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Traditionally in Fastpitch softball; February and March is the period of the season that each team is adding final preparations to a rock solid line-up and preparing for the sprint to Fall.. Schedules are being tweaked to add this showcase or that qualifier. The tournament line-up has to be perfect to develop a pitchers new pitch, or sync the catcher and the pitcher, or build team esteem. There seems to be a mad-dash to become the “best” tournament in the United States this year. Three parts of a tournament, value, competition, and exposure need to fit your teams’ goals and commitment level, to be beneficial to the success of your team.
Value can be assessed in different categories. The obvious is the amount of money. This is only a question you as a head coach or team manager can answer. There are many factors to consider, when analyzing a tournament fee. Will there be additional costs with travel fees, lodging fees, umpire fees, or gate fees? Do you have to pay for any specialty events at the tournament? Each tournament is different and unique, so ask the questions. The value in the cost really boils down to two factors: Can your team afford this tournament and will it be beneficial to your team.
Competition is probably the main factor to consider when researching your schedule. The first question (and most important) to ask and answer is what level is your team playing at now? Seek out tournaments that have competition slightly above your teams’ abilities. Two of the worst choices, you can make for your team, is to commit to a tournament that is either below your level or way above your level. All caliber of tournaments are being offered these days. Will the athletes you coach, have the opportunity to show their particular skill set? Some of the upper level tournaments are extremely difficult to enter, for a plethora of reasons. Some may not entertain your application because you are not part of a club system, or you played at a lower level the previous season, or you did not place in an “A” level nationals. This is OK because each team is different and unique. There are plenty of teams out there that offer your team the ability to improve and build confidence. There are benefits in choosing the correct competition level.
Exposure tournaments is another part of the equation, you need to consider in the 14U thru 18U age groups. Exposure will afford your athletes the ability to possibly pursue a college degree. One of the key elements of exposure is college coaches want to see the athletes skill set, being used under duress. This is difficult to attain if you are playing in a 5 game round robin tournament with no competitive side of the tournament. Showcase tournaments are migrating to a poll play into bracket play scenario. Identify showcase tournaments, that offer this type of play. This offers you the ability to showcase the talent on your team and allows the athletes to play for goal. Exposure tournaments become beneficial when the correct level and style are matched to your team.
Remember there are many tournaments out there with varying levels of cost, competition and exposure. The challenge is to correctly identify the proper tournament for your team and the value that is added to your team.
An unhealthy perspective in sports says “win at all costs; the score is the only concern.” If you do not win, does this make you a loser? Absolutely not, but socialization into 21st Century America teaches many athletes to feel this way. Our culture consistently promotes the false premise that winning is all that matters. The idea that your self-worth depends on your achievement is a distorted belief. Your value as a person does not fluctuate at all based on your daily sport performances. It is immeasurably immense, a birthright that can never be diminished.
Perspective is the “ability to see things in a true relationship” to one another. It can also mean, “a specific point of view in understanding things or events.” Is your way of looking at events honest? Is it the most useful way to look at the truth? Athletes find all sorts of ways to keep themselves from performing at their best and all of them are related in one way or another to a flawed perspective. To improve faster, lead effectively, and perform well through adversity and pressure, athletes need to look at life in a way that is both true and useful. True, because you will not be able to lie to yourself; useful, because there are two sides to every coin. While both sides of the coin are true, only one way of explaining life is the most useful for creating confidence and an ideal internal state.
The first step to a healthy perspective about sports is to recognize that it is just a game. Sports pose no life-or-death propositions. Parents will not stop loving because of what happens today. Athletes in “big” moments on television may have literally millions of eyes on them, and they are sometimes “tough” enough to perform as though they have not a care in the world. Attend a little league game and you are likely to see a few nine-year-olds carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. The source of these polar opposites is not the situation, but the way the athlete perceives the situation. A healthy perspective will empower you with the freedom to be totally engrossed in the moment.
An ideal perspective recognizes that how things go in competition today is important, but it is not nearly as important as knowing who I am. Performance outcomes provide feedback. They reveal the truth about what works and what does not work. However, no single outcome should ever be given too much importance. No loss should ever be seen as a catastrophe. No “failure” should be allowed to carry an emotional scar of inadequacy. Fear of failure, which everyone has to some degree, should not interfere with performance because when you have a healthy perspective on the game, you know that by putting forth great effort, you cannot fail. In fact, you are already successful if you design, practice, and execute your plans (routines) to the best of your ability.
Winning is far better than the alternative, but the “winning is everything” perspective is a problem because it does not encourage effort if the victory can be obtained easily. It also does not encourage effort if maximum effort is not perceived to be likely to lead to winning. Not giving your best effort is not only easier, it is also typically perceived to be safer. Most athletes need and keep this safety net for their psyche. They do not go all out because they do not know what would happen and they fear that their best is not good enough. Leaders do not know what will happen either, but because of their perspective on success, they do not fear the unknown. They do not need a safety net. They share John Wooden’s definition of success: “the peace of mind that comes from knowing you did your best.” They know that their best effort is always good enough. Golfer Greg Norman said it well when he reported after a tough loss, “I am a winner. I just didn’t win today.”
An attitude of gratitude is a key perspective for success in sports, as in life. Being thankful improves the heart's rhythmic functioning, which reduces stress, promotes clarity of thought, and aids the healing process. It is physiologically impossible to feel stressful and grateful at the same time. Grateful athletes are more relaxed, more coachable, more forgiving, more present to the task at hand, and generally more positive than their counterparts. They are less likely to complain. Author Jon Gordon says, “Remember that complaining is like vomiting. Afterwards you feel better but everyone around you feels sick.” Leaders live out the words of John Wooden, “Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t make excuses.” Leaders are consistently grateful.
It is not difficult to maintain an attitude of gratitude, even through adversity on the diamond, because you and I won the lottery when we were born. That’s right, based on nothing but luck, we beat the odds at greater than 10,000,000:1 and we are rich as a result. And healthy and free, too. Think about it. If we could have been born at any time in any place in history, it is likely that we would have either not survived infancy, died in a war, been a slave, or perhaps struggled in poverty through a relatively long life into our thirties or forties. It’s more common, of course, to compare our lives to our neighbors’ lives. The grass typically appears greener on the other side, but comparison is a choice. Choosing to count our blessings every day is wise.
When you are off track from where you want to be during a contest (perhaps you are angry with yourself or someone else for making a mistake), the first step to getting back on track is awareness. Then, it is your responsibility to gather yourself to get back on track. A pre-planned gathering routine to make this happen is a great idea. One step of this plan that may be very powerful for you is a power phrase or image that fills you with gratitude or reminds you that softball is just a game that provides you with challenges. Perhaps you think, “This is a great opportunity to not only play softball, but also work on my toughness and consistency.” Perhaps you imagine a grandparent watching over you. It is your job to find the tools that work for you.
Every athlete experiences many challenges and setbacks along the journey to find out how good he can be. With a healthy perspective, you will remember to think like a scientist racing to perform your best and view each obstacle as a stepping-stone to success. You will compete, with yourself first and foremost, freely. Challenges and pitfalls provide motivation for you to get better, faster; they should not be viewed negatively. You are finding out which things work so you can repeat them and which things could be done better so you can change those. Outcomes are no longer bad or good, they are both bad and good. They give you a chance to learn, and also to demonstrate your ability to avoid the negative snowball effect. Clearly, if you and your teammates use mistakes rather than letting them use you, this will give your team an edge over your competition. Yes, mistakes are good. Because of your healthy perspective, you improve at asking and answering the ultimate questions of life: Where am I? Where do I want to go? And, how do I get there?
Now that’s not something you read very often, nor something I’ve ever written before. However, I thought it was a great attention getter and pretty much sums up this month’s video.
Last month you’ll recall we looked at all of the ways that players are injured while attempting to slide and how they can be avoided. The number one safety issue is keeping your extended knee bent so your leg can give. After that it all comes down to distributing your body weight so that you can over come friction and actually slide.
Perhaps you’ve been part of a team or seen pictures/videos online of teams that practice sliding using a slip and slide. They are fun and certainly work well with the concept of team building and a cookout perhaps I don’t really like idea of practicing sliding in that way. Nor do I like the cardboard box and socks approach. I’m not scroogish against players having fun it’s just that both of those techniques allow you to slide anyway you want including ways that on a ball field will cause a lot of friction or cause serious injury.
My fundamental philosophy for anything is to practice the way you expect to play in the game. So this month Caitlin and Walker and of course YOU will be doing lots of sliding on the field. In a game you may end up sliding 2-3 times at most. During the course of a tournament you might slide 10 times. During the filming of this video the girls probably slid 60+ times. That’s a lot of friction that they incurred. That’s a lot of friction that you will incur as you put in the time learning how to truly distribute your weight. So my best advice … you guessed … is to protect your booty. I want your body to feel the friction. Get stuck in it if need be. But I don’t want you to needlessly burn yourself from the repetitiveness of what you’ll be doing this month.
Unlike most other drills I’ve asked you to practice the ones this month are going to require you to have 2 people who can help you and they will need a bat. Coaches if you are watching this is the perfect type of practice to involve as many parents as possible. As long as you let them know to bend their knees and hold the bat below their waist just about anyone can do the holding.
Practice is the best teacher has never been more true than for what you’ll be working on this month. In the first drill players will be on the ground in their figure 4 position and will reach up to hold the bat. The first thing I want you to learn this month is how to truly distribute your weight and that involves arching your back and extending at the same time. You will need to use the bat as leverage just like you would swing on the monkey bars or something. Now you know why I have the players with me … you will understand much better when you watch them. What you’ll find is that eventually you will get the timing correct and you’ll be exploding forward even though you have to overcome an enormous amount of friction because your booty is glued to the ground to start with. It may take you 3 times to get it, or it may take you 20 times to get it. Don’t move on until you do.
Once you have that I’m going to do you a huge favor I’m going to let you start without any friction holding you. But don’t get to excited because again it’s hard for me to explain with just words. You are going to start out standing up and holding the bat. The leg you extend for sliding is going to be leaned way back and then you are going to swing it under the bat and go into a slide. That had to be painful to read, because it was painful to write. If you email me I will thank Caitlin and Walker for you because when you see them it will make total sense. The purpose of this drill should be really obvious … help you realize that once you can overcome friction sliding becomes really easy. As with the first drill please don’t move on until you really have it and can repeat it several times without messing up. That’s called building muscle memory.
The next step in your progression this month is realizing that with speed this drill becomes so much easier. For this drill you will stand about 5 feet from the bat, run at it, grab it and then do your slide. Don’t cheat this part of the drill. If I wanted you to be in a stopped position before your slide I would have had you just do drill number 2 for the rest of your life. As you go faster and faster to the bat if you don’t slow down you are going to feel yourself actually sliding across the ground. As you get more and more comfortable then feel free to step back about 10 feet from the bat instead of just 5 and go full speed.
Be sure as you are doing these drills that you hold onto the bat. Don’t let go until you are stopped and ready to stand back up. If you are doing them correctly you will feel yourself jerking to a stop because your hands are on the bat. Instead of doing a seat drop you are now actually sliding across the ground and your arms are holding you back. Here is the cool part … you are just getting started with the weight distribution. Once you let go you are going to sail across the ground. Oh baby that’s going to be fun.
But wait I’m getting ahead of myself. I need you to have a helmet on before we get to that. So next month have your helmet ready so that we can finish this up. Wooo hooo.
In 1996, I was lucky enough to lead a research team in collecting high-speed video of the pitchers participating at the first ever Olympic softball competition in Columbus, GA. From the high-speed (120 frames per second) video we were able to calculate kinematic (i.e. location, speed, acceleration) and kinetic (i.e. joint forces and torques) parameters of the pitches. In Biomechanics we use these parameters to better understand human movement. Sport Biomechanics strives to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury through such analyses. Not much quantitative information is available in softball, especially on highly-skilled pitchers, so this was an important study. This month I will share with you some of the relevant findings of our study.
From the video data we sought to better understand the mechanics and joint stresses in windmill pitching. Average ball speed for the riseballs thrown by the 24 pitchers we studied was 60 mph. We chose to study riseballs because all of the pitchers threw that particular pitch. If the ball was released 38 feet (it's probably more like 35 feet!) from home plate, the batter would have approximately 0.40 second (just under one half of a second) to react to the ball once it was released. The shortest time in which a human can react to a stimulus is 0.12 second!
The main emphasis of the Olympic study was to quantify joint stress. In particular, we were interested in elbow and shoulder loads in windmill pitching. A joint force is a representation of a “push” or “pull” on the joint. In Biomechanics we line these forces up with axes of the body to provide a more meaningful interpretation. For example, a force oriented along the upper arm tends to either push the upper arm into the shoulder joint (compression) or pull it away from the joint (distraction).
Forces are calculated as a percentage of body weight so that all pitchers, regardless of size, can be compared to one another. Maximum shoulder distraction force for the Olympic pitchers was 80% body weight. This corresponded to approximately 150 pounds of force acting to pull the upper arm away from the shoulder joint at ball release.
A distraction force was also found at the elbow near ball release. This force was directed along the forearm, and therefore acted to “pull” the forearm away from the elbow. Average elbow distraction force was 61% body weight. The average elbow angle at release was 30 degrees short of full extension.
Based on this data it seems that elbow and shoulder stresses are high during the windmill pitch. Over time, the loads that these pitchers are taking on their arms will certainly affect the muscles, tendons and ligaments of these joints. Although we need to carry out more research to be able to make more generalizable conclusions, it seems that pitching mechanics can affect these joint stresses. In particular, using the trunk and lower body to generate and transfer energy during the pitch to assist in propelling the ball can reduce the load on the arm. Proper follow through also aids in dissipating these loads after ball release.
For a long time it has been said that softball pitching is a “natural” motion and that it was much easier on the arm than overhand throwing. The joint stresses found for the Olympic pitchers do not support this contention. At this point we are just beginning to understand what goes on in pitching. Until we get more concrete conclusions it is important for young pitchers to learn pitching styles based on sound mechanical principles and to understand the importance of strengthening the arms, legs and trunk.
Win with class, lose with class, and always respect your opponent.