Monthly Archives: March 2009

Sharpening the rollover drop

As I have mentioned before, one of the ongoing challenges of coaching is finding new ways to say the same thing. It goes back to Einstein’s definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

In the area of coaching, you will have a way of explaining something that works. Then all of a sudden it doesn’t for one student. No matter how many times you repeat the same phrase, it doesn’t seem to do any good. Insanity. So you have to find another way to obtain the results you want.

Recently I had one of those discoveries while working with a couple of kids on their rollover drops. I teach both the peel and rollover, depending on the student and which I think will work best for her. I used to teach the rollover exclusively. Now I teach more peel by far. But I still do both.

In any case, the rollover drop wasn’t quite working the way it should. It was starting too low and not breaking enough. I tried my usual explanations of what to do, but they didn’t help. Then I suggested using the wrist less and the forearm more. Suddenly it was like a lightbulb came on. By emphasizing the forearm, the hand came up higher, starting the ball around the hip, and the spin rate was greater, resulting in a flat pitch with a sharp downward break.

I don’t know if it will work for every pitcher. But it did for these two. I’ll keep using that cue — at least until someone else requires me to invent a new one.

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To pitch aggressively, add a little PMS to your approach

There are some pitchers who understand inherently the need to be aggressive. No one has to tell them to get tough or be aggressive. It comes naturally to them.

Then there are those whose personalities are what you would call laid back, or even sweet. They are so nice you just want to give them a hug and tell them everything is going to be alright. I’m not sure what “everything” is, but there’s this feeling that you want to protect them from the cold, cruel world.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help their pitching much. It’s the kind of position that requires an aggressive, almost nasty approach. So  how do you explain to sweet Sue that she needs to turn into nasty Nancy in the circle?

Tonight I told one girl she needed to get a little PMS in her pitching. PMS stands for “pitching mind-set.” But it also stands for the other thing. She laughed, but understood. You need to get that mental attitude of “this is my field and you’re intruding on it with that bat.” You need to have that “take no prisoners” attitude.

That doesn’t mean over-amped. Pitchers need a certain level of inner calm to do their jobs, because it’s definitely a position that requires precision. But they also need that “killer” approach.

Talking PMS to a girl who has gone through it will make perfect sense. Tell her to get that pitching mind-set and have her go at it. Just be sure you’re ready to unleash that particular beast!

The dreaded panic swing

How many times have you seen this? A hitter comes to the plate. You know she has a good swing and a good eye for the ball. You’ve seen her rip the ball numerous times in practice and in games. But when the pitcher throws the pitch, she flails weakly at the ball like she just dropped in from the Andromeda galaxy and someone handed her a bat and said go hit.

What you’ve just experienced is what I call the panic swing. It generally happens when the hitter is unprepared physically and/or mentally to hit, but steps up to the plate anyway. There’s no intention to hit the ball hard, or use those mechaniccs you’ve been working on with her during the offseason. The posture is more one of defending herself than attacking the ball.

There can be any number of reasons for a panic swing. Some are physical, some are mental. She may lack confidence in herself or her ability to hit, and thus waits until the last possible moment, when she’s sure it’s a strike, to start her swing. Unfortunately by then the ball is on top of her and all she can do is flail. Or, her timing may be way off. Hitting is all about timing, making sure everything not only happens in the proper sequence but at the proper time. If the timing gets off, the sequence may get off, she may skip a couple of steps, or she may just be completely confused.

How does that happen? One way is by overpowering hitters during practice to the point where their timing is destroyed. For example, suppose you have a group of fairly new 10U players and you crank the pitching machine all the way up? You’re thinking you’re preparing them for fast pitching, but what you’re really doing is destroying any sense they have of how to time the pitch. All they can do is try to get the bat there somehow. In the meantime, mechanics break down while their brains learn a new and unrealistic pattern. When they get to a game they’re not sure what to do, so they just freeze until it’s too late.

I saw something similar with some high school players I know last week. They all have good swing mechanics and can hit the ball well. But when I saw them in a game, they were taking panic swings. I found out later that they had spent two weeks practicing hitting without being allowed to load or make a positive move to the ball. They were just expected to swing from their heels in an effort to increase their bat speed. Needless to say, it backfired. They lost their timing and thus weren’t sure when to load, when to stride, and when to swing. So they took panic swings and hoped for the best.

Again, hitting is about confidence and timing. Hitters with high confidence and good timing can often become decent hitters even with poor mechanics — much better than those with great mechanics who can’t time the swing. Of course, the ideal is confidence, timing and great mechanics. A big part of timing is getting through the load/unload phase in time, so the hitter is poised to bring the bat through.

If you see your hitters in panic swing mode, first determine if the issue is confidence or timing. If it’s confidence, get them some drills and self-talk to help them build confidence and reinforce them yourself with encouragement. If it’s timing, have them work on making the negative move and stride sooner, and in a calm, easy fashion. (If you go no-stride, go from load to whatever you use in place of a stride that way.) The core of the swing starts at heel drop. Make sure all the preliminaries are out of the way in time and your hitters will deliver the bat to the ball better.

Take the fat part of the bat to the ball

One of those hitting cues that has been around for years is “take your hands to the ball,” or its cousin “take the knob of the bat to the ball.” The idea is to give hitters something specific to do to get online with the flight of the pitch as it comes in.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. Unless you’re planning on hitting the ball with the knob of the bat — what I call “pool cuing” the ball — taking your hands or the knob of the bat to the ball actually puts you in a poor position to hit the ball. It leads to dropping the hands among other things, and actually does more to take you off-line than put you on line, particularly since it will cause the barrel of the bat to be above the hands rather than below.

A better cue is to tell hitters to take the fat part of the bat (the barrel) to the ball. It sounds simple, but it makes perfect sense. Of course, there are several things that occur prior to that point, but when it comes to how to take the bat to the ball, the focus is on the fat part. Do that and you’ll find you hit a lot more.

Deja vu all over again

Over the last two weeks I have had one of those really interesting experiences that reminds you that life keeps marching on.

I am doing some pitching clinics on Sunday afternoons. Each is a one-hour clinic with a few kids from their local rec leagues. The clinics repeat for several Sundays, so I do have the chance to do the kind of repetitive work that leads to improvement.

A new group started on March 8. As I was introducing myself to them I looked at one of the girls (Caitlyn) and she seemed vaguely familiar. I stopped in mid-sentence and said “I’ve worked with you before, haven’t I?” She smiled and said yes. Turns out she had done this same type of clinic with me two or three years ago.

The thing is, she was probably around 10 years old then. She is now 13, I think, and has changed considerably. Back when I worked with her before she was a small, slightly built girl who was just finding her way athletically. She is now a teen, around 5′ 6″ tall and athletic-looking.

I’m pretty sure that I accidentally pushed her down once when I was trying to demonstrate how to push off the rubber. At the time she wasn’t getting it, so I gave her a little push from behind, her foot came down early and down she went. I mentioned that to her and we both had a laugh. She wasn’t sure if it was her but thought it might’ve been.

Then this past week a new girl joined that group. Her name is Claire. I don’t remember her quite as well, but she told me she had done this clinic with me a couple of years ago as well. She did seem familiar, but again I am used to seeing her as a little kid, not a teen.

It really is something when you see someone like that after a couple of years — especially at those two ages. They really do change a lot in a couple of years.

One good thing I saw is that they both maintained a lot of the mechanics we had worked on. Each has some things to work on, but we didn’t have to start over from scratch. Caitlyn even remembered the changeup I’d taught her back then and threw it well this past Sunday. Nice to see the work we put in stuck. When they come in for clinics and then go away you just never know.

Be careful of over-reliance on video

There is definitely value in watching video of high-level players. Seeing their approach provides some good general clues as to what youth and other players should do. If you watch enough to pick up on patterns, it can even help guide more specifics.

But there is a danger in becoming over-reliant on it too. Hal Skinner made a great point about this on the Discuss Fastpitch forum. He said you have to know what you’re looking at to determine whether it’s what you should follow or not.

I want to take that a step further. Just because you see and imitate the movements doesn’t mean you’ll become a high-level player. To understand that, let’s look at it in a different context.

Suppose you could gain access to videos of Eddie van Halen, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Joe Satriani playing guitar. The video would be focused on their finger movements. Do you honestly believe you could learn to play guitar as well as they do simply by watching them and then trying to apply what you see? Doubtful. You might learn to play, and might even develop some pretty decent technique if you worked at it enough. But the odds are you won’t be able to play in their league. They have a level of ability hard-wired into their DNA that you can’t acquire by watching video and imitating.

The same goes with high-level softball players, or MLB hitters. There is simply more to it than that. And quite frankly, a lot of those elite players don’t have ideal (or even the greatest) mechanics. They do have an incredible level of talent that makes up for it, though.

Again, video is good and helpful. It can definitely help you find clues to success and let you know whether the path you’re following is the right way to go. But over-reliance on what you see on video may actually get in the way. Take the general principles and find the rest of the way yourself. It’s the real key to success.

Adidas ad — whoops!

Just took a look at the Dick’s Sporting Goods GameOn catalog, which features products for baseball and softball. As I was paging through, I stopped at page 18, where there’s a full page ad for Adidas that features Monica Abbott in mid-pitch. Cool, I thought.

Then I looked at her feet. I first noticed her aggressive stride. Then I looked at the other foot. Her pivot foot is clearly an inch or two off the ground. Not a lot, just an inch or two. But it is off the ground. I guess the folks at Adidas don’t know the fastpitch pitching rules for women.

Nothing much to add to it. I was just sort of amused. You would think if you’re a shoe company that you would’ve looked at the shoes.

It must be Jerk Week

You know how The Discovery Channel has Shark Week? For the fastpitch softball world this must be Jerk Week. On Sunday I heard yet another story of someone who just doesn’t get it.

A former student of mine, a girl named Kaity, is helping coach the varsity team at a local high school in an economically disadvantaged area. It’s a small pocket of poverty in an otherwise middle class area. Of course, in an area like that, things like travel ball (or possibly even rec ball) are non-existent. None of the girls there can afford the private instruction, high-level play, or even decent equipment in a lot of cases that every other high school in the conference has. Some in abundance.

Kaity told me last week she went to the athletic director at the school and asked for some money to purchase a few Easton Incrediballs the girls could use for indoor practice. She especially wanted them for the girls who have volunteered to learn how to pitch in the next three weeks. Yes, that’s right. A few girls are going to spend three weeks trying to learn to chuck the ball toward the plate so the team can play at the varsity level.

In any case, she said the athletic director’s response was, “Win a game first. Then you can ask for equipment.” What an incredibly insensitive, shortsighted and unrealistic statement. In other words, the statement of a jerk. I’m sorry, but there’s no way this team is going to win a game, particularly in conference. They’d have trouble beating most 12U teams in my area, and that’s no exaggeration. Expecting them to beat even an average HS varsity team is beyond unrealistic. It’s moronic.

The AD should be happy that they are fielding a team at all. In this area, if they can get 12 girls on the team, that’s 12 girls who have something to do besides fall in with a bad crowd, take drugs, get pregnant, or suffer other consequences. I’ve seen them play, and while they’re awful from year to year, the girls who are there always seem to be glad to have the opportunity to play. For many, it’s their first team sport ever. Why would you not want to try to give them at least some chance of improving?

Fortunately, Fred Popp at Grand Slam USA in Spring Grove is a great guy. He heard the story and donated five balls for them to use. (The fact that Kaity used to take lessons from me there when she was in high school certainly helped, but Fred’s just that kind of guy.) He did what the AD should’ve done.

Kaity and the head coach will be doing their best, but it’s an uphill battle to say the least. You’d think your AD would offer support instead of put-downs. But apparently that’s too much to ask.

As I said, it seems like it’s Jerk Week.

The nicest compliment a coach can get

I was talking to the mom of one of my students tonight, a girl named Lauren, and she told me one of those stories that makes  me glad to be a coach.

Lauren had her high school tryouts last week. When she came in for her Monday lesson she was kind of down. She didn’t feel like she had done well and was a little concerned about her chances. We had a pretty good lesson, I gave her a few words of encouragement, and she went home.

Tonight her mom told me it was just what she needed. She woke up Tuesday morning all pumped up, and went in and nailed her tryout.

As coaches we spend a lot of our time working on the mechanics and physical skills. We sometimes forget about the mental part. Boosting a player’s self-esteem can sometimes do more for them than a whole boat full of drills. It’s important to remember that that’s a big part of the job. And when you’re successful it’s a great feeling!

The jerk factor

Generally speaking, I have made a concerted effort to keep Life in the Fastpitch Lane positive and informative. But every now and then something just gets to me and I have to speak out. Tonight is one of those nights.

I was teaching lessons when the mother of one of my students, a 10U girl I’ve been working with since September came in with a horror story — her third in three weeks. You see, about three weeks ago they joined a travel team. During the “courtship” phase everything was wonderful. They said all the right things and really made it seem like she had found a home.

Since that time, however, the experience has been anything but good. Part of it stems from the head of the organization who apparently fashions himself a pitching coach and general softball guru. He told the mom that all the girls in the organization are taught by him, and essentially said my student should be too. The mom resisted, as she is happy with the progress her daughter is making and can see the value. She also saw that what this guy is teaching the other pitchers is not what you see in high-level pitchers.

He wants them all to touch their shoulders with their hands after release (both pointless and dangerous to the elbow), and bring the right foot past the left, stepping through (pointless and detrimental to speed and control). Worse, when the 19 girls he has lined up for pitching don’t do those and other stupid things he screams at them.

When she wouldn’t kowtow to him, the abuse started. He began telling her that her daughter was the worst pitcher there, that she couldn’t throw overhand, and basically that she is a terrible player. Her daughter was segregated out with a couple of other new kids during defensive work, so that while the rest of the team (returning players) were working on defensive team drills, the newbies were just fielding ground balls. I don’t work with her on that part and haven’t seen the others so I don’t know where she fits in skill-wise, but you would think that at 10U everyone could use some work on ground balls, and all the kids need to learn team defense. This was apparently more punishment for not getting with the program.

Now, understand this girl is about as enthused about softball as any kid I’ve ever met. For Christmas she asked for (and received) a Club K pitching mat and some other softball training items and was thrilled! She couldn’t wait to tell me about it. But her mom told me she asked if she could just skip team practice. That’s not like her at all. In three weeks, the a** clowns for coaches they have in this program have managed to destroy her spirit. Nice job, jerks.

I talked to the mom about it for a while, but of course I do have a personal stake here. Fortunately, my next student experienced a similar situation a couple of years ago, so I asked her dad to talk to this mom, give his perspective as a neutral observer, and generally see what he thinks. He could care less where she plays or what else she does, so it’s about as neutral as you can get. His advice? Run. Run as fast and as far as you can from this program before they destroy her daughter’s confidence completely and drive her from the game. He told me later that as she described the experience, he was able to finish her thoughts and she his. It was the same thing, although his was a different program. And his daughter pitches for one of the top programs in Illinois, not to mention the US.

The final nail is the difference in this girl between our sessions and her practices. At her last practice, her mom said 48 out of 50 pitches hit the ceiling. When she was with me tonight she threw far more strikes than balls, and never hit the ceiling once. It’s the difference between a positive atmosphere and a toxic one.

I don’t get it. I don’t get why people like that go into coaching. I don’t get why people sign up to be coached by them, or don’t run from them when they see what they are. It’s not like there’s some great payoff. This program is a bottom-feeder — they go into low level tournaments and leagues so they can rack up wins and talk about how good they are. I’ve never seen any of their teams in tournaments I’ve coached in, and neither has the dad.

There is simply no reason to put up with behavior like that, or the abuse that comes with it. Coaches like that give the entire sport a black eye. Hopefully others will wise up and move on to better situations. We really don’t need girls getting turned off to the game by jerks.

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