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The Importance of Consistency When Learning Fastpitch Skills

Sammie pitching

The once-funny and now just more generally creepy comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen has been quoted as saying “80% of success is just showing up” or something to that effect.

While most times ol’ Woody isn’t the person you want to take advice from in anything having to do with kids, in this statement he is most definitely correct. Especially when it comes to the early stages of learning fastpitch softball skills.

Let’s take hitting for example. Hitting even a decently fast pitch in fastpitch softball requires a series of movements that must be performed correctly individually, sequenced correctly, and timed correctly. Some of those movements and sequences aren’t necessarily intuitive.

Since the object of the skill is to hit the ball with the bat, it’s easy for young hitters to assume that they should focus on taking the bat to the ball first. If their body turns afterward, so much the better.

But that’s actually the opposite of what they should be doing. The proper sequence is hips-shoulders-bat. A good instructor will teach that sequence, which not only maximizes power but the time the hitter has to see the ball before committing to the swing and the ability to hit the ball in the proper zone.

If that young hitter who’s still learning only comes to lessons once every few weeks, however, there’s a very good chance she will forget all about the proper sequence and spend her time practicing a bat-first swing. Then her distraught parents will wonder why they’re paying all this money for lessons and not getting better.

It becomes even more important with windmill pitching because in my opinion there is so much that can go wrong – and failure is more obvious. If you have a bad swing but still manage to make contact with the bat you can get on base.

But if you’re not throwing strikes, or you’re throwing easy-to-hit strikes, you’re going to have a tough day. As I tell my students, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside, but it can be a cold, dark place on the inside.

Again, with windmill pitching some of the movements aren’t necessarily intuitive. If they were, you’d see more rec league pitchers using good form.

But instead, most untrained pitchers tend to stay facing forward, take a short step off the pitching rubber, and proceed to push/guide the ball toward the plate. THAT is what feels natural and intuitive. But it’s not what great pitchers do.

If a newbie pitcher only goes to lessons now and then and then gets put into a game before she’s ready, she will likely find herself like Luke Skywalker in the cave on Dagobah.

To really get the maximum value out of lessons in the early stages, it’s important to receive consistent training. That’s because you’re setting the foundation for all that is to come.

My recommendation is once per week – no more, no less – although you can do it going every other week if necessary. It will just likely take a bit longer to get where you want to go.

That regularity – and the short time between reviews by the instructor – helps keep players from veering too far off the path to success. It’s easier to do a reset when the training is consistent.

Going sporadically, however, gives the illusion of training without the benefits. Too much can go wrong in the meantime, and we all know it’s a lot easier to develop bad habits than to break them.

Instruction always works better when you apply it properly. In the early stages especially, that requires consistency. Make the commitment, even when it’s challenging, and you’ll see the rewards a whole lot faster.

 

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Private softball instructors level the playing field

As someone who has a broad interest in the state of youth sports in general as well as fastpitch softball specifically, I’m always interested to read articles on the topic. There’s no doubt that the U.S. (along with more and more other countries) has become sports-crazy, to the point where it is having a negative effect on young players. Sad softball player

There is one aspect that always strikes me as missing the mark, however, which is their description of instructors. Maybe it’s because I’m a private softball instructor myself, but I don’t think it’s just me taking it personally.

When they talk about how crazy parents have gotten, sooner or later the articles will refer to how on top of everything else parents “then drag their kids to an instructor to spend even more time on their sport, usually in the hopes of acquiring that D1 scholarship.” Or something to that effect. It’s not an actual quote, just a sort of paraphrase of what I’ve seen.

That may be true in some cases. But for the most part I see the role as being somewhat different.

In the good old days these pundits like to talk about, they say kids just showed up at the field and learned to play there. They didn’t need all these adults around.

Well, the reality is that was wonderful for the kids with great athletic ability. You know the ones I’m talking about – you give them a ball, or a stick or some other piece of athletic equipment and they’ll instinctively know what to do with it. But maybe not so much for the kids for whom it didn’t come naturally, or who hadn’t grown into their bodies yet, or who were a little slower in developing their motor skills.

Basically what happened was they got left behind quickly and never had the opportunities to advance in a sport they may have loved but weren’t particularly good at yet. They got weeded out early.

That’s why I say a good instructor can level the playing field. He or she can take a player who may not be the greatest athlete and teach him or her to be competitive and find success on the field, court, rink or whatever. Success being defined by the player and his or her family.

I’ve worked with a lot of kids who had no ambition of playing in college – not just at the D1 level but at any level. Some just wanted to be successful in high school, or on their travel team, or in their rec league. They wanted to get off the bench and become important to their teams.

Is there something wrong with that? I don’t think so, and if I can help them achieve that goal where they might not have otherwise it’s terrific.

Not everyone was blessed with great DNA or grew up in a family that played sports all the time. A good instructor can help make up for those “disadvantages” and level the playing field, giving them opportunities they may not have had otherwise and helping them to achieve all they can achieve.

Of course, even the best athletes can use a little help along the way to shortcut their learning curve, and they’re fun to work with too. My point is that most of the parents who take their kids somewhere for instruction aren’t the ones you see in TV documentaries and NY Times ads, relentlessly trying to drive their kids to sports success they themselves never achieved. They’re just trying to help their kids feel good about themselves and build some great sports memories.

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.

The Way It Ought To Be

The other night when I got out to my fastpitch softball lessons I had a pleasant surprise waiting for me. My first lesson was with a high school senior pitcher, and her high school coach was there to observe.

I couldn’t have been more pleased! All too often it seems the relationship between private coaches and team coaches – either in high school or travel ball – is contentious. I’m not sure why but it’s not uncommon. Fastpitch pitching

It’s much smarter for there to be a sense of cooperation. Private coaches work with players on an individual basis far more than a team coach ever will have the time for. They teach specific skills and learn what cues trigger performance and success for those players.

If the player (or her parents) have chosen wisely, that player comes onto the team with an advanced skillset built over many hours of practice. At the same time, there will be players who have put little effort into learning their skills. That is where the team coach can make a difference. Focusing their limited time on raising the skill levels of those players will pay the best dividends. Because, of course, the chain will only be as strong as its weakest links.

In this particular case, I invited the coach into the cage with us so he could hear the instruction and ask questions if he had any. He brought his iPad in with him and shot video as we went along. I periodically asked if he had any questions, and he had the opportunity to see how I interacted with my student/his player.

It was a very pleasant half hour. I left the coach with an open invitation to come back any time. Kudos to the pitcher’s parents for setting it up, incidentally.

Of course, it’s easy for me to take this position as a private coach. But I have also experienced it from the other side. While I wasn’t able to attend an actual lesson, when I was a team coach and had pitchers who were not my students, I would contact their pitching coaches to learn what to look out for, what cues they used and what they were teaching those pitchers. It may not have been what I taught, but that’s ok. I wanted to work with what they had learned and what they were supposed to be doing rather than trying to re-make according to what I teach.

Presumably, everyone – team coach, private coach, parents and the player – want the same thing. They want the pitcher to be successful. Working together is far more likely to make that happen than constant territorial battles.

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