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Fun & Fundamentals: Finding The Right Balance

IMG_0766-e1432032516339-730x550From GameChanger and Craig Handel, a freelance reporter for Red Line Editorial, Inc.

When RJ Hazen transitioned from playing adult travel slow pitch to coaching, he quickly realized he had to adjust.

“The psychology of young female girls is different than boys,” said Hazen, who played Little League when he was younger.

As his ball-playing daughter Melanie, 11, has grown, so has her father. Hazen has gone from sitting in the stands and watching, to talking to coaches, taking over a team and now being commissioner.

This year, he’s coach of the Major Gators in Fort Myers (Fla.) American Little League after a year with the AAA Fort Myers Hurricanes.

One of the first big ah-ha moments for Hazen was when he realized that some of his players might not have ever watched a game or even practiced before.

“It’s really a step-by-step process of learning how to win,” he said. “Some girls have a great understanding, but it took me a year to understand that.”

At the same time, it’s a balancing act to make sure his players take in all of the information they need in order to be successful.

“But you have to tell them exactly what to do,” he said. “You can’t expect them to do A, B and C without teaching them A, B and C. I had to reel myself back and take a look at what I was doing.”

Over his time working with youth softball players, Hazen has developed a few ideas for keeping practices fun yet productive.

Social Time
While half of his players will go on and play high school ball, the other half see this as more of a social activity. “When they come here for the first five, 10 minutes, it’s easier to give them that time to talk before practice,” Hazen said. The coaches then promise the girls some social time during practice, too. “If you don’t give them that time, on the field, they’re not paying attention,” Hazen said.

Every year, Fort Myers American has a bat-a-thon, and each year’s event has a theme. This season, the theme was “Ladies of the ’80s” music, so all players dressed up.

Pizza Parties
A couple times each year, usually on Friday, Hazen will take his team out for pizza — and he’ll invite the opposing team to join them. “A lot of the girls played on the same team or go to school together,” he said.

Fly Ball Drill
Knowing his young players are hesitant about getting under fly balls, Hazen has started them out with Wiffle balls and batting helmets. No glove. “We throw the Wiffle ball up and they catch it with their facemask,” he said. “They center themselves and get under the ball. Once they become proficient at that, we get out the softballs and gloves.”

Relay Runs
To work on base running, Hazen will create two teams. One starts at second base, the other at home plate. “They run around and tag hands,” he said. “They cheer each other on and push each other. They get conditioning whether they know it or not.”

One of the biggest things Hazen has learned is that softball has to be fun as much as successful for the girls, or they won’t come back.

“There are two types of coaches,” he said. “One is always hard on them, pushes too much. Of the 10 or 12 on the team, only two come back the next year. The coach that works with them to have fun but reinforces the fundamentals. Out of 10 or 12, 10 or 12 might come back. Quietly from my corner, I look at that.”