Make Practice Harder

One of the great mysteries of our game is this simple question:

How can we look so good in practice and then make so many mistakes in games?

Well, you already know the answer to this question. You read the title of this blog so you know where we are headed.

How do we change this dynamic?

Coaches, it’s up to us to change the way we do things. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s OK to have a “feel good” practice every once in a while but if every practice is that way then we are going to keep suffering the misery of good practices and bad games.

Spend some time thinking about all the things that can and do go wrong on game day. Think about how your team reacts to the situations where things come unglued. Look at the mistakes from an analytical perspective where you are on the outside looking in rather than in the trenches with your players. After you look at things from the perspective, you’ll have a much clearer picture of what is happening and what needs to be done.

Many coaches fall into the trap of thinking that a quick once over of the problem areas — maybe a little practice and a little talking about the problems — will solve it. We go through the motions of “fixing” the problem but we often don’t get deep enough into the weeds to be sure that the problem is really fixed.

If we want to really address the problems, we need to crank up the pressure in practice.

Bunt defense is a perfect example.

What most coaches do is:

  • Set up their defense.
  • Talk about what we want to do better.
  • Bunt a few balls
  • Our players go through the motions at about 75% and everything looks great.  
  • We usually don’t use base runners or a hitter to put pressure on the defense. Rather, we use “ghost” runners and have a coach simulate the bunts with no pitch and no bunter.

Under these circumstances how good do most teams look, great in practice, but…

What I think we should do is:

  • Set up our defense.
  • Talk about what we need to do better.
  • Practice as many rounds as we need at 75% to be sure we are all on the same page with coverages, movement, responsibilities and to get comfortable with execution at the basic level.

Now we really start to work on the problems. We put base runners into the mix with explicit orders that this is a competition. We want them running at 100% and can keep score as to who “wins” the defense or the base runners.

We then add a bunter to the mix to increase the likelihood of the unusual or more difficult plays. We give the bunter explicit orders that they are to put pressure on the defense and after getting the bunt down to run down the line at 100% to put pressure on the defense. Again make it competitive.

Then we ramp up the stakes by adding in-game situations like late in the game, tie game, winning run, base runners stealing base and all the other things that make games more difficult than our usual practice simulations.

The moral to the story is a simple one. We need to make our practices much harder — much more demanding. We need to put maximum pressure on our players in practice so that they see practice as much more challenging than the games. When practice is this difficult, we are going to make our teams more battle-tested and ready to play when the pressure ramps up.

Now the real question is this: Coaches, can you live with the idea that your team will look awful during some practices? Most can’t. That’s why they lose so many games!