Monthly Archives: April 2022
A Volunteer’s Guide to Scoring on GameChanger
As an instructor who is mostly teaching lessons while my students are out playing, one of the greatest innovations in softball in the last 10 years is GameChanger.
(I say this despite the fact that I used to used iScore when I was coaching teams. Both are similar, but like VHS v Beta back in the VCR days, there is a clear winner in the battle for dominance among the masses.)
The beauty of GameChanger et. al. is that when you can’t be at the ballpark you can still keep up on what’s happening during the game. Or after.
(If am not teaching a lesson at the moment and my students are doing well I like to watch in real time. If they are struggling I am old school superstitious enough to believe I’m jinxing them and will check out the final box score later.)
Of course, as the short story The Monkey’s Paw (and the later Bruce Springsteen song) says, with every wish comes a curse.
In the case of GameChanger the curse is that the report you see doesn’t always tell the whole story. Or even an accurate one.
The challenge is that the person keeping score in GameChanger often is a volunteer, usually a parent, frequently a parent who missed the parent meeting and thus got stuck with the job instead of getting to do something simpler like line up hotels for away tournaments or convince the league’s governing board that softball girls deserve to have their fields lined and dragged for games, just like the boys’ baseball teams do.
So the GameChanger parents muddles through as best he/she can. And while the parent may get training on the technical aspects of how to enter information (and how to change it when they realize they screwed up the batting order or mixed up which field is left and which is right), they don’t get the opportunity to learn the nuances of how to score a game in a way that makes sense to someone who knows the game and wants to see what’s really going on.
Luckily, GameChanger parent, you have me! So without further ado, here are some of the nuances no one tells you when you agree to use up your online minutes to post the info on GameChanger.
Left Handed Hitter v Right Handed Hitter
Let’s start with this because it’s pretty basic and simple. For each player, it’s important to mark whether they hit left- or right-handed. Not that it affects the stats at all, but because it helps people who are watching remotely confirm that the Jennifer N they’re seeing is the one they want to watch. Not one of the three other Jennifer Ns on the team.
It’s also important for slappers, particularly newbie slappers who are just making the transition. And it helps give a more accurate picture of the game.
It’s just a simple button. If you have lefties on the team, give that button a click so they show up correctly.
Pop Out v Fly Ball v Line Drive
This one probably drives me battier (pun intended) than anything else because it just defies the laws of softball as well as logic.
If a ball goes out to an outfield, it is a fly ball, not a pop out. A pop out is contact that is caught in the infield area, either in fair or foul territory.
Saying “Mary T pops out to right fielder Sally J” when the ball has clearly traveled 180 feet is just wrong. The only time it would be correct is if Sally J is playing incredibly shallow in right field and the ball goes way up in the air and then comes down to her within spitting distance of the infield.
By the same token, a hitter cannot fly out to an infielder. She can hit a line drive out, or a pop out.
But even if she has to go backwards to catch the ball it’s not a fly ball. A fly ball has a trajectory that carries it well beyond where an infielder could catch it.
A line drive is basically a ball hit in a way gives it an upward trajectory but isn’t as high as a fly ball or pop up. This very basic drawing should help scorers distinguish between them.
Please, please, please, get this right. Otherwise it’s like nails on a chalkboard.
Hit v Error
This one should be pretty straightforward. But apparently it’s not so let me clarify.
If the batter hits the ball in fair territory and no one touches it, it’s a hit. Doesn’t matter how far it went or whether it was on the ground or in the air. It’s a hit.
If the batter hits the ball and a fielder touches it but doesn’t make the play, 99 times out of 100 it’s an error. The exception is a little leeway can be granted if touching the ball required extraordinary effort. Extraordinary effort being defined as “laid herself out to get there” not “stopped picking dandelions when the ball hit her in the shins.”
If the ball came to the fielder and she played hacky-sack with it as she tried to field it, or she fielded it cleanly but threw the ball toward South America instead of the base where an out could be obtained, it’s an error. Even if that fielder was your daughter.
While I have said in the past that I believe slappers should get credit for a hit if they bang the ball off a fielder’s shins and beat the throw, the reality is that’s not how it’s officially scored. It’s still reached on error. Deal with it.
The one area where judgment comes into play is if the ball could have been fielded for an out with an ordinary effort, i.e., it rolls through the hitter’s legs or drops next to an outfielder.
Even though it wasn’t touched, it should have resulted in an out had the fielder played it correctly so it’s considered an error.
This whole “outs v errors,” by the way, is why college coaches tend to take the stats players post on the Internet with a huge dollop of salt. Unless they know the scorer has a high level of skill, they can suspect that batting averages of .825 or ERAs of 0.25 on most teams owe more to scorer inexperience or manipulation than the player’s skills.
Slap v Bunt
People who are new to softball can be excused for not understanding this difference. But it’s an important distinction.
If the batter sticks the bat out with the intention of having the ball hit the bat and roll a few feet away, it’s a bunt. If the batter (especially a left handed batter who is running up on the pitch) takes a swing, or even a half swing, it’s considered a slap whether it comes off hard or soft.
Marking it correctly doesn’t affect the stats at all. But for the parents (or hitting coach) of a slapper who can’t be there it makes a huge deal in knowing that the player is using the skills she’s been training on.
Extra Base Hits and Which Fielder Is Named
Maybe this is just my personal preference but seeing “Jolene T hits ground ball double to shortstop Tina K” is another thing that makes no sense to me. How in the world do you hit a double to the shortstop?
The short answer is you don’t. You hit a hard ground ball that got through the infield and went toward an outfield position. That’s who it should be marked going to.
Getting It Right
Again, it’s great that apps such as GameChanger are available to allow interested parties to follow multiple games from afar. But as long as you’re putting in the effort to record the game, you might as well do it correctly.
Understand these differences and you’ll help everyone get a better idea of what’s really happening/what really happened, which makes following along more fun.
How Many Lessons Until My Kid Is Awesome?
Today’s blog post was suggested by my friend and fellow pitching coach Shaun Walker of Next Level Softball. Shaun is an incredible pitching coach and an innovative thinker who has opened me up to a whole new world around human movement and how it affects athletic performance at a core level.
Don’t let the West Virginia accent fool you either. He may talk funny (as he says) but you better pay attention when he’s doing it or you will miss something great. (If you’re in the Man, W. Va. area and are interested in quality instruction definitely look him up.)
In any case, Shaun told me about getting contacted by the parent of a prospective student who asked him the question I’m sure is on the minds of many parents: how many lessons will it take? The implied part, of course, is until my daughter is a star.
Wow, talk about a loaded question. As Shaun says, that’s like asking how many licks until you get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. There is no easy answer.
NOTE: While we will be talking about pitching specifically in this post, the principles apply to all skills, all positions, and all sports and activities.
One obvious reason is that different players have different builds, athletic abilities, work ethics, time available to them, levels of experience, practice spaces, levels of mental toughness, and other factors. They are also different ages which factors into it more than many of us might want to admit.
For example, an 8 year old will generally have a very different ability to focus for long periods of time than a 14 year old. That’s just biology.
Sure, there are plenty of distracted 14 years old, and the occasional hyper-focused 8 year old. But for the overall population this is true.
With the result that the 8 year old will be able to pay attention for part of the lesson until the circus in her head takes over whereas the 14 year old should be able to focus for the entire lesson. Particularly if she is personally motivated to learn.
Athletic build is a pretty obvious factor. A big, strong player will likely experience more success early than a scrawny little peanut who is in danger of being blown away by the next strong breeze.
That doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever, though. The peanut will grow and mature, and eventually gain the muscle mass needed – particularly if she works at it – to catch up to her larger peers. With the added benefit her mechanics may be cleaner because they had to be.
But it’s going to take her longer to achieve the same level of success. Again, that darned biology.
This brings us to work ethic, which I’m sure Shaun (and many others) would agree is the greatest X factor of them all.
Take two girls of similar native ability. The only time the first one picks up a ball is when she has a lesson. Or maybe an hour before she has that lesson.
The second one practices diligently. Not just putting in time, but actually working on the things that were assigned to her in her last lesson (whether that was with a live pitching coach, a team coach, a parent, or an online session).
Which one is more likely to advance faster? I think the answer is pretty obvious.
But there is no way the coach being asked “How long will it take” will know these players well enough to make that evaluation before ever working with them.
And even then, the lack of natural athletic ability or comfort with body movement may hold the harder worker back longer — for a while. Eventually, though, that work ethic will overcome just about any obstacle.
Another factor that can contribute is how long it takes to overcome previous bad teaching.
I’ve talked a lot, especially recently, about the benefits of internal rotation (IR) over hello elbow (HE) pitching, especially when it comes to using the body the way it’s designed to work. One of the biggest issues HE generates is teaching pitchers to turn the ball back toward second base, make the arm as straight as possible, and push the ball down the back side of the circle.
When you do that you lose any ability to accelerate (whip) the ball through the release zone, affecting both speed and accuracy. That’s why many pitchers who are taught HE, and do the HE drills, still manage to find their way to some form of IR when they actually pitch.
Still, those ingrained habits can be difficult to break. So a pitcher who has taken lessons for five years from an HE coach may find it takes her longer to unlearn those mechanics and get on the right path than one who has never had instruction before or maybe even who has never pitched.
So again, how long it takes to achieve the results you’re looking for is difficult to predict. It all depends on how long it takes to learn to face the ball forward, maintain a bend in the arm, and accelerate the ball into release by leading the little finger rather than pushing it from behind.
Last but definitely not least is the mental toughness factor. Many of the skills in softball are incredibly difficult to learn, and pitching is certainly no exception.
It can be frustrating, even soul-sucking at times. There will be days when nothing seems to work right, or weeks when it feels like zero progress is being made because the speed on the radar gun isn’t changing or the strike percentages aren’t going up significantly or the spin direction on the ball isn’t what it should be.
Pitchers need to have the mental toughness to accept it and keep working anyway. If they’re learning the right techniques, and practicing diligently, it will happen. As my favorite quote from Remember the Titans says, “It’s like Novocain. Give it time, it always works.”
Those who can hang in there when the going gets tough will see the rewards. Those who can’t will find it difficult to achieve their dreams.
Just like in life.
So how long will it take? As long as it takes.
There are things you can do to shorten the process, but it’s only shortening your process, because we’re all different.
Keep an eye on the prize, understand it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and all those other sports clichés. If you keep at it you will eventually reach the chewy center.
Oh, and if you have a topic you’d like me to address, feel free to suggest it in the comments below. I’m always looking for new ideas that will resonate with your interests and concerns.
When Timing Pitches, Focus on the Future
One of the things that makes hitting so difficult is you not only have to develop great swing mechanics; you also have to time them to the speed, direction, and movement of the pitch.
Since there are no style points in softball (i.e., no judges holding up cards reading 9.5 for a beautiful swing) the only thing that matters is how well you hit the pitch. Yes, having great mechanics contributes to being able to hit the pitch well, but they have to be timed properly to get the best effect.
And that’s something many hitters struggle with. One of the big reasons, at least in my experience, has nothing to do with athleticism or ability.
Instead, it’s a fear of looking bad, or of being yelled at otherwise chastised for swinging at a bad pitch. So, those hitters will wait too long to ensure the pitch is good, putting themselves behind and thus letting the ball get too deep on them before they initiate their swings.
How do you overcome that fear? One way is to teach hitters to think “yes-yes-yes-no.”
In other words, they’re always swinging until they actually see it’s a bad pitch instead of waiting to swing until they see it’s a good pitch.
Still, if they’re really worried about looking bad they may still hesitate. So here’s another way to explain it to them.
Ask them whether they can affect things in the past, present, or future. Unless they’ve skipped every science class ever they will likely tell you the present and future.
Then take a ball and hold it either even with their bodies or a little behind. Explain to them that this ball is in the past.
Therefore swinging at it is pointless because they can’t change the outcome. It’s by them and it’s done.
Then hold the ball at the proper contact point and tell them this pitch is in the present and they can do a lot with it. Then hold it further in front and say it’s in the future.
Now, if they start swinging at the future ball (too early) can they still make an adjustment and get on-time? It may not be easy depending on HOW early they are, but it is possible, especially if you have a ell-sequenced swing.
So with that in mind, is it better to be a little too early or a little too late? Too early, of course, because you can still change it. Once you’re late it’s all over – unless you happen to have a time machine handy, in which case quit playing softball and go back in time to buy some Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon stock.
It’s all about keeping it simple. Hitters may not understand some of the complexities of proper timing, but pretty much everyone can relate to the idea of past-present-future.
Get them focused on affecting the present and future and they’ll spend a lot less time regretting their decisions in the past.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
10U Coaches: You Have One Job – Player Development
Last night I was speaking with one of my 10U pitching students during her lesson. I knew from GameChanger (and a text with her mom) that she had pitched two innings the previous weekend, facing six batters and striking them all out. Not a bad performance overall.
I asked what pitches she threw. She said one drop and the rest fastballs. “What about your changeup?” I asked.
“My coach doesn’t want me to throw changeups,” she replied. “He says he only wants strikes.”
My blood immediately started to boil as I’m sure you can imagine. Statements like that, in my opinion, demonstrate world-class ignorance, both about pitching generally and the mission of a 10U coach.
For those who don’t quite get this, I will type it slowly. As a 10U coach your primary job is not to rack up a great win-loss record.
YOUR JOB IS TO DEVELOP YOUR PLAYERS. Period, hard stop.
If that means you give up a few walks, or a few runs, while your pitchers gain experience throwing more than a basic fastball, so be it. In the long term you will benefit, because as hitters get older pitchers can’t just blow the ball by them anymore and need to have other pitches available to them if they’re going to get outs.
If that means you have a few more strikeouts at the plate because your hitters are swinging the bat instead of just standing there waiting for walks, so be it. Instructing your players to wait for walks so you can score more runs benefits no one.
Because if they don’t learn to be aggressive and go after pitches when they’re young they’re very likely to stand there and watch strike after strike go by when the pitching gets better. And then where are you?
If that means you don’t throw out as many runners stealing bases because you’re having your catchers throw before the fielder reaches the base, or you’re teaching your infielders to cover the base instead of having your outfielders do it, so be it. Down the road you won’t be able to play your outfield that close to the infield so somebody better know how to get over there. And get over there on time to get a runner out.
The same goes for trying to get the lead runner on defense instead of making the “safe” play to first – or worse just trying to rush the ball back to the pitcher. If a few more runners advance and eventually right now, so be it.
As your players get older and stronger and presumably more capable they will be able to make those plays – and will have the confidence to attempt them.
I get it. We all like to win. As they say in Bull Durham, winning is more fun than losing.
But again, at 10U (and even at 12U or 14U to a large extent) your focus should be on developing your players and teaching them to love the game rather than massaging your own ego. You should be playing teams of comparable quality and should be teaching your players to play the game the right way.
You shouldn’t hold them back or prevent them from trying new things they’ve been working on. Instead you should be encouraging them to grow, and giving them the opportunity to gain higher-level experience rather than simply playing it safe.
Does that mean go crazy with it? Of course not.
If a pitcher tries a particular pitch and doesn’t have it that day then yes, stop throwing it that day. But don’t not throw it at all because it might not work.
If a girl has been working at pitching and wants an opportunity to pitch in a game put her in. She may just surprise you.
But even if she struggles she will either learn what to work on to get better or she’ll decide it’s not for her. Which is a win either way.
If your hitters are swinging at balls over their heads or balls in the dirt, call them together and give them a narrower range to go after. But don’t take the bats out of their hands completely, just in case that wild pitcher manages to throw a few strikes.
So how do you strike that balance? Here’s an approach for that pitcher who wants to try a new pitch.
Pick a safe count like 1-1 and have her throw it. Even if she chucks it over the backstop the count is only 2-1. And since she’s already demonstrated an ability to strike out the side anyway you know she’ll come back.
But what if she throws it for a strike (which in this case we all know she probably will)? Now the count is 1-2 and she’s gained more experience throwing it in a game.
That experience will come in handy down the road when she faces a team that can hit her heat and thus needs to knock them off-balance. Hitting is about timing, and pitching is about upsetting that timing. Plain and simple.
If that isn’t enough incentive, here’s something to consider. Coaches who hold back players who are driven enough to want to throw changeups or swing the bat or make advanced fielding plays don’t keep those players for very long.
Instead, those players seek out teams where they can grow and learn and be encouraged to expand their skillset instead of being put into a tight little box so their coaches can win more meaningless games. And in the big picture, ALL 10U games are meaningless.
Every coach and every program likes to proclaim that they are “in it for the girls.” But talk is cheap.
If you’re really in it for the girls, give them the space to grow and improve – even if it costs you a few wins today. Your players, and your team, will be much better off in the long run.
Hitting and Timing: Going From Sunday Morning to Monday Morning
One of the greatest challenges fastpitch hitters face is understanding how to time the various stages of their swings.
Some will tend to rush the entire swing, especially if they are concerned about the pitcher’s speed. As a result, they never build a rhythm and while they may make contact it won’t be good, solid contact.
Some will be lethargic throughout. Those hitters are never going to get to the ball on time and will be easily overpowered even by mediocre pitchers.
And some with just be unmade beds, with no rhyme or reason to what they’re doing at all. It hurts just to watch them.
Now, you can talk all you want about proper timing and having proprioception (body awareness for those about to do a Google search) but often that conversation goes has little meaning to players. These habits are often ingrained, so you need to find a way to explain what’s needed in a way hitters can understand.
That’s where the concept of Sunday morning v. Monday morning comes in. It’s an analogy pretty much anyone I’ve worked with on hitting will recognize.
The reason I use it a lot is that it works. It gives hitters a frame of reference for how their bodies should move that they can understand.
I will start by asking them what Sunday morning is like, at least on a non-tournament morning. The answer I usually get is slow and easy, relaxed, laid back.
Many (most?) people like to sleep in a little later than usual on Sunday mornings – even the church goers. They take their time getting ready and getting out into the day.
Then I ask them what Monday morning is like. The words they use to describe it are things like rushed, frantic, panicked, or hurried.
They have to get up, get cleaned up and dressed, find their homework, pack a lunch or get lunch money, get to the bus or the car pool or start riding their bikes or walking. Most people on Monday morning don’t leave enough time for these activities so it’s always a race to get them done.
And that’s how the swing goes.
The phase from load to toe touch is Sunday morning. It’s relaxed, slow and easy.
You want to get your weight/center of gravity moving forward and your body prepared to swing, but it’s not the actual swing itself. The key point here is moving in a way that your front foot gets down on time.
Once the heel drops it’s Monday morning. The jets turn on and everything is high-energy. Not out of control, but fast and powerful nonetheless.
Following this Sunday morning/Monday morning process enables hitters to get to where they need to be on time so they can deliver the bat with maximum power, efficiency, and control.
Of course, as a coach you can’t always use the same analogy for everyone. For example, in some households it’s chaos all the time so the players might not see a difference between Sunday and Monday morning.
In that case, you can tell them that the prep phase is like smooth jazz – cool, laid back, relaxed – and the actual swing phase is heavy metal. Even if they are a fan of neither they will get what you’re saying.
Or you can tell them the prep phase is like the start of the Indy 500 where the pace car leads the way, and the swing phase is like the rest, where the drivers dart in and out like maniacs at 200 mph. Whatever it takes.
The point is you need to find some way of helping them understand what should be slow, and how it should feel, as well as what should happen when it’s time to put the hammer down.
Ge them to understand that and you’ll find your hitters are making better, more consistent contact with every at bat. Almost regardless of the quality of the pitching.
So how do you explain this concept to your hitters? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Bed photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com
Sax player photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com