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Bristow Works To Be Creative in Current Softball Role

November 2009

By Lacy Lee Baker

When I recently caught up with Cindy Bristow and asked to interview her for the historical section of Fastpitch Delivery, my first question was, “Where are you now?”. She said with a laugh, “On my patio.” Although the 2001 NFCA Hall of Famer retired from active team coaching in 2000, she in no way has left the softball world.


Looking through your resume, you’ve done it all — player, coach, administrator, clinician, and now business owner. Professionally, your career has spanned more than 30 years in the game. Why are you still in it?

It’s the only thing I know how to do! Actually, it’s the only thing I really love. My passion is to teach and help people in the game, and I’m still searching for creative ways to help them.


You’ve certainly been creative with your company Softball Excellence. How did that come about?


When I was with the International Softball Federation (ISF), I did a lot of instruction. It was a time when I could help people with softball issues but I wasn’t as free to create as I really like to be. Later, when I met my business partner Robin Pokoj, she was able to develop a business concept that would allow me to continue my work, but make it immediately accessible on the internet. People were used to going to the internet to get immediate help on how to fix something; our dream was to make softball instruction an “immediate fix” with no time delay. I think it sets us apart from other companies in that we can provide that immediacy ... from drills to an hour-long e-clinic to practice plans.


And, you generate all the content? That’s a project in itself.


It is, but it’s really a lot of fun in that I have a broad palette and I’m always looking for a better way to teach something. And then there are the bunny trails, as I like to call them. I was explaining to Robin that I needed to find a way to help pitchers use their pitching hand better and I needed a smaller ball, so at first I had players throwing golf balls. Well, that didn’t work too well, so we went to cork balls, but they were too light. So I proceeded to buy every single small ball I could get my hands on but none of them were quite right. They were either too small, too heavy, too hard or something so, Robin said if you were going to design the perfect training ball, what would it be like? Before I knew it, there were 12 prototypes from manufactur- ers on my desk. That’s how the Zip Ball was born, and now so many different people are using it in so many different ways.


Eventually, you worked for the ASA as national teams director and then the ISF. What do you think about the Olympic situation?


It’s very disappointing. The more we divide and each claim a little section of the sport for our own, the worse it’s going to be. There are so many little fiefdoms now and no one being inclusive for the betterment of the sport. We need to unite on the international level, and it seems logical that the U.S. would lead the way. Because of the huge success of the college game, we’re being hurt less than other countries. The Olympics legitimized our sport to the average person and to governments in other countries that fund their Olympic sports. Television has helped legitimize our sport, and the fight to keep that legitimacy will be tougher in other parts of the world than it is here. The athletes are tremendous ambassadors for our game, and we need to keep the softball story in front of people. I believe the International Olympic Committee knows that it did softball wrong. But, unfortunately, it doesn't know how to fix it.


How did you originally get into softball?


I can’t even remember how young I was. Both my parents played fastpitch; my dad was a pitcher. I began to pitch, and my sister, Sue, would catch me, and our parents became coaches. One of my brothers was a trumpet player, so he usually played the national anthem ... some times better than others.


I played college ball at Cal Poly Pomona for Carol Spanks, and it was when women’s sports were transitioning from AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) to NCAA. Since my sister and I had played professional ball when we were still in high school so we had to petition the NCAA to allow us to compete. They gave me three years of eligibility, while my sister received four years. After that, I became an assistant coach for NFCA Hall of Famer Mary Littlewood at Arizona State.


What did you learn from her?


The most important thing I learned was loyalty. She taught me that I didn’t always have to agree with her; I just needed to support her. As an assistant, I worked at the head coach’s discretion. I think a lot of assistants don’t understand that, and it’s difficult when they’re young and closer to the player’s age. Mary was also very firm; there was no waffling. That was her style, and I think the players appreciated that. I’ll always be eternally grateful for her giving me a chance.


You’ve seen the game make tremendous strides since you first picked up a ball. What are the biggest differences?


Technology. There are more manufacturers who are making our products better. In fact, the products are so good that sometimes we take our eye off the ball. In the old days, our skill was the main thing. Today, some players think equip- ment is the main thing since they mistake bat performance for skill. They want a quick fix, rather than practice and hard work. You don’t want a $400 bat and a $5 swing. Get a $400 swing and then any kind of bat will do.


In addition, athletes are taking better care of themselves. They are eating better and are in better shape. They grow up seeing softball players on television and in their community, and have a much clearer and higher level vision of what they want to become.


I also think the level of coaching that we have today has greatly enhanced the sport. It’s a full-time profession for some, and coaches are working hard to improve their coaching ability; after all, their livelihood depends on it. As a result, our game has benefitted from more detailed skill instruction, more specific defensive sets, video analysis, better practicing concepts and more all resulting from coaches whose jobs depend on their knowledge of the game. We all benefit from that!


What about advice for coaches of today?


I think some coaches are so quick to move to the next level that they don’t take in everything they can learn in their current position. You need to earn your next step, and shouldn’t put Step 3 before Step 2. Wherever you are, you need to make it the best.


I also think coaches need to listen more to athletes in regards to skill-fixes. As coaches, we are problem-solvers, and we are there to help them get to the next level. Players will sometimes talk with their mouths, but other times they may talk with their questions, or their lack of performance or a decline in their consistency – all of these are ways players talk to coaches so we’ve got to become expert listeners to things other than normal conversation.


I’m constantly striving to develop a better way to teach something or say something, so the player can get better. When I’m doing a clinic, sometimes I wonder if I really know enough to help someone because I’m constantly learning things ... from the other instructors and from the attendees themselves. The interaction makes you examine your own philosophy and ask, “Is this the best way?”.


I was recently in Italy doing a clinic and a participating coach had a great comment: “We always have to be elastic with our own minds.” To me this was a great way to say something we often say as coaches, “be flexible.” It gave it much more meaning to me.


In a way, coaches are like chefs. They are always trying to find the right spice and quantity. A good chef knows that one dish might need a different spice than another. Same with coaching; the players are not all the same, and we have to find what works best with each one of them.


I know, I know. We’re there to win ballgames. However, it’s the players that win the ballgames for you, and practice is where you can make it all come alive. Practice is the canvas for the creative coach. The more creative the practice, the more competitive the game.


Do you really think coaching is creative?


Absolutely! But I also believe coaches have a mix of creativity and competitiveness. Some coaches are more creative than competitive and they’ll love practice more while others are far more competitive than creative so they’ll lean more toward games. The great coaches are the ones who are both. I don’t think a lot of people really understand how creative the great coaches are. We don’t coach softball; we coach softball players ... the hands, feet and minds of our players. Good coaches know that so they’re very effective communicators and get their players to hear their words with their hands and feet instead of just their ears.

That’s why coaching is such a crazy profession – you’re working like mad to get a bunch of young kids to perform successfully under pressure and all you can do is sit there and watch. That’s why our bond is so strong in softball – we all understand the challenge and we’re all in it together. All we’re trying to do at Softball Excellence is help make that challenge a little easier.