Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Olympics just don’t dig team sports

This morning in the newspaper I saw a story about the woes of women’s hockey in the Olympics. They were talking about how the Canadians and Americans dominated the competition, and how as a result the International Olympic Committee is considering taking women’s hockey out of the Winter Games.

Sounds familiar? It should. It was essentially the reason our sport was removed from the Summer Games. The perception was that the USA dominated the sport and so it should be removed for one that would give more countries a chance.

After reading this morning’s story it hit me. The problem isn’t softball or hockey. It’s bigger than that. The Olympics really don’t like team sports. Or put another way, they prefer individual sports.

Think about it. With an individual sport, you just need one good individual to compete for a medal. A country that hasn’t had much success in a particular sport can turn its fortunes around with a single outstanding athlete.

But it takes a lot more with a team sport. Take fastptich softball. You have nine players on the field who have to have outstanding individual skills plus the ability to play together as a single unit. It also helps to have a couple of dominant pitchers in the bullpen in addition to the one in the circle.

In the US, that’s not tough to find. We have a huge pool of top-level players to choose from. Same with Japan, China and Taiwan. All have viable softball programs. But in many other countries it can be tough to round up 15 elite-level softball players. Most have a few holes in the linup and as a result they just can’t compete.

In hockey it’s even worse, in my opinion, because you don’t have starters and bench players (other than in the goal). On a 20-person roster, 19 of them are likely to see a lot of ice time. Other countries may be able to find a few top quality hockey players. But with one-minute rotations on the ice they’re likely to have large chunks of time when they don’t match up with the world’s best.

The IOC sees that, and that’s why they seem to look for reasons to drop team sports. They replace softball (team) with golf (individual). True, they did add a form of rugby, but it wasn’t a full-team version. It was a short-sided version — easier to gather up a few good players than a bunch.

I don’t have a solution. Wish I did but I don’t. The IOC wants to spread the wealth when it comes to medals, and that’s easier to do with individual sports. Guess we’ll just have to settle for the non-Olympic championships — at least until there’s a change in thinking at the IOC. Perhaps someday they’ll realize that the people want to see excellence and entertainment no matter who is delivering it. Then we’ll stand a chance of getting our sport back in the Olympics.


Almost time for HS softball

Wow! It’s hard to believe Monday is March already. It seems like just a couple of weeks ago I was goofing off on Christmas vacation, staying up way too late and sleeping in until morning. But now Shamrock Shakes are available at McDonalds (although I’m not a big fan of the whipped cream and cherry) and at least here in Illinois girls are preparing for HS tryouts.

It’s been an interesting week. The time was spent getting pitchers ready to go in and show what they can do. (None of my current hitting students are in high school just yet.)

I’m actually looking forward to this HS season. My kids are all out of HS now so I don’t have a family interest in it. But I am looking forward to getting out and seeing my students play. Yes, HS ball can be maddeningly bad (and maddenly political). Still, there’s something fun about seeing kids compete for the glory of their schools.

The only thing that worries me is the weather. Right now there’s close to a foot of snow on the fields, and more on the way. It might melt by March 24, which is the first scheduled game for our local HS. But even if it does I’m not sure the fields will be too playable. Too bad, too, because one of my students is opening against that local HS, which would be awfully convenient for me.

Oh well, it has to melt sometime. Doesn’t it?

It’s not what you know or did, it’s what you can teach

A couple of years ago I was at the National Sports Clinics as Jacqui Joseph of Michigan State Universityprepared to take the stage. Mary Nutter, the formidable force behind the clinics and a long-time friend of Jacqui’s, gave her a glowing introduction. Mary talked about Jacqui’s accomplishments as a player and as a coach, particularly at MSU. The list was long and impressive and the audience eagerly awaited her presentation.

When Jacqui took the stage, she put everything into perspective immediately as only she can do. Thanking Mary, she said something to effect of, “That stuff I did is all well and good, but non of it means (expletive) if I can’t help you teach your kids how to hit.”

Everybody laughed of course. But the point was made. It doesn’t matter how much a coach did in his/her playing career, or how much he/she knows. It only matters how much of it he/she can convey to a student or player.

You see it at times in live coaching situations. But you see it even more on the Internet, on boards like our own Discuss Fastpitch Forum. Most people who go to online boards have one of three goals: they either want to learn something new to teach their players/daughters/students, they want to solve a particular problem, or they want to give back to the game by helping one of the first two groups. Well, I suppose there’s another reason, which is the social aspect of “conversing” with people who share like interests.

For a small group, though, they are not particularly interested in learning anything or helping anyone. They simply want to show off how much they know. They will focus on arcane bits of knowledge, claiming to understand the movement of every little muscle and tendon in a complex athletic movement, and use technical or pseudo-scientific terms with only one goal in mind: to show how much smarter they are than everyone else.

That’s all well and good. And they may possess a great deal of technical knowledge. But if they can’t convey it in simple, understandable terms, what good is it? You can tell me how to split an atom in agonizing detail but it’s unlikely I will ever build even a rudimentary nuclear reactor. It’s just over my head.

So I guess my caution today is to not be impressed by incomprehensive mumbo-jumbo or fancy terms. Remember what Jacqui Joseph said. The people you want to listen to are the ones who can tell you how to make your daughter/players/students better in simple, easy-to-understand terms. Which hopefully is what you feel I do here. The rest is just self-serving blather.

The numbers are down for baseball and softball sign-ups

In the last few years, it’s seemed like fewer and fewer kids have been going to tryouts, and teams have had to compete harder for the kids who did come out. I know of several programs (including the one I’ve been associated with for the last 14 years) that have had to fold teams, or that maybe took a couple of players they normally wouldn’t have just to be able to play.

But I thought maybe it was just an isolated program here or there. Turns out it’s not. I saw this article this morning in my local newspaper. It talks about how the numbers are down all across the area, and how that is part of a larger trend.

The culprit? For once it isn’t coaches who yell at the kids or anything like that. Instead, according to the article, the #1 reason is video games. Kids are opting to stay indoors and play video games rather than go outside and play sports.

There are a couple of reasons listed. One, of course, is the general sedentary nature of kids these days. Between texting, mp3 players, computers, etc. they’re just a lot more oriented toward sitting and playing with electronics than getting up and moving around.

But video games have had another effect too. According to the article, and the experts it quotes, the nature of video games have made real sports less appealing to today’s youngsters. Video games are relatively easy to learn, and offer instant gratification — as opposed to softball which can take years for most kids to just become competent.

They simply don’t have the patience for the constant repetition required to learn how to play softball. Throw in “cheat codes” in games that allow them to overcome their shortcomings by getting past obstacles and you can see where there’s a disconnect. There aren’t any cheat codes in softball.

The article says the younger ages — under 10U — are not being affected as much. But once kids get to the age where they have iPods, smart phones, maybe even their own laptops, and of course a choice of gaming consoles — the 10U to 14U range — the numbers drop off dramatically. And it’s even affecting high school sports, as fewer kids are going out for them and often the ones who are don’t have their skills developed quite as well as those of a few years ago.

So if you feel like your travel team or league has been struggling, you’re not alone. Apparently it’s happening all over.

A drill to work on tosses

Well, it’s snowing like crazy here in Illinois, so teams won’t be moving outside anytime soon. That can be a drag for players. There’s a lot you can do in a gym, but it’s not quite the same. And coaches often run out of ideas after awhile, so they do the same things week after week, leading to even more player boredom.

I know. I’ve been that guy running that practice. Which is why I came up with the drill I’m about to describe. It’s good for working on multiple skills at once, including fielding ground balls, backhand tosses, forehand tosses, regular throws and catches.

Here’s the setup. You need three fielders across in a line, plus a coach and someone to catch – preferably another player.

Fielder 1                            Fielder 2                             Fielder 3

                                     Coach   Catcher

The coach hits a ground ball to Fielder 2. She does a backhand toss to Fielder 1, who then throws the ball home to the Catcher. The Coach hits another ground ball to Fielder 2, who fields it and does a forehand toss to Fielder 3, including following the throw. Fielder 3 throws to the Catcher, and follows the throw home, becoming the Catcher. The Catcher catches the ball, hands it off and goes to Fielder 1’s position. Fielder 1 moves to Fielder 2.

In addition to working on a variety of techniques, if you do the drill quickly it also provides some good conditioning and practice performing under pressure. For more advanced players add a second ball so you can hit one ball as soon as the other is tossed to Fielder 1 or 3. To really step up the pressure and get the competitive juices flowing, do it against a stopwatch with a prize for the foursome who goes all the way around quickest.

A feelgood week

I think every coach goes through this now and then — those days where you wonder if you’re actually doing anybody any good. You start to wonder whether everyone’s time might be better spent apart rather than together.

Then there are weeks like this one. Two significant events occured this week, both on the pitching side, that made it a real feelgood week for me.

The first was Wednesday night. I was continuing to do radar gun checks of students I hadn’t seen yet. I like to do it periodically just to get some empirical data around what I’m observing. Most kids don’t like being gunned, and in a lot of cases the results tend to be a little lower than they thought, leading to disappointment. I have no doubt that anxiety over being clocked causes them to tighten up, making disappointing results a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So it was nice when one of my students got excited to see the radar gun come out. Of course, she had her own motivation. Her dad Rick, who is a reader and contributor here, apparently had promised her a kitty if she hit 57 mph. She was psyched up to give it a go.

She came ever so close — very consistently at 55, plus one 56, but couldn’t quite get that little extra on it. Still, she had fun trying, and like all daughters she assured me that she’ll be getting said kitty anyway. Rick didn’t look so sure, and maybe he can comment on it. But we’ll probably try again in a couple of weeks. In any case, it was nice to have someone actually want to do it. And by the way, she’d gained several mph since the last time I clocked her last year so it was good all around.

Then last night my first lesson was with a girl I started with last fall. She is a sophomore who never had a pitching lesson in her life. She’d just sort of gone out there and done it. She and/or her mom decided it was time for lessons, and they knew it would be a long, tough road. The girl didn’t throw too hard or too accurately back in September, primarily due to some serious mechnical issues.

Last night, though, she was rocking the ball. Her mom told me she’d had to purchase a catcher’s mitt because her old fielder’s glove from her playing days was no longer doing the job. Her hand was getting bruised and she needed the added padding. Accuracy also was excellent — no more throwing behind the batter.

The real fun part, though, was moving to the changeup. She threw three excellent changes and I told her let’s move on, I can only screw you up from here. That got a big smile!

Both of these girls work hard, listen intently, and try their best to do what I ask them to do. They are willing to make changes in their approach, and even more importantly they are learning to correct themselves. They are aware when they’re doing something they shouldn’t, and will say something even before I can. That, to me, is the best news of all.

And that’s the beauty of coaching. They both put in the effort, and I get to enjoy it along with them. Not a bad way to spend a couple of winter nights!

Working with the young ‘uns

Had an interesting bit of feedback yesterday regarding coaching younger/less accomplished players which got me to thinking. But before I get into the thoughts, first a little background.

One of my co-workers at my day job (yes, that’s right, this coaching thing is just a sideline for me) had asked me if I would work with his daughter on hitting. She is 13, I believe, and next year will be entering high school. Since she wants to play on her high school team he thought it was time to get her some lessons. She is a rec ball player currently, by the way.

So last Saturday we got together for the first time. I looked at a couple of swings and then started working with her on a major overhaul of what she’s doing. She’s a good kid and very smart, so as I explained what to do and why we were doing it I could see her processing it. By the end of the lesson she showed some good improvement re: taking her bat to the ball.

Yesterday my friend stopped me in the hall and mentioned the lesson. He also told me that when he had signed up at the facility he had signed his daughter up for one lesson with one of the regular coaches at that facility. (I don’t happen to teach out of that one, but it’s convenient to where he lives and not far from me so I do the traveling coach thing.) Sounded like an impulse thing, but I was fine with that. You should sample.

In any case, he said he really liked the way I related to his daughter and explained things to her. Then he told me something that surprised me: the other coach seemed very disinterested throughout the lesson. She wasn’t mean or anything, but he said it just seemed like it was more of a bother than anything.

That kind of surprised me at first. But then as I thought about it I realized I’ve seen and heard about this before. Some private coaches don’t really like working with beginners or kids they don’t perceive as having great gifts. They only want the cream of the crop. I’m not sure why that is, though.

I’d guess a lot of it has to do with building a reputation or being perceived as a great coach. It’s a lot easier to do that if all the players you’re working with are already talented, and you cut out any who don’t measure up to your standards. It also takes more energy and patience to work with kids who aren’t dripping with talent.

But in my mind, those are the kids who need a good coach the most. Talented players will tend to succeed no matter who is doing the coaching. Does having a better coach help them too? Absolutely. But talent will out, as they say, and a great player can rise above mediocre or poor coaching.

It’s the ones who don’t have the native ability, though, who can be the most rewarding. Seeing a kid who might’ve otherwise had difficulty and probably wind up hating softball become a contributing player to her team is exciting to me. Seeing her rise above the crowd based on hard work and dedication is a thrill for me as well. But I guess that’s not for everyone.

One other kicker in this particular situation, of course, is the age-old debate on whether female athletes do better with female coaches. The other coach has great credentials as a former player. She played fastpitch softball in college, was all-conference one year, even played a year in one of the pro leagues.

In short, she was everything you’d think you’d want. Yet at least in this case she lacked that all-important enthusiasm and ability to relate to the kid she was working with. Which once again supports my believe that it’s not the gender that’s most important. It’s the approach that makes the difference.

So what have you seen? Have you ever had your daughter (or son) somewhere for lessons and seen that “I only work with top-level players” mindset? Or are you aware of any private coaches who take that approach? And what do you think?

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