Daily Archives: October 4, 2019

Creating Intelligent Players, Not Robots

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I once worked with a woman, an older lady we’ll call Katherine, who was hired to be a sort of all-around office assistant. The idea was if you needed a package FedExed, or some repetitive data entered into a spreadsheet, or other time-consuming but not exactly brain-taxing help, you could hand it off to her and she would take care of it.

The problem was Katherine was so timid and afraid of making a mistake, she would ask whoever gave her the assignment to sit with her while she did it to make sure she did it correctly. While you can appreciate her desire to get it right, you can probably also see the flaw in this approach.

If not, it’s this: the whole purpose of her job was for Katherine to take the burden of tedious work off of me and others so we could move on to other, more higher-value assignments. If we were going to sit there while she did it then there was no point in giving it to her because, quite frankly, we could do it better and faster than she could. It’s just not what the company wanted us spending our time on.

So what does all this have to do with fastpitch softball? A lot of times players are like Katherine. They become so reliant on coaches telling them what to do that they quit thinking and learning.

In other words, rather than becoming independent and intelligent, they become more like robots, dutifully doing whatever they’re told to do in practice without understanding the reasoning or strategy behind it. This goes double, by the way, if they have a coach who is constantly in their faces screaming any time they make a mistake, but it’s not exclusive to that scenario.

Then when game time comes and they need to make a quick decision (which is pretty much any time the ball is in play) or correct a problem in their mechanics they’re unprepared to do so. Instead, they get more of the deer in headlights look.

Remember the old computer axiom garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). If you program players like robots they will respond like robots.

Which means they will continue to do the same thing over and over, whether it works or not, because that’s what they’ve been told to do. Anyone who has a watched a Roomba frantically moving back and forth for 10 minutes when it gets stuck under a chair or in a corner knows what I’m talking about.

It isn’t enough to tell players what to do. You also need to give them some context and reasoning behind why they’re doing it so if what they’re doing isn’t working they can think their way out of the situation.

This can be as simple as asking questions. For example, when I’m in a pitching lesson and a pitcher throws three fastballs in the dirt in the right-handed batter’s box, unless she’s new I often won’t tell her how to fix it. Instead I will ask, “What usually causes your pitch to go low and in the dirt?” and she will answer “I’m releasing behind my hip.”

I will then suggest she try fixing that. She does, and she’s back to throwing strikes. Miracle of miracles!

Or one of my favorite questions to ask players who are struggling mechanically, especially the older ones I’ve worked with for a while, is “What would I tell you if I were here right now?” They stop and think, give me an answer (almost always the correct one) and I say ok, try that.

When it works I point out that she didn’t need me to fix the problem. She did all of that on her own – I didn’t give her a single clue. All I did was ask her to tap into the knowledge she already had – in other words, think! – instead of mindlessly going through the motions.

(As a side note, I had a high school-age pitcher this week tell me that “What would Coach Ken tell me if he was here?” is exactly what she thinks about when her mechanics break down. How cool is that?)

This is relatively easy to do for mechanical issues, especially for pitchers and hitters. They have some time to reflect and make corrections, and they know they’re going to have to throw another pitch or swing the bat again.

It’s a little tougher for defensive players and base runners because their skills are largely reactive. If they make a physical or mental mistake that may be the only play like that they have all game. Or even all week or all tournament.

In this case, what’s important is that they learn to think and understand so they don’t continue making the same mistake every time the situation arises, such as a runner on third who continually stands 10 feet off the base on a fly ball to medium left with less than two outs instead of tagging up automatically. Or a fielder who doesn’t set her feet before she throws and sails the ball into the parking lot.

The player who learns to think will understand she did something wrong and make a mental note to avoid having it happen again. The player who always waits for a coach to tell her what she did wrong will likely never really internalize the information – which means there’s a high probability she’s going to do it again.

Don’t just tell your players what to do. Instead, insist they learn what to do and why. Help them gain a better understanding of their skills, and the game, and both you and they will be far more successful.

 

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