Category Archives: Coaching
If you asked the average person whether playing fastpitch softball is a physical or mental activity, there’s a good chance the answer would be “physical.” After all, there’s a lot of movement involved, and these days many softball players are training their bodies to the point of constant exhaustion (a topic for another day).
In reality, however, it’s a trick question. Because while it is obviously physical, there is also a huge element of mental activity that goes into it as well.
Or at least there should be.
When I train a player, I tend to use what’s known as the Socratic Method. The short version is I don’t just constantly tell them what to do; instead, once they’ve been taught something I will ask them questions to try to ensure they actually understand what we’re trying to do instead of just blindly following directions.
For example, if I am working with a pitcher and she throws a pitch in the dirt on her throwing hand side, rather than saying “You released too early” or “You were too open at release” or whatever the issue was, I will instead ask her “Why did that happen?” It is then up to her to think through what she has (supposedly) learned, plus what she felt, in order to provide an answer to the question.
The goal, of course, is to help the player become her own pitching, hitting, fielding, whatever, coach.
We want that so when she’s practicing on her own she can make corrections to keep her on the right path. We also want that because I’m sure the last thing that player wants is for Mom, Dad, Team Coach, or the spectators on the sidelines to be shouting instructions out to her in a game.
When I ask these questions the answers I receive aren’t always right. But to me there is one answer that is always wrong: I don’t know.
Because even if a player provides an incorrect response to the question, at least she’s making an effort to figure it out. She may not quite understand what she should be doing yet but she’s trying.
Saying I don’t know, however, to me shows a total lack of mental engagement in the process of whatever we’re doing. It’s the easy way out, basically saying, “Tell me so I can robotically follow directions” rather than really digging in to understand the movement we’re trying to achieve at a deeper level.
When I hear “I don’t know,” I always think of Mr. Hand and Spicoli.
In a softball context, in turning the tables the conversation would go, “Will I be able to get hitters out Coach?” “I don’t know.” “Will I get some hits instead of striking out?” “I don’t know.” “Will I be able to make the quick throw?” “I don’t know.”
And that’s the reality of it. If a player’s brain is not engaged as she practices she could just as easily be practicing the wrong things – in which case when she goes into a game she won’t have the skills she needs to succeed.
Now, I’m not saying “I don’t know” is always the wrong answer. If the coach who is asking the question of a player hasn’t taught her whatever he/she is asking, the player shouldn’t be expected to know. In which case “I don’t know” is correct.
Or if a player asks a coach about something out of his/her area of expertise, like how to throw a riseball if the coach has no background in pitching, or what strengthening exercises they should do at home if the coach hasn’t researched it, “I don’t know” is a better answer than just making something up so the coach doesn’t look “stupid.”
I actually wish more coaches would give that answer when it’s appropriate.
But when the activity is something fundamental that has been taught and reinforced dozens or hundreds of times before, “I don’t know” is not a sufficient answer. The player should know and be able to self-correct.
That’s the fast track to improvement and advancement. Because players who can identify issues on their own can correct them on their own and keep themselves moving forward; those who can’t, well, they’re doomed to repeat those mistakes over and over.
If you’re a coach, hold your players accountable by asking questions they should know the answers to and then making them accountable for it. If you’re a parent, reinforce the importance of players getting their brains engaged instead of mindlessly going through whatever motions they’re being told to do at the time.
And if you’re a player, take ownership of your softball education and really learn what you’re being taught. Not just the movements but the reasons for them, and why things go wrong when they go wrong.
It’s one of the biggest keys to producing better, more consistent results. Which makes the games a lot more fun.
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.