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Changing Teams? Use GameChanger (et. al.) As A Research Tool

So, the new travel team you joined after July/August tryouts isn’t working out quite the way you hoped and now you’re considering other options. But, of course, after being burned once you are worried that you may jump from the frying pan into the fire.

How do you make sure that whatever issues caused your dissatisfaction with the current team aren’t the same (or worse) with the new team you’re thinking of joining?

One way, of course, is to talk to people who are already on the team. If you or your daughter have friends connected to the new team they can give you a “behind the curtain” glimpse into how things run.

Does the coach favor certain players over others, especially in your daughter’s preferred position? Does the team play against quality opponents, which will help your daughter stretch and grow her skills? Is the coach a screamer? Are the other players/families nice to be around or will you be embarrassed to be associated with the team in public?

But what if you don’t have a connection that can give you a reliable word-of-mouth appraisal? That’s where apps like GameChanger/TeamManager and their ilk can come in handy.

They won’t answer all your questions, like whether the coach is a screamer or what the families are like. But they can certainly give you some pretty good insight into a lot of other aspects.

Circle time

The first is what you can expect for playing time. Let’s say your daughter is a pitcher. Look up the prospective team and see how many pitchers they have and what kind of innings they’re getting.

If you see they have six pitchers, each of whom are getting an inning or two per game/tournament, adding your daughter to the mix will probably not go well. Now the pie will be sliced even thinner and she’s not going to learn how to be a #1.

On the other hand, if the same one or two girls pitch almost every inning of every game, that can be a red flag as well. It means the coach isn’t willing to lose a pool play game or a during-the-week friendly to enable his/her other pitchers to develop.

He/she wants the win, so if your daughter isn’t already ready to deliver that level of performance on a daily basis you should probably pass as well. And even if she is, she may still not get the opportunity if the only two pitchers the coach trusts are the ones currently getting all the innings.

Another scenario to look for is the team has two, three, maybe even four pitchers but only one of them gets any quality innings in bracket play. Especially if that pitcher is a coach’s daughter.

You probably won’t be too happy with that situation, particularly if your daughter is ready to lead the team to victory on Sundays but never gets the opportunity. You can pretty much count on having to find another team next season.

Then there is the team that only has one player who even wants to pitch. Your daughter will likely get a lot of opportunity, even if she still needs some development. (Not a guarantee but a likelihood.)

She can prove herself and earn more time as she goes along, which benefits both pitchers.

Finally, if the pitchers on a team never play the field that may also be a red flag for you. This one, however, depends on what your daughter wants from the game.

If she only wants to pitch (and not hit or play the field) this team will be a good fit. If she wants to do more, be aware the coach’s philosophy probably isn’t going to change for your daughter.

What you want to look for is an opportunity that aligns with what you want out of the experience.

Playing time for fielders

For field players you can also look at how many the team has at that position and how many innings they’re getting. If all other positions show two or three players getting quality time but the first baseman is always the same, and your daughter loves playing first base, that team is probably not going to be a fit.

Another thing to look for is how many positions players are playing on a regular basis. At the younger ages (up to 10U or maybe 12U) it’s great to expose kids to a lot of different positions to help them find what they like.

Beyond that, however, they need to start narrowing it down to one or two in my opinion. There are a lot of nuances to fastpitch softball and each position requires time to learn them.

That’s tough to do if you’re being shuffled all over the field.

It’s great to be versatile so you’re ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, but there’s a limit. It’s better to learn two, maybe three at the most and learn them well than be all over the field all the time.

Another thing to look for is the difference between the Saturday and Sunday lineups. If some current players consistently are listed on Saturday but not Sunday you’ll know the team has “pool play only” players on their roster.

If that’s acceptable to you, no problem. If not, you may need to do more in-depth research or find a team that is more liberal in its playing time.

One final thing to check is the overall roster size. For travel ball, 12 or 13 is usually the maximum. Anything above that, especially if the team has pool-play-only players, and it’s unlikely you’ll be very happy as the new person coming in.

Playing quality opponents

This one should be fairly easy to do. Take a look at the schedule to see who the team played and the scores of the game.

If you’re familiar with teams in your area you should be able to immediately recognize whether they play strong or weak teams on a regular basis. If your daughter hopes to play in college and the team is only playing weak opponents it’s not a good fit. You have to play quality to achieve quality.

If you’re not familiar with the teams they’re playing, look at their won-loss record and the scores of the games they played. If they’re beating up on teams 12-0, 15-1, 23-1 or some other lopsided score on a regular basis they are probably not playing very good teams.

The better bet is a team that is winning its games by one or two runs on a regular basis, whether that’s 2-0 or 8-6. Those scores indicate the teams were fairly evenly matched.

Likewise, if their Won-Loss record is 43-3 it’s pretty clear they’re not challenging themselves very much. That’s fine if you just want to be on a team that wins all the time but be aware it’s probably not going to make your daughter a better player.

A team that wins 60% to 70% of their games, particularly if they are playing in PGF or USA-sanctioned tournaments, is probably a strong team that plays strong opponents.

At the same time, a team that wins 35-40% of their games against good opponents may just be one or two players away from becoming strong. Perhaps your daughter can be one of those difference-makers.

Number of errors game to game

This one can be a little dicey because it’s entirely dependent on whoever is scoring the game in the app. Some people score everything a hit because they don’t know what constitutes an error, or they want to make the fielders/team look good.

Others score a lot of errors to help keep the pitchers’ ERAs low. The difference between a passed ball and wild pitch may also depend on whether it’s the pitcher’s or catcher’s parent who is scoring the game.

But that aside, looking at error totals game to game can give you a sense for how the team plays in the field. And how well-coached they are.

An occasional high error count happens to everyone. But if it happens consistently, and doesn’t change over time, that team may not be particularly well-coached.

If errors are rarely or never charged, and the team’s record is only so-so, you can pretty much count on it being a deficiency in scorekeeping. In other words, the team probably makes a lot of errors that get counted as hits.

Not saying that’s a reason not to join the team. Just be aware that you’re going to be watching those games and they’re probably not going to get better as they go along.

Opponents’ stolen bases

This one again can be subjective, up to the judgment/knowledge of the scorekeeper. But it can be an indicator of how the team performs.

High opponent stolen base counts can be an indicator of weak catchers. Or weak fielders.

Keep in mind you can have the greatest catcher in the world with a pop time under 1.8 seconds. But if there’s no one on the other end to receive that ball and place the tag, or the catch gets muffed all the time, opponent stolen bases will be high.

But that stat could also indicate that the pitching is, shall we say, somewhat wild. While the advancement of the runner should be scored as a wild pitch or passed ball, those who don’t know better (and some who do) will mark it as a stolen base.

So if you see a lot of stolen bases, especially at the younger levels, take it with a grain of salt and look for other factors, such as the number of strikes versus total pitches. If that count is low, you’re probably looking at advances on wild pitches/passed balls rather than a problem with catcher throws or fielder receives. Which usually indicates a weaker team.

Grain of salt

Of course, everything in an app like GameChanger has to be taken with a grain of salt. Unless you know the scorekeeper personally and can vouch for his/her knowledge of fastpitch softball, the statistical information you glean will always have some doubt associated with it.

But by taking several of these data points together you can get a pretty good idea of who the teams plays, how they play them, and whether your daughter would be a good fit and vice versa. If nothing else you can keep from making some of the same mistakes again – so you don’t find yourself in the same position six months from now!

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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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