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College Playoffs and WCWS Create Unique Learning Opportunity

The next few weeks promise to be a softball fanatic’s dream.

First you have all the major D1 college conference championships that will be televised on the various flavors of ESPN. Plus all the others that are available through various streaming services, including D2 and D3.

Then there are the regionals, super regionals and Women’s College World Series games that will take us through early June. Here’s an overview of what that schedule will look like.

While I’m sure it will be enjoyable to watch, there’s more to it than just entertainment. All this great softball on TV provides an invaluable learning opportunity for young teams – and one which most of today’s players don’t seem to take much advantage of.

When I start with a new student, I will often ask her if she can name any famous players at whatever skill we’ll be working on. For example, if it’s a new pitching student I’ll ask who she admires as a pitcher or what famous names she knows.

More often than not I get a blank stare. If I name a few for them, such as Cat Osterman, Amanda Scarborough, Monica Abbott, or Sarah Pauly, most of the time they may have heard of the name but have never seen them pitch.

As a result, most of the time they have no idea what a high-level pitcher looks like in action. The same is true for hitters and fielders.

That’s why the next few weeks present such a tremendous opportunity. Some of the best players in the world will be showcased doing what they do best. These are young women who do what you would like your players to do.

So why not take advantage of that and replace a normal practice with a watch party? You can find out when a local or semi-local team is playing and watch that game.

Or see if there is a player from your area on one of the teams and have your team watch her specifically. Show them that these aren’t just figures on TV but real players who once stood where your players do now.

Make a party of it. Supply some snacks, order some pizza, maybe even organize a sleepover if that’s appropriate. Then at game time, actually watch what happens and discuss the action on the field.

You might even pause the game and run back a good play to show the effort that went into it, or re-watch a bad play to talk about what should have happened instead. You can also talk about the strategy of why a team or player did what they did (good or bad) to help raise your team’s collective softball IQ.

It has been estimated that the majority of people in the world (65%) are visual learners. Showing your players both good and bad examples in real time helps them understand more thoroughly the techniques and strategies you’re trying to teach them.

As you watch the game, perhaps the coaches and players can make a list of things they want to work on at the next practice. Maybe it’s diving to catch a ball. Maybe it’s a type of slide they saw, or a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch. Maybe it’s a suicide squeeze.

Whatever it is, seeing it performed and then trying it themselves may be just the spark they need to inspire them to play at a higher level than they are now.

Watching a game on TV also gives your players a chance to gain some perspective about their own performance. They may see a pitcher give up a critical home run, then come back to strike out the next hitter.

They may see a player make an error to give up the go-ahead run, then come through later in the game with a key hit. Ultimately, especially in an elimination game, they will see the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” played out in real time.

The other nice thing about watching the games on TV (versus going in person, which is also a great experience) is that it doesn’t cost much. A little food and drink, the price of the cable or streaming channel (if it isn’t free) and the time to clean up afterwards is about all you need.

But you can create a learning and bonding experience that will benefit your players for a long time to come.

Sure, we all like to grind away on the field. But if all your players ever see is each other, and players on other teams of comparable ability, they may never realize there is a much larger world out there.

Show them some of the best in the world playing the game at a high level and you just might inspire a level of play and enthusiasm in them that they wouldn’t have achieved before.

The Importance of the Poker Face When Catching for Your Daughter

While I am definitely not a big-time gambler, I have always thought that if I wanted to put together a high-stakes poker game where I would have a high chance of winning I would invite the bucket parents of young, preferably beginner, fastpitch softball pitchers.

Not that they have a lot of money available to drop in a game. Lord knows you could buy your own college on what some parents spend trying to get their daughters a scholarship, and even lower-level play can empty a bank account faster than my friends and I could destroy the buffet options at a Pizza Hut.

But whatever money they do have would quickly be mine for one simple reason: their inability to hide their emotions on any sort of regular basis.

I’m sure it doesn’t happen intentionally, but I see it time and again. Their daughter throws a strike and they’re all smiles and excitement, ready to call Patty Gasso to tell her they have her next ticket to the Women’s College World Series punched.

Then the next pitch the ball is in the dirt behind the imaginary batter and they look like they’ve just been told they have to tell John Wick his new dog is dead. Kind of reminds me of this guy:

Well, maybe not quite to that extent. But all the signs are there.

The crestfallen face. The biting of the lower lip. The shoulder slump. The slow walk to retrieve the ball. The pleading in the eyes to “just throw strikes.” Or conversely the unbridled glee when the pitch does what it’s supposed to, like Ralphie and his brother Randy opening presents on Christmas morning.

The thing is I don’t think they’re showing these emotions on purpose. In fact, they probably don’t even know they’re doing it.

But I can see them.

And if I can see them guess who else can?

That’s right, Their daughters, who (in almost all cases) are doing their best to learn this very complicated skill.

Here’s the problem. As a general rule, girls tend to be more focused on pleasing others than boys. And they really want to please their parents.

So if mom or dad inadvertently looks angry, frustrated, disgusted, like their world has ended, etc., it will launch a whole range of emotions accelerated by raging hormones. And at that point, it becomes even more difficult for them to pitch with any semblance of speed and accuracy.

This is an important lesson for every parent (and coach) to learn. I know I had to.

Both of my daughters pitched, and they certainly reacted to however I reacted. I didn’t realize it, however, until I took the ASEP coaching course and they talked about body language and what it tells your team.

It was a real eye-opener for me because I pretty much ticked all the boxes. Hanging Head Syndrome. Heavy Sighs. Banging my hand on the fence when something would go wrong.

I had to work at developing that steely-eyed poker face so that no matter what happened it became a non-event. It wasn’t easy, and I would backslide now and then. But it was worth it.

That’s what I recommend for you bucket parents. Pitching in fastpitch softball is hard. If you don’t believe me, pay close attention in your daughter’s next lesson and then go home and try to do the things she is being asked to do. Then keep in mind she has the body control and fine motor skills of child or adolescent, not an adult.

The best thing you can do for your daughter’s development is to work on your poker face. Learn to control your emotions like a Jedi so that no matter what happens your face, and your body language remains completely neutral.

If you can do that, it will free her to develop her skills guilt-free, which will hasten her improvement considerably. Before you know it you won’t need those abilities because she’ll be performing at a level that makes it a little easier to relax and enjoy the ride.

Don’t worry, though. All that effort you put into hiding your true feelings won’t go to waste. You can instead apply those skills the next time you’re at a tournament and the parents decide a little “adult time” at the local casino is in order. With a little luck you might even be able to cover the weekend’s expense.

Poker photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Lessons Learned from the Women’s College World Series

 

Well, that was quite a Women’s College World Series (WCWS) wasn’t it? Lots of fastpitch softball drama (the good kind) from the Regional games all the way up to Championship Series.

Show of hands: how many stayed up until the bottom of the 17th on Monday? I know I did, and I paid for it the rest of the week with interrupted sleep patterns.

As I did the lessons the last few weeks I also asked my students if they were watching the games. Some were, some weren’t. That’s too bad for the ones who weren’t because there’s lots to be learned from watching the game played at such a high level.

With that in mind, here are a few of my own observations and takeaways coming out of a very fun series.

Catchers need to block

Not just sometimes but every time. I saw several balls get by catchers in crucial situations because they tried to glove a ball and couldn’t quite do it. When pitches are coming in at 65+ mph and hit shinguards, they tend to bounce far away. And usually in odd directions.

Get that ball centered on your body – judging where it’s going, not where it is – get on your knees and get over the ball.

Good framing helps

There were definitely strikes called that could have gone either way. (And some, of course, that should have gone the other way, but that’s a different topic.) Catchers framing pitches well can sometimes – sometimes – make the difference.

More bullet spin than you’d expect

When the TV would show the slow motion replays of certain pitches, I was surprised to see just how many pitches had bullet spin rather than directional spin. Bullet spin is not generally desirable in fastpitch softball pitching

(For those who aren’t familiar with the term, bullet spin is when the ball is spinning like a clock face as it’s coming toward you, and you can see the “button” on the front. Bullets spin this way so they don’t move off their direct targets when fired. Good for bullets, bad for pitchers because nothing is easier to hit than a ball that doesn’t change direction.)

I know announcing from the press box is tougher than it looks – I’ve done it – but it was rather funny when a commentator would talk about so-and-so’s tight spin on her rise ball, or how the pitcher just threw a late breaking curve ball, and as he/she is saying it you can clearly see the ball with bullet spin.

Rise balls don’t really rise, but if they were going to they’d have to be spinning backwards. Curve balls would have to have side spin on them. And so forth. A ball with bullet spin isn’t going to break – early, late, or otherwise.

It pays to work on baserunning

I saw some really amazing plays where heads-up baserunning definitely gave the team on offense an advantage.

I saw a runner on first take second on a changeup. I saw runners alerting watching as a throw from the outfield was directed toward a base they weren’t going for, giving them a chance to advance unexpectedly. I saw runners sliding away from possible tags to avoid being out.

Then there was the other stuff. I saw runners going from first to second on a ground ball allow themselves to be tagged so the defense could make a double play. I saw runners over-estimating their speed when they were the only play in town and making an out instead of giving their team a base runner. I saw runners run in front of a fielder going for a ground ball instead of behind and getting called out for interference.

Getting runners on base is really the key to success. The more the merrier. But they don’t really matter until they reach one base: home. The more you can do to get them there, the more runs you’ll score and the more likely you are to win ballgames.

Putting the fast in fastpitch

By the time the Championship Series came around we had the opportunity to see some incredible pitching.

It’s hard to imagine thinking of a pitcher who throws in the mid-’60s as “slower,” but when the others are consistently in the 70s – even up to 75! – that kind of is the case.

What was interesting was that 70 mph pitch speeds didn’t make for 1-0 games. Even the 17 inning barn burner wound up with a double-digit run total. But the ability to throw flat-out harder than everyone else does make a difference, especially in crucial situations where a team really, really needs an out.

I think we saw that even at that level, it’s tough not to be enamored of the pitchers who can flat-out bring it.

It takes a pitching staff

It seems that gone are the days when you could just ride one big arm for the entire tournament. Even if she threw 200 pitches the day before.

Both Oklahoma and Florida got to the big dance using two pitchers, and on Tuesday night Florida pulled in a third and Oklahoma used four!

Has the pitching gotten worse, or the pitchers gotten softer? Not from where I sit. The hitters have simply gotten better. They say hitting is about timing and pitching is about disrupting timing. No better way to disrupt a group of hitters and keep them from getting comfortable in the batter’s box than by showing them different looks, speeds, and styles.

Great defense still makes a difference

Maybe more than ever. There were so many great defensive plays throughout the last few weeks that you could easily make a lengthy highlight reel just on that.

The key for the winners in different games wasn’t the spectacular stuff, though. A lot of it came down to making the plays they were supposed to make. You do that, and the rest is icing on the cake.

Great coaches care about their players

It’s unfortunate that at every level – even D1 college – there are coaches who care more about their records and looking good in front of whoever than they do about their players. Those coaches tend to view their players like the do the field or the equipment – pieces that are there to be used as-needed to fulfill the coach’s goals.

That’s not what you saw with the teams who made it to the final 8. Or especially the Championship Series. From the outside at least, both Patty Gasso and Tim Walton seem to genuinely care about their players, and build relationships with them. Not just the stars but also the role players.

I can’t remember who said it, but there is a quote from a coach who said something to the effect of “We all know the same X’s and O’s. It’s what you do with the players on your team that makes the difference.”

While knowing the game and recruiting great talent areimportant, many teams have smart coaches and great talent. There’s a reason Oklahoma and Florida have dominated the WCWS the last few years.

Umpires are human

Yup, saw some bad pitch calls and blown calls on plays at various bases. But while they may be the topic of conversation, those are the minority. That’s a tough job, and there are bound to be mistakes.

I occasionally make mistakes in my job too. I try not to but it happens. Get over it.

Seeing that umpires may blow a call should be that much more incentive to do more so that a blown call doesn’t cost you the game. In high school and college, games last seven innings. (In travel ball usually fewer due to time limits.) Within the allotted 21 outs there is ample time to hit, field, run bases, etc. in a way that will help your team win. Focus on that.

Look at it this way: if your team is leading 10-1 and an umpire blows a play at the plate, calling an opponent safe instead of out, no one is likely to get too worked up about it. Put yourself in that position and the rest takes care of itself.

Those were some of the things I saw. How about you? What stood out to you? What did you see that you haven’t before, or that made you cringe? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

 

The most wonderful time of the year

You can almost hear the music, can’t you? But I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about the Women’s College World Series (WCWS)!2016_womens_college_world_seriesb

It’s amazing how far this tournament has come in the last few years. It used to be you were lucky if you could find the championship game on TV. Now pretty much the entire tournament is being broadcast across several networks, including ESPN (every flavor except The Ocho), The Big Ten, PAC 12 and SEC. There may be a couple of others but those are the ones I know – and have watched so far.

What a great opportunity for younger players to immerse themselves in high-level softball too. From a single vantage point on the couch (or on the floor) they have a chance to see dozens of teams from across the country – to see the speed the play at and the energy they bring.

In my mind it’s also a great opportunity to see the mistakes they make, from getting double off a base on a line drive to running into a tag to misjudging a fly ball to throwing too high or too low and so on. Pitchers can see college pitchers whose educations are being fully (or at least partially paid for) leave a ball fat on the plate and then watching helplessly as it leaves the park. There is some comfort in knowing that even the best players aren’t always perfect.

I know for many players in the 10U -13U ranks that the travel and rec ball seasons have started, and you may have games over the next three weekends. But if you can, set your DVRs or grab a few moments between games and check out the WCWS. I think you’ll like what you see – and you’ll help boost the ratings so all those networks will keep showing all those games.

 

Lesson learned from the WCWS

So another WCWS is behind us. Have to admit there was some terrific play and some incredible games to watch. Auburn came darned close to completing their Cinderella run, and all the teams competed well – even those that went out in two straight.

There were some bad plays as well – simple errors such as a ball going through a shortstop’s legs, misjudged fly balls, poor baserunning – all the things we yell at our 12U and 14U players for. Even the big girls get it wrong sometimes.

But the thing that struck me most were the smiles on the players’ faces – even when something went wrong. It’s not that they were taking the game lightly. But they had an appreciation for where they were and what they were doing.

Here they were, on one of the biggest stages in the country, playing on TV before millions of viewers. Despite the fact they made an error or hit a batter with a pitch, or popped up in a crucial situation, those players kept on smiling.

That’s some pretty amazing coaching, to create an atmosphere like that where they could not only play for the love of the game but show that love outright. To me that was the biggest lesson we all can learn.

While it may seem like life or death in the heat of the moment, it’s really not. Teams with players who can smile through adversity and move on to make the next play will always do well. Those who dwell on their mistakes instead of enjoying the moment are likely to implode.

Be the team that smiles.

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