Didn’t Make the Team? Rise Like a Phoenix

One of the most legendary and beloved creatures in Greek (and other) mythology is the phoenix.

If you’re not familiar with it, at the seeming end of its life the phoenix bursts into flames, leaving behind nothing but ashes. Because it is immortal, however, the phoenix rises back up from those ashes to become even better and more powerful each time it goes through that cycle.

There is a reason I am sharing this story today.

The tryout season can be a rough time for coaches, parents, and players in the best of times. But nowhere is it harder than when a player doesn’t make her first choice team.

Believe me, I know. As a longtime coach I can tell you that cutting players from the roster was always one of the toughest things to do.

But that doesn’t compare to what the players and their parents go through. The disappointment, the sadness, and especially the sense of betrayal if they suddenly find that they are no longer on a team they’ve been a part of previously.

Here’s something I can guarantee, however: it’s not the end of the world. One quick look at postings on Facebook groups will show that there are still plenty of teams looking for players.

The reality is today there is no shortage of teams in most areas, which means there is a cornucopia of opportunities awaiting those who are determined to play and show what they can do. So take heart – while you may feel like you went down in flames today, you will find a place to play in the long term.

It’s not often you get to see a cornucopia photo so far away from Thanksgiving

Of course, in the short term it still stinks. But that doesn’t mean you just have to take it on the chin.

It’s ok to be sad. You may even shed some tears over not being with a particular team, or no longer playing with friends you’ve made, or whatever other disappointments you’re feeling. It’s perfectly fine.

But then it’s time to do something about it!

Grab your glove, your bat, your cleats, and whatever else you need and start trying out for teams that need what you have to offer. Find a place to play for the next year.

Doesn’t matter whether it’s a step up, a sideways move, or even a step down from where you’ve played before. What you need is the chance to hone your game skills as you play the game you love.

In reality you should look at it as an opportunity. Perhaps you were the #10 or #11 player on your old roster. Now you have the chance to prove yourself to be one of the top players, without all the previously established notions your old coaches had about you.

Or maybe you were the #3 or #4 pitcher on your old team, fighting to get an inning or two of pitching in pool play. On your new team you may have the chance to establish yourself as #1 or #2 because your new coaches are looking at you with fresh eyes. It’s all under your control.

Naturally, none of that will happen by chance. You’re going to have to want it, and work for it, probably harder than you have before.

But here’s the other takeaway from your recent unsuccessful tryout experience. You can use it as fuel to keep you working hard at times when you start thinking you’d rather be doing something else.

Imagine getting the opportunity to play against the team that cut you and dominating them in the circle or going 4-for-4 with a couple of extra base hits or making a game-saving play on defense. How will you feel then?

Pretty darned good I would imagine. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of proving others wrong about you and showing them directly what they missed.

Yeah, you know it!

I can tell you this from personal experience, albeit from the other side.

One of the big drivers for me in always trying to learn more and better myself as a coach was having players leave my team after a successful season. They thought they could do better elsewhere.

So after I got over the shock I dug in and tried to make myself so good as a coach that no one would ever want to leave a team I coached again. That pain started me on a journey that continues today.

All in all I’d have to say the temporary sadness was far outweighed by all the great experiences I’ve had and all the great players I’ve gotten to coach since.

So lick your wounds today, but don’t let them rule your life. Pick yourself up, and know that if you believe in yourself and are willing to work hard to achieve your dreams there will be better days ahead.

Get out on as many fields as it takes and find a place to play for next season. Be like a phoenix, rise from the ashes and get ready to fly.

Oh, and if you have a personal story of rising up from a failed tryout or other endeavor and going on to have a great career be sure to share it in the comments to help today’s players with their journey.

Phoenix photo by Estefania Quintero on Flickr

Cornucopia photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

It’s Getting to Be Time to Take a Break

Not for me – my work never ends. But for players we are coming to a natural point to dial back the softball activities so they can rest and recover and maybe experience other things life has to offer.

I know it can be difficult to think of stopping the relentless pursuit of perfection, whether that’s among coaches whose self-worth is tied up in their won-loss records or players (and by that I mostly mean parents) who are laser-focused on winning that college scholarship.

But everyone needs a little vacation from what they’re normally doing to ensure they continue to perform at their highest level the rest of the year.

Right now a lot of teams (although not all) have finished their seasons. Shockingly many have already held their tryouts and selected their teams for 2022-2023 so that’s out of the way.

Even those who haven’t quite finished are getting to the point of winding down the 2021-2022 season. So rather than jumping right into next year, why not put a pin in the softball activities for a little while and go do something else?

This advice, by the way, also applies to my own students. I love you all, but taking a little time off from lessons and practice so you can come at next season with a fresh perspective (and fresh body) would be a good thing. I’ll still be here when you’re ready to get going again.

Of course, for some of you who are all softball all the time you may not know what else to do with yourself. Here are 15 suggestions of how to spend the next few weeks.

  1. Lay around and do nothing. After the intensity of the season doing nothing in particular is perfectly acceptable.
  2. Sleep late. A lot of players skimp on the sleep during the season, especially high school and college players while school is in session. Take this time to build your sleep bank up again. You’re going to need it soon.
  3. Hang out at the pool or lake or water park (if it’s warm enough). Most coaches prohibit going to the pool on game or practice days because it can drain energy and hurt performance. Since every day is a game or practice day these days here’s your chance to enjoy the healing effects of floating in the water.
  4. Visit with non-softball friends. Sure, you love your teammates to death. But it’s ok to have non-softball or even non-athlete friends too. Go hang with them and do young people things.
  5. Visit family. Your grandparents would love to see you. So would your cousins. Spend some quality time with them. Because you may go from team to team but family is forever.
  6. Go to an amusement park. Spend the whole day there without thinking about what time you have to leave to make it to practice. Ride the roller coasters. See the shows. Eat junk (but not enough to throw up on the rides). In other words, have fun.
  7. Go to the zoo or a museum or a botanical garden. Anywhere you can take a leisurely stroll, look at things, and just BE.
  8. See a concert. Doesn’t have to be a big name star. It could just be a local band playing for free in the park, or at a local venue. Music is good for the soul. And since most performances occur at the same time as you normally practice or play, here’s your chance to hear music the way it was intended to be played – live!
  9. Watch a movie or a play in an actual theater. Just remember you’re not in your living room anymore so shut the heck up when the performance is happening.
  10. Go to dinner at a place where you don’t have to bring your own food to the table or where there aren’t 100 TVs playing sports all around you. Enjoy the experience of eating without worrying about what time to get back for warmups.
  11. Have a picnic. Yes, a good old-fashioned picnic where you bring some food and drinks, spread out a blanket, and just enjoy the day in the shade instead of on a blazing hot field.
  12. Go stargazing. Again, grab a blanket, go outside at night in a dark area, and just look up at the marvelous show above you. Appreciate how many stars there are, and remember that even if there is another planet out there somewhere with sentient beings they don’t care if you made an error, struck out, or hit a home run during the championship game this season.
  13. Have a campfire – or go camping. Building on #12, instead of going out for an hour get back to nature and either build a fire in the backyard (with parental supervision if required) or grab a tent and go to an actual campground and hang out in nature. There is something magical about staring at a real fire, especially outdoors (versus in a fireplace).
  14. Learn something entirely new that has nothing to do with softball. Play a musical instrument. Ask someone to teach you how to sew/knit/crochet. Take a course on computer programming. Try another sport like golf or tennis. Start collecting stamps or coins or something else that interests you. A good diversion will not only be good for now, but could also help you decompress once you get back to playing and practicing.
  15. Take a trip to somewhere new. It’s a big, wide world out there full of interesting people and places. Go somewhere where the goal is to experience the location instead of running from the hotel to the ballfield and back again.

These are just a few ideas. I’m sure you can come up with more if you give it some thought.

The key is to get away completely so you can rest, recover, put the last season behind you, and get ready to get back at it with even greater enthusiasm. Remember that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Take a little time off of softball and you’ll probably find your love for it has grown even more while you’ve been away.

Photo by Mateusz Dach on Pexels.com

The Case for Posting New High Pitch Speeds

You’ve probably seen the same Facebook posts I see: Internet pitching experts (I suppose taking a break from their other career of Internet virology or economics experts) complaining about coaches and parents posting when their pitcher daughter hits a new high speed.

They go into a whole rant about how pitching speed isn’t important, it’s more important to locate the pitch and spin it, blah blah blah. It reminds me of this clip from the Jim Carrey movie Liar, Liar:

I get their point to a point, though. Often times coaches become obsessed with raw speed to the point where they ignore other factors.

While it’s true that a pitcher who can overpower hitters with speed can rack up more Ks, that’s not the only way to get hitters out. I personally love a pitcher who can consistently close out an inning in 6-10 pitches – especially on a super hot, muggy day.

Let’s get the team off the hot plate infield as quickly as possible and into where the pop-up tents and sports drinks are.

So then why get so excited about new pitch speeds? It’s simple – it’s a way of measuring how well the pitcher is progressing toward locking down her mechanics.

The key is that these measurements should not be used to rank one pitcher over another. The value, at least the way I use them, is in ranking the pitcher relative to herself.

I have a Pocket Radar set up with a SmartDisplay at every lesson. The pitcher can see the speed results of every pitch. So can her catcher if he/she turns to look.

I call it my accountability meter. If the pitcher is slacking off from where her speed usually is I can see it right away and can “suggest” she put more effort in.

At the same time, it also clues me in to the fact that this pitcher just may not have it today.

Perhaps she just came from a two-hour basketball practice full of conditioning drills. Her legs are dead and she’s just not capable of generating max speed. So maybe we work on spins, or focus on her release point, or do other things that don’t rely on her legs.

Or maybe she’s starting to get sick, or nursing an injury. Whatever the issue is, the radar provides a quick clue that something isn’t quite optimal.

The important point is that we are measuring that pitcher relative to herself, not her teammates or some other random pitcher on the Internet. And I post the speeds to celebrate the individual’s achievement, whatever that may be.

If it was purely about speed, or promoting the pitching coach, those coaches would only post the new highs of their kids throwing 60+. I’ve certainly seen that.

But for me, I’m just as excited for the high school pitcher who came to me throwing 43 and is now throwing 48 as I am for the 60+ girls. Maybe even moreso.

You see, it takes a certain combination of factors (including genetics) to throw at higher velocities. Those who are athletically gifted can reach that level much more easily than those who are not.

But for some pitchers, especially those who are smaller and lighter, increasing their speed at all may take a lot more work than it does for the athletically gifted. So while in the pantheon of pitching prowess 48 may not sound like much, for that particular pitch it’s a huge deal, the culmination of a whole lot of effort and practice.

Achievements like that deserve to be celebrated.

Hooray!

Having a way of measuring progress, and celebrating it through social media, also provides some great incentive to those pitchers. Especially after they’ve been through it a couple of times.

They see the radar there. They want their picture taken and posted, and they want to be able to say they throw X, which is faster than they have before.

So I don’t have to do much to motivate them to work. They go for it themselves. And once they’ve hit it they work even harder to make it their baseline so they can move on to the next speed goal.

All of which helps them grow into the pitchers they’re meant to be.

Does that mean we focus on speed exclusively? Of course not!

Spot and spin are still incredibly important, as is the ability to throw a changeup that looks like it will be that fast while taking 12-15 mph off of the result. That’s pitching instead of just throwing.

But the name of the game is FASTpitch softball. Which to me means every pitcher should be doing all she can to wring every ounce of speed she can out of her body, because all those elements work better if you start from a higher baseline.

I tell my students we have four words to live by: faster is always better. That doesn’t just mean the speed of the pitch but also the approach taken to delivering it.

If you move faster your body will create and transfer more energy. That’s science (force=mass x acceleration). It will also disguise your changeup better.

So let the naysayers complain. In my mind, measuring the speed of every pitch helps keep pitchers focused and on upward trajectory.

Not so their parents or coaches can get bragging rights. But so they become the pitchers they’re meant to be.

Applying Deep Practice to Overcome Stumbling Blocks

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Anyone who has read the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle has heard of the concept of “deep practice.” You may have blown right by it but you’ve heard of it.

Part of the key to deep practice is repeating movements over and over in ultra-slow motion. As I recall Coyle says movements should be so slow that someone passing by casually can’t tell what you’re trying to do.

This week I had a chance to test this idea out on several pitching students to see how much it would help. The short version (and spoiler alert): quite a bit.

Each of these students, whose ages varied from 10 to 16, was having trouble throwing her changeup. Specifically they were all having trouble getting their hand into the proper position at the right time to make it work.

When it happened the first time I remembered The Talent Code and told the pitcher to work through how to get her hand turned the right way at the right time going ultra-slowly. After about a dozen reps at that speed I told her to go back to the pitching rubber and throw it.

The pitch was spot-on. Not just once but every time she threw it.

Pretty much how we reacted.

Hmmm, I thought, that worked pretty well. But of course “one” is not a valid sample.

So, the next student who had trouble with her change was advised to do the same. And we got the same results!

As I recall I did this with half a dozen students and it worked every time. Not just a little bit but to the point where if the pitcher threw that pitch in a game it most likely would have resulted in either a swing and miss or a hitter frozen mid-swing.

Of course, six isn’t really a valid sample either so I plan to continue the experiment with students who are having trouble with the mechanics of any pitch. I fully expect I will get similar results regardless of the pitch.

I hesitate to say it’s a magic bullet. But so far, it’s about as close as I’ve found.

This has nothing to do with the story but I found it amusing.

The good news is this technique isn’t just for pitchers. It can be applied to any skill where an athlete knows what to do at some level but isn’t quite able to do it.

Have a hitter who is having trouble keeping the bat head up until she turns the corner and then turning the bat over? Have her do it properly, very, very slowly, over and over.

Have a fielder who keeps dropping her elbow instead of getting into a good throwing position? Have her work on the proper technique, very, very slowly, over and over.

Have a catcher who is sitting back on her heels when she blocks instead of getting her shoulders out in front of her knees? Have shortstop who is having trouble transferring the ball for a double play? You get the idea.

Just one caution. I’m fairly certain the benefits we achieved so far were temporary. That’s why I’ve told the girls who did it to keep practicing that way, 20-50 times per day.

The beauty is they don’t need a field, or a ball, or a tee, or a catcher, or anything else. Just enough space to work on the proper movement patterns until they’re locked in – however long it takes.

If you have a player who is struggling to do something, especially something she’s shown she can do before, give the ultra-slow movement approach a try. And if you do, let us all know how it works out in the comments below!

This Softball Tryout Process Has Gotten Out of Hand

So there I was a couple of weeks ago (early June 2022), scrolling through Facebook mindlessly (as if there is another way), when suddenly I saw it: a notification about upcoming tryouts for the 2023 travel season.

“What the what?” I thought. The high school season hasn’t even ended for everyone here in Illinois, they’re still playing the Womens College World Series, and we are just starting to get into the heart of tournament season for most teams.

How in the name of Jessica Mendoza can teams be advertising for 2023 already?

But that’s what it has come to now. In the arms race to capture every potential recruit before anyone else can get their grubby mitts on them teams are now looking to replace their current players, or programs are looking to add more teams to their rosters, before they’ve even gotten a chance to see what their current teams/players can do.

I’m sorry, but this is insanity people.

This guy knows.

When did players and teams become so disposable that the actual season you’re in doesn’t matter? What’s next? Are we going to start seeing ads for 2025 tryouts in December 2022?

I thought the point of all of this was to play the games. In order to play the games you need to focus on the here and now.

“Take it one game at a time” we always tell our players. But what message does advertising tryouts for NEXT season at the beginning of THIS season send?

Here’s an idea. Let’s focus on winning the current inning, the current game, the current tournament, etc.

Of course, that sounds like a pretty old-fashioned approach these days. Because it seems like the goal isn’t to win anymore; it’s to land the most players in college, even if they have no idea how to compete once they get there. That’s the college coaches’ problem.

Here’s an idea. Rather than continuously pushing up the tryout/player recruitment process, why not focus on the season you’re in right now?

What a concept, eh?

Instead of thinking up enticements to draw new (and presumably better) players, why not think about how to help your current players become better?

Focus on ways to help them become better as individuals and as a group. Look for ways to build their self confidence.

Teach them the game. Not just the basic stuff they need to know, such as which field is right field or when the dropped third strike rule is in effect, but how to read a hitter’s swing from the outfield or when to take the extra base on a line drive to right.

Most of all, treat your current players like human beings instead of chess pieces for your own glory. Understand as best you can what they’re going through as individuals, especially in the most vulnerable teen years where today’s game or practice has the potential to be the best part of their days.

Do all of that and they will not only run through a wall for you, they’ll want to keep coming back and doing it, year after year. Then you won’t have to advertise for next year at the beginning of this year.

You can’t do all of that, however, if your eyes are always focused on the future.

Let’s live for today, as the Grassroots would say.

Your daily dose of awesomeness.

Can we all make a pact that next year’s ads don’t start appearing until the current season for your team, whatever that is, is three-quarters over? I don’t think that’s unreasonable. If everyone agrees no one will feel the pressure to jump the gun so they don’t end up with the leftovers.

Give your kids the chance to enjoy their softball experience today instead of worrying about where they’re going to play next year. The entire sport will be better for it.

WCWS Demonstrates the Value of Great Outfield Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations, Impressions, and Takeaways from the WCWS

Last week I had the opportunity to fulfill just about every fastpitch softball fanatic’s dream – attending the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in person. I was there to attend the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s (NFCA) course 408 World Series Coach and Game Observation for its National Fastpitch Coaches College Master Coach program. (More on that on another day.)

As the name implies, the course consists of watching some games in-person in Oklahoma City, interspersed with classroom sessions that discuss the strategies in those and upcoming games along with the state of the game. In my class they also brought in coaches from four of the eight teams participating – Kirk Walker (UCLA), Mike White (and his staff, Texas), Kenny Gajewski (Oklahoma State), and Kate Drohan (Northwestern) – who talked about the previous day’s games and what they were expecting in their next games.

Pretty cool right? We also got a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium, a look at the massive tent city that is the heart of ESPN’s coverage, and a chance to see the practice fields just behind the stadium. Plus the opportunity to actually walk on the field (including the dugouts) and sit behind the microphones in the media interview room.

I will take your questions now.

By the way if all that sounds awesome you too can take advantage of it – if you are an NFCA member. And if you do decide to sign up, please list me as a referral!

Of course, once a coach always a coach. So after hanging out with our instructors (Carol Bruggeman, executive director of the NFCA and Larissa Anderson, head coach at Mizzou) along with 30+ knowledgeable classmates (including Hall of Famer and all-time great Dr. Dot Richardson, now head coach at Liberty University) I did come away with a number of thoughts about the games and the state of fastpitch softball in general.

So without further preamble, and in no particular order, here are a few thoughts worth sharing.

Even the Best Players Make Errors

I’ve said this on Facebook clips but it bears repeating: all of you youth coaches out there berating your players for mishandling a ground ball, dropping a fly ball, making a bad throw, or making some other type of error need to stop. In the two days (six games total) I was there I saw players at the highest level of the game do the same things.

Errors happen. If you want to use them as teachable moments there’s nothing wrong with that. But to just yell at a player for being “stupid,” or yank her out of the game in the middle of an inning after a single miscue isn’t being tough or demanding. It’s being shortsighted and possibly ego-driven.

The coaches at this level know that if players are always worried about the consequences of making a mistake they will never stretch themselves to become the players they can be. Instead they’ll play it safe and miss opportunities or the chance to develop skills that could win you games.

Errors happen. Help your players learn from them and get better.

Spinning Pitches Properly Is Becoming a Lost Art

The mantra of pitching coaches everywhere is “spin, spot, speed.” In other words, you need to spin movement pitches correctly to get them to move, throw them to the right location, and throw them very hard to be successful.

While the latter two seem to still be in effect, the spin component is a growing problem. There is no doubt that the faster a pitch approaches a hitter, the harder it is to hit.

But it seems that in the quest for more speed many in the game (including collegiate pitching coaches) have abandoned any concern about whether drop balls, curve balls, rise balls, etc. are spinning in the right direction. The ball used by the NCAA makes this abundantly clear.

How many times did you see a slow motion replay from the catcher’s point of view and see the black dot of the NCAA logo coming straight at you while the ball revolved around it? Probably hundreds.

No matter what the announcers are calling it on TV, the pitches that look like that have “bullet” spin. Bullets spin that way so they DON’T move off their targets.

The result is that pitches that spin that way aren’t curving or dropping or rising. They’re traveling on a straight line to the catcher.

Think about it a little more. How could three or four pitches (we’ll throw the “screwball” in there too) with the same spin move in different directions?

The short answer is they can’t. The laws of physics don’t allow it.

Every ball that ends up higher than it started isn’t a rise ball. Every ball that ends up further to the left or right isn’t a curve or a screw.

But until pitching coaches at all levels start holding pitchers accountable we’re probably going to see offensive numbers, including home runs, increase steadily. Because as tough as speed can be to hit (more for some than others), true movement makes it exponentially more difficult.

There Are Haves and Have-Nots

Yes, even at that level there are definite haves and have-nots. Obviously Oklahoma falls into the “haves” category.

As I watched them up close and personal I was amazed at what I saw. Head Coach Patty Gasso’s statement that they want to be amazing at every part of the game definitely was on display. A few of the other teams were pretty close behind.

But there were also other teams that, as in tournaments everywhere in every sport, had done all they could do to get there but just weren’t going to be able to match up to the best of the best.

That doesn’t mean they were bad by any means. But at the end of the day there was simply a quality difference up and down the lineup.

Keep that in mind the next time your team finds itself in over its head at a tournament. Sometimes you just have to be happy you made it that far and not worry about the outcomes.

Aggressive Hitters Do Better Than Careful Ones

This one may seem obvious, but apparently it’s not. Because as I sat in the stands it became quite apparent which teams were reactive and just trying to put the ball in play somehow versus those who went to the plate looking to do serious damage.

I’m not just talking about individuals, although there was certainly some of that. I’m talking more about team philosophies.

Arizona is a good example here. While Oklahoma might be the obvious illustrator of this principle to me Arizona is a better choice precisely because they didn’t make it to the championship game. They didn’t have the horses Oklahoma did, but they made up for it by taking a “no prisoners” approach at the plate.

Going after pitches with that mindset helped keep them in games far more than teams that were tentative. Go in with the intent of hitting the ball hard and there’s a great likelihood you will. Then you’ve at least given yourself a chance to win.

You Can’t Ride One Arm Anymore

The days of a Jennie Finch or a Cat Osterman or a Monica Abbott pitching every inning of every game are long gone. These days it takes a pitching staff to make it through a long season.

The same is true at the youth level. Yes, you can probably win more games in high school or travel ball riding one pitcher until her arm falls off.

But with the quality of hitters these days sooner or later that will catch up to you. Coaches need to be sure all their pitchers are ready to step up when needed or they’re likely to find themselves in trouble when it matters most.

Again, look at Oklahoma. When freshman sensation Jordy Bahl got injured it didn’t derail their season. They just went to Hope Trautwein and Nicole May and won a national championship.

Or look at Texas. When their starter struggled in the first inning of the first game of the championship series they didn’t hesitate to go to the bullpen. In fact, they did it a couple of times until they got out of the inning.

Coaches, you are never more than one turned ankle or injured forearm from losing your entire season if you rely on only one pitcher. Develop your staff and you’ll go farther in the long run.

College Teams Keep (and Use) a Lot of Stats

Not too long ago one of my students told me her team coach wasn’t moving her up in the lineup, even though she had the second-best slash line on the team, because she “doesn’t believe in stats.”

First of all, stats are a statement of fact, not ghosts. There’s nothing to “believe” in, they’re right there for everyone to see.

More importantly, though, from what I saw at the games and heard from the top coaches as well as many classmates, stats are the lifeblood of the modern game.

Colleges large and small chart everything. They want to know what pitch a particular pitcher throws in a given situation to a type of hitter. They want to know where hitters are likely to hit based on the pitcher so they can position their fielders.

They want to know if a coach likes to steal bases and on what count. I think they like to know what the opposing team has for breakfast on days when they win.

The more information they have the better decisions they can make, especially when it counts. While you may not have the resources to do all that charting (or to buy data from a service) you can certainly get an idea of who is performing on your team and on your opponents’ teams by checking stats on GameChanger or a similar app.

That way you don’t have to rely on instinct. You can take a more scientific, fact-based approach that will lead to better outcomes for the team.

Anyone (Almost) Can Beat Anyone

Texas came into the NCAA tournament unseeded. They beat a lot of much higher-seeded teams to get to the championship series.

Don’t let an opponent’s reputation or past record intimidate you. Go out and play the game.

There Are a Lot of Great, Dedicated Coaches Out There

We always hear about the obnoxious ones, the ego-driven coaches who scream at their players and throw tantrums and play sick mind games with them. I guess that’s what’s considered newsworthy.

But after spending a couple of days with 30+ coaches at various levels I can tell you there are a lot of great ones who are in it for the right reasons. My classmates in this course were great to talk to, and many of them appreciated having other softball nerds to talk with about the game (because their families and friends just roll their eyes when they start discussing whether it’s an opportune time to lay down a drag bunt).

The point here is do you research and don’t just settle for whoever is closest. Find the right coaches – head and assistants – and you’ll have a much better fastpitch softball experience.

That’s it for now. If I think of more I’ll share them in a subsequent post. And if you have any questions about the WCWS or the Master Coach program or anything else related to this topic be sure to put them in the comments below and I will answer them as best I can.

The Umpire Dilemma

I don’t think too many people would disagree that we have an umpire dilemma in fastpitch softball. Actually it applies to officials in all sports but since this is a fastpitch softball blog we will stick to umpires. Those of you who see it in other sports can make your own translations.

Now, for the some the umpire dilemma comes down to one thought: Umpires these days suck. But the reality is that mindset is a big part of the problem we are facing today.

Being an umpire is an incredibly difficult job. Plate umpires in particular have to make hundreds of decisions each game, and often half the people in attendance thinks most of them are wrong.

How did I come to hundreds? Well, figure if each pitcher throws 100 pitches in a game that’s roughly 200 right there. Add in force outs at bases, tag plays, interference or obstruction calls, runners tagging up, infield fly rule, illegal pitches, runners leaving early, fair/foul calls, etc. and you get a large number.

Complicating all of that is sometimes these plays are happening simultaneously, such as ball/strike and runners leaving early. Kind of difficult to see both, especially at the upper levels where things happen very quickly.

They have to get each one of these calls right too or they’ll likely find themselves featured on one of the many Facebook or other Internet groups dedicated to fastpitch softball. In tournaments, umpires may work seven or more games in a day, Which means they could be making, say, 250 decision x 7 games, for a total of 1,750 decisions in a single day.

It’s statistically unlikely that they will get every single one of them correct, no matter how hard they try. Perhaps some day we will have impartial robots to make all of those decisions. But I’ll bet even then there will be parents who think they’ve been programmed to cheat their teams out of a win.

Sometimes umpire do this without a break, and often in oppressive heat and humidity while being on their feet ALL DAY. My back hurts just thinking about it.

They also have to know all the nuances of an arcane and ever-changing rulebook from memory. It’s easy to know the stuff that happens all the time.

But when it comes to the things that rarely happen it can be more challenging. Of course, there will always be some “helpful” parent more than willing to correct them from the sidelines if they get it wrong.

The real issue, however, is that being called out on the Internet is the least of their worries these days. This female umpire in Mississippi was one of the latest to find that out.

The verbal abuse umpires often take is bad enough, especially in a world where a lot of people seem to have lost their ability to filter their thoughts and think every one must be shared with the world. But when did people start thinking physical assault was an appropriate response to little Sally getting rung up on a bang-bang tag play?

What all of this has led to is a shortage of umpires as older ones retire and younger people pass on the idea like my wife seeing mushrooms on a pizza. They may love the sport and want to help, but a small dose of crazy parents convinces them to find something less stressful or dangerous to do with their spare time, like bungee jumping or extreme sports.

In an ideal world, every game would have a minimum of two umpires. One behind the plate, and one in the field.

Two umpires allow them to work as a team to get closer to calls on the field, to get a second opinion on a checked swing, to have one watch balls and strikes while the other watches for illegal pitches and runners leaving early, or to consult with their partner if they’re not sure about a call or rule.

But in today’s world having two or more umpires at high school, travel or rec league games is becoming increasingly difficult. In fact, it’s becoming more difficult to get one umpire to all the games that need to be covered, leading to more widespread cancelations as these Google search results show.

So here’s the dilemma. Given everything said above, how do you get more people to raise their hands to become umpires to not only backfill the current shortage but also enable the sport to continue to grow?

One obvious answer is for all those parents, coaches, and other spectators on the sideline who think they know so much to take some classes, become certified, and strap on some shin guards, chest protectors and masks and do the job themselves.

Riiiight. That’s gonna happen.

The real solution is for the people on the sidelines to start acting like decent human beings and show some respect to the officials who are giving up their weeknights and weekends for very low pay so the kids can play. I know it sounds simplistic but it really is the key, especially for drawing former players into the ranks.

Many will try it but leave because of the verbal abuse and sometimes threats of violence. It’s not worth it to them to listen to the constant insults and jawjacking or take the chance on getting clocked in the parking lot.

Cut all of that out and you not only attract more young people – you keep them, reducing the number you need to attract in the future.

None of this requires legislation or any grand gestures either. It starts with each individual.

If you just worry about you, and maybe your significant other if he/she has no filter and/or anger management issues, you can make a difference. As more people adopt this attitude the epidemic of umpire abuse will subside and you’ll not only attract more candidates – you’ll get better, smarter ones.

You know the old quote “Be the change you want to see in the world”? That’s what we’re talking about here. (And no, Gandhi never actually said that, although he said something close.)

The point is you can help turn the tide. Be kind. The only good reason to chase down an umpire after the game is to thank him or her for taking on this normally thankless job – even if you didn’t like the way they did it.

When I was coaching teams, we would have every player say thank you to the umpires after the game, even if we didn’t think much of that umpire. We did it as a sign of respect not only to that person but to the position and to the game.

Give this idea a try. You may find it makes the games a lot more enjoyable for you and everyone around you.

This post has been updated to correct that the female umpire was from Mississippi, not Missouri as previously stated.

6 Reasons to Watch the NCAA D1 Softball Tournament

We are coming up to the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics: the NCAA D1 Women’s Softball tournament. Over the next couple of weeks 64 of (presumably) the best college softball teams in the country will be going head-to-head to see which will ultimately make it into the Elite 8 and the Women’s College World Series WCWS).

Fortunately for those of us who love it, these games will be all over ESPN. Not because ESPN has any particular love or feels any particular sense of responsibility to the sport, but because over the last few years it has been a rating juggernaut.

In fact, last year alone it drew more than 1.2 million viewers, which is 60% more than the Men’s Baseball College World Series. It draws the eyeballs, which draws the sponsors, which ensures you’ll see it.

Yet as popular as it is, if you ask the average youth or even high school player if she plans to watch any of the games, she will probably turn her head and stare at you the way a dog does when you ask it if it knows what it just did. That’s her way of saying no.

In fact, I have found over the years that most players don’t have a favorite team, or a favorite player, or can even name a college or pro player. That’s because it never occurs to them to watch the games. And if they do watch because a parent makes them, they don’t really pay attention or get invested in it.

That’s a shame, because there is much that younger players can learn by watching these elite athletes perform in the biggest showcase fastpitch softball has. (Yes, you can argue that the Olympics and other international tournaments offer a higher level of play but there’s no guarantee softball will be in the Olympics again – and just try finding international tournaments if you don’t have more than a basic cable or satellite subscription.)

So with that in mind, here are some of the reasons why you either want to watch the games with your favorite player or team live, or DVR them and watch them later. Even if you feel you have to turn off the sound on some of them.

1. See the Speed of the Game

This is probably one of the biggest eye-openers, especially for players in the 10-14 year age range. The game happens fast.

Players who are used to taking their time gathering a ground ball and making a throw to first, or jogging after a pop fly, will see how quickly plays develop – and are over. With slappers in particular, one little bobble by an infielder (no matter how minor it seems) gives the hitter just enough time to reach base safely.

Seeing the sense of urgency in every play can help individuals and teams learn to play at a higher level.

2. Watch How Top Players Execute Their Skills

It’s often said that when you’re looking at what techniques or mechanics to use for pitching, fielding, throwing, hitting, etc. that we should look at how the best players in the world do it. While the players on TV may not all be the “best” players they’re still pretty darned good at what they do so they make fine examples to study.

Here’s where DVRing the games comes in particularly handy. If a player hits a home run, you can go back and look at her swing from the multiple angles they show. Sooner or later you’ll get to see how a top pitcher throws her riseball – assuming it’s an actual rise and not a gyro spinning high fastball.

You can also use it for quantitative analysis, such as looking at how many pitchers use the “hello elbow” technique versus how many are using internal rotation. You can compare how many hitters “squish the bug” on their back leg versus shift their weight forward and get completely off the leg.

You can watch how infielders throw on a bang-bang play, how they make tags on steals, how they position themselves in bunt situations. You can watch how outfielders go back on a ball and how they scoop and throw home in a do-or-die situation. You can watch how many catchers throw from their knees versus their feet, and the specific techniques they use.

It’s a virtual cornucopia of skills on display, all delivered free to your living room.

3. See How Player Recover from Mistakes

One of the biggest challenges youth players face is learning how to recover from their mistakes, e.g., committing errors, striking out (particularly with runners on base), giving up leadoff walks, etc. As a general rule girls take “failure” rather hard, to the point where fear of failure can prevent them from performing at their highest level.

Well ya know what? Those players on TV do all those things too.

Although you probably don’t want to make this highlight reel.

I remember the great Cindy Bristow telling a room full of coaches at a clinic that “My girls make the same mistakes your girls do. They just do it faster.”

So having your player(s) see one of the best in the game bobble a ball, strikeout, throw a wild pitch with a runner on third, or make some other mistake at the least will show her she’s in good company. (It will also show coaches and parents why they need to have realistic expectations for their 10 year olds.)

But the most important lesson for the player will be what happens next. Instead of brooding about it, the player in the WCWS will move on and keep playing. Sure, she may beat herself up over it later, especially if her team loses, but in the moment she pushes it down because she knows she needs to be ready for the next opportunity.

That is not necessarily a natural skill for most humans. But it’s one that can be learned of you make the effort.

4. Hear Some Inspirational Stories

Softball is absolutely a game of failure and adversity. And for some the journey is more challenging than others.

It’s easy to assume that everyone you see was a star from the beginning who was recognized for their talent and treated like royalty their whole career. But that isn’t always the case.

Fortunately, ESPN does a great job of profiling players and where they came from to tell fascinating human interest stories. Such as last year when Odicci Alexander captured the nation’s hearts with her story of being self-taught before leading her James Madison University team to the WCWS.

There are always stories players can relate to. Some talk about overcoming challenging injuries, including some that were supposed to be career-ending.

Some relate to issues such as being cut from a travel team or not making varsity and having to work even harder to elevate their games. Some involve personal tragedies.

Whatever the story, it shows that obstacles are only temporary – if you have the will to overcome them.

5. Bond With Your Player(s)

Remember the great James Earl Jones speech in “Field of Dreams” about how America marched along like an army of steamrollers, but through it all there was baseball? The shared experience of watching a sport played at its highest level can really help parents bond with their children and coaches bond with their players.

To make that happen, of course, you can’t make watching the games like school. Or at least totally like school.

Sure, you can go over plays and evaluate the coverages and executions. But you can also simply appreciate an amazing diving catch or the inner struggle on both sides of a 12-pitch at-bat.

You can laugh about that riseball that gets launched into the stands or the runner who evades the catcher with a well-timed dive or jump on a play at the plate.

But of course the best part will be spending time with those players sharing something you mutually love.

6. Follow the Benjamins

In the beginning of this post I mentioned that ESPN broadcasts every game of the tournament not because they love softball or softball players so much but because it makes them money. Lots of money.

Well, the downside of that is if the audience dries up so does the coverage. So if you want to keep seeing games on TV, even occasionally, one of the best things you can do is watch them now.

Keep those ratings growing and it will encourage even more coverage. Otherwise you’ll be singing this sad song.

A little something for all you glam metal fans.

The Plusses and Minuses of Measurables

First of all, before we get into today’s topic I want to share something I’ve found with others who rely on devices such as the Pocket Radar Smart Coach to take continuous readings. I imagine it also applies to those streaming games on GameChanger, SidelineHD and other technologies that rely on outside power, although I haven’t tested them personally.

The thing I’ve discovered is the value of a heavy duty power block when you can’t access AC power. I’ve been using my Smart Coach with battery power for a couple of years now, and I’ve always relied on the small promotional power blocks you get as a giveaway at trade shows and such.

If you are careful you can get about four hours out of them before a charge is needed, so I’d always have three or four available. The problem was they could go out in the middle of a lesson or game, which meant taking time to change one out for another.

A few months ago I bought an Anker PowerCore III to use with my Smart Coach during lessons. Wow, what a difference!

One of these thingies.

Now instead of maybe getting one night out of the power block by turning it off when I wasn’t teaching pitching I can leave it on for four or five hours at a time with no worries. In fact, this week I did an entire week’s worth of lessons, 4-5 hours per day/night, on a single charge.

That is way easier than having to shuffle units and recharge them every day. So if you’re like I was and being cheap, don’t be. It’s well worth the $50 to get what seems like endless power for your devices. Now on with today’s topic.

You see it all over Facebook, Instagram, and other social media: photos of happy pitchers, catchers, hitters, etc. proudly showing off their latest numbers on a radar gun or other device. I myself post them all the time when a student achieves a new measurable.

While I obviously believe measuring progress with numbers is a good thing, there are also some downsides or “gotchas” that can also crop up in all the excitement. So here’s a look at some of the plusses and minuses of measurables.

The Plusses

These days when I do lessons the Smart Coach is always going, capturing the speed of every pitch and showing it on the Pocket Radar Smart Display in big red numbers. (No, it’s not a paid endorsement, just the facts of what I use.)

I call it my accountability meter. In the midst of a long lesson, especially on a hot day or after a long day at school, it’s easy for fastpitch softball players to want to take a few pitches, hits, throws, etc. off.

When you’re just eyeballing it they can get away with it. But when the numbers are showing up every time, it’s much more difficult.

Players have to put the effort in EVERY time or it becomes pretty obvious.

Beyond that, having numbers on every repetition helps show whether changes we are making are working. For example, if a pitcher is working on improving her whip without using her legs, having a radar going helps determine whether changes are being made at the fundamental level or whether they’re merely cosmetic.

(As a side note, it’s amazing how close to a pitcher’s full speed she can get by taking the legs out and just focusing on arm whip and a quick pronation at release. But that’s a topic for another day.)

The same is true of overhand throws. I have a couple of 11U catchers in particular (hello Lia and Amelie) who love to throw against the radar to see how hard they’re throwing. It’s no coincidence they are also throwing out baserunners on steals while many of their peers struggle to just get the ball to the base.

Using a radar, a BlastMotion sensor, 4D Motion sensors and other devices helps take the guesswork out of what’s happening with a player. They give you a solid foundation to use in deciding how to move forward and let you see whether you’re making the kind of progress you want to make.

If not, you know you have to do something else to drive improvement. In many cases they help you see “under the hood” in a way that even video can’t.

And on an intangible level, they encourage players to keep working so they can earn the recognition (as well as the occasional Starbucks gift card) that comes with accomplishing a goal.

There’s an old saying that goes “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.” Having measurables gives players a destination that keeps them focused so they can become all they can be.

The Minuses

Again, while I am a fan of measurables (and the use of a radar unit in particular), I recognize there are also some minuses to the practice.

Probably the biggest of which is when players (or parents) use the figures to compare themselves to others, good and bad.

For example, for some parents, no matter how far their daughter has come in the past few weeks/months/years, if someone else’s kid’s numbers are better then their own player’s numbers are not enough. Everyone wants to be #1 after all.

Yet that’s a poor use of numbers – especially if they are coming from different sources. There are ways to “juice” the numbers on a radar gun, or to screw them up and take them lower than they actually are, so Millie’s 55 may be as good as Sasha’s 58 if the two of them were to throw to the same radar unit.

There’s also the chance that players (and coaches and parents) can get so caught up in the race for speed or estimated distance on a hit or another parameter that they forget about all the wild pitches or swings and misses that occurred between readings.

The reality is there is more to athletic performance than the raw numbers. Pitchers have to be able to hit their spots and spin the ball properly if they’re going to be effective at higher levels.

Hitters have to not only hit like studs in the cage but also on-demand when they’re facing a real pitcher. After all, you only get one shot when you hit the ball fair, so being able to smoke 250′ bombs in-between a bunch of weak ground balls and popups probably won’t be that effective on the field. You’ll never get the chance for the bombs.

Being able to achieve a 70 mph overhand throw doesn’t mean much if you can’t hit your target. It just means it gets to the parking lot faster – and rolls a lot farther away.

In other words, measurables are just one of many tools that can be used to evaluate the quality of a player. But since they’re easier to understand and compare they’re often misused or abused.

It’s like the football linebacker with 5% body fat and a physic like an Adonis. He may look good getting off the bus, but if he can’t tackle he’s not going to be around very long.

The other big minus is not recognizing there are certain biological reasons why one player can throw or hit harder, or run faster, than others. Insisting every player must hit certain numbers, especially at younger ages, doesn’t take into account that some may simply not be physically developed enough yet to keep up with the others.

Doesn’t mean they can’t get there eventually. But right now, they may be giving all they have to get to where they are.

Final Word

The one thing scientists haven’t figured out how to measure yet is a player’s softball IQ. While Player A may look like a stud for how hard she can throw, she may not be as valuable as Player B who knows WHERE to throw the ball in various situations.

And since throwing a runner out by one step counts the same as throwing her out by six steps, coaches may want to set the numbers aside in favor of the smarter player.

The bottom line is measurables are great for charting a player’s progress against herself and her own goals. They help see whether improvements are being made or whether a change of course may be necessary.

At the same time, however, they can also be misused, either in making player decisions or by parents trying to claim bragging rights for the sake of their own egos. Especially when the quality of the measurements can’t be confirmed.

My recommendation is to understand what you’re looking at and how to use it, and take them with a grain of salt rather than using them as absolutes. The more parents and coaches do that, the more value they’ll find in the measurables.

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