Road to bronze medals
Jaroslav, curently is working as a head coach for the Czech Republic men's national team and at the club level at Zraloci Ledenice, 2019 national champions. He was part of the 2012, 2014 and 2018 European Championship Golden teams for the Czech Republic. A huge accomplishment came in February 2020 with the Bronze medal from the World Championship U18.
Our road to the bronze medal started back in 2014. Me, Dusan Snelly, Tomas Kusy we took over the U19 national team program. Up until that the best finish for us was always 2-3 spots from the last team in the standings. Huge inspiration for us was what Julio Gamarci managed to achieve with the Argentina U19 in 2012 and 2014. Probably because Czech and Argentina were almost always a good matchup in the U19 category. Up until now the partnership between CZ and ARG is a big part of our success and hopefully also vice versa. We believed we could win a medal and we decided to do everything we can. People called us fools in 2014 when we spoke about it. But I believe you have to dream big to win big (and put in the work). At the time of fall of 2014 we set 4 pillars for our program:
- Increase the amount of training for our players big time.
- Attend at least one tour outside Europe
- Build the program on hitting and pitching
- Develop players that have the softball skill to fight for medals
In Czech Republic we don't have the vast numbers of players as other countries we're competing against. Therefore we don't have a choice but to think about building the junior program differently. Even though it's a national team we don't do selection. We do development. We select more or less 30 players for every 2 year cycle (out of maybe 70). But if you want to change the mind of young players that softball is not 2 practices a week, but 8, how do you do that? We decided we needed to create the environment where it is gonna be possible. Czech Republic enables high school kids that do top level sport to do what's called individual school planning. The teachers have to schedule every test in advance for these kids - no surprises. Which means that kids can plan their time better and incorporate hardcore training into it. Half of the team was able to get in the program at the time.
Training space during winter times was also a big challenge. Club teams in Czech Republic usually rent out school gyms for practices several times a week, but we needed the boys to hit 4-5 times a week. So we went creative. Some guys used an old garage where we helped them set up nets and tees, some used cellars in the block of flat buildings where they lived with their parents. We even had boys that used their team's locker room in the clubhouse that's otherwise closed during winter. Same for pitchers. We actively helped the players with the 3 biggest obstacles - school, space, parents.
From the softball perspective, we brought a new vision to hitting mechanics (for Czech standard). We worked with videos on every training session, used radar guns for measuring exit velocity, etc. All plans were centralized from the national team and individualized for specific players - hitting, pitching, conditioning.
We held national team camps every 3-4 weeks, starting October 2014. Not just weekends, but always Saturday - Monday, so both coaches and players had to get that day off. It makes a huge difference - 2 days camps are usually Saturday + half of Sunday, whereas 3 days means you have an extra full day. That's a huge gain. The general idea of what was done at camps was teaching new skills and controlling progress from the last time. It was almost never about hard conditioning. At times the training rose to 10-12 a week. Which means before and after school on some days. One day a mon of one of our players called me: "Jaro, are you guys crazy? My son got up this morning for practice at 4am, it was still dark outside and our cages didn't have lights, so he took a lamp from his bed table. But it rained outside, so the lamp is f**ked, who will pay for it?" Later she decided it would be better if she drove him to the field, left the car running with lights on, waited in the car and then drove him back. 4.30am!!!
In 2015 we spent 51 days at camps or game days, played 52 games just with the national team. In 2016 it was 63 days and 52 games as well just the national team. A lot of our players played over 110 games every year. For us coaches this meant we had to adjust our work and personal lives.
In January of 2016 we managed to go to Florida for the AAU men's tournament and finished 5th out of 24 men's teams (most of them play at the ISC). In March of 2016 we toured Parana, Argentina. During our prep time we beat 2x Junior Black Sox during their visit to Prague, and 2x U19 Argentina, the 2014 Junior World Champions. You may say - oh, you had money to do this, we don't. Well our tours were not comfy, believe me. We'd take the cheapest flight possible - when we flew to Orlando, we went from Vienna to Miami and had to deal with the logistics. We slept in the shittiest cheapest motels, 2 guys on a bed to save as much as possible. We would bargain for field rentals, tournament entry fees, etc. In Argentina it was easier. We had our partnership going which is fairly simple. Whenever we do the tour we pay for the flights, ARG takes care of our accommodation, food and local travel expenses. We were able to do both these tours together for very cheap. Honestly we wanted to do one, but at the parents-coaches meeting they voted to do both. I guess we got lucky here. Playing outside Europe does 2 things - A) You get comparison, comparison boosts confidence, B) Players get to experience new cultures, that brings humility.
On our World Championships pretour we played strong games with Toronto Gators and the Gremlins, top ISC teams. It looked like our form was there. At the world championships we made a giant step forward. For the first time ever we played good games against all top teams, took the lead in all games and lost the 3 most important by one run, finishing 7th. It was our 1st playoff appearance, it was a historically top result, yet not a single player/coach was satisfied with the result. It's rare when you come back to your country after making a historic result and the public tells you it was a disappointing result. All coaching staff surrendered their salaries for the whole 2 years in favor of the players and the program. It was part of the reason that allowed us to travel and get that international comparison that was much needed. We didn't win a medal, but we had a group of players that gained confidence that they can beat anybody in the world.
In the 2nd run that me and Dusan were in charge of (2016-2018), everything was easier. Everything. The new players came in expecting the hard work as they heard from their club teammates, parents came in knowing what it will take. We hosted the U19 ARG national team, toured Parana again, and started a new partnership with Japan, Kochi prefecture that we toured for 2 weeks. We implemented new things into the program that proved right in the 2020 medal run. The most important was the emergence of a development coaching staff. Every club was able to take part and send a coach to our development team. A developing coach chose a skill (hitting, pitching,..) and for 2 years shadowed a coaching staff member responsible for the same skill. This allowed us to grow expertise among coaches and widen the coaching pool available.
I hate to shorten the 2 years into just a couple of sentences. We had a great team in 2018 again. Our quarterfinal loss to Mexico 2:4 meant we finished 7th again. Again when everybody knew we could've done more.
After these 2 runs I decided to step back, Dusan too. It was less than 12 months to the Men's World Championship in Prague and I wanted to give my full attention to that. Dusan took charge of the U23 national team, my future was the men's national team and youth programs oversight. So in the end I worked more with the coaches of the 2018-2020 U18 national team than with the players. Our development coaches took on new responsibilities. Andrew Stroner took charge as the head coach, Michal Trtilek as a pitching coach. After the 2019 U23/U18 Japan Tour, we decided that Dusan will rejoin the team to give the team his support and experience and ensure continuity of the program. Yes, one thing we thought we did well but didn't was that we gave our development coaching staff the softball knowledge, but didn't involve them enough in the decision making processes from 2016-2018.
The program ran smoothly, but since the 2020 World Championships was for U18 not U19, nobody really knew where we're at and what level the top teams are gonna be. We were in desperate need for comparison. After many negotiations we became part of the U17 Panam qualifier in Guatemala in November 2019. This happened to be a crucial part of our 2020 medal race. The team went unbeaten against all the teams - Argentina, Mexico, Canada, USA, Guatemala and others. So in direct comparison 3 months prior to World championships, we gained a deciding feature - confidence leaned on results.
The pre-tour and 2020 U18 World Championships in Palmerston North, NZ, will always be in my heart as one of the best times of my life. Exhibition games showed Guatemalan success wasn't just a fluke and that our pitching is strong enough. A hiccup on the road was a twisted ankle of our nr.1. pitcher Jakub Osicka just 5 days prior to the start of the World Championships. On an off day. Walking down the outfield grass.
We had a large coaching staff. Specifically 11 people! I believe that if you want to do all the work well, it is the way. We had Andrew as head coach acting as bench coach in the games, Dusan coaching 3rd base, Jan taking care of defensive alignments in games and regeneration after the games, myself calling pitches, Beny being manager and coaching 1st base, Michal as pitching coach/scout, Martin, Honza and Kuba as scouts, our personal chef Michal, and physio in Lukas. Because we had the scouting powers, we were able to send a scouting unit of 3 to tournaments and exhibition games in Palmerston while our team prepared in Auckland. It was also easier when we needed to tape/chart games at 2 fields at the same time. Big coaching staff brings good and bad things. The level of communication has to get a lot better to get everybody involved. But during games it allowed us to be more precise. Dusan, Beny and Andrew had time to discuss our hitting, lineup possible changes, runners, strategy when we were in the field as they didn't have to think about defense at all. Same for me, Jan, Martin and Michal when we were hitting and our job was the defense.
As coaches we made 2 big changes from the previous World tournaments.
1) We took all the efforts to make the regeneration process for the players as professional as we could. This included - post game / post practice sprinting (cool downs), ice baths, massages, dietary supplements in form of protein shakes, BCAA, Maltodextrin. Every morning this was followed with team stretching or jogging, and leg ice baths. Every 2nd day we'd swim or do sauna. It was a lot of effort and a lot of resources. But for the first time I noticed no difference in our energy levels and our swing speeds in those 3 weeks playing ball every day.
2) As coaches we promised to ourselves to be there for the players as much as we could. In the past we would spend a crazy amount of time scouting opponents. If games didn't go our way we would crawl into our lairs and spend even more time on the video. Just to make sure that we're 100% ready and that we come around our jobs 100% professionally. Don't get me wrong. This part is crucial. You have to be precise in preparing for opposing teams. But taking care of your own players is a priority. The result we wanted to get out of this was that the players would feel that we're in this together and we're here to help them and genuinely take care. I think that what makes a good coach or coaching staff great is finding that balance between challenging players and caring for them. I think that the moment we proved we really mean this was after the first game of the tournament and our 3:4 loss to Australia (this game cost us a place in the finals).
After that initial loss we got together and kept on winning games. The whole lineup was hitting the ball well and pitchers did a great job. With every another win our confidence grew. The support from Czech was amazing. Clubs organized watching parties late at night. It all came down to a bronze medal game against Argentina that beat us earlier in the tournament 3:4 in the tiebreak. They were sophisticated, played with great energy and had really good pitching. But so did we. We managed to score early and kept the 2 run difference for most of the game. Last out was a ground ball to Jakub Osicka, our pitcher, who tossed the ball to first base. Eruption of joy. I stood in my place in the dugout. Dusan was on the other end of the dugout, sitting down, crying. We made history. No European team has ever won a medal at the world stage. We came a long way from 2014. But the hardest part by far was not the softball skills. I mean yes, we had to change a lot from what was taught at the time. But the hardest part was to get the players to actually believe they can do it and give them enough support to walk the distance. It takes an extra step that we didn't know about when we started. It goes from - "let's not get mercied" to "we're playing good games with everybody" to "we are better than everybody and we can win every game". The road was long. Maybe the Czech mentality took a part as well and prolonged the process. But in the end, there's no winning without that confidence. No matter how good the players are. What these young men did in Palmerston North will have a long lasting effect on Czech softball as a whole. It brought confidence, inspiration, meaning. There are some things that will remain the same for us going forward. If we want to keep winning we will have to develop the players. We don't have the numbers to just do a selection process and go play like most of our competitors do. Development will always remain our main focus. We learned a lot of things along the way. Now we give more space and responsibility within the national team coaching staff to people who have a growth mindset, are open, willing to learn. We put those values in front of experience and skill. The game is evolving quickly and you can't dwell in the past. As Mike Stapleton once told me: "You're only as good as your next game". My personal lessons learned would be following:
- Complete trust within the coaching staff is probably the most important factor. It works better if coaches call themselves friends.
- You have to have a crazy big vision. So big that people will call you a fool.
- Players operate the same way the coaching staff operates. Coaches need to not just work well together, but also inspire on the personal level on and off the field.
- Big vision = big sacrifices for everybody involved. It can't be done without that. We did this from the beginning. We sacrificed our personal lives to raise the bar for Czech softball and when new coaches joined us, we passed the legacy. See numbers in the first part of this article as they still apply.
- In the end it is all about people. Probably the biggest success story (at least my favorite) would be about a guy called Martin Zakouril. Martin was selected to the U19 team in 2014 as was on track to be our first catcher at the 2016 WC. Injuries and occasional laziness allowed for other catchers in the team to catch up. He was the last player we cut in 2016 and he didn't make the team. In 2018 he crashed his knee in a game at 20 years old and I offered him a place in the coaching staff as a scout. Martin took it. He's been with us ever since. Not just the juniors, but took a head scout position at the 2019 Men's WC in Prague. He is a great young man and I'm glad that I can call him my friend, after him missing the U19 World Cup in 2016.
I hope that our story brings some inspiration in these tough times. If you have any questions or want to learn more, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook, instagram, whatsapp or wherever suits you best.
Good luck to everybody, enjoy the summer and have fun on the fields
Jaroslav Korcak Czech softball