Monthly Archives: January 2023
The One Tool Every Fastpitch Coach Needs in His/Her Bag
There are all kinds of devices and training tools available to fastpitch softball (and other) coaches today. A quick scan of Amazon or any sporting goods website will offer all kinds of ways to solve all kinds of problems at all kinds of price points.
But there is one tool today’s coaches need to make sure they have in their bags if they want to meet the expectations of many fastpitch players and especially parents today: a magic wand.
(Mine happens to be a Sirius Black model, as I’m sure Coach Katie McKay Phillips has already identified. If you don’t know who Sirius Black is, you really need to read more.)
The reason you need a magic wand is simple: many players and parents want to see instant improvement in individuals and teams.
They don’t want to spend hours practicing skills such as hitting, throwing, and pitching in the basement, backyard, or batting cages. They don’t want to spend hours out at the field learning their positions and what plays to make in specific situations or how to communicate where the ball will go.
Instead, they want you as the coach to wave a magic wand and take the team from looking like a group of misfit toys to a unit that can compete for tournament championships every weekend. So you’d best have a magic wand in your bag to show them you’re trying to give them what they want!
Now, of course, as any Harry Potter fan knows the wand is only as good as the wizard who wields it. So you’d best be practicing your spells and charms.
Once you have your wand, here are a few you can try. Some are directly from the Hogwarts courseware, while others are spells and charms of my own design.
Just remember, if you are a total Muggle and can’t get them to work, you’ll have to acquire the results the long, old-fashioned way – with lots of practice and repetition.
- Wingardium Leviosa – This one is one of the first Hogwarts students learn. It’s a levitation charm used to lift objects. Comes in mighty handy when your team can’t hit too well. Throw a little Wingardium Leviosa at a weak ground ball and watch it turn into a soaring line drive. You can also use it more subtly to turn a weak pop-up into a duck snort that sails just out of reach of every converging fielder. I’m sure you’ve seen that before.
- Expellliarmus – Good for when an opposing fielder is about to make a play that will result in a costly out. Originally designed to pull an opponent’s wand from his/her hand, it’s also great for turning a routine fielding opportunity into an instant error. No doubt you’ve seen this one being used by your opponents to make you look like you’ve never taught your players how to play. Naturally some coaches over-use it and then your team makes error after error, giving up a big inning. After all, the team couldn’t be that bad on their own after spending THE ENTIRE WEEK working on fielding ground balls and bunts.
- Petrificus Totalus – This is a full body binding spell that causes temporary complete paralysis. You have probably seen this one in action when your hitters were at the plate. The opposing pitcher throws a meatball down the middle of the plate and your hitter watches it go by for strike three. They didn’t freeze up on their own – they were hit with Petrificus Totalus by a wizard on the other side of the field. What other explanation could there be?
- Oblivius – This one is really handy becaue it enables you to erase the memory of people or events you don’t want someone to remember. It can be used in a couple of different ways. When used on opponents you can cause them to forget what to do with the ball on defense so they just stand there confused, holding it and looking around. No doubt you’ve seen this one in use as well. For your own team, you can use it when your pitcher just gave up a home run or other big hit to an opposing hitter and has now lost total confidence in herself and her ability to throw a strike. A little Oblivius and she’s right back in there. Coaches can also use it on themselves to forget bad innings or entire games before it gives them ulcers.
- Accio – The summoning spell that brings things to you. You’ll have to teach it to your players so the ball goes to them. How else do you explain a sure home run that hits a phantom gust of win and stays in the yard so the worst fielder in the game can catch it?
- Confundus Charm (Confundo) – Ever see three fielders converge on a ball only to let it drop between all of them? That’s Confundo in action.
- Instanteous Pitchus – Learning to pitch can be a long, arduous journey filled with hard work and major disappointments. But it doesn’t have to be. If you use this charm correctly you can turn any wannabe-pitcher into an instant ace in just one lesson. Which is what many parents expect of their coaches. No long, boring practice time or hours spent chasing balls around a backstop. Any pitcher can go from zero to hero if you apply this charm.
- Sluggeraramus – Does for hitters what Instanteous Pitchus does for pitchers. Or what parents expect purchasing a $500 bat will do for a kid with a 5 cent swing. If you can cast this spell, which is not easy to do, you won’t have to use Wingardium Leviosa so much in a game because every hit will already be a great one.
- Awareweed – Not so much a spell or charm as an herbal potion you can feed your players in lieu of spending practice time teaching them what to do with the ball in specific situations. Somehow they will just know where the ball should go, such as whether they should throw home to try to cut down the lead runner or realize that run is already scoring so go after one who is more vulnerable. It also gives them situational understanding, such as throwing to first for the sure out when your team has a 10-run lead rather than trying to get the runner heading home on a tag play. When your team is loaded up on Awareweed, coaches and parents can just sit back and enjoy the magic happening on the field.
- Silencio – While this silencing spell can be used on players when their incessant cheers are giving you a headache, it’s best applied to all the parent “coaches” in the stands who are yelling advice to their players (especially at the plate) or providing a running monolog of every play you as the coach should have made (after the fact, of course), criticisms of personnel or baserunning decisions, ideas on how to improve run production, and whatever else pops into their mind at the time. It can (and should) also be applied to those who have decided it’s their job to teach the umpire how to do his/her job.
That’s a fairly comprehensive list – enough to keep you studying for at least a year until you can pass your Ordinary Wizarding Level (O.W.L.) exam and more on to more advanced spells, charms, and potions.
That said, if you don’t have access to a wand, or can’t make it work, you’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way – and explain it to your players and their parents as well.
The old-fashioned way isn’t quite as easy for them, and it takes longer, but it brings its own kind of magic as players achieve capabilities on their own they never dreamed they could acquire. And in the long run it’s a lot more satisfying because it’s been earned.
Why Telling a Pitcher to “Slow Down” to Throw Strikes Is Counterproductive
I wrote recently about things coaches should never say. But after talking to some parents and pitching coaches lately, I think the old standby of coaches telling pitchers who are struggling to throw strikes to slow down their motions requires its own blog post.
While I know the coaches are just trying to be helpful, telling a pitcher to slow down in order to produce more strikes is counter productive on several levels. Let’s look at a few.
What they’ve practiced
I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that no pitcher who is going to a pitching coach is being trained to throw slowly. The name of the game is FASTPITCH softball, so no matter what they’re teaching (and we can certainly debate on what the proper pitching mechanics are) pitching coaches are sincerely trying to get their student to throw with as much speed as they can.
At least if they want to keep those students.
That means they’ve been working on a developing a specific set of mechanics that they can execute quickly. After all, slow movements mean slow pitches.
So if you’re asking a pitcher to slow her movements down, you’re totally taking her away from what she’s being trained to do. In other words, you’ve now made it like she’s never had a pitching lesson and is just guess at what to do.
Fastpitch pitching requires a certain rhythm and flow. It’s a complex series of movements in all three planes of motion that require precise timing to do well.
Telling a pitcher to slow her motion down takes her away from all of that and actually makes it harder for her to do what you want her to do – throw strikes.
The longer it takes for a pitcher to go through her motion and deliver the ball, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong. It’s basic physics, coming out of Newton’s laws of motion.
If you apply enough force to an object in a particular direction, it will tend to continue moving in that direction unless some other force acts on it. As it moves it has momentum.
In a weightless vacuum, like in space, a small amount of effort will have that object going straight forever. But fastpitch softball isn’t played in a weightless vacuum.
So the pitcher has to apply enough force to overcome the friction of the air, any wind currents, and especially gravity.
Then there’s the path of the arm and position of the hand. If the hand and arm are moving all over the place it will be difficult to send the ball in a particular, desired direction. It becomes kind of a guess for the pitcher.
If the arm is going faster, however, its momentum will eliminate a lot of the wobbling and make it easier to throw the ball in the desired direction. Not easy, mind you, but easier than just pushing the ball out slowly.
Then it’s a matter of making sure the hand and arm are on-line at the time of release and that the release occurs at the proper time (not too early or too late).
Think about a bowling ball. If you roll it slowly, you are at the mercy of the lanes and how warped or slick they are. The ball will kind of meander back and forth along the path of least resistance until runs out of lane or hits the gutter.
But if you roll it quickly, it will overcome most if not all of the issues with the lane and take a direct path to wherever you sent it. Good or bad.
Look on the website of any program or even individual team and they will all profess that they are dedicated to player development. Uh huh.
Just once I’d like to see an honest website that says, “We are totally focused on winning as many tournaments as we can and will do whatever it takes, no matter what the consequences are or who suffers for it, to achieve this mission.”
But let’s assume the coach actually does want to help all of his/her players develop. That means letting them work at the top of their games, outside their comfort level, to develop the skills they’ll need to continue advancing in the sport.
In the case of pitchers, that means letting them throw hard so they can learn how to do so under pressure.
Ok, you say, but if the pitcher is walking everyone how do the rest of the players develop?
I agree they don’t. So if you want to stop the walks, don’t tell the pitcher to slow down her motion. Pull her and put someone else in.
If all you want is strikes, even if they’re slow and easy to hit, you can pretty much put in anyone. They can then come in and lob the ball toward the plate, and will likely give you the strikes you want.
Doing it that way isn’t that hard. And it might even be a thrill for that girl who has always wanted to pitch but never got the opportunity (because she hasn’t actually worked at it).
In the meantime, the pitcher will learn a lesson that she needs to work more at her craft so she can throw hard strikes with a fast motion if she wants more circle time.
Ok, you say, but I don’t want to pull her because she’s our best pitcher.
Not today. Otherwise you wouldn’t be telling her to slow her motion down.
Take her out and put in someone who can give you what you want – which will ultimately allow your best pitcher to continue developing. That will be best in the long run for her, and for the team.
Telling a pitcher to slow down her motion to throw strikes is not the way to produce the results you want. It’s far more likely to make her pitches worse while taking her further away from her goal of becoming a quality pitcher you can rely on.
Instead, encourage pitchers to keep their energy high and trust their mechanics. You’re more likely to get strikes out of them that way (assuming they’ve been working at learning how to pitch).
And if they still don’t it’s time for a circle visit.
Tell them it’s not their day, put someone else in, and then tell them to keep working because you’re going to give them another chance. It could be the biggest benefit you ever offer that pitcher.
Photo by Song Kaiyue on Pexels.com
You Can’t Hurry Player Development
Perhaps you’ve seen the recent Tweet from Olympian and all-time great fastpitch softball pitcher Cat Osterman in response to Extra Innings Softball calling for nominations for ranking of players who will graduate high school in 2028. (In case you’re not aware or don’t want to do the math, this would be a ranking of players who are currently in 7th – that’s right 7th – grade.)
It’s been making the rounds on social media as a meme too. In it, Cat said:
Just for perspective… I would have been no where (sic) near this list as a 7th grader… NO WHERE CLOSE! So much changes in the next 2-5 years… this is plain silly.
I couldn’t agree more. At a time when kids today are already under so much more pressure from the “professionalization” of youth sports, and facing increased mental health issues on top of all the challenges that have always come with transitioning from grade schooler to young adult, adding one more thing for coaches, parents, and players to obsess over seems like a bad idea.
What you often end up with is some who become sad, depressed, anxious, etc. because they didn’t make the list. And others who experience those feelings because they did make the list and feel like they now have to live up to the expectations.
But this sense of heightened expectations doesn’t just apply to players supposedly at the top of the game. It can happen at all levels when coaches and parents lose sight of what the real mission is.
Softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But an obsessive focus on winning and performance can suck all the fun out of it.
And what is the number one reason in every survey that players say they quit playing a sport they once loved? Because it isn’t fun anymore.
From 14 years old and down, the focus should be on player development and the process of learning rather than on outcomes. This is true even for so-called “competitive” teams.
(Not saying older teams shouldn’t develop their players too, but there is more imperative for them to keep an eye on the W-L column as well.)
Fastpitch softball is a complex game full of multiple decisions for situations and many moving parts for skills. Taking a shortcut on overall development so you can get wins today is the fastest way to stunt a player’s growth.
Sure, winning now is fun. But think of player development as giving players the tools they need to continue winning when the competition gets tougher.
Imagine if Cat Osterman’s coaches looked at her in 7th grade and decided she just didn’t have what it takes to be a pitcher because she walked too many people or didn’t hit her spots every time or whatever unrealistic demand they had of her.
Or what if they let her pitch but yelled ridiculous things at her like “Slow down your motion so you can throw more strikes.” Her 11U team might have won a few more games, but it’s unlikely any of us would know who she is. And her mantle wouldn’t include any Olympic medals or the various other prizes she’s earned as a premier pitcher.
Another pitcher who was in that boat was one who is thought by many to be the greatest of all time – Lisa Fernandez. She was told by a famous (but unnamed) pitching coach in Southern California that she should forget about the position because she didn’t have the build or the ability.
In her first outing she said she walked 21 batters and hit 21 batters. But somewhere along the way she was allowed to develop, slowly but surely, until she ended up being the winning pitcher in not just one but two gold medal games at the Olympics. Not to mention all her other accomplishments. You can look it up.
She probably wouldn’t have been at the top of anyone’s list in 7th grade either. But over time she became the player she was meant to be because she had the chance to grow into herself.
As Cat said, a lot can happen to a player between 7th grade and senior year. Some who peak early may find themselves falling behind later as the late bloomers begin to find themselves.
Others who don’t look like much on a 10U or 12U roster may work hard, benefit from a late growth spurt and coaches who give them opportunities, and suddenly find themselves becoming all-conference, all-area, or even all-state honorees. It’s almost impossible to predict.
Each of us finds our way in our own time. Coaches should keep that in mind.
At the youth level, keep your focus on player development and encourage those in your charge to play at the top of their abilities, whatever they may be at that point, rather than just doing whatever it takes to win today. You may just find you have some hidden gems – and make some lifelong friends in the process.
Teaching Hitters to Track the Ball More Effectively
Go to any facility where there are teams or individuals hitting in batting cages and sooner or later you’re likely to hear the phrase, “Track the ball all the way into the catcher’s glove.” While it’s doubtful that hitters can actually see the ball hit the bat at the point of contact, the idea of trying to track the ball as long as you can is a good one.
The problem most coaches face when trying to get their hitters to track the ball longer (instead of getting a glimpse then swinging) is that there are no consequences for not doing it. Well, other than not hitting well. But as soon as the coach’s back is turned, hitters are likely to go back to not following the ball all the way to the catcher’s glove.
But, dear blog follower, I have a solution for the dilemma. It actually came up by accident, but I noticed how the pattern had changed so I’m taking credit!
All you need is a batting cage with a tight protective net at the back of it.
For the past few months I’ve been throwing front toss to hitters in a cage that has a very tight net at the back. When one of my errant pitches (and there are many of them) would hit the net, it would bounce back at the hitter with enough velocity to be annoying.
What I noticed was a lot of the hitters would watch the ball all the way to that net so they could get out of the way when the ball bounced back. Some of them then made a game of trying to catch the ball when it popped up off the net, and they got pretty good at it.
Since their first priority was hitting any good pitches I managed to throw, it took some effort to see the ball coming back and catch it.
But today I was in a different cage that didn’t have such a tight net. And that’s where I saw the effect take place.
One of the hitters who liked to catch the ball was still following it to the back screen, even though it wasn’t going to bounce back. She’d built a habit of it in the other cage to the point where she now automatically watches the ball all the way back.
Between that and the Reynaldo drill, which she has become very good at, she is seeing the ball much better – and hitting the heck out of it.
So I guess the lesson here is if you want to encourage your hitters to watch the ball longer, find a nice, tight net and put it behind the plate when you front toss to them. They’ll definitely learn to keep an eye on it all the way in.
(And yes, I know the hitter in the top photo is hitting off a tee. It’s tough to throw front toss and take a picture at the same time. Deal with it.)