6 Reasons to Watch the NCAA D1 Softball Tournament
We are coming up to the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics: the NCAA D1 Women’s Softball tournament. Over the next couple of weeks 64 of (presumably) the best college softball teams in the country will be going head-to-head to see which will ultimately make it into the Elite 8 and the Women’s College World Series WCWS).
Fortunately for those of us who love it, these games will be all over ESPN. Not because ESPN has any particular love or feels any particular sense of responsibility to the sport, but because over the last few years it has been a rating juggernaut.
In fact, last year alone it drew more than 1.2 million viewers, which is 60% more than the Men’s Baseball College World Series. It draws the eyeballs, which draws the sponsors, which ensures you’ll see it.
Yet as popular as it is, if you ask the average youth or even high school player if she plans to watch any of the games, she will probably turn her head and stare at you the way a dog does when you ask it if it knows what it just did. That’s her way of saying no.
In fact, I have found over the years that most players don’t have a favorite team, or a favorite player, or can even name a college or pro player. That’s because it never occurs to them to watch the games. And if they do watch because a parent makes them, they don’t really pay attention or get invested in it.
That’s a shame, because there is much that younger players can learn by watching these elite athletes perform in the biggest showcase fastpitch softball has. (Yes, you can argue that the Olympics and other international tournaments offer a higher level of play but there’s no guarantee softball will be in the Olympics again – and just try finding international tournaments if you don’t have more than a basic cable or satellite subscription.)
So with that in mind, here are some of the reasons why you either want to watch the games with your favorite player or team live, or DVR them and watch them later. Even if you feel you have to turn off the sound on some of them.
1. See the Speed of the Game
This is probably one of the biggest eye-openers, especially for players in the 10-14 year age range. The game happens fast.
Players who are used to taking their time gathering a ground ball and making a throw to first, or jogging after a pop fly, will see how quickly plays develop – and are over. With slappers in particular, one little bobble by an infielder (no matter how minor it seems) gives the hitter just enough time to reach base safely.
Seeing the sense of urgency in every play can help individuals and teams learn to play at a higher level.
2. Watch How Top Players Execute Their Skills
It’s often said that when you’re looking at what techniques or mechanics to use for pitching, fielding, throwing, hitting, etc. that we should look at how the best players in the world do it. While the players on TV may not all be the “best” players they’re still pretty darned good at what they do so they make fine examples to study.
Here’s where DVRing the games comes in particularly handy. If a player hits a home run, you can go back and look at her swing from the multiple angles they show. Sooner or later you’ll get to see how a top pitcher throws her riseball – assuming it’s an actual rise and not a gyro spinning high fastball.
You can also use it for quantitative analysis, such as looking at how many pitchers use the “hello elbow” technique versus how many are using internal rotation. You can compare how many hitters “squish the bug” on their back leg versus shift their weight forward and get completely off the leg.
You can watch how infielders throw on a bang-bang play, how they make tags on steals, how they position themselves in bunt situations. You can watch how outfielders go back on a ball and how they scoop and throw home in a do-or-die situation. You can watch how many catchers throw from their knees versus their feet, and the specific techniques they use.
It’s a virtual cornucopia of skills on display, all delivered free to your living room.
3. See How Player Recover from Mistakes
One of the biggest challenges youth players face is learning how to recover from their mistakes, e.g., committing errors, striking out (particularly with runners on base), giving up leadoff walks, etc. As a general rule girls take “failure” rather hard, to the point where fear of failure can prevent them from performing at their highest level.
Well ya know what? Those players on TV do all those things too.
I remember the great Cindy Bristow telling a room full of coaches at a clinic that “My girls make the same mistakes your girls do. They just do it faster.”
So having your player(s) see one of the best in the game bobble a ball, strikeout, throw a wild pitch with a runner on third, or make some other mistake at the least will show her she’s in good company. (It will also show coaches and parents why they need to have realistic expectations for their 10 year olds.)
But the most important lesson for the player will be what happens next. Instead of brooding about it, the player in the WCWS will move on and keep playing. Sure, she may beat herself up over it later, especially if her team loses, but in the moment she pushes it down because she knows she needs to be ready for the next opportunity.
That is not necessarily a natural skill for most humans. But it’s one that can be learned of you make the effort.
4. Hear Some Inspirational Stories
Softball is absolutely a game of failure and adversity. And for some the journey is more challenging than others.
It’s easy to assume that everyone you see was a star from the beginning who was recognized for their talent and treated like royalty their whole career. But that isn’t always the case.
Fortunately, ESPN does a great job of profiling players and where they came from to tell fascinating human interest stories. Such as last year when Odicci Alexander captured the nation’s hearts with her story of being self-taught before leading her James Madison University team to the WCWS.
There are always stories players can relate to. Some talk about overcoming challenging injuries, including some that were supposed to be career-ending.
Some relate to issues such as being cut from a travel team or not making varsity and having to work even harder to elevate their games. Some involve personal tragedies.
Whatever the story, it shows that obstacles are only temporary – if you have the will to overcome them.
5. Bond With Your Player(s)
Remember the great James Earl Jones speech in “Field of Dreams” about how America marched along like an army of steamrollers, but through it all there was baseball? The shared experience of watching a sport played at its highest level can really help parents bond with their children and coaches bond with their players.
To make that happen, of course, you can’t make watching the games like school. Or at least totally like school.
Sure, you can go over plays and evaluate the coverages and executions. But you can also simply appreciate an amazing diving catch or the inner struggle on both sides of a 12-pitch at-bat.
You can laugh about that riseball that gets launched into the stands or the runner who evades the catcher with a well-timed dive or jump on a play at the plate.
But of course the best part will be spending time with those players sharing something you mutually love.
6. Follow the Benjamins
In the beginning of this post I mentioned that ESPN broadcasts every game of the tournament not because they love softball or softball players so much but because it makes them money. Lots of money.
Well, the downside of that is if the audience dries up so does the coverage. So if you want to keep seeing games on TV, even occasionally, one of the best things you can do is watch them now.
Keep those ratings growing and it will encourage even more coverage. Otherwise you’ll be singing this sad song.
Do’s and Don’ts for the Car Ride Home
Once again today’s topic is the result of a reader suggestion – this time from my friend and pitching coach extraordinaire Jamison (James Clark). James is a PaulyGirl Fastpitch Elite Level certified pitching coach in the Southeastern Indiana area – Richmond, specifically – so if you’re a pitcher in search of a great coach check his United Fastpitch Academy Facebook page.
James was going to do a presentation on how to handle the car ride home and asked me if I had ever covered this topic. I checked and surprisingly I had not, so here we are today.
Ah yes, the car ride home after a game. Few things in sports generate such a wide range of emotions in such a cramped space.
It’s been a while since I’ve taken one (my kids are all long grown and done with their sports careers) but I do remember those days. The time in the car before as well as after the games was some of the best time my kids and I spent (don’t worry, I checked with them).
Now, at this point you’re probably thinking my advice is going to amount to “don’t replay the whole game in the car” or something like that. While you may not to go over the whole game, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about it at all.
The truth is the car ride home offers ample learning as well as bonding opportunities. But it has to be handled carefully in order not to become contentious.
With that in mind, following are some carefully curated do’s and don’ts for the car ride home after a game or a long tournament weekend.
- Keep it positive. It’s easy to launch into a diatribe about everything that went wrong, or wasn’t as good as it could have been. Resist that temptation, especially if it’s going to be a long ride. No one will benefit from an hour of unhappy silence.
- Take emotion out of it. Anger, frustration, disappointment and similar emotions are counter-productive. They’re also reactions to the moment – reactions you may regret later. You can talk about what went right or wrong in a calm way, with more of a focus on the facts instead of letting emotions get in the way.
- Listen more than you talk. It’s easy to fall into the trap of dominating the conversation about the game, especially if you feel like you have a lot to say. But remember you were just watching the game. Your favorite player was in the middle of it. Give her a chance to talk about what she wants to talk about – even if it’s something other than the game. Remember that youths of playing age often have a lot of hormones and other issues to deal with outside of the game. Give them the opportunity to share them – and respect them when they don’t want to share them. They’ll come around. I promise.
- Use the opportunity to talk strategy. One of the ways to keep emotion out of the conversation is to talk strategy rather than performance. For example, a pitcher’s parent can talk about pitch sequences or what can be done to attack a particular type of a hitter such as a slapper – especially if it’s the first time the pitcher faced one. A fielder’s parent can talk about what to do with the ball in certain situations, e.g., the value of going after the lead runner in the infield rather than automatically throwing every ground ball to first. For hitting, parents can talk about being more selective when ahead in the count, or ways to keep calm and focused when the hitter gets behind. Fastpitch softball is a complex game, and it’s impossible to anticipate every situation in practices. The aftermath of a game provides a great opportunity to cover some of them.
- Take a long-term view. Next week there will be another game or tournament with its own new challenges, and the frustrations of this one will forgotten. But the memories of those car rides home – whether they are good or bad – will last forever. Think about the way you want your daughter(s) to remember what it was like to ride home with you when they are long past their playing days.
- Stop for ice cream or another treat now and then. It’s easy to treat your favorite player when her team wins or when she did something great. But sometimes it’s needed even more after a tough loss or a poor performance as this old Lifesavers commercial demonstrates. A little detour to a favorite place might be just the thing to celebrate life’s triumphs or lift the spirits after a defeat – and secure the bond between parents and players.
- Trash the coach. You may not agree with all (or any) of the coach’s decisions or his/her approach to the game, but the car ride home from a game or tournament is not the time to share those opinions. Even if you know your player agrees. Try to decompress without getting into such a volatile issue. If you need to talk about how a coach is managing the game or treating players (especially your own) save it for another day. And if you really feel you can coach the team better – volunteer and prove it.
- Trash her teammates. Yes, #25 may have made three errors in the field and the entire last half of the lineup couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. But it doesn’t do anyone any good for you to talk about it ad nauseum. Team chemistry is critical to high performance, yet it is also quite delicate. Don’t be the person who gets in the way of it. Besides, at least some of the girls you’re talking about may be her friends.
- Trash the umpires. As a group, umpires make easy targets for our anger and frustration. Yet the reality is (with very rare exceptions) the umpires aren’t out to “get” your player or your team. In 99% of the cases they couldn’t care less about who wins or what the outcome of a particular play is. Beyond that, no game outcome ever comes down to a single umpire’s call, because if your team had been up 11-0 no one would have cared about a blown call. They had ample opportunity to take the umpires out of it and didn’t. If you’re unhappy about the quality of officiating in your area don’t complain. Put in the work, get your certification, and DO something about it.
- Belittle or become hyper-critical of your player. It’s tough enough to be a young person these days, especially with all the expectations placed on them and all the pressures from coaches and outside factors such as social media. The last thing they need is one of the people they trust the most – you – adding to it when they are already feeling vulnerable and perhaps raw and exposed. This doesn’t just apply to the car ride home, by the way, it’s good advice for any time.
- Take it all too seriously. It may seem like life or death when you’re in the middle of it. But it’s really not. Fastpitch softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Remember that and the car ride home will be a whole lot more enjoyable.
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