Category Archives: General Thoughts

What fastpitch softball coaches can learn from HGTV shows

Sometimes you have to take fastpitch softball players down to the studs.

As a fastpitch softball coach , when you’re looking for ways to improve your players, it’s likely you think of DVDs, YouTube videos, books, and sites like the Discuss Fastpitch Forum as your go-to resources. Yet there is another, kind of out-of-the-box option that might help you from a philosophical point of view: HGTV.

No, they haven’t suddenly started running fastpitch softball content there, although that would be nice. But what they do a lot of is shows such as Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop Atlanta that take an older, cramped-looking, out-of-date house and turn it into an amazing showplace home with giant, airy rooms, lots of sunlight and picture-perfect furnishings.

Of course any of you with kids (or who are players who are part of a family) know that about 10 minutes after the cameras leave the new owners are going to crap it up with all kinds of stuff that doesn’t fit the decorating theme laying everywhere. But for those few brief, shining moments it’s practically a palace.

What’s fun about those shows is seeing how they do it. Sometimes the house they finally pick (usually from two or three options) is just old and outdated. It has gold or avocado appliances, yellowing linoleum floors, a bunch of small rooms, a tiny kitchen, etc. Every now and then, though, they get the big challenge – a house where there is actual garbage (or worse) in every room, the siding is missing, the shingles are coming off, the ceiling is falling apart, and there are holes in the walls.

Whatever the current state of the house, that’s what they work with. Just like a fastpitch softball coach getting a player.

The first step, of course, is evaluating what needs to be done to get the house to its ultimate state. Sometimes that just means some tweaks here or there, such as tearing out a wall or two, adding a fresh coat of paint, and updating cabinets and fixtures in the kitchen and bathrooms. Of course, even their “tweaks” cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Other times, however, the only solution is to tear the house down to the studs and foundation, inside and out, and start over.

That’s what fastpitch softball coaches face too. Sometimes a player comes in with a pretty good swing, or decent throwing technique, or a good pitching motion, etc. and just needs a few tweaks to up their game.

Other times, it doesn’t take long to see that a swing looks like an unmade bed (unorganized, no particular sequence or purpose to the movements). Or the throwing technique makes you wonder how they get the ball anywhere at all. Or the pitching motion was learned at the bowling alley.

In cases like that, it’s not time to be shy. You just have to tear it down to the studs and start over.

Of course, just like on HGTV you first have to get buy-in from the owner – in this case from the player. On the house programs, they draw up plans on the computer and show the owners what they plan to do. As a coach you can also use a computer to show examples of high-level players  to demonstrate the swing/technique/motion you’re going for.

But you need to go beyond that as well. You need to paint the picture for them in their minds about what their softball life will be like once they make the fix. You also need to explain it’s not something they can master in a week or two.

The HGTV shows are compressed to fit into an hour, but really they’re like a Rocky training montage. A lot of people put in a lot of work to make the changes happen.

In the case of fastpitch softball players, only one person can really put in the work – the player. Can’t subcontract out drills or practice and expect any improvements to be made. Which is another reason the player needs to be on-board.

The climax of the HGTV shows is the Big Reveal – the point where they walk the owners through their new, way better than before home. Many happy tears are shed and high fives exchanged.

The Big Reveal for players is when they finally get back on the field, and suddenly things that were difficult or nerve-wracking become easy and relaxed. Hitters go to the plate with confidence, knowing they can take the pitcher deep. Fielders can make quick, sharp plays and throws because they’re not worried about whether they’ll catch it or where the ball will go. Pitchers can focus on dominating hitters rather than wondering where the ball will go or if it will do what it’s supposed to do.

Take your cue from HGTV. Figure out what your players need to make them showplace-worthy (or showcase-worthy I suppose) and put your plan together from there. If you do have to take one down to the studs, be kind. It will be worth it in the end.

Photo credit: chumlee10 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
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Infographic: the cost (and value) of athletic participation

Cost of sports infographic

Ohio University has come out with a new infographic that looks at the cost as well as the ROI of playing high school sports, including fastpitch softball. It’s a great read for those of you who wonder sometimes is it all worth it. You can see the full infographic and their analysis here.

As an educational institution, most of their focus is on school sports. Anyone involved in travel softball will find their costs of participation, um, rather low, because they only account for a small fee to the school and the equipment. Still, the point is valid.

What I found most interesting was the information toward the bottom where they get into the ROI. According to the infographic, former student athletes earn significantly higher salaries than non-athletes by age 30. So even if playing ball doesn’t result in that big college scholarship, there may be additional payoffs down the road.

For high school athletes, it says that they are twice as likely to go on to college as those who don’t play sports. Interesting given the stereotype of the “dumb jock,” or the movie trope about the star high school quarterback who ends up as a loser in a dead-end job. (Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on the part of the kids in theater arts.)

There are some other worthwhile stats there too, although I don’t see any attribution so not sure whether this is empirical data or just what people report.

I’ve certainly seen first-hand how having participated in sports has helped young athletes in other careers. From time to time, one of my players, former players, or former students will ask me to write a letter of recommendation for them, which I am always happy to do. I remember one case in particular.

A brilliant young lady named Kathleen was going for a prestigious medical research internship, I believe at Boston General, while she was an undergrad at a top school on the East Coast. She asked me to write her a letter of recommendation.

I couldn’t speak to her academics (although they pretty much spoke for themselves), but I did speak to her character as a player, especially around persistence and giving 100% all the time. I also brought up that she sacrificed her chance to be class valedictorian in high school so she could take a gym class, which I found admirable and a great demonstration of her doing what was best for her rather than seeking outside recognition.

She got the internship, and later her mom told me that my letter had been one of the key points. The judging committee said they see a lot of very smart students, but they favor athletes because they know how to work in a team setting, understand how to overcome adversity, and don’t get discouraged easily; they just put their heads down and keep working.

That’s a pretty good case study of what athletics can do you for long after your sports career is done. Kathleen now works doing research at the National Institutes of Health, and has even had her name on a published paper or two. Perhaps someday she will make a discovery that improves the health or saves the life of someone reading this blog today, or someone they know. Her spending her summers on diamonds around the area will have been a contributing factor.

There’s plenty of great information in the infographic. Definitely give it a look if you have time. And if you have thoughts about the information, be sure to leave them in the comments below!

 

Empty repetitions are like empty calories

Empty practice repetitions are like empty calories

One of the most common questions I get from the parents of fastpitch softball pitchers is “How many pitches should my daughter throw per day?” Sometimes they’re worried that throw too much, but most of the time it’s that they don’t throw enough.

I know they’re looking for a hard and fast number, like 100, but it’s actually a tough question to give a blanket answer to. Here’s why.

If I tell them 100, or 200, or 50, then someone is probably going to start counting the pitches. The goal then becomes getting to the target number when the goal should be to improve with every pitch. That’s just human nature.

The problem is empty repetitions, where you’re just throwing to hit the number, are like eating empty calories. It might feel good at the time, but you’re really not helping yourself.

In fact, in the long run you may be hurting yourself. Just as you are what you eat, you also are what you practice. If you practice the wrong mechanics simply because you’re trying to hit that count of 100 pitches, you’re locking down a way of throwing that will make you worse, or at least keep you in the same place, rather than making you better.

I know this from personal experience. When I was a young lad, I took piano lessons. The requirement was I had to practice for a half hour a day. Well, a lot of times I wanted to be outside with my friends instead of sitting at our crappy old piano that had some broken keys, playing exercises and songs I didn’t care about. So I put in the required half hour (and not a minute more) without really accomplishing much of anything.

If you’re hungry and have a candy bar, you’ve staved off the hunger for a bit. But you haven’t nourished your body. You’re not making it healthier; you’re just making yourself fatter and more prone to whatever illness is going around. If your goal is to be strong and healthy, you need to eat foods that will help you accomplish that goal. Which means thinking before you eat.

The same is true of practicing. At each practice session you should have a goal. Maybe you need to fix your arm circle, or improve your leg drive, or gain control of your change-up. There’s always something to work on.

Knowing what your goal is, you should work toward that. It may come in 20 pitches. It may come in 1,000 pitches spread across a period of days. Whatever it takes, you should focus on what you need to do to reach your goal rather than how many pitches you’ve thrown that day.

It’s a much more efficient way to practice. In fact, I’d rather see a player throw 20 mindful pitches, or spend 10 mindful minutes working on something, than just “putting in the time” like a prisoner in the Big House.

 

This idea doesn’t just apply to pitching, by the way. It is the same for hitting, throwing, base running, position play, and so forth. Empty repetitions gain you nothing. In fact, the mindset that makes them empty will also tend to make them less than great, helping you get worse instead of better.

Instead, go for the substance. Nurture your game with focused practice and you’ll reach your goals more quickly – and with greater ease.

 

The challenge of fall ball

 

 

Take advantage of fall ballRight now we’re in the midst of the fall fastpitch softball season – aka “fall ball.” Whether you’re a 10U player getting her first taste of travel ball or a college coach hoping to get an idea of what her team needs to work on in the off-season, it’s always an interesting time.

This is a big change from when I first started coaching travel ball. Back then, tryouts didn’t happen in August for teams in my area; most teams did tryouts in the spring. Eventually that backed up to December, and then to the current system where some programs are running their tryouts while others are at Nationals.

Because of that, back in the day fall ball didn’t really exist. When we did start running tryouts in August it was still tough to find games in the fall.

That’s not the case anymore. There are individual games, round robins, and tournaments (real as well as showcase) galore. As they say, you can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere. It’s a bit challenging for older teams with players doing fall high school sports, but somehow people figure it out.

The abundance of fall ball creates several new challenges for everyone. Here’s a look at a couple.

Win or learn?

One of the most obvious challenges is coaches deciding whether they want to focus on winning games or learning what their players – especially their new ones – can do.

You already know what you know. Do you stay with what you believe gives you the best chance of winning the game? Or do you try to learn more about players you don’t know as well, even if it costs you the win?

If you decide to learn, that might mean putting weaker hitters at the top of the lineup to get them more at bats. It might mean playing a girl at shortstop who has potential but hasn’t acquired the skills and game experience yet to really stand out. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.

If you decide to win, you may not get a chance to discover a hidden gem who could make a huge contribution in the future. You may reinforce a lack of confidence in a player who actually has more ability than she’s been showing. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.

Showcase tournaments add another level of complication. The idea is to show college coaches what your players can do. That’s why most don’t have a champion. It’s more like pool play all the time. You want your team to look good to attract coaches, but you also want to make sure all your players get seen.

If one of your pitchers is struggling, do you leave her in and let coaches see how she battles? Or do you get her out so coaches can see how the rest of your team does?

There are no right or wrong answers. It’s simply a matter of knowing what your goals are and sticking to them.

Stay in or get out of your comfort zone?

Players have challenges as well. One of the biggest is whether to stretch your game and take chances when you play or stick with what you already know works?

If you’re new to a team, such as a freshman in college or high school or a new travel ball player, you want to show you can belong and contribute. But you may also be nervous about looking bad if you fail.

The safe decision is to stay within what you already know you can do. But if you do that, you’re not growing as a player. Fall is often a good time to take those chances because people care a lot less about who wins those games. If you make an error, or struggle a bit at the plate as you work on developing more power, the consequences will be less than if it happens in the spring.

Personally, I would recommend making the stretch. Try taking that extra base, or working that new pitch into your arsenal, or sacrificing some accuracy to drive up your speed, or being more aggressive on defense, or unleashing your new swing. It’s your best chance to give it a try and see how it plays in a game. You can also be comforted by the fact you’ll find out what to work on during the long offseason.

Take advantage of opportunities

Fall ball offers all sorts of opportunities. Rather than getting stuck in the same old same old, approach it for what it is. Discover what you want to discover, try the new things you want to try (and are comfortable trying), and most of all, have fun doing it! It’ll pay off in the long term.

Do you really know who’s coaching your child?

Watch our for who is coaching your kids

Normally I like to keep things focused strictly on topics that relate to the game itself. But this is a subject that really should be of concern to any parent whose kids – male or female – are participating in activities where they have long periods of exposure to adults.

It was sparked by this article, sent to me by my friend Tim Boivin. The article is about the revenge a dad in Pennsylvania was able to extract after one of his daughter’s coaches not only touched her inappropriately (smacked her on the behind, even after being asked to stop) but then tried to smear the dad’s name in the local town. He did it by using his long standing with the league, and the fact that he’d lived there in that town his whole life, to get the dad looked at as an outsider. It’s a pretty good read, and a good lesson about being careful who you mess with, no matter how much power you think you have.

But it also brings up a bigger point. During tryout season, the focus is on making a team. Sometimes it’s the “right” team, and sometimes it’s just any team. But after the stress of tryouts are over and you’re feeling the relief, there’s another question that needs to be asked: how much do I really know about the people who will be coaching my child?

The usual reaction when you find out something terrible about a coach (or other authority figure) is “I had no idea.” Of course you didn’t. Someone who acts like a predator, or a person who will dole out inappropriate physical abuse on players, doesn’t walk around wearing a t-shirt that advertises the fact.

He/she also doesn’t act that way in front of the parents. If he/she did, he/she wouldn’t get access to kids and thus be able to satisfy whatever needs or urges he/she has. Just like a con man trying to convince people to give them money, coaches who want to do terrible things to kids must appear to be completely trustworthy.

Many of them put in the effort to learn the game, too, further helping them hide in plain sight. I remember a guy about 15 years ago who used to contribute regularly to the old eTeamz softball discussion board. His signature phrase was that he would always talk about teaching the FUNdamentals.

The message, of course, being that coaches shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, and remember that it’s a game and games should be fun. Just the kind of person you want coaching your child, right?

Well, one day he just sort of disappeared from the board. Eventually it came out that this guy was arrested, tried, and convicted of several counts of having sexual contact with minors. Now the only FUNdamentals he needs to worry about is watching his back in prison, as many prisoners don’t take too kindly to child molesters.

That’s an extreme case, but it illustrates a point. Not all concerns are around sexual predators, however. For example, would you want a known felon with a history of violence toward women coaching your daughter? Probably not. Or what about someone who had punched a player (or a parent, or an umpire, or an opposing coach) in a fit of anger?

These are all legitimate concerns. Your daughter will be spending a lot of time with the coaching staff in the coming year, especially now that fastpitch softball tends to be a 12-month sport. How can you find out if any of the coaches (not just the head coach) have any skeletons in the closet you should know about?

One way is to ask if the organization does background checks with the state police on everyone who will play a coaching role or be on the bench with the team. If it does, don’t just take their word for it that everything is ok. Ask to the see the reports.

If there’s nothing to hide, they should be more than happy to do it. If they are reluctant to share the information for “privacy” reasons, that could be a red flag. No matter.

You don’t have to be an organization to request a background check on someone. Anyone can do it. If you have any concerns, request it yourself. The cost for a state check is generally $10-$20, while the cost for a nationwide check is typically $25-$45. When you think about what you’re paying to play, it’s worth a few dollars more to gain peace of mind if you have any concerns.

In most cases, the background check is going to turn up clean since it only covers criminal known criminal acts, and despite what the headlines may lead you to believe the people who commit them and get into coaching are rare. Still, there are some out there.

If the organization runs background checks and still allows someone who shouldn’t be there to coach, you might want to re-thing your decision to play for that organization. Clearly they don’t care now. How much are they going to care if you find a problem later and bring it to their attention? It’s obvious that letting that person coach is more important to them than protecting their players.

If the organization doesn’t run the background checks but you do and find something, you should bring it to their attention. Their actions from that point will tell you what you should do. It’s up to you, but if your daughter is going to be coached by someone you don’t want her to be around, and you allow it to happen, you will share in the blame if something happens later on.

Here’s the other thing. As I mentioned, background checks only catch those who have already been caught. You may want to do a background check of your own via Google or another search engine to see if there are comments from past players or parents out there that might give you an indication of the person’s character.

Does this coach have a reputation for being abusive to players, physically, verbally, or emotionally? Is he/she the type of person that will cause excruciating pain to young players despite their screams, as in the story of this cheerleading coach? Will this coach help your young player grow and become the type of person you want her to be, or will he/she teach life lessons you don’t want your daughter to learn?

When you’re with a new team where you don’t know the coaches, one other good idea is to hang around at practices for a while to see how they’re conducted and what the coaches’ approach to interacting with players is. Understand that practices should be hard, and it is not only good but necessary to push players to improve. But there is also a limit to it. They shouldn’t be doing things that are abusive or patently unsafe.

At the same time, understand that you will be going there as a silent observer. It is not your place to offer advice or suggestions, or really do much of anything to interject yourself into the practice unless something truly illegal or inappropriate is occurring. And you’d better have proof.

If you’re told you’re not allowed to watch practice, especially with younger teams, that may be another red flag that something’s not quite right with this team, coaching staff, or organization. As long as you’re silent no one should have a problem with you watching. Heck, it’s probably a good thing, because then you can reinforce what they’re teaching when you work with your daughter on your own.

Again, you hope that none of those bad things are happening. But better safe than sorry. Knowing who is coaching your kids is an important step in ensuring sports/activities participation is a good, positive, and safe experience for your child.

Photo credit: Vetustense Photorogue via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

I love questions. You should too.

Fastpitch softball coaches should love questions.

Last night I was working with a fastpitch pitcher named Kylie that my old job would have classified as a “boomerang.” I had given her lessons for a few months, then she ended up on one of those teams run through a facility that includes the lessons in the package.

After being dissatisfied with her progress as a pitcher over there, she recently returned to me as a student. (Most of that description has nothing to do with the story, but I just love the term boomerang.)

Anyway, at one point her dad, who was catching for her, told her to ask me the question she had. It turned out to be a really good one. What I liked about it in particular was it showed a desire to understand and get better at a deeper level than “because I say so.”

I love getting questions like that. Actually, I love getting any questions from students, or players on a team, because it shows they’re engaged. Yet I think often times many athletes, girls in particular, are reluctant to ask questions – even when they really want to know the answer.

I’m not sure why this happens, but I can speculate. I think one answer is that they might be concerned that the coach/instructor/other authority figure will feel like his/her position of authority is being challenged. Or maybe the athlete asked a question once and got reprimanded for it. Or maybe the athlete thinks somehow she should already know the answer and doesn’t want to feel stupid for asking. I’m sure there are other reasons as well.

In some cases, those fears may be true. Some coaches really might not like questions because they’re not secure in their own knowledge and don’t want to be trapped, or might be one of those “command and conquer” types who thinks communication should only flow one way. They’re certainly out there.

But athletes should never feel intimidated about asking questions. This is how we learn. How many great discoveries in the world started with, “I wonder why…” or “Did anyone ever consider…?”

Although you do have to be careful around “I wonder what would happen if…?” Often not much good comes out of that question, especially if it’s followed by “Here, hold my beer.”

From my point of view, though, questions are great. Again, they show the athlete is engaged in learning. I’ve always said that the first requirement for improvement is a willingness to change. Athletes like Kylie who ask questions absolutely embody that philosophy.

She heard what I was instructing, and knew she wasn’t quite doing it. She could feel it. But she didn’t quite know how to get where I wanted her to go. So instead of just nodding along and struggling, she asked a question that led to a more in-depth explanation. She tried it, and she got it.

She also asked one of the toughest things I think young athletes can ask: She had gone to a pitching clinic somewhere and they told her about keeping her weight back as she drove out; she wanted to know if that was right, and if so how do you do that if you’re trying to go forward.

That led to an explanation from me about how it’s like riding a skateboard on one leg, then putting your other leg down in front. Yes, you’re moving forward, but you want your entire body to be moving forward at once rather than a piece at a time. If you do that, you can drive into your front leg and get more whip rather than landing down, on top of your front leg and having everything come to a dead stop before you throw.

She got it, and was immediately able to improve her leg drive. Not to mention feel when her weight wasn’t quite where it needed to be. Either way, she now has the tools she needs to improve. And hopefully she’s a little more confident about asking me other questions in the future.

I’m definitely a fan of the Socratic method of teaching, where questions lead to dialog and critical thinking, rather than the “open the top of your head, I will pour in the knowledge, and then we’ll be done” method some coaches seem to favor. The more players understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, the more likely they will be to do it with passion.

It all starts with those questions. Not just from the coaches to players, but players to coaches. Incidentally, if you ask a coach why you should do something in terms of mechanics and he/she doesn’t have an answer, you might want to think twice about doing it. The coach could just be repeating something he/she heard somewhere once, and it may not be what you need to take you where you want to go.

If you’re a player, especially a young one, I know it can be intimidating to ask questions. But get over it and ask anyway. It will help the coach know how to make the information more understandable to you.

If you’re a coach, embrace questions. They show passion and involvement, that so-called “spark” it takes to achieve at a higher level. You want to encourage that behavior as much as you can, because a team full of inquisitive, engaged players are going to win a lot more games than a bunch of disinterested robots.

The only caveat with me is be careful when you ask me a question. You may end up hearing more than you ever wanted to know – especially if you’re the last lesson of the night. I love talking softball!

Building a more effective practice plan

The key to a successful practice is to keep things moving

This is probably old hat for those of you who have been around fastpitch softball for a while, but it is definitely valuable for those of you who are new to coaching.

First of all, thank you for stepping up. Coaching isn’t easy, and it can be very time-consuming, but with the right attitude it can also be very rewarding. Not necessarily financially, but personally.

That said, if you’re new to coaching a team here is one of the most important lessons you can learn early: there is nothing more counter-productive to success than players just standing around waiting to do something.

The absolute worst, of course, is the typical rec league practice where the coach pitches to one player while the rest stand around in the field waiting until the ball is hit. Never, ever, EVER make that your practice, because basically you have one player sort of learning something, or possibly improving, while everyone else is having their time wasted.

What you want to do instead is plan out your practices so every player is getting a lot of touches/swings/repetitions throughout the entire time.

One good way to do that is to split your team into two or three groups (depending on what you need to do) and then have each group doing something different. For example, one group can be fielding ground balls that are hit to them, another can be fielding fly balls that are thrown or hit to them, and a third can be working on hitting. The hitting group can even be going through a series of drills/activities to keep things moving even more.

If you have two groups, one can be working on throwing drills/form while the other does hitting or fielding. There are plenty of variations, especially if you have good assistant coaches or even willing parents on hand.

What if you’re by yourself and need to keep the entire team together? You can still keep things moving quickly. Throwing drills like the star drill, or around the horn where you throw left and run right, can build skills while again keeping things moving. If your team needs to hit, you can pair up players and run six or seven hitting stations at the same time. All you need is a fence and some tees, although portable nets also help.

You can even do combo drills. One I liked to do was to have one group hitting off front toss while a second group worked on base running skills such as recognizing ground balls faster or going from first to third on a ball to the outfield. Lots of activities for small groups let you keep practice active. Constant repetitions also allow you to build conditioning into skills rather than having to do it separately during practice.

So how do you work all this in? I used to use the outline function in Word to list out everything I planned to work on that day. There would be a heading, and any notes or specifics would fall under the heading as sub-bullets. But the real key was placing times against each section.

For example, if we were going to do groups for hitting, infield, and outfield, I would look at which would take the longest to get through and place a time against it. Then I would extend that time to the other two groups, making sure to have enough different things to work on to keep them interesting.

In this example, say we had three groups of four. If I set up four hitting stations at five minutes each, that was 20 minutes. Infield and outfield would also be 20 minutes, with two or three drills depending on what was needed. Rotate through all three groups and there’s an hour’s worth of practice right there. Add in warmups, dailies, a five-minute break, and some situational work and you have a great, active 2-hour practice.

Of course, I’d usually have one or two other activities on the list, just in case we ran short (although we rarely did). Anything we didn’t get to this time would go on the list for the next practice.

If we were indoors in batting cages, I often would bring in players in groups of three or four for 45 minutes at a stretch. That was plenty of time to get them lots of hitting reps while keep the group size manageable. When their 45 minutes was up the next group would come in, then the next. It was quick and intense for the players, although it did keep the coaches there for 2:15 instead of a typical 2 hour practice. Still, much was accomplished that way.

One other important element in building practices is one I learned from John Tschida at the University of St. Thomas: never have the same practice twice. Always, always mix it up. It builds more skills, and keeps it more interesting for the players.

Fastpitch softball is a tough game, with much to learn – both in terms of skills and strategy. It requires a lot of anticipation and snap decisions based on a multitude of ever-changing factors. That’s what makes it exciting. But that’s what also makes it critical to use your practice time wisely. There just isn’t any time to waste.

Keep things moving at practice and soon you’ll be the coach everyone wants to play for.

Tryouts aren’t just about skills

Ways to succeed at fastpitch softball tryouts

It’s that time of year again. We’re in the midst of tryout season – that time when players try to show coaches what a great addition they would be to the team(s) of their choice.

While there’s no doubt it’s important to show your skills, there’s more to a tryout than skills alone. That’s coming from a coach who participated in tryouts for more than 15 years.

The reality is there are many very skilled players out there. In fact, if your skills are far above everyone else at that tryout, you’re probably trying out for the wrong team. So how do coaches make their decision?

Much of it comes down to character. One of the tests I used to give players I was interested in was to offer a bit of advice on how to do something.

Maybe they were having a bit of trouble hitting or fielding. I’d offer a suggestion on how to improve. But it wasn’t about whether they’d do better the next time. It was about seeing how they reacted. Were they coachable? Did they give it a try, or did they give me attitude instead?

I’d look at who was hustling. Not just during the drills but between the drills when they’d transition from one area to another. Also who seemed like they were enjoying playing as opposed to some who looked like they were forced to be there.

I’d also listen to them, especially those who sounded like they could be potential team leaders. Did they encourage others? Did they cheer for those who made good plays, such as diving for a ball? (Pssst – if you get the chance, definitely dive for a ball; it always makes a good impression.)

I loved watching what would happen after a player made a mistake. If she booted a ground ball, or missed a few pitches during a hitting session, did she put it behind her or have a meltdown?

Mistakes are a huge part of fastpitch softball, so you’d better have the mental toughness to deal with it. The last thing a coach wants in a tight game is a player who is so upset over an error or a strikeout in the previous inning that she isn’t focused on this one. That’s a sure recipe for disaster.

If we gathered the group together and one of the other coaches was talking, I’d take a look to see who was listening and who was looking off into the distance, or otherwise spacing out. It’s not that hard to pick out.

Here’s the thing. Tryouts are like a job interview. Theoretically everyone is on their best behavior, showing their best selves. If the self I’m seeing at a tryout doesn’t seem like what I’m looking for, it’s unlikely it’s going to get better once you’re on the team. In fact it’s probably going to get worse.

It’s pretty rare that a player’s skill level is so awesome that it can make up for a lot of poor character. Again, if you do stand out that much you’re probably not at the right tryouts.

These days teams are together for a long time – essentially 12 months. As a result, chemistry means more than ever.

If you want to increase your chances of making your first choice team, make sure you have your act together and can show the coaches you’re more than your ability to throw, catch, pitch, hit, run, etc. You’re the kind of quality person they want to be around – and who can perform no matter what the circumstances are.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Prata via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Getting Up for a Game When You’re Not Feeling It

When you're not feeling it, remember you owe it to the people who came to see you to do your best.

Every fastpitch softball player faces this situation sooner or later: it’s game day, and you’re just not feeling it.

Maybe it’s been a long season and you’re tired. Maybe it’s hot and humid out and you don’t handle hot and humid well. Maybe all your non-softball friends are doing something and you wish you could do it too. Maybe you’re so nervous about a big game that you just don’t feel like yourself.

Whatever the cause, feeling that you’re not feeling it can definitely get in the way of your performance. That’s where it helps to take a lesson from some famous musicians.

I’ve read interviews with several famous musicians who were asked how they managed to put so much energy into their performances night after night despite the grueling toll it takes to go from city to city and play for months at a time.

The answer they give is typically something to the effect of: “Yes, it can be hard, and there are times in the hotel or backstage that I just don’t feel like playing. I think maybe I can get by giving it just the minimal amount of effort. But then I think about the fan who saved his/her money to come and see me play, and this will be his/her only chance this year. Maybe it’s a first date, or an anniversary, or a birthday or something else special. Maybe it’s just someone who needs a little lift in their life. When I think about that, I realize I owe it to that person to do the very best I can, if for no other reason than to thank them. And I want them to walk away feeling like it was more than worth the money they spent.”

What a great attitude. They realize that in the line of work they’ve gone into they’ve made a bargain, and they need to keep up their end of it.

For fastpitch softball players it’s a little different. In our case, yes, there are the fans who came out to see the team play. It might be someone’s grandma who finally made it out to a game and hopes her granddaughter’s team will win. Or a little sister who is going to draw her impressions of the game by what she sees on the field. Or the brother home on leave from the military who wants a little piece of home in his life before he goes back to wherever he’s stationed.

But there might also be a college coach, or someone connected to a higher-level team, watching as well. What that person sees, that day, will be his/her first and most lasting impression of you. A great performance might catch his/her eye for the future. A poor one might get in the way of your goals down the line.

Even if none of that is the case, however, think about your coach. He/she made a decision to put you on the team and give you an opportunity to play. You also owe that person your very best. Every. Single. Time. You. Play.

Always remember that putting on that uniform and taking the field is a privilege. A lot of things had to happen the right way for you to have that privilege – starting with being born in a country where playing fastpitch softball is even an option.

Learn to appreciate the opportunity you have and you’ll learn how to feel it even when you’re not feeling it at first. And that, more than anything, will help you become the player you’re destined to be.

Fastpitch pitchers gotta pitch

Fastpitch pitchers need circle time to improve

Right now we are coming up on what is probably the toughest time of the year in fastpitch softball – tryout season.

While the current playing season hasn’t quite concluded yet for most players, the finish line is definitely in sight for most. And that means they need to make a decision about next year, asking the musical question:

In some cases it may be whether a player should make the jump from rec ball to travel ball. In other cases it’s whether to stay with the current team or move to a new one, or whether to play up or stay down. So many decisions!

I’m asked my advice on this a lot, and I usually share it on a one-to-one basis because every situation is a little different. But there are a few common scenarios where I can pretty much make a blanket recommendation.

The biggest one is about seeking out opportunity, especially if you are (or your daughter is) a pitcher. As my headline says, pitchers gotta pitch. You can practice all you want, but the only way you’re going to know if you’re getting better is if you get the opportunity to pitch in games. Not just a few scrub innings here or there, but quality innings.

So let’s look at this typical scenario. (I’m going to say you to keep it simple, but you can also read “your daughter.)

You’re on a team that already has two good, established pitchers who get the bulk of the work. You started pitching a year ago, and while you’ve been working hard you haven’t had much opportunity to show your stuff. The coaches are too afraid they might lose a game with you in the circle.

Odds are that situation isn’t going to get any better next year. It’s probably time for you to seek your fortunes elsewhere, even if it’s with a team that isn’t as good overall, or isn’t as likely to win as many games as your current team.

What you need right now are game innings. So what if the team doesn’t play great defense and you take some losses. What you want is the opportunity to get in the circle, make yourself better, and see if you can make the team better to boot. Now, if you improve and the team doesn’t, next year will probably be a different story. But for now, your best bet is to go where the opportunity is.

Another tough one is whether a 10U pitcher should move up when her team goes to 12U or stay down at 10U. There’s no single answer for this one. If you’re rocking it at 10U, you can probably move up to the next level no problem. Especially if you’re a bigger 10U player. A smaller one might have trouble adjusting to the larger ball and extra five feet of pitching distance.

On the other hand, if you’re a developing 10U pitcher who hasn’t had much circle time, the jump to 12U might be pretty rough. If you get rocked a couple of times at 12U that might be the end of your pitching career. My recommendation in general would be to stay down, get a chance to dominate and build some confidence first. It will help ease the transition.

What about going from rec ball to travel ball? That can be a pretty big (and eye-opening) jump. To me, this is more about general attitude toward the game. If softball is primarily a social thing for you, it may not be a good idea. The increased practice and game schedules, even at the lower end of travel ball, might be too much for you.

On the other hand, if you’re a competitive type you’re very likely going to thrive in the travel ball world. You’ll enjoy the harder practices and tougher competition. And you (as well as your parents) will likely make friends for life.

On the other side of the stay/go coin is the desire to win trophies above all else. Yes, there are teams you can go to that will let you clutter your bedroom, and the living room, and the basement with plastic “hardware.” But will they help you become a better player?

Winning teams aren’t always run by great coaches. Sometimes they’re run by a parent who has a very talented daughter (who also has a few talented friends) or they are able to attract very talented, already-formed players and assemble them into a team. The coaches don’t make them better, they just act like NASCAR drivers; the drivers don’t build the cars, they just drive them. Not that it doesn’t take skill to drive a NASCAR vehicle, but it’s a different skillset than getting the car ready for race day.

The point is, you want to know that if you’re not already fully-formed and ready to rock that you will get the training you need to get there. A team that wins less but learns more is probably going to be your better bet.

There are other scenarios as well, but these should form a good start. If you look at what your needs and desires from the game are, you’ll have a lot better idea as where you should be playing next year. Good luck with it!

Oh, and if I missed any scenarios or you have questions, feel free to mention them in the comments below.

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