Author Archives: Ken Krause

The Umpire Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riiiight. That’s gonna happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Reasons to Watch the NCAA D1 Softball Tournament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. See the Speed of the Game

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

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

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

2. Watch How Top Players Execute Their Skills

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

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

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

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

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

3. See How Player Recover from Mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Hear Some Inspirational Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Bond With Your Player(s)

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

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

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

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

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

6. Follow the Benjamins

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

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

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

A little something for all you glam metal fans.

The Plusses and Minuses of Measurables

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

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

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

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

One of these thingies.

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

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

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

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

The Plusses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Minuses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Word

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

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

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

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

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

Do’s and Don’ts for the Car Ride Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do’s

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

Don’ts

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

Photo by Taras Makarenko on Pexels.com

A Volunteer’s Guide to Scoring on GameChanger

As an instructor who is mostly teaching lessons while my students are out playing, one of the greatest innovations in softball in the last 10 years is GameChanger.

(I say this despite the fact that I used to used iScore when I was coaching teams. Both are similar, but like VHS v Beta back in the VCR days, there is a clear winner in the battle for dominance among the masses.)

The beauty of GameChanger et. al. is that when you can’t be at the ballpark you can still keep up on what’s happening during the game. Or after.

(If am not teaching a lesson at the moment and my students are doing well I like to watch in real time. If they are struggling I am old school superstitious enough to believe I’m jinxing them and will check out the final box score later.)

Of course, as the short story The Monkey’s Paw (and the later Bruce Springsteen song) says, with every wish comes a curse.

In the case of GameChanger the curse is that the report you see doesn’t always tell the whole story. Or even an accurate one.

The challenge is that the person keeping score in GameChanger often is a volunteer, usually a parent, frequently a parent who missed the parent meeting and thus got stuck with the job instead of getting to do something simpler like line up hotels for away tournaments or convince the league’s governing board that softball girls deserve to have their fields lined and dragged for games, just like the boys’ baseball teams do.

So the GameChanger parents muddles through as best he/she can. And while the parent may get training on the technical aspects of how to enter information (and how to change it when they realize they screwed up the batting order or mixed up which field is left and which is right), they don’t get the opportunity to learn the nuances of how to score a game in a way that makes sense to someone who knows the game and wants to see what’s really going on.

Luckily, GameChanger parent, you have me! So without further ado, here are some of the nuances no one tells you when you agree to use up your online minutes to post the info on GameChanger.

Left Handed Hitter v Right Handed Hitter

Let’s start with this because it’s pretty basic and simple. For each player, it’s important to mark whether they hit left- or right-handed. Not that it affects the stats at all, but because it helps people who are watching remotely confirm that the Jennifer N they’re seeing is the one they want to watch. Not one of the three other Jennifer Ns on the team.

It’s also important for slappers, particularly newbie slappers who are just making the transition. And it helps give a more accurate picture of the game.

It’s just a simple button. If you have lefties on the team, give that button a click so they show up correctly.

Pop Out v Fly Ball v Line Drive

This one probably drives me battier (pun intended) than anything else because it just defies the laws of softball as well as logic.

If a ball goes out to an outfield, it is a fly ball, not a pop out. A pop out is contact that is caught in the infield area, either in fair or foul territory.

Saying “Mary T pops out to right fielder Sally J” when the ball has clearly traveled 180 feet is just wrong. The only time it would be correct is if Sally J is playing incredibly shallow in right field and the ball goes way up in the air and then comes down to her within spitting distance of the infield.

By the same token, a hitter cannot fly out to an infielder. She can hit a line drive out, or a pop out.

But even if she has to go backwards to catch the ball it’s not a fly ball. A fly ball has a trajectory that carries it well beyond where an infielder could catch it.

A line drive is basically a ball hit in a way gives it an upward trajectory but isn’t as high as a fly ball or pop up. This very basic drawing should help scorers distinguish between them.

Please, please, please, get this right. Otherwise it’s like nails on a chalkboard.

Hit v Error

This one should be pretty straightforward. But apparently it’s not so let me clarify.

If the batter hits the ball in fair territory and no one touches it, it’s a hit. Doesn’t matter how far it went or whether it was on the ground or in the air. It’s a hit.

If the batter hits the ball and a fielder touches it but doesn’t make the play, 99 times out of 100 it’s an error. The exception is a little leeway can be granted if touching the ball required extraordinary effort. Extraordinary effort being defined as “laid herself out to get there” not “stopped picking dandelions when the ball hit her in the shins.”

If the ball came to the fielder and she played hacky-sack with it as she tried to field it, or she fielded it cleanly but threw the ball toward South America instead of the base where an out could be obtained, it’s an error. Even if that fielder was your daughter.

While I have said in the past that I believe slappers should get credit for a hit if they bang the ball off a fielder’s shins and beat the throw, the reality is that’s not how it’s officially scored. It’s still reached on error. Deal with it.

The one area where judgment comes into play is if the ball could have been fielded for an out with an ordinary effort, i.e., it rolls through the hitter’s legs or drops next to an outfielder.

Even though it wasn’t touched, it should have resulted in an out had the fielder played it correctly so it’s considered an error.

This whole “outs v errors,” by the way, is why college coaches tend to take the stats players post on the Internet with a huge dollop of salt. Unless they know the scorer has a high level of skill, they can suspect that batting averages of .825 or ERAs of 0.25 on most teams owe more to scorer inexperience or manipulation than the player’s skills.

Slap v Bunt

People who are new to softball can be excused for not understanding this difference. But it’s an important distinction.

If the batter sticks the bat out with the intention of having the ball hit the bat and roll a few feet away, it’s a bunt. If the batter (especially a left handed batter who is running up on the pitch) takes a swing, or even a half swing, it’s considered a slap whether it comes off hard or soft.

Marking it correctly doesn’t affect the stats at all. But for the parents (or hitting coach) of a slapper who can’t be there it makes a huge deal in knowing that the player is using the skills she’s been training on.

Extra Base Hits and Which Fielder Is Named

Maybe this is just my personal preference but seeing “Jolene T hits ground ball double to shortstop Tina K” is another thing that makes no sense to me. How in the world do you hit a double to the shortstop?

The short answer is you don’t. You hit a hard ground ball that got through the infield and went toward an outfield position. That’s who it should be marked going to.

Getting It Right

Again, it’s great that apps such as GameChanger are available to allow interested parties to follow multiple games from afar. But as long as you’re putting in the effort to record the game, you might as well do it correctly.

Understand these differences and you’ll help everyone get a better idea of what’s really happening/what really happened, which makes following along more fun.

How Many Lessons Until My Kid Is Awesome?

Today’s blog post was suggested by my friend and fellow pitching coach Shaun Walker of Next Level Softball. Shaun is an incredible pitching coach and an innovative thinker who has opened me up to a whole new world around human movement and how it affects athletic performance at a core level.

Don’t let the West Virginia accent fool you either. He may talk funny (as he says) but you better pay attention when he’s doing it or you will miss something great. (If you’re in the Man, W. Va. area and are interested in quality instruction definitely look him up.)

In any case, Shaun told me about getting contacted by the parent of a prospective student who asked him the question I’m sure is on the minds of many parents: how many lessons will it take? The implied part, of course, is until my daughter is a star.

Wow, talk about a loaded question. As Shaun says, that’s like asking how many licks until you get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. There is no easy answer.

NOTE: While we will be talking about pitching specifically in this post, the principles apply to all skills, all positions, and all sports and activities.

One obvious reason is that different players have different builds, athletic abilities, work ethics, time available to them, levels of experience, practice spaces, levels of mental toughness, and other factors. They are also different ages which factors into it more than many of us might want to admit.

For example, an 8 year old will generally have a very different ability to focus for long periods of time than a 14 year old. That’s just biology.

Sure, there are plenty of distracted 14 years old, and the occasional hyper-focused 8 year old. But for the overall population this is true.

With the result that the 8 year old will be able to pay attention for part of the lesson until the circus in her head takes over whereas the 14 year old should be able to focus for the entire lesson. Particularly if she is personally motivated to learn.

What the typical young player sees about 10 minutes into a lesson.

Athletic build is a pretty obvious factor. A big, strong player will likely experience more success early than a scrawny little peanut who is in danger of being blown away by the next strong breeze.

That doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever, though. The peanut will grow and mature, and eventually gain the muscle mass needed – particularly if she works at it – to catch up to her larger peers. With the added benefit her mechanics may be cleaner because they had to be.

But it’s going to take her longer to achieve the same level of success. Again, that darned biology.

This brings us to work ethic, which I’m sure Shaun (and many others) would agree is the greatest X factor of them all.

Take two girls of similar native ability. The only time the first one picks up a ball is when she has a lesson. Or maybe an hour before she has that lesson.

The second one practices diligently. Not just putting in time, but actually working on the things that were assigned to her in her last lesson (whether that was with a live pitching coach, a team coach, a parent, or an online session).

Which one is more likely to advance faster? I think the answer is pretty obvious.

But there is no way the coach being asked “How long will it take” will know these players well enough to make that evaluation before ever working with them.

And even then, the lack of natural athletic ability or comfort with body movement may hold the harder worker back longer — for a while. Eventually, though, that work ethic will overcome just about any obstacle.

Another factor that can contribute is how long it takes to overcome previous bad teaching.

I’ve talked a lot, especially recently, about the benefits of internal rotation (IR) over hello elbow (HE) pitching, especially when it comes to using the body the way it’s designed to work. One of the biggest issues HE generates is teaching pitchers to turn the ball back toward second base, make the arm as straight as possible, and push the ball down the back side of the circle.

When you do that you lose any ability to accelerate (whip) the ball through the release zone, affecting both speed and accuracy. That’s why many pitchers who are taught HE, and do the HE drills, still manage to find their way to some form of IR when they actually pitch.

Still, those ingrained habits can be difficult to break. So a pitcher who has taken lessons for five years from an HE coach may find it takes her longer to unlearn those mechanics and get on the right path than one who has never had instruction before or maybe even who has never pitched.

So again, how long it takes to achieve the results you’re looking for is difficult to predict. It all depends on how long it takes to learn to face the ball forward, maintain a bend in the arm, and accelerate the ball into release by leading the little finger rather than pushing it from behind.

Last but definitely not least is the mental toughness factor. Many of the skills in softball are incredibly difficult to learn, and pitching is certainly no exception.

It can be frustrating, even soul-sucking at times. There will be days when nothing seems to work right, or weeks when it feels like zero progress is being made because the speed on the radar gun isn’t changing or the strike percentages aren’t going up significantly or the spin direction on the ball isn’t what it should be.

Pitchers need to have the mental toughness to accept it and keep working anyway. If they’re learning the right techniques, and practicing diligently, it will happen. As my favorite quote from Remember the Titans says, “It’s like Novocain. Give it time, it always works.”

A little Ryan Gosling dancing to make your day.

Those who can hang in there when the going gets tough will see the rewards. Those who can’t will find it difficult to achieve their dreams.

Just like in life.

So how long will it take? As long as it takes.

There are things you can do to shorten the process, but it’s only shortening your process, because we’re all different.

Keep an eye on the prize, understand it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and all those other sports clichés. If you keep at it you will eventually reach the chewy center.

Oh, and if you have a topic you’d like me to address, feel free to suggest it in the comments below. I’m always looking for new ideas that will resonate with your interests and concerns.

When Timing Pitches, Focus on the Future

One of the things that makes hitting so difficult is you not only have to develop great swing mechanics; you also have to time them to the speed, direction, and movement of the pitch.

Since there are no style points in softball (i.e., no judges holding up cards reading 9.5 for a beautiful swing) the only thing that matters is how well you hit the pitch. Yes, having great mechanics contributes to being able to hit the pitch well, but they have to be timed properly to get the best effect.

And that’s something many hitters struggle with. One of the big reasons, at least in my experience, has nothing to do with athleticism or ability.

Instead, it’s a fear of looking bad, or of being yelled at otherwise chastised for swinging at a bad pitch. So, those hitters will wait too long to ensure the pitch is good, putting themselves behind and thus letting the ball get too deep on them before they initiate their swings.

Well that was a bad idea.

How do you overcome that fear? One way is to teach hitters to think “yes-yes-yes-no.”

In other words, they’re always swinging until they actually see it’s a bad pitch instead of waiting to swing until they see it’s a good pitch.

Still, if they’re really worried about looking bad they may still hesitate. So here’s another way to explain it to them.

Ask them whether they can affect things in the past, present, or future. Unless they’ve skipped every science class ever they will likely tell you the present and future.

Then take a ball and hold it either even with their bodies or a little behind. Explain to them that this ball is in the past.

Therefore swinging at it is pointless because they can’t change the outcome. It’s by them and it’s done.

Then hold the ball at the proper contact point and tell them this pitch is in the present and they can do a lot with it. Then hold it further in front and say it’s in the future.

Now, if they start swinging at the future ball (too early) can they still make an adjustment and get on-time? It may not be easy depending on HOW early they are, but it is possible, especially if you have a ell-sequenced swing.

So with that in mind, is it better to be a little too early or a little too late? Too early, of course, because you can still change it. Once you’re late it’s all over – unless you happen to have a time machine handy, in which case quit playing softball and go back in time to buy some Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon stock.

That’s a marvelous idea!

It’s all about keeping it simple. Hitters may not understand some of the complexities of proper timing, but pretty much everyone can relate to the idea of past-present-future.

Get them focused on affecting the present and future and they’ll spend a lot less time regretting their decisions in the past.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

10U Coaches: You Have One Job – Player Development

Last night I was speaking with one of my 10U pitching students during her lesson. I knew from GameChanger (and a text with her mom) that she had pitched two innings the previous weekend, facing six batters and striking them all out. Not a bad performance overall.

I asked what pitches she threw. She said one drop and the rest fastballs. “What about your changeup?” I asked.

“My coach doesn’t want me to throw changeups,” she replied. “He says he only wants strikes.”

My blood immediately started to boil as I’m sure you can imagine. Statements like that, in my opinion, demonstrate world-class ignorance, both about pitching generally and the mission of a 10U coach.

For those who don’t quite get this, I will type it slowly. As a 10U coach your primary job is not to rack up a great win-loss record.

YOUR JOB IS TO DEVELOP YOUR PLAYERS. Period, hard stop.

If that means you give up a few walks, or a few runs, while your pitchers gain experience throwing more than a basic fastball, so be it. In the long term you will benefit, because as hitters get older pitchers can’t just blow the ball by them anymore and need to have other pitches available to them if they’re going to get outs.

If that means you have a few more strikeouts at the plate because your hitters are swinging the bat instead of just standing there waiting for walks, so be it. Instructing your players to wait for walks so you can score more runs benefits no one.

Because if they don’t learn to be aggressive and go after pitches when they’re young they’re very likely to stand there and watch strike after strike go by when the pitching gets better. And then where are you?

If that means you don’t throw out as many runners stealing bases because you’re having your catchers throw before the fielder reaches the base, or you’re teaching your infielders to cover the base instead of having your outfielders do it, so be it. Down the road you won’t be able to play your outfield that close to the infield so somebody better know how to get over there. And get over there on time to get a runner out.

The same goes for trying to get the lead runner on defense instead of making the “safe” play to first – or worse just trying to rush the ball back to the pitcher. If a few more runners advance and eventually right now, so be it.

As your players get older and stronger and presumably more capable they will be able to make those plays – and will have the confidence to attempt them.

I get it. We all like to win. As they say in Bull Durham, winning is more fun than losing.

But again, at 10U (and even at 12U or 14U to a large extent) your focus should be on developing your players and teaching them to love the game rather than massaging your own ego. You should be playing teams of comparable quality and should be teaching your players to play the game the right way.

You shouldn’t hold them back or prevent them from trying new things they’ve been working on. Instead you should be encouraging them to grow, and giving them the opportunity to gain higher-level experience rather than simply playing it safe.

Does that mean go crazy with it? Of course not.

If a pitcher tries a particular pitch and doesn’t have it that day then yes, stop throwing it that day. But don’t not throw it at all because it might not work.

If a girl has been working at pitching and wants an opportunity to pitch in a game put her in. She may just surprise you.

But even if she struggles she will either learn what to work on to get better or she’ll decide it’s not for her. Which is a win either way.

If your hitters are swinging at balls over their heads or balls in the dirt, call them together and give them a narrower range to go after. But don’t take the bats out of their hands completely, just in case that wild pitcher manages to throw a few strikes.

So how do you strike that balance? Here’s an approach for that pitcher who wants to try a new pitch.

Pick a safe count like 1-1 and have her throw it. Even if she chucks it over the backstop the count is only 2-1. And since she’s already demonstrated an ability to strike out the side anyway you know she’ll come back.

But what if she throws it for a strike (which in this case we all know she probably will)? Now the count is 1-2 and she’s gained more experience throwing it in a game.

That experience will come in handy down the road when she faces a team that can hit her heat and thus needs to knock them off-balance. Hitting is about timing, and pitching is about upsetting that timing. Plain and simple.

If that isn’t enough incentive, here’s something to consider. Coaches who hold back players who are driven enough to want to throw changeups or swing the bat or make advanced fielding plays don’t keep those players for very long.

Instead, those players seek out teams where they can grow and learn and be encouraged to expand their skillset instead of being put into a tight little box so their coaches can win more meaningless games. And in the big picture, ALL 10U games are meaningless.

Every coach and every program likes to proclaim that they are “in it for the girls.” But talk is cheap.

If you’re really in it for the girls, give them the space to grow and improve – even if it costs you a few wins today. Your players, and your team, will be much better off in the long run.

Hitting and Timing: Going From Sunday Morning to Monday Morning

One of the greatest challenges fastpitch hitters face is understanding how to time the various stages of their swings.

Some will tend to rush the entire swing, especially if they are concerned about the pitcher’s speed. As a result, they never build a rhythm and while they may make contact it won’t be good, solid contact.

Some will be lethargic throughout. Those hitters are never going to get to the ball on time and will be easily overpowered even by mediocre pitchers.

And some with just be unmade beds, with no rhyme or reason to what they’re doing at all. It hurts just to watch them.

A strikeout waiting to happen.

Now, you can talk all you want about proper timing and having proprioception (body awareness for those about to do a Google search) but often that conversation goes has little meaning to players. These habits are often ingrained, so you need to find a way to explain what’s needed in a way hitters can understand.

That’s where the concept of Sunday morning v. Monday morning comes in. It’s an analogy pretty much anyone I’ve worked with on hitting will recognize.

The reason I use it a lot is that it works. It gives hitters a frame of reference for how their bodies should move that they can understand.

I will start by asking them what Sunday morning is like, at least on a non-tournament morning. The answer I usually get is slow and easy, relaxed, laid back.

Many (most?) people like to sleep in a little later than usual on Sunday mornings – even the church goers. They take their time getting ready and getting out into the day.

Then I ask them what Monday morning is like. The words they use to describe it are things like rushed, frantic, panicked, or hurried.

They have to get up, get cleaned up and dressed, find their homework, pack a lunch or get lunch money, get to the bus or the car pool or start riding their bikes or walking. Most people on Monday morning don’t leave enough time for these activities so it’s always a race to get them done.

And that’s how the swing goes.

The phase from load to toe touch is Sunday morning. It’s relaxed, slow and easy.

You want to get your weight/center of gravity moving forward and your body prepared to swing, but it’s not the actual swing itself. The key point here is moving in a way that your front foot gets down on time.

Once the heel drops it’s Monday morning. The jets turn on and everything is high-energy. Not out of control, but fast and powerful nonetheless.

Following this Sunday morning/Monday morning process enables hitters to get to where they need to be on time so they can deliver the bat with maximum power, efficiency, and control.

Of course, as a coach you can’t always use the same analogy for everyone. For example, in some households it’s chaos all the time so the players might not see a difference between Sunday and Monday morning.

In that case, you can tell them that the prep phase is like smooth jazz – cool, laid back, relaxed – and the actual swing phase is heavy metal. Even if they are a fan of neither they will get what you’re saying.

Yeah, baby. Dig that sound.

Or you can tell them the prep phase is like the start of the Indy 500 where the pace car leads the way, and the swing phase is like the rest, where the drivers dart in and out like maniacs at 200 mph. Whatever it takes.

The point is you need to find some way of helping them understand what should be slow, and how it should feel, as well as what should happen when it’s time to put the hammer down.

Ge them to understand that and you’ll find your hitters are making better, more consistent contact with every at bat. Almost regardless of the quality of the pitching.

So how do you explain this concept to your hitters? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Bed photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Sax player photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Coaches and Parents: Getting Past Self-Imposed Obstacles

Years ago there was a book titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It took the premise that a lot of the world’s problems could be solved if we went back to the basic values most of us were taught as children.

That’s a great idea from a basic, being a good human being standpoint. But it’s not such a good philosophy for helping our players or daughter learn the skills required to play fastpitch softball at a high level.

The key issue there is that our level of knowledge of the optimal way to execute various skills is constantly expanding and evolving. New research, often driven by new technologies such as high speed video (your basic mobile phone or tablet), tools that measure ball spin rates and direction (Rapsodo, Diamond Kinetics), and wearable sensors that measure parameters such as the kinetic sequence and angular velocities of various limbs (4D Motion), help us look deeper under the hood to gain a greater understanding of the biomechanics of movement, i.e., how various body part interact with one another.

In other words, there is a wealth of hard data available that can help us lift the veil of guessing to truly understand which ways of executing skills will produce the best results.

You would think this news would create a Renaissance of enlightenment that would have coaches and parents scurrying to absorb all they can as quickly as they can and incorporate it into the way they coach their players/daughters. But you would be wrong.

You see, the human mind is a funny thing. It doesn’t like to be “wrong,” so it sets up defense mechanisms to protect itself against that possibility.

Of course, overcoming these self-imposed limitations first requires recognizing that they exist. Today’s post discusses a few of the most common.

Understand that these issues are often not mutually exclusive. In fact, many of them feed into each other to help create an even stronger barrier to keep new information out. But with a little self-examination you can figure out whether you are falling victim to them so you can put in the work to get past them and open your mind to all the great information that’s out there.

Oh, and this doesn’t apply only to softball by the way. It can be applied to other areas of your life as well since we all find it easy to fall into these traps.

Commitment Bias

This is probably one of the most common issues coaches and parents encounter when faced with information, or even hard evidence, that contradicts what they currently believe to be true.

The basic idea of commitment bias is that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort, and probably invested a significant amount of money, in acquiring the knowledge you have now. (In financial terms it’s called a “sunk cost.”)

To make a change, you would not only have to throw away all or at least some of what you’ve spent your time and treasure acquiring, you would have to <gasp!> admit that you were “wrong” about it.

Never!

Or at least that’s how our minds think.

We see this a lot when coaches fall back on the “I’ve been teaching it this way for 20 years and been successful…” argument.

There is an element of truth in that. They have been teaching it that way for 20 years, and they have had players who have been successful during that time.

But there’s a pretty good chance that those players were successful in spite of what they were taught rather than because of it. The world is full of pitchers who were taught “hello elbow” mechanics but, if you watch high-speed video of them actually pitching, don’t pitch that way at all.

Parents can get caught in this trap as well. They spent good money for their daughter to go to a skills clinic, or a private coach, or they bought a bunch of books and videos so they could teach their daughter themselves.

Now they’re confronted with evidence-based information that contradicts those investments. Can they really bring themselves to set all that aside and have their daughters start over? That can be a tough call for some people, especially those who like to believe they’re always right.

But it’s a necessary step. As pitching guru Rick Pauly said on a recent “Transcending Sports” podcast with hitting expert Rob Crews, “If you’re not willing to learn new things you should probably get out of coaching.”

That doesn’t mean believe every new thing you see or hear, especially on the Internet. But be open to it, and if it makes sense be willing to change.

Confirmation Bias

This one is often the next step after commitment bias kicks in.

You heard something that contradicts your world view so you go out seeking more information about the topic. But rather than performing objective research, you instead go out seeking points of view that will back up (confirm) your current position.

This is kind of like a person being told they have a horrible disease and deciding to get a second opinion. But they keep on seeing doctors until they find one that tells them what they want to hear.

Doesn’t matter if it’s 100-1 in favor of the original diagnosis. They’re going with the one.

The Internet makes this issue particularly dangerous, because whatever is posted there is posted forever. Or as they say in The Social Network, “the Internet is written in ink.” Gotta love Aaron Sorkin.

Head coach reacts to assistant looking up information that contradicts his teachings.

The problem with that is even those sincerely trying to perform unbiased research can end up watching a grainy video from 1998 that doesn’t take into account the progress that’s been made in understanding how to optimize softball skills over the last 20+ years. Instead, since it reinforces their beliefs they stop right there and never check out newer, better information.

Of course, those who hold their beliefs tight to their chests will purposely seek out information that supports their views and ignore whatever does not. At that point the loop is closed and no new information will be admitted. Kind of like the way a dungeon blocks out all the sunlight.

When you hear something new, the better approach is to seek out as much information about it and see if it makes sense. Look at the evidence behind it. See if it lines up with what the best players in the world are doing.

And you can console yourself with the fact that this new information may also be replaced someday by even better data – which you’ll also be able to take advantage of since your mind is open.

By the way, the good news is changing today doesn’t invalidate what you did before. I’ve changed the way I teach a lot as I’ve learned more and gained more experience. But none of my former players have had to give back a single hit or strikeout or great play in the field as a result. It’s all good.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

This trap is essentially a phenomenon where people with limited knowledge or expertise on a subject overestimate their knowledge or competence on that subject versus others in their field.

Take a recently graduated player who is making the transition to coaching. She hasn’t put in a lot of study on the biomechanics of a particular skill, but instead assumes because she played she knows how to teach it. So she goes back and repeats what she was taught without looking to see if that was actually the way she hit, pitched, threw, etc.

If anyone questions her, or points to a different set of information, she immediately falls back on “I was a college pitcher so I know what I’m doing.”

That may or may not be true. I know several excellent pitching coaches who were college pitchers who can tell you today they didn’t know what they were doing, and in fact had no real clue how to teach pitching. Fortunately, each of them put in the work to learn all they could (and still do), and are now some of the biggest evangelists for the need for others to do the same.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can also be seen in parents who played softball (or baseball) in high school or college and assume that qualifies them to teach various softball skills. Spoiler alert:

Some of what you know may transfer. But if you really want to help your daughter, it’s worth looking into the latest thinking and learning the techniques that are currently being taught rather than passing along ancient knowledge.

Think of it this way: Would you really like to go back to using the same mobile phone you used 10 or 15 or 20 years ago? Doubtful. So why rely on old information when so much progress has been made since then.

Then, like the “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years” people, there are those who believe that whatever success they’ve achieved on the local level validates that they’re right, and therefore there is no need to look further. They have a false sense of their own expertise.

These folks can learn a lesson from former UCLA head coach and NFCA Hall of Famer Sue Enquist. A few years ago she was doing a presentation on hitting at a coaches clinic.

During her presentation one of the attendees raised his hand and said, “But Coach Enquist, I have your hitting videos and they don’t talk about this at all. In fact, they say the opposite.”

Coach Enquist turned to the man and said, “Throw those videos away. They’re five years old. I’ve learned a lot about hitting since then.”

If a legend like Sue Enquist is humble enough to throw away what she “knew” when she finds new, better, more effective information, shouldn’t the rest of us be as well?

Wrapping Up

It’s easy to fall into these and other traps. It doesn’t make us bad – it just makes us human.

Hopefully by being aware of them, and the issues they can cause, you can avoid them to ensure you’re bringing the best possible information to your players and/or daughters to help them become the players they’re meant to be. And isn’t that what coaching is all about?

Photo by Jan van der Wolf on Pexels.com

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