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The Best Things I Learned This Year

I love learning, so I learn a LOT of new stuff every year. Here’s my Best Of list for Things I’ve Learned in 2017!

As coaches, we’re in the improving business, so how’s your improvement coming along? Do you have your list of things you’ve learned this year – if not, you can use mine.

I’m a serial learner – which to me means, I can’t stop myself. Learning is something that drives me. I LOVE it! I love learning totally new things, or different things about old stuff I already knew, and I love learning useless stuff about things that don’t really matter (like how fast a hummingbird’s wings flap. It’s 53 beats per second, by the way).

I’m fortunate to speak at a lot of clinics every year including our yearly Pitching and Hitting Summits, so I’m in a terrific position to learn tons of new things from some incredible coaches. And while I’ve learned enough this year to fill 3 yellow pads worth of notes, I’m going to boil it all down for you and give you the things that were my ah-hah moments.

These are the things that altered my view enough to change how I now deal with players, how I now design practices or how I think in general. And while the list isn’t long, these items made the list because their impact was huge – at least on me.

So, here’s my list of the best things I learned this year:

  1. Who We’re Coaching – From Rhonda Revelle (University of Nebraska) I learned that research tells us that current college players have the maturity of 12 to 16 year olds. When I first heard this, I was shocked. I’d never considered this before. It never occurred to me that while college players today are talented physically, they are nowhere near as developed mentally and emotionally. That’s huge! This statement reminded me that too often we only think about players in terms of their physical skills, and learning this reminded me that our coaching can’t just be about softball. We must coach our players in a 360-degree fashion.
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    We need to help coach-up our player’s maturity levels to help them better handle things like their behavior in group settings, their problem-solving skills, their ability to think for themselves, their ability to emotionally handle adversity, and their ability to take care of things on their own. No longer do players come to us with these qualities fully developed, it’s now on us as coaches to help players grow their physical, mental and emotional skills.

    It’s the adults in kids lives who help them develop their maturity through mentoring, example-setting and by teaching them the lessons that live within struggle and failure. Knowing that the players you coach are much younger maturity-wise then their physical age, should greatly impact the patience you show them, the extra teaching and explaining they’ll need from you and the guidance you’ll need to give. While kids these days are different, they need caring coaches more than ever.

  1. Practice Isn’t the Same – From Missy Lombardi (University of Oklahoma) and Trevor Regan (TrainUgly.com) I learned that to play differently in games we must practice differently. Typically practice involves doing lots of repetitions of very predictable skills until we “get it right”. While games are the complete opposite. Games are about adversity, one skill followed by a completely different skill, in an unpredictable environment (randomness). I’ve learned that doing lots of the same thing over and over again is called Blocked practice, and doing one to two reps in a random and unpredictable order is referred to as Variable practice.
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    I’ve not only learned this, but I’ve put it into action and have seen it produce amazing results! Studies show that while players, over a 6-week period, will increase around 25% through a blocked-only practice, players improve an amazing 57% through variable practice! And because variable practice is more difficult and more unpredictable, it won’t seem like your players are actually getting better in practice. When in fact, they’ll be much more successful in games – because games are always difficult and unpredictable.

    You’ll probably still want a small part of each practice to work on mechanics, but if you’re really practicing for your team to play better in games, then spend the majority of your practice time making everything more random. Think about how you hit fungoes to your infielders. Usually we hit in a very predictable order – 3rd base, shortstop, 2nd base and 1st base – and always groundballs. And yet in a game, balls aren’t always grounders, and they never work their way around the infield, so practicing like this only ensures your infielders won’t be “ready for anything” since they never just get “anything”.

    (If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I’ll be releasing a brand new in-depth Pitching product very soon after the New Year – called the Complete Pitching Blueprint – which goes into this concept in detail. So, stay tuned)

  1. Track It – From Jen Rocha (University of Florida) I learned that to be “it” in games we must chart “it” in practice – whatever “it” is. Jen’s pitchers at Florida are about the best in the country when it comes to control. Their pitcher’s simply throw more strikes than balls. And while this sounds ridiculously simple, it’s a game-changing quality. The way they do this is by charting every pitch they throw in practice for ball vs strike, and then having a daily Highest Strike Percentage winner! This tracking creates competition and accountability. I’ve started doing it with the pitchers I work with and it’s incredible how the pitchers really care about their %, and how much they want to win the day.
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    Before you get overwhelmed thinking you don’t have the people or the time to do this, hang on. I have pitchers chart each other using a piece of paper and a clipboard. We simply track whether the pitch was a ball or a strike. I’m not so concerned about the type of pitch as I am their overall strike %. 2017 best things learn learned year pitch variable strike chart This really helps the pitchers realize that some of their pitches are not strike-capable, so they shouldn’t really be throwing them yet. I’ll chart during the Variable portion of practice and by simply using Variable workouts and this ball vs strike charting, I’ve seen 4 different pitchers, who started out in September, in varying states of control all come within 5 % points of 70% strikes by early November! (Results graph included)

    Whether you’re working with hitters, pitchers, infielders or outfielders – whatever you’re emphasizing, if it’s important enough to emphasize then it will be improved more rapidly by tracking and charting it. Figure out a simple way to track “are they doing it – whatever it is” on a daily basis. Then create an internal competition within your team to be the daily winner. It will help them be more competitive and oddly enough, more supportive of their teammates.

    I’ve included an example of a daily strike % chart I use and a graph showing the strike percentage improvement for 4 of the pitchers I’m working with.

    2017 best things learn player daily track practice
  1. Grow & Learn Faster – And finally, from 8-time NCAA National Champion and 40-year coaching veteran Mike Candrea (University of Arizona) I learned that with everything available immediately at our finger tips, it is absolutely our obligation as a coach to be current. There’s no excuse for coaches not knowing the latest research or methods or information. We’re constantly asking our players to improve and with that expectation comes the burden that our knowledge must stay current. What you knew last year isn’t good enough anymore, never mind what we knew 10 years ago. Last year’s information has probably been adjusted by now, and that 10-year-old knowledge you’re still clinging to has definitely been improved, altered, more clearly defined or somehow technologically impacted.
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    Grow, get current. Immerse yourself in the world your players live in today, so that you can better relate your experience to them. Sure, the basics of the game haven’t changed much over the years, but so much about how to do those basics, better, certainly has.

Get yourself unstuck and spend the holidays learning something new or better or clearer to help you improve yourself, your players and ultimately your team!

Happy Holidays – and here’s to hoping all of us learn tons of new things in 2018!

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4 comments on “The Best Things I Learned This Year

  1. Kent Lowry

    Very helpful article, and further proof that Softball Excellence is the best resource out there for fastpitch!

  2. Laurie Johnson

    Hi Cindy,

    Great article! It helps keep many things in perspective and proves that we need to be a lifelong learner in order to be an effective coach. By the way, I met you years ago when you were coaching out of Plant City. You came to a softball Clinic we were putting on and apparently you liked what you saw, and you donated equipment to our softball program. We are still very thankful for what you gave us and use some of it still! Thanks again!

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