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.

Congratulations to Jan Pauly, new VHHS varsity softball coach

Today’s post will be fairly meaningless to many of you, but I wanted to share some good news with the rest. My friend and fellow IOMT Castaways coach told us this week that she has been named the new varsity head coach at Vernon Hills High School.

I’ve known Jan for several years, starting from when I coached her daughter Erin, and I can tell you Vernon Hills has found themselves a winner in several ways. First, Jan is very knowledgeable about the game. She played through high school and college, and coached travel ball for several years. the good thing about her is that she doesn’t just rely on the way things used to be, but also keeps up with the current thinking on the game.

More importantly, though, she genuinely cares about the players in her charge. Not just as softball players but as people. She’s a huge believer in team over individual glory, although if an individual has a problem or concern, softball or otherwise, they can bring it to her.

Of course, no discussion of Coach Jan would be complete without talking about how intense she is during games. She can look like she’s pretty angry at times, especially if things aren’t going right. But she’s not angry, actually. She’s just focused. Once players understand that I’m sure they’ll enjoy playing for her – and learning from her.

I’m personally looking forward to seeing what she does with team. So congratulations, Jan! I know you’ll be great.

First base coaches have responsibilities

Earlier today I was out watching a fastpitch softball game where I had some students playing. I go to games to see them in action, provide support and see if there are things we need to work on that don’t show up in lessons.

Along the way, of course, I also get to see a game. For the most part the outcome of the game overall doesn’t matter to me – I don’t have a horse in the race per se, although I like to see a well-played game. But every now and then I see something that brings out the game coach in me.

Today it happened when I went over to the bleachers behind the first base dugout to kick back a bit. The team I’d come to watch was hitting. And that’s when I saw it.

The first base coach went out to her position, then proceeded to spend the entire half inning exchanging hair tips with the girls in the dugout. She stood close to the dugout and kept chatting away even when there were runners on base! Every now and then she’d yell “Back!” if she happened to notice that a ball had been hit foul or a runner had wandered a bit far. But for the most part the runners were on their own. She wasn’t watching the third base coach for signs or even offering any encouragement to the hitter.

So even though, again, I really had no horse in the race, I started to get irritated watching her. The picture that came to my mind was Herb Brooks in the movie Miracle, standing behind the USA bench while his team was playing Sweden in an early match, listening to them talking about the girls in the stands. “You don’t want to during the game, fine. We’ll work now.”

I know that traditionally most of the responsibility is placed on the third base coach, but the first base coach does have a function. It’s not the place where you should be exchanging hair care tips, or checking your fantasy football picks on your cell phone, or texting your bookie or otherwise being and causing distractions. You should be focused on the game and helping the runners any way you can.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some great first base coaches. They made sure the runner on first knew the situation, what to do in different circumstances, what to look for about the pitcher, letting them know if the team was susceptible to a delayed steal, things like that. They also made sure the runners were watching me for signs at third, and kept a watchful eye on each pitch to help the runner make a decision about whether to attempt advancing on a ball in the dirt or one that looked like it might get away. In short, they were in the game and worth their weight in gold.

The other thing they did was set an example of how the players should approach the game. How intensely they should be watching for anything that might give an advantage. As opposed to this coach, who essentially told her entire team that it wasn’t important to be in the game or in the moment – that it was ok to sit and chit chat about nothing.

It may seem like coaching first base is simple but it’s not. Like anything else it’s something you need to work at. If you don’t want to pay attention, or you want to chit chat during the game, the first base coach’s box is not the place to be. (Actually, if you want to prattle about nothing, the dugout is probably not the place for you either because you’re a distraction to the players, who should be paying attention to the game and trying to learn something about the opposing pitcher and defense.)

Hopefully one of the other coaches in the dugout says something to the head coach and a correction is made. Because you know if something bad happens it will come at the worst possible time – it always does.

If you’re in the first base coach’s box, be sure you take the responsibility seriously. You can contribute a lot – if you’re paying attention.

The best way to help softball players feel good

University of Arizona head coach Mike Candrea is famous for saying that the difference between boys and girls is that boys have to play good to feel good, and girls have to feel good to play good. There is a lot of truth in that as anyone who has ever coached both can attest.

But how do you get girls to feel good so they can play good? To some people it seems to mean always saying something positive, even when it’s not earned. I disagree.

Girls are smart, and they tend to be more self-aware than boys, especially in the teen years. If they mess up and you say “good job” they know you’re lying, or saying it to try to make them feel good. It doesn’t take long before even sincere compliments are treated with skepticism.

If you really want to help a girl play good (and yes, I know the correct word in English is “well” but let’s stay with the theme), the way to make her feel good is to help her learn to play better. If they are hitting well, they will continue to hit well. If they believe they can hit well, because they’ve seen themselves do it, they will hit well (eventually). The same goes for pitching, fielding and running the bases.

Understand, though, that most people don’t get better by getting yelled at. That is something many coaches seem to forget. If they were spoken to at their jobs the way they speak to their players in practice or at a game, they’d quit. So why expect any other result if you’re constantly yelling at and berating your players?

If you want to help them get better so they can perform better, teach them. Or find someone else who can. Be patient. Explain not just what to do but why. Help them see the big picture, which is not something that usually comes naturally to young people male or female. Give them context and a reason why doing something a certain way will help and they’ll be much more likely to do what you want them to do.

One of the things I dislike most during a game is when a player screws up – say drops an easy pop-up – and coaches or parents say “nice try.” That’s not a nice try, it’s an error. A nice try is when you dive after a ball that ends up just out of reach. If you set the standard that a nice try is muffing an easy play, how is that player ever going to improve her game?

When you give sincere feedback, even if it’s corrective, the player knows you have her best interests at heart. The message you’re sending is “I know you can do (whatever), here’s how to make it happen.” That goes a lot further than saying “nice job” when the player knows it wasn’t.

Of course, there are a lot more things that go into a player feeling good than just what happens on the field. But you can’t control most of those. You can work with her, however, to develop her skills so at least that’s one less thing she has to worry about. Do that and you’re sure to end up with a player who’s more game-ready every game.

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