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Even the best fastpitch players weren’t always the best players

Never give up, never surrender

As I write this, it’s the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics. The NCAA Division I tournament is underway, and the airwaves (or cable waves) are filled with a seemingly endless diet of games.

You can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere over the next few weekends. That’s good news for the families of younger softball players, because it gives them a chance to see how many of the top players play the game.

Yet as you watch, it’s tempting to think that all those high performers were just naturally gifted, and always played the way they play now (more or less). The fact is in many cases it isn’t true.

If you talked to them you’d find out that many of these players started out as benchwarmers who were just happy to get a few innings in here or there. Or that the awesome pitcher you’re watching lead her team to victory in Regionals, Super Regionals, or even the Women’s College World Series wasn’t always the #1 player on her travel or even high school team.

Many top players, in fact, had to work their way into the positions they are in today. That’s nothing new, either. It’s always been that way.

For evidence, I’m going to point you to a couple of good stories of personal struggle. The first two come from Amanda Scarborough.

I’m sure many of you recognize that name. She was an All American pitcher at Texas A&M, runs pitching clinics all over the U.S. as part of The Packaged Deal, and is now a commentator on ESPN. Pretty good resume, I’d say.

Yet Amanda will tell you she wasn’t always on the fast track to stardom. In fact, in this blog post she talks about how on her first travel team, she was the #4 or #5 pitcher, and rarely saw the plate or the field when she wasn’t pitching. Not exactly the start you’d expect for someone who has done as much as she’s done.

Yet she kept working at it, and didn’t let her lack of opportunity discourage her.

But surely by the time she got high school she was the star, right? No, and don’t call me Shirley!

In this blog post, she talks about being the #2 pitcher behind an older girl until that girl graduated. So the reality is you don’t have to be the starter as a freshman to do great things.

Another pitcher you may have heard of is Cat Osterman. She set all kinds of records as a pitcher while at the University of Texas at Austin, including strikeout ratio, WHIP, and perfect games. She won a gold and silver medal in two Olympic games (2004 and 2008), and had a stellar career in National Pro Fastpitch league. Sounds like a natural, right?

Actually, not. According to this story, she was short, scrawny, and uncoordinated as a youngster. When she tried out for the Little League All-Star team she was the only player they cut. Doesn’t sound like a future Olympian in the making does it?

After that season she went to a travel team, and spent a lot of time watching games from the bench.

But again, she didn’t let it get her down. She just kept working, and eventually become the pitcher she was capable of becoming.

I share all of this because it’s easy to think that today’s stars were yesterday’s stars too. That’s not always the case, however. Players who start with natural advantages in size, strength or athleticism can be passed by those who work harder – especially when nature takes its course and the late bloomers begin to grow.

You can’t control how people perceive you. But you can control how hard you work to get better.

As I always like to say, it doesn’t matter where you start the race – only where you finish it. Take heart in knowing that even some of the best who ever played the game started out just like you – fighting for scraps, and working their way up the depth chart. And remember it’s not how good you are but how badly you want it that will make the difference.

Or, as they say in “Galaxy Quest:”

Ok, now it’s your turn. Do you have a story about a player, famous or not, who overcame a slower start and became successful? Share your story in the comments below.

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A different and fun approach to team building

Any time you have a group of people from different backgrounds, skill levels, experience levels, etc. trying to achieve a single goal, one of the staples has been team building. Whether you’re a corporation, charitable organization or girls fastpitch softball team, a little team building can go a long way.

Some of you may remember how the USA National softball team approached it during their run-up to the 2004 Olympics. They worked with the Navy SEALs to get some strength-building as well as military-style lessons in teamwork and bonding. Hot Ground Gym offers military-style team building to fastpitch softball as well as other teams and groups

Sounds cool doesn’t it? Maybe you’re thinking you’d like to do something like that with your team – put them through military-style training to help them learn how to work together, overcome obstacles and learn to function as a tighter unit. But of course the SEALs have more important things to do than work with every youth fastpitch softball team that wants to give it a try.

Luckily, at least if you’re in the Chicago area, there’s now an alternative: Hot Ground Gym. Currently located in Northbrook (with a second location set to open in the next few months in Buffalo Grove), it offers that kind of military-style training to kids and teams. They also have a mobile option that will come to you if you have an organization that would like to do it.  (FULL DISCLOSURE: My son Adam is one of the trainers, which is how I learned about what they do. This is not a paid advertisement, just an FYI for coaches looking for something different to do with their teams.)

Hot Ground Gym was started by two military veterans, one a former U.S. Marine and the other Israeli Special Forces, to help kids build confidence, discipline, problem-solving and leadership skills in a fun, supervised environment. A lot of what they do is regular classes where kids come almost every day. But they also have birthday party and team-building options where they will do a 1.5 hour or 2 hour program for a specific group.

The core of the Hot Ground Gym program is obstacles. They have all sorts of them, most of which they built themselves, to challenge kids and teach them how to work together. If the trainers see the kids aren’t challenged, they rearrange or alter the course to get them out of their comfort zones and working hard to improvise, adapt and overcome.

The nice thing about this is it’s both mental and physical. Your team parents will likely love it if you do it because their kids will probably pretty sleep pretty well afterwards. The kids are kept moving constantly, running through, around and over obstacles, climbing, crawling, swinging from ropes and so forth.

At the end of the session you can either just go home, or you can have a little celebration (bring your own food and drinks) to talk about what the team learned and enjoy their successes. And maybe have a few laughs about their failures.

The video on the website home page provides a pretty good idea of what they do, although it’s constantly changing. And don’t be discouraged by the fact it’s mostly boys in the video. Adam says they have a lot of girls do their programs, and those are some of their best performers.

If you’re looking for a way for a fairly new team to get to know each other, or for a cliquish team to break down some barriers, or just a way for your team to learn a little more about how to push past their personal boundaries to do more than they thought they could, it’s worth checking out.

You might even ask that Adam be one of the trainers. He’s an Illinois Army National Guard veteran who did a tour of combat duty in Afghanistan so he knows the whole military aspect. And he earned a couple of medals during training for his leadership skills so he knows how to get groups of people working together for a common goal. He also has a wicked sense of humor, so your players will be entertained as well as challenged.

An inspirational story – one-armed softball player

We often talk about how difficult the sport of softball is to learn and play. It can take years for players to get the hang of the game, and coaches and parents frequently get frustrated when their players don’t “get it” right away.

And few positions demand more of a player than being a catcher – especially since one of the key ways to measure the effectiveness of a catcher is their ability to throw runners out when they’re trying to steal. It takes quick reactions, a strong arm, and a quick transfer of the ball from the glove to the free hand.

That’s what makes this video so inspirational. It’s about Jaide Bucher, a high school catcher from Denver, who does all of this while only having one hand – her left hand.

The good folks from Gatorade recently made one of her dreams come true when they arranged for her to fly to LA to meet her idol, former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott. Abbott played at the highest level of baseball (even pitching a no-hitter) while also only having one hand.

Give this inspirational video a look. It’ll give you a great idea of what determination and love for the sport can accomplish.

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