Category Archives: Instruction
Recently I flew down to Nashville with my wife to visit my daughter (yes, a former fastpitch pitcher), her boyfriend Andrew, and their new house. Since it wasn’t non-stop we had a lot of time in airports and on planes.
Along the way I got tired of reading the dense book I’m into right now (finally reading a textbook I was supposed to go through my freshman year of college, and I am remembering why I never finished it) so I decided to play with a Blackjack trainer I have instead. Blackjack is the only casino game I tend to play, so I’m trying to make sure if I ever go back to a casino that I have my basic game down pat.
I used to have a different trainer, one that you would play online. It was kind of fun because you could place bets and track your progress. It was also valuable because it showed even if you make all the right moves you could still lose.
This one didn’t. You simply made decisions based on the cards that were dealt, and if you made a mistake a little pop-up would tell you what you should have done instead.
At first I didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t a way to track how I was doing money-wise. Then I came to see the brilliance in the way it was set up.
Without that running total of whether I was ahead or behind, I no longer was thinking in terms of outcomes. Instead, I was 100% focused on the process, i.e., selecting the right move based on the well-established odds for the game.
We talk about this a lot with softball players – focus on the process, not the outcomes. Or as I heard it put at the NFCA Convention, master the movement not the drill.
But how often do we really live it? If you’re working with a player who has been struggling at the plate and she finally makes contact, she’s probably rewarded with a “good job!” even if it was an ugly swing. But was it really a good job?
In the batting cages, when I’m pitching front toss, I will tell hitters that I don’t care if they swing and miss 100 times as long as they’re working on what we’re working on. I would rather see a good swing and miss than a bad swing and hit.
Not because a great technical swing by itself means anything. Again, there are no style points awarded during a game.
But working on getting the swing right – mastering the movement, focusing on the process – will lead to more long-term success. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in practicing it?
The same with a pitcher. I’m ok if they’re throwing the ball all over the place if they’re working on getting the mechanics right. Because I know if they do get the mechanics right the accuracy part will take care of itself. Accuracy is an outcome, not a goal unto itself.
When I work with fielders on throwing, again I want them to focus on learning the proper mechanics so when they need to make a quick, hard throw to get a runner out they can be sure of where it’s going.
If you have to think about how you’re throwing, or guide the ball to get it to where you want it to go, you’re an error waiting to happen. Probably at a key point in the game.
To get to that point in each of these cases, however, you have to take the outcome out of it. Just like the Blackjack trainer did for me.
Yes, it’s difficult. It’s a lot easier to recognize and reward a ball that’s hit hard (no matter how it was hit) or a pitch that goes in for a strike, or a throw that reaches its target than it is to focus on the way those outcomes happened. But it’s critical if you want to be successful.
Take the outcomes out of the training in the short term and just focus on the process and the movements. Give players the opportunity to “fail up,” i.e., do the right things now so that when those habits become ingrained they have far greater success than they had just doing whatever to get by.
Learning the basic game in Blackjack doesn’t guarantee success. The odds still favor the house, and you could still quickly drop a couple of hundred dollars even if you make the right moves 100% of the time. But it does help reduce that edge considerably, which is what makes it worth the effort.
The same is true in softball. You can still strike out, or walk a batter, or throw away a ball at a critical point in a game no matter how hard you work. But you cut the odds of it considerably, which is what makes focusing on the process your best bet for long-term success.
A question I will often pose to my fastpitch softball students is “How do you eat an elephant?” Regardless of age, the first time they hear it they tend to look at me as if I have completely lost my mind.
The correct answer, of course, is “One bite at a time.”* That’s a critical lesson for anyone trying to learn a new skill, or even make improvements to existing skills.
What it means in realistic terms is you don’t have to learn (or master) the skill all in one big gulp. You’re far more likely to have success (and far less likely to give up too soon) if you give yourself permission to learn whatever you’re trying to learn a little bit at a time.
This is particularly true of complex skills such as hitting and pitching that have a lot of moving parts. Trying to learn all the mechanics (or fix all the problems) at once is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Our brains simply don’t function that way.
But breaking the skill into smaller components, prioritizing them so you know what to work on first, and then focusing on each of those areas in order will enable you to create a progression where success builds on success.
For example, when I’m working with a new pitching student I like to use a technique called “backward chaining.” That’s a more sophisticated way of saying you start at the end of the skill and work your way backwards, because if you don’t get the end right nothing else you’ve done up until then matters.
So for pitchers we’ll work on starting the ball overhead, palm facing the catcher, bringing the upper arm down until it contacts the ribcage, and pulling the ball through into the release zone so the lower arm whips and the wrist snaps itself. (That’s a simplified version of what goes on and what I look for, but will suffice for now.)
Most young pitchers will tend to want to bring the entire arm through at once, get behind the ball too early, and push it through the release zone. Heck, some have even been taught to turn the ball backwards and push it down the back side of the circle, which is definitely what you don’t want to do.
So it takes a bit for them to learn to relax and let the arm work in two pieces. That’s why we focus on helping them get that feel, because it will serve them well as they get into the full pitch.
But if we tried to do that, plus get a proper launch, plus worry about getting into the right position at each point during the motion, etc. the odds are they wouldn’t learn anything. Especially how to whip the ball through.
The other element that enters this discussion, of course, is the impatience of players themselves. It’s understandable.
They are growing up in a world where they have instant access to everything – information (via smartphones and the Internet), food (microwave and fast food meals), transportation (no need to walk, we’ll drive you!) and so forth. The idea of having to wait for something they want is often foreign to them.
So, they try to eat the elephant like a python – unhinge the jaw and try to swallow it whole.
Again, it doesn’t work that way. As a result, realistic expectations have to be set.
They have to understand that doing this drill or taking a couple of lessons here and there won’t turn them into instant superstars who are mechanically perfect. Progress will come incrementally. Sometimes in increments so small it’s hard to tell it’s being made.
But if they keep working at it, the cumulative effect will take hold and eventually that big ol’ elephant will be gone.
The lesson for coaches (and parents) is don’t try to fix everything at once. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work.
Focus on one thing at a time, adding each new piece to what you’ve already done, and you’ll save a lot of heartache for you and the player.
For players, the lesson is to be patient and, as Bobby Simpson says, get a little better each day. Remember if you want to walk a mile you just need to start putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually you’ll get there.
So grab a fork and dig in! The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll reach your goals.
*Please don’t leave me nasty comments. I am not advocating eating, or causing any other harm to, actual elephants. They are beautiful, magnificent creatures. It’s simply a metaphor.
One of the most intimidating things we can do as human beings is start something new. Especially when that something has been around for a while like, say, fastpitch softball.
We look at ourselves and see how ill-prepared we are. Then we look at others and see how much better they are – some are even experts – and we wonder how we’re ever going to survive.
The good news we all have to remember is that no matter how great others are at something, every single one of them was once a beginner. Just like us.
Arizona coach Mike Candrea didn’t start out with 1,500+ wins. He started with one, and probably felt fortunate to get it.
So if you’re a brand new head coach taking a team onto the field for the first time, remember you share that experience with one of the winningest fastpitch softball coaches ever.
If you’re a pitcher (or the parent of a pitcher) who is just trying to learn how to get her arms and legs going in the same direction and get the ball over the plate with arcing (or putting anyone around you in danger) take heart. Some of the game’s best pitchers ever had their struggles as well.
If you’re a hitter who is providing more on-field air conditioning than excitement with her bat, or a fielder who seems like she wouldn’t be able to pick up a ground ball in a game even if it had a handle…
Well, you get the idea.
Everyone has to start somewhere. The ones who go places, however, are the ones who don’t give up, even when learning takes a little longer, or it feels like others have more natural ability, or have a head start because they started at a younger age.
After all, it isn’t where you start the race. It’s where you finish that counts.
I remember as a beginning coach thinking how much better I would (hopefully) be in five years, when I had some experience and had learned more. But that thought didn’t do my first team much good.
So I buckled down, did the best I could, contributed where I knew things, and just faked the rest.
I was once amazed that other coaches could come up with the drills or explanations i would use. To know so much that you could think that way seemed like a hill too great for me to climb. Now, 800 blog posts and roughly 20 years of coaching later I come up with different ideas all the time.
So to all of you beginners and first-timers out there, I say don’t be intimidated. Don’t be concerned about your lack of experience, or get overwhelmed thinking about how much you don’t know.
Just buckle down, get after it, and remember every expert was once a beginner. But it’s only the dedicated beginners who become an expert.
I know the headline sounds like an ad for a diet product or a health club, but there really is something to taking advantage of the turn of the calendar to start making improvements in our lives.
As humans we tend to like to have a clean break from the old when we start something new. The most obvious example is most people like to take a little time off between the time they end their old jobs and the time they start new ones. That little space in-between, even if it’s just a couple of days, helps us decompress and let go of the past so we can focus on the present – and the future.
That’s what’s often magical about the start of a new year. While in reality it’s just another day on the calendar, it feels like the start of something different.
So how can you take advantage of this artificially imposed fresh start? By (dare I say it?) resolving to do one or more things differently this year.
If you’re a coach, spend some time studying new techniques or approaches to the game. Challenge yourself by looking into information that conflicts with your current beliefs – especially if you’ve held those beliefs for a while.
Attend a coaching clinic with an open mind. Watch a current video or read a new book. Not just on fastpitch softball specifically, but also on coaching principles in general. In short, look for ways to be better than you are now.
If you’re a player, think about what a great year would be for you, then think about whether you can get there with what you’re doing now. A good way to do that is to write a letter to your future self describing the awesome season you just had.
If the season you want to have isn’t achievable with your current approach, figure out what you need to change to make it achievable. It could be something as simple as practicing for five more minutes during a session, or finding ways to sneak in an extra 5-10 minutes of practice per week when you can’t get to a field.
It could also mean being willing to change something you’ve been doing for a long time to see if the new way will work better. After all, no one ever created an innovation by continuing to do the same old thing.
If you’re a parent, think about how you can be more supportive, both to your player and to the team. Hopefully you’re already one who cheers in a positive way. But if you’re not sure, maybe set up a video camera and record yourself during your child’s next game to see what you think. Would you want to sit next to you? Or be with you on the ride home?
You might even want to do the same for someone else you may know, assuming they would take the information in the spirit it is intended. Learning to relax and enjoy the game makes it a lot more pleasurable for everyone – including the person who usually gets so upset.
You can also try watching a game where you have no stake to see what you think of how the spectators are reacting. The compare that to how you feel during your child’s game. It can be an interesting perspective.
One other thing you can do as a parent is to educate yourself on what the latest thinking is regarding various skills and see if that matches up with what your player is being taught. Don’t just assume a coach or instructor knows what he/she is doing, or is keeping up with the sport. Learn what to look for so you know whether you’re investing your hard-earned money in the best way possible.
It’s a new year. Why settle for the same old same old?
Take advantage of the energy that comes with a fresh start and use it to create a new, even better you. Best of luck for the upcoming year!
When someone says “it’s time to practice” what’s the first thing that springs to mind? For most of us involved in fastpitch softball the answer is probably grabbing some equipment, running out to a field or facility, and then spending the next 30, 60, or more minutes hard at work (as Paige is doing in the photo above).
While that approach is generally a good thing, it also has a downside (doesn’t everything?). When we’re in that mindset, we tend to think if we can’t do those things (get to a field or facility, spend 30-60 minutes) then we are unable to practice. In fact, “practice” kind of becomes an activity unto itself that requires special effort.
That’s unfortunate because for some players it could mean going a week or more without making any progress to get better. For others, especially those who are trying to learn new skills, it could even mean they get worse, or regress all the way back to step one.
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Practice doesn’t have to involve going somewhere or making a special effort. And it certainly doesn’t have to be tied to a set amount of time.
Working on fastpitch softball skills anytime, anywhere, for any length of time can help players get better (or at least maintain their gains) versus doing nothing at all. The key is for players to know what they need to focus on and work those movements.
Take pitching, for example. Perhaps a player is having a tough time learning to relax the arm in the circle so she can whip the hand through at the end. In a full practice session with a catcher, she may be too focused on throwing strikes – double if the catcher is her dad. in that case she may continue to lock out the elbow and “guide” the ball to the plate.
But at home in her bedroom, or standing outside waiting for the bus, or marching through the house she can make arm circles and focus on staying relaxed throughout. No ball, field, facility, or catcher required. Learning to make the proper arm movement will help her know what it feels like when she’s actually pitching so she can carry the improvement forward there.
She doesn’t need to spend a half hour doing it either. If she takes 5 or 10 minutes it will help. Do that three random times during the day and she’ll have put in 15-30 minutes without even realizing it.
The same goes for hitters. Maybe the hitter is having trouble learning to lead with her hips, or is having a problem with barring out her front arm during the swing. She can practice the correct movements wherever she happens to be standing, whenever she has the chance.
The more she makes those movements the more natural they will become – and the easier they will be to execute when she’s actually up to bat.
Practicing in small increments may even have some benefits over longer sessions, especially if the longer sessions are focused on one thing. It’s similar to block practice v randomized practice.
In block practice you focus on one thing for a long time. With randomized practice you don’t linger on a single skill for any length of time. You essentially go from skill to skill. Studies have shown that the skills transfer better in game situations when practice is more randomized, at least in part because you get too used to doing the same thing over and over – an opportunity you don’t have in a game.
The other benefit to the shorter sessions in random locations is it lets players concentrate on the specific movements they need to improve on rather than the outcomes of those movements. And as we all know, in the end if you do the right things in the right way the outcomes will take care of themselves.
This isn’t to say longer, more formal practice sessions aren’t necessary. They absolutely are. But they’re not the only way to practice.
Taking advantage of whatever time and space is available is a great way to ensure players continue to improve. And it definitely beats using “I don’t have the time/I can’t get to the field or gym” as an excuse to do nothing.
A few months ago I put up a post that showed a way to help fastpitch softball pitchers who were struggling with hitting their inside and outside spots by exaggerating the locations. The idea is that by making the adjustments larger you can help them get a feel for what it takes to move the ball from side-to-side.
Here’s another way to do it, using kind of the polar opposite approach. This is more for fine-tuning, when the pitcher is already pretty good at going inside/outside but you want to make it more precise and reliable.
All it takes is some scrap wood and a couple of pool noodles. What you want to do is create two narrow barriers, then have the pitcher attempt to throw the ball between them. Here’s how it looks from the back side:
What you’re trying to do is create a visual that helps the pitcher home in on exactly where the ball needs to go. Sometimes, when they’re looking at a catcher against a background, it’s hard to focus on that small spot. This setup helps narrow the field so to speak.
The holders for the pool noodles were a couple of scraps of 1×6 pine board with a hole drilled partially through them. The holes should be just slightly larger than the diameter of the dowel rod.
Once you cut the dowel rod to size, glue it in place and then drive a screw in from the underside. That should hold it securely.
As you can see in the photo and the video, I didn’t use a very long dowel rod, which means the pool noodles aren’t very straight. I could have gone longer, but if the pitcher hits the noodle (as she is likely to do) and it is rigid the deflection could hurt whoever is catching if they’re not wearing equipment.
Besides, when they’re hanging over like this you can create some interesting holes to throw through, such as having the tops touch to work on keeping the ball low as well as on the corner.
You can do it from a 45 degree angle, like Juliana is doing here (due to a sore knee) or from a full pitch position. You may want to start with the former just to get the feel down before moving on to the latter, which will be more challenging.
Once the pitcher is becoming more consistent you can even make a game out of it, challenging her to make 7 out of 10 to win a prize or suffer a consequence – whichever fits your coaching style. That will add a little more game pressure too.
Or, if you have two or more pitchers there have them compete for who can do the most.
The overall idea is to aim small and miss small. So if you have a pitcher who needs to gain more precision in hitting her spots, give this drill a try.
Sometimes getting a player to understand the value of practice can be difficult. Those who aren’t the most dedicated to fastpitch softball can find a hundred excuses not to practice. So here’s a fun way of explaining how they will benefit.
Whenever I start lessons with a new student, toward the end I like to ask them if they know where New York City and Los Angeles are on a map. Most the time they do – or at least say they do. I hear today’s students are a bit geography-challenged.
Anyway, once we’ve established they know where each is, I will ask them how many different ways there are to get from New York to LA. The student will then start naming off various modes of travel – plane, train, car, bicycle, jog, walk, etc. Some will even suggest a boat, which is possible but certainly not easy.
I then ask them which is the fastest way to make the trip, at which point they will almost always answer “plane.” Which is correct, at least until Star Trek transporters become a reality.
I will then explain if they practice regularly, and with their minds on what they’re doing, that’s like going from New York to Los Angeles in a plane. But if they only pick up a ball, bat, glove, etc. when they’re at a lesson, it’s like walking from New York to LA. You can still get there, but it’s going to take a whole lot longer and be a lot more painful.
At some point or another, if they want to be successful players must put in the time. There’s no way around that. They can either do it in a concentrated way, such as practicing 3-4 times per week, or they can stretch the same amount of practice over many weeks.
The thing is, if they choose the latter they may find they haven’t quite gotten to where they want to be by the time the season starts. At which point it will be difficult to make up the rest of the ground that was lost.
There’s also the retention issue. The more time that passes between attempts at a new skill, the more likely players are to forget exactly what they’re supposed to do or how they’re supposed to do it. That means at least part of the time of their next attempt is going to be spent trying to regain ground they’d already covered.
As General Patton says (at least in the movie) “I don’t like to pay for the same real estate twice.” But that’s exactly what you’re doing if you have to keep relearning things you already should know.
Whether you’re in-season or in the off-season, it’s in the player’s best interest to work regularly on learning whatever it is she’s trying to learn. Otherwise she should probably make sure she has a good pair of walking shoes – and a nice cushion for sitting on the bench.
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At some point in your life outside of fastpitch softball you’ve probably heard the term “Occam’s Razor.” No, it’s not a brand of shaving utensil.
Instead, it’s a way of approaching problems. Essentially it says that all else being equal, if there is a simple approach to something and a complex one, the simple one is usually better.
If you want the full explanation, follow the link above. But a big part of it has to do with variables. The more variables you introduce (thereby making it more complicated), the more chances there are to get it wrong.
That has certainly been my experience coaching girls fastpitch softball for lo these many years. (Had to say that – how often do you get a chance to use “lo” in a sentence?)
I remember watching pitching instructors take pitchers through their 10-step or 15-step warm-up process, where every single piece is broken down into the most minute movements. I’ve seen the same with other aspects as well – hitting, throwing, catching a fly ball, you name it.
On the Internet it gets even worse. It’s almost like a contest to see who can make their explanation the most detailed and confusing.
Really what it is is a game of “one-upmanship.” Kind of like the old “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But in this case it’s “he who is the most unintelligible must be the smartest.”
I disagree with that philosophy. Instead I ascribe to the idea (often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein) that if you can’t explain something simply you don’t truly understand it.
When you’re coaching someone in a skill, your goal should be to help them learn to execute the skill in the context it will be used as quickly as possible. You can’t get that from a 15-step approach.
A player may get good at each of the 15 steps, but she will likely still struggle to put them all together and execute them under the pressure of a game. Too many variables to worry about, and too much thinking trying to get all of that right.
If you can break it down into a few easily digestible steps that naturally flow into one another, however, I find that players not only learn faster – they learn it deeper too, because it has context.
Hitting is a great example, because it’s probably one of the most over-analyzed skills in all of sports. It’s also interesting because a lot of the analysis will talk about why so-and-so hit a home run with their swing, but will never mention when that same swing resulted in a weak pop-up or ground ball. Which means there’s more to it than just the mechanics.
That said, as a coach or instructor, there is definitely a certain base knowledge you need in order to understand what is going on throughout the swing, and why some movements/angles/timing/etc. work better than others.
Once you get that, however, it’s time to start peeling away everything that isn’t essential to teaching someone how to hit. Especially since certain parts of the swing are going to naturally result from other parts anyway.
Teach the critical parts, such as leading with the hips, separating the hips from the shoulders during rotation, keeping the hands up and letting the bat head down, etc. Then turn your hitters lose to fill in the blanks on their own – without having to think about them.
It’s like the old KISS acronym – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Give them what them what they need to know in a way they can understand it instead of trying to show how smart you are or how much research you’ve done.
Oh, and while it’s tempting to say this approach is more important for younger players, the reality is it’s important for players at all levels. The real difference with older players if you keep it simple is they’ll pick it up faster and get to success sooner.
The more you follow Occam’s Razor, the more success your players will have, and the more games you’ll win. Isn’t that really what it’s all about?
The other day I was reading an article’in the NFCA’s Fastpitch Delivery newspaper. It was written by Megan Brown, Ph.D., an assistant coach at Brown University, talking about what softball players can learn from UConn basketball.
Basically, it talked about an approach they use to improve pitching performance during practice, which improves performance during games. While the article was about pitching, it can be applied to other areas as well. I’ve been playing around with it a bit this week, and I think it’s pretty effective so I thought I’d share.
The crux of it is to ask the player to rate her effort on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being standing around talking about it (as you will be doing at that time) and 10 being putting every fiber of your being into the pitch, hit, throw, whatever.
The typical answer will be 5 or 6. If she says 6, you then ask the player what it will take to get that effort level up to a 7. How do you go that little bit harder?
Once she gets to 7, ask what it will take to get to 8, and so on. It really seems to help players loosen up a bit and worry a little less about “perfect” mechanics and a little more about going hard.
Of course, being a movie fan and a music fan, the whole idea of “turning it up” couldn’t help but remind me of this great scene from the classic movie “This Is Spinal Tap.” Sorry about the commercial in the front, but it’s worth waiting it out:
It’s very easy for players to slip into their comfort zone when they’re practicing or playing. Unfortunately, for many that comfort zone may be far less than they’re capable of achieving when pushed.
Maximum performance requires maximum effort. To help players get there, ask them to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, and then see if you can get them to make turning it up to 11 a habit.
The once-funny and now just more generally creepy comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen has been quoted as saying “80% of success is just showing up” or something to that effect.
While most times ol’ Woody isn’t the person you want to take advice from in anything having to do with kids, in this statement he is most definitely correct. Especially when it comes to the early stages of learning fastpitch softball skills.
Let’s take hitting for example. Hitting even a decently fast pitch in fastpitch softball requires a series of movements that must be performed correctly individually, sequenced correctly, and timed correctly. Some of those movements and sequences aren’t necessarily intuitive.
Since the object of the skill is to hit the ball with the bat, it’s easy for young hitters to assume that they should focus on taking the bat to the ball first. If their body turns afterward, so much the better.
But that’s actually the opposite of what they should be doing. The proper sequence is hips-shoulders-bat. A good instructor will teach that sequence, which not only maximizes power but the time the hitter has to see the ball before committing to the swing and the ability to hit the ball in the proper zone.
If that young hitter who’s still learning only comes to lessons once every few weeks, however, there’s a very good chance she will forget all about the proper sequence and spend her time practicing a bat-first swing. Then her distraught parents will wonder why they’re paying all this money for lessons and not getting better.
It becomes even more important with windmill pitching because in my opinion there is so much that can go wrong – and failure is more obvious. If you have a bad swing but still manage to make contact with the bat you can get on base.
But if you’re not throwing strikes, or you’re throwing easy-to-hit strikes, you’re going to have a tough day. As I tell my students, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside, but it can be a cold, dark place on the inside.
Again, with windmill pitching some of the movements aren’t necessarily intuitive. If they were, you’d see more rec league pitchers using good form.
But instead, most untrained pitchers tend to stay facing forward, take a short step off the pitching rubber, and proceed to push/guide the ball toward the plate. THAT is what feels natural and intuitive. But it’s not what great pitchers do.
If a newbie pitcher only goes to lessons now and then and then gets put into a game before she’s ready, she will likely find herself like Luke Skywalker in the cave on Dagobah.
To really get the maximum value out of lessons in the early stages, it’s important to receive consistent training. That’s because you’re setting the foundation for all that is to come.
My recommendation is once per week – no more, no less – although you can do it going every other week if necessary. It will just likely take a bit longer to get where you want to go.
That regularity – and the short time between reviews by the instructor – helps keep players from veering too far off the path to success. It’s easier to do a reset when the training is consistent.
Going sporadically, however, gives the illusion of training without the benefits. Too much can go wrong in the meantime, and we all know it’s a lot easier to develop bad habits than to break them.
Instruction always works better when you apply it properly. In the early stages especially, that requires consistency. Make the commitment, even when it’s challenging, and you’ll see the rewards a whole lot faster.