Best wishes to Bobby Simpson on a speedy recovery

Just wanted to take a moment to wish a speedy recovery to Bobby Simpson following successful open heart bypass surgery. Word has it that he came through the surgery well, and hopefully will be back on the field at Higher Ground helping players learn to play fastpitch softball the right way soon.

I met Bobby many years ago when he was a speaker at the National Sports Clinics. I had a chance to speak with him later and found him to be a very nice as well as knowledgeable man. We’ve kept in touch through the years through our mutual connection to Softball Magazine. I also get his weekly newsletter and find it to be both enjoyable and informative.

Bobby, if you’re reading this, follow the doctor’s instructions – he/she is the coach now. Best wishes for a fast and full recovery.

You have to take opportunities when they come

Last night I was watching Texas and Arkansas on the SEC network. It was a good game, with great plays and the lead changing a few times. I got to see an Arkansas home run record set and two teams playing all out.

Also saw a pitcher get her first-ever start for Arkansas. I didn’t catch the back story, but apparently she’s is normally an outfielder. But due to some sort of circumstances she was pressed into action. I think she’d been a high school or travel ball pitcher, but at Arkansas she’s an outfielder. Good for her for stepping up when the team needed her.

The thing that struck me, though, was what happened in the bottom of the 7th. Arkansas, the home team, was down a run. The leadoff batter went to first after being hit by pitch, and the next hitter – a power slapper – drove a ball just out of reach of the center fielder. The runner on first scored and the batter ended up on third.

So Arkansas was in a tie game with a runner on third an no outs. Oh, and all-important momentum on their side too. I thought for sure they were going to pull off a victory. All they needed was a ground ball with eyes, or a sac fly. Statistically, the run expectancy in this situation is at least one run for the inning.

Of course, that’s why they still have to play the game. The next hitter popped up. The one after that grounded out weakly to the pitcher, who held the runner at third. The next batter struck out, stranding the runner on third. Texas scored in the top of the eighth and held on to win the game.

Which brings me to my point. In this sport, especially when you’re the underdog, you have to find a way to capitalize on your opportunities. I’m sure the three hitters on Arkansas didn’t purposely try to make outs, but make outs they did. By not scoring that one more run they made it more difficult on themselves.

Maybe they were nervous, or trying too hard. Maybe they were thinking too much about outcomes (or the result of messing up) and took themselves out of it. Or maybe the Texas pitcher, faced with a tough situation, rose to the occasion. All I know is Arkansas had a great chance to pull off an upset but couldn’t quite get it done.

If you’re in that situation, it’s important to focus on the task at hand. If you’re the hitter, do your best to relax and just try to hit the ball hard – same as you always do. Because you may not get that chance again next inning, which means you have to take your opportunities when they come.

Very proud of one of my students

A rare double post from me today, but this is worth calling out. Tonight I had a lesson with one of my hitting students, a high school junior named Emma. We had a great session – she ought to have an amazing season crushing the ball – and after I got home I texted her mom to let her know how well Emma was doing. That’s when I heard a story that trumped softball.

After her lesson, Emma stopped at Starbuck’s before heading home. While she was there an elderly woman pulled in and parked in the middle of the parking lot. She seemed confused, so Emma stopped to talk to her.

Emma quickly recognized the woman was having trouble, and contacted the police to get some help. Turns out the woman suffers from Alzheimer’s and didn’t know where she was – or how to get home. Emma stayed with her until the police came, talking with her and comforting her.

We hear a lot about what’s wrong with the younger generation. We sometimes focus too much on how well a kid can hit or pitch a yellow ball. Tonight shows the world is going to be alright as long as there are people like Emma in the world. She’s a winner no matter what she does on the field this season.

Daylight Saving Time – yes or no?

This might seem a bit of an unusual topic for a softball blog but bear with me. Over the past few days (because of the changeover this weekend – hope you changed your clocks) I’ve been hearing a lot of talk in the media about getting rid of Daylight Saving Time (DST). DST

As a longtime softball coach, I would hate to see that happen. Wouldn’t you? Yeah, it’s kind of a pain to lose an hour of sleep in the first weekend of March. But the tradeoff is more softball time at night in the summer.

Where I live, for most of the summer it stays light outside until about 9:00. That means plenty of light to start a game at 6:00 and have it go for two hours without lights on the field. Even if it goes a couple of extra innings there’s plenty of extra light.

But without DST, by the time late July comes along you’d be pushing it to have enough light to finish a two-hour game. That seems wrong.

We have a summer sport. We need the extra daylight. If you’re given the opportunity to take a poll, be sure you say “yes” to DST!

So what have you been hearing? Would losing DST affect your season?

Fast-Pitch Love swings for the fences with tale of self-discovery

These days it seems like the Young Adult book category is crowded with stories of dystopian futures and heroic main characters doing the near-impossible. While they make for fun (and profitable) adventures, they may be a little difficult for the average teen to identify with. Fast-Pitch Love

There are no such issues with Fast-Pitch Love, a sweet story of young love that takes place over the summer of 2000. Written by first-time author Clayton Cormany it uses the development of a 12U rec league fastpitch softball team as the centerpiece for self-discovery of several of its characters.

The book is essentially the story of Jason (Jace) Waldron, a central Ohio boy and cross country runner who will be entering his senior year in high school. Jace has a crush on new girl Stephanie Thornapple, whose blue eyes and auburn hair make her the prettiest girl he’s ever personally known. Unfortunately for Jace, she is the girlfriend of tough-guy nose tackle Carson Ealy, who threatens anyone who even looks at her for too long.

As classes empty out on the last day of school, Jace’s best friend Stick – who is quite aware of Jace’s not-so-secret crush on Stephanie – informs him that Carson will be away for quite a bit of the summer working in a lumber yard in Michigan and checking out colleges, creating an opportunity for Jace to try to get in with Stephanie. All he needs is an excuse.

That excuse seems to present itself when Jace goes to the library to make copies of the roster for the softball team his mother will be coaching and his sister Phoebe will be playing on that summer. One of the players is Tina Thornapple; even better, SJ Thornapple is listed as the assistant coach. Jace begs his mother to allow him to help out with the team, figuring it will provide the perfect atmosphere to get to know Stephanie and win her away from Carson. She agrees, gets league approval for an extra assistant coach, and the stage is apparently set.

At least until the first day of practice when SJ Thornapple turns out to be Sylvia, Stephanie’s slightly heavier and somewhat less attractive sister. Once Jace realizes his mistake he starts thinking of excuses to back out but agrees to stay until the first game. In the meantime, Sylvia immediately recognizes why Jace signed up and offers to help him start dating her sister, even if he leaves the team.

Then the games start up, and the young Valkyries take a pummeling. Although Jace was never big on baseball when he played he feels bad for the girls and decides to stick around a little longer to help them learn the game. He and Sylvia work closely together to teach them how to throw, catch, field balls and hit. Sylvia is true to her word and helps Jace land his first date with Stephanie. As the summer goes on the Valkyries begin to improve – but that isn’t the only change.

Soon Sylvia starts letting her hair down and wearing makeup to practice and Jace finds himself attracted to her, even as he continues to date Stephanie. The latter sets up a confrontation with Carson when Jace is spotted at a carnival with Stephanie by one of Carson’s friends – just at the time Jace is beginning to wonder whether he is dating the right sister.

While it takes a little while to get going at first, Cormany does a great job of creating characters you care about – and feel you know. As I got deeper into the book I found it difficult to put down. Adults who remember their youth fondly will relate to the uncertainty and mixed feelings of the characters, which create tension without getting too deep into teen angst. Their feelings seem real. The young adult audience will likely either identify personally with the primary characters or feel they have friends like them.

The softball games are described with accuracy for the level. Neither the Valkyries or their opponents are portrayed as top-level travel teams. In fact, players are told at the beginning of the season they’ll be playing 11 games through summer plus the league tournament. That’s like a week in a travel team schedule, so hard core travel players and parents need to get past that.

Given the level of play, the game descriptions themselves stay true to form. Cormany describes them in great detail, giving you the feeling you’re reading a recap of a real game. There are errors and difficulties for both teams, again true for the level of play, which helps ground it in reality.

As a long-time travel coach myself I’m not so sure that the practices Jace uses to help the team improve will really work, and one in particular goes against what would be considered a best practice. But really, that’s a quibble. The key is the relationships between the characters and the overall development of the team. Both of those ring true.

There aren’t many stories out there that have fastpitch softball at the center, so young players and their families should enjoy that part of the book particularly. If you’re looking for an enjoyable read that will have you rooting for the characters to succeed – and to do what you know is the right thing – give Fast-Pitch Love a look.

Fast-Pitch Love is currently available digitally from Barnes and Noble at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/fast-pitch-love-clay-cormany/1120679928?ean=29401503840 or at Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Fast-Pitch-Love-Clay-Cormany-ebook/dp/B00P744M7Q. The price is normally $4.99, but the author says he occasionally discounts it to $1.99 or even 99 cents so keep an eye out for that. There are also plans for it to come out in hard copy, although it hasn’t happened yet.

Do me one favor. Once you’ve had a chance to read it, let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

How To Make Yourself Stand Out At Softball Tryouts

Editor’s note: Next week begins high school tryouts in many states. This guest post by Brandon Capaletti, vice president of Cisco Athletic, offers some timely tips on how to have a successful tryout.

Tryouts can be a nerve-wracking process. Players are being scrutinized en masse, coaches are assessing needs and talent levels, and families are trying to determine if certain programs are worth the commitment (and money, in some cases).

Whether your daughter is attending tryouts for her high school softball team or a fall/summer travel squad, keep the following tips in mind during what often can be a grueling and anxiety-filled process:

  1.  Punctuality. Be on time. In fact, subscribe to the following credo: Early is on time, on time is late. That means cleats on, and glove/bat/helmet at the ready come starting time. Don’t give coaches and evaluators a reason to put a check mark next to your name for the wrong reason before tryouts start.
  2. Hustle. Any coach worth his or her salt values hustle and effort. Coaches will notice when you hustle (during drills and when moving from station to station) and when you don’t hustle. Hustle, which doesn’t require talent, says something about your character and level of desire.
  3. Listen/pay attention. In addition to assessing skills, evaluators will want to know: Are you coachable? Looking a coach in the eyes and following directions are imperative in athletics. Appearing disinterested or staring off into the distance while a coach is speaking and giving instructing can be construed as disrespectful. If you can’t or won’t listen to a coach during tryouts, the coach is likely to think you’ll do the same as a member of the team.
  4. Be the boss. On the field, a player needs to trust her instincts and preparation — and take ownership of her tryout. Nothing turns off a coach or evaluator more than a player who constantly looks to a parent for guidance — or a meddling parent who wants to “coach” from the other side of the fence. Those are red flags. A player who asserts her independence is an intriguing and valued prospect.
  5. State your desired positions: While the coach ultimately is responsible for deciding where you play should you make the team, it’s important that you get a look at the positions you prefer or have played in the past. Many tryouts require registration, which often provides an opportunity to list preferred positions. It’s especially important that pitchers and catchers get a chance to be seen at those positions.
  6. Avoid comparisons. It’s human nature for players to gauge how they stack up to their so-called competition at tryouts. Comparing arm strength, speed, fielding adeptness and hitting ability is natural, but try to concentrate more on what YOU do well rather than how other players perform. Be confident in your ability, and focus on the tasks at hand. Concern yourself with what you can control; don’t worry about what is out of your control.
  7. Stay positive/confident. Don’t overreact to mistakes — physical or mental. Coaches evaluate demeanor as well as ability, and no coach expects a perfect tryout from any player. A capable and experienced evaluator can see through physical mistakes (i.e., fielding errors, bad throws, swings and misses) to determine a good ball player. Show evaluators resilience in that you can bounce back from a mistake to make a good play. Maintain positive body language as well.
  8. Have fun! No matter what level, athletic competition is supposed to be enjoyable. Especially at tryouts, show evaluators that you are having fun playing a game that you love. Enjoy the experience as much as possible, even while you’re competing hard within a sometimes pressure-packed situation.

Softball players put in many hours of practice and preparation, many calling on the services of private instructors. Due diligence away from the field optimizes a player’s chances of performing well on the field. Trust what you know, believe in what you’ve worked on and let it all hang out in tryouts — the rest will take care of itself.

Brandon Capaletti is the vice president of Cisco Athletic, an athletic apparel manufacturer that designs, produces and distributes custom uniforms.

You might want to lay off that first pitch a little more

Saw this post over on the Fastpitch Analytics blog and thought I would share. This one is a quick visualization of another post which provides more depth behind the numbers. Both are worth reading.

What you’re looking at is an analysis of the slugging percentage for NCAA D1 hitters in 2014 based on pitch count. The author of the study says slugging on contact percentage was used rather than batting average because SLUGCON correlates better to runs scored. And since that’s the name of the game it makes sense.

Much of what you’ll see here is obvious, such as 3-1 is a great hitter’s count and 0-2 is not. But what’s really interesting is when you look at what happens after a 0-0 count.

Let’s say you take the first pitch. If it’s a strike you go to 0-1, and SLUGCON drops from .503 to .492 – a .011 drop. If it’s a ball, however, SLUGCON rises from .503 to .538 – a .035 improvement. In other words, your chances of getting the type of hit that scores runs goes up much more than it goes down by not swinging.

What does that mean in real terms? That you shouldn’t swing at the first pitch? Not really. That may be the best pitch you get in the entire at bat.

What it does mean, though, is that you shouldn’t feel the need to swing at any strike. Instead, you should be looking for a pitch you can hit hard. If it’s not in that zone, lay off of it. For example, if you struggle with the low and outside pitch and that’s the first pitch, you may want to let it go and see if the pitcher doesn’t come back with something more in your preferred range.

Of course, if she’s throwing everyone low and outside to start, you may want to crowd the plate and turn that low outside pitch into a low middle pitch and drive it.

The Risks Of Ankle And Knee Injuries When Using Metal Cleats On Poorly Maintained Fields

Guest post by Shana Brenner, Marketing Director of CoverSports

According to recent reports, injuries to teenage athletes across all sports are on the rise. In particular, there has been a significant increase in knee injuries among teen athletes, specifically ACL tears, and females under the age of 18 are believed to be at a higher risk than their male counterparts. While softball might not seem like an inherently dangerous sport, knee and ankle injuries are common and account for the majority of injuries requiring time away from the sport.Field photo

The good news (and bad news) is that many of these knee and ankle injuries in softball are unnecessary and could easily be avoided if fields were maintained properly. That’s right — often times, the biggest hazard in softball is the field itself.

How can a poorly maintained softball field lead to knee and ankle injuries when using metal cleats?

For proper performance, athletes require a smooth, resilient playing surface that affords them sure footing and the right amount of friction between their metal cleats and the ground. As you might imagine, stepping into a rut or hole while running full speed during a game or practice is an easy way to roll an ankle or twist a knee. Likewise, if an athlete is trying to plant her foot to make a throw but the surface isn’t sturdy, her foot could go one way while her body goes another, causing joint tension, which could lead to a serious knee or ankle injury.

Proper Maintenance Can Prevent Field-Induced Injuries

Without a doubt, the top priority for field-maintenance crews is player safety. A well-maintained field can help athletes stay safe while also improving the overall quality of the game.

With that in mind, there are some important areas to focus on when maintaining your softball field to create a safe playing environment.

  • Regular mowing — Throughout the year, you should keep the grass on your field cut so that it doesn’t overgrow around the edges and harm the field’s performance. Not only does regular mowing preserve the integrity of the playing surface, but it can also help you identify any issues, like holes or uneven surfaces, that might be obscured if the grass was too long.
  • Replacing top dressing — Over time, top dressing deteriorates. It’s unavoidable. This happens because of a combination of things, like wear and tear from on-the-field play, weather and poor maintenance. Top dressing needs to be refinished and leveled occasionally to maintain a safe, healthy playing surface.
  • Dragging and raking — Dragging and raking the field helps create a smooth, uniform surface. Doing these things regularly helps fill in any ruts, holes and eroded areas, making the field much safer for play. You could even use a roller after dragging the field for optimal results.
  • Lip maintenance — The lip is a hump on the field that forms where the grass and dirt meet. An unmaintained lip can cause ground balls to take nasty, unpredictable hops that can put fielders in serious danger. A power washer or hose is a great tool for knocking down the lip on your field, provided it’s not too large.
  • Mound maintenance — The pitcher’s mound is one of the areas exposed to the greatest wear and tear. During every game and practice, the pitcher’s mound gets damaged from routine use. The pitcher needs a smooth, resilient surface where she can plant her foot to make her throws. If the mound has any ruts or wear, the pitcher could easily hurt her ankle or knee when planting or attempting to field a ball. Regular mound maintenance can keep athletes safe and even reduce the costs of renovating this heavily trafficked area. Here are some simple tips to properly maintain your pitcher’s mound:
    • Sweep away any debris from the mound, particularly the landing area in front of the rubber.
    • Tamp uneven clay before watering.
    • Use a small roller to smooth the mound area.
    • Lightly water the clay to create a stronger bond between new packing clay and existing clay.
    • Add new clay to damaged areas. Tamp into ground.
    • Water the entire mound thoroughly. Let dry.
    • Place a mound cover over the area until its next use.
  • Batter’s box maintenance — As batters dig in throughout practices and games, the batter’s box degrades and can develop severe wear and tear. Adding mound clay and infield mix to fill in holes and create a level surface should be a regular part of field-maintenance duties. Make sure to rake down newly repaired areas to create an even surface.

Proper field maintenance can go a long way to keeping softball players safe from minor and major knee and ankle injuries, especially when wearing metal cleats. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Shana Brenner is the Marketing Director of CoverSports, an American manufacturer of baseball field tarps and protection with roots tracing back to 1874. 

 

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.

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