HOW TO BE A GREAT PINCH HITTER

April 10th, 2011. Sunday, mid-day.

LSU Senior Brittany Mack is on the mound.  Not only is her drop-ball nasty, but she throws three different speeds and they all look the same out of the hand.  I was a freshman that year and had heard something about the LSU curse. For some reason in the last 8-10 years, Alabama softball could not win a game on the road in Baton Rouge.  However this year, I remember thinking that this team was different. We were ranked number one going into the series and LSU had a rough start to the season.

Rewind to Friday night, and I finally understood as we watched a walk-off homerun for LSU sail over the right-center field fence…in the bottom of the 14th inning (that’s seven extra innings for those who don’t know.) What a heartbreaker.

The next night.  Deja Vu. SAME GIRL.  10th inning. Walk-off homerun.  

Maybe we can’t win here?

Sunday rolls around and I take a mini batting practice. I don’t really do my normal hitting routine because I haven’t seen a live at-bat in over 5 weeks since I broke my finger. I wouldn’t be hitting this game.

Once the game began, it didn’t take long for us to realize, like the previous two games of the series, this too was going to be another pitcher’s duel.  Brittany Mack had her good stuff that day and our team just wasn’t scoring, let alone getting on base. Murph, our head coach, is getting upset, rightfully.

Midway through the game, I hear my coach say, “Ryan, you ready? You’re in.”

Um no.  Wait, what?

“Yes,” I hear myself say as a scramble to find my batting gloves.  

My heart is racing.  Why am I in? Am I even cleared to hit?  Should I hit away or slap? What has she even been throwing our lefties?

Strike one.  

Ohhh now I understand what they mean when they say her ball bites.  

Strike two.

Oh boy.  Breathe. Just put it in play.  

Strike three.
—-

Let’s just say I became a pretty good pinch hitter throughout my college career, but I had to learn the hard way, and it took more embarrassing instances than I’d like to remember.  

Here are my 7 Tips to becoming a great pinch hitter:

  1. Get Over It
    This was going to be the last tip, but honestly, if you don’t take care of this first, then you won’t be able to do the rest. Look, pinch-hitting is hard.  You get one chance to see the pitcher.  You can sit there and complain that it’s not fair and everyone else gets more opportunities, or you can take advantage of, as Eminem’s famous song calls it, your “one shot.”  You get a chance to be the spark plug, the hero, or the Debbie Downer who is already beat before she steps up to the plate. You choose. 
  2. Prepare Long Before Game Day
    If you notice that you’re struggling on a certain pitch, then work on it! Not just during practice, but before and/or after your practice time. My junior and senior years I had a few opportunities to lead off the 6th or 7th inning to just get us going.  There were other opportunities where I would come in just to advance a runner. I was a great pinch bunter, which makes me laugh, but it was such an important role! Better yet, everyone on my team made me feel that way. How cool is it that I got to come in, put a bunt down, move the runner, trot down to first, get out and get swarmed with a million helmet hits and pats on the back?  It was the easiest job in the country!But what made it so easy was that I would ask our former All-American Pitching coach, Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro to pitch to me before or after practice at least twice a week.  I would laugh in the box and say “C’mon give me that famous drop ball,” and she would! And I would fail and miss and foul it off, but EVERY pitch I bunted was just another pitch added to my memory bank.  I didn’t try to be perfect in practice. I wanted practice to be harder than the game.    
  3. Warm-Up Like You Are Going to Start
    I noticed my freshman year that I concentrated a lot more on the days I knew I was starting.  I didn’t talk as much in warm-ups. I easily took an extra 20-30 warm-up swings. I even tried to look better on those days making sure my hair was perfect. HAH! Once I got a little older, I really took more pride in my preparation not because I had to, but because it was the right thing to do. Call it superstition, but I really thought the game would know if I cheated my warm- up. And as they always say, you’re one injury away from starting every game and you can’t get that warm-up and all of the previous warm-ups back.  Prepare like you’re going to start.
  4. Take Notes While on the Bench
    I was a great student, so I don’t expect everyone to do this, but I can promise you this is a lot easier than school! Most college teams chart their own hitters.  This helps for scouting reports or future games if you see the same team in playoffs. For instance, if we played Tennessee twice in the regular season and then saw them again in the World Series, it helped so much to pull up your hitting chart and see how they pitched you, in order to have a plan for the next game.I am a lefty and we used to have at least four lefties in the line-up at all times.  The more lefties the better for me because I would chart every hitter we had. By doing this, I was able to pick up patterns a pitcher may have had. For example:  Did the pitcher have a tendency to start all lefties off with a screwball? Was her change up was her “go-to?” What did she typically throw with two strikes? It was like getting the answers to the test before I had to take it!   If you’re in high school and your team doesn’t chart pitches, then bring a notebook and start writing pitch patterns! You never know what you can figure out for yourself AND your teammates.
  5. Visualize
    This was a tough concept to me at first and I can see how tough it can be to buy into.  Now as a coach, I’ve started to use it a lot with my lessons. Let’s keep this very simple so it’s practical! If I notice that all lefties are getting an outside pitch, then I’m going to take the following steps:  First, I’ll watch the pitcher perform a pitch, really studying her motion. Then I will close my eyes for a second and picture myself in the box and her on the mound. As if in slow-motion, I will visualize that outside pitch hitting my bat, and then watching it go right up the middle for a single.  Then, I will open my eyes and watch the next pitch. Without getting too much into the science of this, and I encourage you to look into this if you’re skeptical, your brain can’t really tell the difference between something your body has actually done and something you have visualized your body doing.Now I’m not saying, skip all your reps at practice and take 300 imaginary swings – haha- but I am saying that in games, really work to put yourself in that box picturing the exact pitcher! It used to help me if a pitcher had a great rise ball. I would actually picture myself in the box tracking a high pitch and laying off of it.  Then once I actually got in the game, my previous visualization would help me see it down!
  6. Be Ready Before Coach Calls Your Name
    My freshman year we faced  Stanford in Super Regionals. We were up 6-0 or so in the 4th inning, and to be honest,  I wasn’t really thinking I would come in that game. I decided to go to the bathroom in the dugout when I heard a knock on the bathroom door.“Um, Ryan, you’re hitting.”   I vividly remember zipping my pants up, sprinting out the door, grabbing the bat with no batting gloves, walking to the plate while simultaneously scrambling to tuck my shirt in.  Everything we preach about routine and slowing things down and taking a deep breath went right out the window. My hands were shaking, heart racing, and I swung at the first pitch.  I hit a tiny dribbler and ended up beating it out. Everyone was so excited, and it happened so fast, I didn’t know what just happened. Another lesson learned. From then on, around the 5th inning, I always had a hunch that I would get to hit soon.  So, in order to be overly prepared, I would casually walk to my bag and grab my batting gloves and stick them into my back pocket.  I would also make sure a helmet was nearby. Additionally, I have always had a coach’s brain.  I knew the girls in the lineup who were 0-2 and didn’t look like they were having a good day.  I also knew which players had a shorter leash when it came to performing at the plate. I would pay attention when they were coming up and I would stand at the top of the dugout.  I WANTED to hit. And Coach Murphy would always look over and see me there, ready to go, eager to make an impact and get my job done. If he was ever looking for a pinch hitter, it was a no-brainer. As a coach now, I want the girl at the plate who wants to be up.  It’s so hard to look in the dugout and see girls pouting that they aren’t playing, or girls having a great time but so unfocused. Challenge yourself to be the player focused and ready to go no matter the circumstances.
  7. Be Aggressive and Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
    I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  Pitchers are told to go right after pinch hitters, so get excited! The scary part is, more than likely your first pitch is the best one you’re gonna see! It’s a gamble because if you get out, then your whole at-bat that you’ve been preparing for is over in five seconds. However, if that pitch is right down the middle, you may be getting that winning RBI! Remember, if you’ve prepared properly, taking notes, visualizing, and getting yourself ready to hit, it’ll feel like you’ve already had 4 at-bats! You’re ready for this!And finally, you can do everything right and the odds of getting you out are still higher than you getting on-base! Welcome to softball.  But why play the game if you’re afraid to fail?   Don’t underestimate what a long at-bat that ends in a strikeout does for your team.  Don’t underestimate what a hard line drive caught by a diving center fielder does to start a rally! Even getting out can get your team going. Take pinch-hitting as a challenge, and even a compliment that your coach thinks YOU can get the job done.  I’m not sure if any of you watched the MLB World Series this year, but Boston had two HUGE pinch-hit home runs in games they eventually went on to win.  Everyone falls in love with the story, so start preparing to be the main role. WHAT I WOULD GIVE TO GO BACK!

As always, telling it like it is,


Ryan

SIX EXERCISES YOUR CATCHER NEEDS TO BE DOING

Catching is painful; from the bruises to the ever constant joint pain, it stays with you long after you catch your last pitch. It is a brutal position that is physically taxing on the body. So, before I continue with this article, I want to make a point – HAVE YOUR CATCHERS WEAR KNEE SAVERS. They do just that – save your knees. It is not weak, it is smart. Conceptually, most individuals and researchers will say that you should be strong enough to sit in that position. Research takes anecdotal perspectives in a given situation and not the whole experience. Instead, I challenge you to think about it from this perspective. One game is on average two hours. Split in half and estimate one hour is spent on defense. Now, multiply that by five to six games (at a minimum) a weekend for 32 weeks. That’s 160 hours of sitting in a squat position!! Now, multiply that by countless practices and training sessions and the hours pile up on the individual’s knees. When interpreting the studies conducted on this topic, researchers are just considering the one game, not all of the excess hours put into the craft. But here is the catch. Regardless of whether you utilize knee savers or not, catchers still tend to have hip, knee and lower back discomfort. So, how do we address this issue?

3 Stretching Activities Your Catcher Needs to Do

  1. Hip CARs (controlled articular rotations) – 
  1. Known as an FRC (Functional Range Conditioning) exercise, hip CARs challenge the athlete to go through the full range of motion at the hip joint. In concurrence with the “use it or lose it” mentality, when we do not challenge ourselves to go into certain ranges of motion, our body’s ability to get there deteriorates. Flexibility at the hip joint is imperative to a catcher’s physical health. As the range of motion breaks down, the body will adjust to an inferior position. Catchers tend to rotate their hips internally which places excess stress on the knees and lower back.
  1. Directions – Bring knee as high up as it can go. Open “the door” of the hip without rotating at the torso. Then rotate the foot at the knee joint (internal rotation). From this position, work the knee back with hip into extension. Reverse the process with as much control and precision as possible.

90/90 Switches – 

    1. Here we are focusing on opening up the hip joint and working on the internal and external rotational ability of the joint. Being able to control and move through this range of motion is imperative to full body health of a catcher. We are working postural awareness in conjunction with hip mobility. Another function of a healthy hip: taking pressure off of the lower back.  
      1. Directions – Driving the open leg down into the ground, try to lift the closed leg into the air. Drive both legs in the opposite direction and eventually switch.
  1. Talus Slide Lunge Stretch 
  1. Dorsiflexion is the ability to flex the foot in the upward direction thus allowing the shin angle to decrease to a more acute angle while squatting. Ankle mobility is extremely important in catchers. Often, they are stuck in an elevated position, similar to a calf raise, for a majority of their time catching. It is important to provide flexibility and the opposite range of motion to avoid extreme stiffness which can lead to injuries up the chain. If a catcher does not possess the adequate dorsiflexion needed to achieve the most effective position it is important to note that this will not inhibit the athlete from sitting in a squat but instead will cause the athlete to compensate into ineffective positions in order to get into that position.   
    1. Directions – While maintaining contact between the heel and the ground, go into a lunge position. Drive the shin forward while still maintaining heel contact with the ground. Work to avoid shifting hips and instead keep torso and hips in line while driving forward.

3 Strength Exercises Your Catcher Needs to Do

  1. Internal/External Hip Lift Offs 
  1. Mobility is one aspect of injury prevention, strength is the other. Being able to get through the full range of motion can be just as dangerous if you do not have the strength to stabilize the joint. These isometric holds at the hip joint provide strength to the hip abductors and adductors which are responsible for holding the ball and socket of the hip joint in place.  
    1. Directions – In the 90/90 position, lift the front knee and foot off of the ground. Hold for 10 seconds. Next, lift the back knee and foot off of the ground. Hold for 10 seconds. If actively achieving these positions is not possible, work to find a passive range of motion as well.
  1. Deadbug Variations 
  1. Core strength is important for every aspect of athletic movement. In catchers, it provides stabilization to the pelvis in a squatting position. The deadbug forces the athlete to contract their midline, activating erector muscles of their back into the ground, while either holding the position or going through small, controlled movements. The key here is to push your lower back into the ground while maintaining the ability to breathe. Being able to contract the core and breathe is important for athletes of all sports and positions as it ensures the muscles surrounding the diaphragm are responsible for breathing and not the muscles that are supposed to be stabilizing the spine.  
    1. Directions – While pushing hands  into the wall, drive the lower back into the ground while maintaining the 90-degree angle at the hips and knees. Drive one foot out, leading with the heel, work to breath while simultaneously maintaining ground contact with the lower back.
  1. Supermans 
  1. When constantly being positioned in lower back flexion, think about a catcher’s squat with a rounded back. In order to combat this, we need to strengthen the catcher’s back in the opposite end range – extension. Supermans provide posterior chain activation in the gluteal, hamstring, and spinal levator muscles along the posterior chain. Whether it is in the contracted hold or constant movement range, this exercise provides stabilization to the area catchers tend to be underactive in.  
    1. Directions – Driving the belly button into the floor – lift your arms, using your lower trap muscle structure, and your legs by flexing your glute and hamstrings. Hold for 3 seconds and then relax.

While there are far more exercises your catchers should be doing, these are ones they can do on their own at home. These should be done at least three times a week for both the stretches and the strength exercises. Before performing any catching activity, the stretches should be done. Providing flexibility and mobility to a position that generally results in extreme stiffness is imperative to preventing injury. But, as stated before, mobility should only be given with the intention of providing strength to stabilize the mobility. Finding the optimal balance between strength and mobility is the first step to preventing injury in any athlete.

DEALING WITH AN INJURY

Being injured isn’t easy. Ask any player, in any sport, who has dealt with an injury and they will probably all respond the same: It is one of the hardest challenges you can face as an athlete. Through this article, I can’t speak for every athlete that was ever injured, but I can speak for myself.

My Story

Heading into college I had never dealt with a major injury. I had broken a few bones but never suffered from a major injury. Then came the winter offseason of my freshman year. I was at USA Junior National Team tryouts when I felt like every muscle in my upper back had just cramped. Luckily, the USA National Team athletic trainer, Michele Latimer, was also a Senior Athletic Trainer at the University of South Florida, where I was attending. When we got back to campus, she was able to work on it and loosen it up but I started noticing a weird sensation in my right (throwing) hand. I would go throughout my day and my arm and fingers would tingle, like the pins and needles you feel when you notice a limb was “asleep.” Then, I would be practicing and I would struggle with knowing when the ball was in my hand – I couldn’t feel anything. Midway through my freshman season, I was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS). I played through this nagging injury for two years. By the fall of my junior year, my condition had deteriorated so much that I was struggling to even hold a pencil. Finally, my coaches, sports medicine staff, and I decided to have the issue surgically corrected. I took the entire fall season to rehabilitate the injury in order to be back in time for  the spring season. I worked extremely hard to get back and pushed myself to limits I didn’t think I could go. In the end, it paid off and I was playing opening night. A few weeks into season, we were playing Ole Miss – a team with a ton of slappers. I came across the field on a high chop over the mound and threw the ball from an off balance position. Instantly I felt a pop; in all honesty, I thought I got shot. I sat out the next game because we had another game with Ole Miss later in the day, and my arm was struggling. During my first at-bat of the game, I swung the bat and thought my shoulder went with the ball. It was agony. After the MRI, it was concluded that I had obliterated my labrum. I decided to finish the season, designated to a pinch-hitting role and have surgery at the conclusion of the season.

It was extremely difficult dealing with an injury for the first time but the second time? It was the lowest I ever felt in my career. I had six months to recover in order to be ready for the start of my senior season. It was a challenge that pushed me even further, but luckily I had a group of teammates also recovering from a major injury that made us all go the distance. Shoutout to my Crip Crew!!!

It’s a Process

There are so many layers that go into dealing with an injury. From the physical pain to the mental struggle, recovery is a long process. The physical limitations depend on the injury but they change how you go about your everyday life. Fun fact – I had to learn how to do everything with my left hand, including putting my hair up. The simplest of tasks became extremely difficult. For lower body injuries, you need to learn how to WALK properly again. Imagine the mental struggle an elite level athlete has with learning how to walk again. Further struggle then comes being around your team. In the beginning, you have to watch them give their everything in practice and weight sessions while you stand on the side hoping your athletic trainer allows you to hold a ball! Yes, your teammates know you’re doing everything you can to be back out there with them but there is still a feeling of inadequacy that washes over you. I was lucky enough to have two teammates to go through this process with. We weren’t afraid to discuss how we were feeling with each other or when we were struggling with an exercise. We did our rehab programs together – two of us were shoulder and one an ACL recovery.

Your Challenge

I challenge you, as a teammate of someone who is injured, to not let them feel alone. Simply having someone from your team help you with your rehab goes a long way when you are recovering from an injury. As coaches reading this, I challenge you to find something for your injured athlete to do. While I was designated to a hitting role, even my true role was being an everyday shortstop, my coaches gave me the challenge of picking every potential sign from the opposing team. I was able to use my strengths as a player to read situations and help put our defense in the best position possible. Offensively, I was able to pick the pitches in order to give my teammates at the plate the best chance for success. It was hard going from playing every single game to only pinch-hitting but it was more the feeling that I wasn’t doing anything for my team that got to me the most. We all want to play, don’t get me wrong. But feeling inadequate is much worse. My coaches understood that my strength as a softball student would still be useful even with me off the field. It gave me a sense of purpose during this injury that made it just slightly easier.

My challenge to the injured athlete reading this – trust the process. It sucks and it is hard but you are going to be a better PERSON because of it. It teaches you how to deal with adversity and how to adapt to your situation. Find people to help you through it. Talk about what is difficult for you in the process and suggest ideas that will help make it easier. There is strength in saying you are struggling to adapt to your situation. If you don’t say anything, no one will know how to help you. Have a conversation with your coaches and sports medicine staff. The people around you only want the best for you. It is up to you to take control of your recovery process.

Remain resilient,

Cassidy

HOW TO PROPERLY PROGRESS A TRAINING PROGRAM

In an industry that is so personalized, it may seem very obtuse to the norm that we at AW would not only allow but in fact enforce that an athlete is exposed to each and every member of our coaching staff, over the course of their training season.  Most training facilities may employ one or two full-time [salaried] coaches and then accompany them with several independent contractors or part-time employees, to help handle the volume of athletes.  This model, while significantly more profitable for the company, tends to lead to discrepancies among training protocols, methodologies, and the proper progression of training programs.  

Since our team [at AW] functions as a unit we partake in a daily ritual of discussing every single athlete that is coming in the door that day and for the following week.  What this allows us to create is an incredibly comprehensive approach towards training as we are not limited by our inevitably insipid mindset, yet, we are bolded by the expertise and resourceful nature of the entire unit.  No matter how successful a strength coach one may be, there have been times where they have felt ‘too close to the whiteboard’. Meaning that they have worked with this athlete so often and for so long that their vision of progression becomes stagnant, unidimensional, and perhaps even innocuous.  Step-in the AW approach!

The art of programming with proper progression is much more than understanding the physiology of an athlete.  The coach must have the ability to experience the athlete in a training setting to adequately establish a deepened understanding of their physical, mental, and maturational abilities.  Writing a program based on just the physical demands and potentials of an athlete is like trying to walk across a bridge that has missing planks; sure you may get lucky but eventually, you will fall in.

One final note to this approach is that while we require every coach to be involved with the progression of an athlete, each athlete does still have a primary coach.  The primary coach is the one who is ultimately responsible for the progression of the athlete and will take-in the insight that is garnered from the other coaches experiencing training their athlete and progress the program accordingly.

-Nick Serio

10 Tips for the Next Generation of Softball Players

  1. Practice bunting every time you practice hitting. Some of the biggest situations you’ll find yourself in will call for you to get the bunt down. There’s no worse feeling than not being able to pull through for your team in that moment. 
  1. Learn how to run the bases. Be aggressive, but know when it’s smart to take a risk and when it’s more logical to play it safe. Consider the outs, inning, score, and where your team is at in their line up. Even when you’re not on the bases, think about what you would be doing if you were in the situation. 
  1. Practice being uncomfortable. The game moves very quickly in college and there are a few times where you can sit back and watch things play out. Practice being nervous for at-bats. Practice making throws when the game is on the line. Practice in the rain. Practice when you’re sore and out of breath. If you can make practice more difficult than the game, you’ll be that much more comfortable in a live setting. 
  1. Invest in your teammates. This holds true regardless of the level at which you are playing. You are lucky to be surrounded by others your age who share the same passion you do for this sport. Get to know them off the field. One of the most valuable things this sport has blessed me with is the opportunity to know some pretty unbelievable girls.  I personally think this sport would eat each and every one of us alive if we were forced to play it as an individual rather than with a team. Make seeing your teammates the best part of your day. 
  1. Learn how to recover from failure. This game beats you up both physically and mentally on a daily basis. Coming to college has taught me that there will be an abundance of both good and bad days. Learn from the bad ones, and know that the good ones are just around the corner. 
  1. With that being said, don’t make the bad days worse than they have to be. It’s easy to write off a practice if you’re not feeling 100%. Challenge yourself to stay motivated and put in your full effort. You don’t wake up for every game day feeling great, learn how to be successful even when things don’t feel right. 
  1. Learn to love lifts and conditioning. Learn to love putting work in before the sun comes up. If you choose to drag your feet about this part of improvement, it’ll make for some very groggy, dreaded, painfully slow workouts. There’s something cool about working hard while the rest of the world is sleeping. Relish that, and don’t hit snooze. 
  1. Pick up your teammates’ bats every opportunity you get. You’re all in this together, so set the tone that you’re going to be the most selfless version of yourself every time you all come together. There’s never an inappropriate time to give a high-five. Acknowledge the small stuff, and don’t be timid to give compliments.
  1. Find your own perfect level of confidence. This is something that I think about often in college. While you never want to be overconfident, in order to make it to the highest level of this sport, you need to believe in yourself before others do. There will be people who tell you that you’re not good enough. There will be teammates who make you feel small. There will be times during which you tell yourself you’re not good enough. Let the confident voice prevail, even when you’re not totally sold.
  1. Take time to reflect on how far you’ve come. Look at where you started, and look at where you want to be. It’s a lot harder to work toward a goal if you can’t remind yourself of the goals you’ve already accomplished in your past. Trust the process. Try not to get caught up in comparisons. Use statistics wisely.

Addiction in Athletics

Looking at the title, you probably think this is just going to be another article about alcoholism or drug addiction. While that does play a role in the conversation, the purpose of this article takes a different route in explaining the role of addiction in athletics.

What is Addiction?

When we think about addiction, we automatically perceive it in a negative connotation. According to the dictionary, when we look up the word addiction, the definition that follow is such – the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity. Now let’s break that down further. What is the definition of addicted? Being “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects” or “enthusiastically devoted to a particular thing or activity.” So, why when discussing addiction in relation to a  substance is it “physically and mentally dependent” but when discussing an activity, it is “enthusiastically devoted?” What if an activity caused the same psychological addictive qualities of that of a substance?

Addictive Behavior in Athletics

When we think about elite level athletes – including top tier Division I, professional, and Olympic levels – we think strength and energy, pride and recognition – all stable and unwavering. We put these athletes on pedestals; believing that nothing affects them like the average person. We perceive that they can handle things better than the rest of us. However, what makes a person willing and able to dedicate such an ENORMOUS part of their life to a game or activity? Why do we constantly see players struggling to retire? Or  in so much pain when the game ends for them outside of their control? For most top tier athletes, their sport is all they know. They dedicated every “free” moment to being the best at their sport. They took time from their day to train and travel in order compete at their highest level. For some, they may have become so dependent on their sport to provide them with their basic needs and feelings that when it ended, they didn’t know how to function properly. They shut down or turned to something that gave them the same “high” their sport did.

This all seems troubling yet we as coaches, parents, and professionals only focus on them when they get to the point of turning to alcohol or recreational drugs before we decide to provide assistance. Why not earlier? Their addictive personalities showed so much sooner when they stayed an extra 45 minutes after practice to complete the same drill they already did perfectly 30 times that day. Their behavior screams addiction long before the end of their career! To those who call it ‘perfectionism’, there are multiple studies documenting the psychological link between perfectionism and addiction. To explain further, one who is a perfectionist is addicted to being perfect. They cannot function until the task is perfect. Is that much different than the individual who cannot get through their day without a sip of alcohol or their drug of choice?

So why do we place so much emphasis on helping the individual with the drug addiction but simply brush off the obsessed athlete as, “Oh, they are just a perfectionist?” The addictive cycle will always continue until the wheel is broken. The drug addict or alcoholic will continue to use until an event of huge impact. The perfectionist will continue to seek perfection until they realize they are not perfect. Then what happens to them? What happens to the excellent athlete when they lose their sport- their addiction?  We need to help these individuals whose personalities scream addiction before it gets to the point of destructive habits . We have the ability to but we need to recognize that it is a problem and stop putting athletes on their giant pedestal as if they are immune to these issues. But what do we do? How do we do it? This is the tricky part.

How Do We Address This Issue

We cannot force an athlete to get help for an issue. Like any healing or learning process, the individual has to want to change. There is a reason why most mandatory interventions or mandatory rehabilitation processes fail – the individual must want to get better. In the first few steps on the 12 Step Model of Addiction healing, one must admit there is a problem, understand they cannot tame it on their own, and turn over control (12 Step Program). So as an outside figure, seeing the symptoms but knowing it has to come from the individual, what do we do?

  1. Do not force them to do something they are not ready for. This can result in them pushing away from the people and things they need to remain healthy at the current time.
  1. Support them for who they currently are.
  1. Begin to make them aware of their current tendencies and addictions.
  1. If destructive, make them aware of the harmful consequences of their actions.
  1. Understand that healing takes time and is often a confusing process. Be there for them, as they need it, but do not overwhelm them more.

Becoming aware that there is a problem is the first step to correcting the issue. As an athletic community, we can protect one another from developing harmful addictions by recognizing the behavior early, before it is a problem. Continue to support each other and learn about those you are around. We cannot conquer this issue without the help of all involved in the athletic world.

Coach Cassidy

References

12 Step Programs for Drug Rehab & Alcohol Treatment. (2018, September 23). Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/12-step/

BACKSIDE DRIVE PART 2

Do you feel like you’re swinging hard but the ball is going nowhere? Is ‘warning-track-power’ your nickname? Do you feel like if you ever do get a hold of a ball it gets pulled foul? Then you may be suffering from a lack of backside power…

In hitting, there are three main components to developing power within a hitter: Separation, front side tilt, and backside drive. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the most effective ways to train backside drive in an athlete, in particular, a female softball hitter.

This article will cover the various ways to coach an athlete through improvement. Some hitters operate best with a simple cue while others need a more focused skill development. Sometimes, neither of these work and the hitter is instead limited physically by their structure and muscular functions. For this article series, we will dive into each of these categories so that you as a parent, coach, or athlete can feel fully equipped to develop backside drive.

Part 2: Structure & Function

See part 1 for an explanation on backside drive.

When hitting, our ultimate goal is to be able to drive the lower half while simultaneously staying centered enough to rotate along the middle axis of our body. If you see the video below, I am analyzing the hitter’s drift once her front heel makes contact with the ground. This is indicative of the initiation phase beginning. Therefore, the back side (back hip) should begin to violently externally rotating as the front side hip absorbs the rotation by internally rotating.

It is important to note that if the athlete does not possess the ability to rotate at the hip joint then they will rely solely on linear aspects in order to generate power. If you view the video below, you’ll notice the tilt angle drastically changes during the initiation phase because the individual lacks the ability to properly rotate on their front hip.

Additionally, if the athlete cannot get into the proper loaded position at separation then they will miss getting into the proper position in order to drive out of their backside anyway. This will typically happen when an athlete does not possess the proper strength or awareness to sink into their backside as they begin to separate. This does not necessarily mean the athlete is not strong, it just means that the position they are in is inhibiting them to exhibit that strength. In this video below you’ll notice an athlete sway or drift backward opposed to sinking into their back hip and as a result, they have a tremendous push forward instead of an effective drive that allows the hand path to smoothly translate to and through the ball. The athlete still hits the ball hard but it requires a maximum effort in order to do so. This inability to load down into the back hip will throw off muscle sequencing and thus disallow the proper muscle firing order in the swing.

Okay, great – what do we do about this now? If you are looking for skill specific work to address these issues, then check out our first article on backside drive. If you have attempted each of these drills with precision and consistency and have still struggled to find results in your hitter, then perhaps there is an issue with structure or function.

The body won’t create what it can’t first absorb

What does this mean? The body won’t jump to a height it does not feel strong enough to land from. A pitcher won’t be able to throw so hard that the shoulder doesn’t feel like it can hold the arm in place. And lastly, a hitter will not swing with a velocity that the body does not feel it can slow down. In a perfect world, these statements are 100% true. However, when the athlete pushes through these limitations, compensates with poor movement patterns or neglects to listen to their body’s signs of fatigue, the result is an injury. Therefore, in order to have the body trust the swing, it is imperative to activate musculature needed to absorb the power created in the swing.

Below are three basic activation exercises that require zero equipment. Thoughtful intent and high kinesthetic awareness are required.

Activation Exercise #1: Lateral Plank with Rotation

For this exercise, the athlete begins on their side. They will work to keep their balance on the outside of their bottom foot as they cross over their top leg and plant it firmly on the ground for balance. It is imperative that the elbow on the ground is aligned with the shoulder so as to avoid undue stress on the shoulder capsule. From here, the athlete will work to reach around their midline and then while maintaining balance and control, reach their arm to the ceiling. As a coach, look to have the athlete maintain proper hip height throughout the entire movement. If the athlete struggles to balance in this position, have them first just hold the lateral plank position and eventually progress to the plank with reach variations.
Activation Exercise #2: Glute Bridge

There is a multitude of variations for the glute bridge. The ultimate goal is to get the body to activate the glute. Seems obvious enough yet it is important to note that many athletes will feel their hamstring or lower back activate instead of their glute. Remember, athletes are not the best movers, they are the best compensators. We will figure out a way to accomplish the task regardless if we are utilizing the best musculature in order to do so. Therefore, progress these movements slowly and controlled and work to communicate with the athlete on where they are feeling this movement. Adjusting the hip height and alternating between unilateral vs. bilateral variations will aid in the effectiveness of this exercise.

Activation Exercise #3: Split Stance Tempo Up Downs with Rotation

Although this drill appears simple in nature, the complexities of it come from understanding the bodies smallest movements. From a kneeling stance, the athlete should work toward exhaling their ribcage into a neutral position thus adjusting their spine and hip position to an active neutral position as well. From there, the emphasis will be on activating the glute of the trail leg. The athlete should be able to keep the glute engaged throughout the entire length of the movement. If the athlete is unable to stand all the way up with their glute remaining engaged, then take the athlete to the height of disengagement and work toward improving range of motion each week.

Correcting for Common Issues

Addressing the inability to separate the lower half and the upper half. See below for various drills that work toward having the athlete feel the separation in the swing.

Banded Separation/PVC Separation

Seated Thoracic Mobility

Quadruped Thoracic Mobility

Addressing Drifting on Load or Initiation Phase

Many times in the swing, the athlete will experience drift due to an inability to internally and/or externally rotate at the hip or rotate at the thoracic spine. Below are exercises that address these two issues.

Internal/External Hip Rotation Conditioning

Adductor Slides

AGILITY IS PURELY COGNITIVE 

When it comes down to performance training, the main objective of training for sport is to improve on field success. Improvements in the weight room and practice field are always a goal of an athlete or coach, but just because I PR’d in the weight room, or ran my fastest 5-10-5, does it actually translate to the field?

What exactly is agility?

It’s hard to define exactly what agility is. But in the most simplest terms, agility is the ability to change direction in a single event or multiple times. There are a ton of ways to evaluate or test agility such as 5-10-5 (pro agility), T-test, L-test…etc. Most of these tests have pre planned directions involved with the test. Therefore, Some may consider these tests to only measure change of direction. These tests can be useful and are standardized so that coaches or athletes can measure and compare other athletes times in the test. However, in sports, agility is not pre planned. Agility incorporates reaction to the environment around you. In football, when a running back is running with the ball, the athlete does not pre plan his run, instead he is reacting to the environment around him and (hopefully) making the appropriate reactions to try and avoid defenders. Make sense?

Agility is mostly mental

Regarding agility to actual on field performance, the best athletes with the best on field agility also have the best perception or awareness of the environment around them. The environment around a field athlete would include other players (teammates or opponents), field restrictions (out of bounds) or any other component depending on the game being played. Cutting at the right time to have the defender go by you is a way that an athlete is able to absorb information of their surrounding area and implement a quick, accurate and effective plan to essentially get where they need to get. Higher skilled athletes are generally stronger and faster but also posses the ability to absorb information and make an accurate decision based upon the environment factors at hand. High skilled athletes posses a certain feel for the game they are playing and are able to use their high strength and speed levels to carry out what they are feeling in the game.

How do we train this?

As a strength coach, one way I am able to train on field agility is through reactive drills. Reactive drills incorporate the physical and mental aspect of the sport at hand. For example, for a football player, lets just say a QB, making the athlete complete a speed ladder, working on foot mechanics while looking downfield and making a decision and actually throwing the football to a receiver based on the defensive formation. This drill is able to incorporate agility or change of direction training with a cognitive aspect. The speed ladder is a useful tool and can look really cool when preformed fast and accurate, but being able to make a decision based on environment while doing it makes the translation to field success higher. This is just one example and there are many different ways to train agility with some kind of mental aspect or reaction aspect that will translate better to the field.

What we think of when training for sport you would generally think of the physical aspect- weight training or agility training. The technical side of training which would evolve your basic skills for the sport. For example, in basketball, passing, dribbling and shooting would all be trained. Other side of training would be the tactical side of training which would involve your game plan. For example, in basketball, going over offensive plays and defensive plays. A lot of people forget the mental aspect of the game.

There are physical aspects of agility of course. But, for the purposes of this post, we simply wanted to focus on the mental side. 

HOW TO MAKE HITTING EASIER

Imagine if you knew every pitch that was going to get thrown to you before the pitcher released the ball. Would this make you more comfortable as a hitter? Picking pitches is slowly becoming a major part of the game of softball. Any advantage one team can gain over the other makes the path to victory a little simpler. As a player trying to stand out to college coaches or make a difference on their team, the ability to pick signs or pitches can separate you from the rest. So, how do we do this? Here are multiple ways to gain that edge.

Picking off the Coach

When signs are relayed from the dugout to the catcher, we have the first opportunity to figure out the opponent’s plan. Whether you decide to write down the numbers, you can begin to notice a pattern or common sequence. It may take a few innings to notice a pattern but it is important to pay attention to every single pitch. By having a player or two focused on the pitch calling makes your ability to pick the pitch that much more possible. It is important to be creative in this part of the game. You don’t know the pattern so you must keep your mind open to all possibilities. Some coaches can choose a sequence based off the inning or batter in the lineup. Never get set on what you think the pattern is until you are absolutely sure because you may miss the true sequence. When the coach is using touches off the face or body, the same rules apply. The first goal is to figure out the indicator – this can be a number or a feature on the face such as the nose or ear. Once you have the indicator, you can then work towards the actual pitch and location. For location, you can either look for odds or evens for inside and outside or potentially splitting the strike zone into five sections. Next is the pitch – you need to focus on location and speed to understand the pattern. It may go location then pitch or pitch then location. This may sound complicated to some but keep in mind you don’t need to decode the opposing team’s entire pitch sequence. Something as simple as finding out the sign for the changeup can be extremely valuable. Still, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Luckily, there is more than one way to pick pitches.

Reading the Pitcher and Catcher

As the softball community shifts towards the armbands for pitch calling, picking off the coach becomes incredibly difficult – as there is almost no pattern to the sequence. Therefore, we have to use what is given to us. Starting with the catcher, the catcher tends to move based off of location and might shift based on the speed or height of pitch. This tip can help us work through the other ways of picking pitches. From the pitcher, there are multiple ways. (1) Body language: Pitchers often have confidence in some pitches and fear of others. Once you notice a reaction to a certain pitch, you can start to associate the reaction to the pitch. (2)  Grip: When pitchers grab a specific pitch they may shift their glove or place their hand in the glove a different way. When we notice this, we can gain an advantage in the picking process.

The only way to understand and get good at this process is to practice it. At first, it will feel overwhelming and difficult. However, as you practice, you begin to notice common tendencies and your confidence will increase.

Have fun picking,

Cassidy

LINEAR SPEED VS SPORTS SPEEd

Before we start, it is important to understand we are using linear speed in reference to straight ahead sprinting as done in track and field.  Sports speed is in reference to every other sport there is that requires running or sprinting. Yes, there is a difference between the two and this article will focus on how and why we train certain ways for all our athletes.

In terms of training, how are they different between track athletes and field sports athletes? Keep it simple – track athletes need a tremendous focus on sprint technique, starting mechanics and actual practice and conditioning for their individual races.  Field sports athletes need to focus on so much more than technique. Field sports should be looked at as multi-directional speed athletes and track athletes as linear speed athletes.  

Multi-directional speed is mostly based on reactive movements dependent on what is happening on the field. This speed requires a major topic that we often miss, DECELERATION.  Most field sports athletes need to be able to decelerate and accelerate very quickly. In track, there is no deceleration.

Take for example a running back in football.  Obviously, they need to be fast but it is so rare that a running back is sprinting linearly for 50 yards ever in a game.  The majority of the time they are cutting and reading defenders. Their “speed” is based on about 5-10 yards each play and their ability to decelerate and accelerate very efficiently.  How about a baseball player stealing a base? Some of the best base stealers are not the fastest guys on the field but the best at reading a pitcher and getting a good jump off a pitcher’s wind up.  A tennis player may never sprint more than 10 yards back and forth but the majority of the time they are reacting to their opponent and anticipating where the ball will be next. I think we understand the point – field sports athletes require “game speed,” which is so much more than linear running.

Let’s get back to the point of this article – understanding the training differences between the two.  For both track athletes and field sports athletes, we need to train linear, multi-directional and deceleration.  For sprinters, all they do is run linear and that is exactly the reason they need to train other things like jumping and lateral movements.  If a sprinter comes into our facility we can’t be sprinting them too much because they are sprinting linearly year round for their sport. We need to take a greater approach to injury prevention, deficiencies in their gait, jumping, and deceleration – the areas that get neglected on the track.  Field sports athletes are just the opposite; they are constantly cutting, jumping, diving, moving in various planes. We need to be cautious of taxing those movements over and over again. Imagine you just played a bunch of basketball games during the week and then arrived at training with your performance coach only to find yourself doing the exact same movements; jumping, cutting and sprinting.  It just doesn’t make sense.

The training of speed for any individual athlete is as simple as understanding their personal movement deficiencies and how to make them perform better in their sport.  I can’t tell you how many times an athlete comes in and says, “I need to get faster.” Well, everyone needs to get faster but we have to do so in a productive manner. As coaches, we want you to get faster progressively without injury.  Most injuries in sport happen during deceleration. I think this may be the biggest difference between the two types of speed mentioned in this article. Training deceleration requires technique but it is also very taxing when done with proper intent.

I could go on forever on the differences of all sports, positions, etc but the takeaway message is don’t over complicate speed. Know your athlete! This includes: being aware of their movement deficiencies, understanding their strengths, getting to know their personal schedules, feeling out when and how to push, and then knowing when to focus elsewhere.  I’ll say it once more, KNOW YOUR ATHLETE! The younger the athlete, the more the training should consist of a wide range of movement patterns. When training a varsity or collegiate athlete the training should be very specific to the athlete’s needs and be focused towards injury prevention and performance.  Train linear, train multi-direction, train deceleration and do so in a proper fashion for each individual athlete.

-Coach Matt

Sometimes Attitude and Effort Just Isn’t Enough

“Your coach doesn’t really determine your playing time. Your own choices do. Your attitude, your effort, your work ethic and more.”

I stumbled upon this while mindlessly scrolling on Instagram, like we all do late at night when we should be doing other things.  I scanned over it quickly and the word “effort” caught my eye, so I scrolled back up and reread it.  

And it bothers me.

And for the girl who starts and plays ever game, this post won’t bother her.

And for the girl who sits the bench, knows she has a poor attitude and doesn’t work that hard, it won’t bother her either.

You know who it will bother?

The girl who busts it every day.  Who stays late at practice. Who hits on the tee late at night in the basement.  Who goes to a private instructor once a week. Who cheers her teammates on. Who, despite doing everything right, still sits the bench.  It will bother her.

Because there are WAY too many instances where this quote just isn’t true.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the point. Basically, this is trying to say: those with poor effort, a bad attitude, and no work ethic, will have limited playing time.  

Duh. Boring. We know.

Goal Setting – Controllables vs Uncontrollables

We started a class this fall on the mental game and in week two we spoke about goal setting.  Some girls want to start on varsity this year, another wants to pitch a perfect game, and one wants a full scholarship to the University of Alabama.

What’s something all of these have in common? They are all at the mercy of someone else.  The varsity coach will determine who makes varsity. Your defense behind you, the umpires, and each batter a pitcher faces will determine whether a perfect game is thrown.  And sometimes The University of Alabama softball team has a full scholarship for only one player in the entire country in your recruiting year.

Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t crush these girls’ dreams.  We simply told them this: IF these were your dreams and goals, let’s make sure we do EVERYTHING in our power to control the controllables.  

What is Controllable?  

We helped each girl come up with their own list of steps to reaching their goal.

One girl’s goal was to make Varsity this spring:

  • I will hit on my own for 25 minutes, 2x per week (10 slow & controlled swing, 10 jump back drill, 10 skip-up drills, etc).
  • I will ensure that my school work is done first, so that I have the ability to play softball this week.
  • As a pitcher, I will develop my change-up this fall, so that I am prepared to face varsity hitters. I will work with a pitching coach once per week and on my own as well.
  • I will work on playing third and outfield with my travel team, so I can play multiple positions.  
  • I will shut my phone off until at least 7:30pm, so I can get my school work and extra softball work in before I turn to social media and group chats with my friends
  • I will work on handling my emotions and being a great teammate during fall ball.

And Now for the Hard Part, The Bitter Truth

Even if you did every single thing on this list, the game does not owe you a dang thing.  

As a player, of course I wanted to be on that field.  I wanted to get the game-winning hit, or make the diving play. I wanted to be at the bottom of that dog pile, instead of running to jump on the top of it. I prepared for it.  I worked outside of practice, took care of my body, taught the game to others around me, and screamed as loud as I could for my teammates when they did something well. I did everything right.  But someone was still better than me. Someone who didn’t have to work that hard. And that’s ok.

Now, five years later, I’m a coach. And my heart strings tug a little every time I see that girl working a little extra, diving all over the field, giving me her best.  And someone else is still better.

Because this games owes us nothing, but pouring everything you have into it sure does put you a hell of a lot closer to your dreams.  Leave it out there. No regrets.

I’m not telling you this to put you down, I’m telling you this because maybe the actual goal (i.e. playing time, wins, hits, etc) is not the point of working hard, but instead it’s about the person you become along the way in pursuit of your goals. We chase the instant gratification, but what if the delayed gratification is even better? So if for some reason you’re sitting there thinking your “time” never came, just hold on. It may look a little different than you originally had imagined.

Don’t believe me?  Read my best friend Jordan Patterson’s article The Game Knows and thank me later.  

As always, telling it like it is,

Ryan

UNRECOGNIZABLE TEAMS HAVE UNRECOGNIZABLE PLAYERS

“Unrecognizable teams have unrecognizable players.” I cannot tell you how many times I heard this statement during my time as a softball player at the University of South Florida. It takes a special individual to truly understand this statement. When you get to the Division I level, especially at a Top 50, sometimes Top 25 program, you are playing with the best of the best. Your teammates were probably the best player on their high school team or travel ball team just like you. There is a reason why they are there. So how do you get a bunch of former number 1’s to gel as a unit and play together?

Unrecognizable Teams Have Unrecognizable Players

I always got the basic concept of this statement. In its simplest form, it means that you can be the superstar on the worst team in the country but no one is going to know who you are because your team isn’t good and no one wants to follow them. Bottom line: it is about the team, not about you. But as simple as this statement can seem, people will perceive it differently. Your experiences shape how you see things.

Being a high school athlete in a small town, I witnessed players get extreme recognition even though their team was not that good. It’s a small town – there were very few athletes going to play at the Division I level, or college in general. For someone who finds themselves in this situation, the meaning of unrecognizable teams and unrecognizable players can be confusing to understand.. It’s not  because they are ignorant, but rather because their experience dictated this to be false! As I developed as an athlete and a person over the course of my career, this statement began to have more and more meaning for me.

Surround Yourself with People Who Make You Better

We don’t get to pick our teammates. The coach’s job is to bring in the best players for the program. It is your job to bring out the best of your teammates, and therefore, hopefully yourself. “Unrecognizable teams have unrecognizable players.” Collectivism is a cultural value of placing the group in front of the individual. When individuals care about putting themselves first, they often will do it at the cost of the group. However, when  the individual cares about how they can best help the group, it will bring out the best in them. Making your team better will make them recognizable and therefore will make you recognizable! Unselfish behavior in a team environment does not mean you lose your identity. It does not mean you neglect taking care of your needs. Instead, it means understanding that your decisions and actions can affect those around you; that you determine how you are going to best serve those around you every single day. When done in a healthy and balanced manner, this ideology has the ability to provide the greatest sense of self-worth and positive identity for an individual. When we surround ourselves with people who bring this positive capacity out of us, we have the ability to reach our fullest potential.

My favorite thing about this lesson – it translates far off the playing field. Here at Athletes Warehouse, we are staffed with former collegiate athletes. From National Champions to a Major League Baseball pitcher, we all have the right to have an ego. Yet day in and day out, we put it aside and work together to better everyone around us. Often, we will have our athletes to work with multiple coaches so they get all of our perspectives. We are constantly learning from each other and our athletes because we understand it is not about us, it is about Athletes Warehouse. The selflessness expressed when an individual walks into this building is what makes this environment so special to be a part of.

“Unrecognizable teams have unrecognizable players.”

Be Recognized,

Cassidy