a ton of fun.

Long Toss: Yes, this is a drill. In fact, this was last in a series of throwing drills that spanned weeks. I only intended to do it once as it took about half an hour. But several players asked to do it again. And again. The above quote about kids loving to hit, run, and catch missed something. Kids love to throw too, and they especially love to throw far. Part of what made this so fun is that I had the kids watch the following video on long toss a couple days before we first did it (start at 1:30):

21: I got this one from MLB pitcher Jamie Moyer’s book, Just Tell Me I Can’t: How Jamie Moyer Defied the Radar Gun and Defeated Time. This game was played right after warmup throws at the beginning of practices. The goal is perfectly accurate throws. Two people of approximately equal skill play catch but keep score. If player making the catch has to move the glove to catch the ball, then the thrower gains a point. First thrower reaching 21 loses. Make sure kids present a glove target, and if the glove moves very little (less than an inch), that counts as a good throw.

How many in a row: 21 is too hard for some kids, so while the experienced kids are playing 21, the less skilled players can see how many in a row they can catch with their partner.

Run downs: Most teams practice rundowns so I won’t explain how to do them. Kids love practicing this because they get to throw, run and catch. You can divide kids into multiple rundown groups to maximize amount of throwing, catching, and running.

Note that long toss, 21, how many in a row, and rundowns are all easy to do at home. You can learn many other competitive baseball drills in coaching books or by talking to other coaches. They’re all good. Kids love competition and they’ll improve faster with these games than they will with boring drills. If you’re spending half of each practice hitting grounders and pop flies to kids standing in a line, you’re doing it wrong.

Ways to Make Baseball Games More Fun for Kids

Many managers treat baseball players like pawns in a chess match, directing their every move. I even know one coach who directed every single pitch and swing. In my opinion, kids have more fun and develop more baseball smarts if you let them play their own game. So I did things a little differently, especially with regards to base running.

I spent a considerable amount of time and effort at practices teaching baserunning skills and smarts. Then at games, I let the kids make their own base stealing decisions. When I played first base coach I did discuss the current situation with the baserunner to help develop baserunning smarts and I strongly urged more timid runners to steal. But mostly I left it up to them.

The first and third base coaches did tell players whether to keep running or not as players can run faster when not watching a ball in play. However . . . No steal or bunt signs. No swing or take signs. No signs of any kind. It was all up to the kids.

And speaking of first and third base coaching—we let kids be the first base coach a few times. They loved it! My only regret is that I only did it a few times. Next time I manage a team, I’ll have the kids be base coaches in most games.

I gave all players who expressed an interest at least one chance to pitch, and in most cases more than one chance. If they threw plenty of strikes, they’d get plenty of chances to pitch.

In the beginning of the season, I actually liked having pitchers give up lots of hits because that gave us more fielding practice and helped me more quickly figure out which kids at which positions produce an overall best team. I would compliment pitchers who allowed many balls to be hit into play. I did tighten up as we went into the playoffs though, featuring the pitchers I thought gave us the best chance to win playoff games.

Perhaps most significant to making games more “fun” was how I handled post game lectures. I have seen coaches who tell players after a loss that they weren’t focused, didn’t play smart, didn’t “want it” bad enough, etc. I don’t understand how such talk can improve players. So I didn’t do it.

Instead, we had “shout outs.” Kids took turns pointing out a specific play or action they liked by one or more of our players. The first things they usually thought of were big hits or great pitching. So I would often ask questions like “Can anyone think of any good fielding plays?” or “Any good base running offense or defense today?” to help expand the range of comments. But other than that I usually said nothing.

I did of course make mental notes of our misplays. At the next practice, I would often announce at the beginning of practice that we were going to do some drills to address some of the issues we had at recent games. I figured that drills specific to our issues were more likely to help than trying to convince players to focus or play smart. My son often mentioned this as another aspect of my management style that he appreciated: noticing where we had troubles and directing drills to address them.

Concluding Remarks

Play hard, have fun, keep your head in the game! This was our team motto and our group cheer throughout the year. “Keep your head in the game” is meant to remind players to get right back into the game after misplays, strikeouts, etc.

So how did our team do? 8 wins, 7 losses, and a tie. Not bad for a first year manager but the really fun part was all our come-from-behind victories, including the first game of the playoffs. I did get criticized by a fellow coach at one point when, for the third time during our season, my players dogpiled after a come-from-behind victory. In baseball, this is considered poor sportsmanship so I put an end to it.

However, if the worst thing that can be said of my team is that they got out-of-control joyful at times—I’ll take it!

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

3 thoughts on “More Fun is More Effective in Youth Baseball”

  1. “I did get criticized by a fellow coach at one point when, for the third time during our season, my players dogpiled after a come-from-behind victory. In baseball, this is considered poor sportsmanship so I put an end to it.”

    Man, I do not get this. Why does Baseball have this weird culture of soft-touch hurt feelings? Seems to me if one team doesn’t like another team celebrating a victory, it would be better to beat them, then get hurt and whine about it.

    As David Price is fond of saying, “If you don’t like it, pitch better”.

    Thanks for the blog. Cheers.

  2. These are really good, and very unusual, suggestions for practice organization. I really like the general approach and the contests look like they will work for our team. Glad I found this page, and thanks for the good work.

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