Creating Space in Youth Sports Practices

Creating Space in Youth Sports Practices

The term “creating space” has always had a definitive meaning in sports. Whether it is a shooting guard in basketball working to get off a shot or a wide receiver in football trying to get open or pick up yards after a catch, “creating space” is the term likened to distancing oneself from a defender. In youth sports practices, the term takes on a different meaning. Coaches are frequently handcuffed by the lack of available practice fields, gyms or even ice time. The youth hockey coach must run efficient practices because of the cost of ice time and sometimes he must find a way to coach 12 – 16 kids using less than half the rink. In basketball, court time is also at a premium and coaches sometimes must make do with only one rim and 12 kids. In baseball, especially in areas with seasonal changes like the northeast, the supply of fields cannot keep up with coaches’ demands. How are coaches supposed to rectify situations like this and run effective practices with limited space?

When I first began coaching youth baseball, I remember showing up at a field to practice and another team had just stepped on the field before us and my coaching staff and I stood there looking at each other. I got the team together and told them sheepishly that practice was canceled. Luckily most of the parents hadn’t left so the kids’ rides were still there. Had I been more prepared and creative, I could have moved the practice from the intended field to any safe alternate, including a much smaller grass field or even a parking lot.

Let’s explore a couple sports and see how coaches can be creative and run efficient practices in even the smallest or oddest of places:

In soccer, some of the best types of drills are dribbling drills. Lou Fratello, a college soccer coach, who helped create a number of soccer videos, insists that players do not need a huge amount of space to polish their skills. A ball control drill called “Push-Pull” is one such drill. In this drill the player pulls the ball back towards himself and controls it with his laces. He then gives the ball a light tap forward. He moves forward with the ball as he controls it. After moving forward, he moves his whole body backward, controlling the ball the same way with his laces. From the description you can see how a team of 15 players can do this drill in a small confined area. Another drill called “Foundation” also can be practiced in a confined area. Foundation is a great footwork drill. Here, a player taps the ball back and forth between his feet. Players should have their heads and knees up when performing all of the basic footwork skills. Foundation, as well as all of the other footwork drills, can be rehearsed in a stationary position, or while moving forwards or backwards. This drill is great for conditioning and better ball control. The whole team can do this drill in a small area.

In basketball, coaches can integrate a number of ball handling drills involving the whole team. Stationary drills such as passing the ball around the body starting with the neck then moving down the body, to the waist and then each leg is a favorite of players. The “Ball Switch” drill is also popular and builds up hand quickness. In this quick ball handling drill, the player will hold the ball between his legs, one hand in front and one hand in back. The player will then switch hands, moving both hands simultaneously going from in front to behind and vice-versa without letting the ball touch the ground. When a young or inexperienced player starts, if he can’t do this drill right away, he can bounce the ball, then switch hands with the front hand going in back and the back hand going in front and catching the ball after one bounce. The benefit of this drill is that it enhances a player’s coordination and develops quick hands. The player can challenge himself and see how fast he can do this. Again the whole team can do this drill in a small confined area.

Baseball may be the most challenging sport to practice in a small space, though it can be done. Of course you can’t swat long fly balls but you can practice running drills, like bouncing off a base after the pitch crosses home plate. Instead of a single line you can use three lines and only need 20-25 feet of space. You can use drop down rubber bases, use chalk or even gloves as bases. The assistant coach can simulate the opposing pitcher and the manager instructs the baserunners to do one of three things: bounce off the base, steal, or execute a delayed steal on the throw back to the pitcher. Teams can still practice hitting drills but they need to use the right type of ball. Some options include a wiffleball, plastic pickle ball or even a rag ball, which is simply a rag with two inch masking tape wrapped around it until the rag is almost entirely covered. A game of “One Pitch” can often be both fun and effective. This involves dividing the team in half and has two simple rules. First, players have to swing at whatever pitch they get. Second, the outcomes are that either the player hits a homerun or, if he doesn’t hit a homerun, he is out. Each team sends all players up to bat and whoever has more homeruns at the end is the winner.

These are examples of optimizing limited space when challenged with less than optimal surroundings. Coaches need to make up two lists of drills at the beginning of the season. One list will have drills that are used on the regular field and the other list will have alternate drills for either a parking lot or a smaller practice area. And coaches need to map out the props they will need and keep these in their trunk. Youth sports practice time is valuable because coaches can actually teach the sport and have the kids learn from their mistakes. Don’t let limited space change your practice plans. Be creative and create space!