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The Plusses and Minuses of Measurables

First of all, before we get into today’s topic I want to share something I’ve found with others who rely on devices such as the Pocket Radar Smart Coach to take continuous readings. I imagine it also applies to those streaming games on GameChanger, SidelineHD and other technologies that rely on outside power, although I haven’t tested them personally.

The thing I’ve discovered is the value of a heavy duty power block when you can’t access AC power. I’ve been using my Smart Coach with battery power for a couple of years now, and I’ve always relied on the small promotional power blocks you get as a giveaway at trade shows and such.

If you are careful you can get about four hours out of them before a charge is needed, so I’d always have three or four available. The problem was they could go out in the middle of a lesson or game, which meant taking time to change one out for another.

A few months ago I bought an Anker PowerCore III to use with my Smart Coach during lessons. Wow, what a difference!

One of these thingies.

Now instead of maybe getting one night out of the power block by turning it off when I wasn’t teaching pitching I can leave it on for four or five hours at a time with no worries. In fact, this week I did an entire week’s worth of lessons, 4-5 hours per day/night, on a single charge.

That is way easier than having to shuffle units and recharge them every day. So if you’re like I was and being cheap, don’t be. It’s well worth the $50 to get what seems like endless power for your devices. Now on with today’s topic.

You see it all over Facebook, Instagram, and other social media: photos of happy pitchers, catchers, hitters, etc. proudly showing off their latest numbers on a radar gun or other device. I myself post them all the time when a student achieves a new measurable.

While I obviously believe measuring progress with numbers is a good thing, there are also some downsides or “gotchas” that can also crop up in all the excitement. So here’s a look at some of the plusses and minuses of measurables.

The Plusses

These days when I do lessons the Smart Coach is always going, capturing the speed of every pitch and showing it on the Pocket Radar Smart Display in big red numbers. (No, it’s not a paid endorsement, just the facts of what I use.)

I call it my accountability meter. In the midst of a long lesson, especially on a hot day or after a long day at school, it’s easy for fastpitch softball players to want to take a few pitches, hits, throws, etc. off.

When you’re just eyeballing it they can get away with it. But when the numbers are showing up every time, it’s much more difficult.

Players have to put the effort in EVERY time or it becomes pretty obvious.

Beyond that, having numbers on every repetition helps show whether changes we are making are working. For example, if a pitcher is working on improving her whip without using her legs, having a radar going helps determine whether changes are being made at the fundamental level or whether they’re merely cosmetic.

(As a side note, it’s amazing how close to a pitcher’s full speed she can get by taking the legs out and just focusing on arm whip and a quick pronation at release. But that’s a topic for another day.)

The same is true of overhand throws. I have a couple of 11U catchers in particular (hello Lia and Amelie) who love to throw against the radar to see how hard they’re throwing. It’s no coincidence they are also throwing out baserunners on steals while many of their peers struggle to just get the ball to the base.

Using a radar, a BlastMotion sensor, 4D Motion sensors and other devices helps take the guesswork out of what’s happening with a player. They give you a solid foundation to use in deciding how to move forward and let you see whether you’re making the kind of progress you want to make.

If not, you know you have to do something else to drive improvement. In many cases they help you see “under the hood” in a way that even video can’t.

And on an intangible level, they encourage players to keep working so they can earn the recognition (as well as the occasional Starbucks gift card) that comes with accomplishing a goal.

There’s an old saying that goes “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.” Having measurables gives players a destination that keeps them focused so they can become all they can be.

The Minuses

Again, while I am a fan of measurables (and the use of a radar unit in particular), I recognize there are also some minuses to the practice.

Probably the biggest of which is when players (or parents) use the figures to compare themselves to others, good and bad.

For example, for some parents, no matter how far their daughter has come in the past few weeks/months/years, if someone else’s kid’s numbers are better then their own player’s numbers are not enough. Everyone wants to be #1 after all.

Yet that’s a poor use of numbers – especially if they are coming from different sources. There are ways to “juice” the numbers on a radar gun, or to screw them up and take them lower than they actually are, so Millie’s 55 may be as good as Sasha’s 58 if the two of them were to throw to the same radar unit.

There’s also the chance that players (and coaches and parents) can get so caught up in the race for speed or estimated distance on a hit or another parameter that they forget about all the wild pitches or swings and misses that occurred between readings.

The reality is there is more to athletic performance than the raw numbers. Pitchers have to be able to hit their spots and spin the ball properly if they’re going to be effective at higher levels.

Hitters have to not only hit like studs in the cage but also on-demand when they’re facing a real pitcher. After all, you only get one shot when you hit the ball fair, so being able to smoke 250′ bombs in-between a bunch of weak ground balls and popups probably won’t be that effective on the field. You’ll never get the chance for the bombs.

Being able to achieve a 70 mph overhand throw doesn’t mean much if you can’t hit your target. It just means it gets to the parking lot faster – and rolls a lot farther away.

In other words, measurables are just one of many tools that can be used to evaluate the quality of a player. But since they’re easier to understand and compare they’re often misused or abused.

It’s like the football linebacker with 5% body fat and a physic like an Adonis. He may look good getting off the bus, but if he can’t tackle he’s not going to be around very long.

The other big minus is not recognizing there are certain biological reasons why one player can throw or hit harder, or run faster, than others. Insisting every player must hit certain numbers, especially at younger ages, doesn’t take into account that some may simply not be physically developed enough yet to keep up with the others.

Doesn’t mean they can’t get there eventually. But right now, they may be giving all they have to get to where they are.

Final Word

The one thing scientists haven’t figured out how to measure yet is a player’s softball IQ. While Player A may look like a stud for how hard she can throw, she may not be as valuable as Player B who knows WHERE to throw the ball in various situations.

And since throwing a runner out by one step counts the same as throwing her out by six steps, coaches may want to set the numbers aside in favor of the smarter player.

The bottom line is measurables are great for charting a player’s progress against herself and her own goals. They help see whether improvements are being made or whether a change of course may be necessary.

At the same time, however, they can also be misused, either in making player decisions or by parents trying to claim bragging rights for the sake of their own egos. Especially when the quality of the measurements can’t be confirmed.

My recommendation is to understand what you’re looking at and how to use it, and take them with a grain of salt rather than using them as absolutes. The more parents and coaches do that, the more value they’ll find in the measurables.

Check the Big Picture Before You Hit the Panic Button

One of the most important characteristics that drives (or at least should drive) youth athletes is the desire to be better this week than they were last week.

That doesn’t mean leaps and bounds better, like suddenly jumping 5 mph in pitching or hitting the ball 50 feet farther as a hitter. But, as Bobby Simpson says, getting a little better every day.

So it can be pretty distressing when, say, a pitcher goes to a lesson or practice and her highest pitch speed that day is a couple miles an hour off of her personal record. The pitcher may get discouraged and question her self-worth, and her parents may panic thinking something is horribly wrong. And, of course, her coach will be doing everything he/she can think of to try to get the numbers back up.

Sometimes, however, the issue isn’t a mechanical flaw or a lack of effort. Sometimes that’s just all that player has to give that day.

This is especially true for multi-sport athletes. A fastpitch softball player who is also in-season for a high-impact, energy-draining sport such as basketball, volleyball, ice hockey, field hockey, swimming, tennis, etc. may find it difficult to maintain her highest level of performance when she leaves her other sport’s game or practice and goes to her softball event.

Think of it like a glass of water. The player starts out with a full glass.

During the other sport’s game or workout, the glass begins to empty. Depending on the intensity she may drain it completely.

When it’s over, she moves on to softball. Along the way the glass starts to fill again, but it may not quite make it back to the top before she has to go out and perform again. So she’s starting with a less-than-full glass.

In some cases, it may not have even filled halfway again. So to expect her to perform at her highest level will be unrealistic because the energy is simply unavailable.

And that’s just the physical side. There is also the mental component.

It can be tough to switch gears, especially after a game where there is competition and pressure. She comes down from that, then has to crank it back up for softball? It may not happen.

Of course, this isn’t just limited to mental drains due to sports. Other factors can be involved as well.

Students struggling with a course load, or a particularly difficult class, or facing a tough test or finals may find they can’t work up the fine level of focus required to do your best. Musicians preparing for a concert, recital or competition, actors looking at the premiere of a play, debate team members in deep preparation and so on all have distractions that could prevent them from performing at their best.

Finally, there are friend and family dramas and social media issues to consider. While they may seem small to you, to an adolescent or pre-teen the issues may seem overwhelming – or at least challenging enough to get in the way of top-level performance.

Now take two or three of those issues and combine them and it’s easy to see that while the player may be willing she just doesn’t have enough in the tank to perform her best.

With pretty much all sports and activities (not to mention life in general) being year-round, there are no easy solutions. Just saying “suck it up and rub some dirt on it” doesn’t do anything but add to the frustration (and anger).

Best we can do is understand that, just like at work, kids are going to have good days and bad days. Some days they’ll be all charged up no matter what is going on in their lives. And some days, well, they’re just going to have to give the best they have and call it a day.

The measurables may not be there, but it doesn’t mean they’re not getting value. If anything, they’re learning how to perform in the last Sunday game of a long tournament played in 95 degree heat and high humidity.

So if your daughter doesn’t seem to be performing at her highest level don’t be too quick to hit the panic button. Take a look at what else is going on her life.

It could just be a temporary bump in the road that will solve itself when she’s not so pressed with everything else.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

There's more to playing than measurables

While I was tooling around on the Internet I came across this video that I thought was worth sharing. While again it isn’t specific to fastpitch softball (second week in a row, I know) it tells a great story – and one that is particularly timely these days.

Thanks to the ready access to all sorts of measurement devices, our sport is becoming increasingly obsessed with numbers. I get why that is; in theory, having objective measurements of throwing speeds, ball exit speeds, spin rates, grip strength and a lot of other parameters make it easy to compare one player to another.

Basing decisions on the numbers feels “safe.” You take all the personal opinions and favoritism out of it, and just evaluate everyone on the basis of the numbers they produce as measured by the machines.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. There’s also something to be said for having game sense. For example, player A has a home-to-first time of 2.7 seconds, while player B has a home-to-first time of 3.1 seconds.

The natural conclusion? Player A is more desirable, because her speed will make her the better base runner. What those numbers don’t show is that Player A has no idea how to read a pitch, or defense, and take advantage of opportunities while Player B does.

So in an actual game, Player A will run station-to-station very quickly, while Player B will take advantage of a defensive miscue or a fielder who isn’t paying attention to take an extra base when the opportunity arises. She also won’t run herself into trouble, even if the third based coach is “encouraging” her to. Now which one would you prefer?

A lot of those “game smarts” qualities don’t show up in a tryout, because in softball tryouts are primarily about looking at skills. They also don’t show up against a stopwatch or a radar gun. But when the game is on the line, again who would you rather have? The pitcher with the highest speed/spin rates, or the pitcher who knows how to get hitters out?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-measurement. Taking those readings is important, especially when measuring a player’s progress. There’s also something satisfying about achieving a goal you set for yourself, like a pitcher reaching 50 or 60 mph, a runner going home to first in less than 3 seconds, a hitter reaching a new high for bat speed or ball exit speed, etc. But the empirical number itself is not the be-all and end-all of who will add the most value to your team.

Which brings us back to the video, which is well worth watching. It talks about the 2000 NFL draft (some of you now know where this is going, I’m sure, but read on anyway).

There was a lanky, skinny quarterback at the NFL Combine who produced terrible scores. (If you’re not familiar with it, the Combine is where they do all these types of speed and performance measurements for football to help teams with their draft selections.)

For example, in the 40 yard dash the kid ran a 5-something. For perspective, between 5 and 5.5 is now considered the norm for an offensive lineman. For a quarterback, it’s ugly.

He didn’t have great arm strength either – average at best. Not much of a vertical leap. In the video they said it looked like he had never seen a weight room. So pretty much by any measure, this was a guy who wasn’t much of a prospect to become a backup in the NFL, much less a starter worth spending a draft choice on. Oh, and by the way, the word was his college team (Michigan) had spent his whole senior year trying to put someone in the lineup who they thought would perform better – probably a better athlete.

Still, the quarterback was hopeful. His wish was to play for his hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers, but they passed on him in the third round to take another player with better numbers. Who it was doesn’t matter because that guy was ultimately gone pretty quickly.

Finally, in the sixth round, with the 199th pick, the New England Patriots figured what the heck and selected Tom Brady. You know the rest of the story.

So while the numbers and measurables can tell you some things about a player, they can’t tell you everything. If you’re a player who maybe doesn’t throw the hardest, or hit the farthest, or run the fastest, that’s ok.

Accept that you will have to prove yourself in every new situation, embrace the challenge, and get out there and show everyone what you can do. And remember that the two essential qualities a radar gun or a stopwatch or a strength machine can’t measure are your smarts and your heart.

Just ask Tom Brady.

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