The Softball Challenge Zone
Today I’m going to talk about the challenge zone. What is the challenge zone you ask? It’s actually what the name implies. It’s the zone where we attempt to keep the players engaged and challenged without being overwhelmed or bored.
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Now let’s explore how we can keep our players in the challenge zone. Here’s a way to visualize the challenge zone. In your mind, think of a time when you were at a practice, and your players were either not paying attention, or seemed frustrated. These are some of the symptoms of not being in the most appropriate challenge zone for the skill level. In your mind, imagine a single lane road in front of you. The pavement is the challenge zone and the curb on the passenger side is the under-challenge zone and the one on the driver side is the over challenge zone. This is a way that might help you to visualize this tool.
A drill that incorporates a new skill for example, may start in the overwhelming or high anxiety zone depending on the experience level of your team and their ability to adapt to new skills. A young and inexperienced team for example, would likely be overwhelmed if you introduce the 1 and 3 play, where the second base player cuts in behind the pitcher, and then the shortstop who is at the base either says cut to get that runner going to home, or says nothing to let it go straight through to second to get the runner from first. Imagine the pandemonium if you tried this tactic with a 10U team that has a hard time even knowing when to throw on a steal attempt. As you can guess, the team will eventually be distracted with other things because they just can’t get it.
On the other hand, you may have a 14U team who is very experienced and wants to add another play to their 1 and 3 plays. This team is going to be challenged enough that they are engaged and interested. The trick is to know when to stop the drill if they are having trouble and re introduce it again so they don’t get bored or go to something else.
Now what if you have the whole team standing at shortstop with someone at first base to take throws because you are going to work on fielding. I bet you can see how the challenge zone will work here. Lots of talking and looking around going on as the players that are not engaged are waiting for their turn to field the ball. So how can you work on fielding while keeping them in the challenge zone?
Here’s some ideas:
- Use game situations
- Create a point system
- Design fielding stations or include stations for other drills
How can you incorporate the individual challenge zone within the team sport of softball? First you need to know the individual skill levels of your players. This can be done through game stats and general observation. Most of us coaches can look at any player and know what their skill level is on most skills in this game. So, what activities can you incorporate during practices that are in the challenge zone for the team that also challenge the individual.
Here’s some ideas:
- Create a point system based on their own progress
- Connect it to other statistics such as game stats
- Try not to openly compare their skills with others, having a benchmark is good
Our challenge zone is also created in competition. What do you do when you play a team that is less experienced than your team? For a game like this, how can you challenge your team? For example, you could prevent your team from stealing and make them move the runners around the bases through hitting, you could have the secondary players play their backup positions, you could even discuss with the team your goals for the game and allow them to give you input on the lineup and offensive and defensive strategies.
For a game against a team who is more skilled than your team, how do you keep your team up and engaged in the game that they might think they are going to lose by a big margin? You could find smaller and more specific skills to work on. For example, you might say, we want to make no base running errors, or you could see how long they can stay focused and maintain their intensity for the game and not allow themselves to get down. Mental toughness is after all something that many are striving for.
The bottom line is that we need to keep our players engaged and as confident as we can. What that level of engagement is will be relevant to your specific situation. What we don’t want is boredom and over frustration which are equally non-productive. The challenge zone generally starts with your observation and evaluation skills and one of the best ways to ensure accuracy is to include your players in the process.