Teaching Young Ballplayers that Defense Wins Championships

By far, the greatest play I ever made was on a routine ground ball, about 4 or 5 steps to my left, with a very short throw to 1st base from my second base position. “What was so great about that?” The circumstances of the situation are what made the play great, at least to me. It was the final out of the game where the bases were loaded, we (Los Angeles Dodgers) were up by one run in the second to last game of the season. We needed to sweep the series against the Houston Astros in order to force a one game playoff for the 1980 national league western division championship (3 games, we did but lost the playoff game). When I look back on my career, it is the play that I am most proud of making.

Obviously, the title of this article is not a new one, or my concept. The “defense wins championships” saying and theory has been around forever, and has a lot of truth to it. The tough part as a youth baseball coach is convincing this theory to young ball players. Most young players love to work on hitting and pitching, but often balk at working on their defense. With this in mind, here are some ideas that coaches can do to impress the importance of defense on young players.

  1. 1. At Practice:

Coaches should work on fielding and defensive drills as much as they do on hitting. Additionally, coaches should teach fielding habits that are fundamentally sound. Often youth coaches are content when their players catch the ball, without regard to the technique used. This is not good coaching because catching a ball and catching a ball correctly are two different things. Being able to perform a play correctly in a game, especially when the game is on the line, requires good fielding fundamentals and numerous practice repetitions. When players do not adhere to good fielding fundamentals, the negative results (errors) usually show up in games when there is greater pressure.

Often, coaches of young ballplayers know the hitting basics and some hitting drills, but may not know the fundamentals and drills for fielding. It is important that coaches learn fielding fundamentals, teach them and concentrate on recognizing that those fundamentals are performed correctly, even when a catch is made.

  1. During pre- Game instructions:
    Coaches should remind players to concentrate on getting good jumps, look the ball in and focus on the target. Reminding players that a ground ball in the game is no different than one in practice is good.
  2. 3. Game time:

Coaches can emphasize the importance of defense during games with the following      statements:

“Leave the bats in the dugout.”

This is a common baseball expression, which expresses the thought that their batting is over, and it is time to focus on their defense. Hitting is such a big part of the game that, often, players will get to their position but still be thinking about what they did in their last at-bat so this is valuable advice.

“Saving a run with the glove is just as important as driving one in, or scoring a run.”

This thought is true and is rarely emphasized enough.

“Don’t worry about making a great play, they will just happen, make the routine plays.”

Often, players want to make the great play, which is fine, but they do not focus on making the routine plays. This mental habit leads to errors on balls that they normally could field with no problem.

“The quicker we get three outs the sooner we get to hit again”

is stating the obvious, but still holds true and can help keep kids on their toes.

Finally, a good practice for youth baseball coaches is to get in the habit of rewarding fielding plays as much, or more, than good hitting or good pitching. In these ways, kids will begin to understand the value in good defense.

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