Author Archives: Ken Krause

My Favorite Time of the Year

We are now in the process of entering my favorite time of the year. Not because the leaves are turning, pumpkin spice-everything is available and hoodies and sweaters can once again hide the fact that I didn’t achieve any of my summer weight loss goals.

Instead it’s because this is the time of year when fastpitch softball players are free to focus on making the major structural changes that will set them up for future success.

During most of the year, at least with the current obsession with playing more games more of the time, you have to be careful about making fundamental changes – at least with players who are already experiencing success. If you try to change the way a pitcher pitches, or a hitter hits, or a fielder throws, etc. there is always the risk that you might make the player worse before you make her better.

That is true even if the change is for the player’s long-term good. Let’s take a pitcher, for example.

She is doing well, racking up a K an inning and doing a good job of getting hitters out. She doesn’t give up many runs or walks, and overall is considered successful.

At the same time, however, you notice that her drive mechanics are weak. If she had a better push-off she’d be more stable when she lands, with better posture, giving her better control while enabling her to throw harder. All good things.

But you also realize that if you spend your time working on drive mechanics, two things will happen. First is she will probably lose a little speed and accuracy because now she has to think about pitching rather than just doing it, and there’s a good chance it will throw off the timing of the rest of her pitch because she’s not used to it. In other words, you will likely make her worse before you make her better.

Second is while you’re working on drive mechanics you’re not looking at the pitches (change-up, drop, rise, etc.) that enable her to mix things up and keep hitters off-balance. If anything is a little off on those pitches you won’t have the opportunity to tweak them and get them back on track – which means she could have some unusual trouble on game day.

That’s why I love this time of the year. With no pressure to perform tomorrow, or this weekend, you have the opportunity to flip the risk/reward ratio.

In-season, with a player who is already performing well, the risk of taking her off-track is significant while the reward is off in the distance since the types of changes I am talking about don’t happen overnight for the most part.

At this time of the year, however, the risk is pretty much non-existent while the potential for a long-term reward is huge.

Of course, the exception to all of the above is the player who is not performing too well to begin with. If you have a hitter who is leading the team in striking out, and whose “best” contacts don’t get out of the infield, there is really no risk in making big changes.

She really can’t get any worse. But if you can turn that around and help her start making more consistent, hard contact and getting on base, the reward is huge – and often paid in smiles and confidence that will serve her well in the future.

For everyone else, however, making changes in-season (and make no mistake, fall ball is now considered by most as a legitimate season instead of an add-on to the summer) must be done thoughtfully. In our instant gratification world, taking a player who is performing well and degrading that performance temporarily, even if it’s for her long-term good, will be a tough sell for everyone.

Which brings us back to now. The next few weeks are an opportune time to get started on the types of major changes that will pay off HUGE next spring.

So grab a pumpkin spice latte, take a few pictures of the fall colors, and get to work. Your future self will be happy you put in the effort now.

Fall leaves Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Palm Eye” Helps Hand Orientation for the Curve

It seems like these days for me the “eyes” have it. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Over the past few weeks I have talked about the use of the shoulder eye and the hip eye for hitting. But now I have a new one – this time for pitchers.

Unfortunately, given the nature of pitching my little stickers don’t work so well, I had to resort to a hand-drawn eye using a Sharpie. But it still got the point across. Here’s the story behind it.

You don’t often see this quality of art outside a kindergarten classroom.

Makayla is working on developing a curve ball, but was having trouble getting the proper spin orientation. (For those who don’t know, the spin axis should be on top, with the seams revolving around the ball horizontally, like a globe.)

Or, I could just use a picture.

Both the spin she was getting and the video I shot showed the palm of her hand was pointed out toward third base going into release rather than being cupped under the ball and pointing to the sky. She would try to get her hand into the proper position right before release but by then it was too late, and the ball would either have a bullet spin or the spin axis would be severely tilted. Either way, not good.

So, I brought out my trusty Sharpie, drew the eye on her hand, and told her to make sure as she approached release that the eye was pointed to the sky.

This is going to sound like I am making it up for the sake of the story, but I swear the very next pitch not only had the proper spin direction but a much faster, tighter rotation that it had previously. She proceeded to throw several in a row that were in the right range before I had to remind her again to keep the eye pointed toward the sky.

The smile on her face was beaming as she got good spin. I then asked her if the palm eye had helped and she said yes, absolutely. She didn’t know why (and neither did I), but that simple cue registered in her brain and helped her get into the position she needed to get the right spin.

The curve is still a work in progress for Makayla, but it took a giant leap forward that evening. So if you have a pitcher struggling to her hand under the ball, give your artistic skills a try and draw a palm eye. It just may work for her too.

Young Coaches: Asking Questions Is A Good Thing

One of the things I have been most fortunate in throughout my coaching career has been exposure to other knowledgeable, successful coaches. They are the kind of people who have accomplished enough that you’d be tempted to think they have all the answers.

Yet if there is one core characteristic they all share it’s that they are always hungry to learn more. No matter what success they may have achieved, or helped the players they work with achieve, they’re always on the hunt for more information.

They’ll talk to anyone, or read any article or watch any video or attend any lecture if they think it might help them become a better coach. If they find a better way to do something than what they’ve been teaching, they will change how they teach.

There is a very important lesson here for young coaches – especially those who are still in college or who have just graduated. All too often, I see and here about young coaches basically repeating whatever they have been told as players rather than doing the heavy lifting to learn what the latest state of the game is.

I get it. These coaches were successful as players, so why wouldn’t what they did work for those who are coming up?

Except that a lot of times these players succeeded in spite of what they were taught. If you look at videos of them as players, they didn’t do anything like what they are now repeating. Instead, their bodies naturally found the most efficient way to throw, hit, pitch, etc. a ball.

So why wouldn’t they want to question what they were taught to see if there is a better way?

That’s a question I’ve always wondered. But I actually heard a good answer from Anna Miller Nickel, an excellent pitching coach and former D1 and pro pitcher herself. (For more from Anna, you can follow her on Instagram at ElevatePitching.)

“In college, you’re coming into a new programs and trying to learn the ropes,” Anna said. “You are working on fitting into the program and aren’t really questioning what your coaches are instructing you to do.

“Each coach has a certain philosophy and for a team to succeed, everyone needs to buy in. After your career is over, you realize how much you still have to learn and may not know where to start. The amount I’ve learned after I stopped playing makes me wish I could go back and have asked better questions.”

That is fascinating to me. I would think coaches would want to encourage players to ask questions, because if you’re asking questions you’re engaged.

But that’s not always the case. Often coaches say and players do as a matter of efficiency, so there really isn’t a mindset of wondering why they’re being told to do things a certain way, or whether what they’ve always been told is the best way to do things.

This is an important mentality for you young coaches to break. The reality is questioning what you were taught, and even comparing it closely to what you actually do, is critical if you are going to improve as a coach do right by your players.

That’s what Anna told me she did. When she got out of school and started coaching, she started with the basics as they were taught to her when she was young.

But the more she thought about it, and looked into it, the more they didn’t make sense. She sought out help, did the heavy lifting to learn, and changed many of the things she was doing.

You young coaches can do the same. Don’t take it for granted that what you’ve been told in the past is correct, or even good mechanics.

Take what you’ve been told and compare it to what they best players in the world at a given position do. If the two don’t line up, there is probably a better way to do things than what you were taught.

Also, don’t be afraid to get involved in different groups and to seek out information from coaches who are respected for their knowledge of the game or various aspects of it. I have found that most good coaches are more than happy to share what they know because they didn’t get to that point by themselves either.

Find a mentor or mentors with whom you feel comfortable asking their advice or bouncing ideas off of. I’m certainly willing to help anyone who is interested, and I know there are many coaches out there who feel the same.

The sooner you get past the “don’t ask questions” or “just repeat what I was told” mindset and really start putting your brain to work, the sooner you will achieve success -and the faster you will move up the ranks.

To close this one out, I will share a great parable about the need to understand why you’re doing something:

Take five monkeys, put them in a cage where there is a staircase, and at the top of the staircase hang a banana. Every time one of the monkeys starts to climb the staircase to get the banana, spray them all with icy cold water.

Pretty soon, any time the monkeys see one of their number starting to climb the staircase they will jump on him and beat him up to avoid getting sprayed with water. At that point you stop spraying them with water.

Once that’s established, remove one of the monkeys and replace him with a new one. That one doesn’t know about the water and will start to go for the banana, but the others will grab him. Pretty soon, the new monkey will also grab any monkey that tries to go up the staircase.

Continue to replace the monkeys one-by-one until none of the original monkeys are left. You will see that they will still grab and beat up any monkey that tries to climb the staircase – even though none of them have ever been sprayed with water or know why climbing the stairs is bad.

They’re not sure why they’re doing it. That’s just the way things are done around here.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Austin Wasserman High Level Throwing Clinic in Chicago Area

Good news for my readers who live in the general north suburban area of Chicago – or are willing to get there from further away. The Pro Player Hurricanes are sponsoring a High Level Throwing clinic with Austin Wasserman November 14-15 in McHenry, Illinois. It’s at the Pro-Player Consultants facility, 5112 Prime Parkway, which is a great place for a clinic. I should know, because I teach lessons there.

There are two three-hour sessions each day that break down as follows:

Saturday, November 14

  • Session 1: 10:00 am – 1 pm (10U-12U players)
  • Session 2: 2:00 – 5:00 pm (13U-18U players

Sunday, November 15

  • Session 1: 12:00 – 3:00 pm (10U-12U player)
  • Session 2: 3:00 – 6:00 pm (13U-18U players)

The cost for a session is $150 per player. This is a rare opportunity to learn how to throw more powerfully – and safer – from one of the leading experts in the world.

Full information is available on the flyer (click the download button. If you want to up your daughter’s game with the overhand throw, be sure to get signed up by going to https://www.wassermanstrengthfl.com/high-level-throwing-clinic-mchenry-il/

Social Distancing Adds New Complications to Fastpitch Pitching

Learn to see in video, not photo

One of the keys to success in pitching in fastpitch softball or baseball is figuring out the umpire’s strike zone. While the rulebook offers certain parameters that should be universal (armpits to top of the knees, any part of the ball crosses any part of the plate, etc.) we all know even under the best of conditions it doesn’t always work out that way.

One of the keys to success in pitching in fastpitch softball or baseball is figuring out the umpire’s strike zone. While the rulebook offers certain parameters that should be universal (armpits to top of the knees, any part of the ball crosses any part of the plate, etc.) we all know even under the best of conditions it doesn’t always work out that way.

Many a pitcher (and a pitcher’s parent) has complained about umpires having a strike zone the size of a shoebox. And that shoebox is rarely in an area that contributes to pitchers keeping their ERAs low.

Shoes not included.

Instead, it’s far more likely to have the zero point on its X and Y axes about belt high, in the center of the plate. You know, that area that pitchers are taught they should see a red circle with a line through it.

You know, this one.

Of course, these are anything but ordinary times. Here in the fall of 2020, in the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years and with no relief in sight, teams, tournament directors and sanctioning bodies have had to take extraordinary steps to get games in. One of those is to place umpires behind the pitcher instead of behind the catcher in order to maintain social distancing.

It sounds good in theory, I’m sure. Many rec leagues using volunteer parents for umpires have had said Blues stand behind the pitcher. Sure beats spending money on gear.

But while it does allow games to be played, the practical realities have created a whole new issue when it comes to balls and strikes.

When the umpire is behind the plate, he/she is very close to that plate and thus has a pretty good view of where the ball crosses it. Not saying they always get it right, but they’re at least in a position to do so.

When they are behind the pitcher it’s an entirely different view. Especially in the older divisions where the pitchers throw harder and their balls presumably move more.

For one thing, the ball is moving away from the umpire instead of toward him/her. That alone offers a very different perception.

But the real key is that by the time the ball gets to the plate, exactly where it crosses on the plate and the hitter is much more difficult to determine. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m sure the effects of parallax on vision has something to do with the perception.

Because it is more difficult to distinguish precisely, what many umpires end up doing is relying more on where the ball finishes in the catcher’s glove than where it actually crosses the plate. Not that they do it on purpose, but from that distance, at that speed, there just isn’t a whole lot of other frames of reference.

If an umpire isn’t sure, he/she will make a decision based on the most obvious facts at hand. And the most obvious is where the glove ends up.

This can be frustrating for pitchers – especially those who rely more on movement than raw power to get outs. They’re probably going to see their strikeouts go down and their ERAs go up as they are forced to ensure more of the ball crosses the plate so the catcher’s glove is close to the strike zone.

There’s not a whole lot we can do about it right now. As umpires gain more experience from that view I’m sure the best of them will make some adjustments and call more pitches that end up off the plate in the catcher’s glove. Most will likely open their strike zones a bit, especially if they realize what they’re seeing from in front of the plate isn’t the same thing they’d see from behind it.

Until that time, however, pitchers, coaches and parents will need to dial down their expectations in these situations. It’s simply a fact of life that hopefully will go away sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, my top suggestion is for coaches to work with their catchers to ensure their framing, especially side-to-side, is top-notch. Catching the outside of the ball and turning it in with a wrist turn instead of an arm pull may help bring a bit more balance to the balls-and-strikes count.

Pitchers will have to work on the placement of their pitches as well, at least as they start. This is a good time to work on tunneling – the technique where all pitches start out on the same path (like they’re going through a tunnel) and then break in different directions.

The closer the tunnel can start to the middle while leaving the pitches effective, the more likely they are to be called strikes if the hitter doesn’t swing.

On the other side of things, it’s more important than ever for hitters to learn where the umpire’s strike zone is and how he/she is calling certain pitches. If it’s based on where the catcher’s glove ends up, stand at the back of the box, which makes pitches that may have missed by a little at the plate seem like they missed by much more when they’re caught by the catcher.

If the umpire isn’t calling the edges, you may want to take a few more pitches than you would ordinarily. Just be prepared to swing if a fat one comes rushing in. On the other hand, if the umpire has widened up the zone, you’d best be prepared to swing at pitches you might ordinarily let go.

Things aren’t exactly ideal right now, but at least you’re playing ball. At least in most parts of the country.

Softball has always been a game that will break your heart. This is just one more hammer in the toolbox.

Accept it for what it is and develop a strategy to deal with it – at least until the Blues are able to get back to their natural habitat. You’ll find the game is a lot more enjoyable that way.

Shoes photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Today’s Goals Are Tomorrow’s Disappointments

Setting goals is an important part of any sort of development, athletic or otherwise. Without them, it’s easy to meander your way through life. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice during her adventures in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

One phenomenon that isn’t often spoken of, however, is what happens to us mentally after a goal has been met. It’s amazing how it can turn around.

I’ve seen this particularly after I started setting up a Pocket Radar Smart Coach for virtually every pitching lesson. Each pitch thrown is captured, and the result is displayed on a Smart Display unit in bright, red numbers.

I call it my “accountability meter” because it shows immediately if a pitcher is giving anything less than her best effort. A sudden dropoff of 6 mph is a very obvious indication that a pitcher was slacking off on that particular pitch.

Here’s the scenario I’m addressing. Let’s say a young pitcher is working hard trying to move from throwing 46 mph to 50 mph. She’s been practicing hard, working on whatever was assigned to her, and slowly her speed starts creeping up.

She gets up as high as 49 once, but then falls back a bit again. She knows she can do it.

Then the stars align and voila! The display reads 50. Then it does it again. And again.

There are big smiles and a whoop or two of triumph! Goal met! Pictures are taken and high fives (real or virtual) are exchanged.

A few weeks later, the pitcher continues her speed climb and achieves 52. Once again, celebrations all around and she starts looking toward 60 mph.

The next lesson she throws a bunch of 50s, but can’t quite seem to get over that mark. What happens now?

Is there still the elation she had just a few weeks before? Nope. Now it’s nothing but sadness.

That 50 mph speed that once seemed like a noble, worthy goal is now nothing but a frustrating disappointment.

That would be the case for Ajai in the photo at the top. She was all smiles when we took this picture a couple of months ago. But if that was her top speed today she would be anything but happy.

But that’s ok, because it’s all part of the journey. We always want to be building our skills; goals are the blocks we use to do it.

But once they have been met, they are really of no more use to us. Instead, they need to be replaced with bigger, better goals. That’s what drives any competitor to achieve more.

So yes, today’s goals will quickly become tomorrow’s disappointments. But that’s okay.

Remember how far you’ve come, but always keep in mind there is more to go. Stay hungry for new achievements and you just might amaze yourself.

Big Issues Don’t Always Require Big Solutions

Toward the end of the summer 2020 season (if you can call that a season), one of my pitching students, a terrific lefty named Sammie, developed some control trouble. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she started throwing everything off the plate to her throwing hand side.

We got together and we worked on it. I thought she might be going across her body instead of straight so we set up a couple of giant cones to try to steer her back down the straight and narrow as it were.

It helped a little, but not enough. She still struggled in her next game, and in her practice sessions.

This was definitely a problem that needed to be corrected so I racked my brain on what the probable root cause might have been. As it turned out, however, I didn’t need to think so hard.

I simply needed to remember my own advice, given about a year ago, regarding Occam’s Razor: If there is a simple solution and a complex one, the simple solution is usually the best.

In this case, I only needed to remember the opening song from “Les Miserables” – look down.

When I looked down at Sammie’s feet on the pitching rubber I knew exactly what the problem was. She was like this:

Notice her left foot way to the left. Ignore the dirty mat and rough ground around her.

We have been working on her sliding her foot over the center of her body and I thought she had that down. But somewhere along the way she stopped centering, and instead would only slide her foot slightly. As a result, everything was going down the left side, often off the plate.

So we worked once again on the proper slide across, placing her left foot more in this position before driving off:

Ah, that’s better! How long do you think those shoes will stay that white in those conditions?

Once she got her foot more in this position all her problems with being off the plate went away, as if by magic. Control was regained and she once again began dominating hitters.

So there’s the lesson for today. Sometimes a pitcher’s (or any athlete’s for that matter) issues aren’t being driven by some horrible breakdown in mechanics.

As we coaches work to acquire knowledge and hone our craft, we can get caught up in over-thinking the issues and the solutions. This is a good reminder that often a simple adjustment on a pitcher who has been doing well can get her right back on track.

William of Ockham may have been born in 1287. But he would have made a heck of a pitching coach.

“Hip Eye” Helps Encourage Driving the Back Side When Hitting

A few weeks ago I wrote about a cue I’d developed called “shoulder eye.” It’s worth reading the full post, but if you’re pressed for time the core concept is placing an eye sticker on the shoulder, then making sure the shoulder comes forward to see the ball before it tilts in.

Then last week I ran into another issue where the eye stickers came in handy.

In this case it was a fairly new student who was having some challenges getting the hang of driving her back hip around the front side to initiate her swing. She’d done fine off the tee, but when we moved to front toss she just couldn’t help but lead with her hands as she has since she started playing.

It’s way tiny, but it’s the white dot on her back hip.

So… off to my bag of tricks I went, and I came back with an eye sticker. I told her to place it on her back (in this case right) hip. (If you look closely at the top or the full-length photo you can see it.)

I then told her that in order to hit the ball, she had to make sure her “hip eye” came around to get a good look at the ball before starting her hands.

As with shoulder eye I’m not 100% of why this works. But I’m happy to report that it does.

My guess is that placing the eye on the hip (or shoulder) creates more of a, pardon the pun, visual for the hitter. Perhaps “bring your hip around” is too vague, whereas point this eye toward the ball first is more specific.

Or it could just be goofy enough to break well-established, unconscious thought patterns to enable new information to take over.

In any case, it seems to work. I’ve used it a couple of times since that first one and the difference was immediate.

The hitter wasn’t necessarily perfect – I like a lot of drive out of the back side. But it definitely set her down the right path.

So if you have a hitter who is having trouble latching onto the proper sequences of hips-shoulders-bat, or who isn’t using her hips at all, get some eyeball stickers and have her place it on her back hip. It might be just what she needs to start hitting with authority.

In Recruiting, Everything Is A Test

In the 2003 movie “The Recruit,” Al Pacino as CIA recruiter and trainer Walter Burke tells his new potential spies that at The Farm (the CIA’s legendary training ground) to believe none of what they see or hear because “everything is a test.” They quickly find out those are words they need to heed, which is what makes it a movie worth a watch.

Burke’s words that “everything is a test” are worth keeping in mind for softball recruiting as well. While you may not have the extreme experience of being thrown into the back of a van while being out with one of your teammates and being tortured until you break, it’s important to understand that everything you do on and off the field will be carefully observed and cataloged by college coaches looking for their future players.

One of the classic examples, of course, is how you speak to your parents. It doesn’t matter if they’re being annoying, or if you’re just upset because you made an error while the coach was watching.

If you snap at your parents while they’re talking to you and a coach sees it, you can bet that you will move down if not off the recruiting the list of the better teams. They don’t need to put up with your issues when they know they can find a player of comparable skills who will be much easier to deal with.

Oh, that also goes for how you speak to and listen to your team’s coaches. If you appear to be disrespectful or argumentative there, they’ll figure that’s how you’ll be with them as well. No thanks.

Speaking of errors, that’s another thing they look at. Not whether you made an error – college coaches understand physical errors happen – but how you handle it.

Do you get down on yourself? Do you carry the error on the field into your next at bat, or a strikeout or pop out into your pitching? If so, you’re probably not what they’re looking for.

Instead, they want and need players who can handle adversity, because they know there is plenty of it in fastpitch softball. Bad things are going to happen to everyone. But it’s the ones who can get past it quickly that will draw their attention.

It’s not just at games either. Sometimes coaches will come up to you at camp and offer a suggestion regarding your mechanics or a critique about something you did.

They may do it to help you overcome a perceived flaw. But they may also be doing it to see how you react. Will you accept the comment gracefully, or will you give the coach a “look” that says “leave me alone?”

College coaches want to know the players they recruit are, well, coachable. If they perceive you’re not, you’re probably going to get a hard pass. Everything is a test.

Another characteristic they look for is confidence. If a coach engages you in a conversation you’d best be able to hold up your end.

If you’re looking down, or mumbling your responses, or especially if you look to mom or dad before answering a question such as “Why are you interested in (our school)?” it tells them you may not have what it takes to hold up under the pressure of college softball.

That doesn’t mean you should be arrogant. But you should be able to look people in authority in the eye and give them straight, honest answers. It says you’re ready to go out on your own and do what needs to be done.

If you can’t currently do that, start practicing that skill along with your fielding, hitting, throwing, etc. It’s more important than you may realize.

At a tournament, coaches who are interested in you will also look at other things about you. Are you eating healthy foods, or is it all junk food all the time? That says something about how you take care of yourself.

How do you interact with teammates? Do you fit in with them or do you spend most of your time by yourself? When you do speak with them are you positive or negative? A good teammate or a prima donna?

You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but they do want to see you get along well with your peers. Or at least sufficiently well. College softball seasons can be long, with a lot of time spent together in close quarters. If you’re going to be a detriment to the team dynamic they’ll probably figure it’s best if you take your skills (and attitude) somewhere else.

Another thing many players miss is the quality of the materials they send to coaches. Not just whether their skills videos are slick, but whether there are typos in the cover letter or you have the wrong school or coach’s name on it.

These coaches aren’t stupid. They know you’re using the same basic letter and doing search-and-replace.

But they are looking at your attention to detail. Did you inspect the letter or email before you sent it to be sure there were no mistakes?

That’s an easy step to take. But if you can’t be bothered to pay attention to details when you’re presumably going to be on your best behavior, what evidence is there that you will pay attention to details in games? Or in your schoolwork for that matter?

A player on scholarship who can’t play due to grade issues is a giant waste of money – which they can’t afford, especially now.

College coaches are looking for more than just an individual who can hit, pitch, play a particular position, etc. Any coach worth playing for will have an overall idea of they types of players they need to win in terms of character, mental toughness, self-sacrifice, etc. and will look for those qualities as well.

Or as Herb Brooks says in “Miracle”:

The way college coaches find the right players is by speaking with them, observing them, and getting an overall sense of who they really are.

If you want to make yourself more recruitable, remember everything in the process is a test. Act accordingly.

Are We Destroying Our Kids?

unrecognizable woman showing pain spot on back in doctor office

Injuries have always been a part of participating in youth sports. Jammed fingers, sprained ankles and knees, cuts requiring stitches, even broken bones were an accepted part of the risk of playing. Things happen, after all.

Lately, though, we are seeing a continuing rise of a different type of injury. This one doesn’t happen suddenly as the result of a particular play or miscue on the field. Instead, it develops slowly, insidiously over time, but its effects can be more far-reaching than a sprain, cut or break.

I’m speaking, of course, about overuse injuries.

According to a 2014 position paper from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, roughly 46 to 54% of all youth sports injuries are from overuse. Think about that.

There was no collision. There was no tripping over a base or taking a line drive to the face. There was no stepping in a hole in the outfield or catching a cleat while sliding. The injury occurred while participating normally in the sport.

And here’s the scary part. As I said, this report came out in 2014. In the six years since, the pressure to play year-round, practice more, participate in speed and agility training and do all the other things that go with travel ball in particular has only gotten worse.

You can see it in how one season ends and another begins, as we recently went through. Tryouts keep getting earlier and earlier, with the result that players often commit to a new/different team before their finished playing with their current teams.

It’s not that they’re being bad or disloyal. It’s that they have no choice, because if they wait until the end of the current season there won’t be anywhere left to go because all the teams have been chosen.

What is even crazier is that there literally was no break for many players from one season to the next. I know of many for whom their current season ended on a weekend and their first practice for the next season was the week immediately after. Sometimes they were playing their first game with the new team before their parents had a chance to wash their uniforms from the old team.

And it wasn’t just one practice a week. Teams are doing two or three in the fall, with expectations that players will also take lessons and practice on their own as well.

That is crazy. What is so all-fired important about starting up again right away?

Why can’t players have at least a couple of weeks off to rest, recuperate physically and mentally, and just do other things that don’t require a bat, ball or glove? Why is it absolutely essential to begin playing tournaments or even friendlies immediately and through the end of August?

I think what’s often not taken into consideration, especially at the younger ages, is that many of these players’ bodies are going through some tremendous changes. Not just the puberty stuff but also just growth in general.

A growth spurt could mean a reduction in density in their bones, making them more susceptible to injuries. An imbalance in strength from one side to the other can stress muscles in a way that wouldn’t be so pronounced if they weren’t being used in the same way so often.

Every article you read about preventing overuse injuries stresses two core strategies:

  1. Incorporating significant periods of rest into the training/playing plan
  2. Playing multiple sports in order to develop the body more completely and avoid repetitive stress on the same muscles

When I read those recommendations, however, I can’t help but wonder: have the authors met any crazy softball coaches and parents?

As I mentioned, I’ve seen 12U team schedules where they are set to practice three times a week – in the fall! And these aren’t PGF A-level teams, they’re just local teams primarily playing local tournaments.

Taking up that much time makes it difficult to play other sports. Sure, the softball coach may say it’s ok to miss practices during the week to do a school sport, but is it really?

Will that player be looked down on if she’s not there working alongside her teammates each week? Probably.

Will that player fall behind her teammates in terms of skill, which ultimately hurts her chances of being on the field outside of pool play? Possibly.

So if softball is important to her, she’s just going to have to forego what the good doctors are saying and just focus on softball, thereby increasing her risk of an overuse injury.

This is not just a softball issue, by the way. It’s pretty much every youth sport. I think the neverending cycle may be more of a softball issue, but the time factor that prevents participation in more than one sport at a competitive level is fairly universal.

In the meantime, a study published in the journal Pediatrics that pulled from five previous studies showed that athletes 18 and under who specialize in one sport are twice as likely to sustain an overuse injury than those who played multiple sports.

The alarm bells are sounding. It’s like a lightning detector going off at a field but the teams deciding to ignore it and keep playing anyway. Sooner or later, someone is going to get struck.

What can you do about it? It will be tough, but we have to try to change the culture.

Leaders in the softball world – such as those in the various organizations (including the NFCA) and well-respected college coaches – need to start speaking up about the importance of reducing practice schedules for most of the year and building more downtime in – especially at the end of the season. I think that will help.

Ultimately, though, youth sports parents and coaches need to take responsibility for their children/players and take steps to put an end to the madness. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Build in a few weeks between the end of the summer season and beginning of the fall season for rest, recovery and family activities. There’s no reason for anyone to play before Labor Day.
  • Cut back on the number of fall and winter practices. Once a week with the team should be sufficient. Instead, encourage players to practice more on their own so they can fit softball activities around other sports and activities.
  • Reduce the number of summer games/tournaments. Trying to squeeze 100+ games into three months in the summer (two for high school players who play for their schools in the spring season) is insane bordering on child abuse. Take a weekend or two off, and play fewer games during the week.
  • Plan practices so you’re working on different skills in the same week. This is especially important when it comes to throwing, which is where a lot of overuse injuries occur. Work on offense one day and defense another. Or do throwing one day and baserunning another. Or maybe even play a game that helps with conditioning while working a different muscle group.

It won’t be easy, but we can do this. All it takes is a few brave souls to get it going.

Overuse injuries are running rampant through all sports, including fastpitch softball. With a little thought and care, however, we can reverse that trend – and keep our kids healthier, happier while making them better players in the process.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
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