The “Whiplash” effect on greatness

I know this may be hard to believe for anyone who knows me personally, but apparently I was a little behind in my movie watching because I just saw the movie “Whiplash” on cable. Released in 2014, it was the winner of three Academy Awards Whiplashearlier this year, including one for J.K. Simmons as the brutal band director.

If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a capsule description from IMDB:

A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.

And by “stop at nothing” they mean he screams at, berates and humiliates the musicians playing for him without pause, prejudice or mercy. It’s fascinating (although sometimes difficult) to watch, especially Simmons’ performance. Be warned he drops F-bombs the way ET drops Reese’s Pieces – as though he needs them to find his way back to his music stand.

So why am I talking about a movie about a jazz band in a fastpitch softball blog? Because Simmon’s character Fletcher is less like a band director and more like many youth sports coaches we see out on the field. I played in bands through high school and never ran across anyone even remotely like him.

Understand in the movie his methods work. The fictional Shafer Conservatory #1 jazz band is the top jazz band in the country. Not sure if they’d work in the real world, but that’s kind of the point of this post.

At one point Fletcher is talking to the young drummer (Andrew, played by Miles Teller) he browbeat and ultimately threw out of the band when the two run into each other at a jazz club where Fletcher is performing on piano. He explains his methodology essentially by saying no one ever achieved greatness by being told “good job.”

For support he points to a story about jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker having a cymbal thrown at him during a performance by Jo Jones. (According to IMDB’s trivia section that didn’t actually happen. Jones dropped the cymbal, essentially “gonging” Parker off the stage.) Fletcher then says Parker could’ve quit right there, but instead the incident drove him on to become a great. That’s what Fletcher says he is trying to do for his students – even literally throwing a cymbal at Andrew at one point.

So here’s the question: is Fletcher right? Is the only way to push someone to achieve greatness to abuse them until they either sink or swim? If it’s not the only way, is it the best way? Or even an acceptable way? Can people achieve greatness through encouragement and supportive behavior rather than abuse, or does it hold them back?

Me personally, I don’t believe it requires abuse. Do you need to set high standards? Yes, absolutely. I hate hearing “good job” when something clearly wasn’t. But you don’t have to be abusive to have high standards.

That’s just me, though. What do you think?

Great article from Cindy Bristow on pitch calling

Just had to share this article from Cindy Bristow at Softball Excellence. It’s about the four biggest mistakes you can make when calling pitches.

Cindy really hits the nail on the head! No surprise there – she’s brilliant. And very realistic when it comes to the subtleties of coaching fastpitch softball.

I have certainly seen all of the mistakes she mentions made at one time or another. The first two in particular – not knowing your pitcher’s capabilities overall and THAT DAY, and calling YOUR favorite pitches instead of the pitcher’s best ones.

One major example was what happened to a former student of mine when she went to pitch in college. The team’s pitching coach (who was maybe a second-year coach) didn’t seem too interested in helping the pitcher become the best she could be. Instead, it was almost like she went out of her way to make her look bad.

The two biggest mistakes were 1) not calling the girl’s best pitch (a dynamite curveball) because the coach preferred screwballs and 2) calling almost nothing but screwballs, thereby making the pitches predictable. This pitcher had a great screwball too, and could survive on it for a couple of inning. But after a steady diet of them college hitters figured out if they backed off the plate a little bit they could feast on them.

And even then the PC wouldn’t call a curve, or a rise, or change, or a drop. Instead she’d let her get pounded, then have the coach take her out because “she wasn’t effective.”

I don’t know of any pitcher anywhere who can throw the same pitch time after time and be effective. Even the greats mix it up. But when you insist on making a pitcher one-dimensional it doesn’t take long for good hitters to make them look bad.

Absolutely check out this article, if for no other reason than to make sure you (or your PC) isn’t falling into one of these traps. And be sure to sign up for Cindy’s newsletter while you’re there. Tons of great information lands right in your email every couple of weeks.

An inspirational story – one-armed softball player

We often talk about how difficult the sport of softball is to learn and play. It can take years for players to get the hang of the game, and coaches and parents frequently get frustrated when their players don’t “get it” right away.

And few positions demand more of a player than being a catcher – especially since one of the key ways to measure the effectiveness of a catcher is their ability to throw runners out when they’re trying to steal. It takes quick reactions, a strong arm, and a quick transfer of the ball from the glove to the free hand.

That’s what makes this video so inspirational. It’s about Jaide Bucher, a high school catcher from Denver, who does all of this while only having one hand – her left hand.

The good folks from Gatorade recently made one of her dreams come true when they arranged for her to fly to LA to meet her idol, former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott. Abbott played at the highest level of baseball (even pitching a no-hitter) while also only having one hand.

Give this inspirational video a look. It’ll give you a great idea of what determination and love for the sport can accomplish.

Seeing beyond the sport

Apparently I’m not the only one thinking about big picture issues right now. I came across this blog post through a friend (an actual friend, not a “Friend”) on Facebook. KJ, thanks for posting it.

The post talks about one of the most important things a coach can bring to players – the ability to see beyond that game, that season or even the sport itself to understand the influence he or she can have. Here’s an excerpt:

If all coaches could see into the future, to that very day when a kid puts away the cleats or the hi-tops for the last time and walks away from a game………would they choose to coach individual kids differently than they presently do?

That’s a great thought, and very well stated. Wish I’d said it, in fact.

The post is written from the perspective of a parent/coach watching his daughter play her last soccer game ever. It’s well worth a read – not just by parents, but by coaches. Especially coaches who don’t have kids and may not realize the impact they can have.

Give it a look. I think you’ll find it worthwhile. And I add my thanks to all of you who do get this point, and go out there every day not just trying to win championships but help kids grow into the best versions of themselves they can be.

Make that last season count

I was thinking about this today as I was thinking about my daughters and a couple of other players who used to play with us.

If you are a current player, there are no doubt times when you find the whole training/practicing thing to be a pain. In fact, you may sometimes look at yet another game or tournament and think “Much as I love the game it sure will be nice when it’s all over and my time is my own.”

Take it from those players I was talking about at the beginning. I have yet to run into a former player who doesn’t wish she could get back out on the field just one more time to play a game or tournament that matters.

Yes, you can still play slow pitch, or maybe if you’re lucky you can find a fastpitch league somewhere. But it’s not the same. There just isn’t the level of intensity you find when you’re playing competitive ball on a regular basis, whether that’s travel, rec, high school or college.

You may not miss it right away. But one day you’ll realize just how much fun it was, and how cool, and you’ll wish you could go back and do it all again, just one more time. So…

If you’re currently a player in her last season, keep that in mind as you’re lifting, or going to lessons, or practicing. It does have an expiration date.

Also keep in mind that this final year you will be as good as you’re ever going to be, because once you’re done practicing and playing regularly all those skills you worked so hard to gain will start to deteriorate. Maybe not much at first, but they will go, and things that once came easily will now be more difficult. Or they may not be there at all anymore.

Use that as your special motivation to get past the grind of preparation. Make sure when you leave the game you feel there’s nothing more you could have done to make yourself better. Because if you don’t, once that last out is recorded you’ll have the rest of your life ahead of you. And you won’t want to spend it wishing you’d done a little more, or appreciated it a little more.

Take it from those who have come and gone before you.

The chicken/egg of breaking in a new pitcher

One of the toughest things in softball from both sides of the equation (player/parents and coach) is what it takes to break in a new pitcher. She can practice and prep any way she wants, but pitching in practice isn’t the same as pitching in a game.

For one thing, now every pitch counts – and the pressure of bad pitches builds. When a pitcher is in learning mochicken eggde, she can throw a few bad pitches in order to get better without suffering any real consequences. In a game, of course, bad pitch one becomes ball one. Bad pitch two becomes ball two. And if that pitcher is still finding herself, the next pitch will likely have
less to do with the mechanics she’s been working on and more to do with getting a strike some way, some how.

After all, she may fear letting the team down, and not getting a chance to try again for a good, long while. Still, parents realize the only way she’s going to get better is to get innings in. Even if they’re rough ones.

On the other side, there’s the coach. He/she may want to give this pitcher an opportunity, especially if she’s been working hard to learn. But he/she has to balance that against the needs of the rest of the team. You don’t want to fall too far behind due to walks and wild pitches just to develop a pitcher. On the other hand, if he/she will need her in the future (or the coach thinks she has potential), it’s important to give her those game reps now. Even if it hurts.

Sometimes the best situation for that developing pitcher is for the coach to have no choice. If you only have one, or at least one who’s working at it, you have to go with what you’ve got. That means taking some lumps early-on and hoping that pitcher gets better quickly as a result. Of course, that may make the rest of the team unhappy, and in this day and age the coach may find a couple of the better players looking for another team to play on rather than suffering through the losses.

One thing coaches can do is start by giving that pitcher one inning, and staying with her no matter what – unless she has clearly had a mental breakdown (at which point it’s cruel to leave her in). Let her get that one good inning in, and then put in someone with more experience. Try to build up to two, then three innings and so on.

By the time she gets up to three good innings in a row you should be able to put her in a game with the intention of leaving her in for however long you normally leave pitchers in. If she gets into trouble you can still take her out, but now she has a solid foundation and an idea that you want her to go more.

The hard part, of course, is getting to that point. It can get ugly at times. But it’s kind of a chicken/egg thing. To develop she needs to pitch in games. But to pitch in games, she needs to develop. At some point you’re just going to have to decide to go for it.

I’ve known (and worked with) plenty of pitchers who started out rough but through determination, persistence and a lot of hard work went on to blow away the kids who were ahead of them initially. At some, point, though, someone believed in them enough to give them a shot. And then another one. And then another one. And along the way, they saw the improvement and encouraged those pitchers to keep going. At which point those coaches reaped some pretty big rewards.

What have you found as far as breaking in a new pitcher? Do you have any rules you set out or processes you follow? Do you start with practice games/friendlies, then move them into pool play? Let us know what’s worked for you in the comments below.

Why players with new skills are like new drivers

Earlier today I was emailing with my friend and fellow coach Mike Borelli about how players who look great in practice will come out into games all nervous and tentative. It’s actually pretty common.

They work hard to learn their skills. They take lessons, they practice, they really put a lot of effort into it. Then they get into a game and they look like the proverbial deer in headlights.

Perhaps the best analogy I can come up with, and one that most of us can relate to, is when we start to drive after getting our driver’s licenses. Even though we’ve received hours of instruction, and spent countless more hours driving with our parents (or other qualified adults), none of that matters the first time we’re handed the keys to the family car.

We are nervous, we are tentative, we are afraid that we will make a horrible mistake and wrap the car around a tree, or will have trouble parking it and scratch the paint, or do something else that will get us in trouble. So we drive cautiously at first.

Eventually, though, we gain experience and confidence as continue to drive, and after a while it becomes second nature. If you’ve had your license for any length of time you probably don’t even think much about where your hands go or where to look on the road. You just get in drive.

That’s the same experience players often have after they’ve worked on new skills. No matter what they’ve done off the field, nothing compares to actually being in a game. Until they’ve had a chance to “drive” those skills for a while they’ll be tentative, unsure of what they can do and wanting not to make any mistakes.

It’s just a part of the total experience. The best you can do is give them the “keys” and give them the opportunity to get comfortable with their new skills. The more experience they gain the more they’ll relax, which will really put them in the driver’s seat.

Why so many reps in instructional videos?

This is something I’ve been wondering about for a long time but kept forgetting to throw out there. It’s the kind of thing that drives me a little nuts.

I love to learn, and will seek out all sorts of information looking for something new to incorporate. As a result, I end up watching a lot of instructional videos.

What I often find is that a lot of time on the videos are spent showing the same drill being executed over and over again. If you’re demonstrating a drill, why do we have to sit there for 30 seconds, or a minute (which feels like an eternity in the Internet age) watching 20 or 30 reps of a drill?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to explain the drill and its purpose, have a player do maybe five repetitions, and then move on? I mean, if I need more reps I can just run the video back with my mouse (if I’m watching on the computer) or a remote (if I’m watch a DVD).

What I often find is that I end up watching a lot of these videos on 2X speed, or dragging the bar forward, just so I can get on to the next piece of information. Unfortunately, if whoever made the video says something brilliant during repetition 20 I’m probably going to miss it.

Maybe this is a holdover from the days of VHS tapes, where fast-forwarding ran a small risk of breaking the tape. Or maybe it’s a function of having 15 minutes of content but needing a 40 minute video in order to sell it.

I don’t know, but please, please, please. Can we minimize the reps when there’s nothing new happening and speed things up?

Am I alone in this? Does it drive anyone else crazy to have watch the same person do the same things over and over and over again?

A quarter for the release of a back of the hand changeup

There are all different types of changeups. Some are more effective than others, and some suit a particular pitcher better than others. Quarter

Most of the time I teach a backhand change, which requires the pitcher to drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first. But sometimes that one doesn’t work. So the backup plan is the back of the hand change.

With this pitch, you bring it down normally, then spin the hand around so the little finger is facing the plate, with the back of your hand facing your thigh.

One of the challenges of the back of the hand changeup is learning to get the hand spun around at the proper time so the ball actually does come out the other side. If you don’t it just becomes a bad fastball, or maybe a handshake change at best.

Young pitchers in particular don’t always understand how quickly the hand needs to turn, so here’s an activity they can do to get the hang of it. All they need to do is take a quarter (or a half dollar or a silver dollar, anything round and decently sized) and spin it counter-clockwise on the table (for a right handed pitcher; a lefty spins it clockwise).

The idea is to get the coin spinning as fast as you can while turning the hand in the proper direction. Pitchers can challenge themselves to see how long they can keep the coin spinning with a tight rotation.

A little time spent indoors on a rainy day can make a huge difference out on the field.

One sport or multiple sports?

First of all, thanks to Jan Pauly and Jennie Hughes Janda for sharing this story via Facebook. It’s definitely worth a read.

The story is on the nagging question of our times in youth sports – should young athletes play multiple sports if they want to be successful, or should they instead focus on one sport? The prevailing attitude (especially among coaches) these days seem to be specialization is not only better but necessary.

Yet when you look at what’s going on today, that may not be the right answer. First, you have the rise in injuries among youth athletes over the last few years. While there will always be some injuries in sports, many of them are now being attributed either to overuse or over-training.

Constantly doing the same thing over and over, especially in high-level competitive situations, places a lot of wear and tear on the body. The evidence suggests that the lack of variety is a major contributing factor to the injury situation. Athletes who play different sports use different muscles and muscle groups, and stress them in different ways, which seems to contribute to better overall development.

A second factor is what happens when you look at some of the top athletes of our time. The article mentions Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and several others. All top performers, and all multi-sport athletes through high school. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were multi-sport athletes in the pros, although they are exceptions.

Then there’s the crossover of skills between various sports. Things you learn in one can be applied in another. Look at mixed martial arts practitioners. They incorporate training from a wide variety of styles to help make themselves less predictable and therefore gain an edge. If this sort of synthesis works there, why wouldn’t it work in other sports?

The reality is we may be doing our young athletes a disservice by not giving them the opportunity to play multiple sports due to the crazy level of commitment now being demanded by all the individual sports or teams. Especially when you consider, as the NCAA ads say, most of those athletes will be going pro in something other than sports.

That’s not to say they have to abandon the sport entirely. But there’s no need to treat the off-season as though it’s mid-season. Youth athletes can work on their own, taking lessons and/or practicing skills when they can while participating in other activities. They don’t need to spend two hours a day, four days a week, in a team setting. And they (and their parents) should definitely set aside some time to shut down from the sport completely – for a month, six weeks or longer – to give their bodies time to heal, their brains time to refresh, and their spirits the burning desire that often flickers by the end of a long season.

Perhaps it’s time to start dialing back the expectations and give our youth players the opportunity to become well-rounded. It just might do more to up their games than expecting the high-level, 12-month commitment many are demanding now.


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