Heart of the Defense

Building a better infield requires a strong foundation in fundamentals, practice sessions that train mind and body, and a solid strategy for creating teamwork.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at dhill@momentummedia.com.

Coaching Management, 13.9, October 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1309/defense.htm

It’s the business end of the diamond. It’s the first line of defense. It’s where the action is. It’s the infield.

Today’s brand of softball demands a lot from infielders. With the emphasis on pitching and small-ball offenses, these four players are the heart of any defense. “I know that outfielders are the last line of defense, but usually 90 percent of the balls put into play in a fastpitch game are in the infield,” says Monte Sherrill, Head Coach at Central Cabarrus (N.C.) High School, a four-time state champion. “So we put a high priority on fundamentals and being very sound and aggressive.”

Building a good infield isn’t easy. A pitching staff can be founded on raw talent, catchers can be developed one-on-one, and an outstanding outfield can be created from pure athleticism. But an infield is more complex. Each position is unique, and to be played well, each requires quick reflexes, agility, sound fundamentals, game knowledge, and the ability to react correctly in an instant.

As an added challenge, building an infield requires excellent teamwork, cohesion, and confidence. In this article, we talk to coaches about how they’ve turned diamonds in the rough into polished jewels.

The Physical Foundation
The starting point for building a strong infield is getting athletes physically ready. The physical base of infield play is smoothness, flexibility, and leg strength, so preseason preparation at the University of Oklahoma starts with lots of strength and conditioning. “Our goal with infielders is to make them look like the smoothest thing you’ve ever seen, like they’re gliding on ice,” says Head Coach Patty Gasso. “We work a lot on quick steps and reactions. A lot of what we do is aimed at making sure our legs are strong enough so that we can move quickly from a ready position.”

When players return from the weightroom, Gasso and her staff further develop their agility and quickness through wall-ball drills with tennis balls. This competitive game of ricochet improves footwork, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time. It also helps coaches know if more strength and agility work is warranted. “You can tell if a player is not jumping or is wasting a step,” Gasso says. “It’s easy to see if somebody is behind because the movement is so quick.”

Quickness is a high priority for the aggressive, take-away-the-bunt defense of Central Cabarrus, and infielders drill for it daily. “At the beginning of practice, we spend 30 minutes on hand quickness,” says Sherrill. “We hit tennis balls at them like BB’s and bring them to the point where they’re fast enough to make the plays. Then gradually, we move to softballs.”

Jumping rope also helps with footwork, says Jim Huwar, Head Coach at Ambridge Area (Pa.) High School. To get sport-specific, he and his staff run two-ball drills, quickly rolling softballs across the gym floor while each player scoops and returns them with proper form, bringing the ball to her chest, cocking her throwing arm behind her head, and firing. “From there we go to backhand drills, where they take the ball in, cross over, plant, and push off,” he says.

But reaching and stopping a hard-hit ground ball isn’t the whole play. Accurate throws are also essential. Huwar lays the foundation through wrist-throwing drills that involve each player kneeling with her throwing elbow on her throwing-side knee and flipping the ball to a partner using only her wrist. The exercise trains athletes to throw the ball with the proper backspin and cocked forearm that help ensure accuracy.

Gasso recognizes that, especially in the infield, there often isn’t time to set up properly, so players are drilled in making quick, off-balance tosses. “We get them to throw at different angles to simulate the plays they’re going to have to make during a game,” she says. “In a game, the ball might ricochet off a pitcher’s glove, and we want them ready to react.”

Preparing the Mind
Gasso’s emphasis on game-like situations in practice recognizes that there isn’t always time to use perfect form for a throw to first. The simulations also build mental preparedness to make the lightning-quick decisions infield play requires.

For Gasso, making situational practices effective begins with tailoring a plan to her athletes’ level of experience. She finds that some of her freshmen are highly skilled but can be overwhelmed by all they have to learn, while others lack a sense of softball “street smarts.” She starts during the fall practice period with chalk talks to lay the groundwork for on-field teaching sessions.

“Freshmen typically think softball is pretty easy,” Gasso says. “They don’t understand the amount of work that goes into it—scouting, strategy, having a game plan, how to execute, knowing each batter’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to get them to take that next step in learning the game both athletically and mentally.”

Few high school coaches have the luxury of fall theory sessions, and must compress a lot of learning into a short period of time. Huwar starts discussing what-to-do-if-it’s-hit-to-me scenarios at the beginning of preseason practice. But not everyone sees it as so crucial, reflecting a realization that for certain athletes, other parts of the game take priority.

“We don’t really go over situational plays until three or four days before our first scrimmage,” Sherrill says. With an extensive feeder system and pre-varsity teams, his athletes have typically already learned the basics, and he’d rather spend time on skills, agility, and quickness, which are critical to his team’s in-your-face defensive style, especially on the corners.

Similarly, Jeff Griffith, Head Coach at Cactus High School in Glendale, Ariz., says his 2006 squad will be veterans, so there’ll be little more than a review early on. Still, he’s sure to cover the territory, if only as a refresher. “At the beginning of the year, we go through the basics—who’s responsible for a pop up, who has priority on a ball hit behind the third baseman, that kind of thing,” he says.

The basic thrust of situational practice is familiar: Imaginary scenarios are set up, and athletes are expected to learn who goes where, who backs up whom, and what to do if a base runner stumbles. The possibilities are endless. But some coaches add a twist. Griffith likes to run miniature simulated games. “We usually play three outs, then clear the bases,” he says. “And I use base runners, so it’s a base running drill, too.”

It’s possible, of course, to simply run an intrasquad scrimmage, stopping at every teachable moment, but this can take a lot of time that’s better spent on more focused activities. Gasso has found a compromise by running front-toss drills to batters, who are instructed to hit to a particular spot. “We’ll have runners at second and third, so our hitters work on angling down to advance them,” she explains. “Or we work on hit-and-run and hitting behind the runner. At the same time, our infield gets to work on defense, so we accomplish two things at once.”

Whenever and however situational drills are conducted, the key is to help players understand the game’s nuances and how one snap decision can turn a game. “During and after practice, we sit down and talk to the kids and say, ‘Look, this is why you do this,’” says Huwar. “They need to understand why. It’s not just, ‘You’re going to do it because we tell you.’ In years past, some players may not have known the rules and intricacies, but they’re learning more at a younger age, and we can build on that earlier.”

Mental preparation, however, isn’t merely knowing what to do. It’s also about building confidence, a key ingredient in the infield. The irony of softball, especially in today’s game, is that while a decisive play can occur in the blink of an eye, in the time between pitches an infielder can also lose confidence.

To deal with this, some coaches emphasize realism and repetition to build familiarity and confidence in their infielders. “In practice, we try to get our defense to expect that every ground ball is going to be an out,” says Pat Murphy, Head Coach at the University of Alabama. “It’s a matter of trust—the kid who’s fielding it has to feel the trust of her teammates in the dugout. I really believe that’s transferable.”

Sherrill’s approach is to condition players to tension. “We run military-style practices that are very structured, and if one person does not execute, everyone pays,” he says. “The pressure of practice is as intense, if not more intense, than the games. In this past year’s state championship game, we had situations where the opposing team had runners at second and third with no outs or one out, and we called time and had a little conference, and they didn’t feel the pressure. They said, ‘Hey, we do this every day in practice.’”

Team Within a Team
With an infield prepared physically and mentally, the next step is to make these athletes into a team. They must operate together, be comfortable with and trust one another, and have leadership.

While the catcher remains the leader of the overall defense, some coaches like to have another player take charge of the infield. Murphy is among those who see the shortstop as the leader. Others, though, see the second baseman as the best person to take on the role.

“She’s definitely the quarterback of our infield,” says Sherrill. “At the high school level, if there are five balls hit between the shortstop and second baseman, three of those are going to the second baseman. In bunt plays, the majority of the time the second baseman will cover the throw to first. With most pitchers today throwing to the outsider corner, all defense flows through the second baseman.

“It’s the opposite of baseball, where you’re more or less anchored around that shortstop,” Sherrill continues. “You still have to be strong up the middle, but in softball, the key is the second base position.”

Whoever the leader is, it’s important that all the athletes work well together, especially at the top of the diamond. “The relationship between the shortstop and the second baseman is key. There has to be a rhythm where both are on the same page and working together,” says Murphy. “Almost every day, we do a lot of shortstop-second base combination drills and feed drills for double plays. If each one knows how far the other can go to get a ball, it helps a lot. They know each other, know where they’re going to go, who’s going to make the play, how they’re going to toss the ball, and whether it’s going to be overhand, underhand, or a flip.”

One way to build that relationship is to keep players paired. “Our middle infielders are together all the time,” Huwar says. “They throw together, they drill together, they’re best friends. If there’s a problem, they discuss it with each other and then come to us and ask questions.”

Let Them Play
Ultimately, the biggest team builder is to let players play. If they’ve been taught well, drilled until the routine is easy, are familiar and comfortable with one another, and understand the game, infielders can largely coach themselves.

“It should be second nature to them,” says Gasso. “Our goal as coaches is to really feel like our infield can run itself. If we’ve done our job right, we can sit back in the dugout and watch, and everything should go smoothly.”

Sidebar: Bad Circle Manners
While middle infielders can improve their working relationship by sticking together through drills, another intrasquad relationship is key. “Your pitcher and infielders have to like working together,” says Pat Murphy, Head Coach at the University of Alabama. “If somebody makes a mistake, is the pitcher going to turn around and glare? Or is she going to turn around and say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get the next one!’

“I’ve seen a lot of really good pitchers who don’t have a good relationship with their infielders, and when the number-two pitcher comes in, the infielders play out of their minds for her because she gives to them,” he continues. “You can have either a big negative or a big positive.”

To build a good rapport between the circle and the infield, Alabama coaches show examples of good and bad relations, often hauling out old videos of former pitchers who were unable to earn their team’s support. “Then we’ll show one of our former players who was great on the mound, and smiled all the time. We’ll say, ‘Who would you rather play behind?’ We go into the details of what makes a defense play behind a pitcher. It’s a huge key.”

Sidebar: To Dive or Not to Dive?
It’s one thing to be sure most ground balls in the infield will be outs. But what about line shots at the corners or seeing-eye dribblers up the middle? Can you teach highlight reel-worthy infield defense? Or is it a matter of raw talent and luck?

“I preach to my infield: Make the routine play all the time, and the spectacular play will take care of itself,” says Jeff Griffith, Head Coach at Cactus High School in Glendale, Ariz. “We don’t practice diving at balls or climbing the fence to steal a home run. If it happens, great. But we’d rather learn to make the routine play all the time.”

Other coaches practice diving and reaching in drills designed to reduce their players’ tentativeness. “We tell our kids, ‘If the ball is near you, then you have to give up your body to get to it,’” says Jim Huwar, Head Coach at Ambridge Area (Pa.) High School. “We do roll drills and bounce-the-ball drills where the kids get acclimated to reaching for a ball that’s three or four feet away. If it comes up in a game situation, they’re not going to think twice, because they’ve already done it in practice.”

Learning to dive in practice also helps a good infielder get better, says Pat Murphy, Head Coach at the University of Alabama. “Diving drills get players to reach beyond what they think they can do,” he says. “They don’t know if they’re going to get that ball, but if they try, they might. We ask for more each day at practice, to train them to go above and beyond.”

Difficult plays are more than sprawled-out dives for screaming liners. Short hops can tie up a good infielder, too, and that’s why they are part of practice at Central Cabarrus (N.C.) High School. “You can’t go out there and not practice a short hop to the glove-hand side and then say later, ‘Hey, you should have made that play,’” says Head Coach Monte Sherrill. “I want that covered. I want our players to expect the unexpected.”