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Remember, They’re Still Kids

hailey-h-baserunner.jpg

I am sometimes shocked at the expectations coaches (and parents) seem to have these days for their youth fastpitch softball players. I’m talking pretty much everyone below college players.

You’ll hear coaches rail to 14 year old pitchers about the importance of pitchers hitting spots – by which they mean not ever missing them, not even by a couple of inches, or only missing two or three in a game. You’ll hear coaches telling 12 year olds about the importance of bat control and being able to hit behind the runner. You’ll see coaches yank a 16 year old out of a game in the middle of an inning for misplaying a hard-hit ground ball. And so forth.

Yes, it’s definitely easier to coach if all you have to do is turn in your lineup card and sit back while all your players execute everything perfectly. You can look like a real genius that way.

But the reality is, those players out on the field are still kids. Which means they’re subject to the kind of mistakes kids make.

It’s unrealistic to expect a team of young players to execute the game at the speed and skill level of the players you see on TV. Especially during the Women’s College World Series, when presumably the best of the best are playing.

(Of course, even those players make mistakes – sometimes on what seems like very routine plays. Oddly enough, their coaches don’t scream at them or yank them out in the middle of an inning. But I digress.)

I really think the key is we get so caught up in trying to win games that we forget those players we see are on the field are just kids. So to put it into perspective, I thought it might help to make a list of OTHER things a college-age person might do, or be allowed to do and then ask: would you let your young child do this? For example:

  • Drink alcohol (given that the legal drinking age is 21)
  • Rent a car (the minimum rental age is 25)
  • Drive an Uber/Lyft/Taxi, even with a valid driver’s license
  • Buy a new car without a co-signer
  • Vote
  • Rent an apartment or office space
  • Buy a house
  • Sell real estate
  • Purchase airline tickets
  • Purchase lottery tickets
  • Gamble in a casino
  • Fly an airplane
  • Get a safe deposit box

Many of the things on this list are simple, mundane things adults do every day and take for granted. But there is no way you’d want your 12 or 14 year old doing any of them, and probably wouldn’t even want an 18 year old doing most of them.

Why not? Because they’re kids, and as such they don’t think like adults or act like adults so they’re not ready for adult responsibilities. They still have growing and learning to do before they can be held to the standards required to do those things on a regular basis.

So what would make you think they’re ready to play fastpitch softball at the same level as the upper half of 1% of college players you see on TV?

Kids make mistakes. That’s often how they learn. Some kids develop slower than others and may not quite have the hand/eye coordination of their peers, much less players who are 6, 10 or more years older.

Kids mature at different rates too, and while any kid should have some measure of self-control, it’s harder for some than others not to have a mental meltdown when they feel they’ve let themselves, their parents, their coaches, and their teammates down. They just may not have the experience with failure yet to be able to “just shake it off” and bounce right back.

So as you watch (or coach) youth games this weekend, keep in mind all the things you wouldn’t want the players on the field doing outside of softball. Then remember why – because they’re kids.

Maybe it’ll help you lower your blood pressure a bit and enjoy the games a little more.

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Another Approach to Improving Pitchers’ Ability to Hit Spots

Juliana noodles spots drill

A few months ago I put up a post that showed a way to help fastpitch softball pitchers who were struggling with hitting their inside and outside spots by exaggerating the locations. The idea is that by making the adjustments larger you can help them get a feel for what it takes to move the ball from side-to-side.

Here’s another way to do it, using kind of the polar opposite approach. This is more for fine-tuning, when the pitcher is already pretty good at going inside/outside but you want to make it more precise and reliable.

All it takes is some scrap wood and a couple of pool noodles. What you want to do is create two narrow barriers, then have the pitcher attempt to throw the ball between them. Here’s how it looks from the back side:

What you’re trying to do is create a visual that helps the pitcher home in on exactly where the ball needs to go. Sometimes, when they’re looking at a catcher against a background, it’s hard to focus on that small spot. This setup helps narrow the field so to speak.

Holder top

Pretty fancy, huh?

The holders for the pool noodles were a couple of scraps of 1×6 pine board with a hole drilled partially through them. The holes should be just slightly larger than the diameter of the dowel rod.

Once you cut the dowel rod to size, glue it in place and then drive a screw in from the underside. That should hold it securely.

Holder bottom

This side looks even better.

As you can see in the photo and the video, I didn’t use a very long dowel rod, which means the pool noodles aren’t very straight. I could have gone longer, but if the pitcher hits the noodle (as she is likely to do) and it is rigid the deflection could hurt whoever is catching if they’re not wearing equipment.

Besides, when they’re hanging over like this you can create some interesting holes to throw through, such as having the tops touch to work on keeping the ball low as well as on the corner.

You can do it from a 45 degree angle, like Juliana is doing here (due to a sore knee) or from a full pitch position. You may want to start with the former just to get the feel down before moving on to the latter, which will be more challenging.

Once the pitcher is becoming more consistent you can even make a game out of it, challenging her to make 7 out of 10 to win a prize or suffer a consequence – whichever fits your coaching style. That will add a little more game pressure too.

Or, if you have two or more pitchers there have them compete for who can do the most.

The overall idea is to aim small and miss small. So if you have a pitcher who needs to gain more precision in hitting her spots, give this drill a try.

Drill for helping softball pitchers learn to go inside and outside

Allison Musgrove photo

It’s no great revelation to say that working the corners by being able to hit your spots inside and outside is a critical skill for fastpitch softball pitchers. The easiest pitches to hit are the ones down the middle, so once you can do that reliably the next step is learning to never throw there again (except maybe on a 3-0 count).

Of course, it’s easy to say “you have to hit your spots.” It’s another thing for fastpitch pitchers, especially younger ones, to be able to do it.

There are a lot of moving parts involved in fastpitch pitching, and going inside and outside reliably requires being able to make fine motor adjustments. Not every pitcher is able to do that on-command.

So with that in mind, here’s a quick video blog that shows a drill to help pitchers get the concept of making adjustments by starting broader and working their way back in. The drill will work no matter what technique you use to throw inside/outside.

It’s being demonstrated with an outside curve ball, by the way, but it will work for any pitch.

Tip to help with throwing the outside pitch

A couple of weeks ago I was working with a new student named Jasmine. She is a high school pitcher who had received some good training previously, but still needs some refinement in a few areas. Pitching outside

One thing we were working on was throwing to locations – inside and outside. She was doing fine with inside – I find most pitchers have a side that comes easily and a side they struggle with, and for most the easy side is inside – but having trouble with the outside pitch.

Each time she tried the ball either went down the middle or off to the right. She just couldn’t quite seem to hone in on the mechanics to go left.

The cage we were working in had a protective screen for pitchers (or coaches) to duck behind when throwing batting practice. And that’s when the idea hit me. I dragged the screen about 15-20 feet in front of her and basically cut off everything from the center to the right.

Jasmine gave me a nervous smile at first but gamely decided to give it a try. With the right half cut off she was able to focus on the left and get the feel of throwing properly outside. After a few successful pitches with the screen in place we removed the visual aid. Lo and behold, she started popping the glove right on the spot.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling with hitting a spot, give this a try. Just be sure to set the screen up far enough away that if the pitcher does hit it the ball doesn’t bounce back into her. (Don’t be fooled by the photo – objects in picture are farther away than they appear.)

Pitching: hitting your spots not the be-all and end-all

Hitting spots is not the be-all and end-allBack to focusing on softball with something that’s been on my mind for a little while. It never ceases to amaze me how obsessed coaches often are with whether their pitchers hit their spots. Especially at the younger ages.

It’s almost like that’s the only thing they know about pitching. Anytime a pitcher gives up a hit (or even comes close to it) some coach is likely to yell “you need to hit your spots.”

There are a couple of flaws in that thinking. The first is that the value of hitting a particular spot when it’s called is directly proportional to how good the person calling the pitches is at setting up hitters.

I’ve known of coaches who basically call low and outside fastballs 90% of the time. I’ve heard about coaches that call screwball after screwball because, well, they saw screwballs work on TV. I’ve seen coaches refuse to call the changeup because they prefer that their pitchers throw heat.

The problem with that is predictability. If you’re throwing to the same location all the time it probably won’t take long for hitters to figure it out and adjust. Speed kills, but as we saw in the last WCWS, even a 70 mph pitch isn’t enough alone to overcome good hitters. So sure as shootin’ a 45 or 55 mph pitch won’t be. You need a mix of speeds and locations.

There’s also an art to setting up a hitter. It takes time and effort to learn how to do it. For example, when a hitter fouls a ball straight back, a good follow-up pitch is a changeup. Of course, if you do it every time you become predictable.

When you get ahead in the count 0-2, you don’t want to throw a strike – you want to throw a ball that looks like a strike. Maybe a curve, maybe a high fastball or rise. But again, you need to mix it up to keep hitters from settling in.

An inexperienced coach often doesn’t know that. So they’ll call that favorite pitch even when it isn’t appropriate. The pitcher would actually be doing the coach a favor by missing the spot, truthfully. I’ve seen more than one coach saved by a pitcher who didn’t throw what was called.

The other reason hitting spots is often overrated is that it isn’t the best measure of a pitcher. Coaches like it because it can be quantified. They also like it because they can use it as justification for elevating one pitcher over another – i.e., pitcher A hits her spots and pitcher B doesn’t, so A must be better than B.

But the truth is the single best measure of a pitcher is whether she can get hitters out. She may not put the ball exactly where the coach called it, but if she’s getting hitters out what difference does it make? Hitting spots alone doesn’t get hitters out. You get no credit for that from the umpire, just as having a perfect swing doesn’t entitle you to get on base. I’ll take a sloppy pitcher who can get hitters out over a precise one who can’t any day of the week.

That’s not to say pitchers shouldn’t work on hitting their spots – they should. If for not other reason than they may play for a coach who actually does know how to call a game – or better yet how to teach a catcher to call one. If they can put the ball right where they want it they can really take command.

But coaches, don’t let it become your determining factor. See the whole picture and give some space to the pitchers who can get people out.

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