About a week and a half ago, one of the all-time coaching legends, former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, passed away. He was known both for his success â€” 10 Division One college championships â€” and the class with which he conducted himself. One other thing he was known for was his focus on doing the little things right. That's a lesson that cuts across all sports at all times. In our sport, attention to the little things is critical because so much of it is mental, and so much of it has such fine detail. Softball is often called a game of inches; that makes every little detail important.
Think about softball hitting. There's only a fraction of an inch between a line drive and a pop-up, a hard-hit ground ball through the infield and a soft roller back to the pitcher. For pitchers it's just as fine. The plate is only 17 inches wide. If you're trying to catch the edge of it, an inch here or there is the difference between a ball and a strike. But that's just the visible part. The real small stuff comes in your approach to the game, either as a player or a coach. For players it's taking ground ball after ground ball so that the mechanics become automatic. It's working on backhand and forehand techniques to make sure you know exactly how to position the glove to get the ball to bury itself right in there. It's pitchers working on their spins and locations until they know how to put that ball on or off the plate when the circumstances require it. It's also learning when to throw each pitch, how to set up a hitter, and how to recover from a mistake. It's outfielders learning to track a ball off the bat, learning to slide or dive on balls they can get to, and learning when discretion is the better part of valor, making it time to pull up. It's first basemen learning to stride out at precisely the right time to get the proper stretch, shortstops learning to come across second properly, and third basemen learning the quickest way to field a bunt â€” and get rid of the ball.
Coaches are not exempt from the small details. It's learning a little bit about each of your players â€” enough to know what motivates them, what they need to prepare for a game, when they need a kind word and when they need a kick in the behind (figuratively speaking of course). It's learning to see what your players are doing and where they need help. It's keeping up with the game, its strategies and techniques, and not being afraid to change when something better comes along. When a new crop of freshmen would come to UCLA, one of the first things Coach Wooden would do was teach them how to put on their socks. Understand that these were 18 to 19 year old young men who presumably had been dressing themselves for a long time. But Wooden felt it was important to show them how to put their socks on the UCLA way.
One reason was to minimize blisters. But the real reason was to demonstrate the importance of doing the right things the right way all the time. For Wooden knew that championships aren't built by doing the big things. Everyone does that. It's those willing to do the small things better than everyone else who put themselves in the best position to come out on top, inning after inning, game after game, year after year.
Anyway, that's the way I see it.