This is the time of year when the rubber starts to hit the road in travel ball. All the promises of tryouts, all the good intentions, and all the talk of “we’re in it for the girls” starts getting tested as games get real and the outcome of the season is at stake.
The result is that some players/families begin to get disenchanted with their positions on the team and start thinking they might be better-served somewhere else.
They may or may not be correct. If you’re a player or parent who thinks playing time should be handed out like Halloween candy, regardless of effort or output, you’re probably not going to be any happier on the next team than you are on this one.
Your lack of skills and knowledge will be a detriment to whatever team you’re on, and coaches will recognize that pretty quickly. Your lack of effort to improve will also be noticed, making it easier for you to be left watching the game from the dugout.
But there is another class of player who may also be facing this decision. She has been working hard, showing improvement, earning her right to be on the field. But for whatever reason, the coaches have made their decision not to play her and that’s the end of that.
No matter what that player does or shows she can do, her fate on this team is sealed. Those are the ones who may find it necessary to seek a team.
Yes, I’ve seen all the bloviating on Facebook and other sources about how you just have to stick it out, and how horrible it is that players switch teams so quickly these days – whether that’s at the youth or college level.
I’m all for having to work your way up, and quite frankly think you should never join a team where you will clearly be the best player, either overall or at your position. The competition will make you better.
But all of those memes and rants presume you are working with a level playing field. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways the field can be made permanently unlevel.
One common example is a player might play the same position as the coach’s daughter, or the coach’s daughter’s best friend. For a certain type of coach, that means his/her daughter or her friend will always play every inning at that position – no matter how many errors she makes or how many times she strikes out with runners in scoring position.
At that point, you either resign yourself to playing another position or playing your position with another team. If there isn’t an opportunity to ever show what you can do, the only option left is the status quo. Or as my friend Ray Minchew puts it, “It’s tough to build a track record when you never get on the track.”
What that often means is that you fall into the category of “spare parts.” A team needs a minimum of nine players to field a full team, but it’s likely that all nine won’t be able to be at every game. So it also needs people to fill in.
That’s where you come in. If one of the starters can’t make it, and the coach can’t find a guest player to fill that spot, you get on the field. Just know that once the starter comes back you will be back to the bench, no matter how well you did when you had that opportunity.
One of the things the “just tough it out” proponents will tend to bring up at this point is loyalty. They will moan how players are selfish and no one shows loyalty to the team anymore.
In my opinion, however, loyalty is a two-way street. If a coach isn’t loyal enough to his/her players to give them opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and legitimately compete for a spot, why should any of the players be loyal to the coach or team?
The reality is they probably won’t be. If all decisions are transactional, i.e., either the coach wants to win and doesn’t care if players are happy or the coach is more interested in keeping certain players happy or making them the “stars.” there is little reason to stick around if you’re not part of the “in-crowd.” Your situation isn’t going to change.
All anyone should be able to expect is a fair shot at playing. They then have to show what they can do.
But if they do, they should be rewarded appropriately. Otherwise, what is the incentive for working hard or for sticking it out?
If you’re a coach who wants loyalty from your team, start by showing loyalty to your players. ALL your players, not just your favorites or the ones who share a last name with you.
No one signs up for a team for the opportunity to ride the bench all season with no hope of parole. They want to play. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.
Give them that opportunity and they will be yours for life. But if you don’t do it, don’t be surprised when your “spare parts” decide they’d rather seek their fortunes elsewhere.
And by that, of course, I mean 2020. Of all the steaming pile of cow pie years, 2020 had to be the steamiest.
But now it’s finally in the rear view mirror. Today is the first day of 2021 (not to mention the rest of your life if you’re into 1970s poster philosophy). And at the risk of having my optimism for the new year come back to bite me in a most ironic way – as in halfway through 2021 we’re longing for the good old, carefree days of 2021 – here are a few thoughts on how you can best take advantage of it.
First is to be grateful for the opportunity to play at all. In the middle of a long, grinding season it’s easy to fall into the trap of grumbling about how once again you have to get up at 6:00 am on a Saturday (or earlier) to play in an 8:00 am game. Or be away for the entire weekend when you have finals to study for. Or miss a party or event because you have practice.
For much of 2020 that wasn’t a problem, and it wasn’t nearly as nice as you thought it might be. Every career has an expiration date on it.
Some are further out than others, but they all have one. And once it’s expired there’s no going back. Appreciate that you have the opportunity to play the greatest game in the world at a level that challenges you. Because you will miss it one day. I guarantee that.
Now that you’re in the right frame of mind it’s time to make the most of that opportunity. If your coach has taken the time and effort to evaluate your performance over the last several games (or the previous season) and offer suggestions on areas where you can improve, take it seriously and make an effort to improve them.
For example, if you are a middle infielder who has trouble going to her forehand side and making the play, get someone to hit you a few thousand balls to your forehand side. If you can’t find anyone who can hit them reliably, get someone to roll them that way.
Learn to “run the mountain” on hard-hit balls that might get through, and learn to bend your knees rather than your waist to get down to the ball when you’re close. When you get good at that, practice diving for balls.
Lay a nice, thick mat down to your glove side, have someone toss the ball across the mat, and dive in a way where you land on the mat. It will safely give you the practice you need, even inside, and it’s fun.
You can also improve on softball-specific conditioning. Yes, most people don’t like conditioning, or only like it when what they’re working on comes easily. But if your skills are strong, conditioning can make the difference between good and great.
Not all of this conditioning has to be in a formal setting with expensive equipment. Or even during a formal conditioning session.
If you’re just sitting around watching TV, listening to music, or hanging around at the beach, try doing it while planking or doing wall sits. If you’re watching TV, maybe start out trying to hold it for one commercial (30 seconds), then two commercials (one minute) an entire commercial break (roughly three minutes) and then through a segment of the show (which will vary).
The time will pass quickly with the added distraction, and you’ll get in shape rather than feeling like you’re wasting time. If you make a strong commitment to it you can even declare you’re going to work out when you flip on the TV.
Another good form of important but easy-to-execute-anywhere conditioning is grip strength improvement. You can squeeze a stress ball or some other grip strength improvement tool while you’re reading, or watching videos, or plotting to take over the world.
Better grip strength will help you transfer more energy into the ball as a pitcher, fielder or hitter, control the bat better during your swing, field more smoothly and a hundred other things. Multitasking on improving it will pay significant benefits in the long run.
Then, of course, there’s the outrageous idea of approaching every formal practice as an opportunity to get better rather than an obligation to be endured. So many players just show up and walk through whatever drills and skills the coach has laid out for the day rather than gaining any benefit.
Do your best to understand what the purpose of each drill is, and then go for it 100%. If you don’t know the purpose of the drill, ask what it is. You will probably find it easier to go all-out and get some benefits from it if you understand why you’re doing the drill.
Another good habit to get into is studying what the best players at your position do when they’re playing the game, and compare it to what you do.
Look for video clips of the best pitchers, catchers, fielders, hitters, base runners, etc. and save them to your phone or device. Then download an app such as Coach’s Eye or Kinovea and have someone capture clips of you, either in practice or in games.
The last step is to lay them side-by-side in your app and compare what they’re doing to what you’re doing. If there is a significant difference, such as you are leading your swing with your arms while they lead their swings with their hips/core, you may want to re-thinking what you’re doing.
You may be succeeding, but if you’re not matching up there’s a real chance you could do significantly better by more closely matching what top players do. That doesn’t mean you have to be a clone of any one player – we’re all different – but you at least want to resemble them overall.
Oh, and don’t match yourself to just one. Take what’s common across all or most of them and use that as your baseline. Then you can adjust those fundamentals to best suit your body type, strength level and personality.
We all have our fingers crossed that 2021 will be more of a return to “normal” for the softball world. But “normal” doesn’t have to mean “the same.”
Take what you’ve learned in 2020 about what a lack of softball means, and use that to help you get yourself ready to play at a higher level in 2021.
Good luck, happy new year, and have a great season!
Cow photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Planking photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com
Sleep photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Arm wrestling photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com