The “Whack-A-Mole” Approach to Coaching
The other night as I was setting up for lessons at an indoor facility where I teach, there was what I presume was a dad and his son in the next cage over. The dad was pitching to his son, who appeared to be about 10 years old, and chucking them fairly hard at him.
Dad was kind of loud in his instruction – not a crime in my book because the place was pretty noisy and you had to talk loud to be heard – but because of that I couldn’t help but overhear what he was telling the boy.
With each pitch, Dad offered some helpful critique. “You dropped your hands.” “Your front foot stepped out.” “You’re dropping your shoulder.” “You were late.” “Gotta get your hips through.” And so on. You get the picture.
I felt bad for the poor kid because while all the things Dad was saying may have been true (I didn’t stop to watch because I had other things to do) I doubt the boy could make much sense of them.
The problem was there was so much scattered information coming at him at once it’s unlikely any of it was getting through. The kid probably felt like this.
It was a prime example of what I call the “Whack-a-Mole” style of coaching. (It could also be called the “Magic Pill” style. My friend and pitching coach extraordinaire Anna Nickel from ElevatePitching calls it “Firefighter Coaching” because you’re constantly running from issue to issue trying to put out fires.)
You see an issue come up and you point it out, although you may or may not say how to correct it. On the next repetition, while the player is trying to fix whatever issue you pointed out, something else crops up so you immediately jump on that.
This pattern continues until the session comes to a merciful end. At which point the player is no further along, and perhaps even behind, where she was before.
There’s no doubt this is an easy pattern to fall into, especially if you’re personally invested in the player’s success. You see a problem and you want to fix it.
That’s human nature. I know I can be guilty of it myself (just ask my students), and constantly have to tell myself not to do it.
The problem with this approach is that even though everything being said is true, it’s not like you can fix an issue with one attempt. That’s where the magic pill concept comes in.
Just because a coach points out a flaw doesn’t mean a player can fix it right away. It takes many, many focused repetitions to replace an old habit with a new, better one.
Yet when you’re playing Whack-A-Mole, that whole focus thing goes right out the window. If you tell a player she’s dropping her hands, on the next swing she will (hopefully) work on keeping them up. Whack!
But then if you tell her she was late on her next swing (Whack!), her focus will switch to her timing. Since she hasn’t had time to fix the first issue, however, her hands will drop again as she concentrates on her timing (Whack!). Introduce a few more issues (Whack! Whack! Whack!) and her mind is probably somewhere else – quite possibly thinking she must be awful because there are so many things wrong with her, and maybe she should just give up the sport entirely. It happens.
A better approach is to choose one thing and work on that. Then, after the player gets the hang of it, you can try moving on to something else. But if the first issue crops up again immediately, you need to go back to working on that instead.
If you’re already aware of what needs to be fixed you can game plan ahead of time. Take the thing you believe to be the most glaring flaw, i.e., the one that is most likely to keep the player from having success, and work on that.
Only when it seems like the player can execute the new skill without having to hyper-focus on it should you try moving to the next one on the list.
If you don’t know the player that well, you’ll have to do the prioritizing on the fly. In that case, you should know what the most important issues are in general, in descending order, and just work through the checklist until you find what needs to be done.
For a pitcher, for example, you may see she has a very stiff arm from trying to make the circle too big. You might have her work on learning to loosen up the arm to allow it to work the way it should.
That approach will be much better than trying to have her learn to loosen up her arm, improve her drive mechanics and learn to hit her spots reliably.
The good news is, if you choose your priorities correctly, often fixing one issue will help with others as well. In the pitching example, loosening up the arm will enable the arm to whip, which will increase speed. It will also allow the momentum generated in the pitch to help guide the arm, impacting accuracy as well.
One other thing to keep in mind is that fixing skills such as hitting or pitching properly and permanently often requires you to focus on pieces rather than the full skill.
In the case of hitters, that might mean putting the player on a tee for a while rather than taking full swings. For a pitcher that may mean having her move up close and throwing into a wall or net rather than performing full pitches. The same with players who need to work on throwing.
For fielders, it could mean having balls sitting on the floor or ground, or rolling balls to them rather than hitting them. Some players may have a tough time with that approach at first, but they will benefit far more from it in the long run versus trying to fix problems within the full skill.
Whack-A-Mole may be a fun game to play at a carnival – especially if you have some pent-up aggression to work out, as we all seem to these days. But as a coaching approach it isn’t very effective.
Pick one thing to focus on and give your players time to learn it before moving on to something else. You’ll find you generate much better results – in far less time.