Category Archives: Instruction

Great New Resource for Learning Pitch Movement

I’ve spoken in the past about Rick and Sarah Pauly’s High Performance Pitching courses. They have put together a great series of Beginner, Intermediate and Elite-level online training courses that give professional instructors and bucket parents alike the ability to learn from two of the best in fastpitch softball pitching.

Recently they released a brand new course for the Elite program called “Tips for Making a Ball Move.” (Click on the Elite tab to find it.)

In his usual friendly and accessible way, Rick walks through topics such as what order to learn movement (i.e., non-fastball) pitches, increasing spin rates on pitches and how to be effective with grips. Lots of great information, and best of all it’s FREE!

But there was a three-part set of lessons in there I thought would be particularly helpful for bucket parents. Two of the lessons cover different types of training balls, and the other one talks about other types of gadgets.

I think these are some very valuable lessons for a couple of reasons. One is that we all look at those things hoping to find a shortcut to helping our daughters/players/students pitch more effectively.

As Rick shows his personal collection I felt like a kid again going through baseball cards with my friends – got that, got that, got that, hmmm, that looks interesting. As much as I say I’m not a gadget guy I’ve certainly spent my fair share of money checking things out.

Rick walks through each of them, talking honestly about what he uses regularly and which balls or devices mostly collect dust on his shelf. Before you hit the “submit” button on Amazon or an individual website I highly recommend you check out this series of videos.

You know the feeling.

The good thing is Rick isn’t really passing judgment on the balls or devices as much as he is sharing his experience. Why that’s important is that while a ball or device may not have worked for him, it might be just the thing you need. After watching the videos you’ll get a better idea of whether they’re worth checking out.

For example, he talks about SpinForm softballs. They are great for helping pitchers learn the curve or rise. But in my experience they’re also great for teaching the overhand throw – especially for a player who tends to get side spin instead of 12-6 spin on her overhand throw.

It’s hard to miss whether the ball is being thrown properly or not, especially if you play catch with someone who does throw properly. That visual helps players figure out what they need to do to improve. If you pair up a pitcher working on her curve with a catcher who needs some spin help it’s a win-win.

And honestly, that’s the thing about these various balls and devices. None of them are necessarily good or bad. Just like drills, using them to achieve success has a lot to do with the coach and the student.

If you have a specific need and use the device properly, it may be valuable to you – even if it wasn’t to me. But if you don’t put in the work with it, or use it as intended, you’re probably going to find it one day covered in dirt and grime when you go to clean out your garage.

The nice thing about Rick’s videos is they give you an unbiased head start on determining whether whatever you’re thinking about purchasing will help solve the issue you’re trying to solve. And again, that course is free so even if you don’t watch the rest of the lessons you can pop in and get what you need.

Please let this work. Please let this work.

So before you go off chasing the latest softball device rainbow, give those videos a look. It might just save you a few bucks you can use to pay for your next hotel stay.

P.S. Just FYI, no matter what device or tool you buy, they tend to work better when you use them regularly.

8 Tips for Getting More Value Out of Fastpitch Softball Lessons

As a longtime instructor I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young ladies (and a few of their brothers) to help them improve their baseball and softball skills. Along the way I have seen some patterns emerge.

So, to help you ensure you’re getting the greatest value out of your substantial investment, following are a few tips to help with your approach. It presumes you have already done your homework and chosen your instructor wisely, i.e., your instructor is teaching the techniques that the best players in the world use. If not, all the other parents will be on the sidelines saying…

With that in mind, here we go.

Tip #1 – Pay attention during lessons!

I can’t tell you how many times during a lesson I’ve been talking to a student and then had this experience.

You know who you are.

Whether you’re indoors or outdoors there can be a lot of distractions. But you need to be able to block them out and stay focused on what the instructor is saying.

You never know – it could be life-changing, or at least career-changing.

While we instructors do seem to like to hear ourselves talk, we’re usually doing it for a good reason. We’re trying to drop some knowledge that will help our students become better players.

When I see a student looking around everywhere but me I will usually tell them “There is nothing over there that will help you become a better softball player. Stay here with me.”

These days we are all more easily distracted than ever. But staying focused during instruction, and then in executing the skill, will help shorten the learning curve considerably.

Tip #2 – Be sure to bring all your needed equipment

Shouldn’t need to be said but apparently it does. At least in my experience.

Before you come to a lesson check your bag to be sure you have your glove, bat, batting gloves, catcher’s gear, cleats or turf shoes, hair ties, sunglasses and everything else you will need that day. Don’t assume they’re in there – take a complete inventory.

And while you’re in there, clear out all the old water and sports drink bottles along with wrappers and other garbage. Doesn’t really have anything to do with the lesson but it’s good to do that now and again anyway.

Tip #3 – You still have to practice

Yes, it would be nice if your instructor could just wave his/her magic wand and make you better. But it doesn’t work that way. I know, because I teach all my students the same thing but get varying results.

Think of as an instructor as being like Google Maps (or your other GPS app of choice). If you plug a starting point and a destination into Google maps, it will give you detailed, turn-by-turn directions along with a visual map.

But if you want to get to where you’re going you still have to get in your vehicle and drive. The app doesn’t transport you anywhere (at least not yet; I’m sure they’re working on it). It just shows you how YOU can get there.

It’s the same with an instructor. He/she will show you the techniques you need to succeed. But you still have to put in the work.

Tip #4 – You need to bring your brain when you practice

One of the questions I get all the time is “How much should she practice during the week?” I know it’s well-intentioned – the idea is to give someone’s daughter a number that is higher than “none,” which is probably what she is planning on – but it also implies that practice is a time-based activity.

It’s not. It’s more of an accomplishing goals and learning something type of activity. To put it in another learning content, how many hours should someone practice to learn how to do division or parse a sentence?

In school, the answer is as long as it takes. If you pick it up quickly you can put in fewer hours. If you struggle, you will have to put in more. Because the goal isn’t to check off time on a checklist. It’s to master the skill so you can move on to the next one.

In softball it’s the same. Making practice a time-based experience is counter-productive.

Instead, you need to bring your brain and really work to learn whatever it is you’ve been assigned to learn. Not just until you get it right; keep working at it until you can’t do it wrong.

Yeah, this guy.

Funny thing is if you practice mindfully (to use what I think is still a popular term) you probably won’t have to practice as long. Our brains are powerful and often underrated contributors to athletic success.

Make sure you understand what you need to work on when you leave your lesson, then pay attention to whether you’re getting it right when you practice, and there’s a good chance you won’t have to put in as many hours on it. Although you may want to anyway because it’s fun.

Tip #5 – Don’t just work on what you’re already good at

There is a certain comfort in succeeding. Doing something right and getting great results makes us feel good about ourselves. But it doesn’t do much to help us overcome our flaws.

The best students I’ve ever worked with, when given the option, would always ask to work on things they don’t do well. That makes sense.

No matter how long a lesson is, the time is limited. Why waste time on something you already know how to do?

When you’re there with the instructor you should want to work on your weak areas so you can get the instructor’s guidance on how to make them stronger.

The same is true when you’re practicing on your own. If all you ever work on is what you’re already good at you’re missing a huge opportunity for improvement.

Instead, work to bring your weak areas up to the level of your strong ones and you’ll be better overall at whatever it is you’re trying to do.

Tip #6 – Do your assigned homework

Again, assuming you’ve chosen your instructor well you will likely be given homework to do before the next lesson. That homework probably relates to whatever it was you were working on during the lesson.

The next time you go to practice, be sure you work on whatever that assignment was. Especially if it doesn’t involve going through the entire skill, but instead breaking down a piece of it.

If your pitching instructor gave you drills or a drill progression to work on lag, spend most of your time doing those drills. If your hitting instructors gave you an assignment to improve your ability to extend and hit through the ball, work on that.

Understand that the instructor saw a flaw, or something that will limit you from being the best you can be. By doing the homework you will be able to overcome that specific flaw and internalize the movements, which will help you gain better outcomes.

Yes, it’s more fun to throw full pitches, or hit off live pitching, or take ground balls/fly balls off a bat, etc. But those activities likely won’t help you overcome whatever is holding you back. Focusing on a particular area that is weak and improving it to match your other skills will.

Tip #7 – Write stuff down during or after your lesson

On their second lesson I give every one of my students a small, blank notebook with a pen. It’s not just to give them some sort of gift to say “thank you for coming.” It’s so they can write down what we’re working on, either during the lesson or afterwards.

Pretty nifty, eh?

We all think we can remember everything off the tops of our heads. But we’re not nearly as good at that as we think.

If you really want to be sure you know what to work on, and how to work on it, you should write it down while it’s fresh in your mind.

That way, three days later when you go back out to practice, you’ll know what you need to do – and how to do it. Remember that practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent. Be sure you’re practice the right things the right way.

Tip #8 – Understand that it is a journey

We live in an instant-everything world these days. If we want to know something we just ask our phones or our home devices – no additional effort required.

If we want food we pop it in the microwave or air fryer and a few minutes later dinner is served.

Unfortunately, human skills development cannot be sped up to that degree with technology. Yes, video and measurement devices can help us learn a little faster, but it’s still going to take a lot blood, sweat and tears.

And even after all of that you still may not see the results right away. Especially if you’re overcoming some particularly bad habits.

It takes time for new skills to overtake the old ones, and for you to feel comfortable enough executing them to be able to give it your all. In fact, you may find that the only way you can execute new skills properly right now is by going less than 100%. Sometimes considerably less.

That’s ok. It’s better to learn the movements first, then build up the speed of execution. Because when you get to the point where you can just …

Sorry, I just had to.

…you’ll be amazed at all the incredible things you can do.

More to Choosing an Instructor Than Mechanics

Back when I was a lad of about 7 or 8, my parents acquired a piano from a friend and decided I learn to play. That was fine – I have always loved music, and continue to until this day. Then I got to meet my teacher.

Her name was Sister Cecilia, and she was a nun at the Catholic church who looked to be about 150 years old. That wasn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem was with her approach.

Looking back on it I believe she was teaching me the correct techniques, and having an innate musical ability (I have played a dozen or so instruments through my life) I got to be pretty good at it. But it was a horrible drudge.

Being 150 year old, Sister Cecelia was very focused on scales and exercises – the musical equivalent of drills. It was pretty much all we did.

The few songs I got to play were nothing that interested me, just simplified classical pieces or maybe a Christmas standard around the holidays. Understand that this was during the 1960s, perhaps the greatest musical decade ever.

Yet instead of learning to play “Let It Be” or even “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” I was stuck inside on a nice day plugging away at songs I didn’t know and that were considered ancient even before I was born. Needless to say, I got out of it as soon as I could, which was still three years of misery.

I tell this story today because I know there are parents out there looking for softball instructors for their daughters. When they ask what to look for, the answers they frequently receive revolve around the mechanics of what they teach, or how many players they have placed in college, or what travel teams their students play for, etc.

All of those factors have a bearing on the decision. But one other element that should be observed and considered is whether that instructor will be able to light a spark in your daughter.

Will the instructor be able to relate to and engage your daughter? Will your daughter look forward to lessons and want to work at home, or will she sigh heavily when it’s time to head off to the lesson?

Because no matter what the instructor knows or how good his/her track record may be, if he/she doesn’t get your daughter excited to learn what he/she is teaching it’s unlikely much learning will take place. I can attest to that from first-hand experience.

So how do you know? One way to get a preview is to watch how the instructor teaches other players.

You know your daughter, how she relates to others and how she thinks. Does it seem like the way the instructor interacts with students will be helpful to your daughter?

Lessons don’t have to be a birthday party without the cake. But they shouldn’t feel like sitting for the Bar exam either.

There are all kinds of styles of learning and teaching, and not every one matches with everybody. If your daughter is meek and easily intimidated, a gruff instructor who is all business is probably not going to bring out the best in her. On the other hand, if your daughter is very serious and businesslike, a coach who likes to goof around and tell stories may not be a good fit either.

The ultimate test, of course, will be what happens when the two get together. You should always consider the first lesson or two as being on a trial basis. Take the instructor for a test drive and see how your daughter reacts.

If she enjoys it, great! You could be on your way to a lasting relationship. But if she clearly isn’t enjoying it or relating to the instructor (outside of perhaps being uncomfortable working with someone new) you should probably keep looking -even if your daughter doesn’t say anything about it. Kids are often afraid to speak up.

Ideally, what you want is an instructor who is A) knowledgeable B) keeps up with the game C) teaches skills that will maximize performance while protecting your daughter from in jury D) has a good track record and E) ultimately will inspire your daughter to fulfill her potential.

Most people tend to focus on A-D. But having E is just as important.

Take that little bit of extra effort to ensure the “soft stuff” is there, and that the instructor knows how to bring out the best in each student. You’ll be glad you did in the long run.

Old person photo by Luizmedeirosph on Pexels.com

Chutes and Ladders…and Softball

Not too long ago I talked about how I love this time of the year because you have the ability to make big changes without the pressure of performing in games.

Pitchers can work on speed without worrying about accuracy. Hitters can work on driving the ball without worrying about striking out. Catchers can work on pop times without worrying about throwing the ball to the center field fence. And so on.

What’s not to like, right? With all that unfettered ability to go full bore at improvement you should be able to make tremendous improvement in a short time. Right?

Well, not exactly. The thing is, improvement isn’t always a straight line up. In softball, as in most sports, it’s more like the old children’s board game Chutes and Ladders.

You remember that one. You roll the die and move your piece the number of spaces shown on the space.

Sometimes it results in nothing. You just move forward that many spaces.

Sometimes it brings you to a ladder, and you get to skip a whole bunch of spaces by climbing the ladder. That’s great progress, and a quick shortcut to winning.

But sometimes, your roll of the die brings you to a chute. When that happens, you fall back down the board, a little or a lot, and then have to claw your way back to where you were before you can continue moving toward a win.

The same can happen with softball skills, especially if you’re trying to improve something fundamental.

Whether your mechanics are right or wrong, when you get comfortable with them you can use all your athletic ability to execute them. You’re at maximum energy and maximum speed.

All that goes out the window when you start making a fundamental change. You have to think about what you’re doing and it slows you down.

It probably feels a bit awkward too. Because if what you were doing before didn’t feel natural you probably would not have been doing it.

The result is your performance may go down the chute temporarily. If you’re a pitcher you may lose a little speed, or a pitch that was working pretty well may not work as well anymore.

If you’re a hitter you may swing and miss a little more, or might lose some bat speed.

But that’s ok. It’s normal and natural. You need to be patient and trust the plan.

Because one day, when you have internalized the changes, the payoff will be there. If you’re pursuing the right changes all the chutes you have to endure will be worth it. Because eventually you will hit a ladder and get that much closer to your goals.

The “Whack-A-Mole” Approach to Coaching

The other night as I was setting up for lessons at an indoor facility where I teach, there was what I presume was a dad and his son in the next cage over. The dad was pitching to his son, who appeared to be about 10 years old, and chucking them fairly hard at him.

Dad was kind of loud in his instruction – not a crime in my book because the place was pretty noisy and you had to talk loud to be heard – but because of that I couldn’t help but overhear what he was telling the boy.

With each pitch, Dad offered some helpful critique. “You dropped your hands.” “Your front foot stepped out.” “You’re dropping your shoulder.” “You were late.” “Gotta get your hips through.” And so on. You get the picture.

I felt bad for the poor kid because while all the things Dad was saying may have been true (I didn’t stop to watch because I had other things to do) I doubt the boy could make much sense of them.

The problem was there was so much scattered information coming at him at once it’s unlikely any of it was getting through. The kid probably felt like this.

Classic.

It was a prime example of what I call the “Whack-a-Mole” style of coaching. (It could also be called the “Magic Pill” style. My friend and pitching coach extraordinaire Anna Nickel from ElevatePitching calls it “Firefighter Coaching” because you’re constantly running from issue to issue trying to put out fires.)

You see an issue come up and you point it out, although you may or may not say how to correct it. On the next repetition, while the player is trying to fix whatever issue you pointed out, something else crops up so you immediately jump on that.

This pattern continues until the session comes to a merciful end. At which point the player is no further along, and perhaps even behind, where she was before.

There’s no doubt this is an easy pattern to fall into, especially if you’re personally invested in the player’s success. You see a problem and you want to fix it.

That’s human nature. I know I can be guilty of it myself (just ask my students), and constantly have to tell myself not to do it.

Guess who figured out how to upload GIFs today!

The problem with this approach is that even though everything being said is true, it’s not like you can fix an issue with one attempt. That’s where the magic pill concept comes in.

Just because a coach points out a flaw doesn’t mean a player can fix it right away. It takes many, many focused repetitions to replace an old habit with a new, better one.

Yet when you’re playing Whack-A-Mole, that whole focus thing goes right out the window. If you tell a player she’s dropping her hands, on the next swing she will (hopefully) work on keeping them up. Whack!

But then if you tell her she was late on her next swing (Whack!), her focus will switch to her timing. Since she hasn’t had time to fix the first issue, however, her hands will drop again as she concentrates on her timing (Whack!). Introduce a few more issues (Whack! Whack! Whack!) and her mind is probably somewhere else – quite possibly thinking she must be awful because there are so many things wrong with her, and maybe she should just give up the sport entirely. It happens.

A better approach is to choose one thing and work on that. Then, after the player gets the hang of it, you can try moving on to something else. But if the first issue crops up again immediately, you need to go back to working on that instead.

If you’re already aware of what needs to be fixed you can game plan ahead of time. Take the thing you believe to be the most glaring flaw, i.e., the one that is most likely to keep the player from having success, and work on that.

Only when it seems like the player can execute the new skill without having to hyper-focus on it should you try moving to the next one on the list.

If you don’t know the player that well, you’ll have to do the prioritizing on the fly. In that case, you should know what the most important issues are in general, in descending order, and just work through the checklist until you find what needs to be done.

For a pitcher, for example, you may see she has a very stiff arm from trying to make the circle too big. You might have her work on learning to loosen up the arm to allow it to work the way it should.

That approach will be much better than trying to have her learn to loosen up her arm, improve her drive mechanics and learn to hit her spots reliably.

The good news is, if you choose your priorities correctly, often fixing one issue will help with others as well. In the pitching example, loosening up the arm will enable the arm to whip, which will increase speed. It will also allow the momentum generated in the pitch to help guide the arm, impacting accuracy as well.

One other thing to keep in mind is that fixing skills such as hitting or pitching properly and permanently often requires you to focus on pieces rather than the full skill.

In the case of hitters, that might mean putting the player on a tee for a while rather than taking full swings. For a pitcher that may mean having her move up close and throwing into a wall or net rather than performing full pitches. The same with players who need to work on throwing.

For fielders, it could mean having balls sitting on the floor or ground, or rolling balls to them rather than hitting them. Some players may have a tough time with that approach at first, but they will benefit far more from it in the long run versus trying to fix problems within the full skill.

Whack-A-Mole may be a fun game to play at a carnival – especially if you have some pent-up aggression to work out, as we all seem to these days. But as a coaching approach it isn’t very effective.

Pick one thing to focus on and give your players time to learn it before moving on to something else. You’ll find you generate much better results – in far less time.

My Favorite Time of the Year

We are now in the process of entering my favorite time of the year. Not because the leaves are turning, pumpkin spice-everything is available and hoodies and sweaters can once again hide the fact that I didn’t achieve any of my summer weight loss goals.

Instead it’s because this is the time of year when fastpitch softball players are free to focus on making the major structural changes that will set them up for future success.

During most of the year, at least with the current obsession with playing more games more of the time, you have to be careful about making fundamental changes – at least with players who are already experiencing success. If you try to change the way a pitcher pitches, or a hitter hits, or a fielder throws, etc. there is always the risk that you might make the player worse before you make her better.

That is true even if the change is for the player’s long-term good. Let’s take a pitcher, for example.

She is doing well, racking up a K an inning and doing a good job of getting hitters out. She doesn’t give up many runs or walks, and overall is considered successful.

At the same time, however, you notice that her drive mechanics are weak. If she had a better push-off she’d be more stable when she lands, with better posture, giving her better control while enabling her to throw harder. All good things.

But you also realize that if you spend your time working on drive mechanics, two things will happen. First is she will probably lose a little speed and accuracy because now she has to think about pitching rather than just doing it, and there’s a good chance it will throw off the timing of the rest of her pitch because she’s not used to it. In other words, you will likely make her worse before you make her better.

Second is while you’re working on drive mechanics you’re not looking at the pitches (change-up, drop, rise, etc.) that enable her to mix things up and keep hitters off-balance. If anything is a little off on those pitches you won’t have the opportunity to tweak them and get them back on track – which means she could have some unusual trouble on game day.

That’s why I love this time of the year. With no pressure to perform tomorrow, or this weekend, you have the opportunity to flip the risk/reward ratio.

In-season, with a player who is already performing well, the risk of taking her off-track is significant while the reward is off in the distance since the types of changes I am talking about don’t happen overnight for the most part.

At this time of the year, however, the risk is pretty much non-existent while the potential for a long-term reward is huge.

Of course, the exception to all of the above is the player who is not performing too well to begin with. If you have a hitter who is leading the team in striking out, and whose “best” contacts don’t get out of the infield, there is really no risk in making big changes.

She really can’t get any worse. But if you can turn that around and help her start making more consistent, hard contact and getting on base, the reward is huge – and often paid in smiles and confidence that will serve her well in the future.

For everyone else, however, making changes in-season (and make no mistake, fall ball is now considered by most as a legitimate season instead of an add-on to the summer) must be done thoughtfully. In our instant gratification world, taking a player who is performing well and degrading that performance temporarily, even if it’s for her long-term good, will be a tough sell for everyone.

Which brings us back to now. The next few weeks are an opportune time to get started on the types of major changes that will pay off HUGE next spring.

So grab a pumpkin spice latte, take a few pictures of the fall colors, and get to work. Your future self will be happy you put in the effort now.

Fall leaves Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

First Impressions Aren’t Always Right

woman looking at sea while sitting on beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s Not the Arrow, It’s the Archer

adult archery beautiful beauty

The title of this week’s post is a phrase I use often, especially when I get asked about an equipment recommendation. But it can apply to a lot of things.

It seems like everyone is looking for the “magic bullet” – the bat, or gadget/device, or drill or technique or whatever that will, with no additional effort on their part, create a sudden and dramatic improvement in performance. In my experience, and the experience of many other coaches I’ve spoken with over the years, that magic bullet doesn’t exist.

Take bats, for example. Sure some bats have a better trampoline effect or are “hotter” than others (within the limitations set forth by the various sanctioning bodies) and thus with all else equal will provide an edge. But all else is rarely equal.

First of all, for all that bat technology to work you still have to hit the ball at the right time, and in the right location. If you’re not doing that now a new bat isn’t going to help.

It will look nicer in your bag, and people will be duly impressed when you take it out. But if you have a $500 bat and 5 cent swing they won’t stay impressed for long. It’s not the arrow, it’s the archer.

Since speed is such an important component in pitching, everyone is always looking for the magic drill that will help them gain 8 mph in one or two sessions. An entire industry of DVD sales and online courses has been built by that particular desire.

man wearing hoodie forming chakra wallpaper

You might, however, want to avoid taking lessons from this guy.

But again, if such a drill exists I’ve never found it. Neither has Rich Balswick, who is one of the best and most accomplished pitching coaches in the world.

I know, because I’ve talked to him about it. For all he has done he is still looking for that magical drill that can instantly turn a pitcher with average speed into a burner.

In fact, he told me if I ever discover it to pass it along to him. So far I have not been able to do so, and he hasn’t shared one either so I presume he’s still on the hunt as well.

Devices and gadgets are another area where people hope for miracles. Some are valuable teaching tools, like the Queen of the Hill or the Pocket Radar, and others are just fancier ways to lose money than flushing it down your toilet.

None, however, can instantly make you better just by purchasing them, or using them once or twice. Because it’s not the arrow, it’s the archer that makes the difference.

Then there are those who claim to have solved the mysteries of the Sphinx in terms of the techniques they teach. These same people tend to keep exactly what it is shrouded in mystery, as though if they told you (without you paying them huge sums of money) they would have to kill you.

sand desert statue pyramid

This is the same facial expression many coaches have when you miss a sign.

While there is certainly plenty of bad teaching going on in the softball world in all aspects of the game, it’s not like the optimal techniques are known only to a select, privileged few. The information is out there if you are willing to invest some time looking for it. (I like to think a lot of it is here, by the way, so feel free to poke around some more after you finish with this post.)

Of course, that’s the issue – investing some time. Most of us would much rather buy a “product” that promises instant, guaranteed results than recognize that learning athletic skills is a process that requires a lot of work, a lot of boring repetition, and paying a lot of attention to a lot of little details that can have a large impact on performance.

The first way sounds easier, doesn’t it? Too bad it doesn’t work.

The value of any piece of equipment, drill, gadget or technique lies with the person who is using it.

Put that $500 bat in the hands of a player with a 5 cent swing and it’s going to look like a waste of money. Put that same bat in the hands of a player who has invested the time to develop her swing, her eye at the plate and her mental approach and that same bat is going to look like the smartest thing you’ve ever spent money on.

Remember, it’s not the arrow that produces the results. It’s the archer. Invest your time and money in improving the archer and she’ll be successful no matter what arrow you give her. Spend all your time and money on the arrow and you’ll be forever disappointed.

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Archer photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Creepy magician photo by Nizam Abdul Latheef on Pexels.com
Sphinx photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Making the Most of Online Lessons

Ashley remote lesson

For those who read this in future years, as I write this post we here in Illinois we are still bracing for what is expected to be the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses are shuttered (including practice facilities) and we’ve all been told to stay home and practice social distancing.

Although it may not seem like it at times, eventually the danger will pass and our worries will go back to whether a runner was safe or out at home, how much playing time our daughters are getting and whether that six-foot-four flamethrowing pitcher on the other team is really 12 years old. So rather than letting players’ softball skills deteriorate completely (even as they become incredible at making Tik Tok videos) many instructors (including myself) have started offering online lessons.

(I know there are people who have done that for years, especially when distance has been an issue, but it’s new to me and I know it’s new to many others.)

It has definitely been a learning experience. Which I suppose is good because nothing keeps the mind sharp like having to learn something new.

For those who are wondering, I’ve been using Zoom. I tried a couple of other options, but if you want to use FaceTime you cut out everyone who doesn’t have an Apple product, and Skype requires both parties to have an account.

With Zoom the only one who needs an account is me. I create the meetings and send the links. The families just have to click on them when it’s time. And it’s free, which is nice.

So far I have found some good and, well, not bad but maybe less-than-ideal things about it. Let’s take a look at both.

The good

We’ll start with the positives because everyone can use a little lift these days. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits to me is the ability to really focus narrowly on specific aspects that need work.

In a live setting there is often a tendency to try to cover a lot in a short amount of time. Working something over-and-over can be tough, especially with today’s hyper-stimulated kids and their eight-second attention spans. (Yes, I know that figure is up for debate but it makes the point.)

goldfish in water

This goldfish has a longer attention span than most kids today. And looks pretty fierce.

In an online lesson, though, it is much easier to get hyper-focused on specific aspects such as posture or release for pitchers or maintaining the sequence for hitters. It also makes it easier to convince players (and parents) who are anxious to go full-distance with skills to stay in close and really work on the nuances – which is where elite players actually spend a lot of their time.

I haven’t done this yet, but Zoom offers the option to record each session. I’m definitely going to try that soon. It would be nice to have a reference to go back to with a lesson later.

I use video a lot, but it’s usually more of a snapshot in time of a couple of repetitions. If I had my own facility and could have a permanent set-up like Rick Pauly I might record every lesson in its entirety. But I already have a lot of set-up to do each time I go to a facility or field so I’m not looking to add more. Online lessons makes that option easy.

Accessibility is another big plus, especially for families with multiple children involved in multiple activities. It’s a lot easier for a working parent to squeeze in a half hour from home than it is to drive 40 minutes each way, plus the lesson time itself, when their other kids need to get to and from their activities. Although honestly that isn’t so much of an issue right now.

Finally, as an instructor it is forcing me to think of new ways to convey the same information. I can’t just rely on what I’ve always done, because some of the options (such as demonstrating a skill) aren’t as available.

Yes, I can back off my camera and sort of show what I’m talking about for small skills. But trying to demonstrate leg drive visually doesn’t work as well so I have to find other ways to produce the desired results. Which I believe will make me a better instructor in the long run.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing but for the time being I spend most of the lesson sitting in a comfy chair instead of walking around. And there is no heavy equipment to carry to a field or set up. If you’re lazy, and aren’t we all sometimes, it’s certainly the easy way to go.

The not-so-good

There are just some things that work better when you can demonstrate them. It’s kind of tough to do a good demonstration when you’re tied to a computer.

While I am still able to capture video on Coach’s Eye during the lesson, it’s kind of a kluge process. Basically I use my phone to shoot the video I see on my video monitor. When I want to play it back for the student, she has to get in close to her device, then I have to hold the phone up to my laptop’s camera and angle it so there is no glare. It gets the job done, but it’s night ideal.

The other video aspect is that my view of the student is limited to the camera’s point of view. If I want to move from looking at the student from the side to looking at her from the back I can’t just walk behind her. I have to ask someone on-site to physically move the camera, then fine-tune it so I can see what I want to see.

air aircraft airplane art

Of course, I could solve that issue by getting  one of these.

That’s not too bad with a phone or a tablet. It can be a little less convenient with a laptop because of the size. Regardless, it works best if you have a dedicated person for the camera so the moves can be made most efficiently.

One bit thing I miss is being able to take speed readings of every pitch, which is something I started doing recently. Unless the family has a set-up like mine, where you can run the radar continuously and have some sort of visible display you’re not going to be able to do it too easily. It’s always nice to see if the adjustments you’re making are having the desired effect.

Then there’s the personal relationship aspect, which I believe is critical for generating optimal results. One of the most important things any coach can do is create a personal connection with the people he/she is coaching. This is true not only in softball but in many aspects of life.

Creating that connection would be less effective, I think, if it was solely over an online system. Don’t get me wrong – it’s better than nothing. But there’s nothing like being together in the same space.

Fortunately, I already have that connection (or at least believe I do) with my current students so it’s not really an obstacle right now. I know them and they know me, so a video conference works. But it would probably be a lot tougher to build that same type of relationship with a net new student. (That said, if someone wants to give it a try let me know in the comments or contact me directly!)

Speaking of space, that can be one additional challenge for families versus going to a facility. Particularly right now while the weather is sort of iffy.

Today may be a beautiful day to go out into the back yard and throw a ball. Tomorrow and the next three days might be horrible between the rain or snow and the cold. If the student doesn’t have room indoors to throw, hit, whatever there’s not a whole lot you can do except work on strategy and the mental game until the weather gets better.

So there you have it – a few quick thoughts from my limited experience. The good news is those who have tried it so far seem to like it – especially the focus on specific aspects. They’re happy we’re able to continue working, even on a somewhat limited basis, so they’re ready for the season whenever it eventually comes.

Now I want to know what you think. Have you tried online lessons yet (not just with me but with anyone)? What did you like, and what didn’t you like? Is there anything you’ve liked better about online than in-person lessons?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below. And remember to wash your hands and stay safe!

 

Drone photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Goldfish photo by Gabriel P on Pexels.com

See Your Way Clear to Better Pitching Mechanics

beautiful blue eyes close up dhyamis kleber

Photo by Dhyamis Kleber on Pexels.com

When I have a young student who is having difficulty making the transition from close-up drills to full-distance (or nearly full distance) pitching, I will often tell her to close her eyes and picture that she is still throwing into the screen, net, tarp, backstop or whatever else we were just using. By taking the distraction of how far away the plate is she is then able to focus on the only end she can control – the end she is on.

It is amazing how often that works. Which is why, by the way, I am always amused at coaches who yell at catchers to “give her a bigger target” when the pitcher is having control trouble. I want to yell back “the catcher isn’t the problem; right now your pitcher couldn’t hit an archery target.”

But there is another side to this story. A pitcher’s eyes can be an important contributor to improving her mechanics if she learns how to use them correctly. That doesn’t mean staring down the target with a laser-like focus, however.

To the contrary, it often means doing the opposite, i.e., looking away from where she’s throwing to help her see what she can’t feel right now. Many of us our visual learners, and being able to see what we’re trying to do can help us get there faster and more effectively.

Here’s a good example. Many pitchers are taught that they should turn the ball toward second base at the top of the circle and have the hand on top of the ball as they come down the back side of the circle. That’s just flat-out wrong as you will see if you watch videos of what elite-level pitchers do.

But after months or years of drilling from the “T” position (both arms outstretched completely from the shoulders) with their hands facing down it can be a tough habit to break. They may be trying to keep the hand under the ball at 3:00 and pull it down into release, but they are unaware that they are first turning it over to start the motion.

Here’s where the eyes come in. From the “W” position (arms again outstretched, but this time with the hands shoulder-high and the elbows bent below to form a sort of W) have her turn her head back and watch her hand as she begins the throw. That way she can see immediately whether her hand turns over so she can learn to stop doing it.

Placing the focus of her vision on her hand also places the focus of her mind on staying palm-up, which helps shorten that learning curve. Once she starts down that way she is likely to stay that way into release, or at least close to it. If necessary she can always watch her hand all the way down.

If you do it from a short distance into a net or fence (instead of throwing to a catcher) you take out any concerns about accuracy which again lets her concentrate on the movement. Of course, if she gets the movement right her accuracy will improve anyway so it’s a win-win.

Another way to use the eyes in a creative way is with pitchers who are having trouble going straight down the power line. They launch out and end up either way to the right or way to the left, neither of which is conducive to great pitching.

If you’re using a pitching mat that already has a line in it, or you’ve drawn a power line in the dirt outdoors, have your pitcher look at the line instead of at the catcher.

img_0924

Like this one, only without the worn-out spot.

 

Remember that one of the big reasons for going down the power line is so the pitcher can throw the ball where she is supposed to instead of going all over the place. By using her eyes to go down the line you just might find that her accuracy improves even though she’s not looking at the target at all.

This is much the same principle you’re supposed to use in bowling, incidentally. Great bowlers don’t look at the pins. They look at those little arrows on the lanes and try to throw the ball there. (I can hear some of you already saying “Oh, THAT’S what those arrows are for.”)

They know if they get the ball in just the right place on the arrows, the far end (where the pins are) will take care of itself. So it is with pitchers and the power line.

Mirrors (or any reflective surface such as a window) can also be very helpful in correcting pitching issues. Do you have a pitcher who struggles to maintain good left-right posture at release (i.e., she leans out to her throwing-hand side)?

Put a vertical line on a mirror with masking or painter’s tape, have the pitcher line her center up with it, and then have her throw a rolled up pair of socks or a Nerf ball into the mirror. As she gets to release, she should see whether she is vertical or leaning out to the side. A few dozen repetitions should have her feeling when she has good posture and when she is leaning.

The mirror is also a great way to see if her hips are remaining stacked up under her shoulders or if she is clearing space to the side or making a “monkey butt” move. If the hips aren’t stacked up under the shoulders and turned in 45 degrees or so to the plate it’s difficult if not impossible to get a brush trigger.

By checking her hip position in the mirror, the pitcher can make sure she has the optimal posture to deliver the ball with the greatest velocity and accuracy.

These are just a few examples. The key takeaway is that the pitcher’s eyes don’t have to be locked on to the catcher’s glove or some other target to be effective.

If she is having trouble learning a move, apply visual learning principles and have her use her eyes to see what she needs to do and whether she’s actually doing it. It can make all the difference in the world.

And if you’ve had a pitcher use her eyes to watch a part of the pitch to make a correction please be sure to share what you did in the comments below so the rest of us can learn.

 

Main image by Dhyamis Kleber on Pexels.com
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