Monthly Archives: June 2009

Creating your own opportunities

Saw a great quote this morning from the Roman poet Ovid and felt inspired to share it. The quote read: “Chance is always powerful. Let your hook always be cast. In the pool where you least expect it, will be fish.”

I like that idea of having your hook in the water. All too often, in softball as well as in life, players and coaches want to row their boats out onto the lake, then wait for the fish to jump into the boat. I suppose it happens sometimes, but if that’s what you’re counting on to eat you’re going to spend most of your life hungry and unsatisfied.

The first step in achieving your goals is to cast your hook into the water. That means being prepared when the fish come along. Obviously practice is a big part of it. The old adage “you play how you practice” really is true. If you go through the motions in practice to put in your time, you’re approaching it the wrong way. Your hook is dangling over the water, not really in it. But it’s more than practice.

It’s being on a team where you can learn and improve your skills, not just win a bunch of trophies. It’s being in a situation where you feel challenged on a regular basis. It’s putting in the effort to learn the game — not just your little part of it but what everyone else is doing as well.

If you want to play softball in college, it”s going to the camps of colleges you think you might want to attend. It’s making your skills video and contacting college coaches on a regular basis.

I have found over time that the universe rewards activity. Maybe not right away, but sooner or later. Whatever that big fish is to you, the only way you’re going to catch it is by having your hook in the water. Make a point of dropping yours in today.

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Thinking a base ahead

Since we had the weekend off I had a chance to watch some games at a younger level — 12U specifically. After coaching high schoolers the last few years it was interesting to take a step back and see what was missing.

Probably one of the most glaring things was how the young kids run the bases. For many, running the bases meant getting to the next base, i.e. if the runner was on first her whole focus was on getting to second. The problem with that was once she got there, her mission was accomplished. Never mind that the ball was being thrown elsewhere, and there was an opportunity to get to third. She’d done her job.

Now, this wasn’t universal. There were definitely some teams that ran the bases better. But for the most part it was a skill or knowledge level that wasn’t there.

What I see in all this is an opportunity. When you’re coaching a younger team it’s often difficult to decide what to teach first. There’s so much to know you can’t possibly cover it all, even in one year — especially when you have to go back and repeat things to make sure they sink in. But if you want to do something that can have a quick payoff, work on baserunning.

Make sure your young players understand that the objective is to make it all the way home. The faster they can do that the more you will score. (Remember that they may not understand the big picture of scoring as many runs as you can. It seems simple but it may not be to a youngster just learning the game.)

Make sure they understand that they should never settle for one base if they can get two, or settle for two bases when they can get three. Make sure they realize things can be happening all over the field, and thus they need to pay attention to what’s going on around them. The more you can get them thinking aggressively, the less work you’ll have to do to score each run. And the more you’ll be able to take advantage of your opponents’ mistakes.

By the way, your team might not be that good at it right now, but they will learn it. Mine didn’t know it either once upon a time. But they did learn it — and in a tight game the team that can run smart gives itself a much better chance of winning. You can take that to the bank!

When is it too much?

I was just on the Web site of one of our local fastpitch organizations (not the one I belong to) and saw that they have announced tryout dates for 2010. Any guesses as to when tryouts are? August 8th, which is the week after ASA Nationals are finished.

To me, that just insane. Every sports psychologist, physical training expert and even high-level coaches will tell you it’s critical for players to shut down for a while, take a break from the sport, overcome those little nagging injuries that occur over the sesaon and just generally recharge the ol’ batteries. In our area, where many of the high schools start in mid-August, that time after nationals is likely the only opportunity families have to go on vacation together.

So why are they doing it? It’s the competition for players. If everyone else has tryouts at the beginning of August and you don’t, you might miss out on your shot at some good players. Not the best, necessarily, because I’d bet any program that has a shot at a top-level player isn’t going to stick to their guns on the whole “you have three days to commit or you’re out.” Nor do those players have to worry about finding a place to play. But for everyone else, especially at the younger ages where kids are less known, there’s a fear that the kids won’t be able to find a team so they go along with it.

People, it’s time to stop the insanity. I know our legislators have a lot on their minds right now what with the economy and bailouts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all. But I sure wouldn’t mind seeing one of them pass a law requiring teams to wait three weeks after the official end of the season before they can hold tryouts. I don’t think three weeks is asking a lot. But it sure could help out some kids and families. It might also help stop some of the softball burnout players are getting that is causing them to quit playing by the time they’re 15 or 16 or so.

Making the call on tag plays

Maybe it’s just coincidence, or maybe I’m just noticing it more. But it sure seems like umpires are judging tag plays more by when the ball arrives than by whether a tag is applied.

I saw it several times over games the last weekend. On a few bang-bang plays going into bases, the ball arrived, the runner slid in, and the umpire called the runner out. The problem is the tag was applied after the runner’s foot was on the base.

My friend and assistant Rich says making the call that way is the easy way out. You don’t have to see what actually happens, or focus on the entire sequence. You just look for the ball to come in around the same time as the runner and call the runner out.

Now, I could be wrong about it. All those runners could’ve been out. But I don’t think so. I’m pretty good at judging these sorts of things with a fairly unbiased eye, and I know what I see.

What do you think? Are umpires depending more on the arrival of the ball than seeing the entire play through? Or is it my imagination?

The value of the change

The fact that the changeup is a good pitch is nothing new. Still, everyone gets so impressed with the movement pitches (especially the riseball fans) that we can forget just how effective a good changeup can be. This past weekend I was reminded of it.

We were playing in a tournament with some very good teams. Since I coach an 18U team, we saw some kids who are either college softball players or college softball-bound.

There were some darned fine hitters in this tournament, and they were doing their thing. Fortunately, my daughter Kimmie’s changeup was working well this weekend. She is far from overpowering, but has good movement on the ball and a well-disguised change. She threw that change early and often, and it did its job, keeping hitters off-balance. While they were putting the bat on some of them, they usually resulted in popups or weak fly balls. There were also a number of freezes and swing-throughs.

The previous weekend, by the way, the change wasn’t working nearly as well and she got rocked a couple of times. But with the changeup in hand she was able to do better against better hitters.

If you haven’t worked the change in a while it’s time to revisit it. The changeup is your friend!

“We have standards”

Heard about this one a few weeks ago. It’s something that happened at a tournament, but it’s the kind of thing that drives me nuts — mostly because it’s the kind of thing that drives parents, coaches and players out of the game.

During the tournament, a 10U team with a first-year coach was playing one of their pool games. This team was part of the host program, so various people were going around checking progress and making sure everything was going ok overall.

One Board member, however — a guy who is a well-known blowhard and not particularly well-liked within his organization — showed up at the 10U game in his little golf cart. He looked into his program’s dugout and didn’t like what he saw. There was a bag of catcher’s gear that — gasp! — was the wrong color. The catcher has her own gear and keeps it in her own bag. But no matter — in the middle of the game he starts screaming at the poor coach that they need to get that bag out of there, it’s the wrong color, and of course “we have standards.”

Later, this same guy saw that the first base coach wasn’t wearing the right coach’s shirt. The first base coach was wearing the shirt of a different program, because he is head coach of his older daughter’s team in that program. But he was trying to help out the first year coach by doing what he could. Since both teams were in this tournament, and the tournament ran across a couple of different complexes, he was running back and forth, doing his best to help out. Again, the blowhard starts yelling about standards in front of everyone. I’m not sure if he was yelling at the head coach or the first base coach, but he made it known that he wasn’t happy about the lack of conformity to the “standards.”

Seems to me if you have standards, the first standard is you don’t go yelling at your volunteer coaches in front of the parents, players, umpires and opponents, especially about something so trivial. By doing that, you’re hurting their credibility, and their desire. In addition, it makes them spend their time worrying about stupid, meaningless crap instead of focusing on the game and the players.

I understand the principle of if you look good you play good. I preach it myself. But if there’s a problem, you wait until after the game, you take the coach aside and you explain what you want quietly and rationally. You don’t stand there during the game and berate him. That’s just someone with his ego out of control, thinking he’s the Big Man. Here’s the thing. The teams can play without a particular Board member. But they can’t play without players and coaches. If you make life miserable for volunteers, especially first-year coaches doing the best they can, you’re just going to drive them away. Then who will you show how important you are?

I know if I was that first base coach, helping out for the sake of the team, I’d probably say it’s not worth it. No, check that. Knowing me, and knowing a confrontation would result, I’d probably wear the “wrong” shirt again on purpose. When the blowhard came by and yelled again, I’d taken him out of earshot of everyone else and quietly tell him if he EVER speaks to me like that, especially in front of the team, he will spend the rest of the tournament trying to pick my New Balance shoe out of his John Brown hindparts because that’s how far up it’s going to go.

Again, if you have standards, fine. You enforce them quietly and invisibly. If you really feel you have to let everyone know you’re in charge, you’re not in charge of anything. You’re just a blowhard and a jerk.

Getting a better jump on steals

Have you ever sat in the dugout watching a team loaded with kids with world class speed and wished your team could run that fast? You think boy, if we could run like that we’d be stealing bases all the time.

You actually don’t need that kind of speed to steal bases. We confirmed that this weekend when we tested out something my pal Rich and I learned at the NFCA Coaches College.

My team is not exactly gifted with speed. As a result, we tended not to attempt many steals. We’d either have to bunt, hit or wait for a wild pitch to advance a runner. But at the Coaches College, they suggested videoing your team while they tried to get off the base on a steal. (Obviously you do this during practice.) We did it, and even told our girls to try leaving early. Then we watched the video on my computer.

What we (and they found) was not only weren’t they on time, they were actually very late. It was no wonder we weren’t very successful. So now that they understood the timing, we worked on getting a better jump. Sure enough, this past weekend we were successful on roughly 7 of 9 steal attempts. The nine attempts probably was more than we tried all last year. It was an amazing turn around.

If you have access to a video camera, give it a try. You may find it opens a whole new level of offense for you. You don’t need to be fast. You just need to get going at the right time.

Ignorant v. petty

Ok, back to business on fastpitch softball.

I’ve been holding on to this one a little while, but can’t wait on it anymore. Stupid is a high school coach scheduling her team into a four-team tournament on the same day as prom. Petty is then benching a senior during the one game she is going to attend because she took the lead on behalf of all the others and asked if they could leave early to get ready for the prom.

The reality is prom is a big deal to most high school girls these days, whether they are athletes or not. They spend days or even weeks picking out just the right dress, deciding on how they’ll do their hair and nails, and generally getting prepared. The day of prom most will take several hours getting ready. It’s a very special day, especially for seniors who are at the end of their time in high school. Scheduling a completely meaningless tournament on the day of prom is just asking for discord and disappointment. It’s also asking for three extra losses on your record, because you’re fighting the tide. They’re going to go to prom, whether you like it or not.

Worse, though, is taking those kids who are willing to cut things a little closer by attending at all and punishing them for wanting to be high school girls. Why penalize your players because you were too short-sighted to realize what you were doing, and what you were asking of them? Why not give them that weekend off, so they can take advantage of another activity the school has to offer? And one that’s sure to be a lot more special and memorable than some pointless softball tournament?

Many have talked about the year-round specialization of softball players (rather than being well-round athletes playing multiple sports) as one of the leading factors in the increase in softball injuries. That same single-mindedness applies to other activities as well.

It’s time to remember that youth sports participants are youths first. You’re only young once. There’s plenty of time to be responsible adults later. When you’re making out your schedule, be smart. Don’t put your players in a position of making that decision and you’ll all be a lot happier.

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