Monthly Archives: December 2018

Practice Doesn’t Always Have to Mean Going to a Field or Facility

Paige-pitching.jpg

When someone says “it’s time to practice” what’s the first thing that springs to mind? For most of us involved in fastpitch softball the answer is probably grabbing some equipment, running out to a field or facility, and then spending the next 30, 60, or more minutes hard at work (as Paige is doing in the photo above).

While that approach is generally a good thing, it also has a downside (doesn’t everything?). When we’re in that mindset, we tend to think if we can’t do those things (get to a field or facility, spend 30-60 minutes) then we are unable to practice. In fact, “practice” kind of becomes an activity unto itself that requires special effort.

That’s unfortunate because for some players it could mean going a week or more without making any progress to get better. For others, especially those who are trying to learn new skills, it could even mean they get worse, or regress all the way back to step one.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Practice doesn’t have to involve going somewhere or making a special effort. And it certainly doesn’t have to be tied to a set amount of time.

Working on fastpitch softball skills anytime, anywhere, for any length of time can help players get better (or at least maintain their gains) versus doing nothing at all. The key is for players to know what they need to focus on and work those movements.

Take pitching, for example. Perhaps a player is having a tough time learning to relax the arm in the circle so she can whip the hand through at the end. In a full practice session with a catcher, she may be too focused on throwing strikes – double if the catcher is her dad. in that case she may continue to lock out the elbow and “guide” the ball to the plate.

But at home in her bedroom, or standing outside waiting for the bus, or marching through the house she can make arm circles and focus on staying relaxed throughout. No ball, field, facility, or catcher required. Learning to make the proper arm movement will help her know what it feels like when she’s actually pitching so she can carry the improvement forward there.

She doesn’t need to spend a half hour doing it either. If she takes 5 or 10 minutes it will help. Do that three random times during the day and she’ll have put in 15-30 minutes without even realizing it.

The same goes for hitters. Maybe the hitter is having trouble learning to lead with her hips, or is having a problem with barring out her front arm during the swing. She can practice the correct movements wherever she happens to be standing, whenever she has the chance.

The more she makes those movements the more natural they will become – and the easier they will be to execute when she’s actually up to bat.

Practicing in small increments may even have some benefits over longer sessions, especially if the longer sessions are focused on one thing. It’s similar to block practice v randomized practice.

In block practice you focus on one thing for a long time. With randomized practice you don’t linger on a single skill for any length of time. You essentially go from skill to skill. Studies have shown that the skills transfer better in game situations when practice is more randomized, at least in part because you get too used to doing the same thing over and over – an opportunity you don’t have in a game.

The other benefit to the shorter sessions in random locations is it lets players concentrate on the specific movements they need to improve on rather than the outcomes of those movements. And as we all know, in the end if you do the right things in the right way the outcomes will take care of themselves.

This isn’t to say longer, more formal practice sessions aren’t necessary. They absolutely are. But they’re not the only way to practice.

Taking advantage of whatever time and space is available is a great way to ensure players continue to improve. And it definitely beats using “I don’t have the time/I can’t get to the field or gym” as an excuse to do nothing.

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Product Review: Jugs Short T Comes Up Big for Working on the Low Pitch

Grace-Bradley-and-Jugs-Short-T.jpg

Most fastpitch softball (and baseball for that matter) hitting coaches agree that tee work is one of the most valuable ways hitters can spend their time. By taking the element of a moving ball out of the equation hitters can focus on developing the mechanics that will enable them to hit the ball harder, farther, at better launch angle, and with more consistency rather than simply trying to “make contact.”

The typical tee is great for simulating pitches from just above the knees up to the armpits on all but those on the most extreme ends of the height spectrum. But what about those extra low pitches that umpire strike zones sometimes dictate hitters must be able to cover?

Without understanding the adjustments that need to be made on shin-high, or just-below-the-knee pitches, hitters will be more likely to swing over the top of the ball resulting in a sinking line drive or a weak grounder. Which, of course, is exactly the result pitchers (and whoever is calling pitches) are hoping for when they throw it there in the first place.

This is where the Jugs Short T is such a great addition to your hitting toolbox. Built with Jugs Short Tthe same durable construction and materials as the regular Jugs T, which was previously reviewed here, the Short T makes it easy to get quality reps going after those pesky low pitches.

Getting down to it

The advantage of the Short T is that it can go as low as 16 inches off the ground, then extend up to 23 inches. (The standard Jugs T starts at 24 inches high.) That should cover the bottom of the zone (and then some) for just about any hitter.

The base is the same as that used for the standard Jugs T, which means if you’re tight on space and don’t mind putting in a little extra effort you can carry one base and two tee heights. They also sell a combo kit with both heights if you are so inclined.

The base itself is heavy enough to keep from getting knocked over even by strong hitters who swing under the ball – no need to carry an extra weight around. It also has a convenient carrying handle built in, making it easy to move from a shed, locker, car, etc. to wherever you plan to hit.

The tee section itself is solid enough to hold its height even after repeated use, yet still slides up and down easily. I’ve had my standard Jugs T for several years now and it holds as well as it did the day I got it – unlike some tees that eventually start sinking the minute you put a ball on them.

You can use it with multiple hitters, day after day, with no worries that it will lose its solid performance over time.

Greater versatility

While the primary reason anyone would purchase the Short T is to work on low pitches, it can also be used to address another issue that is common with fastpitch softball hitters – the desire to stand up straight as they make contact.

Part of that habit, I’m sure, is driven by well-meaning but poorly informed coaches who instruct their hitters to “swing level” or “keep your shoulders level.” That’s just not how good hitters hit. Instead, they tend to have a shoulder angle that tilts in toward the ball.

Or it could just be that they got into the habit of standing up straight and never learned anything different. No matter the cause, the desire to finish standing up with shoulders level is a problem.

When you think about how little surface of the bat and ball contact each other, even a deviation of an inch – say from starting to stand up, which pulls the bat up – can have a significant effect on the outcome of the swing. Demonstrate you can’t hit the low pitch well and you will see a steady diet of dropballs and low fastballs for the rest of the game – especially if you’re a big hitter.

A phrase I like to use is “get on it and stay on it.” In other words, adjust to the pitch and then stay there. The Jugs Short T helps train that behavior by forcing hitters to go lower and stay down. If they try to stand up as they swing they will either miss completely or just tap the ball.

That’s what Grace Bradley, a powerful hitter in her own right, is working on in this video.

She is building a pattern where she can go down and dig the ball out to get the kind of launch angle that helps create her high OPS.

After a few practice swings on the Jugs Short T we switched to front toss and she was digging out even the ankle-high stuff for line drives that move base runners and let her trot rather than sprint around the bases.

That’s bad news for pitchers too. Because if they can’t throw you high, and they can’t throw you low, you’re going to be an awfully tough out.

Worth the money

Whether you (or your team if you’re a coach) is struggling with the low pitch or you just want to train your hitters to adjust better overall, at $75 to $80 retail the Jugs Short T is a great investment. It will help you create better hitters this year. And for many years to come.

Send A Letter to Your Future Self

Future Ken note

A couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing for my annual battle with putting Christmas lights on the roof of my house, I came across the note pictured above. It was a message from myself last spring, when I took the lights down, alerting me to a potential issue with some of the strings.

(By the way, a tip of the Hatlo Hat to the TV show How I Met Your Mother for the whole Future Ken/Past Ken thing.)

I had completely forgotten the lights had fallen off the roof (better them than me!), so I was glad I’d done it. I was also quite amused by the whole concept.

Then last week at the NFCA convention I heard a speaker talk about how players should do the exact same thing prior to their season, to be opened at the end. In her case it was to be opened upon winning an NCAA D1 championship (which didn’t happen), but the concept is still a good one.

For players who are serious about their game, what better way is there to end a season than to look at the perspective of their (slightly) younger selves to see how it matched up to reality?

Here’s the idea. Before the season, the player sits down and imagines what the season will be like. Not just the quantifiable goals, but maybe how things went, what the experience was like, what they accomplished, what they liked and disliked, etc.

It should be a personal letter from Past (Player) to Future (Player). It could include encouragement, consolation, congratulations or whatever the player happens to be feeling at the time.

Then seal it up and put it away, not to be opened until after the season. Now that they player has gone through the entire season experience, she can compare what she thought would happen, and how she thought she’d feel, to what actually happened.

An exercise like this can help put things into perspective. For example, if the player is on the fence about whether to stay with this team or look for another, she can compare what her expectations were to what actually happened.

If she had a tough season, she can look back on how hard she expected to work and compare that to how hard she actually worked. If she was feeling awkward around new teammates in the beginning, she can compare that to how she feels about her teammates now. Maybe she made some great new friends and is just grateful to have been part of such an awesome group.

There are so many things to be gained from this exercise. If you’re a parent, try having your favorite player do it. If you’re a coach, have your team do it and hold the envelopes until the end of the season banquet/party.

By the way, this isn’t just for players. Coaches can do the same exercise as well.

I’ve had great seasons where you hated to see them end, and I’ve had seasons where it all couldn’t end soon enough. If nothing else it would have been fun to see how my earlier self viewed what was coming and whether it matched up to what actually occurred.

In our hyper-fast world we tend to only look at what’s right in front of us. In doing so we miss the benefits of a longer-term view.

By taking the time to write out this letter to their future selves, players and coaches can gain a longer-term view, and perhaps use that to change their next future.

So what do you think of this idea? Have you ever tried it? If so, how did it turn out? Leave your experiences below in the comments.

Patience the Key to Making Fundamental Changes

 

Hailey HI know I’ve talked about this many times before but one of the problems fastpitch softball players face in our “instant-everything” world is an expectation that they can fix major issues, or go from good to great, with just a few repetitions.

I see it all the time. The coach or instructor explains what needs to change in order to improve, the player tries it a few times, and then is disappointed when whatever it is doesn’t work right away.

The reality is it’s just like healing from an injury – it requires patience. Anyone who has ever been hurt (which I imagine includes everyone on the planet) knows what it’s like.

First comes the injury and usually a lot of pain. But as the constant pain begins to subside the player starts testing the injured part to see if it’s ok now, even though the doctor said it would take four weeks to heal completely. Then, by constantly stressing it to see if it still hurts, the recovery period is extended out even further.

Making a change, especially a fundamental change in mechanics takes time – along with many steps and missteps.

A good way to think about it is how you go from home to first. Anyone who tries to get there in a single bound (unless they are from Krypton) is going to be disappointed. No matter how hard you try, or how long you work at it, you’re never going to go 60 feet in a single bound.

Instead, it takes many, many steps. There’s simply no way around it. You can do things to minimize the number of steps, or accelerate the time it takes to go from home to first. But it’s still going to take many steps.

And that takes patience. Replacing old habits with new ones usually requires following a process where you master the first step (or at least become pretty competent with it) before you move on to the next one. Otherwise it’s too easy to slide right back into the old habits.

Take learning to throw overhand properly, for example. Many girls will tend to drop their elbows to their ribcage when they throw, creating more of a pushing motion. That’s a huge issue that will limit both velocity and distance, and needs to be corrected.

Usually that means breaking down the throwing motion and focusing on getting the arm to slot properly. There are many different ways to do it, and programs that can help.

But what often happens is after a few repetitions the player immediately wants to go back to full throws. And what happens? The elbow starts dropping back down again, which means all the work that was put in before takes a couple of steps back. That desire to jump right to the finish now means it will take even longer to get to a real finish.

Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one that can be tough to come by. Especially in today’s world where everyone wants results now. And feels they have to get results now because there’s always another game coming up.

Still, patience is something that’s worth developing. If players (and their parents) can take their time to truly replace old habits with new ones rather than just trying to get to the finish line right away, or going straight back into full reps, they’ll find it actually takes less time overall – and the results will be more permanent.

So the next time you’re working with a player who wants to try to get from home to first in one bound – or even two, three, or four – help her put on the brakes and stick to the plan. The results will be worth the effort.

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