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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.

Homework v Herework

You have probably heard the statement that it takes 10,000 hours to master a particular skill. While there is definitely some dispute about this statement, especially since one size never fits all, the more critical point is that for 99.999% of the population it takes a lot of repetition to truly get good at something.

What most don’t realize, however, is that in most endeavors there are two types of work.

One can be classified as traditional “homework,” i.e., you learn the basics at practice or lessons and then you continue to work on them at home. The other is what I call “herework,” or the work you do during those practices or lessons.

The challenge for many players is they (and often their parents) think they can accomplish everything they need during the herework and don’t feel the need to do the homework. Here’s why that’s a critical mistake.

Let’s say you’re a pitcher who has been taught to turn the ball back toward second, lock your arm, and push the ball down the back side of the circle. You’ve come to realize that’s not what elite pitchers do, so you go to an instructor who can teach you how to keep a bend in the elbow and the ball oriented to generate whip.

The coach can show you how to do it, and walk you throw various drills that will encourage the change in behavior. That’s good herework and very valuable to the learning process.

But if you leave the practice and don’t work on those same drills while you’re on your own (homework), you’re probably not going to be able to replace your old habits with new ones. So you will continue to perform the movements the way you’ve always done them because that’s what is ingrained into you.

The problem with that is the next time you go to practice or a lesson, you’re right back to square one. Which means instead of building on what you’ve learned already you have to go back and try to learn it again. That’s not much fun (or very efficient) for either you or the coach.

And it kind of feels like this.

What it comes down to is herework is about making changes, or learning how to make changes. Homework is about locking those changes in so you can continue to move forward.

The same is true with hitters dropping their hands. You know it’s a bad thing, and you can learn what to do instead of dropping your hands to swing the bat in practice. But if you don’t work on that new approach at home, it’s pretty unlikely you will quit dropping them any time soon.

Now, I don’t want to imply that this is a one-week process. How long it takes depends on how long you’ve been doing what you’re doing and how badly you want to change it.

After all, many players want the reward of improvement but are reluctant to put in the hard work to achieve it. I think many also hope their coach will wave a magic wand and make them instantly better.

How many parents view coaches

But it doesn’t work that way. While it may not take 10,000 hours, it does take some investment of time, on your own, to replace old habits with new and see the types of improvements you want to make.

Understanding the difference between herework and homework will help you get there much faster.

8 Tips for Getting More Value Out of Fastpitch Softball Lessons

As a longtime instructor I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young ladies (and a few of their brothers) to help them improve their baseball and softball skills. Along the way I have seen some patterns emerge.

So, to help you ensure you’re getting the greatest value out of your substantial investment, following are a few tips to help with your approach. It presumes you have already done your homework and chosen your instructor wisely, i.e., your instructor is teaching the techniques that the best players in the world use. If not, all the other parents will be on the sidelines saying…

With that in mind, here we go.

Tip #1 – Pay attention during lessons!

I can’t tell you how many times during a lesson I’ve been talking to a student and then had this experience.

You know who you are.

Whether you’re indoors or outdoors there can be a lot of distractions. But you need to be able to block them out and stay focused on what the instructor is saying.

You never know – it could be life-changing, or at least career-changing.

While we instructors do seem to like to hear ourselves talk, we’re usually doing it for a good reason. We’re trying to drop some knowledge that will help our students become better players.

When I see a student looking around everywhere but me I will usually tell them “There is nothing over there that will help you become a better softball player. Stay here with me.”

These days we are all more easily distracted than ever. But staying focused during instruction, and then in executing the skill, will help shorten the learning curve considerably.

Tip #2 – Be sure to bring all your needed equipment

Shouldn’t need to be said but apparently it does. At least in my experience.

Before you come to a lesson check your bag to be sure you have your glove, bat, batting gloves, catcher’s gear, cleats or turf shoes, hair ties, sunglasses and everything else you will need that day. Don’t assume they’re in there – take a complete inventory.

And while you’re in there, clear out all the old water and sports drink bottles along with wrappers and other garbage. Doesn’t really have anything to do with the lesson but it’s good to do that now and again anyway.

Tip #3 – You still have to practice

Yes, it would be nice if your instructor could just wave his/her magic wand and make you better. But it doesn’t work that way. I know, because I teach all my students the same thing but get varying results.

Think of as an instructor as being like Google Maps (or your other GPS app of choice). If you plug a starting point and a destination into Google maps, it will give you detailed, turn-by-turn directions along with a visual map.

But if you want to get to where you’re going you still have to get in your vehicle and drive. The app doesn’t transport you anywhere (at least not yet; I’m sure they’re working on it). It just shows you how YOU can get there.

It’s the same with an instructor. He/she will show you the techniques you need to succeed. But you still have to put in the work.

Tip #4 – You need to bring your brain when you practice

One of the questions I get all the time is “How much should she practice during the week?” I know it’s well-intentioned – the idea is to give someone’s daughter a number that is higher than “none,” which is probably what she is planning on – but it also implies that practice is a time-based activity.

It’s not. It’s more of an accomplishing goals and learning something type of activity. To put it in another learning content, how many hours should someone practice to learn how to do division or parse a sentence?

In school, the answer is as long as it takes. If you pick it up quickly you can put in fewer hours. If you struggle, you will have to put in more. Because the goal isn’t to check off time on a checklist. It’s to master the skill so you can move on to the next one.

In softball it’s the same. Making practice a time-based experience is counter-productive.

Instead, you need to bring your brain and really work to learn whatever it is you’ve been assigned to learn. Not just until you get it right; keep working at it until you can’t do it wrong.

Yeah, this guy.

Funny thing is if you practice mindfully (to use what I think is still a popular term) you probably won’t have to practice as long. Our brains are powerful and often underrated contributors to athletic success.

Make sure you understand what you need to work on when you leave your lesson, then pay attention to whether you’re getting it right when you practice, and there’s a good chance you won’t have to put in as many hours on it. Although you may want to anyway because it’s fun.

Tip #5 – Don’t just work on what you’re already good at

There is a certain comfort in succeeding. Doing something right and getting great results makes us feel good about ourselves. But it doesn’t do much to help us overcome our flaws.

The best students I’ve ever worked with, when given the option, would always ask to work on things they don’t do well. That makes sense.

No matter how long a lesson is, the time is limited. Why waste time on something you already know how to do?

When you’re there with the instructor you should want to work on your weak areas so you can get the instructor’s guidance on how to make them stronger.

The same is true when you’re practicing on your own. If all you ever work on is what you’re already good at you’re missing a huge opportunity for improvement.

Instead, work to bring your weak areas up to the level of your strong ones and you’ll be better overall at whatever it is you’re trying to do.

Tip #6 – Do your assigned homework

Again, assuming you’ve chosen your instructor well you will likely be given homework to do before the next lesson. That homework probably relates to whatever it was you were working on during the lesson.

The next time you go to practice, be sure you work on whatever that assignment was. Especially if it doesn’t involve going through the entire skill, but instead breaking down a piece of it.

If your pitching instructor gave you drills or a drill progression to work on lag, spend most of your time doing those drills. If your hitting instructors gave you an assignment to improve your ability to extend and hit through the ball, work on that.

Understand that the instructor saw a flaw, or something that will limit you from being the best you can be. By doing the homework you will be able to overcome that specific flaw and internalize the movements, which will help you gain better outcomes.

Yes, it’s more fun to throw full pitches, or hit off live pitching, or take ground balls/fly balls off a bat, etc. But those activities likely won’t help you overcome whatever is holding you back. Focusing on a particular area that is weak and improving it to match your other skills will.

Tip #7 – Write stuff down during or after your lesson

On their second lesson I give every one of my students a small, blank notebook with a pen. It’s not just to give them some sort of gift to say “thank you for coming.” It’s so they can write down what we’re working on, either during the lesson or afterwards.

Pretty nifty, eh?

We all think we can remember everything off the tops of our heads. But we’re not nearly as good at that as we think.

If you really want to be sure you know what to work on, and how to work on it, you should write it down while it’s fresh in your mind.

That way, three days later when you go back out to practice, you’ll know what you need to do – and how to do it. Remember that practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent. Be sure you’re practice the right things the right way.

Tip #8 – Understand that it is a journey

We live in an instant-everything world these days. If we want to know something we just ask our phones or our home devices – no additional effort required.

If we want food we pop it in the microwave or air fryer and a few minutes later dinner is served.

Unfortunately, human skills development cannot be sped up to that degree with technology. Yes, video and measurement devices can help us learn a little faster, but it’s still going to take a lot blood, sweat and tears.

And even after all of that you still may not see the results right away. Especially if you’re overcoming some particularly bad habits.

It takes time for new skills to overtake the old ones, and for you to feel comfortable enough executing them to be able to give it your all. In fact, you may find that the only way you can execute new skills properly right now is by going less than 100%. Sometimes considerably less.

That’s ok. It’s better to learn the movements first, then build up the speed of execution. Because when you get to the point where you can just …

Sorry, I just had to.

…you’ll be amazed at all the incredible things you can do.

Take the Time to Grind

Take a look at any list of what champions supposedly do (such as this one) and somewhere on there you’ll see something about how they do the things others aren’t willing to do. What those lists don’t tell you, however, is a lot of those things they’re referencing fall into the category of “grinding.”

This isn’t the flashy stuff. They’re not spending hours on the Hit Trax machine, playing more games, participating in fancy clinics, etc.

Instead, they are working over and over to correct even the tiniest flaws, perfect their mechanics, and learn to get everything they can out of themselves.

If that sounds boring it’s because it is. That’s why most players don’t do it – especially if they are already experiencing success.

A player who is the best hitter on her team, or maybe even in her league or conference, may hear that she needs to work on improving her sequencing. But she also wonders why bother since she’s already leading in most offensive categories.

Sure, there’s always that story that it won’t work at “the next level.” But there’s no guarantee that’s actually true, so until she experiences failure she may decide that’s just the softball version of the Krampus – a myth created to scare people into doing what you want.

Yeah, this guy.

True champions, however, don’t do things because they’re afraid of failing at the proverbial “next level.” They do them because they want to be the best they can be, at which point everything else will take care of itself.

Here’s an example. A typical pitcher will look at her speed numbers, and as long as they are where they need to be they’re happy. Someone willing to grind, however, will actually allow her speed to slip a little to improve her drive mechanics or her arm circle. That way, when she has internalize the change she will be even faster and more accurate.

For a field player, it could be learning to throw better by learning a better throwing pattern.

For a hitter it could be reworking the structure of her arms to prevent her back elbow from getting ahead of her arms. That’s not sexy, and it’s certainly nothing most people would notice if they weren’t watching high-speed video.

But the champion knows she’ll hit the ball a little harder, and with greater consistency, if she makes the change so she spends the time to do it. As opposed to average player who tries it a few times, gets bored with it, and goes back to trying to hit bombs off the tee.

And there’s the key difference. Grinding on mechanics can be mind-numbingly boring. It can also be incredibly different, especially as the things you’re grinding on become more nuanced.

It can also feel risky, because there’s a good chance that you will get worse before you get better – especially if what you’re changing is a fundamental process. If you’re in the middle of your season, that’s a huge risk to take (if you’re already experiencing success; if you’re failing, not so much).

That’s what makes the months between fall ball and the new year the perfect time to take on a grinding effort.

Early in the learning process you’re probably looking to make big changes that have a profound effect on your success in a game. It’s a bit easier to stay with it when that happens.

In other words, if you’re used to hitting weak ground balls and pop-ups in-between strikeouts, you have a lot of incentive to work at improvements. When you start hitting line drives to the outfield on a consistent basis it can be downright inspiring.

But if you’re already hitting line drives to the outfield, and you are now trying to hit more of them, it doesn’t feel quite as rewarding. Going from hitting .110 to .330 is a lot more noticeable than going from .400 to .440. Going from hitting zero doubles in three tournaments to four in one tournament is a lot more remarkable than going from four to six in one tournament.

That, however, is what those who are willing to grind do, because their reward is internal instead of external. For many, their goal is to be perfect. They want an extra base hit on every at bat, or a shutout for every game they pitch.

They know that goal is unrealistic, but they go for it anyway because they are driven to contribute as much as they can to the team and deliver the best results of which they’re capable.

The funny thing is, this is an individual decision. There are 100 ways to fake it, or to make it look like you’re grinding when you’re really not.

But for those who want to be the best they can be there’s no substitute for the grind. They make the effort to make smallest and even seemingly most insignificant improvements, because if they can gain an edge that will help them perform better and win more ballgames, they’re going to take it.

It’s really up to you. With a lot of teams shut down right now, either deliberately to give their players some time away or as a result of state orders, it’s the perfect time to grind away at something that will make you better.

Find something and put in the effort. You never know where it will lead you.

Practice Doesn’t Always Have to Mean Going to a Field or Facility

Paige-pitching.jpg

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.

Practice the Key to Reaching Your Destination Faster

US Map with Cities

For those who are also geography-challenged, Los Angeles is roughly in the circle on the left, and New York is roughly in the circle on the right.

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.

Map graphic Copyright (C) 2000,2001,2002 Free Software Foundation, Inc.51 Franklin St, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301 USA

Think of Coaching Like Google Maps

Coaches are like Google Maps - you still have to drive

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.

 

Taking personal responsibility for your playing time

On the bench

Truthfully, these players gave 100% all the time. I just needed a shot of players on the bench!

My friend Tim Boivin sent this article to me a couple of weeks ago. Tim’s been around the block as a youth leader with the Boy Scouts, and as a soccer coach. He even coached a recent Winter Olympian (although not in the sport for which he went to the Olympics, however).

The article addresses a topic that is a concern to many players and parents these days – playing time. Or perhaps more accurately a lack of playing time and how to deal with it.

In today’s world the typical reaction to a lack of playing time is to complain to your parents (if you’re a player), other parents (if you’re a parent), eventually the coach, and anyone else who will listen. It can become pretty toxic pretty fast.

Now, there are some legitimate cases where playing time decisions are based more on who the coach likes, or who raised the most sponsor money, or whose parents are on the Board, or which players babysit the coach’s kids for free, or other factors like that. In those instances, the complaints are justified.

But as the article points out, there is another common cause – the amount of effort the player puts in to improve her skills, both during practice and on her own. As the old saying goes, you can’t control the outcome but you can control your effort.

The easiest thing to do is complain when things aren’t going your way. Especially if you’re used to having everything handed to you.

If you’re not getting playing time, however, the first place you should look is in the mirror.

Do you hustle in practice – really, truly hustle, running from station to station and giving 100% in every drill and activity? Or do you try to skate through practice breaking as little of sweat as possible?

Coaches make a lot of their game day decisions before the actual game day. Good coaches look at who wants it, and who is willing to run through a wall to get it. Especially at the upper levels.

Often the difference in skills isn’t that great, so what coaches are looking for are competitors. They want players on the field who won’t quit no matter the circumstances, who will dive for balls or look to take the extra base or even take a pitch in the backside if it will help their team win the game.

Another thing to look at is the type of teammate you are. Are you supportive of others, or do you sulk if things aren’t going your way no matter how the rest of the team is doing? Team chemistry is critical, so those who create positive chemistry are going to tend to be given preference over those who don’t.

The good news is all of this is controllable. There are really only two things you can control – yourself, and how you react to everything you can’t control.

Did you strike out or make an error? Suck it up Buttercup and do better next time. Did the umpire call ball four when she clearly should have said strike three? Shake it off and get the next hitter.

Is the air cold or the ground wet? Increase your focus on the task at hand and you won’t be bothered by it. Having a bad day off the field? Don’t let it affect your performance on the field.

The more you take command of yourself and give maximum effort, the more likely you are to find yourself on the field.

At the very young levels, the goal should be equal playing time to help players find their love for the game. But along the way – often around 14U – that starts to change, and it becomes about performing.

If you want to get on the field, give your coach a reason (or multiple reasons) to put you on the field. And keep you there.

Next week I’ll share an example of a college player who has done just that – to the benefit of both herself and her team.

Empty repetitions are like empty calories

Empty practice repetitions are like empty calories

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.

 

Building a more effective practice plan

The key to a successful practice is to keep things moving

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.

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