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There’s Always Someone Watching

A few weeks ago one of my students pitched in a tournament. The game didn’t go particularly well, she said, as her team lost 8-0.

Not exactly the type of outcome that makes you a legend. So what happened next was very cool.

Her dad ran into the coach of the winning team in one of the common areas, and the coach was very complimentary.

“Your daughter pitched a great game,” the coach said. “What happened on the scoreboard wasn’t her fault. Her team just made too many errors.”

The pitcher’s dad thanked him for the kind words. But then came the shocker.

“Has your daughter committed to a team yet for next year?” the coach asked. “If not, I’d love to offer her a spot on my team.”

Think about that. The opposing team tapped that girl for eight runs and the coach of that team offered her a roster spot right there.

What this proves is a simple fact. As they say in the Ocean’s 11 remake, there’s always someone watching.

Although that is a little creepy in a hotel setting.

What that coach saw, I assume, was not a pitcher who was losing a ballgame but instead a pitcher who was battling to try to keep her team in it, even if the rest of the team was shooting itself in the foot. She didn’t give up, or complain, or do the things many athletes do when things aren’t going their way.

Instead she showed strength of character (as well as quality of performance) to a degree that impressed the coach enough to want her on his team.

That is something every athlete in every sport should keep in mind as they play. It’s easy to be happy or “up” or “fierce” when your team is winning and you’re performing well.

What you get when you practice looking fierce in the mirror.

But the ones who really stand out are the players who can do it in the face of adversity – like giving your opponents extra outs on a hot Sunday afternoon. Not because someone might be watching but because that’s who they are.

But the someone watching part is important. It could be, as in this case, the coach of a future travel team who can offer a better opportunity.

It could be the local high school coach checking out the incoming freshmen. It could be a college coach who is looking for the right players to help their team win a conference championship and go to a post-season tournament.

Heck, it might even be a future employer who just happens to be out watching their daughter play ball.

Whoever it is you just never know who might be watching. And who might be very impressed with how you handle yourself when things aren’t going well.

So keep that in mind on your tough days. Instead of sulking, or complaining, or just giving up, keep on playing. Do your best every time no matter how roughly things are going.

Because there’s always someone watching who could make a huge difference in your life.

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How Many Lessons Until My Kid Is Awesome?

Today’s blog post was suggested by my friend and fellow pitching coach Shaun Walker of Next Level Softball. Shaun is an incredible pitching coach and an innovative thinker who has opened me up to a whole new world around human movement and how it affects athletic performance at a core level.

Don’t let the West Virginia accent fool you either. He may talk funny (as he says) but you better pay attention when he’s doing it or you will miss something great. (If you’re in the Man, W. Va. area and are interested in quality instruction definitely look him up.)

In any case, Shaun told me about getting contacted by the parent of a prospective student who asked him the question I’m sure is on the minds of many parents: how many lessons will it take? The implied part, of course, is until my daughter is a star.

Wow, talk about a loaded question. As Shaun says, that’s like asking how many licks until you get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. There is no easy answer.

NOTE: While we will be talking about pitching specifically in this post, the principles apply to all skills, all positions, and all sports and activities.

One obvious reason is that different players have different builds, athletic abilities, work ethics, time available to them, levels of experience, practice spaces, levels of mental toughness, and other factors. They are also different ages which factors into it more than many of us might want to admit.

For example, an 8 year old will generally have a very different ability to focus for long periods of time than a 14 year old. That’s just biology.

Sure, there are plenty of distracted 14 years old, and the occasional hyper-focused 8 year old. But for the overall population this is true.

With the result that the 8 year old will be able to pay attention for part of the lesson until the circus in her head takes over whereas the 14 year old should be able to focus for the entire lesson. Particularly if she is personally motivated to learn.

What the typical young player sees about 10 minutes into a lesson.

Athletic build is a pretty obvious factor. A big, strong player will likely experience more success early than a scrawny little peanut who is in danger of being blown away by the next strong breeze.

That doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever, though. The peanut will grow and mature, and eventually gain the muscle mass needed – particularly if she works at it – to catch up to her larger peers. With the added benefit her mechanics may be cleaner because they had to be.

But it’s going to take her longer to achieve the same level of success. Again, that darned biology.

This brings us to work ethic, which I’m sure Shaun (and many others) would agree is the greatest X factor of them all.

Take two girls of similar native ability. The only time the first one picks up a ball is when she has a lesson. Or maybe an hour before she has that lesson.

The second one practices diligently. Not just putting in time, but actually working on the things that were assigned to her in her last lesson (whether that was with a live pitching coach, a team coach, a parent, or an online session).

Which one is more likely to advance faster? I think the answer is pretty obvious.

But there is no way the coach being asked “How long will it take” will know these players well enough to make that evaluation before ever working with them.

And even then, the lack of natural athletic ability or comfort with body movement may hold the harder worker back longer — for a while. Eventually, though, that work ethic will overcome just about any obstacle.

Another factor that can contribute is how long it takes to overcome previous bad teaching.

I’ve talked a lot, especially recently, about the benefits of internal rotation (IR) over hello elbow (HE) pitching, especially when it comes to using the body the way it’s designed to work. One of the biggest issues HE generates is teaching pitchers to turn the ball back toward second base, make the arm as straight as possible, and push the ball down the back side of the circle.

When you do that you lose any ability to accelerate (whip) the ball through the release zone, affecting both speed and accuracy. That’s why many pitchers who are taught HE, and do the HE drills, still manage to find their way to some form of IR when they actually pitch.

Still, those ingrained habits can be difficult to break. So a pitcher who has taken lessons for five years from an HE coach may find it takes her longer to unlearn those mechanics and get on the right path than one who has never had instruction before or maybe even who has never pitched.

So again, how long it takes to achieve the results you’re looking for is difficult to predict. It all depends on how long it takes to learn to face the ball forward, maintain a bend in the arm, and accelerate the ball into release by leading the little finger rather than pushing it from behind.

Last but definitely not least is the mental toughness factor. Many of the skills in softball are incredibly difficult to learn, and pitching is certainly no exception.

It can be frustrating, even soul-sucking at times. There will be days when nothing seems to work right, or weeks when it feels like zero progress is being made because the speed on the radar gun isn’t changing or the strike percentages aren’t going up significantly or the spin direction on the ball isn’t what it should be.

Pitchers need to have the mental toughness to accept it and keep working anyway. If they’re learning the right techniques, and practicing diligently, it will happen. As my favorite quote from Remember the Titans says, “It’s like Novocain. Give it time, it always works.”

A little Ryan Gosling dancing to make your day.

Those who can hang in there when the going gets tough will see the rewards. Those who can’t will find it difficult to achieve their dreams.

Just like in life.

So how long will it take? As long as it takes.

There are things you can do to shorten the process, but it’s only shortening your process, because we’re all different.

Keep an eye on the prize, understand it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and all those other sports clichés. If you keep at it you will eventually reach the chewy center.

Oh, and if you have a topic you’d like me to address, feel free to suggest it in the comments below. I’m always looking for new ideas that will resonate with your interests and concerns.

Right Now Is A Great Time to Work on the Mental Game

Ask any coach, especially one whose teams play at a high level, how important the mental game is on a scale from one to 10 and you’ll probably get an answer of between eight and 10. Of course if you then follow up by asking them what percentage of practice time they spend working on their team’s mental game, the answer will likely be 10% or less.

Because while everyone will agree the mental game is important, spending practice time fielding ground balls and doing hitting drills, or doing anything physically active, just “feels” more like practice.

Now that Zoom sessions have replaced physical practices in many areas, however, it may be time to re-think what you’re doing. It’s the “making lemonade out of lemons” approach.

When you think about it, Zoom (or whatever communication tool you use) sessions actually lend themselves even better to the mental game than the physical game. With the physical game you have to set up a camera or phone and hope the players stay in range as they move around, doing drills. But with the mental game, most of what you need to do can be accomplished while sitting comfortably in a chair.

For example, you can quiz your team to see how well they understand the rules. The quiz can be an oral quiz on the spot, or you can email a document to all your players, have them fill it out in advance, and then go over the answers on the call. Some technologies even have polling features that can be adapted to a live quiz.

Another way to work the mental game is by doing a screen share of diagramming software such as this one or this one or this one to go over various plays. You can show new plays, or describe the situation and the hit and then ask your players what their responsibilities are.

A Zoom call is also great for helping players learn how to manage stress. There are all kinds of techniques, such as those found in Heads Up Baseball (one of my favorite books on the subject) that you can go over and have your players practice applying. For example, you can teach them the stoplight analogy and how to do it to keep themselves from getting out of control.

Another way to use a Zoom call to good advantage is to have them work on visualization. Studies have shown that visualization can be as powerful as physical practice in helping players improve their physical skills, yet when was the last time you took time out of practice to help your players learn to visualize success? Now you can.

If you need more ideas, just do a quick Internet search on “mental game exercises,” or follow this link to the search I did. There are tons of ideas out there that can help you develop mentally tough players, even from a distance.

Of course, in addition to developing your players’ mental game you can also use Zoom calls to build cohesiveness within the team. There are plenty of games and exercises you can use to help your players get to know each other better and create the sort of bonds that keep high-level teams performing at a high level.

As Steve Martin says in the underrated movie My Blue Heaven, “You guys see a problem. I see an opportunity.”

Take some of those Zoom sessions where you’re struggling to find a way to run a regular practice and focus instead on the mental game. You’ll be amazingly pleased with the results come next spring – or whenever you start playing regularly again.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Be As Water

abstract background beach color

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the most well-known pieces of advice from the late, great Bruce Lee was a simple three-word statement: be as water. For those interested in more of what he meant, or who are just wondering who the heck Bruce Lee was, here’s a video:

 

While Lee’s advice was ostensibly meant to encourage martial artists to give up their old, rigid approach to movement in favor of one that was more free-flowing, I find it’s also great advice for fastpitch softball players. Here are a few examples.

Pitchers

When pitchers want to throw harder, they tend to tighten up their muscles and become very stiff. They also do it when they’re trying to guide the ball to a location (even if it’s just the general strike zone). Yet that’s the worst possible thing to do in each situation.

If you’re trying to gain speed, remember tight muscles are slow muscles. You can swing your arm around much faster if you relax and let it go versus trying to force it around.

Being stiff when trying to gain better control also works against you, and actually makes it more difficult. If you are tight and off-line somewhere in your circle, you will stay there and the ball will go somewhere you don’t want it to.

But if you are loose, a gentle nudge is all it takes to get back on-line. Plus, you have momentum working for you, because if you are loose and using good mechanics (i.e., those that follow the natural way the body moves) it’s a lot easier to follow the natural line.

To improve as a pitcher, be as water.

Hitters

The same things about tight versus loose apply to hitters. If you try to muscle up on the ball you’ll lose the whipping action of the bat into the hitting zone, costing you valuable bat speed.

Being tight also makes it difficult to react and adjust to pitch speeds, spins and locations. A rigid swing will tend to continue going wherever it started to go; a relaxed swing allows you to make adjustments without losing bat speed.

Then there’s the mental aspect. If you are uptight generally (aka in your own head) you are going to be worried about far too many outside factors, such as your last at bat or the fight you had with your mother before the game, to bring your swing thought down to “see ball, hit ball.”

There will be no flow to your swing, just a sort of panicked flail as the ball comes in. You may even start seeing things that aren’t there, or lose your perspective on exactly where the strike zone is. Much can happen.

To improve as a hitter, be as water.

Fielders

As a fielder, you want to be able to move smoothly to the ball. You want your throws to be easy and sure.

That’s going to be tough if you are tight and rigid. The word “flow” is frequently used to describe a great fielder. And what water does.

Being rigid or mechanical in your movements is a sure ticket to many more errors than you should be making. And if you are that way because you are AFRAID of making errors and being pulled out of the game, it only gets worse. Forget about all that.

To improve as a fielder, be as water.

Approach to the Game

Perhaps the area Bruce Lee’s advice applied to most is your general approach to the game. In the video, he says that if you pour water into a cup it becomes the cup. If you pour it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.

Fastpitch softball players need that type of flexibility as well. You may be asked to play a position that isn’t your usual one. You can either resist or go with it.

Yes, playing outfield rather than catcher or shortstop may not be your preference. But if you go with it and prove yourself in the role you were asked to play you are far more likely to get the opportunity to show what you can do in the position you want to play. I’ve seen it happen.

You may not like your coach’s coaching style. Understood – there are some bad coaches out there. But often it’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s just different than you prefer.

Rather than bracing yourself against it like a rock, be as water. Adjust your expectations and get as much as you can out of the experience. Everyone has something to teach – even if it’s just not to be like they are in the future.

You may not be getting the playing time you want or feel you deserve. That may be true. But before you just blame the coach and jump ship, ask yourself if you’re doing all you can do to earn the spot you want.

Are you diving for balls in practice? Are you displaying a positive attitude? Do you go to the weight room, take extra batting practice or bullpen work, ask for one more ground ball if you pooch one in practice, help clean up team equipment at the end of practice or a game, etc.?

Maybe the answer is yes and you’re just not getting a fair shot. It happens. But before you decide that, determine whether you have been trying to shape yourself to the program the way water shapes itself to the cup or wishing the program would shape itself to you.

Final Question

So after all of this, if I were to ask you which is stronger, the rock or the water, what would you answer?

Many would say the rock. Not a bad answer on the surface, because if you place a rock in a stream or river, the water will be forced to go around it.

Over time, however, the water will wear away the rock and any other obstacle in its path until it can once again flow smoothly.

So I ask you again: which is stronger, the rock or the water?

Be as water, my friend.

How To Build A Reputation As A Warrior

Maddy leg closeup

Last weekend once I was done with lessons I went out to watch a tournament where some of my students were playing. It was a gorgeous day for softball and I had plenty of time, so clearly life was good that day!

I arrived in the middle of a game where one of my students, Ally, was pitching, and she did a masterful job. Which, of course, always makes it fun to watch. I also enjoyed watching a couple of other students, Abby and Kylie, during the game as well.

During that game, though, one of the parents mentioned that another student, Maddy, had been pitching in a game earlier and had taken a hard line drive to her right shin. I learned later she’d thrown roughly two or three pitches, got hit, and had to come out of the game it hurt so bad. (Good incentive, by the way, to keep the ball off the middle of the Maddy full pictureplate.)

Once that game concluded with a win, the next game started up (after some time to re-set the field). Maddy came out to pitch that game, which I was glad to see. It’s not often I get to see two students pitch the same day.

Maddy struggled a bit in the first inning, and her team struggled to field the onslaught of bunts their opponents unleashed on them early-on. They ended up down 6-0 before they ever got a chance to hit.

After that rough start, however, Maddy took control, didn’t give up any more runs, and ended up with 7 Ks over 5 innings as I recall. Gotta love time limits.

While she was pitching, however, I did mention that she looked a bit uncomfortable physically. Nothing major, but if you were paying attention you could see something was not quite right.

After the game (which her team ended up losing, eliminating them) I stuck around to talk to her a bit afterward. That’s when I saw what she had just accomplish.

The poor girl couldn’t put much weight on her right foot. She was limping pretty badly too. What I saw as “kind of uncomfortable” actually turned out to be pretty painful. I actually asked if she needed me to carry her to the car but she just laughed and said no.

That’s how you get a reputation as a warrior, though. It had to be incredibly painful, especially as the game wore on. She also had to be at least a little worried about having it hit again too. I know I would’ve been.

But she just gritted her teeth, said “The team needs me” and gutted it out.

I’m not big on players playing on injuries where they can make things worse. If you sprain your ankle, or pull a muscle, or get a concussion, or do something else that would make it dangerous to your health to continue, don’t.

Sometimes, though, it’s not dangerous, just painful. If you can “rub some dirt on it” as we used to say and fight your way through it, you clearly have ample helpings of mental toughness. And that’s going to serve you well not just in softball, but throughout your life.

And sometimes, parents can be a little quick to try to keep their daughters from experiencing adversity. Luckily, Maddy’s parents aren’t, and gave her the opportunity to show what she can do.

Congrats, Maddy, on a job well done!

 

Update: Thought I would share this photo of Maddy’s leg from a week later. It reminds me of a saying I saw on a t-shirt once: scars are tattoos with better stories. Although I Maddy week laterexpect this one will heal eventually. Still, you could see the knot through her sock. It should probably come with one of those disclaimers they have before TV shows about not being appropriate for younger or more sensitive viewers!

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