Blasting balls at fielders

You see it everywhere. Teams of younger players out on the field for fielding practice. A big coach (usually a guy) standing at home plate. He tosses the ball up, takes a powerful swing, and blasts a hard ground ball at one of the girls, who does her best to field it and make the throw. The coach is hitting the ball hard at the girls with the best of intentions. He wants them to learn to handle hard hit balls, and to improve their reaction time. Yet what he is more likely doing is practicing to lose rather than win.

Think about it. Let’s say the team is 10U or 12U. How many girls that age can hit a pitched ball as hard as a large, grown man can fungo it? You can probably count them on the fingers of one ear. Once in a blue moon a ball might be hit that hard, but it’s certainly the exception.

By hitting hard ball after hard ball, the coach is teaching his players to sit back and wait. He’s also teaching them that the elapsed time from contact with the bat to contact with the glove is one second or less. Yet that’s not really what happens on the field. It’s more likely that the ball will be hit softly, requiring the fielders to charge it. But since they’re used to sitting back so they don’t get killed, they’re slow to charge the batted ball. In the meantime, the batter is running up the first base line. The throw gets there late and everyone is unhappy that the fielder got to it late.

The other thing that happens with hard fungoes is the practice becomes more about survival than technique. The fielder may learn to knock the ball down or stab at it, but she’s not really learning proper fielding technique that will translate to the field. She’s less likely to be able to get her butt and glove down properly, receive the ball gently, scoop it cleanly and make the transition to throw. She’s just going to grab it and go.

Contrast that with what I see when I watch college teams practice. They often roll the ball by hand to players so they can work on their fundamentals — even before an actual game. When they do fungo ground balls, they’re hit lightly so the fielders have to be aggressive, rather than sitting back passively waiting for the ball to nearly overpower them.

It applies at every level, but especially at the younger levels. If you’re smacking hard grounders at your players, make a pledge to stop now. Hit the ball at the speed they can reasonably expect based on your level of competition so they set their minds on making the plays you need them to make. Believe me — if anything is hit harder and right at them, they’ll make the play out of self-defense. Coach for the majority of what you’ll face instead of the minority and you’ll make more plays and win more games. It’s just common sense.

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About Ken Krause

Ken Krause has been coaching girls fastpitch softball for nearly 20 years. Some may know him as a contributing columnist to Softball Magazine, where he writes Krause's Korner -- a regular column sponsored by Louisville Slugger. Ken is also the Administrator of the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, the most popular fastpitch discussion forum on the Internet. He is currently a Three Star Master Coach with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), and is certified by both the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and American Sports Education Program (ASEP). Ken is a private instructor specializing in pitchers, hitters, and catchers. He teaches at North Shore Baseball Academy in Libertyville, IL and Pro-Player Consultants in McHenry, IL.

Posted on May 2, 2008, in Coaching, Fielding. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Speaking of blasting balls in the infield, whats your take on these full face masks the girls are wearing. At a recent tournament I noticed the other team was wearing them. The entire infield had them on. I’ve also seen a few other girls wear them. A lot of parents asked me about them. Might make a good topic.

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  2. Rick, that’s an interesting question. Thanks for the suggestion. My response is in a new post.Ken

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  3. As the fungo-er of our team, I have to say that I agree with you on this one. I’ve also seen it in action. A 12U coach rips balls at his players all the time. As a result, the main thing I see in his daughter (the SS) is that she doesn’t know how to come up for ground balls. She always just sits back and waits making “routine” grounders tough because they eat her alive on that one extra bounce they are taking because she’s not coming up on the ball. Like you said, practice for the majority of what you’ll face. You don’t want to practice the “spectacular” plays, you want to practice your fundamentals and your technique and have that down so the routine plays are gravy….if the spectacular comes great! But that’s not what you should be practicing. It’s taking me a few years of being the “fungo-er,” but I’m learning. 🙂

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  4. Stacie, it seems like guys do this more than women. Must be some macho thing — what doesn’t kill us makes us strong. I used to think I was wrong for not doing it. It just didn’t seem like it made sense. I guess it would be like putting them on a 65 mph pitching machine when the local pitchers throw 45 mph. They may be able to catch up to it, but they probably won’t develop good mechanics, and they definitely won’t learn the right timing.

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  5. OK, OK. I’m guilty. I don’t always hit blasts at the girls but they get their fair share from me. The reason I have done it is to make them fearless and get used to a fast game. I always figured that if they learn to practice at a level higher than what their game is, then the game slows down for them and it it easier than practice. I didn’t take into consideration it may teach them to be back on their heels. To be fair to me, we do strongly stress charging the ball when they can and we do hit plenty of balls that require them to charge. Even when they play catch we teach them to come to the ball – we stress how important it is to shorten your throw when you can. I have used my daughter as my testing rat. 🙂 Ken can confirm that when she and I play catch, I throw hard, fast balls at her – some throws would be at the high school level or higher – and she is now 12. Correct me if I am wrong Ken, but one of the best assets my daughter possesses is her fearlessness of the ball. Part of that has come from being a catcher, but part of that is me throwing hard and blasting balls at her. She also does a very good job at charging the ball, so for her, it has worked. Maybe it has worked for her because I have always done it for her and it is continually reinforced, whereas, the other girls only get to see it a couple times a week at best once we are outside. Maybe not enough repition to make them comfortable with it. My entire reason was to support the theory of practicing hard and at a higher level than they have to aply so that the games come easy.

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  6. Mike, Caity is a gamer, that’s for sure. She seems to enjoy you throwing hard at her, and her trying to throw hard back at you. Be careful what you wish for, though. Remember she is continually getting bigger, stronger and faster. You are continually getting older and slower. 🙂 One day you just might be asking her to ease up on the old man!I haven’t watched enough of your practices to know how you approach them, but I would make sure I spend the majority of the time preparing for what the girls will actually see. My own daughter Kimmie had a coach when she was eight who used to hit balls at her she couldn’t handle, and all it did in her was instill a fear of getting hit with a ground ball. She still tends to pull away on them no matter how much we work on it. The self-preservation instinct is a strong one, and tough to overcome. When I watch high school games, I see a lot of infielders who are simply not good enough or quick enough charging the ball — probably because they’ve spent the bulk of their practice time sitting on their heels trying to react to a hit they’ll never see. Remember that if your pitching is any good, your players will see a lot more soft hits than blasts. Teams I’ve coached and teams I’ve watched seem to get hurt more by those duck snorts and tweeners than on well-hit balls. Yes, your fielders need to be able to handle those too when they come up. But if that’s all they see in practice, it’s all they’ll be able to handle. You will get killed on slow rollers, and you’ll tear your hair out. As long as you’re using a mix, weighted toward softer, you should be ok. Also remember that even the hard stuff should be within the range of what they expect to see. A big adult (male or female) is pretty intimidating to a younger player to begin with, just based on size. We may not see it because we’re on the “big” end. But hitting full-out shots at them on top of it can make it even more intimidating and instill fear rather than get rid of it. The other thing to keep in mind, especially as they get older, is the game is faster not because of the hits, but because of the speed of the runners. We always say they have 3 seconds or less from contact with the bat to the throw reaching a base to make the play. If the ball is on them in .5 seconds they have 2.5 seconds left. But if it takes 1 or 1.5 seconds to get there, now the pressure is on to field and make the throw. It’s a whole different ballgame then. If you want to simulate game pressure and teach game speed, put a time limit on the play. Errors will go up for a while in practice, but ultimately you’ll be a lot more successful. At least in my experience.

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