Category Archives: Instruction

The Challenge of Making Changes

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” This quote, generally attributed to car magnate Henry Ford, explains in a nutshell why fastpitch players, parents and coaches should constantly be seeking new information and new techniques. After all, who doesn’t want to get better?

What’s hidden underneath the surface, however, is a fairly large obstacle: change is (or at least can be) difficult. Which means even if you’re making the right changes for the right reasons it doesn’t always work right away.

How many times have you watched a pitcher attempt to improve her mechanics and seen her speed go down a little instead of up? How many times have you watched a hitter take her swing from looking like an unmade bed to a well-organized attack and yet she suddenly struggles to hit the ball as hard as she did?

At that point its tempting to wonder if you’re actually helping her, or if she is helping herself. Why is she losing ground instead of gaining it?

To answer that question I have a little challenge for you. If you are over the age of 5 I presume you know how to use a fork and a spoon competently enough to feed yourself without making a mess. You can probably do so fairly quickly, without thinking about it.

Or you can just do this.

Now try switching hands and doing the same. In other words, if you normally eat with your right hand, try eating with your left. (For extra challenge, try it with chopsticks, especially if you are not native to them.)

Suddenly, something you do every day without even thinking about it becomes more awkward and difficult. You have to think about how to scoop/stab the food to keep it on the spoon/fork/chopsticks, the angle of the utensil as it approaches your mouth, keeping the utensil steady as you get close to your mouth and a few other things you probably haven’t considered since you were a toddler.

And if you go long enough, or try to go too fast, you will probably find some of that food dribbling down your chin or dropping into your lap. You will probably also take longer than if you had used your usual hand.

Not exactly a good look.

It’s not that you don’t know how to eat. It’s that you’re doing it in a way that is unfamiliar.

That is the same experience athletes typically have when they are trying to make changes or learn something new. The technique they were using previously may not have been ideal, but they were comfortable with it and could execute it quickly and without thinking.

Now, as they try something unfamiliar, those same movements feel awkward and uncomfortable. They actually have to think about what they’re doing, and that slows the entire process.

So rather than quick, energy-driven, ballistic body movements they’re making movements that are labored – slowed by the conscious thought of trying to do what they’re now supposed to do.

So what’s the solution? Time. You know, that thing that all of us try to rush through to get to the great results.

Essentially what has to happen is the new movements have to be able to be performed with the same comfort level as the old ones to see the gains. That doesn’t usually happen right away, even with elite athletes.

Instead, it takes conscious work and effort to learn the new movements properly and build the confidence required to execute them with 100% energy.

The best way to do that is start slowly and work from short distances, preferably into a net, wall or other large surface. Get the feel of the new movements, then gradually increase the speed.

The coach or athlete should use video to check her movements and be sure she is not falling back into old habits as speed increases. If she is falling into old habits, slow it back down, get it right, then try increasing the speed again.

Once she is comfortable at a good speed, start moving toward a more game-like experience. For pitchers (and overhand throwing), that’s increasing the distance to see if the quick movements can be maintained.

For hitters, it’s moving off the tee into front toss – easy at first, then gradually increasing the speed. If you have access to a pitching machine and can feed it competently, you can use that as another step before having the hitter face a live pitcher.

This gradual, stepped progression will give the athlete an opportunity to replace old habits with new in a way that allows her to focus on the process, not the outcomes. By the time outcomes come into play she should be able to execute the skill with full energy and attack – at which point you will see the gains you’re looking for.

What a concept!

It’s not easy to do this. Most athletes just want to do the full skill rather than step through progressions, at least a first. But it’s worth it in the long run.

If you have an athlete who is working to make changes but not seeing the benefits yet, be patient and trust the process. If she’s working on the right changes, and working diligently, it will happen.

In the meantime, grab that carton of chow mein and try eating it with the opposite hand. It will give you a greater appreciation of just how difficult it can be to do something old in a new way.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Product Review: OnForm Video Analysis and Messaging Software

One of the most important tools a coach or instructor can have in their toolbox (and on their phone) is a video analysis app.

The ability to provide instant, visual feedback, including the ability to mark it up like John Madden diagramming a football play, is invaluable in helping players develop. As is the ability to review it later and offer more in-depth analysis.

I started many years ago with the mobile version of RightViewPro, then moved to Coaches Eye, which I’ve probably used for 10 years or more. It could be clunky at times, especially because if you wanted to be able to search for a particular player’s video later you had to manually tag each one after you shot it, but it got the job done.

Then in September I received an email from TechSmith, the creators of Coaches Eye, that they had decided to discontinue the product and would no longer be supporting it. They generously gave a one-year sunset period, but it meant I had to find a new app to use for my students.

I had played around with Hudl Technique before, but when I checked them out I discovered that product was also going away because it was being replaced by an app called OnForm, which is available on the Apple and Android platforms. I decided to check it out, and let me tell you I am very glad I did.

(At this point I think it’s important to point out that I purchased OnForm with my own money, and I am not being compensated in any way for this review nor do I get anything if you click a link or download the product. I have no affiliation with them whatsoever. I am strictly sharing my experience with the product to help you if you’re looking for a video analysis app for your own use.)

Core Usability

OnForm takes what most of us liked about Coaches Eye and similar apps and kicks it up a notch. For example, you can specify higher capture rates (up to 1080p) and shutter speeds to minimize blurring when you capture a video. Very handy, especially in the lower light conditions you typically find indoors.

Rather than storing all your videos on your device forever, OnForm lets you choose how long after you shoot them you want to keep them. After that they are stored in the cloud, where you can access them on-demand.

One of the best overall features, especially if you are a coach or instructor, is how the videos are organized. You create a folder for each player on the main page by clicking on the + button in the upper right hand corner and following the directions. You can choose whether you want to add a person for one-to-one coaching, add a team, or connect with another user who has sent you an invite code.

Once you’ve set up your first player, all the rest follow the same template for sport and role, so all you have to do is fill in the name. It just takes seconds to set someone up, but from then on you can open their folder and all the videos you shoot automatically are saved to that folder.

As someone who shoots a lot of video, sometimes in a single night, that is a huge time-saver. The videos within each folder are saved by date, and you can choose whether to share them with the player/parent automatically or just keep them to yourself. You can even import outside videos in other apps on your device, although only on a one-off basis unless you are importing them from Hudl Technique.

Live Analysis

Now let’s talk about usability. When you open the video you have a pretty standard toolset where you can mark straight lines and arrows, freehand lines and arrows, circles, squares/rectangles and even a single line that shows the degree of tilt or angle.

Additionally, there is an angle tool that not only lets you measure various angles initially but also enables you to change the angle if you did it wrong by clicking on it. Former Coaches Eye users will really appreciate that. Actually, you can do that with any of your markings but it’s particularly useful on the angle measurement tool.

You also have some interesting tools such as a stopwatch so you can measure how long it takes to execute a skill and a measurement tool that lets you mark distance. For the latter, think of measuring a hitter’s or a pitcher’s stride, or how far a bunt traveled, etc. As long as you know one reliable dimension you can mark that and OnForm will make the rest of the calculations for you.

Perhaps the coolest tool, and one they just added a couple of days ago (late November 2021 for those reading this later) is the skeleton tracking tool.

With the click of an icon OnForm will automatically mark every joint in the body and draw lines between them. Then, as you play or scrub the video, the skeleton lines will move with the player providing an unprecedented look at how how/she is moving through space. If the sequence of movements is important to you, you’re going to love this tool’s ability to display it.

Incidentally, the skeleton tracking overlay isn’t just for new videos. You can apply it to any video you’ve shot.

The toolset is rounded out by several additional capabilities, including:

  • The ability to play videos through at full, 1/2, and 1/4 speed off a dropdown menu
  • Two scrubbing tools – one which moves quickly through the movement, letting you go back and forth, plus a wheel that makes much finer movements so you can show subtle details
  • An undo button to remove one line, circle, etc. at a time as well as a clear button to remove all markings
  • A compare button that allows you to bring in a second video, whether it’s a previous video from that player or a pro example you’ve stored in a Reference Content folder, to provide a side-by-side comparison
  • The ability to flip the video, which is handy if you want to, say, compare Cat Osterman or Monica Abbott to your right-handed pitcher
  • Ability to trim the video to get rid of time between activities or other excess footage
  • Editable titles and tags so you can mark exactly what was happening (such as which pitch a pitcher was throwing)
  • Ability to edit the name, I suppose in case you got it wrong or the name changes
  • Ability to save certain videos as favorites so you can find them more easily later

That’s a lot of capabilities, right? But we’re not done yet!

Recorded Analysis/Online Lessons

If you want to wait until later to analyze the video and then share the file with the player or parent, you can also do that. The Record feature gives you the option of recording the screen and live sound or just the screen.

You can pause the video in the middle or record straight through. Once it’s recorded it automatically plays a preview so you can check your work.

From there you can save the video as-is, trim the front or back, or discard it. If you’re happy with it you can share it directly through OnForm (if you’ve invited the player to join) or through email, messaging or some other app.

Pricing

Ok, now it’s time to get to the nitty-gritty. OnForm offers four different packages depending on your needs. Each comes with a one-week free trial so you can see whether it’s what you want. Be sure to double-checking pricing here since it may have changed since this blog post was written.

The first is a Free package that limits you to 10 videos in your account. If you don’t think you’ll be using it much, but want the option to shoot the occasional video, this one should work for you.

Next up is the Personal package, If you’re working with your own kids only (as opposed to coaching a team or being an instructor) this one should work for you. For $5/month or $49/year you can capture, store and analyze up to 500 videos as well as create up to 5 analysis videos in a 30-day period.

The Coach package (which is the one I have in case you’re interested) provides unlimited videos and analyses/voice over lessons for one coach, as well as allowing any invited athletes to upload unlimited videos to you for free. It also gives you the ability to create notes to go with each video and broadcast lists to reach multiple players at once. This package isn’t cheap, at $29/month or $299/year, but if you plan to use it a lot I think you’ll find it’s worth it.

Finally, OnForm offers the Team/Academy package, which includes everything in the Coach package along with the ability to create three (3) coach accounts rather than one so multiple coaches can access and use the same videos. That one is $69/month or $699/year. It’s probably best-suited to collegiate teams, large travel programs or facilities that offer teams.

My Take

So how is it in practice (no pun intended)? I think it’s tremendous, and a significant upgrade over the products I’ve used in the past.

Creating the videos and marking them up is fast, easy and reliable. They are really helpful with illustrating what is happening and what needs to be done. For pitchers I love being able to draw a single line and show the forward/backward tilt of their bodies.

As previously mentioned I love the way the videos are organized. Rather than having to come home and tag each video, they’re already in the right folders and available. I’ve even moved some videos into one of the Reference Content folders so I can easily call them up to show what famous fastpitch players do.

The analysis tools are easy to use as well, and I definitely love being able to easily discard a video and start over rather than having to wait for it to render (as I did in Coaches Eye) before I could delete one I knew went bad.

Do I wish it was cheaper? Of course, who wouldn’t? But the value is there, and OnForm is continuing to develop the product and add new features so as long as the value is there I think it’s worth paying the price.

Finally, there is their support. When I contacted them to ask why the skeleton tracking feature wasn’t showing up in my iPad they got back to me within 12 hours to explain you need an A12 chip or higher for that feature to be available.

Bummer, but at least they got back to me quickly which is great. They also have a way for users to request new features (I’m going to ask for a clock face drawing tool), and a blog to keep you up-to-date when something new is introduced.

I wholeheartedly recommend OnForm as a training tool for fastpitch softball players. As a bonus, you can use it for many other sports and activities as well, so if you have, say, a softball player and a golfer, one instance will work for both.

Check out the free one-week trial. I think you’re going to let what you find.

8 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Skill-Specific Clinics

I recently had the privilege of working with Rick and Sarah Pauly (Pauly Girl Fastpitch), along with several of the top pitching coaches in the U.S., at a pitching clinic hosted by Jay Bolden. There were two sessions: the first for beginning/intermediate pitchers that focused on the fundamentals of good mechanics, and a second for more advanced pitchers where we did a lot of data measurement using various technologies such as 4DMotion for overall mechanics and kinetic sequence, Diamond Kinetic Balls for spin direction and rates, Pocket Radar for speed, as well as stations that focused on improving the rise and drop.

It was quite an opportunity for the participants to learn about pitching. Yet when it was all over a few of us had a discussion about how some of them had squandered that opportunity.

So that’s what today’s blog post is about: some tips that will help future campers ensure they get the most from the time they spend. And their parents get the most from their investment.

Tip #1: Come with an open mind

Perhaps the most frustrating comment any instructor in a situation like that can hear is “I don’t do it that way.” Basically that says “I have my way of pitching, hitting, etc. and I don’t want to make any changes.”

Ok fine, but then don’t bother signing up for the clinic. If you’re already doing what you want to do you and have no interest in hearing other perspectives, or perhaps finding a better approach, then there’s no point in driving all that way and taking up three hours of your time.

Stay home and play like you want, and leave the spot open for someone else.

But really the value in a clinic like this is hearing perspectives and learning techniques that could help you become better than you already are. If you listen with an open mind, and try new things even if they’re different from what you’ve done before, you may find you like the new things better. And that they work better for you.

The more open you are to different techniques, or even different cues, than you’ve heard in the past, the more likely you are to find what works best for you.

Tip #2: Sign up for the right level

This one comes from my friend Shaun Walker, an innovative pitching coach with Next Level Softball in Bruno, West Virginia. When you’re signing up at a clinic that offers different levels, it’s important to be honest about your level of accomplishment in the skill being taught.

It’s not just about age. It’s also about what you can do with the ball in your hand. If you’re a 14U pitcher throwing 45 mph who has trouble hitting her spots even though you’ve been pitching for four years, the beginner/intermediate clinic will likely suit you better.

Because pitchers who struggle with control on their fastballs or can’t at least reach the average speeds for their age levels probably don’t need advanced instruction on the rise and drop. They need to improve their fundamentals first.

If you’re going to sign up for an advanced clinic, you should be able to throw decently hard (55+ mph), have a reliable offspeed pitch, and at least have a start on a movement pitch or two. You need a fairly high degree of proprioception (fancy word for body awareness) because the subtle adjustment required to spin the ball in different directions will be tough to accomplish without it.

If you sign up for an advanced clinic and are completely lost and unable to do the things that are required you’ve just wasted three hours of time (plus travel) along with the money you invested. Take that same time and money and invest it in the beginning/intermediate session and you’ll get a lot more out of it.

Tip #3: Use it to see if you/your daughter likes pitching

Becoming a fastpitch pitcher requires a lot of time and effort, and in most cases a significant investment in pitching lessons. Why go down that road if it turns out the player doesn’t actually like it?

Keeley Byrnes, a great pitching coach with Key Fundamentals in Oviedo, Florida says that the beginning clinics are a great way to find out if the player likes and wants to become a pitcher. You can go through some instruction, find out just how challenging it can be to become a pitcher, and determine if it’s a path you want to try without the huge time and money investment of private lessons.

The clinic structure is also more conducive to “sampling” because with multiple players there isn’t as much direct one-on-one contact – particularly important to those kids who are a little more shy. They can give it a try and see if it’s for them without drawing too much attention to themselves.

Tip #4: Pace yourself

The structure of a three-hour clinic is unlike most typical practices. I have seen so many kids come out like a bright comet in the sky, only to burn themselves out quickly and have nothing left by the end.

It gets even worse if you’ve signed up for both sessions at a multi-level clinic like the one last weekend. That’s six hours of pitching. Who does that on a regular basis?

Don’t feel the need to get as many reps in early as you can. Take your time and pace yourself. Your future (six hours from now) self will thank you.

Tip #5: Understand it’s ok to fail

We all hate to fail, especially when standing in a room filled with our peers (or competitors). Yet a clinic is the place to try out new things.

The problem with new things is we’re not good at them, so you’re probably going to fail more often than you’re used to.

That’s ok. This is the place to do it.

Dive Fail GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
After all, it could be worse.

If the clinic is any good at all, the instructors will understand and will try to help you get better. They will love your willingness to put yourself out there and do the hard work required to change.

Do that, and the most likely result is that you walk out knowing how to become a better pitcher than you were when you walked in. And you’ll be more ready to try new things as they come along.

Tip #6: Parents should be curious – but resist the urge to interfere

We get it. It’s tough for parents to watch their kids struggle, and it’s tough to resist the urge to step in when it happens.

But don’t.

Shaun says the ideal parents at clinics are those who listen so they can help their kids later, but who don’t get in the way of the learning process during the clinics. They certainly don’t say, “Ah, don’t listen to her, just keep doing it the way I showed you after searching on “fastpitch pitching” on the Internet.

Instructors at a quality clinic will not only tell you what to do but why it’s important. I know Rick Pauly is a master at this.

How much to participate can be a challenge, especially for some parents. You’re going to know your kids better than the instructors do, and will spend a lot more time with them than the clinic instructors will.

Landing I'M Here GIF by MANGOTEETH - Find & Share on GIPHY
That’s it. Bring it down now.

But land the helicopter anyway. Listen and learn along with your player, ask questions if you don’t understand something, but otherwise stay out of the way. It’s the best value for your entertainment dollar.

Tip #7: Embrace the different ways of teaching from different instructors

Keeley correctly states that one of the challenges of one-on-one instruction is that they player is only hearing things from one person. That instructor has his or her way of teaching things, but there are many ways to say the same thing.

One of the advantages of a clinic with multiple instructors is the opportunity to hear different explanations for the same thing. While one may not resonate with a particular player, the next one might.

And even if none of them is exactly on the mark for how that player needs to learn, the combination of statements, as long as they’re all basically saying the same thing in different ways, will help the player translate the instruction into a form she can use.

The other advantage of the clinic setting is learning from other players.

The participants are likely to be broken into groups. If there is a group of three, for example, and only one of them understands the instruction, she can also help explain or demonstrate it to the other two.

I’ve seen plenty of great examples of one clinic participant helping another to learn. Both of them benefit.

Tip #8: Gain more exposure to new things

While this sounds similar to Tip #1, it’s more about learning about things or taking in feedback you’ve never received before.

A good case in point is the technology we used at the last pitching clinic. You may think you have a great rise or curve. But the Diamond Kinetics ball will measure and show exactly what spin speed and direction you have.

If your rise is working pretty well but you discover you have a 10:00 spin, you’ll know you have more work to do to get it closer to a 12:00 spin. Make that change and it will be even more effective.

The 4DMotion technology is also incredible. It can measure all types of parameters from simple sequences (are you decelerating Hips-Chest-Arm?) to the speed at which your forearm is decelerating as you release the ball (which indicates the efficiency of your energy transfer).

With hard data in hand you can make improvements that may not have shown up to the naked eye, or even on high speed video. All of which will lead you to becoming the best pitcher you can be.

Get the most out of it

Attending a quality clinic can be great, or even a game-changer, if you approach it with the right mindset. But it can also be a giant waste of everyone’s time and energy if you don’t.

In other words, you’ll want to do more than simply get the t-shirt as Ken Bergren, a pitching coach in Oregon says.

Follow these tips and you’re far more likely to walk out thinking “That was fantastic.” And inspired to go out and work even harder.

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
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