Monthly Archives: March 2007

Prior knowledge

Back in January I posted a comment about Cubs pitcher Mark Prior and his gall in asking for a raise. Yesterday I read that his rehab isn’t coming along as expected and he is being optioned to the Cubs’ AAA farm club in Iowa. Amazing isn’t it?

He had to know he wasn’t doing very well when he asked for more money. Guess he was trying to get as much out of the gravy train he’s been riding since 2003 before the Cubs’ organization figured out that there was no one behind the curtain anymore. At least the Cubs will be able to get an occasional inning out of Kerry Wood before he finally becomes a memory as well.

It’s time to face the music. Prior is done. Don’t count on him coming back to be your fifth starter, much less your first. In the five stages of death the first is denial. Time for the Cubs organization to move past that stage and into anger — anger that they’ve wasted this many years waiting for a rehab that’s never going to happen. In fact, Robert Downey Jr. has a better chance of rehab being successful than Prior. Sad, but true.

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The difference determination makes

Had another one of those experiences last night that goes to prove once again that it’s not the teacher, it’s the student that makes the success.

One of my pitching students, a young lady named Rae Ann, has been working on learning the screwball all winter. She actually has the spin down, and has had it for a while. But she has been unable to get her arm to go along the right path to get it over the plate. She has consistently been well inside on her throwing side (lefty pitcher).

Last night the pitch was 95% there. A few missed inside still, but she was getting a lot of them over with good movement. Her dad told me she went out for three hours to work on it one day over the weekend, then spent another hour outside the next day doing the same thing. She had decided that she was going to get this pitch, come hell or high water, and darned if she didn’t!

Learning new things, whether it’s a pitch, hitting, playing a musical instrument, or even riding a bicycle doesn’t happen overnight. It only happens when you are determined to make it happen. Once you make that decision to achieve a goal, and that nothing will stop you, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It was exciting to see Rae Ann throwing that pitch. I’m sure it will serve her well this summer. More importantly, though, the lesson she learned about working at something you really want will serve her well long after her softball days are done.

Going from the cage to the field

One of the most frustrating things for both coaches and parents is watching your player kick butt in the batting cages, ripping balls left and right, only to go into a game and wimp out. You know they can hit. You’ve seen it. But they don’t. Why?

A lot of it comes down to consequences. In the batting cages, there are no consequences. If you miss a ball, you get another one. There’s no runners on base to be brought around, no coaches or parents screaming encouragement and/or advice, no win or loss at stake.

In the game, however, there are all kinds of consequences. And of course, with softball being a game built on failure, those consequences can be dire. You can strike out leaving runners on base. You can pop up, or ground into a double play. The more a player thinks about it, the more fearsome it becomes. And the more fear of consequences there is, the more players start tensing up, swinging to avoid a mistake rather than make a play.

It can be difficult to overcome, but not impossible. The key is to encourage hitters to be aggressive and not worry about outcomes. Instead of trying to avoid mistakes, they need to go into each at bat with the intent to hit the ball hard, consequences be damned. Coaches need to be sure they create an atmosphere where hitters can focus on doing their best without worrying about being yelled at for “failing.” Remember that even a strikeout can be a great at-bat if the hitter has taken the right approach.

Keep hitters focused on swinging the bat, and playing the game one pitch at a time. Soon you’ll see that great batting cage swing out on the field.

Getting a better follow-through on throws

Throwing is one of those odd things that seems like it should be natural, but for many girls it’s not. For whatever reason they tend to use their arms only instead of following through completely for maximum power. When they do receive some instruction on following through it gets somewhat better, but often it is awkward as well.

One way to try to get a better follow-through is to have them replace the front shoulder with the back shoulder. In other words, when they throw, their throwing-side shoulder should finish where the glove side shoulder started. This is assuming, of course, that they turned sideways to begin the throw.

Once they get the idea of shoulder follow-through, you can also have them bring their back leg in line with the front leg. This complete use of the body should have them gaining more power and speed, and better accuracy too.

The biggest thrill an instructor can have

Well, at least this instructor. Every time I teach someone a new pitch and they get it to work consistently I have to admit I get a little charge out of it.

The latest example was last night. I’ve been working with a girl named Shannon for a couple of (or maybe a few) weeks now on developing a curve ball. She’s throwing a good drop and an excellent change, both with very good mechanics, so it seemed like a pitch that would break off the plate when she’s ahead would be just the ticket.

We went through the usual learning steps — starting with the spin (using the frisbee, then a ball), drilling it from close range, then getting back into a full pitch. She’s been working a lot on getting it to spin correctly, which is a combination of wrist movement and overall body control.

Last night we started up on it again, and at first we were getting either bullet spins or more of a 12 to 6 spin like a fastball or drop. Then all of a sudden it clicked for her. She started getting side spin, then faster side spin, and before you knew it she had a pitch that looked like it was going to be an outside fastball until right before the plate then bam! Off it goes, about a ball and a half off the corner. It was a thing of beauty.

I’m not sure who was the most excited — Shannon, her dad Randy, or me! But it was pretty cool. I love it when a plan comes together — and the student actually works on what we do in between lessons!

Why the NPF is struggling

I think I have a pretty good idea of why the NPF is struggling to stay alive. At a fastpitch pitching clinic I was conducting last night, I asked a total of 40 girls if they knew who Michele Smith is. Nothing but blank stares. Ok, I can understand that. Although I think she is awesome, her greatest visibility here in the US was when many of them were still in diapers.

Then I asked if they knew who Cat Osterman is. You know, the Cat who was a star in the last WCWS and who pitched the US to a title in the World Cup. Maybe three hands got raised.

These are two of the biggest names in the game, and there has been a lot of publicity surrounding Cat joining the Rockford Thunder. Yet none of the girls who ought to be looking up to her and bugging their parents to buy tickets to go see her knew who she was.

The NPF is doing what it can to try to build visibility, and most of the players have been very generous with their time through it all. Certainly a lot more than their male counterparts in baseball. Yet somehow there’s still a disconnect, even with the big stars. I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe it’s a losing cause, i.e. maybe girls overall just aren’t that interested in being spectators at a sporting event, or don’t identify with female players the way boys do with male players.

In any case, someone smarter than me is going to have to figure out how to get young girls identifying with these players and desiring to go see them, or else professional softball will be going the way of Olympic softball in 2012.

The quality of high school softball

Allow me to open this discussion by stating that this is not a slam against any one school. If I wanted to do that I could certainly find sneakier and nastier ways to do that. No, instead this is more a general statement based on data points I’m receiving from several high schools in the suburban Chicago area.

There has always been a perception in the softball world that high school softball sucks is not as high a caliber as travel ball. This perception is generally born out by reality. Lately, though, it seems like the situation has deteriorated to the point where you’re more likely to see a good game at a local rec league than you are at anything below the varsity level. And even in then, in some cases.

I am hearing more and more about teams at sizeable schools that are only carrying 12 varsity players. Not because they’re being selective, but that’s all the players they can afford to have there if they want to field teams at the JV and freshman levels. Some schools, unable to field both a freshman and a JV team, are combining the two to make one big team. You have to figure in that case that you will have roughly 9-10 kids who play all the time, and an equal number who basically get to go to the games, shiver in the cold, and watch from a bench that homeless people wouldn’t sit on by choice.

While I suppose there has always been some element of this, it seems like the primary criteria for making a high school team these days is the ability to fog a mirror. That’s how desperate many schools are for players.

What’s the cause of this dearth of players? Hard to say. Certainly a part of it is competition from other sports, especially during the summer when girls should be building their interest in and love for the game. But now indoor sports such as volleyball and basketball are going year-round. Those who have a talent for those sports seem to feel they need to specialize earlier, so they drop out of softball when their tournaments conflict. Yes, there is indoor softball too, but it’s expensive and relatively pointless. It can also be tough to field a team during the winter months.

Inadequate coaching at all levels is likely another cause. In the rec leagues it’s hard to find parents who will coach a team, much less one that knows what he/she is doing. Practices are boring, skills don’t improve, games are slow, and ultimately the girls move on to other activities that are more fun. The good coaches who are there suffer for the sins of the others, as well as suffering one or more players who are just there for the social aspects.

Travel ball coaches, driven by their need to prove they are every bit as good a coach as Mike Candrea or Sue Enquist, schedule softball activities for every waking minute of the summer. Every weekend it’s another tournament, every day during the week it’s a practice or a practice game, until all the joy is taken out of it. Softball becomes more a job than a fun activity. Then there are the screamers who expect little 12 year old Suzy to execute against the ground ball the same way Lovie Jung does.

Finally, we have the high school coaching staff. Again, some are good and dedicated, but others are just teachers looking to supplement their paychecks. The biggest problem is the feudal system involved in high school sports. Coaches are accountable to the athletic director, but as long as they stay on his/her good side that’s about it. They’re free to place players at levels according to their whims, and play or not play them that way as well. While that’s true for any coach, the difference in high school is there is no recourse. If you don’t like what’s going on, your choices are to move or enter a private school. Neither is very practical for the majority. As kids feel they have been treated unfairly the word spreads, and soon you have a softball program headed for the death spiral.

What’s the answer? I think at all levels we have to remember that our job is not just to lead the players in our care but also to serve them. Coaches need to build relationships with their players as people rather than chess pieces to throw out onto the field. High schools need to build programs that treat the freshmen as well as they treat the varsity, rather than setting up a caste system; that includes hiring competent, experienced coaches for the lower levels. And when I say experienced I mean coaches with coaching experience, not just playing experience. There really is a difference, as anyone who has played for a former player/no coaching experience type can tell you.

High school softball is suffering and from what I’m seeing and hearing the situation is getting worse, not better. We need to find a way to get more girls involved at an earlier age, and then build an experience that doesn’t drive them off when they get there. If not, soon we’ll be seeing summer teams that practice all spring, because their girls would rather do that than suffer another season of frustration and bad feelings.

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