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Fastpitch pitchers gotta pitch

Fastpitch pitchers need circle time to improve

Right now we are coming up on what is probably the toughest time of the year in fastpitch softball – tryout season.

While the current playing season hasn’t quite concluded yet for most players, the finish line is definitely in sight for most. And that means they need to make a decision about next year, asking the musical question:

In some cases it may be whether a player should make the jump from rec ball to travel ball. In other cases it’s whether to stay with the current team or move to a new one, or whether to play up or stay down. So many decisions!

I’m asked my advice on this a lot, and I usually share it on a one-to-one basis because every situation is a little different. But there are a few common scenarios where I can pretty much make a blanket recommendation.

The biggest one is about seeking out opportunity, especially if you are (or your daughter is) a pitcher. As my headline says, pitchers gotta pitch. You can practice all you want, but the only way you’re going to know if you’re getting better is if you get the opportunity to pitch in games. Not just a few scrub innings here or there, but quality innings.

So let’s look at this typical scenario. (I’m going to say you to keep it simple, but you can also read “your daughter.)

You’re on a team that already has two good, established pitchers who get the bulk of the work. You started pitching a year ago, and while you’ve been working hard you haven’t had much opportunity to show your stuff. The coaches are too afraid they might lose a game with you in the circle.

Odds are that situation isn’t going to get any better next year. It’s probably time for you to seek your fortunes elsewhere, even if it’s with a team that isn’t as good overall, or isn’t as likely to win as many games as your current team.

What you need right now are game innings. So what if the team doesn’t play great defense and you take some losses. What you want is the opportunity to get in the circle, make yourself better, and see if you can make the team better to boot. Now, if you improve and the team doesn’t, next year will probably be a different story. But for now, your best bet is to go where the opportunity is.

Another tough one is whether a 10U pitcher should move up when her team goes to 12U or stay down at 10U. There’s no single answer for this one. If you’re rocking it at 10U, you can probably move up to the next level no problem. Especially if you’re a bigger 10U player. A smaller one might have trouble adjusting to the larger ball and extra five feet of pitching distance.

On the other hand, if you’re a developing 10U pitcher who hasn’t had much circle time, the jump to 12U might be pretty rough. If you get rocked a couple of times at 12U that might be the end of your pitching career. My recommendation in general would be to stay down, get a chance to dominate and build some confidence first. It will help ease the transition.

What about going from rec ball to travel ball? That can be a pretty big (and eye-opening) jump. To me, this is more about general attitude toward the game. If softball is primarily a social thing for you, it may not be a good idea. The increased practice and game schedules, even at the lower end of travel ball, might be too much for you.

On the other hand, if you’re a competitive type you’re very likely going to thrive in the travel ball world. You’ll enjoy the harder practices and tougher competition. And you (as well as your parents) will likely make friends for life.

On the other side of the stay/go coin is the desire to win trophies above all else. Yes, there are teams you can go to that will let you clutter your bedroom, and the living room, and the basement with plastic “hardware.” But will they help you become a better player?

Winning teams aren’t always run by great coaches. Sometimes they’re run by a parent who has a very talented daughter (who also has a few talented friends) or they are able to attract very talented, already-formed players and assemble them into a team. The coaches don’t make them better, they just act like NASCAR drivers; the drivers don’t build the cars, they just drive them. Not that it doesn’t take skill to drive a NASCAR vehicle, but it’s a different skillset than getting the car ready for race day.

The point is, you want to know that if you’re not already fully-formed and ready to rock that you will get the training you need to get there. A team that wins less but learns more is probably going to be your better bet.

There are other scenarios as well, but these should form a good start. If you look at what your needs and desires from the game are, you’ll have a lot better idea as where you should be playing next year. Good luck with it!

Oh, and if I missed any scenarios or you have questions, feel free to mention them in the comments below.

Yes, there can be such a thing as winning too much

Let’s face it. Whether your activity of choice is fastpitch softball, soccer, basketball, auto racing, marching band competitions, tiddlywinks or something else, everyone loves winning. As Nuke LaLoosh says in Bull Durham, “I love winning. It’s so much better than losing.” (Warning: the full quote is NSFW so turn down the volume.)Winning is fun, but there can be a thing as winning too often

Yet there can be a thing as winning too much. This is something a lot of parents (and some coaches) don’t seem to understand.

In America in particular, we tend to measure success in terms of wins and losses. The more you win, the better you are, right?

Not necessarily, because there’s another factor that comes into play – the level of competition. Think about it this way: how much satisfaction do you get out of winning a game of tic-tac-toe? Probably not much, because once you learn a few basic moves is only possible if your opponent makes a really, really stupid mistake.

Or if you are an adult, how much satisfaction would you get out of beating a 6 year old at one-on-one basketball, or chess, or ping pong, or pretty much anything else? Not much, because there’s no challenge.

And that’s the key to what I’m saying. If your team wins every tournament it goes to, especially if it goes undefeated every weekend (or even worse dominates every game) it’s not that the team is so great. It’s that you’re not playing the right level of competition.

You don’t get better if you’re not challenged. Winning a tournament shouldn’t be easy. It should be really hard. If you’re winning more than 60% of your games, 75% at most, you’re playing the wrong teams.

Sure, it’s fun to get those shiny plastic trophies, or medals, or t-shirts, or whatever they’re handing out these days as prizes. You have the big ceremony at the end, everyone takes pictures and maybe goes out for dinner afterward. But how special is it if it happens every weekend? Not very.

Keep in mind that iron is forged in fire. That’s what shapes it into something useful. Fastpitch softball players are the same way.

In order for them to get better, they need to play competition that is either at their skill level or better. It’s what will challenge them and force them to go beyond their current skill level. It’s also what keeps it interesting and makes the wins when they come extra satisfying.

Because you’ll know you didn’t just beat up on some lesser team. Instead, you put something on the line – the very real possibility of losing – and came out the other side on top. Your players probably learned a little something along the way, too.

The same goes for making it to every championship game, by the way, even if you don’t win. That just means one other team was probably in the wrong tournament too.

It can be tough to lose. Another of my favorite baseball movie quotes comes from Moneyball: “I hate losing. I hate losing even more than I wanna win.”

But that’s a good thing. If you’re concerned about losing, you will work harder to make sure it doesn’t happen. And you will get better. If losing isn’t a real concern, however, you’ll probably let up and your skills won’t develop. And that will catch up with you one day.

Parents, especially today’s parents, like to see their children succeed. But that doesn’t mean they should shelter them from losing, which is what you’re doing when winning becomes so important that failure to win every game at every tournament means you start looking for a new team that will.

Again, shoot for that 60-75% winning percentage and you can be pretty sure your favorite player is being challenged and growing as player. It will also mean that the fruits of victory will taste ever so much sweeter.

Trick for helping fastpitch hitters adjust their timing

As important as it is, timing is one of the most challenging things for fastpitch hitters to work on. You can build your swing on the tee all day every day. But it isn’t until you have to actually face a moving ball that it really becomes game-like hitting.For fastpitch hitters with timing problems, try placing a second plate in front of the first one.

What you’re really trying to do with timing is find the ball in space. What I mean is that you have to deliver the bat not only to the right height, as you do on the tee, but also in a plane that extends from where the pitcher releases the ball to the optimal (hopefully) point near you that yields the best contact.

For many hitters, figuring out where that point is can be difficult. Many tend to wait too long, letting the ball get too deep. When that happens they may make contact, but it probably won’t be strong contact.

At best, especially if the pitch is on the outside half of the plate, they make get a sharp ground ball to the opposite field. But even then they won’t really be driving it. And forget about crushing an inside pitch over the fence on their pull side, no matter how strong they may be.

The problem isn’t a lack of conscious understanding. I’ve worked with plenty of hitters who understood exactly where they needed to make contact. If you asked them they could quickly give you the right answer. But put them up against a moving ball and they just can’t pull the trigger on time to do what they just told you they should do.

Speed doesn’t matter either. They get the same results whether they’re facing a 60+ mph fireballer in a game or a coach lobbing meatballs in front toss. It’s not a question of when so much as where.

If you have (or are) one of those, here’s a trick to try. Place a second plate immediately out in front of the one you’ve been using. (It helps if the two plates are different colors.)

Tell the hitter to line up with the back plate, but base her hitting off the front one. Then have her take a few swings.

What you will probably find is that she is suddenly able to get the bat to the ball on time. Honestly, I’m not sure why that is; perhaps a psychologist could explain it.Then again, I never saw a pitch I didn’t like. The simple act of placing that second visual seems to help. It certainly did with Emma, who is pictured here. (In case you’re wondering, that’s her dad Mike lurking in the background. :-))

Once that second plate went down she not only started hitting the ball better, but actually started pulling front toss pitches that were inside. The visual helped break whatever was locked into her mind so she could cut loose and attack the ball instead of taking a more defensive, don’t let the ball get through approach.

The next step is to take the front plate away to see if she can maintain the “hit it out-front” mindset. If not, put it back and keep working. Then try it again next practice. Eventually her brain will re-calibrate and associate that space just in front of her with where the contact point should be.

I prefer the “all or nothing” approach with the second plate to moving it back slowly. I’m just afraid with most hitters, if you move the front plate back a little, you’ll drag the hitting zone back along with it because the front of that plate will still be a reference point. Better to take it away entirely and see whether it has translated yet or not.

By the way, I have my theories as to why hitters get into the mindset of waiting until the ball is practically on top of them to swing. One idea is that when they are playing rec ball early in their careers, they’re not sure of where the strike zone is (or if the pitcher can hit it), so they wait until they’re absolutely sure they know where the ball is.

Since most kids don’t hit the ball particularly hard at that age, the bad placement isn’t really noticeable. But as they progress in the game and hitting gets better, those who don’t make the adjustment get left behind. .

My other thought has to do with tee placement. How many times have you seen a player (or a well-meaning but under-informed coach) plop the tee right in the center of the plate, which places the ball right about at their bellybutton? Those ubiquitous tees with the plate for a base certainly help reinforce that concept.

So after hours of practicing that way, where do you think a hitter is going to expect to hit the ball? And once that mindset is locked in, it can be tough to break.

So give the second plate idea a try and see if it helps. Then let me know your results in the comments below. Also, if you’ve found other successful tricks to help hitters understand how to hit the ball in the proper space as it’s moving, please be sure to share them with everyone here.

Evidence of the value of team sports

Those of us involved in team sports such as fastpitch softball like to talk about all the benefits they provide. Most of the time, however, it has been more opinion and belief than anything that could be proved.

The folks at Ohio University have done some research and put together an infographic that shows both the value of participating in team sports (based on survey information) as well as some data on an apparent decline in participation in team sports in high school. The culprits, as you might suspect, include obesity, spending too much time in front of screens (TV, texting, surfing the Internet, etc.) and aggressive coaches who created a poor experience.

The full infographic is below. Definitely worth a look – including the evaluation at the end.


Ohio University Online

Sports administration not just a boy’s game anymore

With today being the last day of Women in Sports Week, it seemed like this would be a good way to finish it out – talking about opportunities for women in sports administration. Once the almost exclusive enclave of men, more women are now finding success off the field in sports. – Ken

Guest post by Ohio University’s Athletic Administration Program.

While men outnumber women in sports administration roles, Women’s Sports Week celebrates the females who are quickly moving into higher positions in the industry. With the fact that ESPN now has 48 female anchors, reporters, analysts, and contributors, they’re also paving the way for a new generation of younger women who want to hold professional positions in the industry.

Starting at the college level, intercollegiate athletics programs are experiencing an increased female presence. Of the 969 NCAA D1 head coaches for 2014-15, 40.2% are women with field hockey, lacrosse, equestrian, golf, and fast pitch softball leading the way. Keep in mind, however, that men coach over 43% of women’s teams while women coach only 3% of men’s teams.

One way to help increase female representation in athletic administration and professional roles is to provide these girls with successful role models like Mary Alice Hill, the first female Athletic Director in the country. She also played an instrumental role in obtaining the first NCAA scholarships for female athletes, 75 years after the NCAA was created.

To learn more about the growing female presence in the business sides of the sports industry, check out this visual resource created by Ohio University’s Athletic Administration program.


Ohio University Online

The growth of women’s sports in America

Guest post by Ohio University’s Athletic Administration Program. 

As women’s sports gain more fans it isn’t surprising that just last year the women’s College World Series averaged almost 440,000 more viewers than the men’s College World Series. In celebration of the growing popularity of women’s sports, and Women’s Sports Week, here’s a look at the big impact women are making in athletics.

Girls’ participation in sports has grown an average of 50% a year over the last 5 years. In fact, there were over 364,000 high school girls participating in fast pitch softball during the 2014-2015 school year.

Athletic clothing and shoe companies have taken notice and have geared television campaigns specifically towards women for the first time. With half of shoppers on the NBA online site coming from the female population and sales of $5 billion on Nike’s women’s athletic wear in 2014, this group is clearly becoming powerful.

To learn more about the evolution of women’s sports, check out the visual resource below created by Ohio University’s Athletic Administration Program.


OU MAA Online

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.

Softball back in for the 2020 Olympics

Just saw the news that softball (and baseball) have officially been voted back in for the 2020 Olympics. Not too surprised given where they will be held.

Japan is as fanatical about fastpitch softball as the U.S. – maybe more. And they have a 2008 U.S. National team, the last team to play in the Olympicsgold medal to defend, despite the fact that it’s likely most of the players on that last team probably won’t be on the 2020 team.

I know a lot of people are really ecstatic about it. For me, I’m more “meh.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love watching the games on TV, especially the medal games. It’s exciting to see the best players in the world going head-to-head, and even though the Olympic rings have lost some of their luster it’s still a pretty big stage. And for me personally at least there’s now something interesting to watch.

But many of those who are so excited have a belief that having softball in the Olympics will drive participation and give female softball players something to dream about. For whatever it’s worth I disagree.

I don’t think young female softball players, as a whole, care that much about the national team. Just ask any you know who is on the national team right now. You’ll probably get a blank stare. Or ask who was ever on the Olympic team for the U.S. You might get a couple of good guesses, but beyond the high-visibility pitchers most probably won’t know.

When I’m doing lessons I will often ask students if they have heard of this top-level college player or that high-profile pro. Most have not. They just don’t care. They’re more focused on their own performance.

If participation overall is down I don’t think it’s because there was no Olympic team to aspire to. I would say cost is much more of a factor now. It used to be you could join a team and play all summer for around $500. Now it’s more like $1,500 to $2,000 on the low end, and $20,000+ on the high end for a bigtime exposure team that travels around the country.

That puts softball out of the reach of a lot of families, especially in the current economy. They’ll either find a cheaper sport, or they’ll find another activity that doesn’t cost them as much.

As far as the hopes and dreams go, let’s be honest. There are precious few spots on the Olympic roster to being with. You have to be a top-level college player (current or former) to have any hopes of making it (Crystal Bustos excepted).

It may be an incentive for a precious few. And good for them. But for most, reality will likely set in at a young age as they realize they’re not destined to become one of the greatest fastpitch softball players in the U.S.

I’m glad it’s back in, and I’m glad our sport will get more exposure. But is it a game changer? I don’t think so.

The Neverending Softball Story

I was talking with a couple of fastpitch hitting and pitching students this week about their schedules for the next couple of weeks. They were explaining that they probably wouldn’t be coming out for lessons because “we have Nationals next week, then tryouts when we get back.”

There should be more time between the end of one softball season and the start of the next.That just seems crazy to me. I know it’s the way things are but I can’t help but think they shouldn’t be.

Why couldn’t there be a couple of weeks at least between the end of this season and the beginning of the next? What is so all-fired important about getting started on next season that it has to happen before players have had a chance to clean the dust off their equipment from the last one? Especially since many schools start classes around the middle of August now. Not much of a chance for the family of a softball player to take a week off for a little R&R that doesn’t involve getting to a field at 7:00 am on a Saturday.

Where it really gets crazy is how all the different alphabet soup of organizations have their so-called Nationals. Some are done already. Some are going on right now. Some will happen next week. Programs that went to one of the early ones often have their tryouts going on while some of the players who might like to play for them are away at other Nationals.

I guess it’s all about the race to capture the best players before someone else gets to them. When players go to these early tryouts, there is a lot of pressure (especially on the better players) to make a decision now – sometimes before they leave the first day of tryouts. They’re told if they don’t decide RIGHT NOW there may not be a roster spot available to them later.

Again, that seems crazy when the actual, important season for these teams doesn’t start for another 8-10 months (depending on their age). But of course, if you can secure those players now your team is set, and there’s no risk of some other team, especially a close rival, getting them instead.

The problem is the solution is the same as early recruiting for colleges. Programs would have to bring some sanity to the process by voluntarily holding off on tryouts until at least mid-August, and preferably a little later. But who wants to be the first?

If it’s going to work, it would have to start with the most desirable teams – the ones everyone would love to play for. If they didn’t start until later (secure in the knowledge players would join their teams (even if they had “committed” under pressure elsewhere first) there would be less incentive for the next tier to be early, and perhaps then it would trickle all the way down.

I don’t think the world would come to an end if tryouts didn’t happen until mid- or late August. So what do you say top tier teams? Will you be the first to start bringing a little sanity to the process, and give committed softball families a window to take a non-softball vacation before school starts (assuming they can afford one after all the travel)?

 

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

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