Monthly Archives: March 2022

Coaches and Parents: Getting Past Self-Imposed Obstacles

Years ago there was a book titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It took the premise that a lot of the world’s problems could be solved if we went back to the basic values most of us were taught as children.

That’s a great idea from a basic, being a good human being standpoint. But it’s not such a good philosophy for helping our players or daughter learn the skills required to play fastpitch softball at a high level.

The key issue there is that our level of knowledge of the optimal way to execute various skills is constantly expanding and evolving. New research, often driven by new technologies such as high speed video (your basic mobile phone or tablet), tools that measure ball spin rates and direction (Rapsodo, Diamond Kinetics), and wearable sensors that measure parameters such as the kinetic sequence and angular velocities of various limbs (4D Motion), help us look deeper under the hood to gain a greater understanding of the biomechanics of movement, i.e., how various body part interact with one another.

In other words, there is a wealth of hard data available that can help us lift the veil of guessing to truly understand which ways of executing skills will produce the best results.

You would think this news would create a Renaissance of enlightenment that would have coaches and parents scurrying to absorb all they can as quickly as they can and incorporate it into the way they coach their players/daughters. But you would be wrong.

You see, the human mind is a funny thing. It doesn’t like to be “wrong,” so it sets up defense mechanisms to protect itself against that possibility.

Of course, overcoming these self-imposed limitations first requires recognizing that they exist. Today’s post discusses a few of the most common.

Understand that these issues are often not mutually exclusive. In fact, many of them feed into each other to help create an even stronger barrier to keep new information out. But with a little self-examination you can figure out whether you are falling victim to them so you can put in the work to get past them and open your mind to all the great information that’s out there.

Oh, and this doesn’t apply only to softball by the way. It can be applied to other areas of your life as well since we all find it easy to fall into these traps.

Commitment Bias

This is probably one of the most common issues coaches and parents encounter when faced with information, or even hard evidence, that contradicts what they currently believe to be true.

The basic idea of commitment bias is that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort, and probably invested a significant amount of money, in acquiring the knowledge you have now. (In financial terms it’s called a “sunk cost.”)

To make a change, you would not only have to throw away all or at least some of what you’ve spent your time and treasure acquiring, you would have to <gasp!> admit that you were “wrong” about it.

Never!

Or at least that’s how our minds think.

We see this a lot when coaches fall back on the “I’ve been teaching it this way for 20 years and been successful…” argument.

There is an element of truth in that. They have been teaching it that way for 20 years, and they have had players who have been successful during that time.

But there’s a pretty good chance that those players were successful in spite of what they were taught rather than because of it. The world is full of pitchers who were taught “hello elbow” mechanics but, if you watch high-speed video of them actually pitching, don’t pitch that way at all.

Parents can get caught in this trap as well. They spent good money for their daughter to go to a skills clinic, or a private coach, or they bought a bunch of books and videos so they could teach their daughter themselves.

Now they’re confronted with evidence-based information that contradicts those investments. Can they really bring themselves to set all that aside and have their daughters start over? That can be a tough call for some people, especially those who like to believe they’re always right.

But it’s a necessary step. As pitching guru Rick Pauly said on a recent “Transcending Sports” podcast with hitting expert Rob Crews, “If you’re not willing to learn new things you should probably get out of coaching.”

That doesn’t mean believe every new thing you see or hear, especially on the Internet. But be open to it, and if it makes sense be willing to change.

Confirmation Bias

This one is often the next step after commitment bias kicks in.

You heard something that contradicts your world view so you go out seeking more information about the topic. But rather than performing objective research, you instead go out seeking points of view that will back up (confirm) your current position.

This is kind of like a person being told they have a horrible disease and deciding to get a second opinion. But they keep on seeing doctors until they find one that tells them what they want to hear.

Doesn’t matter if it’s 100-1 in favor of the original diagnosis. They’re going with the one.

The Internet makes this issue particularly dangerous, because whatever is posted there is posted forever. Or as they say in The Social Network, “the Internet is written in ink.” Gotta love Aaron Sorkin.

Head coach reacts to assistant looking up information that contradicts his teachings.

The problem with that is even those sincerely trying to perform unbiased research can end up watching a grainy video from 1998 that doesn’t take into account the progress that’s been made in understanding how to optimize softball skills over the last 20+ years. Instead, since it reinforces their beliefs they stop right there and never check out newer, better information.

Of course, those who hold their beliefs tight to their chests will purposely seek out information that supports their views and ignore whatever does not. At that point the loop is closed and no new information will be admitted. Kind of like the way a dungeon blocks out all the sunlight.

When you hear something new, the better approach is to seek out as much information about it and see if it makes sense. Look at the evidence behind it. See if it lines up with what the best players in the world are doing.

And you can console yourself with the fact that this new information may also be replaced someday by even better data – which you’ll also be able to take advantage of since your mind is open.

By the way, the good news is changing today doesn’t invalidate what you did before. I’ve changed the way I teach a lot as I’ve learned more and gained more experience. But none of my former players have had to give back a single hit or strikeout or great play in the field as a result. It’s all good.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

This trap is essentially a phenomenon where people with limited knowledge or expertise on a subject overestimate their knowledge or competence on that subject versus others in their field.

Take a recently graduated player who is making the transition to coaching. She hasn’t put in a lot of study on the biomechanics of a particular skill, but instead assumes because she played she knows how to teach it. So she goes back and repeats what she was taught without looking to see if that was actually the way she hit, pitched, threw, etc.

If anyone questions her, or points to a different set of information, she immediately falls back on “I was a college pitcher so I know what I’m doing.”

That may or may not be true. I know several excellent pitching coaches who were college pitchers who can tell you today they didn’t know what they were doing, and in fact had no real clue how to teach pitching. Fortunately, each of them put in the work to learn all they could (and still do), and are now some of the biggest evangelists for the need for others to do the same.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can also be seen in parents who played softball (or baseball) in high school or college and assume that qualifies them to teach various softball skills. Spoiler alert:

Some of what you know may transfer. But if you really want to help your daughter, it’s worth looking into the latest thinking and learning the techniques that are currently being taught rather than passing along ancient knowledge.

Think of it this way: Would you really like to go back to using the same mobile phone you used 10 or 15 or 20 years ago? Doubtful. So why rely on old information when so much progress has been made since then.

Then, like the “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years” people, there are those who believe that whatever success they’ve achieved on the local level validates that they’re right, and therefore there is no need to look further. They have a false sense of their own expertise.

These folks can learn a lesson from former UCLA head coach and NFCA Hall of Famer Sue Enquist. A few years ago she was doing a presentation on hitting at a coaches clinic.

During her presentation one of the attendees raised his hand and said, “But Coach Enquist, I have your hitting videos and they don’t talk about this at all. In fact, they say the opposite.”

Coach Enquist turned to the man and said, “Throw those videos away. They’re five years old. I’ve learned a lot about hitting since then.”

If a legend like Sue Enquist is humble enough to throw away what she “knew” when she finds new, better, more effective information, shouldn’t the rest of us be as well?

Wrapping Up

It’s easy to fall into these and other traps. It doesn’t make us bad – it just makes us human.

Hopefully by being aware of them, and the issues they can cause, you can avoid them to ensure you’re bringing the best possible information to your players and/or daughters to help them become the players they’re meant to be. And isn’t that what coaching is all about?

Photo by Jan van der Wolf on Pexels.com

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When Designing Your Scheme, Be Sure It Fits Your Players

Today’s topic may seem completely self-evident to some of you – to the point where you say “Duh!”

Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a game (in person on TV) or spoken with players and/or parents and realized what should be a cardinal rule of softball has been violated yet again.

This rule is particularly important in middle school or high school ball, where coaches don’t get to choose their teams from a vast pool of players but instead must make the best out of whoever goes to that school. Sometimes those coaches win the lottery, and other times they end up with a donkey.

Don’t think we’re riding this team to the State championship

But even if you do have a wider range, ultimately you have to look at the skillsets and physical attributes of your players and make decisions accordingly. Here’s an example.

For a long time, slapping and the short game was the key to winning, especially in college. As a coach you may love to create chaos on the basepaths and force the other team into making mistakes. But if you look at your team in the huddle and what you see more closely resembles a nest of baby turtles, you’re going to have to find another way to score runs.

C’mon Coach, give me the steal sign.

The reverse is also true on offense. If you roughly weigh more yourself than all your players put together, you’re probably not going to be going deep with any regularity. So while you may love the way college teams like Oklahoma and Arizona State launch bombs on a regular basis, you’re probably going to need your players to master techniques such as bunting, slug bunting, and the ol’ hit-and-run. At least if you want to win ballgames.

The same is true of your pitching staff. If you have one or more dominant pitchers who can rack up 10, 12, 14 strikeouts a game, with the mental toughness to get critical strikeouts when needed, you can probably give up a few more defensive errors, or put a weak glove in the lineup if it means one more strong bat. If, however, your pitchers are more along the lines of letting hitters get weak hits and counting on your defense to get the outs, you’d better have strong gloves out on the field.

You can always use the big hitter/weak glove as a DH or pinch hitter. With the added benefit in the latter case of having that big bat available on demand rather than having to hope you get to her.

Speaking of defense, the type of players you have will (or at least should) affect the types of defense you play as well. Let’s take the outfield for example.

If you have speedy outfielders who are good at going back on fly balls, you can afford to play them in a little closer to the infield to try to cut off the Texas Leaguers and duck snorts that seem to plague your team and no one else’s. That is, unless your pitcher is prone to give out moon shots the way Olive Garden gives out breadsticks.

In big bunches until you can’t take it anymore.

Your players’ capabilities will (or should) also affect scheme decisions such as bunt coverages. In fastpitch softball it’s standard to have the first and third basemen crash the plate on bunts.

But if your first baseman isn’t particularly good (or even adequate) at fielding balls on the ground, or making a quick throw from a bent over position, or is the biggest turtle in the conference or the complex, having her try to field a bunt up the first base line may be your ticket to an early ulcer.

You may want to consider having your pitcher field anything up the line. Unless, of course, she is a hot mess fielding as well, in which case you can either try pulling your second baseman up next to the pitcher in obvious bunt situations or have a track coach work with your third baseman so she can try to cover everything up-close.

The bottom line is you may have done X, Y, or Z when you played, or seen a particular approach on TV, or attended a coaches clinic where a Power 5 coach with a multi-million dollar budget that includes a huge scholarship pool said “This is what we do.” Or gotten your butt beaten by a vastly superior team whose success you’d very much like to copy.

But before you pull the trigger on introducing your new scheme, ask yourself honestly if you have the players who can pull it off.

If so, great. Have at it.

But if not, it’s better to take a look at what you DO have and build your schemes accordingly. You’ll ultimately produce WAY better results.

Failure Is a Key Element in Player Development

Today’s topic was a suggestion from Tim Husted, who was the founder and guiding force behind the Danes fastpitch softball program, which gave players in Wisconsin and Minnesota the opportunity to play at the highest levels. Tim knows a thing or two about developing players so they can continue their careers in college, having done so for many young ladies while the program was active.

Tim was commenting on my post “Accuracy Without Speed = Batting Practice,” saying essentially that too many parents and coaches these days are focused on achieving short-term success rather working toward longer-term greatness. But, he added, it also shows up in parents being afraid to let their kids fail because they don’t understand that failure is an essential component of developing great players.

I know, it sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? No parent likes to see their kid(s) fail.

Our hearts bleed for them, and our kids’ pain becomes our pain – only amplified. It can be particularly debilitating for parents who are living vicariously through their kids’ sports careers.

The result is we do whatever we can to help our kids avoid failure, and the negative feelings associated with it.

Sometimes that means an “everybody gets a trophy” approach. Which I personally believe is ok at the younger ages to reward participation, but not after about the age of 10, and then only in rec leagues.

Sometimes that means jumping from team to team to find a starting spot rather than competing for one. There are definitely times when leaving a particular team is the right decision, such as when all positions are set and there is no opportunity to compete for a starting job.

That happens more than people like to admit too. But leaving in lieu of working hard is not a good solution.

And sometimes it means disgruntled parents starting their own teams or agreeing to coach with the express purpose of making their kid the star, whether it’s deserved or not.

Here’s the reality, however: failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty rare to find anyone who is successful as an adult who did not face some level of failure earlier in his or her life.

Amanda Scarborough often talks about how early in her career she was not at the top of the pitching depth chart on her travel and high school teams. One of the all-time greats, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Lisa Fernandez, says she walked 20 batters in her first pitching outing and was told by a well-known pitching coach in California that she’d “never be a pitcher.” Many other greats in all walks of life have similar backstories.

The thing is, they didn’t let failure or disappointment define them. Instead, they learned from it and used it as fuel.

This is what coaches, and especially parents, need to understand. Failure isn’t a bad thing. It’s an essential part of the learning process.

People who succeed all the time (if there is such a thing) don’t learn how to overcome obstacles. They aren’t driven to hone their skills to improve. They don’t gain the mental toughness required to play at the highest level.

The pain of failure drives us to not want to feel that way again. Which either means we stop doing the activity or we work to ensure (to the best of our abilities) that it doesn’t happen again.

And that’s where the development comes in. Failure doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It means you aren’t good enough right now.

But that can change. While your DNA, which defines your base athletic ability, is what it is, mental and physical skills can be developed.

As a team coach and an instructor I’ve worked with many, many kids who didn’t start out as superstars, or even competent players for that matter. But with guidance and dedication they went on to pass more naturally gifted players in terms of performance on the field. And I know many coaches, including Tim, who have similar stories.

Failure helps point out the flaws in your game so you can work on them. It drives us to achieve more than success alone ever will.

Good players like to work on their strengths. Great players prefer to work on their weaknesses.

Then there’s the idea of failure as fuel, which I mentioned earlier. Sometimes failing at something is just the kick in the pants we as humans need to drive us to improve beyond what we may have done otherwise.

I know this from personal experience. My first year as a travel ball coach my oldest daughter’s team was very successful, winning the bulk of our games along with taking first place in the highly competitive travel league we were a part of.

I remember feeling really good about myself as a coach – until I found out half the team was leaving to join a new team in our organization coached by the dad of a girl who was more popular than my daughter. I was shocked and disappointed.

But rather than quit, or whine about it, I took that failure and used it to drive me to become the best coach I could be. I took classes, read books, watched videos, talked to other coaches, and did everything I could to become so good that no player would ever even consider leaving.

While I can’t say I fully achieved that goal – there will always be some attrition, and there’s always more to learn – it definitely made me a much better coach and put me on the path that I still follow today. I’m not sure the same would have happened had that first team all stayed.

Another benefit failure brings is that it makes success that much sweeter and more satisfying. It’s difficult to appreciate triumph if you’ve never experienced defeat.

Not to mention if you are afraid of failure you’re more likely to play weaker competition to ensure you’ll win. I’ve known teams like that.

Their coaches play teams they know they can beat, thinking a better won-loss record makes them look like better coaches. But all it really does is stunt the development of their players because those players aren’t being challenged.

If you’re going undefeated in every tournament and posting up 80-3 run differentials you’re not a great team. You’re playing in the wrong tournaments.

A 60% – 70% win rate will do far more to ensure player development than a closet full of trophies, medals, plaques and rings.

The bottom line is that while failure is painful, it can be a good kind of pain – like what you feel after a particularly grueling workout. It’s not something that should be feared and avoided at all costs.

Instead, it should be embraced as part of the learning process.

Failure doesn’t have to be a dead end. In fact, it can be the starting point for something much, much better.

The choice is yours.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Accuracy Without Speed = Batting Practice

One of the age-old controversies in fastpitch pitching is whether it’s more important to develop speed or accuracy first.

Of course my answer to that question is always “yes.” Because I don’t believe they are, or have to be, mutually exclusive.

But there are definitely those, including one of America’s most famous and beloved pitching coaches, who will tell you to learn to throw strikes first and then you can worry about speed later. Here’s my problem with that.

Take a look at Internet forums or Facebook groups and what is one of the most common pleas from pitcher parents? It goes something like this:

“My daughter has been pitching for X years and has always been great at throwing strikes. She led her rec league team to a championship when she was 10, and she is still the most accurate pitcher on her team. But her speed is below the other pitchers we see. I’d like to see her get faster. Please help.”

Then the parent posts a video of a kid pushing the ball toward the plate or otherwise forcing it to go where she wants it to go.

I’m sorry, but the best advice I could give that parent is to invent a time machine so he/she can have his/her daughter start learning to throw hard right from the beginning.

Maybe this guy can help.

A lot of developing speed is about learning to move your body quickly – and having the intent to do so. In other words, you need to have athletic, ballistic movements in order to impart energy into the ball so it will go fast.

But if your focus is on learning to throw strikes, especially at young ages, you’re not going to learn to move ballistically because it’s harder to achieve the goal of throwing strikes. Fast-moving body parts are more difficult to control, which means fewer strikes. It’s much easier to “get the ball over the plate” if you slow down and find an effective way to lob it there.

The problem is that’s what you’re training your body to do – throw slow strikes. In the meantime, another girl who is learning to throw hard is going through all of the growing pains throwing hard requires while learning to move her body quickly.

Her body may be out of control for a little while, until she develops greater body awareness (proprioception for those of you who like the big words) and learns the proper mechanics as well as how to apply them.

As she continues, though, those fast-paced movements become easier to replicate. She then learns how to control them, and becomes not only fast but accurate.

In the meantime, Suzy Slow Strike Machine suddenly finds out that throwing the ball over the plate without speed is like volunteering to throw front toss without a screen as hitters mature.

And she starts to feel something like this.

So naturally she (and her parents) want her to learn to throw faster.

Unfortunately, now she has to go through the same growing pains that the hard throwers did three years ago. Which means she not only lacks speed but also her famous accuracy.

And who wants a slow, wild pitcher?

Or think of it this way: When players are running the bases do we teach them to run slowly first so they don’t overrun the base and tell them they can then add speed later? Of course not.

We tell them to run full out and teach them to stop or slide on time.

Actual coach demonstrating sliding with style.

The same is true for pitchers. Putting an emphasis on accuracy at the expense of speed is a poor strategy.

It reminds me of the saying, “The race doesn’t always go the swiftest nor the contest to the strongest. But that’s the way to bet.”

As I said earlier, the reality is you don’t have to sacrifice speed development for accuracy – IF, and that’s a big IF, the pitcher is learning proper pitching mechanics. If you learn how to do things the right way, and practice enough to make those movements precisely repeatable, the ball will go where it should.

In my mind accuracy is not a goal. It is a result, just as speed is a result.

If you wait to develop speed you just may find you’ve painted yourself into a corner with no way out.

Yes, I get that throwing strikes is important. But it’s hardly a mystery.

By focusing on developing mechanically sound pitchers who throw with effort and intent rather than fear of failure, you can achieve both speed and accuracy pretty much simultaneously. Which is the key to a long, successful pitching career.

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