By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY – The game of softball has changed considerably over the decades. Everything from the gloves players use to the uniforms worn has gone through a transformation.
Even the way players are taught the game has changed. There is now more technology involved in the game than ever before. However, according to two-time U.S. Olympian and Cal State Northridge softball coach Tairia Flowers, there is no better teacher of softball than the pure basics.
“The biggest thing we see is being able to play catch,” Flowers said. “Field the ball, throw it to a target, be able to hit somebody in the chest every single time. If you watch, the majority of the errors in games at this level are going to be throwing mistakes because they are rushing their tempo.”
Flowers, who is also serving as coach for USA Softball’s developmental squad, the USA Elite, led the team to a fourth-place finish at the World Cup of Softball last week in Oklahoma City. Even at the international level, Flowers likes to see her players get in serious work on the tee. Hitting the ball off a tee is something little kids do when they are first learning how to play the game, but she feels it works just as well in keeping the skills of veteran players sharp.
“I am always a fan of tee work,” Flowers said. “I think you can get a ton of work in without having to adjust to speed and tempo and the ball moving. You can perfect your swing off the tee.”
The Elite roster is filled with women of varying degrees of experience and ages. That includes Sam Fischer, who has been with USA Softball since 2012.
Fischer agrees with her coach that the most important work softball players of all experience levels can do is throw, catch, hit, and field.
“Keep it simple. Always keep it simple,” said Fischer, who is a native of Simi Valley, California. “I’ve been around for a long time, and there are more and more things that are coming out that are taking away from the basics. So if we get back to basics and just work on the foundation, girls are going to get better than if they use all these tool and different stuff. Keep it simple for sure.”
For 18-year-old Madilyn Nickles, who has yet to even start her collegiate career at UCLA, training her mind to do the right movement in the right moment is part of the keep it simple philosophy. She says it helped her land a spot with USA Softball at such a young age.
“I did mental drills more than anything,” Nickles said. “That was always my biggest issue growing up. It still is to this day. Physically I’d say do the little things. The little tweaky little drills that you need to do to become successful. You can’t really do the same exact thing every time in a game. You just really need to work on things that will make you confident in a game.”
Fischer does suggest one bit of technology to help players get better. But even that is just a prelude to more hard work.
“What I would say with the technology we have now, film yourself when you’re hitting,” Fischer said. “Film yourself when you’re fielding. Watch what the girls on the USA team or in college are doing and see what looks similar. See what they do differently, what they do better. And just get out and get reps. When I was growing up I really didn’t do a ton of drills. But I was out there getting hundreds and hundreds of reps. So no matter what, you’re going to get better when you’re practicing. Even if you are just swinging off a tee, you’re going to get better.”