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Fastpitch coaches: when you’re offering instructions, be specific

Don't just say get lower - tell players to lower their hips

One of the challenges of coaching fastpitch softball, or any sport for that matter, is offering directions that are meaningful to the player. While there are several elements that go into meaningful directions, I find that being specific is definitely key.

What does that mean, be specific? Here’s an example I heard today. A student told me she was working on fielding ground balls, and one of her coaches told her she had to get lower. That was probably correct – I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but let’s assume it was.

The problem with saying “get lower” is it leaves out an important element: how to get lower. If you’re bending at the waist, does that mean bend more at the waist? No, that would be silly.

The proper direction would be to lower your hips as you go down to the ball. That makes it easier to get to the ball while remaining in an athletic position where you can make the play.

Non-specific instruction reminds me of a joke that was making the rounds a few years ago. A group of people are in a helicopter in Seattle, checking out the sights, when a sudden fog rolls in.Not only are they having trouble seeing but the instruments go all haywire.

Now they’re lost, and need directions to get back to the airport. The pilot decides to hover next to a building where he sees some lights on. He sees there are people inside, so he quickly writes up a sign that says “Where are we?” and holds up it for the people inside to see.

They see the message, and take a minute to write up their own sign. When they hold it up it says, “You are in a helicopter.” The pilot immediately says “Right” and heads straight for the airport. When the helicopter lands, all the passengers are amazed. “How did you know from their sign where we were?” one asks.

“Easy,” said the pilot. “The information they gave us was completely accurate and completely useless. I knew we were by Microsoft.”

That’s the thing about directions. It’s easy to say do this or do that, but is what you’re saying actually helpful? Or is the message simply, “Play better!” – which I actually used once in a post-game speech to break the tension when the team was down.

For the most part, players don’t need you to tell them they’re doing poorly. If they have any experience at all they can tell they’re having problems. What they need is help fixing them. The more you can give them the “how” instead of just the “what,” the faster they’ll likely be able to address the issue and get it corrected.

Telling a hitter she’s pulling her front shoulder out is true, but useless. Telling her how to keep her front shoulder in, by leaving it strong and driving her back side around it, is helpful. (By the way, telling her she’s pulling her head out is neither accurate nor helpful, because it’s not the head that’s getting pulled out, it’s the front shoulder.)

Telling a pitcher she’s throwing high is useless. Even the least experienced pitcher can see that on her own. Telling her to whip through the release and fire the ball at the plate instead of getting the hand ahead of the elbow and pushing it up through release will help her correct it.

If you don’t know the “why” of common issues, find out. There’s plenty of great information out there. Search around on Life in the Fastpitch Lane (this blog) for ideas. Go to the Discuss Fastpitch Forum (if you didn’t come from there already) and poke around for hours. Search on YouTube – although be careful because there’s a lot of bad information out there too. Buy books and videos. Observe what great players do. Ask a more experienced coach. Attend coaching clinics and/or the NFCA Coaches College.

The more you know, the more specific directions you’ll be able to give them. And the better you’ll be able to help your players perform at the level you want them to.

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

Sometimes you just gotta go with what you’ve got

As both a fastpitch softball instructor and general fanatic for the sport, I have to admit I spend an inordinate amount of my waking hours looking at information and analyzing techniques to try to become as educated as I possibly can. Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m a softball technique-aholicWhile strong mechanics are important, sometimes you just have to go with what you've got.

It’s well-intentioned to be sure. I firmly believe, based on roughly 20 years in the sport that the better-trained a player is, the higher the chance she has for success. And the less raw athletic ability she has, the more specific training she requires.

But I also believe (again based on experience) that there is a Law of Diminishing Returns when it comes to trying to perfect technique. While it’s true that optimal technique should yield the best results, that’s also only true if it’s implemented with optimal effort or enthusiasm.

This is where a lot of players seem to get hung up. Especially the most dedicated. They are focused so much on trying to achieve the optimal mechanics that they get in their own way.

Hitters become tentative trying to achieve the best bat path and as a result slow their swings down. Or they focus so much on one part of the swing that they let the rest fall apart.

Pitchers work so hard on getting just the right launch technique, or keeping the arm circle exactly where it should be, that they get all tight and don’t let their bodies work for them. Catchers worry so much about how they’re making the transfer on a steal that they become over-conscious and thus too slow.

Every part of the game can be affected, regardless of position, or whether you’re on offense or defense.

So here’s my advice: as they say in auto racing world, sometimes you gotta run with the one that brung you. Or in the case, go with what you’ve got.

If you’re a hitter still reworking her swing, do the best you can to use what you’re learning. But don’t focus on doing it perfectly. Do it the best you can while still coming at it with full energy.

After all, the ball doesn’t care how you hit it. A strong contact with an ugly-as-sin swing will beat a soft contact with a perfect swing every time. A strong swing with much-improved mechanics will generally yield better results than a tentative swing that looks good only on slow-motion video.

The same goes for the rest of the game. You may not have perfected that backhand or rake technique on ground balls, but if you go after them like you mean it you may just surprise yourself. Pitchers who continue to try to throw hard will be much more effective than those who again look like they’re trying to make the perfect video instead of getting hitters out.

Believe me, I’m all for perfect mechanics. But they should never be a conscious effort, at least in a game situation. When you’re in the game, go with what you’ve got. You can always work on perfecting it at the next practice.

The basics of smart baserunning

Baserunning is probably one of the most under-coached elements of fastpitch softball. That’s a shame, because smart baserunning can turn the tide during a ballgame and generate more wins.Smart baserunning can make the difference between winning and losing.

And bad baserunning can lose ballgames by not taking advantage of opportunities to advance when they’re there. Nothing sadder than a runner stranded at third who should’ve scored on the previous play but didn’t. Especially if the original mistake happened upstream.

Coaches really need to make a point of working on and teaching smart baserunning. But it’s not all up to the coaches. Players can do themselves a lot of good – and increase their value to the team – if they take it upon themselves to learn all they can about how to gain every little advantage.

Here are a few tips to help you teach better skills (if you’re a coach) or acquire better skills (if you’re a player).

You don’t have to be fast, just smart.

It certainly helps to have 2.7 speed from home to first. But some of the best baserunners I’ve coached and seen had average speed. But what they were was smart. When they were on first, they would look to see whether the shortstop was covering second after each pitch, or even paying attention if the ball wasn’t put in play. They knew they didn’t have the speed to steal the base outright, but they knew they could pull off a delayed steal pretty easily. Knowing what to do and when is a huge advantage on the bases.

Have an aggressive mindset

The other night I was watching a high school game when one of my students got jammed on a ball and hit a little duck snort out behind first base. Instead of doing what most players would do, which is to trot it out and hope it falls in, she took off like she’d hit a ball to the fence. Sure enough, no one got to it and she ended up on second base instead of first.

You see that in the college game a lot. They go hard on every hit, and they keep going until someone tells them to stop.

Always remember that the goal isn’t to get to the next base. It’s to get home. That’s the only way to score. The faster you do that the better off your team is. That goes double when you’re facing a great pitcher where you don’t expect many hits, by the way. Find a way to get home.

Tagging at third

Okay, now for some specific situations. Each of the next three has to do with whether you can gain advantage through your actions. For example, if you’re on third with less than two outs and there is a ball hit to the outfield that might be caught, don’t stand a few feet off the base to wait and see if it is. Tag up immediately and automatically so you’re ready to go home immediately as soon as the ball is touched.

(You don’t have to wait for a catch, by the way. As soon as it touches the fielder you’re good to go, a rule in place to prevent the outfielder from juggling the ball all the way to the infield to hold the runners.)

Here’s where you want to look at the advantage versus disadvantage. If you’re off the bag and there is a catch you have to go back. That may be just enough time to get the ball in and hold you.

If you’re off the bag and there’s no catch, the extra few feet you gained by being off don’t matter. You would have scored anyway.

But if you’re on the bag, you can go immediately when it’s touched, full steam toward home. It’s your best chance of scoring.

Tag or not at second

Here again you have to look at the possibilities. On a softball field with a 200 foot fence, and assuming the players can throw far enough to get the ball in, on a fly ball you want to go as far off the bag as you can and still get back. That may or may not be halfway, incidentally.

The “halfway” rule is myth. Players have different speeds, and outfielders have different arms. Get as far as you can in case the ball is dropped so you can advance. But be sure you can get back if it’s caught.

There’s no need to tag on a ball to left because the throw is short enough that you’ll likely be thrown out if you make the attempt. Again, unless the players are really young or the left fielder has an exceptionally poor arm.

For a ball hit to deep center or right, however, you do want to tag. If you’re off the base and the ball is caught you’ll have to come back, which will probably prevent you from advancing. If you’re tagging, however, you can take off right away and will at least get to third, putting you 60 feet closer to scoring.

Now, if you are off the bag and the ball is hit toward the right field line there is a chance you could score from second if the ball isn’t caught. But the odds are low on a routine fly with even average outfielders. The smarter play is to tag and ensure you’ll get at least one base.

Of course, on an obvious gapper you won’t tag – you’ll probably just go. But be careful. I’ve seen some pretty spectacular catches result in double plays!

Leading off first

This one is really under-coached. If you’re on first and there’s a fly ball to the outfield, you again want to go as far as you can and still get back. If the hit is to left field, especially if there’s a runner on ahead of you, that may mean getting pretty close to second.

If the ball is caught you’re probably not going anywhere so no need to tag. Also with runners ahead of you the opponent is not likely to pay much attention to you. And if it’s not caught you already have a head start on one base, and maybe too.

The same concept applies to center and right, but you won’t be going as far. Get as far as you can and still get back, even if that’s just a few feet away. If the ball isn’t caught you’ll need to advance to the next base so every little bit helps.

Pop-ups

This one is pretty easy. The closer you are to where the pop-up is hit, the closer you should be to the base. If it’s behind second and you’re on second, for example, you pretty much want to stand right on the base. There’s no advantage to being a few feet off, but there’s a huge risk if you get doubled off.

Ground balls

Whenever there’s a ground ball it’s critical to avoid contact with any player making a play. If you’re not sure where the ball is, run behind where the nearest fielder is. If you’re hit by the ball when you’re behind the fielder you’re safe (as long as no one else had a play). If you’re hit by the ground ball when you’re in front of the fielders you’re automatically out.

Never, ever run into a tag

Ok, so things didn’t quite go as planned and the ball got to the base ahead of you. The worst thing you can do is just slide in and let the fielder tag you, especially if there isn’t another runner behind you.

Stop and reverse fields to get into a rundown. Maybe they’ll make a mistake and you’ll be safe. Or try a slide-by, where you go well to the side of the fielder and then catch the base with your hand. I once saw an opposing runner stop dead right before our catcher was going to tag her and then completely leap over the catcher. She was safe. It was a spectacularly athletic play that not everyone can do. But if you can do it, go for it.

One last point. If you’re running between first and second and the second baseman fields a ground ball, don’t just let her tag you and make the double play. Run behind her and try to get her to chase you – even if that means running toward the outfield. Sure, you’ll be out, but you were going to be out anyway. What you’re trying to do is protect the batter so she can reach first safely.

Ok, now it’s your turn. What did I miss? What are some of your favorite baserunning strategies? And have you ever seen any moves that made you just shake your head and say “cool?”

4 softball coaching traps to avoid

One of the biggest challenges of coaching softball is keeping up with the game. As you coach, you accumulate a set of knowledge; the longer you coach the more knowlCoaching and learningedge you gather.

That’s a good thing in some ways. But it can also be a limiting factor, especially in these days of high speed video and greater interest in analyzing mechanics. What may have been believed to be “true” 15, 10 or even 5 years ago may not be so anymore. The more study, evidence and analysis that goes in, the higher the likelihood that what is considered the optimum mechanics or strategy today is different than it was then.

We certainly see that with the one of the signature plays of fastpitch softball – the sacrifice bunt. Statistical analysis shows that overall teams will score more runs with a runner on first and no outs than with a runner on second and one out. Not necessarily with this runner, this hitter and this pitcher, but in the long. Which means the idea of automatically bunting a runner to second should come out of the coach’s playbook, replaced by a more specific situational analysis.

But I’m not here to discuss the sac bunt specifically. More the ways of thinking that can get coaches in trouble if they’re not aware. Here are a few of the common traps you’ll want to avoid to ensure you are and remain the best coach you can be.

The Backfire Effect

This is the name given to the phenomenon that says in an argument between two people with opposing views, the more hard evidence one side presents, the more the other side will cling to their beliefs. (The Backfire Effect, by the way, can be easily seen in every political argument on Facebook ever.)

You would think that once hard evidence was presented, the other person would change their mind. But the opposite is true. People hate to be proven wrong, and thus will do all they can to avoid that feeling.

For a coach it goes double, I think. You’ve been teaching something one way for years and having success. To all of a sudden find out it’s wrong is hard. Believe me, I know, because I’ve definitely been guilty of it.

Yet as a coach, your goal should be to impart the best information and training to your players that you possibly can. To cling to your beliefs because you don’t want to admit there is a better way than you’ve been teaching is doing your players a disservice.

Best to take a cue from former UCLA head coach Sue Enquist here. She was presenting at a clinic one time and saying things that contradicted statements she’d made in her previous skills videos. When someone in the audience challenged her on it, she shrugged and said “I know more now than I did then.”

As long as you didn’t go out of your way to present bad information there is nothing to be ashamed of. You did the best you could with what you knew. Now you know more. Everyone should consider that a good thing – and an indication that you always have their best interests at heart.

Confirmation bias

This one is often a cousin to The Backfire Effect. Having Confirmation Bias basically means you will look and look for any evidence that supports your current beliefs, and if you find it will value that evidence above all else.

For example, let’s say you’re still teaching “squish the bug” for hitting. You go online and look at dozens of video clips until you find one example that appears to be a player squishing the bug. In other words, you ignore all dozens of others until you find the one that supports your beliefs and take it as gospel.

When you’re looking at the evidence on your own, don’t just look at what agrees with you. Look at everything, and see where the patterns are. Doesn’t necessarily mean the majority is right – most innovations start out with a very small sampling. But if you add in old teaching versus new, you’ll probably start to get a better idea of whether the evidence actually supports you or you’re just discounting the majority that doesn’t.

Fallacies in logic

There are many different types of fallacies in logic. When it comes to coaching, here are a few of the most common.

Post hoc ergo proper hoc. Doesn’t everything sound more important in Latin? Basically, this means B followed A so A must have caused B. This is probably the basis for most of the softball superstitions we love so much.

Let’s take an easy example. I stepped on the chalk line before the game and we lost, so stepping on the line caused the loss. (In this case, everyone chooses to ignore the four critical errors, two baserunning mistakes at home and total lack of hitting.)

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it happens all the time, especially when analyzing video clips. The key to so-and-so’s power in hitting is this one move she makes that no one else does. It might be. Or it might not. The two may not be related at all.

Or with pitching, you could say this pitcher bends extra low when she starts, and she’s super fast, so her speed must come from the bend. It makes no biomechanical sense, but because the two things happen in close proximity it’s assumed one causes the other.

Don’t make that assumption. If there is a cause/effect relationship it will become obvious with further testing. If not, that will become obvious too.

Ad hominem. This involves discounting someone’s information because you don’t like or respect them personally.

This is an easy but dangerous trap to fall into. We’d all much rather work with/take advice from people we like and/or respect. But the validity of what they’re saying is independent of their personalities.

Speaking from personal experience, I have learned plenty from people I didn’t particularly care for. Don’t let that fact determine whether you’ll listen. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day – assuming you’re working with an analog clock.

There are plenty of others, but you get the gist. You want to be sure any arguments you use, for or against, are based on real information rather than flawed logic.

Seeing what you want to see

Have you ever listened to or read an online argument where two people were looking at the same piece of video and drawing completely different conclusions? If you’re a coach who is always looking for information no doubt you have.

That’s the risk with something like video. I see X, you see Y. We both have our interpretations based on our own experience and beliefs. It’s sort of like confirmation bias, only this time you didn’t have to weed through a lot of videos to find the one that agreed with you. In this case, it appears they all do.

We all tend to filter things through our own lenses. That’s good most of the time, but it can also lead us to conclusions that may not be true.

The best thing you can do is keep an open mind and continually challenge your own beliefs. If someone says something different than you see or believe, try looking at it from their point of view. Make an assumption they’re right, and then see if you can support it. If you can, it’s worth re-examining your own opinions. If you honestly cannot say you see where they’re coming from, after making a real attempt, you just may be right.

Continue to learn

It’s easy to get stuck in your ways, and it’s hard to admit you may not have known as much as you thought you did. But if you can avoid these traps you’ll come out the other end a better coach.

Have you ever been in that uncomfortable position of having to change what you teach/believe? How did you handle it? Was it an easy transition or was it like rubbing a lemon on an open wound? Most importantly, are you glad you did it? Leave your answers in the comments below.

 

Softball Never Ever list

As at least some of you know, my day job is working for Amendola Communications, a PR agency that specializes in healthcare and health IT products and services. (How many thought softball was my day job?) Through that I have become familiar with many terms used in the healthcare industry. Hillary tag

One of the most interesting is the concept of “never events,” which are things in healthcare that should never happen because the lead to adverse outcomes (healthcarespeak for death or serious injury/illness). From that comes the concept of the “never ever list.” This is a list of things doctors in particular should never, ever do in order to avoid never events.

Why am I talking about all this? Because the topic came up (in a way) at a catching clinic I was conducting today. I saw a catcher do something and told her she should never, ever do that.

That got me to thinking. Maybe it would be a good idea to create a “never ever” list for softball. So with that in mind I’d like to ask the larger softball community – those who read this blog, members of Discuss Fastpitch and anyone else who would like to participate – to help me put together a great list. It would be something coaches could copy, print out and hand to their players to ensure they’re playing to the best of their abilities.

If you’d like to play, please leave a comment, either below on Life in the Fastpitch Lane or on DFP. Just a few ground rules.

I’m not looking for things like “don’t take lessons (or listen to) so-and-so,” or stay at such-and-such a hotel or play at a particular tournament. That’s what apps like Yelp! are for.

Instead, I’m looking for things where a decision is involved, especially during a game but also around it. I am thinking about making this an upcoming Softball Magazine column too, so if you contribute and would like to be credited under your real or screen name, please include that with your contribution.

Ok, to help get the ball rolling here are some of the things I think should be on the “never ever” list. The first one, incidentally, is the one that kicked off this whole idea.

  • Fielders, never ever pick up a ball on the ground with your glove.
  • Fielders, never ever block the base without the ball. That is obstruction and it’s being called more and more. Get the ball and then get into the baseline.
  • Fielders, never ever throw to a base when it’s obvious there is no play. Only bad things can happen. Instead, look for another play or eat the ball.
  • Hitters, never ever swing at a pitch you’ve already decided to take (unless you already have two strikes).
  • Hitters, never ever use more bat than you can swing quickly and well.
  • Pitchers, never ever do wrist flips. They are a waste of time and make you worse, not better.
  • Pitchers, never ever force a follow-through (hello elbow).
  • Base runners, never ever slide directly into a tag. Do a slide by, turn and go back, do anything but let yourself get tagged out.
  • Base runners, never ever take a lead off third in fair territory. If the ball hits you, you’re out. If you’re in foul territory it will still hurt, but you (or your replacement) will be able to return to third.

What would you add? Players, you are welcome to add to it too. Don’t let the coaches have all the fun!

Too positive can be (almost) as bad as too negative

Before I get into the main topic for today, let me start by confirming that I am a huge believer in positive coaching. I believe the authoritarian yelling and screaming style of coaching is outdated and counter-productive. It may produce some short-term benefits, but in the long term it does more harm than good.

 

That said, when it comes to fastpitch softball (as well as other activities) there is also danger in going too far the other way.

How could that be? If negative is bad, isn’t the opposite of negative positive – and therefore good? Not exactly.

The danger in going unrealistically positive is it often tends to kill the incentive to improve. If players are constantly being told how wonderful they’re doing, even when their skills leave a lot to be desired, they may not feel the urgency to step it up to the next level.

There are all kinds of examples. A hitter who is crushing the ball against weak pitching despite weak mechanics won’t develop the mechanics she needs to hit higher-level pitching. That’s fine if she never wants to move up in class, but if she does she will find it difficult. Then she’ll be left wondering what happened.

Another example is the pitcher who relies only on her fastball, or the catcher who never learns to block a ball in the dirt. Skills that help better-than-average athletes succeed early generally do not hold up as they get older or face better competition.

What players really need from coaches (and parents) is honest feedback. Praise them for their good work now, but also inform them that they can do better, and become better.

Build that work ethic and sense of striving to improve constantly and you will do more for their self-esteem, and their long-term success, than simply telling them how great they are all the time. It’s how the truly great become great.

 

Private softball instructors level the playing field

As someone who has a broad interest in the state of youth sports in general as well as fastpitch softball specifically, I’m always interested to read articles on the topic. There’s no doubt that the U.S. (along with more and more other countries) has become sports-crazy, to the point where it is having a negative effect on young players. Sad softball player

There is one aspect that always strikes me as missing the mark, however, which is their description of instructors. Maybe it’s because I’m a private softball instructor myself, but I don’t think it’s just me taking it personally.

When they talk about how crazy parents have gotten, sooner or later the articles will refer to how on top of everything else parents “then drag their kids to an instructor to spend even more time on their sport, usually in the hopes of acquiring that D1 scholarship.” Or something to that effect. It’s not an actual quote, just a sort of paraphrase of what I’ve seen.

That may be true in some cases. But for the most part I see the role as being somewhat different.

In the good old days these pundits like to talk about, they say kids just showed up at the field and learned to play there. They didn’t need all these adults around.

Well, the reality is that was wonderful for the kids with great athletic ability. You know the ones I’m talking about – you give them a ball, or a stick or some other piece of athletic equipment and they’ll instinctively know what to do with it. But maybe not so much for the kids for whom it didn’t come naturally, or who hadn’t grown into their bodies yet, or who were a little slower in developing their motor skills.

Basically what happened was they got left behind quickly and never had the opportunities to advance in a sport they may have loved but weren’t particularly good at yet. They got weeded out early.

That’s why I say a good instructor can level the playing field. He or she can take a player who may not be the greatest athlete and teach him or her to be competitive and find success on the field, court, rink or whatever. Success being defined by the player and his or her family.

I’ve worked with a lot of kids who had no ambition of playing in college – not just at the D1 level but at any level. Some just wanted to be successful in high school, or on their travel team, or in their rec league. They wanted to get off the bench and become important to their teams.

Is there something wrong with that? I don’t think so, and if I can help them achieve that goal where they might not have otherwise it’s terrific.

Not everyone was blessed with great DNA or grew up in a family that played sports all the time. A good instructor can help make up for those “disadvantages” and level the playing field, giving them opportunities they may not have had otherwise and helping them to achieve all they can achieve.

Of course, even the best athletes can use a little help along the way to shortcut their learning curve, and they’re fun to work with too. My point is that most of the parents who take their kids somewhere for instruction aren’t the ones you see in TV documentaries and NY Times ads, relentlessly trying to drive their kids to sports success they themselves never achieved. They’re just trying to help their kids feel good about themselves and build some great sports memories.

Sometimes injuries create opportunities

Over the past couple of days I’ve been emailing back and forth with my friend Stan Goplen, who has been working with his granddaughter JJ to get her ready to make a statement pitching for her high school team this spring. Stan told me that JJ hurt her finger playing volleyball and may not be able to throw for a little. Softball injury

Some people would see that as a problem. But I often find that injuries create opportunities. How?

No matter how good it might be for them, sometimes it is tough to get kids to spend the amount of time required to work on one part of the pitching, hitting, throwing or other motion/skill. They get bored easily (especially these days) and want to move on to the complete skill.

An injury takes care of that issue. For example, a pitcher with a hand issue can either sit out, or can work exclusively on her leg drive (which is what Stan planned to do with JJ).

Conversely, a pitcher with a leg issue can work on her arm circle, spins, whip and so forth. I had that happen earlier this year with a 10U pitcher named Jenna. She’d hurt her ankle, so while it was recovering we worked from the waist up, which helped her immensely. By the time she could use her legs fully again she was much better prepared to take advantage of them.

The most extreme case I had was a few years ago when a pitcher named Devin was in a cast from her ankle to her hip. We found a high stool and she sat on that as she worked on her spins and arm path for her curve and drop balls. By the time she was healthy both pitches were considerably better than they had been – because we were able to lock in the arm mechanics she required.

The same concept can be applied to other aspects. Hitters with injured legs can get into a turned position and work on taking the barrel of the bat to the ball (instead of dropping the hands and sweeping the bat through the zone). Fielders with a broken wrist can work on lowering their hips to a ground ball (without catching, of course) or learning to track fly balls over their heads. All it takes is a little creativity and imagination.

So the next time you see a player with an injury, don’t think “oh darn.” See it as an opportunity. You’ll be amazed what you can accomplish.

So how about you? What have you done to take advantage of player injuries? How did it work out for you ?

The long reach of coaching influence

When you’re coaching it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day aspects of it. After all, if you’re a team coach there are practices to plan, tournaments to schedule, equipment to order, insurance to purchase, lineups to make out, etc.

Hitting spots is not the be-all and end-all

Kate Kiser pitching back in 2011. Those were the days!

If you’re a private coach there is (hopefully) a procession of players, each with different needs that must be considered and planned for, scheduling to do, fields or facilities to work with, promotional materials to get out and so on.

So in all of that it’s easy to lose sight of the longer-term impact you might have. That’s why I wanted to share this article today. It’s about a top-level high school volleyball player named Kate Kiser and how she got to be that way, but bear with me. It’s also a softball story.

In the article, the reporter asks Kate which coaches had the biggest impact on her athletic career, and Kate very kindly named me. What makes it interesting is that this is a volleyball article and I coached her in softball pitching and hitting. Kate stopped playing fastpitch softball a couple of years ago to focus on volleyball, and clearly it’s paid off for her. Not just in local accolades but also in the colleges that are recruiting her.

While I didn’t teach her how to set, or serve, or dig or do the other stuff volleyball players from what she says I did have an impact that wasn’t sport-specific. What better reward could there be for a coach than knowing you’ve had a lasting effect on a player?

What makes this success story of Kate’s more remarkable is that she wasn’t always a superstar. I first met Kate when she was 9 (I confirmed that with her mom Kim, a great lady if there ever was one).

Kate had an interest in softball and wanted to pitch. She and her mom came in to the facility I worked in at the time to give it a try. I was pretty booked up, so they had to start lessons at 10:00, which is pretty late for a 9 year old, but they were there every week. After some early progress we started doing hitting as well.

Yet when she went to her first travel softball team it was a rough ride. The coach had his favorites, and Kate didn’t see the field much. In fact, I remember hearing about at least one out-of-town tournament where she didn’t play an inning all weekend. It was rough, but she never gave up.

Fast forward a few years and by 14U she was usually the talk of the tournaments she played in. She was a dominating pitcher and a powerful hitter. Some great travel coaches gave her the opportunity to demonstrate her skills and she blossomed as a softball player. It didn’t just come out of natural ability, though. She worked hard to get there.

Around 12U, I think, she started getting involved in volleyball as well. She quickly worked her way up the club ranks and started attracting attention. By the time she got to high school she had to make a decision on which sport to play. She went with volleyball (obviously), although I can’t help but think her heart is still on the diamond since she mentions it first when listing sports.

Still, while I hated to see her give up softball it’s hard to argue with the results. In addition to All Area and All Conference honors, she’s also been named to the All State team. As I mentioned, a lot of top schools are looking at her to play there too.

On top of all this, she’s a great student, with a shot at valedictorian. She wants to become a doctor, and I have no doubt she will not only do it but become a great one. She may just be the one who cures cancer. I wouldn’t put it past her.

So coaches, there’s something to keep in mind. While you’re teaching the game of softball you may be conveying other more important things to your players as well. You never know where it might lead.

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