The chicken/egg of breaking in a new pitcher

One of the toughest things in softball from both sides of the equation (player/parents and coach) is what it takes to break in a new pitcher. She can practice and prep any way she wants, but pitching in practice isn’t the same as pitching in a game.

For one thing, now every pitch counts – and the pressure of bad pitches builds. When a pitcher is in learning mochicken eggde, she can throw a few bad pitches in order to get better without suffering any real consequences. In a game, of course, bad pitch one becomes ball one. Bad pitch two becomes ball two. And if that pitcher is still finding herself, the next pitch will likely have
less to do with the mechanics she’s been working on and more to do with getting a strike some way, some how.

After all, she may fear letting the team down, and not getting a chance to try again for a good, long while. Still, parents realize the only way she’s going to get better is to get innings in. Even if they’re rough ones.

On the other side, there’s the coach. He/she may want to give this pitcher an opportunity, especially if she’s been working hard to learn. But he/she has to balance that against the needs of the rest of the team. You don’t want to fall too far behind due to walks and wild pitches just to develop a pitcher. On the other hand, if he/she will need her in the future (or the coach thinks she has potential), it’s important to give her those game reps now. Even if it hurts.

Sometimes the best situation for that developing pitcher is for the coach to have no choice. If you only have one, or at least one who’s working at it, you have to go with what you’ve got. That means taking some lumps early-on and hoping that pitcher gets better quickly as a result. Of course, that may make the rest of the team unhappy, and in this day and age the coach may find a couple of the better players looking for another team to play on rather than suffering through the losses.

One thing coaches can do is start by giving that pitcher one inning, and staying with her no matter what – unless she has clearly had a mental breakdown (at which point it’s cruel to leave her in). Let her get that one good inning in, and then put in someone with more experience. Try to build up to two, then three innings and so on.

By the time she gets up to three good innings in a row you should be able to put her in a game with the intention of leaving her in for however long you normally leave pitchers in. If she gets into trouble you can still take her out, but now she has a solid foundation and an idea that you want her to go more.

The hard part, of course, is getting to that point. It can get ugly at times. But it’s kind of a chicken/egg thing. To develop she needs to pitch in games. But to pitch in games, she needs to develop. At some point you’re just going to have to decide to go for it.

I’ve known (and worked with) plenty of pitchers who started out rough but through determination, persistence and a lot of hard work went on to blow away the kids who were ahead of them initially. At some, point, though, someone believed in them enough to give them a shot. And then another one. And then another one. And along the way, they saw the improvement and encouraged those pitchers to keep going. At which point those coaches reaped some pretty big rewards.

What have you found as far as breaking in a new pitcher? Do you have any rules you set out or processes you follow? Do you start with practice games/friendlies, then move them into pool play? Let us know what’s worked for you in the comments below.

Why players with new skills are like new drivers

Earlier today I was emailing with my friend and fellow coach Mike Borelli about how players who look great in practice will come out into games all nervous and tentative. It’s actually pretty common.

They work hard to learn their skills. They take lessons, they practice, they really put a lot of effort into it. Then they get into a game and they look like the proverbial deer in headlights.

Perhaps the best analogy I can come up with, and one that most of us can relate to, is when we start to drive after getting our driver’s licenses. Even though we’ve received hours of instruction, and spent countless more hours driving with our parents (or other qualified adults), none of that matters the first time we’re handed the keys to the family car.

We are nervous, we are tentative, we are afraid that we will make a horrible mistake and wrap the car around a tree, or will have trouble parking it and scratch the paint, or do something else that will get us in trouble. So we drive cautiously at first.

Eventually, though, we gain experience and confidence as continue to drive, and after a while it becomes second nature. If you’ve had your license for any length of time you probably don’t even think much about where your hands go or where to look on the road. You just get in drive.

That’s the same experience players often have after they’ve worked on new skills. No matter what they’ve done off the field, nothing compares to actually being in a game. Until they’ve had a chance to “drive” those skills for a while they’ll be tentative, unsure of what they can do and wanting not to make any mistakes.

It’s just a part of the total experience. The best you can do is give them the “keys” and give them the opportunity to get comfortable with their new skills. The more experience they gain the more they’ll relax, which will really put them in the driver’s seat.

Why so many reps in instructional videos?

This is something I’ve been wondering about for a long time but kept forgetting to throw out there. It’s the kind of thing that drives me a little nuts.

I love to learn, and will seek out all sorts of information looking for something new to incorporate. As a result, I end up watching a lot of instructional videos.

What I often find is that a lot of time on the videos are spent showing the same drill being executed over and over again. If you’re demonstrating a drill, why do we have to sit there for 30 seconds, or a minute (which feels like an eternity in the Internet age) watching 20 or 30 reps of a drill?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to explain the drill and its purpose, have a player do maybe five repetitions, and then move on? I mean, if I need more reps I can just run the video back with my mouse (if I’m watching on the computer) or a remote (if I’m watch a DVD).

What I often find is that I end up watching a lot of these videos on 2X speed, or dragging the bar forward, just so I can get on to the next piece of information. Unfortunately, if whoever made the video says something brilliant during repetition 20 I’m probably going to miss it.

Maybe this is a holdover from the days of VHS tapes, where fast-forwarding ran a small risk of breaking the tape. Or maybe it’s a function of having 15 minutes of content but needing a 40 minute video in order to sell it.

I don’t know, but please, please, please. Can we minimize the reps when there’s nothing new happening and speed things up?

Am I alone in this? Does it drive anyone else crazy to have watch the same person do the same things over and over and over again?

A quarter for the release of a back of the hand changeup

There are all different types of changeups. Some are more effective than others, and some suit a particular pitcher better than others. Quarter

Most of the time I teach a backhand change, which requires the pitcher to drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first. But sometimes that one doesn’t work. So the backup plan is the back of the hand change.

With this pitch, you bring it down normally, then spin the hand around so the little finger is facing the plate, with the back of your hand facing your thigh.

One of the challenges of the back of the hand changeup is learning to get the hand spun around at the proper time so the ball actually does come out the other side. If you don’t it just becomes a bad fastball, or maybe a handshake change at best.

Young pitchers in particular don’t always understand how quickly the hand needs to turn, so here’s an activity they can do to get the hang of it. All they need to do is take a quarter (or a half dollar or a silver dollar, anything round and decently sized) and spin it counter-clockwise on the table (for a right handed pitcher; a lefty spins it clockwise).

The idea is to get the coin spinning as fast as you can while turning the hand in the proper direction. Pitchers can challenge themselves to see how long they can keep the coin spinning with a tight rotation.

A little time spent indoors on a rainy day can make a huge difference out on the field.

One sport or multiple sports?

First of all, thanks to Jan Pauly and Jennie Hughes Janda for sharing this story via Facebook. It’s definitely worth a read.

The story is on the nagging question of our times in youth sports – should young athletes play multiple sports if they want to be successful, or should they instead focus on one sport? The prevailing attitude (especially among coaches) these days seem to be specialization is not only better but necessary.

Yet when you look at what’s going on today, that may not be the right answer. First, you have the rise in injuries among youth athletes over the last few years. While there will always be some injuries in sports, many of them are now being attributed either to overuse or over-training.

Constantly doing the same thing over and over, especially in high-level competitive situations, places a lot of wear and tear on the body. The evidence suggests that the lack of variety is a major contributing factor to the injury situation. Athletes who play different sports use different muscles and muscle groups, and stress them in different ways, which seems to contribute to better overall development.

A second factor is what happens when you look at some of the top athletes of our time. The article mentions Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and several others. All top performers, and all multi-sport athletes through high school. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were multi-sport athletes in the pros, although they are exceptions.

Then there’s the crossover of skills between various sports. Things you learn in one can be applied in another. Look at mixed martial arts practitioners. They incorporate training from a wide variety of styles to help make themselves less predictable and therefore gain an edge. If this sort of synthesis works there, why wouldn’t it work in other sports?

The reality is we may be doing our young athletes a disservice by not giving them the opportunity to play multiple sports due to the crazy level of commitment now being demanded by all the individual sports or teams. Especially when you consider, as the NCAA ads say, most of those athletes will be going pro in something other than sports.

That’s not to say they have to abandon the sport entirely. But there’s no need to treat the off-season as though it’s mid-season. Youth athletes can work on their own, taking lessons and/or practicing skills when they can while participating in other activities. They don’t need to spend two hours a day, four days a week, in a team setting. And they (and their parents) should definitely set aside some time to shut down from the sport completely – for a month, six weeks or longer – to give their bodies time to heal, their brains time to refresh, and their spirits the burning desire that often flickers by the end of a long season.

Perhaps it’s time to start dialing back the expectations and give our youth players the opportunity to become well-rounded. It just might do more to up their games than expecting the high-level, 12-month commitment many are demanding now.

Winning isn’t always the goal

Ask any fastpitch player, coach or parent what the team’s goal is and the easy answer will be “to win.” But when you look at things a bit deeper winning may not always be the primary goal.

Take a 10U or 12U team making the jump from rec ball to travel ball. It can be quite an eye-opener for the girls and the parents. The rules change, the game gets faster, the teams get more aggressive, and the overall caliber of play is generally higher than they’re used to seeing.

In that first year wins may be tough to come by. But that’s ok. The real priority should be getting the players acclimated to the level of competition and helping them understand what it’s going to take to perform their best long-term. That may mean sacrificing a few opportunities to win in favor of player development.

That could mean letting a hitter who isn’t producing bat, even though a better hitter is available. It may mean suffering through more walks to give a pitcher with good long-term potential the opportunity to get reps in facing batters. It might mean putting a fielder into a position she hasn’t quite learned yet in order to give her the experience to play it later.

Winning is nice, no question about it. Me personally, I subscribe to the statement from Moneyball that I hate losing more than I like winning. But if your goal is to develop a team, and its individual players, to be the best they can be, you need to have a plan and stick to it – even if it means you lose more games than you would have otherwise today.

It’s all about your goals, which is why it’s important to set them before the season, when you can be unemotional about it, rather than during the season when you may be willing to do anything required just to get the W.

Know where you’re headed long-term and you’ll be in great shape. And when those wins do start coming, they will be all the sweeter.

Helping young hitters with a fear of the ball

Ran into this issue with a 9 year old I recently started working with. She was pretty raw in her fastpitch hitting mechanics when we first started, but with some good tee work (and practice) she was coming along.

Unfortunately, we were started working together at the beginning of the season so there was some urgency to get her game-ready. Which meant moving to front toss to give her some experience with a ball coming at her.

Once we started with that, it became obvious she had some fear of getting hit by the ball since her first move would be to step away and sort of lean away from the pitch. That makes it tough to swing effectively.

(In her defense, given what I’ve heard about the caliber of pitching she’s been facing it’s understandable. Lots of, shall we say, randomly thrown pitches.)

Still, that’s not good. So I started thinking about how to help get her re-focused on attacking the ball rather than being attacked by it. The weather helped me come up with a good answer.

It had rained most of the day when we were getting together for a lesson, so we were stuck using the outfield for front toss. It was pretty soggy out there too, so I thought it might be better to pitch Whiffle balls at her. I figured it would give her less to fear from the pitches as well as prevent my regular softballs from getting waterlogged.

It worked well, and she hit with enthusiasm as I’ve reported previously. She was actually having fun, and seeing that she could hit.

The next step was to mix in the Whiffles with regular softballs at our next lesson. I told her I would throw a Whiffle, then a regular ball, which is what I did. At first she was a little tentative on the regular softballs, but the longer we alternated the more confident she grew.

So much so, in fact, that she nearly took my head off with a couple of line drives with the regular balls, and did nail me in the thigh with one. I hadn’t bothered to set up my Jugs protective screen – I mean, really, she’s nine and just learning to hit. I can handle that, right? But you can bet the next time I met with her the screen was there.

Speaking of the next time, that session was all regular balls. I’m happy to report that the fear was gone (along with the stepping out), replaced by a girl who was looking to do some damage. Hopefully that will carry over into her games too. If it does, I hope that little pitcher she’s facing is wearing a mask.

If you’re working with a hitter who is uncomfortable in the box and afraid of getting hit, give this a try. If you can replace that defensive mindset with one where she is focused on taking aggressive swings it can do wonders.

IHSA softball pages

For those of you from Illinois, I just have to wonder how old the photos are of the players on the IHSA’s softball pages. From what I’ve seen it looks like all of them on both teams are wearing shorts.

Everybody pretty much went to pants about five years ago. Maybe it’s time to take a few photos at this year’s championship and third place games and do some upgrades. :-)

Lesson learned from the WCWS

So another WCWS is behind us. Have to admit there was some terrific play and some incredible games to watch. Auburn came darned close to completing their Cinderella run, and all the teams competed well – even those that went out in two straight. WCWS smiling

There were some bad plays as well – simple errors such as a ball going through a shortstop’s legs, misjudged fly balls, poor baserunning – all the things we yell at our 12U and 14U players for. Even the big girls get it wrong sometimes.

But the thing that struck me most were the smiles on the players’ faces – even when something went wrong. It’s not that they were taking the game lightly. But they had an appreciation for where they were and what they were doing.

Here they were, on one of the biggest stages in the country, playing on TV before millions of viewers. Despite the fact they made an error or hit a batter with a pitch, or popped up in a crucial situation, those players kept on smiling.

That’s some pretty amazing coaching, to create an atmosphere like that where they could not only play for the love of the game but show that love outright. To me that was the biggest lesson we all can learn.

While it may seem like life or death in the heat of the moment, it’s really not. Teams with players who can smile through adversity and move on to make the next play will always do well. Those who dwell on their mistakes instead of enjoying the moment are likely to implode.

Be the team that smiles.

The fun of working with younger players

Sometimes when you’re used to working with older players (high school age or close to it), going back to working with younger girls can take some adjustment. They don’t have as much body awareness, and attention spans can be a bit short. It can also take them a bit longer to truly retain everything you’re working on. But there are also some upsides.

I experienced one of those tonight. I was doing a hitting lesson with a 10U player named Isabella. We’ve been working on the basics, and she’s coming along. Her father mentioned that in her tournament over the weekend she’d been backing out of the box some, and seemed reluctant to try out her new swing.

So, I figured that after we did some tee hitting I would try pitching some Whiffle balls to her instead of regular balls.

Good idea on my part. Isabella started getting the hang of it and taking more aggressive swings. She started hitting those Whiffles hard too.

But the best part was what happened when the bucket emptied. I said “let’s pick ’em up” and she immediately asked “Can we do it again?” We still had time so of course I said “sure.” When we finished that bucket she asked if we could do another. Clearly she was having fun – and building confidence in her swing.

Honestly, I think if I hadn’t finally called it we’d still be out there.

You have to love that enthusiasm. And that’s the fun of it. Certain aspects may take more work, but when the light bulb comes on and the excitement is there it makes it all worthwhile.


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