Engage Bianca Smith in conversation about defense for a few minutes and you’re almost sure to think about the game in a different way when you’re done. We experienced that after talking to the former Red Sox minor league coach on Tuesday, just before she heads to Japan on a new coaching venture.
Smith, the first African-American woman to be a pro baseball coach, has taught all aspects of the game, including defense, on the scholastic, collegiate, and professional levels. She spent two years as a coach at the Red Sox complex in Fort Myers and spent the last few months coaching a summer college team on Long Island. She’s a graduate of Dartmouth with an MBA and law degree from Case Western Reserve. You’ll get a good education in both the physical and mental side of coaching defense from reading this Q&A.
This is the latest article in a series in which we’ve interviewed a diverse group of coaches about teaching defensive excellence. To read the others in the series, click here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mark: What does defensive excellence mean to you?
Bianca: It’s not quite like being perfect at defense, but it’s more giving 100% and knowing what you’re doing when the ball comes to you.
Mark: Who taught you how to play defense?
Bianca: I got the physical skills from my high school coaches.
But the mental part I actually learned just from watching the game. I always put myself in the same position as whatever player was in my position and would go through the game as well, thinking about the situation and if the ball came to me, what would I do. That’s what prepared me for my games.
Mark: How do you teach that and how do you teach defense?
Bianca: A lot of it is experience, but I’ve also found just going over situations with players is going to be a lot more effective than putting them in the situations in games and just hoping they figure it out, which I’ve actually seen a lot of coaches do.
They just kind of assume the players know. And I even found this out with the Red Sox. You get to the professional level and you assume that players know how to play and what they’re supposed to be doing. And a lot of the times, they actually don’t. So I spend a lot of my time as an outfield coach, probably more time actually, talking about situations, talking about defensive skills, rather than actually doing them.
Once I actually explained it to them first, it was a lot easier for them to practice and pick up rather than just throw them out there and try to force them to figure it out.
Mark: This isn’t meant to be critical of their past coaches, but is that due to where they were before, or is that due to instruction being done differently at different levels?
Bianca: I think it’s more instruction being done differently. And like I said, I’ve seen it with coaches at higher levels. You just expect that either their previous coach or the fact that they’ve been playing so long that they already know this information. And when coaches come in with that assumption, you don’t coach it, and then they go off to the next level, and they still haven’t learned it.
So, I don’t think it’s a lack of coaching. It’s more just that assumption that a lot of coaches have, based on whatever level they’re at. You just assume, oh, at some point they’ve learned this already, I shouldn’t have to teach them.
So you don’t even bother bringing it up.
Mark: Can you break down some of the things you teach and give us some specifics?
Bianca: I’d say one of the most important things for outfield – it’s not as much the physical part.
It’s knowing where to throw the ball and knowing how to throw it properly. A lot of outfielders, no matter what level, they like to throw it as hard as they can because they’re trying to show off their arm.
Giving them a situation where I explain to them that there’s a runner on base, so what is your goal?
Are you trying to prevent them from scoring, or prevent them from moving and advancing, or are you actually just trying to get them out? Some players will say, yeah, we’re trying to get them out. Others will say they’re trying to prevent them from advancing.
And I’ll explain it using statistics that, the majority of the time, outfielders are not going to actually throw a player out. That’s why outfield assists really aren’t as high a number as you would expect.
And then I explain, imagine you’re in a game, you’re throwing as hard as you can, the throw technically gets to the base, but it’s too high. Or you overthrow it because you’re throwing as hard as you can because you’re trying to throw them out versus trying to just keep them from advancing. Now the runner is going to advance anyway.
So, talking that through, explaining why we want to play a certain way, keeps them from going into a game and making those types of errors.
And then, that’s when we start working on a long-hop drill, throwing to the base, where we’re trying to get the long hop. I’ve even had drills where half the outfielders will be in the outfield throwing, the other half will actually be fielding in the infield, to give them an idea of what it’s like to catch a long hop versus a short hop for the infielders.
And then they really understand, okay, yeah, I need to do a long hop, because it’s a lot easier for them not only to catch it, but to apply the tag, if we do actually manage to throw them out.
Mark: How do you get them to listen to you?
It depends on the age group, depends on the level. But one thing that I’ve found to be very effective in getting them to listen to me, but also in making sure that everybody understands what we’re working on, is that I don’t like to give drills that I haven’t tried myself at least once.
I was never an auditory learner. If I hear something, I don’t retain it as well as if I either read it or I do it myself. So I’m a very hands-on learner. So I like to actually practice the drill before I tell the players what we’re going to work on and I show it at the same time. They learn it better, but they also have this understanding of, okay, she actually does know what she’s talking about because she’s done this before.
I don’t believe every coach needs to have played the game. I do believe you need to at least be able to do some of the skills that you’re showing your players because it does help them, and it gives them a little bit more trust. I’m not necessarily gonna trust a coach who tells me to go run two miles, but they can’t even run a little bit. You do what you preach, pretty much. I’ve found that’s a lot of the ways that I’m going to gain trust from players.
Mark: Do you do anything different for kids?
Bianca: Kids are actually a lot easier to gain trust from.
They just expect that you know what you’re talking about. But I approach it the same way. When you’re first starting out with players that you don’t know very well, you don’t know what kind of learners they are. As I get to know them a little bit more, I might change my coaching style based on what kind of learner they are, based on how they receive my coaching style.
Once I start talking to them and get to know them, you also build trust that way because you’re just learning about them as a person versus just them as a player.
I know the moment that I’ve really gained trust from a player is when they start asking me stuff that doesn’t have to do with baseball.
Mark: How do you overcome the gender gap?
Bianca: Never really had to.
I think we’re at that point now, at least in baseball, where most players don’t really care. whether you’re a man or a woman.
It’s funny because I would have boys and girls in my camp, and one of the girls would throw a ball really well. One of the boys would go, oh my gosh, I can’t believe she’s a girl and she could throw a ball. And I’m just looking at him thinking, you do realize that your coach is a girl, right?
Mark: How do you talk to a potential outfielder about knowing when to leave his or her feet?
Bianca: That’s been a fun one because I’ve had this conversation quite a bit. At least with the players that I’ve worked with, most of them are too afraid to leave their feet because they’re scared of messing up.
So I explain it that if you think there’s like a 95% chance that you think you can catch that ball, I want you going for it. The only times you wouldn’t is if it’s a sharp line drive, you’re playing left field or right field and you’re diving towards the foul pole or foul line. Because if you miss that, that’s going to get way past you.
If it’s in the gap, I actually prefer them diving, even on a sharp line drive. If we’re teaching them right, your center fielder is backing you up. The center field basically has free range, meaning if you’re diving either way, hopefully the other outfielder is backing you up. So that, I don’t mind at all.
I would rather them dive and at least try for it, than see a bloop single land in front of them that they could have caught. We actually practice just backing up. I will have two guys go out at the same time, put a ball in the machine. The guy in front will pretend like he missed it, and the guy behind has to actually back him up.
So they have to figure out: How far am I going to be away from my other outfielder so I can be there in case he misses the ball?
I’ll go over situations depending on, what runners are on, are they fast, what’s the score, what’s the inning? Is this a do-or-die play or is this a situation where if you dive, you catch it, we win the game? If you don’t dive and it drops, they’re gonna win anyway, so you might as well dive. I make sure that we’re gonna go through every situation. And if they do dive in a situation that I don’t think they shouldn’t have, I just bring them back in after the inning’s done, we talk about it, and then they learn from it.
But I try to make sure players know I’m never gonna be upset with you giving 100% and diving for the ball. I’m gonna be more upset if you didn’t try at all, the ball drops and now they got a hit.
Mark: What about teaching the technique of getting under the ball when you dive?
Bianca: We had to do this even with the Red Sox because diving is something that’s not really practiced because of injury prevention.
We make sure to do some kind of progression. I remember this is how I actually learned diving in the outfield and became more comfortable with diving and sliding.
It’s just starting from your knees, actually even just starting in a diving position so you understand where to put your hands, how to keep your body up a little bit so you’re not face-planting when you dive or keeping your wrist from rolling under you. Then going from your knees and just trying to kind of get comfortable with landing on the ground.
Then we start getting to a position where you’re going from your feet and then you’re running. We might use a diving mat or sliding mat. I ran a camp for a summer collegiate team just a few weeks ago, and we worked on sliding on a slip-and-slide. So, now that’s something I bring up with the kids, especially if it’s hot out.
They have less of a fear of sliding now, and they’re just getting familiar and comfortable with their bodies to the point where eventually, it’s just going to become natural in a game, and they’re not thinking about it, they’re just going to do it. As soon as they start thinking, that’s when you’re risking injury, because then your body tenses up.
Mark: Do you teach jumping at the wall too?
Bianca: With kids it’s more just finding the wall. But as they get older, we’ve done that with the Red Sox where we have a drill where they’re not just finding the wall, they are trying to actually judge it and see if they can jump and just protect their bodies so they’re not getting hurt.
Mark: On your website, you had a one-line reference in your ‘About Me’ section to playing soccer and dancing as you grew up. I’m curious if you have any favorite drills to teach footwork that mimic either soccer or dancing movements.
Bianca: So, it’s not really a drill. I haven’t done it yet. I’ve brought it up once and it kind of got laughed at. But the idea that in baseball, you need rhythm. Because no matter what you’re doing, whether you’re hitting, you’re on the bases, you’re in the field, you’re dancing with the pitcher. That’s your timing.
And I saw one team who actually warmed up with music and danced. I thought that was a great idea and that’s something I would love to do with a team. But I know it seems a little weird until you start to explain how you’re dancing with the pitcher.
It’s literally just rhythm. You start to see it with guys when they can’t dance or they don’t have rhythm. It makes so much more sense when you see them either hitting or in the field trying to work on their pre-pitch. Because you try to tell them your pre-pitch is just going off the pitcher. But then their pre-pitch is off.
I’m [thinking] okay, that explains so much and we can try to just work through that. But that’d be one drill. It’s not really a drill. It’s more the warm-up. But it’d be one thing I definitely want to incorporate, trying to get that rhythm and everything going at the same time.
I love looking at other sports and trying to incorporate things that we can use for baseball. You can talk to any of the players that I’ve had in the last few years. I’ve introduced bunting with a lacrosse stick. And I love doing that. When I teach guys tracking the baseball, we do football routes. We would have the coaches actually throw footballs We put the cones out there and they’re actually just running routes.
I’ve looked at hockey for hitting a slap shot is very similar to the body movement you use with your hips when you hit it. The same thing with golf. I’ve even started looking at volleyball for pitching and throwing. One of my brothers plays volleyball and we’ve gone back and forth about how to strengthen up his arms. It’s very similar to how pitchers do it.
So looking at other sports, it’s fascinating how similar the movements still are.
Mark: What about soccer?
Bianca: This is a little different. It’s not a physical defensive skill. It’s something that I’ve also found interesting with the Red Sox. It’s not like it’s not taught, but it’s one of those things that you assume that they already know. Simple communication in the outfield, which could make a huge difference on whether a ball is caught or not.
So rather than do your typical drill where you have two lines, you hit a ball in the gap and have them call for it, I had them juggling a soccer ball amongst themselves and calling for it.
Anybody who was at the Red Sox complex in my first season (2021) has done the soccer ball drill.
The first week or two that we had games, they weren’t really talking in the outfield. They were catching balls, but it bugged me, because I’m saying there’s going to be a point where there’s a ball in the gap, nobody says anything, and you’re going to collide. Or, you’re going to think the other person has it, you’re going to back off, and nobody’s going to catch it.
So I said okay, we’re working on this drill. You guys need to be loud. I want to hear you be loud. I want to know who’s actually got the ball. And it gave them an opportunity to kind of break out of their shells and just have a little bit of fun while still working on something that’s really important in the outfield.
And it became a competition because if they called for it and they missed it, they’re out. We assigned our normal center fielders, they were the center fielders of the circle that started with all our outfielders lined up LF, CF, RF, LF CF, RF. You had your three outfielders and the center fielders had priority and everybody knew who the center fielders were, but they had to call for the ball. As players “lost,” they came out of the circle.
I did see guys become a little bit louder in the outfield after that.
Mark: What’s the hardest thing to teach defensively?
Bianca: Actually throwing the ball.
Because you don’t want to fall into that cookie cutter that you have to throw it this way. Just because [your arm slot] looks bad doesn’t mean they’re not doing it effectively. Some guys are more comfortable from sidearm. Some are more comfortable from three quarters. It’s all over the place.
Mark: What’s your favorite thing to teach on defense?
Bianca: Diving and sliding. I still do figure four slides when I’m shagging balls during BP. And the guys get really excited if I actually do manage to catch one.
I love being able to teach that because I think once you get into their heads that it’s okay for them to dive and slide, their aggressiveness in the outfield just shoots up and it’s so much more fun.
Mark: Anything else you would like to say about coaching defense?
Bianca: Anybody following major league baseball now, they see the rule changes. Defense is so much more important now than it used to be and yes, offense is important. I understand that too. I was a hitting coach.
So. being able to rely on defense, especially now that hitters are gonna have to focus more on just driving the ball, getting hits versus just hitting home runs means you have to be able to field the ball properly. You have to be able to throw the ball in. You can’t risk errors.
Defense and baserunning were my bread-and-butter as a player. That’s why it’s so important to me.
Mark: You’re headed to Japan – this week actually. Thank you for talking to me. What’s the coaching opportunity you have overseas?
Bianca: Japan started this program called The JET Program in the 1980s where they would send English speakers over to teach English in their schools. The last decade or two they’ve started including sports coaches. There are 10 of us in the whole country compared to something like 3,000 English teachers.
The baseball position opened up in February. It was perfect timing. I found out that I got it in May, so I’ll be heading over and living in Higashikawa, which is the center of Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan and I will be coaching elementary and junior high students from 5 to 15 years old. It’s kind of like their local Little League team. It’s a really good team. I do know that. And I found out the elementary school program has 52 players on the team.
It’s been on my bucket list forever to be able to work in baseball in Japan. I’m incredibly excited. I’ve loved the culture and the country since I was a teenager. A goal of mine is to coach an NPB team someday.
So I’m merging my three loves: baseball, Japan, and traveling.
This is the latest article in a series in which we’ve interviewed a diverse group of coaches about teaching defensive excellence. To read the others in the series, click here.