May 9, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- If you look beneath the surface on what happened last season with the Wisconsin softball team -- looking beyond the 2013 Big Ten Tournament championship and the 44 victories -- you will uncover some factors on how it happened.
And if you continue to look beneath the surface on what is happening this season -- looking beyond the Badgers winning 16 of their last 18, including a 13-game winning streak and 3 out of 5 from No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 2 seed Nebraska -- you will learn more about why it happened.
Going into this weekend’s Big Ten tournament in Evanston, Ill. -- No. 4 seeded Wisconsin will play Friday night against host Northwestern -- there are a handful of things that have contributed to a winning formula for the Badgers over the past two seasons.
Personal Management Inventories.
Muhammad Ali Revisited.
Dartfish and Edge.
David and Goliath.
Whether it’s fourth-year coach Yvette Healy, the fiery little motivator; or her wingman Randy Schneider, the Sabermetrician; or Tracie Adix, the former College World Series pitcher turned pitching coach, the UW staff has utilized technology and its resources to put their players in a good place.
“Just knowing the work they put in and everything they do for us,” said senior third baseman Michelle Mueller, who leads the team with 11 home runs and 49 RBIs, “it just makes you confident in what they know and it makes you want to do better for them.”
PERSONAL MANAGEMENT INVENTORIES
The players meet individually with the coaches each and every week.
“We call them PMIs and we’re going to use them to visit with our kids and get to know them better,” Schneider said. “It’s not always about softball. It’s probably more about life.
“Our hours in the office are pretty tough; I have 19 meetings a week on the average. But it’s really important to us. We’re developing these kids for life after college.”
It was quite an adjustment initially for freshman Chloe Miller, the starting catcher.
“We knew that we had to go in there and really communicate with them about our goals,” Miller said. “But once a week was quite the shock. It was hard getting up there when I first got here.”
But she eventually recognized how beneficial these sessions were for team building.
“It really sets the tone for everyone,” Mueller said, “when you talk to the coaches and interact on a personal level on what you need to do to be better and what you need to work on.
“It gives the perspective, ‘OK, this is my part of the team and I can do this, this and this and it will help the team.’ Whether you play or don’t, it gives everyone a deep meaning to the program.”
Mueller estimated that a 25-minute meeting would be “five minutes softball, 20 minutes life.”
“That’s actually the awesome part about going in -- being able to talk to an adult figure, almost a parent, and being able to tell them what’s going on in your life,” said centerfielder Maria Van Abel.
“It reinforces the whole family style that we have here at Wisconsin and I just think it puts us in the right mindset every week … it gets our heads on straight.”
Schneider, an avid reader, favors the message delivered by author Geoffrey Colvin in his book, “Talent is Overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everyone else.”
Colvin wrote about “deliberate practice.“
Colvin referenced the example of “hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time … and doing that for hours every day.”
For UW’s context, Schneider interpreted, “What it essentially says is that you have to be intentional and deliberate about what you do. You can dream about being a better softball player.
“But you actually have to be intentional about becoming one. This is something the kids need to understand. We can tell them that and hope that they’re accountable.”
Taking it a step further, he said, “By meeting with them every week as a staff it allows us to be their accountability coaches as well.”
MUHAMMAD ALI REVISITED
Ali, the champ, will forever be linked to boasting, “I am the greatest.”
It’s something that is also preached by the Badgers coaches.
Be great at something, Schneider said, rather just average at a bunch of things.
“We kind of help them identify what it is that they can really be great at,” he explained. “I give them a lot of credit because they all really work hard at figuring out what their strengths are.”
In her own personal application, Mueller said, “They (the coaches) are so about the one percent you can do better every day, the one percent that you’re great at.
“For me, it was always defense. Now, this year, it has been developing on offense. And it’s knowing if I do these things great, I’ll outshine whatever I don’t do well.”
Embracing one or two strengths is more productive than dwelling on weaknesses.
“We all want to be able to bring something to the table,” Van Abel said. “Instead of the one or two athletes who have it all, we each have one thing that we kind of pride ourselves on.”
Schneider has been pleased by the results and how the players have bought into it.
“You can’t be afraid to change things in your life,” he said. “We kind of identified two things. What are your strengths? And what are you weaknesses? And we told them, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.”’
DARTFISH AND EDGE
These are a number of software programs that have accelerated the learning curve.
“We have great resources at Wisconsin and we’re certainly appreciative of everything we’ve gotten since we got here,” said Schneider, the winningest head coach in Valparaiso history.
“We needed to teach our kids how to utilize those resources. We have film available, it’s Dartfish; and we have an Edge program that provides stats that coordinates itself with the film.
“They can go on a web site and see every swing they’ve taken, every ball they’ve fielded. And I basically tell them that they have to provide a two-page report each week on our opponents.”
The video training has been invaluable to the players and their confidence levels.
“I’ll go through every at bat, pitch by pitch,” Van Abel said, “and I’ll watch what the pitchers threw me -- my form, my technique -- what I was struggling with and everything like that.”
Mueller recalled the coaches approaching the players after the Florida trip in February.
“It was like, ‘Let’s try this. Watch your swing, see what you can see and see if you can find patterns,”’ she said. “I learned that I hit great in a 3-1 count.
“So why wouldn’t I take a big hack, statistically, if I’m hitting .500 (in 3-1 counts)? Why not just play the odds? It took some of the thinking out of the game for us as hitters.”
It puts them in attack-mode at the plate. It also influences how they play defense. Another creative Schneider dimension has been the armbands that the players wear during games.
“It’s by far the best thing that has ever happened to this program for defense,” Mueller said.
The statistics, let’s say, tell her that a certain hitter will pull the ball just one percent of the time.
“I’ll play the 5-6 hole -- almost at shortstop,” she said, noting that in a recent game, “The ball was smoked at me and we turned the double play. It wouldn’t have happened without the armband.
“He (Schneider) places us in the hot spots. It’s so awesome to see (shortstop) Ashley Van Zeeland steal groundballs up the middle that would be hits against any other team or defense.”
By definition, this is all about the positive impact of motor imagery, technically-speaking, that is, imagined events produce neuromuscular responses similar to those of an actual experience.
“My coach in high school did it -- we did it before each game in the postseason,” said Miller, a product of Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa.
“You see yourself doing it and it makes it a lot easier during a game because your body already knows what to do because you’ve seen it happen so many times already (in your mind).”
Schneider and Healy are big proponents of this theory.
“We get them to relax and visualize how the game is going to play out,” Schneider said. “And seeing themselves doing great things is a part of that process. It has been amazing.”
Schneider, in particular, has been known to take a professorial approach to most things.
“There are so many words and phrases that he drops around us,” said Mueller, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Can you simplify it so I can understand it a little bit?”’
She gets it, though. She gets why visualization can be such a helpful tool.
“Picture your best at bats,” Mueller said. “You’ve seen yourself in your head hit the ball so why can’t you hit it in a game then? It’s a confidence thing; it’s something we love.”
It has become part of the routine, too, on game days.
“We’ll go out 15 minutes before our hitting time,” said Van Abel, a junior from Kaukauna, “and we will visualize ourselves doing great things in the batter’s box.
“We’ll visualize ourselves against that certain pitcher and what pitches she might throw and what we want to do with the ball.
“It gives you confidence going into the game knowing that you can hit her because you just saw yourself doing it -- it’s like we almost played the game before we got there, so nothing can phase us.
“If something goes wrong, we just redirect our focus and get our heads back on straight knowing that we’ve prepared the best we could.”
Preparation is the operative word around this softball team.
“I really feel like we’re as prepared as any team in the country -- all across the board,” Schneider said. “Our kids get that and believe in it. They feel like they’re going to be prepared when we go in.
“Yvette believes that she can tell them how the game is going to work and how it’s going to play itself out. We use that with them all the time. Yvette does a fantastic job at this.
“We will tell them, ‘You will beat Michigan and this is why.”’
DAVID AND GOLIATH
How many times have the players heard the account of this epic battle?
“Almost every meeting,” Miller said.
“They’ve been talking to us a lot about that,” Van Abel said.
“They’ve rode that story all year,” Mueller said.
But they’re not complaining.
“That’s actually a great strategy for this team,” Van Abel said. “We’re a bunch of Midwest kids and (West) Coast kids and we just love taking on the Big Dog. That’s what we do.”
It certainly can’t hurt to have a motivational edge against the Big Ten heavyweights. “Every little bit helps,” Miller said. ‘If we see ourselves beating them, being great, what can stop us?”
It’s all in the results, the bottomline. “It’s one thing to hear it,” Mueller said of the David and Goliath role-playing. “It’s another thing to see it happen.”
Added Miller, “Taking on that role of David -- since no one really knows who we are -- has been really fun. It’s always fun being the underdog; you’ve seen it all over the place in all sports.”
It played out last weekend in Ann Arbor where the UW took two out of three from Michigan.
Schneider praised Healy’s motivational presentation when taking on such legacy programs. “You’re going to see the shiny armor of the Goliath. But David has to have a plan,” he paraphrased.
From the player’s standpoint, it has to sound something like this, “Man, we’ve got this rock and this sling shot, you know what? We’ve got a shot here,” Schneider said.
If only it was that easy.
“You have to have some luck, believe me, you have to have some things going your way to win those kinds of games,” said Schneider, ever respectful of those top tier programs in the Big Ten.
“We’re light years away from getting ourselves to being a legacy program like those programs. But I think we’ll get there.”