Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I wish I coached an indoor sport.
Especially when our river looks like this:
Usually we are ice-free by this time of year, practicing happily on the water. But not this year. Ohh no… This year we’ve been thrown a knuckleball.
A knuckleball is a pitch which has the tendency to move unexpectantly and erratically, veering from its original path. It looks like one thing, yet becomes another.
Here’s the thing … coaches are thrown knuckleballs all the time:
- A starting player has to go home for a family emergency, right before the big game
- Wednesday’s contest is changed to Friday, due to weather, and that conflicts with your important personal obligation
- You miss practice, because you are sick (yes, I know, you’d have to be “wicked sick” but …)
- Your budget gets reduced 10%, and you have no idea how to make up the shortage
The list is almost endless. You’re nodding your head in agreement, aren’t you?
A knuckleball causes the batter to react – to make a change from his normal swing. We coaches have to do the same thing all the time. Adapt – and quickly. Handling knuckleballs are an occupational requirement.
Following, if you are interested, are eight tips that work well for me when I get knuckleballed.
1. Are you sure it’s a knuckleball? Sometimes a knuckleball isn’t. It’s entirely something else. Before you take radical action to fix an issue, is it really an issue? More than once, especially in my younger years of coaching, I was quick to react to something out-of-the-ordinary, when I should have just waited for a short time. A prime example is the time a mom called and left a cryptic message that “my daughter just left school.” I quickly deduced that she, one of our best athletes, had withdrawn for the semester. Panic.
I called the Dean and the Registrar demanding to pin down how and when this happened. Long story short, she had “left school” for the day to drive home, and mom just wanted us to know. Yes, that was a relief, but in the meantime several folks had been stirred into a frenzy, including myself.
2. Respond, not react. Being too quick to react to a knuckleball can be harmful, like above. Yet being quick to find a solution can be a positive, if your mind is clear. I have found that five minutes (or even 30 seconds if things are moving fast) spent focusing on my breathing helps me keep calm and clear headed. To respond wisely, instead of react haphazardly. Friend Jay Forte writes about that here in You Could Change Things In 10 Seconds, and I’ve written about the power of breathing here, and here.
3. Be open to quick changes. Dedicating time and energy to plan an event doesn’t insure it WILL happen. But it does mean we might be less open to alternate ideas when a curveball is thrown. Personally, being quickly flexible is something I had to learn. I struggled with it in my first year of coaching. In my sport, a 5 mph change in the wind can alter a practice plan, or even cancel an event. The wind can change in the blink of an eye, so I learned to be open to quick changes almost as fast.
4. Into the batting cage. A little common sense here – waiting for a knuckleball in a game is a bad time to figure out how to hit one. Practice beforehand is critical. This Fall we took a shell with nine rowers out on our river and purposely flipped it. Why? Because it could happen at anytime and the coaches, rowers, and rescue squad knowing how to respond in case of a real emergency could be a life saver – literally.
5. Always have an Option B, and then an Option C. A backup plan at the ready is invaluable. And if Option B doesn’t work, you’ll be glad to have another idea at hand. Each day my coaches and I gather to plan out the day’s practice. We usually have three options. Several times each semester I’ve been glad to have Option C.
6. Steal ideas from other coaches. Once per month the coaches at our school get together for a Coaches Coffee (hat tip to Coach Steve for the name suggestion). We trade notes and solutions on current hot topics. It’s been great to learn how lax, soccer and other coaches handle knuckleballs in their sports. More than once their solutions have saved the day.
7. Write your Options. The act of writing has a way of clarifying thoughts, both internally and externally. Once, when faced with losing an athlete for disciplinary reasons, writing down the situation helped me get past the raw emotion of disappointment, and get to empathy. At the same time, having described the situation in writing, along with the solution, allowed me to quickly share the info with my supervisor and assistant coaches.
8. If it sounds too crazy, save it. A seemingly crazy solution for TODAY’s knuckleball might actually work for TOMORROW’S. You never know when things might just come in handy, that’s why it can be helpful to write stuff down. I put mine into Evernote, where they are searchable, quickly accessible, and shareable.
Actions You Could Take
So that’s a list of numerous actions you can take when on the receiving end of a knuckleball. Certainly there are others, especially because the knuckleball you’re thrown can be so erratic it may require extremely creative thinking. All the actions seem to breakdown into three categories:
- Prevent a knuckleball being thrown
- Practice how to hit one
- Be ready for the next one
Personally, I focus on the last two, since the only sure way a coach can prevent receiving a knuckleball is not to be a coach.
I’ll add this question for future discussion, what if you are the one throwing the knuckler? How do you react if there is a plan in place and it has to change because of you? A topic worth discussing?
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