Category Archives: General Thoughts

Teach Your Children Well

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been seeing several posts and discussions about sportsmanship and the lack thereof. I’m not talking about umpire abuse, which I’ve talked about before, or parents getting into screaming matches or even fistfights on the sidelines.

Instead, the issue has to do with all the sing-song cheering that goes on in the dugout.

Now, let me say from the outset that I’m not a huge fan of that type of cheering. I personally find it annoying and a distraction. I’d much rather have my players focused on studying the pitcher and looking for defensive tendencies than worrying about what rhymes they’re going to scream at the tops of their lungs.

That doesn’t make cheering wrong, necessarily, it’s just not my cup of tea. Then again, neither is Metallica, although a lot of other people seem to like them.

Speaking of screaming in rhyme.

Still, if doing the cheers makes it more fun for the girls then I say have it. I’ll deal.

The only caveat is that you should be cheering for your team, not against the other team or insulting them in some way. And that’s where it seems to be going wrong more and more these days.

There has always been an element of that in the sport. I remember hearing cheers about pitchers rolling the ball in or the infamous “siren” when a runner stole a base back in the day. Those are things you have to learn to shake off.

But in today’s world it seems like it’s getting a lot nastier, and a lot more personal.

The problem is you’re not just setting a tone for a team in a game. Coaches who allow or encourage that type of behavior are teaching their players that, well, it’s perfectly fine to be a jerk to others if it gets you what you want.

Is that really the takeaway we want to give our players?

People always talk about how playing sports teaches the concept of sportsmanship and fair play, qualities that are essential to a higher-functioning society.

In these cases, however, that’s not what’s happening. In fact, it’s going the other way.

An entire generation built on making yourself feel better by putting others down or doing whatever you want no matter how it affects others does not lead to a better society. Quite the opposite.

There is simply no reason for this type of behavior. Instead, sports should be teaching our young people that they can support their teammates while respecting those on the other side.

They should also be teaching that punching down on someone who is struggling is just wrong. Yes, that pitcher may be slower than you’re used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s your job to point it out to the entire field and make her feel bad about herself.

Instead, appreciate that she’s doing the best she can in that moment. Instead, have some empathy for her, and think about how you would feel if you were her and others were yelling their nastiness at you in front of the crowd.

The same goes for making fun of a player who made an error or struck out on a bad pitch. Celebrate what your side did without pointing out the flaws of theirs.

Because someday, in some other situation, like a new job, she may very well be you. And you’re going to hope your coworkers will help you instead of simply jeering and telling the rest of the company how badly you suck.

Coaches, if you hear this sort of thing coming out of your players shut it down immediately. I get that you may not even notice what they’re saying, especially if you tend to tune that noise out like I do. But someone on the staff should be able to notice it and address it.

If they don’t, parents don’t hesitate to bring it up to the coach. After all, that’s your daughter and her friends/teammates.

You want them to grow up to be decent human beings, and to think about the world they’re going to leave for Keith Richards and Willie Nelson someday.

Keef agrees.

They need to learn how to make the world a better place than they found it, and their behavior during games (especially if there is a mismatch in talent) is a great place to start.

I know some will say “The world is a tough place and the little snowflakes need to toughen up.” But it’s only tough if we all collectively allow it to be.

If each person does a little bit every day to make the world a little better the cumulative effect will be immense. For softball players, they can start by cheering FOR their team rather than AGAINST their opponents – either individually or as a team.

Teach your children well. Because the lessons they’re learning on the field today can have a big impact on who they become as adults.


The Essence of Being a Great Teammate

There have been tons of books and articles written instructing players on how to be a great teammate. Many of them talk about things like cheering loudly in the dugout or communicating well or standing up for a teammate if he/she is verbally or even physically attacked.

But one of the best things you can do is to simply step up and do something that needs to be done to help the team – even if it’s outside your normal role. I recently heard a great example involving one of my pitching students, a young lady named Sammie.

Sammie’s high school team was scheduled to play a game that day. They typically have just enough to actually play, so when they discovered that their one and only catcher had gone home sick from school it left a giant hole in the lineup someone had to fill.

I’m sure you can see where this is headed: Sammie said she would volunteer.

Ok, maybe not quite that dramatic but still good.

Now, as I understand it Sammie has never caught before in her life. Not even in rec ball.

She has always been a pitcher, and she has become an excellent pitcher. But she had pitched the day before while fighting through an injury so her pitching again wasn’t a possibility.

She could have just stood by and looked the other way, but the team needed someone and she said she’d strap on the gear and give it a shot.

That’s remarkable enough. But there’s one other minor factor that makes it even better.

If you look at the photo at the top of this blog post what do you see? Look closer. There you have it.

No, that photo isn’t reversed. Sammie is a lefty.

So basically you have a lefty who has never played the position before stepping up to play one of the toughest and most important positions on the field. And one with some extra risk of getting hurt through foul tips or chasing after pop-ups or plays at the plate or just flat-out missing the ball because you’re not used to catching it while someone is swinging.

Not sure if she tried this but she’s a dancer so maybe.

In my world, that’s the essence of being a great teammate. Because if Sammie doesn’t step up (and clearly no one else plans to either) the team doesn’t play.

There are many ways players can contribute to a team. But when you’re willing to look beyond your own needs and worries and do something that’s well outside your comfort zone you separate yourself from the crowd.

Or as Mr. Spock would say:

Or the one.

The Run Rule – and the Golden Rule

Most of us are taught the Golden Rule as children: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

So you have to wonder what goes through some coaches’ heads when their team is clearly going to run rule their opponents but they decide to keep their foot on the offensive accelerator anyway. I mean, why would you beat an opponent by 15 runs when you could do it by 30 runs instead? Right?

This topic came up when I was talking to a coach friend of mine who recently saw this type of beating in real time. She wondered why the coach of the superior team felt the need to run up the score when the game was already decided pretty early.

I didn’t have an answer. Maybe the winning coach wasn’t used to being in that situation and didn’t know how to control events on the field.

Maybe she thought that hanging a big number on their opponents would somehow give her team more confidence and they’d start playing better. Maybe she just didn’t know any better.

Maybe the losing team over-reached (or under-researched) when entering that tournament or scheduling that game and put themselves in a bad situation.

Or maybe, just maybe, the winning coach enjoyed the feeling of beating up on a weaker team. There are people like that out there.

Take that random team I don’t really know.

Whatever the reason, scores of big numbers to 0 or 1 really shouldn’t happen. Once the direction of the game has been established as being greatly lopsided, the coach of the team on top should do what he/she can to keep it under control rather than humiliating a group of kids who may not have been playing for very long or just don’t have the talent to compete at that particular level.

There are several ways the superior team can help keep the score from getting out of hand:

  • One of the first things to do is quit stealing bases. Not just actual steals but even on passed balls or wild pitches, and especially with a runner on third. Just hold the runners where they are to give the fielding team more of an opportunity to make plays without the offensive team racking up runs.
  • You can also have baserunners run station-to-station. In other words, even though runners could move up two or three bases at a time, just have them move up to the next base and stop. And no taking an extra base on an overthrow. I can already hear the objections: “But I want to teach my runners to be aggressive and this will hurt that plan.” Stop already with that. First of all, the head coach can (quietly) explain what the team is doing (and why), letting the team know it’s only for this one game. And if pulling up in one game really leads baserunners to be unaggressive in the next game, well, the coach has some more work to do on teaching the game.
  • You can have runners slow down a little to give fielders a little extra time to make a play. Not too much – you don’t want to look like you’re trying to show up the other team. But a little bit might help.
  • If those steps don’t help, the team on offense can start making outs on purpose. One of the classic strategies is to have baserunners leave the base early so they can be called out by the umpire. In my experience it’s best to let the umpire know quietly you’re planning to do it so they are watching for it.
  • Another way is to have hitters line up at one of the edges of the box and then step out as they hit. For example, a hitter who strides can have her front foot at the front of the batter’s box and stride out. A slapper can run out of the box and slap or bunt. Again, it helps to let the umpire know you’re doing it to make it easier for him/her to call.
  • On a ground ball, baserunners can gently run into fielders to be called for interference rather than going around. It should be just enough to be seen, but definitely not enough to cause distress or injury.
  • And, of course, for teams that have designated starters and subs, put those subs in early. The starters might appreciate the break and the subs will have a chance to play. Just make sure the starters know it’s now their turn to support their teammates on the field and at the plate. The risk here is that the subs will be anxious to show what they can do and might bring a little too much enthusiasm to the opportunity. So make sure everyone on your side understands what’s happening and what they are expected to do.

There are also a couple of ways I wouldn’t go about it, including:

  • Telling a hitter to strike out on purpose, or just go for a weak hit. While the intention may be good, you run the risk of having that come back to bite you in a game where you do need a hit.
  • Having players bat opposite-handed. Again, while the intention might be good, it could also be viewed as trying to show up the other team. They feel bad enough. No use adding insult to injury.
  • Having all your hitters bunt. Most teams spend less time on their bunt defense than their standard ground ball defense. This is especially true of weak teams in my experience. While you may think you’re helping them, you could be making them look even worse.

Coaches should want to keep the score somewhat under control because it’s the right thing to do. Again, the Golden Rule.

You wouldn’t want someone running the score up on your team, so don’t do it to someone else. But there’s another reason too.

You may have also heard the phrase “Karma (or payback) is a b***h.”

Always fun to see a little payback happen.

Some day that team you’re humiliating today might get better while yours loses a step or two.

Coaches tend to have long memories for these sorts of things, so should that day come what you do today could have a big impact on how you end up looking and feeling then.

No one learns anything when a team runs up the score on a weaker opponent. Except that maybe someone doesn’t have much class.

“Do unto others” and you can never go wrong. The lessons learned there will be worth a lot more than a few extra runs in the “runs for” column.

No Virginia; Data and Stats Aren’t “Ruining” the Game

One of the most popular complaints heard these days about both fastpitch softball and baseball these days is that all the attention being paid to data and statistical information is “ruining” the game. Old-timers (or Traditionalists as we’ll call them since they’re not always old and older coaches are often the first to adopt new breakthroughs) in particular long for the days when decisions were made based on experience and gut instinct alone.

Well, the problem with that is a whole lot fewer people actually have great gut instincts than think they do.

And be shared on GameChanger.

And to be honest, experience is really just data/statistics stored in a different way.

The reality is data and statistics can be extremely helpful in developing players as well as making in-game decisions. Let’s look at a few cases where understanding the data and statistics can be a difference-maker.

Setting up batting orders

Traditionalists believe they know who the good hitters are. And barring something crazy they will tend to build their lineups based on those beliefs, even when that approach clearly isn’t working.

Those who use data and statistics on a regular basis will take a look at who is actually hitting well in games – especially who has a hot hand right now – and try to give those players more at bats. It might not always work out, e.g., a hitter who does well in the relatively low pressure 6 spot might struggle more at 2 or 3.

But if certain players are out-hitting others, even if they don’t look like they should be, it’s definitely worth finding out if a lineup shakeup might produce a few more runs.

Using pitchers more effectively

While there are still plenty of old-school coaches out there who think they can ride one arm to a championship, in reality that has become much more difficult to do. Better training for hitters, and quite frankly more exposure to quality pitchers, means seeing the same pitcher three or four times is often an advantage for the offense late in the game.

With data and statistics coaches can see not only which starter matches up best with a particular team but which relievers seem to be most effective following those starters.

For example, say you have a fireballing lefty start the game. She does great a couple of times through the lineup, but then the offense seems to have figured her out.

Who do you put in now? Your next best Ace or perhaps more of an offspeed/spin pitcher? With data at your disposal you can see how well opposing teams have hit each so far after pulling the starter.

While there are no guarantees it will work again, you’ll at least have a starting point for making the decision. You might also use the information to assign specific roles to pitchers, such as middle reliever or closer, based on their effectiveness in different parts of the game – just like baseball does.

By seeing who performs well when you can manage your staff to ensure you’re making the most informed decisions you can while also perhaps saving your best arms for when they’re needed most.

Dealing with defensive shifts

This is probably one of the most-hated aspects of data and statistics, and the one that draws the most complaints. Seeing three infielders stacked up on the right side, or an infielder in an outfieldish position because statistically that’s where a particular hitter normally hits, is believed to be an abomination on the game.

Why? Because your hitter can’t do what he/she normally does and get away with it? Too bad.

Any type of unusual shift is going to create a glaring weakness. A smart offense coach (or player) will take advantage of it. A stubborn one will get burned by it.

I remember watching a Major League Baseball game a few years ago where the defense shifted to the right side, leaving the third baseman roughly between second and third. The hitter took some big cuts and eventually grounded out to one of those fielders on the right side.

I couldn’t understand why that hitter didn’t just bunt the ball down the third base line. He could have walked to first.

I get that contracts may be structured for extra base hits and all that, but the core idea of baseball/softball is get on base, then get to the next base until you make it back home. Laying down a bunt where no one can get to it will accomplish that.

It will also make the defense eventually reconsider the wisdom of those special shifts, so problem solved.

Selecting a pinch hitter

Pinch hitting is a tough role. You’re basically sitting and watching the game with little pressure until a critical situation comes up.

Then you’re put in under maximum pressure. It’s not for everyone, and even great hitters can crumble under those circumstances.

By the time you see this it’s too late.

With data and statistics, however, you can see who performs well under pressure – including which bench players do the best job of producing quality at-bats when called on. They’re not necessarily the ones with the highest overall batting average, but they are the ones who are best prepared for the specific circumstances you’re facing.

Having that information at your disposal can help guide you to a better decision. One that is based in fact rather than emotion.

Developing players

Data and statistics aren’t just valuable for in-game decision-making. They can also be tremendously helpful when you’re trying to improve players in practice or lessons.

A good example is helping pitchers learn how to spin their pitches. Tools such as Rapsodo or the DK ball can measure spin rates and spin directions to help pitchers learn the techniques that will lead to late break on the ball.

A radar unit, particularly one that is running constantly, can help pitchers see whether they are progressing while also holding them accountable to give maximum effort throughout the session.

The same radar unit can measure bat speed and ball exit velocity to determine if a hitter is progressing. Sensors such as Blast Motion that attach to the bat can provide even more data about bat position, launch angles, etc. that can help hitters hone their craft.

And complete systems such as 4D Motion can really get “under the hood” to show whether the way a player is moving is optimal in order to make deeper corrections that can have a profound effect on success.

These and other measurements use proven science to help players optimize their approach to a variety of skills that will help them perform better in the field – without all the guesswork and opinions that often hamper training.

Valuable tools

Does that mean data and statistics are a panacea that means coaches no longer have to know what they’re doing to succeed? Of course not.

The most important aspect of coaching remains the ability to relate to players and get the best out of them.

But data and statistics are great tools that help coaches see what they need to see they can focus on the areas that will deliver the best return on investment in every player. The coaches who embrace them, and learn what they really mean, will gain a tremendous advantage over those who still just want to rely on gut instinct.

In my opinion it’s definitely worth the time and effort.

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Relentless Competitors: Nature or Nurture?

Today’s post was inspired by a Facebook post from my friend and fellow pitching coach James Clark. James is the owner and chief instructor of United Pitching Academy in Centerville, Indiana and is very familiar with what it takes to build champions.

His original question was:

“Being competitive and having an absolute desire to win. Is this a personality trait or can it be coached?”

He and I chatted about it a bit ourselves and I will share some of his thoughts shortly. But you have to admit it’s a great question – especially since it generated a lot of comments on both sides of the issue. First, though, my thoughts.

In my experience it’s kind of a mix of both. Some people come by their competitiveness and relentless desire to win naturally.

On the positive side, these are the types of players who will spend extra hours taking ground balls or spinning pitches from close distance or getting in extra batting practice or hitting the weight room. During games they keep a positive attitude and do their best to lift their teammates, even when their team is down a bunch of runs, because they just can’t fathom losing without doing everything they can to win.

Even if that effort is at times misguided.

(On the negative side, these are also the players who will play through injuries when they should be taking time to heal themselves, and sometimes can be harsh on teammates they don’t think are giving the same level of effort.)

You don’t really have to do anything to push these players to give their all. They know no other way to approach the game.

It’s like the story about football legend Lou Holtz being asked how he became such a great motivator of players. “I find the players who are self-motivated and cut everyone else,” he said.

Those players stand out, however, precisely because they are so rare. For the rest, having that type of indomitable spirit and high level of competitiveness is something that has to be nurtured.

Especially in female athletes, because even today, in 2023, society doesn’t really value those traits in females as much as they do in males. Just look at the controversy over the NCAA women’s D1 basketball championship where a simple taunting gesture – one that would probably hardly raise an eyebrow on the men’s side – became a national scandal.

James and I both agree that competitiveness is hard-baked into our DNA at some level as part of our survival mechanism. As he put it:

“The natural selection idea stems from prehistoric/caveman times. You had to compete with nature to survive. Failure to do this was certain death.

“Needing to hunt and kill your next meal fostered the sense of survival. In modern times we tend to use sports to feed this primal instinct.. If it’s not fostered within a culture where leadership is promoting this “succeed or fail to survive mentality it eventually goes away.”

I agree with that thought. At one point in our early existence it was kill or be killed. Our primitive reptile brains still retain that somewhere.

But I also believe once humans began organizing themselves into societies they were able to distribute workloads based on ability. Those who were inclined to hunt would hunt, while those who were inclined to farm would farm.

A view of an early coach.

The farmers might still compete for who could grow the most food or the largest pumpkins, and could defend themselves if they had to. But they were largely relieved of the “kill or be killed out of necessity” aspect of life and so perhaps didn’t have that same urgency.

Which brings us to today with sports. For some, it’s definitely a way of life, which means winning and losing is uber-important to them.

Winning brings satisfaction while losing brings literal pain and suffering. (You would think winning would bring delight but I think for most uber-competitors the joy is short-lived because there’s always another hill to conquer.)

I hate losing more than I even wanna win.
I actually know that feeling.

For others, winning is less life-and-death. Sure, everyone wants to win, but for this group it’s not so life-and-death. And there’s always a segment of the population that’s just content to play whether they win or lose.

Which means coaches will need to bring that long-buried competitive streak out in those players. They will need to inspire those players to pursue winning at a deeper level than they may have on their own.

A big part of that is establishing a culture where winning is an important goal. Players have to have a big desire to win before they will go out of their way to compete better.

Finding a “lead goat” or two who can help drive the others is important. Take the natural competitors and make their enthusiasm infectious.

The belief that “we can do this” has taken many teams from the cellar to the penthouse and inspired players to do things they never thought they could (or would) do.

In my opinion, and I think James would agree, it’s one of the greatest gifts a coach can give his or her players. Because learning how to compete and succeed in sports is a skill that can be easily transferred to other aspects in a person’s life. Because everything in life is a competition at some level, so the sooner you learn how to compete, and build a burning desire to win, the better prepared you will be for life’s larger challenges.

In many cases, when you have a natural relentless competitor the best things the coach can do is guide them in how to direct that energy, give them the tools to pursue their passion, and then stay out of their way.

For everyone else, that’s where the real coaching comes in. It’s not just about X’s and O’s, or mechanics or strategies. It’s about lighting that spark that may be buried deep inside of them to help them exceed their current expectations in order to become the players they’re meant to be.

Make a commitment to be that spark.

Helping Players Feel Good about Themselves More Critical Than Ever

In February of this year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed the most recent results of its survey on the mental health of youths, along with a 10-year analysis of trends in that area. The news, in many cases, isn’t good – especially for teenage girls

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021 showed that 57% of teenage girls reported feeling a persistent sense of sadness or hopelessness in the last year. That’s an all-time high, and a full 21 percentage points increase over 10 years ago. Additionally, 41% of teenage girls reported experiencing poor mental health in the last 30 days, and nearly one-third (30%) considered suicide over the last year versus 19% in 2011.

These are disturbing figures to say the least, and they are definitely trending in the wrong direction. So what can fastpitch softball coaches do to help the situation? Here are a few suggestions.

Create a Positive, Welcoming Atmosphere

Most of your players probably won’t show that they are experiencing feelings of sadness or hopelessness at practice or at games, but that doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t there.

Many may see playing softball as the best part of their day. It can be a refuge from all the rest of the turmoil of social media, peer pressure, grade pressure, etc. they’re facing.

But if practices and games consist of a lot of yelling, screaming, brutal criticism, and punishment, softball can quickly become one more burden contributing to the downhill spiral.

Instead of taking a command and control approach try being more positive with your players. Try to catch them doing good instead of always commenting on what they’re doing wrong.

I’m not saying you have to turn practice into a birthday party without the cake. There is certainly a time for correction and a need to hold players accountable.

But don’t make it all negative. Look for the positives and help players feel good about themselves when they perform well – or even make an effort to do things they couldn’t before.

You never know when a kind word or a metaphorical pat on the back might be the thing that keeps one of your players from becoming another sad statistic.

Pay Attention to Warning Signs

It’s unlikely any of your players will come out and say they’re feeling unhappy or having difficulty. People with depression in particular get really good at covering it up – at least until the dam breaks.

One thing to look for is a change in the way they interact with their teammates. If they are suddenly quiet and withdrawn where they were once boisterous and interactive it could be a sign something is going on with them.

It may just be a problem with a teammate or two, but it could also be a sign of something deeper. Either way, you’ll want to know about it and address is sooner rather than later.

This also applies to how they interact with you. If a player used to speak with you on a regular basis but has now become withdrawn it could be a sign of something deeper going on in their lives.

You can also look for a change of eating habits. If you’re doing team meals, or even just handing out snacks to keep your players fueled through a long practice, take not if someone suddenly stops eating or just picks at their food.

Pay attention to how they manage their equipment. Now, some players are just slobs who throw everything in their bags haphazardly. That doesn’t mean they’re experiencing sadness. In fact, some of the happiest players I’ve ever known have earned the name “Pigpen.”

If, however, a player used to take better care of her equipment but is now letting it stay dirty or putting it away in a random manner, you may want to initiate a conversation to check in on her mental health.

You may also notice a sudden loss of focus, such as a player making mentals errors she didn’t used to make. If she is having difficulty coping with her life she may not be able concentrate her efforts on the task at hand. Instead of just yelling “focus!” you might want to check if there is something deeper going on.

Finally, pay attention to whether a player is suddenly reporting more injuries or illnesses than she did before. That could be the case, or it could be a sign of her not being able to muster the enthusiasm to participate and using injury/illness as an excuse.

If it seems to be becoming a habit you may want to sit her down and find out if there is something more going on.

Offer a Sympathetic Ear

Many teens who experience these feelings of sadness or hopelessness tend to feel like there is nowhere they can go to discuss them. They’re afraid of their peers finding out, and some may be uncomfortable talking to their parents about it.

Make sure your players know they can always come to you to talk about what’s going on in their lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should try to solve them, however.

In simple cases you can offer some friendly advice and encouragement. Often times teens simply have a desperate need to be heard or to get what they’re feeling out in the open.

But if you suspect something deeper is happening in their lives you’ll want to refer them to a qualified, Board-certified mental health professional. That person will be trained to help teens work through their feelings and recognize deeper issues that could have a profound effect on their physical and mental health in the future.

Just showing you care in a meaningful way, however, can be just the boost that player needs to take the next step to getting past her issues.

Not “Soft”

There is a temptation for some among us to blame these mental health issues on kids today being “soft” or “snowflakes.” “Back in my day,” they like to say, “we didn’t have these problems.”

Actually you did, but no one talked about it. They just suffered in misery, and some took their lives, because no one was recognizing the problem.

It’s also true that life today is very different than it was 10, 15, 25 or more years ago. The pace is faster, and the exposure to impossible standards is relentless.

In softball terms that can mean seeing pitchers your age (or younger) throwing harder than you in social media posts and feeling like you’re not good enough. Never mind that you’ve added a few mph over the last several months and are doing well in your games. You’re still be compared to everyone in the country.

Or it can mean seeing all these hitters blasting home runs while you’re hitting singles, or seeing a list of “Top 10 12 year olds” and not seeing your name on the list.

None of that existed in the so-called “good old days.” But it does now.

That’s why it’s important to be aware of what’s happening with your players and do whatever you can to give them a great experience. You may not just change a game outcome or two. You could change a life.

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Improvement Is Often Measured in Inches, Not Miles

In a perfect world, when a player walks out of practice she would be noticeably better than when she walked in. Her physical skills will have visibly improved, her understanding of the game (or a portion of it) will have grown measurably, and/or her confidence in her abilities will have increased exponentially.

That’s not what happens in the real world, however. At least most of the time.

The reality is most improvements in those areas are far more subtle. They are better-measured in inches, not miles (centimeters, not kilometers for my non-U.S. readers), which means the immediate gains are often barely perceptible.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not happening. They are; they’re just too small to notice on a day-to-day basis.

Think about how kids grow. If you see a child every day, you probably don’t notice how much they’re growing physically until you notice them compared to an object in the house – or they complain about their clothes or shoes not fitting anymore.

No. Just no.

The gains they’ve made in height and/or weight have happened so gradually that you didn’t really see them until realized they are now four inches taller than when the summer started.

Now think about a kid you haven’t seen in a while. She also grew four inches since the last time you saw her.

But because there has been a huge gap between the last sighting and this one, you instantly recognize how much she’s grown.

That’s the way it often is with sports improvements as well. For example, a pitcher starts out awkwardly swinging her arm around and pushing the ball out slowly just trying to get it to and over the plate.

Then she starts working on her pitching mechanics. They don’t change immediately, but maybe in that first lesson she learns to relax a bit and let the ball come out of her hand instead of forcing it so much.

She still looks awkward in the big picture, but a little change has occurred. Over time, more of those changes occur and eventually she looks “like a pitcher” as she effortlessly flings the ball forward for fast strike after fast strike.

It isn’t until you reflect back on where she started, however, that you realize how far she’s come. Not all in one leap, but inch by inch, making subtle change after subtle change that over time work together to help her become the high-performer she is today.

It’s a shame that this concept isn’t better-understood, because I think the unrealistic expectations for improvement that are often set lead too many kids to give up on something they love before that cumulative effect has had a chance to kick in.

I have definitely seen this over the many, many years I have coached teams and taught lessons. When kids who started out behind the pack put in the work they often end up passing their peers and becoming stars on their respective teams.

Not all at once, mind you. But over time the learn and grow, their control over their own bodies improves, their understanding of the skills and the game increases, and suddenly people are talking about how lucky their parents are that the kid is such a “natural.” If only those people knew.

Sure, there are natural athletes who seem to pick things up quickly. But even they hit a point where improvement becomes more incremental and hard-won.

The truth is the players who make it the farthest aren’t necessarily the ones who start fastest out of the blocks. The successful players are the ones who keep plugging away at it, little by little, day by day, inch by hard-fought inch.

Even when it seems like they’re not getting anywhere.

Even in a really cool uniform.

Because if your daughter keeps moving forward, even just a little each session, over time you will be amazed to realize just how far she’s come.

Photo by Andrew Patrick on

Be the Scarecrow, Not the Tin Man

One of the world’s most beloved movies is “The Wizard of Oz.” Audiences young and old love the story of Dorothy and her quest to follow the Yellow Brick Road so she can return home to Kansas (after ungratefully wishing she could go somewhere else; you parents can relate).

Along the way she meets three traveling companions. We’ll set aside the Cowardly Lion for now because he doesn’t have much to do with today’s subject.

That leaves us with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man.

These two characters offer the perfect way to describe how your athletes should be moving on the field.

Basically you want them to be the Scarecrow, not the Tin Man.

The Scarecrow is loose and relaxed. While yes, he does fall down a lot, the looseness of his limbs is the way you want your players to be when they are pitching, throwing overhand, hitting, fielding, running, etc.

I think I have coached this guy.

By contrast, the Tin Man is very stiff. Even after he gets his joints oiled up he’s not exactly fluid when he moves.

He looks rather, well, clunky – because he is. As the Wizard of Oz himself says, he is a “clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk.”

(In case you were wondering, “caliginous” is an archaic word that means misty, dim, obscure or dark. I looked it up. So it really doesn’t fit the rest of the description other than sounding like the other words. You’re welcome.)

In pretty much any athletic movement you want the body to be fluid. The energy should flow from one part to another (usually from the ground up) and the joints should remain unlocked.

But it can be difficult for players, especially younger ones, to understand exactly what that looks or feels like. If they’re used to be stiff when they walk or do other things in their daily lives they may not know how to get that flow.

But if you tell them to be the Scarecrow rather than the Tin Man, they instantly have a visual to help them put it into context. They may not get the Scarecrow part right away, but when you contrast him with the Tin Man it becomes a whole lot clearer.

Except for the shooting smoke out the top of their head. You don’t want to see that.

Remember that coaching isn’t just about saying the right things or having the greatest amount of knowledge. It’s about being able to explain what you’re going for in a way your players can understand – and apply.

Telling them to be like the Scarecrow is a fairly specific way of telling them to “be loose and flexible” that gives them a model they can draw from based on their past experiences.

And if you find they can’t because they haven’t seen the movie – you now have a new team building activity to help them along their own Yellow Brick Road of success.

Efficiency Is the Secret Sauce to Improving Performance

Everyone is always looking for that one magical drill, or technique, or exercise, or something else that will help them improve their level of performance in games.

Building strength is often where players and coaches turn when they don’t know what else to do. And yes, you can definitely drive some level of improvement through strength or speed and agility training. But often the results don’t match the expectations – or at least the hopes.

That’s because there’s another element to the whole process: efficiency, or the ability to improve output without increasing the level of input.

Take a look at these two illustrations. The first one shows a player whose mechanics are inefficient, such as a hitter who only uses her arms or a pitcher who pushes the ball through release with a forced wrist snap.

Low efficiency results in only marginal gains in performance.

Let’s say she is working hard but not seeing the results. Increasing her input is only going to raise her performance slightly, because the rather flat relationship between input and output remains the same.

When you have high efficiency, however, as seen in this chart, the difference between input and output is much greater

High efficiency multiplies your efforts, yielding better results for the same effort.

Both players are putting in the same level of effort. But the second is getting much more out of it. In fact, while the first player’s performance is below the midline of the chart, the second player’s performance is already above it.

Which means if player one wants to reach the same level she is going to have to somehow double her input. Yet if player two only increases her input a little more, her output goes to the top of the chart.

Now, all of the objects and their placement here are arbitrary; they’re not based on a specific set of numbers but rather just an illustration of the principle. But the correlation is real.

It’s essentially a great example of the coaching phrase “Work smarter, not harder.”

When you are inefficient, increasing your effort (strength building, practice time, and so forth) even to a significant level often only results in a small, incremental improvement in overall performance. If you are highly efficient, however, the effect of putting in even a little extra effort is multiplied and you can make significant gains toward your performance goals.

Think of it this way: if you were running a 100 meter dash race with a prize of the latest, greatest smartphone would you rather be on the starting line with everyone else or 10 meters ahead of the pack? I know which one I’d choose.

Being more efficient through mechanics that are proven to be superior gives you that head start on the race to the top. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll stay there – you still have to keep working or the less efficient players could pass you eventually – but having a head start is definitely a significant advantage in anything where there’s competition for success.

That’s why it’s important for players, coaches, and parents to understand what efficient mechanics are for every skill – hitting, pitching, throwing, fielding, base running. There are plenty of great resources out there that can point the way, starting with where you are right now on Life in the Fastpitch Lane.

For pitchers you might want to also check out Rick Pauly’s Pauly Girl Fastpitch website as well as Keeley Byrnes’ Key Fundamentals Softball blog. The Discuss Fastpitch Forum is also a great resource for a wide variety of topics.

Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have some great content (along with a lot of not-so-great content so you need to be discerning about who and what you follow).

If you’re not sure if you’re using efficient mechanics right now, a great way to check is to watch high-level college and pro games to see what those players do, and compare it to what you (or your daughter/player) is being taught. If you don’t see the same things, you’re probably not learning efficient mechanics.

All you need is a smartphone and a TV and you can capture your own clips. Throw them in some sort of video analysis software and you are ready to spend hours upon hours going down the rabbit hole. But at least you’ll be informed.

The bottom line is working harder always works better when you work smarter too. Focus on improving your efficiency rather than just your input and you’ll see your output rise dramatically.

Keep Pursuing Your Dreams – Even When It’s Tough

This was the scene at a small bar and restaurant in December of 1961. An ambitious but pretty much unknown band arrived for a gig only to discover there were just 18 people in the place.

They could have been discouraged by the lack of attendance, and they could have decided to just hang it up after such a disappointing turnout. But they continued to believe in themselves, and knew that all that work they were putting in at obscure venues with hardly anyone watching would pay off eventually.

Most fastpitch softball players know the feeling. It can be a real grind.

Practicing in freezing cold barns in the winter and hot, smelly barns or outdoors on hot, humid days in the summer. Hours spent in private lessons, then many more hours practicing on your own.

Then you go out to a game and you stink up the field. You strike out at the plate.

You miss your spots as a pitcher or hang a pitch that gets driven toward South America. You boot a routine ground ball and follow it up by throwing the ball into the parking lot, or drop a can of corn fly ball that you should be able to catch with both eyes closed.

You begin to wonder if it’s worth it – all the time spent, all the energy expended, all the heart and soul poured into a game that doesn’t seem to love you back. You think maybe you’d be better served finding something else to do with all those hours and days.

Don’t worry, those feelings actually very normal. It can be difficult to work that hard at something only to see it go bad anyway.

The thing to remember, however, is that failure (or near-failure) is only temporary. It’s also an opportunity to learn and grow.

If you struck out, whether once or every time, figure out why. Was your timing off? Were you dropping your hands and looping your swing (even though you’ve been working on not doing that)?

If you struggled as a pitcher did you focus on your mechanics when you practiced or did you just throw the ball for a prescribed period of time? Did you demand more of your pitches or did you just say “good enough” and move on?

If you had trouble fielding or throwing did you put in extra time or just stick to the minimums?

The reality is whether you do well or not is largely in your own hands. Yes, it helps to have quality coaches and/or quality training, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be blessed with an abundance of athletic ability. None of those things are within your control.

But what is under your control is your approach to getting better. You can decide how hard you work.

You can decide how you spend your time each day, each practice. You can decide how you will react to things that are outside of your control.

And most of all, you can decide whether you are willing to do the things that are necessary to achieve your dreams or will give up at the first sign of adversity.

My recommendation, of course, is if you love fastpitch softball find a way to fight through the tough times and keep an eye on your goal. Because again, failure is only permanent if you let it be.

You can get better if you want to – and are willing to pay the price. It won’t be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.

As for that obscure little band from a rough-and-tumble working class city not exactly known for its contribution to the arts, things definitely did get better for them after that sparsely attended performance on a cold winter’s night in December 1961.

By December the following year they had secured a recording contract and released their first single. It didn’t do especially well but it was a start.

Within another few months they would see their next single reach #1 on the pop charts, and things would keep getting better from there. Eventually they would change the world – more than once.

Here’s a better look at that band from December 1961.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, these guys.

Everyone starts somewhere. The ones who make it are the ones who keep plugging away.

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