Take a look at any list of what champions supposedly do (such as this one) and somewhere on there you’ll see something about how they do the things others aren’t willing to do. What those lists don’t tell you, however, is a lot of those things they’re referencing fall into the category of “grinding.”
This isn’t the flashy stuff. They’re not spending hours on the Hit Trax machine, playing more games, participating in fancy clinics, etc.
Instead, they are working over and over to correct even the tiniest flaws, perfect their mechanics, and learn to get everything they can out of themselves.
If that sounds boring it’s because it is. That’s why most players don’t do it – especially if they are already experiencing success.
A player who is the best hitter on her team, or maybe even in her league or conference, may hear that she needs to work on improving her sequencing. But she also wonders why bother since she’s already leading in most offensive categories.
Sure, there’s always that story that it won’t work at “the next level.” But there’s no guarantee that’s actually true, so until she experiences failure she may decide that’s just the softball version of the Krampus – a myth created to scare people into doing what you want.
True champions, however, don’t do things because they’re afraid of failing at the proverbial “next level.” They do them because they want to be the best they can be, at which point everything else will take care of itself.
Here’s an example. A typical pitcher will look at her speed numbers, and as long as they are where they need to be they’re happy. Someone willing to grind, however, will actually allow her speed to slip a little to improve her drive mechanics or her arm circle. That way, when she has internalize the change she will be even faster and more accurate.
For a field player, it could be learning to throw better by learning a better throwing pattern.
For a hitter it could be reworking the structure of her arms to prevent her back elbow from getting ahead of her arms. That’s not sexy, and it’s certainly nothing most people would notice if they weren’t watching high-speed video.
But the champion knows she’ll hit the ball a little harder, and with greater consistency, if she makes the change so she spends the time to do it. As opposed to average player who tries it a few times, gets bored with it, and goes back to trying to hit bombs off the tee.
And there’s the key difference. Grinding on mechanics can be mind-numbingly boring. It can also be incredibly different, especially as the things you’re grinding on become more nuanced.
It can also feel risky, because there’s a good chance that you will get worse before you get better – especially if what you’re changing is a fundamental process. If you’re in the middle of your season, that’s a huge risk to take (if you’re already experiencing success; if you’re failing, not so much).
That’s what makes the months between fall ball and the new year the perfect time to take on a grinding effort.
Early in the learning process you’re probably looking to make big changes that have a profound effect on your success in a game. It’s a bit easier to stay with it when that happens.
In other words, if you’re used to hitting weak ground balls and pop-ups in-between strikeouts, you have a lot of incentive to work at improvements. When you start hitting line drives to the outfield on a consistent basis it can be downright inspiring.
But if you’re already hitting line drives to the outfield, and you are now trying to hit more of them, it doesn’t feel quite as rewarding. Going from hitting .110 to .330 is a lot more noticeable than going from .400 to .440. Going from hitting zero doubles in three tournaments to four in one tournament is a lot more remarkable than going from four to six in one tournament.
That, however, is what those who are willing to grind do, because their reward is internal instead of external. For many, their goal is to be perfect. They want an extra base hit on every at bat, or a shutout for every game they pitch.
They know that goal is unrealistic, but they go for it anyway because they are driven to contribute as much as they can to the team and deliver the best results of which they’re capable.
The funny thing is, this is an individual decision. There are 100 ways to fake it, or to make it look like you’re grinding when you’re really not.
But for those who want to be the best they can be there’s no substitute for the grind. They make the effort to make smallest and even seemingly most insignificant improvements, because if they can gain an edge that will help them perform better and win more ballgames, they’re going to take it.
It’s really up to you. With a lot of teams shut down right now, either deliberately to give their players some time away or as a result of state orders, it’s the perfect time to grind away at something that will make you better.
Find something and put in the effort. You never know where it will lead you.
A few years ago, one of my day job clients took me out back onto the shop floor to show me this cool new technology they were using to create prototypes of products in development.
“It’s a 3D printer,” the client told me. “We program in what we want based on CAD drawings, and then it produces a complete sample, down to every nook and cranny.” Then she showed me how it worked.
Basically, the head on the printer would slide along at high speed, depositing thin layer after thin layer of plastic (or whatever substance they used). At first, it looked like an indistinguishable blob, but slowly, over time, whatever it was they were making began to take shape until a finished product finally came out.
That is very similar to the way building a successful softball player works. You start out with some raw materials and an idea of what the finished product will be. But then you have to build the player, layer by layer, which takes time and patience.
I think it’s the second half of that equation – patience – that tends to make people stop the “machine” before the finished product is created. These days in our instant-everything world, everyone wants what they want right the heck now.
They don’t want to put in hours and hours of practice just to realize a slight improvement, such as adding one mile an hour as a pitcher or hitting the ball another 20 feet as a batter. They want a magic drill or technique that will enable them to go from throwing 48 mph to 60+ mph in a couple of weeks, or turn them from a .225 hitter to a .440 hitter with an OPS over 1.0.
That would be nice, but it simply doesn’t work that way. As I always say, if I could make you a star in one lesson every lesson would cost $1,000 and there would be a line a mile long down the street to get that lesson.
Instead, you have to operate like the 3D printer. If you stand there and watch it as it works, you’re likely to get bored and maybe fall asleep. It just keeps on grinding away.
Over time, however, it produces something beautiful and useful. Of course, if all you see is the end product you have no idea how much work, how many passes of the print head went into it. You can just admire the result.
It’s the same with players. If you just look at the player shining on the field you have no concept of the number of pitches, swings, ground balls, fly balls, etc. that player did before you ever saw the bright, shiny player she is now.
I know, because I’ve seen it. Parents will tell me how funny it is when someone says about their daughter, “Wow, it must be nice to be so talented that it just comes naturally to her.”
Those people making that comment weren’t there when that same girl was sitting on the bench because her coaches didn’t think she was good enough to be on the field. They weren’t there when she struggled to get a hit, or to find the plate when she was pitching, or making awful errors on easy fielding plays. They weren’t there when she left a practice or lesson on the verge of tears because she couldn’t quite get a skill.
But they also weren’t there when she was in the back yard throwing pitches or hitting off a tee into a net, determine to get better. And get better she did, little by little, layer by layer, until her skills equaled and then surpassed her less-dedicated teammates and she came into her own.
It’s easy to look at who a player is today and assume that’s always who she has been – i.e., she has always been a star. But more often than not, most great players have a story of struggle to share.
The key, however, is understanding that any deficiencies someone may have now don’t have to define who they are in the future. With a fair helping of dedication and determination, along with a little knowledgeable guidance, players can build their skills, mental approach and confidence to become the fastpitch softball players (and people) they are meant to be.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Please share your stories in the comments of your daughters, or kids you’ve coached, who may have started out on the low end but eventually went on to great softball success.
Oh, and here’s a cool time lapse video of some things being made with a 3D printer.