Category Archives: General Thoughts
A few days ago my friend Tim Boivin sent me this article about NBA star (and future Hall of Famer) Tim Duncan. The article quotes an open letter from Tony Parker, who explains that the San Antonio Spurs’ winning culture was largely driven by the coachability of Duncan.
The article talks about how Duncan’s success meant he didn’t really have to listen to anyone, as many stars in various sports choose to do. Instead, Duncan took coaching like he was trying to make the team as the last player rather than leading it as its top player.
That attitude permeated the rest of the team. You can imagine the players who were just barely hanging on seeing how coachable Duncan was, and telling themselves “I’d better fall in line too.”
That’s a lesson softball players can and should learn as well. You work hard, and you reach a certain level of accomplish. Maybe everyone tells you you’re the best player on the team/in the conference/in the tournament/at the camp. You start feeling pretty good about yourself, and suddenly you don’t think you need much coaching anymore.
Honestly, that’s the fast track to failure, or at least not achieving your dreams. You stop listening, start slacking off, and before you know it you’re now looking at the backs of players you used to be ahead of.
I’ve spoken to coaches who have worked with the top players in fastpitch softball, and they’ve all said the same thing about the best players they’ve coached. They were all hungry for information, and would do whatever it took to gain even a small edge or make a small improvement.
They didn’t resist coaching. They soaked it in the way a sponge soaks up water.
Being coachable isn’t that tough. You just have to be willing to learn, and willing to accept that however good you are you can always be better. You have to actively listen and try to understand what’s being taught rather than merely going through the motions.
If you don’t understand something you have to be willing to ask questions – even if you think it makes you look foolish. You can bet if you don’t understand something there’s someone else who also doesn’t understand but is too afraid to ask.
The great thing about being coachable is that it’s a choice. You can’t choose how tall you are, or whether your body is loaded with fast twitch muscles. You can’t choose how much raw athleticism you have. You can’t choose your core body type, i.e., to be long and lean if your DNA says you will be short and stout.
But you can choose how willing you are to listen and learn. The more open you are to new information that can help you, the more likely you are to reach your goals.
The final part of being coachable is being willing to do whatever is needed to help the team at the time. Sometimes that means playing a position other than the one you prefer until you get your shot at the one you really want. (Of course if you never get that shot it’s a different story for another blog post, but in this case we’re talking about a temporary change.)
And hey, you never know. By being coachable you might set a standard and create a culture for a team that lasts long after your playing days are done. That’s how you go from being a great player to a legend.
While the ready availability of modern technology (think: screens) has given us many marvelous advantages, it has also created some issues. One of the most profound is our increasingly short attention span.
You see it all the time – especially us coaches as we try to explain something important to our players even as we watch their eyes glaze over or pay attention to everything but us after about a minute. (Still, we persist in talking for 10, 15, 20 minutes anyway, especially if we just lost a game.)
That’s bad enough, because of course we’re imparting not just tremendous softball instruction but also life wisdom. 🙂 But where this short attention span can really hurt players is in how they track the ball during the game.
Often it seems like player tend to view the ball (and make decisions) based on a point in time. It’s like their brains take a photograph of where the ball is at a particular moment, then their movements and reactions are based on what they see in that moment.
The problem, of course, is that one point in time doesn’t give us enough information about what will happen going forward. For example, a photo of a player diving for a ball doesn’t necessarily tell us whether she successfully made the catch or not.
The ball may be in her glove, but will it stay there?
What they need instead is to take more of a video approach, i.e., see the flight of the ball as a series of points moving through space. (For those who don’t know, video is made up of a series of individual photos that play rapidly in succession, creating the illusion of motion. You learned something today.)
This “photographic” approach to seeing where the ball is going hurts several areas. Take catchers, for example.
They see the ball is going down and will need to be blocked. But they don’t wait long enough to see the flight of the ball in space, they just react to wherever it is 10 feet in front of the pitcher.
So they drop to block, only to watch the ball careen past their right shoulders. A little more information and they could’ve centered their bodies on the flight of the ball. Instead, it gets by and a run scores.
Hitters also need that type of spatial information. In fact, they need to track the ball as long as they can to get a feel for whether it will be inside or outside, high or low, and whether it may have some movement to it. All of that information can have a huge impact on when they bring the bat to the ball as well as where they take it to.
If they just take a mental photo they’re unlikely to take the bat to where it needs to go unless they’ve been specifically trained to recognize the ball’s flight earlier. But by tracking the ball through space the way they would watch it come in on video, hitters can make the adjustments they need to achieve greater success.
This principle also applies to fielding ground balls and fly balls. Ground balls can take detours due to field conditions (rock, divots, a lost helmet) and fly balls can go all over the place due to spin and wind. Using a “mental photo” to judge where they’re headed, and then checking out, is a fast track to an error. Seeing the whole travel of the ball, including where it’s going, will be much more effective.
Yes, in our short attention span theater world it gets increasingly difficult for players to learn to focus for more than a few seconds at a time. But if they can learn to watch the video instead of looking at the photo, they’ll be a lot more successful.
This is a quick one today. Earlier this week I received a very happy text from my student Grace Bradley’s dad Greg. The text told me they just found out Grace was voted to the Class 3A All-State third team by the Illinois Coaches Association.
My guess is that Grace made it based on her contributions both as a hitter and a pitcher. (I only work with her on hitting, so I’ll claim half my usual 10% credit.)
Grace definitely had a breakout year at the plate in high school ball, playing for Grayslake Central. She hit .451, with a total of 46 hits, one shy of tying the single-season record, including 9 HRs 1 triple, and 5 doubles. Had one of her long balls not been erroneously called foul by an umpire in one of their early games (according to several who witnessed it), Grace would not only have that record but she would owe me ice cream. Instead, I’m buying.
The rest of her hitting stats were great too. Batting second most of the season she had 34 RBIs and scored 38 runs. She had an OBP of .517, a slugging percentage of .784, and an OPS of 1.302.
That’s a darned fine season in anyone’s book. Even better, she was only a junior this past season, so she has another off-season to work and maybe grab a couple of those records!
The best part, though, is Grace is a quality human being. There are plenty of great players who you tolerate for their abilities but don’t especially think much of personally. That’s not Grace at all.
She is kind and humble, with a great attitude and work ethic. She always says “thank you” after every lesson, even if things didn’t go as well as she’d like. I think most of us like to see good things happen for good people, and in this case it did.
Obviously, she’s a hard worker too.
In the past she has always hit for contact, but we agreed there was more to her. She really worked hard this past off-season on adding power to her swing, and the results speak for themselves.
So congratulations on adding All-State to her All-Conference and All-Area honors. Now it’s time to take that success to the summer season!
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.
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.
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.
For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about fastpitch softball players taking personal responsibility for their playing time and experience. The first post spoke generally about the importance of looking to yourself first if you aren’t satisfied with your role, while the second told an uplifting story of a player who followed these principles to great success.
Yet sometimes you can do all of that and it still doesn’t work out. Doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do – you always want to focus on the things you can control first. But sometimes the uncontrollables overwhelm even your best efforts.
That hit home for me after the first post came out. I received a lot of positive comments and appreciative messages. Players were happy for the encouragement, and coaches who are trying to motivate their teams said they were going to share it with their players.
I also received a message on Facebook from a young woman telling me a story about how she worked hard at every practice and every game, was always there, always on time, was a good and supportive teammate, performed when she had the chance, and essentially did everything I talked about.
She told me despite those efforts, her coach still played other girls who weren’t nearly as dedicated and didn’t work nearly as hard ahead of her. Some of those girls would even miss practice for social events, and even then things didn’t change. She and her mom talked to the coach about it but he said he wasn’t going to penalize them for it, which left a bad taste in her mouth.
Then she said the thing I was dreading most: “And that coach was you.”
Yes, that’s right. Much as I have always tried to be good and fair, and have talked about treating players right, I haven’t always walked the walk.
This particular set of events happened fairly early in my coaching career, when I was more of a volunteer parent coach than a true coach. While there’s a long story behind it, I essentially allowed myself to get put in a position where I essentially lost control of the team.
It’s a situation I often refer to in business as well as athletics as being “the Queen of England.” You have a ceremonial title, but you your actual level of authority is weak. The masses tolerate you, but will turn on you in heartbeat if you go against their wishes.
No excuses. I let it happen, and I didn’t know enough at the time how to regain control. I was also far too concerned about what other people thought and how they would react. I let myself get talked into carrying too many players to placate a certain contingent on the team.
As I recall we ended up with 17 or 18 when we should have had 12. And in the end, a couple of great, dedicated players who weren’t part of what I will call the “rebel contingent” wound up with far less playing time than they deserved, while others had it pretty soft.
When this former player messaged me about it, my only answer (other than I’m sorry) was that I had learned a lot as a coach since then. In fact, that particular year definitely had an effect on how I approached running a team going forward.
For better or for worse, I become much more of a leader than a caretaker. Not saying every decision I made from then on was right. But from that point on I had a reason for everything I did. And I made sure to value the players and families who showed dedication and loyalty to the team, even when it was personally inconvenient to them, over those who put themselves first.
So coaches, I’d say learn from my mistakes. Don’t let a small but vocal contingent (or even a single person) influence you into going against your philosophy. This is especially important for new or young coaches who are just finding your way.
Also, recognize and reward the players who are giving you their very best every day – the ones who are taking personal responsibility – because they are the ones who will take you the farthest, and stand by you when things get tough.
Most of all realize that if you want to be popular coaching is the wrong way to go about it. Especially being a head coach.
People are always going to be unhappy with you – some justified, some not. If that’s a problem you may want to re-think your position, because you will have to make tough decisions and live with the consequences. Which could include losing people you thought were your friends. Or creating some extra headaches for yourself. You have to decide whether it’s worth it.
For me, this particular story has a happy postscript by the way. The former player who contacted me said she still liked me as a coach despite what happened, and felt she had a positive experience overall. I’m happy about that, because she definitely deserved better.
She has a daughter now, and perhaps someday she will coach her daughter’s softball team. If she does, I know she’ll be sure not to make this same mistake. And her players will reap the benefits.
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.
In my last post, I offered up some general tips for a successful tryout. While it was aimed at high school softball tryouts, the truth is those tips apply to all types of tryouts – and most to more than just fastpitch softball.
Included in the post was a brief mention about getting used to hitting off a pitching machine if that’s what will be used during your tryouts. This is an issue a lot of players face.
They will crush it against front toss and even live pitching. But stand them up in front of a machine and they struggle.
So for all of you who are in that boat, or know someone who is, I’m reprising this video blog to help you make sure you’re ready when it’s time to show your stuff. Follow these tips and you should have much greater success in showing what you can really do.