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His winning decision

What Softball Teaches Me: George Wares

George Wares has led Central College (Iowa) to four national titles.

ROLE: This spring, the Central College (Iowa) softball coach became the first in
Division III to win 1,000 games.

HIS STORY: He began his career coaching a different
sport, and when he switched to softball, his choice surprised those who knew him best.

LESSONS LEARNED: Being a dad to two girls made him a better softball coach. Being a
coach made him a better dad. And both taught him how to say he’s sorry.

"When I got my first job as a head boys basketball coach, I was also teaching at the high school, and two sophomores from the softball team came into my office and asked if they could talk. They asked if I would coach them, and my first response was no. One of them – she was a pitcher – said, ‘Would you just come watch me throw?’ I arranged after school to watch her pitch, and she was very, very good. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do this.’ We ended up going to the state softball tournament three times.

Everyone who knows me knows I love both sports. But those who know me best thought I was going to try to advance in boys basketball. To the surprise of some, if not most, when I knew it was time to choose, I chose softball.

After his first national championship win in 1988, with softball players (from left) Laurie Sutton, Diane Pitz and Deanne Bergquist.

Strategically, there are just so many things you can do in softball to help your players achieve. We have the option of taking a player out and re-entering. We can pinch-run for everybody once, pinch-hit for everybody. There are so many things you can do to put constant pressure on the defense. Plus, softball allows you to have all sorts of players – tall, short. In basketball you’re somewhat restricted.

For me, you do not play sports unless you have a full intention of being the best you can be. Every year, we strive to win a national championship. That doesn’t always happen. Just striving toward that excellence is going to get them a little further than they would have gone. After we’ve identified what that goal is, we don’t talk much about it. We just go about the process of coaching. It’s easier to sell the players on the process if they understand where that process might be taking them.

Some coaches think you have to handle female athletes with kid gloves, but I have found from very early that’s not the case. You can be demanding and have high expectations, as long as they know that you care and that you’re looking out for their well-being.

I have two daughters. They’re both grown now. Watching them compete in sports, I saw my daughters come home with some real down moments and tears. I realized that was probably happening with some of my players. I think I’ve coached long enough to know I’ve made mistakes.

There was more than one time where I would be hard on a player, and then I’d call her up and make sure she was doing OK. I’d say, ‘Here’s what happened, and the reason I was upset with you is I think a lot of what you’re capable of doing.’ I think they were a little bit surprised.

After his 600th win in 2002.

Let’s say we’re having batting practice or station work, and all of the sudden you see a couple players not fully invested in a particular drill they’ve done over and over. A lot of coaches might let that be. I think it’s important that you stop it and bring everybody in so they understand how slippage can’t be a part of what we do because everything we do connects down the road.

If we were coaching and playing just to win games, that wouldn’t make any sense. The importance of sports in society is way out of whack. You can find lots of teaching moments. For example, we demand eye contact. We’ll spend a half-hour addressing the necessity of giving respect to the person who’s talking. Sometimes you have to build the house backward and develop the person.

We feel like the best classroom you’re going to have is the experience in softball. Whether we win the national championship or don’t even make it to the postseason, we think softball is going to be a very valuable experience no matter what endeavor you go into.

It’s easy to say that the 1,000th game was just another game. But once it was over, you could see the happiness in other people, including our current team. It was special, but the 1,000th game doesn’t mean as much as all the memories and the people who were part of those 1,000."