Team Defense: Understanding the desired outcome

Recently, Stick and Ball TV hosted a zoom call to discuss team defense. The webinar was hosted by Jeremy “Sheets” Sheetinger, Head Coach of the Georgia-Gwinnett College Grizzlies. His guest speakers were Erik Bakich, Head Coach at the University of Michigan, and Kai Correa, Bench Coach for the San Francisco Giants and founder of the #FridayFielders movement. The webinar was “attended” by 600+ coaches all eager to learn and talk baseball.

There were so many great takeaways from the almost 2 hour conversation: from the “classroom” sessions, to the alignment of throwing tasks to match the practice plan, to the Team D progression, to the ways to incorporate competition in the team defense setting. The thing that stood out the most was the point that Kai raised about the priority we, as coaches, need to have in regards to teaching our team defense.

Desired outcome over responsibilities

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Kai so eloquently brought up a great point that so many coaches, myself included, focus so much on the player’s responsibilities in our team defense segment of practice that we often overlook the goal or desired outcome of the “play.” We’ll typically put our defense out at their positions and focus on their rotations and execution of that specific play. That’s not to say that this kind of practice isn’t necessary or valuable, especially when introducing the concept. Kai believes, and I agree, that our narrative during these situations needs to be adjusted slightly to focus less on the player’s responsibilities and more so on what we’re looking to get out of the situation as a team.

For example, runner on 1B in a possible bunting situation. We all have our “go to” or standard bunt defense that we use in this situation. Our message in practice needs to be what our team is looking for in the situation: an out. So often at the youth or high school level we drill home the responsibilities in practice that when the situation arises in a game and the batter swings away instead of squaring to bunt we almost don’t know how to react. I’ve seen the look of “well that’s not supposed to happen” on the faces of players. In this example, the batter hits a ground ball to the 3-4 hole and we get an out at 1B. While this may seem like a win for the offense, we just achieved our desired outcome as a defense. We got an out… bottom line. That may not be how we drew it up in our minds or on the whiteboard, but every out gets us closer to running in to swing it for ourselves.

The coaching perspective

As coaches, how can we transform our thinking and what would it look like in a practice setting?

  1. In our introduction to the concept session early in the season, we can still use the defense at their positions and focus on rotations and responsibilities. But instead of leading with that, let’s set up a game situation for our guys, verbally or on a whiteboard, and let’s ask the question, “What do we need here?” or “What do we want here?” Use these questions to frame our desired outcome for the players. Explain that the desired outcome may come in different ways, but they all count for us. We may have a priority how it comes but getting our guys to recognize that is a part of the learning process.
  2. Let’s change the delivery method of the play. Simply adding a rolled ball can add a dimension to the drill to speed up the play.
  3. Put the players against a clock to simulate a runner without an actual runner. Have a time goal to complete the play and determine our success based on that time.
  4. Add runners. Adding runners allows the players to see timing of the execution. While competing against a clock allows us to speed up our play, the runners give us an idea of when the play is there and when we need to go to the next step of our desired outcome priority.
  5. Add randomness. Run random team defense plays, which force the players to recall information and their responsibilities, as well as the desired outcome of various plays.
  6. Combine team defense skills. A great way to do that is with the 21 Outs, or 27 Outs, drill that seems to be a staple in every team defense setting. Incorporate different skills in an almost game like setting.
  7. Finally, implement those skills in a live setting or scrimmage. This gives as real of a feel as we can get without the lights actually being “on” in a regular season game.

These 7 steps are Kai’s Team Defense Progression: 1) slow and controlled, 2) fast and controlled, 3) fast against the clock, 4) fast with runners, 5) randomness, 6) combine fundamentals, and finally 7) scrimmage/game-like setting. Progression gives the best chance for mastery for our guys by placing different demands with increasing degrees of difficulty. The progressions also give plenty of opportunity to master each skill/desired outcome, which in turn increases their comfort in any situation that arises. With that comfort will come better execution when it counts.

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