Article Provided by: The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA)
Article by: Brandi Gordon, Assistant Coach at Harvard
While speaking with coaches, the topic of student-athletes lacking a sense of competitive, game-like mentality inevitably comes up. Coaches have seen an increase in the overall trend of players coming into programs not knowing instinctual play. I am not referring to play in the sense of softball skills. In fact, the overall skill level of players in our sport is progressing. Instead, I am referring to the child-like ability to simply play; to be athletic in a non-scripted environment, compete to win and have an instinctual game awareness.
I realize I am generalizing, but my experiences as a player, coach, teacher, colleague and aunt have proven that this idea is shared among many coaches, teachers and parents. I believe this trend continues its course due in part to technology, increased knowledge of softball technique and the pressure to be recruited.
In our society, children from a young age are inundated with reasons not to go outside and play. What deters them? Or shall I ask what does not deter them? We live in a sedentary society that promotes you to stay inside! The information age of computers, texting, interactive video games and cartoons available 24 hours a day is encouraging everyone to stay inside. In a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2009, they found that on average eight- to 18-year-olds spend more than seven-and-a-half hours a day using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device. This increased use of technology is discouraging this generation from going outside and playing in a non-scripted environment, which leads to missed opportunities to gain instinctual game awareness.
As technology has increased, so has our ability to slow the game down and look at individual softball technique with a fine-toothed comb. This has improved our ability to teach skills to young athletes. Our game is evolving and becoming more competitive due to increased knowledge of the game. However, with so much information, coaches and trainers are breaking skills down piece-by-piece and providing books, CDs and DVDs that players, their parents and coaches are utilizing. In addition to all this information, the number of coaches that give instruction has increased. Therefore, softball players at younger and younger ages are beginning to take lessons. Don't get me wrong… I give lessons and think there is value in gaining quality instruction as well as reviewing the available materials. However, my fear is that some players rely solely on their weekly or bi-weekly lessons to troubleshoot issues. This is creating players who lack the ability to problem solve on their own. Players look to someone else to tell them what they are doing wrong, instead of first figuring it out on their own. In the past, players would troubleshoot for themselves. Now, rather than learning by trial and error, softball players have developed a need or reliance on external, organized ways to practice the game. This is affecting players' ability to self-instruct, instinctively know the game and compete.
Another factor contributing to this trend is the pressure to be recruited. The overall recruiting process has sped up and multiplied in recent history. Female athletes committing early is now a part of our softball culture. While not all student-athletes commit early, and not all schools participate in the early commitment process, the idea still hangs over the heads of most high school softball players… or at least over their parents.' Due to this notion, peer, community, parental and self-inflicted pressures have changed the landscape of travel ball softball. Players are now playing year-round, practicing two to seven days a week, going to lessons and becoming single sport athletes. Additionally, tournaments have moved from a competitive, championship format to a showcase format. These factors contribute to the lack of free time to play unorganized sports and limit players' opportunities to complete an entire softball game with a clear winner. So, not only are players not learning to compete during unscripted play, they are also not afforded the opportunity to do so within the structure of the current showcase tournament. Thus, players are given minimal opportunities to learn skills necessary to compete.
Now you may be wondering: What can I do about it? I believe there are ways to combat these issues. Get your kids out and play games!! Lots of championship format softball game experience will help, but I am also talking about non-scripted ball yard games. Play pepper, pickle, suicide (aka wall ball), homerun derby and wiffle ball. Your athletes will learn valuable skills that we as coaches cannot teach them. For example, the instinct to take an extra base during a game could be learned in a neighborhood wiffle ball or pickle game. The ability to make a throw on the run can be mastered in a game of suicide. Bat control and the ability to transfer the ball out of the glove quickly are honed in a game of pepper. Understanding what a hitter needs to do to get power through the ball (without her batting instructor telling her) is perfected during home run derby.
Additionally, the intangibles learned during these "playground games" are immeasurable. Athletes gain leadership and teamwork skills by creating and agreeing to rules of each new game. (For example, if you hit mom's car in deep left center, it is an automatic home run.) Playing pick-up games fosters an environment of competition. They obtain a competitive spirit and the desire to win. From this they realize what you need to do under pressure and also gain a sense of joy that comes from competing and winning. The showcase tournament structure prevents players from nurturing their competitive spirit because it encourages them to simply showcase their skills, rather than compete.
Another way to learn the game is by watching softball and baseball games. Whether our athletes are watching them live or on TV, they need to learn to be a student of the game. For example, each time a game is being watched, they should try to notice when teams bunt or steal. They should try to pick out a piece of the game they do not know or understand and learn it by observing. Many great athletes learn their sports by watching and then doing. If you have an athlete that can't quite figure out her backhand in the 5/6 hole, encourage her to watch Derek Jeter or Natasha Watley execute their backhand and then mimic them.
Softball players today are more versatile and skilled. There is more to the game. We must strongly encourage our young softball players to set down their electronics, eliminate their reliance on softball instruction materials and lessons and ask themselves: Do I instinctually know the game? Can I compete to win without being told what to do? If their answers are maybe or no, get them to go observe talented athletes and get outside and play! The lessons learned will translate on the field and in life.
Brandi Gordon, who was an assistant coach at Seattle University and helped the University of Washington reach the College World Series, joined the Harvard softball team as a coaching assistant in 2009. In 2007, Gordon was the director of softball operations and camp coordinator at Washington.