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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

Taking personal responsibility for your playing time

On the bench

Truthfully, these players gave 100% all the time. I just needed a shot of players on the bench!

My friend Tim Boivin sent this article to me a couple of weeks ago. Tim’s been around the block as a youth leader with the Boy Scouts, and as a soccer coach. He even coached a recent Winter Olympian (although not in the sport for which he went to the Olympics, however).

The article addresses a topic that is a concern to many players and parents these days – playing time. Or perhaps more accurately a lack of playing time and how to deal with it.

In today’s world the typical reaction to a lack of playing time is to complain to your parents (if you’re a player), other parents (if you’re a parent), eventually the coach, and anyone else who will listen. It can become pretty toxic pretty fast.

Now, there are some legitimate cases where playing time decisions are based more on who the coach likes, or who raised the most sponsor money, or whose parents are on the Board, or which players babysit the coach’s kids for free, or other factors like that. In those instances, the complaints are justified.

But as the article points out, there is another common cause – the amount of effort the player puts in to improve her skills, both during practice and on her own. As the old saying goes, you can’t control the outcome but you can control your effort.

The easiest thing to do is complain when things aren’t going your way. Especially if you’re used to having everything handed to you.

If you’re not getting playing time, however, the first place you should look is in the mirror.

Do you hustle in practice – really, truly hustle, running from station to station and giving 100% in every drill and activity? Or do you try to skate through practice breaking as little of sweat as possible?

Coaches make a lot of their game day decisions before the actual game day. Good coaches look at who wants it, and who is willing to run through a wall to get it. Especially at the upper levels.

Often the difference in skills isn’t that great, so what coaches are looking for are competitors. They want players on the field who won’t quit no matter the circumstances, who will dive for balls or look to take the extra base or even take a pitch in the backside if it will help their team win the game.

Another thing to look at is the type of teammate you are. Are you supportive of others, or do you sulk if things aren’t going your way no matter how the rest of the team is doing? Team chemistry is critical, so those who create positive chemistry are going to tend to be given preference over those who don’t.

The good news is all of this is controllable. There are really only two things you can control – yourself, and how you react to everything you can’t control.

Did you strike out or make an error? Suck it up Buttercup and do better next time. Did the umpire call ball four when she clearly should have said strike three? Shake it off and get the next hitter.

Is the air cold or the ground wet? Increase your focus on the task at hand and you won’t be bothered by it. Having a bad day off the field? Don’t let it affect your performance on the field.

The more you take command of yourself and give maximum effort, the more likely you are to find yourself on the field.

At the very young levels, the goal should be equal playing time to help players find their love for the game. But along the way – often around 14U – that starts to change, and it becomes about performing.

If you want to get on the field, give your coach a reason (or multiple reasons) to put you on the field. And keep you there.

Next week I’ll share an example of a college player who has done just that – to the benefit of both herself and her team.

Yes, there can be such a thing as winning too much

Let’s face it. Whether your activity of choice is fastpitch softball, soccer, basketball, auto racing, marching band competitions, tiddlywinks or something else, everyone loves winning. As Nuke LaLoosh says in Bull Durham, “I love winning. It’s so much better than losing.” (Warning: the full quote is NSFW so turn down the volume.)Winning is fun, but there can be a thing as winning too often

Yet there can be a thing as winning too much. This is something a lot of parents (and some coaches) don’t seem to understand.

In America in particular, we tend to measure success in terms of wins and losses. The more you win, the better you are, right?

Not necessarily, because there’s another factor that comes into play – the level of competition. Think about it this way: how much satisfaction do you get out of winning a game of tic-tac-toe? Probably not much, because once you learn a few basic moves is only possible if your opponent makes a really, really stupid mistake.

Or if you are an adult, how much satisfaction would you get out of beating a 6 year old at one-on-one basketball, or chess, or ping pong, or pretty much anything else? Not much, because there’s no challenge.

And that’s the key to what I’m saying. If your team wins every tournament it goes to, especially if it goes undefeated every weekend (or even worse dominates every game) it’s not that the team is so great. It’s that you’re not playing the right level of competition.

You don’t get better if you’re not challenged. Winning a tournament shouldn’t be easy. It should be really hard. If you’re winning more than 60% of your games, 75% at most, you’re playing the wrong teams.

Sure, it’s fun to get those shiny plastic trophies, or medals, or t-shirts, or whatever they’re handing out these days as prizes. You have the big ceremony at the end, everyone takes pictures and maybe goes out for dinner afterward. But how special is it if it happens every weekend? Not very.

Keep in mind that iron is forged in fire. That’s what shapes it into something useful. Fastpitch softball players are the same way.

In order for them to get better, they need to play competition that is either at their skill level or better. It’s what will challenge them and force them to go beyond their current skill level. It’s also what keeps it interesting and makes the wins when they come extra satisfying.

Because you’ll know you didn’t just beat up on some lesser team. Instead, you put something on the line – the very real possibility of losing – and came out the other side on top. Your players probably learned a little something along the way, too.

The same goes for making it to every championship game, by the way, even if you don’t win. That just means one other team was probably in the wrong tournament too.

It can be tough to lose. Another of my favorite baseball movie quotes comes from Moneyball: “I hate losing. I hate losing even more than I wanna win.”

But that’s a good thing. If you’re concerned about losing, you will work harder to make sure it doesn’t happen. And you will get better. If losing isn’t a real concern, however, you’ll probably let up and your skills won’t develop. And that will catch up with you one day.

Parents, especially today’s parents, like to see their children succeed. But that doesn’t mean they should shelter them from losing, which is what you’re doing when winning becomes so important that failure to win every game at every tournament means you start looking for a new team that will.

Again, shoot for that 60-75% winning percentage and you can be pretty sure your favorite player is being challenged and growing as player. It will also mean that the fruits of victory will taste ever so much sweeter.

Some resolutions for 2016

It’s that time of year again. The time when we all get a little reflective and start thinking about how we can become better versions of ourselves in the coming year.

Perhaps we’re thinking it’s time to get serious about losing weight, which is always a popular theme. As a meme going around Facebook right now says, I’ve started on my plan by getting rid of all the bad-for-you food in my house, and it was delicious.

Or it could be to stop smoking or some other unhealthy habit, or to exercise more, get a new job or clean the house once a week instead of letting everything pile up until family is coming over. There are lots of things you can resolve.

That applies to softball as well. To help you get started, here are a few suggestions for resolutions you can make to help you become a better coach or player:

  • Resolve to learn something new. Take a skill you’re sure you already have down and seek out new information about it. Or look for things you weren’t aware of before. If you’re a coach, learn new offensive or defensive strategies.You’re either moving forward or falling behind. Get out there and learn.
  • Resolve to stay more in the present. The current buzzword for this is “mindfulness.” Google is offering classes on it on its campus, and other schools are teaching it as well. It’s a form of meditation that helps you block out distractions and worries so you can focus on the present, reduce stress and keep control of your feelings. In softball, you can only hit, pitch, throw, catch, etc. one ball at a time. Play the game one pitch at a time and it becomes far easier. This book can help you learn to do it more effectively.
  • Resolve to enjoy the game more. Most people get involved in fastpitch softball because they love to compete. But sometimes in the desire to compete we forget that at the end of the day it’s a game, and games are supposed to be fun. (I know I definitely fall into this category.) Remind yourself from time to time to just enjoy the beautiful day, and the opportunity to spend time with so many great people. Smile more, especially in tense situations, and be glad your biggest worry at the moment is whether you’ll get on base instead of whether you’ll be able to find food or clean water. The days, weekends and even the seasons may seem long, but believe me the career is short.
  • Resolve to put people first. If you’re a player, try to help those players who may be struggling. We’re not all given the same athletic gifts, or the same opportunities to learn, so it may seem like some players are dragging the team down due to lack of ability. If that’s the case, and they’re willing to get better, help them out instead of complaining. If you’re a coach, remember that kids don’t sign up to play ball so they can get a closer seat. They sign up to play. Be willing to sacrifice a few Ws to ensure all your players have a great experience. Besides, you never know who might develop. Pro sports are filled with undrafted players who outshine the top prospects once someone lets them on the field.
  • Resolve to follow the rules – even if you don’t like them. This is part of respecting the game. If you are a pitcher who leaps (or coach one who does), work on stopping it. Don’t block the baseline (obstruction) just because you think the umpire won’t call it. Don’t throw a hard tag on a baserunner with the intent to injure them because you don’t think you’ll get caught. Know the rules and follow them. They’re there to make the game safe and fair for everyone.
  • Resolve to respect the umpires. Again, you may not always agree with them, but it is a tough job. There will always be a few bad apples, but 99% of umpires are doing the best they can, and are out there game after game because they love the sport. Here’s another hint: just about every umpire could care less about the outcome of the game, i.e., who wins. So they’re not making calls to screw you over, no matter what you may think.
  • Resolve to practice better. Notice I didn’t say “more.” That may be a part of it. But practicing better means being focused and productive for whatever time you dedicate to it. As a player, instead of just knocking balls off a tee to fulfill a time requirement, use that time to improve your swing. If you’re a catcher, use the time you’re spending catching for the team’s pitchers as an opportunity to work on your framing, blocking and other skills too. Be present, know what you’re working on and why. If you’re a coach, work to increase the number of touches each player gets while eliminating downtime or standing around time for each. Small groups doing multiple things often work better than one big group doing the same thing.
  • Resolve to say “thank you.” Those may be the two most powerful words in the English language. Players, thank your coaches after a practice session, game or tournament. Coaches, thank your players and parents for their dedication, help, support, etc. Everyone thank the umpires. If a tournament director does a great job, thank him/her and the staff, and let others know what a great tournament they ran.
  • Resolve to take better care of your equipment. Clean helmets, bats and catcher’s gear. Throw a little conditioner on gloves/mitts, and keep a ball in them. Avoid throwing your equipment when you get angry. Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you.

Those are some good starting points. What did I miss? What are you resolving to do for 2016? And oh, have a Happy New Year!

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