Monthly Archives: January 2019

The Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

There's more to playing than measurables

While I was tooling around on the Internet I came across this video that I thought was worth sharing. While again it isn’t specific to fastpitch softball (second week in a row, I know) it tells a great story – and one that is particularly timely these days.

Thanks to the ready access to all sorts of measurement devices, our sport is becoming increasingly obsessed with numbers. I get why that is; in theory, having objective measurements of throwing speeds, ball exit speeds, spin rates, grip strength and a lot of other parameters make it easy to compare one player to another.

Basing decisions on the numbers feels “safe.” You take all the personal opinions and favoritism out of it, and just evaluate everyone on the basis of the numbers they produce as measured by the machines.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. There’s also something to be said for having game sense. For example, player A has a home-to-first time of 2.7 seconds, while player B has a home-to-first time of 3.1 seconds.

The natural conclusion? Player A is more desirable, because her speed will make her the better base runner. What those numbers don’t show is that Player A has no idea how to read a pitch, or defense, and take advantage of opportunities while Player B does.

So in an actual game, Player A will run station-to-station very quickly, while Player B will take advantage of a defensive miscue or a fielder who isn’t paying attention to take an extra base when the opportunity arises. She also won’t run herself into trouble, even if the third based coach is “encouraging” her to. Now which one would you prefer?

A lot of those “game smarts” qualities don’t show up in a tryout, because in softball tryouts are primarily about looking at skills. They also don’t show up against a stopwatch or a radar gun. But when the game is on the line, again who would you rather have? The pitcher with the highest speed/spin rates, or the pitcher who knows how to get hitters out?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-measurement. Taking those readings is important, especially when measuring a player’s progress. There’s also something satisfying about achieving a goal you set for yourself, like a pitcher reaching 50 or 60 mph, a runner going home to first in less than 3 seconds, a hitter reaching a new high for bat speed or ball exit speed, etc. But the empirical number itself is not the be-all and end-all of who will add the most value to your team.

Which brings us back to the video, which is well worth watching. It talks about the 2000 NFL draft (some of you now know where this is going, I’m sure, but read on anyway).

There was a lanky, skinny quarterback at the NFL Combine who produced terrible scores. (If you’re not familiar with it, the Combine is where they do all these types of speed and performance measurements for football to help teams with their draft selections.)

For example, in the 40 yard dash the kid ran a 5-something. For perspective, between 5 and 5.5 is now considered the norm for an offensive lineman. For a quarterback, it’s ugly.

He didn’t have great arm strength either – average at best. Not much of a vertical leap. In the video they said it looked like he had never seen a weight room. So pretty much by any measure, this was a guy who wasn’t much of a prospect to become a backup in the NFL, much less a starter worth spending a draft choice on. Oh, and by the way, the word was his college team (Michigan) had spent his whole senior year trying to put someone in the lineup who they thought would perform better – probably a better athlete.

Still, the quarterback was hopeful. His wish was to play for his hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers, but they passed on him in the third round to take another player with better numbers. Who it was doesn’t matter because that guy was ultimately gone pretty quickly.

Finally, in the sixth round, with the 199th pick, the New England Patriots figured what the heck and selected Tom Brady. You know the rest of the story.

So while the numbers and measurables can tell you some things about a player, they can’t tell you everything. If you’re a player who maybe doesn’t throw the hardest, or hit the farthest, or run the fastest, that’s ok.

Accept that you will have to prove yourself in every new situation, embrace the challenge, and get out there and show everyone what you can do. And remember that the two essential qualities a radar gun or a stopwatch or a strength machine can’t measure are your smarts and your heart.

Just ask Tom Brady.

Keeping the Joy in Youth Sports

Keep the joy in the game

By now I’m sure many of you have seen this video (below) that went viral after last weekend (January 2019 for those reading this much later). It’s UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi scoring a perfect 10 on her floor routine during a competition.

If you haven’t, stop right now and watch this video. You will be glad you did.

While the sheer athleticism and artistry of her performance are incredible, that’s not what drew me to writing about it. After all, this is a fastpitch softball blog, so not much of what she does applies to hitting or throwing a softball.

But if you didn’t notice it the first time, go back and watch it again. Only this time watch her face and see how much fun she is having. (And how much fun her teammates seem to be having watching her.)

That is an element that seems to be missing from a lot of youth and school sports these days – fun. Everyone is so focused on winning, and improving their rankings, and securing the almighty scholarship, and all the other things that seem to go with “getting to the next level” that they forget to be in the moment.

That all-consuming drive to win (or for coaches to prove that they’re better than everyone else) is a lot of what causes the yelling and screaming that takes place on fields all across the country at every level – even with the youngest players. It’s what causes coaches to belittle and humiliate their players in the middle of a game, not to mention the postgame speech.

As I’ve quoted many times, softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But it’s kind of hard to have fun if you’re trying your best only to be told you’re not good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough, or whatever enough.

And who is someone who knows that feeling all too well? Katelyn Ohashi herself. The other side of this feelgood story is that she almost quit gymnastics entirely.

She was on a path to go to the Olympics, but the pressure from her coaches, and the negativity from fans and observers, simply sucked all of the enjoyment out of it. Fortunately for all of us, getting off the Olympic path, and going to UCLA, helped revitalize her love for her sport, culminating in a gift to all of us.

Studies have shown that the #1 reason players quit youth sports is that it isn’t fun anymore. In fact, a poll from the National Youth Sports Alliance says 70 percent quit by age 13 for that very reason.

That doesn’t mean practices and games have to be a “birthday party without the cake” as one of my former players once described her high school practice. Working hard toward a common goal with people you value can be fun. Working hard to improve yourself so you can perform better than you did before can be fun.

There is a lot of personal satisfaction in setting a goal and then achieving it.

What’s not fun, however, is working hard and never getting on the field. What’s not fun is constantly feeling like you need to look over your shoulder because if you make one mistake you’re done for the game, and maybe the day.

What’s not fun is receiving a constant barrage of criticism over everything you do, even when you’re giving your best effort. What’s not fun is being embarrassed in front of your friends, teammates, family, etc.

Players need encouragement and support. They need to feel like they can stretch themselves to the edge of their abilities someone constantly coming down on them, even if they fail.

Most importantly, they need the opportunity to get out on the field and try, even if their skills aren’t quite as good as the player next to them yet. Because that’s the reason they signed up in the first place.

When you think about what participating in a sport should look like, remember this video of Katelyn Ohashi. She is the definition of taking joy in what you’re doing. And oh by the way, she was rewarded with an almost impossible to achieve perfect 10 for her efforts.

Then look at your own team. If you’re not seeing the same look from everyone there maybe it’s time to start thinking about how you can make it the kind of experience everyone there – players, coaches, parents, family, and fans – will cherish forever.

Every Expert Was Once a Beginner

Every expert was once a beginner

One of the most intimidating things we can do as human beings is start something new. Especially when that something has been around for a while like, say, fastpitch softball.

We look at ourselves and see how ill-prepared we are. Then we look at others and see how much better they are – some are even experts – and we wonder how we’re ever going to survive.

The good news we all have to remember is that no matter how great others are at something, every single one of them was once a beginner. Just like us.

Arizona coach Mike Candrea didn’t start out with 1,500+ wins. He started with one, and probably felt fortunate to get it.

So if you’re a brand new head coach taking a team onto the field for the first time, remember you share that experience with one of the winningest fastpitch softball coaches ever.

If you’re a pitcher (or the parent of a pitcher) who is just trying to learn how to get her arms and legs going in the same direction and get the ball over the plate with arcing (or putting anyone around you in danger) take heart. Some of the game’s best pitchers ever had their struggles as well.

If you’re a hitter who is providing more on-field air conditioning than excitement with her bat, or a fielder who seems like she wouldn’t be able to pick up a ground ball in a game even if it had a handle…

Well, you get the idea.

Everyone has to start somewhere. The ones who go places, however, are the ones who don’t give up, even when learning takes a little longer, or it feels like others have more natural ability, or have a head start because they started at a younger age.

After all, it isn’t where you start the race. It’s where you finish that counts.

I remember as a beginning coach thinking how much better I would (hopefully) be in five years, when I had some experience and had learned more. But that thought didn’t do my first team much good.

So I buckled down, did the best I could, contributed where I knew things, and just faked the rest.

I was once amazed that other coaches could come up with the drills or explanations i would use. To know so much that you could think that way seemed like a hill too great for me to climb. Now, 800 blog posts and roughly 20 years of coaching later I come up with different ideas all the time.

So to all of you beginners and first-timers out there, I say don’t be intimidated. Don’t be concerned about your lack of experience, or get overwhelmed thinking about how much you don’t know.

Just buckle down, get after it, and remember every expert was once a beginner. But it’s only the dedicated beginners who become an expert.

New Year, New You

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I know the headline sounds like an ad for a diet product or a health club, but there really is something to taking advantage of the turn of the calendar to start making improvements in our lives.

As humans we tend to like to have a clean break from the old when we start something new. The most obvious example is most people like to take a little time off between the time they end their old jobs and the time they start new ones. That little space in-between, even if it’s just a couple of days, helps us decompress and let go of the past so we can focus on the present – and the future.

That’s what’s often magical about the start of a new year. While in reality it’s just another day on the calendar, it feels like the start of something different.

So how can you take advantage of this artificially imposed fresh start? By (dare I say it?) resolving to do one or more things differently this year.

If you’re a coach, spend some time studying new techniques or approaches to the game. Challenge yourself by looking into information that conflicts with your current beliefs – especially if you’ve held those beliefs for a while.

Attend a coaching clinic with an open mind. Watch a current video or read a new book. Not just on fastpitch softball specifically, but also on coaching principles in general. In short, look for ways to be better than you are now.

If you’re a player, think about what a great year would be for you, then think about whether you can get there with what you’re doing now. A good way to do that is to write a letter to your future self describing the awesome season you just had.

If the season you want to have isn’t achievable with your current approach, figure out what you need to change to make it achievable. It could be something as simple as practicing for five more minutes during a session, or finding ways to sneak in an extra 5-10 minutes of practice per week when you can’t get to a field.

It could also mean being willing to change something you’ve been doing for a long time to see if the new way will work better. After all, no one ever created an innovation by continuing to do the same old thing.

If you’re a parent, think about how you can be more supportive, both to your player and to the team. Hopefully you’re already one who cheers in a positive way. But if you’re not sure, maybe set up a video camera and record yourself during your child’s next game to see what you think. Would you want to sit next to you? Or be with you on the ride home?

You might even want to do the same for someone else you may know, assuming they would take the information in the spirit it is intended. Learning to relax and enjoy the game makes it a lot more pleasurable for everyone – including the person who usually gets so upset.

You can also try watching a game where you have no stake to see what you think of how the spectators are reacting. The compare that to how you feel during your child’s game. It can be an interesting perspective.

One other thing you can do as a parent is to educate yourself on what the latest thinking is regarding various skills and see if that matches up with what your player is being taught. Don’t just assume a coach or instructor knows what he/she is doing, or is keeping up with the sport. Learn what to look for so you know whether you’re investing your hard-earned money in the best way possible.

It’s a new year. Why settle for the same old same old?

Take advantage of the energy that comes with a fresh start and use it to create a new, even better you. Best of luck for the upcoming year!

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