One of the first (and most important) pieces of advice I give to parents who are trying to decide on a path for instruction for their daughters is to look at what elite-level players do. If you’re not being taught that, you should re-think what you’re doing.
Take pitchers for example. If you want to know whether you should turn the ball toward second base at the top of the circle and push it down the back side of the circle or turn it toward home and then pull it down with your palm face-up, video of elite players will give you the answer.
(SPOILER ALERT: The correct answer is pull it down. Ten points for Gryffindor if you got it right.)
Then there are hitters. Some people will tell you to swing with your bat and/or shoulders level at contact. But again, a quick Internet search of great hitters in both Major League Baseball and Power 25 fastpitch softball will show you that just ain’t so.
So does that mean you should just pick an elite-level player and model yourself after her (or him)? Not necessarily.
The thing you have to keep in mind is that elite-level players get to that level by virtue of more than their mechanics alone. There are a whole lot of other factors, beginning with their DNA, that go into making an elite player.
The hard reality is some players succeed despite their mechanics. Their athletic ability, focus, dedication, etc. is such that they can overcome even significant mechanical flaws.
Some pitchers will be hunched over and will throw their shoulders forward as they throw, even though biomechanics says they would be better off keeping their shoulder locked in around 45 degrees. But when they’re throwing 70+ mph doing what they’re doing, and racking up the Ks and Ws, most coaches aren’t going to worry it until it becomes a problem.
Does that mean you should follow their example? In a word, no. That player is succeeding in spite of her mechanics, not because of them. Us ordinary mortals can’t count on getting the same results.
The same goes for hitters who primarily rely on their upper body strength to hit for power. Somehow they have managed to make it work for them.
Most of us, however, will find if we are upper-body dominant we won’t be able to adjust to pitch speeds/location/movement. We’ll hit the ball a mile if it’s pitched where we’re swinging. But if it’s not – and the whole strategy behind pitching is to NOT pitch to a hitter’s strengths – we will likely swing and miss. A lot.
So what’s the answer? Should we try to understand and follow the mechanics of elite-level players or not?
For an answer, I would look to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson. Yes, he died long before the first fastpitch softball game was played, but he had a pretty practical view of the world.
One of my favorite quotes from good ol’ Tom was “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” In other words, know what’s important and what’s not.
When looking at mechanics, don’t just look at what one or two elite level players does. Look for the common threads between all of them, and see what the majority tend to do.
Also, look at what other factors may affect the success certain players are having. If your daughter is a 78 lb. stick, modeling the mechanics of a preternaturally strong, thick-bodied beast of a player probably won’t deliver the same level of success.
Your daughter is going to need incredibly clean, efficient mechanics because she needs to get every bit of her body generating energy to transfer into the ball.
If your daughter isn’t an amazing athlete – that’s ok, you can admit it – she’s probably not going to be able to get by with too many standard deviations from what is biomechanically optimal. Again, you’ll want to stick with the things elite players do that are alike rather than excusing non-standard mechanics because so-and-so does the same thing.
Seeing what elite players do and following their example is a good thing – until it’s not.
Use video of elite players to see generally what all (or at least most) tend to do so you have a path to follow. But avoid techniques or mechanics in those players that appears to be outliers.
It’s your fastest path to success.
Main photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com
Photo of Thomas Jefferson via Good Free Photos
While the ready availability of modern technology (think: screens) has given us many marvelous advantages, it has also created some issues. One of the most profound is our increasingly short attention span.
You see it all the time – especially us coaches as we try to explain something important to our players even as we watch their eyes glaze over or pay attention to everything but us after about a minute. (Still, we persist in talking for 10, 15, 20 minutes anyway, especially if we just lost a game.)
That’s bad enough, because of course we’re imparting not just tremendous softball instruction but also life wisdom. 🙂 But where this short attention span can really hurt players is in how they track the ball during the game.
Often it seems like player tend to view the ball (and make decisions) based on a point in time. It’s like their brains take a photograph of where the ball is at a particular moment, then their movements and reactions are based on what they see in that moment.
The problem, of course, is that one point in time doesn’t give us enough information about what will happen going forward. For example, a photo of a player diving for a ball doesn’t necessarily tell us whether she successfully made the catch or not.
The ball may be in her glove, but will it stay there?
What they need instead is to take more of a video approach, i.e., see the flight of the ball as a series of points moving through space. (For those who don’t know, video is made up of a series of individual photos that play rapidly in succession, creating the illusion of motion. You learned something today.)
This “photographic” approach to seeing where the ball is going hurts several areas. Take catchers, for example.
They see the ball is going down and will need to be blocked. But they don’t wait long enough to see the flight of the ball in space, they just react to wherever it is 10 feet in front of the pitcher.
So they drop to block, only to watch the ball careen past their right shoulders. A little more information and they could’ve centered their bodies on the flight of the ball. Instead, it gets by and a run scores.
Hitters also need that type of spatial information. In fact, they need to track the ball as long as they can to get a feel for whether it will be inside or outside, high or low, and whether it may have some movement to it. All of that information can have a huge impact on when they bring the bat to the ball as well as where they take it to.
If they just take a mental photo they’re unlikely to take the bat to where it needs to go unless they’ve been specifically trained to recognize the ball’s flight earlier. But by tracking the ball through space the way they would watch it come in on video, hitters can make the adjustments they need to achieve greater success.
This principle also applies to fielding ground balls and fly balls. Ground balls can take detours due to field conditions (rock, divots, a lost helmet) and fly balls can go all over the place due to spin and wind. Using a “mental photo” to judge where they’re headed, and then checking out, is a fast track to an error. Seeing the whole travel of the ball, including where it’s going, will be much more effective.
Yes, in our short attention span theater world it gets increasingly difficult for players to learn to focus for more than a few seconds at a time. But if they can learn to watch the video instead of looking at the photo, they’ll be a lot more successful.