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Technical and tactical skill development essential for softball success

by the American Sport Education Program with Kirk Walker and Mona Stevens

Technical Skills

Everyone involved in coaching softball knows the importance of technical skills. The way a player fields a ground ball, lays down a bunt, throws a fastball or executes a bent-leg slide has a big effect on the outcome of a game. Technical skills are “the specific procedures to move one’s body to perform the task that needs to be accomplished” (Martens, Successful Coaching, p. 169). The execution of technical skills, the capability to teach athletes how to perform them, the flair to detect errors and correct them and the ability to recognize when those skills come into play in a game are all things that you will develop over time with the accumulation of experience. You may need years and hundreds of games to acquire the knowledge necessary to know instinctively what to do. This book will help you reach that stage more quickly, taking you from your current level of knowledge to a higher plane by showing you how to

  • focus on the key points of the skill,
  • detect errors in an athlete’s performance of those skills,
  • correct the errors that athletes make, and
  • help athletes transfer the knowledge and ability that they gain in practice to execution in games.

Developed from the expertise of the NFCA, the plan outlined in this book will help you learn how to teach athletes to become masters of the basic to intermediate technical skills of softball and will assist you in providing athletes with the resources necessary for success.

Tactical Skills

Although mastering the technical skills of softball is important, it is not enough. Softball players need to know not only how to play the game technically but also how to choose the tactics necessary to achieve success. Many softball texts overlook the tactical aspects of the game. Coaches even omit tactical considerations from practice because they focus so intently on teaching technical skills. Teaching tactics is much harder and takes much more effort than teaching techniques, but the resulting dividends are substantial.

Tactical skills can best be defined as “the decisions and actions of players in the contest to gain an advantage over the opposing team or players” (Martens, Successful Coaching, p. 170). One way that coaches can approach teaching tactical skills is by focusing on three critical aspects, the “tactical triangle”:*

  • Reading the play or situation
  • Acquiring the knowledge needed to make an appropriate tactical decision
  • Applying decision-making skills to the problem

This book as a whole provides you with the knowledge you need to teach players how to use the tactical triangle. Part III covers important cues that help athletes respond appropriately when they see a play developing, including important rules, game strategies, and the strengths and weaknesses of opponents that affect game situations, as well as ways to teach athletes how to acquire and use that knowledge. Part III will help you teach athletes how to make appropriate choices in a given situation and will show you how to empower players to recognize emerging situations on their own and make sound judgments.

Anyone who has observed softball for any length of time has seen players make errors in games on plays that they have practiced many times in training sessions. Such situations can cause tremendous frustration, for both players and coaches. As you will see, however, these errors can be prevented!

Traditional Versus Games Approach to Coaching

As mentioned previously, transferring skills from practice to games can be difficult. A sound background of technical and tactical training prepares athletes for game situations. But you can surpass this level by incorporating gamelike situations into daily training, further enhancing the likelihood that players will transfer skills from practices to games. To understand how to accomplish this, you must be aware of two approaches to coaching: the traditional approach and the games approach.

Traditional Approach

Most coaches are comfortable with the traditional approach to coaching. This method often begins with a warm-up period followed by a set of drills, a scrimmage and finally a cool-down period. This approach can be useful in teaching the technical skills of softball, but unless coaches shape, focus and enhance the scrimmages or drills, the athletes may not successfully translate the skills to game situations, leaving coaches to ponder why their team practices better than it plays.

Games Approach

Using the tactical triangle in practice supplies athletes with the tools that they need to make appropriate and quick decisions. But unless they can employ these tools in game situations, they are of little value.

You have surely seen players jump into the batting cage in practice and tear the cover off the ball on the tees or the pitching machine but then have trouble making good contact after the game begins. This type of hitter has learned the art of performing well in drills but has not learned how to transfer those technical skills to tactical situations that occur during a game. Some people call this choking, but a more accurate description would be failure to adapt. The same sort of thing happens to the player who can field every ground ball flawlessly in practice but bobbles easy grounders in a game or lets them go through her legs.

The best way to prevent this scenario is to use the games approach to coaching, which provides athletes with real-time, gamelike situations in training that allow them to practice and learn the skills at game speed. This philosophy stresses the importance of putting technical skills rehearsed in drills into use in practice. You can drill players in a skill like bunting until they are sore, but if they never get the opportunity to use the skill in a gamelike setting, they will not be able to perform when it really counts—in an actual game. When players make mistakes in game-speed situations, they learn. You have to provide gamelike opportunities in which players can feel secure about making mistakes so that they can file those mistakes in the “softball sense” parts of their brains. By doing so, the chances of their making the same mistakes in games will lessen.

The games approach emphasizes the use of games and minigames to provide athletes with situations that are as close to a real game as possible (Alan G. Launder, Play Practice, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2001). This approach requires more than just putting the team on the field, throwing them a ball and letting them play. Rather, according to Launder, the games approach includes three components that make each minigame educational:

1. Shaping

2. Focusing

3. Enhancing

Shaping play means modifying the game in a way that is conducive to learning the skills that you want to teach in that particular setting. The games approach shapes play by modifying the rules, the environment (playing area), the objectives of the game and the number of players used (Launder, p. 56). In a typical scrimmage situation, the stronger players dominate and the weaker players rarely get a chance to play an active role. When play is shaped, for example, by reducing the number of players—the weaker players are put into positions where they will have more opportunities to play active roles. But you cannot simply shape the play and expect miracles to happen. You need to focus your athletes’ attention on the specific objectives that you are trying to achieve with the game. Young players are more apt to learn, or at least to reduce their reluctance to learn, if they know why you are asking them to grasp new tactical information.

Knowing how the tactic fits into the team’s game plan or season plan also helps players buy into the tactic. You can assist your athletes with this phase by providing them with clear objectives and explaining how learning those objectives elevates their capability to play and helps their team win games. Shaping play and focusing players on objectives, however, cannot be successful unless you play an active role and work on enhancing their play. You can enhance minigames by adding challenges to make the contests between the sides equal. You can also enhance play by encouraging your players and give them confidence by frequently pointing out their progress. Minigames also give you an opportunity to stop the game whenever you recognize an opportunity to teach something that will improve their play even further.

Most coaches have used aspects of the games approach one way or another in their training sessions. Although you may already have a basic understanding of how to use this approach, this book takes the concept further by presenting a games approach season plan as well as sample practices for you to use with your team.

Both the traditional and the games approach are sound coaching practices. Part IV examines both approaches to teaching the skills in softball. Although both approaches have value, the philosophy of this book slants toward the latter. Providing athletes with game-speed, real-time situations that have clear objectives creates a productive, fun-filled learning environment. Athletes who have learned to think of training as a necessary evil will be more motivated to come to practice if they are engaged on a daily basis. More important, if they sense that they have ownership over what they learn in practice, they become more responsible team members. An added benefit is that softball players who learn through the games approach will be better prepared for competition because they have already faced stiff challenges in their everyday practice sessions.

Knowing how to teach the technical and tactical skills of softball is important, but you will never know how your players are performing unless you create good assessment systems. Next, you must learn how to evaluate players.

This excerpt is taken from the ASEP title Coaching Softball Technical and Tactical Skills, written by ASEP in conjunction with Kirk Walker and Mona Stevens.

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