Fastpitch coaches: when you’re offering instructions, be specific

One of the challenges of coaching fastpitch softball, or any sport for that matter, is offering directions that are meaningful to the player. While there are several elements that go into meaningful directions, I find that being specific is definitely key. Don't just say get lower - tell players to lower their hips

What does that mean, be specific? Here’s an example I heard today. A student told me she was working on fielding ground balls, and one of her coaches told her she had to get lower. That was probably correct – I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but let’s assume it was.

The problem with saying “get lower” is it leaves out an important element: how to get lower. If you’re bending at the waist, does that mean bend more at the waist? No, that would be silly.

The proper direction would be to lower your hips as you go down to the ball. That makes it easier to get to the ball while remaining in an athletic position where you can make the play.

Non-specific instruction reminds me of a joke that was making the rounds a few years ago. A group of people are in a helicopter in Seattle, checking out the sights, when a sudden fog rolls in.Not only are they having trouble seeing but the instruments go all haywire.

Now they’re lost, and need directions to get back to the airport. The pilot decides to hover next to a building where he sees some lights on. He sees there are people inside, so he quickly writes up a sign that says “Where are we?” and holds up it for the people inside to see.

They see the message, and take a minute to write up their own sign. When they hold it up it says, “You are in a helicopter.” The pilot immediately says “Right” and heads straight for the airport. When the helicopter lands, all the passengers are amazed. “How did you know from their sign where we were?” one asks.

“Easy,” said the pilot. “The information they gave us was completely accurate and completely useless. I knew we were by Microsoft.”

That’s the thing about directions. It’s easy to say do this or do that, but is what you’re saying actually helpful? Or is the message simply, “Play better!” – which I actually used once in a post-game speech to break the tension when the team was down.

For the most part, players don’t need you to tell them they’re doing poorly. If they have any experience at all they can tell they’re having problems. What they need is help fixing them. The more you can give them the “how” instead of just the “what,” the faster they’ll likely be able to address the issue and get it corrected.

Telling a hitter she’s pulling her front shoulder out is true, but useless. Telling her how to keep her front shoulder in, by leaving it strong and driving her back side around it, is helpful. (By the way, telling her she’s pulling her head out is neither accurate nor helpful, because it’s not the head that’s getting pulled out, it’s the front shoulder.)

Telling a pitcher she’s throwing high is useless. Even the least experienced pitcher can see that on her own. Telling her to whip through the release and fire the ball at the plate instead of getting the hand ahead of the elbow and pushing it up through release will help her correct it.

If you don’t know the “why” of common issues, find out. There’s plenty of great information out there. Search around on Life in the Fastpitch Lane (this blog) for ideas. Go to the Discuss Fastpitch Forum (if you didn’t come from there already) and poke around for hours. Search on YouTube – although be careful because there’s a lot of bad information out there too. Buy books and videos. Observe what great players do. Ask a more experienced coach. Attend coaching clinics and/or the NFCA Coaches College.

The more you know, the more specific directions you’ll be able to give them. And the better you’ll be able to help your players perform at the level you want them to.

The importance of tee work in fastpitch softball

Players, especially younger ones, often look at the hitting tee as something that’s only useful to beginners. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Working off the tee has a huge amoung of value to players of all experience levels, as this guest post by David Morgan of The Planet of Baseball explains.  

One thing most new fastpitch softball players realize as soon as they get into the game is there is actually nothing soft about softball. They quickly find that hitting a ball is not as easy as great hitters make it look.Tee hitting is for players of all ages, including accomplished hitters like Grace Bradley

It is common to find that new players have very poor swings and some may not even know how to hit off a tee. However, softball coaches have devised various drills that can help players improve their skills and develop good hitting habits.

One way softball players can learn how to hit off a tee is to regularly engage in tee work. We shall explore how tee work helps softball players to become better at the sport.

Improving accuracy

Accuracy is definitely important in the game of softball. For a player to hit off a tee accurately, he/she must maintain focus; tee work is very useful in achieving this precision.

For example, it`s possible for a coach to hang a target on a pole and ask the players to hit it. This target should be placed at eye level so that the player can easily see it.

The major advantage of this method is the player clearly knows whether he/she hits the target or not. In the event that the player misses regularly, the coach could use this opportunity to help the player work on her swings. In addition, it could help the coach identify if the player has problems concentrating by observing whether he/she regularly take his/her eye off the ball.

Body Timing

One common problem that softball players must combat is knowing how to time their bodies.

In fact it is common for softball players to lower their hands as they begin their swing. The result of this is that they end up missing balls they should have hit. Engaging in tee work helps address this problem.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to have players with this issue hit off a high tee, for instance  somewhere around the chest region. If the player happens to drop his/her hands, then her bat would go right under the ball. When players repeat this practice often, the tendency to drop their hands as they begin their swing will be reduced.

Keeps the body in shape

Apart from helping players improve their skills, tee work can also help keep players in good shape.

Sometimes, most players come back from an extended lay off only to discover that their bodies are no longer in tune with the game. This is when tee work becomes very important as it helps to prepare the muscles for the new season.

It can also help players work on specific problems before a game begins, such as an inability to hit to the opposite field. The ability to hit to the backside enables a player to move runners and throw off the defense.

Developing more advanced skills

In most cases tee work is done when the coach is present. However, mature players can also do it on their own.

One of the advanced skills a player can develop from hitting off a stationary tee is the ability to hit to both the left and right sides, again using targets. For instance, if it is an inside pitch work, the targets are placed to the left for a right-handed hitter. The targets are placed to the right for outside pitch work.

In addition, other important skills such as swinging through the ball, as well as hitting further back in the strike zone can be developed from regular tee work.

Final words

In conclusion, we have been able to provide some good reasons why we believe tee work is very important in softball. Having good equipment, including quality tees and the best softball bats, is important as well. The better your equipment, the more you will enjoy practicing – and the more success you’ll have in the game.

My name is David, I am an editor/co-founder of www.theplanetofbaseball.com. Being a software engineer by day and a baseball/softball blogger by night, I also participated in the training activities of a youth baseball team at my hometown. I have passion with baseball, it pertains to my life from childhood until now and I love to share what is related to that passion with others. I believe in the support of other baseball bloggers like me to spread the passion.

Getting the feel of the push off in fastpitch pitching

Getting a strong push-off is essential to maximizing speed for fastpitch pitchers. You need to develop a lot of forward momentum so that when your front foot comes down the stop is very sudden, which helps accelerate or sling the lower arm through the release zone.

Unfortunately, young pitchers often have trouble getting the timing down to create an early push. Instead, they will kick the stride leg forward while just sitting on the drive leg, and then try to push at the end, which is too late.

I’ve had pitchers skip before, because that mimics the sequence, i.e., push off first then reach with the leg. It works for some but not others. So if you or someone you know is still having trouble getting the feel, here’s something to try.

Place an obstacle out in front of her, very low to the ground like the swim noodle Alyssa’s father Tony is holding here. Then have the pitcher jump over it, using a normal forward jumping motion rather than thinking about pitching.

When she does it, ask her what she feels. If she isn’t sure, have her do it again. What she should feel is the drive leg pushing first, then the stride leg reaching out. If she does it correctly you’ll see it, as shown in the photos here.

Yes, this motion would be illegal for a pitch – big time illegal – but that’s not what you’re going for right now. Because if she could get the push legally you wouldn’t be doing this drill.

You just want her to feel the push first. After she does it a few times, have her go back and now try to copy that feeling with an actual pitching motion. If she’s gained the feel, and is driving her body forward first, the back foot should pretty much take care of itself.

So far, every pitcher I’ve tried this with has made an immediate improvement in her drive mechanics. I’m not quite ready to pronounce it foolproof yet, but it’s looking good.

If you’re facing this issue give it a try, and let me know in the comments how it works out. And if you’ve done this before, share your experience and whether it worked for you too.

Congratulations to Wisconsin pitcher Kirsten Stevens

Huge congratulations are in order for University of Wisconsin – Madison pitcher Kirsten Stevens on being named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week. Can’t say it comes as a surprise, though, after the weekend she had. Kirsten Stevens Named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week

Kirsten toss not one but two shutouts in earning her third and fourth wins on the season. And this after being sidelined for most of the off-season with a broken foot.

When the accident first occurred it looked like the Badger might miss the first part of the season. But with a strong work ethic and help from the Wisconsin coaching staff and trainers, she beat the prognostications and is back on the field.

And what a pre-season it’s been. Kirsten is currently sporting a miniscule ERA of 0.28, which is what happens when you’ve only allowed one run for the season so far. Over the weekend she also had a personal best 11 strikeouts against Hofstra, continuing the blistering pace for Ks she set as a goal before the year.

And the best part? Kirsten is one of the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet. Always with a smile on her face, always remembering to have fun, and always making time to speak with and encourage the young players who look up to her (literally as well as figuratively) when she meets them.

All we can say here is keep up the good work! And again, congratulations to both you and the team who helped you achieve a well-earned honor.

5 Tips for dealing with difficult parents as a youth softball coach

In the mockumentary All Stars, at one point the frustrated coach of a girls 10U fastpitch softball team tells his wife “The ideal team is one where all the parents are dead.” While that may be a bit extreme, it can be challenging for youth coaches – especially volunteer coaches – to deal with parents. In this guest post, writer Jessica Kane of SteelLocker Sports offers some advice on how coaches can deal with parents more successfully. Dealing with parents is an important aspect of youth softball coaching

In this day in age, fastpitch softball and other youth sports coaches struggle with so many different components that are not necessarily associated with the game. Emotional health of their athletes, physical health and abilities of their athletes, but most of all, parent interactions. Generally speaking, these youth coaches are volunteers who are also likely parents of a child on the team themselves who have minimal formal coach training and are trying to give the athletes the best experience they can. Here are a few tips for dealing with difficult parents.

1. Ask the parents what they want.

More often than not, these coaches are volunteer parents who are out there to pass on knowledge of past playing greatness they once had. As a result, most of these coaches have other professions and are not there to be a sounding board for the parent group. They are there for the kids first and foremost. When interacting with parents, it is essential that coaches establish quickly what the issue is and what the parent hopes to get out of the discussion. Setting boundaries about what coaches will and will not discuss with parents helps guide both parties during conversations. Asking the question, “what is it that you want to see as a result of this conversation?” helps establish an end goal and thus creates a working platform for both parties.

2. Let the kids speak for themselves.

It is important for athletes to learn life skills. Having a conversation with an authority figure (who is not their parent) allows for young athletes to practice many skills they will use throughout life. If a player is unhappy about their playing time, it is crucial to allow them to attempt to communicate with their coach first before parent involvement. Encourage the athlete to discuss their concern about play time, team dynamics, injuries, timing, etc. with their coach independently first so they can practice asking questions and listening and responding appropriately to questions, developing trust between coach and athlete, dealing with disappointment appropriately, and other extremely valuable life skills.

3. Trust the coach to know the sport.

Coaches now are heavily screened and required to know the rules of the game and what that means for their athletes. Trust the coach to develop practice plans, game plans, and outside activities that will benefit the team on and off the competitive area. As parents, you know your child, but as coaches, they know the game. Trust them to do their job effectively.

4. Set a good example.

As a parent it is critical that you set a good example for your child. Screaming at them from the sidelines rarely yields desired results. Typically, this type of behavior embarrasses the athlete and may cause their development to falter as they are constantly worried about what their parent will say in the car or yell from the sidelines. Encourage your athlete. Let them start the conversation on the way home and don’t try to over coach them.

5. Don’t live vicariously through your child.

Many parents today work so hard to afford to put their child into a sports activity. Once they do, they feel very tied to each event. Keep in mind that while as a parent you help fund these activities, they are for fun and for the benefit of the child. Less than 1% of youth athletes are able to make a strong living from athletics as a profession. Allow your child to develop a long love of the game by encouraging them rather than pushing them into burn out.

Jessica Kane is a writer for SteelLocker Sports. A leading provider of sporting goods, softball equipment and training programs for coaches, players, parents and institutions with a primary focus on youth sports.

Giving fastpitch catchers a ladder to success on throwdowns

First of all, a quick hello to any students from Mr. Nikolich’s Marketing 470 class at NIU who decided to stop by and see if I was as full of it as I seemed the other day. If any of you come by, please leave a comment below and I’ll see if I can wrangle a little extra credit for you. Ok, now on to fastpitch catchers and their needs.

What I’m talking about today is actually a fairly common issue, especially with young catchers, baseball as well as fastpitch. We talk a lot about “pop” times and the importance of getting the ball down to the base quickly on a steal.

So what happens? As catchers come up from a squat to a throwing position, often times in their haste they don’t get their bodies turned properly. When that happens they lose both power and accuracy on the throw. They wind up more like one of those yard sprinklers, spray balls all over the place.

With some training they can learn to get into the proper position when they’re not making the throw, or they’re under pressure. But sometimes they just can’t make the transition, no matter how much you yell at them. 🙂 That’s when you need to get a little creative.

Fastpitch catcher in runners on base stance for ladder drillIn some recent catching clinics with the Midwest Glory, I had been having the catcher work on their foot quickness with a speed ladder. They would straddle the ladder, then “jump on the skateboard” to get in place, going as rapidly as they could. Then we moved to real throws.

Some were ok, but others had some trouble. When they popped up they would wind up with their feet at a 45 degree angle to the target rather than being fully turned. That’s when it hit me.

That speed ladder I’d just been using would work perfectly as a guide to get the feet aligned. So I dragged it over, set it up and voila! Great positioning and better throws.

In the photos, Brinn McNeill is demonstrating how it works. The first photo shows Brinn in a runners on base stance, straddling one of the opening on the ladder. The second photo shows her after popping up into a good throwing position – shoulders, hips and knees Fastpitch catcher jumping into the ladder to get alignedaligned toward second, elbow pointed forward, knees still slightly bent.

She could now make an accurate throw blindfolded – and in fact has done just that. But that’s a story for another day.

If you have catchers who are having trouble getting lined up properly, give this technique a try. By the way, if you don’t have a speed ladder you can draw one in the dirt. If you’re indoors and don’t have dirt, use tape (with light adhesive), or sticks, or anything you can find to create two boxes for the feet.

And if you do try it, let me know how it goes in the comments below.

Smart baserunning pays off in fastpitch softball

This post was prompted by a play I saw yesterday on TV during the Oklahoma/Auburn game. It points out both the need for fastpitch softball baserunners to be smart on the bases, and how even the highest level players can make bad decisions.

Fastpitch softball players should never run into a tag. Ever.Oklahoma was up to bat, trailing by two or three runs, with a runner on first. The hitter hits a hard ground ball that goes straight to the second baseman, who is just a few steps from second base. What should the runner going from first to second have done? And what do you think she did?

Let’s answer the second question first. She ran a straight path between the bases, directly in front of the second baseman, who promptly tagged her and threw to first for the double play. I just cringed watching that.

One of the cardinal rules of baseball and softball baserunning is that you never, ever, run into a tag. Make the fielder work for it – she might miss.

In this situation it becomes doubly important because, of course, it leads to a double play.

So what should the runner have done instead? She had several options. One was to dive head-first to try to get under the tag. Or feet first. Or do a tuck-and-roll.

She may have been close enough to get to the bag if the fielder missed. But even if she wasn’t, she might have taken the second baseman by surprise and had enough time to scramble forward to the base. She would either have been safe or would have drawn the throw to protect the batter/runner and avoid the DP.

Another option would have been to stop short and make the second baseman chase her to get the tag, or stop and throw to second. Either of those choices would have once again protected the batter/runner by eating time. While she’s running, the batter/runner is as well.

A third option would have been to divert behind the second baseman, out of arm’s reach, so the second baseman would have to turn away from first to chase her, which – everyone say it with me now – would have protected the batter/runner and avoided the double play.

This last one is the option I would teach baserunners when I was coaching teams. Go beyond and make the second baseman chase you. If necessary, run into the outfield yelling “Woob woob woob” like Curly of the Three Stooges. If you can see you’re going to be out anyway, make sure you’re protecting the batter/runner, and maybe have a little fun while you’re doing it.

No need to worry about the “baseline” either. That’s a very misunderstood concept. There isn’t a single baseline you have to stick to as a runner. You establish your baseline as you run from base to base. So if you’re diverting behind to avoid interfering with the fielder’s ability to field the ball (and that’s the story you’re sticking to) a new baseline is established, which gives you some leeway. Not to the outfield, exactly, but at least some wiggle room. Running to the outfield is only for when you’re sure you will be out anyway.

There are probably more good choices as well. If you have one, please share it in the comments. But there is only one bad option in my experience: running into the tag so your batter/runner can be doubled up at first.

As I’ve always said you don’t have to be the fastest player to be a great baserunner. You just have to be the smartest.The earlier you learn your responsibilities on the bases, the more value you’ll bring to your team and the more success it will have.

By the way, I imagine Coach Gasso will be running some baserunning drills at the next practice to make sure her players remember not to run into a tag the next time. Even those who play for the top D1 seed right now have things to learn.

Yes, there can be such a thing as winning too much

Let’s face it. Whether your activity of choice is fastpitch softball, soccer, basketball, auto racing, marching band competitions, tiddlywinks or something else, everyone loves winning. As Nuke LaLoosh says in Bull Durham, “I love winning. It’s so much better than losing.” (Warning: the full quote is NSFW so turn down the volume.)Winning is fun, but there can be a thing as winning too often

Yet there can be a thing as winning too much. This is something a lot of parents (and some coaches) don’t seem to understand.

In America in particular, we tend to measure success in terms of wins and losses. The more you win, the better you are, right?

Not necessarily, because there’s another factor that comes into play – the level of competition. Think about it this way: how much satisfaction do you get out of winning a game of tic-tac-toe? Probably not much, because once you learn a few basic moves is only possible if your opponent makes a really, really stupid mistake.

Or if you are an adult, how much satisfaction would you get out of beating a 6 year old at one-on-one basketball, or chess, or ping pong, or pretty much anything else? Not much, because there’s no challenge.

And that’s the key to what I’m saying. If your team wins every tournament it goes to, especially if it goes undefeated every weekend (or even worse dominates every game) it’s not that the team is so great. It’s that you’re not playing the right level of competition.

You don’t get better if you’re not challenged. Winning a tournament shouldn’t be easy. It should be really hard. If you’re winning more than 60% of your games, 75% at most, you’re playing the wrong teams.

Sure, it’s fun to get those shiny plastic trophies, or medals, or t-shirts, or whatever they’re handing out these days as prizes. You have the big ceremony at the end, everyone takes pictures and maybe goes out for dinner afterward. But how special is it if it happens every weekend? Not very.

Keep in mind that iron is forged in fire. That’s what shapes it into something useful. Fastpitch softball players are the same way.

In order for them to get better, they need to play competition that is either at their skill level or better. It’s what will challenge them and force them to go beyond their current skill level. It’s also what keeps it interesting and makes the wins when they come extra satisfying.

Because you’ll know you didn’t just beat up on some lesser team. Instead, you put something on the line – the very real possibility of losing – and came out the other side on top. Your players probably learned a little something along the way, too.

The same goes for making it to every championship game, by the way, even if you don’t win. That just means one other team was probably in the wrong tournament too.

It can be tough to lose. Another of my favorite baseball movie quotes comes from Moneyball: “I hate losing. I hate losing even more than I wanna win.”

But that’s a good thing. If you’re concerned about losing, you will work harder to make sure it doesn’t happen. And you will get better. If losing isn’t a real concern, however, you’ll probably let up and your skills won’t develop. And that will catch up with you one day.

Parents, especially today’s parents, like to see their children succeed. But that doesn’t mean they should shelter them from losing, which is what you’re doing when winning becomes so important that failure to win every game at every tournament means you start looking for a new team that will.

Again, shoot for that 60-75% winning percentage and you can be pretty sure your favorite player is being challenged and growing as player. It will also mean that the fruits of victory will taste ever so much sweeter.

The long road to fastpitch excellence

The other night, as I was finishing up the paperwork for that night’s lessons, one of the baseball pitching instructors (who coincidentally also happens to be named Ken) walked into the office area sighing and shaking his head. The reason for his consternation was the expectations of some of the players he’d just finished working with. There's no quick road to success in fastpitch

“These guys are ridiculous,” Ken said (more or less, and perhaps a bit more colorfully). “They walk in here and expect to be throwing 20 mph faster in three weeks. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Amen, brother, I told him. I know the feeling.

The problem is we live in a microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, 24-hour news cycle world. That has set an unrealistic expectation in many people’s minds of the way everything should work.

All too often kids will walk in and expect (or their parents will expect) that if they take a handful of lessons that suddenly they will be stars. More likely that’s just enough time to mess them up pretty good, especially if they had a lot of bad habits before.

Bobby Simpson has the mantra “Getting better every day.” That’s a great way to think about it. The goal isn’t to take a few lessons and solve every issue. The goal is to be better walking out than when you walked in, whether that’s at a lesson or at practice.

The goal after that is to walk into the next lesson or practice either better than the last one, or at least picking up where you left off.

The old cliche “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” definitely applies. Whether you take the 10,000 hour rule as gospel or more as an allegory, the reality is it takes some length of time and constant work to see meaningful results.

Think about learning to play the piano. How good do you think you will be after four lessons? Maybe you’ll be able to play a credible version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” but you won’t be taking Chopin on anytime soon.

Or what about ballroom dancing lessons? Do you think four half hour sessions spent on the Foxtrot will have you dancing like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers? (Kids, follow the link to see who they were. They set the standard for dance in Hollywood musicals.)

Even if you’re not coming in with zero experience, if you’ve had a long layoff from practicing you’re not going to see a huge jump in three or four weeks. It takes time. Lots of time.

Typically, I find once I get a hitter mechanically sound that it takes about a year for them to see the real benefits. There is so much going on with hitting that it’s easy to be hesitant or get knocked off-track, especially in a game. With a year’s worth of using those mechanics and seeing live pitching, hitters start to get to the point where they can just go with it subconsciously, allowing them to spend their conscious brainpower on where the ball is and when it will arrive.

Fastpitch pitchers often have the same timeline. It’s one thing to be zinging the ball to your spots in practice. It’s another to do it when there are live hitters, umpires, coaches, teammates, opponents, parents and other spectators around and you’re playing for something meaningful.

As I always tell my pitching students, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside, but it can be a cold, dark place on the inside.

None of that happens, however, without first putting in the work up-front. If it could, i.e., if some coach or instructor could add 20 mph or otherwise reach some great goal in three sessions, those sessions would cost $1,000 apiece or more, and there would be a line a mile long to get some of it.

That’s the dream. But it’s not reality. I wish there was a shortcut, but as far as I and everyone else I’ve ever met knows there isn’t one.

Instead, the key is to set realistic expectations and work on little improvements that add up over time. Approach it any other way and you’re sure to be disappointed. And guys like poor Ken will continue to pull their hair out.

Keeping fastpitch pitchers on the straight and narrow

One of the keys to maximizing both speed and control for fastpitch pitchers is driving straight down the powerline (more or less). That is the direct line that starts at the middle of the pitcher’s rubber and continues straight until it intersects the center of home plate.img_0924

Wander too far off the line and your power will be spread across too wide an area to be effective. Think about a laser versus a flashlight. Both send light out from the source. One (the flashlight) spreads its energy across a wide area; the other (the laser, obviously) focuses all its energy in one direction, and on a very small area. Which is powerful enough to cut through metal?

Still, it’s one thing to tell a pitcher to go straight down the powerline, even when there is one drawn right in front of them. It’s another to get them to do it, especially when they’re working hard to maximize their leg drive.

If you’re indoors and using a pitching mat, here’s a way to help pitchers learn to take a more direct route. Either move the mat or the pitcher so she is standing with her throwing-side foot next to the mat as Jenna is here. Then have her execute the pitch.

She will receive instant feedback as to whether she stayed straight, and the long line of the pitching mat will serve as a visual guide as to where her foot should go.It seems to be more effective than the simple drawn line, because there is dimension to it. And it’s safer than using a larger obstacle such as a bat bag – just in case the pitcher makes a mistake.

As a bonus, the long line of the mat will also give her a guide for her throwing-side foot, helping pitchers who tend to let that foot swing too much out behind their glove-side foot. If your goal is for the throwing-side foot to drive straight down the line, she can just trace the side of the mat with that foot to get the feel.

For those who are outside, a narrow roll of foam from the hardware store will serve a similar purpose. Just be sure to anchor it down so it doesn’t blow away.

If you have a pitcher who’s having trouble staying on the straight and narrow, give this a try. And as always, let me know how it works for you.

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