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.