Ever since I adopted using batting stations at every practice, I have had very good batting teams. Last spring, we were losing too many close games due to errors, and I figured that I would change my approach and try setting up defensive stations since we were having so much offensive success using batting stations. We immediately improved defensively and went on an 8 game tear. Ever since, I have used defensive stations regularly.
In my practices, there are essentially three types of defensive activities that we may use. First, we use defensive stations a lot, particularly early in the season to get our players sharp on their fundamentals. Secondly, we may focus on a particular skill, like run downs or bunt defense, with part of the team while the rest of the team rotates through defensive stations. Finally, we sometimes we run a traditional infield or infield/outfield practice where a coach hits the ball and the defense reacts to make the play. I would say we do this third type of activity WAY less than other teams, maybe once or twice a week. Basically, the more an activity lends itself to a lot of the players standing around watching one or two make a play, the less we use that activity in our practices.
The reason we use a lot of station work for defense is that every one of our players can field literally hundreds of balls and throw dozens more in a 25 minute span (about how long we spend on batting stations as well). Since each station is designed to focus on one or two specific fundamentals, our players get a thorough workout focused on most or all of the basics required to make plays in the field. Plus, they also get some conditioning as well because they are in constant motion for those 25 minutes.
The diagram at right shows how we run a typical defensive station activity with 12 players and 2 coaches and include the following six stations as an example:
Station 1: I typically run this station. One girl sets up as shortstop (or at her regular infield position if she is an infielder) and another at first base. I hit 25 balls to the shortstop in rapid-fire fashion. As soon as the shortstop has let go of the ball toward first, I am hitting her another ball. When the first baseman catches it, she drops it in an empty bucket behind her – if the throw is wild, she just lets it go and we pick it up after this rotation is over. This station not only makes players work on infield throws to first, but it also helps them to learn a quick release. The balls I hit are not hit especially hard, but they are hit quickly so the shortstop is essentially in constant field-the-ball-throw-the-ball motion. When I have emptied my bucket of 25 balls, I call “ROTATE” which moves each player to their next position.
Station 2: One girl sets up as an Outfielder and another as cutoff. The coach hits balls to the outfielder (can be fly balls, grounders, or both depending on what we want to work on for the day) who then throws to the Cut Off who relays the throw back to the coach. The Outfielder focuses on making the catch and making a good throw to the Cut Off. The Cut Off focuses on proper footwork and positioning so that she can make a quick, accurate throw back to the coach.
Station 3: Two players (X1 and X2) with their gloves roll or bounce a ball to the left and then to the right of their partner to work on backhand and forehand catches of grounders.
Station 4: Two players (Y1 and Y2) with paddles toss a ball in the air to their partner, who positions herself to catch the ball on the short hop. Using paddles forces the players to use two hands while fielding the ball, and the short hop drill reinforces good fielding technique as well as judging fly balls.
Station 5: Two players (R1 and R2) use the Reaction Ball and roll it back and forth between them as they move their feet and try to catch the ball using good grounder technique. This drill reinforces good grounder technique and works for developing great hand-eye coordination. The Reaction Ball works well on infield dirt, but we usually have the girls use it on the sidewalk right outside our field.
Station 6: Two players (Z1 and Z2) use paddles and throw the ball back and forth. They are to focus on catching the ball (with two hands) and throwing it as soon as they catch it.
The rotation goes SS -> 1B -> Outfield -> Cut off -> X1 -> X2 -> Y1 -> Y2 -> R1 -> R2 -> Z1 -> Z2 -> SS and each rotation lasts about 2 minutes. We have other stations we use as well, like using a pitch-back station, or if I have more than one extra coach we may set up multiple outfield stations. In fact, I try to use a slightly different set of stations each practice just to keep it fresh for the players. Bottom line is that every single girl is working every single minute of those 25 minutes.
By the end of this activity in our practice, each player will have taken at least a hundred bat swings and caught hundreds of balls. Even counting warm-ups, we have only used an hour of our time, which leaves 30 or 60 minutes (depending on whether the team is a Rec team or an All-Star team) to work on a specific skill (run downs, 1st & 3rd plays, base running, etc) or to scrimmage internally via the bunting game or the like.
I have had parents tell me dozens of times that we get way more done at our practices than any other team. I have had coaches marvel that my teams play so well (particularly Rec coaches who have teams loaded with former All-Stars but get thumped by us). I am a good technician who understands how to teach my players and a very good tactician during games, but the “secret” to my success is no secret at all. It is that I make the most efficient possible use of my practice time.