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Thank goodness for Kyle Schwarber

Tough times can happen to anyone, even MLB stars.

Once again an odd title for a fastpitch softball blog, but bear with me. It’ll make sense.

Adversity is one of those things most fastpitch softball players have to face at one time or another. Our sport is hard, and it’s unforgiving.

Just a few inches either way on a pitch can mean the difference between a backward K and walking in the tying run. It can also mean the difference between a line drive single and a line drive out.

When too many bad things start to happen, it can quickly become overwhelming – especially for young players contending with all those hormones, social pressures, and other things we adults tend to forget about as soon as we can. It can definitely get players feeling bad about themselves, and into a mindset that they are the only ones it’s happening to.

So again, thank goodness for Kyle Schwarber. He was one of the heroes of the Cubs’ World Series win in 2016, coming back from a knee injury to play a key role in several victories. A guy who seemingly had it all knocked.

Well, if you don’t follow the Cubs you may not be aware that for the last couple of weeks he wasn’t with the Chicago National League ballclub . Instead, he was down on their AAA affiliate in Iowa.

The reason? After all his heroics and accolades, he’d lost his swing this year. Just couldn’t quite seem to get into a groove, relax and hit. So the Cubs thought they’d take some pressure off of him, let him go into the minors for a few games to get his swing back away from the glare of the spotlight in Chicago.

It seems to have worked, because he’s back with the Big Club now. (Glad I checked that – gotta love the Internet.) Hopefully he’s exorcised his hitting demons and will start tearing it up again.

The lesson here for young fastpitch softball players is that it can happen to anyone. Schwarber gets paid millions of dollars to play a game that bears a lot of similarities to ours. If he can lose his swing, what makes a fastpitch players whose parents are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for them to play think it can’t happen to them?

Fastpitch players may not have a lower-level farm team to go to when they are in trouble, but they can certainly follow the same principles:

  • R-E-L-A-X (mixing a little football in here, even if it’s from a team I despise) – The world isn’t coming to an end, and peace in our time isn’t riding on your next at bat. You already know you can do well because you’ve done it before. Worrying won’t help. Just get out of your own head for a bit and try to ease the tension.
  • Go back to basics – Work on your fundamentals. If you’re having trouble hitting, jump on a tee and take some quality swings. If you’re a pitcher who has lost her control, work your way back from the end of the pitch and see where the problem is occurring.
  • Stay positive – It’s easy to fall into the negative thinking trap. But having trouble doesn’t make you a bad player, or a bad person. It just makes you human. Try a little positive self-talk. Think about what it felt like when you were successful. Focus on the good and it will come back a lot faster.
  • Know you will come through it – I remember reading about something called the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great. If you want the long version, follow the link (I highly recommend it). Otherwise, here’s the short version. When you’re in a tough situation, you need to do two things. One is know you’ll come through it. The second is don’t put a timeline on when you will come through it, because if you don’t come out of your funk by the next day, or the next tournament, or the next whatever deadline, you’ll get more depressed and make your situation worse.

If a player like Kyle Schwarber can hit a point where he needs to take a step back in Iowa, it can happen to anyone. Just know you’re not alone, and remember that often the only way out is through.

Photo by Minda Haas, @minda33, Instagram minda.haas

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.

Getting hitters started on time

Getting hitters started on time is often a challenge. You work, and work, and work on developing proper hitting mechanics. You hit off the tee, soft toss, front toss and everything else you can think of. Fastpitch hitters should be deciding whether to stop instead of whether to start.

Then the next game comes along and it seems like it all falls apart. That hitter that was bombing balls in practice stands there frozen at the plate until the ball is on top of her, then quickly executes what I can only call a “panic swing” – one that says “Oh crap, I better swing.”

There can be reasons for it, although most tend to lead back to fear of making a mistake. So the hitter waits and waits and waits, then realizes she ought to be swinging. At which point it’s too late to hit the ball well.

One long-standing way of attempting to overcome this was of thinking is to say you should be thinking “Yes, yes yes” and then either yes or no. In other words plan on swinging until you see otherwise.

Another common way of expressing it is the pitch is a strike until you see otherwise. In other words, plan on it being good, and then hold up if it’s not.

Here’s a little different way of approaching it. When the hitter is taking too long to decide, she is essentially trying to determine if she should start her swing. Of course, by the time she starts it she is already too late. So tell her she shouldn’t be thinking about whether to start the swing. She should start it every time, and then while she is in her swing decide whether to continue or stop.

If the hitter is using good mechanics, i.e., starting the swing with her hips, followed by her shoulders and then her bat, she’ll have plenty of time to hold up before committing the bat to the swing. In the meantime, she has her body in motion, developing power and preparing to apply it to the ball. Her eyes are also gathering information about the speed, location and spin of the ball, helping her to decide whether to take the swing.

So if she’s started her swing, the only thought should be whether to stop if the pitch is a bad one.

Give it a try, and let me know if it works for your hitters.

Calling pitches: Make the pitcher’s strengths a priority

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of fastpitch games on TV and in-person lately, but it seems like it’s time for my semi-annual rant on pitch calling. I never cease to be amazed at how often pitch selection seems to be based more on arbitrary rules or expectations about hitters than what the pitcher is good at throwing. Pitch selection should match the pitcher's strength

Here’s an example. Watching a college game last night, a pitcher who is ok at best with her drop but a natural riseball pitcher had the bulk of the pitches called low. It didn’t take long for the other team to adjust and start hitting her hard.

Now, I’m sure those complex and detailed charts in the dugout showed that the opponents had a history of struggling with drop balls. But what the charts didn’t explain was they had trouble with GOOD drop balls – the kind that come in thigh-high and flat, then fall off the table.

Clearly, they had no trouble with drop balls that started low and didn’t move much. A better strategy might have been to at least mix in more up pitches, if for no other reason than to keep the hitters from looking low. And if the pitcher had her rise working (as her replacement did), she could have used her strength to better advantage, and her team would have advanced in the conference tournament.

This sort of thing seems to happen at levels. A coach will fall in love with a particular pitch, or a pitch location, and want the pitcher to throw their constantly. That isn’t really a good idea under any circumstances – you want to mix it up and keep hitters guessing. But when the pitch or location the coach loves happens to also be a weakness for the pitcher, no one should be surprised when it doesn’t go so well.

Part of this also has to do with a pitcher’s psyche. To be successful, pitchers must feel confident overall, as well as in the immediate pitch they’re about to throw. The situation may call for a rise, or a change, but if the pitcher isn’t feeling good about her rise or change that day she probably won’t give it all she’s got. And on those two pitches in particular, a mistake can quickly turn into a disaster (aka a home run).

Personally, I’m an advocate of catchers calling games. Especially in travel ball where you’re unlikely to have any extensive history on a particular hitter and her tendencies. Catchers are right there close to the hitters, and have a bird’s eye view of what’s working for the pitcher, what isn’t, and what her mindset is.

If a catcher sees fear in the pitcher’s eyes when a change is called in a non-pressure situation, she likely will know best to steer clear of that pitch when the pressure is on. You can’t see that from the dugout.

But if coaches are going to call pitches, they need to understand as much as they can about their pitchers overall, as well as what’s happening with them today.

Coaches calling pitches should really make an effort to understand what each pitcher does well, and develop their game plans accordingly. If your pitcher has a strong rise and a weak drop, you’re probably better off planning on more riseballs even if the opponent is a good riseball hitting team. Or better yet, throw a pitcher who has a strong drop. (Hopefully the staff’s strengths are more complementary than matchy-matchy.)

On game day, watch the pitchers warm up, and talk to them and the catchers. The pitchers will tell you what they feel confident in, and the catchers will give you another data point/reality check based on the knowledge of that pitcher they have accumulated through hours of working together. Those things should also be factored in to the game plan.

Once the game is on, pay attention and make adjustments. If the drop is working and the screw is not breaking at all, work the drop in and out and put the screw in your pocket for that day. Or use it as an offspeed fastball instead of expecting it to miraculously start breaking. If the screw is running in too much, use it as a waste pitch when ahead in the count rather than when you need a strike. That can be particularly effective when a right handed pitcher is facing a lefty slapper.

All of this reminds me of a story from the classic book Ball Four, one of my all-time favorites. In one part, the pitching staff is talking about how to pitch to a particular hitter when one of them offers that when he was with the LA Dodgers, Sandy Koufax used to get him out by smoking him inside. To which the author, Jim Bouton, comments, “Which is great if you could throw fastballs like Sandy Koufax.” In other words, what worked for one of the greatest pitchers of all time may not work for ordinary mortals.

Charts and such, whether they are general guidelines or specific to that team, can be helpful. But they’re not the last word.

Call pitchers to your pitchers’ strengths – overall and that day – and you’ll have a much greater likelihood of success.

Be the you they already like

This one is for all the fastpitch softball players (and other athletes as well) who are having trouble with being nervous because you’re afraid of failing or letting the team down. In other words, facing a lack of confidence. Tina pitching

First off, know that everyone goes through this now and then in every walk of life. Even the professionals who are being paid millions of dollars (thousands of dollars in the case of pro softball, but that’s a story for a different day) to play.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to forget about trying to live up to some ideal you think you have to meet and remember that your coach put you on this team for a reason. He or she thought you had something that would help the team win, whether it’s a game, a tournament, a conference championship or some other prize. All you have to be is who the coach already saw and you’ll be fine.

So if you’re a hitter, instead of hesitating until the last possible split second before you get into your swing, start early and slow so you can be aggressive in putting the bat on the ball. She who hesitates tends to hit pop-ups and grounders. But hitters who take their practice swings into the batter’s box and make a plan to hit the ball hard usually do.

If you’re a pitcher who has put the work in, there’s no need to worry about whether you can throw strikes. If you did it in practice you’ll do it in a game. Quit focusing on outcomes and instead just relax and pitch your game. If you’ve been handed the ball the coach clearly thinks you can get the job done. Why would you argue with the coach? 🙂

It’s the same for fielders too. Unless you’re a super great hitter who the coach is trying to hide on defense, you know what to do when the ball comes to you. Just do it. (No, this is not a paid placement.)

Look, everyone makes an error now and then. Everyone has a bad day at the plate, or in the circle, or on the basepaths. That’s what makes the game of softball so hard – and so good when it goes well.

You don’t have to be the next Cat Osterman or Sarah Pauly or Lauren Chamberlain or anyone else. You just have to be you. Just do the things that got you into this position and you’ll have all the success you could ever imagine.

Now go get ’em!

Congratulations to Kirsten Stevens on her record-setting win

Saw this little news item as I was checking some scores tonight and couldn’t let it go by without a special shout-out. Congratulations to Kirsten Stevens on not only opening the SoCon tourney with a 9-0 shutout, but also for setting the Mercer University all-time record for wins in a season at 24. My guess is 24 isn’t going to hold up any longer than it takes Mercer's Kirsten Stevens as a youth pitcherKirsten to pitch her next game.

I’m excited about this because Kirsten was a former student of mine. I’m pretty sure she was in 8th grade when I first started working with her. She came to me through the recommendation of her coach Rick Cartright (I was also teaching his daughter Stephanie at the time).

I had a feeling she’d do well from the first time I saw her. Her technique was raw, but you didn’t have to be an expert to see there was thunder in her left arm. I remember catching for her a couple of times and she was definitely the poster child for throwing a “heavy” ball – the kind of pitch that when it hits the glove you feel it.

More important, though, Kirsten is a quality human being – kind, humble and funny. We always had a good time in our lessons. But of course she also worked hard in and out of them. I’m sure that has carried on to make her the outstanding pitcher she is today.

So congrats Kirsten and keep up the good work! Maybe we’ll finally have that lunch this summer when you get back. Oh, and sorry about the photo – it was the only one I had!

Update 5/7/15: I was right about that record. She added another shutout today. The record is now 25!

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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