Teaching players to think

Today my assistant coach Rich and I were talking a little about coaching philosophies. We’re pretty much on the same page on most things so it was a pretty friendly conversation.

The topic turned to the way some coaches like to be the center of attention. Their primary goal seems to be making sure everyone thinks they’re brilliant. They like to control every aspect of the game, call every pitch, play and player movement, and generally treat the game as a big chess match between themselves and the other coach.

The trouble with that is the players never learn to think for themselves. They are simply the chess pieces waiting to be shuffled around the board (field). They don’t really know why they’re being told to move here or lay down this bunt or steal this base. They just know when the sign comes they do it. So now the team is only as smart as the head coach. There’s no additive effect of the players contributing thoughts, and if a situation comes up they haven’t been told about they may not be prepared.

I think that’s a poor way to go. I much prefer my players having their heads in the game, and so does Rich. Much of what goes on in the field A) occurs in split seconds and/or requires a certain level of confidence to pull off. If it’s all about the head coach, you won’t be able to handle either.

A good example of how it pays off is with our third baseman Hillary. I’ve been coaching her since she was 9 or 10 years old. About the time she was 11 we put in a play that calls for the third baseman to do a pump fake when she gets a ground ball with a runner on third to try to draw the runner off and get the out on the lead runner. It started as a called play from the bench.

About the time she was 14, Hillary started calling the play herself. By “calling the play” I don’t mean that she just did the pump fake. She would also tell our shortstop that she was running the play so she could cover the bag in case of a snap throw. This past season she ran it five or six times herself, and if I recall correctly got the runner at third every time. Not just because of the design of the play, but because she knows how to sell the pump fake and believes in her ability to make the play.

Don’t get me wrong. We still call certain defensive sets from the dugout, move fielders around and determine where a throw might go. We also call steals and bunts. But we do it less and less. If we’re in a tight game the infielders will often move themselves in to cut off a runner at the plate, before we have to call. Catchers throw the pickoff to first on their own when they see opportunity. The list goes on. What we’re seeing is the girls are understanding the subtleties of how the game is played and taking their rightful place of controlling their own destinies.

Believe me, I have as much ego about coaching as anybody. I certainly hope I’m thought of as a good coach. But part of the job of the coach of an older team is to make sure his/her players understand the game. It’s the only way they’ll ever discover just how good they can be.

I’ve always said the coaches’ time is during practice. The players’ time is during the game. Seeing our girls use the strategies we’ve taught them means we’ve done a good job teaching them.
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