Making Youth Baseball Line-Ups

This is not the way to make a good youth recreational sports baseball line-up.

Making a line-up can be one of the most challenging aspects of coaching a youth baseball team. See below my recommendations for making a solid one. Recall one of the key tenets of the Hustle & Attitude philosophy – every child plays. plays equal amount, and plays multiple positions.

  • Start with who’s going to be there…  We have an 11-player roster.  And this night, we know that one player is home with his family quarantining and another is out of town.  So…EVERYONE PLAYS THE WHOLE GAME!  This is actually easy on a coach, right?  Not having to rotate players in and out of positions in the field (in our league all players on your roster present bat – a practice I like at the younger recreational levels).  I’ll write later about good methods for rotating players.
  • For a youth baseball line-up, you should start with who will play pitcher and who will play catcher.  Based on the nature of these positions, they require some additional consideration.  Each position provides a possible exception to my ‘every athlete plays every position’ rule.  The exception is that I won’t have an athlete play a position where they might get hurt physically – or emotionally.
    • Pitchers have the ball on every play.  They set the pace of the entire game.  All eyes are on them – they are at the center of the game, literally.  I feel it would be potentially emotionally painful for a player who cannot reliably throw the ball to home plate from the mound. Never mind whether they can throw strikes…at 10 years old it is the rare athlete that can reliably throw strikes. A key consideration here is who is eligible to pitch.  Many leagues have mandatory rules for days between pitching based on the number of pitches thrown in a game (another key rule that should be implemented in every youth baseball league).  So, for our team, I know that everyone is eligible because the only player who pitched enough to require rest is the one out of town.  You could consider the competition in determining who will pitch.  For example, if you know you’re playing a strong team, you could counter with your better pitchers.  I like to make sure every player has equal opportunity to pitch, so I will often go with the player who hasn’t pitched lately.  By the end of the regular season, I like to see most of our pitchers with equal chances to pitch (innings can be a bad measure as one player may get through an inning with 20 pitches where it takes another 40+; so, I use number of pitches and games pitched). 
    • Catcher is a unique position on a baseball field.  They are the only player looking towards the outfield at the start of each play; the ready position is different (a crouch that some kids can’t even maintain and requires them putting their throwing arm behind their back for safety); and then there’s the gear – the “tools of ignorance”.  In my experience only a handful of the children on a team have any interest at all in catching.  In practice, the coach needs to find out who is interested AND capable.  Often, on a typical youth baseball roster, that number is around four.  In our case, we have three. 
    • Another consideration – that is a rule in some leagues, and I think is valuable in all leagues – is to try not to have a child play pitcher and catcher in the same game.  Again, these positions are so unique and demanding that I think it is just better to not put that on a player in the same game.
  • Next, is where the players will play in the field.  I make these in two inning sets; i.e. players will play the same position for the 1st and 2nd innings, then switch to a new position for the 3rd and 4th.  If we go longer, the players will just stay where they are.  I don’t call out first base as special like pitchers and catchers, but of the remaining fielding positions, it is one of special interest.  Namely, your first baseman needs to be able to catch the ball reliably.  At some youth baseball levels, you will have players who are still not comfortable catching the ball – i.e. they may show signs of being afraid of the ball.  If you have players like this, they should not play first base.  I would suggest you should work with these children so that they improve and gain confidence enough to be able to play at least an inning there before the end of the season.  In our case, we only have one or two players I would not feel confident playing first base. 
  • After the pitcher and catcher, I typically start by placing players in the infield.  Then, I set the outfield with the remaining players.  When it comes time to rotate, I start with the three outfielders and place them in the infield positions.  That means one infielder will play another position in the infield (there are four), unless they pitch or catch during the game.  So be it…maybe next game, they start in the outfield.  The remaining players make up the outfield for the last innings.
    • There are sometimes considerations for players in the field similar to pitching, catching, and first base. Similar to not wanting to embarrass an athlete at pitcher, if there is a player who is terrified of playing a position, I would not force them to play it. For instance, we have a player who has told us she does not want to play in the infield. We are honoring the player’s wishes. If we were having practices (we are only playing games in a condensed season due to the virus), I would spend extra time with this player at practice to build their confidence until we both felt confident they could play say second base.
    • In order to make sure everyone plays all over and an equal amount, as a coach, you have to keep track. I use a spreadsheet and track how many times each player has played each position.
  • Finally, it’s time for the batting order.  In our league, all the players who are there bat – another policy I really like.  In our case, we only have nine (hopefully they all show up!).  I like to place a player at the top of the order who regularly makes contact.  This gets the team some momentum when they start to bat.  I also like to rotate where players are in the order from game to game – this isn’t the case where one of our players is the speedy lead off hitter, one is the bat and power combo #3 hitter, and the all or nothing slugger bats 4th.  There are some players on the team who are better hitters than others, but the idea here is to get the players at bats.  If they batted at the bottom of the order the last game, they may not have gotten as many chances to hit as the players at the top of the order; so I switch it up from game to game.
  • Now, I put the batting line-up in the score book – IN PENCIL!!!  Then, the batting order and positions go up on the dry erase clipboard (you gotta have one of these!).  Then, I write the goals for the team for that game…and we’ll talk about goal-setting in a subsequent post.

POST SCRIPT

Good thing I put the line up in pencil.  Turns out one of the players I thought would be there wasn’t and the one who was quarantining with his family was able to play.  That was a pleasant result (and not just that our player and his family are apparently virus free) as it facilitated essentially a one-for-one swap in the lineup, but it did require a shake-up of where the children played in the field.  I spent the first five minutes after I arrived at the field adjusting the line up accordingly.  

Teaching – My Favorite Part of Coaching Youth Sports

Youth recreational sports coaches wear many hats – leader, organizer, motivator, counselor, and my favorite:  Teacher.  It is also one of the more important roles a coach plays.  The coach teaches the rules, the skills, and the tactics of the game.  While doing so, a good coach also teaches compassion and discipline.  Recently, I recognized that a baseball team I was helping coach – I joined in the middle of the season – didn’t seem to have the fundamentals down in many areas.  I’m not sure if the head coach didn’t teach them at all or if the kids had forgotten.  In any event, when I helped at the first couple of practices, it seemed the head coach expected the players to perform at a level above what I could tell they were.  For instance, we were taking infield – the coach hits ground balls to the players in the infield and they practice fielding the ball and throwing to the assigned base.  After the first round through the infield, I could see the players didn’t demonstrate the correct way to field a ground ball.  I stopped the drill and called the infielders into the center of the diamond.  I borrowed one of the players’ gloves and I taught them the proper way to come in on a ground ball, field it in front of them, pull the ball in, and then get into a good throwing position.  In teaching a group of under 10-year olds, I told them what they should do, showed them how to do it myself, and then had them show me they could do it.  Notice that, in showing me they could do it properly, they were convincing themselves they could do it themselves.  I then had them return to their positions and we started the drill again.  When the players fielded the ball correctly – whether they actually fielded the ball or it got by them – I praised them for doing it right.  When they didn’t field the ball correctly, I stopped and reminded them how to do it right and in some cases, showed them.

 
I can’t tell if I think teaching is the most important role a coach plays or if that is just because it’s my favorite part.  It is incredibly rewarding when I see a player who previously didn’t perform a skill correctly pay attention, learn, try, and eventually become proficient in the skill.  At all youth levels, one of the primary goals for the players is to learn how to play the game right.  Coincidentally, there’s a reason that there’s a right way to perform these game skills – they lead to success in the game; and being successful in the games is fun.  Too many coaches either assume a level of proficiency in the fundamentals or disregard the importance of them.  I would start each flag football season showing the players the proper way to throw and catch a football.  Remember, no matter what age the players you are coaching, it could still be a player’s first year playing the sport.  The first couple of practices should be devoted to reinforcing the fundamentals – which will involve teaching the fundamentals .  If during these practices, you realize that the players already are proficient in the fundamentals, then by all means move on to the higher-level skills and strategies.  It doesn’t do any good to hit grounders to kids to practice to get proficient at where to throw the ball in different situations if they can’t field the ball correctly or to work on your passing offense if the players can’t reliably throw or catch a football.


In addition to teaching the skills of the sport, a good coach also will demonstrate compassion and discipline that the kids will pick up on.  I’ll start with the second one:  discipline.  I don’t mean when a coach disciplines a player for bad behavior – although bad behavior should be corrected.  I mean the discipline of recognizing there is a correct way to do something and having the persistence to keep trying until it is done right.  Kids need to discipline themselves to listen to instruction and to eagerly attempt a new or advanced skill.  They have to be open to criticism when they do not perform the skill correctly and have the right attitude about understanding what they did wrong and trying again.  One way a coach can gain the confidence of their players is to show compassion and recognizing every player isn’t going to pick up the skill correctly the first time.  Compassionate coaches work with all their players, regardless of skill level and ability to improve.  


Teaching players to be better at the sport is a key characteristic of Hustle & Attitude coaches.

Coaching and COVID-19

The new ‘normal’ – me coaching baseball last week

All aspects of our lives have been impacted by the Coronavirus, including youth sports. Many states canceled youth sports for the spring and then eventually the summer.

Here in Goodyear, Arizona youth baseball was suspended in March at the height of the national response to the virus. The league my niece plays in restarted two weeks ago. I have been helping as an assistant coach. The league has mandated that coaches wear masks while interacting with the players and other coaches – although in each of the last two games I coached, while all the coaches on our team were wearing masks, none of the opposing team’s coaches were wearing them – mirroring the situation in greater society, much as youth sports often does, right? In addition, the league has mandated social distancing for the players – i.e. only a few are allowed in the dugout and the remainder are just outside the dugout (still behind a fence) and are sitting approximately six feet apart.

Should we be playing at all? Many children (and parents) could really use the activity, camaraderie, and physical energy outlet that comes with playing youth sports after being out of school and in stay-at-home orders for several weeks. According the Aspen Sports Institute Return to Play risk assessment (an excellent resource for anyone concerned about youth sports during this time), even with the precautions I mentioned above in place, playing team baseball is a HIGH RISK activity. Did my niece’s league re-open too soon (again, questions that mirror the broader virus-related dialogue)? I like what the Aspen Sports Institute has said about returning to play (in this case they’re talking about playing basketball); it’s

Worth keeping in mind: The NBA – with all of its resources and access to medical experts – hasn’t even returned yet to playing, with plans to do so in late July in a bubble environment.

https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/parent-mailbag/posts/2020/6/22/what-should-return-to-play-for-youth-basketball-look-like

Ultimately the decision to play is up to each state and local league’s discretion; not to mention parents’ feelings about the safety and risks. My niece had to change teams when the league restarted because some of the players on her original team were not coming back – at least a few of them due to concerns related to the virus. Further, we learned last week that one of our players’ family members has the virus and therefore he wasn’t going to be playing for two weeks while his family quarantined.

What about coaching, if the athlete’s league’s are playing? As with my general response to the virus, I believe I am taking appropriate precautions. Our city has mandated wearing a mask when being in public and maintaining appropriate social distancing. I am following the league-directed recommendations as well. I am wearing a mask for the entire practice or game. It is uncomfortable in the Arizona heat, but really, there are medical professionals and others who are required to wear their masks for 8+ hours a day; so, I’m not really going to complain. I help the manager remind the players that they need to maintain social distancing as much as possible.

When interacting with the players, I am trying to act as normal as possible, however. In trying to behave as I would if there was no virus, I’m trying to present the children with a respite from the anxiety they are likely feeling – just as we all are. It’s not a normal situation, though, is it? Again, the folks at the Aspen Sports Institute have good advice recognizing how coach’s need to be more sensitive to each player’s mental health than maybe before the virus.

My recommendation is for coaches to be hyper aware of the reason the league is playing during this time – and indeed the reason for youth sports, in general; to provide the children the opportunity to have fun with their friends and learn to play a sport…in as safe an environment as possible. If at any time, the coach feels one of those goals is going to be compromised due to the virus situation, the coach needs to take action. These actions can include recognizing a possible increased stress level and injecting a deliberately fun activity – regardless of the potential impact to the result of the contest (which Hustle & Attitude coaches understand shouldn’t be the primary driver, anyway); maybe backing off the discipline and letting the athletes let loose a little more than would be typically allowed; and even removing the players from the situation if it becomes unsafe for them in any way.


Additional resources for coaches:

  • Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) offers online courses to help coaches be equipped with skills to deal with players’ social and emotional needs
  • PCA also has ‘Coaching During COVID-19‘; a blog post and Facetime Live Tips a Tools Tuesdays video (30 minutes) by Kelly Kratz  
  • Up2Us Sports has training for coaches to help players improve their mental health, heal from trauma, and learn conflict resolution skills

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