Good Practice, Bad Practice
Everyone practices every time they do anything. The things we get good at and practice frequently we can do without thinking about. Walking, typing, using a standard transmission, and moving food around in your mouth while you chew are all examples of things many people practice frequently. They are all learned physical skills that require precision of movement for success. You probably do not remember learning to eat or walk but you do probably remember learning to type or to drive a standard transmission car (if you ever did learn those things). Learning baseball skills is the same kind of activity.
You cannot teach yours players good baseball skills in 2-3 hours of formal practice a week. You can only teach them about baseball skills. They will only develop those skills by doing them and they can only acquire the skills quickly by doing them a large number of times. Therefore, your players will show quick improvement during the season only if they are practicing their skills on their own. They must do “homework” in the skills you teach about at practice.
To learn a skill quickly requires frequent practice. Note I did not say “practice for long periods of time” but “frequent practice.” A player will benefit more from practicing a skill for 5-10 minutes 5 times a day than from doing the same skill for one hour a day or five hours once per week.
Therefore a good practice works on a variety of skills with only 5-10 minutes spent on each. Mixing skills in a single practice activity is even better.
Exercise improves the body, practice improves the mind. The exercise one gets in practicing baseball will make one stronger in at least some parts of the body. But the development of baseball skills is something that takes place in the mind, not the arms and legs. How the player is thinking during practice determines whether the practice will develop good skills or bad habits. Just because a player throws the ball for an hour doesn’t mean that they will be a better baseball player for having done so. A bad habit is worse than no experience. Every time a player performs a “baseball act” like throwing or catching something they are building habits that will carry over into their performance on the field during games.
When players warm up you will often see them throwing and catching sloppily. They will throw the ball sidearm and catch the ball without moving to get into a good position or using both hands. The same things occur between innings when the first baseman throws grounders to the other infielders. The balls are caught with poor technique by boys showing how casual they are and poorly thrown to first. They are teaching themselves to play poorly.
The players do not understand that they must train their subconscious minds to execute the plays well. Just going through the ritual of throwing a baseball will not make one a good pitcher. They must be taught how to use their minds while practicing so that the practice they do on their own will help rather than hurt their performance. They must believe that every throw and catch is instructing their subconscious in how they want the throws and catches to be done. This is true regardless of whether the player thinks of it as practice or not.
Training the Subconscious: The Practice that makes Perfect
The conscious mind controls the subconscious mind by remembering. For things like walking and chewing the remembering feels like an act of will. For things like typing and driving the remembering feels more like an expectation. For baseball skills the remembering is vividly remembering how the body (muscles) feel as the skill is performed.
When you catch a throw you see the ball approach and there is a flash of memory of catching the ball that is coming like that and without your consciously directing it your hand moves to catch the ball. You can almost mentally sit back and watch your body perform.
Putting your hand up to catch a throw is a very quick and relatively simple action. A pitcher’s motion to home is much more complicated. The sequence of movements involves all the body and a significant exertion of strength. There is a series of contractions and relaxations of muscle groups. The body feels a sequence of motions. Until the pitcher learns which sequence of feelings is the correct one for the pitch they are trying to throw, they cannot vividly remember how it feels to pitch correctly.
The player teaches their subconscious what to do by remembering how it felt when they did it right. If they focus on how it felt when they did it wrong they are learning to do it wrong. When a player is practicing at home, it will help them if they get feedback from whoever is helping them there in identifying when they have done it right. The player has to pay attention to how it felt right away because the subconscious is easily led to notice other things. So, when a player is practicing at home, doing the things you have told them to practice, they also need to be thinking about what they are doing in the right way. Catch the ball right and remember how it felt to correctly reach for the ball. Throw the ball the right way and remember how it felt in the legs, back, arm, and fingers. Remember the sequence of sensations as the ball was thrown. Notice how it feels in the legs as you stretch toward the target and come down on the ball of the foot. Notice how the chest stretches as the throwing arm reaches back toward second base. Feel the tension in the small of the back as the back is slightly arched. Feel the tension in the elbow of the throwing arm as the palm of the hand faces second base. Notice how the front shoulder is going straight toward the target. Feel the powerful push of the back leg as it thrusts its hip toward the plate. Feel how high the throwing shoulder goes as the arm flashes across the top and the whole body rotates sharply. Feel the power in the arm as it drives the fingers through the center of the ball all the way down below the knee.
The pitcher must be able to remember all that vividly. Then when they want to do it again, they remember it as they throw the ball and thereby tell their subconscious what to do.
You have probably heard of players who are “in the zone.” They are so confident and so filled with the memory of their success that their minds are suffused with the feelings of doing it right and they are completely focused on that.
Perhaps you have heard of “zen and the art of archery” or some such “mystic” Eastern way of mind control involved in a sporting activity. It is just the memory of how success feels while you are doing it mixed with a little self-hypnosis that keeps the conscious mind from “rocking the boat” with distractions.
I am sure you have heard of “concentration” or “focus” as an aid to performing better. They are the same thing as the others mentioned above. It is these mental aspects that the player should be working on in their home practice. Again, it is not so much what they are doing with their bodies as it is what they are doing with their brains that makes practice effective.
Schedule Home Practices
It is a rare player at this age (or any age I would imagine) who can practice frequently over a long period of time (like three months) without someone else being involved to provide a social pressure to practice. I am not saying here that the other person must or should “nag” them. A very informal “we always get together for an hour or so after school to play catch” kind of thing is what I mean. You should encourage the players to find someone else they can practice with regularly and schedule the practices.
The best practice partners are folks who are better at the skills to be learned than your player. Older brothers and fathers are often the best ones for this. Naturally this assumes that your player gets along well with the practice partner and that they are not feeling coerced into practice.
One of the main things you will want to use team practices for is checking on the progress of your players in developing their skills. Each player needs to take away from practice 2-3 things to work on at home before the next team practice. If you give them more than that to work on they will forget some of them. If you give them fewer they will get bored.
Team practices should not be used for the repetitions necessary for skill acquisition. They players should be taught the drills at practice and some of these drills should be used at most practices. But they are used at practice to check each player’s progress, not to improve their skills.
Most of practice should be used for things the players cannot practice without the team. Base running for example is almost impossible to learn without doing it with at least 9 other players. Run downs require at least 4 players. Fielding bunts requires 3-4. Pickoffs require 4-5 players. Batting practice requires at least three players (pitcher, catcher and batter). Relay throws from the outfield require at least 4 players.