Hayley CruthersEvery softball player of all ages has "stuff" they need to fix.  Whether they need to work on charging the ball, removing the dip in their swing or throwing a more consistent change-up, winter is the best time to fix those things (a.k.a. the off-season).  It is during this time that players who really go to work on improving their skills make the most progress.  They're the girls who show up in the spring surprising their school teammates, coaches and other parents. 

When they first learn new mechanics, it isn't always pretty.  They must be willing to fail, stick with it and not revert back into their old habits.

Good Instruction, Hard Work & Repetitions

It is not by luck, magic or because she's another year older however.  It's because she received good instruction and spent a couple hundred hours taking a thousand+ reps to improve her skills.  Without proper instruction, she'll likely get really good at cementing bad habits that can become impossible to ever fix (see Practice Makes Perfect).  So, what's "good instruction?"  It is good instruction that makes a player better and more consistent.  It ultimately helps her be the best she can be. 

It is important to understand that what works for one player may not work for another.  A good instructor will try things, make adjustments and concessions according to a player's abilities and most importantly the results they are having in workouts and games.  Every instructor has their ways of teaching certain skills in which they may not be open to debate with you.  You have to be the judge (judging the results) when it comes to your daughter and decide whether or not to seek out another instructor. 

Real World Example

The best way I can explain this to you is by example.  When I begin teaching hitting to girls 13+ years old, I show every player the same swing, which I detailed in January, Hitting Lessons: Results & Realities.  Over time and after numerous tweaks for each hitter comes a point when I decide whether to continue teaching them this method (what I call the hybrid swing) or to simplify things to give them a better chance of being successful.

Last Fall I began working with our high school girls in what would be my first official season as an assistant varsity coach.  There were 3 girls who can best illustrate my point concerning hitting instruction, a senior, junior and sophomore.  Considerations include the player's athleticism, hand-eye coordination and whether they can correct bad habits/mechanics.  I can only attempt to correct mechanics as the other two are out of my control.

The senior was very athletic, but had a terrible dip that could not be corrected.  Had I been able to work with her as a freshman, maybe it could have been corrected.  I decided to show her what I referred to in the previously mentioned article as the contact swing.  She went on to have her best varsity season hitting and earned All-District honors.  The junior had the same problem, but was not as athletic, although stronger.  I decided to convert her to the contact swing, but included a full body/hands load into the swing.  She went on to become All-League and All-District finishing at the top of the team's hitting stats.

The sophomore had a few old habits that she was showing signs of being able to fix.  Based on this progress and the fact that she had a couple more years to work on it, I decided to stick with this hybrid method for her.  She did not get a lot of at-bats during the varsity season, but did have success including one of the two home runs the team hit (the senior contact hitter had the other).  It is turning out to be a good decision as she had a lot of success during her summer and fall travel seasons, likely positioning herself at the top of the lineup for next year's varsity team.

Because of their unique hitting styles, an outsider looking at each of these players might think they have different hitting coaches.  One thing all of these girls has in common:  They work extremely hard and get a thousand+ repetitions (Yes, over a thousand reps).  But here's the kicker: There are players I have tried teaching variations of both hitting styles who I have not been able to help improve.  As a coach I am constantly trying to figure out ways to help every player.  There's no "One size fits all," when it comes to coaching. 

There are also some players that I do not give instruction to as they already have an instructor.  These are typically travel players who've taken the time and spent the money on instruction and are comfortable with the results.  In this case, I may only offer advice or give them questions to present to their instructors during their lessons/workouts.  I may not agree with or like a particular method being used, but understand that instructors like myself will try different things with different players to help them correct problems and/or be more consistent/successful.  The parent & player have made the decision to use another instructor, so my job is to work with them, not against them.  However, like other players, results matter and the lineup will be made accordingly.

The Next Level

A player (and her parents) who had success in the youth league and middle school may be less receptive to making changes to her mechanics as they prepare for varsity and 14u travel softball.  The problem is that the game is so much less competitive and slower than it is during their high school years that it often gives them a false sense of achievement.  Soon those bad habits in their mechanics become very apparent and their confidence takes a hit, likely for the first time. 

It is often at this point that players (and parents) are more willing to try new things, like changing their swings, a different grip on a change-up or attacking hard the ground balls they once could let bounce to them.  In my experience the biggest piece of advice I can give to players and parents is to be patient during this time.  Assuming you've found an instructor (often their coach) to work with your daughter and she's putting in the time, you should begin seeing positive results during her workouts. 

Seeing positive results during the games can sometimes take a little bit longer, since these new skills have to become habits that they do not have to think about during the games.  In the middle of the night you don't think about putting one foot in front of the other for each step you take towards the bathroom, right?  The purpose of repetitions also gives players this ability to "Just Do It" in the games without thinking about it.  A great deal of this is really about the mental side of the game, which is also detailed in the previously mentioned article.

Taking their games to the next level often includes totally tearing down their mechanics and rebuilding them (sort of like the military does).  Outfielders can't make longer throws accurately if they throw side armed.  Cut-offs can't take 3 steps to throw runners out at the plate.  Pitchers can't throw the same speed the whole game and expect to get through the opposing team's lineup 3 or 4 times without getting hit.  Hitters can't take long casting swings upward on rise balls and expect to hit the ball.  These are just some of the things players must realize and be willing to change in order to compete at the next level. 

Genesee Fieldhouse - Winter Softball

When they first learn new mechanics, it isn't always pretty.  They must be willing to fail, stick with it and not revert back into their old habits.  Their ability to do this will be what elevates them to an above average player or holds them back.  Many players participate in indoor winter leagues these days.  There's no better way to work on these new techniques and prepare for the upcoming spring and summer seasons than to get live scrimmaging in during the winter.  By the time player's get to the spring and summer, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to fix major mechanical issues.  This is what the winter is for; building habits through instruction, hard work and repetition.

Parent GogglesLastly, if you're daughter is not making the progress you and her are expecting, what do you do?  Theres two things you can do.  First, find another instructor to see if he/she can help her before the season.  Second, check your parent goggles.  I wrote extensively about that and included an example of my own set of parent goggles.