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Coaching Softball - Emphasizing Outfield Play for Defensive Balance

By Walter D. Mangan

Critics have for years complained that fastpitch softball lacks excitement and fan appeal due to its limited offensive capabilities. Pitchers have tended to dominate play at all levels of competition. ASA, Little League, and high school coaches have built entire teams around powerful pitchers. Opponents are forced to rely on the slap and bunt attack when facing Susie Strikeout, therefore, coaches have tended to emphasize only the five infield positions that will handle 90 percent of all plays on the defensive side.Coaching softball - a strong outfield is very important to win softball games

It goes without saying a coach with limited talent and time will structure practices around solidifying the area receiving the majority of action - the infield. The outcome of this practice is two-fold: (1) an infield that consists of the best athletes with the strongest arms that receive the majority of dedicated practice and time and instruction, and (2) an outfield made up of slower, less athletic, offensively-minded players that are given very little opportunity of improving their defensive skills. Either way your outfield will receive the least amount of instructional time, and therefore will continually be the weakest part of the team.

This philosophy is perfectly acceptable as long as the game of fastpitch softball remains offensively lethargic. But, as we know, this is not the case. The trend recently has been to increase fan appeal and spectator interest by sprucing up the offensive aspects of the game. Changes in the college ranks in recent years such as increased pitching distances, more lively softballs, and better equipment have resulted in increased offensive efficiency in the game of fastpitch softball.

There are still many dominating pitchers in the game at all levels but they are becoming less and less common. Hitters are fast becoming more and more skilled as well as coaches becoming more and more experienced at instructing young hitters. Hitting philosophies are being developed and perfected allowing more young female athletes to become better all-round ball players. A .300, .400 and even .500 batting average was very uncommon until recently. Today, we are becoming the norm, expected at all levels of play. All these changes as well as those proposed in the years to come are forcing coaches to rethink their defensive strategies and priorities. More emphasis needs to be placed on defensive balance.

A strong infield is not enough to win games against most teams. An adequate outfield is becoming a necessity as well. Slow, weak fielders can no longer be hidden in the outfield. Outfielders are being forced to make more plays, cover more ground, and therefore be more skilled players. With increased skills comes a need for an increase in practice time delegated to outfielders. With this added responsibility and time commitment with no increase in practice time allotted by the NCAA, UIL, or other amateur athletic governing bodies, coaches are forced to re-evaluate the type of players needed in the outfield. Through the use of a very balanced defense, an above average (not dominating) pitching staff, and a diversified offense, we have managed to win three straight district championships at Brenham High School. The following are suggestions that will help you solidify your outfield, improve your entire defense, and therefore increase your chances of winning softball games.

Outfielder Characteristics

Changes in the demands of defensive players and strategies forces us to rethink our positions and placement of athletes as well as the skills they should have. Increased offense is forcing outfielders to be better athletes.

The number one priority of a successful outfield in softball today is foot speed. Our outfielders at Brenham just happen to be the fastest girls in the entire program. This is not by accident. Our philosophy is that speed can never be taught, but fielding skills can through drills and repetitions. Speed in the outfield gives teams the actual ability to cut down on an offense’s hitting percentages. Rabbits in the outfield allow us to play our players much shallower than normal, cutting down the number of “accidental” singles (“Texas Leaguers”) that occur while not giving up long flies. Speed also, comes in handy at limiting the number of extra base hits down the line and in the gaps by cutting off balls that slower, less athletic players would be unable to reach. It allows us to cover second and third base with outfielders on certain bunt coverages, freeing infielders up to charge and play all bunts and slaps. The most athletic player on the field should be the center fielder. No one on the field has as much ground to cover as she does.

Arm strength is, as well, very desirable but sometimes over-emphasized at the high school level. With more and more playing fields now becoming closer to regulation size (200 - 225 feet), throws are becoming less demanding and reasonable in length, and arm strength less important to good outfielding. Right field remains the only outfield position needing a strong arm. Moderate arms are sufficient for center fielders while the weakest arm should be placed in left field, since most throws are very short in length. Proper techniques of throwing can be taught and arm strength increased through drills and weights. Therefore, arm strength should not be placed in front of foot speed when selecting outfielders.

Physical attributes are not the only thing to consider when building a successful outfield. Personality and mental alertness of players can also be considered when positioning players. Outfielders must be very aggressive by nature. Again, the center fielder must be the most aggressive. She must cover both gaps, and she has jurisdiction over the entire field. Any ball she can get to is hers. She must have the desire to attack every ball hit without fear of failure. Aggressiveness is needed by all outfielders to some degree because outfielders:

1) have no help or back-up on most plays, especially down the lines where right fielders and left fielders are on their own, unlike infielders who have back-up on every play, no matter where the ball is hit.

2) must anticipate and back-up all pickoff and stolen base attempts.

3) must cover infield bases at time during certain bunt coverages.

Communication skills are a must for effective outfielders, therefore outfielders must also possess a loud mouth. They must talk between, during, and after every play. All of this takes effort on the part of every outfielder. Covering bases, covering gaps, communicating, backing up, etc., all require conscious effort and energy. Therefore, players with tendencies and signs of laziness will be limited on the amount of success they will experience in the outfield, whereas a player who has energy, persistence, and an aggressive personality will naturally be the best candidate for the outfield.


Repetition is very important when it comes to mastering any memory skill. Whether it is math, vocabulary, hitting, or fielding, drills are a vital part to the continued success of these functions. Outfielding is no exception! Therefore, the ultimate situation of any practice organization is to get the reps for players as close to game situation as possible in the least amount of practice time. At Brenham High School we have accomplished both of these objectives through the use of daily foul line drills for outfielders.

In approximately 15 minutes each day, we can repeatedly drill our outfielders in most every skill needed to play their position. The drills, at the same time, serve as excellent in-season conditioning drills. All drills require the players to sprint at all times. All the drills are performed halfway up either foul line under the supervision of one coach or manager and with enough balls for each player to have one.

1) Karioca Drill

This drill is designed to improve the footwork, concentration, and catching ability of outfielders while moving in both directions.

a) coach takes the ball from the first player in line

b) the player walks out and stands about 10 feet away facing the coach.

c) coach points to the right.

d) player turns shoulder and hips to that side and runs perpendicular away from the coach. It is important for the player to run directly away from the coach perpendicular to the foul line, not in an angling or slanting fashion.

e) after about 3 or 4 steps, coach points in the other direction.

f) player, using a karioca crossover step, turns the other direction, still running perpendicular to the foul line, never losing sight of the ball.

g) after another 3 or 4 steps, coach points in original direction.

h) player then repeats previous crossover step and turns in original direction.

i) coach then throws varying fly balls in the direction of the original point forcing player to catch ball by stretching over that side shoulder.

j) Player makes catch and brings ball back to the back of the line.

k) next player in line has already set herself in the ready position and repeats steps a) through j).

Each player should get 3 to 4 reps on the right side and then 3 to 4 reps on the left side. It is very important that the drill be executed full-speed in a dead sprint at all times, and that the player never lose site of the ball, only turning directions when the coach makes the signal. Do not allow the player to guess when the turn will occur. On the flies make sure they are challenging and take a great deal of effort to make the catch.

2) “Look Drill”

This drill is designed to improve players’ confidence at turning, sprinting away from the ball, losing sight temporarily, and then finding the ball in flight while in a dead sprint and making the catch.

a) Coach positions him/herself on the right side of the players’ line and takes ball from first player in line and shouts “Go”

b) Player sprints away from coach without looking back or in the air.

c) after about 15 or 30 feet away from the foul line, the coach throws the ball at different angles and heights over the nearest shoulder of the player and out front.

d) coach then shouts “Look.” Player will then look up to find the ball in the air making adjustments to make the catch with glove in proper position.

e) player, after making catch, takes ball and sprints back to the end of the line.

f) next in line steps up and repeats steps a) through e).

Drill is designed to, again, be done at full speed at all times. It consists of 3 or 4 reps per player per side. To insure the safety of players, you may want to throw higher flies initially, and gradually adjust and lower throws as players become more and more adjusted to the drill.

3) Slant Drill

This drill is designed to give outfielders practice at catching line drives and fly balls which tail away while in a dead sprint. It can also be used to practice cut-off angles on grounders down the line and in the gaps.

a) line of players moves to center field gap

b) Coach with bucket of balls on the foul line yells “Go” and player sprints across the outfield towards second base watching for the ball at all times.

c) coach then throws a variety of flies, grounders, and line drives just within the reach of the player. This will vary with player’s speed.

d) upon catching the ball, the player tosses the ball back to coach and starts a new line in front of second base.

e) next player in line will take off on command and repeat steps a) through d).

Each player should get 6 to 8 reps of the balls in each direction with varying types of flies and grounders.

These drills are designed to give outfielders some 30 to 40 repetitions at catching and fielding typical grounders and flies. We do these daily as well as a sample of each for pre-game warmups. We combine these with various other outfield drills that isolate more situational play and skills to insure that playing the outfield becomes spontaneous and instinctive during games rather than premeditated and thought provoking.

With the proposed offensive changes to the game being almost inevitable, coaches at all levels are going to be forced to restructure their instructional emphasis and dedicate more time and energy to the outfielders. I hope these suggestions are helpful at strengthening your outfield play and continue to add to your opponents’ offensive frustration.
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