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Observations, Impressions, and Takeaways from the WCWS

Last week I had the opportunity to fulfill just about every fastpitch softball fanatic’s dream – attending the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in person. I was there to attend the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s (NFCA) course 408 World Series Coach and Game Observation for its National Fastpitch Coaches College Master Coach program. (More on that on another day.)

As the name implies, the course consists of watching some games in-person in Oklahoma City, interspersed with classroom sessions that discuss the strategies in those and upcoming games along with the state of the game. In my class they also brought in coaches from four of the eight teams participating – Kirk Walker (UCLA), Mike White (and his staff, Texas), Kenny Gajewski (Oklahoma State), and Kate Drohan (Northwestern) – who talked about the previous day’s games and what they were expecting in their next games.

Pretty cool right? We also got a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium, a look at the massive tent city that is the heart of ESPN’s coverage, and a chance to see the practice fields just behind the stadium. Plus the opportunity to actually walk on the field (including the dugouts) and sit behind the microphones in the media interview room.

I will take your questions now.

By the way if all that sounds awesome you too can take advantage of it – if you are an NFCA member. And if you do decide to sign up, please list me as a referral!

Of course, once a coach always a coach. So after hanging out with our instructors (Carol Bruggeman, executive director of the NFCA and Larissa Anderson, head coach at Mizzou) along with 30+ knowledgeable classmates (including Hall of Famer and all-time great Dr. Dot Richardson, now head coach at Liberty University) I did come away with a number of thoughts about the games and the state of fastpitch softball in general.

So without further preamble, and in no particular order, here are a few thoughts worth sharing.

Even the Best Players Make Errors

I’ve said this on Facebook clips but it bears repeating: all of you youth coaches out there berating your players for mishandling a ground ball, dropping a fly ball, making a bad throw, or making some other type of error need to stop. In the two days (six games total) I was there I saw players at the highest level of the game do the same things.

Errors happen. If you want to use them as teachable moments there’s nothing wrong with that. But to just yell at a player for being “stupid,” or yank her out of the game in the middle of an inning after a single miscue isn’t being tough or demanding. It’s being shortsighted and possibly ego-driven.

The coaches at this level know that if players are always worried about the consequences of making a mistake they will never stretch themselves to become the players they can be. Instead they’ll play it safe and miss opportunities or the chance to develop skills that could win you games.

Errors happen. Help your players learn from them and get better.

Spinning Pitches Properly Is Becoming a Lost Art

The mantra of pitching coaches everywhere is “spin, spot, speed.” In other words, you need to spin movement pitches correctly to get them to move, throw them to the right location, and throw them very hard to be successful.

While the latter two seem to still be in effect, the spin component is a growing problem. There is no doubt that the faster a pitch approaches a hitter, the harder it is to hit.

But it seems that in the quest for more speed many in the game (including collegiate pitching coaches) have abandoned any concern about whether drop balls, curve balls, rise balls, etc. are spinning in the right direction. The ball used by the NCAA makes this abundantly clear.

How many times did you see a slow motion replay from the catcher’s point of view and see the black dot of the NCAA logo coming straight at you while the ball revolved around it? Probably hundreds.

No matter what the announcers are calling it on TV, the pitches that look like that have “bullet” spin. Bullets spin that way so they DON’T move off their targets.

The result is that pitches that spin that way aren’t curving or dropping or rising. They’re traveling on a straight line to the catcher.

Think about it a little more. How could three or four pitches (we’ll throw the “screwball” in there too) with the same spin move in different directions?

The short answer is they can’t. The laws of physics don’t allow it.

Every ball that ends up higher than it started isn’t a rise ball. Every ball that ends up further to the left or right isn’t a curve or a screw.

But until pitching coaches at all levels start holding pitchers accountable we’re probably going to see offensive numbers, including home runs, increase steadily. Because as tough as speed can be to hit (more for some than others), true movement makes it exponentially more difficult.

There Are Haves and Have-Nots

Yes, even at that level there are definite haves and have-nots. Obviously Oklahoma falls into the “haves” category.

As I watched them up close and personal I was amazed at what I saw. Head Coach Patty Gasso’s statement that they want to be amazing at every part of the game definitely was on display. A few of the other teams were pretty close behind.

But there were also other teams that, as in tournaments everywhere in every sport, had done all they could do to get there but just weren’t going to be able to match up to the best of the best.

That doesn’t mean they were bad by any means. But at the end of the day there was simply a quality difference up and down the lineup.

Keep that in mind the next time your team finds itself in over its head at a tournament. Sometimes you just have to be happy you made it that far and not worry about the outcomes.

Aggressive Hitters Do Better Than Careful Ones

This one may seem obvious, but apparently it’s not. Because as I sat in the stands it became quite apparent which teams were reactive and just trying to put the ball in play somehow versus those who went to the plate looking to do serious damage.

I’m not just talking about individuals, although there was certainly some of that. I’m talking more about team philosophies.

Arizona is a good example here. While Oklahoma might be the obvious illustrator of this principle to me Arizona is a better choice precisely because they didn’t make it to the championship game. They didn’t have the horses Oklahoma did, but they made up for it by taking a “no prisoners” approach at the plate.

Going after pitches with that mindset helped keep them in games far more than teams that were tentative. Go in with the intent of hitting the ball hard and there’s a great likelihood you will. Then you’ve at least given yourself a chance to win.

You Can’t Ride One Arm Anymore

The days of a Jennie Finch or a Cat Osterman or a Monica Abbott pitching every inning of every game are long gone. These days it takes a pitching staff to make it through a long season.

The same is true at the youth level. Yes, you can probably win more games in high school or travel ball riding one pitcher until her arm falls off.

But with the quality of hitters these days sooner or later that will catch up to you. Coaches need to be sure all their pitchers are ready to step up when needed or they’re likely to find themselves in trouble when it matters most.

Again, look at Oklahoma. When freshman sensation Jordy Bahl got injured it didn’t derail their season. They just went to Hope Trautwein and Nicole May and won a national championship.

Or look at Texas. When their starter struggled in the first inning of the first game of the championship series they didn’t hesitate to go to the bullpen. In fact, they did it a couple of times until they got out of the inning.

Coaches, you are never more than one turned ankle or injured forearm from losing your entire season if you rely on only one pitcher. Develop your staff and you’ll go farther in the long run.

College Teams Keep (and Use) a Lot of Stats

Not too long ago one of my students told me her team coach wasn’t moving her up in the lineup, even though she had the second-best slash line on the team, because she “doesn’t believe in stats.”

First of all, stats are a statement of fact, not ghosts. There’s nothing to “believe” in, they’re right there for everyone to see.

More importantly, though, from what I saw at the games and heard from the top coaches as well as many classmates, stats are the lifeblood of the modern game.

Colleges large and small chart everything. They want to know what pitch a particular pitcher throws in a given situation to a type of hitter. They want to know where hitters are likely to hit based on the pitcher so they can position their fielders.

They want to know if a coach likes to steal bases and on what count. I think they like to know what the opposing team has for breakfast on days when they win.

The more information they have the better decisions they can make, especially when it counts. While you may not have the resources to do all that charting (or to buy data from a service) you can certainly get an idea of who is performing on your team and on your opponents’ teams by checking stats on GameChanger or a similar app.

That way you don’t have to rely on instinct. You can take a more scientific, fact-based approach that will lead to better outcomes for the team.

Anyone (Almost) Can Beat Anyone

Texas came into the NCAA tournament unseeded. They beat a lot of much higher-seeded teams to get to the championship series.

Don’t let an opponent’s reputation or past record intimidate you. Go out and play the game.

There Are a Lot of Great, Dedicated Coaches Out There

We always hear about the obnoxious ones, the ego-driven coaches who scream at their players and throw tantrums and play sick mind games with them. I guess that’s what’s considered newsworthy.

But after spending a couple of days with 30+ coaches at various levels I can tell you there are a lot of great ones who are in it for the right reasons. My classmates in this course were great to talk to, and many of them appreciated having other softball nerds to talk with about the game (because their families and friends just roll their eyes when they start discussing whether it’s an opportune time to lay down a drag bunt).

The point here is do you research and don’t just settle for whoever is closest. Find the right coaches – head and assistants – and you’ll have a much better fastpitch softball experience.

That’s it for now. If I think of more I’ll share them in a subsequent post. And if you have any questions about the WCWS or the Master Coach program or anything else related to this topic be sure to put them in the comments below and I will answer them as best I can.

Nothing Grows in the Comfort Zone

beautiful environment field flora

Photo by Mina-Marie Michell on Pexels.com

Came across a version of the headline of this post yesterday in another context this week and thought “How appropriate for fastpitch softball!”

Of course, it immediately brought to mind an image of a lush, beautiful landscape with flowers, and trees, and butterflies, and cute little animals romping around freely under a nearly cloudless sky on a warm day with a cool breeze. Surrounded on all sides by a desolate landscape.

We all love our comfort zones. By definition we’re comfortable there. Life is easy, there’s no stress, we can just go along our merry way without a worry in the world.

As nice as that sounds, however, the problem with the comfort zone is it’s locked in time and place. Sure it seems nice, and we believe nothing bad will happen there. But nothing great or new will happen there either.

And that’s the problem. As a player, or as a coach, you’re either moving forward or you’re moving backward. Because it’s not just about you – it’s about you relative to everyone else.

If you stay in your comfort zone while others are struggling to get better, those others will eventually pass you by. Think of a log stuck in a river.

The log stays where it is while the water goes rushing by. It’s not that the log went backward; it’s still exactly where it was. But the water kept moving, and now it’s further downstream than it was.

So it is with your softball skills/knowledge and ability to play/coach. You won’t grow as a player or a coach if you just decide to stay in your comfort zone. You’ll be stuck in time while everyone else moves ahead.

Think of the hitter who dominates when she is younger because she is bigger, or stronger, or better-coordinated than the other girls. She judges her ability based on outcomes, and since her outcomes are better than the others she doesn’t bother to work on getting better. She’s comfortable doing what she’s doing.

In the meantime, other players who may not have been as blessed with natural abilities take lessons, or study what great players do on their own, and start working to make the most of the abilities they have. They learn quality mechanics and how to apply them, and suddenly as the pitching gets better they’re hitting better than the “natural” who stayed in comfort zone.

They grew, and the “natural” didn’t. Suddenly the “natural” doesn’t have as much of an advantage anymore. Eventually the river of players passes her by and she’s left to wonder, “what happened?”

This is also true of coaches. There are so many coaches out there who view the fact they played baseball or softball in high school or college X years ago as giving them all the knowledge they need to coach today’s players.

They stay with what they did (or what they think they did, which isn’t always the same) and what worked for them rather than looking into whether there might be a better way. As a result, they put their players at a disadvantage versus those who are being coached by coaches who are willing to get out of their comfort zones and learn new things.

Great coaches, whether they played at a high level or not, are always looking for every advantage and piece of knowledge they can bring to their players. They’re not afraid to say, “I know I used to teach X, but I’m not teaching that anymore. Let’s do Y, because I believe it’s a better way to go.”

No less than former UCLA head coach and NFCA Hall of Famer Sue Enquist is one of those coaches. I heard a story a few years ago that she was making a presentation at a coach’s clinic about hitting when a member of the audience raised his hand and said that he had one of her hitting instruction videos and what she was saying completely contradicted what she said in the video.

Without blinking an eye she owned it and said, “Well, I know a lot more now than I did then.”

If someone at that level, with all her accomplishments and championships wasn’t afraid to get out of her comfort zone so she could grow, the rest of us shouldn’t be either.

Yes, the living is easy in the comfort zone. But that’s the problem. There’s no growth there – everything just stays as-is.

Steel is forged in fire. Diamonds are created under tremendous pressure.

If you want to grow as a player or coach, make the leap. Get out of your comfort zone and become the player or coach you were meant to be.

NFCA to NCAA: Make us stop!

 

NFCA asks NCAA to end early recruiting

By now you’ve probably heard that at the recent National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) convention, D1 softball coaches finally stepped up to take a stand against early recruiting.

It wasn’t quite as strong as those coaches saying “For the good of our sport and the prospective student athletes we hereby all agree to VOLUNTARILY stop offering verbal commitments to 7th graders.” But it was a start.

If you don’t feel like following the link, essentially the D1 softball coaches have asked the NCAA to impose a rule that says they can have zero recruiting contact with any player until September 1 of that player’s junior year. That would mean the coaches can’t have any recruiting contact at tournaments, at their own camps, or anywhere else.

If a player calls or email the coach, the first question should be “What grade are you in?” If the answer isn’t “I’m a junior,” the coach should respond that he/she isn’t allowed to talk to that player. A snapshot of the changes can be found here.

In my opinion, this is a tremendous step forward. As I (and many, many others) have stated in the past, asking a 7th or 8th grader to make such a momentous decision as where she will attend college is ridiculous, and a huge disservice to the player.

Your choice of college should be based first on what you plan to do for the rest of your life. Especially since a post-college playing career is generally less lucrative than working the overnight shift at the local mini-mart.  A player should be choosing a college with the thought that if she got hurt and could no longer play softball, that would still be the school she wants to attend.

What 7th or 8th grader is prepared to make that decision? Few, if any in my experience. They are going through tremendous changes at that age – physical, mental, social – and most are doing all they can to just manage that.

Freshmen and sophomores are a little more mature, but they too are just really beginning to discover what their likes and aptitudes are – factors that will have a huge effect on their ultimate choice of a career, and thus of a college.

They’re also getting a better idea of their academic acumen, as the change from middle school/junior high school to high school can be huge in terms of academics. By their junior years, they should have a better idea of the type of school that fits their academic capabilities.

I know a lot of people (including myself) who didn’t choose their college until their senior year. It’s a tough decision even at that age, much less a much younger one.

Then there’s the “youth sports” aspect of fastpitch softball. In the last few years, it feels like it’s become less about the “human drama of athletic competition” and more about nailing down the almighty verbal offer. Perhaps a change in the recruiting rules will let the girls enjoy the sport a little longer before they have to start sweating whether Coach So-and-so saw them and liked their performance.

This is definitely a good thing, and heading in the right direction. It’s unfortunate that the coaches, or the institutions, couldn’t just agree to do it themselves. But I suppose all it takes is one to disregard the voluntary rules and the whole structure comes down like a giant game of Jenga.

Making it an edict from the NCAA puts the threat of punishment in place, so maybe it will hold up for a while. At least until certain programs figure out what the loopholes are, because there are always loopholes.

Perhaps it will also put an end to jokes about D1 coaches following tall pregnant women around Walmart, handing out business cards and saying “If you have a girl and she plays softball, especially as a pitcher, call me.”

One thing to keep in mind, of course, is that as I read it a new ruling would only apply to D1 colleges. What about the D2 schools? If they are not included, might they start sweeping in to grab some of those top-tier players whose parents are more concerned with the scholarship than the specific school?

D3 schools aren’t allowed to offer athletic scholarships, of course, but they always seem to find academic money for athletes they like. I wonder how a D1-only ruling would affect them? Probably not an issue right now, but you never know how the law of unintended consequences will affect things.

Still not convinced? Here’s a link to another page on the NFCA website that shows some research on some outcomes that affect early commits, such as coaches leaving or the fact that 60% of players had no idea about what they wanted to major in at the time they committed.

So there you have it. Perhaps some sanity will finally come to recruiting. And perhaps by the time the late bloomers bloom, there will still be a place for them to go play. Most importantly, girls who aren’t even sure which backpack to buy for the new school year won’t be getting pressured to choose what college to attend in a few years.

What do you think? Are you glad early recruiting is potentially ending? Or were you in favor of it? Let’s get a discussion going in the comments below.

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.

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