Category Archives: Instruction
We are coming up to the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics: the NCAA D1 Women’s Softball tournament. Over the next couple of weeks 64 of (presumably) the best college softball teams in the country will be going head-to-head to see which will ultimately make it into the Elite 8 and the Women’s College World Series WCWS).
Fortunately for those of us who love it, these games will be all over ESPN. Not because ESPN has any particular love or feels any particular sense of responsibility to the sport, but because over the last few years it has been a rating juggernaut.
In fact, last year alone it drew more than 1.2 million viewers, which is 60% more than the Men’s Baseball College World Series. It draws the eyeballs, which draws the sponsors, which ensures you’ll see it.
Yet as popular as it is, if you ask the average youth or even high school player if she plans to watch any of the games, she will probably turn her head and stare at you the way a dog does when you ask it if it knows what it just did. That’s her way of saying no.
In fact, I have found over the years that most players don’t have a favorite team, or a favorite player, or can even name a college or pro player. That’s because it never occurs to them to watch the games. And if they do watch because a parent makes them, they don’t really pay attention or get invested in it.
That’s a shame, because there is much that younger players can learn by watching these elite athletes perform in the biggest showcase fastpitch softball has. (Yes, you can argue that the Olympics and other international tournaments offer a higher level of play but there’s no guarantee softball will be in the Olympics again – and just try finding international tournaments if you don’t have more than a basic cable or satellite subscription.)
So with that in mind, here are some of the reasons why you either want to watch the games with your favorite player or team live, or DVR them and watch them later. Even if you feel you have to turn off the sound on some of them.
1. See the Speed of the Game
This is probably one of the biggest eye-openers, especially for players in the 10-14 year age range. The game happens fast.
Players who are used to taking their time gathering a ground ball and making a throw to first, or jogging after a pop fly, will see how quickly plays develop – and are over. With slappers in particular, one little bobble by an infielder (no matter how minor it seems) gives the hitter just enough time to reach base safely.
Seeing the sense of urgency in every play can help individuals and teams learn to play at a higher level.
2. Watch How Top Players Execute Their Skills
It’s often said that when you’re looking at what techniques or mechanics to use for pitching, fielding, throwing, hitting, etc. that we should look at how the best players in the world do it. While the players on TV may not all be the “best” players they’re still pretty darned good at what they do so they make fine examples to study.
Here’s where DVRing the games comes in particularly handy. If a player hits a home run, you can go back and look at her swing from the multiple angles they show. Sooner or later you’ll get to see how a top pitcher throws her riseball – assuming it’s an actual rise and not a gyro spinning high fastball.
You can also use it for quantitative analysis, such as looking at how many pitchers use the “hello elbow” technique versus how many are using internal rotation. You can compare how many hitters “squish the bug” on their back leg versus shift their weight forward and get completely off the leg.
You can watch how infielders throw on a bang-bang play, how they make tags on steals, how they position themselves in bunt situations. You can watch how outfielders go back on a ball and how they scoop and throw home in a do-or-die situation. You can watch how many catchers throw from their knees versus their feet, and the specific techniques they use.
It’s a virtual cornucopia of skills on display, all delivered free to your living room.
3. See How Player Recover from Mistakes
One of the biggest challenges youth players face is learning how to recover from their mistakes, e.g., committing errors, striking out (particularly with runners on base), giving up leadoff walks, etc. As a general rule girls take “failure” rather hard, to the point where fear of failure can prevent them from performing at their highest level.
Well ya know what? Those players on TV do all those things too.
I remember the great Cindy Bristow telling a room full of coaches at a clinic that “My girls make the same mistakes your girls do. They just do it faster.”
So having your player(s) see one of the best in the game bobble a ball, strikeout, throw a wild pitch with a runner on third, or make some other mistake at the least will show her she’s in good company. (It will also show coaches and parents why they need to have realistic expectations for their 10 year olds.)
But the most important lesson for the player will be what happens next. Instead of brooding about it, the player in the WCWS will move on and keep playing. Sure, she may beat herself up over it later, especially if her team loses, but in the moment she pushes it down because she knows she needs to be ready for the next opportunity.
That is not necessarily a natural skill for most humans. But it’s one that can be learned of you make the effort.
4. Hear Some Inspirational Stories
Softball is absolutely a game of failure and adversity. And for some the journey is more challenging than others.
It’s easy to assume that everyone you see was a star from the beginning who was recognized for their talent and treated like royalty their whole career. But that isn’t always the case.
Fortunately, ESPN does a great job of profiling players and where they came from to tell fascinating human interest stories. Such as last year when Odicci Alexander captured the nation’s hearts with her story of being self-taught before leading her James Madison University team to the WCWS.
There are always stories players can relate to. Some talk about overcoming challenging injuries, including some that were supposed to be career-ending.
Some relate to issues such as being cut from a travel team or not making varsity and having to work even harder to elevate their games. Some involve personal tragedies.
Whatever the story, it shows that obstacles are only temporary – if you have the will to overcome them.
5. Bond With Your Player(s)
Remember the great James Earl Jones speech in “Field of Dreams” about how America marched along like an army of steamrollers, but through it all there was baseball? The shared experience of watching a sport played at its highest level can really help parents bond with their children and coaches bond with their players.
To make that happen, of course, you can’t make watching the games like school. Or at least totally like school.
Sure, you can go over plays and evaluate the coverages and executions. But you can also simply appreciate an amazing diving catch or the inner struggle on both sides of a 12-pitch at-bat.
But of course the best part will be spending time with those players sharing something you mutually love.
6. Follow the Benjamins
In the beginning of this post I mentioned that ESPN broadcasts every game of the tournament not because they love softball or softball players so much but because it makes them money. Lots of money.
Well, the downside of that is if the audience dries up so does the coverage. So if you want to keep seeing games on TV, even occasionally, one of the best things you can do is watch them now.
Keep those ratings growing and it will encourage even more coverage. Otherwise you’ll be singing this sad song.
Today’s blog post was suggested by my friend and fellow pitching coach Shaun Walker of Next Level Softball. Shaun is an incredible pitching coach and an innovative thinker who has opened me up to a whole new world around human movement and how it affects athletic performance at a core level.
Don’t let the West Virginia accent fool you either. He may talk funny (as he says) but you better pay attention when he’s doing it or you will miss something great. (If you’re in the Man, W. Va. area and are interested in quality instruction definitely look him up.)
In any case, Shaun told me about getting contacted by the parent of a prospective student who asked him the question I’m sure is on the minds of many parents: how many lessons will it take? The implied part, of course, is until my daughter is a star.
Wow, talk about a loaded question. As Shaun says, that’s like asking how many licks until you get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. There is no easy answer.
NOTE: While we will be talking about pitching specifically in this post, the principles apply to all skills, all positions, and all sports and activities.
One obvious reason is that different players have different builds, athletic abilities, work ethics, time available to them, levels of experience, practice spaces, levels of mental toughness, and other factors. They are also different ages which factors into it more than many of us might want to admit.
For example, an 8 year old will generally have a very different ability to focus for long periods of time than a 14 year old. That’s just biology.
Sure, there are plenty of distracted 14 years old, and the occasional hyper-focused 8 year old. But for the overall population this is true.
With the result that the 8 year old will be able to pay attention for part of the lesson until the circus in her head takes over whereas the 14 year old should be able to focus for the entire lesson. Particularly if she is personally motivated to learn.
Athletic build is a pretty obvious factor. A big, strong player will likely experience more success early than a scrawny little peanut who is in danger of being blown away by the next strong breeze.
That doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever, though. The peanut will grow and mature, and eventually gain the muscle mass needed – particularly if she works at it – to catch up to her larger peers. With the added benefit her mechanics may be cleaner because they had to be.
But it’s going to take her longer to achieve the same level of success. Again, that darned biology.
This brings us to work ethic, which I’m sure Shaun (and many others) would agree is the greatest X factor of them all.
Take two girls of similar native ability. The only time the first one picks up a ball is when she has a lesson. Or maybe an hour before she has that lesson.
The second one practices diligently. Not just putting in time, but actually working on the things that were assigned to her in her last lesson (whether that was with a live pitching coach, a team coach, a parent, or an online session).
Which one is more likely to advance faster? I think the answer is pretty obvious.
But there is no way the coach being asked “How long will it take” will know these players well enough to make that evaluation before ever working with them.
And even then, the lack of natural athletic ability or comfort with body movement may hold the harder worker back longer — for a while. Eventually, though, that work ethic will overcome just about any obstacle.
Another factor that can contribute is how long it takes to overcome previous bad teaching.
I’ve talked a lot, especially recently, about the benefits of internal rotation (IR) over hello elbow (HE) pitching, especially when it comes to using the body the way it’s designed to work. One of the biggest issues HE generates is teaching pitchers to turn the ball back toward second base, make the arm as straight as possible, and push the ball down the back side of the circle.
When you do that you lose any ability to accelerate (whip) the ball through the release zone, affecting both speed and accuracy. That’s why many pitchers who are taught HE, and do the HE drills, still manage to find their way to some form of IR when they actually pitch.
Still, those ingrained habits can be difficult to break. So a pitcher who has taken lessons for five years from an HE coach may find it takes her longer to unlearn those mechanics and get on the right path than one who has never had instruction before or maybe even who has never pitched.
So again, how long it takes to achieve the results you’re looking for is difficult to predict. It all depends on how long it takes to learn to face the ball forward, maintain a bend in the arm, and accelerate the ball into release by leading the little finger rather than pushing it from behind.
Last but definitely not least is the mental toughness factor. Many of the skills in softball are incredibly difficult to learn, and pitching is certainly no exception.
It can be frustrating, even soul-sucking at times. There will be days when nothing seems to work right, or weeks when it feels like zero progress is being made because the speed on the radar gun isn’t changing or the strike percentages aren’t going up significantly or the spin direction on the ball isn’t what it should be.
Pitchers need to have the mental toughness to accept it and keep working anyway. If they’re learning the right techniques, and practicing diligently, it will happen. As my favorite quote from Remember the Titans says, “It’s like Novocain. Give it time, it always works.”
Those who can hang in there when the going gets tough will see the rewards. Those who can’t will find it difficult to achieve their dreams.
Just like in life.
So how long will it take? As long as it takes.
There are things you can do to shorten the process, but it’s only shortening your process, because we’re all different.
Keep an eye on the prize, understand it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and all those other sports clichés. If you keep at it you will eventually reach the chewy center.
Oh, and if you have a topic you’d like me to address, feel free to suggest it in the comments below. I’m always looking for new ideas that will resonate with your interests and concerns.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” This quote, generally attributed to car magnate Henry Ford, explains in a nutshell why fastpitch players, parents and coaches should constantly be seeking new information and new techniques. After all, who doesn’t want to get better?
What’s hidden underneath the surface, however, is a fairly large obstacle: change is (or at least can be) difficult. Which means even if you’re making the right changes for the right reasons it doesn’t always work right away.
How many times have you watched a pitcher attempt to improve her mechanics and seen her speed go down a little instead of up? How many times have you watched a hitter take her swing from looking like an unmade bed to a well-organized attack and yet she suddenly struggles to hit the ball as hard as she did?
At that point its tempting to wonder if you’re actually helping her, or if she is helping herself. Why is she losing ground instead of gaining it?
To answer that question I have a little challenge for you. If you are over the age of 5 I presume you know how to use a fork and a spoon competently enough to feed yourself without making a mess. You can probably do so fairly quickly, without thinking about it.
Now try switching hands and doing the same. In other words, if you normally eat with your right hand, try eating with your left. (For extra challenge, try it with chopsticks, especially if you are not native to them.)
Suddenly, something you do every day without even thinking about it becomes more awkward and difficult. You have to think about how to scoop/stab the food to keep it on the spoon/fork/chopsticks, the angle of the utensil as it approaches your mouth, keeping the utensil steady as you get close to your mouth and a few other things you probably haven’t considered since you were a toddler.
And if you go long enough, or try to go too fast, you will probably find some of that food dribbling down your chin or dropping into your lap. You will probably also take longer than if you had used your usual hand.
It’s not that you don’t know how to eat. It’s that you’re doing it in a way that is unfamiliar.
That is the same experience athletes typically have when they are trying to make changes or learn something new. The technique they were using previously may not have been ideal, but they were comfortable with it and could execute it quickly and without thinking.
Now, as they try something unfamiliar, those same movements feel awkward and uncomfortable. They actually have to think about what they’re doing, and that slows the entire process.
So rather than quick, energy-driven, ballistic body movements they’re making movements that are labored – slowed by the conscious thought of trying to do what they’re now supposed to do.
So what’s the solution? Time. You know, that thing that all of us try to rush through to get to the great results.
Essentially what has to happen is the new movements have to be able to be performed with the same comfort level as the old ones to see the gains. That doesn’t usually happen right away, even with elite athletes.
Instead, it takes conscious work and effort to learn the new movements properly and build the confidence required to execute them with 100% energy.
The best way to do that is start slowly and work from short distances, preferably into a net, wall or other large surface. Get the feel of the new movements, then gradually increase the speed.
The coach or athlete should use video to check her movements and be sure she is not falling back into old habits as speed increases. If she is falling into old habits, slow it back down, get it right, then try increasing the speed again.
Once she is comfortable at a good speed, start moving toward a more game-like experience. For pitchers (and overhand throwing), that’s increasing the distance to see if the quick movements can be maintained.
For hitters, it’s moving off the tee into front toss – easy at first, then gradually increasing the speed. If you have access to a pitching machine and can feed it competently, you can use that as another step before having the hitter face a live pitcher.
This gradual, stepped progression will give the athlete an opportunity to replace old habits with new in a way that allows her to focus on the process, not the outcomes. By the time outcomes come into play she should be able to execute the skill with full energy and attack – at which point you will see the gains you’re looking for.
It’s not easy to do this. Most athletes just want to do the full skill rather than step through progressions, at least a first. But it’s worth it in the long run.
If you have an athlete who is working to make changes but not seeing the benefits yet, be patient and trust the process. If she’s working on the right changes, and working diligently, it will happen.
In the meantime, grab that carton of chow mein and try eating it with the opposite hand. It will give you a greater appreciation of just how difficult it can be to do something old in a new way.
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
…you’ll be amazed at all the incredible things you can do.
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
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 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.
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.
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.