Yes, Virginia, In Pitching Speed Does Matter

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Spin. Spot. Speed. Everyone involved in fastpitch pitching, whether as a player, parent, coach, instructor, or just interested observer loves to talk about those three attributes.

One of the most common statements you’ll see in Facebook fastpitch group discussions is something to the effect of, “Speed is good. But it’s really your ability to hit your spots and spin the ball that matters.”

In other words, don’t worry about whether you have speed. As long as you can throw movement pitches to the spots coaches call you’ll be fine.

The people who say these kinds of things remind me of this little burst of honesty from the movie “Liar, Liar:”

To me, it’s often the same with the speed discussion. “Speed isn’t that important” is usually something parents of kids who don’t have it say.

The reality is, speed is not only important on its own. It’s a door-opener to opportunities someone who doesn’t have it is less likely to get.

Take the idea of playing in college.

A college coach goes to watch a travel or high school game. The pitcher on one side is hitting her spots but doesn’t throw very hard, roughly in the mid-50s. She is getting people out primarily with weak hits, and maybe 3-4 Ks.

The pitcher on the other side is throwing gas, perhaps in the low to mid- 60s, but clearly has control trouble. Still, despite walking 6 hitters she also strikes out 10-12. Which one is the college coach going to talk to after the game?

If you guessed the girl throwing heat you’re right. The college coach will figure he/she can teach that girl to hit her spots a lot more easily than he/she can teach the other one to throw 65 mph.

The same is true at travel ball, high school, or even rec league tryouts. Coaches are generally going to pick the girl who throws the fastest with less accuracy over the one who is spot-on but has mediocre speed at best.

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Even if her results look like this.

We really saw that at the 2021 Womens College World Series. In closeup after closeup, the camera showed “rise balls,” “drop balls,” “curve balls,” “screwballs” and whatever other variations there were being thrown with bullet/gyro spin.

That’s a ball that isn’t likely to actually move much at all horizontally or vertically, unless there is some seam-shifted wake action going on.

But those pitches, when thrown at 70 mph, were more than effective because, well, it’s just darned hard to hit a pitch going that fast no matter how much of a direct line it takes from the pitcher’s hand to wherever it ends up by the plate. Even if it’s well out of the strike zone by that time.

Here’s another reality. Take two pitchers who are struggling to get hitters out. One is hitting her spots, but the team’s opponents are crushing her in game after game.

The other is more random, but gets more Ks, swings and misses, or weaker hits because she just flat-out throws harder than the opposing hitters are used to seeing. Which one do you think the head coach is going to give more leeway to, or give more chances to prove herself?

Of course, this is about the time that people say, “But Cat Osterman…” Or baseball fanatics say “But Greg Maddux…”

Yup, I will grant you that, although neither were exactly slow. Cat in her heyday through in the low 60s, which especially at that time was only a few mph under the top speedsters. And Maddux threw around 93 early in his career, which is hardly slow.

So here’s what I’ll on that. IF your pitcher can move the ball like Cat (or Greg), she can probably be pretty successful with just spot and spin. But that’s a pretty big IF.

If not, it will probably be in her best interest to work on adding as much speed as she can, which will make everything else she does more effective.

I’m not saying she has to be Monica Abbott or Yukiko Ueno or Rachel Garcia or any of the other members of the 70 mph club. Those are rare birds.

She may never even hit 60 mph. That’s still kind of a magic number in womens fastpitch softball for a good reason – not everyone can do it, whether due to genetics, training or the desire to work at it.

What I am saying is don’t go thinking if your favorite pitcher is hitting her spots and getting some spin on the ball that the speed of her pitches doesn’t matter. It does.

Keep working at it. Put in the time in mechanics, strength, speed and agility and whatever other training you can find to help her elevate her pitch speeds to the highest level of which she’s capable.

It’s well worth the investment.

Drill to Help Achieve Better Bat Angle

One of the enduring myths in hitting, both in fastpitch softball and in baseball, is the concept of a “level swing.” And by level, most people mean making the bat parallel to the ground.

This is a myth I have attempted to dispel many times, dating all the way back to 2006. Yet still it persists.

In case you don’t feel like following the link, I will briefly go into the problems with this instruction before offering a way to address it. The admonition to swing level causes several issues.

One is that it leaves you very little surface with which to contact the ball and achieve a good hit. If you strike it dead-on in the right spot you can get a rising line. But be off by just a smidge either way and you’ll end up with a popup or a ground ball – neither of which is a great outcome.

If you’re really trying to swing level, you’ll only be able to do that until about waist-high, or however low your arms reach. After that, you’ll either have to bend down awkwardly, killing any chance you have of hitting the ball hard, or you’ll have to lower the bat head anyway.

Not to mention attempting to swing level often leads to casting, or stiffly pulling the bat across the strike zone instead of getting a powerful, sequenced swing.

Swinging level also means you don’t have much adjustability in your swing. You kind of set a bat height early and have little range of motion up or down.

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That’s a problem because, you know, gravity. And rise balls.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

Of course, players who have had the concept of “swing level” beaten into them for so many years often have trouble developing a new, better swing pattern that results in a good bat angle. They can’t feel what they’re supposed to do so they continue to drop their hands and try to cut across.

So here’s a way to help them develop that feel by using their eyes. Take a roll of duct tape and place a few strips on a convenient poll, tree, or other vertical object at the desired angle at contact at several different heights. In the photo above I just did it on one of the poles on a backstop.

Then have the hitter go through the swing motion and try to match the bat angle at various heights. As she works on matching that angle, the hands naturally stay up and the barrel goes down.

Rinse and repeat as-needed until the hitter can achieve the proper angle without thinking about it or putting in any extraordinary effort.

If you’re worried about the hitter losing control of that $500 bat you just bought, substituted a piece of PVC pipe or a broom handle or any other object that simulates a bat but won’t break your heart if it gets smashed into the pole.

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Parent after realizing the $500 bat’s warranty doesn’t cover using it to hit metal poles.

This drill works, and it works pretty quickly -if the hitter does it frequently at home. You’re not going to get instant results at a practice or an individual lesson, but if she does it at home on a daily basis for about a week the pattern will set in and she’ll start to go from popups and grounders to more well-hit, rising line drives.

The best part is it’s very cheap and doesn’t require a lot of supervision. Just make the marks using whatever tape or even paint you have lying around and have the hitter have at it.

If you have a hitter who can’t seem to get the ball out of the infield, take a look at her bat at contact. If it’s flat/level, give this drill a whirl. I think you’ll like the results.

8 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Skill-Specific Clinics

I recently had the privilege of working with Rick and Sarah Pauly (Pauly Girl Fastpitch), along with several of the top pitching coaches in the U.S., at a pitching clinic hosted by Jay Bolden. There were two sessions: the first for beginning/intermediate pitchers that focused on the fundamentals of good mechanics, and a second for more advanced pitchers where we did a lot of data measurement using various technologies such as 4DMotion for overall mechanics and kinetic sequence, Diamond Kinetic Balls for spin direction and rates, Pocket Radar for speed, as well as stations that focused on improving the rise and drop.

It was quite an opportunity for the participants to learn about pitching. Yet when it was all over a few of us had a discussion about how some of them had squandered that opportunity.

So that’s what today’s blog post is about: some tips that will help future campers ensure they get the most from the time they spend. And their parents get the most from their investment.

Tip #1: Come with an open mind

Perhaps the most frustrating comment any instructor in a situation like that can hear is “I don’t do it that way.” Basically that says “I have my way of pitching, hitting, etc. and I don’t want to make any changes.”

Ok fine, but then don’t bother signing up for the clinic. If you’re already doing what you want to do you and have no interest in hearing other perspectives, or perhaps finding a better approach, then there’s no point in driving all that way and taking up three hours of your time.

Stay home and play like you want, and leave the spot open for someone else.

But really the value in a clinic like this is hearing perspectives and learning techniques that could help you become better than you already are. If you listen with an open mind, and try new things even if they’re different from what you’ve done before, you may find you like the new things better. And that they work better for you.

The more open you are to different techniques, or even different cues, than you’ve heard in the past, the more likely you are to find what works best for you.

Tip #2: Sign up for the right level

This one comes from my friend Shaun Walker, an innovative pitching coach with Next Level Softball in Bruno, West Virginia. When you’re signing up at a clinic that offers different levels, it’s important to be honest about your level of accomplishment in the skill being taught.

It’s not just about age. It’s also about what you can do with the ball in your hand. If you’re a 14U pitcher throwing 45 mph who has trouble hitting her spots even though you’ve been pitching for four years, the beginner/intermediate clinic will likely suit you better.

Because pitchers who struggle with control on their fastballs or can’t at least reach the average speeds for their age levels probably don’t need advanced instruction on the rise and drop. They need to improve their fundamentals first.

If you’re going to sign up for an advanced clinic, you should be able to throw decently hard (55+ mph), have a reliable offspeed pitch, and at least have a start on a movement pitch or two. You need a fairly high degree of proprioception (fancy word for body awareness) because the subtle adjustment required to spin the ball in different directions will be tough to accomplish without it.

If you sign up for an advanced clinic and are completely lost and unable to do the things that are required you’ve just wasted three hours of time (plus travel) along with the money you invested. Take that same time and money and invest it in the beginning/intermediate session and you’ll get a lot more out of it.

Tip #3: Use it to see if you/your daughter likes pitching

Becoming a fastpitch pitcher requires a lot of time and effort, and in most cases a significant investment in pitching lessons. Why go down that road if it turns out the player doesn’t actually like it?

Keeley Byrnes, a great pitching coach with Key Fundamentals in Oviedo, Florida says that the beginning clinics are a great way to find out if the player likes and wants to become a pitcher. You can go through some instruction, find out just how challenging it can be to become a pitcher, and determine if it’s a path you want to try without the huge time and money investment of private lessons.

The clinic structure is also more conducive to “sampling” because with multiple players there isn’t as much direct one-on-one contact – particularly important to those kids who are a little more shy. They can give it a try and see if it’s for them without drawing too much attention to themselves.

Tip #4: Pace yourself

The structure of a three-hour clinic is unlike most typical practices. I have seen so many kids come out like a bright comet in the sky, only to burn themselves out quickly and have nothing left by the end.

It gets even worse if you’ve signed up for both sessions at a multi-level clinic like the one last weekend. That’s six hours of pitching. Who does that on a regular basis?

Don’t feel the need to get as many reps in early as you can. Take your time and pace yourself. Your future (six hours from now) self will thank you.

Tip #5: Understand it’s ok to fail

We all hate to fail, especially when standing in a room filled with our peers (or competitors). Yet a clinic is the place to try out new things.

The problem with new things is we’re not good at them, so you’re probably going to fail more often than you’re used to.

That’s ok. This is the place to do it.

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After all, it could be worse.

If the clinic is any good at all, the instructors will understand and will try to help you get better. They will love your willingness to put yourself out there and do the hard work required to change.

Do that, and the most likely result is that you walk out knowing how to become a better pitcher than you were when you walked in. And you’ll be more ready to try new things as they come along.

Tip #6: Parents should be curious – but resist the urge to interfere

We get it. It’s tough for parents to watch their kids struggle, and it’s tough to resist the urge to step in when it happens.

But don’t.

Shaun says the ideal parents at clinics are those who listen so they can help their kids later, but who don’t get in the way of the learning process during the clinics. They certainly don’t say, “Ah, don’t listen to her, just keep doing it the way I showed you after searching on “fastpitch pitching” on the Internet.

Instructors at a quality clinic will not only tell you what to do but why it’s important. I know Rick Pauly is a master at this.

How much to participate can be a challenge, especially for some parents. You’re going to know your kids better than the instructors do, and will spend a lot more time with them than the clinic instructors will.

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That’s it. Bring it down now.

But land the helicopter anyway. Listen and learn along with your player, ask questions if you don’t understand something, but otherwise stay out of the way. It’s the best value for your entertainment dollar.

Tip #7: Embrace the different ways of teaching from different instructors

Keeley correctly states that one of the challenges of one-on-one instruction is that they player is only hearing things from one person. That instructor has his or her way of teaching things, but there are many ways to say the same thing.

One of the advantages of a clinic with multiple instructors is the opportunity to hear different explanations for the same thing. While one may not resonate with a particular player, the next one might.

And even if none of them is exactly on the mark for how that player needs to learn, the combination of statements, as long as they’re all basically saying the same thing in different ways, will help the player translate the instruction into a form she can use.

The other advantage of the clinic setting is learning from other players.

The participants are likely to be broken into groups. If there is a group of three, for example, and only one of them understands the instruction, she can also help explain or demonstrate it to the other two.

I’ve seen plenty of great examples of one clinic participant helping another to learn. Both of them benefit.

Tip #8: Gain more exposure to new things

While this sounds similar to Tip #1, it’s more about learning about things or taking in feedback you’ve never received before.

A good case in point is the technology we used at the last pitching clinic. You may think you have a great rise or curve. But the Diamond Kinetics ball will measure and show exactly what spin speed and direction you have.

If your rise is working pretty well but you discover you have a 10:00 spin, you’ll know you have more work to do to get it closer to a 12:00 spin. Make that change and it will be even more effective.

The 4DMotion technology is also incredible. It can measure all types of parameters from simple sequences (are you decelerating Hips-Chest-Arm?) to the speed at which your forearm is decelerating as you release the ball (which indicates the efficiency of your energy transfer).

With hard data in hand you can make improvements that may not have shown up to the naked eye, or even on high speed video. All of which will lead you to becoming the best pitcher you can be.

Get the most out of it

Attending a quality clinic can be great, or even a game-changer, if you approach it with the right mindset. But it can also be a giant waste of everyone’s time and energy if you don’t.

In other words, you’ll want to do more than simply get the t-shirt as Ken Bergren, a pitching coach in Oregon says.

Follow these tips and you’re far more likely to walk out thinking “That was fantastic.” And inspired to go out and work even harder.

Recruiting Advice: Remember There’s Always Someone Watching

In the 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11 (not to be confused with the Rat Pack movie from 1960), robbery target Terry Benedict tells Danny Ocean that “In my hotel, someone is always watching.”

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Not from Ocean’s 11, but at least it’s Clooney.

Parents and softball players would be wise to remember that statement as they go about the business of attempting to get recruited by the team of their choice. Especially now, since as I write this we are in the midst of “Showcase Season,” the big opportunity for college coaches to watch potential recruits in action.

This lesson was reinforced on a Zoom with a couple of D1 coaches as part of the National Fastpitch Coaches College (NFCC) Course 401. Both coaches said there is far more to who they, and most of their contemporaries, select than just on-field talent.

One of them went on to talk about a player who is the #1 prospect in his state. Yet neither his school or the other major D1 college in his state has extended an offer to her. Why not?

It’s simple. It comes down to character. Not just of the player but of the parents.

I’ve heard many college coaches talk about this. When they go to watch a game they don’t just watch what happens on the field.

They also watch what happens off of it. Like how the parents act during the game and how the player speaks to her parents.

In the former case, college coaches want to steer clear of any parents who seem like they will be “those parents.” You know the ones – nothing is good enough for them, their daughter is always getting shortchanged by the coaches, the umpires are idiots who need to be called out at every opportunity, etc.

If you see them acting this way now there is no reason to think they won’t act this way if their daughter is on the collegiate team. And since the pressure is magnified in college, willingly taking on a major headache doesn’t seem like a good strategy.

Unless they are incredibly desperate, most coaches would rather take a player with a little less talent and a lot less baggage. Especially those who have a wide choice of players, i.e., your Power 25.

As far as player interactions with their parents (as well as coaches and teammates), that can be another huge red flag. Players who speak disrespectfully to their parents are likely to do the same to college coaches. Who needs that?

They’re also more likely to break rules, get into academic trouble, or become a cancer on the team if they don’t get their way. It doesn’t take much to send a season south, so again coaches will quickly write those players off their lists.

So it might seem like the best solution is for parents and players to be on their best behavior when college coaches are around. The problem with that is you don’t always know they’re there.

Sure, some coaches will wear their team shirts and sit right behind the backstop in the “scouting” section. But others will be a whole lot less obtrusive.

The aforementioned coach said he likes to hang in the background and listen. He wants to hear if parents are running down the coach, or constantly questioning strategies or decisions, or putting down other players.

If they’re doing it now, there’s no reason to think they won’t do it if their daughter is playing at that school. Hard pass.

No, the real solution, and I know this will be a shocker for some, is to be people of good character. Parents, be supportive of the whole team. Not because someone is watching but because it’s the right thing to do.

Players, be great teammates. Be the person who picks up others, encourages the girl who made an error or struck out, and does little things like grabbing a bat that gets tossed toward the dugout or picking up garbage in dugout after the game.

Because college coaches notice that stuff too. And they like it.

While this should be an automatic, it’s not. It’s a learned behavior for some. So learn it.

Be a good person on and off the field. Because remember, there’s always someone watching.

Coaches: Harsh Conditions Do Not a Great Garden Make

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the way too many fastpitch softball coaches choose to treat their players. Whether I am walking by a field when a team is practicing or just talking to some of my students, the “tough guy” (or “tough gal”) stereotype seems to be alive and well.

Now understand, I am all for discipline and accountability. There is nothing wrong with demanding the very best from your players on a daily basis.

But that doesn’t mean you have to berate and belittle them on a constant basis. It’s like the only tool in some coaches’ toolbox is a hammer – a big one – and they feel they have to use it all the time in order to draw the best performance out of their players.

Coach offering suggestions to players during practice.

I don’t get where they think that will work. If an adult had a job where they were receiving nothing but negative feedback or outright abuse, you can bet they’d be posting a negative review on Glassdoor at the very least and looking for a new job as soon as they could.

It’s like the old saying – people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. Yet coaches are still surprised when their players don’t return the next year.

It might help to think of your players as seeds that need to be nurtured. Yes, some plants can grow in the concrete under harsh conditions, getting trampled all the time.

But they rarely turn into beautiful gardens. Instead, they look small and sad – not the types of plants anyone is going to stop and admire.

The same is true of fastpitch softball players. Especially the younger ones – those under the age of 14 who tend to take everything adults say at face value.

If all they ever hear is how bad they are, or how stupid they are for missing a play or making an error, they will tend to believe it.

Sure, an occasional player might break through that difficult environment and survive, but most will not. They will find another outlet that helps them feel better about themselves.

Which means if the goal is to grow the game, taking an approach that drives them out makes little sense.

Coaches who want to be tough also have to remember that what they view as “normal” may not seem so normal to their players. As I have said many times, kids are not short adults. They often lack the experience and background to put certain things in perspective.

Harsh criticism doesn’t just roll off their backs. They aren’t yet able to “take it with a grain of salt.”

Kids in many cases are very literal. And females in general are more prone to believing whatever negative things are said about them.

So what winds up happening is that performance under these conditions goes down instead of up, which leads to even more berating and abuse, which hurts performance even more, and the results take a familiar path.

Taking this type of approach may make you feel good as a coach, or like you’re doing your job. But it’s really lazy coaching.

Rather than yelling at or otherwise berating your players for poor performance, why not help them get better? Teach them the game, and understand everyone learns in different ways and at different paces.

Hold them accountable when needed, but understand the difference between a lack of ability (at this time) and a lack of effort. Only the latter should bring out your ire. The former should drive you to find new and better ways to help your players learn and improve.

Provide a little sunshine, a little water, and a good overall environment and your players will grow faster and much healthier in the game.

Tip for Learning to Feel the Separation of Hips and Shoulders When Hitting

One of the most critical moves in fastpitch (or baseball for that matter) hitting is learning to separate the hips and shoulders. By allowing the hips to lead, the hitter can:

  • Generate more power by enabling the big muscles to generate tremendous energy (much more than the arms or shoulders alone can do)
  • See the ball longer
  • Shorten the distance the bat has to travel to make contact with the ball
  • Enable themselves to adjust to pitch speed and location more easily than with an arms-driven or one-piece gate swing
  • Carry the bat forward so you’re hitting out front instead of across the body

Yet while that makes logical sense, and can be seen in the swings of high-level players, learning to actually do it can be difficult for many players. They tend to want to bring everything forward at once.

What I usually tell them is they need to counter-rotate their upper body when the hips start to fire. In other words, when the front foot lands and the hips start to rotate forward, the shoulders should pull back a little against them. The hips will then pull the shoulders around so they can launch the bat.

Sounds simple, right? But hitters can’t always visualize that move, or feel it. So here’s a way to help them get it.

Take a piece of elastic, the type you can easily find at a fabric store or big box retailer, and tie a loop in one end. Then slip the front foot into the loop, and wrap the other end around the bat handle.

Now, when the hitter lands and the hips start to rotate, tell her to use her hands and shoulders to stretch the elastic further. Bam, you have separation and sequence. Simple!

Here’s how that looks:

You can see the stretch of the elastic as she makes the first move. She does it again as she goes into the swing.

The question then is does it translate? Here’s a video of the swing after the elastic has been removed.

Now, swinging off a tee isn’t the same as swinging at a live pitch. It’s still going to take some practice to lock it in.

But at least she has a great start on it.

If you’re looking for a tactile way to help hitters learn this important move, stop by your local fabric store and pick up some elastic. It help shortcut the learning process.

Coaching, Bearded Dragons and Relationship Building

It was yet another oppressively hot, very humid day here in the Midwest – the type we used to associate with Mississippi but now is happening here on a regular basis.

My first lesson of the afternoon, a young 10U pitcher we’ll call Hermione (for reasons that will become obvious shortly), had the look of someone who wanted to be anywhere but a pitching lesson.

“Jump some rope to warm up,” I told her, and she slowly shuffled over to the fence where the rope was hanging before giving it a half-hearted effort. Then she went out to throw with her mom, and could barely get the ball there despite the fact they weren’t more than 15 feet apart.

This was the second time in a row she had come out that way. “Maybe she just doesn’t want to pitch,” I said to her mom. That’s ok, I said, but then no sense torturing her with a lesson.

Mom left it up to Hermione and she said she wanted to do it so we continued – after I talked to her for a few minutes.

“I know it’s hot,” I told her, “but there’s nothing we can do about that. But attitude is a choice. You can choose to put the effort in or not – it’s totally in your control.”

That worked about as well as you’d expect it to work on a 10U player, but we continued anyway.

“She may be tired,” her mom offered. “We went to the zoo yesterday.”

“Really?” I replied, thinking we might have a different way to approach things. “What zoo?” I asked Hermione.

“Mmph,” she said.

“Milwaukee,” her mom added.

“I love the Milwaukee Zoo,” I said to Hermione. “What are your favorite exhibits?”

“Mmph,” she replied again.

Then mom stepped in again. “We went to the small mammals, (something else I don’t remember), and reptiles.”

“Reptiles?” I said. That’s an unusual choice if you’re only seeing three.

“I like reptiles.” Hermione offered.

Say Word Reaction GIF by Justin

Aha! An actual response. I dug into it a little more, and then came the turning point. Her mom said the reptile house didn’t have any bearded dragons.

“Oh, you like those?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said with some enthusiasm. “I have a bearded dragon in my room.”

From then on it was like someone flipped a switch. Instead of looking like someone in a hostage video she became quite animated as we talked about beardies in general (that’s what the “in the know” people call them) and hers in particular.

Over the course of the lesson I learned her beardy’s name as Phoenix Firebolt (for Dumbledore’s pet and Harry Potter’s broomstick), which of course meant I also learned she liked Harry Potter. I learned that beardies eat grain and bugs, and that bugs are a lot more expensive than grain.

I learned she liked to dress Phoenix up in costumes, and that Phoenix wasn’t exactly a fan.

“I just have a couple,” she told me. “A lot of people do it all the time.

I also learned she liked to take Phoenix for walks, and that if she took the leash off outside without an adult present Phoenix would try to escape. A lesson discovered the hard way.

Throughout all of this conversation Hermione continued to pitch. Her throws got harder and more accurate.

I would make corrections here or there, but quickly follow that up with a beardy question. The lesson flew by, with Hermione making tremendous progress.

It was a good reminder for me. There is a saying that players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

In other words, your ability as a coach to build a relationship with a player on her terms is critical to your success.

Whether it carries over automatically to next week remains to be seen. But hopefully, at least with this one player, I have a key to unlock her resistance or reluctance and help her enjoy her pitching lessons instead of just enduring them.

That’s the challenge for all coaches. Get to know your players, especially at the younger ages. Find out what floats their boats.

Because if you can establish some common ground there, they just might let you in a little faster to help them become the players they’re meant to be.

Bearded dragon photo by Saketh Upadhya on Pexels.com

Softball Takeaways from Simone Biles

While the return of fastpitch softball to the Olympics was the big story for many of us who are fanatics for the sport, for the general populace of course one of the biggest stories was gymnast Simone Biles deciding not to compete in the team or most of the individual events. She did, of course, eventually take Bronze on the balance beam which is hardly her signature event.

It’s hard to imagine what a difficult decision that must have been for her. Here she has spent the last five years training for the opportunity to win more medals, presumably Gold medals, in her sport’s biggest showcase.

Yet when the time came something in her just snapped. She knew she couldn’t do it mentally at the level she needed, and that put her at risk of serious injury or perhaps even death given what she had planned to do. After one vault she decided it would be best to withdraw and give someone else a chance instead.

How did she get to that point? Part of it, of course, was relentless training. I doubt she’s taken many days off since she became a serious competitor, and that can take a physical and mental toll on you after a while.

While softball players don’t train at the same intensity or risk level as national team gymnasts (most of them anyway), it is possible to get so caught up in what you’re doing that you forget why you’re doing it. When softball starts to feel like more of a burden than an escape from life’s many real burdens, it’s time to take a little time off.

Another issue Simone Biles faced was a distinct lack of support, especially from people at the highest level of her sport. Those people loved showcasing her to the media to promote their own agendas, but when she told them about irregularities around the training they did their best to brush it under the rug and forget about it.

Parents, if your softball-playing daughter tells you physical or mental abuse is happening, don’t just tell her to suck it up or quit whining. Do all you can to find out if there is any reason to be concerned – even if it might mean losing a scholarship opportunity or being removed from a team that wins all its tournaments.

Your daughter’s safety and mental health are worth more, and not worth trading for any amount of money or plastic trophies. When she says something is wrong, be sure to listen.

Coaches, you have the same responsibility. If your player is suddenly having problems don’t get stuck thinking your job is simply putting a winning team on the field. Take an interest and find out what’s wrong.

Maybe she just has a softball version of the “twisties” and needs some help working through them. She’s lost confidence and needs someone to help her fill her confidence bucket back up.

Maybe she’s in a hitting slump and just needs someone to believe in her. The thing that prolongs most slumps is over-thinking the cause. Help her remember who she is and what she can do, even if it takes a little while. It will be worth the effort.

Or maybe, just maybe, something is going on at home or in her personal life that has her all off-kilter. You caring enough to find out and help her could have a lasting effect on her life that she will remember and appreciate long after she’s left her cleats at home plate.

Finally, when you’re performing at a high level there will always be haters – people who want to tear you down and then delight in your failure. Especially if you’re a female.

Many of the people leveling those criticisms have never put in the effort to do anything at a high level, But they’ll be more than happy to tell you why you’re weak and undeserving because you suddenly feel the pressure you were able to shut out before.

Players, don’t listen to them! Those ignorant couch potatoes know they don’t have the drive or dedication to be like you, so they want to drag you down to be like them.

Do what you need to do to get right in your own head – even if it means stopping for a bit to let it clear. This is the perfect time of year to do that, by the way.

The summer season is over, tryouts are over, and fall ball is still a few weeks away. Go to the beach or the movies or an amusement park. Listen to music all day, or sit and read a book or three. Hang out with friends who you don’t share a uniform with.

In other words, find something else to do with your day. Softball will still be waiting for you when you get back.

Anyone who has watched her career knows Simone Biles is the ultimate competitor. She’s never met a challenge she didn’t take head-on.

So when she says she has the “twisties” and the best way to deal with them is by pulling out of the Olympics it’s worth taking note.

If Simone Biles needs to walk away for a bit, the same can be said for any of us.

Take care of yourself, even if some around you don’t quite understand. Softball will be here when you’re ready. And you just may enjoy and appreciate it a little more.

Simone Biles photo from Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Few Post-Olympic Thoughts

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Last week I wrote about some things to watch for as fastpitch softball made its return to the Olympic stage. If you haven’t read it already you may want to follow the link above and give it a look as it is both insightful and brilliant. Or at least marginally interesting.

Now that the tournament is finished I thought it might be a good idea to see what takeaways we might draw from what actually occurred while it was going on. There are definitely some lessons to be learned.

SPOILER ALERT: This post will refer to outcomes, so if you’re one of the few softball fanatics who have not watched the games and are trying to keep yourself from learning who won until you do, you may want to do that first – or explore other posts here on the blog.

Nice to see softball back in the Olympics

Let’s start with the obvious. After a 13 year absence it was great to see fastpitch softball back in the Olympics in any form.

The Olympic games draw a LOT of eyes and are considered to be a major international event. Yes, you have the Pan Am Games and the World Cup of Softball, but those are essentially “in the family” events. IOW, only softball people are interested in them.

The Olympics, on the other hand, allow people who have no real interest in softball to randomly stumble across them. This is also helped by the fact that they appear on a major network (in this case NBC), even though in reality the games were on offshoot networks rather than NBC proper.

Plus the Olympics have built-prestige of their own despite all the problems and scandals of recent years. It’s great for popularizing the sport and exposing it to new potential fans. Lots of good things about it.

That said…

The tournament format was awful

Really? Five pool play games and then you go straight to the Gold and Bronze Medal games?

I would expect more from a local rec league tournament.

Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows a game can turn on a single hit, a bad bounce, a single throwing error, an umpire’s call, etc. At the highest level the margins are even more razor-thin.

Take the U.S. v Australia game. It was won by one fortunate, well-timed hit by the U.S. It could have easily gone the other way.

We also know teams can bounce back from a bad or unfortunate game to come back and take it all.

It should have been a double elimination tournament. I’m sure there were financial reasons it wasn’t, but the format they had made it look like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just caved to pressure and let it in with the minimal effort possible. Softball was the red-headed stepchild of these Olympics.

This is further evidenced by the fact that half of the pool play occurred BEFORE the opening ceremonies, which most people consider to be the beginning of the Olympics. Which means they were less likely to stumble into the games on TV.

If you wanted to “prove” that not enough people are interested in softball to include it in the future, this was the way to do it.

The U.S. Team’s Offensive Plan Was Poor

If the goal was to prove that softball is an international sport and the U.S. doesn’t dominate it anymore, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to put together a team and a game plan to keep U.S. scoring to the minimum required to get into the Gold Medal game, then well done.

Yes, I realize the pitching is the best in the world (at least in theory), and great pitching beats great hitting. But other teams didn’t seem to have as much trouble scoring runs against each other.

Yet the U.S. managed a measly nine (9) runs in six (count ’em 6) games, and no more than two (2) in any single game. That’s pathetic.

I’m guessing part of that strategy was to support dominating pitchers with the best defense they could, then count on being able to scratch a couple of runs together to win 1-0 or 2-1. So forget worrying about finding big hitters and just get defensive stars.

The problem with that is it’s not 1996 anymore. Softball players work harder these days at hitting overall, and the bat technology is way better than when the Louisville burgundy bottle bat was THE bat to have. You wouldn’t use that in practice now.

A game can turn on a single swing, and if you get behind by a couple of runs early it can be tough to come back if you don’t have players who can hit the gaps for extra bases. As the U.S. found out in the Gold Medal game.

Then there was the offensive philosophy, which was incredibly predictable. As soon as the U.S. got a runner on first, the next hitter up was required to sacrifice bunt. Every. Stinking. Time.

That meant that a hitter like Jamie Reed, who tripled in the first inning of the Gold Medal game against the worlds best pitcher, spent most of the tournament laying down bunts instead of trying to drive runs in.

Even a fly ball to the fence could have advanced the runner on first as effectively as a bunt, with the added benefit that it might hit the fence or go over, resulting in a better offensive position.

I haven’t seen the stats, but to the best of my recollection the number of runs that were manufactured by sacrifice bunts was zero. In the meantime, the U.S. gave up a whole bunch of outs that might have come in handy later in the game.

Yes, I am prejudiced against the sac bunt anyway, and have been for a long time. It’s a waste in most cases. This just proved the point.

The other downside of being so predictable was that opposing teams, Japan in particular, could just sit on it and use it to their advantage. Like by pulling the corners in and pulling off a double play against a sac bunt.

Keep in mind the U.S. win against Japan in pool play came off a home run. They needed more of that.

Especially since, according to the announcers, Japan has spent the last few years trying to put MORE offensive firepower into their game. If Japan is your Gold Standard (no pun intended) the U.S. may want to look for players who can bang the ball – and then let them do it.

The defense was unreal

In my last post I talked about watching the speed of the game. These games did not disappoint.

The defense across the board was incredible. So many great plays by so many players on all teams. That is an aspect everyone got right.

The whole thing looked like an old timer’s game

Perhaps the oddest thing about these Olympics were how old many of the players were. Especially in the circle.

Monica and Cat for the U.S. are both mid- to late-30s. Yukiko Ueno is 39. Team Canada had several recognizable names from the past. All of them played in the last Olympic games.

It’s almost as if the people in charge felt they owed it to these players to let them play in one more Olympics. Not that they didn’t perform – they did.

But in a sports culture obsessed with youth it’s hard to believe there weren’t younger players who could have done just as well. Have we done such a poor job of training the next generation that the last generation had to step in? Or were they just trying to go with glory names from the past?

The problem with that is you lose the younger audience who didn’t grow up watching Cat and Monica and the others dominate the sport. I think a lot of younger fans want to see the names they’ve been watching in the Women’s College World Series – players they know and can relate to.

In my very informal survey of my students, most did not watch the Olympics. They had little interest. If you can’t get current players to watch the game played at that level how are you going to grow softball as a spectator sport?

From a marketing standpoint it’s time to leave the past behind and start focusing on the future. We apparently have eight years to get it right. Let’s do it.

It was essentially an American tournament

For those who still complain about U.S. dominance of the sport, they do have a point. Despite the different names on the jerseys, many of the players – especially for Italy, Canada and Mexico – were either U.S. citizens or played college ball in the U.S.

I think that was less true for Australia, but I believe they had a few too.

About the only team that wasn’t made in America essentially was Team Japan.

It’s great that more deserving players get an opportunity to play in the Olympics by going with teams representing their heritage instead of where they were born and/or raised. But if softball is going to become a permanent part of the Olympics we need more locally raised players for these teams.

Especially the European teams, because their Olympic Committees hold a lot of sway over how the Olympics are run.

Hopefully softball can generate enough publicity to get girls in these countries interested in playing softball at a high level against each other as well as against U.S. players. I guess we’ll see.

So there you have it – a few of my observations. Now it’s your turn.

Did you watch? If so, what did you think? Leave your observations in the comments below.

What to Watch for In the Olympic Softball Games

As you may have possibly heard as a fastpitch softball fanatic, our sport is back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008! This is a rare moment to watch the best players in the world compete on a huge stage with presentation budget of a major network production.

It’s also the last time for the next eight years as the sport is not included in the 2024 Paris Olympics. It is expected to return in 2028 and 2032 when the games flip to the U.S. and Australia. Who knows what will happen after that?

So since this is such an unusual opportunity you’ll want to make the most of it. Not just to sit back and enjoy the games (although that’s great) but also to learn all you can while you have the opportunity.

So to help with that, here are a few pointers on some things to pay closer attention to. The Speed of Play.

The Speed of Play

I’m not talking about pitch speeds, although they are incredible too. I’m talking about what happens when a ball is put in play.

Look at what happens on a ground ball. It is scooped up and on its way to first in a “blink and you’ll miss it” fashion. There is no double-clutching, no calmly standing up and then casually firing it over. It’s there and gone.

Or look at the baserunners. Even the ones you would think are more powerful than fleet are incredibly fast. If a ball is hit between two fielders in the outfield there’s a good chance the runner on first is going to third. Bobble it at all and she’s heading for home.

Everything is amazingly fast. If you want to know what to work on in your/your daughter’s/you players’ games, work on that.

For example, don’t just hit them ground balls. Run a stopwatch and challenge them to make the play in less than three seconds. I find blowing an air horn when the stopwatch hits three seconds provides a pretty good indicator of whether they were successful enough.

Work on just pure running too. I know most people get into softball because they don’t like all the running in other sports, but it’s something that does need to be addressed.

While you can’t make everyone fast you can help them get faster. The faster your team is the more pressure it puts on the defense and the more runs you can score when you need them.

Here you can start by making sure your players are running on their toes instead of heels or flat feet. Then do a lot of short, quick sprints.

Run down a hill. Have two or more players run against each other, perhaps letting one player start in front of the other. Have them play tag around the basepaths. Anything to get the feet and arms moving faster.

Watch the Pitching Mechanics

The coverage I have seen so far has been amazing at showing pitching mechanics. We are getting great closeup shots of what is happening at release on great pitchers such as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, and Yukiko Ueno.

Notice how close they are to their bodies at release, to the point where their forearms brush against their hips. Note how on a curve ball the hand kind of wraps around the back hip instead of being out and away.

Watch how they release the ball with a smooth, whipping motion. Note that they are vertical or leaning slightly back instead of being bent forward.

Also watch how they seem to glide on their back leg, like they’re riding a skateboard, until the front foot lands. Then they go into whip and release.

While you’re watching that, also note that they don’t drag their back legs behind them like zombies. The leg stays under them, which is what allows that skateboard-like movement.

It’s really a Master Class on pitching, happening pitch after pitch.

Listen to the Communication

With no crowd noise to speak of you can hear what’s going on down on the field more clearly. While at first you may list to the description of the play, maybe watch a second time and listen to what’s happening on the field.

They’re not down there keeping to themselves. Those players are communicating.

They’re talking before the play to make sure everyone knows their responsibilities. They’re talking during the play to help direct throws and avoid confusion. And they’re talking afterward to clean up any issues and pick up their teammates if something went wrong.

The more you communicate the better you’ll play as a team. Learn from the best.

What Happens Away from the Ball

The initial camera work is going to follow the ball. That makes sense because that’s where the main action is.

But during replays from other angles, look at what other players are doing. Who is backing up at a base? What is the right fielder doing on a throw from center to third?

If there is a steal or a bunt, who is fielding it and what are the other players doing?

For example, with a runner on first, if the third baseman fields the ball who goes to cover third in her place when the ball is bunted? Is it the shortstop, leaving second uncovered?

Unlikely since they may want to go for the lead runner. So is it the catcher? Pitcher? Left fielder?

The more you see how Olympic teams operate in particular situations the better idea you’ll have of what your team/daughter should be doing. Or at least learning.

How Tough Hitting Is Against Great Pitching

So far there hasn’t been a ton of offense in most of the games. That’s to be expected with such great pitchers.

Maybe it will change as the tournament goes on and the hitters get used to the high level of pitching they’re seeing. But right now it does demonstrate how challenging hitting can be – even for the best players in the world.

That’s something to keep in mind when your daughter goes 0 for 8 on a Saturday, or your team hits a collective .225. No matter how hard you work, a lot of good things have to happen to succeed at hitting.

That said, practicing properly (and often) gives you your best chance to succeed. Each of the players you’re watching works incredibly hard to do what she does.

Imagine where those hitters would be without all that hard work.

Softball is a game built on failure. It’s those who can push past it who will ultimately succeed.

They Make Mistakes Too

I think this is an important lesson for parents (and some coaches) to learn. These are the very best players in the world, presumably. But at some key moments, usually when their team can afford it the least, you will see a player here or there make an error.

It happens. It’s unfortunate but it does, even to the best. Especially in a pressure situation.

What parents (and some coaches) need to take away from that is these things are going to happen occasionally so you can’t freak out or get down on your daughter/player or scream at her in a way that makes her feel bad about herself.

This applies not to just physical errors but mental errors. If you’re a coach, make the correction in a non-judgmental way and move on. Believe me, she didn’t do it just to make you look bad or ruin your day.

If you’re a parent, be supportive. She’s probably already feeling horrible about it. Instead of making it worse help her learn from the experience so she doesn’t repeat it.

Realizing even the best players in the world make mistakes now and then will help you enjoy your daughter’s/players’ playing more and avoid turning one bad play into a bad inning – or a bad game.

Anyway, those are a few of the things I think you should be watching for as you enjoy softball in the Olympics. Any other thoughts? Leave them in the comments below,

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