Hustle. We’ve all seen that player who hustles, always running top speed to first base, going all out to catch far away fly balls, diving for grounders, backing up, doing their best to catch poor throws, etc.
And we’ve all seen the opposite . . . players who rarely run hard, never attempt to make a difficult play, and exert little effort all around when they don’t have a bat in their hands.
In my experience, most kids try hard when they’re first learning baseball or any other new sport. In our local PONY league, I’ve seen strong effort from all but 1 or 2 players on every team my son has been on through the age of 10. Sometimes they don’t know at first what they’re supposed to do or where they’re supposed to go. But drill it, and then they’ll do it.
However, something shifts at the Bronco 11-12 age level. With most players having played at least 4 years of baseball, some stop trying as hard to improve, while others mark time until the start of the “real” season, summer all-stars or travel ball. Maybe some of it is age-related, as kids begin to challenge authority and become more independent.
End result: lack of hustle.
I saw it with many players at this age level across the league. After several practices, it was clear that my team had issues with hustle as well, perhaps more than most teams. Not surprisingly, we lost our second preseason scrimmage 26-4. One of my assistant coaches summed up the reasons succinctly:
They outhustled us.
I have no problem with mistakes as we learn. I have no problem with losing a game. But I cannot and do not accept lack of effort.
I learned this year through trial and error that hustle can be taught. The key concept:
Don’t lecture. Drill.
In this post I explain in detail the drills I used and other things I did that worked to turn around a team that lacked hustle at first.
Hustle Rule #0:
I already mentioned rule #0:
I do not accept lack of effort.
I call this rule #0 because it’s a frame of mind, not a recommended action. Expect a lot and you’ll get a lot. You need to bring this frame of mind with you to every part of every practice and game. I struggled mightily in my first month of managing my 11- to 12-year-old team. But I refused to give up on the mission I outlined for my team with the following slogan:
Play hard. Have fun. Keep your head in the game.
My group naturally did great with the second and third points so I didn’t need to do anything with them. It was the “play hard” part that I had to keep working at for many weeks in order to turn my team around. At no point did I ever think, “Well, there’s a bunch of guys on this team who lack hustle so I’ll just have to learn to live with that . . .” No way.
Hustle Rule #1: Talk less
The first thing I tried was the thing every coach tries at some point: The lecture. I explained the obvious, that teams which hustle win more, while teams that don’t hustle lose. You need to develop habits of hustle if you want to make a high school team. How you practice is how you’ll play. Blah blah blah.
However, lack of hustle continued to spread through the team like an infectious plague. My talks didn’t help. I’ve seen many other coaches give such talks.
Coaches probably exist who lecture in a way that truly motivates kids to hustle. Not me. So now I talk less.
Hustle Rule #2: Listen More
I do have chalk talks with my players, but as much as possible I use a question and answer format. Are you guys interested in winning? Are you willing to work hard to achieve that? What do you think it takes to win? How many of you are interested on being on the high school team? If a high school coach was watching you at the last practice, would this coach be looking forward to having you on the team? Why or why not?
More than these general questions, I ask baseball-situation-specific questions. When does it make sense to let a pop fly bounce in front of you? After you hit a ball into play, how long do you wait before running to first base?
I asked such questions, and listened to kids’ answers. Giving the kids an opportunity to talk did seem to help a little, and you could almost see the wheels turning in their heads as they at least began to get this stuff on an intellectual level. But after a string of lackluster February practices, hustle was still lacking, and I was literally losing sleep over my failure as a coach.
So then I took 30 minutes out of a practice, so that everyone (including coaches) could take turns telling a story about some time in their life when they really worked hard to accomplish something, they accomplished it, and something good happened as a result.
I started with a story of my own about the time my University of Illinois Ultimate team played the Chicago Windy City, a team that was ranked #2 in the nation at the time. We were thoroughly outclassed. But I played just as hard as usual, burning out my lungs and legs as I sprinted to try to get open against a team with athletes that could do everything better than I could. Much better. After one such series of sprints, I achieved and maintained a several inch lead in front of my defender. I ran into the end zone to catch a perfect, leading pass. It was one of only 2 points scored all game, and of course we lost that game, 15-2. But it was the culmination of decades of practice and dedication to a sport I loved. Despite having below-average athleticism, I scored a point against the second best team of the nation! It is one of my strongest memories.
Mine was just one of many stories. The kids and coaches each followed with amazing stories. Everyone listened, much better than they had to anything I had said earlier in the season.
I don’t know if it was this, or the two other things we did later in the practice (next section), or if it was just a tipping point after having worked on trying to instill hustle for weeks. But whatever it was—from then on this team hustled.
Hustle Rule #3: Tap into their competitive spirit and pride of accomplishment
After finishing the story session described above, I announced a new badge of honor. The name of our team, the ECYB Brooklyn Dodgers, made it easy. Everyone knew #42, Jackie Robinson. He embodied hustle. So I told everyone that I had made a button with #42 on it. Going forward, anyone with an act of great hustle during a game would get to wear this button. The very next game was the best game we played to date, as the button got passed around from player to player to player after many great plays. The kids attempted difficult plays with pride, and they made some of them.
But perhaps more effective in the short-run was this competitive drill I made up:
- Divide into 2 teams
- Each team takes turns sending up one player to field a ball
- 1 coach for each team throws a difficult ball into play (could do this with a bat too)
- The player attempts to field the ball, and gets points for his team as follows:
- 2 for successfully fielding an easy one
- 1 for missing an easy one, but with maximum effort
- 12 for successfully fielding a hard one
- 11 for missing a difficult one, but with maximum effort
- 0 for half-heartedly trying, but missing
- -12 for not even trying
The results were fascinating. Every single player was attempting to make difficult plays, every time they had a chance. Even players who had not been hustling for such plays in the past were making the attempt. Teammates were all rooting for each other and cheering when a difficult play was made. Some players were even getting upset with one of the coaches who wasn’t making the plays difficult enough, and therefore too-often limiting the score to a maximum of 2 points. At one point, a player was so intent on running for a very difficult fly ball that he ran over a cart filled with baseball equipment and got hurt (nothing serious). Him, I gave 25 points, which pushed his team ahead for the win. I also awarded him the “#42” button.
A key to the success of this drill is the 11 points for muffing a difficult play with maximum effort. I suspect that many players have been criticized more than once for a strong effort that led to a poor result. They learn that it’s better to not try for difficult plays, because if you do, the coach yells at you if you didn’t get the out (because the ball glances off your glove, you made a bad throw, or threw the ball to a base where the base runner was already arriving). A real key to getting kids to try to make difficult plays is to praise effort. I awarded the #42 button several times for a player that stopped a very difficult grounder but did not get the out. By praising effort for difficult plays that does not result in a successful outcome, the players are willing to keep trying to make those difficult plays.
This drill probably won’t work multiple times. Toward the end of it, kids were starting to try to “game the system” by trying to make easy plays look difficult, which is not something you want to teach. But the point was made. Try for those difficult plays. Every time. Even when you don’t succeed, just trying is a morale boost for you and your team.
The rest of this practice was devoted to base running offense and defense. All players hustled. It was the best practice to date. The team seemed to have turned the corner.
Important and successful though that practice was, the next section and the details that follow matter even more.
Hustle Rule #4. Don’t lecture. Drill.
There are many baseball skills that require hustle. In my experience, the least effective way to teach these skills is explain them, or tell players what they should have done every time they do it wrong during a game. The most effective way is to drill it.
You may need a few words to explain how the drill works. But then you demo the skill, have every player on the team do it, then have them do it again. If it’s a very simple skill, you may only need to do it once. It it’s a more complicated skill, or one which players tend to forget over time, you may need to drill it at several different practices.
I have yelled at my players out of anger only once in my two years of coaching. It was when, for the third time in a game, a player failed to slide into home plate, and he was called out for not sliding. After all, I had already pointed out twice earlier in the game that everyone must slide into home, right after someone forgot. I had also drilled sliding at several practices.
I felt bad about yelling, yet frustrated that my players weren’t sliding into home. My son pointed out that on this particular play, the catcher was blocking the plate, which made it difficult. I realized that the fault was not the player’s, but mine, for not drilling this situation. In general, if seasoned players are making the same mental mistake over and over, it is the head coach’s fault for neglecting to drill something. My bad.
Next practice I apologized, then drilled it. I set up 3 sandbags to represent the catcher, laying some catcher equipment on it with a ball in the glove. I had everyone on the team practice the two options you have when a catcher is blocking the plate. One was to try sliding hard into the catcher. Sliding is much safer than running into (“trucking”) a catcher, and there is a possibility of dislodging the ball. Our players enjoyed the challenge of trying to pop the ball out of the glove. The other option was to slide to the side of the sandbagged catcher and touch home plate with an extended arm (this is called a hook slide). Since then, we’ve had no issues with sliding into home.
My favorite concept from the main coaching book I use is this: Don’t lecture. Don’t explain. Don’t yell after the fact. Just demo and drill.
It’s important to start with drills that require hustle at the very first practice. Start intense. That way it sets the tone for the rest of the season. In my opinion, starting with base running is best. Hustle is obviously necessary. After warming up arms, the very first thing I do for the first practice of the year is have kids run through first base. It never happens that everyone does it right on their first run through. So I have the team do it again and again until all players get it right.
There’s a general concept here: You often see something you drilled a couple weeks earlier is no longer being done correctly. I find this is especially true of running through first base, where the natural tendency is to wait to see where the ball goes. So the consequence for not doing it correctly during games is that we’ll drill it again. Eventually, players get the idea that if they want to avoid doing that stupid simple drill again, just do it right all the time. Note that this applies to physically easy skills like running through first. Some skills, such as fielding hard-hit grounders, are inherently difficult and you won’t achieve perfection by endlessly drilling them.
What follows are the more successful hustle-related drills I’ve done over the season, organized in related groups. If you’re not a coach, I suggest you rapidly skim the drill sections, or skip past them to the Hustle Rule #5 section on playing time.
Base running drills:
As I already mentioned, base running drills are the most obvious hustle drills. Some kids seem to think that running hard to first base is optional, or sliding is optional. Nope. It’s a requirement. As I wrote to my team before the season even started:
First and foremost, I expect players to play hard . . . I expect players to master all base running skills, including leads and slides. I will frequently do base running drills that require great hustle and sliding, including head-first slides back to a base on attempted pick-offs. Sliding is uncomfortable for some players, especially the biggest kids. It is an important part of the game as 2-3 times each game a player is safe if he slides, out if he doesn’t. It is also a safety issue as injury-causing collisions can and do occur when players don’t slide, especially at home plate.
Sliding practice is not optional. Parents of bigger kids may consider having them wear extra padding to practices such as knee pads and/or football girdles.
The most important drill is running through first base: Though players do this drill with every new team, it has to be done again. The natural tendency of all players is to look at the ball and then judge how much running effort is needed. You must do this drill as many times as is needed to stop this behavior. At the crack of the bat, the player sprints to first and does not begin to slow down until after the foot touches the bag. Sounds simple, right? Yet during games and practices players stare at the ball, run slowly on a weak hit, or slow down when approaching the base.
Running hard creates pressure. The players who consistently run hard will reach first on errors frequently, beat out infield singles, or break up double plays. Any time you see players forgetting to run hard through first, you need to drill it again. I find this drill is needed about twice/month at the younger ages, and around once/month for 11- to 12-year-olds.
The remaining base running drills I’ll just list out and you can look them up in coaching books:
- Learning all three ways to run to first, depending on what the first base coach communicates (run through, take a turn, or continue to second base)
- Sliding (nobody gets a free pass on this—everyone must slide).
- Getting a sufficient primary and secondary lead
- Diving back to first on pickoff attempts
- Getting a good jump to steal (complicated . . . requires reading the pitcher’s motions)
- Running with no hesitation or looking around when you steal
- Sliding every time you steal (unless you hear a base coach call “Up”)
- Sliding into home every time
- Base running with full infield, using any combination of base runners except bases loaded. Pitcher has the ball and will throw many pickoffs but sometimes pitch as well. Runners must steal if ball pitched.
Our practices took place on two different fields. One of them was in better shape and therefore didn’t hurt as much when sliding. I stopped doing drills that involved sliding or dive backs on the rough field while I emphasized base running drills with almost every practice on the better field. I didn’t want my players to become afraid of getting dirty.
The greatest cause of errors in youth baseball is not being ready. I found this out by tracking reasons for errors one year. If a player is not ready, you will see a moment of hesitation after a ball is hit. Many balls hit into play can only be successfully fielded if there is no hesitation.
You may think that players who hesitate lack hustle. That is not usually the case. It is impossible to fully focus at all times given the 30+ second delay between each pitch, so a routine is needed to get ready just as a ball is being pitched. If you haven’t drilled your players on how to get ready, the only fielders who will always be ready when a ball is hit are the ones who got the drill from last year’s coach.
The drill is very simple, but vitally important. First explain and demonstrate:
- Stay loose and relaxed between pitches.
- When you see the pitcher get set on the rubber, that is the trigger to start getting ready.
- Say to yourself “1, 2, ready” as you put first one foot than the other foot forward on “1” and “2.” If you’re an infielder, bend your knees and get down in the athletic position on “ready.”
- The trigger will be different at different ages (i.e. pitching machine at ages 7-8 may require triggering off of coach counting). But otherwise, it’s the same.
- Some coaches may teach a different routine than this but whatever the routine, it must have the players focusing in on the action before the ball reaches home plate.
Then you actually drill it a few times, with a simulated pitching motion. Sometimes during a long, hot game you may have to remind the players about “1-2-ready” on every pitch.
There is a readiness drill I did a couple times for hitters at younger ages that is really more about hitting than hustle, so I’ll only briefly summarize here: Stay unfocused until the pitcher starts his or her motion. Then tell yourself it’s going to be a perfect pitch and let your body do what it naturally does when a perfect pitch is going to come. Focus on the pitcher’s hand and the ball being released. Start the swing but then abort if it’s out of the strike zone.
Drills on getting to the ball
Getting to the ball quickly sounds very simple. It is, if the ball is hit hard, directly at you. But that rarely happens. There are many different situations that need to be drilled in order to know which player goes for the ball and how to play balls that aren’t hit right at you.
The first and most important of these drills is one I made up. I was very frustrated to watch many of my fielders wait for easy pop flies to land 5 to 10 feet in front of them, then calmly walk to the ball and pick it up. No! That’s an easy out! And there’s typically 2-4 of them each game.
There’s no downside to going after high fly balls or pop flies. If you miss, you just pick up the ball a few feet behind you. The runner does not get an extra base. The drill for this:
Keep your partners after throwing warmups. Get about 60 feet away from each other. Throw pop flies that land about 15 to 25 feet in front of your partner. Your partner must go all out to catch it.
This was possibly the most important drill I did all season. What happened the first time I did this was shocking. Half the players on my team refused to attempt to catch the ball. I would walk up to a player and insist that he try to catch and he might do it once, but as soon as I walked away to address a different player, the effort stopped.
The second time I did it, I gave a demo. My hair is turning gray and I am decades past my athletic prime. But I went all out for a fly ball. My only chance to get it was to go into a dive, and then I tumbled a bit, a little excessively for theatrical impact. I missed the ball by a couple inches but it didn’t matter. I yelled out “This is hustle! If someone four times your age with gray hair can do this, so can you! Now it’s your turn!”
This second time through, the players did better. The third time doing this drill they did much better. Perhaps this would be better as a competitive drill, because the best performance I ever saw at practices going after fly balls was with the competitive drill I described in the Hustle Rule #3 section.
So what happened in games? Our outfielders started making spectacular catches. A ball dropping in front of a fielder became the exception, not the norm.
But we still had problems. What about fly balls that go 15 feet behind you? What about balls half way between the two fielders? What about balls hit into the confusing no-man-land between pitcher, first, and second. Those needed work. So we drilled them. Here are some of the drills I did:
Football drill: Player adjacent to thrower runs away from the thrower, who then yells “ball” and throws it past the runner. The runner peeks back while continuing to run away from the thrower, until they catch the ball.
Thrower/Infield/Outfield drill: A group of 3 takes turns as thrower, infield outfield. Thrower throws it high to land about half way between infielder and outfielder. Someone must call for it and catch it.
Right side infield drill: Practice hitting weak grounders or pop flies into no-man-land between catcher, pitcher, first baseman, and second baseman. You’ll need four players for this one. They must communicate. This takes many repetitions over several practices before it becomes automatic. Breaking up a practice into several stations is more efficient, and this is a nice way to use one side of infield, while the other side of the infield can be devoted to run downs, or a runner on third situation, or hard grounders to third baseman and shortstops, or some other drill that just needs that side.
Drills for backup and positioning
Lack of backup drives coaches crazy. Don’t just talk about it or mention after the fact when a player does it wrong. Like every other baseball skill, it can and should be drilled.
The most obvious way to drill backup is to hit or throw the ball to the same location many times in a row. For example, to practice backups for grounders to the third baseman, you need three players: the third baseman, the shortstop and the left fielder. Hit a bunch in a row to the third baseman and have the shortstop back him up. The left fielder is the next layer of backup. Make sure they start at their regular positions, then move to make the backup. Such drills are helpful, but are incomplete as they don’t involve the other positions which also require movement.
My coaching book recommends an efficient way to practice positioning for all 9 players that won’t tire out outfielders: Make a baseball diamond about 1/3 normal size. Put all 9 players on it. Then use a tennis ball or soft baseball to simulate balls in play. Have the players move into the correction position. A little twist I added to this drill is to yell “freeze” a few seconds after the ball goes into play and then provide feedback on positioning. You’re doing it on such a small diamond in order to increase the number of reps, and to isolate what you’re working on, which is positioning, who backs up where, etc.
Some positioning work involves how to get in throws from deep outfield, which may or may not involve a cut/relay man. These are more complicated. I spend quite a bit of time each year practicing very specific plays such as the right fielder trying to get the runner out at third with second baseman being the relay man. They don’t pay off with as many outs as some other things we practice, but it’s good baseball and when we actually pull off one of these complicated plays, it’s a big morale boost for the team.
These positioning drills are related to hustle because a typical ball in play requires at least 7 fielders to be moving and some require all 9 to move. Coaches sometimes think their players are not hustling because they fail to do backups or move correctly. However, the most common reason for backup failures is not lack of hustle. It’s lack of drills related to the skill in question. Once they’ve drilled it a few times, it becomes automatic.
Drills for getting rid of the ball fast
A very useful skill to acquire for catchers, pitchers, and all infielders is quickly transferring the ball from glove up to the ear. Catchers need it for throwing out base stealers. Pitchers need it for pickoff throws. Infielders need it for rundowns, especially for the situation where a picked off base runner is running to the next base. You can drill this efficiently by simply keeping the same partners after the players warm up their arms.
Outfielders have a different set of issues. Drill but let them figure out for themselves how to quickly run to the ball, pick it up cleanly, and take the minimum number of steps needed to launch a big throw. If they’re taking too many steps you may need to demonstrate foot work after picking up the ball. You do need to make clear that the goal is to get the throw off quickly, as this is sometimes the difference between a runner taking an extra base or getting thrown out trying to take that extra base.
Another outfield drill is to quickly throw in the ball after catching it. This makes it more difficult for base runners to tag up after a ball is caught.
Other drills related to hustle:
While there are many more drills potentially related to hustle, I will just highlight three more drills that I particularly think of as requiring hustle:
Rundowns: Hustle is automatic with this drill and most players really enjoy practicing rundowns. So practice this frequently.
Digging balls out of the dirt: First basemen especially must learn to catch poorly thrown balls that hit the dirt a few inches shy of their glove but it can’t hurt to practice digging balls out of the dirt with everyone. This is another one of those drills that is efficiently practiced by simply keeping the same partners after the players warm up their arms. Partners throw into the dirt instead of the glove.
Catching bad throws: This is just a harder version than digging balls out of the dirt, because you don’t know whether the bad throw is going up, down, left, right, or some combination of these.
Hustle Rule #5: When all else fails, cut playing time
I’ve found that drilling hustle works for most players. But as players get older and/or more seasoned, chances are you’ll come across a player or two whose effort is lackluster despite the drills. You may need a different way to motivate such players.
Nearly every ball player prefers playing over sitting, and has a favorite position or two. Make it clear that you’ll withhold playing time or favorite positions for those players lacking effort. Then sit a player who isn’t hustling. Be sure this applies to everyone, including star players and coaches sons. Especially star players and coaches’ sons.
Once the sitting player shows maximum effort at practice and during games, he or she can resume the usual playing time and positions.
You want every player on the team to be aware that there are no free passes on this team. You hustle, or you don’t play as much or where you want. Entire teams can sink to the same level of effort as one coach kid who doesn’t hustle.
It’s important to distinguish between lack of hustle, and lack of knowledge. I have seen many players, particularly beginners, who want to do the right thing but simply don’t know where they’re supposed to go on a play. Drill is needed for these players, not discipline for failing to do what they haven’t yet been taught and drilled.
Many parents don’t like seeing their player benched. However, if you see your player getting benched for lack of effort, you should be appreciative, not critical. In the long run, your player will hustle, and thus be a better player.
This article was by far my easiest baseball article to write. Hustle did not come naturally or easily to our ECYB Brooklyn Dodgers team in the early part of the season. I was thinking about it constantly. I lost sleep over it. I tried so many different approaches. I cannot and do not accept lack of effort.
It is tempting to feel frustration with certain players on your team, the ones who hustle the least. Don’t give in to that temptation. At the ages of 11 and up (and sometimes even younger), expect to have several such players on the team. Have a plan for how to teach hustle before your first practice. This plan must include many drills that require hustle. It’s no accident that the above section on drills is longer than everything else in this article combined.
Your players may not like all the emphasis on hustle and hustle drills at the beginning. But they’ll get over it. Later on during the season, your players and their parents will appreciate the improvement, both individually and as a team.
So how did my team do? Though we started out poorly in the early part of the season, we improved. We won the last 3 regular season games in a row, ending the season with a 7-6-1 record. More importantly, we played some magnificent games with lots of hustle and spectacular plays, with scores like a 3-1 loss and a 12-1 win against some of the better teams in the league. The team that beat us 26-4 in a scrimmage again beat us 9-6 in the early part of the regular season, but when we played them later in the season we won 4-2 with some great fielding and great hustle. We improved individually and we improved as a team, playing at a much higher skill level by the end of the season.
Frustrated as I was at the beginning of the season, I was happy with how it all turned out. And now I know how to teach hustle.