Monthly Archives: November 2019

Plant the Seeds for Softball Success Early

thanksgiving-3780752_1920.png

It is Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S. as I write this, and I have to say I love Thanksgiving.

It’s the quintessential American holiday. How can you not love a holiday whose sole purpose is to eat until you feel sick, take a break, then go back for dessert?

It’s no wonder American is the most obese nation in the industrialized world. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Even the decorating themes for Thanksgiving revolve mostly around food. Particularly the cornucopia, basically a horn with a bunch of vegetables, fruit or other healthy foods (ironically) falling out of it. I say ironically since vegetables are the thing least likely to be eaten at a Thanksgiving dinner. 

cornucopia-of-vegetables

Not a carb in the entire photo.

(Those of you reading this who are not from the U.S. really need to come here sometime and experience just what this holiday means. You will probably be blown away and appalled at the same time.)

Thinking about all of that food being prepared all over the U.S., however, got me thinking about how all those veggies get on the table in the first place. It’s not like they just suddenly appear out of nowhere. They all start out as seeds that must be planted and cultivated long before they’re actually consumed.

It’s the same with fastpitch softball skills. With rare exceptions, players can’t just walk out on the field and start performing. They also can’t start working on their skills a week or two before the season starts and expect to be able to play at their highest possible level.

Instead, the seeds need to be planted early. And like seeds, at first you may not see much happening.

But then those skills start to sprout a little. You notice little improvements, like throwing a little harder or getting to balls that were out of reach before.

green and yellow tractor on dirt

Committing to the metaphor. Photo by John Lambeth on Pexels.com

As time goes on, if you continue to cultivate those skills they continue to grow until they’re ready to be harvested in a game.

On the other hand, if you plant the seeds then ignore the “field” for a while, the skills may appear somewhat but they’ll be smaller, scragglier and less bountiful than they could have been. Which means you’ll be left hungry, wishing you’d done more to ensure a cornucopia of performance that will last the entire season.

So keep that idea in mind as you decide whether you’re too tired, or too busy, or too whatever to start honing your skills right now. The season may seem far away, but it will be here before you know it. Make sure you’re ready.

To my friends and followers here in the U.S., I wish you a healthy, happy Thanksgiving. To those of you from outside the U.S., I also wish you those blessings even if it’s just a regular old Thursday.

Thank you to all of you for joining me on this softball journey. I am grateful to share my thoughts with you.

And remember U.S. friends, if your Thanksgiving celebration gets boring, just bring up politics. That’s sure to get the party started.

 Main Thanksgiving image by Annalise Batista from Pixabay

Another Great Life After Softball Story – Christina Smok

christina-smok-tanzania.jpg

One of the best things about coaching fastpitch softball, at least in my mind, is the opportunity to get to know so many great girls and their families. Still, these relationships tend to be fleeting, so it’s always cool to see what’s happened to a former player or student once you’re not sharing the same field.

Today I have the privilege of telling the story of a remarkable young women named Christina Smok. I only had the opportunity to coach her for a year, in her first year of

Christina Smok tag

Christina applies the tag. The girl looks out to me.

playing 14U travel ball, but it was a great year. I’ve included a nice action shot from that year here on the right.

Christina played catcher and third base, and did a great job at both. She worked hard, played hard, and always brought a great attitude. She continued to play through high school, but like many decided that college softball wasn’t for her.

That didn’t mean she gave up the game, however. Instead, unlike so many, she moved into coaching with the program she was a part of in the last few years of her career. She actually coached with her dad Pete, and her mom was always there to watch the team’s games as well. It was a real family affair. I believe she did this every summer while she was in college.

(Incidentally, I know all of this because in one of those “small world” happenings one of my current students, Allison Musgrove, was on her team. That was coincidence because I hadn’t started working with Allison yet when she joined that team, and Allison came to me through a different channel. It was just a common bond we discovered later.)

As great as all of that is, however, it’s not the reason I decided to tell this story. The real impetus was something non-softball I saw about her on Facebook a couple of weeks ago.

While most of us are in our homes getting ready for Thanksgiving, Christina is currently

Christina Smok White Coat

Looking very medical.

in Tanzania. She has been studying to become a physical therapist (here’s a photo of her from her “white coat” ceremony), and as part of that education she is spending the next few weeks providing care to residents of this underserved* East African nation.

I mean, how cool is that? To go halfway around the world to help people who really need it? It’s not something everyone would do, but it doesn’t surprise me a bit. She had a can-do attitude when I coached her, and obviously she still has it now.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share. In the heat of the moment on the field, or even as the now 12-month season drags on, it’s easy to over-blow the importance of the softball component of your life. But that’s just one piece of a larger puzzle.

I’m sure Christina’s softball experiences throughout her career helped bring her to this point, along with the love and support of her family. But it’s not an end in and of itself.

Whether you go 4 for 4 or 0 for 4 at the plate, make a spectacular diving catch or boot a routine ground ball, strike out 12 or get knocked out in the first inning, etc. isn’t all that critical in the big scheme of things. What’s more important is how you use those experiences to shape your life.

Christina sets a great example for today’s players. Live your best life.

And if you like stories like this about former players giving back, keep an eye on this space. I’ll have another in a few weeks.

*How poor is Tanzania? It ranks 159 out of 187 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, and its Global Hunger Index rating was the second-worst of all East African Community countries. So this isn’t exactly an easy jaunt.

Hit the Back of the Cage? I Don’t Think So

Emma cage at contact

This isn’t actually the topic I’d planned on writing about today, but an email hit my mailbox this morning that I thought was worth sharing. Especially since many of us have moved inside for the winter.

The author was Mike Ryan of Fastball USA, a facility and program located within fairly easy driving distance of my house. I don’t really know Mike, but I definitely know his brother Pat (shout out, dude) who used to coach for their softball program and has raised some pretty darned good fastpitch ballplayers himself.

Anyway, Mike’s email was talking about how deceiving a batting cage can be when judging the success of hits. Here’s an excerpt from the email:

Most balls hit on a line drive in a cage are actually ground balls.  

You need to aware of this, otherwise you will look like a powerful

hitter in the cage, and go outside and be a ground ball machine.

👉For example, in our batting cage at Fastball USA we figured out when the L screen is 35 feet away, a ball that hits the top of the screen is roughly at a 8-10 degree launch angle. 10 degrees if it makes it over.

Most hits in MLB happen between a 10-30 degree launch angle.

So common sense tells us, any ball flight below the top of the L screen produces a ground ball in a game.  

We also figured out that if a player hit a ball to the top of the net directly over our L screen it was roughly a 20 degree launch angle.

via GIPHY

I’m so glad to hear someone else say this. Fastpitch softball still seems to labor under some old beliefs about hitting, including the idea that a batted ball that hits the top of the cage instead of the back is bad.

In fact, I know players who have been dinged/yelled at/cajoled or whatever because their hits were going to the top of the cage toward the back. While I appreciate Mike doing the math to confirm it (evidence is always good) I don’t think you have to be a geometry expert to figure out that a hard-hit ball that hits the top of the net at around 40-50 feet is pretty likely to travel the distance needed to make it close to or over a fence 200 to 220 feet away from home. Or even less if you’re on a shorter field.

Balls going over the fence are good things because, well, they’re really hard to defend.  And they produce runs – as many as 4 with one hit.

Which means that if you’re rewarding hitters for hitting the back of the net (even if it’s low) and punishing them for hitting the top, you’re not making your team better. You’re actually killing your ability to score runs and win games.

Ok, that’s the long ones. But what about the balls that are only up to or even a little in front of that screen set at 35 feet?

Surely those must result in can of corn fly balls? Here’s what Mike had to say about that (and I know, don’t call you Shirley):

If the ball hits the top of the net about 5 feet in front of the screen you’re on about a 30 degree launch angle.

Remember that most MLB hits top out at 30 degrees, so you’re still in great shape. He then goes on to say that the lowest you want to hit the ball is the top of the L screen, and the highest is about 5 feet in front.

Of course, if you have your screen set closer to simulate faster pitching (as I usually do) that visual will change. But if you mark off roughly where 30 feet is in the cage you’ll have a pretty good idea of whether that contact was going to be an extra-base hit or an easy out.

So there you go. If you have a girl consistently hitting the top of the net 30-50 out, don’t punish her. Encourage her. She could wind up being a big bat for you next season.

By the way, if you want to see more from Mike, he posts at the Baseball Education Center. This particular article isn’t up there yet but I imagine it will be at some point. 

I got on his mailing list through Paul Reddick Baseball, so I imagine if you sign up for Paul’s emails you’ll start getting Mike’s too. (I didn’t see any direct way to sign up with Mike; maybe Mike can comment on how to get more info from him directly.) 

Mike’s stuff is oriented toward baseball and boys, but as we all know a swing is a swing so lots of value there for the parents and coaches of fastpitch softball players. 

 

Learning to Fix One Issue at a Time

mokup smartphone technology phone

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

One of the best AND worst things to ever happen to fastpitch softball training has to be the ready availability of instructional videos on sources such as YouTube.

It’s one of the best things because it has made a whole world of knowledge available to parents (and coaches) that was never available before. Personally, I think it’s one of the big reasons there is far more parity in the sport than there used to be.

Prior to YouTube, much of the best knowledge was concentrated in Southern California among a small group of coaches. If you were lucky enough to live near one, you received high-level coaching. If you were on the other side of the country, maybe not so much.

But once better information started becoming more available on YouTube (and through the Internet generally), enthusiastic players, parents and coaches were able to learn from the best no matter where they lived. Not saying everyone took advantage of it – there’s still a lot of bad coaching out there – but at least the information became available.

So why do I think it’s also one of the worst things that happened? Because parents and coaches could see how their kids/players looked compared to the examples, and the top-level players, and many became obsessed with trying to get their kids/players to look like the ones they saw on video.

That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing either. But where it became a problem is they wanted to make it happen instantly. So rather than addressing one issue at a time, they started trying to fix everything at once. That is probably the least effective way to learn anything.

What does that mean? Take a pitcher for example. The parent/coach sees the pitcher doesn’t have enough leg drive, so he/she starts working on that. Then he/she notices the arm seems a little stiff. So rather than continuing to focus attention on the leg drive, the pitcher now starts focusing on keeping the arm loose.

Then the parent/coach sees the glove swimming out and… well, you get the idea.

All of those are valid corrections. But it’s difficult, if not impossible to make all of them at once. Or even all in one session.

(DISCLAIMER: I know about this from direct experience because I used to do it too. Probably still do now and then, but I try to catch myself before it gets out of hand.)

A better approach is to set priorities, and then work on those priorities – even if other parts of the skill aren’t up to par. Or even if they are affected by the changes you’re making right now.

The reason is despite all the talk and hype about it, science has shown us that there is no such thing as multitasking. (Sorry all you people who think you’re good at it.)

The human brain can only pay attention to one task at a time. And making corrections to softball mechanics, or anything else for that matter, takes time, no matter how much we wish that wasn’t true.

Enabling players to remain focused on making a single correction, then moving to the next, will produce far better results than trying to fix everything at once.

But what about the discussions on how random practice (doing different things each time) is better than block practice (doing the same thing over and over)? That is true after a certain point, once the player has acquired a certain level of proficiency in the skill. For example, fielding ground balls to the left, right and center, hard and soft without establishing a set pattern will help translate those infield skills to a game better than doing 10 to the left, then 10 to the right, etc. 

But that presumes the player already knows how to field ground balls to the left, center and right, hard and soft. If not, the fielder must first acquire that skill, which is best accomplished through repetition and focus.

Giving players who are learning new skills, or replacing old skills with new ones, an opportunity to focus on one specific piece at a time (and without pressure for overall results, such as pitchers throwing strikes or fielders not making any errors) will create a better foundation and ultimately shorten the learning curve. Then, once the player has reached a certain level of at least conscious competence you can start moving into ensuring all the pieces are working the way they should.

Yes, there is a lot of great information out there (and plenty of bad too). And yes, it would be nice if you could just say things once and your kids/players would grasp it all right away. But that’s not how things work.

Avoid the temptation to “correction jump” (the coaching version of task jumping) and you’ll find you produce better long-term results – with far less frustration for you and your kids/players.

 

Great Time to Hit the Reset Button

img_0044-e1572626308764.png

The summer is a distant memory. Especially for those of us who got snow on Halloween! Can you believe that? Sticking-to-the-ground-over-your-ankles snow on Halloween.

Fall ball is either behind us already as well, or there is one more weekend to go. Then there’s a lull before it all starts again.

It’s definitely a great time of the softball year to take some time off. Rest and recovery is a good thing, and now that we have joined the indoor sports in playing practically year-round it’s tough to find a few weeks you can string together to let your body (and mind) heal from the grind.

For some, however, this might be a great time for something else – i.e., hitting the reset button and either correcting major flaws or making major upgrades in mechanics and approach.

There is never a bad time to work on improving yourself and your game. But making major changes carries some risks when you’re also expected to play at your most effective level during the week or on the weekend.

Let’s take pitchers for example. To achieve all she’s capable of, a pitcher may need to work on her posture, or her leg drive, or her ability to whip the ball through the release zone. But it can be difficult to work on those things if doing so causes her to be wilder than when she sticks with her old habits.

Most coaches would rather have their pitcher bend forward and throw consistent strikes than work on staying upright and throwing too high, or too low, or too wide. Especially if that pitcher is their #1. That’s just the nature of things, and it’s very understandable.

Still, every pitch the pitcher throws bent forward so she can throw a strike is another step in the wrong long-term direction. And it will take her that much longer to get to where she needs to be to reach her potential.

It’s the same for hitters. Working on developing a better swing that will make a hitter more effective at higher levels doesn’t always yield great results at first. Anything that’s different is uncomfortable at first, and hitting is so dependent on quick reactions that walking the line between the old and new swings may throw the hitter off entirely.

Again, most coaches will take a good hit with an ugly swing over strikeout or weak ground ball or pop-up with a good swing. They’re not interested in how many home runs that hitter will hit in two years with her new and improved swing. They’re focused on getting her on base, or scoring that runner on third, now. Can’t say I blame them. I would be too.

Once upon a time there were three distinct parts to the season. There was the off-season, which lasted a few months, then the pre-season for a month or two, then the actual season.

That’s not the case anymore. Fall ball has gone from being a time of once-a-week practices and a game here or there to almost the equivalent of the summer season. Some of the tournaments in the fall are arguably more important than many in the summer for those who play in college, because college coaches are in attendance in droves. You don’t want to look bad in front of a gaggle of college coaches.

So right now, from the beginning of November to the end of December, is about the only time for players to make major changes in a safe environment. Pitchers can work on improving their drive mechanics, or their posture, or other core fundamentals without having to worry about the results of the pitch.

They can throw the ball all over the place for now, as long as they do it with the correct mechanics. It’s a form of failing up. Not to be confused with the version where someone sucks without trying to get better but gets rewarded anyway. As they replace old habits with new ones the control will come back – and be better than ever.

Hitters can work on developing their swings without having to worry about the consequences. As they move from conscious competence (having to think about how to move correctly) to unconscious competence (not thinking about what they’re doing but doing it right anyway) they can shift 100% of their focus to seeing the ball and hitting it hard. Suddenly all those cage pop-ups and ground balls start turning into rising line drives that smack off the back of the cage – and rebound back at the hitter if there is a solid wall behind the far end.

Everyone can work on their throwing mechanics – still one of the most under-taught parts of the game. Instead of measuring success by “the ball got to where they were throwing” fielders can develop mechanics that will help them throw harder and faster while protecting their arms and shoulders from injuries.

Most times of the year the pressure to perform in games out-ranks the desire to make improvements. Not right now.

For those who know they need to make major changes, this is the ideal time. Get to work, either on your own or with a qualified instructor, so by the time you start up again you’re ready to play (and show) better than ever.

And if you’re not in need of major rework, enjoy your time off. You’ve earned it.

%d bloggers like this: