Monthly Archives: April 2013

Carrying baggage to the plate

It’s been said that hitting a baseball (or in our case a softball) is the toughest thing in all of sports. And it does seem to be true.

You have so little control over what happens, or the outcome, that it can be extremely difficult to be successful on a regular basis. Which is why a hitter who fails 7 out of 10 times is called an all-star. Since it is so difficult on its own, you really don’t want to do anything to make it tougher.

Today I did a little experiment with a few hitters to help them understand what it means to carry extra baggage to the plate – literally. After having them hit off the tee I had them move to a front toss station. But before they got to hit I had them put on their bat bags or back packs – whatever they had with them.

They took a few awkward swings and then I asked them how it felt to hit with their backpacks on their backs. As you might expect, they found it to be rather difficult.

Then we talked about what the backpacks represented. It’s all those things that hitters take with them that they shouldn’t – all those worries that get in the way. Things such as:

  • If I don’t get a hit soon the coach is going to bench me

  • I don’t know if I can hit this pitcher

  • There are runners on base and I have to bring them in

  • Last time I struck out/grounded out/popped out

  • Everybody’s counting on me

  • My parents will be disappointed if I don’t do well

In other words, all the outcome-focused thoughts. Hitters have to just focus on this pitch, right now, see the ball and hit it hard. Remain focused on their process and not worry about the rest.

Putting on the backpack/bat bag is a great way to demonstrate how carrying extra baggage to the plate can get in the way of good hitting. If you have a hitter who is struggling, give it a try. It just might help them clear their heads.

That’s my thought. What have you done to help hitters regain their focus?

“42” well worth seeing

Just got back from seeing the movie “42” at my local movie theater. It’s an incredibly well-made movie with excellent performances, an excellent script, and a message well worth seeing.

If you’re not familiar with it, although if you’re reading this blog I can’t imagine you aren’t, it’s the story of how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first African-American baseball player of the modern era. It’s also the story of how Dodgers General Manager came to put Robinson in the position to do so – and how single-minded and brilliant he was in creating that opportunity, which changed the game forever for the better.

On the way home from the theater I commented to my wife about how far we’ve come here in America in a very short time. I know I personally couldn’t believe the way people acted toward Robinson simply for the color of his skin. It’s uncomfortable at times, and you marvel at how ignorant people were back then.

But then I got to thinking about an incident that occurred just last year, in the summer of 2012, to one of my students. The girl’s mom told me about it. While the player is not African-American, she’s also obviously not Caucasian either.

She was in 12U ball at the time, just to put this in perspective. She is an excellent ballplayer, both as a pitcher and hitter (although I will admit I am biased since I coach her in both; her play, however, speaks for itself). She’s also one of the nicest, most polite kids you’d ever want to meet. She is a hard worker, a great teammate, I could go on and on.

Anyway, her mom told me how during a tournament last year when she was dominating in the circle and at the plate, some moron parent from the other team started yelling ethnic slurs at her. (If you’ve seen “42,” think of the Phillies manager, only using different ethnic slurs.) The guy appeared to be half in the bag as I recall, and nothing brings out one’s inner jerk like alcohol.

I remember being shocked that anyone would do that, first of all to a kid, and secondly in 2012 – whether they’re hammered or not. I mean really – who does that anymore?

There is good news in this, though. First of all, her team, and especially the parents, rallied behind her to make sure she knew it was just one random idiot. More importantly, I think, the girl herself was rather confused about the whole incident.

Why is that good? Because it means it’s probably a rarity. In “42,” the things that happen to Jackie Robinson when he joins the Dodgers aren’t that much different than what would happen to African-Americans all over the country, famous or not. But for this girl, I’m not sure she even knew what the slurs meant, so she probably hasn’t had to hear them much. That’s progress, of a sort.

The girl and her team went on to win the game handily, and fortunately that turned out to be an isolated incident. I believe the other team’s coach apologized for the parent’s behavior, and if I recall correctly he had the guy removed from the field. So there is hope for us as a society.

I highly recommend seeing “42,” not just for the message but also for the view of baseball in the 1940s. Wait until you see the spring training field for the Dodgers, a Major League Baseball club. Yet as you watch, think about much things have changed – and the fact that we still have a ways to go. It’ll definitely be worth the time you invest.

Why I love this country

Ok, this isn’t exactly softball, but tonight I feel compelled to write on this topic. There are a great many reasons I sincerely, deeply love the United States of America, but I heard a couple of stories today that I just have to share. Both have to do with the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

The first is one of those things that is kind of goofy, really, but deeply American. I heard that at Major League Baseball parks all over the country last night, the stadiums played, and the fans sang along to, Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond. That is the signature song at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. The significance of the song, I think, is that it was written about Caroline Kennedy.

The first place that was mentioned as singing the song was Yankee Stadium in New York. Now, if you’re not familiar with it, Yankees and Red Sox fans hate each others’ teams with a passion. They say awful, horrible things to the visitors, and fans get into fistfights all the time. The rivalry was alluded to in the Ocean’s Twelve movie, where George Clooney and another character (Scott Caan, I think) fake getting into a fight on a train as a distraction to switch out two bags.

It’s definitely an interesting way to show support. But it shows the spirit of this country. As I write this we don’t know who did it, but baseball fans all over the country sang the song to show support for their fellow Americans in Boston, and to show that America’s spirit is not going to be broken or even damaged by an act of terror.

This is what we do as a country. Sure, we may fight amongst ourselves, but when things look bad we close ranks and support each other. My feeling is a lot of that is due to the fact that most Americans aren’t native to this land. We either chose to be here, or we chose to stay here. We are mutts (as they say in Stripes), and we believe in equality. And when you believe in equality, well, hurt one of us and you hurt us all. America’s colors are red, white and blue, and they never run. We are proud of who we are, and we will take on all comers.

The other event was a video of Boston Bruins fans singing the National Anthem at a game against the Buffalo Sabres. On a night when people could have stayed home, or cowered in fear, the arena was packed and those in attendance sang the Star Spangled Banner so loudly they drowned out Rene Rancourt singing over the PA system.

Yes, we can seem loud, obnoxious and pushy to the rest of the world. Yes, we have our internal differences. But in the end, you can’t divide us by attacking us. Come after us and we will stand united.

Tonight I am extra proud to be an American.

Developing softball skills is like growing a plant

It’s springtime as I write this, and while it doesn’t look much like growing season yet where I live it definitely is in some parts of the country. So it seems appropriate to compare developing fastpitch softball skills to growing a plant.

At first, whether it’s a plant or softball skills it requires a lot of care and attention. For plants, if you’re growing from seeds you have to get the dirt prepared, plant the seeds, water them, feed them and watch over them carefully. If you let them go for even a few days they may not make it. If you’re transplanting, you have to remove it carefully from the old container and put it into the new dirt.

As the plant grows, its roots start getting stronger and deeper. You still have to watch over the plant and be sure it’s watered and fed, but it doesn’t take as much constant care. You can let it go a little longer than when it’s new and it will still survive.

Finally, as the plant matures, it just requires maintenance. Take good, basic care and it will do well.

Softball skills are the same. When you’re first learning, a lot can go wrong. It’s really important to get to those lessons and practice in-between so you can start building up the myelin layers and lock in on what you’re doing. If you miss a practice or two, though, it can really set you back – like not watering a plant.

As you get better, you can afford to skip a lesson or practice session here or there. It’s not ideal, but if your skill roots have “taken” you’ll have a strong enough foundation to be able to maintain your mechanics.

Eventually you get to the point where you’re not “learning” so much as tweaking or maintaining. Sure, there are always things to learn and improve upon. But your core mechanics should be there even if you’re not able to get to lessons or full-on practice sessions every week. Although I do have several pretty accomplished students who still come regularly, because they like to keep their games running at peak levels.

So as you think about yourself (or your daughter), what phase are you in? Have her skills taken roots yet? Does she require a lot of care and feeding? Or is she in full flower? Knowing the answer can mean the difference between success and failure on the field.

The biggest mistake in coaching

Actually, this doesn’t just apply to softball coaching. It also applies to work, and family, and just about any other interaction. But it’s something to keep in mind:

The biggest mistake in coaching is insisting on proving you’re right in face of all evidence to the contrary.

Yet it seems to go on all the time. Coaches will stubbornly adhere to a certain strategy or way of playing even though it doesn’t work. Or they’ll set a lineup and stay with it even though it’s not producing runs – or wins.

One of my biggest pet peeves is coaches who make a decision at the beginning of the season  (sometimes even before the season) about the abilities of their players, and never bother to notice which players have improved and which ones haven’t.

Whatever it is, they may think it makes them important, or awesome. But it only hurts the players and the team.

It’s good to have opinions and convictions. But not to the point where you do things just to prove you’re right. Instead, be sure to constantly evaluate what you’re doing, and don’t be afraid to make changes for the better.

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