Monthly Archives: December 2021

7 Tips to Make 2022 Your Best (Softball) Year Ever

First of all, let me tell you I had quite a debate with myself on whether to write a New Year’s post or just go with a more general topic. But when the stars align – as in the last day of 2021 is also the day I usually put up a new post – it’s a good idea to just go with it.

So here we are. Hopefully 2021 was a great year for you.

We actually had somewhat normal high school, college, and youth softball seasons, although COVID-19 protocols often impacted the spectator part of spectators sports. At least the fans who got in didn’t have to wear a mask on 90-degree days.

Also in 2021, fastpitch softball temporarily returned to the Olympics, albeit in eerily quiet and empty stadiums and played on baseball diamonds. It was sort of like watching a dome game with a field set up for football. The fact that the oddly formatted mini-tournament was finished before the opening ceremonies took place tells you all you need to know about what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) really thinks about our sport.

The Women’s College World Series (WCWS) on the other hand was a TV rating juggernaut, averaging more than 1.2 million viewers per game. That’s 10% more than the 2019 WCWS.

The three-game championship series between Oklahoma and Florida State fared even better, drawing an average of nearly 2 million viewers per game. In the process, we got to see a lot of great softball.

Speaking of great softball, Athletes Unlimited entertained a lot of fastpitch softball fanatics with its playground-brand of choosing up teams and having no coaches on the sidelines. Maybe they’re on to something.

And hopefully you personally had a successful 2021 as well.

Of course, as the disclaimer on every “get-rich-quick” scheme quickly says, past performance does not guarantee future gains. So following are a few tips to help you make 2022 an even better year.

Tip #1: Practice with a purpose

Yes, I know many of you have t-shirts with that very saying on them. But how often do you actually take that approach?

It’s easy to get into the rut of “putting in time.” i.e., going off somewhere and going through the motions of a skill for a half hour or an hour or whatever, or coaches having players performing activities for two, or three, or four hours. None of which will actually help you get better, and could make you worse if the practice is sloppy enough.

If you’re going to practice, then have a goal and go after it wholeheartedly. For example, if you’re a pitcher working on leg drive, then work on getting yourself out faster each time rather than mindlessly doing the leg drive drill you were assigned.

Master the skill, not the drill, and you’ll be a lot better off.

Tip #2: Grow your knowledge

In today’s Internet-accessible world there’s no reason to do things a certain way because that’s how you’ve always done them. There is an incredible amount of research being done in our sport and an incredible wealth of knowledge being shared – if you will open your mind to it.

The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) is one of the best. Right now they are in the midst of hosting a series of live coaches clinics around the country that enable top-level coaches to share their expertise with the rest of us.

If you want to go more in-depth on a topic, the NFCA also has its Master Coach program, which offers a combination of live and online courses. I took their very first online Coaches College course earlier in 2021 and it was well worth the time and money. Give it a shot.

There are plenty of private resources as well. PaulyGirl Fastpitch has its High Performance Pitching courses at the beginner, intermediate, elite, and pro levels.

You can learn all about great throwing mechanics from the High Level Throwing program. There’s a cornucopia of hitting courses out there as well.

Then there are resources such as the Discuss Fastpitch board and the Fastpitch Zone and The Bullpen Facebook groups that connect coaches from around the world with one another to share their knowledge and experience. And that’s the just the start.

If you want more knowledge it’s out there. Just be sure to come in with an open mind because some of what you hear may go against everything you’ve ever believed. And that can be a good thing.

Tip #3: Use video

This one doesn’t require a lot of explanation. There’s what we think we see or feel, and there’s what’s actually happening. They’re not always the same.

Virtually every mobile phone includes a high-definition, high-speed camera for free that would be the envy of coaches and players from just 10 years ago. Take advantage of it.

Video yourself or your players often, and see if what you think you’re doing is what you are in fact doing. Compare what you see to the best players in the world.

While you don’t have to match exactly, you should match in principle. If you’re not doing what you think you’re doing, adjust accordingly.

Tip #4: Work on your mental game

Ask any group of coaches or players “who thinks the mental game is a critical contributor to success?” and you’ll probably see every or nearly every one of them raise their hands. Then ask how many take the time during practice or during their free time to work on it and you’ll likely see few (if any) hands.

It’s sort of like Mark Twain’s famous admonition about the weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.

That is a mistake in my opinion. There are (again) plenty of books and other resources that focus on this aspect of sports. Here’s a list of a few:

  • Head’s Up Baseball
  • Mind Gym
  • The Champion’s Mind
  • Championship Team Building
  • The Mindful Athlete
  • Winning State
  • Mental Conditioning for Softball
  • The Energy Bus

Invest some real time in developing the mental game – especially the part about overcoming adversity – and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Tip #5: Make some time for recruiting activities

This is for those players who want to (or think they want to) play softball in college. If that’s not you, go ahead and skip to Tip #6.

For those still reading, playing softball in college at any level is an accomplishment – and ultra-competitive these days. You’re unlikely to be randomly discovered playing during a local tournament.

If you want to play in college, you need to make an effort to build a relationship with coaches at different schools, and at different levels.

One obvious way is to attend skills camps at schools where you might like to play. While some are just money grabs that have minimal involvement from the college coach, most are both an opportunity for coaches to give back to the game while checking out potential future talent. What better way is there to get them interested in you than to demonstrate your skills in their “house?”

Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is another great way to establish and maintain contact with coaches. Follow coaches at schools you’re interested in and hopefully they will follow you back.

Share their Tweets with your followers. Send Tweets of your own about your/your team’s latest accomplishments and activities and tag the coach or the program. Be active and be visible.

Just one word of caution about social media: keep it positive at all times. The Internet is written in ink, and more than a few players have eliminated themselves from consideration by their dream schools because of things they’ve posted. That includes photos and negative comments about their parents or current coach.

Present yourself as if the coaches you want to play for are watching every post. Because they are.

Email is still a valid way to contact coaches too. Just keep it brief – they’re busy people and many get hundreds of emails a day. If you want to share a video, be sure the coach can see what you want him/her to see in ONE click. Any more than that and they’ll pass.

This isn’t just for high school players either. While the D1 rules changed and they can no longer contact players before September 1 of their junior years, it doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to who can play and who is interested in their schools. And there are no such restrictions for D2, D3, and NAIA, although they tend to recruit later anyway.

Recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint, so get out there early and often if you think playing in college might be for you.

Tip #6: Make time for rest and recovery

When you’re dedicated to something it’s easy to overdo it. Don’t let that happen.

Rest and recovery is just as important to high performance as training. Your body needs time to build itself back up after intense activity. So does your mind.

It’s ok to take a day or two off each week during the season as well as during the offseason. Your body and your brain will tell you how much you need for peak performance. You should also plan on taking at least a couple of weeks off at some time during the year for deeper recovery.

Oh, and this applies to coaches too. You’ll find coaching is a lot more enjoyable if you let your batteries recharge now and then.

Tip #7: Resolve to have fun

This is probably the aspect that has been most lost over the course of the last 10-20 years. Yes, we have more technology that can tell us more things, and more practice facilities that enable us to keep working even when the weather is at its nastiest, and more opportunities than ever to take our game to a higher level.

But the tradeoff has been more pressure and more stress to the point where playing (and coaching for that matter) feels like a job. And not a particularly pleasant one.

It’s important to remember that softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.

That doesn’t mean it should be like a birthday party without the cake. But it shouldn’t be like studying for finals while waiting to see the dentist either.

Fun in most cases is what you make it. Some people enjoy really digging into things and pushing themselves to their limits. That’s right for them.

But it’s not right for everyone. Others will find their fun in getting a little better each day without killing themselves, competing (in a friendly way) with their teammates, or in being part of a team.

Understand what’s fun for you and then find/create a team with others who share your definition and goals. Like using the wrong pair of cleats, being on a team that isn’t a good fit can be painful.

Good luck to everyone, and I hope you make 2022 your best year ever!

Photo by Damir Mijailovic on Pexels.com

Light Bulb Moment: Athletic Efficiency

One of the concepts that can be tough for a young athlete (not to mention many adults) to understand is that stronger is not always better.

What I mean by that is that in their desire to throw harder, hit harder, run faster, etc. fastpitch softball players will often equate muscling up or tightening up with improved performance. They tend to take a brute force approach to their movements, assuming that if they work harder or produce more energy then they will ipso facto see better results.

Look who’s trotting out the fancy Latin.

Yet that isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes the attempt at creating more energy through brute force works in the opposite manner by locking up joints or slowing down movements which reduces the amount of that energy that can be transferred into the activity.

In other words, despite the increase in energy the overall usage of energy becomes less efficient.

The reality is there are two key elements to maximizing athletic performance in ballistic movements such as pitching, throwing, hitting, and running.

First you have to create energy. Then you have to transfer that energy.

Unless your player is built like this guy.

The brute force approach may work with part one. But it often gets in the way of part two, which means much of the energy the player worked so hard to create is wasted.

Makes sense, right? But how do you explain that to a player without making it sound like a science class lecture – at which point your voice starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher?

Never a good look during practice.

The light bulb moment for me came when I was thinking about a light bulb I needed to replace during a lesson. Perhaps this will help you too.

Think about two types of light bulbs: the standard, traditional incandescent bulbs most of us grew up with (and that are now difficult to find) and LED bulbs.

If turn an old-school incandescent bulb on and leave it on for a few minutes, what happens to its surface? It gets hot. Very hot. As in don’t touch it or you will get burned.

That’s because while an incandescent bulb may be labeled 60 watts, not all of that wattage is going into creating light. In fact, much of it is being wasted in the form of heat.

Now think about an LED bulb. You can leave a 60 watt LED bulb on for an hour, then go over and put your hand on it without feeling much of anything. (DISCLAIMER: Don’t actually do that, just in case.)

The reason is that 60 watt LED bulb isn’t actually drawing 60 watts. That’s just a label the manufacturers use to help consumers know which bulb will give them the light level they’re used to.

In fact, that 60 watt equivalent bulb may be drawing as little as 8 actual watts to deliver the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent bulb. Since its purpose is to create light, not heat, the LED bulb is almost eight times as efficient as the incandescent bulb.

Now that’s apply that to softball. A pitcher who is nearly eight times as efficient in her mechanics as the next player will throw much harder with the same level of effort.

Conversely, she can perform at the same level as the other pitcher with almost no apparent effort at all. She is just much better at harnessing whatever level of energy she is creating and delivering it into the ball.

The same is true for hitters. Most of the time when you see a home run hit it doesn’t look like the hitter was trying to go yard. She just looks smooth as the ball “jumps” off her bat.

This is not to say strength isn’t important. It is.

Ladies, today we begin your new training program.

Remember part one of the formula: you have to generate energy. Great training in mechanics along with intelligent sport-specific or even activity-specific training is critical to achieving higher levels of success.

But it’s not enough.

Understanding how the body moves naturally, and using those movements to take full advantage of the energy being created, will help players deliver higher levels of performance that enable them to achieve their goals and play to their greatest potential.

Hope this has been a light bulb moment for you. Have a great holiday, and take some time to relax. You’ve earned it.

The Challenge of Making Changes

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” This quote, generally attributed to car magnate Henry Ford, explains in a nutshell why fastpitch players, parents and coaches should constantly be seeking new information and new techniques. After all, who doesn’t want to get better?

What’s hidden underneath the surface, however, is a fairly large obstacle: change is (or at least can be) difficult. Which means even if you’re making the right changes for the right reasons it doesn’t always work right away.

How many times have you watched a pitcher attempt to improve her mechanics and seen her speed go down a little instead of up? How many times have you watched a hitter take her swing from looking like an unmade bed to a well-organized attack and yet she suddenly struggles to hit the ball as hard as she did?

At that point its tempting to wonder if you’re actually helping her, or if she is helping herself. Why is she losing ground instead of gaining it?

To answer that question I have a little challenge for you. If you are over the age of 5 I presume you know how to use a fork and a spoon competently enough to feed yourself without making a mess. You can probably do so fairly quickly, without thinking about it.

Or you can just do this.

Now try switching hands and doing the same. In other words, if you normally eat with your right hand, try eating with your left. (For extra challenge, try it with chopsticks, especially if you are not native to them.)

Suddenly, something you do every day without even thinking about it becomes more awkward and difficult. You have to think about how to scoop/stab the food to keep it on the spoon/fork/chopsticks, the angle of the utensil as it approaches your mouth, keeping the utensil steady as you get close to your mouth and a few other things you probably haven’t considered since you were a toddler.

And if you go long enough, or try to go too fast, you will probably find some of that food dribbling down your chin or dropping into your lap. You will probably also take longer than if you had used your usual hand.

Not exactly a good look.

It’s not that you don’t know how to eat. It’s that you’re doing it in a way that is unfamiliar.

That is the same experience athletes typically have when they are trying to make changes or learn something new. The technique they were using previously may not have been ideal, but they were comfortable with it and could execute it quickly and without thinking.

Now, as they try something unfamiliar, those same movements feel awkward and uncomfortable. They actually have to think about what they’re doing, and that slows the entire process.

So rather than quick, energy-driven, ballistic body movements they’re making movements that are labored – slowed by the conscious thought of trying to do what they’re now supposed to do.

So what’s the solution? Time. You know, that thing that all of us try to rush through to get to the great results.

Essentially what has to happen is the new movements have to be able to be performed with the same comfort level as the old ones to see the gains. That doesn’t usually happen right away, even with elite athletes.

Instead, it takes conscious work and effort to learn the new movements properly and build the confidence required to execute them with 100% energy.

The best way to do that is start slowly and work from short distances, preferably into a net, wall or other large surface. Get the feel of the new movements, then gradually increase the speed.

The coach or athlete should use video to check her movements and be sure she is not falling back into old habits as speed increases. If she is falling into old habits, slow it back down, get it right, then try increasing the speed again.

Once she is comfortable at a good speed, start moving toward a more game-like experience. For pitchers (and overhand throwing), that’s increasing the distance to see if the quick movements can be maintained.

For hitters, it’s moving off the tee into front toss – easy at first, then gradually increasing the speed. If you have access to a pitching machine and can feed it competently, you can use that as another step before having the hitter face a live pitcher.

This gradual, stepped progression will give the athlete an opportunity to replace old habits with new in a way that allows her to focus on the process, not the outcomes. By the time outcomes come into play she should be able to execute the skill with full energy and attack – at which point you will see the gains you’re looking for.

What a concept!

It’s not easy to do this. Most athletes just want to do the full skill rather than step through progressions, at least a first. But it’s worth it in the long run.

If you have an athlete who is working to make changes but not seeing the benefits yet, be patient and trust the process. If she’s working on the right changes, and working diligently, it will happen.

In the meantime, grab that carton of chow mein and try eating it with the opposite hand. It will give you a greater appreciation of just how difficult it can be to do something old in a new way.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Fastpitch Player’s Holiday Gift Guide

Ok, I know I’m a little late on this for Hanukkah but who knew it would be so early this year? I guess just bookmark it and have it ready for next year.

For those with holidays still coming up, however, here are a few ideas for gifts that I think will not only be good for immediate satisfaction but could potentially have an impact on your favorite player’s entire career. I am not including gloves or bats since you probably have already thought of those. I wanted to go a little outside the box.

And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being compensated by any of the companies mentioned or linked to for including them (or anything else for that matter). These are just products or services I’ve found to be valuable and think you will do.

Enough preamble. Let’s go shopping.

High-quality batting tee

This is an essential piece of equipment for any player. Even non-hitting pitchers can use it to practice locations as I showed in this post.

The typical use, of course, is for hitting. Tee hitting is for working on mechanics without the challenges of timing a moving ball. If you’re trying to get the proper sequence (hips-shoulders-bat), fix your bat path, learn to tilt properly or solve any other mechanics issues a tee is your best friend.

That said, there are a lot of choices for tees out there. I prefer one that doesn’t have a base that looks like home plate, because when it does look like home plate hitters tend to line up on the tee in a way that is not conducive to great hitting.

Tanner Tees were the original to develop the particular design I favor, although for durability (and resistance to getting easily knocked over) I really like the Jugs T. For younger players, or older players who have trouble with low pitches, the Jugs Short T is also a great choice. You can read more about the Short T in my product review here.

Jugs is also apparently coming out with a combo package that includes both heights. Doesn’t look like it will be available until next year, though, so maybe save it for a birthday or graduation gift.

Large, easy-to-set-up net

If you are getting a tee you’ll probably want to get a net to hit into. That way you can hit in the back yard, basement, garage, or other space without damaging your home or having to chase after the balls.

Bownet is probably the best-known brand at this point. You see their distinctive orange nets at pretty much every game and tournament (although they have a variety of colors available now). But Tanner, Jugs and others also have nets that will do just fine.

Of course, it’s not just hitters who can use a net like this. Pitchers can use one to practice their mechanics from a short distance. Field players and catchers can use them to develop their overhand throw velocity. And so on.

A net like this will pay for itself many times over. And when you’re done with it, if you’ve bought a good quality one you’ll be able to sell it and recoup part of your investment in cash. Pretty good deal overall.

Quality softballs

There’s something about working with nice, bright, shiny new softballs that helps players feel better about their practice time. After all, it’s a lot easier to take pride in your practice time if you’re not using crappy old, beat-up, dirty softballs.

That said, there are all kinds of softballs from many different manufacturers, from the really cheap to the really nice. It’s hard to know which ones to purchase.

My ball of choice right now is the Mark One NFHS 12″ softball. They are real leather balls with a .47 COR and raised seams, among other features.

What I like about them is they are comparable in quality to Worth Dream Seams but generally cost less. I use them for hours a day, nearly every day (including having hitters beat them into metal backstops on a regular basis) and they hold up well. They also have great grip so pitchers like to use them.

But check around the Internet and you can find several high-quality softballs to make your favorite player happy.

Video analysis app

I recently did an extensive product review on a video analysis app called OnForm. It has a lot of great features, including an auto-detect function that would allow a player to set up a device on a tripod and then have it record pitches, swings, throws, etc. when it sees motion.

But there are others out there as well. Kinovea is one that comes to mind, although you can only use it with a computer, not a phone or tablet.

With this type of software a player can record herself and scrub through it to see if what she’s doing is what she thinks she’s doing. Or she can send the video to a coach who can help her with it.

The value of being able to see yourself in slow or stop motion cannot be overestimated. In fact, high speed video analysis has been crucial to busting many myths and mis-teachings that grew up over the years.

If you can’t find a free version, find something you can afford. It’s worth it.

Polyballs

These are the pliable balls with different weights that you can use for a variety of different types of arm training. They’re great for pitchers, catchers and field players to help develop safe throwing mechanics and improve overall arm and shoulder strength.

Polyballs have grown in popularity over the last couple of years so there are a variety of sources from which you can obtain them. I personally use the balls from Velolab Softball, which comes with a free training program. Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing is another source, where they are called Lightning Balls.

One of the great things about them is you can throw them into concrete walls, or plywood, or pretty much any solid wall without damaging the wall or the balls. They make an audible “slam” sound too, so the harder you throw the more satisfying the sound. The lighter ones might even be able to be thrown into drywall, although I would test that theory in an out-of-the-way place first before tossing one in the living room.

Radar device

In my opinion, having some way to measure speed is critical to the development of pitchers, extremely helpful for overhand throwing, and even has some benefits for hitters. I like to call the radar the “pitcher’s accountability meter” because if she takes a pitch or two off, or goes the other way and tries to over-throw/over-muscle the ball, the radar calls her out immediately.

I am personally a huge fan of PocketRadar devices. The Ball Coach is good, but the Smart Coach is worth the extra money if you can swing it because it will not only capture the speed but enable you to embed it in a video capture at the same time. You can read my review of the Smart Coach here.

(If you use your PocketRadar often you’ll also probably make up for the cost difference pretty quickly with the money you’ll save using power blocks instead of alkaline batteries.)

Whatever brand you decide to get, however, my suggestion is to do it often rather than just bringing the radar out now and then.

If you only use it occasionally it becomes a big deal and the pitcher tends to tense up. If it’s part of a regular routine she will not be as intimidated and you’ll ultimately get better readings. I learned that lesson the hard way!

Pitching mat

There are a few good reasons to give your pitcher a good quality pitching mat for the holidays. One of which is saving wear-and-tear on your floors, especially if your pitcher has a heavy drag.

But beyond that, a pitching mat with a built-in pitchers plate can help pitchers learn to use the plate as part of their launch. A center white stripe can help them feel whether they’re going straight or striding out to the side.

If you do decide to get a mat one thing to check into is the type of backing it has. Some are better than others for different types of surfaces.

For example, a rubber backing will be great on a gym floor or other wood floor but may tend slip on turf. There are mats specifically designed for turf surfaces (although not all turf will hold the mat equally well), but they don’t translate too well to a fieldhouse or gym floor.

They have varying lengths as well. Some will extend roughly eight feel in front, pretty much covering the whole stride, while others are just designed to hold the pitcher’s plate itself. A little Internet research will turn up many options and sellers at various price points.

And for outdoors or long turf, the Portolite Mat with the spike backing will hold in conditions where other won’t. You can read my review of this product here.

Pitcher launch aids

One of the greatest challenges many pitchers face is getting a strong launch/leg drive. While some come by it naturally, most have to have it trained into them at some level.

The key is to get pitchers to get their hips moving out in front of the pitching rubber as they go into launch rather than sitting down on it. Three devices I’ve used to help them feel it are the Power Pod, the Softball Power Drive, and the Queen of the Hill.

Each of these goes about it in different ways. The Power Pod from Softball Excellence adds a little springiness to the initial move to go out, helping get away from “dead leg syndrome.” As a bonus, I also find it pretty handy for helping pitchers learn how to spin the curve and rise (although it wasn’t designed for that) and for teaching hitters to stride straight instead of away from the plate.

The Softball Power Drive, which is endorsed by Amanda Scarborough, helps pitchers feel the sprinter’s lean and forward angle of the body rather than sitting straight down on the pitching rubber. If they’re dragging the drive leg like an anchor they’ll feel it pretty quickly.

Then there’s the Queen of the Hill, which I’ve reviewed previously. Its sliding plate is great for teaching pitchers to drive their drive foot back instead of just running past it. If you push into it you’ll hear a “click-click” which tells you you did it right. If you don’t, no click.

You can also use these devices in combination. For example, put the Queen of the Hill behind the stride foot to encourage that foot to engage the ground before moving forward, and then the Softball Power Drive or Power Pod on the drive foot to encourage more drive as you come through.

Generating forward energy is critical to maximizing pitch speed. These devices can help.

PaulyGirl Fastpitch/High Performance Pitching online program

So, this is probably more of a secondary gift. I’d guess 99% of pitchers wouldn’t be interested in doing the training themselves, but if a parent or coach did the worked through the High Performance Pitching training program he/she could convey the information to the pitcher – at which point she would benefit greatly in my opinion.

Renowned pitching coach Rick Pauly has put together an extensive, detailed program broken into Beginner, Intermediate, Elite, and Professional levels. It’s all video-based and self-paced, which means you can go as slowly or as quickly as your time budget allow.

You can also pick and choose what you want. So if you just want help with the curveball you can take that module without having to go through the entire Elite level course.

If you’re interested in more information you can read this blog post which goes into much greater detail.

That’s a wrap

So there you have it – fairly exhaustive list. I could probably do more but if you’ve made it this far you’re already made of stern stuff. Have to stop somewhere.

Of course, for other ideas, you can use the search function in the left column and put in “Product Review.” You’ll no doubt find a few other ideas.

In any case, happy holiday shopping! Just remember, no matter what you buy it’s the archer, not the arrow, that really makes the difference.

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