First of all, for those of you who are wondering, yes. This is my dog Swayze. (I didn’t name him; he was a rescue and that was already his name.)
He’s a lucky boy, because I couldn’t very well put a leash on him for a photo without taking him for a walk. But that’s not the topic of today’s blog post.
The actual reason for the photo is to discuss a coaching style that can best be described as the “short leash.” Basically, what it entails is if a player makes a mistake on the field, such as a physical error or watching a third strike go by, she is immediately yanked out of the game and made to sit the bench – I suppose so she has time to think about what she’s done. Perhaps it’s the softball equivalent of a “time out” for a young child.
Normally, this type of “correction” is accompanied by a few loud words from the coach, such as “I told you you need to keep your head down. Grab some bench!” Although not always.
It often tends to be applied unevenly as well. In other words, if you’re the star shortstop and you make an error, it might not result in your being relieved of your position. But if you’re more of a utility player or a reserve trying to earn a starting spot, you’ll probably be one-and-done.
The goal of this type of coaching is to make players better and sharper. At least that’s the theory. But what I find, more often than not, is it makes them fearful of making mistakes, which not only makes them more prone to making mistakes but tends to stunt their overall development as well.
Imagine this type of coaching in another setting. Let’s start with school. You’re at the white board in math class (apparently schools don’t use blackboards anymore), doing your best to solve an equation, but you get the answer wrong.
Instead of just pointing out the mistake and giving you a chance to correct it, the teacher calls you out in front of the class in an exasperated voice, tells you to just go sit down, then ignores you for the rest of class. How motivated are you at that point to learn more math – or to be called up to the board again? Or even to pay attention to the rest of the class?
If you do go up to the board again, will you be more focused on the problem (even though focus wasn’t the issue the last time – it was that you didn’t know the concept)? Or will you be thinking “I hope I don’t make another mistake and have to go through that again?
Now think about work. Have you ever worked for a boss who would berate and belittle you if he/she didn’t like something you’d done? I sure have. In fact, I had one boss that would love something I did one day then hate the exact same work the next day.
Not only was I at risk of getting whiplash from those Mercurial moods, I started to doubt my own abilities. Then, instead of trying to do the best work I could, I started focusing on trying to figure out what wouldn’t get me berated. They are two different things.
It wasn’t until I did a little side work for someone else that I realized the problem wasn’t me – it was my boss and his up and down moods. I moved on from there and discovered I was actually pretty darned good at what I did.
Coaching by fear and intimidation is very old school. The problem is it’s a lot like torturing someone to get information. After a while, they will say whatever they need to say to get the pain to stop, whether it’s true or not.
The same goes for the short leash. If players are constantly worried that one error, or one looking strikeout, or one bad decision on the bases, or a few missed spots on one batter is going to get them yanked out of the game in the middle of an inning, their focus will no longer be on becoming the best player they can be. It will be on doing what they need to so they don’t get yanked.
Fielders will become uptight, and maybe not try for balls they’re not sure they can field cleanly. Hitters will swing at any potential third strike, even if it’s high or in the dirt, rather than learn the strike zone.
Base runners will be hesitant and not take advantage of opportunities that could have contributed to a win. Pitchers will start trying to guide the ball instead of learning to throw hard and maximize their speed.
And what do you end up with? A talented team that can’t win the big games because they’re too busy hiding in their shells.
I’m not saying never replace a player who isn’t performing. If pitchers don’t have it they need to come out. But not necessarily after throwing a handful of pitches. Even MLB and college softball pitchers get more time than that.
A fielder who makes three errors in an inning is probably cooked and needs to come out – not as punishment but just to get their heads and bodies out of a bad situation. And so forth.
But that should be situational, not an automatic “If you make a mistake you’re done.”
Of course there will be those who claim “being ‘tough’ like this will get them ready to play in college.” Nonsense.
First of all, if you’re coaching a younger team there’s no guarantee any of those kids will even want to play in college by the time they’re eligible. But if you make the experience miserable enough for them you can ensure they won’t, because they’ll quit the sport.
But even when you look at college teams, you rarely (if ever) see a D1 college coach (who is being paid big bucks and who is giving her players big bucks to come to the school in terms of a scholarship) yank a player off the field for making an error or walking one hitter. A coach like that wouldn’t last very long, especially at the big schools, because no one wants to be embarrassed on national TV.
So you’re not really preparing your players for the next level. You’re just using that as an excuse to justify your approach.
What you should be focused on instead is developing players so they learn how to work through adversity and overcome errors, etc. rather than fear making them. Support and a positive approach will go much farther than fear.
We all make mistakes. Often that’s how we learn. And making mistakes is critical to the kind of growth that ultimately wins games – especially those in tense situations – as well as championship.
So put the short leash away and give your players some room to breathe. You may just find happy, relaxed players make fewer mistakes – and give you more of themselves with every play.
Ran into this issue with a 9 year old I recently started working with. She was pretty raw in her fastpitch hitting mechanics when we first started, but with some good tee work (and practice) she was coming along.
Unfortunately, we were started working together at the beginning of the season so there was some urgency to get her game-ready. Which meant moving to front toss to give her some experience with a ball coming at her.
Once we started with that, it became obvious she had some fear of getting hit by the ball since her first move would be to step away and sort of lean away from the pitch. That makes it tough to swing effectively.
(In her defense, given what I’ve heard about the caliber of pitching she’s been facing it’s understandable. Lots of, shall we say, randomly thrown pitches.)
Still, that’s not good. So I started thinking about how to help get her re-focused on attacking the ball rather than being attacked by it. The weather helped me come up with a good answer.
It had rained most of the day when we were getting together for a lesson, so we were stuck using the outfield for front toss. It was pretty soggy out there too, so I thought it might be better to pitch Whiffle balls at her. I figured it would give her less to fear from the pitches as well as prevent my regular softballs from getting waterlogged.
It worked well, and she hit with enthusiasm as I’ve reported previously. She was actually having fun, and seeing that she could hit.
The next step was to mix in the Whiffles with regular softballs at our next lesson. I told her I would throw a Whiffle, then a regular ball, which is what I did. At first she was a little tentative on the regular softballs, but the longer we alternated the more confident she grew.
So much so, in fact, that she nearly took my head off with a couple of line drives with the regular balls, and did nail me in the thigh with one. I hadn’t bothered to set up my Jugs protective screen – I mean, really, she’s nine and just learning to hit. I can handle that, right? But you can bet the next time I met with her the screen was there.
Speaking of the next time, that session was all regular balls. I’m happy to report that the fear was gone (along with the stepping out), replaced by a girl who was looking to do some damage. Hopefully that will carry over into her games too. If it does, I hope that little pitcher she’s facing is wearing a mask.
If you’re working with a hitter who is uncomfortable in the box and afraid of getting hit, give this a try. If you can replace that defensive mindset with one where she is focused on taking aggressive swings it can do wonders.