Monthly Archives: July 2011

Thus endeth another season

The season is now over for the team I coached this year. That’s just hard to believe. We worked so hard for so long — going all the way back to September, 2010 — and now it’s over.

One of the things that’s fairly unique about the program I coach in is that coaches generally don’t stay with their teams. They remain at a particular level, and players get passed along from coach to coach.

That’s good in some ways — it gives the players exposure to different coaches and different coaching styles, helping them become more well-rounded. At the same time, though, it’s also kind of sad. Players you’ve spent a year or two getting to know move on, and you’re left to start all over again.

It seems like just yesterday we were getting going on our first tournament. Now we’re done. It’s particularly sad because we spent so much time on team building, and our girls got along so well.

I will miss them all. But that’s life, I suppose. All I can hope is that they enjoyed themselves during the season, will take away great memories, and that they learned a little something about playing softball along the way.

Great softball defensive game/challenge

First of all let me state that this training game for fastpitch softball wasn’t my idea. I got it at a clinic a few years ago.

The game is called 21 outs. It’s pretty simple. You put your team on the field, at least one person per position. Then you start hitting the ball to different locations. The object is to get 21 outs in a row. If someone makes an error, either fielding or throwing, the count gets re-set to zero and you start over.

You can do it with or without runners, depending on how many players you have. Because I have my kids play at least two positions, I will have them switch positions after seven outs. (You can also do that to give your subs an opportunity to participate.)

The other rule I put in is when the ball comes back to the plate for the next play, even though the play is dead, it has to be a good throw. Otherwise we go back to zero again.

One of the fun aspects of this game is that the coach “mis-hit” makes it more realistic. Say you’re trying to hit a fly ball and you just dink a spinner off the end of the bat. They still have to read, react and get the out.

The final rule is that the ball has to be “getable.” If I hit a clean shot in the gap that could never have been fielded, it’s a neutral. On the other hand, if it’s a clean single to the outfield and the ball gets behind the outfielder, it’s an error and we start over.

As a coach you can make the game as challenging as you want. You can vary the types of hits, how hard they’re hit, etc. You can also say things such as “only two more to go” to add a little extra pressure.

Just make sure you allow enough time. You may think it would be easy, but it can be tough to get 21 outs in a row.

Losers make excuses – winners make adjustments

One of the things that makes fastpitch softball so difficult is that it is not the type of sport where you can hit a groove very often. Because of the design of the game, your tempo or pace may not match up with the tempo or pace of your opponents. When that happens, you either have to make adjustments or you’ll lose the little matchups that make up the game.

Hitters versus pitchers is an obvious one. Nearly every hitter has a pitch speed they really like to hit. If the ball comes in at that speed, it’s like batting practice to her. She can even handle +/- two mph. But go outside that comfort zone and the hitter has two choices — adjust or struggle.

Or take catchers and baserunners. A catcher’s pop time — the time from when the pitch hits her glove to when it hits the person covering the base’s glove — will usually be pretty consistent. But if the opposing baserunners have more speed than she’s used to, or is getting a little extra jump, what normally works may not work anymore.

In these and other situations players can react a couple of ways. They can get mad at the opponent and make excuses — I can’t hit slow pitching, the runner is leaving early, the umpire is making bad calls — or she can make adjustments. In other words, she can change what she’s doing to match what’s being dictated by the opponents.

Take that hitting example. She can time her swing like she always does and be ahead of the ball on a slow pitcher, then complain the pitcher is too slow. Or she can figure out when she needs to move and swing to deliver full batspeed into the ball.

In the case of the catcher, she has to know that she needs to pop up a little quicker, and perhaps get rid of the ball a little quicker than usual if she’s going to have a shot at getting the runner. It may not be what’s comfortable for her, but it’s what’s necessary.

What it comes down to is what you can and can’t control. You can’t control the speed of the opposing pitcher. I’ve never met a pitcher yet who didn’t want to throw faster, so if the pitcher could throw harder she would. That being the case, you can adjust what you’re doing, because you can control that. Just work up your determination, get out of your comfort zone, and do what needs to be done in the situation.

Losers make excuses — winners make adjustments. Remember that and you’ll have a lot more softball success.

A first for me

Those who know me (or follow me via the Internet) know I’ve been coaching fastpitch softball for a long time — more than 15 years. (Although some days it feel like 1500 years.) Today, though, I had a first.

I had a parent come up to me with a suggestion as to where he thought his daughter was best-suited to play. That’s not unusual, of course. It was the suggestion itself.

His daughter is my starting shortstop, but he thought she’d make a great center fielder. This is the first time I’ve ever had a parent suggest taking his/her daughter out of the infield and putting her in the outfield. I’ve had plenty of suggestions going the other way, as I’m sure all you coaches have. But from infield to outfield? Never.

Now, understand she would make a great center fielder. She’s also make a great right or left fielder, second baseman, third baseman, catcher, etc. She’s a very athletic girl with a great attitude who will do anything she can to help the team win. She self-analyzes in the batter’s box to keep from making the same mistake twice. And she always grabs team equipment when it’s time to move without ever having to be asked.

So dad is right, in a way. But she’s happiest at shortstop and plays it well.

So what about you? Have you ever had a parent suggest moving his/her daughter from the infield to the outfield? Or is this an unusual request?

Softball hitting tip – adjusting to speed

As most people know, the game isn’t called fastpitch softball for nothing. Speed kills in our game, especially pitching speed. Faster pitching makes it tougher for hitters to hit.

But not impossible. One of the big keys is getting the front foot down on time. If you do that, the rest gets easier. But getting the front foot down on time varies depending on the pitcher’s speed.

There’s actually a math formula that explains it. I’m no math whiz, believe me, but it makes sense even to me:

time = distance/velocity

In other words, the amount of time you have to swing the bat is a function of how far away the pitcher is divided by the speed of the pitch.

We know that in a tournament or league, the distance is constant. Whether it’s 35, 40 or 43 feet, that will always be the same within that event. But as the speed of the pitch goes up, the amount of time goes down.

For example, let’s say the pitcher is throwing 52 mph from 43 feet. We need to convert mph to feet per second, so we multiply the number by 1.46. (The actual multiplier is a bit longer than that, but 1.46 makes it simpler.) What we wind up with is the ball moving 75.92 feet per second. We’ll assume a constant speed, even though we know the ball actually slows a bit as it travels. We also will assume she has a six foot stride, so will actually deliver the ball from 37 feet away. That means our equation is 37/75.92 = 0.487 seconds reaction time.

Now let’s assume everything else is the same, but she’s throwing 58 mph. That makes our equation  37/84.68 = 0.436 seconds. That a difference of about 5/100ths of a second. Doesn’t seem like much — it’s less than the blink of an eye. Yet in those 5/100ths of a second, if you’re timed for the slower speed the ball will go from the optimum location to hit it to deeper in the zone, likely handcuffing the hitter.

This is what your hitters have to realize. They absolutely must adjust their timing to the pitch speed or they will be late getting the bat through the zone. Not horribly late, necessarily, but just enough to turn a good hit into a weak one.

It also works in reverse, by the way. If you’re timed for a 58 mph pitch and the pitcher is throwing 52 mph, you’ll be too early and will either miss entirely or “pool cue” the ball, resulting in a weak hit.

Again, the adjustment is when the front foot lands. Get it down on time, or even a little early, and you will be better off than being late.

Softball practice game

Tonight for our last practice before our next fastpitch softball tournament we decided to do something a little different. After warmups and throwing we played a game that worked on both defense and hand-eye coordination for hitters. It also exposed the girls to a skill most of them rarely practice.

We divided the team up into four groups of three players each. Nine went onto the field, and the other three were up to bat. But instead of live pitching — which pitchers often have trouble doing with their own team — we had the girls fungo the ball instead. (For those who don’t know the term, fungoing is throwing the ball up and hitting it yourself.)

The overall objective was to introduce some unpredictability into the game for the defense. Although the girls struggled with fungoing at first, as they got the hang of it they started looking for holes and placing the ball. That made it tougher on the defense, challenging them, because unlike coaches hitting balls they really didn’t know where it was going to go.

If the hitters got on base they continued as baserunners. That automatically set up situations for the defense to handle, and put pressure on them to perform. About the only thing we couldn’t work on were steals since the hitter controlled the ball. We kept score, and three outs brought in the next team of three.

Why not go with live pitching? We’ve done that before. But it takes longer and less action occurs. In addition, it’s tougher to move the ball around the field. Fungoing keeps the game moving, creating more situations for the defense to handle and more opportunities for the offense.

If you’re looking for a way to spice up practice, get some quality work in, and introduce some competition give the fungo game a try.

Now it’s your turn. How do you get some competition going in practice?

Fastpitch coaching: The yelling and screaming school

There is this belief in the fastpitch softball world, and youth sports in general, that coaches have to yell and scream to get the best out of their teams. It’s partially a function of the Hollywood mythology of sports — all those movies with the “tough but ultimately kind” coach who takes a ragtag group of players and wins a championship — and partially our obession with pro sports.

The reason I bring this up is the team I’m currently coaching has not gotten out of the gate quite as quickly as we had hoped, although we are showing improvement each day, and I suspect at least a couple of parents who buy into the mythology think it’s because I’m too soft, especially during games.

They think that because when a player makes an error or a mistake I don’t come screaming off the bench, or yank that player in the middle of an inning in favor of a replacement. I may bark a little (which can be difficult to hear at large, open complex), but I don’t go into the usual histrionics some may be used to. I also suspect a couple of players who come from that environment may be wondering about it as well.

With that in mind, I had a chat with the girls yesterday about playing big, overcoming fear of failure, that sort of thing. And then I addressed the yelling and screaming part.

I told them I am not that way as a conscious decision. I told them I used to be that guy, and they really don’t want to play for that guy. I had my assistant coach Hillary, who played for me from the ages of nine through 18, confirm it. And boy did she.

I used to get pretty angry at poor play. I don’t think I was ever totally over the top, but I would be a lot more vocal during games, yelling stuff out and holding people, um, accountable right then and there. I kicked over a few buckets of balls in my day, and threw some other stuff around.

But what I came to realize over the years through a combination of coaching education and my assistant coach Rich was that it was really counter-productive. Yes, we want to hold players accountable, and it’s ok to be tough. But there’s a way of doing it, and a time and place to do it. That is usually at practice.

One other thing I learned was the value of saving the post-game evaluation for a different day. I was known for some lengthy post-game speeches/analysis, especially when things didn’t go right. I doubt much was heard, but it made me feel better. Along the way, though, I realized it was best to keep it to a minimum because sometimes things don’t look as bad after 24 hours as they do right after the game.

So these days I’m actually pretty calm during games, at least on the outside. My insides still do churn when we drop a popup, throw away a ball on an easy play, or watch an obvious third strike go by. But that’s where it stays. Goosefraba for you Adam Sandler fans.

The easy way when you get mad is to let it all hang out. It’s definitely tougher to keep your cool. But in the long run they’re still just kids playing a game. Staying in control gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes rather than simply ducking and covering all the time.

Not to say I never get after them. I can still be tough when needed. But now it’s a decision that that’s what’s required to get them on track rather than an emotional reaction to negative stimuli. It makes a world of difference.

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