First of all, let me tell you I had quite a debate with myself on whether to write a New Year’s post or just go with a more general topic. But when the stars align – as in the last day of 2021 is also the day I usually put up a new post – it’s a good idea to just go with it.
So here we are. Hopefully 2021 was a great year for you.
We actually had somewhat normal high school, college, and youth softball seasons, although COVID-19 protocols often impacted the spectator part of spectators sports. At least the fans who got in didn’t have to wear a mask on 90-degree days.
Also in 2021, fastpitch softball temporarily returned to the Olympics, albeit in eerily quiet and empty stadiums and played on baseball diamonds. It was sort of like watching a dome game with a field set up for football. The fact that the oddly formatted mini-tournament was finished before the opening ceremonies took place tells you all you need to know about what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) really thinks about our sport.
The Women’s College World Series (WCWS) on the other hand was a TV rating juggernaut, averaging more than 1.2 million viewers per game. That’s 10% more than the 2019 WCWS.
The three-game championship series between Oklahoma and Florida State fared even better, drawing an average of nearly 2 million viewers per game. In the process, we got to see a lot of great softball.
Speaking of great softball, Athletes Unlimited entertained a lot of fastpitch softball fanatics with its playground-brand of choosing up teams and having no coaches on the sidelines. Maybe they’re on to something.
And hopefully you personally had a successful 2021 as well.
Of course, as the disclaimer on every “get-rich-quick” scheme quickly says, past performance does not guarantee future gains. So following are a few tips to help you make 2022 an even better year.
Tip #1: Practice with a purpose
Yes, I know many of you have t-shirts with that very saying on them. But how often do you actually take that approach?
It’s easy to get into the rut of “putting in time.” i.e., going off somewhere and going through the motions of a skill for a half hour or an hour or whatever, or coaches having players performing activities for two, or three, or four hours. None of which will actually help you get better, and could make you worse if the practice is sloppy enough.
If you’re going to practice, then have a goal and go after it wholeheartedly. For example, if you’re a pitcher working on leg drive, then work on getting yourself out faster each time rather than mindlessly doing the leg drive drill you were assigned.
Master the skill, not the drill, and you’ll be a lot better off.
Tip #2: Grow your knowledge
In today’s Internet-accessible world there’s no reason to do things a certain way because that’s how you’ve always done them. There is an incredible amount of research being done in our sport and an incredible wealth of knowledge being shared – if you will open your mind to it.
The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) is one of the best. Right now they are in the midst of hosting a series of live coaches clinics around the country that enable top-level coaches to share their expertise with the rest of us.
If you want to go more in-depth on a topic, the NFCA also has its Master Coach program, which offers a combination of live and online courses. I took their very first online Coaches College course earlier in 2021 and it was well worth the time and money. Give it a shot.
There are plenty of private resources as well. PaulyGirl Fastpitch has its High Performance Pitching courses at the beginner, intermediate, elite, and pro levels.
You can learn all about great throwing mechanics from the High Level Throwing program. There’s a cornucopia of hitting courses out there as well.
Then there are resources such as the Discuss Fastpitch board and the Fastpitch Zone and The Bullpen Facebook groups that connect coaches from around the world with one another to share their knowledge and experience. And that’s the just the start.
If you want more knowledge it’s out there. Just be sure to come in with an open mind because some of what you hear may go against everything you’ve ever believed. And that can be a good thing.
Tip #3: Use video
This one doesn’t require a lot of explanation. There’s what we think we see or feel, and there’s what’s actually happening. They’re not always the same.
Virtually every mobile phone includes a high-definition, high-speed camera for free that would be the envy of coaches and players from just 10 years ago. Take advantage of it.
Video yourself or your players often, and see if what you think you’re doing is what you are in fact doing. Compare what you see to the best players in the world.
While you don’t have to match exactly, you should match in principle. If you’re not doing what you think you’re doing, adjust accordingly.
Tip #4: Work on your mental game
Ask any group of coaches or players “who thinks the mental game is a critical contributor to success?” and you’ll probably see every or nearly every one of them raise their hands. Then ask how many take the time during practice or during their free time to work on it and you’ll likely see few (if any) hands.
It’s sort of like Mark Twain’s famous admonition about the weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.
That is a mistake in my opinion. There are (again) plenty of books and other resources that focus on this aspect of sports. Here’s a list of a few:
- Head’s Up Baseball
- Mind Gym
- The Champion’s Mind
- Championship Team Building
- The Mindful Athlete
- Winning State
- Mental Conditioning for Softball
- The Energy Bus
Invest some real time in developing the mental game – especially the part about overcoming adversity – and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.
Tip #5: Make some time for recruiting activities
This is for those players who want to (or think they want to) play softball in college. If that’s not you, go ahead and skip to Tip #6.
For those still reading, playing softball in college at any level is an accomplishment – and ultra-competitive these days. You’re unlikely to be randomly discovered playing during a local tournament.
If you want to play in college, you need to make an effort to build a relationship with coaches at different schools, and at different levels.
One obvious way is to attend skills camps at schools where you might like to play. While some are just money grabs that have minimal involvement from the college coach, most are both an opportunity for coaches to give back to the game while checking out potential future talent. What better way is there to get them interested in you than to demonstrate your skills in their “house?”
Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is another great way to establish and maintain contact with coaches. Follow coaches at schools you’re interested in and hopefully they will follow you back.
Share their Tweets with your followers. Send Tweets of your own about your/your team’s latest accomplishments and activities and tag the coach or the program. Be active and be visible.
Just one word of caution about social media: keep it positive at all times. The Internet is written in ink, and more than a few players have eliminated themselves from consideration by their dream schools because of things they’ve posted. That includes photos and negative comments about their parents or current coach.
Present yourself as if the coaches you want to play for are watching every post. Because they are.
Email is still a valid way to contact coaches too. Just keep it brief – they’re busy people and many get hundreds of emails a day. If you want to share a video, be sure the coach can see what you want him/her to see in ONE click. Any more than that and they’ll pass.
This isn’t just for high school players either. While the D1 rules changed and they can no longer contact players before September 1 of their junior years, it doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to who can play and who is interested in their schools. And there are no such restrictions for D2, D3, and NAIA, although they tend to recruit later anyway.
Recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint, so get out there early and often if you think playing in college might be for you.
Tip #6: Make time for rest and recovery
When you’re dedicated to something it’s easy to overdo it. Don’t let that happen.
Rest and recovery is just as important to high performance as training. Your body needs time to build itself back up after intense activity. So does your mind.
It’s ok to take a day or two off each week during the season as well as during the offseason. Your body and your brain will tell you how much you need for peak performance. You should also plan on taking at least a couple of weeks off at some time during the year for deeper recovery.
Oh, and this applies to coaches too. You’ll find coaching is a lot more enjoyable if you let your batteries recharge now and then.
Tip #7: Resolve to have fun
This is probably the aspect that has been most lost over the course of the last 10-20 years. Yes, we have more technology that can tell us more things, and more practice facilities that enable us to keep working even when the weather is at its nastiest, and more opportunities than ever to take our game to a higher level.
But the tradeoff has been more pressure and more stress to the point where playing (and coaching for that matter) feels like a job. And not a particularly pleasant one.
It’s important to remember that softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.
That doesn’t mean it should be like a birthday party without the cake. But it shouldn’t be like studying for finals while waiting to see the dentist either.
Fun in most cases is what you make it. Some people enjoy really digging into things and pushing themselves to their limits. That’s right for them.
But it’s not right for everyone. Others will find their fun in getting a little better each day without killing themselves, competing (in a friendly way) with their teammates, or in being part of a team.
Understand what’s fun for you and then find/create a team with others who share your definition and goals. Like using the wrong pair of cleats, being on a team that isn’t a good fit can be painful.
Good luck to everyone, and I hope you make 2022 your best year ever!
Photo by Damir Mijailovic on Pexels.com
There is a joke I heard a long time ago that pretty much sums up the softball player recruitment and retention process. It goes like this:
This guy dies and meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. He’s excited about making it to Heaven, but St. Peter informs him that he is required to give the guy a choice about where he wants to spend eternity – Heaven or Hell. The guy is surprised, but figures rules are rules and goes along with it. St. Peter tells him he will get to check out each, then must make his decision.
He starts with a tour of Heaven. It’s everything he’d heard – angels sitting on clouds playing harps, everything white, everything calm and peaceful. It all seems pleasant enough and the guy is pretty sure what his decision will be.
Then he’s sent to Hell for a tour there. The Devil meets him at the Gate and welcomes him in warmly. As they walk inside the guy sees a huge party going on with plenty of alcohol, loud music and beautiful people dancing, singing and having the time of their lives.
“I’m shocked,” the guy says. “This isn’t what I pictured at all. I was expecting fire, brimstone and torture.”
“Fake news,” the Devil responds. “That’s just Heaven’s propaganda to try to keep humans from having a good time while they’re on Earth. It’s like this all the time.”
The guy joins in the party while he’s there, but pretty soon his time is up and he must go back to Heaven and give St. Peter his decision. “What do you think?” St. Peter asks him.
“Well, no one is more surprised than me but I am going to choose Hell,” the man says.
“Really?” St. Peter asks incredulously. “You realize this is for all eternity and there’s no going back?”
“Yes,” the man replies. “I appreciate all you’ve done but I’ve made my decision and that’s where I want to go.”
“Ok,” St. Peter tells him. “It’s your decision.” So St. Peter proceeds to do all the paperwork and send the guy off to his final destination. Once he walks inside, however, the man is shocked. All he can see in every direction is his worst nightmares – fire, brimstone, people being whipped and tortured in all sorts of horrible and creative ways.
“What is this?!” the guy screams. “Yesterday it was all parties and good times, and now it’s just horror after horror.”
At which point the Devil eyes him slyly and says, “Well, yesterday you were a prospect.”
The reason I recounted that joke is more and more I am hearing stories about players being promised the world by coaches during the tryout and/or recruiting process. But once they get there it’s a completely different stories.
Players are told they will pitch, but they never get time in the circle because they “don’t measure up” to the pitchers who were already there. They’re promised they will get plenty of time at an infield position, or catcher, or wherever but when game time comes – not just bracket play but even pool play or round robin friendlies – that playing time in that position never materializes. They’re told they don’t measure up to the girls in those positions (often coach’s kids, no surprise there) even though those girls are booting balls like they think they’re playing soccer, not fastpitch softball.
Hitters with high batting averages and OPS are being pushed down the lineup or sat on the bench entirely because they “aren’t used to seeing the level of competition” – even though they’ve already proven they can handle that level.
What becomes clear is that some coaches, hopefully a very small minority, are telling players and their families anything they want to hear in the courtship phase so they can round out their teams. They have no actual intention of providing those players with the opportunities they seek. They just want them there in case they need body to fill in should one of the “starters” get sick or go down with an injury.
Of course, they don’t want a weak link, so they want to get the best backups they can find. But they’re talking to those backups like they have a legitimate chance of taking over a starting position when that is never, ever going to happen – either because the coach doesn’t think the new player is as good as the current ones, or he/she is looking at his/her own kids through rose-colored parent glasses, or wants to be “loyal” to the current players, or has some other agenda.
It’s ok to view some players as starters and others as backups. It happens all the time at all levels. All I’m saying is then be honest with the player and her parents about the role she will play on the team.
Don’t tell her she will get pitching time when you have no intention of putting her in the circle. And don’t use one bad outing the first time out as an excuse to never pitch her again. She was probably nervous, having joined a new team and all and wanting badly to prove herself. That goes double if the team is a step or two up from her last team.
Instead, give her a few opportunities and then make your judgment. Anyone who works with analytics will tell you that you need a sufficient amount of data to spot a trend. One game, or a couple of innings, isn’t a sufficient amount of data.
The same goes with positions on the field. Don’t tell a player she will get an opportunity in the infield if you feel your infield is set and you don’t want to change it. Let her know where her opportunities are so she can make an informed decision about whether this is the team for her.
The same goes for getting on the field at all. If you see her as a backup or role player, be up-front about it. For example, if you want a speedy player to primarily be a courtesy or pinch runner, tell her that rather than saying she’ll get an opportunity at second base when you know that’s not true.
If you are honest about a player’s opportunities or role, the player and her parents will have no real cause to complain when what you said she would do is what she ends up doing. It’s only when coaches say anything so they can fill up their rosters that the trouble begins.
And it will begin. Because what you’ll likely find is that players who are promised a world of opportunities but instead get nothing of the kind will leave as soon as they figured out they’ve been had.
That, of course, is also the difference between the joke above and the reality of softball. In the joke, the decision of where to go was forever. In our sport, if your coach doesn’t want to play someone there’s always someone else who could use her particular set of skills.
So tough as it can be, coaches, be honest. In the long run it’s better for everyone. Including your own team. Because as big as the sport may seem, fastpitch softball is also a small, tight-knit community, especially at the local level, and people talk.
You build a reputation as someone who makes promises with no intention of delivering on them and it won’t be long before people are avoiding your team/program like the plague.
Yes, it can be tough to have those conversations, and there is a risk of pushing players away you might like to have. But it will save you a whole lot of drama and upheaval. And that alone may be worth it.
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.