Author Archives: Ken Krause

Adding A Little “Pop” to Catcher Pop Times

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When I work with catchers, I often tell them two of the most important things they will be judged on by coaches is their ability to block pitches in the dirt, and their ability to throw runners out. Obviously there are a lot of other aspects to catching as well, but these are two of the most visible – and most glaring if a catcher isn’t good at them.

Of the two, the second one (ability to throw runners out) is the more easily measurable. At least in theory.

You can throw balls in the dirt to catchers all day long in a tryout or practice situation and they can look like champs. Especially if they know ahead of time the balls are going in the dirt. But put them in a game and the question is whether they can recognize that random ball headed for the dirt fast enough to block. Tough to simulate that randomness.

Throwing runners out, however, mostly comes down to one thing: pop time, or the time between when the ball pops the catcher’s glove to the time it pops the receiver’s glove at the base.

Really, it’s a numbers game. For the sake of simplicity (since I am generally math-challenged), we’ll use 3.0 as the time it takes a base runner to advance 60 feet. That’s a pretty good number at most levels outside the top of NCAA Division 1 college softball, so it’s one where you can expect to see the majority of runners. Well, that and above.

So if we’re using 3.0 seconds as the standard, let’s assume the pitch gets to the plate in 0.5 seconds. Not super fast, but not super slow either, and easy to do the math. So if we assume 3.0 and subtract the time it takes for the ball to pop the catcher’s glove, that leaves 2.5 seconds to make the throw and apply the tag in time.

Of course, getting there exactly at the same time leaves it up to an umpire’s judgment, which you never want to do, so let’s take off a couple tenths of a second to make the ball beating the runner there more obvious. Now we’re at, say, 2.3 seconds.

Of course, most teams will have at least one or two runners who are faster than 3.0 between bases. And some will push the envelope and attempt to leave a little early, so we’d best knock off a couple more tenths. Which means our pop team needs to be in the 2.0 to 2.1 range. Yeah, that feels right.

So if your catcher is hovering around 2.5 (or longer), or is sitting at 2.2 but playing higher-level ball where she needs to get the ball to the base in 1.9 or 1.8 seconds, how do you get that time down?

For any decently skilled catcher there is no one thing that will do it. Instead, it’s a combination of little things that will add up. Shave off a little here, a little there, and before you know it your pop time meets the standard for US national team tryouts.

Here are some ways to do it.

  1. Adopt a better “runners on base” stance. When I see catchers squatting on their toes in any situation it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. But it’s especially bothersome when there are runners on base, because you can’t move very well side-to-side, and you can’t exactly spring up either. The reason is the weight distribution in our bodies, and our center of gravity – which for a female generally sits low in the hips and toward the back. If the catcher’s butt is below her knees, sheRachael catcher stance pretty much has to lift her entire body weight to get up. But if it starts around knee-level, with the thighs parallel to the ground and the back close to parallel to the ground, most of the heavy lifting is already done. You can get up a lot quicker – and last longer. Which is not only good for throwing runners out, but for chasing down bunts as well.
  2. Learn to pop up instead of run up. I see this one so often. Catchers will come up out of their crouches, take a step forward with their right foot, then take a step forward with their left foot, then throw. Too much wasted time! Because while you’re running up, what’s the base runner doing? Running to the base. Instead, catchers should work on popping up and jumping into a good stance, with their throwing-side foot dropping back and their weight starting out on that foot. Much, much faster. They can also learn to throw from their knees if they arm, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  3. Speed up the transfer of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand. Another thing you’ll often see with catchers, even older ones who should know better, is a tendency to reach forward to grab the ball after it’s caught, make the transfer in front of them, then pull the arm back to throw. The problem is their throwing hand starts off by going in the wrong direction. If they fumble with the transfer at all they have a long way to go (relatively speaking) before they are in position to make the throw. A better approach is to bring the ball back to the hand with the glove. The hand will be waiting around the throwing-side shoulder or ear. As the ball goes into the hand, the hand is then pulled back into a throwing position, essentially making the throw a part of the transfer instead of a separate event. To work on this, by the way, have the catcher start with nothing on or in either hand and just pull the glove hand back to slap the throwing hand. Then add a ball, still barehanded, then add the glove. Just stand sideways and continue to work on the transfer. Once you have that down, toss the ball to the catcher and have her practice the transfer that way. It’s repetitive and boring, but it works.
  4. Rake the ball back instead of catching it. This technique is a bit more advanced, but it can definitely help shave off some time. Typically, the catcher will catch the ball on a steal the same way she catches it for a frame, i.e., get the glove behind the ball, stop its forward progress, then pull it back. Rather than doing that, have the catcher work on catching the side of the ball while starting to pull her glove back, in essence raking the ball back toward her throwing hand as she receives it. Eliminating the stop-and-start of receiving the back of the ball helps get it in place faster to make a throw. Combine this with #3 and you’ll have a catcher who is lightning fast on her release. Then she just has to make sure her body keeps up with what her arms and feet are doing so she can get the throw off with full power.
  5. Know where the base is instinctively. Whether a catcher is popping up or throwing from her knees, she shouldn’t have to wait until she sees the base to make a throw. She should just know where it is and throw. To work on this, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her make the throw. For extra fun, place an object like a stuffed animal on top of a bucket (a second bucket will also work) and have her work on knocking it off. Even if she doesn’t succeed right away, she will build awareness of where the base is and what she needs to do to get the ball there.
  6. Learn to just throw. This isn’t a technique as much as a mental approach, so it doesn’t necessarily show up in a pop time measurement. But it can have a profound effect on the catcher’s success in a game. All too often catchers want to make sure there is someone at the base to receive the ball when they throw, so they will hesitate, even slightly, before throwing. That is the wrong way to go. The catcher should be focused on getting the ball to the base as fast as she possibly can, and trust that someone will get there to receive it. If they don’t, coaches should make sure to tell catchers they did the right thing and then proceed to work with whoever is supposed to be receiving to get there in time to make the play. I always wanted my catchers to push the limits of the receiving fielder. You should too.

If each of those ideas take just one half of one tenth of a second off, the catcher will end up shaving 3/10 of a second from her pop time. That could be the difference between the bases looking like a merry-go-round for the opposing team and your catcher showing there’s a new sheriff in town. Add in some ladder work for agility and a throwing program to increase overhand throw velocity and you’ll have a star on your hands.

The other thing to keep in mind is coaches rarely use their slowest runner to test the catcher’s throw. Instead, they usually use their fastest. So even if that runner does manage to squeak in ahead of the throw, if it’s close it sends a message not try it with anyone who isn’t a super-rabbit.

Keeping runners from advancing for free on bases should be a huge point of pride for catchers. If you want to make yours deadly, give these ideas a try.

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Staying Focused on the Process, Not the Outcome

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Photo by Drew Rae on Pexels.com

Recently I flew down to Nashville with my wife to visit my daughter (yes, a former fastpitch pitcher), her boyfriend Andrew, and their new house. Since it wasn’t non-stop we had a lot of time in airports and on planes.

Along the way I got tired of reading the dense book I’m into right now (finally reading a textbook I was supposed to go through my freshman year of college, and I am remembering why I never finished it) so I decided to play with a Blackjack trainer I have instead. Blackjack is the only casino game I tend to play, so I’m trying to make sure if I ever go back to a casino that I have my basic game down pat.

I used to have a different trainer, one that you would play online. It was kind of fun because you could place bets and track your progress. It was also valuable because it showed even if you make all the right moves you could still lose.

This one didn’t. You simply made decisions based on the cards that were dealt, and if you made a mistake a little pop-up would tell you what you should have done instead.

At first I didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t a way to track how I was doing money-wise. Then I came to see the brilliance in the way it was set up.

Without that running total of whether I was ahead or behind, I no longer was thinking in terms of outcomes. Instead, I was 100% focused on the process, i.e., selecting the right move based on the well-established odds for the game.

We talk about this a lot with softball players – focus on the process, not the outcomes. Or as I heard it put at the NFCA Convention, master the movement not the drill.

But how often do we really live it? If you’re working with a player who has been struggling at the plate and she finally makes contact, she’s probably rewarded with a “good job!” even if it was an ugly swing. But was it really a good job?

In the batting cages, when I’m pitching front toss, I will tell hitters that I don’t care if they swing and miss 100 times as long as they’re working on what we’re working on. I would rather see a good swing and miss than a bad swing and hit.

Not because a great technical swing by itself means anything. Again, there are no style points awarded during a game.

But working on getting the swing right – mastering the movement, focusing on the process – will lead to more long-term success. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in practicing it?

The same with a pitcher. I’m ok if they’re throwing the ball all over the place if they’re working on getting the mechanics right. Because I know if they do get the mechanics right the accuracy part will take care of itself. Accuracy is an outcome, not a goal unto itself.

When I work with fielders on throwing, again I want them to focus on learning the proper mechanics so when they need to make a quick, hard throw to get a runner out they can be sure of where it’s going.

If you have to think about how you’re throwing, or guide the ball to get it to where you want it to go, you’re an error waiting to happen. Probably at a key point in the game.

To get to that point in each of these cases, however, you have to take the outcome out of it. Just like the Blackjack trainer did for me.

Yes, it’s difficult. It’s a lot easier to recognize and reward a ball that’s hit hard (no matter how it was hit) or a pitch that goes in for a strike, or a throw that reaches its target than it is to focus on the way those outcomes happened. But it’s critical if you want to be successful.

Take the outcomes out of the training in the short term and just focus on the process and the movements. Give players the opportunity to “fail up,” i.e., do the right things now so that when those habits become ingrained they have far greater success than they had just doing whatever to get by.

Learning the basic game in Blackjack doesn’t guarantee success. The odds still favor the house, and you could still quickly drop a couple of hundred dollars even if you make the right moves 100% of the time. But it does help reduce that edge considerably, which is what makes it worth the effort.

The same is true in softball. You can still strike out, or walk a batter, or throw away a ball at a critical point in a game no matter how hard you work. But you cut the odds of it considerably, which is what makes focusing on the process your best bet for long-term success.

Fixing Timing Problems In Live Hitting

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Tell me if you’ve seen (or personally experienced) this before. A hitter looks great on the tee. All her mechanics are correct and her movements are correctly sequenced. She’s pounding the ball so hard you’re afraid it’s going to break the back of the cage.

Then you move her into a live hitting situation – doesn’t have to be a full pitch, it could be easy front toss from a short distance – and suddenly that potential game-winning swing all falls apart.

Instead of driving the ball, the hitter is popping up, especially to the opposite field, or hitting weak dribblers back to the pitcher. What the heck happened?

Odds are she’s late getting to the bat to the ball. And no matter how soon she starts, she continues to be late.

You’ve probably heard it said on many occasions that hitting is all about timing. Well, that’s true, but not always in the way you think.

It’s not just about the start time. It’s really about where the hitter’s front foot is when it’s time to swing.

The front foot landing should be the trigger for the swing (i.e., the launch of the hips) to begin. Which means it has to be down on time. If it’s not, there’s no time to execute the rest of the swing and what you’ll end up with is essentially an arm swing, with the body following afterwards.

Ok, you understand this can help when the hitter doesn’t get going on time. But your hitter, if anything, was early and yet she still was behind the actual pitch.

I call this syndrome “early to be late.” What happens is the hitter sees the pitcher go into her motion and she begins her load. Then she realizes she started too early, so she stays back in the loaded position and waits for the pitcher to release the ball.

At that point it’s game over, advantage pitcher. There is simply not going to be enough time to stride/weight shift properly, launch the hips (without the shoulders), turn the shoulders, and bring the bat to the ball.

Getting stuck on the back side during the load is deadly to hitters. What they need to do instead is “bounce off” of it. In other words, they need to “load and go” right away rather than sitting and waiting for the pitch to be thrown.

Ideally, they will adjust their start time to make that happen. But if they can’t break the habit of being early they should learn to eat up the time difference by striding/weight shifting slower to be sure the front foot is down on time so the rest of the swing can be executed.

I’ve personally seen the difference this seemingly slight change makes. Rather than struggling to get to the ball (and feeling overwhelmed, which leads to arm swings), hitters suddenly feel more in command.

They get to that “oh yeah moment,” where the ball looks like a beach ball and they’re ready to jump on it, more consistently. And avoid that “oh crap moment” where they realize right before the swing that nothing good is going to happen.

How do you get there? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

Ok, seriously, hitters have to train themselves to overcome their basic instincts to wait on the pitch and start striding/weight shifting, even if they feel like it’s too soon. Once they can get to that point, and see the results, they’ll be more inclined to replace the old habit with a new one.

On the tee, or even at home in a bedroom, have hitters consciously work on their “load and go” mindset. Then do front toss and look for that hesitation.

If they still can’t break the habit, stand in front of them without the ball and go through the motion, encouraging them to get off that back side and start their forward movement at the right time. Then go back to front toss, and finally to full-length pitching.

It may take some time – the mind is a powerful thing, and once it latches onto something it doesn’t always like to let go. But sooner or later a willing hitter can overcome it.

Once she does, she’ll be well on her way to becoming the hitter she wants to be. And that you want her to be.

 

Put A Little Swagger In Your Swing

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Baseball legend Ted Williams once said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. I think it’s safe to say that not only does that statement extend to fastpitch softball, but it may apply even more given that the actual time to read, react to, and hit a pitch is comparable, but the pitchers stand closer and the ball can move both up and down through the zone (where a baseball is always traveling on a downward plane).

The point here, however, isn’t to argue that one is tougher than the other. It’s more to acknowledge that they’re both extremely difficult (as anyone who has ever done it can attest), which means any given at bat can be both exhilarating and frustrating.

That’s the reason why hitters (and their coaches) spend so much time studying the swing, and working on the swing, and sweating all the details. The goal is to create mechanics that enable hitters to get to the ball on time and hit it well and effortlessly when they do make contact.

Yet here’s the thing: while better mechanics definitely help you get to the ball more powerfully and efficiently, mechanics alone are not enough. After all, there are no style points in fastpitch softball. A beautiful swing and miss in a game is still a strike. An ugly swing that results in a fair ball no one catches is still a hit.

So yes, it takes more than good (or great) swing mechanics to be a successful hitter. You also have to have the right mental approach – one than enables you to walk to the plate with cool confidence, knowing that you are prepared to win the battle between the pitcher and you. I like to call it the “gunslinger mentality.”

And what better example of that mindset is there than Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday in the movie Tombstone? In the most tension-ridden situations he brings a sense of cool calm that not only helps him prepare for a possible gunfight but also helps avert the crisis by striking fear into the heart of his adversary.

If you haven’t seen the movie (or if you have and just want to enjoy it again), here’s a good example of Doc at his “I’ve got this situation under control” best:

And yes, the man with the rifle really is a very young (and a bit heavier) Billy Bob Thornton.

Here’s another fun example:

The movie is filled with them. In each you see that it isn’t just his reputed skill with a gun but his attitude that carries the day.

(In reality, incidentally, it’s generally believed that while Doc did have a fast draw he wasn’t exactly an accurate shot. He also killed far fewer men than he let on, probably so he wouldn’t actually have to be tested in a gunfight. But I digress.)

The key takeaway here is the swagger he brings when he walks into a tense situation, like the potential showdown with Johnny Ringo in the second clip. His “I’ve got this” attitude helps him prepare for whatever comes next.

That’s the kind of attitude hitters need to bring to the plate. Rather than worrying about the situation, or how good the pitcher is supposed to be, or whether coaches/parents/teammates will be mad at her if she fails, or any of the other doubts that can creep in when one steps into the batter’s box, hitters instead need to believe in themselves and their abilities.

If they’ve put in the work to develop their swings and learn how to see the ball well, it’s not them who should be worried. It’s the other team.

If you know (or are) a hitter who’s great in the cage but struggles in games, I recommend watching Tombstone, or at least the Doc Holliday clips on YouTube, to see what cool confidence looks like. (The whole movie is great, even if you don’t particularly care for Westerns, so it will be time well spent.)

Then encourage them to adopt a similar attitude as they step into the batter’s box. Stare down that pitcher. Give her a little smile. And finally, swing like they have everything under control. You’ll be amazed at the difference a little swagger can make.

5 Common Softball Injuries & How to Prevent Them

Guest post by Chris Salise

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Everyone likes a good game of fastpitch softball, but no one likes to be taken out of it prematurely due to an avoidable injury. Unfortunately, whether it’s due to improper stretching and calisthenics, or faulty equipment, too many people find themselves laid up before they can round the corner to home.

Don’t let it happen to you. What follows is a list of the 5 most common softball injuries and how to avoid them. A little preparation and a good dose of common sense are all you need to keep you in the game and playing at your best.

Tendinitis

Tendinitis is most commonly associated with wrist injuries, but in its most literal form, it’s simply an inflammation of a tendon. This means that pretty much any part of your body where bones connect to muscles is vulnerable to tendinitis. For softball players, that mostly means the wrist, shoulder, and elbow.

Tendinitis can most easily be avoided by doing the proper stretches before a game. Increasing the endurance of your muscles through strength training can also lower the odds of straining your tendons. But in both cases, make sure you’re doing your exercises in proper form—stretching and lifting out of whack can cause tendinitis all by itself!

Ankle Sprains

Ankle sprains are annoyingly common and a big risk for softball players. This is because whether you’re running the bases or trying to catch a pop fly, softball requires a lot of sudden stops and starts in your lower extremities. This puts sudden strain and weight on your ankle joints and can cause them to buckle without warning.

It may surprise you to learn that one of the main causes of ankle sprains in softball, however, is sliding into bases. As such, observing proper sliding techniques can heavily decrease your chances of spraining your ankle. And, of course, don’t forget to stretch!

Rotator Cuff Injuries

The rotator cuff is a series of muscles between the shoulder blade and the upper arm bone. Injuries to this part of the arm are common in fastpitch softball players because the overhand throwing motion puts a lot of stress and pressure here. Most rotator cuff injuries are one-time deals, but they can chronically weaken your shoulder if not treated properly.

To avoid these types of injuries, it’s important to learn and maintain good form, warm up before each game, and always make time for rest and recovery between sessions. Good conditioning is also essential, so don’t neglect your exercise, training, and practice. These simple habits won’t just help prevent shoulder injuries; they’ll improve your game as well!

Hamstring Injuries

Hamstring tears are already pretty common among the general population, but even more so for sports players and especially softball athletes. If you’re dehydrated, if you don’t stretch properly or if you’re wearing shoes that aren’t catered to the shape of your feet, all of these will contribute to the chances of you tearing a hamstring before you even make it to first.

Besides keeping hydrated and stretching, a big help for reducing the chances of tearing your hamstring is to make sure both your hamstring and quadriceps have the same level of strength. Ensuring that each part of your leg is as strong as the other will make it so that one muscle doesn’t have to take on more of a burden than the other. You don’t know how right they are when they tell you not to skip leg day at the gym!

ACL Tears

These thankfully aren’t quite as common in softball as in sports such as soccer, volleyball, and basketball, but they do tend to occur more frequently in female athletes than their male counterparts, largely due to differences in the angle at which the hips connect to the thigh bones (aka Q angle). Still, they can be terrible to deal with when they do happen.

Tears in your ACL most often occur when you rapidly shift directions while running. These injuries are extremely painful and can cause long-term damage.

You can help prevent ACL tears by training with plyometric exercises to get your body more used to bursts of activity. It’s also a good idea to train with a wobble board to improve your balance. Endurance and coordination are the keys to not falling prey to an ACL injury.

You also might want to avoid injury by taking shorter practice sessions and making sure your goals and exercises are evenly paced. Softball injuries happen all the time, but they don’t have to be a fact of life.

Chris Scalise is a freelance writer and fitness enthusiast from Los Angeles, California who writes about sports and health topics for a wide range of publications and brands, including SportsBraces.com.

Eating the Elephant

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A question I will often pose to my fastpitch softball students is “How do you eat an elephant?” Regardless of age, the first time they hear it they tend to look at me as if I have completely lost my mind.

The correct answer, of course, is “One bite at a time.”* That’s a critical lesson for anyone trying to learn a new skill, or even make improvements to existing skills.

What it means in realistic terms is you don’t have to learn (or master) the skill all in one big gulp. You’re far more likely to have success (and far less likely to give up too soon) if you give yourself permission to learn whatever you’re trying to learn a little bit at a time.

This is particularly true of complex skills such as hitting and pitching that have a lot of moving parts. Trying to learn all the mechanics (or fix all the problems) at once is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Our brains simply don’t function that way.

But breaking the skill into smaller components,  prioritizing them so you know what to work on first, and then focusing on each of those areas in order will enable you to create a progression where success builds on success.

For example, when I’m working with a new pitching student I like to use a technique called “backward chaining.” That’s a more sophisticated way of saying you start at the end of the skill and work your way backwards, because if you don’t get the end right nothing else you’ve done up until then matters.

So for pitchers we’ll work on starting the ball overhead, palm facing the catcher, bringing the upper arm down until it contacts the ribcage, and pulling the ball through into the release zone so the lower arm whips and the wrist snaps itself. (That’s a simplified version of what goes on and what I look for, but will suffice for now.)

Most young pitchers will tend to want to bring the entire arm through at once, get behind the ball too early, and push it through the release zone. Heck, some have even been taught to turn the ball backwards and push it down the back side of the circle, which is definitely what you don’t want to do.

So it takes a bit for them to learn to relax and let the arm work in two pieces. That’s why we focus on helping them get that feel, because it will serve them well as they get into the full pitch.

But if we tried to do that, plus get a proper launch, plus worry about getting into the right position at each point during the motion, etc. the odds are they wouldn’t learn anything. Especially how to whip the ball through.

The other element that enters this discussion, of course, is the impatience of players themselves. It’s understandable.

They are growing up in a world where they have instant access to everything – information (via smartphones and the Internet), food (microwave and fast food meals), transportation (no need to walk, we’ll drive you!) and so forth. The idea of having to wait for something they want is often foreign to them.

So, they try to eat the elephant like a python – unhinge the jaw and try to swallow it whole.

Again, it doesn’t work that way. As a result, realistic expectations have to be set.

They have to understand that doing this drill or taking a couple of lessons here and there won’t turn them into instant superstars who are mechanically perfect. Progress will come incrementally. Sometimes in increments so small it’s hard to tell it’s being made.

But if they keep working at it, the cumulative effect will take hold and eventually that big ol’ elephant will be gone.

The lesson for coaches (and parents) is don’t try to fix everything at once. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work.

Focus on one thing at a time, adding each new piece to what you’ve already done, and you’ll save a lot of heartache for you and the player.

For players, the lesson is to be patient and, as Bobby Simpson says, get a little better each day. Remember if you want to walk a mile you just need to start putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually you’ll get there.

So grab a fork and dig in! The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll reach your goals.

*Please don’t leave me nasty comments. I am not advocating eating, or causing any other harm to, actual elephants. They are beautiful, magnificent creatures. It’s simply a metaphor.

The Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

There's more to playing than measurables

While I was tooling around on the Internet I came across this video that I thought was worth sharing. While again it isn’t specific to fastpitch softball (second week in a row, I know) it tells a great story – and one that is particularly timely these days.

Thanks to the ready access to all sorts of measurement devices, our sport is becoming increasingly obsessed with numbers. I get why that is; in theory, having objective measurements of throwing speeds, ball exit speeds, spin rates, grip strength and a lot of other parameters make it easy to compare one player to another.

Basing decisions on the numbers feels “safe.” You take all the personal opinions and favoritism out of it, and just evaluate everyone on the basis of the numbers they produce as measured by the machines.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. There’s also something to be said for having game sense. For example, player A has a home-to-first time of 2.7 seconds, while player B has a home-to-first time of 3.1 seconds.

The natural conclusion? Player A is more desirable, because her speed will make her the better base runner. What those numbers don’t show is that Player A has no idea how to read a pitch, or defense, and take advantage of opportunities while Player B does.

So in an actual game, Player A will run station-to-station very quickly, while Player B will take advantage of a defensive miscue or a fielder who isn’t paying attention to take an extra base when the opportunity arises. She also won’t run herself into trouble, even if the third based coach is “encouraging” her to. Now which one would you prefer?

A lot of those “game smarts” qualities don’t show up in a tryout, because in softball tryouts are primarily about looking at skills. They also don’t show up against a stopwatch or a radar gun. But when the game is on the line, again who would you rather have? The pitcher with the highest speed/spin rates, or the pitcher who knows how to get hitters out?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-measurement. Taking those readings is important, especially when measuring a player’s progress. There’s also something satisfying about achieving a goal you set for yourself, like a pitcher reaching 50 or 60 mph, a runner going home to first in less than 3 seconds, a hitter reaching a new high for bat speed or ball exit speed, etc. But the empirical number itself is not the be-all and end-all of who will add the most value to your team.

Which brings us back to the video, which is well worth watching. It talks about the 2000 NFL draft (some of you now know where this is going, I’m sure, but read on anyway).

There was a lanky, skinny quarterback at the NFL Combine who produced terrible scores. (If you’re not familiar with it, the Combine is where they do all these types of speed and performance measurements for football to help teams with their draft selections.)

For example, in the 40 yard dash the kid ran a 5-something. For perspective, between 5 and 5.5 is now considered the norm for an offensive lineman. For a quarterback, it’s ugly.

He didn’t have great arm strength either – average at best. Not much of a vertical leap. In the video they said it looked like he had never seen a weight room. So pretty much by any measure, this was a guy who wasn’t much of a prospect to become a backup in the NFL, much less a starter worth spending a draft choice on. Oh, and by the way, the word was his college team (Michigan) had spent his whole senior year trying to put someone in the lineup who they thought would perform better – probably a better athlete.

Still, the quarterback was hopeful. His wish was to play for his hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers, but they passed on him in the third round to take another player with better numbers. Who it was doesn’t matter because that guy was ultimately gone pretty quickly.

Finally, in the sixth round, with the 199th pick, the New England Patriots figured what the heck and selected Tom Brady. You know the rest of the story.

So while the numbers and measurables can tell you some things about a player, they can’t tell you everything. If you’re a player who maybe doesn’t throw the hardest, or hit the farthest, or run the fastest, that’s ok.

Accept that you will have to prove yourself in every new situation, embrace the challenge, and get out there and show everyone what you can do. And remember that the two essential qualities a radar gun or a stopwatch or a strength machine can’t measure are your smarts and your heart.

Just ask Tom Brady.

Keeping the Joy in Youth Sports

Keep the joy in the game

By now I’m sure many of you have seen this video (below) that went viral after last weekend (January 2019 for those reading this much later). It’s UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi scoring a perfect 10 on her floor routine during a competition.

If you haven’t, stop right now and watch this video. You will be glad you did.

While the sheer athleticism and artistry of her performance are incredible, that’s not what drew me to writing about it. After all, this is a fastpitch softball blog, so not much of what she does applies to hitting or throwing a softball.

But if you didn’t notice it the first time, go back and watch it again. Only this time watch her face and see how much fun she is having. (And how much fun her teammates seem to be having watching her.)

That is an element that seems to be missing from a lot of youth and school sports these days – fun. Everyone is so focused on winning, and improving their rankings, and securing the almighty scholarship, and all the other things that seem to go with “getting to the next level” that they forget to be in the moment.

That all-consuming drive to win (or for coaches to prove that they’re better than everyone else) is a lot of what causes the yelling and screaming that takes place on fields all across the country at every level – even with the youngest players. It’s what causes coaches to belittle and humiliate their players in the middle of a game, not to mention the postgame speech.

As I’ve quoted many times, softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But it’s kind of hard to have fun if you’re trying your best only to be told you’re not good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough, or whatever enough.

And who is someone who knows that feeling all too well? Katelyn Ohashi herself. The other side of this feelgood story is that she almost quit gymnastics entirely.

She was on a path to go to the Olympics, but the pressure from her coaches, and the negativity from fans and observers, simply sucked all of the enjoyment out of it. Fortunately for all of us, getting off the Olympic path, and going to UCLA, helped revitalize her love for her sport, culminating in a gift to all of us.

Studies have shown that the #1 reason players quit youth sports is that it isn’t fun anymore. In fact, a poll from the National Youth Sports Alliance says 70 percent quit by age 13 for that very reason.

That doesn’t mean practices and games have to be a “birthday party without the cake” as one of my former players once described her high school practice. Working hard toward a common goal with people you value can be fun. Working hard to improve yourself so you can perform better than you did before can be fun.

There is a lot of personal satisfaction in setting a goal and then achieving it.

What’s not fun, however, is working hard and never getting on the field. What’s not fun is constantly feeling like you need to look over your shoulder because if you make one mistake you’re done for the game, and maybe the day.

What’s not fun is receiving a constant barrage of criticism over everything you do, even when you’re giving your best effort. What’s not fun is being embarrassed in front of your friends, teammates, family, etc.

Players need encouragement and support. They need to feel like they can stretch themselves to the edge of their abilities someone constantly coming down on them, even if they fail.

Most importantly, they need the opportunity to get out on the field and try, even if their skills aren’t quite as good as the player next to them yet. Because that’s the reason they signed up in the first place.

When you think about what participating in a sport should look like, remember this video of Katelyn Ohashi. She is the definition of taking joy in what you’re doing. And oh by the way, she was rewarded with an almost impossible to achieve perfect 10 for her efforts.

Then look at your own team. If you’re not seeing the same look from everyone there maybe it’s time to start thinking about how you can make it the kind of experience everyone there – players, coaches, parents, family, and fans – will cherish forever.

Every Expert Was Once a Beginner

Every expert was once a beginner

One of the most intimidating things we can do as human beings is start something new. Especially when that something has been around for a while like, say, fastpitch softball.

We look at ourselves and see how ill-prepared we are. Then we look at others and see how much better they are – some are even experts – and we wonder how we’re ever going to survive.

The good news we all have to remember is that no matter how great others are at something, every single one of them was once a beginner. Just like us.

Arizona coach Mike Candrea didn’t start out with 1,500+ wins. He started with one, and probably felt fortunate to get it.

So if you’re a brand new head coach taking a team onto the field for the first time, remember you share that experience with one of the winningest fastpitch softball coaches ever.

If you’re a pitcher (or the parent of a pitcher) who is just trying to learn how to get her arms and legs going in the same direction and get the ball over the plate with arcing (or putting anyone around you in danger) take heart. Some of the game’s best pitchers ever had their struggles as well.

If you’re a hitter who is providing more on-field air conditioning than excitement with her bat, or a fielder who seems like she wouldn’t be able to pick up a ground ball in a game even if it had a handle…

Well, you get the idea.

Everyone has to start somewhere. The ones who go places, however, are the ones who don’t give up, even when learning takes a little longer, or it feels like others have more natural ability, or have a head start because they started at a younger age.

After all, it isn’t where you start the race. It’s where you finish that counts.

I remember as a beginning coach thinking how much better I would (hopefully) be in five years, when I had some experience and had learned more. But that thought didn’t do my first team much good.

So I buckled down, did the best I could, contributed where I knew things, and just faked the rest.

I was once amazed that other coaches could come up with the drills or explanations i would use. To know so much that you could think that way seemed like a hill too great for me to climb. Now, 800 blog posts and roughly 20 years of coaching later I come up with different ideas all the time.

So to all of you beginners and first-timers out there, I say don’t be intimidated. Don’t be concerned about your lack of experience, or get overwhelmed thinking about how much you don’t know.

Just buckle down, get after it, and remember every expert was once a beginner. But it’s only the dedicated beginners who become an expert.

New Year, New You

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I know the headline sounds like an ad for a diet product or a health club, but there really is something to taking advantage of the turn of the calendar to start making improvements in our lives.

As humans we tend to like to have a clean break from the old when we start something new. The most obvious example is most people like to take a little time off between the time they end their old jobs and the time they start new ones. That little space in-between, even if it’s just a couple of days, helps us decompress and let go of the past so we can focus on the present – and the future.

That’s what’s often magical about the start of a new year. While in reality it’s just another day on the calendar, it feels like the start of something different.

So how can you take advantage of this artificially imposed fresh start? By (dare I say it?) resolving to do one or more things differently this year.

If you’re a coach, spend some time studying new techniques or approaches to the game. Challenge yourself by looking into information that conflicts with your current beliefs – especially if you’ve held those beliefs for a while.

Attend a coaching clinic with an open mind. Watch a current video or read a new book. Not just on fastpitch softball specifically, but also on coaching principles in general. In short, look for ways to be better than you are now.

If you’re a player, think about what a great year would be for you, then think about whether you can get there with what you’re doing now. A good way to do that is to write a letter to your future self describing the awesome season you just had.

If the season you want to have isn’t achievable with your current approach, figure out what you need to change to make it achievable. It could be something as simple as practicing for five more minutes during a session, or finding ways to sneak in an extra 5-10 minutes of practice per week when you can’t get to a field.

It could also mean being willing to change something you’ve been doing for a long time to see if the new way will work better. After all, no one ever created an innovation by continuing to do the same old thing.

If you’re a parent, think about how you can be more supportive, both to your player and to the team. Hopefully you’re already one who cheers in a positive way. But if you’re not sure, maybe set up a video camera and record yourself during your child’s next game to see what you think. Would you want to sit next to you? Or be with you on the ride home?

You might even want to do the same for someone else you may know, assuming they would take the information in the spirit it is intended. Learning to relax and enjoy the game makes it a lot more pleasurable for everyone – including the person who usually gets so upset.

You can also try watching a game where you have no stake to see what you think of how the spectators are reacting. The compare that to how you feel during your child’s game. It can be an interesting perspective.

One other thing you can do as a parent is to educate yourself on what the latest thinking is regarding various skills and see if that matches up with what your player is being taught. Don’t just assume a coach or instructor knows what he/she is doing, or is keeping up with the sport. Learn what to look for so you know whether you’re investing your hard-earned money in the best way possible.

It’s a new year. Why settle for the same old same old?

Take advantage of the energy that comes with a fresh start and use it to create a new, even better you. Best of luck for the upcoming year!

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