Category Archives: General Thoughts

Travel Ball’s Long-Term Effect on the Future of Pitching

I have made it clear in the past that I am not a fan of time limits on fastpitch softball games. Maybe I’m just old but I believe the game is meant to be played over a minimum of seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Time limits, however, are a fact of life in travel ball. Whether you believe it’s tournament directors/organizations being greedy by trying to squeeze 10 lbs. of play into a 5 lb. set of fields or well-meaning tournament directors/organizations trying to ensure that games run on time out of respect for the teams who spend all day at the ballpark, time limits don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

With that in mind, I have a few observations on how these time limits are affecting the game today, and how they will affect it in the future. Whether you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments below.

Observation #1: Pitchers find it more difficult to last seven innings when required. I am seeing that a lot in high school ball right now.

Pitchers who are used to games lasting 75 or 85 minutes are able to perform at a high level for five innings or so. But come inning #6, they start having a lot more trouble.

Now, I know some will say that’s because they’ve gone around the batting order a couple of times and the hitters have seen them. But I don’t think that’s the sole reason.

I believe that mentally they are used to the games being done by that point, and the thought that they have to keep going requires some adjustment. For some, it can even get tough at the end of the fifth as they realize they still need to have something in the tank for another two innings.

Does that mean they can’t adjust? Of course not. But it may take them a while before they learn to pace themselves properly for a seven-inning game.

Observation #2: Teams can no longer ride one pitcher for the season. Back in the day, to be successful a travel team, high school team, or even a college team really needed only one Ace pitcher. She was expected to carry the load, pitching every inning (or nearly every inning at least) in every major tournament.

That is no longer the case. Now, it could be that the hitters have gotten a lot better, actually working at their craft in the off-season like pitchers always have.

Rule changes have also made it tougher to ride one pitcher. Pushing the pitching distance back and moving from white balls with white seams to yellow balls with red seams has brought more offense into the game. So has bat technology, which sometimes allows a ball struck with a half swing to carry over the fence.

But I also think the way travel teams and tournaments are structured has had an effect on pitchers’ ability to carry that type of load. All the stop/start of more games can place more stress on young arms, so teams are spreading the load more.

While I think that’s a good thing overall, it also means many young pitchers don’t learn HOW to carry the load. They know there’s always help available.

Greater availability of facilities and lessons also means there are more pitchers out there than ever before. Those pitchers aren’t going to stick around very long, however, if they don’t get innings, so that means coaches must ensure #2 and #3 receive enough circle time to stay with the team.

From a health and safety perspective that’s a good thing, in my opinion. But it does mean that fewer #1s are learning how to be that pitcher. They are becoming more inclined to thinking they did their job in game one, and now it’s time for someone else to step up.

Observation #3: We will likely see more specialization in the future. As a result of the previous changes, I think it’s likely fastpitch softball, especially at the collegiate level, will start to look more like baseball, with a bullpen full of specialists.

Right now, all pitchers are considered to be starters. That doesn’t mean they all get starts – that decision is still merit-based (or political, depending on who you talk to).

But pitchers in a college bullpen aren’t thought of as being middle relievers, or closers, or really anything other than an arm available to throw in a game.

I think that will change, especially with a generation of pitchers used to working within time limits. That girl who is lights-out for one inning but deteriorates rapidly after?

Instead of trying to force her to improve her endurance, make her a closer. She can just go in and rocket the ball for three or four hitters rather than giving the top of the lineup a chance to see the starter for a third or fourth time.

Your #3 or #4 starter? Maybe she’s better suited to be a middle reliever. Pair her up with a starter where she will be a contrast – like a dropball pitcher paired with a riseball pitcher – and let her come in when hitters start getting comfortable with the starter.

The more teams use their pitchers as a staff in specific roles rather than trying to fit everyone into the “starter” category, the more they can become strategic.

Would it be better to have one Ace you knew you could ride the whole way? Maybe. But thanks to the way pitchers are being developed these days I think that ship has sailed.

Rather than fighting it, it’s time for colleges to look at what they’re getting and figure out how best to use them. The good news for players is that this sort of change in thinking might open up some new opportunities that weren’t there before. Especially for those who fit that “closer” description.

Matching reality

The foundation of softball at the high school and collegiate levels is youth softball – primarily travel ball. Changes there will affect the way the game is played all the way up the food chain.

Rather than fighting it, or clinging to old ways, schools need to take a hard look at the way the game is being played at the younger levels and adjust their strategies accordingly. Those who do will likely have greater success in both the short- and long-term.

Pitching: The Train Carries the Passenger, Not Vice Versa

As I have mentioned plenty of times in the past, “A League of Their Own” is one of my favorite movies. Not just sports movies but movies in general.

A particular highlight (at least for me) is Jon Lovitz as Ernie Capidino, the scout assigned to find players for the new women’s professional baseball league. He has many hilarious lines, including this one as he tries to hustle new recruit Marla Hooch onto the train so they can get on their way:

Maybe I had this in the back of my mind as I was working with some young pitchers tonight, because the idea of a train came to me as I was trying to explain how to get more drive out of the lower half of the body instead of just lurching forward with the upper body.

I told them that everything from the waist down is the train, and everything from the waist up is the passenger. In order for the passenger to reach her destination the train has to move and carry the passenger. If the passenger is what moves, or primarily moves, it’s unlikely that it will be able to carry the train out of the station.

In other words, it’s the lower body that drives out, with both feet moving forward at the same time, rather than the head and shoulders leading the way. With the former you get power, good posture and stability. With the latter you get all kinds of problems, including reduced speed, a lack of consistency and ultimately pitches that fly all over the place.

Once the pitcher understands, the goal is to get the train in motion and let the passenger just go along for the ride. That comes with getting a bit of a push from the stride leg and then a good push from the drive leg instead of letting the stride leg just run past and reach out.

The drive leg has to actively push/thrust out. This is made easier, of course, if the core is already over or even slightly in front of the pitching rubber instead of behind it as the legs begin to push.

The more there is a feeling of motion and coordinated effort between the feet, the hips and the rest of the core, the more efficiently and effectively the pitcher will drive forward. That movement creates more energy that can be transferred into the ball.

But if the passenger, i.e., the upper body, is what initiates the drive forward, a ton of energy will be left behind and it will feel like the passenger is dragging the train behind her. Which is as much wasted effort as it sounds.

So if you have a pitcher who is leading with the upper body, try having her picture the train and the passenger. It might be just what she needs to improve her overall drive.

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Explaining Explosive

Explosive. Dynamic. Ballistic. These are all words that are used to describe the way the body should move in fastpitch softball.

Pitchers are told to explode off the rubber and to make the arm whip a ballistic move. Hitters are told to explode their hips and then let the bat explode through the ball. Fielders are told to make a dynamic move laterally to get to the ball.

That’s all well and good, and those are great words to describe the types of movement that are involved. If you’re an adult.

If you’re a kid, especially a younger player, those big words may not mean as much. They know they’re supposed to explode, but they don’t exactly know what that looks like.

That’s where it’s important to relate what you want to something that’s already within their experience. Particularly if it’s something visual.

When you’re talking about explosion, a balloon makes a handy prop.

Blow up the balloon, and first let the air back out slowly. You can relate it to how they’re moving now.

Then pull out a pin and pop the balloon. Tell them that is what explosion looks like.

(This is particularly fun if you have kids on your team who look like they’re aliens searching the skies for the mother ship when you’re talking to them. It will definitely get their attention, and encourage them to watch you more closely from now.)

The key here is showing how quickly and suddenly the balloon goes from being inflated to being gone. One quick poke with the pin and it’s no longer there.

If you don’t have a balloon and a pin handy, another way to explain it is to talk about how you would try to scare a sibling by jumping out at him or her.

If you just walk out in front of them, they’re unlikely to be scared. Annoyed, perhaps, but not scared.

But if you pop up from behind a door, or a couch, or something else that keeps you hidden from sight until the sibling enters the room (like a jump scare in a cheesy ’80s horror movie), you can get them to jump and maybe even drop that bowl of cornflakes they just got finished preparing. Just be ready to run afterwards.

It’s easy for fastpitch softball players to get so caught up in trying to do things the right way mechanically that they become, well, mechanical. They move slowly and deliberately, which might look good on a slow motion video but doesn’t do much for helping them generate power.

Giving them the balloon or jump scare demonstration will help them understand better what you’re looking for, and more importantly what will help them produce better results.

Photo by Padli Pradana on Pexels.com

5 Tips for Preparing Yourself for Tryouts

Fastpitch softball can change your life

The fastpitch softball tryout season for high school is rapidly approaching in many areas. Normally it’s already over by now, but thanks to COVID-19 it’s been delayed by a few weeks.

I’m sure the parents who are used to sitting in nasty cold weather (whatever that is for your area) don’t mind pushing the season back until a little closer to actual Spring.

Now, I have written in the past about things you can do to show well on the day(s) of tryouts. Those articles were brilliant, of course, and you can find them here and here. Others have as well.

But what isn’t talked about much are the things you can do before tryouts begin to help you show your best. Remember the old saying that “Success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

The opportunity is the tryouts, and you don’t have a lot of control over what happens there. But the preparation is what happens before that day, and you have plenty of control over that.

Here are a few things you can do to ensure you’re ready when the opportunity presents itself.

#1 Start running. A lot.

Yes, I know. You got into softball because you don’t like running. But in a tryout you’d better be prepared to do a lot of it.

You might think that softball teams have their prospects run a lot during tryouts to get them in shape for the season. In some cases that may be true.

But often they use running to weed out the players who are dabbling versus those who are committed. It’s a lot easier to win when your team is committed.

If I wanted to run I would have stuck with @#$%&* soccer.

It also saves them the heartache of having to make cuts. Except for maybe a sadistic few, most coaches (especially in high school) don’t like having to cut players. It takes an emotional toll.

So if they can get those players to cut themselves it makes their job that much easier.

Bottom line is, if you’re planning to make it through the first two to three days of tryouts, start running sprints and distance now. You can thank me later.

#2 Learn to hit off a pitching machine.

I hear this all the time: “I can’t hit off a pitching machine.” Well, sister, you’d better learn because that’s what’s used in a lot of high school tryouts.

You can be the greatest hitter in the world (or at least your school) off of a live pitcher. But it’s unlikely anyone is going to see that during a tryout because they don’t have a live pitcher throwing to hitters.

If you’re lucky they’ll have a coach doing front toss. But more than likely you’ll be facing a wheel machine because that enables coaches to see you hitting against more speed.

The problem is the way pitching machines are fed makes it very difficult for those who aren’t used to it to be successful. Fortunately for you, I did an entire video blog on this topic, so check it out and practice the techniques to help yourself get ready. You’ll be glad you did.

#3 Make sure your throwing is spot-on.

This is an area many players don’t even think about. But it can be a huge difference-maker, especially if you’re not an overall standout athlete.

I know when I used to do tryouts our coaches would watch prospects throwing in warmups. It would look like we were just impatiently waiting for them to finish their obligatory warm-ups, but actually we’d be looking at their throwing technique.

Those who can throw smoothly and confidently, and hit their targets at least most of the time, stand out from the girls who push the ball, drop their elbows, or whip their arms wildly around their heads.

Statistically, 80% of all errors are throwing errors, so if you can eliminate those you again stand a much better chance of winning a ballgame. And the easiest way you can do that is to select players who already know how to throw a ball.

This can be a problem even for players who throw, hard by the way. An inaccurate hard throw will bang off the fence much further than a softer inaccurate throw, so don’t make your judgment based solely on how good an arm you have. Be sure you can hit what you’re throwing at too.

If your arm does need some work you can try this product. You can also look into the High Level Throwing program, which can make a huge difference in a relatively short amount of time.

Whichever way you go, get on it fast. Learning to throw properly can not only help you look better in a tryout. It can save you from a lot of pain and arm injuries down the road.

#4 Check your equipment and replace it as-needed.

When you go to a tryout you want to be sure not only that your equipment works but that you look like you’re an Ace. A floppy, beat-up glove, shoes with holes in them, catcher’s gear that looks like it’s been through a war, a bat with the grip hanging off or paint falling off, etc. doesn’t make a very good first impression.

Particularly if you have to stop to make repairs.

Go through all the gear you will use during a tryout and ask yourself, “Does this look like the equipment a top-level player would use?” If not, and if you have the ability, replace it.

The same, incidentally, goes for the clothes you plan to wear at the tryout. First impressions do count.

If your lucky t-shirt is all raggedy, or your favorite softball pants look like you were crawling around the alley looking for quarters, find something else to wear. Can’t do much about the pants, but you can always wear the lucky t-shirt under another shirt or jersey.

#5 Know the environment where you’ll be trying out.

In some areas it will be obvious whether tryouts will be held inside or outside. If it’s 30 degrees outside with snow on the field you can bet you’ll be indoors.

But with tryouts happening later in many parts of the country it may not be so simple. You might even be indoors one day and outdoors the next.

As a result, you’ll want to be sure you’re prepared no matter what the decision will be. If you’ll be in a gym, have a good pair of gym shoes available to wear. If you’ll be on turf, have turf shoes. For a regular softball field, have cleats.

If you even suspect you’ll be outside during the day, be sure to pack your sunglasses. Nothing worse than missing fly balls in the outfield not because you can’t catch but because you can’t see.

Also be sure you have warm clothes in case you’re outside for an extended period of time. That includes jackets that will keep the wind from cutting through your clothes.

Can you believe Coach is still having outdoor tryouts today?

A hoodie may seem warm, but if it’s chilly and the wind kicks up you’ll find out just how little protection it offers. A warm hat or headband will also be in order, as well as a warm pair of socks (assuming you can still get your cleats on over them).

If you’re miserable, it will show in your demeanor and your play. Being ready for any conditions will help you show your best.

Running photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

Penguin photo by DSD on Pexels.com

Life’s Too Short to Play for (or Work for) Jerks

One of the most common tropes you’ll hear about the value of playing team sports like fastpitch softball is that they teach life lessons. You hear about learning how to work in a group, how to push yourself to the limit (and then get past it), how to be dedicated, how to set goals and work to achieve them, how to overcome adversity, blah, blah, blah.

All of that is true. But there’s another lesson waiting there for players that often seems to be ignored. And that lesson is that life is too short to play for (or work for) jerks.

What does that mean? Think of your softball career as a metaphor for your life. It has a beginning, a middle, and unfortunately an end.

It’s like this voiceover from the movie Moneyball says: At some point we’re all told we can’t play the game anymore.

So let’s say you start playing at the age of eight, and you play through high school. The majority of high school graduates are 18, so that’s 10 years.

Continue on through college and you can tack on another four years – or five if there is a global pandemic in the middle of your career and you decide to hang around for that bonus year. So in most cases 14 years at best.

If you spend four of those years playing for a coach who constantly abuses and belittles you, puts you down constantly and believes the louder he/she screams the better you will play that’s either 40% or nearly 30% of your career spent being anywhere from unhappy to miserable.

In work years, figuring a 45-year career, 40% would be 18 years and 30% would be 13.5 years (high school v. college) in a job you hate going to and that makes you feel bad about yourself every day. That’s a long time to be unhappy in your life.

So the lesson you should learn if you are faced with this situation on your team is that you don’t have to just suck it up and put up with it. You do have options, like finding another team.

Because believe me, if you’re in a job like that you’re definitely going to want to find a different one. We spend way too much of our lives working to be miserable the whole time.

Now, at this point I think it’s important to differentiate between the occasional outburst (or verbal kick in the pants) from a coach and an abusive situation. Anyone who ever played for me can tell you I wasn’t beyond bringing the hammer down now and then when my teams under-performed or just weren’t paying attention to what they were doing.

Sometimes that can be a good thing, especially if it is in contrast to a coach’s usual style. We all need a little motivation now and then.

But that’s different than the coach whose only volume in speaking to players is 10, and whose words only convey negative messages. To me, that’s basically a coach who has no idea what he/she is doing and figures if they spew enough venom everyone will be too busy licking their wounds to notice.

It’s like this one time when a team I was coaching took a tough loss in a big tournament, knocking us into the loser’s bracket. In the post-game meeting everyone was waiting to get pummeled I’m sure.

Instead, in an over-the-top voice that clearly showed I was joking I simply yelled “Play better” and made a “crack the whip” gesture. It was a parody of coaches they had seen and played for before – the ones who had no idea how to help their players play better but figured if they yelled enough it would happen as if by magic. They laughed and the tension was broken.

I’d love to say we went on to work our way back through the loser’s bracket and won the tournament, but no that didn’t happen. Not every story gets a fairy tale ending.

Back to the topic, coaches always like to talk about holding their players “accountable.” Another phrase I find simultaneously horrifying and amusing when you are talking about 10-12 year olds, by the way. Adults have a funny way of understanding how young kids think.

But if that is the case, players also need to hold their coaches accountable. Coaches need to lead, not just scream to play better. They should support their players when they are giving their all, even if the outcomes aren’t what they hoped for.

Coaches should understand that the pitcher didn’t walk three hitters in a row by choice, hitters didn’t intend to take that third strike, fielders didn’t plan on booting the ground ball or dropping the fly ball, baserunners didn’t intend to slide too far and get tagged out.

Most of all, that South Park episode aside, players don’t take the field with the intention of losing the game. That stuff just happens.

Instead of screaming insults, coaches should work with players to ensure it doesn’t continue to happen, or give them direction on how to work on it themselves. If that’s not happening, and the screaming continues, players shouldn’t put it up with it.

Instead, they should find another team where the atmosphere is better. Because someday, they may face the same choice with a job, and if they don’t learn to value themselves may find themselves doomed to spend a lot of time in a job they hate instead of one that inspires them and gets them excited to go to work every day.

You only have so much time to play competitive fastpitch softball. Use it wisely.

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8 Tips for Getting More Value Out of Fastpitch Softball Lessons

As a longtime instructor I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young ladies (and a few of their brothers) to help them improve their baseball and softball skills. Along the way I have seen some patterns emerge.

So, to help you ensure you’re getting the greatest value out of your substantial investment, following are a few tips to help with your approach. It presumes you have already done your homework and chosen your instructor wisely, i.e., your instructor is teaching the techniques that the best players in the world use. If not, all the other parents will be on the sidelines saying…

With that in mind, here we go.

Tip #1 – Pay attention during lessons!

I can’t tell you how many times during a lesson I’ve been talking to a student and then had this experience.

You know who you are.

Whether you’re indoors or outdoors there can be a lot of distractions. But you need to be able to block them out and stay focused on what the instructor is saying.

You never know – it could be life-changing, or at least career-changing.

While we instructors do seem to like to hear ourselves talk, we’re usually doing it for a good reason. We’re trying to drop some knowledge that will help our students become better players.

When I see a student looking around everywhere but me I will usually tell them “There is nothing over there that will help you become a better softball player. Stay here with me.”

These days we are all more easily distracted than ever. But staying focused during instruction, and then in executing the skill, will help shorten the learning curve considerably.

Tip #2 – Be sure to bring all your needed equipment

Shouldn’t need to be said but apparently it does. At least in my experience.

Before you come to a lesson check your bag to be sure you have your glove, bat, batting gloves, catcher’s gear, cleats or turf shoes, hair ties, sunglasses and everything else you will need that day. Don’t assume they’re in there – take a complete inventory.

And while you’re in there, clear out all the old water and sports drink bottles along with wrappers and other garbage. Doesn’t really have anything to do with the lesson but it’s good to do that now and again anyway.

Tip #3 – You still have to practice

Yes, it would be nice if your instructor could just wave his/her magic wand and make you better. But it doesn’t work that way. I know, because I teach all my students the same thing but get varying results.

Think of as an instructor as being like Google Maps (or your other GPS app of choice). If you plug a starting point and a destination into Google maps, it will give you detailed, turn-by-turn directions along with a visual map.

But if you want to get to where you’re going you still have to get in your vehicle and drive. The app doesn’t transport you anywhere (at least not yet; I’m sure they’re working on it). It just shows you how YOU can get there.

It’s the same with an instructor. He/she will show you the techniques you need to succeed. But you still have to put in the work.

Tip #4 – You need to bring your brain when you practice

One of the questions I get all the time is “How much should she practice during the week?” I know it’s well-intentioned – the idea is to give someone’s daughter a number that is higher than “none,” which is probably what she is planning on – but it also implies that practice is a time-based activity.

It’s not. It’s more of an accomplishing goals and learning something type of activity. To put it in another learning content, how many hours should someone practice to learn how to do division or parse a sentence?

In school, the answer is as long as it takes. If you pick it up quickly you can put in fewer hours. If you struggle, you will have to put in more. Because the goal isn’t to check off time on a checklist. It’s to master the skill so you can move on to the next one.

In softball it’s the same. Making practice a time-based experience is counter-productive.

Instead, you need to bring your brain and really work to learn whatever it is you’ve been assigned to learn. Not just until you get it right; keep working at it until you can’t do it wrong.

Yeah, this guy.

Funny thing is if you practice mindfully (to use what I think is still a popular term) you probably won’t have to practice as long. Our brains are powerful and often underrated contributors to athletic success.

Make sure you understand what you need to work on when you leave your lesson, then pay attention to whether you’re getting it right when you practice, and there’s a good chance you won’t have to put in as many hours on it. Although you may want to anyway because it’s fun.

Tip #5 – Don’t just work on what you’re already good at

There is a certain comfort in succeeding. Doing something right and getting great results makes us feel good about ourselves. But it doesn’t do much to help us overcome our flaws.

The best students I’ve ever worked with, when given the option, would always ask to work on things they don’t do well. That makes sense.

No matter how long a lesson is, the time is limited. Why waste time on something you already know how to do?

When you’re there with the instructor you should want to work on your weak areas so you can get the instructor’s guidance on how to make them stronger.

The same is true when you’re practicing on your own. If all you ever work on is what you’re already good at you’re missing a huge opportunity for improvement.

Instead, work to bring your weak areas up to the level of your strong ones and you’ll be better overall at whatever it is you’re trying to do.

Tip #6 – Do your assigned homework

Again, assuming you’ve chosen your instructor well you will likely be given homework to do before the next lesson. That homework probably relates to whatever it was you were working on during the lesson.

The next time you go to practice, be sure you work on whatever that assignment was. Especially if it doesn’t involve going through the entire skill, but instead breaking down a piece of it.

If your pitching instructor gave you drills or a drill progression to work on lag, spend most of your time doing those drills. If your hitting instructors gave you an assignment to improve your ability to extend and hit through the ball, work on that.

Understand that the instructor saw a flaw, or something that will limit you from being the best you can be. By doing the homework you will be able to overcome that specific flaw and internalize the movements, which will help you gain better outcomes.

Yes, it’s more fun to throw full pitches, or hit off live pitching, or take ground balls/fly balls off a bat, etc. But those activities likely won’t help you overcome whatever is holding you back. Focusing on a particular area that is weak and improving it to match your other skills will.

Tip #7 – Write stuff down during or after your lesson

On their second lesson I give every one of my students a small, blank notebook with a pen. It’s not just to give them some sort of gift to say “thank you for coming.” It’s so they can write down what we’re working on, either during the lesson or afterwards.

Pretty nifty, eh?

We all think we can remember everything off the tops of our heads. But we’re not nearly as good at that as we think.

If you really want to be sure you know what to work on, and how to work on it, you should write it down while it’s fresh in your mind.

That way, three days later when you go back out to practice, you’ll know what you need to do – and how to do it. Remember that practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent. Be sure you’re practice the right things the right way.

Tip #8 – Understand that it is a journey

We live in an instant-everything world these days. If we want to know something we just ask our phones or our home devices – no additional effort required.

If we want food we pop it in the microwave or air fryer and a few minutes later dinner is served.

Unfortunately, human skills development cannot be sped up to that degree with technology. Yes, video and measurement devices can help us learn a little faster, but it’s still going to take a lot blood, sweat and tears.

And even after all of that you still may not see the results right away. Especially if you’re overcoming some particularly bad habits.

It takes time for new skills to overtake the old ones, and for you to feel comfortable enough executing them to be able to give it your all. In fact, you may find that the only way you can execute new skills properly right now is by going less than 100%. Sometimes considerably less.

That’s ok. It’s better to learn the movements first, then build up the speed of execution. Because when you get to the point where you can just …

Sorry, I just had to.

…you’ll be amazed at all the incredible things you can do.

Well, Thank Goodness THAT’s Over

And by that, of course, I mean 2020. Of all the steaming pile of cow pie years, 2020 had to be the steamiest.

No offense, ma’am.

But now it’s finally in the rear view mirror. Today is the first day of 2021 (not to mention the rest of your life if you’re into 1970s poster philosophy). And at the risk of having my optimism for the new year come back to bite me in a most ironic way – as in halfway through 2021 we’re longing for the good old, carefree days of 2021 – here are a few thoughts on how you can best take advantage of it.

First is to be grateful for the opportunity to play at all. In the middle of a long, grinding season it’s easy to fall into the trap of grumbling about how once again you have to get up at 6:00 am on a Saturday (or earlier) to play in an 8:00 am game. Or be away for the entire weekend when you have finals to study for. Or miss a party or event because you have practice.

One fewer error and we could’ve slept in ’til noon.

For much of 2020 that wasn’t a problem, and it wasn’t nearly as nice as you thought it might be. Every career has an expiration date on it.

Some are further out than others, but they all have one. And once it’s expired there’s no going back. Appreciate that you have the opportunity to play the greatest game in the world at a level that challenges you. Because you will miss it one day. I guarantee that.

Now that you’re in the right frame of mind it’s time to make the most of that opportunity. If your coach has taken the time and effort to evaluate your performance over the last several games (or the previous season) and offer suggestions on areas where you can improve, take it seriously and make an effort to improve them.

For example, if you are a middle infielder who has trouble going to her forehand side and making the play, get someone to hit you a few thousand balls to your forehand side. If you can’t find anyone who can hit them reliably, get someone to roll them that way.

Learn to “run the mountain” on hard-hit balls that might get through, and learn to bend your knees rather than your waist to get down to the ball when you’re close. When you get good at that, practice diving for balls.

Lay a nice, thick mat down to your glove side, have someone toss the ball across the mat, and dive in a way where you land on the mat. It will safely give you the practice you need, even inside, and it’s fun.

You can also improve on softball-specific conditioning. Yes, most people don’t like conditioning, or only like it when what they’re working on comes easily. But if your skills are strong, conditioning can make the difference between good and great.

Not all of this conditioning has to be in a formal setting with expensive equipment. Or even during a formal conditioning session.

If you’re just sitting around watching TV, listening to music, or hanging around at the beach, try doing it while planking or doing wall sits. If you’re watching TV, maybe start out trying to hold it for one commercial (30 seconds), then two commercials (one minute) an entire commercial break (roughly three minutes) and then through a segment of the show (which will vary).

The fact that she is smiling while doing this means we can never be friends.

The time will pass quickly with the added distraction, and you’ll get in shape rather than feeling like you’re wasting time. If you make a strong commitment to it you can even declare you’re going to work out when you flip on the TV.

Another good form of important but easy-to-execute-anywhere conditioning is grip strength improvement. You can squeeze a stress ball or some other grip strength improvement tool while you’re reading, or watching videos, or plotting to take over the world.

Better grip strength will help you transfer more energy into the ball as a pitcher, fielder or hitter, control the bat better during your swing, field more smoothly and a hundred other things. Multitasking on improving it will pay significant benefits in the long run.

It will also help you prepare for Festivus feats of strength.

Then, of course, there’s the outrageous idea of approaching every formal practice as an opportunity to get better rather than an obligation to be endured. So many players just show up and walk through whatever drills and skills the coach has laid out for the day rather than gaining any benefit.

Do your best to understand what the purpose of each drill is, and then go for it 100%. If you don’t know the purpose of the drill, ask what it is. You will probably find it easier to go all-out and get some benefits from it if you understand why you’re doing the drill.

Another good habit to get into is studying what the best players at your position do when they’re playing the game, and compare it to what you do.

Look for video clips of the best pitchers, catchers, fielders, hitters, base runners, etc. and save them to your phone or device. Then download an app such as Coach’s Eye or Kinovea and have someone capture clips of you, either in practice or in games.

The last step is to lay them side-by-side in your app and compare what they’re doing to what you’re doing. If there is a significant difference, such as you are leading your swing with your arms while they lead their swings with their hips/core, you may want to re-thinking what you’re doing.

You may be succeeding, but if you’re not matching up there’s a real chance you could do significantly better by more closely matching what top players do. That doesn’t mean you have to be a clone of any one player – we’re all different – but you at least want to resemble them overall.

Oh, and don’t match yourself to just one. Take what’s common across all or most of them and use that as your baseline. Then you can adjust those fundamentals to best suit your body type, strength level and personality.

We all have our fingers crossed that 2021 will be more of a return to “normal” for the softball world. But “normal” doesn’t have to mean “the same.”

Take what you’ve learned in 2020 about what a lack of softball means, and use that to help you get yourself ready to play at a higher level in 2021.

Good luck, happy new year, and have a great season!

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Planking photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com

Sleep photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Arm wrestling photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

Taking a Chess-Like Approach to Softball Skills Development

Every couple of decades or so, something comes along that increases the general public’s interest in chess.

In the 1970s it was Bobby Fischer and his rise to become World Chess Champion. His victory was important because it was during the Cold War, at a time the Russians were dominating the chess scene.

In the 1990s it was the development of Deep Blue, IBM’s supercomputer that became the first to win a chess game and a chess match against a reigning world champion, this time Garry Kasparov. If you like all the processing power you now get in a mobile phone, you can thank Deep Blue for some of it.

Of course, right now it’s the Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit that is making chess cool. Well, maybe not cool. Being captain of the high school chess club still isn’t nearly as good for your social standing as being captain of the football team or the cheerleading squad. But at least the show makes it a little less nerdy.

Or maybe not.

But whether you like chess or not (and you can count me in the “not” category for sure, since my idea of playing chess as a kid was to line up the big pieces and throw the pawns at them until they were all knocked off the board) there is a valuable lesson to be learned from how great players approach the game. The lesson is that to be successful in the long term in softball you have to have the right approach.

Beginners and your basic amateurs tend to be very transactional in their approach. They see a piece that’s vulnerable and they take it. If there’s nothing there, they make a move and hope something better shows up on their turn. It’s all about making something happen now.

Chess masters, however, take a different approach. They patiently work to get all the right pieces in all the right places so they can mount a powerful attack at the right time and win the game.

Sometimes that means sacrificing the most powerful piece on the board to gain an advantage. (That’s the queen for those who know even less than I do about chess.)

Now you know why this is funny.

But that process of putting all the pieces in place before striking is what makes them successful.

That same philosophy applies to improving softball skills. In our sport, we love to measure things. So, say, if a pitcher is increasing her speed on a regular basis there is a temptation to believe all is well. It’s a transactional approach based on immediate gratification.

But the success she’s experiencing right now may end up leading to long-term failure, or at least some unnecessary limitations, if she’s not improving her actual skills. Because poor technique, even when combined with great athleticism, can only take you so far.

To experience real growth and development, sometimes you first have to put all the pieces in place, i.e., break down the movements and replace them with better movements. That can be difficult for some, because it might actually mean regressing in terms of performance measures for a little while.

Take our pitcher again. She’s a big, strong girl who has managed to throw 55 mph by just muscling up and chucking the ball in there.

But she eventually wants to play at a higher level, against better competition, and knows she’s reached the limits of what she can do with what she has, so she decides she needs to improve her technique. What she will probably find, however, is that before her numbers go up they may go down some.

The reason, of course, is that when she was doing what she used to do, she was able to do it with all the enthusiasm and energy she could muster. Now that she’s trying to make changes she can no longer do that.

Her pitching motion may feel awkward and uncomfortable for a little while as she gets used to the new technique. Or maybe the only way she can learn to relax and execute the new motion is go at 70% energy for a little while. Either way, she goes from 55 to 51 and no doubt begins to wonder if she’s doing herself a favor.

If she’s done her homework, however, and selected a coach who knows what he/she is doing (not always a given, unfortunately), the payoff will come – once all the pieces are in place and she can once again put 100% into every pitch.

This approach isn’t just limited to pitching. It’s the same for pretty much anything in softball, and any athletic movement in any sport for that matter.

Making substantive changes is hard because we all want to fall back into our old habits. It takes time and repetition to replace old habits with new ones.

Yes, it would be nice if someone could just say “do this” or “do that” and improvement would come instantly. But it would be a whole lot less satisfying.

If you’re looking to make real improvement in your softball skills, follow the lead of great chess players. Get all your pieces in place, i.e., fix everything that needs fixing, then go for it with everything you’ve got using your new skills.

By keeping your eye on the long game you’ll ultimately experience far more success – and have a lot more fun in the process.

Chess pieces photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Nerd photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Take the Time to Grind

Take a look at any list of what champions supposedly do (such as this one) and somewhere on there you’ll see something about how they do the things others aren’t willing to do. What those lists don’t tell you, however, is a lot of those things they’re referencing fall into the category of “grinding.”

This isn’t the flashy stuff. They’re not spending hours on the Hit Trax machine, playing more games, participating in fancy clinics, etc.

Instead, they are working over and over to correct even the tiniest flaws, perfect their mechanics, and learn to get everything they can out of themselves.

If that sounds boring it’s because it is. That’s why most players don’t do it – especially if they are already experiencing success.

A player who is the best hitter on her team, or maybe even in her league or conference, may hear that she needs to work on improving her sequencing. But she also wonders why bother since she’s already leading in most offensive categories.

Sure, there’s always that story that it won’t work at “the next level.” But there’s no guarantee that’s actually true, so until she experiences failure she may decide that’s just the softball version of the Krampus – a myth created to scare people into doing what you want.

Yeah, this guy.

True champions, however, don’t do things because they’re afraid of failing at the proverbial “next level.” They do them because they want to be the best they can be, at which point everything else will take care of itself.

Here’s an example. A typical pitcher will look at her speed numbers, and as long as they are where they need to be they’re happy. Someone willing to grind, however, will actually allow her speed to slip a little to improve her drive mechanics or her arm circle. That way, when she has internalize the change she will be even faster and more accurate.

For a field player, it could be learning to throw better by learning a better throwing pattern.

For a hitter it could be reworking the structure of her arms to prevent her back elbow from getting ahead of her arms. That’s not sexy, and it’s certainly nothing most people would notice if they weren’t watching high-speed video.

But the champion knows she’ll hit the ball a little harder, and with greater consistency, if she makes the change so she spends the time to do it. As opposed to average player who tries it a few times, gets bored with it, and goes back to trying to hit bombs off the tee.

And there’s the key difference. Grinding on mechanics can be mind-numbingly boring. It can also be incredibly different, especially as the things you’re grinding on become more nuanced.

It can also feel risky, because there’s a good chance that you will get worse before you get better – especially if what you’re changing is a fundamental process. If you’re in the middle of your season, that’s a huge risk to take (if you’re already experiencing success; if you’re failing, not so much).

That’s what makes the months between fall ball and the new year the perfect time to take on a grinding effort.

Early in the learning process you’re probably looking to make big changes that have a profound effect on your success in a game. It’s a bit easier to stay with it when that happens.

In other words, if you’re used to hitting weak ground balls and pop-ups in-between strikeouts, you have a lot of incentive to work at improvements. When you start hitting line drives to the outfield on a consistent basis it can be downright inspiring.

But if you’re already hitting line drives to the outfield, and you are now trying to hit more of them, it doesn’t feel quite as rewarding. Going from hitting .110 to .330 is a lot more noticeable than going from .400 to .440. Going from hitting zero doubles in three tournaments to four in one tournament is a lot more remarkable than going from four to six in one tournament.

That, however, is what those who are willing to grind do, because their reward is internal instead of external. For many, their goal is to be perfect. They want an extra base hit on every at bat, or a shutout for every game they pitch.

They know that goal is unrealistic, but they go for it anyway because they are driven to contribute as much as they can to the team and deliver the best results of which they’re capable.

The funny thing is, this is an individual decision. There are 100 ways to fake it, or to make it look like you’re grinding when you’re really not.

But for those who want to be the best they can be there’s no substitute for the grind. They make the effort to make smallest and even seemingly most insignificant improvements, because if they can gain an edge that will help them perform better and win more ballgames, they’re going to take it.

It’s really up to you. With a lot of teams shut down right now, either deliberately to give their players some time away or as a result of state orders, it’s the perfect time to grind away at something that will make you better.

Find something and put in the effort. You never know where it will lead you.

Are We Destroying Our Kids?

unrecognizable woman showing pain spot on back in doctor office

Injuries have always been a part of participating in youth sports. Jammed fingers, sprained ankles and knees, cuts requiring stitches, even broken bones were an accepted part of the risk of playing. Things happen, after all.

Lately, though, we are seeing a continuing rise of a different type of injury. This one doesn’t happen suddenly as the result of a particular play or miscue on the field. Instead, it develops slowly, insidiously over time, but its effects can be more far-reaching than a sprain, cut or break.

I’m speaking, of course, about overuse injuries.

According to a 2014 position paper from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, roughly 46 to 54% of all youth sports injuries are from overuse. Think about that.

There was no collision. There was no tripping over a base or taking a line drive to the face. There was no stepping in a hole in the outfield or catching a cleat while sliding. The injury occurred while participating normally in the sport.

And here’s the scary part. As I said, this report came out in 2014. In the six years since, the pressure to play year-round, practice more, participate in speed and agility training and do all the other things that go with travel ball in particular has only gotten worse.

You can see it in how one season ends and another begins, as we recently went through. Tryouts keep getting earlier and earlier, with the result that players often commit to a new/different team before their finished playing with their current teams.

It’s not that they’re being bad or disloyal. It’s that they have no choice, because if they wait until the end of the current season there won’t be anywhere left to go because all the teams have been chosen.

What is even crazier is that there literally was no break for many players from one season to the next. I know of many for whom their current season ended on a weekend and their first practice for the next season was the week immediately after. Sometimes they were playing their first game with the new team before their parents had a chance to wash their uniforms from the old team.

And it wasn’t just one practice a week. Teams are doing two or three in the fall, with expectations that players will also take lessons and practice on their own as well.

That is crazy. What is so all-fired important about starting up again right away?

Why can’t players have at least a couple of weeks off to rest, recuperate physically and mentally, and just do other things that don’t require a bat, ball or glove? Why is it absolutely essential to begin playing tournaments or even friendlies immediately and through the end of August?

I think what’s often not taken into consideration, especially at the younger ages, is that many of these players’ bodies are going through some tremendous changes. Not just the puberty stuff but also just growth in general.

A growth spurt could mean a reduction in density in their bones, making them more susceptible to injuries. An imbalance in strength from one side to the other can stress muscles in a way that wouldn’t be so pronounced if they weren’t being used in the same way so often.

Every article you read about preventing overuse injuries stresses two core strategies:

  1. Incorporating significant periods of rest into the training/playing plan
  2. Playing multiple sports in order to develop the body more completely and avoid repetitive stress on the same muscles

When I read those recommendations, however, I can’t help but wonder: have the authors met any crazy softball coaches and parents?

As I mentioned, I’ve seen 12U team schedules where they are set to practice three times a week – in the fall! And these aren’t PGF A-level teams, they’re just local teams primarily playing local tournaments.

Taking up that much time makes it difficult to play other sports. Sure, the softball coach may say it’s ok to miss practices during the week to do a school sport, but is it really?

Will that player be looked down on if she’s not there working alongside her teammates each week? Probably.

Will that player fall behind her teammates in terms of skill, which ultimately hurts her chances of being on the field outside of pool play? Possibly.

So if softball is important to her, she’s just going to have to forego what the good doctors are saying and just focus on softball, thereby increasing her risk of an overuse injury.

This is not just a softball issue, by the way. It’s pretty much every youth sport. I think the neverending cycle may be more of a softball issue, but the time factor that prevents participation in more than one sport at a competitive level is fairly universal.

In the meantime, a study published in the journal Pediatrics that pulled from five previous studies showed that athletes 18 and under who specialize in one sport are twice as likely to sustain an overuse injury than those who played multiple sports.

The alarm bells are sounding. It’s like a lightning detector going off at a field but the teams deciding to ignore it and keep playing anyway. Sooner or later, someone is going to get struck.

What can you do about it? It will be tough, but we have to try to change the culture.

Leaders in the softball world – such as those in the various organizations (including the NFCA) and well-respected college coaches – need to start speaking up about the importance of reducing practice schedules for most of the year and building more downtime in – especially at the end of the season. I think that will help.

Ultimately, though, youth sports parents and coaches need to take responsibility for their children/players and take steps to put an end to the madness. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Build in a few weeks between the end of the summer season and beginning of the fall season for rest, recovery and family activities. There’s no reason for anyone to play before Labor Day.
  • Cut back on the number of fall and winter practices. Once a week with the team should be sufficient. Instead, encourage players to practice more on their own so they can fit softball activities around other sports and activities.
  • Reduce the number of summer games/tournaments. Trying to squeeze 100+ games into three months in the summer (two for high school players who play for their schools in the spring season) is insane bordering on child abuse. Take a weekend or two off, and play fewer games during the week.
  • Plan practices so you’re working on different skills in the same week. This is especially important when it comes to throwing, which is where a lot of overuse injuries occur. Work on offense one day and defense another. Or do throwing one day and baserunning another. Or maybe even play a game that helps with conditioning while working a different muscle group.

It won’t be easy, but we can do this. All it takes is a few brave souls to get it going.

Overuse injuries are running rampant through all sports, including fastpitch softball. With a little thought and care, however, we can reverse that trend – and keep our kids healthier, happier while making them better players in the process.

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