The Mayor: Fun way to help pitchers with the mental game

One of the toughest things for any fastpitch softball pitcher is keeping control over her emotions. Pitchers are very exposed, and face a lot of pressure on every pitch, so it’s easy for them to get too high or too low depending on the outcome of the pitcher. Neither is terribly good.

This high/low issue was very evident in one of my pitching students, a 12U pitcher named Sarah. She’d throw a great pitch during a lesson and have a wide grin on her face. Then she’d try another, it wouldn’t work right, and the sad face came out.

It wasn’t just a little bit of disappointment. Her spirits would visibly fall – exaggerated by how high the last high was.

I would talk to her about needing to “maintain an even strain,” and she would nod, but the next time it would happen she’d do the same thing. I kept trying to think of how I could explain it better.

Then it hit me: Halloween was coming up, and with it Halloween merchandise. I thought about the Mayor from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

If you’ve never seen it, the character is the Mayor of Halloween Town. He has two faces. One is a gigantic grin; the other is a sad face. (See the graphic at the top of the post.)

His head spins around to show the appropriate face, depending on his mood. There is no in-between. Just like Sarah, I thought!

I thought what better way to illustrate it than to pick up a Mayor doll of some sort and give it to Sarah. So I ran to Walgreen’s, and found the perfect representation. It was just the head, about the size of a Beanie Baby. It was the kind of thing she could keep in her bag as a reminder not to go into “Mayor mode.” And it was fun.

She got it immediately, and was happy to get the gift. But it’s what happened next that was most interesting.

In her next lesson, she was a lot more even in her moods. If something went wrong she was able to shrug it off pretty easily – much more so than before. When she did make a face, I’d just call her Mayor and she’d smile and come out of it. Seemed like the Mayor had done his job.

Fast forward to this past Monday. As she was putting her glove in her bag after her lesson she pulled out the Mayor, and that brought up a discussion. She said she had another girl on her team who would have even bigger mood swings, so she handed the girl the Mayor to help her pull out of a bad one.

Apparently the Mayor has become somewhat of a team mascot. Whenever someone gets down, they get the Mayor, and he helps them snap out of it. Fun to hear they’re all sharing him, and reaping the benefits.

Helping the mental game can be tough, because you never know what might work. But if you have a player, or a team, that is struggling with evening out their moods, get out and see if you can pick up a Mayor while Halloween is still going on. It just might do the trick.

Advertisements

What fastpitch softball coaches can learn from HGTV shows

Sometimes you have to take fastpitch softball players down to the studs.

As a fastpitch softball coach , when you’re looking for ways to improve your players, it’s likely you think of DVDs, YouTube videos, books, and sites like the Discuss Fastpitch Forum as your go-to resources. Yet there is another, kind of out-of-the-box option that might help you from a philosophical point of view: HGTV.

No, they haven’t suddenly started running fastpitch softball content there, although that would be nice. But what they do a lot of is shows such as Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop Atlanta that take an older, cramped-looking, out-of-date house and turn it into an amazing showplace home with giant, airy rooms, lots of sunlight and picture-perfect furnishings.

Of course any of you with kids (or who are players who are part of a family) know that about 10 minutes after the cameras leave the new owners are going to crap it up with all kinds of stuff that doesn’t fit the decorating theme laying everywhere. But for those few brief, shining moments it’s practically a palace.

What’s fun about those shows is seeing how they do it. Sometimes the house they finally pick (usually from two or three options) is just old and outdated. It has gold or avocado appliances, yellowing linoleum floors, a bunch of small rooms, a tiny kitchen, etc. Every now and then, though, they get the big challenge – a house where there is actual garbage (or worse) in every room, the siding is missing, the shingles are coming off, the ceiling is falling apart, and there are holes in the walls.

Whatever the current state of the house, that’s what they work with. Just like a fastpitch softball coach getting a player.

The first step, of course, is evaluating what needs to be done to get the house to its ultimate state. Sometimes that just means some tweaks here or there, such as tearing out a wall or two, adding a fresh coat of paint, and updating cabinets and fixtures in the kitchen and bathrooms. Of course, even their “tweaks” cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Other times, however, the only solution is to tear the house down to the studs and foundation, inside and out, and start over.

That’s what fastpitch softball coaches face too. Sometimes a player comes in with a pretty good swing, or decent throwing technique, or a good pitching motion, etc. and just needs a few tweaks to up their game.

Other times, it doesn’t take long to see that a swing looks like an unmade bed (unorganized, no particular sequence or purpose to the movements). Or the throwing technique makes you wonder how they get the ball anywhere at all. Or the pitching motion was learned at the bowling alley.

In cases like that, it’s not time to be shy. You just have to tear it down to the studs and start over.

Of course, just like on HGTV you first have to get buy-in from the owner – in this case from the player. On the house programs, they draw up plans on the computer and show the owners what they plan to do. As a coach you can also use a computer to show examples of high-level players  to demonstrate the swing/technique/motion you’re going for.

But you need to go beyond that as well. You need to paint the picture for them in their minds about what their softball life will be like once they make the fix. You also need to explain it’s not something they can master in a week or two.

The HGTV shows are compressed to fit into an hour, but really they’re like a Rocky training montage. A lot of people put in a lot of work to make the changes happen.

In the case of fastpitch softball players, only one person can really put in the work – the player. Can’t subcontract out drills or practice and expect any improvements to be made. Which is another reason the player needs to be on-board.

The climax of the HGTV shows is the Big Reveal – the point where they walk the owners through their new, way better than before home. Many happy tears are shed and high fives exchanged.

The Big Reveal for players is when they finally get back on the field, and suddenly things that were difficult or nerve-wracking become easy and relaxed. Hitters go to the plate with confidence, knowing they can take the pitcher deep. Fielders can make quick, sharp plays and throws because they’re not worried about whether they’ll catch it or where the ball will go. Pitchers can focus on dominating hitters rather than wondering where the ball will go or if it will do what it’s supposed to do.

Take your cue from HGTV. Figure out what your players need to make them showplace-worthy (or showcase-worthy I suppose) and put your plan together from there. If you do have to take one down to the studs, be kind. It will be worth it in the end.

Photo credit: chumlee10 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

For all those who have struggled with a pitching machine

Over the last few years there has been a lot of debate over whether pitching machines are helpful or useless. Some say they’re not very realistic, while others realize it’s often the only means at their disposal to simulate a pitch coming in at full speed and distance.

Players also have their problems, saying they can’t hit off the machine, despite hitting well otherwise.

What I have found, however, is like anything else, the pitching machine is just a tool. It’s how you use it that’s the problem. This video goes into detail on where the issues arise and how to deal with them so you can incorporate machines into your practice – or if you’re a player, how you can get past the flaws.

This is my first vlog, by the way. In the future I’ll work on carrying a bit more friendly of a facial expression. 🙂

Infographic: the cost (and value) of athletic participation

Cost of sports infographic

Ohio University has come out with a new infographic that looks at the cost as well as the ROI of playing high school sports, including fastpitch softball. It’s a great read for those of you who wonder sometimes is it all worth it. You can see the full infographic and their analysis here.

As an educational institution, most of their focus is on school sports. Anyone involved in travel softball will find their costs of participation, um, rather low, because they only account for a small fee to the school and the equipment. Still, the point is valid.

What I found most interesting was the information toward the bottom where they get into the ROI. According to the infographic, former student athletes earn significantly higher salaries than non-athletes by age 30. So even if playing ball doesn’t result in that big college scholarship, there may be additional payoffs down the road.

For high school athletes, it says that they are twice as likely to go on to college as those who don’t play sports. Interesting given the stereotype of the “dumb jock,” or the movie trope about the star high school quarterback who ends up as a loser in a dead-end job. (Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on the part of the kids in theater arts.)

There are some other worthwhile stats there too, although I don’t see any attribution so not sure whether this is empirical data or just what people report.

I’ve certainly seen first-hand how having participated in sports has helped young athletes in other careers. From time to time, one of my players, former players, or former students will ask me to write a letter of recommendation for them, which I am always happy to do. I remember one case in particular.

A brilliant young lady named Kathleen was going for a prestigious medical research internship, I believe at Boston General, while she was an undergrad at a top school on the East Coast. She asked me to write her a letter of recommendation.

I couldn’t speak to her academics (although they pretty much spoke for themselves), but I did speak to her character as a player, especially around persistence and giving 100% all the time. I also brought up that she sacrificed her chance to be class valedictorian in high school so she could take a gym class, which I found admirable and a great demonstration of her doing what was best for her rather than seeking outside recognition.

She got the internship, and later her mom told me that my letter had been one of the key points. The judging committee said they see a lot of very smart students, but they favor athletes because they know how to work in a team setting, understand how to overcome adversity, and don’t get discouraged easily; they just put their heads down and keep working.

That’s a pretty good case study of what athletics can do you for long after your sports career is done. Kathleen now works doing research at the National Institutes of Health, and has even had her name on a published paper or two. Perhaps someday she will make a discovery that improves the health or saves the life of someone reading this blog today, or someone they know. Her spending her summers on diamonds around the area will have been a contributing factor.

There’s plenty of great information in the infographic. Definitely give it a look if you have time. And if you have thoughts about the information, be sure to leave them in the comments below!

 

Empty repetitions are like empty calories

Empty practice repetitions are like empty calories

One of the most common questions I get from the parents of fastpitch softball pitchers is “How many pitches should my daughter throw per day?” Sometimes they’re worried that throw too much, but most of the time it’s that they don’t throw enough.

I know they’re looking for a hard and fast number, like 100, but it’s actually a tough question to give a blanket answer to. Here’s why.

If I tell them 100, or 200, or 50, then someone is probably going to start counting the pitches. The goal then becomes getting to the target number when the goal should be to improve with every pitch. That’s just human nature.

The problem is empty repetitions, where you’re just throwing to hit the number, are like eating empty calories. It might feel good at the time, but you’re really not helping yourself.

In fact, in the long run you may be hurting yourself. Just as you are what you eat, you also are what you practice. If you practice the wrong mechanics simply because you’re trying to hit that count of 100 pitches, you’re locking down a way of throwing that will make you worse, or at least keep you in the same place, rather than making you better.

I know this from personal experience. When I was a young lad, I took piano lessons. The requirement was I had to practice for a half hour a day. Well, a lot of times I wanted to be outside with my friends instead of sitting at our crappy old piano that had some broken keys, playing exercises and songs I didn’t care about. So I put in the required half hour (and not a minute more) without really accomplishing much of anything.

If you’re hungry and have a candy bar, you’ve staved off the hunger for a bit. But you haven’t nourished your body. You’re not making it healthier; you’re just making yourself fatter and more prone to whatever illness is going around. If your goal is to be strong and healthy, you need to eat foods that will help you accomplish that goal. Which means thinking before you eat.

The same is true of practicing. At each practice session you should have a goal. Maybe you need to fix your arm circle, or improve your leg drive, or gain control of your change-up. There’s always something to work on.

Knowing what your goal is, you should work toward that. It may come in 20 pitches. It may come in 1,000 pitches spread across a period of days. Whatever it takes, you should focus on what you need to do to reach your goal rather than how many pitches you’ve thrown that day.

It’s a much more efficient way to practice. In fact, I’d rather see a player throw 20 mindful pitches, or spend 10 mindful minutes working on something, than just “putting in the time” like a prisoner in the Big House.

 

This idea doesn’t just apply to pitching, by the way. It is the same for hitting, throwing, base running, position play, and so forth. Empty repetitions gain you nothing. In fact, the mindset that makes them empty will also tend to make them less than great, helping you get worse instead of better.

Instead, go for the substance. Nurture your game with focused practice and you’ll reach your goals more quickly – and with greater ease.

 

The challenge of fall ball

 

 

Take advantage of fall ballRight now we’re in the midst of the fall fastpitch softball season – aka “fall ball.” Whether you’re a 10U player getting her first taste of travel ball or a college coach hoping to get an idea of what her team needs to work on in the off-season, it’s always an interesting time.

This is a big change from when I first started coaching travel ball. Back then, tryouts didn’t happen in August for teams in my area; most teams did tryouts in the spring. Eventually that backed up to December, and then to the current system where some programs are running their tryouts while others are at Nationals.

Because of that, back in the day fall ball didn’t really exist. When we did start running tryouts in August it was still tough to find games in the fall.

That’s not the case anymore. There are individual games, round robins, and tournaments (real as well as showcase) galore. As they say, you can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere. It’s a bit challenging for older teams with players doing fall high school sports, but somehow people figure it out.

The abundance of fall ball creates several new challenges for everyone. Here’s a look at a couple.

Win or learn?

One of the most obvious challenges is coaches deciding whether they want to focus on winning games or learning what their players – especially their new ones – can do.

You already know what you know. Do you stay with what you believe gives you the best chance of winning the game? Or do you try to learn more about players you don’t know as well, even if it costs you the win?

If you decide to learn, that might mean putting weaker hitters at the top of the lineup to get them more at bats. It might mean playing a girl at shortstop who has potential but hasn’t acquired the skills and game experience yet to really stand out. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.

If you decide to win, you may not get a chance to discover a hidden gem who could make a huge contribution in the future. You may reinforce a lack of confidence in a player who actually has more ability than she’s been showing. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.

Showcase tournaments add another level of complication. The idea is to show college coaches what your players can do. That’s why most don’t have a champion. It’s more like pool play all the time. You want your team to look good to attract coaches, but you also want to make sure all your players get seen.

If one of your pitchers is struggling, do you leave her in and let coaches see how she battles? Or do you get her out so coaches can see how the rest of your team does?

There are no right or wrong answers. It’s simply a matter of knowing what your goals are and sticking to them.

Stay in or get out of your comfort zone?

Players have challenges as well. One of the biggest is whether to stretch your game and take chances when you play or stick with what you already know works?

If you’re new to a team, such as a freshman in college or high school or a new travel ball player, you want to show you can belong and contribute. But you may also be nervous about looking bad if you fail.

The safe decision is to stay within what you already know you can do. But if you do that, you’re not growing as a player. Fall is often a good time to take those chances because people care a lot less about who wins those games. If you make an error, or struggle a bit at the plate as you work on developing more power, the consequences will be less than if it happens in the spring.

Personally, I would recommend making the stretch. Try taking that extra base, or working that new pitch into your arsenal, or sacrificing some accuracy to drive up your speed, or being more aggressive on defense, or unleashing your new swing. It’s your best chance to give it a try and see how it plays in a game. You can also be comforted by the fact you’ll find out what to work on during the long offseason.

Take advantage of opportunities

Fall ball offers all sorts of opportunities. Rather than getting stuck in the same old same old, approach it for what it is. Discover what you want to discover, try the new things you want to try (and are comfortable trying), and most of all, have fun doing it! It’ll pay off in the long term.

No need to sacrifice speed for accuracy in fastpitch pitching

Speed or accuracy in fastpitch pitching? The answer is mechanics.

One of the most widespread, ongoing debates in fastpitch pitching is: which comes first – speed or accuracy? In other words, should pitchers focus on developing all the speed they can and worry about accuracy later? Or should they first make sure they can throw the ball for a strike, then try to add speed later?

Part of the answer, of course, is driven by the needs of whoever is in the debate. Instructors tend to like to focus on speed, because in the long term the pitcher’s best opportunities will come when speed is maximized. You don’t see too many accurate pitchers throwing 48 mph getting offered scholarships.

Team coaches tend to want accuracy first, because they don’t want their pitcher walking too many hitters. “We can’t defend a walk,” they often say. Although some of their teams can’t defend a ground ball or a pop-up either.

So what’s the answer? In my mind, neither. Focusing on either speed or accuracy is the answer to the wrong question. What you really want to focus on is the mechanics.

The ball doesn’t care where it’s thrown. It’s an inanimate object, so it will go wherever the pitcher sends it. Which means accuracy isn’t a goal, it’s a result. If you do the right set of movements, you will throw a strike. Lock in those movements and you will throw strikes repeatedly.

Focusing on accuracy usually gets in the way of a good pitch. It causes pitchers to slow their arms down, or let the ball get ahead of the elbow on going into release so they can “guide” the ball at release. Neither of those options is conducive to accuracy or speed.

When you slow the arm down, you allow more time for something to go wrong. Not only that, but slowing the arm down causes a loss of momentum, letting you change where the arm is headed. Whereas if you’re using good mechanics and maintaining arm speed the arm will be carried toward the right direction automatically by the momentum that has been generated.

Letting the hand get ahead of the elbow at release prevents the whipping motion that creates speed. It also requires the pitcher to think too much, because pushing the ball through release means you can push it in nearly any direction. If you’re pulling it through release your options narrow considerably.

Having good mechanics makes the direction of the pitch far more automatic while enabling the speed to be maximized. You shouldn’t need to guide the pitch, or force it to go anywhere. If you really have your mechanics on lockdown you should be able to pitch blindfolded – a challenge I put forth to every pitcher sooner or later.

When you let go of your conscious thoughts of trying to guide the ball and just focus on doing the right things at the right time and in the right order, good things happen. You can then place your focus where it belongs – on maximizing the amount of energy delivered to the ball at release.

The result is speed AND accuracy, all in one nice, neat package.

What about a pitcher’s confidence, you say? If she’s struggling to throw strikes in a game won’t she lose confidence? Probably. But if she’s getting pummeled in a game she’s going to lose confidence too. Confidence comes from knowing you put in the work and doing what you do to the maximum of your abilities. The more you are able to take command of the game as a pitcher, rather than just surviving by pushing strikes across the plate, the more your confidence will grow. Because you will feel like you’ve created success rather than avoided failure.

For any pitcher, the objective should be to optimize the mechanics. Don’t worry about where the balls goes at first, except to use that as a way of diagnosing problems with mechanics. Fix the mechanics, and the ball will go where you want it to, as fast as you’re capable of throwing it.

With that mindset, you will have a solid foundation to build from.

Do you really know who’s coaching your child?

Watch our for who is coaching your kids

Normally I like to keep things focused strictly on topics that relate to the game itself. But this is a subject that really should be of concern to any parent whose kids – male or female – are participating in activities where they have long periods of exposure to adults.

It was sparked by this article, sent to me by my friend Tim Boivin. The article is about the revenge a dad in Pennsylvania was able to extract after one of his daughter’s coaches not only touched her inappropriately (smacked her on the behind, even after being asked to stop) but then tried to smear the dad’s name in the local town. He did it by using his long standing with the league, and the fact that he’d lived there in that town his whole life, to get the dad looked at as an outsider. It’s a pretty good read, and a good lesson about being careful who you mess with, no matter how much power you think you have.

But it also brings up a bigger point. During tryout season, the focus is on making a team. Sometimes it’s the “right” team, and sometimes it’s just any team. But after the stress of tryouts are over and you’re feeling the relief, there’s another question that needs to be asked: how much do I really know about the people who will be coaching my child?

The usual reaction when you find out something terrible about a coach (or other authority figure) is “I had no idea.” Of course you didn’t. Someone who acts like a predator, or a person who will dole out inappropriate physical abuse on players, doesn’t walk around wearing a t-shirt that advertises the fact.

He/she also doesn’t act that way in front of the parents. If he/she did, he/she wouldn’t get access to kids and thus be able to satisfy whatever needs or urges he/she has. Just like a con man trying to convince people to give them money, coaches who want to do terrible things to kids must appear to be completely trustworthy.

Many of them put in the effort to learn the game, too, further helping them hide in plain sight. I remember a guy about 15 years ago who used to contribute regularly to the old eTeamz softball discussion board. His signature phrase was that he would always talk about teaching the FUNdamentals.

The message, of course, being that coaches shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, and remember that it’s a game and games should be fun. Just the kind of person you want coaching your child, right?

Well, one day he just sort of disappeared from the board. Eventually it came out that this guy was arrested, tried, and convicted of several counts of having sexual contact with minors. Now the only FUNdamentals he needs to worry about is watching his back in prison, as many prisoners don’t take too kindly to child molesters.

That’s an extreme case, but it illustrates a point. Not all concerns are around sexual predators, however. For example, would you want a known felon with a history of violence toward women coaching your daughter? Probably not. Or what about someone who had punched a player (or a parent, or an umpire, or an opposing coach) in a fit of anger?

These are all legitimate concerns. Your daughter will be spending a lot of time with the coaching staff in the coming year, especially now that fastpitch softball tends to be a 12-month sport. How can you find out if any of the coaches (not just the head coach) have any skeletons in the closet you should know about?

One way is to ask if the organization does background checks with the state police on everyone who will play a coaching role or be on the bench with the team. If it does, don’t just take their word for it that everything is ok. Ask to the see the reports.

If there’s nothing to hide, they should be more than happy to do it. If they are reluctant to share the information for “privacy” reasons, that could be a red flag. No matter.

You don’t have to be an organization to request a background check on someone. Anyone can do it. If you have any concerns, request it yourself. The cost for a state check is generally $10-$20, while the cost for a nationwide check is typically $25-$45. When you think about what you’re paying to play, it’s worth a few dollars more to gain peace of mind if you have any concerns.

In most cases, the background check is going to turn up clean since it only covers criminal known criminal acts, and despite what the headlines may lead you to believe the people who commit them and get into coaching are rare. Still, there are some out there.

If the organization runs background checks and still allows someone who shouldn’t be there to coach, you might want to re-thing your decision to play for that organization. Clearly they don’t care now. How much are they going to care if you find a problem later and bring it to their attention? It’s obvious that letting that person coach is more important to them than protecting their players.

If the organization doesn’t run the background checks but you do and find something, you should bring it to their attention. Their actions from that point will tell you what you should do. It’s up to you, but if your daughter is going to be coached by someone you don’t want her to be around, and you allow it to happen, you will share in the blame if something happens later on.

Here’s the other thing. As I mentioned, background checks only catch those who have already been caught. You may want to do a background check of your own via Google or another search engine to see if there are comments from past players or parents out there that might give you an indication of the person’s character.

Does this coach have a reputation for being abusive to players, physically, verbally, or emotionally? Is he/she the type of person that will cause excruciating pain to young players despite their screams, as in the story of this cheerleading coach? Will this coach help your young player grow and become the type of person you want her to be, or will he/she teach life lessons you don’t want your daughter to learn?

When you’re with a new team where you don’t know the coaches, one other good idea is to hang around at practices for a while to see how they’re conducted and what the coaches’ approach to interacting with players is. Understand that practices should be hard, and it is not only good but necessary to push players to improve. But there is also a limit to it. They shouldn’t be doing things that are abusive or patently unsafe.

At the same time, understand that you will be going there as a silent observer. It is not your place to offer advice or suggestions, or really do much of anything to interject yourself into the practice unless something truly illegal or inappropriate is occurring. And you’d better have proof.

If you’re told you’re not allowed to watch practice, especially with younger teams, that may be another red flag that something’s not quite right with this team, coaching staff, or organization. As long as you’re silent no one should have a problem with you watching. Heck, it’s probably a good thing, because then you can reinforce what they’re teaching when you work with your daughter on your own.

Again, you hope that none of those bad things are happening. But better safe than sorry. Knowing who is coaching your kids is an important step in ensuring sports/activities participation is a good, positive, and safe experience for your child.

Photo credit: Vetustense Photorogue via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

I love questions. You should too.

Fastpitch softball coaches should love questions.

Last night I was working with a fastpitch pitcher named Kylie that my old job would have classified as a “boomerang.” I had given her lessons for a few months, then she ended up on one of those teams run through a facility that includes the lessons in the package.

After being dissatisfied with her progress as a pitcher over there, she recently returned to me as a student. (Most of that description has nothing to do with the story, but I just love the term boomerang.)

Anyway, at one point her dad, who was catching for her, told her to ask me the question she had. It turned out to be a really good one. What I liked about it in particular was it showed a desire to understand and get better at a deeper level than “because I say so.”

I love getting questions like that. Actually, I love getting any questions from students, or players on a team, because it shows they’re engaged. Yet I think often times many athletes, girls in particular, are reluctant to ask questions – even when they really want to know the answer.

I’m not sure why this happens, but I can speculate. I think one answer is that they might be concerned that the coach/instructor/other authority figure will feel like his/her position of authority is being challenged. Or maybe the athlete asked a question once and got reprimanded for it. Or maybe the athlete thinks somehow she should already know the answer and doesn’t want to feel stupid for asking. I’m sure there are other reasons as well.

In some cases, those fears may be true. Some coaches really might not like questions because they’re not secure in their own knowledge and don’t want to be trapped, or might be one of those “command and conquer” types who thinks communication should only flow one way. They’re certainly out there.

But athletes should never feel intimidated about asking questions. This is how we learn. How many great discoveries in the world started with, “I wonder why…” or “Did anyone ever consider…?”

Although you do have to be careful around “I wonder what would happen if…?” Often not much good comes out of that question, especially if it’s followed by “Here, hold my beer.”

From my point of view, though, questions are great. Again, they show the athlete is engaged in learning. I’ve always said that the first requirement for improvement is a willingness to change. Athletes like Kylie who ask questions absolutely embody that philosophy.

She heard what I was instructing, and knew she wasn’t quite doing it. She could feel it. But she didn’t quite know how to get where I wanted her to go. So instead of just nodding along and struggling, she asked a question that led to a more in-depth explanation. She tried it, and she got it.

She also asked one of the toughest things I think young athletes can ask: She had gone to a pitching clinic somewhere and they told her about keeping her weight back as she drove out; she wanted to know if that was right, and if so how do you do that if you’re trying to go forward.

That led to an explanation from me about how it’s like riding a skateboard on one leg, then putting your other leg down in front. Yes, you’re moving forward, but you want your entire body to be moving forward at once rather than a piece at a time. If you do that, you can drive into your front leg and get more whip rather than landing down, on top of your front leg and having everything come to a dead stop before you throw.

She got it, and was immediately able to improve her leg drive. Not to mention feel when her weight wasn’t quite where it needed to be. Either way, she now has the tools she needs to improve. And hopefully she’s a little more confident about asking me other questions in the future.

I’m definitely a fan of the Socratic method of teaching, where questions lead to dialog and critical thinking, rather than the “open the top of your head, I will pour in the knowledge, and then we’ll be done” method some coaches seem to favor. The more players understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, the more likely they will be to do it with passion.

It all starts with those questions. Not just from the coaches to players, but players to coaches. Incidentally, if you ask a coach why you should do something in terms of mechanics and he/she doesn’t have an answer, you might want to think twice about doing it. The coach could just be repeating something he/she heard somewhere once, and it may not be what you need to take you where you want to go.

If you’re a player, especially a young one, I know it can be intimidating to ask questions. But get over it and ask anyway. It will help the coach know how to make the information more understandable to you.

If you’re a coach, embrace questions. They show passion and involvement, that so-called “spark” it takes to achieve at a higher level. You want to encourage that behavior as much as you can, because a team full of inquisitive, engaged players are going to win a lot more games than a bunch of disinterested robots.

The only caveat with me is be careful when you ask me a question. You may end up hearing more than you ever wanted to know – especially if you’re the last lesson of the night. I love talking softball!

Building a more effective practice plan

The key to a successful practice is to keep things moving

This is probably old hat for those of you who have been around fastpitch softball for a while, but it is definitely valuable for those of you who are new to coaching.

First of all, thank you for stepping up. Coaching isn’t easy, and it can be very time-consuming, but with the right attitude it can also be very rewarding. Not necessarily financially, but personally.

That said, if you’re new to coaching a team here is one of the most important lessons you can learn early: there is nothing more counter-productive to success than players just standing around waiting to do something.

The absolute worst, of course, is the typical rec league practice where the coach pitches to one player while the rest stand around in the field waiting until the ball is hit. Never, ever, EVER make that your practice, because basically you have one player sort of learning something, or possibly improving, while everyone else is having their time wasted.

What you want to do instead is plan out your practices so every player is getting a lot of touches/swings/repetitions throughout the entire time.

One good way to do that is to split your team into two or three groups (depending on what you need to do) and then have each group doing something different. For example, one group can be fielding ground balls that are hit to them, another can be fielding fly balls that are thrown or hit to them, and a third can be working on hitting. The hitting group can even be going through a series of drills/activities to keep things moving even more.

If you have two groups, one can be working on throwing drills/form while the other does hitting or fielding. There are plenty of variations, especially if you have good assistant coaches or even willing parents on hand.

What if you’re by yourself and need to keep the entire team together? You can still keep things moving quickly. Throwing drills like the star drill, or around the horn where you throw left and run right, can build skills while again keeping things moving. If your team needs to hit, you can pair up players and run six or seven hitting stations at the same time. All you need is a fence and some tees, although portable nets also help.

You can even do combo drills. One I liked to do was to have one group hitting off front toss while a second group worked on base running skills such as recognizing ground balls faster or going from first to third on a ball to the outfield. Lots of activities for small groups let you keep practice active. Constant repetitions also allow you to build conditioning into skills rather than having to do it separately during practice.

So how do you work all this in? I used to use the outline function in Word to list out everything I planned to work on that day. There would be a heading, and any notes or specifics would fall under the heading as sub-bullets. But the real key was placing times against each section.

For example, if we were going to do groups for hitting, infield, and outfield, I would look at which would take the longest to get through and place a time against it. Then I would extend that time to the other two groups, making sure to have enough different things to work on to keep them interesting.

In this example, say we had three groups of four. If I set up four hitting stations at five minutes each, that was 20 minutes. Infield and outfield would also be 20 minutes, with two or three drills depending on what was needed. Rotate through all three groups and there’s an hour’s worth of practice right there. Add in warmups, dailies, a five-minute break, and some situational work and you have a great, active 2-hour practice.

Of course, I’d usually have one or two other activities on the list, just in case we ran short (although we rarely did). Anything we didn’t get to this time would go on the list for the next practice.

If we were indoors in batting cages, I often would bring in players in groups of three or four for 45 minutes at a stretch. That was plenty of time to get them lots of hitting reps while keep the group size manageable. When their 45 minutes was up the next group would come in, then the next. It was quick and intense for the players, although it did keep the coaches there for 2:15 instead of a typical 2 hour practice. Still, much was accomplished that way.

One other important element in building practices is one I learned from John Tschida at the University of St. Thomas: never have the same practice twice. Always, always mix it up. It builds more skills, and keeps it more interesting for the players.

Fastpitch softball is a tough game, with much to learn – both in terms of skills and strategy. It requires a lot of anticipation and snap decisions based on a multitude of ever-changing factors. That’s what makes it exciting. But that’s what also makes it critical to use your practice time wisely. There just isn’t any time to waste.

Keep things moving at practice and soon you’ll be the coach everyone wants to play for.

%d bloggers like this: