Monthly Archives: July 2008

Maintaining that even strain

Last week at the NSA World Series, my team got involved in an 11-inning marathon that included four international tie breaker innings. It was bracket play, so there had to be a winner. It was going to be whoever outlasted the other one.

At some points the other team had a runner on third with one or no outs. We used various strategies and some great playing by the girls to get out of those innings (we were visitors so one run was the ballgame), but it was very tense.

Later that night, one of the parents asked me how I could stay so calm during all of it. She said parents were pacing back and forth, some had their heads in the hands at various times, and if alcohol had been available I’m sure more than a few drinks would’ve been consumed. Even Rich, my assistant coach who’s normally a cool cucumber, was pacing madly. Yet through it all I just sat calmly on the bench.

I told her I was anything but calm. I’m sure no one was on the edge more than I was, and no one’s stomach was churning harder. But appearing to be calm is part of the job, so that’s what I did.

The team usually takes it cue from the pitcher, but in times like this they also tend to look to the coach. If the coach seems panicked, it’s easier for the players to panic too. But if the coach seems calm and confident, the players tend to be more reassured and confident too.

I learned this principle in the ASEP coaching course. No matter you might be saying, your body language tells a big story. If something bad happens and you hang your head, no amount of “nice tries” will bely the fact that you’re disappointed. And if you’re nervously pacing the dugout waiting for disaster, you’ll make your players nervous too.

So no matter what’s going on inside, on the outside it’s important to maintain an even strain. You need the cool appearance of a test pilot — someone who’s always in control, no matter what disaster is happening.

By the way, it did help. We won the game. We scored three in the top of the 11th, and it was too big a hurdle to overcome (finally!). Believe me, no one breathed a bigger sigh of relief when our second baseman caught a short pop-up for the final out. All in a day’s work!

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The intentional walk

Sorry for not posting in a little while, but I was busy at the NSA 16U B World Series. It was a great and well-run tournament, and thankfully only affected by rain once. We did pretty well, ninth out of 34 teams, and with a couple more hits would’ve done even better. Oh well.

One thing that came up in the course of the week was the value of the intentional walk. I think the parents on our team were surprised when we pulled it out, because we hadn’t done it all year. But the circumstances were right, and I’m proud to say it did its job every time we used it.

A lot of coaches are either reluctant to issue the intentional walk or just don’t think about it. Maybe it’s a macho thing — we’re gonna gut it out and pitch to that hitter. Whatever the reason, you just don’t seem to see it a lot.

There were a couple of circumstances where we used it. One was with less than two outs and runners on second and third in a close game. We knew we had to cut off the run at home to keep the game close. We elected to put the next hitter on to load the bases. Throe hitter after that grounded to third and we got the force at home, giving us two outs and a little breathing room. The inning ended without a run scoring. That’s probably the classic scenario.

Another circumstance had a runner on third. The other team’s best hitter (at least against us) was coming up. We gave both her and the next hitter a free pass, again loading the bases, again with the desired result.

There are all kinds of circumstances where an intentional walk makes sense. And a few where they don’t. If the bottom of the order is up and your pitcher has been dominating them, you probably don’t want to bypass those hitters and get back to the top. If you’re in a position to trade a run for an out, you don’t want more runners on base. And so forth.

But if you really need to cut off the run, and you’re confident your infield can make the play, loading up the bases to get a force rather than a tag play makes sense. And bypassing a hitter who’s killing your pitcher in favor of one who’s not does as well. Even if the bases aren’t loaded. Heck, you might be better off walking her with bases loaded and giving up one run than letting her hit a double, triple, or home run and give up four.

As some of you head to Nationals, where presumably there will be a lot of parity in teams, keep the intentional walk in mind. It’s a gutsy call, but it just might save your season.

The intentional duck snort

This is an idea I’ve been toying with for some time now. How many games have you seen where the deciding hit was not a big blast or a sharp ground ball but what’s often called a duck snort, Texas leaguer or blooper — one of those weak, annoying hits that falls just out of reach of the infielders? Too often, probably, especially if you’ve been on the receiving end of it.

So I’m wondering: Why don’t we teach hitters to hit duck snorts intentionally? If you see the outfield is playing deep and the infield is playing at normal depth, a ball lofted weakly just out of reach of the infielders ought to put you on base every time.

Slappers are taught to do this. If the infield plays in and the outfield doesn’t, good slappers will try to lift the ball to the edge of the skin. Why not regular hitters?

I saw this up close over the weekend. We were in a semi-final game on a field with about a 200 foot fence. We drove a half dozen or more balls to or close to the warning track, but the outfield was playing back. If we had the bat control to just stick the bat out and drop it short into the outfield, perhaps we’d have gotten a few more runners on base and forced the outfield to come in, thereby opening things up deep.

Consider it a modified bunt. Only instead of dropping it short in the infield you’re trying to drop it short in the outfield.

I haven’t seen it done much if it all. But it sure seems like it would make sense. Don’t you think?

Wise words from Bertrand Russell

Saw this quote from philosopher Bertrand Russell and thought it was worth passing along:

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

That is especially true in coaching. I think most of us involved in coaching do it because we have a passion for it, for the sport, and for helping our players learn and grow. But sometimes that passion can put blinders on us as well. When that happens we cease to learn, which means we may be missing out on a better way to do things than we currently know.

Early in my coaching career I sought out whatever knowledge I could find in order to help my players. I would look at different resources and decide which ones made the most sense. But I also got into the habit of looking at materials I knew contradicted what I believed. It was sort of an acid test, to see if I still believed in the same things.

I continue to do it today, maybe not with quite as much vigor, but I still do it. It really is healthy to question what you believe to make sure you still believe it and are not just following the same old tenets out of habit. The stronger your beliefs, the more important it is to question them. If they survive the test, you will be that much more firm in your convictions. And if not…well, that’s a good thing too.

The challenges of being head coach

NOTE: For those of you reading this who have kids on the team I coach, this post is not directed at you! It’s based on general observations over the years, and especially what I’ve seen happen with newer or younger coaches. So don’t read anything into it.

Not too long ago, my friend and colleague Rich told me about the best explanation of the difference between being an assistant coach and being head coach. “The difference,” he said, “is the difference between suggestion and decision.” An assistant coach can and should make suggestions on the lineup, what’s happening on the field, the practice plan, etc. But it’s the head coach that ultimately has to decide whether to go that way or not.

For those who have never been the head coach of a fastpitch softball team, there’s more to it than you might think. Here’s a quick example. By the time you finish reading the description have your decision ready.

It’s the top of the fourth. You are down two runs but hitting this pitcher ok. You have runners on first and second with one out. The girl at the plate is a powerful hitter, but lately she hasn’t produced much. Still, she’s a good hitter and the potential is there. The hitter after her is not as powerful, and has been hitting about the same. Do you have her A) swing away, or bunt the runners over (she is also a good bunter)? Got your answer? Ok, whatever you’ve decided, you will now have to live with.

Now, multiply that quick decision by 28 to 38 and that’s what you’re deciding as head coach. Every hitter that comes to the plate presents a need to make a decision. Every runner that gets on base presents a need to make a decision. Do we try to steal or bunt her over? When she’s coming into the third and the outfielder has a ball fairly deep in the outfield do we hold her or try to score right now? Do we hit and run? You get the idea.

But wait, we’re not done yet. Your team also has to play defense. So now you have to decide defensive sets (do we assume bunt and play the corners in?), where the ball will be thrown in particular situations (do we cut the run off at home or go for the out at first?), and of course who is on the field with the game on the line.

There are dozens of decisions that have to be made by the head coach in every game, from who is in the lineup to what to do on the last play of the game. Again, they all have to be made in a few seconds (or less in some cases). But unlike the people in the stands (many of whom are also probably trying to make those decisions) only the head coach has to live with the consequences. If you’re in the stands and call for a bunt with a good hitter up and she pops up, or even if she gets it down and the next hitter grounds out to first to end the inning, only you know you agreed with the decision the head coach made. The head coach, however, put his/her decision on display and everyone who thought he/she should let the hitter hit thinks he/she is an idiot.

This can be very tough on young or new head coaches especially. They’re often unsure of their decisions to begin with, and the pressure of being wrong (and having it pointed out repeatedly) can get to them. Grizzled old veterans like myself learn to live with it, but it can still be stressful at the time. If only we knew the outcome of the various options before we commit to one course of action. Then it would be a lot easier to determine which is right.

Do I play the “What would I do?” game when I’m in the stands? Of course. That’s part of the fun. And I can tell you it’s a lot less stressful making those decisions from up there. In fact, when I’m in the stands people will often ask me why a head coach did this or that and I will tend to defend the decision, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. Generally speaking, the coach acts based on the best information he/she has at the time. If he/she does something downright stupid I’ll certainly say so. But most times it’s not quite as black and white as people would like to believe.

The other thing to keep in mind, especially in travel softball, is the other multiplier — the number of games the team is playing. The head coach has to go through this decision process for an entire game. Then, while everyone else is relaxing and checking out tee shirts or what they’re serving in the concession stand, the head coach is starting the entire process again.

The point is, there are a lot of decisions to be made by the head coach. Some of them are bound to be wrong, or at least not the best decision. But you can be sure that in 99 percent of the cases, the coach is doing the best he/she can in a difficult situation. And trying to do it for everyone on the team, not just the player you’re most interested in — your own. So give the head coach a break. And remember Rich’s definition of the difference between assistant and head coach. The gap is even wider between parent and head coach.

Front toss an effective training tool

Ok, that may not seem like a big revelation at first. But there’s more to it. Bear with me.

During the off-season, we worked with our hitters in small groups in the batting cage. We worked a lot off the tee to build swing mechanics and try to correct major problems. Then we would finish with front toss, using real balls. The distance was roughly 8-12 feet. I would throw using a windmill motion, then duck behind a protective screen as fast as I could. Mostly I got behind it, although Jessica nailed me in the shin once and it still hurts when I kneel down. But I digress.

Anyway, as the HS season started, most of our girls did pretty well. But the further they got away from it, the less effective they became as hitters. When we finally got them back for the summer we again used front toss as a main form of hitting practice and the hitting went up. We haven’t done it much lately and noticed a drop, so last Thursday it was back to the batting cage for some front toss.

It may have been coincidence, but this weekend we hit .300+ as a team en route to a tournament championship, with lots of doubles and even a few triples on fields with a 200 foot fence. No one went yard, but several came close. Two of the opposing coaches commented on how well our team hit. Not so much because our first five hitters did it, but because we did it all the way through the lineup.

There are a lot of factors involved, of course. But it seemed like that front toss practice, time consuming as it was, made a huge difference for us. I’d highly recommend it to get the timing, and the feeling of hitting real balls. And if you’re quick enough, you can even correct some major flaws as you duck behind the screen!

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