Monthly Archives: September 2007

Pitchers, get your butts in gear

No, I’m not going to rail on you about getting out and practicing. You should know that already.

This post is more about what you should be feeling when you drive off the rubber. There is a tendency for young pitchers to reach out their front foot, leaving a big spread between their feet, then dragging their back foot up to complete the pitch. This action will pull them forward, but not as powerfully as it could.

If you really drive the front knee forward, you should feel your butt pulling forward as well. This is your center of gravity moving toward the plate. If you get that happening you will generate more momentum into the pitch, which will help increase pitch speed — especially because you will have to increase your arm speed to keep up with your feet.

It takes a little getting used to, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Remember: the key is the butt. Get it in gear.

Choosing a private instructor

Right about now is the time of year when serious players (and/or serious parents) are getting involved in private instruction. Or at least they should be. It’s a lot easier to make permanent changes when you don’t have the pressure to perform of the regular season. After all, when you’re in-season there’s a tendency to do what works no matter whether it’s good or bad for you. In the off-season you can take a step or two back before you make a leap forward.

Of course, one of the big factors in private instruction is the instructor him/herself. In many areas there is no lack of instructors around. The problem is some are good, and some are not. It’s often difficult to tell the difference, especially if your knowledge base about the particular skill is limited. In other words, if you don’t know much about pitching, it can be tough to pick a pitching coach. Same with hitting. If you don’t understand the mechanics of hitting, just about anything said with confidence sounds good.

So how do you determine whether a particular coach will be good or bad for you/your child? One thing you can do is use the Internet to read up on the skill you’re looking to learn. Not the forums so much, where anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection can post whatever they want, but Web sites of top-level coaches and players. Someone like Michele Smith, Bill Hillhouse, or Cindy Bristow is a great place to start. They’ve been there and done that, but just as important they’ve spent a fair amount of time teaching it to others. You may need to purchase a book or DVD or two, but when you consider the cost of lessons it’s well worth $19.95 or $29.95 to make sure the thousands you’re investing are being well-spent.

Once you at least have a general idea of what should be being taught, it’s time to get out and check out instructors. Listen to what they’re teaching someone else, and compare it to what you’ve learned. If it seems to line up you’re ready to take the next step. If not, you may want to go elsewhere. Or at least ask a few questions to determine why it’s not lining up.

Often times you’ll hear that you should look at how much success the instructor’s students have had. That’s true to an extent, but you have to be realistic. There are some players who are just flat out more gifted than others, and some who just have an extraordinary will and dedication to succeed. Then there are others who show up to lessons but make no effort to apply what they’re being taught. They never practice, and they never progress despite the instructor’s best efforts. If that sounds like you/your child, private lessons are really not a good investment. Although Woody Allen once said “90 percent of life is just showing up” when it comes to lessons showing up is more like 10 percent.

I really think you need to honestly look at yourself/your child and see where she fits on that scale. The scale itself is a steep bell curve, with the majority falling somewhere in the middle. Unless you know yourself/your child to be one of the extremes, you’re probably best off knocking off the results of the top students and the bottom students, and then evaluating the success of the rest. That will probably give you a better approximation as to what you can expect. I once commented to Ernie Parker that it must be nice to be him, where you only attract the top-level, dedicated students. His reply? “I wish that were true.” (Pardon me while I pick up that name off the floor.)

Another criterion people like to use is how successful the instructor was as a player. Again, that can be misleading. Some formerly great players become great instructors. Others do not. In fact, if you look at the general coaching world it seems like the best players rarely become the most successful instructors. The best guess I’ve seen on that is that great players are largely instinctive or gifted. Things come more easily to them than they do to the average player, so they don’t have to put the same kind of work in to learn the skills. This is not to say they don’t work hard — they probably work harder than anyone. But they work on certain subtleties that allow them to become elite players. Often they have trouble understanding why a player can’t “just do it.” If you can find a top-level player who has become an excellent instructor you’ve really hit the jackpot. But I wouldn’t make the instructor’s playing record the main decision point. Very few Hall of Fame coaches in any sport were also Hall of Fame players. Most were journeymen who worked hard just to stay on the team.

One last aspect to consider is personality. Everyone is different, and a coach who has a great rapport with other students may not have it with you/your player. In order for learning to take place the student has to feel comfortable with the instructor. If there’s no chemistry there, and lessons are dreaded like a trip to the dentist, that instructor is not a good fit no matter what his/her other qualifications may be.

When it comes to choosing an instructor the old rule of “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) definitely applies. A little due diligence up front can save you a lot of wasted time and money in the long run. It will also help make sure you achieve the results you want when gametime rolls around.

Teaching players to think

Today my assistant coach Rich and I were talking a little about coaching philosophies. We’re pretty much on the same page on most things so it was a pretty friendly conversation.

The topic turned to the way some coaches like to be the center of attention. Their primary goal seems to be making sure everyone thinks they’re brilliant. They like to control every aspect of the game, call every pitch, play and player movement, and generally treat the game as a big chess match between themselves and the other coach.

The trouble with that is the players never learn to think for themselves. They are simply the chess pieces waiting to be shuffled around the board (field). They don’t really know why they’re being told to move here or lay down this bunt or steal this base. They just know when the sign comes they do it. So now the team is only as smart as the head coach. There’s no additive effect of the players contributing thoughts, and if a situation comes up they haven’t been told about they may not be prepared.

I think that’s a poor way to go. I much prefer my players having their heads in the game, and so does Rich. Much of what goes on in the field A) occurs in split seconds and/or requires a certain level of confidence to pull off. If it’s all about the head coach, you won’t be able to handle either.

A good example of how it pays off is with our third baseman Hillary. I’ve been coaching her since she was 9 or 10 years old. About the time she was 11 we put in a play that calls for the third baseman to do a pump fake when she gets a ground ball with a runner on third to try to draw the runner off and get the out on the lead runner. It started as a called play from the bench.

About the time she was 14, Hillary started calling the play herself. By “calling the play” I don’t mean that she just did the pump fake. She would also tell our shortstop that she was running the play so she could cover the bag in case of a snap throw. This past season she ran it five or six times herself, and if I recall correctly got the runner at third every time. Not just because of the design of the play, but because she knows how to sell the pump fake and believes in her ability to make the play.

Don’t get me wrong. We still call certain defensive sets from the dugout, move fielders around and determine where a throw might go. We also call steals and bunts. But we do it less and less. If we’re in a tight game the infielders will often move themselves in to cut off a runner at the plate, before we have to call. Catchers throw the pickoff to first on their own when they see opportunity. The list goes on. What we’re seeing is the girls are understanding the subtleties of how the game is played and taking their rightful place of controlling their own destinies.

Believe me, I have as much ego about coaching as anybody. I certainly hope I’m thought of as a good coach. But part of the job of the coach of an older team is to make sure his/her players understand the game. It’s the only way they’ll ever discover just how good they can be.

I’ve always said the coaches’ time is during practice. The players’ time is during the game. Seeing our girls use the strategies we’ve taught them means we’ve done a good job teaching them.

A little perspective

Ok, this one is not directly softball-related. But there certainly is a tie when you think about the times you’ve seen others (or you yourself have) go ballistic over the umpire’s call on a bang-bang play, or scream at a kid for taking a called third strike, or just otherwise behaved as a less than exemplary resident of the planet.

Check out this link to a blog on Belicove.com. The entry is called The Pale Blue Dot. It’s a look at the Earth from space, with an essay by the late Carl Sagan. I found it both interesting and moving.

Now is the time to start preparing for 2008

Regular readers of Life in the Fastpitch Lane probably have an impression that I’m not a big believer in conditioning. I know why people get that impression — because I will often rail about training that I (and those who know more than I) believe is improper during the season. For example, the coach who sends her charges on a five-mile run before starting practice during the season is just wasting time and actually hurting her team’s ability to perform the quick, explosive movements required in softball.

But we’re not in-season now are we? At least not in much of the country. Sure, there’s fall ball, but that’s more like a restaurant serving up some meals before the grand opening, just to see how well the kitchen works.

This is an ideal time for players to start preparing themselves for the next campaign through weight training, plyometrics, conditioning, and yes, distance running. Building a solid aerobic base provides the conditioning and longevity that helps players last through the hot and humid days of the summer season, and perform at their best through all the games in a day in the cooler weather.

Building strength, especially the right kind of strength, is important. Pitchers who are looking for a few more miles an hour, hitters who want to get the ball to go over the fence instead of to it, catchers who want to cut time off their throws to second, baserunners who want to shave a little time off their first to second runs, and players at every other position can benefit through an intelligent, sport-specific conditioning program.

There are all kinds of places to obtain an intelligent workout program. Believe it or not, the local HS football or wrestling coach are a couple of good options. They’re used to developing weight training programs that combine endurance with explosive strength. Wrestlers in particular are less concerned with muscle bulk than they are with being solid and surprisingly strong, so the wrestling coach is a good option. Besides, after working with smelly, surly boys all the time he’d probably get a kick out of helping a female athlete for a change. Just watch out, because he’ll probably try to recruit you to keep stats for the wrestling team in return.

However you go about it, the important thing is to get off the couch and start working now to get ready. I know 2008 seems like a long ways away, but quality change in conditioning, just like all your other skills, doesn’t happen overnight. Get moving now and you might even amaze yourself.

My compliments to the umpires

Well, I’ve certainly been known to whine about the competence of umpires from time to time. So I thought it might be a nice gesture to talk about some very good umpiring I saw at the end of the 2007 season.

Our Mundelein Thunder 16U fastpitch softball team played at the Northern Nationals in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was our first experience with Nationals of any sort for a number of reasons, and I have to say it was an enjoyable one.

During the coaches’ meeting the organizers talked about how their umpires had earned the right to be at this event, just as the teams had. Yada, yada, yada I figured. But when we got out to the games I changed my tune. This was an extraordinary group of individuals.

The most telling event occurred during our first game. We had runners on second and third with fewer than two outs. A ground ball was hit to the opposing shortstop, and as per our standing orders my runner on third broke for home. The shortstop got the ball and threw to the plate, a little too late from where I was standing. But the HP blue called my runner out. It looked to me like he’d blown the call, but it’s not the kind of thing you can argue very effectively. Since we had a lead I didn’t want to go “work him for the next call” either. That’s when an amazing thing happened.

The HP umpire with no prompting from anyone called time, and went out to confer with the field blue. After a brief conference the umpire actually reversed his call! He said the runner was safe. And she must’ve been because the opposing coach didn’t argue it either.

My assistant coach talked to the field umpire later and asked about the play. He thought maybe the HP umpire had been confused about whether there was a force on or something. But no, the field ump said the HP ump told him that he hadn’t seen the play and asked what the field ump saw. The field ump saw what I saw and that’s why the run counted.

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. I’ve run into plenty of umps who won’t reverse a call when it’s clearly a rules issue. This one changed a judgement call.

That’s pretty much the caliber of officiating we saw all week. If all the blues were as conscientious and well-trained as this group us coaches would definitely be able to cut back on the Maalox. Kudos to them for learning their kraft so well.

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