Monthly Archives: July 2021

What to Watch for In the Olympic Softball Games

As you may have possibly heard as a fastpitch softball fanatic, our sport is back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008! This is a rare moment to watch the best players in the world compete on a huge stage with presentation budget of a major network production.

It’s also the last time for the next eight years as the sport is not included in the 2024 Paris Olympics. It is expected to return in 2028 and 2032 when the games flip to the U.S. and Australia. Who knows what will happen after that?

So since this is such an unusual opportunity you’ll want to make the most of it. Not just to sit back and enjoy the games (although that’s great) but also to learn all you can while you have the opportunity.

So to help with that, here are a few pointers on some things to pay closer attention to. The Speed of Play.

The Speed of Play

I’m not talking about pitch speeds, although they are incredible too. I’m talking about what happens when a ball is put in play.

Look at what happens on a ground ball. It is scooped up and on its way to first in a “blink and you’ll miss it” fashion. There is no double-clutching, no calmly standing up and then casually firing it over. It’s there and gone.

Or look at the baserunners. Even the ones you would think are more powerful than fleet are incredibly fast. If a ball is hit between two fielders in the outfield there’s a good chance the runner on first is going to third. Bobble it at all and she’s heading for home.

Everything is amazingly fast. If you want to know what to work on in your/your daughter’s/you players’ games, work on that.

For example, don’t just hit them ground balls. Run a stopwatch and challenge them to make the play in less than three seconds. I find blowing an air horn when the stopwatch hits three seconds provides a pretty good indicator of whether they were successful enough.

Work on just pure running too. I know most people get into softball because they don’t like all the running in other sports, but it’s something that does need to be addressed.

While you can’t make everyone fast you can help them get faster. The faster your team is the more pressure it puts on the defense and the more runs you can score when you need them.

Here you can start by making sure your players are running on their toes instead of heels or flat feet. Then do a lot of short, quick sprints.

Run down a hill. Have two or more players run against each other, perhaps letting one player start in front of the other. Have them play tag around the basepaths. Anything to get the feet and arms moving faster.

Watch the Pitching Mechanics

The coverage I have seen so far has been amazing at showing pitching mechanics. We are getting great closeup shots of what is happening at release on great pitchers such as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, and Yukiko Ueno.

Notice how close they are to their bodies at release, to the point where their forearms brush against their hips. Note how on a curve ball the hand kind of wraps around the back hip instead of being out and away.

Watch how they release the ball with a smooth, whipping motion. Note that they are vertical or leaning slightly back instead of being bent forward.

Also watch how they seem to glide on their back leg, like they’re riding a skateboard, until the front foot lands. Then they go into whip and release.

While you’re watching that, also note that they don’t drag their back legs behind them like zombies. The leg stays under them, which is what allows that skateboard-like movement.

It’s really a Master Class on pitching, happening pitch after pitch.

Listen to the Communication

With no crowd noise to speak of you can hear what’s going on down on the field more clearly. While at first you may list to the description of the play, maybe watch a second time and listen to what’s happening on the field.

They’re not down there keeping to themselves. Those players are communicating.

They’re talking before the play to make sure everyone knows their responsibilities. They’re talking during the play to help direct throws and avoid confusion. And they’re talking afterward to clean up any issues and pick up their teammates if something went wrong.

The more you communicate the better you’ll play as a team. Learn from the best.

What Happens Away from the Ball

The initial camera work is going to follow the ball. That makes sense because that’s where the main action is.

But during replays from other angles, look at what other players are doing. Who is backing up at a base? What is the right fielder doing on a throw from center to third?

If there is a steal or a bunt, who is fielding it and what are the other players doing?

For example, with a runner on first, if the third baseman fields the ball who goes to cover third in her place when the ball is bunted? Is it the shortstop, leaving second uncovered?

Unlikely since they may want to go for the lead runner. So is it the catcher? Pitcher? Left fielder?

The more you see how Olympic teams operate in particular situations the better idea you’ll have of what your team/daughter should be doing. Or at least learning.

How Tough Hitting Is Against Great Pitching

So far there hasn’t been a ton of offense in most of the games. That’s to be expected with such great pitchers.

Maybe it will change as the tournament goes on and the hitters get used to the high level of pitching they’re seeing. But right now it does demonstrate how challenging hitting can be – even for the best players in the world.

That’s something to keep in mind when your daughter goes 0 for 8 on a Saturday, or your team hits a collective .225. No matter how hard you work, a lot of good things have to happen to succeed at hitting.

That said, practicing properly (and often) gives you your best chance to succeed. Each of the players you’re watching works incredibly hard to do what she does.

Imagine where those hitters would be without all that hard work.

Softball is a game built on failure. It’s those who can push past it who will ultimately succeed.

They Make Mistakes Too

I think this is an important lesson for parents (and some coaches) to learn. These are the very best players in the world, presumably. But at some key moments, usually when their team can afford it the least, you will see a player here or there make an error.

It happens. It’s unfortunate but it does, even to the best. Especially in a pressure situation.

What parents (and some coaches) need to take away from that is these things are going to happen occasionally so you can’t freak out or get down on your daughter/player or scream at her in a way that makes her feel bad about herself.

This applies not to just physical errors but mental errors. If you’re a coach, make the correction in a non-judgmental way and move on. Believe me, she didn’t do it just to make you look bad or ruin your day.

If you’re a parent, be supportive. She’s probably already feeling horrible about it. Instead of making it worse help her learn from the experience so she doesn’t repeat it.

Realizing even the best players in the world make mistakes now and then will help you enjoy your daughter’s/players’ playing more and avoid turning one bad play into a bad inning – or a bad game.

Anyway, those are a few of the things I think you should be watching for as you enjoy softball in the Olympics. Any other thoughts? Leave them in the comments below,

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

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The Back Leg Can Be a Propeller – or an Anchor

As I write this we are in the middle of summer vacation time here in the U.S. Families all over America are packing themselves up from wherever they live and traveling to a different area, state, time zone, etc. in search of a little R&R.

Even softball families are in that process. Some have already finished their seasons, while others are fitting in a little vacation time before or after tournaments.

For me, when I think of vacations I am reminded of taking my family to a lake for some serious downtime. Originally that meant the North Woods of Wisconsin, where we and various members of my wife’s family would rent cabins.

As part of the rental, we would get motorized row boats that we could use to go fishing. I’ve never been much of a fisherman, and didn’t grow up rowing boats so I found that a bit of a challenge at first, but when in Rome…

Now years later I’ve come to realize that those motorized row boats are the perfect analogy for the role of the back leg in pitching and hitting. Because it can either be a propeller or an anchor when you’re trying to be explosive.

A propeller will help you get where you’re going faster. Being fairly incompetent at rowing a boat, at least at first, I found the propeller to be a much easier way to get from point A to point B, even if those two points weren’t that far apart.

As long as you can fire up the motor (not always easy in a free rental), you can open the throttle and steer your way there while relaxing. That’s a lot easier than using oars to move through the water, especially if you’re using one oar more than the other, in which case you tend to make more of a circle than a straight line.

Pretty much me, but using both oars.

An anchor, on the other hand, is designed to hold you in place once you get to where you’re going. If you leave the anchor down, even with a motor, it will be much hard to get to your destination.

So it is in softball. In pitching, you want the “drive” leg to propel your center forward, enabling you to glide lightly along the ground until your front leg lands. Do it quick and powerfully enough and the sudden stop will help sling/whip your arm through the release zone.

But if you don’t engage your drive leg, and instead just run past it with your stride leg, the drive leg will turn into an anchor, lifelessly dragging behind you and slowing you down. When that happens, the drive leg doesn’t drive at all, but instead gets pulled along in the classic zombie walk. This is why it’s often called “zombie leg.”

Clearly one is better and more effective than the other in creating speed and enabling stability at release. Hopefully I don’t have to tell you which one that is.

Unless someone has eaten you brains.

While not quite as obvious or debilitating, the same effect occurs in overhand throwing. If the throwing side isn’t engaged actively as a propeller it becomes an anchor, which affects both speed and accuracy.

What about hitting? The same is true, although in a different way.

In hitting, you want the lower body to create the power. While that is really more of the core than the legs themselves, the rear leg contributes by having its knee start pulling toward the front knee, unweighting the leg so the hips can fire forward at maximum velocity.

If the hitter doesn’t get off the back foot the hips are unable to rotate rapidly or fully, and you wind up with more of an upper body swing that pulls the contact point further back. You’re then not hitting in the green zone.

The bottom line (no pun intended) is the back leg can either be an aid or a hindrance in making athletic movements in softball. Which it is depends entirely on the player.

Get it actively engaged, doing what it should do, and it becomes a propeller that helps drive better performance. Leave it behind and it will be an anchor, slowing the player down and creating a huge drag on performance.

Photo by Mount Polley on Pexels.com

IR Won’t Put Young Pitchers in the ER

Let me start by declaring right in the beginning I am a huge advocate of the pitching mechanics known as “internal rotation” or IR. While it may also go by other names – “forearm fire” and “the whip” comes to mind – it essentially involves what happens on the back side of the circle.

With IR, the palm of the hand points toward the catcher or somewhat toward the third base line as it passes overhead at 12:00 (aka the “show it” position), the comes down with the elbow and upper arm leading through the circle. From 12:00 to 9:00 it may point to the sky or out toward the third base line. Then something interesting happens.

The bone in the upper arm (the humorous) rotates inward so the underside of the upper comes into contact with the ribs while the elbow remains bent and the hand stays pointed away from the body until you get into release, where it quickly turns inward (pronates). It is this action that helps create the whip that results in the high speeds high-level pitchers achieve.

This action, by the way, is opposite of so-called “hello elbow” or HE mechanics where the ball is pointed toward second at the top of the circle and is then pushed down the back side of the circle until the pitcher consciously snaps her wrist and then pulls her elbow up until it points to the catcher.

Note that I don’t call these styles, by the way, because they’re not. A “style” is something a pitcher does that is individual to them but not a material part of the pitch, like how they wind up. What “style” you use doesn’t matter a whole lot.

But mechanics are everything in the pitch, and the mechanics you use will have a huge impact on your results as well as your health.

IR is demonstrably superior to HE for producing high levels of speed. The easiest proof is to look at the mechanics of those who pitch 70+ mph. You won’t find an HE thrower in the bunch, although you’ll probably find a couple who THINK they throw that way, which is a sad story for another day.

It also makes biomechanical sense that IR would produce better speed results. Imagine push a peanut across a table versus putting into a rubber band and shooting it across the table. I know which one I’d rather be on the receiving end of.

So when trying to defend what they teach, some HE pitching instructors will respond by questioning how safe it is to put young arms into the various positions required by IR versus the single position required by HE. They have no evidence, mind you. They’re just going by “what they’ve heard” or what they think.

Here’s the reality: IR is so effective because it works with the body is designed to work rather than against it. Try these little body position experiments and see what happens.

Experiment #1 – Jumping Jacks Hand Position

Anyone who has ever been to gym class knows how to do a jumping jack. You start with your hands together and feet at your side, then jump up and spread your feet while bringing your hands overhead. If you’re still unsure, Mickey Mouse will demonstrate:

The only being who has ever been happy about doing these.

Look at what Mickey’s hands are doing. They’re not turning away from each other at the top, and they’re definitely not getting into a position where they would push a ball down the back side of the circle. They are rotated externally, then rotating back internally.

Experiment #2 – How You Stand

Now let’s take movement out of it. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides, hanging down loosely. What do you see?

If you are like 99% of the population, your upper arms are likely touching your ribs and your hands are touching your thighs. In other words, you’re exactly in the delivery position used for IR.

These guys get it.

To take this idea further, raise your arms up about shoulder high, then let them fall. At shoulder height your the palms of your hands will either be facing straight out or slightly up unless you purposely TRY to put them into a different position.

When they fall, if you let them fall naturally, they will return to the inward (pronated) position. And if you don’t stiffen up, your upper arms will lead the lower arms down rather than the whole arm coming down at once.

What this means is that IR is the most natural movement your arm(s) can make as they drop from overhead to your sides. If you’re using your arms the way they move naturally how can that movement be dangerous? Or even stressful?

When they fall, you will also notice that your upper arms fall naturally to your ribcage and your forearms lightly bump up against your hips, accelerating the inward pronation of your hands. This is what brush contact is.

Brush contact is not a thwacking of the elbow or forearm into your side. If you’re getting bruised you’re doing it wrong.

Think of what you mean by saying your brushed against someone versus you ran into them. Brushing against them implies you touched lightly and slightly altered your path. Bumping into them means you significantly altered your path, or even stopped.

The brush not only helps accelerate the inward turn. It also gives you a specific point your body can use to help you release the ball more consistently – which results in more accurate pitching. It’s a two-fer that helps you become a more successful pitcher.

Experiment #3 – Swing Your Glove Arm Around

If you use your pitching arm you may fall prey to habits if you’ve been taught HE. So try swinging your glove arm around fast and loose and see what it does.

I’ll bet it looks a lot like the IR movement described above. That’s what your throwing arm would be doing if it hadn’t been trained out of you.

And what it actually may be doing when you throw a pitch. You just don’t know it.

Reality check

The more you look at the biomechanics of the IR versus HE, the more you can see how IR uses the body’s natural motions while HE superimposes alternate movements on it. If anything, this means there’s more likelihood of HE hurting a young pitcher than IR.

The forced nature of HE is most likely to show up in the shoulder or back. Usually when pitchers have a complaint with pain in their trapezius muscle or down closer to their shoulder blades, it’s because they’re not getting much energy generated through the HE mechanics and so try to recruit the shoulders unnaturally to make up for it. That forced movement places a lot of stress on it.

They may also find that their elbows start to get sore if they are really committed to pulling the hand up and pointing the elbow after release, although in my experience that is more rare. Usually elbow issues result from overuse, which can happen no matter what type of mechanics you use.

The bottom line is that if the health and safety of young (or older for that matter) pitchers is important to you, don’t get fooled by “I’ve heard” or “Everybody knows” statements. Make a point of checking to see which way of pitching works to take advantage of the body’s natural movements, which will minimize the stress while maximizing the results.

I think you’ll find yourself saying goodbye to the hello elbow.

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