Earlier this week I saw an interesting article in Cindy Bristow’s SE Insider newsletter. The article talked about how players have changed since “back in the day” (whenever that day was) and how coaches need to learn knew ways to communicate with them that matches their experiences.
All valid thoughts, and things I’ve seen (and experienced) before. But I think there’s another factor that is often ignored that plays into it as well – especially for more “experienced” coaches.
When coaches start out, we are usually not that much older than the players we coach. Some, such as former high school or college players, are fresh off their playing days. Which means if they are coaching in college they’re maybe no more than 4 or 5 years older than their youngest players, and a year or two older than the oldest.
Even if they are coaching high school or younger players, it’s still pretty much the same world. Their fashion sense and musical tastes are probably not quite considered “uncool” yet (although they are trending that way), so it’s easy for them to relate to players where they are in their lives.
Parent coaches are a little more removed personally, but they are very much involved in their kids’ lives. Maybe too much according to some, but they are living what their kids are living every day. That also makes it a little easier for them to relate to what is happening in their players’ lives.
Now fast forward just a few years. Coaches are now further away from their youth perspective, and have had time to lock into a more adult way of thinking. They’ve added several years of life experience that colors the way they look at things, and have had ample time to start believing “life was better back when…”
I certainly saw this coaching my two daughters, who are seven years apart in age. You can fit a lot of life into seven years, so the person I was when I started coaching my oldest daughter wasn’t quite the same person I was when I started coaching my younger one.
I was certainly more knowledgeable, not just about softball but about a lot of things. I had made many mistakes and learned many valuable lessons. I’d like to think I’d grown as a human being, and I had certainly experienced a lot more things generally than I had when I started.
All of that impacted my coaching, and my point-of-view as I would talk to and work with players. I was also seven years older than I’d been, so seven years more removed from the way I looked at the world when I was participating in competitive sports.
The point is it’s not just the players who change. Coaches change too. And as we all know, as we age there is a tendency to become more stubborn and set in our ways, less open to new ideas and experiences, and less tolerant of things that don’t align with our world view.
As a coach at any level, it’s important to be aware of it and to do all you can to battle that tendency. Your players aren’t going to learn about your youth culture, except maybe in a history class and even then they’re only going to get an abbreviated, sanitized view, so it’s up to you to learn about theirs if you want to relate to them more effectively.
Get an idea of what the music they listen to sounds like (even if it makes your eyes roll). See what TV shows and movies are popular. Understand how they use technology, and how that influences their perspective. Look into what they need to help them learn and grow, and use it.
Here’s a quick example. If you want to tell a pitcher she looks stiff, you probably don’t want to mention “Frankenstein” as an example. She may not know who that is. But if you tell her she looks like one of the Walking Dead, and then imitate a zombie, she’ll be much more likely to understand what you’re trying to tell her.
Yes, kids today are different than they used to be. And it’s not like there is a hard line that says they’re all “like this” now. It’s a gradual shift that you may not even notice until what you’re saying isn’t working anymore.
But keep in mind each of us different than we used to be, and will continue to change as we get older and more experienced. Techniques or explanations that once worked great may elicit nothing but blank stares now. In fact, the coach you used to be might still have been able to easily relate to your current players. But you’re not that coach anymore.
Making sure you can continue to communicate effectively with your players is critical to success. And it starts with recognizing that it’s not just them that’s changing. It’s you too.
Evaluate yourself where you are now. Then start figuring out how to meet your players where they are. You may find it’s not quite as tough as everyone makes it out to be.
If there’s one thing I think nearly everyone in the softball world can agree on these days it’s that softball private instruction isn’t cheap. Especially in areas where you have to be indoors for at least part of the year.
The facility costs alone can get quite expensive. Then add in the cost for the instructor and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart – or wallet.
A dedicated family can easily spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars by the time it’s all added up, particularly if the instruction goes on for a few years.
That’s why it often shocks me how little effort so many parents seem to put into the decision. If they were buying a new lawn mower, or a refrigerator, or a set of tires for their car they’d probably do tons of research.
They’d look for professional reviews, they’d look for user ratings, they’d compare specs, and maybe even go to a store and look the item over.
That’s why items in this price range (and above) are called “considered purchases.” You don’t just buy them on a whim. You put some thought into the decision because it’s going to put a dent into your wallet and you’re probably going to have to live with whatever you choose for a while.
The cost of softball private instruction can easily surpass all of those items. You’re just doing it on a per-lesson “payment plan.” Yet based on what I’ve seen so many people accept, it seems they go into that expensive purchase that can have so much impact on their daughter’s softball career blind.
Here in the digital age, with a world of knowledge just a few clicks away at most, there’s simply no reason to get anything less than a full return on your softball investment. Here are some ways to make sure you do.
Do your homework on what is good
This is probably the easiest and yet most-ignored piece of advice. I think many parents start out by looking for an instructor who is close to them. To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse.
Before you go looking for instructors, do some homework on what you want your daughter’s instructor to teach. Put in some time to learn what is currently considered the state of the art for hitting, pitching, catching, throwing, fielding, etc.
See what well-known, high-level instructors and coaches are saying. Many of them generously share their knowledge on YouTube, or on sites such as the Discuss Fastpitch Forum. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am also the administrator at the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, but it is a free resource with open discussions, not a selling site.)
There are plenty of quality paid sites as well, and some with a mixture of free and paid information such as Cindy Bristow’s Softball Excellence, and (hopefully soon) Fastpitch Foundations for pitching.
Once you start getting your feet wet into it, the other thing you can do is look at what high-level players do and see how that lines up with what you’re reading/watching in the instructional materials. You’d be amazed at how many people, even the players themselves, don’t actually understand how high-level players execute their skills.
Check them out on YouTube and other sites, and watch as many high-level games on TV as you can. You’ll start to see the similarities.
Many myths abound, so it’s important to gain as much understanding as you can before you go into it. That way, when you’re evaluating instructors you’ll have a better chance of selecting one who is teaching the techniques actually being used by high-level players.
Watch other local players
Once you have a decent understanding of the instruction you’re looking for, it’s time to start investigating your options. A good way to do that is to observe players, either in games or a practice session, who look to have the techniques you want your daughter to acquire. Then ask them (or their parents) who their instructor is.
Be careful, however, not to confuse “good” with “well-trained.” A gifted athlete – one loaded with lots of fast-twitch muscles and/or exceptional hand/eye coordination, for example – can be successful with no training or even poor training.
(In the latter case, they usually end up not doing anything they instructor says because their body just figures out what do. But they still think they’re doing what they’ve been told.)
That, incidentally, is why looking at an instructor’s record of developing high-level players (think: college) isn’t always an accurate indicator of his/her quality. It’s tough to know how many of them would have succeeded without that coach – or did succeed in spite of him/her. It takes a lot more than “the right instructor” to reach that level.
What you’re looking for instead are players who execute the skills properly, as you understand them from your research. If they don’t appear to be the greatest natural athletes so much the better, because then you know their success is due to their training and dedication.
Last summer I had a perfect case study of how this works. I received a call out of the blue from a father whose daughter is a catcher. They live about an hour’s drive away (with traffic), so it wasn’t a decision he was entering into lightly.
But he said he’d seen a really outstanding catcher in one of their tournament games and he asked where she learned her skills. The parents referred him to me, and I’ve been working with his daughter ever since.
I’m sure he passes a whole host of instructors to get to me, but it doesn’t matter. Because he knows his daughter is being trained in a way that matches his expectations.
Have a conversation
Once you think you’re on the right track, have a conversation with any potential instructors. Get a feel for their knowledge level and what they teach.
One thing you want to determine is whether they take a “cookie cutter” approach, using the same drills and progressions for everyone, or whether they customize the instruction to the student.
It will take some players longer to grasp certain concepts or movements. A good instructor will keep them working to become at least competent at those skills before moving them on to the next one.
Others will grasp the concepts or movements right away. In those cases there is no sense in lingering on them because the stock lesson plan says “on lesson 7 we do this.” Move on.
Do what you can to determine how much the instructor customizes the instruction. Again, a good instructor will teach the same things to all of his/her students. But he/she will do it differently for each.
That conversation is also the time to ask questions. If you know you don’t want your daughter learning certain techniques, such as “hello elbow” for pitching or “squish the bug” for hitting, ask the instructor about it. An informed parent is a smart parent.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for the “why” behind what the instructor teaches. If there isn’t a “why,” I suggest you politely excuse yourself and move on to the next instructor. Everything should have a purpose.
Do a chemistry test
So you think you’ve found an instructor who has the knowledge and experience to train your daughter properly. The last test is to see what the chemistry is like between the instructor and your daughter.
We all have different personalities and ways of learning. And sometimes people just rub us the wrong way for no apparent reason. That’s life.
If there is a chemistry mismatch, lessons are going to be a drudge for both the instructor and student. You and your daughter will presumably be spending a lot of time working with this instructor, so you want to be sure they are working together as a team.
Also, you know your daughter better than the instructor ever will. You should be able to read her body language and enthusiasm level. A good coach will inspire her to do her best and help her feel good about the learning process.
If that’s not what you’re seeing in a conversation between the instructor and your daughter, or a sample lesson, you may want to continue your search.
Once you’ve made a selection, you’re not done. Keep monitoring to see how things are going.
Is your daughter getting better? Is her technique moving toward what you saw on TV from those high-level players? Is she gaining confidence in herself and her abilities?
The change is unlikely to be instant. It’s more likely to be incremental, with some frustrations and setbacks along the way. But over time you should be seeing speed and accuracy increases in pitcher, better blocking from catchers, stronger and more frequent hits from hitters, etc.
And perhaps someday some random parent will come up to you at a game or tournament and say, “Your daughter is really good. Do you mind telling me who her instructor is?”
Ultimately, however, the best ROI is the smile on your daughter’s face when she is successful and feeling good about herself. That’s when you’ll know it’s all been worthwhile.