This blog was updated 6/23/2022
By Ben Harley, Asst. Coordinator, Driveline Academy edited by Michael O’Connell
Let’s take a look into the purpose of a youth long toss program, how to make an effective long toss program for youth athletes, and long toss drills for youth to keep kids engaged.
Imagine taking your youth player to a Major League Baseball game with pitchers long tossing before the game. They would be excited to see the best players in the world show off the skills and talents they have spent a lifetime developing, right? So how can we communicate to the athletes the importance of catch play and long toss?
Everyone loves seeing pitchers throwing hard. Whether it’s outfielders gunning down runners at home with a missile from the corner of the outfield. Or infielders throwing bazookas across the diamond to get the base runner by half a step to win the ball game. Youth players want to be just like the pros they watch. Coaches just need to give them a path to working on the same skills.
None of those amazing throws were developed overnight. It took years of hard work in a multitude of different things to get there. However, each of these amazing players probably has one thing in common: they all did long toss.
As coaches of youth athletes, we want to put our players in the best training environments and situations possible. Not only to help them succeed on the field but also to enjoy their time playing the game of baseball, because it is, after all, a game.
Why Long Toss?
If and when a player should do long toss has been and continues to be a debate amongst baseball coaches worldwide. Long toss is essentially playing catch. In a proper program, the goal of catch each day should change. Some days youth baseball players should be throwing at lower or medium intent. On other days they can, and should, be throwing at higher intent.
We believe in having our players on a structured long toss program to support several long-term developmental goals.
- Long toss encourages players to move fast. This allows their bodies to self-organize as they continue to throw farther and harder.
- By allowing an athlete to long toss, we encourage their body to adapt to the appropriate levels of stress placed on it. When programmed correctly this will help players safely transition to the mound and gameplay in general.
- If we don’t give athletes this opportunity to add stress to their arms, their bodies will not adapt to the level of stress that they will encounter in a game. This can set them up for other health issues long term. We should not avoid placing stress on the arm but instead should properly monitor and program it at the right time
- In simple terms, long toss translates directly to the mound. Players who are able to throw the ball farther while moving quickly will be able to throw hard on the mound, and throwing hard is good (and fun).
Appropriate Time in Practice for a Youth Long Toss Program
As a youth coach, you are certainly limited on time with your players each week. You probably have a dozen different things that you want to cover and not enough time to do it all. In order to squeeze in a few more reps of pickoffs, bunt defenses, or whatever the case may be, youth coaches (and coaches at higher levels as well) will often short-change the catch-play time to move on to what they have scheduled next.
The real question is why? You often hear coaches say that the team that plays catch the best is the team that is going to win. So why would you short-change the one time in a practice dedicated to arguably the most important aspects of the game, throwing and catching?
Another reason to not short-change your players on time for long toss is to give them enough time to properly warm up. Then stretch out distance-wise to help them increase arm strength and throwing capacity. All of this leads to the biggest benefit: keeping our players healthy and playing on the field for years to come.
Game-Based Catch Play as Long Toss Drills for Youth
For many younger youth players, long toss and catch play may not be a lot of fun. If we can turn long toss drills for youth players into a game the buy-in from players will increase. Playing catch becomes a competition in that we can track and measure results over time. This will lead to improved long toss and practices that the kids enjoy more.
The first thing you can do is introduce a partner-based point system. A simple way to start is to assign points for each throw that hits their partner in the chest. After each throwing session, you can write down the number of points each player got and make it a whole team competition every week.
A second fun game you can play (after everyone has stretched their arms out to a long-distance) is to have each player start at the same distance and make a throw. If they get the ball to their partner without bouncing they move back. The last player standing wins. You will suddenly see kids PRing on their throws and moving very efficiently to make the ball travel farther.
Making Long Toss Program for Youth Meaningful Indoors
Do you live in a region where you can’t throw outside during a lot of the year? Then you are in a similar situation to the one that we’re in here at Driveline. It’s always been a challenge for youth coaches to make long toss meaningful indoors. We have two recommendations.
First, if you are throwing into the side of the cage, add markers at the different angles that your players would throw the ball outside. You can explain to your players what each marker is supposed to represent distance-wise. This will help them monitor their output and how they are throwing the ball.
Second, if you are throwing inside of a cage, you can hang some sort of target at the end of the cage. This will help players work on the target-specific accuracy they are missing out on by not being with a partner.
Putting tape, string, or targets on the net can make easy targets for players to throw too. This also helps create an indoor version of the long toss drills for youth athletes we discussed above. Coaches can monitor how many times a target was hit and see who hit the target the most times by the end of the practice session.