Category Archives: Instruction

Don’t Take Everything You Hear or See At Face Value

Natalie hitting

Every week I receive an email that links to pieces of instructional videos for fastpitch softball. And almost every week I end up shaking my head at what I see in them – especially because the company that sends the videos out is charging people good money for such poor instruction.

This week held yet another perfect example. A college coach (from a big name D1 school as I recall) was talking about flaws in loading when hitting. He had a young player, maybe 12U or 14U, there with him helping him demonstrate.

And what was his big advice? Don’t let the head and the front foot move in the same direction at the same time during the “load.’

First of all, he seems to be confused between the load and stride. He kept saying load but most of the discussion was about the stride. So he might want to check that out first.

But regardless of the terminology, he was basically saying that the front foot should move first, then the head should follow afterward. All I could think was “that poor girl.”

Let’s see if this coach’s advice passes the evidence test. Here’s a video of some MLB hitters taken from the side. Watch them as they stride and see if their head moves with the foot or not.

If the camera is steady you can place your cursor on the hitter’s head and see if the head stays there. If not, compare the head position to the background throughout the stride.

What do you see? I know what I see. The head and the center of gravity are moving forward as these hitters stride.

Of course, maybe these are just extraordinary athletes. And they’re men. So let’s look at former Michigan star Sierra Romero, who did pretty well for herself this year with the NPF’s USSSA Pride. Advance the video to about 2:14 to see the stride, and again what do you see her head doing as her front foot moves forward?

The point here isn’t to take on the specific video I watched, although hopefully by now you’re ready to disregard that particular piece of advice. It’s more to say that parents and players should be careful about what they accept as good instruction.

You would think a college coach, presumably a hitting coach, would understand the swing and how it works. But clearly that isn’t necessarily true.

It’s the same thing with taking advice from a former player because she was/is a star in college, or high school. Often times players and former players just repeat what they were told when they were growing up, even if it’s not what they actually did/do, because they haven’t put the time in to study the mechanics.

The best thing you can do is educate yourself. Before you blindly accept advice or training from anyone – and that includes me, by the way – take what they’re saying and see if that’s what the top current players do. If not, you should find someone who will teach you those mechanics and approaches.

Hitting is easier to compare, because you not only have top college, NPF, and National Team players to compare what’s said to what’s done, but you also have MLB hitters. Hitting is hitting after all, and anyone who tells you softball has a different swing needs to throw out their VHS tapes and at least buy a DVD or two from this millennium.

Or there’s this new thing out called YouTube that all the kids are talking about. Maybe those instructors want to check it out.

The hitting exception is slapping. They don’t do that in MLB, so you’ll need to look at softball only.

The same goes for pitching, because videos of MLB players will be of little use. But there’s plenty of good video of top pitchers in game action, which is where you want to check them out. See what makes them successful in games and compare that to what you’re being told. Here’s a good starting point for you.

Catching, fielding, throwing, base running, all of those are similar skills between fastpitch softball and baseball, so you have plenty of source material there. Sure, there are nuances, mostly driven by the difference in the length of the basepaths and size of the field overall, but anyone with even a little experience watching both should be able to adjust for that.

It’s easy to buy into a reputation, or a great set of credentials. But neither of those will help you on the field.

Be a smart consumer. Make sure what you’re being taught, no matter who is teaching it, matches up with what great players do. Otherwise, save your money on lessons or DVDs until you’ve confirmed your investment will take you where you need to go.

 

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Turn, Turn, Turn? Not Anymore

 

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It’s a pretty safe bet that “Turn, Turn, Turn” is the best-known songs by the 60s folk-rock band The Byrds. It’s either that or “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but I personally think the former is the better song. After all, tough to beat having your lyrics written by folk legend Pete Seeger by way of The Bible.

Even if you never listen to an oldies station you’ve no doubt heard it. It’s pretty much required in any movie about the 60s, or that references the 60s in some way. But just in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid it all these years, here’s a video. Enjoy!

The key point of the song (and why I bring it up, other than my love of jangly 60s music) is it says there’s a “time for every purpose under heaven.”

While that may be mostly true, in the softball world today it seems like there isn’t time for one thing – stepping back and making major corrections in mechanics without the pressure of an upcoming game.

I know Bill Hillhouse says there’s never a bad time to fix mechanics. But it sure is a lot tougher to make a significant change when there is a tournament coming up in a few days.

Once upon a time, the post-season was a great time to make those fixes. You finish up with Nationals at the beginning of August, then take a couple of months off to rest and recuperate before starting up again.

There might be a game or even a tournament here or there, but nothing like we see today.  The way things work right now, players are often trying out for their next team before they’ve finished with the current one. Then it’s straight to practice to get ready for a two-month schedule of tournaments every weekend.

Of course, player performance in those early games sets the tone for how they’ll be perceived, especially if they’re on a new team where they’re not known. So rather than taking a step back to maybe fix things that could be better, players are more likely to continue down the path of what’s worked so far. Even if it’s not optimal.

The problem is certain mechanical fixes are likely to make a player worse before they make her better. Now, for some it doesn’t matter. If your mechanics are bad and you’re not performing, there’s little risk in making changes. Nowhere to go but up and all of that.

For others who have had success already but want to get better, however, it can be a problem. They were comfortable with where they were, and they were doing well, so making changes gets them out of that comfort zone, creating a risk of failure where there used to be success. And failure is an important part of the overall learning curve.

A pitcher maybe slower or less accurate until she resets her timing or gets all the body parts working together properly. A hitter may be tentative rather than aggressive until she’s had a chance to figure everything out. You get the idea.

The long-term benefits are there. It’s just hard to keep that in mind when you’re in the circle, in the batter’s box, on the field, etc. No one wants to look bad, especially in front of a new team (and coach). So they’ll tend to fall back on what they always did rather than forging ahead into new territory.

I don’t blame the players (or their parents). You gotta do what you gotta do. But with our 12-months a year season there’s little time available to fail for a little while to succeed in the future.

There has to be a better way. Somehow or another, there needs to be a season where pitchers can take the time to focus on changes that will help them increase speed without having to keep their change, drop, or other pitches sharp. Or hitters can focus on getting their sequence right instead of worrying about making contact with the ball. You get the drift.

What’s the solution? One idea is to play fewer tournaments, or maybe even fewer games overall in the fall. I know that won’t be a popular idea but it would definitely create some headroom for experimentation.

If you can’t do that, maybe teams can set aside a month or two during the winter months to work on reaching some specific goal or making a major change. Recognize that your player may not look like your player for a little while, but ultimately she will be better.

Maybe you have other ideas. If so, please share them in the comments.

All I know is there really needs to be a time for everything – including getting away from the pressure to perform so players can take the time they need to get better. It may be tough to accept at first. But the results will be worth it.

Bring a Little Fun to Corrections By Playing HORSE

Help player learn skills faster by playing HORSE

Being a coach sometimes can feel like you’re stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. You offer a correction, the player makes it for a repetition or two, then goes back to what she was doing before. So you offer the correction again and the cycle repeats.

This pattern particularly shows up with younger players, but it can happen to anyone anytime. Obviously, two good repetitions followed by a few incorrect ones isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

So how do you provide a little extra incentive to focus on doing it right every time? This is where taking advantage of the competitive nature of fastpitch softball players can come in handy.

Fastpitch softball is a tough sport full of difficulties and disappointments, so players really have to have some competitive fire to keep going with it. They also have to love a challenge. As soon as you press the “compete” button you almost always have their full and undivided attention.

One way I’ve done this is to borrow from the playground basketball game of HORSE. You know the one. You take a shot, then the player after you has to take the same shot. If he/she doesn’t make it, he/she gets a letter. You keep going until only one player hasn’t spelled out HORSE.

For Katie, the girl in the photo at the top of the post, the challenge was getting her to bring her back leg into her front leg to finish the pitch. She had the very common tendency of throwing the front leg out without using the back leg. As a result, the back leg was more of an anchor dragging behind her and cutting back on her speed and accuracy.

So I challenged her to a game of HORSE. The rules were simple. If her back leg finished by closing into her front leg (more or less) no letter was assigned. If, however, she finished with her legs spread apart (which usually caused her to bend forward as well) she received a letter.

Once we established those simple rules, it was game on! Suddenly, instead of the Groundhog Day loop of me telling her to finish, she was more on top of it. She still ended up getting an H-O, as I recall, but that was all in the 10 minutes we spent on it.

That was pretty good improvement, because it meant in all the pitches she threw she only failed twice. More importantly, rather than me telling her to fix the issue she was now dedicated to fixing it herself – because she didn’t want to lose the game!

I knew it really got through to her, though, when at her next lesson she asked if we could play HORSE again. I think she wanted to play because she knew she could win; she’d worked on it between lessons to gain the advantage.

But that’s ok with me – I want her to win, because then she’s improving her mechanics and using her body more effectively. By the way, there was no prize for winning or avoiding getting HORSE, although there certainly could’ve been. The game simply appealed to her competitive nature and got her attention.

In reality, this is a game/technique you can use to drive improvement for all kinds of techniques. Have a hitter who is dropping her hands or swinging bat-first? Play HORSE.

Have a fielder who isn’t getting her glove down on ground balls, or a catcher who isn’t keeping her glove on the ground while blocking? Play HORSE.

(I’m not just saying this to you, by the way. I am also making this as notes to myself, as I am definitely under-utilizing this idea.)

The one thing I would caution is focus the game on the process/skills, not the results. So use it to help a first baseman learn to scoop a ball in the dirt properly, but not to keep track of whether she actually got it or not. Or use it to help a hitter learn to swing hips-first rather than giving her a letter if she swings and misses.

If she learns the skill, the results will take care of themselves. But if you focus on the outcomes, you won’t drive the skills. Instead, you’ll probably reinforce bad habits as the player tries to avoid the error/failure instead of learning and internalizing the technique.

In any case, if you find yourself in a Groundhog Day-like loop, give HORSE a try. And if you do, or you’ve done the same thing yourself, let me know how it works for you in the comments below.

Think of Coaching Like Google Maps

Coaches are like Google Maps - you still have to drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fastpitch softball pitching: understanding the back side of the circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yukiko Ueno

Amanda Scarborough

Monica Abbott

Kelly Barnhill

Sarah Pauly

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Your Money’s Worth Out of Softball Private Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do your homework on what is good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch other local players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do a chemistry test

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

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

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

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

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

Monitor success

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

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

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

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

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

 

Just Like Novacaine

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

Here’s the actual scene, just for fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the feel of dragging the changeup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are no magic beans in softball

There are no magic beans in fastpitch softball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Empty repetitions are like empty calories

Empty practice repetitions are like empty calories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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