My Hope for Once Fastpitch Softball Resumes

KR huddle

Today’s post is inspired partially by this blog post from February at Softball Is for Girls, partially by some of the discussions I’ve seen on Facebook and the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, and maybe a little bit by this song from hair metal band Cinderella.

There’s no doubt it’s been unfortunate that we’ve had to hit the “pause” button on fastpitch softball over the last couple of months. It probably seems like longer because a lot of teams haven’t played outdoors since the fall, but in reality it’s really only been March through the beginning of May so far.

Still, if anything good can come out of it, I hope it’s that more people have a greater appreciation for the sport and what it means to them. Perhaps things that seemed more life-and-death before all of this aren’t taken quite as seriously. (Parents getting into fistfights on the sidelines, I’m looking at you.)

As the Cinderella song says, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. We’ve had it taken away from us, and in some areas it’s still not back yet. Although hopefully that will change soon.

Even where it is back, it’s not really back like it was before. Social distancing and additional rules are going to make it a very different experience, at least for a while.

Whenever you get to watch your next game, here are some of the things I hope for you:

  • At your first game or tournament, you take a few moments before or after just to soak up the atmosphere. We always seem to be in a rush to run from one thing to the next, and over a long season all the games and tournaments tend to blur together. So just take a moment to appreciate that you have the opportunity to do this again. Take in the sights, the sounds, the sun and the breeze on your skin, even the smells (as long as you’re not standing next to the Port-o-let. Remember that none of it is guaranteed, as we have just learned. Appreciate it.
  • Be a little kinder to the umpires. They have been through what you have been through, and yet they’re back on the field even though they don’t have any kids of their own to watch. They are here so your kids have an opportunity to play the sport we all love. Maybe stop and thank them – from a safe distance, of course.
  • Throw a little appreciation the coaches’ way as well. They now have all kinds of new challenges to deal with that weren’t there back in October. It’s not as easy as it looks. And yes, the coaches are going to make some poor decisions from time to time. Try not to take it so seriously. A bad day at the ballpark is better than a good day just about anywhere else.
  • Coaches, cut your parents a little slack too. At least most of them. Remember that they have been chomping at the bit to see their kids play again. They may be a bit overly enthusiastic at times. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with rude jerks – no one should – but try to recognize that the demand has been pent-up for a while and make take a bit before it levels out again.
  • Players, try not to take it all so seriously. You just got a taste of what life is like without softball, and what a real crisis looks like. Hopefully going 0-for-4 or giving up the game-winning hit doesn’t look quite so devastating anymore. Not that you want to settle for a poor performance, but you can’t let it define you either. Now that you’re back on the ballfield, try to enjoy every minute of it.
  • Perhaps most of all, parents please, please, please lighten up on your kids. You just got a taste of what life is like without softball. And so did your kids. If you turn it into a miserable experience for them they’re going to end up hating softball and probably quitting. THEN what will you do? Keep in mind that the shelter-in-place orders have made up a MUCH larger percentage of their lives, especially for 7-10 year olds, than they have for yours. For many, this was the first major world event that directly affected them. It may take them a while to fully adjust to being back on the field, or to get their skills back up to where they were. Deal with it. Enjoy seeing your kid(s) play, because one day it will all be taken away for good. Try to put that day off as long as you can, because I can tell you from first-hand experience you will miss it deeply.

For all the teams starting up again, good luck. For those who are still waiting on the go-ahead, I hope it comes quickly for you.

Whenever you get back there, however, I hope you have a little more appreciation for the opportunities you have and that you take advantage of them fully. For tomorrow is promised to no one.

Guide to the New Rules of Post-Pandemic Softball

Emma hitting virus

ARRR! Caution – there be satirical content here. 

It looks like softball is back on for 2020! That’s great news for everyone who has been itching to get out and see some ball played. And their kids.

But of course, we’re not out of the woods yet. Testing is still woefully lacking, and there is no vaccine or cure yet. According to healthcare nursing leaders, hospitals are really still just treating symptoms, not necessarily providing any cures.

So with that in mind, various organizations have started issuing some new rules to address the ongoing need to continue social distancing while being in a team setting.

The thing is, any new rule set can be confusing at first. It’s hard to know exactly what all should apply. So to help out with that I’m going to look at some of the rules – and the issues around the rules – and give you my interpretation of what needs to, or will, happen.

No need to thank me. All part of the service.

Rule #1 – no more than three players in the dugout. Ok, that should work in most dugouts. They’re wide enough to allow at least six feet between players. But who gets to be in the dugout?

That’s easy. One will be the hitter in the hole, so she is ready to go into the on-deck circle. The other two are the head coach’s kid and her best friend on the team. Extra incentive to becomes BFFs with the head coach’s kid.

What about when the head coach’s kid or her BFF is hitting and/or in the on-deck circle? Who goes in then?

That’s easy. No one. Because it wouldn’t be fair.

Rule #1A – players not in the dugout must congregate in a socially distant way in the area behind the backstop near the dugout. This is actually one of the more popular rule changes among the parents. Now they can have unfettered access to their daughters so they can critique their defense, coach up their hitting and tell them what idiots the coaches are in real time.

This new rule also gives helicopter parents an opportunity to check if their daughters need water, sunflower seeds, a cool rag, sun lotion, antibacterial wipes, ice cream from the snack bar or anything else during the game. Players in the 16U and 18U levels will particularly appreciate their parents being able to check on them throughout the 75 minutes they normally would have been away from them.

Rule #2 – Parents may not sit behind the backstop or within six feet of the dugout. They are required to sit in a line, a minimum of six feet per family unit, along the sidelines past the dugout or behind the outfield fence. Or even better in the parking lot or the seating area at the local Subway until the game is over.

The ruling bodies understand this rule will make it more difficult for them to coach their kid while she is at bat, and thus recommend establishing a series of large pantomime gestures so their daughters don’t miss out on this valuable, timely information. Wearing white makeup is optional but encouraged.

This rule will be strictly enforced, incidentally. Local biker gangs have been hired to take care of any disputes. We’ve seen how belligerent you parents can get.

Rule #3 – Direct contact should be avoided whenever possible. Of course, that’s already in the rules, which some teams ignore because hey, if you can give the best player on the other team a concussion and you don’t take advantage of it you’re not trying.

But there are other types of contact as well, so we must look at use cases.

  • Use case #1 – tag plays. You’ve heard of the phantom tag of second base in a double play. Now all tags will be phantom tags. If the defensive player catches the ball and makes a motion toward the runner before the runner crosses a line directly in front of and six feet to the side of a base, the runner is out.
  • Use case #2 – safety base. Orange safety bases will still be in use. But they will now be placed in foul territory a minimum of six feet away from the white base. The first base coach’s box will now be moved to the other side of the fence (or a line extending from the fence) which is okay because the first base coach is mostly useless on a play at first anyway. If the ball gets away from the fielders, from six feet away the batter runner should know, but if not all the parents sitting along the sidelines are welcome to advise the player on what she should do next by screaming at her like her hair is on fire.
  • Use case #3 – runner on first base. The first baseman must stay a minimum of six feet away from first base when there is a runner on that base. Like maybe up the line where she should be anyway.
  • Use case #4 – short blooping fly balls into the shallow outfield. No real rule change here. All three players going for the ball should pull up and let it fall between them. Like they always do.

Rule #4 – Social distancing behind the plate. Catchers are required to position themselves a minimum of six feet behind the back foot of the hitter, which will not be a huge change for some. Umpires should then position themselves six feet behind the catcher.

As a result of the distance between the plate and the umpire, balls and strikes will now be decided by a flip of a coin after every pitch. Again, not a big change for some.

Rule #5 – No gathering at the circle between each out. There is no need for the entire team to gather up to congratulate itself for every routine out. This is just a giant waste of time, especially when there are time limits anyway.

If you still must huddle up, all field players must remain outside the circle, which provides eight feet of distance from the pitcher (which is good because her health is far more important than the health of the rest of you put together). You must also maintain at least six feet from the player on either side. If you set up in a square pattern you should meet the minimum, although don’t ask us to do the geometry on that to prove it.

Rule #6 – No outside coolers or snacks of any kind will be allowed in the facility. This is not really a social distancing thing. It’s just we are not hosting these tournaments for our health, or because we like spending our entire weekend raking dirt and lining fields (if you’re lucky).

We are here to make money, and we’re already behind with the season starting in May (or June). So buy your food and drinks at the snack bar and help us give our organization’s treasurer an account worth embezzling.

Rule #7 – Personal protective equipment. All players should carry a large supply of antibacterial wipes (if you can find them, good luck with that!) in their bat bags at all times, and should use a new wipe each time they touch another person (accidentally or on purpose) or anything another person has touched (including the ground) or well, hell, anything. They should also wipe themselves off if they get dirty. A clean player is a happy player.

Latex gloves (or similar) are recommended, even though the minute you touch anything that might be infected those gloves are now useless to you. Hand sanitizer is also highly recommended, especially if you use the washroom facilities. Which is good advice even after there is a vaccine.

Masks are not required but are encouraged. We mean the cloth or surgical masks, not the hard protective face masks, because only players with weak skills need those, right? Nothing will make players feel better than wearing a cloth or paper mask over their mouth and nose in 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity from 8:00 am until 8:00 pm.

Rule #8 – Check-in. In addition to the usual documents (signed roster, proof of insurance, birth certificates, etc.) all coaches must now produce a waiver signed by each player (or their legal guardian) stating that if they end up catching COVID-19 or any other horrific disease after playing they will not hold the organization or the facility responsible.

Of course, this is America so you can still sue whoever you want whenever you want for whatever you want. But we’re hoping it at least discourages a few people.

Rule #9 – Post-game celebrations. There will be absolutely NO high-fiving, handshakes, or other direct contacts between two teams after a game. A friendly wave is allowed if performed from a safe distance.

Better still, use the old cheer, “2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate?” as seen in the Bad News Bears (original version) and millions of tee-ball games across the country.

Rule #10 – Gathering under canopies between games. Only one person per corner is allowed in each 10′ canopy, so plan accordingly to ensure you have enough canopies for the entire team, plus parents and siblings. Maybe every family unit should bring its own canopy so it looks like a Renaissance Faire has broken out. You work it out.

If these strict guidelines are not followed, see Rule #2 for enforcement procedures.

Rule #11 – Awarding of trophies/medals, t-shirts or other prizes. Trophies, awards and other prizes will be scattered six feet apart on the outfield grass, where teams can pick them up as-appropriate. The tournament directors are not taking any chances on coming into contact with your little petri dishes.

Rule #12 – Come, play, get the hell out. Do not loiter after games. When your team is out, no half-hour long speeches by the coaches, no hanging around the field soaking up the atmosphere, no parents going over the game play-by-play to discuss what an idiot the coach is.

Just pack your crap and leave. We have your money, you got to play. We don’t love you anymore. Go home where it’s (presumably) safe.

Hope that helps everyone! Have fun playing this season!

Fastpitch Pitchers: Make Your Arm Like Feel Like a Piece of Rope

rope dew brown beige

I have talked for years about how the pitching arm on a fastpitch pitcher should be loose at it goes through the circle. But lately, for whatever reason, I have had a lot of success with one very simple instruction: your arm should feel like it’s a piece of rope.

I usually then tell the pitcher to imagine holding onto a piece of rope and twirling it around with their hand. Now picture their hand is their shoulder and the rope is their arm.

So far it has worked like magic on every pitcher I’ve said this to. Before that instruction you could see that the pitcher was trying to throw hard – and tensing up as a result.

Afterwards, you could see the arm go loose – like a piece of rope – and the ball fly out of her hand. It’s very visible when you’re doing an online lesson, by the way!

Several parents have commented that they could see the difference in the arm immediately. But my favorite comment was from Beth, the mom of a pitcher named Katie.

She was catching during an online lesson and heard me say something but couldn’t make out what it was. Then Katie threw the next pitch and it stung Beth’s hand. At which point Beth said, “I don’t know what you just told Katie but it sure worked.”

I have tried lots of different ways to explain this concept in the past. I’ve said the standard “stay loose,” “make it like a piece of cooked spaghetti instead of uncooked spaghetti like it is now,” and “it should feel like Harry Potter’s arm after Professor Lockhart tries to fix it.” Those phrases would work sometimes and not others.

I’ve also tried different physical approaches, such as having the pitcher swing her arm around in circles multiple times or pitching without a ball or with a light ball. There would be some progress, but it would often be lost once we went back to regular pitching.

But “your arm should be like a piece of rope” seems to work pretty consistently and pretty well.

So if you have a pitcher who is having trouble letting her arm be loose give that a try. Maybe even have a piece of rope handy to try if you and the pitcher are in the same place.

It just might be the key to unlocking both speed and accuracy. And if you do try it, let me know how it works in the comments below!

And as they say on YouTube, if you found this post helpful be sure to leave a like, share it with others and use the box in the upper left to subscribe so every time there’s a new post you’re notified instantly.

Thanks, hang in there, and keep washing your hands!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Stockdale Paradox the Key to Making It Through the COVID-19 Lockdown

Mask

Today’s topic isn’t necessarily a softball-specific topic. But because so many of us are looking longingly at empty fields, especially on beautiful sunny days when the temperature gets up to shirtsleeve temperatures, I thought it was worth sharing.

I first came across the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins. It is named after Admiral James Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking prisoner of war in the so-called “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.

If you want to read the full explanation you can do that here. I’m going to do my best to give you the abridged version.

The “Hanoi Hilton” was a horrible POW camp. Conditions were poor and the prisoners (American soldiers, sailors and marines) were beaten, tortured, starved and otherwise mistreated. All in all it was a miserable experience.

Adm. Stockdale was in it for seven years, from 1968 to the end of the war in 1974. Collins asked him why some of the prisoners (including him) were able to make it through with their spirits unbroken while others fell into deep sadness and depression.

He said the ones who struggled were the optimists. They would say, “We’ll be out of here by Christmas” or “We’ll be out of here by July 4.” But then Christmas or July 4 would come and go and they were still there. The continuous disappointment broke them.

The ones who came through it ok adopted what has come to be known as the Stockdale Paradox. Their attitude was basically, “We know we will make it out of here alive one day. We just don’t know when.”

The ones who handled it best were the ones who faced the brutal reality of a situation they couldn’t control and accepted it for what it was. They focused on doing what they needed to do to get through each day until they were finally release, believing all the time that the day would come.

That’s where a lot of us are right now – although to be honest we have nothing to complain about compared to the residents of the “Hanoi Hilton.” There’s a huge difference between being locked up in a cage, sleeping in the dirt and never knowing if you’re going to be dragged out and beaten and being stuck watching Neflix or videos of old softball games on your living room couch.

What we have to realize right now is we don’t know when it will be safe, not just for us but for our families, our neighbors and the most vulnerable among us, to begin going out to restaurants, movie theaters, concerts, worship services and yes, softball games, again. But we also have to believe that the day will come.

What we don’t know is when that day will come. If you pin all your hopes on May 1, or May 15, or July 1, or any specific date and it doesn’t happen, you will feel worse than you did before.

You may even fall into despair, or decide to do something stupid (like defy shelter-in-place orders) that only extend the situation even further – and perhaps increase the death toll needlessly.

Instead, know that one day this will all be over, or at least the worst of it will, and we’ll be able to get back to the rest of our lives again. Embrace the Stockdale Paradox and one day you too will be sporting an “I Survived the COVID-19 Pandemic” t-shirt at the local ballfield.

In the meantime, stay safe and wash your hands! And be sure to hit the Like and Share buttons so this message gets out to others who need it, and subscribe to get new posts delivered directly to your email as soon as they go live.

It’s Not the Arrow, It’s the Archer

adult archery beautiful beauty

The title of this week’s post is a phrase I use often, especially when I get asked about an equipment recommendation. But it can apply to a lot of things.

It seems like everyone is looking for the “magic bullet” – the bat, or gadget/device, or drill or technique or whatever that will, with no additional effort on their part, create a sudden and dramatic improvement in performance. In my experience, and the experience of many other coaches I’ve spoken with over the years, that magic bullet doesn’t exist.

Take bats, for example. Sure some bats have a better trampoline effect or are “hotter” than others (within the limitations set forth by the various sanctioning bodies) and thus with all else equal will provide an edge. But all else is rarely equal.

First of all, for all that bat technology to work you still have to hit the ball at the right time, and in the right location. If you’re not doing that now a new bat isn’t going to help.

It will look nicer in your bag, and people will be duly impressed when you take it out. But if you have a $500 bat and 5 cent swing they won’t stay impressed for long. It’s not the arrow, it’s the archer.

Since speed is such an important component in pitching, everyone is always looking for the magic drill that will help them gain 8 mph in one or two sessions. An entire industry of DVD sales and online courses has been built by that particular desire.

man wearing hoodie forming chakra wallpaper

You might, however, want to avoid taking lessons from this guy.

But again, if such a drill exists I’ve never found it. Neither has Rich Balswick, who is one of the best and most accomplished pitching coaches in the world.

I know, because I’ve talked to him about it. For all he has done he is still looking for that magical drill that can instantly turn a pitcher with average speed into a burner.

In fact, he told me if I ever discover it to pass it along to him. So far I have not been able to do so, and he hasn’t shared one either so I presume he’s still on the hunt as well.

Devices and gadgets are another area where people hope for miracles. Some are valuable teaching tools, like the Queen of the Hill or the Pocket Radar, and others are just fancier ways to lose money than flushing it down your toilet.

None, however, can instantly make you better just by purchasing them, or using them once or twice. Because it’s not the arrow, it’s the archer that makes the difference.

Then there are those who claim to have solved the mysteries of the Sphinx in terms of the techniques they teach. These same people tend to keep exactly what it is shrouded in mystery, as though if they told you (without you paying them huge sums of money) they would have to kill you.

sand desert statue pyramid

This is the same facial expression many coaches have when you miss a sign.

While there is certainly plenty of bad teaching going on in the softball world in all aspects of the game, it’s not like the optimal techniques are known only to a select, privileged few. The information is out there if you are willing to invest some time looking for it. (I like to think a lot of it is here, by the way, so feel free to poke around some more after you finish with this post.)

Of course, that’s the issue – investing some time. Most of us would much rather buy a “product” that promises instant, guaranteed results than recognize that learning athletic skills is a process that requires a lot of work, a lot of boring repetition, and paying a lot of attention to a lot of little details that can have a large impact on performance.

The first way sounds easier, doesn’t it? Too bad it doesn’t work.

The value of any piece of equipment, drill, gadget or technique lies with the person who is using it.

Put that $500 bat in the hands of a player with a 5 cent swing and it’s going to look like a waste of money. Put that same bat in the hands of a player who has invested the time to develop her swing, her eye at the plate and her mental approach and that same bat is going to look like the smartest thing you’ve ever spent money on.

Remember, it’s not the arrow that produces the results. It’s the archer. Invest your time and money in improving the archer and she’ll be successful no matter what arrow you give her. Spend all your time and money on the arrow and you’ll be forever disappointed.

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Archer photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Creepy magician photo by Nizam Abdul Latheef on Pexels.com
Sphinx photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Making the Most of Online Lessons

Ashley remote lesson

For those who read this in future years, as I write this post we here in Illinois we are still bracing for what is expected to be the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses are shuttered (including practice facilities) and we’ve all been told to stay home and practice social distancing.

Although it may not seem like it at times, eventually the danger will pass and our worries will go back to whether a runner was safe or out at home, how much playing time our daughters are getting and whether that six-foot-four flamethrowing pitcher on the other team is really 12 years old. So rather than letting players’ softball skills deteriorate completely (even as they become incredible at making Tik Tok videos) many instructors (including myself) have started offering online lessons.

(I know there are people who have done that for years, especially when distance has been an issue, but it’s new to me and I know it’s new to many others.)

It has definitely been a learning experience. Which I suppose is good because nothing keeps the mind sharp like having to learn something new.

For those who are wondering, I’ve been using Zoom. I tried a couple of other options, but if you want to use FaceTime you cut out everyone who doesn’t have an Apple product, and Skype requires both parties to have an account.

With Zoom the only one who needs an account is me. I create the meetings and send the links. The families just have to click on them when it’s time. And it’s free, which is nice.

So far I have found some good and, well, not bad but maybe less-than-ideal things about it. Let’s take a look at both.

The good

We’ll start with the positives because everyone can use a little lift these days. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits to me is the ability to really focus narrowly on specific aspects that need work.

In a live setting there is often a tendency to try to cover a lot in a short amount of time. Working something over-and-over can be tough, especially with today’s hyper-stimulated kids and their eight-second attention spans. (Yes, I know that figure is up for debate but it makes the point.)

goldfish in water

This goldfish has a longer attention span than most kids today. And looks pretty fierce.

In an online lesson, though, it is much easier to get hyper-focused on specific aspects such as posture or release for pitchers or maintaining the sequence for hitters. It also makes it easier to convince players (and parents) who are anxious to go full-distance with skills to stay in close and really work on the nuances – which is where elite players actually spend a lot of their time.

I haven’t done this yet, but Zoom offers the option to record each session. I’m definitely going to try that soon. It would be nice to have a reference to go back to with a lesson later.

I use video a lot, but it’s usually more of a snapshot in time of a couple of repetitions. If I had my own facility and could have a permanent set-up like Rick Pauly I might record every lesson in its entirety. But I already have a lot of set-up to do each time I go to a facility or field so I’m not looking to add more. Online lessons makes that option easy.

Accessibility is another big plus, especially for families with multiple children involved in multiple activities. It’s a lot easier for a working parent to squeeze in a half hour from home than it is to drive 40 minutes each way, plus the lesson time itself, when their other kids need to get to and from their activities. Although honestly that isn’t so much of an issue right now.

Finally, as an instructor it is forcing me to think of new ways to convey the same information. I can’t just rely on what I’ve always done, because some of the options (such as demonstrating a skill) aren’t as available.

Yes, I can back off my camera and sort of show what I’m talking about for small skills. But trying to demonstrate leg drive visually doesn’t work as well so I have to find other ways to produce the desired results. Which I believe will make me a better instructor in the long run.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing but for the time being I spend most of the lesson sitting in a comfy chair instead of walking around. And there is no heavy equipment to carry to a field or set up. If you’re lazy, and aren’t we all sometimes, it’s certainly the easy way to go.

The not-so-good

There are just some things that work better when you can demonstrate them. It’s kind of tough to do a good demonstration when you’re tied to a computer.

While I am still able to capture video on Coach’s Eye during the lesson, it’s kind of a kluge process. Basically I use my phone to shoot the video I see on my video monitor. When I want to play it back for the student, she has to get in close to her device, then I have to hold the phone up to my laptop’s camera and angle it so there is no glare. It gets the job done, but it’s night ideal.

The other video aspect is that my view of the student is limited to the camera’s point of view. If I want to move from looking at the student from the side to looking at her from the back I can’t just walk behind her. I have to ask someone on-site to physically move the camera, then fine-tune it so I can see what I want to see.

air aircraft airplane art

Of course, I could solve that issue by getting  one of these.

That’s not too bad with a phone or a tablet. It can be a little less convenient with a laptop because of the size. Regardless, it works best if you have a dedicated person for the camera so the moves can be made most efficiently.

One bit thing I miss is being able to take speed readings of every pitch, which is something I started doing recently. Unless the family has a set-up like mine, where you can run the radar continuously and have some sort of visible display you’re not going to be able to do it too easily. It’s always nice to see if the adjustments you’re making are having the desired effect.

Then there’s the personal relationship aspect, which I believe is critical for generating optimal results. One of the most important things any coach can do is create a personal connection with the people he/she is coaching. This is true not only in softball but in many aspects of life.

Creating that connection would be less effective, I think, if it was solely over an online system. Don’t get me wrong – it’s better than nothing. But there’s nothing like being together in the same space.

Fortunately, I already have that connection (or at least believe I do) with my current students so it’s not really an obstacle right now. I know them and they know me, so a video conference works. But it would probably be a lot tougher to build that same type of relationship with a net new student. (That said, if someone wants to give it a try let me know in the comments or contact me directly!)

Speaking of space, that can be one additional challenge for families versus going to a facility. Particularly right now while the weather is sort of iffy.

Today may be a beautiful day to go out into the back yard and throw a ball. Tomorrow and the next three days might be horrible between the rain or snow and the cold. If the student doesn’t have room indoors to throw, hit, whatever there’s not a whole lot you can do except work on strategy and the mental game until the weather gets better.

So there you have it – a few quick thoughts from my limited experience. The good news is those who have tried it so far seem to like it – especially the focus on specific aspects. They’re happy we’re able to continue working, even on a somewhat limited basis, so they’re ready for the season whenever it eventually comes.

Now I want to know what you think. Have you tried online lessons yet (not just with me but with anyone)? What did you like, and what didn’t you like? Is there anything you’ve liked better about online than in-person lessons?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below. And remember to wash your hands and stay safe!

 

Drone photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Goldfish photo by Gabriel P on Pexels.com

A College Player’s Perspective on a Lost Season

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This guest post was written by Taylor Danielson, a junior at the University of Indianapolis. She offers a first-hand account of what it was like to lose the rest of her college season when it was canceled due to the Covid-19 virus. 

Hours before the NCAA made the decision to cancel all remaining 2020 winter and spring seasons, my team and I were sitting at the airport in Orlando, Florida joking about everything that has, was, and is going on. As we got on the plane, it was business as usual.

We landed in Indianapolis, got off the plane, gathered our things and headed to the bus. While we were sitting and waiting for the bus and people got their electronics back up and running, social media sites were being overrun with news about business and school closures and sports seasons being cancelled all over the country.

It was at that moment when our hearts sank because we all knew we were next. At that point we didn’t realize the magnitude of this event. There weren’t a mass amount of cases in the United States, and it hadn’t started spreading like it is now.

The bus ride back to school was silent. We quietly sat and hoped we wouldn’t get the news that was almost inevitable. When we arrived back at school, we unloaded and put all the equipment away.

When everything was away we all sat in the locker room waiting to hear what our next move was from Coach. As the whole coaching staff came in, one look at their faces and we knew the news couldn’t be good.

We all sat in silence for a few minutes before Coach spoke up and informed us of what had happened, our season was over. Although we all realized these were necessary steps in order to keep everyone safe, it was a tough pill to swallow.

We were all heartbroken, crying in the locker room for at least 45 minutes. Personally, I was sad about the season, but knowing I had played my last game with my best friend

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Taylor and me (right) in happier times.

was the saddest part.

Taylor and I had been through a lot together. For her senior season to end the way it did breaks my heart. I would do anything to play one last home game with her, have one more laugh at practice, and one more squeal on the bus when we find out we are roommates.

This whole experience has taught me a lot. First, don’t take anything for granted. It may sound a bit cliché, but it doesn’t resonate until you experience it yourself. You truly never know when your last game is.

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Here we are after what turned out to be our last game together. This was just supposed to be one of many we’d take.

Second, always remember to have fun, even when you are struggling. This sudden end to the season has put a lot of things into perspective.

What I mean by that is don’t get caught up in things like your performance at the plate. I’ve been off to a slow start and am guilty of living and dying by each at bat.

Now that I am done for the season, I wish I wouldn’t have spent so much time worrying about what my batting average was or what I hoped my next at bat would look like. I realize now that there are a lot worse things that could happen besides an a bat that didn’t go your way.

You’re never going to get this time back, so it’s important to make the most of every moment. Lastly, cherish every friendship.

I may never play another game of softball with my best friend, but I have our memories and more importantly I still have her.  I am beyond thankful for the friendships this game has given me, especially the one I have with Taylor.  Teammates for a moment, friends for life.

The Value of Learning More Than One Position

Taylor Danielson takes personal responsibility by hustling to chase down a foul ball

This topic came up a couple of weeks ago when I was participating in a conference call with top pitching coaches from all over the country. We had wandered into more team-oriented topics when my friend James Clark mentioned that he always insists his players learn more than one position – with one of those preferably being outfield.

Apparently in these days of helicopter parents that is a fairly radical idea. Those parents (or should I say “those parents”) believe their child should spend all their time on the field in one spot. Preferably a “high-value” spot such as pitcher, catcher or shortstop.

To me, that is doing those players as well as the team a disservice. There are plenty of reasons for players to learn more than one position.

  • It elevates the level of play. Most of us don’t get better unless we’re pushed. Having two or more players getting playing time at a position pushes everyone to be at their best so they can be there for the big games.
  • It helps players learn the game. If you spend all your time at one position you may get to learn it thoroughly but you may not gain the bigger picture of how the game works. Softball is an individual sport played in a team setting. It really helps to know what all the other parts are doing.
  • It rounds out their skill sets. Different positions require different skills. Being a more well-rounded player makes players more valuable even in their primary positions. For example, shortstops who also play outfield gain more experience tracking balls in the air.
  • It gives players more options down the road. You may be the big gun at a position right now. But what if a “once in a career” player comes along who plays your position? Or just someone the coach likes more? Or you get hurt and can no longer play your chosen position, as happens now and then. If you can’t contribute anywhere else you’re likely to spend a lot of time riding the pines. Or the aluminum these days.
  • It helps players prove themselves in college. A player’s best chance to show coaches what she can do may not be at her primary position, especially if the coaches have an established starter. But if she can contribute elsewhere the coaches can get comfortable having her in the lineup, and then may be more willing to see what she can do at her primary position.

Those are some of the benefits to the players. There are also benefits to the team, such as:

  • It future-proofs the team. If only one player has any recent experience at a position and she gets hurt or decides to accept an offer in the middle of the season from what she perceives to be a higher-level team (it happens) it can take a while to break in someone new. If players have been splitting time you already have the next one up ready to go.
  • It offers more options to get players in the game. No one likes sitting, and playing time is probably the single biggest point of abrasion between players/parents and coaches. Everyone gets more opportunity when there is flexibility in the lineup.
  • It promotes the concept of “team” over “me.” Splitting time between positions helps players understand that everyone contributes to the success of the team, not just the stars. That mentality then carries over into other aspects, such as laying down a bunt when called upon when a player would rather swing away.
  • It gives coaches options for match-ups. If certain players can only play one position, and that position is occupied by a better player, the coach may not be able to put the best nine that match-up against a particular team on the field. Players who can play other positions give coaches options. It’s like having a larger bench without all the issues that presents.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this philosophy. I once lost a player when I was recruiting a team because I refused to guarantee a father that his daughter would only play one position. But that was ok – I ended up with four other players who could play that position just as well – and who were happy to do whatever the team needed.

In the end, only being able to play one position is a self-made trap. It may seem like a good idea but always keep in mind that fastpitch softball is a competitive sport.

Your coach may love you there today. But if he/she can find someone better for that position tomorrow, that player is going to get your spot. If you can’t contribute anywhere else it could make for a long, unhappy season.

If you broaden your skills, however, there will always be someone who wants you on their team. And on their field.

Things To Do While Waiting Out Covid-19

Well-groomed fastpitch softball field

Well, it’s official: the World Health Organization has declared the Covid-19 coronavirus a full-blown pandemic. The cascade effect has been postponement or outright cancellation of college and high school softball seasons, and could have a significant effect on the summer season as well.

(For those reading this post long after March 2020, it should be an interesting time capsule for how things were perceived while we were in the center of it. And much of what I’m going to say here applies to non-pandemic times too.)

At this point it would be easy to say “Aw, the heck with it” (or perhaps something a bit stronger), sit in the house and start power watching Stranger Things or Game of Thrones. Neither of which I have ever seen, by the way.

But you can also look at this extra, unexpected down time as a gift. There is plenty you can do without game or team activities.

And you’ll want to do them, because sooner or later this too shall pass and we will be back out in the sunshine, where we our biggest worry is whether we will knock those base runners in with a hit or get the out to win the game instead of whether we will fall deathly ill and infect a vulnerable family member.

So here are some suggestions on how to turn the currently bad situation to your advantage. Starting with…

Take some time off to heal

These days the softball season (like most other youth sports seasons) seems to run 12 months a year. That leaves little time to let your body rest and recuperate the way it needs to, because it seems like there is always some critically important game or tournament or camp or something coming up.

Well, now there isn’t, and we don’t know when there will be again. So take advantage of it. Take some time off and let your body do its healing thing. If you haven’t had your injury checked out and it’s causing sufficient pain, go visit your doctor. He/she may be thrilled to not have to look at another runny nose or listen to a wheezing cough.

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Right now a little ankle pain doesn’t look so bad.

Even if you’re not injured, think about taking a week off just to let your body get some much-needed rest. You’ll be amazed at what it can do for you.

Fix the little issues that make big differences. One thing I’ve always prided myself on is being able to work around injuries to keep players on track. For example, I once gave a few pitching lessons to a girl in an ankle-to-hip hard cast.

Obviously we didn’t work on leg drive. Instead we focused on spins and stability. She sat on a stool and worked on perfecting her change, drop and curve balls.

Once the cast came off, she ended up being ahead of where she had been rather than behind. Shows you the value of narrow concentration.

If you’re a pitcher who has been struggling with whip, this is the perfect time to work on it, because you don’t have to worry about how it will affect you in a game. And if you’re diligent about it, by the time you do have to pitching to hitters again the whip will be second nature.

Or maybe you’re a hitter who tends to dip her back shoulder toward the catcher during her stride, or lets her hands get ahead of her hips. Take the time to fix it now.

Figure out what your biggest single issue is and work on it. If you get it done and the season is still on lockdown, work on another one. Rinse and repeat until it’s time to go play again.

Re-set your mindset

This particularly applies to college players who had already started their seasons. If it wasn’t going the way you’d hoped this temporary shut-down could be the best thing that happened to you (unless you’re a senior, in which case my heart goes out to you).

The first rules of holes is that when you find yourself in one, stop digging. That can be tough to do, however, when you are playing so many games trying to win a conference championship so you can get invited into the post-season tournament.

Now you have the perfect opportunity. First, let go of whatever was bothering you. Leave the past in the past and start looking forward.

Second, and this is most important, use this time to gain some perspective. When you were struggling or even in a slump, it seemed earth-shattering. But it wasn’t. At the end of the day, it was still just softball.

Now you’ve had softball taken away from you as the result of a rapidly-spreading disease that could affect your health (although so far it doesn’t seem likely) or the health of someone you love, like a parent or grandparent. THAT is earth-shattering.

Remember there are worse things than striking out with runners on base, booting an easy ground or fly ball, or giving up a walk-off hit. Like not getting to play at all.

Find the joy again in just being on the field, so when you are you’re able to keep things in perspective – which will likely help you improve your performance.

Learn to think like a coach

Talk to any coach who is a former player and sooner or later you’ll hear him/her say “If only I knew what I know now when I was playing.”

It’s unfortunate, but most of us don’t really put in the effort to really learn our craft until we’re put in a position where we have to teach someone else. It’s then that we decide we’d better know what we’re doing, in which case a whole new world opens up to us.

Why wait until your career is done? Start talking to knowledgeable people, watch video analysis of what top-level players do, check out DVDs from the library (or your coaches) and find whatever other information is available to you.

Sure, some of it is going to be garbage. Maybe a lot of it, especially random clips on YouTube. But if you compare what you’re seeing to what high-level players do you can start gaining a better understanding of what you should be doing so you can apply it to your own game.

Share what you know with younger players

You don’t have to go into full-on coaching or instructing. But if you’re hanging around somewhere and you run across a younger person who wants to learn a skill you know, take some time to share it with them.

Remember, when one coaches two learn.

Clean your stuff

Don’t just wash your uniform. Take the time to really do all you can to get the dirt, blood, grass and other stains out of it. Especially the white stuff. Fels-Naptha Laundry Bar and Stain Remover, which is available at most hardware stores as well as online, is great for that.

Clean the dirt out of your cleats, and wipe down the top parts. Maybe even polish them so they look great. If you have broken shoelaces now is a good time to change them.

Clean your glove with leather soap or saddle soap and put some conditioner in it. (Not oil, because that will make it heavy, but more of a paste-like conditioner.) If necessary, this is a great time to get it re-strung.

Wipe down your bat with soap and water. Remember how proud you were when it was shiny and new? See if you can feel like that again.

Give your batting gloves the sniff test. If you can do it from across the room it’s time to either try soaking them in laundry detergent for a bit or get a new pair.

And for goodness’ sake, clean out your equipment bag! Take everything out of it, including the 300 empty or partially empty water bottles crushed at the bottom of it, dump out the dirt, take a clean cloth and wipe it out, inside and out. Then, when you go to pack it up again, KonMari that sucker and only put things in it that make you happy.

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Yes, these bottles.

Stay positive

Things may look bleak right now, but they will get better. Best thing you can do is remain positive, because sooner or later (hopefully sooner) softball games will start to be played again and life will return to its hectic normal.

 

Sick person photo by Polina Tankilevitch on <a href=”https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-in-blue-sweater-lying-on-bed-3873179/&#8221; rel=”nofollow”>Pexels.com</a>

Product Review: Pocket Radar Smart Display

 

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Pocket Radar devices have become pretty commonplace in the fastpitch softball world. You see them everywhere, at the ball park, in practice facilities, and in social media photos as grinning pitchers proudly display their latest speed achievements.

The handy devices are not only easy to carry around (and not as obtrusive to use as a standard radar gun since they can easily be mistaken for a mobile phone) but priced within reach of most programs, coaches and bucket parents.

The current top of the line is the Pocket Radar Smart Coach, which I reviewed back in 2018 when it first came out. One of the major benefits is that the free app that comes with it lets you set up your Smart Coach to capture each pitch (in Continuous mode) and then display the results on a phone or tablet via Bluetooth so the pitcher can get instant, accurate feedback on each pitch so she can measure her progress.

That works great indoors. But it might be a little dicier out on an actual field. The bright sunlight on a super hot day might make the display on an iPad or other tablet tough to read, and it could cause the tablet to overheat and shut down.

There is a solution, however: the Pocket Radar Smart Display. It delivers a large, very bright speed readout of up to three digits that the manufacturer says can be read from 100 feet away in bright sunlight. It looks very similar to the types of displays used on scoreboards.

Leilani speed

Beating a personal best she’d set just a few pitches before.

I’ve been using one for about a month and so far it has been great. I haven’t had a chance to try it outdoors yet, but based on what I’ve seen indoors I expect it to be plenty readable once the weather breaks and we can move outside again.

Product description

The Smart Display is made of durable plastic, and its compact size (roughly 10.5 inches W x 9 inches H x 2.5 inches deep) is easy to carry, transport and store. In addition to the digital display, the front side has indicator lights showing whether speed is being measured in miles or kilometers per hour (user selectable).

There is a combination carry and mounting handle/kick back stand that locks in place to create a 45 degree tilt as well as sitting straight above the unit or folding out of the way underneath.

Pocket Radar side view

The left side recess includes (from top) a power button, a functions button, the power connection socket and a USB socket to connect the Smart Display to the Smart Coach.

The function button offers two menus – a basic and advanced – giving you more control over the Smart Display. For example, if you tap the black button once you can bring up the last recorded speed so you can capture a photo of it. The Smart Display stores the last 25 speeds recorded so you can wait a few pitches to see if the pitcher can go even higher (more on that later).

Sabrina speed

This was her second new high of the night.

Holding the black button down for two seconds lets you check the life of the batteries if you are using alkaline C-cell batteries.

The advanced menu gives you even more options, such as setting the Smart Display to measure miles or kilometers per hour, setting the auto-off timer, adjusting the brightness and more. To access it you simply hold the red (power) and black (function) button in at the same time for more than two seconds.

Set-up instructions, and instructions on how to access the menus, are printed on the back of the unit for extra convenience. Good news for those who don’t want to carry the instruction manual with them.

(Incidentally, while I primarily use the Smart Coach and Smart Display to measure pitch speeds, you can also set it up to measure ball exit speed off the tee for hitters. So if you’re a team coach wondering if it’s worth it for two or three pitchers, that is something else to keep in mind when determining the value.)

Basic set-up

The set-up for the Pocket Radar Smart Display is pretty simple. You connect the Smart Coach to the Smart Display using a cable with a USB connector on one side and a mini connector on the radar unit side.

The USB side connects to the Smart Display, and then you plug in the power source, which powers both the Smart Display and the Smart Coach. For power, you can either use a power bank (the type you use to power a mobile phone or tablet when the battery is running low) or use the supplied cable and plug to plug directly into an AC power source.

You can also insert four C-cell batteries into the Smart Display but I don’t recommend that if you plan to use the radar to capture every pitch. You’ll end up spending a fortune on batteries if they’re not rechargeable.

If you need portable power, use a power bank – you can get several hours of performance out of it depending on the unit you use. If you get a cylindrical power bank you can insert it into the compartment for the C cell batteries and run a cable out to the input, keeping the power source more secure.

Once you have all the connections you have a couple of additional options. If you are outdoors and have the Smart Coach set up safely on a tripod behind a backstop, you can also mount the Smart Display to the fence using the two supplied carabiner clips, or hang it below the tripod.

If you can’t mount the Smart Display to or behind a protective backstop – for example, when you are indoors in a net batting cage – you can use an extension USB cable to run the display out to the side and set it on the ground where it is unlikely to take a direct hit. The built-in kick-back handle lets you tilt it up for easier reading as well as greater stability. Fortunately, Pocket Radar offers a 50 foot cable as a separately purchased accessory if you need it.

That’s actually what I have been using indoors and so far it has worked very well. It seems to be durable enough to handle the constant rolling and unrolling required if you have to set it up and take it down every day as I do.

It’s not quite as convenient as the Bluetooth connection with a mobile phone or tablet, but you also don’t have to worry about interference. It also frees your phone or tablet for other duties, such as taking video, measuring spin rates with a Bluetooth-enabled ball and app or playing music.

That said, I’m told the good folks at Pocket Radar are looking into the possibility of making it Bluetooth-enabled in the future. If it comes true, hopefully they will offer either a retrofit kit or a buyback option as they have with other products.

With everything in place, all that’s left is to turn it on using the red button on the side of the Smart Display, push the white button on the Smart Coach to wake it up and press and hold the Mode button on the Smart Coach to set it to continuous mode. That’s it – you’re all set to start capturing pitches.

Instant feedback

Each time the pitcher throws a pitch, the speed is shown on the digital display in big, bright red numbers. The numbers remain visible for a few seconds, then turn off. At that point you’re ready to capture the next pitch.

One of the best features of the Smart Display is that if the pitcher hits a new speed high, you can use the recall function to bring that number back so you can take a photo as I did here. While showing the numbers on the Smart Coach itself is nice, there’s nothing like showing them in big, bright numbers to give the pitcher an extra sense of pride.

Alyssa 55

Nothing like the pride of accomplishment.

The display will hold for about a minute, I think, which should be ample time to get the photo. But if not, just go back and pull it up again.

Having this instant, continuous feedback, by the way, has had a positive effect on my students as I wrote in another blog post. Seeing where they are tends to make them push themselves to achieve higher speeds. Having the numbers in a big, bright display that anyone in the area can see adds a bit of accountability too. No one wants to be seen as slacking off or underachieving when others are watching.

Watch the (outside) nickle hardware

I will admit I was a bit concerned when I was first using the Smart Display because it seemed like it was prone to lose power and shut down any time I had a student pick it up to take a photo. What I discovered, however, that it wasn’t the Smart Display that was the problem.

It was actually the power connection cable from my power block to the unit. It apparently was cheap, and after not much use broke somewhere in the middle. If I set it just right it would work, but if I moved it even slightly it didn’t.

Once I started using a new cable the problem went away. I share that story so you don’t freak out if you have a similar issue. Check the nickle hardware first, especially the power block and cable you probably picked up for free at a trade show or as a gift for attending a presentation. You’ll save yourself a lot of embarrassment.

Cost

By now you’re probably wondering what all of this wonderfulness costs. It’s not cheap. The Smart Display retails for $499.99 on the Pocket Radar website, and a quick search showed that price holding across the Internet so it’s definitely not for the casual user.

(There was one exception, which showed the Pro Radar System and Smart Display for $69.99 but you probably want to steer clear of that. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.)

There is also a bundle that includes the Smart Coach and Smart Display for $799.99. That might be worthwhile if you don’t own the Smart Coach yet. But if you already own the radar unit itself, you’re better off purchasing the Smart Display separately.

Final word

As you can probably tell, I really like the Pocket Radar Smart Display. I can keep it and all the accessories in my car, which means I don’t have to remember to charge and bring my iPad to every lesson – an issue I had a couple of times, which was disappointing for both myself and my students.

I also don’t have the risk of my iPad falling out of bag or “walking away” in a crowded facility if someone sees me tucking it away after lessons. It’s also a less attractive target to be stolen since it basically has one function and you need a Smart Coach to operate it.

More importantly, the bright display and the mounting options will be a definite plus when I am giving lessons outside. I wasn’t relishing the idea of setting my iPad down in the dirt. Now I won’t have to.

For facilities, pitching coaches, programs with multiple teams or even team coaches who are serious about measuring performance and holding players accountable, the Smart Display is a great addition to the Smart Coach. It’s also a smart investment in your players’ futures.

CORRECTION: I originally said you couldn’t use the Smart Display and the Smart Coach app at the same time, but I was incorrect about that. You can. When I tried it I forgot I had to re-pair the Smart Coach with my iPhone because it had previously been paired to my iPad. So you if you want to capture the history, or shoot a video with the embedded speed on it, or use the audible announcement of the speed, you CAN do that while running the Smart Display. This review has been updated to reflect the new (to me)  information.  

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