Monthly Archives: October 2012

Failure another step toward fastpitch softball success

Normally when I tell stories about my fastpitch softball students I like to share success stories. It’s always inspiring to hear how a player overcame adversity and experienced success. And it’s not too bad for self-promotion either.

But today I want to share the stories of a couple of fails from over the weekend. Unusual, I know, but bear with me. The reason I’m somewhat happy about these failures is what they will ultimately do for the two girls involved.

Both of the girls in this story are 14U pitchers, and both have experienced a lot of success in the past year. Maybe a little too much. This past weekend, though, both got rocked. Admittedly it was pretty cold, so I’m betting that had something to do with it.

Regardless, for each girl a team served as a reminder that we still have a lot of work ahead of us. I think that’s a good thing, especially right before going into the long, boring off-season, because those experiences will provide some inspiration to work hard and get prepared for next season.

For these two girls, the bar was set a little higher. Both are great kids and hard workers so I doubt it would’ve been much of an issue anyway. But now they can put a name and a face on the opponent they’re preparing to battle, which always gives it a little extra juice. They’ll work hard to disguise the changeups better, to add speed, to add movement to breaking pitches and so on. Because they know if they don’t, someone out there will be making them feel bad next summer.

So many coaches and parents are afraid of failure. They don’t like to see their kids go through any adversity. Yet it’s human nature to need a little adversity to drive us to get better. It’s like the old saying that you can’t forge steel without a lot of heat. 

Another thing I like about the struggles these girls went through is it showed them it isn’t fatal. Sure, it feels bad at the time. But they both got through it fine, and they now know a little more about themselves.

The final thing is that we can be sure they faced a quality opponent in those losses. When you’re winning all the time, and dominating in the circle, you have to wonder if you’re really that good or if your opponents are a little weak. Facing quality opponents gives you a level-set, and shows where you need to be versus where your are.

So yes, it’s not much fun to lose, and to fail. But those failures are critical to achieving ultimate success. As long as you don’t make a habit of them!


Crazy stuff people teach about hitting

So tonight I was doing my last lesson of the evening. It was scheduled as a pitching lesson, but the dad asked if I would take a few minutes at the end to look at his 13U daughter Hannah’s hitting. When we got to that part I asked what exactly he wanted me to look at and he said the whole thing. It seems Hannah wasn’t hitting the ball very hard.

I figured the best place to start would be to ask her what she thought she should be doing — what has she been taught in the past. She told me that she had been to a few hitting clinics at a local D1 college, one I think most people would consider a top 25 program. I couldn’t believe what she then told me.

Apparently, all of the instruction had focused on the following: to start the swing raise your front elbow, and bring your back elbow down into the slot (my term, not hers). Next pull the front elbow, and then push the hands through at the ball.

That was it. No mention of the lower body, or the hips, or how to use the shoulders. Nothing. Nada. It wasn’t that she didn’t remember. It’s that’s all there was.

I then had her demonstrate what she’d been taught. After a couple of swings, where she perfectly executed exactly what she’d been told, I stopped her and said no wonder she is having trouble. We then started working off a tee.

We only had a few minutes so I couldn’t get into a full bore hitting lesson. But I figured I could at least help her use her arms correctly. I put her into the “turned” position, where the hips have mostly come through while the shoulders were still in their starting position. (Some call this the “stretch” position, I believe.) I had her keep her bat angled, then hit the ball off the tee.

In just a couple of swings she was hitting the ball harder than she had with a full swing. We finished by having her take a few full swings, focusing on maintaining what we’d worked on for the end of the chain.

I don’t know if it’s going to help her much this weekend. I mean, I’m good but that’s spelled with two “o’s.” If she works the drill I gave her during the week it may. But at least it’s a start toward becoming a better hitter.

The reason I share this story, though, is as a cautionary tale that can’t be told too often. Remember, just ’cause someone coaches at or plays at a D1 college or has some other impressive-sounding credential doesn’t mean they know the first thing about hitting. Or pitching, or fielding, or any other aspect of the game.

When you’re told something, don’t take it as gospel. Look at what great players do and compare that to what you’re being told. If the instruction doesn’t match what you see, find a better instructor. (If it’s a team coach, find a diplomatic way to ignore it and seek out better advice.) There’s a lot of bad information and theories floating around there, and listening to it will actually make you worse than if you just tried to stumble your way through it yourself.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of good advice out there as well — advice that will match what you see being done by top players. Some of the “experts” may disagree with one another on certain points, because it’s not quite an exact science. There is still room for interpretation. But what you’ll see is a lot more similarities than differences among good instructors, especially in the bigger picture. Certain aspects, such as the sequence of events in hitting (hips, then shoulders, then bat) are universal.

In tonight’s case, I’d bet good money that not a single even decent hitter on this college team does anything close to what was being preached in the clinics during their games. They may think they do, but they don’t.

If you want to be successful, don’t take anyone’s word for it. Even mine. Verify what you’re being told by comparing it to what great players actually do. If it’s wrong you’ll save yourself a lot of wasted time, and you’ll experience success a whole lot sooner. And if you find it’s right, you’ll be able to pursue it a whole lot harder. As it should be.

There really is such a thing as throwing like a girl

Last week I was handed an article by Larry Ellett, the father of Molly Ellett, one of my students, that is sure to make some people unhappy. He saw it in the Chicago Tribune, but it was originally from the Washington Post. The story was about how boys and girls throw differently — naturally.

We’ve all heard the phrase “You throw like a girl.” It’s never said as a compliment. What’s usually meant is that the person in question drops his/her elbow and pushes the ball out, resulting in an anemic throw that doesn’t go too fast or too far.

Apparently there’s more to this than gender bias. According to the article, in societies all over the world, there are marked differences in the way boys and girls throw when left to their own devices. There’s actually a graphic that shows the differences in the two throwing methods. It also quotes Harvard softball coach Jenny Allard, who agrees that girls don’t come by a proper throwing motion naturally and must be taught.

One of the theories in the article is that in our hunter/gatherer days, males had to learn to throw if the tribe or family was going to eat, and women didn’t. The one exception was the Aboriginal tribes of Australia. There, boys and girls both hunt using throwing methods — and that’s where the gap is least pronounced. (This also backs up my theory that to a boy, rock+duck=throwing practice, whereas that doesn’t occur to a girl.)

There’s lots of data in the article to back up the claims, so give it a read. This is not a case of gender bias or men trying to keep women down. In fact, the study was performed by a female, and females like Allard are quoted saying “Yes, it’s true.”

What does all of this mean to a softball coach? It means no matter what age group you coach, you’d better plan to spend time working on throwing mechanics. Lots of time, because this is a very under-taught part of the game.

Allard says (and I’ve seen other college coaches say as well) that one of the biggest issues for players entering college is they don’t have good throwing mechanics. They may have been good enough athletes to get by with bad mechanics, and as long as the team was winning none of their previous coaches worried about it. But in college, they want them to throw properly, which means the ball goes farther and gets there faster.

Here’s a quick experiment. Set your players an appropriate distance apart (60 feet for 14U and up, perhaps closer for younger players). Then pull out a stopwatch and tell them you want them to make all successful throws and catches for one minute. While they’re working at it, call out the time remaining. You may assume this drill will take a minute to complete. Don’t be surprised if you’re still
at it 20 minutes later. It’s not as easy as it sounds. But it will give you an idea of where your team’s throwing mechanics really are.

Fall is a good time to get a throwing mechanics program started. Winter is even better, especially if you’re going to be indoors for much of that time. But even if you’re continuing to play a full schedule through December make the effort to teach your girls how to throw.

When I’m working with players on throwing I always tell them that poor throwing is an easy way for them to get cut at a tryout. By the same token, if you throw well — especially if your mechanics are better than everyone else’s — you look like a player. It’s your choice how you want to show up in a tryout.

Again, give the article a look. And then make sure you carve out some practice time to teach throwing mechanics and practice them. It’s worth the extra effort.

Fighting ignorance

I saw a “fact check” website yesterday that had a great motto. The first part was “Fighting ignorance one day at a time” or something to that effect. Then in parentheses under that it said “It’s taking a lot longer than we thought.”

I know the feeling. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort studying, evaluating and re-evaluating the optimum techniques for executing fastpitch softball skills, I’ve also had a number of years’ experience teaching those skills to players of varying levels of athletic ability. So I have a pretty good idea of what works and the way things ought to be done.

I won’t say I know everything — there’s always more to be learned and new information comes out all the time — but I do my best to remain current, and confirm my thinking with what other top coaches are doing. That’s what I share here on Life in the Fastpitch Lane and other places as well.

Yet sometimes it can get awfully frustrating when I hear that there are still people teaching drills and techniques come from the era when mullets were in style, i.e. the ’80s. Especially when they try to foist that junk on one of my students.

I’ve seen it happen with hitting, where some team coach will start telling girls who can really rip the ball to squish the bug, take the knob of the bat to the ball, swing down on the pitch and other stuff that will actually prevent them from continuing to hit well.

Recently it happened with one of my pitchers. She was at a practice with her new team, which is connected to one of the local high schools, when the team’s “pitching coach” came over and started talking to her about snapping her wrist and pointing her elbow at the catcher (aka using “hello elbow”). I put “pitching coach” in quotes because the guy’s only qualification is that his daughter pitches at that school and he’s worked with her some.

Luckily the girl’s dad texted me right away, and he’s going to talk to the head coach, who said he knows some players have private coaches and let him know if there are conflicts. Still, until it’s resolved you have yet another person who doesn’t have a clue about how top pitchers actually pitch offering advice that was either told to his daughter at some point or that he got off some VHS tape.

People, listen up! Focusing on forcing a hard wrist snap is a gigantic waste of time! I can’t emphasize that enough. There are no muscles in the wrist. The muscles run from the elbow through the forearm to the hand. The wrist’s primary contribution is flexibility and quickness, not power.

What’s viewed as the wrist snap occurs as the result of a pronation (turning in) of the lower arm as it passes the elbow during release. It’s nothing you have to or even want to try to do, especially if you are also achieving brush contact. Trying to force a hard wrist snap actually gets in the way of the wrist making its contribution because it slows it down. It’s not where power comes from. The best the wrist can do is add a little bit. But if you make it the focus – for example doing endless wrist flips — you’ll actually defeat the whipping motion and slow the pitch down.

If you don’t believe me, how about seeing what NFCA Hall of Famer Cindy Bristow, one of the fastpitch world’s most accomplished coaches and instructors has to say about it? Or what about Bill Hillhouse, a former men’s National Team fastpitch pitcher and another highly sought-after pitching coach thinks about the wrist snap? If those two authorities tell you don’t waste your time on it, why would you continue to do it? Or listen to anyone who says you should?

The same goes for the hello elbow. It’s completely unnecessary as well as unnatural. Follow-throughs should be long and loose. You don’t need to touch your throwing-side shoulder after you pitch. You don’t need to point your elbow at the catcher. Again, that kind of stuff will get in the way of maximizing the pitcher’s potential.

For my part, I guess all I can do is keep trying to bring good information to people as best I can, and teach my students to remain strong and steadfast in their commitment to learning why we do the things we do. We’ll continue to fight ignorance one day at a time – even if it takes a lot longer than we thought.

Pitching inside and outside

One of the most basic requirements for fastpitch pitchers is being able to hit their spots. While I’m not as fanatical as some about it as some, there’s no question it is important. If you can hit your spots you can pitch to a hitter’s weaknesses far more reliably than a pitcher who is chucking the ball toward the plate and hoping for the best.

But of course, as with many things, it’s easy to say but not always easy to explain how to do. One of the methods of going inside and outside (and the one I teach, incidentally) is to stride slightly left or right of the power line. Essentially you’re setting up a slight angle off of center. An inch or two in either direction at the stride will result in hitting the corner at the plate – if you do it right.

But there’s more to it than just striding left or right. You have to carry your momentum toward that side too, maintaining your same mechanics as though you were going down the middle.

I had a student who was having some trouble getting the hang of it, so I found a different way to explain it to her. What I told her was to drive her momentum toward the glove, which was set up alternately on the inside or outside corner.

It gets the same idea across — maintain your core mechanics but aim them left or right. But it does it in a way that’s a little more specific.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling going inside and outside give it a try. And if you have another method with which you’ve had success, let the rest of us know in the comments below.

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