Practice has several purposes. Learning to perform, developing, maintaining, and perfecting skills are the basic objectives of a beneficial practice. In the pursuit of these objectives, such areas as discipline, teamwork, persistence, timing, mental toughness, responsibility, organization, and gamesmanship play important roles during practice.
Coaches should ensure that learning, developing, maintaining, and perfecting skills are included in each practice. A good practice session also invigorates, enlightens, teaches, develops, excites, encourages, and promotes teamwork among team members. Your ability to select the best drills to match your practice goals often determines the success or failure of your practice sessions.
Three familiar quotes succinctly describe the importance of practice. The saying “practice makes perfect” has often been used to illustrate the need to do things repetitively while pursuing excellence. The value and importance of practice sessions is expressed even more strongly by the commonly heard saying, “perfect practice makes perfect.” An even more precise and descriptive way to point out the importance of practice is “practice makes permanent.” Choose any, all, or none of these sayings but realize that most would agree that practice sessions directly relate to the final results.
We practice to prepare for each game. If that practice is productive, the results will show. A well-designed practice in which players repeat and diligently try to perfect fundamentals is a big step toward success. A poorly designed and sloppily executed practice likely produces chaos and leads to failure in games.
Drills are an important part of teaching and coaching. Some coaches use drills without knowing it. I once had a coach tell me, “I’m not big on drills. I seldom use them.” Then I watched his team practice and noticed the skill and precise rhythm and timing of his players. I further noticed that his team’s batting practice was very well organized and that outfield and infield practice was impeccably orchestrated. Of course, what his players were doing was running drills. Their pepper games (a drill), their hitting in the batting cages (a drill), and even their playing catch (another drill) clearly showed the results of fine teaching techniques through drills.
What Is a Drill?
A drill is a means of teaching and training through repeated exercise or repetition of an act. Fielding a series of ground balls, playing catch, practicing footwork, hitting, running the bases, or doing any other activity that is repeated can be called a drill. These kinds of activities make up a practice schedule. Among the many practice activities are both productive repetitions and unproductive, even harmful, repetitions.
It’s virtually impossible to conduct a practice without using drills. However, it is not difficult to conduct a practice using drills that do little toward achieving team or individual goals. Obviously, the most effective practices incorporate proper drills that help players pursue excellence in the skill being taught. This is where sound teaching begins. Sound, effective drills are among a coach’s key assets.
The Value of Drills
Muscle memory is important in accomplishing any athletic endeavor. Throwing a baseball, hitting it, and running the bases properly are activities that require freedom of movement. To perform these activities successfully, the performer must be able to react without having to carefully tell each muscle group what to do. His reactions are seemingly automatic. Muscle memory is the result of teaching the muscles how to perform a specific activity and repeating that activity until it can be done freely without methodical thought. Throwing, for example, requires some thought in where to throw and how hard to throw, but the mechanical part of throwing (getting the proper grip, bringing the arm into throwing position, and releasing the ball) should be routine. In order to get to the automatic stage, the muscles are trained to react quickly to each competitive situation.
Either the athlete is already gifted with the ability to make a mental command and have his muscle groups react and perform, or the athlete must train those muscle groups to respond to his mental commands. Most baseball skills must be methodically practiced before the body is able to react freely and without conscious thought to each part of the activity. This is muscle memory. Mental toughness and concentration are also necessary. Learning the proper techniques and methods and then repeating them correctly form an avenue toward success.
You can incorporate drills into practice in many ways. Some coaches use the “machine gun method,” which employs several kinds of drills to improve a single skill. The theory here is that someone will benefit from something. In other words, if enough different kinds of drills are executed and enough different kinds of approaches are used to explain the skill, something from these drills will stick to some of those who participate in them.
It’s true that some players are astute and skillful enough to get the most out of even an ill-conceived, poorly conducted practice session, but these are the rare ones. Most players need the help that carefully chosen and orchestrated drills can provide.
Drills used wisely and correctly dramatically improve skills. There are many roads to success. Some coaches do most of their teaching with a few well-planned drills. They select drills that fit the lesson plan and repeat them with precision. Others use many different well-thought-out drills to accomplish the same end. Some coaches are clever enough to design on-the-spot drills that fit perfectly into the lesson plan for the day. Successful coaches and teachers have, or develop, an ability to know exactly where they are going and how they will get there. They can identify the areas that most need work and select the proper drills to address them. Coaching with concern and passion, they stay focused until they get results.
Along with selecting the proper drill, it’s also important to choose the best length of time to do the drill and the number of times to repeat it. Appropriate drills performed several times in short spurts usually work better than lengthy drill sessions with long intervals between them.