I listened to former MLB pitcher Mike Boddicker on a Kansas City sports radio this week and he said something that activated my coaching radar. With his years of pitching expertise, the host asked him to theorize why the Kansas City Royal’s young pitchers were struggling so much. Thoughtfully, he responded that perhaps too much information was being fed into their heads. He said with so much to think about swimming in their heads while on the mound, their physical performance suffers.
Bingo! I think Mike Boddicker might be onto something here. I’ve written many times about this before in sports. Most sports are doing things not thinking things. That’s why things like muscle memory and daily practice are so important. When a player is on the field in the action of a game, thinking, in particular overthinking, is bad news.
Professional sports and sports, in general, are becoming more and more data-driven. In my opinion, this is a very good thing. Having the information to make better choices about strategy and resources is never a bad thing. The problem we get into as coaches and as organizations is we fall in love with the data but we fail to implement the filtering of the data to our players or team members.
It’s when the people at the top end of the organizational ladder analyze all the available data and “filter” the relevant data to the relevant people. In a perfect world, by the time the information gets to the individual player, only the most relevant information that individual needs to do their job is in their head. That player then practices within that context, repeating the action again and again until they improve, and then takes it to the field without having to actively think about it.
You can also think about filtering as an informed simplification. As Detective Joe Friday said, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Filtering is a lesson I learned as a green, somewhat dumb, and often overly-enthusiastic baseball and football coach. The hitters I coached didn’t need to have the dozens and dozens of physical cues involved in a swing swirling in their heads as the pitch was delivered. They needed only to load, step, and swing to attack the baseball. The mind can be a terrible thing when bogged down with too much information.
From experience, I know if I’m in the box thinking about where my feet are, what position my hands are in, if my weight is transferred, and, on top of that, the scouting report on what this pitcher likes to throw 1-2, I’m probably going to be taking a leisurely walk back to the dugout leaving the tying run on second base.
Thinking too much diminishes performance.
Same for football. Fast (quick) explosive high school football is the way we wanted to play the game. It’s the way we developed our players every day with everything we did from warmups to conditioning. We also knew the value of scouting and film study in order to give us the advantage to make up for what we lacked in sheer size and speed. The hours and hours of film breakdown of an opponent was a lot of information. Too much information for your average high school male athlete. Hence, we learned to filter.
Although we knew as defensive coaches that on third and four in a shotgun spread formation with the back on the left and the right guard, #63, sitting slightly back on his haunches meant they were going to run their bread and butter, QB counter to the left, pushing all that info into a 17-year-old’s head probably meant that the 17-year-old was going to freeze on the field. Coach Dail Smith used to call it, “paralysis by analysis”. Busy minds = Slow feet.
To avoid paralysis by analysis, what do you do? You filter. In the example above, we knew all that information as coaches. Since the QB counter seemed to be one of their bread and butter plays, it was put into the top 6-8 run plays for the scout offense to run all week. We’d teach the linebackers to notice when the guards were sitting back on their haunches and attack. Basically, we take the 4-5 scout details and break them down to one or two for the players, work the recognition and skills repeatedly, and give them the best chance of succeeding during the game. And if we forced the opposing team to go to something other than their bread and butter plays? That was the icing on the cake.
If you can beat me with your second, third, or fourth-best packages, you deserve to win. If you beat me with your bread and butter packages, I deserve to lose.
Data is cheap in today’s digital world. Programs like HUDL are so freaking awesome and provide so much data to a coach at any level. Sabermetrics and analytics are a sports nerd’s dream. But the downside is the sheer, daunting amount of data we generate. The important work for the modern coach and organization is to sift through the data, decide what’s important and who it’s important to, and then pass it down. A little bit of salt makes the stew better, but a handful of salt ruins it.
Filter the information to your players. Give them the basic knowledge they need without throwing a wrench into the gears of performance. Too much on-field thinking, paralysis by analysis, is a dangerous thing. Prepare your players, practice, and turn them loose to perform.
Mike Boddicker might be right about what’s wrong with all these talented, young arms in the Royals’ system. Simplify and let the physical talent shine.
Load. Step. Swing.