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Taking a Chess-Like Approach to Softball Skills Development

Every couple of decades or so, something comes along that increases the general public’s interest in chess.

In the 1970s it was Bobby Fischer and his rise to become World Chess Champion. His victory was important because it was during the Cold War, at a time the Russians were dominating the chess scene.

In the 1990s it was the development of Deep Blue, IBM’s supercomputer that became the first to win a chess game and a chess match against a reigning world champion, this time Garry Kasparov. If you like all the processing power you now get in a mobile phone, you can thank Deep Blue for some of it.

Of course, right now it’s the Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit that is making chess cool. Well, maybe not cool. Being captain of the high school chess club still isn’t nearly as good for your social standing as being captain of the football team or the cheerleading squad. But at least the show makes it a little less nerdy.

Or maybe not.

But whether you like chess or not (and you can count me in the “not” category for sure, since my idea of playing chess as a kid was to line up the big pieces and throw the pawns at them until they were all knocked off the board) there is a valuable lesson to be learned from how great players approach the game. The lesson is that to be successful in the long term in softball you have to have the right approach.

Beginners and your basic amateurs tend to be very transactional in their approach. They see a piece that’s vulnerable and they take it. If there’s nothing there, they make a move and hope something better shows up on their turn. It’s all about making something happen now.

Chess masters, however, take a different approach. They patiently work to get all the right pieces in all the right places so they can mount a powerful attack at the right time and win the game.

Sometimes that means sacrificing the most powerful piece on the board to gain an advantage. (That’s the queen for those who know even less than I do about chess.)

Now you know why this is funny.

But that process of putting all the pieces in place before striking is what makes them successful.

That same philosophy applies to improving softball skills. In our sport, we love to measure things. So, say, if a pitcher is increasing her speed on a regular basis there is a temptation to believe all is well. It’s a transactional approach based on immediate gratification.

But the success she’s experiencing right now may end up leading to long-term failure, or at least some unnecessary limitations, if she’s not improving her actual skills. Because poor technique, even when combined with great athleticism, can only take you so far.

To experience real growth and development, sometimes you first have to put all the pieces in place, i.e., break down the movements and replace them with better movements. That can be difficult for some, because it might actually mean regressing in terms of performance measures for a little while.

Take our pitcher again. She’s a big, strong girl who has managed to throw 55 mph by just muscling up and chucking the ball in there.

But she eventually wants to play at a higher level, against better competition, and knows she’s reached the limits of what she can do with what she has, so she decides she needs to improve her technique. What she will probably find, however, is that before her numbers go up they may go down some.

The reason, of course, is that when she was doing what she used to do, she was able to do it with all the enthusiasm and energy she could muster. Now that she’s trying to make changes she can no longer do that.

Her pitching motion may feel awkward and uncomfortable for a little while as she gets used to the new technique. Or maybe the only way she can learn to relax and execute the new motion is go at 70% energy for a little while. Either way, she goes from 55 to 51 and no doubt begins to wonder if she’s doing herself a favor.

If she’s done her homework, however, and selected a coach who knows what he/she is doing (not always a given, unfortunately), the payoff will come – once all the pieces are in place and she can once again put 100% into every pitch.

This approach isn’t just limited to pitching. It’s the same for pretty much anything in softball, and any athletic movement in any sport for that matter.

Making substantive changes is hard because we all want to fall back into our old habits. It takes time and repetition to replace old habits with new ones.

Yes, it would be nice if someone could just say “do this” or “do that” and improvement would come instantly. But it would be a whole lot less satisfying.

If you’re looking to make real improvement in your softball skills, follow the lead of great chess players. Get all your pieces in place, i.e., fix everything that needs fixing, then go for it with everything you’ve got using your new skills.

By keeping your eye on the long game you’ll ultimately experience far more success – and have a lot more fun in the process.

Chess pieces photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Nerd photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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