Category Archives: General Thoughts

Coaching, Bearded Dragons and Relationship Building

It was yet another oppressively hot, very humid day here in the Midwest – the type we used to associate with Mississippi but now is happening here on a regular basis.

My first lesson of the afternoon, a young 10U pitcher we’ll call Hermione (for reasons that will become obvious shortly), had the look of someone who wanted to be anywhere but a pitching lesson.

“Jump some rope to warm up,” I told her, and she slowly shuffled over to the fence where the rope was hanging before giving it a half-hearted effort. Then she went out to throw with her mom, and could barely get the ball there despite the fact they weren’t more than 15 feet apart.

This was the second time in a row she had come out that way. “Maybe she just doesn’t want to pitch,” I said to her mom. That’s ok, I said, but then no sense torturing her with a lesson.

Mom left it up to Hermione and she said she wanted to do it so we continued – after I talked to her for a few minutes.

“I know it’s hot,” I told her, “but there’s nothing we can do about that. But attitude is a choice. You can choose to put the effort in or not – it’s totally in your control.”

That worked about as well as you’d expect it to work on a 10U player, but we continued anyway.

“She may be tired,” her mom offered. “We went to the zoo yesterday.”

“Really?” I replied, thinking we might have a different way to approach things. “What zoo?” I asked Hermione.

“Mmph,” she said.

“Milwaukee,” her mom added.

“I love the Milwaukee Zoo,” I said to Hermione. “What are your favorite exhibits?”

“Mmph,” she replied again.

Then mom stepped in again. “We went to the small mammals, (something else I don’t remember), and reptiles.”

“Reptiles?” I said. That’s an unusual choice if you’re only seeing three.

“I like reptiles.” Hermione offered.

Say Word Reaction GIF by Justin

Aha! An actual response. I dug into it a little more, and then came the turning point. Her mom said the reptile house didn’t have any bearded dragons.

“Oh, you like those?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said with some enthusiasm. “I have a bearded dragon in my room.”

From then on it was like someone flipped a switch. Instead of looking like someone in a hostage video she became quite animated as we talked about beardies in general (that’s what the “in the know” people call them) and hers in particular.

Over the course of the lesson I learned her beardy’s name as Phoenix Firebolt (for Dumbledore’s pet and Harry Potter’s broomstick), which of course meant I also learned she liked Harry Potter. I learned that beardies eat grain and bugs, and that bugs are a lot more expensive than grain.

I learned she liked to dress Phoenix up in costumes, and that Phoenix wasn’t exactly a fan.

“I just have a couple,” she told me. “A lot of people do it all the time.

I also learned she liked to take Phoenix for walks, and that if she took the leash off outside without an adult present Phoenix would try to escape. A lesson discovered the hard way.

Throughout all of this conversation Hermione continued to pitch. Her throws got harder and more accurate.

I would make corrections here or there, but quickly follow that up with a beardy question. The lesson flew by, with Hermione making tremendous progress.

It was a good reminder for me. There is a saying that players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

In other words, your ability as a coach to build a relationship with a player on her terms is critical to your success.

Whether it carries over automatically to next week remains to be seen. But hopefully, at least with this one player, I have a key to unlock her resistance or reluctance and help her enjoy her pitching lessons instead of just enduring them.

That’s the challenge for all coaches. Get to know your players, especially at the younger ages. Find out what floats their boats.

Because if you can establish some common ground there, they just might let you in a little faster to help them become the players they’re meant to be.

Bearded dragon photo by Saketh Upadhya on Pexels.com

Softball Takeaways from Simone Biles

While the return of fastpitch softball to the Olympics was the big story for many of us who are fanatics for the sport, for the general populace of course one of the biggest stories was gymnast Simone Biles deciding not to compete in the team or most of the individual events. She did, of course, eventually take Bronze on the balance beam which is hardly her signature event.

It’s hard to imagine what a difficult decision that must have been for her. Here she has spent the last five years training for the opportunity to win more medals, presumably Gold medals, in her sport’s biggest showcase.

Yet when the time came something in her just snapped. She knew she couldn’t do it mentally at the level she needed, and that put her at risk of serious injury or perhaps even death given what she had planned to do. After one vault she decided it would be best to withdraw and give someone else a chance instead.

How did she get to that point? Part of it, of course, was relentless training. I doubt she’s taken many days off since she became a serious competitor, and that can take a physical and mental toll on you after a while.

While softball players don’t train at the same intensity or risk level as national team gymnasts (most of them anyway), it is possible to get so caught up in what you’re doing that you forget why you’re doing it. When softball starts to feel like more of a burden than an escape from life’s many real burdens, it’s time to take a little time off.

Another issue Simone Biles faced was a distinct lack of support, especially from people at the highest level of her sport. Those people loved showcasing her to the media to promote their own agendas, but when she told them about irregularities around the training they did their best to brush it under the rug and forget about it.

Parents, if your softball-playing daughter tells you physical or mental abuse is happening, don’t just tell her to suck it up or quit whining. Do all you can to find out if there is any reason to be concerned – even if it might mean losing a scholarship opportunity or being removed from a team that wins all its tournaments.

Your daughter’s safety and mental health are worth more, and not worth trading for any amount of money or plastic trophies. When she says something is wrong, be sure to listen.

Coaches, you have the same responsibility. If your player is suddenly having problems don’t get stuck thinking your job is simply putting a winning team on the field. Take an interest and find out what’s wrong.

Maybe she just has a softball version of the “twisties” and needs some help working through them. She’s lost confidence and needs someone to help her fill her confidence bucket back up.

Maybe she’s in a hitting slump and just needs someone to believe in her. The thing that prolongs most slumps is over-thinking the cause. Help her remember who she is and what she can do, even if it takes a little while. It will be worth the effort.

Or maybe, just maybe, something is going on at home or in her personal life that has her all off-kilter. You caring enough to find out and help her could have a lasting effect on her life that she will remember and appreciate long after she’s left her cleats at home plate.

Finally, when you’re performing at a high level there will always be haters – people who want to tear you down and then delight in your failure. Especially if you’re a female.

Many of the people leveling those criticisms have never put in the effort to do anything at a high level, But they’ll be more than happy to tell you why you’re weak and undeserving because you suddenly feel the pressure you were able to shut out before.

Players, don’t listen to them! Those ignorant couch potatoes know they don’t have the drive or dedication to be like you, so they want to drag you down to be like them.

Do what you need to do to get right in your own head – even if it means stopping for a bit to let it clear. This is the perfect time of year to do that, by the way.

The summer season is over, tryouts are over, and fall ball is still a few weeks away. Go to the beach or the movies or an amusement park. Listen to music all day, or sit and read a book or three. Hang out with friends who you don’t share a uniform with.

In other words, find something else to do with your day. Softball will still be waiting for you when you get back.

Anyone who has watched her career knows Simone Biles is the ultimate competitor. She’s never met a challenge she didn’t take head-on.

So when she says she has the “twisties” and the best way to deal with them is by pulling out of the Olympics it’s worth taking note.

If Simone Biles needs to walk away for a bit, the same can be said for any of us.

Take care of yourself, even if some around you don’t quite understand. Softball will be here when you’re ready. And you just may enjoy and appreciate it a little more.

Simone Biles photo from Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Few Post-Olympic Thoughts

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

Last week I wrote about some things to watch for as fastpitch softball made its return to the Olympic stage. If you haven’t read it already you may want to follow the link above and give it a look as it is both insightful and brilliant. Or at least marginally interesting.

Now that the tournament is finished I thought it might be a good idea to see what takeaways we might draw from what actually occurred while it was going on. There are definitely some lessons to be learned.

SPOILER ALERT: This post will refer to outcomes, so if you’re one of the few softball fanatics who have not watched the games and are trying to keep yourself from learning who won until you do, you may want to do that first – or explore other posts here on the blog.

Nice to see softball back in the Olympics

Let’s start with the obvious. After a 13 year absence it was great to see fastpitch softball back in the Olympics in any form.

The Olympic games draw a LOT of eyes and are considered to be a major international event. Yes, you have the Pan Am Games and the World Cup of Softball, but those are essentially “in the family” events. IOW, only softball people are interested in them.

The Olympics, on the other hand, allow people who have no real interest in softball to randomly stumble across them. This is also helped by the fact that they appear on a major network (in this case NBC), even though in reality the games were on offshoot networks rather than NBC proper.

Plus the Olympics have built-prestige of their own despite all the problems and scandals of recent years. It’s great for popularizing the sport and exposing it to new potential fans. Lots of good things about it.

That said…

The tournament format was awful

Really? Five pool play games and then you go straight to the Gold and Bronze Medal games?

I would expect more from a local rec league tournament.

Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows a game can turn on a single hit, a bad bounce, a single throwing error, an umpire’s call, etc. At the highest level the margins are even more razor-thin.

Take the U.S. v Australia game. It was won by one fortunate, well-timed hit by the U.S. It could have easily gone the other way.

We also know teams can bounce back from a bad or unfortunate game to come back and take it all.

It should have been a double elimination tournament. I’m sure there were financial reasons it wasn’t, but the format they had made it look like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just caved to pressure and let it in with the minimal effort possible. Softball was the red-headed stepchild of these Olympics.

This is further evidenced by the fact that half of the pool play occurred BEFORE the opening ceremonies, which most people consider to be the beginning of the Olympics. Which means they were less likely to stumble into the games on TV.

If you wanted to “prove” that not enough people are interested in softball to include it in the future, this was the way to do it.

The U.S. Team’s Offensive Plan Was Poor

If the goal was to prove that softball is an international sport and the U.S. doesn’t dominate it anymore, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to put together a team and a game plan to keep U.S. scoring to the minimum required to get into the Gold Medal game, then well done.

Yes, I realize the pitching is the best in the world (at least in theory), and great pitching beats great hitting. But other teams didn’t seem to have as much trouble scoring runs against each other.

Yet the U.S. managed a measly nine (9) runs in six (count ’em 6) games, and no more than two (2) in any single game. That’s pathetic.

I’m guessing part of that strategy was to support dominating pitchers with the best defense they could, then count on being able to scratch a couple of runs together to win 1-0 or 2-1. So forget worrying about finding big hitters and just get defensive stars.

The problem with that is it’s not 1996 anymore. Softball players work harder these days at hitting overall, and the bat technology is way better than when the Louisville burgundy bottle bat was THE bat to have. You wouldn’t use that in practice now.

A game can turn on a single swing, and if you get behind by a couple of runs early it can be tough to come back if you don’t have players who can hit the gaps for extra bases. As the U.S. found out in the Gold Medal game.

Then there was the offensive philosophy, which was incredibly predictable. As soon as the U.S. got a runner on first, the next hitter up was required to sacrifice bunt. Every. Stinking. Time.

That meant that a hitter like Jamie Reed, who tripled in the first inning of the Gold Medal game against the worlds best pitcher, spent most of the tournament laying down bunts instead of trying to drive runs in.

Even a fly ball to the fence could have advanced the runner on first as effectively as a bunt, with the added benefit that it might hit the fence or go over, resulting in a better offensive position.

I haven’t seen the stats, but to the best of my recollection the number of runs that were manufactured by sacrifice bunts was zero. In the meantime, the U.S. gave up a whole bunch of outs that might have come in handy later in the game.

Yes, I am prejudiced against the sac bunt anyway, and have been for a long time. It’s a waste in most cases. This just proved the point.

The other downside of being so predictable was that opposing teams, Japan in particular, could just sit on it and use it to their advantage. Like by pulling the corners in and pulling off a double play against a sac bunt.

Keep in mind the U.S. win against Japan in pool play came off a home run. They needed more of that.

Especially since, according to the announcers, Japan has spent the last few years trying to put MORE offensive firepower into their game. If Japan is your Gold Standard (no pun intended) the U.S. may want to look for players who can bang the ball – and then let them do it.

The defense was unreal

In my last post I talked about watching the speed of the game. These games did not disappoint.

The defense across the board was incredible. So many great plays by so many players on all teams. That is an aspect everyone got right.

The whole thing looked like an old timer’s game

Perhaps the oddest thing about these Olympics were how old many of the players were. Especially in the circle.

Monica and Cat for the U.S. are both mid- to late-30s. Yukiko Ueno is 39. Team Canada had several recognizable names from the past. All of them played in the last Olympic games.

It’s almost as if the people in charge felt they owed it to these players to let them play in one more Olympics. Not that they didn’t perform – they did.

But in a sports culture obsessed with youth it’s hard to believe there weren’t younger players who could have done just as well. Have we done such a poor job of training the next generation that the last generation had to step in? Or were they just trying to go with glory names from the past?

The problem with that is you lose the younger audience who didn’t grow up watching Cat and Monica and the others dominate the sport. I think a lot of younger fans want to see the names they’ve been watching in the Women’s College World Series – players they know and can relate to.

In my very informal survey of my students, most did not watch the Olympics. They had little interest. If you can’t get current players to watch the game played at that level how are you going to grow softball as a spectator sport?

From a marketing standpoint it’s time to leave the past behind and start focusing on the future. We apparently have eight years to get it right. Let’s do it.

It was essentially an American tournament

For those who still complain about U.S. dominance of the sport, they do have a point. Despite the different names on the jerseys, many of the players – especially for Italy, Canada and Mexico – were either U.S. citizens or played college ball in the U.S.

I think that was less true for Australia, but I believe they had a few too.

About the only team that wasn’t made in America essentially was Team Japan.

It’s great that more deserving players get an opportunity to play in the Olympics by going with teams representing their heritage instead of where they were born and/or raised. But if softball is going to become a permanent part of the Olympics we need more locally raised players for these teams.

Especially the European teams, because their Olympic Committees hold a lot of sway over how the Olympics are run.

Hopefully softball can generate enough publicity to get girls in these countries interested in playing softball at a high level against each other as well as against U.S. players. I guess we’ll see.

So there you have it – a few of my observations. Now it’s your turn.

Did you watch? If so, what did you think? Leave your observations in the comments below.

What to Watch for In the Olympic Softball Games

As you may have possibly heard as a fastpitch softball fanatic, our sport is back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008! This is a rare moment to watch the best players in the world compete on a huge stage with presentation budget of a major network production.

It’s also the last time for the next eight years as the sport is not included in the 2024 Paris Olympics. It is expected to return in 2028 and 2032 when the games flip to the U.S. and Australia. Who knows what will happen after that?

So since this is such an unusual opportunity you’ll want to make the most of it. Not just to sit back and enjoy the games (although that’s great) but also to learn all you can while you have the opportunity.

So to help with that, here are a few pointers on some things to pay closer attention to. The Speed of Play.

The Speed of Play

I’m not talking about pitch speeds, although they are incredible too. I’m talking about what happens when a ball is put in play.

Look at what happens on a ground ball. It is scooped up and on its way to first in a “blink and you’ll miss it” fashion. There is no double-clutching, no calmly standing up and then casually firing it over. It’s there and gone.

Or look at the baserunners. Even the ones you would think are more powerful than fleet are incredibly fast. If a ball is hit between two fielders in the outfield there’s a good chance the runner on first is going to third. Bobble it at all and she’s heading for home.

Everything is amazingly fast. If you want to know what to work on in your/your daughter’s/you players’ games, work on that.

For example, don’t just hit them ground balls. Run a stopwatch and challenge them to make the play in less than three seconds. I find blowing an air horn when the stopwatch hits three seconds provides a pretty good indicator of whether they were successful enough.

Work on just pure running too. I know most people get into softball because they don’t like all the running in other sports, but it’s something that does need to be addressed.

While you can’t make everyone fast you can help them get faster. The faster your team is the more pressure it puts on the defense and the more runs you can score when you need them.

Here you can start by making sure your players are running on their toes instead of heels or flat feet. Then do a lot of short, quick sprints.

Run down a hill. Have two or more players run against each other, perhaps letting one player start in front of the other. Have them play tag around the basepaths. Anything to get the feet and arms moving faster.

Watch the Pitching Mechanics

The coverage I have seen so far has been amazing at showing pitching mechanics. We are getting great closeup shots of what is happening at release on great pitchers such as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, and Yukiko Ueno.

Notice how close they are to their bodies at release, to the point where their forearms brush against their hips. Note how on a curve ball the hand kind of wraps around the back hip instead of being out and away.

Watch how they release the ball with a smooth, whipping motion. Note that they are vertical or leaning slightly back instead of being bent forward.

Also watch how they seem to glide on their back leg, like they’re riding a skateboard, until the front foot lands. Then they go into whip and release.

While you’re watching that, also note that they don’t drag their back legs behind them like zombies. The leg stays under them, which is what allows that skateboard-like movement.

It’s really a Master Class on pitching, happening pitch after pitch.

Listen to the Communication

With no crowd noise to speak of you can hear what’s going on down on the field more clearly. While at first you may list to the description of the play, maybe watch a second time and listen to what’s happening on the field.

They’re not down there keeping to themselves. Those players are communicating.

They’re talking before the play to make sure everyone knows their responsibilities. They’re talking during the play to help direct throws and avoid confusion. And they’re talking afterward to clean up any issues and pick up their teammates if something went wrong.

The more you communicate the better you’ll play as a team. Learn from the best.

What Happens Away from the Ball

The initial camera work is going to follow the ball. That makes sense because that’s where the main action is.

But during replays from other angles, look at what other players are doing. Who is backing up at a base? What is the right fielder doing on a throw from center to third?

If there is a steal or a bunt, who is fielding it and what are the other players doing?

For example, with a runner on first, if the third baseman fields the ball who goes to cover third in her place when the ball is bunted? Is it the shortstop, leaving second uncovered?

Unlikely since they may want to go for the lead runner. So is it the catcher? Pitcher? Left fielder?

The more you see how Olympic teams operate in particular situations the better idea you’ll have of what your team/daughter should be doing. Or at least learning.

How Tough Hitting Is Against Great Pitching

So far there hasn’t been a ton of offense in most of the games. That’s to be expected with such great pitchers.

Maybe it will change as the tournament goes on and the hitters get used to the high level of pitching they’re seeing. But right now it does demonstrate how challenging hitting can be – even for the best players in the world.

That’s something to keep in mind when your daughter goes 0 for 8 on a Saturday, or your team hits a collective .225. No matter how hard you work, a lot of good things have to happen to succeed at hitting.

That said, practicing properly (and often) gives you your best chance to succeed. Each of the players you’re watching works incredibly hard to do what she does.

Imagine where those hitters would be without all that hard work.

Softball is a game built on failure. It’s those who can push past it who will ultimately succeed.

They Make Mistakes Too

I think this is an important lesson for parents (and some coaches) to learn. These are the very best players in the world, presumably. But at some key moments, usually when their team can afford it the least, you will see a player here or there make an error.

It happens. It’s unfortunate but it does, even to the best. Especially in a pressure situation.

What parents (and some coaches) need to take away from that is these things are going to happen occasionally so you can’t freak out or get down on your daughter/player or scream at her in a way that makes her feel bad about herself.

This applies not to just physical errors but mental errors. If you’re a coach, make the correction in a non-judgmental way and move on. Believe me, she didn’t do it just to make you look bad or ruin your day.

If you’re a parent, be supportive. She’s probably already feeling horrible about it. Instead of making it worse help her learn from the experience so she doesn’t repeat it.

Realizing even the best players in the world make mistakes now and then will help you enjoy your daughter’s/players’ playing more and avoid turning one bad play into a bad inning – or a bad game.

Anyway, those are a few of the things I think you should be watching for as you enjoy softball in the Olympics. Any other thoughts? Leave them in the comments below,

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

The Back Leg Can Be a Propeller – or an Anchor

As I write this we are in the middle of summer vacation time here in the U.S. Families all over America are packing themselves up from wherever they live and traveling to a different area, state, time zone, etc. in search of a little R&R.

Even softball families are in that process. Some have already finished their seasons, while others are fitting in a little vacation time before or after tournaments.

For me, when I think of vacations I am reminded of taking my family to a lake for some serious downtime. Originally that meant the North Woods of Wisconsin, where we and various members of my wife’s family would rent cabins.

As part of the rental, we would get motorized row boats that we could use to go fishing. I’ve never been much of a fisherman, and didn’t grow up rowing boats so I found that a bit of a challenge at first, but when in Rome…

Now years later I’ve come to realize that those motorized row boats are the perfect analogy for the role of the back leg in pitching and hitting. Because it can either be a propeller or an anchor when you’re trying to be explosive.

A propeller will help you get where you’re going faster. Being fairly incompetent at rowing a boat, at least at first, I found the propeller to be a much easier way to get from point A to point B, even if those two points weren’t that far apart.

As long as you can fire up the motor (not always easy in a free rental), you can open the throttle and steer your way there while relaxing. That’s a lot easier than using oars to move through the water, especially if you’re using one oar more than the other, in which case you tend to make more of a circle than a straight line.

Pretty much me, but using both oars.

An anchor, on the other hand, is designed to hold you in place once you get to where you’re going. If you leave the anchor down, even with a motor, it will be much hard to get to your destination.

So it is in softball. In pitching, you want the “drive” leg to propel your center forward, enabling you to glide lightly along the ground until your front leg lands. Do it quick and powerfully enough and the sudden stop will help sling/whip your arm through the release zone.

But if you don’t engage your drive leg, and instead just run past it with your stride leg, the drive leg will turn into an anchor, lifelessly dragging behind you and slowing you down. When that happens, the drive leg doesn’t drive at all, but instead gets pulled along in the classic zombie walk. This is why it’s often called “zombie leg.”

Clearly one is better and more effective than the other in creating speed and enabling stability at release. Hopefully I don’t have to tell you which one that is.

Unless someone has eaten you brains.

While not quite as obvious or debilitating, the same effect occurs in overhand throwing. If the throwing side isn’t engaged actively as a propeller it becomes an anchor, which affects both speed and accuracy.

What about hitting? The same is true, although in a different way.

In hitting, you want the lower body to create the power. While that is really more of the core than the legs themselves, the rear leg contributes by having its knee start pulling toward the front knee, unweighting the leg so the hips can fire forward at maximum velocity.

If the hitter doesn’t get off the back foot the hips are unable to rotate rapidly or fully, and you wind up with more of an upper body swing that pulls the contact point further back. You’re then not hitting in the green zone.

The bottom line (no pun intended) is the back leg can either be an aid or a hindrance in making athletic movements in softball. Which it is depends entirely on the player.

Get it actively engaged, doing what it should do, and it becomes a propeller that helps drive better performance. Leave it behind and it will be an anchor, slowing the player down and creating a huge drag on performance.

Photo by Mount Polley on Pexels.com

You Won the Genetic Lottery. Now What?

Most of the time my blog post are more oriented toward players (and their parents) who, shall we say, don’t have the greatest athletic gifts. Not to mention coaches who are trying to make their teams competitive through sheer hard work.

Today, though, I am going to turn that concept on its head. This one is for those players who won the genetic lottery.

You know the ones. They are naturally bigger, stronger, faster, with better eyesight, better hand-to-eye coordination, more fast twitch muscles and other attributes that most of us wish we (or our kids/players) had.

They are always a big fish, no matter what size pond they’re in.

Here’s my message to those players and their families: that genetic lottery has more than one winner. In fact, while the total number may be small compared to all the players who play the game, it’s still much larger than the number of spots on coveted teams.

Which means if you want one of those spots you need to keep working hard. Probably even harder than players with lesser natural ability because all your real competition is at least as able as you. Maybe even more gifted.

I know that may be hard to believe, especially if you don’t get to see a lot of ultra-talented players wherever you play. But believe me, they’re out there.

When you have more natural ability than everyone else it’s easy to fall into the trap of relying on it. After all, if your overhand throw is 60 mph and all your teammates’ (and opponents) are closer to 50 mph it’s easy to think you take it easy in practice or just rely on your ability in a game.

But in the end, you’re not competing against the players around you for those coveted spots. You’re competing against a small universe of players you may not see but who are definitely out there.

Which means you need to make sure your skill level and understanding of the game, not to mention your mental game, is on a par with them.

My suggestion, if you want to find a local role model, is to look at the player on your team, in your league or conference, etc. who doesn’t seem to have a lot of natural ability but is succeeding anyway. That player got there by working harder than everyone else and not getting discouraged when she failed.

Instead, when she failed she used it as fuel and a learning experience to help her get better.

That girl has to have better technique at whatever she does because if she doesn’t she’ll never see the field. Coaches aren’t falling all over themselves to get her on their team or put her in their lineup, so she has to prove herself every time she steps across the chalk line.

Study her. Learn from her. Do what she does.

If she boots a ground ball, she probably asks for another one. Do the same.

If she’s struggling to hit she doesn’t go into a funk. She pulls the tee out and works on whatever she knows her issues are. And believe me she knows what they are because she pays close attention when a coach is working with her.

Basically, instead of acting like a “super talent,” instead become a grinder. Work to gain the best technique not because you have to today, but because one day you will need it. Gain that mentality and you’ll find the road to the top is significantly easier than it would have been otherwise.

Talent, athleticism, whatever you want to call it, is definitely a good thing. If you won the genetic lottery be sure to thank your parents early and often. Genetics can’t be taught.

Don’t let that ability sucker you into complacency, however. Approach the game like you were the last one to make the roster instead of the first one invited and we just might see you on ESPN one day.

Photo by Lay Low on Pexels.com

Loyalty Is a Two-Way Street

This is the time of year when the rubber starts to hit the road in travel ball. All the promises of tryouts, all the good intentions, and all the talk of “we’re in it for the girls” starts getting tested as games get real and the outcome of the season is at stake.

The result is that some players/families begin to get disenchanted with their positions on the team and start thinking they might be better-served somewhere else.

They may or may not be correct. If you’re a player or parent who thinks playing time should be handed out like Halloween candy, regardless of effort or output, you’re probably not going to be any happier on the next team than you are on this one.

Your lack of skills and knowledge will be a detriment to whatever team you’re on, and coaches will recognize that pretty quickly. Your lack of effort to improve will also be noticed, making it easier for you to be left watching the game from the dugout.

But there is another class of player who may also be facing this decision. She has been working hard, showing improvement, earning her right to be on the field. But for whatever reason, the coaches have made their decision not to play her and that’s the end of that.

No matter what that player does or shows she can do, her fate on this team is sealed. Those are the ones who may find it necessary to seek a team.

Yes, I’ve seen all the bloviating on Facebook and other sources about how you just have to stick it out, and how horrible it is that players switch teams so quickly these days – whether that’s at the youth or college level.

I’m all for having to work your way up, and quite frankly think you should never join a team where you will clearly be the best player, either overall or at your position. The competition will make you better.

But all of those memes and rants presume you are working with a level playing field. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways the field can be made permanently unlevel.

One common example is a player might play the same position as the coach’s daughter, or the coach’s daughter’s best friend. For a certain type of coach, that means his/her daughter or her friend will always play every inning at that position – no matter how many errors she makes or how many times she strikes out with runners in scoring position.

At that point, you either resign yourself to playing another position or playing your position with another team. If there isn’t an opportunity to ever show what you can do, the only option left is the status quo. Or as my friend Ray Minchew puts it, “It’s tough to build a track record when you never get on the track.”

What that often means is that you fall into the category of “spare parts.” A team needs a minimum of nine players to field a full team, but it’s likely that all nine won’t be able to be at every game. So it also needs people to fill in.

That’s where you come in. If one of the starters can’t make it, and the coach can’t find a guest player to fill that spot, you get on the field. Just know that once the starter comes back you will be back to the bench, no matter how well you did when you had that opportunity.

One of the things the “just tough it out” proponents will tend to bring up at this point is loyalty. They will moan how players are selfish and no one shows loyalty to the team anymore.

In my opinion, however, loyalty is a two-way street. If a coach isn’t loyal enough to his/her players to give them opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and legitimately compete for a spot, why should any of the players be loyal to the coach or team?

The reality is they probably won’t be. If all decisions are transactional, i.e., either the coach wants to win and doesn’t care if players are happy or the coach is more interested in keeping certain players happy or making them the “stars.” there is little reason to stick around if you’re not part of the “in-crowd.” Your situation isn’t going to change.

All anyone should be able to expect is a fair shot at playing. They then have to show what they can do.

But if they do, they should be rewarded appropriately. Otherwise, what is the incentive for working hard or for sticking it out?

If you’re a coach who wants loyalty from your team, start by showing loyalty to your players. ALL your players, not just your favorites or the ones who share a last name with you.

No one signs up for a team for the opportunity to ride the bench all season with no hope of parole. They want to play. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

Give them that opportunity and they will be yours for life. But if you don’t do it, don’t be surprised when your “spare parts” decide they’d rather seek their fortunes elsewhere.

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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