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The 2013 NFCA Convention was absolutely incredible! The best and brightest in the fastpitch world come together annually for this action-packed event.
This convention featured a talk by University of Florida Head Coach, Tim Walton, entitled “The Working Relationship Between Coaches and Hitters”. His words of wisdom were not focused on the fundamentals of hitting but on communication: communication between hitters and coaches and hitters’ internal conversations with themselves.
Many of his statements were simple, yet quite profound! I will share his thoughts and expand with some of my own.
“Work on strengths, not only on weaknesses.” –Tim Walton
ESPN the Magazine has analyzed high profile athletes, seeking to determine if top level competitors are, as most would claim, over-paid. Through pages and pages of statistical analysis and explanation, the experts concluded that top athletes are actually under, not over-paid.
Rationalizing that someone can be underpaid by $ millions per year to hit a baseball or catch a football sounds absurd. The answer, however, lies in the basic principles of economics: supply and demand.
You see, ESPN Magazine determined, “the more unusual the skill and the harder it is to replace, the higher its price will be.”
No one can consistently execute at the level which top-paid athletes perform. Their skills generate billions of dollars throughout the US and around the world, and no one can consistently do what they do.
The demand for professional sports is ever-increasing and the supply of top athletes is comparatively small. Therefore, top athletes earn top salaries.
Granted, the dollars paid and generated in female athletics are many times laughable compared to equally skilled male competitors, but do not miss the point chasing political rabbits!
Top performing athletes are usually very good at one skill or a set of related skills. A center in the NBA may hang its hat on rebounds and blocks, while a point guard earns his money handling the ball and a 3 guard finds his value in stellar 3-point shooting.
Sure, all of these players can perform all skills required in the game: dribbling, shooting, passing, rebounding, defense etc. NBA players can perform these skills at a comparatively high level. It is definitely valuable to be a well-rounded player and all around athlete. This concept applies to fastpitch softball, as well.
However, the best players have found their niche, their wheelhouse. They have fully developed their strengths.
The best quarterbacks in the world are not simultaneously the best kickers. Each player has his role and has developed his ability in one particular area to its fullest.
As hitters, we sometimes become too perfectionistic. We want every pitch to be our best pitch. We want to be the power hitter, the hitter for high average, a short game player and the base on balls leader… all at the same time! It is as if we want to be the quarterback and kicker all in one.
Yes, fundamentals are important, and yes there is a time and place to develop our weaknesses and improve skills in multiple areas. Ultimately, however, hitters must understand their strengths and develop them relentlessly.
In areas of natural advantage, cultivate those strengths to the point that no one can duplicate them. Even in the world of college recruiting for fastpitch players, “the more unusual the skill and the harder it is to replace, the higher its price will be.” –ESPN Magazine
Focusing on strengths more than weaknesses is counterintuitive but will allow players to increase their price. Hitters who can hit the ball 300 feet may strike out more than those who lead the team in on base percentage, and that is ok!
When hitters can do one thing better than anyone else, they create their niche. They make themselves irreplaceable. Riches are in niches (metaphorically speaking)! Most hitters cannot be the best at everything, but they can work to be better than anyone else at something. That area of strength could be a player’s ticket to great success.
Coach Walton pointed out that when using video analysis, most hitters are looking for mistakes in the video. Hitters can be so focused on their weaknesses that they forget to hone the strengths! When using video, be sure to look for the good in the swing, in addition to the bad.
Visualize and feel the good. File away the good aspects of the swing for recall and mental practice.
“It is not necessary to always work on something [negative],” Tim says. “Sometimes hitters can just get their reps and feel the timing.” This can allow players to fine-tune their strengths and really feel their swings.
Feeling the swing is absolutely necessary! I almost jumped out of my seat when Tim declared, “If they can’t feel it, they can’t fix it”! My Fi Hitting™ System was designed to help players feel it so they can fix it.
Hitting is not about looking like someone else or trying to fit some stereotypical mold. Hitting is about finding each individual player’s best swing. She must know herself, including her strengths and weaknesses. She must find her best swing and feel the thrill of truly turning it loose at the plate.
“If I tell a hitter what to do, they may not be as good. They know themselves better!” –Tim Walton
Absolutely, there is a time and place for coaches to guide, direct and coach, but all too often hitters become caught up doing what they are told. They try desperately to improve their areas of weakness, while ignoring their God-given advantages.
When playing defense at the speed of the game we talk about quick throws around the diamond and charging the ball. We coach our defensive squad to move the ball quickly from glove to glove when turning two. However, runners reaching first base in 2.6 – 2.8 seconds still have the competitive edge. In order to rely on quickness as a part of playing Game Speed Defense, we need to address the areas of the game where we can feel its momentum.
You’re on defense and you are anticipating the play. The batter swats a hard hit ground ball down the third base line and you have a split second to react. In this scenario I’ve commonly seen a fielder misplay the ball, thrusting her glove downward at the backhand play as the ball pops out, rolling into foul territory. This type of fielder does not understand an important aspect of the game that will be the difference of having soft hands versus hard hands to the ball. Since it all happens so fast, many fielders overlook the importance of fielding the ball along its directional momentum.
There are also infrequent moments when I watch a fielder who understands momentum as natural as having common sense for the game. These moments are less frequent which makes my mind recall former pro star Jackie Pasquerella, AKA “JP.”
JP graduated from Villanova University and continued to play the hot corner for the NPF New England Riptide and NY/(NJ) Juggernaut. At times she was called “Spidey”, short for Spiderman to describe how low she would get when fielding made. The best time to feel this is during practice. After our basic throwing warm-up, infielders should take a step in to work on quick and short throws. The goal of this is to keep the ball in momentum back and forth from glove to glove. Keep the ball moving for at least ten throws under a stopwatch and work for your best time as a pair. Throwing partners will soon realize that they can work to shave a couple of seconds from the drill if they hit each other in the chest each time, and also pull the ball into their chest as they receive it. Using the glove to pull the ball in keeps the momentum of the ball moving into the next throw. Some fielders don’t notice this concept and stab their glove outward towards the ball. This causes hard hands and will either increase the risk of the ball popping out of the glove, or it will add to the time that it takes to transfer from catch to throw. Instead of receiving against the momentum of the throw, fielders with finesse know how to bring the ball in and use efficient footwork to get rid of the ball quicker.
I have recently been asking my hitters the question, “What do you hit with?”
I have gotten all sorts of answers from hips, to legs, to arms, to entire body. Quite frankly, I do not believe that any of those answers are fundamentally incorrect, but there is certainly a best answer. So what is the best answer to that question? What does a hitter hit with?
I would have to say, “hands.” Let's take a look at that answer for a second. Keep in mind that I only say hands, because I want the hitters to focus more on hand path. It seems that so many young hitters are focused more on legs and spinning -which undoubtedly affects or misdirected the hand path in such a way that it creates bad spin and flight of the batted ball.
Since the bat is actually in our hands, not our legs, arms, or hips, let's take a closer look. First of all, let's look at preparation for the Prom. The most important piece to the preparation is undoubtedly the dress. Everything else, including the shoes, purse, jewelry, and even the prom date is nothing more than an accessory. Accessories which support or enhance the dress -not overshadow it.
In hitting, the hands would be the dress -the most important part of the physical swing. Everything else in the physical swing would be the accessories as they are supporting the hand path -not taking away from hand path. In other words, accessories as they are supporting the hand path – not taking away from hand path. In other words, anything that a hitter does that takes the hand path out of the strike zone or off the path of creating the appropriate angle to the ball, is no longer an accessory but a hindrance. Hence, we need to address it.
We address the accessories with drills. Drills that actually improve, enhance, and support the hand path. Here are some ideas for drills that can improve hand path:
History Of Softball Part 17 with Dr. Dot Richardson
Welcome to part 17 in my series on the History of Softball with Dr. Dot Richardson. On this episode Dot continues her tour of the Softball Museum with the legendary longstanding Fresno State head coach Margie Wright. She built her career of wins and accomplishments with the program from 1986 – 2012. She is the NCAA's second all-time winningest softball coach at this time.
When interviewing a new hitting student, I ask a series of quick-fire questions to understand as much about each player as possible before working on new hitting ideas or techniques. Most hitters can articulate at least three weaknesses or struggles they possess, and have difficulty recalling any of their strengths.
Players are so constantly told what not-to-do or what to avoid that they become fixated on the negative. Many of my new students describe themselves pessimistically by saying, “I drop my hands a lot.”
Hitting a fastpitch softball is one of the most difficult skills to perform in any sport. The reaction time allotted a hitter from the pitcher’s release to contact with the ball is almost instantaneous. Trying to decipher the hands’ path during this rapid succession of movements is seemingly impossible.
As hitters, thinking too much about our hands is a source of frustration and stress. This causes tension in the mind and body and creates additional problems. To be successful, hitters cannot guide or aim the bat barrel with rigid movements. They must be free to trust the hands and let them fly through the hitting zone.
Further, when the focus in a hitter’s mind becomes, “Don’t drop my hands,” she is mentally practicing what she wants to avoid. Our minds work visually, disregarding the “don’t”. When a hitter hears or internally repeats, “Don’t drop.” What is she seeing in her mind? Dropping her hands!
Dropping and hitting pop flies as a result is a common problem at most every level of play. The solution, however, is quite simple. Dropping the hands is usually a symptom of a different problem: poor posture. Changing a hitter’s posture quite often eliminates or dropping.
Watch this 47 second video for a quick explanation of Punching Posture at Contact:
When hitters feel for themselves the power and consistency generated through a tall, strong and balanced punching posture, they can visualize proper form and work toward achieving it.
Rarely will a hitter drop her hands while maintaining a strong punching posture. Most often, the hands drop as a result of the entire upper body leaning (or dropping) back toward the catcher.
Correcting a posture problem is much less tedious than changing hand movements. Hitters tend to feel the difference in strong and weak posture immediately and can make the adjustment with ease. Once posture is corrected, the hands begin to work more effectively without additional thought or worry.
Another beneficial visual for hitters is what I call, “the pole”. While in her hitting stance, I encourage a hitter to picture in her mind a pole running vertically through her body, from the crown of her head to the dirt or turf beneath. I then challenge the hitter to keep her body in line with the pole throughout her entire swing.
Staying in line with the pole only applies to leaning forward toward the pitcher or backward toward the catcher. A nature body tilt down and in toward the hitting zone is natural and necessary. This tilt, though, will happen naturally.
Much like the idea of punching posture if a hitter can picture, and more importantly feel, staying in line with the pole she is much less likely to drop her hands and hit pop flies.
A focus on punching posture or staying within the pole equips a hitter to picture proper form. As she adopts the new concepts, “Swing like I’m punching,” or “Keep my pole,” she is visualizing a more fundamentally sound swing. She is training her mind to lead the way, so her body executes more effectively.
The top athletes in the world make intentional visualization a part of their regular training routines. We use the same part of the brain to practice mentally that we use when physically performing. Visualization does affect performance, both positively and negatively. The words we repeat and the resulting mental images they create are powerful.
In addition, a punching posture mind-set emphasizes aggression. Although improving as hitters does sometimes require scrutinizing minute details, players often shut down when overloaded with too many particulars to process. Over-thinking creates unwelcome caution. Training cautiously does not equip hitters to maximize their potential.
The best hitters build solid fundamental muscle memory and then execute with reckless abandon. Caution is not welcome! The punching posture mindset allows hitters freedom to read the pitch and react without hesitation.
Concisely, punching posture produces competent and confident hitters!
Usually you see me writing about the Pitcher and Catcher relationship or something along the lines of a catching aspect in here, but this article is something that I believe every athlete should read let alone softball player. It has to do with something that I believe can be lost very easily in this day and age with Athletics, not just by the players, but by coaches, parents, administration, and fans. It is Respect, Respect for the Game, and Respect for Your Game.
I used to be big on rules, I thought that the more rules you incorporated the easier it would be to keep the athletes out of trouble and the easier it would be to enforce them. Still being young yet experienced in the game and the coaching world I have come to the realization that you really only need one rule and that can cover just about everything involved with your sport and enforcement. Its called Respect. Not just Respect your coach, or respect your family, or school, or teammates. Respect the Game.
If you truly Respect the Game and get an understanding of the history and all the hard work people before you put in to get it to where its at you will truly grow to love your sport. When that happens you will do whatever it takes to get the most out of your potential and truly appreciate the opportunity you get to be a participant everyday. Respecting the game has so many meaning while it may be such a simple phrase.
When I think of Respecting the game, I think of a 39 year old Derek Jeter who has nothing to prove to anybody yet going 100% up the line until that ball is caught and called out on a routine ground ball. I think of Coaches like Coach K and Jim Boeheim of Duke And Syracuse who have been involved in their sports and at the top of the history books in wins yet are still putting in the hours to get even better well into their 60's. I think of Peyton Manning who spends countless hours in the film room dissecting his opponent for the next week so he is fully prepared.
But it is not only professionals. They have a God given gift but they work so hard to maintain that gift and sustain it for a long prosperous career. But I also think of the 12 year old kid who just had a 2 hour practice and wants to go hit later at the batting cage, and the 100 degree days where a girl is in the heat shooting a basketball instead of in the house with the AC on blast staying cool. That is all Respect for the Game.
I feel that there is way too much entitlement in this day in age not only in professional sports but college as well. Being content and settling on the level you are at or resting and taking a play off because the game is in hand, or simply losing that fire because you may have won the title the year before. That is not Respecting the Game. True character comes out when nobody is watching. When the stands are empty and nobody sees you what are you doing to better your game.
Respecting the Game is not about just better your own physical and mental game, it is helping your teammates. Every person on a team plays a role and without that role the team cannot reach its potential. Every rep you take off is disrespecting your time, your teammates time and your coaches time. Everything that you do says something so be prepared to make a statement with every action.
Coaches, do not rest on the knowledge that you have right now, the game is ever changing and you can learn things from not only coaches at a higher level or coaches with more experience but you can learn from lower level coaches and beginners. Everyone has a different outlook and everyone sees the game a little bit differently so never be too big to take a second to learn, or take that extra minute to have a conversation. That is Respecting the Game.
Players, never take it for granted, every rep is important and will affect the outcome of your performance. You have to put in the energy so you might as well make the most out of it. Complete every rep in your workouts and then do one more. Play for yourself and the alumni that paved the way and the players 50 years ago who without them maybe this sport would not be around.
Fans, Parents, Administration, the game is about the people that are playing, it is not about you or what is best for you. You are all there to support the athletes and support the Whatever the sport is you are involved in, Respect it. Respect the process. Respect the players. Respect the Coaches. And most importantly Respect yourself. If you just think to yourself is this Respecting the game or did I respect the game today, than the rest will take care of itself and your goals and aspirations will be taken care of from there on out.
Programs, do that, and do that positively. The parents have raised the athletes and the Administration has hired the coaches. Let the people that were put in place do the job they were intended on doing. The games are exciting, so much work is put in, Respect the Game by supporting, and supporting is so much more than merely being in attendance at an event.