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Fastpitch Skills: Like Riding A Bike

photography of girl riding bike beside man

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You would probably be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard the expression “It’s like riding a bike – once you learn how you never forget.” This expression is often used to refer to going back to something difficult after years of not doing it, implying that it shouldn’t be difficult to pick up where you left off.

As anyone who has actually ridden a bike after not riding one for 20 years can attest, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. There is definitely a bit of uncertainty at first, and it’s unlikely you’re going to go flying around like you did as a kid right away.

What people often forget, however, is how difficult learning to ride a bike actually is. Those of us who can ride one take it for granted. But it wasn’t always so simple.

At first, our parents (or some other adult) probably raised the training wheels some so we could get a sense of what it was like without the actual danger of falling off.

Eventually, though, the training wheels came off, and an adult held onto the back of the seat, running along behind us as we got the hang of balancing ourselves while churning our legs to make it go. Most of those adults also probably let go without telling us, despite our admonitions not to, to prove to us that we now had all the skills required to ride successfully. And oh, how we rode!

I bring these sometimes painful yet exhilarating memories up because learning fastpitch softball skills is no different.

At first, players are a bit tentative. Whether they’re pitching, hitting, throwing, fielding, etc. they’re not quite sure how to move and manage all the various pieces, and they do the fastpitch equivalent of falling off a lot.

As they learn, they have to focus on what they’re doing, and most have to think through the various pieces as their brains learn to process the skill. But then at some point it all clicks, and they’re able to do whatever it is they’re trying to do, which enables them to advance as a player.

Just as with riding a bike, it happens at different points for different players. The seemingly lucky ones get it right away. I say “seemingly” because sometimes when things come too easily it can hold players back from developing their skills at a deeper level. Especially when coaches, parents, teammates, etc. are more focused on winning today than helping players become the best they can be. There is value in the struggle.

For most, the skills will come more slowly, with plenty of bumps, bruises and scrapes acting as battle scars as they learn. But eventually they will come.

The goal, of course, is to make fastpitch skills like riding a bike – something players can execute without thinking.

Assuming you can already ride a bike, consider how you do it. The odds are very high that you just hop and do it. Your body knows how to move, how to balance, and what to do when. It feels instinctual, even though it is actually a learned skill.

That’s where you want players to get to on the softball field. They don’t need to “remember” to raise their elbow to shoulder height when throwing. They just do it.

They don’t need to remember to lead the swing with their hips instead of their bats. They just do it. They don’t need to remember to relax their arms and whip through the release zone when they’re pitching. They just do it. It’s like one big Nike ad.

That’s the goal. But it’s important to remember that it takes time. Again, some kids learn to ride their bikes on their own right away, while others can take weeks – especially if they’re afraid of falling off. But they all will learn.

And it takes good repetitions. The more players (and coaches/parents) concentrate on doing it right from the start, i.e., focusing on the process rather than the outcomes, the easier it becomes to do it right under game pressure.

Finally, it takes patience to understand about it taking time and good repetitions. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting everything to be perfect right away, like the players you see on TV.

But I can guarantee you the players you see on TV didn’t look like that when they were younger. In fact, they may have looked more awkward than the player(s) you’re working with right now, as this video of a certain well-known left-handed pitcher shows.

But they persisted and found their “bicycle moment” when it all clicked and they were just able to ride.

You wouldn’t expect any child to simply hop onto a bike and start pedaling away – much less do the complex BMX tricks you see on TV. There’s a progression, and it all starts with those first shaky feet.

It’s the same with fastpitch softball skills. They may need a lot of help at first. But eventually, with persistence, they will find their way, and those skills will be a part of their game forever.

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Eating the Elephant

elephant-cub-tsavo-kenya-66898.jpeg

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A question I will often pose to my fastpitch softball students is “How do you eat an elephant?” Regardless of age, the first time they hear it they tend to look at me as if I have completely lost my mind.

The correct answer, of course, is “One bite at a time.”* That’s a critical lesson for anyone trying to learn a new skill, or even make improvements to existing skills.

What it means in realistic terms is you don’t have to learn (or master) the skill all in one big gulp. You’re far more likely to have success (and far less likely to give up too soon) if you give yourself permission to learn whatever you’re trying to learn a little bit at a time.

This is particularly true of complex skills such as hitting and pitching that have a lot of moving parts. Trying to learn all the mechanics (or fix all the problems) at once is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Our brains simply don’t function that way.

But breaking the skill into smaller components,  prioritizing them so you know what to work on first, and then focusing on each of those areas in order will enable you to create a progression where success builds on success.

For example, when I’m working with a new pitching student I like to use a technique called “backward chaining.” That’s a more sophisticated way of saying you start at the end of the skill and work your way backwards, because if you don’t get the end right nothing else you’ve done up until then matters.

So for pitchers we’ll work on starting the ball overhead, palm facing the catcher, bringing the upper arm down until it contacts the ribcage, and pulling the ball through into the release zone so the lower arm whips and the wrist snaps itself. (That’s a simplified version of what goes on and what I look for, but will suffice for now.)

Most young pitchers will tend to want to bring the entire arm through at once, get behind the ball too early, and push it through the release zone. Heck, some have even been taught to turn the ball backwards and push it down the back side of the circle, which is definitely what you don’t want to do.

So it takes a bit for them to learn to relax and let the arm work in two pieces. That’s why we focus on helping them get that feel, because it will serve them well as they get into the full pitch.

But if we tried to do that, plus get a proper launch, plus worry about getting into the right position at each point during the motion, etc. the odds are they wouldn’t learn anything. Especially how to whip the ball through.

The other element that enters this discussion, of course, is the impatience of players themselves. It’s understandable.

They are growing up in a world where they have instant access to everything – information (via smartphones and the Internet), food (microwave and fast food meals), transportation (no need to walk, we’ll drive you!) and so forth. The idea of having to wait for something they want is often foreign to them.

So, they try to eat the elephant like a python – unhinge the jaw and try to swallow it whole.

Again, it doesn’t work that way. As a result, realistic expectations have to be set.

They have to understand that doing this drill or taking a couple of lessons here and there won’t turn them into instant superstars who are mechanically perfect. Progress will come incrementally. Sometimes in increments so small it’s hard to tell it’s being made.

But if they keep working at it, the cumulative effect will take hold and eventually that big ol’ elephant will be gone.

The lesson for coaches (and parents) is don’t try to fix everything at once. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work.

Focus on one thing at a time, adding each new piece to what you’ve already done, and you’ll save a lot of heartache for you and the player.

For players, the lesson is to be patient and, as Bobby Simpson says, get a little better each day. Remember if you want to walk a mile you just need to start putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually you’ll get there.

So grab a fork and dig in! The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll reach your goals.

*Please don’t leave me nasty comments. I am not advocating eating, or causing any other harm to, actual elephants. They are beautiful, magnificent creatures. It’s simply a metaphor.

6 Tips for a More Successful Softball Tryout

Tryouts sign

For most of the fastpitch players in the country, the end of February means one thing – high school team tryouts. Whether you consider high school ball the pinnacle of your year or merely something to do until travel ball season starts, it’s an opportunity to show your school spirit and make a contribution to community pride. But before you get there, you first have to make the team.

The best way to assure your spot, of course, is to choose your parents wisely and be born dripping with talent. High school pitchers who throw 65 mph, hitters who can crush a softball 250 feet, and shortstops who can go into the hole, turn and fire for the out, generally don’t have much to sweat.

Neither do those who have older sisters who could do those things. Every high school has its legendary family, and the assumption is the gene pool runs deep enough to cover everybody, whether it really does or not.

But if you’re in the other 99 percent of the players out there, it’s important to make the best impression you can during tryouts. (Hopefully, the legend’s sister doesn’t play your position. That’s often tougher to overcome than actual talent.)

Remember that the amount of time the coach sees you follows a simple formula: your time = the total amount of time for tryouts ÷ the number of players trying out. In other words, if tryouts take a total of six hours and there are 60 girls trying out, you have six minutes to get noticed. Here’s how you can use that time wisely.

  1. Hustle, hustle, hustle. There’s no substitute for it, and it’s one of the key factors coaches look for. Desire is an important attribute coaches look for in prospective players, and hustle is a great indicator of desire. Hustle is also an indicator of coachability. With hustle and at least one strength, most coaches will figure a player can possibly be developed into a good or great softball player. When you’re moving from station to station during tryouts, don’t walk. Run. If you’re fielding ground balls, don’t go through the motions – act like the state championship is on the line, and dive if you have the opportunity. The more effort and enthusiasm you show, the better your chance of tipping the scales in your favor.
  2. Be friendly. In her book Coaching Fastpitch Softball Successfully, one of Kathy Veroni’s “unwritten rules” is to say hello to the coach. That’s great advice for tryouts too. It shows confidence, and helps you stand out immediately. Remember, it’s a long season, and there are a lot of bus rides ahead. Having people around he or she likes makes the rides go faster.
  3. Make sure you’re in good shape. It’s likely the coach will put you through conditioning drills. My friend Bob Dirkes, a former scholarship nose guard at Northwestern University, says you never want to show you’re tired during conditioning drills. Being in good shape will make that happen. Being in shape also shows a level of commitment that might tip the scales between you and a comparable player. It’s like that old deodorant commercial said– never let ‘em see you sweat.
  4. Be fundamentally sound. If you have a few weeks before tryouts, get in the gym now and work your fundamentals. Catch with two hands – every time. (Unless you are a catcher or a position player reaching for a ball.) Look the ball into the glove – every time. Get on the batting tee and make sure you’re using a good hips-shoulders-bat sequence. If you mess up a chance or two but show good fundamentals, you’ll still look solid. If you make the plays but your technique is poor, you’ll look chancy. Chris Simenson, a former HS coach in Iowa, says, “The game is still a matter of learning fundamentals and execution. A player willing to practice and learn will advance beyond a talented athlete who does not.” Coaches want players they can count on game after game to make the plays they should make. Show you’re one of them.
  5. Show all your skills. If you have something special, don’t assume the coach knows it – and don’t wait until the coach asks, because he or she probably won’t. If you’re in the batting cage and you’re a slapper, be sure you show it. Just about every knowledgeable coach wants a slapper or two in the lineup. If you’re a pitcher, don’t just throw fastballs. At the minimum, show your change. If the coach goes to the catcher’s end and you have pitches that move (drop, curve, rise, screwball), be sure to throw them. You just added a dimension to the coach’s game plan.
  6. Practice under the conditions you’ll use in tryouts. If you’ll be hitting off a pitching machine, you’d best start practicing hitting off of one, even if you don’t particularly like it. If you can, use the same type of machine, and find out how fast they set it. If you will be indoors, try practicing fielding on a similar type of surface. The ball bounces differently on a wood gym floor v. a tile gym floor v. a concrete surface v. a turf surface v. an actual field. If you don’t know, ask if they use actual softballs or the rubbery ones. Pitchers should try to find out what types of balls the team uses, because different balls feel different and you’ll need to be comfortable with the balls you’re throwing. Even the lighting conditions can make a difference. The more you get the feel for what the tryouts will be like, the better you’re likely to perform.

The last piece of advice is to relax and just show your stuff. Don’t think of it as being judged – think of it as your time to shine!

Remember, softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Approach it that way, and you’ll be successful. Good luck!

Beware of an over-reliance on gimmicks

You see them everywhere – in magazines, on websites, in YouTube videos and everywhere else fastpitch softball folks look for information. “They” are all the devices that promise to make your players better.

I call them “gimmicks” because often times that’s how they’re presented. The impression you’re given is that for $29.95 (plus shipping & handling), or $79.95 or $249.95 you can buy better performance. Gang, I can tell you that it just ain’t so.

I’m not saying these devices can’t help. Many of them can be useful in the right hands. But in order for yours to be the right hands, you first need to understand how a particular skill needs to be performed, and to a reasonably deep level.

A favorite example of mine comes from tryouts a few years ago. Three other coaches and I were observing pitching tryouts for a 16U team. One of the other coaches had a device that measures the spin rate of the ball and was using it to measure the revolutions per second of a pitcher’s curve ball.

“Ooooh” one of them exclaimed as a pitcher threw a pitch. “21.” “22.” And so on. They were all so focused on the device and what it supposedly told them that not a single one of them was watching the actual pitch.  If they had, they would’ve noticed that the “curve ball” was spinning pretty close to 12 to 6 (fastball or drop ball spin) and wasn’t moving at all. Even down.

By the standards of the device, this pitcher was throwing an awesome curve. But in the real world, she wasn’t even throwing a decent one. And last time I checked, hitters hit pitches thrown in the real world.

As an instructor I see this all the time. Some coaches have an entire bag full of gimmicks, and they just move from one to the next. Especially hitting coaches for some reason. Some I’ve seen just love to bring out the devices.

But if you don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, the effectiveness of the device is pretty much wasted at worst, or randomly effective at best. It’s like plopping down $300 for the world’s best hammer when what you really need is a $3 screwdriver.

If you really want to help your players/daughter(s) improve you don’t need a duffel bag full of stuff. At least not right away. Instead, first take the time to learn how those skills should be performed. Study college games on TV. Look for video on the Internet. Invest in DVDs and books. Attend training seminars/coaches clinics where an accomplished coach with a history of success breaks down the skill in detail. Go to http://www.discussfastpitch.com and read the discussions there. In other words, first seek out information.

Once you have a feel for what the skill should look like, and how it should be executed, you’ll be in a better position to decide which devices can really help you teach those skills and make improvements in your players and which ones will end up sitting on a shelf on in a duffel bag in your garage collecting dust.

What makes me say that? I have my own collection of devices that I bought when I started coaching, hoping to find the magic one. Some were worthwhile, many were not. The more I learned, the better I was able to see which ones might be helpful and which ones would be relegated to the Island of Misfit Softball Toys.

That goes for choosing a coach too, whether it’s a private instructor or a team coach. Someone who’s pulling out gimmick after gimmick instead of having your daughter work on actual pitching, hitting, fielding, throwing or whatever skill it is she’s trying to learn may not be your best choice. Devices are no substitute for knowledge.

Ultimately the value of a device goes up in direct proportion to your understanding what you’re trying to accomplish with it. Become competent at that first and you’ll make better decisions on how to spend the rest of your cash.

The best way to help softball players feel good

University of Arizona head coach Mike Candrea is famous for saying that the difference between boys and girls is that boys have to play good to feel good, and girls have to feel good to play good. There is a lot of truth in that as anyone who has ever coached both can attest.

But how do you get girls to feel good so they can play good? To some people it seems to mean always saying something positive, even when it’s not earned. I disagree.

Girls are smart, and they tend to be more self-aware than boys, especially in the teen years. If they mess up and you say “good job” they know you’re lying, or saying it to try to make them feel good. It doesn’t take long before even sincere compliments are treated with skepticism.

If you really want to help a girl play good (and yes, I know the correct word in English is “well” but let’s stay with the theme), the way to make her feel good is to help her learn to play better. If they are hitting well, they will continue to hit well. If they believe they can hit well, because they’ve seen themselves do it, they will hit well (eventually). The same goes for pitching, fielding and running the bases.

Understand, though, that most people don’t get better by getting yelled at. That is something many coaches seem to forget. If they were spoken to at their jobs the way they speak to their players in practice or at a game, they’d quit. So why expect any other result if you’re constantly yelling at and berating your players?

If you want to help them get better so they can perform better, teach them. Or find someone else who can. Be patient. Explain not just what to do but why. Help them see the big picture, which is not something that usually comes naturally to young people male or female. Give them context and a reason why doing something a certain way will help and they’ll be much more likely to do what you want them to do.

One of the things I dislike most during a game is when a player screws up – say drops an easy pop-up – and coaches or parents say “nice try.” That’s not a nice try, it’s an error. A nice try is when you dive after a ball that ends up just out of reach. If you set the standard that a nice try is muffing an easy play, how is that player ever going to improve her game?

When you give sincere feedback, even if it’s corrective, the player knows you have her best interests at heart. The message you’re sending is “I know you can do (whatever), here’s how to make it happen.” That goes a lot further than saying “nice job” when the player knows it wasn’t.

Of course, there are a lot more things that go into a player feeling good than just what happens on the field. But you can’t control most of those. You can work with her, however, to develop her skills so at least that’s one less thing she has to worry about. Do that and you’re sure to end up with a player who’s more game-ready every game.

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