When someone says “it’s time to practice” what’s the first thing that springs to mind? For most of us involved in fastpitch softball the answer is probably grabbing some equipment, running out to a field or facility, and then spending the next 30, 60, or more minutes hard at work (as Paige is doing in the photo above).
While that approach is generally a good thing, it also has a downside (doesn’t everything?). When we’re in that mindset, we tend to think if we can’t do those things (get to a field or facility, spend 30-60 minutes) then we are unable to practice. In fact, “practice” kind of becomes an activity unto itself that requires special effort.
That’s unfortunate because for some players it could mean going a week or more without making any progress to get better. For others, especially those who are trying to learn new skills, it could even mean they get worse, or regress all the way back to step one.
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Practice doesn’t have to involve going somewhere or making a special effort. And it certainly doesn’t have to be tied to a set amount of time.
Working on fastpitch softball skills anytime, anywhere, for any length of time can help players get better (or at least maintain their gains) versus doing nothing at all. The key is for players to know what they need to focus on and work those movements.
Take pitching, for example. Perhaps a player is having a tough time learning to relax the arm in the circle so she can whip the hand through at the end. In a full practice session with a catcher, she may be too focused on throwing strikes – double if the catcher is her dad. in that case she may continue to lock out the elbow and “guide” the ball to the plate.
But at home in her bedroom, or standing outside waiting for the bus, or marching through the house she can make arm circles and focus on staying relaxed throughout. No ball, field, facility, or catcher required. Learning to make the proper arm movement will help her know what it feels like when she’s actually pitching so she can carry the improvement forward there.
She doesn’t need to spend a half hour doing it either. If she takes 5 or 10 minutes it will help. Do that three random times during the day and she’ll have put in 15-30 minutes without even realizing it.
The same goes for hitters. Maybe the hitter is having trouble learning to lead with her hips, or is having a problem with barring out her front arm during the swing. She can practice the correct movements wherever she happens to be standing, whenever she has the chance.
The more she makes those movements the more natural they will become – and the easier they will be to execute when she’s actually up to bat.
Practicing in small increments may even have some benefits over longer sessions, especially if the longer sessions are focused on one thing. It’s similar to block practice v randomized practice.
In block practice you focus on one thing for a long time. With randomized practice you don’t linger on a single skill for any length of time. You essentially go from skill to skill. Studies have shown that the skills transfer better in game situations when practice is more randomized, at least in part because you get too used to doing the same thing over and over – an opportunity you don’t have in a game.
The other benefit to the shorter sessions in random locations is it lets players concentrate on the specific movements they need to improve on rather than the outcomes of those movements. And as we all know, in the end if you do the right things in the right way the outcomes will take care of themselves.
This isn’t to say longer, more formal practice sessions aren’t necessary. They absolutely are. But they’re not the only way to practice.
Taking advantage of whatever time and space is available is a great way to ensure players continue to improve. And it definitely beats using “I don’t have the time/I can’t get to the field or gym” as an excuse to do nothing.
Sometimes getting a player to understand the value of practice can be difficult. Those who aren’t the most dedicated to fastpitch softball can find a hundred excuses not to practice. So here’s a fun way of explaining how they will benefit.
Whenever I start lessons with a new student, toward the end I like to ask them if they know where New York City and Los Angeles are on a map. Most the time they do – or at least say they do. I hear today’s students are a bit geography-challenged.
Anyway, once we’ve established they know where each is, I will ask them how many different ways there are to get from New York to LA. The student will then start naming off various modes of travel – plane, train, car, bicycle, jog, walk, etc. Some will even suggest a boat, which is possible but certainly not easy.
I then ask them which is the fastest way to make the trip, at which point they will almost always answer “plane.” Which is correct, at least until Star Trek transporters become a reality.
I will then explain if they practice regularly, and with their minds on what they’re doing, that’s like going from New York to Los Angeles in a plane. But if they only pick up a ball, bat, glove, etc. when they’re at a lesson, it’s like walking from New York to LA. You can still get there, but it’s going to take a whole lot longer and be a lot more painful.
At some point or another, if they want to be successful players must put in the time. There’s no way around that. They can either do it in a concentrated way, such as practicing 3-4 times per week, or they can stretch the same amount of practice over many weeks.
The thing is, if they choose the latter they may find they haven’t quite gotten to where they want to be by the time the season starts. At which point it will be difficult to make up the rest of the ground that was lost.
There’s also the retention issue. The more time that passes between attempts at a new skill, the more likely players are to forget exactly what they’re supposed to do or how they’re supposed to do it. That means at least part of the time of their next attempt is going to be spent trying to regain ground they’d already covered.
As General Patton says (at least in the movie) “I don’t like to pay for the same real estate twice.” But that’s exactly what you’re doing if you have to keep relearning things you already should know.
Whether you’re in-season or in the off-season, it’s in the player’s best interest to work regularly on learning whatever it is she’s trying to learn. Otherwise she should probably make sure she has a good pair of walking shoes – and a nice cushion for sitting on the bench.
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In my travels through the fastpitch softball world, one of the things that continues to amaze me is the perception that if a player can just get with the “right” coach or the “right” instructor, all her (and her parents’) prayers will be answered and all her problems will be solved.
As someone who has been at this for more than 20 years now, I can tell you that’s simply not the case. Getting the right coach, i.e., one who understands the optimal mechanics for a particular skill, how to apply them in a game situation, the mental aspects around them, and most of all how to teach them, is important. The wrong coach can definitely set you back.
But that’s still only half the battle. The other half is the work the player must put in to ingrain those skills into her DNA so they are available at a moment’s notice, without having to think about them.
To understand what the coach contributes v the player, think of the coach as being like Google Maps (or whatever your favorite GPS app is). The coach will show you the way, mapping out the step-by-step path for optimizing all those important factors while avoiding known hazards. But the player still has to get in the “car” and “drive.” Without that second part, the first part is just a wish.
Now, obviously, Google Maps is of little value if the information isn’t accurate. That’s why you want to seek out a coach who knows what he/she is doing. Anyone who has been driving for a while has had that experience where Google or another direction-giving app has taken us to a run-down industrial park, a random cornfield, a road that no longer exists, or some other godforsaken location rather than our intended destination.
Fortunately, in the last few years direction-giving apps have gotten much better. Still, until they’re hooked into self-driving cars they can only show you how to get where you’re going. You still have to do the driving.
So what does this mean to fastpitch softball players? Just that being on the right team with a great coach, or going once a week to a private instructor (no matter what his/her record of success is) isn’t enough. You have to practice, practice, practice. Not until you get it right but until you can’t do it wrong.
You have to be mindful when you practice too, not just watch the clock to see if you’re putting in the time. Work on doing what you’ve been shown. Be aware when you’re not doing it. Learn what it feels like to do it right, so you know when you’re doing it wrong.
How important is that? I can tell you from personal experience that all of the best, most successful players I’ve worked with were also the hardest workers. The better they got, the better they wanted to get.
As they became more accomplished their workload didn’t go down. It went up. They would constantly refine their skills, looking for any improvements they could make that would give them a competitive edge. The ratio between work and improvement would change, with more work yielding less improvement because there was less improvement to be had.
That’s the silver lining for younger/newer/less accomplished players, however. A little bit of work can yield a lot of improvement, and create the success that makes you hungry for more.
Again, however, you can’t just open a direction-giving app – no matter how good it is – plug in the directions, and expect to get somewhere. You have to hop in the car and drive.
Make the commitment and you’ll find you get to your destination a whole lot faster.
One of the most common questions I get from the parents of fastpitch softball pitchers is “How many pitches should my daughter throw per day?” Sometimes they’re worried that throw too much, but most of the time it’s that they don’t throw enough.
I know they’re looking for a hard and fast number, like 100, but it’s actually a tough question to give a blanket answer to. Here’s why.
If I tell them 100, or 200, or 50, then someone is probably going to start counting the pitches. The goal then becomes getting to the target number when the goal should be to improve with every pitch. That’s just human nature.
The problem is empty repetitions, where you’re just throwing to hit the number, are like eating empty calories. It might feel good at the time, but you’re really not helping yourself.
In fact, in the long run you may be hurting yourself. Just as you are what you eat, you also are what you practice. If you practice the wrong mechanics simply because you’re trying to hit that count of 100 pitches, you’re locking down a way of throwing that will make you worse, or at least keep you in the same place, rather than making you better.
I know this from personal experience. When I was a young lad, I took piano lessons. The requirement was I had to practice for a half hour a day. Well, a lot of times I wanted to be outside with my friends instead of sitting at our crappy old piano that had some broken keys, playing exercises and songs I didn’t care about. So I put in the required half hour (and not a minute more) without really accomplishing much of anything.
If you’re hungry and have a candy bar, you’ve staved off the hunger for a bit. But you haven’t nourished your body. You’re not making it healthier; you’re just making yourself fatter and more prone to whatever illness is going around. If your goal is to be strong and healthy, you need to eat foods that will help you accomplish that goal. Which means thinking before you eat.
The same is true of practicing. At each practice session you should have a goal. Maybe you need to fix your arm circle, or improve your leg drive, or gain control of your change-up. There’s always something to work on.
Knowing what your goal is, you should work toward that. It may come in 20 pitches. It may come in 1,000 pitches spread across a period of days. Whatever it takes, you should focus on what you need to do to reach your goal rather than how many pitches you’ve thrown that day.
It’s a much more efficient way to practice. In fact, I’d rather see a player throw 20 mindful pitches, or spend 10 mindful minutes working on something, than just “putting in the time” like a prisoner in the Big House.
This idea doesn’t just apply to pitching, by the way. It is the same for hitting, throwing, base running, position play, and so forth. Empty repetitions gain you nothing. In fact, the mindset that makes them empty will also tend to make them less than great, helping you get worse instead of better.
Instead, go for the substance. Nurture your game with focused practice and you’ll reach your goals more quickly – and with greater ease.
This is probably old hat for those of you who have been around fastpitch softball for a while, but it is definitely valuable for those of you who are new to coaching.
First of all, thank you for stepping up. Coaching isn’t easy, and it can be very time-consuming, but with the right attitude it can also be very rewarding. Not necessarily financially, but personally.
That said, if you’re new to coaching a team here is one of the most important lessons you can learn early: there is nothing more counter-productive to success than players just standing around waiting to do something.
The absolute worst, of course, is the typical rec league practice where the coach pitches to one player while the rest stand around in the field waiting until the ball is hit. Never, ever, EVER make that your practice, because basically you have one player sort of learning something, or possibly improving, while everyone else is having their time wasted.
What you want to do instead is plan out your practices so every player is getting a lot of touches/swings/repetitions throughout the entire time.
One good way to do that is to split your team into two or three groups (depending on what you need to do) and then have each group doing something different. For example, one group can be fielding ground balls that are hit to them, another can be fielding fly balls that are thrown or hit to them, and a third can be working on hitting. The hitting group can even be going through a series of drills/activities to keep things moving even more.
If you have two groups, one can be working on throwing drills/form while the other does hitting or fielding. There are plenty of variations, especially if you have good assistant coaches or even willing parents on hand.
What if you’re by yourself and need to keep the entire team together? You can still keep things moving quickly. Throwing drills like the star drill, or around the horn where you throw left and run right, can build skills while again keeping things moving. If your team needs to hit, you can pair up players and run six or seven hitting stations at the same time. All you need is a fence and some tees, although portable nets also help.
You can even do combo drills. One I liked to do was to have one group hitting off front toss while a second group worked on base running skills such as recognizing ground balls faster or going from first to third on a ball to the outfield. Lots of activities for small groups let you keep practice active. Constant repetitions also allow you to build conditioning into skills rather than having to do it separately during practice.
So how do you work all this in? I used to use the outline function in Word to list out everything I planned to work on that day. There would be a heading, and any notes or specifics would fall under the heading as sub-bullets. But the real key was placing times against each section.
For example, if we were going to do groups for hitting, infield, and outfield, I would look at which would take the longest to get through and place a time against it. Then I would extend that time to the other two groups, making sure to have enough different things to work on to keep them interesting.
In this example, say we had three groups of four. If I set up four hitting stations at five minutes each, that was 20 minutes. Infield and outfield would also be 20 minutes, with two or three drills depending on what was needed. Rotate through all three groups and there’s an hour’s worth of practice right there. Add in warmups, dailies, a five-minute break, and some situational work and you have a great, active 2-hour practice.
Of course, I’d usually have one or two other activities on the list, just in case we ran short (although we rarely did). Anything we didn’t get to this time would go on the list for the next practice.
If we were indoors in batting cages, I often would bring in players in groups of three or four for 45 minutes at a stretch. That was plenty of time to get them lots of hitting reps while keep the group size manageable. When their 45 minutes was up the next group would come in, then the next. It was quick and intense for the players, although it did keep the coaches there for 2:15 instead of a typical 2 hour practice. Still, much was accomplished that way.
One other important element in building practices is one I learned from John Tschida at the University of St. Thomas: never have the same practice twice. Always, always mix it up. It builds more skills, and keeps it more interesting for the players.
Fastpitch softball is a tough game, with much to learn – both in terms of skills and strategy. It requires a lot of anticipation and snap decisions based on a multitude of ever-changing factors. That’s what makes it exciting. But that’s what also makes it critical to use your practice time wisely. There just isn’t any time to waste.
Keep things moving at practice and soon you’ll be the coach everyone wants to play for.