Monthly Archives: March 2017

College softball not always the Valhalla you imagine

College softball may not be the Valhalla you imagine

There is a belief by many in the fastpitch softball world that making it to play in college gives you entry into a virtual Valhalla where the coaching is top-notch, the players are dedicated to and fully supportive of one another, and all the problems of school or travel ball disintegrate into the rarefied air of collegiate competition.

I’m here to tell you that’s not actually the case. At least not everywhere all the time. I was reminded of that yesterday while watching a collegiate game.

It was a well-played contest between two very competitive teams, each battling to the last out for the win. The weather conditions were hardly ideal, which made the competitive spirit of the players stand out that much more.

Yet sitting in the stands, I once again noticed how it isn’t all that much different from 10U travel ball. I’ve seen games at all levels, and talked to players and coaches as well. Here are a few of my observations on the similarities from yesterday and the past that will hopefully bring a measure of reality to your hoped-for college experience.

Parents still live and die with their daughters’ performances.

I’m sure this never goes away. But you can generally tell whose daughter is at the plate by the way the parents react. When it’s someone else’s kid, they’re relaxed and enjoying the game. When their kid comes to bat, they suddenly tense up.

Many bring out the smartphone to video the at-bat, probably to go over it later in great detail. I’ve heard tales about this or that dad who is pretty brutal on his daughter’s performance. (Moms not so much, although I’m sure it happens.)

Pitchers’ parents have it worse. They have to sit on the seat cushion of nails for the entire half inning. If their daughter struggles, they either tense up visibly or deflate like a balloon. Not all of them – many actually just sit and watch the game, supporting their daughters with the sheer force of their will as best they can – but there are those who definitely go too far with it.

Yelling at the umpires

Another surprising thing. Although it happens at pro games too so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

But still, do parents really think they’re helping their cause by riding the home plate umpire? In the best care scenario, the plate ump will be a professional and ignore the peanut gallery. That’s usually what happens.

Below the best case, he/she might start giving a little more leeway to the opposing team just to prove a point. Umpires are human beings too (despite what some of you think) and subject to the same human reactions as the rest of us.

There is probably less yelling at and complaining about umpires overall than at a 10U game. But by the time the parents who do it have players of college age, they’ve had a lot of practice at it.

Complaining about the coaches

Pretty much the same thing as with umpires, only different topics. It’s all the usual complaints – playing time, coaching strategy, lineups (why would they put so-and-so in the 5 spot? She hasn’t had a hit since the Democrats controlled Congress!).

They’ll also critique every decision on the field, especially if it goes south. Stealing bases is a great idea until a runner gets thrown out. Then it’s “What were they thinking?” Why are we bunting, or why are we not bunting, is another popular question.

Even the pitch calling gets questioned on a case-by-case basis. Particularly if it results in a home run. Hey, it’s possible the right pitch was called but not thrown. Or the right pitch was called and thrown, but the hitter just did a heckuva job hitting it. That happens too.

Honestly, the parents or fans who do this are in the minority. Versus 10U ball where everyone is an expert and the score doesn’t matter. But it does go on. Why do you think coaches pretty much tell parents at the beginning of the season please come out and support us, but we don’t want to hear from you ever?

Players sniping at one another

I am pretty sure there are some college coaches who are good at keeping a lid on this sort of thing. But softball players are human, and not all humans are good at handling personal responsibility. So when something goes bad on the field, their instinct is to blame others instead of owning their own mistakes.

For example, a player who makes a bad throw might blame the receiver for not moving fast enough to catch it. Or a player who lets a spinner drop in front of her might blame another player for causing confusion by going after the ball – even though every team drills who has priority over who into their players’ heads from day one.

On offense, players might blame one another for lack of production at the plate in a give situation. Especially if the player who struck out with runners in scoring position isn’t a star.

These are the kinds of things losing teams do, even when they’re winning. It happens at 10U, 12U, 14U, etc. And it can happen in college.

Coaches having favorites – and non-favorites

It’s a pretty safe bet that all college coaches have favorites – the kids they count on more than others. The better ones at least make an effort to hide it. But many others make it pretty obvious.

One of the easiest ways to tell is by how long a leash each player has. For example, if player A makes an error, she gets yanked out of the game right away, benched so she can think about her egregious transgression and her sabotaging of the coach’s goal of joining the 500 wins club. If player B makes the same error, however, nothing. “Shake it off,” she’s told. Pretty easy to see who is the favorite.

The problem with this thinking, of course, is that should Player A get back on the field, she will be that much more uptight and cautious. She will be playing not to make an error instead of to make a play. That usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Still, not every coach gets that. And the more they play favorites, the more they create the sorts of divisions in their teams that will prevent them from losing.

Focusing on one play as the reason for a loss

Yes, this still goes on in college too, unfortunately. I’ve written in the past about how it’s never just one thing that causes a loss. But not everyone understands that, even in college. Where they should.

That play at the plate where the runner was called safe when she was clearly out. That bad pitch that ended up in the outfield bleachers. That mishandled ground ball that let the winning run on base. And so forth.

All of these are but single incidents over the entire course of the game. In college there are no time limits, so the minimum length is 6.5 innings. That means the visitors have 21 outs to work with. The home team has either 18 or 21 depending on whether they are winning or losing after 6.5.

So yes, that play at home was costly. But how much would you care if your team had scored 6 more runs? A little argument, then you’d be laughing about it. Same for that error, or that meatball served up like you went to Olive Garden. They’re all meaningless if the team scores more runs, or plays better defense overall.

No game turns on just one play. There are ample opportunities to win throughout. But that instinct to make it all about one event can be strong. Even at the college level.

It’s still fastpitch softball

Just as the game itself doesn’t really change from 10U to college, the things around it don’t change much either. If you don’t believe me, try hanging out at a college game – the closer to home plate the better.

Then just listen to and watch what’s happening around you. Playing in college is still a worthwhile goal. Just be realistic about your expectations once you (or your daughter) get there.

It’s fun – but it’s not Valhalla.

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Fastpitch coaches: when you’re offering instructions, be specific

Don't just say get lower - tell players to lower their hips

One of the challenges of coaching fastpitch softball, or any sport for that matter, is offering directions that are meaningful to the player. While there are several elements that go into meaningful directions, I find that being specific is definitely key.

What does that mean, be specific? Here’s an example I heard today. A student told me she was working on fielding ground balls, and one of her coaches told her she had to get lower. That was probably correct – I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but let’s assume it was.

The problem with saying “get lower” is it leaves out an important element: how to get lower. If you’re bending at the waist, does that mean bend more at the waist? No, that would be silly.

The proper direction would be to lower your hips as you go down to the ball. That makes it easier to get to the ball while remaining in an athletic position where you can make the play.

Non-specific instruction reminds me of a joke that was making the rounds a few years ago. A group of people are in a helicopter in Seattle, checking out the sights, when a sudden fog rolls in.Not only are they having trouble seeing but the instruments go all haywire.

Now they’re lost, and need directions to get back to the airport. The pilot decides to hover next to a building where he sees some lights on. He sees there are people inside, so he quickly writes up a sign that says “Where are we?” and holds up it for the people inside to see.

They see the message, and take a minute to write up their own sign. When they hold it up it says, “You are in a helicopter.” The pilot immediately says “Right” and heads straight for the airport. When the helicopter lands, all the passengers are amazed. “How did you know from their sign where we were?” one asks.

“Easy,” said the pilot. “The information they gave us was completely accurate and completely useless. I knew we were by Microsoft.”

That’s the thing about directions. It’s easy to say do this or do that, but is what you’re saying actually helpful? Or is the message simply, “Play better!” – which I actually used once in a post-game speech to break the tension when the team was down.

For the most part, players don’t need you to tell them they’re doing poorly. If they have any experience at all they can tell they’re having problems. What they need is help fixing them. The more you can give them the “how” instead of just the “what,” the faster they’ll likely be able to address the issue and get it corrected.

Telling a hitter she’s pulling her front shoulder out is true, but useless. Telling her how to keep her front shoulder in, by leaving it strong and driving her back side around it, is helpful. (By the way, telling her she’s pulling her head out is neither accurate nor helpful, because it’s not the head that’s getting pulled out, it’s the front shoulder.)

Telling a pitcher she’s throwing high is useless. Even the least experienced pitcher can see that on her own. Telling her to whip through the release and fire the ball at the plate instead of getting the hand ahead of the elbow and pushing it up through release will help her correct it.

If you don’t know the “why” of common issues, find out. There’s plenty of great information out there. Search around on Life in the Fastpitch Lane (this blog) for ideas. Go to the Discuss Fastpitch Forum (if you didn’t come from there already) and poke around for hours. Search on YouTube – although be careful because there’s a lot of bad information out there too. Buy books and videos. Observe what great players do. Ask a more experienced coach. Attend coaching clinics and/or the NFCA Coaches College.

The more you know, the more specific directions you’ll be able to give them. And the better you’ll be able to help your players perform at the level you want them to.

The importance of tee work in fastpitch softball

Tee hitting is for players of all ages, including accomplished hitters like Grace Bradley

Players, especially younger ones, often look at the hitting tee as something that’s only useful to beginners. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Working off the tee has a huge amoung of value to players of all experience levels, as this guest post by David Morgan of The Planet of Baseball explains.  

One thing most new fastpitch softball players realize as soon as they get into the game is there is actually nothing soft about softball. They quickly find that hitting a ball is not as easy as great hitters make it look.

It is common to find that new players have very poor swings and some may not even know how to hit off a tee. However, softball coaches have devised various drills that can help players improve their skills and develop good hitting habits.

One way softball players can learn how to hit off a tee is to regularly engage in tee work. We shall explore how tee work helps softball players to become better at the sport.

Improving accuracy

Accuracy is definitely important in the game of softball. For a player to hit off a tee accurately, he/she must maintain focus; tee work is very useful in achieving this precision.

For example, it`s possible for a coach to hang a target on a pole and ask the players to hit it. This target should be placed at eye level so that the player can easily see it.

The major advantage of this method is the player clearly knows whether he/she hits the target or not. In the event that the player misses regularly, the coach could use this opportunity to help the player work on her swings. In addition, it could help the coach identify if the player has problems concentrating by observing whether he/she regularly take his/her eye off the ball.

Body Timing

One common problem that softball players must combat is knowing how to time their bodies.

In fact it is common for softball players to lower their hands as they begin their swing. The result of this is that they end up missing balls they should have hit. Engaging in tee work helps address this problem.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to have players with this issue hit off a high tee, for instance  somewhere around the chest region. If the player happens to drop his/her hands, then her bat would go right under the ball. When players repeat this practice often, the tendency to drop their hands as they begin their swing will be reduced.

Keeps the body in shape

Apart from helping players improve their skills, tee work can also help keep players in good shape.

Sometimes, most players come back from an extended lay off only to discover that their bodies are no longer in tune with the game. This is when tee work becomes very important as it helps to prepare the muscles for the new season.

It can also help players work on specific problems before a game begins, such as an inability to hit to the opposite field. The ability to hit to the backside enables a player to move runners and throw off the defense.

Developing more advanced skills

In most cases tee work is done when the coach is present. However, mature players can also do it on their own.

One of the advanced skills a player can develop from hitting off a stationary tee is the ability to hit to both the left and right sides, again using targets. For instance, if it is an inside pitch work, the targets are placed to the left for a right-handed hitter. The targets are placed to the right for outside pitch work.

In addition, other important skills such as swinging through the ball, as well as hitting further back in the strike zone can be developed from regular tee work.

Final words

In conclusion, we have been able to provide some good reasons why we believe tee work is very important in softball. Having good equipment, including quality tees and the best softball bats, is important as well. The better your equipment, the more you will enjoy practicing – and the more success you’ll have in the game.

My name is David, I am an editor/co-founder of www.theplanetofbaseball.com. Being a software engineer by day and a baseball/softball blogger by night, I also participated in the training activities of a youth baseball team at my hometown. I have passion with baseball, it pertains to my life from childhood until now and I love to share what is related to that passion with others. I believe in the support of other baseball bloggers like me to spread the passion.

Getting the feel of the push off in fastpitch pitching

Leaping drill starting position - fastpitch pitching

Getting a strong push-off is essential to maximizing speed for fastpitch pitchers. You need to develop a lot of forward momentum so that when your front foot comes down the stop is very sudden, which helps accelerate or sling the lower arm through the release zone.

Unfortunately, young pitchers often have trouble getting the timing down to create an early push. Instead, they will kick the stride leg forward while just sitting on the drive leg, and then try to push at the end, which is too late.

I’ve had pitchers skip before, because that mimics the sequence, i.e., push off first then reach with the leg. It works for some but not others. So if you or someone you know is still having trouble getting the feel, here’s something to try.

Place an obstacle out in front of her, very low to the ground like the swim noodle Alyssa’s father Tony is holding here. Then have the pitcher jump over it, using a normal forward jumping motion rather than thinking about pitching.

When she does it, ask her what she feels. If she isn’t sure, have her do it again. What she should feel is the drive leg pushing first, then the stride leg reaching out. If she does it correctly you’ll see it, as shown in the photos here.

Yes, this motion would be illegal for a pitch – big time illegal – but that’s not what you’re going for right now. Because if she could get the push legally you wouldn’t be doing this drill.

You just want her to feel the push first. After she does it a few times, have her go back and now try to copy that feeling with an actual pitching motion. If she’s gained the feel, and is driving her body forward first, the back foot should pretty much take care of itself.

So far, every pitcher I’ve tried this with has made an immediate improvement in her drive mechanics. I’m not quite ready to pronounce it foolproof yet, but it’s looking good.

If you’re facing this issue give it a try, and let me know in the comments how it works out. And if you’ve done this before, share your experience and whether it worked for you too.

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