Category Archives: Coaching

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.

Coaches and Parents: Getting Past Self-Imposed Obstacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commitment Bias

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

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

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

Never!

Or at least that’s how our minds think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confirmation Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunning-Kruger Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapping Up

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

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

Photo by Jan van der Wolf on Pexels.com

When Designing Your Scheme, Be Sure It Fits Your Players

Today’s topic may seem completely self-evident to some of you – to the point where you say “Duh!”

Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a game (in person on TV) or spoken with players and/or parents and realized what should be a cardinal rule of softball has been violated yet again.

This rule is particularly important in middle school or high school ball, where coaches don’t get to choose their teams from a vast pool of players but instead must make the best out of whoever goes to that school. Sometimes those coaches win the lottery, and other times they end up with a donkey.

Don’t think we’re riding this team to the State championship

But even if you do have a wider range, ultimately you have to look at the skillsets and physical attributes of your players and make decisions accordingly. Here’s an example.

For a long time, slapping and the short game was the key to winning, especially in college. As a coach you may love to create chaos on the basepaths and force the other team into making mistakes. But if you look at your team in the huddle and what you see more closely resembles a nest of baby turtles, you’re going to have to find another way to score runs.

C’mon Coach, give me the steal sign.

The reverse is also true on offense. If you roughly weigh more yourself than all your players put together, you’re probably not going to be going deep with any regularity. So while you may love the way college teams like Oklahoma and Arizona State launch bombs on a regular basis, you’re probably going to need your players to master techniques such as bunting, slug bunting, and the ol’ hit-and-run. At least if you want to win ballgames.

The same is true of your pitching staff. If you have one or more dominant pitchers who can rack up 10, 12, 14 strikeouts a game, with the mental toughness to get critical strikeouts when needed, you can probably give up a few more defensive errors, or put a weak glove in the lineup if it means one more strong bat. If, however, your pitchers are more along the lines of letting hitters get weak hits and counting on your defense to get the outs, you’d better have strong gloves out on the field.

You can always use the big hitter/weak glove as a DH or pinch hitter. With the added benefit in the latter case of having that big bat available on demand rather than having to hope you get to her.

Speaking of defense, the type of players you have will (or at least should) affect the types of defense you play as well. Let’s take the outfield for example.

If you have speedy outfielders who are good at going back on fly balls, you can afford to play them in a little closer to the infield to try to cut off the Texas Leaguers and duck snorts that seem to plague your team and no one else’s. That is, unless your pitcher is prone to give out moon shots the way Olive Garden gives out breadsticks.

In big bunches until you can’t take it anymore.

Your players’ capabilities will (or should) also affect scheme decisions such as bunt coverages. In fastpitch softball it’s standard to have the first and third basemen crash the plate on bunts.

But if your first baseman isn’t particularly good (or even adequate) at fielding balls on the ground, or making a quick throw from a bent over position, or is the biggest turtle in the conference or the complex, having her try to field a bunt up the first base line may be your ticket to an early ulcer.

You may want to consider having your pitcher field anything up the line. Unless, of course, she is a hot mess fielding as well, in which case you can either try pulling your second baseman up next to the pitcher in obvious bunt situations or have a track coach work with your third baseman so she can try to cover everything up-close.

The bottom line is you may have done X, Y, or Z when you played, or seen a particular approach on TV, or attended a coaches clinic where a Power 5 coach with a multi-million dollar budget that includes a huge scholarship pool said “This is what we do.” Or gotten your butt beaten by a vastly superior team whose success you’d very much like to copy.

But before you pull the trigger on introducing your new scheme, ask yourself honestly if you have the players who can pull it off.

If so, great. Have at it.

But if not, it’s better to take a look at what you DO have and build your schemes accordingly. You’ll ultimately produce WAY better results.

Homework v Herework

You have probably heard the statement that it takes 10,000 hours to master a particular skill. While there is definitely some dispute about this statement, especially since one size never fits all, the more critical point is that for 99.999% of the population it takes a lot of repetition to truly get good at something.

What most don’t realize, however, is that in most endeavors there are two types of work.

One can be classified as traditional “homework,” i.e., you learn the basics at practice or lessons and then you continue to work on them at home. The other is what I call “herework,” or the work you do during those practices or lessons.

The challenge for many players is they (and often their parents) think they can accomplish everything they need during the herework and don’t feel the need to do the homework. Here’s why that’s a critical mistake.

Let’s say you’re a pitcher who has been taught to turn the ball back toward second, lock your arm, and push the ball down the back side of the circle. You’ve come to realize that’s not what elite pitchers do, so you go to an instructor who can teach you how to keep a bend in the elbow and the ball oriented to generate whip.

The coach can show you how to do it, and walk you throw various drills that will encourage the change in behavior. That’s good herework and very valuable to the learning process.

But if you leave the practice and don’t work on those same drills while you’re on your own (homework), you’re probably not going to be able to replace your old habits with new ones. So you will continue to perform the movements the way you’ve always done them because that’s what is ingrained into you.

The problem with that is the next time you go to practice or a lesson, you’re right back to square one. Which means instead of building on what you’ve learned already you have to go back and try to learn it again. That’s not much fun (or very efficient) for either you or the coach.

And it kind of feels like this.

What it comes down to is herework is about making changes, or learning how to make changes. Homework is about locking those changes in so you can continue to move forward.

The same is true with hitters dropping their hands. You know it’s a bad thing, and you can learn what to do instead of dropping your hands to swing the bat in practice. But if you don’t work on that new approach at home, it’s pretty unlikely you will quit dropping them any time soon.

Now, I don’t want to imply that this is a one-week process. How long it takes depends on how long you’ve been doing what you’re doing and how badly you want to change it.

After all, many players want the reward of improvement but are reluctant to put in the hard work to achieve it. I think many also hope their coach will wave a magic wand and make them instantly better.

How many parents view coaches

But it doesn’t work that way. While it may not take 10,000 hours, it does take some investment of time, on your own, to replace old habits with new and see the types of improvements you want to make.

Understanding the difference between herework and homework will help you get there much faster.

Is Better Technique Worth the Effort?

We’ve all seen it at one time or another.

A player comes in with lots of raw ability. She can throw harder, hit farther, pitch faster, etc. that the typical player her age. Yet she looks like an unmade bed when she executes those skills.

Ah, we think, if only she had better technique. Then imagine what she could do.

So, we begin working with her to clean up her mechanics and what happens? Her measurables drop.

The speed reading on overhand throws or pitches isn’t quite as high as it was when she walked in, and maybe she’s having more trouble hitting the target than she used to. Instead of hitting bombs she’s hitting pop-ups or ground balls – or even missing the ball completely.

At that point you begin to ask yourself whether all that time spent working on improving her did her any favors.

In the short term, the obvious answer would seem to be no. As ugly as her technique was it was working for her, while what she’s doing now doesn’t seem to be.

But those early impressions can be deceptive. And in the long term, especially as the level of competition increases, the work she’s putting in now is almost guaranteed to pay off well later.

How do we know? There are a few factors.

Physics and biomechanics

The laws of physics are immutable. Unless you’re this guy.

Trek fans get it.

Which means if what you’re doing takes better advantage of the laws of physics, all else being equal the outcome will be better.

The same goes for biomechanics. If you use your body in a way more in line with how it’s designed to be used, again all else being equal, you will achieve better results.

The key is all else is rarely equal. Our bodies are marvelous things, capable of doing all sorts of things.

But they also prefer to be comfortable when doing them. So if you’re comfortable with bad technique you will tend to do it with more enthusiasm/energy than you will something new.

That additional energy is often more than enough to compensate for any lack of solid application of physics or biomechanics, especially in younger players. As a result, the measurables created with weaker technique will often outshine those of the new, better technique.

The trick here is to get comfortable enough with the new mechanics so you can execute them with the same energy and enthusiasm as the old ones. That takes time – time which impatient players, coaches, and parents are often unwilling invest.

They’re looking for the “get rich quick” scheme, and when one doesn’t pay off immediately they’re on to the next. But any smart investor knows your best path to getting rich is to make targeted investments now and let time take care of the rest.

How softball parents feel when the season is about to start.

Removing randomness

Another factor that plays into it is our memories tend to be selective. Sure, that player may hit a bomb with poor technique. But we tend to forget about all the popups and easy ground balls that come between those bombs.

Who can argue with that?

One of the goals of better technique, however, is to remove the randomness from the performance. Players with poor technique are often all over the place with what they do. If you compare video from one swing or one pitch to the next you may see vastly different approaches.

The goal of improving technique is to lock the player into a single set of mechanics that are easily repeatable. Once she has mastered those mechanics it’s simply a matter of learning how to apply them in various situations.

That repeatable approach enables the player to adjust more easily to whatever happens because she’s always starting from the same baseline. This consistency in approach leads to consistency in outcomes.

Greater flexibility

We also tend to filter out other factors, such as the player with poor technique hits bombs against weaker pitchers but struggles against better ones – especially if the rest of the team does too. We often see only what we want to see.

Such as a home run instead of a single with three errors.

Essentially, the player’s technique works up to a certain point, then fails her miserably (most of the time anyway).

With a more organized, disciplined approach, however, she will have the flexibility to apply the technique she has as the situation requires. She’ll be able to catch up to fast pitching, and wait on slow pitching, because she understands how to adjust her technique to each situation – as opposed to yanking the bat as hard as she can in the general direction of the ball and hoping for the best.

Feel the breeze

The more the player understands how to adjust her technique to each situation, the better chance she will have for success. A disciplined, informed approach will almost always yield better results in the long term.

You get out what you put in

With all of that said, it isn’t enough to have someone show you how to do something. No matter how famous they may be or how many social media followers they have.

The player has to put in the time to learn and internalize the new technique. Otherwise it’s not going to make her better, and may even make her worse since she’s now trying to walk in two worlds at the same time.

So is better technique worth the effort? In my opinion, yes – as long as you’re willing to change what you’re doing an embrace what you’re being taught.

It can offer a huge advantage to everyone from beginners to seasoned veterans. You just have to have the patience to work through the challenges, and maybe even accept lesser performance, until you reach the pot of gold at the end of the better technique rainbow.

And deal with the creepy leprechauns.

The Challenge of Making Changes

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” This quote, generally attributed to car magnate Henry Ford, explains in a nutshell why fastpitch players, parents and coaches should constantly be seeking new information and new techniques. After all, who doesn’t want to get better?

What’s hidden underneath the surface, however, is a fairly large obstacle: change is (or at least can be) difficult. Which means even if you’re making the right changes for the right reasons it doesn’t always work right away.

How many times have you watched a pitcher attempt to improve her mechanics and seen her speed go down a little instead of up? How many times have you watched a hitter take her swing from looking like an unmade bed to a well-organized attack and yet she suddenly struggles to hit the ball as hard as she did?

At that point its tempting to wonder if you’re actually helping her, or if she is helping herself. Why is she losing ground instead of gaining it?

To answer that question I have a little challenge for you. If you are over the age of 5 I presume you know how to use a fork and a spoon competently enough to feed yourself without making a mess. You can probably do so fairly quickly, without thinking about it.

Or you can just do this.

Now try switching hands and doing the same. In other words, if you normally eat with your right hand, try eating with your left. (For extra challenge, try it with chopsticks, especially if you are not native to them.)

Suddenly, something you do every day without even thinking about it becomes more awkward and difficult. You have to think about how to scoop/stab the food to keep it on the spoon/fork/chopsticks, the angle of the utensil as it approaches your mouth, keeping the utensil steady as you get close to your mouth and a few other things you probably haven’t considered since you were a toddler.

And if you go long enough, or try to go too fast, you will probably find some of that food dribbling down your chin or dropping into your lap. You will probably also take longer than if you had used your usual hand.

Not exactly a good look.

It’s not that you don’t know how to eat. It’s that you’re doing it in a way that is unfamiliar.

That is the same experience athletes typically have when they are trying to make changes or learn something new. The technique they were using previously may not have been ideal, but they were comfortable with it and could execute it quickly and without thinking.

Now, as they try something unfamiliar, those same movements feel awkward and uncomfortable. They actually have to think about what they’re doing, and that slows the entire process.

So rather than quick, energy-driven, ballistic body movements they’re making movements that are labored – slowed by the conscious thought of trying to do what they’re now supposed to do.

So what’s the solution? Time. You know, that thing that all of us try to rush through to get to the great results.

Essentially what has to happen is the new movements have to be able to be performed with the same comfort level as the old ones to see the gains. That doesn’t usually happen right away, even with elite athletes.

Instead, it takes conscious work and effort to learn the new movements properly and build the confidence required to execute them with 100% energy.

The best way to do that is start slowly and work from short distances, preferably into a net, wall or other large surface. Get the feel of the new movements, then gradually increase the speed.

The coach or athlete should use video to check her movements and be sure she is not falling back into old habits as speed increases. If she is falling into old habits, slow it back down, get it right, then try increasing the speed again.

Once she is comfortable at a good speed, start moving toward a more game-like experience. For pitchers (and overhand throwing), that’s increasing the distance to see if the quick movements can be maintained.

For hitters, it’s moving off the tee into front toss – easy at first, then gradually increasing the speed. If you have access to a pitching machine and can feed it competently, you can use that as another step before having the hitter face a live pitcher.

This gradual, stepped progression will give the athlete an opportunity to replace old habits with new in a way that allows her to focus on the process, not the outcomes. By the time outcomes come into play she should be able to execute the skill with full energy and attack – at which point you will see the gains you’re looking for.

What a concept!

It’s not easy to do this. Most athletes just want to do the full skill rather than step through progressions, at least a first. But it’s worth it in the long run.

If you have an athlete who is working to make changes but not seeing the benefits yet, be patient and trust the process. If she’s working on the right changes, and working diligently, it will happen.

In the meantime, grab that carton of chow mein and try eating it with the opposite hand. It will give you a greater appreciation of just how difficult it can be to do something old in a new way.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Product Review: OnForm Video Analysis and Messaging Software

One of the most important tools a coach or instructor can have in their toolbox (and on their phone) is a video analysis app.

The ability to provide instant, visual feedback, including the ability to mark it up like John Madden diagramming a football play, is invaluable in helping players develop. As is the ability to review it later and offer more in-depth analysis.

I started many years ago with the mobile version of RightViewPro, then moved to Coaches Eye, which I’ve probably used for 10 years or more. It could be clunky at times, especially because if you wanted to be able to search for a particular player’s video later you had to manually tag each one after you shot it, but it got the job done.

Then in September I received an email from TechSmith, the creators of Coaches Eye, that they had decided to discontinue the product and would no longer be supporting it. They generously gave a one-year sunset period, but it meant I had to find a new app to use for my students.

I had played around with Hudl Technique before, but when I checked them out I discovered that product was also going away because it was being replaced by an app called OnForm, which is available on the Apple and Android platforms. I decided to check it out, and let me tell you I am very glad I did.

(At this point I think it’s important to point out that I purchased OnForm with my own money, and I am not being compensated in any way for this review nor do I get anything if you click a link or download the product. I have no affiliation with them whatsoever. I am strictly sharing my experience with the product to help you if you’re looking for a video analysis app for your own use.)

Core Usability

OnForm takes what most of us liked about Coaches Eye and similar apps and kicks it up a notch. For example, you can specify higher capture rates (up to 1080p) and shutter speeds to minimize blurring when you capture a video. Very handy, especially in the lower light conditions you typically find indoors.

Rather than storing all your videos on your device forever, OnForm lets you choose how long after you shoot them you want to keep them. After that they are stored in the cloud, where you can access them on-demand.

One of the best overall features, especially if you are a coach or instructor, is how the videos are organized. You create a folder for each player on the main page by clicking on the + button in the upper right hand corner and following the directions. You can choose whether you want to add a person for one-to-one coaching, add a team, or connect with another user who has sent you an invite code.

Once you’ve set up your first player, all the rest follow the same template for sport and role, so all you have to do is fill in the name. It just takes seconds to set someone up, but from then on you can open their folder and all the videos you shoot automatically are saved to that folder.

As someone who shoots a lot of video, sometimes in a single night, that is a huge time-saver. The videos within each folder are saved by date, and you can choose whether to share them with the player/parent automatically or just keep them to yourself. You can even import outside videos in other apps on your device, although only on a one-off basis unless you are importing them from Hudl Technique.

Live Analysis

Now let’s talk about usability. When you open the video you have a pretty standard toolset where you can mark straight lines and arrows, freehand lines and arrows, circles, squares/rectangles and even a single line that shows the degree of tilt or angle.

Additionally, there is an angle tool that not only lets you measure various angles initially but also enables you to change the angle if you did it wrong by clicking on it. Former Coaches Eye users will really appreciate that. Actually, you can do that with any of your markings but it’s particularly useful on the angle measurement tool.

You also have some interesting tools such as a stopwatch so you can measure how long it takes to execute a skill and a measurement tool that lets you mark distance. For the latter, think of measuring a hitter’s or a pitcher’s stride, or how far a bunt traveled, etc. As long as you know one reliable dimension you can mark that and OnForm will make the rest of the calculations for you.

Perhaps the coolest tool, and one they just added a couple of days ago (late November 2021 for those reading this later) is the skeleton tracking tool.

With the click of an icon OnForm will automatically mark every joint in the body and draw lines between them. Then, as you play or scrub the video, the skeleton lines will move with the player providing an unprecedented look at how how/she is moving through space. If the sequence of movements is important to you, you’re going to love this tool’s ability to display it.

Incidentally, the skeleton tracking overlay isn’t just for new videos. You can apply it to any video you’ve shot.

The toolset is rounded out by several additional capabilities, including:

  • The ability to play videos through at full, 1/2, and 1/4 speed off a dropdown menu
  • Two scrubbing tools – one which moves quickly through the movement, letting you go back and forth, plus a wheel that makes much finer movements so you can show subtle details
  • An undo button to remove one line, circle, etc. at a time as well as a clear button to remove all markings
  • A compare button that allows you to bring in a second video, whether it’s a previous video from that player or a pro example you’ve stored in a Reference Content folder, to provide a side-by-side comparison
  • The ability to flip the video, which is handy if you want to, say, compare Cat Osterman or Monica Abbott to your right-handed pitcher
  • Ability to trim the video to get rid of time between activities or other excess footage
  • Editable titles and tags so you can mark exactly what was happening (such as which pitch a pitcher was throwing)
  • Ability to edit the name, I suppose in case you got it wrong or the name changes
  • Ability to save certain videos as favorites so you can find them more easily later

That’s a lot of capabilities, right? But we’re not done yet!

Recorded Analysis/Online Lessons

If you want to wait until later to analyze the video and then share the file with the player or parent, you can also do that. The Record feature gives you the option of recording the screen and live sound or just the screen.

You can pause the video in the middle or record straight through. Once it’s recorded it automatically plays a preview so you can check your work.

From there you can save the video as-is, trim the front or back, or discard it. If you’re happy with it you can share it directly through OnForm (if you’ve invited the player to join) or through email, messaging or some other app.

Pricing

Ok, now it’s time to get to the nitty-gritty. OnForm offers four different packages depending on your needs. Each comes with a one-week free trial so you can see whether it’s what you want. Be sure to double-checking pricing here since it may have changed since this blog post was written.

The first is a Free package that limits you to 10 videos in your account. If you don’t think you’ll be using it much, but want the option to shoot the occasional video, this one should work for you.

Next up is the Personal package, If you’re working with your own kids only (as opposed to coaching a team or being an instructor) this one should work for you. For $5/month or $49/year you can capture, store and analyze up to 500 videos as well as create up to 5 analysis videos in a 30-day period.

The Coach package (which is the one I have in case you’re interested) provides unlimited videos and analyses/voice over lessons for one coach, as well as allowing any invited athletes to upload unlimited videos to you for free. It also gives you the ability to create notes to go with each video and broadcast lists to reach multiple players at once. This package isn’t cheap, at $29/month or $299/year, but if you plan to use it a lot I think you’ll find it’s worth it.

Finally, OnForm offers the Team/Academy package, which includes everything in the Coach package along with the ability to create three (3) coach accounts rather than one so multiple coaches can access and use the same videos. That one is $69/month or $699/year. It’s probably best-suited to collegiate teams, large travel programs or facilities that offer teams.

My Take

So how is it in practice (no pun intended)? I think it’s tremendous, and a significant upgrade over the products I’ve used in the past.

Creating the videos and marking them up is fast, easy and reliable. They are really helpful with illustrating what is happening and what needs to be done. For pitchers I love being able to draw a single line and show the forward/backward tilt of their bodies.

As previously mentioned I love the way the videos are organized. Rather than having to come home and tag each video, they’re already in the right folders and available. I’ve even moved some videos into one of the Reference Content folders so I can easily call them up to show what famous fastpitch players do.

The analysis tools are easy to use as well, and I definitely love being able to easily discard a video and start over rather than having to wait for it to render (as I did in Coaches Eye) before I could delete one I knew went bad.

Do I wish it was cheaper? Of course, who wouldn’t? But the value is there, and OnForm is continuing to develop the product and add new features so as long as the value is there I think it’s worth paying the price.

Finally, there is their support. When I contacted them to ask why the skeleton tracking feature wasn’t showing up in my iPad they got back to me within 12 hours to explain you need an A12 chip or higher for that feature to be available.

Bummer, but at least they got back to me quickly which is great. They also have a way for users to request new features (I’m going to ask for a clock face drawing tool), and a blog to keep you up-to-date when something new is introduced.

I wholeheartedly recommend OnForm as a training tool for fastpitch softball players. As a bonus, you can use it for many other sports and activities as well, so if you have, say, a softball player and a golfer, one instance will work for both.

Check out the free one-week trial. I think you’re going to let what you find.

Coaches: Harsh Conditions Do Not a Great Garden Make

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the way too many fastpitch softball coaches choose to treat their players. Whether I am walking by a field when a team is practicing or just talking to some of my students, the “tough guy” (or “tough gal”) stereotype seems to be alive and well.

Now understand, I am all for discipline and accountability. There is nothing wrong with demanding the very best from your players on a daily basis.

But that doesn’t mean you have to berate and belittle them on a constant basis. It’s like the only tool in some coaches’ toolbox is a hammer – a big one – and they feel they have to use it all the time in order to draw the best performance out of their players.

Coach offering suggestions to players during practice.

I don’t get where they think that will work. If an adult had a job where they were receiving nothing but negative feedback or outright abuse, you can bet they’d be posting a negative review on Glassdoor at the very least and looking for a new job as soon as they could.

It’s like the old saying – people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. Yet coaches are still surprised when their players don’t return the next year.

It might help to think of your players as seeds that need to be nurtured. Yes, some plants can grow in the concrete under harsh conditions, getting trampled all the time.

But they rarely turn into beautiful gardens. Instead, they look small and sad – not the types of plants anyone is going to stop and admire.

The same is true of fastpitch softball players. Especially the younger ones – those under the age of 14 who tend to take everything adults say at face value.

If all they ever hear is how bad they are, or how stupid they are for missing a play or making an error, they will tend to believe it.

Sure, an occasional player might break through that difficult environment and survive, but most will not. They will find another outlet that helps them feel better about themselves.

Which means if the goal is to grow the game, taking an approach that drives them out makes little sense.

Coaches who want to be tough also have to remember that what they view as “normal” may not seem so normal to their players. As I have said many times, kids are not short adults. They often lack the experience and background to put certain things in perspective.

Harsh criticism doesn’t just roll off their backs. They aren’t yet able to “take it with a grain of salt.”

Kids in many cases are very literal. And females in general are more prone to believing whatever negative things are said about them.

So what winds up happening is that performance under these conditions goes down instead of up, which leads to even more berating and abuse, which hurts performance even more, and the results take a familiar path.

Taking this type of approach may make you feel good as a coach, or like you’re doing your job. But it’s really lazy coaching.

Rather than yelling at or otherwise berating your players for poor performance, why not help them get better? Teach them the game, and understand everyone learns in different ways and at different paces.

Hold them accountable when needed, but understand the difference between a lack of ability (at this time) and a lack of effort. Only the latter should bring out your ire. The former should drive you to find new and better ways to help your players learn and improve.

Provide a little sunshine, a little water, and a good overall environment and your players will grow faster and much healthier in the game.

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