Category Archives: General Thoughts

10 Things to Consider When Looking for a New Team

Ways to succeed at fastpitch softball tryouts

Hard to believe since we have barely been playing summer ball again, but the 2020 season is nearly over. Some of the alphabet organizations are already holding Nationals (or “Nationals”), and in a couple of weeks this year will be in the books.

For some, maybe many, this is also the time of year when players and their families start thinking about where they want to play in 2021. There can be many reasons for changing teams.

Some are looking for a more challenging environment. Some are hoping to increase their playing time, either overall or at a specific position. Some want more games while others want fewer. (I’m sure no one was happy with that this season.) Some want to play with their friends, and some don’t like their current coaches and want to move on.

Whatever the driver, the tryout season (which follows immediately on the heels of the current season, unfortunately) will no doubt find a lot of folks seeking greener pastures.

If you’re in that category, be sure you remember these wise Latin words: caveat emptor, which essentially translates to “let the buyer beware.” Because what may look like a good opportunity at first glance may not look so good once you’re in the middle of it.

There are no guarantees in this process. But I do have some tips, based on my many years of coaching, that could help guide you to a better decision.

This isn’t a post on how to have a great tryout by the way. You can find those tips here. This is about considerations when selecting a new team.

  1. Talk to parents or players already on teams you’re considering. Preferably you will do this before you even get to tryouts. You probably know some of the teams you might be considering. It’s likely you play against them regularly. If you’re at a tournament this weekend, introduce yourself and talk to parents whose kids are on that team. They’ll help you get a feel for how it’s run, what the coaches are like, and whether all the positions are set already or you/your daughter will have an opportunity to see the field (or a particular position) regularly.
  2. Silently listen to those same parents. This is a bit sneakier, but there’s nothing like sideline chatter to give you a feel for what people really think of a team. Go stand by one or more groups of parents and casually listen to their comments and discussions. You’ll get an unvarnished idea of how happy or unhappy they are overall and whether the team atmosphere will be a pleasant or trying one. You could end up saving yourself a lot of time and heartache in the long run.
  3. Look downmarket for opportunities. Yes it sure is nice to be on a team that’s winning the big trophies all the time. But for many the luster fades when you realize you/your daughter was more of a glorified spectator than active participant in all those wins. Sometimes your best opportunity to develop into an A-level player is to play with a B-level team with a year so you can gain the experience you need. For example, pitchers need to be in the circle if they’re going to develop. If you’re on a team with two or three Ace pitchers, and you’re not at that level yet, you’re not going to get the ball much. That’s just life. Yes, you could keep working on your game to try to beat them out, but if the die is already cast you may not get a chance to show what you can do even if you do pass them by. You would be better-served by being a #1 or #2 on a lower-level team, and gaining lots of game experience than pitching two token innings of pool play and then sitting the bench or playing a field position the rest of the time. If you’re going to be successful you have to want and get the ball on a regular basis. The same is true for other positions, but it particularly applies to pitchers.
  4. If your are moving up, try not to walk in #1. If you’re used to being the best player on your team and you are looking for new challenges, you want to go somewhere where you start out behind some of the other players. In our pitching example, you want to go in as #2 or #3. As a hitter you want to start out in the lower half of the lineup rather than being anointed to the 3-slot or cleanup. Being viewed as being behind someone else should fire up your competitive juices and cause you to work that much harder. There is nothing more satisfying than be brought in as a backup and then taking over the top spot.
  5. Prioritize what’s important to you. For some people money and distance are no object. They are most interested in a level of play, or an opportunity to play, or whatever else is important to them. For others it may be convenience, time/distance to practice, availability of other parents to transport you/your daughter to practice or games or a host of other parameters. Before you waste your time or the coaching staff’s time at a tryout, be sure you know what’s acceptable to you and what is not. Then select potential teams accordingly. If you want time to work in a family vacation in late June, playing on a team that goes to PGF qualifiers all summer is probably not for you. If you have transportation challenges, joining a team that is an hour away and practices three nights a week probably won’t work out for anyone. Decide what’s important and choose accordingly.
  6. Seek like-minded players. Your/your daughter’s best experience will be on a team where players have comparable skill levels and goals. That doesn’t mean they all have to be BFFs, but they should at least all be pulling in the same direction. If you see bullying or prima donna behavior, especially from a coach’s kid, keep in mind that this is likely the best they’re going to act. It’s not going to get better over time. On the other hand if you/your daughter looks like a good fit skill- and personality-wise, it will probably be the experience you’re looking for.
  7. Watch how the coaches coach. Again, theoretically everyone is showing their best selves at a tryout. Players are trying to sell themselves, but so are coaches. If they’re yelling and screaming during tryouts, that’s probably going to carry over to practice and games. If you like that sort of thing – the old “command and control” style of coaching – have at it. If that’s not what you’re looking for keeping looking. One thing I will say is during tryouts I would often make a suggestion on how to approach a skill with a player, not just to help her do better but to see how coachable she seemed. If I got back attitude she was cut no matter how skilled. You should audition coaches the same way. Ask them some meaningful questions and see how they answer. Not just what they say but how they say it. You’ll learn a lot in a few minutes.
  8. Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. Ok I stole that from Edgar Allen Poe by way of Bruce Springsteen, but it’s still good advice. When you’re a prospect you’re likely to hear all kinds of promises. Coaches have rosters to fill, and they want to fill them as quickly as possible – especially if there is a lot of competition for players in an area. But just because you or your daughter have been told she’ll play shortstop during tryouts doesn’t mean it will actually happen once games roll around. This is where the research you did earlier (see tips #1 and #2) will pay off. Is the coach a man of his/her word? If not, don’t get sucked in by tissue paper promises. It may still happen but it’s not a given.
  9. Don’t rush the decision. Unless you/your daughter is trying out for her dream team, and you know there is an opening at her position, resist the pressure to decide on the spot whether to accept a particular team’s offer. I’m not sure when this became a thing, but it seems like a lot of programs have gone this way. Especially programs that like to pretend they’re high-level when they’re really more mid-level. This is a decision you will either have to live with for a year or that will create a very uncomfortable situation down the road if you decide you have to leave before the season ends. If that team really wants you, it will wait. If the coach is just trying to fill roster spots so he/she doesn’t have to think about tryouts anymore, you probably don’t want to be there anyway.
  10. Trust your gut. This one is simple. If something doesn’t feel right about the tryouts you’re probably right. Don’t try to convince yourself things will get better later because they probably won’t. Either finish it out and don’t look back, or just excuse yourself and leave. Nothing good will come from prolonging a bad experience.

The whole tryout process can be gut-wrenching for everyone, but the more effort you put into looking at all the factors the better of a decision you’ll be able to make. The good news, however, is that even if you choose poorly, you’re not getting married.

It’s a year’s commitment at most. Then you get to do it all over again.

Good luck, and go get ’em!

Product Review: Portolite Short Spiked Softball Mat

Pitching rubber top

One of the things I have always found challenging when working with pitchers is getting a good surface to work from out on the field.

In a gym or practice facility you have a large selection of roll-up mats. But if there isn’t a permanent pitcher’s plate out on the field, what most people end up doing is throwing down a hunk of rubber purchased at the local sporting goods store. Or going without.

With those throw-down types of rubbers you either have to be willing to pound them in with stakes or nails and pull them out again or skip the stakes entirely. If you pound them in, the stakes that come with them last about three times (less if you’re trying to pound them into hard ground). Then you have to purchase long nails at the hardware store with big washers to keep them from going through the rubber.

Need to change distances to accommodate pitchers of different ages? You have to pull the stakes or nails up to move the rubber, then go through the entire process again.

Of course, if you decide not to stake the rubber down at all it will go slipping and sliding from under the pitcher’s feet, making matters worse, not better. Eventually the pitcher will probably just kick it out of the way.

That’s why I was excited to come across the Portolite company when I was helping at a Rick Pauly clinic in Minnesota put on by JohnnyO. Johnny had a couple of their products there, and said they had a few different models for softball, including one with short spikes on it.

Portolite mat on dirt

This was the picture that convinced me it could work on dirt.

When I got home I checked it out and decided to give it a try. I needed one anyway for some indoor work on a turf field so figured that alone would be worth it. But I was really looking forward to trying it on the dusty fields I use during the summer.

First thing I wondered was would the spikes actually catch in the ground and hold it in place? The short spike mat isn’t cheap, so I was definitely rolling the dice on that count.

Pitching rubber bottom

The website shows the bottom is green but this is how mine looks.

I am happy to report, however, that it actually holds pretty well, especially if the field isn’t rock-hard due to a lack of rain. Hard to say if all the little rubber (or whatever material they are) spikes catch, but certainly enough of them do to hold it in place even with strong, powerful pitchers. As they push in, the spikes dig in.

I was also concerned about how it would hold up with pitchers using metal cleats as many of my students do. As you can see, the mat isn’t necessarily pretty after a month’s worth of use, but I don’t need it for photographs. It actually seems to be holding up pretty well. I expect to get a few years’ worth of use out of it.

Pitching rubber top

The edges of the rubber are a bit chewed up but the mat itself is holding up well.

Using a pitching mat like this one has some added benefits. For example, it’s easy to pick it up and move it when I have different age students come in. In just a few seconds I can go from being set up for a 10U pitcher at 35 feet to an 18U pitcher at 43.

This portability also helps in terms of giving my students a good overall surface to use.

One of the fields I camp out on regularly isn’t particularly well-designed or maintained. After a few lessons there can be a big hole at the permanent pitcher’s plate, with a trough leading away from it. (I doubt there are any bricks or anything else you’re supposed to use to stabilize the area.)

When that happens it can get pretty tough to pitch straight from the pitcher’s plate. I try to fill in the area by raking it out, but that doesn’t do a whole lot of good, especially when it might be a few weeks before it’s dragged again.

With the Portolite mat, however, I can either move the pitcher forward or off to the side where the ground is less worn. She gets a flatter surface to pitch from so she doesn’t have to worry about catching herself in someone else’s divot. Or trough.

And when I’m done for the day I can just pick it up, knock the dust off as best I can and throw it in the trunk for the next day.

The website says it can be used on turf, dirt or grass. I’ve done all three and can attest that it works equally well on all.

Again it’s not cheap at $235. But if you’re looking for a solution that helps provide a stable surface for your pitcher(s) in an easy-to-use, very portable format, be sure to check it out. I think you’ll be as pleased as I am.

First Impressions Aren’t Always Right

woman looking at sea while sitting on beach

Most people have probably heard the old cliche “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” And while that’s technically true, it doesn’t mean you should always cling to your first impression of a player (or coach for that matter) because you may find there’s more there than is on the surface.

That was my experience recently with a young 12U player named Jazmin. Her mom contacted me after getting a recommendation from the father of a teammate.

She told me Jazmin was brand new to softball, and that she would like to get her some hitting lessons. That alone is pretty interesting.

Usually parents don’t look into lessons until after a few games, or maybe even a couple of seasons, so that fact that she wanted to start with lessons right away was surprising but in a good way. I think she was a little concerned that everything would be so new with her daughter but I reassured her it could be a good thing because she wouldn’t have any bad habits to unlearn.

Then came Saturday morning and the day of our first lesson. Jazmin walked up and right away my Spidey-sense started tingling, because honestly I have seen happier looking faces in a hostage photo.

We started the lesson and things didn’t get any better. She seemed very unhappy to be there and as a result it was a struggle to get her to do anything.

I finally stopped and asked her if she wanted to be there. I wasn’t trying to be mean, I was actually trying to be kind, because there is no sense in making yourself miserable just to do something. That’s what work is for.

She mumbled something or other, which may have been “yes” but meant no. Finally her mom, who had been watching her from behind the backstop, called her over and talked to her for a while. Mom did not like that attitude at all and let her know.

I think we tried going on a little more but nothing had really changed so I suggested we stop about halfway through the scheduled lesson. I told her mom there would be no charge – we tried it, it didn’t work.

But mom asked if we could try again the next Tuesday. I give her a lot of credit for that, by the way. A lot of parents would have just chalked it up to a bad idea and been done with it.

I agreed, a little reluctantly, but told her if we had to stop again I would be charging for that lesson. It was only fair, she agreed.

Then came Tuesday. Admittedly I was a bit concerned about how things would go this time given the last experience, but I was willing to give it one more try.

Mom reminded Jazmin to start by apologizing for her prior attitude, which she did, and from that point on it was like aliens had come to Earth, taken away the Jazmin I’d met on Saturday, and replaced her with a new and improved version.

What I discovered was Jazmin is a blast to teach. She has a great sense of humor, and not only laughs at my jokes but throws a few in on her own too – including a couple of good-natured digs at me, which I appreciate.

She’s been all smiles at every lesson since (we’ve only done a few) and has thrown herself into learning how to hit. We’ve only been working on the tee so far but she is coming right along and should be ready to start front toss in the next lesson or two.

Not bad for a totally inexperienced beginner. Hopefully we have a long instructor/student relationship and someday we will have a good laugh about it when she comes back from her college team for a tune-up.

So that’s the lesson for today. Had I assumed that first impression was all there was to Jazmin I would never have booked the second lesson and I would have missed out on a wonderful new student. That would have been a shame for both of us.

On the other side, players, you need to understand that the first impression you make with a coach at a tryout or a conversation after a game or other event could cause you to miss out on an opportunity.

Sure, you could just be having a bad day (as Jazmin apparently was). But you may not get the chance to correct the coach’s impression later. I was very close to saying “no” to the second lesson because I had serious doubts anything would change. Fortunately I was wrong.

In our hyperspeed world, it’s easy to make quick judgments and move on. But every now and then it’s worth taking a chance that your first impression wasn’t the correct one. You never know what you’ll find on the other side.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Hips Are the Key to Body Movement

Ally launch

Here’s a quick experiment for you to try at home (or wherever you’re reading this blog). Try to move your arm away from the rest of your body. Pretty easy, right?

Now try a leg. Either one will do. Again, pretty easy.

Now do your head. If you go forward you can get it out there pretty far, and even side-to-side or backwards will work if you’re more flexible than I am.

Ok, here comes the key part: try moving your hips away. Aha! You can maybe get them out a couple of inches but that’s about it.

So basically, if your hips move away the rest of the body has to go with it.

This is a key concept for any fastpitch softball player to understand, but especially for pitchers. Many pitchers, when they are trying to get leg drive, will just run their stride leg past their drive leg and kick it forward. The result is that the stride leg pulls them off the pitching rubber – which is like trying to drag a wagon full of concrete behind you.

That’s because a lot of your weight (some of us more than others) and strength is carried in the hip area, which includes the lower torso. If it is stationary (more or less) it’s going to take a lot of effort to get it in motion so it can contribute to the pitch.

If the hips are already moving smartly forward as the pitcher drives out, however, instead of holding her back they add to the power. The difference (or delta as they like to say in the business world) can be huge.

The challenge is when pitchers think about moving forward, they tend to focus on their stride leg and where it lands. This leads to them doing more of a kicking motion instead of focusing their attention on where it should be – on the hips.

One way to help them get the feel of moving the hips forward (and how much effort it takes) is to have them do a standing broad jump. That is all about getting the hips and torso to fly forward.

Another way is to have them stand on one leg and then hop a short distance to the other. this can be front-to-back or side-to-side.

I say a short distance because as soon as you say long distance they’re going to go right back to reach out with the leg/foot instead of moving the middle.

A harness around their hips tied to a bungy cord or surgical tube will give them that feeling. Have them put the connector in the front, stretch the tube out as much as they can, then go through their pitching motion, letting the tube pull them forward.

You can also get behind them, place your hand on their lower back and give them a small push as they get read to go out. Just be careful that it’s a small push. You don’t want to push a pitcher who’s having trouble moving down to the ground (as I once did).

Ultimately, though, the best thing to do is get them to figure out how to get their hips moving forward to become part of the drive without all the artificial helpers.

As they start to get the feel of moving the hips properly, have them start pitching from a short distance into a net or screen. Keep them there until they can do it without thinking. then slowly move them back a few feet at a time and ensure they can maintain that hip-centered approach.

Only move to the next distance when they appear to have mastered the previous one. If they go back to being leg-oriented when they move back, move up to the previous position again. Repeat until they can throw properly at a full distance.

Incidentally, what I have found is that this is very easy and natural for some and very difficult and alien for others. I have no idea why, because it comes naturally to me.

What I do know, however, is that it is essential to maximize speed. The more momentum you can crash into a firm front leg the more the arm whip will be accelerated, creating more energy to transfer into the ball. A pitcher who is being held back by her hips will struggle to attain her very best speed.

The best way to check this is using video, either on a dedicated camera or your phone set to a high speed (60 frames per second or more). The naked eye can be easily fooled, especially if the pitcher is doing whatever she does quickly.

But with video, you can see if the hips are passing quickly over the pitching rubber on their way forward or whether they hover over it as the arms and legs move forward. (The first one is correct.)

Once you can see what’s going on you can work to correct it. It probably won’t be easy, but the results will be worth it.

6 Tips for Easing Back Into Softball Mode

Diamonds warmup

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join in on an NFCAonline mentoring session. While several of the topics that came up were more oriented toward college programs, there was one in particular that was pretty universal: how to get players back into softball mode.

For many, these past three months may have been the longest layoff they’ve had from a formal practice/workout routine since they were pre-teens. That’s especially true for players above the Mason-Dixon line (not to be confused with the Mendoza line, which is a whole different issue), where the weather has been spotty at best, and sometimes downright uncooperative.

With not just indoor facilities but many parks closed, it’s likely many players have spent far more time than they would have otherwise making Tik Tok videos, streaming movies and TV shows, sleeping, eating junk food and doing whatever else is popular among young people these days.

I get that, too. It’s tough to get motivated when you don’t know whether your next game will be next month, next fall, or next year.

Sure, teams have been doing Zoom meetings to try to hang together, and various activities such as the Facebook videos where it looks like they’re throwing the ball from one player to the next. But none of that requires a whole lot of physical exertion or delivers much preparation to get out and play.

Now that summer leagues and travel ball is beginning to open up again, however, it’s important to ensure players who have been idle for the last few months are given the opportunity to ease their way back into playing. Otherwise there is a risk of even more time off due to injuries.

Here are six tips to help ensure players stay healthy as they start working to shake off the rust.

  • Limit overhand throwing for the first few weeks. Arm and shoulder injuries due to improper throwing mechanics were already a problem, even before the Great Layoff. It’s unlikely the underlying issues have magically gotten better. While the time off was good for healing old injuries, it also means players can be highly prone to new ones. That’s why it’s important to ease them back into throwing overhand. Pay even closer attention to throwing mechanics during warmups, and spend a little more time than normal on shorter, lighter throws. (If you don’t know what to look for in terms of mechanics, check out Austin Wasserman’s excellent High Level Throwing programs.) During fielding drills, save arms by having players toss the ball to the side or drop it in a bucket at times rather than throwing the ball to a base. When you do start having players throw full-out, set a limit and stick to it. This is especially true for catchers practicing throwdowns. Remember it’s been a while. Do maybe 10-12 at most to start, and work your way up from there.
  • Put more emphasis on stretching. I shouldn’t have to say this but I’m going to anyway. Players who have been largely inactive for the last couple of months likely have tight muscles. Even those who have been putting in some practice time on their own are probably not as limber as they were when they were more active with school, other sports and activities or anything that required more effort than shifting positions on the couch. They need to get those muscles, tendons and ligaments working properly again. For the first few practices be sure you plan extra time for dynamic stretches to begin practice, and watch to make sure they’re doing those stretches properly. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched teams slop their way through various stretches and then expect they’re ready to play.) When you’re approaching the end of practice, be sure to leave a little time for cool-down stretches too. This is important at any time, but especially right now. Get those muscles, tendons and ligaments loosened up properly now and you’ll face far fewer injury issues down the road.
  • Condition intelligently. There’s a good kind of sore, where you know you fatigued the muscles well so they can strengthen and improve, and there is a bad kind of sore where you over-worked the muscles and now it’s going to take some time to recover. Unless you are a certified strength and conditioning coach you probably aren’t sure of the where that line is. It’s going to be tempting to try to get your team into peak game shape in one or two practices. Don’t succumb to that temptation. Remember that young people can have all kinds of stuff going on beneath the surface – Osgood-Schlatter Disease, growth plates, chronic tendonitis, etc. – that can affect their performance and cause pain. Overconditioning early on can exacerbate these conditions. While there may be a desire to get them into mid-season shape right now, resist it. Ease them in and build to it, just as you would in any other season. It will pay off in the long term.
  • Limit repetitions. One of the keys to all of the above is to limit repetitions in the early rounds. Overuse injuries are essentially caused by performing more repetitions than the body is capable of safely handling. After a period of inactivity that number may be a lot lower than you’re used to in a practice setting. Deal with it. There are actually two benefits to it. First, variety in activities helps work different muscle groups. That’s why so many college coaches say they like multi-sport athletes. The kids they get are in better shape and less likely to be damaged. The second benefit is that you have a lot of ground to make up. Focusing too much in any one area means other areas are being ignored, and you know those other areas will come back to bite you. Fewer reps means less time spent, which means you have time for other areas.
  • Hydrate early and often. If your players have mostly been laying around doing nothing they probably aren’t going to be used to the physical exertion of stretches, much less a full-fledged practice. As a result they can dehydrate quickly. Be sure to take frequent water breaks, especially for the first couple of weeks, and keep an eye out for signs of dehydration. Better yet, let them bring their water with them from station to station or area to area. After all, it’s unlikely that 12 or 14 or whatever number of players on a team will all need the same amount of water at the same time(s).
  • Remember the mental side. While the most obvious challenges will be physical, the mental side of the game will also need to be worked on if your players are going to be game-ready when it’s time to go. You may be all softball all the time, but most (if not all) of your players are not. That means they may have forgotten things you expect them to know (especially in the younger age groups), so be sure to go through those mental aspects as well. Walking through coverages, backups, special plays, rules and rule changes, etc. helps get their minds back in softball mode while saving their bodies. If players aren’t performing at the level they remember themselves being at before, they may experience stress or anxiety on top of what they’re already experiencing. Pay attention to those aspects as well, because they may not be able to compartmentalize their worries and concerns as well as you wish they would. Keep them focused, keep them positive and keep them engaged and they will bounce back to where they should be much faster.

Once you get back on the field it’s going to be tempting to just jam down the accelerator and take off right away. Resist that temptation.

If you ease into it instead, with an intelligent plan that builds on itself, you’re far more likely to find success in both the short and long term. Good luck!

My Hope for Once Fastpitch Softball Resumes

KR huddle

Today’s post is inspired partially by this blog post from February at Softball Is for Girls, partially by some of the discussions I’ve seen on Facebook and the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, and maybe a little bit by this song from hair metal band Cinderella.

There’s no doubt it’s been unfortunate that we’ve had to hit the “pause” button on fastpitch softball over the last couple of months. It probably seems like longer because a lot of teams haven’t played outdoors since the fall, but in reality it’s really only been March through the beginning of May so far.

Still, if anything good can come out of it, I hope it’s that more people have a greater appreciation for the sport and what it means to them. Perhaps things that seemed more life-and-death before all of this aren’t taken quite as seriously. (Parents getting into fistfights on the sidelines, I’m looking at you.)

As the Cinderella song says, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. We’ve had it taken away from us, and in some areas it’s still not back yet. Although hopefully that will change soon.

Even where it is back, it’s not really back like it was before. Social distancing and additional rules are going to make it a very different experience, at least for a while.

Whenever you get to watch your next game, here are some of the things I hope for you:

  • At your first game or tournament, you take a few moments before or after just to soak up the atmosphere. We always seem to be in a rush to run from one thing to the next, and over a long season all the games and tournaments tend to blur together. So just take a moment to appreciate that you have the opportunity to do this again. Take in the sights, the sounds, the sun and the breeze on your skin, even the smells (as long as you’re not standing next to the Port-o-let. Remember that none of it is guaranteed, as we have just learned. Appreciate it.
  • Be a little kinder to the umpires. They have been through what you have been through, and yet they’re back on the field even though they don’t have any kids of their own to watch. They are here so your kids have an opportunity to play the sport we all love. Maybe stop and thank them – from a safe distance, of course.
  • Throw a little appreciation the coaches’ way as well. They now have all kinds of new challenges to deal with that weren’t there back in October. It’s not as easy as it looks. And yes, the coaches are going to make some poor decisions from time to time. Try not to take it so seriously. A bad day at the ballpark is better than a good day just about anywhere else.
  • Coaches, cut your parents a little slack too. At least most of them. Remember that they have been chomping at the bit to see their kids play again. They may be a bit overly enthusiastic at times. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with rude jerks – no one should – but try to recognize that the demand has been pent-up for a while and make take a bit before it levels out again.
  • Players, try not to take it all so seriously. You just got a taste of what life is like without softball, and what a real crisis looks like. Hopefully going 0-for-4 or giving up the game-winning hit doesn’t look quite so devastating anymore. Not that you want to settle for a poor performance, but you can’t let it define you either. Now that you’re back on the ballfield, try to enjoy every minute of it.
  • Perhaps most of all, parents please, please, please lighten up on your kids. You just got a taste of what life is like without softball. And so did your kids. If you turn it into a miserable experience for them they’re going to end up hating softball and probably quitting. THEN what will you do? Keep in mind that the shelter-in-place orders have made up a MUCH larger percentage of their lives, especially for 7-10 year olds, than they have for yours. For many, this was the first major world event that directly affected them. It may take them a while to fully adjust to being back on the field, or to get their skills back up to where they were. Deal with it. Enjoy seeing your kid(s) play, because one day it will all be taken away for good. Try to put that day off as long as you can, because I can tell you from first-hand experience you will miss it deeply.

For all the teams starting up again, good luck. For those who are still waiting on the go-ahead, I hope it comes quickly for you.

Whenever you get back there, however, I hope you have a little more appreciation for the opportunities you have and that you take advantage of them fully. For tomorrow is promised to no one.

Guide to the New Rules of Post-Pandemic Softball

Emma hitting virus

ARRR! Caution – there be satirical content here. 

It looks like softball is back on for 2020! That’s great news for everyone who has been itching to get out and see some ball played. And their kids.

But of course, we’re not out of the woods yet. Testing is still woefully lacking, and there is no vaccine or cure yet. According to healthcare nursing leaders, hospitals are really still just treating symptoms, not necessarily providing any cures.

So with that in mind, various organizations have started issuing some new rules to address the ongoing need to continue social distancing while being in a team setting.

The thing is, any new rule set can be confusing at first. It’s hard to know exactly what all should apply. So to help out with that I’m going to look at some of the rules – and the issues around the rules – and give you my interpretation of what needs to, or will, happen.

No need to thank me. All part of the service.

Rule #1 – no more than three players in the dugout. Ok, that should work in most dugouts. They’re wide enough to allow at least six feet between players. But who gets to be in the dugout?

That’s easy. One will be the hitter in the hole, so she is ready to go into the on-deck circle. The other two are the head coach’s kid and her best friend on the team. Extra incentive to becomes BFFs with the head coach’s kid.

What about when the head coach’s kid or her BFF is hitting and/or in the on-deck circle? Who goes in then?

That’s easy. No one. Because it wouldn’t be fair.

Rule #1A – players not in the dugout must congregate in a socially distant way in the area behind the backstop near the dugout. This is actually one of the more popular rule changes among the parents. Now they can have unfettered access to their daughters so they can critique their defense, coach up their hitting and tell them what idiots the coaches are in real time.

This new rule also gives helicopter parents an opportunity to check if their daughters need water, sunflower seeds, a cool rag, sun lotion, antibacterial wipes, ice cream from the snack bar or anything else during the game. Players in the 16U and 18U levels will particularly appreciate their parents being able to check on them throughout the 75 minutes they normally would have been away from them.

Rule #2 – Parents may not sit behind the backstop or within six feet of the dugout. They are required to sit in a line, a minimum of six feet per family unit, along the sidelines past the dugout or behind the outfield fence. Or even better in the parking lot or the seating area at the local Subway until the game is over.

The ruling bodies understand this rule will make it more difficult for them to coach their kid while she is at bat, and thus recommend establishing a series of large pantomime gestures so their daughters don’t miss out on this valuable, timely information. Wearing white makeup is optional but encouraged.

This rule will be strictly enforced, incidentally. Local biker gangs have been hired to take care of any disputes. We’ve seen how belligerent you parents can get.

Rule #3 – Direct contact should be avoided whenever possible. Of course, that’s already in the rules, which some teams ignore because hey, if you can give the best player on the other team a concussion and you don’t take advantage of it you’re not trying.

But there are other types of contact as well, so we must look at use cases.

  • Use case #1 – tag plays. You’ve heard of the phantom tag of second base in a double play. Now all tags will be phantom tags. If the defensive player catches the ball and makes a motion toward the runner before the runner crosses a line directly in front of and six feet to the side of a base, the runner is out.
  • Use case #2 – safety base. Orange safety bases will still be in use. But they will now be placed in foul territory a minimum of six feet away from the white base. The first base coach’s box will now be moved to the other side of the fence (or a line extending from the fence) which is okay because the first base coach is mostly useless on a play at first anyway. If the ball gets away from the fielders, from six feet away the batter runner should know, but if not all the parents sitting along the sidelines are welcome to advise the player on what she should do next by screaming at her like her hair is on fire.
  • Use case #3 – runner on first base. The first baseman must stay a minimum of six feet away from first base when there is a runner on that base. Like maybe up the line where she should be anyway.
  • Use case #4 – short blooping fly balls into the shallow outfield. No real rule change here. All three players going for the ball should pull up and let it fall between them. Like they always do.

Rule #4 – Social distancing behind the plate. Catchers are required to position themselves a minimum of six feet behind the back foot of the hitter, which will not be a huge change for some. Umpires should then position themselves six feet behind the catcher.

As a result of the distance between the plate and the umpire, balls and strikes will now be decided by a flip of a coin after every pitch. Again, not a big change for some.

Rule #5 – No gathering at the circle between each out. There is no need for the entire team to gather up to congratulate itself for every routine out. This is just a giant waste of time, especially when there are time limits anyway.

If you still must huddle up, all field players must remain outside the circle, which provides eight feet of distance from the pitcher (which is good because her health is far more important than the health of the rest of you put together). You must also maintain at least six feet from the player on either side. If you set up in a square pattern you should meet the minimum, although don’t ask us to do the geometry on that to prove it.

Rule #6 – No outside coolers or snacks of any kind will be allowed in the facility. This is not really a social distancing thing. It’s just we are not hosting these tournaments for our health, or because we like spending our entire weekend raking dirt and lining fields (if you’re lucky).

We are here to make money, and we’re already behind with the season starting in May (or June). So buy your food and drinks at the snack bar and help us give our organization’s treasurer an account worth embezzling.

Rule #7 – Personal protective equipment. All players should carry a large supply of antibacterial wipes (if you can find them, good luck with that!) in their bat bags at all times, and should use a new wipe each time they touch another person (accidentally or on purpose) or anything another person has touched (including the ground) or well, hell, anything. They should also wipe themselves off if they get dirty. A clean player is a happy player.

Latex gloves (or similar) are recommended, even though the minute you touch anything that might be infected those gloves are now useless to you. Hand sanitizer is also highly recommended, especially if you use the washroom facilities. Which is good advice even after there is a vaccine.

Masks are not required but are encouraged. We mean the cloth or surgical masks, not the hard protective face masks, because only players with weak skills need those, right? Nothing will make players feel better than wearing a cloth or paper mask over their mouth and nose in 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity from 8:00 am until 8:00 pm.

Rule #8 – Check-in. In addition to the usual documents (signed roster, proof of insurance, birth certificates, etc.) all coaches must now produce a waiver signed by each player (or their legal guardian) stating that if they end up catching COVID-19 or any other horrific disease after playing they will not hold the organization or the facility responsible.

Of course, this is America so you can still sue whoever you want whenever you want for whatever you want. But we’re hoping it at least discourages a few people.

Rule #9 – Post-game celebrations. There will be absolutely NO high-fiving, handshakes, or other direct contacts between two teams after a game. A friendly wave is allowed if performed from a safe distance.

Better still, use the old cheer, “2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate?” as seen in the Bad News Bears (original version) and millions of tee-ball games across the country.

Rule #10 – Gathering under canopies between games. Only one person per corner is allowed in each 10′ canopy, so plan accordingly to ensure you have enough canopies for the entire team, plus parents and siblings. Maybe every family unit should bring its own canopy so it looks like a Renaissance Faire has broken out. You work it out.

If these strict guidelines are not followed, see Rule #2 for enforcement procedures.

Rule #11 – Awarding of trophies/medals, t-shirts or other prizes. Trophies, awards and other prizes will be scattered six feet apart on the outfield grass, where teams can pick them up as-appropriate. The tournament directors are not taking any chances on coming into contact with your little petri dishes.

Rule #12 – Come, play, get the hell out. Do not loiter after games. When your team is out, no half-hour long speeches by the coaches, no hanging around the field soaking up the atmosphere, no parents going over the game play-by-play to discuss what an idiot the coach is.

Just pack your crap and leave. We have your money, you got to play. We don’t love you anymore. Go home where it’s (presumably) safe.

Hope that helps everyone! Have fun playing this season!

The Stockdale Paradox the Key to Making It Through the COVID-19 Lockdown

Mask

Today’s topic isn’t necessarily a softball-specific topic. But because so many of us are looking longingly at empty fields, especially on beautiful sunny days when the temperature gets up to shirtsleeve temperatures, I thought it was worth sharing.

I first came across the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins. It is named after Admiral James Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking prisoner of war in the so-called “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.

If you want to read the full explanation you can do that here. I’m going to do my best to give you the abridged version.

The “Hanoi Hilton” was a horrible POW camp. Conditions were poor and the prisoners (American soldiers, sailors and marines) were beaten, tortured, starved and otherwise mistreated. All in all it was a miserable experience.

Adm. Stockdale was in it for seven years, from 1968 to the end of the war in 1974. Collins asked him why some of the prisoners (including him) were able to make it through with their spirits unbroken while others fell into deep sadness and depression.

He said the ones who struggled were the optimists. They would say, “We’ll be out of here by Christmas” or “We’ll be out of here by July 4.” But then Christmas or July 4 would come and go and they were still there. The continuous disappointment broke them.

The ones who came through it ok adopted what has come to be known as the Stockdale Paradox. Their attitude was basically, “We know we will make it out of here alive one day. We just don’t know when.”

The ones who handled it best were the ones who faced the brutal reality of a situation they couldn’t control and accepted it for what it was. They focused on doing what they needed to do to get through each day until they were finally release, believing all the time that the day would come.

That’s where a lot of us are right now – although to be honest we have nothing to complain about compared to the residents of the “Hanoi Hilton.” There’s a huge difference between being locked up in a cage, sleeping in the dirt and never knowing if you’re going to be dragged out and beaten and being stuck watching Neflix or videos of old softball games on your living room couch.

What we have to realize right now is we don’t know when it will be safe, not just for us but for our families, our neighbors and the most vulnerable among us, to begin going out to restaurants, movie theaters, concerts, worship services and yes, softball games, again. But we also have to believe that the day will come.

What we don’t know is when that day will come. If you pin all your hopes on May 1, or May 15, or July 1, or any specific date and it doesn’t happen, you will feel worse than you did before.

You may even fall into despair, or decide to do something stupid (like defy shelter-in-place orders) that only extend the situation even further – and perhaps increase the death toll needlessly.

Instead, know that one day this will all be over, or at least the worst of it will, and we’ll be able to get back to the rest of our lives again. Embrace the Stockdale Paradox and one day you too will be sporting an “I Survived the COVID-19 Pandemic” t-shirt at the local ballfield.

In the meantime, stay safe and wash your hands! And be sure to hit the Like and Share buttons so this message gets out to others who need it, and subscribe to get new posts delivered directly to your email as soon as they go live.

A College Player’s Perspective on a Lost Season

IMG_4319

This guest post was written by Taylor Danielson, a junior at the University of Indianapolis. She offers a first-hand account of what it was like to lose the rest of her college season when it was canceled due to the Covid-19 virus. 

Hours before the NCAA made the decision to cancel all remaining 2020 winter and spring seasons, my team and I were sitting at the airport in Orlando, Florida joking about everything that has, was, and is going on. As we got on the plane, it was business as usual.

We landed in Indianapolis, got off the plane, gathered our things and headed to the bus. While we were sitting and waiting for the bus and people got their electronics back up and running, social media sites were being overrun with news about business and school closures and sports seasons being cancelled all over the country.

It was at that moment when our hearts sank because we all knew we were next. At that point we didn’t realize the magnitude of this event. There weren’t a mass amount of cases in the United States, and it hadn’t started spreading like it is now.

The bus ride back to school was silent. We quietly sat and hoped we wouldn’t get the news that was almost inevitable. When we arrived back at school, we unloaded and put all the equipment away.

When everything was away we all sat in the locker room waiting to hear what our next move was from Coach. As the whole coaching staff came in, one look at their faces and we knew the news couldn’t be good.

We all sat in silence for a few minutes before Coach spoke up and informed us of what had happened, our season was over. Although we all realized these were necessary steps in order to keep everyone safe, it was a tough pill to swallow.

We were all heartbroken, crying in the locker room for at least 45 minutes. Personally, I was sad about the season, but knowing I had played my last game with my best friend

image0

Taylor and me (right) in happier times.

was the saddest part.

Taylor and I had been through a lot together. For her senior season to end the way it did breaks my heart. I would do anything to play one last home game with her, have one more laugh at practice, and one more squeal on the bus when we find out we are roommates.

This whole experience has taught me a lot. First, don’t take anything for granted. It may sound a bit cliché, but it doesn’t resonate until you experience it yourself. You truly never know when your last game is.

IMG_4362

Here we are after what turned out to be our last game together. This was just supposed to be one of many we’d take.

Second, always remember to have fun, even when you are struggling. This sudden end to the season has put a lot of things into perspective.

What I mean by that is don’t get caught up in things like your performance at the plate. I’ve been off to a slow start and am guilty of living and dying by each at bat.

Now that I am done for the season, I wish I wouldn’t have spent so much time worrying about what my batting average was or what I hoped my next at bat would look like. I realize now that there are a lot worse things that could happen besides an a bat that didn’t go your way.

You’re never going to get this time back, so it’s important to make the most of every moment. Lastly, cherish every friendship.

I may never play another game of softball with my best friend, but I have our memories and more importantly I still have her.  I am beyond thankful for the friendships this game has given me, especially the one I have with Taylor.  Teammates for a moment, friends for life.

The Value of Learning More Than One Position

Taylor Danielson takes personal responsibility by hustling to chase down a foul ball

This topic came up a couple of weeks ago when I was participating in a conference call with top pitching coaches from all over the country. We had wandered into more team-oriented topics when my friend James Clark mentioned that he always insists his players learn more than one position – with one of those preferably being outfield.

Apparently in these days of helicopter parents that is a fairly radical idea. Those parents (or should I say “those parents”) believe their child should spend all their time on the field in one spot. Preferably a “high-value” spot such as pitcher, catcher or shortstop.

To me, that is doing those players as well as the team a disservice. There are plenty of reasons for players to learn more than one position.

  • It elevates the level of play. Most of us don’t get better unless we’re pushed. Having two or more players getting playing time at a position pushes everyone to be at their best so they can be there for the big games.
  • It helps players learn the game. If you spend all your time at one position you may get to learn it thoroughly but you may not gain the bigger picture of how the game works. Softball is an individual sport played in a team setting. It really helps to know what all the other parts are doing.
  • It rounds out their skill sets. Different positions require different skills. Being a more well-rounded player makes players more valuable even in their primary positions. For example, shortstops who also play outfield gain more experience tracking balls in the air.
  • It gives players more options down the road. You may be the big gun at a position right now. But what if a “once in a career” player comes along who plays your position? Or just someone the coach likes more? Or you get hurt and can no longer play your chosen position, as happens now and then. If you can’t contribute anywhere else you’re likely to spend a lot of time riding the pines. Or the aluminum these days.
  • It helps players prove themselves in college. A player’s best chance to show coaches what she can do may not be at her primary position, especially if the coaches have an established starter. But if she can contribute elsewhere the coaches can get comfortable having her in the lineup, and then may be more willing to see what she can do at her primary position.

Those are some of the benefits to the players. There are also benefits to the team, such as:

  • It future-proofs the team. If only one player has any recent experience at a position and she gets hurt or decides to accept an offer in the middle of the season from what she perceives to be a higher-level team (it happens) it can take a while to break in someone new. If players have been splitting time you already have the next one up ready to go.
  • It offers more options to get players in the game. No one likes sitting, and playing time is probably the single biggest point of abrasion between players/parents and coaches. Everyone gets more opportunity when there is flexibility in the lineup.
  • It promotes the concept of “team” over “me.” Splitting time between positions helps players understand that everyone contributes to the success of the team, not just the stars. That mentality then carries over into other aspects, such as laying down a bunt when called upon when a player would rather swing away.
  • It gives coaches options for match-ups. If certain players can only play one position, and that position is occupied by a better player, the coach may not be able to put the best nine that match-up against a particular team on the field. Players who can play other positions give coaches options. It’s like having a larger bench without all the issues that presents.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this philosophy. I once lost a player when I was recruiting a team because I refused to guarantee a father that his daughter would only play one position. But that was ok – I ended up with four other players who could play that position just as well – and who were happy to do whatever the team needed.

In the end, only being able to play one position is a self-made trap. It may seem like a good idea but always keep in mind that fastpitch softball is a competitive sport.

Your coach may love you there today. But if he/she can find someone better for that position tomorrow, that player is going to get your spot. If you can’t contribute anywhere else it could make for a long, unhappy season.

If you broaden your skills, however, there will always be someone who wants you on their team. And on their field.

%d bloggers like this: