THE SCOOP ON DEFENSE

December 6, 2018

 

High School Coach of the Year Paul Twenge explains how he keeps players engaged while teaching the finer points of defense.

By David Stern

Pop quiz: What is your players’ favorite part of practice? Regardless of your answer, it’s likely not “practicing defensive drills.” No matter how you frame it, there’s just not a lot of thrill in cleanly scooping up a grounder.

Nevertheless, as a coach, you know that great defense wins games—and sloppy fieldwork loses them. So how can you get players engaged with learning the skills that lead to error-free innings?

“I’ve never had an athlete come to me and say ‘I just want to take ground balls or fly balls today,’” says Paul Twenge, Head Baseball Coach at Minnetonka (Minn.) High School. “Pitchers would like to hit, infielders would like to hit, outfielders would like to hit, and sometimes those infielders and outfielders would like to pitch. No one asks for defensive drills.”

But that has not stopped the veteran coach from teaching his athletes to field and throw—far from it. In fact, Twenge makes defense a priority in his practices and has spent his career perfecting the art of teaching it.

The results speak for themselves. Twenge was honored earlier this year as the American Baseball Coaches Association Division I High School Coach of the Year, and was also named the Class 4A Coach of the Year by the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association. Prior to taking over at Minnetonka 12 years ago, Twenge was the Head Coach at Valparaiso University from 1988-2006. He has now been coaching for more than 44 years and has presented at several clinics on defensive tactics.

BIG-PICTURE APPROACH

Effectively teaching defense starts with a solid philosophy on how to accomplish this feat. There is a lot to relay to players, and there is the constant problem of motivating them to embrace the mundane. “Getting them in a defensive frame of mind takes thought and variety,” says Twenge.

One key to Twenge’s success is that he has found a balance between striving for perfection and accepting that things don’t always go as planned. “My philosophy is to do the most exact movements as possible during practice and then in the game, get the out no matter how it happens,” he explains. “It’s kind of a contradiction, but in the game we just want the athlete to be the best athlete they can be and to get the job done any way they can. I believe if we teach the correct steps—glove angle, approaches to the ground ball, how to line up for a cutoff, whatever the case may be—then it becomes more exact than ad lib.”

Twenge’s teams typically follow a whole-part-whole practice structure, in which the full team practices together to start, then splits apart for positional work before participating in batting practice with a full infield and outfield in place. During positional work, he likes to break down players’ responsibilities and not ask them to do too much in any one drill.

For example, he will often opt to use a pitching machine to simulate ground balls rather hitting them with a fungo bat. This creates a much more consistent ground ball, which allows players to focus more on perfecting their fielding and throwing techniques rather than wondering where the ball is going and how fast it’s traveling.

He then offers additional individual position instruction before or after practice. For example, one day he’ll work with infielders on glove work and foot patterns, while another day will be for outfielders to concentrate on in-between fly balls, communication, and angles to the ball. Pitchers have a day to work on fielding their position while catchers will practice throwing to bases, steals, bunts, and foot work.

Another key to Twenge’s approach is understanding the mental blocks that interfere with fielding well. “Sometimes the biggest thing you need to concentrate on is the angst a player has about throwing a ball across the apron or to the cutoff man,” he says. “To get them comfortable with all types of throws we will do positional throwing, where we simulate a ground ball to a player’s glove side, back hand, or a slow roller in front of them, and then they throw the ball to first base or the target man.”

With all of these steps, Twenge works hard to engage athletes during defensive work. He does this is by mixing things up, allowing players to use their athletic instincts, and offering a variety of ways to learn skills.

“Although we do a lot of machine ground balls because there are days when you want exact repetitions, we also have times where we just let the players react and do whatever they think they should do in a less common scenario,” Twenge says. “I think that helps keep athletes from getting stuck in a rut and thinking ‘Oh, we’re going to take ground balls again.’ Having that variety keeps them more engaged.”

Twenge has also learned that there’s only so much defensive work players can take in a day, and drills can’t go on too long. “When you set up segments of time to practice a particular part of defense, when that time is up, it’s up,” Twenge says. “Even though the players may have handled it so badly that you’re not going to sleep until you come back to it two days later, you just have to move on. Get away from it, refresh, and come back.

“Don’t keep beating something into a player’s brain that isn’t working,” he continues. “It ends up providing them with a bad image and could affect the way they approach the same situation in a game. That was a flaw of mine for many years as a coach, but I think I’m getting better at it.”

SITUATIONAL DRILLS

Along with perfecting their fielding techniques, players need to practice what to do come game time. Twenge focuses on scenarios that are most critical for securing wins.

“As a coach, I think you have to look at different situations that happen in games and bring those situations to practice,” he says. “For example, there are situations where you’ll have a runner on second and you want your shortstop or second baseman to do everything they can to keep the ball from going into the outfield so the runner doesn’t score. That means positioning way back and trying to circle the ball. Other times, you might want them to take a direct line to the ball and do everything they can to get the out at first. Whatever the scenario, you have to make sure you get it straight with your infielders.”

One area he zeroes in on is softly hit balls that can catch infielders off-guard. “If you draw a line from the center of the pitcher’s mound and go 15 feet out in any direction, that’s where most mistakes happen,” says Twenge. “You have to know what you’re going to do in that area. We do a lot of reps so players understand how to handle a ball hit into that particular 15-foot radius around the mound.”

Another situation he concentrates on is double plays. To start, he explains to his players that the most important part of a potential double play is to get the lead runner out, and therefore the focus should be on perfecting the first leg of the play before focusing on the second.

“The biggest thing that a double play is designed to do is get one out,” Twenge says. “When you get that idea in the minds of the guys that are receiving the throws, everything slows down and usually we’re pretty successful on the second throw. If we get the first throw done the proper way, that gives whoever is receiving the ball at second base time, because now they know they’ve accomplished the goal. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.”

TEACHING TOOLS

As part of some of his drills, Twenge incorporates visual guides to bolster engagement and retention. For example, when focusing in on the movements an infielder should take to get to the ball, he puts cones on the field.

Since Twenge wants his players to take specific paths to a ground ball based on the situation, he places the cones in a way that allows players to easily understand where to go. The cones are set up at varying degrees, depending on whether Twenge wants his fielders to attack the ball and get an out or simply keep the ball from getting past them in order to save a run.

Another tool Twenge uses is PowerPoint presentations. This idea came from his experiences as a football coach drawing up different schemes and movements. He originally tried these same “chalk talks” with his baseball players, but found that they would quickly lose interest. He moved to PowerPoint presentations, and has found it to be an effective way to approach various scenarios.

“I use the presentations to show movements to the athletes before we go out and practice them on the field,” Twenge explains. “We’re visual learners, every one of us, and by using these PowerPoint presentations I am providing a visual aid. I can show players what I’m expecting in a particular situation, whether it’s outfield cutoffs, bunt coverage, or steals.

“The players are still going to have to field and throw the ball, and those are mechanical elements that you definitely have to work on,” he continues. “But at least they’ll know where they’re supposed to be and where the throw should go.”

LET ’EM PLAY

While Twenge believes strongly in breaking down situations and teaching skills in controlled settings, he is also a proponent of letting athletes be athletes. Once gametime comes, he doesn’t harp on their mechanics or anything they do wrong. He feels that doing so can cause players to become inhibited by trying to be flawless.

“There can be paralysis by analysis when you hound on the fact that you want it to be perfect,” Twenge says. “We want our players to react correctly but not freeze up trying to be so specific. That can make an athlete less adept at just reacting to the ball.

“When a player moves to the ball two or three steps the wrong way but accomplishes the task of getting the runner out, I don’t get angry,” he continues. “We got an out and that’s great. If his missteps mean we don’t get an out, I’ll just have a little talk with him about what he can do differently next time.”

The trick is to balance providing a great blueprint with allowing athletes some leeway. “We’re going to give them a plan,” Twenge says. “That’s the jumping off point, and now they have something to work from. After that, they’re athletes.”  

 

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Unique Skill Set

Most coaches would agree that catchers have the most demanding position on defense. No other player’s job is quite like it, and therefore these players require some extra attention.

“Catchers are some of the hardest workers out there, and they handle the ball more than any other player except the pitcher, which is why we try to get them as much individual time as possible,” says Paul Twenge, Head Baseball Coach at Minnetonka (Minn.) High School and an ABCA Coach of Year. “They’re extremely important to the success of the defense.”

The key, Twenge says, is breaking down all the different types of plays a catcher must make and offering them practice situations for each one. “They have unique skills that they have to work on, such as receiving, blocking, throwing, fielding bunts, and tagging runners out at the plate,” he says. “You have to take time to visit with them as a group or individually and set up drills to help them work on all these different skills.”

Catchers also need training on being great communicators. Ideally, they serve as the link between the coaches in the dugout and the players on the field.

“We do everything through the catcher,” Twenge says. “He has the most influence on what we’re going to do because he’s the only player that’s looking out at what’s happening, while everybody else is looking in at the hitter.

“When there’s a difficult situation, I’ll signal to the catcher what I want the defense to do, and then he will replicate the sign so the infielders understand their roles,” he continues. “And all of the signs are another aspect of the position that he needs to practice.”

These responsibilities can be a lot for a player to handle, especially if he’s not a natural leader. When that’s the case, Twenge and his staff make sure to take extra steps to get the catcher prepared. “If he is an introvert, we will quickly get him to come out of his comfort zone by having him make these decisions for the team and himself numerous times,” Twenge says.

 

David Stern is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: dstern@MomentumMedia.com.