Category Archives: College softball
I have written in the past about how many parents of travel ball and high school players view the outfield as a punishment or a sign that their coach believes their child somehow doesn’t measure up to her teammates. They will tell anyone who will listen that their daughter “deserves” to be in the infield – I guess because the cool kids play infield and the nerds play outfield.
Yet as the recent Womens College World Series (WCWS) demonstrated once again great outfield play is often the difference between winning and losing – as well as advancing or going home.
The obvious ones are the spectacular catches – going up over the wall to rob an opposing hitter of a home run. Those are dramatic and make for great candidates for endless SportsCenter Top 10 replays.
Yet those are also the rarities. Often the difference-makers are more the everyday plays or even the approaches to the position that the best teams adopt to ensure their success.
Here’s a good example from my own observations. As I was watching one of the teams warm up I looked at how their outfielders were throwing the ball back to the coach hitting fungoes.
It is common practice among colleges to recruit the best athletes then put them into positions where they are expected to use their athleticism. (The stated exceptions are pitchers and catchers, who are recruited specifically by position.)
As a result, many college players at all positions were once shortstops on their travel and/or high school teams. The best defensive players out of that group will actually play shortstop, and the rest will be spread around to other positions based on need or their ability to hit.
As I watched those outfielders it was clear that was the case for this team. All their throws were that quick, low arm slot, almost sidearm throw that shortstops make. That type of throw is great within a certain range, but after that range it can be a liability.
Sure enough it was during the game. I remember at least two balls hit to medium-deep left or left center where the outfielder picked up the ball and “shortstopped” the throw to third as a speedy runner went for the extra base.
Understand these weren’t balls to the fence. They dropped in front of the fielders.
As expected, the throws took two or three hops to get to third. By that time the runners had already safely slid in and stood up – it wasn’t even close.
A better, stronger outfield throw would have at least given them a chance to get the out. But it didn’t happen and the runners ended up scoring later.
Another example came during one of the Oklahoma State/Texas games. It was the play that was shown endlessly with the miscues that pretty much let Texas back into the game.
If you watch closely, when the throw goes to second after being cut off, the center fielder and the left fielder are nowhere near the line of the throw. When it goes awry, the center fielder has to chase the ball down to the outfield fence, which allows the runners to keep running.
Had she moved to the line of the throw earlier the damage may have been minimized and perhaps we would have seen an all-Oklahoma WCWS instead. We’ll never know.
Throughout the whole NCAA tournament we also saw examples of outfielders diving for balls when they didn’t need to only to see the ball skip past them for extra bases. We saw outfielders lose a ball in the lights or the sun because they didn’t shade their eyes properly or were using a closed-web infielder glove instead of an open web outfielder glove.
We saw balls drop between two outfielders or out fielders and infielders because the outies weren’t forceful enough in calling off the innies (which is what they should do, because they have priority). We even saw simple catches botched because outfielders were trying to make a throw before they caught the ball or just didn’t track the ball well enough.
These types of plays happen every day at levels of competition. And unlike an error in the infield, where most play is self-contained, problems in the outfield can quickly be amplified because there is no one behind them to help minimize the damage.
All of this points to the importance of having a well-trained outfield that is focused on their own position instead of why they’re not playing in the infield. Taking enough pride in outfield play to learn how to read the ball off the bat, re-learn to throw for more power and distance, and develop the type of situational awareness and focus required when the ball comes your way just a few times a game is invaluable to a team’s overall success.
So if you/your daughter is assigned to the outfield, don’t feel like the coach is saying you are “less than.” Instead, look on it as an opportunity to make a huge contribution to your team’s success and be the best outfielder you can be.
In other words, make sure you’re a difference-maker.
Last week I had the opportunity to fulfill just about every fastpitch softball fanatic’s dream – attending the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in person. I was there to attend the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s (NFCA) course 408 World Series Coach and Game Observation for its National Fastpitch Coaches College Master Coach program. (More on that on another day.)
As the name implies, the course consists of watching some games in-person in Oklahoma City, interspersed with classroom sessions that discuss the strategies in those and upcoming games along with the state of the game. In my class they also brought in coaches from four of the eight teams participating – Kirk Walker (UCLA), Mike White (and his staff, Texas), Kenny Gajewski (Oklahoma State), and Kate Drohan (Northwestern) – who talked about the previous day’s games and what they were expecting in their next games.
Pretty cool right? We also got a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium, a look at the massive tent city that is the heart of ESPN’s coverage, and a chance to see the practice fields just behind the stadium. Plus the opportunity to actually walk on the field (including the dugouts) and sit behind the microphones in the media interview room.
By the way if all that sounds awesome you too can take advantage of it – if you are an NFCA member. And if you do decide to sign up, please list me as a referral!
Of course, once a coach always a coach. So after hanging out with our instructors (Carol Bruggeman, executive director of the NFCA and Larissa Anderson, head coach at Mizzou) along with 30+ knowledgeable classmates (including Hall of Famer and all-time great Dr. Dot Richardson, now head coach at Liberty University) I did come away with a number of thoughts about the games and the state of fastpitch softball in general.
So without further preamble, and in no particular order, here are a few thoughts worth sharing.
Even the Best Players Make Errors
I’ve said this on Facebook clips but it bears repeating: all of you youth coaches out there berating your players for mishandling a ground ball, dropping a fly ball, making a bad throw, or making some other type of error need to stop. In the two days (six games total) I was there I saw players at the highest level of the game do the same things.
Errors happen. If you want to use them as teachable moments there’s nothing wrong with that. But to just yell at a player for being “stupid,” or yank her out of the game in the middle of an inning after a single miscue isn’t being tough or demanding. It’s being shortsighted and possibly ego-driven.
The coaches at this level know that if players are always worried about the consequences of making a mistake they will never stretch themselves to become the players they can be. Instead they’ll play it safe and miss opportunities or the chance to develop skills that could win you games.
Errors happen. Help your players learn from them and get better.
Spinning Pitches Properly Is Becoming a Lost Art
The mantra of pitching coaches everywhere is “spin, spot, speed.” In other words, you need to spin movement pitches correctly to get them to move, throw them to the right location, and throw them very hard to be successful.
While the latter two seem to still be in effect, the spin component is a growing problem. There is no doubt that the faster a pitch approaches a hitter, the harder it is to hit.
But it seems that in the quest for more speed many in the game (including collegiate pitching coaches) have abandoned any concern about whether drop balls, curve balls, rise balls, etc. are spinning in the right direction. The ball used by the NCAA makes this abundantly clear.
How many times did you see a slow motion replay from the catcher’s point of view and see the black dot of the NCAA logo coming straight at you while the ball revolved around it? Probably hundreds.
No matter what the announcers are calling it on TV, the pitches that look like that have “bullet” spin. Bullets spin that way so they DON’T move off their targets.
The result is that pitches that spin that way aren’t curving or dropping or rising. They’re traveling on a straight line to the catcher.
Think about it a little more. How could three or four pitches (we’ll throw the “screwball” in there too) with the same spin move in different directions?
The short answer is they can’t. The laws of physics don’t allow it.
Every ball that ends up higher than it started isn’t a rise ball. Every ball that ends up further to the left or right isn’t a curve or a screw.
But until pitching coaches at all levels start holding pitchers accountable we’re probably going to see offensive numbers, including home runs, increase steadily. Because as tough as speed can be to hit (more for some than others), true movement makes it exponentially more difficult.
There Are Haves and Have-Nots
Yes, even at that level there are definite haves and have-nots. Obviously Oklahoma falls into the “haves” category.
As I watched them up close and personal I was amazed at what I saw. Head Coach Patty Gasso’s statement that they want to be amazing at every part of the game definitely was on display. A few of the other teams were pretty close behind.
But there were also other teams that, as in tournaments everywhere in every sport, had done all they could do to get there but just weren’t going to be able to match up to the best of the best.
That doesn’t mean they were bad by any means. But at the end of the day there was simply a quality difference up and down the lineup.
Keep that in mind the next time your team finds itself in over its head at a tournament. Sometimes you just have to be happy you made it that far and not worry about the outcomes.
Aggressive Hitters Do Better Than Careful Ones
This one may seem obvious, but apparently it’s not. Because as I sat in the stands it became quite apparent which teams were reactive and just trying to put the ball in play somehow versus those who went to the plate looking to do serious damage.
I’m not just talking about individuals, although there was certainly some of that. I’m talking more about team philosophies.
Arizona is a good example here. While Oklahoma might be the obvious illustrator of this principle to me Arizona is a better choice precisely because they didn’t make it to the championship game. They didn’t have the horses Oklahoma did, but they made up for it by taking a “no prisoners” approach at the plate.
Going after pitches with that mindset helped keep them in games far more than teams that were tentative. Go in with the intent of hitting the ball hard and there’s a great likelihood you will. Then you’ve at least given yourself a chance to win.
You Can’t Ride One Arm Anymore
The days of a Jennie Finch or a Cat Osterman or a Monica Abbott pitching every inning of every game are long gone. These days it takes a pitching staff to make it through a long season.
The same is true at the youth level. Yes, you can probably win more games in high school or travel ball riding one pitcher until her arm falls off.
But with the quality of hitters these days sooner or later that will catch up to you. Coaches need to be sure all their pitchers are ready to step up when needed or they’re likely to find themselves in trouble when it matters most.
Again, look at Oklahoma. When freshman sensation Jordy Bahl got injured it didn’t derail their season. They just went to Hope Trautwein and Nicole May and won a national championship.
Or look at Texas. When their starter struggled in the first inning of the first game of the championship series they didn’t hesitate to go to the bullpen. In fact, they did it a couple of times until they got out of the inning.
Coaches, you are never more than one turned ankle or injured forearm from losing your entire season if you rely on only one pitcher. Develop your staff and you’ll go farther in the long run.
College Teams Keep (and Use) a Lot of Stats
Not too long ago one of my students told me her team coach wasn’t moving her up in the lineup, even though she had the second-best slash line on the team, because she “doesn’t believe in stats.”
First of all, stats are a statement of fact, not ghosts. There’s nothing to “believe” in, they’re right there for everyone to see.
More importantly, though, from what I saw at the games and heard from the top coaches as well as many classmates, stats are the lifeblood of the modern game.
Colleges large and small chart everything. They want to know what pitch a particular pitcher throws in a given situation to a type of hitter. They want to know where hitters are likely to hit based on the pitcher so they can position their fielders.
They want to know if a coach likes to steal bases and on what count. I think they like to know what the opposing team has for breakfast on days when they win.
The more information they have the better decisions they can make, especially when it counts. While you may not have the resources to do all that charting (or to buy data from a service) you can certainly get an idea of who is performing on your team and on your opponents’ teams by checking stats on GameChanger or a similar app.
That way you don’t have to rely on instinct. You can take a more scientific, fact-based approach that will lead to better outcomes for the team.
Anyone (Almost) Can Beat Anyone
Texas came into the NCAA tournament unseeded. They beat a lot of much higher-seeded teams to get to the championship series.
Don’t let an opponent’s reputation or past record intimidate you. Go out and play the game.
There Are a Lot of Great, Dedicated Coaches Out There
We always hear about the obnoxious ones, the ego-driven coaches who scream at their players and throw tantrums and play sick mind games with them. I guess that’s what’s considered newsworthy.
But after spending a couple of days with 30+ coaches at various levels I can tell you there are a lot of great ones who are in it for the right reasons. My classmates in this course were great to talk to, and many of them appreciated having other softball nerds to talk with about the game (because their families and friends just roll their eyes when they start discussing whether it’s an opportune time to lay down a drag bunt).
The point here is do you research and don’t just settle for whoever is closest. Find the right coaches – head and assistants – and you’ll have a much better fastpitch softball experience.
That’s it for now. If I think of more I’ll share them in a subsequent post. And if you have any questions about the WCWS or the Master Coach program or anything else related to this topic be sure to put them in the comments below and I will answer them as best I can.
We are coming up to the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics: the NCAA D1 Women’s Softball tournament. Over the next couple of weeks 64 of (presumably) the best college softball teams in the country will be going head-to-head to see which will ultimately make it into the Elite 8 and the Women’s College World Series WCWS).
Fortunately for those of us who love it, these games will be all over ESPN. Not because ESPN has any particular love or feels any particular sense of responsibility to the sport, but because over the last few years it has been a rating juggernaut.
In fact, last year alone it drew more than 1.2 million viewers, which is 60% more than the Men’s Baseball College World Series. It draws the eyeballs, which draws the sponsors, which ensures you’ll see it.
Yet as popular as it is, if you ask the average youth or even high school player if she plans to watch any of the games, she will probably turn her head and stare at you the way a dog does when you ask it if it knows what it just did. That’s her way of saying no.
In fact, I have found over the years that most players don’t have a favorite team, or a favorite player, or can even name a college or pro player. That’s because it never occurs to them to watch the games. And if they do watch because a parent makes them, they don’t really pay attention or get invested in it.
That’s a shame, because there is much that younger players can learn by watching these elite athletes perform in the biggest showcase fastpitch softball has. (Yes, you can argue that the Olympics and other international tournaments offer a higher level of play but there’s no guarantee softball will be in the Olympics again – and just try finding international tournaments if you don’t have more than a basic cable or satellite subscription.)
So with that in mind, here are some of the reasons why you either want to watch the games with your favorite player or team live, or DVR them and watch them later. Even if you feel you have to turn off the sound on some of them.
1. See the Speed of the Game
This is probably one of the biggest eye-openers, especially for players in the 10-14 year age range. The game happens fast.
Players who are used to taking their time gathering a ground ball and making a throw to first, or jogging after a pop fly, will see how quickly plays develop – and are over. With slappers in particular, one little bobble by an infielder (no matter how minor it seems) gives the hitter just enough time to reach base safely.
Seeing the sense of urgency in every play can help individuals and teams learn to play at a higher level.
2. Watch How Top Players Execute Their Skills
It’s often said that when you’re looking at what techniques or mechanics to use for pitching, fielding, throwing, hitting, etc. that we should look at how the best players in the world do it. While the players on TV may not all be the “best” players they’re still pretty darned good at what they do so they make fine examples to study.
Here’s where DVRing the games comes in particularly handy. If a player hits a home run, you can go back and look at her swing from the multiple angles they show. Sooner or later you’ll get to see how a top pitcher throws her riseball – assuming it’s an actual rise and not a gyro spinning high fastball.
You can also use it for quantitative analysis, such as looking at how many pitchers use the “hello elbow” technique versus how many are using internal rotation. You can compare how many hitters “squish the bug” on their back leg versus shift their weight forward and get completely off the leg.
You can watch how infielders throw on a bang-bang play, how they make tags on steals, how they position themselves in bunt situations. You can watch how outfielders go back on a ball and how they scoop and throw home in a do-or-die situation. You can watch how many catchers throw from their knees versus their feet, and the specific techniques they use.
It’s a virtual cornucopia of skills on display, all delivered free to your living room.
3. See How Player Recover from Mistakes
One of the biggest challenges youth players face is learning how to recover from their mistakes, e.g., committing errors, striking out (particularly with runners on base), giving up leadoff walks, etc. As a general rule girls take “failure” rather hard, to the point where fear of failure can prevent them from performing at their highest level.
Well ya know what? Those players on TV do all those things too.
I remember the great Cindy Bristow telling a room full of coaches at a clinic that “My girls make the same mistakes your girls do. They just do it faster.”
So having your player(s) see one of the best in the game bobble a ball, strikeout, throw a wild pitch with a runner on third, or make some other mistake at the least will show her she’s in good company. (It will also show coaches and parents why they need to have realistic expectations for their 10 year olds.)
But the most important lesson for the player will be what happens next. Instead of brooding about it, the player in the WCWS will move on and keep playing. Sure, she may beat herself up over it later, especially if her team loses, but in the moment she pushes it down because she knows she needs to be ready for the next opportunity.
That is not necessarily a natural skill for most humans. But it’s one that can be learned of you make the effort.
4. Hear Some Inspirational Stories
Softball is absolutely a game of failure and adversity. And for some the journey is more challenging than others.
It’s easy to assume that everyone you see was a star from the beginning who was recognized for their talent and treated like royalty their whole career. But that isn’t always the case.
Fortunately, ESPN does a great job of profiling players and where they came from to tell fascinating human interest stories. Such as last year when Odicci Alexander captured the nation’s hearts with her story of being self-taught before leading her James Madison University team to the WCWS.
There are always stories players can relate to. Some talk about overcoming challenging injuries, including some that were supposed to be career-ending.
Some relate to issues such as being cut from a travel team or not making varsity and having to work even harder to elevate their games. Some involve personal tragedies.
Whatever the story, it shows that obstacles are only temporary – if you have the will to overcome them.
5. Bond With Your Player(s)
Remember the great James Earl Jones speech in “Field of Dreams” about how America marched along like an army of steamrollers, but through it all there was baseball? The shared experience of watching a sport played at its highest level can really help parents bond with their children and coaches bond with their players.
To make that happen, of course, you can’t make watching the games like school. Or at least totally like school.
Sure, you can go over plays and evaluate the coverages and executions. But you can also simply appreciate an amazing diving catch or the inner struggle on both sides of a 12-pitch at-bat.
But of course the best part will be spending time with those players sharing something you mutually love.
6. Follow the Benjamins
In the beginning of this post I mentioned that ESPN broadcasts every game of the tournament not because they love softball or softball players so much but because it makes them money. Lots of money.
Well, the downside of that is if the audience dries up so does the coverage. So if you want to keep seeing games on TV, even occasionally, one of the best things you can do is watch them now.
Keep those ratings growing and it will encourage even more coverage. Otherwise you’ll be singing this sad song.
First of all, let me tell you I had quite a debate with myself on whether to write a New Year’s post or just go with a more general topic. But when the stars align – as in the last day of 2021 is also the day I usually put up a new post – it’s a good idea to just go with it.
So here we are. Hopefully 2021 was a great year for you.
We actually had somewhat normal high school, college, and youth softball seasons, although COVID-19 protocols often impacted the spectator part of spectators sports. At least the fans who got in didn’t have to wear a mask on 90-degree days.
Also in 2021, fastpitch softball temporarily returned to the Olympics, albeit in eerily quiet and empty stadiums and played on baseball diamonds. It was sort of like watching a dome game with a field set up for football. The fact that the oddly formatted mini-tournament was finished before the opening ceremonies took place tells you all you need to know about what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) really thinks about our sport.
The Women’s College World Series (WCWS) on the other hand was a TV rating juggernaut, averaging more than 1.2 million viewers per game. That’s 10% more than the 2019 WCWS.
The three-game championship series between Oklahoma and Florida State fared even better, drawing an average of nearly 2 million viewers per game. In the process, we got to see a lot of great softball.
Speaking of great softball, Athletes Unlimited entertained a lot of fastpitch softball fanatics with its playground-brand of choosing up teams and having no coaches on the sidelines. Maybe they’re on to something.
And hopefully you personally had a successful 2021 as well.
Of course, as the disclaimer on every “get-rich-quick” scheme quickly says, past performance does not guarantee future gains. So following are a few tips to help you make 2022 an even better year.
Tip #1: Practice with a purpose
Yes, I know many of you have t-shirts with that very saying on them. But how often do you actually take that approach?
It’s easy to get into the rut of “putting in time.” i.e., going off somewhere and going through the motions of a skill for a half hour or an hour or whatever, or coaches having players performing activities for two, or three, or four hours. None of which will actually help you get better, and could make you worse if the practice is sloppy enough.
If you’re going to practice, then have a goal and go after it wholeheartedly. For example, if you’re a pitcher working on leg drive, then work on getting yourself out faster each time rather than mindlessly doing the leg drive drill you were assigned.
Master the skill, not the drill, and you’ll be a lot better off.
Tip #2: Grow your knowledge
In today’s Internet-accessible world there’s no reason to do things a certain way because that’s how you’ve always done them. There is an incredible amount of research being done in our sport and an incredible wealth of knowledge being shared – if you will open your mind to it.
The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) is one of the best. Right now they are in the midst of hosting a series of live coaches clinics around the country that enable top-level coaches to share their expertise with the rest of us.
If you want to go more in-depth on a topic, the NFCA also has its Master Coach program, which offers a combination of live and online courses. I took their very first online Coaches College course earlier in 2021 and it was well worth the time and money. Give it a shot.
There are plenty of private resources as well. PaulyGirl Fastpitch has its High Performance Pitching courses at the beginner, intermediate, elite, and pro levels.
You can learn all about great throwing mechanics from the High Level Throwing program. There’s a cornucopia of hitting courses out there as well.
Then there are resources such as the Discuss Fastpitch board and the Fastpitch Zone and The Bullpen Facebook groups that connect coaches from around the world with one another to share their knowledge and experience. And that’s the just the start.
If you want more knowledge it’s out there. Just be sure to come in with an open mind because some of what you hear may go against everything you’ve ever believed. And that can be a good thing.
Tip #3: Use video
This one doesn’t require a lot of explanation. There’s what we think we see or feel, and there’s what’s actually happening. They’re not always the same.
Virtually every mobile phone includes a high-definition, high-speed camera for free that would be the envy of coaches and players from just 10 years ago. Take advantage of it.
Video yourself or your players often, and see if what you think you’re doing is what you are in fact doing. Compare what you see to the best players in the world.
While you don’t have to match exactly, you should match in principle. If you’re not doing what you think you’re doing, adjust accordingly.
Tip #4: Work on your mental game
Ask any group of coaches or players “who thinks the mental game is a critical contributor to success?” and you’ll probably see every or nearly every one of them raise their hands. Then ask how many take the time during practice or during their free time to work on it and you’ll likely see few (if any) hands.
It’s sort of like Mark Twain’s famous admonition about the weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.
That is a mistake in my opinion. There are (again) plenty of books and other resources that focus on this aspect of sports. Here’s a list of a few:
- Head’s Up Baseball
- Mind Gym
- The Champion’s Mind
- Championship Team Building
- The Mindful Athlete
- Winning State
- Mental Conditioning for Softball
- The Energy Bus
Invest some real time in developing the mental game – especially the part about overcoming adversity – and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.
Tip #5: Make some time for recruiting activities
This is for those players who want to (or think they want to) play softball in college. If that’s not you, go ahead and skip to Tip #6.
For those still reading, playing softball in college at any level is an accomplishment – and ultra-competitive these days. You’re unlikely to be randomly discovered playing during a local tournament.
If you want to play in college, you need to make an effort to build a relationship with coaches at different schools, and at different levels.
One obvious way is to attend skills camps at schools where you might like to play. While some are just money grabs that have minimal involvement from the college coach, most are both an opportunity for coaches to give back to the game while checking out potential future talent. What better way is there to get them interested in you than to demonstrate your skills in their “house?”
Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is another great way to establish and maintain contact with coaches. Follow coaches at schools you’re interested in and hopefully they will follow you back.
Share their Tweets with your followers. Send Tweets of your own about your/your team’s latest accomplishments and activities and tag the coach or the program. Be active and be visible.
Just one word of caution about social media: keep it positive at all times. The Internet is written in ink, and more than a few players have eliminated themselves from consideration by their dream schools because of things they’ve posted. That includes photos and negative comments about their parents or current coach.
Present yourself as if the coaches you want to play for are watching every post. Because they are.
Email is still a valid way to contact coaches too. Just keep it brief – they’re busy people and many get hundreds of emails a day. If you want to share a video, be sure the coach can see what you want him/her to see in ONE click. Any more than that and they’ll pass.
This isn’t just for high school players either. While the D1 rules changed and they can no longer contact players before September 1 of their junior years, it doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to who can play and who is interested in their schools. And there are no such restrictions for D2, D3, and NAIA, although they tend to recruit later anyway.
Recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint, so get out there early and often if you think playing in college might be for you.
Tip #6: Make time for rest and recovery
When you’re dedicated to something it’s easy to overdo it. Don’t let that happen.
Rest and recovery is just as important to high performance as training. Your body needs time to build itself back up after intense activity. So does your mind.
It’s ok to take a day or two off each week during the season as well as during the offseason. Your body and your brain will tell you how much you need for peak performance. You should also plan on taking at least a couple of weeks off at some time during the year for deeper recovery.
Oh, and this applies to coaches too. You’ll find coaching is a lot more enjoyable if you let your batteries recharge now and then.
Tip #7: Resolve to have fun
This is probably the aspect that has been most lost over the course of the last 10-20 years. Yes, we have more technology that can tell us more things, and more practice facilities that enable us to keep working even when the weather is at its nastiest, and more opportunities than ever to take our game to a higher level.
But the tradeoff has been more pressure and more stress to the point where playing (and coaching for that matter) feels like a job. And not a particularly pleasant one.
It’s important to remember that softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.
That doesn’t mean it should be like a birthday party without the cake. But it shouldn’t be like studying for finals while waiting to see the dentist either.
Fun in most cases is what you make it. Some people enjoy really digging into things and pushing themselves to their limits. That’s right for them.
But it’s not right for everyone. Others will find their fun in getting a little better each day without killing themselves, competing (in a friendly way) with their teammates, or in being part of a team.
Understand what’s fun for you and then find/create a team with others who share your definition and goals. Like using the wrong pair of cleats, being on a team that isn’t a good fit can be painful.
Good luck to everyone, and I hope you make 2022 your best year ever!
Photo by Damir Mijailovic on Pexels.com
In the 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11 (not to be confused with the Rat Pack movie from 1960), robbery target Terry Benedict tells Danny Ocean that “In my hotel, someone is always watching.”
Parents and softball players would be wise to remember that statement as they go about the business of attempting to get recruited by the team of their choice. Especially now, since as I write this we are in the midst of “Showcase Season,” the big opportunity for college coaches to watch potential recruits in action.
This lesson was reinforced on a Zoom with a couple of D1 coaches as part of the National Fastpitch Coaches College (NFCC) Course 401. Both coaches said there is far more to who they, and most of their contemporaries, select than just on-field talent.
One of them went on to talk about a player who is the #1 prospect in his state. Yet neither his school or the other major D1 college in his state has extended an offer to her. Why not?
It’s simple. It comes down to character. Not just of the player but of the parents.
I’ve heard many college coaches talk about this. When they go to watch a game they don’t just watch what happens on the field.
They also watch what happens off of it. Like how the parents act during the game and how the player speaks to her parents.
In the former case, college coaches want to steer clear of any parents who seem like they will be “those parents.” You know the ones – nothing is good enough for them, their daughter is always getting shortchanged by the coaches, the umpires are idiots who need to be called out at every opportunity, etc.
If you see them acting this way now there is no reason to think they won’t act this way if their daughter is on the collegiate team. And since the pressure is magnified in college, willingly taking on a major headache doesn’t seem like a good strategy.
Unless they are incredibly desperate, most coaches would rather take a player with a little less talent and a lot less baggage. Especially those who have a wide choice of players, i.e., your Power 25.
As far as player interactions with their parents (as well as coaches and teammates), that can be another huge red flag. Players who speak disrespectfully to their parents are likely to do the same to college coaches. Who needs that?
They’re also more likely to break rules, get into academic trouble, or become a cancer on the team if they don’t get their way. It doesn’t take much to send a season south, so again coaches will quickly write those players off their lists.
So it might seem like the best solution is for parents and players to be on their best behavior when college coaches are around. The problem with that is you don’t always know they’re there.
Sure, some coaches will wear their team shirts and sit right behind the backstop in the “scouting” section. But others will be a whole lot less obtrusive.
The aforementioned coach said he likes to hang in the background and listen. He wants to hear if parents are running down the coach, or constantly questioning strategies or decisions, or putting down other players.
If they’re doing it now, there’s no reason to think they won’t do it if their daughter is playing at that school. Hard pass.
No, the real solution, and I know this will be a shocker for some, is to be people of good character. Parents, be supportive of the whole team. Not because someone is watching but because it’s the right thing to do.
Players, be great teammates. Be the person who picks up others, encourages the girl who made an error or struck out, and does little things like grabbing a bat that gets tossed toward the dugout or picking up garbage in dugout after the game.
Because college coaches notice that stuff too. And they like it.
While this should be an automatic, it’s not. It’s a learned behavior for some. So learn it.
Be a good person on and off the field. Because remember, there’s always someone watching.
Most of the time my blog post are more oriented toward players (and their parents) who, shall we say, don’t have the greatest athletic gifts. Not to mention coaches who are trying to make their teams competitive through sheer hard work.
Today, though, I am going to turn that concept on its head. This one is for those players who won the genetic lottery.
You know the ones. They are naturally bigger, stronger, faster, with better eyesight, better hand-to-eye coordination, more fast twitch muscles and other attributes that most of us wish we (or our kids/players) had.
They are always a big fish, no matter what size pond they’re in.
Here’s my message to those players and their families: that genetic lottery has more than one winner. In fact, while the total number may be small compared to all the players who play the game, it’s still much larger than the number of spots on coveted teams.
Which means if you want one of those spots you need to keep working hard. Probably even harder than players with lesser natural ability because all your real competition is at least as able as you. Maybe even more gifted.
I know that may be hard to believe, especially if you don’t get to see a lot of ultra-talented players wherever you play. But believe me, they’re out there.
When you have more natural ability than everyone else it’s easy to fall into the trap of relying on it. After all, if your overhand throw is 60 mph and all your teammates’ (and opponents) are closer to 50 mph it’s easy to think you take it easy in practice or just rely on your ability in a game.
But in the end, you’re not competing against the players around you for those coveted spots. You’re competing against a small universe of players you may not see but who are definitely out there.
Which means you need to make sure your skill level and understanding of the game, not to mention your mental game, is on a par with them.
My suggestion, if you want to find a local role model, is to look at the player on your team, in your league or conference, etc. who doesn’t seem to have a lot of natural ability but is succeeding anyway. That player got there by working harder than everyone else and not getting discouraged when she failed.
Instead, when she failed she used it as fuel and a learning experience to help her get better.
That girl has to have better technique at whatever she does because if she doesn’t she’ll never see the field. Coaches aren’t falling all over themselves to get her on their team or put her in their lineup, so she has to prove herself every time she steps across the chalk line.
Study her. Learn from her. Do what she does.
If she boots a ground ball, she probably asks for another one. Do the same.
If she’s struggling to hit she doesn’t go into a funk. She pulls the tee out and works on whatever she knows her issues are. And believe me she knows what they are because she pays close attention when a coach is working with her.
Basically, instead of acting like a “super talent,” instead become a grinder. Work to gain the best technique not because you have to today, but because one day you will need it. Gain that mentality and you’ll find the road to the top is significantly easier than it would have been otherwise.
Talent, athleticism, whatever you want to call it, is definitely a good thing. If you won the genetic lottery be sure to thank your parents early and often. Genetics can’t be taught.
Don’t let that ability sucker you into complacency, however. Approach the game like you were the last one to make the roster instead of the first one invited and we just might see you on ESPN one day.
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The next few weeks promise to be a softball fanatic’s dream.
First you have all the major D1 college conference championships that will be televised on the various flavors of ESPN. Plus all the others that are available through various streaming services, including D2 and D3.
Then there are the regionals, super regionals and Women’s College World Series games that will take us through early June. Here’s an overview of what that schedule will look like.
While I’m sure it will be enjoyable to watch, there’s more to it than just entertainment. All this great softball on TV provides an invaluable learning opportunity for young teams – and one which most of today’s players don’t seem to take much advantage of.
When I start with a new student, I will often ask her if she can name any famous players at whatever skill we’ll be working on. For example, if it’s a new pitching student I’ll ask who she admires as a pitcher or what famous names she knows.
More often than not I get a blank stare. If I name a few for them, such as Cat Osterman, Amanda Scarborough, Monica Abbott, or Sarah Pauly, most of the time they may have heard of the name but have never seen them pitch.
As a result, most of the time they have no idea what a high-level pitcher looks like in action. The same is true for hitters and fielders.
That’s why the next few weeks present such a tremendous opportunity. Some of the best players in the world will be showcased doing what they do best. These are young women who do what you would like your players to do.
So why not take advantage of that and replace a normal practice with a watch party? You can find out when a local or semi-local team is playing and watch that game.
Or see if there is a player from your area on one of the teams and have your team watch her specifically. Show them that these aren’t just figures on TV but real players who once stood where your players do now.
Make a party of it. Supply some snacks, order some pizza, maybe even organize a sleepover if that’s appropriate. Then at game time, actually watch what happens and discuss the action on the field.
You might even pause the game and run back a good play to show the effort that went into it, or re-watch a bad play to talk about what should have happened instead. You can also talk about the strategy of why a team or player did what they did (good or bad) to help raise your team’s collective softball IQ.
It has been estimated that the majority of people in the world (65%) are visual learners. Showing your players both good and bad examples in real time helps them understand more thoroughly the techniques and strategies you’re trying to teach them.
As you watch the game, perhaps the coaches and players can make a list of things they want to work on at the next practice. Maybe it’s diving to catch a ball. Maybe it’s a type of slide they saw, or a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch. Maybe it’s a suicide squeeze.
Whatever it is, seeing it performed and then trying it themselves may be just the spark they need to inspire them to play at a higher level than they are now.
Watching a game on TV also gives your players a chance to gain some perspective about their own performance. They may see a pitcher give up a critical home run, then come back to strike out the next hitter.
They may see a player make an error to give up the go-ahead run, then come through later in the game with a key hit. Ultimately, especially in an elimination game, they will see the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” played out in real time.
The other nice thing about watching the games on TV (versus going in person, which is also a great experience) is that it doesn’t cost much. A little food and drink, the price of the cable or streaming channel (if it isn’t free) and the time to clean up afterwards is about all you need.
But you can create a learning and bonding experience that will benefit your players for a long time to come.
Sure, we all like to grind away on the field. But if all your players ever see is each other, and players on other teams of comparable ability, they may never realize there is a much larger world out there.
Show them some of the best in the world playing the game at a high level and you just might inspire a level of play and enthusiasm in them that they wouldn’t have achieved before.
I have made it clear in the past that I am not a fan of time limits on fastpitch softball games. Maybe I’m just old but I believe the game is meant to be played over a minimum of seven innings, no matter how long that takes.
Time limits, however, are a fact of life in travel ball. Whether you believe it’s tournament directors/organizations being greedy by trying to squeeze 10 lbs. of play into a 5 lb. set of fields or well-meaning tournament directors/organizations trying to ensure that games run on time out of respect for the teams who spend all day at the ballpark, time limits don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
With that in mind, I have a few observations on how these time limits are affecting the game today, and how they will affect it in the future. Whether you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments below.
Observation #1: Pitchers find it more difficult to last seven innings when required. I am seeing that a lot in high school ball right now.
Pitchers who are used to games lasting 75 or 85 minutes are able to perform at a high level for five innings or so. But come inning #6, they start having a lot more trouble.
Now, I know some will say that’s because they’ve gone around the batting order a couple of times and the hitters have seen them. But I don’t think that’s the sole reason.
I believe that mentally they are used to the games being done by that point, and the thought that they have to keep going requires some adjustment. For some, it can even get tough at the end of the fifth as they realize they still need to have something in the tank for another two innings.
Does that mean they can’t adjust? Of course not. But it may take them a while before they learn to pace themselves properly for a seven-inning game.
Observation #2: Teams can no longer ride one pitcher for the season. Back in the day, to be successful a travel team, high school team, or even a college team really needed only one Ace pitcher. She was expected to carry the load, pitching every inning (or nearly every inning at least) in every major tournament.
That is no longer the case. Now, it could be that the hitters have gotten a lot better, actually working at their craft in the off-season like pitchers always have.
Rule changes have also made it tougher to ride one pitcher. Pushing the pitching distance back and moving from white balls with white seams to yellow balls with red seams has brought more offense into the game. So has bat technology, which sometimes allows a ball struck with a half swing to carry over the fence.
But I also think the way travel teams and tournaments are structured has had an effect on pitchers’ ability to carry that type of load. All the stop/start of more games can place more stress on young arms, so teams are spreading the load more.
While I think that’s a good thing overall, it also means many young pitchers don’t learn HOW to carry the load. They know there’s always help available.
Greater availability of facilities and lessons also means there are more pitchers out there than ever before. Those pitchers aren’t going to stick around very long, however, if they don’t get innings, so that means coaches must ensure #2 and #3 receive enough circle time to stay with the team.
From a health and safety perspective that’s a good thing, in my opinion. But it does mean that fewer #1s are learning how to be that pitcher. They are becoming more inclined to thinking they did their job in game one, and now it’s time for someone else to step up.
Observation #3: We will likely see more specialization in the future. As a result of the previous changes, I think it’s likely fastpitch softball, especially at the collegiate level, will start to look more like baseball, with a bullpen full of specialists.
Right now, all pitchers are considered to be starters. That doesn’t mean they all get starts – that decision is still merit-based (or political, depending on who you talk to).
But pitchers in a college bullpen aren’t thought of as being middle relievers, or closers, or really anything other than an arm available to throw in a game.
I think that will change, especially with a generation of pitchers used to working within time limits. That girl who is lights-out for one inning but deteriorates rapidly after?
Instead of trying to force her to improve her endurance, make her a closer. She can just go in and rocket the ball for three or four hitters rather than giving the top of the lineup a chance to see the starter for a third or fourth time.
Your #3 or #4 starter? Maybe she’s better suited to be a middle reliever. Pair her up with a starter where she will be a contrast – like a dropball pitcher paired with a riseball pitcher – and let her come in when hitters start getting comfortable with the starter.
The more teams use their pitchers as a staff in specific roles rather than trying to fit everyone into the “starter” category, the more they can become strategic.
Would it be better to have one Ace you knew you could ride the whole way? Maybe. But thanks to the way pitchers are being developed these days I think that ship has sailed.
Rather than fighting it, it’s time for colleges to look at what they’re getting and figure out how best to use them. The good news for players is that this sort of change in thinking might open up some new opportunities that weren’t there before. Especially for those who fit that “closer” description.
The foundation of softball at the high school and collegiate levels is youth softball – primarily travel ball. Changes there will affect the way the game is played all the way up the food chain.
Rather than fighting it, or clinging to old ways, schools need to take a hard look at the way the game is being played at the younger levels and adjust their strategies accordingly. Those who do will likely have greater success in both the short- and long-term.
One of the things I have been most fortunate in throughout my coaching career has been exposure to other knowledgeable, successful coaches. They are the kind of people who have accomplished enough that you’d be tempted to think they have all the answers.
Yet if there is one core characteristic they all share it’s that they are always hungry to learn more. No matter what success they may have achieved, or helped the players they work with achieve, they’re always on the hunt for more information.
They’ll talk to anyone, or read any article or watch any video or attend any lecture if they think it might help them become a better coach. If they find a better way to do something than what they’ve been teaching, they will change how they teach.
There is a very important lesson here for young coaches – especially those who are still in college or who have just graduated. All too often, I see and here about young coaches basically repeating whatever they have been told as players rather than doing the heavy lifting to learn what the latest state of the game is.
I get it. These coaches were successful as players, so why wouldn’t what they did work for those who are coming up?
Except that a lot of times these players succeeded in spite of what they were taught. If you look at videos of them as players, they didn’t do anything like what they are now repeating. Instead, their bodies naturally found the most efficient way to throw, hit, pitch, etc. a ball.
So why wouldn’t they want to question what they were taught to see if there is a better way?
That’s a question I’ve always wondered. But I actually heard a good answer from Anna Miller Nickel, an excellent pitching coach and former D1 and pro pitcher herself. (For more from Anna, you can follow her on Instagram at ElevatePitching.)
“In college, you’re coming into a new programs and trying to learn the ropes,” Anna said. “You are working on fitting into the program and aren’t really questioning what your coaches are instructing you to do.
“Each coach has a certain philosophy and for a team to succeed, everyone needs to buy in. After your career is over, you realize how much you still have to learn and may not know where to start. The amount I’ve learned after I stopped playing makes me wish I could go back and have asked better questions.”
That is fascinating to me. I would think coaches would want to encourage players to ask questions, because if you’re asking questions you’re engaged.
But that’s not always the case. Often coaches say and players do as a matter of efficiency, so there really isn’t a mindset of wondering why they’re being told to do things a certain way, or whether what they’ve always been told is the best way to do things.
This is an important mentality for you young coaches to break. The reality is questioning what you were taught, and even comparing it closely to what you actually do, is critical if you are going to improve as a coach do right by your players.
That’s what Anna told me she did. When she got out of school and started coaching, she started with the basics as they were taught to her when she was young.
But the more she thought about it, and looked into it, the more they didn’t make sense. She sought out help, did the heavy lifting to learn, and changed many of the things she was doing.
You young coaches can do the same. Don’t take it for granted that what you’ve been told in the past is correct, or even good mechanics.
Take what you’ve been told and compare it to what they best players in the world at a given position do. If the two don’t line up, there is probably a better way to do things than what you were taught.
Also, don’t be afraid to get involved in different groups and to seek out information from coaches who are respected for their knowledge of the game or various aspects of it. I have found that most good coaches are more than happy to share what they know because they didn’t get to that point by themselves either.
Find a mentor or mentors with whom you feel comfortable asking their advice or bouncing ideas off of. I’m certainly willing to help anyone who is interested, and I know there are many coaches out there who feel the same.
The sooner you get past the “don’t ask questions” or “just repeat what I was told” mindset and really start putting your brain to work, the sooner you will achieve success -and the faster you will move up the ranks.
To close this one out, I will share a great parable about the need to understand why you’re doing something:
Take five monkeys, put them in a cage where there is a staircase, and at the top of the staircase hang a banana. Every time one of the monkeys starts to climb the staircase to get the banana, spray them all with icy cold water.
Pretty soon, any time the monkeys see one of their number starting to climb the staircase they will jump on him and beat him up to avoid getting sprayed with water. At that point you stop spraying them with water.
Once that’s established, remove one of the monkeys and replace him with a new one. That one doesn’t know about the water and will start to go for the banana, but the others will grab him. Pretty soon, the new monkey will also grab any monkey that tries to go up the staircase.
Continue to replace the monkeys one-by-one until none of the original monkeys are left. You will see that they will still grab and beat up any monkey that tries to climb the staircase – even though none of them have ever been sprayed with water or know why climbing the stairs is bad.
They’re not sure why they’re doing it. That’s just the way things are done around here.
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