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The Up and Down Side of Modeling Elite Players

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One of the first (and most important) pieces of advice I give to parents who are trying to decide on a path for instruction for their daughters is to look at what elite-level players do. If you’re not being taught that, you should re-think what you’re doing.

Take pitchers for example. If you want to know whether you should turn the ball toward second base at the top of the circle and push it down the back side of the circle or turn it toward home and then pull it down with your palm face-up, video of elite players will give you the answer.

(SPOILER ALERT: The correct answer is pull it down. Ten points for Gryffindor if you got it right.)

Then there are hitters. Some people will tell you to swing with your bat and/or shoulders level at contact. But again, a quick Internet search of great hitters in both Major League Baseball and Power 25 fastpitch softball will show you that just ain’t so.

So does that mean you should just pick an elite-level player and model yourself after her (or him)? Not necessarily.

The thing you have to keep in mind is that elite-level players get to that level by virtue of more than their mechanics alone. There are a whole lot of other factors, beginning with their DNA, that go into making an elite player.

The hard reality is some players succeed despite their mechanics. Their athletic ability, focus, dedication, etc. is such that they can overcome even significant mechanical flaws.

Some pitchers will be hunched over and will throw their shoulders forward as they throw, even though biomechanics says they would be better off keeping their shoulder locked in around 45 degrees. But when they’re throwing 70+ mph doing what they’re doing, and racking up the Ks and Ws, most coaches aren’t going to worry it until it becomes a problem.

Does that mean you should follow their example? In a word, no. That player is succeeding in spite of her mechanics, not because of them. Us ordinary mortals can’t count on getting the same results.

The same goes for hitters who primarily rely on their upper body strength to hit for power. Somehow they have managed to make it work for them.

Most of us, however, will find if we are upper-body dominant we won’t be able to adjust to pitch speeds/location/movement. We’ll hit the ball a mile if it’s pitched where we’re swinging. But if it’s not – and the whole strategy behind pitching is to NOT pitch to a hitter’s strengths – we will likely swing and miss. A lot.

So what’s the answer? Should we try to understand and follow the mechanics of elite-level players or not?

For an answer, I would look to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson. Yes, he died long before the first fastpitch softball game was played, but he had a pretty practical view of the world.

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Jefferson could call for a sac bunt with just a twitch of his eyebrow.

One of my favorite quotes from good ol’ Tom was “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” In other words, know what’s important and what’s not.

When looking at mechanics, don’t just look at what one or two elite level players does. Look for the common threads between all of them, and see what the majority tend to do.

Also, look at what other factors may affect the success certain players are having. If your daughter is a 78 lb. stick, modeling the mechanics of a preternaturally strong, thick-bodied beast of a player probably won’t deliver the same level of success.

Your daughter is going to need incredibly clean, efficient mechanics because she needs to get every bit of her body generating energy to transfer into the ball.

If your daughter isn’t an amazing athlete – that’s ok, you can admit it – she’s probably not going to be able to get by with too many standard deviations from what is biomechanically optimal. Again, you’ll want to stick with the things elite players do that are alike rather than excusing non-standard mechanics because so-and-so does the same thing.

Seeing what elite players do and following their example is a good thing – until it’s not.

Use video of elite players to see generally what all (or at least most) tend to do so you have a path to follow. But avoid techniques or mechanics in those players that appears to be outliers.

It’s your fastest path to success.

Main photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com
Photo of Thomas Jefferson via Good Free Photos

Staying Focused on the Process, Not the Outcome

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Photo by Drew Rae on Pexels.com

Recently I flew down to Nashville with my wife to visit my daughter (yes, a former fastpitch pitcher), her boyfriend Andrew, and their new house. Since it wasn’t non-stop we had a lot of time in airports and on planes.

Along the way I got tired of reading the dense book I’m into right now (finally reading a textbook I was supposed to go through my freshman year of college, and I am remembering why I never finished it) so I decided to play with a Blackjack trainer I have instead. Blackjack is the only casino game I tend to play, so I’m trying to make sure if I ever go back to a casino that I have my basic game down pat.

I used to have a different trainer, one that you would play online. It was kind of fun because you could place bets and track your progress. It was also valuable because it showed even if you make all the right moves you could still lose.

This one didn’t. You simply made decisions based on the cards that were dealt, and if you made a mistake a little pop-up would tell you what you should have done instead.

At first I didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t a way to track how I was doing money-wise. Then I came to see the brilliance in the way it was set up.

Without that running total of whether I was ahead or behind, I no longer was thinking in terms of outcomes. Instead, I was 100% focused on the process, i.e., selecting the right move based on the well-established odds for the game.

We talk about this a lot with softball players – focus on the process, not the outcomes. Or as I heard it put at the NFCA Convention, master the movement not the drill.

But how often do we really live it? If you’re working with a player who has been struggling at the plate and she finally makes contact, she’s probably rewarded with a “good job!” even if it was an ugly swing. But was it really a good job?

In the batting cages, when I’m pitching front toss, I will tell hitters that I don’t care if they swing and miss 100 times as long as they’re working on what we’re working on. I would rather see a good swing and miss than a bad swing and hit.

Not because a great technical swing by itself means anything. Again, there are no style points awarded during a game.

But working on getting the swing right – mastering the movement, focusing on the process – will lead to more long-term success. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in practicing it?

The same with a pitcher. I’m ok if they’re throwing the ball all over the place if they’re working on getting the mechanics right. Because I know if they do get the mechanics right the accuracy part will take care of itself. Accuracy is an outcome, not a goal unto itself.

When I work with fielders on throwing, again I want them to focus on learning the proper mechanics so when they need to make a quick, hard throw to get a runner out they can be sure of where it’s going.

If you have to think about how you’re throwing, or guide the ball to get it to where you want it to go, you’re an error waiting to happen. Probably at a key point in the game.

To get to that point in each of these cases, however, you have to take the outcome out of it. Just like the Blackjack trainer did for me.

Yes, it’s difficult. It’s a lot easier to recognize and reward a ball that’s hit hard (no matter how it was hit) or a pitch that goes in for a strike, or a throw that reaches its target than it is to focus on the way those outcomes happened. But it’s critical if you want to be successful.

Take the outcomes out of the training in the short term and just focus on the process and the movements. Give players the opportunity to “fail up,” i.e., do the right things now so that when those habits become ingrained they have far greater success than they had just doing whatever to get by.

Learning the basic game in Blackjack doesn’t guarantee success. The odds still favor the house, and you could still quickly drop a couple of hundred dollars even if you make the right moves 100% of the time. But it does help reduce that edge considerably, which is what makes it worth the effort.

The same is true in softball. You can still strike out, or walk a batter, or throw away a ball at a critical point in a game no matter how hard you work. But you cut the odds of it considerably, which is what makes focusing on the process your best bet for long-term success.

No need to sacrifice speed for accuracy in fastpitch pitching

Speed or accuracy in fastpitch pitching? The answer is mechanics.

One of the most widespread, ongoing debates in fastpitch pitching is: which comes first – speed or accuracy? In other words, should pitchers focus on developing all the speed they can and worry about accuracy later? Or should they first make sure they can throw the ball for a strike, then try to add speed later?

Part of the answer, of course, is driven by the needs of whoever is in the debate. Instructors tend to like to focus on speed, because in the long term the pitcher’s best opportunities will come when speed is maximized. You don’t see too many accurate pitchers throwing 48 mph getting offered scholarships.

Team coaches tend to want accuracy first, because they don’t want their pitcher walking too many hitters. “We can’t defend a walk,” they often say. Although some of their teams can’t defend a ground ball or a pop-up either.

So what’s the answer? In my mind, neither. Focusing on either speed or accuracy is the answer to the wrong question. What you really want to focus on is the mechanics.

The ball doesn’t care where it’s thrown. It’s an inanimate object, so it will go wherever the pitcher sends it. Which means accuracy isn’t a goal, it’s a result. If you do the right set of movements, you will throw a strike. Lock in those movements and you will throw strikes repeatedly.

Focusing on accuracy usually gets in the way of a good pitch. It causes pitchers to slow their arms down, or let the ball get ahead of the elbow on going into release so they can “guide” the ball at release. Neither of those options is conducive to accuracy or speed.

When you slow the arm down, you allow more time for something to go wrong. Not only that, but slowing the arm down causes a loss of momentum, letting you change where the arm is headed. Whereas if you’re using good mechanics and maintaining arm speed the arm will be carried toward the right direction automatically by the momentum that has been generated.

Letting the hand get ahead of the elbow at release prevents the whipping motion that creates speed. It also requires the pitcher to think too much, because pushing the ball through release means you can push it in nearly any direction. If you’re pulling it through release your options narrow considerably.

Having good mechanics makes the direction of the pitch far more automatic while enabling the speed to be maximized. You shouldn’t need to guide the pitch, or force it to go anywhere. If you really have your mechanics on lockdown you should be able to pitch blindfolded – a challenge I put forth to every pitcher sooner or later.

When you let go of your conscious thoughts of trying to guide the ball and just focus on doing the right things at the right time and in the right order, good things happen. You can then place your focus where it belongs – on maximizing the amount of energy delivered to the ball at release.

The result is speed AND accuracy, all in one nice, neat package.

What about a pitcher’s confidence, you say? If she’s struggling to throw strikes in a game won’t she lose confidence? Probably. But if she’s getting pummeled in a game she’s going to lose confidence too. Confidence comes from knowing you put in the work and doing what you do to the maximum of your abilities. The more you are able to take command of the game as a pitcher, rather than just surviving by pushing strikes across the plate, the more your confidence will grow. Because you will feel like you’ve created success rather than avoided failure.

For any pitcher, the objective should be to optimize the mechanics. Don’t worry about where the balls goes at first, except to use that as a way of diagnosing problems with mechanics. Fix the mechanics, and the ball will go where you want it to, as fast as you’re capable of throwing it.

With that mindset, you will have a solid foundation to build from.

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