Category Archives: General Thoughts

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.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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!

Cow photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The 3D Printer Approach to Softball Success

3D printer

A few years ago, one of my day job clients took me out back onto the shop floor to show me this cool new technology they were using to create prototypes of products in development.

“It’s a 3D printer,” the client told me. “We program in what we want based on CAD drawings, and then it produces a complete sample, down to every nook and cranny.” Then she showed me how it worked.

Basically, the head on the printer would slide along at high speed, depositing thin layer after thin layer of plastic (or whatever substance they used). At first, it looked like an indistinguishable blob, but slowly, over time, whatever it was they were making began to take shape until a finished product finally came out.

That is very similar to the way building a successful softball player works. You start out with some raw materials and an idea of what the finished product will be. But then you have to build the player, layer by layer, which takes time and patience.

I think it’s the second half of that equation – patience – that tends to make people stop the “machine” before the finished product is created. These days in our instant-everything world, everyone wants what they want right the heck now.

They don’t want to put in hours and hours of practice just to realize a slight improvement, such as adding one mile an hour as a pitcher or hitting the ball another 20 feet as a batter. They want a magic drill or technique that will enable them to go from throwing 48 mph to 60+ mph in a couple of weeks, or turn them from a .225 hitter to a .440 hitter with an OPS over 1.0.

That would be nice, but it simply doesn’t work that way. As I always say, if I could make you a star in one lesson every lesson would cost $1,000 and there would be a line a mile long down the street to get that lesson.

Instead, you have to operate like the 3D printer. If you stand there and watch it as it works, you’re likely to get bored and maybe fall asleep. It just keeps on grinding away.

Over time, however, it produces something beautiful and useful. Of course, if all you see is the end product you have no idea how much work, how many passes of the print head went into it. You can just admire the result.

It’s the same with players. If you just look at the player shining on the field you have no concept of the number of pitches, swings, ground balls, fly balls, etc. that player did before you ever saw the bright, shiny player she is now.

I know, because I’ve seen it. Parents will tell me how funny it is when someone says about their daughter, “Wow, it must be nice to be so talented that it just comes naturally to her.”

Those people making that comment weren’t there when that same girl was sitting on the bench because her coaches didn’t think she was good enough to be on the field. They weren’t there when she struggled to get a hit, or to find the plate when she was pitching, or making awful errors on easy fielding plays. They weren’t there when she left a practice or lesson on the verge of tears because she couldn’t quite get a skill.

But they also weren’t there when she was in the back yard throwing pitches or hitting off a tee into a net, determine to get better. And get better she did, little by little, layer by layer, until her skills equaled and then surpassed her less-dedicated teammates and she came into her own.

It’s easy to look at who a player is today and assume that’s always who she has been – i.e., she has always been a star. But more often than not, most great players have a story of struggle to share.

The key, however, is understanding that any deficiencies someone may have now don’t have to define who they are in the future. With a fair helping of dedication and determination, along with a little knowledgeable guidance, players can build their skills, mental approach and confidence to become the fastpitch softball players (and people) they are meant to be.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Please share your stories in the comments of your daughters, or kids you’ve coached, who may have started out on the low end but eventually went on to great softball success.

Oh, and here’s a cool time lapse video of some things being made with a 3D printer.

3D printer photo © 2011 Keith Kissel.

10 Things to Consider When Looking for a New Team

Ways to succeed at fastpitch softball tryouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck, and go get ’em!

Product Review: Portolite Short Spiked Softball Mat

Pitching rubber top

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portolite mat on dirt

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

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

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

Pitching rubber bottom

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

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

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

Pitching rubber top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also available at:

Anytime Baseball Supply

Pro Sports Equip

First Impressions Aren’t Always Right

woman looking at sea while sitting on beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
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