One of the most well-known pieces of advice from the late, great Bruce Lee was a simple three-word statement: be as water. For those interested in more of what he meant, or who are just wondering who the heck Bruce Lee was, here’s a video:
While Lee’s advice was ostensibly meant to encourage martial artists to give up their old, rigid approach to movement in favor of one that was more free-flowing, I find it’s also great advice for fastpitch softball players. Here are a few examples.
When pitchers want to throw harder, they tend to tighten up their muscles and become very stiff. They also do it when they’re trying to guide the ball to a location (even if it’s just the general strike zone). Yet that’s the worst possible thing to do in each situation.
If you’re trying to gain speed, remember tight muscles are slow muscles. You can swing your arm around much faster if you relax and let it go versus trying to force it around.
Being stiff when trying to gain better control also works against you, and actually makes it more difficult. If you are tight and off-line somewhere in your circle, you will stay there and the ball will go somewhere you don’t want it to.
But if you are loose, a gentle nudge is all it takes to get back on-line. Plus, you have momentum working for you, because if you are loose and using good mechanics (i.e., those that follow the natural way the body moves) it’s a lot easier to follow the natural line.
To improve as a pitcher, be as water.
The same things about tight versus loose apply to hitters. If you try to muscle up on the ball you’ll lose the whipping action of the bat into the hitting zone, costing you valuable bat speed.
Being tight also makes it difficult to react and adjust to pitch speeds, spins and locations. A rigid swing will tend to continue going wherever it started to go; a relaxed swing allows you to make adjustments without losing bat speed.
Then there’s the mental aspect. If you are uptight generally (aka in your own head) you are going to be worried about far too many outside factors, such as your last at bat or the fight you had with your mother before the game, to bring your swing thought down to “see ball, hit ball.”
There will be no flow to your swing, just a sort of panicked flail as the ball comes in. You may even start seeing things that aren’t there, or lose your perspective on exactly where the strike zone is. Much can happen.
To improve as a hitter, be as water.
As a fielder, you want to be able to move smoothly to the ball. You want your throws to be easy and sure.
That’s going to be tough if you are tight and rigid. The word “flow” is frequently used to describe a great fielder. And what water does.
Being rigid or mechanical in your movements is a sure ticket to many more errors than you should be making. And if you are that way because you are AFRAID of making errors and being pulled out of the game, it only gets worse. Forget about all that.
To improve as a fielder, be as water.
Approach to the Game
Perhaps the area Bruce Lee’s advice applied to most is your general approach to the game. In the video, he says that if you pour water into a cup it becomes the cup. If you pour it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Fastpitch softball players need that type of flexibility as well. You may be asked to play a position that isn’t your usual one. You can either resist or go with it.
Yes, playing outfield rather than catcher or shortstop may not be your preference. But if you go with it and prove yourself in the role you were asked to play you are far more likely to get the opportunity to show what you can do in the position you want to play. I’ve seen it happen.
You may not like your coach’s coaching style. Understood – there are some bad coaches out there. But often it’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s just different than you prefer.
Rather than bracing yourself against it like a rock, be as water. Adjust your expectations and get as much as you can out of the experience. Everyone has something to teach – even if it’s just not to be like they are in the future.
You may not be getting the playing time you want or feel you deserve. That may be true. But before you just blame the coach and jump ship, ask yourself if you’re doing all you can do to earn the spot you want.
Are you diving for balls in practice? Are you displaying a positive attitude? Do you go to the weight room, take extra batting practice or bullpen work, ask for one more ground ball if you pooch one in practice, help clean up team equipment at the end of practice or a game, etc.?
Maybe the answer is yes and you’re just not getting a fair shot. It happens. But before you decide that, determine whether you have been trying to shape yourself to the program the way water shapes itself to the cup or wishing the program would shape itself to you.
So after all of this, if I were to ask you which is stronger, the rock or the water, what would you answer?
Many would say the rock. Not a bad answer on the surface, because if you place a rock in a stream or river, the water will be forced to go around it.
Over time, however, the water will wear away the rock and any other obstacle in its path until it can once again flow smoothly.
So I ask you again: which is stronger, the rock or the water?
Be as water, my friend.
This is the type of post I always love to write because it means someone has fulfilled a goal. So today I want to take the opportunity to congratulate Allison Musgrove, who plays for Harvard High School and the McHenry County Heatwave, for officially signing to play softball next year at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
Allison is a terrific pitcher and hitter. Although she isn’t very big, her pitches and bat pack a wallop!
Unlike many of my students who start with me young, Allison was already in high school when we started working together. Her former pitching coach (whose daughter I also taught back in the day) had left the area and she and her parents Vern and Crystal were looking for a replacement. Fortunately they were given my name.
One of the fun things is Allison and I hit it off instantly. We bonded on our love of Star Wars, comic book characters (she is a huge Marvel fan) and other nerdy pop culture.
I love the fact that when I made one of those references, either to illustrate an instruction point or just in general conversation, she actually got it without explanation. Still need to get her watching the DC TV shows on the CW, but all in good time.
Allison has always had a tremendous work ethic to go with her talent, which makes lessons fun. She pays close attention and works hard at the things I assign her.
She is also a perfectionist, which can work against her at times, leaving her frustrated when something doesn’t come right away. But she pushes through it, largely because she has such a great attitude. Even when she is having a little trouble it doesn’t take much to get her to smile again.
Of course, a lot of that is due to tremendous parenting. Both Crystal and Vern are always there with words of encouragement and support. They raised a polite, respectful, yet fun daughter who can take some ribbing and give it right back.
One of my favorite success stories is about her hitting. Originally I only worked with her on pitching. But one day she asked if we could work on hitting too since she’d been struggling.
We worked on her hitting and it started to come around. First with some hard outs, then singles here and there, and finally consistent hits with extra base hits, including a few home runs.
Allison has come a long way since we first met. Marian University has definitely made a smart decision in signing her.
I wish her luck, and am letting her know publicly that Fond du Lac isn’t that far from home for me. I plan on coming out to see her play in 2021 – but probably not until toward the end of the season when the weather is hopefully a little warmer.
Congratulations, Allison! You earned it!
As anyone who has gone through the process knows, selecting a pitching coach is a bit like entering the Wild West. There are all these conflicting ideas out there, covered in articles, social media posts, YouTube videos and the like.
Some are good, some are great, and some, quite frankly, are downright dangerous to the pitcher’s health. But how does a parent who wants to do right by his/her daughter, or a coach who wants to give his team’s pitchers their best chance of succeeding, sift through all the muck to find the diamonds in teaching?
A new online education program called High Performance Pitching was introduced over the holidays to address this glaring need. It offers detailed instruction from Rick Pauly of Paulygirl Fastpitch, along with demonstrations of certain drills by his daughter and 8-time NPF All-Pro Sarah Pauly, that explains the mechanics used by every elite pitcher in the game today and how to achieve them, step-by-step.
High Performance Pitching is structured to serve several needs. For those who know little or nothing but want to learn the best way to pitch a softball in fastpitch, there is the Beginner level program. It offers three courses (one free, plus two others for $29.95 each) that cover the basic mechanics and key checkpoints to look for.
All courses are video-based so you can see each piece in action. It’s ideal for the parent whose daughter thinks she may want to pitch, a team coach who wants to help his/her pitchers get started, or anyone who is interested in finding a pitching coach and wants to know what to look for in what the coach teaches.
There is also an Intermediate program that gets far more in-depth into the mechanics of pitching. It consists of 12 courses, each roughly an hour long, that break down various aspects of basic mechanics and offer drills. It is designed both for pitching coaches who are interested in learning the mechanics of high-level pitching as well as anyone who is looking for help in a specific area.
To participate in the certification program you must first complete a background check and pass an online course about preventing sexual abuse. You must then sign and return the Standards of Instruction Affirmation and Code of Ethics for Coaches documents.
One of the best parts is there are also videos that show Rick Pauly working on these principles with different students. You get to be the proverbial fly on the wall as Rick works with a pitcher. That means you can see the individual repetition failures as well as the successes and how Rick approaches corrections.
In fact, for many pitching coaches these “live” sessions may be the best part as it enables you to see how a very successful pitching coach works. All too often we are stuck in our bubbles, with just our own approach to go by. These videos provide a unique and valuable perspective.
At the end of each course there is also a quiz to test your knowledge. If you are going for High Performance Pitching certification you must take and pass these tests. If you are not, or you are just cherry-picking certain videos, the quiz is optional.
You must also complete a personal interview with Rick or Sarah, either in-person or online, before you can be certified.
Finally, there is the Elite program which focuses more on advanced movement pitches, increasing speed, changing speeds, improving location of pitching and other topics. You must first take and pass the Intermediate certification program as a prerequisite to taking the Elite certification program.
(Full disclosure: I have completed both and am now Elite-level certified.)
The Elite program includes 10 courses, again each of them running roughly an hour. To achieve certification you must again take all the courses and pass all the quizzes. I believe you also have the ability to cherry-pick certain courses if you don’t want to follow the entire program.
In all, to become Elite level certified you will complete 22 courses, 150 lessons and 22 quizzes. It is all self-paced so you can do it when you have time.
For the Intermediate and Elite levels there is a $200 registration fee. You must then pay $29.95 for each of the individual courses. It is definitely an investment of money as well as time.
But is it worth that level of investment? Absolutely. I’ve been teaching pitchers for 20 years using the same approach yet I learned some nuances and concepts that will affect the way I teach going forward.
For someone who was brought up in the “hello elbow, paint your way through the release zone, slam the door” school (including former pitchers) it will be even more valuable because you will learn a way of teaching that produces better results for your students while keeping their shoulders, arms, knees and other body parts safer.
The goal of High Performance Pitching is to revolutionize the way fastpitch pitching is taught. In speaking with Rick, his main concern is all the harm that is being done to pitchers through poor instruction.
He wants to inform and educate parents and coaches, and offer an accessible, definitive resource that makes it easier to develop high quality, healthy fastpitch pitchers.
If you are involved in pitching in any way, at any level, it’s worth checking out.
And if you are a parent seeking a certified coach who follows the High Performance Pitching principles, be sure to check out the Certified Coach Locator. It lets you know who in your area you can turn to for high-level instruction.
I know just about everyone is still in holiday mode so I’ll keep this one quick today. I just want to thank everyone who has come out to Life in the Fastpitch Lane to read the posts, as well as those who have shared them and commented on them throughout the year.
Thanks to you, for the first time ever Life in the Fastpitch Lane surpassed 100,000 views in a single year. It also had more than 80,000 visitors, which is tremendous.
When I started this blog back in December of 2006, I was hopeful that a few folks might be interested in giving it a look, and that I might be able to help some players, coaches and parents with their softball journey.
Now here we are, 13 years later, and it’s reaching a very wide audience of fastpitch softball enthusiasts around the world.
None of that happens without all of you. So thank you, thank you, thank you. I look forward to continuing to share more with the softball community in 2020.
As fastpitch softball hitters begin to experience some success with making contact, their next natural evolution is to want to hit the ball harder. Often what that amounts to is trying to swing the bat harder with their arms.
It makes sense in a way. You’re holding the bat in your hands, which are attached to the arms. The faster the bat moves the harder the ball will be hit (theoretically). So…
The natural tendency is to try to make the bat move faster with the arms and shoulders. There’s just one problem: once you try to maximize batspeed with your arms you lose all ability to adjust the bat to the flight of the ball.
That’s because the arms can only do one job. They can either supply power or they can lag a bit behind the body and then deliver the bat accurately and properly in the path of the ball.
So where does the power come from? The strong rotation of the lower half of the body, which most people refer to as driving the hips.
That’s where the biggest muscles of the body are located, so that’s where you can generate the most power. If you’re trying to push a car out of the snow or mud, you either use your legs or it doesn’t go anywhere.
The problem is, if you don’t develop the power from your lower half it has to come from somewhere. So the body will instinctively try to get it out of the part of the body that’s holding the bat.
And now we’re back to the original issue. With no (or little) hip rotation, the bat has to travel a longer distance to get to the contact zone. That means you have to start developing the power and applying it before you really know where the ball will be.
It’s like trying to throw a dart without knowing where the dartboard is until you’re about ready to release it. Sure, you might get lucky and hit the bullseye. But you’re far more likely to wind up on the edge, or miss the target entirely.
Starting with the lower body gives you a little more time (not much, but every hundredth of a second helps) to see the path of the pitch. It also helps carry the bat closer to the contact point before you actually release it into the ball, creating a shorter path to the ball (as in “short to, long through”).
Just as important, though, when it comes time to launch the bat you are able to control it much more effectively so you can take it right to where it needs to go.
The arms (and shoulders) can only do one job – supply the power or guide the bat in a way that’s adjustable. If they try to supply the power, that will override bat control.
Let the power come from the lower body so the arms and shoulders can do their proper job. It’ll make for a much more successful 2020 at the plate.
And speaking of 2020, happy holidays to everyone, no matter which holiday(s) you celebrate, and best wishes for the New Year. I appreciate you reading Life in the Fastpitch Lane and look forward to sharing more about the fastpitch journey next year.
The debate over whether young athletes should play multiple sports or focus on one to develop their skills – often framed around the best way to earn a college scholarship – has been going on for quite a while now.
Up until a few years ago it wasn’t much of a debate. Nearly all kids played multiple sports, and each sport had a season. These days, with nearly all club/travel sports becoming year-round commitments, it gets tougher and tougher to be a multi-sport athlete.
Some new research published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (JAAOS), a scientific, peer-reviewed publication, weighs in on the topic. Since reading the actual article would require you to purchase it, here’s a press release that provides a pretty good summary.
The article defines early sports specialization (ESS) as “the intensive training or competition in organized sport by prepubescent children (under the age of 12) for more than eight months per year, with a focus on a single sport to the exclusion of other sport and free play.” Does that sound like anyone you know?
The article goes on to point out that the “lack of diversified activity in youth leads to increased risk of injury and burnout.” No surprise there. Young bodies are still developing, and the constant repetition and wear-and-tear in the same ways can certainly take a toll.
As I like to explain, any sort of repetitive motion, done enough, can cause issues. Just look at carpal tunnel syndrome.
Clicking a mouse is hardly intense activity, yet 3-6% of adults in the U.S. acquire it at some point, often leading to surgery that costs thousands of dollars. Now imagine a much more robust series of activities repeated over and over on a body that hasn’t fully developed.
But what about the pursuit of excellence (and more specifically college scholarship opportunities)? The authors of the study state that ESS “may not be necessary for elite athletic achievement, but rather early diversification of sports leads to superior results.” They also say those who diversify show more enjoyment of sports in general, have a lower frequency of dropout, and have “fewer signs of chronic stress, higher levels of motivation and a gradual independence.”
I know I’ve seen the value of diversification in the athletes I’ve worked with over the years. For example, I love working with gymnasts, tumblers and cheerleaders. They have tremendous strength, especially in their core, as well as excellent body awareness that enables them to learn new athletic skills quickly. Skaters also tend to fall into this category.
Basketball, soccer, volleyball and lacrosse players are usually in great shape and very quick. No need to do a lot of conditioning or speed and agility work with them – someone else is already doing that heavy lifting for you. They tend to make excellent middle infielders and pitchers.
Those are just a few examples of how the skills and athleticism gained in other sports translate to fastpitch softball. Feel free to add more in the comments.
Of course, at some point athletes do have to start specializing to some degree if they’re going to pursue higher level play. By the time they reach high school age the time demands for club/travel players make maintaining a competitive level in one sport tough, much less two or three. Although it can still be done if the adults are adults about it and willing to accept that a multi-sport athlete may not make it to every practice and team activity.
By that age, players may also self-select out of multiple sports. They may recognize that they’re better at one than another and decided to focus on it, or may lose interest in some sports they liked in the past. Of course, a few will want to continue playing more than one, at which point they will likely have to choose which to do at a high level and which to do at more of a recreational level.
At the younger ages, however, participating in different sports should not only be allowed but encouraged. Parents and coaches should work together to build a schedule that’s best for the young athlete as well as the team – including total time off from everything now and then so the kid can be a kid.
Coaches can also take heart from the fact that many of the basic skills from other sports will transfer to softball, helping players become better than they would have been otherwise.
Now, if your child isn’t interested in other sports it doesn’t make sense to force him or her into them just for the sake of cross-training. But most kids aren’t that narrowly focused.
As a society we need to dial back our obsession with youth sports (and college scholarships for 10 year olds) and instead focus on helping our kids establish a solid foundation and love for athletics that will carry them through their lives. The evidence increasingly shows it’s best for them in both the short and long terms.
If there is one image that perfectly describes the challenge of keeping fastpitch softball skills (especially pitching and hitting) sharp, it’s the old circus act of the plate spinner. (For those of you who have never seen one in action, here’s a video. Sorry you have to watch an ad first.)
If you don’t feel like watching the video, basically what you had was a set of sticks across a long table. The spinner would get one going on top of a stick, then get another going, and so on until each stick had a plate spinning on top of it.
Of course, the challenge was that while he (it’s almost always a he) was getting the next plate going, the previous ones would be losing momentum. As a result, he constantly had to jump from one plate to another and give them a tweak until he had them all going well at the same time.
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? When you’re working on complex skills such as pitching or hitting, there are a lot of moving parts. Just like there are a lot of moving plates.
While you’re working on one thing, say leg drive for pitchers, another part of the pitch such as the long, loose arm may start “wobbling.” So then you have to take care of that again.
And as you’re doing that, the pitcher starts closing too early or too much, gets off the power line, starts throwing her glove out to the side or develops some other issue.
If you see that happening, the good news is you’re not alone. It’s actually pretty common, and not just among the very youngest players. Even the most accomplished players will start to wobble now and then in one area or another. That’s why college, pro and national teams have hitting, pitching and other specialty area coaches.
So how do you deal with it? Here again you can take a cue from the plate spinner.
When he sees a plate begin to lose momentum he doesn’t try to run over to it before he gets the plate he’s working on spinning properly.
(In fact, I’d bet that seeing plates wobble is good for the act, because it introduces a sense of concern. How interesting would plate spinning be if the plates were never in danger of falling off the stick?)
Coaches and parents should do the same. Work on one thing at a time and get it going well before going back and addressing a previous issue that is cropping up again. If the player is struggling you can let her know what the other issue is to reassure her that all her mechanics aren’t falling apart and that you’ll address the problem later.
Another good idea is to learn your craft so you’re aware of what’s urgent and what can be dealt with later. Again, a plate may be wobbling but it might be capable of going on for a while before it actually becomes an issue. Knowing what to address (and when) is essential for securing long-term success.
Finally, understand that the player is probably going to break a few plates as she learns her mechanics. That’s ok.
Failing in some aspects is part of the learning process. I have no personal experience with plate spinning, but before you pay good money to see someone perform this amazing feat he probably spent a lot of time learning how to get one plate spinning, then two, then three, etc. In the meantime, a lot of dishware was harmed.
Eventually, though, with a lot of effort he was able to put on an entertaining, dramatic show.
Your players will be the same. Pitchers may struggle to throw strikes or hit spots as they work to become the best they can be. Hitters may swing and miss a lot before they start driving the ball.
But if you stay focused on the process rather than the immediate results, the results in time will take care of themselves.
So if you’re facing that situation right now – even if a lot of the plates of wobbling – don’t freak out. It’s a natural part of the learning experience.
If she is motivated, eventually your player will get all the plates spinning fast and tight so she can thrill the crowd. And you can take your bow.
Image courtesy of Henrikbothe [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D
It is Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S. as I write this, and I have to say I love Thanksgiving.
It’s the quintessential American holiday. How can you not love a holiday whose sole purpose is to eat until you feel sick, take a break, then go back for dessert?
It’s no wonder American is the most obese nation in the industrialized world. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Even the decorating themes for Thanksgiving revolve mostly around food. Particularly the cornucopia, basically a horn with a bunch of vegetables, fruit or other healthy foods (ironically) falling out of it. I say ironically since vegetables are the thing least likely to be eaten at a Thanksgiving dinner.
(Those of you reading this who are not from the U.S. really need to come here sometime and experience just what this holiday means. You will probably be blown away and appalled at the same time.)
Thinking about all of that food being prepared all over the U.S., however, got me thinking about how all those veggies get on the table in the first place. It’s not like they just suddenly appear out of nowhere. They all start out as seeds that must be planted and cultivated long before they’re actually consumed.
It’s the same with fastpitch softball skills. With rare exceptions, players can’t just walk out on the field and start performing. They also can’t start working on their skills a week or two before the season starts and expect to be able to play at their highest possible level.
Instead, the seeds need to be planted early. And like seeds, at first you may not see much happening.
But then those skills start to sprout a little. You notice little improvements, like throwing a little harder or getting to balls that were out of reach before.
As time goes on, if you continue to cultivate those skills they continue to grow until they’re ready to be harvested in a game.
On the other hand, if you plant the seeds then ignore the “field” for a while, the skills may appear somewhat but they’ll be smaller, scragglier and less bountiful than they could have been. Which means you’ll be left hungry, wishing you’d done more to ensure a cornucopia of performance that will last the entire season.
So keep that idea in mind as you decide whether you’re too tired, or too busy, or too whatever to start honing your skills right now. The season may seem far away, but it will be here before you know it. Make sure you’re ready.
To my friends and followers here in the U.S., I wish you a healthy, happy Thanksgiving. To those of you from outside the U.S., I also wish you those blessings even if it’s just a regular old Thursday.
Thank you to all of you for joining me on this softball journey. I am grateful to share my thoughts with you.
And remember U.S. friends, if your Thanksgiving celebration gets boring, just bring up politics. That’s sure to get the party started.
Main Thanksgiving image by Annalise Batista from Pixabay
One of the best things about coaching fastpitch softball, at least in my mind, is the opportunity to get to know so many great girls and their families. Still, these relationships tend to be fleeting, so it’s always cool to see what’s happened to a former player or student once you’re not sharing the same field.
Today I have the privilege of telling the story of a remarkable young women named Christina Smok. I only had the opportunity to coach her for a year, in her first year of
playing 14U travel ball, but it was a great year. I’ve included a nice action shot from that year here on the right.
Christina played catcher and third base, and did a great job at both. She worked hard, played hard, and always brought a great attitude. She continued to play through high school, but like many decided that college softball wasn’t for her.
That didn’t mean she gave up the game, however. Instead, unlike so many, she moved into coaching with the program she was a part of in the last few years of her career. She actually coached with her dad Pete, and her mom was always there to watch the team’s games as well. It was a real family affair. I believe she did this every summer while she was in college.
(Incidentally, I know all of this because in one of those “small world” happenings one of my current students, Allison Musgrove, was on her team. That was coincidence because I hadn’t started working with Allison yet when she joined that team, and Allison came to me through a different channel. It was just a common bond we discovered later.)
As great as all of that is, however, it’s not the reason I decided to tell this story. The real impetus was something non-softball I saw about her on Facebook a couple of weeks ago.
While most of us are in our homes getting ready for Thanksgiving, Christina is currently
in Tanzania. She has been studying to become a physical therapist (here’s a photo of her from her “white coat” ceremony), and as part of that education she is spending the next few weeks providing care to residents of this underserved* East African nation.
I mean, how cool is that? To go halfway around the world to help people who really need it? It’s not something everyone would do, but it doesn’t surprise me a bit. She had a can-do attitude when I coached her, and obviously she still has it now.
Anyway, I just thought I’d share. In the heat of the moment on the field, or even as the now 12-month season drags on, it’s easy to over-blow the importance of the softball component of your life. But that’s just one piece of a larger puzzle.
I’m sure Christina’s softball experiences throughout her career helped bring her to this point, along with the love and support of her family. But it’s not an end in and of itself.
Whether you go 4 for 4 or 0 for 4 at the plate, make a spectacular diving catch or boot a routine ground ball, strike out 12 or get knocked out in the first inning, etc. isn’t all that critical in the big scheme of things. What’s more important is how you use those experiences to shape your life.
Christina sets a great example for today’s players. Live your best life.
And if you like stories like this about former players giving back, keep an eye on this space. I’ll have another in a few weeks.
*How poor is Tanzania? It ranks 159 out of 187 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, and its Global Hunger Index rating was the second-worst of all East African Community countries. So this isn’t exactly an easy jaunt.