Coaching softball players to success is often done through repetition of basic drills that are designed to lead to correct execution during competition. But what if we did more than that, and were able to create and try modifying softball difficulty based on our teams specific skill level and desire to improve. I am talking about using skill progressions with game related modifications to suit the player or players that the coach is working with. These modifications would be used to focus on specific aspects of a skill rather than the whole or the final outcome which can be affected by so many events during a game. This would be done to work with the players desire to improve as much as with our desire to improve them.
We often think of modifications to make things more difficult to get better rather than to make things more likely to create success and confidence in the players. By experiencing success through progressions, coaches can motivate softball players to continue to feel that success through correct execution even if it is a part of the skill and not all of it. Those parts will be put together to enable success in the skill as it is intended.
This complicated sport of softball in its introductory stages, is generally designed for athletes based on age. The younger the athletes for example, the smaller the game and the likelihood of using simpler implements such as the batting tee or having a coach pitch rather than a live pitcher from the opponents. The younger the teams are, the closer the bases are together, the ball is smaller so youngsters can grip it to throw more easily and the pitcher is closer to the batter. This is designed to create success based on the players abilities.
Modifying Softball Difficulty
Changing the size of the ball, batting implements and distances used for young players is of course useful because the players are smaller in size and strength, and we want them to have every chance at success in order to improve. These modifications however can also be used for players who are older and more experienced as well. I am not recommending that the pitcher stand at 30 feet from the batter hoping that they are not going to get nailed because they are so close. We can use modifications though in a structured and safe way to help our players at any age to improve.
The modifications of equipment, facilities, and rules to match the developmental capabilities of teams can also create ways to modifying task difficulty. For example putting a row of bases along the foul line is very useful for practicing the lead off, making sure there is maximum participation. This takes the focus off getting to the next base and allows the players to only focus on the footwork because they don’t see the base 60 feet ahead of them. You could also use a larger ball for hitting which allows the player to see the ball better and to feel success in making contact as they work on their mechanics of the swing. Some may say that this creates bad habits and does not allow the player to work on more game like situations, and this is a valid concern. When coaches are working to achieve a specific aspect of the skill though, using some form of modification can enhance the possibilities of success which will lead to success on the field. We already use a tee, and other stationery items for hitting to improve batting mechanics.
For Strategies and Tactics
We can also modify the task by the expectations of results. A double play when being learned for example, can focus on the initial throw being successful and the footwork by the receiver instead of having to execute the full play with runners out at second and first to be considered well done. By breaking up the play into segments and then putting them together, athletes will be more motivated to succeed because they have mastered the smaller parts of the tactic. This can be done with many of the strategies and tactics in softball.
- start from the easiest and then progress to the more difficult or complete task
- build confidence at each stage
- make sure the environment is safe
- design activities that are age appropriate
- provide physical guidance where appropriate
- gradually eliminate external aids to allow the player to attribute their success to their own abilities
In working with our softball players to improve their technical and tactical skills, we need to consider not only the execution aspect of the skill but also the building of confidence and helping them to believe that they are having success because of their abilities rather than because we put a tee in front of them instead of using the pitching machine. Their perception of abilities and confidence is what is going to carry their perceived abilities during games when it counts.
The way that we as coaches provide feedback and reinforcement and the timing of that feedback will also have an effect the players perception of success. For example if we simply say “nice hit” the player does not know exactly how they contributed to the success. If the coach says “the way that you rotated your hips really gave you a lot of power in that hit” the coach is giving the player specific reinforcement that something that they physically did resulted in the success.
Taking a skill and breaking it down to teach in parts is called chaining. This can be done by chaining a skill forwards where for example we start with the feet when teaching throwing. Or it can be done backwards as in teaching the bunt mechanics. This style of modification is most useful for technical skills such as throwing, batting and pitching. Following are some skills that would benefit from the chaining method of teaching.
Forward Chaining Examples
- running slap bunt
Backward Chaining Examples
- receiving the ball
- positional play
- the rundown play
Aim To Succeed
The goal in modifying task difficulty for softball learning is to create success at each stage of the skill until the player has mastered it enough to execute with confidence during games. This can take time and patience but will pay off when it counts. Working with technical and tactical skills during the pre season is the most effective. Then you can use the same methods when the team is having difficulty with a specific skill or tactic. The goal is to build confidence and help our players to enjoy the game and play fast pitch or slo pitch well into their adulthood.