European Softball Federation (ESF) Coaches Development Coordinator, and European Softball Coaches Association (ESCA) camp director, Craig Montvidas sat down with EBSM to discuss strategies for coaching in Europe.
Montvidas comes to the ESF with a resume that includes coaching both the Great Britain and Netherlands national teams, as well as a year of professional coaching in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league in America.
My coaching foundation begins with expectations. If I can’t meet your expectations then you’re going to be disappointed. I cannot meet everyone’s expectations. Let’s say, for example, you’ve booked a trip to the Bahamas. You’ve got expectations. You’re thinking sunshine, hanging by the pool with a beverage and a good book. When you arrive, your luggage is lost, it’s raining and the hotel, which looked beautiful on the internet, has cockroaches. All of the sudden, the expectations you have ruin the likelihood you’ll return. With coaching, if I can’t meet my player’s expectations I’m already in a hole before we’ve done anything, anything at all. So, before we start I tell them, I want to know what you expect of me as a coach. I reciprocate with this is what I expect from you as a player.
It always starts, on both sides, with respect. If they say, ‘We want respect from our coach’, I can check that off. They’re going to get that. ‘We want honesty.’ Good, I can do that. If a player says, ‘I want every practice to be fun!’, then I’ll say, hold it. Time out. I don’t think I can meet that one because your idea of fun and my idea of fun might be two totally different things.
One of the biggest things about our sport is communication. It is very difficult. In today’s world, with all the different ways to communicate, you would think it’d be awesome. Still, if you ask any sports team, what is an area that needs to improve, that’s going to be in the top three.
Secondly, people learn in a number of ways. The expression I use a lot is “different keys open different doors.”
Some people learn by listening. According to studies, about 12% are good listeners. Compared to the population overall, that is very few people, yet we do most of our teaching in a talking/listening format. I’m a big talker. It’s my way of communicating. If I have an athlete who is not a good listener it’s going to take me longer to connect with that person.
Some athletes are very good visually so they can pick up something on a video or by watching the skills of another player. You really don’t have to say anything. It’s like they see the canvas and they can paint the same exact picture. Then you have people, I myself fall into this category, who learn by touch. They’ve got to feel it. They’ve got to do it. It takes me, in most things, longer to get the hang of it but once I get it, with that touch process, I’m in my comfort zone.
So, if I have a player who learns by touch and all I’m doing is showing them videos, they’ll learn but its going to take them longer to get there.
Applying the keys analogy, if I’ve got 50 keys on my ring and I’ve got 50 doors, I don’t have a master key. The master key we would start with is that we all have the same softball book. Everybody starts with the one book and does the same thing. We don’t. But that’s what makes it great too. I think you’re always learning.
The more you know, the more you realize how much there is to learn. It’s a learning process. A practical example is this. My car gets into trouble so I have to pull off the road. I open the hood and I look. There are about 4-5 things I, myself, can see and fix. After that, I’m on the phone and the AAA guy or lady comes. The hood’s still up and we’re looking at the exact same thing, we’re seeing the exact same thing, only they’re much deeper into it. That’s what coaching is in softball.
On the other side of things there is the passing down of information. Yes, details definitely get gumballed in the process. That’s why I, myself, go to clinics. It’s not like I’m going to learn something like there’s water on Jupiter or something like that, but someone will explain something the way I’m teaching it, but they can do it in four words when I use 25 to say the same thing. That’s what I’m looking for while I’m there.
One of the dilemmas players have, and coaches too, can happen when player gets instruction from a coach. One coach says this and the other coach says that, it gets confusing. A lot of the times the coaches are saying the exact same thing. They’re just using different approaches.
Sometimes they’re not though. That’s when it gets tricky. What I try to do then is call the player and the coaches in together. Maybe we don’t agree. Maybe I did say ABC and the other coach said DEF, so the player’s a little bit confused. That’s important to learn too.
Coaches need to be open and reciprocal to/with new ideas and suggestions. The point is to take people out of their comfort zone with the intent of trying new keys to see if that key fits the door.
I’ve had players where stuff I believed in didn’t work but then someone else presents it differently and a light went on. It’s tough but the whole communication thing, in this day and age, we’ve got to go backwards.
I think back to the 1980s when I took teams from Holland to the United States. How did we do that?! On the phone, primarily, and back then that cost a lot of money. We didn’t have fax machines, they hadn’t been invented yet, so we sent letters and waited for replies. Now, you’re sitting next to someone and they’re zapping away. It’s the headset generation where information is instant. It needs to be right now and it needs to be done. As a coach, you have to show them that this isn’t the way it works. Stuff takes time. They need to make investments. Right from the start, getting those expectations in line will help you build a foundation as a coach.
It’s a generational thing too. What I see with baseball in The Netherlands is, when I first came here, they were just starting into their 2nd generation of baseball people. Coaches and players, parents too. Now we’re on the 4th generation playing the game and now it’s starting to take off.
I can remember back to being a kid. In the middle of winter, that first really great weather day would finally come. We didn’t have cell phones. Somehow everybody went to the park with their bats, balls and gloves. There were no umpires. No coaches. We figured it out. Playing and playing. Coaches will make you better. They’ll give you the skills to get the technical aspects of the game, but I think that’s the part that doesn’t happen in Europe the playing and playing on their own.
If it’s not part of the culture, right away, it’s like having strike one when you go up to bat. You go to the Latin-American countries its part of their thing.
Culturally speaking, if there’s a stone on the ground a kid in Europe’s going to kick it. A stone on the ground in the US, a kid’s gonna pick it up and throw it, or find a stick and hit it. Right there, you’ve got cultural difference.
The number of games and ability to practice in Europe is really counter-intuitive to the muscle-memory learning curve needed for the sports.
Bingo! That’s the first thing I had to face when I took over here in Holland. I said, this is the amount of practice and this is the amount of time you are making to play games. It’s got to be the other way around.
You can practice until you’re blue – and you have to practice, you have to train, you have to develop the skills – but the only way to learn the game, to really, really learn the game, is when there are people there. A gymnast can be perfect in the hall with no pressure but she’s got to experience that and you can only experience it if people are watching.
We all have practice mode. Let’s say we’re working on our infield and I hit a groundball to 3rd and she throws it by the 1st baseman. The 1st baseman jogs after the ball, they’re just lollygagging after it. In a game, they would never do that. You’d pull them out.
In practice, I try to make everything as game-like as possible. It’s get to the ball, pick it up, be thinking about the runner on their way to 2nd and having to make the throw.
What do all coaches, in baseball and softball, have in common around the world? The only thing we have in common is a 24-hour day. That’s it. With that 24-hour day, Japan is working 8 hours, every day. In Europe we’ve got coaches, or teams, practicing two hours a week.
I ask coaches, what are you going to spend your time on in practices? 'I think hitting’s really important.' How much time are you going to spend on hitting? '50%'. Okay, so 50% and we’re practicing 10 hours a week, that means we’re spending 5 hours on hitting. 'We have to be able to throw and catch.' So you’re dividing your practice time and, no matter how you divide it up, you’ll still need to consider conditioning. Well, if you start with a warm up, and end with a cool down, that’s 15 more minutes gone. So you’ve now cut your time again.
Some coaches utilize their practice as if it were game day. The UConn women’s basketball coach is a great example. Their coach sets up practices against the guys who are cut from the men’s team, the gym rats, that are probably too good for D2 but not quite good enough to make the D1 squad. They play 5 women against 7 of these men, every single day of practice. Brilliant. Really simple. I think it’s all about creativity.
The second thing all coaches have in common is an expiration date. Eventually our expiration date is going to come up on the club unless you get new players because, at some point, everyone on your team has learned all they can from you.
That was my point as well. Having the same coaching staff, for a long period of time, limits the ability of the club to advance.
That depends on the coaching staff. As a coach I look at it as a long-term relationship. It goes back to expectations. You are trying to implement the things that you want to do. It’s a whole process of getting the people to where they want to be but I should be developing as well. I am always pulling away and, hopefully, my group is catching up to me.
You mentioned generational growth in Holland. The first generation had to teach themselves. As you grow your generations, how do you help the knowledge base of each generation expand past the last?
That’s a challenge. You’re going to have to go out and find someone whose going to pass that knowledge on to you. So if you’re saying, ‘I’m not good at visual’, you’ve already taken away the internet as a resource. Finding the resources, that can be difficult. You may have to go somewhere.
Why is it like that with these sports specifically?
I think there are lots of good books on the game but, if you aren’t finding what you’re looking for specifically, I’d go outside my own sport. For example, there are a number of golf books that can really benefit the baseball and softball player looking for some help with their mental game.
As to the physical aspects of the game, simply reading puts the knowledge in your head. There are a number of coaches who have never played the game but are very knowledgeable. If you can demonstrate the skills as well, that’s an advantage. It will earn you respect with your players. Ted Williams wrote a book called The Science of Hitting, a long time ago. It is still one of the best books on hitting there is.
Is there a way to practice muscle memory moves without being on the field – game tapes for example?
It’s like anything, if you can grasp from watching others then that will work. Utilizing virtual reality programs is another way. The problem is there is no way to simulate a game situation. The pressure you’re under can’t be recreated. You can do the motions, have a virtual team around you, but it’s not the same.
The longer you play, the less the pressure. Play with people where it’s win or lose, with the pressure of the game around you, and people watching. I had a catcher who always tapped the ball twice once she caught it. She knew she did it and worked on it in every practice. She could get it right in practice. As soon as the game was on the line, it was back to the old habit of hesitation. She’d been doing it for 20 years and couldn’t get it out of her system as a safety check. It was frustrating to everybody. It’s tough to change bad habits. I always tell my players, you’re going to have frustration but you’re still going to wake up in the morning. That’s the mental part of the game.
Some basic tips I would give to any coach out there are:
Based on where they’ve had success, share the knowledge they have with other coaches and players.
When I started coaching I had like 5 trick plays. I thought I was the coolest coach in the world. It took a wakeup call to realize they don’t come up enough. That’s why my motto is play the game one pitch at a time.
There you have it a few pointers for coaching your teams to victory this spring from a coach who's been there more than once.