PRACTICING WHEN NO FIELD IS AVAILABLE
How many times do we as coaches call for a practice, meet the team at the field, only to find one team practicing and one or more other teams waiting to practice? When I first started coaching, this always seemed to happen to me. Part of the reason was because our league at the time was in a little bit of administrative disarray and there would be a lot of misinformation about which fields we were allowed to use for practice. Part of it would be my fault, not really being creative or talking to the coach who was already using the field. The first few times I would go to a field and find another team there, I would feel helpless. I once took everyone to another field with my two coaches only to find the same situation there. I knew there had to be alternatives. I learned that after coaching all these years coaches can take a negative and turn it into a positive. I made up my mind to be prepared and plan two practices; one for a field and one without a field, in particular for a parking lot. This may sound difficult to plan, but not only is it possible, I advise every youth coach to run at least one parking lot practice every year, even if they don’t have to. It is good for coaches to be flexible and creative. Showing young players this creativity and flexibility can be a very positive influence. Some of my best baseball practices have been done in a parking lot. The biggest difference is the balls used. I always have a few soft covered balls available and some pre-planned drills for a hard surface. Of course when I say running a parking lot practice, I’m not talking about the busy mall in the middle of your county or high school parking lot when a basketball game is going on and the cars are constantly going in and out. I’m talking about parking lot practices when the traffic is safe to do so, such as the parking lot that services your town pool before it is open for the season or the state park before they become really busy. You can pick an isolated area in the corner.
I always keep a set of rubber flop down flat bases in my trunk. I use these when I want an extra set of bases for the field and they are perfect for parking lot practices. There are certain things you can and cannot do. Obviously there is no sliding. You can have a lot of different baserunning drills and throwing drills. You can do many of the drills and skills you would do on a regular field but you must pick and choose according to the safety of the drill. You have to analyze if a drill on a hard surface will increase the chances for potential injuries. At the beginning of the season during our parents meeting, I always ask parents to put an extra pair of old sneakers in a bag in their son’s equipment bag just for this purpose.
Regular batting practice with even soft covered balls is difficult in a parking lot but is very doable if you use the right kind of balls. I will use Pickle Balls, which are hard durable plastic balls. Even with these balls, players should use their gloves.
You can set up some great bunting competition games. We would divide the team in half and set up two cones. Each team goes through the batting order and sees how many they can bunt between the cones.
If there is a concrete wall nearby, you can use rag balls which are rags covered with masking tape, for the soft toss. We even made up a game against the wall using these rag balls. We would draw two squares with chalk on the wall, one small inside a large one. If the batter hits the rag ball inside the large square, it is a single. If he hits the rag ball inside the small square, it is a home run. Everywhere else it is an out.
Your coaching creativity DNA will come to life for some of these parking lot practices. Don’t be surprised if you create a new game on the hard surface that you will then use on the regular field as part of your repertoire.
I also learned a great lesson that ends up paying dividends down the road. If another coach arrives at the field with his team after I begin my practice like what happened to me, I always make it a point to stop my practice and go over and talk to the other coach. The last time this happened, the other coach, who was a new coach, was shocked. I went over to him and began talking right away, showing flexibility.
“Coach, I’m sorry we’re using the whole field. If you give me ten more minutes, I can squeeze into one area of the field and accomplish what I have to after this drill. How much room do you need?”
He looked at me in disbelief. There I was, a coach of twenty-one years, apologizing to a first year coach for taking the whole field even though I had every right to use it. Well we worked it out and both ran our practices. Of course my experience was an advantage, being able work in a smaller area. How do you think that coach is going to act in four or five years when he is on the field and another team shows up to use it? I promise, if you have been coaching in your league a long time and do this it will carry over to most of the coaches. But don’t look for any credit, just do it because it is the right thing to do.
The main idea when running a parking lot practice is to be creative. Safety precautions must be a priority. Some of my best practices have taken place in parking lots and backyards. Don't call off practice just because someone is using the field. Come prepared and have a few extra props. Show your players they can learn almost anywhere and have fun!
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