Category Archives: Parents

WCWS Demonstrates the Value of Great Outfield Play

I have written in the past about how many parents of travel ball and high school players view the outfield as a punishment or a sign that their coach believes their child somehow doesn’t measure up to her teammates. They will tell anyone who will listen that their daughter “deserves” to be in the infield – I guess because the cool kids play infield and the nerds play outfield.

Yet as the recent Womens College World Series (WCWS) demonstrated once again great outfield play is often the difference between winning and losing – as well as advancing or going home.

The obvious ones are the spectacular catches – going up over the wall to rob an opposing hitter of a home run. Those are dramatic and make for great candidates for endless SportsCenter Top 10 replays.

Yet those are also the rarities. Often the difference-makers are more the everyday plays or even the approaches to the position that the best teams adopt to ensure their success.

Here’s a good example from my own observations. As I was watching one of the teams warm up I looked at how their outfielders were throwing the ball back to the coach hitting fungoes.

It is common practice among colleges to recruit the best athletes then put them into positions where they are expected to use their athleticism. (The stated exceptions are pitchers and catchers, who are recruited specifically by position.)

As a result, many college players at all positions were once shortstops on their travel and/or high school teams. The best defensive players out of that group will actually play shortstop, and the rest will be spread around to other positions based on need or their ability to hit.

As I watched those outfielders it was clear that was the case for this team. All their throws were that quick, low arm slot, almost sidearm throw that shortstops make. That type of throw is great within a certain range, but after that range it can be a liability.

Sure enough it was during the game. I remember at least two balls hit to medium-deep left or left center where the outfielder picked up the ball and “shortstopped” the throw to third as a speedy runner went for the extra base.

Understand these weren’t balls to the fence. They dropped in front of the fielders.

As expected, the throws took two or three hops to get to third. By that time the runners had already safely slid in and stood up – it wasn’t even close.

A better, stronger outfield throw would have at least given them a chance to get the out. But it didn’t happen and the runners ended up scoring later.

Another example came during one of the Oklahoma State/Texas games. It was the play that was shown endlessly with the miscues that pretty much let Texas back into the game.

If you watch closely, when the throw goes to second after being cut off, the center fielder and the left fielder are nowhere near the line of the throw. When it goes awry, the center fielder has to chase the ball down to the outfield fence, which allows the runners to keep running.

Had she moved to the line of the throw earlier the damage may have been minimized and perhaps we would have seen an all-Oklahoma WCWS instead. We’ll never know.

Throughout the whole NCAA tournament we also saw examples of outfielders diving for balls when they didn’t need to only to see the ball skip past them for extra bases. We saw outfielders lose a ball in the lights or the sun because they didn’t shade their eyes properly or were using a closed-web infielder glove instead of an open web outfielder glove.

We saw balls drop between two outfielders or out fielders and infielders because the outies weren’t forceful enough in calling off the innies (which is what they should do, because they have priority). We even saw simple catches botched because outfielders were trying to make a throw before they caught the ball or just didn’t track the ball well enough.

These types of plays happen every day at levels of competition. And unlike an error in the infield, where most play is self-contained, problems in the outfield can quickly be amplified because there is no one behind them to help minimize the damage.

All of this points to the importance of having a well-trained outfield that is focused on their own position instead of why they’re not playing in the infield. Taking enough pride in outfield play to learn how to read the ball off the bat, re-learn to throw for more power and distance, and develop the type of situational awareness and focus required when the ball comes your way just a few times a game is invaluable to a team’s overall success.

So if you/your daughter is assigned to the outfield, don’t feel like the coach is saying you are “less than.” Instead, look on it as an opportunity to make a huge contribution to your team’s success and be the best outfielder you can be.

In other words, make sure you’re a difference-maker.

Do’s and Don’ts for the Car Ride Home

Once again today’s topic is the result of a reader suggestion – this time from my friend and pitching coach extraordinaire Jamison (James Clark). James is a PaulyGirl Fastpitch Elite Level certified pitching coach in the Southeastern Indiana area – Richmond, specifically – so if you’re a pitcher in search of a great coach check his United Fastpitch Academy Facebook page.

James was going to do a presentation on how to handle the car ride home and asked me if I had ever covered this topic. I checked and surprisingly I had not, so here we are today.

Ah yes, the car ride home after a game. Few things in sports generate such a wide range of emotions in such a cramped space.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken one (my kids are all long grown and done with their sports careers) but I do remember those days. The time in the car before as well as after the games was some of the best time my kids and I spent (don’t worry, I checked with them).

Now, at this point you’re probably thinking my advice is going to amount to “don’t replay the whole game in the car” or something like that. While you may not to go over the whole game, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about it at all.

The truth is the car ride home offers ample learning as well as bonding opportunities. But it has to be handled carefully in order not to become contentious.

With that in mind, following are some carefully curated do’s and don’ts for the car ride home after a game or a long tournament weekend.

Do’s

  1. Keep it positive. It’s easy to launch into a diatribe about everything that went wrong, or wasn’t as good as it could have been. Resist that temptation, especially if it’s going to be a long ride. No one will benefit from an hour of unhappy silence.
  2. Take emotion out of it. Anger, frustration, disappointment and similar emotions are counter-productive. They’re also reactions to the moment – reactions you may regret later. You can talk about what went right or wrong in a calm way, with more of a focus on the facts instead of letting emotions get in the way.
  3. Listen more than you talk. It’s easy to fall into the trap of dominating the conversation about the game, especially if you feel like you have a lot to say. But remember you were just watching the game. Your favorite player was in the middle of it. Give her a chance to talk about what she wants to talk about – even if it’s something other than the game. Remember that youths of playing age often have a lot of hormones and other issues to deal with outside of the game. Give them the opportunity to share them – and respect them when they don’t want to share them. They’ll come around. I promise.
  4. Use the opportunity to talk strategy. One of the ways to keep emotion out of the conversation is to talk strategy rather than performance. For example, a pitcher’s parent can talk about pitch sequences or what can be done to attack a particular type of a hitter such as a slapper – especially if it’s the first time the pitcher faced one. A fielder’s parent can talk about what to do with the ball in certain situations, e.g., the value of going after the lead runner in the infield rather than automatically throwing every ground ball to first. For hitting, parents can talk about being more selective when ahead in the count, or ways to keep calm and focused when the hitter gets behind. Fastpitch softball is a complex game, and it’s impossible to anticipate every situation in practices. The aftermath of a game provides a great opportunity to cover some of them.
  5. Take a long-term view. Next week there will be another game or tournament with its own new challenges, and the frustrations of this one will forgotten. But the memories of those car rides home – whether they are good or bad – will last forever. Think about the way you want your daughter(s) to remember what it was like to ride home with you when they are long past their playing days.
  6. Stop for ice cream or another treat now and then. It’s easy to treat your favorite player when her team wins or when she did something great. But sometimes it’s needed even more after a tough loss or a poor performance as this old Lifesavers commercial demonstrates. A little detour to a favorite place might be just the thing to celebrate life’s triumphs or lift the spirits after a defeat – and secure the bond between parents and players.

Don’ts

  1. Trash the coach. You may not agree with all (or any) of the coach’s decisions or his/her approach to the game, but the car ride home from a game or tournament is not the time to share those opinions. Even if you know your player agrees. Try to decompress without getting into such a volatile issue. If you need to talk about how a coach is managing the game or treating players (especially your own) save it for another day. And if you really feel you can coach the team better – volunteer and prove it.
  2. Trash her teammates. Yes, #25 may have made three errors in the field and the entire last half of the lineup couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. But it doesn’t do anyone any good for you to talk about it ad nauseum. Team chemistry is critical to high performance, yet it is also quite delicate. Don’t be the person who gets in the way of it. Besides, at least some of the girls you’re talking about may be her friends.
  3. Trash the umpires. As a group, umpires make easy targets for our anger and frustration. Yet the reality is (with very rare exceptions) the umpires aren’t out to “get” your player or your team. In 99% of the cases they couldn’t care less about who wins or what the outcome of a particular play is. Beyond that, no game outcome ever comes down to a single umpire’s call, because if your team had been up 11-0 no one would have cared about a blown call. They had ample opportunity to take the umpires out of it and didn’t. If you’re unhappy about the quality of officiating in your area don’t complain. Put in the work, get your certification, and DO something about it.
  4. Belittle or become hyper-critical of your player. It’s tough enough to be a young person these days, especially with all the expectations placed on them and all the pressures from coaches and outside factors such as social media. The last thing they need is one of the people they trust the most – you – adding to it when they are already feeling vulnerable and perhaps raw and exposed. This doesn’t just apply to the car ride home, by the way, it’s good advice for any time.
  5. Take it all too seriously. It may seem like life or death when you’re in the middle of it. But it’s really not. Fastpitch softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Remember that and the car ride home will be a whole lot more enjoyable.

Photo by Taras Makarenko on Pexels.com

A Volunteer’s Guide to Scoring on GameChanger

As an instructor who is mostly teaching lessons while my students are out playing, one of the greatest innovations in softball in the last 10 years is GameChanger.

(I say this despite the fact that I used to used iScore when I was coaching teams. Both are similar, but like VHS v Beta back in the VCR days, there is a clear winner in the battle for dominance among the masses.)

The beauty of GameChanger et. al. is that when you can’t be at the ballpark you can still keep up on what’s happening during the game. Or after.

(If am not teaching a lesson at the moment and my students are doing well I like to watch in real time. If they are struggling I am old school superstitious enough to believe I’m jinxing them and will check out the final box score later.)

Of course, as the short story The Monkey’s Paw (and the later Bruce Springsteen song) says, with every wish comes a curse.

In the case of GameChanger the curse is that the report you see doesn’t always tell the whole story. Or even an accurate one.

The challenge is that the person keeping score in GameChanger often is a volunteer, usually a parent, frequently a parent who missed the parent meeting and thus got stuck with the job instead of getting to do something simpler like line up hotels for away tournaments or convince the league’s governing board that softball girls deserve to have their fields lined and dragged for games, just like the boys’ baseball teams do.

So the GameChanger parents muddles through as best he/she can. And while the parent may get training on the technical aspects of how to enter information (and how to change it when they realize they screwed up the batting order or mixed up which field is left and which is right), they don’t get the opportunity to learn the nuances of how to score a game in a way that makes sense to someone who knows the game and wants to see what’s really going on.

Luckily, GameChanger parent, you have me! So without further ado, here are some of the nuances no one tells you when you agree to use up your online minutes to post the info on GameChanger.

Left Handed Hitter v Right Handed Hitter

Let’s start with this because it’s pretty basic and simple. For each player, it’s important to mark whether they hit left- or right-handed. Not that it affects the stats at all, but because it helps people who are watching remotely confirm that the Jennifer N they’re seeing is the one they want to watch. Not one of the three other Jennifer Ns on the team.

It’s also important for slappers, particularly newbie slappers who are just making the transition. And it helps give a more accurate picture of the game.

It’s just a simple button. If you have lefties on the team, give that button a click so they show up correctly.

Pop Out v Fly Ball v Line Drive

This one probably drives me battier (pun intended) than anything else because it just defies the laws of softball as well as logic.

If a ball goes out to an outfield, it is a fly ball, not a pop out. A pop out is contact that is caught in the infield area, either in fair or foul territory.

Saying “Mary T pops out to right fielder Sally J” when the ball has clearly traveled 180 feet is just wrong. The only time it would be correct is if Sally J is playing incredibly shallow in right field and the ball goes way up in the air and then comes down to her within spitting distance of the infield.

By the same token, a hitter cannot fly out to an infielder. She can hit a line drive out, or a pop out.

But even if she has to go backwards to catch the ball it’s not a fly ball. A fly ball has a trajectory that carries it well beyond where an infielder could catch it.

A line drive is basically a ball hit in a way gives it an upward trajectory but isn’t as high as a fly ball or pop up. This very basic drawing should help scorers distinguish between them.

Please, please, please, get this right. Otherwise it’s like nails on a chalkboard.

Hit v Error

This one should be pretty straightforward. But apparently it’s not so let me clarify.

If the batter hits the ball in fair territory and no one touches it, it’s a hit. Doesn’t matter how far it went or whether it was on the ground or in the air. It’s a hit.

If the batter hits the ball and a fielder touches it but doesn’t make the play, 99 times out of 100 it’s an error. The exception is a little leeway can be granted if touching the ball required extraordinary effort. Extraordinary effort being defined as “laid herself out to get there” not “stopped picking dandelions when the ball hit her in the shins.”

If the ball came to the fielder and she played hacky-sack with it as she tried to field it, or she fielded it cleanly but threw the ball toward South America instead of the base where an out could be obtained, it’s an error. Even if that fielder was your daughter.

While I have said in the past that I believe slappers should get credit for a hit if they bang the ball off a fielder’s shins and beat the throw, the reality is that’s not how it’s officially scored. It’s still reached on error. Deal with it.

The one area where judgment comes into play is if the ball could have been fielded for an out with an ordinary effort, i.e., it rolls through the hitter’s legs or drops next to an outfielder.

Even though it wasn’t touched, it should have resulted in an out had the fielder played it correctly so it’s considered an error.

This whole “outs v errors,” by the way, is why college coaches tend to take the stats players post on the Internet with a huge dollop of salt. Unless they know the scorer has a high level of skill, they can suspect that batting averages of .825 or ERAs of 0.25 on most teams owe more to scorer inexperience or manipulation than the player’s skills.

Slap v Bunt

People who are new to softball can be excused for not understanding this difference. But it’s an important distinction.

If the batter sticks the bat out with the intention of having the ball hit the bat and roll a few feet away, it’s a bunt. If the batter (especially a left handed batter who is running up on the pitch) takes a swing, or even a half swing, it’s considered a slap whether it comes off hard or soft.

Marking it correctly doesn’t affect the stats at all. But for the parents (or hitting coach) of a slapper who can’t be there it makes a huge deal in knowing that the player is using the skills she’s been training on.

Extra Base Hits and Which Fielder Is Named

Maybe this is just my personal preference but seeing “Jolene T hits ground ball double to shortstop Tina K” is another thing that makes no sense to me. How in the world do you hit a double to the shortstop?

The short answer is you don’t. You hit a hard ground ball that got through the infield and went toward an outfield position. That’s who it should be marked going to.

Getting It Right

Again, it’s great that apps such as GameChanger are available to allow interested parties to follow multiple games from afar. But as long as you’re putting in the effort to record the game, you might as well do it correctly.

Understand these differences and you’ll help everyone get a better idea of what’s really happening/what really happened, which makes following along more fun.

Coaches and Parents: Getting Past Self-Imposed Obstacles

Years ago there was a book titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It took the premise that a lot of the world’s problems could be solved if we went back to the basic values most of us were taught as children.

That’s a great idea from a basic, being a good human being standpoint. But it’s not such a good philosophy for helping our players or daughter learn the skills required to play fastpitch softball at a high level.

The key issue there is that our level of knowledge of the optimal way to execute various skills is constantly expanding and evolving. New research, often driven by new technologies such as high speed video (your basic mobile phone or tablet), tools that measure ball spin rates and direction (Rapsodo, Diamond Kinetics), and wearable sensors that measure parameters such as the kinetic sequence and angular velocities of various limbs (4D Motion), help us look deeper under the hood to gain a greater understanding of the biomechanics of movement, i.e., how various body part interact with one another.

In other words, there is a wealth of hard data available that can help us lift the veil of guessing to truly understand which ways of executing skills will produce the best results.

You would think this news would create a Renaissance of enlightenment that would have coaches and parents scurrying to absorb all they can as quickly as they can and incorporate it into the way they coach their players/daughters. But you would be wrong.

You see, the human mind is a funny thing. It doesn’t like to be “wrong,” so it sets up defense mechanisms to protect itself against that possibility.

Of course, overcoming these self-imposed limitations first requires recognizing that they exist. Today’s post discusses a few of the most common.

Understand that these issues are often not mutually exclusive. In fact, many of them feed into each other to help create an even stronger barrier to keep new information out. But with a little self-examination you can figure out whether you are falling victim to them so you can put in the work to get past them and open your mind to all the great information that’s out there.

Oh, and this doesn’t apply only to softball by the way. It can be applied to other areas of your life as well since we all find it easy to fall into these traps.

Commitment Bias

This is probably one of the most common issues coaches and parents encounter when faced with information, or even hard evidence, that contradicts what they currently believe to be true.

The basic idea of commitment bias is that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort, and probably invested a significant amount of money, in acquiring the knowledge you have now. (In financial terms it’s called a “sunk cost.”)

To make a change, you would not only have to throw away all or at least some of what you’ve spent your time and treasure acquiring, you would have to <gasp!> admit that you were “wrong” about it.

Never!

Or at least that’s how our minds think.

We see this a lot when coaches fall back on the “I’ve been teaching it this way for 20 years and been successful…” argument.

There is an element of truth in that. They have been teaching it that way for 20 years, and they have had players who have been successful during that time.

But there’s a pretty good chance that those players were successful in spite of what they were taught rather than because of it. The world is full of pitchers who were taught “hello elbow” mechanics but, if you watch high-speed video of them actually pitching, don’t pitch that way at all.

Parents can get caught in this trap as well. They spent good money for their daughter to go to a skills clinic, or a private coach, or they bought a bunch of books and videos so they could teach their daughter themselves.

Now they’re confronted with evidence-based information that contradicts those investments. Can they really bring themselves to set all that aside and have their daughters start over? That can be a tough call for some people, especially those who like to believe they’re always right.

But it’s a necessary step. As pitching guru Rick Pauly said on a recent “Transcending Sports” podcast with hitting expert Rob Crews, “If you’re not willing to learn new things you should probably get out of coaching.”

That doesn’t mean believe every new thing you see or hear, especially on the Internet. But be open to it, and if it makes sense be willing to change.

Confirmation Bias

This one is often the next step after commitment bias kicks in.

You heard something that contradicts your world view so you go out seeking more information about the topic. But rather than performing objective research, you instead go out seeking points of view that will back up (confirm) your current position.

This is kind of like a person being told they have a horrible disease and deciding to get a second opinion. But they keep on seeing doctors until they find one that tells them what they want to hear.

Doesn’t matter if it’s 100-1 in favor of the original diagnosis. They’re going with the one.

The Internet makes this issue particularly dangerous, because whatever is posted there is posted forever. Or as they say in The Social Network, “the Internet is written in ink.” Gotta love Aaron Sorkin.

Head coach reacts to assistant looking up information that contradicts his teachings.

The problem with that is even those sincerely trying to perform unbiased research can end up watching a grainy video from 1998 that doesn’t take into account the progress that’s been made in understanding how to optimize softball skills over the last 20+ years. Instead, since it reinforces their beliefs they stop right there and never check out newer, better information.

Of course, those who hold their beliefs tight to their chests will purposely seek out information that supports their views and ignore whatever does not. At that point the loop is closed and no new information will be admitted. Kind of like the way a dungeon blocks out all the sunlight.

When you hear something new, the better approach is to seek out as much information about it and see if it makes sense. Look at the evidence behind it. See if it lines up with what the best players in the world are doing.

And you can console yourself with the fact that this new information may also be replaced someday by even better data – which you’ll also be able to take advantage of since your mind is open.

By the way, the good news is changing today doesn’t invalidate what you did before. I’ve changed the way I teach a lot as I’ve learned more and gained more experience. But none of my former players have had to give back a single hit or strikeout or great play in the field as a result. It’s all good.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

This trap is essentially a phenomenon where people with limited knowledge or expertise on a subject overestimate their knowledge or competence on that subject versus others in their field.

Take a recently graduated player who is making the transition to coaching. She hasn’t put in a lot of study on the biomechanics of a particular skill, but instead assumes because she played she knows how to teach it. So she goes back and repeats what she was taught without looking to see if that was actually the way she hit, pitched, threw, etc.

If anyone questions her, or points to a different set of information, she immediately falls back on “I was a college pitcher so I know what I’m doing.”

That may or may not be true. I know several excellent pitching coaches who were college pitchers who can tell you today they didn’t know what they were doing, and in fact had no real clue how to teach pitching. Fortunately, each of them put in the work to learn all they could (and still do), and are now some of the biggest evangelists for the need for others to do the same.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can also be seen in parents who played softball (or baseball) in high school or college and assume that qualifies them to teach various softball skills. Spoiler alert:

Some of what you know may transfer. But if you really want to help your daughter, it’s worth looking into the latest thinking and learning the techniques that are currently being taught rather than passing along ancient knowledge.

Think of it this way: Would you really like to go back to using the same mobile phone you used 10 or 15 or 20 years ago? Doubtful. So why rely on old information when so much progress has been made since then.

Then, like the “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years” people, there are those who believe that whatever success they’ve achieved on the local level validates that they’re right, and therefore there is no need to look further. They have a false sense of their own expertise.

These folks can learn a lesson from former UCLA head coach and NFCA Hall of Famer Sue Enquist. A few years ago she was doing a presentation on hitting at a coaches clinic.

During her presentation one of the attendees raised his hand and said, “But Coach Enquist, I have your hitting videos and they don’t talk about this at all. In fact, they say the opposite.”

Coach Enquist turned to the man and said, “Throw those videos away. They’re five years old. I’ve learned a lot about hitting since then.”

If a legend like Sue Enquist is humble enough to throw away what she “knew” when she finds new, better, more effective information, shouldn’t the rest of us be as well?

Wrapping Up

It’s easy to fall into these and other traps. It doesn’t make us bad – it just makes us human.

Hopefully by being aware of them, and the issues they can cause, you can avoid them to ensure you’re bringing the best possible information to your players and/or daughters to help them become the players they’re meant to be. And isn’t that what coaching is all about?

Photo by Jan van der Wolf on Pexels.com

Failure Is a Key Element in Player Development

Today’s topic was a suggestion from Tim Husted, who was the founder and guiding force behind the Danes fastpitch softball program, which gave players in Wisconsin and Minnesota the opportunity to play at the highest levels. Tim knows a thing or two about developing players so they can continue their careers in college, having done so for many young ladies while the program was active.

Tim was commenting on my post “Accuracy Without Speed = Batting Practice,” saying essentially that too many parents and coaches these days are focused on achieving short-term success rather working toward longer-term greatness. But, he added, it also shows up in parents being afraid to let their kids fail because they don’t understand that failure is an essential component of developing great players.

I know, it sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? No parent likes to see their kid(s) fail.

Our hearts bleed for them, and our kids’ pain becomes our pain – only amplified. It can be particularly debilitating for parents who are living vicariously through their kids’ sports careers.

The result is we do whatever we can to help our kids avoid failure, and the negative feelings associated with it.

Sometimes that means an “everybody gets a trophy” approach. Which I personally believe is ok at the younger ages to reward participation, but not after about the age of 10, and then only in rec leagues.

Sometimes that means jumping from team to team to find a starting spot rather than competing for one. There are definitely times when leaving a particular team is the right decision, such as when all positions are set and there is no opportunity to compete for a starting job.

That happens more than people like to admit too. But leaving in lieu of working hard is not a good solution.

And sometimes it means disgruntled parents starting their own teams or agreeing to coach with the express purpose of making their kid the star, whether it’s deserved or not.

Here’s the reality, however: failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty rare to find anyone who is successful as an adult who did not face some level of failure earlier in his or her life.

Amanda Scarborough often talks about how early in her career she was not at the top of the pitching depth chart on her travel and high school teams. One of the all-time greats, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Lisa Fernandez, says she walked 20 batters in her first pitching outing and was told by a well-known pitching coach in California that she’d “never be a pitcher.” Many other greats in all walks of life have similar backstories.

The thing is, they didn’t let failure or disappointment define them. Instead, they learned from it and used it as fuel.

This is what coaches, and especially parents, need to understand. Failure isn’t a bad thing. It’s an essential part of the learning process.

People who succeed all the time (if there is such a thing) don’t learn how to overcome obstacles. They aren’t driven to hone their skills to improve. They don’t gain the mental toughness required to play at the highest level.

The pain of failure drives us to not want to feel that way again. Which either means we stop doing the activity or we work to ensure (to the best of our abilities) that it doesn’t happen again.

And that’s where the development comes in. Failure doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It means you aren’t good enough right now.

But that can change. While your DNA, which defines your base athletic ability, is what it is, mental and physical skills can be developed.

As a team coach and an instructor I’ve worked with many, many kids who didn’t start out as superstars, or even competent players for that matter. But with guidance and dedication they went on to pass more naturally gifted players in terms of performance on the field. And I know many coaches, including Tim, who have similar stories.

Failure helps point out the flaws in your game so you can work on them. It drives us to achieve more than success alone ever will.

Good players like to work on their strengths. Great players prefer to work on their weaknesses.

Then there’s the idea of failure as fuel, which I mentioned earlier. Sometimes failing at something is just the kick in the pants we as humans need to drive us to improve beyond what we may have done otherwise.

I know this from personal experience. My first year as a travel ball coach my oldest daughter’s team was very successful, winning the bulk of our games along with taking first place in the highly competitive travel league we were a part of.

I remember feeling really good about myself as a coach – until I found out half the team was leaving to join a new team in our organization coached by the dad of a girl who was more popular than my daughter. I was shocked and disappointed.

But rather than quit, or whine about it, I took that failure and used it to drive me to become the best coach I could be. I took classes, read books, watched videos, talked to other coaches, and did everything I could to become so good that no player would ever even consider leaving.

While I can’t say I fully achieved that goal – there will always be some attrition, and there’s always more to learn – it definitely made me a much better coach and put me on the path that I still follow today. I’m not sure the same would have happened had that first team all stayed.

Another benefit failure brings is that it makes success that much sweeter and more satisfying. It’s difficult to appreciate triumph if you’ve never experienced defeat.

Not to mention if you are afraid of failure you’re more likely to play weaker competition to ensure you’ll win. I’ve known teams like that.

Their coaches play teams they know they can beat, thinking a better won-loss record makes them look like better coaches. But all it really does is stunt the development of their players because those players aren’t being challenged.

If you’re going undefeated in every tournament and posting up 80-3 run differentials you’re not a great team. You’re playing in the wrong tournaments.

A 60% – 70% win rate will do far more to ensure player development than a closet full of trophies, medals, plaques and rings.

The bottom line is that while failure is painful, it can be a good kind of pain – like what you feel after a particularly grueling workout. It’s not something that should be feared and avoided at all costs.

Instead, it should be embraced as part of the learning process.

Failure doesn’t have to be a dead end. In fact, it can be the starting point for something much, much better.

The choice is yours.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Changing Teams? Use GameChanger (et. al.) As A Research Tool

So, the new travel team you joined after July/August tryouts isn’t working out quite the way you hoped and now you’re considering other options. But, of course, after being burned once you are worried that you may jump from the frying pan into the fire.

How do you make sure that whatever issues caused your dissatisfaction with the current team aren’t the same (or worse) with the new team you’re thinking of joining?

One way, of course, is to talk to people who are already on the team. If you or your daughter have friends connected to the new team they can give you a “behind the curtain” glimpse into how things run.

Does the coach favor certain players over others, especially in your daughter’s preferred position? Does the team play against quality opponents, which will help your daughter stretch and grow her skills? Is the coach a screamer? Are the other players/families nice to be around or will you be embarrassed to be associated with the team in public?

But what if you don’t have a connection that can give you a reliable word-of-mouth appraisal? That’s where apps like GameChanger/TeamManager and their ilk can come in handy.

They won’t answer all your questions, like whether the coach is a screamer or what the families are like. But they can certainly give you some pretty good insight into a lot of other aspects.

Circle time

The first is what you can expect for playing time. Let’s say your daughter is a pitcher. Look up the prospective team and see how many pitchers they have and what kind of innings they’re getting.

If you see they have six pitchers, each of whom are getting an inning or two per game/tournament, adding your daughter to the mix will probably not go well. Now the pie will be sliced even thinner and she’s not going to learn how to be a #1.

On the other hand, if the same one or two girls pitch almost every inning of every game, that can be a red flag as well. It means the coach isn’t willing to lose a pool play game or a during-the-week friendly to enable his/her other pitchers to develop.

He/she wants the win, so if your daughter isn’t already ready to deliver that level of performance on a daily basis you should probably pass as well. And even if she is, she may still not get the opportunity if the only two pitchers the coach trusts are the ones currently getting all the innings.

Another scenario to look for is the team has two, three, maybe even four pitchers but only one of them gets any quality innings in bracket play. Especially if that pitcher is a coach’s daughter.

You probably won’t be too happy with that situation, particularly if your daughter is ready to lead the team to victory on Sundays but never gets the opportunity. You can pretty much count on having to find another team next season.

Then there is the team that only has one player who even wants to pitch. Your daughter will likely get a lot of opportunity, even if she still needs some development. (Not a guarantee but a likelihood.)

She can prove herself and earn more time as she goes along, which benefits both pitchers.

Finally, if the pitchers on a team never play the field that may also be a red flag for you. This one, however, depends on what your daughter wants from the game.

If she only wants to pitch (and not hit or play the field) this team will be a good fit. If she wants to do more, be aware the coach’s philosophy probably isn’t going to change for your daughter.

What you want to look for is an opportunity that aligns with what you want out of the experience.

Playing time for fielders

For field players you can also look at how many the team has at that position and how many innings they’re getting. If all other positions show two or three players getting quality time but the first baseman is always the same, and your daughter loves playing first base, that team is probably not going to be a fit.

Another thing to look for is how many positions players are playing on a regular basis. At the younger ages (up to 10U or maybe 12U) it’s great to expose kids to a lot of different positions to help them find what they like.

Beyond that, however, they need to start narrowing it down to one or two in my opinion. There are a lot of nuances to fastpitch softball and each position requires time to learn them.

That’s tough to do if you’re being shuffled all over the field.

It’s great to be versatile so you’re ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, but there’s a limit. It’s better to learn two, maybe three at the most and learn them well than be all over the field all the time.

Another thing to look for is the difference between the Saturday and Sunday lineups. If some current players consistently are listed on Saturday but not Sunday you’ll know the team has “pool play only” players on their roster.

If that’s acceptable to you, no problem. If not, you may need to do more in-depth research or find a team that is more liberal in its playing time.

One final thing to check is the overall roster size. For travel ball, 12 or 13 is usually the maximum. Anything above that, especially if the team has pool-play-only players, and it’s unlikely you’ll be very happy as the new person coming in.

Playing quality opponents

This one should be fairly easy to do. Take a look at the schedule to see who the team played and the scores of the game.

If you’re familiar with teams in your area you should be able to immediately recognize whether they play strong or weak teams on a regular basis. If your daughter hopes to play in college and the team is only playing weak opponents it’s not a good fit. You have to play quality to achieve quality.

If you’re not familiar with the teams they’re playing, look at their won-loss record and the scores of the games they played. If they’re beating up on teams 12-0, 15-1, 23-1 or some other lopsided score on a regular basis they are probably not playing very good teams.

The better bet is a team that is winning its games by one or two runs on a regular basis, whether that’s 2-0 or 8-6. Those scores indicate the teams were fairly evenly matched.

Likewise, if their Won-Loss record is 43-3 it’s pretty clear they’re not challenging themselves very much. That’s fine if you just want to be on a team that wins all the time but be aware it’s probably not going to make your daughter a better player.

A team that wins 60% to 70% of their games, particularly if they are playing in PGF or USA-sanctioned tournaments, is probably a strong team that plays strong opponents.

At the same time, a team that wins 35-40% of their games against good opponents may just be one or two players away from becoming strong. Perhaps your daughter can be one of those difference-makers.

Number of errors game to game

This one can be a little dicey because it’s entirely dependent on whoever is scoring the game in the app. Some people score everything a hit because they don’t know what constitutes an error, or they want to make the fielders/team look good.

Others score a lot of errors to help keep the pitchers’ ERAs low. The difference between a passed ball and wild pitch may also depend on whether it’s the pitcher’s or catcher’s parent who is scoring the game.

But that aside, looking at error totals game to game can give you a sense for how the team plays in the field. And how well-coached they are.

An occasional high error count happens to everyone. But if it happens consistently, and doesn’t change over time, that team may not be particularly well-coached.

If errors are rarely or never charged, and the team’s record is only so-so, you can pretty much count on it being a deficiency in scorekeeping. In other words, the team probably makes a lot of errors that get counted as hits.

Not saying that’s a reason not to join the team. Just be aware that you’re going to be watching those games and they’re probably not going to get better as they go along.

Opponents’ stolen bases

This one again can be subjective, up to the judgment/knowledge of the scorekeeper. But it can be an indicator of how the team performs.

High opponent stolen base counts can be an indicator of weak catchers. Or weak fielders.

Keep in mind you can have the greatest catcher in the world with a pop time under 1.8 seconds. But if there’s no one on the other end to receive that ball and place the tag, or the catch gets muffed all the time, opponent stolen bases will be high.

But that stat could also indicate that the pitching is, shall we say, somewhat wild. While the advancement of the runner should be scored as a wild pitch or passed ball, those who don’t know better (and some who do) will mark it as a stolen base.

So if you see a lot of stolen bases, especially at the younger levels, take it with a grain of salt and look for other factors, such as the number of strikes versus total pitches. If that count is low, you’re probably looking at advances on wild pitches/passed balls rather than a problem with catcher throws or fielder receives. Which usually indicates a weaker team.

Grain of salt

Of course, everything in an app like GameChanger has to be taken with a grain of salt. Unless you know the scorekeeper personally and can vouch for his/her knowledge of fastpitch softball, the statistical information you glean will always have some doubt associated with it.

But by taking several of these data points together you can get a pretty good idea of who the teams plays, how they play them, and whether your daughter would be a good fit and vice versa. If nothing else you can keep from making some of the same mistakes again – so you don’t find yourself in the same position six months from now!

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Loyalty Is a Two-Way Street

This is the time of year when the rubber starts to hit the road in travel ball. All the promises of tryouts, all the good intentions, and all the talk of “we’re in it for the girls” starts getting tested as games get real and the outcome of the season is at stake.

The result is that some players/families begin to get disenchanted with their positions on the team and start thinking they might be better-served somewhere else.

They may or may not be correct. If you’re a player or parent who thinks playing time should be handed out like Halloween candy, regardless of effort or output, you’re probably not going to be any happier on the next team than you are on this one.

Your lack of skills and knowledge will be a detriment to whatever team you’re on, and coaches will recognize that pretty quickly. Your lack of effort to improve will also be noticed, making it easier for you to be left watching the game from the dugout.

But there is another class of player who may also be facing this decision. She has been working hard, showing improvement, earning her right to be on the field. But for whatever reason, the coaches have made their decision not to play her and that’s the end of that.

No matter what that player does or shows she can do, her fate on this team is sealed. Those are the ones who may find it necessary to seek a team.

Yes, I’ve seen all the bloviating on Facebook and other sources about how you just have to stick it out, and how horrible it is that players switch teams so quickly these days – whether that’s at the youth or college level.

I’m all for having to work your way up, and quite frankly think you should never join a team where you will clearly be the best player, either overall or at your position. The competition will make you better.

But all of those memes and rants presume you are working with a level playing field. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways the field can be made permanently unlevel.

One common example is a player might play the same position as the coach’s daughter, or the coach’s daughter’s best friend. For a certain type of coach, that means his/her daughter or her friend will always play every inning at that position – no matter how many errors she makes or how many times she strikes out with runners in scoring position.

At that point, you either resign yourself to playing another position or playing your position with another team. If there isn’t an opportunity to ever show what you can do, the only option left is the status quo. Or as my friend Ray Minchew puts it, “It’s tough to build a track record when you never get on the track.”

What that often means is that you fall into the category of “spare parts.” A team needs a minimum of nine players to field a full team, but it’s likely that all nine won’t be able to be at every game. So it also needs people to fill in.

That’s where you come in. If one of the starters can’t make it, and the coach can’t find a guest player to fill that spot, you get on the field. Just know that once the starter comes back you will be back to the bench, no matter how well you did when you had that opportunity.

One of the things the “just tough it out” proponents will tend to bring up at this point is loyalty. They will moan how players are selfish and no one shows loyalty to the team anymore.

In my opinion, however, loyalty is a two-way street. If a coach isn’t loyal enough to his/her players to give them opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and legitimately compete for a spot, why should any of the players be loyal to the coach or team?

The reality is they probably won’t be. If all decisions are transactional, i.e., either the coach wants to win and doesn’t care if players are happy or the coach is more interested in keeping certain players happy or making them the “stars.” there is little reason to stick around if you’re not part of the “in-crowd.” Your situation isn’t going to change.

All anyone should be able to expect is a fair shot at playing. They then have to show what they can do.

But if they do, they should be rewarded appropriately. Otherwise, what is the incentive for working hard or for sticking it out?

If you’re a coach who wants loyalty from your team, start by showing loyalty to your players. ALL your players, not just your favorites or the ones who share a last name with you.

No one signs up for a team for the opportunity to ride the bench all season with no hope of parole. They want to play. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

Give them that opportunity and they will be yours for life. But if you don’t do it, don’t be surprised when your “spare parts” decide they’d rather seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Great New Resource for Learning Pitch Movement

I’ve spoken in the past about Rick and Sarah Pauly’s High Performance Pitching courses. They have put together a great series of Beginner, Intermediate and Elite-level online training courses that give professional instructors and bucket parents alike the ability to learn from two of the best in fastpitch softball pitching.

Recently they released a brand new course for the Elite program called “Tips for Making a Ball Move.” (Click on the Elite tab to find it.)

In his usual friendly and accessible way, Rick walks through topics such as what order to learn movement (i.e., non-fastball) pitches, increasing spin rates on pitches and how to be effective with grips. Lots of great information, and best of all it’s FREE!

But there was a three-part set of lessons in there I thought would be particularly helpful for bucket parents. Two of the lessons cover different types of training balls, and the other one talks about other types of gadgets.

I think these are some very valuable lessons for a couple of reasons. One is that we all look at those things hoping to find a shortcut to helping our daughters/players/students pitch more effectively.

As Rick shows his personal collection I felt like a kid again going through baseball cards with my friends – got that, got that, got that, hmmm, that looks interesting. As much as I say I’m not a gadget guy I’ve certainly spent my fair share of money checking things out.

Rick walks through each of them, talking honestly about what he uses regularly and which balls or devices mostly collect dust on his shelf. Before you hit the “submit” button on Amazon or an individual website I highly recommend you check out this series of videos.

You know the feeling.

The good thing is Rick isn’t really passing judgment on the balls or devices as much as he is sharing his experience. Why that’s important is that while a ball or device may not have worked for him, it might be just the thing you need. After watching the videos you’ll get a better idea of whether they’re worth checking out.

For example, he talks about SpinForm softballs. They are great for helping pitchers learn the curve or rise. But in my experience they’re also great for teaching the overhand throw – especially for a player who tends to get side spin instead of 12-6 spin on her overhand throw.

It’s hard to miss whether the ball is being thrown properly or not, especially if you play catch with someone who does throw properly. That visual helps players figure out what they need to do to improve. If you pair up a pitcher working on her curve with a catcher who needs some spin help it’s a win-win.

And honestly, that’s the thing about these various balls and devices. None of them are necessarily good or bad. Just like drills, using them to achieve success has a lot to do with the coach and the student.

If you have a specific need and use the device properly, it may be valuable to you – even if it wasn’t to me. But if you don’t put in the work with it, or use it as intended, you’re probably going to find it one day covered in dirt and grime when you go to clean out your garage.

The nice thing about Rick’s videos is they give you an unbiased head start on determining whether whatever you’re thinking about purchasing will help solve the issue you’re trying to solve. And again, that course is free so even if you don’t watch the rest of the lessons you can pop in and get what you need.

Please let this work. Please let this work.

So before you go off chasing the latest softball device rainbow, give those videos a look. It might just save you a few bucks you can use to pay for your next hotel stay.

P.S. Just FYI, no matter what device or tool you buy, they tend to work better when you use them regularly.

The Importance of the Poker Face When Catching for Your Daughter

While I am definitely not a big-time gambler, I have always thought that if I wanted to put together a high-stakes poker game where I would have a high chance of winning I would invite the bucket parents of young, preferably beginner, fastpitch softball pitchers.

Not that they have a lot of money available to drop in a game. Lord knows you could buy your own college on what some parents spend trying to get their daughters a scholarship, and even lower-level play can empty a bank account faster than my friends and I could destroy the buffet options at a Pizza Hut.

But whatever money they do have would quickly be mine for one simple reason: their inability to hide their emotions on any sort of regular basis.

I’m sure it doesn’t happen intentionally, but I see it time and again. Their daughter throws a strike and they’re all smiles and excitement, ready to call Patty Gasso to tell her they have her next ticket to the Women’s College World Series punched.

Then the next pitch the ball is in the dirt behind the imaginary batter and they look like they’ve just been told they have to tell John Wick his new dog is dead. Kind of reminds me of this guy:

Well, maybe not quite to that extent. But all the signs are there.

The crestfallen face. The biting of the lower lip. The shoulder slump. The slow walk to retrieve the ball. The pleading in the eyes to “just throw strikes.” Or conversely the unbridled glee when the pitch does what it’s supposed to, like Ralphie and his brother Randy opening presents on Christmas morning.

The thing is I don’t think they’re showing these emotions on purpose. In fact, they probably don’t even know they’re doing it.

But I can see them.

And if I can see them guess who else can?

That’s right, Their daughters, who (in almost all cases) are doing their best to learn this very complicated skill.

Here’s the problem. As a general rule, girls tend to be more focused on pleasing others than boys. And they really want to please their parents.

So if mom or dad inadvertently looks angry, frustrated, disgusted, like their world has ended, etc., it will launch a whole range of emotions accelerated by raging hormones. And at that point, it becomes even more difficult for them to pitch with any semblance of speed and accuracy.

This is an important lesson for every parent (and coach) to learn. I know I had to.

Both of my daughters pitched, and they certainly reacted to however I reacted. I didn’t realize it, however, until I took the ASEP coaching course and they talked about body language and what it tells your team.

It was a real eye-opener for me because I pretty much ticked all the boxes. Hanging Head Syndrome. Heavy Sighs. Banging my hand on the fence when something would go wrong.

I had to work at developing that steely-eyed poker face so that no matter what happened it became a non-event. It wasn’t easy, and I would backslide now and then. But it was worth it.

That’s what I recommend for you bucket parents. Pitching in fastpitch softball is hard. If you don’t believe me, pay close attention in your daughter’s next lesson and then go home and try to do the things she is being asked to do. Then keep in mind she has the body control and fine motor skills of child or adolescent, not an adult.

The best thing you can do for your daughter’s development is to work on your poker face. Learn to control your emotions like a Jedi so that no matter what happens your face, and your body language remains completely neutral.

If you can do that, it will free her to develop her skills guilt-free, which will hasten her improvement considerably. Before you know it you won’t need those abilities because she’ll be performing at a level that makes it a little easier to relax and enjoy the ride.

Don’t worry, though. All that effort you put into hiding your true feelings won’t go to waste. You can instead apply those skills the next time you’re at a tournament and the parents decide a little “adult time” at the local casino is in order. With a little luck you might even be able to cover the weekend’s expense.

Poker photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Are We Destroying Our Kids?

unrecognizable woman showing pain spot on back in doctor office

Injuries have always been a part of participating in youth sports. Jammed fingers, sprained ankles and knees, cuts requiring stitches, even broken bones were an accepted part of the risk of playing. Things happen, after all.

Lately, though, we are seeing a continuing rise of a different type of injury. This one doesn’t happen suddenly as the result of a particular play or miscue on the field. Instead, it develops slowly, insidiously over time, but its effects can be more far-reaching than a sprain, cut or break.

I’m speaking, of course, about overuse injuries.

According to a 2014 position paper from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, roughly 46 to 54% of all youth sports injuries are from overuse. Think about that.

There was no collision. There was no tripping over a base or taking a line drive to the face. There was no stepping in a hole in the outfield or catching a cleat while sliding. The injury occurred while participating normally in the sport.

And here’s the scary part. As I said, this report came out in 2014. In the six years since, the pressure to play year-round, practice more, participate in speed and agility training and do all the other things that go with travel ball in particular has only gotten worse.

You can see it in how one season ends and another begins, as we recently went through. Tryouts keep getting earlier and earlier, with the result that players often commit to a new/different team before their finished playing with their current teams.

It’s not that they’re being bad or disloyal. It’s that they have no choice, because if they wait until the end of the current season there won’t be anywhere left to go because all the teams have been chosen.

What is even crazier is that there literally was no break for many players from one season to the next. I know of many for whom their current season ended on a weekend and their first practice for the next season was the week immediately after. Sometimes they were playing their first game with the new team before their parents had a chance to wash their uniforms from the old team.

And it wasn’t just one practice a week. Teams are doing two or three in the fall, with expectations that players will also take lessons and practice on their own as well.

That is crazy. What is so all-fired important about starting up again right away?

Why can’t players have at least a couple of weeks off to rest, recuperate physically and mentally, and just do other things that don’t require a bat, ball or glove? Why is it absolutely essential to begin playing tournaments or even friendlies immediately and through the end of August?

I think what’s often not taken into consideration, especially at the younger ages, is that many of these players’ bodies are going through some tremendous changes. Not just the puberty stuff but also just growth in general.

A growth spurt could mean a reduction in density in their bones, making them more susceptible to injuries. An imbalance in strength from one side to the other can stress muscles in a way that wouldn’t be so pronounced if they weren’t being used in the same way so often.

Every article you read about preventing overuse injuries stresses two core strategies:

  1. Incorporating significant periods of rest into the training/playing plan
  2. Playing multiple sports in order to develop the body more completely and avoid repetitive stress on the same muscles

When I read those recommendations, however, I can’t help but wonder: have the authors met any crazy softball coaches and parents?

As I mentioned, I’ve seen 12U team schedules where they are set to practice three times a week – in the fall! And these aren’t PGF A-level teams, they’re just local teams primarily playing local tournaments.

Taking up that much time makes it difficult to play other sports. Sure, the softball coach may say it’s ok to miss practices during the week to do a school sport, but is it really?

Will that player be looked down on if she’s not there working alongside her teammates each week? Probably.

Will that player fall behind her teammates in terms of skill, which ultimately hurts her chances of being on the field outside of pool play? Possibly.

So if softball is important to her, she’s just going to have to forego what the good doctors are saying and just focus on softball, thereby increasing her risk of an overuse injury.

This is not just a softball issue, by the way. It’s pretty much every youth sport. I think the neverending cycle may be more of a softball issue, but the time factor that prevents participation in more than one sport at a competitive level is fairly universal.

In the meantime, a study published in the journal Pediatrics that pulled from five previous studies showed that athletes 18 and under who specialize in one sport are twice as likely to sustain an overuse injury than those who played multiple sports.

The alarm bells are sounding. It’s like a lightning detector going off at a field but the teams deciding to ignore it and keep playing anyway. Sooner or later, someone is going to get struck.

What can you do about it? It will be tough, but we have to try to change the culture.

Leaders in the softball world – such as those in the various organizations (including the NFCA) and well-respected college coaches – need to start speaking up about the importance of reducing practice schedules for most of the year and building more downtime in – especially at the end of the season. I think that will help.

Ultimately, though, youth sports parents and coaches need to take responsibility for their children/players and take steps to put an end to the madness. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Build in a few weeks between the end of the summer season and beginning of the fall season for rest, recovery and family activities. There’s no reason for anyone to play before Labor Day.
  • Cut back on the number of fall and winter practices. Once a week with the team should be sufficient. Instead, encourage players to practice more on their own so they can fit softball activities around other sports and activities.
  • Reduce the number of summer games/tournaments. Trying to squeeze 100+ games into three months in the summer (two for high school players who play for their schools in the spring season) is insane bordering on child abuse. Take a weekend or two off, and play fewer games during the week.
  • Plan practices so you’re working on different skills in the same week. This is especially important when it comes to throwing, which is where a lot of overuse injuries occur. Work on offense one day and defense another. Or do throwing one day and baserunning another. Or maybe even play a game that helps with conditioning while working a different muscle group.

It won’t be easy, but we can do this. All it takes is a few brave souls to get it going.

Overuse injuries are running rampant through all sports, including fastpitch softball. With a little thought and care, however, we can reverse that trend – and keep our kids healthier, happier while making them better players in the process.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
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