Blog Archives

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.

Advertisements

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.

The long road to fastpitch excellence

The other night, as I was finishing up the paperwork for that night’s lessons, one of the baseball pitching instructors (who coincidentally also happens to be named Ken) walked into the office area sighing and shaking his head. The reason for his consternation was the expectations of some of the players he’d just finished working with. There's no quick road to success in fastpitch

“These guys are ridiculous,” Ken said (more or less, and perhaps a bit more colorfully). “They walk in here and expect to be throwing 20 mph faster in three weeks. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Amen, brother, I told him. I know the feeling.

The problem is we live in a microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, 24-hour news cycle world. That has set an unrealistic expectation in many people’s minds of the way everything should work.

All too often kids will walk in and expect (or their parents will expect) that if they take a handful of lessons that suddenly they will be stars. More likely that’s just enough time to mess them up pretty good, especially if they had a lot of bad habits before.

Bobby Simpson has the mantra “Getting better every day.” That’s a great way to think about it. The goal isn’t to take a few lessons and solve every issue. The goal is to be better walking out than when you walked in, whether that’s at a lesson or at practice.

The goal after that is to walk into the next lesson or practice either better than the last one, or at least picking up where you left off.

The old cliche “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” definitely applies. Whether you take the 10,000 hour rule as gospel or more as an allegory, the reality is it takes some length of time and constant work to see meaningful results.

Think about learning to play the piano. How good do you think you will be after four lessons? Maybe you’ll be able to play a credible version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” but you won’t be taking Chopin on anytime soon.

Or what about ballroom dancing lessons? Do you think four half hour sessions spent on the Foxtrot will have you dancing like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers? (Kids, follow the link to see who they were. They set the standard for dance in Hollywood musicals.)

Even if you’re not coming in with zero experience, if you’ve had a long layoff from practicing you’re not going to see a huge jump in three or four weeks. It takes time. Lots of time.

Typically, I find once I get a hitter mechanically sound that it takes about a year for them to see the real benefits. There is so much going on with hitting that it’s easy to be hesitant or get knocked off-track, especially in a game. With a year’s worth of using those mechanics and seeing live pitching, hitters start to get to the point where they can just go with it subconsciously, allowing them to spend their conscious brainpower on where the ball is and when it will arrive.

Fastpitch pitchers often have the same timeline. It’s one thing to be zinging the ball to your spots in practice. It’s another to do it when there are live hitters, umpires, coaches, teammates, opponents, parents and other spectators around and you’re playing for something meaningful.

As I always tell my pitching students, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside, but it can be a cold, dark place on the inside.

None of that happens, however, without first putting in the work up-front. If it could, i.e., if some coach or instructor could add 20 mph or otherwise reach some great goal in three sessions, those sessions would cost $1,000 apiece or more, and there would be a line a mile long to get some of it.

That’s the dream. But it’s not reality. I wish there was a shortcut, but as far as I and everyone else I’ve ever met knows there isn’t one.

Instead, the key is to set realistic expectations and work on little improvements that add up over time. Approach it any other way and you’re sure to be disappointed. And guys like poor Ken will continue to pull their hair out.

One way to avoid re-injuring a knee

The #KyleSchwarber coming back from a knee injury storyline is getting a lot of coverage right now during the World Series. But I think I have a fastpitch softball story that can top it.

Taylor Danielson, whom I have written about before, hurt her knee playing high school softball back in the spring and wound up missing the whole summer. This would have been more worrisome since this was to be the summer between her junior and senior year, but fortunately she had already verballed to a college. (I won’t say which quite yet due to superstition, but check back in a couple of weeks.)

When the injury occurred she was told she wouldn’t get back on the field until 2017. While that is a good prognosis for an ordinary person, Taylor is hardly an ordinary player. She worked her butt off rehabbing her knee, and was finally cleared for limited action for the end of the fall ball season.

There were some caveats. No catching (she’s an awesome catcher), and while she could hit, she couldn’t run full out. No stretching a single into a double, or going from first to third. She was under strict orders to run base to base and that’s it – a shame since she has 2.8 speed from home to first.

Since she couldn’t run like she wanted, Taylor decided to address it her own way. The video shows how – she hit the ball so far she was able to jog her way around the bases. All of them.

Just goes to show where there’s a will there’s a way. And you can’t keep a great player down.

An inspirational story – one-armed softball player

We often talk about how difficult the sport of softball is to learn and play. It can take years for players to get the hang of the game, and coaches and parents frequently get frustrated when their players don’t “get it” right away.

And few positions demand more of a player than being a catcher – especially since one of the key ways to measure the effectiveness of a catcher is their ability to throw runners out when they’re trying to steal. It takes quick reactions, a strong arm, and a quick transfer of the ball from the glove to the free hand.

That’s what makes this video so inspirational. It’s about Jaide Bucher, a high school catcher from Denver, who does all of this while only having one hand – her left hand.

The good folks from Gatorade recently made one of her dreams come true when they arranged for her to fly to LA to meet her idol, former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott. Abbott played at the highest level of baseball (even pitching a no-hitter) while also only having one hand.

Give this inspirational video a look. It’ll give you a great idea of what determination and love for the sport can accomplish.

%d bloggers like this: