Choosing a private instructor

Right about now is the time of year when serious players (and/or serious parents) are getting involved in private instruction. Or at least they should be. It’s a lot easier to make permanent changes when you don’t have the pressure to perform of the regular season. After all, when you’re in-season there’s a tendency to do what works no matter whether it’s good or bad for you. In the off-season you can take a step or two back before you make a leap forward.

Of course, one of the big factors in private instruction is the instructor him/herself. In many areas there is no lack of instructors around. The problem is some are good, and some are not. It’s often difficult to tell the difference, especially if your knowledge base about the particular skill is limited. In other words, if you don’t know much about pitching, it can be tough to pick a pitching coach. Same with hitting. If you don’t understand the mechanics of hitting, just about anything said with confidence sounds good.

So how do you determine whether a particular coach will be good or bad for you/your child? One thing you can do is use the Internet to read up on the skill you’re looking to learn. Not the forums so much, where anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection can post whatever they want, but Web sites of top-level coaches and players. Someone like Michele Smith, Bill Hillhouse, or Cindy Bristow is a great place to start. They’ve been there and done that, but just as important they’ve spent a fair amount of time teaching it to others. You may need to purchase a book or DVD or two, but when you consider the cost of lessons it’s well worth $19.95 or $29.95 to make sure the thousands you’re investing are being well-spent.

Once you at least have a general idea of what should be being taught, it’s time to get out and check out instructors. Listen to what they’re teaching someone else, and compare it to what you’ve learned. If it seems to line up you’re ready to take the next step. If not, you may want to go elsewhere. Or at least ask a few questions to determine why it’s not lining up.

Often times you’ll hear that you should look at how much success the instructor’s students have had. That’s true to an extent, but you have to be realistic. There are some players who are just flat out more gifted than others, and some who just have an extraordinary will and dedication to succeed. Then there are others who show up to lessons but make no effort to apply what they’re being taught. They never practice, and they never progress despite the instructor’s best efforts. If that sounds like you/your child, private lessons are really not a good investment. Although Woody Allen once said “90 percent of life is just showing up” when it comes to lessons showing up is more like 10 percent.

I really think you need to honestly look at yourself/your child and see where she fits on that scale. The scale itself is a steep bell curve, with the majority falling somewhere in the middle. Unless you know yourself/your child to be one of the extremes, you’re probably best off knocking off the results of the top students and the bottom students, and then evaluating the success of the rest. That will probably give you a better approximation as to what you can expect. I once commented to Ernie Parker that it must be nice to be him, where you only attract the top-level, dedicated students. His reply? “I wish that were true.” (Pardon me while I pick up that name off the floor.)

Another criterion people like to use is how successful the instructor was as a player. Again, that can be misleading. Some formerly great players become great instructors. Others do not. In fact, if you look at the general coaching world it seems like the best players rarely become the most successful instructors. The best guess I’ve seen on that is that great players are largely instinctive or gifted. Things come more easily to them than they do to the average player, so they don’t have to put the same kind of work in to learn the skills. This is not to say they don’t work hard — they probably work harder than anyone. But they work on certain subtleties that allow them to become elite players. Often they have trouble understanding why a player can’t “just do it.” If you can find a top-level player who has become an excellent instructor you’ve really hit the jackpot. But I wouldn’t make the instructor’s playing record the main decision point. Very few Hall of Fame coaches in any sport were also Hall of Fame players. Most were journeymen who worked hard just to stay on the team.

One last aspect to consider is personality. Everyone is different, and a coach who has a great rapport with other students may not have it with you/your player. In order for learning to take place the student has to feel comfortable with the instructor. If there’s no chemistry there, and lessons are dreaded like a trip to the dentist, that instructor is not a good fit no matter what his/her other qualifications may be.

When it comes to choosing an instructor the old rule of “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) definitely applies. A little due diligence up front can save you a lot of wasted time and money in the long run. It will also help make sure you achieve the results you want when gametime rolls around.

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About Ken Krause

Ken Krause has been coaching girls fastpitch softball for nearly 20 years. Some may know him as a contributing columnist to Softball Magazine, where he writes Krause's Korner -- a regular column sponsored by Louisville Slugger. Ken is also the Administrator of the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, the most popular fastpitch discussion forum on the Internet. He is currently a Three Star Master Coach with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), and is certified by both the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and American Sports Education Program (ASEP). Ken is a private instructor specializing in pitchers, hitters, and catchers. He teaches at North Shore Baseball Academy in Libertyville, IL and Pro-Player Consultants in McHenry, IL.

Posted on September 18, 2007, in Coaching, General Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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