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Why Stress Fundamentals

by Dave
Tuesday, December 01, 2009

If you spend time on any large softball forum, you will see very little discussion about real fundamentals.   The subject is just not exciting enough for a good read or heated discussion.   Instead what you generally see are these convoluted discussions about sophisticated topics, using words you have never heard, brought up by either real experts, those pretending to be such, or people who have no idea what they are talking about.   People would rather use big words and engage in the complex then deal with what really matters, fundamentals.

I want to tell you a story that just happens to be extremely timely at this moment.   Once there was a young man who was what you would call naturally gifted athletically.   By gifted athletically, I mean he was both fast and quick, had good flexibility and strength, was gifted with good hands and eyes, as well as the coordination of the two; he could convert coaches words and descriptions into action; he could watch others play a sport and copy the good parts of their mechanics without taking on the bad; he was motivated to be good at the sport of his choice and became one of the most renowned prospects within it at a young age.   This young man rose through the ranks of his sport rapidly and as he got older, he began to play with and against others who were similarly "gifted" with "natural" ability.

The young man became a professional in his sport and rose up to its highest levels.   When grouped with the other top athletes, he still stood out.   But as his game began to be scrutinized, he was compared unfavorably to several.

The young man was named Derek Jeter.   His sport was obviously baseball.   His defensive game was compared unfavorably to everyone from the other local MLB team's SS to others within his league and outside of it, not to mention the gentleman who plays the next position over from him.   In fact, at times, minor league SS prospects were compared favorably to Jeter in terms of range and other aspects of the position.   Most recently, the negative comparisons have died down quite a bit and the man was recently named American League Gold Glove Shortstop as well as Sports Illustrated Magazine's "sportsman of the year."

Wha happen?

Not for nothin but, if you live anywhere near da Bronx, you know wha happen.

Wha happen were several things.   First off, the team replaced their stocky, hard hitting, poor foot speed, lousy fielding first baseman with a certain tall, athletic Gold Glover.   That made a huge difference to be sure but there was another basket of changes that made a bigger impact.

A certain coach worked with Jeter, watching his fielding mechanics and various aspects of his defensive game.   And you know what?   This coach changed some things Jeter was doing.   For one thing, he moved him deeper.   That changed the path he took to the ball.   More importantly, he adjusted or corrected Jeter's ready position.

Let me say that again for effect.   One of the biggest improvement Derek Jeter made, the thing he did which moved his status from defensive liability or second rate SS to Gold Glove winner and arguably the most heralded athlete in his game was an adjustment to his ready position.

Are you getting this?   I just said that a professional athlete who is assumed to be a member of a small elite club of fellows who are, at least potentially though probably at this point likely, first ballot Hall of Famers had his ready position adjusted and that has made all the difference.

Ready position?   Isn't that the first thing anybody teaches?   How can a professional get that far without a nearly perfect ready position?   The answer is we can all always improve even the most fundamental aspect of our games.   Professional athletes, even HOF-destined professional athletes, are no exception.   If you want to improve your game, look at the basics, not the sophisticated stuff.

If you examine what professional hitters do when they get into difficult times, you will find that they always go back to the drawing board.   They go back to the tee and examine their fundamental mechanics.   They do not ask ace pitchers to throw batting practice for them.   They do not go into the batting cages and tell the coach to turn the speed up above 100.   They do not read books about new and better hitting mechanics.   They do not start emulating the swing of somebody who happens to be hot right now.   They go to the batting tee and review videotape regarding their hitting fundamentals.

While examining the college recruiting game in softball, I have heard several stories which do not seem to compute in my puny head.   Once somebody said, lots of times coaches don't even watch the actual games when they go to showcases.   Many like to watch warm-ups because they get a better sense of the kid from that than they do from the games.   Players are warned against being nonchalant before and after games, and most especially during warm-ups.   I can accept this but, on the other hand, I have watched so many teams warm-up like professionals and then when we got into the game, our band of scraggly goof-offs have kicked their butts.   What on Earth can you tell from warm-ups?

There are lots of things you can see from an individual player during warm-ups. &nbsop; You can judge attitude, seriousness, approach to playing the sport, etc.   More importantly, you get a really good sense of a kid's fundamentals from warm-ups.   It is virtually impossible for a kid with poor fundamentals to pretend to be a really well-schooled player repeatedly while fielding simple grounders.   Likewise, it is almost impossible for an extremely well skilled kid to go about her business using bad mechanics during a warm-up.   On the other hand, when 3 to 10 balls are hit into play during the course of a game, it is almost impossible to gain a sense of a kid's fundamentals when she fields somewhere between 2 and none of these.

Also, it is very possible that some kid with absolutely fantastic skills will have a tough day because her grandfather died the night before, she was forced to stay up all night to complete a school project, she caught a stomach bug from her little brother, her boyfriend gave her heck because she spends too much time playing softball, the teacher in her otherwise favorite subject gave her heck because she spends too much time playing softball, or for any number of reasons.   maybe the pitcher throwing today always misses her marks and the SS finds herself out of position because she was expecting an outside pitch for a ball and a perfect, down the middle strike was thrown.   There are so many possibilities for something external to a particular player to cause her to look bad that it defies reason.

There once were two catchers on a team with two pitchers.   One pitcher hit the mark all the time.   The other missed more than 50% of the time but she was a hard thrower and still found success.   The catcher who caught the control pitcher looked like an all-star in almost every game.   The catcher for the less accurate pitcher spent way too much time with her back to the field while chasing balls bouncing around the backstop.   At some point, folks watching the two drew the conclusion that one catcher was much better than the other.   Then, one day, the good catcher caught the wild pitcher and the bad catcher caught the controlled one.   Everyone's opinions of the two catchers changed instantaneously.

If you were evaluating catchers, would you feel more confident in your assessment if the catcher were catching somebody who always hit her marks or one who always put the ball in the dirt?   If you were evaluating infielders, would you feel better about your assessment if you watched a game in which she fielded two or three easy chances cleanly or you watched her field 20 reps in a row during a practice?   If you were evaluating a pitcher, would you feel comfortable watching her mow down a team of batters about whom you knew absolutely nothing?   Or would you rather focus on her mechanics, speed, movement, ability to hit spots?

OK, enough of that.   My point is recruiting coaches often watch warm-ups because they want to observe fundamentals.   It is easier to judge fundamentals in drills with repeated reps than it is to see them on display in a game.   They want to watch fundamentals because fundamentals are critical.   And why they are critical is what this is really all about.

If you watch some games at various age levels, before long, you should form an understanding of why fundamentals are critical.   At 10U or 12U, girls who are the best athletes make all the plays.   It does not so much matter if they are fielding balls properly or throwing correctly.   They are athletic.   They move well enough to the ball and get there because they are fast and/or quick.   They pick it up cleanly because A) they are confident in their abilities and B) the balls just are not hit as hard as, or with as much spin as, they will be soon.   They make the throws accurately because they have experiences making good throws under little pressure, not because their throwing mechanics are right.

Take the successful athletic kid with poor fielding mechanics and move her gradually up in age group.   Her success will begin to falter because her mechanics are bad.   I have watched some middle infielders who make all the plays at 10U or 12U but who do not get in good ready positions, don't field with two hands, or otherwise make a travesty out of what are normally viewed as sound mechanics.   These girls get rather frustrated when everyone catches up to them athletically or strength wise, when the balls are hit so much harder, when everything seems to have a weird spin on it.   They also have difficulty getting outs when the kids' baserunning speeds pick up.   They do not field properly to make a quick throw and when the girls start getting under 3, they make a lot of late throws to first.  l; Then they start rushing everything to make up for their poor mechanics and the wildness begins.

Throwing mechanics, in particular, hold kids back as they get older.   I have watched many otherwise decent outfielders cause major problems because they are side-armers.   A couple RFs come to mind immediately.   Maybe you have seen this sort of thing?   There's a runner on first when a basehit reaches right field, down the line.   The RF rushes over taking a good line, picks the ball cleanly and fires a side-armer to third trying to nail the runner from first.   The ball sails past the line and out of play, more than 60 feet up the left field line!   Ugh!

As girls age, like I already said, balls are hit harder and with more spin, runners are faster, and there just is more and more pressure put on players to do everything right, to do everything extremely fast.   Girls who have sound fundamental mechanics seem to rise and those who do not, fall.   Give me the super-athletic kid with sound fundamentals every time.   But if given the choice between the weaker athlete who has sound mechanics and the superior athlete with poor fundamentals, I'll take the former.   At some point, you just cannot help a kid who is completely disinterested in fundamentals or who has atrocious ones.   That point is probably sometime between 13 and 14.   So work kidsensively on fundamentals from the time they start playing until ... there is no until as Derek Jeter can attest to.

Yesterday I wrote a piece about improving softball by improving rec ball by improving pitching and fundamentals.   Today I am not fixated on the lowest levels of the sport, but rather the highest.   Ignore fundamentals in favor of what you deem more important aspects if you must but consider what happens when the kid who knows where to go with the ball can no longer pick it.   Consider the accuracy of the strong armed girl whose throwing mechanics stink.   Consider the success rate of the infielder whose foot position is always is improper.   Consider how well your team does when everybody fields with one hand, pulls their gloves to their throwing hand while taking excessive amounts of steps, and then fires a rocket to the base after the baserunner gets there.

Football is perhaps one of the most complex games on the planet.   We often hear broadcasters talk about the "skill positions."   These broadcasters have never tried to put a block on somebody.   If you do not have blockers who are capable of blocking properly, you cannot run the ball and the only thing that will come out of your passing game is a continual line of star quarterbacks sidelined with concussions, or broken bones.   Blocking is fundamental.   Blocking is boring.   Blocking is critical.

If you coach a basketball team on which everybody could teach Coach K a thing or two about sophisticated plays but on which nobody can dribble, set a pick, make a pass, or shoot properly, good luck.   It makes no difference how much your kids know about the game if they can't perform the fundamentals well.

So why do we put girls on a softball diamond and then worry that they know where to go with the ball?   Why do we put the course in back of the cart?   Why do so many of us not spend time on fundamentals because they are boring when those fundamentals are the single most important aspect of the game?

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Permanent Link:  Why Stress Fundamentals

Now Is The Time

by Dave
Monday, November 30, 2009

Many, if not most, of us are in the off-season.   Yes, elite travel players aged about 14 and up are working towards winter showcases in Florida and elsewhere.   Many warm weather states are playing their winter seasons.   And in the cold states, some few are making plans for indoor winter ball or their indoor workout sessions.   But that's travel ball and what I'm about to discuss has nothing to do with that.   Right now, my thoughts are with rec programs around the country.   Officers and other league officials are making plans for the coming season including tryouts which will happen for many right after the holidays.   In going with the catch phrase of 2009, how about thinking about some sort of "change" for the 2010 season?!

When my mind drifts back to rec ball, a couple images come to mind.   For one thing, there are those eternally long games between large teams (15 or more) of girls aged 7 to 10.   Another image that comes to mind is of girls in the 12U division who really are not interested in playing softball at a high level but just want to get out and socialize with their friends.   The final image that comes to mind is of the older divisions which have depleted rosters either because most of the skilled players are somewhere else, perhaps in travel, or because softball is competing with school and other activities.

These are macro images and when I think of each, a couple sub-set images come to mind.   In the 10U age group, typically you have about half the girls who have never played anything beyond tee ball and about half the girls who have already played a full year, possibly more, of real softball.   Of those who have played some, there is a smaller sub-set of girls who have attended clinics on their own or possibly gotten involved with travel ball someplace where they played 50 games outside the rec league, practiced all winter and developed their skills well beyond the newbies.

Generally, the pitching stinks in this category except for a very small group of girls who have actually taken lessons, perhaps even pitched travel ball for a year.   There are not nearly enough of these girls to go around to all the teams and because the league restricts girls from pitching more than say 3 innings a game or week, the games almost always degrade into walk-fests with a few hits when the pitcher finds the strike zone and the wrong kid, some travel kid, is at bat.

Games usually have some sort of time restriction like 2 hours and thank goodness for that because nobody could take any more.   A game might start out with a bunch of walks and then somebody hits a grounder that exceeds the reach of any infielder and rolls past the outfielders.   Finally the last outs are recorded and the teams switch.   the next half inning might proceed like the first or the other team might have one of those travel pitchers.   In any event, it continues until the score is pretty high, the travel pitcher ends her permitted number, or some such.   Nobody has really gained from the experience.   But everyone goes out for ice cream or speeds off to a family party or other event.   Meet back here Tuesday or next Saturday and we'll replay the same game against another team.

At 12U, most of the girls are more coordinated and there is more "quality" pitching.   A few teams have one travel pitcher, possibly two.   Some teams do not.   Generally the teams that have pitchers will make it to the playoffs by blowing out the others.   And then there are some quality games, quality for the more serious players, that is.   The less serious, less skilled kids will be either at home because their team is no longer playing or stuck out in the outfield and overwhelmed by the opposing pitching.   Games are shorter throughout the season and particularly in the playoffs.   Bragging rights are established.   And many girls start considering leaving softball for something a little more interesting and exciting, or something they can actually excel at.

In the older age categories, there is a massively reduced number of players because girls have left for other activities because they have absolutely no confidence on the softball diamond.   Some play although they are not serious about the game because they can still hold their own and there is nothing else much that interests them.   When basketball or some other event conflicts with their rec softball games, they choose the other activity which causes teams to have trouble fielding 9.   There are fewer and fewer teams and age groups are often combined in order to have enough teams with enough kids to play games.

This is the rec softball pyramid.   We start out with too many kids to count at age 7 or 8 and end up with too few kids to bother counting by 15 and 16.   Competition stinks in the early ages.   It gets marginally better in older ones and then degrades as the number of participants depletes.   It is a shame for a truly great game.

But what do we do about it?   Like I said, right now is the planning stage for many rec programs.   If I have accurately described rec softball, ultimately, We can really do only one of two things.   We can leave it alone and assume nothing will make it any better, or fooling with it might make it worse.   Or we can try to make some positive changes.   What some of these changes could be are the subject of today's discussion.

Some leagues divide up the girls between 8U and 10U or 8-9 and 10U while some have leagues where 7 and under are relegated to tee ball while everyone over 8 and under 10 plays in a single league.   The differences in coordination, strength, athleticism, etc. between a youngish 9 (let alone 8) and an older 10 is considerable.   IMHO, girls aged 8 should not be playing with the 10s.   It would be preferable if programs could establish separate leagues for 8U and 10U, even perhaps divide up the 9s and 10s into competitive and less competitive play.

If for example, you have 8 teams of 10U in which all different skill and age levels are represented, what would be wrong with creating 2 divisions, based partly on age and partly on skill.   These would then play against just 3 other teams rather than having a single 8-team league in which some kid who could not field a grounder or make a decent throw to first must play against another who has played a year of travel ball in addition to rec.   So my first recommendation is to consider dividing up your 10U league into competitive and less competitive divisions.   If you do not wish to do this at 10U for whatever reasons, consider doing it for 12U.

Next, it is almost painful to watch the pitching at 10U in most rec leagues.   Yes, there are some which train their pitchers and that is generally a better league.   Many just conduct tryouts and leave the teams to their own devices.   One team has one great pitcher and many poor ones.   Other teams have decent pitchers who do not walk the world.   But overall, the total quality of pitching is very poor.

Right now, when budgets are being established and plans for the season are being laid out, why not consider addressing the pitching issue?   What you can do is bring in a professional instructor to train a group of pitchers at weekly clinics.   If a professional trainer is not within the realm of budgetary possibility, comsider talking to local high school coaches to get a kid pitching at that level who would volunteer to work with the kids.   Every high schooler who aspires to go to college must perform a minimum number of hours of community volunteering.   This would be a fun way to earn one's required points.

These clinics could be conducted during the late winter months in some school gymnasium or other facility.   Presumably the local rec league can gain access to a school gym for free or some sort of nominal charge.   You get your space, some balls, an instructor and see how things develop.

The pitching clinics should not be some sort of free benefit provided by the league that anyone who wants to come whenever they want to come can feel free to attend.   It should be mandatory for all girls who state they want to pitch in the league.   There could be a nominal fee to cover expenses.   If a professional instructor would accept $200 for a two hour clinic and you were able to squeeze 20 kids into a lesson, $5 - $10 per kid is not bad for one or two hours worth of Saturday afternoon baby sitting for a girl to gain the opportunity to stand in the circle.   Add to this the other costs and divide by 20 or have the league pick up those costs.   The point is, this could be accomplished for very little cost per aspiring pitcher.

One league I have spoken about in the past puts the word out that anyone who wishes to pitch must attend their pitching clinics which have a paid instructor plus some high school volunteers.   A good instructor can easily handle 20 kids but give him 2 high school aged, softball playing girls and everything goes very smoothly.   Attendance is taken at these clinics.   Girls who want to pitch must attend, regardless of excuses provided.   If your clinic consists of 8 to 10 sessions, you might allow any one girl to miss 2 but more than that and they are no longer pitchers.   yes that's tough politically but if you want your league to provide a quality experience, trust me, this is a necessary step.

Girls who attend their own private lessons, could be exempted or have a reduced number of sessions, provided that it is clear that they are actually attending lessons and do not need additional work in a group setting.   This can easily be seen in tryouts or at a first clinic session at which skills are evaluated.   Don't simply accept anyone's word that a particular kid is in lessons and therefore has a valid e4xcuse not to show at your clinics.   Otherwise, you will most certainly see more kids laying claim to being in lessons while your league's pitching improves only a bit.

The point about improving pitching is not merely some way to alleviate parental pain caused by sitting through horrendous walk-fest games.   There is a better reason to take the plunge and do this.   While hitting is very much a mechanical issue that should be addressed in a vacuum, it is also critical for hitters to see decent pitching, as mush as possible.   When walk-fests take place, nobody benefits, not the struggling pitchers, not the bored fielders, not the batters who never get to take swings.   When a league's 10U pitching improves, everybody benefits.   Batters take their cuts.   Fielders field balls because batters are hitting them.   And the game moves along so nobody is caught yawning either in the stands or out in right field.

It should be noted that when 10U pitching improves, 12U games are better too as kids move up having actually pitched somewhat well.   Others have fielded real grounders or flies.   And batters have real experiences of seeing strikes and ripping at them.

As a side note, there is another pitching related issue which can be addressed to improve your local rec league.   That issue can be addressed either in a non-competitive 10U or, if you have a 9U or other pre-10U league, there.   That issue is walks.

One way to deal with the issue is to alter the number of balls required before a batter is walked.   At young ages, 6 might be the magic number which changes the game for the better.   If that doesn't cut down the number of bases on balls, there is another approach which is guaranteed to.   Abolish them.   That is, do not permit walking.   When the pitcher throws 4 or 6 balls, have a coach pitch.

One league we were involved with had a rule which limited walks to 4 per inning.   After that, a coach pitched the rest of the inning.   That did not really work all that well.   Almost every inning began with 4 walks followed by, of course, coaches pitching.   if you want to do that sort of thing, why not put 3 runners on base, give the batting team a run and then have coaches pitch the whole thing?   Of course, this also solves nothing.   So, instead, consider doing away with walks, just at this low level, and allow pitchers to try to throw strikes to each and every batter without facing the risk of boring their teammates to death.

A peripheral issue involves the way teams are set up.   Say you have 8 teams in your league and 16 kids have attended the clinics.   That works out nicely since 2 pitchers could be placed on each team.   But that is never the way it works unless you design it as such.   if you want to improve your league's games along with the pitching, conduct separate drafts of pitchers and other players.   The teams which go first in the pitcher draft go last in the player draft.   And do not allow two parents who also happen to have their kids in pitching lessons to coach on the same team.   Split them up.   I don't really care who is friends with whom.   The league exists for the good of the largest possible number of participants, not to ensure that Sally gets to play with her best friends.

This raises an issue unrelated to generally improving a rec league but I want to address it nonetheless because it is a thorn in my side.   How many times have you seen this kind of thing happen: Matt, Sara's dad who is coaching the Marlins or Phillies has Sara, an ace pitcher on his team.   His daughter knows Jane and Mollie who are very good softball players that can also pitch in a pinch.   They know Maggie, Allie, Kristen and Lauren, also good players.   The group conspires to go to tryouts and not really try.   Matt is able to draft all 6 girls plus his daughter and they crush all comers in the league once games start.   One of the 7 always pitches, another always catches, and the others make up the infield.   They bat 1-7 with the "other girls" filling in remaining spots and sharing tim e on the bench.   This kind of stuff cannot be allowed to go unpunished.   It happens all the time across this nation and most other league participants are hurt in some fashion by it.   Enough of that.   If a league president knows about such shenanigans and is too spineless to put a stop to it, he or she should not be president.

So that is pitching and two related draft issues which could be addressed in order to improve a rec league.   I believe that this issue alone, if it is resolved, will lead to a better rec league.   But I'm going to delve a bit further into other areas because I do not believe resolving this issue alone will lead to better participation, particularly as girls age up.

Another area which can be addressed is fundamental defensive skills.   So many kids progress through rec softball without ever really knowing how to field a ball or make a throw or catch that it is mind boggling.   Kids come out for the lowest levels and coaches do make an effort to teach their teams how to field and throw.   But before long, they come to the conclusion that half the kids can do it and the other half cannot.   They also conclude that the only way they are going to win games is to take the kids who can field and throw, put them in the infield, and then teach them where to throw.   They encourage these more naturally gifted kids to take over control of the game.   If the ball is hit to the outfield and you can get it, go get it.   Don't wait to allow the others to try to make a play.   Just take charge and make every play you possibly can.   While there is nothing wrong with the philosophy of going for everything in general, it can devolve into the old "Bad News Bear" scene in which one kid races back and forth and catches the ball right in front of another kid.   That's not good.

A better approach is to require coaches to teach basic skills.   That's tougher than it sounds since most coaches: A) do not have the slightest idea of what basic skills are, let alone how to teach them; B) see the rec league as a way of raising their own egos or providing their kid with a winning experience; or C) do not want to be told how to coach or structure a practice since they played college ball and the league officials did not.   Leagues must coach their coaches.

If you go watch a very good rec league, one of the elements of play which will strike you is the fundamental skills of the players.   This league might just be blessed with better water or soil which yields a better crop of athletes.   But if that happens year after year, most likely the water and soil have nothing to do with it.   There must be another reason.   Most likely they teach all the participants those fundamental skills.

Many towns have certain requirements their coaches must meet.   They have to attend the safety training class.   They must attend a meeting which tells them that they should emphasize certain things like fun, basic skills, and team work, not winning.   But even when these perfunctory meetings and classes are conducted at which all the good intentions are laid out, nothing much changes.   We have to find a way to force or coerce coaches into teaching sound fundamentals, putting the emphasis on the right thing, or otherwise improving everyone's experience and learning.

The first issue is to make sure coaches know fundamental skills.   For this, perhaps a film session followed by an open discussion would suffice.   There are videos out there which teach fundamentals.   Most are addressed to players but there is no harm in having coaches watch them.   An alternative is to bring in a competent local high school or travel coach.   I say competent because there are plenty of incompetents.   I know of some high school coaches who parents of players would like to sit down and teach the basics of the game to.   If the local high school coach is merely taking additional pay for the least possible amount of effort, perhaps a travel coach would be willing to come in and help out.   If he or she pulls many of their players from the local area, this can only benefit their program.

The second issue is finding a way to make sure the coaches teach the skills to their players.   It is nearly impossible to draft up a specimen practice regimen, require its use, and then enforce the requirement.   Nobody takes kindly to this sort of control from league officials.   But some sort of requirement for teaching skills is absolutely necessary at young ages.

There are a couple ways to resolve the issue.   One is to require coaches to conduct practices of a certain duration consisting of a certain amount (say half of practice) of fundamental skills teaching and practicing.  [; The second half is theirs to do with as they choose.   This can be tough to police unless a league rep can attend practices regularly and watch in order to enforce the rule.   A secojnd, more effective way to enforce the requirement of spending a certain amount of time working fundamental skills is to take away the practice time and put it into "clinic" time.   You have 8 to 16 coaches looking to practice their players.   You have say 160 girls looking to practice.   Rather than conducting separate practices by team, use half the time to conduct clinics at which the team coaches are instructors under the supervision of a coordinator who directs what is to be done, when and how.

A league which, for example, plays its games on Sunday and Wednesday could establish some sort of Saturday clinic schedule and then allow teams no more than one practice outside the clinis per week.   Coaches might work with their players for some of the time but be supervised by league officials or the coordinator while conducting the drills.   There are many ways to conduct these clinis but you can figure this out for yourselves.

As a final comment about clinics as opposed to practices, I find that many leagues do this sort of thing but only at the youngest age levels.   It would be best if these kinds of skills clinics could be continued at least through 10U.   It would be better if they continued up to at least 12U, though in more sophisticated form.

And as a final comment about coaching or policing coaches, some sort of evaluation program should be implemented.   It should be formal and standardized.   It must involve the players, parents or both.   Each participant's family ought to receive an evaluation form concerning how the team was run.   The form should contain a questionnaire which grades coaches ability and willingness to teach fundamental skills.   The questions must be objective such as:

"Fundamental skills" (circle all comments that apply)

"I (my daughter) was taught fundamental skills more than / less than half of all practice time"

"I (my daughter) had ample / insufficient time to learn these skills"

"The coach was knowledgeable / needs work on his understanding of skills / ability to communicate those skills with the kids."

I think you get the idea.   No, I don't have a specimen questionnaire for you to use.   You need to draft one up which mirrors your organization's values.   But keep in mind that you want a high level of participation in the process.   Getting 50% or less of these questionnaires back is not only a good thing, it makes the entire batch completely useless.   You cannot evaluate coaches based on a half return rate.   You need a minimum of 75%.   Also the process must be anonymous.   Specific comments, if you allow parents to provide them, cannot be read back to the coach.   When the process is over, the overall grade is the only thing which you share with the coach.

For example, a coach might be told, you had an overwhelming response which indicated that you do not like to teach fundamentals or you need to work on your communication skills.   A coach might be told that the majority of respondents felt that you put winning too high on your list of priorities.   Again, I think you get the idea and can do for yourselves.

So, these are my suggestions to you to improve your rec league.   I have no vested interest in this.   It really just popped into my head this morning.   I suppose I know where it all came from.   I was discussing some softball issues with a web friend.   He directed me to a forum which discussed all sorts of softball issues in his state.   I was struck by how similar the discussion was to similar forums regarding my state.   I was also struck by how many of the same issues pop up all over the place.

One of the issues which was raised had to do with "how do we bring our state's softball up to the level of California?"   In that discussion, one of the readers wondered why CA players were so good.   All sorts of reasons were givewn and most I take issue with.   For one thing, there is this assumption that the only good ball is played in CA.   Last I looked Florida is making some large inroads.   Further, there is very good softball being played in Texas, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Georgia, etc, (sorry if I missed your state).

For another thing, everyone assumes CA has better softball because it has such great weather.   yes, they do have great weather but not everywhere in the state.   Some places are way too hot to play ball in the summer.   Some places actually get snow.   Some places are just grand to play softball 365 days per year but, you know, I know of some teams that play in colder, less pleasant climates who play over 100 games per year, play indoors whenever the weather is no good, and otherwise ought to be able to compete with CA teams.   Yet there must be other reasons because one particular organization which does this and who I am thinking about is good but hardly the best around.

The fact is CA has been at this fastpitch thing longer than most places.   In my state and many others, girls were playing slowpitch or modified for many decades before they gradually moved over to fastpitch.   Heck, there are some high schools which still play slowpitch in a few places around the country.   Fastpitch hasn't really been around many places for very long.   I think that people either don;t know or forget that colleges in the SEC and ACC have not fielded softball teams for very long, mostly less than two decades.   Until the game has been around for longer and things have sorted themselves out, just a few places will continue to yield the largest, highest quality crop of softball players and teams.   The question cannot be what does CA have that we'll never have which allows them to produce better softball.   The question has to be, what can we learn from other places about how to improve our softball.   One, important place we can improve is the quality of our rec leagues.   If we drastically improve our rec leagues, the entire game in our region will improve.   But not only that, also more and more girls will come to appreciate our game.   More and more girls will have fun p[laying softball well.   That is why I wrote this today.

"Change" is the catchword of today.   We do need to make changes in many aspects of our lives.   It cannot be change for change's sake.   It must be change for the sake of improvement.   I've laid out a few areas in which our rec softball leagues can change.   Pitching is key.   Fundamentals are almost as important.   As you, the league officials, plan for the coming rec season, how about thinking about some positive changes?

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Personal Responsibility

by Dave
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Let's do some simple math.   Your travel team practices 3 times each week for 2 hours or a total of 6 hours (360 minutes).   Let's assume there are 12 kids on the roster and 3 or 4 coaches.   Let's also assume that the practice is broken down into one-third game situational defense like outfield cutoffs and infield practice; one-third batting; and the remainder for defensive drill stations.   What are the results on a per kid basis?

If batting practice is conducted in two stations, there are a total of 240 minutes of batting practice and, with 12 kids, that means each one gets 20 minutes per week.   The same is true for defensive drilling stations.   Team situation defense involves everyone and is probably the most important part of the process but dividing the thing evenly for simplicity sake yields 10 minutes per week per player.   Your travel softball playing kid, if her only practice is the team practice, gets 50 minutes per week to play the most complex game on the planet.

Maybe your team practices more than 3 times per week or for longer than 2 hours.   If they practice for double the 6 hours I am using, you get a grand total of a little over an hour and a half.   That's per week!   If a girl practices like that year round, she gets essentially the equivalent of one or two "work weeks" each year to perfect all her hitting, fielding, baserunning and batting skills.

Well, there are also all those games which fill your entire schedule of free time, aren't there?   Let's assume that in addition to the practices, your team plays 10 tournaments with an average of 5 games each.   That's 50 games, each lasting an hour and a half.   Each game probably involves 3 at-bats, a single at-bat lasting 4 pitches or so for about a minute, minute and a half.   If you get three balls hit to you in the field per game, that's a lot.   Each fielding experience lasts seconds.   So if we tally up the total time used actually in action during games, we get about 5 minutes per game times 5 games per tournament times 10 tournaments, or another 4 hours per year.   If you double the number of games due to some leagues and/or scrimmages, you still only get a grand total of 8 hours and adding that to the practices doesn't really make a dent in the overall figure.

So where am I going with this silly calculation about the amount of time spent in action on the softball diamond?   My point is this amount of time is just not enough.   You cannot get good at something by working really hard at it for one or two weeks per year.   Children work at fundamental mathematical skills for an hour a day, 200 days per year for years and years before they are able to start approaching simple algebra problems.   Times tables alone take half a year of working an hour a day in school and about the same afterwards.   School is certainly more important than softball but playing softball well is probably as hard as algebra.

If we take a glance at pitchers, we see that at the lowest levels of travel ball, they practice at least 2 hours per week and then get another 2 to 3 hours of game time, if they pitch a lot.   A few aces on teams otherwise without pitchers get more.   Many get less.   As you climb the ranks and view top level pitchers, they practice their craft far more than that and they do this year round.   But we're not talking about pitchers today.   We're talking about infielders and outfielders, the third baseman or shortstop, the catcher, centerfielder or anyone else who ventures onto the diamond.   These players get to practice their craft just a couple weeks per year unless they find ways outside of team practice to work on skills.   And, again, that's just not enough to really excel.

So what's a girl to do if she isn't the pitcher or doesn't get to go away to softball camp?   How can she separate herself from the pack and be all that she can be?

If I were to try to figure out the one skill which is most important to a young softball player's success, I think I'd settle on throwing.   The first thing anyone notices about a girl in tryouts is the strength and accuracy of her arm.   That may not be the element of a particular player's game which makes the difference between being cut or making the team, playing or sitting the bench, but it is probably the first thing anyone notices.   And if you do the things needed to really strengthen the throwing arm, other skills seem to follow.

Playing catch in the yard 4 times a week for half an hour is not very much work.   Yet if you do just that for the six months of the year which are warm enough to throw without a winter coat in most of this country, that adds almost 50% to your annual practice regimen.   Half of that time, strictly speaking, involves the exercise of throwing and the other half is a hand-eye coordination drill.   This sport is hand-eye coordination driven.   Anything you can do to improve your hand-eye coordination has immediate benefits.

The next most important skill is probably hitting.   If you can hit, I mean really hit, any team is going to find a place for you to play.   Using a hitting stick or a batting tee with whiffle balls for 15 minutes yields about 100 swings.   If you get 100 swings in during the course of a batting practice, that's probably a lot.   If a girl plays 50 games where she gets up to bat 3 times and swings twice in each at-bat, that yields 150 swings.   Do I need to say more?   15 minutes in your yard with a batting tee can approximately simulate the experience of an entire batting practice or a season's worth of swings.   Now there is no question that an actual at-bat is an entirely different experience than taking hacks at the tee.   Yet swinging is a motor memory skill and you cannot just walk up to the plate with two on and two out and learn to hit.   You've got to develop your swing before you take real at-bats.   It has to be automatic.   The more automatic it is, the more likely you'll succeed in real at-bats.

The mechanics of fielding a ground ball or pop-up, or just making a catch of the thrown ball are fairly simple.   Yet everytime I see a girl go to field a grounder in practice, I see the same mistakes made over and over again.   I correct them and try to get the right moves performed.   Usually a player will listen intently and then perform the skill the right way for about 3 tries.   Then we move on to something else.   A few days later, we're in practice again and the same girls are making the same mistake.   That's understandable since motor memory takes thousands of repetitions to grab hold, but what did this girl do in the two days between practice?   Did she play catch for a half hour on either or both of the days?   Probably not.   Did she even pick up a ball?   Probably not.

The reason I'm writing this piece today is we had practice last night.   Only a few girls showed because there are school graduations, the practice was thrown together at the last minute, and because these kids just have other things they have to do.   I understand that and I'm not upset about turnout.   But what upsets me is the few kids who were in practice, the ones who made an effort to come out against all the odds, these few dedicated souls, showed signs of not having picked up a ball since our last practice.   And this made me wonder about those kids who couldn't fit a practice into their busy schedules.   How much did they work on their softball skills during the off days?   The thing that realy gets under my skin is the player who wants to ..., yet is completely unwilling to play a simple game of catch in the yard for a couple minutes each day in order to improve herself enough to earn it.

In a completely unrelated yet somehow amazingly similar matter, I have often heard the same kind of comments I hear as a softball coach in regards to my means of earning a living.   A long time ago, I started a hobby.   That hobby involved a pursuit which lent itself to internet publishing.   I had a full time job of 50+ hours per week and a daily 4 hours spent commuting.   Somehow I learned to create a web site about this hobby.   I would get up around 5 in the morning to work on my site.   I would then shower and head off to work but my commute was made aboard a train so I figured out how I could continue to work on the web site during that time.   I could have slept like many of my fellow commuters.   I could have gotten involved with the card game in the back of my train.   I could have engaged in pleasant conversation or called every human being I know via the cellphone like the guy sitting next to me.   Instead I chose to work on my web site until I had to disembark.

After my commute, I would work at my job until noon or one.   Then I would eat lunch at my desk and have almost an entire hour to spend on my hobby.   The work day would end, I'd board the train, and voila, I had an another hour or two to work on the site.   I'd come home, eat dinner with my family, play with the kids, and do all those other ordinary things.   After that, I'd usually get another two hours or so to work on the site.   By the end of your typical day I would have spent 7 hours working on the darned web site.   I'd sometimes work the entire weekend on it.   I had two fulltime jobs!   I did this for years just for fun until one day I learned I could make money from that site.

It wasn't easy to make money via this web site I had built from the ground up.   But as I worked on the thing and people came and visited the site in greater and greater numbers, my earnings increased.   I made a few friends along the way who taught me some things.   I picked up a little here and a little there until I knew how to manage a server and write some code to do the things I wanted the site to do.   Prior to this time I had never had a decent computer course.   My college days were one step ahead of the computer revolution.   Every time I took a class, the next year it was offered in a different format - one involving automation!   But I found I could learn HTML and Javascript by self-teaching, by looking behind the curtain and emulating what other people had done.   I learned how to place ads in certain ways to get more people to click them.

One day I turned around to find I was making more money from the web site than I was earning from my full time job.   So I quit the day job and went to work for myself.   Every time I am at a picnic or some other get together, somebody learns what I do for a living and then makes a comment like, "I have this really great idea for a web site and I'm just wondering what it will take for me to develop it.   I don't know anything about web sites but, to be honest, I'd like to do what you're doing.   It must be great to not have to work for a living!"

Usually I don't let such ignorant comments ruin my mood.   Most often I reply with something like, "It only took me ten years of working like a dog during all my free time to make this happen.   You can do it too.   Anyone can."   As an aside, this softball site is not a money maker for me.   I do it because I love it.   We couldn't pay our Applebees-after-tournament bill with the amount I make from this site.   My real site is much larger and time consuming than this one.

That's probably too much information.   My point is, anyone can do just about anything in life including learning algebra, playing softball, or making their living from home on a laptop.   It just requires a little persistence and the willingness to work at something long enough to get proficient.   Softball is as complicated and difficult as any pursuit.   It takes a lot of time but that time can be split up over a long period so as not to cut into other things.   Still, one must practice in order to be proficient.   One must take personal responsibility for one's skills.

There are a lot of kids out there playing this sport.   Some are pretty good at it.   A few are outstanding.   If you go to a tournament this weekend and take a look around at all the players, chances are decent that you'll only see a couple dozen who are actually better than you.   A very small portion of the kids in your age group will be significantly better than you.   You can easily make yourself stick out as one of the real players by taking some steps today.   But you'll have to take those same steps tomorrow and the day after that.   You'll have to be willing to find time to practice the things needed to improve your game.   But, if you want to be good at this, it is entirely worth the effort.   Now go outside and play catch for a half hour.   Then do it again tomorrow.   The next day you can do 15 minutes worth of batting practice and then find someone to throw or hit you some grounders.   Take some responsibility for yourself now and learn how much fun that can be.

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Alternative To Private Lessons?

by Dave
Friday, January 05, 2007

A visitor to this site writes in requesting feedback as follows:

This is an e-mail I sent to YYYYY (fastpitch pitching school) - sounds a lot like the type of outfit you mention in your article about getting lessons for your kids (helpful stuff) so I figured I would send it to you to and see what you think:

My daughter is a three sport athlete already (in 6th grade, age 12).   She loves both Softball and Soccer and is very good at both (softball is her love), only 6th grade starter on her middle school team this year.   In softball last year she was clearly the best girl on the team and simply because of athletic ability the coach started using her as a pitcher - so I sent her to a coach a couple of times and did 1 mini clinic to get some basics down.   She likes to pitch and has the head and the physical tools to do it so I want to get her some instruction and wanted to see what you have to say ...... what would your approach be - I don't have thousands of dollars to put toward this (I have 3 other kids who also are in sports).   Do you have something that would work for us?   Or should I just go to another type of place and do a winter clinic?   She is my oldest and I have never done this sort of thing before.   I have always been an athlete but was self taught and coached at school (the problem is that the coaches she has know less than I do).   I appreciate your feedback

Hi Ike,

Yours is an interesting yet fairly typical question.   I'm not sure I have a satisfactory answer for you - one you'll like - but I'll try.   Here goes:

First off, I was also an athlete who was also "self-taught" in the sense that I had to make do with the available coaches at whatever level.   But with 20-20 hindsight, I can see that this was not nearly enough unless I was lucky enough to find a really good coach.   I competed in football, baseball and swimming from a fairly young age through my first years of college.   My experiences in various sports led me to the conclusion that coaching, particularly with respect to fundamental skills, is the key to success.   Where I had good coaching, I functioned at a higher level.   Where I did not, my athletic ability was wasted.

Aside from my personal experiences in sport, I believe what I have seen since has even greater bearing on the question.   When I was a kid, swimming was extremely organized but football and baseball were not.   Swimming had high level "club" teams which practiced 3 to 9 times each week (sometimes two a day practices) and many did so year round.   Baseball and football were seasonal and lacked the club structure of swimming and several other sports like ice hockey, figure skating, gymnastics and a few others.   Nowadays, almost every sport has club teams, private instructions, etc.   It isn't the same sports world you or I grew up in.

Nowhere, at least to me, is this more apparent than it is in the world of girls fastpitch softball.   Girls attend group and private lessons for catching, pitching, infielding, hitting, etc.   They also go to many camps where high level instruction is available.   They are far better at this game than their forerunners were.

I fully understand that you have other kids and cannot pump "thousands of dollars" into teaching your daughter to pitch.   But the fact is, there are many out there who can and will do exactly that.   I'm familiar with YYYYY fastpitch pitching school and that is what they do - provide group and personal instruction to girls who want to be great, not just good.

One of YYYYY's students is CCCCC who is in her senior year and will probably break the state HS strike-out record this year.   She sees a few coaches including BBBBB at YYYYY.   She's just signed for a full scholarship with FFFFF, a first rate Div I program.   Right now I believe she's down in Florida pitching at the Rising Stars showcase tournament where the best college coaches are looking to find recruits.   She's already got her college plans lined up but she's down at the showcase anyways because her college coach wants to check her development.

Welcome to the world of fastpitch softball!

As I said, many big-time pitchers go to places like YYYYY.   They are gifted athletes who probably have a similar experience to what your daughter has had so far but in addition to that, they go to private coaches, sometimes twice a week, and practice like nothing else you have ever seen.   If you've never seen CCCCC workout, you should.   The girl takes an hour to warm up and then goes for an hour-long lesson when she can fit them in.   If she hasn't thrown very well during that lesson, her father will sometimes make her throw for an additional hour afterwards.   It is a sight to behold.   Three hours of practice!   And my guess is she does that most days.

Another girl I have seen pitch was a HS freshman last year and started most of the time for her high school team.   She goes to twice a week lessons and spends the rest of her "free" time practicing.   I once watched her warmup before a championship game and it was incredible.   The girl began by throwing about 100 fastballs and then 50 of each of her other 5 pitches.   She was having trouble with one particular pitch so she threw 100 more of those.   Then after more than an hour of warmups, she was ready to pitch in the game.   The girl is a machine!

My point here is this is what it takes in high level girls fastpitch softball.   It isn't enough to be athletically gifted.   You have to have serious coaching and practice like a demon.   All the gifted athletes who choose pitching and then make a name for themselves are also working very hard at their craft.   They fit lessons in when they can and don't simply rely on good athleticism.

You talk about school ball and while you note that your daughter was very good on her team, you lament that the coaching is poor.   This is typical.   But this is also why the top school teams do not become top teams merely because of coaching.   The top high school teams around the country become top teams because their girls take lessons and compete in high level club travel softball.   The girls do not excel because of the school coaches - they do so in spite of them.   Now, there are some outstanding school coaches and their abilities do make a difference.   But most of their players are already gifted athletes who played travel, got private instruction, practiced like demons and then sought out these coaches in one way or another.

As it happens, I coach a middle of the road 12U travel team.   I say middle of the road because we don't draw the best girls, even from our own area.   We'll probably win about half our games but we won't win any competitive tournaments.

Think of travel teams like this: There are teams like us every 4 or 5 towns.   We're better than all-star teams but we are strictly speaking a "B" or "C" team.   Typically within any given county, there is one very good travel club.   I call these "A-" teams.   And every couple counties or so, there is one elite team which I refer to as "true A" teams.   Of the elite teams in your state, a handful are top level and can compete on a national level.   They may not win or even reach the top few of elite national competition but they can compete with those who do.

The best teams will draw kids from a broad geographic area and practice three times a week in addition to the private instruction and practicing their kids do on their own, especially the pitchers.   But even on my middle of the road team, I won't even try out a girl for pitching unless she takes private lessons, preferably year round, and practices a minimum of two times a week in addition to her lessons, again preferably year round.   I've turned down girls who take private lessons year round because they haven't developed enough.   Even those who are on the team may not see that much action.   The ones who will see the majority of time in the circle will be very committed and perhaps destined to eventually make it to "A" level.

I'm trying to lead this conversation in a direction away from school ball for a particular reason.   School ball is nothing compared to high level travel or tournament ball.   Being the best on your school team, even at a young age, doesn't necessarily lead to ultimate success in high school or beyond.   In fact college coaches for the most part do not scout high school games.   That would be a waste of their precious little time and high school season takes place at the same time college teams are busy with their own games.   Instead they attend showcase tournaments like the one currently in Florida and, for example, the Team NJ one near you during the summer:

Let me put it succinctly, if you are after a possible college scholarship for your kid, school ball is not the way to obtain one.

But let's assume you are not after a scholarship since most softball parents are not.   Maybe you don't need to go after private instruction and maniacal practicing regimens.   But you should be aware that somebody in your neighborhood or town might be doing just that.   I have seen a number of girls who were good softball players and at young ages were "star pitchers" on their local and middle school teams.   Then, when they got to high school, they discovered this other girl who has been taking lessons and preparing for a higher level softball career.   Maybe she didn't bother playing local rec leagues or didn't have time to fit in the middle school team because she was tied up with private lessons and travel ball.   Whatever the reason, she is now the high school's ace pitcher and has supplanted your kid.   Your kid's high school softball experience involves playing an unfamiliar position or perhaps even riding the bench.   Hey, it happens.

Camp yourself outside any softball academy for 24 hours and watch how many kids come and go.   And that's just in your town.   Are these kids going to be competing with your daughter?   Maybe.

OK, so I've explained that I am predisposed towards high quality coaching, including private instruction.   I've told you about how hard top level athletes in this sport work.   I've explained that school ball is not at all similar to what you may have experienced as a player a generation ago.   Today, you don't get a college scholarship to play softball by being an excellent high school pitcher.   You get attention via travel ball playing at showcases.   I've also explained that if a player's aspirations do not extend past high school ball, she may still need private instruction just to get playing time.   But you've said, you just cannot afford private instruction so here is what I recommend you do:

First off, put your daughter into every group pitching clinic at these pitching schools you can.   She will not get the kind of instruction she would but she will get more benefit than merely winging it on her own.   You can probably keep her in clinic year round with less than $100 per month.   An alternative to using clinics is to find a local high school or college pitcher who wants to make a few bucks teaching your daughter.   Those who can do something like pitching cannot always convert that into teaching skills but if you find someone who has spent years in lessons and wants to start coaching, you might just get lucky and find a diamond in the rough.   I would think you could get away with as little as $15 - $25 for a half hour private lesson.

Next up figure out a way in which your daughter can practice the things she has learned at clinics.   If you're contemplating finishing your large basement, think again.   Leave it bare and put up some space in which your daughter can practice.   That'll probably cost you a few hundred for a pitching mat with rubber and some nets.   But that's all that should be necessary.   Now encourage her to practice at least two times per week in addition to the clinics, preferably more frequently than that.

Now go out and find yourself instructional books and videotapes which teach pitching.   Learn everything you can from these materials and assuming you attend those clinics with your daughter, learn what you can from there.   Essentially, in lieu of being able to put your daughter through private instruction, become your daughter's private pitching instructor.

Now practice, practice, practice.

Once you've begun this process, get your daughter involved in club travel.   Find a reasonable team to start, learn whatever you can, and then work towards getting her on a more competitive team.

This is the best advice I can give you.   My opinion is private coaching is the best way.   But if you can't do that, you can't and you must find something else to replace it.   In any event, best of luck to you.

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