Ok, you're probably wondering what drinking sand has to do with softball. The phrase comes from the movie The American President, and was written by one of my all-time favorite screenwriters - Aaron Sorkin.
At one point the President (played by Michael Douglas) is speaking with his speech writer, who is encouraging the President to speak out about accusations from his opponent because the opponent is the only one talking. The writer (played by Michael J Fox) tells him people are so thirsty for leadership they'll crawl through the desert to a mirage, and when they find there's no water they'll drink the sand.
To which the President replies, "People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference."
Brilliant, and I find it happens a lot in the softball world. There are a lot of antiquated or just plain poor techniques being taught by coaches and instructors. But parents willingly pay good money for their kids to learn them because they don't know the difference.
As a player, or the parent of one, it's important to do your research. Don't assume because this person presents themselves as an instructor, or even a former player, that they actually know how to teach your daughter to succeed. Some of the most convincing people out there are the ones who know the least. And the ones who claim the most impact on their students are often the ones who contributed the least.
Learn as much as you can, and compare what you hear to what you see the best players in the world doing. Not what they say they do, but what they actually do in a game. If it doesn't match up, run.
The other one you'll want to be careful with are the people who insist if you play in their program you should take lessons from them. While there are some advantages if, say, your pitching coach is also a coach with your team, it's not an absolute. Anyone who forces you to go to a particular instructor doesn't have your best interest at heart - they have their own.
Ultimately, you want to get the best instruction you can find. Don't drink the sand. Make sure you can tell the difference between good and poor instruction and you'll find your investment pays off a lot better.
Saw an article today that my local paper picked up from the San Francisco Chronicle , talking about how injuries have exploded in youth sports in the past few years. The big culprit? Overuse, driving largely by kids specializing in one sport year-round rather than playing different sports.
That's certainly an issue in the fastpitch softball world. I hear these stories all the time about the schedules even 10U players are playing. The goal seems to be to get in at least 100 games in a season. In the Northern climes, they'll play 5-6 tournaments in the fall - basically from the start of September through the end of October. Then there are some indoor games, followed by a tournament every weekend from the first weekend in April through the end of Jly.
Down South, where the weather stays warm year-round, they basically take off December for the holidays and that's about it.
I don't know about where you live, but where I am the high school season can be even tougher. Games every day, Monday - Friday, and often a double-header on Saturday. If you only have one pitcher, she's going to see a lot of action. For those whose high school seasons are in the spring, that heavy schedule is then followed by playing pretty much every weekend in June and July.
That's a lot of repetitive motion, which is generally how overuse injuries occur. According to the article, what makes it tougher for softball, baseball and golf is that these are very arm and shoulder-oriented sports, so they put a lot of stress on the joints.
According to the article, this didn't happen so much when kids were playing different sports throughout the year. The motions for, say, basketball are different than those of softball, so the body had a chance to rest and recuperate from the softball-specific stress.
And no, this isn't a "girl thing." It's actually more pronounced in baseball because of the overhand throwing motion pitchers use. But since this is a softball blog (at least most of the time) we're sticking with that.
In today's culture, it's getting tougher and tougher for kids NOT to specialize. There's the pressure to be on the "right" (read: most competitive) team so they can get some of that college money. If you're not willing to devote 24x7 to that high-level softball team, they don't want you, and by implication you'll never get that D1 scholarship.
But what toll is it taking? An organization called Stop Sports Injuries is trying to provide some answers. They're going to medical professionals, especially those who specialize in youth sports injuries, to find out about the trends and get their recommendations. You can see their softball-specific data sheet here.
One thing they recommend, which is going to cause all sorts of anguish among coaches who believe winning is everything, is some pretty strict pitch count limitations for pitchers. That old myth about the softball pitching motion being "safe," which means you can ride one pitcher game after game for an entire tournament, is just that - a myth. At 10U-12U they recommend a limit of 65 pitches per game, and no more than 95 pitches a day over two days. No pitching at all on the third day. At 15U and above, the numbers "only" go up to 100 pitches per game, 140 total per day in the first two days, and 100 for the third day. That's way less than a lot of pitchers actually pitch during the season.
Again, this isn't only for pitchers. Catchers and other position players are running the same risks, just with different body parts. Our bodies weren't designed for the type of repetitive motions being demanded of youth players these days. The kind of cross-training created by participating in multiple sports rather than spending all your time on one encourages better overall development, and protects players from wearing down - mentally as well as physically.
Whether you agree with the exact numbers, this is important information for both parents and coaches to understand. There needs to be a mindset/cultural change if we're really going to help our kids become all they can be - and keep them healthy. I recommend that all parents and coaches follow the links in this post and become better-informed about the risks. It might just be the best thing you do for your daughter/players this year.
Now that fall ball is cranking up in earnest, teams are beginning to test themselves in games and find out who they really are. Some are finding they are better than they thought; others are finding they have a lot of work to do.
One of the things you're likely to see are some serious mismatches in playing ability. If it happens because better teams didn't know there would be a wide range of ability that's one thing. But if they're playing down just to trophy hunt, they're doing themselves a disservice.
One of the biggest problems with playing below your actual level is it gives you a false sense of how good you are. Sure, you may be defeating or even blowing out teams that don't hit, field or pitch too well. The trouble is that can lead you to think you don't have to work on those aspects of the game yourself so much. After all, you're winning, right? So you must be good.
Think again. Because one day you'll run into a team that has been playing at the proper level. Maybe they haven't won as many games as you have. But when you meet them head to head you find out that they've developed their skills because they've had to in order to compete.
Winning alone is not the measure of a good team. You also have to look at who you're playing. Play at the right level — one where you have to be at your best to win — and you'll develop your team better and faster. And you'll help your players become all they can be.
One of the most common pieces of advice given to fastpitch softball players (and their parents) is to look at what the best players in the world do, and then do that. While there is definitely a lot of value to that advice, especially when you're early in the learning curve, it also has its limitations.
Basically, if all anyone does is imitate what's already known, or analyze what people already do, progress stops. Innovation and improvement doesn't come from seeing what's already there. It comes from thinking "Is there a better way?" and moving away from the conventional wisdom.
A great (and often-used) example is Dick Fosbury, the high jumper who introduced the "Fosbury Flop." Back in the 1960s, the best high jumpers in the world used a technique where they would run up to the bar from the side, push off of one leg, and then scissor kick their way over it. All the efforts in the sport were expended trying to figure out ways to improve on that technique a little more in order to get higher.
Well, almost all. Fosbury had the courage to not imitate all the others, but instead try something revolutionary - turning completely around at launch and going over the bar head and neck first. The rest is history. These days, any high jumper at a high competitive level does the Fosbury flop.
The same potential exists in our sport - if you're willing to ask "why" things are done a certain way instead of just following the crowd. Rather than simply looking at video of what great hitters, pitchers, fielders, etc. do, innovators take that starting point and ask "is that the most optimal way to use your body?"
Innovators ask "what if?" and try something different. It may not always work out, but they're in good company. Thomas Edison said he made 10,000 light bulbs before he found the one that worked. And that basic design lasted more than 100 years - at least until someone else said "why can't we make a compact fluorescent bulb instead?
The idea of "what is" versus "what could be" reminds me of the often-quoted study of softball pitchers in the 1996 Olympics by Dr. Shery L. Werner. Many people look at her findings and conclude that what she describes is the correct method of pitching. Yet that wasn't the purpose of the study.
The purpose of the study was to see what these elite-level pitchers did, and to see what they had in common. That, however, doesn't say whether what they're doing is optimal. In order to determine what's optimal you have to take the same group of pitchers and try any number of alternative techniques to see which ones produce the best results.
For all we know, finishing with the hips at 45 to 52 degrees may not be the best way to finish. Or it might. The only thing we know is that's what those pitchers did. It would take a lot more experimentation to conclude whether it's optimal; you'd have to try different methods and measure the results - of course giving each pitcher a sufficient amount of time to master each of the alternative techniques. Truth is, we'll probably have to wait for androids to be invented before you can run that experiment conclusively.
In the meantime, we need to be more than "monkey see, monkey do." Don't be afraid to thoughtfully break the mold now and then to see if going against the crowd rather than blindly following it produces better results.
You may wind up right back where you started. Or you could end up being the next Dick Fosbury. And wouldn't that look great on a softball coaching resume?
Now it's your turn. Have you ever gone against the conventional wisdom? If so why, and what were the results?
The one downside these days is that like every other sport or activity, cheerleading does demand a lot of the participant's time. Which means they may not make every practice the team has - especially if the cheerleading coach has a "miss one and you're done" rule. You have to decide if the positives outweigh the negatives.
So yeah, make fun of them if you feel you must. But if you have the opportunity to put one on your team, grab it! You won't be sorry.
What other attributes have you found cheerleaders possess? Are there other sports/activities that lend themselves to making great softball players?
Back in March I wrote about a different team concept I was doing this summer. In case you don't feel like following the link, it was called the IOMT Castaways - IOMT standing for Island of Misfit Toys. The team was put together by invitation, and was made up of girls I'd either coached before on a team or who were pitching or hitting students of mine. (Some were both, too.)
The primary credential to be on the team (which led to the name) was having been underrated or under-appreciated on another team. Perhaps it was a school team where they were overlooked for varsity, or not given a chance to compete for their primary position. Perhaps it was a travel team that passed on them, or one that took them and then didn't play them or constantly criticized them.
Whatever it was, these were essentially players that other coaches didn't think much of but that I thought could play ball. We also looked hard at the kind of people they were. We wanted not just quality ballplayers but good teammates with good parents. We also made it clear that the goal of this team wasn't college exposure. It was to give girls who just love playing softball an opportunity to play purely for the love of the game. )Truth is there were a couple of girls I knew who had all those other qualities but were still interested in pursuing college scholarships, so I suggested they play on a team that had that goal.)
In any case, we just finished up the season last Sunday. So how did the experiment go? Were we able to take these "castaways" from other teams and train them up to be competitive, or was it a nice idea that fell apart in the execution?
I'm glad to say it was actually a very successful season. We played a mix of sanctioned tournaments (A, B and open), and finished with a record of 21-14 across seven weekends. In our tournaments we earned one second place finish, two thirds and a consolation championship. Considering I would've been happy with any one of those results, to have achieved so much in a single year was outstanding.
Perhaps my favorite story came from one of our players, who knows some of the families in the host organization for one of the tournaments we played in. It was a USSSA A tournament where we took third, and came within a run of going to the championship game. Apparently we were quite the talk of the tournament. Everyone was asking "Who the (heck) are the Castaways, and where did they come from?" Of course, our Florida-like uniforms certainly helped keep the mystery alive.
More importantly, and I think anyone who has ever coached girls can appreciate this, we had no drama. None. There were no hurt feelings, no cliques, no catty remarks behind people's backs. Our Castaways genuinely liked each, and embraced their differences and the quirks of their teammates. It was one of the happiest teams I've ever been around - at least until our last game was over, at which point there were many tears shed for the end of their careers, and the end of all of our time together.
The only regret our whole coaching staff had was that we started it at 18U instead of 14U. We couldn't help but wonder what we might've been able to accomplish with them with a couple more years together. Often your better teams are those with at least a core of players who have been together for a while. Almost everyone on our team knew someone from having played with them before, but it was hardly a familiar group to start. To see them bond they way they did, and most likely make friends for life, was an amazing thing.
So there you have it. Proof that with the right group of players, the Castaways concept works. There are no plans for an IOMT Castaways in 2014. But I'm keeping the organization alive. It's sort of like the Three Amigos. Whenever another group of players need a positive, supportive atmosphere where they can get an opportunity to show what they can really do, the Castaways will be there for them. And hey, who knows? Maybe a couple of the original Castaways will come back and coach.