Blog Archives

Re-thinking How to Use a Radar Unit

Ally pitching

I am going to admit right up-front that I have always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with radar guns/units for pitchers.

At first it wasn’t too bad. I bought a Glove Radar and attached it to my catcher’s glove to check my own daughter’s speed. It was fine for that purpose, especially since we weren’t really caught up in the absolute number but rather just looking to see whether she was making progress.

Once I started teaching pitching lessons and was no longer catching, I purchased a series of other units, including an early Bushnell (which I ultimately gave away) a Jugs Gun (an earlier model than the one in the link, which I still own) and then all the iterations of the Pocket Radar.

I tended not to use the radar units much, however, because of one simple phenomenon. Whenever I would pull out the unit, no matter which one it was, the pitcher would tighten up and start throwing visibly slower than she had before.

Inevitably the readings were disappointing and what had started out as an energetic lesson would kind of fall into a sort of funk. Consequently, while I had all this technology at my disposal I didn’t really take advantage of it.

That changed after I took the High Performance Pitching certification courses from Paulygirl Fastpitch and had a chance to observe how Rick Pauly was doing it. He had a radar unit permanently set up in the cage he uses for lessons, with a big readout the pitcher could see after every pitch.

As you would watch him teach lessons in the course, the speed was always there in the background. As a result, it no longer became a “thing” to be trotted out. It was just part of the background, like the net or the posters he has hung up.

That brought me to my epiphany. If every pitch is measured, the pitcher just might learn to get over her fear of being measured.

Of course, one of the differences between my situation and Rick’s is that all his students come to him at a single location, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, while I work out of at least three different facilities on a regular basis, plus some other locations when I am working with several pitchers on a team. I am a softball gypsy.

So I started thinking how I could duplicate that experience when it hit me. I have a Pocket Radar Smart Coach unit. I could mount it to a tripod, place it behind the catcher, and pull up the readings on my iPhone.

Good idea in theory, except it became a problem when I wanted to video a student to point out something to work on. Luckily technology again came to the rescue and in a better way.

I still set up the Smart Coach on the tripod in Continuous mode. But then I connect it via Bluetooth to my iPad, which sits on the floor, off to the side, in front of the pitcher. Every pitch gets registered in big numbers that we both can see, and my phone remains free for video.

From a logistic standpoint, this setup has worked out well. I also quickly discovered that an evening’s worth of lessons will drain the batteries pretty quickly. But luckily the Smart Coach has a port that lets you connect a power block to it.

The power block I have lasts for several hours. When I get home I recharge it and it’s ready for the next evening’s lessons.

The big question, of course, would be the effect it had on the students. Would they tense up and freak out over having every pitch measured?

Not at all. In fact, the opposite has happened. I find that the big, red numbers inspire them to work harder to increase their speed.

There’s no slacking off in a lesson, because it becomes obvious. The numbers don’t lie. And they all want to do a little better than they did before, so they keep working at it.

But rather than tensing up they kind of find their own way to relaxing and throwing better.

Since I’ve started using it, I think every pitcher who has done it has achieved at least one person best if not more. By personal best I mean her highest reading on my set-up.

It also gives me a way to push them that’s fun for them. If a girl throws 51, I’ll ask her to throw 52. It’s just one mph more, but stack up enough of those and you get a nice speed increase.

The setup I use isn’t perfect. Pocket Radar says the unit works best when it’s a few feet away and directly behind the catcher/in line with the pitch. The cages I use don’t allow for that type of setup; I usually have to put it a foot or two to the side of the catcher, sometimes right behind him or her.

No matter, however. The objective isn’t to get an absolute speed measurement. It’s to track (and encourage) progress.

Having a pitcher improve speed during a drill, or work to get to a new high speed from the pitching plate, gets us where we want to go. We can always get the more accurate measurement when we can set it up properly.

So if your experience has been like mine, where bringing out the radar unit becomes a momentum killer, try making it “part of the furniture” instead. You will probably like what you discover.

 

The Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

There's more to playing than measurables

While I was tooling around on the Internet I came across this video that I thought was worth sharing. While again it isn’t specific to fastpitch softball (second week in a row, I know) it tells a great story – and one that is particularly timely these days.

Thanks to the ready access to all sorts of measurement devices, our sport is becoming increasingly obsessed with numbers. I get why that is; in theory, having objective measurements of throwing speeds, ball exit speeds, spin rates, grip strength and a lot of other parameters make it easy to compare one player to another.

Basing decisions on the numbers feels “safe.” You take all the personal opinions and favoritism out of it, and just evaluate everyone on the basis of the numbers they produce as measured by the machines.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. There’s also something to be said for having game sense. For example, player A has a home-to-first time of 2.7 seconds, while player B has a home-to-first time of 3.1 seconds.

The natural conclusion? Player A is more desirable, because her speed will make her the better base runner. What those numbers don’t show is that Player A has no idea how to read a pitch, or defense, and take advantage of opportunities while Player B does.

So in an actual game, Player A will run station-to-station very quickly, while Player B will take advantage of a defensive miscue or a fielder who isn’t paying attention to take an extra base when the opportunity arises. She also won’t run herself into trouble, even if the third based coach is “encouraging” her to. Now which one would you prefer?

A lot of those “game smarts” qualities don’t show up in a tryout, because in softball tryouts are primarily about looking at skills. They also don’t show up against a stopwatch or a radar gun. But when the game is on the line, again who would you rather have? The pitcher with the highest speed/spin rates, or the pitcher who knows how to get hitters out?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-measurement. Taking those readings is important, especially when measuring a player’s progress. There’s also something satisfying about achieving a goal you set for yourself, like a pitcher reaching 50 or 60 mph, a runner going home to first in less than 3 seconds, a hitter reaching a new high for bat speed or ball exit speed, etc. But the empirical number itself is not the be-all and end-all of who will add the most value to your team.

Which brings us back to the video, which is well worth watching. It talks about the 2000 NFL draft (some of you now know where this is going, I’m sure, but read on anyway).

There was a lanky, skinny quarterback at the NFL Combine who produced terrible scores. (If you’re not familiar with it, the Combine is where they do all these types of speed and performance measurements for football to help teams with their draft selections.)

For example, in the 40 yard dash the kid ran a 5-something. For perspective, between 5 and 5.5 is now considered the norm for an offensive lineman. For a quarterback, it’s ugly.

He didn’t have great arm strength either – average at best. Not much of a vertical leap. In the video they said it looked like he had never seen a weight room. So pretty much by any measure, this was a guy who wasn’t much of a prospect to become a backup in the NFL, much less a starter worth spending a draft choice on. Oh, and by the way, the word was his college team (Michigan) had spent his whole senior year trying to put someone in the lineup who they thought would perform better – probably a better athlete.

Still, the quarterback was hopeful. His wish was to play for his hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers, but they passed on him in the third round to take another player with better numbers. Who it was doesn’t matter because that guy was ultimately gone pretty quickly.

Finally, in the sixth round, with the 199th pick, the New England Patriots figured what the heck and selected Tom Brady. You know the rest of the story.

So while the numbers and measurables can tell you some things about a player, they can’t tell you everything. If you’re a player who maybe doesn’t throw the hardest, or hit the farthest, or run the fastest, that’s ok.

Accept that you will have to prove yourself in every new situation, embrace the challenge, and get out there and show everyone what you can do. And remember that the two essential qualities a radar gun or a stopwatch or a strength machine can’t measure are your smarts and your heart.

Just ask Tom Brady.

Every Expert Was Once a Beginner

Every expert was once a beginner

One of the most intimidating things we can do as human beings is start something new. Especially when that something has been around for a while like, say, fastpitch softball.

We look at ourselves and see how ill-prepared we are. Then we look at others and see how much better they are – some are even experts – and we wonder how we’re ever going to survive.

The good news we all have to remember is that no matter how great others are at something, every single one of them was once a beginner. Just like us.

Arizona coach Mike Candrea didn’t start out with 1,500+ wins. He started with one, and probably felt fortunate to get it.

So if you’re a brand new head coach taking a team onto the field for the first time, remember you share that experience with one of the winningest fastpitch softball coaches ever.

If you’re a pitcher (or the parent of a pitcher) who is just trying to learn how to get her arms and legs going in the same direction and get the ball over the plate with arcing (or putting anyone around you in danger) take heart. Some of the game’s best pitchers ever had their struggles as well.

If you’re a hitter who is providing more on-field air conditioning than excitement with her bat, or a fielder who seems like she wouldn’t be able to pick up a ground ball in a game even if it had a handle…

Well, you get the idea.

Everyone has to start somewhere. The ones who go places, however, are the ones who don’t give up, even when learning takes a little longer, or it feels like others have more natural ability, or have a head start because they started at a younger age.

After all, it isn’t where you start the race. It’s where you finish that counts.

I remember as a beginning coach thinking how much better I would (hopefully) be in five years, when I had some experience and had learned more. But that thought didn’t do my first team much good.

So I buckled down, did the best I could, contributed where I knew things, and just faked the rest.

I was once amazed that other coaches could come up with the drills or explanations i would use. To know so much that you could think that way seemed like a hill too great for me to climb. Now, 800 blog posts and roughly 20 years of coaching later I come up with different ideas all the time.

So to all of you beginners and first-timers out there, I say don’t be intimidated. Don’t be concerned about your lack of experience, or get overwhelmed thinking about how much you don’t know.

Just buckle down, get after it, and remember every expert was once a beginner. But it’s only the dedicated beginners who become an expert.

The importance of being coachable

IMG_1362

A few days ago my friend Tim Boivin sent me this article about NBA star (and future Hall of Famer) Tim Duncan. The article quotes an open letter from Tony Parker, who explains that the San Antonio Spurs’ winning culture was largely driven by the coachability of Duncan.

The article talks about how Duncan’s success meant he didn’t really have to listen to anyone, as many stars in various sports choose to do. Instead, Duncan took coaching like he was trying to make the team as the last player rather than leading it as its top player.

That attitude permeated the rest of the team. You can imagine the players who were just barely hanging on seeing how coachable Duncan was, and telling themselves “I’d better fall in line too.”

That’s a lesson softball players can and should learn as well. You work hard, and you reach a certain level of accomplish. Maybe everyone tells you you’re the best player on the team/in the conference/in the tournament/at the camp. You start feeling pretty good about yourself, and suddenly you don’t think you need much coaching anymore.

Honestly, that’s the fast track to failure, or at least not achieving your dreams. You stop listening, start slacking off, and before you know it you’re now looking at the backs of players you used to be ahead of.

I’ve spoken to coaches who have worked with the top players in fastpitch softball, and they’ve all said the same thing about the best players they’ve coached. They were all hungry for information, and would do whatever it took to gain even a small edge or make a small improvement.

They didn’t resist coaching. They soaked it in the way a sponge soaks up water.

Being coachable isn’t that tough. You just have to be willing to learn, and willing to accept that however good you are you can always be better. You have to actively listen and try to understand what’s being taught rather than merely going through the motions.

If you don’t understand something you have to be willing to ask questions – even if you think it makes you look foolish. You can bet if you don’t understand something there’s someone else who also doesn’t understand but is too afraid to ask.

The great thing about being coachable is that it’s a choice. You can’t choose how tall you are, or whether your body is loaded with fast twitch muscles. You can’t choose how much raw athleticism you have. You can’t choose your core body type, i.e., to be long and lean if your DNA says you will be short and stout.

But you can choose how willing you are to listen and learn. The more open you are to new information that can help you, the more likely you are to reach your goals.

The final part of being coachable is being willing to do whatever is needed to help the team at the time. Sometimes that means playing a position other than the one you prefer until you get your shot at the one you really want. (Of course if you never get that shot it’s a different story for another blog post, but in this case we’re talking about a temporary change.)

And hey, you never know. By being coachable you might set a standard and create a culture for a team that lasts long after your playing days are done. That’s how you go from being a great player to a legend.

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.

Even the best fastpitch players weren’t always the best players

Never give up, never surrender

As I write this, it’s the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics. The NCAA Division I tournament is underway, and the airwaves (or cable waves) are filled with a seemingly endless diet of games.

You can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere over the next few weekends. That’s good news for the families of younger softball players, because it gives them a chance to see how many of the top players play the game.

Yet as you watch, it’s tempting to think that all those high performers were just naturally gifted, and always played the way they play now (more or less). The fact is in many cases it isn’t true.

If you talked to them you’d find out that many of these players started out as benchwarmers who were just happy to get a few innings in here or there. Or that the awesome pitcher you’re watching lead her team to victory in Regionals, Super Regionals, or even the Women’s College World Series wasn’t always the #1 player on her travel or even high school team.

Many top players, in fact, had to work their way into the positions they are in today. That’s nothing new, either. It’s always been that way.

For evidence, I’m going to point you to a couple of good stories of personal struggle. The first two come from Amanda Scarborough.

I’m sure many of you recognize that name. She was an All American pitcher at Texas A&M, runs pitching clinics all over the U.S. as part of The Packaged Deal, and is now a commentator on ESPN. Pretty good resume, I’d say.

Yet Amanda will tell you she wasn’t always on the fast track to stardom. In fact, in this blog post she talks about how on her first travel team, she was the #4 or #5 pitcher, and rarely saw the plate or the field when she wasn’t pitching. Not exactly the start you’d expect for someone who has done as much as she’s done.

Yet she kept working at it, and didn’t let her lack of opportunity discourage her.

But surely by the time she got high school she was the star, right? No, and don’t call me Shirley!

In this blog post, she talks about being the #2 pitcher behind an older girl until that girl graduated. So the reality is you don’t have to be the starter as a freshman to do great things.

Another pitcher you may have heard of is Cat Osterman. She set all kinds of records as a pitcher while at the University of Texas at Austin, including strikeout ratio, WHIP, and perfect games. She won a gold and silver medal in two Olympic games (2004 and 2008), and had a stellar career in National Pro Fastpitch league. Sounds like a natural, right?

Actually, not. According to this story, she was short, scrawny, and uncoordinated as a youngster. When she tried out for the Little League All-Star team she was the only player they cut. Doesn’t sound like a future Olympian in the making does it?

After that season she went to a travel team, and spent a lot of time watching games from the bench.

But again, she didn’t let it get her down. She just kept working, and eventually become the pitcher she was capable of becoming.

I share all of this because it’s easy to think that today’s stars were yesterday’s stars too. That’s not always the case, however. Players who start with natural advantages in size, strength or athleticism can be passed by those who work harder – especially when nature takes its course and the late bloomers begin to grow.

You can’t control how people perceive you. But you can control how hard you work to get better.

As I always like to say, it doesn’t matter where you start the race – only where you finish it. Take heart in knowing that even some of the best who ever played the game started out just like you – fighting for scraps, and working their way up the depth chart. And remember it’s not how good you are but how badly you want it that will make the difference.

Or, as they say in “Galaxy Quest:”

Ok, now it’s your turn. Do you have a story about a player, famous or not, who overcame a slower start and became successful? Share your story in the comments below.

Great story about character

Emma Borrelli, quality fastpitch softball player and all around nice person

For me, one of the best parts about coaching fastpitch softball is the opportunity to meet (and work with) so many girls I would have never otherwise known. Today I’d like to share one of those stories since I think we could all use some good news right about now.

It’s about a wonderful young lady named Emma Borrelli. Emma is an 8th grader, and just one of the nicest and most upbeat people you’ll ever want to meet. I work with her on both pitching and hitting, and it’s always fun because I can say the meanest, most insulting things to her to make a point (all in jest) and she just smiles or laughs. She’s also one of the hardest-working girls I’ve ever worked with.

Anyway, her dad Mike forward an email that her homeroom teacher sent to him a few weeks back telling a kind of “under the radar” story that describes her character perfectly.

It seems that in her homeroom class there is a boy with special needs. Every day, on her own, she helps the boy at his locker, walks him to his homeroom, and says goodbye to him after homeroom.

No one asked her to do it. She’s not doing it to try to win an award or add something to player resume. She just does it because she is a good person. Or maybe there’s just something in the name Emma.

What makes this so interesting is that Emma is not an outcast or a fringe kid. From what I understand she is pretty popular in the school, with a large circle of friends. She could easily walk right past this boy and no one would think twice about it.

Yet she passes on hanging out with them before school to be with this boy instead, which her teacher says makes his day.

Sometimes us older folks shake our heads at the younger generation and wonder what’s going to happen when the world is in their hands. Based on what I see and hear about Emma, as well as so many others, the world is going to be just fine. Maybe even better.

Thanks for hanging out

Thank-you-word-cloud

Just wanted to take a moment here before the end of the year to thank everyone who has chosen to be a part of the Life in the Fastpitch Lane community this year.

Whether you’ve been around awhile or have just come across this blog recently, I truly appreciate your interest in hearing what I have to say. Hopefully you’ve found the posts to be helpful, informative, and entertaining.

A special thank you goes to those of you who have made the effort to subscribe so you don’t miss any posts. For those who aren’t aware, you can enter your email in the above left box to receive an email notification every time a new post goes up.

I don’t have anything to sell, so you don’t have to worry about adding to the metric ton of spam you receive each month. All you get is an alert when a new post goes up. Also, I will never, ever sell your email address to anyone.

Also a special thank you to those of you who commented on various posts throughout the year. Always love to hear the feedback, and to hear your stories.

Finally, I want to thank those of you who share these blog posts with your social media contacts, friends, teams, and programs. I appreciate you going out of your way to help Life in the Fastpitch Lane reach a wider audience than it could on its own. Please keep sharing content you find valuable so it can helps others.

The changeover in the calendar means the new season is coming fast. College teams will start practicing soon, and high school tryouts for spring softball will be here before you know it. Same with rec league tryouts.

Travel teams have been practicing all winter, of course, but despite the arctic chill right now in much of the country it won’t be that long until those teams are hitting the field too.

Whatever level captures your interest, I hope 2018 is the best year ever for your favorite player(s). I’ll do my best to help you make that happen by providing you with (hopefully) valuable information and inspirational stories.

And if there’s a topic you’d like to see covered this year, definitely be sure to let me know in the comments below.

Have a happy and successful 2018!

NOTE: This post was edited on 12/29/17 to add a thank you to those who share the content with others.

Image by Ashashyou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why I’m ok with participation trophies

Participant Trophy

Thought that might get your attention! Although it is a topic that seems to get a lot of attention these days – most of it bad.

It’s not unusual  to see people disparaging participation trophies online. They blame participation trophies for kids being soft, whiny, and lacking in effort. The term “snowflake” is often used in connection with participation trophies, and they don’t mean it in a nice “White Christmas” or “let’s go skiing” sort of way.

From what I’ve seen, the people who complain the loudest about participation trophies tend to fall into two categories. One is the “Internet tough guy” who likes to voice his/her opinion on what’s wrong with everyone else.

Usually they’re not actually talking about sports, but more about how entire groups of people (Millennials, Liberals, Millennial Liberals, etc.) just don’t measure up to how wonderful they think they were/are.

The second, more sports-specific group, is parents whose kids are great athletes and would accumulate a bedroom full of trophies no matter what. They seem to think that giving a trophy to a kid who tried hard but maybe hasn’t quite found her coordination somehow takes away from the awesomeness of their own daughters. After all, what’s the good of getting a trophy if you can’t use it to show your friends, family, and neighbors how much better your kid is than theirs?

I am of the mind that it’s okay to give kids participation trophies at younger ages – maybe up to 10 or so in rec ball. As I see it, it’s the Tony Soprano model. You want to give the kids a taste of getting trophies so they learn they want them. Then once they’ve acquired a taste for them you take away the freebies so they have to “pay” for them.

A kid who has never had a trophy may not believe it’s within her reach. But if she had them before, and now the conditions change, she’s more likely (in my opinion and experience) to want to do what she needs to get another one.

It’s also a good way to encourage kids to stay with a sport, especially in the early stages. Outright winning a trophy may not be within the realm of possibility for a young player, or a group of young players, whose athletic skills are developing a little slower than others their age.

Getting a trophy at the end of the year might be enough to encourage them to hang in there a little longer. We’ve all seen kids who were weak in their early years blossom later. But to do that they still have to be playing when they’re ready to blossom.

Giving everyone a trophy also removes a lot of the risk of the crazy parent/coaches who take a “win at all costs” approach to coaching young kids just to get that plastic trophy at the end. Anyone who has been around the sport of fastpitch softball (or pretty much any other sport for that matter) knows a lot of the craziest coaches and parents are found at the youngest ages. If the goal is to keep kids participating, removing the need to trophy hunt helps address that goal.

Now, I know what people say. If you give everyone a trophy the kids don’t learn how to compete. Funny thing is, I’ve heard plenty of college coaches talk about how showcase tournaments also seem to be hurting players’ ability to compete, yet it seems like there are more and more of them every year.

Fastpitch softball used to be about getting better so you could win this weekend’s tournament, or the league championship, or whatever. Now it seems to be more about getting the almighty scholarship. So the “not learning to be competitive” argument doesn’t really hold water.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, at some point the “free ride” needs to end. By the time kids are 11 or 12, they all should have matured enough to understand that now if you want to get a trophy you need to work for it. If you’re playing travel ball – not just a team that “travels” but one that is looking to be competitive – the cutoff is probably more like 9 or 10.

But up until that time, what’s so bad about making kids feel good about themselves? Give them a taste of success and maybe they’ll develop an appetite for it.

Congratulations to Wisconsin pitcher Kirsten Stevens

Huge congratulations are in order for University of Wisconsin – Madison pitcher Kirsten Stevens on being named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week. Can’t say it comes as a surprise, though, after the weekend she had. Kirsten Stevens Named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week

Kirsten toss not one but two shutouts in earning her third and fourth wins on the season. And this after being sidelined for most of the off-season with a broken foot.

When the accident first occurred it looked like the Badger might miss the first part of the season. But with a strong work ethic and help from the Wisconsin coaching staff and trainers, she beat the prognostications and is back on the field.

And what a pre-season it’s been. Kirsten is currently sporting a miniscule ERA of 0.28, which is what happens when you’ve only allowed one run for the season so far. Over the weekend she also had a personal best 11 strikeouts against Hofstra, continuing the blistering pace for Ks she set as a goal before the year.

And the best part? Kirsten is one of the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet. Always with a smile on her face, always remembering to have fun, and always making time to speak with and encourage the young players who look up to her (literally as well as figuratively) when she meets them.

All we can say here is keep up the good work! And again, congratulations to both you and the team who helped you achieve a well-earned honor.

%d bloggers like this: