GB Softball near misses: is there a pattern?

04
Sep

Bob Fromer

The general wisdom about GB Fastpitch Team programmes is that we punch way above our weight in international softball, something we should all be proud of.

This is certainly the case when you consider that our national teams get no external funding and only a modest amount of support from the British Softball Federation, our player pool in the UK is tiny, and even when we use overseas passport-holders in our national teams, their talent and availability is always random.

So when you look at results over the past decade, where the GB Women’s Team has been as high as second in Europe and 10th in the world, the GB Men have been third in Europe and eighth in the world, the GB U-19 Women have been fourth in Europe and ninth in the World and the GB Under-16 Girls have recently achieved a highest-ever fourth place finish in Europe, it’s a strong, almost amazing record of achievement.

A lot of this is due to the skills and above all the dedication of people who have coached and managed our national teams over the years and kept the programmes alive, entirely in a voluntary capacity and at some personal cost.  Particular mention in this respect should go to Hayley Scott, who has stepped down this summer after 11 years with the GB Women’s Team, eight of them as Head Coach, but who also supported and mentored all of our female youth national team programmes while she was still resident in the UK.


Gallant failure

So yes, a lot of hard work by players, coaches, managers and others has produced a great record of achievement.  But looked at another way, it can also be seen as a record of falling just short, of failing to cross final hurdles – essentially, in most cases, of failing to win medals.  A few examples:

At the 2015 European Under-16 Championships in Sardinia, the GB Cadettes made the playoffs, but then lost the game that would have guaranteed them a medal. 

A couple of weeks later, the GB Men’s Team couldn’t win that one more game they needed to get to the World Championship playoffs, which is always the realistic goal for GB teams at World Championships.  This also happened to the GB Men at World Championships in 2004 and 2013, and happened at the Europeans last summer, where they lost a final game to the Dutch that would have meant third place and automatic qualification for the Worlds instead of having to get there via a wild card.

At European Championships in 2013, the GB Women missed out on automatic qualification for the World Championships by just two runs conceded – but miss out they did, and at Europeans in 2015, they were one game away from a medal chance but couldn’t win the game that would have got them there.  In 2011, they did get a medal, finishing third, but couldn’t get past Italy to get to the final.  In 2009, they finished second, but couldn’t quite win the final.  At World Championships in 2006, they were one game away from making the playoffs, but couldn’t win it; in 2005, they were one game away from automatic qualification for the Worlds, but couldn’t win that game either and had to go the wild card route.  You get the idea.

The GB Under-19 Women were one win away from making the playoffs in their first Junior World Championships in Canada in 2013 and again in 2015 at Junior World Championships in Oklahoma, but that crucial win eluded them.  In 2015, it was via a 2-1 loss to China.  In 2014, at European Championships, the GB Junior Women finished fourth, their highest-ever placing, but lost the game that would have guaranteed them a medal.

I could go on….

In the normal course of events, this pattern may not particularly matter.  We achieved a lot despite our limitations, we didn’t quite make the goal, we’ll try to do better next time. 

But of course, there may be one vitally important competition on the horizon where it really will matter, because only the winner takes all -- the Olympic Qualifying Tournament that is likely to take place in the summer of 2019 if baseball/softball is restored to the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020.  By that time, if our Olympic dreams are to have any basis in reality, we need to move at least our female fastpitch team programmes to the next level, where medals replace near-misses.

Questions and answers

So why does it always seem to be so near and yet so far for GB fastpitch teams?

And what can we do about it?

I think there are two answers to the first question once you get past basic issues of talent (our programme will never be like Japan’s, but it will also never be like Serbia’s).

The first answer is that the unique nature of GB teams, where we combine UK-based and overseas-based players, means by definition that our national teams almost never get to learn, train and play together with everyone present, except in the few days leading up to a major competition -- unlike all of our opponents.  Using overseas-based players is good for our programmes in many ways, including making us more competitive in international softball.  But it does create the situation where our teams – both players and coaches -- have a sharply limited amount of time to gel together on and off the field before trying to win games as a unit.

We all know that softball is a team game consisting of individual contests, which means that sheer talent can get us quite a long way.  But there have been crucial situations for GB teams over the years where the difference between success and failure in tight situations has been a breakdown in teamwork, in communication, in the instinctive understanding and trust that players achieve when they play together over time.  Sometimes these breakdowns are subtle and sometimes they’re more obvious, and sometimes that crucial error or missed opportunity might have happened anyway.  But I believe that lack of preparation and game time together gives our teams an extra hurdle to overcome that many other national teams, whatever their level of ability, don’t have to contend with.

The second answer to the question about so near and yet so far is the lack of competitive game experience on the part of UK-based national team players -- and coaches.

Over the years, we have evolved a decent Academy system in the UK, and more recently the High Performance Academy, which has definitely increased performance levels for those attending.  We have a number of talented and dedicated coaches who work at the Academy and HPA and coach our national teams and who are constantly trying to upgrade their knowledge and skills.

But training, practice, theory and repetitions will only get you so far.  After that, it’s about playing games -- lots of games -- against a range of opposition, where both players on the field and coaches in the dugout get to make adjustments and decisions, see different pitchers and pitches and play through situations for real instead of by simulation.

The problem is that our home-grown players and coaches just don’t get that opportunity.  Our Under-16, Under-19 and Senior players based in the UK get to play maybe a dozen games a year in the Great Britain Fastpitch League against opposition which is mostly either too good or not nearly good enough.  Maybe they even get to play a few games overseas (the GB U-19 Men and Women went to two mixed tournaments in Paris during the 2014-15 off-season and played another 10 games there).  And then, during a training camp leading up to their European or World Championship competition, they might play two or three scrimmage games.

That’s it.  Meanwhile, many of the overseas-based players in GB teams have probably played between 50 and 100 games in college or travel ball against appropriate opposition.  Players on the better teams we play against in Europe – the teams we struggle to beat -- play doubleheaders every week in challenging leagues during the summer, and play in a number of local or international tournaments as well.  Some of them also play in US colleges.

In some ways, it’s a wonder that we do as well as we do.  But it’s not just about giving ourselves better chances of winning – it’s about getting to play games at all.  GB-based national team players commit a lot of time, and their families commit a lot of money – and how many meaningful games of softball do they ever get to play?  It’s no wonder that commitment sometimes flags and players find excuses not to turn up to yet another training session.  Where is their reward?

Solutions?

The other question posed above was: what can be done about all this?

The simple, basic answer is: find more money. 

More money – and I mean significant money, not a few hundred or even a few thousand pounds – will enable GB Teams to get their players and coaches together more often, conduct proper trials and training camps either here or abroad, play more games together against decent opposition, get GB-based players more games and training in Europe and, as a result, make our teams better prepared for European or World Championship competitions.  Even with this, we will never be able to match the Dutch, Italians, Czechs or Russians in terms of preparation, but at least the gulf won’t be as wide.

Right now, this kind of money is never going to come from the British government, and it may not come even if softball is restored to the Olympic programme in Tokyo because of UK Sport’s No Compromise policy.  Instead, it will have to be found through sponsorship or private donations from wealthy individuals.  Neither is easy to obtain, because it will always be about personal contacts rather than commercial propositions -- but there is no other way.

Another answer is: get more of our home-grown British players into US college programmes.  Over the past decade, three British players have taken this route, and all have become significantly better, with two of them becoming established starters in the GB Women’s Team.  The intensive training and games provided by playing in a US college programme is always going to make a huge difference to any British-based player with talent. 

But this isn’t an easy decision for young players and their families, and in some cases it may not be the best decision.  Softball careers are short and life is long, and there is no point compromising the latter for the former.  For those young players for whom softball is really important, however, going to the US is a worthwhile thing to do, and we need to improve our systems to help such players achieve that goal.

The final answer, and perhaps the most important one in the long term, is to do a much better job of developing fastpitch softball in the UK, starting with girls aged 10 or younger.  This is also very much a question of money, which would, among other things, allow us to have someone permanently on the ground in the UK whose job would be to drive fastpitch development programmes (including pitcher development), bring fastpitch into schools, create fastpitch clubs and leagues, train and upskill coaches, help to organise and expand domestic competition, lead our Academy and HPA programmes and support and mentor national team programmes.

As we speak, BSUK and the BSF, through its GB Management Committee, are looking hard at ways to achieve this, and to create and strengthen the fastpitch development programmes we currently have.  But these efforts are at an early stage and there is a very long way to go.

We should all cheer the efforts and achievement of GB Fastpitch Teams in major international competitions, and there are reasons to be amazed and encouraged by some of our results.  But to a large extent, these results are still built on sand, or on the talents of individual players.  Fastpitch softball is still a tiny, vulnerable sport in the UK, and it has hardly grown and developed over the past decade. 

Hopefully, this can change, and soon, with Olympic possibilities for 2020 providing at least some of the motivation for this to happen.

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Comments

11
Sep

Richard Brown 15:01

I come from an environment where Baseball & Softball are very demanding on the players, coach’s and the parents. The games can be/are exciting, but the fact remains that without knowledge and talent from the players a team will have a hard, long road to follow to find success. Coaching is just as important to the success of the team. The Coach has to have dedication, he/she must encourage a positive mental attitude, within themselves and with each and every player. Coaching must also include teaching/demonstrations on the fundamentals and mechanics on the field. There is also work on techniques of play that should be taught in the locker-room/classroom, environment. Baseball/Softball is a costly product of Sport, it requires allot of time for practice and preparation. And of course the financial side of the sport requires sums of money for facilities, equipment(balls, bats, & gloves etc..) on the field. and there is always the cost of getting a team to a game. I play the lottery and if I win it. I will be there to support British Baseball/Softball in a very big way.
BASEBALL/SOFTBALL is not Just a Game. BASEBALL/SOFTBALL IS A WAY of LIFE. 
LET’S PLAY BALL!!!
Rich Brown(veteran baseball player, home and abroad)

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About Bob Fromer

Bob Fromer

Bob was the founding CEO of BSUK and now works for the agency as a Communications Consultant. In a volunteer capacity, he was General Manager of the GB Fastpitch National Teams programme for many years, a former Team Manager for the GB Women and GB Under-19 Women and still serves on the GB Softball Management Committee. Bob has been involved with slowpitch and fastpitch softball in Britain since the sport’s earliest days, and travels abroad with many GB Softball Teams to report on their achievements for the BSF website.

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