If you asked the average person whether playing fastpitch softball is a physical or mental activity, there’s a good chance the answer would be “physical.” After all, there’s a lot of movement involved, and these days many softball players are training their bodies to the point of constant exhaustion (a topic for another day).
In reality, however, it’s a trick question. Because while it is obviously physical, there is also a huge element of mental activity that goes into it as well.
Or at least there should be.
When I train a player, I tend to use what’s known as the Socratic Method. The short version is I don’t just constantly tell them what to do; instead, once they’ve been taught something I will ask them questions to try to ensure they actually understand what we’re trying to do instead of just blindly following directions.
For example, if I am working with a pitcher and she throws a pitch in the dirt on her throwing hand side, rather than saying “You released too early” or “You were too open at release” or whatever the issue was, I will instead ask her “Why did that happen?” It is then up to her to think through what she has (supposedly) learned, plus what she felt, in order to provide an answer to the question.
The goal, of course, is to help the player become her own pitching, hitting, fielding, whatever, coach.
We want that so when she’s practicing on her own she can make corrections to keep her on the right path. We also want that because I’m sure the last thing that player wants is for Mom, Dad, Team Coach, or the spectators on the sidelines to be shouting instructions out to her in a game.
When I ask these questions the answers I receive aren’t always right. But to me there is one answer that is always wrong: I don’t know.
Because even if a player provides an incorrect response to the question, at least she’s making an effort to figure it out. She may not quite understand what she should be doing yet but she’s trying.
Saying I don’t know, however, to me shows a total lack of mental engagement in the process of whatever we’re doing. It’s the easy way out, basically saying, “Tell me so I can robotically follow directions” rather than really digging in to understand the movement we’re trying to achieve at a deeper level.
When I hear “I don’t know,” I always think of Mr. Hand and Spicoli.
In a softball context, in turning the tables the conversation would go, “Will I be able to get hitters out Coach?” “I don’t know.” “Will I get some hits instead of striking out?” “I don’t know.” “Will I be able to make the quick throw?” “I don’t know.”
And that’s the reality of it. If a player’s brain is not engaged as she practices she could just as easily be practicing the wrong things – in which case when she goes into a game she won’t have the skills she needs to succeed.
Now, I’m not saying “I don’t know” is always the wrong answer. If the coach who is asking the question of a player hasn’t taught her whatever he/she is asking, the player shouldn’t be expected to know. In which case “I don’t know” is correct.
Or if a player asks a coach about something out of his/her area of expertise, like how to throw a riseball if the coach has no background in pitching, or what strengthening exercises they should do at home if the coach hasn’t researched it, “I don’t know” is a better answer than just making something up so the coach doesn’t look “stupid.”
I actually wish more coaches would give that answer when it’s appropriate.
But when the activity is something fundamental that has been taught and reinforced dozens or hundreds of times before, “I don’t know” is not a sufficient answer. The player should know and be able to self-correct.
That’s the fast track to improvement and advancement. Because players who can identify issues on their own can correct them on their own and keep themselves moving forward; those who can’t, well, they’re doomed to repeat those mistakes over and over.
If you’re a coach, hold your players accountable by asking questions they should know the answers to and then making them accountable for it. If you’re a parent, reinforce the importance of players getting their brains engaged instead of mindlessly going through whatever motions they’re being told to do at the time.
And if you’re a player, take ownership of your softball education and really learn what you’re being taught. Not just the movements but the reasons for them, and why things go wrong when they go wrong.
It’s one of the biggest keys to producing better, more consistent results. Which makes the games a lot more fun.
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