Category Archives: Mental game
Helping Players Feel Good about Themselves More Critical Than Ever
In February of this year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed the most recent results of its survey on the mental health of youths, along with a 10-year analysis of trends in that area. The news, in many cases, isn’t good – especially for teenage girls
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021 showed that 57% of teenage girls reported feeling a persistent sense of sadness or hopelessness in the last year. That’s an all-time high, and a full 21 percentage points increase over 10 years ago. Additionally, 41% of teenage girls reported experiencing poor mental health in the last 30 days, and nearly one-third (30%) considered suicide over the last year versus 19% in 2011.
These are disturbing figures to say the least, and they are definitely trending in the wrong direction. So what can fastpitch softball coaches do to help the situation? Here are a few suggestions.
Create a Positive, Welcoming Atmosphere
Most of your players probably won’t show that they are experiencing feelings of sadness or hopelessness at practice or at games, but that doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t there.
Many may see playing softball as the best part of their day. It can be a refuge from all the rest of the turmoil of social media, peer pressure, grade pressure, etc. they’re facing.
But if practices and games consist of a lot of yelling, screaming, brutal criticism, and punishment, softball can quickly become one more burden contributing to the downhill spiral.
Instead of taking a command and control approach try being more positive with your players. Try to catch them doing good instead of always commenting on what they’re doing wrong.
I’m not saying you have to turn practice into a birthday party without the cake. There is certainly a time for correction and a need to hold players accountable.
But don’t make it all negative. Look for the positives and help players feel good about themselves when they perform well – or even make an effort to do things they couldn’t before.
You never know when a kind word or a metaphorical pat on the back might be the thing that keeps one of your players from becoming another sad statistic.
Pay Attention to Warning Signs
It’s unlikely any of your players will come out and say they’re feeling unhappy or having difficulty. People with depression in particular get really good at covering it up – at least until the dam breaks.
One thing to look for is a change in the way they interact with their teammates. If they are suddenly quiet and withdrawn where they were once boisterous and interactive it could be a sign something is going on with them.
It may just be a problem with a teammate or two, but it could also be a sign of something deeper. Either way, you’ll want to know about it and address is sooner rather than later.
This also applies to how they interact with you. If a player used to speak with you on a regular basis but has now become withdrawn it could be a sign of something deeper going on in their lives.
You can also look for a change of eating habits. If you’re doing team meals, or even just handing out snacks to keep your players fueled through a long practice, take not if someone suddenly stops eating or just picks at their food.
Pay attention to how they manage their equipment. Now, some players are just slobs who throw everything in their bags haphazardly. That doesn’t mean they’re experiencing sadness. In fact, some of the happiest players I’ve ever known have earned the name “Pigpen.”
If, however, a player used to take better care of her equipment but is now letting it stay dirty or putting it away in a random manner, you may want to initiate a conversation to check in on her mental health.
You may also notice a sudden loss of focus, such as a player making mentals errors she didn’t used to make. If she is having difficulty coping with her life she may not be able concentrate her efforts on the task at hand. Instead of just yelling “focus!” you might want to check if there is something deeper going on.
Finally, pay attention to whether a player is suddenly reporting more injuries or illnesses than she did before. That could be the case, or it could be a sign of her not being able to muster the enthusiasm to participate and using injury/illness as an excuse.
If it seems to be becoming a habit you may want to sit her down and find out if there is something more going on.
Offer a Sympathetic Ear
Many teens who experience these feelings of sadness or hopelessness tend to feel like there is nowhere they can go to discuss them. They’re afraid of their peers finding out, and some may be uncomfortable talking to their parents about it.
Make sure your players know they can always come to you to talk about what’s going on in their lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should try to solve them, however.
In simple cases you can offer some friendly advice and encouragement. Often times teens simply have a desperate need to be heard or to get what they’re feeling out in the open.
But if you suspect something deeper is happening in their lives you’ll want to refer them to a qualified, Board-certified mental health professional. That person will be trained to help teens work through their feelings and recognize deeper issues that could have a profound effect on their physical and mental health in the future.
Just showing you care in a meaningful way, however, can be just the boost that player needs to take the next step to getting past her issues.
There is a temptation for some among us to blame these mental health issues on kids today being “soft” or “snowflakes.” “Back in my day,” they like to say, “we didn’t have these problems.”
Actually you did, but no one talked about it. They just suffered in misery, and some took their lives, because no one was recognizing the problem.
It’s also true that life today is very different than it was 10, 15, 25 or more years ago. The pace is faster, and the exposure to impossible standards is relentless.
In softball terms that can mean seeing pitchers your age (or younger) throwing harder than you in social media posts and feeling like you’re not good enough. Never mind that you’ve added a few mph over the last several months and are doing well in your games. You’re still be compared to everyone in the country.
Or it can mean seeing all these hitters blasting home runs while you’re hitting singles, or seeing a list of “Top 10 12 year olds” and not seeing your name on the list.
None of that existed in the so-called “good old days.” But it does now.
That’s why it’s important to be aware of what’s happening with your players and do whatever you can to give them a great experience. You may not just change a game outcome or two. You could change a life.
Photo by Randylle Deligero on Pexels.com
Keep Pursuing Your Dreams – Even When It’s Tough
This was the scene at a small bar and restaurant in December of 1961. An ambitious but pretty much unknown band arrived for a gig only to discover there were just 18 people in the place.
They could have been discouraged by the lack of attendance, and they could have decided to just hang it up after such a disappointing turnout. But they continued to believe in themselves, and knew that all that work they were putting in at obscure venues with hardly anyone watching would pay off eventually.
Most fastpitch softball players know the feeling. It can be a real grind.
Practicing in freezing cold barns in the winter and hot, smelly barns or outdoors on hot, humid days in the summer. Hours spent in private lessons, then many more hours practicing on your own.
Then you go out to a game and you stink up the field. You strike out at the plate.
You miss your spots as a pitcher or hang a pitch that gets driven toward South America. You boot a routine ground ball and follow it up by throwing the ball into the parking lot, or drop a can of corn fly ball that you should be able to catch with both eyes closed.
You begin to wonder if it’s worth it – all the time spent, all the energy expended, all the heart and soul poured into a game that doesn’t seem to love you back. You think maybe you’d be better served finding something else to do with all those hours and days.
Don’t worry, those feelings actually very normal. It can be difficult to work that hard at something only to see it go bad anyway.
The thing to remember, however, is that failure (or near-failure) is only temporary. It’s also an opportunity to learn and grow.
If you struck out, whether once or every time, figure out why. Was your timing off? Were you dropping your hands and looping your swing (even though you’ve been working on not doing that)?
If you struggled as a pitcher did you focus on your mechanics when you practiced or did you just throw the ball for a prescribed period of time? Did you demand more of your pitches or did you just say “good enough” and move on?
If you had trouble fielding or throwing did you put in extra time or just stick to the minimums?
The reality is whether you do well or not is largely in your own hands. Yes, it helps to have quality coaches and/or quality training, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be blessed with an abundance of athletic ability. None of those things are within your control.
But what is under your control is your approach to getting better. You can decide how hard you work.
You can decide how you spend your time each day, each practice. You can decide how you will react to things that are outside of your control.
And most of all, you can decide whether you are willing to do the things that are necessary to achieve your dreams or will give up at the first sign of adversity.
My recommendation, of course, is if you love fastpitch softball find a way to fight through the tough times and keep an eye on your goal. Because again, failure is only permanent if you let it be.
You can get better if you want to – and are willing to pay the price. It won’t be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.
As for that obscure little band from a rough-and-tumble working class city not exactly known for its contribution to the arts, things definitely did get better for them after that sparsely attended performance on a cold winter’s night in December 1961.
By December the following year they had secured a recording contract and released their first single. It didn’t do especially well but it was a start.
Within another few months they would see their next single reach #1 on the pop charts, and things would keep getting better from there. Eventually they would change the world – more than once.
Here’s a better look at that band from December 1961.
Everyone starts somewhere. The ones who make it are the ones who keep plugging away.
Brrrr It’s Cold; Take Advantage of It
As I write this we are not only in the beginning of the Christmas/New Year holiday vortex but also an actual polar vortex. Winter Storm Elliott is hammering much of the U.S., including parts that aren’t used to it, with snow, gale force winds, and bitter cold of the type that makes you run right back inside as soon as you feel it.
It’s so bad where I live that the facility I usually work out of has been closed for the last couple of days. No sense having people risk their health and/or their lives just to come to a lesson when there are no important games on the immediate horizon.
So does that mean all softball-related activities must come to a dead stop? Hardly.
In fact, times like this offer the perfect opportunity to really dig into mechanics and the mental game to work on the little things that can make a huge difference in a player’s overall performance.
It’s like when a player comes to a lesson and says they are feeling a little ill, or tired, or have an injury. I light up – not at their misfortune but at the chance to go deeper in aspects of the game that they might not want to spend so much time on ordinarily.
Not because it’s not necessary, but because it can be really boring to them. When it’s all they can do, however, those things become a lot more interesting.
So while it’s bitterly cold or snowy and you’re stuck at home (or even if it’s bright, sunny, and balmy for that matter) here are a few things to work on that don’t require a cage, a bat, a regular softball, or even much space.
Quick Pitching Release
I have yet to meet a pitcher who doesn’t want to be faster (including a few pretty famous ones). While speed alone isn’t everything, the more you have the better everything else seems to go. And the better you can get by until you can improve other aspects of your game.
One of the keys to speed is the ability to transfer as much of the energy the pitcher has generated through leg drive as possible into the ball. That requires a lightning-quick yet relaxed pronation of the forearm at release.
Building that pronation doesn’t require a lot of space or fancy equipment. You can:
- Throw a rolled up pair of socks into a wall or mirror
- Throw a plyo ball, foam ball, or regular ball into a net
- Walk around the house practicing releases, Ks, and full circles with nothing in your hand
- Perform various exercises (such as squeezing a stress ball) to build your grip strength
Focusing on that one little bit can pay huge dividends the next time you go to pitch at a full distance.
Leg/Body Drive and Timing Off the Rubber
Don’t worry non-pitchers, we’re getting to you. But this is another area that’s often under-trained when pitchers are left on their own.
A lot of pitchers have trouble generating effective leg/body drive off the pitching rubber. After they load they will start to reach forward with their stride (glove-side) leg while essentially standing on the drive (throwing-side) leg.
This type of movement is inefficient, even if it’s done quickly. To generate the kind of energy needed to throw hard you have to get the hips driving forward before the stride leg has gone out fully.
In other words, pitchers have to learn to use their legs together instead of one at a time. Fortunately, this is the same type of leg action used when you skip (or for you multi-sport athletes go for a layup).
Find a few feet of space and skip. Feel how the legs are working. Then try doing the same thing but adding a pitching motion to it.
Take video so you can see if you’re truly getting some spring in your step or if you’re just standing on the pitching rubber as the stride leg goes out.
You can also just stand on the ball of the foot of your drive leg, push forward, then “catch” yourself with your stride leg. This should all occur in a quick, short motion rather than trying to get out far.
Feel the legs working together, then start extending it until you can do it full speed, just as you would in a game.
You probably know from endless hours of lessons what you’re supposed to do at each phase of the swing. But are you actually doing those things?
Here’s a way to find out. Set yourself up in front of a full-length mirror and watch yourself take a swing. If space is limited substitute a curling iron or a short pool noodle for the bat.
Go through it slowly and see what position your body is in at each phase. Check to see that you are:
- Getting positive movement forward
- Leading with your hips
- Getting separation between your hips and shoulders
- Keeping your hands up instead of dropping them to launch the bat
- Driving your back side around your front side
Do it slowly, over and over, checking each aspect. Then do it a little faster, then a little faster, each time checking all those aspects.
While this doesn’t do much for your timing, it ensures that if you are on time you’ll greatly increase your chances of hitting the ball hard.
While this applies to any position, it especially applies to catchers. The faster you can transfer the ball from your glove to your throwing hand, the sooner you can get the ball on its way so you can throw out even the fastest of rabbits.
This is a skill that can be practiced in a bedroom or living room.
Start out barehanded, with the ball in your glove hand. Then transfer it to your throwing hand by slamming it from one to the other.
Then add a glove, doing the same thing. Do it over and over, each time trying to go a little faster.
Before you know it you’ll be able to move that ball from one hand to the other with the best of them.
Ask any coach or player how important the mental game is and they’ll likely tell you it’s hugely important. Then ask them what percentage of their practice time is spent on the mental game and, if they’re honest, they will probably tell you little or none.
That’s because physical practice seems like practice. Mental game practice feels like you missed something you should have been working on.
This is your chance. While you’re stuck inside, do some visualization, seeing yourself making great plays or slamming great hits.
Work on your positive self-talk. A kind word from yourself at the right time can work wonders.
Look online for various stress-relieving techniques you can use during a game. Examples include:
- Squeezing a stress ball or other device
- Grabbing a handful of dirt, squeezing it tightly, then throwing it away
- Inhaling deeply through your nose and blowing the air out slowly through your mouth
- Washing your hands with water
- Creating a pre-pitch routine or ritual
Turn on loud music or a talking podcast then try to do something unrelated such as a reading or math problems. It’s amazing what this exercise can do for your ability to focus.
Time invested now in your mental game can pay big dividends when it’s actually time to play.
No Justification Needed
Really, these things aren’t just for bad weather. They are things you should be doing any time if you want to get better.
But bad weather provides the perfect opportunity because there is little else you can do.
Don’t waste this chance. Get on it now and you’ll find you’re than much farther ahead in your goals once you hit the field again.
Photo by Ir Solyanaya on Pexels.com
Why “I Don’t Know” Is Not a Sufficient Answer
If you asked the average person whether playing fastpitch softball is a physical or mental activity, there’s a good chance the answer would be “physical.” After all, there’s a lot of movement involved, and these days many softball players are training their bodies to the point of constant exhaustion (a topic for another day).
In reality, however, it’s a trick question. Because while it is obviously physical, there is also a huge element of mental activity that goes into it as well.
Or at least there should be.
When I train a player, I tend to use what’s known as the Socratic Method. The short version is I don’t just constantly tell them what to do; instead, once they’ve been taught something I will ask them questions to try to ensure they actually understand what we’re trying to do instead of just blindly following directions.
For example, if I am working with a pitcher and she throws a pitch in the dirt on her throwing hand side, rather than saying “You released too early” or “You were too open at release” or whatever the issue was, I will instead ask her “Why did that happen?” It is then up to her to think through what she has (supposedly) learned, plus what she felt, in order to provide an answer to the question.
The goal, of course, is to help the player become her own pitching, hitting, fielding, whatever, coach.
We want that so when she’s practicing on her own she can make corrections to keep her on the right path. We also want that because I’m sure the last thing that player wants is for Mom, Dad, Team Coach, or the spectators on the sidelines to be shouting instructions out to her in a game.
When I ask these questions the answers I receive aren’t always right. But to me there is one answer that is always wrong: I don’t know.
Because even if a player provides an incorrect response to the question, at least she’s making an effort to figure it out. She may not quite understand what she should be doing yet but she’s trying.
Saying I don’t know, however, to me shows a total lack of mental engagement in the process of whatever we’re doing. It’s the easy way out, basically saying, “Tell me so I can robotically follow directions” rather than really digging in to understand the movement we’re trying to achieve at a deeper level.
When I hear “I don’t know,” I always think of Mr. Hand and Spicoli.
In a softball context, in turning the tables the conversation would go, “Will I be able to get hitters out Coach?” “I don’t know.” “Will I get some hits instead of striking out?” “I don’t know.” “Will I be able to make the quick throw?” “I don’t know.”
And that’s the reality of it. If a player’s brain is not engaged as she practices she could just as easily be practicing the wrong things – in which case when she goes into a game she won’t have the skills she needs to succeed.
Now, I’m not saying “I don’t know” is always the wrong answer. If the coach who is asking the question of a player hasn’t taught her whatever he/she is asking, the player shouldn’t be expected to know. In which case “I don’t know” is correct.
Or if a player asks a coach about something out of his/her area of expertise, like how to throw a riseball if the coach has no background in pitching, or what strengthening exercises they should do at home if the coach hasn’t researched it, “I don’t know” is a better answer than just making something up so the coach doesn’t look “stupid.”
I actually wish more coaches would give that answer when it’s appropriate.
But when the activity is something fundamental that has been taught and reinforced dozens or hundreds of times before, “I don’t know” is not a sufficient answer. The player should know and be able to self-correct.
That’s the fast track to improvement and advancement. Because players who can identify issues on their own can correct them on their own and keep themselves moving forward; those who can’t, well, they’re doomed to repeat those mistakes over and over.
If you’re a coach, hold your players accountable by asking questions they should know the answers to and then making them accountable for it. If you’re a parent, reinforce the importance of players getting their brains engaged instead of mindlessly going through whatever motions they’re being told to do at the time.
And if you’re a player, take ownership of your softball education and really learn what you’re being taught. Not just the movements but the reasons for them, and why things go wrong when they go wrong.
It’s one of the biggest keys to producing better, more consistent results. Which makes the games a lot more fun.
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com
7 Tips to Make 2022 Your Best (Softball) Year Ever
First of all, let me tell you I had quite a debate with myself on whether to write a New Year’s post or just go with a more general topic. But when the stars align – as in the last day of 2021 is also the day I usually put up a new post – it’s a good idea to just go with it.
So here we are. Hopefully 2021 was a great year for you.
We actually had somewhat normal high school, college, and youth softball seasons, although COVID-19 protocols often impacted the spectator part of spectators sports. At least the fans who got in didn’t have to wear a mask on 90-degree days.
Also in 2021, fastpitch softball temporarily returned to the Olympics, albeit in eerily quiet and empty stadiums and played on baseball diamonds. It was sort of like watching a dome game with a field set up for football. The fact that the oddly formatted mini-tournament was finished before the opening ceremonies took place tells you all you need to know about what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) really thinks about our sport.
The Women’s College World Series (WCWS) on the other hand was a TV rating juggernaut, averaging more than 1.2 million viewers per game. That’s 10% more than the 2019 WCWS.
The three-game championship series between Oklahoma and Florida State fared even better, drawing an average of nearly 2 million viewers per game. In the process, we got to see a lot of great softball.
Speaking of great softball, Athletes Unlimited entertained a lot of fastpitch softball fanatics with its playground-brand of choosing up teams and having no coaches on the sidelines. Maybe they’re on to something.
And hopefully you personally had a successful 2021 as well.
Of course, as the disclaimer on every “get-rich-quick” scheme quickly says, past performance does not guarantee future gains. So following are a few tips to help you make 2022 an even better year.
Tip #1: Practice with a purpose
Yes, I know many of you have t-shirts with that very saying on them. But how often do you actually take that approach?
It’s easy to get into the rut of “putting in time.” i.e., going off somewhere and going through the motions of a skill for a half hour or an hour or whatever, or coaches having players performing activities for two, or three, or four hours. None of which will actually help you get better, and could make you worse if the practice is sloppy enough.
If you’re going to practice, then have a goal and go after it wholeheartedly. For example, if you’re a pitcher working on leg drive, then work on getting yourself out faster each time rather than mindlessly doing the leg drive drill you were assigned.
Master the skill, not the drill, and you’ll be a lot better off.
Tip #2: Grow your knowledge
In today’s Internet-accessible world there’s no reason to do things a certain way because that’s how you’ve always done them. There is an incredible amount of research being done in our sport and an incredible wealth of knowledge being shared – if you will open your mind to it.
The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) is one of the best. Right now they are in the midst of hosting a series of live coaches clinics around the country that enable top-level coaches to share their expertise with the rest of us.
If you want to go more in-depth on a topic, the NFCA also has its Master Coach program, which offers a combination of live and online courses. I took their very first online Coaches College course earlier in 2021 and it was well worth the time and money. Give it a shot.
There are plenty of private resources as well. PaulyGirl Fastpitch has its High Performance Pitching courses at the beginner, intermediate, elite, and pro levels.
You can learn all about great throwing mechanics from the High Level Throwing program. There’s a cornucopia of hitting courses out there as well.
Then there are resources such as the Discuss Fastpitch board and the Fastpitch Zone and The Bullpen Facebook groups that connect coaches from around the world with one another to share their knowledge and experience. And that’s the just the start.
If you want more knowledge it’s out there. Just be sure to come in with an open mind because some of what you hear may go against everything you’ve ever believed. And that can be a good thing.
Tip #3: Use video
This one doesn’t require a lot of explanation. There’s what we think we see or feel, and there’s what’s actually happening. They’re not always the same.
Virtually every mobile phone includes a high-definition, high-speed camera for free that would be the envy of coaches and players from just 10 years ago. Take advantage of it.
Video yourself or your players often, and see if what you think you’re doing is what you are in fact doing. Compare what you see to the best players in the world.
While you don’t have to match exactly, you should match in principle. If you’re not doing what you think you’re doing, adjust accordingly.
Tip #4: Work on your mental game
Ask any group of coaches or players “who thinks the mental game is a critical contributor to success?” and you’ll probably see every or nearly every one of them raise their hands. Then ask how many take the time during practice or during their free time to work on it and you’ll likely see few (if any) hands.
It’s sort of like Mark Twain’s famous admonition about the weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.
That is a mistake in my opinion. There are (again) plenty of books and other resources that focus on this aspect of sports. Here’s a list of a few:
- Head’s Up Baseball
- Mind Gym
- The Champion’s Mind
- Championship Team Building
- The Mindful Athlete
- Winning State
- Mental Conditioning for Softball
- The Energy Bus
Invest some real time in developing the mental game – especially the part about overcoming adversity – and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.
Tip #5: Make some time for recruiting activities
This is for those players who want to (or think they want to) play softball in college. If that’s not you, go ahead and skip to Tip #6.
For those still reading, playing softball in college at any level is an accomplishment – and ultra-competitive these days. You’re unlikely to be randomly discovered playing during a local tournament.
If you want to play in college, you need to make an effort to build a relationship with coaches at different schools, and at different levels.
One obvious way is to attend skills camps at schools where you might like to play. While some are just money grabs that have minimal involvement from the college coach, most are both an opportunity for coaches to give back to the game while checking out potential future talent. What better way is there to get them interested in you than to demonstrate your skills in their “house?”
Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is another great way to establish and maintain contact with coaches. Follow coaches at schools you’re interested in and hopefully they will follow you back.
Share their Tweets with your followers. Send Tweets of your own about your/your team’s latest accomplishments and activities and tag the coach or the program. Be active and be visible.
Just one word of caution about social media: keep it positive at all times. The Internet is written in ink, and more than a few players have eliminated themselves from consideration by their dream schools because of things they’ve posted. That includes photos and negative comments about their parents or current coach.
Present yourself as if the coaches you want to play for are watching every post. Because they are.
Email is still a valid way to contact coaches too. Just keep it brief – they’re busy people and many get hundreds of emails a day. If you want to share a video, be sure the coach can see what you want him/her to see in ONE click. Any more than that and they’ll pass.
This isn’t just for high school players either. While the D1 rules changed and they can no longer contact players before September 1 of their junior years, it doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to who can play and who is interested in their schools. And there are no such restrictions for D2, D3, and NAIA, although they tend to recruit later anyway.
Recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint, so get out there early and often if you think playing in college might be for you.
Tip #6: Make time for rest and recovery
When you’re dedicated to something it’s easy to overdo it. Don’t let that happen.
Rest and recovery is just as important to high performance as training. Your body needs time to build itself back up after intense activity. So does your mind.
It’s ok to take a day or two off each week during the season as well as during the offseason. Your body and your brain will tell you how much you need for peak performance. You should also plan on taking at least a couple of weeks off at some time during the year for deeper recovery.
Oh, and this applies to coaches too. You’ll find coaching is a lot more enjoyable if you let your batteries recharge now and then.
Tip #7: Resolve to have fun
This is probably the aspect that has been most lost over the course of the last 10-20 years. Yes, we have more technology that can tell us more things, and more practice facilities that enable us to keep working even when the weather is at its nastiest, and more opportunities than ever to take our game to a higher level.
But the tradeoff has been more pressure and more stress to the point where playing (and coaching for that matter) feels like a job. And not a particularly pleasant one.
It’s important to remember that softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.
That doesn’t mean it should be like a birthday party without the cake. But it shouldn’t be like studying for finals while waiting to see the dentist either.
Fun in most cases is what you make it. Some people enjoy really digging into things and pushing themselves to their limits. That’s right for them.
But it’s not right for everyone. Others will find their fun in getting a little better each day without killing themselves, competing (in a friendly way) with their teammates, or in being part of a team.
Understand what’s fun for you and then find/create a team with others who share your definition and goals. Like using the wrong pair of cleats, being on a team that isn’t a good fit can be painful.
Good luck to everyone, and I hope you make 2022 your best year ever!
Photo by Damir Mijailovic on Pexels.com
Softball Takeaways from Simone Biles
While the return of fastpitch softball to the Olympics was the big story for many of us who are fanatics for the sport, for the general populace of course one of the biggest stories was gymnast Simone Biles deciding not to compete in the team or most of the individual events. She did, of course, eventually take Bronze on the balance beam which is hardly her signature event.
It’s hard to imagine what a difficult decision that must have been for her. Here she has spent the last five years training for the opportunity to win more medals, presumably Gold medals, in her sport’s biggest showcase.
Yet when the time came something in her just snapped. She knew she couldn’t do it mentally at the level she needed, and that put her at risk of serious injury or perhaps even death given what she had planned to do. After one vault she decided it would be best to withdraw and give someone else a chance instead.
How did she get to that point? Part of it, of course, was relentless training. I doubt she’s taken many days off since she became a serious competitor, and that can take a physical and mental toll on you after a while.
While softball players don’t train at the same intensity or risk level as national team gymnasts (most of them anyway), it is possible to get so caught up in what you’re doing that you forget why you’re doing it. When softball starts to feel like more of a burden than an escape from life’s many real burdens, it’s time to take a little time off.
Another issue Simone Biles faced was a distinct lack of support, especially from people at the highest level of her sport. Those people loved showcasing her to the media to promote their own agendas, but when she told them about irregularities around the training they did their best to brush it under the rug and forget about it.
Parents, if your softball-playing daughter tells you physical or mental abuse is happening, don’t just tell her to suck it up or quit whining. Do all you can to find out if there is any reason to be concerned – even if it might mean losing a scholarship opportunity or being removed from a team that wins all its tournaments.
Your daughter’s safety and mental health are worth more, and not worth trading for any amount of money or plastic trophies. When she says something is wrong, be sure to listen.
Coaches, you have the same responsibility. If your player is suddenly having problems don’t get stuck thinking your job is simply putting a winning team on the field. Take an interest and find out what’s wrong.
Maybe she just has a softball version of the “twisties” and needs some help working through them. She’s lost confidence and needs someone to help her fill her confidence bucket back up.
Maybe she’s in a hitting slump and just needs someone to believe in her. The thing that prolongs most slumps is over-thinking the cause. Help her remember who she is and what she can do, even if it takes a little while. It will be worth the effort.
Or maybe, just maybe, something is going on at home or in her personal life that has her all off-kilter. You caring enough to find out and help her could have a lasting effect on her life that she will remember and appreciate long after she’s left her cleats at home plate.
Finally, when you’re performing at a high level there will always be haters – people who want to tear you down and then delight in your failure. Especially if you’re a female.
Many of the people leveling those criticisms have never put in the effort to do anything at a high level, But they’ll be more than happy to tell you why you’re weak and undeserving because you suddenly feel the pressure you were able to shut out before.
Players, don’t listen to them! Those ignorant couch potatoes know they don’t have the drive or dedication to be like you, so they want to drag you down to be like them.
Do what you need to do to get right in your own head – even if it means stopping for a bit to let it clear. This is the perfect time of year to do that, by the way.
The summer season is over, tryouts are over, and fall ball is still a few weeks away. Go to the beach or the movies or an amusement park. Listen to music all day, or sit and read a book or three. Hang out with friends who you don’t share a uniform with.
In other words, find something else to do with your day. Softball will still be waiting for you when you get back.
Anyone who has watched her career knows Simone Biles is the ultimate competitor. She’s never met a challenge she didn’t take head-on.
So when she says she has the “twisties” and the best way to deal with them is by pulling out of the Olympics it’s worth taking note.
If Simone Biles needs to walk away for a bit, the same can be said for any of us.
Take care of yourself, even if some around you don’t quite understand. Softball will be here when you’re ready. And you just may enjoy and appreciate it a little more.
Simone Biles photo from Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Right Now Is A Great Time to Work on the Mental Game
Ask any coach, especially one whose teams play at a high level, how important the mental game is on a scale from one to 10 and you’ll probably get an answer of between eight and 10. Of course if you then follow up by asking them what percentage of practice time they spend working on their team’s mental game, the answer will likely be 10% or less.
Because while everyone will agree the mental game is important, spending practice time fielding ground balls and doing hitting drills, or doing anything physically active, just “feels” more like practice.
Now that Zoom sessions have replaced physical practices in many areas, however, it may be time to re-think what you’re doing. It’s the “making lemonade out of lemons” approach.
When you think about it, Zoom (or whatever communication tool you use) sessions actually lend themselves even better to the mental game than the physical game. With the physical game you have to set up a camera or phone and hope the players stay in range as they move around, doing drills. But with the mental game, most of what you need to do can be accomplished while sitting comfortably in a chair.
For example, you can quiz your team to see how well they understand the rules. The quiz can be an oral quiz on the spot, or you can email a document to all your players, have them fill it out in advance, and then go over the answers on the call. Some technologies even have polling features that can be adapted to a live quiz.
Another way to work the mental game is by doing a screen share of diagramming software such as this one or this one or this one to go over various plays. You can show new plays, or describe the situation and the hit and then ask your players what their responsibilities are.
A Zoom call is also great for helping players learn how to manage stress. There are all kinds of techniques, such as those found in Heads Up Baseball (one of my favorite books on the subject) that you can go over and have your players practice applying. For example, you can teach them the stoplight analogy and how to do it to keep themselves from getting out of control.
Another way to use a Zoom call to good advantage is to have them work on visualization. Studies have shown that visualization can be as powerful as physical practice in helping players improve their physical skills, yet when was the last time you took time out of practice to help your players learn to visualize success? Now you can.
If you need more ideas, just do a quick Internet search on “mental game exercises,” or follow this link to the search I did. There are tons of ideas out there that can help you develop mentally tough players, even from a distance.
Of course, in addition to developing your players’ mental game you can also use Zoom calls to build cohesiveness within the team. There are plenty of games and exercises you can use to help your players get to know each other better and create the sort of bonds that keep high-level teams performing at a high level.
As Steve Martin says in the underrated movie My Blue Heaven, “You guys see a problem. I see an opportunity.”
Take some of those Zoom sessions where you’re struggling to find a way to run a regular practice and focus instead on the mental game. You’ll be amazingly pleased with the results come next spring – or whenever you start playing regularly again.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com
Today’s Goals Are Tomorrow’s Disappointments
Setting goals is an important part of any sort of development, athletic or otherwise. Without them, it’s easy to meander your way through life. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice during her adventures in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
One phenomenon that isn’t often spoken of, however, is what happens to us mentally after a goal has been met. It’s amazing how it can turn around.
I’ve seen this particularly after I started setting up a Pocket Radar Smart Coach for virtually every pitching lesson. Each pitch thrown is captured, and the result is displayed on a Smart Display unit in bright, red numbers.
I call it my “accountability meter” because it shows immediately if a pitcher is giving anything less than her best effort. A sudden dropoff of 6 mph is a very obvious indication that a pitcher was slacking off on that particular pitch.
Here’s the scenario I’m addressing. Let’s say a young pitcher is working hard trying to move from throwing 46 mph to 50 mph. She’s been practicing hard, working on whatever was assigned to her, and slowly her speed starts creeping up.
She gets up as high as 49 once, but then falls back a bit again. She knows she can do it.
Then the stars align and voila! The display reads 50. Then it does it again. And again.
There are big smiles and a whoop or two of triumph! Goal met! Pictures are taken and high fives (real or virtual) are exchanged.
A few weeks later, the pitcher continues her speed climb and achieves 52. Once again, celebrations all around and she starts looking toward 60 mph.
The next lesson she throws a bunch of 50s, but can’t quite seem to get over that mark. What happens now?
Is there still the elation she had just a few weeks before? Nope. Now it’s nothing but sadness.
That 50 mph speed that once seemed like a noble, worthy goal is now nothing but a frustrating disappointment.
That would be the case for Ajai in the photo at the top. She was all smiles when we took this picture a couple of months ago. But if that was her top speed today she would be anything but happy.
But that’s ok, because it’s all part of the journey. We always want to be building our skills; goals are the blocks we use to do it.
But once they have been met, they are really of no more use to us. Instead, they need to be replaced with bigger, better goals. That’s what drives any competitor to achieve more.
So yes, today’s goals will quickly become tomorrow’s disappointments. But that’s okay.
Remember how far you’ve come, but always keep in mind there is more to go. Stay hungry for new achievements and you just might amaze yourself.
Be As Water
One of the most well-known pieces of advice from the late, great Bruce Lee was a simple three-word statement: be as water. For those interested in more of what he meant, or who are just wondering who the heck Bruce Lee was, here’s a video:
While Lee’s advice was ostensibly meant to encourage martial artists to give up their old, rigid approach to movement in favor of one that was more free-flowing, I find it’s also great advice for fastpitch softball players. Here are a few examples.
When pitchers want to throw harder, they tend to tighten up their muscles and become very stiff. They also do it when they’re trying to guide the ball to a location (even if it’s just the general strike zone). Yet that’s the worst possible thing to do in each situation.
If you’re trying to gain speed, remember tight muscles are slow muscles. You can swing your arm around much faster if you relax and let it go versus trying to force it around.
Being stiff when trying to gain better control also works against you, and actually makes it more difficult. If you are tight and off-line somewhere in your circle, you will stay there and the ball will go somewhere you don’t want it to.
But if you are loose, a gentle nudge is all it takes to get back on-line. Plus, you have momentum working for you, because if you are loose and using good mechanics (i.e., those that follow the natural way the body moves) it’s a lot easier to follow the natural line.
To improve as a pitcher, be as water.
The same things about tight versus loose apply to hitters. If you try to muscle up on the ball you’ll lose the whipping action of the bat into the hitting zone, costing you valuable bat speed.
Being tight also makes it difficult to react and adjust to pitch speeds, spins and locations. A rigid swing will tend to continue going wherever it started to go; a relaxed swing allows you to make adjustments without losing bat speed.
Then there’s the mental aspect. If you are uptight generally (aka in your own head) you are going to be worried about far too many outside factors, such as your last at bat or the fight you had with your mother before the game, to bring your swing thought down to “see ball, hit ball.”
There will be no flow to your swing, just a sort of panicked flail as the ball comes in. You may even start seeing things that aren’t there, or lose your perspective on exactly where the strike zone is. Much can happen.
To improve as a hitter, be as water.
As a fielder, you want to be able to move smoothly to the ball. You want your throws to be easy and sure.
That’s going to be tough if you are tight and rigid. The word “flow” is frequently used to describe a great fielder. And what water does.
Being rigid or mechanical in your movements is a sure ticket to many more errors than you should be making. And if you are that way because you are AFRAID of making errors and being pulled out of the game, it only gets worse. Forget about all that.
To improve as a fielder, be as water.
Approach to the Game
Perhaps the area Bruce Lee’s advice applied to most is your general approach to the game. In the video, he says that if you pour water into a cup it becomes the cup. If you pour it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Fastpitch softball players need that type of flexibility as well. You may be asked to play a position that isn’t your usual one. You can either resist or go with it.
Yes, playing outfield rather than catcher or shortstop may not be your preference. But if you go with it and prove yourself in the role you were asked to play you are far more likely to get the opportunity to show what you can do in the position you want to play. I’ve seen it happen.
You may not like your coach’s coaching style. Understood – there are some bad coaches out there. But often it’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s just different than you prefer.
Rather than bracing yourself against it like a rock, be as water. Adjust your expectations and get as much as you can out of the experience. Everyone has something to teach – even if it’s just not to be like they are in the future.
You may not be getting the playing time you want or feel you deserve. That may be true. But before you just blame the coach and jump ship, ask yourself if you’re doing all you can do to earn the spot you want.
Are you diving for balls in practice? Are you displaying a positive attitude? Do you go to the weight room, take extra batting practice or bullpen work, ask for one more ground ball if you pooch one in practice, help clean up team equipment at the end of practice or a game, etc.?
Maybe the answer is yes and you’re just not getting a fair shot. It happens. But before you decide that, determine whether you have been trying to shape yourself to the program the way water shapes itself to the cup or wishing the program would shape itself to you.
So after all of this, if I were to ask you which is stronger, the rock or the water, what would you answer?
Many would say the rock. Not a bad answer on the surface, because if you place a rock in a stream or river, the water will be forced to go around it.
Over time, however, the water will wear away the rock and any other obstacle in its path until it can once again flow smoothly.
So I ask you again: which is stronger, the rock or the water?
Be as water, my friend.