Teaching Base Running to Young Children Is Not for the Faint of Heart!
Proper base running is one of the most fundamental aspects of the game, it can mean the difference between scoring the go-ahead run or ending the inning. It is also one of the most nuanced aspects of the game and thus, difficult to teach and learn especially for T-ball age children.
By breaking down the different situations in which runners find themselves and drilling the proper reactions good base running skills can be developed at a young age. Below is one method that I have found successful in teaching base running to children aged four to six. It’s four simple steps and if followed should get your t-ball team off to a good start.
Working with children this age is challenging to say the least. I often refer to it as hearding cats. They have short attention spans and are typically pretty uncoordinated. It’s important for coaches to remember that these are young bodies and developing brains. They have recently mastered tying their shoes so Patience is key when you move on to more complicated task.
Baseball is a complicated game, for adults who have grown up with the game concepts like tagging up, or getting the lead runner seems like second nature. But try to remember back when you were learning all of baseball’s intricacies—it was a slow process getting to where we are today regarding understanding the game. So have patience!
Sometimes children this age just need a moment to process what’s going on before they make a decision. So give them a chance to come up with the right answer. And don’t set your expectations too high as there will be some things that children at this age simply won’t be able to grasp.
The drills below all start at home plate and I think it is important to always gather the group at home plate when you are beginning or ending a practice. The shape and positioning of the baseball field is unique and some children will have problems remembering which base is first and which base is third.
By gathering at home plate as often as possible it gives the children a perspective to better absorb the dynamics of the baseball field. These drills also instruct the kids to throw the ball to simulate a hit when teaching about running to first. This isn’t necessary but some will have problems hitting the ball even off of a tee, if this is the case then you’re teaching two skills at the same time. Plus you will be able to drill more since you won’t be using your time picking up the ball and putting back on the tee.
Finally, in this method there is a lot of repetition and questions being asked of the kids. This is important as it encourages them to focus on the learning task and gives them confidence when they get something right. It will keep the rest of the group engaged as well as they will be thinking of the question even if they weren’t the ones to be asked.
Some kids will have never played before and might not have seen the game being played so don’t assume everyone knows that running the bases is a part of the game. Some kids will know about base running but not know in which direction to run, and some will have no problem with it at all. However, don’t single out the good kids from the those who need work, kids know which is the good group and which isn’t, and this can keep them from flourishing, at this age treat everyone as equals.
To begin teaching base running start every practice by having the kids run around the bases a few times. Not only does this help with attention later on in the practice as they’ve exerted themselves physically but also gets them to understand which base is which.
Tell them to shout out the base they as they touch it. Sometimes it’s helpful to have one or a few kids go at a time so others can see them, sometimes, if everyone has grasped the concept, just send the whole team on a run around the bases. Make sure it’s in a single-file and instruct them not to pass anyone—this will help them remember that passing someone on the base paths is against the rules during a game situation.
After this warm up the kids should have in their mind which base is first base. So you can go on to teaching the concept of when to run and when not to run. At this age you don’t want to teach situational running like tagging-up it’s confusing at such a young age, so unless you have a lot of advanced players it should be avoided.
The concept can be taught when watching a professional game, say a team trip to see a game, or when watching it on TV, but on the field you will find it more frustrating to teach. So, stick to teaching running when it is necessary.
Begin by gathering the team at home plate and explain that sometimes you have to run and sometimes you don’t, tell them you only have to run if you are being “pushed” to the next base.
Next put one of the kids on first base and have another stand in one of the batter’s boxes. Then tell them that the batter has to run to first base if they hit the ball. Ask the runner on first base if there is a batter at home plate. Then tell them that the batter has to run to first and ask them if they will be “pushed” to second base.
Then give a ball to the player in the batter’s box and have them throw it on the ground, simulating a hit, then have them run to first base and the player on first base run to second base.
Finally explain to the group at home plate that because there is someone on first base the batter is “pushing” the runner on first base to second base. Continue this drill until all the players have run all the way around the bases.
Gather all the players at home plate again and explain that if they are not being pushed by the runner behind them they don’t have to run. Put a player on second base. Ask that player if a runner is on first base. Since there is not a runner on first base ask that player if they are being “pushed.” Then ask, since there is not a runner to “push” you, do you need to run to third base?
Repeat this with the group at home plate, (“is there a runner on first base? Is the runner on second (use the player’s name) being “pushed”? Does the runner on second need to run?”)
Chose a player to stand in the batter’s box, have them throw the ball on the ground and run to first, but instruct the runner on second base to stay on the base.
Then, repeat the question above to the runner on second base, “is there a runner on first base? Are you being “pushed”? etc. Ask the runner on first base if they are being “pushed.” Ask the group at home plate if the runners are going to be “pushed.”
Choose a player to stand in the batters box and have them throw the ball to simulate at hit, have the runners advance. Do this same drill with a runner starting on third base and continue.
Once most of the team seems to be grasping this move on to teaching what to do when a fly ball is hit. The majority of outfielders at this age will fail to make the catch, and only a few hitters at this age will be able to hit it there in the first place, but it is still important to teach such a fundamental rule. It is important to remain patient at this point as this is actually a pretty complex direction for a young mind to comprehend.
Asking a child to run when the ball is on the ground but to wait when the ball is in the air is an if/then conditional concept that a five year old is just beginning to be able to understand and you will have some that grasp it better than others.
Begin by gathering the team at home plate and describe that there are two ways a batter can hit the ball, either on the ground or in the air. Ask them to repeat that. Place a runner on first base and tell them that you’re going to hit the ball in the air and they are not to run until the ball hits the ground.
You can either hit a ball into the outfield or throw it, the point is for them to grasp the concept. I would recommend throwing it, unless you’re confident that every time you hit the ball it will actually go into the outfield. This is a complex task and minimizing confusion is essential. Keep putting runners on first base until everyone has made it back to home.
STEP-FOUR: At this point you can put it all together. Put a single runner on first base and randomly hit balls into the outfield and onto the ground. Giving them the opportunity to use what they’ve learned. There will be a lot of hesitation as they stand on the base and decide what to do.
Let their young brains process what is happening before you tell them the correct way to respond. Remember you’re asking them to know whether there is a runner behind them, then whether the ball is on the ground or in the air, and then what to do—that’s a lot to think about.
After they’ve grasped the concept not to run until a fly ball has hit the ground it is important to note that they are not allowed to run if a player catches a ball. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp if they understand that they can’t run unless the ball hits the ground (and it won’t if a player catches it) but again, don’t assume anything and make sure you cover this concept. Station an assistant coach in the outfield and continue to randomly hit balls into the outfield and infield and have the coach catch some of the fly balls while letting others fall to the ground.
By following these four steps you should be able to get a group of young people understanding the fundamental rules of base running. Just remember that base running is tricky and will be one of the more difficult parts of the game to teach to young people, so above all stay patient.
Finally, never forget why you love baseball. Teach that love of the game and be proud that you’re teaching such a great game to a new generation of players and fans.