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Life’s Too Short to Play for (or Work for) Jerks

One of the most common tropes you’ll hear about the value of playing team sports like fastpitch softball is that they teach life lessons. You hear about learning how to work in a group, how to push yourself to the limit (and then get past it), how to be dedicated, how to set goals and work to achieve them, how to overcome adversity, blah, blah, blah.

All of that is true. But there’s another lesson waiting there for players that often seems to be ignored. And that lesson is that life is too short to play for (or work for) jerks.

What does that mean? Think of your softball career as a metaphor for your life. It has a beginning, a middle, and unfortunately an end.

It’s like this voiceover from the movie Moneyball says: At some point we’re all told we can’t play the game anymore.

So let’s say you start playing at the age of eight, and you play through high school. The majority of high school graduates are 18, so that’s 10 years.

Continue on through college and you can tack on another four years – or five if there is a global pandemic in the middle of your career and you decide to hang around for that bonus year. So in most cases 14 years at best.

If you spend four of those years playing for a coach who constantly abuses and belittles you, puts you down constantly and believes the louder he/she screams the better you will play that’s either 40% or nearly 30% of your career spent being anywhere from unhappy to miserable.

In work years, figuring a 45-year career, 40% would be 18 years and 30% would be 13.5 years (high school v. college) in a job you hate going to and that makes you feel bad about yourself every day. That’s a long time to be unhappy in your life.

So the lesson you should learn if you are faced with this situation on your team is that you don’t have to just suck it up and put up with it. You do have options, like finding another team.

Because believe me, if you’re in a job like that you’re definitely going to want to find a different one. We spend way too much of our lives working to be miserable the whole time.

Now, at this point I think it’s important to differentiate between the occasional outburst (or verbal kick in the pants) from a coach and an abusive situation. Anyone who ever played for me can tell you I wasn’t beyond bringing the hammer down now and then when my teams under-performed or just weren’t paying attention to what they were doing.

Sometimes that can be a good thing, especially if it is in contrast to a coach’s usual style. We all need a little motivation now and then.

But that’s different than the coach whose only volume in speaking to players is 10, and whose words only convey negative messages. To me, that’s basically a coach who has no idea what he/she is doing and figures if they spew enough venom everyone will be too busy licking their wounds to notice.

It’s like this one time when a team I was coaching took a tough loss in a big tournament, knocking us into the loser’s bracket. In the post-game meeting everyone was waiting to get pummeled I’m sure.

Instead, in an over-the-top voice that clearly showed I was joking I simply yelled “Play better” and made a “crack the whip” gesture. It was a parody of coaches they had seen and played for before – the ones who had no idea how to help their players play better but figured if they yelled enough it would happen as if by magic. They laughed and the tension was broken.

I’d love to say we went on to work our way back through the loser’s bracket and won the tournament, but no that didn’t happen. Not every story gets a fairy tale ending.

Back to the topic, coaches always like to talk about holding their players “accountable.” Another phrase I find simultaneously horrifying and amusing when you are talking about 10-12 year olds, by the way. Adults have a funny way of understanding how young kids think.

But if that is the case, players also need to hold their coaches accountable. Coaches need to lead, not just scream to play better. They should support their players when they are giving their all, even if the outcomes aren’t what they hoped for.

Coaches should understand that the pitcher didn’t walk three hitters in a row by choice, hitters didn’t intend to take that third strike, fielders didn’t plan on booting the ground ball or dropping the fly ball, baserunners didn’t intend to slide too far and get tagged out.

Most of all, that South Park episode aside, players don’t take the field with the intention of losing the game. That stuff just happens.

Instead of screaming insults, coaches should work with players to ensure it doesn’t continue to happen, or give them direction on how to work on it themselves. If that’s not happening, and the screaming continues, players shouldn’t put it up with it.

Instead, they should find another team where the atmosphere is better. Because someday, they may face the same choice with a job, and if they don’t learn to value themselves may find themselves doomed to spend a lot of time in a job they hate instead of one that inspires them and gets them excited to go to work every day.

You only have so much time to play competitive fastpitch softball. Use it wisely.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Getting Up for a Game When You’re Not Feeling It

When you're not feeling it, remember you owe it to the people who came to see you to do your best.

Every fastpitch softball player faces this situation sooner or later: it’s game day, and you’re just not feeling it.

Maybe it’s been a long season and you’re tired. Maybe it’s hot and humid out and you don’t handle hot and humid well. Maybe all your non-softball friends are doing something and you wish you could do it too. Maybe you’re so nervous about a big game that you just don’t feel like yourself.

Whatever the cause, feeling that you’re not feeling it can definitely get in the way of your performance. That’s where it helps to take a lesson from some famous musicians.

I’ve read interviews with several famous musicians who were asked how they managed to put so much energy into their performances night after night despite the grueling toll it takes to go from city to city and play for months at a time.

The answer they give is typically something to the effect of: “Yes, it can be hard, and there are times in the hotel or backstage that I just don’t feel like playing. I think maybe I can get by giving it just the minimal amount of effort. But then I think about the fan who saved his/her money to come and see me play, and this will be his/her only chance this year. Maybe it’s a first date, or an anniversary, or a birthday or something else special. Maybe it’s just someone who needs a little lift in their life. When I think about that, I realize I owe it to that person to do the very best I can, if for no other reason than to thank them. And I want them to walk away feeling like it was more than worth the money they spent.”

What a great attitude. They realize that in the line of work they’ve gone into they’ve made a bargain, and they need to keep up their end of it.

For fastpitch softball players it’s a little different. In our case, yes, there are the fans who came out to see the team play. It might be someone’s grandma who finally made it out to a game and hopes her granddaughter’s team will win. Or a little sister who is going to draw her impressions of the game by what she sees on the field. Or the brother home on leave from the military who wants a little piece of home in his life before he goes back to wherever he’s stationed.

But there might also be a college coach, or someone connected to a higher-level team, watching as well. What that person sees, that day, will be his/her first and most lasting impression of you. A great performance might catch his/her eye for the future. A poor one might get in the way of your goals down the line.

Even if none of that is the case, however, think about your coach. He/she made a decision to put you on the team and give you an opportunity to play. You also owe that person your very best. Every. Single. Time. You. Play.

Always remember that putting on that uniform and taking the field is a privilege. A lot of things had to happen the right way for you to have that privilege – starting with being born in a country where playing fastpitch softball is even an option.

Learn to appreciate the opportunity you have and you’ll learn how to feel it even when you’re not feeling it at first. And that, more than anything, will help you become the player you’re destined to be.

Thank goodness for Kyle Schwarber

Tough times can happen to anyone, even MLB stars.

Once again an odd title for a fastpitch softball blog, but bear with me. It’ll make sense.

Adversity is one of those things most fastpitch softball players have to face at one time or another. Our sport is hard, and it’s unforgiving.

Just a few inches either way on a pitch can mean the difference between a backward K and walking in the tying run. It can also mean the difference between a line drive single and a line drive out.

When too many bad things start to happen, it can quickly become overwhelming – especially for young players contending with all those hormones, social pressures, and other things we adults tend to forget about as soon as we can. It can definitely get players feeling bad about themselves, and into a mindset that they are the only ones it’s happening to.

So again, thank goodness for Kyle Schwarber. He was one of the heroes of the Cubs’ World Series win in 2016, coming back from a knee injury to play a key role in several victories. A guy who seemingly had it all knocked.

Well, if you don’t follow the Cubs you may not be aware that for the last couple of weeks he wasn’t with the Chicago National League ballclub . Instead, he was down on their AAA affiliate in Iowa.

The reason? After all his heroics and accolades, he’d lost his swing this year. Just couldn’t quite seem to get into a groove, relax and hit. So the Cubs thought they’d take some pressure off of him, let him go into the minors for a few games to get his swing back away from the glare of the spotlight in Chicago.

It seems to have worked, because he’s back with the Big Club now. (Glad I checked that – gotta love the Internet.) Hopefully he’s exorcised his hitting demons and will start tearing it up again.

The lesson here for young fastpitch softball players is that it can happen to anyone. Schwarber gets paid millions of dollars to play a game that bears a lot of similarities to ours. If he can lose his swing, what makes a fastpitch players whose parents are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for them to play think it can’t happen to them?

Fastpitch players may not have a lower-level farm team to go to when they are in trouble, but they can certainly follow the same principles:

  • R-E-L-A-X (mixing a little football in here, even if it’s from a team I despise) – The world isn’t coming to an end, and peace in our time isn’t riding on your next at bat. You already know you can do well because you’ve done it before. Worrying won’t help. Just get out of your own head for a bit and try to ease the tension.
  • Go back to basics – Work on your fundamentals. If you’re having trouble hitting, jump on a tee and take some quality swings. If you’re a pitcher who has lost her control, work your way back from the end of the pitch and see where the problem is occurring.
  • Stay positive – It’s easy to fall into the negative thinking trap. But having trouble doesn’t make you a bad player, or a bad person. It just makes you human. Try a little positive self-talk. Think about what it felt like when you were successful. Focus on the good and it will come back a lot faster.
  • Know you will come through it – I remember reading about something called the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great. If you want the long version, follow the link (I highly recommend it). Otherwise, here’s the short version. When you’re in a tough situation, you need to do two things. One is know you’ll come through it. The second is don’t put a timeline on when you will come through it, because if you don’t come out of your funk by the next day, or the next tournament, or the next whatever deadline, you’ll get more depressed and make your situation worse.

If a player like Kyle Schwarber can hit a point where he needs to take a step back in Iowa, it can happen to anyone. Just know you’re not alone, and remember that often the only way out is through.

Photo by Minda Haas, @minda33, Instagram minda.haas

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

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