Play Ball: 100 Baseball Practice Games by Tom Oâ€™Connell (Human Kinetics, 2010), 226 pages
Many baseball teams in Britain, whether adults or youths, are working hard at their indoor training sessions right now, with â€˜Spring Trainingâ€™ just around the corner, albeit not quite in the Arizona or Florida climate enjoyed by Major Leaguers Stateside. Often itâ€™s in the preseason period that teams have the most time to develop their skills and coaches are busy trying to find new ways to organize training sessions that are both useful and enjoyable.Â If a quick glance at the coaching manuals on your bookshelves makes you long for a new source of inspiration, â€˜Play Ballâ€™ may provide it.
Tom Oâ€™Connell is a well-respected baseball coach with years of experience.Â The sum of that experience is what prompted him to write a new coaching manual:
â€œThrough the years of clinics and hot-stove discussions, one thought kept irritating me. Why is it that at practice we work on drill after drill after drill, our players master the drills and look better and better, but they keep making the same mistakes in games? Maybe, I thought, they are just getting better at doing drillsâ€.Â In Oâ€™Connellâ€™s eyes, coaches have got into the habit of teaching, when theirÂ objective should be to facilitate learning.Â
Â â€˜Play Ballâ€™ is designed to help you do just that.Â
The book contains 100 baseball practice â€˜gamesâ€™, not â€˜fielding drillsâ€™ or â€˜training exercisesâ€™.Â They are split into chapters of between ten and eighteen games relating to core baseball skills, such as â€˜Throwing Gamesâ€™, â€˜Catching Gamesâ€™, â€˜Infield Gamesâ€™, â€˜Outfield Gamesâ€™, â€˜Pitching Gamesâ€™ etc.Â Each game includes a succinct introduction of what it is designed to do, details of the equipment required and how to set the game up, a clear â€˜procedureâ€™ description of both how the standard game works and suggestions on how it can be adapted to suit different skill levels or specific requirements, alongside a useful diagram.Â Each â€˜gameâ€™ ends with a list of â€˜coaching pointsâ€™ for the coach to look out for as the â€˜gameâ€™ is being played.
A skill level rating (basic to advanced) and an age rating (â€˜8 and overâ€™, â€™12 and overâ€™, â€˜Allâ€™ etc) are attached to each game and this information, plus other details, is very helpfully included in a matrix at the beginning of the book, allowing you to easily identify which games you might want to utilise depending on what skills you are seeking to develop and the age/skill of the players you are coaching.Â Finally, a selection of â€˜Practice Plansâ€™ gives you some pointers on how to incorporate the games into training sessions of different lengths.
The details provided for each game and the user-friendly layout of the book immediately make it a useful coaching tool, but its main strength is the nature of the â€˜gamesâ€™ that it contains.Â Oâ€™Connell makes a great point about how learning skills is only half the battle. â€œJust as mastering multiplication tables doesnâ€™t mean students have learned mathâ€ he writes, â€œmastering the mechanical skills of baseball, although important, doesnâ€™t mean that players have learned the game. They need to learn not only to play the game technically but also how to connect the dots tacticallyâ€.
And thatâ€™s what the games allow you to do.Â The approach is excellent for coaches because each game can be adapted easily, â€œshapedâ€ as Oâ€™Connell puts it, to suit your objective.Â They allow the coach to freeze a play when a mistake occurs, re-set the situation, allow the players involved to work out where they are going wrong and then give them an opportunity to try it again.Â And the games are designed to challenge players and to add an element of competition into the practices, rather than allowing anyone to just â€˜go through the motionsâ€™ while completing drills that theyâ€™ve done a hundred times before.
Oâ€™Connellâ€™s â€˜Games Approachâ€™ is all about allowing players â€œto learn the game through enjoyable learning activities featuring gamelike practices that create realistic situations through which they can develop baseball senseâ€. Â Itâ€™s not a revolutionary concept, but the best ideas rarely are.Â
Take one gameÂ called â€˜Doublesâ€™.Â A player hits the ball off a tee or a toss and then has to run to first and then to second as if he or she has hit a double.Â The fielders must make three throws, touching a base after each, before the player gets to second base.Â If they do, the player is out.Â If the runner beats them to second base, the offense scores one point (thereâ€™s the competition element).Â The only requirement is that the third throw must go to second base, so that means the fielders are not simply following a pattern (throw to third, then to first, then to second etc), they are having to react and make split-second decisions (thereâ€™s the â€˜baseball senseâ€™ element), while coping with the possible distraction of the base-runner and the pressure of beating the runner to second (thereâ€™s the â€˜gamelikeâ€™ element).Â All the time the coach is watching to make sure the fielders are throwing and catching the ball in the proper way, while the batter gets some practice in running the bases.
Reading through the games makes you appreciate exactly what Oâ€™Connell is getting at and why he thinks this is a better approach than a traditional â€˜drillsâ€™/teaching method.Â In particular, they look like the sort of activities that ballplayers will enjoy taking part in.
Whether you are coaching a little league team, adult newcomers or more experienced senior players, Play Ball should offer you plenty of ideas to incorporate intoÂ your training sessions this spring and beyond.
Have you read â€œPlay Ball: 100 Baseball Practice Gamesâ€? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.