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Solo practice offers path to athletic improvement for high school athletes

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St. Louis FC practice

Dale Schilly is a club official for Scott Gallagher, which operates as a soccer development academy. (Post-Dispatch photo by Chris Lee)

Jamie Rivers, the former Blues defenseman turned radio host and hockey coach, is standing in his driveway with an upside down flower pot and a rake.

In these strangest of times, this is how you get better.

Not only are there no sports to watch now, in person or on television, or listen to on the radio, or follow online, there’s none to play either.

Leagues, from the MLB, NBA and NHL right down to your local rec league, are on hold. No one is for sure how long. Spring high school sports are effectively done, even if the state of Missouri won’t go so far as to say that. With schools not meeting, team practice is even a thing of the past.

At least as a team. But in the comforts of one’s home, in a living room, a basement or a backyard, coaches say, this is a golden opportunity to get better, and you can do it with minimum equipment.

What kids (and aspirational adults) can do now is work on the little things, the skills that are essential to the game but which there isn’t always enough time to work on. Practices often might be focused on team dynamics and concepts. The current coronavirus-fueled shutdown is a chance to work on personal matters.

“The goal,” said Rivers, “is you can’t be there all the time but there’s no reason everyone can’t continue to develop and get better.”

“In a team environment, there’s not as much time on individual attention as we would like,” said Dale Schilly, technical director for the St. Louis Scott Gallagher soccer club. “Now there’s an opportunity to brush up and clean up your technique

So what’s a kid to do at a time like this? Here are some suggestions from some area coaches:


What was supposed to be opening day has come and gone without a game being played and who knows when the season will start. But as the weather warms, thoughts will go to Our National Pastime.

Highland High baseball coach Joel Hawkins starts with a simple suggestion on how to spend this waiting time: Figure out what you want to be. A second baseman? A shortstop? Center fielder? You can take this time to look at video clips of the best players at each position and see how they do it. What’s their footwork? How do they field a ball? Go to throw? He has his players prepare PowerPoint presentations on how the best do it.

From there, you can get to work. Hitting work will be tough to fit in (though there are some ways), but fielding is a ready target for work. It helps to have someone to throw balls and play catch with — a sibling or a parent in this time of social distancing — but if not, never underestimate the value of a wall.

“You can definitely do some fundamental mechanics stuff,” Hawkins said. “Start down on your knees, roll a tennis ball, eight to 10 feet apart is all you need, have your palm up and pull the ball toward your midsection with no glove. Then put the glove on and do it. Get used to being soft. Then have them stand up, roll them a little ground ball, let them stay down in ready position, turn, pull and throw, no glove. Then put a glove on and practice the same mechanic. You can do it in a confined space. Then do it to the other guy.”

Similar drills can be done with ground balls to a player’s glove side and then to their backhand side. And don’t just focus on fielding the ball, but on the footwork too to be able to make a throw after fielding it. Fielding short hops can be worked in as well. And for all of these, if the fielder doesn’t know which way the ball is going, it’s a chance to work on taking a good first step to be in position to get the ball. “These are things you can work on in a real short space,” Hawkins said. He also suggests balls thrown just far enough away from the fielder to force them to dive for it. “Kids love laying out for balls,” he said.

In another drill that works best outside and with a partner, a player can work on catching fly balls and being ready to make a throw after the catch. Also, fly balls hit or thrown over the player’s head can allow them to work on picking up the ball in flight and getting to the right place to catch it.

Most families don’t have access to a batting cage, but some hitting work can still be done. It helps to somehow create a hitting tee to be able to get swings in. There are phone apps that allow players to observe their swing in slow motion. Absent that, Hawkins suggests, “pull out mom’s mirror and see how your swing looks. Or see how your pitching motion looks. Then you can learn a little about that. That’s why you can do some kind of study on mechanics if you pick a guy you like.”

And, either outside or inside with enough room so you don’t break something, you can get in some swings. “Put your hand at the top of the tape, take a one-handed swing, then switch hands, and see which one is stronger, which one is weaker. Or, put the ball on the tee, and take a step like you would stride and load up but you should be able to hold it and take no stride. You can learn good balance from that move,” Hawkins said.

Also, you can work on hitting inside or outside pitches. “Put the tee deep and inside and try to stay inside of it,” Hawkins said. “It’s training on being able to go to the opposite field. We’ve become pull-centric. Then put the tee outside and deep and go the other way. After hitting inside out, it’s fun opposite field work. Then get making tape or duct tape and make an X on the wall about belly-button high and try to hit that X. That’s a line drive up the middle, ultimate contact.”


It was during the 2012-13 NHL lockout that Rivers got going in coaching. With the NHL shutdown for the first half of the season, players came to Rivers about working with him on fundamentals, and they began doing drills. That same situation applies now.

“We started doing skill work and guys started to gravitate to it,” Rivers said. “Now skills are a huge part of it. In the offseason, we’re out there with (various Blues), working on different skills. It’s amazing how much you can improve, even with an NHLer. They’re already among the top players in the world and they can improve a bit every year. Skill training is now a massive part.”

So that’s what hockey players can do now, even if they can’t get on the ice. Using a tennis ball or a street hockey ball and wearing shoes instead of skates, it’s possible to work on these skills, by yourself, on solid ground, and become better.

Rivers, who in addition to his radio gig with WXOS (101.1 FM), runs Synergy Hockey, which teaches hockey skills. He began posting daily quarantine drills on his Twitter feed (@JamieRivers08) and Synergy’s (@Synergy_hockey) or on Instagram at SynergyHockey. All can be done with things you have around the house, assuming you have a hockey stick. That’s why in his first drill, Rivers had the rake on top of the flower pot, recreating in a simple way an opposing defenseman trying to break up a play.

The drills begins with the ball on one side of the rake and rapid stickhandling with the ball — left, right, left, right — before passing the ball under the rake and picking it up on the other side and repeating the drill. Ideally, over time a player can be comfortable enough moving the ball back and forth that he or she can do it without looking.

From there, the drill progresses to moving the ball under the rake and then immediately back (“Breaking ankles,” Rivers said), followed by more stickhandling. Finally, Rivers takes the rake off the pot, lays it flat on the ground, toedrags the puck around the end of the rake, flips it back over from the other side, and then repeating. With practice, it can all be done without looking down.

The second installment works on those concepts but doesn’t even require a rake. Stickhandle the ball 30 times on your forehand, then in front of you, then on your backhand, moving in an arc in front of you.

In another drill online, a Synergy coach lays two sticks out in front of him and moves the ball in a figure 8 pattern around the bottom of one stick, in between them, then across the top and back, all while keeping his feet planted.

For shooting drills, even if you don’t have a net, you can mark one on a wall or garage door and shoot with a weighted stick, and you can move the weights, to develop grip strength.

“That’s how players become better in today’s game,” Rivers said. “Every guy can skate, can shoot the puck hard, mostly everybody can slap the puck. It’s little things that separate. When Matthew Tkachuk scored between his legs, he’s been working on that since he was a kid. … There may be situations that present themselves once every five games. Having that skill makes a big difference,”


St. Louis Scott Gallagher, like other clubs, has posted drills on its website that are there for the taking. (Scott Gallagher’s website is, then look for Homework; Lou Fusz is, then go to LFA at Home.) The drills are broken down by age and most revolve around ball skills. Sharing online has become a thing. Schilly said that one of the drills they posted was done by a player at a club in San Diego, who sent video of her doing the drills back to Scott Gallagher.

Ball skills can be invaluable in a game but are something that get worked only in passing in team practices.

“It’s huge,” Schilly said. “When I was coaching STLFC, you’d think that was a level beyond doing it, but you need to go back and do technical work to refine your skills and keep that comfort. You get into a situation where you do so many Xs and Os and big picture stuff, but if you don’t have the skill level, the individual ability, it’s not going to work.”

Some improvising could be needed for people who don’t have a supply of cones at home (see Rivers’ flower pot above) or a rope ladder to stretch on the ground.

The ball skills can range from controlling it with your foot to making quick directional changes to dribbling and positioning yourself for a shot at a net, or, absent one, a wall. And improvisation works too. Having a ball and working on skills with it is a positive step.

“Strength and conditioning,” Schilly said. “On-ball mastery, touching the ball to get comfortable, dribbling activities. Skill-work foot skills, doing anything that you can do with the ball to increase comfort and the speed to do those things. The next trick is taking that skill and implementing it in a game. It’s one thing to do tricks, it’s another to do things that help the team. Having someone come back with high skills from training individually is better than not training at all and coming back to the team. Then it’s how players will implement those newfound sills. We’re bending the curve in terms of comfort with the ball and a team environment.”

Another thing players can do is watch games. While no live games are being played, NBCSN, for instance, regularly shows recent Premier League games, and others can be found online. As with baseball, watching how world-class players play and the strategies they use can help a young player get smarter about the game.

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