Seton Hall Softball starts a spreadsheet revolution

A simple Tweet. Two Retweets, 34 likes. A video of Payton Beaver, a Seton Hall sophomore softball player, hitting a ball from a pitching machine. Eight seconds long, 1,597 views.

In those eight seconds, a single Tweet encapsulated the revamped and re-energized approach to improvement that Seton Hall Softball has taken during the course of the early offseason. It has everything: Analytics, Competition, and Fun – the three pillars of The Hall’s attempt to revolutionize their program into a new age of coaching.

Walking into Daniel Nicolaisen’s office seems like a normal enough work space; an open laptop, a few loose sheets of paper, and the smell of coffee from his morning Starbucks. Moving along the soft carpet in the office one cannot help but notice the big whiteboard above Nicolaisen’s desk with names and numbers written in black marker. On it are words like speed, sleep and percentage.

This board is an open window into what Nicolaisen is trying to accomplish at Seton Hall. Nicolaisen is in his first year as the assistant coach. He served as a volunteer coach for the Pirates during the 2018 season but is now back in a bigger role.

Photo via SHU Athletics

With him, Nicolaisen has brought a whole new system for evaluating and coaching hitters: Blast Motion. The Blast Motion program uses a tiny sensor placed on the end of each bat that detects a multitude of analytical measurables such as bat speed, attack angle and body rotation.

“We’re taking a more ecological approach meaning we take the environment into consideration when we’re practicing,” Nicolaisen said. “We’re making sure the environment is right and we track performance data objectively. Then we prescribe practice plans off that and what we see.”

Sitting down at Nicolaisen’s desk, one is fully-immersed in the world of data-driven coaching. There is a book on kinesiology on the far shelf. On the laptop are spreadsheets filled with data on every player with color codes and graphics to represent good or bad results. And then there is Nicolaisen staring intently at the numbers that could drive an accountant crazy. With this information, the former softball player pours through countless spreadsheets of numbers to help address and correct any problems that may arise in a player’s swing; a practice few other collegiate softball programs utilize.

Despite the dizzying numbers and endless formulas, senior Ragen Reddick, an Information Technology major, has taken a special interest in Nicolaisen’s spreadsheets.

“I’ve always had a proficiency towards math; it’s something that always came easy to me,” Reddick said. “Plus, being a business major [at Seton Hall] you have to go through like five Excel courses.”

In her own experience, Reddick has seen improvements in her swing after just a few weeks in the new system.

“I am seeing results in my personal swing and I feel like the team is as well. Whatever he’s doing it’s working,” Reddick said.

The Pirates got a chance to try out their new toys in some scrimmage games during the fall. Despite the game not counting, the team saw results. Promising results in which the team put up double digit run totals on multiple occasions.

“We’ve had big, lopsided innings where if one of us hits it’s just pretty contagious where everybody starts hitting. If we could keep that going throughout an entire game were going to be really tough to beat,” Reddick said.

After each game, Nicolaisen would take the data gathered by the Blast Motion sensors and update each individual player’s data bank. Nicolaisen will then take what he learns from these statistics, and along with the rest of the coaching staff, implement a program of specific drills structured to help each player’s trouble area.

“Just to have some instant feedback with what you’re doing is pretty fulfilling,” Reddick said as she joked, “I just don’t know how he isn’t completely overwhelmed by all the numbers he has.”

The prescribed drills, much like the numbers being crunched, are not typical or standard. There is no hitting from a tee with just a bat and ball. Rather, there is taking front toss with a band around your shoulders and weights tied to the end, while you stand with your feet askew.

Whether he is a softball doctor or a mad scientist, Nicolaisen sees himself as a student of a new and ever-expanding field of knowledge and information.

“I’m only scratching the surface of what other people are doing,” Nicolaisen said.

Nicolaisen, a life-long softball player from Denmark, knows how to coach softball because he knows what it is like as a player being coached. He often draws upon his time as a member of the Danish national team and how he enjoyed being coach in order to successfully explain difficult concepts to his team. Despite the complicated drills and data behind them, the Pirates have taken to Nicolaisen’s methods head-on.

“You can definitely tell they’re excited that they’re getting constant feedback. I told them from the beginning it’s not going to be super-visual. It’s not going to be all in your face but when we make decisions, we have something objectively behind it,” Nicolaisen said. “We have a reason why we’re doing things.”

As a result of constantly competing on the court or field many athletes find themselves competitive in all facets of life. Seton Hall Softball is no different. Take the Pirate Challenge of Death for example. The challenge was a competition between all players that took place throughout the team’s individual workout sessions. It worked like an incremental challenge in which as each player passed one level of difficulty she would move on to the next. Although the last person standing would be crowed the champion, all involved would improve in some way.

Enter head coach Paige Smith. Smith is in her seventh season at the helm of The Hall. A former collegiate softball player at North Idaho College and Campbell University, Smith employs competition in everything she and her team do.

A team captain at Campbell, Smith knows the importance of leadership on a team. As such, Smith has created a leadership program in which she talks with individual players in order to better communicate what works and what doesn’t between players and coaches. To no surprise, competition and the sense of a team were talking points.

“It’s been amazing. Just having that conversation and back and forth between finding what they like and don’t like has been really beneficial. The competition has been something they highlighted,” Smith said.

As part of the culture change at Seton Hall, the team has also implemented a new philosophy. It can be boiled down to a simple word; Whanau.

Whanau is a traditional word from the Maori people that signifies extended family or friends. In an effort to strengthen the team both on and off the field. The coaching staff created “Whanau Week” which was a fitness week mixed with team bonding. The players were divided into four teams and competed for supremacy.

“We’ve been learning that if something is hard it is good. That’s our theme. We’re not shooting free throws where you’re supposed to shoot 85 percent,” Smith said.

Even with all the recent philosophy and training changes, one thing has remained a constant in the Seton Hall Softball program: it has always been a close-knit, fun-loving team.

For evidence of that one can look to the team’s Halloween practice every year. In a time of year where softball is not necessarily the main focus of Seton Hall Athletics, people still watch the team’s Halloween practice where each player and coach dress up in a costume and plays a friendly, non-intensive game of softball. Fast forward to the next major holiday where this year the team got together at Reddick’s grandmother’s house for a special Thanksgiving dinner.

When asked about where this program is headed over the next couple months, everyone has a similar attitude leading up to the 2019 season. They are expecting an exciting season as a result of a revamped change in attitude toward softball both on and off the field.

“I think we’re at the high-end of the curve here,” Reddick said. “It’s pretty cool I’ve never really been part of a technological revolution before.”

As for a team goal?

“It’s to continue to stay engaged,” Nicolaisen said. “We talk about the process a lot. We just have to keep up with it and I think the results will take care of themselves.”

Nick Santoriello can be reached at nicholas.santoriello@student.shu.edu or on Twitter @NickSantoriello.

Author: Nicholas Santoriello

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