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The 3D Printer Approach to Softball Success

3D printer

A few years ago, one of my day job clients took me out back onto the shop floor to show me this cool new technology they were using to create prototypes of products in development.

“It’s a 3D printer,” the client told me. “We program in what we want based on CAD drawings, and then it produces a complete sample, down to every nook and cranny.” Then she showed me how it worked.

Basically, the head on the printer would slide along at high speed, depositing thin layer after thin layer of plastic (or whatever substance they used). At first, it looked like an indistinguishable blob, but slowly, over time, whatever it was they were making began to take shape until a finished product finally came out.

That is very similar to the way building a successful softball player works. You start out with some raw materials and an idea of what the finished product will be. But then you have to build the player, layer by layer, which takes time and patience.

I think it’s the second half of that equation – patience – that tends to make people stop the “machine” before the finished product is created. These days in our instant-everything world, everyone wants what they want right the heck now.

They don’t want to put in hours and hours of practice just to realize a slight improvement, such as adding one mile an hour as a pitcher or hitting the ball another 20 feet as a batter. They want a magic drill or technique that will enable them to go from throwing 48 mph to 60+ mph in a couple of weeks, or turn them from a .225 hitter to a .440 hitter with an OPS over 1.0.

That would be nice, but it simply doesn’t work that way. As I always say, if I could make you a star in one lesson every lesson would cost $1,000 and there would be a line a mile long down the street to get that lesson.

Instead, you have to operate like the 3D printer. If you stand there and watch it as it works, you’re likely to get bored and maybe fall asleep. It just keeps on grinding away.

Over time, however, it produces something beautiful and useful. Of course, if all you see is the end product you have no idea how much work, how many passes of the print head went into it. You can just admire the result.

It’s the same with players. If you just look at the player shining on the field you have no concept of the number of pitches, swings, ground balls, fly balls, etc. that player did before you ever saw the bright, shiny player she is now.

I know, because I’ve seen it. Parents will tell me how funny it is when someone says about their daughter, “Wow, it must be nice to be so talented that it just comes naturally to her.”

Those people making that comment weren’t there when that same girl was sitting on the bench because her coaches didn’t think she was good enough to be on the field. They weren’t there when she struggled to get a hit, or to find the plate when she was pitching, or making awful errors on easy fielding plays. They weren’t there when she left a practice or lesson on the verge of tears because she couldn’t quite get a skill.

But they also weren’t there when she was in the back yard throwing pitches or hitting off a tee into a net, determine to get better. And get better she did, little by little, layer by layer, until her skills equaled and then surpassed her less-dedicated teammates and she came into her own.

It’s easy to look at who a player is today and assume that’s always who she has been – i.e., she has always been a star. But more often than not, most great players have a story of struggle to share.

The key, however, is understanding that any deficiencies someone may have now don’t have to define who they are in the future. With a fair helping of dedication and determination, along with a little knowledgeable guidance, players can build their skills, mental approach and confidence to become the fastpitch softball players (and people) they are meant to be.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Please share your stories in the comments of your daughters, or kids you’ve coached, who may have started out on the low end but eventually went on to great softball success.

Oh, and here’s a cool time lapse video of some things being made with a 3D printer.

3D printer photo © 2011 Keith Kissel.

Avoiding the “Hot in Cleveland” Syndrome

Hailey Hull pitching

On the TV show “Hot in Cleveland,” the basic premise is that three women from LA are on a flight to Paris when their plane gets stranded in Cleveland. After being approached by several men, they suddenly realize that while they may just considered be average-looking among the many beautiful people in the City of Angels, here in Cleveland they are considered hot, and they decide to stay there instead.

(Full disclosure: I have never actually watched the show, or even a part of it. But the premise works for this blog post so there you go. Oh, and apologies to readers in Cleveland. I didn’t pick the show’s title.)

Fastpitch softball players (along with their coaches and parents) are very susceptible to what I call the “Hot in Cleveland Syndrome.” Because they are successful in the small pond they play in, and maybe even the best player in the area, they can get an oversized view of exactly how good they are.

This is one of the reasons it’s important, if you are serious about playing and especially about playing in college, to venture out past the comfort of your local area and match up your skills against higher-level teams. You can either find out that A) yes, you’re every bit as good as you thought you were or B) while you may be a 10 locally you are maybe only a 6 in the bigger scheme. Either way, that’s important information to have.

Here’s an example. You’re a strong pitcher who accumulates 10+ strikeouts consistently in a seven-inning game. You mostly do it by throwing fastballs, because most of the hitters can’t catch up to your speed. Why bother developing other pitches when you’re already dominating?

Because once you stand in against better hitters who are used to seeing speed and can hit it consistently, your strikeouts per game will probably go way down and the number of hits against you will grow. If you don’t have something else to throw at those hitters you’re in for a rough time. But you won’t know it until you face hitters of that quality.

Or take a catcher who can gun down every girl in the league or conference when she tries to steal second. Is it because she is so awesome, or because the base runners are average instead of speedy?

You put some rabbits on those bases – girls who can get from first to second in 2.8 or 2.9 seconds at the younger levels, or a team with a view players with legit 2.6 speed at the older levels – and suddenly the game turns into a track meet.

The reverse is also true, of course. Is a bigtime base stealer really that good, or are the catchers she’s facing just that weak?

Then there’s the big hitter with the loopy swing who is crushing the ball against the competition she normally sees. Put her up against a pitcher bringing the heat and she may find she’s striking out all day – and looking bad while doing it.

Now, if you have no aspirations beyond the level you’re currently playing at, being Hot in Cleveland is fine. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with playing at a lower/easy level if softball is something you do solely as a recreational activity with a hint of competition versus playing at a highly competitive level.

But if you’re looking to play in college, be named all-state in high school, win a travel ball national championship or have some other lofty ambition, you need to get a true measure of how your skills compare to all those with whom you’ll be competing for those spots. The sooner the better.

Break away from the Hot in Cleveland Syndrome and test your skills against the best players you can find. It will give you a truer picture of where you really stand.

Don’t Take Everything You Hear or See At Face Value

Natalie hitting

Every week I receive an email that links to pieces of instructional videos for fastpitch softball. And almost every week I end up shaking my head at what I see in them – especially because the company that sends the videos out is charging people good money for such poor instruction.

This week held yet another perfect example. A college coach (from a big name D1 school as I recall) was talking about flaws in loading when hitting. He had a young player, maybe 12U or 14U, there with him helping him demonstrate.

And what was his big advice? Don’t let the head and the front foot move in the same direction at the same time during the “load.’

First of all, he seems to be confused between the load and stride. He kept saying load but most of the discussion was about the stride. So he might want to check that out first.

But regardless of the terminology, he was basically saying that the front foot should move first, then the head should follow afterward. All I could think was “that poor girl.”

Let’s see if this coach’s advice passes the evidence test. Here’s a video of some MLB hitters taken from the side. Watch them as they stride and see if their head moves with the foot or not.

If the camera is steady you can place your cursor on the hitter’s head and see if the head stays there. If not, compare the head position to the background throughout the stride.

What do you see? I know what I see. The head and the center of gravity are moving forward as these hitters stride.

Of course, maybe these are just extraordinary athletes. And they’re men. So let’s look at former Michigan star Sierra Romero, who did pretty well for herself this year with the NPF’s USSSA Pride. Advance the video to about 2:14 to see the stride, and again what do you see her head doing as her front foot moves forward?

The point here isn’t to take on the specific video I watched, although hopefully by now you’re ready to disregard that particular piece of advice. It’s more to say that parents and players should be careful about what they accept as good instruction.

You would think a college coach, presumably a hitting coach, would understand the swing and how it works. But clearly that isn’t necessarily true.

It’s the same thing with taking advice from a former player because she was/is a star in college, or high school. Often times players and former players just repeat what they were told when they were growing up, even if it’s not what they actually did/do, because they haven’t put the time in to study the mechanics.

The best thing you can do is educate yourself. Before you blindly accept advice or training from anyone – and that includes me, by the way – take what they’re saying and see if that’s what the top current players do. If not, you should find someone who will teach you those mechanics and approaches.

Hitting is easier to compare, because you not only have top college, NPF, and National Team players to compare what’s said to what’s done, but you also have MLB hitters. Hitting is hitting after all, and anyone who tells you softball has a different swing needs to throw out their VHS tapes and at least buy a DVD or two from this millennium.

Or there’s this new thing out called YouTube that all the kids are talking about. Maybe those instructors want to check it out.

The hitting exception is slapping. They don’t do that in MLB, so you’ll need to look at softball only.

The same goes for pitching, because videos of MLB players will be of little use. But there’s plenty of good video of top pitchers in game action, which is where you want to check them out. See what makes them successful in games and compare that to what you’re being told. Here’s a good starting point for you.

Catching, fielding, throwing, base running, all of those are similar skills between fastpitch softball and baseball, so you have plenty of source material there. Sure, there are nuances, mostly driven by the difference in the length of the basepaths and size of the field overall, but anyone with even a little experience watching both should be able to adjust for that.

It’s easy to buy into a reputation, or a great set of credentials. But neither of those will help you on the field.

Be a smart consumer. Make sure what you’re being taught, no matter who is teaching it, matches up with what great players do. Otherwise, save your money on lessons or DVDs until you’ve confirmed your investment will take you where you need to go.

 

Quick tip on helping pitchers get whip

One of the keys to achieving maximum speed for a fastpitch pitcher is getting whip at the end – the sudden acceleration where the lower arm goes flying past a stable upper arm as you go into release (sometimes referred to as internal rotation). A quick survey of videos of top pitchers actually pitching in games will confirm that’s how they do it.

To make that happen, however, young pitchers must do something that makes no real logical sense to them. They must forget about (or at least quit worrying about) the ball.

Because when they are thinking about the ball, they have a tendency to try to get it to come through too early so they can guide it. As a result, at the most crucial point of the pitch where the ball should be trailing the upper arm, it instead starts to lead through.

That’s easy to say and maybe even do for an adult. We think differently. For a young player, especially one under age 14, they may understand what you’re saying consciously, but their subconscious mind is still more focused on making sure the ball goes where it’s supposed to go (especially if they’re being told to “just throw strikes”), and nothing feels like you’re in control like bringing the ball through first.

There are lots of ways to express explain what you want. But one that worked recently for me was simplicity itself: bring the ball through last. No talk of bending elbows, or rotating your arm this way or that, or making other complex movements. Just bring the ball through last.

Here’s why I think it works. If the pitcher is thinking of bringing the ball through last, she has to put her arm in a position where that can happen. That action naturally creates a little elbow bend. The idea of bringing the ball through last also helps separate the lower arm from the upper arm, giving the lower arm the opportunity to accelerate as it comes through.

That doesn’t mean it will accelerate automatically. You may have to encourage the pitcher to achieve that acceleration. But at least she’ll be in a position to make that happen.

There is one caveat to all of this: this tip won’t work if you’re telling the pitcher to turn the ball back toward second base and push it down the back side of the circle – an action which no high-level pitcher actually performs. If the pitcher is doing that the arm is going to come through all at once and there will be no opportunity for that extra bump of speed that comes with the whip.

If, however, she is learning to keep the ball facing forward/up or toward third base on the back side of the circle, lead the upper arm/elbow down, and then whip at the end, it will work. Or at least it has on the girls I’ve used it on.

If you’re facing that issue of the upper arm slowing down too soon and the ball leading through the finish, give this one a try. And let me know if it works for you too.

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