Monthly Archives: August 2009

The lost art of bunting

Like many of you out there we recently completed tryout season. We judged players on a wide variety of skills both offensive and defensive. One thing that struck me as I watched player after player was how it seems like the art of bunting has been lost.

The biggest flaw was a tendency for hitters to swat at the ball instead of receive it. To lay down a good, soft bunt you need to catch the ball with the bat — pull back on it slightly as the ball makes contact, like a soccer player trapping a pass. Instead, what I saw a lot of was players punching the bat toward the ball as it came in.

I’m not sure why that’s happening. Maybe coaches aren’t spending as much time on bunting as they used to. In this era of hotter bats perhaps it’s being abandoned. Or maybe the coaches themselves just don’t know how to teach it. In any case, it’s nearly impossible to lay down a soft bunt when you’re punching at the ball. 

A good way to teach “catching” the ball is to tape an old glove onto the end of a short, light bat and have players actually try to catch the ball as it’s pitched. They’ll figure out very quickly that they have to softly receive it if they have any hope of keeping it in the glove. You can also use a lacrosse stick, although you may have to use baseballs to get them to fit into the basket.

Bunts that are hit too hard become easy outs. A bunt that only travels about 10 feet from the plate gives the bunter a much better chance of making it on base because the fielders have to run further to reach the ball. The only way to make that happen is to use a soft bunting technique.

A little hometown recognition

Ok, I will admit this post falls under the category of shameless self-promotion. Those who follow me on Twitter already know about it, but it’s kind of cool so I figured I’d post it here today.

I was profiled in the August 20 issue of the Mundelein Review, a local weekly newspaper that I read regularly. For once I can honestly say that I had nothing to do with generating the article. They called me. Somehow they found out that I write for Softball Magazine and work on the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, and they decided I was story-worthy. The article was written by Bill Pemstein, who covers high school softball for the paper and has for many years.

If you’d like to read the article you can see it here. (If you decide to leave a comment, be nice!)

I will say it’s fun to be featured in my hometown newspaper. I have to say I wish I was being profiled for winning a $225 million Lottery prize, but this is a good second choice!

USSSA pitching distance moving to 43 feet

This morning I received an email from USSSA announcing that, effective immediately, the pitching distance for 15U and above is now 43 feet. The decision is a reaction to the National Federation, the high school sports ruling body, moving the pitching distance to 43 feet for varsity. I have a few thoughts about this move (as you might expect).

One is kudos to USSSA for sending an announcement out directly to coaches instead of making us hunt for it on their Web site — which is what ASA typically does. Nice to see an organization actually using more modern technology to disseminate their information.

The second is amusement that high school softball is essentially dictating what summer ball does. For all the talk everyone puts out about how high school ball is a joke, it’s not as important as summer ball, blah blah blah it seems that the summer folks actually do put a priority on high school ball. Actions speak louder than words, boys and girls.

I can also see where pitching coaches (including me) are going to have some dilemmas this off-season. The key one is what distance to use when working with your pitchers. If ASA, NSA, Pony, NAFA, AFA and whatever other sanctioning bodies out there don’t follow suit, it’s going to be tough to know how to practice. There are some adjustments that need to be made going from 40 feet to 43 feet, and some pitchers adjust better than others. It’s conceivable that a pitcher will pitch a tournament one weekend from 40, the next from 43, and so on. (Or maybe even from 46 feet like my pitchers did at one tournament where the umpire didn’t know how the field had been set and assumed that the far pitching rubber was the right one.)

Of course, that dilemma already exists for high school age kids. Should a freshman practice at 40 feet, which is likely to be the frosh/JV distance, or should she assume she’s going varsity and practice at 43 feet? The longer distance doesn’t become mandatory in high school until the 2010-2011 school year, but Illinois has already adopted it for varsity. 

It’s all very confusing right now. I expect that eventually it will all be standardized, and the distance will be 43 feet from freshman/15U up for everyone. Then the 12U and 14U pitchers will get better and soon everyone will be there, except 10U pitchers who will move to 40 feet.

I say why not get it over with and just have all pitchers pitch from second base like Eddie Feigner used to? Then they won’t need to wear masks, and you’ll have fewer ground balls getting through the middle.

Silver lining in the IOC’s decision?

I’ve noticed traffic has been down on the blog a bit this week. Hopefully just a combination of the people who’d be most interested being on vacation this week after concluding their summer seasons and the fact that I’ve been a bit lax on posting lately. This topic, though, ought to stimulate some conversation because it’s somewhat controversial.

First of all, let me add my voice to those who are sorry to see softball pretty much shut out of the 2016 Olympics. I know it’s not quite dead yet, but my guess is the final vote is just a formality. It was fun seeing our sport in the world’s most popular international athletic forum, and I’m sure it was a thrill for those selected to represent their country. That being said…

I can’t help but wonder if this decision will actually help the NPF. Think about it.

First of all, one of the biggest draws the NPF has are the “name” players — the Cats, the Jennies, the Jessicas, etc. During an Olympic year, those top players are absent from their NPF teams, which may hurt attendance. Not amongst the hard-core faithful, perhaps, but from the broader fan base they need to sustain a league. Yes, I know one of the reasons they have that popularity is the Olympics. But as long as ESPN continues to cover the WCWS and events such as the KFC World Cup brought to you by Six Flags, that popularity will still be there. They don’t have to establish now, they just have to sustain.

Secondly, eliminating softball from the Olympics means one less place you can go to see high-level competition among post-college players. That makes the NPF that much more important. If the NPF is smart, they’ll find a way to play up on that fact. Respectfully, of course. But where else can the average fan go to see that level of quality?

Finally, with Olympic squads limited to 15 players (or whatever the actual number is), it’s tough for players to get the opportunity to participate. But with a vibrant and growing NPF, many more girls would have the opportunity to compete at that level. Maybe the teams would get enough money to provide locker rooms at all the parks. Perhaps USA Softball or the major TV networks will give it more attention and invest some promotional money to help it grow and thrive.

So perhaps a door has been shut, but a window has been opened. It remains to be seen if anyone will take advantage of it. And if there isa vibrant  and popular NPF, maybe it will convince the IOC to reexamine the issue down the road.

Mundelein Thunder 16U looking for players

We have a new 16U team forming with the Mundelein Thunder (Mundelein, Illinois) and we’re looking for a few good players to round out the team. I am the coach, by the way.

If you’re 16U eligible and looking for a change, or perhaps more opportunity to see the field, or otherwise want to change your stars, send me an email — coachken@softballsuccess.com.

A cue for hitters who are dropping their hands

Dropping the hands is a fairly common problem among young hitters. I personally think some of that is due to the number of coaches telling their hitters to “throw your hands at the ball,” and part of it is telling them to “swing level,” which translates in their heads to “level to the ground.” But mostly it’s probably just a natural reaction to trying to hit a moving ball with a moving bat.

Tonight I was working with a girl who was doing just that. She was trying to hit a thigh-high pitch, but her hands were coming down so low that there wasn’t much angle to her bat. I wanted her to make sure she was keeping her hands above the ball, but saying that just didn’t seem to make sense to her. So I told her to keep her hands above her waist, and just lower the bat to get to the ball.

Bingo! That seemed to work. She went from hitting bouncing ground balls to driving line drives and pounding some deep fly balls. She continued to hit through the ball consistently.

I don’t know if it will work for everybody, but it certainly worked tonight — probably because it was specific and measurable. Saying keep your hands above the ball requires judgment. Saying keep your hands above your waist (or bellybutton) is a lot easier to understand and execute.

The quiet wheel gets the shaft

Heard this one from a friend the other day. His daughter was playing on a travel team this year, and despite her good performance she didn’t seem to be getting a lot of playing time. I don’t think this is the case of a father not evaluating his daughter’s capabilities fairly, because if anything he tends to be tough on her.

Anyway, as a former coach himself he didn’t want to cause any problems. But after a season of less than optimal playing time, particularly at her preferred position, he decided to ask the coach what his daughter needed to work on to increase her playing time. The coach’s response was that he thought she was a very good player, maybe the best at that position, but the other girl who plays it (and/or her father) would cause a lot of problems if he cut her playing time. Since my friend never complained it was easier for the coach to sit his daughter instead.

I can understand it in a way. No coach wants to put up with a lot of grief from parents so it’s tempting to take the easy way out. But it’s still wrong. All you’re doing by going that route is rewarding (and encouraging) bad behavior. Yes, the squeaky wheel often tends to get the grease. But in so doing you’re encouraging the players (and parents) you really want to go elsewhere.

As difficult as it can be in the short term, it’s important to act with integrity to support the long term. There are lots of criteria you can use to determine playing time — best nine players, even playing time, development of players at a position, etc. Who would complain the most if they don’t get their way shouldn’t be on the list.

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