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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.

 

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Getting fastpitch players to display the right stuff

Recently I had the opportunity to see the movie “The Right Stuff,” about the start of the U.S. astronaut program, again. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s really worth checking out.)

Early in the movie they show the efforts to break the sound barrier. Test pilots had gotten Softball players need to take a cue from Chuck Yeager and chase the demon at the edge of their abilities.close before, but there were real concerns that if you actually got up to the speed of sound (Mach 1) that the vibrations would tear the plane apart and the pilot would die. For that reason many believed it couldn’t be done.

One who didn’t was test pilot Chuck Yeager. When he sees a new X-1 jet come in he decides he wants to go “chase that demon” that lives out at Mach 1 and see what really happens. The next morning he hops in the plane and becomes the first person to break the sound barrier.

Interesting, you say, but what does all that have to do with softball? Simple. Like then-Col. Yeager, nothing great happens for players when they stay in their comfort zone. It’s only when they get out to the edge of their abilities, where the “demon” of errors lives, that they can truly advance their skills and become the players they’re meant to be.

For pitchers, that means trying new pitches in games. Often times, pitchers will work and work to learn a new pitch. But then when game time comes they’re afraid to throw it for fear of looking bad, or the softball equivalent of the plane breaking apart, happening.

But here’s a little secret: No matter how poorly you throw a pitch, it’s only worth one ball on the hitter. That’s right! Whether you miss by an inch or chuck it over the backstop, the hitter is awarded only one ball. You don’t avoid throwing your fastball if you throw a ball, so why should it be different for any other pitch you’ve prepared. Get out there, keep throwing the pitch and get comfortable with it.

For fielders it’s pretty obvious. They only go after balls they’re sure they can get to. Or they make soft throws because they’re afraid if they really crank it up and throw hard it won’t go where it should.

Again, here’s a hint: if you’re worried your hard throw won’t go where it should, you need to practice throwing hard more. Even if that means you throw some balls away in practice. Find out what you can do. Get out there on the edge. On the fielding side, start diving for the ball instead of watching it go by or drop in front of you. Stretch yourself, try that new technique. You may just find it works.

Hitters often make it even worse. They either try not to strike out by only swinging at perfect pitches (never a good approach), or they fall back on just trying to make contact instead of trying to make hard contact. Quit playing it safe! Work on driving the ball and helping your team win.

Coaches can help in this regard. Yes, we all want our teams to play perfect softball. But if you’re always yelling at your team about mistakes they’ll play not to make mistakes (and get yelled at) rather than to win. They won’t develop their full skill sets, and each year they’ll fall further behind.

While you don’t want to see mental mistakes due to lack of focus, physical errors are going to happen when players get out of their comfort zones. Instead of yelling at them or giving them a hard time, praise them for making that extra effort. Even if they came up short. Perhaps in a couple of more tries that extraordinary effort will become more routine, and you’ll win more ballgames in the long run.

When Col. Yeager chased the demon he didn’t know if he would get it or it would get him. But he didn’t let the fear of failure (which had much higher consequences than losing a softball game) keep him from finding out. Thanks to that spirit, incidentally, the world’s fastest jet, the SR-71 Blackbird, flies at 3 times the speed of sound. That’s 2,193.2 mph.

Softball players need to do the same. Chase your demons and play to the edge of your abilities to see if you have the right stuff.

It’s not only the way to make yourself better. It’s a lot more fun.

Make throwing priority one in the fall

This is the time of year when hope springs eternal. The long, hot summer is behind us (more or less), and with it the urgency of performance in games.

Yes, there are games going on right now, but for the most part they’re either college showcases, scrimmages, round robins, or friendlies. So with that in mind, coaches have a chance for a fresh start with their teams, to do what needs to be done to prepare for next summer. Teaching proper throwing mechanics is critical for success

There is always plenty to work on – hitting, pitching, fielding, baserunning and so forth. As a result, it’s easy to rush through throwing warmups to get to the “more important stuff.”

If you do that, however, it’s an opportunity lost. Because few things will make more of a difference to your team next summer than improving the way your players throw.

Why is that? Simple. There is evidence that 80% of all errors in a game are throwing errors. Whether it’s because of poor technique, or being rushed (especially after bobbling a ball) or some other reason, it’s the throwing errors more than fielding errors that will hurt your team’s chances of winning when it counts.

Think about it. If a fielder doesn’t field a ball cleanly on a ground ball, the batter/runner gets first base. But if she throws the ball away, the same batter runner could end up on second base. She will definitely end up there if the ball goes out of play. So that poor throw after a bobble turns one error into two, and one base into two as well.

Good throwing is key to success in fastpitch softballOn the other hand, if you can eliminate throwing errors that means you’ll eliminate 80 percent of all the errors your team will make. Making that many fewer errors than your opponents should put you in a much better position to win.

That’s great in theory. But how do you go about it?

Start by planning to spend quality team teaching your players how to throw. Even older players often need this instruction. Give them strong mechanics, and make sure they’re repeatable. This could end up taking up a half hour to an hour, by the way.

After going through the basics, challenge them. One of my favorite drills is one I call the One Minute Drill. Here’s how it works.

Line your players up across from each other (partner position). Hold a stopwatch and tell your team that all you want them to do is throw and catch without a throw away or a drop  for one minute. There is no requirement for how many, they just must keep throwing and catching. Then tell them you will keep time on the stopwatch, and call out the time remaining.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Actually it’s not. It’s almost a certainty that there will be a drop or throw away in the first round, probably within the first 20-30 seconds. When it happens, call a stop and when everyone is ready have them start again.

Keep them going, and be sure to call out the time loudly. I usually go in 15 second increments. The pressure of having to perform perfectly for a minute will generally affect their nerves, which leads to mistakes that re-start the clock.

If they continue to struggle after several attempts, call the team together and ask them why something so seemingly simple is so difficult to execute. They’ll usually come to the realization it’s pressure and focus. Tell them to relax and work on throwing well. Eventually they will get it. Then let them know how long it took to get just one minute’s worth of perfect throws and catches.

If you do this every practice, eventually your team will be able to complete the exercise in one or two attempts. When that happens, you’ll no doubt find your team’s throwing in games has improved as well. Because you’ve spent a lot of time on throwing, but in a way that is challenging rather than boring.

Give the One Minute Drill a try. It definitely works.

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.

Defense can make a fastpitch pitcher look good – or bad

While it may same rather obvious on the surface, after watching the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) championship game on TV I thought it might be worthwhile to bring it up again. It, of course, being the effect defense has on making a fastpitch pitcher look good or bad.

(By the way, kudos to my hometown team, the Chicago Bandits, for taking the title for the second year in a row.)

Normally at the NPF level you expect to see a lot of dominant pitching. While the pitching was good in this game, I wouldn’t call it dominant. The definition of dominant being a lot of strikeouts or weak infield hits. Fastpitch defense can make a pitcher look good or bad

There were some of each, but there were also plenty of balls that got tagged pretty well; all three runs came off of solo home runs.

So in the absence of huge numbers of Ks, it becomes pretty obvious that the other 7 players who are not part of the battery had to step up to keep this a 2-1 game. If you watched the game you certainly saw that.

Which brings me to my point. The game ended 2-1, but the score could have easily been much higher were it not for some spectacular plays on both sides, both in the infield and outfield.

Those defenders made their pitchers look awfully good. And that’s ok, because I really believe the pitcher’s job isn’t to strike everyone out. That’s just fortunate when it happens. Instead, a pitcher’s job is to induce weak contacts that are easy to field.

In other words, the perfect inning isn’t 9 pitches for three Ks. It’s 3 pitches, all easy popups to 1st base so the first baseman can just pick up the ball and step on the bag if she drops it.

So contrast that defensive performance with others I’ve seen or heard about over the years, where the pitcher does her job. But instead of weak grounders or popups resulting in outs, they result in runners on base because of errors or lack of effort on the fielders’ part.

And what happens after a few of those? The coach calls time, heads out to the circle, and replaces the pitcher (who hasn’t made an error yet). It’s clearly not the pitcher’s fault, but I guess it’s easier to replace one pitcher than four defensive players.

So in the stats as well as in live action the pitcher ends up looking bad. Especially if those errors get marked as hits. (Anyone ever seen a box score that showed one error when you know there were at least 6? I sure have, especially in high school games.)

The thing is, having a porous defense doesn’t just have a short-term effect on the team, i.e., losing a game or a tournament. It also has a long-term effect. Because good pitchers don’t want to look bad, or have to work overtime every game to get three outs. So what happens? Good pitchers will leave, and tell other good pitchers why. Then it gets tough to get good pitchers, so the team has to settle for lesser pitchers, who give up more contacts that turn into even more baserunners. Then you’re in the death spiral.

Here’s another way to think of it. What coach would sign up for a tournament where the rules stated certain teams would be given 6 offensive outs per inning while theirs only got 3? You’d have to be crazy to agree to that. But that’s what happens when the team can’t play good defense behind their pitcher. And that makes it tough to win.

So while it’s easy to blame the pitcher, or give too much credit for that matter, the reality is the better your defense is the better your pitching will look. Just ask the world champion Bandits.

Fastpitch tip for learning the finish of a backhand changeup

One of the most important pitches in fastpitch softball is an effective changeup. By effective I mean one where the pitcher can go through her motion and appear to throw it hard while having the ball come out much slower than expected.

This is as opposed to a changeup where the only thing that changes from the fastball is the grip, or one where in order to get the ball to go slower the pitcher slows her arm down. Those aren’t changeups. Those are just bad fastballs.

While I teach a few different types depending on the pitcher, the one I teach most often is Drill for learning the finish on a changeupthe backhand change. Essentially, that is one where the back side of the hand leads the ball through the release zone.

Note that this is not a “flip” change. There is no flipping of the wrist at the end; I want the pitch to be dragged throw the release zone and thrown in a way that still has 12 to 6 forward spin. Flipping it puts backward spin on the ball, and often results in a pitch that comes in around belt high before traveling about 220 feet in the opposite direction.

The key to the finish of the backhand change as I teach it is to bend the elbow slightly and (again) drag the ball forward through the release zone until the pitcher’s arm is fully extended. After a momentary stop the ball comes out about hip high, immediately loses a bit of altitude to thigh high and then tails down around the plate. To do that the pitcher has to keep her hand moving forward and low until release rather than pulling it up as many like to do.

One cue I’ve used before is “punch your catcher in the nose.” In other words, go straight out instead up up and out. It’s worked pretty well, but it still requires the pitcher to do a little visualization.

So here’s another option. Have the pitcher line up sideways to a backstop with stride foot (left foot for a righty) right against the bottom of the screen. Then have her get her arm in the proper position (without the ball), pick out a spot on the screen that’s the right height and have her stab her fingers straight into the chain link fencing.

You might not want to have her go full speed, especially at first, to avoid jammed fingers.If you can’t get to a field, you can also do it into a tarp or even a shower curtain at home, as long as there is something specific to move the fingers toward.

Have the pitcher do it multiple times, until she starts to get the feel of what it’s like to go out straight instead of up. Then you can back her off the screen a bit and try the finish, or go back out to the pitching plate and see if there is improvement.

It’s simple yet effective. I only came up with this idea recently and so far it’s helped every pitcher I’ve tried it with.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling to keep her hand going out directly instead of bending the elbow or otherwise pulling up, give this a try. It just might work.

What are some other ideas you’ve tried to accomplish the same thing? How effective have they been? Anything you’ve tried that failed horribly? Go ahead and share – you’re among friends.

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

Sometimes you just gotta go with what you’ve got

As both a fastpitch softball instructor and general fanatic for the sport, I have to admit I spend an inordinate amount of my waking hours looking at information and analyzing techniques to try to become as educated as I possibly can. Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m a softball technique-aholicWhile strong mechanics are important, sometimes you just have to go with what you've got.

It’s well-intentioned to be sure. I firmly believe, based on roughly 20 years in the sport that the better-trained a player is, the higher the chance she has for success. And the less raw athletic ability she has, the more specific training she requires.

But I also believe (again based on experience) that there is a Law of Diminishing Returns when it comes to trying to perfect technique. While it’s true that optimal technique should yield the best results, that’s also only true if it’s implemented with optimal effort or enthusiasm.

This is where a lot of players seem to get hung up. Especially the most dedicated. They are focused so much on trying to achieve the optimal mechanics that they get in their own way.

Hitters become tentative trying to achieve the best bat path and as a result slow their swings down. Or they focus so much on one part of the swing that they let the rest fall apart.

Pitchers work so hard on getting just the right launch technique, or keeping the arm circle exactly where it should be, that they get all tight and don’t let their bodies work for them. Catchers worry so much about how they’re making the transfer on a steal that they become over-conscious and thus too slow.

Every part of the game can be affected, regardless of position, or whether you’re on offense or defense.

So here’s my advice: as they say in auto racing world, sometimes you gotta run with the one that brung you. Or in the case, go with what you’ve got.

If you’re a hitter still reworking her swing, do the best you can to use what you’re learning. But don’t focus on doing it perfectly. Do it the best you can while still coming at it with full energy.

After all, the ball doesn’t care how you hit it. A strong contact with an ugly-as-sin swing will beat a soft contact with a perfect swing every time. A strong swing with much-improved mechanics will generally yield better results than a tentative swing that looks good only on slow-motion video.

The same goes for the rest of the game. You may not have perfected that backhand or rake technique on ground balls, but if you go after them like you mean it you may just surprise yourself. Pitchers who continue to try to throw hard will be much more effective than those who again look like they’re trying to make the perfect video instead of getting hitters out.

Believe me, I’m all for perfect mechanics. But they should never be a conscious effort, at least in a game situation. When you’re in the game, go with what you’ve got. You can always work on perfecting it at the next practice.

It’s not where you start the race…

One of my favorite sayings is “It’s not where you start the race that counts, but where you finish.” I will say it to players who didn’t make a team they wanted, or who start the season riding the bench, or otherwise find themselves in a less than desirable position.

Erin Yazel catch

One of my favorite pictures of Erin Yazel. A far cry from the girl who could barely catch a ball hit to her. 

Of course, it’s easy to say things like that; platitudes come easily. So I thought I’d share one of my favorite success stories today – one that proves that saying is more than words.

I first met Erin Yazel when she was a first-year 14U player. (I’m old school, so I only recognize even number team levels.) As I understand it, Erin had joined an A-level fastpitch team after coming from rec ball. Not on the basis of her skills as much as the team needed players and Erin tried out.

To put a little more perspective on it, I came to that team as an assistant coach after it was already formed, about midway through the offseason. When you’re working indoors in a small gym it’s tough to get a real read on things.

Once we were outside, however, it became apparent that even though she was an outfielder Erin’s outfield skills were not quite at the level that was expected. That was a potential problem since the team had a few legitimate A-level players and some of their parents were vocal about who could cut it and who couldn’t.

Erin was a hard worker, though, and a good kid, so I went to the head coach and asked her if I could work with Erin separately at practice to help her learn to track fly balls better. The head coach agreed, and off we went. I also suggested to Erin that I could meet her before practice, or stay after, to help her hone her skills some more. She was more than willing since she wanted to be a full-fledged contributor and she, her dad Steve and I spent a lot of time together.

Over the course of that first season she got better and more reliable, although she did end up breaking her nose in a game when she lost track of a fly ball in center. That one was ugly to see and hear, but it didn’t stop her. After a couple of weeks off she was back on the field, more determined than ever.

One of the qualities Erin brought with her was that she was fast – like 2.7 home to first fast. So naturally I suggested she spend the off-season becoming a lefty slapper.

We worked on that the entire winter, along with bunting and swinging away, and by the next spring she was a different player. She took naturally to slapping and soon had earned the leadoff spot in the lineup for our travel team. She also made her JV team as a freshman, and likely would’ve gone straight to varsity if the head coach hadn’t come straight from baseball and didn’t understand the importance of speed and the short game (a deficiency he fixed the following year, by the way).

Erin went on to have a great high school career as well as a travel ball career, and actually came back to me a couple of years later to play on my IOMT Castaways team. I encouraged her to try college softball, and even helped her make a recruiting video, but in the end she decided it wasn’t for her.

ISU club softball team

Erin’s ISU club team. She is first row, second from the right.

But that doesn’t mean it was the end of her fastpitch career. Instead, she became involved in the Illinois State University club team. If you’re not familiar with the concept, club teams are groups of girls who form their own teams and play against similar teams from other schools. It’s fun and competitive, without the bigtime commitment and time sink of playing at the college varsity level.

This past year was Erin’s second playing for the Redbirds, and it’s clear she’s still loving the game. Her mom Judy sent me her stats.

For the season she had a batting average of .488, with an OBP of .533 and slugging percentage of .537. In 41 at bats she had just 4 strikeouts, and her OPS was a healthy 1.090. You can check out her whole line here.

That’s pretty impressive for a girl who had trouble even getting on the field her first year of travel ball. But it shows what you can do when you have a love for the game, the determination to improve, and the support of great parents. Not to mention self confidence, which Erin always had boatloads of despite some of the outcomes.

So if you’re not quite where you want to be, take a lesson from Erin. Don’t let anyone else define you, and don’t define yourself by where you start. Because that doesn’t matter. The most important consideration is where you finish.

 

About that “hardly ever strikes out”

Last weekend I was watching a college fastpitch softball game on TV (surprise surprise) when one of the announcers started talking about how the current hitter rarely strikes out. This is one of those statements I’ve heard a number of times through the years, and while it seems to impress a lot of people I have to admit I’m not one of them. Aggressive fastpitch softball swing

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of or in favor of striking out. But then, I’m not in favor of any type of out, and that’s what a strikeout is – an out.

You can make an argument that it’s better to put the ball in play because something still might happen. You can advance a baserunner, or maybe even get lucky with an error. And all that is true.

But if those things aren’t happening during your at bat then it really doesn’t matter whether the out is a strikeout, a popup, a ground ball or something else.

Here’s how I look at it. If you have a high batting average or OPS and low strikeouts, that’s impressive. But if you have a low batting average or OPS with low strikeouts, it’s not such a big deal. You may not be swinging and missing, but you’re not exactly crushing the ball either.

Not striking out can be accomplished simply by being very conservative with your swings. A slow, careful swing aimed at “just making contact” will help you avoid striking out. But it’s not exactly going to drive the ball into the outfield either.

Sure, you’ll manage a few flairs, a duck snort or two, maybe even a ground ball through a pulled-in infield. But you’re going to make it too easy for your opponents to get you out.

I’d rather see a hitter be aggressive, with an intention of hitting the ball hard, than laying back just trying not to strike out. Sure, you’ll miss a few. But the odds are a lot of good things will happen along the way. Better things, in fact.

In most games you only get a few swings at most. Be sure you’re taking advantage of every one of them. That way, if you’re ever on TV, the announcers will have more to say about the things you do than the things you don’t do.

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