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The Unintended Consequences of Time Limits

countdown clock

Long-time readers (and those who dig in beyond the first post they came to read) know that I am no fan of time limits for fastpitch softball games. Especially some of the ridiculously short time limits that have been imposed over the last few years.

An hour and 15 minutes drop dead? Puh-leeze! One hour? Most games are just getting interesting at that point.

I get why tournaments have gone that route. If we want to be positive, it’s easier to keep things running on-time so teams know when they’re playing and it’s easier to adjust for events such as rain delays or an umpire crew that’s temporarily MIA. It also helps more teams get an opportunity to play in a particular tournament.

If we want to be cynical, it’s greedy tournament directors trying to squeeze as much money as they can out of teams by over-booking the venue.

No matter which side you come down on, however, they have become a fact of life. In any game where there is a decent amount of offense, especially on both side, you’re unlikely to play a 7-inning game.

That phenomenon has created an unintended consequence that could become more troublesome in the future: today’s youth players often seem to lack the mental stamina to play a full 7-inning game.

I don’t think it’s a physical thing. Honestly, physical conditioning is better and more pervasive than ever. Most travel players work hard in practice, practice more often, and do other conditioning exercises (or speed and agility training) outside of formal team practices.

Mentally, however, it seems to be a different story.

First of all, you have the issue of short attention spans. Humans naturally have short attention spans, but some research by Microsoft suggests that our attention spans have decreased considerably since 2000.

But I also believe that players who spend most of their time playing games that are an hour and 15 minutes long or so become conditioned to expect that’s how long a game should be. When placed into a situation where the time limit is longer, or where the game ends when seven innings are completed, they have a difficult time staying in the game mentally once that 1:15 point is reached.

Does it happen all the time, and with every player? Certainly not. When there is something at stake, such as a tournament championship, players can often manage to remain more invested in the game. Especially if it’s a close one.

Even then, however, you’ll often see a drop-off in the quality of play around the fifth inning or so. Suddenly two teams that seemed to be on top of it throughout the contest are suddenly making errors on simple plays, pitchers are having trouble finding the strike zone, and hitters are not managing the quality at-bats they did earlier.

And, since a lot of tournaments will remove the time limit for the finals (and even semi-finals), players’ time limit-conditioned internal clock will tend to take them out of a game before it’s actually over.

Where you’re most likely to see it, however, is in non-tournament play where there is no immediate end goal. Or maybe no end goal at all.

If you’re playing scrimmages or friendlies, it won’t be uncommon to see the level of play drop as the game gets past (or in some cases drags past) the typical time limit your team plays. You begin to wonder at what point the alien ship landed and the pod people took over your team’s bodies.

So what can you do? Being aware of this phenomenon is one thing. Keep an eye on the time, and when you’re getting close to your typical time limit find ways to give your players a mental energy boost:

  • If you’re good at pep talks, now might be a good time to give one. Try to re-light the pilot light.
  • You can remind your team that you still have 1,2,3 or whatever innings left to go before the game is over. Maybe suggest you focus on winning the next inning if you aren’t doing at already to keep the time horizon short.
  • Send the team off for a quick jog up the sidelines to clear their heads.
  • Tell them to re-set their mental clocks as if it’s a new game; maybe even do a pre-game cheer at that point if your team normally does one.
  • Try to get the lead domino excited about the next few innings so she can get her teammates excited.

We are all products of our conditioning. And right now, many players are being conditioned that fastpitch softball has a time limit, which means they only need to remain mentally focused during that time period.

Don’t let your players fall into that trap. Help them to remain on top of their game no matter how long the game is. It’ll be better for your team’s success. And it will be better for your players when they start (or continue) playing in situations where time limits aren’t a factor.

So what do you think? Is there some validity to these thoughts about time limits, or do your players not have any problems making the adjustment when the game goes longer? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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To Track the Ball, Think Video Not Photo

Learn to see in video, not photo

While the ready availability of modern technology (think: screens) has given us many marvelous advantages, it has also created some issues. One of the most profound is our increasingly short attention span.

You see it all the time – especially us coaches as we try to explain something important to our players even as we watch their eyes glaze over or pay attention to everything but us after about a minute. (Still, we persist in talking for 10, 15, 20 minutes anyway, especially if we just lost a game.)

That’s bad enough, because of course we’re imparting not just tremendous softball instruction but also life wisdom. 🙂 But where this short attention span can really hurt players is in how they track the ball during the game.

Often it seems like player tend to view the ball (and make decisions) based on a point in time. It’s like their brains take a photograph of where the ball is at a particular moment, then their movements and reactions are based on what they see in that moment.

The problem, of course, is that one point in time doesn’t give us enough information about what will happen going forward. For example, a photo of a player diving for a ball doesn’t necessarily tell us whether she successfully made the catch or not.

Erin Yazel catch

The ball may be in her glove, but will it stay there?

What they need instead is to take more of a video approach, i.e., see the flight of the ball as a series of points moving through space. (For those who don’t know, video is made up of a series of individual photos that play rapidly in succession, creating the illusion of motion. You learned something today.)

This “photographic” approach to seeing where the ball is going hurts several areas. Take catchers, for example.

They see the ball is going down and will need to be blocked. But they don’t wait long enough to see the flight of the ball in space, they just react to wherever it is 10 feet in front of the pitcher.

So they drop to block, only to watch the ball careen past their right shoulders. A little more information and they could’ve centered their bodies on the flight of the ball. Instead, it gets by and a run scores.

Hitters also need that type of spatial information. In fact, they need to track the ball as long as they can to get a feel for whether it will be inside or outside, high or low, and whether it may have some movement to it. All of that information can have a huge impact on when they bring the bat to the ball as well as where they take it to.

If they just take a mental photo they’re unlikely to take the bat to where it needs to go unless they’ve been specifically trained to recognize the ball’s flight earlier. But by tracking the ball through space the way they would watch it come in on video, hitters can make the adjustments they need to achieve greater success.

This principle also applies to fielding ground balls and fly balls. Ground balls can take detours due to field conditions (rock, divots, a lost helmet) and fly balls can go all over the place due to spin and wind. Using a “mental photo” to judge where they’re headed, and then checking out, is a fast track to an error. Seeing the whole travel of the ball, including where it’s going, will be much more effective.

Yes, in our short attention span theater world it gets increasingly difficult for players to learn to focus for more than a few seconds at a time. But if they can learn to watch the video instead of looking at the photo, they’ll be a lot more successful.

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