Category Archives: General Thoughts
One of the most well-known pieces of advice from the late, great Bruce Lee was a simple three-word statement: be as water. For those interested in more of what he meant, or who are just wondering who the heck Bruce Lee was, here’s a video:
While Lee’s advice was ostensibly meant to encourage martial artists to give up their old, rigid approach to movement in favor of one that was more free-flowing, I find it’s also great advice for fastpitch softball players. Here are a few examples.
When pitchers want to throw harder, they tend to tighten up their muscles and become very stiff. They also do it when they’re trying to guide the ball to a location (even if it’s just the general strike zone). Yet that’s the worst possible thing to do in each situation.
If you’re trying to gain speed, remember tight muscles are slow muscles. You can swing your arm around much faster if you relax and let it go versus trying to force it around.
Being stiff when trying to gain better control also works against you, and actually makes it more difficult. If you are tight and off-line somewhere in your circle, you will stay there and the ball will go somewhere you don’t want it to.
But if you are loose, a gentle nudge is all it takes to get back on-line. Plus, you have momentum working for you, because if you are loose and using good mechanics (i.e., those that follow the natural way the body moves) it’s a lot easier to follow the natural line.
To improve as a pitcher, be as water.
The same things about tight versus loose apply to hitters. If you try to muscle up on the ball you’ll lose the whipping action of the bat into the hitting zone, costing you valuable bat speed.
Being tight also makes it difficult to react and adjust to pitch speeds, spins and locations. A rigid swing will tend to continue going wherever it started to go; a relaxed swing allows you to make adjustments without losing bat speed.
Then there’s the mental aspect. If you are uptight generally (aka in your own head) you are going to be worried about far too many outside factors, such as your last at bat or the fight you had with your mother before the game, to bring your swing thought down to “see ball, hit ball.”
There will be no flow to your swing, just a sort of panicked flail as the ball comes in. You may even start seeing things that aren’t there, or lose your perspective on exactly where the strike zone is. Much can happen.
To improve as a hitter, be as water.
As a fielder, you want to be able to move smoothly to the ball. You want your throws to be easy and sure.
That’s going to be tough if you are tight and rigid. The word “flow” is frequently used to describe a great fielder. And what water does.
Being rigid or mechanical in your movements is a sure ticket to many more errors than you should be making. And if you are that way because you are AFRAID of making errors and being pulled out of the game, it only gets worse. Forget about all that.
To improve as a fielder, be as water.
Approach to the Game
Perhaps the area Bruce Lee’s advice applied to most is your general approach to the game. In the video, he says that if you pour water into a cup it becomes the cup. If you pour it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Fastpitch softball players need that type of flexibility as well. You may be asked to play a position that isn’t your usual one. You can either resist or go with it.
Yes, playing outfield rather than catcher or shortstop may not be your preference. But if you go with it and prove yourself in the role you were asked to play you are far more likely to get the opportunity to show what you can do in the position you want to play. I’ve seen it happen.
You may not like your coach’s coaching style. Understood – there are some bad coaches out there. But often it’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s just different than you prefer.
Rather than bracing yourself against it like a rock, be as water. Adjust your expectations and get as much as you can out of the experience. Everyone has something to teach – even if it’s just not to be like they are in the future.
You may not be getting the playing time you want or feel you deserve. That may be true. But before you just blame the coach and jump ship, ask yourself if you’re doing all you can do to earn the spot you want.
Are you diving for balls in practice? Are you displaying a positive attitude? Do you go to the weight room, take extra batting practice or bullpen work, ask for one more ground ball if you pooch one in practice, help clean up team equipment at the end of practice or a game, etc.?
Maybe the answer is yes and you’re just not getting a fair shot. It happens. But before you decide that, determine whether you have been trying to shape yourself to the program the way water shapes itself to the cup or wishing the program would shape itself to you.
So after all of this, if I were to ask you which is stronger, the rock or the water, what would you answer?
Many would say the rock. Not a bad answer on the surface, because if you place a rock in a stream or river, the water will be forced to go around it.
Over time, however, the water will wear away the rock and any other obstacle in its path until it can once again flow smoothly.
So I ask you again: which is stronger, the rock or the water?
Be as water, my friend.
I know just about everyone is still in holiday mode so I’ll keep this one quick today. I just want to thank everyone who has come out to Life in the Fastpitch Lane to read the posts, as well as those who have shared them and commented on them throughout the year.
Thanks to you, for the first time ever Life in the Fastpitch Lane surpassed 100,000 views in a single year. It also had more than 80,000 visitors, which is tremendous.
When I started this blog back in December of 2006, I was hopeful that a few folks might be interested in giving it a look, and that I might be able to help some players, coaches and parents with their softball journey.
Now here we are, 13 years later, and it’s reaching a very wide audience of fastpitch softball enthusiasts around the world.
None of that happens without all of you. So thank you, thank you, thank you. I look forward to continuing to share more with the softball community in 2020.
The debate over whether young athletes should play multiple sports or focus on one to develop their skills – often framed around the best way to earn a college scholarship – has been going on for quite a while now.
Up until a few years ago it wasn’t much of a debate. Nearly all kids played multiple sports, and each sport had a season. These days, with nearly all club/travel sports becoming year-round commitments, it gets tougher and tougher to be a multi-sport athlete.
Some new research published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (JAAOS), a scientific, peer-reviewed publication, weighs in on the topic. Since reading the actual article would require you to purchase it, here’s a press release that provides a pretty good summary.
The article defines early sports specialization (ESS) as “the intensive training or competition in organized sport by prepubescent children (under the age of 12) for more than eight months per year, with a focus on a single sport to the exclusion of other sport and free play.” Does that sound like anyone you know?
The article goes on to point out that the “lack of diversified activity in youth leads to increased risk of injury and burnout.” No surprise there. Young bodies are still developing, and the constant repetition and wear-and-tear in the same ways can certainly take a toll.
As I like to explain, any sort of repetitive motion, done enough, can cause issues. Just look at carpal tunnel syndrome.
Clicking a mouse is hardly intense activity, yet 3-6% of adults in the U.S. acquire it at some point, often leading to surgery that costs thousands of dollars. Now imagine a much more robust series of activities repeated over and over on a body that hasn’t fully developed.
But what about the pursuit of excellence (and more specifically college scholarship opportunities)? The authors of the study state that ESS “may not be necessary for elite athletic achievement, but rather early diversification of sports leads to superior results.” They also say those who diversify show more enjoyment of sports in general, have a lower frequency of dropout, and have “fewer signs of chronic stress, higher levels of motivation and a gradual independence.”
I know I’ve seen the value of diversification in the athletes I’ve worked with over the years. For example, I love working with gymnasts, tumblers and cheerleaders. They have tremendous strength, especially in their core, as well as excellent body awareness that enables them to learn new athletic skills quickly. Skaters also tend to fall into this category.
Basketball, soccer, volleyball and lacrosse players are usually in great shape and very quick. No need to do a lot of conditioning or speed and agility work with them – someone else is already doing that heavy lifting for you. They tend to make excellent middle infielders and pitchers.
Those are just a few examples of how the skills and athleticism gained in other sports translate to fastpitch softball. Feel free to add more in the comments.
Of course, at some point athletes do have to start specializing to some degree if they’re going to pursue higher level play. By the time they reach high school age the time demands for club/travel players make maintaining a competitive level in one sport tough, much less two or three. Although it can still be done if the adults are adults about it and willing to accept that a multi-sport athlete may not make it to every practice and team activity.
By that age, players may also self-select out of multiple sports. They may recognize that they’re better at one than another and decided to focus on it, or may lose interest in some sports they liked in the past. Of course, a few will want to continue playing more than one, at which point they will likely have to choose which to do at a high level and which to do at more of a recreational level.
At the younger ages, however, participating in different sports should not only be allowed but encouraged. Parents and coaches should work together to build a schedule that’s best for the young athlete as well as the team – including total time off from everything now and then so the kid can be a kid.
Coaches can also take heart from the fact that many of the basic skills from other sports will transfer to softball, helping players become better than they would have been otherwise.
Now, if your child isn’t interested in other sports it doesn’t make sense to force him or her into them just for the sake of cross-training. But most kids aren’t that narrowly focused.
As a society we need to dial back our obsession with youth sports (and college scholarships for 10 year olds) and instead focus on helping our kids establish a solid foundation and love for athletics that will carry them through their lives. The evidence increasingly shows it’s best for them in both the short and long terms.
If there is one image that perfectly describes the challenge of keeping fastpitch softball skills (especially pitching and hitting) sharp, it’s the old circus act of the plate spinner. (For those of you who have never seen one in action, here’s a video. Sorry you have to watch an ad first.)
If you don’t feel like watching the video, basically what you had was a set of sticks across a long table. The spinner would get one going on top of a stick, then get another going, and so on until each stick had a plate spinning on top of it.
Of course, the challenge was that while he (it’s almost always a he) was getting the next plate going, the previous ones would be losing momentum. As a result, he constantly had to jump from one plate to another and give them a tweak until he had them all going well at the same time.
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? When you’re working on complex skills such as pitching or hitting, there are a lot of moving parts. Just like there are a lot of moving plates.
While you’re working on one thing, say leg drive for pitchers, another part of the pitch such as the long, loose arm may start “wobbling.” So then you have to take care of that again.
And as you’re doing that, the pitcher starts closing too early or too much, gets off the power line, starts throwing her glove out to the side or develops some other issue.
If you see that happening, the good news is you’re not alone. It’s actually pretty common, and not just among the very youngest players. Even the most accomplished players will start to wobble now and then in one area or another. That’s why college, pro and national teams have hitting, pitching and other specialty area coaches.
So how do you deal with it? Here again you can take a cue from the plate spinner.
When he sees a plate begin to lose momentum he doesn’t try to run over to it before he gets the plate he’s working on spinning properly.
(In fact, I’d bet that seeing plates wobble is good for the act, because it introduces a sense of concern. How interesting would plate spinning be if the plates were never in danger of falling off the stick?)
Coaches and parents should do the same. Work on one thing at a time and get it going well before going back and addressing a previous issue that is cropping up again. If the player is struggling you can let her know what the other issue is to reassure her that all her mechanics aren’t falling apart and that you’ll address the problem later.
Another good idea is to learn your craft so you’re aware of what’s urgent and what can be dealt with later. Again, a plate may be wobbling but it might be capable of going on for a while before it actually becomes an issue. Knowing what to address (and when) is essential for securing long-term success.
Finally, understand that the player is probably going to break a few plates as she learns her mechanics. That’s ok.
Failing in some aspects is part of the learning process. I have no personal experience with plate spinning, but before you pay good money to see someone perform this amazing feat he probably spent a lot of time learning how to get one plate spinning, then two, then three, etc. In the meantime, a lot of dishware was harmed.
Eventually, though, with a lot of effort he was able to put on an entertaining, dramatic show.
Your players will be the same. Pitchers may struggle to throw strikes or hit spots as they work to become the best they can be. Hitters may swing and miss a lot before they start driving the ball.
But if you stay focused on the process rather than the immediate results, the results in time will take care of themselves.
So if you’re facing that situation right now – even if a lot of the plates of wobbling – don’t freak out. It’s a natural part of the learning experience.
If she is motivated, eventually your player will get all the plates spinning fast and tight so she can thrill the crowd. And you can take your bow.
Image courtesy of Henrikbothe [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D
It is Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S. as I write this, and I have to say I love Thanksgiving.
It’s the quintessential American holiday. How can you not love a holiday whose sole purpose is to eat until you feel sick, take a break, then go back for dessert?
It’s no wonder American is the most obese nation in the industrialized world. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Even the decorating themes for Thanksgiving revolve mostly around food. Particularly the cornucopia, basically a horn with a bunch of vegetables, fruit or other healthy foods (ironically) falling out of it. I say ironically since vegetables are the thing least likely to be eaten at a Thanksgiving dinner.
(Those of you reading this who are not from the U.S. really need to come here sometime and experience just what this holiday means. You will probably be blown away and appalled at the same time.)
Thinking about all of that food being prepared all over the U.S., however, got me thinking about how all those veggies get on the table in the first place. It’s not like they just suddenly appear out of nowhere. They all start out as seeds that must be planted and cultivated long before they’re actually consumed.
It’s the same with fastpitch softball skills. With rare exceptions, players can’t just walk out on the field and start performing. They also can’t start working on their skills a week or two before the season starts and expect to be able to play at their highest possible level.
Instead, the seeds need to be planted early. And like seeds, at first you may not see much happening.
But then those skills start to sprout a little. You notice little improvements, like throwing a little harder or getting to balls that were out of reach before.
As time goes on, if you continue to cultivate those skills they continue to grow until they’re ready to be harvested in a game.
On the other hand, if you plant the seeds then ignore the “field” for a while, the skills may appear somewhat but they’ll be smaller, scragglier and less bountiful than they could have been. Which means you’ll be left hungry, wishing you’d done more to ensure a cornucopia of performance that will last the entire season.
So keep that idea in mind as you decide whether you’re too tired, or too busy, or too whatever to start honing your skills right now. The season may seem far away, but it will be here before you know it. Make sure you’re ready.
To my friends and followers here in the U.S., I wish you a healthy, happy Thanksgiving. To those of you from outside the U.S., I also wish you those blessings even if it’s just a regular old Thursday.
Thank you to all of you for joining me on this softball journey. I am grateful to share my thoughts with you.
And remember U.S. friends, if your Thanksgiving celebration gets boring, just bring up politics. That’s sure to get the party started.
Main Thanksgiving image by Annalise Batista from Pixabay
One of the best things about coaching fastpitch softball, at least in my mind, is the opportunity to get to know so many great girls and their families. Still, these relationships tend to be fleeting, so it’s always cool to see what’s happened to a former player or student once you’re not sharing the same field.
Today I have the privilege of telling the story of a remarkable young women named Christina Smok. I only had the opportunity to coach her for a year, in her first year of
playing 14U travel ball, but it was a great year. I’ve included a nice action shot from that year here on the right.
Christina played catcher and third base, and did a great job at both. She worked hard, played hard, and always brought a great attitude. She continued to play through high school, but like many decided that college softball wasn’t for her.
That didn’t mean she gave up the game, however. Instead, unlike so many, she moved into coaching with the program she was a part of in the last few years of her career. She actually coached with her dad Pete, and her mom was always there to watch the team’s games as well. It was a real family affair. I believe she did this every summer while she was in college.
(Incidentally, I know all of this because in one of those “small world” happenings one of my current students, Allison Musgrove, was on her team. That was coincidence because I hadn’t started working with Allison yet when she joined that team, and Allison came to me through a different channel. It was just a common bond we discovered later.)
As great as all of that is, however, it’s not the reason I decided to tell this story. The real impetus was something non-softball I saw about her on Facebook a couple of weeks ago.
While most of us are in our homes getting ready for Thanksgiving, Christina is currently
in Tanzania. She has been studying to become a physical therapist (here’s a photo of her from her “white coat” ceremony), and as part of that education she is spending the next few weeks providing care to residents of this underserved* East African nation.
I mean, how cool is that? To go halfway around the world to help people who really need it? It’s not something everyone would do, but it doesn’t surprise me a bit. She had a can-do attitude when I coached her, and obviously she still has it now.
Anyway, I just thought I’d share. In the heat of the moment on the field, or even as the now 12-month season drags on, it’s easy to over-blow the importance of the softball component of your life. But that’s just one piece of a larger puzzle.
I’m sure Christina’s softball experiences throughout her career helped bring her to this point, along with the love and support of her family. But it’s not an end in and of itself.
Whether you go 4 for 4 or 0 for 4 at the plate, make a spectacular diving catch or boot a routine ground ball, strike out 12 or get knocked out in the first inning, etc. isn’t all that critical in the big scheme of things. What’s more important is how you use those experiences to shape your life.
Christina sets a great example for today’s players. Live your best life.
And if you like stories like this about former players giving back, keep an eye on this space. I’ll have another in a few weeks.
*How poor is Tanzania? It ranks 159 out of 187 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, and its Global Hunger Index rating was the second-worst of all East African Community countries. So this isn’t exactly an easy jaunt.
The summer is a distant memory. Especially for those of us who got snow on Halloween! Can you believe that? Sticking-to-the-ground-over-your-ankles snow on Halloween.
Fall ball is either behind us already as well, or there is one more weekend to go. Then there’s a lull before it all starts again.
It’s definitely a great time of the softball year to take some time off. Rest and recovery is a good thing, and now that we have joined the indoor sports in playing practically year-round it’s tough to find a few weeks you can string together to let your body (and mind) heal from the grind.
For some, however, this might be a great time for something else – i.e., hitting the reset button and either correcting major flaws or making major upgrades in mechanics and approach.
There is never a bad time to work on improving yourself and your game. But making major changes carries some risks when you’re also expected to play at your most effective level during the week or on the weekend.
Let’s take pitchers for example. To achieve all she’s capable of, a pitcher may need to work on her posture, or her leg drive, or her ability to whip the ball through the release zone. But it can be difficult to work on those things if doing so causes her to be wilder than when she sticks with her old habits.
Most coaches would rather have their pitcher bend forward and throw consistent strikes than work on staying upright and throwing too high, or too low, or too wide. Especially if that pitcher is their #1. That’s just the nature of things, and it’s very understandable.
Still, every pitch the pitcher throws bent forward so she can throw a strike is another step in the wrong long-term direction. And it will take her that much longer to get to where she needs to be to reach her potential.
It’s the same for hitters. Working on developing a better swing that will make a hitter more effective at higher levels doesn’t always yield great results at first. Anything that’s different is uncomfortable at first, and hitting is so dependent on quick reactions that walking the line between the old and new swings may throw the hitter off entirely.
Again, most coaches will take a good hit with an ugly swing over strikeout or weak ground ball or pop-up with a good swing. They’re not interested in how many home runs that hitter will hit in two years with her new and improved swing. They’re focused on getting her on base, or scoring that runner on third, now. Can’t say I blame them. I would be too.
Once upon a time there were three distinct parts to the season. There was the off-season, which lasted a few months, then the pre-season for a month or two, then the actual season.
That’s not the case anymore. Fall ball has gone from being a time of once-a-week practices and a game here or there to almost the equivalent of the summer season. Some of the tournaments in the fall are arguably more important than many in the summer for those who play in college, because college coaches are in attendance in droves. You don’t want to look bad in front of a gaggle of college coaches.
So right now, from the beginning of November to the end of December, is about the only time for players to make major changes in a safe environment. Pitchers can work on improving their drive mechanics, or their posture, or other core fundamentals without having to worry about the results of the pitch.
They can throw the ball all over the place for now, as long as they do it with the correct mechanics. It’s a form of failing up. Not to be confused with the version where someone sucks without trying to get better but gets rewarded anyway. As they replace old habits with new ones the control will come back – and be better than ever.
Hitters can work on developing their swings without having to worry about the consequences. As they move from conscious competence (having to think about how to move correctly) to unconscious competence (not thinking about what they’re doing but doing it right anyway) they can shift 100% of their focus to seeing the ball and hitting it hard. Suddenly all those cage pop-ups and ground balls start turning into rising line drives that smack off the back of the cage – and rebound back at the hitter if there is a solid wall behind the far end.
Everyone can work on their throwing mechanics – still one of the most under-taught parts of the game. Instead of measuring success by “the ball got to where they were throwing” fielders can develop mechanics that will help them throw harder and faster while protecting their arms and shoulders from injuries.
Most times of the year the pressure to perform in games out-ranks the desire to make improvements. Not right now.
For those who know they need to make major changes, this is the ideal time. Get to work, either on your own or with a qualified instructor, so by the time you start up again you’re ready to play (and show) better than ever.
And if you’re not in need of major rework, enjoy your time off. You’ve earned it.
There is a joke I heard a long time ago that pretty much sums up the softball player recruitment and retention process. It goes like this:
This guy dies and meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. He’s excited about making it to Heaven, but St. Peter informs him that he is required to give the guy a choice about where he wants to spend eternity – Heaven or Hell. The guy is surprised, but figures rules are rules and goes along with it. St. Peter tells him he will get to check out each, then must make his decision.
He starts with a tour of Heaven. It’s everything he’d heard – angels sitting on clouds playing harps, everything white, everything calm and peaceful. It all seems pleasant enough and the guy is pretty sure what his decision will be.
Then he’s sent to Hell for a tour there. The Devil meets him at the Gate and welcomes him in warmly. As they walk inside the guy sees a huge party going on with plenty of alcohol, loud music and beautiful people dancing, singing and having the time of their lives.
“I’m shocked,” the guy says. “This isn’t what I pictured at all. I was expecting fire, brimstone and torture.”
“Fake news,” the Devil responds. “That’s just Heaven’s propaganda to try to keep humans from having a good time while they’re on Earth. It’s like this all the time.”
The guy joins in the party while he’s there, but pretty soon his time is up and he must go back to Heaven and give St. Peter his decision. “What do you think?” St. Peter asks him.
“Well, no one is more surprised than me but I am going to choose Hell,” the man says.
“Really?” St. Peter asks incredulously. “You realize this is for all eternity and there’s no going back?”
“Yes,” the man replies. “I appreciate all you’ve done but I’ve made my decision and that’s where I want to go.”
“Ok,” St. Peter tells him. “It’s your decision.” So St. Peter proceeds to do all the paperwork and send the guy off to his final destination. Once he walks inside, however, the man is shocked. All he can see in every direction is his worst nightmares – fire, brimstone, people being whipped and tortured in all sorts of horrible and creative ways.
“What is this?!” the guy screams. “Yesterday it was all parties and good times, and now it’s just horror after horror.”
At which point the Devil eyes him slyly and says, “Well, yesterday you were a prospect.”
The reason I recounted that joke is more and more I am hearing stories about players being promised the world by coaches during the tryout and/or recruiting process. But once they get there it’s a completely different stories.
Players are told they will pitch, but they never get time in the circle because they “don’t measure up” to the pitchers who were already there. They’re promised they will get plenty of time at an infield position, or catcher, or wherever but when game time comes – not just bracket play but even pool play or round robin friendlies – that playing time in that position never materializes. They’re told they don’t measure up to the girls in those positions (often coach’s kids, no surprise there) even though those girls are booting balls like they think they’re playing soccer, not fastpitch softball.
Hitters with high batting averages and OPS are being pushed down the lineup or sat on the bench entirely because they “aren’t used to seeing the level of competition” – even though they’ve already proven they can handle that level.
What becomes clear is that some coaches, hopefully a very small minority, are telling players and their families anything they want to hear in the courtship phase so they can round out their teams. They have no actual intention of providing those players with the opportunities they seek. They just want them there in case they need body to fill in should one of the “starters” get sick or go down with an injury.
Of course, they don’t want a weak link, so they want to get the best backups they can find. But they’re talking to those backups like they have a legitimate chance of taking over a starting position when that is never, ever going to happen – either because the coach doesn’t think the new player is as good as the current ones, or he/she is looking at his/her own kids through rose-colored parent glasses, or wants to be “loyal” to the current players, or has some other agenda.
It’s ok to view some players as starters and others as backups. It happens all the time at all levels. All I’m saying is then be honest with the player and her parents about the role she will play on the team.
Don’t tell her she will get pitching time when you have no intention of putting her in the circle. And don’t use one bad outing the first time out as an excuse to never pitch her again. She was probably nervous, having joined a new team and all and wanting badly to prove herself. That goes double if the team is a step or two up from her last team.
Instead, give her a few opportunities and then make your judgment. Anyone who works with analytics will tell you that you need a sufficient amount of data to spot a trend. One game, or a couple of innings, isn’t a sufficient amount of data.
The same goes with positions on the field. Don’t tell a player she will get an opportunity in the infield if you feel your infield is set and you don’t want to change it. Let her know where her opportunities are so she can make an informed decision about whether this is the team for her.
The same goes for getting on the field at all. If you see her as a backup or role player, be up-front about it. For example, if you want a speedy player to primarily be a courtesy or pinch runner, tell her that rather than saying she’ll get an opportunity at second base when you know that’s not true.
If you are honest about a player’s opportunities or role, the player and her parents will have no real cause to complain when what you said she would do is what she ends up doing. It’s only when coaches say anything so they can fill up their rosters that the trouble begins.
And it will begin. Because what you’ll likely find is that players who are promised a world of opportunities but instead get nothing of the kind will leave as soon as they figured out they’ve been had.
That, of course, is also the difference between the joke above and the reality of softball. In the joke, the decision of where to go was forever. In our sport, if your coach doesn’t want to play someone there’s always someone else who could use her particular set of skills.
So tough as it can be, coaches, be honest. In the long run it’s better for everyone. Including your own team. Because as big as the sport may seem, fastpitch softball is also a small, tight-knit community, especially at the local level, and people talk.
You build a reputation as someone who makes promises with no intention of delivering on them and it won’t be long before people are avoiding your team/program like the plague.
Yes, it can be tough to have those conversations, and there is a risk of pushing players away you might like to have. But it will save you a whole lot of drama and upheaval. And that alone may be worth it.
I once worked with a woman, an older lady we’ll call Katherine, who was hired to be a sort of all-around office assistant. The idea was if you needed a package FedExed, or some repetitive data entered into a spreadsheet, or other time-consuming but not exactly brain-taxing help, you could hand it off to her and she would take care of it.
The problem was Katherine was so timid and afraid of making a mistake, she would ask whoever gave her the assignment to sit with her while she did it to make sure she did it correctly. While you can appreciate her desire to get it right, you can probably also see the flaw in this approach.
If not, it’s this: the whole purpose of her job was for Katherine to take the burden of tedious work off of me and others so we could move on to other, more higher-value assignments. If we were going to sit there while she did it then there was no point in giving it to her because, quite frankly, we could do it better and faster than she could. It’s just not what the company wanted us spending our time on.
So what does all this have to do with fastpitch softball? A lot of times players are like Katherine. They become so reliant on coaches telling them what to do that they quit thinking and learning.
In other words, rather than becoming independent and intelligent, they become more like robots, dutifully doing whatever they’re told to do in practice without understanding the reasoning or strategy behind it. This goes double, by the way, if they have a coach who is constantly in their faces screaming any time they make a mistake, but it’s not exclusive to that scenario.
Then when game time comes and they need to make a quick decision (which is pretty much any time the ball is in play) or correct a problem in their mechanics they’re unprepared to do so. Instead, they get more of the deer in headlights look.
Remember the old computer axiom garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). If you program players like robots they will respond like robots.
Which means they will continue to do the same thing over and over, whether it works or not, because that’s what they’ve been told to do. Anyone who has a watched a Roomba frantically moving back and forth for 10 minutes when it gets stuck under a chair or in a corner knows what I’m talking about.
It isn’t enough to tell players what to do. You also need to give them some context and reasoning behind why they’re doing it so if what they’re doing isn’t working they can think their way out of the situation.
This can be as simple as asking questions. For example, when I’m in a pitching lesson and a pitcher throws three fastballs in the dirt in the right-handed batter’s box, unless she’s new I often won’t tell her how to fix it. Instead I will ask, “What usually causes your pitch to go low and in the dirt?” and she will answer “I’m releasing behind my hip.”
I will then suggest she try fixing that. She does, and she’s back to throwing strikes. Miracle of miracles!
Or one of my favorite questions to ask players who are struggling mechanically, especially the older ones I’ve worked with for a while, is “What would I tell you if I were here right now?” They stop and think, give me an answer (almost always the correct one) and I say ok, try that.
When it works I point out that she didn’t need me to fix the problem. She did all of that on her own – I didn’t give her a single clue. All I did was ask her to tap into the knowledge she already had – in other words, think! – instead of mindlessly going through the motions.
(As a side note, I had a high school-age pitcher this week tell me that “What would Coach Ken tell me if he was here?” is exactly what she thinks about when her mechanics break down. How cool is that?)
This is relatively easy to do for mechanical issues, especially for pitchers and hitters. They have some time to reflect and make corrections, and they know they’re going to have to throw another pitch or swing the bat again.
It’s a little tougher for defensive players and base runners because their skills are largely reactive. If they make a physical or mental mistake that may be the only play like that they have all game. Or even all week or all tournament.
In this case, what’s important is that they learn to think and understand so they don’t continue making the same mistake every time the situation arises, such as a runner on third who continually stands 10 feet off the base on a fly ball to medium left with less than two outs instead of tagging up automatically. Or a fielder who doesn’t set her feet before she throws and sails the ball into the parking lot.
The player who learns to think will understand she did something wrong and make a mental note to avoid having it happen again. The player who always waits for a coach to tell her what she did wrong will likely never really internalize the information – which means there’s a high probability she’s going to do it again.
Don’t just tell your players what to do. Instead, insist they learn what to do and why. Help them gain a better understanding of their skills, and the game, and both you and they will be far more successful.
On the TV show “Hot in Cleveland,” the basic premise is that three women from LA are on a flight to Paris when their plane gets stranded in Cleveland. After being approached by several men, they suddenly realize that while they may just considered be average-looking among the many beautiful people in the City of Angels, here in Cleveland they are considered hot, and they decide to stay there instead.
(Full disclosure: I have never actually watched the show, or even a part of it. But the premise works for this blog post so there you go. Oh, and apologies to readers in Cleveland. I didn’t pick the show’s title.)
Fastpitch softball players (along with their coaches and parents) are very susceptible to what I call the “Hot in Cleveland Syndrome.” Because they are successful in the small pond they play in, and maybe even the best player in the area, they can get an oversized view of exactly how good they are.
This is one of the reasons it’s important, if you are serious about playing and especially about playing in college, to venture out past the comfort of your local area and match up your skills against higher-level teams. You can either find out that A) yes, you’re every bit as good as you thought you were or B) while you may be a 10 locally you are maybe only a 6 in the bigger scheme. Either way, that’s important information to have.
Here’s an example. You’re a strong pitcher who accumulates 10+ strikeouts consistently in a seven-inning game. You mostly do it by throwing fastballs, because most of the hitters can’t catch up to your speed. Why bother developing other pitches when you’re already dominating?
Because once you stand in against better hitters who are used to seeing speed and can hit it consistently, your strikeouts per game will probably go way down and the number of hits against you will grow. If you don’t have something else to throw at those hitters you’re in for a rough time. But you won’t know it until you face hitters of that quality.
Or take a catcher who can gun down every girl in the league or conference when she tries to steal second. Is it because she is so awesome, or because the base runners are average instead of speedy?
You put some rabbits on those bases – girls who can get from first to second in 2.8 or 2.9 seconds at the younger levels, or a team with a view players with legit 2.6 speed at the older levels – and suddenly the game turns into a track meet.
The reverse is also true, of course. Is a bigtime base stealer really that good, or are the catchers she’s facing just that weak?
Then there’s the big hitter with the loopy swing who is crushing the ball against the competition she normally sees. Put her up against a pitcher bringing the heat and she may find she’s striking out all day – and looking bad while doing it.
Now, if you have no aspirations beyond the level you’re currently playing at, being Hot in Cleveland is fine. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with playing at a lower/easy level if softball is something you do solely as a recreational activity with a hint of competition versus playing at a highly competitive level.
But if you’re looking to play in college, be named all-state in high school, win a travel ball national championship or have some other lofty ambition, you need to get a true measure of how your skills compare to all those with whom you’ll be competing for those spots. The sooner the better.
Break away from the Hot in Cleveland Syndrome and test your skills against the best players you can find. It will give you a truer picture of where you really stand.