Failure Is a Key Element in Player Development
Today’s topic was a suggestion from Tim Husted, who was the founder and guiding force behind the Danes fastpitch softball program, which gave players in Wisconsin and Minnesota the opportunity to play at the highest levels. Tim knows a thing or two about developing players so they can continue their careers in college, having done so for many young ladies while the program was active.
Tim was commenting on my post “Accuracy Without Speed = Batting Practice,” saying essentially that too many parents and coaches these days are focused on achieving short-term success rather working toward longer-term greatness. But, he added, it also shows up in parents being afraid to let their kids fail because they don’t understand that failure is an essential component of developing great players.
I know, it sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? No parent likes to see their kid(s) fail.
Our hearts bleed for them, and our kids’ pain becomes our pain – only amplified. It can be particularly debilitating for parents who are living vicariously through their kids’ sports careers.
The result is we do whatever we can to help our kids avoid failure, and the negative feelings associated with it.
Sometimes that means an “everybody gets a trophy” approach. Which I personally believe is ok at the younger ages to reward participation, but not after about the age of 10, and then only in rec leagues.
Sometimes that means jumping from team to team to find a starting spot rather than competing for one. There are definitely times when leaving a particular team is the right decision, such as when all positions are set and there is no opportunity to compete for a starting job.
That happens more than people like to admit too. But leaving in lieu of working hard is not a good solution.
And sometimes it means disgruntled parents starting their own teams or agreeing to coach with the express purpose of making their kid the star, whether it’s deserved or not.
Here’s the reality, however: failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty rare to find anyone who is successful as an adult who did not face some level of failure earlier in his or her life.
Amanda Scarborough often talks about how early in her career she was not at the top of the pitching depth chart on her travel and high school teams. One of the all-time greats, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Lisa Fernandez, says she walked 20 batters in her first pitching outing and was told by a well-known pitching coach in California that she’d “never be a pitcher.” Many other greats in all walks of life have similar backstories.
The thing is, they didn’t let failure or disappointment define them. Instead, they learned from it and used it as fuel.
This is what coaches, and especially parents, need to understand. Failure isn’t a bad thing. It’s an essential part of the learning process.
People who succeed all the time (if there is such a thing) don’t learn how to overcome obstacles. They aren’t driven to hone their skills to improve. They don’t gain the mental toughness required to play at the highest level.
The pain of failure drives us to not want to feel that way again. Which either means we stop doing the activity or we work to ensure (to the best of our abilities) that it doesn’t happen again.
And that’s where the development comes in. Failure doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It means you aren’t good enough right now.
But that can change. While your DNA, which defines your base athletic ability, is what it is, mental and physical skills can be developed.
As a team coach and an instructor I’ve worked with many, many kids who didn’t start out as superstars, or even competent players for that matter. But with guidance and dedication they went on to pass more naturally gifted players in terms of performance on the field. And I know many coaches, including Tim, who have similar stories.
Failure helps point out the flaws in your game so you can work on them. It drives us to achieve more than success alone ever will.
Good players like to work on their strengths. Great players prefer to work on their weaknesses.
Then there’s the idea of failure as fuel, which I mentioned earlier. Sometimes failing at something is just the kick in the pants we as humans need to drive us to improve beyond what we may have done otherwise.
I know this from personal experience. My first year as a travel ball coach my oldest daughter’s team was very successful, winning the bulk of our games along with taking first place in the highly competitive travel league we were a part of.
I remember feeling really good about myself as a coach – until I found out half the team was leaving to join a new team in our organization coached by the dad of a girl who was more popular than my daughter. I was shocked and disappointed.
But rather than quit, or whine about it, I took that failure and used it to drive me to become the best coach I could be. I took classes, read books, watched videos, talked to other coaches, and did everything I could to become so good that no player would ever even consider leaving.
While I can’t say I fully achieved that goal – there will always be some attrition, and there’s always more to learn – it definitely made me a much better coach and put me on the path that I still follow today. I’m not sure the same would have happened had that first team all stayed.
Another benefit failure brings is that it makes success that much sweeter and more satisfying. It’s difficult to appreciate triumph if you’ve never experienced defeat.
Not to mention if you are afraid of failure you’re more likely to play weaker competition to ensure you’ll win. I’ve known teams like that.
Their coaches play teams they know they can beat, thinking a better won-loss record makes them look like better coaches. But all it really does is stunt the development of their players because those players aren’t being challenged.
If you’re going undefeated in every tournament and posting up 80-3 run differentials you’re not a great team. You’re playing in the wrong tournaments.
A 60% – 70% win rate will do far more to ensure player development than a closet full of trophies, medals, plaques and rings.
The bottom line is that while failure is painful, it can be a good kind of pain – like what you feel after a particularly grueling workout. It’s not something that should be feared and avoided at all costs.
Instead, it should be embraced as part of the learning process.
Failure doesn’t have to be a dead end. In fact, it can be the starting point for something much, much better.
The choice is yours.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
Fastpitch Skills: Like Riding A Bike
You would probably be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard the expression “It’s like riding a bike – once you learn how you never forget.” This expression is often used to refer to going back to something difficult after years of not doing it, implying that it shouldn’t be difficult to pick up where you left off.
As anyone who has actually ridden a bike after not riding one for 20 years can attest, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. There is definitely a bit of uncertainty at first, and it’s unlikely you’re going to go flying around like you did as a kid right away.
What people often forget, however, is how difficult learning to ride a bike actually is. Those of us who can ride one take it for granted. But it wasn’t always so simple.
At first, our parents (or some other adult) probably raised the training wheels some so we could get a sense of what it was like without the actual danger of falling off.
Eventually, though, the training wheels came off, and an adult held onto the back of the seat, running along behind us as we got the hang of balancing ourselves while churning our legs to make it go. Most of those adults also probably let go without telling us, despite our admonitions not to, to prove to us that we now had all the skills required to ride successfully. And oh, how we rode!
I bring these sometimes painful yet exhilarating memories up because learning fastpitch softball skills is no different.
At first, players are a bit tentative. Whether they’re pitching, hitting, throwing, fielding, etc. they’re not quite sure how to move and manage all the various pieces, and they do the fastpitch equivalent of falling off a lot.
As they learn, they have to focus on what they’re doing, and most have to think through the various pieces as their brains learn to process the skill. But then at some point it all clicks, and they’re able to do whatever it is they’re trying to do, which enables them to advance as a player.
Just as with riding a bike, it happens at different points for different players. The seemingly lucky ones get it right away. I say “seemingly” because sometimes when things come too easily it can hold players back from developing their skills at a deeper level. Especially when coaches, parents, teammates, etc. are more focused on winning today than helping players become the best they can be. There is value in the struggle.
For most, the skills will come more slowly, with plenty of bumps, bruises and scrapes acting as battle scars as they learn. But eventually they will come.
The goal, of course, is to make fastpitch skills like riding a bike – something players can execute without thinking.
Assuming you can already ride a bike, consider how you do it. The odds are very high that you just hop and do it. Your body knows how to move, how to balance, and what to do when. It feels instinctual, even though it is actually a learned skill.
That’s where you want players to get to on the softball field. They don’t need to “remember” to raise their elbow to shoulder height when throwing. They just do it.
They don’t need to remember to lead the swing with their hips instead of their bats. They just do it. They don’t need to remember to relax their arms and whip through the release zone when they’re pitching. They just do it. It’s like one big Nike ad.
That’s the goal. But it’s important to remember that it takes time. Again, some kids learn to ride their bikes on their own right away, while others can take weeks – especially if they’re afraid of falling off. But they all will learn.
And it takes good repetitions. The more players (and coaches/parents) concentrate on doing it right from the start, i.e., focusing on the process rather than the outcomes, the easier it becomes to do it right under game pressure.
Finally, it takes patience to understand about it taking time and good repetitions. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting everything to be perfect right away, like the players you see on TV.
But I can guarantee you the players you see on TV didn’t look like that when they were younger. In fact, they may have looked more awkward than the player(s) you’re working with right now, as this video of a certain well-known left-handed pitcher shows.
But they persisted and found their “bicycle moment” when it all clicked and they were just able to ride.
You wouldn’t expect any child to simply hop onto a bike and start pedaling away – much less do the complex BMX tricks you see on TV. There’s a progression, and it all starts with those first shaky feet.
It’s the same with fastpitch softball skills. They may need a lot of help at first. But eventually, with persistence, they will find their way, and those skills will be a part of their game forever.
Why the Short Leash May Not Be As Effective As You Think
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.
Why I’m ok with participation trophies
Thought that might get your attention! Although it is a topic that seems to get a lot of attention these days – most of it bad.
It’s not unusual to see people disparaging participation trophies online. They blame participation trophies for kids being soft, whiny, and lacking in effort. The term “snowflake” is often used in connection with participation trophies, and they don’t mean it in a nice “White Christmas” or “let’s go skiing” sort of way.
From what I’ve seen, the people who complain the loudest about participation trophies tend to fall into two categories. One is the “Internet tough guy” who likes to voice his/her opinion on what’s wrong with everyone else.
Usually they’re not actually talking about sports, but more about how entire groups of people (Millennials, Liberals, Millennial Liberals, etc.) just don’t measure up to how wonderful they think they were/are.
The second, more sports-specific group, is parents whose kids are great athletes and would accumulate a bedroom full of trophies no matter what. They seem to think that giving a trophy to a kid who tried hard but maybe hasn’t quite found her coordination somehow takes away from the awesomeness of their own daughters. After all, what’s the good of getting a trophy if you can’t use it to show your friends, family, and neighbors how much better your kid is than theirs?
I am of the mind that it’s okay to give kids participation trophies at younger ages – maybe up to 10 or so in rec ball. As I see it, it’s the Tony Soprano model. You want to give the kids a taste of getting trophies so they learn they want them. Then once they’ve acquired a taste for them you take away the freebies so they have to “pay” for them.
A kid who has never had a trophy may not believe it’s within her reach. But if she had them before, and now the conditions change, she’s more likely (in my opinion and experience) to want to do what she needs to get another one.
It’s also a good way to encourage kids to stay with a sport, especially in the early stages. Outright winning a trophy may not be within the realm of possibility for a young player, or a group of young players, whose athletic skills are developing a little slower than others their age.
Getting a trophy at the end of the year might be enough to encourage them to hang in there a little longer. We’ve all seen kids who were weak in their early years blossom later. But to do that they still have to be playing when they’re ready to blossom.
Giving everyone a trophy also removes a lot of the risk of the crazy parent/coaches who take a “win at all costs” approach to coaching young kids just to get that plastic trophy at the end. Anyone who has been around the sport of fastpitch softball (or pretty much any other sport for that matter) knows a lot of the craziest coaches and parents are found at the youngest ages. If the goal is to keep kids participating, removing the need to trophy hunt helps address that goal.
Now, I know what people say. If you give everyone a trophy the kids don’t learn how to compete. Funny thing is, I’ve heard plenty of college coaches talk about how showcase tournaments also seem to be hurting players’ ability to compete, yet it seems like there are more and more of them every year.
Fastpitch softball used to be about getting better so you could win this weekend’s tournament, or the league championship, or whatever. Now it seems to be more about getting the almighty scholarship. So the “not learning to be competitive” argument doesn’t really hold water.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, at some point the “free ride” needs to end. By the time kids are 11 or 12, they all should have matured enough to understand that now if you want to get a trophy you need to work for it. If you’re playing travel ball – not just a team that “travels” but one that is looking to be competitive – the cutoff is probably more like 9 or 10.
But up until that time, what’s so bad about making kids feel good about themselves? Give them a taste of success and maybe they’ll develop an appetite for it.
There are no magic beans in softball
Talk to fastpitch softball coaches, parents, and players and the one thing you’ll find in common is everyone is looking for that one magic solution that will instantly up their games.
Pitchers (and their parents) are always hoping to find that one magical drill or method of teaching that will instantly take them from the low 50 mph range to 60+ mph.
Hitters (and their parents) are looking for that magical drill that will help them go from striking out a lot and hitting weak grounders to driving the ball over the fence. Failing that, they hope a new bat will do the trick.
Fielders, baserunners, everyone at every stage hopes they can discover that secret no one else knows and instantly claim a tremendous advantage over the competition. Instructors know this too, and either get frustrated by it or take advantage of it by giving their instruction method a cool-sounding name and then marketing it as though their version of sound mechanics is different from everyone else’s.
The reality is there are no magic beans in fastpitch softball – no secret drills or approaches no one else knows about. What there is is what many players and parents view as the last resort – hard work.
That’s not just my opinion. I’ve spoken with some of the top instructors in the country, people with tremendous resumes and a track record of developing quality players. Every one of them says the same thing.
I once had a chance to ask a well-known and well-respected pitching coach if he knew of any specific drill or technique to get a pitcher over 60 mph. He said, “I wish I did.” He then went on to say there are things you can do to help, but there are no guarantees.
In my experience, becoming an elite-level softball player requires a few things, some of which you can control and some of which you can’t:
- It definitely helps to have athletic DNA, the kind that develops fast twitch muscles in bulk. For that you have to choose your parents well. Great DNA makes up for a lot of other ills, by the way.
- For most, it also takes sound mechanics. That requires great instruction and a lot of long, boring hours developing those mechanics. Yes, there are players with terrible mechanics who succeed anyway, but they are not the norm. See point #1. For the rest, great mechanics will help make up for a lack of natural athletic ability. For the skill you want to develop, learn what great mechanics are by watching what great players do and learning as much as you can from credible sources, then seek out an instructor who teaches it.
- You need to have the mental game to keep working and trying to improve, even in the face of failure. Think of that old joke about the person who invented 6UP soda. Ooooh, so close! Being able to push through disappointment, or to keep cool and focused when every fiber of your being wants to panic or give up, is a huge asset. Not just in softball but in anything you pursue.
- You need to be in great softball shape. I put this at the end because I find it to be more like spice in the dish than the dish itself. If you have poor mechanics or a weak mental game it’s probably not going to matter if you’re in great shape or not. Lots of players have looked good getting off the bus in their shorts, only to fail repeatedly when they put on their uniforms. But if you’re already well on your way toward being mechanically and mentally sound, being in great softball shape is often a huge difference-maker. It can make up a lot for the lack of #1.
There’s no question it would be nice if there actually was some magic drill or method that could instantly make you better, or guarantee you’ll be successful without all that boring practice time. As I always tell my students, if I could just lay may hand on their head and say, “Go forth and play! You are healed” I’d be charging $1,000 per lesson and there would be a mile-long line to get some of that. Because that’s the dream.
But there isn’t – and don’t let anyone tell you there is. If you want to become the player you’re meant to be, don’t fall for fancy marketing lines and promises of instant or guaranteed greatness. Because no matter what you learn and who teaches you, the bulk of your success – like 90% of it – depends not on them but on you.
So while there are no magic beans that will make you an overnight success, there is a path to it. And the beauty is you can control a lot of that path. You just have to be willing to put in the effort.
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Sustainable sanitation at http://flickr.com/photos/23116228@N07/6908811713. It was reviewed on by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.
The challenge of fall ball
Right now we’re in the midst of the fall fastpitch softball season – aka “fall ball.” Whether you’re a 10U player getting her first taste of travel ball or a college coach hoping to get an idea of what her team needs to work on in the off-season, it’s always an interesting time.
This is a big change from when I first started coaching travel ball. Back then, tryouts didn’t happen in August for teams in my area; most teams did tryouts in the spring. Eventually that backed up to December, and then to the current system where some programs are running their tryouts while others are at Nationals.
Because of that, back in the day fall ball didn’t really exist. When we did start running tryouts in August it was still tough to find games in the fall.
That’s not the case anymore. There are individual games, round robins, and tournaments (real as well as showcase) galore. As they say, you can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere. It’s a bit challenging for older teams with players doing fall high school sports, but somehow people figure it out.
The abundance of fall ball creates several new challenges for everyone. Here’s a look at a couple.
Win or learn?
One of the most obvious challenges is coaches deciding whether they want to focus on winning games or learning what their players – especially their new ones – can do.
You already know what you know. Do you stay with what you believe gives you the best chance of winning the game? Or do you try to learn more about players you don’t know as well, even if it costs you the win?
If you decide to learn, that might mean putting weaker hitters at the top of the lineup to get them more at bats. It might mean playing a girl at shortstop who has potential but hasn’t acquired the skills and game experience yet to really stand out. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.
If you decide to win, you may not get a chance to discover a hidden gem who could make a huge contribution in the future. You may reinforce a lack of confidence in a player who actually has more ability than she’s been showing. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.
Showcase tournaments add another level of complication. The idea is to show college coaches what your players can do. That’s why most don’t have a champion. It’s more like pool play all the time. You want your team to look good to attract coaches, but you also want to make sure all your players get seen.
If one of your pitchers is struggling, do you leave her in and let coaches see how she battles? Or do you get her out so coaches can see how the rest of your team does?
There are no right or wrong answers. It’s simply a matter of knowing what your goals are and sticking to them.
Stay in or get out of your comfort zone?
Players have challenges as well. One of the biggest is whether to stretch your game and take chances when you play or stick with what you already know works?
If you’re new to a team, such as a freshman in college or high school or a new travel ball player, you want to show you can belong and contribute. But you may also be nervous about looking bad if you fail.
The safe decision is to stay within what you already know you can do. But if you do that, you’re not growing as a player. Fall is often a good time to take those chances because people care a lot less about who wins those games. If you make an error, or struggle a bit at the plate as you work on developing more power, the consequences will be less than if it happens in the spring.
Personally, I would recommend making the stretch. Try taking that extra base, or working that new pitch into your arsenal, or sacrificing some accuracy to drive up your speed, or being more aggressive on defense, or unleashing your new swing. It’s your best chance to give it a try and see how it plays in a game. You can also be comforted by the fact you’ll find out what to work on during the long offseason.
Take advantage of opportunities
Fall ball offers all sorts of opportunities. Rather than getting stuck in the same old same old, approach it for what it is. Discover what you want to discover, try the new things you want to try (and are comfortable trying), and most of all, have fun doing it! It’ll pay off in the long term.
Fastpitch coaches: when you’re offering instructions, be specific
One of the challenges of coaching fastpitch softball, or any sport for that matter, is offering directions that are meaningful to the player. While there are several elements that go into meaningful directions, I find that being specific is definitely key.
What does that mean, be specific? Here’s an example I heard today. A student told me she was working on fielding ground balls, and one of her coaches told her she had to get lower. That was probably correct – I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but let’s assume it was.
The problem with saying “get lower” is it leaves out an important element: how to get lower. If you’re bending at the waist, does that mean bend more at the waist? No, that would be silly.
The proper direction would be to lower your hips as you go down to the ball. That makes it easier to get to the ball while remaining in an athletic position where you can make the play.
Non-specific instruction reminds me of a joke that was making the rounds a few years ago. A group of people are in a helicopter in Seattle, checking out the sights, when a sudden fog rolls in.Not only are they having trouble seeing but the instruments go all haywire.
Now they’re lost, and need directions to get back to the airport. The pilot decides to hover next to a building where he sees some lights on. He sees there are people inside, so he quickly writes up a sign that says “Where are we?” and holds up it for the people inside to see.
They see the message, and take a minute to write up their own sign. When they hold it up it says, “You are in a helicopter.” The pilot immediately says “Right” and heads straight for the airport. When the helicopter lands, all the passengers are amazed. “How did you know from their sign where we were?” one asks.
“Easy,” said the pilot. “The information they gave us was completely accurate and completely useless. I knew we were by Microsoft.”
That’s the thing about directions. It’s easy to say do this or do that, but is what you’re saying actually helpful? Or is the message simply, “Play better!” – which I actually used once in a post-game speech to break the tension when the team was down.
For the most part, players don’t need you to tell them they’re doing poorly. If they have any experience at all they can tell they’re having problems. What they need is help fixing them. The more you can give them the “how” instead of just the “what,” the faster they’ll likely be able to address the issue and get it corrected.
Telling a hitter she’s pulling her front shoulder out is true, but useless. Telling her how to keep her front shoulder in, by leaving it strong and driving her back side around it, is helpful. (By the way, telling her she’s pulling her head out is neither accurate nor helpful, because it’s not the head that’s getting pulled out, it’s the front shoulder.)
Telling a pitcher she’s throwing high is useless. Even the least experienced pitcher can see that on her own. Telling her to whip through the release and fire the ball at the plate instead of getting the hand ahead of the elbow and pushing it up through release will help her correct it.
If you don’t know the “why” of common issues, find out. There’s plenty of great information out there. Search around on Life in the Fastpitch Lane (this blog) for ideas. Go to the Discuss Fastpitch Forum (if you didn’t come from there already) and poke around for hours. Search on YouTube – although be careful because there’s a lot of bad information out there too. Buy books and videos. Observe what great players do. Ask a more experienced coach. Attend coaching clinics and/or the NFCA Coaches College.
The more you know, the more specific directions you’ll be able to give them. And the better you’ll be able to help your players perform at the level you want them to.
The long road to fastpitch excellence
The other night, as I was finishing up the paperwork for that night’s lessons, one of the baseball pitching instructors (who coincidentally also happens to be named Ken) walked into the office area sighing and shaking his head. The reason for his consternation was the expectations of some of the players he’d just finished working with.
“These guys are ridiculous,” Ken said (more or less, and perhaps a bit more colorfully). “They walk in here and expect to be throwing 20 mph faster in three weeks. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Amen, brother, I told him. I know the feeling.
The problem is we live in a microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, 24-hour news cycle world. That has set an unrealistic expectation in many people’s minds of the way everything should work.
All too often kids will walk in and expect (or their parents will expect) that if they take a handful of lessons that suddenly they will be stars. More likely that’s just enough time to mess them up pretty good, especially if they had a lot of bad habits before.
Bobby Simpson has the mantra “Getting better every day.” That’s a great way to think about it. The goal isn’t to take a few lessons and solve every issue. The goal is to be better walking out than when you walked in, whether that’s at a lesson or at practice.
The goal after that is to walk into the next lesson or practice either better than the last one, or at least picking up where you left off.
The old cliche “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” definitely applies. Whether you take the 10,000 hour rule as gospel or more as an allegory, the reality is it takes some length of time and constant work to see meaningful results.
Think about learning to play the piano. How good do you think you will be after four lessons? Maybe you’ll be able to play a credible version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” but you won’t be taking Chopin on anytime soon.
Or what about ballroom dancing lessons? Do you think four half hour sessions spent on the Foxtrot will have you dancing like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers? (Kids, follow the link to see who they were. They set the standard for dance in Hollywood musicals.)
Even if you’re not coming in with zero experience, if you’ve had a long layoff from practicing you’re not going to see a huge jump in three or four weeks. It takes time. Lots of time.
Typically, I find once I get a hitter mechanically sound that it takes about a year for them to see the real benefits. There is so much going on with hitting that it’s easy to be hesitant or get knocked off-track, especially in a game. With a year’s worth of using those mechanics and seeing live pitching, hitters start to get to the point where they can just go with it subconsciously, allowing them to spend their conscious brainpower on where the ball is and when it will arrive.
Fastpitch pitchers often have the same timeline. It’s one thing to be zinging the ball to your spots in practice. It’s another to do it when there are live hitters, umpires, coaches, teammates, opponents, parents and other spectators around and you’re playing for something meaningful.
As I always tell my pitching students, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside, but it can be a cold, dark place on the inside.
None of that happens, however, without first putting in the work up-front. If it could, i.e., if some coach or instructor could add 20 mph or otherwise reach some great goal in three sessions, those sessions would cost $1,000 apiece or more, and there would be a line a mile long to get some of it.
That’s the dream. But it’s not reality. I wish there was a shortcut, but as far as I and everyone else I’ve ever met knows there isn’t one.
Instead, the key is to set realistic expectations and work on little improvements that add up over time. Approach it any other way and you’re sure to be disappointed. And guys like poor Ken will continue to pull their hair out.
My fastpitch learning by osmosis theory
I have always been a big believer in the ability of kids, at least certain kids, to learn the nuances of softball through osmosis. I certainly saw it with my own daughters, who were eight years apart.
When my older daughter Stefanie was playing, we dragged all the other kids out to her games. We had to – she was the oldest, and we couldn’t leave the others at home.
When Stefanie was playing 14U, my youngest child Kim was 6. I was coaching, so I mostly remember seeing her heading off to a playground or just sitting in the grass. We never talked to her much about what was going on.
But somewhere along the way it must’ve stuck in her brain, because by the time she started playing she had a pretty high level of innate knowledge about what to do when. For example, I never had to teach Kim about going after the lead runner on comebacker to the pitcher. She just knew.
I am convinced that’s because she saw so many games. Even if she wasn’t constantly thinking about what was going on, she picked up a lot of it by osmosis. I think that’s the benefit the younger sister (or brother) gets.
I bring this up because of something that happened last night that just tickled me. I have been working with a 12U pitcher named Jenna for a little over a year now. (I refuse to say anyone is 11, 13, 15 or any other odd number of U. Old school.)
Anyway, I started with Jenna when she was 10U, and she’s made the transition to 12U pretty easily. It’s fun to see how far she’s come in a short period of time, and how she can take command of a game.
This summer, her dad Gary decided it would be a good time to get his younger daughter Sammie started. She was 8 when we started, playing rec league, but I know Gary has aspirations for her future. 🙂 She turned 9 not long ago.
At first she had all the challenges 8/9 year olds typically have. Like being so literal about her form that she looked all stiff and robotic.
But she’s determined, and has been working hard. The last couple of lessons the light bulb has started coming on and she’s been throwing more relaxed. Her strikes are going up, and she’s definitely throwing hard. So last night I thought it might be a good time to get her started on the basics of a changeup.
When I said that, Gary told me, “Sammie’s already gotten started on it.” Apparently she’d been watching Jenna and thought it looked pretty cool, so she decided to start working on it on her own.
I asked her to show me, and darned if she didn’t do a nice job! The pitch was really high, but it was straight, and more importantly it was the right speed without slowing her arm down. She did a couple more and it was the same thing.
Honestly, I was impressed. I asked Gary if he had been working with her and he said no. Sammie had just picked it up by watching Jenna.
I think what knocked me out was that she was maintaining her arm speed. Normally, when a new pitcher is trying a change on her own she’ll slow down to make the ball go slower. (Which, by the way, is the opposite of what you really want to do.) Not Sammie, though. She just cranked it right out there and let the design of the mechanics do the job.
Of course, it helps that she has a great example to model herself after. Jenna throws a killer change that is quite effective in games. But still. Sammie just sort of figured it out by watching.
We did some quick work and got Sammie throwing it for a strike at least part of the time. But it sure was nice to start from a solid foundation!
So there you go. Learning the game, or even parts of it, doesn’t always require a formal setting. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, it just happens. Gotta love osmosis.
The chicken/egg of breaking in a new pitcher
One of the toughest things in softball from both sides of the equation (player/parents and coach) is what it takes to break in a new pitcher. She can practice and prep any way she wants, but pitching in practice isn’t the same as pitching in a game.
For one thing, now every pitch counts – and the pressure of bad pitches builds. When a pitcher is in learning mode, she can throw a few bad pitches in order to get better without suffering any real consequences. In a game, of course, bad pitch one becomes ball one. Bad pitch two becomes ball two. And if that pitcher is still finding herself, the next pitch will likely have
less to do with the mechanics she’s been working on and more to do with getting a strike some way, some how.
After all, she may fear letting the team down, and not getting a chance to try again for a good, long while. Still, parents realize the only way she’s going to get better is to get innings in. Even if they’re rough ones.
On the other side, there’s the coach. He/she may want to give this pitcher an opportunity, especially if she’s been working hard to learn. But he/she has to balance that against the needs of the rest of the team. You don’t want to fall too far behind due to walks and wild pitches just to develop a pitcher. On the other hand, if he/she will need her in the future (or the coach thinks she has potential), it’s important to give her those game reps now. Even if it hurts.
Sometimes the best situation for that developing pitcher is for the coach to have no choice. If you only have one, or at least one who’s working at it, you have to go with what you’ve got. That means taking some lumps early-on and hoping that pitcher gets better quickly as a result. Of course, that may make the rest of the team unhappy, and in this day and age the coach may find a couple of the better players looking for another team to play on rather than suffering through the losses.
One thing coaches can do is start by giving that pitcher one inning, and staying with her no matter what – unless she has clearly had a mental breakdown (at which point it’s cruel to leave her in). Let her get that one good inning in, and then put in someone with more experience. Try to build up to two, then three innings and so on.
By the time she gets up to three good innings in a row you should be able to put her in a game with the intention of leaving her in for however long you normally leave pitchers in. If she gets into trouble you can still take her out, but now she has a solid foundation and an idea that you want her to go more.
The hard part, of course, is getting to that point. It can get ugly at times. But it’s kind of a chicken/egg thing. To develop she needs to pitch in games. But to pitch in games, she needs to develop. At some point you’re just going to have to decide to go for it.
I’ve known (and worked with) plenty of pitchers who started out rough but through determination, persistence and a lot of hard work went on to blow away the kids who were ahead of them initially. At some, point, though, someone believed in them enough to give them a shot. And then another one. And then another one. And along the way, they saw the improvement and encouraged those pitchers to keep going. At which point those coaches reaped some pretty big rewards.
What have you found as far as breaking in a new pitcher? Do you have any rules you set out or processes you follow? Do you start with practice games/friendlies, then move them into pool play? Let us know what’s worked for you in the comments below.