Category Archives: General Thoughts
First of all, let me tell you I had quite a debate with myself on whether to write a New Year’s post or just go with a more general topic. But when the stars align – as in the last day of 2021 is also the day I usually put up a new post – it’s a good idea to just go with it.
So here we are. Hopefully 2021 was a great year for you.
We actually had somewhat normal high school, college, and youth softball seasons, although COVID-19 protocols often impacted the spectator part of spectators sports. At least the fans who got in didn’t have to wear a mask on 90-degree days.
Also in 2021, fastpitch softball temporarily returned to the Olympics, albeit in eerily quiet and empty stadiums and played on baseball diamonds. It was sort of like watching a dome game with a field set up for football. The fact that the oddly formatted mini-tournament was finished before the opening ceremonies took place tells you all you need to know about what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) really thinks about our sport.
The Women’s College World Series (WCWS) on the other hand was a TV rating juggernaut, averaging more than 1.2 million viewers per game. That’s 10% more than the 2019 WCWS.
The three-game championship series between Oklahoma and Florida State fared even better, drawing an average of nearly 2 million viewers per game. In the process, we got to see a lot of great softball.
Speaking of great softball, Athletes Unlimited entertained a lot of fastpitch softball fanatics with its playground-brand of choosing up teams and having no coaches on the sidelines. Maybe they’re on to something.
And hopefully you personally had a successful 2021 as well.
Of course, as the disclaimer on every “get-rich-quick” scheme quickly says, past performance does not guarantee future gains. So following are a few tips to help you make 2022 an even better year.
Tip #1: Practice with a purpose
Yes, I know many of you have t-shirts with that very saying on them. But how often do you actually take that approach?
It’s easy to get into the rut of “putting in time.” i.e., going off somewhere and going through the motions of a skill for a half hour or an hour or whatever, or coaches having players performing activities for two, or three, or four hours. None of which will actually help you get better, and could make you worse if the practice is sloppy enough.
If you’re going to practice, then have a goal and go after it wholeheartedly. For example, if you’re a pitcher working on leg drive, then work on getting yourself out faster each time rather than mindlessly doing the leg drive drill you were assigned.
Master the skill, not the drill, and you’ll be a lot better off.
Tip #2: Grow your knowledge
In today’s Internet-accessible world there’s no reason to do things a certain way because that’s how you’ve always done them. There is an incredible amount of research being done in our sport and an incredible wealth of knowledge being shared – if you will open your mind to it.
The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) is one of the best. Right now they are in the midst of hosting a series of live coaches clinics around the country that enable top-level coaches to share their expertise with the rest of us.
If you want to go more in-depth on a topic, the NFCA also has its Master Coach program, which offers a combination of live and online courses. I took their very first online Coaches College course earlier in 2021 and it was well worth the time and money. Give it a shot.
There are plenty of private resources as well. PaulyGirl Fastpitch has its High Performance Pitching courses at the beginner, intermediate, elite, and pro levels.
You can learn all about great throwing mechanics from the High Level Throwing program. There’s a cornucopia of hitting courses out there as well.
Then there are resources such as the Discuss Fastpitch board and the Fastpitch Zone and The Bullpen Facebook groups that connect coaches from around the world with one another to share their knowledge and experience. And that’s the just the start.
If you want more knowledge it’s out there. Just be sure to come in with an open mind because some of what you hear may go against everything you’ve ever believed. And that can be a good thing.
Tip #3: Use video
This one doesn’t require a lot of explanation. There’s what we think we see or feel, and there’s what’s actually happening. They’re not always the same.
Virtually every mobile phone includes a high-definition, high-speed camera for free that would be the envy of coaches and players from just 10 years ago. Take advantage of it.
Video yourself or your players often, and see if what you think you’re doing is what you are in fact doing. Compare what you see to the best players in the world.
While you don’t have to match exactly, you should match in principle. If you’re not doing what you think you’re doing, adjust accordingly.
Tip #4: Work on your mental game
Ask any group of coaches or players “who thinks the mental game is a critical contributor to success?” and you’ll probably see every or nearly every one of them raise their hands. Then ask how many take the time during practice or during their free time to work on it and you’ll likely see few (if any) hands.
It’s sort of like Mark Twain’s famous admonition about the weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.
That is a mistake in my opinion. There are (again) plenty of books and other resources that focus on this aspect of sports. Here’s a list of a few:
- Head’s Up Baseball
- Mind Gym
- The Champion’s Mind
- Championship Team Building
- The Mindful Athlete
- Winning State
- Mental Conditioning for Softball
- The Energy Bus
Invest some real time in developing the mental game – especially the part about overcoming adversity – and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.
Tip #5: Make some time for recruiting activities
This is for those players who want to (or think they want to) play softball in college. If that’s not you, go ahead and skip to Tip #6.
For those still reading, playing softball in college at any level is an accomplishment – and ultra-competitive these days. You’re unlikely to be randomly discovered playing during a local tournament.
If you want to play in college, you need to make an effort to build a relationship with coaches at different schools, and at different levels.
One obvious way is to attend skills camps at schools where you might like to play. While some are just money grabs that have minimal involvement from the college coach, most are both an opportunity for coaches to give back to the game while checking out potential future talent. What better way is there to get them interested in you than to demonstrate your skills in their “house?”
Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is another great way to establish and maintain contact with coaches. Follow coaches at schools you’re interested in and hopefully they will follow you back.
Share their Tweets with your followers. Send Tweets of your own about your/your team’s latest accomplishments and activities and tag the coach or the program. Be active and be visible.
Just one word of caution about social media: keep it positive at all times. The Internet is written in ink, and more than a few players have eliminated themselves from consideration by their dream schools because of things they’ve posted. That includes photos and negative comments about their parents or current coach.
Present yourself as if the coaches you want to play for are watching every post. Because they are.
Email is still a valid way to contact coaches too. Just keep it brief – they’re busy people and many get hundreds of emails a day. If you want to share a video, be sure the coach can see what you want him/her to see in ONE click. Any more than that and they’ll pass.
This isn’t just for high school players either. While the D1 rules changed and they can no longer contact players before September 1 of their junior years, it doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to who can play and who is interested in their schools. And there are no such restrictions for D2, D3, and NAIA, although they tend to recruit later anyway.
Recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint, so get out there early and often if you think playing in college might be for you.
Tip #6: Make time for rest and recovery
When you’re dedicated to something it’s easy to overdo it. Don’t let that happen.
Rest and recovery is just as important to high performance as training. Your body needs time to build itself back up after intense activity. So does your mind.
It’s ok to take a day or two off each week during the season as well as during the offseason. Your body and your brain will tell you how much you need for peak performance. You should also plan on taking at least a couple of weeks off at some time during the year for deeper recovery.
Oh, and this applies to coaches too. You’ll find coaching is a lot more enjoyable if you let your batteries recharge now and then.
Tip #7: Resolve to have fun
This is probably the aspect that has been most lost over the course of the last 10-20 years. Yes, we have more technology that can tell us more things, and more practice facilities that enable us to keep working even when the weather is at its nastiest, and more opportunities than ever to take our game to a higher level.
But the tradeoff has been more pressure and more stress to the point where playing (and coaching for that matter) feels like a job. And not a particularly pleasant one.
It’s important to remember that softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.
That doesn’t mean it should be like a birthday party without the cake. But it shouldn’t be like studying for finals while waiting to see the dentist either.
Fun in most cases is what you make it. Some people enjoy really digging into things and pushing themselves to their limits. That’s right for them.
But it’s not right for everyone. Others will find their fun in getting a little better each day without killing themselves, competing (in a friendly way) with their teammates, or in being part of a team.
Understand what’s fun for you and then find/create a team with others who share your definition and goals. Like using the wrong pair of cleats, being on a team that isn’t a good fit can be painful.
Good luck to everyone, and I hope you make 2022 your best year ever!
Photo by Damir Mijailovic on Pexels.com
One of the concepts that can be tough for a young athlete (not to mention many adults) to understand is that stronger is not always better.
What I mean by that is that in their desire to throw harder, hit harder, run faster, etc. fastpitch softball players will often equate muscling up or tightening up with improved performance. They tend to take a brute force approach to their movements, assuming that if they work harder or produce more energy then they will ipso facto see better results.
Yet that isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes the attempt at creating more energy through brute force works in the opposite manner by locking up joints or slowing down movements which reduces the amount of that energy that can be transferred into the activity.
In other words, despite the increase in energy the overall usage of energy becomes less efficient.
The reality is there are two key elements to maximizing athletic performance in ballistic movements such as pitching, throwing, hitting, and running.
First you have to create energy. Then you have to transfer that energy.
The brute force approach may work with part one. But it often gets in the way of part two, which means much of the energy the player worked so hard to create is wasted.
Makes sense, right? But how do you explain that to a player without making it sound like a science class lecture – at which point your voice starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher?
The light bulb moment for me came when I was thinking about a light bulb I needed to replace during a lesson. Perhaps this will help you too.
Think about two types of light bulbs: the standard, traditional incandescent bulbs most of us grew up with (and that are now difficult to find) and LED bulbs.
If turn an old-school incandescent bulb on and leave it on for a few minutes, what happens to its surface? It gets hot. Very hot. As in don’t touch it or you will get burned.
That’s because while an incandescent bulb may be labeled 60 watts, not all of that wattage is going into creating light. In fact, much of it is being wasted in the form of heat.
Now think about an LED bulb. You can leave a 60 watt LED bulb on for an hour, then go over and put your hand on it without feeling much of anything. (DISCLAIMER: Don’t actually do that, just in case.)
The reason is that 60 watt LED bulb isn’t actually drawing 60 watts. That’s just a label the manufacturers use to help consumers know which bulb will give them the light level they’re used to.
In fact, that 60 watt equivalent bulb may be drawing as little as 8 actual watts to deliver the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent bulb. Since its purpose is to create light, not heat, the LED bulb is almost eight times as efficient as the incandescent bulb.
Now that’s apply that to softball. A pitcher who is nearly eight times as efficient in her mechanics as the next player will throw much harder with the same level of effort.
Conversely, she can perform at the same level as the other pitcher with almost no apparent effort at all. She is just much better at harnessing whatever level of energy she is creating and delivering it into the ball.
The same is true for hitters. Most of the time when you see a home run hit it doesn’t look like the hitter was trying to go yard. She just looks smooth as the ball “jumps” off her bat.
This is not to say strength isn’t important. It is.
Remember part one of the formula: you have to generate energy. Great training in mechanics along with intelligent sport-specific or even activity-specific training is critical to achieving higher levels of success.
But it’s not enough.
Understanding how the body moves naturally, and using those movements to take full advantage of the energy being created, will help players deliver higher levels of performance that enable them to achieve their goals and play to their greatest potential.
Hope this has been a light bulb moment for you. Have a great holiday, and take some time to relax. You’ve earned it.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” This quote, generally attributed to car magnate Henry Ford, explains in a nutshell why fastpitch players, parents and coaches should constantly be seeking new information and new techniques. After all, who doesn’t want to get better?
What’s hidden underneath the surface, however, is a fairly large obstacle: change is (or at least can be) difficult. Which means even if you’re making the right changes for the right reasons it doesn’t always work right away.
How many times have you watched a pitcher attempt to improve her mechanics and seen her speed go down a little instead of up? How many times have you watched a hitter take her swing from looking like an unmade bed to a well-organized attack and yet she suddenly struggles to hit the ball as hard as she did?
At that point its tempting to wonder if you’re actually helping her, or if she is helping herself. Why is she losing ground instead of gaining it?
To answer that question I have a little challenge for you. If you are over the age of 5 I presume you know how to use a fork and a spoon competently enough to feed yourself without making a mess. You can probably do so fairly quickly, without thinking about it.
Now try switching hands and doing the same. In other words, if you normally eat with your right hand, try eating with your left. (For extra challenge, try it with chopsticks, especially if you are not native to them.)
Suddenly, something you do every day without even thinking about it becomes more awkward and difficult. You have to think about how to scoop/stab the food to keep it on the spoon/fork/chopsticks, the angle of the utensil as it approaches your mouth, keeping the utensil steady as you get close to your mouth and a few other things you probably haven’t considered since you were a toddler.
And if you go long enough, or try to go too fast, you will probably find some of that food dribbling down your chin or dropping into your lap. You will probably also take longer than if you had used your usual hand.
It’s not that you don’t know how to eat. It’s that you’re doing it in a way that is unfamiliar.
That is the same experience athletes typically have when they are trying to make changes or learn something new. The technique they were using previously may not have been ideal, but they were comfortable with it and could execute it quickly and without thinking.
Now, as they try something unfamiliar, those same movements feel awkward and uncomfortable. They actually have to think about what they’re doing, and that slows the entire process.
So rather than quick, energy-driven, ballistic body movements they’re making movements that are labored – slowed by the conscious thought of trying to do what they’re now supposed to do.
So what’s the solution? Time. You know, that thing that all of us try to rush through to get to the great results.
Essentially what has to happen is the new movements have to be able to be performed with the same comfort level as the old ones to see the gains. That doesn’t usually happen right away, even with elite athletes.
Instead, it takes conscious work and effort to learn the new movements properly and build the confidence required to execute them with 100% energy.
The best way to do that is start slowly and work from short distances, preferably into a net, wall or other large surface. Get the feel of the new movements, then gradually increase the speed.
The coach or athlete should use video to check her movements and be sure she is not falling back into old habits as speed increases. If she is falling into old habits, slow it back down, get it right, then try increasing the speed again.
Once she is comfortable at a good speed, start moving toward a more game-like experience. For pitchers (and overhand throwing), that’s increasing the distance to see if the quick movements can be maintained.
For hitters, it’s moving off the tee into front toss – easy at first, then gradually increasing the speed. If you have access to a pitching machine and can feed it competently, you can use that as another step before having the hitter face a live pitcher.
This gradual, stepped progression will give the athlete an opportunity to replace old habits with new in a way that allows her to focus on the process, not the outcomes. By the time outcomes come into play she should be able to execute the skill with full energy and attack – at which point you will see the gains you’re looking for.
It’s not easy to do this. Most athletes just want to do the full skill rather than step through progressions, at least a first. But it’s worth it in the long run.
If you have an athlete who is working to make changes but not seeing the benefits yet, be patient and trust the process. If she’s working on the right changes, and working diligently, it will happen.
In the meantime, grab that carton of chow mein and try eating it with the opposite hand. It will give you a greater appreciation of just how difficult it can be to do something old in a new way.
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com
Ok, I know I’m a little late on this for Hanukkah but who knew it would be so early this year? I guess just bookmark it and have it ready for next year.
For those with holidays still coming up, however, here are a few ideas for gifts that I think will not only be good for immediate satisfaction but could potentially have an impact on your favorite player’s entire career. I am not including gloves or bats since you probably have already thought of those. I wanted to go a little outside the box.
And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being compensated by any of the companies mentioned or linked to for including them (or anything else for that matter). These are just products or services I’ve found to be valuable and think you will do.
Enough preamble. Let’s go shopping.
High-quality batting tee
This is an essential piece of equipment for any player. Even non-hitting pitchers can use it to practice locations as I showed in this post.
The typical use, of course, is for hitting. Tee hitting is for working on mechanics without the challenges of timing a moving ball. If you’re trying to get the proper sequence (hips-shoulders-bat), fix your bat path, learn to tilt properly or solve any other mechanics issues a tee is your best friend.
That said, there are a lot of choices for tees out there. I prefer one that doesn’t have a base that looks like home plate, because when it does look like home plate hitters tend to line up on the tee in a way that is not conducive to great hitting.
Tanner Tees were the original to develop the particular design I favor, although for durability (and resistance to getting easily knocked over) I really like the Jugs T. For younger players, or older players who have trouble with low pitches, the Jugs Short T is also a great choice. You can read more about the Short T in my product review here.
Jugs is also apparently coming out with a combo package that includes both heights. Doesn’t look like it will be available until next year, though, so maybe save it for a birthday or graduation gift.
Large, easy-to-set-up net
If you are getting a tee you’ll probably want to get a net to hit into. That way you can hit in the back yard, basement, garage, or other space without damaging your home or having to chase after the balls.
Bownet is probably the best-known brand at this point. You see their distinctive orange nets at pretty much every game and tournament (although they have a variety of colors available now). But Tanner, Jugs and others also have nets that will do just fine.
Of course, it’s not just hitters who can use a net like this. Pitchers can use one to practice their mechanics from a short distance. Field players and catchers can use them to develop their overhand throw velocity. And so on.
A net like this will pay for itself many times over. And when you’re done with it, if you’ve bought a good quality one you’ll be able to sell it and recoup part of your investment in cash. Pretty good deal overall.
There’s something about working with nice, bright, shiny new softballs that helps players feel better about their practice time. After all, it’s a lot easier to take pride in your practice time if you’re not using crappy old, beat-up, dirty softballs.
That said, there are all kinds of softballs from many different manufacturers, from the really cheap to the really nice. It’s hard to know which ones to purchase.
My ball of choice right now is the Mark One NFHS 12″ softball. They are real leather balls with a .47 COR and raised seams, among other features.
What I like about them is they are comparable in quality to Worth Dream Seams but generally cost less. I use them for hours a day, nearly every day (including having hitters beat them into metal backstops on a regular basis) and they hold up well. They also have great grip so pitchers like to use them.
But check around the Internet and you can find several high-quality softballs to make your favorite player happy.
Video analysis app
I recently did an extensive product review on a video analysis app called OnForm. It has a lot of great features, including an auto-detect function that would allow a player to set up a device on a tripod and then have it record pitches, swings, throws, etc. when it sees motion.
But there are others out there as well. Kinovea is one that comes to mind, although you can only use it with a computer, not a phone or tablet.
With this type of software a player can record herself and scrub through it to see if what she’s doing is what she thinks she’s doing. Or she can send the video to a coach who can help her with it.
The value of being able to see yourself in slow or stop motion cannot be overestimated. In fact, high speed video analysis has been crucial to busting many myths and mis-teachings that grew up over the years.
If you can’t find a free version, find something you can afford. It’s worth it.
These are the pliable balls with different weights that you can use for a variety of different types of arm training. They’re great for pitchers, catchers and field players to help develop safe throwing mechanics and improve overall arm and shoulder strength.
Polyballs have grown in popularity over the last couple of years so there are a variety of sources from which you can obtain them. I personally use the balls from Velolab Softball, which comes with a free training program. Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing is another source, where they are called Lightning Balls.
One of the great things about them is you can throw them into concrete walls, or plywood, or pretty much any solid wall without damaging the wall or the balls. They make an audible “slam” sound too, so the harder you throw the more satisfying the sound. The lighter ones might even be able to be thrown into drywall, although I would test that theory in an out-of-the-way place first before tossing one in the living room.
In my opinion, having some way to measure speed is critical to the development of pitchers, extremely helpful for overhand throwing, and even has some benefits for hitters. I like to call the radar the “pitcher’s accountability meter” because if she takes a pitch or two off, or goes the other way and tries to over-throw/over-muscle the ball, the radar calls her out immediately.
I am personally a huge fan of PocketRadar devices. The Ball Coach is good, but the Smart Coach is worth the extra money if you can swing it because it will not only capture the speed but enable you to embed it in a video capture at the same time. You can read my review of the Smart Coach here.
(If you use your PocketRadar often you’ll also probably make up for the cost difference pretty quickly with the money you’ll save using power blocks instead of alkaline batteries.)
Whatever brand you decide to get, however, my suggestion is to do it often rather than just bringing the radar out now and then.
If you only use it occasionally it becomes a big deal and the pitcher tends to tense up. If it’s part of a regular routine she will not be as intimidated and you’ll ultimately get better readings. I learned that lesson the hard way!
There are a few good reasons to give your pitcher a good quality pitching mat for the holidays. One of which is saving wear-and-tear on your floors, especially if your pitcher has a heavy drag.
But beyond that, a pitching mat with a built-in pitchers plate can help pitchers learn to use the plate as part of their launch. A center white stripe can help them feel whether they’re going straight or striding out to the side.
If you do decide to get a mat one thing to check into is the type of backing it has. Some are better than others for different types of surfaces.
For example, a rubber backing will be great on a gym floor or other wood floor but may tend slip on turf. There are mats specifically designed for turf surfaces (although not all turf will hold the mat equally well), but they don’t translate too well to a fieldhouse or gym floor.
They have varying lengths as well. Some will extend roughly eight feel in front, pretty much covering the whole stride, while others are just designed to hold the pitcher’s plate itself. A little Internet research will turn up many options and sellers at various price points.
And for outdoors or long turf, the Portolite Mat with the spike backing will hold in conditions where other won’t. You can read my review of this product here.
Pitcher launch aids
One of the greatest challenges many pitchers face is getting a strong launch/leg drive. While some come by it naturally, most have to have it trained into them at some level.
The key is to get pitchers to get their hips moving out in front of the pitching rubber as they go into launch rather than sitting down on it. Three devices I’ve used to help them feel it are the Power Pod, the Softball Power Drive, and the Queen of the Hill.
Each of these goes about it in different ways. The Power Pod from Softball Excellence adds a little springiness to the initial move to go out, helping get away from “dead leg syndrome.” As a bonus, I also find it pretty handy for helping pitchers learn how to spin the curve and rise (although it wasn’t designed for that) and for teaching hitters to stride straight instead of away from the plate.
The Softball Power Drive, which is endorsed by Amanda Scarborough, helps pitchers feel the sprinter’s lean and forward angle of the body rather than sitting straight down on the pitching rubber. If they’re dragging the drive leg like an anchor they’ll feel it pretty quickly.
Then there’s the Queen of the Hill, which I’ve reviewed previously. Its sliding plate is great for teaching pitchers to drive their drive foot back instead of just running past it. If you push into it you’ll hear a “click-click” which tells you you did it right. If you don’t, no click.
You can also use these devices in combination. For example, put the Queen of the Hill behind the stride foot to encourage that foot to engage the ground before moving forward, and then the Softball Power Drive or Power Pod on the drive foot to encourage more drive as you come through.
Generating forward energy is critical to maximizing pitch speed. These devices can help.
PaulyGirl Fastpitch/High Performance Pitching online program
So, this is probably more of a secondary gift. I’d guess 99% of pitchers wouldn’t be interested in doing the training themselves, but if a parent or coach did the worked through the High Performance Pitching training program he/she could convey the information to the pitcher – at which point she would benefit greatly in my opinion.
Renowned pitching coach Rick Pauly has put together an extensive, detailed program broken into Beginner, Intermediate, Elite, and Professional levels. It’s all video-based and self-paced, which means you can go as slowly or as quickly as your time budget allow.
You can also pick and choose what you want. So if you just want help with the curveball you can take that module without having to go through the entire Elite level course.
If you’re interested in more information you can read this blog post which goes into much greater detail.
That’s a wrap
So there you have it – fairly exhaustive list. I could probably do more but if you’ve made it this far you’re already made of stern stuff. Have to stop somewhere.
Of course, for other ideas, you can use the search function in the left column and put in “Product Review.” You’ll no doubt find a few other ideas.
In any case, happy holiday shopping! Just remember, no matter what you buy it’s the archer, not the arrow, that really makes the difference.
One of the pivotal moments in the movie Field of Dreams occurs when the protagonist Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) pick up a hitchhiker as they are driving back to Iowa. Young Archibald “Moonlight” Graham tells them he is on his way to join a baseball team barnstorming its way across the country – an idea that was quaint and a reminder of a bygone era even in 1989 when the movie came out.
Yet at that same time there was a fastpitch softball team that was still hitting the road every day throughout the summer, traveling across the country when it seemed every small town (and many larger ones) had a men’s team or two. And around the world as well, putting on an amazing yet entertaining exhibition of some of the finest softball ever played.
That team was the legendary “King and His Court” led by the King himself Eddie Feigner. With a rotating crew consisting of only a pitcher (Feigner in the early years, others later on), catcher, shortstop and first baseman, the King and His Court would play standard nine-man teams – and beat them soundly, night after night, throughout the summer months.
Recently The Fastpitch Zone gathered together six former members of the Court for a Zoom call commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the team’s last game in 2011 to talk about Feigner, what it was like to be a member of the team, life on the road, and the impact the team had on the people who came to see them as well as their own lives. Click the link above and set aside about 90 minutes to be enthralled.
As they talk about driving in the team van (they didn’t need a tour bus since there were only four of them) and heading out to the field, I swear you will actually be able to smell the sweet aromas of summer – freshly cut grass, that scent as the heat of the day is cooled by a breeze at night, the leather of well-worn gloves – as well as hear the sounds of tires rolling down the road, gloves popping as a Feigner fastball blows by yet another hitter, and fans cheering in the stands. In short, you’ll be transported back to a time when life seemed a little simpler and entertainment was in front of you, life-sized, or perhaps a bit larger than life, instead of squeezed onto a screen.
Oh, and the stories they tell! The six players represent various era of a team that crisscrossed the nation and the world from 1946 through the last game in 2011.
They share fond memories of how some of them saw the team play when they were 11 years old and then were thrilled when asked to become a player later. They also aren’t shy about laughingly talking about how anyone who played while Feigner was alive and running the team was abruptly fired at one point or another, only to be asked back later. That’s life on the road!
Yet the King and His Court was about more than just softball. Yes, they were amazing athletes – so amazing that it only took four of them on the field to beat a full nine-man opponent. At one point they explain they had to have four players so opposing pitchers couldn’t just walk everyone and leave them without a hitter.
But they were also entertainers, with set routines they would pull out to keep the fans engaged and amazed throughout what was often a blowout.
For example, on the first pitch of a game the catcher would tell the umpire to get in real close to him. Then when the pitch came in, the catcher would catch it and act like he had been blown back into the umpire like you would see in a cartoon.
Another standard bit was for the pitcher (Feigner or later Rich Hoppe) to pitch an entire inning blindfolded, or pitch from second base or even right field – and still blow the ball by the hitter.
The goal was to give the fans more than just a softball game. It was to give them something they’d never seen anywhere else and would want to tell their grandchildren about. Then do it again when they came through town again in a couple of years, like a rock band playing its greatest hits for its top fans.
That’s how legends become legends.
Yet they didn’t do all of this to show up the locals. In fact, they did it in a way to make stars of the locals who faced them. It was all in good fun, like if the Harlem Globetrotters were to play your town’s all-star basketball team. Getting “done in” by the King and His Court was a badge of honor for anyone gusty enough to face them.
The hour and a half moves along quickly. Each of the players speaks reverently about Feigner himself, and the massive amount of work he put in – most of them in the pre-Internet days – to hire his players, find opponents, schedule games, arrange for local accommodations and publicity, handle the financials, and essentially keep this labor of love operating for 65 years.
The men’s fastpitch game doesn’t get a lot of love these days; most people reading this are probably focused on the women’s side, particularly younger players. But the reality is the King and His Court did a lot to popularize fastpitch softball and create the opportunities to play that are available today.
Do yourself a favor and give this video a look. If you’re a lover of history you’ll have a chance to explore some of it first-hand from people who were there.
But even if you’re not big on the past be sure to check it out. I think you’ll find it to be time well-spent.
It was yet another oppressively hot, very humid day here in the Midwest – the type we used to associate with Mississippi but now is happening here on a regular basis.
My first lesson of the afternoon, a young 10U pitcher we’ll call Hermione (for reasons that will become obvious shortly), had the look of someone who wanted to be anywhere but a pitching lesson.
“Jump some rope to warm up,” I told her, and she slowly shuffled over to the fence where the rope was hanging before giving it a half-hearted effort. Then she went out to throw with her mom, and could barely get the ball there despite the fact they weren’t more than 15 feet apart.
This was the second time in a row she had come out that way. “Maybe she just doesn’t want to pitch,” I said to her mom. That’s ok, I said, but then no sense torturing her with a lesson.
Mom left it up to Hermione and she said she wanted to do it so we continued – after I talked to her for a few minutes.
“I know it’s hot,” I told her, “but there’s nothing we can do about that. But attitude is a choice. You can choose to put the effort in or not – it’s totally in your control.”
That worked about as well as you’d expect it to work on a 10U player, but we continued anyway.
“She may be tired,” her mom offered. “We went to the zoo yesterday.”
“Really?” I replied, thinking we might have a different way to approach things. “What zoo?” I asked Hermione.
“Mmph,” she said.
“Milwaukee,” her mom added.
“I love the Milwaukee Zoo,” I said to Hermione. “What are your favorite exhibits?”
“Mmph,” she replied again.
Then mom stepped in again. “We went to the small mammals, (something else I don’t remember), and reptiles.”
“Reptiles?” I said. That’s an unusual choice if you’re only seeing three.
“I like reptiles.” Hermione offered.
Aha! An actual response. I dug into it a little more, and then came the turning point. Her mom said the reptile house didn’t have any bearded dragons.
“Oh, you like those?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said with some enthusiasm. “I have a bearded dragon in my room.”
From then on it was like someone flipped a switch. Instead of looking like someone in a hostage video she became quite animated as we talked about beardies in general (that’s what the “in the know” people call them) and hers in particular.
Over the course of the lesson I learned her beardy’s name as Phoenix Firebolt (for Dumbledore’s pet and Harry Potter’s broomstick), which of course meant I also learned she liked Harry Potter. I learned that beardies eat grain and bugs, and that bugs are a lot more expensive than grain.
I learned she liked to dress Phoenix up in costumes, and that Phoenix wasn’t exactly a fan.
“I just have a couple,” she told me. “A lot of people do it all the time.
I also learned she liked to take Phoenix for walks, and that if she took the leash off outside without an adult present Phoenix would try to escape. A lesson discovered the hard way.
Throughout all of this conversation Hermione continued to pitch. Her throws got harder and more accurate.
I would make corrections here or there, but quickly follow that up with a beardy question. The lesson flew by, with Hermione making tremendous progress.
It was a good reminder for me. There is a saying that players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
In other words, your ability as a coach to build a relationship with a player on her terms is critical to your success.
Whether it carries over automatically to next week remains to be seen. But hopefully, at least with this one player, I have a key to unlock her resistance or reluctance and help her enjoy her pitching lessons instead of just enduring them.
That’s the challenge for all coaches. Get to know your players, especially at the younger ages. Find out what floats their boats.
Because if you can establish some common ground there, they just might let you in a little faster to help them become the players they’re meant to be.
Bearded dragon photo by Saketh Upadhya on Pexels.com
While the return of fastpitch softball to the Olympics was the big story for many of us who are fanatics for the sport, for the general populace of course one of the biggest stories was gymnast Simone Biles deciding not to compete in the team or most of the individual events. She did, of course, eventually take Bronze on the balance beam which is hardly her signature event.
It’s hard to imagine what a difficult decision that must have been for her. Here she has spent the last five years training for the opportunity to win more medals, presumably Gold medals, in her sport’s biggest showcase.
Yet when the time came something in her just snapped. She knew she couldn’t do it mentally at the level she needed, and that put her at risk of serious injury or perhaps even death given what she had planned to do. After one vault she decided it would be best to withdraw and give someone else a chance instead.
How did she get to that point? Part of it, of course, was relentless training. I doubt she’s taken many days off since she became a serious competitor, and that can take a physical and mental toll on you after a while.
While softball players don’t train at the same intensity or risk level as national team gymnasts (most of them anyway), it is possible to get so caught up in what you’re doing that you forget why you’re doing it. When softball starts to feel like more of a burden than an escape from life’s many real burdens, it’s time to take a little time off.
Another issue Simone Biles faced was a distinct lack of support, especially from people at the highest level of her sport. Those people loved showcasing her to the media to promote their own agendas, but when she told them about irregularities around the training they did their best to brush it under the rug and forget about it.
Parents, if your softball-playing daughter tells you physical or mental abuse is happening, don’t just tell her to suck it up or quit whining. Do all you can to find out if there is any reason to be concerned – even if it might mean losing a scholarship opportunity or being removed from a team that wins all its tournaments.
Your daughter’s safety and mental health are worth more, and not worth trading for any amount of money or plastic trophies. When she says something is wrong, be sure to listen.
Coaches, you have the same responsibility. If your player is suddenly having problems don’t get stuck thinking your job is simply putting a winning team on the field. Take an interest and find out what’s wrong.
Maybe she just has a softball version of the “twisties” and needs some help working through them. She’s lost confidence and needs someone to help her fill her confidence bucket back up.
Maybe she’s in a hitting slump and just needs someone to believe in her. The thing that prolongs most slumps is over-thinking the cause. Help her remember who she is and what she can do, even if it takes a little while. It will be worth the effort.
Or maybe, just maybe, something is going on at home or in her personal life that has her all off-kilter. You caring enough to find out and help her could have a lasting effect on her life that she will remember and appreciate long after she’s left her cleats at home plate.
Finally, when you’re performing at a high level there will always be haters – people who want to tear you down and then delight in your failure. Especially if you’re a female.
Many of the people leveling those criticisms have never put in the effort to do anything at a high level, But they’ll be more than happy to tell you why you’re weak and undeserving because you suddenly feel the pressure you were able to shut out before.
Players, don’t listen to them! Those ignorant couch potatoes know they don’t have the drive or dedication to be like you, so they want to drag you down to be like them.
Do what you need to do to get right in your own head – even if it means stopping for a bit to let it clear. This is the perfect time of year to do that, by the way.
The summer season is over, tryouts are over, and fall ball is still a few weeks away. Go to the beach or the movies or an amusement park. Listen to music all day, or sit and read a book or three. Hang out with friends who you don’t share a uniform with.
In other words, find something else to do with your day. Softball will still be waiting for you when you get back.
Anyone who has watched her career knows Simone Biles is the ultimate competitor. She’s never met a challenge she didn’t take head-on.
So when she says she has the “twisties” and the best way to deal with them is by pulling out of the Olympics it’s worth taking note.
If Simone Biles needs to walk away for a bit, the same can be said for any of us.
Take care of yourself, even if some around you don’t quite understand. Softball will be here when you’re ready. And you just may enjoy and appreciate it a little more.
Simone Biles photo from Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Last week I wrote about some things to watch for as fastpitch softball made its return to the Olympic stage. If you haven’t read it already you may want to follow the link above and give it a look as it is both insightful and brilliant. Or at least marginally interesting.
Now that the tournament is finished I thought it might be a good idea to see what takeaways we might draw from what actually occurred while it was going on. There are definitely some lessons to be learned.
SPOILER ALERT: This post will refer to outcomes, so if you’re one of the few softball fanatics who have not watched the games and are trying to keep yourself from learning who won until you do, you may want to do that first – or explore other posts here on the blog.
Nice to see softball back in the Olympics
Let’s start with the obvious. After a 13 year absence it was great to see fastpitch softball back in the Olympics in any form.
The Olympic games draw a LOT of eyes and are considered to be a major international event. Yes, you have the Pan Am Games and the World Cup of Softball, but those are essentially “in the family” events. IOW, only softball people are interested in them.
The Olympics, on the other hand, allow people who have no real interest in softball to randomly stumble across them. This is also helped by the fact that they appear on a major network (in this case NBC), even though in reality the games were on offshoot networks rather than NBC proper.
Plus the Olympics have built-prestige of their own despite all the problems and scandals of recent years. It’s great for popularizing the sport and exposing it to new potential fans. Lots of good things about it.
The tournament format was awful
Really? Five pool play games and then you go straight to the Gold and Bronze Medal games?
I would expect more from a local rec league tournament.
Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows a game can turn on a single hit, a bad bounce, a single throwing error, an umpire’s call, etc. At the highest level the margins are even more razor-thin.
Take the U.S. v Australia game. It was won by one fortunate, well-timed hit by the U.S. It could have easily gone the other way.
We also know teams can bounce back from a bad or unfortunate game to come back and take it all.
It should have been a double elimination tournament. I’m sure there were financial reasons it wasn’t, but the format they had made it look like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just caved to pressure and let it in with the minimal effort possible. Softball was the red-headed stepchild of these Olympics.
This is further evidenced by the fact that half of the pool play occurred BEFORE the opening ceremonies, which most people consider to be the beginning of the Olympics. Which means they were less likely to stumble into the games on TV.
If you wanted to “prove” that not enough people are interested in softball to include it in the future, this was the way to do it.
The U.S. Team’s Offensive Plan Was Poor
If the goal was to prove that softball is an international sport and the U.S. doesn’t dominate it anymore, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to put together a team and a game plan to keep U.S. scoring to the minimum required to get into the Gold Medal game, then well done.
Yes, I realize the pitching is the best in the world (at least in theory), and great pitching beats great hitting. But other teams didn’t seem to have as much trouble scoring runs against each other.
Yet the U.S. managed a measly nine (9) runs in six (count ’em 6) games, and no more than two (2) in any single game. That’s pathetic.
I’m guessing part of that strategy was to support dominating pitchers with the best defense they could, then count on being able to scratch a couple of runs together to win 1-0 or 2-1. So forget worrying about finding big hitters and just get defensive stars.
The problem with that is it’s not 1996 anymore. Softball players work harder these days at hitting overall, and the bat technology is way better than when the Louisville burgundy bottle bat was THE bat to have. You wouldn’t use that in practice now.
A game can turn on a single swing, and if you get behind by a couple of runs early it can be tough to come back if you don’t have players who can hit the gaps for extra bases. As the U.S. found out in the Gold Medal game.
Then there was the offensive philosophy, which was incredibly predictable. As soon as the U.S. got a runner on first, the next hitter up was required to sacrifice bunt. Every. Stinking. Time.
That meant that a hitter like Jamie Reed, who tripled in the first inning of the Gold Medal game against the worlds best pitcher, spent most of the tournament laying down bunts instead of trying to drive runs in.
Even a fly ball to the fence could have advanced the runner on first as effectively as a bunt, with the added benefit that it might hit the fence or go over, resulting in a better offensive position.
I haven’t seen the stats, but to the best of my recollection the number of runs that were manufactured by sacrifice bunts was zero. In the meantime, the U.S. gave up a whole bunch of outs that might have come in handy later in the game.
Yes, I am prejudiced against the sac bunt anyway, and have been for a long time. It’s a waste in most cases. This just proved the point.
The other downside of being so predictable was that opposing teams, Japan in particular, could just sit on it and use it to their advantage. Like by pulling the corners in and pulling off a double play against a sac bunt.
Keep in mind the U.S. win against Japan in pool play came off a home run. They needed more of that.
Especially since, according to the announcers, Japan has spent the last few years trying to put MORE offensive firepower into their game. If Japan is your Gold Standard (no pun intended) the U.S. may want to look for players who can bang the ball – and then let them do it.
The defense was unreal
In my last post I talked about watching the speed of the game. These games did not disappoint.
The defense across the board was incredible. So many great plays by so many players on all teams. That is an aspect everyone got right.
The whole thing looked like an old timer’s game
Perhaps the oddest thing about these Olympics were how old many of the players were. Especially in the circle.
Monica and Cat for the U.S. are both mid- to late-30s. Yukiko Ueno is 39. Team Canada had several recognizable names from the past. All of them played in the last Olympic games.
It’s almost as if the people in charge felt they owed it to these players to let them play in one more Olympics. Not that they didn’t perform – they did.
But in a sports culture obsessed with youth it’s hard to believe there weren’t younger players who could have done just as well. Have we done such a poor job of training the next generation that the last generation had to step in? Or were they just trying to go with glory names from the past?
The problem with that is you lose the younger audience who didn’t grow up watching Cat and Monica and the others dominate the sport. I think a lot of younger fans want to see the names they’ve been watching in the Women’s College World Series – players they know and can relate to.
In my very informal survey of my students, most did not watch the Olympics. They had little interest. If you can’t get current players to watch the game played at that level how are you going to grow softball as a spectator sport?
From a marketing standpoint it’s time to leave the past behind and start focusing on the future. We apparently have eight years to get it right. Let’s do it.
It was essentially an American tournament
For those who still complain about U.S. dominance of the sport, they do have a point. Despite the different names on the jerseys, many of the players – especially for Italy, Canada and Mexico – were either U.S. citizens or played college ball in the U.S.
I think that was less true for Australia, but I believe they had a few too.
About the only team that wasn’t made in America essentially was Team Japan.
It’s great that more deserving players get an opportunity to play in the Olympics by going with teams representing their heritage instead of where they were born and/or raised. But if softball is going to become a permanent part of the Olympics we need more locally raised players for these teams.
Especially the European teams, because their Olympic Committees hold a lot of sway over how the Olympics are run.
Hopefully softball can generate enough publicity to get girls in these countries interested in playing softball at a high level against each other as well as against U.S. players. I guess we’ll see.
So there you have it – a few of my observations. Now it’s your turn.
Did you watch? If so, what did you think? Leave your observations in the comments below.