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The “Whack-A-Mole” Approach to Coaching

The other night as I was setting up for lessons at an indoor facility where I teach, there was what I presume was a dad and his son in the next cage over. The dad was pitching to his son, who appeared to be about 10 years old, and chucking them fairly hard at him.

Dad was kind of loud in his instruction – not a crime in my book because the place was pretty noisy and you had to talk loud to be heard – but because of that I couldn’t help but overhear what he was telling the boy.

With each pitch, Dad offered some helpful critique. “You dropped your hands.” “Your front foot stepped out.” “You’re dropping your shoulder.” “You were late.” “Gotta get your hips through.” And so on. You get the picture.

I felt bad for the poor kid because while all the things Dad was saying may have been true (I didn’t stop to watch because I had other things to do) I doubt the boy could make much sense of them.

The problem was there was so much scattered information coming at him at once it’s unlikely any of it was getting through. The kid probably felt like this.

Classic.

It was a prime example of what I call the “Whack-a-Mole” style of coaching. (It could also be called the “Magic Pill” style. My friend and pitching coach extraordinaire Anna Nickel from ElevatePitching calls it “Firefighter Coaching” because you’re constantly running from issue to issue trying to put out fires.)

You see an issue come up and you point it out, although you may or may not say how to correct it. On the next repetition, while the player is trying to fix whatever issue you pointed out, something else crops up so you immediately jump on that.

This pattern continues until the session comes to a merciful end. At which point the player is no further along, and perhaps even behind, where she was before.

There’s no doubt this is an easy pattern to fall into, especially if you’re personally invested in the player’s success. You see a problem and you want to fix it.

That’s human nature. I know I can be guilty of it myself (just ask my students), and constantly have to tell myself not to do it.

Guess who figured out how to upload GIFs today!

The problem with this approach is that even though everything being said is true, it’s not like you can fix an issue with one attempt. That’s where the magic pill concept comes in.

Just because a coach points out a flaw doesn’t mean a player can fix it right away. It takes many, many focused repetitions to replace an old habit with a new, better one.

Yet when you’re playing Whack-A-Mole, that whole focus thing goes right out the window. If you tell a player she’s dropping her hands, on the next swing she will (hopefully) work on keeping them up. Whack!

But then if you tell her she was late on her next swing (Whack!), her focus will switch to her timing. Since she hasn’t had time to fix the first issue, however, her hands will drop again as she concentrates on her timing (Whack!). Introduce a few more issues (Whack! Whack! Whack!) and her mind is probably somewhere else – quite possibly thinking she must be awful because there are so many things wrong with her, and maybe she should just give up the sport entirely. It happens.

A better approach is to choose one thing and work on that. Then, after the player gets the hang of it, you can try moving on to something else. But if the first issue crops up again immediately, you need to go back to working on that instead.

If you’re already aware of what needs to be fixed you can game plan ahead of time. Take the thing you believe to be the most glaring flaw, i.e., the one that is most likely to keep the player from having success, and work on that.

Only when it seems like the player can execute the new skill without having to hyper-focus on it should you try moving to the next one on the list.

If you don’t know the player that well, you’ll have to do the prioritizing on the fly. In that case, you should know what the most important issues are in general, in descending order, and just work through the checklist until you find what needs to be done.

For a pitcher, for example, you may see she has a very stiff arm from trying to make the circle too big. You might have her work on learning to loosen up the arm to allow it to work the way it should.

That approach will be much better than trying to have her learn to loosen up her arm, improve her drive mechanics and learn to hit her spots reliably.

The good news is, if you choose your priorities correctly, often fixing one issue will help with others as well. In the pitching example, loosening up the arm will enable the arm to whip, which will increase speed. It will also allow the momentum generated in the pitch to help guide the arm, impacting accuracy as well.

One other thing to keep in mind is that fixing skills such as hitting or pitching properly and permanently often requires you to focus on pieces rather than the full skill.

In the case of hitters, that might mean putting the player on a tee for a while rather than taking full swings. For a pitcher that may mean having her move up close and throwing into a wall or net rather than performing full pitches. The same with players who need to work on throwing.

For fielders, it could mean having balls sitting on the floor or ground, or rolling balls to them rather than hitting them. Some players may have a tough time with that approach at first, but they will benefit far more from it in the long run versus trying to fix problems within the full skill.

Whack-A-Mole may be a fun game to play at a carnival – especially if you have some pent-up aggression to work out, as we all seem to these days. But as a coaching approach it isn’t very effective.

Pick one thing to focus on and give your players time to learn it before moving on to something else. You’ll find you generate much better results – in far less time.

Learning to Fix One Issue at a Time

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One of the best AND worst things to ever happen to fastpitch softball training has to be the ready availability of instructional videos on sources such as YouTube.

It’s one of the best things because it has made a whole world of knowledge available to parents (and coaches) that was never available before. Personally, I think it’s one of the big reasons there is far more parity in the sport than there used to be.

Prior to YouTube, much of the best knowledge was concentrated in Southern California among a small group of coaches. If you were lucky enough to live near one, you received high-level coaching. If you were on the other side of the country, maybe not so much.

But once better information started becoming more available on YouTube (and through the Internet generally), enthusiastic players, parents and coaches were able to learn from the best no matter where they lived. Not saying everyone took advantage of it – there’s still a lot of bad coaching out there – but at least the information became available.

So why do I think it’s also one of the worst things that happened? Because parents and coaches could see how their kids/players looked compared to the examples, and the top-level players, and many became obsessed with trying to get their kids/players to look like the ones they saw on video.

That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing either. But where it became a problem is they wanted to make it happen instantly. So rather than addressing one issue at a time, they started trying to fix everything at once. That is probably the least effective way to learn anything.

What does that mean? Take a pitcher for example. The parent/coach sees the pitcher doesn’t have enough leg drive, so he/she starts working on that. Then he/she notices the arm seems a little stiff. So rather than continuing to focus attention on the leg drive, the pitcher now starts focusing on keeping the arm loose.

Then the parent/coach sees the glove swimming out and… well, you get the idea.

All of those are valid corrections. But it’s difficult, if not impossible to make all of them at once. Or even all in one session.

(DISCLAIMER: I know about this from direct experience because I used to do it too. Probably still do now and then, but I try to catch myself before it gets out of hand.)

A better approach is to set priorities, and then work on those priorities – even if other parts of the skill aren’t up to par. Or even if they are affected by the changes you’re making right now.

The reason is despite all the talk and hype about it, science has shown us that there is no such thing as multitasking. (Sorry all you people who think you’re good at it.)

The human brain can only pay attention to one task at a time. And making corrections to softball mechanics, or anything else for that matter, takes time, no matter how much we wish that wasn’t true.

Enabling players to remain focused on making a single correction, then moving to the next, will produce far better results than trying to fix everything at once.

But what about the discussions on how random practice (doing different things each time) is better than block practice (doing the same thing over and over)? That is true after a certain point, once the player has acquired a certain level of proficiency in the skill. For example, fielding ground balls to the left, right and center, hard and soft without establishing a set pattern will help translate those infield skills to a game better than doing 10 to the left, then 10 to the right, etc. 

But that presumes the player already knows how to field ground balls to the left, center and right, hard and soft. If not, the fielder must first acquire that skill, which is best accomplished through repetition and focus.

Giving players who are learning new skills, or replacing old skills with new ones, an opportunity to focus on one specific piece at a time (and without pressure for overall results, such as pitchers throwing strikes or fielders not making any errors) will create a better foundation and ultimately shorten the learning curve. Then, once the player has reached a certain level of at least conscious competence you can start moving into ensuring all the pieces are working the way they should.

Yes, there is a lot of great information out there (and plenty of bad too). And yes, it would be nice if you could just say things once and your kids/players would grasp it all right away. But that’s not how things work.

Avoid the temptation to “correction jump” (the coaching version of task jumping) and you’ll find you produce better long-term results – with far less frustration for you and your kids/players.

 

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