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?


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 7, 2013, in Coaching. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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