Category Archives: Parents

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

10 Things to Consider When Looking for a New Team

Ways to succeed at fastpitch softball tryouts

Hard to believe since we have barely been playing summer ball again, but the 2020 season is nearly over. Some of the alphabet organizations are already holding Nationals (or “Nationals”), and in a couple of weeks this year will be in the books.

For some, maybe many, this is also the time of year when players and their families start thinking about where they want to play in 2021. There can be many reasons for changing teams.

Some are looking for a more challenging environment. Some are hoping to increase their playing time, either overall or at a specific position. Some want more games while others want fewer. (I’m sure no one was happy with that this season.) Some want to play with their friends, and some don’t like their current coaches and want to move on.

Whatever the driver, the tryout season (which follows immediately on the heels of the current season, unfortunately) will no doubt find a lot of folks seeking greener pastures.

If you’re in that category, be sure you remember these wise Latin words: caveat emptor, which essentially translates to “let the buyer beware.” Because what may look like a good opportunity at first glance may not look so good once you’re in the middle of it.

There are no guarantees in this process. But I do have some tips, based on my many years of coaching, that could help guide you to a better decision.

This isn’t a post on how to have a great tryout by the way. You can find those tips here. This is about considerations when selecting a new team.

  1. Talk to parents or players already on teams you’re considering. Preferably you will do this before you even get to tryouts. You probably know some of the teams you might be considering. It’s likely you play against them regularly. If you’re at a tournament this weekend, introduce yourself and talk to parents whose kids are on that team. They’ll help you get a feel for how it’s run, what the coaches are like, and whether all the positions are set already or you/your daughter will have an opportunity to see the field (or a particular position) regularly.
  2. Silently listen to those same parents. This is a bit sneakier, but there’s nothing like sideline chatter to give you a feel for what people really think of a team. Go stand by one or more groups of parents and casually listen to their comments and discussions. You’ll get an unvarnished idea of how happy or unhappy they are overall and whether the team atmosphere will be a pleasant or trying one. You could end up saving yourself a lot of time and heartache in the long run.
  3. Look downmarket for opportunities. Yes it sure is nice to be on a team that’s winning the big trophies all the time. But for many the luster fades when you realize you/your daughter was more of a glorified spectator than active participant in all those wins. Sometimes your best opportunity to develop into an A-level player is to play with a B-level team with a year so you can gain the experience you need. For example, pitchers need to be in the circle if they’re going to develop. If you’re on a team with two or three Ace pitchers, and you’re not at that level yet, you’re not going to get the ball much. That’s just life. Yes, you could keep working on your game to try to beat them out, but if the die is already cast you may not get a chance to show what you can do even if you do pass them by. You would be better-served by being a #1 or #2 on a lower-level team, and gaining lots of game experience than pitching two token innings of pool play and then sitting the bench or playing a field position the rest of the time. If you’re going to be successful you have to want and get the ball on a regular basis. The same is true for other positions, but it particularly applies to pitchers.
  4. If your are moving up, try not to walk in #1. If you’re used to being the best player on your team and you are looking for new challenges, you want to go somewhere where you start out behind some of the other players. In our pitching example, you want to go in as #2 or #3. As a hitter you want to start out in the lower half of the lineup rather than being anointed to the 3-slot or cleanup. Being viewed as being behind someone else should fire up your competitive juices and cause you to work that much harder. There is nothing more satisfying than be brought in as a backup and then taking over the top spot.
  5. Prioritize what’s important to you. For some people money and distance are no object. They are most interested in a level of play, or an opportunity to play, or whatever else is important to them. For others it may be convenience, time/distance to practice, availability of other parents to transport you/your daughter to practice or games or a host of other parameters. Before you waste your time or the coaching staff’s time at a tryout, be sure you know what’s acceptable to you and what is not. Then select potential teams accordingly. If you want time to work in a family vacation in late June, playing on a team that goes to PGF qualifiers all summer is probably not for you. If you have transportation challenges, joining a team that is an hour away and practices three nights a week probably won’t work out for anyone. Decide what’s important and choose accordingly.
  6. Seek like-minded players. Your/your daughter’s best experience will be on a team where players have comparable skill levels and goals. That doesn’t mean they all have to be BFFs, but they should at least all be pulling in the same direction. If you see bullying or prima donna behavior, especially from a coach’s kid, keep in mind that this is likely the best they’re going to act. It’s not going to get better over time. On the other hand if you/your daughter looks like a good fit skill- and personality-wise, it will probably be the experience you’re looking for.
  7. Watch how the coaches coach. Again, theoretically everyone is showing their best selves at a tryout. Players are trying to sell themselves, but so are coaches. If they’re yelling and screaming during tryouts, that’s probably going to carry over to practice and games. If you like that sort of thing – the old “command and control” style of coaching – have at it. If that’s not what you’re looking for keeping looking. One thing I will say is during tryouts I would often make a suggestion on how to approach a skill with a player, not just to help her do better but to see how coachable she seemed. If I got back attitude she was cut no matter how skilled. You should audition coaches the same way. Ask them some meaningful questions and see how they answer. Not just what they say but how they say it. You’ll learn a lot in a few minutes.
  8. Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. Ok I stole that from Edgar Allen Poe by way of Bruce Springsteen, but it’s still good advice. When you’re a prospect you’re likely to hear all kinds of promises. Coaches have rosters to fill, and they want to fill them as quickly as possible – especially if there is a lot of competition for players in an area. But just because you or your daughter have been told she’ll play shortstop during tryouts doesn’t mean it will actually happen once games roll around. This is where the research you did earlier (see tips #1 and #2) will pay off. Is the coach a man of his/her word? If not, don’t get sucked in by tissue paper promises. It may still happen but it’s not a given.
  9. Don’t rush the decision. Unless you/your daughter is trying out for her dream team, and you know there is an opening at her position, resist the pressure to decide on the spot whether to accept a particular team’s offer. I’m not sure when this became a thing, but it seems like a lot of programs have gone this way. Especially programs that like to pretend they’re high-level when they’re really more mid-level. This is a decision you will either have to live with for a year or that will create a very uncomfortable situation down the road if you decide you have to leave before the season ends. If that team really wants you, it will wait. If the coach is just trying to fill roster spots so he/she doesn’t have to think about tryouts anymore, you probably don’t want to be there anyway.
  10. Trust your gut. This one is simple. If something doesn’t feel right about the tryouts you’re probably right. Don’t try to convince yourself things will get better later because they probably won’t. Either finish it out and don’t look back, or just excuse yourself and leave. Nothing good will come from prolonging a bad experience.

The whole tryout process can be gut-wrenching for everyone, but the more effort you put into looking at all the factors the better of a decision you’ll be able to make. The good news, however, is that even if you choose poorly, you’re not getting married.

It’s a year’s commitment at most. Then you get to do it all over again.

Good luck, and go get ’em!

Announcing a New Softball Success Service

Thumbs up

For the past 20+ years (can I really be that old?) I have been a private coach, primarily working with pitchers, hitters and catchers. During that time I have had an opportunity to teach many wonderful young women, helping them to achieve success and realize their dreams – whatever those dreams may be.

But through that time I have also come to recognize that there is an under-served constituency out there that is aching for someone to fill their needs. So today I am proud to announce a new service through Softball Success that I am calling “Parent and Player Validation,” or PPV for short.

The way it works is you bring your daughter to me, but rather than trying to teach her anything I just stand there for a half hour and tell you how awesome she is.

I will walk around and view her from different angles, put my hand on my chin, look serious, nod a few times, maybe whistle or say “whoa!” (although that costs extra) and even shoot a video or two and use it to show you why she’s so great. What I won’t do, however, is offer any of those bothersome suggestions or critiques because if you’re coming for this service I know you’re not interested in any of that claptrap. You just want to hear she’s perfect the way she is.

Now, I know this service won’t be of interest to any of my current students or their parents because they are all on-board with working hard and trying to improve themselves. I’m actually fortunate to work with an outstanding group of students.

Still, I realize there are people out there who can use this new service. I’ve run into them in the past.

I could tell because when I would tell a pitcher she needs to lock her shoulders in at release, or relax and whip her arm, or stay more upright instead of leaning forward the only reaction I would get is a stinkeye from both the parent and the student.

Or if I told a hitter she needed to lead with her hips, or keep her hands from dropping to her ribcage, or drive her back shoulder around the front instead of pulling the front shoulder out both parent and daughter look at me like I told them they smelled of elderberries.

Clearly, they weren’t interested in my honest opinion, or in changing anything. They simply wanted me, as a professional softball instructor, to validate what they already believed.

Of course, the core of great customer service is to give the people what they want (to paraphrase Marshall Field). So rather than fighting the tide, I’ve decided this could be a tremendous money-making opportunity.

With that in mind, I am thinking of a fee structure along the lines of:

  • Saying she is perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing – $100/half hour
  • Saying she is an incredible talent and one of the best I have ever seen – $200/half hour
  • Saying she is without a doubt the best I have ever seen in-person – $500/half hour
  • Saying she could possibly be the greatest player who ever played the game – $1,000/half hour

I haven’t locked into the actual dollar amount, but I’m figuring with as desperate as some people are for this type of validation this is probably a good starting point. I may also offer a discount if you just want to come in and have me say it without actually having to watch the player do anything since I would be able to squeeze another actual lesson in during the rest of the time. Or if you want to send me a 30 second video and have me email my effusive praise back to you.

I can see where this could lead to other services as well. For example, I can set aside a radar gun with a series of impressively high readings and let you take a picture with your daughter showing whatever reading matches what you think she’s throwing. I’m thinking $50 for that, at least to start. The possibilities are endless.

So let me know. If you’re looking for someone to tell you how awesome your daughter is without all the inconvenience of being told she needs to work on this or that, this new service should fit the bill.

Just remember that being told what you want to hear doesn’t mean she’ll perform well on the field, especially when she faces competition of equal or better ability. That actually takes work.

But if you just want to have your ego, and your daughter’s ego, stroked I am prepared to accommodate. All lines are now open…

Remember, They’re Still Kids

hailey-h-baserunner.jpg

I am sometimes shocked at the expectations coaches (and parents) seem to have these days for their youth fastpitch softball players. I’m talking pretty much everyone below college players.

You’ll hear coaches rail to 14 year old pitchers about the importance of pitchers hitting spots – by which they mean not ever missing them, not even by a couple of inches, or only missing two or three in a game. You’ll hear coaches telling 12 year olds about the importance of bat control and being able to hit behind the runner. You’ll see coaches yank a 16 year old out of a game in the middle of an inning for misplaying a hard-hit ground ball. And so forth.

Yes, it’s definitely easier to coach if all you have to do is turn in your lineup card and sit back while all your players execute everything perfectly. You can look like a real genius that way.

But the reality is, those players out on the field are still kids. Which means they’re subject to the kind of mistakes kids make.

It’s unrealistic to expect a team of young players to execute the game at the speed and skill level of the players you see on TV. Especially during the Women’s College World Series, when presumably the best of the best are playing.

(Of course, even those players make mistakes – sometimes on what seems like very routine plays. Oddly enough, their coaches don’t scream at them or yank them out in the middle of an inning. But I digress.)

I really think the key is we get so caught up in trying to win games that we forget those players we see are on the field are just kids. So to put it into perspective, I thought it might help to make a list of OTHER things a college-age person might do, or be allowed to do and then ask: would you let your young child do this? For example:

  • Drink alcohol (given that the legal drinking age is 21)
  • Rent a car (the minimum rental age is 25)
  • Drive an Uber/Lyft/Taxi, even with a valid driver’s license
  • Buy a new car without a co-signer
  • Vote
  • Rent an apartment or office space
  • Buy a house
  • Sell real estate
  • Purchase airline tickets
  • Purchase lottery tickets
  • Gamble in a casino
  • Fly an airplane
  • Get a safe deposit box

Many of the things on this list are simple, mundane things adults do every day and take for granted. But there is no way you’d want your 12 or 14 year old doing any of them, and probably wouldn’t even want an 18 year old doing most of them.

Why not? Because they’re kids, and as such they don’t think like adults or act like adults so they’re not ready for adult responsibilities. They still have growing and learning to do before they can be held to the standards required to do those things on a regular basis.

So what would make you think they’re ready to play fastpitch softball at the same level as the upper half of 1% of college players you see on TV?

Kids make mistakes. That’s often how they learn. Some kids develop slower than others and may not quite have the hand/eye coordination of their peers, much less players who are 6, 10 or more years older.

Kids mature at different rates too, and while any kid should have some measure of self-control, it’s harder for some than others not to have a mental meltdown when they feel they’ve let themselves, their parents, their coaches, and their teammates down. They just may not have the experience with failure yet to be able to “just shake it off” and bounce right back.

So as you watch (or coach) youth games this weekend, keep in mind all the things you wouldn’t want the players on the field doing outside of softball. Then remember why – because they’re kids.

Maybe it’ll help you lower your blood pressure a bit and enjoy the games a little more.

You Can’t Hurry Love – Or Softball Skills

Kennedy S fielding

Those of you of a certain age (and you know what that age is) probably remember this great song from the ultimate 60s Motown girl group, The Supremes:

If you’re not familiar with the song, be sure to check it out. If you listen closely you’ll hear a lot of the foundational elements that today’s pop music is built on.

But what you’ll also hear is a message that also pertains to fastpitch softball players. Not to mention their coaches and parents.

We live in a world where we want what we want when we want it. We don’t like to wait – we want results NOW!!!! And we’re afraid if we don’t get them NOW!!!! we’re going to miss out on important opportunities.

Now, if you’re 16 years old or above, there is a bit of hurry up involved. If you’re planning to play college softball you don’t have much time to develop the skills required to be invited onto a team. If you’re not planning on playing beyond high school, the end of your career is looming.

The thing is, however, is that softball skills take time to develop. And repetition. Lots and lots of good repetition.

No matter how much you want to be successful, or how much you wish the time element wasn’t true, it is.

Now, a good coach or private instructor can help you shortcut some of that time. Back in the days when The Supremes were cranking out hit song after hit song, most softball skill learning happened through trial and error, and emulation of successful older players.

You looked at what those players were doing and you tried to copy it. Eventually, you figured out what worked best for you and you were ready to rock and roll.

A good coach or instructor will already have a pretty strong idea of what works and what doesn’t, and will be able to look at what you’re doing and help you throw out the stuff that doesn’t work faster.

Still, it’s a process. It may not take as much time as doing it yourself, but it will still take time. Lots and lots of time.

The more you practice with intention and a goal in mind, the more you’ll be able to shave off some of that time. But it will still take time. There is no getting around that.

It takes time to replace old habits with new ones. Here’s a great article that explains why. The short version is that you’re actually making physiological changes under the hood, rewriting what has been hard wired into your brain so you can do things differently/better. Here’s some additional information on it from a past post too.

It would be nice if that weren’t the case – if there was some secret shortcut that would get you to the destination immediately like a transporter on Star Trek. But there isn’t.

In fact, when I start with a new student I will usually place my hand on her head or helmet and tell her if I could just do that, say “Be healed” and instantly turn her into a great player I would.

Of course, I also point out that if I could do that lessons would be $1,000 each and there would be a line down the street a mile long to get some of that, because that’s the dream.

But I can’t. No one can. Each of us learns in our own way, and in our own time.

Put 10 players in front of any coach, have them all receive the same instruction at the same time, and guess what? The results you get will vary.

Some will get it right away, some will get it somewhat, and some may not get it at all and will need it explained differently.

It’s the same for the long-term. Learning anything, especially if you want to do it at a high level, takes time.

It would be nice if coaches could just show a player what to do and she’d be instantly perfect at it, but it doesn’t work that way. And thinking it could is likely to lead to disappointment, which leads to discouragement, which leads to players deciding softball isn’t for them anymore.

Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, follow the Stockdale Paradox. When you’re facing a challenge, like learning a new skill or a new position, know that you will succeed. But don’t put a timeframe or other limitations on it.

Instead, believe in yourself and just keep plugging away at it. Do the right things and you’ll get there. And what a story you’ll have to tell ESPN when they come to interview you.

Fastpitch Skills: Like Riding A Bike

photography of girl riding bike beside man

Photo by Lgh_9 on Pexels.com

You would probably be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard the expression “It’s like riding a bike – once you learn how you never forget.” This expression is often used to refer to going back to something difficult after years of not doing it, implying that it shouldn’t be difficult to pick up where you left off.

As anyone who has actually ridden a bike after not riding one for 20 years can attest, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. There is definitely a bit of uncertainty at first, and it’s unlikely you’re going to go flying around like you did as a kid right away.

What people often forget, however, is how difficult learning to ride a bike actually is. Those of us who can ride one take it for granted. But it wasn’t always so simple.

At first, our parents (or some other adult) probably raised the training wheels some so we could get a sense of what it was like without the actual danger of falling off.

Eventually, though, the training wheels came off, and an adult held onto the back of the seat, running along behind us as we got the hang of balancing ourselves while churning our legs to make it go. Most of those adults also probably let go without telling us, despite our admonitions not to, to prove to us that we now had all the skills required to ride successfully. And oh, how we rode!

I bring these sometimes painful yet exhilarating memories up because learning fastpitch softball skills is no different.

At first, players are a bit tentative. Whether they’re pitching, hitting, throwing, fielding, etc. they’re not quite sure how to move and manage all the various pieces, and they do the fastpitch equivalent of falling off a lot.

As they learn, they have to focus on what they’re doing, and most have to think through the various pieces as their brains learn to process the skill. But then at some point it all clicks, and they’re able to do whatever it is they’re trying to do, which enables them to advance as a player.

Just as with riding a bike, it happens at different points for different players. The seemingly lucky ones get it right away. I say “seemingly” because sometimes when things come too easily it can hold players back from developing their skills at a deeper level. Especially when coaches, parents, teammates, etc. are more focused on winning today than helping players become the best they can be. There is value in the struggle.

For most, the skills will come more slowly, with plenty of bumps, bruises and scrapes acting as battle scars as they learn. But eventually they will come.

The goal, of course, is to make fastpitch skills like riding a bike – something players can execute without thinking.

Assuming you can already ride a bike, consider how you do it. The odds are very high that you just hop and do it. Your body knows how to move, how to balance, and what to do when. It feels instinctual, even though it is actually a learned skill.

That’s where you want players to get to on the softball field. They don’t need to “remember” to raise their elbow to shoulder height when throwing. They just do it.

They don’t need to remember to lead the swing with their hips instead of their bats. They just do it. They don’t need to remember to relax their arms and whip through the release zone when they’re pitching. They just do it. It’s like one big Nike ad.

That’s the goal. But it’s important to remember that it takes time. Again, some kids learn to ride their bikes on their own right away, while others can take weeks – especially if they’re afraid of falling off. But they all will learn.

And it takes good repetitions. The more players (and coaches/parents) concentrate on doing it right from the start, i.e., focusing on the process rather than the outcomes, the easier it becomes to do it right under game pressure.

Finally, it takes patience to understand about it taking time and good repetitions. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting everything to be perfect right away, like the players you see on TV.

But I can guarantee you the players you see on TV didn’t look like that when they were younger. In fact, they may have looked more awkward than the player(s) you’re working with right now, as this video of a certain well-known left-handed pitcher shows.

But they persisted and found their “bicycle moment” when it all clicked and they were just able to ride.

You wouldn’t expect any child to simply hop onto a bike and start pedaling away – much less do the complex BMX tricks you see on TV. There’s a progression, and it all starts with those first shaky feet.

It’s the same with fastpitch softball skills. They may need a lot of help at first. But eventually, with persistence, they will find their way, and those skills will be a part of their game forever.

Keeping the Joy in Youth Sports

Keep the joy in the game

By now I’m sure many of you have seen this video (below) that went viral after last weekend (January 2019 for those reading this much later). It’s UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi scoring a perfect 10 on her floor routine during a competition.

If you haven’t, stop right now and watch this video. You will be glad you did.

While the sheer athleticism and artistry of her performance are incredible, that’s not what drew me to writing about it. After all, this is a fastpitch softball blog, so not much of what she does applies to hitting or throwing a softball.

But if you didn’t notice it the first time, go back and watch it again. Only this time watch her face and see how much fun she is having. (And how much fun her teammates seem to be having watching her.)

That is an element that seems to be missing from a lot of youth and school sports these days – fun. Everyone is so focused on winning, and improving their rankings, and securing the almighty scholarship, and all the other things that seem to go with “getting to the next level” that they forget to be in the moment.

That all-consuming drive to win (or for coaches to prove that they’re better than everyone else) is a lot of what causes the yelling and screaming that takes place on fields all across the country at every level – even with the youngest players. It’s what causes coaches to belittle and humiliate their players in the middle of a game, not to mention the postgame speech.

As I’ve quoted many times, softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But it’s kind of hard to have fun if you’re trying your best only to be told you’re not good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough, or whatever enough.

And who is someone who knows that feeling all too well? Katelyn Ohashi herself. The other side of this feelgood story is that she almost quit gymnastics entirely.

She was on a path to go to the Olympics, but the pressure from her coaches, and the negativity from fans and observers, simply sucked all of the enjoyment out of it. Fortunately for all of us, getting off the Olympic path, and going to UCLA, helped revitalize her love for her sport, culminating in a gift to all of us.

Studies have shown that the #1 reason players quit youth sports is that it isn’t fun anymore. In fact, a poll from the National Youth Sports Alliance says 70 percent quit by age 13 for that very reason.

That doesn’t mean practices and games have to be a “birthday party without the cake” as one of my former players once described her high school practice. Working hard toward a common goal with people you value can be fun. Working hard to improve yourself so you can perform better than you did before can be fun.

There is a lot of personal satisfaction in setting a goal and then achieving it.

What’s not fun, however, is working hard and never getting on the field. What’s not fun is constantly feeling like you need to look over your shoulder because if you make one mistake you’re done for the game, and maybe the day.

What’s not fun is receiving a constant barrage of criticism over everything you do, even when you’re giving your best effort. What’s not fun is being embarrassed in front of your friends, teammates, family, etc.

Players need encouragement and support. They need to feel like they can stretch themselves to the edge of their abilities someone constantly coming down on them, even if they fail.

Most importantly, they need the opportunity to get out on the field and try, even if their skills aren’t quite as good as the player next to them yet. Because that’s the reason they signed up in the first place.

When you think about what participating in a sport should look like, remember this video of Katelyn Ohashi. She is the definition of taking joy in what you’re doing. And oh by the way, she was rewarded with an almost impossible to achieve perfect 10 for her efforts.

Then look at your own team. If you’re not seeing the same look from everyone there maybe it’s time to start thinking about how you can make it the kind of experience everyone there – players, coaches, parents, family, and fans – will cherish forever.

New Year, New You

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I know the headline sounds like an ad for a diet product or a health club, but there really is something to taking advantage of the turn of the calendar to start making improvements in our lives.

As humans we tend to like to have a clean break from the old when we start something new. The most obvious example is most people like to take a little time off between the time they end their old jobs and the time they start new ones. That little space in-between, even if it’s just a couple of days, helps us decompress and let go of the past so we can focus on the present – and the future.

That’s what’s often magical about the start of a new year. While in reality it’s just another day on the calendar, it feels like the start of something different.

So how can you take advantage of this artificially imposed fresh start? By (dare I say it?) resolving to do one or more things differently this year.

If you’re a coach, spend some time studying new techniques or approaches to the game. Challenge yourself by looking into information that conflicts with your current beliefs – especially if you’ve held those beliefs for a while.

Attend a coaching clinic with an open mind. Watch a current video or read a new book. Not just on fastpitch softball specifically, but also on coaching principles in general. In short, look for ways to be better than you are now.

If you’re a player, think about what a great year would be for you, then think about whether you can get there with what you’re doing now. A good way to do that is to write a letter to your future self describing the awesome season you just had.

If the season you want to have isn’t achievable with your current approach, figure out what you need to change to make it achievable. It could be something as simple as practicing for five more minutes during a session, or finding ways to sneak in an extra 5-10 minutes of practice per week when you can’t get to a field.

It could also mean being willing to change something you’ve been doing for a long time to see if the new way will work better. After all, no one ever created an innovation by continuing to do the same old thing.

If you’re a parent, think about how you can be more supportive, both to your player and to the team. Hopefully you’re already one who cheers in a positive way. But if you’re not sure, maybe set up a video camera and record yourself during your child’s next game to see what you think. Would you want to sit next to you? Or be with you on the ride home?

You might even want to do the same for someone else you may know, assuming they would take the information in the spirit it is intended. Learning to relax and enjoy the game makes it a lot more pleasurable for everyone – including the person who usually gets so upset.

You can also try watching a game where you have no stake to see what you think of how the spectators are reacting. The compare that to how you feel during your child’s game. It can be an interesting perspective.

One other thing you can do as a parent is to educate yourself on what the latest thinking is regarding various skills and see if that matches up with what your player is being taught. Don’t just assume a coach or instructor knows what he/she is doing, or is keeping up with the sport. Learn what to look for so you know whether you’re investing your hard-earned money in the best way possible.

It’s a new year. Why settle for the same old same old?

Take advantage of the energy that comes with a fresh start and use it to create a new, even better you. Best of luck for the upcoming year!

My Advice to Softball Parents: Lighten Up, Francis

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Anyone who has seen the movie “Stripes” knows the reference in the headline. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a great scene where the new recruits are just getting to know each other, and one of the guys starts a serious rant about what he’ll do to the others if they call him Francis instead of Psycho, or do some other stuff. His drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka, is not impressed. You can see a condensed version of this very funny scene here:

So why am I bringing up this random movie reference? Because it seems like there are more and more parents these days who could use Sgt. Hulka’s advice.

While it doesn’t always hold true, it does seem like the craziness of parents today is in inverse proportion to the age of the players. In other words, if you really want to see crazy, check out a 10U game.

Not sure why that is. Maybe by the time players get to 18U the parents have figured out that the outcome of a softball game isn’t worth risking a potential heart attack and have mellowed out. Or maybe all the players with crazy parents have been weeded out, or have told their parents, “Hey, I’ll drive myself to the game, why don’t you see if you can find a hobby that makes you less likely to find you sitting in the parking lot dashing off angry emails to whoever will listen?”

Of course, that’s not to say you don’t see that behavior at the older ages. I have been at D1 college games at major schools where parents are yelling things from the stands at the umpires, and the coaches, as though there were still back playing rec ball. But that’s more the exception.

Here’s the thing, though. All that crazy yelling and stomping around and getting into fistfights is really a waste of energy.

I know all this stuff seems critically important at the time. Especially today, when so many parents believe their daughter is D1 athletic scholarship material and don’t want any idiot umpire/coach/league administrator/whoever screwing up her chances.

Really, though, it’s not. I’ve been involved in fastpitch softball for more than 20 years. I had two daughters play at some level from the time they were 10 until they left high school. I’m sure I got worked up pretty well from time to time myself, although I did manage to keep my crazy in check as I recall.

But whether things went well or not during a game, none of it really mattered in the big scheme of things. My daughters played, then they didn’t, then they want on to become fine human beings and productive members of society. Even if some blue was occasionally squeezing the zone on them.

If you really want to see how crazy it is to let the crazy out, try this experiment. At your next tournament, go watch two teams you couldn’t care less about play. Sit or stand somewhere you can hear the parents and watch the same game they’re watching. Then count how many times people get angry about something that just makes you shrug your shoulders.

The reality is, a softball player’s career is short, which means your time to enjoy watching your player(s) as a parent is short. It’s not life-or-death. It’s just a game.

Next time you feel your blood beginning to boil and the urge to express yourself loudly, just remember the immortal wisdom of Sgt. Hulka: Lighten up, Francis.

 

Getting Your Money’s Worth Out of Softball Private Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do your homework on what is good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch other local players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do a chemistry test

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

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

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

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

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

Monitor success

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

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

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

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

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

 

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