10U Coaches: You Have One Job – Player Development

Last night I was speaking with one of my 10U pitching students during her lesson. I knew from GameChanger (and a text with her mom) that she had pitched two innings the previous weekend, facing six batters and striking them all out. Not a bad performance overall.

I asked what pitches she threw. She said one drop and the rest fastballs. “What about your changeup?” I asked.

“My coach doesn’t want me to throw changeups,” she replied. “He says he only wants strikes.”

My blood immediately started to boil as I’m sure you can imagine. Statements like that, in my opinion, demonstrate world-class ignorance, both about pitching generally and the mission of a 10U coach.

For those who don’t quite get this, I will type it slowly. As a 10U coach your primary job is not to rack up a great win-loss record.

YOUR JOB IS TO DEVELOP YOUR PLAYERS. Period, hard stop.

If that means you give up a few walks, or a few runs, while your pitchers gain experience throwing more than a basic fastball, so be it. In the long term you will benefit, because as hitters get older pitchers can’t just blow the ball by them anymore and need to have other pitches available to them if they’re going to get outs.

If that means you have a few more strikeouts at the plate because your hitters are swinging the bat instead of just standing there waiting for walks, so be it. Instructing your players to wait for walks so you can score more runs benefits no one.

Because if they don’t learn to be aggressive and go after pitches when they’re young they’re very likely to stand there and watch strike after strike go by when the pitching gets better. And then where are you?

If that means you don’t throw out as many runners stealing bases because you’re having your catchers throw before the fielder reaches the base, or you’re teaching your infielders to cover the base instead of having your outfielders do it, so be it. Down the road you won’t be able to play your outfield that close to the infield so somebody better know how to get over there. And get over there on time to get a runner out.

The same goes for trying to get the lead runner on defense instead of making the “safe” play to first – or worse just trying to rush the ball back to the pitcher. If a few more runners advance and eventually right now, so be it.

As your players get older and stronger and presumably more capable they will be able to make those plays – and will have the confidence to attempt them.

I get it. We all like to win. As they say in Bull Durham, winning is more fun than losing.

But again, at 10U (and even at 12U or 14U to a large extent) your focus should be on developing your players and teaching them to love the game rather than massaging your own ego. You should be playing teams of comparable quality and should be teaching your players to play the game the right way.

You shouldn’t hold them back or prevent them from trying new things they’ve been working on. Instead you should be encouraging them to grow, and giving them the opportunity to gain higher-level experience rather than simply playing it safe.

Does that mean go crazy with it? Of course not.

If a pitcher tries a particular pitch and doesn’t have it that day then yes, stop throwing it that day. But don’t not throw it at all because it might not work.

If a girl has been working at pitching and wants an opportunity to pitch in a game put her in. She may just surprise you.

But even if she struggles she will either learn what to work on to get better or she’ll decide it’s not for her. Which is a win either way.

If your hitters are swinging at balls over their heads or balls in the dirt, call them together and give them a narrower range to go after. But don’t take the bats out of their hands completely, just in case that wild pitcher manages to throw a few strikes.

So how do you strike that balance? Here’s an approach for that pitcher who wants to try a new pitch.

Pick a safe count like 1-1 and have her throw it. Even if she chucks it over the backstop the count is only 2-1. And since she’s already demonstrated an ability to strike out the side anyway you know she’ll come back.

But what if she throws it for a strike (which in this case we all know she probably will)? Now the count is 1-2 and she’s gained more experience throwing it in a game.

That experience will come in handy down the road when she faces a team that can hit her heat and thus needs to knock them off-balance. Hitting is about timing, and pitching is about upsetting that timing. Plain and simple.

If that isn’t enough incentive, here’s something to consider. Coaches who hold back players who are driven enough to want to throw changeups or swing the bat or make advanced fielding plays don’t keep those players for very long.

Instead, those players seek out teams where they can grow and learn and be encouraged to expand their skillset instead of being put into a tight little box so their coaches can win more meaningless games. And in the big picture, ALL 10U games are meaningless.

Every coach and every program likes to proclaim that they are “in it for the girls.” But talk is cheap.

If you’re really in it for the girls, give them the space to grow and improve – even if it costs you a few wins today. Your players, and your team, will be much better off in the long run.

Hitting and Timing: Going From Sunday Morning to Monday Morning

One of the greatest challenges fastpitch hitters face is understanding how to time the various stages of their swings.

Some will tend to rush the entire swing, especially if they are concerned about the pitcher’s speed. As a result, they never build a rhythm and while they may make contact it won’t be good, solid contact.

Some will be lethargic throughout. Those hitters are never going to get to the ball on time and will be easily overpowered even by mediocre pitchers.

And some with just be unmade beds, with no rhyme or reason to what they’re doing at all. It hurts just to watch them.

A strikeout waiting to happen.

Now, you can talk all you want about proper timing and having proprioception (body awareness for those about to do a Google search) but often that conversation goes has little meaning to players. These habits are often ingrained, so you need to find a way to explain what’s needed in a way hitters can understand.

That’s where the concept of Sunday morning v. Monday morning comes in. It’s an analogy pretty much anyone I’ve worked with on hitting will recognize.

The reason I use it a lot is that it works. It gives hitters a frame of reference for how their bodies should move that they can understand.

I will start by asking them what Sunday morning is like, at least on a non-tournament morning. The answer I usually get is slow and easy, relaxed, laid back.

Many (most?) people like to sleep in a little later than usual on Sunday mornings – even the church goers. They take their time getting ready and getting out into the day.

Then I ask them what Monday morning is like. The words they use to describe it are things like rushed, frantic, panicked, or hurried.

They have to get up, get cleaned up and dressed, find their homework, pack a lunch or get lunch money, get to the bus or the car pool or start riding their bikes or walking. Most people on Monday morning don’t leave enough time for these activities so it’s always a race to get them done.

And that’s how the swing goes.

The phase from load to toe touch is Sunday morning. It’s relaxed, slow and easy.

You want to get your weight/center of gravity moving forward and your body prepared to swing, but it’s not the actual swing itself. The key point here is moving in a way that your front foot gets down on time.

Once the heel drops it’s Monday morning. The jets turn on and everything is high-energy. Not out of control, but fast and powerful nonetheless.

Following this Sunday morning/Monday morning process enables hitters to get to where they need to be on time so they can deliver the bat with maximum power, efficiency, and control.

Of course, as a coach you can’t always use the same analogy for everyone. For example, in some households it’s chaos all the time so the players might not see a difference between Sunday and Monday morning.

In that case, you can tell them that the prep phase is like smooth jazz – cool, laid back, relaxed – and the actual swing phase is heavy metal. Even if they are a fan of neither they will get what you’re saying.

Yeah, baby. Dig that sound.

Or you can tell them the prep phase is like the start of the Indy 500 where the pace car leads the way, and the swing phase is like the rest, where the drivers dart in and out like maniacs at 200 mph. Whatever it takes.

The point is you need to find some way of helping them understand what should be slow, and how it should feel, as well as what should happen when it’s time to put the hammer down.

Ge them to understand that and you’ll find your hitters are making better, more consistent contact with every at bat. Almost regardless of the quality of the pitching.

So how do you explain this concept to your hitters? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Bed photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Sax player photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Coaches and Parents: Getting Past Self-Imposed Obstacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commitment Bias

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

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

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

Never!

Or at least that’s how our minds think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confirmation Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunning-Kruger Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapping Up

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

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

Photo by Jan van der Wolf on Pexels.com

When Designing Your Scheme, Be Sure It Fits Your Players

Today’s topic may seem completely self-evident to some of you – to the point where you say “Duh!”

Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a game (in person on TV) or spoken with players and/or parents and realized what should be a cardinal rule of softball has been violated yet again.

This rule is particularly important in middle school or high school ball, where coaches don’t get to choose their teams from a vast pool of players but instead must make the best out of whoever goes to that school. Sometimes those coaches win the lottery, and other times they end up with a donkey.

Don’t think we’re riding this team to the State championship

But even if you do have a wider range, ultimately you have to look at the skillsets and physical attributes of your players and make decisions accordingly. Here’s an example.

For a long time, slapping and the short game was the key to winning, especially in college. As a coach you may love to create chaos on the basepaths and force the other team into making mistakes. But if you look at your team in the huddle and what you see more closely resembles a nest of baby turtles, you’re going to have to find another way to score runs.

C’mon Coach, give me the steal sign.

The reverse is also true on offense. If you roughly weigh more yourself than all your players put together, you’re probably not going to be going deep with any regularity. So while you may love the way college teams like Oklahoma and Arizona State launch bombs on a regular basis, you’re probably going to need your players to master techniques such as bunting, slug bunting, and the ol’ hit-and-run. At least if you want to win ballgames.

The same is true of your pitching staff. If you have one or more dominant pitchers who can rack up 10, 12, 14 strikeouts a game, with the mental toughness to get critical strikeouts when needed, you can probably give up a few more defensive errors, or put a weak glove in the lineup if it means one more strong bat. If, however, your pitchers are more along the lines of letting hitters get weak hits and counting on your defense to get the outs, you’d better have strong gloves out on the field.

You can always use the big hitter/weak glove as a DH or pinch hitter. With the added benefit in the latter case of having that big bat available on demand rather than having to hope you get to her.

Speaking of defense, the type of players you have will (or at least should) affect the types of defense you play as well. Let’s take the outfield for example.

If you have speedy outfielders who are good at going back on fly balls, you can afford to play them in a little closer to the infield to try to cut off the Texas Leaguers and duck snorts that seem to plague your team and no one else’s. That is, unless your pitcher is prone to give out moon shots the way Olive Garden gives out breadsticks.

In big bunches until you can’t take it anymore.

Your players’ capabilities will (or should) also affect scheme decisions such as bunt coverages. In fastpitch softball it’s standard to have the first and third basemen crash the plate on bunts.

But if your first baseman isn’t particularly good (or even adequate) at fielding balls on the ground, or making a quick throw from a bent over position, or is the biggest turtle in the conference or the complex, having her try to field a bunt up the first base line may be your ticket to an early ulcer.

You may want to consider having your pitcher field anything up the line. Unless, of course, she is a hot mess fielding as well, in which case you can either try pulling your second baseman up next to the pitcher in obvious bunt situations or have a track coach work with your third baseman so she can try to cover everything up-close.

The bottom line is you may have done X, Y, or Z when you played, or seen a particular approach on TV, or attended a coaches clinic where a Power 5 coach with a multi-million dollar budget that includes a huge scholarship pool said “This is what we do.” Or gotten your butt beaten by a vastly superior team whose success you’d very much like to copy.

But before you pull the trigger on introducing your new scheme, ask yourself honestly if you have the players who can pull it off.

If so, great. Have at it.

But if not, it’s better to take a look at what you DO have and build your schemes accordingly. You’ll ultimately produce WAY better results.

Failure Is a Key Element in Player Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The choice is yours.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Accuracy Without Speed = Batting Practice

One of the age-old controversies in fastpitch pitching is whether it’s more important to develop speed or accuracy first.

Of course my answer to that question is always “yes.” Because I don’t believe they are, or have to be, mutually exclusive.

But there are definitely those, including one of America’s most famous and beloved pitching coaches, who will tell you to learn to throw strikes first and then you can worry about speed later. Here’s my problem with that.

Take a look at Internet forums or Facebook groups and what is one of the most common pleas from pitcher parents? It goes something like this:

“My daughter has been pitching for X years and has always been great at throwing strikes. She led her rec league team to a championship when she was 10, and she is still the most accurate pitcher on her team. But her speed is below the other pitchers we see. I’d like to see her get faster. Please help.”

Then the parent posts a video of a kid pushing the ball toward the plate or otherwise forcing it to go where she wants it to go.

I’m sorry, but the best advice I could give that parent is to invent a time machine so he/she can have his/her daughter start learning to throw hard right from the beginning.

Maybe this guy can help.

A lot of developing speed is about learning to move your body quickly – and having the intent to do so. In other words, you need to have athletic, ballistic movements in order to impart energy into the ball so it will go fast.

But if your focus is on learning to throw strikes, especially at young ages, you’re not going to learn to move ballistically because it’s harder to achieve the goal of throwing strikes. Fast-moving body parts are more difficult to control, which means fewer strikes. It’s much easier to “get the ball over the plate” if you slow down and find an effective way to lob it there.

The problem is that’s what you’re training your body to do – throw slow strikes. In the meantime, another girl who is learning to throw hard is going through all of the growing pains throwing hard requires while learning to move her body quickly.

Her body may be out of control for a little while, until she develops greater body awareness (proprioception for those of you who like the big words) and learns the proper mechanics as well as how to apply them.

As she continues, though, those fast-paced movements become easier to replicate. She then learns how to control them, and becomes not only fast but accurate.

In the meantime, Suzy Slow Strike Machine suddenly finds out that throwing the ball over the plate without speed is like volunteering to throw front toss without a screen as hitters mature.

And she starts to feel something like this.

So naturally she (and her parents) want her to learn to throw faster.

Unfortunately, now she has to go through the same growing pains that the hard throwers did three years ago. Which means she not only lacks speed but also her famous accuracy.

And who wants a slow, wild pitcher?

Or think of it this way: When players are running the bases do we teach them to run slowly first so they don’t overrun the base and tell them they can then add speed later? Of course not.

We tell them to run full out and teach them to stop or slide on time.

Actual coach demonstrating sliding with style.

The same is true for pitchers. Putting an emphasis on accuracy at the expense of speed is a poor strategy.

It reminds me of the saying, “The race doesn’t always go the swiftest nor the contest to the strongest. But that’s the way to bet.”

As I said earlier, the reality is you don’t have to sacrifice speed development for accuracy – IF, and that’s a big IF, the pitcher is learning proper pitching mechanics. If you learn how to do things the right way, and practice enough to make those movements precisely repeatable, the ball will go where it should.

In my mind accuracy is not a goal. It is a result, just as speed is a result.

If you wait to develop speed you just may find you’ve painted yourself into a corner with no way out.

Yes, I get that throwing strikes is important. But it’s hardly a mystery.

By focusing on developing mechanically sound pitchers who throw with effort and intent rather than fear of failure, you can achieve both speed and accuracy pretty much simultaneously. Which is the key to a long, successful pitching career.

6 Tips for Winning at Tryouts

Much of the U.S. is about to enter tryout time for high school ball. Over the next few weeks, players will have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and intangibles in the hopes of making the team of their choice.

For most, the preference will be making varsity because, well, that’s the top team and who doesn’t want to be the best? For some, however, it will be just getting on a team at all, or being placed on a team where they will have the opportunity to play for their school rather than cheer others on from the bench.

At this point there isn’t much players can do about their skills. Wherever they are now in their journeys is what they will take into tryouts.

There are some things they can do, however, to give themselves their best chance of making their desired team. While the best thing they can do is be amazing talented and proficient at softball, the type of player that can carry a team to a state title, very few are in that category. So here are a few tips for the rest.

Be On Time and Ready to Go

The simple act of being on time seems to be a lost art today.

Tik toc, people.

That’s a shame, because in my book being late sends a message of “My time is more important than your time.” And since making a team relies on the judgment of the person to whom you’re sending that message, it automatically puts the player who’s trying out in the hole.

A good axiom to follow is “If you’re 15 minutes early you’re on time; if you’re on time you’re late.”

But there’s more to it than just being there. Players also want to make sure they have everything they need out and organized.

For example, if hitting is part of the tryout (and most likely it will be), they shouldn’t wait until it’s time to hit to dig their helmet out of their bat bags, dump out the old granola bar wrappers and find their batting gloves. Those items should already be out so they can be picked up whenever the coach sends them to the cage.

Being on time and ready helps players look like they know what they’re doing. All else being equal, it might be the deciding factor between varsity and JV, or being cut.

Don’t Wait to Be Asked to Show Every Skill

This is something I particularly talk to hitters about, but it’s important at every phase.

Take a hitter who can slug bunt (show a bunt then quickly pull back and slap the ball on the ground). While fastpitch softball has gone crazy for home runs there are still a lot of coaches who understand the value of the short game as well. Having a player who can draw a defense in and then slap the ball through the holes, potentially moving a runner from first to third or second to home would be attractive to many.

Yet the coaches evaluating the tryout won’t have any idea the player can do that unless she demonstrates it during hitting. If the coach doesn’t ask about it (and he/she probably won’t), it’s important for the player to say, “Would you like to see me slug bunt?” or whatever it’s called locally.

The same goes for pitchers. Often coaches will line up prospective pitchers and either use a radar or eyeball who throws the hardest and make decisions from there. So a player with good movement and deceptive speed changes but average speed won’t necessarily stand out.

It’s incumbent upon the pitcher to ensure the coach sees her other pitches. That will help separate her from the girls who throw as hard, or even harder, but can’t do anything else. A smart coach will understand the value of movement and speed changes.

Be Positive and Talkative

A big part of succeeding at tryouts is getting noticed. Now, if a high school player can pitch a legit 70 mph, or hit 300 foot bombs, it’s likely she will be noticed even if she’s as stone-faced and quiet as the Sphinx.

Talk about your stonefaces.

For those who don’t possess those superhuman skills, which is most players, they need to make more of a connection to the coaches and potential new teammates. One way to do that is to engage coaches and other players in conversation.

That doesn’t mean be a mindless chatterbox. But a little friendly conversation goes a long way toward showing what a great team member that player might be.

Even something as simple as, “Hi Coach, good to see you. How is your day going?” will help a player stand out from most of their peers. And if the decision comes down to a player who is pleasant and positive versus one who is quiet or a downer, with skill levels being equal, the coach is more likely to select the friendly one. That’s just human nature.

Try to Be First to Each Station

Coaches like players who hustle. One way to demonstrate that quality is by trying to be first to each station (if different stations are being used).

Say that the tryout players are broken into infielders, outfielders, and hitters, and each group is expected to rotate to all three stations. When the coach calls “switch,” the smart player will not walk or jog but will run to the next station.

Getting there first shows enthusiasm. Getting there not only first but a couple of minutes before everyone else helps demonstrate the type of hustle that every coach wants but rarely finds. If a player is on the bubble, showing hustle can be a key differentiator.

Wear Something Memorable

This tip probably isn’t so important in a small school where everyone pretty much knows everyone, coaches and players alike. But in a larger school with many players trying out for a few slots, it helps to stand out from the crowd.

That doesn’t mean wear something outrageous. A lot of coaches aren’t looking for “colorful” players.

While memorable, probably a little too scary.

But it does mean players should wear something that makes it easier to identify or recall them with. It could be neon green shoes, or regular shoes with neon green laces. It could be a Metallica t-shirt in a sea of travel team jerseys, or a big ol’ bow in a player’s hair. Anything that gives a coach an easy way to identify that player even if he/she doesn’t know the player’s name.

Of course, some people have built-in identifiers. If a player is the only redhead, or the only member of a particular race or ethnic group, or the only left hander, she’s going to stand out automatically.

For everyone else, find a way to make it easy for all the coaches to recall who the player is instantly.

Help Clean Up at the End

After a long day of tryouts everyone usually just wants to get out and go home. That’s understandable, but it does present another opportunity to win the tryout.

Odds are the group (or a group, such as freshmen) will be told to clean up and put things away. Most players will slop through the process as quickly as possible to get out.

Motivated players, however, can take this opportunity to not only pick things up but help ensure they are organized when they are put away. They may even have the opportunity to speak with the coach a bit while they are doing it.

Smart coaches are always looking for ways to improve team chemistry. Players who show they have that ability will be that much more attractive when it’s time to decide who stays and who goes – and who goes where.

Need the Goods

Of course, none of this makes a difference if the player isn’t very good to begin with. But for those whose fate is hanging in the balance, going that extra mile as laid out here might just make the difference and help them get on the bus. What they do from there is up to them.

Clock photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

Clown [hoto by Nishant Aneja on Pexels.com

Sphinx photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Two Hands or One? It Depends

I’m pretty sure every fastpitch softball player ever has been instructed to catch with two hands. This mantra is drilled into them from the first time they put on a glove – and often until the last time.

Yet if you watch high-level players play you will often see players catching with just their glove hand. So which way is correct?

The answer is: it depends.

Sorry to equivocate but there is no “right,” one-size-fits-all answer. Because either way can be right depending on the situation.

Using two hands

When receiving a throw, the two-handed approach is generally preferred if the ball is thrown within the area of the torso. Using two hands helps secure the ball and protects against an error in case it accidentally doesn’t make its way into the pocket of the glove.

Two hands are also generally preferred when a throw must be made immediately following the catch, such as on a potential double play. Catching with two hands means the throwing hand is right there with the glove, enabling a faster transfer than if the throwing hand is somewhere else.

Another time two hands is the way to go is when fielding a ground ball between the feet. Especially if it is bouncing instead of rolling. Using two hands makes it easier to react to the unexpected and still make the play.

This has nothing to do with softball but was too cute to pass up.

In the outfield, players should be using two hands to field a fly ball they are already camped under. I know, I know, lots of MLB players use one hand but keep in mind their gloves are large and the ball is much smaller. Not to mention they are bigger and stronger.

Fastpitch softball outfielders are better served using two hands so they can clamp down on the ball after the catch. Just be sure the throwing hand is to the side rather than helping to close the back of the glove like so many seem to like to do.

Finally, when outfielders are fielding a rolling or bouncing ball with no need to make an immediate play, two hands is the way to go.

Especially if the outfield looks like this

Using one hand

It would be safe to assume that any situation that isn’t mentioned above would be better-served by using one hand. And you’d be right. But let’s go through a few anyway.

The first is when the player has to reach for a ball, i.e., ball that falls outside their center mass. Reaching with one hand allows you to reach further than doing it with one hand.

That’s just science. The extra inches gained may make the difference between an out and an error.

This reaching applies not just left, right, and up but also down. For example, an outfielder making a do-or-die play will be better off reaching down with her glove hand only so she can keep moving fast and pick up the ball on the run in order to gain more momentum into the throw. Trying to use two hands will only slow her down.

On ground balls, anything to the right or left will work better with one hand – again because it increases the player’s range. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen players try to go laterally with two hands only to see them miss by an inch or two. Maddening!

There are also a couple of positions that are (or at least should be) primarily one-handed. Take first base for example.

While it would be nice if all throws came right to them with time to spare, the reality is that’s rarely the case. First basemen are always stretching in some direction, even if it’s forward.

On in some other crazy direction.

Having a first baseman try to make these catches one-handed is a rookie mistake. Letting them reach with the glove, and throw the other hand back, will help your team secure more outs, especially as the pace of play gets faster. You can read more about that here.

Catcher is another one-handed position, although for different reasons.

Most times catchers are going to try to receive their ball in the center, even if they have to move that center from side-to-side. The issue here is protecting their throwing hand.

Balls deflecting off bats, bouncing off the dirt, or even breaking suddenly all put the throwing hand at first. Sprain a thumb, jam a finger, or even break a bone in the back of the hand and that valuable catcher will be watching from the sidelines for a while.

Learning to receive with one hand while keeping the other protected will help keep that catcher on the field when you need her.

One-handed catching also has the added bonus of reducing the time to transfer the ball from the glove to the throwing hand on a steal.

Catchers who use both hands to catch the ball tend to pause to transfer the ball before pulling it back to throw. By catching with one hand catchers can bring the ball and mitt to the throwing hand, thus making the transfer part of the throw instead of a separate operation.

It’s a difference of hundredths of a second, but those hundredths can make the difference between safe and out. Here’s where you can learn more about one-handed catching.

Bottom line

So you can see there’s no single blanket answer. How many hands to use depends on the position and the situation.

My recommendation is to teach all players to do it both ways when appropriate. And for goodness sake let your catchers and first basemen use one hand even during warmups so they can build that all-important skill.

Softball Pitching: How You Start Learning Matters

One of the hot topics in the fastpitch softball world is the debate over pitching mechanics. If you haven’t been following any of the dozens of Facebook pages devoted to softball, it essentially breaks down into two camps: internal rotation (IR) and hello elbow (HE). (Full disclosure: I am firmly in the IR camp.)

I’m not going to go into great detail in this post about the differences between the two approaches, as I have done that before. As have other excellent instructors.

Instead I will just briefly summarize that IR is characterized by a bent elbow on the back side of the circle that allows the humerus (upper arm) and elbow to lead down the circle until it is “trapped” by the ribcage, which enables the lower arm to whip past the upper arm and the forearm to pronate into release as it brushes against the hip with a low, natural follow-through. Whereas HE relies on a straight arm and a pushing movement down the back side of the circle with no contact against other body parts until finally the wrist is snapped up purposefully and the hand is pulled up forcefully, usually resulting the hand touching the shoulder (or coming close) and the elbow pointing at the catcher (hence the name).

What’s interesting in this debate is it seems like many defending the HE approach are actually conceding that IR is a better mechanic and that it’s what 99.999% of elite level pitchers use. But they say that HE is a good way to start pitchers, and then they can find their way to IR mechanics when they are older and more mature.

As long-time pitching instructor I can tell you that’s not true. And here’s why.

We are all creatures of our habits. Whatever behavior is ingrained into us early is often difficult to break, even if the old approach is forced and the new approach works more naturally with the body.

A good example is handwriting. Back in less enlightened days, left handers were often forced in school to write with their right hands, either with the intention of helping them fit into the world better or to enforce conformity.

Wait, you don’t HAVE to be right-handed?

In their later years, as they discovered their left-handedness, they might try to write with that hand but many found it difficult. Moving back to the left hand often took a tremendous amount of work, essentially sending them back to starting from scratch.

In my experience, pitching is the same way. Not always – pitchers who were resistant to the whole HE approach, or who didn’t do it for very long, have been able to make the switch fairly quickly.

But for plenty of others it was incredibly different. Not with the finish where they pull their hands up – that part is so forced that it’s relatively easy to stop, or they will do it well after the ball is gone as a sort of separate movement.

The real culprit is the instruction to turn the ball backwards toward second base, lock out the elbow, and push the ball down the back side of the circle into release. THAT habit has proved incredibly difficult for some to break, especially if whoever taught them originally was adamant about it.

Unfortunately, locking out the elbow and pushing the ball down removes any possibility of whipping the lower arm through the release zone or achieving brush contact. Which means there is no multiplication of energy at release, which limits speed.

Pitchers who are smaller, slimmer, not blessed with a ton of fast twitch muscles or lack other compensating factors really struggle to increase their speed past a certain basic level – no matter how hard they work at it. Until they learn to accelerate the ball by achieving a whipping motion they will not achieve their potential.

And that’s why saying “It’s ok to start them with HE” is a bad idea. Well-meaning coaches or parents will set an artificial cap on speed (as well as their ability to throw movement pitches) that will be difficult to overcome.

Think of it this way: if you want your child to be a kind, well-mannered person, it’s not a good idea to let them start their lives by being rude and disrespectful.

I want to throw a screwball

You want to ingrain the desired behaviors early in their lives, setting a good foundation for their eventual entry into society.

The same is true of pitching mechanics. If you want to ensure a pitcher reaches her full potential (and don’t we all?), don’t just start them with any old approach. Teach them right from the start and they’ll achieve more throughout their careers.

Homework v Herework

You have probably heard the statement that it takes 10,000 hours to master a particular skill. While there is definitely some dispute about this statement, especially since one size never fits all, the more critical point is that for 99.999% of the population it takes a lot of repetition to truly get good at something.

What most don’t realize, however, is that in most endeavors there are two types of work.

One can be classified as traditional “homework,” i.e., you learn the basics at practice or lessons and then you continue to work on them at home. The other is what I call “herework,” or the work you do during those practices or lessons.

The challenge for many players is they (and often their parents) think they can accomplish everything they need during the herework and don’t feel the need to do the homework. Here’s why that’s a critical mistake.

Let’s say you’re a pitcher who has been taught to turn the ball back toward second, lock your arm, and push the ball down the back side of the circle. You’ve come to realize that’s not what elite pitchers do, so you go to an instructor who can teach you how to keep a bend in the elbow and the ball oriented to generate whip.

The coach can show you how to do it, and walk you throw various drills that will encourage the change in behavior. That’s good herework and very valuable to the learning process.

But if you leave the practice and don’t work on those same drills while you’re on your own (homework), you’re probably not going to be able to replace your old habits with new ones. So you will continue to perform the movements the way you’ve always done them because that’s what is ingrained into you.

The problem with that is the next time you go to practice or a lesson, you’re right back to square one. Which means instead of building on what you’ve learned already you have to go back and try to learn it again. That’s not much fun (or very efficient) for either you or the coach.

And it kind of feels like this.

What it comes down to is herework is about making changes, or learning how to make changes. Homework is about locking those changes in so you can continue to move forward.

The same is true with hitters dropping their hands. You know it’s a bad thing, and you can learn what to do instead of dropping your hands to swing the bat in practice. But if you don’t work on that new approach at home, it’s pretty unlikely you will quit dropping them any time soon.

Now, I don’t want to imply that this is a one-week process. How long it takes depends on how long you’ve been doing what you’re doing and how badly you want to change it.

After all, many players want the reward of improvement but are reluctant to put in the hard work to achieve it. I think many also hope their coach will wave a magic wand and make them instantly better.

How many parents view coaches

But it doesn’t work that way. While it may not take 10,000 hours, it does take some investment of time, on your own, to replace old habits with new and see the types of improvements you want to make.

Understanding the difference between herework and homework will help you get there much faster.

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