Heading For Home

Smart, aggressive, instinctive base running can make the difference between victory and defeat. Here’s how four coaches train their players to make the right choices on the base paths.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 12.9, October 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1209/headforhome.htm

To the average fan, the three most important attributes of a good base runner are speed, speed, and more speed. But if you ask Jay Miller, Head Coach at Mississippi State University, he’ll tell you that while speed is a nice tool to have, the marks of a successful base runner are timing, alertness, and calculated aggressiveness. After all, if an athlete isn’t able to apply her speed, it doesn’t matter how quickly she can run.

"Too many teams run one base at a time," says Miller. "They’re more concerned with getting to the next base than they are with scoring. From the first step out of the batter’s box, runners should be thinking about getting all the way home, forcing the defense to stop them rather than stopping themselves."

The only thing better than a good base runner is a team full of good base runners. A good running team does more than just fill up a box score—it constantly applies pressure to the defense, getting ready to take advantage of any weakness. Good base running teams are fun to watch, fun to play on, and extremely fun to coach. Rhonda Revelle, Head Coach at the University of Nebraska, says that base running instruction tends to be neglected, especially at the high school level. "Unless you have a trained eye, you don’t notice base running mistakes," she says. "Base running can make the difference in a game, but I don’t think coaches work on it as much as they should."

When taught effectively, good base running can become instinctive, and its effects can spread to other diamond disciplines as players develop better ball sense and learn how to play the game more intelligently. For this article, we talked to a handful of coaches whose teams are noted for their prowess on the base paths. We asked them what skills should be taught, how athletes can be trained to run the bases instinctively, and to share some of their favorite drills with us.

Teaching Responsibility
The first step in teaching effective base running is to train your athletes to make their own decisions. "It is important for kids to learn how to see the game while they are running, and not have their every move controlled by the coach," says Gayle Blevins, Head Coach at the University of Iowa. "So many opportunities are lost when a coach tries to control an athlete’s thinking process and her ability to react. I see that a lot, especially in high school games. A lot of coaches teach players how to turn the bases, but they don’t teach them how to read the situation, which is an important part of becoming a good base runner."

Miller agrees. "We get athletes coming to our level who have never had to depend on their own judgement," he says. "So many kids have been taught to rely on their coach to tell them everything—when to run, when not to run, and when to take an extra base—that they never develop that game sense.

"I try to put as much responsibility on the player as possible," he continues. "I want them to play the game, rather than relying on me to tell them when to go. Most of our game-situation drills are designed for the players to make decisions themselves. We encourage them in practice to be overly aggressive and find out what their limits are, so that during the game, they’ll know what they can and can’t do. If players never extend themselves in practice, they’ll never know what their limitations are. The time to take chances is during practice. That’s when they learn."

Teaching the Basics
Being able to efficiently cover ground between home and first base requires timing, taking the shortest distance to first, and touching the bag properly. And whether you’re coaching a Division I college team or a high school junior varsity squad, the essential drills to build these skills are the same.

"You can do the exact same things in college that you do in high school, and vice versa," says Revelle. "Effective base running isn’t just based on talent. Yes, faster runners have an advantage. But players with average speed can become excellent base runners."

Working on your athletes’ speed out of the batter’s box is a good place to begin teaching the basics of base running. Miller brings out his stopwatch for a drill called Rip and Dash, which revs up his offense and puts pressure on his defense.

"We start with either a soft toss, a tee, or a machine," he says. "We draw a line halfway between home and first base, and time each of the players from the moment they make contact to the time they hit that line."

By incorporating a stopwatch and recording each player’s times, Miller taps into the competitive nature of his team. "We post the times in the locker room, with rankings broken up for left-handed and right-handed batters," he says. "The athletes have little contests to see who can beat who. It becomes a source of pride."

To teach his athletes how to get a quick start off first base, Miller sets up a video camera during practices, making sure to get both the runner and the pitcher in the frame. "We’ll run it back in slow motion, and if the runner isn’t off the base when the pitcher’s arm is half-way down her backswing, then the runner is getting off late," says Miller. "You’d be surprised at how many kids still have their foot on the bag when the pitcher has already let go of the ball. We want to make sure our players are off the base as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand."

There’s a saying in softball that if you’re not early on a base start, you’re late. When Revelle works on base starts, she uses what she calls the Whistle Drill. "We put a runner at first base, and two people with whistles on the foul side of the first base line," says Revelle. "One whistle is blown when the foot releases from the base, and the other whistle is blown when the pitcher releases the ball. If those two whistles are blown simultaneously, it’s an indication of great timing. But if the whistles are off, the runner can hear that she’s either early or late."

To teach athletes how to effectively round the bases, coaches need to pay close attention to two basic skills: taking the most efficient line between bases and touching the bag properly. Again, Miller uses a stopwatch to time his players as they round the bases. He times each player from home to first, second to home, and home to home. Players leave from a standing start, with one foot on the base. The clock starts as soon as that foot leaves the base, and stops once the player has hit the target.

"We time players about once a week," says Miller. "They use those times as a guideline and try to beat them each time they run." Miller is also a stickler for proper form, and closely monitors how each player touches the bases. "We want them to hit the front inside corner of the bag and use the base to accelerate," says Miller. "We want the ball of their foot on the lead inside corner toward the next base. Every time we run the bases we make sure everybody hits the bases correctly, or we run them again."

Another drill Miller uses to teach rounding the bases involves starting two runners, one right after another. "We have two runners start at home plate, a pitcher on the mound, and coaches at first and third base," he says. "As soon as the pitcher goes through her throwing motion, the first runner runs straight through first base and squares up. The runner behind her keeps going to second base, or even third base, following the signal from her coach. Then the pitcher goes through her motion again, and the runners work on their leads while the next two runners at home start running to first."

Players aren’t the only members of the team who benefit from this drill. "We put coaches out in the coaching boxes during this drill and work on communication with the runners," Miller adds. "It helps the coach at third work on sending runners home, and signaling for runners to slide.

"It’s probably my favorite for teaching base running," says Miller. "It helps us work on communication with the coach, slides, rounding, and hitting the corners correctly. But most importantly, it helps us work on scoring runs."

Layering Drills
Once your athletes have a good grasp of the basics of base running, it’s time to increase the complexity of your drills, bringing practices closer to the feel of an actual game. By continually putting your players in competition during practice, you can simultaneously teach them technical skills and decision making, training them to develop the instinctive responses they’ll need during the season.

Starting with a simple drill and then adding other game-like factors is a practice method that Blevins calls layering. "You keep putting additional elements in, which adds to the complexity and makes your drills more game-like," she says.

For example, Blevins uses a base running drill in conjunction with batting and fielding practice, forcing the runner to read the defense and react. On line drives, her runners learn to wait for the ball to go beyond the infield, and on ground balls, they learn to break up the double play.

For Blevins, having a feel for the game means knowing when to run and which situations have the highest percentage of success. "An athlete’s understanding of the game evolves through direct experience and training," says Blevins. "Take tag ups: If an athlete has to wait for the third base coach’s signal after a catch, she loses time that could make the difference between a run scored and an inning-ending out.

"The best base running teams I’ve seen haven’t always been the fastest," she continues. "But they’ve been really smart, and you can see them use that knowledge in the way they take advantage of situations in a game."

Multi-functional Drills
Whether they combine running with batting practice or defensive drills—or both—winning coaches will tell you that the key to success is in the details. Coaches should not be afraid to stop a drill to point out when a player is making an error. The goal is to quickly correct the mistake by making that player, as well as her teammates, aware of the correct course of action in a given situation.

"We do base running in every practice," says Miller. "Whenever we hit, we also run the bases. We always work on reading the ball off the bat, going for two bases at a time instead of one, and always putting in our players’ minds that their job is to score on every ball that is hit. We constantly stop practice to call attention to something that can be applied in a game."

Miller recommends a particular drill that works on base running as well as outfield defense. The setup calls for defensive players in each outfield position, a catcher, and a base runner on second. A coach hits fungoes to the outfield, and the runner attempts to score from second on a base hit. "The base runner is working on rounding third tightly, heading toward home, and making a good slide at the plate," says Miller. "The outfielders are working on making good throws, and the catcher is concentrating on making a tag at the plate."

At Iowa, Blevins inserts base running circuits into offensive and defensive drills, placing an emphasis on reading and reacting. Like Miller, Blevins is not afraid to stop a drill when she sees a mistake. In the circuits, the bases are loaded and the runners focus on a different skill at each base.

"At first base, they may be working on base starts for a steal," says Blevins. "At second, they might be taking a large base start or anticipating a bunt. At third base, we might practice putting a contact play on or having the runner tag up. In each drill, the runner is forced to read the ball, no matter where it goes."

Blevins also takes advantage of the circuit drills to work on her communication from the coach’s box. "If I’m coaching at third and a fly ball is hit into the outfield, I’ll yell, ‘Tag!’ and expect the runner to hold up. If it’s a real short fly ball, I’ll yell, ‘Make her throw!’ and watch the runner force a play at the plate, to see if she can read the defense. I’m not making the decision for her to run— she is. We give the athletes a situation, and teach them to read it, both offensively and defensively."

Revelle utilizes a similar exercise during hitting drills, with a twist: She has her base runners working in teams of two. "Let’s say we’re having our batters hit live on the field," she says. "We’ll have base runners on at least two of the bases, so if a hitter takes seven or eight cuts, one base runner will go on one swing, and before the next swing, the other runner will jump on the bag and be ready to go. There’s not a lot of turnaround time, which is why we work in pairs—it allows our athletes to get a lot of reps."

As in Blevins’s circuit drills, Revelle’s exercises pair her athletes in specific scenarios at each base. "For instance, you’ve got a pair at second base," she says. "If the batter hits a fly ball to right field, they’re working on their tag ups, judging whether the ball is deep enough for them to go to third, or if it’s better to just draw a throw. If they’re running from third base, they’re trying to read the ball right off the bat and decide whether they can beat the throw.

"It’s critically important to work it with live ball-off-the-bat situations, because that’s the best way to train their instincts as base runners," she adds. "Drills are great for working on their technical skills in base running, but in a game they need to know how to read balls off the bat or in the dirt."

At Louisiana State University, Head Coach Yvette Girourd’s favorite drill for increasing situational awareness is called Ball in the Dirt. "We put a runner at every base and have a pitcher on the mound, a catcher behind the plate, and all the infield positions filled. The pitcher intentionally throws a set of pitches into the dirt, and sometimes the ball gets away, and sometimes it doesn’t. Each base runner has to read the ball in the dirt, and each one is on her own—she doesn’t have anything to do with the runner ahead or behind her. The drill is designed to teach them when they can and can’t go, and we do it until that decision becomes instinctive.

"Every player takes a turn at every station on the base paths," continues Girourd. "And in the same drill, the catcher is working on blocking skills. We do Ball in the Dirt three or four times a week. We might only do it for five minutes, but doing it on a regular basis keeps reinforcing awareness."

Situational drills not only help teach the subtleties of the game, but can also ratchet up the intensity during practice. Revelle says that blending base running with defensive drills is a guaranteed way to fire up her players.

"It gets noisiest when we’ve got the defense going against our base runners and something great happens—that’s when the roars come," she says. "And it makes our defense better when we go up against that kind of intensity during practice."

Changing the Game
Improving your athletes’ skills as base runners will also provide them with a greater appreciation for the subtleties of the game. As they explore the nuances of base running, they will also pick up on other areas, including defense and the art of situational hitting.

Running teams are exciting teams, and there is nothing more effective than excitement to enhance your team’s attention to detail. And as always, what your athletes do in practice will carry over into their games.

"When you’re playing against a team that runs, it changes the dynamics of the game," says Revelle. "Along with trying to figure out how to pitch to their hitters, you’re also trying to figure out how to pitch to their hitters if they have runners on base."

"Having a team that knows how to run is a very effective weapon," she continues. "You have so many options and you can always keep the defense guessing. And as a coach, you become a much more complex strategist. There’s a lot more strategy to the game when you have weapons on the base paths.