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April 2014

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Life in the Fastpitch Lane

What a difference a good bat makes

Last night I was working with a 12U player named Grace on her hitting. We've been working together for a while now and she has developed a very nice, powerful swing. But it wasn't until last night that she really got to enjoy the fruits of her labors.

You see, her old composite bat has been on its last legs for the last few lessons. In fact, in the previous lesson she wasn't getting much pop on the ball at all, despite using a technically solid swing. Her dad mentioned he thought it might be cracking, and sure enough when we looked at it there was a small crack that got larger as the lesson went on. The decision was made right there for Grace to get a new bat.

And there it was last night - a brand new bat, still in the wrapper. It was an inch longer than her old bat, and I also recommended she move from a -11 to a -10, mostly because no one should use anything lighter than -10 unless they're really small or really young (in my opinion). So now in addition to having a brand new bat, she was swinging an extra couple of ounces.

The difference was immediately noticeable. On her very first swing she drove a line drive that, had we been outside instead of in a cage, would've gone into a gap in left center. She continued popping them that way - even catching me in the leg once when I didn't jump behind the protective screen right away.

There's no doubt that Grace and her dad feel like they got their money's worth in investing in this new bat. The same swing mechanics are delivering much better results.

Can a new bat deliver better results even without a good swing? Sure, sometimes. But when you combine today's technology with solid fundamentals you get the kind of hits that make it fun to go to the plate.

What about you? Do you have any new bat stories to tell? Have you ever experienced that instant upgrade in the quality of hits?

Where to go to choose your hitting models

It's often been said, here and elsewhere, that one of the most important things you can do during lessons is compare what you (or your daughter, player, etc.) is being told to do against what the best players in the world do. If it doesn't match it, it's probably not the way to go.

For hitting, one obvious place to go for comparison is Major League Baseball (ML. The best hitters there are paid millions of dollars by willing owners who compete for their services, so there's a good chance those hitters know what to do. (Whether they know what they're doing is a debate for another day.)

Still, it can be difficult for some players to relate to baseball players. And there are always some coaches who think baseball and softball are two different games that only look similar, which means they think what works in baseball won't work in softball. Not true, but it's hard to change a mindset. So with that in mind, another good place to look for models of how to swing the bat is college softball.

How do you know which softball players (or teams) to follow? A good place to start is with the statistics.

This area on the NCAA website shows the stats for the top hitters in college. As I write this it's late March 2014, so the link may have moved for 2015. But poke around a bit and you should be able to find it. You can who is leading in batting average, on-base percentage, home runs, slugging percentage and a whole bunch more. (It also shows some pitching stats.) Look at the leaders in various categories and the odds are you'll find some hitters who really know what they're doing.

There is also a team section that shows which teams are leading in various categories. Not surprisingly, Arizona is leading in batting average and slugging percentage, and #3 in home runs per game and overall scoring.

Now, we can debate all day long as to how much actual impact the coaching staff has on how their players hit. Unless you're on the inside it's tough to know for sure, although my guess is they work with them a lot. But if nothing else, a team with great hitting stats shows the coaching staff knows what to look for in hitters. So there's a good chance those are again some good models to follow. Put the two together - the best hitters on the best hitting teams - and you've likely found some great players to use as models.

The other good thing about using college players as a model is their results are probably closer to their reality of what you can achieve. Although it's good to look at MLB hitters, keep in mind there is a HUGE difference in game experience, practice time put in, athletic ability, strength, and learning abilities between a 28 year old MLB professional in the prime of his career and, say, a 12 or 14 year old girl who is still learning the game.

There is also a HUGE difference in the access to top-level facilities, video of every swing, access to coaching and, quite frankly, time and incentive to work on their swings between these two groups. A high-level MLB player has literally million$ of reasons to spend hours studying his swing and working to improve it. A young girl, even the most dedicated of them, is trying to work in hitting practice between school, homework, family obligations, other activities and all the challenges that go along with adolescence.

But a college player, while more accomplished and with more access to facilities, still has many other things happening in her life and competing for her time. And she's not that far removed from being that 12 or 14 year old player. So while the college player's swing may not be ideal just yet, it may also be more achievable.

The bottom line is don't just believe what someone calling him or herself a hitting coach tells you. As Ronald Regan liked to say, trust but verify. (Side note: Regan said it about the Soviet Union, which was ironic because it's an old Russian proverb.) Use those resources to see who the best college softball hitters are right now and compare what they're doing to what you're hearing. It could save you a lot of work heading in the wrong direction.

3 Strikes scripted softball comedy series premiering 3/26

A while back I wrote about a new online scripted comedy series called 3 Strikes that was being developed by a former player named Sarah McLean. I received a notice the other day that it is premiering March 26, 2014. You can watch the first episode here: 3 Strikes scripted Web comedy

And here's a quick, one-line description from the press release:

3 Strikes, a new comedy web series, is the story of a professional softball player whose life is turned upside down when she gets suspend after attacking an umpire. As a result she is forced to undergo anger management therapy and coach at her old high school.

They go on to say it's a little bit A League of Their Own and a little bit Bad News Bears. It also sounds like it has a bit of the first Mighty Ducks to it too.

In any case, it's great to see someone putting this much effort and love into something connected with softball. Be sure to check it out. I know I plan to! And after you do, be sure to leave a comment to let us know what you think.


Sometimes you can outsmart yourself with changes

This afternoon I had the opportunity to watch the University of Arizona v. UCLA softball game. It was the second game of their three-game series and a lot of fun to watch.

U of A was behind for most of the game. Despite all the offense they've been putting up against non-Pac 12 teams, they seemed to struggle against UCLA. They were shut out in yesterday's game, and were down 3-1 until the top of the seventh.

The Wildcats had a runner on first and no outs when one of their hitters hit a comebacker to pitcher Jessica Hall. She wheeled around to throw to second and — threw the ball away. Runners were safe at first and second. At that point, despite the fact that Hall had been pitching lights-out, Coach Inouye-Perez decided to make a pitching change, bringing in Ally Carda who had shut U of A out the day before. (Carda and Hall switched positions.) After a sac bunt to waste an out, Kellie Fox hit a three-run home run to put Arizona up 4-3. They were three outs from evening the series at 1-1.

SPOILER ALERT: If you have the game on DVR stop reading here until you've watched it.

Ok, everybody else. In the bottom of the seventh, Coach Candrea decided to replace Kenzie Fowler, who had had some troubles but pitched her way out of them, with Estella Pinon. She immediately got into trouble, giving up a solo homer to leadoff hitter Mysha Sataraka. She then walked two batters and hit one to load the bases. At that point she appeared to have heat exhaustion and was lifted in favor of Nancy Bowling. Bowling promptly surrendered a walk off grand slam homer to Gracie Gould.

Knowing when to replace a pitcher is always a tough call. There may have been factors influencing things that we TV viewers don't know. But from the outside it sure appears both coaches may have outsmarted themselves, and one wound up paying for it.

For those of us coaching on lesser stages there are a couple of lessons to be learned here. First is that even the highest-level coaches can make mistakes, or at least decisions they regret later. So when you do it - and we all do - don't beat yourself up too badly.

The second lesson, in my opinion, is when you have a pitcher on a roll, go with it. Wait until she shows she can't handle things before you decide to take her out. She may not be on top of her game, but she has a feel for what's going on. Unless you have a pitcher whose actual role is to be a closer - and softball teams rarely do — it's tough to come in cold. You may be better off sticking with what you've got rather than taking a chance with someone new. Better the devil you know!

What's your story? Have you ever taken out a pitcher based on what you thought what might happen only to have it blow up in your face? I sure have! Share your stories in the comments.

NOTE: Edited to reflect what actually happened.

Gorilla Gold now approved for high school play

Hard to think of outdoor high school games with all the snow on the ground in much of the country, but sooner or later the temperatures will get warmer and the snow will melt. Right?

When the games do start, pitchers now have another option for improving their grip. I received a notification that Gorilla Grip has now been approved for play by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). From their press release:

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has included Gorilla Gold Grip Enhancer, the world’s leading producer and marketer of resin-tackified grip towels, as an approved drying agent that can be kept in a pitcher’s pocket.

The approval aligns the organization with the majority of softball governing bodies including the NCAA, the American Softball Association (ASA), the International Softball Federation (ISF), as well as others. The NFHS has also approved Gorilla Gold for use by baseball pitchers.

In the current ruling, pitchers cannot have residue on the ball. Like rosin, Gorilla Gold does not affect the ball, only the fingers or hands to which the drying agent is first applied.

So there you go. Hopefully pitchers all over the country will get a chance to try it out soon.

Keeping softball from turning into Space Armada

Back in the mid-1980s, I owned an early video game console from Mattel called Intellivision. Extremely primitive by today's standards, I still managed to waste many an hour playing it. This was long before I started coaching softball, obviously.

My favorite game was one called Space Armada, basically a knockoff of Atari's Space Invaders. The object was to kill off all the invaders while avoiding being hit by bombs dropped by a flying saucer that went back and forth across the screen. If one of the invaders reached the bottom of the screen, the game was over.

Why tell you about an ancient video game in a softball blog? Because there were a lot of similarities between that game and what can happen to softball players when they start to panic.

You see, as hard as it may be for today's young games to understand, in Space Armada there was no way to "win." You didn't beat a level boss to move up, and you could never reach an end. In Space Aramada, every time you cleared the aliens a new group would appear. Each new screen would work faster and faster, while the pulsing "music" behind it would go from thump.....thump......thump to thump...thump...thump and ultimately thumpthumpthump. In the meantime, your heart would race and your brain would be, shall we say, over-stimulated.

That's the way it can feel in a softball game or even a practice too. We often hear players who are "in the zone" say the game slowed down while they were in there.

Well, the opposite can happen when things don't go well, such a pitcher not making the pitches (or getting the calls), or a hitter struggling through a slump. The player starts to press, and you can almost hear the background sounds going thumpthumpthump. At that point it's going to be tough to recover. Usually the biggest sign is that the player starts to work faster, such as a pitcher trying to throw the next pitch as soon as she gets the ball back.

If you feel that happening (or you're a coach and you see it happening to a player or the team) you need to try to get them to chill out, slow it back down and relax.

The best way to do it is to take some time to breathe. Not just any breath, though. Take a deep cleansing breath or two - in through your noSoftball can feel like Space Armadase, out through your mouth, slowly and taking in as much oxygen as you can. You'd be amazed at how that deep breath can help you calm down and relax.

You want to clear your brain and quit over-thinking — especially of the consequences of failure. Trust your training and focus on the task at hand.

If you're a coach, you may want to take this opportunity to call a timeout and talk to the player or team. Tell a joke, comment on what a nice day it is, remind the player or team that they're playing for the love of the game, and perhaps a little plastic trophy or medal, not world peace. Do whatever it takes to slow those aliens down and keep the game at a pace they can handle.

When I played Space Armada I knew it was just a game. But the competitor in me couldn't help but get wrapped up in the pressure to perform. It's the same for your team. Help them keep the game from getting out of control and you'll like the results a whole lot better.

New softball tournament resource

A few days ago I received an email with some information I thought I'd pass along. It's about a new website called mySoftballTournament that allows tournament directors to post information about their tournaments and coaches to search the site for tournaments that match. Fastpitch softball tournament finder

It looks pretty simple. Everything is pretty much run on dropdown menus. You pick your State or Province, fastpitch or slow pitch, gender, age group, etc. and then hit the Search button. The site then returns any tournaments they have that fit your search. (I'm presuming this site is out of Canada, by the way, because the listing asks for Province rather than State.)

It doesn't look like there is a whole lot out there yet. I searched for tournaments in my home state and received no tournament listings, but hopefully that will change.

I hope this site gets filled with tournaments quickly. Finding the right tournaments for a team is always a challenge, so having a good resource that has decent information is something that's needed. I know that eTeamz (or whatever they're called now) has this service, but it's been a bit spotty the last couple of years. Hopefully an organization with some enthusiasm can make this work and become a great resource for coaches.

If you have a tournament to post give it a try and let us all know how it goes. If you have a team and are looking for tournaments, give it a look as well. Maybe you'll find something that fits your needs.

Updated 3/9/14 to align with changes to the site.

Study shows Vizual Edge makes a difference

A while back I wrote about a computer-based visual training system called Vizual Edge Performance Trainer (VEPT) that helps fastpitch softball players (among others) improve their ability to see the ball. While it can apply to any part of the game, of course it's particularly important to hitters. After all, the better you can see and track the ball, the better chance you have of hitting it.

At the time, much of the discussion was anecdotal. I had a couple of players who used it regularly and saw improvement in their performance at the plate, but that's hardly a scientific sample.

Now there is more evidence. This study investigated the relationship between improving visual skills and the hitting performance of 352 minor league baseball players who used VEPT during the 2013 season.

The results support the fact that players with higher VEPT scores also had higher batting averages, on-base percentages, on base plus slugging percentages and lower incidences of striking out. Who wouldn't like to add 15 points to their batting average while having fun?

With the high school season coming up in many states in less than a month, and summer softball just around the corner, it's not too early to start working on your vision. Check out the study, and if you like what you see (no pun intended) head on over to Vizual Edge.

The importance of evidence-based softball training

Over the last couple of months I have become immersed in the health care field for my day job. (Yes, Virginia, I have a day job that isn't softball-related. I actually work for a PR agency that specializes in health care and health care IT.)

One of the big things in health care these days is the idea of evidence-based medicine. You can look up the details with the link, but basically it's the idea that instead of relying on the individual knowledge of physicians, those doctors should be referring to research and studies that draw conclusions from looking at large populations with similar conditions. In other words, instead of every doctor doing his/her own thing they're trying to establish some standards based on looking at what large groups with that condition have in common.

Why am I telling you this? Because the same idea should apply to teaching softball skills. There are all kinds of ideas and teachings out there. Some are good, and some are not so good. Some can help players immensely, and others will get in the way of their success.

What instructors should be doing - and parents and players should definitely be doing with what instructors are teaching - is looking at the evidence to see if it supports what's being taught. In this case, the evidence is what the best players in the world do when they're playing.

These days there is ample video evidence out there. Google a player's name, the skill and the word "video" and there's a good chance you'll see a long list of results. If you're not looking for one specific player you can Google the skill and the word video, or look at the Model Swings and Model Pitching threads at the Discuss Fastpitch Forum. While not every example there is ideal, you can certainly see a lot of commonalities there. Another good source is the RightView Pro app for the iPad - you can download all kinds of model videos of top college/professional softball players as well as Major League Baseball Players.

No matter how much you like an instructor, no matter what great "credentials" that instructor may have, it's important to compare what he/she is saying to what the best players in the world actually do. Look at the evidence - and if the evidence doesn't match the treatment - run, don't walk away from it.

Just as with medicine, the state of softball instruction is constantly changing. With high-speed video, and some very smart coaches constantly testing the conventional wisdom and learning - it continues to evolve and get better. You wouldn't want your doctor using information from 20 years ago to treat a disease when there's better information available; you shouldn't want your softball instruction coming from 20 years ago either.

If you're an instructor, get out there and look at the evidence. If you're a parent or player do the same and make sure you're learning what the evidence says is the best way to hit, field, pitch, whatever. It will be time well-spent.

Game to teach softball players how to slide

Sliding is one of those softball skills that can be a problem for some players. Many who have the issue are afraid of getting hurt so they avoid it at all costs. That can be a problem in a game, where a good slide (versus running all the way to the base) can mean the difference between safe or out.

How do you get them to overcome that fear? Part of it is teaching them good technique. If they're confident they won't hurt themselves too badly they'll be more likely to give it a try. Still, doing it in practice is one thing. Doing it in a game, well, that's something else.

This fall I was working with a team that had several players who didn't like to slide. That led me to create a game that not only gave them lots of practice but made it fun.

Of course, before we played the game we worked on basic technique. I took them into the outfield and had them take their cleats off. That was important so they wouldn't catch a cleat and turn or break an ankle.

We set up two lines, with a base about 20 feet away. We went over the technique, stressing the importance of running full speed and then driving out instead of sitting straight down. That when on for 15 minutes or so, when everyone was at least giving it a try. Then we did a few other things before coming to the game.

For that, we set four or five bases spaced somewhat randomly, i.e. not in a square. Then it was basically a game of tag. The rules were simple.

One person was "it," just as in regular tag. If you were standing on a base you were safe. But, and here's the important part, only two people could be on a base at any given time. There were more than eight players, so that meant some were always off a base. You could run to a base to be safe, but in order to occupy it you had to slide. Once the "free" player slid in, one of the players who had been on the base had to get off. She could not come back to that base, but she could go to another. If the player didn't slide, she wasn't safe on the base and could be tagged. If a player was tagged by "it" she became the new "it."

Once the element of competition was introduced, the players forgot their fear. They were so focused on not being it they were sliding freely and frequently. They were also laughing and having fun. It was great conditioning too - they were huffing and puffing after all the running.

I was told it translated into their next game - a couple of players who hadn't been willing to slide before did it - and were safe.

If you have players who don't like to slide give this game a try. I think you'll like the results.

Now it's your turn. Have you had any players who didn't like sliding? What did you do to help them?