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7 Tips to Make 2022 Your Best (Softball) Year Ever

First of all, let me tell you I had quite a debate with myself on whether to write a New Year’s post or just go with a more general topic. But when the stars align – as in the last day of 2021 is also the day I usually put up a new post – it’s a good idea to just go with it.

So here we are. Hopefully 2021 was a great year for you.

We actually had somewhat normal high school, college, and youth softball seasons, although COVID-19 protocols often impacted the spectator part of spectators sports. At least the fans who got in didn’t have to wear a mask on 90-degree days.

Also in 2021, fastpitch softball temporarily returned to the Olympics, albeit in eerily quiet and empty stadiums and played on baseball diamonds. It was sort of like watching a dome game with a field set up for football. The fact that the oddly formatted mini-tournament was finished before the opening ceremonies took place tells you all you need to know about what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) really thinks about our sport.

The Women’s College World Series (WCWS) on the other hand was a TV rating juggernaut, averaging more than 1.2 million viewers per game. That’s 10% more than the 2019 WCWS.

The three-game championship series between Oklahoma and Florida State fared even better, drawing an average of nearly 2 million viewers per game. In the process, we got to see a lot of great softball.

Speaking of great softball, Athletes Unlimited entertained a lot of fastpitch softball fanatics with its playground-brand of choosing up teams and having no coaches on the sidelines. Maybe they’re on to something.

And hopefully you personally had a successful 2021 as well.

Of course, as the disclaimer on every “get-rich-quick” scheme quickly says, past performance does not guarantee future gains. So following are a few tips to help you make 2022 an even better year.

Tip #1: Practice with a purpose

Yes, I know many of you have t-shirts with that very saying on them. But how often do you actually take that approach?

It’s easy to get into the rut of “putting in time.” i.e., going off somewhere and going through the motions of a skill for a half hour or an hour or whatever, or coaches having players performing activities for two, or three, or four hours. None of which will actually help you get better, and could make you worse if the practice is sloppy enough.

If you’re going to practice, then have a goal and go after it wholeheartedly. For example, if you’re a pitcher working on leg drive, then work on getting yourself out faster each time rather than mindlessly doing the leg drive drill you were assigned.

Master the skill, not the drill, and you’ll be a lot better off.

Tip #2: Grow your knowledge

In today’s Internet-accessible world there’s no reason to do things a certain way because that’s how you’ve always done them. There is an incredible amount of research being done in our sport and an incredible wealth of knowledge being shared – if you will open your mind to it.

The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) is one of the best. Right now they are in the midst of hosting a series of live coaches clinics around the country that enable top-level coaches to share their expertise with the rest of us.

If you want to go more in-depth on a topic, the NFCA also has its Master Coach program, which offers a combination of live and online courses. I took their very first online Coaches College course earlier in 2021 and it was well worth the time and money. Give it a shot.

There are plenty of private resources as well. PaulyGirl Fastpitch has its High Performance Pitching courses at the beginner, intermediate, elite, and pro levels.

You can learn all about great throwing mechanics from the High Level Throwing program. There’s a cornucopia of hitting courses out there as well.

Then there are resources such as the Discuss Fastpitch board and the Fastpitch Zone and The Bullpen Facebook groups that connect coaches from around the world with one another to share their knowledge and experience. And that’s the just the start.

If you want more knowledge it’s out there. Just be sure to come in with an open mind because some of what you hear may go against everything you’ve ever believed. And that can be a good thing.

Tip #3: Use video

This one doesn’t require a lot of explanation. There’s what we think we see or feel, and there’s what’s actually happening. They’re not always the same.

Virtually every mobile phone includes a high-definition, high-speed camera for free that would be the envy of coaches and players from just 10 years ago. Take advantage of it.

Video yourself or your players often, and see if what you think you’re doing is what you are in fact doing. Compare what you see to the best players in the world.

While you don’t have to match exactly, you should match in principle. If you’re not doing what you think you’re doing, adjust accordingly.

Tip #4: Work on your mental game

Ask any group of coaches or players “who thinks the mental game is a critical contributor to success?” and you’ll probably see every or nearly every one of them raise their hands. Then ask how many take the time during practice or during their free time to work on it and you’ll likely see few (if any) hands.

It’s sort of like Mark Twain’s famous admonition about the weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.

That is a mistake in my opinion. There are (again) plenty of books and other resources that focus on this aspect of sports. Here’s a list of a few:

  • Head’s Up Baseball
  • Mind Gym
  • The Champion’s Mind
  • Championship Team Building
  • The Mindful Athlete
  • Winning State
  • Mental Conditioning for Softball
  • The Energy Bus

Invest some real time in developing the mental game – especially the part about overcoming adversity – and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Tip #5: Make some time for recruiting activities

This is for those players who want to (or think they want to) play softball in college. If that’s not you, go ahead and skip to Tip #6.

For those still reading, playing softball in college at any level is an accomplishment – and ultra-competitive these days. You’re unlikely to be randomly discovered playing during a local tournament.

If you want to play in college, you need to make an effort to build a relationship with coaches at different schools, and at different levels.

One obvious way is to attend skills camps at schools where you might like to play. While some are just money grabs that have minimal involvement from the college coach, most are both an opportunity for coaches to give back to the game while checking out potential future talent. What better way is there to get them interested in you than to demonstrate your skills in their “house?”

Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is another great way to establish and maintain contact with coaches. Follow coaches at schools you’re interested in and hopefully they will follow you back.

Share their Tweets with your followers. Send Tweets of your own about your/your team’s latest accomplishments and activities and tag the coach or the program. Be active and be visible.

Just one word of caution about social media: keep it positive at all times. The Internet is written in ink, and more than a few players have eliminated themselves from consideration by their dream schools because of things they’ve posted. That includes photos and negative comments about their parents or current coach.

Present yourself as if the coaches you want to play for are watching every post. Because they are.

Email is still a valid way to contact coaches too. Just keep it brief – they’re busy people and many get hundreds of emails a day. If you want to share a video, be sure the coach can see what you want him/her to see in ONE click. Any more than that and they’ll pass.

This isn’t just for high school players either. While the D1 rules changed and they can no longer contact players before September 1 of their junior years, it doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to who can play and who is interested in their schools. And there are no such restrictions for D2, D3, and NAIA, although they tend to recruit later anyway.

Recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint, so get out there early and often if you think playing in college might be for you.

Tip #6: Make time for rest and recovery

When you’re dedicated to something it’s easy to overdo it. Don’t let that happen.

Rest and recovery is just as important to high performance as training. Your body needs time to build itself back up after intense activity. So does your mind.

It’s ok to take a day or two off each week during the season as well as during the offseason. Your body and your brain will tell you how much you need for peak performance. You should also plan on taking at least a couple of weeks off at some time during the year for deeper recovery.

Oh, and this applies to coaches too. You’ll find coaching is a lot more enjoyable if you let your batteries recharge now and then.

Tip #7: Resolve to have fun

This is probably the aspect that has been most lost over the course of the last 10-20 years. Yes, we have more technology that can tell us more things, and more practice facilities that enable us to keep working even when the weather is at its nastiest, and more opportunities than ever to take our game to a higher level.

But the tradeoff has been more pressure and more stress to the point where playing (and coaching for that matter) feels like a job. And not a particularly pleasant one.

It’s important to remember that softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.

That doesn’t mean it should be like a birthday party without the cake. But it shouldn’t be like studying for finals while waiting to see the dentist either.

Fun in most cases is what you make it. Some people enjoy really digging into things and pushing themselves to their limits. That’s right for them.

But it’s not right for everyone. Others will find their fun in getting a little better each day without killing themselves, competing (in a friendly way) with their teammates, or in being part of a team.

Understand what’s fun for you and then find/create a team with others who share your definition and goals. Like using the wrong pair of cleats, being on a team that isn’t a good fit can be painful.

Good luck to everyone, and I hope you make 2022 your best year ever!

Photo by Damir Mijailovic on Pexels.com

Chutes and Ladders…and Softball

Not too long ago I talked about how I love this time of the year because you have the ability to make big changes without the pressure of performing in games.

Pitchers can work on speed without worrying about accuracy. Hitters can work on driving the ball without worrying about striking out. Catchers can work on pop times without worrying about throwing the ball to the center field fence. And so on.

What’s not to like, right? With all that unfettered ability to go full bore at improvement you should be able to make tremendous improvement in a short time. Right?

Well, not exactly. The thing is, improvement isn’t always a straight line up. In softball, as in most sports, it’s more like the old children’s board game Chutes and Ladders.

You remember that one. You roll the die and move your piece the number of spaces shown on the space.

Sometimes it results in nothing. You just move forward that many spaces.

Sometimes it brings you to a ladder, and you get to skip a whole bunch of spaces by climbing the ladder. That’s great progress, and a quick shortcut to winning.

But sometimes, your roll of the die brings you to a chute. When that happens, you fall back down the board, a little or a lot, and then have to claw your way back to where you were before you can continue moving toward a win.

The same can happen with softball skills, especially if you’re trying to improve something fundamental.

Whether your mechanics are right or wrong, when you get comfortable with them you can use all your athletic ability to execute them. You’re at maximum energy and maximum speed.

All that goes out the window when you start making a fundamental change. You have to think about what you’re doing and it slows you down.

It probably feels a bit awkward too. Because if what you were doing before didn’t feel natural you probably would not have been doing it.

The result is your performance may go down the chute temporarily. If you’re a pitcher you may lose a little speed, or a pitch that was working pretty well may not work as well anymore.

If you’re a hitter you may swing and miss a little more, or might lose some bat speed.

But that’s ok. It’s normal and natural. You need to be patient and trust the plan.

Because one day, when you have internalized the changes, the payoff will be there. If you’re pursuing the right changes all the chutes you have to endure will be worth it. Because eventually you will hit a ladder and get that much closer to your goals.

Re-thinking How to Use a Radar Unit

Ally pitching

I am going to admit right up-front that I have always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with radar guns/units for pitchers.

At first it wasn’t too bad. I bought a Glove Radar and attached it to my catcher’s glove to check my own daughter’s speed. It was fine for that purpose, especially since we weren’t really caught up in the absolute number but rather just looking to see whether she was making progress.

Once I started teaching pitching lessons and was no longer catching, I purchased a series of other units, including an early Bushnell (which I ultimately gave away) a Jugs Gun (an earlier model than the one in the link, which I still own) and then all the iterations of the Pocket Radar.

I tended not to use the radar units much, however, because of one simple phenomenon. Whenever I would pull out the unit, no matter which one it was, the pitcher would tighten up and start throwing visibly slower than she had before.

Inevitably the readings were disappointing and what had started out as an energetic lesson would kind of fall into a sort of funk. Consequently, while I had all this technology at my disposal I didn’t really take advantage of it.

That changed after I took the High Performance Pitching certification courses from Paulygirl Fastpitch and had a chance to observe how Rick Pauly was doing it. He had a radar unit permanently set up in the cage he uses for lessons, with a big readout the pitcher could see after every pitch.

As you would watch him teach lessons in the course, the speed was always there in the background. As a result, it no longer became a “thing” to be trotted out. It was just part of the background, like the net or the posters he has hung up.

That brought me to my epiphany. If every pitch is measured, the pitcher just might learn to get over her fear of being measured.

Of course, one of the differences between my situation and Rick’s is that all his students come to him at a single location, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, while I work out of at least three different facilities on a regular basis, plus some other locations when I am working with several pitchers on a team. I am a softball gypsy.

So I started thinking how I could duplicate that experience when it hit me. I have a Pocket Radar Smart Coach unit. I could mount it to a tripod, place it behind the catcher, and pull up the readings on my iPhone.

Good idea in theory, except it became a problem when I wanted to video a student to point out something to work on. Luckily technology again came to the rescue and in a better way.

I still set up the Smart Coach on the tripod in Continuous mode. But then I connect it via Bluetooth to my iPad, which sits on the floor, off to the side, in front of the pitcher. Every pitch gets registered in big numbers that we both can see, and my phone remains free for video.

From a logistic standpoint, this setup has worked out well. I also quickly discovered that an evening’s worth of lessons will drain the batteries pretty quickly. But luckily the Smart Coach has a port that lets you connect a power block to it.

The power block I have lasts for several hours. When I get home I recharge it and it’s ready for the next evening’s lessons.

The big question, of course, would be the effect it had on the students. Would they tense up and freak out over having every pitch measured?

Not at all. In fact, the opposite has happened. I find that the big, red numbers inspire them to work harder to increase their speed.

There’s no slacking off in a lesson, because it becomes obvious. The numbers don’t lie. And they all want to do a little better than they did before, so they keep working at it.

But rather than tensing up they kind of find their own way to relaxing and throwing better.

Since I’ve started using it, I think every pitcher who has done it has achieved at least one person best if not more. By personal best I mean her highest reading on my set-up.

It also gives me a way to push them that’s fun for them. If a girl throws 51, I’ll ask her to throw 52. It’s just one mph more, but stack up enough of those and you get a nice speed increase.

The setup I use isn’t perfect. Pocket Radar says the unit works best when it’s a few feet away and directly behind the catcher/in line with the pitch. The cages I use don’t allow for that type of setup; I usually have to put it a foot or two to the side of the catcher, sometimes right behind him or her.

No matter, however. The objective isn’t to get an absolute speed measurement. It’s to track (and encourage) progress.

Having a pitcher improve speed during a drill, or work to get to a new high speed from the pitching plate, gets us where we want to go. We can always get the more accurate measurement when we can set it up properly.

So if your experience has been like mine, where bringing out the radar unit becomes a momentum killer, try making it “part of the furniture” instead. You will probably like what you discover.

 

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