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Big Issues Don’t Always Require Big Solutions

Toward the end of the summer 2020 season (if you can call that a season), one of my pitching students, a terrific lefty named Sammie, developed some control trouble. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she started throwing everything off the plate to her throwing hand side.

We got together and we worked on it. I thought she might be going across her body instead of straight so we set up a couple of giant cones to try to steer her back down the straight and narrow as it were.

It helped a little, but not enough. She still struggled in her next game, and in her practice sessions.

This was definitely a problem that needed to be corrected so I racked my brain on what the probable root cause might have been. As it turned out, however, I didn’t need to think so hard.

I simply needed to remember my own advice, given about a year ago, regarding Occam’s Razor: If there is a simple solution and a complex one, the simple solution is usually the best.

In this case, I only needed to remember the opening song from “Les Miserables” – look down.

When I looked down at Sammie’s feet on the pitching rubber I knew exactly what the problem was. She was like this:

Notice her left foot way to the left. Ignore the dirty mat and rough ground around her.

We have been working on her sliding her foot over the center of her body and I thought she had that down. But somewhere along the way she stopped centering, and instead would only slide her foot slightly. As a result, everything was going down the left side, often off the plate.

So we worked once again on the proper slide across, placing her left foot more in this position before driving off:

Ah, that’s better! How long do you think those shoes will stay that white in those conditions?

Once she got her foot more in this position all her problems with being off the plate went away, as if by magic. Control was regained and she once again began dominating hitters.

So there’s the lesson for today. Sometimes a pitcher’s (or any athlete’s for that matter) issues aren’t being driven by some horrible breakdown in mechanics.

As we coaches work to acquire knowledge and hone our craft, we can get caught up in over-thinking the issues and the solutions. This is a good reminder that often a simple adjustment on a pitcher who has been doing well can get her right back on track.

William of Ockham may have been born in 1287. But he would have made a heck of a pitching coach.

Applying Occam’s Razor to Teaching Fastpitch Softball

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At some point in your life outside of fastpitch softball you’ve probably heard the term “Occam’s Razor.” No, it’s not a brand of shaving utensil.

Instead, it’s a way of approaching problems. Essentially it says that all else being equal, if there is a simple approach to something and a complex one, the simple one is usually better.

If you want the full explanation, follow the link above. But a big part of it has to do with variables. The more variables you introduce (thereby making it more complicated), the more chances there are to get it wrong.

That has certainly been my experience coaching girls fastpitch softball for lo these many years. (Had to say that – how often do you get a chance to use “lo” in a sentence?)

I remember watching pitching instructors take pitchers through their 10-step or 15-step warm-up process, where every single piece is broken down into the most minute movements. I’ve seen the same with other aspects as well – hitting, throwing, catching a fly ball, you name it.

On the Internet it gets even worse. It’s almost like a contest to see who can make their explanation the most detailed and confusing.

Really what it is is a game of “one-upmanship.” Kind of like the old “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But in this case it’s “he who is the most unintelligible must be the smartest.”

I disagree with that philosophy. Instead I ascribe to the idea (often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein) that if you can’t explain something simply you don’t truly understand it.

When you’re coaching someone in a skill, your goal should be to help them learn to execute the skill in the context it will be used as quickly as possible. You can’t get that from a 15-step approach.

A player may get good at each of the 15 steps, but she will likely still struggle to put them all together and execute them under the pressure of a game. Too many variables to worry about, and too much thinking trying to get all of that right.

If you can break it down into a few easily digestible steps that naturally flow into one another, however, I find that players not only learn faster – they learn it deeper too, because it has context.

Hitting is a great example, because it’s probably one of the most over-analyzed skills in all of sports. It’s also interesting because a lot of the analysis will talk about why so-and-so hit a home run with their swing, but will never mention when that same swing resulted in a weak pop-up or ground ball. Which means there’s more to it than just the mechanics.

That said, as a coach or instructor, there is definitely a certain base knowledge you need in order to understand what is going on throughout the swing, and why some movements/angles/timing/etc. work better than others.

Once you get that, however, it’s time to start peeling away everything that isn’t essential to teaching someone how to hit. Especially since certain parts of the swing are going to naturally result from other parts anyway.

Teach the critical parts, such as leading with the hips, separating the hips from the shoulders during rotation, keeping the hands up and letting the bat head down, etc. Then turn your hitters lose to fill in the blanks on their own – without having to think about them.

It’s like the old KISS acronym – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Give them what them what they need to know in a way they can understand it instead of trying to show how smart you are or how much research you’ve done.

Oh, and while it’s tempting to say this approach is more important for younger players, the reality is it’s important for players at all levels. The real difference with older players if you keep it simple is they’ll pick it up faster and get to success sooner.

The more you follow Occam’s Razor, the more success your players will have, and the more games you’ll win. Isn’t that really what it’s all about?

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