Written By Renee Ferguson
Every year that I coach, I am more and more amazed by how little young women know about the strategic side of softball. I am an advocate of having players learn to think for themselves, unfortunately, it seems like a lot of summer ball coaches from this area do not share the same ideals. My oldest daughter recently played softball for an organization where the coach wanted to tell them everything, including when to start their slide. I hope you all are thinking the same thing I was when I first heard this, which was, “That’s crazy…and impossible.” There is so much that goes into managing a fastpitch softball game from a coaching perspective that I jump at the chance to get my players into a learning mode so they can free me up to focus on more important things during games.
I know what you may be thinking, “But Renee, the girls don’t know when to go and when not to, what if they get themselves thrown out?” My reaction to that statement is, “EXACTLY!” If we take this scenario and look at it through an employer, employee relationship this would not be an acceptable response to someone’s perceived lack of skill. And if you told your boss this I’m pretty sure he or she would respond by telling you that it was your job to teach them how to do it. There is no need to be the gate keeper to all things softball. The more you share the more you will get out of your team.
In order to do this you need to create an environment where learning and mistakes are encouraged, and girls are not chastised for being aggressive or taking a calculated risk. As coaches, we want to win, but my question to you is- at what cost? Are you willing to sacrifice advancing the skills and knowledge of your players in order to control the team and lessen the amount of errors to ultimately get the win? If you would I guess my question to you is, “What do the girls get out of that, other than trophies or plaques?” That’s right, the answer is: “NOTHING.” You must always be willing to ask yourself what will your players know when they leave your team? Will they still know what to do when you are no longer there shouting directions from the dugout? If not, you have some work to do to ensure the long term success of your players.
Sure, teaching girls to trust their instincts may cause you to get more put outs than if you were controlling everything, but as the girl’s progress in their level of play their understanding what they are truly capable of becomes more and more important. As coaches anytime we tell our players to do something, like steal on a passed ball or when to leave from tagging up at 3rd, it causes the girls to get a later jump than they would have if they decided on their own. Our words have to travel to their ears, register with them and then they have to react. Every high school age softball player should know when she can steal and when she shouldn’t. As with most things in life this skill is learned through trial and error. If they are never given the opportunity to be aggressive and risk being thrown out on their own, they will never become the instinctual player coaches at the next level are searching for.
Your player’s abilities to comprehend and recognize strategies such as reading the defense and knowing when to push bunt vs sacrifice bunt are all imperative to their long term success in the sport of softball; especially if they want to play at the college level. College coaches want and need girls who have solid mechanics, good instincts, and an above average overall knowledge of the game. Most college coaches are not looking for a project- they need players and they need them now. In order to give your players the best chance to succeed in college softball, I urge you to take some time to evaluate when and what you would be comfortable turning over to the girls, and begin there.
A good place to start would be to give them the freedom to steal in the early innings (1-3) if they think they can make it without getting out. Sounds scary, right? Initially, it will be because the girls won’t know the difference between a calculated risk and an uncalculated risk. Try and think about it this way, while you are giving signs, watching the batters form, evaluating the defensive position of the other team, your runner may be more focused on the intricacies of how effective the catcher is at blocking the ball or what she looks like when she is going to make an errant throw. Trust your girls to evaluate those situations and make an educated attempt to advance to the next base, based on their findings.
If you are not comfortable with them making that decision on their own, begin by telling them that their job as a base runner is to identify weaknesses of the opposing team and then capitalize on them. Then go over exactly how you want them to do that- who should they be watching, when is it safe to run on their own, etc. There is no such thing as too much information so share it and share it often. Once they are making these decisions on the field, the key to success is as follows. Let’s say the runner unsuccessfully steals. Instead of scolding them for making a knuckle head move, ask them what they saw? What made them believe they could get to the next base? If they say I just took a chance and there was nothing in particular that made them think they could get there, explain to them that they took and uncalculated risk and that uncalculated risks will cost the team games. While on the other hand calculated risks from spotting a weakness of the opposing team can win you games.
To be successful in this process of empowering your players you must develop the mindset that you would rather see a player get out because they were being aggressive instead of playing it safe because they were too scared to make a mistake. As you are engaging your players in the decision making of the game, I highly recommend having a meeting with your parents so they 1) don’t think you are getting the girls thrown out 2) don’t scold the girls for getting themselves out, explain that allowing them to make these decisions on their own will ultimately teach them instincts and instinctual players are hard to come by. Situations like these require buy in, not only from the players, but from their parents. The last thing you want is for your girls to go home and listen to their parents complain about how you got them thrown out at home twice that game and how terrible of a job you did in calling those plays because the parents don’t’ actually know it was their child who made those knucklehead decisions.
In short, embrace your role as a teacher; be willing to share as much information with your players as possible, believe it or not- they thirst for it. You will see this thirst in their adventures on the field as they successfully complete their first stolen base and attempt to make their first diving catch in the outfield. They will feel liberated and empowered that you trust them to put a potential out in their hands and they will want to perform that much better for you because they know that there is now an environment of mutual trust. By being a positive influence and creating an environment that is mistake friendly, you will be leaving behind a lifelong legacy of learning and a constant search for improvement in your players. This will help them not only be successful in the game of softball but in the game of life.
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