|You Can Also Be Aggressive in
Of course the best defense is still a great pitcher and catcher, followed by seven other fundamentally skilled athletes that make every play. Let's face it – when we have, this it is pretty easy to coach. But even if we are very strong at all positions, certain situations come up that will determine our season moving forward or ending, based on how well prepared we are to handle that particular situation.
Regardless of how good we are on offense, we will eventually run into that pitcher that requires us to limit the run production of our opponent. We must sell our players that defense always has and always will be the bread and butter of a great softball team; it can be consistent and can take an average offensive team to a championship. How often do you practice rundown situations? How often do you practice getting the lead runner at second or third? How you choose to teach either of these is not important. What is important is the percentage of time you spend on them in practice. We can tell our players what we believe to be important keys to success, but what we practice speaks louder than what we say. If our players "botch" a rundown situation costing us a game, will we get upset? Probably, but I would contend that we do not have a right to get angry with players if we have not practiced those key situations.
Often getting out of "key spots" and not allowing the opponent to score, or at least not allowing a big inning, determines whether we win or lose a game. Here are some examples.
FIRST AND THIRD
BUNT SITUATION WITH RUNNER AT FIRST
I think when covering a bunt situation with a runner at first, we want to keep our defense "home" as much as possible. We teach first back, second covering the steal at second, and the shortstop covering third. The obvious "pitfall" to this set-up is the bunt down the first base line. Our pitchers have to be athletic and able to field the ball well. Many times an offensive player will see this defense after getting a sacrifice sign from her coach and try to place the ball down the first base line. If we pitch her correctly, this is harder to do than people think. Foul ball, foul ball, now two strikes and our advantage. Also with our middle infield staying home, it allows us to defend the hit/run or slap/run better. I am also a big believer that the best way to cover the steal is with our second base person. Once a catcher learns this, they love to go there instead of to the shortstop covering. Obviously by staying in this defense we can still do that. Again, how you do it is not as important as how much your players believe in the way you defend it.
CUT OFF SITUATIONS
Now let's cover a runner at second base with a hit to the outfield. How do we play the cut? First base? Third base? We choose to use our pitcher. As you can see, we like our pitcher to be athletic and involved in more than just pitching. It seems natural to me because the pitcher is already in the correct position to be the cut person. This allows us to keep our first base person at first and third at third. Why is this important? By leaving our first base person at first, the ground ball to our right fielder becomes an easy decision for that player. She goes to first trying to get the out, and after our first base person receives the ball she automatically turns to throw to home, not waiting for the umpire's call at first. Hard ground ball to left, our third base person can now become the cut, and she can communicate with the leftfielder to go directly to third. Now our third base person can make the correct decision. Again it keeps players at home at their usual position. Another key here is that when our catcher lines up the pitcher for the cut, and yells cut, she never calls a base; the pitcher makes that decision on her own. We also never back up the plate on this play; to us it serves little purpose.
How much do we practice them? I am not talking about the obvious runner on third with less than two outs. What about runners on second and third with less than two outs? If we give our players this situation, they would hopefully stop us and say, "Coach we need more information." What is the score, what inning is it? Tag situations are one of the best ways to teach players the importance of not letting certain runners advance to third, or certain runners advance into scoring position. Example: runners on second and third, no outs, top of the seventh and we are leading 2-0. There is a fly ball to left center caught by our center fielder. Where does she go? Obviously to third, to keep the tying run from getting to third with only one out. Obvious? But maybe not to our players. Never assume that players understand. Teach, teach, teach. We need to constantly put them in these and other types of situations in practice. Practice defensive situations as much as hitting; defense is more controllable and again needs to be the "bread and butter" of your team. Your players need to believe this. It is hard to get upset with players not making correct decisions on a defensive situation in a game if we have not spent proper time practicing it. Remember, how we spend our practice time tells our players what is important.
ALLOWING YOUR PLAYERS TO BE AGGRESSIVE ON DEFENSE
We often think about aggressive play as being only on offense. We can be very aggressive on defense as well. Again, this allows our players to play with a freedom that has no fear of failure. They play with a mindset that allows them to take risk. Let your catchers throw behind runners. Use the pickoff as a big part of your defense. Teach them extra ways to get out of a bases-loaded situation. By practicing this on a regular basis and getting your players to believe in it, (there is that phrase again – "believe in it") you can get out of a tough defensive spot because you have given your players some extra defensive weapons. Remember, each team usually has a couple of scoring chances; you may have taken your opponents out of one of theirs. Throw behind runners after outs, with other runners still on base. The point is to instill an aggressive approach in your players on defense as much as offense. It will often lead to a "cheap out" getting us out of a tough inning. In practice you are trying to eliminate fear of failure in your players. It becomes very nice to watch at the later stages of a season when your players do these things instinctively on their own because of the practice time you spent on them. Remember, as much as we talked about aggressive play on offense, under certain game situations we can get much more conservative and have the players back off. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. However, teach being aggressive; this is how they want to play, it is fun for them, and it will lead to more long-term success.
OTHER DEFENSIVE THOUGHTS
2. The intentional walk can be used much more than it often is. The above reason is pretty obvious. Another good time is with a runner on second and two outs. By using the walk here if both hitting options are fairly equal, it creates other out opportunities for our defense. The same is true with runners at second and third and two outs, but walking the hitter we now have a couple of extra force-out opportunities. The intentional walk can be taught to our players to be used as one of those defensive weapons that allow us to get out of a tough inning.
3. We use the pitchout a great deal, and not just in obvious situation but at other times as well. The pitchout can give your catcher a much greater chance of success on a straight steal and encourages your catcher to be more aggressive on pickoff attempts by calling it for them. It can be very effective in stopping some of the short game of your opponent.
All the above have to be practiced on a regular basis. Pitchouts and intentional walks are harder to perform than we might think. They need to be practiced enough so that doing them in a game situation becomes second nature.
There are obviously many more defensive situations, as I have covered only a very few. I do think it all comes back to practice with a purpose and getting your team to believe in how you want to play the game. Be willing to think out of the box. Be willing to adjust to the strengths of the players you have. Let your players play the game with some freedom and it becomes amazing how much better they make you look as a coach!
All of this does connect with the mental approach to the game and building team cohesion. Without these two, none of the previous ideas work as well. The next two articles will cover how to practice the mental side of the game and how to build a team chemistry that will lead to something special on the playing field.
About the Author...
|George Wares is the one of the winningest softball coaches in the U.S. In 2010, Wares guided the Dutch to their 22nd NCAA Division III tournament berth in the past 25 years. In 26 seasons as Central College head coach, Wares has compiled a 870-294-3 record (.746). On the all-time NCAA Division III charts he ranks third in career victories (870) and fourth in winning percentage. Among active Division III coaches, he ranks second in career victories, first in NCAA playoff appearances (22) and first in NCAA playoff victories (79).
In 2007, Wares was inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Hall of Fame.
Wares has piloted the Dutch to national championships in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 2003 with national runner-up finishes in 1986 and 2001. His 22 NCAA playoff teams have finished in the national top five 12 times. The Dutch were third in the NCAA in 1990, 1994 and 1995, fourth in 1987 and 1989, and fifth in 1997. Central won or shared 10 Iowa Conference titles (1986, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009)
Wares and his assistants were named the NFCA Div. III coaching staff of the year in 2003, after taking regional honors in 2001.
In 2009 Wares was named co-winner of the Iowa Conference coach of the year award. He's won or shared the honor seven times (1990, 1993, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009).
Wares is in his second 3-year term on the NFCA Division III All-America Selection Committee, serving two years as chair.
A 1976 Central graduate, Wares spent seven years as girls' softball coach at NESCO High School in Zearing , Iowa , posting a 214-94 record and piloting three squads to state tournament berths. He was named all-area coach of the year three times.
Wares also served as a high school boys' basketball coach for 18 years, including seven at NESCO and 11 at Pella High School . He compiled a 259-106 career record, earning four state tournament berths, with two state runner-up finishes. He served for four seasons as an assistant men's basketball coach at Central.
A highly regarded motivational speaker, Wares received a master's degree in counseling from Iowa State University. He worked as an at-risk counselor at Pella High School and as an academic counselor at Central.
To contact Coach George Wares