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The challenge of fall ball

 

 

Take advantage of fall ballRight now we’re in the midst of the fall fastpitch softball season – aka “fall ball.” Whether you’re a 10U player getting her first taste of travel ball or a college coach hoping to get an idea of what her team needs to work on in the off-season, it’s always an interesting time.

This is a big change from when I first started coaching travel ball. Back then, tryouts didn’t happen in August for teams in my area; most teams did tryouts in the spring. Eventually that backed up to December, and then to the current system where some programs are running their tryouts while others are at Nationals.

Because of that, back in the day fall ball didn’t really exist. When we did start running tryouts in August it was still tough to find games in the fall.

That’s not the case anymore. There are individual games, round robins, and tournaments (real as well as showcase) galore. As they say, you can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere. It’s a bit challenging for older teams with players doing fall high school sports, but somehow people figure it out.

The abundance of fall ball creates several new challenges for everyone. Here’s a look at a couple.

Win or learn?

One of the most obvious challenges is coaches deciding whether they want to focus on winning games or learning what their players – especially their new ones – can do.

You already know what you know. Do you stay with what you believe gives you the best chance of winning the game? Or do you try to learn more about players you don’t know as well, even if it costs you the win?

If you decide to learn, that might mean putting weaker hitters at the top of the lineup to get them more at bats. It might mean playing a girl at shortstop who has potential but hasn’t acquired the skills and game experience yet to really stand out. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.

If you decide to win, you may not get a chance to discover a hidden gem who could make a huge contribution in the future. You may reinforce a lack of confidence in a player who actually has more ability than she’s been showing. It might mean putting up with crazy parents who want to know what the (heck) you were thinking.

Showcase tournaments add another level of complication. The idea is to show college coaches what your players can do. That’s why most don’t have a champion. It’s more like pool play all the time. You want your team to look good to attract coaches, but you also want to make sure all your players get seen.

If one of your pitchers is struggling, do you leave her in and let coaches see how she battles? Or do you get her out so coaches can see how the rest of your team does?

There are no right or wrong answers. It’s simply a matter of knowing what your goals are and sticking to them.

Stay in or get out of your comfort zone?

Players have challenges as well. One of the biggest is whether to stretch your game and take chances when you play or stick with what you already know works?

If you’re new to a team, such as a freshman in college or high school or a new travel ball player, you want to show you can belong and contribute. But you may also be nervous about looking bad if you fail.

The safe decision is to stay within what you already know you can do. But if you do that, you’re not growing as a player. Fall is often a good time to take those chances because people care a lot less about who wins those games. If you make an error, or struggle a bit at the plate as you work on developing more power, the consequences will be less than if it happens in the spring.

Personally, I would recommend making the stretch. Try taking that extra base, or working that new pitch into your arsenal, or sacrificing some accuracy to drive up your speed, or being more aggressive on defense, or unleashing your new swing. It’s your best chance to give it a try and see how it plays in a game. You can also be comforted by the fact you’ll find out what to work on during the long offseason.

Take advantage of opportunities

Fall ball offers all sorts of opportunities. Rather than getting stuck in the same old same old, approach it for what it is. Discover what you want to discover, try the new things you want to try (and are comfortable trying), and most of all, have fun doing it! It’ll pay off in the long term.

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Fastpitch coaches: when you’re offering instructions, be specific

Don't just say get lower - tell players to lower their hips

One of the challenges of coaching fastpitch softball, or any sport for that matter, is offering directions that are meaningful to the player. While there are several elements that go into meaningful directions, I find that being specific is definitely key.

What does that mean, be specific? Here’s an example I heard today. A student told me she was working on fielding ground balls, and one of her coaches told her she had to get lower. That was probably correct – I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but let’s assume it was.

The problem with saying “get lower” is it leaves out an important element: how to get lower. If you’re bending at the waist, does that mean bend more at the waist? No, that would be silly.

The proper direction would be to lower your hips as you go down to the ball. That makes it easier to get to the ball while remaining in an athletic position where you can make the play.

Non-specific instruction reminds me of a joke that was making the rounds a few years ago. A group of people are in a helicopter in Seattle, checking out the sights, when a sudden fog rolls in.Not only are they having trouble seeing but the instruments go all haywire.

Now they’re lost, and need directions to get back to the airport. The pilot decides to hover next to a building where he sees some lights on. He sees there are people inside, so he quickly writes up a sign that says “Where are we?” and holds up it for the people inside to see.

They see the message, and take a minute to write up their own sign. When they hold it up it says, “You are in a helicopter.” The pilot immediately says “Right” and heads straight for the airport. When the helicopter lands, all the passengers are amazed. “How did you know from their sign where we were?” one asks.

“Easy,” said the pilot. “The information they gave us was completely accurate and completely useless. I knew we were by Microsoft.”

That’s the thing about directions. It’s easy to say do this or do that, but is what you’re saying actually helpful? Or is the message simply, “Play better!” – which I actually used once in a post-game speech to break the tension when the team was down.

For the most part, players don’t need you to tell them they’re doing poorly. If they have any experience at all they can tell they’re having problems. What they need is help fixing them. The more you can give them the “how” instead of just the “what,” the faster they’ll likely be able to address the issue and get it corrected.

Telling a hitter she’s pulling her front shoulder out is true, but useless. Telling her how to keep her front shoulder in, by leaving it strong and driving her back side around it, is helpful. (By the way, telling her she’s pulling her head out is neither accurate nor helpful, because it’s not the head that’s getting pulled out, it’s the front shoulder.)

Telling a pitcher she’s throwing high is useless. Even the least experienced pitcher can see that on her own. Telling her to whip through the release and fire the ball at the plate instead of getting the hand ahead of the elbow and pushing it up through release will help her correct it.

If you don’t know the “why” of common issues, find out. There’s plenty of great information out there. Search around on Life in the Fastpitch Lane (this blog) for ideas. Go to the Discuss Fastpitch Forum (if you didn’t come from there already) and poke around for hours. Search on YouTube – although be careful because there’s a lot of bad information out there too. Buy books and videos. Observe what great players do. Ask a more experienced coach. Attend coaching clinics and/or the NFCA Coaches College.

The more you know, the more specific directions you’ll be able to give them. And the better you’ll be able to help your players perform at the level you want them to.

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.

My fastpitch learning by osmosis theory

Softball 2

I have always been a big believer in the ability of kids, at least certain kids, to learn the nuances of softball through osmosis. I certainly saw it with my own daughters, who were eight years apart.

When my older daughter Stefanie was playing, we dragged all the other kids out to her games. We had to – she was the oldest, and we couldn’t leave the others at home.

When Stefanie was playing 14U, my youngest child Kim was 6. I was coaching, so I mostly remember seeing her heading off to a playground or just sitting in the grass. We never talked to her much about what was going on.

But somewhere along the way it must’ve stuck in her brain, because by the time she started playing she had a pretty high level of innate knowledge about what to do when. For example, I never had to teach Kim about going after the lead runner on comebacker to the pitcher. She just knew.

I am convinced that’s because she saw so many games. Even if she wasn’t constantly thinking about what was going on, she picked up a lot of it by osmosis. I think that’s the benefit the younger sister (or brother) gets.

I bring this up because of something that happened last night that just tickled me. I have been working with a 12U pitcher named Jenna for a little over a year now. (I refuse to say anyone is 11, 13, 15 or any other odd number of U. Old school.)

Anyway, I started with Jenna when she was 10U, and she’s made the transition to 12U pretty easily. It’s fun to see how far she’s come in a short period of time, and how she can take command of a game.

This summer, her dad Gary decided it would be a good time to get his younger daughter Sammie started. She was 8 when we started, playing rec league, but I know Gary has aspirations for her future. 🙂 She turned 9 not long ago.

At first she had all the challenges 8/9 year olds typically have. Like being so literal about her form that she looked all stiff and robotic.

But she’s determined, and has been working hard. The last couple of lessons the light bulb has started coming on and she’s been throwing more relaxed. Her strikes are going up, and she’s definitely throwing hard. So last night I thought it might be a good time to get her started on the basics of a changeup.

When I said that, Gary told me, “Sammie’s already gotten started on it.” Apparently she’d been watching Jenna and thought it looked pretty cool, so she decided to start working on it on her own.

I asked her to show me, and darned if she didn’t do a nice job! The pitch was really high, but it was straight, and more importantly it was the right speed without slowing her arm down. She did a couple more and it was the same thing.

Honestly, I was impressed. I asked Gary if he had been working with her and he said no. Sammie had just picked it up by watching Jenna.

I think what knocked me out was that she was maintaining her arm speed. Normally, when a new pitcher is trying a change on her own she’ll slow down to make the ball go slower. (Which, by the way, is the opposite of what you really want to do.) Not Sammie, though. She just cranked it right out there and let the design of the mechanics do the job.

Of course, it helps that she has a great example to model herself after. Jenna throws a killer change that is quite effective in games. But still. Sammie just sort of figured it out by watching.

We did some quick work and got Sammie throwing it for a strike at least part of the time. But it sure was nice to start from a solid foundation!

So there you go. Learning the game, or even parts of it, doesn’t always require a formal setting. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, it just happens. Gotta love osmosis.

The chicken/egg of breaking in a new pitcher

chick-egg.jpg

One of the toughest things in softball from both sides of the equation (player/parents and coach) is what it takes to break in a new pitcher. She can practice and prep any way she wants, but pitching in practice isn’t the same as pitching in a game.

For one thing, now every pitch counts – and the pressure of bad pitches builds. When a pitcher is in learning mode, she can throw a few bad pitches in order to get better without suffering any real consequences. In a game, of course, bad pitch one becomes ball one. Bad pitch two becomes ball two. And if that pitcher is still finding herself, the next pitch will likely have
less to do with the mechanics she’s been working on and more to do with getting a strike some way, some how.

After all, she may fear letting the team down, and not getting a chance to try again for a good, long while. Still, parents realize the only way she’s going to get better is to get innings in. Even if they’re rough ones.

On the other side, there’s the coach. He/she may want to give this pitcher an opportunity, especially if she’s been working hard to learn. But he/she has to balance that against the needs of the rest of the team. You don’t want to fall too far behind due to walks and wild pitches just to develop a pitcher. On the other hand, if he/she will need her in the future (or the coach thinks she has potential), it’s important to give her those game reps now. Even if it hurts.

Sometimes the best situation for that developing pitcher is for the coach to have no choice. If you only have one, or at least one who’s working at it, you have to go with what you’ve got. That means taking some lumps early-on and hoping that pitcher gets better quickly as a result. Of course, that may make the rest of the team unhappy, and in this day and age the coach may find a couple of the better players looking for another team to play on rather than suffering through the losses.

One thing coaches can do is start by giving that pitcher one inning, and staying with her no matter what – unless she has clearly had a mental breakdown (at which point it’s cruel to leave her in). Let her get that one good inning in, and then put in someone with more experience. Try to build up to two, then three innings and so on.

By the time she gets up to three good innings in a row you should be able to put her in a game with the intention of leaving her in for however long you normally leave pitchers in. If she gets into trouble you can still take her out, but now she has a solid foundation and an idea that you want her to go more.

The hard part, of course, is getting to that point. It can get ugly at times. But it’s kind of a chicken/egg thing. To develop she needs to pitch in games. But to pitch in games, she needs to develop. At some point you’re just going to have to decide to go for it.

I’ve known (and worked with) plenty of pitchers who started out rough but through determination, persistence and a lot of hard work went on to blow away the kids who were ahead of them initially. At some, point, though, someone believed in them enough to give them a shot. And then another one. And then another one. And along the way, they saw the improvement and encouraged those pitchers to keep going. At which point those coaches reaped some pretty big rewards.

What have you found as far as breaking in a new pitcher? Do you have any rules you set out or processes you follow? Do you start with practice games/friendlies, then move them into pool play? Let us know what’s worked for you in the comments below.

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