You Can’t Hurry Player Development
Perhaps you’ve seen the recent Tweet from Olympian and all-time great fastpitch softball pitcher Cat Osterman in response to Extra Innings Softball calling for nominations for ranking of players who will graduate high school in 2028. (In case you’re not aware or don’t want to do the math, this would be a ranking of players who are currently in 7th – that’s right 7th – grade.)
It’s been making the rounds on social media as a meme too. In it, Cat said:
Just for perspective… I would have been no where (sic) near this list as a 7th grader… NO WHERE CLOSE! So much changes in the next 2-5 years… this is plain silly.
I couldn’t agree more. At a time when kids today are already under so much more pressure from the “professionalization” of youth sports, and facing increased mental health issues on top of all the challenges that have always come with transitioning from grade schooler to young adult, adding one more thing for coaches, parents, and players to obsess over seems like a bad idea.
What you often end up with is some who become sad, depressed, anxious, etc. because they didn’t make the list. And others who experience those feelings because they did make the list and feel like they now have to live up to the expectations.
But this sense of heightened expectations doesn’t just apply to players supposedly at the top of the game. It can happen at all levels when coaches and parents lose sight of what the real mission is.
Softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But an obsessive focus on winning and performance can suck all the fun out of it.
And what is the number one reason in every survey that players say they quit playing a sport they once loved? Because it isn’t fun anymore.
From 14 years old and down, the focus should be on player development and the process of learning rather than on outcomes. This is true even for so-called “competitive” teams.
(Not saying older teams shouldn’t develop their players too, but there is more imperative for them to keep an eye on the W-L column as well.)
Fastpitch softball is a complex game full of multiple decisions for situations and many moving parts for skills. Taking a shortcut on overall development so you can get wins today is the fastest way to stunt a player’s growth.
Sure, winning now is fun. But think of player development as giving players the tools they need to continue winning when the competition gets tougher.
Imagine if Cat Osterman’s coaches looked at her in 7th grade and decided she just didn’t have what it takes to be a pitcher because she walked too many people or didn’t hit her spots every time or whatever unrealistic demand they had of her.
Or what if they let her pitch but yelled ridiculous things at her like “Slow down your motion so you can throw more strikes.” Her 11U team might have won a few more games, but it’s unlikely any of us would know who she is. And her mantle wouldn’t include any Olympic medals or the various other prizes she’s earned as a premier pitcher.
Another pitcher who was in that boat was one who is thought by many to be the greatest of all time – Lisa Fernandez. She was told by a famous (but unnamed) pitching coach in Southern California that she should forget about the position because she didn’t have the build or the ability.
In her first outing she said she walked 21 batters and hit 21 batters. But somewhere along the way she was allowed to develop, slowly but surely, until she ended up being the winning pitcher in not just one but two gold medal games at the Olympics. Not to mention all her other accomplishments. You can look it up.
She probably wouldn’t have been at the top of anyone’s list in 7th grade either. But over time she became the player she was meant to be because she had the chance to grow into herself.
As Cat said, a lot can happen to a player between 7th grade and senior year. Some who peak early may find themselves falling behind later as the late bloomers begin to find themselves.
Others who don’t look like much on a 10U or 12U roster may work hard, benefit from a late growth spurt and coaches who give them opportunities, and suddenly find themselves becoming all-conference, all-area, or even all-state honorees. It’s almost impossible to predict.
Each of us finds our way in our own time. Coaches should keep that in mind.
At the youth level, keep your focus on player development and encourage those in your charge to play at the top of their abilities, whatever they may be at that point, rather than just doing whatever it takes to win today. You may just find you have some hidden gems – and make some lifelong friends in the process.
Learning to Fix One Issue at a Time
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.
Staying Focused on the Process, Not the Outcome
Recently I flew down to Nashville with my wife to visit my daughter (yes, a former fastpitch pitcher), her boyfriend Andrew, and their new house. Since it wasn’t non-stop we had a lot of time in airports and on planes.
Along the way I got tired of reading the dense book I’m into right now (finally reading a textbook I was supposed to go through my freshman year of college, and I am remembering why I never finished it) so I decided to play with a Blackjack trainer I have instead. Blackjack is the only casino game I tend to play, so I’m trying to make sure if I ever go back to a casino that I have my basic game down pat.
I used to have a different trainer, one that you would play online. It was kind of fun because you could place bets and track your progress. It was also valuable because it showed even if you make all the right moves you could still lose.
This one didn’t. You simply made decisions based on the cards that were dealt, and if you made a mistake a little pop-up would tell you what you should have done instead.
At first I didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t a way to track how I was doing money-wise. Then I came to see the brilliance in the way it was set up.
Without that running total of whether I was ahead or behind, I no longer was thinking in terms of outcomes. Instead, I was 100% focused on the process, i.e., selecting the right move based on the well-established odds for the game.
We talk about this a lot with softball players – focus on the process, not the outcomes. Or as I heard it put at the NFCA Convention, master the movement not the drill.
But how often do we really live it? If you’re working with a player who has been struggling at the plate and she finally makes contact, she’s probably rewarded with a “good job!” even if it was an ugly swing. But was it really a good job?
In the batting cages, when I’m pitching front toss, I will tell hitters that I don’t care if they swing and miss 100 times as long as they’re working on what we’re working on. I would rather see a good swing and miss than a bad swing and hit.
Not because a great technical swing by itself means anything. Again, there are no style points awarded during a game.
But working on getting the swing right – mastering the movement, focusing on the process – will lead to more long-term success. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in practicing it?
The same with a pitcher. I’m ok if they’re throwing the ball all over the place if they’re working on getting the mechanics right. Because I know if they do get the mechanics right the accuracy part will take care of itself. Accuracy is an outcome, not a goal unto itself.
When I work with fielders on throwing, again I want them to focus on learning the proper mechanics so when they need to make a quick, hard throw to get a runner out they can be sure of where it’s going.
If you have to think about how you’re throwing, or guide the ball to get it to where you want it to go, you’re an error waiting to happen. Probably at a key point in the game.
To get to that point in each of these cases, however, you have to take the outcome out of it. Just like the Blackjack trainer did for me.
Yes, it’s difficult. It’s a lot easier to recognize and reward a ball that’s hit hard (no matter how it was hit) or a pitch that goes in for a strike, or a throw that reaches its target than it is to focus on the way those outcomes happened. But it’s critical if you want to be successful.
Take the outcomes out of the training in the short term and just focus on the process and the movements. Give players the opportunity to “fail up,” i.e., do the right things now so that when those habits become ingrained they have far greater success than they had just doing whatever to get by.
Learning the basic game in Blackjack doesn’t guarantee success. The odds still favor the house, and you could still quickly drop a couple of hundred dollars even if you make the right moves 100% of the time. But it does help reduce that edge considerably, which is what makes it worth the effort.
The same is true in softball. You can still strike out, or walk a batter, or throw away a ball at a critical point in a game no matter how hard you work. But you cut the odds of it considerably, which is what makes focusing on the process your best bet for long-term success.