Honing Skills, Learning From the Masters and More at Champs Arizona's Skill Development Days

While most may take their off-day of a week-long, summer baseball tournament to cool off in the pool or catch a movie, many of the young players at USA Baseball’s Champs Arizona are spending their free day at the place they love most — the ballpark.

New this year to USA Baseball’s National Team Championships in Arizona are skill development days, training sessions designed and taught by the organization’s expert-level coaching staff and task force to teach fundamental baseball skills to any and every player involved in that week’s tournament.

While the National Team Championships primarily serve as USA Baseball’s primary identification event for its touted national teams, players can now come and connect and learn from the best coaches and staff in the game.

“We wanted to give the players an opportunity to be able to bring something home with them, other than just the opportunity to make a national team,” said Jim Koerner, USA Baseball’s Director of Player Development. “And the thought was to expose them to the coaching staff that we have here in place that are all extremely qualified, extremely experienced, knowledgeable, and they can impart some of their baseball knowledge on these guys where hopefully they can apply it to their game and be able to help it progress their careers.”

Available during the off-day of each of the week-long tournaments offered to four different age groups competing at Champs Arizona, skill development days were designed by a team of USA Baseball staff that featured Koerner, Director of Baseball Operations Ann Claire Roberson, and Coordinator of Baseball Operations Jeff Feltman to give players a time for instruction during their tournament.

What had previously been used as a testing day for player identification has now turned into a productive, fun, and worthwhile experience for any player or team willing to join.

“This is different because we're not using it for identification,” Feltman said. “We're doing this strictly for development. As USA Baseball, such a big part of us is development and developing players instead of just identifying them. So even though we're looking at the end of the day for the best players that can make our programs and national teams the greatest, we also want to impact the youth of baseball and develop these players as much as we can.”

Skill development days begin with the hundreds of years of combined baseball experience from USA Baseball’s scouting task forces, which are comprised of coaches, former players, professional scouts, and more. While their usual mission is to find the best amateur baseball players from across the nation, they now have the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

“Our task force is made up of former national team coaches and elite high school and college coaches,” Feltman said. “So we thought it'd be very beneficial for teams to be able to just be in the presence of them and get to learn some skills and do some drills and do some different types of baseball activities you're not doing in everyday practice, kind of working on things that are looked over and not taught as much.”

During skill development days, the task force focuses on drills that many players may not be able to regularly practice at their high schools or travel ball clubs. In turn, these days often include pitcher’s mastering the art of the pickoff, catcher’s practicing tagging after a ball hits the dirt, infielder’s working on their double play footwork, and outfielder’s learning how to work around the fence when fielding deep fly balls.

At its core, though, skill development days teach athletes the fundamentals of the skills they need in order to take their game to the next level. Those fundamentals aren’t limited to on-the-field skills, however. They include attributes such as a dedication to hard work and high effort, attributes that are emphasized in each and every rep.

“I think what we're really doing is reinforcing the qualities that good baseball players need to have…” Koerner said. “We're trying to instill a work ethic and an attention to detail and intent and impart some of the experiences our guys had with their own programs. It's not about reinventing baseball, it's about doing their routine better.”

Henry Mata watched his son, Isaiah Mata, attend the 16U tournament’s skill development day. Like many other parents, he watched his son feed off the staff’s core values of hard work and attention to detail — the traits that contribute more to success than any drill they might practice.

“What USA baseball mandates is the attitude, the work ethic, especially from the coaches down to the staff, as to how everybody conducts themselves out here,” Mata said. “It's super professional and it's super competitive.”

These days not only give players a chance to impart wisdom from USA Baseball’s coaching staff, though. Skill development days allow them to interact with players from different teams and prepare them for a life of professionalism, teamwork, competition, and friendship within the world of baseball.

“They get to intertwine with kids from probably all over the country, and have to adapt to that and be comfortable and be able to perform at the same time,” Mata said. “So I think it's excellent.”

While athletes reap all the benefits of drilling with their peers, learning from the masters, and honing their skills, USA Baseball’s staff gets just as much from skill development days as the next generation of baseball players do.

“It’s rewarding,” Koerner said. “It's an honor to be out there, to be able to work with the youth of the country and to help them play the game that they love at a high level, where you can pass on some of your experiences. It's the reason why we all coach.”