Monthly Archives: August 2018

Turn, Turn, Turn? Not Anymore

 

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It’s a pretty safe bet that “Turn, Turn, Turn” is the best-known songs by the 60s folk-rock band The Byrds. It’s either that or “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but I personally think the former is the better song. After all, tough to beat having your lyrics written by folk legend Pete Seeger by way of The Bible.

Even if you never listen to an oldies station you’ve no doubt heard it. It’s pretty much required in any movie about the 60s, or that references the 60s in some way. But just in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid it all these years, here’s a video. Enjoy!

The key point of the song (and why I bring it up, other than my love of jangly 60s music) is it says there’s a “time for every purpose under heaven.”

While that may be mostly true, in the softball world today it seems like there isn’t time for one thing – stepping back and making major corrections in mechanics without the pressure of an upcoming game.

I know Bill Hillhouse says there’s never a bad time to fix mechanics. But it sure is a lot tougher to make a significant change when there is a tournament coming up in a few days.

Once upon a time, the post-season was a great time to make those fixes. You finish up with Nationals at the beginning of August, then take a couple of months off to rest and recuperate before starting up again.

There might be a game or even a tournament here or there, but nothing like we see today.  The way things work right now, players are often trying out for their next team before they’ve finished with the current one. Then it’s straight to practice to get ready for a two-month schedule of tournaments every weekend.

Of course, player performance in those early games sets the tone for how they’ll be perceived, especially if they’re on a new team where they’re not known. So rather than taking a step back to maybe fix things that could be better, players are more likely to continue down the path of what’s worked so far. Even if it’s not optimal.

The problem is certain mechanical fixes are likely to make a player worse before they make her better. Now, for some it doesn’t matter. If your mechanics are bad and you’re not performing, there’s little risk in making changes. Nowhere to go but up and all of that.

For others who have had success already but want to get better, however, it can be a problem. They were comfortable with where they were, and they were doing well, so making changes gets them out of that comfort zone, creating a risk of failure where there used to be success. And failure is an important part of the overall learning curve.

A pitcher maybe slower or less accurate until she resets her timing or gets all the body parts working together properly. A hitter may be tentative rather than aggressive until she’s had a chance to figure everything out. You get the idea.

The long-term benefits are there. It’s just hard to keep that in mind when you’re in the circle, in the batter’s box, on the field, etc. No one wants to look bad, especially in front of a new team (and coach). So they’ll tend to fall back on what they always did rather than forging ahead into new territory.

I don’t blame the players (or their parents). You gotta do what you gotta do. But with our 12-months a year season there’s little time available to fail for a little while to succeed in the future.

There has to be a better way. Somehow or another, there needs to be a season where pitchers can take the time to focus on changes that will help them increase speed without having to keep their change, drop, or other pitches sharp. Or hitters can focus on getting their sequence right instead of worrying about making contact with the ball. You get the drift.

What’s the solution? One idea is to play fewer tournaments, or maybe even fewer games overall in the fall. I know that won’t be a popular idea but it would definitely create some headroom for experimentation.

If you can’t do that, maybe teams can set aside a month or two during the winter months to work on reaching some specific goal or making a major change. Recognize that your player may not look like your player for a little while, but ultimately she will be better.

Maybe you have other ideas. If so, please share them in the comments.

All I know is there really needs to be a time for everything – including getting away from the pressure to perform so players can take the time they need to get better. It may be tough to accept at first. But the results will be worth it.

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Bring a Little Fun to Corrections By Playing HORSE

Help player learn skills faster by playing HORSE

Being a coach sometimes can feel like you’re stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. You offer a correction, the player makes it for a repetition or two, then goes back to what she was doing before. So you offer the correction again and the cycle repeats.

This pattern particularly shows up with younger players, but it can happen to anyone anytime. Obviously, two good repetitions followed by a few incorrect ones isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

So how do you provide a little extra incentive to focus on doing it right every time? This is where taking advantage of the competitive nature of fastpitch softball players can come in handy.

Fastpitch softball is a tough sport full of difficulties and disappointments, so players really have to have some competitive fire to keep going with it. They also have to love a challenge. As soon as you press the “compete” button you almost always have their full and undivided attention.

One way I’ve done this is to borrow from the playground basketball game of HORSE. You know the one. You take a shot, then the player after you has to take the same shot. If he/she doesn’t make it, he/she gets a letter. You keep going until only one player hasn’t spelled out HORSE.

For Katie, the girl in the photo at the top of the post, the challenge was getting her to bring her back leg into her front leg to finish the pitch. She had the very common tendency of throwing the front leg out without using the back leg. As a result, the back leg was more of an anchor dragging behind her and cutting back on her speed and accuracy.

So I challenged her to a game of HORSE. The rules were simple. If her back leg finished by closing into her front leg (more or less) no letter was assigned. If, however, she finished with her legs spread apart (which usually caused her to bend forward as well) she received a letter.

Once we established those simple rules, it was game on! Suddenly, instead of the Groundhog Day loop of me telling her to finish, she was more on top of it. She still ended up getting an H-O, as I recall, but that was all in the 10 minutes we spent on it.

That was pretty good improvement, because it meant in all the pitches she threw she only failed twice. More importantly, rather than me telling her to fix the issue she was now dedicated to fixing it herself – because she didn’t want to lose the game!

I knew it really got through to her, though, when at her next lesson she asked if we could play HORSE again. I think she wanted to play because she knew she could win; she’d worked on it between lessons to gain the advantage.

But that’s ok with me – I want her to win, because then she’s improving her mechanics and using her body more effectively. By the way, there was no prize for winning or avoiding getting HORSE, although there certainly could’ve been. The game simply appealed to her competitive nature and got her attention.

In reality, this is a game/technique you can use to drive improvement for all kinds of techniques. Have a hitter who is dropping her hands or swinging bat-first? Play HORSE.

Have a fielder who isn’t getting her glove down on ground balls, or a catcher who isn’t keeping her glove on the ground while blocking? Play HORSE.

(I’m not just saying this to you, by the way. I am also making this as notes to myself, as I am definitely under-utilizing this idea.)

The one thing I would caution is focus the game on the process/skills, not the results. So use it to help a first baseman learn to scoop a ball in the dirt properly, but not to keep track of whether she actually got it or not. Or use it to help a hitter learn to swing hips-first rather than giving her a letter if she swings and misses.

If she learns the skill, the results will take care of themselves. But if you focus on the outcomes, you won’t drive the skills. Instead, you’ll probably reinforce bad habits as the player tries to avoid the error/failure instead of learning and internalizing the technique.

In any case, if you find yourself in a Groundhog Day-like loop, give HORSE a try. And if you do, or you’ve done the same thing yourself, let me know how it works for you in the comments below.

The importance of being coachable

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A few days ago my friend Tim Boivin sent me this article about NBA star (and future Hall of Famer) Tim Duncan. The article quotes an open letter from Tony Parker, who explains that the San Antonio Spurs’ winning culture was largely driven by the coachability of Duncan.

The article talks about how Duncan’s success meant he didn’t really have to listen to anyone, as many stars in various sports choose to do. Instead, Duncan took coaching like he was trying to make the team as the last player rather than leading it as its top player.

That attitude permeated the rest of the team. You can imagine the players who were just barely hanging on seeing how coachable Duncan was, and telling themselves “I’d better fall in line too.”

That’s a lesson softball players can and should learn as well. You work hard, and you reach a certain level of accomplish. Maybe everyone tells you you’re the best player on the team/in the conference/in the tournament/at the camp. You start feeling pretty good about yourself, and suddenly you don’t think you need much coaching anymore.

Honestly, that’s the fast track to failure, or at least not achieving your dreams. You stop listening, start slacking off, and before you know it you’re now looking at the backs of players you used to be ahead of.

I’ve spoken to coaches who have worked with the top players in fastpitch softball, and they’ve all said the same thing about the best players they’ve coached. They were all hungry for information, and would do whatever it took to gain even a small edge or make a small improvement.

They didn’t resist coaching. They soaked it in the way a sponge soaks up water.

Being coachable isn’t that tough. You just have to be willing to learn, and willing to accept that however good you are you can always be better. You have to actively listen and try to understand what’s being taught rather than merely going through the motions.

If you don’t understand something you have to be willing to ask questions – even if you think it makes you look foolish. You can bet if you don’t understand something there’s someone else who also doesn’t understand but is too afraid to ask.

The great thing about being coachable is that it’s a choice. You can’t choose how tall you are, or whether your body is loaded with fast twitch muscles. You can’t choose how much raw athleticism you have. You can’t choose your core body type, i.e., to be long and lean if your DNA says you will be short and stout.

But you can choose how willing you are to listen and learn. The more open you are to new information that can help you, the more likely you are to reach your goals.

The final part of being coachable is being willing to do whatever is needed to help the team at the time. Sometimes that means playing a position other than the one you prefer until you get your shot at the one you really want. (Of course if you never get that shot it’s a different story for another blog post, but in this case we’re talking about a temporary change.)

And hey, you never know. By being coachable you might set a standard and create a culture for a team that lasts long after your playing days are done. That’s how you go from being a great player to a legend.

Beginner’s Guide to Calling Pitches

Makayla

This came up recently when the mom of one of my students asked me for a little help in learning how to call pitches for her daughter. Makayla worked very hard through the off-season, pre-season, and then the season itself to learn to throw a good, reliable fastball, a strong change, and the beginnings of a drop ball.

The thing is, knowing how to throw those pitches isn’t enough. You also need to know when. Sarah wanted to use the pitches strategically but wasn’t sure how.

Now, you can search for fastpitch pitch calling guides on the Internet, but most of them assume a much older, more experienced pitcher with a variety of pitches at their disposal. Yes, it’s great to say “throw a curve followed by a rise” to this type of hitter. But what if you  don’t have either?

To help her out, I put together the guide below. You can either copy and print it out, from this post or you can download the attachment which contains the same information.

The guide essentially speaks to how to use “just” a fastball and a change to get ahead of hitters and keep them off-balance so they either strike out or make weak contact. It goes through what to throw different types of hitters as well as some core strategies.

This information has been vetted, too. I checked in with Sarah after Makayla’s last tournament and she said it worked great. So if you’re just getting into the whole cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters, this guide should give you a good start.

Basic Pitch Calling Guide

This guide assumes the pitcher has a fastball and changeup, and can locate her fastball reasonably well. Keep in mind that you also have to pay attention to what the pitcher has that day. If she can’t throw to the outside corner this day, you won’t want to do that as often and so on.

Good hitter (1-5 in lineup most likely)

  • Start low and out. Most hitters don’t like that pitch and will let it go by for a free strike. “When in doubt, throw low and out.”
  • When ahead in the count (0-2 or 1-2), don’t throw strikes trying to go for the “quick kill.” Try throwing a high pitch, or well outside.
  • Mix it up. If you threw two outside pitches in a row, come back inside. But don’t do it every time. Having a set pattern will come back to haunt you.
  • If the changeup is working, try starting a strong hitter with a change. They’re usually looking to rock a fastball so a change will throw them off – maybe for the entire at bat.

Power hitter

  • Keep the ball low. You want ground balls, not fly balls.
  • Again, try starting with a changeup.
  • If the first change worked, don’t be afraid to throw another one right away. Hitters rarely expect back-to-back changeups.
  • Depending on the situation, a walk may not be a bad option. Better to give up one base than four. Especially with runners on base.
  • With an 0-1 count, try coming inside. Let her crush a pitch foul down the left field line (right handed batter). It’s just a long strike, but it provides an overblown sense of self-confidence. Then go back outside, or throw a change.

Weaker hitter

  • If you can blow the ball by them, do it. Don’t try to get too fancy until they prove they can catch up to the fastball. A changeup may be the only pitch they can hit.
  • Don’t worry as much about inside/outside either. If you’re overpowering them, just rear back and rock it in there.
  • If they look nervous at the plate, come inside for a strike. One inside pitch ought to be enough to freeze their bats.

Slappers (if you see any)

  • Watch how they run toward the front of the box
    • If they go directly at the pitcher, throw inside to try and jam them; throwing low and out just helps them by putting the ball where they want it
    • If they try to run to first base right away, throw outside
  • Throw changeups to take away the advantage of a running start
  • Throw high to try to get them to pop up

Good times to throw a changeup

  • First pitch to a good hitter (but not all the time).
  • Right after pulling the ball far down the line foul. She’s ahead of the fastball. She’ll REALLY be ahead of the change.
  • When she fouls a pitch straight back.
  • Right after she missed a changeup.
  • When she’s been fouling off several pitches. She has the timing down, just hasn’t quite gotten the bat on the ball. Throw the change, even if it’s for a ball. The change in speed will upset her timing.

Hitter location at the plate

  • Standing close to the plate – throw inside (but be careful – some hitters like inside and not inside; I teach hitters like that to crowd the plate on purpose to turn outside pitches into middle pitches and to try to draw inside pitches)
  • Standing away from the plate – throw outside; they won’t be able to reach the pitch, and are probably scared of being hit

Basic Pitch Calling Guide

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