By Ben Harley, Asst. Coordinator, Driveline Academy
Imagine taking your youth player to a Major League Baseball 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? Now, imagine that the MLB had just installed a new rule forbidding the players from throwing the ball further than 120 feet. Would that be any fun?
Of course not. Everyone loves seeing pitchers throwing hard, outfielders gunning down runners at home with a missile from the corner of the outfield, and infielders throwing bazookas across the diamond to get the base runner by half a step to win the ball game.
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.
Let’s take a look into why and how to improve long toss with your youth baseball player.
Why Long Toss?
If and when a player should do long toss has been and continues to be a debate amongst baseball coaches worldwide. 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, which is good, and 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, which will help players safely transition to the mound and game play 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, which sets 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 for each individual athlete.
- 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).
Tip #1: Appropriate Time in Practice
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 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 and 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.
Tip #2: Game-Based Catch Play
For many younger youth players, long toss and catch play may not be a lot of fun. If we can turn long toss into a game, make it a competition and track results over time, the buy-in from players will increase. 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.
Tip #3: Making Indoor Long Toss Meaningful
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. This will also make it a fun competition amongst teammates to see who can hit the target the most.