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My fastpitch learning by osmosis theory

Softball 2

I have always been a big believer in the ability of kids, at least certain kids, to learn the nuances of softball through osmosis. I certainly saw it with my own daughters, who were eight years apart.

When my older daughter Stefanie was playing, we dragged all the other kids out to her games. We had to – she was the oldest, and we couldn’t leave the others at home.

When Stefanie was playing 14U, my youngest child Kim was 6. I was coaching, so I mostly remember seeing her heading off to a playground or just sitting in the grass. We never talked to her much about what was going on.

But somewhere along the way it must’ve stuck in her brain, because by the time she started playing she had a pretty high level of innate knowledge about what to do when. For example, I never had to teach Kim about going after the lead runner on comebacker to the pitcher. She just knew.

I am convinced that’s because she saw so many games. Even if she wasn’t constantly thinking about what was going on, she picked up a lot of it by osmosis. I think that’s the benefit the younger sister (or brother) gets.

I bring this up because of something that happened last night that just tickled me. I have been working with a 12U pitcher named Jenna for a little over a year now. (I refuse to say anyone is 11, 13, 15 or any other odd number of U. Old school.)

Anyway, I started with Jenna when she was 10U, and she’s made the transition to 12U pretty easily. It’s fun to see how far she’s come in a short period of time, and how she can take command of a game.

This summer, her dad Gary decided it would be a good time to get his younger daughter Sammie started. She was 8 when we started, playing rec league, but I know Gary has aspirations for her future. 🙂 She turned 9 not long ago.

At first she had all the challenges 8/9 year olds typically have. Like being so literal about her form that she looked all stiff and robotic.

But she’s determined, and has been working hard. The last couple of lessons the light bulb has started coming on and she’s been throwing more relaxed. Her strikes are going up, and she’s definitely throwing hard. So last night I thought it might be a good time to get her started on the basics of a changeup.

When I said that, Gary told me, “Sammie’s already gotten started on it.” Apparently she’d been watching Jenna and thought it looked pretty cool, so she decided to start working on it on her own.

I asked her to show me, and darned if she didn’t do a nice job! The pitch was really high, but it was straight, and more importantly it was the right speed without slowing her arm down. She did a couple more and it was the same thing.

Honestly, I was impressed. I asked Gary if he had been working with her and he said no. Sammie had just picked it up by watching Jenna.

I think what knocked me out was that she was maintaining her arm speed. Normally, when a new pitcher is trying a change on her own she’ll slow down to make the ball go slower. (Which, by the way, is the opposite of what you really want to do.) Not Sammie, though. She just cranked it right out there and let the design of the mechanics do the job.

Of course, it helps that she has a great example to model herself after. Jenna throws a killer change that is quite effective in games. But still. Sammie just sort of figured it out by watching.

We did some quick work and got Sammie throwing it for a strike at least part of the time. But it sure was nice to start from a solid foundation!

So there you go. Learning the game, or even parts of it, doesn’t always require a formal setting. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, it just happens. Gotta love osmosis.

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Farewell to Ernie Parker

Last week the softball world lost one of its greats – pitching coach Ernie Parker. While he hasn’t been tremendously visible the last few years – which means younger readers may not recognize the name – he was extremely influential in the careers of a lot of pitchers and coaches. Including this one.

Back in the pre-Internet days it was difficult to find quality information on anything softball-related. Which is likely one of the reasons there was such a disparity between teams in Southern California and everywhere else in the country. Ernie’s video series was one of the first to explain the techniques for “California-style” pitching, i.e., explosive speed with dynamic ball movement.

Most of us non-Californians, especially those of us in the Midwest, hadn’t seen anything like it and had no idea how it was done. But through his videos (at that time on VHS) Ernie gave the rest of us some valuable clues on what the techniques should look like and ideas on how to teach them.

Not to say he necessarily got everything right. In those early videos he talked about the importance of “slamming the door,” or bringing the hips around, to finish the pitch. I spoke to him by phone a couple of years ago about that and he said he had long since changed his stance on that, like any good pitching coach would. He also focused a lot on developing the purposeful wrist snap. That aside, though, there was enough great information to help those of us who knew nothing begin to learn.

For me, Ernie was particularly influential in learning to teach the backhand changeup and the curve. His video was the first place I saw a well-disguised changeup, and I still use several of the tips he provided. For the curve, his video was where I learned to use a Frisbee to get a pitcher started. Again, that is something I still do today.

Despite his stature and accomplishments, Ernie always had time for anyone who contacted him, and he would always give you a straight answer. I remember emailing him years ago, lamenting about the lack of effort from a couple of students with good potential and commenting on how nice it must be to be Ernie Parker and have all your students work hard. He responded that he wished it were true, but he had the same issues as everyone else. Some students worked hard and did well, others put in little effort – I supposed counting on his name to make them great.

I have to admit it made me feel a little better about my own efforts, and helped me to understand there’s only so much a coach can do. The player has to want it.

Ernie had a passion for the game, and for helping players become the best versions of themselves they could be. He will be missed by those of us who knew him and/or learned from him. Thanks and farewell, Ernie.

Helping young softball pitchers build consistency

Last night I was working with an 11U beginning pitcher named Alex. She’s a great kid, always smiling, always giving 100 percent. You can see a real love of the game in her, and a love of the opportunity her parents are giving her to learn how to pitch.

Being young, though, she has been struggling a bit to find the consistency that leads to control. Kids develop fine motor skills at different times, and it seems that Alex hasn’t quite gotten there yet. As a result, she was throwing balls all over the place.

Now, I am a believer that control is a result, not a goal. If you do the right things mechanically the ball will go where it’s supposed to go. But sometimes pitchers need a little help to push them toward that consistency.

You don’t want them to aim the ball, or do whatever it takes to get it to the catcher. That often leads to poor mechanics and slow pitches, which defeats the purpose of learning to pitch. But you do want them to start honing in on where they need to be. That’s when I got an idea.

I happened to have a Jugs Quick Snap pitching screen set up for hitting lessons that were happening after Alex’s pitching lesson. It’s the type with the hole in it. I use it so I can put the screen close to the hitter without giving my wife the opportunity to cash in the insurance policy she has on me – especially when I’m working with older hitters. That hole seemed like the perfect way to help Alex start working her way toward control.

So, I dragged it over and set it up a couple of feet in front of her and had her pitch through the hole. It’s large enough that it provides some leeway for the pitcher, yet small enough to make it something they have to work at. She struggled with it at first, but after a few minutes was able to get the ball through the hole (and toward her dad, who was catching) pretty regularly.

We then moved the screen to a distance of about 10 feet in front of her. She struggled again, but even when she didn’t get the ball through the hole she was getting a lot closer to that area than she had been.

What I liked about using the screen over having her pitch at close distance to the backstop (which we have also done) is it gave her context. It was regular pitching, but with a goal right in front of her.

As I write this it occurs to me we could even make a game of it – scoring points for getting the ball through the hole (with a full, 100 percent motion) and earning prizes depending on the score. Or maybe a prize for each time through, just to keep it fun. Hmmm, I’ll have to keep that in mind if we do it again.

I realize everyone doesn’t happen to have a Jugs protective screen handy. But if you do have access to one (or a similar screen) and are working with a pitcher who doesn’t quite seem to be able to lock in her mechanics, give it a try. Just be sure to let us know how it works for you.

As for Alex, it seemed to help. She’s still not quite there yet – it’s not a miracle cure by any means – but I have a feeling her brain will process it and she’ll be in a lot better shape the next time I see her.

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