Monthly Archives: October 2007

Good things take time

Saw something in Bobby Simpson’s Thoughts for Tuesday e-mail yesterday that I just had to share. Bobby is the owner of Higher Ground, and has served as a baseball and softball coach, most recently with the National team in Great Britain. He is also a fellow columnist in Softball Magazine.

In any case, Bobby likes to send out short e-mails on a variety of topics. Some are technical, but most are more of the inspirational or “think about this” type. Fair warning: Bobby is a religious sort and that definitely comes through in many of his materials. But he’s not obnoxious about it, so even if that kind of thing bothers you it shouldn’t get in the way of taking advantage of his knowledge.

This week he told the following story. I think it’s a tremendous perspective on what it takes to be successful, brilliant in its simplicity. Here it is:

“Our interim pastor told a terrific story a week ago and I want to share it with you because it applies to softball, baseball, other sports, business, math classes, and life in general. He said that a little boy in the western part of Africa gave a very beautiful shell to a missionary as an offering. Knowing that the shell came from a beach quite far from the village, the missionary said, ‘You had to walk 15-20 miles roundtrip to the beach to get this shell. That’s a very long walk.’ The little boy replied, ‘Long walk part of gift.’

“Too often, we want to get something valuable and not pay the price. We want ‘something for nothing.’ We want the free lunch, the magic pill, the drive-through, microwave, zappable success. We must realize that success normally comes from a sacrificial, long-walk journey and not from some instantized magic. Part of the talent or so-called gift that we see in skilled performance is the long walk to get there.”

That is unquestionably true. Every softball team goes into every season, every tournament, with the wish or “goal” of winning it all. But how many are willing to put in the long hours of boring, repetitious work to get there? How many coaches want their teams to win, but aren’t willing to invest the time to keep up with new developments in the sport, so they’re sure that what they’re teaching is what will take the team where it says it wants to go?

On some levels fastpitch softball is a complex, difficult to learn sport. But at its core it’s not that tough. If you can field a ground ball with 99.999% certainty of doing it cleanly and successfully you will be successful. If everyone on the team can do their jobs equally well, the team will be successful. What you have to know is that 99.999% certainty can only be achieved one way — through a focused effort to get there. It’s never a short jaunt. It’s a 15-20 mile walk. But in the end, you give yourself and your team a beautiful gift that will last a lifetime.

If you’d like to subscribe to Bobby Simpson’s newsletter, go to http://highergroundsoftball.com/newslet.php. I highly recommend it.

Finding your hits with both hands

Something I’ve been noticing lately is that many hitters seem to have a tendency to favor one hand over the other as they swing the bat. Some will be almost all bottom hand, while others are pretty much all top hand. Neither is good, but for different reasons.

If you’re using all bottom hand, the result is often hitting weakly to the opposite field — sort of like a golf slice. The bat head never gets delivered powerfully into the hitting zone, and the swing tends to come up short. You can also wind up being a “back slapper.”

On the other hand, going almost all top hand tends to make you push the bat into the hitting zone. You can pull the ball, but you don’t develop the kind of power you ought to have. You’ll also have a tendency to hit “around” the ball, pulling outside pitches that should be going to the opposite field.

The best hitters use both hands in a combination pull-push action. As the body rotates and the back shoulder begins coming around, start pulling the bottom hand in an arc. (Forget taking the knob of the bat to the ball. You don’t want to hit the ball with the knob; you want to hit it with the fat part.) This gets the bat accelerating into the hitting zone. 
 
As the ball approaches, the top hand starts moving the head of the bat toward the ball. It fires through the hitting zone, going all the way through extension, and then finishes.

A good drill to learn to use the bottom hand is to fungo by holding the ball in the top hand, tossing it up, and then executing the swing. Starting the bat in the bottom hand tends to force more use of that hand, especially as the top hand usually struggles just to get onto the handle before the swing.

For the top hand/extension, take an old bat to an empty field. Then go through the swing, being sure to pull with the bottom hand first. As you bring the top hand through, try to throw it through the (imaginary) pitcher as far and as hard as you can. A few attempts at that and you’ll get the feeling for using the top hand.

Using the two hands in combination, and the proper sequence, will help those weak fly balls turn into fence busters, and those ground balls get through the infield instead of to it.

Expert, textpert, keep it simple

For the past few days I’ve been e-mailing back and forth with Ken Van Bogaert, a hitting guru of some note. He has produced some of the best hitting videoson the market. More importantly, he is not content to stand pat with what he knew, and is always seeking to improve the programs. We were talking about a couple of finer points of hitting, things we have discovered produce results. I’ll get to some of that in a later post. But as we e-mailed, the discussion turned to many of the online experts and the maxim of KISS — keep it simple, stupid.

It is amazing to me how complicated some people make hitting, pitching, and other athletic movements. They get all caught up in the most minute details, pointing out every little movement they see (or think they see) made by top-level players. For the sake of this post we’ll refer to hitting since that’s what Ken and I discussed, but it applies elsewhere as well.

What you see a lot of is scientific or pseudo-scientific jargon that I suppose is meant to make the person saying or typing it sound smarter than everyone else. I suppose if you’re doing a scientific treatment breaking down all the elements of hitting it makes sense. But if your purpose is to learn how to teach someone how to hit, it’s very possible that all that extraneous information will just get in the way.

One of my favorites is the focus on “scapula loading.” It is often touted as an essential element of having a high-level swing. I find that amusing. I’ve taught a lot of hitters to be successful (within their willingness to work hard) and have never once used the term or concerned myself with scapula loading. To be honest, every time I try to think it through I have to look up where the scapula even is.

Hitters, especially youth players, have enough trouble just grasping the basic concepts of what you want them to do. The more complex you make it, the more difficult you make it to achieve the results you want. Ken and I agree that there are certain basic things you teach, and there are a whole lot of other things that just happen as a result of doing those basic things correctly and enthusiastically.

I use a basic three-step instruction to teach hitting: step-turn-swing. Those are the most core elements to a good swing. Do them in the right order and you’ll be well on your way to success. Within each of those steps there are other instructions, of course. For example, just prior to taking the step it helps to make a negative movement backwards. Once a student has the core ideas down, we add the negative movement in there as an enhancement. If I understand correctly, that’s when scapula loading would occur. But if they make a good negative movement — one that is designed to help them move into rotation faster and more powerfully — they’re going to load the scapula as a result of trying to make a quicker, more powerful movement.

Coaches who really want to help their players improve should make an effort to separate the necessary from the superfluous. The further you get from the concept of swinging the bat in a manner that allows it to make hard contact with the ball — and in language that simple — the more difficult you make it for your players to execute the skill under pressure.

In his book The Science of Hitting, Ted Williams provided a very practical method of talking about hitting. He didn’t get caught up in a lot of biological jargon or equations. He simply said “make these movements.” And Ted knew as much about hitting, even back then, as anyone ever has. We would all be wise to learn from his example, and keep it simple.

The peel drop — It’s all in the butt

The more I work with pitchers the more it seems like the cues I use revolve around the butt. In an earlier post I talked about how driving the front knee out and up helps pull the butt (or in reality the center of gravity) forward, allowing a more powerful drive off the rubber than simply pushing off the back foot.

I will also explain need to keep the hips open until the arm passes (rather than slamming the door shut) by stating that in the war between butt and ball, butt always wins. It’s a more fun way of making the point that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, so if the butt is in the way the arm will have to go round it, causing the pitch to go somewhere it’s not supposed to go.

Now lately for the drop ball I’ve been explaining the release point by stating the hand needs to pass next to the butt rather than down at the thigh. If it comes past the butt (or hip) the pitch starts higher, allowing it to start as a strike rather than getting too low immediately.

Understand that I don’t necessarily teach the peel drop the same way as some other coaches. I’ve never much cared for the “slide the paper out” method. It seems unnatural and potentially dangerous to the shoulder to me. Just one man’s opinion. Instead, I like the elbow to drive down and the hand to flatten out so it’s palm down behind the leg/butt, like you’re trying to slap a hand back there. Then as the hand comes forward it goes somewhat over the ball, and when the wrist snaps it is adding that little extra bit of spin. If you use this method then bringing the hand past the butt makes sense.

Referring to the butt seems to be a good way of making the point and keeping it more fun. Butts are funny. Gotta go with what works.

The difference a caring coach can make.

This story actually goes back a number of years ago. And for once it’s not about me.  

Up until the time my son Adam hit high school (he’s 21 now) he was kind of a shy, quiet kid. He didn’t make friends easily, and he was definitely “his own person” meaning he didn’t try to conform to the norm. As such, when he would get onto sports teams where he didn’t know anyone he would tend to easy not to notice. He had some athletic ability — not a stud by any means but certainly not a complete incompetent either — but most times the coaches wouldn’t know, because they were focused on the kids who were more aggressive and seemed more interested.

This went on until the day he got on an AYSO soccer team coached by the father of his friend Kris. Kris’ dad Jim Bauernsmith had worked with the AYSO organization for a long time, and really believed in the principles they espoused. He also knew Adam from his hanging around the house, which helped.

From the first practice on, Jim brought Adam out of his shell, gave him confidence, and set expectations for him. Adam had more fun the three years he played for Jim than he had in a long time. And it spilled over into his other activities, including playing baseball.

Adam played a year of soccer in high school, but didn’t much care for it. He had no interest in playing baseball so we figured his sports career was over. His sophomore year, however, he discovered lacrosse and eventually went on to become a starter on his high school’s first-ever varsity lacrosse team. He played hard and played well, and was the kind of kid the coach wanted on the field all the time. That was a huge change for him.

I don’t think any of it would’ve happened without Jim, though. Jim’s taking a little extra time to work with a kid who just needed some encouragement had a huge impact on his life. Adam is now in ROTC at EIU and is in the Illinois National Guard. He is a self-assured, confident young man with both a good sense of humor and a sense of purpose.

How many times do coaches give up early on a kid because they think it will be too hard to make it work? There are all kinds of diamonds in the rough out there. But you have to be willing to look for them, and to bend down to pick them up, if you’re ever going to find them. Take a look at your own teams and see who needs that extra pat on the back or someone to believe in them. You never know how it will turn out for you.

A touching moment

We finally had our team party for the 2007 season today. Long story on why so late.

In any case, at one point I was talking with the parents of one of the girls from the team. She had to make a tough decision this year — essentially whether to play basketball or softball. Her first love is basketball, so that’s the way she opted. I was sorry to hear that, of course, but each person must follow their own hearts.

The parents stopped to thank me for all I had done for their daughter. You see, when she first joined the team she was struggling a bit athletically. Her parents were well aware that her fine motor skills were not the best, and it’s likely she wasn’t exactly a standout in sports generally. I suppose a lot of coaches would’ve given up on her long ago, or played her whatever the minimum was. But I always saw something in her.

More than anything it was her determination. She always came out and worked hard. Sometimes she’d get frustrated when she couldn’t perform to her expectations. But she’d never quit. Over the years she got better, and has turned into an excellent catcher.

Her defining moment came during a tournament in 2006. With one catcher missing and another injured, we were down to one. On a hot, humid weekend she caught every game Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. We came in second that weekend. The following weekend she caught all but two innings across Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, again in the heat.

Today her parents told me that while they appreciated what I had taught her about softball, their real gratitude was for the self-confidence I had instilled in her. She had gone from a shy girl with a lot of self-doubt to a young lady who believes in herself.

It’s always fun to win tournaments and trophies. But in the big picture, the job of coach is really about impacting lives in a positive manner. It was gratifying to hear I’d actually done that.

What you teach

There are definitely those in our sport who believe in flaunting the rules. They teach baserunners to leave the base early to “gain and advantage.” They teach hitters to intentionally interfere with the catcher’s throw when a baserunner is stealing a base. They teach fielders to stand in the baseline or on the base to slow down runners.

In each case the rationale is that the umpires rarely call it. In other words, get away with as much as you can because you’re unlikely to get caught. “If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t trying” they like to say.

The problem with that line of thinking is they never take it to its logical conclusion. They don’t see where it could lead. So allow me to late it out for you.

Coaches who teach those things shouldn’t be surprised when their players lie to them about their schoolwork, their whereabouts during the last practice, or what time they went to sleep before the tournament games. After all, they thought they could get away with it.

Coaches who teach those things shouldn’t be surprised when their star athlete gets caught cheating during an exam. They were just trying to get an edge in order to “win.”

Coaches who teach those things shouldn’t be surprised when their players are arrested for underage drinking or drugs. They figured they wouldn’t be caught, so it was ok. After all, that’s what the coach taught them.

What we teach impacts our players much more than in their on-field conducted. Many have trouble separating the two. As coaches, we need to make sure we’re holding our players to a higher standard, not a lower one. It’s the right thing to do. And if you can’t win without cheating, maybe you’re not the coach you thought you were.

Visit to Eastern Illinois University

Last weekend was Family Weekend at EIU. Since my wife and I have two sons attending that school we were down there for a visit.

Sometimes fate smiles upon you. Their dorms are close to the women’s softball field, so naturally we had to go take a peek at what was happening. We saw what appeared to be a practice and stopped to watch for a few minutes. We then had to run to the campus bookstore to leave even more of our money there in exchange for a couple of t-shirts, and to take care of a couple of other things.

When that was all done, though, we had some time to kill so I casually suggested we stop by the field again, as it looked like there was a game going on. When we got there I realized it was an intrasquad scrimmage, probably so the parents of those players could see where their money was going.

It was fun to watch. The facility is fairly small with some “box seats” close to the plate, so we were very close to the action. Part of the time I sat and just watched as a fan of fastpitch softball. And part of the time, I have to admit, I watched more analytically, trying to guess what pitch would be called next or see if I could pick up some tips.

One thing both my wife and I noticed was how much each hitter committed to their swings. There was no hesitation, no worry about whether they were swinging at the right pitch or not. When they swung, man, they swung. As a result, when they hit the ball it really jumped off the bat. Overall it seemed like a quality team filled with quality individuals.

One funny thing I recall happening during the game was a particular ball/strike call. One of the coaches was umping from behind the pitcher. When what I assume the #1 pitcher was pitching, there was a 2-2 count. The next pitch came in, and it looked like it would be strike three. The coach hesitated momentarily, then called it a ball. I’m pretty sure she knew it was a strike but decided the pitcher needed to work through pressure situations. I believe the next pitch resulted in a batted out. I guess coaches are coaches no matter what the level.

Keeping the back foot down

Wow! Is this really my first entry in October? Where is the time going? I apologize for my lack of posting and will make a vow to try and get on here more often. I have lots of ideas. I just have to remember to get them down!

In any case, this one is about a fairly common problem with fastpitch softball pitchers — lifting the back foot when they push off. The rules, of course, state the back foot is supposed to remain in contact with ground until the ball is delivered. Many pitchers, especially those trying to get some good leg power into it, seem to have trouble with something that seems like it should be very simple. Although to be honest most umpires won’t call it anyway unless it’s really blatant. Still, we like to play the rules so let’s try to solve it.

There are some good drills that attempt to address it. One of my favorites is Cheri Kempf’s drill where you put a piece of paper or cardboard down in front of the pitcher’s rubber, and then try to drag it forward as the foot moves forward. That will treat the symptom, and will probably help if practiced enough. But it doesn’t address the reason that foot is coming off the ground in the first place.

In my experience, the thing that causes the foot to come off the ground about six inches or so is that the ankle gets locked on launch. And that is often caused by turning the pivot foot too much during the launch phase in a desire to get to the open position. In other words, a right handed pitcher will turn the toes way to the right (toward third base) instead of leaving them pointed forward at the plate and the catcher. When that happens the push-off comes off the instep of the pivot foot, the ankle locks, and the foot comes off the ground.

So how do you change it? Start with making sure the toes remain pointed at the catcher, or mostly so, so the ankle can flex — much like it flexes when a basketball player goes up for a layout. As the push-off occurs, push off the ball of the foot and roll up onto the toes. It’s not too tough a move — anyone who walks does it every day. Flexing the ankle and pushing off the ball of the foot should cause the toes to point down, allowing the foot to drag lightly across the ground. If you see a big divot in the ground, you’re not getting “up” enough and you’re losing leg speed.

The toes forward/ankle flex is a movement that can be practiced without a field, gym, or even a ball. All you need is about eight feet of unrestricted space. Start by focusing just on the feet and legs, without using a full motion with the arms. Once you’re comfortable with that, add the rest of the pitching motion, again without a ball. When you can do it reliably without the ball, add the ball. The problem should be solved.

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