Ain't Nothin Soft – By Tiffany Brooks – Goal Setting, Team Captains, and Peak Performance
By Tiffany Brooks
As the NPF Draft finishes up, the NCAA, NAIA, NJCAA and High School Ball seasons move into full swing and travel ball teams begin to dream of summer, now may be the best time of the year to talk about goal setting, team captain selection, and the importance both have on creating peak performance. What I'm about to tell you about goal setting I'd absolutely LOVE to claim as my own, but the truth is that the ideas come from two excellent books I can highly recommend. The first is Coaching Fastpitch Softball Successfully by Kathy Veroni, and the second is The Mental Game of Baseball: A guide to Peak Performance by H.A. Dorfman. Yes, you heard correctly – the mental game of BASEBALL. The truth is that this book is a phenomenal tool for softball and baseball players alike and was originally recommended to me with great enthusiasm by my former teammate and friend, former Akron Racer, Kim Gonzalez. I had huge reluctance to buy the book at first, thinking...it's BASEBALL – how could this apply to me? But I don't believe there is another book on the market that has as much potential to increase individual performance and in turn, team performance, as this one. Veroni's book, by contrast really focuses on team performance, and is also a stunningly good guide for beginning to mid-level coaches.
Okay, on to the meat... Let me give you a very personal, albeit painful, example of an instance where I could have and should have used Dorfman's positive goal setting techniques: In last year's European Cup 1 in Amsterdam, I was playing for the Spanish Champion, Viladecans against a top-notch Haarlem (Netherlands) Sparks team. It was a night game, the feature game after the Opening Ceremonies, and there were perhaps 2000 people attending. Camera flashes were going off almost continually, and the excitement was palpable, something you could taste. I was standing at third base, saying to myself "no errors" – "don't screw this up" and "so much is riding on this." This was completely the wrong individual goal-setting technique, and predictably, this negative goal-setting -- which we've all done at one time or another – came back to bite me in the derriere. To my credit I did make a nice diving stop to my left, came up to my knees, and full of adrenaline and fear of failure, I launched the ball a good 5' over the first baseman's outstretched glove. Ouch. Dorfman tells us in his book that I did everything wrong. What you can do to help individual performance (and in turn, team performance) is to teach the opposite of what I did. Instead of saying the negative "Don't make an error," I should have been setting reasonable goals for myself, saying instead, "You've done this a million times before, Tiff. My goal is to simply focus on the fundamentals of catching and throwing. I will make the best play I can." I should also have realized that I couldn't meet the expectations (falsely perceived) of the audience. "Here's the big American player," I thought they were thinking. "She'll hit a home run." I was thinking..."Don't strike out. You made an error. You need to hit the ball hard. You need to swing hard. You need to hit a homerun to make up for the error." I made their expectations my own, which was a very bad choice, as I struck out, swinging too hard on two rise balls – quite the opposite of what I wanted to do. Does any of this sound familiar? Have you ever done this? Have you ever had this internal conversation? If you haven't, you're a rare player indeed! The key here as player or coach, is to set reasonable goals for yourself and disregard the expectation (real or perceived) of others. The only goal you can control is the one you set for yourself, and in reaching that goal, you help yourself and more importantly, your team. Trust me. It works. In a recent tournament, I simply said, "I want to see the ball well and hit it hard somewhere." I hit .615 and won the batting championship. The positive, reasonable approach works.
Although each individual's goals absolutely contribute to team performance, Veroni, while noting the importance of individual performance goals, strikes her best chord, I believe, when she talks about TEAM goals. To those in college ball or elite travel ball, setting a fielding and hitting percentage and/or stolen bases and extra-base hits as goals for the team is nothing new at all – but it's shocking how few elite teams I've played on where these never came into play. I only point this out for those coaches out there who are not doing it yet or regularly. It does make a huge difference, and everyone works towards these goals, feeling a sense of accomplishment in teamwork and driving the players to extra BP or fielding practice if the team is not reaching its goals. Set team goals that are reasonable and attainable, but make your players stretch a little beyond their usual limits. Even if you don't get to .290 hitting as a team, but reach .285 when you hit ,250 last season, then obviously you've improved hugely.
The last of the key elements in generating peak team performance (or at least as much as I can cover in a short column!) is the selection of a team captain. I can't stress enough how crucial this selection is and how much effort should be put into the selection. I have so often been on teams of all levels where the captain is not actually carefully selected by the coaching staff. Often, the captain is chosen by popularity through team member voting, or the coach asks for volunteers or co-captains. The importance of the selection should absolutely be carefully considered. Look at the influence MLB captains have on their teams – simply consider Jeter or Varitek as prime examples. Captains should be true leaders, vocal, positive, and veterans who can anchor the team and don't rattle under pressure situations. Captains should lead and teach in the dugout and off the field as well. Captains are both players and mentors, and are essential in guiding both individual and team goals.
Here are the keys to peak team performance in brief:
1) Set reasonable individual goals for yourself and ignore outside expectations. If you're the coach, help your players do this.
2) Set Team goals and encourage every team member to engage in them.
3) Select a solid and positive team captain
4) Play HARD , 'cuz there ain't nothin' soft about it !
As always, please feel free to e-mail me with comments or column suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.