Monthly Archives: April 2017

Time to set a good example for our kids

If it's really for the kids, you need to set a good example as a coach or parent.

This is a topic I have written about often, but it bears repeating. Especially when it’s stated so well. We often talk about how softball (or any sport) is “for the kids.” But many times our actions don’t match our words, and it becomes clear it’s more about the coach and his/her record than the players. As this guest post points out, maybe it’s time to re-think how we conduct ourselves and become the people we’d like to see our players become. Oh, and if you’re anywhere near the Flower Mound, Texas area, be sure to check into lessons with him. – Ken

Guest post by Dana E. Maggs, Excel Hitting and Pitching Coach Dana E. Maggs

What kind of example are we setting for our kids? It is a question I have to ask myself often now.

As a coach I hear stories almost every week of a coach or parent losing their temper at a game. I hear stories of HS coaches heaping mental abuse on players, just to drive them off the team. With multiple complaints from parents. Yet the administration continues to ignore the parents. Protecting the coach.

I hear stories of recreational coaches screaming at umpires and walking off the field flipping them off as they get tossed.

I could keep going but the bottom line here is where is the accountability from those who are responsible for stopping this kind of behavior? Not only are they driving kids from a game they love but they are also setting a poor example of how to act like an adult.

We see those same kinds of examples now at the professional level. Just last night a Boston basketball player flipped off a fan at a game. I am sure his wallet will be much lighter for that action. So he will be held accountable for it.

But at the HS, Rec, and Select baseball and softball level there seems to be a lack of accountability from the governing organizations. There is NO excuse for this kind of behavior in my opinion.

Far too often I have had new students who have come to me with their confidence broken and their self esteem torn to shreds because of a coach or an overbearing parent. Do not be that parent. Do not be that coach.

A lot of this comes from a “compete and win at all costs” attitude. It’s not just in sport. Its now in everything you and your kids do in life. And when this happens all sense of responsibility disappears from the coaches and in some cases the parents as well.

Why are we putting so much pressure on them to win? You don’t go into the work place as an adult without training and development. You don’t progress without practice and development in sport.

Ultimately, if done correctly, you will win your fair share of games without putting pressure on the kids every time they step on the field of play. Regardless of the game they choose.

This kind of pressure often manifests itself on the child in ways that will affect them for life. Not just in their performance.

I see it in their body language. I see it in their attitude. I see it in their fear of making a mistake and them waiting to hear a negative comment from an adult.

I sometimes have to cross that line myself as an instructor. But how you go about it is the key to being that coach who wants you to understand that failure is how we learn to improve and get better.

Shouting and screaming at them will not do it. These kinds of behaviors by adults should result in immediate dismissal of the coach or banning parents from attending games based on behavior.

There needs to be a lot more accountability at every level of youth sports now. Not on the kids but on the adults. Sadly, it’s the kids who often pay the price and as a result leave the game they once loved to play.

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Tips for winning the cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters

cat and mouse

One of the most fundamental elements of a fastpitch softball game, especially at the higher levels, is the cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters. Once you get past pitchers just hoping to throw more strikes than balls, and hitters just hoping to make some sort of contact and get on base, the “game within the game” within the first 35-43 feet of the field is quite something to behold.

I work with both pitchers and hitters, so in writing this post I’m kind of like the arms dealer selling to both sides. But it also gives me a pretty interesting perspective because I have a pretty good idea of what each side is being told.

One of the keys to winning that cat-and-mouse game, however, is a willingness to adjust your strategy as the game goes on. Those who go in with a plan and stick to it, no matter what’s actually happening during the game, aren’t going to be as successful as those recognize a new opportunity has come up or what they’re doing, no matter how well-researched it was, just isn’t working.

Here are a few examples of what pitchers (and their catchers, can’t forget them) and hitters can do to adjust to what’s happening in a game. While this list is by no means all-inclusive, or even universally agreed-to, hopefully it can at least create a starting point for better in-game thinking on both sides.

Aggressive hitters

If there’s one universal taught to every pitcher, it’s the concept of getting ahead of the hitter in the count. Almost all the time that means throw the first pitch for a strike, usually with heat behind it.

When a pitcher is facing an aggressive team, or even a single aggressive hitter, who like to swing at the first pitch, that can get dangerous. You’re throwing a strike to hitters who are looking to pound one.

So the counter to that is to start hitters with a changeup or offspeed pitch. Get them to swing and miss, foul off that first pitch, or even mis-hit it into the field for an out. You might even want to follow that up with another one. After all, who expects two changeups in a row? It’s called fastpitch, right?

By throwing a first-pitch change (or first two pitches offspeed) you will often get the results above, AND upset the hitter’s timing for the rest of the at-bat since your change will make your heat seem even faster. Plus, it’s really tough to hit out of an 0-2 hole.

If you’re a hitter, the counter-move to that is to pay attention and figure out the pattern. In other words, if the three batters in front of you got a first-pitch change, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get one two. Sit on that pitch and drive it. Then don’t forget to tell your friends.

Drop balls

The first thing hitters need to do when facing a drop ball pitcher is to figure out where the ball is dropping. Once they know that they have a couple of options.

If the ball is dropping pretty much on the plate, or at the back of it, one thing they can do is move forward in the box to catch the ball before it drops. The other option is to move to the back of the box so the ball is pretty much landing even with their front foot.

In doing so you’re pushing the umpire further back, and making it tougher to call the pitch for a strike. Although technically a strike is the height of the ball over the plate, that gets tougher to judge when the hitter is further back. If you’re successful with this strategy you can start taking those drops for balls, and maybe even take that pitch out of the pitcher’s arsenal that day.

For pitchers, the counter to that move is to have the ability to adjust where the ball breaks based on where the hitter is standing. That’s easier said than done.

Most times when pitchers practice drop balls they only practice them to one location. Smart pitchers, however, will practice moving the break forward and backward by having the catcher move up and back and changing their release point slightly to accommodate the different distances. When a pitcher can do that, her drop becomes a more formidable weapon.

The hitter’s counter? Get better at hitting drop balls.

Pervasive changeups

Ever seen a pitcher (or a coach calling signals) who is in love with her changeup? She throws a great one, so every hitter gets one or two each at bat.

If you as a hitter are having trouble with her speed or movement, here’s an idea: you know the change will come. Just wait for it and hit that. I’ve seen that strategy executed very successfully. Not only do you get the hits; you take the change off the table for a while.

I’ve also seen that ignored – even in the Women’s College World Series. I remember Arizona’s Taryne Mowatt win a national championship by feeding Tennessee’s hitters a steady diet of changeups. I also remember thinking “Why isn’t Tennessee sitting on that change?” – a thought even the announcers echoed an inning or two later. Make the pitcher pay and she will stop it.

The counter for pitchers is not to abandon it entirely. Just lay off it while it seems like the hitters are waiting for it. Once they start getting more aggressive at the plate, bring it back.

Working inside/outside

Pitchers who are consistently pounding the inside or outside corner should be fairly easy to deal with after a couple of innings. Hitters simply need to move into the plate when pitchers are living on the outside corner, thus turning an outside pitch into a middle pitch, or back off a bit if the pitcher is living on the inside corner to turn that inside pitch into a middle pitch. By the way, in my world right handed hitters should always start in on the plate against left handed pitchers until they see the pitcher will throw them inside.

The counter for pitchers, of course, is to take advantage of what the hitters are leaving on the table. In other words, if they’re backing off the plate due to inside pitches, then start throwing the outside corner. Conversely if they’re crowding to get the outside pitch, throw them inside.

That said, pitchers also need to be careful about getting baited to throw a pitch the hitter really likes. I’ve had any number of hitting students who were able to turn well on an inside pitch but struggled a little to let the ball get deep enough on an outside pitch. I will also tell them to crowd the plate. If you throw them inside that ball is likely to go a long way. The last thing the cat wants to do is get caught in the mousetrap.

Zoning in

If hitters don’t want to adjust where they stand at the plate, another strategy they can use is to identify where the pitcher is throwing the ball the most and cut the strike zone in half – or even into one quarter.

For example, one former high school coach I know of was very risk-averse, so he only liked to throw on the low outside corner. If you know that, you can narrow your strike zone to that one zone, look for a ball there, and take it downtown.

Most of the time, though, you’ll probably wind up cutting it in half. If the pitcher can’t throw a strike from the waist up, then just put the blinders on (or maybe pull your helmet visor down a little lower) and only swing at pitches below the waist.

The same for pitchers who throw almost all outside or inside. Where you make contact with the ball changes on inside versus outside, so if you know which half of the plate the ball is likely to be on you can adjust accordingly.

The counter for pitchers (at least where you have control over pitch locations) is to start breaking the pattern to keep the hitters honest, especially when you’re ahead in the count and can afford to miss the strike zone. You might even want to do it now and then even if you don’t have control of pitch calling because, hey, everyone misses a location now and then. Just be prepared to take the heat in the dugout afterwards – even if you’re successful in getting the hitter out.

Slappers

The conventional wisdom on slappers is to pitch them low and outside. But since a slapper wants to hit the ball on the ground in the 5-6 hole, throwing low and out may be the biggest gift you can give them. That’s usually where I start the tee when I begin teaching slappers because it’s the easiest way to get the proper results.

I always tell pitchers there are two types of slappers: those who run straight at the pitcher, and those who try to run to first base as they slap. The strategies are different for each of them.

For slappers who try to run to first base first, the low and out strategy will often work. For well-trained slappers, however, not so much.

In that case, you want to throw them up and in or low and in. Get them to pop up, or hit a weak ground ball to the right side of the infield where the throw is shorter.

For those who are anxious and starting a bit early, you can also throw them a change. Maybe they’ll run through the box, make contact outside of it, and get called out. Or maybe they’ll have to hold up to avoid running out, taking away some of the advantage of the running start.

For slappers, the first counter is to run straight at the pitcher every time. If you see the ball coming at you, then peel off a bit. You can also start a little later than normal to let the ball get deeper on you, or even a bit behind before you make contact (assuming the pitcher is throwing you inside consistently). Unlike hitting away, the closer the ball is to you the deeper you want to let it get so you can get it to the left side.

The other key counter for slappers is not to be one-dimensional. Be able to hit, straight bunt, drag bunt up the first baseline, soft slap, or hit up and over depending on how you’re being pitched and where the defense is playing you. The more you can do, the less the pitcher can rely on any one strategy.

Pay attention

The one common thread you may have noticed in all of those cat-and-mouse games is the need to be aware of what’s going on and pick up on any patterns or tendencies the other side has. The more you do that, the more likely you are to win the battle.

Now it’s your turn. What did I miss? What can hitters or pitchers take advantage of, and what is the counter to that move? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Fastpitch pitchers: getting the feel of the whip

One of the things that keeps being a fastpitch softball instructor fun and interesting is that there is always some new puzzle to solve. That was certainly the case with a girl named Kate and her pitching.

I started working with Kate on her pitching late in the summer last year. Once the weather turned cold I didn’t see her for a while – schedules just didn’t match up – but she continued to work on her own.

When we did get together earlier in the year her speed just wasn’t quite where it should have been. She was working hard, and putting in plenty of effort, but when the ball came out it sort of floated toward the plate. It was almost as if every pitch was a changeup.

That just didn’t sit well with me, of course. Kate is a terrific girl, always smiling and very polite. If I say “good job” she invariably says “thank you.” I’ve actually told her she doesn’t have to thank me every time I say something nice, but it’s tough to overcome good upbringing.

Anyway, I knew here was more speed in Kate, but we were having trouble finding it. It just didn’t seem like she was driving her arm/hand through release.

I tried a couple of different drills, and even gave her a Jugs Lite Flite ball to practice with, thinking the lighter weight might help her feel acceleration into release a little better. The light ball helped a little, but there was still something not working in her delivery.

The other night she came in for a lesson, and I could see during warmups she still wasn’t getting the ball out properly. So I decided to try the towel drill. This is a drill where the player holds a towel, goes into a K position, then whips the towel through. If you do it right you’ll it snap forward somewhat.

Well, that wasn’t working either. After a couple of attempts I wasn’t seeing what I wanted. Then I had an inspiration. I told Kate rather than holding onto the towel she should bring it down and throw it to her dad, Mark, who was about 10 feet in front of her.

The first time she tried it the towel didn’t go anywhere. The second time it went straight to the top of the cage we were working in. But then she started to get it, and the towel went forward. A few more reps and she was easily throwing it quickly to her dad.

So I backed her up and put a ball in her hand. Sure enough, there was a visible speed jump from before. She did it again and had the same result. We finished normal warm-ups and went into full pitches and whaddya know? Suddenly the ball was hitting the catcher’s glove with a nice “thwack!”

She was a bit wild, but I told her don’t worry about that right now. Let’s just focus on your newfound speed. She was able to maintain it throughout the lesson and we were all happy about the breakthrough.

Still, you never know. Sometimes these gains are only temporary. That’s why I was so delighted to receive this text from Mark a couple of days later:

“(W)e can hardly contain our excitement!!!! We just finished our team practice and Kate absolutely rocked it. IT being the pitching part. Her speed is nearly matching the other girl. Perhaps just a few mph difference, and that’s negligible in pitching speak.

On the way home Kate said the sweetest thing to a dad’s ear. ‘I’m so happy.’ I asked her ‘about what, Kate?’ ‘That you found our coach, Ken.'”

I believe what was happening with Kate was that she was twisting her wrist as she released – probably the result of all those wrist flips she used to do before starting with me. Once I had her throw the towel she couldn’t do that anymore if she wanted it to go anywhere, and that gave her the feeling of how to get the ball through the release zone properly.

So if you have a pitcher who is struggling with speed – especially if it looks like she’s in permanent changeup mode relative to her effort level – give this drill a try. Maybe you’ll get a nice text too!

Making adjustments part of the fastpitch game plan

Fastpitch game plans are good, but when they stop working you have to make adjustments

Establishing a game plan is an important part of approaching fastpitch softball games strategically. Especially when you have the opportunity to scout your opponent.

For pitchers, you want to match your strengths to the hitters’ weaknesses. For defense, you want to play to the tendencies. For hitters, you want to get a feel for what’s coming so you  can jump on it when you see it.

Yet all too often I see game plans that look like they were written on stone tablets, dictated by a coach in the form of a burning bush. In other words, the game plan a team starts with is the one they stay with for the entire game.

The problem is, smart coaches on the other side are always looking to figure out what your game plan is so they can adjust theirs. If you just stay with the stone tablets, the game can turn on your pretty quickly.

For example, a coach who notices your hitter are very aggressive at the plate will want to throw more first-pitch changeups. Get you to the pull the ball foul, or swing through the pitch for an easy first strike.

You then have two options. You can continue to go to the plate looking for heat on the first pitch. Or you can recognize what’s happening and sit on the change. Then it’s up to the other team to stick stubbornly to their plan or make an adjustment.

Pitchers may have worked all week on a great sequence of pitches. But if you’re starting every hitter with a rise, or a curve, or a whatever, it probably won’t take them more than 2-3 innings to figure out there’s a pattern to your throwing. Once you see they’re onto you, it’s time to change it up  – perhaps literally with a changeup, or a drop, or a screw. Anything to get them to either swing at the wrong pitch or take it for a strike.

The less comfortable hitters are at the plate, the better it is for pitchers.

This mentality also applies to general strategy. Coaches who sac bunt whenever they get a runner on first are pretty easy to defend. In fact, with one team I coached, where I had a very athletic third baseman, I told her if she caught a bunt in the air for an out I would give her an ice cream upgrade, i.e. when the team went for ice cream cones I’d buy her whatever she wanted. Danged if she didn’t win that challenge too. But it was worth it.

The idea of making adjustments shouldn’t be foreign, especially if you watch football. They talk about halftime adjustments all the time. The winning team usually makes them, getting rid of the plays that aren’t working and changing their defenses to match what the offense is trying to do. The losing team usually doesn’t. And guess which coaching staff lasts longer?

The greatest game plan in the world is worthless if it’s not working – or if it stops working during the game. It’s not something you can pre-program for 7 innings.

Yes, know what you want to do going in, but don’t fall so in love with it that you can’t make changes when you need them. Recognize when the plan’s not working anymore and try something else.

If you can’t do it, maybe designate another coach or even a bench player to be that voice that says “Hey, time to change things up.” Then listen. You may just find yourself on the winning side at the end.

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