A question I will often pose to my fastpitch softball students is “How do you eat an elephant?” Regardless of age, the first time they hear it they tend to look at me as if I have completely lost my mind.
The correct answer, of course, is “One bite at a time.”* That’s a critical lesson for anyone trying to learn a new skill, or even make improvements to existing skills.
What it means in realistic terms is you don’t have to learn (or master) the skill all in one big gulp. You’re far more likely to have success (and far less likely to give up too soon) if you give yourself permission to learn whatever you’re trying to learn a little bit at a time.
This is particularly true of complex skills such as hitting and pitching that have a lot of moving parts. Trying to learn all the mechanics (or fix all the problems) at once is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Our brains simply don’t function that way.
But breaking the skill into smaller components, prioritizing them so you know what to work on first, and then focusing on each of those areas in order will enable you to create a progression where success builds on success.
For example, when I’m working with a new pitching student I like to use a technique called “backward chaining.” That’s a more sophisticated way of saying you start at the end of the skill and work your way backwards, because if you don’t get the end right nothing else you’ve done up until then matters.
So for pitchers we’ll work on starting the ball overhead, palm facing the catcher, bringing the upper arm down until it contacts the ribcage, and pulling the ball through into the release zone so the lower arm whips and the wrist snaps itself. (That’s a simplified version of what goes on and what I look for, but will suffice for now.)
Most young pitchers will tend to want to bring the entire arm through at once, get behind the ball too early, and push it through the release zone. Heck, some have even been taught to turn the ball backwards and push it down the back side of the circle, which is definitely what you don’t want to do.
So it takes a bit for them to learn to relax and let the arm work in two pieces. That’s why we focus on helping them get that feel, because it will serve them well as they get into the full pitch.
But if we tried to do that, plus get a proper launch, plus worry about getting into the right position at each point during the motion, etc. the odds are they wouldn’t learn anything. Especially how to whip the ball through.
The other element that enters this discussion, of course, is the impatience of players themselves. It’s understandable.
They are growing up in a world where they have instant access to everything – information (via smartphones and the Internet), food (microwave and fast food meals), transportation (no need to walk, we’ll drive you!) and so forth. The idea of having to wait for something they want is often foreign to them.
So, they try to eat the elephant like a python – unhinge the jaw and try to swallow it whole.
Again, it doesn’t work that way. As a result, realistic expectations have to be set.
They have to understand that doing this drill or taking a couple of lessons here and there won’t turn them into instant superstars who are mechanically perfect. Progress will come incrementally. Sometimes in increments so small it’s hard to tell it’s being made.
But if they keep working at it, the cumulative effect will take hold and eventually that big ol’ elephant will be gone.
The lesson for coaches (and parents) is don’t try to fix everything at once. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work.
Focus on one thing at a time, adding each new piece to what you’ve already done, and you’ll save a lot of heartache for you and the player.
For players, the lesson is to be patient and, as Bobby Simpson says, get a little better each day. Remember if you want to walk a mile you just need to start putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually you’ll get there.
So grab a fork and dig in! The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll reach your goals.
*Please don’t leave me nasty comments. I am not advocating eating, or causing any other harm to, actual elephants. They are beautiful, magnificent creatures. It’s simply a metaphor.
I know I’ve talked about this many times before but one of the problems fastpitch softball players face in our “instant-everything” world is an expectation that they can fix major issues, or go from good to great, with just a few repetitions.
I see it all the time. The coach or instructor explains what needs to change in order to improve, the player tries it a few times, and then is disappointed when whatever it is doesn’t work right away.
The reality is it’s just like healing from an injury – it requires patience. Anyone who has ever been hurt (which I imagine includes everyone on the planet) knows what it’s like.
First comes the injury and usually a lot of pain. But as the constant pain begins to subside the player starts testing the injured part to see if it’s ok now, even though the doctor said it would take four weeks to heal completely. Then, by constantly stressing it to see if it still hurts, the recovery period is extended out even further.
Making a change, especially a fundamental change in mechanics takes time – along with many steps and missteps.
A good way to think about it is how you go from home to first. Anyone who tries to get there in a single bound (unless they are from Krypton) is going to be disappointed. No matter how hard you try, or how long you work at it, you’re never going to go 60 feet in a single bound.
Instead, it takes many, many steps. There’s simply no way around it. You can do things to minimize the number of steps, or accelerate the time it takes to go from home to first. But it’s still going to take many steps.
And that takes patience. Replacing old habits with new ones usually requires following a process where you master the first step (or at least become pretty competent with it) before you move on to the next one. Otherwise it’s too easy to slide right back into the old habits.
Take learning to throw overhand properly, for example. Many girls will tend to drop their elbows to their ribcage when they throw, creating more of a pushing motion. That’s a huge issue that will limit both velocity and distance, and needs to be corrected.
Usually that means breaking down the throwing motion and focusing on getting the arm to slot properly. There are many different ways to do it, and programs that can help.
But what often happens is after a few repetitions the player immediately wants to go back to full throws. And what happens? The elbow starts dropping back down again, which means all the work that was put in before takes a couple of steps back. That desire to jump right to the finish now means it will take even longer to get to a real finish.
Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one that can be tough to come by. Especially in today’s world where everyone wants results now. And feels they have to get results now because there’s always another game coming up.
Still, patience is something that’s worth developing. If players (and their parents) can take their time to truly replace old habits with new ones rather than just trying to get to the finish line right away, or going straight back into full reps, they’ll find it actually takes less time overall – and the results will be more permanent.
So the next time you’re working with a player who wants to try to get from home to first in one bound – or even two, three, or four – help her put on the brakes and stick to the plan. The results will be worth the effort.
One of my favorite lines in the movie “Remember the Titans” is the one where Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) is describing his offense. “I run six plays, split veer” he says, “It’s like Novacaine. Just give it time, it always works.”
Here’s the actual scene, just for fun.
That’s the way it is when you’re working on developing good fastpitch softball mechanics.
Sometimes it may not seem like you’re headed in the right direction. It’s rarely an instant fix – nice as that would be.
But if you’ve done your homework and know you’re trying to learn the mechanics top players use, there’s no need to panic. Give it sufficient time and it will work.
That’s often a problem for players, parents, and even coaches these days, however. They don’t want to give it time. They want it to work now.
One of the challenges, of course, is that they usually need those skills right away. There isn’t much of an off-season these days, even up in the frozen north, so it seems like there’s always a game coming up.
It could take weeks or months before a player is comfortable with new mechanics after a significant change, and can execute them without thinking (or over-thinking) about them. In the meantime, she’ll have some success and some failure.
Pitchers will struggle with control and consistency. Hitters will miss balls they might have otherwise hit. Catchers will drop a ball or two when trying to throw a runner out on a steal, fielders will overthrow bases, and so on. It can be frustrating, and everyone will wonder if maybe the player wasn’t better off before.
But again, if she’s learning the right mechanics the answer is yes. Once she locks them in, she’ll be a far better player than she was before.
So keep that in mind. Learning new things takes time. But if you’re learning the right things, there’s no doubt about it. It always works. Just like Novacaine.