I’m very honored that - after three coaches with a ton of international experience - the pen has been assigned to me. My name is Jeroen Swers (34) and I’m the head coach of the Dutch club Roef!.
I’ve been in the game of baseball and softball for practically my entire life. I’ve spent the last decade between playing men’s softball for Brasschaat Braves (BEL) and coaching the women’s team of Brasschaat Braves (BEL) and Roef! (NL).
There are so many things to love about this game: split-second decisions, speed, strategy… the intensity, the emotions and the pace of the game really stand out. However, while my love and passion for softball grew, I discovered an even more intriguing part of the community: the SHARING! We compete in a global sport, but our community is so close. People in the game share stories, experiences… there is this joint feeling of growing the game together. I consider myself lucky having met people from all over the world. To have friends in the game. Friends who are close to me, but also friends on the other side of the world.
So today I’m glad to share a bit of my experiences with all of you. I was asked to give you an insight of how we turned Roef! into the - successful - team it is today. First of all I consider it a great compliment towards our team and everyone involved to be asked that question. Especially after we only just won our first National Championship, back in October 2019.
1. The beginning… clear agreements
Clear agreements. That’s easier said than done of course. However, defining where you are planning to go or what you want to achieve, makes it easier to communicate this to a team, a board and all other people involved. It can be big or small, but make sure it’s achievable and measurable.
When I was invited and/or asked to coach Roef!, back in 2014, they had been knocking on the door of promotion but just couldn’t clinch it. I saw an ambitious club, a talented group of girls but on the other hand I didn’t know enough about the league they played in, how they performed in pressure situations, what their main strength was…
A clear, achievable goal
I had a lot of questions, but I knew this was a great opportunity. The potential was there but I didn’t want to be pushed into a short-term goal (getting promoted the next season) I maybe couldn’t deliver. So we agreed on a clear goal: our aim was to get promoted within three seasons.
We did the same with the team. We sat down, wrote down expectations of one another, defined our house rules, and we set up a clear mission statement and goal. We gave each other the space and time to grow towards where we wanted to be and to play how we wanted to play.
2. Never stop learning
I still learn from the game every day. I watch games, re-live games in my mind, discuss softball with umpires, other coaches and players. The best advice one can give you is to be open to discovering and learning new things and never stop trying to improve.
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice
Never NOT ask! You’ll regret it a couple days later.
- Reach out to an umpire after a game about a specific situation or rule.
- Talk to a fellow coach about a situation that happened within the team.
- Ask your players what they would have done in a certain game-situation.
3. Surround yourself with the right people - and don’t micromanage
The hardest thing ever for me, was letting go. Every now and then I still struggle with it. Remember coaches: everyone has their strengths, but we all definitely have our flaws. I was hard-headed, trying to control everything. While I had the luxury to work with amazing coaches, to be surrounded with knowledge and passion for the game.
So: trust the people around you. They are just like you, trying to make this team better. Give them the necessary freedom to take control of their area and value their input.
Don’t try to micromanage. Have a helicopter view.
4. Change or create a culture
Everybody in the game or in sports wants to WIN. It’s in our DNA. Most of the time it’s the first question people ask you when you get home from a game: did you win?
That’s how I started too… I wanted the quickest way to winning games. However, putting your nine best players in the game isn’t just going to give you that result. Focusing on winning itself can get very frustrating for you as a coach - but also for the players.
A big push forward for us was when we changed our culture or better yet: our FOCUS. We started thinking more towards HOW we could win games. What do we need do? How do we need to play? What is going to help us to become better?
We put up small goals/targets for every game, for every opponent that would give us a better chance of winning the game. We challenged the team every week to reach a certain goal. It changed our mindset as a team. You start thinking less about the win, and more about the process, about our goals for the inning or game. It became a game within the game.
5. Build confidence
It’s as cliché as it gets but our sport is not a pure physical game… It’s 99% mental. But let’s be honest: when you go to practice, who is going to practice the mental part 99% of the time? Exactly.
However: you shouldn’t ignore it. You need to talk with players about what they like, what they don’t like. What are they afraid of? Discover what they use to value their performance.
Players are influenced by what they got told earlier in life, their education or simply by a question from a parent or friend after the game, like Did you get a hit? Did you hit a homerun? How many people did you strike out?
Help your players change their own evaluation. Ask how they can help the team win more games. Help them understand the value of their at bats and how their role changes every time they walk up to the plate.
We all make mistakes. Errors happen all the time, even at the highest level. The team needs to realize this and accept it, not punish themselves or a teammate over it. You need to learn from the error, make the adjustment and move on. As coaches, we shouldn’t avoid the subject. Bring it up, ask them what they can do better to prevent it from happening again. Let them come up with a solution and if not, help them out ????
Same for strike-outs… I tell all my hitters: You ARE going to strike out this season. Fact. So why worry about it?
Strike-outs frustrate hitters… but the way I see it, is that strike-outs aren’t necessarily a bad thing. And the next example might help them understand it.
Imagine a close game runner at third base. 1 out, a 2 strike count. The hitter’s afraid, doesn’t want to strike out and does everything to protect herself from the strike out and attempts to make contact… grounds it to third base and the runner gets tagged out. All of the sudden you have a runner at first and two outs and you are a long way from scoring that important run.
We talk with our hitters to keep swinging hard in this situation, go for the hit, accept the strike-out if it happens. The aggressive approach, the hard swings … they will turn into hits sooner than the defensive swing.
Of course, it will get you a couple more strike-outs a season, but you’ll also get more hits.
Allow your players to make mistakes. Allow them to strike out. Once they experience how you as a coach handle the errors as learning points, handle the strike-outs as normal and keep it open for discussion / feedback… they will feel more comfortable on the field.
6. Invest in the team on and off the field
Prepare your practices. Make sure you keep the practices creative, intense. That they resemble your culture, the way you want to play the game. I spent as many hours a week coaching on the field as I spent preparing the games and practices. Trust me, the hours of preparation don’t guarantee quality practices as other factors come into play like the weather, the mood, etc. or simply the fact that your practice looked way better on paper than on the field.
I’ve mentioned it before: don’t try to control everything. Get feedback from the team. What do they think your team needs to work on? Ask them, otherwise you’ll never know and as a bonus they will become more involved.
Have an open-door-policy: make sure the players can come to you or any other staff member to discuss things without being attacked and make sure they do it as soon as possible after the occurrence. Don’t let things grow undetected in the group!
Don’t underestimate the value of fun and teambuilding for your team’s progress. We implement a team weekend every season where we hardly do any softball. We have practices from time to time that don’t even involve softball. Or we have a 2-hour long and tough practice but finish it off with some game.
I hope that this article provided you with some insights on how we work and that there are things you can take from it to make your team better. If there are any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out and we’ll find a moment to discuss, love and share softball.
See you soon on the fields,
stay safe and healthy
Headcoach Roef!, NL