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Finding and Maintaining Passion in Your Players

This is an excerpt from Softball Coaching Bible, Volume II, The by National Fastpitch Coaches Association.

Sharing the Passion

Patty Gasso

I was sitting at a softball field recently, recruiting and taking in a travel ball game. Truthfully, I was not seeing the best talent, and I was not properly equipped for the cold and wind. It was not one of my best days. I remember asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” The pity party did not last long. I looked around the complex and saw hundreds of kids in uniform, playing in this miserable weather. Their parents were there too, bundled in blankets. I thought, “I have the ability to make one of these kids' dreams come true.” That realization was powerful. I could be a major role model and a lasting member in one of those athletes' lives. The responsibility and honor for any coach is huge. So I quickly got over my griping and jumped back into my recruiting skin.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to work for the University of Oklahoma and be surrounded with wonderful coaches, athletes, and administrators. I get to go to work every day and call the softball stadium my office. How awesome! Sometimes I take this privilege for granted, and one thing I have learned as I have matured as a coach is to be thankful and to keep working hard, because the day I sit back and think that I have arrived as a coach, the program will be left in the dust. I know that I am in the right profession when after 30 years of coaching, 18 of those years at the University of Oklahoma, I feel that I have not worked a day in my life. A line from one of Jo Dee Messina's famous songs claims, “It goes so fast, and one day we look back and ask, Was that my life?” As I am grinning from ear to ear, the answer is an emphatic, “Yes, softball is my life.”

Finding the Passion

The answer to this challenge is easy. You find the passion in your heart. When you do anything with passion and put your heart and soul into it, your experience will be rewarding. Too many coaches and players are involved in this sport for the wrong reasons. This orientation is easy to see. Body language is negative; you can see a lack of effort and a lack of respect. A coach or player led by passion is easy to recognize as well—a team player, energetic, enthusiastic, fun to watch, hardworking, demonstrating a genuine love for the game. Coaches or players with passion can't wait to play or practice, and they are constantly working on ways to get better. They have an endless work ethic at an activity that never feels like work. Passionate people are infectious, and they bring out the best of those around them. Unfortunately, negative team members are just as infectious.

I began my coaching career as a junior varsity basketball coach. I was 19 years old, and some of the players were just 3 years my junior. I knew when I was growing up that I wanted to be a teacher and a coach, and by making that decision early in my life, I could immediately go to work on starting my career. The program I took over had a record of 1-14 the year before my arrival. Now I understand why they would hire a 19-year-old student to take over the program! I was pumped to get the job. I knew it would be a challenge to get those young athletes to believe in a young coach. I went in with high expectations and had a personal goal of getting the team to win at least five games. I would have to get rid of the negative feelings left over from the previous season, and I recognized that my most important job was to create a positive and winning attitude. Confidence and a winning expectation had to come oozing out of me at our first meeting. I set the ground rules and talked about my philosophy of blue-collar work (no one will ever outwork us), of working as a team and respecting each other. They then heard the most important phrase I would ever share, and it is still the focus of my players to this day: We will never quit—ever. It is not an option!

My first coaching season was going pretty well. Halfway through the season we had already won four games. I thought it was cool to dress up as a professional when I was coaching JV basketball, although it was apparent that my peers did not share my thought process!

A situation happened to me on the court that season, now 30 years ago, that I will never forget—one of those life-changing moments. We were in an intense game against our conference rival, and the referee made what I thought was a terrible call. I made it known to the ref that I did not agree with his call, and he made a comment that has never left me. The referee said to me in front of my players, “Coach, relax, this is just a JV girls' basketball game!” Ouch. I voiced my passion that day with the referee, and at 19 years old, in my first season as a head coach, I was thrown out of my first game. I thought, “Maybe I'm not cut out for this coaching thing.” But my actions that day confirmed to me that my passion for women's athletics and for my team was needed to get the respect we deserved. I am not proud of my outburst, but I would not have changed a thing. My players learned a lesson that day—that they deserved the same respect given to any male athlete—and they understood that I believed in them enough to fight for them. The team went on a winning streak and finished the season with 10 wins, 1 win away from the conference title. Whether it's a junior varsity girls' basketball game or a collegiate women's softball program, girls and women who put their heart and soul into their sport deserve to be taken seriously and treated with dignity and respect. Our job as coaches is to make sure that happens. Passion is about feeling—and acting on that feeling!

Why Athletes Today May Lose Passion

For those of us who have been coaching for a while now, we would all agree that coaching today's athletes is definitely a challenge. Capturing and keeping their attention is difficult. We are dealing with some stiff competition! Cell phones with texting, Twitter, Facebook, blogging—the list goes on. I have not figured out a way to stop this besides keeping it off the field, out of the locker room, and off the bus. My conclusion is that the youth of today need constant stimulation. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em! I make sure that my practices are active and require the players to move constantly. I come up with new practice plans and drills that are relevant and challenging. I try to break practice into segments so that we have the ability to start over and refocus. My players do not get much out of long, drawn-out practices. Don't get me wrong; sometimes these practices are necessary. But my players work best with constant challenges, and I try to bring that every day.

I am fortunate to have peers who share their ideas and their struggles. Many coaches today are struggling with athletes who do not know how to compete. Young athletes can play up to six games a day! How can we expect them to have passion for six games straight? It's an impossible feat. I need athletes who will put it all on the field every day and not look at the competition as just another game. I have a hard time with that. My plan to combat this problem is to make my fall season a challenging and competitive experience. Each day I challenge my athletes, especially in strength training and conditioning. I believe that to get my athletes to understand how to compete, they have to be pushed not to the wall, but through the wall. They have to be deprogrammed from having the attitude that it doesn't matter to taking extreme pride in their efforts. Athletes have to feel the good and the bad and learn how to fight through the tough times. I think that athletes are too quick to surrender. They don't want to put their heart out there, because if they do and they are not successful, they will feel the hurt, shame, or embarrassment. The greatest coach of all time, John Wooden, said, “For an athlete to function properly, she must be intent. There has to be a definite purpose and goal if you are to progress. If you are not intent about what you are doing, you aren't able to resist the temptation to do something else that might be more fun at the moment.”

Learn more about The Softball Coaching Bible, Volume II.

More Excerpts From Softball Coaching Bible