An Open Letter To Umpires and Parents

Written By Mitch Alexander

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An Open Letter to Umpires and Parents

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In an October 5, 2013 18u gold showcase tournament at Big League Dreams in West Covina, California, where the Minors Gold played the California Cruisers, many sports blog websites reported that a softball atrocity took place. The Minors Gold were up at bat and were winning the game. They had bases loaded, and the Cruiser's pitcher walked in another run. The Cruisers’ coach then called for a conference in the pitcher's circle. On the very next pitch thrown by the Cruisers’ high school junior, the catcher jumps out of the way and the pitch hits the bespectacled, grey-haired umpire square in the face. The coach, pitcher, and catcher were ejected from the game and the game was then declared over.

Video was taken by a high definition camera located above the umpire's head in the backstop, so the vantage point was quite good. The pitch that ultimately walked the batter was questionable as a ball. If it was good (which it may have been) it was low in the zone. The pitch that hit the umpire looked high and would most likely have been called a ball. Since the pitcher was throwing at both ends of the vertical zone, she seemed to have reasonable control of her locations.

At the 18u gold level, catchers are expected to be able to catch most reasonable pitches so, therefore, it appears that the catcher chose not to catch this particular pitch. The umpire's safety equipment was minimal. Here lied on the skill of the catcher to keep himself safe and most teams are aware of this. I have heard many umpires remind catchers that they need to do all they can to block the pitch from hitting the umpire. Thankfully, the umpire was not injured as the ball ricocheted off his face mask, but it could have hit him in the throat or caught him in the shoulder, chest, or arm.

It looks like a lot of things went wrong in this game. Many Internet sites and blogs claim this was retaliation for the umpire making bad strike zone calls. There is no room in softball for any kind of retaliation. Retaliation is completely unacceptable and un-sportsman like. With that said, if this was retaliation, did the umpire play a role in causing the Cruisers to come to the conclusion that they needed to retaliate? Yes, he did. Did he deserve what he got? Clearly not. The umpire's strike zone was quite small. He did not give anything on the outside corner to the Cruisers. He was also not giving any pitches that were at the bottom of the zone. This may have frustrated the coaches to the point that they were not thinking clearly in the heat of the game. The somewhat loud third base coach on the Cruisers made many comments in earshot of the umpire, further hurting his team’s relationship with the umpire. The Cruisers’ coach also did not control his team parents, who were making comments the umpire could hear.

You can watch a clip of this sequence on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMOHzMOT4nc make sure you turn the volume up so you can hear all the chatter in the game. You can also Google to find a video of the full game. The following does not apply in particular to the Minors Gold vs. California Cruisers game, but to all games.

Dear Umpire,

You have a tough job. No, scratch that. You have a REALLY tough job. Umpires are held to a high standard where you are expected to get every call right. Surgeons, airline pilots, and nuclear engineers are held to this kind of standard. If you get one call wrong, the team receiving the bad call hates you and the other team loves you…. that is unless you make a bad call for them too, and then everyone hates you.

A few things we as coaches and parents would appreciate you doing before games that would increase the level of respect we all have for you is:

Please look neat when you arrive at the field. Sloppy, unshaven umpires do not instill confidence in the teams and it also shows a lack of respect for the game.

If you are supposed to have game balls, please obtain them before the game and don't expect to play the game with our used practice balls or expect the coaches to run and pick them up instead of warming up our team.

Please check the field for unsafe playing conditions and alert the coaches and any league or tournament officials of any issues found.

Please don't buddy up with either team. We respect your tough job, but it causes parents, players, and coaches to think you will not be impartial in your judgments. Even if you know the other coaches, it isn't appropriate for you to be seen yucking it up and reminiscing about the good ole times.

There are also a few things we would like to bring to your attention about the play during the game:

It is NOT your job to keep the game fair. One team may be much better than the other. Call as accurate a game as possible for BOTH teams regardless of the outcome. You do a disservice to the players and the sport if you try to “adjust” the outcome – that is NOT your job.

If the coaches or a player aggravate you during the game, please DO NOT take it out on the team. They have been practicing their hearts out and don’t deserve retribution from the umpire, just because of the coaches or one bonehead player.

Pitchers deserve an accurate sized strike zone. “Squeezing” a pitcher so none of her specialty pitches or comer pitches are called strikes is unfair to the pitcher. Making a pitcher throw down the middle goes against everything pitchers have been training thousands of hours to do.

Batters deserve an accurate strike zone. Calling balls at their helmets as strikes frustrates the batters and causes them to throw their good batting mechanics out the window to reach for these balls (even when their coaches are telling them to lay off any high pitches).

If you are working a game alone, when possible, please come out from behind the plate to make base calls.

If you get a call wrong, it helps diffuse tension if you let us know you made a mistake, even though the call still stands.

Dear Parents,

Your coaching staff is in control of this team. We are responsible for the players, coaches, and you, the parents’ actions. You need to trust in us and believe that we will handle ALL issues within the guidelines of the rules of the game and good sportsmanship.

Umpires have a very difficult job. Most likely, they will not get every call right. This is part of the game of softball.

You are NOT permitted to harass the umpire in any way during the game. If you do so, you will be asked to leave the game.

We NEVER argue balls or strikes – those are judgment calls made by the umpire. We may ask the umpire to clarify why a pitch was called a ball so we know what he saw. Our pitchers will be asked to adjust to the umpire's judgment. Sometimes, we will not agree with an umpire's interpretation of the strike zone, but this is NOT cause for any of us to argue about it. It is simply a game condition we need to adjust to.

The coaching staff will ask for the umpire's interpretation of rules and their calls if there are any questions. Only official coaches will do this.

At the end of the day, please keep in mind that this is a GAME. The outcome of this game does not have life or death consequences. Therefore, you are asked to be supportive and calm and show good sportsmanship at all times, regard less of what the other team or officials say or do.

Please instruct your daughter that she is never to do something she believes is morally incorrect or in retribution. These types of acts tarnish the great sport of softball.

The Minors Gold vs. California Cruisers game was an 18u college showcase tournament. This means that the participants in the tournament were there in hopes of attracting college recruiters – at a minimum to get a closer look and at best case to obtain an athletic scholarship. The California Cruisers’ coach (or coaches) probably wasted the team parents’ money by participating in this showcase event with game ejections and the game being suddenly ended by the officials, and most likely gave their organization a black eye for future player consideration. With no prior knowledge, I would guess that this is not the first time this coach has acted in an unsportsmanlike way. Parents beware – if your daughter's coach does not display near-perfect conduct and sportsmanship, you should really consider looking for a new team or this type of situation could be written about your daughter and/or her team.

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Summer Tryout Mayhem – Too Many Choices

Written By Mitch Alexander

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Summer Tryout Mayhem

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Up here in the New York / Tri-state area we hold our annual softball team tryouts during the month of August. Some teams start the first weekend, others wait until the middle and finally some wait until the end. The pattern seems to be that the perceived top flight teams start early to try and lock in the better players, the middle level teams wait until the middle of the month once the best players have committed and the mid-tier players received their rejections, and then the town or rec type teams hold tryouts at the end of the month.

We held our tryouts the second weekend in August – as our organization was still involved in 18u showcases, so we waited. Our local newspaper had advertisements for tryouts for no fewer than fourteen teams at the 12u level, and not everyone advertised this year. Some of the bigger organizations decided they didn’t have to. By the time our tryout day arrived, we were aware of eighteen organizations holding tryouts that weekend. Tryouts are not coordinated between the teams so many teams had tryouts at the same time all located in different towns and counties. Our local softball scene is incredibly diluted right now. Some organizations have two to four teams competing at the same level, as well as with other teams. All together, we probably have close to thirty 12u teams vying for the same players!

In the past, there were four or five good organizations and four or five mid-tier organizations. Each typically only had one team, giving a total of no more than a dozen teams. The rosters used to be twelve to fifteen players deep. Now rosters are only nine or ten players on average and the exception is the twelve or thirteen player team. Some parents who thought they could do a better job than a past coach picked a team name and started their own “organization” or asked an existing organization to let them start another team at the same level they were playing at.

Is this a good situation? Well, I guess it depends on your vantage point and what type of player your daughter is. From an existing manager’s perspective, we now have fewer players to choose from, meaning each team is likely to have a lower overall talent level as there are only so many highly talented players to go around. Some teams will certainly fold as they can’t find enough players to fill a roster and deal with illness, injuries, or things like birthdays and vacations. If you’re a high end player, this isn’t a good situation either as it means the all-star team you were dreaming of being a part of won’t happen. However, if you’re a mid-tier or town/rec type player, this is great news. Smaller rosters mean more playing time for you and more choice in teams.

We’ve also seen another major downside in this. Players of all types playing on what would normally be considered the “wrong” type of team for them. High-end players playing on mid-tier or even town/rec teams so they look like superstars. It’s a great power trip for the player, at least for the time being. However, once the other players catch up a bit, and the high-end player isn’t receiving high-end instruction, the gap between high-end and mid-tier closes quickly. Mid-tier players who may have been invited to play on a high-end team, now don’t want to be the last player on the roster. They would much rather play on lower-end teams to be looked at as a superstar as well. In the end, these players miss out on some of the better training and coaching that the high-end teams would have provided.

Local teams that have been powerhouses for years have recently broken up. These teams were a staple here. You could always count on them having the best players and winning most of the tournaments. Families are angry with one another. Players aren’t speaking or as I guess is now done, “Instagramming” each other. Players who were best friends last season are now blocking each other on social media so their ex-friends can’t follow them. The players and teams are all re-aligning. The chit-chat on the sidelines and over text messaging is amazing, and the fall tournament season hasn’t even started yet.

I have spoken with several managers who “lost” their teams. They don’t know what happened or what they did wrong. Some merged with other teams, some have placed their daughters on other teams and are taking the season off to regroup in the spring. They put a lot into these teams: two practices a week, indoor training, special guest instructors, fifteen or more tournaments a year, league play, etc. They repeatedly say, “I don’t know what I did wrong. What else did the parents want?” The answer is complicated, yet simple. Families have more choices now and people often believe that some other team will be a better fit for their player using the “grass is always greener” concept. Oftentimes, parents later realize they made a bad decision and the new team is not a good fit, but it’s too late.

I’ve also seen a lot of parental indulging lately, where parents give into their players’ little-thought out desires. Sue wants to play on a team with her best friend Emma, even though Emma’s team is not in the same talent class as Sue’s old team was. In fact, Emma’s team doesn’t even play in tournaments, just league play with other rec type teams. However Sue’s parents want their daughter to be happy and are equally tired of hearing Sue complain about her old coach’s hard practices.

My team saw significant changes this fall. One player left via the grass is always greener concept, another left on a “if she’s going there I want to go there too” tagalong, one aged out, one decided to take the fall off for personal reasons, one changed teams three times and ended up with the last team she tried out for although she accepted positions on all three teams. Choices. Now there are more teams to choose from. Players can move around. Many times when one player moves, another or a group move because they want to stay together and be with their friends. This is the “safety in numbers” concept and support system.

Psychologist, Barry Schwartz noted in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, that choice brings freedom and autonomy but it also brings about anxiety over making the RIGHT choice. Sometimes having too many choices affords the participants to not spend the necessary time deciding if they are making the RIGHT choice. Instead, sometimes it’s just easier to pick one alternative over the other and move on. Schwartz provided a six step process for making good decisions, which is a good framework for parents and players to follow:

1. Figure out your goals. What do you want out of a softball team? Remember your last/current team, especially when things were at their best as well as when the season ended.

2. Evaluate the importance of your goals. Assign an importance to each goal. For example, a high level of training is a 9 out of 10 of importance to me.

3. List your options. Determine which teams are included in your wide set of possibilities. Don’t eliminate any yet unless they are out of the question, like too far away.

4. Evaluate each option and how it will help you meet your goals. Weigh the pros and cons for each goal on each team. If you don’t have enough information upon which to make an informed decision, do some research. Speak with the coach, past and current players and visit the organization’s website.

5. Pick the best fit. Now that you have evaluated each goal and how each team is likely to meet it, you are ready to make a decision.

6. Modify your goals. Now that you’ve made a decision, and hopefully are on the team of your dreams, reconsider your goals. Are they still valid? Has anything changed? For example a 14u player might not care much about college recruiting, but a 16u player might.

Often consumers don’t make the correct choice and suffer the consequences. The same holds true for families picking a softball team. It’s easy to move in the fall, but more difficult in the winter or spring. If you don’t get the decision right, it could mean a year of lost progress. Schwartz also warns that when there are too many choices, people will make hypothetical trade-offs instead of really examining each opportunity’s potential. Be careful not to make these trade-offs while you are evaluating each option. Instead hold off on these until the very end and only use trade-offs if one option does not outshine all the others.

Families should seriously consider their choices. Hardly ever is the grass greener elsewhere. It’s usually the same grass just cut differently. Once you walk on it a few times, you quickly see it’s the same. Sometimes it’s not grass at all but plastic turf. Yes it’s green, and yes it’s shaped like grass, but it’s artificial all the way through. Most people only consider the bad things about a current team or situation. They fail to account for or recognize all the good things as well. You really need to consider both sides before deciding on making a change. Parents also need to understand what is motivating their players to consider changing teams. What’s behind it? Is it a valid reason to make a change or is the change being considered just because it’s available? We picked up some great kids at our tryouts and I’m excited to spend at least the next year working with them.

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Sportsmanship

Written By Mitch Alexander

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Sportsmanship

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Fastpitch softball is a sport. That means players and coaches need to play with and exhibit something called sportsmanship. While sportsmanship might be somewhat difficult to completely define, it's easy to spot when someone that should have it – doesn't. The player that calls her opponent names. The parent who berates the umpire. The coach who wants to win at all costs – regardless of how the other team feels so long as his team wins. Lately, unsportsmanlike conduct seems to be on the rise and has become the norm instead of the exception. Therefore, it's important for the rest of us to know how to understand, identify, and try to avoid unsportsmanlike conduct.

Recently, my 12u travel team was in a few local tournaments. I'm sad to say that more than one coach exhibited unsportsmanlike conduct, as did the players, and the players' parents. You see, if the coach (who is the team's leader) normally uses this behavior, the players and their parents also tend to do so. That isn't to say that everyone on the team had bad manners. Some may not realize the situation, or recognize that unsportsmanlike conduct is the norm on their team. Game after game, the coach “protects” his team by making sure that the umpire's calls are in his team's favor. When this team comes across an umpire that won't bend to the coach's will, the umpire becomes the enemy and the team parents and even the players start yelling out things about the umpire.

Many games at the youth level are officiated by only one umpire. These umpires are the first to acknowledge that they can't see everything. Many of these coaches use what I like to call “influential unsportsmanlike conduct,” which is when the other coach or team parents make the calls. They loudly let the umpire know when their player is safe and your player is out, and your player is always out if the play is close. Sometimes, umpires make the calls they can't see by popular vote – whoever is loudest must have seen the play!

The game of softball is a game of honor. Rules are set out and well known before the game was even scheduled. Ground rules are established before the first pitch is thrown. However, some coaches think they can bend or even break the rules for their own benefit, sometimes to hide a coaching mistake they made! Coaches do not honor the game when they don't honor the umpire, the opposing coach, or the opposing team. We had the occasion to ask Sue Enquist about competition and how she views her opponents. She said they are a bunch of shirts that are required to play the game. They are treated with respect as players and coaches. She said that each player on her team needs to compete against themselves and not view the other team as something bad. This is a great concept. Your opponent is playing to win the game just as you are. The players are (or should be) honorable. The coaches are (or should be) honorable. The game is to be honored. The other team is necessary so you can play the game.

Our team and organization always try to honor the game. We don't argue with umpires. Our players don't make fun of the other team or coaches. We don't argue with the opposing team's coaches, players, or parents. Our base coaches never call the play safe or out. We know the rules of the organization we are playing under. We know the local rules. If there are any doubts, we discuss them with the umpire to make sure we understand before play starts. When our girls cheer, they do it to support their teammates, not to be obnoxious to the other team. Even though certain organizations and umpires allow cheering through the pitcher's windup, we don't support that.

When we do come across teams and coaches exhibiting unsportsmanlike conduct, we never address it directly with the players, coaches, or parents. That's not how this works. We address it with the umpire. Each manager is responsible for themselves, their players, and their players' parents. Instead of getting into it with the other manager, we go straight to the umpire. We treat the situation like a court of law and try to minimize direct communication with the other team. After all they are only a bunch of shirts necessary to play the game. We shake hands and wish the other coaches and team captains good luck before the game, and shake hands and say “good game” afterwards. Any issues that come up during the game go through the umpire. They are the judge and jury of the softball field. Right or wrong, their decisions are usually final. They have the authority to stop unsportsmanlike conduct, you don't – unless you decide to forfeit and leave the field.

Parents on the sidelines need to remember that it's just a game and while there may be some championship or pool seeding resting on the outcome, the bottom line is that your child's life will most likely not be significantly affected if they lose the game. Don't shout at the other team or the umpire for a bad call. Good sportsmanship includes gracefully handling bad calls. Players should stay positive and acknowledge that the players on the other team have the same interests they do and may one day be their teammates instead of their opponents. At the end of the game, shake hands or high five every player and coach on the other team. Don't try to hurt the other players' hands by punching, slapping, or bending the fingers back (as has happened to us on more than one occasion). Umpires should remember that they too, are not always right and not show favoritism to one team over the other. There is nothing more discouraging to a young pitcher than to see her strike zone squeezed down to the size of a volleyball just because she's the better pitcher or her team is winning. Coaches should not knowingly break any rules. Good sportsmanship is required of EVERY person involved in a game, from the players and coaches, to the umpires, and spectators.

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Commitments In Youth Team Sports

Written By Mitch Alexander

Commitments In Youth Team Sport

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Team sports are all about commitments, and there are lots of commitments made by everyone involved. Some commitments are explicit: contracts between players and coaches, contracts between parents and coaches, etc. Other commitments are implied, nothing is written or even verbal but the commitment is understood nonetheless. When any of these commitments are broken or neglected, problems are created. These are usually the kind of problems that cause rifts or giant upheavals between many or all of the parties involved because honoring one's commitments falls in the area of morals and ethics. We'll take a look at these commitments. I'm sure you can think of many more. Because softball is a team sport, commitments are taken seriously and a big part of softball teams. Being part of a team means that each team member acknowledges and accepts the explicit as well as the implied commitments.

PLAYER COMMITMENTS – When a player joins a team they are accepting many types of commitments. First they have a commitment to the team: to attend practices, to arrive at practices early or at least on-time, to stay for the entire practice, to work on improving themselves outside of practice, pitchers may be expected to take pitching lessons, catchers may be expected to take catching lessons, all players may be expected to take batting instruction or at least go to the batting cage, to try their best, and to support their teammates. Next, they have a commitment to their parents: to be ready for practice, to care for their equipment, to complete the season or other time period that the parents paid for, and to make the most out of the experience. Players make commitments to themselves: to play with sportsmanship, to work hard, to be honest about their abilities compared to their teammates, to be persistent and to never give up.

COACHES COMMITMENTS – Coaches also make commitments. They also have commitments to the teams they coach: to be fair in assigning positions (not to play favorites) , to be fair in assigning playing time, to provide adequate training so the players can improve, to provide meaningful and worthwhile practices, to protect the players from unfair treatment by other teams or umpires, to enter the team in skill and age appropriate competitions, to dedicate enough time to keep the team operating smoothly, to be a role model and to set an example on and off the field, and to complete the season or other agreed upon time period.

PARENT COMMITMENTS – Even parents have commitments: to get the player to practices and games at the requested time, to make sure that the player gets enough rest to be effective, to make sure that the player doesn't injure themselves horsing around off the field, to provide adequate hydration for the player to bring to practices and games, to provide the necessary equipment to play the sport, to not interfere with the coaches during practices and games, to not enter the dugout or immediate area during games, to be supportive of their daughter and the other players, and to pay the team dues when required.

As I was contemplating this topic over the past few weeks, I became very sensitive to the idea of broken commitments in youth sports. I found it very easy to look for evidence of commitments, commitments that were not honored, and the effects of not honoring commitments. Some players, parents, and coaches do not take their commitments seriously. Since the focus of this column is youth sports, we have to consider that commitments may be the MOST important concept our kids get out of participating in softball. Therefore, everyone involved with these commitments needs to understand the moral and ethical implications of breaking team commitments.

Consider the little league player who part of the way through the season decides she doesn't feel like playing any more. She made many commitments when she signed up. So did her parents. She broke those commitments to the team, to her coaches, to the league, and most importantly to herself. The team lost a player, and had to borrow a player for every remaining game. She gave up not only on the team but on herself. She made extra work for the coaches, and reduced the effectiveness of the team.

Consider the coach who agreed to manage a summer team and when the team does not win the district, decides he doesn't have the time to lead the team. Instead he brings in another coach to run the team in a local summer-long tournament. What would have happened if the team won the district championship and advanced to the sectional tournament or beyond? This coach had a commitment to the team and should have seen it through regardless if the team won or not. The repercussions were extreme from this broken commitment. Other players decided they too, didn't have the time for this team. New players had to be recruited. Their parents, two of whom were coaches on this team also left. Parents with little or no coaching experience had to be used. The remaining players lost their manager, coaches, and arguably three of their best players. Their expectations for the summer included a high level of training, playing with their friends, and playing for a particular manager. Commitments were broken all around. The remaining players suffered the most.

Consider the parent who felt that their daughter wasn't getting enough playing time during a tournament. In the first game, the player was hit by two pitches and got hit by a bat when she was catching. The manager had her sit the next game and act as a pinch runner. The expectation was for this player to slowly get back in the game. The parent got in the coach's face in the third inning of the second game and pulled the player out of the game and left. The parent broke many commitments and forced the player to break others. They both let the team down.

As you can see, broken commitments in youth team sports affect many people in different ways. Almost always, the kids end up being most affected . Players, parents, and candidate coaches must carefully consider the commitments they are making and make sure they can honor them before accepting any involvement with youth team sports. If you have any comments or good examples of people who have either honored commitments during challenging conditions or did not honor their commitments please email me at: fastpitch2001@optonline.net.

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Youth Windmill Pitching Strategies

Written By Mitch Alexander

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Youth Windmill Pitching Strategies

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I'm not a pitching expert, but I am a manager, coach, and parent of a youth windmill pitcher. I've met many pitching experts, had talks with them and researched the topic on my own. I call pitches in games and have studied tactics other managers use against my team. I have adapted my strategies over time by watching what others do and also learning what works and what doesn't work in real game situations.

It all starts with your pitchers and what skills they have developed through lessons and practices. The best youth pitchers either practice pitching or pitch in games a minimum of three to five days a week. Youth pitchers get faster and more accurate through repetition, but this needs to be carefully balanced with making sure the young pitcher does not injure their arm. Injuries can occur through repetitive strain, incorrect mechanics, or accidents . It is both the parent's and coach's responsibility to minimize the risk of these injuries.

There are growth plates in the bones of all children and they are especially problematic in youth athletes up until 13 to 16 years old. These plates are open areas of the bone that allow the bones to grow. They can be painful when injured and many youth pitchers experience pain associated with growth plates. There are other common pitching injuries, most involving the shoulders, elbows, and tendons that connect muscle to bone. All youth pitchers should ice their shoulders for 20 minutes following practice or games. Older pitchers may also need to ice their elbows as well.

OK, so we need to protect these young arms and shoulders from injuries, but what does that have to do with pitching strategy? Actually a lot. I had the opportunity to have some in depth conversations with Doug Finch (Jennie's father and pitching coach) and he is adamant about making sure that the pitches youth pitchers are taught must be appropriate for their age and state of their physical bodies. For example, fastballs and peel changeups are safe pitches for young arms. Flip changeups, screwballs, and curveballs are not. Young pitchers should concentrate on fastballs and peels and pitch location until their growth plates start to close up and their tendons become stronger. The further the elbow is away from the side of the body the worse the pitch is for youth pitchers. For more information, have a look at the biomechanical studies included on the “Pitching Perfect by Jennie Finch” DVD available on her website (http://store.jenniefinch.com/)

Doug performed some video analysis on my daughter's pitching motion and recommended many corrections to reduce the risk of injury. My daughter had experienced several periods of tendonitis in her upper arm and shoulder because of her pitching mechanics. Doug educated me in some of the issues and taught me the importance of good mechanics. Through this understanding I located a local pitching instructor who also values safe pitching mechanics and my daughter has not had any injuries related to her pitching mechanics since.

With the understanding that young pitchers should not learn, practice, and throw certain pitches the youth coach is somewhat limited in the strategy they can employ to help give their pitchers the best chance of beating their opponents. At younger ages, it comes down to speed, rhythm, and location. All attributes young pitchers should be able to control. Later on as the batters get better and the pitcher's arms get stronger spin and junk pitches play a bigger part of the game. As a coach who calls pitches, the very first thing I look at is the batter's check swing. I evaluate if the batter has a short, compact stroke telling me they may have had professional lessons or it they are using a baseball swing. If they have the former, I am more concerned about what to call. If they use a baseball swing, I will usually go for inside pitches as the batter casts their arms out making it more difficult for them to hit inside. If the check swing is high, I will look to call low pitches. If the check swing is low, I will look to call high pitches. If the check swing swoops up, I will call high pitches like a rise or high inside.

The next thing I look for is the batter's position in the box. If they are way up in the box, the other coach may have figured out my pitcher is throwing breaking balls like rise or drops, or of course they are going to bunt. My pitchers know to typically throw a rise ball in the case of a bunt which helps to cause the ball to be popped up and hopefully caught by the catcher. If they are standing up in the box without bunting, I usually call a high fastball. If the batter is close to the plate, I will call for an inside pitch to jam them up. If they are far away from the plate, I will call for a pitch on the outside comer of the plate. If the batter is back in the box, I call for a drop or rise ball to have the ball break just before it gets to the plate.

At the youth level, almost all inside pitches should be high and all outside pitches low. High inside pitches tend to back the batter off the plate and then can be followed up with an outside pitch. If the batters stand far away from the plate and then moves closer on an outside pitch, the next pitch should be inside. I always try to have my pitchers move the ball around. Vary the location, speed, and rhythm for best results. The best pitchers understand they need to continually vary all three of these for maximum effect. You want to keep the batter off balance so they don't know what to expect next: high and inside, low and outside, breaking just as they swing, or speed change. A great reference on how to pitch to specific batters can be found at Virginia pitching coach, Rita Lynn Gilman's web site:

(http://www.softballpitchingtools.com/s pecific_batters.htm).

We just discussed location. Speed comes in three flavors in youth softball: fast, off-speed, and change-up. Off-speed is a slower fastball and can be used to upset a batter's rhythm. The change-up can be either over-used or under-used but is hardly used correctly in youth softball. For change-ups, I hardly ever use them on weaker batters. These batters are best handled with faster pitches. If you slow the ball down, you are just taking away your advantage. The change-up is a great tool against power hitters. It's great to catch a fast hitter way in front of the ball and have them fall all over themselves trying to regain their balance. However, the change-up is much more than a pitch in the toolbox. Throwing the change-up is a tactic that puts power hitters off their game. If you call for the change-up often enough, the power hitters soon realize that they would rather take some power off their bat than strikeout. This reduces the power hitter to an average hitter that most defenses can deal with. Using a change-up this way, you not only have a great tool to get that third strike on a batter, but you also have a technique to reduce a batter's power! You need to make sure the batter knows you can call for a change-up at any time, including first pitch, two or three in a row, etc.

Rhythm describes the pitcher's routine. Normally, pitchers receive the ball back from the catcher, go to the back of the pitcher's circle, turn around, make sure their hands are separated, step on the rubber, and then wait the same amount of time before beginning the pitching motion once the home plate ump indicates the pitcher should start. Pitchers need to change this up. Instead of walking to the back of the circle every time, every three or four times, go right to the rubber. Instead of waiting three or four seconds after the umpire gives the signal, pitch immediately. The pitcher should vary her rhythm to keep the batter off balance. I always try to get a first pitch strike. Change-ups should be called sparingly with runners on base. Statistically, outside pitches result in more strikes than inside pitches. Talk to your pitcher and the person warming the pitcher up. Ask them what pitches were working best. Even if your pitcher normally has a killer rise ball, if it isn't working today, don't call for it! Also, give your pitcher the ability to wave off any pitch she isn't comfortable throwing. I'd rather have my pitcher throw a drop ball that she's comfortable with than throwing a screwball that isn't working.

Making sure that your pitchers throw age appropriate safe pitches, and using the techniques I described to move the ball around, vary the speed and rhythm, and to select pitches that exploit the batter's weaknesses, your pitchers should have successful, healthy seasons of enjoying fastpitch softball.

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Youth Sports Coaching Certification

Written By Mitch Alexander

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Youth Sports Coaching Certification

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If you've been following this column, you know my area of focus is youth sports. Primarily, 8-18 year old softball players ­ recreational level, summer Williamsport competition, and travel ball. Last week, Marie and I had the opportunity to be re-certified by the State University of New York through their Youth Sports New York program. Certification is required by our Little League District. I believe we are the first district in New York to require every manager, coach, and volunteer who comes in contact with youth athletes to be both certified and pass a background check. Sounds kind of boring? So what, who cares? As a parent and possibly a coach, you should care that the people who are providing guidance and leadership for your children know something about coaching. I'm not just talking about sports skills, but more about the soft skills and management skills that are not specific to one sport but apply to all sports.

We went through nine modules of training, each focused on a different key aspect of coaching youth sports. We were reminded of many INTERESTING facts and coaching tips. Many of these you may never have heard before! Here are the highlights:

30 – 40 million kids participate in organized sports per year

80% of these kids play sports away from school

The amount of time kids spend on organized sports has doubled over the past 20 years

However, over the past 20 years, kids spend less (up to eight hours less) time per week on unstructured sports or free play.

Over 45% of kids surveyed said they have been called names, yelled at, or insulted by coaches

21 % were forced to play with an injury

Over 1 7 % said they were hit, kicked, or slapped by their coach

20 years ago kids learned to play sports in their backyards without the help of adults

Over 65% of kids surveyed said they play sports to be with their friends

Only 20% of kids surveyed said they want to improve their skills

Winning is not very important to kids

70% of kids drop out of sports by age 13

Half of the top six reasons kids quit sports involved the coach: played favorites, poor teacher, or don't like the coach

Organized sports often require both excessive psychological and physical demands

Reduced team size allows younger or less skilled players to get more action time

Coaches are often more interested in winning than player development

A coach's manner determines how they are remembered

Coaching relies on the art of communicating with the youth athletes and connecting with them

Good coaches tend to be good teachers

A good story or probing question can help make practices interesting to kids

Use the sandwich technique when giving constructive feedback: give a positive comment, the constructive feedback, followed by a positive comment

Try to provide 15 minutes of fun time per practice for team building, creating great memories, and growing their passion for the game

Establish the parents' expectations on day one with a communications plan

Discuss on-field behavior, sportsmanship, and responsibilities with your players

Coach to the middle players, (not the top players) who will improve through confidence and practice. Top players help the middle players and weaker players see that it's possible to excel

“For kids, a loss lasts about a day but a barbeque lasts a lifetime” – Timothy Donovan

Don't coach your own child, have another coach do it and you coach their kid

Never let players instruct other players as if they are the coach

Pay attention to off-ball activity as this is where dirty play frequently happens

Coaches need to be aware of how to prevent and detect concussions

Almost 6% of softball injuries include concussions

The most common types of softball injuries are shoulder and arm injuries including strains, pulls, and tears

Dehydration is a common problem for softball players in warm weather

Players should drink 8 ounces of water 15 minutes before a game, 4-8 ounces every 15 minutes during the game, and 16 -32 ounces after the games are over

Do not allow energy drinks in the dugout

Sports drinks are made for adults. Kids can get stomach cramps by drinking them in large quantities

Dilute sports drinks 50% for kids to drink

Monitor the heat index to prevent heat-related injuries

As a coach you need to check your playing field before each game and determine if it's safe. If not, either correct the problems or don't play the game

The certification class lasts about three hours. We had a great instructor with lots of experience coaching and refereeing many sports. Many other important topics were covered. This is a crash course on how to be a good coach. The instructor did not talk about how to swing a bat or throw a softball. Instead, he talked about how to connect with student athletes, how to run practices, the key aspects of player and parent compacts, and safety issues . No one was bored or nodded off! This is important stuff and it matters, especially to your kids. If you happen to live in New York, try to attend one of these certification sessions . Even if you live outside of New York State, you can still learn lots more about these topics by going to the Youth Sports New York website at www.youthsportsny.org . They have sample practice plans, communications plans, parent and player compacts, lots of information about concussions, videos, and a whole lot more to help you be the best coach you can be – a coach that kids twenty years from now will remember as someone who inspired and influenced them to be a better person and a better athlete.

Dallas / Fort Worth Coaches Group