Category Archives: Coaching
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thought that might get your attention! Although it is a topic that seems to get a lot of attention these days – most of it bad.
It’s not unusual to see people disparaging participation trophies online. They blame participation trophies for kids being soft, whiny, and lacking in effort. The term “snowflake” is often used in connection with participation trophies, and they don’t mean it in a nice “White Christmas” or “let’s go skiing” sort of way.
From what I’ve seen, the people who complain the loudest about participation trophies tend to fall into two categories. One is the “Internet tough guy” who likes to voice his/her opinion on what’s wrong with everyone else.
Usually they’re not actually talking about sports, but more about how entire groups of people (Millennials, Liberals, Millennial Liberals, etc.) just don’t measure up to how wonderful they think they were/are.
The second, more sports-specific group, is parents whose kids are great athletes and would accumulate a bedroom full of trophies no matter what. They seem to think that giving a trophy to a kid who tried hard but maybe hasn’t quite found her coordination somehow takes away from the awesomeness of their own daughters. After all, what’s the good of getting a trophy if you can’t use it to show your friends, family, and neighbors how much better your kid is than theirs?
I am of the mind that it’s okay to give kids participation trophies at younger ages – maybe up to 10 or so in rec ball. As I see it, it’s the Tony Soprano model. You want to give the kids a taste of getting trophies so they learn they want them. Then once they’ve acquired a taste for them you take away the freebies so they have to “pay” for them.
A kid who has never had a trophy may not believe it’s within her reach. But if she had them before, and now the conditions change, she’s more likely (in my opinion and experience) to want to do what she needs to get another one.
It’s also a good way to encourage kids to stay with a sport, especially in the early stages. Outright winning a trophy may not be within the realm of possibility for a young player, or a group of young players, whose athletic skills are developing a little slower than others their age.
Getting a trophy at the end of the year might be enough to encourage them to hang in there a little longer. We’ve all seen kids who were weak in their early years blossom later. But to do that they still have to be playing when they’re ready to blossom.
Giving everyone a trophy also removes a lot of the risk of the crazy parent/coaches who take a “win at all costs” approach to coaching young kids just to get that plastic trophy at the end. Anyone who has been around the sport of fastpitch softball (or pretty much any other sport for that matter) knows a lot of the craziest coaches and parents are found at the youngest ages. If the goal is to keep kids participating, removing the need to trophy hunt helps address that goal.
Now, I know what people say. If you give everyone a trophy the kids don’t learn how to compete. Funny thing is, I’ve heard plenty of college coaches talk about how showcase tournaments also seem to be hurting players’ ability to compete, yet it seems like there are more and more of them every year.
Fastpitch softball used to be about getting better so you could win this weekend’s tournament, or the league championship, or whatever. Now it seems to be more about getting the almighty scholarship. So the “not learning to be competitive” argument doesn’t really hold water.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, at some point the “free ride” needs to end. By the time kids are 11 or 12, they all should have matured enough to understand that now if you want to get a trophy you need to work for it. If you’re playing travel ball – not just a team that “travels” but one that is looking to be competitive – the cutoff is probably more like 9 or 10.
But up until that time, what’s so bad about making kids feel good about themselves? Give them a taste of success and maybe they’ll develop an appetite for it.
Talk to fastpitch softball coaches, parents, and players and the one thing you’ll find in common is everyone is looking for that one magic solution that will instantly up their games.
Pitchers (and their parents) are always hoping to find that one magical drill or method of teaching that will instantly take them from the low 50 mph range to 60+ mph.
Hitters (and their parents) are looking for that magical drill that will help them go from striking out a lot and hitting weak grounders to driving the ball over the fence. Failing that, they hope a new bat will do the trick.
Fielders, baserunners, everyone at every stage hopes they can discover that secret no one else knows and instantly claim a tremendous advantage over the competition. Instructors know this too, and either get frustrated by it or take advantage of it by giving their instruction method a cool-sounding name and then marketing it as though their version of sound mechanics is different from everyone else’s.
The reality is there are no magic beans in fastpitch softball – no secret drills or approaches no one else knows about. What there is is what many players and parents view as the last resort – hard work.
That’s not just my opinion. I’ve spoken with some of the top instructors in the country, people with tremendous resumes and a track record of developing quality players. Every one of them says the same thing.
I once had a chance to ask a well-known and well-respected pitching coach if he knew of any specific drill or technique to get a pitcher over 60 mph. He said, “I wish I did.” He then went on to say there are things you can do to help, but there are no guarantees.
In my experience, becoming an elite-level softball player requires a few things, some of which you can control and some of which you can’t:
- It definitely helps to have athletic DNA, the kind that develops fast twitch muscles in bulk. For that you have to choose your parents well. Great DNA makes up for a lot of other ills, by the way.
- For most, it also takes sound mechanics. That requires great instruction and a lot of long, boring hours developing those mechanics. Yes, there are players with terrible mechanics who succeed anyway, but they are not the norm. See point #1. For the rest, great mechanics will help make up for a lack of natural athletic ability. For the skill you want to develop, learn what great mechanics are by watching what great players do and learning as much as you can from credible sources, then seek out an instructor who teaches it.
- You need to have the mental game to keep working and trying to improve, even in the face of failure. Think of that old joke about the person who invented 6UP soda. Ooooh, so close! Being able to push through disappointment, or to keep cool and focused when every fiber of your being wants to panic or give up, is a huge asset. Not just in softball but in anything you pursue.
- You need to be in great softball shape. I put this at the end because I find it to be more like spice in the dish than the dish itself. If you have poor mechanics or a weak mental game it’s probably not going to matter if you’re in great shape or not. Lots of players have looked good getting off the bus in their shorts, only to fail repeatedly when they put on their uniforms. But if you’re already well on your way toward being mechanically and mentally sound, being in great softball shape is often a huge difference-maker. It can make up a lot for the lack of #1.
There’s no question it would be nice if there actually was some magic drill or method that could instantly make you better, or guarantee you’ll be successful without all that boring practice time. As I always tell my students, if I could just lay may hand on their head and say, “Go forth and play! You are healed” I’d be charging $1,000 per lesson and there would be a mile-long line to get some of that. Because that’s the dream.
But there isn’t – and don’t let anyone tell you there is. If you want to become the player you’re meant to be, don’t fall for fancy marketing lines and promises of instant or guaranteed greatness. Because no matter what you learn and who teaches you, the bulk of your success – like 90% of it – depends not on them but on you.
So while there are no magic beans that will make you an overnight success, there is a path to it. And the beauty is you can control a lot of that path. You just have to be willing to put in the effort.
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Sustainable sanitation at http://flickr.com/photos/23116228@N07/6908811713. It was reviewed on by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.
As a fastpitch softball coach , when you’re looking for ways to improve your players, it’s likely you think of DVDs, YouTube videos, books, and sites like the Discuss Fastpitch Forum as your go-to resources. Yet there is another, kind of out-of-the-box option that might help you from a philosophical point of view: HGTV.
No, they haven’t suddenly started running fastpitch softball content there, although that would be nice. But what they do a lot of is shows such as Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop Atlanta that take an older, cramped-looking, out-of-date house and turn it into an amazing showplace home with giant, airy rooms, lots of sunlight and picture-perfect furnishings.
Of course any of you with kids (or who are players who are part of a family) know that about 10 minutes after the cameras leave the new owners are going to crap it up with all kinds of stuff that doesn’t fit the decorating theme laying everywhere. But for those few brief, shining moments it’s practically a palace.
What’s fun about those shows is seeing how they do it. Sometimes the house they finally pick (usually from two or three options) is just old and outdated. It has gold or avocado appliances, yellowing linoleum floors, a bunch of small rooms, a tiny kitchen, etc. Every now and then, though, they get the big challenge – a house where there is actual garbage (or worse) in every room, the siding is missing, the shingles are coming off, the ceiling is falling apart, and there are holes in the walls.
Whatever the current state of the house, that’s what they work with. Just like a fastpitch softball coach getting a player.
The first step, of course, is evaluating what needs to be done to get the house to its ultimate state. Sometimes that just means some tweaks here or there, such as tearing out a wall or two, adding a fresh coat of paint, and updating cabinets and fixtures in the kitchen and bathrooms. Of course, even their “tweaks” cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Other times, however, the only solution is to tear the house down to the studs and foundation, inside and out, and start over.
That’s what fastpitch softball coaches face too. Sometimes a player comes in with a pretty good swing, or decent throwing technique, or a good pitching motion, etc. and just needs a few tweaks to up their game.
Other times, it doesn’t take long to see that a swing looks like an unmade bed (unorganized, no particular sequence or purpose to the movements). Or the throwing technique makes you wonder how they get the ball anywhere at all. Or the pitching motion was learned at the bowling alley.
In cases like that, it’s not time to be shy. You just have to tear it down to the studs and start over.
Of course, just like on HGTV you first have to get buy-in from the owner – in this case from the player. On the house programs, they draw up plans on the computer and show the owners what they plan to do. As a coach you can also use a computer to show examples of high-level players to demonstrate the swing/technique/motion you’re going for.
But you need to go beyond that as well. You need to paint the picture for them in their minds about what their softball life will be like once they make the fix. You also need to explain it’s not something they can master in a week or two.
The HGTV shows are compressed to fit into an hour, but really they’re like a Rocky training montage. A lot of people put in a lot of work to make the changes happen.
In the case of fastpitch softball players, only one person can really put in the work – the player. Can’t subcontract out drills or practice and expect any improvements to be made. Which is another reason the player needs to be on-board.
The climax of the HGTV shows is the Big Reveal – the point where they walk the owners through their new, way better than before home. Many happy tears are shed and high fives exchanged.
The Big Reveal for players is when they finally get back on the field, and suddenly things that were difficult or nerve-wracking become easy and relaxed. Hitters go to the plate with confidence, knowing they can take the pitcher deep. Fielders can make quick, sharp plays and throws because they’re not worried about whether they’ll catch it or where the ball will go. Pitchers can focus on dominating hitters rather than wondering where the ball will go or if it will do what it’s supposed to do.
Take your cue from HGTV. Figure out what your players need to make them showplace-worthy (or showcase-worthy I suppose) and put your plan together from there. If you do have to take one down to the studs, be kind. It will be worth it in the end.
Right now we’re in the midst of the fall fastpitch softball season – aka “fall ball.” Whether you’re a 10U player getting her first taste of travel ball or a college coach hoping to get an idea of what her team needs to work on in the off-season, it’s always an interesting time.
This is a big change from when I first started coaching travel ball. Back then, tryouts didn’t happen in August for teams in my area; most teams did tryouts in the spring. Eventually that backed up to December, and then to the current system where some programs are running their tryouts while others are at Nationals.
Because of that, back in the day fall ball didn’t really exist. When we did start running tryouts in August it was still tough to find games in the fall.
That’s not the case anymore. There are individual games, round robins, and tournaments (real as well as showcase) galore. As they say, you can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere. It’s a bit challenging for older teams with players doing fall high school sports, but somehow people figure it out.
The abundance of fall ball creates several new challenges for everyone. Here’s a look at a couple.
Win or learn?
One of the most obvious challenges is coaches deciding whether they want to focus on winning games or learning what their players – especially their new ones – can do.
You already know what you know. Do you stay with what you believe gives you the best chance of winning the game? Or do you try to learn more about players you don’t know as well, even if it costs you the win?
If you decide to learn, that might mean putting weaker hitters at the top of the lineup to get them more at bats. It might mean playing a girl at shortstop who has potential but hasn’t acquired the skills and game experience yet to really stand out. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.
If you decide to win, you may not get a chance to discover a hidden gem who could make a huge contribution in the future. You may reinforce a lack of confidence in a player who actually has more ability than she’s been showing. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.
Showcase tournaments add another level of complication. The idea is to show college coaches what your players can do. That’s why most don’t have a champion. It’s more like pool play all the time. You want your team to look good to attract coaches, but you also want to make sure all your players get seen.
If one of your pitchers is struggling, do you leave her in and let coaches see how she battles? Or do you get her out so coaches can see how the rest of your team does?
There are no right or wrong answers. It’s simply a matter of knowing what your goals are and sticking to them.
Stay in or get out of your comfort zone?
Players have challenges as well. One of the biggest is whether to stretch your game and take chances when you play or stick with what you already know works?
If you’re new to a team, such as a freshman in college or high school or a new travel ball player, you want to show you can belong and contribute. But you may also be nervous about looking bad if you fail.
The safe decision is to stay within what you already know you can do. But if you do that, you’re not growing as a player. Fall is often a good time to take those chances because people care a lot less about who wins those games. If you make an error, or struggle a bit at the plate as you work on developing more power, the consequences will be less than if it happens in the spring.
Personally, I would recommend making the stretch. Try taking that extra base, or working that new pitch into your arsenal, or sacrificing some accuracy to drive up your speed, or being more aggressive on defense, or unleashing your new swing. It’s your best chance to give it a try and see how it plays in a game. You can also be comforted by the fact you’ll find out what to work on during the long offseason.
Take advantage of opportunities
Fall ball offers all sorts of opportunities. Rather than getting stuck in the same old same old, approach it for what it is. Discover what you want to discover, try the new things you want to try (and are comfortable trying), and most of all, have fun doing it! It’ll pay off in the long term.
Normally I like to keep things focused strictly on topics that relate to the game itself. But this is a subject that really should be of concern to any parent whose kids – male or female – are participating in activities where they have long periods of exposure to adults.
It was sparked by this article, sent to me by my friend Tim Boivin. The article is about the revenge a dad in Pennsylvania was able to extract after one of his daughter’s coaches not only touched her inappropriately (smacked her on the behind, even after being asked to stop) but then tried to smear the dad’s name in the local town. He did it by using his long standing with the league, and the fact that he’d lived there in that town his whole life, to get the dad looked at as an outsider. It’s a pretty good read, and a good lesson about being careful who you mess with, no matter how much power you think you have.
But it also brings up a bigger point. During tryout season, the focus is on making a team. Sometimes it’s the “right” team, and sometimes it’s just any team. But after the stress of tryouts are over and you’re feeling the relief, there’s another question that needs to be asked: how much do I really know about the people who will be coaching my child?
The usual reaction when you find out something terrible about a coach (or other authority figure) is “I had no idea.” Of course you didn’t. Someone who acts like a predator, or a person who will dole out inappropriate physical abuse on players, doesn’t walk around wearing a t-shirt that advertises the fact.
He/she also doesn’t act that way in front of the parents. If he/she did, he/she wouldn’t get access to kids and thus be able to satisfy whatever needs or urges he/she has. Just like a con man trying to convince people to give them money, coaches who want to do terrible things to kids must appear to be completely trustworthy.
Many of them put in the effort to learn the game, too, further helping them hide in plain sight. I remember a guy about 15 years ago who used to contribute regularly to the old eTeamz softball discussion board. His signature phrase was that he would always talk about teaching the FUNdamentals.
The message, of course, being that coaches shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, and remember that it’s a game and games should be fun. Just the kind of person you want coaching your child, right?
Well, one day he just sort of disappeared from the board. Eventually it came out that this guy was arrested, tried, and convicted of several counts of having sexual contact with minors. Now the only FUNdamentals he needs to worry about is watching his back in prison, as many prisoners don’t take too kindly to child molesters.
That’s an extreme case, but it illustrates a point. Not all concerns are around sexual predators, however. For example, would you want a known felon with a history of violence toward women coaching your daughter? Probably not. Or what about someone who had punched a player (or a parent, or an umpire, or an opposing coach) in a fit of anger?
These are all legitimate concerns. Your daughter will be spending a lot of time with the coaching staff in the coming year, especially now that fastpitch softball tends to be a 12-month sport. How can you find out if any of the coaches (not just the head coach) have any skeletons in the closet you should know about?
One way is to ask if the organization does background checks with the state police on everyone who will play a coaching role or be on the bench with the team. If it does, don’t just take their word for it that everything is ok. Ask to the see the reports.
If there’s nothing to hide, they should be more than happy to do it. If they are reluctant to share the information for “privacy” reasons, that could be a red flag. No matter.
You don’t have to be an organization to request a background check on someone. Anyone can do it. If you have any concerns, request it yourself. The cost for a state check is generally $10-$20, while the cost for a nationwide check is typically $25-$45. When you think about what you’re paying to play, it’s worth a few dollars more to gain peace of mind if you have any concerns.
In most cases, the background check is going to turn up clean since it only covers criminal known criminal acts, and despite what the headlines may lead you to believe the people who commit them and get into coaching are rare. Still, there are some out there.
If the organization runs background checks and still allows someone who shouldn’t be there to coach, you might want to re-thing your decision to play for that organization. Clearly they don’t care now. How much are they going to care if you find a problem later and bring it to their attention? It’s obvious that letting that person coach is more important to them than protecting their players.
If the organization doesn’t run the background checks but you do and find something, you should bring it to their attention. Their actions from that point will tell you what you should do. It’s up to you, but if your daughter is going to be coached by someone you don’t want her to be around, and you allow it to happen, you will share in the blame if something happens later on.
Here’s the other thing. As I mentioned, background checks only catch those who have already been caught. You may want to do a background check of your own via Google or another search engine to see if there are comments from past players or parents out there that might give you an indication of the person’s character.
Does this coach have a reputation for being abusive to players, physically, verbally, or emotionally? Is he/she the type of person that will cause excruciating pain to young players despite their screams, as in the story of this cheerleading coach? Will this coach help your young player grow and become the type of person you want her to be, or will he/she teach life lessons you don’t want your daughter to learn?
When you’re with a new team where you don’t know the coaches, one other good idea is to hang around at practices for a while to see how they’re conducted and what the coaches’ approach to interacting with players is. Understand that practices should be hard, and it is not only good but necessary to push players to improve. But there is also a limit to it. They shouldn’t be doing things that are abusive or patently unsafe.
At the same time, understand that you will be going there as a silent observer. It is not your place to offer advice or suggestions, or really do much of anything to interject yourself into the practice unless something truly illegal or inappropriate is occurring. And you’d better have proof.
If you’re told you’re not allowed to watch practice, especially with younger teams, that may be another red flag that something’s not quite right with this team, coaching staff, or organization. As long as you’re silent no one should have a problem with you watching. Heck, it’s probably a good thing, because then you can reinforce what they’re teaching when you work with your daughter on your own.
Again, you hope that none of those bad things are happening. But better safe than sorry. Knowing who is coaching your kids is an important step in ensuring sports/activities participation is a good, positive, and safe experience for your child.
Photo credit: Vetustense Photorogue via Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Last night I was working with a fastpitch pitcher named Kylie that my old job would have classified as a “boomerang.” I had given her lessons for a few months, then she ended up on one of those teams run through a facility that includes the lessons in the package.
After being dissatisfied with her progress as a pitcher over there, she recently returned to me as a student. (Most of that description has nothing to do with the story, but I just love the term boomerang.)
Anyway, at one point her dad, who was catching for her, told her to ask me the question she had. It turned out to be a really good one. What I liked about it in particular was it showed a desire to understand and get better at a deeper level than “because I say so.”
I love getting questions like that. Actually, I love getting any questions from students, or players on a team, because it shows they’re engaged. Yet I think often times many athletes, girls in particular, are reluctant to ask questions – even when they really want to know the answer.
I’m not sure why this happens, but I can speculate. I think one answer is that they might be concerned that the coach/instructor/other authority figure will feel like his/her position of authority is being challenged. Or maybe the athlete asked a question once and got reprimanded for it. Or maybe the athlete thinks somehow she should already know the answer and doesn’t want to feel stupid for asking. I’m sure there are other reasons as well.
In some cases, those fears may be true. Some coaches really might not like questions because they’re not secure in their own knowledge and don’t want to be trapped, or might be one of those “command and conquer” types who thinks communication should only flow one way. They’re certainly out there.
But athletes should never feel intimidated about asking questions. This is how we learn. How many great discoveries in the world started with, “I wonder why…” or “Did anyone ever consider…?”
Although you do have to be careful around “I wonder what would happen if…?” Often not much good comes out of that question, especially if it’s followed by “Here, hold my beer.”
From my point of view, though, questions are great. Again, they show the athlete is engaged in learning. I’ve always said that the first requirement for improvement is a willingness to change. Athletes like Kylie who ask questions absolutely embody that philosophy.
She heard what I was instructing, and knew she wasn’t quite doing it. She could feel it. But she didn’t quite know how to get where I wanted her to go. So instead of just nodding along and struggling, she asked a question that led to a more in-depth explanation. She tried it, and she got it.
She also asked one of the toughest things I think young athletes can ask: She had gone to a pitching clinic somewhere and they told her about keeping her weight back as she drove out; she wanted to know if that was right, and if so how do you do that if you’re trying to go forward.
That led to an explanation from me about how it’s like riding a skateboard on one leg, then putting your other leg down in front. Yes, you’re moving forward, but you want your entire body to be moving forward at once rather than a piece at a time. If you do that, you can drive into your front leg and get more whip rather than landing down, on top of your front leg and having everything come to a dead stop before you throw.
She got it, and was immediately able to improve her leg drive. Not to mention feel when her weight wasn’t quite where it needed to be. Either way, she now has the tools she needs to improve. And hopefully she’s a little more confident about asking me other questions in the future.
I’m definitely a fan of the Socratic method of teaching, where questions lead to dialog and critical thinking, rather than the “open the top of your head, I will pour in the knowledge, and then we’ll be done” method some coaches seem to favor. The more players understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, the more likely they will be to do it with passion.
It all starts with those questions. Not just from the coaches to players, but players to coaches. Incidentally, if you ask a coach why you should do something in terms of mechanics and he/she doesn’t have an answer, you might want to think twice about doing it. The coach could just be repeating something he/she heard somewhere once, and it may not be what you need to take you where you want to go.
If you’re a player, especially a young one, I know it can be intimidating to ask questions. But get over it and ask anyway. It will help the coach know how to make the information more understandable to you.
If you’re a coach, embrace questions. They show passion and involvement, that so-called “spark” it takes to achieve at a higher level. You want to encourage that behavior as much as you can, because a team full of inquisitive, engaged players are going to win a lot more games than a bunch of disinterested robots.
The only caveat with me is be careful when you ask me a question. You may end up hearing more than you ever wanted to know – especially if you’re the last lesson of the night. I love talking softball!