Monthly Archives: May 2022

The Umpire Dilemma

I don’t think too many people would disagree that we have an umpire dilemma in fastpitch softball. Actually it applies to officials in all sports but since this is a fastpitch softball blog we will stick to umpires. Those of you who see it in other sports can make your own translations.

Now, for the some the umpire dilemma comes down to one thought: Umpires these days suck. But the reality is that mindset is a big part of the problem we are facing today.

Being an umpire is an incredibly difficult job. Plate umpires in particular have to make hundreds of decisions each game, and often half the people in attendance thinks most of them are wrong.

How did I come to hundreds? Well, figure if each pitcher throws 100 pitches in a game that’s roughly 200 right there. Add in force outs at bases, tag plays, interference or obstruction calls, runners tagging up, infield fly rule, illegal pitches, runners leaving early, fair/foul calls, etc. and you get a large number.

Complicating all of that is sometimes these plays are happening simultaneously, such as ball/strike and runners leaving early. Kind of difficult to see both, especially at the upper levels where things happen very quickly.

They have to get each one of these calls right too or they’ll likely find themselves featured on one of the many Facebook or other Internet groups dedicated to fastpitch softball. In tournaments, umpires may work seven or more games in a day, Which means they could be making, say, 250 decision x 7 games, for a total of 1,750 decisions in a single day.

It’s statistically unlikely that they will get every single one of them correct, no matter how hard they try. Perhaps some day we will have impartial robots to make all of those decisions. But I’ll bet even then there will be parents who think they’ve been programmed to cheat their teams out of a win.

Sometimes umpire do this without a break, and often in oppressive heat and humidity while being on their feet ALL DAY. My back hurts just thinking about it.

They also have to know all the nuances of an arcane and ever-changing rulebook from memory. It’s easy to know the stuff that happens all the time.

But when it comes to the things that rarely happen it can be more challenging. Of course, there will always be some “helpful” parent more than willing to correct them from the sidelines if they get it wrong.

The real issue, however, is that being called out on the Internet is the least of their worries these days. This female umpire in Mississippi was one of the latest to find that out.

The verbal abuse umpires often take is bad enough, especially in a world where a lot of people seem to have lost their ability to filter their thoughts and think every one must be shared with the world. But when did people start thinking physical assault was an appropriate response to little Sally getting rung up on a bang-bang tag play?

What all of this has led to is a shortage of umpires as older ones retire and younger people pass on the idea like my wife seeing mushrooms on a pizza. They may love the sport and want to help, but a small dose of crazy parents convinces them to find something less stressful or dangerous to do with their spare time, like bungee jumping or extreme sports.

In an ideal world, every game would have a minimum of two umpires. One behind the plate, and one in the field.

Two umpires allow them to work as a team to get closer to calls on the field, to get a second opinion on a checked swing, to have one watch balls and strikes while the other watches for illegal pitches and runners leaving early, or to consult with their partner if they’re not sure about a call or rule.

But in today’s world having two or more umpires at high school, travel or rec league games is becoming increasingly difficult. In fact, it’s becoming more difficult to get one umpire to all the games that need to be covered, leading to more widespread cancelations as these Google search results show.

So here’s the dilemma. Given everything said above, how do you get more people to raise their hands to become umpires to not only backfill the current shortage but also enable the sport to continue to grow?

One obvious answer is for all those parents, coaches, and other spectators on the sideline who think they know so much to take some classes, become certified, and strap on some shin guards, chest protectors and masks and do the job themselves.

Riiiight. That’s gonna happen.

The real solution is for the people on the sidelines to start acting like decent human beings and show some respect to the officials who are giving up their weeknights and weekends for very low pay so the kids can play. I know it sounds simplistic but it really is the key, especially for drawing former players into the ranks.

Many will try it but leave because of the verbal abuse and sometimes threats of violence. It’s not worth it to them to listen to the constant insults and jawjacking or take the chance on getting clocked in the parking lot.

Cut all of that out and you not only attract more young people – you keep them, reducing the number you need to attract in the future.

None of this requires legislation or any grand gestures either. It starts with each individual.

If you just worry about you, and maybe your significant other if he/she has no filter and/or anger management issues, you can make a difference. As more people adopt this attitude the epidemic of umpire abuse will subside and you’ll not only attract more candidates – you’ll get better, smarter ones.

You know the old quote “Be the change you want to see in the world”? That’s what we’re talking about here. (And no, Gandhi never actually said that, although he said something close.)

The point is you can help turn the tide. Be kind. The only good reason to chase down an umpire after the game is to thank him or her for taking on this normally thankless job – even if you didn’t like the way they did it.

When I was coaching teams, we would have every player say thank you to the umpires after the game, even if we didn’t think much of that umpire. We did it as a sign of respect not only to that person but to the position and to the game.

Give this idea a try. You may find it makes the games a lot more enjoyable for you and everyone around you.

This post has been updated to correct that the female umpire was from Mississippi, not Missouri as previously stated.

6 Reasons to Watch the NCAA D1 Softball Tournament

We are coming up to the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics: the NCAA D1 Women’s Softball tournament. Over the next couple of weeks 64 of (presumably) the best college softball teams in the country will be going head-to-head to see which will ultimately make it into the Elite 8 and the Women’s College World Series WCWS).

Fortunately for those of us who love it, these games will be all over ESPN. Not because ESPN has any particular love or feels any particular sense of responsibility to the sport, but because over the last few years it has been a rating juggernaut.

In fact, last year alone it drew more than 1.2 million viewers, which is 60% more than the Men’s Baseball College World Series. It draws the eyeballs, which draws the sponsors, which ensures you’ll see it.

Yet as popular as it is, if you ask the average youth or even high school player if she plans to watch any of the games, she will probably turn her head and stare at you the way a dog does when you ask it if it knows what it just did. That’s her way of saying no.

In fact, I have found over the years that most players don’t have a favorite team, or a favorite player, or can even name a college or pro player. That’s because it never occurs to them to watch the games. And if they do watch because a parent makes them, they don’t really pay attention or get invested in it.

That’s a shame, because there is much that younger players can learn by watching these elite athletes perform in the biggest showcase fastpitch softball has. (Yes, you can argue that the Olympics and other international tournaments offer a higher level of play but there’s no guarantee softball will be in the Olympics again – and just try finding international tournaments if you don’t have more than a basic cable or satellite subscription.)

So with that in mind, here are some of the reasons why you either want to watch the games with your favorite player or team live, or DVR them and watch them later. Even if you feel you have to turn off the sound on some of them.

1. See the Speed of the Game

This is probably one of the biggest eye-openers, especially for players in the 10-14 year age range. The game happens fast.

Players who are used to taking their time gathering a ground ball and making a throw to first, or jogging after a pop fly, will see how quickly plays develop – and are over. With slappers in particular, one little bobble by an infielder (no matter how minor it seems) gives the hitter just enough time to reach base safely.

Seeing the sense of urgency in every play can help individuals and teams learn to play at a higher level.

2. Watch How Top Players Execute Their Skills

It’s often said that when you’re looking at what techniques or mechanics to use for pitching, fielding, throwing, hitting, etc. that we should look at how the best players in the world do it. While the players on TV may not all be the “best” players they’re still pretty darned good at what they do so they make fine examples to study.

Here’s where DVRing the games comes in particularly handy. If a player hits a home run, you can go back and look at her swing from the multiple angles they show. Sooner or later you’ll get to see how a top pitcher throws her riseball – assuming it’s an actual rise and not a gyro spinning high fastball.

You can also use it for quantitative analysis, such as looking at how many pitchers use the “hello elbow” technique versus how many are using internal rotation. You can compare how many hitters “squish the bug” on their back leg versus shift their weight forward and get completely off the leg.

You can watch how infielders throw on a bang-bang play, how they make tags on steals, how they position themselves in bunt situations. You can watch how outfielders go back on a ball and how they scoop and throw home in a do-or-die situation. You can watch how many catchers throw from their knees versus their feet, and the specific techniques they use.

It’s a virtual cornucopia of skills on display, all delivered free to your living room.

3. See How Player Recover from Mistakes

One of the biggest challenges youth players face is learning how to recover from their mistakes, e.g., committing errors, striking out (particularly with runners on base), giving up leadoff walks, etc. As a general rule girls take “failure” rather hard, to the point where fear of failure can prevent them from performing at their highest level.

Well ya know what? Those players on TV do all those things too.

Although you probably don’t want to make this highlight reel.

I remember the great Cindy Bristow telling a room full of coaches at a clinic that “My girls make the same mistakes your girls do. They just do it faster.”

So having your player(s) see one of the best in the game bobble a ball, strikeout, throw a wild pitch with a runner on third, or make some other mistake at the least will show her she’s in good company. (It will also show coaches and parents why they need to have realistic expectations for their 10 year olds.)

But the most important lesson for the player will be what happens next. Instead of brooding about it, the player in the WCWS will move on and keep playing. Sure, she may beat herself up over it later, especially if her team loses, but in the moment she pushes it down because she knows she needs to be ready for the next opportunity.

That is not necessarily a natural skill for most humans. But it’s one that can be learned of you make the effort.

4. Hear Some Inspirational Stories

Softball is absolutely a game of failure and adversity. And for some the journey is more challenging than others.

It’s easy to assume that everyone you see was a star from the beginning who was recognized for their talent and treated like royalty their whole career. But that isn’t always the case.

Fortunately, ESPN does a great job of profiling players and where they came from to tell fascinating human interest stories. Such as last year when Odicci Alexander captured the nation’s hearts with her story of being self-taught before leading her James Madison University team to the WCWS.

There are always stories players can relate to. Some talk about overcoming challenging injuries, including some that were supposed to be career-ending.

Some relate to issues such as being cut from a travel team or not making varsity and having to work even harder to elevate their games. Some involve personal tragedies.

Whatever the story, it shows that obstacles are only temporary – if you have the will to overcome them.

5. Bond With Your Player(s)

Remember the great James Earl Jones speech in “Field of Dreams” about how America marched along like an army of steamrollers, but through it all there was baseball? The shared experience of watching a sport played at its highest level can really help parents bond with their children and coaches bond with their players.

To make that happen, of course, you can’t make watching the games like school. Or at least totally like school.

Sure, you can go over plays and evaluate the coverages and executions. But you can also simply appreciate an amazing diving catch or the inner struggle on both sides of a 12-pitch at-bat.

You can laugh about that riseball that gets launched into the stands or the runner who evades the catcher with a well-timed dive or jump on a play at the plate.

But of course the best part will be spending time with those players sharing something you mutually love.

6. Follow the Benjamins

In the beginning of this post I mentioned that ESPN broadcasts every game of the tournament not because they love softball or softball players so much but because it makes them money. Lots of money.

Well, the downside of that is if the audience dries up so does the coverage. So if you want to keep seeing games on TV, even occasionally, one of the best things you can do is watch them now.

Keep those ratings growing and it will encourage even more coverage. Otherwise you’ll be singing this sad song.

A little something for all you glam metal fans.

The Plusses and Minuses of Measurables

First of all, before we get into today’s topic I want to share something I’ve found with others who rely on devices such as the Pocket Radar Smart Coach to take continuous readings. I imagine it also applies to those streaming games on GameChanger, SidelineHD and other technologies that rely on outside power, although I haven’t tested them personally.

The thing I’ve discovered is the value of a heavy duty power block when you can’t access AC power. I’ve been using my Smart Coach with battery power for a couple of years now, and I’ve always relied on the small promotional power blocks you get as a giveaway at trade shows and such.

If you are careful you can get about four hours out of them before a charge is needed, so I’d always have three or four available. The problem was they could go out in the middle of a lesson or game, which meant taking time to change one out for another.

A few months ago I bought an Anker PowerCore III to use with my Smart Coach during lessons. Wow, what a difference!

One of these thingies.

Now instead of maybe getting one night out of the power block by turning it off when I wasn’t teaching pitching I can leave it on for four or five hours at a time with no worries. In fact, this week I did an entire week’s worth of lessons, 4-5 hours per day/night, on a single charge.

That is way easier than having to shuffle units and recharge them every day. So if you’re like I was and being cheap, don’t be. It’s well worth the $50 to get what seems like endless power for your devices. Now on with today’s topic.

You see it all over Facebook, Instagram, and other social media: photos of happy pitchers, catchers, hitters, etc. proudly showing off their latest numbers on a radar gun or other device. I myself post them all the time when a student achieves a new measurable.

While I obviously believe measuring progress with numbers is a good thing, there are also some downsides or “gotchas” that can also crop up in all the excitement. So here’s a look at some of the plusses and minuses of measurables.

The Plusses

These days when I do lessons the Smart Coach is always going, capturing the speed of every pitch and showing it on the Pocket Radar Smart Display in big red numbers. (No, it’s not a paid endorsement, just the facts of what I use.)

I call it my accountability meter. In the midst of a long lesson, especially on a hot day or after a long day at school, it’s easy for fastpitch softball players to want to take a few pitches, hits, throws, etc. off.

When you’re just eyeballing it they can get away with it. But when the numbers are showing up every time, it’s much more difficult.

Players have to put the effort in EVERY time or it becomes pretty obvious.

Beyond that, having numbers on every repetition helps show whether changes we are making are working. For example, if a pitcher is working on improving her whip without using her legs, having a radar going helps determine whether changes are being made at the fundamental level or whether they’re merely cosmetic.

(As a side note, it’s amazing how close to a pitcher’s full speed she can get by taking the legs out and just focusing on arm whip and a quick pronation at release. But that’s a topic for another day.)

The same is true of overhand throws. I have a couple of 11U catchers in particular (hello Lia and Amelie) who love to throw against the radar to see how hard they’re throwing. It’s no coincidence they are also throwing out baserunners on steals while many of their peers struggle to just get the ball to the base.

Using a radar, a BlastMotion sensor, 4D Motion sensors and other devices helps take the guesswork out of what’s happening with a player. They give you a solid foundation to use in deciding how to move forward and let you see whether you’re making the kind of progress you want to make.

If not, you know you have to do something else to drive improvement. In many cases they help you see “under the hood” in a way that even video can’t.

And on an intangible level, they encourage players to keep working so they can earn the recognition (as well as the occasional Starbucks gift card) that comes with accomplishing a goal.

There’s an old saying that goes “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.” Having measurables gives players a destination that keeps them focused so they can become all they can be.

The Minuses

Again, while I am a fan of measurables (and the use of a radar unit in particular), I recognize there are also some minuses to the practice.

Probably the biggest of which is when players (or parents) use the figures to compare themselves to others, good and bad.

For example, for some parents, no matter how far their daughter has come in the past few weeks/months/years, if someone else’s kid’s numbers are better then their own player’s numbers are not enough. Everyone wants to be #1 after all.

Yet that’s a poor use of numbers – especially if they are coming from different sources. There are ways to “juice” the numbers on a radar gun, or to screw them up and take them lower than they actually are, so Millie’s 55 may be as good as Sasha’s 58 if the two of them were to throw to the same radar unit.

There’s also the chance that players (and coaches and parents) can get so caught up in the race for speed or estimated distance on a hit or another parameter that they forget about all the wild pitches or swings and misses that occurred between readings.

The reality is there is more to athletic performance than the raw numbers. Pitchers have to be able to hit their spots and spin the ball properly if they’re going to be effective at higher levels.

Hitters have to not only hit like studs in the cage but also on-demand when they’re facing a real pitcher. After all, you only get one shot when you hit the ball fair, so being able to smoke 250′ bombs in-between a bunch of weak ground balls and popups probably won’t be that effective on the field. You’ll never get the chance for the bombs.

Being able to achieve a 70 mph overhand throw doesn’t mean much if you can’t hit your target. It just means it gets to the parking lot faster – and rolls a lot farther away.

In other words, measurables are just one of many tools that can be used to evaluate the quality of a player. But since they’re easier to understand and compare they’re often misused or abused.

It’s like the football linebacker with 5% body fat and a physic like an Adonis. He may look good getting off the bus, but if he can’t tackle he’s not going to be around very long.

The other big minus is not recognizing there are certain biological reasons why one player can throw or hit harder, or run faster, than others. Insisting every player must hit certain numbers, especially at younger ages, doesn’t take into account that some may simply not be physically developed enough yet to keep up with the others.

Doesn’t mean they can’t get there eventually. But right now, they may be giving all they have to get to where they are.

Final Word

The one thing scientists haven’t figured out how to measure yet is a player’s softball IQ. While Player A may look like a stud for how hard she can throw, she may not be as valuable as Player B who knows WHERE to throw the ball in various situations.

And since throwing a runner out by one step counts the same as throwing her out by six steps, coaches may want to set the numbers aside in favor of the smarter player.

The bottom line is measurables are great for charting a player’s progress against herself and her own goals. They help see whether improvements are being made or whether a change of course may be necessary.

At the same time, however, they can also be misused, either in making player decisions or by parents trying to claim bragging rights for the sake of their own egos. Especially when the quality of the measurements can’t be confirmed.

My recommendation is to understand what you’re looking at and how to use it, and take them with a grain of salt rather than using them as absolutes. The more parents and coaches do that, the more value they’ll find in the measurables.

Do’s and Don’ts for the Car Ride Home

Once again today’s topic is the result of a reader suggestion – this time from my friend and pitching coach extraordinaire Jamison (James Clark). James is a PaulyGirl Fastpitch Elite Level certified pitching coach in the Southeastern Indiana area – Richmond, specifically – so if you’re a pitcher in search of a great coach check his United Fastpitch Academy Facebook page.

James was going to do a presentation on how to handle the car ride home and asked me if I had ever covered this topic. I checked and surprisingly I had not, so here we are today.

Ah yes, the car ride home after a game. Few things in sports generate such a wide range of emotions in such a cramped space.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken one (my kids are all long grown and done with their sports careers) but I do remember those days. The time in the car before as well as after the games was some of the best time my kids and I spent (don’t worry, I checked with them).

Now, at this point you’re probably thinking my advice is going to amount to “don’t replay the whole game in the car” or something like that. While you may not to go over the whole game, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about it at all.

The truth is the car ride home offers ample learning as well as bonding opportunities. But it has to be handled carefully in order not to become contentious.

With that in mind, following are some carefully curated do’s and don’ts for the car ride home after a game or a long tournament weekend.

Do’s

  1. Keep it positive. It’s easy to launch into a diatribe about everything that went wrong, or wasn’t as good as it could have been. Resist that temptation, especially if it’s going to be a long ride. No one will benefit from an hour of unhappy silence.
  2. Take emotion out of it. Anger, frustration, disappointment and similar emotions are counter-productive. They’re also reactions to the moment – reactions you may regret later. You can talk about what went right or wrong in a calm way, with more of a focus on the facts instead of letting emotions get in the way.
  3. Listen more than you talk. It’s easy to fall into the trap of dominating the conversation about the game, especially if you feel like you have a lot to say. But remember you were just watching the game. Your favorite player was in the middle of it. Give her a chance to talk about what she wants to talk about – even if it’s something other than the game. Remember that youths of playing age often have a lot of hormones and other issues to deal with outside of the game. Give them the opportunity to share them – and respect them when they don’t want to share them. They’ll come around. I promise.
  4. Use the opportunity to talk strategy. One of the ways to keep emotion out of the conversation is to talk strategy rather than performance. For example, a pitcher’s parent can talk about pitch sequences or what can be done to attack a particular type of a hitter such as a slapper – especially if it’s the first time the pitcher faced one. A fielder’s parent can talk about what to do with the ball in certain situations, e.g., the value of going after the lead runner in the infield rather than automatically throwing every ground ball to first. For hitting, parents can talk about being more selective when ahead in the count, or ways to keep calm and focused when the hitter gets behind. Fastpitch softball is a complex game, and it’s impossible to anticipate every situation in practices. The aftermath of a game provides a great opportunity to cover some of them.
  5. Take a long-term view. Next week there will be another game or tournament with its own new challenges, and the frustrations of this one will forgotten. But the memories of those car rides home – whether they are good or bad – will last forever. Think about the way you want your daughter(s) to remember what it was like to ride home with you when they are long past their playing days.
  6. Stop for ice cream or another treat now and then. It’s easy to treat your favorite player when her team wins or when she did something great. But sometimes it’s needed even more after a tough loss or a poor performance as this old Lifesavers commercial demonstrates. A little detour to a favorite place might be just the thing to celebrate life’s triumphs or lift the spirits after a defeat – and secure the bond between parents and players.

Don’ts

  1. Trash the coach. You may not agree with all (or any) of the coach’s decisions or his/her approach to the game, but the car ride home from a game or tournament is not the time to share those opinions. Even if you know your player agrees. Try to decompress without getting into such a volatile issue. If you need to talk about how a coach is managing the game or treating players (especially your own) save it for another day. And if you really feel you can coach the team better – volunteer and prove it.
  2. Trash her teammates. Yes, #25 may have made three errors in the field and the entire last half of the lineup couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. But it doesn’t do anyone any good for you to talk about it ad nauseum. Team chemistry is critical to high performance, yet it is also quite delicate. Don’t be the person who gets in the way of it. Besides, at least some of the girls you’re talking about may be her friends.
  3. Trash the umpires. As a group, umpires make easy targets for our anger and frustration. Yet the reality is (with very rare exceptions) the umpires aren’t out to “get” your player or your team. In 99% of the cases they couldn’t care less about who wins or what the outcome of a particular play is. Beyond that, no game outcome ever comes down to a single umpire’s call, because if your team had been up 11-0 no one would have cared about a blown call. They had ample opportunity to take the umpires out of it and didn’t. If you’re unhappy about the quality of officiating in your area don’t complain. Put in the work, get your certification, and DO something about it.
  4. Belittle or become hyper-critical of your player. It’s tough enough to be a young person these days, especially with all the expectations placed on them and all the pressures from coaches and outside factors such as social media. The last thing they need is one of the people they trust the most – you – adding to it when they are already feeling vulnerable and perhaps raw and exposed. This doesn’t just apply to the car ride home, by the way, it’s good advice for any time.
  5. Take it all too seriously. It may seem like life or death when you’re in the middle of it. But it’s really not. Fastpitch softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Remember that and the car ride home will be a whole lot more enjoyable.

Photo by Taras Makarenko on Pexels.com

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