First of all, congratulations to the Crush Tidal Waves (CTW) 18U JS team for taking it all in the recent USA Softball (formerly ASA for you old die-hards) Chicago Metro. The Metro is always a tough tournament with strong teams, so winning it is definitely an accomplishment.
But it’s the way they won it this year that makes this story worth sharing, in my opinion. And since Life in the Fastpitch Lane is my blog, I get all the votes. No pretense here.
Basically, the CTW did it the hard way. First, it was a very hot and humid weekend in the Chicago area. Temperatures were in the mid-90s for most of it, and with the sun beating down it felt even hotter. I know, because I was outside for much of it.
CTW started out with two wins in pool play on Friday before beginning bracket play Saturday. They won their first game, then fell 5-2 in their second game of the day. That put them in the loser’s bracket in the double-elimination tournament, with a long way to go to get back to the championship game.
Still, they persisted. The challenge now was to win 7 games in a row – two more on Saturday in the brutal heat, then three on Sunday to get into the championship game. After that, they’d have to face a team that hadn’t lost in bracket play and was well-rested as they waited for all the other teams to beat each other up. And, of course, they had to win twice.
The first of those two games was a real nail-biter, with CTW leaving it all on the field to gain a 3-2 victory. You would think they’d have felt pretty good by then, having taken the top team to the what-if game after all that. No one would have blamed them if they had come out a little flat for the final match-up.
But again, they persisted, and instead they came out strong and took the final game (and the trophy) 5-1. Not sure where they found the reserves of strength after all of that, but they did.
Battered but not broken, exhausted but elated, and probably ready to jump head first into the nearest swimming pool, the CTW 18U JS team came out victorious.
So it does go to show that if you’re determined enough, and persistent enough, and just not willing to lose you can come back to win a big tournament like that.
Congratulations to the players, coaches, parents and fans. But mostly to the players and coaches for never giving up.
(A special shout-out goes to Katie Armstrong, a long-time player for CTW and one of my pitching and hitting students. Savvy readers may recognize Katie from my vlog on hitting off a pitching machine, among other mentions. Katie did all this with a hip injury that will require surgery after the season, which has limited her pitching time this year. But I think you’ll agree she thought it was worth it.)
I imagine for a lot of the players this season is the end of their travel ball careers, and for those who aren’t playing in college it’s the end of their entire softball careers. But what a memory they gained!
It’s also the kind of story they can tell future employers who say “Tell me about a time when you faced incredible difficulties but managed to succeed.”
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.