"Show me 'paint the floor'!" -Mr. Miyagi
For those that don't know, and I hope they are few, Mr. Miyagi is a leading character in the classic 1980's movie The Karate Kid. No, not the 2010 version with Jackie Chan. This later attempt (like the 1994 version, even though it also features Miyagi) to recreate the greatness of the original Karate Kid is nothing short of disastrous, but I digress. In the movie our hero, Daniel, turns to Mr. Miyagi, Japanese-born Karate sensei, to train him in Karate in order to fight his high school bullies and win the girl. Along the way, Daniel learns more than he could have imagined, about karate, life, and himself, Mr. Miyagi's wisdom rivaled in the 80's only by the likes of Star Wars' Yoda.
On day one of training, an enthusiastic Daniel arrives at Miyagi's house ready to kick, punch, fight and kick ass. Karate! He is more than a little surprised when Mr. Miyagi instructs him to wax his classic car collection using very specific movements. He spends hours at it, alone. Day two holds more of the same, this time sanding a huge deck. On day three Daniel's job is painting Mr. Miyagi's fence. Fed up, the student confronts the teacher about this free labor and demands to know when he will learn karate. Unfazed, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel-san "show me, paint the fence". As Daniel repeats the motion that he has been practicing all day during his "manual labor", Mr. Miyagi unleashes a barrage of punches on him, all of which he successfully blocks using the "paint the fence" motion. You can have a look at the clip here:
I highly recommend watching or re-watching this wisdom-filled classic.
We can apply Mr. Miyagi's teaching style to the teaching or learning of any skill. Not necessarily by having softball players wash cars, but by breaking down each skill into its smaller parts and insisting that our athletes master those first. Every skill is made up of a collection of smaller skills. Improve just one of those smaller skills and the greater skill will also improve. When we focus entirely on the greater skill, we are actually trying to do many things at once. And, as in most situations in which we do more than one thing at once, we end up doing all of them at an average or even below average level.
To apply this concept directly to softball, let's take a look at a specific skill. If a catcher wants to improve her throws to second base, what is the best way to practice this? Should she simply throw 100 balls to second base? Of course she can. And if she does, the chances are good that she will improve. At least a little bit. But, if she really wants to get better, then she or her coach needs to break the skill down. The skill that we call "throwing to 2nd base" is really a collection of several skills that a catcher must perform and seamlessly join together. To throw a runner out at second base a catcher must:
Catch the ball
If a catcher has unsure hands, as many young catchers do, the pressure of a stealing runner will make simply catching the ball EVEN HARDER. She must have command over receiving the ball before she can expect or be expected to throw runners out.
Transfer the ball to throwing hand
We can't throw a ball to second base from our glove. We must first get it into our throw hand. This seems simple enough and is easy to overlook, but there is A LOT that can go wrong here, especially when we are trying to go FAST.
Set the feet
Similarly, we can't throw to second base (at least no catcher that I know) from our catcher's squat. We need to get from our squat into a strong throwing position and, again, we need to do it as fast as possible. If our feet are not set directly to second base, it will be more difficult to throw it there. If we don't focus on this skill specifically, but instead on the entire motion, this detail is easily missed. We focus on where the ball went and how hard it was thrown instead of WHY it went where it went (which is often a direct result of foot position).
Finally, we can throw to second base. We've caught the ball, transferred it and set our feet. But what about throwing? Are we moving in a straight line to our target or losing time and power to inefficiencies? Is our elbow in a position that puts the least pressure on the shoulder or are we heading toward injury? Throwing is itself a skill that can be further broken down.
Practicing in a break down style can seem boring or unglamorous at first, like Daniel-san painting the fence all day. Catchers don't want to practice catching the ball: "I know how to catch, I want to throw runners out!" But it is by mastering the smaller skills that you will see the greatest improvement in overall skills. And THAT is what makes practice fun--learning something new, doing something you've never done before, or doing it better or faster than you thought you were capable of. Coaches, once you learn how to break skills down, you will open up a new world of possibilities for drills that will keep practices fun and interesting. And once your players see the improvement they won't be able to get enough.