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Seems Like I Never Get to See the Good Stuff

Spectators

One of my favorite things to do is to go out and catch a game where one (or more) of my students is playing. It can be a bit nerve-wracking at times – especially if a pitching student is facing a hitting student since by default one of them is about to fail – but overall I find it highly valuable.

One of the best parts, of course, is seeing how they perform in context. It’s one thing for hitters to be banging balls all over the batting cage, or pitchers to be racking up the Ks in bullpen sessions. It’s another to see what they do in an actual game situation. It’s like Han Solo says:

About a week ago I had one of those rare opportunities. I didn’t have lessons until later, and high school softball starts pretty early (usually 4:30 during the weekdays) so I ran out to a local school to watch a hitting student named Ella play at least part of a game.

She came to bat twice against what I would characterize as a pretty good pitcher, and she struck out both times. As I watched her struggle I switched from “just here to enjoy a game” mode to “coach/analyst” mode.

I noticed something in her swing. Much as I would have liked to have run down to the dugout and told her about it I would never actually do such a thing. So I did the next best thing. I texted her mom, who was out of town, and asked her to share the information with Ella when the game was over.

Ella’s mom responded that she would, but then I had to leave in the middle of the game to go teach some lessons.

Later I got another text from Ella’s mom. Apparently after I left Ella hit a home run and a double. So she ended up 2-4 that day accumulating 6 total bases. Her mom did say she would pass my message along anyway.

But it figures. I don’t know if this happens to others, but I feel like it always happens to me. I go out to watch a student play and she seems to have a rough time. But I’ll hear before I got there she did awesome, or after I left she got it together and played like a champion.

It wasn’t just Ella either. A couple of days later I watched a 12U pitcher named Sammie for a bit in her first outdoor game of the season. It wasn’t pretty. In the first inning she pitched, which I was there to see, she gave up something like 6 walks, which is uncharacteristic for her and a total surprise after the great off-season she had. She also had 2 Ks, but it wasn’t exactly an offset.

Then I left for lessons, but continued to follow along on GameChanger. Of course, once I was gone she proceeded to strike out the side in the next inning, only giving up one meaningless walk.

It’s enough to make you wonder, “Is it me?” Now, I have heard from parents before that their daughters admit to being nervous when they see me at a game. They want to perform well when I come out to see them, and sometimes it makes them uptight.

Which I find strange since who is going to be a bigger fan and cheerleader for them than me? No reason to be nervous, go have fun. But just in case, I’ve started trying to find places to hide so they don’t know I’m there.

I do know I’m not alone in this. I remember the mom of another hitting student named Emma telling me she never got to see her daughter hit a home run. That was quite an accomplishment because her senior season in high school she hit 15 of them. But when mom was there nothing. She eventually did see one, but it was notable for being the exception.

Now, sometimes I go out to watch a game because I know a student is struggling. I consider that a fact-finding mission so we can get her back on track as quickly as possible, so I don’t even count those games in this post.

The ones I’m talking about is where I see or hear the player is doing well, and I go out with the intention of enjoying the show only to see her under-perform. Luckily no one has flat-out asked me not to come to a game yet, but frankly I sometimes wonder why.

The good news for my students is my lesson schedule (not to mention my wife) keeps me busy so I don’t have a lot of time to get out to games. But if you are one of my students and I do show up, please do me a favor. Relax, have a good time, and just play the way you play when I’m not there. We’ll all be happier for that.

So how about you? Ever have that experience when your student/daughter/whoever plays well EXCEPT when you’re there? Share your stories in the comments below!

 

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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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