Monthly Archives: May 2018

Kids Are Not Just Short Adults

Kids are not just short adults

Today’s topic could also fall under the category of “Why your team doesn’t look like the ones you see on TV.” It’s definitely something to keep in mind at any time of the year, but especially as travel ball and rec teams swing into the heart of their seasons.

The idea that kids aren’t just short adults is not original to me. I heard it somewhere a few years ago. But I think it’s a topic that bears repeating often.

One of the toughest challenges coaches face is getting their teams to perform the way they want. There can be all sorts of reasons for it. But in my experience, one of the most important is that coaches often view their players, especially the younger ones, through the wrong lens.

As adults, coaches tend to think like adults. Well, most of them anyway. I’ve certainly seen plenty of tantrums on the field that would make a two-year-old jealous.

Going beyond that, however, what I mean is by the time you qualify as an adult in the eyes of the law you have gained a certain measure of experience and knowledge. You have learned how to control your body. You have learned how to focus when you need to, and when you don’t feel like it, often driven by the need to remain employed.

Kids often have none of that – or at least not enough of it. They don’t have the perspective adults have. They may not know how to sort through overwhelming or conflicting information to determine what is most important. Their bodies are growing and developing, and doing all kinds of crazy things to simultaneously freak them out and embarrass them.

Many haven’t fully developed the fine motor skills that allow them to make subtle adjustments in the way they do things. In our screen-driven age their ability to focus is probably the lowest it’s ever been.

Yet coaches often disregard all of that when they approach their players. They expect to be able to tell them something once, or maybe twice, and then see it executed perfectly on the field. Not gonna happen.

Reality in expectations

To get the most out of your players, it really helps to try to understand where they are in their development, both physically and mentally. Take pitchers, for example.

When you watch on TV, you’ll often hear the announcers talk about pitchers always hitting spots with pinpoint accuracy. First of all, if that was actually true there probably wouldn’t be nearly as many home runs, doubles, or triples as there are today. College pitchers miss their spots all the time. Either that or the coaches calling the games aren’t very good at their jobs. I’m pretty sure I know which one the coaches will tell you is correct.

But even if it were, the minimum age of the pitchers you’re watching is 18, and more likely somewhere in the 20-22 range – especially as we get to the Women’s College World Series. If you’re comparing a college senior to a 12U pitcher, that’s a 9-10 age difference, and probably a 9-10 year experience difference. Imagine how much better you could get at anything with another 9-10 years of experience.

Even a 14U pitcher and a 19 year old college freshman likely have 4-5 year age and experience difference between them. And that’s not even counting the countless hours of practice mandated to that college pitcher, and the high-level conditioning, and everything else that goes into it.

Yes, they may be doing the same things. But your player isn’t just a shorter version of what you see on TV. There are plenty of differences under the hood.

Development v. results

Another difference between adults and kids is their expectations from the experience. Coaches want to win – some more than others. Kids want to experience the game.

Part of that is the old “have fun.” But there are different ways to have fun. In my experience, what they want most is to have the opportunity to play and then to do well when they get it. Basically, like all of us they want to feel good about themselves.

They may not realize how much work it takes to get good. But they’ll never figure it out sitting on the bench game after game. Nor will they feel very good about the game or the team, even if the team is winning all the time. They don’t think that way.

In my opinion, at the younger ages – say, up to 14U – the goal should be player development. That means helping kids learn and putting them in a position to succeed. Not just for one game during pool play, but every game – as long as the player is willing to learn and making the effort to improve.

Yes, that philosophy could cost you playing in the championship game of your local 10U B tournament. It could even mean getting eliminated early on Sunday. But so what?

No one but you, and maybe a few fanatical parents, cares about winning that particular tournament. That doesn’t mean you should go crazy and put a kid who’s never pitched before in the circle in a bracket game. But you can certainly give that kid an opportunity in mid-week friendly if she’s been working at learning to pitch. And put her somewhere else on Sunday for at least part of the time.

I know on TV there are starters and role players. But those college players are there for entirely different reasons. Up to 14U, again in my opinion, your job is to develop players, not necessarily win hardware. Do it well, and you’ll find you win a lot more hardware when it means a whole lot more. As President Lincoln said, “No man is so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” Or woman.

Appreciate them for who they are

We have certain expectations for adults, in the way they interact with us and the way they react to things. Most adults learn to mask their true feelings and thoughts, either as a way of fitting in or avoiding problems.

Many kids haven’t learned that skill yet, at least not fully. I’ve worked with young pitchers who seemingly had a whole circus going on in their heads. It would be easy to get angry or frustrated by it.

Instead, I’m amused. Mostly, anyway. It’s amazing to see someone so unencumbered by what they are “supposed” to do, and just living their lives happily.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t put in the effort – they did. It just didn’t look like the way an adult would do it. As I saw it, my job was to change the way I communicated with them to deliver information in a way they could accept, not the way I wished they would accept it.

And you know what? It did get through, because when they got on the field they were able to perform the skills just fine. Maybe not with the precision of a D1 athlete. But with plenty of skill for their 10U travel team or their rec league.

Instead of trying to get them to see the game through your eyes, try to see it through theirs. It will help you relate to your players better. And honestly, you’ll find you age a whole lot slower than others who insist on adulting all the time.

Oh, and by the way, that’s a lesson a lot of college coaches could learn too. Instead of trying to fit everyone in the same box, let them be who they are, even if it’s quirky. I find people of all ages are far more willing to run through a wall for you if you meet them on their terms rather than trying to force them to be who you want them to be.

 

 

 

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Even the best fastpitch players weren’t always the best players

Never give up, never surrender

As I write this, it’s the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics. The NCAA Division I tournament is underway, and the airwaves (or cable waves) are filled with a seemingly endless diet of games.

You can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere over the next few weekends. That’s good news for the families of younger softball players, because it gives them a chance to see how many of the top players play the game.

Yet as you watch, it’s tempting to think that all those high performers were just naturally gifted, and always played the way they play now (more or less). The fact is in many cases it isn’t true.

If you talked to them you’d find out that many of these players started out as benchwarmers who were just happy to get a few innings in here or there. Or that the awesome pitcher you’re watching lead her team to victory in Regionals, Super Regionals, or even the Women’s College World Series wasn’t always the #1 player on her travel or even high school team.

Many top players, in fact, had to work their way into the positions they are in today. That’s nothing new, either. It’s always been that way.

For evidence, I’m going to point you to a couple of good stories of personal struggle. The first two come from Amanda Scarborough.

I’m sure many of you recognize that name. She was an All American pitcher at Texas A&M, runs pitching clinics all over the U.S. as part of The Packaged Deal, and is now a commentator on ESPN. Pretty good resume, I’d say.

Yet Amanda will tell you she wasn’t always on the fast track to stardom. In fact, in this blog post she talks about how on her first travel team, she was the #4 or #5 pitcher, and rarely saw the plate or the field when she wasn’t pitching. Not exactly the start you’d expect for someone who has done as much as she’s done.

Yet she kept working at it, and didn’t let her lack of opportunity discourage her.

But surely by the time she got high school she was the star, right? No, and don’t call me Shirley!

In this blog post, she talks about being the #2 pitcher behind an older girl until that girl graduated. So the reality is you don’t have to be the starter as a freshman to do great things.

Another pitcher you may have heard of is Cat Osterman. She set all kinds of records as a pitcher while at the University of Texas at Austin, including strikeout ratio, WHIP, and perfect games. She won a gold and silver medal in two Olympic games (2004 and 2008), and had a stellar career in National Pro Fastpitch league. Sounds like a natural, right?

Actually, not. According to this story, she was short, scrawny, and uncoordinated as a youngster. When she tried out for the Little League All-Star team she was the only player they cut. Doesn’t sound like a future Olympian in the making does it?

After that season she went to a travel team, and spent a lot of time watching games from the bench.

But again, she didn’t let it get her down. She just kept working, and eventually become the pitcher she was capable of becoming.

I share all of this because it’s easy to think that today’s stars were yesterday’s stars too. That’s not always the case, however. Players who start with natural advantages in size, strength or athleticism can be passed by those who work harder – especially when nature takes its course and the late bloomers begin to grow.

You can’t control how people perceive you. But you can control how hard you work to get better.

As I always like to say, it doesn’t matter where you start the race – only where you finish it. Take heart in knowing that even some of the best who ever played the game started out just like you – fighting for scraps, and working their way up the depth chart. And remember it’s not how good you are but how badly you want it that will make the difference.

Or, as they say in “Galaxy Quest:”

Ok, now it’s your turn. Do you have a story about a player, famous or not, who overcame a slower start and became successful? Share your story in the comments below.

Think of Coaching Like Google Maps

Coaches are like Google Maps - you still have to drive

In my travels through the fastpitch softball world, one of the things that continues to amaze me is the perception that if a player can just get with the “right” coach or the “right” instructor, all her (and her parents’) prayers will be answered and all her problems will be solved.

As someone who has been at this for more than 20 years now, I can tell you that’s simply not the case. Getting the right coach, i.e., one who understands the optimal mechanics for a particular skill, how to apply them in a game situation, the mental aspects around them, and most of all how to teach them, is important. The wrong coach can definitely set you back.

But that’s still only half the battle. The other half is the work the player must put in to ingrain those skills into her DNA so they are available at a moment’s notice, without having to think about them.

To understand what the coach contributes v the player, think of the coach as being like Google Maps (or whatever your favorite GPS app is). The coach will show you the way, mapping out the step-by-step path for optimizing all those important factors while avoiding known hazards. But the player still has to get in the “car” and “drive.” Without that second part, the first part is just a wish.

Now, obviously, Google Maps is of little value if the information isn’t accurate. That’s why you want to seek out a coach who knows what he/she is doing. Anyone who has been driving for a while has had that experience where Google or another direction-giving app has taken us to a run-down industrial park, a random cornfield, a road that no longer exists, or some other godforsaken location rather than our intended destination.

Fortunately, in the last few years direction-giving apps have gotten much better. Still, until they’re hooked into self-driving cars they can only show you how to get where you’re going. You still have to do the driving.

So what does this mean to fastpitch softball players? Just that being on the right team with a great coach, or going once a week to a private instructor (no matter what his/her record of success is) isn’t enough. You have to practice, practice, practice. Not until you get it right but until you can’t do it wrong.

You have to be mindful when you practice too, not just watch the clock to see if you’re putting in the time. Work on doing what you’ve been shown. Be aware when you’re not doing it. Learn what it feels like to do it right, so you know when you’re doing it wrong.

How important is that? I can tell you from personal experience that all of the best, most successful players I’ve worked with were also the hardest workers. The better they got, the better they wanted to get.

As they became more accomplished their workload didn’t go down. It went up. They would constantly refine their skills, looking for any improvements they could make that would give them a competitive edge. The ratio between work and improvement would change, with more work yielding less improvement because there was less improvement to be had.

That’s the silver lining for younger/newer/less accomplished players, however. A little bit of work can yield a lot of improvement, and create the success that makes you hungry for more.

Again, however, you can’t just open a direction-giving app – no matter how good it is – plug in the directions, and expect to get somewhere. You have to hop in the car and drive.

Make the commitment and you’ll find you get to your destination a whole lot faster.

 

Minesweeper bunt drill for catchers

Success after completing the Minesweeper drill for bunts

One of a catcher’s responsibilities, whether in fastpitch softball or baseball, is playing the bunts that stay close to home. The catcher has to realize the situation, react quickly, pick up the ball cleanly, set her body, and make an accurate throw under pressure.

The first step in this process, of course, is to teach the core techniques, such as surrounding the ball and how to pick it up when it’s moving versus sitting versus spinning. From there, most move to tossing the ball from behind the catcher and having her pick it up.

Here’s another way you can reinforce the techniques while adding pressure, repetition, and conditioning. I call it the “Minesweeper” drill after the old computer game that used to come with Microsoft Windows.

What you want to do is set several balls at different positions in front of the catcher that she will actually be responsible for. The catcher starts from a runners on base stance, and when say go or blow the whistle, she runs out, fields the first bunt, makes the throw, then comes back and does the next, as Jasmine demonstrates here:

You can use as many balls as you like, although try to space them so the catcher doesn’t accidentally step on one and roll her ankle. For added pressure (and some competitive fun), have her work against a stopwatch. You can even have multiple catchers competing against one another to see who can get the best time.

As you can see, this is a drill you can do in a batting cage as well as outdoors. The cage we used in the video is a little short of the full distance, but that’s okay as long as you’re measuring times the same way. When you move outside to full distance, just set the baseline again.

Watch to be sure the catcher returns to a good stance each time before going after the next ball. She doesn’t have to stay there long. Just long enough to get established.

Not only is this drill good for building and reinforcing technique. It’s also a great way to help catchers get some conditioning work in without realizing it. They’ll be so focused on clearing the “mines,” especially if you’re timing them, that they won’t notice how much work it is.

If you’re looking for a fun way to help your catchers improve their bunt coverage, give the Minesweeper drill a try.

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