Big Issues Don’t Always Require Big Solutions

Toward the end of the summer 2020 season (if you can call that a season), one of my pitching students, a terrific lefty named Sammie, developed some control trouble. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she started throwing everything off the plate to her throwing hand side.

We got together and we worked on it. I thought she might be going across her body instead of straight so we set up a couple of giant cones to try to steer her back down the straight and narrow as it were.

It helped a little, but not enough. She still struggled in her next game, and in her practice sessions.

This was definitely a problem that needed to be corrected so I racked my brain on what the probable root cause might have been. As it turned out, however, I didn’t need to think so hard.

I simply needed to remember my own advice, given about a year ago, regarding Occam’s Razor: If there is a simple solution and a complex one, the simple solution is usually the best.

In this case, I only needed to remember the opening song from “Les Miserables” – look down.

When I looked down at Sammie’s feet on the pitching rubber I knew exactly what the problem was. She was like this:

Notice her left foot way to the left. Ignore the dirty mat and rough ground around her.

We have been working on her sliding her foot over the center of her body and I thought she had that down. But somewhere along the way she stopped centering, and instead would only slide her foot slightly. As a result, everything was going down the left side, often off the plate.

So we worked once again on the proper slide across, placing her left foot more in this position before driving off:

Ah, that’s better! How long do you think those shoes will stay that white in those conditions?

Once she got her foot more in this position all her problems with being off the plate went away, as if by magic. Control was regained and she once again began dominating hitters.

So there’s the lesson for today. Sometimes a pitcher’s (or any athlete’s for that matter) issues aren’t being driven by some horrible breakdown in mechanics.

As we coaches work to acquire knowledge and hone our craft, we can get caught up in over-thinking the issues and the solutions. This is a good reminder that often a simple adjustment on a pitcher who has been doing well can get her right back on track.

William of Ockham may have been born in 1287. But he would have made a heck of a pitching coach.

“Hip Eye” Helps Encourage Driving the Back Side When Hitting

A few weeks ago I wrote about a cue I’d developed called “shoulder eye.” It’s worth reading the full post, but if you’re pressed for time the core concept is placing an eye sticker on the shoulder, then making sure the shoulder comes forward to see the ball before it tilts in.

Then last week I ran into another issue where the eye stickers came in handy.

In this case it was a fairly new student who was having some challenges getting the hang of driving her back hip around the front side to initiate her swing. She’d done fine off the tee, but when we moved to front toss she just couldn’t help but lead with her hands as she has since she started playing.

It’s way tiny, but it’s the white dot on her back hip.

So… off to my bag of tricks I went, and I came back with an eye sticker. I told her to place it on her back (in this case right) hip. (If you look closely at the top or the full-length photo you can see it.)

I then told her that in order to hit the ball, she had to make sure her “hip eye” came around to get a good look at the ball before starting her hands.

As with shoulder eye I’m not 100% of why this works. But I’m happy to report that it does.

My guess is that placing the eye on the hip (or shoulder) creates more of a, pardon the pun, visual for the hitter. Perhaps “bring your hip around” is too vague, whereas point this eye toward the ball first is more specific.

Or it could just be goofy enough to break well-established, unconscious thought patterns to enable new information to take over.

In any case, it seems to work. I’ve used it a couple of times since that first one and the difference was immediate.

The hitter wasn’t necessarily perfect – I like a lot of drive out of the back side. But it definitely set her down the right path.

So if you have a hitter who is having trouble latching onto the proper sequences of hips-shoulders-bat, or who isn’t using her hips at all, get some eyeball stickers and have her place it on her back hip. It might be just what she needs to start hitting with authority.

In Recruiting, Everything Is A Test

In the 2003 movie “The Recruit,” Al Pacino as CIA recruiter and trainer Walter Burke tells his new potential spies that at The Farm (the CIA’s legendary training ground) to believe none of what they see or hear because “everything is a test.” They quickly find out those are words they need to heed, which is what makes it a movie worth a watch.

Burke’s words that “everything is a test” are worth keeping in mind for softball recruiting as well. While you may not have the extreme experience of being thrown into the back of a van while being out with one of your teammates and being tortured until you break, it’s important to understand that everything you do on and off the field will be carefully observed and cataloged by college coaches looking for their future players.

One of the classic examples, of course, is how you speak to your parents. It doesn’t matter if they’re being annoying, or if you’re just upset because you made an error while the coach was watching.

If you snap at your parents while they’re talking to you and a coach sees it, you can bet that you will move down if not off the recruiting the list of the better teams. They don’t need to put up with your issues when they know they can find a player of comparable skills who will be much easier to deal with.

Oh, that also goes for how you speak to and listen to your team’s coaches. If you appear to be disrespectful or argumentative there, they’ll figure that’s how you’ll be with them as well. No thanks.

Speaking of errors, that’s another thing they look at. Not whether you made an error – college coaches understand physical errors happen – but how you handle it.

Do you get down on yourself? Do you carry the error on the field into your next at bat, or a strikeout or pop out into your pitching? If so, you’re probably not what they’re looking for.

Instead, they want and need players who can handle adversity, because they know there is plenty of it in fastpitch softball. Bad things are going to happen to everyone. But it’s the ones who can get past it quickly that will draw their attention.

It’s not just at games either. Sometimes coaches will come up to you at camp and offer a suggestion regarding your mechanics or a critique about something you did.

They may do it to help you overcome a perceived flaw. But they may also be doing it to see how you react. Will you accept the comment gracefully, or will you give the coach a “look” that says “leave me alone?”

College coaches want to know the players they recruit are, well, coachable. If they perceive you’re not, you’re probably going to get a hard pass. Everything is a test.

Another characteristic they look for is confidence. If a coach engages you in a conversation you’d best be able to hold up your end.

If you’re looking down, or mumbling your responses, or especially if you look to mom or dad before answering a question such as “Why are you interested in (our school)?” it tells them you may not have what it takes to hold up under the pressure of college softball.

That doesn’t mean you should be arrogant. But you should be able to look people in authority in the eye and give them straight, honest answers. It says you’re ready to go out on your own and do what needs to be done.

If you can’t currently do that, start practicing that skill along with your fielding, hitting, throwing, etc. It’s more important than you may realize.

At a tournament, coaches who are interested in you will also look at other things about you. Are you eating healthy foods, or is it all junk food all the time? That says something about how you take care of yourself.

How do you interact with teammates? Do you fit in with them or do you spend most of your time by yourself? When you do speak with them are you positive or negative? A good teammate or a prima donna?

You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but they do want to see you get along well with your peers. Or at least sufficiently well. College softball seasons can be long, with a lot of time spent together in close quarters. If you’re going to be a detriment to the team dynamic they’ll probably figure it’s best if you take your skills (and attitude) somewhere else.

Another thing many players miss is the quality of the materials they send to coaches. Not just whether their skills videos are slick, but whether there are typos in the cover letter or you have the wrong school or coach’s name on it.

These coaches aren’t stupid. They know you’re using the same basic letter and doing search-and-replace.

But they are looking at your attention to detail. Did you inspect the letter or email before you sent it to be sure there were no mistakes?

That’s an easy step to take. But if you can’t be bothered to pay attention to details when you’re presumably going to be on your best behavior, what evidence is there that you will pay attention to details in games? Or in your schoolwork for that matter?

A player on scholarship who can’t play due to grade issues is a giant waste of money – which they can’t afford, especially now.

College coaches are looking for more than just an individual who can hit, pitch, play a particular position, etc. Any coach worth playing for will have an overall idea of they types of players they need to win in terms of character, mental toughness, self-sacrifice, etc. and will look for those qualities as well.

Or as Herb Brooks says in “Miracle”:

The way college coaches find the right players is by speaking with them, observing them, and getting an overall sense of who they really are.

If you want to make yourself more recruitable, remember everything in the process is a test. Act accordingly.

Are We Destroying Our Kids?

unrecognizable woman showing pain spot on back in doctor office

Injuries have always been a part of participating in youth sports. Jammed fingers, sprained ankles and knees, cuts requiring stitches, even broken bones were an accepted part of the risk of playing. Things happen, after all.

Lately, though, we are seeing a continuing rise of a different type of injury. This one doesn’t happen suddenly as the result of a particular play or miscue on the field. Instead, it develops slowly, insidiously over time, but its effects can be more far-reaching than a sprain, cut or break.

I’m speaking, of course, about overuse injuries.

According to a 2014 position paper from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, roughly 46 to 54% of all youth sports injuries are from overuse. Think about that.

There was no collision. There was no tripping over a base or taking a line drive to the face. There was no stepping in a hole in the outfield or catching a cleat while sliding. The injury occurred while participating normally in the sport.

And here’s the scary part. As I said, this report came out in 2014. In the six years since, the pressure to play year-round, practice more, participate in speed and agility training and do all the other things that go with travel ball in particular has only gotten worse.

You can see it in how one season ends and another begins, as we recently went through. Tryouts keep getting earlier and earlier, with the result that players often commit to a new/different team before their finished playing with their current teams.

It’s not that they’re being bad or disloyal. It’s that they have no choice, because if they wait until the end of the current season there won’t be anywhere left to go because all the teams have been chosen.

What is even crazier is that there literally was no break for many players from one season to the next. I know of many for whom their current season ended on a weekend and their first practice for the next season was the week immediately after. Sometimes they were playing their first game with the new team before their parents had a chance to wash their uniforms from the old team.

And it wasn’t just one practice a week. Teams are doing two or three in the fall, with expectations that players will also take lessons and practice on their own as well.

That is crazy. What is so all-fired important about starting up again right away?

Why can’t players have at least a couple of weeks off to rest, recuperate physically and mentally, and just do other things that don’t require a bat, ball or glove? Why is it absolutely essential to begin playing tournaments or even friendlies immediately and through the end of August?

I think what’s often not taken into consideration, especially at the younger ages, is that many of these players’ bodies are going through some tremendous changes. Not just the puberty stuff but also just growth in general.

A growth spurt could mean a reduction in density in their bones, making them more susceptible to injuries. An imbalance in strength from one side to the other can stress muscles in a way that wouldn’t be so pronounced if they weren’t being used in the same way so often.

Every article you read about preventing overuse injuries stresses two core strategies:

  1. Incorporating significant periods of rest into the training/playing plan
  2. Playing multiple sports in order to develop the body more completely and avoid repetitive stress on the same muscles

When I read those recommendations, however, I can’t help but wonder: have the authors met any crazy softball coaches and parents?

As I mentioned, I’ve seen 12U team schedules where they are set to practice three times a week – in the fall! And these aren’t PGF A-level teams, they’re just local teams primarily playing local tournaments.

Taking up that much time makes it difficult to play other sports. Sure, the softball coach may say it’s ok to miss practices during the week to do a school sport, but is it really?

Will that player be looked down on if she’s not there working alongside her teammates each week? Probably.

Will that player fall behind her teammates in terms of skill, which ultimately hurts her chances of being on the field outside of pool play? Possibly.

So if softball is important to her, she’s just going to have to forego what the good doctors are saying and just focus on softball, thereby increasing her risk of an overuse injury.

This is not just a softball issue, by the way. It’s pretty much every youth sport. I think the neverending cycle may be more of a softball issue, but the time factor that prevents participation in more than one sport at a competitive level is fairly universal.

In the meantime, a study published in the journal Pediatrics that pulled from five previous studies showed that athletes 18 and under who specialize in one sport are twice as likely to sustain an overuse injury than those who played multiple sports.

The alarm bells are sounding. It’s like a lightning detector going off at a field but the teams deciding to ignore it and keep playing anyway. Sooner or later, someone is going to get struck.

What can you do about it? It will be tough, but we have to try to change the culture.

Leaders in the softball world – such as those in the various organizations (including the NFCA) and well-respected college coaches – need to start speaking up about the importance of reducing practice schedules for most of the year and building more downtime in – especially at the end of the season. I think that will help.

Ultimately, though, youth sports parents and coaches need to take responsibility for their children/players and take steps to put an end to the madness. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Build in a few weeks between the end of the summer season and beginning of the fall season for rest, recovery and family activities. There’s no reason for anyone to play before Labor Day.
  • Cut back on the number of fall and winter practices. Once a week with the team should be sufficient. Instead, encourage players to practice more on their own so they can fit softball activities around other sports and activities.
  • Reduce the number of summer games/tournaments. Trying to squeeze 100+ games into three months in the summer (two for high school players who play for their schools in the spring season) is insane bordering on child abuse. Take a weekend or two off, and play fewer games during the week.
  • Plan practices so you’re working on different skills in the same week. This is especially important when it comes to throwing, which is where a lot of overuse injuries occur. Work on offense one day and defense another. Or do throwing one day and baserunning another. Or maybe even play a game that helps with conditioning while working a different muscle group.

It won’t be easy, but we can do this. All it takes is a few brave souls to get it going.

Overuse injuries are running rampant through all sports, including fastpitch softball. With a little thought and care, however, we can reverse that trend – and keep our kids healthier, happier while making them better players in the process.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The 3D Printer Approach to Softball Success

3D printer

A few years ago, one of my day job clients took me out back onto the shop floor to show me this cool new technology they were using to create prototypes of products in development.

“It’s a 3D printer,” the client told me. “We program in what we want based on CAD drawings, and then it produces a complete sample, down to every nook and cranny.” Then she showed me how it worked.

Basically, the head on the printer would slide along at high speed, depositing thin layer after thin layer of plastic (or whatever substance they used). At first, it looked like an indistinguishable blob, but slowly, over time, whatever it was they were making began to take shape until a finished product finally came out.

That is very similar to the way building a successful softball player works. You start out with some raw materials and an idea of what the finished product will be. But then you have to build the player, layer by layer, which takes time and patience.

I think it’s the second half of that equation – patience – that tends to make people stop the “machine” before the finished product is created. These days in our instant-everything world, everyone wants what they want right the heck now.

They don’t want to put in hours and hours of practice just to realize a slight improvement, such as adding one mile an hour as a pitcher or hitting the ball another 20 feet as a batter. They want a magic drill or technique that will enable them to go from throwing 48 mph to 60+ mph in a couple of weeks, or turn them from a .225 hitter to a .440 hitter with an OPS over 1.0.

That would be nice, but it simply doesn’t work that way. As I always say, if I could make you a star in one lesson every lesson would cost $1,000 and there would be a line a mile long down the street to get that lesson.

Instead, you have to operate like the 3D printer. If you stand there and watch it as it works, you’re likely to get bored and maybe fall asleep. It just keeps on grinding away.

Over time, however, it produces something beautiful and useful. Of course, if all you see is the end product you have no idea how much work, how many passes of the print head went into it. You can just admire the result.

It’s the same with players. If you just look at the player shining on the field you have no concept of the number of pitches, swings, ground balls, fly balls, etc. that player did before you ever saw the bright, shiny player she is now.

I know, because I’ve seen it. Parents will tell me how funny it is when someone says about their daughter, “Wow, it must be nice to be so talented that it just comes naturally to her.”

Those people making that comment weren’t there when that same girl was sitting on the bench because her coaches didn’t think she was good enough to be on the field. They weren’t there when she struggled to get a hit, or to find the plate when she was pitching, or making awful errors on easy fielding plays. They weren’t there when she left a practice or lesson on the verge of tears because she couldn’t quite get a skill.

But they also weren’t there when she was in the back yard throwing pitches or hitting off a tee into a net, determine to get better. And get better she did, little by little, layer by layer, until her skills equaled and then surpassed her less-dedicated teammates and she came into her own.

It’s easy to look at who a player is today and assume that’s always who she has been – i.e., she has always been a star. But more often than not, most great players have a story of struggle to share.

The key, however, is understanding that any deficiencies someone may have now don’t have to define who they are in the future. With a fair helping of dedication and determination, along with a little knowledgeable guidance, players can build their skills, mental approach and confidence to become the fastpitch softball players (and people) they are meant to be.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Please share your stories in the comments of your daughters, or kids you’ve coached, who may have started out on the low end but eventually went on to great softball success.

Oh, and here’s a cool time lapse video of some things being made with a 3D printer.

3D printer photo © 2011 Keith Kissel.

Book Review: Spanking the Yankees – 366 Days of Bronx Bummers

Spanking the Yankees

AUTHOR’S NOTE: While technically this post isn’t about fastpitch softball, I know many softball coaches, players, parents and fans are also followers of our sport’s older, slower cousin so once again I diverge slightly from the usual path to bring you what I’m sure many will find to be a fun read. 

There is probably no sports franchise that is more storied than the New York Yankees. Love ’em or hate ’em (and there are plenty on both sides) you have to admit that they have long been considered the Gold Standard for success.

In fact, often the best or most dominant teams in other sports are referred to as “The New York Yankees of (FILL IN THE BLANK).”

With all that adoration/hype, it’s tempting to believe the myth that the Yankees have achieved this rarefied status by being able to avoid the missteps, boneheaded plays, under-performing superstars and other issues that plague the rest of the league.

Spanking the Yankees – 366 Days of Bronx Bummers” by Gabriel Schechter busts that myth wide open. It turns out they’ve made just as many untimely errors, had as many failed saves and critical strikeouts, secured as many draft day and free agent busts, and suffered through as many poor management decisions (looking at you George Steinbrenner) as anyone else. They’ve just managed to win 27 World Series rings in spite of it all.

The author makes no bones about his point of view or reason for writing the book; he has hated the Yankees his entire life, and thus takes particular delight in documenting every misstep in the 318-page tome. Yet you can also detect his grudging respect for what the Yankees have accomplished since they began to play more than 100 years ago.

(Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, so when my Yankees-loving friend Ray Minchew complains that the Yankees haven’t won a World Series in eight years I have zero sympathy for him. That’s the perspective I come from.)

The book is actually a quick and easy read. It is set up like a journal, walking readers through a day-by-day accounting of the worst thing that happened to the Yankees on a particular day, regardless of the year. Here’s an excerpt from May 8, 1990:

The Yankees lose to the A’s for the fifth time already this season, a 5-0 pasting in Oakland. “This is tough,” admits Yankees manager Bucky Dent. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Get used to it, Bucky. The A’s sweep all 12 games from the Yankees this season, outscoring them 62-12 in the process (0-2-0-1-0-1-0-1-1-1-2-3). On second thought, Bucky, never mind. Four weeks later, he is liberated from his Bronx bondage, ending his managing tenure with a record of 36-53. Some guy they call “Stump” takes his place, and the Yankees finish dead last in their division with a 67-95 record.

Hilarious.

This short format, by the way, makes it ideal for bathroom reading, airplanes and other travel, waiting rooms and other places where you need to be able to get into and out of it easily. Although once you get hooked you’ll probably want to keep going anyway.

Its three sections begin with Opening Day (which occurs on different days) and the regular season, followed by postseason play (with loving emphasis on World Series losses – yes the Yankees have lost more World Series than most teams have played in) and then the offseason. Anecdotes go all the way back to the days when the Yankees were known as the New York Highlanders and played at the Polo Grounds.

So by now you’re probably thinking this is a great gift for a Yankees-hater or the casual baseball fan. You might also want to pick it up to needle your Yankees-loving friend. But funny thing about that.

The Yankees fans I know have a love-hate relationship with the ballclub, and they like to wallow in the misery as much as anyone else.

Yankees fans may actually find the book cathartic, opening up old wounds and letting them once again wonder why certain players never seemed to come through in the postseason, why a particular manager couldn’t handle a bullpen very well, why management paid so much for a free agent that was a star before and after their time in New York but was a total bust while wearing pinstripes and about dozens of other issues that have made their blood boil through the years.

If you love baseball, love or hate the Yankees, or just want a quick, fun read to take your mind off of whatever is bothering you in your real life, give “Spanking the Yankees” a look. I think you’ll find it’s time well-spent.

For Better Hitting, Use Your Shoulder Eye

While it might sound like this is a post specifically for mutants, “shoulder eye” is a concept I came up with to help hitters stop dropping their back shoulders toward the catcher before they begin to rotate their hips to fire the swing. The premise is you want the imaginary eye on your shoulder to turn and get a look at the ball before you start to tilt into the swing.

This is an issue I see all the time, especially on low pitches. As soon as a hitter spots that the pitch is low, he/she will start dropping the shoulder to get down to the ball. That’s just wrong on so many levels.

For example, if you drop the shoulder back and down instead of bringing it forward first you lose the ability to fully adjust to pitch locations. You’re kind of locked into a zone, and if you guessed wrong there isn’t much you can do about it except swing and miss or hit a weak ground ball or popup.

If you turn first, keeping the shoulder up, you can then take a little more time (even if it’s just a couple hundredths of a second, everything helps) to see where the ball is, then tilt only as much as is needed. You can work from high to low, enabling you to cover more of the strike zone AND get a better bat angle.

Another issue with dropping back is that it tends to restrict your ability to move the hips forward effectively. All your weight is pressing down on your back side making it difficult rotate quickly and efficiently. Even if you get your hips to turn you won’t be generating much power out of them.

If you turn your shoulder eye forward first, you can unweight your back side so it can drive quickly around your front side and generate power. You can then get a proper hips-shoulders-bat swing that will help you drive balls into the gap or over the fence rather than seeing most of your contacts end up staying in the infield.

The idea of not dropping the back shoulder toward the catcher before rotation isn’t new, by the way. It’s a fairly standard instruction.

Hitters are told to land with their front shoulder lower than the back, turn a certain way, and do all sorts of other things. But they don’t always understand the instruction in a way that makes it easy to execute.

The shoulder eye concept does. Telling a hitter he/she has an eye on the shoulder, and it has to look forward before the shoulder drops, is visual (no pun intended) and easy to understand.

Originally I would tell hitters just to visualize the shoulder eye. But then one day it occurred to me – why not give them an actual shoulder eye?

A few bucks on Amazon later I had enough stickers to teach a small army of hitters. With 4,000 of them I’m guessing it’s a lifetime supply, even with my habit of giving a few to hitters who want to use them at home or at practice as well.

And why not? It’s fun and effective. Even my students who are college players like the stickers and find the concept valuable in helping them hit bombs.

So if you have a hitter who just loves to drop that back shoulder and sit on the back side, open his/her eyes to the shoulder eye. In my experience it’s a real difference-maker.

The Sneaky Pick Play at First

Catcher squatting

Picking off a runner at first is a tough play for a right-handed catcher – especially one who isn’t comfortable or doesn’t have the arm strength to throw quickly from her knees.

By the time the catcher gets up, spins toward first, pulls her arm back and makes the throw there probably isn’t anyone in the tri-county area who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Even if she does throw from her knees, the amount of movement that is required to make a strong, accurate throw will likely be a pretty big tipoff to all but the sleepiest of base runners. And any first base coach who doesn’t pick up on what she’s doing should be relegated to the bench immediately.

There is another way to approach it, however, that can help disguise what the catcher is doing until it’s too late. It’s designed for when you have multiple runners on base and need an out to get out of an inning.

First let’s set up the situation. Preferably you have bases loaded and two outs, although you can run this play with runners on first and second and one or two outs.

What you’re looking for is the runner on first who figures no one cares about her (poor girl!). She takes a big lead, kind of stands there nonchalantly while the catcher has the ball, and then when the catcher goes to throw it back to the pitcher the runner drops her head and walks back to the base. Bonus if the first base coach is hyper-focused on seeing whether the girl on third will score soon.

When the pitch is delivered, the catcher catches it and runs out to chase the runner on third back to the base. Once the runner on third looks like she is committed to going back, the catcher turns to throw the ball to the pitcher, just like normal.

As she pulls her arm back, however, she uses her eyes to sneak a peek at the runner on first. If she is walking back not paying attention the catcher adjusts her shoulders without looking and fires to first instead.

By the time the first base coach and runner react, the ball is already in the first baseman’s hands for an easy tag. Inning over.

Sounds simple, right? It’s not. It actually requires a fair amount of practice because the catcher can’t do anything to indicate that she will be throwing to first until the ball is close to leaving her hand.

For example, this is a no-look throw. The catcher’s head can’t turn toward first at all, which is a tougher habit to break than you might think. It takes some discipline to keep her head pointed toward the pitcher, even if her eyes are looking toward first.

The catcher must also be able to throw with a decent amount of velocity without lining her entire body up toward the target. In effect she is stepping to her left and then throwing about 30 degrees to her right. That takes some practice so she doesn’t throw it into right field – or the parking lot!

Finally, the catcher has to be casual about the throw until it’s time to actually bring the ball forward in the throwing motion. She has to pull her arm back as if to throw it 20-30 feet to a waiting pitcher. Any sudden movement until the ball is about to be launched could again give it away.

Of course the first baseman has to be aware the play is happening, and can’t be fooled by the motion being used to fool the runner. She just has to accept that the ball could be coming while remaining more casual as well. If she looks like she’s ready for a play it could spoil the whole thing.

So yes, there’s a lot that could go wrong. Instead of getting the third out you could end up giving up a couple of runs and putting another runner in scoring position.

That’s why it requires a lot of practice, and a lot of confidence not just on the part of the catcher and first baseman but also the coach to allow this play to occur.

When it works, though, it’s a thing of beauty. And it really takes the wind out of the sails of the opposing team because A) it took them out of a good scoring opportunity where the pressure was on the defense and B) it made them look foolish.

Even if you never use it in a game, this is the type of play that can spark a defense and get them feeling good. But if you do use it, and you execute it properly, it’s something everyone on the team, and everyone in the stands, will remember for a long time to come.

So if you’re feeling adventurous or just want to give your team a little extra energy, give this sneaky little play a try. It could be the thing that turns a game around for you.

10 Things to Consider When Looking for a New Team

Ways to succeed at fastpitch softball tryouts

Hard to believe since we have barely been playing summer ball again, but the 2020 season is nearly over. Some of the alphabet organizations are already holding Nationals (or “Nationals”), and in a couple of weeks this year will be in the books.

For some, maybe many, this is also the time of year when players and their families start thinking about where they want to play in 2021. There can be many reasons for changing teams.

Some are looking for a more challenging environment. Some are hoping to increase their playing time, either overall or at a specific position. Some want more games while others want fewer. (I’m sure no one was happy with that this season.) Some want to play with their friends, and some don’t like their current coaches and want to move on.

Whatever the driver, the tryout season (which follows immediately on the heels of the current season, unfortunately) will no doubt find a lot of folks seeking greener pastures.

If you’re in that category, be sure you remember these wise Latin words: caveat emptor, which essentially translates to “let the buyer beware.” Because what may look like a good opportunity at first glance may not look so good once you’re in the middle of it.

There are no guarantees in this process. But I do have some tips, based on my many years of coaching, that could help guide you to a better decision.

This isn’t a post on how to have a great tryout by the way. You can find those tips here. This is about considerations when selecting a new team.

  1. Talk to parents or players already on teams you’re considering. Preferably you will do this before you even get to tryouts. You probably know some of the teams you might be considering. It’s likely you play against them regularly. If you’re at a tournament this weekend, introduce yourself and talk to parents whose kids are on that team. They’ll help you get a feel for how it’s run, what the coaches are like, and whether all the positions are set already or you/your daughter will have an opportunity to see the field (or a particular position) regularly.
  2. Silently listen to those same parents. This is a bit sneakier, but there’s nothing like sideline chatter to give you a feel for what people really think of a team. Go stand by one or more groups of parents and casually listen to their comments and discussions. You’ll get an unvarnished idea of how happy or unhappy they are overall and whether the team atmosphere will be a pleasant or trying one. You could end up saving yourself a lot of time and heartache in the long run.
  3. Look downmarket for opportunities. Yes it sure is nice to be on a team that’s winning the big trophies all the time. But for many the luster fades when you realize you/your daughter was more of a glorified spectator than active participant in all those wins. Sometimes your best opportunity to develop into an A-level player is to play with a B-level team with a year so you can gain the experience you need. For example, pitchers need to be in the circle if they’re going to develop. If you’re on a team with two or three Ace pitchers, and you’re not at that level yet, you’re not going to get the ball much. That’s just life. Yes, you could keep working on your game to try to beat them out, but if the die is already cast you may not get a chance to show what you can do even if you do pass them by. You would be better-served by being a #1 or #2 on a lower-level team, and gaining lots of game experience than pitching two token innings of pool play and then sitting the bench or playing a field position the rest of the time. If you’re going to be successful you have to want and get the ball on a regular basis. The same is true for other positions, but it particularly applies to pitchers.
  4. If your are moving up, try not to walk in #1. If you’re used to being the best player on your team and you are looking for new challenges, you want to go somewhere where you start out behind some of the other players. In our pitching example, you want to go in as #2 or #3. As a hitter you want to start out in the lower half of the lineup rather than being anointed to the 3-slot or cleanup. Being viewed as being behind someone else should fire up your competitive juices and cause you to work that much harder. There is nothing more satisfying than be brought in as a backup and then taking over the top spot.
  5. Prioritize what’s important to you. For some people money and distance are no object. They are most interested in a level of play, or an opportunity to play, or whatever else is important to them. For others it may be convenience, time/distance to practice, availability of other parents to transport you/your daughter to practice or games or a host of other parameters. Before you waste your time or the coaching staff’s time at a tryout, be sure you know what’s acceptable to you and what is not. Then select potential teams accordingly. If you want time to work in a family vacation in late June, playing on a team that goes to PGF qualifiers all summer is probably not for you. If you have transportation challenges, joining a team that is an hour away and practices three nights a week probably won’t work out for anyone. Decide what’s important and choose accordingly.
  6. Seek like-minded players. Your/your daughter’s best experience will be on a team where players have comparable skill levels and goals. That doesn’t mean they all have to be BFFs, but they should at least all be pulling in the same direction. If you see bullying or prima donna behavior, especially from a coach’s kid, keep in mind that this is likely the best they’re going to act. It’s not going to get better over time. On the other hand if you/your daughter looks like a good fit skill- and personality-wise, it will probably be the experience you’re looking for.
  7. Watch how the coaches coach. Again, theoretically everyone is showing their best selves at a tryout. Players are trying to sell themselves, but so are coaches. If they’re yelling and screaming during tryouts, that’s probably going to carry over to practice and games. If you like that sort of thing – the old “command and control” style of coaching – have at it. If that’s not what you’re looking for keeping looking. One thing I will say is during tryouts I would often make a suggestion on how to approach a skill with a player, not just to help her do better but to see how coachable she seemed. If I got back attitude she was cut no matter how skilled. You should audition coaches the same way. Ask them some meaningful questions and see how they answer. Not just what they say but how they say it. You’ll learn a lot in a few minutes.
  8. Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. Ok I stole that from Edgar Allen Poe by way of Bruce Springsteen, but it’s still good advice. When you’re a prospect you’re likely to hear all kinds of promises. Coaches have rosters to fill, and they want to fill them as quickly as possible – especially if there is a lot of competition for players in an area. But just because you or your daughter have been told she’ll play shortstop during tryouts doesn’t mean it will actually happen once games roll around. This is where the research you did earlier (see tips #1 and #2) will pay off. Is the coach a man of his/her word? If not, don’t get sucked in by tissue paper promises. It may still happen but it’s not a given.
  9. Don’t rush the decision. Unless you/your daughter is trying out for her dream team, and you know there is an opening at her position, resist the pressure to decide on the spot whether to accept a particular team’s offer. I’m not sure when this became a thing, but it seems like a lot of programs have gone this way. Especially programs that like to pretend they’re high-level when they’re really more mid-level. This is a decision you will either have to live with for a year or that will create a very uncomfortable situation down the road if you decide you have to leave before the season ends. If that team really wants you, it will wait. If the coach is just trying to fill roster spots so he/she doesn’t have to think about tryouts anymore, you probably don’t want to be there anyway.
  10. Trust your gut. This one is simple. If something doesn’t feel right about the tryouts you’re probably right. Don’t try to convince yourself things will get better later because they probably won’t. Either finish it out and don’t look back, or just excuse yourself and leave. Nothing good will come from prolonging a bad experience.

The whole tryout process can be gut-wrenching for everyone, but the more effort you put into looking at all the factors the better of a decision you’ll be able to make. The good news, however, is that even if you choose poorly, you’re not getting married.

It’s a year’s commitment at most. Then you get to do it all over again.

Good luck, and go get ’em!

Product Review: Portolite Short Spiked Softball Mat

Pitching rubber top

One of the things I have always found challenging when working with pitchers is getting a good surface to work from out on the field.

In a gym or practice facility you have a large selection of roll-up mats. But if there isn’t a permanent pitcher’s plate out on the field, what most people end up doing is throwing down a hunk of rubber purchased at the local sporting goods store. Or going without.

With those throw-down types of rubbers you either have to be willing to pound them in with stakes or nails and pull them out again or skip the stakes entirely. If you pound them in, the stakes that come with them last about three times (less if you’re trying to pound them into hard ground). Then you have to purchase long nails at the hardware store with big washers to keep them from going through the rubber.

Need to change distances to accommodate pitchers of different ages? You have to pull the stakes or nails up to move the rubber, then go through the entire process again.

Of course, if you decide not to stake the rubber down at all it will go slipping and sliding from under the pitcher’s feet, making matters worse, not better. Eventually the pitcher will probably just kick it out of the way.

That’s why I was excited to come across the Portolite company when I was helping at a Rick Pauly clinic in Minnesota put on by JohnnyO. Johnny had a couple of their products there, and said they had a few different models for softball, including one with short spikes on it.

Portolite mat on dirt

This was the picture that convinced me it could work on dirt.

When I got home I checked it out and decided to give it a try. I needed one anyway for some indoor work on a turf field so figured that alone would be worth it. But I was really looking forward to trying it on the dusty fields I use during the summer.

First thing I wondered was would the spikes actually catch in the ground and hold it in place? The short spike mat isn’t cheap, so I was definitely rolling the dice on that count.

Pitching rubber bottom

The website shows the bottom is green but this is how mine looks.

I am happy to report, however, that it actually holds pretty well, especially if the field isn’t rock-hard due to a lack of rain. Hard to say if all the little rubber (or whatever material they are) spikes catch, but certainly enough of them do to hold it in place even with strong, powerful pitchers. As they push in, the spikes dig in.

I was also concerned about how it would hold up with pitchers using metal cleats as many of my students do. As you can see, the mat isn’t necessarily pretty after a month’s worth of use, but I don’t need it for photographs. It actually seems to be holding up pretty well. I expect to get a few years’ worth of use out of it.

Pitching rubber top

The edges of the rubber are a bit chewed up but the mat itself is holding up well.

Using a pitching mat like this one has some added benefits. For example, it’s easy to pick it up and move it when I have different age students come in. In just a few seconds I can go from being set up for a 10U pitcher at 35 feet to an 18U pitcher at 43.

This portability also helps in terms of giving my students a good overall surface to use.

One of the fields I camp out on regularly isn’t particularly well-designed or maintained. After a few lessons there can be a big hole at the permanent pitcher’s plate, with a trough leading away from it. (I doubt there are any bricks or anything else you’re supposed to use to stabilize the area.)

When that happens it can get pretty tough to pitch straight from the pitcher’s plate. I try to fill in the area by raking it out, but that doesn’t do a whole lot of good, especially when it might be a few weeks before it’s dragged again.

With the Portolite mat, however, I can either move the pitcher forward or off to the side where the ground is less worn. She gets a flatter surface to pitch from so she doesn’t have to worry about catching herself in someone else’s divot. Or trough.

And when I’m done for the day I can just pick it up, knock the dust off as best I can and throw it in the trunk for the next day.

The website says it can be used on turf, dirt or grass. I’ve done all three and can attest that it works equally well on all.

Again it’s not cheap at $235. But if you’re looking for a solution that helps provide a stable surface for your pitcher(s) in an easy-to-use, very portable format, be sure to check it out. I think you’ll be as pleased as I am.

%d bloggers like this: