Category Archives: Coaching

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!

Ah, that’s a fine looking team.

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.
What the…?
  • 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.

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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.

We would have missed out on this.

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.

Good call, unnamed pitching coach.

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.

Stupid Things Coaches Say (But Shouldn’t)

People say stupid things every day in all walks of life. All you have to do is watch the news or go onto social media or even listen to conversations happening around you in a semi-crowded area and I guarantee within five minutes you’ll find something that makes you slap your forehead and shudder in disbelief.

Yes, like this.

Fastpitch softball coaches are not immune to this phenomenon. We all say stupid things from time to time.

Sometimes it’s from frustration, like asking a player if their parents are first cousins. Sometimes it’s because we haven’t updated our information since the last century, like telling hitters to “squish the bug” or “throw your hands at the ball.” Sometimes, like telling a pitcher “just throw strikes,” it’s because we simply don’t know what else to say.

I’m not talking about any of those instances here. What we’re going to cover today is the stuff where coaches should know better but they say those things anyway because they just don’t bother to think before they speak. Starting with…

You Have to Throw 60 mph to Pitch on Varsity

The other day I was talking to one of my pitching students and she passed along a statement her school’s varsity coach had made. He/she looked her right in the eye and said, “To pitch on varsity you have throw 60 miles an hour.”

Now, that’s a great aspirational goal. But what if no one in the school can throw 60 mph? Does that mean the coach is going to cancel the season?

Of course not. There are plenty of high school varsity pitchers who don’t throw 60 mph.

In fact, according to this blog post from Radar Sports, the average 17 to 18 year old (the age of high school juniors and seniors) throws 54 to 57 mph. While this chart from Fastpitcher.com places the average 18 year old at 55-59 mph and the average college pitcher at 68 to 65 mph.

From my own observation (with use of my Pocket Radar Smart Coach) I can also tell you that many college pitchers are actually on the lower, even sub-60, end of that spectrum. Watch enough games on TV and you’ll see some at the D1 level who rarely break 60 mph.

But that’s ok because last time I checked games are not decided based on which pitcher throws the most pitches the fastest. The outcomes are determined by which team can hold the other to fewer runs than their own team scores.

So a pitcher who may not be blazingly fast, but who can hit her spots and make the ball move on-command will often do better than one who throw hard but grooves everything down the middle.

That’s not to say speed isn’t important. It is, as I point out here.

But honestly, I’ll take a pitcher who consistently can throw eight-pitch innings over one who is racking up more Ks but taking substantially more pitches to do it. Especially on a hot, humid day.

We Lost Because Our Bench Was Too Quiet

This is a statement that often pops up in the post-game speech. It’s usually said when the coach’s favorites under-performed and the coach didn’t make the necessary adjustments (i.e., take those kids out and put someone else in).

Of all the stupid statement, this one has to be the stupidest on several levels in my opinion. I mean really? You lost because the bench players, who have no physical effect on the game whatsoever, didn’t make enough noise?

There. Are you happy now?

First of all, the players on the field shouldn’t require the people in the dugout to make noise in order for them to get “up” for the game. That’s something that should happen automatically.

Playing is a privilege, and it’s up to every player to get themselves motivated to play the game.

Secondly, it’s one thing if there is a lot of natural team chemistry and the dugout players are excited and supportive of their teammates. It’s another if the team is filled with cliques and the “noise” is an artificial event the bench players are being forced to create, perhaps to cover up for the fact that their team isn’t actually very good.

You lose because you make too many errors and let in too many runs. You lose because you don’t score enough runs. You lose because you didn’t do the things you needed to win on the field. That’s it.

Blaming the bench for being too quiet is like blaming the heat for killing your garden after you failed to water it all week. It’s just an excuse to divert attention from the real problem.

The Umpire Cost Us the Game

Blaming the umpire for a loss is a convenient excuse, and often an emotional reaction to a single incident. But let’s get real.

Even if the game was decided on a blown call in the bottom of the seventh, that’s not the sole (or even main) reason your team lost, Coach.

Your team had seven innings to put up more runs. If they had put up one more run in each of those innings you would have had a seven-run cushion and you’d be laughing about that one blown call right now.

Not to mention if they’d put up one more run in three of those innings you would still have had a lead that took the pressure off your defense and made that one play far less important.

Another thing your team could have done was not give up a couple of unearned runs by bobbling a simple ground ball or dropping a fly ball. Or your outfielder could have prevented the ball from getting by her instead of going for a spectacular diving catch when none was required to help keep some runs off the board.

Perhaps sending the runner home from third when the ball was clearly ahead of her would have kept a big inning going instead of killing it. Who knows how many more runs might have been scored?

The reality is no game comes down to one play. There were many plays prior to that one that could have changed the outcome.

Instead of fixating on one bad call, think of what you can do to ensure the next bad call doesn’t decide the outcome of that game.

I’ve Been Doing Things My Way for 20 Years

This one is often heard from coaches who would rather cling to their old ways of teaching the game than actually learn something new.

Yes, change can be hard at times. It can be even harder if you have to admit that the way you’ve been doing things may not have been the best way. None of us wants to look like we’ve been wrong for years.

But it’s not about being wrong before. It’s about being willing to adjust what you’re teaching when a better way comes along.

It’s one thing if you didn’t know there was a better way, or you misunderstood something you thought you know. Heck, I’ve discovered a whole host of things I was teaching in various aspects of the game that were sub-optimal or just flat-out wrong.

But when confronted with new and better information, I was willing to make that change. No need to defend the old ways.

Think about what you would want in a heart surgeon. Do you want someone who is still operating the way they did in 2002, or someone who has continued to learn and incorporate new techniques, new approaches, new equipment, etc. into their procedures?

I know which one I would choose.

It’s the same for coaches. There has never been as much research into what the most effective strategies and techniques for winning in fastpitch softball are.

We have statistical data that demonstrates why automatically sacrifice bunting when you get a runner on first, especially in this day and age of super hot bats and awesome hitters, will reduce your run production instead of enhance it. (Yes, these are baseball statistics but softball has done similar analytics and come to the same conclusion.)

We have measurable data that shows the pitch locations that produce the most swings and misses for each type of pitch.

We have technology that measures bat paths and arm deceleration speeds to help optimize player performance.

None of that was commonly available 20 years ago. So why not take advantage of it now?

If you’re still doing things the way you always did, you’re not paying attention and the game is leaving you behind. Open your mind to new possibilities.

Ultimately you may still reject some or all of what you hear. But at least you’re doing it as an informed choice rather than just a matter of stubborn habit.

Be Smart

Those are just a few examples of the stupid things coaches say. What have you heard, and why does it drive you crazy?

For the Love of Gaia, Please Stop Teaching Screwballs to 10 Year Olds

There is a phenomenon I’ve noticed lately in my area and seemingly is happening across the country as I speak with other pitching instructors.

When I start lessons with a new pitcher I will ask her what pitches she throws. For pitchers under the age of 14 my expectation is fastball, change, and maybe a drop ball.

These days, however, I have been shocked at how many, even the 10 year olds, will include a “screwball” in their list of pitches. Especially when I then watch them pitch and they struggle to throw their basic fastball with any velocity or semblance of accuracy.

Who in the world thinks teaching a screwball to a 10 year old (or a 12 or 13 year old for that matter) is a good idea? Particularly the screwball that requires the pitcher to contort her arm and wrist outward in a twisting motion that includes the “hitchhiker” finish?

Yeah, that one.

There is simply no good reason to be doing that. For one thing, most kids at that age have rather weak proprioception (body awareness of self movement), which means they often struggle to lock in a single movement pattern.

So, since the way you throw a screwball is in direct opposition to the way you throw a fastball (especially with internal rotation mechanics but it’s even true of hello elbow pitchers) why would you introduce a way of throwing that will interfere with development of core mechanics? Pitchers who are trying to learn both will be splitting their time between two opposing movements, pretty much ensuring they will master neither.

Then coaches and parents wonder why the poor kid can’t throw two strikes in a row in a game.

Just as important is the health and safety aspect of twisting your forearm and elbow against the way they’re designed to work. As my friend and fellow pitching coach Keeley Byrnes of Key Fundamentals points out, “Boys at that age are cautioned against throwing curve balls with a twisting action because of the stress it places on their elbow joints. Why would you encourage a softball pitcher to do the same thing?”

Keeley also points out that most 10 year olds don’t hit very well anyway, so developing a screwball at that age is unnecessary. You can get many hitters out by throwing a fastball over the plate with decent velocity (which means it’s not arcing in).

Tony Riello, a pitching coach, trainer, and licensed doctor of chiropractic, is also concerned about the effect throwing the twisty screwball can have on other body parts. He says, “To be that spread out left to then force the arm and shoulder right seems not healthy for either the back or the shoulder,” he says.

Then there’s the fact that in 99% of the cases a screwball isn’t really a screwball. It’s just a fastball that runs in on a hitter.

Why do I say that? Because if you look at the spin on 99% of so-called screwballs, especially among 10 year olds but even at the collegiate level, they don’t have the type of spin that would make them break. They have “bullet” spin, i.e., their axis of spin is facing the same direction as the direction of travel.

For a screwball to actually be a screwball the axis of spin would need to be on top of the ball, with spin direction going toward the throwing hand side. Just as a curve spins away from the throwing hand side.

And don’t talk about seam orientation. The picture was free.

So if you’re throwing a pitch that isn’t going to break anyway, why not just learn to throw an inside fastball instead? If you want it to run in a little more, stride out more to the glove side then let it run itself back in.

But again, you’re now giving that young pitcher who’s just trying to learn to throw the ball over the plate two different mechanics (stride straight, stride out) to use, which means she’s probably going to be half as effective on either one.

Oh, and that hitchhiker move that’s supposedly the “key” to the screwball and places all the stress on the elbow? It happens well after the ball is out of the pitcher’s hand, so it has no impact on the spin of the pitch whatsoever. Zero. None. Nada.

Try it and you’ll see I’m right.

Finally, and perhaps most important, once a young pitcher can throw with decent velocity and locate her pitches (or at least throw 70% strikes) there are simply better pitches for her to learn first.

After the basic fastball, in my opinion (and in the opinion of most quality pitching coaches), the second pitch that should be learned is a changeup that can be thrown with the same arm and body speed as the fastball but resulting in a 10-15 mph speed differential. Throwing both the fastball and change at the right speeds for 70% strikes should be enough to keep the typical 10- or 12-year old pitcher busy for a while.

Next you would want to add a drop ball. The mechanics of a properly taught drop ball are very similar to the fastball. In fact, I like to say they are fraternal twins.

Making a ball drop at the right spot, especially given so many young hitters’ desire to stand up as they swing, will get you a lot more outs, either as strikeouts or groundouts. A good drop ball will still translate into more groundouts as you get older too – just ask Cat Osterman.

From there it’s a little less certain. You can go either rise ball or curve ball. I usually make the decision based on the pitcher’s tendencies.

A well-thrown rise ball is still an extremely effective pitch, even though it doesn’t actually break up. And a well-thrown curve will actually break either off the plate (traditional curve) or back onto it (backdoor curve). Either way it moves – unlike the screwball which mostly travels on the same line.

I would save the screwball for last – unless you happen to play in an area where slappers are predominant in the lineup. Which in the era of $500 bats and quality, year-round hitting instruction is about as scarce as screwballs that actually change direction.

There are simply better pitches to learn. And if you do work on a screwball, there are better ways to learn it than trying to twist your wrist and forearm off in a contorted move that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

The bottom line is that, for the love of Gaia, there is no good reason to be teaching a screwball to a 10 year old – or any pitcher who hasn’t mastered her fastball and changeup first. Let’s make sure we’re giving our young pitchers the actual tools they need to succeed – and avoid those that can lead to injury and perhaps a career cut short.

Even the Most Talented Benefit from Good Coaching

Whether you love him, think he’s silly, or fall somewhere in between, there’s no denying that Elvis Presley was one of the most recognizable and successful humans to ever walk the face of the earth. Even today, more than 40 years after his death, when I ask a young softball player if they know who Elvis was the answer is almost always “yes.” That’s staying power.

Yet as unique a talent as Elvis was, it’s unlikely that he would have become so indelibly etched on the annals of history had it not been for his manager, Col. Tom Parker.

To get an idea of the impact Parker made, he was once asked why he took a higher-than-normal percentage of Elvis’ earnings. Parker supposedly replied, “When I met Elvis he had a million dollar’s worth of talent. Now he has a million dollars.”

That story, and thousands of others like it throughout history, demonstrate the value of finding the right mentor or coach. Someone who sees what you can become and works to help you get there rather than simply walking repeating information they may have heard somewhere before and rotely walking you through a series of meaningless drills.

So what are some of the attributes you should look for in a coach, either for a team or a private instructor? Here are some based on my experience.

1. A high level of current knowledge.

This might seem obvious but it’s actually not. There are lots of coaches out there who haven’t learned a thing over the last 5, 10, 20 or more years. Fastpitch softball is evolving all the time, with plenty of smart people doing research, looking at statistics and videos, and discovering new things.

VHS tapes are not a good source of info anymore.

If the coach isn’t keeping up and taking advantage of these new discoveries you may want to find someone who is. Especially if your goal is to play “at the next level,” whatever that happens to be.

2. Coaching to the individual instead of the masses.

It’s very easy for coaches to approach each player as a nameless, faceless piece moving through the machine. These types of coaches have all their players do the same drills and follow the same path regardless of ability to execute. If the players aren’t getting it or can’t keep up for whatever reason they just get pushed to the side or even benched.

A good coach will recognize a player who is struggling and look for the reason why. Is it that the player doesn’t understand what they’re supposed to do? Is it simply a lack of experience that can be corrected through more reps or is there a physical limitation that is preventing the athlete from moving in the desired way?

Whatever the reason, a good coach will look for the answer and make adjustments accordingly in order to help that player get on the field and perform her best.

3. Recognizing (and appreciating) different players have different personalities.

This is sort of like #2 above but is less about physical inabilities and more about learning how to interact with different athletes.

Some players, especially young ones, can be shy or at least uncomfortable around people they don’t know. If that’s the case the coach needs to recognize it and try to find a way to connect with the player so she can increase her comfort level in order to be more receptive to the coaching.

Some players are very straightforward and serious, while others can be goofy and off the wall. It doesn’t mean the latter are any less dedicated or are paying attention less. They’re simply seeing the world through their own unique lenses.

If she can hit bombs what do you care?

Essentially, if a coach has 12 players on a team he or she may need 12 different coaching styles to bring out the best in them. You want a coach who understands that and can deal with players in the way in which they respond best.

4. Demonstrating servant leadership

We’ve all seen coaches who are all about themselves and their won-lost records. They’re not looking to develop their players; they measure their success solely on the number of games they win.

That may be a valid approach for a college or professional coach (although that can also be debated). But definitely for youth coaches and mentors you should be looking for someone who takes more of a servant leadership approach.

Basically a servant leader is one who puts the success of the player(s) or team ahead of their own personal success. A good example on the team side is how they react after a game.

A more self-centered coach will take credit for wins and place blame on individuals or the team for losses. A servant leader will take responsibility for losses and give credit to the players or team for wins.

I’m not saying the self-centered coach’s teams (or students if he/she is a private coach) can’t win a lot of games. There are enough of them out there who do.

But if the goal is to ensure the particular player you care most about achieves a high level of success you’re going to want to look for a servant leader.

(Of course, Col. Tom was anything but a servant leader. He was actually pretty self-serving and often did things for Elvis because they benefited him too. But you get the point.)

5. A sense of what’s right and wrong

We seem to live in a pretty morally ambiguous world these days. In many cases right and wrong seem to be treated as if they are conditional or transactional.

But underneath it all there are right things and wrong things to do. You want to find a coach or mentor who is at least trying to do the right things for their athletes.

It’s funny. Parent coaches often get a bad rap. The terms “Daddyball” and “Mommyball” come to mind, which is a description of a parent who is in coaching for the benefit of their own child, and everyone else comes second.

But that’s not always the case. I know, and have known, plenty of great parent coaches who are in it for everyone. I’ve also known (or known of) plenty of so-called “paid professional” coaches who play favorites, let parents influence their decisions on playing time and positions, and outright screw over players they don’t like or who don’t fit their idea of what a player should be.

The thing is a sense of right and wrong isn’t something you put on like a uniform. It’s something that’s inside of you, a part of you like your heart or lungs.

If you really want a good experience, and a coach who can help an athlete become her best self, look for someone who does things because they’re the right thing to do, not just the expedient thing to do. That coach will provide guidance and character development that will not only help on the field but also long after the player has hung up her cleats.

So there you have it. What do you think?

Are there other characteristics of a great coach or mentor I’ve missed? If so, share your thoughts in the comments below.

Applying Deep Practice to Overcome Stumbling Blocks

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Anyone who has read the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle has heard of the concept of “deep practice.” You may have blown right by it but you’ve heard of it.

Part of the key to deep practice is repeating movements over and over in ultra-slow motion. As I recall Coyle says movements should be so slow that someone passing by casually can’t tell what you’re trying to do.

This week I had a chance to test this idea out on several pitching students to see how much it would help. The short version (and spoiler alert): quite a bit.

Each of these students, whose ages varied from 10 to 16, was having trouble throwing her changeup. Specifically they were all having trouble getting their hand into the proper position at the right time to make it work.

When it happened the first time I remembered The Talent Code and told the pitcher to work through how to get her hand turned the right way at the right time going ultra-slowly. After about a dozen reps at that speed I told her to go back to the pitching rubber and throw it.

The pitch was spot-on. Not just once but every time she threw it.

Pretty much how we reacted.

Hmmm, I thought, that worked pretty well. But of course “one” is not a valid sample.

So, the next student who had trouble with her change was advised to do the same. And we got the same results!

As I recall I did this with half a dozen students and it worked every time. Not just a little bit but to the point where if the pitcher threw that pitch in a game it most likely would have resulted in either a swing and miss or a hitter frozen mid-swing.

Of course, six isn’t really a valid sample either so I plan to continue the experiment with students who are having trouble with the mechanics of any pitch. I fully expect I will get similar results regardless of the pitch.

I hesitate to say it’s a magic bullet. But so far, it’s about as close as I’ve found.

This has nothing to do with the story but I found it amusing.

The good news is this technique isn’t just for pitchers. It can be applied to any skill where an athlete knows what to do at some level but isn’t quite able to do it.

Have a hitter who is having trouble keeping the bat head up until she turns the corner and then turning the bat over? Have her do it properly, very, very slowly, over and over.

Have a fielder who keeps dropping her elbow instead of getting into a good throwing position? Have her work on the proper technique, very, very slowly, over and over.

Have a catcher who is sitting back on her heels when she blocks instead of getting her shoulders out in front of her knees? Have shortstop who is having trouble transferring the ball for a double play? You get the idea.

Just one caution. I’m fairly certain the benefits we achieved so far were temporary. That’s why I’ve told the girls who did it to keep practicing that way, 20-50 times per day.

The beauty is they don’t need a field, or a ball, or a tee, or a catcher, or anything else. Just enough space to work on the proper movement patterns until they’re locked in – however long it takes.

If you have a player who is struggling to do something, especially something she’s shown she can do before, give the ultra-slow movement approach a try. And if you do, let us all know how it works out in the comments below!

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.

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.

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.

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