Monthly Archives: August 2008

A funny take on Olympic softball

Alright, as Larry the Cable Guy would say, this is funny I don’t care who you are. The Onion, the satirical online newspaper, ran an article explaining how ISF President Don Porter was teaching the Netherlands team how to play softball right before the game. Ok, I guess you have to be there, so go here.

 Netherlands

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Get a rhythm

One of the things you’ll often see with hitters, no matter whether they’re hitting off a tee, soft toss, a machine or even live pitching is starting from a complete standstill. They stand like statues, and as the pitch comes in they move forward toward it.

While you can do that, it’s not ideal. You’re better off moving backwards first then forward — what is often called a negative move. The reason is simple physics.

Newton’s first law of motion says an object at rest will tend to remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. That means in order to get it moving, a certain amount of energy has to be expended. This energy doesn’t contribute to the swing, so it’s essentially wasted.

Think about a freight train starting from a standing stop. There is a lot of noise and fury but not much movement. It takes a while until it really gets going. But if it’s already moving, it’s easier to get it to go faster. All that early energy is being used to overcome inertia.

The same happens with the swing. If you go forward first, or start with all your weight back already, you’re going to use a disproportionate amount of energy just to get your body moving. But if you push back a little first, before the swing really occurs, your body will be in motion and can slingshot off of that momentum to make a quicker and more powerful forward movement.

That’s what to do and why. But what about how? The best way to think of it is like a dance movement. A small but rhythmic sway backwards usually works better than a stiff movement. Practice in front of a mirror until it looks smooth and natural. When you can do that you will be ready to apply it to your swing.

As Johnny Cash said, get a rhythm. It will do wonders for your hitting.

Being on time

There are some things in life that seem like little things to some people, but they’re really indicators of bigger issues. For me, one of those is being on time.

I am a fanatic about being on time. When I was young and dating, if the girl lived more than a few miles away I would always allow plenty of extra time. Sometimes I’d wind up driving around for a half hour, but it didn’t matter because gas was 50 cents a gallon. It’s a tendency I’ve continued throughout my life. I always try to allow enough time for a flat tire, a traffic jam, or a lack of parking.

With softball, I definitely subscribe to the notion that if you’re 15 minutes early you’re on time, and if you’re on time you’re late. But it has more to it than just my own personal preferences.

Being late, to me, is a sign of disrepect to your teammates. You may not realize it, but you’re telling them that you and your time are more valuable than them and theirs. Why else would you feel like you can keep everyone else waiting, or skip part of the warm-up or other activity? It also throws off warm-ups, and may leave either you or your teammates unprepared for the practice or game ahead.

Yes, some people have more trouble being on time than others. But it’s still a choice. They could choose to leave earlier, have their stuff together sooner, or otherwise take steps to be on time. If they’re depending on their parents I might cut them a little more slack, but mom and/or dad need to learn the value of being on time for the same reason.

People who work with elite ballplayers say the difference between them and ordinary players is elite players willing do the things ordinary players don’t want to do. A lot of that is the little things — like being on time. It’s a simple thing, and something that really doesn’t take a lot of effort.

Respect your teammates, and respect the game. Learn to be on time.

The Softball X-Files

So I see a lot of people are licking their wounds over the gold medal game by saying the US loss should be helpful in the cause of getting the sport back in the Olympics in 2016. Not sure if it really matters or not, but it could be possible.

What I’m wondering is how long before the conspiracy theorists suggest that Team USA laid down on purpose (or better yet was told to lay down on purpose) for that very reason? After all, there are those who believe FDR knew about Pearl Harbor and let it happen to bring us into the war, and those who believe the CIA and/or FBI knew about the Kennedy assassination but let it happen anyway to get him out of the way. The softball conspiracy is no more far-fetched than that.

I wonder if Oliver Stone is already optioning the movie rights?

Some after-thoughts on USA v. Japan

Unfortunately, I ac.cidentally found out without seeing the game. Then again, it doesn’t look like NBC is going to show it again the way they did all the other games, so I’m probably out of luck . Guess I can watch it online. But it’s not the same as watching it in HD.

Anyway, if you’re reading this you know that Team Japan upset Team USA in the gold medal game. I don’t plan to analyze the game — there are plenty of people already doing that. Instead, I want to analyze the analysis because I’m somewhat amused by the whole thing.

Many of us who coach talk about how tough it is to have parents (or administrators in the case of school coaches) second guessing every decision. Whether it’s player selection or game strategies or something else, most coaches do the best they can with the information available at the time. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes parents and others understand. Sometimes they get angry or show other negative reactions.

You sort of expect it at the youth level. Every parent thinks their kid is the best. So I’m amused as I look around at some of the online forums discussing what happened to Team USA.

For one thing, there is suddenly a lot of negative commentary about Head Coach Mike Candrea. Up until this game most of what I saw about him bordered on reverence. Now, though, there is a whole undercurrent that says he should never have been brought back, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he did a poor job of player selection, his strategies were poor, etc.

Excuse me? Didn’t this team blow through all their opponents in the prelims, and find a way to win against Japan and Ueno the first time? If he was as bad at his job as these naysayers are implying they would’ve lost more games instead of run ruling everybody.

A big part of that is player selection. There was talk in the messages I read that seemed to think they had the wrong players on the team. I don’t get that either. You had an entire team of hitters who could hit for average and power. Their first two hitters have blazing speed, and most of the rest aren’t too shabby in that area either. The pitching staff is the best in the world — so good that it had to be a tough decision which one to start in this game. Who among us wouldn’t love to have pitching choices the caliber of Osterman, Finch and Abbott?

I can’t comment on the game strategy since I didn’t see the game. I saw something about having Mendoza bunt instead of swing away. My guess is in that situation, assuming it didn’t work out, there were going to be a lot of unhappy people no matter what he did.

All of this sounds so familiar, though. Coaches all over the world go through the same thing. Only the difference is most of us only have about 12-15 sets of parents to worry about. Coach Candrea has a couple of million of them sniping at him.

One last thing. I actually saw a person say they didn’t win because they weren’t hungry enough. You have got to be kidding. This group of women barnstormed all over the country, riding  bus to play game after game, practicing, playing, working out, and busting their butts. Why would they do it if they weren’t hungry for the win?

The truth is, on this particular day, Team Japan outplayed Team USA. They worked hard, took advantage of their opportunities and made it happen. Just like the USA hockey team did in 1980 when they beat the Soviet hockey machine. These things happen, people. On another day maybe Team USA wins. But not this day.

So I guess that’s one more thing I (and a lot of others) get to share with Coach Candrea. Just remember it’s a whole lot easier to make the decisions when you know the outcome of the one that’s made. I’m sure Team USA was only a couple of bounces or a few inches away from a win. You know what happens. Get over it.

Team USA’s take on the ITB

Stayed up way too late last night to watch the first medal round game for Team USA versus Japan. I didn’t get to bed until 2:00 AM, which was worth it then but a little rough this morning.

One thing I found interesting was the approach to the ITB that Coach Candrea took — mostly because it was similar in philosophy to what I’ve done in them (although not always with that level of success; have to be careful with that kind of comparison).

Of course, the conventional wisdom says the team on offense should bunt the runner on second to third, then take two shots at bringing her home. The Japanese team certainly followed it, at least in the bottom of the eighth when the score was tied.

Team USA, however, had a different plan. Rather than expend the out and play for one run, Coach Candrea elected to keep the extra out and play for more than one run. After not having it work out in the eighth, he put his faith in the top of the order and had them swing away. He wound up with four runs instead of one, which in a game that had gone eight innings with a 0-0 score was a huge mountain to climb.

No question about it — you have to have the bats to do it. Not to mention the nerve, especially if it doesn’t work since you’ll be facing a host of fans and parents who will want to know why you didn’t play it safe and bunt. But if you can pull it off, it’s quite a feat.

The point is don’t always get yourself stuck in the rut or feel you always have to follow the “book.” No guts, no glory.

NOTE: This post was edited for accuracy. I’d kind of let the eighth and ninth blend together. Told you I was tired!

The quality of mercy

Sorry all, I’ve been away for a few days visiting my son Adam before he deploys to lovely Afghanistan. Had a nice visit in Myrtle Beach, SC. So while I wasn’t blogging, I had plenty of time to think about posts. Especially while sitting in airports waiting for flights to board and take off.

One thing that’s been on my mind was something I saw at a tournament this past summer. Essentially, I saw a very strong team take advantage of a very weak team. I think the coach of the strong team realized that they shouldn’t have been in that tournament in the first place — someone else scheduled them in. But what she didn’t realize is there’s a time to press your advantage and a time to pull back. In this case, the strong team, who had experienced players at the 10U level, was able to do pretty much whatever they wanted against the weak team, who had mostly beginners.

My problem wasn’t running the score up to the run rule. You have to do that, and should do that to save your players for tougher games ahead. What I didn’t like, though, was the strong team continued to play as though it there was some danger the weak team could come back, even though it was obvious they couldn’t. Among the things they did that bothered me was continuing to steal bases when it was obvious the catcher couldn’t make the throw, running the bases aggressively on hits (going from second to home on a ball fielded in the outfield), bunting for hits when it was obvious the infielders couldn’t make the play, things like that.

When you’re in a mismatch, I just think it’s wrong to continue doing things to point it out, or to try to embarrass the opposing team. Yes, they’re not very good, but there’s no sense in rubbing it in. Some of the things you can do are not steal bases (especially home, even on a passed ball), run bases station to station, put in a pitcher who doesn’t get much chance to pitch regularly, or even kill an inning by stepping off the base early. (Let the umpire know you plan to ahead of time so he/she catches it.) You can have your team work on things they’ve had trouble with, or give your second string players at key positions a chance to play.

I’m a big believer in Karma — the whole what you do comes back to you idea. Karma has a funny way of evening the score. Like, you decide to have your #1 pitcher steal home on a passed ball and she winds up turning her ankle running across the plate. Or you keep playing your #1 shortstop and she winds up breaking a finger by misjudging a ball.

There’s also the phenomenon of a long memory. Your team may be way ahead of my team today, but perhaps they won’t always be. If I have the chance, I will do to you what you did to me, and I will enjoy it immensely. Fortunes change on teams, especially as they age. A lot of coaches have those kinds of long memories.

Then there’s the “you never know who knows who” syndrome. A couple of years ago we were at a tournament. The coach of another area team that I know was telling me how his team was spanked and humiliated by the host team. Apparently they thought it would be fun to run up the score against this team, which was just finding its way at 14U. Now, we have no connection to the area team — in fact we compete against each in games and for players — but there is something to be said for area pride. We played that host team the next game, and let’s just say we evened things up. Hopefully that coach learned a little something about knowing when to say when.

I know there are people who think you should always stay aggressive, never let up so your players know how to play the game. Get real. Kids aren’t stupid. There is a teachable moment, not just about softball but about life, when you’re in an obvious mismatch. The right thing to do is let up on the gas, and afford your opponents some dignity. You just never know when someone might have to do the same for you.

The so-called “natural” pitching motion

Anytime there’s a discussion of fastpitch pitching v. baseball pitching, sooner or later the phrase “natural pitching motion” will come up. There is a belief that softball pitchers can pitch every day, all day, because it is natural, whereas a baseball pitching motion is not.

The fact is, there’s nothing really “natural” about fastpitch mechanics. They do tend to work somewhat better with the construction of the shoulder, perhaps, but that’s a long way from natural.

I think it was my friend Coach Rich who pointed out the proof to me. Watch a kid pick up a rock and throw it. He/she throws it overhand. Watch a National Geographic special and see how the indigneous population in non-industrialized countries throw rocks at game they’re trying to get for dinner. They throw overhand. If you’re trying to knock over  pyramid of milk bottles at a carnival, you’ll throw overhand. Even fastpitch pitchers will likely throw overhand.

The truth is, it’s a lot more natural to throw overhand than underhand. I’ve spoken to baseball pitching coaches who are just fascinated by the fastpitch pitching motion. These experts on pitching baseballs can’t figure out how anybody can throw a ball with the kind of speed and accuracy fastpitch pitchers do. Especially female ones. They understand the overhand throw, but the underhand motion is completely foreign to  them.

There is also a belief that because the fastpitch motion (when properly executed) works better with the shoulder than an overhand pitch that it is stress-free. Or nearly so. That’s not true either. As evidence, I offer these photos (courtesy of Mike Zupec) of my own daughter pitching in a recent game:



Notice the muscles in her upper arm, forearm, hand and shoulders. Hardly looks like her body is not under stress. Actually, we all think it’s kind of gross, but it certainly illustrates the kind of strain the arm and shoulder have to endure when a pitcher is putting forth maximum effort. Understand she is not a “power pitcher” either. She’s small and light, more of a finesse pitcher who needs to hit corners, change speeds, and move the ball in order to succeed. Her speed comes from mechanics and effort, not raw strength like some.

The fastpitch motion is not stress-free, nor is it “natural.” One more reason why conditioning and rest are so critical to a pitcher’s long-term success. And why pitchers should shut down for a little while when their season is over.

‘Tis the season

Yes, here we are. The travel ball tryout season has started. And along with it comes the ever-popular shuffling of players from one team to another.

There are certainly legitimate reasons to leave a team. If you’re a serious player and the others on the team are not you have reason to leave. If the coach is favoring certain players over others despite your hard work, again a good reason. If some of the girls on the team are just nasty and make it a miserable experience, you’d be stupid not to leave.

One thing I often see, though, is players thinking they’ve been treated “unfairly” because they didn’t get to play the position they wanted, even though they put no work into it whatsoever. This is especially true with pitching.

Little Suzy wants to be a pitcher. She told the coach she wants to be a pitcher. But she didn’t take lessons all winter, she didn’t practice because she had volleyball or basketball or hockey or band or whatever to do (or maybe all of them) and the one time the coach did put her in she walked and wild pitched the team single-handedly into a hole so deep it would be faster to climb out the other side than try to get back up. Is it really fair to take pitching time away from those girls who DID take lessons and work hard, just ’cause little Suzy wants to pitch?

No, it’s not. And going to another team is not going to solve the root problem. In fact, it may make it worse, because you may find that the first coach was a lot nicer than the new one. Nobody likes to lose, but some take it harder (and take harsher steps) than others.

If you really want to increase your chances of playing your desired position, don’t sit around wishing for it. Take positive steps to make it happen. Get yourself some lessons. Practice between them (which is where you’ll really get better). Show up to practices and work hard instead of continually asking the coach how much longer until it’s over. If that means you have to drop another activity or two, so be it. Or if you can’t make the commitment, drop softball. You do no one, including yourself, any good by signing up for a team and then not showing up or putting in the effort.

Nothing in life comes without effort. Even those who say they were “in the right place at the right time” first had to get to that place. If you’re not willing to put in the effort, changing teams won’t help. Remember, when you point your finger at someone, three fingers point back at you.
 

Excellent article on coaching females v. males

The other day I came across an excellent article by Jeff Janssen on the differences between coaching men and women. It’s kind of long, but well worth the effort to get through. 

If you’re a male coaching females, you’ll definitely want to check it out. If you’re a male who’s been coaching boys up ’til now it’s critical that you read it. There’s a huge difference, and techniques that work with boys don’t always work so well with girls.

One of the key ones is how each gender reacts (generally) to criticism. I’ve always said if you yell at girls they tend to take it very personally, and feel that they’ve let you down. If you tell at boys like that they just think you’re a jerk. This article pretty much bears that out.

By the way, if you’re a female coaching females, or a female coaching males, you’ll find this article valuable as well. Whatever combination you have, you’ll probably want to keep this one handy.

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