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2018 NFCA Coaches Clinic

I just spent the weekend in Kansas City with a longtime friend, mentor, and previous coach, at a two day NFCA Coaches Clinic. The speakers, the topics, the take-aways were all on point, but mostly is was awesome to be surrounded by like-minded people, who were learning and empowering themselves to help see it through that the sport of softball continues to grow, that their players are exposed to the best the sport has to offer, and that the sport of softball only continues to get bigger, badder, better.

It has been a long time since I’ve been to a conference/seminar/clinic where I could fully understand the verbiage, the jokes, and where I was able to visualize the situations described since I had either lived it as a player, or experienced it now as a coach. Gotta tell you, that makes sitting and listening to people talk to me for two straight days so much more enjoyable.

Top notch DI coaches, the ones I follow up to the WCWS, were showing off their coaching strategies, their thought processes, specific methods to help kids with certain weaknesses, and giving insider information into how they were personally making their programs successful. Each one that spoke at the clinic, are revamping the thought processes behind even the most basic of things, pushing the envelope, and striving to be that little something different just so they can outwit and outplay opponents.

Here’s the very best of what I heard this weekend:

Stay True to Who You Are as a Player

Coach Lonni Alameda, the head coach at Florida State University, talked extensively about being able to recognize who you are as a player, and owning it. It’s understanding your specific role on the team, realizing the work that needs to be put in to make sure you are the very best at your role, and not faltering by trying to be something, or someone, you’re not.

Hello life lesson.

You are your best version of yourself, when you stay true to who you are and the role that you are most comfortable playing.

Strike out pitcher, closer, location hitter, location pitcher, slapper, power hitter, middle infielder, baserunner, whatever it is, identify it, and own it. Work at it, perfect it, or make the change so that you get on the path you are meant to be on.

On Coach Lonni’s end, it was her responsibility to make sure her players knew where they fit into her game plan by meeting regularly, comparing notes, and having those open conversations addressing who the player outwardly and mentally thought she was. From there, Lonni knew how she needed to work the rest of the team to shape and mold them for success.

There is a Place for Everybody

Along the lines of the recruiting process, Coach Beverly Smith from the University of South Carolina said, “There’s a spot for everybody, so it should be all about finding that player’s best fit; broaden your horizons and don’t put all your eggs into one basket.”

The shininess of the Power 5 conferences that we see compete on TV every year, often holds such a strong grip our minds that we are left to think that our kids must be recruited by an elite DI school, to feel like they’ve ‘made it’. The hype around the big-name teams convolute all the other truly amazing programs out there that can still offer the level of competition a player needs both academically and athletically.

The hardest part about the recruiting process is getting past comparing yourself to those you see or hear about around you. Keep in mind that your process, start to finish, is unique to you, and only you. Just because you have a teammate who has a good idea where she’s going and is only a junior, doesn’t mean that you, as a senior, won’t have a chance to be seen and picked up.

Forget the hype. Do your homework, and start going after the schools that fit your specific criteria, on your own. Concentrate on your skills, your game, your performance.

Know that it’s ok to be a walk-on, or to start out at a Junior College until you can find out what fits your needs better, or until you are discovered by the right school that you can end up transfering to. There is no shame, and there is no harm in starting out that way. Trust that all will fall into place and happen when it needs to.

The Difference Between a Good Player and a Great Player, is a Player that Can Adapt and Function in Plan B.

Coach Lonni Alameda said, “We hardly win ball games with our first plan in place, the best teams I’ve coached over the years are the ones that embrace and run with Plan B.”

Every team enters a game with the plan of winning, by pitching well, hitting well, fielding well, basically doing everything well. Not often do all those things fall into place, every time, all the time. But the team that can adjust, that come back from being knocked down, and still end up performing well, is the team that can adapt and run with Plan B.

Plan B, is the pitcher who gives up the grand slam, but comes back to strike out the next batter. Plan B is the hitter who has had two previous strike outs in the game but ends up getting that clutch hit. It’s the infielder that made the error, allowing the game tying run to score, but is still able to talk to her teammates and let them know she will get the next one if it’s hit to her.

Adapt to change. Face challenges head on, and by golly do not look for your coach or someone else on the bench (Mildred) to come in and fix it for you. Take the reins and saddle up. “The best teams are player led, not coach fed.”

Train for the Little Things, They Make the Biggest Differences When it Comes to Game-Time.

This one was huge for me, because I am often making those slight, nit-picky adjustments during my lessons, where I find I need to explain the point of my adjustment, or prove why I’m being nit-picky so that everything can click together. I am often saying, ‘Trust me, there is a method behind my madness.’

Coach Alameda had a video example of a player reaching with both hands to catch a ball, just missing it, and consequently not being able to get the out for a routine play at first. At the college level, an error like this can be the difference between a win and a loss. She then had video of a similar routine play where the player only reached with her glove hand being able to field the ball cleanly and make the play. It’s such a miniscule adjustment, a play that unless you’re looking for it, you might not even notice it, but a motion that has to be practiced, over and over, and over, so that it becomes natural, not given a second thought, and can ultimately be the difference between an out, and a runner on base.

Hitting is Timing, Pitching is Upsetting that Timing

There was a lot of talk throughout the clinic about a hitters timing being even more important than a hitter’s key fundamentals (ie: stride, follow-through, balance, stance). In fact, some coaches are completely bypassing teaching the fundamentals and swear by the concept that the only thing that makes a hitter great, is her ability to time the pitch being thrown.

Nebraska hitting coach, Diane Miller, talked about teaching nothing but timing to her players via mixing in several drills with pitching machines being set up close, far, fast, slow, and using different sized balls to accentuate different speeds and movement. She also talked about driving home the idea that the hitter must trust their own speed and body to let the ball travel deeper into the zone. The deeper a hitter lets the ball the travel into the zone, the more power she’ll have at contact point.

As a pitcher, your job is to try to upset a hitter’s timing by throwing that variance in speeds consistently and on command. Lonni Alameda pointed out that, “If you can locate the ball and hit the spots asked of you, with nothing but a fastball and a change-up, you can complete with some of the best who have a whole repertoire of pitches.”

At the elite level, pitchers must have three variances of speed; fast, change, and gap speed, with at least 6mph differences between those pitches. Hitters are too good and will catch up to those pitchers relying on just throwing hard and a one speed change up isn’t enough to upset a hitters timing for all 7 innings. Coach Alameda points out, “You don’t have to be perfect to be effective. Despite not being able to throw a change up for a strike, you can still disrupt the hitters timing and set them up for a better pitch afterwards.”

To Round It Up

The game has changed so much even in the years since I played, but I am so pleased to see that it’s evolving in some stellar ways. New rules pertaining to slappers, base path obstruction, down to when the college recruiting process can and should start.

There were differences amongst the DI level coaches as to how they taught position specifics like blocking, framing, key hitting fundamentals, even down to the overhand throwing motion. Although different, it didn’t mean one way was wrong, especially if it proves to be effective for that specific player or that specific team. As a coach, it’s important for me and my counterparts to realize that there is hardly one way that a player can be taught and shown how to do something. It’s just as important for us as coaches, as it is for players, to remain open to ideas, and to never stop learning and growing.

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