How Did You Prepare Mentally For A Big Game?

By Jennie Ritter

 

How to prepare mentally for a big game

This is a great question. Your question asks something commonly overlooked by athletes: mental preparation. Sure, one common thread you'll find about good athletes is that you'll see hitters spend countless hours on a tee perfecting their swing or pitchers throwing the same pitch over and over again just to increase movement by half a centimeter. And, while physical preparation is so easily understood as a necessity amongst the softball community, most athletes forget to practice mentally. If you don't practice mental toughness, how would you expect to be mentally tough in the toughest games of the season? Bobby Knight once said, “Mental toughness is to physical as four is to one.” The difference between a good athlete and a championship athlete is one who understands this idea. You have to “live” the mental game-mold your brain into that of a championship athlete. I firmly believe that some are born with the ability to be more mentally tough than others just as some or born with more athletic ability. However, despite ones natural abilities, we all know that hard work can still win out-both in physical and mental preparation.

I know that I would not have been successful without the lessons I learned in mental toughness throughout my career. It's important to note that everyone prepares differently, but there are two things that played a key role in my mental toughness preparation: visualization and physically pushing myself beyond my limits.

Often underrated, visualization can be the difference in a good game or a bad game. I got in the habit of visualizing at two different times: bedtime, and pre-game. Visualization prior to bedtime is my constant. Mental toughness is the hardest to maintain when you're tired or fatigued. I always tried to “force” myself into focus at nighttime when I was tired. I found that trying to work towards keeping focus without adrenaline or while tired was the hardest to do, so my preparation often began in the worst-case scenario. I visualized pitching in a game, but instead of focusing on the outcome, I'd focus on my surroundings. I'd visualize the sound of the fans and the smell of the freshly cut grass. I'd picture which uniforms we'd be wearing and how fired up our opponents were. I'd focus on every detail of the game-and then work to block it out. If I didn't mentally prepare for these moments, it would be difficult to block out the noise and intimidation factors of the game when I was actually there. And, focusing on blocking out these distractions while fatigued and sleepy meant that blocking them out when I was high on adrenaline and at my peak alertness would be a breeze. I visualized this almost every evening. I got to the point where I wouldn't even have to think about my surroundings when I walked onto a field-1 had already blocked out the distractions and was more mentally prepared even before the game had begun.

By removing the distractions prior to game time, I was able to visualize something different at game time. This is where I'd focus on my performance and outcome. I'd visualize a couple innings of pitching. My goal would be to visualize myself pinpointing my pitch placement and movement every pitch. Instead of getting a called strike, I'd visualize myself throwing the “perfect pitch” -a pitch placed so perfectly with the best movement that the batter would swing and miss every time. I'd watch batter after batter swing and miss at the pitch I decided to throw. This prepared my mind to not only think about a series of pitches for each batter, but my mind was now prepared for success. Failure was not an option.

And if you still aren't sold on visualization as mental preparation, consider this. Prior to every game, I'd visualize my “perfect pitch” scenario. Every once and a while, however, I found that no matter what I did, I couldn't visualize myself throwing a pitch past a batter; instead, all my mind would see would be the ball hitting the bat. What were the outcomes of those games where my mind couldn't see the batters swing and miss? A loss every time. Your mind tells your body what to do-if mentally you can't see yourself succeed, you will not succeed. If you find yourself in a situation where you can't visualize success, step back, take a deep breath, and give your mind a break for a couple of minutes. Then try again until you see success.

Visualization is the easy part of mental toughness preparation. The other key component of mental toughness is to push yourself physically. Pushing yourself beyond what you thought you were physically capable of doing molds your brain to believe that you are capable of more! I can't think of a scenario much better to describe this than one of Michigan Softball's conditioning days. Our team was split into teams of classes-freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We had a series of conditioning events where time or repetitions would be tallied. One event was the wall-sit. The time we lasted on the wall sit would be removed from the total time tallied from all the other events. The winning team would have the lowest time tallied.

The seniors, the first in rotation for the wall sit, lasted, on average, around 2.5 minutes. The next class, the freshmen, lasted a bit longer, around 4 minutes. The sophomores-even a bit longer, around 5 or 6 minutes. My class, the junior class, got together prior to the wall sit and agreed to try to push our wall sit to negate our mile time. In other words, our goal was to average around 7.5 minutes on the wall sit. Most of us made it, but that wasn't what was amazing about the test. Our catcher sat for a total of 11 minutes and 32 seconds!

Where the seniors felt mentally that a 2.5 minute wall sit was difficult, and that it wasn't possible to overcome the pain and burning, our catcher took note and overcame that physical pain by blocking it out mentally-by having a goal greater than the pain of a wall sit! Not one single player thought anyone would be capable of sustaining that length of time. It was our “aha” moment for the 2005 National Championship Season-just because you're tired, fatigued, and mentally drained, you have to trust and believe that there is more in your tank-you have to go beyond what your brain thinks you're capable of-and as long as you continually push that limit and believe you can do more, you will be more successful than you ever imagined!

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3 Important Pitches

By JENNIE RITTER

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3 Importnat Pitches

Wesley, asked “What are the three most important pitches a young pitcher should work on developing”

This is a terrific question. First, it is important to note that each pitcher must have a solid base in her technique before even thinking about learning pitches! If she has a fundamental flaw in her technique, it can be difficult to achieve the correct spin or movement in a pitch. For example, if a pitcher commonly throws with her weight forward on her front foot at release, she will have a problem throwing a rise ball in the future due to the proper body position required to get a good upward movement on the pitch.

Assuming a pitcher has a pretty good base with no major flaws, you can break each pitch down into a few areas: Body Position, Hand Position, and Spin. Mastering each of these three areas will give the best opportunity for the pitch to move. These three areas work hand in hand: your body must be in the correct position for your hand to fall in the correct position, and the spin cannot be in the right direction unless your hand is in the correct position. By beginning your focus on the body position, you can gradually work in the hand position and the spin to reduce the amount of bad habits created when learning the new pitch.

With these three areas in mind, the following are the three pitches that a young pitcher should develop:

1. Change-Up

Why? Change-Ups can be your most dangerous weapon as a pitcher simply because of the change of speeds. Change-Ups should be somewhere between 12 and 15 miles per hour slower than a fastball. A good change-up can keep a batter off balance enough to prevent a solid hit. It can also make a fastball look quicker if speed is not a strong point.

Developing a Good Change-Up:

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Figure 1. Wrist Movement Descriptions

Body Position: The body position should be the same on your change-up as your fastball. This is the only pitch were this is the case. Hand Position: Hand position is the most important part of this pitch. No matter what change-up grip, the common requirement is to ensure that your hand does not snap with the same wrist snap as your fastball. A proper wrist snap for a fastball is from an extension to flexion movement (shown in Figure 1). A change-up should be released along an ulnar deviation to radial deviation movement (a circle change, for example), or opposite a fastball-a flexion to extension movement (like a backhand or flip change). Once the hand is placed in a position to use either of these wrist movements, the pitcher must work to reduce the “push” forward. In other words, speed should be reduced by stopping the arm at release, not slowing the arm circle throughout the delivery.

Spin: A change-up can have many different spins. The key is to have a quick backspin on the ball. The quicker the backspin, the slower the pitch, assuming your hand position is correct. The spin is not necessarily a determining factor of a good change-up; rather, the hand position and ability to stop the arm at release will give you your most effective change.

2.Curve Ball

Why? The release on a curve ball is often the most natural release for a pitcher and therefore one of the easier pitches to learn. As the pitcher begins to tweak their basic technique, it can be easier to focus on a pitch that may come more naturally.

Developing a good Curve Ball:

Body Position: Body Position is one of the most important parts of a curve. The momentum of the body should drive exactly opposite the direction of the pitch. For a right handed pitcher, a curve should spin away from a right handed batter. Therefore, the pitcher should drive her body momentum directly to the inside corner (to a righty batter). This is commonly referred to as crossing over. Be careful not to overdo it—the drive to the inside corner should be subtle, around 6 inches from your power line.

Hand position: A curve spin should spin with directly from the right to the left for a right-handed pitcher. Therefore, your hand has to be in a position to achieve this spin. If you were to draw a line slicing the ball in half (top to bottom), the pads of your fingers should lie along the cross-section (See Figure 2). Your thumb should touch the same cross-section on the opposite side of the ball.

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Once this grip is established, your hand should be positioned below the ball so that the palm of the hand is facing directly upward. In order to maintain this hand position, the pitcher should lead with their pinky finger and elbow with the rest of their hand trailing behind the pitch. From this position, a proper spin can be created.

Spin: The spin of this pitch comes almost completely from the push on the fingers, not the snap of the wrist. Your pinky and ring fingers should push against the ball first across the ball in the direction of the spin (see spin direction in figure 2), followed by your middle finger and index finger. Your thumb should support on the opposite side of the ball and push against the ball in the same direction as the rest of your fingers.

3. Drop Ball

Why? Once you master the ability to feel your hand position in a more natural pitch such as the curve, one of the best things a pitcher can do is develop a pitch that changes the planes of the strike zone. Pitches like a curve and a screw ball stay on the same horizontal plane. Therefore, a good batter can still make contact if she swings along that same plane. By creating vertical movement in either a rise ball or drop ball, a pitcher can increase her ability to get a batter to swing and miss, thus increasing her strikeout percentage. It is my personal preference to teach a drop ball first because the increased stress on the elbow from a rise ball is not always appropriate for a young pitcher.

Body Position: This is the only pitch where it is permitted to get your body weight forward on your front foot. The goal is to place your body in a position that will support the direction of the ball in a downward position. Therefore, when the pitcher begins to drive forward, she can begin to bring her shoulders a bit more forward than she typically would on a fastball, landing harder on the front foot.

Hand Position: Whether you choose to throw a peel drop or a turnover drop, it is imperative that your hand position is directly behind the ball (see figure 3). If a pitcher has proper fastball technique, her hand will be in this position already.

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Spin: The spin, along with body position, is the most important part of this pitch. Often pitchers with good technique may see a slight drop on their fastball (often referred to as a “heavy fastball”). The drop movement on the ball can be improved by increasing the revolutions per second (RPS) on the ball, which often comes from a “curl” in the fingers. In other words, the pitcher should pull upward on the ball with her fingers without pushing the ball forward. Her ability to do this will increase the spin.

No matter what pitch a pitcher may choose to develop, it is important to stress the correct habits. Make sure you are taking pitching lessons from a qualified pitching instructor that has a good track record for teaching as well as personal success either in college or at a higher level. Learning the wrong spin can have lasting effects on how good the pitch may be in the future. Enforce the right habits from the beginning and you will be on your way to success!

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Coaching Your Own Kid

By Jennie Ritter

Coaching Your Own Kid

“I am very aware of your great success as a player and a leader in the softball world. I am a father of an 8th grade pitcher here in Florida, dominant so far in her short career. I wanted to see what advice you can give me as a father and her coach. Do you find it imperative that later towards her upper teens that if she continues on this path that I have her play for other teams or do you think it is okay to for me to continue to coach her and create our own name for ourselves? I love and have a passion for coaching and I have much success. I would like to hear what I should do to keep her on the right path.”

Glenn,
I am a STRONG believer in not coaching your own kid. A STRONG BELIEVER. There are a couple of reasons for this:

First, there is a term going around for “father coached teams” known as “daddy ball”. I’ve seen far too much of this type of team in the softball world. It sounds as if you have had a lot of success and that you are putting together a good team while ensuring that your goals for your daughter don’t affect how you coach; however, regardless of how you coach, you can still run into a few problems.

First, you may not get good quality players try out for your team because of the stigma of a father coaching his daughter. This is going to hurt your daughter because you want to surround her with the best team possible so that she can be successful. Also, even if you are not a “daddy ball” type coach, you are consistently presented with the problem of determining if parents perceive you as one. Then you often have to sit your daughter more than you’d like, or deal with the parents who don’t understand that your daughter should often be in the starting lineup. It presents a problem either way.

Second, no matter what type of success you have, in general, college coaches will not take your opinion on your daughter as an “unbiased” opinion. She may be able to stand out on her own, but it will be very difficult to communicate hat your opinion of her as a coach is a credible one because you as her father care deeply for her success. Sometimes it’s too difficult to separate the two feelings. I can't tell you how many times I hear from coaches that parent coaches will talk too much about their own daughter — we’ve even had a few issues with parents going to speak with college coaches at tournaments! This is a bad idea. Even if you are not the type of dad to do this and are in the small population of dads who are actually tougher when it comes to coaching your own kid—the dads I’m talking about have made it difficult for all of you.

Because of these two situations, I think it is best for your daughter to move on from being coached by you. By learning from another person, think of the growth she may have—athletes must constantly be pushed out of their comfort zone. By placing her on a team where she knows she will make the team every year (because you’re the coach) can hurt her when she moves onto college. Experience taking command and instruction from another experienced coach will be extremely beneficial.

Luckily, these days there are quite a few coaches who are not parents that have played in college with no special interest towards any specific players. Your daughter should play for one of these teams, especially if she has proved dominant and successful.

My dad coached my sister because there was a need for a knowledgeable coach—and though my dad was a terrific coach, he was constantly faced with the decision not to pitch my sister in situations she probably should have pitched in. I know you may feel that you’re her best shot at success, but if she is as successful as she has been with you, allowing her to grow outside of your team can make her even more successful!

So, You Want to Get Recruited?

Jennie Ritter

FastpitchTV National Softball Player Search
Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.23.54 PMThe most important aspect of the recruiting process is starting early. If you are in 8th grade then you can consider yourself on the radar for college coaches. You may not be what they’re looking for yet, but at the very least it is time to get your ducks in a row to become a legitimate prospect. Here are a few tips to maximize your exposure in front of college coaches for a chance to be recruited.

Have a Plan.

In the beginning of the recruiting process it’s time to make a game plan. In softball, travel season is much more important than school season. You should join a softball program with other likely college prospects. These teams should include some of the best talent in your area and possibly the entire state. College coaches are not interested in how great you look against mediocre players, nor do they have the time to attend a game where you may be the only player at the talent level they are looking for. If you can play with the best and stand out, your chances of being recruited are increased.

Initiate Communication with College Coaches.

Establishing a line of communication between yourself and college coaches is key. There are NCAA recruiting rules that may not allow college coaches to respond depending on your age, but expressing your interest via email or phone (even if it’s a voice- mail) will be heard even if a response is not allowed. There are two things to note when communicating with coaches. First, do not be shy – the first impression you want to make with these coaches is confidence and excitement. Second, make sure that you as the athlete are communicating. Parents should not be communicating with any coaches in this process unless they initiate it.

Attend a Testing Combine.

Testing combines have been around for years in other sports and are now popping up in the softball world. They have been proven in sports like football to help the athlete showcase athleticism through standardized tests that can measure athletes on a level playing the field. Programs like these can break down where you need to improve so you can train correctly as well as show strengths in your games that will stand out to college coaches.

Go to College Camps!

If invited to a summer camp at a university and you think it’s a school you can play at, go! Coaches want to be around a prospect as much as possible. Not only are they looking at you as an athlete, but they want to see how you respond to change and how quickly you pick things up. These are traits that can’t be seen from watching a game behind a fence, looking at a transcript, or highlight video. If a coach offers you information to tweak your swing, try it! You are attending the camp with the understanding that the instructors may be your future college coaches. That should mean that you have enough confidence and trust that their critique and suggestions will help you get better.

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