Monthly Archives: December 2020

Taking a Chess-Like Approach to Softball Skills Development

Every couple of decades or so, something comes along that increases the general public’s interest in chess.

In the 1970s it was Bobby Fischer and his rise to become World Chess Champion. His victory was important because it was during the Cold War, at a time the Russians were dominating the chess scene.

In the 1990s it was the development of Deep Blue, IBM’s supercomputer that became the first to win a chess game and a chess match against a reigning world champion, this time Garry Kasparov. If you like all the processing power you now get in a mobile phone, you can thank Deep Blue for some of it.

Of course, right now it’s the Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit that is making chess cool. Well, maybe not cool. Being captain of the high school chess club still isn’t nearly as good for your social standing as being captain of the football team or the cheerleading squad. But at least the show makes it a little less nerdy.

Or maybe not.

But whether you like chess or not (and you can count me in the “not” category for sure, since my idea of playing chess as a kid was to line up the big pieces and throw the pawns at them until they were all knocked off the board) there is a valuable lesson to be learned from how great players approach the game. The lesson is that to be successful in the long term in softball you have to have the right approach.

Beginners and your basic amateurs tend to be very transactional in their approach. They see a piece that’s vulnerable and they take it. If there’s nothing there, they make a move and hope something better shows up on their turn. It’s all about making something happen now.

Chess masters, however, take a different approach. They patiently work to get all the right pieces in all the right places so they can mount a powerful attack at the right time and win the game.

Sometimes that means sacrificing the most powerful piece on the board to gain an advantage. (That’s the queen for those who know even less than I do about chess.)

Now you know why this is funny.

But that process of putting all the pieces in place before striking is what makes them successful.

That same philosophy applies to improving softball skills. In our sport, we love to measure things. So, say, if a pitcher is increasing her speed on a regular basis there is a temptation to believe all is well. It’s a transactional approach based on immediate gratification.

But the success she’s experiencing right now may end up leading to long-term failure, or at least some unnecessary limitations, if she’s not improving her actual skills. Because poor technique, even when combined with great athleticism, can only take you so far.

To experience real growth and development, sometimes you first have to put all the pieces in place, i.e., break down the movements and replace them with better movements. That can be difficult for some, because it might actually mean regressing in terms of performance measures for a little while.

Take our pitcher again. She’s a big, strong girl who has managed to throw 55 mph by just muscling up and chucking the ball in there.

But she eventually wants to play at a higher level, against better competition, and knows she’s reached the limits of what she can do with what she has, so she decides she needs to improve her technique. What she will probably find, however, is that before her numbers go up they may go down some.

The reason, of course, is that when she was doing what she used to do, she was able to do it with all the enthusiasm and energy she could muster. Now that she’s trying to make changes she can no longer do that.

Her pitching motion may feel awkward and uncomfortable for a little while as she gets used to the new technique. Or maybe the only way she can learn to relax and execute the new motion is go at 70% energy for a little while. Either way, she goes from 55 to 51 and no doubt begins to wonder if she’s doing herself a favor.

If she’s done her homework, however, and selected a coach who knows what he/she is doing (not always a given, unfortunately), the payoff will come – once all the pieces are in place and she can once again put 100% into every pitch.

This approach isn’t just limited to pitching. It’s the same for pretty much anything in softball, and any athletic movement in any sport for that matter.

Making substantive changes is hard because we all want to fall back into our old habits. It takes time and repetition to replace old habits with new ones.

Yes, it would be nice if someone could just say “do this” or “do that” and improvement would come instantly. But it would be a whole lot less satisfying.

If you’re looking to make real improvement in your softball skills, follow the lead of great chess players. Get all your pieces in place, i.e., fix everything that needs fixing, then go for it with everything you’ve got using your new skills.

By keeping your eye on the long game you’ll ultimately experience far more success – and have a lot more fun in the process.

Chess pieces photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Nerd photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Right Now Is A Great Time to Work on the Mental Game

Ask any coach, especially one whose teams play at a high level, how important the mental game is on a scale from one to 10 and you’ll probably get an answer of between eight and 10. Of course if you then follow up by asking them what percentage of practice time they spend working on their team’s mental game, the answer will likely be 10% or less.

Because while everyone will agree the mental game is important, spending practice time fielding ground balls and doing hitting drills, or doing anything physically active, just “feels” more like practice.

Now that Zoom sessions have replaced physical practices in many areas, however, it may be time to re-think what you’re doing. It’s the “making lemonade out of lemons” approach.

When you think about it, Zoom (or whatever communication tool you use) sessions actually lend themselves even better to the mental game than the physical game. With the physical game you have to set up a camera or phone and hope the players stay in range as they move around, doing drills. But with the mental game, most of what you need to do can be accomplished while sitting comfortably in a chair.

For example, you can quiz your team to see how well they understand the rules. The quiz can be an oral quiz on the spot, or you can email a document to all your players, have them fill it out in advance, and then go over the answers on the call. Some technologies even have polling features that can be adapted to a live quiz.

Another way to work the mental game is by doing a screen share of diagramming software such as this one or this one or this one to go over various plays. You can show new plays, or describe the situation and the hit and then ask your players what their responsibilities are.

A Zoom call is also great for helping players learn how to manage stress. There are all kinds of techniques, such as those found in Heads Up Baseball (one of my favorite books on the subject) that you can go over and have your players practice applying. For example, you can teach them the stoplight analogy and how to do it to keep themselves from getting out of control.

Another way to use a Zoom call to good advantage is to have them work on visualization. Studies have shown that visualization can be as powerful as physical practice in helping players improve their physical skills, yet when was the last time you took time out of practice to help your players learn to visualize success? Now you can.

If you need more ideas, just do a quick Internet search on “mental game exercises,” or follow this link to the search I did. There are tons of ideas out there that can help you develop mentally tough players, even from a distance.

Of course, in addition to developing your players’ mental game you can also use Zoom calls to build cohesiveness within the team. There are plenty of games and exercises you can use to help your players get to know each other better and create the sort of bonds that keep high-level teams performing at a high level.

As Steve Martin says in the underrated movie My Blue Heaven, “You guys see a problem. I see an opportunity.”

Take some of those Zoom sessions where you’re struggling to find a way to run a regular practice and focus instead on the mental game. You’ll be amazingly pleased with the results come next spring – or whenever you start playing regularly again.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The Importance of Developing a Pitching Staff

Today’s post was inspired by a Zoom session with Rick Pauly of Paulygirl Fastpitch and High Performance Pitching. Always important to give credit where it’s due!

The overall topic of the session was on keeping pitchers healthy. But one of the points covered, in my mind, was of particular importance – the need to develop a pitching staff.

We’ve probably all heard the statement that fastpitch softball’s windmill pitching motion is “safe” and “natural.” Implied within that message is “therefore you can pitch the heck out of your pitchers, every inning of every game, without having to worry about them getting hurt.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s “safe.” Mushrooms are natural. But there are whole species of them that are anything but safe.

Could be deliciousness, could be death. Care to roll the dice, Karen?

Pitching a softball, at least when done correctly, requires a series of violent, ballistic movements. Over time, especially when there isn’t enough rest in-between sessions, those movements no matter how mechanically sound can take their toll on bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, etc.

When they do, you end up with injuries, some of which can be severe or even career-threatening. Even if they’re not bad enough to sit a pitcher down they can cause enough pain for her to change her mechanics to prevent that feeling, which can have further effects downstream.

The key to avoiding these types of overuse injuries is to abandon the old school approach of riding one pitcher’s arm for the entire season and instead developing a pitching staff. There are different ways you can do that.

The simplest is to bring on 3-5 pitchers who rotate starts, with the assumption they will pitch the whole game. In a travel ball weekend with seven games, where you have three pitchers, each would pitch two and the three could split the third one. Your choice whether that happens at the beginning or the end of the tournament.

In a high school season with one game per day Tuesday-Friday and two on Saturday, each would get two. In a college season with games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday or two on Saturday and one Sunday, each would get one game.

That, of course, assumes that all three pitchers are fairly comparable. If you have one Ace and two others who are just ok, you may have to look at splitting games between the two who are ok while letting the Ace pitch complete games.

But that’s not the only approach. You can also look at it more like baseball does, with pitchers who fill different roles depending on how the game goes.

You might have a girl who can throw unhittable gas for two innings then gets gassed herself. She might better serve the team as the “closer” who can protect tight leads toward the end of the game.

Your fair-to-middlin’ pitchers might do well as a bridge between a high-quality starter and the closer. You’re not expecting those pitchers to win the game for you; you just want them to keep the game manageable until it’s time to either bring in the closer or bring back the Ace, who now has more innings available without the risk of injury.

You can also do it by who matches up best to a particular team. While it’s probably less effective in the highest levels of D1, in many other levels throwing a pitcher who’s a little slower than average, or relies on movement rather than overpowering speed, might be enough to throw off a team that just finished a week and/or weekend facing high heat in every game. It all depends on the hitters’ ability to adjust.

I’ve seen that one work with my own daughter Stefanie back in the day. Her team was playing an opponent her coaches expected to blow them out. They even came over to where the parents were and warned us the game would be a rough one. (I was merely there as a parent for this game, by the way.)

So of course, rather than waste who they thought was their best pitcher on a blowout, they gave the game to Stefanie. Only instead of getting blown out she confounded them with a mix of drops, curves and changes and held them to two runs as I recall.

Unfortunately, sensing blood and a possible upset the head coach, who clearly had no idea why Stefanie was being effective decided to replace her with their Ace in the fourth inning. As you can probably guess, the Ace got lit up quickly and that was the end of that.

Which brings me to an important reminder: when your pitcher is doing well, just go with it. Don’t question it, don’t get clever or think you’re going to put something over on someone. As the saying goes, ride that horse ’til he bucks you.

Another good reason to have a staff is even if you have an Ace, somewhere out there is a team that practices hitting the way your Ace pitches. In other words, they’ll be all over her like stink on batting gloves.

If you have no other options it’s going to make for a long afternoon. And it could damage your Ace’s psyche a bit too, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season. But throwing in a change of pace pitcher might throw your opponents off while saving the Ace for a game where the other team doesn’t match up so well.

The days of riding one pitcher’s arm for the season are long gone. Everyone plays too many games, and the hitting has improved considerably in our sport since it first started getting population.

Develop a staff and give yourself options. It’s better for the pitchers (and their health). And it’s better for the team’s chances of success too.

Mushroom photo by Visually Us on Pexels.com

%d bloggers like this: