Monthly Archives: January 2008

Fear of failure, fear of losing drives bad decisions

Guess it’s about time for my annual rant on this topic. It’s a shame, because this line of thinking really limits kids in so many aspects of their lives — especially their ability to become fully functional adults.

If you watch what goes on in classrooms, on ballfields, and just about anywhere else in America these days you’ll see a very familiar phenomenon. We here in America hate to lose, and hate to either fail ourselves or see our kids fail. Now, that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. We should want to win, and we should want to succeed. The problem is we want it so much that we’re willing to accept winning and success at any cost — especially the cost of longer-term success.

Look what’s happened in the schools. At one time schools held their students accountable to tough standards. Teachers would teach, students would learn. If the students didn’t hold up their end of the bargain they’d fail the class. They might even get left behind a grade if they failed enough.

Today, we don’t fail students anymore. We believe it’s bad for their self-esteem. Instead, we lower the requirements to make it easier for them to pass the class. If that doesn’t work, we lower the standards some more. We teach kids to learn how to pass the test instead of how to think. It’s no wonder America is falling behind in academic pursuits, especially math and science.

The same thing happens with fastpitch softball. If a pitcher struggles to get the ball over, well-meaning but ill-informed coaches will tell them to “slow it down and get it over.” Never mind that you’re destroying the mechanics that pitcher has worked so hard to acquire, and that it will probably throw her off for the next few games besides. It’s more important to win that game today, so just do whatever it takes to make it a strike.

The same goes with hitters. How many coaches have told their hitters not to worry about hitting the ball hard, just make contact? Well, if you substitute the word “outs” for contact you’ll be saying pretty much the same thing. It’s not that taking a good, aggressive swing is harder than taking a “contact” swing. It’s that the player hasn’t worked enough on her aggressive swing to make it easy. It is definitely easier to swing lightly and just try to put the bat on the ball. You won’t strike out as often, maybe. But you also won’t be developing the foundation you’re going to need later on in the game. At that point, you’ll have to completely relearn your swing — if you can. If not, you’ll probably be done playing before you should be. All because someone didn’t want you to strike out too often when you were eight.

It isn’t easy to watch our kids fail.  But sometimes it’s necessary. Pain is a good teacher. If you stick your hand in a fire and feel no pain, you won’t know to pull it back out before all the skin burns off. If you lower the bar on pitching, hitting, throwing, etc. then players have no real incentive to work harder and learn to do things the right way.

Yes, it’s difficult to watch your pitcher walking batter after batter. If it happens, take her out and let someone else “just get it over.” If the pitcher is serious, she’ll work at not having that experience again. If the hitter has a good swing but isn’t hitting the ball with it, check if she needs glasses. If not, be patient. When she does start hitting it, and she will, she’ll do more for you than all your contact/out hitters.

Trust me. Nobody hates losing more than I do. But it’s part of the learning process. Give kids a safe environment to fail while trying to be their very best and they won’t disappoint you. Kids are resilient, overall. Dumb it all down for them, though, and ultimately you’ll wind up disappointing them.


Bat drag update

I promised to keep you up to date on developments in the bat drag department. Here’s the latest.

Our experiment with taking the front shoulder down at toe touch is working pretty well. But it’s still possible to get that back elbow ahead even if you get to that position. I was hoping for a silver bullet but it hasn’t quite turned out that way. There are two causes I’m seeing.

One is just flat out dropping the back shoulder again after toe touch. If the first movement of the shoulder is to go down, the elbow can get ahead. You haven’t really cured it in that case, you’ve just delayed it.

The second is more interesting. I just spotted it watching some video. If the shoulders  begin turning before the hips, it’s possible to get that elbow out ahead of the hands, especially if the hands are staying back . The experiment now, with one player in particular, is to make sure the hips start first, then the shoulders. It’s a momentary difference but I think an important one.

We’ll be working this weekend on it, and I should have a better idea in a couple of weeks whether it will be another piece of the puzzle. The other things we’ve done have helped other players, but it seems like there’s always one more thing to try. Even the girl we’re working with on the hips/shoulders thing, though, has shown a lot of improvement in her swing overall. Lots better batspeed, and lots better contact to all fields.

One thing that is challenging in trying to figure all this out is the difference in flexibility between a fat old coach and a young female athlete. Things I try that work for me don’t always work for them. Their flexibility allows them to do things (or contort themselves) in ways I can’t. It’s an interesting dilemma, but one we will solve.

Shake, rattle and find another bat

Here’s another subtle rule change every player and coach should be aware of for 2008. During pre-game equipment inspections, if your bat rattles when shaken you will no longer be allowed to use it. Click on this link and then click on the 2008 playing rules with comments link to read it in its original form. It’s the second rule listed.

I don’t have a problem with the rule. I’m all for safety. But it’s never been something to be concerned about before. You’ll definitely want to give your bat a shake from time to time to see if it makes a noise, and you’ll definitely want to do that before you buy a new bat. If you hear anything, don’t buy it (if it’s new), and don’t plan on using it (if it’s old).

From the bad ideas dept.: ASA forcing coaches to take their instructional program

I know this is true in the Chicago area, and based on what I’ve heard from other coaches I think it’s universal: the ASA is now requiring at least one coach from every team to complete their ACE program if the team plans to compete in state/metro/national tournaments. Here in the Chicago area, the Metro tournament is a requirement if you’re planning on going to any of the various nationals, so if you have any ambition about playing on a bigger stage you have to go there.

I have no idea what ASA thinks they’re doing. This is an organization that is facing increasing pressure from rival sanctioning bodies such as FAST, NSA, USSSA and others. Rather than reacting like a regular company would to competitive market pressures and becoming more customer-friendly, if anything this move is making them less customer-friendly.

I wonder how many coaches are going to look at it and say “forget it, I’ll just focus on another organization?” The top programs won’t of course, but you don’t build a business solely by focusing on the captive audience. Any business, any religion, any anything where people have a choice knows you have to make what you’re offering attractive to the newbies and non-believers so you can increase your ranks. That’s marketing 101. But this move goes beyond that.

Our Mundelein Thunder organization is an ASA “shop,” so we’re planning to do it. But trying to Git R done has been a nightmare. One of my fellow coaches has been trying to get it organized. He went to the ASA site to find out what to do, and all they say is contact your local commissioner. He contacted our local commissioner (who probably has better things to do than this) and it took a while to get a response. When it finally came, it was a link to a login that requires a user name and password that wasn’t furnished. We’re still trying to find out if we have to attend a class somewhere, go online, get something in the mail, whatever.

The father of one of my pitching students lives in Wisconsin, and he said there was one class being offered for the year there. All the coaches went to somebody’s house and gathered around a small computer or TV screen to watch a DVD. Then they took the test. He said his understanding was if he missed that class (which he almost did) he was out of luck for the year. For the year! Plenty of time for him to find other nationals to attend.

But here’s the kicker. I was ACE-certified several years ago. In fact, I went through two levels of it. I would’ve done more but ASA never notified me that it was time for the next one and I just plain forgot. The training itself was so rudimentary as to be laughable. Even a first-year coach could probably pass the test without watching the video. So there really isn’t much benefit, unless they’ve changed it. You’ll learn a lot more by attending the National Sports Clinics, or the NFCA Coach’s College. As for the general (non-softball) coaching principles, you’re better off attending an ASEP class.

I’m told there is a lot of focus on the rules. Hmmmm. I wonder if the umpires are being required to take the same class? I can’t tell you how many umpires I’ve run into at ASA-sanctioned tournaments who don’t know basic ASA rules such as those for courtesy runners. Twice in 2007 I was told I couldn’t use a courtesy runner for a pitcher or catcher with less than two outs, even though the rule book clearly states you can. That’s just one example off the top of my head. There are others as well. When you argue this is the ASA rule the umpire doesn’t want to hear it, and doesn’t want to consult a rule book, even in the dugout, so you wind up getting screwed.

Now imagine ASA is going to train more coaches to know the rules. They’re just asking for trouble. Before they worry about the coaches they ought to seriously look at how they’re certifying umpires. Don’t even get me started on enforcement of pitching rules.

Bottom line is this just looks like a bad idea on many levels. It may have good intentions, but we all know what the road to Hell is paved with.

Seeing the lasting effect

Sometimes as coaches we wonder what the long-term affects of what we do are. Sure, we see when we win a game, or when a team has a good time during the season, or when a player we coached goes on to greater success elsewhere. But we don’t always know what sort of an effect we have on someone’s life generally until something nice happens.

One of those things has occurred. As many of you know I am part of the Mundelein Thunder travel softball organization. Each fall and winter we run player clinics that are open not only to our own players, but to any softball player who would like to work on her skills. About one-third to one-half of the participants any given year come from outside our program — mostly from our local rec league.

There is a young lady named Julia who participated in our clinics for several years. She was a rec league player. We talked to her and her dad about her playing travel ball, but her first love was dance and she couldn’t devote the time that travel softball required. Fair enough. After watching her move through some of the warm-up exercises we do you could see that dance was a big part of her life.

In any case, once players reach high school age, IHSA rules prevent them from participating in the type of clinics we offer. I found out last night, though, that she called the president of our organization, Bill T’Niemi, and asked if she could help out as one of our junior coaches, working with the younger kids to help them in the same way she’d been helped before.

Of course the answer was an emphastic yes. How cool is it that she wants to do this? After all, it’s not like our organization was the major part of her softball experience. But obviously she must’ve felt like she received some sort of value or she wouldn’t be asking.

Yes, she is getting service hours out of it. But there are lots of things she could’ve done to get those, and many would’ve required a lot less of her. But Julia has chosen to spend another set of Saturday mornings with us, this time passing on what she learned and helping younger kids have a great experience with the game of softball.

They don’t give trophies for that kind of thing. But it sure is nice to know we made an impression and fulfilled the mission every team is supposed to have, of helping players develop not only their softball skills but themselves as people.

Metal cleats in high school

In case you haven’t heard by now, the National High School Federation (Federation for short) has ruled that metal cleats will be allowed in high school softball beginning this year. The Federation is the ruling body for HS sports, not to be confused with ruling body for a large group of planets on Star Trek.

I haven’t heard the particulars on why the rule was changed. Maybe someone who reads this blog has the actual answer. A few of us were talking tonight and I speculated that this was sort of a Title IX issue. Metal cleats have been allowed in HS baseball at least since the days I was playing, so maybe this is just a way of making things more even. Then again, do the boys have to wear face cages on their helmets?

In any case, I think that metal cleats are a bad idea. First there’s the safety issue for fielders. As I’ve mentioned before, some are taught to block access to the base with their legs. Having a baserunner coming into a leg with metal cleats is not exactly a good idea.

That’s not the worst of it, though. The big risk is catching a cleat and spraining an ankle — or possibly popping a knee or breaking a leg. Before you think I’m a total wimp about this, I just heard a story about a male youth player in metal cleats breaking his ankle trying to stop and go back to the previous base.

The parent telling the story said she’s heard that metal cleats are fine on a well-manicured field. But how many of us get to play on those? I’ve watched high school games on fields that were a risk no matter what kind of shoes you wore, much less high-grip cleats. My teams have certainly competed on fields that were even worse. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Especially when you consider that the #1 injury among young female athletes is a torn ACL. So now you’re going to add in equipment that makes it even easier to pop that ACL. It just doesn’t make sense.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the number of injuries goes up this year. And if so, whether the Federation gives any thought to going back to a ban on metal cleats. Stay tuned.

Blindly following what the “best” players do

One of the most common pieces of advice regarding how to perform sports skills is to look at what the best players do. It stands to reason that the best players must by definition have the best technique or the best execution. How else could they be the best?

The truth of this philosophy may be somewhat different. The way athletes perform is at least partially a product of their training. In other words, some of what they do is what they have been trained to do, whether that’s right or wrong. Simply observing them doesn’t necessarily mean the techniques you’re picking up are optimum. They are what they are.

Here’s an extreme case from another sport. Up until around 1968 there was a particular technique used by the best high jumpers in the world. If you studied film of pretty much any high jumper, you would see him/her approach the bar, push up off the inside foot, drive the outside leg up, then when the body is at its peak kick the trailing leg up and over. This was the standard. By watching film you could find the little subtleties that made the best high jumpers capable of getting the highest.

Then came a guy named Dick Fosbury. He didn’t worry about what the best in the world were doing. Instead, he tried to figure out how best to use his body. What he came up with was a very different technique, one that had him turning his back to the bar, leaping up, and going over head-first. People thought he was crazy. Many thought the technique was dangerous, with a potential to break the neck of the high jumper. But he wound up winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Today the Fosbury Flop is the standard for high jumpers.

The point is that had Dick Fosbury focused all his efforts on what the best in the world did at the time he never would’ve been able to innovate a new and better technique.

Closer to home, many Major League Baseball hitters will put their back elbows up in their stances, despite the fact that it doesn’t do anything positive and can actually be detrimental. But somewhere along the way, some coach told them to do it, and it just became their habit. They learned to overcome it by getting into a better position at launch. But if you just watched them you’d assume it was an important part of what they do.

Observing top players is certainly valuable. But it isn’t gospel. It’s still important to think things through and make sure what you’re seeing is the best way to do things. Put your time into comparing what you’re seeing to the way the body works more effectively and you’ll get your best bang for the buck.

Getting a quality at-bat

America is a country that tends to be very results-oriented. We like winners, and we like to define success based on the outcome of whatever we’re doing.

For a hitter, focusing on results can be a problem — especially when she’s in a bit of a down period.

Hitting is all about the process –what your plan is going to the plate and whether you’re executing it. Even a strikeout can be a success if you’ve approched the at bat correctly.

Sound crazy? Not really. Let’s say the hitter has been getting out ahead of the pitch, causing her bat to slow down at contact. As a result, she has been grounding out a lot to the shortstop, and not hitting the ball very hard when she does. So she goes to the plate with the intention of maintaining bat speed, and accelerating through the hittings zone.

On the first pitch she’s ahead again, but instead of slowing down to make contact she accelerates. It’s a swing and a miss, but a good one. On the next pitch she adjusts somewhat and pulls the ball foul down the third base line. On the last pitch she again takes an aggressive swing, but gets fooled on a changeup. It’s a strikeout in the book, but her general approach to her at-bat has improved. She’s on her way to success, assuming she maintains that approach.

The key is focusing on the process rather than the outcome. The outcome is temporary, and depends on a lot of factors outside your control. But the process is long-term, and entirely within your control. Manage the process and the outcomes will take care of themselves.

Progress report on lowering the front shoulder

A couple of posts ago I talked about an experiment we’re running to try to get rid of a chronic bat drag problem with a number of our hitters. The concept is to lower the front shoulder when the hitter gets to toe touch. By doing so, it seems like it would be very difficult if not impossible to get the back elbow in front of the hands.

It’s been a couple of weeks now, and so far the results have been very good. Our hitters haven’t quite made it natural yet, but when the do get into the proper position they are coming through the ball much quicker and more powerfully, which is the point of eliminating bat drag.

Bat drag does seem to be a common problem among female fastpitch softball hitters. I’m not sure why, although it’s probably one of two things: a lack of upper body strength or the fact that a female’s shoulders are narrower than her hips. That’s just my guess, not a proven theory. Then again, I haven’t looked at that much tape of males so they may have the problem as often.

Whatever the story, it is a fact that needs to be dealt with. I think we’re on to something.

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