You Can’t Hurry Player Development
Perhaps you’ve seen the recent Tweet from Olympian and all-time great fastpitch softball pitcher Cat Osterman in response to Extra Innings Softball calling for nominations for ranking of players who will graduate high school in 2028. (In case you’re not aware or don’t want to do the math, this would be a ranking of players who are currently in 7th – that’s right 7th – grade.)
It’s been making the rounds on social media as a meme too. In it, Cat said:
Just for perspective… I would have been no where (sic) near this list as a 7th grader… NO WHERE CLOSE! So much changes in the next 2-5 years… this is plain silly.
I couldn’t agree more. At a time when kids today are already under so much more pressure from the “professionalization” of youth sports, and facing increased mental health issues on top of all the challenges that have always come with transitioning from grade schooler to young adult, adding one more thing for coaches, parents, and players to obsess over seems like a bad idea.
What you often end up with is some who become sad, depressed, anxious, etc. because they didn’t make the list. And others who experience those feelings because they did make the list and feel like they now have to live up to the expectations.
But this sense of heightened expectations doesn’t just apply to players supposedly at the top of the game. It can happen at all levels when coaches and parents lose sight of what the real mission is.
Softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But an obsessive focus on winning and performance can suck all the fun out of it.
And what is the number one reason in every survey that players say they quit playing a sport they once loved? Because it isn’t fun anymore.
From 14 years old and down, the focus should be on player development and the process of learning rather than on outcomes. This is true even for so-called “competitive” teams.
(Not saying older teams shouldn’t develop their players too, but there is more imperative for them to keep an eye on the W-L column as well.)
Fastpitch softball is a complex game full of multiple decisions for situations and many moving parts for skills. Taking a shortcut on overall development so you can get wins today is the fastest way to stunt a player’s growth.
Sure, winning now is fun. But think of player development as giving players the tools they need to continue winning when the competition gets tougher.
Imagine if Cat Osterman’s coaches looked at her in 7th grade and decided she just didn’t have what it takes to be a pitcher because she walked too many people or didn’t hit her spots every time or whatever unrealistic demand they had of her.
Or what if they let her pitch but yelled ridiculous things at her like “Slow down your motion so you can throw more strikes.” Her 11U team might have won a few more games, but it’s unlikely any of us would know who she is. And her mantle wouldn’t include any Olympic medals or the various other prizes she’s earned as a premier pitcher.
Another pitcher who was in that boat was one who is thought by many to be the greatest of all time – Lisa Fernandez. She was told by a famous (but unnamed) pitching coach in Southern California that she should forget about the position because she didn’t have the build or the ability.
In her first outing she said she walked 21 batters and hit 21 batters. But somewhere along the way she was allowed to develop, slowly but surely, until she ended up being the winning pitcher in not just one but two gold medal games at the Olympics. Not to mention all her other accomplishments. You can look it up.
She probably wouldn’t have been at the top of anyone’s list in 7th grade either. But over time she became the player she was meant to be because she had the chance to grow into herself.
As Cat said, a lot can happen to a player between 7th grade and senior year. Some who peak early may find themselves falling behind later as the late bloomers begin to find themselves.
Others who don’t look like much on a 10U or 12U roster may work hard, benefit from a late growth spurt and coaches who give them opportunities, and suddenly find themselves becoming all-conference, all-area, or even all-state honorees. It’s almost impossible to predict.
Each of us finds our way in our own time. Coaches should keep that in mind.
At the youth level, keep your focus on player development and encourage those in your charge to play at the top of their abilities, whatever they may be at that point, rather than just doing whatever it takes to win today. You may just find you have some hidden gems – and make some lifelong friends in the process.