Beware of an over-reliance on gimmicks

You see them everywhere – in magazines, on websites, in YouTube videos and everywhere else fastpitch softball folks look for information. “They” are all the devices that promise to make your players better.

I call them “gimmicks” because often times that’s how they’re presented. The impression you’re given is that for $29.95 (plus shipping & handling), or $79.95 or $249.95 you can buy better performance. Gang, I can tell you that it just ain’t so.

I’m not saying these devices can’t help. Many of them can be useful in the right hands. But in order for yours to be the right hands, you first need to understand how a particular skill needs to be performed, and to a reasonably deep level.

A favorite example of mine comes from tryouts a few years ago. Three other coaches and I were observing pitching tryouts for a 16U team. One of the other coaches had a device that measures the spin rate of the ball and was using it to measure the revolutions per second of a pitcher’s curve ball.

“Ooooh” one of them exclaimed as a pitcher threw a pitch. “21.” “22.” And so on. They were all so focused on the device and what it supposedly told them that not a single one of them was watching the actual pitch.  If they had, they would’ve noticed that the “curve ball” was spinning pretty close to 12 to 6 (fastball or drop ball spin) and wasn’t moving at all. Even down.

By the standards of the device, this pitcher was throwing an awesome curve. But in the real world, she wasn’t even throwing a decent one. And last time I checked, hitters hit pitches thrown in the real world.

As an instructor I see this all the time. Some coaches have an entire bag full of gimmicks, and they just move from one to the next. Especially hitting coaches for some reason. Some I’ve seen just love to bring out the devices.

But if you don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, the effectiveness of the device is pretty much wasted at worst, or randomly effective at best. It’s like plopping down $300 for the world’s best hammer when what you really need is a $3 screwdriver.

If you really want to help your players/daughter(s) improve you don’t need a duffel bag full of stuff. At least not right away. Instead, first take the time to learn how those skills should be performed. Study college games on TV. Look for video on the Internet. Invest in DVDs and books. Attend training seminars/coaches clinics where an accomplished coach with a history of success breaks down the skill in detail. Go to http://www.discussfastpitch.com and read the discussions there. In other words, first seek out information.

Once you have a feel for what the skill should look like, and how it should be executed, you’ll be in a better position to decide which devices can really help you teach those skills and make improvements in your players and which ones will end up sitting on a shelf on in a duffel bag in your garage collecting dust.

What makes me say that? I have my own collection of devices that I bought when I started coaching, hoping to find the magic one. Some were worthwhile, many were not. The more I learned, the better I was able to see which ones might be helpful and which ones would be relegated to the Island of Misfit Softball Toys.

That goes for choosing a coach too, whether it’s a private instructor or a team coach. Someone who’s pulling out gimmick after gimmick instead of having your daughter work on actual pitching, hitting, fielding, throwing or whatever skill it is she’s trying to learn may not be your best choice. Devices are no substitute for knowledge.

Ultimately the value of a device goes up in direct proportion to your understanding what you’re trying to accomplish with it. Become competent at that first and you’ll make better decisions on how to spend the rest of your cash.

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About Ken Krause

Ken Krause has been coaching girls fastpitch softball for nearly 20 years. Some may know him as a contributing columnist to Softball Magazine, where he writes Krause's Korner -- a regular column sponsored by Louisville Slugger. Ken is also the Administrator of the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, the most popular fastpitch discussion forum on the Internet. He is currently a Three Star Master Coach with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), and is certified by both the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and American Sports Education Program (ASEP). Ken is a private instructor specializing in pitchers, hitters, and catchers. He teaches at North Shore Baseball Academy in Libertyville, IL and Pro-Player Consultants in McHenry, IL.

Posted on April 16, 2015, in Coaching, Equipment, Hitting, Pitching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I know I keep bothering you with questions and I’m sorry, but what kind of hitting drills can I do at home to improve? We live in a subdivision; I hit a couple hundred plastic golf balls each day and make it to the batting cages about once a week (I’m doing 50mph softball right now and doing okay). I do a ton of defense at home but feel like it’s harder to practice hitting. Coach says I have a great swing, but I just can’t seem to get a hit in a game. I’m 8th right now and want to move up in the lineup SO badly.

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  2. Not a problem, Hailey. I am happy to help where I can.

    If you have a great swing then drills, for the most part, probably aren’t where you need the work. Can you give me a little more information? Are you early or late with your swing? Hitting over the ball or under it? What is your mental state when you go to the plate – are you nervous or looking forward to it? Are you aggressive or timid? Do you restrict your swing to good pitches or do you go up hacking at everything?

    The more information I have about how you hit in games the better of a recommendation I can make. And maybe some other folks will chime in too with suggestions.

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  3. Thanks! Okay, well, I know that I swing late and I am trying to work on swinging earlier. Over vs. under, I’m not sure… I took some film at the cages last week so I’ll review that and see. Whether I’m nervous or not depends on if the pitcher is throwing hard, or it’s a situation where there are people on base and my team really needs a hit. Then I may be a little nervous but not that bad. One big problem I have is selecting which pitches to swing at… like I said, I’m trying to swing earlier, but normally I can’t decide quickly enough whether or not it’s a pitch I can hit hard so by the time I swing it’s past me or I foul it off. I ALWAYS swing at pitches in my eyes, but I never hit them… I’m really trying to work on that. Tonight my brother and I are going to the cages and he’s going to toss underhand to me; he’s nine, so the balls will probably be everywhere lol. Will that help me learn determine quickly what’s in the strike zone and leave bad pitches?

    Oh, one more thing, with two strikes on me I do normally get more nervous, especially if it’s a full count, just because then the pressure’s really on. I struck out looking several times last season so now I am really trying to know the ump’s strike zone and protect with two strikes. In our last game, against a pitcher that was throwing maybe 40-50 mph, I grounded out to second with a 1-1 count and then struck out (swinging). I think it was 2-2 and I’d hit a couple foul.

    Thank you SO much!

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  4. Ok, that helps. First thing to be sure you understand is that the proper sequence of events when you hit is for your hips to fire, then your shoulders, and then finally the bat. I see many hitters who focus only on the bat. It makes sense in a way since the bat is in your hands and you want to hit the ball with it. But what winds up happening is that you have to start the swing/bat much too early – basically before you know where the ball is headed. And it has to travel a long way to get there, which could be a reason why you’re late.

    If you go hips and then shoulders before the bat, you’re doing all that turning while the ball is on its way. That gives you time to see the ball before you bring the bat in to hit it, which means you’ll have a better idea of where to take it.

    Another thing to think about is how you’re thinking about balls and strikes. If you are waiting to see whether a ball is a strike before you start to swing you will be too late. Instead, get started on every pitch as though you’re going to hit it, then hold up if it’s not a good pitch to hit. Doing this is much easier if you’re going hips-first as I described above.

    The third thing that might help is to think less about the outcome of the at-bat and more about the process. You want to see the ball well. You want to use a good swing. You want to hit the ball hard. That’s it. Forget about the count, or your last at bat, or whether there are runners on base. Get rid of all the worries and outcome thoughts and just concentrate on this pitch, right now. If you hit it hard and it gets caught, so be it. But if you hit enough balls hard I guarantee some will become hits. And once you start hitting more you’ll build confidence and it will snowball in a good way.

    To learn plate discipline (not swinging at bad pitches) try this: commit to having your brother pitch five pitches, but rather than swinging at them you just watch them to determine whether they are balls or strikes. Hopefully he can help you with it. Then go ahead and start to swing, but if you swing at a bad pitch go back and watch another five, calling out whether they are balls or strikes. Just remember on each pitch to move as though you are planning to hit it and then hold up if it’s bad.

    Without seeing video of you that’s about the best advice I can offer. If you’d like to send a video to me, or post it on YouTube and send me a link, I will give it a look and let you know what I see. If not, I understand. You want to be careful on the Internet. Either way, try the things I listed here and see if they help. Good luck!

    Ken

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  5. Thank you so much! No one has ever told me that before, but I was watching a college game on tv today and saw the players doing that. ALso, I just told my dad and he said it’s what MLB players do. I’m about to leave for my game–we’re playing the best team in the league tonight, and they have a really good pitcher who struck out basically our whole lineup last game. Hopefully I can implement this and hit something hard somewhere!!

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  6. Good luck, and let me know how the game turns out!

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  7. UGH, I can’t believe it… I struck out looking! It was horrible! I knew he was calling them low and inside, but I just froze up. I don’t know what our problem was tonight, but we lost 12-0 and we got ONE hit as a team. (we’re really not a bad team…) In the dugout or on deck I’ll be saying to myself, “Swing early, protect with two strikes, choke up, leave the high ones alone, hit it hard…” etc. But then it all flies out of my head when I get in the box 😦

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  8. I will practice adjusting my swing like you suggested; we play an easy team on Saturday so I should be able to get some live practice then!

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  9. Sounds like a rough night. But just remember what Babe Ruth said – every strikeout takes me closer to my next home run.

    Keep thinking every pitch is a strike until you see otherwise. And do what you can to work on going hips-first. It will help a lot. Good luck!

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  10. I finally did it!! After grounding out and walking last Saturday, tonight I went 2-for-2: a 2 RBI single with an error (a pop-up to shallow left field), and a single in the form of a hard grounder to left that the third baseman and shortstop both left. I think I’ve finally found my stride! We have two more regular-season games this week and then the post-season tourney and All-Stars and I’m so excited!

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  11. Forgot to say–I have really been trying to work on my plate discipline and going hips-first at home this week and I think it paid off!

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  12. That’s great Hailey! Congratulations! I’m so happy to hear you’re finding success. Keep working at it. It only gets better from here.

    Just remember that when the season ends your work doesn’t. Take a few weeks off and then keep working on these things. Champions are made in the off-season.

    Good luck in your last couple of games and the All-Stars and post-season tourney.

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