Category Archives: General Thoughts

Rick and Sarah Pauly Pitching Clinic Coming to Northern Illinois Suburbs

Here’s some great news for everyone in the Midwest who has ever wanted to bring their daughters to a clinic with Rick and Sarah Pauly but were held back by the distance.

For the first time ever, Rick and Sarah are coming to the far north suburbs of Illinois – McHenry specifically! They will be at Pro Player on October 15 for two sessions. 

The morning session will be more beginner/intermediate going over the basics of IR pitching. Great opportunity to try it out if you’ve never been exposed to it, or to get the core movements reinforced if you are already going down that path. Most likely that session will also cover the changeup. 

The afternoon session is the advanced group covering movement pitches, including the rise and drop, along with the change. Pitchers in this group should already have strong fundamentals in internal rotation pitching, with the ability to throw hard with great control. 

More information is available in the downloadable flyer below. This is a great opportunity for anyone to work with two of the best pitching coaches out there, but especially pitchers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the UP. Take advantage of this opportunity while you can. 

Want to Get Better? Try Doing Nothing!

Ok yes, today’s title was purposely click baity. Because I don’t mean literally to sit around all day on the couch staring at a screen or eating Cheetohs (or doing both; I’m not here to judge).

Sorry all you players who hoped to use my blog to justify telling your parents to chill, or whatever you say nowadays.

What I’m actually talking about is learning to use your body the way it’s meant to be used rather than trying to do too much and getting in the way of your best performance.

A great example, and one I’ve talked about many times here, is using “hello elbow” (HE) mechanics for pitching.

With HE, you push the ball down the back side of the circle and try to get your hand behind the ball early going into the release zone. You then pull your arm through the release zone with your bicep while (supposedly) snapping your wrist hard as you let go of the ball, finishing with your elbow pointing at your catcher.

While this may seem like a way to add energy into the ball in theory, in practice the opposite is true. It actually slows down your arm, because your using the small bicep muscle instead of the larger back muscles to bring the arm down, and gets in the way of your arm’s natural movements as it passes your hip.

Even biceps like these.

It’s also an unnatural movement pattern. To prove it, stand up, let your arms hang at your sides, and see which way your hand is facing. Unless you have something very odd going on your palm is in toward your thigh, not turned face-forward.

Your arm wants to turn in that way when you’re pitching too. In order for that to happen, all you have to do is NOTHING – don’t force it out, don’t force a follow through, really don’t do anything. The ball will come out as your hand turns and you will transfer way more energy into the ball than you would have if your tried to do something.

It’s very Seinfeldian.

This, incidentally, is something I often use to help pitchers whose arms are naturally trying to do internal rotation (IR) but are also using an HE finish because that’s what has been drilled into them for the last three years gain a quick speed boost. They start out using their HE mechanics from the K position and we look at the speed reading.

I then have them lose the forced finish and just let the arm naturally pronate at it reaches the bottom of the circle. They can usually add 2-3 mph immediately just by doing nothing.

Or let’s look at hitting. Many young and inexperienced hitters will try to over-use their arms and shoulders when bringing the bat to the ball.

It makes sense on some level because the bat is in your hands and you want to hit the ball hard.

Yet that is the one of the worst things you can do. When you pull the bat with your arms and shoulders you have to start your swing before you know where the ball is going to be (never a good idea).

You will also lose your ability to adjust your swing to where the ball is going because you’ve built up so much momentum in whatever direction your started. Not to mention that muscles get smaller and weaker as you move away from your core so you’re not generating nearly as much energy as your body is capable of producing.

Again, the better choice is to do nothing with your arms early in the swing, and instead let your lower body and core muscles generate energy and start moving the bat toward the ball (while the bat is still near your shoulder). Then, once you’re well into your turn and you see where the ball is headed you can let the bat head launch, resulting in a much better hit, and a more reliable process.

Does doing nothing work for overhand throwing as well?

You betcha.

How many times have you seen players lined up across from each other, throwing arm elbow in their glove and wrists snapping furiously while their forearms don’t move? Probably more times than you can count.

This is a completely pointless drill because no one, and I mean NO ONE, purposely snaps their wrists when they throw overhand. Instead, they relax their wrists and allow the whipping action to snap their wrists for them – which is far more powerful.

To prove it, close your fingers up and try to fan yourself by snapping your wrist. Not much air there, right?

Something to keep in mind at hot tournaments.

Now relax your wrist and move your forearm back and forth quickly. Ahh, that’s the stuff. That breeze you now feel is more energy being generated, which moves more air into your face.

So if that’s the case, why would you ever try to do something when you’re releasing the ball rather than doing nothing and letting biomechanics produce better results for you?

There are countless other examples but you get the picture. The point is, forcing unnatural movements onto your body, while they might make you “feel” like you’re working harder, are actually very inefficient.

If you want to maximize your performance, make sure the energy you’re producing is delivering the results you’re going for. Just doing nothing and watch your numbers climb.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

There’s Always Someone Watching

A few weeks ago one of my students pitched in a tournament. The game didn’t go particularly well, she said, as her team lost 8-0.

Not exactly the type of outcome that makes you a legend. So what happened next was very cool.

Her dad ran into the coach of the winning team in one of the common areas, and the coach was very complimentary.

“Your daughter pitched a great game,” the coach said. “What happened on the scoreboard wasn’t her fault. Her team just made too many errors.”

The pitcher’s dad thanked him for the kind words. But then came the shocker.

“Has your daughter committed to a team yet for next year?” the coach asked. “If not, I’d love to offer her a spot on my team.”

Think about that. The opposing team tapped that girl for eight runs and the coach of that team offered her a roster spot right there.

What this proves is a simple fact. As they say in the Ocean’s 11 remake, there’s always someone watching.

Although that is a little creepy in a hotel setting.

What that coach saw, I assume, was not a pitcher who was losing a ballgame but instead a pitcher who was battling to try to keep her team in it, even if the rest of the team was shooting itself in the foot. She didn’t give up, or complain, or do the things many athletes do when things aren’t going their way.

Instead she showed strength of character (as well as quality of performance) to a degree that impressed the coach enough to want her on his team.

That is something every athlete in every sport should keep in mind as they play. It’s easy to be happy or “up” or “fierce” when your team is winning and you’re performing well.

What you get when you practice looking fierce in the mirror.

But the ones who really stand out are the players who can do it in the face of adversity – like giving your opponents extra outs on a hot Sunday afternoon. Not because someone might be watching but because that’s who they are.

But the someone watching part is important. It could be, as in this case, the coach of a future travel team who can offer a better opportunity.

It could be the local high school coach checking out the incoming freshmen. It could be a college coach who is looking for the right players to help their team win a conference championship and go to a post-season tournament.

Heck, it might even be a future employer who just happens to be out watching their daughter play ball.

Whoever it is you just never know who might be watching. And who might be very impressed with how you handle yourself when things aren’t going well.

So keep that in mind on your tough days. Instead of sulking, or complaining, or just giving up, keep on playing. Do your best every time no matter how roughly things are going.

Because there’s always someone watching who could make a huge difference in your life.

If Softball HAS to Have Time Limits…

I’m pretty sure I’ve made my feelings about time limits for fastpitch softball games pretty clear. You can read all about them in this post. Or this one.

The short version is I don’t like them. Never have, never will.

The reason is fastpitch softball wasn’t designed to have time limits. It’s supposed to have INNING limits, i.e., the game is over after seven (count ’em) seven innings.

As a result the basic rules of the game are designed on the premise of having unlimited time to complete the game. Unfortunately, the reality is that time limits are here to stay.

Most tournaments are designed to make money for the hosting organization, so tournament directors are incented to squeeze as many games as they can into two, or three, or however many days. (The larger tournaments are incented to keep people in town for as many days as possible by spreading the early games out for two or three days and then jamming them all in at the end, but that’s a different issue.)

So what better way to fit 10 lbs. of games into a 5 lb. set of fields than to insist that games end after 90, or 85, or 75, or however many minutes? Even fewer if there were rain delays that prevented games from being played on time?

While time limits themselves are an affront to the game, where the real problems come in is when coaches start all kinds of tomfoolery to take advantage of the disparity between the rules and the consequences of time limits.

You know the ones: the visitors are on the field clinging to a two-run lead and want to either take advantage of “drop dead” rules (where the inning ends when the buzzer goes off) or the “no new inning” rule. So the visiting coach makes a pitching change, then a catching change, then goes out for an unnecessary circle visit for the new pitcher to run time off the clock.

In another instance, the home team is clinging to a one-run lead with five minutes left on the clock so their coach has each hitter go to the plate only to suddenly discover she needs to tie her shoes in a manner not seen since preschool.

Yeah, like this.

If that isn’t enough, the third base coach will pull a hitter in for a conference which, judging by the length, has them discussing how to bring peace to the Middle East.

People on the sidelines will ask why the umpires aren’t doing anything to hurry the game along, but there is actually nothing they can do because there are no rules about what you can do in the last five minutes of the game – because the game isn’t supposed to have a last five minutes!

Duh!

It’s a mess for sure. But I have an idea for how to solve this issue. It’s actually brilliant in its simplicity.

All other sports that have time limits have the time broken into even blocks – quarters, halves, periods, etc. So why not do the same for softball?

If you’re going to have time limits, don’t have one limit for the whole game. Set a time limit for each inning.

If you want games completed in 90 minutes, break the game into 15 minute innings (7.5 for each side plus one minute for each transition). You will still get at least five innings in, but you will eliminate the need for coaches to pull those bush league stalling stunts.

Half innings can also end after three outs, and the remaining time (if any) goes toward the other team’s next inning unless it’s the end of the game. So if the visitors get the home team out in three innings, the remaining time gets added to their upcoming offensive inning, giving both sides an incentive to play their best every inning.

What happens if you’re in the middle of inning with bases loaded when the time expires? Sorry, the inning is over, just like if a basketball team is on a scoring run when the half ends.

Now, you will have to work in some sort of stalling penalty if one team jumps out to a big lead in the first or second inning and then tries to rob the other team of their at-bats. I think it will be pretty obvious if it keeps happening, in which case if the umpire judges it is intentional he/she can award the stalling team’s minutes to other side. That should help keep everyone honest for most of the game anyway.

It’s not an ideal solution, I know. It could be very difficult to manage, especially at first when teams aren’t used to having to play “beat the clock” throughout the entire game.

But as I said before, it’s the way every other game with a clock works. So why not softball?

And maybe, just maybe, if this approach causes such havoc and a sufficient volume of complaints the powers that be will outlaw not only inning time limits but the whole ability to impose time limits at all.

Then their only choice would be to reduce the number of innings in a game for that tournament which, while still not ideal, would be more in keeping with the spirit of the game. It might mean taking on a couple fewer teams into the tournament, but with the proliferation of tournaments these days I doubt anyone would be left without a place to play.

Sure, hosting organizations might make a little less money, or have to reduce the bragging rights about how many teams they have in the tournament. But I’m sure they’ll find another way to make up that lost revenue – or learn they can live without it.

Mull this idea over and let me know in the comments what you think. If nothing else it will give softball parents one less thing to complain about on Monday mornings.

Scoreboard clock image Wyatt Determan, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Didn’t Make the Team? Rise Like a Phoenix

One of the most legendary and beloved creatures in Greek (and other) mythology is the phoenix.

If you’re not familiar with it, at the seeming end of its life the phoenix bursts into flames, leaving behind nothing but ashes. Because it is immortal, however, the phoenix rises back up from those ashes to become even better and more powerful each time it goes through that cycle.

There is a reason I am sharing this story today.

The tryout season can be a rough time for coaches, parents, and players in the best of times. But nowhere is it harder than when a player doesn’t make her first choice team.

Believe me, I know. As a longtime coach I can tell you that cutting players from the roster was always one of the toughest things to do.

But that doesn’t compare to what the players and their parents go through. The disappointment, the sadness, and especially the sense of betrayal if they suddenly find that they are no longer on a team they’ve been a part of previously.

Here’s something I can guarantee, however: it’s not the end of the world. One quick look at postings on Facebook groups will show that there are still plenty of teams looking for players.

The reality is today there is no shortage of teams in most areas, which means there is a cornucopia of opportunities awaiting those who are determined to play and show what they can do. So take heart – while you may feel like you went down in flames today, you will find a place to play in the long term.

It’s not often you get to see a cornucopia photo so far away from Thanksgiving

Of course, in the short term it still stinks. But that doesn’t mean you just have to take it on the chin.

It’s ok to be sad. You may even shed some tears over not being with a particular team, or no longer playing with friends you’ve made, or whatever other disappointments you’re feeling. It’s perfectly fine.

But then it’s time to do something about it!

Grab your glove, your bat, your cleats, and whatever else you need and start trying out for teams that need what you have to offer. Find a place to play for the next year.

Doesn’t matter whether it’s a step up, a sideways move, or even a step down from where you’ve played before. What you need is the chance to hone your game skills as you play the game you love.

In reality you should look at it as an opportunity. Perhaps you were the #10 or #11 player on your old roster. Now you have the chance to prove yourself to be one of the top players, without all the previously established notions your old coaches had about you.

Or maybe you were the #3 or #4 pitcher on your old team, fighting to get an inning or two of pitching in pool play. On your new team you may have the chance to establish yourself as #1 or #2 because your new coaches are looking at you with fresh eyes. It’s all under your control.

Naturally, none of that will happen by chance. You’re going to have to want it, and work for it, probably harder than you have before.

But here’s the other takeaway from your recent unsuccessful tryout experience. You can use it as fuel to keep you working hard at times when you start thinking you’d rather be doing something else.

Imagine getting the opportunity to play against the team that cut you and dominating them in the circle or going 4-for-4 with a couple of extra base hits or making a game-saving play on defense. How will you feel then?

Pretty darned good I would imagine. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of proving others wrong about you and showing them directly what they missed.

Yeah, you know it!

I can tell you this from personal experience, albeit from the other side.

One of the big drivers for me in always trying to learn more and better myself as a coach was having players leave my team after a successful season. They thought they could do better elsewhere.

So after I got over the shock I dug in and tried to make myself so good as a coach that no one would ever want to leave a team I coached again. That pain started me on a journey that continues today.

All in all I’d have to say the temporary sadness was far outweighed by all the great experiences I’ve had and all the great players I’ve gotten to coach since.

So lick your wounds today, but don’t let them rule your life. Pick yourself up, and know that if you believe in yourself and are willing to work hard to achieve your dreams there will be better days ahead.

Get out on as many fields as it takes and find a place to play for next season. Be like a phoenix, rise from the ashes and get ready to fly.

Oh, and if you have a personal story of rising up from a failed tryout or other endeavor and going on to have a great career be sure to share it in the comments to help today’s players with their journey.

Phoenix photo by Estefania Quintero on Flickr

Cornucopia photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

It’s Getting to Be Time to Take a Break

Not for me – my work never ends. But for players we are coming to a natural point to dial back the softball activities so they can rest and recover and maybe experience other things life has to offer.

I know it can be difficult to think of stopping the relentless pursuit of perfection, whether that’s among coaches whose self-worth is tied up in their won-loss records or players (and by that I mostly mean parents) who are laser-focused on winning that college scholarship.

But everyone needs a little vacation from what they’re normally doing to ensure they continue to perform at their highest level the rest of the year.

Right now a lot of teams (although not all) have finished their seasons. Shockingly many have already held their tryouts and selected their teams for 2022-2023 so that’s out of the way.

Even those who haven’t quite finished are getting to the point of winding down the 2021-2022 season. So rather than jumping right into next year, why not put a pin in the softball activities for a little while and go do something else?

This advice, by the way, also applies to my own students. I love you all, but taking a little time off from lessons and practice so you can come at next season with a fresh perspective (and fresh body) would be a good thing. I’ll still be here when you’re ready to get going again.

Of course, for some of you who are all softball all the time you may not know what else to do with yourself. Here are 15 suggestions of how to spend the next few weeks.

  1. Lay around and do nothing. After the intensity of the season doing nothing in particular is perfectly acceptable.
  2. Sleep late. A lot of players skimp on the sleep during the season, especially high school and college players while school is in session. Take this time to build your sleep bank up again. You’re going to need it soon.
  3. Hang out at the pool or lake or water park (if it’s warm enough). Most coaches prohibit going to the pool on game or practice days because it can drain energy and hurt performance. Since every day is a game or practice day these days here’s your chance to enjoy the healing effects of floating in the water.
  4. Visit with non-softball friends. Sure, you love your teammates to death. But it’s ok to have non-softball or even non-athlete friends too. Go hang with them and do young people things.
  5. Visit family. Your grandparents would love to see you. So would your cousins. Spend some quality time with them. Because you may go from team to team but family is forever.
  6. Go to an amusement park. Spend the whole day there without thinking about what time you have to leave to make it to practice. Ride the roller coasters. See the shows. Eat junk (but not enough to throw up on the rides). In other words, have fun.
  7. Go to the zoo or a museum or a botanical garden. Anywhere you can take a leisurely stroll, look at things, and just BE.
  8. See a concert. Doesn’t have to be a big name star. It could just be a local band playing for free in the park, or at a local venue. Music is good for the soul. And since most performances occur at the same time as you normally practice or play, here’s your chance to hear music the way it was intended to be played – live!
  9. Watch a movie or a play in an actual theater. Just remember you’re not in your living room anymore so shut the heck up when the performance is happening.
  10. Go to dinner at a place where you don’t have to bring your own food to the table or where there aren’t 100 TVs playing sports all around you. Enjoy the experience of eating without worrying about what time to get back for warmups.
  11. Have a picnic. Yes, a good old-fashioned picnic where you bring some food and drinks, spread out a blanket, and just enjoy the day in the shade instead of on a blazing hot field.
  12. Go stargazing. Again, grab a blanket, go outside at night in a dark area, and just look up at the marvelous show above you. Appreciate how many stars there are, and remember that even if there is another planet out there somewhere with sentient beings they don’t care if you made an error, struck out, or hit a home run during the championship game this season.
  13. Have a campfire – or go camping. Building on #12, instead of going out for an hour get back to nature and either build a fire in the backyard (with parental supervision if required) or grab a tent and go to an actual campground and hang out in nature. There is something magical about staring at a real fire, especially outdoors (versus in a fireplace).
  14. Learn something entirely new that has nothing to do with softball. Play a musical instrument. Ask someone to teach you how to sew/knit/crochet. Take a course on computer programming. Try another sport like golf or tennis. Start collecting stamps or coins or something else that interests you. A good diversion will not only be good for now, but could also help you decompress once you get back to playing and practicing.
  15. Take a trip to somewhere new. It’s a big, wide world out there full of interesting people and places. Go somewhere where the goal is to experience the location instead of running from the hotel to the ballfield and back again.

These are just a few ideas. I’m sure you can come up with more if you give it some thought.

The key is to get away completely so you can rest, recover, put the last season behind you, and get ready to get back at it with even greater enthusiasm. Remember that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Take a little time off of softball and you’ll probably find your love for it has grown even more while you’ve been away.

Photo by Mateusz Dach on Pexels.com

Applying Deep Practice to Overcome Stumbling Blocks

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Anyone who has read the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle has heard of the concept of “deep practice.” You may have blown right by it but you’ve heard of it.

Part of the key to deep practice is repeating movements over and over in ultra-slow motion. As I recall Coyle says movements should be so slow that someone passing by casually can’t tell what you’re trying to do.

This week I had a chance to test this idea out on several pitching students to see how much it would help. The short version (and spoiler alert): quite a bit.

Each of these students, whose ages varied from 10 to 16, was having trouble throwing her changeup. Specifically they were all having trouble getting their hand into the proper position at the right time to make it work.

When it happened the first time I remembered The Talent Code and told the pitcher to work through how to get her hand turned the right way at the right time going ultra-slowly. After about a dozen reps at that speed I told her to go back to the pitching rubber and throw it.

The pitch was spot-on. Not just once but every time she threw it.

Pretty much how we reacted.

Hmmm, I thought, that worked pretty well. But of course “one” is not a valid sample.

So, the next student who had trouble with her change was advised to do the same. And we got the same results!

As I recall I did this with half a dozen students and it worked every time. Not just a little bit but to the point where if the pitcher threw that pitch in a game it most likely would have resulted in either a swing and miss or a hitter frozen mid-swing.

Of course, six isn’t really a valid sample either so I plan to continue the experiment with students who are having trouble with the mechanics of any pitch. I fully expect I will get similar results regardless of the pitch.

I hesitate to say it’s a magic bullet. But so far, it’s about as close as I’ve found.

This has nothing to do with the story but I found it amusing.

The good news is this technique isn’t just for pitchers. It can be applied to any skill where an athlete knows what to do at some level but isn’t quite able to do it.

Have a hitter who is having trouble keeping the bat head up until she turns the corner and then turning the bat over? Have her do it properly, very, very slowly, over and over.

Have a fielder who keeps dropping her elbow instead of getting into a good throwing position? Have her work on the proper technique, very, very slowly, over and over.

Have a catcher who is sitting back on her heels when she blocks instead of getting her shoulders out in front of her knees? Have shortstop who is having trouble transferring the ball for a double play? You get the idea.

Just one caution. I’m fairly certain the benefits we achieved so far were temporary. That’s why I’ve told the girls who did it to keep practicing that way, 20-50 times per day.

The beauty is they don’t need a field, or a ball, or a tee, or a catcher, or anything else. Just enough space to work on the proper movement patterns until they’re locked in – however long it takes.

If you have a player who is struggling to do something, especially something she’s shown she can do before, give the ultra-slow movement approach a try. And if you do, let us all know how it works out in the comments below!

This Softball Tryout Process Has Gotten Out of Hand

So there I was a couple of weeks ago (early June 2022), scrolling through Facebook mindlessly (as if there is another way), when suddenly I saw it: a notification about upcoming tryouts for the 2023 travel season.

“What the what?” I thought. The high school season hasn’t even ended for everyone here in Illinois, they’re still playing the Womens College World Series, and we are just starting to get into the heart of tournament season for most teams.

How in the name of Jessica Mendoza can teams be advertising for 2023 already?

But that’s what it has come to now. In the arms race to capture every potential recruit before anyone else can get their grubby mitts on them teams are now looking to replace their current players, or programs are looking to add more teams to their rosters, before they’ve even gotten a chance to see what their current teams/players can do.

I’m sorry, but this is insanity people.

This guy knows.

When did players and teams become so disposable that the actual season you’re in doesn’t matter? What’s next? Are we going to start seeing ads for 2025 tryouts in December 2022?

I thought the point of all of this was to play the games. In order to play the games you need to focus on the here and now.

“Take it one game at a time” we always tell our players. But what message does advertising tryouts for NEXT season at the beginning of THIS season send?

Here’s an idea. Let’s focus on winning the current inning, the current game, the current tournament, etc.

Of course, that sounds like a pretty old-fashioned approach these days. Because it seems like the goal isn’t to win anymore; it’s to land the most players in college, even if they have no idea how to compete once they get there. That’s the college coaches’ problem.

Here’s an idea. Rather than continuously pushing up the tryout/player recruitment process, why not focus on the season you’re in right now?

What a concept, eh?

Instead of thinking up enticements to draw new (and presumably better) players, why not think about how to help your current players become better?

Focus on ways to help them become better as individuals and as a group. Look for ways to build their self confidence.

Teach them the game. Not just the basic stuff they need to know, such as which field is right field or when the dropped third strike rule is in effect, but how to read a hitter’s swing from the outfield or when to take the extra base on a line drive to right.

Most of all, treat your current players like human beings instead of chess pieces for your own glory. Understand as best you can what they’re going through as individuals, especially in the most vulnerable teen years where today’s game or practice has the potential to be the best part of their days.

Do all of that and they will not only run through a wall for you, they’ll want to keep coming back and doing it, year after year. Then you won’t have to advertise for next year at the beginning of this year.

You can’t do all of that, however, if your eyes are always focused on the future.

Let’s live for today, as the Grassroots would say.

Your daily dose of awesomeness.

Can we all make a pact that next year’s ads don’t start appearing until the current season for your team, whatever that is, is three-quarters over? I don’t think that’s unreasonable. If everyone agrees no one will feel the pressure to jump the gun so they don’t end up with the leftovers.

Give your kids the chance to enjoy their softball experience today instead of worrying about where they’re going to play next year. The entire sport will be better for it.

Observations, Impressions, and Takeaways from the WCWS

Last week I had the opportunity to fulfill just about every fastpitch softball fanatic’s dream – attending the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in person. I was there to attend the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s (NFCA) course 408 World Series Coach and Game Observation for its National Fastpitch Coaches College Master Coach program. (More on that on another day.)

As the name implies, the course consists of watching some games in-person in Oklahoma City, interspersed with classroom sessions that discuss the strategies in those and upcoming games along with the state of the game. In my class they also brought in coaches from four of the eight teams participating – Kirk Walker (UCLA), Mike White (and his staff, Texas), Kenny Gajewski (Oklahoma State), and Kate Drohan (Northwestern) – who talked about the previous day’s games and what they were expecting in their next games.

Pretty cool right? We also got a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium, a look at the massive tent city that is the heart of ESPN’s coverage, and a chance to see the practice fields just behind the stadium. Plus the opportunity to actually walk on the field (including the dugouts) and sit behind the microphones in the media interview room.

I will take your questions now.

By the way if all that sounds awesome you too can take advantage of it – if you are an NFCA member. And if you do decide to sign up, please list me as a referral!

Of course, once a coach always a coach. So after hanging out with our instructors (Carol Bruggeman, executive director of the NFCA and Larissa Anderson, head coach at Mizzou) along with 30+ knowledgeable classmates (including Hall of Famer and all-time great Dr. Dot Richardson, now head coach at Liberty University) I did come away with a number of thoughts about the games and the state of fastpitch softball in general.

So without further preamble, and in no particular order, here are a few thoughts worth sharing.

Even the Best Players Make Errors

I’ve said this on Facebook clips but it bears repeating: all of you youth coaches out there berating your players for mishandling a ground ball, dropping a fly ball, making a bad throw, or making some other type of error need to stop. In the two days (six games total) I was there I saw players at the highest level of the game do the same things.

Errors happen. If you want to use them as teachable moments there’s nothing wrong with that. But to just yell at a player for being “stupid,” or yank her out of the game in the middle of an inning after a single miscue isn’t being tough or demanding. It’s being shortsighted and possibly ego-driven.

The coaches at this level know that if players are always worried about the consequences of making a mistake they will never stretch themselves to become the players they can be. Instead they’ll play it safe and miss opportunities or the chance to develop skills that could win you games.

Errors happen. Help your players learn from them and get better.

Spinning Pitches Properly Is Becoming a Lost Art

The mantra of pitching coaches everywhere is “spin, spot, speed.” In other words, you need to spin movement pitches correctly to get them to move, throw them to the right location, and throw them very hard to be successful.

While the latter two seem to still be in effect, the spin component is a growing problem. There is no doubt that the faster a pitch approaches a hitter, the harder it is to hit.

But it seems that in the quest for more speed many in the game (including collegiate pitching coaches) have abandoned any concern about whether drop balls, curve balls, rise balls, etc. are spinning in the right direction. The ball used by the NCAA makes this abundantly clear.

How many times did you see a slow motion replay from the catcher’s point of view and see the black dot of the NCAA logo coming straight at you while the ball revolved around it? Probably hundreds.

No matter what the announcers are calling it on TV, the pitches that look like that have “bullet” spin. Bullets spin that way so they DON’T move off their targets.

The result is that pitches that spin that way aren’t curving or dropping or rising. They’re traveling on a straight line to the catcher.

Think about it a little more. How could three or four pitches (we’ll throw the “screwball” in there too) with the same spin move in different directions?

The short answer is they can’t. The laws of physics don’t allow it.

Every ball that ends up higher than it started isn’t a rise ball. Every ball that ends up further to the left or right isn’t a curve or a screw.

But until pitching coaches at all levels start holding pitchers accountable we’re probably going to see offensive numbers, including home runs, increase steadily. Because as tough as speed can be to hit (more for some than others), true movement makes it exponentially more difficult.

There Are Haves and Have-Nots

Yes, even at that level there are definite haves and have-nots. Obviously Oklahoma falls into the “haves” category.

As I watched them up close and personal I was amazed at what I saw. Head Coach Patty Gasso’s statement that they want to be amazing at every part of the game definitely was on display. A few of the other teams were pretty close behind.

But there were also other teams that, as in tournaments everywhere in every sport, had done all they could do to get there but just weren’t going to be able to match up to the best of the best.

That doesn’t mean they were bad by any means. But at the end of the day there was simply a quality difference up and down the lineup.

Keep that in mind the next time your team finds itself in over its head at a tournament. Sometimes you just have to be happy you made it that far and not worry about the outcomes.

Aggressive Hitters Do Better Than Careful Ones

This one may seem obvious, but apparently it’s not. Because as I sat in the stands it became quite apparent which teams were reactive and just trying to put the ball in play somehow versus those who went to the plate looking to do serious damage.

I’m not just talking about individuals, although there was certainly some of that. I’m talking more about team philosophies.

Arizona is a good example here. While Oklahoma might be the obvious illustrator of this principle to me Arizona is a better choice precisely because they didn’t make it to the championship game. They didn’t have the horses Oklahoma did, but they made up for it by taking a “no prisoners” approach at the plate.

Going after pitches with that mindset helped keep them in games far more than teams that were tentative. Go in with the intent of hitting the ball hard and there’s a great likelihood you will. Then you’ve at least given yourself a chance to win.

You Can’t Ride One Arm Anymore

The days of a Jennie Finch or a Cat Osterman or a Monica Abbott pitching every inning of every game are long gone. These days it takes a pitching staff to make it through a long season.

The same is true at the youth level. Yes, you can probably win more games in high school or travel ball riding one pitcher until her arm falls off.

But with the quality of hitters these days sooner or later that will catch up to you. Coaches need to be sure all their pitchers are ready to step up when needed or they’re likely to find themselves in trouble when it matters most.

Again, look at Oklahoma. When freshman sensation Jordy Bahl got injured it didn’t derail their season. They just went to Hope Trautwein and Nicole May and won a national championship.

Or look at Texas. When their starter struggled in the first inning of the first game of the championship series they didn’t hesitate to go to the bullpen. In fact, they did it a couple of times until they got out of the inning.

Coaches, you are never more than one turned ankle or injured forearm from losing your entire season if you rely on only one pitcher. Develop your staff and you’ll go farther in the long run.

College Teams Keep (and Use) a Lot of Stats

Not too long ago one of my students told me her team coach wasn’t moving her up in the lineup, even though she had the second-best slash line on the team, because she “doesn’t believe in stats.”

First of all, stats are a statement of fact, not ghosts. There’s nothing to “believe” in, they’re right there for everyone to see.

More importantly, though, from what I saw at the games and heard from the top coaches as well as many classmates, stats are the lifeblood of the modern game.

Colleges large and small chart everything. They want to know what pitch a particular pitcher throws in a given situation to a type of hitter. They want to know where hitters are likely to hit based on the pitcher so they can position their fielders.

They want to know if a coach likes to steal bases and on what count. I think they like to know what the opposing team has for breakfast on days when they win.

The more information they have the better decisions they can make, especially when it counts. While you may not have the resources to do all that charting (or to buy data from a service) you can certainly get an idea of who is performing on your team and on your opponents’ teams by checking stats on GameChanger or a similar app.

That way you don’t have to rely on instinct. You can take a more scientific, fact-based approach that will lead to better outcomes for the team.

Anyone (Almost) Can Beat Anyone

Texas came into the NCAA tournament unseeded. They beat a lot of much higher-seeded teams to get to the championship series.

Don’t let an opponent’s reputation or past record intimidate you. Go out and play the game.

There Are a Lot of Great, Dedicated Coaches Out There

We always hear about the obnoxious ones, the ego-driven coaches who scream at their players and throw tantrums and play sick mind games with them. I guess that’s what’s considered newsworthy.

But after spending a couple of days with 30+ coaches at various levels I can tell you there are a lot of great ones who are in it for the right reasons. My classmates in this course were great to talk to, and many of them appreciated having other softball nerds to talk with about the game (because their families and friends just roll their eyes when they start discussing whether it’s an opportune time to lay down a drag bunt).

The point here is do you research and don’t just settle for whoever is closest. Find the right coaches – head and assistants – and you’ll have a much better fastpitch softball experience.

That’s it for now. If I think of more I’ll share them in a subsequent post. And if you have any questions about the WCWS or the Master Coach program or anything else related to this topic be sure to put them in the comments below and I will answer them as best I can.

The Umpire Dilemma

I don’t think too many people would disagree that we have an umpire dilemma in fastpitch softball. Actually it applies to officials in all sports but since this is a fastpitch softball blog we will stick to umpires. Those of you who see it in other sports can make your own translations.

Now, for the some the umpire dilemma comes down to one thought: Umpires these days suck. But the reality is that mindset is a big part of the problem we are facing today.

Being an umpire is an incredibly difficult job. Plate umpires in particular have to make hundreds of decisions each game, and often half the people in attendance thinks most of them are wrong.

How did I come to hundreds? Well, figure if each pitcher throws 100 pitches in a game that’s roughly 200 right there. Add in force outs at bases, tag plays, interference or obstruction calls, runners tagging up, infield fly rule, illegal pitches, runners leaving early, fair/foul calls, etc. and you get a large number.

Complicating all of that is sometimes these plays are happening simultaneously, such as ball/strike and runners leaving early. Kind of difficult to see both, especially at the upper levels where things happen very quickly.

They have to get each one of these calls right too or they’ll likely find themselves featured on one of the many Facebook or other Internet groups dedicated to fastpitch softball. In tournaments, umpires may work seven or more games in a day, Which means they could be making, say, 250 decision x 7 games, for a total of 1,750 decisions in a single day.

It’s statistically unlikely that they will get every single one of them correct, no matter how hard they try. Perhaps some day we will have impartial robots to make all of those decisions. But I’ll bet even then there will be parents who think they’ve been programmed to cheat their teams out of a win.

Sometimes umpire do this without a break, and often in oppressive heat and humidity while being on their feet ALL DAY. My back hurts just thinking about it.

They also have to know all the nuances of an arcane and ever-changing rulebook from memory. It’s easy to know the stuff that happens all the time.

But when it comes to the things that rarely happen it can be more challenging. Of course, there will always be some “helpful” parent more than willing to correct them from the sidelines if they get it wrong.

The real issue, however, is that being called out on the Internet is the least of their worries these days. This female umpire in Mississippi was one of the latest to find that out.

The verbal abuse umpires often take is bad enough, especially in a world where a lot of people seem to have lost their ability to filter their thoughts and think every one must be shared with the world. But when did people start thinking physical assault was an appropriate response to little Sally getting rung up on a bang-bang tag play?

What all of this has led to is a shortage of umpires as older ones retire and younger people pass on the idea like my wife seeing mushrooms on a pizza. They may love the sport and want to help, but a small dose of crazy parents convinces them to find something less stressful or dangerous to do with their spare time, like bungee jumping or extreme sports.

In an ideal world, every game would have a minimum of two umpires. One behind the plate, and one in the field.

Two umpires allow them to work as a team to get closer to calls on the field, to get a second opinion on a checked swing, to have one watch balls and strikes while the other watches for illegal pitches and runners leaving early, or to consult with their partner if they’re not sure about a call or rule.

But in today’s world having two or more umpires at high school, travel or rec league games is becoming increasingly difficult. In fact, it’s becoming more difficult to get one umpire to all the games that need to be covered, leading to more widespread cancelations as these Google search results show.

So here’s the dilemma. Given everything said above, how do you get more people to raise their hands to become umpires to not only backfill the current shortage but also enable the sport to continue to grow?

One obvious answer is for all those parents, coaches, and other spectators on the sideline who think they know so much to take some classes, become certified, and strap on some shin guards, chest protectors and masks and do the job themselves.

Riiiight. That’s gonna happen.

The real solution is for the people on the sidelines to start acting like decent human beings and show some respect to the officials who are giving up their weeknights and weekends for very low pay so the kids can play. I know it sounds simplistic but it really is the key, especially for drawing former players into the ranks.

Many will try it but leave because of the verbal abuse and sometimes threats of violence. It’s not worth it to them to listen to the constant insults and jawjacking or take the chance on getting clocked in the parking lot.

Cut all of that out and you not only attract more young people – you keep them, reducing the number you need to attract in the future.

None of this requires legislation or any grand gestures either. It starts with each individual.

If you just worry about you, and maybe your significant other if he/she has no filter and/or anger management issues, you can make a difference. As more people adopt this attitude the epidemic of umpire abuse will subside and you’ll not only attract more candidates – you’ll get better, smarter ones.

You know the old quote “Be the change you want to see in the world”? That’s what we’re talking about here. (And no, Gandhi never actually said that, although he said something close.)

The point is you can help turn the tide. Be kind. The only good reason to chase down an umpire after the game is to thank him or her for taking on this normally thankless job – even if you didn’t like the way they did it.

When I was coaching teams, we would have every player say thank you to the umpires after the game, even if we didn’t think much of that umpire. We did it as a sign of respect not only to that person but to the position and to the game.

Give this idea a try. You may find it makes the games a lot more enjoyable for you and everyone around you.

This post has been updated to correct that the female umpire was from Mississippi, not Missouri as previously stated.

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