Ground balls v. line drives

For many of you this is probably old news. But I still hear it enough from my students and other players I know that it bears repeating. When it comes to hitting, the goal should not be a ground ball. It should be a line drive.

Back in the day, when the ball was white with white seams, college and HS age pitchers stood 40 feet away, fielders weren’t as athletic through the field, bats were made out of basic low-grade aluminum and hitters taking lessons were few and far between, ground balls were the goal. Well, to be honest putting it in play was the goal.

A lot of games wound up 1-0 or 2-1, so anything you could do to get the bat on the ball was acceptable. Hitting a ground ball stood you a good chance of getting on base too because many of the fielders didn’t have the range or arms that today’s players do. All you had to do was sneak it through and you were on base.

Not so today. Athletes of today, as a whole, train harder. They are bigger, stronger, faster. In nearly 20 years of coaching I’ve seen a definite upgrade in that area. So what used to get you on base back in the 1990s will probably get you thrown out today.

Then there’s the bat technology. They have big sweet spots with trampoline effects. If you time it just right, even a checked swing could end up going deep. That may be an exaggeration but not a big one. Better bats plus hitters who train as seriously in the off-season as pitchers do have had a huge impact on the game.

And that’s why your best strategy is a line drive – preferably one that finds a gap, although you can’t control that. A rising line drive that clears the fence is even better. Basically, why settle for one base when you can get two, or three – or four?

You don’t want to swing down on the ball. You don’t want to pound it into the ground. Instead, you want to get a little under it, get a little lift, and drive it hard into the outfield. That’s the way to win in today’s game.

Oh, and what about fly balls? That depends. If you can hit them 210 feet on a field with a 200 foot fence they’re perfectly fine. If you’re hitting them 180 feet, best to try to bring them down a bit unless the winning run is on third with less than two outs.

That’s my take on it. What about yours? Coaches, are you still stuck on ground balls or are you encouraging more line drives? Players, what are your coaches looking for out of you at the plate?

 

Softball instructors are like Google Maps for players

A recent series of discussions on the Discuss Fastpitch Forum has been debating the need for or value of private instructors. Perhaps the best way to explain what private instructors bring is to liken them to using Google Maps. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a private instructor myself, so naturally I am a little biased on the topic.)Google Map

Let’s say you live in Cleveland and you decide you want to drive to Omaha. How are you going to get there? One way to do it is to hop in your car, point it west, start driving and hope for the best. You’ll probably get there sooner or later, but odds are it will take you longer than if you had used one of the other choices.

Another option is to pull out a paper Atlas (like we used to in the old days) and map out your route on paper. That will be better than just randomly driving, but for best results you need to be pretty good at reading maps. Not everyone is. If you misinterpret the map, or the roads have changed since your Atlas was printed, you could end up getting lost. (Think Clark Griswold in the first Vacation movie.) If you do lose your way, you may not even realize it for a while, in which case it will probably take a bit of backtracking to get you back on the right road.

Then there is using Google Maps (or your mapping application of choice). You can plug in your starting point and destination and the entire route will be laid out for you step-by-step. If you’re using a PC you can print it out and take it with you, without all the extraneous information that is in an Atlas. If you’re using it on your smartphone, a pleasant voice will guide you turn-by-turn to your destination, with easy-to-read visuals along with it. If you happen to make a wrong turn anyway, or the roads have changed, Google Maps will recognize you’re heading in the wrong direction and immediately guide you back to where you need to be.

Those are the things a private instructor will do as well. You don’t absolutely need one to get to where you’re going, but like Google Maps an instructor will help you get there faster.

A private instructor will lay out a good foundation using techniques, drills and cues that have proven successful before – but adjust to the specific needs of the player. The instructor will offer that same sort of turn-by-turn guidance that helps players stay on the path to success rather than wandering off into dead ends. If something gets “off” due to any of a dozen reasons, the instructor will help guide the player back onto the right path.

This isn’t just for beginners, either. Even accomplished players need a little help now and then. Every professional team has position coaches and instructors who are there to help players improve their games and overcome problems. When Tiger Woods was at the top of the golf world, he still had a swing coach who worked with him to help him stay there.

In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle lists the three essential elements to achieving excellence. One is motivation, and another practice. But the third is coaching. Not that the coach has any special magic to offer. But because the coach can help make sure that players spend their time practicing the right things in the right way rather than trying to feel their way through the process.

Again, it’s not for everyone. If you’re just planning to drive around your own neighborhood you don’t need Google Maps – or at least you shouldn’t. But if your goals are to get out into the larger world, you might want to have a guide by your side.

The Way It Ought To Be

The other night when I got out to my fastpitch softball lessons I had a pleasant surprise waiting for me. My first lesson was with a high school senior pitcher, and her high school coach was there to observe.

I couldn’t have been more pleased! All too often it seems the relationship between private coaches and team coaches – either in high school or travel ball – is contentious. I’m not sure why but it’s not uncommon. Fastpitch pitching

It’s much smarter for there to be a sense of cooperation. Private coaches work with players on an individual basis far more than a team coach ever will have the time for. They teach specific skills and learn what cues trigger performance and success for those players.

If the player (or her parents) have chosen wisely, that player comes onto the team with an advanced skillset built over many hours of practice. At the same time, there will be players who have put little effort into learning their skills. That is where the team coach can make a difference. Focusing their limited time on raising the skill levels of those players will pay the best dividends. Because, of course, the chain will only be as strong as its weakest links.

In this particular case, I invited the coach into the cage with us so he could hear the instruction and ask questions if he had any. He brought his iPad in with him and shot video as we went along. I periodically asked if he had any questions, and he had the opportunity to see how I interacted with my student/his player.

It was a very pleasant half hour. I left the coach with an open invitation to come back any time. Kudos to the pitcher’s parents for setting it up, incidentally.

Of course, it’s easy for me to take this position as a private coach. But I have also experienced it from the other side. While I wasn’t able to attend an actual lesson, when I was a team coach and had pitchers who were not my students, I would contact their pitching coaches to learn what to look out for, what cues they used and what they were teaching those pitchers. It may not have been what I taught, but that’s ok. I wanted to work with what they had learned and what they were supposed to be doing rather than trying to re-make according to what I teach.

Presumably, everyone – team coach, private coach, parents and the player – want the same thing. They want the pitcher to be successful. Working together is far more likely to make that happen than constant territorial battles.

Video like an MRI for coaches

After experiencing the healthcare system myself not long ago and having my wife take a visit to the ortho yesterday, I had a realization today. When doctors are trying to diagnose a joint injury they will talk to the patient, try a few manipulations and overall eyeball the problem. More often than not, though, they will send the patient for an MRI to see what they can’t observe with the naked eye.

The coaching equivalent is video. No matter how much experience a coach has, there’s nothing like being able to slow things down and take an in-depth look at a pitch, a swing, a throw, a fielding play or some other technique. And these days it’s easier than ever.

When I first started coaching, shooting and analyzing video meant hooking a handheld video camera on a tripod up to a laptop. If you were planning to shoot video throughout the day or evening, it also mean running an extension cord to a power strip. If you wanted to change angles it could take a few minutes to get everything set up again.

Nowadays all you need is a smartphone or tablet and an app, such as Coach’s Eye, RVP or Ubersense. You can shoot the video, run it back and forth in slow motion and even draw lines, measure angles and perform other actions. And with the advances in the devices, you can shoot at high frames per second rates that make everything very clear and easily visible.

Over the last few days I’ve used my new iPhone 6 and Coach’s Eye to do some valuable analysis – and show the players what we’re looking to do. They weren’t big mechanical issues, but instead the small details that make the difference between good and great. We were also able to see all the things they’re doing right, which was a feelgood. Like the MRI, it exposes things you may not see otherwise – and share them with the player.

Being able to show rather than tell can be incredibly valuable, especially for younger players who may be more visual than audible learners. Showing them what they’re doing often helps them understand what you’re trying to describe as a coach. With modern technology, you can do it instantly – which is what every study of coaching will tell you is most effective.

Doctors love their MRIs. Coaches should love their video apps. They can really help shortcut the learning experience for your players.

Pitching, conditioning and mental toughness all in one drill

First of all, let me admit that I haven’t actually used this drill yet. But I was thinking about it the other day and thought it might be a good idea for that softball pitcher who wants to take her game to the infamous “next level.” I have a few girls in mind who I think would benefit from it.

Here are the basics. The pitcher throws a pitch as per usual. It can be any pitch – fastball, change, drop, whatever. After she throws it, rather than the catcher throwing it back the pitcher sprints to the catcher, the catcher hands her the ball, and the pitcher sprints back to the pitching rubber.

Once she is back she can follow her usual routine to throw the next pitch. You don’t want to rush that and risk poor mechanics.

Continue until the pitcher is winded – or maybe one more pitch beyond that.

This drill will do several things. Obviously, it will help the pitcher with conditioning and building up her endurance in a sport-specific way. Pitching is basically a one-step sprint. Having the pitcher sprint down and sprint back (rather than conditioning with long runs) will help encourage that quick burst and quick recovery. It will also help her build length strength to drive off quicker and more powerfully.

It will also help the pitcher gain experience with pitching when she’s tired. All too often in lessons or practice sessions the pitcher goes for a half hour and is done. It’s not too tough to maintain good mechanics in that timeframe, especially if there are water breaks or chats in-between.

But in a game, or especially at a tournament, fatigue can set in quickly. If the pitcher isn’t used to pitching through it she can struggle. Her mechanics can break down and she’ll be doing anything she can to chuck the ball at the plate. Including things that could hurt her physically. But if she learns to pitch through fatigue in a controlled environment she’ll be much better prepared for the afternoon or evening of the last day of a tournament.

Finally, it will help her mental game, showing her that she can push past her normal breaking point and learn to focus even when she’s sucking wind. Especially if, as you should, you insist that her control, speed and movement remain consistent no matter how tired she gets.

Now, this is not the sort of thing I would recommend for every practice session. But every now and then – maybe once a week if she’s practicing regularly – it can make a huge difference.

If you want to give your pitcher a good workout, especially after the holidays as many are preparing for the high school season or the summer, give this drill a try. And be sure to let me know how it goes.

Set egos aside at showcases

Softball is a competitive sport, and as competitors we like to win. But if you’re a coach taking your team to a college showcase it’s best to put your ego aside and focus on showing off your players rather than on the outcome of the game. Even if it means you lose the game.

Bunting is a good example. You may be down a run, and believe the smart thing to do late in the game is to bunt a runner from second to third with no outs to put your team in a position to tie (or win). Now, at a regular tournament, where one team will be declared the champions at the end of Sunday, I say have at it.

But at a showcase, all that bunt is doing is robbing your player of a chance to show some college coach who could use her what she can do. It’s not that they don’t bunt in college. Sure they do, and they expect their players to lay it down. But they’re not at a showcase looking for a kid who can lay down a sacrifice bunt. To paraphrase that saying popular among Dominican Republic baseball players, no one ever bunted their way onto a college roster. Unless, of course, they’re a lefty short game specialist. But even they aren’t going to get anywhere with a sac bunt.

No, even if it’s the right thing to do game-wise, it’s better to let your player swing away. She’s far more likely to generate collegiate interest with a run-scoring double than a sac bunt. Not only will it show her hitting skills, but also her mental toughness.

The same goes for pitchers. Even if your pitcher is presently dominating with her curve or rise, you want to give her the opportunity to showcase her other pitches as well. Call some pitches you might not call in a tournament game. You never know. You may find a whole other dimension to that pitcher.

Truth is no one particularly cares what your record is at a showcase. Well, at least no one who knows anything about showcases. Whether you are 5-0 or 0-5 you’re not going home with a trophy. But if you give your players a chance to show their stuff they might go home with some interest from college coaches – which is the reason you signed up for the showcase in the first place. I’m not saying playing to lose, or put your team in a position to look bad. Just remember your purpose for that weekend and make decisions accordingly. Even if they hurt.

Of course, if you do plan to go that way, be sure to explain to the parents ahead of time that your purpose is to help their daughters be seen rather than to win every game. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief and aggravation from ultra-competitive parents who believe winning is the only thing.

The importance of rest and recovery for athletes

Just read an interesting and worthwhile article by Arizona coach Mike Candrea for his Liberty Mutual Play Positive monthly column. The topic was sports injuries and how to prevent or at least minimize them.

In the column Candrea talks about some of the causes, especially in softball. He says most injuries in our sport are not the result of something occurring on the field, but of overuse. He points to his own experience where a career-ending elbow injury requiring surgery was the result of over-use in Little League.

One of the big points he brings up, and the one I want to focus on today, is the need for rest and recovery. Today in youth sports there seems to be a focus on playing as many games as we can. When we’re not playing we’re practicing, and when we’re not practicing we’re expected to be conditioning, or doing speed an agility, or doing something else to get better.

All of those are good things, but you can get too much of a good thing too. The importance of rest and recovery time cannot be overstated. This article from the American College of Sports Medicine says, “Rest is a critical component to any good workout routine and time spent allowing the body to recover is a great way to prevent injuries. A rest day must occur at least one to two times per week. Even small breaks during a workout are sometimes required to get the most out of the workout and prevent injuries.”

This article from Stack gets more into the specifics of overtraining. Among the points it makes is that muscles that are worked hard tend to have their proteins break down. If the athlete isn’t allowed to rest the protein continues to break down and put the athlete at risk of injury.

While these things apply to any athlete, they particularly apply to youth athletes whose bodies are still growing and changing. They need recovery time – rest, not just a lighter workout – to avoid injury.

As parents and coaches, it is our responsibility to ensure our athletes have the rest and recovery time they need – even if that makes us unpopular, or goes against the grain of what everyone else is doing.

If you’re an athlete you need to listen to your body. Don’t just try to “tough it out.” You’re not training to be a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger. Speak up if you can’t go. Again, it might not make you popular, and it might cost you playing time today. But better that you’re still able to play a few years from now than to allow some fanatic to ruin your career.

It’s not being lazy. It’s being smart. Listen to the experts. A few less games or practices might be just what the doctor ordered.

That “Moses” kind of feeling

Ok, so what does a Bible story have to do with softball? Bear with me – I swear it has a point.

Pretty much everyone knows the story of Moses – either directly out of the Bible or the over-the-top Cecil B. DeMille movie TV runs every Easter, starring Charlton Heston. The key part here is what happens to Moses at the end. After leading the Hebrews out of Egypt they wander the desert for 40 years. When they finally reach the Promised Land, Moses is not allowed to enter.

That’s the feeling I get sometimes when I go out to watch my students play in games. I’m wondering how many of you who teach but don’t coach a team feel the same way.

What I mean is I will hear about how great one of my students is doing. If she’s a pitcher, she dominating the hitters, giving up only a couple of runs and maybe one walk. If she’s a hitter, she’s pounding out extra base hit after extra base hit – even going yard now and then.

But when I come out to the game to watch, something happens. I don’t know if they get nervous when I’m there or it’s just bad timing, but suddenly the pitchers are getting hammered, or having trouble finding the strike zone. And the hitters are popping up, grounding out or even striking out.

Hence my Moses reference. I seem to be able to get them to the Promised Land of great play ok. I just don’t get a lot of opportunities to enjoy it with them. It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes try to hide when I go to a game so as not to throw them off.

Of course, when I am coaching a team this phenomenon makes things a bit worse. Tough to win games when your players aren’t playing the way you know they can play.

So now I throw it out to you. Am I the only one who has experienced the “Moses effect?” Or have you seen it as well?

Another option in the fight against breast cancer

As you’re no doubt aware (how could you miss it?) October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Here’s a fun way to make a contribution – especially if you like wearing pink.

The Custom Sock Shop is running a Sock It To Cancer campaign through the end of the month. They have five different options, and will donate 10% of every purchase to the fight against breast cancer.

The three-pitch challenge

One of the continuing challenges of learning the game of fastpitch softball is transferring skills from practice to a game. That’s because they’re often two different experiences.

In practice, you get multiple repetitions to execute the same skills. If you miss one, no worries – you have the opportunity to try it again. That makes for a (generally) more relaxed atmosphere.

In games it’s a different story. You fail, and you often pay the consequences for it. That adds a lot of pressure, which makes it even more difficult to execute the skill correctly.

So how do you add game-like pressure to practice? I’ve written about that before here and here and I’m sure in other areas too. You just have to be creative. Here’s another way.

I call it the three-pitch challenge, and it’s a great way to end a good session. Here are the basics: You tell the pitcher you’re going to call three pitches. If she executes all three in a row properly – i.e., right location, right break on a breaking pitch, right speed for a change, etc. – she’s done for the day. But she can’t stop until she gets three in a row. Throw two good ones and blow the third and you start back at zero.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it can get in a pitcher’s head pretty quickly.

One of the pitchers I like to do this with is a very talented girl named Katie. I like doing it because she hates it, by the way, so I know it’s accomplishing what I want it to do. I will say she has gotten better at it over time, which has also translated into her on-field pitching. She is so driven and such a perfectionist that she’d get herself all wound up if a couple of pitches didn’t go right. Now she’s learned to re-channel that energy into making the next pitch better rather than worrying about what the last pitch didn’t do.

When I do this with pitchers I often try to get them an early win. I’ll pick a pitch that I’m pretty confident they’re going to throw properly. I might even go with two high-confidence pitches for the first two. Then I’ll select one that was either a struggle or perhaps was the focus for the day.

For example, let’s say she’s been spotting her fastball for a strike, but wanted to work on her drop ball because it wasn’t working the last game. I’ll go with fastball low and out for pitch one (must be a strike to count). Then perhaps a change for the second pitch, assuming it’s been working pretty well. Then I’ll ask for the drop on the third pitch. That’s going to tell us whether the gains she made that day are going to hold up under pressure.

As a variation you can let the pitcher choose which pitches she’s going to throw. The only caveat is she can’t throw the same pitch twice in a sequence of three. That may seem like it’s easier for the pitcher, but it actually adds more pressure. Since she made the decision of what to throw, the sole responsibility is on her. You’d be surprised what that can do to confidence. Or maybe not if you’ve experienced it.

No matter who is calling the pitches, you have to watch for the point of no return – that point where the pitcher is too deep in her own head. At that point I’ll change the pitch calls to presumably make it easier to get out of this particular session without giving up totally, and be a little liberal on what I’ll accept for the pitch – such as a drop that drops a little, or a fastball that’s a borderline strike.

Three pitches doesn’t sound like much, but when there’s something at stake (like being done with a lesson) it can have a significant impact. Next time you’re looking for an exclamation point on a pitching session, give the three-pitch challenge a try.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 858 other followers

%d bloggers like this: