Category Archives: Instruction

Think of Coaching Like Google Maps

Coaches are like Google Maps - you still have to drive

In my travels through the fastpitch softball world, one of the things that continues to amaze me is the perception that if a player can just get with the “right” coach or the “right” instructor, all her (and her parents’) prayers will be answered and all her problems will be solved.

As someone who has been at this for more than 20 years now, I can tell you that’s simply not the case. Getting the right coach, i.e., one who understands the optimal mechanics for a particular skill, how to apply them in a game situation, the mental aspects around them, and most of all how to teach them, is important. The wrong coach can definitely set you back.

But that’s still only half the battle. The other half is the work the player must put in to ingrain those skills into her DNA so they are available at a moment’s notice, without having to think about them.

To understand what the coach contributes v the player, think of the coach as being like Google Maps (or whatever your favorite GPS app is). The coach will show you the way, mapping out the step-by-step path for optimizing all those important factors while avoiding known hazards. But the player still has to get in the “car” and “drive.” Without that second part, the first part is just a wish.

Now, obviously, Google Maps is of little value if the information isn’t accurate. That’s why you want to seek out a coach who knows what he/she is doing. Anyone who has been driving for a while has had that experience where Google or another direction-giving app has taken us to a run-down industrial park, a random cornfield, a road that no longer exists, or some other godforsaken location rather than our intended destination.

Fortunately, in the last few years direction-giving apps have gotten much better. Still, until they’re hooked into self-driving cars they can only show you how to get where you’re going. You still have to do the driving.

So what does this mean to fastpitch softball players? Just that being on the right team with a great coach, or going once a week to a private instructor (no matter what his/her record of success is) isn’t enough. You have to practice, practice, practice. Not until you get it right but until you can’t do it wrong.

You have to be mindful when you practice too, not just watch the clock to see if you’re putting in the time. Work on doing what you’ve been shown. Be aware when you’re not doing it. Learn what it feels like to do it right, so you know when you’re doing it wrong.

How important is that? I can tell you from personal experience that all of the best, most successful players I’ve worked with were also the hardest workers. The better they got, the better they wanted to get.

As they became more accomplished their workload didn’t go down. It went up. They would constantly refine their skills, looking for any improvements they could make that would give them a competitive edge. The ratio between work and improvement would change, with more work yielding less improvement because there was less improvement to be had.

That’s the silver lining for younger/newer/less accomplished players, however. A little bit of work can yield a lot of improvement, and create the success that makes you hungry for more.

Again, however, you can’t just open a direction-giving app – no matter how good it is – plug in the directions, and expect to get somewhere. You have to hop in the car and drive.

Make the commitment and you’ll find you get to your destination a whole lot faster.

 

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Fastpitch softball pitching: understanding the back side of the circle

In fastpitch pitching, the ball faces forward, not toward second base, at the top of the circle

I can’t believe we’re still having this discussion in 2018 (as I write this, for those of you finding it in the future as you ride along in your self-driving, flying cars) but it’s amazing to me how many players, parents, team coaches, and yes, even pitching coaches, don’t understand what the arm throwing arm should be doing on the back side of the circle. That’s the part where the ball goes from directly overhead to down and through release.

I see it when I’m walking through a facility or past a field where someone is giving a pitching lesson. I hear it from parents of my students telling me horror stories about their daughter’s first practice with the new team coach. I get emails from around the country about it.

The story is pretty much the same. Whoever is offering the “instruction” says the following: “At the top of the circle, point the ball toward second base, with your arm stretched high. Then push the ball face down through the back side of the circle, until you get to the bottom. Then snap your wrist and finish high, with your elbow pointed at the catcher.” That last part is often referred to as a “hello elbow.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. I could tell you all the technical reasons why it’s not a good idea – how it hurts speed and accuracy, how it works against the way our bodies are designed, and so forth. But probably the best reason not to do it is this: NO HIGH-PERFORMING PITCHER DOES THAT. Not even the ones who tell you to do it.

Why? Because it hurts speed and accuracy, works against the way our bodies are designed, etc. And ultimately limits your ability to do your very best.

No need to debate the point, however. Let’s just take a look at what a few very high-level, successful pitchers do when they pitch. Run the videos, then pause them at the top and see which way the ball is facing. Then take a look at what they do through the rest of the circle – bent elbow v. straight arm, whipping the ball through the zone from back to front, long, loose, natural release instead of a forced arm raise. HINT: Once the video is paused, you can step through it by pressing the “,” key to move backwards and the “.” to go forwards.

Yukiko Ueno

Amanda Scarborough

Monica Abbott

Kelly Barnhill

Sarah Pauly

I could point to more, but you get the point. Of course, if you want to see more, go to YouTube, search for a top pitcher and watch the video. You’ll find they do the same thing (more or less, depending on the pitch).

Now, I realize I’m running the risk of the Backfire Effect. Parents who are investing money in their kids being taught those poor mechanics, or pitching coaches who are making money teaching them, may decide to double down on their beliefs. No one likes to admit they’re wrong.

But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case in the videos.

If you’re a parent taking your daughter to pitching lessons, and you hear her being told to turn the ball toward second and push it face-down through the back of the circle, my advice to you is to politely stop the lesson, feign a family emergency, and run (not walk) away. Then find a pitching coach who teaches what you see in the videos above.

If you’re a pitching coach teaching that stuff, it’s time to refresh your knowledge so you can be sure you’re helping your students become the best they can be. Presumably, that’s what you’re in it for, so use the tools we have available today to find out what makes the best the best, and teach to that standard. It’s not easy changing what you’re doing – I’ve had to do it before – but it’s worth the effort.

Getting Your Money’s Worth Out of Softball Private Instruction

Garden Kneepad Article 010

If there’s one thing I think nearly everyone in the softball world can agree on these days it’s that softball private instruction isn’t cheap. Especially in areas where you have to be indoors for at least part of the year.

The facility costs alone can get quite expensive. Then add in the cost for the instructor and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart – or wallet.

A dedicated family can easily spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars by the time it’s all added up, particularly if the instruction goes on for a few years.

That’s why it often shocks me how little effort so many parents seem to put into the decision. If they were buying a new lawn mower, or a refrigerator, or a set of tires for their car they’d probably do tons of research.

They’d look for professional reviews, they’d look for user ratings, they’d compare specs, and maybe even go to a store and look the item over.

That’s why items in this price range (and above) are called “considered purchases.” You don’t just buy them on a whim. You put some thought into the decision because it’s going to put a dent into your wallet and you’re probably going to have to live with whatever you choose for a while.

The cost of softball private instruction can easily surpass all of those items. You’re just doing it on a per-lesson “payment plan.” Yet based on what I’ve seen so many people accept, it seems they go into that expensive purchase that can have so much impact on their daughter’s softball career blind.

Here in the digital age, with a world of knowledge just a few clicks away at most, there’s simply no reason to get anything less than a full return on your softball investment. Here are some ways to make sure you do.

Do your homework on what is good

This is probably the easiest and yet most-ignored piece of advice. I think many parents start out by looking for an instructor who is close to them. To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse.

Before you go looking for instructors, do some homework on what you want your daughter’s instructor to teach. Put in some time to learn what is currently considered the state of the art for hitting, pitching, catching, throwing, fielding, etc.

See what well-known, high-level instructors and coaches are saying. Many of them generously share their knowledge on YouTube, or on sites such as the Discuss Fastpitch Forum. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am also the administrator at the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, but it is a free resource with open discussions, not a selling site, thanks to the generosity of Marc Dagenais.)

There are plenty of quality paid sites as well, and some with a mixture of free and paid information such as Cindy Bristow’s Softball Excellence, and (hopefully soon) Fastpitch Foundations for pitching.

Once you start getting your feet wet into it, the other thing you can do is look at what high-level players do and see how that lines up with what you’re reading/watching in the instructional materials. You’d be amazed at how many people, even the players themselves, don’t actually understand how high-level players execute their skills.

Check them out on YouTube and other sites, and watch as many high-level games on TV as you can. You’ll start to see the similarities.

Many myths abound, so it’s important to gain as much understanding as you can before you go into it. That way, when you’re evaluating instructors you’ll have a better chance of selecting one who is teaching the techniques actually being used by high-level players.

Watch other local players

Once you have a decent understanding of the instruction you’re looking for, it’s time to start investigating your options. A good way to do that is to observe players, either in games or a practice session, who look to have the techniques you want your daughter to acquire. Then ask them (or their parents) who their instructor is.

Be careful, however, not to confuse “good” with “well-trained.” A gifted athlete – one loaded with lots of fast-twitch muscles and/or exceptional hand/eye coordination, for example – can be successful with no training or even poor training.

(In the latter case, they usually end up not doing anything they instructor says because their body just figures out what do. But they still think they’re doing what they’ve been told.)

That, incidentally, is why looking at an instructor’s record of developing high-level players (think: college) isn’t always an accurate indicator of his/her quality. It’s tough to know how many of them would have succeeded without that coach – or did succeed in spite of him/her. It takes a lot more than “the right instructor” to reach that level.

What you’re looking for instead are players who execute the skills properly, as you understand them from your research. If they don’t appear to be the greatest natural athletes so much the better, because then you know their success is due to their training and dedication.

Last summer I had a perfect case study of how this works. I received a call out of the blue from a father whose daughter is a catcher. They live about an hour’s drive away (with traffic), so it wasn’t a decision he was entering into lightly.

But he said he’d seen a really outstanding catcher in one of their tournament games and he asked where she learned her skills. The parents referred him to me, and I’ve been working with his daughter ever since.

I’m sure he passes a whole host of instructors to get to me, but it doesn’t matter. Because he knows his daughter is being trained in a way that matches his expectations.

Have a conversation

Once you think you’re on the right track, have a conversation with any potential instructors. Get a feel for their knowledge level and what they teach.

One thing you want to determine is whether they take a “cookie cutter” approach, using the same drills and progressions for everyone, or whether they customize the instruction to the student.

It will take some players longer to grasp certain concepts or movements. A good instructor will keep them working to become at least competent at those skills before moving them on to the next one.

Others will grasp the concepts or movements right away. In those cases there is no sense in lingering on them because the stock lesson plan says “on lesson 7 we do this.” Move on.

Do what you can to determine how much the instructor customizes the instruction. Again, a good instructor will teach the same things to all of his/her students. But he/she will do it differently for each.

That conversation is also the time to ask questions. If you know you don’t want your daughter learning certain techniques, such as “hello elbow” for pitching or “squish  the bug” for hitting, ask the instructor about it. An informed parent is a smart parent.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for the “why” behind what the instructor teaches. If there isn’t a “why,” I suggest you politely excuse yourself and move on to the next instructor. Everything should have a purpose.

Do a chemistry test

So you think you’ve found an instructor who has the knowledge and experience to train your daughter properly. The last test is to see what the chemistry is like between the instructor and your daughter.

We all have different personalities and ways of learning. And sometimes people just rub us the wrong way for no apparent reason. That’s life.

If there is a chemistry mismatch, lessons are going to be a drudge for both the instructor and student. You and your daughter will presumably be spending a lot of time working with this instructor, so you want to be sure they are working together as a team.

Also, you know your daughter better than the instructor ever will. You should be able to read her body language and enthusiasm level. A good coach will inspire her to do her best and help her feel good about the learning process.

If that’s not what you’re seeing in a conversation between the instructor and your daughter, or a sample lesson, you may want to continue your search.

Monitor success

Once you’ve made a selection, you’re not done. Keep monitoring to see how things are going.

Is your daughter getting better? Is her technique moving toward what you saw on TV from those high-level players? Is she gaining confidence in herself and her abilities?

The change is unlikely to be instant. It’s more likely to be incremental, with some frustrations and setbacks along the way. But over time you should be seeing speed and accuracy increases in pitcher, better blocking from catchers, stronger and more frequent hits from hitters, etc.

And perhaps someday some random parent will come up to you at a game or tournament and say, “Your daughter is really good. Do you mind telling me who her instructor is?”

Ultimately, however, the best ROI is the smile on your daughter’s face when she is successful and feeling good about herself. That’s when you’ll know it’s all been worthwhile.

 

Just Like Novacaine

IMG_2007

One of my favorite lines in the movie “Remember the Titans” is the one where Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) is describing his offense. “I run six plays, split veer” he says, “It’s like Novacaine. Just give it time, it always works.”

Here’s the actual scene, just for fun.

That’s the way it is when you’re working on developing good fastpitch softball mechanics.

Sometimes it may not seem like you’re headed in the right direction. It’s rarely an instant fix – nice as that would be.

But if you’ve done your homework and know you’re trying to learn the mechanics top players use, there’s no need to panic. Give it sufficient time and it will work.

That’s often a problem for players, parents, and even coaches these days, however. They don’t want to give it time. They want it to work now.

One of the challenges, of course, is that they usually need those skills right away. There isn’t much of an off-season these days, even up in the frozen north, so it seems like there’s always a game coming up.

It could take weeks or months before a player is comfortable with new mechanics after a significant change, and can execute them without thinking (or over-thinking) about them. In the meantime, she’ll have some success and some failure.

Pitchers will struggle with control and consistency. Hitters will miss balls they might have otherwise hit. Catchers will drop a ball or two when trying to throw a runner out on a steal, fielders will overthrow bases, and so on. It can be frustrating, and everyone will wonder if maybe the player wasn’t better off before.

But again, if she’s learning the right mechanics the answer is yes. Once she locks them in, she’ll be a far better player than she was before.

So keep that in mind. Learning new things takes time. But if you’re learning the right things, there’s no doubt about it. It always works. Just like Novacaine.

Getting the feel of dragging the changeup

I could have sworn I have posted this before, but I just ran a bunch of searches and couldn’t find it so just in case here it goes again.

One of the keys to throwing an effective backhand change is to pull or drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first rather than pushing it ball first. Or snapping it like a fastball.

Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for pitchers to get that feeling. That’s what the drill shown at the top of this post is for, demonstrated by a former student of mine named Tayler Janda (helped by her mom Jennie) back when she was in high school.

Essentially, you set the pitcher up with her feet apart so they won’t move. Then have her grasp a swim noodle with her knuckles facing forward. When you say go, she pulls the noodle out of your hand and flings it forward. (NOTE: have her try to do it without spinning her shoulders like Tayler is doing in the video.)

The goal of this drill is to get the pitcher to feel what it’s like to hold onto the ball until she reaches forward as far as she can go before releasing, and to maintain speed all the way through.

A few repetitions and she should start to get the feel. The nice thing about this drill is you can do it indoors on a rainy day just as easily as you can on a field or in a cage.

If you have (or are) a pitcher who is having trouble finding the proper release on your change, give this one a try.

There are no magic beans in softball

There are no magic beans in fastpitch softball

Talk to fastpitch softball coaches, parents, and players and the one thing you’ll find in common is everyone is looking for that one magic solution that will instantly up their games.

Pitchers (and their parents) are always hoping to find that one magical drill or method of teaching that will instantly take them from the low 50 mph range to 60+ mph.

Hitters (and their parents) are looking for that magical drill that will help them go from striking out a lot and hitting weak grounders to driving the ball over the fence. Failing that, they hope a new bat will do the trick.

Fielders, baserunners, everyone at every stage hopes they can discover that secret no one else knows and instantly claim a tremendous advantage over the competition. Instructors know this too, and either get frustrated by it or take advantage of it by giving their instruction method a cool-sounding name and then marketing it as though their version of sound mechanics is different from everyone else’s.

The reality is there are no magic beans in fastpitch softball – no secret drills or approaches no one else knows about. What there is is what many players and parents view as the last resort – hard work.

That’s not just my opinion. I’ve spoken with some of the top instructors in the country, people with tremendous resumes and a track record of developing quality players. Every one of them says the same thing.

I once had a chance to ask a well-known and well-respected pitching coach if he knew of any specific drill or technique to get a pitcher over 60 mph. He said, “I wish I did.” He then went on to say there are things you can do to help, but there are no guarantees.

In my experience, becoming an elite-level softball player requires a few things, some of which you can control and some of which you can’t:

  1. It definitely helps to have athletic DNA, the kind that develops fast twitch muscles in bulk. For that you have to choose your parents well. Great DNA makes up for a lot of other ills, by the way.
  2. For most, it also takes sound mechanics. That requires great instruction and a lot of long, boring hours developing those mechanics. Yes, there are players with terrible mechanics who succeed anyway, but they are not the norm. See point #1. For the rest, great mechanics will help make up for a lack of natural athletic ability. For the skill you want to develop, learn what great mechanics are by watching what great players do and learning as much as you can from credible sources, then seek out an instructor who teaches it.
  3. You need to have the mental game to keep working and trying to improve, even in the face of failure. Think of that old joke about the person who invented 6UP soda. Ooooh, so close! Being able to push through disappointment, or to keep cool and focused when every fiber of your being wants to panic or give up, is a huge asset. Not just in softball but in anything you pursue.
  4. You need to be in great softball shape. I put this at the end because I find it to be more like spice in the dish than the dish itself. If you have poor mechanics or a weak mental game it’s probably not going to matter if you’re in great shape or not. Lots of players have looked good getting off the bus in their shorts, only to fail repeatedly when they put on their uniforms. But if you’re already well on your way toward being mechanically and mentally sound, being in great softball shape is often a huge difference-maker. It can make up a lot for the lack of #1.

There’s no question it would be nice if there actually was some magic drill or method that could instantly make you better, or guarantee you’ll be successful without all that boring practice time. As I always tell my students, if I could just lay may hand on their head and say, “Go forth and play! You are healed” I’d be charging $1,000 per lesson and there would be a mile-long line to get some of that. Because that’s the dream.

But there isn’t – and don’t let anyone tell you there is. If you want to become the player you’re meant to be, don’t fall for fancy marketing lines and promises of instant or guaranteed greatness. Because no matter what you learn and who teaches you, the bulk of your success – like 90% of it – depends not on them but on you.

So while there are no magic beans that will make you an overnight success, there is a path to it. And the beauty is you can control a lot of that path. You just have to be willing to put in the effort.

 

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Sustainable sanitation at http://flickr.com/photos/23116228@N07/6908811713. It was reviewed on  by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Empty repetitions are like empty calories

Empty practice repetitions are like empty calories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

I love questions. You should too.

Fastpitch softball coaches should love questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a more effective practice plan

The key to a successful practice is to keep things moving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping young fastpitch pitchers learn to focus

Throwing to a target helps ratchet up the focus.

One of the fun but challenging aspects of working with very young fastpitch softball players (under about 10 years old) is getting them to focus for any length of time. There are usually lots of things going on in their heads at any given time, and the slightest activity anywhere else can distract them in a major way.

That can be a problem at any position. But it gets even more noticeable with pitchers. As a fastpitch pitcher you have to be able to dial in to the strike zone. Visualizing the pitch location before you throw it is helpful for improving accuracy. That’s tough to do, however, when the three ring circus is playing in your head.

This is where playing to the player’s competitive nature can be a real asset. Giving her something specific to do, with a prize attached, can help drive that focus level right up.

I actually stole this idea from Cindy Bristow at Softball Excellence. It came in one of her newsletters, which are a great source for drills and games.

Set up a tee on the plate, and place a ball on top of it. Then challenge the pitcher to knock the ball off the tee with a pitch. You’ll be amazed at how quickly she gets dialed in.

That’s what we did here with Kaitlyn, the girl in the accompanying video. She was having a bit of trouble focusing on this day, so I set up the tee and put a 14 inch ball on top of it. It probably would’ve been more fair to use a basketball or soccer ball, but I decided to challenge her.

In the beginning, I offered her a sucker if she knocked it off. Her mom immediately upped the ante and offered her a milkshake on the way home if she succeeded. We then spent the last 10 minutes of that lesson with her pitching balls at the tee. The rule was she had to hit it directly – no fair bouncing the ball into the tee so it falls off. Also she had to use good mechanics, not just aim the ball at the target any old way.

That first night she came close a bunch of times but didn’t quite get it. The following week her mom told me Kaitlyn was in a foul mood on the way home. She really wanted that milkshake.

The video is from that next lesson. We gave her 15 minutes this time. Kaitlyn ratcheted up the focus, and was right around it for much of that time. Thinking she needed a little extra help to succeed, I had her little sister stand directly behind the tee on the other side of the net. A few more throws and Bingo! Success!

Of course as Han Solo says, good against a remote is one thing. Good against the living is something else.

Today I heard Kaitlyn earned a game ball for her pitching. Two scoreless innings with a couple of strikeouts.

I wouldn’t say it was all in the drill. She put in a lot of hard work throughout the off-season. But I will say it helped.

If you have a pitcher who could use a little help zoning in during practice give this drill a try.

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