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Saturday, March 12
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Thursday, August 5
Drill of the Month - Push Bunt
Description
The push bunt, when combined with the element of surprise, can be a great way to catch a defense on its heels, to break out of a hitting slump, or to get a speedy runner on base to lead off an inning.

Age Appropriate
10 and up

Problem 1
It’s a tight game and the opposing pitcher has been especially good at striking your batters out. Your hitters have only managed a few weak bloopers into the outfield, and it’s getting late in the game. You need to jump-start your offense by getting a man on-base, and one of your fastest players is leading off the inning. As a right-handed hitter, the push bunt can draw the first baseman off the bag and open the door for an infield hit that is sure to frustrate the defense and spark your offense.

Problem 2
One of your hitters has fallen into a slump. He can’t buy a hit. You’ve worked with him in practice and can’t find anything wrong with his swing; he’s just not connecting in the game. Call for the push bunt – sometimes all a hitter needs is to see the ball come off the barrel and to leg out an infield hit. Conquering a slump can be that simple sometimes.

Drill Objective
Work on pushing the ball into “no man’s land” – the area on the infield beyond the pitcher’s mound and between the second and first basemen. This isn’t the traditional bunt, where the hitter is trying to deaden the ball so runners can advance. On the push bunt, the hitter wants to push the ball just past the pitcher.

Draw a triangle using the pitcher, second baseman, and first baseman as your three corners. A great push bunt rolls right to the middle of that triangle – where the pitcher, second baseman and first baseman all think they have a shot at fielding the ball. When executed to perfection, the three defenders find themselves staring at each other as the ball rolls to a stop between them. All the while, the hitter crosses the undefended bag at first.

Set-up
Blend push-bunts into traditional batting practice or simulated games.

Executing the Drill
A lot of coaches will ask their hitters to lay down a couple of bunts before swinging away in batting practice. Don’t just go through the motions. Instead, focus on executing each style of bunt to develop fully-rounded hitters.

Make your hitters progress through a series of bunts. Start each hitter with a drag bunt and a push bunt (trying to bunt for a base hit). Then, each hitter should execute a couple sacrifice bunts (trying to advance runners). Finally, ask the hitter to commit to the bunt after the pitch is released and execute a squeeze style bunt (trying to score a runner).

Then, let the hitter swing away. Only advance from one bunting phase to the next when the hitter has properly executed the current bunt. Work your hitters through this routine on a consistent basis and you’ll be able to call for bunts confidently during games, knowing that all of your hitters are capable of executing properly.


Thursday, August 5
How to Select A Sign System

Parentally Speaking - July 2010

Parentally Speaking - Sign SystemsBy Cal Ripken, Jr.

Editor’s note: Each month in this space, Cal will address issues of concern to parents of young athletes. We hope that coaches, many of whom are parents, will find the information enlightening when it comes to working with their own children and dealing with the parents of the players on their teams. If you have a question that you’d like to see answered, please send it to newsletter@ripkenbaseball.com.

Question for Cal in this edition:

"What is a simple yet effective offensive and defensive sign system for an 11u baseball team?" – Coach Moran

I’m glad you’re looking for a simple sign system. All too often, coaches overemphasize the importance of an intricate and complicated sign system. In youth baseball, sign-stealing really isn’t all that prevalent, and often a simpler sign system can give you more flexibility to change things up when you think an opponent has picked up on a particular pattern or sign.

A simple sign system is easier on your players as well. At the 11u level, introducing signs is a great idea, as it will help players learn the basics of using signs in a game. When players move up to the 90’ diamond, more complicated plays come into use and a more developed sign system is necessary.

Here are the five basic elements of a simple sign system for your offense:

Indicator
Tells your players that the next sign in your sequence is "live" and should be executed. You can give all the signs you want in a sequence, but they're all meaningless except for those signs which immediately follow your indicator sign. Easy sign for indicator: touching the brim of your hat.

Wipe-Off
Giving your wipe-off sign erases the entire preceding sequence of signs. You could use your indicator and give the sign for a bunt or steal, but if you give your wipe-off sign, you've cancelled those signs and the play is off. Easy sign for wipe-off: brushing down the front of your pants.

Final Sign
There should be one sign that let's your players know the sequence is over, and they can take their lead off the base or get in the batter's box. Easy sign for your final sign: simply clap your hands and/or point at your batter.

Acknowledgement
Your players should give a sign back to you to let you know they understood your sequence. Easy sign for acknowledgement: adjust the helmet. Make sure your players give the acknowledgement sign every time, even when you haven't indicated a special play. Otherwise, your opponent will find it easy to know when you've put a play on. Note: If a player feels like they missed something in your sign sequence, they should ask you to go through your sign sequence again by giving you a sign similar to that used in basketball for travelling.

This system is a basic framework - you'll just need to pick which signs you want to use for the plays you want to call. You may want to keep this simple to start, keeping your signs down to just bunt and steal. Let your players get used to reading and responding to your signs, then add more signs for your more advanced plays, like hit and run or any special first and third plays you'd like to use.

One of the best features of this basic sign system is the flexibility it possesses. If you find the defense is always ready for what you're planning, they may have picked up on one of your signs. You can easily change things up simply by changing your indicator sign. Your players only have to pay extra attention to the new indicator, but now all of the signs your opponent thought were "live" are now "dead" signs that have no meaning.

So that defense that was creeping in whenever you called for a bunt may suddenly be surprised when a batter swings away after you've given the sign they thought stood for the bunt.

Typically, you'll only be using a defensive sign system when your opponent has runners on first and third. This is where any designed plays your team has in its repertoire will need to be called out.

An easy defensive sign system is to simply number the plays you'd like to call. For simplicity, let's say you have four defensive plays, and you've numbered them 1-4. Considering these plays are situation specific, you may only be calling them out once or twice in a game, so it's already going to be hard for your opponent to pick up on any pattern. But you may want to get creative in order to disguise these plays from your opponent.

Three-Digit System
Shout a three-digit number from the dugout, and make sure your catcher repeats the number to your defense. One of the digits will need to be the number of your play. Your players will just need to know which digit they should pay attention to, so tell them before the game that your defensive plays will be called on the first, second or third digit. Take your plays numbered 1-4, and make the second digit live. Call out "432" and play #3 is active. Call out "921" and play #2 is active.

To get more advanced, number your plays in a non-consecutive order, use bigger numbers or expand the number of digits in which to conceal your actually play call.

Catcher Counting Sign
Using the same numbering system for your plays (1-4) you can also have your catcher call the play through signs given to the infielders. You see major league catchers doing this all the time. They stand up, walk out in front of the plate and run through a series of signals.

This will look really advanced, but you can keep it simple by choosing one particular sign which will count. The catcher can give all the signs he wants, but the defense only needs to pay attention to the "counting sign" - the particular sign that your catcher will only go to 1, 2, 3, or 4 times in any sequence.

For example, sliding the hand across the chest is the "counting sign" in this example. Your catcher may go through a sequence of touching his mask, sliding his hand down his sleeve, touching his belt, touching his shoulder, and sliding his hand across his chest. Your players just need to count how many times the catcher slides his hand across his chest in the entire sequence. If he does it three times, you've called for play #3.

Try these simple sign systems with your team. Let them grasp the concepts of how the system works, then work more advanced signs into your system.



Thursday, August 5
Run a Fun and Efficient Practice

Run a Fun and Efficient Practice

Run a Fun and Efficient PracticeBy Cal Ripken, Jr.

Hearing Billy’s story about his son’s experience in recreational baseball made me think of how painstaking practice can be for the youngest of players. Usually its the games which are the most fun and practice is typically where you have the strongest battle as a coach to keep kids from yawning.

We’ve all seen it. You’re walking by a field and a local youth team is practicing. The coach is on the mound throwing batting practice and kids are scattered around the field. They’re turning their hats around on their head, playing with the loose leather strands on their mitts and drawing shapes in the dirt with their cleats. One player is hitting, another is on deck and the rest shift around the field lackadaisically.

Everyone hits. Everyone goes home. That’s practice.

Billy’s example is hard to swallow and I hope a rare occurrence, but all too often what I just described is what happens at practices across the country. That reality leaves little doubt as to why so many kids move away from baseball as they grow older. Running a fun, efficient and effective practice is critical to helping your players develop their skills and also to foster their interest in the game.

Use small groups and stations to keep players engaged. One thing we’ve learned over the years at Ripken Academy is that to teach baseball effectively, you must make the practices as interactive as possible. Use a variety of drills or stations and break big groups into smaller groups. In the “batting practice” example above, we have one station, one big group, and a whole lot of players doing nothing.

You’re much better off having 3-5 stations going at once. That way, your team of 15 or so players breaks down into much smaller groups. This is where you’ll need to communicate well with the parents of your players. You’re just one coach, and you may or may not have an assistant. To run a great practice, you’ll need some additional help in order to have multiple stations going at once.

Study your players and adjust the length of your drills to accommodate their ability to stay focused. This is especially important with players under 10 or 11 years old, who do not have the same attention span as older players.

Keep your stations moving. As a general rule, with kids between the ages of four and six you should keep your practices to about an hour. When you jump up to seven, eight and nine year olds, you can tack on another 15-30 minutes. In the 10-12 age group, 90 minutes is about right and you can even push it a little longer if the players are especially engaged. So it helps to schedule out how your stations will break down in the course of your practice in order to make sure you cover everything you’d like within that limited amount of time.

You’ll also need to pay close attention to your players as the practice wears on. Some days it may just be scorching hot out and all your players may have a big birthday party to go to later – so maybe their motivation for practice is running a little low.

It’s okay to end practice early if you can tell your players are worn out or disinterested. At the High School level and higher, this mentality changes, but when you’re coaching a young team, you should be able to gauge the level of interest your players are showing in practice. Pushing a practice too long when your players have clearly checked out will only create frustration for both the players and yourself.

We all want players to be disciplined and practice the right way every time so that their skills grow and their play improves during games. But don’t lose sight of the fact that this game should be fun, even when it’s just practice. So, be creative as a coach – add some twists to your drills, include some contests, and make sure everyone is having a good time.

Sample Practice Plan
Here’s a great practice plan with some good examples of drills you can run to keep everyone moving through multiple stations. Take this plan and use it yourself, or treat this plan as a template and drop in your own drills and stations. For every practice, you should come prepared with a plan like this one. Organization is a big key to coaching young players effectively.

This plan is designed for players in the 10-12 age group.

Duration Description
 5 minutes Dynamic Warm-Up
Skipping, high-knee skipping, high-knee jogging, bounding, backward running, jogging.
5 minutes Stretching
Hamstrings, quads, groin, back, shoulders, triceps.
 
 10 minutes Throwing and Catching
One-knee Drill (4 min) - Players work on arm action while throwing with their throwing-side knee planted on the ground.

Power Position Drill (4 min) - Players stride into their throw and plant their front foot where it lands, pointing towards their target. Holding that position, players work on good trunk rotation in their throwing motion.

Regular Catch or 21 (2 min) - Focus playing catch on delivering the ball to the chest or head. Playing the game "21" is a race to see which player can deliver the most accurate throws - one point is awarded for a throw to the chest, two points for a throw to the head, and no points for anything outside that area. First player to 21 points wins.
 
20 minutes Team Fundamentals
First-and-third offense and defense - Put your infielders in their positions and have everyone else run the bases. Work on both offensive and defensive plays in the first-and-third situation.
 
30 minutes Stations (3 groups, 10 minutes at each station)
Hitting - tee work and soft toss.

Backhand Drill - players roll groundballs to each other, focusing on using the backhand with the proper form (wide base, butt down, glove out in front).

Communication Drill - Players go to outfield positions. A machine or coach throws fly balls into the gaps. Players must use proper communication to make sure the fly balls are caught without confusion.
 
5 minutes Big League Baserunning
Players begin lined up at home plate, then progress through a series of running situations: (1) running from home through first base on a single; (2) lead off first, shuffle, crossover and run first to third, then jog home; (3) players line up at home again and then run out a double; (4) simulate scoring from second on a base hit; (5) finally, run out a triple or a home run.


Tuesday, March 30
Dugout Development

There’s no place better than the dugout to watch a game.
Not just because it affords the best view, but because players can learn so much about the game and the opponents they are up against. As a coach or parent, you should instill a mentality that time spent on the field should be focused on the game of baseball. Let all the off-field distractions fade into the background and encourage your player’s to watch all the action on the field attentively.

Don’t underestimate the power of observation. Take in all the information that is readily available to you on the field.

Watch the opposing pitcher. See what pitches he is getting over the plate and what pitches he is having trouble throwing for strikes. See what kind of move he has to first base and observe how long he takes to deliver the ball to home plate from the stretch position. By paying attention, we learn what kind of lead we can get on the pitcher, whether we can steal on him or if he has the good move to first base that may cause us to take a shorter lead.

Watch your opponent’s defense. What kind of arm strength and accuracy do the infielders, outfielders and catchers have?

Look at the field’s condition. Is there anything around a specific defensive position that players should avoid? Look for areas on the field that may provide an opportunity to take an extra base in certain situations.

We can also learn a lot about our own position by watching the opposing player at the same position. What does he do well? How does he go about his job? His style may provide us with a method that we could use to make a certain play better. By the same token, his weak points may reflect our own and we will be able to have a good picture of our own faults.

When we are on the field, we want to make sure we have a strong sense of what we are go¬ing to do before the pitch is made to the hitter. From the dugout we are afforded the opportunity to gather a great deal of information before we come to bat or reach first base. The dugout also allows us to talk with teammates in regards to all of these things and again gives us a broader knowledge of the game.

Dugout chatter may seem insignificant, but it is a great way for players to learn the game. By encouraging your players to focus on the game at-hand while in the dugout, you’ll find that they pick-up on the details of the game and begin to share strategies and unique approaches. This sharing of information will help them have better at-bats and also help them become active thinkers. The players who reach the highest levels of baseball don’t simply play the game, they analyze every aspect of the game. In major league dugouts, players are always sharing information to help each other gain a competitive edge over the opponent.

One more important thing to keep in mind – your players should focus their attention on the half-inning that they’re in. Players should not be standing out on the field thinking about the last at-bat when they popped up or hit the home run. When in the dugout they should not be worrying about an error or thinking about a great play. Con¬centration is a great part of the game and one thought in mind can command full concentration—two thoughts naturally split that concentration. We always want to have a clear and positive mind.

And don’t forget, the dugout is also a place to pull for your teammates. It's al¬ways nice, from your own side, to hear your teammates rooting for you when you are at home plate trying to get a hit to help your club score runs.

Although experience is the best teacher there is an awful lot to be learned watching a game and no one has a better view than the people in the dugout.


Tuesday, March 30
Drill of the Month - Lob Toss
Description
Lob toss is an advanced hitting drill, perfect for players who have just made the transition to the full-sized, 90-foot diamond. It’s also a great drill for hitters who have trouble waiting on pitches.

Age Appropriate

10+

Problem
We have a hitter who constantly ends up on their front foot with all their weight transferred before the ball enters the strike zone. All the power generated by the weight transfer has been exhausted before contact is made, and we either end up with an errant swing or a very weak ground ball or pop fly.

This is a common problem for players who have just moved up to a 90-foot diamond. Their bat speed stays the same, but the distance to the mound has increased, and now the ball is taking slightly longer to reach the strike zone. As a result, the hitter grows impatient and finds himself out on his front foot before the ball has entered the strike zone.

Drill Objective
We want to develop a player’s ability to keep their weight back until the last possible moment, when they can explode forward and shift their weight as they hit the baseball with authority. Reinforce this by telling your players, “Let it get deep.”

Set-up
L-screen, bucket of balls, coach to pitch, bucket or stool to sit on.

Executing the Drill
This is a drill that Cal worked on all the time. It’s an incredibly easy set-up for an extremely effective drill.

Coach, set up your L-screen about 20 to 40 feet in front of home plate, depending on the player’s ability level and your ability to lob the ball with accuracy. Toss each ball with a high arc (think slow-pitch softball). The batter should let the ball travel as far as possible, letting it get deep in the strike zone, before trying to drive the ball.

Have fun with this drill. As players learn to stay back on the pitch, they’ll be able to really wail on the ball. Eventually, this can turn into a fun hitting contest for your team, but don’t lose sight of the goal: getting your hitters to wait on pitches so the power generated by their weight transfer is maximized at the point of contact.


Monday, May 10
Catchers Blocking Drill

<a name="Catchers Blocking Drill">Catchers Blocking Drill</a> 

Description
This is an incredibly simple but extremely valuable drill.

Catchers have a lot of roles to play on the field. They help the pitcher, command the defense, and also serve as the stalwart defenders of home plate. The catcher is effectively the first line of defense on every play, and the last line of defense whenever the opponent threatens to score.

Blocking wild pitches is therefore an extremely valuable skill for every catcher to have. Effectively preventing passed balls can stop runners from advancing and scoring while also giving the pitcher more confidence in breaking balls and borderline pitches.

Age Appropriate
10+

Problem
Even the best pitchers get a little wild sometimes. Other times, the situation just calls for a curveball in the dirt or a hard slider low and away. Whether intentionally wild or not, pitchers need to know they’ve got a wall behind that plate. Catchers need to be drilled in the proper way to block a ball.

Drill Objective
There’s no better way to teach a catcher than to just put him in the crouch and start chucking balls in the dirt.

Set-up
Catching gear, bucket of baseballs.

Executing the Drill

Put your catcher behind the plate in full gear – don’t forget the mask. Stand about 30 feet away with a bucket of baseballs.

One ball at a time, deliberately throw pitches in the dirt so the catcher must drop and block.

Reinforce the fundamentals – drop to the knees, get behind the ball, corral the ball and try to deaden it, keep the head down and locate the ball as soon as possible. Some young catchers will be afraid of the ball and might turn their faces away just as the ball comes in. Make sure you help your players overcome that fear, the mask is there for a reason and your catchers will do a better job if they keep their eyes open and focused on the ball.

Encourage excellence. The goal here is not to simply stop the ball from getting by the catcher. The best catchers bring wild pitches under control. They knock the ball straight down in front and they are quick to pick the ball up. When runners on base can see the ball has stopped in front of the catcher, they are less likely to risk taking an extra base.

Make it Fun
An easy way to make this drill more fun, turn it into a game. We call it the "Goalie Game" and its pretty self-explanatory. If you have more than one catcher, pit your catchers against each other.

Create a "goal" area for each catcher to guard. Now, have the catchers take turns throwing balls in the dirt at each other. Every time a catcher fails to block a ball thrown within the goal area, the other catcher scores a point. As your catchers develop their skills, expand the goal area to make this drill more challenging.

Advanced
When pitchers begin throwing breaking balls and other off-speed pitches, catchers need to practice how to block those pitches as well. All you need to do is incorporate those pitches into this same drill. Throw the ball with some spin on it, try different grips, and change speeds.

This will help your catcher develop a sense for how the ball reacts when it hits the dirt with some extra movement on it. The bounce of a fastball is pretty straightforward, but breaking balls can react much more erratically.