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.