Monthly Archives: April 2007

Breaking out of a slump

One of the most frustrating things in softball is to one day find yourself in a hitting slump. Things were going along fine, and then suddenly it seems like you can’t buy a base hit. Then no matter what you do you can’t seem to find a way out.

Take heart, though. There are ways to break out of that slump and get your hitting back where it ought to be. Here are a few quick ideas.

Number one, difficult as it may be, is to relax. Players often perceive themselves to be in a slump long before there really is a true slump. They may have been unlucky, not getting the results they wanted, or just having a bad day. For example, you can hit the ball on the nose and have it go directly into a fielder’s glove. That’s not a slump, even if it happens four times in one game. That’s just bad luck. What can send it into the death spiral, though, is feeling like you’re in a slump and starting to press. You’re so desperate for a good hit that you start swinging at bad pitches, which creates weak hits, and before you know it you’re so uptight you don’t know what to do. THAT is a slump.

You just have to relax. Take a deep breath — in through your nose, out through your mouth. Then focus on seeing the ball. If you can relax you can be more positive, and if you’re more positive you will have a better at bat.

Of course, there may be some mechanical reasons why you’re having trouble hitting. That’s where video comes in. Record yourself swinging in a game, and compare it to when you were hitting better. Or even better, have a qualified hitting coach do the comparison for you. Once you see what’s going on, get on the tee and start working out the kinks in your swing. A good tee session can go a long way toward fixing what ails you.

Working with a coach can also act as a touchstone — something that gives you confidence just for having done it. For some players it may be a parent. For others it may need to be someone other than a parent. But just having that familiarity and comfort level can help drive away the “evil spirits” that are afflicting your bat and keeping you from being all that you can be.

Slumps are not permanent unless you make them so. The best thing you can do is change your routine, give yourself a fresh start. The more you separate yourself from the current slump, the easier it will be to overcome.

Using the front knee

Like most other pitching coaches, I have always put a lot of emphasis on having a strong push off the pitching rubber. I encouraged pitchers (and continue to do so) to bend that pivot leg knee, get into the ground, and fire out hard.

But when I videotaped my students and watched them back in slow motion I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Despite their working hard to drive off the rubber with the back leg, it seemed more like they were simply reaching out with their front legs until the back leg pushed them off. In other words, the legs were getting spread pretty far apart, and they really didn’t come off the pitching rubber until the arm was past the 12:00 position. So even though some of them were getting out 6′ to 7′, it still didn’t look like it was as powerful a drive as I was looking for.

There were a few exceptions, though. I notice a few, especially the older girls, were already coming forward off the rubber by the time their arms reached the 12:00 position. Determined to figure out what the difference was, I dutifully sat in front of my computer, running video clips back and forth, until the light bulb came on.

The difference was in the stride leg knee. On the girls who were coming forward before or at 12:00, the stride leg knee was firing out like a front snap kick in karate, with the foot following afterwards. On those who weren’t getting out there, the foot was leading, creating more of a reach than a pull.

Seeing that, I stood up to try it. My family is used to me throwing pitches on the field in my mind so they barely take interest, except my wife who has noticed some banana-shaped marks in the carpeting in the family room and on the new tile floor in the basement. The things we do for fastpitch softball!

In any case, what I found when I worked harder on driving the knee out is that it engaged the muscles in my ample behind and helped pull me off the pitching rubber more quickly and powerfully. The more I drove that front knee, the faster and more powerful the movement became. I had to speed up my arm circle in order to keep up, and that’s usually a good thing.

Since I liked it I started introducing the concept of driving the front knee to my students. While it sometimes actually makes them slower at first because they’re not used to it, once they get the hang of it they show speed improvements — both visibly and against the radar gun. Driving that front knee out there can add 2 mph almost instantly, and probably more as it becomes a habit. It definitely helps engage the entire body more.

This is not anything I’ve seen taught anywhere specifically. About the closest I’ve seen is Michele Smith talking about stepping over a box as you go forward. But I have seen a few pitchers execute that instruction without adding to their power. The nice thing about talking about driving the front knee is that it is something you can demonstrate.

Tell the pitcher she needs to drive her front knee out and then up. Then grab behind her knee and gently but quickly pull it in that direction. They’ll get the idea soon enough, especially when they feel their whole body go forward when it goes out.

The middle joint is the key to many athletic movements. Looks like this is one more.

A book every player and coach should read

Often times on this blog and other sites we talk about various physical skills and how to execute them. That’s important, of course. But nothing can get in the way of one’s mechanics faster than a player’s own head.

Anyone who has played fastpitch softball or baseball knows it’s a game built around failure. There are many, many ways and opportunities to fail, and as they say a hitter who fails 70% of the time is an All-Star. Knowing that, the objective isn’t to avoid failure — you can’t — but instead learn how to deal with it when it inevitably occurs.

Years ago at the National Sports Clinics I had the opportunity to see a presentation by Ken Ravizza. The book he wrote with Tom Hanson, Heads Up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time, is probably the single best book on the subject. Sports psychologists such as Jeff Janssen refer to it often. In the book you’ll find a discussion of what happens in our little brains to make us go all goofy. More importantly, though, you’ll find a series of techniques to deal with them. Techniques, by the way, which have been adopted by many of the top-level athletes.

I had the opportunity to put these principals into action just the other night. I’d watched one of my students pitch in a game where whatever could go wrong did go wrong. Her high school team is not very good, even by high school team standards. She started having some control trouble, and as will often happen that’s about the time her teammates decided to go brain dead. I could see her getting more and more uptight, which caused her to lose both her mechanics and her rhythm, which of course caused her to get wilder and wilder. When she did get the ball over and it got hit, easy outs turned into baserunners, further adding to the frustration. Every pitcher, and every pitcher’s parent, has been there.

So we worked some on her mechanics the other night, but since they were looking pretty good overall I really shifted the focus on her mental game. I showed her how to determine where she is mentally (relaxed, confident, uptight, worried, out of control), and then gave her some of the Heads Up Baseball techniques to use when she’s feeling the pressure. We then applied them in the course of the lesson. If she threw three pitches in a row for balls I would make her use a relaxation technique. Darned if the next pitch wasn’t a strike every time.

Heads Up Baseball costs just $10.17 in paperback at Amazon.com. Most of us spend more than that on a pair of batting gloves. If you’re at all serious about the game, use the link above to go there directly and purchase this book. It’ll do more for you or your players than the most expensive gear you can buy.

The sacrifice bunt is overrated

Just got done checking out another article over at Girls Fastpitch Softball. This one was on the sacrifice bunt and how hitters aren’t being taught to bunt anymore.

Now, I like Dave over there, even if he does get a bit long-winded, and most of the time I agree with what he has to say. I even agree with a lot of this article — particularly on the need to develop the short game all the way up and down the lineup. But I do have to say I disagree with his evaluation of the sac bunt v. bunting for a hit.

Personally, I think it is one of the most over-rated and over-used tactics in softball. It causes you to lose something with not all that much advantage in long run. The thing you’re losing is an out.

If you’re playing for a 1-0 win, or even a 2-1 win, runs themselves aren’t really the key. Opportunities to score runs are the keys. And the currency of the game is outs. Just ask Billy Beane, or anyone who has really looked at the stats.

In a seven inning game, you have 21 outs to work with. No more, no less. If your first runner gets on base in all seven innings and you sac bunt her over in all seven innings, you’ve just given up 1/3 of your precious outs to move that runner to second — assuming you are successful each time. Statistically, you have now increased your chances of scoring that runner by 2%. (IIRC, the difference in scoring a runner from first with no outs v. a runner from second with one out is 43% v. 45%.) That seems like a bad trade to me.

Let’s break it down into one inning. You sac bunt that runner over to second, and now have two outs left to get her home. Unless she’s fast enough to steal third, somehow you have to advance her to third with a base hit or another bunt. There aren’t always a lot of base hits in softball, so you may have to bunt her over again, especially against a dominant pitcher. That’s two outs. All it takes is a strikeout, a popup, a weak ground ball, or a towering fly ball that gets caught to lose that chance. Even with the base hit, a strikeout and a pop-up kill your inning.

If you bunt for a hit, though, you can have runners on first and second with no outs. Now, a sac bunt can move both runners up and you have two chances to score at least one run. Even a ground ball to the infield could mean a run with only one out if you’re aggressive.

The key, of course, is being able to bunt for a hit. And that’s where I do agree with Dave. It seems like that ability to get the bunt down when it’s needed is being lost. A top-level player should be able to sit back until the last moment, get into position, and bunt the top of the ball to get it down. If she’s out she’s out, but at least she made the attempt to preserve that out and put her team into a better position.

One of the most interesting examples of a sac bunt backfiring came in the 2005 World Cup championship game. It was USA v Japan. The USA had runners on first and second with no one out. Stacey Nuveman, their best power hitter, came to the plate. Stacey was the DH because of an ankle or foot injury which limited her mobility.

Coach Candrea gave her the sac bunt sign to everyone’s surprise, and she fouled the first one off. The sign came in again and this time she executed it perfectly. The trouble was, the third baseman committed to fielding it early and practically caught the ball off her bat. She got the ball, wheeled and fired to the SS covering third to get the lead runner. The SS then fired across the diamond to first, where they easily doubled up the hobbling Nuveman. So with their best power hitter at the plate, USA went from runners at first and second with no outs to a runner at second with two outs. Not a very good exchange in my book.

Rather than “playing it safe” by having the hitter give herself up, I’d say put more emphasis on successfully executing the surprise bunt and give yourself the opportunity to save an out. You may find you need that out by the time the game is over.

The Season of Miracles

To most of the world, the Season of Miracles occurs in December, when Christmas, Channukah, Qwanzaa, and other offshoots of the Winter Solstice come together to fill all us with peace on earth, goodwill toward men (and women), too much turkey, and an overwhelming desire to save an extra 5% by waking up at 4:30 for an early bird sale.

In the softball world, though, we are currently in the midst of the Season of Miracles. It’s that time when players (and their parents) realize they haven’t touched a ball since last July or August and suddenly seek out private lessons in the hopes that three weeks of instruction will make up for all those nights spent IMing friends and watching One Tree Hill reruns.

The official start of the Season of Miracles is late February, just before high school tryouts. It generally lasts through mid-May, by which time pretty much all decisions about playing levels and time have been made and the season is pretty much a done deal. Even the ones that haven’t started yet.

I have said this before and will say it again: no coach has any magic pills that will suddenly make a player better. None that I know of can simply perform a “laying of the hands on your head” and drive vast improvement (although I’ve known a few who thought they could). The truth is learning any skill takes hard work and time. The more you use of the former, the less you will need of the latter. But it’s rare that an athlete can take several months off and then make vast improvements in three weeks. Instead, what actually happens is that the athlete is working hard and 90% of the way there already, and just needs a little redirection to maximize what she is doing.

I always say I wish I could impart all the knowledge a pitcher or hitter needs in one lesson. If I could, I would charge $1,000 or more a lesson and there would be a mile long line down the street waiting to see me. Unfortunately, such is not the case.

If you’re looking for a sudden miracle, my recommendation is to head out to Lourdes, France, where allegedly such things occur (although I have yet to hear of a fastball going from 50 to 60 mph as the result of a visit there; I don’t think the Virgin Mary fancies herself a softball coach). If you really want to get good, start making your plans now to get into lessons beginning in the fall. You’ll be amazed at what a difference a year makes.

What it takes to succeed

Everyone likes to talk about what it takes to succeed, whether in softball or in life. One of the words used frequently is dedication. Yet does dedication really mean? Does that mean you attend all team practices and games? Do you work on your own? Is it something else?

Last night I saw a great example of what dedication truly means. My last pitching lesson of the night was at 9:30. It was for a high school sophomore named Erica. She was there on time, but there was something in the way she was warming up that made me ask a question. I asked if she’d had a game earlier in the evening.

Yes, she and her dad responded. Then they told me the game ran nine innings, resulting in a 1-0 loss on a throwing error. I have to admit I did a double-take before asking them, “And you still came here?”

“Yes,” the dad replied, “although we did talk about not doing it.” Ultimately, though, I’m sure the decision was left to Erica, and she decided she wasn’t satisfied with a nine-inning two-hitter. She wanted to come in and work on her screwball, and this was her only chance for the week.

Not a lot of players in the same situation would’ve made that decision. You could certainly justify blowing off a pitching lesson after throwing nine innings in falling temperatures already. I wouldn’t have blamed them. But those who really want more will look at the options, fight through the fatigue, and work on getting better.

She hasn’t been my student for long, but I can see why Erica has achieved the success she has. Makes me proud to be a part of her softball education.

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