Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Challenge of Relating to Your Players

Relating to Dani

Earlier this week I saw an interesting article in Cindy Bristow’s SE Insider newsletter. The article talked about how players have changed since “back in the day” (whenever that day was) and how coaches need to learn knew ways to communicate with them that matches their experiences.

All valid thoughts, and things I’ve seen (and experienced) before. But I think there’s another factor that is often ignored that plays into it as well – especially for more “experienced” coaches.

When coaches start out, we are usually not that much older than the players we coach. Some, such as former high school or college players, are fresh off their playing days. Which means if they are coaching in college they’re maybe no more than 4 or 5 years older than their youngest players, and a year or two older than the oldest.

Even if they are coaching high school or younger players, it’s still pretty much the same world. Their fashion sense and musical tastes are probably not quite considered “uncool” yet (although they are trending that way), so it’s easy for them to relate to players where they are in their lives.

Parent coaches are a little more removed personally, but they are very much involved in their kids’ lives. Maybe too much according to some, but they are living what their kids are living every day. That also makes it a little easier for them to relate to what is happening in their players’ lives.

Now fast forward just a few years. Coaches are now further away from their youth perspective, and have had time to lock into a more adult way of thinking. They’ve added several years of life experience that colors the way they look at things, and have had ample time to start believing “life was better back when…”

I certainly saw this coaching my two daughters, who are seven years apart in age. You can fit a lot of life into seven years, so the person I was when I started coaching my oldest daughter wasn’t quite the same person I was when I started coaching my younger one.

I was certainly more knowledgeable, not just about softball but about a lot of things. I had made many mistakes and learned many valuable lessons. I’d like to think I’d grown as a human being, and I had certainly experienced a lot more things generally than I had when I started.

All of that impacted my coaching, and my point-of-view as I would talk to and work with players. I was also seven years older than I’d been, so seven years more removed from the way I looked at the world when I was participating in competitive sports.

The point is it’s not just the players who change. Coaches change too. And as we all know, as we age there is a tendency to become more stubborn and set in our ways, less open to new ideas and experiences, and less tolerant of things that don’t align with our world view.

As a coach at any level, it’s important to be aware of it and to do all you can to battle that tendency. Your players aren’t going to learn about your youth culture, except maybe in a history class and even then they’re only going to get an abbreviated, sanitized view, so it’s up to you to learn about theirs if you want to relate to them more effectively.

Get an idea of what the music they listen to sounds like (even if it makes your eyes roll). See what TV shows and movies are popular. Understand how they use technology, and how that influences their perspective. Look into what they need to help them learn and grow, and use it.

Here’s a quick example. If you want to tell a pitcher she looks stiff, you probably don’t want to mention “Frankenstein” as an example. She may not know who that is. But if you tell her she looks like one of the Walking Dead, and then imitate a zombie, she’ll be much more likely to understand what you’re trying to tell her.

Yes, kids today are different than they used to be. And it’s not like there is a hard line that says they’re all “like this” now. It’s a gradual shift that you may not even notice until what you’re saying isn’t working anymore.

But keep in mind each of us different than we used to be, and will continue to change as we get older and more experienced. Techniques or explanations that once worked great may elicit nothing but blank stares now. In fact, the coach you used to be might still have been able to easily relate to your current players. But you’re not that coach anymore.

Making sure you can continue to communicate effectively with your players is critical to success. And it starts with recognizing that it’s not just them that’s changing. It’s you too.

Evaluate yourself where you are now. Then start figuring out how to meet your players where they are. You may find it’s not quite as tough as everyone makes it out to be.

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Turning On A Light Bulb About Efficiency In Movement

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Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

Achieving efficiency in athletic movements is one of the most important principles in maximizing performance. Yet it’s also a concept that’s difficult to grasp, especially for younger players.

The drive to efficiency isn’t “fun.” It’s actually a lot of work, and usually starts with a lot more failure than success.

It also often requires breaking down a skill and working on a particular element until you get it right. Only when you can do it well is it inserted back into the overall skill.

Take pitching, for example. A pitcher may be over to throw the ball over the plate with decent speed, getting hitters out and winning MVP awards. A physically stronger pitcher may even be able to bring impressive speed naturally.

But until that pitcher develops a more efficient approach to how she throws the ball she will never find where her ceiling is.

While parents or coaches may understand that, players may not. Efficiency is kind of an abstract concept for them, especially these days when everyone is more focused on outcomes (Did we win? Did I perform well?) than development.

So, here’s a way of explaining explaining efficiency in terms they can understand.

Tell them to think about an LED light versus a traditional incandescent light bulb. (Depending on age, by the way, players may not know what “incandescent” means so you may need to reference an actual bulb at your home or somewhere else. Remember, they’re growing up in a world of compact florescents and LEDs.)

Let’s assume both lights are throwing out an equal amount of light into the room. Ask them what would it feel like if they walk up and touch the LED light. The correct answer, of course, is nothing. It’s like touching a table.

But what happens if they try to touch an old-fashioned light bulb? They’re going to get burned.

Then ask them if they know why one is hot and the other is not. It’s because 90% of the energy being consumed by the LED is being converted into light, while 10% is being lost as heat; the incandescent bulb is the opposite – 10% light, with 90% lost to heat.

In other words, the LED is very efficient because almost all of its power is being used for the purpose intended, while the traditional light bulb is very inefficient since most of its power is being wasted on something that is non-productive.

It’s the same with athletic skills. The more extraneous movements an athlete has, or the more things she does that get in the way of efficient movement, the less powerful she is. Even if she is trying as hard as she can.

But if she works on becoming efficient in the way she transfers the energy she has developed into the skill she is performing, she will maximize her power and effectiveness.

If you’re challenged with explaining the need to be efficient, give this analogy a try. Hopefully it turns into a light bulb moment for your player.

Is Catcher Framing Worth It?

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If there’s one thing you can count on, especially on the Internet, is if there is a prevailing opinion, sooner or later someone is going to offer a contrarian opinion. If nature abhors a vacuum, it’s also true that the Internet abhors agreement.

What made me think about it was a recent discussion I saw about the value of framing for catchers. For years now teaching catchers proper framing technique has been, as they say in the business world, industry best practice. A great deal of time and effort has been spent on determining the best way to receive a pitch to give it the best chance of being called a strike.

So naturally, the talk on discussion boards and Facebook groups is now turning to “framing doesn’t work and is a waste of time.”

Respectfully, I disagree. In my experience, when catchers learn to frame pitches properly they can help their pitchers immensely – if for no other reason than they’re not carrying the ball away from the plate and making the pitch look like an obvious ball.

Since I’m not tied to any one team or program, I get the opportunity to watch a lot of different teams play. Pitchers who throw to catchers who are good at framing tend to get more borderline strikes called than those who don’t.

Here’s one great example. This spring, thanks to another great Internet benefit, streaming video, I got to watch a student of mine catch several games, including some playoff games. This was strictly low-budget video – i.e., someone stuck a video camera up behind the plate, hit the button, and you could watch the game. No multi-camera moves, no chance of the point of view of the camera changing, no announcers to influence what I was seeing.

Quite frankly, I was a bit shocked by some of the strikes that were being called when my student, who is an excellent framer, was behind the plate. Pitches that looked outside to me (perhaps due to the camera angle) were getting called. Hitters were also a bit surprised so I don’t think it was all camera angle.

The proof, however, was what happened when the other team was in the field. The same pitches were being called balls. Same umpire, same camera angle, but different outcome.

(Who is this catcher you ask? I’m not alerting any umpires to the identify of this magician, but I’m sure she knows who she is. And no, that’s not her in the photo although this catcher is a darned good framer herself.)

You’ll see the same thing if you just stand in one place behind the backstop where a good framer is at work. Pitches that are being called balls for one team seem to be called strikes more often for the other.

Again, this doesn’t mean the umpires are bad. Far from it. It’s just that there are a lot of visual cues that go into making a call on a pitch speeding into you, and how the ball is received is one of them.

Of course, one of the things that makes for a great framer is NOT trying to make obvious balls look like strikes. That’s just insulting the umpire’s intelligence.

The key to framing is knowing not just how to do it but WHEN to do it. It’s also about being confident enough in your abilities that you don’t look like you’re trying to get away with something. Just stick it and move on.

The Internet is filled with free advice, and it’s worth the price. For my two cents, though, framing is a very worthwhile skill for a catcher to acquire and practice. Whether you want to believe it or not, it makes a difference.

Time To Take Some Time Off From Throwing

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Photo by Rendy Maulana Yusup on Pexels.com

The season is over. Tryouts are over (at least for the most part.) What to do now?

Gung-ho fastpitch softball families (are there any other kind?) might be tempted to start going at it hard and heavy to get ready for fall ball and the upcoming spring season. After all, if you’re not working to get better, your opponents probably are.

But I have another idea. Take a break. Not just lighten up the workload to three days a week, but take an actual break.

Give your body a chance to rest, recover and build itself back up. Give your brain a chance to let go of whatever was happening before and get rejuvenated.

But it’s not just psychological. It’s also physical.

These days it seems like there is a secret prize for the team that plays the most games in the shortest period of time, and everyone is going for that prize. You’ll see programs bragging that their teams play 100 or even 150 games in a year (with a 12-player roster). Much of that playing time is compressed into September and October in the fall, and then April-July in the summer.

High school-age players may even have a heavier workload, because they have their school season and then their travel/summer season. Except Iowa, where high school is the summer season for whatever reason.

What all this has led to is a rash of overuse injuries. Not just for pitchers, although we are seeing more and more of it as this article points out. A pitching staff that throws 90 pitches a game (a conservative number for most) across 100 games will have thrown 9,000 pitches. Divide that by a three-person rotation and it’s roughly 3,000 pitches each.

That’s a lot of pitches – especially when you consider that typical college pitchers in one study, who have the benefit of daily weight training and conditioning run by a professional staff, threw an average of just 1,243 pitches during the season.

Now, Rachel Garcia, the NCAA D1 player of the year and winner of this year’s Women’s College World Series did throw 3,178 pitches total this season. But do you really think the 12 or 14 year olds you know are comparable in strength and conditioning to Rachel Garcia? Doubtful.

It’s not just about pitchers, however. Position players can also get overworked, especially when it comes to throwing. Even if you have great mechanics, the effort and stress placed on the shoulder throwing overhand a hundred times a day every day in practice can cause wear and tear that needs to be addressed.

Overuse injuries such as tendinitis and small tears in soft tissue can easily build up over time. They may not be bad enough to require surgery, but they can cause pain. And as the pain builds, the mechanics break down to work around the pain.

Over the course of a season things can get pretty sloppy. If you just launch right into the next season those issues aren’t going to magically get better. They’re going to get worse.

Finally there’s the mental side. If you’re working hard (as you should), it’s easy to become mentally fatigued as well. That’s not good either.

Taking a little time off – like professional players in all sports do, incidentally – can help recharge the ol’ batteries and get you ready to tackle new challenges.

So my advice to you is to walk away from the practice field (or area) for a bit and let your body heal itself. See a doctor or a physical therapist if you need to. But one way or another, give yourself a break and go do something else for a little while. You (and your body) will really be glad you did.

Tryouts – No Rest for the Weary

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As someone who has been around fastpitch softball at the travel level for more than 20 years, I can’t help but shake my head at how early tryouts are these days.

It’s hard to believe today but back when I first became involved, as the parent of a player in her first year of travel ball, travel ball tryouts were in the spring. You would play out the summer, the last regular tournament would be at the end of July, then the various “nationals” would happen the first 10 days or so of August (depending on how the calendar laid out).

I remember, because that first year we had to leave for a family vacation on Saturday after playing Friday. (My daughter and I wanted to stay through the end of the tournament but my wife put a big “no” on that idea.)

As time went on and I became a coach, tryouts kept moving up earlier. First we held them at the beginning of December. Then in September. And finally, the organization I was with started doing tryouts the week after nationals finished. We had to, because everyone else was doing them then and if we didn’t all our players would’ve been settled in somewhere else.

Still, I was shocked in mid-July as various students and their parents told me they were going to tryouts the following week. Many nationals hadn’t even occurred yet, but here they were already trying out for next year.

It’s gotten to be like a reality TV show – “Tryout Wars.” Every program is trying to get a leg up on the others in its area, and so schedules its tryouts a week earlier than everyone else to try to secure the best players before others can get to them.

Of course, if they want you they expect a decision (and a check) on the spot. That way you’re less likely to go somewhere else.

It just seems like madness to me. Pretty soon, you won’t be trying out for the coming year in August. The timeline will have pushed back so far that you’ll be trying out for two years from now.

The people that get hurt the most by all this are the families. They can’t fully enjoy the end of their season, and the nationals experience, because they’re too busy planning for (or worrying about) the next season. Instead, they hear the music of The Clash in their heads:

What’s the answer? I don’t have one. Even if all the national sanctioning bodies got together and declared “no tryouts allowed until September 1” I doubt anything would change. There’s no way to enforce it.

So instead, when teams should be focused on making a run for whatever year-end title they’re going for, or families would like to take a break from the hectic schedule of the summer, they instead find themselves thinking mostly about next year.

Oh, and there’s no advantage for the top teams in each age bracket either. Players can’t afford to wait, because if they don’t make those teams and haven’t committed elsewhere they may find themselves without a place to play the next year.

It’s a shame. It would be nice if families (and coaches for that matter) could get a week or two off before beginning the whole process again. They could all come into it fresh and energized instead of tired and burdened. But unless there’s a groundswell movement, it looks like the only advice is “suck it up, Buttercup.”

Oh, and fall ball starts in two weeks.

 

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