On the TV show “Hot in Cleveland,” the basic premise is that three women from LA are on a flight to Paris when their plane gets stranded in Cleveland. After being approached by several men, they suddenly realize that while they may just considered be average-looking among the many beautiful people in the City of Angels, here in Cleveland they are considered hot, and they decide to stay there instead.
(Full disclosure: I have never actually watched the show, or even a part of it. But the premise works for this blog post so there you go. Oh, and apologies to readers in Cleveland. I didn’t pick the show’s title.)
Fastpitch softball players (along with their coaches and parents) are very susceptible to what I call the “Hot in Cleveland Syndrome.” Because they are successful in the small pond they play in, and maybe even the best player in the area, they can get an oversized view of exactly how good they are.
This is one of the reasons it’s important, if you are serious about playing and especially about playing in college, to venture out past the comfort of your local area and match up your skills against higher-level teams. You can either find out that A) yes, you’re every bit as good as you thought you were or B) while you may be a 10 locally you are maybe only a 6 in the bigger scheme. Either way, that’s important information to have.
Here’s an example. You’re a strong pitcher who accumulates 10+ strikeouts consistently in a seven-inning game. You mostly do it by throwing fastballs, because most of the hitters can’t catch up to your speed. Why bother developing other pitches when you’re already dominating?
Because once you stand in against better hitters who are used to seeing speed and can hit it consistently, your strikeouts per game will probably go way down and the number of hits against you will grow. If you don’t have something else to throw at those hitters you’re in for a rough time. But you won’t know it until you face hitters of that quality.
Or take a catcher who can gun down every girl in the league or conference when she tries to steal second. Is it because she is so awesome, or because the base runners are average instead of speedy?
You put some rabbits on those bases – girls who can get from first to second in 2.8 or 2.9 seconds at the younger levels, or a team with a view players with legit 2.6 speed at the older levels – and suddenly the game turns into a track meet.
The reverse is also true, of course. Is a bigtime base stealer really that good, or are the catchers she’s facing just that weak?
Then there’s the big hitter with the loopy swing who is crushing the ball against the competition she normally sees. Put her up against a pitcher bringing the heat and she may find she’s striking out all day – and looking bad while doing it.
Now, if you have no aspirations beyond the level you’re currently playing at, being Hot in Cleveland is fine. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with playing at a lower/easy level if softball is something you do solely as a recreational activity with a hint of competition versus playing at a highly competitive level.
But if you’re looking to play in college, be named all-state in high school, win a travel ball national championship or have some other lofty ambition, you need to get a true measure of how your skills compare to all those with whom you’ll be competing for those spots. The sooner the better.
Break away from the Hot in Cleveland Syndrome and test your skills against the best players you can find. It will give you a truer picture of where you really stand.
Being a coach sometimes can feel like you’re stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. You offer a correction, the player makes it for a repetition or two, then goes back to what she was doing before. So you offer the correction again and the cycle repeats.
This pattern particularly shows up with younger players, but it can happen to anyone anytime. Obviously, two good repetitions followed by a few incorrect ones isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.
So how do you provide a little extra incentive to focus on doing it right every time? This is where taking advantage of the competitive nature of fastpitch softball players can come in handy.
Fastpitch softball is a tough sport full of difficulties and disappointments, so players really have to have some competitive fire to keep going with it. They also have to love a challenge. As soon as you press the “compete” button you almost always have their full and undivided attention.
One way I’ve done this is to borrow from the playground basketball game of HORSE. You know the one. You take a shot, then the player after you has to take the same shot. If he/she doesn’t make it, he/she gets a letter. You keep going until only one player hasn’t spelled out HORSE.
For Katie, the girl in the photo at the top of the post, the challenge was getting her to bring her back leg into her front leg to finish the pitch. She had the very common tendency of throwing the front leg out without using the back leg. As a result, the back leg was more of an anchor dragging behind her and cutting back on her speed and accuracy.
So I challenged her to a game of HORSE. The rules were simple. If her back leg finished by closing into her front leg (more or less) no letter was assigned. If, however, she finished with her legs spread apart (which usually caused her to bend forward as well) she received a letter.
Once we established those simple rules, it was game on! Suddenly, instead of the Groundhog Day loop of me telling her to finish, she was more on top of it. She still ended up getting an H-O, as I recall, but that was all in the 10 minutes we spent on it.
That was pretty good improvement, because it meant in all the pitches she threw she only failed twice. More importantly, rather than me telling her to fix the issue she was now dedicated to fixing it herself – because she didn’t want to lose the game!
I knew it really got through to her, though, when at her next lesson she asked if we could play HORSE again. I think she wanted to play because she knew she could win; she’d worked on it between lessons to gain the advantage.
But that’s ok with me – I want her to win, because then she’s improving her mechanics and using her body more effectively. By the way, there was no prize for winning or avoiding getting HORSE, although there certainly could’ve been. The game simply appealed to her competitive nature and got her attention.
In reality, this is a game/technique you can use to drive improvement for all kinds of techniques. Have a hitter who is dropping her hands or swinging bat-first? Play HORSE.
Have a fielder who isn’t getting her glove down on ground balls, or a catcher who isn’t keeping her glove on the ground while blocking? Play HORSE.
(I’m not just saying this to you, by the way. I am also making this as notes to myself, as I am definitely under-utilizing this idea.)
The one thing I would caution is focus the game on the process/skills, not the results. So use it to help a first baseman learn to scoop a ball in the dirt properly, but not to keep track of whether she actually got it or not. Or use it to help a hitter learn to swing hips-first rather than giving her a letter if she swings and misses.
If she learns the skill, the results will take care of themselves. But if you focus on the outcomes, you won’t drive the skills. Instead, you’ll probably reinforce bad habits as the player tries to avoid the error/failure instead of learning and internalizing the technique.
In any case, if you find yourself in a Groundhog Day-like loop, give HORSE a try. And if you do, or you’ve done the same thing yourself, let me know how it works for you in the comments below.