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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

Take the Time to Grind

Take a look at any list of what champions supposedly do (such as this one) and somewhere on there you’ll see something about how they do the things others aren’t willing to do. What those lists don’t tell you, however, is a lot of those things they’re referencing fall into the category of “grinding.”

This isn’t the flashy stuff. They’re not spending hours on the Hit Trax machine, playing more games, participating in fancy clinics, etc.

Instead, they are working over and over to correct even the tiniest flaws, perfect their mechanics, and learn to get everything they can out of themselves.

If that sounds boring it’s because it is. That’s why most players don’t do it – especially if they are already experiencing success.

A player who is the best hitter on her team, or maybe even in her league or conference, may hear that she needs to work on improving her sequencing. But she also wonders why bother since she’s already leading in most offensive categories.

Sure, there’s always that story that it won’t work at “the next level.” But there’s no guarantee that’s actually true, so until she experiences failure she may decide that’s just the softball version of the Krampus – a myth created to scare people into doing what you want.

Yeah, this guy.

True champions, however, don’t do things because they’re afraid of failing at the proverbial “next level.” They do them because they want to be the best they can be, at which point everything else will take care of itself.

Here’s an example. A typical pitcher will look at her speed numbers, and as long as they are where they need to be they’re happy. Someone willing to grind, however, will actually allow her speed to slip a little to improve her drive mechanics or her arm circle. That way, when she has internalize the change she will be even faster and more accurate.

For a field player, it could be learning to throw better by learning a better throwing pattern.

For a hitter it could be reworking the structure of her arms to prevent her back elbow from getting ahead of her arms. That’s not sexy, and it’s certainly nothing most people would notice if they weren’t watching high-speed video.

But the champion knows she’ll hit the ball a little harder, and with greater consistency, if she makes the change so she spends the time to do it. As opposed to average player who tries it a few times, gets bored with it, and goes back to trying to hit bombs off the tee.

And there’s the key difference. Grinding on mechanics can be mind-numbingly boring. It can also be incredibly different, especially as the things you’re grinding on become more nuanced.

It can also feel risky, because there’s a good chance that you will get worse before you get better – especially if what you’re changing is a fundamental process. If you’re in the middle of your season, that’s a huge risk to take (if you’re already experiencing success; if you’re failing, not so much).

That’s what makes the months between fall ball and the new year the perfect time to take on a grinding effort.

Early in the learning process you’re probably looking to make big changes that have a profound effect on your success in a game. It’s a bit easier to stay with it when that happens.

In other words, if you’re used to hitting weak ground balls and pop-ups in-between strikeouts, you have a lot of incentive to work at improvements. When you start hitting line drives to the outfield on a consistent basis it can be downright inspiring.

But if you’re already hitting line drives to the outfield, and you are now trying to hit more of them, it doesn’t feel quite as rewarding. Going from hitting .110 to .330 is a lot more noticeable than going from .400 to .440. Going from hitting zero doubles in three tournaments to four in one tournament is a lot more remarkable than going from four to six in one tournament.

That, however, is what those who are willing to grind do, because their reward is internal instead of external. For many, their goal is to be perfect. They want an extra base hit on every at bat, or a shutout for every game they pitch.

They know that goal is unrealistic, but they go for it anyway because they are driven to contribute as much as they can to the team and deliver the best results of which they’re capable.

The funny thing is, this is an individual decision. There are 100 ways to fake it, or to make it look like you’re grinding when you’re really not.

But for those who want to be the best they can be there’s no substitute for the grind. They make the effort to make smallest and even seemingly most insignificant improvements, because if they can gain an edge that will help them perform better and win more ballgames, they’re going to take it.

It’s really up to you. With a lot of teams shut down right now, either deliberately to give their players some time away or as a result of state orders, it’s the perfect time to grind away at something that will make you better.

Find something and put in the effort. You never know where it will lead you.

Softball instructors are like Google Maps for players

A recent series of discussions on the Discuss Fastpitch Forum has been debating the need for or value of private instructors. Perhaps the best way to explain what private instructors bring is to liken them to using Google Maps. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a private instructor myself, so naturally I am a little biased on the topic.)Google Map

Let’s say you live in Cleveland and you decide you want to drive to Omaha. How are you going to get there? One way to do it is to hop in your car, point it west, start driving and hope for the best. You’ll probably get there sooner or later, but odds are it will take you longer than if you had used one of the other choices.

Another option is to pull out a paper Atlas (like we used to in the old days) and map out your route on paper. That will be better than just randomly driving, but for best results you need to be pretty good at reading maps. Not everyone is. If you misinterpret the map, or the roads have changed since your Atlas was printed, you could end up getting lost. (Think Clark Griswold in the first Vacation movie.) If you do lose your way, you may not even realize it for a while, in which case it will probably take a bit of backtracking to get you back on the right road.

Then there is using Google Maps (or your mapping application of choice). You can plug in your starting point and destination and the entire route will be laid out for you step-by-step. If you’re using a PC you can print it out and take it with you, without all the extraneous information that is in an Atlas. If you’re using it on your smartphone, a pleasant voice will guide you turn-by-turn to your destination, with easy-to-read visuals along with it. If you happen to make a wrong turn anyway, or the roads have changed, Google Maps will recognize you’re heading in the wrong direction and immediately guide you back to where you need to be.

Those are the things a private instructor will do as well. You don’t absolutely need one to get to where you’re going, but like Google Maps an instructor will help you get there faster.

A private instructor will lay out a good foundation using techniques, drills and cues that have proven successful before – but adjust to the specific needs of the player. The instructor will offer that same sort of turn-by-turn guidance that helps players stay on the path to success rather than wandering off into dead ends. If something gets “off” due to any of a dozen reasons, the instructor will help guide the player back onto the right path.

This isn’t just for beginners, either. Even accomplished players need a little help now and then. Every professional team has position coaches and instructors who are there to help players improve their games and overcome problems. When Tiger Woods was at the top of the golf world, he still had a swing coach who worked with him to help him stay there.

In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle lists the three essential elements to achieving excellence. One is motivation, and another practice. But the third is coaching. Not that the coach has any special magic to offer. But because the coach can help make sure that players spend their time practicing the right things in the right way rather than trying to feel their way through the process.

Again, it’s not for everyone. If you’re just planning to drive around your own neighborhood you don’t need Google Maps – or at least you shouldn’t. But if your goals are to get out into the larger world, you might want to have a guide by your side.

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