A softball placed on the ground near the softball field's pitching mound.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Assessing Your Game

By Mark Lawrence

The NCAA Women’s College World Series is one of my favorite sporting events of the year. While I lived in New Jersey, I was lucky enough to be the volunteer assistant coach for the Rutgers University women’s softball team for 10 years. During that time, we were never a great team, but I enjoyed being around the players because of their enthusiasm for the game and the joy they brought with them – to the games, to the practice field and even to lifting, study hall and team meetings. (Okay, that last one was a stretch…)

As usual, this year the softball at the Women’s College World Series was fun to watch – with some surprises – but the best team (at least in my opinion) prevailed. Oklahoma had a murderers’ row for a batting line-up and a deep and talented pitching staff that wasn’t terrific but good enough to keep them in close games where their offense could really do some damage.

As I watched the games on TV, I was reminded of my time coaching and playing and some of the good times I had with my teammates, fellow coaches and student athletes. I’m a believer that sports do translate to the business world, so I’d like to share three stories and how they apply to the work we’re doing today.

Focus on the Future

In 2002, I was living in Canada and playing/coaching on a very good team. I was the worst player on the team and tried to make up for it by being a good teammate. We had several very good players on that team, and we were playing in a close game in our provincial finals, which would allow us a berth into the national championships. Our best pitcher, Dean, who was literally one of the greatest to ever play the game, had a rough first inning with a walk, an infield error and a hit that was described in the movie Bull Durham as a “ground ball with eyes.” After a half inning, we were down 1-0 without a ball being hit hard. As we came into the dugout, one of our players said to Dean, “I can’t believe you gave up a walk.” Another said, “I can’t believe we made an error.” As our team got together in a little huddle, Dean said, “Solve the problem – get a hit. We aren’t going to win this game without scoring.”That statement was just a few words, but it allowed us to focus on the solution, not the problem. It also allowed us to focus on the future instead of the past. And it worked. We went on to win that game and made it to the National level of the Canadian Championships where we won a silver medal out of a field of 16 teams from around the country.

Have an Approach

After I moved to New Jersey, I played for several years on a travel team made up primarily of players from the Atlanta, Georgia, and Auburn, Alabama, areas. Our best player was our catcher, Adrian, who had played in college at Georgia Tech. He also was a psychology professor at Auburn University.

While playing in a tournament in Montgomery, Alabama, we brought up some young “kids” (post college) who were good baseball players but inexperienced at men’s fast pitch softball. One of them had a really rough at-bat. He had looked at a strike down the middle, looked at a strike on the outside corner and swung and missed badly at a rise ball that was over the plate but started at around his belly button and ended up around his chin. He came back into the dugout, tossed his bat and started chirping about both the umpire and the pitcher.As he calmed down, he sat beside Adrian and asked him what he could do differently. Adrian said, “Have an approach.” Well, that caused both some laughter from our team and embarrassment from the strikeout victim. When you hang around with good ball players long enough, you realize that good hitters watch the pitchers very closely, looking for situations where they can get favorable counts and then looking for pitches they know they can hit.

One once told me that when he’s ahead in the count, he’s not trying to cover the entire strike zone, but rather, he’s looking for a pitch in his zone (about the size of a breadbox). If the pitcher throws something in there – he’s going to hammer it.

Adrian went on to say that the pitcher had a tendency to throw first pitches in the middle of the zone to get ahead in the count and that we should think about “ambushing him” early in the count before he works the count to his favor and then throws garbage. After the fact, and for many years later, I realized that the notion “have an approach” applies to many things – my family, my relationships, my work and almost any other thing a person wants to try and do well.

Find a Way

My third and final story comes from my time at Rutgers. Our head coach, Jay, was speaking to the players about their mental approach to the game. He talked about the feeling that you get as an athlete when you are “on.” As a hitter, the ball looks big on the way in (and you hit ‘em where they ain’t), and as a pitcher, the ball goes where you want with spin and movement and misses the bat.He spoke about what happens when you don’t feel “on.” How does your approach change? How do you overcome that feeling? Our starting shortstop raised her hand and said, “I fake it.” There were some laughs and giggles, but she went on to say, “I very rarely feel ‘on,’ but I know what it feels like, so I try to make my approach to the game as close as I can to that feeling. When I know I’m not ‘on,’ I fake feeling that way and try to have my best performance regardless.”Well, that answer surprised me somewhat, but as we discussed it, I realized that it was an ultimately honest and insightful response. We all go through days knowing that we don’t feel our best, that we are not “on,” and that there are impediments to achieving our best performance. That said, as competitors, we find a way to carry on and do the best we can.

Determine Your Style

Hopefully you find these three stories helpful as you think about how you approach the game – whatever game that may be. Be sure to focus on the future, have an approach and find a way to work through the moments when you don’t feel your best.

College softball is in the books for 2021, but they will be playing at the Olympics soon enough. Although the U.S. is favored, the gap between Team USA and the rest of the world has narrowed. I expect they will face a stiff challenge from both Japan and Australia (and possibly even Canada). Hopefully you will enjoy the games half as much as I will.

Enjoy the summer. The “Fifth Season” will be here before we know it.

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