6 Tips for Easing Back Into Softball Mode
Yesterday I had the opportunity to join in on an NFCAonline mentoring session. While several of the topics that came up were more oriented toward college programs, there was one in particular that was pretty universal: how to get players back into softball mode.
For many, these past three months may have been the longest layoff they’ve had from a formal practice/workout routine since they were pre-teens. That’s especially true for players above the Mason-Dixon line (not to be confused with the Mendoza line, which is a whole different issue), where the weather has been spotty at best, and sometimes downright uncooperative.
With not just indoor facilities but many parks closed, it’s likely many players have spent far more time than they would have otherwise making Tik Tok videos, streaming movies and TV shows, sleeping, eating junk food and doing whatever else is popular among young people these days.
I get that, too. It’s tough to get motivated when you don’t know whether your next game will be next month, next fall, or next year.
Sure, teams have been doing Zoom meetings to try to hang together, and various activities such as the Facebook videos where it looks like they’re throwing the ball from one player to the next. But none of that requires a whole lot of physical exertion or delivers much preparation to get out and play.
Now that summer leagues and travel ball is beginning to open up again, however, it’s important to ensure players who have been idle for the last few months are given the opportunity to ease their way back into playing. Otherwise there is a risk of even more time off due to injuries.
Here are six tips to help ensure players stay healthy as they start working to shake off the rust.
- Limit overhand throwing for the first few weeks. Arm and shoulder injuries due to improper throwing mechanics were already a problem, even before the Great Layoff. It’s unlikely the underlying issues have magically gotten better. While the time off was good for healing old injuries, it also means players can be highly prone to new ones. That’s why it’s important to ease them back into throwing overhand. Pay even closer attention to throwing mechanics during warmups, and spend a little more time than normal on shorter, lighter throws. (If you don’t know what to look for in terms of mechanics, check out Austin Wasserman’s excellent High Level Throwing programs.) During fielding drills, save arms by having players toss the ball to the side or drop it in a bucket at times rather than throwing the ball to a base. When you do start having players throw full-out, set a limit and stick to it. This is especially true for catchers practicing throwdowns. Remember it’s been a while. Do maybe 10-12 at most to start, and work your way up from there.
- Put more emphasis on stretching. I shouldn’t have to say this but I’m going to anyway. Players who have been largely inactive for the last couple of months likely have tight muscles. Even those who have been putting in some practice time on their own are probably not as limber as they were when they were more active with school, other sports and activities or anything that required more effort than shifting positions on the couch. They need to get those muscles, tendons and ligaments working properly again. For the first few practices be sure you plan extra time for dynamic stretches to begin practice, and watch to make sure they’re doing those stretches properly. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched teams slop their way through various stretches and then expect they’re ready to play.) When you’re approaching the end of practice, be sure to leave a little time for cool-down stretches too. This is important at any time, but especially right now. Get those muscles, tendons and ligaments loosened up properly now and you’ll face far fewer injury issues down the road.
- Condition intelligently. There’s a good kind of sore, where you know you fatigued the muscles well so they can strengthen and improve, and there is a bad kind of sore where you over-worked the muscles and now it’s going to take some time to recover. Unless you are a certified strength and conditioning coach you probably aren’t sure of the where that line is. It’s going to be tempting to try to get your team into peak game shape in one or two practices. Don’t succumb to that temptation. Remember that young people can have all kinds of stuff going on beneath the surface – Osgood-Schlatter Disease, growth plates, chronic tendonitis, etc. – that can affect their performance and cause pain. Overconditioning early on can exacerbate these conditions. While there may be a desire to get them into mid-season shape right now, resist it. Ease them in and build to it, just as you would in any other season. It will pay off in the long term.
- Limit repetitions. One of the keys to all of the above is to limit repetitions in the early rounds. Overuse injuries are essentially caused by performing more repetitions than the body is capable of safely handling. After a period of inactivity that number may be a lot lower than you’re used to in a practice setting. Deal with it. There are actually two benefits to it. First, variety in activities helps work different muscle groups. That’s why so many college coaches say they like multi-sport athletes. The kids they get are in better shape and less likely to be damaged. The second benefit is that you have a lot of ground to make up. Focusing too much in any one area means other areas are being ignored, and you know those other areas will come back to bite you. Fewer reps means less time spent, which means you have time for other areas.
- Hydrate early and often. If your players have mostly been laying around doing nothing they probably aren’t going to be used to the physical exertion of stretches, much less a full-fledged practice. As a result they can dehydrate quickly. Be sure to take frequent water breaks, especially for the first couple of weeks, and keep an eye out for signs of dehydration. Better yet, let them bring their water with them from station to station or area to area. After all, it’s unlikely that 12 or 14 or whatever number of players on a team will all need the same amount of water at the same time(s).
- Remember the mental side. While the most obvious challenges will be physical, the mental side of the game will also need to be worked on if your players are going to be game-ready when it’s time to go. You may be all softball all the time, but most (if not all) of your players are not. That means they may have forgotten things you expect them to know (especially in the younger age groups), so be sure to go through those mental aspects as well. Walking through coverages, backups, special plays, rules and rule changes, etc. helps get their minds back in softball mode while saving their bodies. If players aren’t performing at the level they remember themselves being at before, they may experience stress or anxiety on top of what they’re already experiencing. Pay attention to those aspects as well, because they may not be able to compartmentalize their worries and concerns as well as you wish they would. Keep them focused, keep them positive and keep them engaged and they will bounce back to where they should be much faster.
Once you get back on the field it’s going to be tempting to just jam down the accelerator and take off right away. Resist that temptation.
If you ease into it instead, with an intelligent plan that builds on itself, you’re far more likely to find success in both the short and long term. Good luck!
Minesweeper bunt drill for catchers
One of a catcher’s responsibilities, whether in fastpitch softball or baseball, is playing the bunts that stay close to home. The catcher has to realize the situation, react quickly, pick up the ball cleanly, set her body, and make an accurate throw under pressure.
The first step in this process, of course, is to teach the core techniques, such as surrounding the ball and how to pick it up when it’s moving versus sitting versus spinning. From there, most move to tossing the ball from behind the catcher and having her pick it up.
Here’s another way you can reinforce the techniques while adding pressure, repetition, and conditioning. I call it the “Minesweeper” drill after the old computer game that used to come with Microsoft Windows.
What you want to do is set several balls at different positions in front of the catcher that she will actually be responsible for. The catcher starts from a runners on base stance, and when say go or blow the whistle, she runs out, fields the first bunt, makes the throw, then comes back and does the next, as Jasmine demonstrates here:
You can use as many balls as you like, although try to space them so the catcher doesn’t accidentally step on one and roll her ankle. For added pressure (and some competitive fun), have her work against a stopwatch. You can even have multiple catchers competing against one another to see who can get the best time.
As you can see, this is a drill you can do in a batting cage as well as outdoors. The cage we used in the video is a little short of the full distance, but that’s okay as long as you’re measuring times the same way. When you move outside to full distance, just set the baseline again.
Watch to be sure the catcher returns to a good stance each time before going after the next ball. She doesn’t have to stay there long. Just long enough to get established.
Not only is this drill good for building and reinforcing technique. It’s also a great way to help catchers get some conditioning work in without realizing it. They’ll be so focused on clearing the “mines,” especially if you’re timing them, that they won’t notice how much work it is.
If you’re looking for a fun way to help your catchers improve their bunt coverage, give the Minesweeper drill a try.
6 Tips for a More Successful Softball Tryout
For most of the fastpitch players in the country, the end of February means one thing – high school team tryouts. Whether you consider high school ball the pinnacle of your year or merely something to do until travel ball season starts, it’s an opportunity to show your school spirit and make a contribution to community pride. But before you get there, you first have to make the team.
The best way to assure your spot, of course, is to choose your parents wisely and be born dripping with talent. High school pitchers who throw 65 mph, hitters who can crush a softball 250 feet, and shortstops who can go into the hole, turn and fire for the out, generally don’t have much to sweat.
Neither do those who have older sisters who could do those things. Every high school has its legendary family, and the assumption is the gene pool runs deep enough to cover everybody, whether it really does or not.
But if you’re in the other 99 percent of the players out there, it’s important to make the best impression you can during tryouts. (Hopefully, the legend’s sister doesn’t play your position. That’s often tougher to overcome than actual talent.)
Remember that the amount of time the coach sees you follows a simple formula: your time = the total amount of time for tryouts ÷ the number of players trying out. In other words, if tryouts take a total of six hours and there are 60 girls trying out, you have six minutes to get noticed. Here’s how you can use that time wisely.
- Hustle, hustle, hustle. There’s no substitute for it, and it’s one of the key factors coaches look for. Desire is an important attribute coaches look for in prospective players, and hustle is a great indicator of desire. Hustle is also an indicator of coachability. With hustle and at least one strength, most coaches will figure a player can possibly be developed into a good or great softball player. When you’re moving from station to station during tryouts, don’t walk. Run. If you’re fielding ground balls, don’t go through the motions – act like the state championship is on the line, and dive if you have the opportunity. The more effort and enthusiasm you show, the better your chance of tipping the scales in your favor.
- Be friendly. In her book Coaching Fastpitch Softball Successfully, one of Kathy Veroni’s “unwritten rules” is to say hello to the coach. That’s great advice for tryouts too. It shows confidence, and helps you stand out immediately. Remember, it’s a long season, and there are a lot of bus rides ahead. Having people around he or she likes makes the rides go faster.
- Make sure you’re in good shape. It’s likely the coach will put you through conditioning drills. My friend Bob Dirkes, a former scholarship nose guard at Northwestern University, says you never want to show you’re tired during conditioning drills. Being in good shape will make that happen. Being in shape also shows a level of commitment that might tip the scales between you and a comparable player. It’s like that old deodorant commercial said– never let ‘em see you sweat.
- Be fundamentally sound. If you have a few weeks before tryouts, get in the gym now and work your fundamentals. Catch with two hands – every time. (Unless you are a catcher or a position player reaching for a ball.) Look the ball into the glove – every time. Get on the batting tee and make sure you’re using a good hips-shoulders-bat sequence. If you mess up a chance or two but show good fundamentals, you’ll still look solid. If you make the plays but your technique is poor, you’ll look chancy. Chris Simenson, a former HS coach in Iowa, says, “The game is still a matter of learning fundamentals and execution. A player willing to practice and learn will advance beyond a talented athlete who does not.” Coaches want players they can count on game after game to make the plays they should make. Show you’re one of them.
- Show all your skills. If you have something special, don’t assume the coach knows it – and don’t wait until the coach asks, because he or she probably won’t. If you’re in the batting cage and you’re a slapper, be sure you show it. Just about every knowledgeable coach wants a slapper or two in the lineup. If you’re a pitcher, don’t just throw fastballs. At the minimum, show your change. If the coach goes to the catcher’s end and you have pitches that move (drop, curve, rise, screwball), be sure to throw them. You just added a dimension to the coach’s game plan.
- Practice under the conditions you’ll use in tryouts. If you’ll be hitting off a pitching machine, you’d best start practicing hitting off of one, even if you don’t particularly like it. If you can, use the same type of machine, and find out how fast they set it. If you will be indoors, try practicing fielding on a similar type of surface. The ball bounces differently on a wood gym floor v. a tile gym floor v. a concrete surface v. a turf surface v. an actual field. If you don’t know, ask if they use actual softballs or the rubbery ones. Pitchers should try to find out what types of balls the team uses, because different balls feel different and you’ll need to be comfortable with the balls you’re throwing. Even the lighting conditions can make a difference. The more you get the feel for what the tryouts will be like, the better you’re likely to perform.
The last piece of advice is to relax and just show your stuff. Don’t think of it as being judged – think of it as your time to shine!
Remember, softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Approach it that way, and you’ll be successful. Good luck!
Pitching, conditioning and mental toughness all in one drill
First of all, let me admit that I haven’t actually used this drill yet. But I was thinking about it the other day and thought it might be a good idea for that softball pitcher who wants to take her game to the infamous “next level.” I have a few girls in mind who I think would benefit from it.
Here are the basics. The pitcher throws a pitch as per usual. It can be any pitch – fastball, change, drop, whatever. After she throws it, rather than the catcher throwing it back the pitcher sprints to the catcher, the catcher hands her the ball, and the pitcher sprints back to the pitching rubber.
Once she is back she can follow her usual routine to throw the next pitch. You don’t want to rush that and risk poor mechanics.
Continue until the pitcher is winded – or maybe one more pitch beyond that.
This drill will do several things. Obviously, it will help the pitcher with conditioning and building up her endurance in a sport-specific way. Pitching is basically a one-step sprint. Having the pitcher sprint down and sprint back (rather than conditioning with long runs) will help encourage that quick burst and quick recovery. It will also help her build length strength to drive off quicker and more powerfully.
It will also help the pitcher gain experience with pitching when she’s tired. All too often in lessons or practice sessions the pitcher goes for a half hour and is done. It’s not too tough to maintain good mechanics in that timeframe, especially if there are water breaks or chats in-between.
But in a game, or especially at a tournament, fatigue can set in quickly. If the pitcher isn’t used to pitching through it she can struggle. Her mechanics can break down and she’ll be doing anything she can to chuck the ball at the plate. Including things that could hurt her physically. But if she learns to pitch through fatigue in a controlled environment she’ll be much better prepared for the afternoon or evening of the last day of a tournament.
Finally, it will help her mental game, showing her that she can push past her normal breaking point and learn to focus even when she’s sucking wind. Especially if, as you should, you insist that her control, speed and movement remain consistent no matter how tired she gets.
Now, this is not the sort of thing I would recommend for every practice session. But every now and then – maybe once a week if she’s practicing regularly – it can make a huge difference.
If you want to give your pitcher a good workout, especially after the holidays as many are preparing for the high school season or the summer, give this drill a try. And be sure to let me know how it goes.
The importance of rest and recovery for athletes
Just read an interesting and worthwhile article by Arizona coach Mike Candrea for his Liberty Mutual Play Positive monthly column. The topic was sports injuries and how to prevent or at least minimize them.
In the column Candrea talks about some of the causes, especially in softball. He says most injuries in our sport are not the result of something occurring on the field, but of overuse. He points to his own experience where a career-ending elbow injury requiring surgery was the result of over-use in Little League.
One of the big points he brings up, and the one I want to focus on today, is the need for rest and recovery. Today in youth sports there seems to be a focus on playing as many games as we can. When we’re not playing we’re practicing, and when we’re not practicing we’re expected to be conditioning, or doing speed an agility, or doing something else to get better.
All of those are good things, but you can get too much of a good thing too. The importance of rest and recovery time cannot be overstated. This article from the American College of Sports Medicine says, “Rest is a critical component to any good workout routine and time spent allowing the body to recover is a great way to prevent injuries. A rest day must occur at least one to two times per week. Even small breaks during a workout are sometimes required to get the most out of the workout and prevent injuries.”
This article from Stack gets more into the specifics of overtraining. Among the points it makes is that muscles that are worked hard tend to have their proteins break down. If the athlete isn’t allowed to rest the protein continues to break down and put the athlete at risk of injury.
While these things apply to any athlete, they particularly apply to youth athletes whose bodies are still growing and changing. They need recovery time – rest, not just a lighter workout – to avoid injury.
As parents and coaches, it is our responsibility to ensure our athletes have the rest and recovery time they need – even if that makes us unpopular, or goes against the grain of what everyone else is doing.
If you’re an athlete you need to listen to your body. Don’t just try to “tough it out.” You’re not training to be a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger. Speak up if you can’t go. Again, it might not make you popular, and it might cost you playing time today. But better that you’re still able to play a few years from now than to allow some fanatic to ruin your career.
It’s not being lazy. It’s being smart. Listen to the experts. A few less games or practices might be just what the doctor ordered.
Yoga exercises to help prevent injuries in softball players
Following is a guest post by Nathan Friedkin, founder of Maximum Performance Yoga. It presents some ideas for using yoga to help build the strength and flexibility required to play at your peak level. Keep in mind these exercises are best used during off-times or after a game. For pre-game warm-ups you’ll want to stick with dynamic warm-ups.
Softball involves quite a bit of twisting, during which the lower body stays grounded and still while the upper body rotates. Twists are involved in batting, throwing, and even trying to steal a base. A stable foundation in the lower body (strong glutes and thighs) and flexibility in the spine are the keys to executing a safe and healthy twist, which are not only important in a strong performance
but in preventing back injury. Yoga postures such as Revolved Crescent Lunge promote leg strength through isometric muscle contraction and spinal flexibility through a sustained twist.
Yoga is also helpful in maintaining both strength and flexibility in the shoulder girdle, which are incredibly important in pitching. A good pitch requires not only a great deal of power, but an extensive range of motion in the shoulder joint. By stretching the shoulders in postures such as a wide legged forward fold with interlacing the hands behind the back, and strengthening them in postures such as Chaturanga Dandasana (essentially a narrow-arm push-up), yoga may be helpful in improving pitching
performance and reducing incidence of injury.
Here are some key postures for preventing injuries for softball players:
- Four legged staff pose (chaturanga)
- Standing Bow Pulling Pose
- Chair Pose
- Half Lord of the Fishes
- Standing Head-to-Knee Pose
- Seated Head-to-Knee Pose
- Revolved triangle
- Balancing stick
- Supine hand to foot
- Revolved side angle
- Prayer twist
- Wide legged standing forward fold with bound arms
- Cow face pose
- Half pigeon
- Eye of the needle
- Side plank
Nathan Friedkin is an entrepreneur, yogi, video producer, and proud father of two sons. He is also the founder of Maximum Performance Yoga® MPY crushes convention, smashes stigma and brings the benefits of power yoga training to student athletes.
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