Championship Coaches Corner #2 – Coach Debbie Clark

Championship Coaches Corner

With Coach Debbie Clark – Bryant High School

I am excited to bring you the second interview conducted in the Championship Coaches Corner Series. This week I am pleased to bring you Coach Debbie Clark who has much to offer and a great background. A true 1-Pitch Warrior! I think there is much to learn from the baseball/softball crossover. I think that baseball and softball coaches alike need to unite and learn more from one another. I hope you take a few things away from this interview. I know I did.

Coach Justin Dehmer: What is your softball background? Resume? Talk about your program.

 Coach Debbie Clark: My softball background consists of college classes, coaching clinics and meetings, watching films and videos, observing college coaches in practice and games.  Arkansas high schools competed in slow pitch did not participate in fast pitch until 2000, therefore fast pitch is relatively a young sport as compared to other states.

I began working with the fast pitch program in Wynne in 2001 and became the head coach in 2003.  My background was volleyball.  I played college volleyball and then went back to my hometown to reinstitute the volleyball program.  After I graduated high school, the program at my high school was eliminated.  I have two daughters and their Title IX rights were being violated because there were not enough choices for female athletes.  I was able to convince the administration to agree and volleyball and softball were added. 

The program at Wynne grew and so did our team’s ability.  In fact, we had two players sign and play with the University of Arkansas.  In 2009, we won the Class 5A State Championship title.  We were the underdog and beat a conference rival who were the defending 5A Champions with a Michigan State signee pitching.  The was the first state softball championship for Wynne and the first girls’ sport championship in ten years.

After a heart attack (another story) and a divorce, I decided to start my life over.  Bryant High School took 2nd in their 2009 class 7A state championship game.  Their coach and they wanted a ring or two or three and they hired me.  I moved from northeast Arkansas (the Delta) and a town of about 8,000, graduating classes of 175 to central Arkansas, population of 16,000, but on I40 and 20 minutes from Little Rock, graduating classes of 600 and the third largest high school in Arkansas.  I was scared and overwhelmed.

This has been a great move.  We won state championships 2010, 2011 and 2012 (undefeated 34-0 in 2012).  This last season we went 13-13 and did not make post season playoffs (my first year in 25 years of coaching not to take a team to playoffs).  This has been a challenging season.  We lost five starters to graduation and another to a season ending injury.  We had three returning starters and six with very limited varsity experience.

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Coach Dehmer: What are some of the biggest factors in your success?

Coach Debbie Clark: I am passionate.  I understand how to coach the female athlete.  I am a strong motivator.  I am driven.  I don’t require much sleep.(haha)  I have completed two half-marathons and am training for a third.  This training and competition helps keep me close to how my female athletes feel.  I don’t mind asking for help and asking questions and I study all the time.  I can admit that I’m wrong (except to my husband….lol)

My husband of three years is a college baseball umpire.  He has taught me so much about the “officiating” aspect of softball.  I am a better coach because of him.

 Coach Dehmer: I always have felt the best coaches are the ones that never stop learning and are knowledge hounds. Always looking for something to keep the competitive advantage on their side by improving themselves and their players through clinics, books, colleagues, DVDs, etc.

Coach Dehmer: What role has the mental game played in your success? How have you implemented the mental game in your program?

Coach Debbie Clark: I could write you a book on the mental part of the game.  I do have a power point I can forward to you from the scientific angle that was prepared by our Anatomy and Physiology teacher.  She works with my players every season.  Yogi Berra said “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”  Colleges and professional teams employ hitting coaches, pitching coaches and head coaches.  How many times have we said “we beat ourselves” and “it’s all in your head.”  Did you know our brain cannot see and hit the ball in real time, it’s impossible.  Our brain has to see the ball “in the future” for us to be able to hit it.  If I “visualize” my swing, my brain can’t tell the difference between this and when I actually swing. Our brain produces myelin both times.  Muscle memory happens because the neurons in our brain fire.  It can take

 3000 to 5000 correct reps to fix a bad habit, however, only 300 to 500 reps if we learn it correctly the first time.  Myelin wraps every time whether the skill is correct or incorrect.  The myelin doesn’t know the difference and can’t unwrap.

I give my players permission to be nervous, I get nervous.  I believe that’s part of competition.  I also teach them skills on how to relax and I teach them how to be “Big Dogs” not just “Posers”.  I am letting them down if I only teach them bunt coverage defense with a runner of first, but don’t work with them on how to still their mind in the on deck circle.

We play every game twice.  The first time we visualize what will happen and then when they step between those white lines, they are more relaxed and confident and they expect positive things to happen.  I use my line up card and they close their eyes and I talk to each player about their defense and offense during the game.  I take 10 to 15 minutes to do this and we do it in our locker room and on the bus.  They won’t let me forget to do this, in fact, they would take 15 less cuts and throw 15 less pitches, to make sure we “visualize” the game.  Remember, the brain doesn’t know if they are seeing it or actually doing it.  Games are won and lost on the 6 inches between our ears.

Coach Dehmer: How have you created a program of excellence? What advice can you give to others about making those strides from good to great?

Coach Debbie Clark: I have extremely high expectations. I hate losing worse than I love winning.  Coaches and players can throw in the towel, or they can use it to wipe off their sweat and keep pushing.  It’s their choice.  I strive to instill discipline, focus and a strong work ethic into my players.  They must believe that work is good itself. 

My advice to others is understand that excellence does not happen overnight.  If they are young coaches they cannot feel like they are entitled to one, two or three championships yesterday and likewise veteran coaches cannot coach with a “chip” on their shoulder.  I am very humbled by the fact that friends of mine, who are great coaches, have not won a championship and yet I have four rings.  It takes thoroughbreds to win the Kentucky Derby.  Excellence does not come easy and can require 10 years of dedication and 10,000 hours of effort.

Coach Dehmer: Great advice. What are the things you love most about coaching? What keeps you motivated?

Coach Debbie Clark: I love it when a Freshman Varsity Left-handed Center fielder hits a shot to the left side between first and second, then looks at my assistant and says “I visualized that today before the game, Coach Clark said that I was going to hit it there and I did!”  Later in the game, she hit her first varsity high school home run.  I love it when my starting pitcher sits beside me on a bucket during the JV game and we share seeds and talk.  I love it when my players drive by my house and honk!! I love it when my catcher from last year, who stills holds the state record for home runs calls me and says that she needs some of her hitting videos from last year because she is in a slump at her D1 college and wants to get better.  I love it when little girls sit behind our backstop and dream of wearing that blue and white uniform one-day.  I love it when my seniors ask their favorite teachers to come to senior night and throw out the first pitches.  I love it when my players volunteer as a team at Miracle League on a Saturday and engage all of the children with disabilities and get an autistic little boy to actually get on the field and play.  This was his first time ever and the family almost didn’t bring him that morning because they had been so disappointed so many times.  I get chills just typing this because we will never forget his face or his parents or his grandmother.  I love……so much….about my profession.  I love coaching because it’s all about building relationships and having random encounters wherever we go.

I have a lot of energy and tend to overdo sometimes. I try to make sure I take care of myself as a person, wife, mother and daughter. I strive to eat right, exercise, invest quality time with family and friends, and sleep. If I take care of myself, then I am a better coach. 

Coach Dehmer: What is your favorite practice technique, drill, or game that you use at your practice that others can use right now within their program? 

Coach Debbie Clark: Throwing is a skill we work on everyday.  I don’t believe in telling the girls to “warm-up” their arm.  I use a stopwatch to make sure we are getting enough time in and we always use tennis balls in our throwing drills.  Softball is a game of throwing and catching, you must be able to do those to be able to be on the field.  I do an IF/OF Drill  two to three times a week.  It’s 20 minutes of ground balls, fly balls and throwing.  I also like drills that require the players to hit and run the drills.  If I hit all of the balls, my players don’t get that extra practice and I’m never going to hit in a game.  These drills are five in a row, 5-4-3-2-1, five minute bucket fielding drill and Champ or Chump.  Players love the up the middle hitting drill and back of the cage hitting drill.  We try to end every day with the Short game:  live pitchers, infield defense, hitters get two pitches to bunt.  We run defense with runner on first and the then the batter/runner.  I try to have two to three pitchers throw each day.  

Coach Dehmer: Coach thank you for you great responses. I do appreciate your time and honest answers. I know coaches young and old will have learned something from you. Best of luck in the future, keep winning pitches, and being a 1-Pitch Warrior.

If you are wanting more information from Coach Clark she has willing said that she would make the effort to answer emails with questions you may have. She is a wealth of knowledge and as you can tell is extremely passionate about the game. You can email her at dclark@bryantschools.org

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