As a longtime instructor I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young ladies (and a few of their brothers) to help them improve their baseball and softball skills. Along the way I have seen some patterns emerge.
So, to help you ensure you’re getting the greatest value out of your substantial investment, following are a few tips to help with your approach. It presumes you have already done your homework and chosen your instructor wisely, i.e., your instructor is teaching the techniques that the best players in the world use. If not, all the other parents will be on the sidelines saying…
With that in mind, here we go.
Tip #1 – Pay attention during lessons!
I can’t tell you how many times during a lesson I’ve been talking to a student and then had this experience.
Whether you’re indoors or outdoors there can be a lot of distractions. But you need to be able to block them out and stay focused on what the instructor is saying.
You never know – it could be life-changing, or at least career-changing.
While we instructors do seem to like to hear ourselves talk, we’re usually doing it for a good reason. We’re trying to drop some knowledge that will help our students become better players.
When I see a student looking around everywhere but me I will usually tell them “There is nothing over there that will help you become a better softball player. Stay here with me.”
These days we are all more easily distracted than ever. But staying focused during instruction, and then in executing the skill, will help shorten the learning curve considerably.
Tip #2 – Be sure to bring all your needed equipment
Shouldn’t need to be said but apparently it does. At least in my experience.
Before you come to a lesson check your bag to be sure you have your glove, bat, batting gloves, catcher’s gear, cleats or turf shoes, hair ties, sunglasses and everything else you will need that day. Don’t assume they’re in there – take a complete inventory.
And while you’re in there, clear out all the old water and sports drink bottles along with wrappers and other garbage. Doesn’t really have anything to do with the lesson but it’s good to do that now and again anyway.
Tip #3 – You still have to practice
Yes, it would be nice if your instructor could just wave his/her magic wand and make you better. But it doesn’t work that way. I know, because I teach all my students the same thing but get varying results.
Think of as an instructor as being like Google Maps (or your other GPS app of choice). If you plug a starting point and a destination into Google maps, it will give you detailed, turn-by-turn directions along with a visual map.
But if you want to get to where you’re going you still have to get in your vehicle and drive. The app doesn’t transport you anywhere (at least not yet; I’m sure they’re working on it). It just shows you how YOU can get there.
It’s the same with an instructor. He/she will show you the techniques you need to succeed. But you still have to put in the work.
Tip #4 – You need to bring your brain when you practice
One of the questions I get all the time is “How much should she practice during the week?” I know it’s well-intentioned – the idea is to give someone’s daughter a number that is higher than “none,” which is probably what she is planning on – but it also implies that practice is a time-based activity.
It’s not. It’s more of an accomplishing goals and learning something type of activity. To put it in another learning content, how many hours should someone practice to learn how to do division or parse a sentence?
In school, the answer is as long as it takes. If you pick it up quickly you can put in fewer hours. If you struggle, you will have to put in more. Because the goal isn’t to check off time on a checklist. It’s to master the skill so you can move on to the next one.
In softball it’s the same. Making practice a time-based experience is counter-productive.
Instead, you need to bring your brain and really work to learn whatever it is you’ve been assigned to learn. Not just until you get it right; keep working at it until you can’t do it wrong.
Funny thing is if you practice mindfully (to use what I think is still a popular term) you probably won’t have to practice as long. Our brains are powerful and often underrated contributors to athletic success.
Make sure you understand what you need to work on when you leave your lesson, then pay attention to whether you’re getting it right when you practice, and there’s a good chance you won’t have to put in as many hours on it. Although you may want to anyway because it’s fun.
Tip #5 – Don’t just work on what you’re already good at
There is a certain comfort in succeeding. Doing something right and getting great results makes us feel good about ourselves. But it doesn’t do much to help us overcome our flaws.
The best students I’ve ever worked with, when given the option, would always ask to work on things they don’t do well. That makes sense.
No matter how long a lesson is, the time is limited. Why waste time on something you already know how to do?
When you’re there with the instructor you should want to work on your weak areas so you can get the instructor’s guidance on how to make them stronger.
The same is true when you’re practicing on your own. If all you ever work on is what you’re already good at you’re missing a huge opportunity for improvement.
Instead, work to bring your weak areas up to the level of your strong ones and you’ll be better overall at whatever it is you’re trying to do.
Tip #6 – Do your assigned homework
Again, assuming you’ve chosen your instructor well you will likely be given homework to do before the next lesson. That homework probably relates to whatever it was you were working on during the lesson.
The next time you go to practice, be sure you work on whatever that assignment was. Especially if it doesn’t involve going through the entire skill, but instead breaking down a piece of it.
If your pitching instructor gave you drills or a drill progression to work on lag, spend most of your time doing those drills. If your hitting instructors gave you an assignment to improve your ability to extend and hit through the ball, work on that.
Understand that the instructor saw a flaw, or something that will limit you from being the best you can be. By doing the homework you will be able to overcome that specific flaw and internalize the movements, which will help you gain better outcomes.
Yes, it’s more fun to throw full pitches, or hit off live pitching, or take ground balls/fly balls off a bat, etc. But those activities likely won’t help you overcome whatever is holding you back. Focusing on a particular area that is weak and improving it to match your other skills will.
Tip #7 – Write stuff down during or after your lesson
On their second lesson I give every one of my students a small, blank notebook with a pen. It’s not just to give them some sort of gift to say “thank you for coming.” It’s so they can write down what we’re working on, either during the lesson or afterwards.
We all think we can remember everything off the tops of our heads. But we’re not nearly as good at that as we think.
If you really want to be sure you know what to work on, and how to work on it, you should write it down while it’s fresh in your mind.
That way, three days later when you go back out to practice, you’ll know what you need to do – and how to do it. Remember that practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent. Be sure you’re practice the right things the right way.
Tip #8 – Understand that it is a journey
We live in an instant-everything world these days. If we want to know something we just ask our phones or our home devices – no additional effort required.
If we want food we pop it in the microwave or air fryer and a few minutes later dinner is served.
Unfortunately, human skills development cannot be sped up to that degree with technology. Yes, video and measurement devices can help us learn a little faster, but it’s still going to take a lot blood, sweat and tears.
And even after all of that you still may not see the results right away. Especially if you’re overcoming some particularly bad habits.
It takes time for new skills to overtake the old ones, and for you to feel comfortable enough executing them to be able to give it your all. In fact, you may find that the only way you can execute new skills properly right now is by going less than 100%. Sometimes considerably less.
That’s ok. It’s better to learn the movements first, then build up the speed of execution. Because when you get to the point where you can just …
…you’ll be amazed at all the incredible things you can do.
Let’s play a little fastpitch Jeopardy! Here’s the answer: the Eastern Front, Siberia, and the outfield. What’s the question?
Name three things no one wants to get banished to.
During WWII, the Eastern Front (the losing war in a horrible winter in Russia) was the threat used to keep German soldiers and officers in line. At least it was on Hogan’s Heroes.
Throughout much of the tenure of the Soviet Union, Siberia was a place dissidents were “disappeared” to when the government didn’t want to outright kill them.
And to many in fastpitch softball, the outfield serves a similar function. They believe it’s where players are sent when they’re either judged (incorrectly) as not being not good enough for the infield, or they’re not part of the “in” crowd.
Sometimes that may be true. I won’t pretend there isn’t favoritism in where players are assigned on some teams, or that coaches don’t think some kids have the skillset to play the infield and have to put them somewhere else.
But there are a whole lot of reasons a perfectly good infielder may get assigned to the outfield instead. Beginning with the fact that she can actually catch a fly ball.
For those who have only observed it, catching a fly ball may seem like a pretty simple skill. It isn’t a quick reaction time thing like a sharp ground ball, and you have plenty of time to get into position – even if you have to run for the ball. How hard could it be?
Actually, plenty hard. It’s sort of like doing instant geometry.
You have to judge how hard the ball was hit, where its trajectory will take it, allow for the winds aloft as well as on the ground, avoid looking into the sun or lights for too long, and make your way through all the little divots and moguls no one has ever bothered to clean up. Not to mention the drainage grates and other knee-and ankle-destroying obstacles field designers who have obviously never played outfield might build in to keep the grass looking nice.
Then, quite frankly, there is the attention factor. With a top-quality pitcher in the circle, an outfielder may not see a ball hit her way for three or four innings. Sure, she has responsibilities to back up a base on every batted ball, but on many infield plays she can mentally be on a beach in Maui and still have time to realize something is happening in the game and then run to her spot.
Not saying she should, but she can. But then when the ball does come her way, she has to make all the calculations we just discussed and get there in time to make the play. It can be tougher than you think.
While the story about Gen Z’s attention span being shorter than a goldfish’s may be just a myth, it is definitely difficult to remain highly focused when A) not much happens around you for a long time and B) when it does happen it’s not likely to cause a significant injury (like a hot line drive in the infield will). An outfielder’s Spidey-sense just doesn’t need to be that acute.
Here’s the thing, though. Hits to the outfield tend to have larger consequences when they get through. You have no doubt heard of an “infield single,” which is either defined as A) a ball hit so sharply that even though it was fielded in time the runner made it to base safely or B) an error by the scorekeeper’s daughter.
But you never hear about an infield double, triple or home run. The fact is, a ball between infielders, or just over their heads, causes only minimal damage. A ball between outfielders, or just over their heads, often results in extra bases.
You also have the factor that a ball that gets by an infielder can and should be backed up by an outfielder, at least in most cases. A ball that gets by an outfielder is generally backed up by a fence – or a whole lot more grass on a fenceless field.
Then there’s the fact that outfielders have a much greater area of responsibility just in terms of square footage. An infielder overall is responsible for about three feet to either side for the most part, anywhere from five to about 60 feet forward, and maybe 20 feet backward. In most cases it’s more like a 3′ x 5′ box.
Outfielders, on the other hand, have their areas of responsibility measured in square yards. They could have a good 80-100 feet from the fence (real or imaginary) to the edge of the infield grass, and roughly 1/3 of the total area of the outfield. More if you count backing up other outfielders and balls that land fair and roll into the far corners of the field.
That’s a lot of open space to cover. Oh, and no one goes out and grooms the outfield before or between games. You’re lucky if someone picks up the poop left behind when the ballfield was used as a doggy park or as a rest stop for the local goose population.
You see where I’m going. While infielders may get more action throughout the course of a game, it doesn’t mean they are more important. In fact, I would argue just as many if not more games probably turn on poor outfield play than infield play.
I can think of a particular case in point. I remember watching the Olympics all those years ago when softball was still in it. Team USA and Japan were playing in the Gold Medal game, and it was a tight contest.
Late in the game, with runners on base, a Team USA player lofted a lazy fly ball to left field. The Japanese left fielder – who in all fairness probably played shortstop normally on whatever other team she played for – started backpedaling, tripped over her feet and fell down, allowing what would be the winning run to score. Had there been an actual outfielder out there, the outcome may have been different.
I also remember one of my students, who was playing at a D3 university in the Midwest, complaining about the lack of outfield play on her team. She would induce an easy fly ball that a semi-competent 14U travel ball outfielder could have caught and it would end up falling for a double. She couldn’t believe that a college softball player couldn’t handle a fly ball hit directly to her, but there you are.
The point of all this is that, outside of 10U travel and probably most rec league ball, the outfield isn’t simply the equivalent of the reject couch in the first scene in Animal House.
It’s a valuable position that requires speed, agility, mental acuity, mental toughness and a willingness to lay yourself out when the game is on the line.
Being put in the outfield doesn’t mean you’re bad. It actually means, as Liam Neeson would say, you possess a particular set of skills.
Any coach who has ever experienced a major, heartbreaking loss because of poor outfield play, which is pretty much every high-level coach, knows just how important that position is. Instead of lamenting that you’re not in the infield, embrace your role in the outfield and give it all you’ve got.
You may just find that you love it. And even if you don’t, it could end up being your portal to where you want to go.
Goldfish photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com