Monthly Archives: May 2007

You are what you practice

There is a warm-up drill I’ve seen many teams use that I just don’t get. Basically, two lines of players stand facing each other, their feet firmly planted in the ground. They then throw the ball back and forth between partners, rotating their trunks and shoulders. Generally speaking, they also chit-chat with one another as they perform this drill.

Now, I get what the drill is supposed to accomplish. It’s supposed to stretch the trunk muscles and get the shoulders involved in throwing. What it is actually doing, though, is teaching players to throw face-on and flat-footed — often times with their weight on their heels. Then coaches wonder why, at a critical moment in the game, their players try to make a quick throw flat-footed from their heels.

Think about it. What do we coaches always stress in working with our players? Muscle memory. It’s how we justify making them do boring reptitions of the same skills. “You have to build muscle memory” we say as they hit their 100th ball off a tee or throw their 100th pitch in a practice session. With enough proper repetitions, they no longer have to think about the skill. They just execute it automatically.

Well, muscle memory doesn’t know a good drill from a bad drill. So if players stand flat-footed facing each other  and throw by only moving their trunks and shoulders, what are they building? That’s right — muscle memory. And that’s what they’ll call on when they need to make a throw.

It makes a lot more sense to practice a skill the way you want it executed in a game. Especially if you’re warming up to play one. For throwing, that means shuffling your feet to put your body into a sideways position so you know how to find it when you need it. Players should be practicing quick footwork during warmups, not no footwork, so they have the skills they need. Doing anything else, especially before a game, just doesn’t make sense.

This is not to say this drill has no value at all. It’s a good beginner drill to teach young players to rotate their upper bodies — although I prefer they do it from their knees to separate the drill from the standard throwing motion. But once they understand how to use their shoulders you’re a lot better off having them start sideways and throw through with a proper motion.

The other reason teams sometimes use this drill is for a dynamic warmup of the upper body. But that’s something you can also accomplish with standard stretching. When it’s time to throw, then throw — the way you expect it to be done in a game. You will be what you practice. Practice for success.

Kudos where they are due

In my opinion, one of the toughest things to do is keep your cool in the middle of an important game, especially when your season is on the line. A couple of key errors, a bad pitch, hitting into an untimely double play, or any of a dozen other things can cause even the best coaches to melt down, lose faith, or hang their heads. Not that I’m putting myself into the “best coaches” category, but I know I’ve had that meltdown.

That potential was there in the HS game I was watching today. A couple of throwing errors in the top of the 13th inning that led to two runs could’ve caused the wheels to come off the wagon. But they didn’t. Instead, I watched the coaches keep the girls in the game, and believe they could come back. Which they did, plating three runs on three hits in the bottom of the inning to earn the victory. Two of the hits were by players who made the throwing errors, and a two-run double came from the #8 hitter. That’s what makes it so impressive.

I readily admit I can be a bit(?) judgmental on other coaches from time to time. But I can also recognize a job well done. Tonight I saw a textbook example of the difference a coaching staff can make in the toughest part of the game – the mental game. Kudos to both coaches for helping their team do what it takes to win.

Catcher stances

This is probably a bit elementary for some of you, but it’s still something to keep in mind. The “natural” stance most people go into when they catch is to squat down on the balls of the field, with the heels off the ground. While it may be comfortable and easy to get into, it’s also slow and unstable — a point I like to prove by pushing gently on the forehead of a catcher in that stance and watching her fall backwards.

There are a couple of better stances that I like to see catchers use. With no runners on base, the catcher can spread her feet out roughly shoulder width apart, toes pointing out. From there, she lowers her rear end with the weight on the inside of the feet. It’s a fairly comfortable stance that relieves knee stress, yet allows the catcher to get up quickly if there’s a bunt.

With runners on base, the catcher needs to be up and ready to go more. For this stance, she bends forward and begins lowering herself until her back is parallel to the ground, and to her thighs, more or less. Her weight is forward over the balls of her feet. This allows her to be very low while still being able to move easily. If she has to block a ball in the dirt she can move laterally. If she has to throw a runner out she can pivot or pop up quickly.

Putting your catchers into a better stance can quickly help them improve their performance. Give it a try.

High school sports are communist

This is more a random thought than a specific complaint, and it doesn’t apply solely to softball. It applied to all high school sports.

I had never really thought about it before but the thought occurred to me this morning that high school sports are communist, while club/travel sports are capitalist. Why do I think that?

Consider this: high school sports are controlled 100% by the “state,” i.e. the coach. There is no voting, there is no discussion. The coach makes a decision, and your choices are live with it or quit. It’s a total dictatorship. If you try to rise up and complain, the odds are that the “conflict resolution” process used within the school will ultimately exile your kid to the sports equivalent of Siberia — the bench, with no possibility of parole. If the kid even thinks about speaking up, same fate. The coach is free to do whatever he/she wants, short of outright breaking the law, with little chance for censure much less dismissal. In many places, unless you’re the football or basketball coach the team can suck for years, underperforming time after time, and your job is safe. It’s good to be the Premier.

Behavior on club and travel sports, on the other hand, are dictated by market pressures. If you don’t like a club sport’s coach or policies, you leave and go somewhere else. If enough people don’t like him/her/them, the club folds up and goes away. Parents can band together and get a coach removed much more easily. Clubs that do well get rewarded, clubs that don’t lose players and wind up taking lesser kids, thus beginning the death spiral. Club and team sports don’t have a built-in constituency either. They have to advertise, recruit, or draw players in some other manner. No-nothing coaches tend not to last very long.

Interestingly, the college model is much closer to club/travel ball than to high schools. While there are scholarships and such at stake, if you don’t like your situation at one place you can always try your luck elsewhere. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you are not stuck.

I’d be interested to hear other thoughts on this comparison. Just remember that this is being set forth in a lighthearted way, so keep it clean and friendly!

Great article on hitting the changeup

Saw a great article a few days ago on some cool strategies for hitting the changeup.

I have one to add, which is really aimed at getting hitters to wait back on slower pitching than they’re used to. Telling them to “wait on it” is kind of vague. When hitters are used to seeing faster pitching (faster being a relative term), it’s hard for them to know just how long to wait.

What I will often do is draw a line in the dirt in front of home plate, and tell them not to start their swings until the ball crosses that line. Sometimes it’s just 10 feet in front of home, other times it’s further out. Sometimes I guess wrong and it has to move. But the principle still holds.

Rolling the wrists

You know, people have to know their limitations. There’s nothing worse than a coach telling a player she needs to correct a problem when there’s no problem to be corrected. Well, there are a lot of worse things of course, but it’s what’s on my mind today.

Here’s a perfect example. Today one of the high school coaches told my daughter not to roll her wrists. But it’s apparent that she doesn’t know what rolling the wrists really is. Here’s a picture of her at the contact point:

<IMG style="WIDTH: 157px; HEIGHT: 171px" height=631 src="/images/55650-48775/Kimmie_contact_point.png” width=268>

As you can see, she is palm up/palm down at contact. Here she is at extension:

<IMG style="WIDTH: 166px; HEIGHT: 167px" height=620 src="/images/55650-48775/Kimmie_extension.png” width=372>

The hands are still palm up/palm down. The wrists won’t roll until long after contact, and not until after extension. Working on not rolling the wrists would be a complete waste of time.

That’s something to keep in mind. Not everyone who has the title of “coach” has the qualifications to be one. As Mark Twain used to say, “Better to keep your mouth shut and have everyone think you’re a fool than to open it and prove they’re right.”

Best new rule…so far

Got the 2007 ASA rule book Monday night and started going through it as I always do. That’s when I found it — my nomination (so far) for the best new rule.

Essentially, it states that a legal pitch must be delivered from the side of the body on the throwing arm side. It specifically prohibits pitches delivered between the legs or behind the back.  I can’t help but wonder what happened, and where it happened, that necessitated making a rule about it. Most pitchers I’ve seen are doing all they can to get the ball where they want it with a normal delivery.

This is almost as good as the one about all base runners returning to their original bases after an offensive conference. You shouldn’t even have to have a rule about that. But I guess you do.

Always like to hear the good news

Back in early April (I think) I had the opportunity to watch one of my pitching students in action. Her HS team was playing my daughter’s HS team. To say that Kristen struggled that game would not be an exaggeration. Part of it, her dad told me, was that she was nervous pitching while I was there. (That is part of the female psyche from what I’ve read — she didn’t want to disappoint her coach, whereas I was looking forward to seeing how she was doing.) In any case, between a weak defense and some control trouble it was a tough game for her. She finally came out in the last inning, replaced by a lobber.

We didn’t have a lesson that week, but she came in the following week and we got right to work. We were able to get one more in after that, and at that point I told her two things. One is that she was definitely ready to pitch, so get out there and do it with the confidence. The other was not to get frustrated if the defense struggles. Just keep pitching your game and let the rest fall as it may.

I had the opportunity to check in on her again one Monday night so I stopped by to watch her game. She was doing better but still had a rough point in one inning. Still, it was only that one inning.

Last night I received an update from dad, Joe. He told me in a recent game she struck out 17 hitters on her way to picking up a victory. She also came into another game where she struck out eight in three innings. She’s on top of the world right now.

It would’ve been easy for her to give up and say “I can’t do this.” But that’s not in her nature. Kristen stuck with it, focused on the things we identified together, and is now reaping the rewards. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.

Kind of a drag

One of the most common problems I see with hitting is an affliction called “bat drag.” It occurs when the elbow on the back arm gets ahead of the hands during the swing. This puts you into a weak position, with the bat flat and stuck way behind. As the body turns, the bat has to be pulled from that back position all the way to the front. As you might expect, this makes the bat late getting through the zone.

It’s not that difficult to cure. It just takes a little time. Step one is to maintain the “box” that is formed with the shoulders and the elbows. Bat drag usually begins when, on the beginning of the turn, the hands push back and the lead arm straightens out. As the shoulders begin to turn the hands remain back. But the hitter knows she should be moving forward, so the back elbow starts moving forward instead of the hands. At that point it’s going to be tough to get a good, quick, compact swing.

To fix it, set the bat down and grab your shirt by the back shoulder. Practice taking “swings” by striding and turning while hanging on to the shirt. Be very aware of what your back elbow is doing. Once you start getting the hang of it, move to the bat. Go slowly at first, then gradually pick up speed. If you can do it in a mirror, or video yourself doing it, it will help you check to make sure you’re on the right track.

From there, move to the tee, then either to soft toss, the pitching machine, or live pitching. Feel the back elbow come more into the side than past the hands, then extend through.

It may take some work to get it fixed. But it’s worth it. You’ll pick up bat speed, shorten your swing — and most importantly start hitting the heck out of the ball!

Focused batting practice and course corrections

Had a real good example this week of the difference focused batting practice can make, especially during the season. Last Sunday, my friend and fellow coach Rich Youngman and I got together with four girls — our two daughters, plus two other girls who currently or have played for us in the past — to do a little BP. All had been struggling with their hitting to one degree or another. Two of the girls were really struggling in their high school seasons, while the other two were not hitting to their satisfaction. There were two girls from each of two high schools so it was all perfectly legal. Don’t bother calling the IHSA!

We set up a pitching machine and just rotated through them. As each girl came to the plate, Rich and I evaluated their mechanics and offered some suggestions. We had them focus on specific things they needed to do, and I videoed them for later study.

In each case they started out hitting rather anemically, much like their game performance. But as we worked through the mechanics, they began showing improvement. The machine was set around 45 mph since they all had been struggling to adjust to slower pitching anyway, and was then upped later into the mid-to-high 50s. FYI, we were using a Jugs machine with a generator at a field. I love the Jugs machine!

Anyways, we took a long time with each girl. The entire session lasted 2-1/2 hours. All of the girls were motivated to learn and improve, so that made a huge difference. It was a lot of fun, and no one complained or asked if we were done yet. 

Now comes the payoff. Every single one of these girls saw marked improvement in their hitting this week. That’s an awfully fast turnaround, but I think it goes to show what focus and intensity can do. One girl, Kathleen, had been struggling so badly they DH’d for her Monday. I know Kathleen’s mom reads the blog so feel free to jump in with a comment if you like. Tuesday they let her hit for herself, and Rich tells me she was the first one to get a hit on her team. She hit a double into a gap that got some offense going. She hit well Wednesday, and then got the game-winning hit with a double on Thursday that went over the left fielder’s head. She’s now considered a hot bat.

Another girl, Michelle, told us she’d been striking out continuously all season on varsity. This week in her first at bat against one of the area’s better pitchers she started with a sac fly, then popped a double and a single. That was on Tuesday. On Wednesday I think she went 4-for-4 with a pair of doubles, including one that hit the fence, and Thursday she started a seventh inning rally for her team with a single up the middle. She did have a couple of Ks in that game, but that was a big club.

Rich’s daugher Stephanie started a little slower early in the week, but then started hitting the ball on the nose, he says. In her last seven at bats she has four hits, including a double and a triple. More significantly, she’s been hitting the right center gap instead of trying to pull everything and popping up to the left hand side. The triple was a lead-off triple that started a rally, and they ultimately won the game.

Finally, my daughter Kimmie saw her first varsity at bats this week after moving up from JV. In her first game she went 2 for 4. The two outs were a fly ball to right center that was caught on the run, and a fielder’s choice with bases loaded that ended the game on a mercy rule — her second RBI of the game. Guess you could call it a walk-off fielder’s choice. Thursday she struck out in her one at bat, but that was against the same pitcher that gave Michelle and the other girls problems, so it could be worse.

The point to all of this is that improvements can be made with quality BP, and a sincere desire by the players to learn and improve. There weren’t any magic pills, no secret sauce as it were. Just plain old hard work and intensity. There’s still more we can do with each of them — they’re all dragging the bat to some degree — but it’s a great start.

If you have similar success stories, please be sure to leave a comment. Everyone likes to hear how others have broken out of the doldrums. Usually, it begins with effort. As the old saying goes, the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.

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