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Experts’ Roundtable: Softball Head Coaches

By Christina Sutcliffe, Northern Illinois; Beth Torina, LSU; Nicole Dickson, Stephen F. Austin

With the Softball season set to get underway this weekend, AthleticDirectorU chats with a trio of Head Coaches on a variety of topics, including communicating and motivating student-athletes, professional development, the Transfer Portal, the impact of technology & more.


Every year, you have a new team with a different mix of personalities, challenges and possibilities. What processes do you and your staff use prior to the season to determine how to best communicate with and motivate each team as a unique unit?


Christina Sutcliffe – Head Coach – Northern Illinois


We work with HUMANeX, which develops a profile on each of our student-athletes: their values, their work style, their relationships, what motivates and drives them, how they influence others, and their learning style. As each student-athlete enters the door, we already have an idea of what makes them tick and then we can formulate a strategy for our team-building and working with our leadership group on how to utilize each other’s strengths. In the spring, our early classroom sessions allow them to set the tone by establishing the mission and vision for the season. We also ensure that at least one of our competition days in the fall is away from home, so that the team can bond during the travel and get used to what being on the road with each other is like.


Beth Torina – Head Coach – LSU 


There are some teams that are more vocal and need training in how to listen, while there are others that are quiet and need help finding their voice. It’s a big process here. We have a theme every year and it takes us awhile to develop each one. We meet as a staff over the summer and go over what we think this next year’s team will need. It has a lot of moving parts, including a logo and a video that goes along with it. For example, this year’s theme is ‘Take the Lead,’ and it’s all about competition during racing, be it go-karts or having each team member run a leg of a four-minute mile, and trying to be first in everything we do.


Nicole Dickson – Head Coach – Stephen F. Austin


We try do a good job in the initial recruiting process to get an idea of what kind of player we’re bringing in, how they’re motivated and how to communicate with them. Sometimes situations happen organically to test a team’s mettle, as when our field sustained damage recently. We have only had one practice on an actual softball field in the past four weeks, which has given us a chance to see how the kids react to a little adversity. In addition, we have incorporated Mental Toughness Team Tuesday team-building exercises that put the student-athletes in stressful situations outside of their comfort zone that help us see how they react as individuals and as a group. This includes reaching across campus to our fantastic ROTC program to collaborate on workouts that put some mental and physical strain on our kids, and give us a chance in the fall to see who they are when things get hard.


So much focus is put on recruiting and player development, as direct impacts on student-athletes achieving their goals, and it’s your staff that has primary responsibility for that. But coaches have goals too. What do you do to further the development of your assistants and prepare them to achieve their professional goals?


Dickson (Stephen F. Austin): This is a personal goal for me this year. I want to do a better job of preparing my assistants to be head coaches. For the first time this fall, I asked each staff member for four or five things that they really want to improve on, so that we could lay out a plan and set benchmarks for getting them there over the course of the season. When I was an assistant coach, I became prepared to be a head coach because I was allowed to put my imprint on all aspects of running a program. So, even though we have a young staff this year, I know that I need to give them room to fail, along with the confidence to be who they are and to do their job within the scope of our culture. This includes allowing them to design their own drills and practice plans, and giving them a voice to explain their vision and why they want to do things a certain way.


Sutcliffe (Northern Illinois): We only bring in people who we believe fit with our vision and philosophies. If you’ve hired correctly, you need to trust them and use them. I need to rely on my assistants to handle whatever arises in this program. They are heavily involved in budgeting and recruiting. They are asked to not just sit in on player meetings, but lead them, and also join me for meetings with administration. At MAC meetings, I want them in that room. The NFCA provides an important venue for them to learn and network, while we also have opportunities on campus that present themselves through our faculty and staff. It’s important that our assistants understand all aspects of what it takes to do this.


Torina (LSU): I’ve been pretty fortunate to have the same full-time staff the entire time that I’ve been here. My assistants are really good about challenging themselves. They reinvented our offense prior to last season, learning and incorporating some new technology, putting ego aside and finding new ways to do things that benefitted the program. Howard is a member of the national team staff and, even though it has meant some sacrifices on the recruiting front from Lindsay and me, we recognize the growth opportunity for him and benefit to our program from his involvement.


If you could go back to your first year as a head coach, what advice would you give yourself?


Sutcliffe (Northern Illinois): First, you can’t do it all yourself and it’s not a weakness to ask for help. Second, make more time for what’s important to the players. Give the student-athletes input. The more that the goal-setting comes from them, as opposed to being dictated by the coach, the more effort and attention to detail they put into it. Third, you aren’t going to get all your players to love the game the way you do. They won’t all be motivated by competition, particularly as their careers come to a close and they begin to focus on a post-softball, post-college life. And that’s okay. The key is to figure out how to motivate them to compete when passion for the game is not necessarily the driving force.


Torina (LSU): Don’t put your standards aside for any particular player, no matter how talented they are. No player is bigger than your program; the values and culture that you want to create need to come first. And you have to uphold it yourself by operating with integrity in everything you do. Finding players and people who can buy in and commit to that is crucial. Stay true to what you believe in, regardless of the situation.


Dickson (Stephen F. Austin): Be true to yourself. These kids are smart and they will see right through you. The best way to lead a program is to be genuine, be who you are as a person and have that reflect in your actions. Being open and transparent and honest is the best way to get your kids to be open and transparent and honest.


Regardless of how you feel about the Transfer Portal, what’s one thing you would change about how it operates or has been implemented?


Torina (LSU): The immediate eligibility of the mid-year transfer has some potential issues. If a program loses a key player at mid-year, it’s impossible to fill that gap, rebound or respond. I don’t think that’s the road we want to go down for our game.


Dickson (Stephen F. Austin): The information is streamlined and everyone has access to it, and it’s a positive that student-athletes have the ability to utilize the portal. If a student-athlete wants to transfer at the end of the year, they should absolutely have the ability to find a place they can thrive and grow, be happy and successful, and get their degree. That being said, I do think we need to revisit mid-year eligibility.


Sutcliffe (Northern Illinois): I don’t know if the portal is good or bad; there are pluses and minuses on all sides. From a functionality standpoint, coaches would benefit from being able to sort student-athletes by position and by having them immediately removed from the portal upon making their decision. A lot of time can be wasted trying to figure out what position someone plays and then making numerous calls only to find out that individuals have already given a commitment elsewhere. These back end fixes would help with efficiency of the entire process.


With technology and data collection permeating college athletics, how do you incorporate them into your program and what do you see as the current impact and future of tech in softball?


Torina (LSU): We’re really using anything we can get our hands on. If you’re not growing, you’re not doing your players justice. We should be ever-changing, ever-evolving in how we get information to them. We have FlightScope, we have Blast Motion, we’re using Diamond Kinetics in the bullpen. We’ll broadcast metrics on a TV screen in the cage, in order to provide instant feedback for our hitters. We’re also using the data to engage fans during the game, letting them know how far home runs travel and what the exit velocity is off the bat.


Dickson (Stephen F. Austin): The biggest impact that using a tool like Rapsodo has on our program is giving us an additional way to communicate information to our kids, so that they can make adjustments. These kids all know how to compete and how to play the game, but they also have access to all sorts of information on their own. What they need from us as coaches is a way to interpret and translate the information that they have in front of them. I can give all the verbal cues I want about what my eyes see, but, for some kids, they will process that information better seeing it on a screen in the form of pictures, video or data.


Sutcliffe (Northern Illinois): There’s obvious value, but I’m a little nervous in how much it gets used. So much is out there in terms of pitch and swing analysis, programs that teach hitters how to identify pitches earlier, and metrics on things like overhand speed, swing plane, velocity of swing, revolution of the pitch; it’s kind of endless. Sometimes it can be too much and you can get caught up in it, and you need to take a step back to assess: what’s in front of you, how is the player feeling, how are you going to make that successful for them. If you have a player who learns more by feel, all the film and data in the world isn’t going to reach them. Sport-wide, one of the biggest impacts will come when we institute instant replay for post-season competition, which I believe we are moving towards, so that bang-bang plays aren’t determining who moves on to represent their university.


What sort of impact do you expect the Summer Olympics to have on the college game and amateur softball as a whole?


Dickson (Stephen F. Austin): I have loved the Olympics all the way back to the Lisa Fernandez days, so I’m living proof of how the movement can be used to connect with the youth sports scene. This is a sport that people can really connect with — it’s fast-paced, it’s fun, it’s got great energy — so to have it on TV and give people access to it is really important.


Sutcliffe (Northern Illinois): We’re constantly fighting to stay in the Olympic conversation, so an Olympic year creates some momentum around the sport and brings our community together to give us a stronger voice.


Torina (LSU): Any opportunity we can provide for women in this game, we need to take it. It’s so cool that we are giving young women hope of playing at the next level. They are so talented and deserve every opportunity that we can find for them. Having the opportunity to see it on the international stage and giving them a dream are vitally important when we’re developing young women.