Even the best fastpitch players weren’t always the best players

Never give up, never surrender

As I write this, it’s the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics. The NCAA Division I tournament is underway, and the airwaves (or cable waves) are filled with a seemingly endless diet of games.

You can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere over the next few weekends. That’s good news for the families of younger softball players, because it gives them a chance to see how many of the top players play the game.

Yet as you watch, it’s tempting to think that all those high performers were just naturally gifted, and always played the way they play now (more or less). The fact is in many cases it isn’t true.

If you talked to them you’d find out that many of these players started out as benchwarmers who were just happy to get a few innings in here or there. Or that the awesome pitcher you’re watching lead her team to victory in Regionals, Super Regionals, or even the Women’s College World Series wasn’t always the #1 player on her travel or even high school team.

Many top players, in fact, had to work their way into the positions they are in today. That’s nothing new, either. It’s always been that way.

For evidence, I’m going to point you to a couple of good stories of personal struggle. The first two come from Amanda Scarborough.

I’m sure many of you recognize that name. She was an All American pitcher at Texas A&M, runs pitching clinics all over the U.S. as part of The Packaged Deal, and is now a commentator on ESPN. Pretty good resume, I’d say.

Yet Amanda will tell you she wasn’t always on the fast track to stardom. In fact, in this blog post she talks about how on her first travel team, she was the #4 or #5 pitcher, and rarely saw the plate or the field when she wasn’t pitching. Not exactly the start you’d expect for someone who has done as much as she’s done.

Yet she kept working at it, and didn’t let her lack of opportunity discourage her.

But surely by the time she got high school she was the star, right? No, and don’t call me Shirley!

In this blog post, she talks about being the #2 pitcher behind an older girl until that girl graduated. So the reality is you don’t have to be the starter as a freshman to do great things.

Another pitcher you may have heard of is Cat Osterman. She set all kinds of records as a pitcher while at the University of Texas at Austin, including strikeout ratio, WHIP, and perfect games. She won a gold and silver medal in two Olympic games (2004 and 2008), and had a stellar career in National Pro Fastpitch league. Sounds like a natural, right?

Actually, not. According to this story, she was short, scrawny, and uncoordinated as a youngster. When she tried out for the Little League All-Star team she was the only player they cut. Doesn’t sound like a future Olympian in the making does it?

After that season she went to a travel team, and spent a lot of time watching games from the bench.

But again, she didn’t let it get her down. She just kept working, and eventually become the pitcher she was capable of becoming.

I share all of this because it’s easy to think that today’s stars were yesterday’s stars too. That’s not always the case, however. Players who start with natural advantages in size, strength or athleticism can be passed by those who work harder – especially when nature takes its course and the late bloomers begin to grow.

You can’t control how people perceive you. But you can control how hard you work to get better.

As I always like to say, it doesn’t matter where you start the race – only where you finish it. Take heart in knowing that even some of the best who ever played the game started out just like you – fighting for scraps, and working their way up the depth chart. And remember it’s not how good you are but how badly you want it that will make the difference.

Or, as they say in “Galaxy Quest:”

Ok, now it’s your turn. Do you have a story about a player, famous or not, who overcame a slower start and became successful? Share your story in the comments below.

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Think of Coaching Like Google Maps

Coaches are like Google Maps - you still have to drive

In my travels through the fastpitch softball world, one of the things that continues to amaze me is the perception that if a player can just get with the “right” coach or the “right” instructor, all her (and her parents’) prayers will be answered and all her problems will be solved.

As someone who has been at this for more than 20 years now, I can tell you that’s simply not the case. Getting the right coach, i.e., one who understands the optimal mechanics for a particular skill, how to apply them in a game situation, the mental aspects around them, and most of all how to teach them, is important. The wrong coach can definitely set you back.

But that’s still only half the battle. The other half is the work the player must put in to ingrain those skills into her DNA so they are available at a moment’s notice, without having to think about them.

To understand what the coach contributes v the player, think of the coach as being like Google Maps (or whatever your favorite GPS app is). The coach will show you the way, mapping out the step-by-step path for optimizing all those important factors while avoiding known hazards. But the player still has to get in the “car” and “drive.” Without that second part, the first part is just a wish.

Now, obviously, Google Maps is of little value if the information isn’t accurate. That’s why you want to seek out a coach who knows what he/she is doing. Anyone who has been driving for a while has had that experience where Google or another direction-giving app has taken us to a run-down industrial park, a random cornfield, a road that no longer exists, or some other godforsaken location rather than our intended destination.

Fortunately, in the last few years direction-giving apps have gotten much better. Still, until they’re hooked into self-driving cars they can only show you how to get where you’re going. You still have to do the driving.

So what does this mean to fastpitch softball players? Just that being on the right team with a great coach, or going once a week to a private instructor (no matter what his/her record of success is) isn’t enough. You have to practice, practice, practice. Not until you get it right but until you can’t do it wrong.

You have to be mindful when you practice too, not just watch the clock to see if you’re putting in the time. Work on doing what you’ve been shown. Be aware when you’re not doing it. Learn what it feels like to do it right, so you know when you’re doing it wrong.

How important is that? I can tell you from personal experience that all of the best, most successful players I’ve worked with were also the hardest workers. The better they got, the better they wanted to get.

As they became more accomplished their workload didn’t go down. It went up. They would constantly refine their skills, looking for any improvements they could make that would give them a competitive edge. The ratio between work and improvement would change, with more work yielding less improvement because there was less improvement to be had.

That’s the silver lining for younger/newer/less accomplished players, however. A little bit of work can yield a lot of improvement, and create the success that makes you hungry for more.

Again, however, you can’t just open a direction-giving app – no matter how good it is – plug in the directions, and expect to get somewhere. You have to hop in the car and drive.

Make the commitment and you’ll find you get to your destination a whole lot faster.

 

Minesweeper bunt drill for catchers

Success after completing the Minesweeper drill for bunts

One of a catcher’s responsibilities, whether in fastpitch softball or baseball, is playing the bunts that stay close to home. The catcher has to realize the situation, react quickly, pick up the ball cleanly, set her body, and make an accurate throw under pressure.

The first step in this process, of course, is to teach the core techniques, such as surrounding the ball and how to pick it up when it’s moving versus sitting versus spinning. From there, most move to tossing the ball from behind the catcher and having her pick it up.

Here’s another way you can reinforce the techniques while adding pressure, repetition, and conditioning. I call it the “Minesweeper” drill after the old computer game that used to come with Microsoft Windows.

What you want to do is set several balls at different positions in front of the catcher that she will actually be responsible for. The catcher starts from a runners on base stance, and when say go or blow the whistle, she runs out, fields the first bunt, makes the throw, then comes back and does the next, as Jasmine demonstrates here:

You can use as many balls as you like, although try to space them so the catcher doesn’t accidentally step on one and roll her ankle. For added pressure (and some competitive fun), have her work against a stopwatch. You can even have multiple catchers competing against one another to see who can get the best time.

As you can see, this is a drill you can do in a batting cage as well as outdoors. The cage we used in the video is a little short of the full distance, but that’s okay as long as you’re measuring times the same way. When you move outside to full distance, just set the baseline again.

Watch to be sure the catcher returns to a good stance each time before going after the next ball. She doesn’t have to stay there long. Just long enough to get established.

Not only is this drill good for building and reinforcing technique. It’s also a great way to help catchers get some conditioning work in without realizing it. They’ll be so focused on clearing the “mines,” especially if you’re timing them, that they won’t notice how much work it is.

If you’re looking for a fun way to help your catchers improve their bunt coverage, give the Minesweeper drill a try.

Fastpitch softball pitching: understanding the back side of the circle

In fastpitch pitching, the ball faces forward, not toward second base, at the top of the circle

I can’t believe we’re still having this discussion in 2018 (as I write this, for those of you finding it in the future as you ride along in your self-driving, flying cars) but it’s amazing to me how many players, parents, team coaches, and yes, even pitching coaches, don’t understand what the arm throwing arm should be doing on the back side of the circle. That’s the part where the ball goes from directly overhead to down and through release.

I see it when I’m walking through a facility or past a field where someone is giving a pitching lesson. I hear it from parents of my students telling me horror stories about their daughter’s first practice with the new team coach. I get emails from around the country about it.

The story is pretty much the same. Whoever is offering the “instruction” says the following: “At the top of the circle, point the ball toward second base, with your arm stretched high. Then push the ball face down through the back side of the circle, until you get to the bottom. Then snap your wrist and finish high, with your elbow pointed at the catcher.” That last part is often referred to as a “hello elbow.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. I could tell you all the technical reasons why it’s not a good idea – how it hurts speed and accuracy, how it works against the way our bodies are designed, and so forth. But probably the best reason not to do it is this: NO HIGH-PERFORMING PITCHER DOES THAT. Not even the ones who tell you to do it.

Why? Because it hurts speed and accuracy, works against the way our bodies are designed, etc. And ultimately limits your ability to do your very best.

No need to debate the point, however. Let’s just take a look at what a few very high-level, successful pitchers do when they pitch. Run the videos, then pause them at the top and see which way the ball is facing. Then take a look at what they do through the rest of the circle – bent elbow v. straight arm, whipping the ball through the zone from back to front, long, loose, natural release instead of a forced arm raise. HINT: Once the video is paused, you can step through it by pressing the “,” key to move backwards and the “.” to go forwards.

Yukiko Ueno

Amanda Scarborough

Monica Abbott

Kelly Barnhill

Sarah Pauly

I could point to more, but you get the point. Of course, if you want to see more, go to YouTube, search for a top pitcher and watch the video. You’ll find they do the same thing (more or less, depending on the pitch).

Now, I realize I’m running the risk of the Backfire Effect. Parents who are investing money in their kids being taught those poor mechanics, or pitching coaches who are making money teaching them, may decide to double down on their beliefs. No one likes to admit they’re wrong.

But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case in the videos.

If you’re a parent taking your daughter to pitching lessons, and you hear her being told to turn the ball toward second and push it face-down through the back of the circle, my advice to you is to politely stop the lesson, feign a family emergency, and run (not walk) away. Then find a pitching coach who teaches what you see in the videos above.

If you’re a pitching coach teaching that stuff, it’s time to refresh your knowledge so you can be sure you’re helping your students become the best they can be. Presumably, that’s what you’re in it for, so use the tools we have available today to find out what makes the best the best, and teach to that standard. It’s not easy changing what you’re doing – I’ve had to do it before – but it’s worth the effort.

When softball coach and player preferences clash

The coach's job is to get a pillow

There’s an old saying that if a hitter can hit .400 (or whatever number you prefer) standing on her head, the coach’s job is to get her a pillow. It’s really just a snazzier way of saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Yet for many coaches, it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to tinker. I get that you can always improve on something. But as they say in Bull Durham, a player on a streak has to respect the streak. (WARNING: This clip is definite NSFW so use earbuds.)

Coaches need to as well. They may believe in their hearts that hitters should always go after the first pitch, because pitchers are likely to throw strikes to try to get ahead.

But if the player feels more comfortable letting that first one go by, AND in doing so can perform well later in the count, it makes sense to let her do it. After all, Ted Williams rarely swung at the first pitch and he seemed to do ok considering he’s generally thought to be the greatest MLB hitter ever.

The same goes for calling pitches. The coach may be a huge fan of throwing low and outside, but if that’s not a pitcher’s strength you’re just asking for her to get lit up.

Or take the case of a favorite pitch. The coach may be a huge fan of the screwball, or the riseball, or some other pitch. But if the pitcher has better pitches in her arsenal, it makes more sense to rely more on those. Coaches may love the idea of speed, but if you don’t throw some changeups now and then hitter will eventually time the pitches and then it’s bye bye speed pitch.

I’ve talked lots of times about getting stuck in certain philosophies, such as sacrifice bunting a runner to second every time you get one of first with no outs. Not only doesn’t it make sense mathematically, it also makes you very predictable.

And why play for one run all the time when you have a lineup that can put up multiple runs in an inning?

One of my favorite stories involves the U.S. Olympic team, I believe in 2004. When Lisa Fernandez wasn’t pitching, she started at 3rd base and hit cleanup. But when she was pitching, the team would use a DP in her place, because back then (and really up until recently) the “book” said you DP for the pitcher.

In an interview Mike Candrea said he finally realized that every time he put his best pitcher into the game he was taking out one of his best bats, which was foolish. By bucking conventional wisdom and letting her hit for herself, he not only kept her bat in the lineup but actually added one more by using the DP for someone that didn’t hit as well.

One Gold Medal later that looked like a pretty good idea. And you’re starting to see a lot more of that thinking in the college game today.

As coaches we all have our preferences, beliefs, and philosophies. They may have worked for us in the past, but we always have to be mindful of the present.

Rather than getting caught up in “shoulds,” we need to focus on what is.

Oh, and if you are a player, keep this mind. From time to time, you’ll probably be told to do this or that by a well-meaning coach. If you’re struggling or under-performing, it may be a good idea.

But if you’re kicking butt and taking names, think about this. If you don’t follow that advice but keep performing, the coach may not be happy with you but will likely leave you in anyway. He/she would be foolish to take you out and hurt the team’s chances of winning just to prove a point. If you do follow the advice and your success rates goes down, however, you’ll likely find yourself on the bench eventually.

Not an easy choice, I know. But that’s the reality. Hopefully, however, your coach will be one who keeps a ready supply of pillows around.

Sometimes taking personal responsibility doesn’t work

Even when you take personal responsibility it can lead to disappointment

For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about fastpitch softball players taking personal responsibility for their playing time and experience. The first post spoke generally about the importance of looking to yourself first if you aren’t satisfied with your role, while the second told an uplifting story of a player who followed these principles to great success.

Yet sometimes you can do all of that and it still doesn’t work out. Doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do – you always want to focus on the things you can control first. But sometimes the uncontrollables overwhelm even your best efforts.

That hit home for me after the first post came out. I received a lot of positive comments and appreciative messages. Players were happy for the encouragement, and coaches who are trying to motivate their teams said they were going to share it with their players.

I also received a message on Facebook from a young woman telling me a story about how she worked hard at every practice and every game, was always there, always on time, was a good and supportive teammate, performed when she had the chance, and essentially did everything I talked about.

She told me despite those efforts, her coach still played other girls who weren’t nearly as dedicated and didn’t work nearly as hard ahead of her. Some of those girls would even miss practice for social events, and even then things didn’t change. She and her mom talked to the coach about it but he said he wasn’t going to penalize them for it, which left a bad taste in her mouth.

Then she said the thing I was dreading most: “And that coach was you.”

Yes, that’s right. Much as I have always tried to be good and fair, and have talked about treating players right, I haven’t always walked the walk.

This particular set of events happened fairly early in my coaching career, when I was more of a volunteer parent coach than a true coach. While there’s a long story behind it, I essentially allowed myself to get put in a position where I essentially lost control of the team.

It’s a situation I often refer to in business as well as athletics as being “the Queen of England.” You have a ceremonial title, but you your actual level of authority is weak. The masses tolerate you, but will turn on you in heartbeat if you go against their wishes.

No excuses. I let it happen, and I didn’t know enough at the time how to regain control. I was also far too concerned about what other people thought and how they would react. I let myself get talked into carrying too many players to placate a certain contingent on the team.

As I recall we ended up with 17 or 18 when we should have had 12. And in the end, a couple of great, dedicated players who weren’t part of what I will call the “rebel contingent” wound up with far less playing time than they deserved, while others had it pretty soft.

When this former player messaged me about it, my only answer (other than I’m sorry) was that I had learned a lot as a coach since then. In fact, that particular year definitely had an effect on how I approached running a team going forward.

For better or for worse, I become much more of a leader than a caretaker. Not saying every decision I made from then on was right. But from that point on I had a reason for everything I did. And I made sure to value the players and families who showed dedication and loyalty to the team, even when it was personally inconvenient to them, over those who put themselves first.

So coaches, I’d say learn from my mistakes. Don’t let a small but vocal contingent (or even a single person) influence you into going against your philosophy. This is especially important for new or young coaches who are just finding your way.

Also, recognize and reward the players who are giving you their very best every day – the ones who are taking personal responsibility – because they are the ones who will take you the farthest, and stand by you when things get tough.

Most of all realize that if you want to be popular coaching is the wrong way to go about it. Especially being a head coach.

People are always going to be unhappy with you – some justified, some not. If that’s a problem you may want to re-think your position, because you will have to make tough decisions and live with the consequences. Which could include losing people you thought were your friends. Or creating some extra headaches for yourself. You have to decide whether it’s worth it.

For me, this particular story has a happy postscript by the way. The former player who contacted me said she still liked me as a coach despite what happened, and felt she had a positive experience overall. I’m happy about that, because she definitely deserved better.

She has a daughter now, and perhaps someday she will coach her daughter’s softball team. If she does, I know she’ll be sure not to make this same mistake. And her players will reap the benefits.

What taking personal responsibility looks like

Taylor Danielson takes personal responsibility by hustling to chase down a foul ball

In my last post, I talked about the need for players to take personal responsibility when it comes to playing time. The idea is to control things you can control, like your effort, being on time, always being prepared, keeping a positive attitude (yes attitude is a choice), etc. rather than focusing on factors such as whether the coach likes you, or politics are at play, or things like that.

That’s great in the abstract. You’ll hear that sort of thing all the time. Here’s a great video of UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez talking about how she observes (and ultimately judges) players.

But how well does it work in real life? Let me share a story with you about a college player who has worked her way into the starting lineup by following these principles, and then taken the maximum advantage of that opportunity.

Her name is Taylor Danielson, and she is a freshman at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy), one of the top D2 softball programs in the country. Longtime readers know I’m a big fan of Taylor’s, and have been for a long time.

Taylor is a catcher, and a terrific one. That’s what she was recruited for at UIndy, and eventually I think she’ll wind up behind the plate.

But to start her freshman season, UIndy already had someone in that position they liked. Rather than complain that life is unfair, or get angry that she wasn’t “being given a fair chance” like many people would, Taylor kept working hard and getting herself ready for whatever opportunities she did get.

It didn’t take long. The coaches liked what she was showing in the batting cage, so they decided to see how the freshman would handle the jump to college pitching. They made her the DP, which meant she hit but didn’t play the field.

After a “close but no cigar” start, Taylor started ripping into the ball, becoming a significant contributor on offense. You can check out her stats here. As of this writing they’re pretty impressive. Or you can just check out this video.

If nothing else, it definitely demonstrates that if you can hit, the coach will find a place for you in the lineup.

Next, the coaching staff decided to see what she could do on the field. She’s done a little catching, but most of her innings have come elsewhere. So far this season she has started in left, right, and at second base. (Again, this is after being recruited as a catcher.)

Basically, rather than worrying about what SHE wanted to do, Taylor took the mindset of “whatever you need, I’m there.” In fact, as she started to gain innings in the outfield she asked the coaches if she could take extra practice time with the outfielders to make sure she was ready.

So, you may wonder how she made such an impression. I recently had the chance to watch her play and can tell you one of the factors.

Taylor was in left on a chilly day. There wasn’t a lot of action out her way, but every now and then a hitter would get around on a pitch and pull it foul down the left field line.

Most players probably would have jogged after the ball to retrieve it. No one would blame them either. But not Taylor.

Instead, she sprinted after every one of those obvious foul balls as if the game was on the line. There was just a joy about her, that she had this opportunity to play the sport she loved. Although there is also a school of thought that says it was a convenient way for her to raise her body temperature a bit in the cold and the wind. 🙂

Now, it is possible to put in all that work, hustle, be a good teammate and all that and still not have it work. My next post will talk about a situation where that scenario did occur.

But in the end, you want to know you did everything you could to be successful. If you’re going to fail, fail doing your best.

Taylor took her best shot, and it has paid off bigtime. Perhaps you can generate similar results.

Taking personal responsibility for your playing time

On the bench

Truthfully, these players gave 100% all the time. I just needed a shot of players on the bench!

My friend Tim Boivin sent this article to me a couple of weeks ago. Tim’s been around the block as a youth leader with the Boy Scouts, and as a soccer coach. He even coached a recent Winter Olympian (although not in the sport for which he went to the Olympics, however).

The article addresses a topic that is a concern to many players and parents these days – playing time. Or perhaps more accurately a lack of playing time and how to deal with it.

In today’s world the typical reaction to a lack of playing time is to complain to your parents (if you’re a player), other parents (if you’re a parent), eventually the coach, and anyone else who will listen. It can become pretty toxic pretty fast.

Now, there are some legitimate cases where playing time decisions are based more on who the coach likes, or who raised the most sponsor money, or whose parents are on the Board, or which players babysit the coach’s kids for free, or other factors like that. In those instances, the complaints are justified.

But as the article points out, there is another common cause – the amount of effort the player puts in to improve her skills, both during practice and on her own. As the old saying goes, you can’t control the outcome but you can control your effort.

The easiest thing to do is complain when things aren’t going your way. Especially if you’re used to having everything handed to you.

If you’re not getting playing time, however, the first place you should look is in the mirror.

Do you hustle in practice – really, truly hustle, running from station to station and giving 100% in every drill and activity? Or do you try to skate through practice breaking as little of sweat as possible?

Coaches make a lot of their game day decisions before the actual game day. Good coaches look at who wants it, and who is willing to run through a wall to get it. Especially at the upper levels.

Often the difference in skills isn’t that great, so what coaches are looking for are competitors. They want players on the field who won’t quit no matter the circumstances, who will dive for balls or look to take the extra base or even take a pitch in the backside if it will help their team win the game.

Another thing to look at is the type of teammate you are. Are you supportive of others, or do you sulk if things aren’t going your way no matter how the rest of the team is doing? Team chemistry is critical, so those who create positive chemistry are going to tend to be given preference over those who don’t.

The good news is all of this is controllable. There are really only two things you can control – yourself, and how you react to everything you can’t control.

Did you strike out or make an error? Suck it up Buttercup and do better next time. Did the umpire call ball four when she clearly should have said strike three? Shake it off and get the next hitter.

Is the air cold or the ground wet? Increase your focus on the task at hand and you won’t be bothered by it. Having a bad day off the field? Don’t let it affect your performance on the field.

The more you take command of yourself and give maximum effort, the more likely you are to find yourself on the field.

At the very young levels, the goal should be equal playing time to help players find their love for the game. But along the way – often around 14U – that starts to change, and it becomes about performing.

If you want to get on the field, give your coach a reason (or multiple reasons) to put you on the field. And keep you there.

Next week I’ll share an example of a college player who has done just that – to the benefit of both herself and her team.

Another good reason to hit hips-first

Visualization of the optimal contact point for good, strong hits

When I work with fastpitch softball hitters, one of the things I will drill into them (incessantly, if you listen to some) is the sequence “hips-shoulders-bat.” It’s the order in which body parts should be fired if you’re going to be successful.

(Yes, I know “bat” isn’t a body part but I try to distinguish that from the “hands to the ball” teaching that used to be so prevalent.)

It’s basically a mantra we use. If the hitter only gives a partial turn, or leads with her hands, or swings everything at once like a gate, I will ask her “What’s your sequence?”

The correct answer is “hips-shoulders-bat.” Repeating it over and over helps drill the point across.

There are several reasons “hips-shoulders-bat” is the optimal sequence. For one, it allows the largest, strongest muscles to get the body moving and create the power that will drive the ball into gaps and over fences.

Another is that it gives the hitter more time to see the ball before committing her bat. If you swing hands/bat-first, you have to start moving the bat into the hitting zone before you know where it will be, or how it’s spinning (for more advanced hitters).

But if you drive the hips first, then add on the shoulders, then finally launch the bat, you will have a couple tenths of a second more time to gather information about the pitch and recognize patterns. Doesn’t sound like much, but to a hitter in fastpitch, where the pitcher is throwing at high speeds anywhere from 35-43 feet away as a starting point, it’s an eternity.

Working hips-shoulders-bat also makes it easier to avoid the dreaded “dropping of the hands.” If you swing hands-first, it’s much easier to take the hands down to your waist and swing level to the ground rather than keeping a good bat path.

Getting to the optimal hitting zone

One important reason that doesn’t seem to be talked about as much, however, is the effect a good hips-shoulders-bat sequence has making contact in the optimal hitting zone.

The photo at the top of the post illustrates what I mean. The red, green, and yellow bars represent the quality of contact you can expect to achieve if you hit the ball in each of those areas. (It’s a general illustration, so don’t hold me to the exact placement of each color.)

If Kayleigh started the swing with her hands, her bat would have a long way to travel from the load position to where it will make contact with the ball. This gives her the opportunity to make contact somewhere in the red zone. In fact, there is a pretty good likelihood she will because of the issues of time and distance.

The red zone is red for a reason – which is, you don’t want to make contact there if you can avoid it. The swing hasn’t fully developed yet, and you’re only using the smaller muscles of the arms to move the bat, so you’re probably not going to hit the ball very hard. Your more likely outcome is a popup or a weak ground ball.

If you turn your hips first, then add your shoulders onto that turn before you launch the bat, you will have done a couple of things. One is you will have recruited the big muscles of the legs, butt/glutes, abdominals, chest and shoulders to create power. Now your bat can jump on that moving train and be accelerated into the pitch.

The other is that you will have carried the bat further forward before launch. Now you can’t help but make contact in the green zone (or the yellow zone if you’re a little early) because your bat has effectively bypassed the red zone in the pre-launch phase.

Like Kayleigh here, you will be a great position to take the bat to the ball and give it a ride.

Adjusting inside-out

Of course, like other things relating to softball hitting there are always exceptions. For example, the optimal hitting zone changes depending on how close the pitch is to the hitter.

The more inside the pitch, the further out-front it needs to be hit in order to drive it. Looking from the top, the optimal hitting zone will tend to look more like the photo inset (for a right-handed hitter). Again, this is an approximation; your mileage may vary.

General view of the hitting zone

Exact placement of the hitting zone depends on where the hitter stands in the box, height, and other factors. This is just a general idea.

But for a basic concept, I think this works pretty well.

If you are a hitter, the more you understand where you need to make contact with the ball the more likely you will be to adopt a hips-shoulders-bat sequence.

If you are a coach, use the photo at the top of the post to help your hitters understand where they want to contact the ball – and why. Many of us are visual learners, so a picture will be worth the proverbial thousand words.

Either way, it’s one more incentive to learn the body sequence for hitting that will drive greater success. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes in the comments.

 

Getting Your Money’s Worth Out of Softball Private Instruction

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If there’s one thing I think nearly everyone in the softball world can agree on these days it’s that softball private instruction isn’t cheap. Especially in areas where you have to be indoors for at least part of the year.

The facility costs alone can get quite expensive. Then add in the cost for the instructor and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart – or wallet.

A dedicated family can easily spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars by the time it’s all added up, particularly if the instruction goes on for a few years.

That’s why it often shocks me how little effort so many parents seem to put into the decision. If they were buying a new lawn mower, or a refrigerator, or a set of tires for their car they’d probably do tons of research.

They’d look for professional reviews, they’d look for user ratings, they’d compare specs, and maybe even go to a store and look the item over.

That’s why items in this price range (and above) are called “considered purchases.” You don’t just buy them on a whim. You put some thought into the decision because it’s going to put a dent into your wallet and you’re probably going to have to live with whatever you choose for a while.

The cost of softball private instruction can easily surpass all of those items. You’re just doing it on a per-lesson “payment plan.” Yet based on what I’ve seen so many people accept, it seems they go into that expensive purchase that can have so much impact on their daughter’s softball career blind.

Here in the digital age, with a world of knowledge just a few clicks away at most, there’s simply no reason to get anything less than a full return on your softball investment. Here are some ways to make sure you do.

Do your homework on what is good

This is probably the easiest and yet most-ignored piece of advice. I think many parents start out by looking for an instructor who is close to them. To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse.

Before you go looking for instructors, do some homework on what you want your daughter’s instructor to teach. Put in some time to learn what is currently considered the state of the art for hitting, pitching, catching, throwing, fielding, etc.

See what well-known, high-level instructors and coaches are saying. Many of them generously share their knowledge on YouTube, or on sites such as the Discuss Fastpitch Forum. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am also the administrator at the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, but it is a free resource with open discussions, not a selling site, thanks to the generosity of Marc Dagenais.)

There are plenty of quality paid sites as well, and some with a mixture of free and paid information such as Cindy Bristow’s Softball Excellence, and (hopefully soon) Fastpitch Foundations for pitching.

Once you start getting your feet wet into it, the other thing you can do is look at what high-level players do and see how that lines up with what you’re reading/watching in the instructional materials. You’d be amazed at how many people, even the players themselves, don’t actually understand how high-level players execute their skills.

Check them out on YouTube and other sites, and watch as many high-level games on TV as you can. You’ll start to see the similarities.

Many myths abound, so it’s important to gain as much understanding as you can before you go into it. That way, when you’re evaluating instructors you’ll have a better chance of selecting one who is teaching the techniques actually being used by high-level players.

Watch other local players

Once you have a decent understanding of the instruction you’re looking for, it’s time to start investigating your options. A good way to do that is to observe players, either in games or a practice session, who look to have the techniques you want your daughter to acquire. Then ask them (or their parents) who their instructor is.

Be careful, however, not to confuse “good” with “well-trained.” A gifted athlete – one loaded with lots of fast-twitch muscles and/or exceptional hand/eye coordination, for example – can be successful with no training or even poor training.

(In the latter case, they usually end up not doing anything they instructor says because their body just figures out what do. But they still think they’re doing what they’ve been told.)

That, incidentally, is why looking at an instructor’s record of developing high-level players (think: college) isn’t always an accurate indicator of his/her quality. It’s tough to know how many of them would have succeeded without that coach – or did succeed in spite of him/her. It takes a lot more than “the right instructor” to reach that level.

What you’re looking for instead are players who execute the skills properly, as you understand them from your research. If they don’t appear to be the greatest natural athletes so much the better, because then you know their success is due to their training and dedication.

Last summer I had a perfect case study of how this works. I received a call out of the blue from a father whose daughter is a catcher. They live about an hour’s drive away (with traffic), so it wasn’t a decision he was entering into lightly.

But he said he’d seen a really outstanding catcher in one of their tournament games and he asked where she learned her skills. The parents referred him to me, and I’ve been working with his daughter ever since.

I’m sure he passes a whole host of instructors to get to me, but it doesn’t matter. Because he knows his daughter is being trained in a way that matches his expectations.

Have a conversation

Once you think you’re on the right track, have a conversation with any potential instructors. Get a feel for their knowledge level and what they teach.

One thing you want to determine is whether they take a “cookie cutter” approach, using the same drills and progressions for everyone, or whether they customize the instruction to the student.

It will take some players longer to grasp certain concepts or movements. A good instructor will keep them working to become at least competent at those skills before moving them on to the next one.

Others will grasp the concepts or movements right away. In those cases there is no sense in lingering on them because the stock lesson plan says “on lesson 7 we do this.” Move on.

Do what you can to determine how much the instructor customizes the instruction. Again, a good instructor will teach the same things to all of his/her students. But he/she will do it differently for each.

That conversation is also the time to ask questions. If you know you don’t want your daughter learning certain techniques, such as “hello elbow” for pitching or “squish  the bug” for hitting, ask the instructor about it. An informed parent is a smart parent.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for the “why” behind what the instructor teaches. If there isn’t a “why,” I suggest you politely excuse yourself and move on to the next instructor. Everything should have a purpose.

Do a chemistry test

So you think you’ve found an instructor who has the knowledge and experience to train your daughter properly. The last test is to see what the chemistry is like between the instructor and your daughter.

We all have different personalities and ways of learning. And sometimes people just rub us the wrong way for no apparent reason. That’s life.

If there is a chemistry mismatch, lessons are going to be a drudge for both the instructor and student. You and your daughter will presumably be spending a lot of time working with this instructor, so you want to be sure they are working together as a team.

Also, you know your daughter better than the instructor ever will. You should be able to read her body language and enthusiasm level. A good coach will inspire her to do her best and help her feel good about the learning process.

If that’s not what you’re seeing in a conversation between the instructor and your daughter, or a sample lesson, you may want to continue your search.

Monitor success

Once you’ve made a selection, you’re not done. Keep monitoring to see how things are going.

Is your daughter getting better? Is her technique moving toward what you saw on TV from those high-level players? Is she gaining confidence in herself and her abilities?

The change is unlikely to be instant. It’s more likely to be incremental, with some frustrations and setbacks along the way. But over time you should be seeing speed and accuracy increases in pitcher, better blocking from catchers, stronger and more frequent hits from hitters, etc.

And perhaps someday some random parent will come up to you at a game or tournament and say, “Your daughter is really good. Do you mind telling me who her instructor is?”

Ultimately, however, the best ROI is the smile on your daughter’s face when she is successful and feeling good about herself. That’s when you’ll know it’s all been worthwhile.

 

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