Monthly Archives: September 2013

The problem with playing down

Now that fall ball is cranking up in earnest, teams are beginning to test themselves in games and find out who they really are. Some are finding they are better than they thought; others are finding they have a lot of work to do.

One of the things you’re likely to see are some serious mismatches in playing ability. If it happens because better teams didn’t know there would be a wide range of ability that’s one thing. But if they’re playing down just to trophy hunt, they’re doing themselves a disservice.

One of the biggest problems with playing below your actual level is it gives you a false sense of how good you are. Sure, you may be defeating or even blowing out teams that don’t hit, field or pitch too well. The trouble is that can lead you to think you don’t have to work on those aspects of the game yourself so much. After all, you’re winning, right? So you must be good.

Think again. Because one day you’ll run into a team that has been playing at the proper level. Maybe they haven’t won as many games as you have. But when you meet them head to head you find out that they’ve developed their skills because they’ve had to in order to compete.

Winning alone is not the measure of a good team. You also have to look at who you’re playing. Play at the right level — one where you have to be at your best to win — and you’ll develop your team better and faster. And you’ll help your players become all they can be.

Understanding the value of outs

I’ve talked before about the value of outs in fastpitch softball. It’s a concept that’s really laid out well in the book and movie Moneyball.

Yet it still can be a bit difficult to grasp in practical terms, especially for players. So I thought of a more concrete way to explain how precious outs are, and why you want to conserve them carefully.

Think about it this way. You want to buy a new iPod. You’ve been working hard to earn the money, doing chores and such, knowing exactly how much you need to make your purchase (including tax).

Finally the big day arrives. You head to the mall to make your purchase, but before you get to the electronics store you stop in to a shoe store and buy a pair of shoes first. Of course when you get to the electronics store you no longer have enough money for the iPod. You lose.

It’s the same with outs on offense. If you waste them on bad strategies or stupid decisions, you may not have enough at the end of the game to go for the win.

Outs are precious. In a seven-inning game, each team only gets a maximum of 21. (In a time limit game, it may only be 18, or even 15). As a player, wasting them by getting doubled off a base on a line drive or pop-up, trying to stretch a single into a double when the ball is clearly going to beat you there, leaving a base without tagging up on a fly ball, popping up a bunt attempt, swinging at strike three that is over your head or in the dirt, etc. can really come back to haunt you.

As a coach, wasting them by automatically sacrifice bunting when you get a runner on first, attempting steals against a catcher with a gun for an arm and a quick release, attempting a steal in the last inning of a tight game with the top of your order coming up, sending a runner for an extra base against a team with a strong defense, etc. can do the same.

Make sure you use yours wisely.

In softball as in life, innovation doesn’t come from imitation

One of the most common pieces of advice given to fastpitch softball players (and their parents) is to look at what the best players in the world do, and then do that. While there is definitely a lot of value to that advice, especially when you’re early in the learning curve, it also has its limitations.

Basically, if all anyone does is imitate what’s already known, or analyze what people already do, progress stops. Innovation and improvement doesn’t come from seeing what’s already there. It comes from thinking “Is there a better way?” and moving away from the conventional wisdom.

A great (and often-used) example is Dick Fosbury, the high jumper who introduced the “Fosbury Flop.” Back in the 1960s, the best high jumpers in the world used a technique where they would run up to the bar from the side, push off of one leg, and then scissor kick their way over it. All the efforts in the sport were expended trying to figure out ways to improve on that technique a little more in order to get higher.

Well, almost all. Fosbury had the courage to not imitate all the others, but instead try something revolutionary – turning completely around at launch and going over the bar head and neck first. The rest is history. These days, any high jumper at a high competitive level does the Fosbury flop.

The same potential exists in our sport – if you’re willing to ask “why” things are done a certain way instead of just following the crowd. Rather than simply looking at video of what great hitters, pitchers, fielders, etc. do, innovators take that starting point and ask “is that the most optimal way to use your body?”

Innovators ask “what if?” and try something different. It may not always work out, but they’re in good company. Thomas Edison said he made 10,000 light bulbs before he found the one that worked. And that basic design lasted more than 100 years – at least until someone else said “why can’t we make a compact fluorescent bulb instead?

The idea of “what is” versus “what could be” reminds me of the often-quoted study of softball pitchers in the 1996 Olympics by Dr. Shery L. Werner. Many people look at her findings and conclude that what she describes is the correct method of pitching. Yet that wasn’t the purpose of the study.

The purpose of the study was to see what these elite-level pitchers did, and to see what they had in common. That, however, doesn’t say whether what they’re doing is optimal. In order to determine what’s optimal you have to take the same group of pitchers and try any number of alternative techniques to see which ones produce the best results.

For all we know, finishing with the hips at 45 to 52 degrees may not be the best way to finish. Or it might. The only thing we know is that’s what those pitchers did. It would take a lot more experimentation to conclude whether it’s optimal; you’d have to try different methods and measure the results – of course giving each pitcher a sufficient amount of time to master each of the alternative techniques. Truth is, we’ll probably have to wait for androids to be invented before you can run that experiment conclusively.

In the meantime, we need to be more than “monkey see, monkey do.” Don’t be afraid to thoughtfully break the mold now and then to see if going against the crowd rather than blindly following it produces better results.

You may wind up right back where you started. Or you could end up being the next Dick Fosbury. And wouldn’t that look great on a softball coaching resume?

Now it’s your turn. Have you ever gone against the conventional wisdom? If so why, and what were the results?

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