Monthly Archives: March 2016

Fastpitch Face Masks Revisited

Interesting how times and opinions change. Last week while searching for something else I came across this old blog post. It dates back to May of 2008, and in it while I don’t outright oppose face masks I don’t exactly come across as supporting them either.

I have definitely changed my tune on that score, especially when it comes to pitchers and corner infielders (third and first base). Guess I’ve seen enough hard shots and needless injuries to now believe wearing a face mask should be the standard in fastpitch softball now rather than an oddity.

To me, the risks of damage to the face are simply too high to ignore. All it takes is one hard shot off a juiced-up bat to forever change a softball player’s life.

Not just in how they play the game either. I mean actual life. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t so, how someone looks has an effect on how we react to them and often even whether they get a particular job or not. To put it bluntly, studies have shown that attractive people are more successful. A blow to the face from a softball could end up hurting one’s career chances.

This, of course, is on top of the immediate trauma and time lost in softball and other activities while injured.

The good news is, much of the stigma formerly attached to using a mask has gone away. Up until recently, high school-age players were told that wearing a face mask would be perceived as a sign of weakness by college coaches, severely reducing their chances of being recruited.

Apparently even that stigma is going away, as evidenced by the fact that Kelly Barnhill, a freshman pitcher with two-time WCWS champions Florida, wears a mask when she pitches. And she is just one of a growing number of college pitchers who are wearing masks not simply because of injury but as a permanent choice.

If a masked pitcher is acceptable to the 2X champions, it should be considered acceptable at all levels of play now. At the Rick Pauly Elite Pitching Clinic in Indiana, no less than former Georgia pitching coach Rick Pauly himself flat-out said pitchers should wear masks as well. If he’s saying it, players should be listening.

The only thing left, I suppose, is to make face masks mandatory. I know there are those out there who oppose it, just as people opposed face cages for hitters when they were introduced. No doubt some opposed catcher’s gear back in the day too. But as the risks and liability costs continue to rise, it probably won’t be long before the only pitchers not wearing masks will be those grandfathered in under the old rules.

Does every player need one? I still don’t think so. For me the dividing line is how much damage a ball to the face will do. A hard ground ball that takes a bad hop on a shortstop will be painful and leave a mark, but it’s unlikely to crush an orbital bone. A hard shot back to a pitcher or corner, however, could do serious, permanent damage.

But here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter what I think. If you’re a player, it’s your face. If you’re a parent, it’s your daughter’s face. Get the facts, make the best decision and don’t let what anyone else says be the determining factor. Better to have the protection and never need it than to need the protection and not have it.

Advertisements

4 softball coaching traps to avoid

One of the biggest challenges of coaching softball is keeping up with the game. As you coach, you accumulate a set of knowledge; the longer you coach the more knowlCoaching and learningedge you gather.

That’s a good thing in some ways. But it can also be a limiting factor, especially in these days of high speed video and greater interest in analyzing mechanics. What may have been believed to be “true” 15, 10 or even 5 years ago may not be so anymore. The more study, evidence and analysis that goes in, the higher the likelihood that what is considered the optimum mechanics or strategy today is different than it was then.

We certainly see that with the one of the signature plays of fastpitch softball – the sacrifice bunt. Statistical analysis shows that overall teams will score more runs with a runner on first and no outs than with a runner on second and one out. Not necessarily with this runner, this hitter and this pitcher, but in the long. Which means the idea of automatically bunting a runner to second should come out of the coach’s playbook, replaced by a more specific situational analysis.

But I’m not here to discuss the sac bunt specifically. More the ways of thinking that can get coaches in trouble if they’re not aware. Here are a few of the common traps you’ll want to avoid to ensure you are and remain the best coach you can be.

The Backfire Effect

This is the name given to the phenomenon that says in an argument between two people with opposing views, the more hard evidence one side presents, the more the other side will cling to their beliefs. (The Backfire Effect, by the way, can be easily seen in every political argument on Facebook ever.)

You would think that once hard evidence was presented, the other person would change their mind. But the opposite is true. People hate to be proven wrong, and thus will do all they can to avoid that feeling.

For a coach it goes double, I think. You’ve been teaching something one way for years and having success. To all of a sudden find out it’s wrong is hard. Believe me, I know, because I’ve definitely been guilty of it.

Yet as a coach, your goal should be to impart the best information and training to your players that you possibly can. To cling to your beliefs because you don’t want to admit there is a better way than you’ve been teaching is doing your players a disservice.

Best to take a cue from former UCLA head coach Sue Enquist here. She was presenting at a clinic one time and saying things that contradicted statements she’d made in her previous skills videos. When someone in the audience challenged her on it, she shrugged and said “I know more now than I did then.”

As long as you didn’t go out of your way to present bad information there is nothing to be ashamed of. You did the best you could with what you knew. Now you know more. Everyone should consider that a good thing – and an indication that you always have their best interests at heart.

Confirmation bias

This one is often a cousin to The Backfire Effect. Having Confirmation Bias basically means you will look and look for any evidence that supports your current beliefs, and if you find it will value that evidence above all else.

For example, let’s say you’re still teaching “squish the bug” for hitting. You go online and look at dozens of video clips until you find one example that appears to be a player squishing the bug. In other words, you ignore all dozens of others until you find the one that supports your beliefs and take it as gospel.

When you’re looking at the evidence on your own, don’t just look at what agrees with you. Look at everything, and see where the patterns are. Doesn’t necessarily mean the majority is right – most innovations start out with a very small sampling. But if you add in old teaching versus new, you’ll probably start to get a better idea of whether the evidence actually supports you or you’re just discounting the majority that doesn’t.

Fallacies in logic

There are many different types of fallacies in logic. When it comes to coaching, here are a few of the most common.

Post hoc ergo proper hoc. Doesn’t everything sound more important in Latin? Basically, this means B followed A so A must have caused B. This is probably the basis for most of the softball superstitions we love so much.

Let’s take an easy example. I stepped on the chalk line before the game and we lost, so stepping on the line caused the loss. (In this case, everyone chooses to ignore the four critical errors, two baserunning mistakes at home and total lack of hitting.)

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it happens all the time, especially when analyzing video clips. The key to so-and-so’s power in hitting is this one move she makes that no one else does. It might be. Or it might not. The two may not be related at all.

Or with pitching, you could say this pitcher bends extra low when she starts, and she’s super fast, so her speed must come from the bend. It makes no biomechanical sense, but because the two things happen in close proximity it’s assumed one causes the other.

Don’t make that assumption. If there is a cause/effect relationship it will become obvious with further testing. If not, that will become obvious too.

Ad hominem. This involves discounting someone’s information because you don’t like or respect them personally.

This is an easy but dangerous trap to fall into. We’d all much rather work with/take advice from people we like and/or respect. But the validity of what they’re saying is independent of their personalities.

Speaking from personal experience, I have learned plenty from people I didn’t particularly care for. Don’t let that fact determine whether you’ll listen. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day – assuming you’re working with an analog clock.

There are plenty of others, but you get the gist. You want to be sure any arguments you use, for or against, are based on real information rather than flawed logic.

Seeing what you want to see

Have you ever listened to or read an online argument where two people were looking at the same piece of video and drawing completely different conclusions? If you’re a coach who is always looking for information no doubt you have.

That’s the risk with something like video. I see X, you see Y. We both have our interpretations based on our own experience and beliefs. It’s sort of like confirmation bias, only this time you didn’t have to weed through a lot of videos to find the one that agreed with you. In this case, it appears they all do.

We all tend to filter things through our own lenses. That’s good most of the time, but it can also lead us to conclusions that may not be true.

The best thing you can do is keep an open mind and continually challenge your own beliefs. If someone says something different than you see or believe, try looking at it from their point of view. Make an assumption they’re right, and then see if you can support it. If you can, it’s worth re-examining your own opinions. If you honestly cannot say you see where they’re coming from, after making a real attempt, you just may be right.

Continue to learn

It’s easy to get stuck in your ways, and it’s hard to admit you may not have known as much as you thought you did. But if you can avoid these traps you’ll come out the other end a better coach.

Have you ever been in that uncomfortable position of having to change what you teach/believe? How did you handle it? Was it an easy transition or was it like rubbing a lemon on an open wound? Most importantly, are you glad you did it? Leave your answers in the comments below.

 

Softball Never Ever list

As at least some of you know, my day job is working for Amendola Communications, a PR agency that specializes in healthcare and health IT products and services. (How many thought softball was my day job?) Through that I have become familiar with many terms used in the healthcare industry. Hillary tag

One of the most interesting is the concept of “never events,” which are things in healthcare that should never happen because the lead to adverse outcomes (healthcarespeak for death or serious injury/illness). From that comes the concept of the “never ever list.” This is a list of things doctors in particular should never, ever do in order to avoid never events.

Why am I talking about all this? Because the topic came up (in a way) at a catching clinic I was conducting today. I saw a catcher do something and told her she should never, ever do that.

That got me to thinking. Maybe it would be a good idea to create a “never ever” list for softball. So with that in mind I’d like to ask the larger softball community – those who read this blog, members of Discuss Fastpitch and anyone else who would like to participate – to help me put together a great list. It would be something coaches could copy, print out and hand to their players to ensure they’re playing to the best of their abilities.

If you’d like to play, please leave a comment, either below on Life in the Fastpitch Lane or on DFP. Just a few ground rules.

I’m not looking for things like “don’t take lessons (or listen to) so-and-so,” or stay at such-and-such a hotel or play at a particular tournament. That’s what apps like Yelp! are for.

Instead, I’m looking for things where a decision is involved, especially during a game but also around it. I am thinking about making this an upcoming Softball Magazine column too, so if you contribute and would like to be credited under your real or screen name, please include that with your contribution.

Ok, to help get the ball rolling here are some of the things I think should be on the “never ever” list. The first one, incidentally, is the one that kicked off this whole idea.

  • Fielders, never ever pick up a ball on the ground with your glove.
  • Fielders, never ever block the base without the ball. That is obstruction and it’s being called more and more. Get the ball and then get into the baseline.
  • Fielders, never ever throw to a base when it’s obvious there is no play. Only bad things can happen. Instead, look for another play or eat the ball.
  • Hitters, never ever swing at a pitch you’ve already decided to take (unless you already have two strikes).
  • Hitters, never ever use more bat than you can swing quickly and well.
  • Pitchers, never ever do wrist flips. They are a waste of time and make you worse, not better.
  • Pitchers, never ever force a follow-through (hello elbow).
  • Base runners, never ever slide directly into a tag. Do a slide by, turn and go back, do anything but let yourself get tagged out.
  • Base runners, never ever take a lead off third in fair territory. If the ball hits you, you’re out. If you’re in foul territory it will still hurt, but you (or your replacement) will be able to return to third.

What would you add? Players, you are welcome to add to it too. Don’t let the coaches have all the fun!

Softball catchers need to chatter

Last Sunday I was doing another in a series of catching clinics for players ages 10-14. We had some pitchers come in so they could practice the skills they’d been working on all winter – receiving, framing, blocking, throwing down to second – while gaining experience on learning to recognize when to do which. Circle conference

As it was going along, though, I noticed something – an unbelievable amount of silence. I called one group of catchers together and asked them “What’s the difference between softball and church?” The girls all stared blankly at me until finally the light bulb came on for one of them and she meekly said, “You’re supposed to be quiet in church?”

Exactly. While many positions on the field can get by with the silent treatment, catcher is not one of them. Catchers need to constantly be chattering for a variety of reasons.

One of the biggest is to make sure their pitchers stay confident. Pitching is a tough position mentally. Everything that happens on the field starts with a pitch. That puts a lot of pressure on pitchers to get it right.

As I often say, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside but it can be a dark and lonely place on the inside.

Support from the catcher can make it  far less lonely. If the pitcher throws a strike, the catcher can tell her “good pitch” or “that’s my girl” or “you’re the one.” Any sort of positive reinforcement. If the pitcher misses, she can say “you’ve got this” or “c’mon just you and me” or something of the sort. Anything to help the pitcher stay up and focused.

It’s not just pitchers who can get help from catchers, though. High-enthusiasm, chattering catchers (Taylor Danielson, I’m thinking of you) can energize the entire team. The obvious responsibility is to make sure everyone knows how many outs there are and what the next play is.

But catchers can also provide encouragement to teams, help panicking teammates regain control and pick up a teammate who made an error. On the other side, they can also call out a player who is slacking or doesn’t have her head in the game.

One of my first catchers had those qualities. Her name was Katie Swanson, and she was definitely vocal. She could be positive, for sure, but she definitely didn’t hesitate to kick butt when necessary. No team was ever going to be low energy when she was behind the plate, and it was a definitely a difference-maker for our team.

For players like Katie, chattering comes naturally. For those who aren’t gifted with that ability it can be developed.

You may feel silly at first, but next time you’re at practice, or working with a pitcher, just start talking. Develop your own patter, things you like to say that come naturally out of your personality.

If you’re funny, use it. If you’re serious, use it. But like any other skill, you have to practice it. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it and the more naturally it will come. Before you know it you’ll have command of the field – and you’ll capture the attention not just of your teammates and coaches, but perhaps a college coach or two as well.

Now it’s your turn. If you’re a catcher, have you learned to be vocal on the field? If you’re a catcher’s parent or coach, how have you helped your catcher learn to speak up? Or have you?

 

Too positive can be (almost) as bad as too negative

Before I get into the main topic for today, let me start by confirming that I am a huge believer in positive coaching. I believe the authoritarian yelling and screaming style of coaching is outdated and counter-productive. It may produce some short-term benefits, but in the long term it does more harm than good.

 

That said, when it comes to fastpitch softball (as well as other activities) there is also danger in going too far the other way.

How could that be? If negative is bad, isn’t the opposite of negative positive – and therefore good? Not exactly.

The danger in going unrealistically positive is it often tends to kill the incentive to improve. If players are constantly being told how wonderful they’re doing, even when their skills leave a lot to be desired, they may not feel the urgency to step it up to the next level.

There are all kinds of examples. A hitter who is crushing the ball against weak pitching despite weak mechanics won’t develop the mechanics she needs to hit higher-level pitching. That’s fine if she never wants to move up in class, but if she does she will find it difficult. Then she’ll be left wondering what happened.

Another example is the pitcher who relies only on her fastball, or the catcher who never learns to block a ball in the dirt. Skills that help better-than-average athletes succeed early generally do not hold up as they get older or face better competition.

What players really need from coaches (and parents) is honest feedback. Praise them for their good work now, but also inform them that they can do better, and become better.

Build that work ethic and sense of striving to improve constantly and you will do more for their self-esteem, and their long-term success, than simply telling them how great they are all the time. It’s how the truly great become great.

 

Why it’s easier to destroy softball skills than build them

Sooner or later in your fastpitch softball coaching career you’re likely to run into this phenomenon: You spend months working with a player, helping her build her skills little by little, working through the kinks until it seems like the skills are locked in come easily to the player.

Then you hand her off to some other coach and in no time she’s struggling. All that hard work seemingly undone in just a few sessions. You wonder how could that possibly happen?

Actually, it’s easy to understand if you take it out of the coaching context and think about building something (a chair, a shed, a house, some crazy contraption to carry all the team equipment at tournaments) in the physical world.

Let’s take a chair. Not one of those slap-it-together Ikea chairs but one you build from raw wood. You carefully cut and/or carve the wood. You sand it, stain it, polish it. You put it together piece by piece, taking care that all the legs are level and every joint fits together tightly. It takes weeks, or even months, to get it all just so.

Then some knucklehead comes along, picks it up and smashes it against the wall because his favorite pro sports team choked in a big game and got eliminated from the playoffs. All that hard work destroyed in seconds.

The same thing happens to players. Complex skills such as pitching and hitting have a lot of moving parts, and they all need to work together in the proper sequence. Throw off just one part of – say insisting a hitter swing down on the ball and then standing there in an intimidating way until she does it – and the whole skill unravels. The player gets confused, loses confidence, and then she doesn’t perform at nearly the level she’s capable of.

Of course, once she’s not performing she gets benched so everyone loses. Especially the team that could’ve used the skills she walked in the door with.

This is something to keep in mind before messing with a player. Someone who has worked hard to get where she is right now is probably best off being left alone, especially if she is performing when it counts. It takes a long time to build those skills. But it just takes a few misguided ideas and a short amount of time to destroy them.

%d bloggers like this: