by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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There is the age-old adage we have all heard before: “Practice Makes Perfect.” It was thrown at us when we were kids in an attempt to make us work harder and practice more. As adults we throw it at kids to now get them to work a little bit harder. The adage suggests that the more you practice the better you get at something. The more you play the piano, the better you will be. The more swings you take at a softball pitch the better hitter you will be. But this adage is not always true. Practice does not always make perfect. Practice does not always make you better.
This thought was never more prevalent than the other day while I was watching a local travel baseball team practice. I was at the park with my kids and as they were playing on the slides and swings, I was watching the baseball practice that was going on the field next to the playground. As a long-time baseball player myself, I am always interested in how coaches work with kids to hone their crafts. On this day, two lines were set up in the infield - one line playing 3rd base and one line playing 2nd base. Two coaches were standing opposite these lines and were hitting ground ball after ground ball to these two lines. They were working on fielding the ball and preparing themselves to make a throw across the diamond to first base. The kids were not making the throws (probably an attempt to save their arms from too many throws), but regardless the kids were meant to go through the steps as if they were completing a play on an infield grounder. Ball after ball went rolling hard through the infield quickly. Player after player fielded the ball quickly and got back into the line.
As I watched the fielders working through the drill I was amazed at how many ground balls were fielded using poor form. From my professional expertise, I would estimate that less than 25% of the plays were made correctly. The players’ approaches to the ball as it was rolling towards them lacked precision. They weren’t focused on getting to the ball in a position where they were prepared to make a strong throw. Their footwork lacked precision, often leaving them off balance when it came to the throw. The majority of the players were fielding the ball outside of their feet rather than in the center of their body, as well as catching the ball deep in their stance rather than getting their hands out in front of them. And yet the coaches said nothing to correct these issues and help the kids to improve.
They praised the kids for ‘making a great play’ when they would catch the ball. This praise was solely based on whether the kid actually caught the ball. If they didn’t catch the ball, then the coaches would say something generic like: “Keep your head down,” or “Get your glove on the ground,” or “Get behind the ball.” I was shocked at how travel ball coaches (who are supposed to be top coaches since they are charging kids to play on the team) were coaching at such a basic level. These are the types of things you would hear on a T-Ball field with little kids just learning how to play. But on a travel ball team with middle school aged kids, the coaching wasn’t at the level it needed to be. The coaches were smiling and excited that they were hitting so many ground balls, so quickly. These kids were fielding hundreds of ground balls which the coaches were proud of. The drill was more of a check on a long list of things to get done during the practice, a way to show off to parents about how many ground balls were hit and fielded during the practice.
But the problem was that all of those hundreds of ground balls fielded incorrectly were not improving the kids’ skills in anyway. It was clear to me that in this case, practice was not making perfect. Practice was not actually helping these kids to build their skills. As coaches, we often fall into this trap of simply getting things done. We concentrate on how many ground balls the players fielded, how many swings they took in the cage, and how many pitches they threw. This is because we know the adage that practice makes perfect and we assume that the MORE that we have the kids do, the better they will get. In reality, it should be about QUALITY rather than QUANTITY. It should be about fielding 25 ground balls well rather than 100 fielded poorly. It should be about 15 great swings with time in between each pitch to talk over what the player is doing, rather than ripping through an entire bucket and having half of them end up in the backstop having been missed by the batter.
It is often difficult to break these old habits for us as coaches. It looks better to parents and kids if we can brag about how many swings or grounders they took in a practice. But as coaches we need to always be thinking about what is best for the player. We have to be creative in order to do this at times. We have to be patient to do this at times. We have to actually coach the kids up. For it is not just about whether you can catch the ball or not (that is T-Ball stuff), because at some point in their careers these kids are going to have to learn to get around the ground ball and coming through it towards first base as they field the ball. At some point, the skills will have to improve or they will be left behind. The same can be said for teachers, parents, and anyone else working with kids in any form or fashion (this isn’t just about sports coaching). The key is in changing the adage of “practice makes perfect” and concentrating more on “quality over quantity.” When you think about quality and about taking the time to coach them up on the nuances of what they are doing, the impact will be tremendous.