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What to Watch for In the Olympic Softball Games

As you may have possibly heard as a fastpitch softball fanatic, our sport is back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008! This is a rare moment to watch the best players in the world compete on a huge stage with presentation budget of a major network production.

It’s also the last time for the next eight years as the sport is not included in the 2024 Paris Olympics. It is expected to return in 2028 and 2032 when the games flip to the U.S. and Australia. Who knows what will happen after that?

So since this is such an unusual opportunity you’ll want to make the most of it. Not just to sit back and enjoy the games (although that’s great) but also to learn all you can while you have the opportunity.

So to help with that, here are a few pointers on some things to pay closer attention to. The Speed of Play.

The Speed of Play

I’m not talking about pitch speeds, although they are incredible too. I’m talking about what happens when a ball is put in play.

Look at what happens on a ground ball. It is scooped up and on its way to first in a “blink and you’ll miss it” fashion. There is no double-clutching, no calmly standing up and then casually firing it over. It’s there and gone.

Or look at the baserunners. Even the ones you would think are more powerful than fleet are incredibly fast. If a ball is hit between two fielders in the outfield there’s a good chance the runner on first is going to third. Bobble it at all and she’s heading for home.

Everything is amazingly fast. If you want to know what to work on in your/your daughter’s/you players’ games, work on that.

For example, don’t just hit them ground balls. Run a stopwatch and challenge them to make the play in less than three seconds. I find blowing an air horn when the stopwatch hits three seconds provides a pretty good indicator of whether they were successful enough.

Work on just pure running too. I know most people get into softball because they don’t like all the running in other sports, but it’s something that does need to be addressed.

While you can’t make everyone fast you can help them get faster. The faster your team is the more pressure it puts on the defense and the more runs you can score when you need them.

Here you can start by making sure your players are running on their toes instead of heels or flat feet. Then do a lot of short, quick sprints.

Run down a hill. Have two or more players run against each other, perhaps letting one player start in front of the other. Have them play tag around the basepaths. Anything to get the feet and arms moving faster.

Watch the Pitching Mechanics

The coverage I have seen so far has been amazing at showing pitching mechanics. We are getting great closeup shots of what is happening at release on great pitchers such as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, and Yukiko Ueno.

Notice how close they are to their bodies at release, to the point where their forearms brush against their hips. Note how on a curve ball the hand kind of wraps around the back hip instead of being out and away.

Watch how they release the ball with a smooth, whipping motion. Note that they are vertical or leaning slightly back instead of being bent forward.

Also watch how they seem to glide on their back leg, like they’re riding a skateboard, until the front foot lands. Then they go into whip and release.

While you’re watching that, also note that they don’t drag their back legs behind them like zombies. The leg stays under them, which is what allows that skateboard-like movement.

It’s really a Master Class on pitching, happening pitch after pitch.

Listen to the Communication

With no crowd noise to speak of you can hear what’s going on down on the field more clearly. While at first you may list to the description of the play, maybe watch a second time and listen to what’s happening on the field.

They’re not down there keeping to themselves. Those players are communicating.

They’re talking before the play to make sure everyone knows their responsibilities. They’re talking during the play to help direct throws and avoid confusion. And they’re talking afterward to clean up any issues and pick up their teammates if something went wrong.

The more you communicate the better you’ll play as a team. Learn from the best.

What Happens Away from the Ball

The initial camera work is going to follow the ball. That makes sense because that’s where the main action is.

But during replays from other angles, look at what other players are doing. Who is backing up at a base? What is the right fielder doing on a throw from center to third?

If there is a steal or a bunt, who is fielding it and what are the other players doing?

For example, with a runner on first, if the third baseman fields the ball who goes to cover third in her place when the ball is bunted? Is it the shortstop, leaving second uncovered?

Unlikely since they may want to go for the lead runner. So is it the catcher? Pitcher? Left fielder?

The more you see how Olympic teams operate in particular situations the better idea you’ll have of what your team/daughter should be doing. Or at least learning.

How Tough Hitting Is Against Great Pitching

So far there hasn’t been a ton of offense in most of the games. That’s to be expected with such great pitchers.

Maybe it will change as the tournament goes on and the hitters get used to the high level of pitching they’re seeing. But right now it does demonstrate how challenging hitting can be – even for the best players in the world.

That’s something to keep in mind when your daughter goes 0 for 8 on a Saturday, or your team hits a collective .225. No matter how hard you work, a lot of good things have to happen to succeed at hitting.

That said, practicing properly (and often) gives you your best chance to succeed. Each of the players you’re watching works incredibly hard to do what she does.

Imagine where those hitters would be without all that hard work.

Softball is a game built on failure. It’s those who can push past it who will ultimately succeed.

They Make Mistakes Too

I think this is an important lesson for parents (and some coaches) to learn. These are the very best players in the world, presumably. But at some key moments, usually when their team can afford it the least, you will see a player here or there make an error.

It happens. It’s unfortunate but it does, even to the best. Especially in a pressure situation.

What parents (and some coaches) need to take away from that is these things are going to happen occasionally so you can’t freak out or get down on your daughter/player or scream at her in a way that makes her feel bad about herself.

This applies not to just physical errors but mental errors. If you’re a coach, make the correction in a non-judgmental way and move on. Believe me, she didn’t do it just to make you look bad or ruin your day.

If you’re a parent, be supportive. She’s probably already feeling horrible about it. Instead of making it worse help her learn from the experience so she doesn’t repeat it.

Realizing even the best players in the world make mistakes now and then will help you enjoy your daughter’s/players’ playing more and avoid turning one bad play into a bad inning – or a bad game.

Anyway, those are a few of the things I think you should be watching for as you enjoy softball in the Olympics. Any other thoughts? Leave them in the comments below,

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

College softball not always the Valhalla you imagine

College softball may not be the Valhalla you imagine

There is a belief by many in the fastpitch softball world that making it to play in college gives you entry into a virtual Valhalla where the coaching is top-notch, the players are dedicated to and fully supportive of one another, and all the problems of school or travel ball disintegrate into the rarefied air of collegiate competition.

I’m here to tell you that’s not actually the case. At least not everywhere all the time. I was reminded of that yesterday while watching a collegiate game.

It was a well-played contest between two very competitive teams, each battling to the last out for the win. The weather conditions were hardly ideal, which made the competitive spirit of the players stand out that much more.

Yet sitting in the stands, I once again noticed how it isn’t all that much different from 10U travel ball. I’ve seen games at all levels, and talked to players and coaches as well. Here are a few of my observations on the similarities from yesterday and the past that will hopefully bring a measure of reality to your hoped-for college experience.

Parents still live and die with their daughters’ performances.

I’m sure this never goes away. But you can generally tell whose daughter is at the plate by the way the parents react. When it’s someone else’s kid, they’re relaxed and enjoying the game. When their kid comes to bat, they suddenly tense up.

Many bring out the smartphone to video the at-bat, probably to go over it later in great detail. I’ve heard tales about this or that dad who is pretty brutal on his daughter’s performance. (Moms not so much, although I’m sure it happens.)

Pitchers’ parents have it worse. They have to sit on the seat cushion of nails for the entire half inning. If their daughter struggles, they either tense up visibly or deflate like a balloon. Not all of them – many actually just sit and watch the game, supporting their daughters with the sheer force of their will as best they can – but there are those who definitely go too far with it.

Yelling at the umpires

Another surprising thing. Although it happens at pro games too so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

But still, do parents really think they’re helping their cause by riding the home plate umpire? In the best care scenario, the plate ump will be a professional and ignore the peanut gallery. That’s usually what happens.

Below the best case, he/she might start giving a little more leeway to the opposing team just to prove a point. Umpires are human beings too (despite what some of you think) and subject to the same human reactions as the rest of us.

There is probably less yelling at and complaining about umpires overall than at a 10U game. But by the time the parents who do it have players of college age, they’ve had a lot of practice at it.

Complaining about the coaches

Pretty much the same thing as with umpires, only different topics. It’s all the usual complaints – playing time, coaching strategy, lineups (why would they put so-and-so in the 5 spot? She hasn’t had a hit since the Democrats controlled Congress!).

They’ll also critique every decision on the field, especially if it goes south. Stealing bases is a great idea until a runner gets thrown out. Then it’s “What were they thinking?” Why are we bunting, or why are we not bunting, is another popular question.

Even the pitch calling gets questioned on a case-by-case basis. Particularly if it results in a home run. Hey, it’s possible the right pitch was called but not thrown. Or the right pitch was called and thrown, but the hitter just did a heckuva job hitting it. That happens too.

Honestly, the parents or fans who do this are in the minority. Versus 10U ball where everyone is an expert and the score doesn’t matter. But it does go on. Why do you think coaches pretty much tell parents at the beginning of the season please come out and support us, but we don’t want to hear from you ever?

Players sniping at one another

I am pretty sure there are some college coaches who are good at keeping a lid on this sort of thing. But softball players are human, and not all humans are good at handling personal responsibility. So when something goes bad on the field, their instinct is to blame others instead of owning their own mistakes.

For example, a player who makes a bad throw might blame the receiver for not moving fast enough to catch it. Or a player who lets a spinner drop in front of her might blame another player for causing confusion by going after the ball – even though every team drills who has priority over who into their players’ heads from day one.

On offense, players might blame one another for lack of production at the plate in a give situation. Especially if the player who struck out with runners in scoring position isn’t a star.

These are the kinds of things losing teams do, even when they’re winning. It happens at 10U, 12U, 14U, etc. And it can happen in college.

Coaches having favorites – and non-favorites

It’s a pretty safe bet that all college coaches have favorites – the kids they count on more than others. The better ones at least make an effort to hide it. But many others make it pretty obvious.

One of the easiest ways to tell is by how long a leash each player has. For example, if player A makes an error, she gets yanked out of the game right away, benched so she can think about her egregious transgression and her sabotaging of the coach’s goal of joining the 500 wins club. If player B makes the same error, however, nothing. “Shake it off,” she’s told. Pretty easy to see who is the favorite.

The problem with this thinking, of course, is that should Player A get back on the field, she will be that much more uptight and cautious. She will be playing not to make an error instead of to make a play. That usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Still, not every coach gets that. And the more they play favorites, the more they create the sorts of divisions in their teams that will prevent them from losing.

Focusing on one play as the reason for a loss

Yes, this still goes on in college too, unfortunately. I’ve written in the past about how it’s never just one thing that causes a loss. But not everyone understands that, even in college. Where they should.

That play at the plate where the runner was called safe when she was clearly out. That bad pitch that ended up in the outfield bleachers. That mishandled ground ball that let the winning run on base. And so forth.

All of these are but single incidents over the entire course of the game. In college there are no time limits, so the minimum length is 6.5 innings. That means the visitors have 21 outs to work with. The home team has either 18 or 21 depending on whether they are winning or losing after 6.5.

So yes, that play at home was costly. But how much would you care if your team had scored 6 more runs? A little argument, then you’d be laughing about it. Same for that error, or that meatball served up like you went to Olive Garden. They’re all meaningless if the team scores more runs, or plays better defense overall.

No game turns on just one play. There are ample opportunities to win throughout. But that instinct to make it all about one event can be strong. Even at the college level.

It’s still fastpitch softball

Just as the game itself doesn’t really change from 10U to college, the things around it don’t change much either. If you don’t believe me, try hanging out at a college game – the closer to home plate the better.

Then just listen to and watch what’s happening around you. Playing in college is still a worthwhile goal. Just be realistic about your expectations once you (or your daughter) get there.

It’s fun – but it’s not Valhalla.

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