Category Archives: Coaching

Applying Occam’s Razor to Teaching Fastpitch Softball

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At some point in your life outside of fastpitch softball you’ve probably heard the term “Occam’s Razor.” No, it’s not a brand of shaving utensil.

Instead, it’s a way of approaching problems. Essentially it says that all else being equal, if there is a simple approach to something and a complex one, the simple one is usually better.

If you want the full explanation, follow the link above. But a big part of it has to do with variables. The more variables you introduce (thereby making it more complicated), the more chances there are to get it wrong.

That has certainly been my experience coaching girls fastpitch softball for lo these many years. (Had to say that – how often do you get a chance to use “lo” in a sentence?)

I remember watching pitching instructors take pitchers through their 10-step or 15-step warm-up process, where every single piece is broken down into the most minute movements. I’ve seen the same with other aspects as well – hitting, throwing, catching a fly ball, you name it.

On the Internet it gets even worse. It’s almost like a contest to see who can make their explanation the most detailed and confusing.

Really what it is is a game of “one-upmanship.” Kind of like the old “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But in this case it’s “he who is the most unintelligible must be the smartest.”

I disagree with that philosophy. Instead I ascribe to the idea (often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein) that if you can’t explain something simply you don’t truly understand it.

When you’re coaching someone in a skill, your goal should be to help them learn to execute the skill in the context it will be used as quickly as possible. You can’t get that from a 15-step approach.

A player may get good at each of the 15 steps, but she will likely still struggle to put them all together and execute them under the pressure of a game. Too many variables to worry about, and too much thinking trying to get all of that right.

If you can break it down into a few easily digestible steps that naturally flow into one another, however, I find that players not only learn faster – they learn it deeper too, because it has context.

Hitting is a great example, because it’s probably one of the most over-analyzed skills in all of sports. It’s also interesting because a lot of the analysis will talk about why so-and-so hit a home run with their swing, but will never mention when that same swing resulted in a weak pop-up or ground ball. Which means there’s more to it than just the mechanics.

That said, as a coach or instructor, there is definitely a certain base knowledge you need in order to understand what is going on throughout the swing, and why some movements/angles/timing/etc. work better than others.

Once you get that, however, it’s time to start peeling away everything that isn’t essential to teaching someone how to hit. Especially since certain parts of the swing are going to naturally result from other parts anyway.

Teach the critical parts, such as leading with the hips, separating the hips from the shoulders during rotation, keeping the hands up and letting the bat head down, etc. Then turn your hitters lose to fill in the blanks on their own – without having to think about them.

It’s like the old KISS acronym – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Give them what them what they need to know in a way they can understand it instead of trying to show how smart you are or how much research you’ve done.

Oh, and while it’s tempting to say this approach is more important for younger players, the reality is it’s important for players at all levels. The real difference with older players if you keep it simple is they’ll pick it up faster and get to success sooner.

The more you follow Occam’s Razor, the more success your players will have, and the more games you’ll win. Isn’t that really what it’s all about?

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Why the Short Leash May Not Be As Effective As You Think

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First of all, for those of you who are wondering, yes. This is my dog Swayze. (I didn’t name him; he was a rescue and that was already his name.)

He’s a lucky boy, because I couldn’t very well put a leash on him for a photo without taking him for a walk. But that’s not the topic of today’s blog post.

The actual reason for the photo is to discuss a coaching style that can best be described as the “short leash.” Basically, what it entails is if a player makes a mistake on the field, such as a physical error or watching a third strike go by, she is immediately yanked out of the game and made to sit the bench – I suppose so she has time to think about what she’s done. Perhaps it’s the softball equivalent of a “time out” for a young child.

Normally, this type of “correction” is accompanied by a few loud words from the coach, such as “I told you you need to keep your head down. Grab some bench!” Although not always.

It often tends to be applied unevenly as well. In other words, if you’re the star shortstop and you make an error, it might not result in your being relieved of your position. But if you’re more of a utility player or a reserve trying to earn a starting spot, you’ll probably be one-and-done.

The goal of this type of coaching is to make players better and sharper. At least that’s the theory. But what I find, more often than not, is it makes them fearful of making mistakes, which not only makes them more prone to making mistakes but tends to stunt their overall development as well.

Imagine this type of coaching in another setting. Let’s start with school. You’re at the white board in math class (apparently schools don’t use blackboards anymore), doing your best to solve an equation, but you get the answer wrong.

Instead of just pointing out the mistake and giving you a chance to correct it, the teacher calls you out in front of the class in an exasperated voice, tells you to just go sit down, then ignores you for the rest of class. How motivated are you at that point to learn more math – or to be called up to the board again? Or even to pay attention to the rest of the class?

If you do go up to the board again, will you be more focused on the problem (even though focus wasn’t the issue the last time – it was that you didn’t know the concept)? Or will you be thinking “I hope I don’t make another mistake and have to go through that again?

Now think about work. Have you ever worked for a boss who would berate and belittle you if he/she didn’t like something you’d done? I sure have. In fact, I had one boss that would love something I did one day then hate the exact same work the next day.

Not only was I at risk of getting whiplash from those Mercurial moods, I started to doubt my own abilities. Then, instead of trying to do the best work I could, I started focusing on trying to figure out what wouldn’t get me berated. They are two different things.

It wasn’t until I did a little side work for someone else that I realized the problem wasn’t me – it was my boss and his up and down moods. I moved on from there and discovered I was actually pretty darned good at what I did.

Coaching by fear and intimidation is very old school. The problem is it’s a lot like torturing someone to get information. After a while, they will say whatever they need to say to get the pain to stop, whether it’s true or not.

The same goes for the short leash. If players are constantly worried that one error, or one looking strikeout, or one bad decision on the bases, or a few missed spots on one batter is going to get them yanked out of the game in the middle of an inning, their focus will no longer be on becoming the best player they can be. It will be on doing what they need to so they don’t get yanked.

Fielders will become uptight, and maybe not try for balls they’re not sure they can field cleanly. Hitters will swing at any potential third strike, even if it’s high or in the dirt, rather than learn the strike zone.

Base runners will be hesitant and not take advantage of opportunities that could have contributed to a win. Pitchers will start trying to guide the ball instead of learning to throw hard and maximize their speed.

And what do you end up with? A talented team that can’t win the big games because they’re too busy hiding in their shells.

I’m not saying never replace a player who isn’t performing. If pitchers don’t have it they need to come out. But not necessarily after throwing a handful of pitches. Even MLB and college softball pitchers get more time than that.

A fielder who makes three errors in an inning is probably cooked and needs to come out – not as punishment but just to get their heads and bodies out of a bad situation. And so forth.

But that should be situational, not an automatic “If you make a mistake you’re done.”

Of course there will be those who claim “being ‘tough’ like this will get them ready to play in college.” Nonsense.

First of all, if you’re coaching a younger team there’s no guarantee any of those kids will even want to play in college by the time they’re eligible. But if you make the experience miserable enough for them you can ensure they won’t, because they’ll quit the sport.

But even when you look at college teams, you rarely (if ever) see a D1 college coach (who is being paid big bucks and who is giving her players big bucks to come to the school in terms of a scholarship) yank a player off the field for making an error or walking one hitter. A coach like that wouldn’t last very long, especially at the big schools, because no one wants to be embarrassed on national TV.

So you’re not really preparing your players for the next level. You’re just using that as an excuse to justify your approach.

What you should be focused on instead is developing players so they learn how to work through adversity and overcome errors, etc. rather than fear making them. Support and a positive approach will go much farther than fear.

We all make mistakes. Often that’s how we learn. And making mistakes is critical to the kind of growth that ultimately wins games – especially those in tense situations – as well as championship.

So put the short leash away and give your players some room to breathe. You may just find happy, relaxed players make fewer mistakes – and give you more of themselves with every play.

 

Take Your Effort to 11

Grace HR

The other day I was reading an article’in the NFCA’s Fastpitch Delivery newspaper. It was written by Megan Brown, Ph.D., an assistant coach at Brown University, talking about what softball players can learn from UConn basketball.

Basically, it talked about an approach they use to improve pitching performance during practice, which improves performance during games. While the article was about pitching, it can be applied to other areas as well. I’ve been playing around with it a bit this week, and I think it’s pretty effective so I thought I’d share.

The crux of it is to ask the player to rate her effort on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being standing around talking about it (as you will be doing at that time) and 10 being putting every fiber of your being into the pitch, hit, throw, whatever.

The typical answer will be 5 or 6. If she says 6, you then ask the player what it will take to get that effort level up to a 7. How do you go that little bit harder?

Once she gets to 7, ask what it will take to get to 8, and so on. It really seems to help players loosen up a bit and worry a little less about “perfect” mechanics and a little more about going hard.

Of course, being a movie fan and a music fan, the whole idea of “turning it up” couldn’t help but remind me of this great scene from the classic movie “This Is Spinal Tap.” Sorry about the commercial in the front, but it’s worth waiting it out:

It’s very easy for players to slip into their comfort zone when they’re practicing or playing. Unfortunately, for many that comfort zone may be far less than they’re capable of achieving when pushed.

Maximum performance requires maximum effort. To help players get there, ask them to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, and then see if you can get them to make turning it up to 11 a habit.

Don’t Take Everything You Hear or See At Face Value

Natalie hitting

Every week I receive an email that links to pieces of instructional videos for fastpitch softball. And almost every week I end up shaking my head at what I see in them – especially because the company that sends the videos out is charging people good money for such poor instruction.

This week held yet another perfect example. A college coach (from a big name D1 school as I recall) was talking about flaws in loading when hitting. He had a young player, maybe 12U or 14U, there with him helping him demonstrate.

And what was his big advice? Don’t let the head and the front foot move in the same direction at the same time during the “load.’

First of all, he seems to be confused between the load and stride. He kept saying load but most of the discussion was about the stride. So he might want to check that out first.

But regardless of the terminology, he was basically saying that the front foot should move first, then the head should follow afterward. All I could think was “that poor girl.”

Let’s see if this coach’s advice passes the evidence test. Here’s a video of some MLB hitters taken from the side. Watch them as they stride and see if their head moves with the foot or not.

If the camera is steady you can place your cursor on the hitter’s head and see if the head stays there. If not, compare the head position to the background throughout the stride.

What do you see? I know what I see. The head and the center of gravity are moving forward as these hitters stride.

Of course, maybe these are just extraordinary athletes. And they’re men. So let’s look at former Michigan star Sierra Romero, who did pretty well for herself this year with the NPF’s USSSA Pride. Advance the video to about 2:14 to see the stride, and again what do you see her head doing as her front foot moves forward?

The point here isn’t to take on the specific video I watched, although hopefully by now you’re ready to disregard that particular piece of advice. It’s more to say that parents and players should be careful about what they accept as good instruction.

You would think a college coach, presumably a hitting coach, would understand the swing and how it works. But clearly that isn’t necessarily true.

It’s the same thing with taking advice from a former player because she was/is a star in college, or high school. Often times players and former players just repeat what they were told when they were growing up, even if it’s not what they actually did/do, because they haven’t put the time in to study the mechanics.

The best thing you can do is educate yourself. Before you blindly accept advice or training from anyone – and that includes me, by the way – take what they’re saying and see if that’s what the top current players do. If not, you should find someone who will teach you those mechanics and approaches.

Hitting is easier to compare, because you not only have top college, NPF, and National Team players to compare what’s said to what’s done, but you also have MLB hitters. Hitting is hitting after all, and anyone who tells you softball has a different swing needs to throw out their VHS tapes and at least buy a DVD or two from this millennium.

Or there’s this new thing out called YouTube that all the kids are talking about. Maybe those instructors want to check it out.

The hitting exception is slapping. They don’t do that in MLB, so you’ll need to look at softball only.

The same goes for pitching, because videos of MLB players will be of little use. But there’s plenty of good video of top pitchers in game action, which is where you want to check them out. See what makes them successful in games and compare that to what you’re being told. Here’s a good starting point for you.

Catching, fielding, throwing, base running, all of those are similar skills between fastpitch softball and baseball, so you have plenty of source material there. Sure, there are nuances, mostly driven by the difference in the length of the basepaths and size of the field overall, but anyone with even a little experience watching both should be able to adjust for that.

It’s easy to buy into a reputation, or a great set of credentials. But neither of those will help you on the field.

Be a smart consumer. Make sure what you’re being taught, no matter who is teaching it, matches up with what great players do. Otherwise, save your money on lessons or DVDs until you’ve confirmed your investment will take you where you need to go.

 

Bring a Little Fun to Corrections By Playing HORSE

Help player learn skills faster by playing HORSE

Being a coach sometimes can feel like you’re stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. You offer a correction, the player makes it for a repetition or two, then goes back to what she was doing before. So you offer the correction again and the cycle repeats.

This pattern particularly shows up with younger players, but it can happen to anyone anytime. Obviously, two good repetitions followed by a few incorrect ones isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

So how do you provide a little extra incentive to focus on doing it right every time? This is where taking advantage of the competitive nature of fastpitch softball players can come in handy.

Fastpitch softball is a tough sport full of difficulties and disappointments, so players really have to have some competitive fire to keep going with it. They also have to love a challenge. As soon as you press the “compete” button you almost always have their full and undivided attention.

One way I’ve done this is to borrow from the playground basketball game of HORSE. You know the one. You take a shot, then the player after you has to take the same shot. If he/she doesn’t make it, he/she gets a letter. You keep going until only one player hasn’t spelled out HORSE.

For Katie, the girl in the photo at the top of the post, the challenge was getting her to bring her back leg into her front leg to finish the pitch. She had the very common tendency of throwing the front leg out without using the back leg. As a result, the back leg was more of an anchor dragging behind her and cutting back on her speed and accuracy.

So I challenged her to a game of HORSE. The rules were simple. If her back leg finished by closing into her front leg (more or less) no letter was assigned. If, however, she finished with her legs spread apart (which usually caused her to bend forward as well) she received a letter.

Once we established those simple rules, it was game on! Suddenly, instead of the Groundhog Day loop of me telling her to finish, she was more on top of it. She still ended up getting an H-O, as I recall, but that was all in the 10 minutes we spent on it.

That was pretty good improvement, because it meant in all the pitches she threw she only failed twice. More importantly, rather than me telling her to fix the issue she was now dedicated to fixing it herself – because she didn’t want to lose the game!

I knew it really got through to her, though, when at her next lesson she asked if we could play HORSE again. I think she wanted to play because she knew she could win; she’d worked on it between lessons to gain the advantage.

But that’s ok with me – I want her to win, because then she’s improving her mechanics and using her body more effectively. By the way, there was no prize for winning or avoiding getting HORSE, although there certainly could’ve been. The game simply appealed to her competitive nature and got her attention.

In reality, this is a game/technique you can use to drive improvement for all kinds of techniques. Have a hitter who is dropping her hands or swinging bat-first? Play HORSE.

Have a fielder who isn’t getting her glove down on ground balls, or a catcher who isn’t keeping her glove on the ground while blocking? Play HORSE.

(I’m not just saying this to you, by the way. I am also making this as notes to myself, as I am definitely under-utilizing this idea.)

The one thing I would caution is focus the game on the process/skills, not the results. So use it to help a first baseman learn to scoop a ball in the dirt properly, but not to keep track of whether she actually got it or not. Or use it to help a hitter learn to swing hips-first rather than giving her a letter if she swings and misses.

If she learns the skill, the results will take care of themselves. But if you focus on the outcomes, you won’t drive the skills. Instead, you’ll probably reinforce bad habits as the player tries to avoid the error/failure instead of learning and internalizing the technique.

In any case, if you find yourself in a Groundhog Day-like loop, give HORSE a try. And if you do, or you’ve done the same thing yourself, let me know how it works for you in the comments below.

Kids Are Not Just Short Adults

Kids are not just short adults

Today’s topic could also fall under the category of “Why your team doesn’t look like the ones you see on TV.” It’s definitely something to keep in mind at any time of the year, but especially as travel ball and rec teams swing into the heart of their seasons.

The idea that kids aren’t just short adults is not original to me. I heard it somewhere a few years ago. But I think it’s a topic that bears repeating often.

One of the toughest challenges coaches face is getting their teams to perform the way they want. There can be all sorts of reasons for it. But in my experience, one of the most important is that coaches often view their players, especially the younger ones, through the wrong lens.

As adults, coaches tend to think like adults. Well, most of them anyway. I’ve certainly seen plenty of tantrums on the field that would make a two-year-old jealous.

Going beyond that, however, what I mean is by the time you qualify as an adult in the eyes of the law you have gained a certain measure of experience and knowledge. You have learned how to control your body. You have learned how to focus when you need to, and when you don’t feel like it, often driven by the need to remain employed.

Kids often have none of that – or at least not enough of it. They don’t have the perspective adults have. They may not know how to sort through overwhelming or conflicting information to determine what is most important. Their bodies are growing and developing, and doing all kinds of crazy things to simultaneously freak them out and embarrass them.

Many haven’t fully developed the fine motor skills that allow them to make subtle adjustments in the way they do things. In our screen-driven age their ability to focus is probably the lowest it’s ever been.

Yet coaches often disregard all of that when they approach their players. They expect to be able to tell them something once, or maybe twice, and then see it executed perfectly on the field. Not gonna happen.

Reality in expectations

To get the most out of your players, it really helps to try to understand where they are in their development, both physically and mentally. Take pitchers, for example.

When you watch on TV, you’ll often hear the announcers talk about pitchers always hitting spots with pinpoint accuracy. First of all, if that was actually true there probably wouldn’t be nearly as many home runs, doubles, or triples as there are today. College pitchers miss their spots all the time. Either that or the coaches calling the games aren’t very good at their jobs. I’m pretty sure I know which one the coaches will tell you is correct.

But even if it were, the minimum age of the pitchers you’re watching is 18, and more likely somewhere in the 20-22 range – especially as we get to the Women’s College World Series. If you’re comparing a college senior to a 12U pitcher, that’s a 9-10 age difference, and probably a 9-10 year experience difference. Imagine how much better you could get at anything with another 9-10 years of experience.

Even a 14U pitcher and a 19 year old college freshman likely have 4-5 year age and experience difference between them. And that’s not even counting the countless hours of practice mandated to that college pitcher, and the high-level conditioning, and everything else that goes into it.

Yes, they may be doing the same things. But your player isn’t just a shorter version of what you see on TV. There are plenty of differences under the hood.

Development v. results

Another difference between adults and kids is their expectations from the experience. Coaches want to win – some more than others. Kids want to experience the game.

Part of that is the old “have fun.” But there are different ways to have fun. In my experience, what they want most is to have the opportunity to play and then to do well when they get it. Basically, like all of us they want to feel good about themselves.

They may not realize how much work it takes to get good. But they’ll never figure it out sitting on the bench game after game. Nor will they feel very good about the game or the team, even if the team is winning all the time. They don’t think that way.

In my opinion, at the younger ages – say, up to 14U – the goal should be player development. That means helping kids learn and putting them in a position to succeed. Not just for one game during pool play, but every game – as long as the player is willing to learn and making the effort to improve.

Yes, that philosophy could cost you playing in the championship game of your local 10U B tournament. It could even mean getting eliminated early on Sunday. But so what?

No one but you, and maybe a few fanatical parents, cares about winning that particular tournament. That doesn’t mean you should go crazy and put a kid who’s never pitched before in the circle in a bracket game. But you can certainly give that kid an opportunity in mid-week friendly if she’s been working at learning to pitch. And put her somewhere else on Sunday for at least part of the time.

I know on TV there are starters and role players. But those college players are there for entirely different reasons. Up to 14U, again in my opinion, your job is to develop players, not necessarily win hardware. Do it well, and you’ll find you win a lot more hardware when it means a whole lot more. As President Lincoln said, “No man is so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” Or woman.

Appreciate them for who they are

We have certain expectations for adults, in the way they interact with us and the way they react to things. Most adults learn to mask their true feelings and thoughts, either as a way of fitting in or avoiding problems.

Many kids haven’t learned that skill yet, at least not fully. I’ve worked with young pitchers who seemingly had a whole circus going on in their heads. It would be easy to get angry or frustrated by it.

Instead, I’m amused. Mostly, anyway. It’s amazing to see someone so unencumbered by what they are “supposed” to do, and just living their lives happily.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t put in the effort – they did. It just didn’t look like the way an adult would do it. As I saw it, my job was to change the way I communicated with them to deliver information in a way they could accept, not the way I wished they would accept it.

And you know what? It did get through, because when they got on the field they were able to perform the skills just fine. Maybe not with the precision of a D1 athlete. But with plenty of skill for their 10U travel team or their rec league.

Instead of trying to get them to see the game through your eyes, try to see it through theirs. It will help you relate to your players better. And honestly, you’ll find you age a whole lot slower than others who insist on adulting all the time.

Oh, and by the way, that’s a lesson a lot of college coaches could learn too. Instead of trying to fit everyone in the same box, let them be who they are, even if it’s quirky. I find people of all ages are far more willing to run through a wall for you if you meet them on their terms rather than trying to force them to be who you want them to be.

 

 

 

Even the best fastpitch players weren’t always the best players

Never give up, never surrender

As I write this, it’s the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics. The NCAA Division I tournament is underway, and the airwaves (or cable waves) are filled with a seemingly endless diet of games.

You can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere over the next few weekends. That’s good news for the families of younger softball players, because it gives them a chance to see how many of the top players play the game.

Yet as you watch, it’s tempting to think that all those high performers were just naturally gifted, and always played the way they play now (more or less). The fact is in many cases it isn’t true.

If you talked to them you’d find out that many of these players started out as benchwarmers who were just happy to get a few innings in here or there. Or that the awesome pitcher you’re watching lead her team to victory in Regionals, Super Regionals, or even the Women’s College World Series wasn’t always the #1 player on her travel or even high school team.

Many top players, in fact, had to work their way into the positions they are in today. That’s nothing new, either. It’s always been that way.

For evidence, I’m going to point you to a couple of good stories of personal struggle. The first two come from Amanda Scarborough.

I’m sure many of you recognize that name. She was an All American pitcher at Texas A&M, runs pitching clinics all over the U.S. as part of The Packaged Deal, and is now a commentator on ESPN. Pretty good resume, I’d say.

Yet Amanda will tell you she wasn’t always on the fast track to stardom. In fact, in this blog post she talks about how on her first travel team, she was the #4 or #5 pitcher, and rarely saw the plate or the field when she wasn’t pitching. Not exactly the start you’d expect for someone who has done as much as she’s done.

Yet she kept working at it, and didn’t let her lack of opportunity discourage her.

But surely by the time she got high school she was the star, right? No, and don’t call me Shirley!

In this blog post, she talks about being the #2 pitcher behind an older girl until that girl graduated. So the reality is you don’t have to be the starter as a freshman to do great things.

Another pitcher you may have heard of is Cat Osterman. She set all kinds of records as a pitcher while at the University of Texas at Austin, including strikeout ratio, WHIP, and perfect games. She won a gold and silver medal in two Olympic games (2004 and 2008), and had a stellar career in National Pro Fastpitch league. Sounds like a natural, right?

Actually, not. According to this story, she was short, scrawny, and uncoordinated as a youngster. When she tried out for the Little League All-Star team she was the only player they cut. Doesn’t sound like a future Olympian in the making does it?

After that season she went to a travel team, and spent a lot of time watching games from the bench.

But again, she didn’t let it get her down. She just kept working, and eventually become the pitcher she was capable of becoming.

I share all of this because it’s easy to think that today’s stars were yesterday’s stars too. That’s not always the case, however. Players who start with natural advantages in size, strength or athleticism can be passed by those who work harder – especially when nature takes its course and the late bloomers begin to grow.

You can’t control how people perceive you. But you can control how hard you work to get better.

As I always like to say, it doesn’t matter where you start the race – only where you finish it. Take heart in knowing that even some of the best who ever played the game started out just like you – fighting for scraps, and working their way up the depth chart. And remember it’s not how good you are but how badly you want it that will make the difference.

Or, as they say in “Galaxy Quest:”

Ok, now it’s your turn. Do you have a story about a player, famous or not, who overcame a slower start and became successful? Share your story in the comments below.

Think of Coaching Like Google Maps

Coaches are like Google Maps - you still have to drive

In my travels through the fastpitch softball world, one of the things that continues to amaze me is the perception that if a player can just get with the “right” coach or the “right” instructor, all her (and her parents’) prayers will be answered and all her problems will be solved.

As someone who has been at this for more than 20 years now, I can tell you that’s simply not the case. Getting the right coach, i.e., one who understands the optimal mechanics for a particular skill, how to apply them in a game situation, the mental aspects around them, and most of all how to teach them, is important. The wrong coach can definitely set you back.

But that’s still only half the battle. The other half is the work the player must put in to ingrain those skills into her DNA so they are available at a moment’s notice, without having to think about them.

To understand what the coach contributes v the player, think of the coach as being like Google Maps (or whatever your favorite GPS app is). The coach will show you the way, mapping out the step-by-step path for optimizing all those important factors while avoiding known hazards. But the player still has to get in the “car” and “drive.” Without that second part, the first part is just a wish.

Now, obviously, Google Maps is of little value if the information isn’t accurate. That’s why you want to seek out a coach who knows what he/she is doing. Anyone who has been driving for a while has had that experience where Google or another direction-giving app has taken us to a run-down industrial park, a random cornfield, a road that no longer exists, or some other godforsaken location rather than our intended destination.

Fortunately, in the last few years direction-giving apps have gotten much better. Still, until they’re hooked into self-driving cars they can only show you how to get where you’re going. You still have to do the driving.

So what does this mean to fastpitch softball players? Just that being on the right team with a great coach, or going once a week to a private instructor (no matter what his/her record of success is) isn’t enough. You have to practice, practice, practice. Not until you get it right but until you can’t do it wrong.

You have to be mindful when you practice too, not just watch the clock to see if you’re putting in the time. Work on doing what you’ve been shown. Be aware when you’re not doing it. Learn what it feels like to do it right, so you know when you’re doing it wrong.

How important is that? I can tell you from personal experience that all of the best, most successful players I’ve worked with were also the hardest workers. The better they got, the better they wanted to get.

As they became more accomplished their workload didn’t go down. It went up. They would constantly refine their skills, looking for any improvements they could make that would give them a competitive edge. The ratio between work and improvement would change, with more work yielding less improvement because there was less improvement to be had.

That’s the silver lining for younger/newer/less accomplished players, however. A little bit of work can yield a lot of improvement, and create the success that makes you hungry for more.

Again, however, you can’t just open a direction-giving app – no matter how good it is – plug in the directions, and expect to get somewhere. You have to hop in the car and drive.

Make the commitment and you’ll find you get to your destination a whole lot faster.

 

When softball coach and player preferences clash

The coach's job is to get a pillow

There’s an old saying that if a hitter can hit .400 (or whatever number you prefer) standing on her head, the coach’s job is to get her a pillow. It’s really just a snazzier way of saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Yet for many coaches, it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to tinker. I get that you can always improve on something. But as they say in Bull Durham, a player on a streak has to respect the streak. (WARNING: This clip is definite NSFW so use earbuds.)

Coaches need to as well. They may believe in their hearts that hitters should always go after the first pitch, because pitchers are likely to throw strikes to try to get ahead.

But if the player feels more comfortable letting that first one go by, AND in doing so can perform well later in the count, it makes sense to let her do it. After all, Ted Williams rarely swung at the first pitch and he seemed to do ok considering he’s generally thought to be the greatest MLB hitter ever.

The same goes for calling pitches. The coach may be a huge fan of throwing low and outside, but if that’s not a pitcher’s strength you’re just asking for her to get lit up.

Or take the case of a favorite pitch. The coach may be a huge fan of the screwball, or the riseball, or some other pitch. But if the pitcher has better pitches in her arsenal, it makes more sense to rely more on those. Coaches may love the idea of speed, but if you don’t throw some changeups now and then hitter will eventually time the pitches and then it’s bye bye speed pitch.

I’ve talked lots of times about getting stuck in certain philosophies, such as sacrifice bunting a runner to second every time you get one of first with no outs. Not only doesn’t it make sense mathematically, it also makes you very predictable.

And why play for one run all the time when you have a lineup that can put up multiple runs in an inning?

One of my favorite stories involves the U.S. Olympic team, I believe in 2004. When Lisa Fernandez wasn’t pitching, she started at 3rd base and hit cleanup. But when she was pitching, the team would use a DP in her place, because back then (and really up until recently) the “book” said you DP for the pitcher.

In an interview Mike Candrea said he finally realized that every time he put his best pitcher into the game he was taking out one of his best bats, which was foolish. By bucking conventional wisdom and letting her hit for herself, he not only kept her bat in the lineup but actually added one more by using the DP for someone that didn’t hit as well.

One Gold Medal later that looked like a pretty good idea. And you’re starting to see a lot more of that thinking in the college game today.

As coaches we all have our preferences, beliefs, and philosophies. They may have worked for us in the past, but we always have to be mindful of the present.

Rather than getting caught up in “shoulds,” we need to focus on what is.

Oh, and if you are a player, keep this mind. From time to time, you’ll probably be told to do this or that by a well-meaning coach. If you’re struggling or under-performing, it may be a good idea.

But if you’re kicking butt and taking names, think about this. If you don’t follow that advice but keep performing, the coach may not be happy with you but will likely leave you in anyway. He/she would be foolish to take you out and hurt the team’s chances of winning just to prove a point. If you do follow the advice and your success rates goes down, however, you’ll likely find yourself on the bench eventually.

Not an easy choice, I know. But that’s the reality. Hopefully, however, your coach will be one who keeps a ready supply of pillows around.

What taking personal responsibility looks like

Taylor Danielson takes personal responsibility by hustling to chase down a foul ball

In my last post, I talked about the need for players to take personal responsibility when it comes to playing time. The idea is to control things you can control, like your effort, being on time, always being prepared, keeping a positive attitude (yes attitude is a choice), etc. rather than focusing on factors such as whether the coach likes you, or politics are at play, or things like that.

That’s great in the abstract. You’ll hear that sort of thing all the time. Here’s a great video of UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez talking about how she observes (and ultimately judges) players.

But how well does it work in real life? Let me share a story with you about a college player who has worked her way into the starting lineup by following these principles, and then taken the maximum advantage of that opportunity.

Her name is Taylor Danielson, and she is a freshman at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy), one of the top D2 softball programs in the country. Longtime readers know I’m a big fan of Taylor’s, and have been for a long time.

Taylor is a catcher, and a terrific one. That’s what she was recruited for at UIndy, and eventually I think she’ll wind up behind the plate.

But to start her freshman season, UIndy already had someone in that position they liked. Rather than complain that life is unfair, or get angry that she wasn’t “being given a fair chance” like many people would, Taylor kept working hard and getting herself ready for whatever opportunities she did get.

It didn’t take long. The coaches liked what she was showing in the batting cage, so they decided to see how the freshman would handle the jump to college pitching. They made her the DP, which meant she hit but didn’t play the field.

After a “close but no cigar” start, Taylor started ripping into the ball, becoming a significant contributor on offense. You can check out her stats here. As of this writing they’re pretty impressive. Or you can just check out this video.

If nothing else, it definitely demonstrates that if you can hit, the coach will find a place for you in the lineup.

Next, the coaching staff decided to see what she could do on the field. She’s done a little catching, but most of her innings have come elsewhere. So far this season she has started in left, right, and at second base. (Again, this is after being recruited as a catcher.)

Basically, rather than worrying about what SHE wanted to do, Taylor took the mindset of “whatever you need, I’m there.” In fact, as she started to gain innings in the outfield she asked the coaches if she could take extra practice time with the outfielders to make sure she was ready.

So, you may wonder how she made such an impression. I recently had the chance to watch her play and can tell you one of the factors.

Taylor was in left on a chilly day. There wasn’t a lot of action out her way, but every now and then a hitter would get around on a pitch and pull it foul down the left field line.

Most players probably would have jogged after the ball to retrieve it. No one would blame them either. But not Taylor.

Instead, she sprinted after every one of those obvious foul balls as if the game was on the line. There was just a joy about her, that she had this opportunity to play the sport she loved. Although there is also a school of thought that says it was a convenient way for her to raise her body temperature a bit in the cold and the wind. 🙂

Now, it is possible to put in all that work, hustle, be a good teammate and all that and still not have it work. My next post will talk about a situation where that scenario did occur.

But in the end, you want to know you did everything you could to be successful. If you’re going to fail, fail doing your best.

Taylor took her best shot, and it has paid off bigtime. Perhaps you can generate similar results.

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