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7 Tips to Make 2022 Your Best (Softball) Year Ever

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

The Up and Down Side of Modeling Elite Players

woman working girl sitting

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.

thomas-jefferson-portrait_800

Jefferson could call for a sac bunt with just a twitch of his eyebrow.

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

To Track the Ball, Think Video Not Photo

Learn to see in video, not photo

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.

Erin Yazel catch

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.

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