Big Read: Mark Sorenson on the future of the New Zealand Men’s Softball Team

Big Read: Mark Sorenson on the future of the New Zealand Men’s Softball Team
The 52-year old New Zealand head coach was the main guest at “The Kick-Off Sports Breakfast Show” (Beach FM), where he talked about the 2019 WBSC Men’s Softball World Championship, the Black Sox program and the lack of recognition for men’s softball in his country, in spite of the success they’ve had in the past.

A four-time world champion as a player, Mark Sorenson is considered by many as one of the best softball players in history. Sorenson won his first world title with New Zealand at the age of 16 in 1984, and then captained the National Team to the first and only Men’s Softball World Championship three-peat, winning it all in 1996, 2000 and 2004. In 1985, he also helped New Zealand win the Junior Men’s Softball World Championship in Fargo, Dakota, USA.

After retirement, he turned to coaching. After managing the Junior National Team at the 2005 World Championship, in 2013 Sorenson succeeded Eddie Kolhase as the head coach of the New Zealand Black Sox and has steered the National Team at the last three world tournaments, winning a gold medal in 2017 and a silver medal in 2015. Last year, New Zealand finished in a disappointing fourth place in the Czech Republic, ending the Black Sox's run of 10 consecutive appearances in the finals.

"We took nothing away from last year's World Cup, because we didn't get a medal for the first time in 35 years,” said Sorenson, who was inducted into the WBSC Softball Hall of Fame in 2009. “It was our worst result, and it highlighted that we needed to start again, we needed to start again as a group and also from a men’s sport perspective. We have some fantastic athletes, but we started reading some of our own press, and thought we were better than we were. And in the end, I think we got the result we deserved."

After years of domination in men’s international softball, a new wave of countries have matched New Zealand’s greatness. How did that happen?

"It's a combination of everybody improving a little bit, and us going backwards a little bit. Argentina won the World Cup last year, and we were beating them 4-1, so we could have actually won the game. We were winning the semi-final against Japan… of the four games we lost, we were [leading in] all of them. We were a few outs away from being in the final again for the 11th consecutive time. While we crashed and burned, we actually weren't that far away. We just haven't adapted enough and thought it was going to be easy.

"Argentina got on a roll, Japan had our number last year, that came back to a little bit of arrogance on our part. Arrogance in the fact that: 'Ok, who has the got the better of us? Koyama pitching for Japan, what do I need to do to make myself better?' And we operated by the definition of insanity, that was doing the same things expecting different results. As coaches we couldn't drive change, unfortunately the arrogance we had, our attitude and our mindset was 'I'm still good enough'."

The Lower Hutt native will again be New Zealand's head coach at the 2022 Men's Softball World Cup, which will be on home soil in Auckland, New Zealand. He and his staff have started working early to put their team back on top.

“That's not something you can change overnight, it's an attitudinal thing. But it's something we identified after Prague last year and we're working on it right now, and have done since day one back in the job. We must drive the need to change. We've been at the top of the tree for a long time and eventually that's always going to happen that we fell."

The Men's Softball World Cup was slated to be played in 2021, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The WBSC hall of famer thinks the postponement can be positive for his team.

“After Prague, last year, by the time we went into the review process, recruitment process, and you get appointed in October. So you have only 16 months to prepare a team for the World Cup, which is really a short time. So I think the extra year is great from our point of view, because it will help to drive behaviour change. It might be a year too long for some guys, because they're going to be a bit older, but I think it will play into the hands of the young guys that are knocking on the door at the moment, but next year might have been too close for them. So it would have been a three-year wait for them for the next World Cup, and now is only two or less than two. So guys that are now 20 or 21, knocking on the door, now they're going to be 22 or 23, which means they are coming into their prime. So I'm taking it as a positive.”

The New Zealand Black Sox have been on top of the softball world for more than three decades. However, Sorenson grumbled about men’s softball in New Zealand and the Black Sox lack of recognition.

“In terms of high performance sport, even though our results stack up against anyone, we constantly struggle for recognition and credibility. There's a big misconception in the media that softball is only played in a few countries...and that's why we keep winning. For me it's disappointing because these people that are commenting about the World Cup and the lack of quality... they've never been there. They've never been to the event, they have never witnessed it, never reported on that.

“One thing that really buggers me is the lack of space in the media surrounding the world-class athletes that we actually have in our game. It's not that we have them now, we've had them for 30 years. Unfortunately only some of them appear in the media. I don't know why, we've got plenty of other guys who deserve recognition and profile on the back of the success they've had both domestically and internationally. But because of the sport we are, they don't get the opportunity. I'm really passionate and proud of them, and I don't know why we have to continue to justify our existence when all we've being doing is winning.”

What Softball New Zealand can do to reverse this situation?

"We need to develop and grow personalities and profiles within the game. We need the young kids to look out to Cole Evans, Thomas Enoka, Ben Enoka, and think: ‘They are cool guys, I want to be like them’. The big challenge in our sport is pitching, we need two or three Daniel Chapmans making pitching cool again, and then the next generation coming through wants to emulate what he's doing and there will be a wave of pitchers coming through. Just like Kevin Herlihy made pitching cool back in the 60s and 70s, then we had a generation of pitchers coming through because they wanted to be like Kevin Herlihy.

“The change for our game happened in the 90s; Jarrad Martin, Thomas Makea, Donnie Hale, they were coming through in the early-mid 90s and they were pitchers. But then, they decided that they wanted to hit and they made hitting cool. So the young kids coming through wanted to hit like these guys. The challenge for us is to make pitching cool again. We need to create some identities and personalities so the people get to know that these guys are actually really good. Chapman throwing at 135 km/h from 46 feet is phenomenal. But people don't realize how quick the ball comes in. So the challenge for us is to educate. It's a good time and opportunity to reset and do things now because that's what we have been doing: taking opportunities to have a look at the way we are operating as a sport."