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Great Time to Hit the Reset Button

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The summer is a distant memory. Especially for those of us who got snow on Halloween! Can you believe that? Sticking-to-the-ground-over-your-ankles snow on Halloween.

Fall ball is either behind us already as well, or there is one more weekend to go. Then there’s a lull before it all starts again.

It’s definitely a great time of the softball year to take some time off. Rest and recovery is a good thing, and now that we have joined the indoor sports in playing practically year-round it’s tough to find a few weeks you can string together to let your body (and mind) heal from the grind.

For some, however, this might be a great time for something else – i.e., hitting the reset button and either correcting major flaws or making major upgrades in mechanics and approach.

There is never a bad time to work on improving yourself and your game. But making major changes carries some risks when you’re also expected to play at your most effective level during the week or on the weekend.

Let’s take pitchers for example. To achieve all she’s capable of, a pitcher may need to work on her posture, or her leg drive, or her ability to whip the ball through the release zone. But it can be difficult to work on those things if doing so causes her to be wilder than when she sticks with her old habits.

Most coaches would rather have their pitcher bend forward and throw consistent strikes than work on staying upright and throwing too high, or too low, or too wide. Especially if that pitcher is their #1. That’s just the nature of things, and it’s very understandable.

Still, every pitch the pitcher throws bent forward so she can throw a strike is another step in the wrong long-term direction. And it will take her that much longer to get to where she needs to be to reach her potential.

It’s the same for hitters. Working on developing a better swing that will make a hitter more effective at higher levels doesn’t always yield great results at first. Anything that’s different is uncomfortable at first, and hitting is so dependent on quick reactions that walking the line between the old and new swings may throw the hitter off entirely.

Again, most coaches will take a good hit with an ugly swing over strikeout or weak ground ball or pop-up with a good swing. They’re not interested in how many home runs that hitter will hit in two years with her new and improved swing. They’re focused on getting her on base, or scoring that runner on third, now. Can’t say I blame them. I would be too.

Once upon a time there were three distinct parts to the season. There was the off-season, which lasted a few months, then the pre-season for a month or two, then the actual season.

That’s not the case anymore. Fall ball has gone from being a time of once-a-week practices and a game here or there to almost the equivalent of the summer season. Some of the tournaments in the fall are arguably more important than many in the summer for those who play in college, because college coaches are in attendance in droves. You don’t want to look bad in front of a gaggle of college coaches.

So right now, from the beginning of November to the end of December, is about the only time for players to make major changes in a safe environment. Pitchers can work on improving their drive mechanics, or their posture, or other core fundamentals without having to worry about the results of the pitch.

They can throw the ball all over the place for now, as long as they do it with the correct mechanics. It’s a form of failing up. Not to be confused with the version where someone sucks without trying to get better but gets rewarded anyway. As they replace old habits with new ones the control will come back – and be better than ever.

Hitters can work on developing their swings without having to worry about the consequences. As they move from conscious competence (having to think about how to move correctly) to unconscious competence (not thinking about what they’re doing but doing it right anyway) they can shift 100% of their focus to seeing the ball and hitting it hard. Suddenly all those cage pop-ups and ground balls start turning into rising line drives that smack off the back of the cage – and rebound back at the hitter if there is a solid wall behind the far end.

Everyone can work on their throwing mechanics – still one of the most under-taught parts of the game. Instead of measuring success by “the ball got to where they were throwing” fielders can develop mechanics that will help them throw harder and faster while protecting their arms and shoulders from injuries.

Most times of the year the pressure to perform in games out-ranks the desire to make improvements. Not right now.

For those who know they need to make major changes, this is the ideal time. Get to work, either on your own or with a qualified instructor, so by the time you start up again you’re ready to play (and show) better than ever.

And if you’re not in need of major rework, enjoy your time off. You’ve earned it.

Nothing Like Starting with a Clean Slate

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Fall ball is beginning to ramp up, at least in my area. A couple of teams I know played last week, and a whole bunch more are scheduled to play tournaments and/or round robins this weekend.

(That’s fascinating to an old coach like me, by the way, since for most of my coaching career fall ball meant playing a friendly or two on a couple of Sunday afternoons. Now it’s a regular part of the overall softball season.)

For players who stayed with the team they were on in the previous season it’s probably no big deal. They know the coaches and (most of) their teammates, and the coaches and teammates know them. It’s a pretty comfortable situation.

For those who are on new teams, however, it’s an incredible opportunity. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, players on new teams can create a whole new impression of who they are and what they can do. That new impression will be how the new team sees them.

Take a hitter who had a rough summer. She struck out a lot, and when she did hit it was mostly popups and weak ground balls.

Then toward the middle of the season she took some hitting lessons and started driving the ball. Unfortunately, her coaches already had a picture of her as a hitter in their minds, and didn’t trust that what she was showing was what she had become. So she stayed at the bottom of the batting order.

With the new team, however, all bets are off. They liked something about her at tryouts, which presumably is why they took her. Those are their only preconceived notions about who she is as a player.

All she has to do is what she was doing at the end of the last season – hitting consistently, with plenty of extra base hits – and she’ll be at the top of the batting order on her new team. Because these coaches’ impressions of who she is will be based on today forward instead of her far less productive past.

The same is true for every position. If she was a pitchers who struggled with control early on but got it together later, the starting point today is a pitcher with control. Error-prone fielder? Not anymore.

The only ones on this team who know she struggled in the past are the player and her parents. And hopefully they’re not saying anything!

It isn’t often in life that you get a real, live do-over. But this is one of those situations.

If you’re starting up with a new team, leave the past in the past. Forget about any struggles you may have had before, and play the way you’re capable of playing today.

Now go be awesome!

Turn, Turn, Turn? Not Anymore

 

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It’s a pretty safe bet that “Turn, Turn, Turn” is the best-known songs by the 60s folk-rock band The Byrds. It’s either that or “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but I personally think the former is the better song. After all, tough to beat having your lyrics written by folk legend Pete Seeger by way of The Bible.

Even if you never listen to an oldies station you’ve no doubt heard it. It’s pretty much required in any movie about the 60s, or that references the 60s in some way. But just in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid it all these years, here’s a video. Enjoy!

The key point of the song (and why I bring it up, other than my love of jangly 60s music) is it says there’s a “time for every purpose under heaven.”

While that may be mostly true, in the softball world today it seems like there isn’t time for one thing – stepping back and making major corrections in mechanics without the pressure of an upcoming game.

I know Bill Hillhouse says there’s never a bad time to fix mechanics. But it sure is a lot tougher to make a significant change when there is a tournament coming up in a few days.

Once upon a time, the post-season was a great time to make those fixes. You finish up with Nationals at the beginning of August, then take a couple of months off to rest and recuperate before starting up again.

There might be a game or even a tournament here or there, but nothing like we see today.  The way things work right now, players are often trying out for their next team before they’ve finished with the current one. Then it’s straight to practice to get ready for a two-month schedule of tournaments every weekend.

Of course, player performance in those early games sets the tone for how they’ll be perceived, especially if they’re on a new team where they’re not known. So rather than taking a step back to maybe fix things that could be better, players are more likely to continue down the path of what’s worked so far. Even if it’s not optimal.

The problem is certain mechanical fixes are likely to make a player worse before they make her better. Now, for some it doesn’t matter. If your mechanics are bad and you’re not performing, there’s little risk in making changes. Nowhere to go but up and all of that.

For others who have had success already but want to get better, however, it can be a problem. They were comfortable with where they were, and they were doing well, so making changes gets them out of that comfort zone, creating a risk of failure where there used to be success. And failure is an important part of the overall learning curve.

A pitcher maybe slower or less accurate until she resets her timing or gets all the body parts working together properly. A hitter may be tentative rather than aggressive until she’s had a chance to figure everything out. You get the idea.

The long-term benefits are there. It’s just hard to keep that in mind when you’re in the circle, in the batter’s box, on the field, etc. No one wants to look bad, especially in front of a new team (and coach). So they’ll tend to fall back on what they always did rather than forging ahead into new territory.

I don’t blame the players (or their parents). You gotta do what you gotta do. But with our 12-months a year season there’s little time available to fail for a little while to succeed in the future.

There has to be a better way. Somehow or another, there needs to be a season where pitchers can take the time to focus on changes that will help them increase speed without having to keep their change, drop, or other pitches sharp. Or hitters can focus on getting their sequence right instead of worrying about making contact with the ball. You get the drift.

What’s the solution? One idea is to play fewer tournaments, or maybe even fewer games overall in the fall. I know that won’t be a popular idea but it would definitely create some headroom for experimentation.

If you can’t do that, maybe teams can set aside a month or two during the winter months to work on reaching some specific goal or making a major change. Recognize that your player may not look like your player for a little while, but ultimately she will be better.

Maybe you have other ideas. If so, please share them in the comments.

All I know is there really needs to be a time for everything – including getting away from the pressure to perform so players can take the time they need to get better. It may be tough to accept at first. But the results will be worth it.

The challenge of fall ball

 

 

Take advantage of fall ballRight now we’re in the midst of the fall fastpitch softball season – aka “fall ball.” Whether you’re a 10U player getting her first taste of travel ball or a college coach hoping to get an idea of what her team needs to work on in the off-season, it’s always an interesting time.

This is a big change from when I first started coaching travel ball. Back then, tryouts didn’t happen in August for teams in my area; most teams did tryouts in the spring. Eventually that backed up to December, and then to the current system where some programs are running their tryouts while others are at Nationals.

Because of that, back in the day fall ball didn’t really exist. When we did start running tryouts in August it was still tough to find games in the fall.

That’s not the case anymore. There are individual games, round robins, and tournaments (real as well as showcase) galore. As they say, you can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere. It’s a bit challenging for older teams with players doing fall high school sports, but somehow people figure it out.

The abundance of fall ball creates several new challenges for everyone. Here’s a look at a couple.

Win or learn?

One of the most obvious challenges is coaches deciding whether they want to focus on winning games or learning what their players – especially their new ones – can do.

You already know what you know. Do you stay with what you believe gives you the best chance of winning the game? Or do you try to learn more about players you don’t know as well, even if it costs you the win?

If you decide to learn, that might mean putting weaker hitters at the top of the lineup to get them more at bats. It might mean playing a girl at shortstop who has potential but hasn’t acquired the skills and game experience yet to really stand out. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.

If you decide to win, you may not get a chance to discover a hidden gem who could make a huge contribution in the future. You may reinforce a lack of confidence in a player who actually has more ability than she’s been showing. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.

Showcase tournaments add another level of complication. The idea is to show college coaches what your players can do. That’s why most don’t have a champion. It’s more like pool play all the time. You want your team to look good to attract coaches, but you also want to make sure all your players get seen.

If one of your pitchers is struggling, do you leave her in and let coaches see how she battles? Or do you get her out so coaches can see how the rest of your team does?

There are no right or wrong answers. It’s simply a matter of knowing what your goals are and sticking to them.

Stay in or get out of your comfort zone?

Players have challenges as well. One of the biggest is whether to stretch your game and take chances when you play or stick with what you already know works?

If you’re new to a team, such as a freshman in college or high school or a new travel ball player, you want to show you can belong and contribute. But you may also be nervous about looking bad if you fail.

The safe decision is to stay within what you already know you can do. But if you do that, you’re not growing as a player. Fall is often a good time to take those chances because people care a lot less about who wins those games. If you make an error, or struggle a bit at the plate as you work on developing more power, the consequences will be less than if it happens in the spring.

Personally, I would recommend making the stretch. Try taking that extra base, or working that new pitch into your arsenal, or sacrificing some accuracy to drive up your speed, or being more aggressive on defense, or unleashing your new swing. It’s your best chance to give it a try and see how it plays in a game. You can also be comforted by the fact you’ll find out what to work on during the long offseason.

Take advantage of opportunities

Fall ball offers all sorts of opportunities. Rather than getting stuck in the same old same old, approach it for what it is. Discover what you want to discover, try the new things you want to try (and are comfortable trying), and most of all, have fun doing it! It’ll pay off in the long term.

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