Monthly Archives: September 2018

My Advice to Softball Parents: Lighten Up, Francis

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Anyone who has seen the movie “Stripes” knows the reference in the headline. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a great scene where the new recruits are just getting to know each other, and one of the guys starts a serious rant about what he’ll do to the others if they call him Francis instead of Psycho, or do some other stuff. His drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka, is not impressed. You can see a condensed version of this very funny scene here:

So why am I bringing up this random movie reference? Because it seems like there are more and more parents these days who could use Sgt. Hulka’s advice.

While it doesn’t always hold true, it does seem like the craziness of parents today is in inverse proportion to the age of the players. In other words, if you really want to see crazy, check out a 10U game.

Not sure why that is. Maybe by the time players get to 18U the parents have figured out that the outcome of a softball game isn’t worth risking a potential heart attack and have mellowed out. Or maybe all the players with crazy parents have been weeded out, or have told their parents, “Hey, I’ll drive myself to the game, why don’t you see if you can find a hobby that makes you less likely to find you sitting in the parking lot dashing off angry emails to whoever will listen?”

Of course, that’s not to say you don’t see that behavior at the older ages. I have been at D1 college games at major schools where parents are yelling things from the stands at the umpires, and the coaches, as though there were still back playing rec ball. But that’s more the exception.

Here’s the thing, though. All that crazy yelling and stomping around and getting into fistfights is really a waste of energy.

I know all this stuff seems critically important at the time. Especially today, when so many parents believe their daughter is D1 athletic scholarship material and don’t want any idiot umpire/coach/league administrator/whoever screwing up her chances.

Really, though, it’s not. I’ve been involved in fastpitch softball for more than 20 years. I had two daughters play at some level from the time they were 10 until they left high school. I’m sure I got worked up pretty well from time to time myself, although I did manage to keep my crazy in check as I recall.

But whether things went well or not during a game, none of it really mattered in the big scheme of things. My daughters played, then they didn’t, then they want on to become fine human beings and productive members of society. Even if some blue was occasionally squeezing the zone on them.

If you really want to see how crazy it is to let the crazy out, try this experiment. At your next tournament, go watch two teams you couldn’t care less about play. Sit or stand somewhere you can hear the parents and watch the same game they’re watching. Then count how many times people get angry about something that just makes you shrug your shoulders.

The reality is, a softball player’s career is short, which means your time to enjoy watching your player(s) as a parent is short. It’s not life-or-death. It’s just a game.

Next time you feel your blood beginning to boil and the urge to express yourself loudly, just remember the immortal wisdom of Sgt. Hulka: Lighten up, Francis.

 

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The Importance of Consistency When Learning Fastpitch Skills

Sammie pitching

The once-funny and now just more generally creepy comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen has been quoted as saying “80% of success is just showing up” or something to that effect.

While most times ol’ Woody isn’t the person you want to take advice from in anything having to do with kids, in this statement he is most definitely correct. Especially when it comes to the early stages of learning fastpitch softball skills.

Let’s take hitting for example. Hitting even a decently fast pitch in fastpitch softball requires a series of movements that must be performed correctly individually, sequenced correctly, and timed correctly. Some of those movements and sequences aren’t necessarily intuitive.

Since the object of the skill is to hit the ball with the bat, it’s easy for young hitters to assume that they should focus on taking the bat to the ball first. If their body turns afterward, so much the better.

But that’s actually the opposite of what they should be doing. The proper sequence is hips-shoulders-bat. A good instructor will teach that sequence, which not only maximizes power but the time the hitter has to see the ball before committing to the swing and the ability to hit the ball in the proper zone.

If that young hitter who’s still learning only comes to lessons once every few weeks, however, there’s a very good chance she will forget all about the proper sequence and spend her time practicing a bat-first swing. Then her distraught parents will wonder why they’re paying all this money for lessons and not getting better.

It becomes even more important with windmill pitching because in my opinion there is so much that can go wrong – and failure is more obvious. If you have a bad swing but still manage to make contact with the bat you can get on base.

But if you’re not throwing strikes, or you’re throwing easy-to-hit strikes, you’re going to have a tough day. As I tell my students, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside, but it can be a cold, dark place on the inside.

Again, with windmill pitching some of the movements aren’t necessarily intuitive. If they were, you’d see more rec league pitchers using good form.

But instead, most untrained pitchers tend to stay facing forward, take a short step off the pitching rubber, and proceed to push/guide the ball toward the plate. THAT is what feels natural and intuitive. But it’s not what great pitchers do.

If a newbie pitcher only goes to lessons now and then and then gets put into a game before she’s ready, she will likely find herself like Luke Skywalker in the cave on Dagobah.

To really get the maximum value out of lessons in the early stages, it’s important to receive consistent training. That’s because you’re setting the foundation for all that is to come.

My recommendation is once per week – no more, no less – although you can do it going every other week if necessary. It will just likely take a bit longer to get where you want to go.

That regularity – and the short time between reviews by the instructor – helps keep players from veering too far off the path to success. It’s easier to do a reset when the training is consistent.

Going sporadically, however, gives the illusion of training without the benefits. Too much can go wrong in the meantime, and we all know it’s a lot easier to develop bad habits than to break them.

Instruction always works better when you apply it properly. In the early stages especially, that requires consistency. Make the commitment, even when it’s challenging, and you’ll see the rewards a whole lot faster.

 

Don’t Take Everything You Hear or See At Face Value

Natalie hitting

Every week I receive an email that links to pieces of instructional videos for fastpitch softball. And almost every week I end up shaking my head at what I see in them – especially because the company that sends the videos out is charging people good money for such poor instruction.

This week held yet another perfect example. A college coach (from a big name D1 school as I recall) was talking about flaws in loading when hitting. He had a young player, maybe 12U or 14U, there with him helping him demonstrate.

And what was his big advice? Don’t let the head and the front foot move in the same direction at the same time during the “load.’

First of all, he seems to be confused between the load and stride. He kept saying load but most of the discussion was about the stride. So he might want to check that out first.

But regardless of the terminology, he was basically saying that the front foot should move first, then the head should follow afterward. All I could think was “that poor girl.”

Let’s see if this coach’s advice passes the evidence test. Here’s a video of some MLB hitters taken from the side. Watch them as they stride and see if their head moves with the foot or not.

If the camera is steady you can place your cursor on the hitter’s head and see if the head stays there. If not, compare the head position to the background throughout the stride.

What do you see? I know what I see. The head and the center of gravity are moving forward as these hitters stride.

Of course, maybe these are just extraordinary athletes. And they’re men. So let’s look at former Michigan star Sierra Romero, who did pretty well for herself this year with the NPF’s USSSA Pride. Advance the video to about 2:14 to see the stride, and again what do you see her head doing as her front foot moves forward?

The point here isn’t to take on the specific video I watched, although hopefully by now you’re ready to disregard that particular piece of advice. It’s more to say that parents and players should be careful about what they accept as good instruction.

You would think a college coach, presumably a hitting coach, would understand the swing and how it works. But clearly that isn’t necessarily true.

It’s the same thing with taking advice from a former player because she was/is a star in college, or high school. Often times players and former players just repeat what they were told when they were growing up, even if it’s not what they actually did/do, because they haven’t put the time in to study the mechanics.

The best thing you can do is educate yourself. Before you blindly accept advice or training from anyone – and that includes me, by the way – take what they’re saying and see if that’s what the top current players do. If not, you should find someone who will teach you those mechanics and approaches.

Hitting is easier to compare, because you not only have top college, NPF, and National Team players to compare what’s said to what’s done, but you also have MLB hitters. Hitting is hitting after all, and anyone who tells you softball has a different swing needs to throw out their VHS tapes and at least buy a DVD or two from this millennium.

Or there’s this new thing out called YouTube that all the kids are talking about. Maybe those instructors want to check it out.

The hitting exception is slapping. They don’t do that in MLB, so you’ll need to look at softball only.

The same goes for pitching, because videos of MLB players will be of little use. But there’s plenty of good video of top pitchers in game action, which is where you want to check them out. See what makes them successful in games and compare that to what you’re being told. Here’s a good starting point for you.

Catching, fielding, throwing, base running, all of those are similar skills between fastpitch softball and baseball, so you have plenty of source material there. Sure, there are nuances, mostly driven by the difference in the length of the basepaths and size of the field overall, but anyone with even a little experience watching both should be able to adjust for that.

It’s easy to buy into a reputation, or a great set of credentials. But neither of those will help you on the field.

Be a smart consumer. Make sure what you’re being taught, no matter who is teaching it, matches up with what great players do. Otherwise, save your money on lessons or DVDs until you’ve confirmed your investment will take you where you need to go.

 

Playing Softball Can Actually Help You Live Longer

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While it may not seem like it sometimes given the behavior of parents and coaches these days, there’s new evidence that playing team sports like fastpitch softball can actually help you live longer than participating in solitary sports like jogging, cycling, and swimming.

While the study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, doesn’t name fastpitch softball specifically, and admits that the evidence is observational, it’s still worth noting. Especially given the emphasis in schools today on “fitness for life” activities that are primarily solo endeavors. Perhaps a return to team sports might yield better long-term results?

According to the study, the difference-maker is the social aspect involved in team sports, or any sorts of activities you can’t do alone such as tennis. Getting out and being active with others may create more of an uplift than slogging through a health club workout alone.

It makes sense. There is something about the shared experience that tends to get our juices flowing. Not to mention the sense of competition.

For most of us, while attempting to better our last score is certainly a challenge, it’s nothing compared to the idea of trying to best another person. Our primitive brains still tend to think in black/white, win/lose terms, so there’s more incentive to push ourselves to gain a better outcome.

At the same time, we all have this deep-seated desire for social interaction. Not the kind you get online, which is still pretty much a solo activity, but just getting out and being with people. Even if you don’t interact with anyone else, going to a coffee shop or even walking around on a crowded street satisfies a sense of belonging we all have at some level.

But mostly I think one of the values of fastpitch softball is the shared experience of trying to reach a goal, whether it’s win this inning, win this game, win this tournament, or win this season. Knowing you depend on others, and others depend on you, just strikes a chord in us as humans that working out by yourself just can’t match.

How does all of that help us live longer? Maybe it encourages us to keep going when we might otherwise stop, giving us more exercise. Maybe it releases chemicals in our brain or bodies that aren’t otherwise stimulated. Maybe it changes our attitude in some subtle way. Or maybe it’s none of the above.

Whatever the reason, there’s now one more benefit to add to the list of why fastpitch softball is a great sport to play. As if you needed one.

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