Are you a participant or a competitor?

Ways to earn the playing time you want.

Playing baseball is a great joy for many. To be able to put on the uniform, get on the field and contribute to your team's success can bring a sense of belonging that's hard to match. 

It's also a game that holds you individually accountable for your performance, over and over. Numerous times in a game, your performance is front and center, the specimen on the main stage. It might be you starting every play with a pitch on the mound, a groundball being hit to you,  a flyball you camp under or every time you are up to bat. 

In each of those situations, it's just you and the ball, with all eyes watching and waiting. Your teammates are willing you to succeed. Your opponents are hoping for your failure. An occasional error or strikeout isn't going to determine your value to the team. But over time, patterns will emerge. With enough chances, you and the manager will see both your strengths and faults. If your faults start to stack up, you'll likely start watching more innings from the dugout. It's up to you whether to dwell on it or do something to improve your game.

Seek out those that hold you accountable.

When you join a team, you want to be on the field. But with most teams, there are more players in the dugout than positions to play on the field. And while most managers want to get their players time in the game,  they usually make their choices based on who gives the team the best chance for success. That means earning your place on the diamond.

At the youth level, it's often said that if a manager's only goal is to win, he's doing it wrong. I actually believe thats true. The manager's goal should be that the team finds success. Success and winning are related, but not the same thing. Winning is a finite point. Even the worst teams win occasionally.  Success, on the other hand is recurring and long term. 

Good managers...

⚾️  Teach their players to learn enthusiastically, to practice properly and to be a good teammate. 

⚾️  Expect each player to be accountable to themselves, their coach, but most importantly, their teammates.

⚾️ Help players develop good habits that lead to better play on the field.

⚾️ Set a good example of leadership 

When they teach success, winning will come as a natural extention. When they only focus on winning, development of players that don't contribute to the win first mentality falls to the wayside.

This is true going up through every level of play, from youth to high school to the pros. Winning doesn't come from focusing only on the prize. It comes from building a foundation for success that carries over into all aspects of the game. 

What kind of player are you?

Those same principles that make a good manager, can serve players within their personal game, too. 

It starts with deciding if you just want to play or if you want to play well. Are you comfortable with your play or do you want to be better? Do you just show up and expect playing time or do you work to earn it? Are you a participant or a competitor?

Frankly, there's not a wrong answer to those questions. It's your choice of who you want to be. But if you aren't willing to put in the effort to improve and compete for your time on the field, be prepared to play fewer innings. It doesn't serve the team's needs to play you over someone that regularly works on their performance. 

"Top players are always analyzing what they are doing right or wrong."

Getting the competitors' mindset takes personal honesty. To know who you are as a player, you need to take an objective look at yourself: your abilities, your performance and work ethic. And you need to seek out honest feedback from others around you that will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. 

Nobody likes criticism. But if you are proactive in seeking it out from those who want you to succeed, it gives you a baseline for where you can improve. Top players are always analyzing what they are doing right and wrong. They value a trained set of eyes to help them get even better. That's because they aren't content just being good, they want to be better. 

Talent is a tough thing to gauge. Some have it naturally while others have to work their tail off to achieve the same results. But even those with a natural ability need to put in the effort to maintain and improve their skills on a regular basis. Strength, hand-eye coordination, speed, etc will all depreciate if they aren't regularly tested. And for those that start at a physical disadvantage, all of those attributes can be improved if you stay focused and determined. 

If you want more playing time or to maintain your spot on the field, take responsibility for your play. Practice deliberately and push yourself. Put in extra time to develop hitting, throwing and catching. Work on foot work in your spare time. Practice glove-to-hand transfers so its natural. Make sure you know what your positional responsibilities are on the field.

Ultimately, it falls on you to grow your value as a player. 

Things you can do to earn your spot on the field

Whether you are a starter or hope to be one, you should never stop working to earn your playing time. 

Practice harder than you play. 

Go into every practice with a plan on something to improve upon. Don't just go through the motions. It's not just about getting reps in. It's important that you get reps that will ingrain proper mechanics, muscle memory and reaction. 

An example: If you are a shortstop, you might get 3-4 groundballs in a game. Take 50 in practice. On those 50, play every one like it's the out that will win the game. This is the time to make throws from all angles, on the run, glove side and arm side. Practice backhand, forehand and squaring up. Choppers and worm burners.  Make the difficult plays in practice. Emphasize getting your head behind the ball. And make hard, accurate throws. 

If you aren't getting your footwork right, slow it down and do it properly. Keep doing it until you get it right, then increase the speed. Develop the right fundamentals from the beginning and make them second nature. It's one thing to miss a groundball on a bad hop. It's another if you have a habit of being out of position. 

If you are stuck practicing by yourself, find a wall, and throw to it, fielding the rebounds like live balls. 

Get the reps in however you can and have  100% effort on every one. This is how you "slow the game down", where plays seem easy in games and you don't feel rushed. 

"...practice is the most playing time any player gets."

My practice ethic originated while playing football my freshman year. My grandfather was one of the coaches. You might think this got me more playing time. You'd be wrong. You might think he rode my butt to be better. You'd be wrong. What he did, and he did for every player on the team, was give some of the best advice I ever received. 

He taught me that I have a choice about the player I want to be. Nobody else can make me better and nobody can force me to want to be. It's a decision I had to make myself. If I wanted playing time, I needed to be an asset to the team. And to do that, I had to commit to getting better. 

"I have a choice about the player I want to be. Nobody else can make me better and nobody can force me to want to be."

Keep in mind, this was my first year of playing football. I was slow, weak and uncoordinated. I was far from a starter or even a significant contributor. I think I was on the field for 20 total snaps in a nine game season that year.

But in practice, we all got chances to improve. Whether in drills, conditioning or full squad practices. When the first team offense would be on the field, the defense was a scout team. The scout team was to help prepare the offense for the game that week. But it was also an opportunity for 2nd and 3rd string defensive guys to get significant practice reps. 

More often than not, most of the players didn't volunteer for the scout team. This is when I learned maybe the most profound wisdom in sports. My grandpa would walk the sideline and tell us that practice is the most playing time any player ever gets. No matter your position on the team. 

From then on, I volunteered for every snap of the scout team. For 4 more years. Even as a starter my senior year, I would get on the scout team to help the other side of the ball. 

I learned to love practice as much as the game. Maybe more. To me, the game is the place to showcase all the work you've done to prepare for it. Today, I'm always the one asking for another round of groundballs, a few more pitches in a bullpen or an extra round of bp. I'm always the last to leave. 

Expand your horizons

You might think of yourself as a shortstop. Maybe you are. But if there's a better shortstop on the team, you might not get the majority of time there throughout the season. If this is the case you have 3 options.

⚾️ Do nothing and accept being a backup. I don't recommend this but it's your choice

⚾️ Put in the effort to be a better shortstop. Really, you should do this whether you are the starter, a backup or have aspirations of playing that position.

⚾️ Learn to be a second baseman.

That last one is the one I want to focus on. 

I don't think many players should pigeon hole themselves into any one position. Yes there are exceptions, like if you are an elite position player with higher aspirations or a pitcher-only. But I believe every player should have versatility in their positional skills. 

When I say learn second base, I don't mean just play second base; I mean learn what it takes to be a second baseman. Yes you can just try to use your experience at shortstop and wing it. While they are similar, there are pronounced differences and learning the position inside and out is what it takes to really be considered a multi positional player. 

Learn the foot work. Practice the different angles and throwing distances. Perfect your knowledge of cutoffs and positional responsibilities. The position is different. Treat it that way. Practice it like you want to start there. 

I've played shortstop for years. Of all the infield positions, the one I make the most errors at is 2B. I have a hard time making the shorter throw accurately. My Grays teammates at the MSBL Vegas tourney can tell you about that. 

Frankly, of all nine positions on the field, it's the one I get the least practice time at. Which leads me to another piece of advice. If you are looking for more playing time than you get, don't limit yourself to one or two positions. Learn as many as possible. 

I consider myself a Super Utility player. I can adequately play all nine positions on the field. That's not to say I'm equally good at all of them. There are some I'm stronger at than others. My weakest are 2B and the corner outfield positions. 2B because of my difficulty making the short throw (which with more practice will get better). At the corner outfield positions I sometimes have trouble picking up the ball off the bat and am slow to react because it. I don't have that issue in centerfield for some reason. I don't know if it's because of eyesight (I'm slightly nearsighted) or if I just haven't had enough reps in those spots. Either way those are my weak spots. Remember what I said earlier about being honest with yourself?

On the flipside, my strongest positions are shortstop and third base. I get the most reps there and have been playing on that side of the infield for years between baseball and softball. I see the ball off the bat better, know the angles better and have quicker reaction time. The game "slows down" for me in those positions because I've seen thousands of balls while playing there. Am I perfect? No. But my fielding percentage and throwing accuracy are much higher here than at other places on the field. 

Training yourself to be a utility player has a lot of advantages. It gives your manager more options for positioning. It gives you more opportunities for playing time. And it's fun being able to line up in different spots from time to time.

Be a dugout leader

Your dugout presence says a lot about your dedication to the team. Setting a good example for work ethic, being a supportive teammate and keeping your head in the game shows that you are engaged and ready to contribute. 

If you aren't in the game, warm up outfielders between innings and pitchers in the bullpen. Keep the scorebook. Be a base coach. Offer to help your team win in any way possible. 

Encourage your teammates. Congratulate them on good plays. Pick them up when they struggle. No matter your role on the team, do it to the best of your ability.

"Players want to see good teammates get playing time..."

Being a good team mate and positive presence on the bench will get you the right kind of attention. Players want to see good teammates get playing time and so do managers. Being a positive influence is an asset for the team. 

Seek advice

It's not uncommon to be frustrated. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, it feels like you hit a wall. Like there is a barrier keeping you from gaining ground. 

Don't be afraid to ask for help. A manager, coach, teammate or a training partner adds an independent set of eyes to what you are doing. They might see something off in your mechanics. They could have some words of wisdom that can transform your game. 

Does that mean you should implement every piece of advice you get? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad advice out there along with the good. And it can sometimes be hard to sort it out. 

That's why setting pride aside and asking for help is important when you need it. Connect with those with the skills you want to learn or those with a track record of helping others improve. There are a lot of factors to getting better at baseball. One step is discovering what you do right and wrong. 

Things to avoid

⚾️ Pouting about lack of playing time. There are better ways to get it. Complaining isn't productive.

⚾️ Openly pointing out mistakes players make on the field. Errors happen. If it's a habit, your manager will likely make a change. Instead, encourage them to make the next play. 

⚾️ Becoming disengaged from the game. Don't ignore what's happening on the field.  You can learn from watching the action. And you may be needed to fill in at a moments notice. 

⚾️ Bad mouthing teammates. Teams win together or lose together. Everyone should be trying to pick up the team. Don't bring negativity to the dugout. 

People like to be around positive people with a similar goal. If you are someone your manager and players respect, your prospects for playing go up greatly. Be a team player, no matter the hierarchy on the depth chart. 

Never be satisfied with "good enough".

Here's a philosophical question I'll ask people when I'm trying to gauge the type of player they are. 

"Would you rather be the best player on a bad team, or the worst player on a great team?"

Think about that for a minute. There's no right or wrong answer. The point is more to get you thinking about it. 

Chances are, as a player, you fall somewhere between the spectrum of best and worst on your own team. The question is, are you doing what you can to get better? Are you surrounded by teammates that have good skills and work ethic? Are you setting an example for others around you? Are you satisfied or want to be more?

"Improve your value to the team."

Yes, we are people. Not robots. We have emotions. We can be unhappy with our playing time. We might feel like we get slighted when the manager posts the line up. We might have bad days or feel like we aren't getting our due. 

And if that's the case, you can be upset about it. Or instead, you can get to work.

Improve your value to the team. Make yourself stand out with your play on the field. Successful teams have a full roster of players that are always trying to improve and help each other get better. The culture within the team starts with one person deciding good enough isn't good enough. Then acting upon it. 

No matter your team situation, be that person. 

And never forget the reasons you love this game. Remember that every time on the field is a good time. It will get you through the tough times. 


Play ball


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