Author Archives: Ken Krause
To Be a Great Coach, Be Curious
Since this is a fastpitch softball blog I will be writing about this in fastpitch softball terms. But the reality is it applies to any type of coach, instructor, teacher, etc. in any line of work where the goal is to help others learn new things or do things better.
There are many characteristics that combine to make a good coach. But if there is one that the truly great coaches share it is that they are curious.
I don’t mean they stick their noses into other people’s business or go rummaging through their garbage cans late at night. No, I’m referring to the kind of curiosity about why things work the way they work – and how they can work better.
You might think that would be an automatic, but you’d be wrong. It’s very easy for coaches to get stuck in their ways.
Certainly that applies to older coaches. I hear all the time, “I’ve been doing it this way for X number of years and it’s worked great for me so why should I change?”
The answer, of course, is that new research and new discoveries are being made all the time. If you had a choice of teaching something that is adequate or teaching something that is life-changing, wouldn’t you want to go with life-changing?
You’ll never know if something new is life-changing, however, if you aren’t curious enough to check it out.
But even young coaches can be stuck in their ways and un-curious. Take all the players who, when they transition to becoming coaches, don’t bother expanding their horizons and seeing what the latest thinking is in techniques or strategies.
Instead, they simply repeat what THEIR coaches told them.
A good example is pitchers who were taught “hello elbow” (HE) methods of pitching. They dutifully did all the drills (wrist snaps up-close, T drills, big finishes, etc.) their coaches told them to do. Never mind that when they pitched they actually used internal rotation (IR) mechanics.
Now that they’re starting to teach other pitchers do they go to clinics, or look at videos of high-level pitchers, or high speed videos of themselves pitching for that matter, or invest the time to take an online course such as the Pauly Girl Fastpitch High Performance Pitching certification?
Nope. They just keep repeating what their coaches told them. Who probably repeated what their coaches told them. And the cycle continues.
There is an amazing treasure trove of information out there from highly respected experts and highly accomplished and innovative coaches. Sure, there’s a lot of crap out there too.
But if you’re curious you can sort the great from the garbage pretty quickly to ensure that what you’re spending your time learning will actually be helpful.
This idea of being curious applies to more than just softball-specific training. The best coaches I know are looking to other sports to see how they train and how that information can be applied to their players.
They’re learning more about nutrition, stretching, exercise, rest and recovery, mental game strategies and other areas that can impact a player’s performance. They are using technologies they couldn’t even have dreamed of having when they started their careers.
In short, they are in constant search of new and better information and techniques that will allow them to serve their players better – and help those players learn how to achieve success off the field as well as on.
Look, I know it’s easy to get stuck in a particular way of doing things, especially if you’ve had success with it as a player or a coach. But why limit yourself only to what you know now?
Think of it this way: someone offers to give you a new car for free. You can choose between one built in the 90s (still brand new and in perfect working condition) or one that was built this year.
Which would you choose?
I’m pretty sure you’d take the one built this year because it will have a lot more capabilities and be more suitable for today’s world.
It’s the same with knowledge. Why remain stuck in the 90s, or the 2000s, or whatever previous decade you want to name, when there is so much more available to you today?
In our fast-paced world you’re either moving forward or falling behind. If you want to keep moving forward and become (or continue to be) a great coach, don’t just settle for what you’ve always done.
Be curious. You might just be amazed at how valuable (and thrilling) it can be.
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com
Improvement Is Often Measured in Inches, Not Miles
In a perfect world, when a player walks out of practice she would be noticeably better than when she walked in. Her physical skills will have visibly improved, her understanding of the game (or a portion of it) will have grown measurably, and/or her confidence in her abilities will have increased exponentially.
That’s not what happens in the real world, however. At least most of the time.
The reality is most improvements in those areas are far more subtle. They are better-measured in inches, not miles (centimeters, not kilometers for my non-U.S. readers), which means the immediate gains are often barely perceptible.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not happening. They are; they’re just too small to notice on a day-to-day basis.
Think about how kids grow. If you see a child every day, you probably don’t notice how much they’re growing physically until you notice them compared to an object in the house – or they complain about their clothes or shoes not fitting anymore.
The gains they’ve made in height and/or weight have happened so gradually that you didn’t really see them until realized they are now four inches taller than when the summer started.
Now think about a kid you haven’t seen in a while. She also grew four inches since the last time you saw her.
But because there has been a huge gap between the last sighting and this one, you instantly recognize how much she’s grown.
That’s the way it often is with sports improvements as well. For example, a pitcher starts out awkwardly swinging her arm around and pushing the ball out slowly just trying to get it to and over the plate.
Then she starts working on her pitching mechanics. They don’t change immediately, but maybe in that first lesson she learns to relax a bit and let the ball come out of her hand instead of forcing it so much.
She still looks awkward in the big picture, but a little change has occurred. Over time, more of those changes occur and eventually she looks “like a pitcher” as she effortlessly flings the ball forward for fast strike after fast strike.
It isn’t until you reflect back on where she started, however, that you realize how far she’s come. Not all in one leap, but inch by inch, making subtle change after subtle change that over time work together to help her become the high-performer she is today.
It’s a shame that this concept isn’t better-understood, because I think the unrealistic expectations for improvement that are often set lead too many kids to give up on something they love before that cumulative effect has had a chance to kick in.
I have definitely seen this over the many, many years I have coached teams and taught lessons. When kids who started out behind the pack put in the work they often end up passing their peers and becoming stars on their respective teams.
Not all at once, mind you. But over time the learn and grow, their control over their own bodies improves, their understanding of the skills and the game increases, and suddenly people are talking about how lucky their parents are that the kid is such a “natural.” If only those people knew.
Sure, there are natural athletes who seem to pick things up quickly. But even they hit a point where improvement becomes more incremental and hard-won.
The truth is the players who make it the farthest aren’t necessarily the ones who start fastest out of the blocks. The successful players are the ones who keep plugging away at it, little by little, day by day, inch by hard-fought inch.
Even when it seems like they’re not getting anywhere.
Because if your daughter keeps moving forward, even just a little each session, over time you will be amazed to realize just how far she’s come.
Photo by Andrew Patrick on Pexels.com
Be the Scarecrow, Not the Tin Man
One of the world’s most beloved movies is “The Wizard of Oz.” Audiences young and old love the story of Dorothy and her quest to follow the Yellow Brick Road so she can return home to Kansas (after ungratefully wishing she could go somewhere else; you parents can relate).
Along the way she meets three traveling companions. We’ll set aside the Cowardly Lion for now because he doesn’t have much to do with today’s subject.
That leaves us with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man.
These two characters offer the perfect way to describe how your athletes should be moving on the field.
Basically you want them to be the Scarecrow, not the Tin Man.
The Scarecrow is loose and relaxed. While yes, he does fall down a lot, the looseness of his limbs is the way you want your players to be when they are pitching, throwing overhand, hitting, fielding, running, etc.
By contrast, the Tin Man is very stiff. Even after he gets his joints oiled up he’s not exactly fluid when he moves.
He looks rather, well, clunky – because he is. As the Wizard of Oz himself says, he is a “clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk.”
(In case you were wondering, “caliginous” is an archaic word that means misty, dim, obscure or dark. I looked it up. So it really doesn’t fit the rest of the description other than sounding like the other words. You’re welcome.)
In pretty much any athletic movement you want the body to be fluid. The energy should flow from one part to another (usually from the ground up) and the joints should remain unlocked.
But it can be difficult for players, especially younger ones, to understand exactly what that looks or feels like. If they’re used to be stiff when they walk or do other things in their daily lives they may not know how to get that flow.
But if you tell them to be the Scarecrow rather than the Tin Man, they instantly have a visual to help them put it into context. They may not get the Scarecrow part right away, but when you contrast him with the Tin Man it becomes a whole lot clearer.
Remember that coaching isn’t just about saying the right things or having the greatest amount of knowledge. It’s about being able to explain what you’re going for in a way your players can understand – and apply.
Telling them to be like the Scarecrow is a fairly specific way of telling them to “be loose and flexible” that gives them a model they can draw from based on their past experiences.
And if you find they can’t because they haven’t seen the movie – you now have a new team building activity to help them along their own Yellow Brick Road of success.
Efficiency Is the Secret Sauce to Improving Performance
Everyone is always looking for that one magical drill, or technique, or exercise, or something else that will help them improve their level of performance in games.
Building strength is often where players and coaches turn when they don’t know what else to do. And yes, you can definitely drive some level of improvement through strength or speed and agility training. But often the results don’t match the expectations – or at least the hopes.
That’s because there’s another element to the whole process: efficiency, or the ability to improve output without increasing the level of input.
Take a look at these two illustrations. The first one shows a player whose mechanics are inefficient, such as a hitter who only uses her arms or a pitcher who pushes the ball through release with a forced wrist snap.
Let’s say she is working hard but not seeing the results. Increasing her input is only going to raise her performance slightly, because the rather flat relationship between input and output remains the same.
When you have high efficiency, however, as seen in this chart, the difference between input and output is much greater
Both players are putting in the same level of effort. But the second is getting much more out of it. In fact, while the first player’s performance is below the midline of the chart, the second player’s performance is already above it.
Which means if player one wants to reach the same level she is going to have to somehow double her input. Yet if player two only increases her input a little more, her output goes to the top of the chart.
Now, all of the objects and their placement here are arbitrary; they’re not based on a specific set of numbers but rather just an illustration of the principle. But the correlation is real.
It’s essentially a great example of the coaching phrase “Work smarter, not harder.”
When you are inefficient, increasing your effort (strength building, practice time, and so forth) even to a significant level often only results in a small, incremental improvement in overall performance. If you are highly efficient, however, the effect of putting in even a little extra effort is multiplied and you can make significant gains toward your performance goals.
Think of it this way: if you were running a 100 meter dash race with a prize of the latest, greatest smartphone would you rather be on the starting line with everyone else or 10 meters ahead of the pack? I know which one I’d choose.
Being more efficient through mechanics that are proven to be superior gives you that head start on the race to the top. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll stay there – you still have to keep working or the less efficient players could pass you eventually – but having a head start is definitely a significant advantage in anything where there’s competition for success.
That’s why it’s important for players, coaches, and parents to understand what efficient mechanics are for every skill – hitting, pitching, throwing, fielding, base running. There are plenty of great resources out there that can point the way, starting with where you are right now on Life in the Fastpitch Lane.
For pitchers you might want to also check out Rick Pauly’s Pauly Girl Fastpitch website as well as Keeley Byrnes’ Key Fundamentals Softball blog. The Discuss Fastpitch Forum is also a great resource for a wide variety of topics.
Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have some great content (along with a lot of not-so-great content so you need to be discerning about who and what you follow).
If you’re not sure if you’re using efficient mechanics right now, a great way to check is to watch high-level college and pro games to see what those players do, and compare it to what you (or your daughter/player) is being taught. If you don’t see the same things, you’re probably not learning efficient mechanics.
All you need is a smartphone and a TV and you can capture your own clips. Throw them in some sort of video analysis software and you are ready to spend hours upon hours going down the rabbit hole. But at least you’ll be informed.
The bottom line is working harder always works better when you work smarter too. Focus on improving your efficiency rather than just your input and you’ll see your output rise dramatically.
Keep Pursuing Your Dreams – Even When It’s Tough
This was the scene at a small bar and restaurant in December of 1961. An ambitious but pretty much unknown band arrived for a gig only to discover there were just 18 people in the place.
They could have been discouraged by the lack of attendance, and they could have decided to just hang it up after such a disappointing turnout. But they continued to believe in themselves, and knew that all that work they were putting in at obscure venues with hardly anyone watching would pay off eventually.
Most fastpitch softball players know the feeling. It can be a real grind.
Practicing in freezing cold barns in the winter and hot, smelly barns or outdoors on hot, humid days in the summer. Hours spent in private lessons, then many more hours practicing on your own.
Then you go out to a game and you stink up the field. You strike out at the plate.
You miss your spots as a pitcher or hang a pitch that gets driven toward South America. You boot a routine ground ball and follow it up by throwing the ball into the parking lot, or drop a can of corn fly ball that you should be able to catch with both eyes closed.
You begin to wonder if it’s worth it – all the time spent, all the energy expended, all the heart and soul poured into a game that doesn’t seem to love you back. You think maybe you’d be better served finding something else to do with all those hours and days.
Don’t worry, those feelings actually very normal. It can be difficult to work that hard at something only to see it go bad anyway.
The thing to remember, however, is that failure (or near-failure) is only temporary. It’s also an opportunity to learn and grow.
If you struck out, whether once or every time, figure out why. Was your timing off? Were you dropping your hands and looping your swing (even though you’ve been working on not doing that)?
If you struggled as a pitcher did you focus on your mechanics when you practiced or did you just throw the ball for a prescribed period of time? Did you demand more of your pitches or did you just say “good enough” and move on?
If you had trouble fielding or throwing did you put in extra time or just stick to the minimums?
The reality is whether you do well or not is largely in your own hands. Yes, it helps to have quality coaches and/or quality training, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be blessed with an abundance of athletic ability. None of those things are within your control.
But what is under your control is your approach to getting better. You can decide how hard you work.
You can decide how you spend your time each day, each practice. You can decide how you will react to things that are outside of your control.
And most of all, you can decide whether you are willing to do the things that are necessary to achieve your dreams or will give up at the first sign of adversity.
My recommendation, of course, is if you love fastpitch softball find a way to fight through the tough times and keep an eye on your goal. Because again, failure is only permanent if you let it be.
You can get better if you want to – and are willing to pay the price. It won’t be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.
As for that obscure little band from a rough-and-tumble working class city not exactly known for its contribution to the arts, things definitely did get better for them after that sparsely attended performance on a cold winter’s night in December 1961.
By December the following year they had secured a recording contract and released their first single. It didn’t do especially well but it was a start.
Within another few months they would see their next single reach #1 on the pop charts, and things would keep getting better from there. Eventually they would change the world – more than once.
Here’s a better look at that band from December 1961.
Everyone starts somewhere. The ones who make it are the ones who keep plugging away.
The One Tool Every Fastpitch Coach Needs in His/Her Bag
There are all kinds of devices and training tools available to fastpitch softball (and other) coaches today. A quick scan of Amazon or any sporting goods website will offer all kinds of ways to solve all kinds of problems at all kinds of price points.
But there is one tool today’s coaches need to make sure they have in their bags if they want to meet the expectations of many fastpitch players and especially parents today: a magic wand.
(Mine happens to be a Sirius Black model, as I’m sure Coach Katie McKay Phillips has already identified. If you don’t know who Sirius Black is, you really need to read more.)
The reason you need a magic wand is simple: many players and parents want to see instant improvement in individuals and teams.
They don’t want to spend hours practicing skills such as hitting, throwing, and pitching in the basement, backyard, or batting cages. They don’t want to spend hours out at the field learning their positions and what plays to make in specific situations or how to communicate where the ball will go.
Instead, they want you as the coach to wave a magic wand and take the team from looking like a group of misfit toys to a unit that can compete for tournament championships every weekend. So you’d best have a magic wand in your bag to show them you’re trying to give them what they want!
Now, of course, as any Harry Potter fan knows the wand is only as good as the wizard who wields it. So you’d best be practicing your spells and charms.
Once you have your wand, here are a few you can try. Some are directly from the Hogwarts courseware, while others are spells and charms of my own design.
Just remember, if you are a total Muggle and can’t get them to work, you’ll have to acquire the results the long, old-fashioned way – with lots of practice and repetition.
- Wingardium Leviosa – This one is one of the first Hogwarts students learn. It’s a levitation charm used to lift objects. Comes in mighty handy when your team can’t hit too well. Throw a little Wingardium Leviosa at a weak ground ball and watch it turn into a soaring line drive. You can also use it more subtly to turn a weak pop-up into a duck snort that sails just out of reach of every converging fielder. I’m sure you’ve seen that before.
- Expellliarmus – Good for when an opposing fielder is about to make a play that will result in a costly out. Originally designed to pull an opponent’s wand from his/her hand, it’s also great for turning a routine fielding opportunity into an instant error. No doubt you’ve seen this one being used by your opponents to make you look like you’ve never taught your players how to play. Naturally some coaches over-use it and then your team makes error after error, giving up a big inning. After all, the team couldn’t be that bad on their own after spending THE ENTIRE WEEK working on fielding ground balls and bunts.
- Petrificus Totalus – This is a full body binding spell that causes temporary complete paralysis. You have probably seen this one in action when your hitters were at the plate. The opposing pitcher throws a meatball down the middle of the plate and your hitter watches it go by for strike three. They didn’t freeze up on their own – they were hit with Petrificus Totalus by a wizard on the other side of the field. What other explanation could there be?
- Oblivius – This one is really handy becaue it enables you to erase the memory of people or events you don’t want someone to remember. It can be used in a couple of different ways. When used on opponents you can cause them to forget what to do with the ball on defense so they just stand there confused, holding it and looking around. No doubt you’ve seen this one in use as well. For your own team, you can use it when your pitcher just gave up a home run or other big hit to an opposing hitter and has now lost total confidence in herself and her ability to throw a strike. A little Oblivius and she’s right back in there. Coaches can also use it on themselves to forget bad innings or entire games before it gives them ulcers.
- Accio – The summoning spell that brings things to you. You’ll have to teach it to your players so the ball goes to them. How else do you explain a sure home run that hits a phantom gust of win and stays in the yard so the worst fielder in the game can catch it?
- Confundus Charm (Confundo) – Ever see three fielders converge on a ball only to let it drop between all of them? That’s Confundo in action.
- Instanteous Pitchus – Learning to pitch can be a long, arduous journey filled with hard work and major disappointments. But it doesn’t have to be. If you use this charm correctly you can turn any wannabe-pitcher into an instant ace in just one lesson. Which is what many parents expect of their coaches. No long, boring practice time or hours spent chasing balls around a backstop. Any pitcher can go from zero to hero if you apply this charm.
- Sluggeraramus – Does for hitters what Instanteous Pitchus does for pitchers. Or what parents expect purchasing a $500 bat will do for a kid with a 5 cent swing. If you can cast this spell, which is not easy to do, you won’t have to use Wingardium Leviosa so much in a game because every hit will already be a great one.
- Awareweed – Not so much a spell or charm as an herbal potion you can feed your players in lieu of spending practice time teaching them what to do with the ball in specific situations. Somehow they will just know where the ball should go, such as whether they should throw home to try to cut down the lead runner or realize that run is already scoring so go after one who is more vulnerable. It also gives them situational understanding, such as throwing to first for the sure out when your team has a 10-run lead rather than trying to get the runner heading home on a tag play. When your team is loaded up on Awareweed, coaches and parents can just sit back and enjoy the magic happening on the field.
- Silencio – While this silencing spell can be used on players when their incessant cheers are giving you a headache, it’s best applied to all the parent “coaches” in the stands who are yelling advice to their players (especially at the plate) or providing a running monolog of every play you as the coach should have made (after the fact, of course), criticisms of personnel or baserunning decisions, ideas on how to improve run production, and whatever else pops into their mind at the time. It can (and should) also be applied to those who have decided it’s their job to teach the umpire how to do his/her job.
That’s a fairly comprehensive list – enough to keep you studying for at least a year until you can pass your Ordinary Wizarding Level (O.W.L.) exam and more on to more advanced spells, charms, and potions.
That said, if you don’t have access to a wand, or can’t make it work, you’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way – and explain it to your players and their parents as well.
The old-fashioned way isn’t quite as easy for them, and it takes longer, but it brings its own kind of magic as players achieve capabilities on their own they never dreamed they could acquire. And in the long run it’s a lot more satisfying because it’s been earned.
Why Telling a Pitcher to “Slow Down” to Throw Strikes Is Counterproductive
I wrote recently about things coaches should never say. But after talking to some parents and pitching coaches lately, I think the old standby of coaches telling pitchers who are struggling to throw strikes to slow down their motions requires its own blog post.
While I know the coaches are just trying to be helpful, telling a pitcher to slow down in order to produce more strikes is counter productive on several levels. Let’s look at a few.
What they’ve practiced
I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that no pitcher who is going to a pitching coach is being trained to throw slowly. The name of the game is FASTPITCH softball, so no matter what they’re teaching (and we can certainly debate on what the proper pitching mechanics are) pitching coaches are sincerely trying to get their student to throw with as much speed as they can.
At least if they want to keep those students.
That means they’ve been working on a developing a specific set of mechanics that they can execute quickly. After all, slow movements mean slow pitches.
So if you’re asking a pitcher to slow her movements down, you’re totally taking her away from what she’s being trained to do. In other words, you’ve now made it like she’s never had a pitching lesson and is just guess at what to do.
Fastpitch pitching requires a certain rhythm and flow. It’s a complex series of movements in all three planes of motion that require precise timing to do well.
Telling a pitcher to slow her motion down takes her away from all of that and actually makes it harder for her to do what you want her to do – throw strikes.
The longer it takes for a pitcher to go through her motion and deliver the ball, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong. It’s basic physics, coming out of Newton’s laws of motion.
If you apply enough force to an object in a particular direction, it will tend to continue moving in that direction unless some other force acts on it. As it moves it has momentum.
In a weightless vacuum, like in space, a small amount of effort will have that object going straight forever. But fastpitch softball isn’t played in a weightless vacuum.
So the pitcher has to apply enough force to overcome the friction of the air, any wind currents, and especially gravity.
Then there’s the path of the arm and position of the hand. If the hand and arm are moving all over the place it will be difficult to send the ball in a particular, desired direction. It becomes kind of a guess for the pitcher.
If the arm is going faster, however, its momentum will eliminate a lot of the wobbling and make it easier to throw the ball in the desired direction. Not easy, mind you, but easier than just pushing the ball out slowly.
Then it’s a matter of making sure the hand and arm are on-line at the time of release and that the release occurs at the proper time (not too early or too late).
Think about a bowling ball. If you roll it slowly, you are at the mercy of the lanes and how warped or slick they are. The ball will kind of meander back and forth along the path of least resistance until runs out of lane or hits the gutter.
But if you roll it quickly, it will overcome most if not all of the issues with the lane and take a direct path to wherever you sent it. Good or bad.
Look on the website of any program or even individual team and they will all profess that they are dedicated to player development. Uh huh.
Just once I’d like to see an honest website that says, “We are totally focused on winning as many tournaments as we can and will do whatever it takes, no matter what the consequences are or who suffers for it, to achieve this mission.”
But let’s assume the coach actually does want to help all of his/her players develop. That means letting them work at the top of their games, outside their comfort level, to develop the skills they’ll need to continue advancing in the sport.
In the case of pitchers, that means letting them throw hard so they can learn how to do so under pressure.
Ok, you say, but if the pitcher is walking everyone how do the rest of the players develop?
I agree they don’t. So if you want to stop the walks, don’t tell the pitcher to slow down her motion. Pull her and put someone else in.
If all you want is strikes, even if they’re slow and easy to hit, you can pretty much put in anyone. They can then come in and lob the ball toward the plate, and will likely give you the strikes you want.
Doing it that way isn’t that hard. And it might even be a thrill for that girl who has always wanted to pitch but never got the opportunity (because she hasn’t actually worked at it).
In the meantime, the pitcher will learn a lesson that she needs to work more at her craft so she can throw hard strikes with a fast motion if she wants more circle time.
Ok, you say, but I don’t want to pull her because she’s our best pitcher.
Not today. Otherwise you wouldn’t be telling her to slow her motion down.
Take her out and put in someone who can give you what you want – which will ultimately allow your best pitcher to continue developing. That will be best in the long run for her, and for the team.
Telling a pitcher to slow down her motion to throw strikes is not the way to produce the results you want. It’s far more likely to make her pitches worse while taking her further away from her goal of becoming a quality pitcher you can rely on.
Instead, encourage pitchers to keep their energy high and trust their mechanics. You’re more likely to get strikes out of them that way (assuming they’ve been working at learning how to pitch).
And if they still don’t it’s time for a circle visit.
Tell them it’s not their day, put someone else in, and then tell them to keep working because you’re going to give them another chance. It could be the biggest benefit you ever offer that pitcher.
Photo by Song Kaiyue on Pexels.com
You Can’t Hurry Player Development
Perhaps you’ve seen the recent Tweet from Olympian and all-time great fastpitch softball pitcher Cat Osterman in response to Extra Innings Softball calling for nominations for ranking of players who will graduate high school in 2028. (In case you’re not aware or don’t want to do the math, this would be a ranking of players who are currently in 7th – that’s right 7th – grade.)
It’s been making the rounds on social media as a meme too. In it, Cat said:
Just for perspective… I would have been no where (sic) near this list as a 7th grader… NO WHERE CLOSE! So much changes in the next 2-5 years… this is plain silly.
I couldn’t agree more. At a time when kids today are already under so much more pressure from the “professionalization” of youth sports, and facing increased mental health issues on top of all the challenges that have always come with transitioning from grade schooler to young adult, adding one more thing for coaches, parents, and players to obsess over seems like a bad idea.
What you often end up with is some who become sad, depressed, anxious, etc. because they didn’t make the list. And others who experience those feelings because they did make the list and feel like they now have to live up to the expectations.
But this sense of heightened expectations doesn’t just apply to players supposedly at the top of the game. It can happen at all levels when coaches and parents lose sight of what the real mission is.
Softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But an obsessive focus on winning and performance can suck all the fun out of it.
And what is the number one reason in every survey that players say they quit playing a sport they once loved? Because it isn’t fun anymore.
From 14 years old and down, the focus should be on player development and the process of learning rather than on outcomes. This is true even for so-called “competitive” teams.
(Not saying older teams shouldn’t develop their players too, but there is more imperative for them to keep an eye on the W-L column as well.)
Fastpitch softball is a complex game full of multiple decisions for situations and many moving parts for skills. Taking a shortcut on overall development so you can get wins today is the fastest way to stunt a player’s growth.
Sure, winning now is fun. But think of player development as giving players the tools they need to continue winning when the competition gets tougher.
Imagine if Cat Osterman’s coaches looked at her in 7th grade and decided she just didn’t have what it takes to be a pitcher because she walked too many people or didn’t hit her spots every time or whatever unrealistic demand they had of her.
Or what if they let her pitch but yelled ridiculous things at her like “Slow down your motion so you can throw more strikes.” Her 11U team might have won a few more games, but it’s unlikely any of us would know who she is. And her mantle wouldn’t include any Olympic medals or the various other prizes she’s earned as a premier pitcher.
Another pitcher who was in that boat was one who is thought by many to be the greatest of all time – Lisa Fernandez. She was told by a famous (but unnamed) pitching coach in Southern California that she should forget about the position because she didn’t have the build or the ability.
In her first outing she said she walked 21 batters and hit 21 batters. But somewhere along the way she was allowed to develop, slowly but surely, until she ended up being the winning pitcher in not just one but two gold medal games at the Olympics. Not to mention all her other accomplishments. You can look it up.
She probably wouldn’t have been at the top of anyone’s list in 7th grade either. But over time she became the player she was meant to be because she had the chance to grow into herself.
As Cat said, a lot can happen to a player between 7th grade and senior year. Some who peak early may find themselves falling behind later as the late bloomers begin to find themselves.
Others who don’t look like much on a 10U or 12U roster may work hard, benefit from a late growth spurt and coaches who give them opportunities, and suddenly find themselves becoming all-conference, all-area, or even all-state honorees. It’s almost impossible to predict.
Each of us finds our way in our own time. Coaches should keep that in mind.
At the youth level, keep your focus on player development and encourage those in your charge to play at the top of their abilities, whatever they may be at that point, rather than just doing whatever it takes to win today. You may just find you have some hidden gems – and make some lifelong friends in the process.
Teaching Hitters to Track the Ball More Effectively
Go to any facility where there are teams or individuals hitting in batting cages and sooner or later you’re likely to hear the phrase, “Track the ball all the way into the catcher’s glove.” While it’s doubtful that hitters can actually see the ball hit the bat at the point of contact, the idea of trying to track the ball as long as you can is a good one.
The problem most coaches face when trying to get their hitters to track the ball longer (instead of getting a glimpse then swinging) is that there are no consequences for not doing it. Well, other than not hitting well. But as soon as the coach’s back is turned, hitters are likely to go back to not following the ball all the way to the catcher’s glove.
But, dear blog follower, I have a solution for the dilemma. It actually came up by accident, but I noticed how the pattern had changed so I’m taking credit!
All you need is a batting cage with a tight protective net at the back of it.
For the past few months I’ve been throwing front toss to hitters in a cage that has a very tight net at the back. When one of my errant pitches (and there are many of them) would hit the net, it would bounce back at the hitter with enough velocity to be annoying.
What I noticed was a lot of the hitters would watch the ball all the way to that net so they could get out of the way when the ball bounced back. Some of them then made a game of trying to catch the ball when it popped up off the net, and they got pretty good at it.
Since their first priority was hitting any good pitches I managed to throw, it took some effort to see the ball coming back and catch it.
But today I was in a different cage that didn’t have such a tight net. And that’s where I saw the effect take place.
One of the hitters who liked to catch the ball was still following it to the back screen, even though it wasn’t going to bounce back. She’d built a habit of it in the other cage to the point where she now automatically watches the ball all the way back.
Between that and the Reynaldo drill, which she has become very good at, she is seeing the ball much better – and hitting the heck out of it.
So I guess the lesson here is if you want to encourage your hitters to watch the ball longer, find a nice, tight net and put it behind the plate when you front toss to them. They’ll definitely learn to keep an eye on it all the way in.
(And yes, I know the hitter in the top photo is hitting off a tee. It’s tough to throw front toss and take a picture at the same time. Deal with it.)
Happy New Year! Time to Set New Goals
As John Lennon once sang, another year over, a new one just begun. (Or about to in any case.)
For most of us, the turning of a new year is filled with hope and anticipation. It also marks a great time to at least think about making changes.
We make all the usual resolutions – lose weight, get more exercise/join a gym (not always the same thing) quit smoking, quit or cut back on drinking, learn a language, etc. There’s just something about the finality of one year ending and a new one starting that makes it seem like a great time to do a little personal upgrading.
Of course, as U2 sang, “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”
Yet if those changes are going to happen they’re not going to happen magically. You have to make them happen. A big part of this for fastpitch softball players, coaches, and parents revolves around your goals.
Hopefully you’ve written those goals down and posted them where you can see them. Nothing like a visual reminder of where you want to go.
But even if you haven’t you probably know in your heart what they are.
So here’s my question for you: When was the last time you really thought about those goals? And more importantly, do they still apply?
Maybe it’s been a few months, or a year, or more, since you set your original goals. But you’re a different person now than you were then, with additional experiences and knowledge under your belt.
Is what you wanted six months or a year ago the same things you want now? If so, can you add some specificity to them?
For example, if you’re a coach perhaps you had a goal of increasing your knowledge about the sport. You took some online classes and attended a couple of coaches clinics, and are now a better coach than you were.
So you’ve achieved that general goal. But are there areas where you could still do better? Perhaps it’s time to change your goals to address those areas.
In my personal experience I always felt like I was good at teaching the technical aspects of the game, along with the rules and what to do in specific situations. But I also felt like I wasn’t as good at the strategic aspects as I should be.
So my goal became to learn more about different strategies and how to apply them and when to apply them. It became a difference-maker for me.
Coaches, make an honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses. Where do you tend to lose games or players? How would you attack your team if you were an opposing coach?
Then seek out courses, or a mentor, or some other means that can help you shore up that area.
If you’re a player, think about the major aspects of the game: offense and defense. Then think about the sub-groups.
For offense, you’re basically looking at hitting (including the short game) and baserunning. For defense, it’s fielding and throwing – overhand and underhand for pitchers.
Then break it down further into what you do well and what you don’t. In some cases also take into consideration what you can’t really change and how you can work around it.
Baserunning is a great example. If you’re fast you have a natural advantage. But are you smart?
If you can recognize opportunities sooner, and understand when it’s time to take chances and when it’s time to lay up even if you *think* you can make it, you’ll be a lot more successful. I’ll take average speed with intelligence over blazing speed without a clue pretty much every time.
What if you’re not fast? In fact, what if you’re a complete turtle? There are still things you can do.
Seek out a running coach who specializes in sprinters. He/she may not be able to make you fast, but he/she can probably make you faster than you are now by teaching you how to run better technically and how to condition yourself to run better. Every tenth of a second you can shave off your time going from one base to the next will help.
Then make sure you learn everything there is to know so you’re the smartest baserunner on your team. That’s especially important when you’re the trail runner.
I remember a situation where my team had runners on second and third. Kaity, the runner on second, was one of the slowest on a team that wasn’t too fast to begin with.
A ground ball was hit into the infield and I was entirely focused on getting the runner on third home. I watched the play from the third base coach’s box like a spectator.
Fortunately, Kaity was smart. She didn’t wait for any instructions from me, so when I looked back toward her (finally) she was already standing on third.
I said, “At least one of us was paying attention.” She replied, “Don’t worry Coach, I’ve got your back.”
Over the last six months or a year you’ve probably made many improvements to your game. Think about where you may fall short, or what you’d like to do better, and set that as your new goal.
Here we’re assuming non-coaching parents. Probably one of the biggest goals you can set for yourself is learning when to keep your mouth shut. Which is probably most of the time.
Just kidding, although in some cases it probably applies. But there are things you can do based on your player’s goals.
For example, if your daughter wants to play in college, and seems like she’s serious about it rather than thinking wishfully about it, start educating yourself about the whole recruiting process. It can be beastly, so the sooner you learn about it the better off you’ll be (and the less likely you are to make a critical mistake).
Step one is to talk to the parents of older players who have already been recruited. Find out what they did, what helped them the most, and what mistakes they made. Softball parents who have been through it can be an invaluable and impartial resource to guide you through it.
There are also tons of resources online. Some are better than others, and some are really just blatant commercials to buy their services.
That’s why you probably want to talk with other parents or coaches who have gone through the process first to give you some background. But those outside resources can help you make better decisions, especially if your player isn’t a can’t-miss P5 prospect.
Outside of that, learning more about the game and pieces of it related to what your player does can help you make better decisions when it comes to selecting teams and private coaches if you so choose. These days softball is a big investment so you want to be sure your money is being spent wisely.
As with players and coaches, think about what’s most important for you to improve on this year and set it as a goal. It’ll improve not only your experience but your player’s as well.
Keep moving forward
Always remember that goals should be concrete and realistic. Not necessarily easily achievable, but achievable.
Once you’ve set those goals, take the time (like now) to periodically evaluate them to determine if you’ve achieved them or even if you want to achieve them. Then adjust your goals accordingly.
The more you keep your smaller goals focused on achieving the bigger ones, the better chance you’ll have of ending up where you want to end up.
Happy New Year to all, and let’s make it a good one!
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