The Back Leg Can Be a Propeller – or an Anchor

As I write this we are in the middle of summer vacation time here in the U.S. Families all over America are packing themselves up from wherever they live and traveling to a different area, state, time zone, etc. in search of a little R&R.

Even softball families are in that process. Some have already finished their seasons, while others are fitting in a little vacation time before or after tournaments.

For me, when I think of vacations I am reminded of taking my family to a lake for some serious downtime. Originally that meant the North Woods of Wisconsin, where we and various members of my wife’s family would rent cabins.

As part of the rental, we would get motorized row boats that we could use to go fishing. I’ve never been much of a fisherman, and didn’t grow up rowing boats so I found that a bit of a challenge at first, but when in Rome…

Now years later I’ve come to realize that those motorized row boats are the perfect analogy for the role of the back leg in pitching and hitting. Because it can either be a propeller or an anchor when you’re trying to be explosive.

A propeller will help you get where you’re going faster. Being fairly incompetent at rowing a boat, at least at first, I found the propeller to be a much easier way to get from point A to point B, even if those two points weren’t that far apart.

As long as you can fire up the motor (not always easy in a free rental), you can open the throttle and steer your way there while relaxing. That’s a lot easier than using oars to move through the water, especially if you’re using one oar more than the other, in which case you tend to make more of a circle than a straight line.

Pretty much me, but using both oars.

An anchor, on the other hand, is designed to hold you in place once you get to where you’re going. If you leave the anchor down, even with a motor, it will be much hard to get to your destination.

So it is in softball. In pitching, you want the “drive” leg to propel your center forward, enabling you to glide lightly along the ground until your front leg lands. Do it quick and powerfully enough and the sudden stop will help sling/whip your arm through the release zone.

But if you don’t engage your drive leg, and instead just run past it with your stride leg, the drive leg will turn into an anchor, lifelessly dragging behind you and slowing you down. When that happens, the drive leg doesn’t drive at all, but instead gets pulled along in the classic zombie walk. This is why it’s often called “zombie leg.”

Clearly one is better and more effective than the other in creating speed and enabling stability at release. Hopefully I don’t have to tell you which one that is.

Unless someone has eaten you brains.

While not quite as obvious or debilitating, the same effect occurs in overhand throwing. If the throwing side isn’t engaged actively as a propeller it becomes an anchor, which affects both speed and accuracy.

What about hitting? The same is true, although in a different way.

In hitting, you want the lower body to create the power. While that is really more of the core than the legs themselves, the rear leg contributes by having its knee start pulling toward the front knee, unweighting the leg so the hips can fire forward at maximum velocity.

If the hitter doesn’t get off the back foot the hips are unable to rotate rapidly or fully, and you wind up with more of an upper body swing that pulls the contact point further back. You’re then not hitting in the green zone.

The bottom line (no pun intended) is the back leg can either be an aid or a hindrance in making athletic movements in softball. Which it is depends entirely on the player.

Get it actively engaged, doing what it should do, and it becomes a propeller that helps drive better performance. Leave it behind and it will be an anchor, slowing the player down and creating a huge drag on performance.

Photo by Mount Polley on Pexels.com

IR Won’t Put Young Pitchers in the ER

Let me start by declaring right in the beginning I am a huge advocate of the pitching mechanics known as “internal rotation” or IR. While it may also go by other names – “forearm fire” and “the whip” comes to mind – it essentially involves what happens on the back side of the circle.

With IR, the palm of the hand points toward the catcher or somewhat toward the third base line as it passes overhead at 12:00 (aka the “show it” position), the comes down with the elbow and upper arm leading through the circle. From 12:00 to 9:00 it may point to the sky or out toward the third base line. Then something interesting happens.

The bone in the upper arm (the humorous) rotates inward so the underside of the upper comes into contact with the ribs while the elbow remains bent and the hand stays pointed away from the body until you get into release, where it quickly turns inward (pronates). It is this action that helps create the whip that results in the high speeds high-level pitchers achieve.

This action, by the way, is opposite of so-called “hello elbow” or HE mechanics where the ball is pointed toward second at the top of the circle and is then pushed down the back side of the circle until the pitcher consciously snaps her wrist and then pulls her elbow up until it points to the catcher.

Note that I don’t call these styles, by the way, because they’re not. A “style” is something a pitcher does that is individual to them but not a material part of the pitch, like how they wind up. What “style” you use doesn’t matter a whole lot.

But mechanics are everything in the pitch, and the mechanics you use will have a huge impact on your results as well as your health.

IR is demonstrably superior to HE for producing high levels of speed. The easiest proof is to look at the mechanics of those who pitch 70+ mph. You won’t find an HE thrower in the bunch, although you’ll probably find a couple who THINK they throw that way, which is a sad story for another day.

It also makes biomechanical sense that IR would produce better speed results. Imagine push a peanut across a table versus putting into a rubber band and shooting it across the table. I know which one I’d rather be on the receiving end of.

So when trying to defend what they teach, some HE pitching instructors will respond by questioning how safe it is to put young arms into the various positions required by IR versus the single position required by HE. They have no evidence, mind you. They’re just going by “what they’ve heard” or what they think.

Here’s the reality: IR is so effective because it works with the body is designed to work rather than against it. Try these little body position experiments and see what happens.

Experiment #1 – Jumping Jacks Hand Position

Anyone who has ever been to gym class knows how to do a jumping jack. You start with your hands together and feet at your side, then jump up and spread your feet while bringing your hands overhead. If you’re still unsure, Mickey Mouse will demonstrate:

The only being who has ever been happy about doing these.

Look at what Mickey’s hands are doing. They’re not turning away from each other at the top, and they’re definitely not getting into a position where they would push a ball down the back side of the circle. They are rotated externally, then rotating back internally.

Experiment #2 – How You Stand

Now let’s take movement out of it. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides, hanging down loosely. What do you see?

If you are like 99% of the population, your upper arms are likely touching your ribs and your hands are touching your thighs. In other words, you’re exactly in the delivery position used for IR.

These guys get it.

To take this idea further, raise your arms up about shoulder high, then let them fall. At shoulder height your the palms of your hands will either be facing straight out or slightly up unless you purposely TRY to put them into a different position.

When they fall, if you let them fall naturally, they will return to the inward (pronated) position. And if you don’t stiffen up, your upper arms will lead the lower arms down rather than the whole arm coming down at once.

What this means is that IR is the most natural movement your arm(s) can make as they drop from overhead to your sides. If you’re using your arms the way they move naturally how can that movement be dangerous? Or even stressful?

When they fall, you will also notice that your upper arms fall naturally to your ribcage and your forearms lightly bump up against your hips, accelerating the inward pronation of your hands. This is what brush contact is.

Brush contact is not a thwacking of the elbow or forearm into your side. If you’re getting bruised you’re doing it wrong.

Think of what you mean by saying your brushed against someone versus you ran into them. Brushing against them implies you touched lightly and slightly altered your path. Bumping into them means you significantly altered your path, or even stopped.

The brush not only helps accelerate the inward turn. It also gives you a specific point your body can use to help you release the ball more consistently – which results in more accurate pitching. It’s a two-fer that helps you become a more successful pitcher.

Experiment #3 – Swing Your Glove Arm Around

If you use your pitching arm you may fall prey to habits if you’ve been taught HE. So try swinging your glove arm around fast and loose and see what it does.

I’ll bet it looks a lot like the IR movement described above. That’s what your throwing arm would be doing if it hadn’t been trained out of you.

And what it actually may be doing when you throw a pitch. You just don’t know it.

Reality check

The more you look at the biomechanics of the IR versus HE, the more you can see how IR uses the body’s natural motions while HE superimposes alternate movements on it. If anything, this means there’s more likelihood of HE hurting a young pitcher than IR.

The forced nature of HE is most likely to show up in the shoulder or back. Usually when pitchers have a complaint with pain in their trapezius muscle or down closer to their shoulder blades, it’s because they’re not getting much energy generated through the HE mechanics and so try to recruit the shoulders unnaturally to make up for it. That forced movement places a lot of stress on it.

They may also find that their elbows start to get sore if they are really committed to pulling the hand up and pointing the elbow after release, although in my experience that is more rare. Usually elbow issues result from overuse, which can happen no matter what type of mechanics you use.

The bottom line is that if the health and safety of young (or older for that matter) pitchers is important to you, don’t get fooled by “I’ve heard” or “Everybody knows” statements. Make a point of checking to see which way of pitching works to take advantage of the body’s natural movements, which will minimize the stress while maximizing the results.

I think you’ll find yourself saying goodbye to the hello elbow.

You Won the Genetic Lottery. Now What?

Most of the time my blog post are more oriented toward players (and their parents) who, shall we say, don’t have the greatest athletic gifts. Not to mention coaches who are trying to make their teams competitive through sheer hard work.

Today, though, I am going to turn that concept on its head. This one is for those players who won the genetic lottery.

You know the ones. They are naturally bigger, stronger, faster, with better eyesight, better hand-to-eye coordination, more fast twitch muscles and other attributes that most of us wish we (or our kids/players) had.

They are always a big fish, no matter what size pond they’re in.

Here’s my message to those players and their families: that genetic lottery has more than one winner. In fact, while the total number may be small compared to all the players who play the game, it’s still much larger than the number of spots on coveted teams.

Which means if you want one of those spots you need to keep working hard. Probably even harder than players with lesser natural ability because all your real competition is at least as able as you. Maybe even more gifted.

I know that may be hard to believe, especially if you don’t get to see a lot of ultra-talented players wherever you play. But believe me, they’re out there.

When you have more natural ability than everyone else it’s easy to fall into the trap of relying on it. After all, if your overhand throw is 60 mph and all your teammates’ (and opponents) are closer to 50 mph it’s easy to think you take it easy in practice or just rely on your ability in a game.

But in the end, you’re not competing against the players around you for those coveted spots. You’re competing against a small universe of players you may not see but who are definitely out there.

Which means you need to make sure your skill level and understanding of the game, not to mention your mental game, is on a par with them.

My suggestion, if you want to find a local role model, is to look at the player on your team, in your league or conference, etc. who doesn’t seem to have a lot of natural ability but is succeeding anyway. That player got there by working harder than everyone else and not getting discouraged when she failed.

Instead, when she failed she used it as fuel and a learning experience to help her get better.

That girl has to have better technique at whatever she does because if she doesn’t she’ll never see the field. Coaches aren’t falling all over themselves to get her on their team or put her in their lineup, so she has to prove herself every time she steps across the chalk line.

Study her. Learn from her. Do what she does.

If she boots a ground ball, she probably asks for another one. Do the same.

If she’s struggling to hit she doesn’t go into a funk. She pulls the tee out and works on whatever she knows her issues are. And believe me she knows what they are because she pays close attention when a coach is working with her.

Basically, instead of acting like a “super talent,” instead become a grinder. Work to gain the best technique not because you have to today, but because one day you will need it. Gain that mentality and you’ll find the road to the top is significantly easier than it would have been otherwise.

Talent, athleticism, whatever you want to call it, is definitely a good thing. If you won the genetic lottery be sure to thank your parents early and often. Genetics can’t be taught.

Don’t let that ability sucker you into complacency, however. Approach the game like you were the last one to make the roster instead of the first one invited and we just might see you on ESPN one day.

Photo by Lay Low on Pexels.com

To Improve Your Hitting Think Like a Predator

Photo by Alexas Fotos on Pexels.com

One of the things that probably holds more hitters back than anything is having a tentative approach at the plate. They stand nervously in the batter’s box, shifting from foot to foot, death grip on the bat as they await the next pitch.

Then it comes and they wait until they can wait no longer, then finally flail at the ball as it goes whizzing by them.

It isn’t that they don’t know how to hit, or that they haven’t practiced the physical act of hitting. The problem is that they don’t have the right mindset.

They may be worried that they will strike out, looking bad in the process. Or that they will pop up, or hit a weak ground ball, particularly if they have been doing that a lot lately.

They may also be looking at how many runners are on base and thinking about the possibility of stranding them. They may be thinking if they screw up the coach will yell at them or take them out of the game.

Whatever it is, they’re thinking about the possibility of negative outcomes and therefore not focusing on the task at hand – which is to see the ball and hit it.

What they should be doing instead is adopting the mindset of a predator. A predator doesn’t worry about what might happen if it doesn’t catch the prey. It simply goes for the prize.

In fact, as my friend and fellow coach Heather Cole once told me, the predator loves the hunt more than it loves the kill.

In softball terms, that means the hitter shouldn’t be so focused on the outcome. Great hitters are all about the process of the at-bat.

They are not trying to defend themselves or the plate against the pitch. They are there to attack the pitch.

They are on the hunt, and every pitch is an opportunity to drive the ball into a gap or over the fence. They don’t worry about whether it will happen or not. They place all their focus on making it happen.

The funny thing is when you approach every plate appearance like a predator you start walking to the plate with a bit of a swagger. When you have that swagger you have more confidence in your abilities, which lets you get even more aggressive.

Before you know it all those outcomes you were worried about start taking care of themselves.

In this world there are two options. You can either be the prey or the predator.

If you want to be a great hitter, start thinking (and acting) like a predator.

Little Sisters Are Natural Choices for Catchers

While it’s the pitchers who tend to get all the glory and adulation, there’s no denying that behind (or technically in front of) every great pitcher is a great catcher on the receiving end.

Catching is a tough job. Unlike other players, who spend most of their time standing around, catchers spend a good portion of every game contorted into a squat that gives them mobility while still allowing the umpire to see the bottom of the strike zone.

Catchers also wear all that gear, which not only adds weight but heat – just what you want when the temperature and humidity are both in the 90s or above. If you think a fielding mask is uncomfortable, trying wearing a full-on helmet as well as a chest protector and shinguards. They’re not called the “tools of ignorance” for nothing.

There are other downsides to it as well, which means if you’re going to be a catcher you REALLY have to want to be a catcher. It’s not the sort of thing one dabbles in.

It also takes a certain type of personality to do it well. That’s why I believe there is no one better-suited to the position than a little sister. Here are a few reasons why.

Little sisters tend to be bossy.

A great catcher will tend to have a take-charge personality. She is essentially the coach on the field, putting players into position and, since she’s the only one who can see the whole field, directing throws in live plays (among other duties).

Most of the little sisters I have known tend to have that personality trait. Growing up with older siblings they learn they have to be aggressive if they’re going to be included in group decisions. They also love conveying directions from their moms or their coaches to the others.

They tend to be sharp and direct and are used to yelling/speaking loudly in order to be heard above the noise. They also tend to do it without worrying about consequences because they know as the baby of the family their parents always have their back. All traits most coaches desire in a catcher.

Little sisters relish being annoying. If there is a little sister manual, the first page surely explains that your primary job as a little sister is to annoy all of your siblings – whether that is one or many. Little sister know how to push buttons and don’t hesitate to do so, all for their own amusement.

That’s what catchers are often expected to do as well. As a catcher you should be working on living rent-free in the head of every hitter who comes to the plate.

You want to talk to them, distract them, feed their own doubts about their abilities, exploit their fears, etc. Who is better at that than a little sister?

I have personally witnessed a little sister who is a catcher reduce her older sister to near tears during a hitting lesson with casual comments and snotty remarks. “Oh, there’s a big miss there,” she says on a swing and miss. Or big sis will hit a ball down the line and little sis will say “Foul ball,” not because she thinks it’s foul but because big sis reacts to the comment.

Another little sister catcher I know doesn’t hesitate to point out problems during her sister’s pitching lessons. She will also just give her general grief, making also sorts of negative comments to her just to make her mad.

There’s no real agenda behind it. I think she just likes the turmoil and chaos that results.

Catchers who can get opposing players to lose concentration, especially when it comes naturally to them, can be a huge asset in winning a tight game. Nothing like a catcher who can instinctively and immediately zero in on an opponent’s mental weaknesses. Little sisters are born with that ability.

Little sisters are tough. So not only are you in all that hot gear on a hot infield on a hot day, you’re the player on the field mostly to find your body being hit by the ball on a regular basis. It could be a foul tip, a ball in the dirt you’re expected to block, or even a pitch that is supposed to break right but breaks left.

Whatever the reason, if you’re lucky it hits your equipment, which still has an impact – particularly if it’s hitting your face mask. But it can also hit your arms, your hands, your legs, or other areas fairly easily.

You can also get hit by a bat if you have a bat thrower at the plate. While there aren’t supposed to be collisions at most levels anymore they do happen sometimes.

You also spend a lot of time in the dirt, squatting in it, kneeling in it, diving in it. Of course if you look between innings half the time you’ll find the catcher playing in the dirt anyway so that part probably doesn’t matter as much. But still.

Little sisters know the game. It’s not that they put in any more time studying the nuances of softball than anyone else. But after years of being dragged to their older sisters’ games, and listening to the in-game and post-game analyses of their parents, they’ve picked up a thing or two about how it’s supposed to be played.

Little sisters just seem to know that the first look should be at the lead runner instead of just automatically throwing to first. They know that if they can pick off a runner at first with two outs the runner on third won’t score.

They know that not every pitch that goes up is a rise ball and not every pitch that goes down is a drop ball. Which incidentally not only puts them ahead of many parents of pitchers and team coaches but also most softball announcers on ESPN.

They know which base to throw to when the ball is coming from the outfield and which player has priority when two fielders are going for a pop-up. Although they usually think it should be her if she is involved in the play (see point #1).

If you want someone on the field who knows the game and can direct the others, a little sister will get that job done.

A great choice

Figuring out which of your players will make the best catcher is an important decision that can affect your whole season. Finding out who the little sisters on your team are is a good place start.

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.

How A Can of Marking Paint Can Help Hitters Hit Better

Grace Bradley named to All-State team

There is no shortage of companies out there that manufacture a variety of devices to help hitters hit better. Some are worth the money, others may be well-meaning but detrimental, and still others may be just another ploy to separate you from your money.

One thing I have found to be both helpful and affordable, however, is a $5-$7 can of plain old white marking paint. (You may even be able to find it for less.)

Here’s how I came about this amazing discovery.

I was working with a couple of college players last summer on a large field with no fences. They were hitting bombs off front toss, but both felt like they were just popping it up because their hits weren’t getting all that far from the infield. Or at least that’s what they thought.

The problem was it as a HUGE open field with a lot of grass in the outfield. Enough to put a full-size soccer field behind it.

So when they hit the ball, it was a lot closer to them than it was to the other side of the field. Hence their thought that it didn’t go far.

It was at that point I decide to go to the local hardware store and pick up a can of line marking paint. With the can in hand, I paced off 200 feet from home plate and marked a line. I chose 200 feet because that is the typical fence distance in high schools and colleges, so a fly ball past the line would be a home run just about everywhere.

Also useful for leaving messages for annoying people. But you didn’t hear that from me.

I did this once to left, once to center, and once to right. I then marked lines in-between just to make them easier to spot depending on where you stood.

(I followed this up by measuring with a 100 foot measuring tape. Proud to say I was within one foot of the tape measure thanks to skills I learned in marching band.)

The next time we did a hitting session I was able to show those hitters that those little can-of-corn fly balls they thought they were hitting were actually traveling 210, 230, sometimes 270 feet. That certainly helped them gain a whole different feeling about what they were doing!

I now try to mark those lines on any field I use. Even if a hitter doesn’t hit anything “over,” just getting close can be quite the confidence-booster. Line drives that fall short but roll past are now seen as getting to the fence, which is a whole different feeling as well.

The only downside, of course, is when whoever owns the field cuts the grass. You then have to re-mark the lines or you will lose them. Worst case you simply have to measure again. (PRO Trick: Try to find landmarks out to the sides, like a shed or a permanent sign, to help you find your markers when they fade.)

I have done this with multiple girls and it has produced tremendous results for me. Knowing the lines are out there gives them a goal, keeping them accountable and encouraging them to give their all on every repetition – kind of like using a radar gun on a pitcher.

As great as it is physically, however, I think the best effect is psychological. When a girl sees she is CAPABLE of hitting the ball to or over a fence it changes her entire approach at the plate.

Rather than just hoping to make weak contact she will then intentionally start trying to hit the ball hard. When that happens, the results tend to improve.

If you have a hitter who needs a little perspective like this, try stopping by your local hardware store or home center and picking up a can of line marking paint. It could pay huge dividends for you.

College Playoffs and WCWS Create Unique Learning Opportunity

The next few weeks promise to be a softball fanatic’s dream.

First you have all the major D1 college conference championships that will be televised on the various flavors of ESPN. Plus all the others that are available through various streaming services, including D2 and D3.

Then there are the regionals, super regionals and Women’s College World Series games that will take us through early June. Here’s an overview of what that schedule will look like.

While I’m sure it will be enjoyable to watch, there’s more to it than just entertainment. All this great softball on TV provides an invaluable learning opportunity for young teams – and one which most of today’s players don’t seem to take much advantage of.

When I start with a new student, I will often ask her if she can name any famous players at whatever skill we’ll be working on. For example, if it’s a new pitching student I’ll ask who she admires as a pitcher or what famous names she knows.

More often than not I get a blank stare. If I name a few for them, such as Cat Osterman, Amanda Scarborough, Monica Abbott, or Sarah Pauly, most of the time they may have heard of the name but have never seen them pitch.

As a result, most of the time they have no idea what a high-level pitcher looks like in action. The same is true for hitters and fielders.

That’s why the next few weeks present such a tremendous opportunity. Some of the best players in the world will be showcased doing what they do best. These are young women who do what you would like your players to do.

So why not take advantage of that and replace a normal practice with a watch party? You can find out when a local or semi-local team is playing and watch that game.

Or see if there is a player from your area on one of the teams and have your team watch her specifically. Show them that these aren’t just figures on TV but real players who once stood where your players do now.

Make a party of it. Supply some snacks, order some pizza, maybe even organize a sleepover if that’s appropriate. Then at game time, actually watch what happens and discuss the action on the field.

You might even pause the game and run back a good play to show the effort that went into it, or re-watch a bad play to talk about what should have happened instead. You can also talk about the strategy of why a team or player did what they did (good or bad) to help raise your team’s collective softball IQ.

It has been estimated that the majority of people in the world (65%) are visual learners. Showing your players both good and bad examples in real time helps them understand more thoroughly the techniques and strategies you’re trying to teach them.

As you watch the game, perhaps the coaches and players can make a list of things they want to work on at the next practice. Maybe it’s diving to catch a ball. Maybe it’s a type of slide they saw, or a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch. Maybe it’s a suicide squeeze.

Whatever it is, seeing it performed and then trying it themselves may be just the spark they need to inspire them to play at a higher level than they are now.

Watching a game on TV also gives your players a chance to gain some perspective about their own performance. They may see a pitcher give up a critical home run, then come back to strike out the next hitter.

They may see a player make an error to give up the go-ahead run, then come through later in the game with a key hit. Ultimately, especially in an elimination game, they will see the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” played out in real time.

The other nice thing about watching the games on TV (versus going in person, which is also a great experience) is that it doesn’t cost much. A little food and drink, the price of the cable or streaming channel (if it isn’t free) and the time to clean up afterwards is about all you need.

But you can create a learning and bonding experience that will benefit your players for a long time to come.

Sure, we all like to grind away on the field. But if all your players ever see is each other, and players on other teams of comparable ability, they may never realize there is a much larger world out there.

Show them some of the best in the world playing the game at a high level and you just might inspire a level of play and enthusiasm in them that they wouldn’t have achieved before.

Still Value in Learning to Think Like a Pitcher

These days, even at the younger levels, it seems like the goal is to turn softball players into robots. Nowhere is that illustrated more than the way pitch calling is often handled these days.

In many instances, perhaps even most, coaches are calling pitches from the bench. This occurs whether they actually know how to call a game or not. (Many do not.)

All that’s expected of pitchers and catchers is that they look at their ubiquitous arm bands, follow the rows and columns to the number called, and then throw whatever the answer key says. No thought required, and no shaking off the call.

That’s why I was heartened to receive an email from Tony Carlin, whose daughter Alyssa is a class of ’23 player currently pitching for her high school team.

She was pitching a game, he says, and breezed through the first four innings. Then, as I discussed in a previous post, she began to run into some trouble in the fifth inning.

The opposing team began to hit her, probably because they’d seen her a couple of times by now and was in a different situation than she usually faces in time limit-shortened games. I will let Tony tell the rest of the story:

“The 6th and 7th inning she told me she changed her strategy , and she did very well. She noticed that the batters started showing confidence, were making good contact, and were swinging at the 1st pitch, so she threw everything off the plate or below the knees and got them to chase , and chase badly.”

Brilliant! Alyssa saw that the other team’s hitters were trying to jump on her first pitch so she just threw junk at them – the kinds of pitches you normally reserve for an 0-2 or 1-2 count. In doing so she re-took control of the game and got the win.

What I like most is that she wasn’t just in the circle throwing – she was thinking.

Pitching to hitters is very much a cat-and-mouse game. When the hitters change what they’re doing, pitchers must adjust or they may end up getting clobbered.

But what do you do when the coach is calling the pitches and insisting you throw what he/she calls? Figure out how to change the equation while living within the parameters.

For example, if the call is for a dropball on the outside corner and you know the umpire is giving that and more, throw the ball off the plate. If hitters are being aggressive, throw it a little lower or further outside – anywhere it’s tougher to hit.

If hitters are routinely taking the first pitch, throw your first pitch fat on the plate, the way you would on a 3-0 count. If hitters are routinely laying off a pitch in a location and the umpire is calling it, talk to your coach about starting the hitter with that pitch.

After all, the goal is to get ahead of the hitter. What better way than to throw a pitch she doesn’t like to swing at? You never know – you may force the hitters to start swinging at pitches they don’t like and can’t hit well, either giving you a free strike or a weak contact that turns into an out.

The key thing is to pay attention to what is going on, and figure out for yourself where you can gain an advantage. It’s not only a lot more effective – it’s a lot more fun.

One other thing Tony told me is he was reminding Alyssa to pitch the full seven innings required for a traditional game by holding up seven fingers. He said the coach probably thought he was signaling pitches from the sidelines but he would never do that. He just wanted to be sure she didn’t fall into the time limit trap.

There is more to pitching than great mechanics – much more. True pitchers know how to take what hitters (and umpires) are giving them and use it to their advantage.

Pitchers should regularly walk through imaginary lineups, types of hitters, and situation to learn not just how to throw but what to throw when. It just might help you get out of a serious jam someday.

Travel Ball’s Long-Term Effect on the Future of Pitching

I have made it clear in the past that I am not a fan of time limits on fastpitch softball games. Maybe I’m just old but I believe the game is meant to be played over a minimum of seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Time limits, however, are a fact of life in travel ball. Whether you believe it’s tournament directors/organizations being greedy by trying to squeeze 10 lbs. of play into a 5 lb. set of fields or well-meaning tournament directors/organizations trying to ensure that games run on time out of respect for the teams who spend all day at the ballpark, time limits don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

With that in mind, I have a few observations on how these time limits are affecting the game today, and how they will affect it in the future. Whether you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments below.

Observation #1: Pitchers find it more difficult to last seven innings when required. I am seeing that a lot in high school ball right now.

Pitchers who are used to games lasting 75 or 85 minutes are able to perform at a high level for five innings or so. But come inning #6, they start having a lot more trouble.

Now, I know some will say that’s because they’ve gone around the batting order a couple of times and the hitters have seen them. But I don’t think that’s the sole reason.

I believe that mentally they are used to the games being done by that point, and the thought that they have to keep going requires some adjustment. For some, it can even get tough at the end of the fifth as they realize they still need to have something in the tank for another two innings.

Does that mean they can’t adjust? Of course not. But it may take them a while before they learn to pace themselves properly for a seven-inning game.

Observation #2: Teams can no longer ride one pitcher for the season. Back in the day, to be successful a travel team, high school team, or even a college team really needed only one Ace pitcher. She was expected to carry the load, pitching every inning (or nearly every inning at least) in every major tournament.

That is no longer the case. Now, it could be that the hitters have gotten a lot better, actually working at their craft in the off-season like pitchers always have.

Rule changes have also made it tougher to ride one pitcher. Pushing the pitching distance back and moving from white balls with white seams to yellow balls with red seams has brought more offense into the game. So has bat technology, which sometimes allows a ball struck with a half swing to carry over the fence.

But I also think the way travel teams and tournaments are structured has had an effect on pitchers’ ability to carry that type of load. All the stop/start of more games can place more stress on young arms, so teams are spreading the load more.

While I think that’s a good thing overall, it also means many young pitchers don’t learn HOW to carry the load. They know there’s always help available.

Greater availability of facilities and lessons also means there are more pitchers out there than ever before. Those pitchers aren’t going to stick around very long, however, if they don’t get innings, so that means coaches must ensure #2 and #3 receive enough circle time to stay with the team.

From a health and safety perspective that’s a good thing, in my opinion. But it does mean that fewer #1s are learning how to be that pitcher. They are becoming more inclined to thinking they did their job in game one, and now it’s time for someone else to step up.

Observation #3: We will likely see more specialization in the future. As a result of the previous changes, I think it’s likely fastpitch softball, especially at the collegiate level, will start to look more like baseball, with a bullpen full of specialists.

Right now, all pitchers are considered to be starters. That doesn’t mean they all get starts – that decision is still merit-based (or political, depending on who you talk to).

But pitchers in a college bullpen aren’t thought of as being middle relievers, or closers, or really anything other than an arm available to throw in a game.

I think that will change, especially with a generation of pitchers used to working within time limits. That girl who is lights-out for one inning but deteriorates rapidly after?

Instead of trying to force her to improve her endurance, make her a closer. She can just go in and rocket the ball for three or four hitters rather than giving the top of the lineup a chance to see the starter for a third or fourth time.

Your #3 or #4 starter? Maybe she’s better suited to be a middle reliever. Pair her up with a starter where she will be a contrast – like a dropball pitcher paired with a riseball pitcher – and let her come in when hitters start getting comfortable with the starter.

The more teams use their pitchers as a staff in specific roles rather than trying to fit everyone into the “starter” category, the more they can become strategic.

Would it be better to have one Ace you knew you could ride the whole way? Maybe. But thanks to the way pitchers are being developed these days I think that ship has sailed.

Rather than fighting it, it’s time for colleges to look at what they’re getting and figure out how best to use them. The good news for players is that this sort of change in thinking might open up some new opportunities that weren’t there before. Especially for those who fit that “closer” description.

Matching reality

The foundation of softball at the high school and collegiate levels is youth softball – primarily travel ball. Changes there will affect the way the game is played all the way up the food chain.

Rather than fighting it, or clinging to old ways, schools need to take a hard look at the way the game is being played at the younger levels and adjust their strategies accordingly. Those who do will likely have greater success in both the short- and long-term.

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