There are, in all probability, more hangdog experiences than letting your softball team down. At this time of year, though, as the days get longer and the sounds and smells of this spring and summertime sport permeate the air, we’re hard-pressed to think of others.
To make sure you’re the player hefted onto teammates’ shoulders as the game ends (or at least not the one glared at during recaps of games lost), we sought tips from softball experts. Amber Conner is head coach of the University of Dallas women’s softball team. T.J. Hubbard holds the same position at the University of North Texas.
For starters, Conner says, don’t sell yourself short. Anyone can play the game.
“Softball does not discriminate,” she says. “You see all shapes and sizes who have great success at our sport at all levels.”
If you want to play well, Hubbard says, start by being enthusiastic.
“The big thing to me is walking off and on the field instead of hustling or sprinting,” says Hubbard, who’s coached the Mean Green women’s softball team for 10 years. “That’s a personal pet peeve.”
Echoes Conner: “Hustle! That’s something you can always do, no matter your skill level. I will take a kid hustling and giving me everything they have physically and mentally over an extremely talented kid who gives me 75 percent every time.”
Once you’ve mastered enthusiasm, here are some tips from Conner and Hubbard about the physical aspects of the game.
Swing to hit the good pitches. That might sound obvious, but it’s very tempting to get revved at the plate and think any pitch is a good one.
“Some people, if the ball’s between them and the dugout, they’re swinging at it,” Hubbard says. “If they can touch it, they want to hit it, which isn’t necessarily the best plan to take.”
Know the basics. What’s the strike zone? Where is the plate in relation to where you are? “If you can have a picture in your mind of what those look like, it will be a lot easier to swing.”
Focus on form. “Keep your feet shoulder width apart, your weight evenly distributed,” he says. “Have the bat on the back side of your body, your front shoulder and hip sideways to the direction of the pitch.”
Hit from the core. “Explode the bat through the strike zone,” says Conner, who played softball for Texas State University. “For me, the hands are only for holding the bat. The core is where the hit comes from.”
CATCHING A FLY BALL
Make sure you can see it. It might sound like a well-duh suggestion, but if you’re playing during the day, be sure to wear sunglasses and-or a cap. (Also, sunscreen, which won’t help you catch a ball, but it could save your life.)
Don’t run with your glove up. “A lot of would-be players have it over their heads,” Hubbard says. Instead, just hold it while you run like somebody handed it to you before you started a jog.
Get behind the ball. “Everyone struggles to catch balls in the air — running around to the right, to the left and forward, and the ball falls behind them,” Hubbard says.
Don’t run directly underneath it, he says. “It doesn’t reach a peak and then come straight down. It will always have an angle on the downward slide.” If you are directly underneath it, it will always fall behind you.
Warm up. Conner has her teams start on their knees. “We work from the ground up on how to throw, every single day,” she says. “We start with wrist flips, then progress all the way to throwing hard.”
Grip the ball with three fingers. Not five, not two, not one. Three: index, middle, ring, Hubbard says. “Put your top two fingers perpendicular to the horseshoe-shaped seams. You don’t want them to run along the seams, but across. If your fingers are on the seams, that will make the ball spin like a flying saucer.”
Think of the ball as a clock face. “If your fingers are on the 3 and 9, you can’t control it. You want it on 12 and 6, and it’ll stay on its path.”
Position yourself. “The elbow should be above or even with the shoulder for a good overhand throw,” Conner says. “Point the elbow, not the glove, toward the target.”
Take the step. Make sure you do so with the opposite foot from the one holding the ball. “I’ve seen people try to step with the right and throw with the right,” Hubbard says.
Let ‘er rip, like a kid would. “Get your elbow back, arm swing going forward,” he says. “Aim for the target and go. You want to get into a straight line. That’s how the body works efficiently.”
“I don’t teach my daughters (he has three) a lot of mechanical stuff.
Your body will naturally teach what you need to do to perform correctly.”
“Follow through,” Conner says. “There’s nothing worse than throwing and standing straight up. You have to have follow through, some bend-at-the-waist action.”
Keep running at full speed. “The biggest mistake is trying to slow down before you slide,” Hubbard says. “That’s when your feet get tangled or stuck in the ground if you’re wearing spikes or cleats.”
He compares it to playing on a Slip ‘n Slide: “You don’t get to it and stop. You keep running.”
Lean back a little, “almost like you’re going to fall on your back,” he says.
Kick your feet into the air as you near the ground. “Let your bottom take the brunt of it as you slide forward.”
Practice on the ground. “We have the team members sit on the ground, straightening out their left leg. Take the right leg and fold it under, like you’re making a 4 with your legs. That’s the position you should be in when you hit the ground.”
Leave your gym shoes at home. First, they won’t give you enough traction on dirt and grass. Turf shoes or cleats will, Hubbard says.
Additionally, “I’d think if you show up with flat-soled tennis shoes and it was down to you and someone with cleats, I’d pick the person with cleats.”
Take care of your glove. “If I was the guy picking the team, I’d look at gloves,” he says. “If you have one that looks like it’s from 1937 with broken laces … if I don’t think you can catch with that glove, I wouldn’t pick you. It doesn’t have to be new, but it had better be in good shape.”
Be prepared. “If you show up and don’t have a glove or bat or cleats, it would be pretty tough to pick you,” he says.