Core Training

EDITORIAL – 2019 Summer Reflections: Strengths and Weakness Within the Game

This summer I had the pleasure of traveling across the country to attend a few summer events while watching the best of the best compete. Those events included the Tulsa Elite Invitation, S&C Showcase, Atlanta Legacy, and PGF Nationals. Over a few articles I will be reflecting on what I saw out on the road, the state of softball, and more!

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Positives: “Softball IQ” and Strategy

I loved all of the higher level strategy implemented this summer as well as the undeniable “Softball IQ” of a number of athletes I was able to watch play.

Teams are elevating their game play, and therefore their athletes, to a level outside the “simple” X’s and O’s. They are really challenging opponents, testing them to see if they can match the same level of play, preparedness, and creativity. This was ever prevalent at PGF with examples coming from Iowa Premier who consistently put pressure on defenses. They delayed stole often; with runners on first and third they looked to get the athlete on first into a run down in an attempt to score from third; etc. In general, they executed these strategies very well while their opponents didn’t always appear to have the preparation or an answer to such game play.

Here’s the thing, even if a team tries something like this and it doesn’t necessarily work out, the threat has been established as something that a defense now has to be prepared for and ready to respond to. That’s now one more thing an opponent has to think about with everything else going on. This opponent may now also have to make different kinds of plays and throws they may not be used to. Maybe this seems like an irrelevant point but it’s not, especially as chaos ensues, people start shouting, a runner is charging home, etc. It’s smart and it’s really effective. I couldn’t believe how many times plays like this worked and not just for Iowa Premier. A number of teams just didn’t seem to have an answer.

Moving to “Softball IQ”, this is pretty simple. The “intangible” abilities within a number of athletes was so impressive. There is a feel an elite athlete in any sport often seems to “just have”. They just operate differently. Rather that’s something one is luckily enough to be born with or is developed after years of work, you know it when you see it and I saw a lot of it! Players like that make the game fun and help raise up everyone around them.

Positives: Offense

Top to bottom, the offensive game is dazzling across all levels and parts of the country. We often see these shifts in the sport between which facet is more dominate: pitching or hitting. Right now we are definitely in an age of elevated offensive play!

Yes, bat technology only gets more incredible and advanced. Yes, there tends to be a larger focus on offense in general (which, makes sense, if you can’t score you don’t win). Yes, there currently seems to be more programs, software, and training aids geared toward hitting as well. But I think a large part of this offensive dominance is the wealth of knowledge online to aid in the sharing of ideas, discussions, forums, etc. It only makes everyone better (when the advice and conversation is sound or correct of course!)

So keep it up everyone! It’s a lot of fun to watch.

Needs Improvement: Bunting

To put it as gently as possible, the state of the bunting game is bleak at best. We even saw these struggles front and center at the Women’s College World Series. What bothers me most is when I see a coach obliterate an athlete for failing to execute some form of short game play. Now, I don’t have any problem with coaches holding players accountable, they absolutely should, but the first question that creeps into my mind is, “how much does this team actually focus and work on the short game craft?” If it isn’t practiced and isn’t vocalized as a point of emphasis can you really get upset with an athlete for failing to perform? I don’t think you can.

I can’t exactly pin point the sole problem but I have a few ideas:

1) The “Kent Murphy” (you know the “never bunt, hit dingers!”) culture has hindered the appreciation and acceptance of the actual importance short game ability plays in softball. A while back I wrote about three simple tips to help improve your team’s bunting. While I’ll admit, it was somewhat “tongue in cheek” with suggestions that may seem all too obvious, they are actually legitimate points that are often ignored. I am also well aware data has floated around over the years saying bunting isn’t any better than simply hitting away. No matter which side of the argument you fall on, I promise any coach there will come a time when you need an athlete to “get it down”; and more importantly you will at least need to have the confidence that it is an option. It simply gives you more strategies and tactics to threaten with and we’ve all seen the usefulness! Rather a team simply cannot push a run across and must manufacturer one; if you want to test the reaction and ability of a defense or if you know a defense struggles with short game play; when in international tie breaking play; when a hitter is struggling; etc. it’s a useful piece of the “fundamental team toolbox” that needs to be reliable.

2) Continuing in the same vein, there seems to simply be a general disregard for the skill set. Generally, I don’t feel bunting is all that difficult; and I’m talking about pure sacrifice situations, bunting for a base hit, dragging, etc. can be more nuanced skills with more going on within them. But pure sacrifice bunting shouldn’t be as difficult as it seems now-a-days. There’s just little regard and emphasis put onto teaching proper techniques; revisiting the skill; and daily inclusion into practices, hitting work outs, or general routines. The solution can potentially be so simple! Get it down before you take your BP round and if you really want to rise the stakes, you can subtracted missed bunts from how many swings get to be taken. This takes coaches sticking to their plan but if athletes start missing too many rounds of BP, you can bet they will figure out how to drop the bunt.

3) An interesting observation I’ve made within the scope of “bunting” is it sometimes seems as if players either don’t understand their role in those situations or don’t want to accept and execute it. I was lucky enough to watch a number of club games this summer ranging across all age levels and talent with a majority of said talent falling into the “above average” to “upper level” of ball. While I didn’t know these teams’ signs there are situations and batters where it’s easier to tell if a short game call is meant to be a sacrifice or “sneaky”/bunt for a base hit. Often times I saw players showing incredibly late and rushing out of the box before ensuring they completed their job. Sometimes coaches would get mad, other times they wouldn’t but in general, I rarely saw an athlete truly sacrifice themselves and that’s a big problem.

It’s never fun to “sacrifice” an at-bat, to “surrender” it and lose the chance to reach the bases, especially since there are such finite opportunities within a game for each player. I get it, I really do. But that’s softball, that’s the game. What’s worse is when an athlete is asked to do a job and they attempt to “skirt” it by still reaching safely (showing super late, rushing through the motions, etc). At that point, depending skill level, that athlete is increasingly more likely to fail at the task at hand while maybe even popping something up for the easy out or misplacing the ball so it’s easier for the defense to attack the lead runner. Either way, it’s not good, ultimately it’s more of a waste and fundamentally, it’s pretty selfish.

Needs Improvement: Baserunning

Watching teams run into outs has to be one of the most disheartening and agitating thing one can witness and for the team itself to experience! It’s a momentum killer, it stifles rallies, and it can lose teams close contests.

It was interesting, I saw both fantastic execution and really poor performances on the base paths without much in between this summer. Yes, this is a generalization and there are always exceptions but, in general, this is what I was seeing. Like bunting, I’m not sure how much emphasis is being placed on baserunning across the board. I’ll never forget the time I listened to a very accomplished coach at a high level scoff at the idea of dedicating a chunk of practice time to baserunning.

“Baserunning? That’s just something you do…” was the rational and while yes, it is something “softball players just do” it has to be practiced. Good baserunning can gave any team the edge needed to push a tight game in their favor.

Decisions on the base paths happen in mere seconds and require instinctual action; during a game in crucial moments is not where players should be trying to “figure it out”. This needs to be done outside of games and there are many ways to incorporate baserunning into any practice plan (we’ll offer some in a future post). Players need the opportunity to learn their speed, when they can take extra bases, when they can’t; understand their third base coach’s “style”; how to read defenses and opponent strengths; seeing the trajectories of balls, when they’ll be caught or not, how to get that one step advantage on a well read ball; etc. in a space where a game isn’t on the line and questions can be asked than answered and worked through.

When taught and emphasized through practice these actions become habit and the odds of a team running themselves out of innings and great offensive situations become less and less. Practice it!

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