Monthly Archives: February 2021
One of the most common tropes you’ll hear about the value of playing team sports like fastpitch softball is that they teach life lessons. You hear about learning how to work in a group, how to push yourself to the limit (and then get past it), how to be dedicated, how to set goals and work to achieve them, how to overcome adversity, blah, blah, blah.
All of that is true. But there’s another lesson waiting there for players that often seems to be ignored. And that lesson is that life is too short to play for (or work for) jerks.
What does that mean? Think of your softball career as a metaphor for your life. It has a beginning, a middle, and unfortunately an end.
It’s like this voiceover from the movie Moneyball says: At some point we’re all told we can’t play the game anymore.
So let’s say you start playing at the age of eight, and you play through high school. The majority of high school graduates are 18, so that’s 10 years.
Continue on through college and you can tack on another four years – or five if there is a global pandemic in the middle of your career and you decide to hang around for that bonus year. So in most cases 14 years at best.
If you spend four of those years playing for a coach who constantly abuses and belittles you, puts you down constantly and believes the louder he/she screams the better you will play that’s either 40% or nearly 30% of your career spent being anywhere from unhappy to miserable.
In work years, figuring a 45-year career, 40% would be 18 years and 30% would be 13.5 years (high school v. college) in a job you hate going to and that makes you feel bad about yourself every day. That’s a long time to be unhappy in your life.
So the lesson you should learn if you are faced with this situation on your team is that you don’t have to just suck it up and put up with it. You do have options, like finding another team.
Because believe me, if you’re in a job like that you’re definitely going to want to find a different one. We spend way too much of our lives working to be miserable the whole time.
Now, at this point I think it’s important to differentiate between the occasional outburst (or verbal kick in the pants) from a coach and an abusive situation. Anyone who ever played for me can tell you I wasn’t beyond bringing the hammer down now and then when my teams under-performed or just weren’t paying attention to what they were doing.
Sometimes that can be a good thing, especially if it is in contrast to a coach’s usual style. We all need a little motivation now and then.
But that’s different than the coach whose only volume in speaking to players is 10, and whose words only convey negative messages. To me, that’s basically a coach who has no idea what he/she is doing and figures if they spew enough venom everyone will be too busy licking their wounds to notice.
It’s like this one time when a team I was coaching took a tough loss in a big tournament, knocking us into the loser’s bracket. In the post-game meeting everyone was waiting to get pummeled I’m sure.
Instead, in an over-the-top voice that clearly showed I was joking I simply yelled “Play better” and made a “crack the whip” gesture. It was a parody of coaches they had seen and played for before – the ones who had no idea how to help their players play better but figured if they yelled enough it would happen as if by magic. They laughed and the tension was broken.
I’d love to say we went on to work our way back through the loser’s bracket and won the tournament, but no that didn’t happen. Not every story gets a fairy tale ending.
Back to the topic, coaches always like to talk about holding their players “accountable.” Another phrase I find simultaneously horrifying and amusing when you are talking about 10-12 year olds, by the way. Adults have a funny way of understanding how young kids think.
But if that is the case, players also need to hold their coaches accountable. Coaches need to lead, not just scream to play better. They should support their players when they are giving their all, even if the outcomes aren’t what they hoped for.
Coaches should understand that the pitcher didn’t walk three hitters in a row by choice, hitters didn’t intend to take that third strike, fielders didn’t plan on booting the ground ball or dropping the fly ball, baserunners didn’t intend to slide too far and get tagged out.
Most of all, that South Park episode aside, players don’t take the field with the intention of losing the game. That stuff just happens.
Instead of screaming insults, coaches should work with players to ensure it doesn’t continue to happen, or give them direction on how to work on it themselves. If that’s not happening, and the screaming continues, players shouldn’t put it up with it.
Instead, they should find another team where the atmosphere is better. Because someday, they may face the same choice with a job, and if they don’t learn to value themselves may find themselves doomed to spend a lot of time in a job they hate instead of one that inspires them and gets them excited to go to work every day.
You only have so much time to play competitive fastpitch softball. Use it wisely.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
One of the most common issues among fastpitch pitchers is a tendency to try to add speed to a pitch by forcing it out with a lot of forward effort. You see them get ready to deliver the ball, and suddenly instead of whipping it from back to front and letting go they hang onto the ball and try to purposefully push it out of their throwing hand.
This motion is often accompanied by pushing the throwing side shoulder forward as well. While the intention is to make the pitch faster, it actually ends up having the opposite effect.
In other words, while it may feel strong, it isn’t very effective, biomechanically speaking.
I was facing that very dilemma with a younger student this week, so I came up with a new way to explain what she should do. I’ve since tried it with several with great success (so far).
The way I explained it was in the arm circle there is a point where you have developed all the speed you can get. That point is essentially at the bottom – six o’clock on an analog clock if you’re using the clock face as a visualization device.
Anything that happens after that not only doesn’t contribute to more speed, it actually starts taking away speed. So, since there’s nothing to be gained but much to be lost you might as well just let go right at the bottom, which will be roughly around the back leg.
Putting it this way seems to make sense, probably because it addresses the main reason the pitcher started pushing in the first place – to gain speed. Explaining it hurts their speed instead seems to break through the clutter of ingrained patterns and helps them find their release point.
For the pitchers where I had a radar set up, which was almost all of them, getting the ball out at the right point resulted in an immediate speed increase of 2-3 mph with no additional effort on their part. In fact, for most of them we were just working a drill where they weren’t trying to go all-out, just standing at a 45-degree angle and taking an easy step or medium-speed push.
What was really interesting about it was speed wasn’t the only aspect of their pitches to benefit. Suddenly balls that had been flying all over the place were going straight and low in the strike zone, even though we weren’t focused on accuracy at all.
I did point out the accuracy to the pitchers after a while, however, to give them one more reason not to force the ball forward. Just let it go at the right time, in the right place, and accuracy takes care of itself.
For some pitchers you may need to show them exactly where the ball needs to come out by having them get into their release position, bring the ball from 7:00 to 6:00, and then show them where it should be coming off their thumbs and their fingertips. I did this with one pitcher in particular last night and she immediately improved her speed and accuracy. She thanked me for it, because she said she now understood exactly what she needed to do.
So if you have a pitcher who is struggling to whip and release the ball, and is instead trying to force or push it forward before letting go, give this cue a try. It could be an instant difference-maker.
As a longtime instructor I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young ladies (and a few of their brothers) to help them improve their baseball and softball skills. Along the way I have seen some patterns emerge.
So, to help you ensure you’re getting the greatest value out of your substantial investment, following are a few tips to help with your approach. It presumes you have already done your homework and chosen your instructor wisely, i.e., your instructor is teaching the techniques that the best players in the world use. If not, all the other parents will be on the sidelines saying…
With that in mind, here we go.
Tip #1 – Pay attention during lessons!
I can’t tell you how many times during a lesson I’ve been talking to a student and then had this experience.
Whether you’re indoors or outdoors there can be a lot of distractions. But you need to be able to block them out and stay focused on what the instructor is saying.
You never know – it could be life-changing, or at least career-changing.
While we instructors do seem to like to hear ourselves talk, we’re usually doing it for a good reason. We’re trying to drop some knowledge that will help our students become better players.
When I see a student looking around everywhere but me I will usually tell them “There is nothing over there that will help you become a better softball player. Stay here with me.”
These days we are all more easily distracted than ever. But staying focused during instruction, and then in executing the skill, will help shorten the learning curve considerably.
Tip #2 – Be sure to bring all your needed equipment
Shouldn’t need to be said but apparently it does. At least in my experience.
Before you come to a lesson check your bag to be sure you have your glove, bat, batting gloves, catcher’s gear, cleats or turf shoes, hair ties, sunglasses and everything else you will need that day. Don’t assume they’re in there – take a complete inventory.
And while you’re in there, clear out all the old water and sports drink bottles along with wrappers and other garbage. Doesn’t really have anything to do with the lesson but it’s good to do that now and again anyway.
Tip #3 – You still have to practice
Yes, it would be nice if your instructor could just wave his/her magic wand and make you better. But it doesn’t work that way. I know, because I teach all my students the same thing but get varying results.
Think of as an instructor as being like Google Maps (or your other GPS app of choice). If you plug a starting point and a destination into Google maps, it will give you detailed, turn-by-turn directions along with a visual map.
But if you want to get to where you’re going you still have to get in your vehicle and drive. The app doesn’t transport you anywhere (at least not yet; I’m sure they’re working on it). It just shows you how YOU can get there.
It’s the same with an instructor. He/she will show you the techniques you need to succeed. But you still have to put in the work.
Tip #4 – You need to bring your brain when you practice
One of the questions I get all the time is “How much should she practice during the week?” I know it’s well-intentioned – the idea is to give someone’s daughter a number that is higher than “none,” which is probably what she is planning on – but it also implies that practice is a time-based activity.
It’s not. It’s more of an accomplishing goals and learning something type of activity. To put it in another learning content, how many hours should someone practice to learn how to do division or parse a sentence?
In school, the answer is as long as it takes. If you pick it up quickly you can put in fewer hours. If you struggle, you will have to put in more. Because the goal isn’t to check off time on a checklist. It’s to master the skill so you can move on to the next one.
In softball it’s the same. Making practice a time-based experience is counter-productive.
Instead, you need to bring your brain and really work to learn whatever it is you’ve been assigned to learn. Not just until you get it right; keep working at it until you can’t do it wrong.
Funny thing is if you practice mindfully (to use what I think is still a popular term) you probably won’t have to practice as long. Our brains are powerful and often underrated contributors to athletic success.
Make sure you understand what you need to work on when you leave your lesson, then pay attention to whether you’re getting it right when you practice, and there’s a good chance you won’t have to put in as many hours on it. Although you may want to anyway because it’s fun.
Tip #5 – Don’t just work on what you’re already good at
There is a certain comfort in succeeding. Doing something right and getting great results makes us feel good about ourselves. But it doesn’t do much to help us overcome our flaws.
The best students I’ve ever worked with, when given the option, would always ask to work on things they don’t do well. That makes sense.
No matter how long a lesson is, the time is limited. Why waste time on something you already know how to do?
When you’re there with the instructor you should want to work on your weak areas so you can get the instructor’s guidance on how to make them stronger.
The same is true when you’re practicing on your own. If all you ever work on is what you’re already good at you’re missing a huge opportunity for improvement.
Instead, work to bring your weak areas up to the level of your strong ones and you’ll be better overall at whatever it is you’re trying to do.
Tip #6 – Do your assigned homework
Again, assuming you’ve chosen your instructor well you will likely be given homework to do before the next lesson. That homework probably relates to whatever it was you were working on during the lesson.
The next time you go to practice, be sure you work on whatever that assignment was. Especially if it doesn’t involve going through the entire skill, but instead breaking down a piece of it.
If your pitching instructor gave you drills or a drill progression to work on lag, spend most of your time doing those drills. If your hitting instructors gave you an assignment to improve your ability to extend and hit through the ball, work on that.
Understand that the instructor saw a flaw, or something that will limit you from being the best you can be. By doing the homework you will be able to overcome that specific flaw and internalize the movements, which will help you gain better outcomes.
Yes, it’s more fun to throw full pitches, or hit off live pitching, or take ground balls/fly balls off a bat, etc. But those activities likely won’t help you overcome whatever is holding you back. Focusing on a particular area that is weak and improving it to match your other skills will.
Tip #7 – Write stuff down during or after your lesson
On their second lesson I give every one of my students a small, blank notebook with a pen. It’s not just to give them some sort of gift to say “thank you for coming.” It’s so they can write down what we’re working on, either during the lesson or afterwards.
We all think we can remember everything off the tops of our heads. But we’re not nearly as good at that as we think.
If you really want to be sure you know what to work on, and how to work on it, you should write it down while it’s fresh in your mind.
That way, three days later when you go back out to practice, you’ll know what you need to do – and how to do it. Remember that practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent. Be sure you’re practice the right things the right way.
Tip #8 – Understand that it is a journey
We live in an instant-everything world these days. If we want to know something we just ask our phones or our home devices – no additional effort required.
If we want food we pop it in the microwave or air fryer and a few minutes later dinner is served.
Unfortunately, human skills development cannot be sped up to that degree with technology. Yes, video and measurement devices can help us learn a little faster, but it’s still going to take a lot blood, sweat and tears.
And even after all of that you still may not see the results right away. Especially if you’re overcoming some particularly bad habits.
It takes time for new skills to overtake the old ones, and for you to feel comfortable enough executing them to be able to give it your all. In fact, you may find that the only way you can execute new skills properly right now is by going less than 100%. Sometimes considerably less.
That’s ok. It’s better to learn the movements first, then build up the speed of execution. Because when you get to the point where you can just …
…you’ll be amazed at all the incredible things you can do.
One of the most important skills a catcher can possess is the ability to throw a runner out at second base. It’s a long throw – 84 feet, 10.25 inches to be exact – which occurs after the runner has already gained an advantage by A) leaving when the ball is released by the pitcher (or sooner, depending on who you’re playing) and B) only having to travel 60 feet.
Just from that statement alone you can see that the odds are stacked against the catcher. If the runner has 3.0 speed, and it takes the ball .4 seconds to reach the plate, that only leaves 2.6 seconds at most to catch the ball cleanly, transfer it to the hand, make the throw and have it arrive in time to catch the runner and have the fielder can apply the tag.
More realistically, you want the ball to arrive ahead of the runner, so let’s shave .3 seconds off that time. If you want to know how short a time that is, try starting and stopping a stopwatch in that amount of time. It will probably take you a couple of tries.
Then the fielder has to catch the ball and apply the tag. If the ball isn’t directly where the runner is the ball will have to be brought to the runner. Take off another .3 seconds for that. Now we’re at 2.0.
If the runner is faster, like 2.7, or anything else goes wrong, like a pitch that goes way high and has to be brought down, there’s even less time. You get the picture.
You can see why it’s such a valued skill.
While there are some aspects that are beyond your control – like that high pitch – there are definitely things catchers can do to improve their chances of throwing out more runners and building their reputations as the biggest, baddest gunslingers on the diamond. Here are five of them.
Pop up and throw instead of running up.
Many catchers, especially young ones, are taught to take a couple of steps forward before they throw to second. The goal behind this thinking generally is to help them get more velocity on the throw, although some will also talk about closing the distance. This type of thinking, incidentally, comes from baseball where the bases are 90 feet apart, not 60, so you have more time to uncork a throw.
The problem with that advice is while the catcher is running across the plate what is the runner doing? Running! And she has a head start and a full head of steam.
By the time a catcher stands up, takes a couple of steps and throws the runner has gained significant ground toward second. Not good.
The better approach is to spring up with the weight on the back leg, shoulders aligned with your target, and make the throw immediately. Yes, you may lose a little velocity on the throw, but the reality is you don’t have to get the ball to the fielder on a fly. It can roll faster than someone can run.
Two other benefits to not running across the plate are A) you won’t get hit by a batter covering the steal with a late swing (thereby getting hurt AND being called for obstruction) and B) you don’t risk slipping on the plate if it is slick or wet. Learn to pop and throw and you’ll increase your chances of throwing out more runner significantly.
Bring the glove/ball to your hand
Something you will see many young catchers do is catch the ball then reach forward to take the ball out of their gloves. It makes sense on the surface – they need the ball in their hand to throw.
The problem is reaching forward takes time. Then you have to pull the ball back to get it into throwing position before making the throw. This little delay may end up being the difference between safe and out.
A better approach is to pull the glove back to the throwing-side shoulder and have the hand meet it there. That way the act of getting the ball to the hand is part of the throw instead of a separate, delayed operation.
Slam it back and work on making it a continuous motion from transfer to ready to throw. You’ll shave a couple of tenths off your time.
BONUS TIP: If your core receiving skills are good, try learning to get the glove on the side of the ball and catch it as it comes back. As opposed to having the glove behind the ball, stopping the ball’s flight, and then having to pull it back separately. This type of raking can take another tenth or two off your time.
Improve your transfer speed
The longer it takes you to get the ball from your glove to your hand, the longer it will take you to make the throw. This is where many otherwise advanced catchers lose time.
Making the transfer is something you need to be able to do in your sleep. You just have to know where the ball is in your glove, and where your hand is, instinctively.
To get there, start by practicing the transfer with no glove. Just put the ball in your bare glove hand, then pull it back and slam it into your throwing hand. Rinse and repeat, over and over, until you’re not even paying attention to it anymore.
Then put your glove on, put the ball in it, and do the same, again over and over.
Finally, have someone toss the ball to you and work it through again until your transfer is flawless. If you can, work on the raking technique above AND work on catching the ball a little lower in the hand rather that in the webbing.
Catching it lower lets it stick out a little more so it’s easier to grab. Just be careful not to sacrifice getting a secure grip on the ball with your glove for trying to get faster. You have to get the ball to your hand before you can transfer it.
Practice the transfer and throw blindfolded
This is one of my favorite activities to do when I run a catching clinic.
When a catcher goes to make the throw, she shouldn’t need to look for where the base is or how to get herself aligned. That wastes time.
Yet you see it all the time. That little hesitation before they’re sure of where they’re throwing.
So to get past that, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her pop up and make the throw to second. For extra fun you can place an object at second and have her try to knock it off the base with her throw, offering a prize if she succeeds.
If you have multiple catchers you can make a contest out of it. It could be the first to knock it off gets a prize, or everyone who does it gets a prize. Doing the latter, by the way, is a great way to build some team spirit as they start rooting for each other.
A catcher who can hit a small target 84 feet, 10.25 inches away blindfolded, after starting in a squat, is a catcher who can accomplish anything.
Follow through on the throw
A lot of catchers, and a lot of players really, tend to stop their bodies when they are fully facing their target. Of course, to stop you first must slow down, which is the worst thing you can do when trying to perform any ballistic activity.
Encourage your catchers to throw not just with their arms but with their whole bodies. That means you should see the throwing side come through once the throw is made. That extra burst of energy will help ensure they get the most “pop” on their throws.
A catcher that can erase a runner trying to move into scoring position is worth her weight in gold. And since coaches rarely send their turtles to try a catcher’s arm, even coming close to throwing out the first runner is a good way to send a message to that coach that his/her team better be able to hit because there will be no freebies today.
And as word gets around, you probably won’t have to make as many throws because teams just know better than to try to steal on you.
Work on these techniques and you’ll have yourself an MVP year.