College Playoffs and WCWS Create Unique Learning Opportunity
The next few weeks promise to be a softball fanatic’s dream.
First you have all the major D1 college conference championships that will be televised on the various flavors of ESPN. Plus all the others that are available through various streaming services, including D2 and D3.
Then there are the regionals, super regionals and Women’s College World Series games that will take us through early June. Here’s an overview of what that schedule will look like.
While I’m sure it will be enjoyable to watch, there’s more to it than just entertainment. All this great softball on TV provides an invaluable learning opportunity for young teams – and one which most of today’s players don’t seem to take much advantage of.
When I start with a new student, I will often ask her if she can name any famous players at whatever skill we’ll be working on. For example, if it’s a new pitching student I’ll ask who she admires as a pitcher or what famous names she knows.
More often than not I get a blank stare. If I name a few for them, such as Cat Osterman, Amanda Scarborough, Monica Abbott, or Sarah Pauly, most of the time they may have heard of the name but have never seen them pitch.
As a result, most of the time they have no idea what a high-level pitcher looks like in action. The same is true for hitters and fielders.
That’s why the next few weeks present such a tremendous opportunity. Some of the best players in the world will be showcased doing what they do best. These are young women who do what you would like your players to do.
So why not take advantage of that and replace a normal practice with a watch party? You can find out when a local or semi-local team is playing and watch that game.
Or see if there is a player from your area on one of the teams and have your team watch her specifically. Show them that these aren’t just figures on TV but real players who once stood where your players do now.
Make a party of it. Supply some snacks, order some pizza, maybe even organize a sleepover if that’s appropriate. Then at game time, actually watch what happens and discuss the action on the field.
You might even pause the game and run back a good play to show the effort that went into it, or re-watch a bad play to talk about what should have happened instead. You can also talk about the strategy of why a team or player did what they did (good or bad) to help raise your team’s collective softball IQ.
It has been estimated that the majority of people in the world (65%) are visual learners. Showing your players both good and bad examples in real time helps them understand more thoroughly the techniques and strategies you’re trying to teach them.
As you watch the game, perhaps the coaches and players can make a list of things they want to work on at the next practice. Maybe it’s diving to catch a ball. Maybe it’s a type of slide they saw, or a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch. Maybe it’s a suicide squeeze.
Whatever it is, seeing it performed and then trying it themselves may be just the spark they need to inspire them to play at a higher level than they are now.
Watching a game on TV also gives your players a chance to gain some perspective about their own performance. They may see a pitcher give up a critical home run, then come back to strike out the next hitter.
They may see a player make an error to give up the go-ahead run, then come through later in the game with a key hit. Ultimately, especially in an elimination game, they will see the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” played out in real time.
The other nice thing about watching the games on TV (versus going in person, which is also a great experience) is that it doesn’t cost much. A little food and drink, the price of the cable or streaming channel (if it isn’t free) and the time to clean up afterwards is about all you need.
But you can create a learning and bonding experience that will benefit your players for a long time to come.
Sure, we all like to grind away on the field. But if all your players ever see is each other, and players on other teams of comparable ability, they may never realize there is a much larger world out there.
Show them some of the best in the world playing the game at a high level and you just might inspire a level of play and enthusiasm in them that they wouldn’t have achieved before.
Stop Chasing Rainbows on Technique
Let me start by saying I am a fan of continuous learning. I believe it is every coach’s responsibility to constantly question what they already “know,” look for new information and innovation, and keep up with the latest advances in our sport.
This is one of the reasons I pursued and attained Elite certification in the High Performance Pitching program back in the December/January timeframe, and continue to participate in weekly calls with other accomplished pitching coaches from across the country. I’ve been doing this for a long time and could easily decide to be comfortable with what I already knew. But if there is a chance I can do better in helping the athletes I coach you can bet I will look into it.
All that said, there is another side to this mostly positive coin – what I would term as “chasing rainbows.” A coach who is chasing rainbows isn’t really looking to add to their knowledge and synthesize what they believe so they can teach it in an organized manner.
Instead, this is a coach with no set of firm beliefs to challenge. Instead, he/she merely adopts and repeats whatever he/she heard most recently from someone perceived as being smarter than the coach. Here’s an example.
A hitting coach attends a coach’s clinic where the presenter explains why you want a slight uppercut swing with the hips leading the hands. So she takes furious notes, highlights the handout, and runs back to her team to show them this “new” way to hit.
Note that she doesn’t take time to compare the information to what high-level hitters do, or to think through how it applies to the players on her team. She simply parrots the talking points and hopes for the best.
A few months later, she attends another clinic where the presenter talks about starting with the hands and swinging down on the ball to create backspin. Again, she takes furious notes, highlights the handout, and guess what? Now her team is learning an entirely new way to swing (and an incorrect one, I might add) before the players have had a chance to master the previous way.
What you end up with is a team caught somewhere between their original swings, the techniques of the first clinic and the techniques of the second clinic. Then the head coach wonders why the team has a collective batting average of .257 and can’t seem to produce runs on any sort of scale.
A better approach would be to start with a firm set of beliefs about hitting, preferably based on the teachings of someone who has been successful coaching hitters along with a close study of high-speed video of high-level softball and baseball players actually swinging the bat.
Note that I didn’t say a study of what those high-level players say. Just because they can hit doesn’t mean they know how to explain what they do. You’d be surprised how many of them say one thing and do something else.
Once the coach has a starting point, then start taking in information and comparing it to those beliefs in the same manner. For example the conflict between whether to swing down on the ball or swing with a slight uppercut at contact.
Whichever side the coach starts on, look at information from the opposite side and see how it compares to those high-level swings. If what is being said matches what is being seen, the coach will probably want to re-evaluate her beliefs. If it doesn’t, the coach is probably already on the right track.
When a coach can attend a clinic or other presentation and critically evaluate the material being presented she can be fairly confident that her decision on whether to adopt what is being taught there or discard it will be a good one.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a binary choice. The coach may find that 95% of what is being presented is just old thinking, but that the other 5% has some value, if not for the whole team at least for one player.
This is especially true when it comes to drills. People talk about “good drills” and “bad drills.” But with rare exceptions, any drill is good that can help a player get to where she needs to go, even if it’s not the best course for everyone.
This idea of working to adopt a firm philosophy doesn’t just apply to hitter. It can apply to any skill within fastpitch softball, even if what you’ve been doing has been successful.
Heck, I’ve taught throwing a certain way for a number of years, based on the best information I had available to me at the time. After being exposed to Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing program I’ve changed what I teach to some extent. Not because it’s the flavor du jour, but because what he says makes sense in the context of what I already understand about throwing.
For many of us, change can be difficult. But for some it actually comes too easily.
Find something or a set of somethings you believe in after careful consideration, then work to build from there. Because the funny thing about chasing rainbows is that while you may feel you’re getting closer, you’ll never catch them. And you may actually take yourself farther away from your preferred destination.
Rainbow photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com
It’s Not the Arrow, It’s the Archer
The title of this week’s post is a phrase I use often, especially when I get asked about an equipment recommendation. But it can apply to a lot of things.
It seems like everyone is looking for the “magic bullet” – the bat, or gadget/device, or drill or technique or whatever that will, with no additional effort on their part, create a sudden and dramatic improvement in performance. In my experience, and the experience of many other coaches I’ve spoken with over the years, that magic bullet doesn’t exist.
Take bats, for example. Sure some bats have a better trampoline effect or are “hotter” than others (within the limitations set forth by the various sanctioning bodies) and thus with all else equal will provide an edge. But all else is rarely equal.
First of all, for all that bat technology to work you still have to hit the ball at the right time, and in the right location. If you’re not doing that now a new bat isn’t going to help.
It will look nicer in your bag, and people will be duly impressed when you take it out. But if you have a $500 bat and 5 cent swing they won’t stay impressed for long. It’s not the arrow, it’s the archer.
Since speed is such an important component in pitching, everyone is always looking for the magic drill that will help them gain 8 mph in one or two sessions. An entire industry of DVD sales and online courses has been built by that particular desire.
But again, if such a drill exists I’ve never found it. Neither has Rich Balswick, who is one of the best and most accomplished pitching coaches in the world.
I know, because I’ve talked to him about it. For all he has done he is still looking for that magical drill that can instantly turn a pitcher with average speed into a burner.
In fact, he told me if I ever discover it to pass it along to him. So far I have not been able to do so, and he hasn’t shared one either so I presume he’s still on the hunt as well.
Devices and gadgets are another area where people hope for miracles. Some are valuable teaching tools, like the Queen of the Hill or the Pocket Radar, and others are just fancier ways to lose money than flushing it down your toilet.
None, however, can instantly make you better just by purchasing them, or using them once or twice. Because it’s not the arrow, it’s the archer that makes the difference.
Then there are those who claim to have solved the mysteries of the Sphinx in terms of the techniques they teach. These same people tend to keep exactly what it is shrouded in mystery, as though if they told you (without you paying them huge sums of money) they would have to kill you.
While there is certainly plenty of bad teaching going on in the softball world in all aspects of the game, it’s not like the optimal techniques are known only to a select, privileged few. The information is out there if you are willing to invest some time looking for it. (I like to think a lot of it is here, by the way, so feel free to poke around some more after you finish with this post.)
Of course, that’s the issue – investing some time. Most of us would much rather buy a “product” that promises instant, guaranteed results than recognize that learning athletic skills is a process that requires a lot of work, a lot of boring repetition, and paying a lot of attention to a lot of little details that can have a large impact on performance.
The first way sounds easier, doesn’t it? Too bad it doesn’t work.
The value of any piece of equipment, drill, gadget or technique lies with the person who is using it.
Put that $500 bat in the hands of a player with a 5 cent swing and it’s going to look like a waste of money. Put that same bat in the hands of a player who has invested the time to develop her swing, her eye at the plate and her mental approach and that same bat is going to look like the smartest thing you’ve ever spent money on.
Remember, it’s not the arrow that produces the results. It’s the archer. Invest your time and money in improving the archer and she’ll be successful no matter what arrow you give her. Spend all your time and money on the arrow and you’ll be forever disappointed.
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