Monthly Archives: June 2008

Pitching speeds and reality

Saw a game last night where a 12 (or probably 13 by now) was clocking speeds in the high 50s, and even a couple of 60s. This was on my own Jugs radar gun, which I keep tuned. The batteries were dying so there’s a chance it might’ve been off, or I might’ve had it pointed at the bat instead of the pitch, but it seemed like it was correct.

That’s pretty amazing, at least to me. I don’t even see many older kids throwing the ball that hard. When I mentioned it to another coach he asked me how a kid that young gets to throw that hard. My answer, based on what I saw, was she picked her parents well.

I didn’t see a lot of extraordinary technique. She seemed to rely mostly on her arm rather than getting her legs into it or attacking the pitch. But she was still zipping the ball. My guess is a lot of it is just raw ability, enhanced by good, solid mechanics that allow the ability to do its thing.

That got me thinking, though. People will bring their daughters to a pitching coach with expectation that the coach will have some magic that gets her to 60, or 65, mph. But there are more factors than just mechanics involved.

To understand, let’s think of another athletic skill in softball — running. Some kids are just naturally faster than others. A big, plodding kid who runs 60 feet in 3.8 seconds is never going to improve that speed to 2.8, no matter how many coaches she sees or how hard she works. Running a 2.8 is pretty extraordinary, which is why it’s valued. If you don’t have the DNA to begin with, you’re not going to get there. The kid who’s running 3.8 can improve on that score and get fast-er. Through maturity, hard work, effort, improved mechanics, etc. she might be able to get to 3.3. But that’s not 2.8. There’s a huge difference.

The same goes for pitchers. Some will never hit 60 mph, because they simply lack the physical capacity to do so. They aren’t strong enough, or they don’t have enough fast twitch muscles, to get there. There are things they can do to improve their pitching speed, but at some point they will have maxed out what their bodies can do. If that wasn’t true, elite pitchers would be throwing 90 mph because they keep working on technique and strength training.

Everyone has a point they can’t get beyond. The reality is it’s lower for some than for others. The good news is pitchers can still be very effective even if they’re not throwing in the 60s if they get good movement, change speeds, and mix their pitches well. And once the hitters catch up to the speed, the 12 year old who throws 60, if she doesn’t keep working to improve her technique and develop other pitches, may very well find herself playing a different position, wondering what happened.

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Tag ’em low

This is one of those little things that can make a huge difference in a game. It’s the sort of thing every fielder should know, but many either don’t know it or forget about it.

When you’re making a tag, always try to apply it low, down near the feet. You’re far more likely to get the call. From an umpire’s point of view, a high tag (around the head or shoulders of a sliding baserunner) often implies that the runner slid under the tag. Now, that may not be true — the player may have applied the tag before the runner reached base — but it doesn’t matter. That’s what the umpire will see.

If you apply the tag around the feet or ankles, however, the appearance is you got the runner before she got to the bag, and she’s out.

Wherever possible, apply a low tag. And don’t forget to sell it at the end. Hold the ball and glove up high, show it to the umpire to say “see, I got her!”

National Fastpitch Coaches College schedule is now online

Saw this a few days ago and have been meaning to post it, but you know how it goes.

The National Fastpitch Coaches College (offered by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association) has posted its schedule of classes for the coming year. In all, they are offering 14 classes between mid-October and June of 2009.

This is a fantastic program for coaching education. Each three-day course provides intensive study of a single facet of the game, such as skill mechanics, offensive and defensive strategies, structuring practices, etc. All are taught by some of the top coaches in the game.

I’ve attended two of the courses and found them to be fascinating. They were small groups, perhaps around 50 students or so, and offered a lot of interaction between students and instructors. One of the coolest things, to me, is that the instructors are very approachable and are as interested in what the students think and have done as the students are in what the instructors have to say. It appears coaches at the top of the game look for good ideas wherever they can find them

I highly recommend this program. It’s not cheap — tuition alone was $225 the last time I took one of the courses — but it’s worth it if you’re serious about expanding your knowledge.

My only wish is that they were offering the classes I want to take in the Chicago area. Oh well. I hear Denton, Texas is lovely in January.

Pitchers hitting

There is all kinds of “conventional wisdom” in the game of softball. You’ll often hear you should never make the first or last out at third base, that you should always bunt a runner to second with nobody out, and other such ideas. Some of them make sense, some do not.

Another common one is that you should DH for the pitcher. The reasoning is pitchers can’t hit because they spend all their time working on hitting. (Or in some cases there is a fear that the pitcher will get hurt batting or running the bases and then be out of the game, perhaps even down for the season.)

Yet let’s think about it for a minute. Pitching in fastpitch softball is an extremely difficult position. It requires great dedication and great concentration. Pitchers often continue to practice their craft after the field players have been sent on their way. Hmmmm. What attributes would we like in hitters? How about dedication in the off season and concentration at the plate? Get where I’m going?

Here’s an extreme example. When the 2004 National team was making its run toward the Olympics, their cleanup hitter in most games was a lady named Lisa Fernandez. She was either playing third or DHing for someone, and hitting the heck out of the ball. Yet when she was in the circle, the coaching staff would have someone hit for her. One day Coach Mike Candrea stopped to think about it and realized that was just silly. He then let Lisa hit for herself when she was pitching, and she helped the team win its third Olympic gold medal.

On my own team we’re seeing a microcosm of that scenario. Currently three out of the top four hitters are also my pitchers. (The fourth is an ex-pitcher, incidentally.) We’ll see how it goes during the season, but those three are leading or close to leading most offensive categories. Why on earth would I want to DH for them?

I’d be interested to hear from others who let their pitchers hit, to see if they are also at the top of the stats. Maybe we’re on oddity. But I don’t think so. Dedication and focus are required to hit well. Good pitchers have both in abundance.

Great article in the NFCA Fastpitch Delivery newspaper

Saw an article this morning in the current issue of the NFCA’s Fastpitch Delivery newspaper. It’s one of their great member benefits.

Anyway, the article was on generating offense and was written by Jay Miller, a well-known offensive guru. He was talking about what a shame it is that so many coaches at all levels are so conservative and risk-averse, because they leave so many chances to win on the table. I think I liked it most because it espouses a similar philosophy to what my organization teaches.

One of the first things he talked about was teaching runners to be aggressive, and to think aggressively. They are two different things. Runners being aggressive often depend on the coach for the final word. Runners who think aggressively understand that the point of getting on base is to get back home. Don’t take one base when you can get two, and don’t take two when you can get three.

Another point was to make sure you pressure the defense all the time. Aggressive baserunning puts a lot of pressure on the defense. They have to make perfect throws and catches every time, which can be tough to do. If you sit back and run station-to-station, or don’t take chances, you let them off easy.

There are many great hints in the article. But there’s also a caveat. When you take more chances, you’re going to get more runners thrown out too. You have to be willing to take that risk in order to reap the reward. Not everyone can handle it. But if you’re tired of losing games by one run, think about getting aggressive. You never know what can happen.

Are we having fun yet?

Just completed our first weekend of 16uU ball this past weekend. It was a bit rough going at first, but as the girls relaxed and started getting back into the rhythm of summer ball, the caliber of play definitely improved.
 
Which makes you wonder why so many coaches feel they have to completely dominate their players and put them down in order to get them to play. Sure, it may provide a temporary improvement, but there’s a huge difference between compliance and giving your all.

A lot of these girls didn’t have much fun during their high school seasons. They felt very stressed. I’ve heard some developed stomach trouble and many couldn’t wait for the season to be over. Walking around the fields this weekend I saw some of the same kinds of things. A player would make some small error or not react fast enough and the coach would be all over her. There were plenty of long faces, not to mention looks of “here we go again.”

Some of those teams were pretty darned good. But many didn’t look like they were having much fun.

Our approach was a little different. We can be as tough as anyone in practice. But come game day, it’s the players’ time. Rather than chasitising them constantly for bad decisions, we encouraged them to explore their talent and push themselves. We wanted them to get out of the boxes they’d been put into and see what they could do.

What we saw was a level of play that improved steadily throughout the weekend. The last couple of games especially were very well played. We won one and lost one of those, but the loss was one of those games where someone has to lose (unfortunately) and the win was sweet, full of great plays as well as plays you’re supposed to make. More importantly, the girls were having fun. And I think that’s what allowed them to play so well.

It remains to be seen how long it carries over. But my gut tells me that if they’re having fun they’ll also be doing the things it takes to win.

One more thought. When I read interviews with top coaches in the NFCA newspaper, one of the questions they always ask is what do you wish you’d known when you started your career that you know now. Invariably the answer is “I wish I would’ve enjoyed it more. Instead of being focused on winning so much I wish I would’ve enjoyed being with my team.”

Coaches have egos, and we all like to win. But if we make our players miserable in order to achieve that goal, is it really worth it? I know as a former baseball player I can’t remember the specifics of any complete games. My teams never won a championship, but I still remember those days just as fondly as though I had. I also remember the coaches I liked, and the ones I didn’t. The ones I liked best were the ones who tried to bring out the best in me, and helped me to believe in myself.

Think about that the next time you yank a player off the field because she missed the cutoff. If you really want to build a legacy, it starts with your own team.

You’re either moving toward or away from your goals

With softball (like so many other sports) turning into a 12-month pursuit, it’s easy to let a sort of malaise slip in. After a while, players tend to walk through their drills somewhat mindlessly, going through the motions but not really accomplishing anything.

That is such a tremendous waste of time. If you see that going on, here’s something to try. Take a hitter (for example) aside, and ask her what her goals are. Ask her to put a specific number on her hitting goal, such as when she looks at her stats at the end of the year what batting average she’d like to see next to her name. (Make sure it’s realistic.)

When she gives you the answer ask her one simple question: Is what you’re doing here today moving you closer to or further away from that goal? Because the truth is you’re either getting ahead or falling behind. If she has a number in mind and her actions aren’t moving her toward that number, then what is she doing out on the field?

Many players don’t think that way. Especially these days, people tend to live in the here and now. They don’t think in terms of moving toward something. Yes, you can set goals and all that at the beginning of the season, but often those goal sheets get stuffed into the bags along with the articles and directions to the next game, never to be seen again — or at least until it’s time to clean out the ol’ bat bag for next year. But they have to start thinking that way, seeing their actions today as part of a chain of events that lead to a conclusion. The big question is what will that conclusion be?

Everyone likes to be successful. But success isn’t just handed to you unless you’re Paris Hilton. For the rest of us, it requires work and effort. That’s what makes the journey so satisfying.

Keep that idea in mind. Are you moving toward your goal or away from it with what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it. It just might help take some of the monotony out of practice, and give your players a little more sense of purpose.

Identifying elite pitchers

A while back a friend put up a list on his blog. Unfortunately, it is no longer active, but in it he identified the characteristics he would use to determine whether an 11 or 12 year old has the potential to be an elite pitcher. It’s based on his experience in training, as a grad student, and coaching.

I looked at the list and I would agree with everything he says. It does seems like those are the characteristics for an elite pitcher. The thing that might discourage many people about the list, though, is if they see their daughter doesn’t have some or all of those characteristics. Does that mean she shouldn’t pitch?

Not necessarily, in my opinion. First of all, most of those attributes are true regardless of position. Becoming an elite player takes more than hard work or wanting to play at UCLA ASU. There’s a certain amount of good fortune involved. As I told my own daughter last night, certain people in the college game did a better job of picking their parents than she did.

The point is, she doesn’t have any particular desire to be an elite player, but she does love to play and does love to pitch. The attributes she does have lend themselves to being successful at the level to which she aspires to play. You don’t have to be everything on the list to pitch. You mostly have to want to, and be willing to work at it. Those things are required regardless of the level.

People fanatical enough to hang out on softball boards and read softball blogs often hope their daughters will be the next Cat Osterman. But those players are rare. Fastpitch softball is a huge sport, though, with a great many levels to it. There’s a place for everyone who wants to play.

If your daughter wants to be an elite player, definitely check out the list and see how she measures up. It’s a great level set. But if she doesn’t, don’t sweat it. Just make sure she does the things to be successful at the level she can compete at. That’s the single best thing you can do for her.

Focusing on fundamentals

Heard about an interesting conversation the other day. If I understand it correctly, one of the participants was saying that by the age of 16 it’s a waste of time to work on fundamentals. Either they have it by then or they will never get it.

That’s certainly an interesting perspective. I know a lot of college coaches would be shocked by that thought. Fundamentals are the foundation of the game, by definition, and they always need work. Problems with fundamentals are where errors come from.

Anyone who has read anything from legendary basketball coach John Wooden knows how he felt about fundamentals. When new players came to UCLA he would teach them how to put on their socks. Part of it was to instill a sense of discipline and control — this is how we do things around here. But part of it was also to help them minimize blisters.

Wooden took the same care with basketball fundamentals. He felt if his teams could pass, shoot, rebound and whatever else they do in basketball better than their opponents, they would win.

Softball is a complex game in a lot of ways, that’s for sure. But it’s also fairly simple. As the manager in Bull Durham says, you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. The better you can execute these skills under pressure, the more chance you give your team of winning.

Spectacular plays are spectacular because they’re unusual. It’s great if you can make them. But they’re the exception. If you make those but don’t make the plays you ought to make, you will probably lose, because there are a lot more of the straightforward plays in the game.

Major League Baseball players start with fundamentals every spring, and continue to work on them throughout the year. When teams hit losing streaks, managers will decry the lack of fundamentals and place extra focus on them. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for youth players.

Knowing where to go with the ball is important. But you also have to be able to get it there. Without a continuous focus on fundamentals, it becomes a crapshoot.

Keeping one error from turning into two

Been a while since I posted on fielding. But as the summer season launches into full swing, it’s certainly worth addressing.

Errors are a part of the game. We wish they weren’t, but sooner or later every player is going to commit an errors. This happens even at the highest levels of the game. As Cindy Bristow once said in a coaching clinic about her pro team, “My girls make the same errors your girls do; they just do it faster.”

Where it really goes bad, though, is when one error turns into two. For example, a ground ball is hit to the shortstop. She bobbles it, has a little trouble picking it up, then rushes her throw trying to make up for the first error. The ball sails out of play and the batter/runner (who would’ve had first regardless) winds up standing on second.

Or what about a throw trying to get a runner at a base? The ball gets away from the fielder, and the runner takes off for the next base. Either the fielder or backup picks it up and then makes a wild throw to the next base, and the runner keeps going. You can hear the circus music in your head as the merry-go-round starts to run. Often it becomes the start of one of “those innings.” You all know what I’m talking about.

The reason these things happen, more than anything, has to do with the P word. No, not that “p” word, the other one — panic. Players hate to make errors; when they do, they begin to feel pressure to make up for the error. The internal clock is running, they know the runner might be safe when she ought to be out, and soon the panic sets in. Mechanics go out the window in the rush to get rid of the ball, and suddenly one errror turns into two.

It doesn’t have to, though. Train your team to avoid the panic, and to recognize when the internal clock has ticked its last tick. When that happens, it’s better to eat the ball than make a throw. In the second scenario, where a throw gets away from fielder at a base, it’s important to keep calm and make a good throw to the next base. If there’s a trailing runner, it may even be better to let a run score than put a second runner 60 feet closer to the bag. It’s hard sometimes to let a run score, but if you can prevent another run, or even get an out on the trailing runner, you might be able to short circuit one of “those” innings.

One other important skill to work on is recognizing when the runner is going to be safe no matter how hard you throw. Making the throw might make you feel better, but only bad things can happen. It involves some simple geometry — how close the runner is to the bag, how close the thrower is to bag, and how hard the thrower can throw. Knowing those things, and practicing various proximities, will help fielders know when to hold ’em and when to throw ’em.

Teach your players to stay calm and make good decisions and you’ll avoid having one error turn into two. Not to mention keeping the merry-go-round from starting up.

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