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Fatal Team Flaw

by Dave
Monday, November 03, 2008

I have received countless e-mails concerning a perceived fastpitch softball travel team flaw which seems to be perhaps more prevalent in the sport than composite bats.   These messages come from Illinois, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Connecticut, Australia, and even Europe.   I believe I have received questions regarding this single issue more than any other general area of questions by a factor as large as 5 or 10 to 1.   That is, I receive 5 to 10 e-mails asking about a certain situation about as often as I receive questions regarding hitting, fielding, or pitching.   These may be as much as half all messages I receive.   The issue concerns one's status as a player on a roster including three, four or more kids whose parents act as the team's coaches.

The very first item I would like to bring up is there are two fundamental situations which can prevail in any youth sport.   One is a team which is not coached by parents.   The other is one in which players' parents do most or all of the coaching.   That's simple enough but even when there is a paid "professional" coach, very often 2 or 3 parents become that coach's helpers.   And because those parents become close with the coach, they have much more input to the decision making process than all the other parents.

The second item I would like to bring up is, one situation is not necessarily better than the other.   There are plenty of teams coached by an outside, paid coach on which there is a tremendous amount of anger over roster and lineup decisions.   Conversely, there are plenty of parent-run teams on which relative happiness, peace and harmony are the rule.   In fact, some of the best travel ball teams I have ever seen were coached by parents of players for many years.

Additionally, the paid, professional coach may or may not be a better actual coach than the parent.   There are any number of parents who are at least as knowledgeable as an ASA Gold or similar level coach who just happen to have 10 - 14 year old daughters.   As an aside, if you read this blog, you should know that I believe in having your daughter coached by anyone but you by the time she reaches 14.   That doesn't necessarily mean a paid or outside coach.   But it is in your daughter's best developmental interests to be coached by someone besides mom or dad.

Some professional or quasi-professional coaches can sometimes have an outdated view of the game, be totally inexperienced at coaching, or otherwise not be the optimum person to coach a particular team.   I am not biased towards outside, professional coaches.   And I am not blind to the type of problems which can arise in either type of situation.   But those are your general options.

Where I would like to take this conversation is into the realm of some of the deciding factors involving the parent-coached team.   What I mean is, I would like to point out certain situations which folks who have their daughters on parent-coached teams should look out for.   I'd also like to discuss why some of these situations happen and why they should be expected.   Then I'd like to provide some general guidance for parents who wonder whether they should leave for greener pastures. &mnbsp; Before I can do that, I need to break down the issues into their logical subdivisions.

The first issue involves playing time.   I believe in a 12 or 13 member roster.   Obviously that means 2 to 4 kids would be on the bench at any given moment.   Also, I am speaking in the realm in which a team typically plays 3 games on a Saturday and then plays until they lose on Sunday - one game guaranteed, two better than one, and three usually meaning you have reached a championship round.   That means a team is playing on average about 15 - 21 innings in 3 games on Saturday and anywhere between 7 and 21 innings on Sunday.   I see the two days as decidedly different animals so let's take Saturday first.

On Saturday, a team has to fit 12 or 13 kids into 9 (or 10 if using the DP/Flex) positions, each played for on average about 16 innings.   That calculates to about 144 - 160 "position innings."   If you divide 12 kids into 144 position innings, that's about 12 innings per kid, assuming everyone sits about the same amount of time.   So it is relatively easy to get every kid on a 12 member roster sufficient playing time to keep them satisfied.

But, in practice, this almost never happens.   In practice, the same few kids usually sit and the same few kids usually see far less action than everyone else.   Folks observing this, say to themselves and their friends, "well, this is travel not rec, the best kids should always play."   I cannot find particular fault in that reasoning but it can be in everyone's best interests to make sure the least capable players get as much playing time as everyone else.

I have never been involved with a team on which nobody ever got hurt.   I've been involved with some teams on which one of the best players ends up breaking her ankle or otherwise suffering a season-ending injury.   When that happens, somebody is going to have to "come off the bench" and take over for the rest of the year.   Also, many injuries can be of shorter duration, like the kid who thinks she broke her ankle during the first inning of the first game, leaves for the hospital, and comes back with the medical advice to stay off the sprained joint for a week.   Sometimes, kids get hurt for the remainder of a game or perhaps for just two games and can come back and play later.   And, finally, sometimes the star shortstop has to go to her grandfather's birthday party, fourth wedding or funeral.   It is almost impossible to have the same kids playing the same position for every inning of every game for an entire day, let alone an entire tournament or season.

So, somebody needs to be ready to back every position up.   If one kid sits the bench for the entire year until that wonderful moment when a coach realizes he or she is down to 9 live bodies going into the toughest tournament of the year, well, that kid is not going to be ready to come off the bench and play like an all-star while leading the team to victory.   In fact, it isn't fair to expect particularly much from a kid who only gets in once you are ahead or behind by ten runs, takes one or two at-bats per tournament or just generally sits for all but a handful of innings most of the time.   You have no right to expect much from her and that's a good thing because you aren't going to get much.

I know that when I coach a team, I try to make sure all my players get sufficient experience to get them ready and keep them ready to step in and up whenever the circumstances call for it.   That's true of overall playing time and it is also true of playing time in important positions.

If you have a really great shortstop who plays there every inning of every game, I'd be willing to bet that if your team experiences a season-ending injury for anyone, it will be that shortstop.   My advice is to play your star shortstop for two games out of three on Saturday and have the backup kid play one full game.

If your catcher is an all-star destined to play for a Pac-10 program, it may be that she catches 5 of 6 games over a weekend.   But, again, if she goes down, you are going to wind up losing games later on in the year because she is out for a game or a tournament and the only other kid you have who can catch has never caught any of these pitchers before.   She is going to have some PBs, mess up pitch calls, not set up the target in the right place, and generally not be able to hold the baserunners at bay.   You have to get into the habit of using more than one catcher on Saturdays.   It would be great if you could limit experience to one game each for three kids.   Further, on Sunday, you may ask your first string catcher to get behind the plate for 3 straight, 7 inning or longer games on a surprisingly hot day in May.   It would be smart if she could have a little rest on Saturday.

The bottom line is the team is served best by having several players receive playing time at critical positions throughout the tournament season so that, if the need arises, each will be ready to step in and play at about the same level as her predecessor.   But sometimes parent-coaches don't do this.   Parents who don't coach should keep their eyes open for these situations.

A frequent question arises in circumstances in which a parent-coached team seems to have the 6 infield positions, including pitcher, etched in stone.   The same coach's daughter kid catches every inning of every game.   The same, coach's daughter kid plays shortstop.   The pitcher whose father coaches either pitches every inning of every game or, at the very least, pitches as much as all other pitchers combined.   I don't want to get into the foolishness of having a pitcher throw that much - no it doesn't build character or stamina - but we'll have to get into that on another day.

Sometimes, it is blatantly obvious that the coach's kid, who has become a monument at a position, is not quite as good as someone else on the roster.   Sometimes, she might be the third, fourth, or fifth choice of a rational, objective coach.   I have often heard from folks who have daughters that play the same position as the "monument" player.   They sometimes think, if only for a moment, that the coaches may see that their kid is far superior to the coach's daughter and get her some time at the position.   I could be snide and say, "good luck with that" but instead I'll say, "I think you know where this situation is going to end."

Recently, I had the opportunity to see a monument second baseman whose father had always coached move to a new team.   We heard the kid had joined a particular team on which the coach's daughter was also a monument second baseman.   We let it be known that this was the case and then learned that the kid had left the team within days of hearing this.   It's a smart move.   She would never have seen any time at second.

It really takes one to know one.   Often when a coach has a monument player and then tries to join a team with a similar circumstance, the new player recognizes what is going on very quickly and leaves as fast as she came.   It is the kid whose parents haven't coached and/or guaranteed her playing time at a position who think she may have a shot to supplant another monument coach's daughter player on merit who stays and ends up being disappointed when no matter how many errors the coach's daughter makes, no matter how badly she costs her team, she still plays every inning of every game at the position.

So my first piece of advice is to keep your eyes open and get to know what is going on with respect to roster decisions on every team you might consider playing for in the future.   If you find yourself having finished a fall ball season and one of the coaches' daughters plays your kid's position every inning, don't expect that to ever change.   Find yourself another team.

The most obvious monument player circumstance involves the weak-armed, none to athletic, coach's daughter at second.   Some people believe you can get away with putting a less gifted kid at second.   The throws are easier, after all.   But more balls are hit to second than are hit anywhere else in the field in girl's softball.   A weak player there is going to eventually cost a team.

You should watch out also for "stealth" parent coach favoritism.   Recently I watched a team bring a guest player on board.   This team also has a monument second baseman whose father is the manager.   The guest player is a very good pitcher.   When she doesn't pitch, she likes to play second.   All during their first tournament, the guest played second when she wasn't pitching.   The coach also had his kid sit a fair amount of the time - something he never does during the real tournament season.   This guest will probably join the team expecting to pitch a game and then play two at second.   My guess is they'll try to have her pitch two games a day and then sit the remainder of the time so she can pitch some more.   She won't be happy but she and her parents didn't do their homework.   They didn't know the team has a monument 2B player.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that a coach will want his or her kid to play at a desired position all the time.   Certainly not all or a majority of coaches do that.   But it shouldn't surprise anyone when they do.   Volunteer coaching is a tremendous burden.   It is physically and psychically draining.   The only reason anyone does it is so their kid has the opportunity to play and improve at the game.   Many coaches are fair and see playing their kid when she doesn't deserve to play as irresponsible.   Some parent coaches see putting their daughter at some favorite position when there is a better option, as such blatant favoritism that they are embarrased to do it.   But enough people have no such reservations.   So when we encounter such a circumstance, we should be ready for it.

It often baffles me when a parent speaks glowingly about their daughter's skills.   I've been around enough parents of good players to observe their behavior.   None of them overly promote their daughters.   Most parents of good players pretty much complain about some deficiency in their daughters' games.

I know of one very good player who has always been an impact player even when she plays with much older kids.   If you ask the father how things are going, he will sigh, get angry and then tell you everything his daughter does wrong.   He situates himself as far away from the field during games as he can and then yells at her, complaining about lack of effort and the like.   He used to coach some very competitive teams she was on but can no longer stand it.   Now he's on the sidelines and moving away from the field with each passing tournament.

Another parent I know often spends the entire tournament complaining, under his breath, about his kid's lack of focus.   She's the best player around.   I have seen the father of a successful division one player march the sidelines cursing his kid's lack of focus or one stupid thing she might have done by accident.   Yet another parent I know spends entire games trying to get his kid to put out more and more effort.   In sideline or other conversation, he would never suggest that she does more than anyone else.   She's headed to a Div I on a full ride.   Many of these fathers and mothers once coached but gave it up because they wanted to back away for their kid's development.   They didn't need to create spots for their kids.   Their kids deserved to start without having their parents coach.

By contrast, I have heard several parents who also happen to coach sing the praises of their kids.   One in particular will tell anyone willing to listen that his kid is the best one around.   She's not - she's actually pretty bad.   A reader of this blog told me how he went to a coaches-parents meeting and listened while the coach told how his daughter "always gives 110%."   When I heard that, I told him "this is not a good sign."   It turns out that the kid giving 110% is not one of the better players on the team but she is a fixture at a key position.

Even when the parent is not a coach but has a tight relationship with the coach, that is a cause for concern.   I can think of several circumstances in which coaches and particular parents were "buddies from high school."   Often when I see such situations, the kid of the non-coach is a bad player.   She is disruptive in practice, doesn't take the game seriously, doesn't practice on her own, and generally ends up costing the team.

In certain circumstances, some parents are not coaches nor longstanding buddies but they try to push their way in anyway.   One such fellow had his eyes wide open for any opportunity to volunteer to help.   Then, as soon as such oppotunity presented itself, he tried to make himself a fixture on the coaching staff.   And he promoted his kid endlessly.   He sang her praises and insisted she play this position or that.   But she was terrible and eventually cost the team so badly, that the coaches saw through his methods and pushed the kid back in the pecking order.   As you might imagine, this kid moves teams each year and the dynamic plays out every time in very similar ways.

Almost as a general rule, coaches who sing the praises of their kids should be avoided at all costs.   When such a coach has a monument player as a daughter, run like heck to get away.   And if she's a pitcher, watch out!

I suppose one of the things that troubles me when it comes to pitchers is the girl who does not attend lessons and/or apparently does not practice very much on her own.   I mean this in the broad scheme, not just in the parent-coach scenario.   I have seen a number of self-described pitchers who do not take any kind of lesson or attend a few clinics infrequently and never work to get better.

It is certainly possible for a parent to become so educated in pitching that they are able to act as their kid's private coach.   Some parents of big name pitchers have done just that.   But this is the exception, not the rule.   Also, some kids go to lessons with decent instructors but do not practice as much as they need to be successful.   I have often seen kids who should be very good based on their overall mechanics but who are not, precisely because they do not work adequately.

One of the catch-all phrases that attracts my negative attention occurs when the parent of a pitcher notes that, although their kid is not very fast, speed isn't as important as movement or location.   I don't wish to debate the relative merits of speed, location, movement, etc. right now.   If you read this blog, you know I value all these attributes.   But if I had a dollar for every time an under schooled or under practiced pitcher's parent proclaimed that the daughter may not have speed ..., I'd be a wealthy man.   Almost without exception, the kids who are prolaimed to be movement pitchers with good location turn out to have very little movement and poor control, let alone location.   If they had movement or hit their spots, nobody would ever have to tell me.   I'd see it myself.   99 times out of 100, these girls end up being ones who pitched pretty well at 10U, several years ago, struggled through 12U, and now have skills which are well beneath their counterparts who worked and trained hard.

It is usually quite evident, very quickly, when a pitcher is under schooled or under-practiced.   When such kid is the daughter of a coach or manager, or she is the daughter of a close personal friend of the coach or manager, trouble is bound to happen.   She will get more time in the circle than is deserved.   One of the things to keep your eyes open to is the pitcher who isn't apparently very skilled but who always seems to get pitching time while another kid who seems to be far superior sits or plays some other position.   This doesn't happen all that much in tournament ball but it does happen.   Verify that there is some sort of relationship between coach and subpar pitcher.   And if you see such a situation, run away fast!

Many, many times, parents who find themselves in such circumstance eschew the "quitter" mentality and seek, instead, a conference with the coach or coaches.   They wish to point out apparent injustices, gain an understanding of why the situation persists, and then hopefully obtain promises for redress.   I am not an advocate of always running away but I have seen this kind of thing not work or perhaps even backfire more often than it has actually worked to solve the problem.

For example, once upon a time, there was a girl who was a very good overall ballplayer.   She wasn't the greatest to ever play the game but she was very good.   She could play anywhere.   She could hit but she needed some coaching to improve and step up to be one of the better players around.   She found herself on a team on which coaches' daughters were monument players.   One played her position, first base.   The coach's daughter who played first was not a good defensive player.   She was an adequate hitter.   She played every inning at first and batted in the 3, 4, or 5 slot.

When it came to defense, this girl, this monument, was a monument in more ways than one.   She could not play a bunt because her footspeed was poor.   She could field a grounder right at her but anything to either side was going to go right past her.   She couldn't field a pop-up behind first so she didn't bother trying even when the ball was less than five feet in back of the bag.   When it came to covering the bag, she wasn't too bad but because she had slow reactions and was not particularly athletically gifted, anything offline or a little high usually got past her.   Further, her throwing transition and release were slow.   So, if say a fielder checked the runner at third and went to first, this girl was pretty much unable to make a good, quick throw home in the event the runner tried to advance.   9 out of 10 times, perhaps more, such a runner with average or better speed would be able to make it home safely on any play in which the fielder tried to get the out at first.

The good overall ballplayer, by contrast, could make all the plays, most of the time.   She ran and laid out for balls hit behind the bag, as well as balls hit beyond her reach.   She did everything one would hope to get from a first baseman.   And she had a hard-working, aggressive attitude.   She was a difference maker in terms of her actual play on the field and her impact on teammates.   But she never played first.   Instead, she was stuck at third which she never really liked.   After one such season, she and her parent approached the team's manager to discuss her continued participation on the team.   They obtained promises that the girl would play quite a bit at first as it was clear the monument player was not going to be able to cut it at their current level.   The coach found himself a decent third baseman and the team headed into fall ball.   But things did not turn out as planned.

Halfway through the fall, after this girl had really proved herself at first, a change happened.   The monument was restored in its "rightful" place and the gifted girl was moved to an outfield position.   Nothing had transpired which would cause an objective observer to move the gifted kid off first.   But the coaching father had noticed his kid marginalized, had begun complaining and working to have her restored at first, and succeeded.

The lesson, boys and girls is, of course, actions speak louder than words.   Promises are not often kept when push comes to shove.   Coaches' daughters may get moved off a position for a time but either they will be restored or "by, by coach."   It is simply not enough to obtain promises of playing time or promises of some time at a position.   You must see action.   And if you are already on a team with coaches' daughters always seeing time at monument positions, promises may be made but they will, more than not, be broken sooner rather than later.

Before I go, let me say that I am not some sort of advocate for constantly jumping from one team to another until perfection is achieved.   Perfection does not exist in our Universe unless all these things you currently see before you are actually already perfection in motion.   But there are some fatal flaws with which none of us can live.   The coaches' daughters playing every inning of every game while others, perhaps of higher caliber, sit or play merely supporting roles to the monuments, is a situation to be avoided whenever possible.   This is less true when the coaches' daughters happen to be the best players around and/or the coaches are really talented ones.   Not every professional or outside coach is good - some are and many are not.   Not every parent coach is bad - a few are but most are quite good.   I hope you can tell the difference.   It is critical for you to learn to do this.

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