Monthly Archives: April 2023
The Essence of Being a Great Teammate
There have been tons of books and articles written instructing players on how to be a great teammate. Many of them talk about things like cheering loudly in the dugout or communicating well or standing up for a teammate if he/she is verbally or even physically attacked.
But one of the best things you can do is to simply step up and do something that needs to be done to help the team – even if it’s outside your normal role. I recently heard a great example involving one of my pitching students, a young lady named Sammie.
Sammie’s high school team was scheduled to play a game that day. They typically have just enough to actually play, so when they discovered that their one and only catcher had gone home sick from school it left a giant hole in the lineup someone had to fill.
I’m sure you can see where this is headed: Sammie said she would volunteer.
Now, as I understand it Sammie has never caught before in her life. Not even in rec ball.
She has always been a pitcher, and she has become an excellent pitcher. But she had pitched the day before while fighting through an injury so her pitching again wasn’t a possibility.
She could have just stood by and looked the other way, but the team needed someone and she said she’d strap on the gear and give it a shot.
That’s remarkable enough. But there’s one other minor factor that makes it even better.
If you look at the photo at the top of this blog post what do you see? Look closer. There you have it.
No, that photo isn’t reversed. Sammie is a lefty.
So basically you have a lefty who has never played the position before stepping up to play one of the toughest and most important positions on the field. And one with some extra risk of getting hurt through foul tips or chasing after pop-ups or plays at the plate or just flat-out missing the ball because you’re not used to catching it while someone is swinging.
In my world, that’s the essence of being a great teammate. Because if Sammie doesn’t step up (and clearly no one else plans to either) the team doesn’t play.
There are many ways players can contribute to a team. But when you’re willing to look beyond your own needs and worries and do something that’s well outside your comfort zone you separate yourself from the crowd.
Or as Mr. Spock would say:
The Run Rule – and the Golden Rule
Most of us are taught the Golden Rule as children: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
So you have to wonder what goes through some coaches’ heads when their team is clearly going to run rule their opponents but they decide to keep their foot on the offensive accelerator anyway. I mean, why would you beat an opponent by 15 runs when you could do it by 30 runs instead? Right?
This topic came up when I was talking to a coach friend of mine who recently saw this type of beating in real time. She wondered why the coach of the superior team felt the need to run up the score when the game was already decided pretty early.
I didn’t have an answer. Maybe the winning coach wasn’t used to being in that situation and didn’t know how to control events on the field.
Maybe she thought that hanging a big number on their opponents would somehow give her team more confidence and they’d start playing better. Maybe she just didn’t know any better.
Maybe the losing team over-reached (or under-researched) when entering that tournament or scheduling that game and put themselves in a bad situation.
Or maybe, just maybe, the winning coach enjoyed the feeling of beating up on a weaker team. There are people like that out there.
Whatever the reason, scores of big numbers to 0 or 1 really shouldn’t happen. Once the direction of the game has been established as being greatly lopsided, the coach of the team on top should do what he/she can to keep it under control rather than humiliating a group of kids who may not have been playing for very long or just don’t have the talent to compete at that particular level.
There are several ways the superior team can help keep the score from getting out of hand:
- One of the first things to do is quit stealing bases. Not just actual steals but even on passed balls or wild pitches, and especially with a runner on third. Just hold the runners where they are to give the fielding team more of an opportunity to make plays without the offensive team racking up runs.
- You can also have baserunners run station-to-station. In other words, even though runners could move up two or three bases at a time, just have them move up to the next base and stop. And no taking an extra base on an overthrow. I can already hear the objections: “But I want to teach my runners to be aggressive and this will hurt that plan.” Stop already with that. First of all, the head coach can (quietly) explain what the team is doing (and why), letting the team know it’s only for this one game. And if pulling up in one game really leads baserunners to be unaggressive in the next game, well, the coach has some more work to do on teaching the game.
- You can have runners slow down a little to give fielders a little extra time to make a play. Not too much – you don’t want to look like you’re trying to show up the other team. But a little bit might help.
- If those steps don’t help, the team on offense can start making outs on purpose. One of the classic strategies is to have baserunners leave the base early so they can be called out by the umpire. In my experience it’s best to let the umpire know quietly you’re planning to do it so they are watching for it.
- Another way is to have hitters line up at one of the edges of the box and then step out as they hit. For example, a hitter who strides can have her front foot at the front of the batter’s box and stride out. A slapper can run out of the box and slap or bunt. Again, it helps to let the umpire know you’re doing it to make it easier for him/her to call.
- On a ground ball, baserunners can gently run into fielders to be called for interference rather than going around. It should be just enough to be seen, but definitely not enough to cause distress or injury.
- And, of course, for teams that have designated starters and subs, put those subs in early. The starters might appreciate the break and the subs will have a chance to play. Just make sure the starters know it’s now their turn to support their teammates on the field and at the plate. The risk here is that the subs will be anxious to show what they can do and might bring a little too much enthusiasm to the opportunity. So make sure everyone on your side understands what’s happening and what they are expected to do.
There are also a couple of ways I wouldn’t go about it, including:
- Telling a hitter to strike out on purpose, or just go for a weak hit. While the intention may be good, you run the risk of having that come back to bite you in a game where you do need a hit.
- Having players bat opposite-handed. Again, while the intention might be good, it could also be viewed as trying to show up the other team. They feel bad enough. No use adding insult to injury.
- Having all your hitters bunt. Most teams spend less time on their bunt defense than their standard ground ball defense. This is especially true of weak teams in my experience. While you may think you’re helping them, you could be making them look even worse.
Coaches should want to keep the score somewhat under control because it’s the right thing to do. Again, the Golden Rule.
You wouldn’t want someone running the score up on your team, so don’t do it to someone else. But there’s another reason too.
You may have also heard the phrase “Karma (or payback) is a b***h.”
Some day that team you’re humiliating today might get better while yours loses a step or two.
Coaches tend to have long memories for these sorts of things, so should that day come what you do today could have a big impact on how you end up looking and feeling then.
No one learns anything when a team runs up the score on a weaker opponent. Except that maybe someone doesn’t have much class.
“Do unto others” and you can never go wrong. The lessons learned there will be worth a lot more than a few extra runs in the “runs for” column.
No Virginia; Data and Stats Aren’t “Ruining” the Game
One of the most popular complaints heard these days about both fastpitch softball and baseball these days is that all the attention being paid to data and statistical information is “ruining” the game. Old-timers (or Traditionalists as we’ll call them since they’re not always old and older coaches are often the first to adopt new breakthroughs) in particular long for the days when decisions were made based on experience and gut instinct alone.
Well, the problem with that is a whole lot fewer people actually have great gut instincts than think they do.
And to be honest, experience is really just data/statistics stored in a different way.
The reality is data and statistics can be extremely helpful in developing players as well as making in-game decisions. Let’s look at a few cases where understanding the data and statistics can be a difference-maker.
Setting up batting orders
Traditionalists believe they know who the good hitters are. And barring something crazy they will tend to build their lineups based on those beliefs, even when that approach clearly isn’t working.
Those who use data and statistics on a regular basis will take a look at who is actually hitting well in games – especially who has a hot hand right now – and try to give those players more at bats. It might not always work out, e.g., a hitter who does well in the relatively low pressure 6 spot might struggle more at 2 or 3.
But if certain players are out-hitting others, even if they don’t look like they should be, it’s definitely worth finding out if a lineup shakeup might produce a few more runs.
Using pitchers more effectively
While there are still plenty of old-school coaches out there who think they can ride one arm to a championship, in reality that has become much more difficult to do. Better training for hitters, and quite frankly more exposure to quality pitchers, means seeing the same pitcher three or four times is often an advantage for the offense late in the game.
With data and statistics coaches can see not only which starter matches up best with a particular team but which relievers seem to be most effective following those starters.
For example, say you have a fireballing lefty start the game. She does great a couple of times through the lineup, but then the offense seems to have figured her out.
Who do you put in now? Your next best Ace or perhaps more of an offspeed/spin pitcher? With data at your disposal you can see how well opposing teams have hit each so far after pulling the starter.
While there are no guarantees it will work again, you’ll at least have a starting point for making the decision. You might also use the information to assign specific roles to pitchers, such as middle reliever or closer, based on their effectiveness in different parts of the game – just like baseball does.
By seeing who performs well when you can manage your staff to ensure you’re making the most informed decisions you can while also perhaps saving your best arms for when they’re needed most.
Dealing with defensive shifts
This is probably one of the most-hated aspects of data and statistics, and the one that draws the most complaints. Seeing three infielders stacked up on the right side, or an infielder in an outfieldish position because statistically that’s where a particular hitter normally hits, is believed to be an abomination on the game.
Why? Because your hitter can’t do what he/she normally does and get away with it? Too bad.
Any type of unusual shift is going to create a glaring weakness. A smart offense coach (or player) will take advantage of it. A stubborn one will get burned by it.
I remember watching a Major League Baseball game a few years ago where the defense shifted to the right side, leaving the third baseman roughly between second and third. The hitter took some big cuts and eventually grounded out to one of those fielders on the right side.
I couldn’t understand why that hitter didn’t just bunt the ball down the third base line. He could have walked to first.
I get that contracts may be structured for extra base hits and all that, but the core idea of baseball/softball is get on base, then get to the next base until you make it back home. Laying down a bunt where no one can get to it will accomplish that.
It will also make the defense eventually reconsider the wisdom of those special shifts, so problem solved.
Selecting a pinch hitter
Pinch hitting is a tough role. You’re basically sitting and watching the game with little pressure until a critical situation comes up.
Then you’re put in under maximum pressure. It’s not for everyone, and even great hitters can crumble under those circumstances.
With data and statistics, however, you can see who performs well under pressure – including which bench players do the best job of producing quality at-bats when called on. They’re not necessarily the ones with the highest overall batting average, but they are the ones who are best prepared for the specific circumstances you’re facing.
Having that information at your disposal can help guide you to a better decision. One that is based in fact rather than emotion.
Data and statistics aren’t just valuable for in-game decision-making. They can also be tremendously helpful when you’re trying to improve players in practice or lessons.
A good example is helping pitchers learn how to spin their pitches. Tools such as Rapsodo or the DK ball can measure spin rates and spin directions to help pitchers learn the techniques that will lead to late break on the ball.
A radar unit, particularly one that is running constantly, can help pitchers see whether they are progressing while also holding them accountable to give maximum effort throughout the session.
The same radar unit can measure bat speed and ball exit velocity to determine if a hitter is progressing. Sensors such as Blast Motion that attach to the bat can provide even more data about bat position, launch angles, etc. that can help hitters hone their craft.
And complete systems such as 4D Motion can really get “under the hood” to show whether the way a player is moving is optimal in order to make deeper corrections that can have a profound effect on success.
These and other measurements use proven science to help players optimize their approach to a variety of skills that will help them perform better in the field – without all the guesswork and opinions that often hamper training.
Does that mean data and statistics are a panacea that means coaches no longer have to know what they’re doing to succeed? Of course not.
The most important aspect of coaching remains the ability to relate to players and get the best out of them.
But data and statistics are great tools that help coaches see what they need to see they can focus on the areas that will deliver the best return on investment in every player. The coaches who embrace them, and learn what they really mean, will gain a tremendous advantage over those who still just want to rely on gut instinct.
In my opinion it’s definitely worth the time and effort.
Photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels.com
Relentless Competitors: Nature or Nurture?
Today’s post was inspired by a Facebook post from my friend and fellow pitching coach James Clark. James is the owner and chief instructor of United Pitching Academy in Centerville, Indiana and is very familiar with what it takes to build champions.
His original question was:
He and I chatted about it a bit ourselves and I will share some of his thoughts shortly. But you have to admit it’s a great question – especially since it generated a lot of comments on both sides of the issue. First, though, my thoughts.
In my experience it’s kind of a mix of both. Some people come by their competitiveness and relentless desire to win naturally.
On the positive side, these are the types of players who will spend extra hours taking ground balls or spinning pitches from close distance or getting in extra batting practice or hitting the weight room. During games they keep a positive attitude and do their best to lift their teammates, even when their team is down a bunch of runs, because they just can’t fathom losing without doing everything they can to win.
(On the negative side, these are also the players who will play through injuries when they should be taking time to heal themselves, and sometimes can be harsh on teammates they don’t think are giving the same level of effort.)
You don’t really have to do anything to push these players to give their all. They know no other way to approach the game.
It’s like the story about football legend Lou Holtz being asked how he became such a great motivator of players. “I find the players who are self-motivated and cut everyone else,” he said.
Those players stand out, however, precisely because they are so rare. For the rest, having that type of indomitable spirit and high level of competitiveness is something that has to be nurtured.
Especially in female athletes, because even today, in 2023, society doesn’t really value those traits in females as much as they do in males. Just look at the controversy over the NCAA women’s D1 basketball championship where a simple taunting gesture – one that would probably hardly raise an eyebrow on the men’s side – became a national scandal.
James and I both agree that competitiveness is hard-baked into our DNA at some level as part of our survival mechanism. As he put it:
“The natural selection idea stems from prehistoric/caveman times. You had to compete with nature to survive. Failure to do this was certain death.
“Needing to hunt and kill your next meal fostered the sense of survival. In modern times we tend to use sports to feed this primal instinct.. If it’s not fostered within a culture where leadership is promoting this “succeed or fail to survive mentality it eventually goes away.”
I agree with that thought. At one point in our early existence it was kill or be killed. Our primitive reptile brains still retain that somewhere.
But I also believe once humans began organizing themselves into societies they were able to distribute workloads based on ability. Those who were inclined to hunt would hunt, while those who were inclined to farm would farm.
The farmers might still compete for who could grow the most food or the largest pumpkins, and could defend themselves if they had to. But they were largely relieved of the “kill or be killed out of necessity” aspect of life and so perhaps didn’t have that same urgency.
Which brings us to today with sports. For some, it’s definitely a way of life, which means winning and losing is uber-important to them.
Winning brings satisfaction while losing brings literal pain and suffering. (You would think winning would bring delight but I think for most uber-competitors the joy is short-lived because there’s always another hill to conquer.)
For others, winning is less life-and-death. Sure, everyone wants to win, but for this group it’s not so life-and-death. And there’s always a segment of the population that’s just content to play whether they win or lose.
Which means coaches will need to bring that long-buried competitive streak out in those players. They will need to inspire those players to pursue winning at a deeper level than they may have on their own.
A big part of that is establishing a culture where winning is an important goal. Players have to have a big desire to win before they will go out of their way to compete better.
Finding a “lead goat” or two who can help drive the others is important. Take the natural competitors and make their enthusiasm infectious.
The belief that “we can do this” has taken many teams from the cellar to the penthouse and inspired players to do things they never thought they could (or would) do.
In my opinion, and I think James would agree, it’s one of the greatest gifts a coach can give his or her players. Because learning how to compete and succeed in sports is a skill that can be easily transferred to other aspects in a person’s life. Because everything in life is a competition at some level, so the sooner you learn how to compete, and build a burning desire to win, the better prepared you will be for life’s larger challenges.
In many cases, when you have a natural relentless competitor the best things the coach can do is guide them in how to direct that energy, give them the tools to pursue their passion, and then stay out of their way.
For everyone else, that’s where the real coaching comes in. It’s not just about X’s and O’s, or mechanics or strategies. It’s about lighting that spark that may be buried deep inside of them to help them exceed their current expectations in order to become the players they’re meant to be.
Make a commitment to be that spark.