Author Archives: Ken Krause
In the 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11 (not to be confused with the Rat Pack movie from 1960), robbery target Terry Benedict tells Danny Ocean that “In my hotel, someone is always watching.”
Parents and softball players would be wise to remember that statement as they go about the business of attempting to get recruited by the team of their choice. Especially now, since as I write this we are in the midst of “Showcase Season,” the big opportunity for college coaches to watch potential recruits in action.
This lesson was reinforced on a Zoom with a couple of D1 coaches as part of the National Fastpitch Coaches College (NFCC) Course 401. Both coaches said there is far more to who they, and most of their contemporaries, select than just on-field talent.
One of them went on to talk about a player who is the #1 prospect in his state. Yet neither his school or the other major D1 college in his state has extended an offer to her. Why not?
It’s simple. It comes down to character. Not just of the player but of the parents.
I’ve heard many college coaches talk about this. When they go to watch a game they don’t just watch what happens on the field.
They also watch what happens off of it. Like how the parents act during the game and how the player speaks to her parents.
In the former case, college coaches want to steer clear of any parents who seem like they will be “those parents.” You know the ones – nothing is good enough for them, their daughter is always getting shortchanged by the coaches, the umpires are idiots who need to be called out at every opportunity, etc.
If you see them acting this way now there is no reason to think they won’t act this way if their daughter is on the collegiate team. And since the pressure is magnified in college, willingly taking on a major headache doesn’t seem like a good strategy.
Unless they are incredibly desperate, most coaches would rather take a player with a little less talent and a lot less baggage. Especially those who have a wide choice of players, i.e., your Power 25.
As far as player interactions with their parents (as well as coaches and teammates), that can be another huge red flag. Players who speak disrespectfully to their parents are likely to do the same to college coaches. Who needs that?
They’re also more likely to break rules, get into academic trouble, or become a cancer on the team if they don’t get their way. It doesn’t take much to send a season south, so again coaches will quickly write those players off their lists.
So it might seem like the best solution is for parents and players to be on their best behavior when college coaches are around. The problem with that is you don’t always know they’re there.
Sure, some coaches will wear their team shirts and sit right behind the backstop in the “scouting” section. But others will be a whole lot less obtrusive.
The aforementioned coach said he likes to hang in the background and listen. He wants to hear if parents are running down the coach, or constantly questioning strategies or decisions, or putting down other players.
If they’re doing it now, there’s no reason to think they won’t do it if their daughter is playing at that school. Hard pass.
No, the real solution, and I know this will be a shocker for some, is to be people of good character. Parents, be supportive of the whole team. Not because someone is watching but because it’s the right thing to do.
Players, be great teammates. Be the person who picks up others, encourages the girl who made an error or struck out, and does little things like grabbing a bat that gets tossed toward the dugout or picking up garbage in dugout after the game.
Because college coaches notice that stuff too. And they like it.
While this should be an automatic, it’s not. It’s a learned behavior for some. So learn it.
Be a good person on and off the field. Because remember, there’s always someone watching.
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the way too many fastpitch softball coaches choose to treat their players. Whether I am walking by a field when a team is practicing or just talking to some of my students, the “tough guy” (or “tough gal”) stereotype seems to be alive and well.
Now understand, I am all for discipline and accountability. There is nothing wrong with demanding the very best from your players on a daily basis.
But that doesn’t mean you have to berate and belittle them on a constant basis. It’s like the only tool in some coaches’ toolbox is a hammer – a big one – and they feel they have to use it all the time in order to draw the best performance out of their players.
I don’t get where they think that will work. If an adult had a job where they were receiving nothing but negative feedback or outright abuse, you can bet they’d be posting a negative review on Glassdoor at the very least and looking for a new job as soon as they could.
It’s like the old saying – people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. Yet coaches are still surprised when their players don’t return the next year.
It might help to think of your players as seeds that need to be nurtured. Yes, some plants can grow in the concrete under harsh conditions, getting trampled all the time.
But they rarely turn into beautiful gardens. Instead, they look small and sad – not the types of plants anyone is going to stop and admire.
The same is true of fastpitch softball players. Especially the younger ones – those under the age of 14 who tend to take everything adults say at face value.
If all they ever hear is how bad they are, or how stupid they are for missing a play or making an error, they will tend to believe it.
Sure, an occasional player might break through that difficult environment and survive, but most will not. They will find another outlet that helps them feel better about themselves.
Which means if the goal is to grow the game, taking an approach that drives them out makes little sense.
Coaches who want to be tough also have to remember that what they view as “normal” may not seem so normal to their players. As I have said many times, kids are not short adults. They often lack the experience and background to put certain things in perspective.
Harsh criticism doesn’t just roll off their backs. They aren’t yet able to “take it with a grain of salt.”
Kids in many cases are very literal. And females in general are more prone to believing whatever negative things are said about them.
So what winds up happening is that performance under these conditions goes down instead of up, which leads to even more berating and abuse, which hurts performance even more, and the results take a familiar path.
Taking this type of approach may make you feel good as a coach, or like you’re doing your job. But it’s really lazy coaching.
Rather than yelling at or otherwise berating your players for poor performance, why not help them get better? Teach them the game, and understand everyone learns in different ways and at different paces.
Hold them accountable when needed, but understand the difference between a lack of ability (at this time) and a lack of effort. Only the latter should bring out your ire. The former should drive you to find new and better ways to help your players learn and improve.
Provide a little sunshine, a little water, and a good overall environment and your players will grow faster and much healthier in the game.
One of the most critical moves in fastpitch (or baseball for that matter) hitting is learning to separate the hips and shoulders. By allowing the hips to lead, the hitter can:
- Generate more power by enabling the big muscles to generate tremendous energy (much more than the arms or shoulders alone can do)
- See the ball longer
- Shorten the distance the bat has to travel to make contact with the ball
- Enable themselves to adjust to pitch speed and location more easily than with an arms-driven or one-piece gate swing
- Carry the bat forward so you’re hitting out front instead of across the body
Yet while that makes logical sense, and can be seen in the swings of high-level players, learning to actually do it can be difficult for many players. They tend to want to bring everything forward at once.
What I usually tell them is they need to counter-rotate their upper body when the hips start to fire. In other words, when the front foot lands and the hips start to rotate forward, the shoulders should pull back a little against them. The hips will then pull the shoulders around so they can launch the bat.
Sounds simple, right? But hitters can’t always visualize that move, or feel it. So here’s a way to help them get it.
Take a piece of elastic, the type you can easily find at a fabric store or big box retailer, and tie a loop in one end. Then slip the front foot into the loop, and wrap the other end around the bat handle.
Now, when the hitter lands and the hips start to rotate, tell her to use her hands and shoulders to stretch the elastic further. Bam, you have separation and sequence. Simple!
Here’s how that looks:
You can see the stretch of the elastic as she makes the first move. She does it again as she goes into the swing.
The question then is does it translate? Here’s a video of the swing after the elastic has been removed.
Now, swinging off a tee isn’t the same as swinging at a live pitch. It’s still going to take some practice to lock it in.
But at least she has a great start on it.
If you’re looking for a tactile way to help hitters learn this important move, stop by your local fabric store and pick up some elastic. It help shortcut the learning process.
It was yet another oppressively hot, very humid day here in the Midwest – the type we used to associate with Mississippi but now is happening here on a regular basis.
My first lesson of the afternoon, a young 10U pitcher we’ll call Hermione (for reasons that will become obvious shortly), had the look of someone who wanted to be anywhere but a pitching lesson.
“Jump some rope to warm up,” I told her, and she slowly shuffled over to the fence where the rope was hanging before giving it a half-hearted effort. Then she went out to throw with her mom, and could barely get the ball there despite the fact they weren’t more than 15 feet apart.
This was the second time in a row she had come out that way. “Maybe she just doesn’t want to pitch,” I said to her mom. That’s ok, I said, but then no sense torturing her with a lesson.
Mom left it up to Hermione and she said she wanted to do it so we continued – after I talked to her for a few minutes.
“I know it’s hot,” I told her, “but there’s nothing we can do about that. But attitude is a choice. You can choose to put the effort in or not – it’s totally in your control.”
That worked about as well as you’d expect it to work on a 10U player, but we continued anyway.
“She may be tired,” her mom offered. “We went to the zoo yesterday.”
“Really?” I replied, thinking we might have a different way to approach things. “What zoo?” I asked Hermione.
“Mmph,” she said.
“Milwaukee,” her mom added.
“I love the Milwaukee Zoo,” I said to Hermione. “What are your favorite exhibits?”
“Mmph,” she replied again.
Then mom stepped in again. “We went to the small mammals, (something else I don’t remember), and reptiles.”
“Reptiles?” I said. That’s an unusual choice if you’re only seeing three.
“I like reptiles.” Hermione offered.
Aha! An actual response. I dug into it a little more, and then came the turning point. Her mom said the reptile house didn’t have any bearded dragons.
“Oh, you like those?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said with some enthusiasm. “I have a bearded dragon in my room.”
From then on it was like someone flipped a switch. Instead of looking like someone in a hostage video she became quite animated as we talked about beardies in general (that’s what the “in the know” people call them) and hers in particular.
Over the course of the lesson I learned her beardy’s name as Phoenix Firebolt (for Dumbledore’s pet and Harry Potter’s broomstick), which of course meant I also learned she liked Harry Potter. I learned that beardies eat grain and bugs, and that bugs are a lot more expensive than grain.
I learned she liked to dress Phoenix up in costumes, and that Phoenix wasn’t exactly a fan.
“I just have a couple,” she told me. “A lot of people do it all the time.
I also learned she liked to take Phoenix for walks, and that if she took the leash off outside without an adult present Phoenix would try to escape. A lesson discovered the hard way.
Throughout all of this conversation Hermione continued to pitch. Her throws got harder and more accurate.
I would make corrections here or there, but quickly follow that up with a beardy question. The lesson flew by, with Hermione making tremendous progress.
It was a good reminder for me. There is a saying that players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
In other words, your ability as a coach to build a relationship with a player on her terms is critical to your success.
Whether it carries over automatically to next week remains to be seen. But hopefully, at least with this one player, I have a key to unlock her resistance or reluctance and help her enjoy her pitching lessons instead of just enduring them.
That’s the challenge for all coaches. Get to know your players, especially at the younger ages. Find out what floats their boats.
Because if you can establish some common ground there, they just might let you in a little faster to help them become the players they’re meant to be.
Bearded dragon photo by Saketh Upadhya on Pexels.com
While the return of fastpitch softball to the Olympics was the big story for many of us who are fanatics for the sport, for the general populace of course one of the biggest stories was gymnast Simone Biles deciding not to compete in the team or most of the individual events. She did, of course, eventually take Bronze on the balance beam which is hardly her signature event.
It’s hard to imagine what a difficult decision that must have been for her. Here she has spent the last five years training for the opportunity to win more medals, presumably Gold medals, in her sport’s biggest showcase.
Yet when the time came something in her just snapped. She knew she couldn’t do it mentally at the level she needed, and that put her at risk of serious injury or perhaps even death given what she had planned to do. After one vault she decided it would be best to withdraw and give someone else a chance instead.
How did she get to that point? Part of it, of course, was relentless training. I doubt she’s taken many days off since she became a serious competitor, and that can take a physical and mental toll on you after a while.
While softball players don’t train at the same intensity or risk level as national team gymnasts (most of them anyway), it is possible to get so caught up in what you’re doing that you forget why you’re doing it. When softball starts to feel like more of a burden than an escape from life’s many real burdens, it’s time to take a little time off.
Another issue Simone Biles faced was a distinct lack of support, especially from people at the highest level of her sport. Those people loved showcasing her to the media to promote their own agendas, but when she told them about irregularities around the training they did their best to brush it under the rug and forget about it.
Parents, if your softball-playing daughter tells you physical or mental abuse is happening, don’t just tell her to suck it up or quit whining. Do all you can to find out if there is any reason to be concerned – even if it might mean losing a scholarship opportunity or being removed from a team that wins all its tournaments.
Your daughter’s safety and mental health are worth more, and not worth trading for any amount of money or plastic trophies. When she says something is wrong, be sure to listen.
Coaches, you have the same responsibility. If your player is suddenly having problems don’t get stuck thinking your job is simply putting a winning team on the field. Take an interest and find out what’s wrong.
Maybe she just has a softball version of the “twisties” and needs some help working through them. She’s lost confidence and needs someone to help her fill her confidence bucket back up.
Maybe she’s in a hitting slump and just needs someone to believe in her. The thing that prolongs most slumps is over-thinking the cause. Help her remember who she is and what she can do, even if it takes a little while. It will be worth the effort.
Or maybe, just maybe, something is going on at home or in her personal life that has her all off-kilter. You caring enough to find out and help her could have a lasting effect on her life that she will remember and appreciate long after she’s left her cleats at home plate.
Finally, when you’re performing at a high level there will always be haters – people who want to tear you down and then delight in your failure. Especially if you’re a female.
Many of the people leveling those criticisms have never put in the effort to do anything at a high level, But they’ll be more than happy to tell you why you’re weak and undeserving because you suddenly feel the pressure you were able to shut out before.
Players, don’t listen to them! Those ignorant couch potatoes know they don’t have the drive or dedication to be like you, so they want to drag you down to be like them.
Do what you need to do to get right in your own head – even if it means stopping for a bit to let it clear. This is the perfect time of year to do that, by the way.
The summer season is over, tryouts are over, and fall ball is still a few weeks away. Go to the beach or the movies or an amusement park. Listen to music all day, or sit and read a book or three. Hang out with friends who you don’t share a uniform with.
In other words, find something else to do with your day. Softball will still be waiting for you when you get back.
Anyone who has watched her career knows Simone Biles is the ultimate competitor. She’s never met a challenge she didn’t take head-on.
So when she says she has the “twisties” and the best way to deal with them is by pulling out of the Olympics it’s worth taking note.
If Simone Biles needs to walk away for a bit, the same can be said for any of us.
Take care of yourself, even if some around you don’t quite understand. Softball will be here when you’re ready. And you just may enjoy and appreciate it a little more.
Simone Biles photo from Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Last week I wrote about some things to watch for as fastpitch softball made its return to the Olympic stage. If you haven’t read it already you may want to follow the link above and give it a look as it is both insightful and brilliant. Or at least marginally interesting.
Now that the tournament is finished I thought it might be a good idea to see what takeaways we might draw from what actually occurred while it was going on. There are definitely some lessons to be learned.
SPOILER ALERT: This post will refer to outcomes, so if you’re one of the few softball fanatics who have not watched the games and are trying to keep yourself from learning who won until you do, you may want to do that first – or explore other posts here on the blog.
Nice to see softball back in the Olympics
Let’s start with the obvious. After a 13 year absence it was great to see fastpitch softball back in the Olympics in any form.
The Olympic games draw a LOT of eyes and are considered to be a major international event. Yes, you have the Pan Am Games and the World Cup of Softball, but those are essentially “in the family” events. IOW, only softball people are interested in them.
The Olympics, on the other hand, allow people who have no real interest in softball to randomly stumble across them. This is also helped by the fact that they appear on a major network (in this case NBC), even though in reality the games were on offshoot networks rather than NBC proper.
Plus the Olympics have built-prestige of their own despite all the problems and scandals of recent years. It’s great for popularizing the sport and exposing it to new potential fans. Lots of good things about it.
The tournament format was awful
Really? Five pool play games and then you go straight to the Gold and Bronze Medal games?
I would expect more from a local rec league tournament.
Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows a game can turn on a single hit, a bad bounce, a single throwing error, an umpire’s call, etc. At the highest level the margins are even more razor-thin.
Take the U.S. v Australia game. It was won by one fortunate, well-timed hit by the U.S. It could have easily gone the other way.
We also know teams can bounce back from a bad or unfortunate game to come back and take it all.
It should have been a double elimination tournament. I’m sure there were financial reasons it wasn’t, but the format they had made it look like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just caved to pressure and let it in with the minimal effort possible. Softball was the red-headed stepchild of these Olympics.
This is further evidenced by the fact that half of the pool play occurred BEFORE the opening ceremonies, which most people consider to be the beginning of the Olympics. Which means they were less likely to stumble into the games on TV.
If you wanted to “prove” that not enough people are interested in softball to include it in the future, this was the way to do it.
The U.S. Team’s Offensive Plan Was Poor
If the goal was to prove that softball is an international sport and the U.S. doesn’t dominate it anymore, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to put together a team and a game plan to keep U.S. scoring to the minimum required to get into the Gold Medal game, then well done.
Yes, I realize the pitching is the best in the world (at least in theory), and great pitching beats great hitting. But other teams didn’t seem to have as much trouble scoring runs against each other.
Yet the U.S. managed a measly nine (9) runs in six (count ’em 6) games, and no more than two (2) in any single game. That’s pathetic.
I’m guessing part of that strategy was to support dominating pitchers with the best defense they could, then count on being able to scratch a couple of runs together to win 1-0 or 2-1. So forget worrying about finding big hitters and just get defensive stars.
The problem with that is it’s not 1996 anymore. Softball players work harder these days at hitting overall, and the bat technology is way better than when the Louisville burgundy bottle bat was THE bat to have. You wouldn’t use that in practice now.
A game can turn on a single swing, and if you get behind by a couple of runs early it can be tough to come back if you don’t have players who can hit the gaps for extra bases. As the U.S. found out in the Gold Medal game.
Then there was the offensive philosophy, which was incredibly predictable. As soon as the U.S. got a runner on first, the next hitter up was required to sacrifice bunt. Every. Stinking. Time.
That meant that a hitter like Jamie Reed, who tripled in the first inning of the Gold Medal game against the worlds best pitcher, spent most of the tournament laying down bunts instead of trying to drive runs in.
Even a fly ball to the fence could have advanced the runner on first as effectively as a bunt, with the added benefit that it might hit the fence or go over, resulting in a better offensive position.
I haven’t seen the stats, but to the best of my recollection the number of runs that were manufactured by sacrifice bunts was zero. In the meantime, the U.S. gave up a whole bunch of outs that might have come in handy later in the game.
Yes, I am prejudiced against the sac bunt anyway, and have been for a long time. It’s a waste in most cases. This just proved the point.
The other downside of being so predictable was that opposing teams, Japan in particular, could just sit on it and use it to their advantage. Like by pulling the corners in and pulling off a double play against a sac bunt.
Keep in mind the U.S. win against Japan in pool play came off a home run. They needed more of that.
Especially since, according to the announcers, Japan has spent the last few years trying to put MORE offensive firepower into their game. If Japan is your Gold Standard (no pun intended) the U.S. may want to look for players who can bang the ball – and then let them do it.
The defense was unreal
In my last post I talked about watching the speed of the game. These games did not disappoint.
The defense across the board was incredible. So many great plays by so many players on all teams. That is an aspect everyone got right.
The whole thing looked like an old timer’s game
Perhaps the oddest thing about these Olympics were how old many of the players were. Especially in the circle.
Monica and Cat for the U.S. are both mid- to late-30s. Yukiko Ueno is 39. Team Canada had several recognizable names from the past. All of them played in the last Olympic games.
It’s almost as if the people in charge felt they owed it to these players to let them play in one more Olympics. Not that they didn’t perform – they did.
But in a sports culture obsessed with youth it’s hard to believe there weren’t younger players who could have done just as well. Have we done such a poor job of training the next generation that the last generation had to step in? Or were they just trying to go with glory names from the past?
The problem with that is you lose the younger audience who didn’t grow up watching Cat and Monica and the others dominate the sport. I think a lot of younger fans want to see the names they’ve been watching in the Women’s College World Series – players they know and can relate to.
In my very informal survey of my students, most did not watch the Olympics. They had little interest. If you can’t get current players to watch the game played at that level how are you going to grow softball as a spectator sport?
From a marketing standpoint it’s time to leave the past behind and start focusing on the future. We apparently have eight years to get it right. Let’s do it.
It was essentially an American tournament
For those who still complain about U.S. dominance of the sport, they do have a point. Despite the different names on the jerseys, many of the players – especially for Italy, Canada and Mexico – were either U.S. citizens or played college ball in the U.S.
I think that was less true for Australia, but I believe they had a few too.
About the only team that wasn’t made in America essentially was Team Japan.
It’s great that more deserving players get an opportunity to play in the Olympics by going with teams representing their heritage instead of where they were born and/or raised. But if softball is going to become a permanent part of the Olympics we need more locally raised players for these teams.
Especially the European teams, because their Olympic Committees hold a lot of sway over how the Olympics are run.
Hopefully softball can generate enough publicity to get girls in these countries interested in playing softball at a high level against each other as well as against U.S. players. I guess we’ll see.
So there you have it – a few of my observations. Now it’s your turn.
Did you watch? If so, what did you think? Leave your observations in the comments below.
As you may have possibly heard as a fastpitch softball fanatic, our sport is back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008! This is a rare moment to watch the best players in the world compete on a huge stage with presentation budget of a major network production.
It’s also the last time for the next eight years as the sport is not included in the 2024 Paris Olympics. It is expected to return in 2028 and 2032 when the games flip to the U.S. and Australia. Who knows what will happen after that?
So since this is such an unusual opportunity you’ll want to make the most of it. Not just to sit back and enjoy the games (although that’s great) but also to learn all you can while you have the opportunity.
So to help with that, here are a few pointers on some things to pay closer attention to. The Speed of Play.
The Speed of Play
I’m not talking about pitch speeds, although they are incredible too. I’m talking about what happens when a ball is put in play.
Look at what happens on a ground ball. It is scooped up and on its way to first in a “blink and you’ll miss it” fashion. There is no double-clutching, no calmly standing up and then casually firing it over. It’s there and gone.
Or look at the baserunners. Even the ones you would think are more powerful than fleet are incredibly fast. If a ball is hit between two fielders in the outfield there’s a good chance the runner on first is going to third. Bobble it at all and she’s heading for home.
Everything is amazingly fast. If you want to know what to work on in your/your daughter’s/you players’ games, work on that.
For example, don’t just hit them ground balls. Run a stopwatch and challenge them to make the play in less than three seconds. I find blowing an air horn when the stopwatch hits three seconds provides a pretty good indicator of whether they were successful enough.
Work on just pure running too. I know most people get into softball because they don’t like all the running in other sports, but it’s something that does need to be addressed.
While you can’t make everyone fast you can help them get faster. The faster your team is the more pressure it puts on the defense and the more runs you can score when you need them.
Here you can start by making sure your players are running on their toes instead of heels or flat feet. Then do a lot of short, quick sprints.
Run down a hill. Have two or more players run against each other, perhaps letting one player start in front of the other. Have them play tag around the basepaths. Anything to get the feet and arms moving faster.
Watch the Pitching Mechanics
The coverage I have seen so far has been amazing at showing pitching mechanics. We are getting great closeup shots of what is happening at release on great pitchers such as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, and Yukiko Ueno.
Notice how close they are to their bodies at release, to the point where their forearms brush against their hips. Note how on a curve ball the hand kind of wraps around the back hip instead of being out and away.
Watch how they release the ball with a smooth, whipping motion. Note that they are vertical or leaning slightly back instead of being bent forward.
Also watch how they seem to glide on their back leg, like they’re riding a skateboard, until the front foot lands. Then they go into whip and release.
While you’re watching that, also note that they don’t drag their back legs behind them like zombies. The leg stays under them, which is what allows that skateboard-like movement.
It’s really a Master Class on pitching, happening pitch after pitch.
Listen to the Communication
With no crowd noise to speak of you can hear what’s going on down on the field more clearly. While at first you may list to the description of the play, maybe watch a second time and listen to what’s happening on the field.
They’re not down there keeping to themselves. Those players are communicating.
They’re talking before the play to make sure everyone knows their responsibilities. They’re talking during the play to help direct throws and avoid confusion. And they’re talking afterward to clean up any issues and pick up their teammates if something went wrong.
The more you communicate the better you’ll play as a team. Learn from the best.
What Happens Away from the Ball
The initial camera work is going to follow the ball. That makes sense because that’s where the main action is.
But during replays from other angles, look at what other players are doing. Who is backing up at a base? What is the right fielder doing on a throw from center to third?
If there is a steal or a bunt, who is fielding it and what are the other players doing?
For example, with a runner on first, if the third baseman fields the ball who goes to cover third in her place when the ball is bunted? Is it the shortstop, leaving second uncovered?
Unlikely since they may want to go for the lead runner. So is it the catcher? Pitcher? Left fielder?
The more you see how Olympic teams operate in particular situations the better idea you’ll have of what your team/daughter should be doing. Or at least learning.
How Tough Hitting Is Against Great Pitching
So far there hasn’t been a ton of offense in most of the games. That’s to be expected with such great pitchers.
Maybe it will change as the tournament goes on and the hitters get used to the high level of pitching they’re seeing. But right now it does demonstrate how challenging hitting can be – even for the best players in the world.
That’s something to keep in mind when your daughter goes 0 for 8 on a Saturday, or your team hits a collective .225. No matter how hard you work, a lot of good things have to happen to succeed at hitting.
That said, practicing properly (and often) gives you your best chance to succeed. Each of the players you’re watching works incredibly hard to do what she does.
Imagine where those hitters would be without all that hard work.
Softball is a game built on failure. It’s those who can push past it who will ultimately succeed.
They Make Mistakes Too
I think this is an important lesson for parents (and some coaches) to learn. These are the very best players in the world, presumably. But at some key moments, usually when their team can afford it the least, you will see a player here or there make an error.
It happens. It’s unfortunate but it does, even to the best. Especially in a pressure situation.
What parents (and some coaches) need to take away from that is these things are going to happen occasionally so you can’t freak out or get down on your daughter/player or scream at her in a way that makes her feel bad about herself.
This applies not to just physical errors but mental errors. If you’re a coach, make the correction in a non-judgmental way and move on. Believe me, she didn’t do it just to make you look bad or ruin your day.
If you’re a parent, be supportive. She’s probably already feeling horrible about it. Instead of making it worse help her learn from the experience so she doesn’t repeat it.
Realizing even the best players in the world make mistakes now and then will help you enjoy your daughter’s/players’ playing more and avoid turning one bad play into a bad inning – or a bad game.
Anyway, those are a few of the things I think you should be watching for as you enjoy softball in the Olympics. Any other thoughts? Leave them in the comments below,
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As I write this we are in the middle of summer vacation time here in the U.S. Families all over America are packing themselves up from wherever they live and traveling to a different area, state, time zone, etc. in search of a little R&R.
Even softball families are in that process. Some have already finished their seasons, while others are fitting in a little vacation time before or after tournaments.
For me, when I think of vacations I am reminded of taking my family to a lake for some serious downtime. Originally that meant the North Woods of Wisconsin, where we and various members of my wife’s family would rent cabins.
As part of the rental, we would get motorized row boats that we could use to go fishing. I’ve never been much of a fisherman, and didn’t grow up rowing boats so I found that a bit of a challenge at first, but when in Rome…
Now years later I’ve come to realize that those motorized row boats are the perfect analogy for the role of the back leg in pitching and hitting. Because it can either be a propeller or an anchor when you’re trying to be explosive.
A propeller will help you get where you’re going faster. Being fairly incompetent at rowing a boat, at least at first, I found the propeller to be a much easier way to get from point A to point B, even if those two points weren’t that far apart.
As long as you can fire up the motor (not always easy in a free rental), you can open the throttle and steer your way there while relaxing. That’s a lot easier than using oars to move through the water, especially if you’re using one oar more than the other, in which case you tend to make more of a circle than a straight line.
An anchor, on the other hand, is designed to hold you in place once you get to where you’re going. If you leave the anchor down, even with a motor, it will be much hard to get to your destination.
So it is in softball. In pitching, you want the “drive” leg to propel your center forward, enabling you to glide lightly along the ground until your front leg lands. Do it quick and powerfully enough and the sudden stop will help sling/whip your arm through the release zone.
But if you don’t engage your drive leg, and instead just run past it with your stride leg, the drive leg will turn into an anchor, lifelessly dragging behind you and slowing you down. When that happens, the drive leg doesn’t drive at all, but instead gets pulled along in the classic zombie walk. This is why it’s often called “zombie leg.”
Clearly one is better and more effective than the other in creating speed and enabling stability at release. Hopefully I don’t have to tell you which one that is.
While not quite as obvious or debilitating, the same effect occurs in overhand throwing. If the throwing side isn’t engaged actively as a propeller it becomes an anchor, which affects both speed and accuracy.
What about hitting? The same is true, although in a different way.
In hitting, you want the lower body to create the power. While that is really more of the core than the legs themselves, the rear leg contributes by having its knee start pulling toward the front knee, unweighting the leg so the hips can fire forward at maximum velocity.
If the hitter doesn’t get off the back foot the hips are unable to rotate rapidly or fully, and you wind up with more of an upper body swing that pulls the contact point further back. You’re then not hitting in the green zone.
The bottom line (no pun intended) is the back leg can either be an aid or a hindrance in making athletic movements in softball. Which it is depends entirely on the player.
Get it actively engaged, doing what it should do, and it becomes a propeller that helps drive better performance. Leave it behind and it will be an anchor, slowing the player down and creating a huge drag on performance.
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Let me start by declaring right in the beginning I am a huge advocate of the pitching mechanics known as “internal rotation” or IR. While it may also go by other names – “forearm fire” and “the whip” comes to mind – it essentially involves what happens on the back side of the circle.
With IR, the palm of the hand points toward the catcher or somewhat toward the third base line as it passes overhead at 12:00 (aka the “show it” position), the comes down with the elbow and upper arm leading through the circle. From 12:00 to 9:00 it may point to the sky or out toward the third base line. Then something interesting happens.
The bone in the upper arm (the humorous) rotates inward so the underside of the upper comes into contact with the ribs while the elbow remains bent and the hand stays pointed away from the body until you get into release, where it quickly turns inward (pronates). It is this action that helps create the whip that results in the high speeds high-level pitchers achieve.
This action, by the way, is opposite of so-called “hello elbow” or HE mechanics where the ball is pointed toward second at the top of the circle and is then pushed down the back side of the circle until the pitcher consciously snaps her wrist and then pulls her elbow up until it points to the catcher.
Note that I don’t call these styles, by the way, because they’re not. A “style” is something a pitcher does that is individual to them but not a material part of the pitch, like how they wind up. What “style” you use doesn’t matter a whole lot.
But mechanics are everything in the pitch, and the mechanics you use will have a huge impact on your results as well as your health.
IR is demonstrably superior to HE for producing high levels of speed. The easiest proof is to look at the mechanics of those who pitch 70+ mph. You won’t find an HE thrower in the bunch, although you’ll probably find a couple who THINK they throw that way, which is a sad story for another day.
It also makes biomechanical sense that IR would produce better speed results. Imagine push a peanut across a table versus putting into a rubber band and shooting it across the table. I know which one I’d rather be on the receiving end of.
So when trying to defend what they teach, some HE pitching instructors will respond by questioning how safe it is to put young arms into the various positions required by IR versus the single position required by HE. They have no evidence, mind you. They’re just going by “what they’ve heard” or what they think.
Here’s the reality: IR is so effective because it works with the body is designed to work rather than against it. Try these little body position experiments and see what happens.
Experiment #1 – Jumping Jacks Hand Position
Anyone who has ever been to gym class knows how to do a jumping jack. You start with your hands together and feet at your side, then jump up and spread your feet while bringing your hands overhead. If you’re still unsure, Mickey Mouse will demonstrate:
Look at what Mickey’s hands are doing. They’re not turning away from each other at the top, and they’re definitely not getting into a position where they would push a ball down the back side of the circle. They are rotated externally, then rotating back internally.
Experiment #2 – How You Stand
Now let’s take movement out of it. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides, hanging down loosely. What do you see?
If you are like 99% of the population, your upper arms are likely touching your ribs and your hands are touching your thighs. In other words, you’re exactly in the delivery position used for IR.
To take this idea further, raise your arms up about shoulder high, then let them fall. At shoulder height your the palms of your hands will either be facing straight out or slightly up unless you purposely TRY to put them into a different position.
When they fall, if you let them fall naturally, they will return to the inward (pronated) position. And if you don’t stiffen up, your upper arms will lead the lower arms down rather than the whole arm coming down at once.
What this means is that IR is the most natural movement your arm(s) can make as they drop from overhead to your sides. If you’re using your arms the way they move naturally how can that movement be dangerous? Or even stressful?
When they fall, you will also notice that your upper arms fall naturally to your ribcage and your forearms lightly bump up against your hips, accelerating the inward pronation of your hands. This is what brush contact is.
Brush contact is not a thwacking of the elbow or forearm into your side. If you’re getting bruised you’re doing it wrong.
Think of what you mean by saying your brushed against someone versus you ran into them. Brushing against them implies you touched lightly and slightly altered your path. Bumping into them means you significantly altered your path, or even stopped.
The brush not only helps accelerate the inward turn. It also gives you a specific point your body can use to help you release the ball more consistently – which results in more accurate pitching. It’s a two-fer that helps you become a more successful pitcher.
Experiment #3 – Swing Your Glove Arm Around
If you use your pitching arm you may fall prey to habits if you’ve been taught HE. So try swinging your glove arm around fast and loose and see what it does.
I’ll bet it looks a lot like the IR movement described above. That’s what your throwing arm would be doing if it hadn’t been trained out of you.
And what it actually may be doing when you throw a pitch. You just don’t know it.
The more you look at the biomechanics of the IR versus HE, the more you can see how IR uses the body’s natural motions while HE superimposes alternate movements on it. If anything, this means there’s more likelihood of HE hurting a young pitcher than IR.
The forced nature of HE is most likely to show up in the shoulder or back. Usually when pitchers have a complaint with pain in their trapezius muscle or down closer to their shoulder blades, it’s because they’re not getting much energy generated through the HE mechanics and so try to recruit the shoulders unnaturally to make up for it. That forced movement places a lot of stress on it.
They may also find that their elbows start to get sore if they are really committed to pulling the hand up and pointing the elbow after release, although in my experience that is more rare. Usually elbow issues result from overuse, which can happen no matter what type of mechanics you use.
The bottom line is that if the health and safety of young (or older for that matter) pitchers is important to you, don’t get fooled by “I’ve heard” or “Everybody knows” statements. Make a point of checking to see which way of pitching works to take advantage of the body’s natural movements, which will minimize the stress while maximizing the results.
I think you’ll find yourself saying goodbye to the hello elbow.
Most of the time my blog post are more oriented toward players (and their parents) who, shall we say, don’t have the greatest athletic gifts. Not to mention coaches who are trying to make their teams competitive through sheer hard work.
Today, though, I am going to turn that concept on its head. This one is for those players who won the genetic lottery.
You know the ones. They are naturally bigger, stronger, faster, with better eyesight, better hand-to-eye coordination, more fast twitch muscles and other attributes that most of us wish we (or our kids/players) had.
They are always a big fish, no matter what size pond they’re in.
Here’s my message to those players and their families: that genetic lottery has more than one winner. In fact, while the total number may be small compared to all the players who play the game, it’s still much larger than the number of spots on coveted teams.
Which means if you want one of those spots you need to keep working hard. Probably even harder than players with lesser natural ability because all your real competition is at least as able as you. Maybe even more gifted.
I know that may be hard to believe, especially if you don’t get to see a lot of ultra-talented players wherever you play. But believe me, they’re out there.
When you have more natural ability than everyone else it’s easy to fall into the trap of relying on it. After all, if your overhand throw is 60 mph and all your teammates’ (and opponents) are closer to 50 mph it’s easy to think you take it easy in practice or just rely on your ability in a game.
But in the end, you’re not competing against the players around you for those coveted spots. You’re competing against a small universe of players you may not see but who are definitely out there.
Which means you need to make sure your skill level and understanding of the game, not to mention your mental game, is on a par with them.
My suggestion, if you want to find a local role model, is to look at the player on your team, in your league or conference, etc. who doesn’t seem to have a lot of natural ability but is succeeding anyway. That player got there by working harder than everyone else and not getting discouraged when she failed.
Instead, when she failed she used it as fuel and a learning experience to help her get better.
That girl has to have better technique at whatever she does because if she doesn’t she’ll never see the field. Coaches aren’t falling all over themselves to get her on their team or put her in their lineup, so she has to prove herself every time she steps across the chalk line.
Study her. Learn from her. Do what she does.
If she boots a ground ball, she probably asks for another one. Do the same.
If she’s struggling to hit she doesn’t go into a funk. She pulls the tee out and works on whatever she knows her issues are. And believe me she knows what they are because she pays close attention when a coach is working with her.
Basically, instead of acting like a “super talent,” instead become a grinder. Work to gain the best technique not because you have to today, but because one day you will need it. Gain that mentality and you’ll find the road to the top is significantly easier than it would have been otherwise.
Talent, athleticism, whatever you want to call it, is definitely a good thing. If you won the genetic lottery be sure to thank your parents early and often. Genetics can’t be taught.
Don’t let that ability sucker you into complacency, however. Approach the game like you were the last one to make the roster instead of the first one invited and we just might see you on ESPN one day.
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