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.
The once-funny and now just more generally creepy comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen has been quoted as saying “80% of success is just showing up” or something to that effect.
While most times ol’ Woody isn’t the person you want to take advice from in anything having to do with kids, in this statement he is most definitely correct. Especially when it comes to the early stages of learning fastpitch softball skills.
Let’s take hitting for example. Hitting even a decently fast pitch in fastpitch softball requires a series of movements that must be performed correctly individually, sequenced correctly, and timed correctly. Some of those movements and sequences aren’t necessarily intuitive.
Since the object of the skill is to hit the ball with the bat, it’s easy for young hitters to assume that they should focus on taking the bat to the ball first. If their body turns afterward, so much the better.
But that’s actually the opposite of what they should be doing. The proper sequence is hips-shoulders-bat. A good instructor will teach that sequence, which not only maximizes power but the time the hitter has to see the ball before committing to the swing and the ability to hit the ball in the proper zone.
If that young hitter who’s still learning only comes to lessons once every few weeks, however, there’s a very good chance she will forget all about the proper sequence and spend her time practicing a bat-first swing. Then her distraught parents will wonder why they’re paying all this money for lessons and not getting better.
It becomes even more important with windmill pitching because in my opinion there is so much that can go wrong – and failure is more obvious. If you have a bad swing but still manage to make contact with the bat you can get on base.
But if you’re not throwing strikes, or you’re throwing easy-to-hit strikes, you’re going to have a tough day. As I tell my students, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside, but it can be a cold, dark place on the inside.
Again, with windmill pitching some of the movements aren’t necessarily intuitive. If they were, you’d see more rec league pitchers using good form.
But instead, most untrained pitchers tend to stay facing forward, take a short step off the pitching rubber, and proceed to push/guide the ball toward the plate. THAT is what feels natural and intuitive. But it’s not what great pitchers do.
If a newbie pitcher only goes to lessons now and then and then gets put into a game before she’s ready, she will likely find herself like Luke Skywalker in the cave on Dagobah.
To really get the maximum value out of lessons in the early stages, it’s important to receive consistent training. That’s because you’re setting the foundation for all that is to come.
My recommendation is once per week – no more, no less – although you can do it going every other week if necessary. It will just likely take a bit longer to get where you want to go.
That regularity – and the short time between reviews by the instructor – helps keep players from veering too far off the path to success. It’s easier to do a reset when the training is consistent.
Going sporadically, however, gives the illusion of training without the benefits. Too much can go wrong in the meantime, and we all know it’s a lot easier to develop bad habits than to break them.
Instruction always works better when you apply it properly. In the early stages especially, that requires consistency. Make the commitment, even when it’s challenging, and you’ll see the rewards a whole lot faster.
For most of the fastpitch players in the country, the end of February means one thing – high school team tryouts. Whether you consider high school ball the pinnacle of your year or merely something to do until travel ball season starts, it’s an opportunity to show your school spirit and make a contribution to community pride. But before you get there, you first have to make the team.
The best way to assure your spot, of course, is to choose your parents wisely and be born dripping with talent. High school pitchers who throw 65 mph, hitters who can crush a softball 250 feet, and shortstops who can go into the hole, turn and fire for the out, generally don’t have much to sweat.
Neither do those who have older sisters who could do those things. Every high school has its legendary family, and the assumption is the gene pool runs deep enough to cover everybody, whether it really does or not.
But if you’re in the other 99 percent of the players out there, it’s important to make the best impression you can during tryouts. (Hopefully, the legend’s sister doesn’t play your position. That’s often tougher to overcome than actual talent.)
Remember that the amount of time the coach sees you follows a simple formula: your time = the total amount of time for tryouts ÷ the number of players trying out. In other words, if tryouts take a total of six hours and there are 60 girls trying out, you have six minutes to get noticed. Here’s how you can use that time wisely.
- Hustle, hustle, hustle. There’s no substitute for it, and it’s one of the key factors coaches look for. Desire is an important attribute coaches look for in prospective players, and hustle is a great indicator of desire. Hustle is also an indicator of coachability. With hustle and at least one strength, most coaches will figure a player can possibly be developed into a good or great softball player. When you’re moving from station to station during tryouts, don’t walk. Run. If you’re fielding ground balls, don’t go through the motions – act like the state championship is on the line, and dive if you have the opportunity. The more effort and enthusiasm you show, the better your chance of tipping the scales in your favor.
- Be friendly. In her book Coaching Fastpitch Softball Successfully, one of Kathy Veroni’s “unwritten rules” is to say hello to the coach. That’s great advice for tryouts too. It shows confidence, and helps you stand out immediately. Remember, it’s a long season, and there are a lot of bus rides ahead. Having people around he or she likes makes the rides go faster.
- Make sure you’re in good shape. It’s likely the coach will put you through conditioning drills. My friend Bob Dirkes, a former scholarship nose guard at Northwestern University, says you never want to show you’re tired during conditioning drills. Being in good shape will make that happen. Being in shape also shows a level of commitment that might tip the scales between you and a comparable player. It’s like that old deodorant commercial said– never let ‘em see you sweat.
- Be fundamentally sound. If you have a few weeks before tryouts, get in the gym now and work your fundamentals. Catch with two hands – every time. (Unless you are a catcher or a position player reaching for a ball.) Look the ball into the glove – every time. Get on the batting tee and make sure you’re using a good hips-shoulders-bat sequence. If you mess up a chance or two but show good fundamentals, you’ll still look solid. If you make the plays but your technique is poor, you’ll look chancy. Chris Simenson, a former HS coach in Iowa, says, “The game is still a matter of learning fundamentals and execution. A player willing to practice and learn will advance beyond a talented athlete who does not.” Coaches want players they can count on game after game to make the plays they should make. Show you’re one of them.
- Show all your skills. If you have something special, don’t assume the coach knows it – and don’t wait until the coach asks, because he or she probably won’t. If you’re in the batting cage and you’re a slapper, be sure you show it. Just about every knowledgeable coach wants a slapper or two in the lineup. If you’re a pitcher, don’t just throw fastballs. At the minimum, show your change. If the coach goes to the catcher’s end and you have pitches that move (drop, curve, rise, screwball), be sure to throw them. You just added a dimension to the coach’s game plan.
- Practice under the conditions you’ll use in tryouts. If you’ll be hitting off a pitching machine, you’d best start practicing hitting off of one, even if you don’t particularly like it. If you can, use the same type of machine, and find out how fast they set it. If you will be indoors, try practicing fielding on a similar type of surface. The ball bounces differently on a wood gym floor v. a tile gym floor v. a concrete surface v. a turf surface v. an actual field. If you don’t know, ask if they use actual softballs or the rubbery ones. Pitchers should try to find out what types of balls the team uses, because different balls feel different and you’ll need to be comfortable with the balls you’re throwing. Even the lighting conditions can make a difference. The more you get the feel for what the tryouts will be like, the better you’re likely to perform.
The last piece of advice is to relax and just show your stuff. Don’t think of it as being judged – think of it as your time to shine!
Remember, softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Approach it that way, and you’ll be successful. Good luck!