The “Whack-A-Mole” Approach to Coaching
The other night, as I was settling in for classes at an indoor facility where I teach, there was what I presume was a father and son in the next cage. The father was pitching to his son, who looked to be about 10, and throwing them pretty hard. Dad was a bit loud in […]

The other night, as I was settling in for classes at an indoor facility where I teach, there was what I presume was a father and son in the next cage. The father was pitching to his son, who looked to be about 10, and throwing them pretty hard.

Dad was a bit loud in his instructions - not a crime in my book because the place was quite loud and you had to talk loudly to be heard - but because of that I couldn't help but hear what he was telling the boy.

With each presentation, Dad offered helpful reviews. "You dropped your hands." "Your front foot is out." "You drop your shoulder." “You were late. "I have to pass your hips." Etc. You see the picture.

I felt bad for the poor kid because even though everything daddy said might have been true (I didn't stop to look because I had other things to do) I doubt the boy could understand them .

The problem was, there was so much scattered information coming to him at once, it is unlikely that it will pass. The child probably felt like that.

Classic.

It was a great example of what I call the “Whack-a-Mole” style of coaching. (You could also call it the “Magic Pill” style. My friend and pitch coach, Anna Nickel of ElevatePitching, calls it “Firefighter Coaching” because you're constantly running from problem to problem trying to extinguish fires.)

You see a problem pop up and report it, although you may or may not be able to say how to fix it. On the next repetition, while the player is trying to fix the issue you reported, something else pops up, you immediately jump on it.

This pattern continues until the session ends in mercy. At this point, the player is no further, and perhaps even behind, where she was before.

There is no doubt that this is an easy model to follow, especially if you are personally invested in the success of the player. You see a problem and you want to fix it.

It's human nature. I know I can be guilty of it myself (just ask my students), and I constantly have to tell myself not to.

Guess who figured out how to download GIFs today!

The problem with this approach is that while everything is true, it's not like you can fix a problem in one attempt. This is where the concept of the magic pill comes in.

Just because a coach reports a flaw doesn't mean a player can correct it right away. It takes a lot of focused repetitions to replace an old habit with a new and better one.

Yet when you play Whack-A-Mole, this whole question of focus goes out the window. If you tell a player that she is dropping her hands, on the next swing she will (hopefully) work to hold them. Beat!

But if you tell her she was late on her next swing (Whack!), She'll focus on her timing. Since she didn't have time to fix the first problem, however, her hands will drop again as she focuses on her timing (Whack!). Introduce some other issues (Whack! Whack! Whack!) And her mind is probably elsewhere - most likely thinking that she must be horrible because there is so much wrong with her, and maybe she should just give up the sport altogether. It happens.

A better approach is to pick one thing and work on it. Then, once the player gets the hang of it, you can try to move on. But if the first problem reappears immediately, you need to start working on it again.

If you are already aware of what needs to be fixed, you can plan the match in advance. Take the thing that you believe is the most glaring flaw, which is the one that is most likely to prevent the player from being successful, and work on it.

It's only when it looks like the player can perform the new skill without having to focus on it that you should try moving on to the next one on the list.

If you don't know the player well, you will need to do the prioritization on the fly. In this case, you need to know what the most important issues are in general, in descending order, and just go through the checklist until you find what needs to be done.

For a pitcher, for example, you can see that she has a very stiff arm because she tried to make the circle too big. You could ask him to learn how to loosen the arm to allow it to function as it should.

This approach will be much better than trying to teach him how to loosen his arm, improve his driving mechanics, and learn to hit his spots reliably.

The good news is that if you choose your priorities correctly, solving one problem will help others as well. In the pitching example, loosening the arm will allow the arm to whip, which will increase speed. This will also allow the momentum generated in the field to help guide the arm, also affecting accuracy.

Another thing to keep in mind is that correcting skills such as hitting or throwing correctly and consistently often requires you to focus on the coins rather than the full skill.

In the case of hitters, that could mean putting the player on a tee for a while rather than taking full swings. For a pitcher, this may mean getting in close and throwing himself into a wall or net rather than making full pitches. The same goes for players who need to work on the throw.

For outfielders, that could mean having balls on the ground or on the ground, or rolling balls to them rather than hitting them. Some players may have difficulty with this approach at first, but they will benefit much more in the long run than trying to problem-solve throughout the skill.

Whack-A-Mole can be a fun game to play at a carnival - especially if you have a pent-up mugging to work out, as we all seem to be these days. But as a coaching approach, it's not very effective.

Pick one thing to focus on and give your players time to learn it before moving on. You will find that you generate much better results - in much less time.


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