Monthly Archives: January 2007

Seeing the light bulb go on

Last night I got another reminder of the real reason I enjoy coaching so much. It’s the challenge of finding the right way to teach a skill and thrill of seeing it take hold.

I’ve been struggling with finding a way to get one of my pitching students to relax her throwing shoulder so she can use her whole body instead of just her arm to throw. She is a bigger kid for her age, so she’s always been able to throw hard just muscling up on the ball. She would get into an open position ok, but then she’d tilt her head forward, tighten her shoulder, and just fling the ball forward. Not the smooth, relaxed, powerful movement we’re looking for. I’ve tried a half dozen cues or more over the last few months but nothing seemed to really stick.

Then last night I had her hang her arms down like an ape, and said the magic words: get your shoulders out over your toes. This is a cue I’ve used before with various pitchers (and hitters) to explain how to get into the athletic position, and may have even said it to this girl. But last night the light bulb came on. It suddenly seemed to make sense to her.

She started out throwing rather slowly, just to get the feel. She was worried about the loss of speed but I told her not to be concerned — we’ll recapture the speed (and more) later. As the lesson went on she started getting more comfortable with it, and adding speed to it. There were some wild pitches due to a lack of comfort/confidence in the movement, but overall she started to show some consistency. I was elated.

We’ll see for sure how well it took next week. But I have a good feeling about this one. If I’m right, a whole new world of fastpitch pitching just opened up for this very nice young lady. Oh what a feeling!

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Buzz donuts

Once again this is not fastpitch related but I simply can’t resist. On the way home from work today I heard about a new invention. A scientist somewhere has found a way to inject caffeine into a donut. He is now approaching all the major donut purveyors — Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks — to see if they’re interested in purchasing his invention.

All of which makes me wonder: what in the world makes a man of science, presumably well-educated man at that, spend his life taking something that’s already bad for you and making it worse for you. We live in a strange world, no doubt about it!

More thoughts on fair play

Sorry to get on the ol’ high horse again but this week I learned of an incident that really illustrates the importance of teaching the right values to our teams (and our children). In this case it wasn’t the coach who failed but the player, which put the coach in the position of having to make a tough decision.

It wasn’t softball either, but wrestling at the high school level. The team’s best wrestler decided he didn’t want to go to practice one day, so he said he had a doctor’s appointment, likely left school early, and went to the Shedd Aquarium in downtown Chicago. As usually happens, the coach found out about it and brought the young man into his office to ask about it. Unfortunately, the kid decided to stick to the lie and the coach bounced him from the team — the week of the conference meet, and the week before Regionals. It could not have been an easy decision. Losing this boy will cost the team points for sure. They’re forfeiting his weight this week. Yet lying to the coach, even when you’re given an opportunity to make things right, is against the team rules.

So what does this have to do with softball? Here’s the point. You teach your players it’s ok to leave the base early because the umpires probably won’t catch you. You teach them to stand in the basepath to force baserunners to go around because you might get them out and the umpires probably won’t catch them. You teach them to intentionally interfere with the catcher making a throw because the umpire probably won’t catch them. Then one day you find out a player lied about her whereabouts for practice or a tournament because she wanted to go to a concert, or on a date with her boyfriend, and you get all mad that she was dishonest with you. But what message have you been giving her all season? That it’s ok to break the rules to gain an advantage — because you probably won’t get caught.

In the case of the wrestling coach he has taught his guys to play by the rules, which is likely what angered him at being lied to. But if you’re a softball coach who subscribes to the “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin'” school, don’t be surprised if one day it comes back around to bite you.

How to know if you’re addicted to fastpitch softball

Dave over at Girls Fastpitch Softball just put up a great post with a list of 10 ways to know you’re addicted to fastpitch softball. He is definitely right on! A lot of the ways come back to watching games where you have no particular vested interest — no kids playing, don’t even know anyone on the team.

I had that experience last Spring. I had gone down to the St. Louis area (Illinois side) to watch my son’s soccer team play in a tournament down there. It was close to SIU-Edwardsville, a D2 college, and was excited to learn that 1) they would be playing at home, 2) one day the soccer game was within walking distance of the softball field and 3) a couple of the games would be at a different time than my son’s games so I could stop by to watch. I got to see all of one game and part of another on Saturday, plus part of a third game on Sunday. I didn’t know a soul there, but it was fun to watch nonetheless. I even e-mailed the SIU-E coach afterwards with a tip on their opponent’s pitcher giving away her curve ball (which she couldn’t throw for a strike, at least that day).

He is definitely right. There is no known cure. All you can do is feed the addiction and hope your spouse doesn’t catch on! 

Doing what’s right

Here’s a quiz on some issues young people might face in their lives. See what advice you would give.

1. Your daughter is having a tough time with a class in school. Her grade is borderline failing. If she doesn’t pass the next test she will fail the class. She is sure she can pass if she writes some key hints on crib sheets. The teacher doesn’t watch the class very closely while they take tests. Should you tell her to make up the crib sheets?

2.. Your daughter is working in her first job out of school. It doesn’t pay very well and she is having trouble making ends meet. The petty cash drawer is locked in a drawer but she knows where the key is. She believes she can help herself a little to some without getting caught. Should you tell her it’s ok to do it?

3. Your son is the CEO of a company. The CFO shows him a way to artificially inflate the stock price by moving money around and reporting income that isn’t really there. If he does it he and others in on the scheme can get rich. They believe they can do this without being caught. Should they?

Odds are you would answer “no” to each of these questions. (I’ll bet Mrs. Skilling wishes someone would’ve asked her.) Yet all over the fastpitch softball world, coaches are knowingly teaching their players just the opposite lesson.

This came up tonight when someone I know, like, and respect was proudly telling me how his daughter’s new team has a very “aggressive” philosophy. He said they teach their fielders to stand in the basepath when a ball is hit, forcing base runners to go around them. Although it is aginst the rules, the rationale is umpires won’t call it. Same with what they’re teaching hitters. With runners on base they tell hitters to switch to the left side, fake a bunt, and then pull the bat back to interfere with the catcher trying to make the play. Apparently wherever they play the umpires don’t call that either. (That is some poor umpiring in my opinion.) Another technique is to fake a bunt and then step across the plate in the way of a throw. The rules state that a batter is not allowed to interfere with a catcher making a play, but they rationalize that it’s ok as long as they don’t get caught.

Sports are supposed to teach lessons such as playing by the rules, showing good sportsmanship, and winning through putting forth your best effort — not through cheating. I can only hope that someday, one of these players who is learning that the rules don’t matter if you can get away with it wind up in charge of these coach’s retirement fund. Maybe then they’ll regret the lesson they taught on the softball field.

Prior has the gall to ask for a raise!

Ok, this isn’t really about fastpitch. But it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. (Apologies to The Animals.)

I heard the other day that Cubs pitcher Mark Prior is asking for a raise, from somewhere around $3.4 million to $3.65 million. He must be smoking crack have an over-inflated opinion of himself.

In what other job can you barely show up for work, fail six times more than you succeed, have your most visible measured performance indicator (in his case ERA) be miserable (7+) and expect your employer to pay you more money? Most of us would have been fired long ago from our jobs if we performed that way. And most of us are not paid several million dollars for it. I know I’m not.

If you have a son, don’t waste your time making him study math, or history, or any of that other stuff. Do whatever it takes to teach him to become a MLB pitcher. One good season is all it takes to be set for life.

Bunting — hands split or together?

Looking for general feedback here, and perhaps to get some good dialog going on a cold day in Chicago. In another post I mentioned a debate going on regarding teaching player to bunt with their hands together and up the bat, or the hands separated with one at the knob and the other up the bat.

Which do you teach? And why? I’ve seen both used in fastpitch games, and each side has it supporters. Just curious as to what other people think.

If you can’t keep your mind open, keep it ajar

Had a discussion at the end of the Mundelein Thunder Board meeting last night that is probably worth mentioning. Not so much for the topic itself but for what it brought to mind afterwards.

One of the things all of us coaches have to guard against is getting so caught up in what we teach that we close our minds to anything else. Paul Nyman at SetPro used to talk about this with hitting, and referred to it as adopting a religion. When people gain religious fervor for their beliefs, they tend to close out any contrasting ideas, even if the evidence shows otherwise. There’s a lot of bad information based on old beliefs out in the softball world, so it’s especially dangerous for us.

The topic had to do with bunting. The Thunder as an organization teaches running both hands up the bat and keeping them together to bunt. We went to this several years ago and have been teaching it for a while. The reason we made the switch was A) we were exposed to it at the National Sports Clinics by a college coach and  when we tried it it was more successful than the traditional split-hands bunt. We defined success as getting the bunt down reliably in fair territory and in the direction we want it to go. Which is primarily toward the pitcher, and sometimes toward the first baseman.

Mike Hanscom, our 10U coach, doesn’t care for this technique and I think would like to see it change. He learned split hands as a player and believes it is a better technique. At the last National Sports Clinics he reported that all of the coaches demonstrated split hands, and when asked subsequently the ones he questioned said they don’t change it when the player comes in, but would teach it split hands if given a choice. Of course, many of those coaches might also say that they wouldn’t teach the rotational hitting mechanics being espoused by Mike Candrea, Sue Enquist, and Carol Hutchins either, but that’s a story for another day. 

What I wonder how many have actually tried the hands together technique and discarded it, and how many are more of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mindset and have determined there is no need to change. They may believe there is no need to look at other techniques, or they may have determined ahead of time that it is not as good as hands together or hands partially separated.

Of course, that cuts both ways. I have to admit to a bit of religion on hands together myself. I see the technique used quite often both at the Womens College World Series and increasingly in baseball. As I mentioned, I’ve seen players use both and have more success with hands together. Like the college coaches, if I get someone new in at the 14U or 16U level who uses split hands I don’t change it — unless they’re having problems. Then I will ask them to try the technique. Most have preferred it once they tried it.

Ultimately, I am not sure that there is An Answer that will settle the question. But it does point out the importance for all of us, me included, to keep our minds open and constantly question what we teach rather than just doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done it. You may wind up right back where you started. But at least you’ll know how you got there.

Does stance matter?

Pretty clever title, huh? Not bad for being past my bed time.

One of the many things about hitting that is debated constantly in the softball world is whether the stance is important. There is a school of thought that says that the stance is cosmetic, and that as long as a hitter can get to a proper launch position in time it doesn’t matter what kind of stance she uses.

That is no doubt true to a degree. Yet look at that statement again. “As long as a hitter can get to a proper launch position in time.” In time is the key. And that’s where I think the stance really does matter, at least as a hitter is learning to hit.

The physics are pretty simple. Look at it in terms of another skill. Suppose you’re hitting fly balls to outfielders. Which will be easier for them to do — start by watching the ball come off the bat, or start with their backs to you and then react after they hear the “tonk” of the bat? I think the answer is obvious. In truth it really doesn’t matter intrinsically which direction they face as long as they’re able to pick up the ball and make the catch. A catch is a catch. But it will be far easier to accomplish the skill when they can already see the ball off the bat. Tihe younger or less experienced the player, the more important it is.

The same goes for teaching hitting. There is an optimum stance to put hitters into to begin the learning process. It consists of having the feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, toes equal distant from the plate, the weight distributed evenly, knees bent, and the waist bent so the shoulders are over the toes; the bat should be at a 45 degree angle, lifted slightly up and back from a resting place on the shoulder. This position makes it easy for the hitter to get to a good launch position.

Once her swing shows signs of power and speed with consistency, she can start varying from the base position to find out what works best for her. She’ll need to take small steps, preferably one at a time. Maybe the hands need to be held a little higher. Maybe she wants to stand a little taller, or crouch a little lower to start. Whatever it is, if she has a solid base to work from she’ll be a lot better off than just trying what she’s seen on TV and hoping for the best.
 
Vicky Galindo is probably the best example. What she does works very well for her. But I doubt I would teach it to a beginner.

Warming up to pitch

Yesterday I was reading an online article at Girls Softball about alternatives to private instruction, when pitching warm-ups were mentioned. (This post has been modified to include the link to the article).

In any case, the poster was answering a question about what it takes to be successful in softball. For the most part I agreed with what he said, until he got to one example. In it he mentioned a pitcher whose warm-up routine before a game consisted of 100 fastballs followed by 50 each of her other pitches. He praised the dedication and work ethic of that routine.

I can’t say I agree with that. I’m big on dedication and practice and all, but I also believe that a pitching warm-up should not be a long, involved affair. The reality of softball is a pitcher often must be ready to pitch on short notice. If it takes her 500 pitches to get warmed up, the game may be all but over by the time she’s ready to go. Tournaments often don’t leave a lot of time between games either. Having the ability to get ready quickly is important so you’re ready when the umpire says “let’s go.”

The situation is even more critical in high school ball. Consider the team that has to travel. The game is scheduled to start roughly an hour and a half after school ends. That means everyone has to get dressed, pile on the bus, and ride to the game. If there’s an accident, the driver gets lost, the game is far away, or traffic is heavy, the team may only have 20 minutes to warm up total, including a quick jog and stretch, before the Blue says “play ball.” It’s just the reality of the situation.

You definitely want to take enough time to be sure you’re safe. But if you don’t have your basic mechanics there in, say, 50 pitches, 50 more probably won’t help.

The key is to know yourself, know your body, and know what it really takes to get ready. There’s a difference between quantity and quality. That aside, the post is definitely a good read, and worth checking out.

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