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Trying to wrap my head around a few thoughts and my ADD kicks in. Rather than trying to stretch out a few thoughts into full out blogs, I thought I would just a give quick hit to something I have been thinking about
Stats. Our local paper recently posted top stats of players in baseball and softball. As I was looking through them I started thinking about what do stats really tell? Or even better, what does it NOT tell?
1. Does not tell accurate/consistent statistics
I have looked in several news publications and all have pointed out that the statistics presented are provided by the teams. If I sent to the publications that my player hit 1000 home runs, it would be printed 1000 home runs.
Most, not all teams, have a parent(s) recording stats. While this is very helpful, do we know that they are taking them correctly? Are they consistent between different people keeping books at different games?
2. Does not give a real picture of the player.
Example. Player A seems to always get into the game at a point where a sacrifice bunt(hit) is needed. That is (according to NCAA) not counted as an at-bat. So player A could be seen as having far less at-bats leading some to think they are not playing as much, where in reality they are very valuable.
3. Does not tell if the player is a consistent player.
All players have off days (even at the professional level). A Good coach realizes this and replaces them for the sake of the team and the player. (mainly you see pitchers and catchers, but any player could fit this bill) If the coach doesn't pull them, or can't because of roster, this single game came greatly push the statistics down. On the other hand, a player who is very inconstant and gets pulled before the stats can be lowered will hold a higher stat.
4. Does not tell how a player plays the game.
This is a big one. Softball is a TEAM sport. as such, no individual player wins or loses a game. I have seen/coached players that may not be the big scoring player, may not have been the big outs player, but was a true team captain and kept everyone in the game. Motivation is an important part of a team. and that stat cannot be a number. How a player plays when they are down cant be equated. Errors happen, as you have heard from me before, it is what happens after the error that is really important. That also isn't a Statistic.
5. Does not tell how tough the opponents are.
This goes both ways. Play in an easier league (for a given year) and you can end up with insane statistics. Have 3 of the top 10 state teams in your league and batting 300+ against them is pretty darn good! Fields also vary in conditions to depth. Errors occur more on an improperly kept field. More home runs occur in a 200ft field than a 225. Less steals are going to be successful on a soaked surface while drizzling (or in the case of my home state Michigan, snow) than a nice dry sunny day .
This is just a basic way of making a point. When scouting out players, going by statistics is the worst way to go. Can it give you a rough idea? sure, very rough. The only true way to see how good a player is is to watch that player in several games, in several situations.
How many of us have spent hours watching highlight clips on youTube (Not on business time, of course) It is a fun way to watch incredible catches and close call plays. What needs to be kept in mind is that great flying horizontal catch has more of a chance of failing than it does succeeding. I know players in this social sharing age, would love to see their catch go viral. What needs to be addressed is why that extreme maneuver needed to take place.
As usual, I shift this from softball to hockey. I watched an interview a few years ago with a NHL goalie. The interviewer was commenting on an incredible save the game the night before where the goalie almost did complete splits to save a shot. The goalie commented something like “Yeah Man, I am sorry about that”, to which the interviewer replied “Sorry? That was incredible!”. The goalie got a grim look on his face and pointed out that if he was really paying attention, he wouldn't have had to stretch to make the save. That pretty much ended the interview, but it sank in deeply with me. He was dead on; a great player makes things look easy, not flamboyant. A great player reads the play well enough to be where they need to be.
Ask any coach, in a clutch play, would they rather see their player make a high jump snag, or a text book easy 2 handed catch that drops right into their glove. Some of the coaches may answer “I don’t care as long as they catch it”. Well, we all know they are fooling themselves. They do care. A lot. Coaches spend hours on batting line ups going through probabilities. Putting that into perspective, the probability of a nice knee-sliding catch is far less than an easy drop into the glove. When a pop-up is headed right for a fielder, the coaches breathe. When they hit towards a hole, they hold their breath. That is why we see these plays as special because the chances dictate a failure to the defense and no one wants to remember those.
I saw this take place at a tourney I was at last weekend. When the ball was hit to the outfield where you saw fielders running back, you heard gasps from the defensive team spectators, and hoots of joy from the offensive team spectators. When the ball was hit in front of the outfielders, you heard the opposite. There was one Center fielder, however, who seem to always have the ball directly in front of her. Was the batter sending the ball right to her? No, careful watching showed she moved a little left, a little right, front and back according to the hitter. The moment the ball was hit, she moved. And moved fast. She would try to position herself right to where the ball was going. Made for some real boring looking catches, but she made them. On the same team, there was another player who was constantly diving, missing most of the balls.
This is where it gets tricky as a player or a coach. Reality says you really can't be in all places at once. Reality says as a 2nd baseman you really can't move to be in front of a line drive unless it is almost in front of you to begin with. There are times where a dive is important and because of that, it needs to be practiced. Knowing how to jump up for a ball, to snag it before it goes over the fence is a learned skill. Knowing how to reach across either side of you to field a ball does come into play in a real game. Most important is knowing when to use it. A good player has a big box of skills in which they choose from. A great player knows when each of those tools should be used. An easy grounder to the player should always be centered on the body. It should never be planned on having to reach to the left or right. You learn how to catch when it is on your side in case it takes a bad bounce once centered. If you plan on the ball going to the left so you reach that way and it bounces even further, then the ball is gone. Probability says centering the ball is your best chance. Pulling a knee slide to catch a ball that could have been caught normally with just a little more drive is asking for it to go bouncing past. Yes, you may end up catching it. But, probability says you will miss that catch more often than if you set yourself to make an easy catch.
I know it doesn't sound exciting, I know it won't make ESPN’s play of the week, but plays that look simple, are more than simple. Executed simply and correctly gives the team an out. The team that plays for the simple out will end up with more wins.
Why do players practice? These are some observations I have made through my years coaching on practice motivation:
To show the coach and others how good I am
To get tired running drills
To be there so I am not cut from playing the next game
To show off my new equipment
To eat sunflower seeds and drink a power drink
To find out when the next game is
If you disagree with all of the above you probably have a bright future in politics. When I get a team, one of the first things I like to spend time on is explaining what a practice is for and why it is important to understand why we practice. I use simple bullet points along with an explanation of my beliefs on why they are important. Some of these are coach based, some are player based and some apply to both. Here goes:
Show up on time for practice. As this has been mentioned in many other articles, it is not mentioned enough. When I say “on time for practice”, I don't mean show up at 5 o'clock for a 5 o'clock practice. I mean show up BEFORE 5 o'clock with enough time to hang your gear bag and start stretching and warming up. This way actual practice can start at 5. I realize some teams like to stretch and warm up together. This is fine, but to me that is not practice time and I don't count it as such. A good stretch and warm up should take no less than 15 minutes. With a 2 hour practice, that is 1/8th of the entire practice.
Know what drills are going to be worked on during that practice. This is important for both players and coaches. In todays social/internet age, there should be no reason that a practice plan should not be shared with the players and other coaches. Sidebar: if you are a coach and don't have a plan on what you are going to do during a practice at least a day before, you might want to think about why you are coaching. Coaching successfully takes work. By letting the players know what the plan for the practice will be, you spend less time explaining to the players what you want them to do and what to expect. I don't realistically expect all of my players to fully understand a drill, but they will have at least a starting point. By having to explain drills at each practice, you are losing about 5 minutes per drill. At an average of 4 drills, there goes 20 minutes. Don't forget in the drills you need to have player flow. By player flow I am referring to knowing how you will rotate players. I have been in practices where the coach spent 1 minute between each rotation to set the players where they wanted them. With 15 players, that math makes an easy 15 minutes disappear.
Incorporate multiple player drills. Single player drills are a huge big time waster and loses a players attention. Lining up girls on second base and going through each player one at a time annoys me every time I see it. 15 players, each hit takes about 5 seconds from hit, to catch, to relay, back to the hitter. That means a little over 1 minute for each player and after they are doing nothing. So each round there is ~15 player/minutes wasted. Adding another hitter and 2 lines breaks it down to ~7.5 player minutes. Having the fielding player flip it to another acting as a baseman and then the throw back in to the hitter, adds <2 seconds as players rotate into position, but the additional player cuts player down time to ~4 player/minutes wasted and adds extra practice time in the rotation. A quick change in the drill just decreased the wasted practice time per player by ~1/3.
Keeping in line with drills, I also like to put on the drill sheet the reason why the drill is being done. I can't think of one drill that is done just for the heck of it. Sure, if you are a new coach, you might do a drill because you saw someone else do it, but if you think real hard you can probably figure out what the drill is for. As a player, I also challenge you to know why a drill is done. Don't be a whining player that asks “why, why, why?”. But there is nothing wrong with asking a coach nicely, “Hey coach, is this drill supposed to help me run faster?”, or “What am I to be learning from this drill so I can concentrate on it”. A good sample of why it is important to have the players know why a drill is being done is batting from a pitching machine. Why do we bat from a machine? There are many reasons, but the 2 strongest reasons are consistency and to save the coaches arm! Consistency is the real reason. You don't want the batter to worry about watching for balls vs. strikes, or timing as much as concentrating on the other aspects like stance, follow through, direction of hit, etc… If the player didn't know this, they may think they are doing well by just hitting the ball every time rather than concentrating on the items you want to drill into them. We do a drill called “junk pitch practice”, basically they are to swing at every pitch, regardless of where it is (fyi this is at a lower level of team) and what I explain to the players is the drill is for eye hand coordination. If you swing at the same place every time, you are relying on the pitcher pitching to where your bat is. That isn't the game, and a good pitcher won't throw that way. To be successful, you need to hit where the ball is. Then I explain I don't expect them to swing at everything during a game. I have, however, seen many home runs hit from outside the strike zone.
Players should be making mistakes. Before you freak out, let me explain. Some coaches love to say give 110% percent during a game. I disagree. anything over 100% is unknown. Giving 100% is the maximum you can give, as long as you know where the line is. Practice is where I like to see players find that line. The only true way to find the line is to cross it. Cross it several times and you will be able to push that line. I find nothing funnier when someone after skiing or snowboarding boasts on how little they fell. Personally I fall A LOT and often on camera. Why? Because I push my boundaries. The first time down a black diamond on my snowboard was pretty eventful. I spent more time on my butt or rolling then I did snowboarding. The next time it was less butt time. I kept it up until I could slowly make it down without falling. So am I done? No. Making it down slowly without falling was one “line”. Next time down I increased my speed, pushing back that 100% line. Yup, more butt time. Eventually I could do it faster and better. Move it to softball, if you are an outfielder, and you can pretty much catch any popup that gets near you, it is time to move that line. Ask the coach to put the ball further and further away from you until can't catch it with any consistency. Now during a game, you know where your line is and if you can realistically catch it. During practices is where you push. Its where missing that catch is ok, as long as you are trying your hardest, and you keep trying until that ball is caught.
Learn from mistakes. Although this is also important during a game, I feel it applies during a practice as well. I tell my players that everyone makes mistakes, how a player reacts to that mistake separates good from great. I love to have drills in my arsenal that teach reacting to mistakes. A common mistake is a grounder take a weird hop (or player not paying attention) and skips by them. I don't know about you, but I see quite a few of players in a game just stand there looking at their coach or parent for that “you screwed up” stare. Mistake #1 was made as the ball got by, mistake #2 was made when nothing was done to recover. I like to line up ss and 2nd and send a ball straight to 2nd base, have them call it, go to catch it, but let it go by. Now, after the ball is passed, then make the play; who is covering 2nd? who is going after the ball? At a younger age (ok, even older) I like to practice overthrowing first. I make a very bad throw to first. Some times 1st base can catch it, sometimes not. I see a lot of teams practice ideal situations. I like to drill the bad, so they know how to react to a mistake.
Practice doesn't always make perfect. It is up to the players and the coaches to have a practice environment that pushes the players to be perfect knowing there should be, and will be mistakes along the way. For you that were keeping count, not including drink breaks, shown in the bad examples above, each player during a 2 hour practice would get less than 55 minutes of actual practice time.
There are several types of coaches. The coach I prefer is the coach that likes to teach. I became involved in coaching, like many coaches, at a young U level because I didn't agree with the way my daughter was being coached. I watched the coach for her 6U team be more involved in achieving the “W” than teaching the players how to play. Beginning the next year, I worked within the local rec league to help define the season's rules to promote the learning process further. We attempted a couple of times to get all of the coaches on board as a collective group on how and what skills we were going to apply. A core group emerged eventually that met in preseason to establish the game play. Where I grew up this idea was actually implemented by the high school varsity coach. He was tired of reteaching and training players in high school with different philosophies and gamemanship after years of what he considered faulty coaching priorities. His answer was to become highly involved in the little league process and ran coaching clinics all the time. He networked with the other coaches so well that his high school teams were his kids from the moment they set foot on the field and they knew what was expected of their play and how to go about achieving those standards.
Ok, My ADD started to go off track. Where it becomes relevant again is that one of the things I see with my daughter at the U14 level is quite a few players are always focused on the out at first. I even hear parents say they should always go to first. Well, in my opinion, that works fine only at younger levels. When players are starting out, you don't want to confuse them with too many instructions. After all, making sand castles is one thing they are already concentrating on!So you teach them to “go one”. This gets drilled into their head until they don't think about it anymore. A few years later, you throw the next piece into the puzzle. This can vary between a few options with the two most popular being get the lead runner or get the closest out first. We, as coaches, know there are certain times that one is better than the other, but remember, this is a learning process. You really need to pick one of the above mentioned plays and stick with that strategy until the players understand it and the why. After they do, and we are not talking 2-3 games here, then you introduce the third method. Keep in mind when you teach these methods, make sure the understanding of why you want them to do it is part of the drill. This helps them to development their mental game.
The reason for throwing to 1st is because it is always a force out with the batter-runner not having a lead off and therefore usually takes the longest to get to base. It is ALWAYS a play and requires the least thought which is why we teach that first. Closest runner is important because there are times that tagging someone running by just makes more sense. If you are 4 feet from second and second is a force, then going there is a safe and easy out. This play definitely takes more thought than just going to first. Before the pitch, the player must assess where everyone is, knowing that if the balls goes to “x” I am going to do “y”. Getting the lead runner out is very important, especially when there are less than 2 outs. Again, these are my opinions. I have gotten into it with parents when there were less than 2 outs, runner on second and third, ball is bunted and pitcher runs up and stays stoning the girl at third. With sideline parents yelling the throw should go after the girl out at first. By going for the safe out though the girl on third easily would have made it home, unless completely ignoring her base coach, who would undoubtedly be watching for the play to move across field. There is a philosophy that defense wins games; to a point I agree. If they never score, you will never lose. You may tie (depending on your league rules), but you will never lose. Plus, at that point, I have the bases loaded for the next play which makes it very easy to get outs. Barring a grand slam, of course, which wouldn't be that great. Another way to see how this strategy works is look at it from the offensive side. The goal of offense is to score. Getting on base is a step in scoring but scoring is the ultimate goal. Stopping them from achieving this goal will win the game.
Getting back to the preseason rule setting. One of the questions we kept in mind when changing the rec rules was what would promote learning. One of the biggest fights was over overthrows. The situation was when learning (remember all of these are at the lower age groups) there are a ton of overthrows. Anyone disagree? Well, in leagues that didn't limit the amount of overthrows, the coaches just had the players always hold the ball essentially teaching them to stop play as soon as they got the ball. The second popular thing was to get it to the pitcher. Which is better than holding the ball, but what if there are plays to be made? We altered the rules to allow advancing to the next base on an overthrow once per at bat. This allowed us to teach the players to throw to first (for example) and if it is overthrown, hustle to the ball and attempt the next out without fear of the runner advancing another base because you made another overthrow. This simple tweak got the players hustling, got them keeping track of what game play is going on as well. The other 2 methods didn't really get taught that year; the focus was made on fielding the ball and making good throws. Players just beginning will not be able to throw perfectly, it comes with time, confidence and practice. If you don't put that time into game play they may never learn.
Further in my daughter's career, she had a coach that had the girls bunting like crazy. I was really perplexed at first. Trying to figure out the method to his madness nearly made me mad as well. At first always bunting cost us the game. Hard to watch. Later on in the season, I noticed he had the girls that were doing a good job bunting start hitting. That is when I got it. Learning is more important than the win. By the end of the season, most of the girls could bunt…a very valuable skill in my book. Seeing girls the same age on other teams struggle with it makes me appreciate the coach that took the loss in order to teach. I am sure that the players next coach was very excited to be able to take a batter and know they can bunt, as well as hit.
Another mistake I see with coaches paying more attention to the win rather than teaching is positioning. I have heard it from both parents and other coaches “at sometime the player needs to stay at a position to hone that skill” Although I agree that staying in one position will allow a player to really play that position well, it will also lock that player into only that position. Which player would you rather have on your team, a superstar 3rd baseman that can’t play any other position, or a player who knows how to play, and has played every position. I don't know about your teams, but mine has players getting hurt. The versatile player is gold in my book. How many of you have said “I like so-and-so, I can put them anywhere”? I thought so…. There is another advantage to putting players in different positions. They get to learn perspective and the challenges of the different positions. For example, try putting your pitcher at catcher. Heck at the same time have the catcher pitch! I am going to guess that the pitcher had no idea how fast the catcher has to react. I am going to guess the catcher had no idea how hard it is to aim at a spot with the catcher not being consistent with the glove. Does second base (or shortstop) understand how annoying it is for a catcher to go to throw down and not see anyone paying attention or running to second looking for the throwdown? Going the opposite way, does the catcher know how annoying it is for second or shortstop to have the catcher wait until they are there until they throw? (FYI, you save serious time by having the catcher throw down to the bag and having the cover catch it on the fly) Having a cut off infielder swap with an outfielder and see how they do when the cut off isn't vocal helping the outfielder. The swaps are endless and there are plenty of things to learn. I already mentioned in a previous blog, the added benefit of finding that a player is really good at a position they haven't tried.
Players also get caught up with the need to win mindset as well. Every team has better players and players that need work. When you tell them to pair up, I am betting that the best players match with the best players. They want to look good, so they pair up with the one that makes them look the best. What they should be taught is to want to bring the lesser players up to their level. I have heard “I don't like playing catch with X because she can't catch my fast throws”. What that means to me is during a game if X needs to catch a ball either it won't be thrown hard or it will be thrown hard and they won't know how to catch it. There are multiple ways to deal with this issue depending on how the players accept instruction. If you have great leaders on the team then just mentioning it to them may fix the issue. Other times I have had to “randomly” move girls around. When I hear a player say something about how a player needs work, I ask what they have done to help that player. I usually get blank stares or worse they told the player they were doing it wrong. Time for the coach to teach the player how to be a better player-coach.
Sometimes we get so caught up with what will get the “W” we forget about what gets us there. Am I saying that you shouldn't care about winning? No, not at all. I am saying there is a time and place to place the importance of winning vs losing. Regional Championship game is NOT the place I would put people in new positions. Playing a regular season game and up by 6 or 7 runs? That might be the time to swap around. Just remember, in order to play well you must learn. When you don't continue to learn, you are stagnant.
So you or your kid didn’t make the cut. Now what? I recently had a friend whose kid didn’t make a team. She was looking for advice on what to do, how to console the kid. Her thoughts were either talk to the coach and convince him to change his mind or explain to her child that it happens in life. My suggestion to her was pretty simple; talk to the coach and find out what needs to be worked on for next year’s tryouts.
After giving it more thought, I thought of a few more suggestions:
1. Ask the coach what to work on. DO NOT ask why you didn’t make the team. Asking what you can work on for the next tryout already asks that question in a more proactive light.
2. Work on what they suggest. Seems a bit obvious, but you’d be surprised.
3. Keep involved. Even though you are not a player on the team, the team consists of many other things. I knew of a hockey player that wasn’t quite up to the level he needed to be and volunteered to keep stats during games. We let him because honestly by him doing that it allowed us to concentrate more on the game. He asked if he could help out chasing pucks at practice. Again, we let him because it was something we didn’t like to do. Well, he was also watching the plays, watching the drills, and the next tryout he knew more than most of the “players” on last season’s team as well as stepped up his playing. He not only made the team, but became captain.
4. If you can’t find a way to stay involved in that sport then try another sport that will help you with the skills you need. An athlete is not a person who does one sport. It is someone that stays athletic. The best base runner I coached found out later that she was better in track than softball. She was really good at softball, but running became her passion. She still plays summer ball and actually because of her track coach, she became a VERY scary base stealer. If she made it to first base, I could chalk it up to a score because she would steal the rest of the way around.
Although there are no promises in life, I can tell you what I have found that helps become a player that a coach wants on their team. The player someone the coach doesn’t want to cut doesn’t always rely on %100 skill.
Here are some things I look for in players for a team:
1. Make sure the coaches know who you are. This one can be kind of tough because you don’t want to be annoying. Standing in the back of the team, being the last in line for any drill, not cheering the team on, these are ways to not be noticed. Being front and center, being the first in line for drills is an easy way to get the coach to remember you.
2. Ask Questions. I am not saying inundate the coach with a barrage of questions, but if something doesn’t make sense, ASK! Some questions may be put off until after a drill, play, practice or game, but make sure you ask. When a player asks me a question, (why did the ump make that call, what is the purpose of this drill) it makes me think the player really wants to learn. On the flipside, a good coach should never turn away a player with questions. I once asked a team why we were doing a drill, they replied “because you said so”. A drill is never because “we say so.” Tt is to work on specific things to prepare for specific situations in a game. Just having them run a drill doesn’t teach them the game itself.
3. Show up early, leave late. When you do this, you are the first one and the last one the coach sees. Keep in mind that just showing up early and leaving late doesn’t make you look good. Be there early, see if you can help set up, make sure you are 100% ready when practice starts. If you are the only one there and you just sit because you are the only one there, the coach will notice. Same when you leave last. You need to be more than just “there.”
4. Work hard all the time. Most coaches will agree they would rather coach a hard worker than a naturally talented superstar that doesn’t work hard during a practice. Honestly, the superstar will probably still be on the team, but the hard worker is the one the coaches like to work with.
5. At least once a week (again not too much to be annoying) check in with the coach to see what you can work on. Every player, good or bad, can work on something. Don’t forget, it is more than just finding out what you work on, you actually have to do it! Good coaches have drills for everything, and they have ones that can be worked on alone, or indoors at a house as well.
6. Get along with your entire team. OK, before you go into this one too deep, I know there are some people that no one gets along with, but it is pretty obvious to a coach who is creating team upset. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I see the same two players always practicing together during warm ups or two-person drills. Spread yourself around! If you are not the best, team up with the best and ask for pointers. This not only will help you get better, but I guarantee it will make the other player feel more important and they will play better. If you are the best, then you are conceited, sit down… Just kidding. If you are one of the better players at a certain drill, team up with someone who doesn’t get it. That way, you can help them. DO NOT, however, become a player-coach. Only give them directions when asked or suggest little things.
The best part about these suggestions is they work for any sport. Actually, they even work in life. Employers are like coaches. The tryouts happen every day. People are cut, people are hired. Knowing how to take that cut and better yourself is what will make you succeed in the end.