Softball Coaching: Best Practices for In Game Management
A veteran head coach shares the secrets to effective in-game management.
A veteran head coach shares the secrets to effective in game management.
Like any complex skill—coaching takes time, experience, and intentional effort to master.
Career progression as a coach requires skill and competency in several different areas, some more challenging than others.
And the best coaches. The ones who rise to the top. Can pull together vast hands-on experience from all levels, then apply it to the more complex aspects of leading a team.
At the more straightforward end of coaching roles, would be something like hitting or pitching practice with a small group. This takes skill, no doubt—but the variables at play are limited to a handful of players, the coach, and the drill being undertaken.
An example of middle of the road complexity, is coordinating and executing a full team practice. There’s more to consider here: A whole team of players, different positions and drills, and being mindful of group dynamics.
At the upper end of the scale. And perhaps as complex as coaching gets—is in game management.
To effectively manage a game, a coach must keep track of and positively influence a ton of variables.
Pre-game prep and warm-up. Knowing each player's strengths and weaknesses. Understanding and responding to the opposition. Managing any injuries, personal issues, or team challenges that might impact performance.
And most important of all. Unlike practice—these variables all need to be managed and responded to in real-time—in the dynamic and unpredictable arena of competition.
There are only two ways to get better at in game management: real-world experience and mentoring from a coach who’s already mastered this skill.
While we can’t help you with the first one—we can connect you with a veteran head coach to pass on some wisdom.
Always One Step Ahead
Our go-to resource for all things coaching is Tim Walton.
Tim is one of a select few with the experience needed to teach on best practices for effective in game management.
He’s been a head coach in college softball for almost two decades now. And has been central to an impressive array of personal, team, and student-athlete achievements in this time, including:
- Second fastest NCAA coach to reach 1000 career wins.
- Has taken eight of his ten teams with the Florida Gators to the Women’s College World Series, with back-to-back championship wins in 2014/15.
- Received the SEC coach of the year award five times.
- Instrumental in his players winning more athletic and academic awards than one could count, such as 43 NFCA All-American Honors, 2 USA Softball Player of the Year, 10 SEC Player and Pitcher of the Year, and 18 CoSIDIA Academic All-American Honors.
When it comes to in game management—Coach Walton draws on his vast experience to stay one step ahead of the competition.
He’s all about being prepared. Having the confidence to trust your instincts. And knowing your players well enough to put them in the best position to succeed.
To help fast-track your development as a coach, we asked Walton to record an exclusive video session on the key components of effective in game management.
We’ll outline his main points in this article. But to get the full experience—head over to Versus and sign up to watch the video.
Our free plan will give you access to the session we’re covering today. While the standard and premium plans include unlimited video sessions and interactive questions from our roster of elite athletes and world-class coaches.
If you want to fast-track your progress with advice from the best of the best—Versus has you covered with an advanced digital training platform you can use anywhere.
Now, it’s time to get into Tim Walton’s best practices for in game management.
Have a Routine for Everything
If you’ve been reading some of our other articles based on Walton’s video sessions, you’ll know that he’s a big believer in plans and routines.
Tim explains that as head coach, he builds a protocol for every aspect of game day.
“We have a routine for everything,” he states. “How you line up for the national anthem. Where the bats go. Who’s on the charts and stopwatches. Everything.”
The goal of Walton’s routines is to help players navigate their way through a game confidently and effectively, with minimal fuss or delay.
“How do you get your players to perform at their best when it matters the most?,” he asks. “Well, you have to be prepared.”
One of the most important roles of a coach is to develop solid pre-game and in-game routines. That allows athletes to focus on their most important task—competing.
The key is, these routines must balance the need to move through a game in an efficient and orderly fashion, with making sure each player has what they need to succeed. Keep this in mind as you read the rest of the article, as this core principle underpins all of Tim’s advice on this topic.
See an example of a game day protocol below.
Coach Walton’s Game Day Warm Up Routine
According to Walton, the objective of a pre-game warm up routine is
“to get the body loose, get prepared, and get ready to play.”
He’ll adjust the duration of the warm up according to how long the team needs on each section, but it always follows this formula:
- Everydays (daily foundational drills)
- Defensive Drill
- Pre-Pitch Routine
Know What Your Players Are Good At
“I’m there to try to help facilitate my players to look good,” states Walton. “I want every one of my players to be involved in a walk-off moment where they’re the hero. Where they’re the ones that we’re celebrating”
This selfless attitude comes through repeatedly with Tim. He truly does see his primary role as a coach being to make his athletes shine.
For Walton, this starts with knowing your players. And specifically for in game management—knowing what your players are good at.
By knowing exactly what each of his player’s strengths are, Walton can tell right away when an athlete is struggling and needs support to get back to their comfort zone.
This also applies on the team level. In game, he’s paying close attention to what his team usually excels at—watching carefully for any unusual drop in performance. And taking action right away if he notices a problem.
Tim focuses on what his athletes and team do well, because,
“We’re not trying to not lose. We’re trying to win.”
In game management isn’t the time to address individual or team weaknesses—that’s what practice is for.
The priority for every coach responsible for in game management, is to help their players perform at their highest level and come out ahead of the competition.
One of the ways Walton makes sure he’s focused on strengths, is remembering that it’s his role to get his players what they need to succeed.
Get Them What They Need to Succeed
Throughout game day, Tim and his coaching staff have a single-minded focus on getting their players and team primed to compete.
He stresses that this starts pre-game, explaining,
“If I have a player that needs 30 swings, she gets 30 swings. If a player needs 50 swings, they get 50.”
Tim’s routines and protocols are his baseline for making sure the general needs of his athletes and team are looked after. But if a player needs something additional—he makes sure they get it.
Remember, the goal of in game management is to help the players and team perform at their highest level. Not just to get through the game in an orderly fashion, or for the coach to have a good time.
Walton summed this philosophy up well in a previous session, stating
“Games are for the athletes—practice is for the coaches.”
It’s not that you can’t enjoy the game as a coach. Just remember the reason that you’re there.
Trust Your Instincts
While Walton is all about listening to and supporting your players—he acknowledges that there will be times in game when the coach has to make tough and potentially unpopular decisions.
Whether it’s pulling a pitcher or defensive player. Taking a chance on a risky play. Or changing strategy mid-game. Tim urges coaches to trust their gut and not second guess themselves on in game decisions.
Here are a few guidelines Tim uses for in game decision making:
Listen to your staff and players, but recognize that ultimately—the head coach makes the decision.
Trust is everything. You have to trust your instincts, but the players must also trust you to do right by them
If you have to pull a player—do it respectfully. Avoid pulling players for errors if possible. If they were good enough to get through your practice and into the game, give them the grace to be human and make a mistake.
Recognize that you will make mistakes as well. And just like the player who makes the error—you’ll be accountable to yourself and the rest of the team. Trust is built by humbly and genuinely accepting responsibility for your mistakes.
All the Details Matter
In addition to everything that's been covered so far, effective in game management requires awareness of all the other little (and not so little) details.
- How many pitches has your pitcher thrown?
- Is the batter left or right-handed?
- How is your catcher doing?
- What’s the score?
- How many times have you gone through your lineup?
- What’s your opponent likely to do next?
To stay one step ahead. And not be caught by surprise or left behind. The in game manager must stay aware of all the details of the game.
Your aim isn’t to be perfect. It’s to effectively read your players, your team, and your opponent, so you can stay one step ahead as the game unfolds.
You Can Have a Positive Impact
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by in game management.
The sheer volume of variables at play results in some coaches going in with a, “I'll just do my best and hope for a good outcome” kind of approach.
While this might result in a lucky win on occasion—it won’t lead to the sustained results that build a successful coaching career.
Fortunately, in game management is a skill that's gradually built over time. It’s not something a coach needs to be a master at right away.
Someone like Tim Walton didn’t get to where he is now because he just ‘got it’ one day. He’s been gradually building and refining his in game management skills for more than two decades.
The key to getting better at in game management is recognizing these three things:
- You can have a positive impact. With a calm, focused, and intentional approach, a coach absolutely can positively impact a game. As Tim says, “Don’t just watch the game—coach the game!”
- The only way to get better is to start. Whether you’re currently not focusing on any particular aspects of in game management. Or have a couple of areas sorted, but know you need to add in some others. The only way to actually get better at in game management is to pick an area to work on and get started. In game management isn’t one thing—it’s a collection of interconnected skills and techniques.
- The Best Coaches Make Their Own Luck. As the old saying goes, “luck favors the prepared.” Plan for in game management in just as much detail—if not more—than you would team practice sessions or a full-season strategy. Have a routine for everything. Don’t leave anything to chance. And trust your gut and act decisively on game day.
If you liked this article, make sure to head over to Versus and sign up for one of our plans.
You can get access to exclusive content from Tim Walton and the rest of our roster on topics like coaching, practice, game strategy, mindset, skills development, and injury prevention.
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