There are all kinds of devices and training tools available to fastpitch softball (and other) coaches today. A quick scan of Amazon or any sporting goods website will offer all kinds of ways to solve all kinds of problems at all kinds of price points.
But there is one tool today’s coaches need to make sure they have in their bags if they want to meet the expectations of many fastpitch players and especially parents today: a magic wand.
(Mine happens to be a Sirius Black model, as I’m sure Coach Katie McKay Phillips has already identified. If you don’t know who Sirius Black is, you really need to read more.)
The reason you need a magic wand is simple: many players and parents want to see instant improvement in individuals and teams.
They don’t want to spend hours practicing skills such as hitting, throwing, and pitching in the basement, backyard, or batting cages. They don’t want to spend hours out at the field learning their positions and what plays to make in specific situations or how to communicate where the ball will go.
Instead, they want you as the coach to wave a magic wand and take the team from looking like a group of misfit toys to a unit that can compete for tournament championships every weekend. So you’d best have a magic wand in your bag to show them you’re trying to give them what they want!
Now, of course, as any Harry Potter fan knows the wand is only as good as the wizard who wields it. So you’d best be practicing your spells and charms.
Once you have your wand, here are a few you can try. Some are directly from the Hogwarts courseware, while others are spells and charms of my own design.
Just remember, if you are a total Muggle and can’t get them to work, you’ll have to acquire the results the long, old-fashioned way – with lots of practice and repetition.
- Wingardium Leviosa – This one is one of the first Hogwarts students learn. It’s a levitation charm used to lift objects. Comes in mighty handy when your team can’t hit too well. Throw a little Wingardium Leviosa at a weak ground ball and watch it turn into a soaring line drive. You can also use it more subtly to turn a weak pop-up into a duck snort that sails just out of reach of every converging fielder. I’m sure you’ve seen that before.
- Expellliarmus – Good for when an opposing fielder is about to make a play that will result in a costly out. Originally designed to pull an opponent’s wand from his/her hand, it’s also great for turning a routine fielding opportunity into an instant error. No doubt you’ve seen this one being used by your opponents to make you look like you’ve never taught your players how to play. Naturally some coaches over-use it and then your team makes error after error, giving up a big inning. After all, the team couldn’t be that bad on their own after spending THE ENTIRE WEEK working on fielding ground balls and bunts.
- Petrificus Totalus – This is a full body binding spell that causes temporary complete paralysis. You have probably seen this one in action when your hitters were at the plate. The opposing pitcher throws a meatball down the middle of the plate and your hitter watches it go by for strike three. They didn’t freeze up on their own – they were hit with Petrificus Totalus by a wizard on the other side of the field. What other explanation could there be?
- Oblivius – This one is really handy becaue it enables you to erase the memory of people or events you don’t want someone to remember. It can be used in a couple of different ways. When used on opponents you can cause them to forget what to do with the ball on defense so they just stand there confused, holding it and looking around. No doubt you’ve seen this one in use as well. For your own team, you can use it when your pitcher just gave up a home run or other big hit to an opposing hitter and has now lost total confidence in herself and her ability to throw a strike. A little Oblivius and she’s right back in there. Coaches can also use it on themselves to forget bad innings or entire games before it gives them ulcers.
- Accio – The summoning spell that brings things to you. You’ll have to teach it to your players so the ball goes to them. How else do you explain a sure home run that hits a phantom gust of win and stays in the yard so the worst fielder in the game can catch it?
- Confundus Charm (Confundo) – Ever see three fielders converge on a ball only to let it drop between all of them? That’s Confundo in action.
- Instanteous Pitchus – Learning to pitch can be a long, arduous journey filled with hard work and major disappointments. But it doesn’t have to be. If you use this charm correctly you can turn any wannabe-pitcher into an instant ace in just one lesson. Which is what many parents expect of their coaches. No long, boring practice time or hours spent chasing balls around a backstop. Any pitcher can go from zero to hero if you apply this charm.
- Sluggeraramus – Does for hitters what Instanteous Pitchus does for pitchers. Or what parents expect purchasing a $500 bat will do for a kid with a 5 cent swing. If you can cast this spell, which is not easy to do, you won’t have to use Wingardium Leviosa so much in a game because every hit will already be a great one.
- Awareweed – Not so much a spell or charm as an herbal potion you can feed your players in lieu of spending practice time teaching them what to do with the ball in specific situations. Somehow they will just know where the ball should go, such as whether they should throw home to try to cut down the lead runner or realize that run is already scoring so go after one who is more vulnerable. It also gives them situational understanding, such as throwing to first for the sure out when your team has a 10-run lead rather than trying to get the runner heading home on a tag play. When your team is loaded up on Awareweed, coaches and parents can just sit back and enjoy the magic happening on the field.
- Silencio – While this silencing spell can be used on players when their incessant cheers are giving you a headache, it’s best applied to all the parent “coaches” in the stands who are yelling advice to their players (especially at the plate) or providing a running monolog of every play you as the coach should have made (after the fact, of course), criticisms of personnel or baserunning decisions, ideas on how to improve run production, and whatever else pops into their mind at the time. It can (and should) also be applied to those who have decided it’s their job to teach the umpire how to do his/her job.
That’s a fairly comprehensive list – enough to keep you studying for at least a year until you can pass your Ordinary Wizarding Level (O.W.L.) exam and more on to more advanced spells, charms, and potions.
That said, if you don’t have access to a wand, or can’t make it work, you’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way – and explain it to your players and their parents as well.
The old-fashioned way isn’t quite as easy for them, and it takes longer, but it brings its own kind of magic as players achieve capabilities on their own they never dreamed they could acquire. And in the long run it’s a lot more satisfying because it’s been earned.
I wrote recently about things coaches should never say. But after talking to some parents and pitching coaches lately, I think the old standby of coaches telling pitchers who are struggling to throw strikes to slow down their motions requires its own blog post.
While I know the coaches are just trying to be helpful, telling a pitcher to slow down in order to produce more strikes is counter productive on several levels. Let’s look at a few.
What they’ve practiced
I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that no pitcher who is going to a pitching coach is being trained to throw slowly. The name of the game is FASTPITCH softball, so no matter what they’re teaching (and we can certainly debate on what the proper pitching mechanics are) pitching coaches are sincerely trying to get their student to throw with as much speed as they can.
At least if they want to keep those students.
That means they’ve been working on a developing a specific set of mechanics that they can execute quickly. After all, slow movements mean slow pitches.
So if you’re asking a pitcher to slow her movements down, you’re totally taking her away from what she’s being trained to do. In other words, you’ve now made it like she’s never had a pitching lesson and is just guess at what to do.
Fastpitch pitching requires a certain rhythm and flow. It’s a complex series of movements in all three planes of motion that require precise timing to do well.
Telling a pitcher to slow her motion down takes her away from all of that and actually makes it harder for her to do what you want her to do – throw strikes.
The longer it takes for a pitcher to go through her motion and deliver the ball, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong. It’s basic physics, coming out of Newton’s laws of motion.
If you apply enough force to an object in a particular direction, it will tend to continue moving in that direction unless some other force acts on it. As it moves it has momentum.
In a weightless vacuum, like in space, a small amount of effort will have that object going straight forever. But fastpitch softball isn’t played in a weightless vacuum.
So the pitcher has to apply enough force to overcome the friction of the air, any wind currents, and especially gravity.
Then there’s the path of the arm and position of the hand. If the hand and arm are moving all over the place it will be difficult to send the ball in a particular, desired direction. It becomes kind of a guess for the pitcher.
If the arm is going faster, however, its momentum will eliminate a lot of the wobbling and make it easier to throw the ball in the desired direction. Not easy, mind you, but easier than just pushing the ball out slowly.
Then it’s a matter of making sure the hand and arm are on-line at the time of release and that the release occurs at the proper time (not too early or too late).
Think about a bowling ball. If you roll it slowly, you are at the mercy of the lanes and how warped or slick they are. The ball will kind of meander back and forth along the path of least resistance until runs out of lane or hits the gutter.
But if you roll it quickly, it will overcome most if not all of the issues with the lane and take a direct path to wherever you sent it. Good or bad.
Look on the website of any program or even individual team and they will all profess that they are dedicated to player development. Uh huh.
Just once I’d like to see an honest website that says, “We are totally focused on winning as many tournaments as we can and will do whatever it takes, no matter what the consequences are or who suffers for it, to achieve this mission.”
But let’s assume the coach actually does want to help all of his/her players develop. That means letting them work at the top of their games, outside their comfort level, to develop the skills they’ll need to continue advancing in the sport.
In the case of pitchers, that means letting them throw hard so they can learn how to do so under pressure.
Ok, you say, but if the pitcher is walking everyone how do the rest of the players develop?
I agree they don’t. So if you want to stop the walks, don’t tell the pitcher to slow down her motion. Pull her and put someone else in.
If all you want is strikes, even if they’re slow and easy to hit, you can pretty much put in anyone. They can then come in and lob the ball toward the plate, and will likely give you the strikes you want.
Doing it that way isn’t that hard. And it might even be a thrill for that girl who has always wanted to pitch but never got the opportunity (because she hasn’t actually worked at it).
In the meantime, the pitcher will learn a lesson that she needs to work more at her craft so she can throw hard strikes with a fast motion if she wants more circle time.
Ok, you say, but I don’t want to pull her because she’s our best pitcher.
Not today. Otherwise you wouldn’t be telling her to slow her motion down.
Take her out and put in someone who can give you what you want – which will ultimately allow your best pitcher to continue developing. That will be best in the long run for her, and for the team.
Telling a pitcher to slow down her motion to throw strikes is not the way to produce the results you want. It’s far more likely to make her pitches worse while taking her further away from her goal of becoming a quality pitcher you can rely on.
Instead, encourage pitchers to keep their energy high and trust their mechanics. You’re more likely to get strikes out of them that way (assuming they’ve been working at learning how to pitch).
And if they still don’t it’s time for a circle visit.
Tell them it’s not their day, put someone else in, and then tell them to keep working because you’re going to give them another chance. It could be the biggest benefit you ever offer that pitcher.
Photo by Song Kaiyue on Pexels.com
Perhaps you’ve seen the recent Tweet from Olympian and all-time great fastpitch softball pitcher Cat Osterman in response to Extra Innings Softball calling for nominations for ranking of players who will graduate high school in 2028. (In case you’re not aware or don’t want to do the math, this would be a ranking of players who are currently in 7th – that’s right 7th – grade.)
It’s been making the rounds on social media as a meme too. In it, Cat said:
Just for perspective… I would have been no where (sic) near this list as a 7th grader… NO WHERE CLOSE! So much changes in the next 2-5 years… this is plain silly.
I couldn’t agree more. At a time when kids today are already under so much more pressure from the “professionalization” of youth sports, and facing increased mental health issues on top of all the challenges that have always come with transitioning from grade schooler to young adult, adding one more thing for coaches, parents, and players to obsess over seems like a bad idea.
What you often end up with is some who become sad, depressed, anxious, etc. because they didn’t make the list. And others who experience those feelings because they did make the list and feel like they now have to live up to the expectations.
But this sense of heightened expectations doesn’t just apply to players supposedly at the top of the game. It can happen at all levels when coaches and parents lose sight of what the real mission is.
Softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But an obsessive focus on winning and performance can suck all the fun out of it.
And what is the number one reason in every survey that players say they quit playing a sport they once loved? Because it isn’t fun anymore.
From 14 years old and down, the focus should be on player development and the process of learning rather than on outcomes. This is true even for so-called “competitive” teams.
(Not saying older teams shouldn’t develop their players too, but there is more imperative for them to keep an eye on the W-L column as well.)
Fastpitch softball is a complex game full of multiple decisions for situations and many moving parts for skills. Taking a shortcut on overall development so you can get wins today is the fastest way to stunt a player’s growth.
Sure, winning now is fun. But think of player development as giving players the tools they need to continue winning when the competition gets tougher.
Imagine if Cat Osterman’s coaches looked at her in 7th grade and decided she just didn’t have what it takes to be a pitcher because she walked too many people or didn’t hit her spots every time or whatever unrealistic demand they had of her.
Or what if they let her pitch but yelled ridiculous things at her like “Slow down your motion so you can throw more strikes.” Her 11U team might have won a few more games, but it’s unlikely any of us would know who she is. And her mantle wouldn’t include any Olympic medals or the various other prizes she’s earned as a premier pitcher.
Another pitcher who was in that boat was one who is thought by many to be the greatest of all time – Lisa Fernandez. She was told by a famous (but unnamed) pitching coach in Southern California that she should forget about the position because she didn’t have the build or the ability.
In her first outing she said she walked 21 batters and hit 21 batters. But somewhere along the way she was allowed to develop, slowly but surely, until she ended up being the winning pitcher in not just one but two gold medal games at the Olympics. Not to mention all her other accomplishments. You can look it up.
She probably wouldn’t have been at the top of anyone’s list in 7th grade either. But over time she became the player she was meant to be because she had the chance to grow into herself.
As Cat said, a lot can happen to a player between 7th grade and senior year. Some who peak early may find themselves falling behind later as the late bloomers begin to find themselves.
Others who don’t look like much on a 10U or 12U roster may work hard, benefit from a late growth spurt and coaches who give them opportunities, and suddenly find themselves becoming all-conference, all-area, or even all-state honorees. It’s almost impossible to predict.
Each of us finds our way in our own time. Coaches should keep that in mind.
At the youth level, keep your focus on player development and encourage those in your charge to play at the top of their abilities, whatever they may be at that point, rather than just doing whatever it takes to win today. You may just find you have some hidden gems – and make some lifelong friends in the process.
Go to any facility where there are teams or individuals hitting in batting cages and sooner or later you’re likely to hear the phrase, “Track the ball all the way into the catcher’s glove.” While it’s doubtful that hitters can actually see the ball hit the bat at the point of contact, the idea of trying to track the ball as long as you can is a good one.
The problem most coaches face when trying to get their hitters to track the ball longer (instead of getting a glimpse then swinging) is that there are no consequences for not doing it. Well, other than not hitting well. But as soon as the coach’s back is turned, hitters are likely to go back to not following the ball all the way to the catcher’s glove.
But, dear blog follower, I have a solution for the dilemma. It actually came up by accident, but I noticed how the pattern had changed so I’m taking credit!
All you need is a batting cage with a tight protective net at the back of it.
For the past few months I’ve been throwing front toss to hitters in a cage that has a very tight net at the back. When one of my errant pitches (and there are many of them) would hit the net, it would bounce back at the hitter with enough velocity to be annoying.
What I noticed was a lot of the hitters would watch the ball all the way to that net so they could get out of the way when the ball bounced back. Some of them then made a game of trying to catch the ball when it popped up off the net, and they got pretty good at it.
Since their first priority was hitting any good pitches I managed to throw, it took some effort to see the ball coming back and catch it.
But today I was in a different cage that didn’t have such a tight net. And that’s where I saw the effect take place.
One of the hitters who liked to catch the ball was still following it to the back screen, even though it wasn’t going to bounce back. She’d built a habit of it in the other cage to the point where she now automatically watches the ball all the way back.
Between that and the Reynaldo drill, which she has become very good at, she is seeing the ball much better – and hitting the heck out of it.
So I guess the lesson here is if you want to encourage your hitters to watch the ball longer, find a nice, tight net and put it behind the plate when you front toss to them. They’ll definitely learn to keep an eye on it all the way in.
(And yes, I know the hitter in the top photo is hitting off a tee. It’s tough to throw front toss and take a picture at the same time. Deal with it.)
As John Lennon once sang, another year over, a new one just begun. (Or about to in any case.)
For most of us, the turning of a new year is filled with hope and anticipation. It also marks a great time to at least think about making changes.
We make all the usual resolutions – lose weight, get more exercise/join a gym (not always the same thing) quit smoking, quit or cut back on drinking, learn a language, etc. There’s just something about the finality of one year ending and a new one starting that makes it seem like a great time to do a little personal upgrading.
Of course, as U2 sang, “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”
Yet if those changes are going to happen they’re not going to happen magically. You have to make them happen. A big part of this for fastpitch softball players, coaches, and parents revolves around your goals.
Hopefully you’ve written those goals down and posted them where you can see them. Nothing like a visual reminder of where you want to go.
But even if you haven’t you probably know in your heart what they are.
So here’s my question for you: When was the last time you really thought about those goals? And more importantly, do they still apply?
Maybe it’s been a few months, or a year, or more, since you set your original goals. But you’re a different person now than you were then, with additional experiences and knowledge under your belt.
Is what you wanted six months or a year ago the same things you want now? If so, can you add some specificity to them?
For example, if you’re a coach perhaps you had a goal of increasing your knowledge about the sport. You took some online classes and attended a couple of coaches clinics, and are now a better coach than you were.
So you’ve achieved that general goal. But are there areas where you could still do better? Perhaps it’s time to change your goals to address those areas.
In my personal experience I always felt like I was good at teaching the technical aspects of the game, along with the rules and what to do in specific situations. But I also felt like I wasn’t as good at the strategic aspects as I should be.
So my goal became to learn more about different strategies and how to apply them and when to apply them. It became a difference-maker for me.
Coaches, make an honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses. Where do you tend to lose games or players? How would you attack your team if you were an opposing coach?
Then seek out courses, or a mentor, or some other means that can help you shore up that area.
If you’re a player, think about the major aspects of the game: offense and defense. Then think about the sub-groups.
For offense, you’re basically looking at hitting (including the short game) and baserunning. For defense, it’s fielding and throwing – overhand and underhand for pitchers.
Then break it down further into what you do well and what you don’t. In some cases also take into consideration what you can’t really change and how you can work around it.
Baserunning is a great example. If you’re fast you have a natural advantage. But are you smart?
If you can recognize opportunities sooner, and understand when it’s time to take chances and when it’s time to lay up even if you *think* you can make it, you’ll be a lot more successful. I’ll take average speed with intelligence over blazing speed without a clue pretty much every time.
What if you’re not fast? In fact, what if you’re a complete turtle? There are still things you can do.
Seek out a running coach who specializes in sprinters. He/she may not be able to make you fast, but he/she can probably make you faster than you are now by teaching you how to run better technically and how to condition yourself to run better. Every tenth of a second you can shave off your time going from one base to the next will help.
Then make sure you learn everything there is to know so you’re the smartest baserunner on your team. That’s especially important when you’re the trail runner.
I remember a situation where my team had runners on second and third. Kaity, the runner on second, was one of the slowest on a team that wasn’t too fast to begin with.
A ground ball was hit into the infield and I was entirely focused on getting the runner on third home. I watched the play from the third base coach’s box like a spectator.
Fortunately, Kaity was smart. She didn’t wait for any instructions from me, so when I looked back toward her (finally) she was already standing on third.
I said, “At least one of us was paying attention.” She replied, “Don’t worry Coach, I’ve got your back.”
Over the last six months or a year you’ve probably made many improvements to your game. Think about where you may fall short, or what you’d like to do better, and set that as your new goal.
Here we’re assuming non-coaching parents. Probably one of the biggest goals you can set for yourself is learning when to keep your mouth shut. Which is probably most of the time.
Just kidding, although in some cases it probably applies. But there are things you can do based on your player’s goals.
For example, if your daughter wants to play in college, and seems like she’s serious about it rather than thinking wishfully about it, start educating yourself about the whole recruiting process. It can be beastly, so the sooner you learn about it the better off you’ll be (and the less likely you are to make a critical mistake).
Step one is to talk to the parents of older players who have already been recruited. Find out what they did, what helped them the most, and what mistakes they made. Softball parents who have been through it can be an invaluable and impartial resource to guide you through it.
There are also tons of resources online. Some are better than others, and some are really just blatant commercials to buy their services.
That’s why you probably want to talk with other parents or coaches who have gone through the process first to give you some background. But those outside resources can help you make better decisions, especially if your player isn’t a can’t-miss P5 prospect.
Outside of that, learning more about the game and pieces of it related to what your player does can help you make better decisions when it comes to selecting teams and private coaches if you so choose. These days softball is a big investment so you want to be sure your money is being spent wisely.
As with players and coaches, think about what’s most important for you to improve on this year and set it as a goal. It’ll improve not only your experience but your player’s as well.
Keep moving forward
Always remember that goals should be concrete and realistic. Not necessarily easily achievable, but achievable.
Once you’ve set those goals, take the time (like now) to periodically evaluate them to determine if you’ve achieved them or even if you want to achieve them. Then adjust your goals accordingly.
The more you keep your smaller goals focused on achieving the bigger ones, the better chance you’ll have of ending up where you want to end up.
Happy New Year to all, and let’s make it a good one!
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com
As I write this we are not only in the beginning of the Christmas/New Year holiday vortex but also an actual polar vortex. Winter Storm Elliott is hammering much of the U.S., including parts that aren’t used to it, with snow, gale force winds, and bitter cold of the type that makes you run right back inside as soon as you feel it.
It’s so bad where I live that the facility I usually work out of has been closed for the last couple of days. No sense having people risk their health and/or their lives just to come to a lesson when there are no important games on the immediate horizon.
So does that mean all softball-related activities must come to a dead stop? Hardly.
In fact, times like this offer the perfect opportunity to really dig into mechanics and the mental game to work on the little things that can make a huge difference in a player’s overall performance.
It’s like when a player comes to a lesson and says they are feeling a little ill, or tired, or have an injury. I light up – not at their misfortune but at the chance to go deeper in aspects of the game that they might not want to spend so much time on ordinarily.
Not because it’s not necessary, but because it can be really boring to them. When it’s all they can do, however, those things become a lot more interesting.
So while it’s bitterly cold or snowy and you’re stuck at home (or even if it’s bright, sunny, and balmy for that matter) here are a few things to work on that don’t require a cage, a bat, a regular softball, or even much space.
Quick Pitching Release
I have yet to meet a pitcher who doesn’t want to be faster (including a few pretty famous ones). While speed alone isn’t everything, the more you have the better everything else seems to go. And the better you can get by until you can improve other aspects of your game.
One of the keys to speed is the ability to transfer as much of the energy the pitcher has generated through leg drive as possible into the ball. That requires a lightning-quick yet relaxed pronation of the forearm at release.
Building that pronation doesn’t require a lot of space or fancy equipment. You can:
- Throw a rolled up pair of socks into a wall or mirror
- Throw a plyo ball, foam ball, or regular ball into a net
- Walk around the house practicing releases, Ks, and full circles with nothing in your hand
- Perform various exercises (such as squeezing a stress ball) to build your grip strength
Focusing on that one little bit can pay huge dividends the next time you go to pitch at a full distance.
Leg/Body Drive and Timing Off the Rubber
Don’t worry non-pitchers, we’re getting to you. But this is another area that’s often under-trained when pitchers are left on their own.
A lot of pitchers have trouble generating effective leg/body drive off the pitching rubber. After they load they will start to reach forward with their stride (glove-side) leg while essentially standing on the drive (throwing-side) leg.
This type of movement is inefficient, even if it’s done quickly. To generate the kind of energy needed to throw hard you have to get the hips driving forward before the stride leg has gone out fully.
In other words, pitchers have to learn to use their legs together instead of one at a time. Fortunately, this is the same type of leg action used when you skip (or for you multi-sport athletes go for a layup).
Find a few feet of space and skip. Feel how the legs are working. Then try doing the same thing but adding a pitching motion to it.
Take video so you can see if you’re truly getting some spring in your step or if you’re just standing on the pitching rubber as the stride leg goes out.
You can also just stand on the ball of the foot of your drive leg, push forward, then “catch” yourself with your stride leg. This should all occur in a quick, short motion rather than trying to get out far.
Feel the legs working together, then start extending it until you can do it full speed, just as you would in a game.
You probably know from endless hours of lessons what you’re supposed to do at each phase of the swing. But are you actually doing those things?
Here’s a way to find out. Set yourself up in front of a full-length mirror and watch yourself take a swing. If space is limited substitute a curling iron or a short pool noodle for the bat.
Go through it slowly and see what position your body is in at each phase. Check to see that you are:
- Getting positive movement forward
- Leading with your hips
- Getting separation between your hips and shoulders
- Keeping your hands up instead of dropping them to launch the bat
- Driving your back side around your front side
Do it slowly, over and over, checking each aspect. Then do it a little faster, then a little faster, each time checking all those aspects.
While this doesn’t do much for your timing, it ensures that if you are on time you’ll greatly increase your chances of hitting the ball hard.
While this applies to any position, it especially applies to catchers. The faster you can transfer the ball from your glove to your throwing hand, the sooner you can get the ball on its way so you can throw out even the fastest of rabbits.
This is a skill that can be practiced in a bedroom or living room.
Start out barehanded, with the ball in your glove hand. Then transfer it to your throwing hand by slamming it from one to the other.
Then add a glove, doing the same thing. Do it over and over, each time trying to go a little faster.
Before you know it you’ll be able to move that ball from one hand to the other with the best of them.
Ask any coach or player how important the mental game is and they’ll likely tell you it’s hugely important. Then ask them what percentage of their practice time is spent on the mental game and, if they’re honest, they will probably tell you little or none.
That’s because physical practice seems like practice. Mental game practice feels like you missed something you should have been working on.
This is your chance. While you’re stuck inside, do some visualization, seeing yourself making great plays or slamming great hits.
Work on your positive self-talk. A kind word from yourself at the right time can work wonders.
Look online for various stress-relieving techniques you can use during a game. Examples include:
- Squeezing a stress ball or other device
- Grabbing a handful of dirt, squeezing it tightly, then throwing it away
- Inhaling deeply through your nose and blowing the air out slowly through your mouth
- Washing your hands with water
- Creating a pre-pitch routine or ritual
Turn on loud music or a talking podcast then try to do something unrelated such as a reading or math problems. It’s amazing what this exercise can do for your ability to focus.
Time invested now in your mental game can pay big dividends when it’s actually time to play.
No Justification Needed
Really, these things aren’t just for bad weather. They are things you should be doing any time if you want to get better.
But bad weather provides the perfect opportunity because there is little else you can do.
Don’t waste this chance. Get on it now and you’ll find you’re than much farther ahead in your goals once you hit the field again.
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Most of my time as a fastpitch softball hitting instructor is spent teaching hitters how to drive the ball to – or over – the fence. Yet at some point I will also have each hitter work on laying down bunts.
Now, you might be surprised at that statement given some of my past post about bunting. But those relate to the sacrifice bunt, especially the sac bunts many teams lay down automatically with a runner on first and no outs. (The short version, if you don’t want to follow the link, is it’s a waste of an out.)
The reality is bunting, especially bunting for a hit, still has an important place in our sport. Which means when you’re called upon to do it, you’d better be able to get the bunt down.
That’s why I am so surprised at how poorly it seems to be taught these days. When I ask a hitting student to bunt I see all sorts of easily correctable flaws that are going to prevent success.
Since I doubt any coaches or parents are purposely training their players to fail, I can only conclude that they simply don’t know any better. I’m also pretty sure that, as often happens, they are simply passing along whatever bad techniques they were taught 20 or more years ago.
So to help with this issue I’ve put together this little guide. Follow these tips and you’ll find your players will be better equipped to lay one down when the time comes.
Stance (and getting into it)
A good bunt starts with a stable platform. After all, it’s a lot easier to hit a rapidly moving object if you’re not fighting to maintain your balance.
The mistake many young hitters make (and coaches don’t correct) is how hitters get into their bunting stance. As in the hitters will pivot on the balls of both feet to get turned forward.
The problem with that is the feet will then be in a straight line, one behind the other, instead of spread out side-to-side. To correct that issue, have the hitters pivot on the ball of the back foot and the HEEL of the front foot.
Now there is a little space between them, giving hitters the stability they need to work the bat more effectively.
BONUS TIP: If you are bunting for a hit, do not tell the hitter to move to the front of the box. That’s a dead giveaway as to what your strategy is, which really takes away the element of surprise you’re probably counting on.
Yes, I know moving up in the box improves the angles and gives the bunt a better chance of staying fair. But you don’t have to be Hall of Fame coach Margie Wright to figure out if the hitter moves up she’s bunting. At which point the defense should move their third baseman to 10 feet away from the plate so she can try to catch the ball in the air for the out – or a double play.
The most commonly taught grip for bunting seems to be to move the top hand up to the top of the handle and then have hitters pinch the bat between their thumb and index finger. This is a grip that comes from baseball – especially old-time Major League Baseball.
There are several problems with this grip, not the least of which there is a huge disparity in the hand strength between a 25 to 40 year old man and an 8 to 22 year old girl. Plus, -3 wood bats are much heavier and denser than -10 composite or aluminum bats, so they can absorb the impact of the ball more effectively.
Then there’s the issue of a softball weighing at least 30% more than a baseball (6.5 to 7 oz. versus 5 to 5.25 oz.). Combine a weaker hand, a lighter, less dense bat, and a heavier ball and you’re going to end up with a lot more balls that get deflect foul.
A better, more effective grip is to grab the bat with all the fingers – the same way you hold it to swing for the fences, just further up the bat. Actually, I prefer both hands up the bat, but the bottom hand can be as close or far away as the hitter is comfortable.
To prove its effectiveness, have a hitter hold the bat in the pinch grip and then use your hand to smack the barrel of the bat. It moves back a lot.
Now try the same thing with a full-on grip. You’re more in danger of hurting your hand than moving the bat much.
But doesn’t that put the fingers at risk of getting smashed by an inside pitch you ask? Not really, as you’ll see in the next sections.
Another common mistake I see with hitters is that they try to use the sweet spot of the bat to make contact with the ball when they bunt.
I get it. That’s where they’re taught to hit the ball when they swing away so it’s a natural assumption.
Yet as I tell them, if their bat costs $400, $350 of that cost is in the sweet spot. It’s designed to send the ball as far as it can, and a lot of research and development money goes into making that happen.
But you don’t want the bunt going far. You want it to roll a few feet away from the catcher and then stop so it’s harder for the pitcher and/or infielders to field.
To get that effect, you want to use the $10 part of the bat, i.e., the end of the bat. That’s a major dead spot (as anyone who has felt the bees in their hands after making contact there on a full swing can tell you).
Hit it off the end of the bat – all things being equal – and the ball won’t go nearly as far. It’s also the point that’s farthest away from the top hand’s fingers, so if you’re using the end of the bat the top hand is in no danger of being hit. It’s a win-win.
Then there is the issue of how to make contact with the ball.
Many fastpitch softball hitters, even good ones, tend to punch at the ball with the bat as it comes in. Again, you don’t have to be Hall of Famer Margie Wright to figure out that punching at the ball will add to the power of the impact, making the ball go farther – even if you hit it with the dead end.
Instead of punching at it, hitters should pull back slightly to “receive the ball.” By giving a little they soften the impact and cause the ball to come off the bat gently.
You can explain this to players who play other sports by talking about how they receive a pass. Soccer players pull their foot back; hockey players pull their sticks back; basketball players pull their hands back as the ball comes in. At least they should.
Of course, this is easier said than done with bunting. Everything players have been taught with hitting to this point revolves around driving the bat into contact.
Pulling it away as the ball comes in will be very foreign to them. But with practice they can learn to do it.
One of the best ways to practice this is to draw a circle in the dirt, or lay down some ribbon or a Hula Hoop a few feet away from them and have them try to get the ball to go into (and stay) in the circle. They’ll figure out how to soften it really quickly.
Bat placement in the zone
Untrained hitters will often try to cover the entire width of the plate with their bats. That’s fine if the pitch is outside. But if it’s inside it’s going to be really tough to hit an inside pitch with the end of the bat.
Instead, have them cover roughly half the plate. That way if it’s inside they can pull the hands in a little. And if it’s outside they can stab the bat out to get the outside pitch, with the added benefit they will probably put it up the first base line instead of hitting it at the charging third baseman.
It also helps keep their top hand safer. As you can see, in this set-up if the ball is coming for the top hand it’s also coming for the torso, so the hitter has extra incentive to get out of the way.
You’ll also notice the bat head is higher than the handle. That’s to help hitters hit the top of the ball.
A flat bat, or worse one where the barrel is lower than the handle, is most likely to end up in a pop-up. You don’t want that, especially if you have a bunt-and-run on with a runner on base.
An upward angle, even a slight one, will make it more likely your hitters will get the ball on the ground quickly when it’s hit, and will make it easier for hitters to control where it goes.
Where to direct the bunt
Some of this is a matter of the level of play you’re facing. If your team’s opponents are not particularly skilled, any sort of bunt anywhere is likely to result in success.
A bunt up the third base line may be most effective, too, because it’s the longest throw. (A tip of the cap to Coach JD Koziarski for reminding me of that.)
At higher levels of play, however, the third base line is the worst place to drop the bunt. Third baseman make their bones on their ability to field a bunt and throw out the runner, and they practice that skill constantly.
Pitchers and first basement do not usually spend that kind of time practicing to field bunts, however. So the better strategy is to bunt either at the pitcher (and hope she chucks the throw into right field) or up the first base line where no one may get to it – especially if the first baseman is playing back.
Bunting is still necessary
Yes, all the emphasis for hitting these days is on exit speeds and launch angles. But there is still a place for bunting in our sport, so it’s important to teach optimal technique.
And that’s not just for the rabbits or average hitters either. EVERY hitter, even the big boppers, should know how to bunt well.
You don’t want to find out in the middle of a tight game that your best hitters are a disaster at bunting. And for their sake, someday they may be at a practice where the team is divided into two groups and they compete against each other to see which one gets the most bunts down. You don’t want any of them to drag their teams down.
So teach them all how to bunt properly. It’ll open up new offensive possibilities.
People say stupid things every day in all walks of life. All you have to do is watch the news or go onto social media or even listen to conversations happening around you in a semi-crowded area and I guarantee within five minutes you’ll find something that makes you slap your forehead and shudder in disbelief.
Fastpitch softball coaches are not immune to this phenomenon. We all say stupid things from time to time.
Sometimes it’s from frustration, like asking a player if their parents are first cousins. Sometimes it’s because we haven’t updated our information since the last century, like telling hitters to “squish the bug” or “throw your hands at the ball.” Sometimes, like telling a pitcher “just throw strikes,” it’s because we simply don’t know what else to say.
I’m not talking about any of those instances here. What we’re going to cover today is the stuff where coaches should know better but they say those things anyway because they just don’t bother to think before they speak. Starting with…
You Have to Throw 60 mph to Pitch on Varsity
The other day I was talking to one of my pitching students and she passed along a statement her school’s varsity coach had made. He/she looked her right in the eye and said, “To pitch on varsity you have throw 60 miles an hour.”
Now, that’s a great aspirational goal. But what if no one in the school can throw 60 mph? Does that mean the coach is going to cancel the season?
Of course not. There are plenty of high school varsity pitchers who don’t throw 60 mph.
In fact, according to this blog post from Radar Sports, the average 17 to 18 year old (the age of high school juniors and seniors) throws 54 to 57 mph. While this chart from Fastpitcher.com places the average 18 year old at 55-59 mph and the average college pitcher at 68 to 65 mph.
From my own observation (with use of my Pocket Radar Smart Coach) I can also tell you that many college pitchers are actually on the lower, even sub-60, end of that spectrum. Watch enough games on TV and you’ll see some at the D1 level who rarely break 60 mph.
But that’s ok because last time I checked games are not decided based on which pitcher throws the most pitches the fastest. The outcomes are determined by which team can hold the other to fewer runs than their own team scores.
So a pitcher who may not be blazingly fast, but who can hit her spots and make the ball move on-command will often do better than one who throw hard but grooves everything down the middle.
That’s not to say speed isn’t important. It is, as I point out here.
But honestly, I’ll take a pitcher who consistently can throw eight-pitch innings over one who is racking up more Ks but taking substantially more pitches to do it. Especially on a hot, humid day.
We Lost Because Our Bench Was Too Quiet
This is a statement that often pops up in the post-game speech. It’s usually said when the coach’s favorites under-performed and the coach didn’t make the necessary adjustments (i.e., take those kids out and put someone else in).
Of all the stupid statement, this one has to be the stupidest on several levels in my opinion. I mean really? You lost because the bench players, who have no physical effect on the game whatsoever, didn’t make enough noise?
First of all, the players on the field shouldn’t require the people in the dugout to make noise in order for them to get “up” for the game. That’s something that should happen automatically.
Playing is a privilege, and it’s up to every player to get themselves motivated to play the game.
Secondly, it’s one thing if there is a lot of natural team chemistry and the dugout players are excited and supportive of their teammates. It’s another if the team is filled with cliques and the “noise” is an artificial event the bench players are being forced to create, perhaps to cover up for the fact that their team isn’t actually very good.
You lose because you make too many errors and let in too many runs. You lose because you don’t score enough runs. You lose because you didn’t do the things you needed to win on the field. That’s it.
Blaming the bench for being too quiet is like blaming the heat for killing your garden after you failed to water it all week. It’s just an excuse to divert attention from the real problem.
The Umpire Cost Us the Game
Blaming the umpire for a loss is a convenient excuse, and often an emotional reaction to a single incident. But let’s get real.
Even if the game was decided on a blown call in the bottom of the seventh, that’s not the sole (or even main) reason your team lost, Coach.
Your team had seven innings to put up more runs. If they had put up one more run in each of those innings you would have had a seven-run cushion and you’d be laughing about that one blown call right now.
Not to mention if they’d put up one more run in three of those innings you would still have had a lead that took the pressure off your defense and made that one play far less important.
Another thing your team could have done was not give up a couple of unearned runs by bobbling a simple ground ball or dropping a fly ball. Or your outfielder could have prevented the ball from getting by her instead of going for a spectacular diving catch when none was required to help keep some runs off the board.
Perhaps sending the runner home from third when the ball was clearly ahead of her would have kept a big inning going instead of killing it. Who knows how many more runs might have been scored?
The reality is no game comes down to one play. There were many plays prior to that one that could have changed the outcome.
Instead of fixating on one bad call, think of what you can do to ensure the next bad call doesn’t decide the outcome of that game.
I’ve Been Doing Things My Way for 20 Years
This one is often heard from coaches who would rather cling to their old ways of teaching the game than actually learn something new.
Yes, change can be hard at times. It can be even harder if you have to admit that the way you’ve been doing things may not have been the best way. None of us wants to look like we’ve been wrong for years.
But it’s not about being wrong before. It’s about being willing to adjust what you’re teaching when a better way comes along.
It’s one thing if you didn’t know there was a better way, or you misunderstood something you thought you know. Heck, I’ve discovered a whole host of things I was teaching in various aspects of the game that were sub-optimal or just flat-out wrong.
But when confronted with new and better information, I was willing to make that change. No need to defend the old ways.
Think about what you would want in a heart surgeon. Do you want someone who is still operating the way they did in 2002, or someone who has continued to learn and incorporate new techniques, new approaches, new equipment, etc. into their procedures?
I know which one I would choose.
It’s the same for coaches. There has never been as much research into what the most effective strategies and techniques for winning in fastpitch softball are.
We have statistical data that demonstrates why automatically sacrifice bunting when you get a runner on first, especially in this day and age of super hot bats and awesome hitters, will reduce your run production instead of enhance it. (Yes, these are baseball statistics but softball has done similar analytics and come to the same conclusion.)
We have measurable data that shows the pitch locations that produce the most swings and misses for each type of pitch.
We have technology that measures bat paths and arm deceleration speeds to help optimize player performance.
None of that was commonly available 20 years ago. So why not take advantage of it now?
If you’re still doing things the way you always did, you’re not paying attention and the game is leaving you behind. Open your mind to new possibilities.
Ultimately you may still reject some or all of what you hear. But at least you’re doing it as an informed choice rather than just a matter of stubborn habit.
Those are just a few examples of the stupid things coaches say. What have you heard, and why does it drive you crazy?