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There’s a common misconception that most of us athletes that are successful, on the national team, playing professional were always good. There are younger athletes and parents alike that often say “well you were always good” or something similar. While I can’t speak for everyone one of us, I can say that was not always the case for me.
When I was 11, I had started pitching, but wouldn’t classify myself as a pitcher. Therefore, being left-handed I was a first baseman and an outfielder. I played Little League, and my coach had nominated me to try out for the All-Star team. I had been on the All Star team the season before, so I was excited to try out again. When tryouts began they informed us there were 15 spots and 16 people were trying out. Do the math, only 1 person wasn’t going to make the squad. The parents wondered if they would just add an extra alternate spot and let everyone make it. Now a days, I feel like that would be their solution. However, I did not grow up in what I deem the participation/Everyone Wins era.
Dad and I left the field, and I thought I performed well. My coach had been there, and of course shared his sentiments of being proud. I was happy and hoping I’d get another chance to wear the green jersey and another All Star hat. A few hours later, my dad got a phone call. It was my coach. I waited patiently to hear what the news was. However, the news wasn’t good. My dad hung up the phone and informed me I was the one player they cut that year. I am sure I shed some tears, maybe even ran to my room in disappointment, but I remember later talking to my dad and starting the conversation with “well this really sucks.”
At the time, my dad was contemplating moving me to travel ball. My interest in softball and pitching had grown, and he thought I could learn and develop better in that environment. We talked it over. He explained I would most likely sit the bench for a while, and I was ok with that. I played left field when they told me to. I would get chances to pitch when we were down by too much or up by enough. I took my opportunities with a smile on my face and a passion for my position. The same Little League that cut me ended up making their own travel team, and they’d pass my team and snicker about me sitting the bench.
Eventually I earned time as a starter when games mattered, and I even came in relief of our #1 and got us out of jams. I can look back now and see that I earned that.
Was I always good? No way. I was short, skinny, uncoordinated and awkward. BUT… I loved what I did. I worked hard to be better for the sake of wanting to be better, not for a college scholarship or anything external. My work ethic took over. I worked because I saw opportunity. I worked because my coaches helped me develop. I didn’t run from Little League because they had cut me. In fact, I played the fall season I had already signed up for, then left.
Too often I see athletes jump teams because they aren’t playing. They leave to find a place where they are the best. You don’t have to be the best every step of the way. You just have to be willing to work hard while you bide your time. When the time comes, you have to accept your opportunity and make the most of it.
We all fail. We all lose. Most of us get cut. How you work after these events is what creates the athletes that you see on the sports biggest stages.
…that was this summer's question! This past April, as I turned 30, I announced I would leave my cleats in the circle come August. After all, like I said, I turned 30! In my mind, I convinced myself I didn't need to keep playing. Sure my body has told me I need to slow down some with injuries, aches and pains. Fortunately, I got through my younger years relatively unscathed, so dealing with those set backs was a new and trying process.
The story starts with the end of the 2011 season. If anyone watched the NPF Championships, you can remember my crumbling to the turf, holding my arms and screaming in pain. What was very painful at the time, and for a little bit after, ended up being a neurological complication due to something called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. In short, compression in my upper body had pushed my first rib and clavicle together, which pinched my nerves. Once my arm hit the top of my arm circle, I would essentially lose pulse in my arm. It was trippy to feel once the doctor test me out. Those curious, this is more prevalent in baseball pitchers, but not uncommon, and not incredibly serious if caught early. It can be more serious if it's not recognized. Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals was diagnosed with the same thing, by the same doc, as I was! Pretty neat!
After the diagnosis, I had surgery 2 days before New Years. The rehab process was long. It was 12-13 weeks before I could even start to throw again. This put me only about 6-10 weeks out of season. After that long of a lay off, that's a short time to be ready. The 2012 season was less than stellar for me physically and mentally. No matter what stat lines read, I was laboring to really throw well. My definition of well isn't the outcome. It's how fluid I feel, how well I place my ball, and more importantly how consistent I can spin it. These things that had always been easy, were very difficult. My catchers are a saving grace, because many times drops took off to the opposite corner, and curves wouldn't curve the same each time. After throwing for 18 years, I didn't think this should be as much of a problem as it was, and honestly I thought maybe I was hitting the point where I just wasn't going to be able to pitch the same anymore. I toughed out the 2012 season, and resigned myself to the mindset 2013 would be it.
Knowing I only had 1 year left, I set out to be in the best shape and have no regrets. Starting in December of 2012 I met with a trainer 4 times a week. I always thought I was in shape, but Lance got me into a whole different level of in shape. I loved it. I enjoyed working out. I enjoyed lifting heavier and heavier. Conditioning has always been my stronger point, so that wasn't as hard to learn to love. I put all I had into going out with a bang.
Then came the summer. I really should have known in April, when I emailed my teammates to tell them the news that I wasn't ready. I was crying and shaking uncontrollably as I tried to type. I reported to Florida and happily enjoyed practice and the company of my teammates. I didn't take a day for granted, and I kept working hard to get my pitching back to the form I knew I was capable of.
Not a day went by where someone didn't ask me how sure I was of my decision. Honestly, after about 3-4 weeks of season, not many days went by where I wasn't asking myself the same question. I talked with a few teammates about it. I think I was unconsciously searching for their advice. As practices kept on, games happened, I realized I was loving this game more than ever. For the first time in a while (2-3 years) I was having a lot of fun with this game again. I felt like I was even different as a teammate. I just felt like I had a more positive aurora. It's really hard to describe, but there were moments I would get out of a jam or we'd win a close game, and I'd look back and think, I still live for these moments. I was slowly realizing I still want the game. It's not a need, but it's a desire. The challenge to continue to be one of the best has always driven me, and it still does.
Once July rolled around, I knew I needed to make the final decision. I needed to decide before the end of season whether I was really going through with it or not. The last thing I wanted was any more retirement ceremonies, when I knew I was questioning it. I didn't want a big deal made, and then change my mind in the off-season.
I finally sat down and called my dad. He's been there for me my entire career. I no longer call him up after every game, but I do still confide in him, especially with my career. He acknowledged I looked better this season, and seemed to be throwing at a higher level than 2012. He didn't say anything anyone else had not already told me, but his affirmation means a little more.
The last pieces of the puzzle were telling my AD and head coach at St Edwards University, the Division 2 School I coach at. Retirement meant I could recruit during the summer, and be around more to do clinics which help us fund our program. They both gave me their consent, and our AD added a happy unretirement.
I told the team before a game in Akron. I was just as nervous to tell them I was unretiring as I was upset to tell them I was retiring. Tears welled up in my eyes, not because I was uncertain, but because I was letting them know how big of a part they played in me falling back in love with this game. I practiced my speech 100 times, but when I went to deliver it, it was 2/3 as long and not near as heart felt as I wanted it to be. Having sensed this announcement was coming, they properly presented me with a signed Brett Favre picture. After a few laughs we went out to play.
Megan Willis, my long time catcher put it best when I told her‚ “We all seen your love for it, come back”. We all knew it wasn't time. But we all know you, we can't tell you that. It's something you have to figure out on your own. I am glad you did, and I can say I'm pretty sure everyone else will be too.
Some fans have asked if I wished I had stuck with my decision since a championship would have been the storybook ending. I've never lived for fairy tales or storybooks, so no I don't wish that at all. Instead, I am diving back into my training, and making sure I am just as ready for next season as I was for 2013. There are still challenges that wait, and I am still driven to meet them. I just know, I won't decide to hang them up prior to a season ever again. I can trust my heart will let me know when I am ready, instead of my head.
Cat Osterman’s accomplished career as a softball pitcher precedes her, starting with a record-breaking 4 years at the University of Texas and continuing with her impressive Olympic achievements and professional softball endeavors. In fact, she was the first pitcher to register over 2,000 NCAA strikeouts.
After taking home the gold at the 2004 Olympic games and enjoying years of success playing with the USA Softball Women's National team, Cat began her professional career in 2007 with National Pro Fastpitch. She is an inspiration to countless young softball players all over the world. Visit her website at www.CatOsterman.com
This year was the first time I have gone to the World Series as a spectator with vested interest. Even though I was only at one game supporting my beloved Longhorns, it was the most fun I have ever had in the stands. I left Hall of Fame stadium that night, emotionally exhausted from cheering, yelling, and just enjoying what has become an awesome experience.
The Women's College World Series has become just that. It's no longer just a tournament or a few games. It is an experience, and one so many athletes can dream to be a part of thanks to ESPN broadcasting the entire tournament. Athletes watch teams compete, and think, “I want to be there.” Growing up, we were lucky to see the Championship game on ESPN. That left us only watching two teams, and if you had not adamantly followed, you didn't know what other 6 teams were in OKC.
It's been fun to watch the event grow. It was fun to be immersed in a sea of fans that traveled up to watch their team. It's awesome to meet people who come from far and wide because they are fans of softball. Meeting couples that have been sitting in the stadium seats for years before I played is an awesome feeling. Our sport is still popular. It's still growing, and the World Series has become far more than what it was when I played.
To have a reflection like this was amazing. To see how much it's grown, to experience it from a different side, it was a true pleasure. College softball will continue to grow, and parity will make this experience better. Thankfully more girls have the opportunity to dream to be a part of it.
My career far exceeded anything I ever imagined. In fact, I never imagined I would be a softball player for most of my life. I grew up in a basketball family, and played basketball from third grade all the way through high school. It wasn't until I was 16 that I realized my dreams might not unfold the way I imagined. I won't complain though. Softball has been very good to me (Hope someone reads that and laughs).
As I look back, if I could instill one element in future athletes, it would be work ethic. Most don't understand the definition of work ethic. It's not just working hard sometimes. It's not just playing hard when college coaches are watching. It's constantly working hard to be better because you want to be a better athlete every day. Work ethic is about constantly striving for little goals, with an ultimate goal in your view. It's about finding a way to get even a short workout in when your day is jam packed of things to do. Work ethic is a constant thing, not just a sometimes thing.
My favorite example of this in my pre-college career was my freshman or sophomore year of high school. I had no plans to go to our Homecoming Dance. I wasn't asked to the dance, and I'm not one who actually liked to get dolled up and go. A friend of mine convinced me on the day of the dance, to just go with her and her friends. When the 2:30 bell rang, I called my dad, said “can you meet me at home soon? I want to pitch before I go to the dance.” My dad worked close enough he got home in time for me to pitch, shower, throw my hair up wet, throw on an old dress, and off I went. I guarantee, if he had not been able to get home in time, I would have blown off the dance for pitching. The moral isn't to give everything up for practicing. It's knowing your priorities, and then make time for them.
When you do go out to practice, work ethic is giving 100% of what you got. Some days we have all 100% of our energy. Some days we are tired and worn out, but that is when you have to dig deep and focus more on giving every ounce of you to each throw or swing of the bat.
There were times I would pitch after basketball games, and I would imagine it was my 3rd game of the day and go out there with the idea I have to work hard to get through it.
In college, regardless of the success or failure of the day before, I approached every bullpen or game to get better. I wanted to one up myself in every performance. I couldn't ever settle. An athlete should never quit working to get better. There should be constant hard work.
Work ethic can get you far. It can make you great, but you have to embrace it every moment, and carry it with you forever.
The best asset for an athlete isn't talent. It's not strength. It's something you can't physically measure. It's the desire to learn and the ability to have an open mind. This not only attributes to life, but in sports there are often many ways to be successful at something.
Different coaches teach things differently. This doesn't mean one is right or wrong, it's just different. Different isn't always bad. Sometimes different can be good, but you have to have the mindset that you are willing to try different.
If an athlete is signed up for a lesson or a clinic, common sense tells us you are there to learn. If you are there to learn, an open mind is essential. Before any clinic or lesson, I try to preach this concept. Some thing or things I say or do might click for you. It may even be the same concept your pitching coach is trying to hammer home, but the wording makes it make sense. No matter what position you are, sometimes a different idea can make all the difference in the world.
As a pitcher, I grew up going to lessons, first with Tim Timmons and then with Bobby Smith, but my dad and I didn't stop trying to learn. I would go to different clinics, from ones in Texas to one in Florida. A few times we even took a few lessons with a different pitching coach, just to get a new perspective. I have always been a student of pitching. I wanted to perfect something that is practically impossible to perfect, so I listened, and I soaked it all in. If this concept was driven home with kids these days, I think more would not only have a greater knowledge and awareness of what they are doing, but they could thoroughly enjoy the process that comes with growing as an athlete and being successful.
When running camps and clinics, a common phrase is “well my pitching coach says this…” or “I don't do it that way.” This closed mindedness only keeps an athlete from advancing. If you're at a clinic, someone is just trying to get you to try something for a few hours, or maybe 2 days. Trying something new for this amount of time won't ruin your previous work. You have to try to see if it will work.
Since both Amanda Scarborough and I are both in Texas, I often have a lot of her kids from lessons at my clinics. After almost every clinic, I get a text from her telling me one of her kids came back to lessons explaining what they learned. Sometimes it may be something new; sometimes it's simply different wording of something she was already teaching. The point is, they come into the situation to learn and apply, not just to be there. They are open minded. They want to learn, and most of the time, I don't even know they are her kids because they don't mention it!
Parents, I would stress trying to open your athlete' s mind up, especially prior to a camp or clinic. Athletes, I would challenge you to try and learn as much as you can about your position, your swing, or your pitch: whatever it is! Learn what works for you and what doesn't. Try anything once, so you know how it feels. Be comfortable being uncomfortable for a little while. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day, so no new technique will be successful in 1 try.
Be a sponge! Be committed to learning! You can't ever stop learning, but you have to have an open mind.
Gone are the days of tournament trophies. You know, the shiny things with a statue swinging a bat on top. I can still remember from age 11-18 playing every weekend with one goal in mind. We wanted a trophy. Our team gave the team trophy to a deserving player, so we all anxiously awaited to hear who Coach thought deserved to take it home.
Don't get me wrong, at younger ages it is about developing good technique and mechanics. It's important to learn the game, more so than win the game, but once you advance to a certain level of play, athletes need to learn how to compete both with their teammates and against the other team.
Nowadays, almost every 16&U and 18&U tournament is an exposure. What are we teaching our athletes with these? Many kids are more concerned with who is in the stands, and if they show well, not the overall outcome of the team. When you know you'll have 5 games no matter what, what is there to play for? I've watched too many games end, and teams aren't even sure what the score really was. Now is this a problem, not because they should be playing because they love to play, not because their team wins, but the problem comes when these athletes go to college.
When girls go off to college, they are used to sharing playing time because coaches wanted to see both Suzy and Sally play shortstop. Many athletes don't show that fire to win over a position, or learn a new position to ensure they are in the line up. There's no inter-team competition, and a bigger problem is that innate desire to compete with the other team. I want athletes that want to win, not at all costs, but win while competing with class and respect.
I did an assignment with my team, when we felt they were lacking the ability to compete, and had them all write the best competition they have been a part of. Much to my surprise, majority wrote about a high school game. With travel ball so prevalent, I'd think most of them would have had a make or break game to write about. Once I reflected on it, it made sense. High school ball has bragging rights to play for, it has playoffs you are trying to make, and once in playoffs, you're trying to make it to state. Every game matters. Why can't we make this be the case in travel ball as well?
I can remember playing in ASA Regionals when I was 13 or 14, and it was exhausting because we played 5-6 games in one day to finish 3rd. That's not what I remember most though, I remember every one of us wanting to win to keep playing. I wanted every teammate to get a hit, and as a team we committed to fighting tooth and nail. We came back from a 6-0 deficit to stay alive. We fought hard. Today, with very little to play for (minus your berth to Nationals), this fight isn't being cultivated in athletes.
There's an athlete in college now, who was quite upset she sat on the bench most of her freshman year, but instead of pouting or threatening to leave, she committed herself to doing anything and everything in her power to make sure she wasn't left out of the line-up. Her sophomore year, she started more regularly, and produced offensively. She also learned a new position in order to find a way into the line-up. This is the inner desire athletes need to have to be able to compete.
Coaches, I encourage you to find ways to stimulate girls competitiveness. Make every pitch, at bat, play, game, and tournament matter. We always keep learning, but we also need to keep that competitive fire lit.