Product Review: Portolite Short Spiked Softball Mat

Pitching rubber top

One of the things I have always found challenging when working with pitchers is getting a good surface to work from out on the field.

In a gym or practice facility you have a large selection of roll-up mats. But if there isn’t a permanent pitcher’s plate out on the field, what most people end up doing is throwing down a hunk of rubber purchased at the local sporting goods store. Or going without.

With those throw-down types of rubbers you either have to be willing to pound them in with stakes or nails and pull them out again or skip the stakes entirely. If you pound them in, the stakes that come with them last about three times (less if you’re trying to pound them into hard ground). Then you have to purchase long nails at the hardware store with big washers to keep them from going through the rubber.

Need to change distances to accommodate pitchers of different ages? You have to pull the stakes or nails up to move the rubber, then go through the entire process again.

Of course, if you decide not to stake the rubber down at all it will go slipping and sliding from under the pitcher’s feet, making matters worse, not better. Eventually the pitcher will probably just kick it out of the way.

That’s why I was excited to come across the Portolite company when I was helping at a Rick Pauly clinic in Minnesota put on by JohnnyO. Johnny had a couple of their products there, and said they had a few different models for softball, including one with short spikes on it.

Portolite mat on dirt

This was the picture that convinced me it could work on dirt.

When I got home I checked it out and decided to give it a try. I needed one anyway for some indoor work on a turf field so figured that alone would be worth it. But I was really looking forward to trying it on the dusty fields I use during the summer.

First thing I wondered was would the spikes actually catch in the ground and hold it in place? The short spike mat isn’t cheap, so I was definitely rolling the dice on that count.

Pitching rubber bottom

The website shows the bottom is green but this is how mine looks.

I am happy to report, however, that it actually holds pretty well, especially if the field isn’t rock-hard due to a lack of rain. Hard to say if all the little rubber (or whatever material they are) spikes catch, but certainly enough of them do to hold it in place even with strong, powerful pitchers. As they push in, the spikes dig in.

I was also concerned about how it would hold up with pitchers using metal cleats as many of my students do. As you can see, the mat isn’t necessarily pretty after a month’s worth of use, but I don’t need it for photographs. It actually seems to be holding up pretty well. I expect to get a few years’ worth of use out of it.

Pitching rubber top

The edges of the rubber are a bit chewed up but the mat itself is holding up well.

Using a pitching mat like this one has some added benefits. For example, it’s easy to pick it up and move it when I have different age students come in. In just a few seconds I can go from being set up for a 10U pitcher at 35 feet to an 18U pitcher at 43.

This portability also helps in terms of giving my students a good overall surface to use.

One of the fields I camp out on regularly isn’t particularly well-designed or maintained. After a few lessons there can be a big hole at the permanent pitcher’s plate, with a trough leading away from it. (I doubt there are any bricks or anything else you’re supposed to use to stabilize the area.)

When that happens it can get pretty tough to pitch straight from the pitcher’s plate. I try to fill in the area by raking it out, but that doesn’t do a whole lot of good, especially when it might be a few weeks before it’s dragged again.

With the Portolite mat, however, I can either move the pitcher forward or off to the side where the ground is less worn. She gets a flatter surface to pitch from so she doesn’t have to worry about catching herself in someone else’s divot. Or trough.

And when I’m done for the day I can just pick it up, knock the dust off as best I can and throw it in the trunk for the next day.

The website says it can be used on turf, dirt or grass. I’ve done all three and can attest that it works equally well on all.

Again it’s not cheap at $235. But if you’re looking for a solution that helps provide a stable surface for your pitcher(s) in an easy-to-use, very portable format, be sure to check it out. I think you’ll be as pleased as I am.

First Impressions Aren’t Always Right

woman looking at sea while sitting on beach

Most people have probably heard the old cliche “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” And while that’s technically true, it doesn’t mean you should always cling to your first impression of a player (or coach for that matter) because you may find there’s more there than is on the surface.

That was my experience recently with a young 12U player named Jazmin. Her mom contacted me after getting a recommendation from the father of a teammate.

She told me Jazmin was brand new to softball, and that she would like to get her some hitting lessons. That alone is pretty interesting.

Usually parents don’t look into lessons until after a few games, or maybe even a couple of seasons, so that fact that she wanted to start with lessons right away was surprising but in a good way. I think she was a little concerned that everything would be so new with her daughter but I reassured her it could be a good thing because she wouldn’t have any bad habits to unlearn.

Then came Saturday morning and the day of our first lesson. Jazmin walked up and right away my Spidey-sense started tingling, because honestly I have seen happier looking faces in a hostage photo.

We started the lesson and things didn’t get any better. She seemed very unhappy to be there and as a result it was a struggle to get her to do anything.

I finally stopped and asked her if she wanted to be there. I wasn’t trying to be mean, I was actually trying to be kind, because there is no sense in making yourself miserable just to do something. That’s what work is for.

She mumbled something or other, which may have been “yes” but meant no. Finally her mom, who had been watching her from behind the backstop, called her over and talked to her for a while. Mom did not like that attitude at all and let her know.

I think we tried going on a little more but nothing had really changed so I suggested we stop about halfway through the scheduled lesson. I told her mom there would be no charge – we tried it, it didn’t work.

But mom asked if we could try again the next Tuesday. I give her a lot of credit for that, by the way. A lot of parents would have just chalked it up to a bad idea and been done with it.

I agreed, a little reluctantly, but told her if we had to stop again I would be charging for that lesson. It was only fair, she agreed.

Then came Tuesday. Admittedly I was a bit concerned about how things would go this time given the last experience, but I was willing to give it one more try.

Mom reminded Jazmin to start by apologizing for her prior attitude, which she did, and from that point on it was like aliens had come to Earth, taken away the Jazmin I’d met on Saturday, and replaced her with a new and improved version.

What I discovered was Jazmin is a blast to teach. She has a great sense of humor, and not only laughs at my jokes but throws a few in on her own too – including a couple of good-natured digs at me, which I appreciate.

She’s been all smiles at every lesson since (we’ve only done a few) and has thrown herself into learning how to hit. We’ve only been working on the tee so far but she is coming right along and should be ready to start front toss in the next lesson or two.

Not bad for a totally inexperienced beginner. Hopefully we have a long instructor/student relationship and someday we will have a good laugh about it when she comes back from her college team for a tune-up.

So that’s the lesson for today. Had I assumed that first impression was all there was to Jazmin I would never have booked the second lesson and I would have missed out on a wonderful new student. That would have been a shame for both of us.

On the other side, players, you need to understand that the first impression you make with a coach at a tryout or a conversation after a game or other event could cause you to miss out on an opportunity.

Sure, you could just be having a bad day (as Jazmin apparently was). But you may not get the chance to correct the coach’s impression later. I was very close to saying “no” to the second lesson because I had serious doubts anything would change. Fortunately I was wrong.

In our hyperspeed world, it’s easy to make quick judgments and move on. But every now and then it’s worth taking a chance that your first impression wasn’t the correct one. You never know what you’ll find on the other side.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Stop Chasing Rainbows on Technique

crop field under rainbow and cloudy skies at dayime

Let me start by saying I am a fan of continuous learning. I believe it is every coach’s responsibility to constantly question what they already “know,” look for new information and innovation, and keep up with the latest advances in our sport.

This is one of the reasons I pursued and attained Elite certification in the High Performance Pitching program back in the December/January timeframe, and continue to participate in weekly calls with other accomplished pitching coaches from across the country. I’ve been doing this for a long time and could easily decide to be comfortable with what I already knew. But if there is a chance I can do better in helping the athletes I coach you can bet I will look into it.

All that said, there is another side to this mostly positive coin – what I would term as “chasing rainbows.” A coach who is chasing rainbows isn’t really looking to add to their knowledge and synthesize what they believe so they can teach it in an organized manner.

Instead, this is a coach with no set of firm beliefs to challenge. Instead, he/she merely adopts and repeats whatever he/she heard most recently from someone perceived as being smarter than the coach. Here’s an example.

A hitting coach attends a coach’s clinic where the presenter explains why you want a slight uppercut swing with the hips leading the hands. So she takes furious notes, highlights the handout, and runs back to her team to show them this “new” way to hit.

Note that she doesn’t take time to compare the information to what high-level hitters do, or to think through how it applies to the players on her team. She simply parrots the talking points and hopes for the best.

A few months later, she attends another clinic where the presenter talks about starting with the hands and swinging down on the ball to create backspin. Again, she takes furious notes, highlights the handout, and guess what? Now her team is learning an entirely new way to swing (and an incorrect one, I might add) before the players have had a chance to master the previous way.

What you end up with is a team caught somewhere between their original swings, the techniques of the first clinic and the techniques of the second clinic. Then the head coach wonders why the team has a collective batting average of .257 and can’t seem to produce runs on any sort of scale.

A better approach would be to start with a firm set of beliefs about hitting, preferably based on the teachings of someone who has been successful coaching hitters along with a close study of high-speed video of high-level softball and baseball players actually swinging the bat.

Note that I didn’t say a study of what those high-level players say. Just because they can hit doesn’t mean they know how to explain what they do. You’d be surprised how many of them say one thing and do something else.

Once the coach has a starting point, then start taking in information and comparing it to those beliefs in the same manner. For example the conflict between whether to swing down on the ball or swing with a slight uppercut at contact.

Whichever side the coach starts on, look at information from the opposite side and see how it compares to those high-level swings. If what is being said matches what is being seen, the coach will probably want to re-evaluate her beliefs. If it doesn’t, the coach is probably already on the right track.

When a coach can attend a clinic or other presentation and critically evaluate the material being presented she can be fairly confident that her decision on whether to adopt what is being taught there or discard it will be a good one.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a binary choice. The coach may find that 95% of what is being presented is just old thinking, but that the other 5% has some value, if not for the whole team at least for one player.

This is especially true when it comes to drills. People talk about “good drills” and “bad drills.” But with rare exceptions, any drill is good that can help a player get to where she needs to go, even if it’s not the best course for everyone.

This idea of working to adopt a firm philosophy doesn’t just apply to hitter. It can apply to any skill within fastpitch softball, even if what you’ve been doing has been successful.

Heck, I’ve taught throwing a certain way for a number of years, based on the best information I had available to me at the time. After being exposed to Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing program I’ve changed what I teach to some extent. Not because it’s the flavor du jour, but because what he says makes sense in the context of what I already understand about throwing.

For many of us, change can be difficult. But for some it actually comes too easily.

Find something or a set of somethings you believe in after careful consideration, then work to build from there. Because the funny thing about chasing rainbows is that while you may feel you’re getting closer, you’ll never catch them. And you may actually take yourself farther away from your preferred destination.

Rainbow photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Catchers: Tips for Throwing from Your Knees

IMG_0228

For most of fastpitch softball’s (and baseball’s) history, the gold standard for catches attempting to throw out runners stealing a base was to pop up and throw from your feet. A quick catcher could be up in an instant, and use the power of their legs and bodies to power the ball toward said base.

Over the last decade, however, there has been a significant shift. These days it seems like all the cool kids are throwing from their knees.

In fact, throwing from your knees has become so pervasive that there are coaches who will tell you that if you have to go to your feet to throw you’ll never play at a high level or in college. That is absolutely untrue, by the way.

I know top-notch catchers who prefer to throw from the feet and do play high-level college and travel ball, but you know how it is when people get something stuck in their minds.  The ONLY thing that truly matters is the pop time – how much time it takes from when the ball hits the catcher’s glove to when it hits the glove of the person covering the base. If your pop time is better from your feet, have at it.

That said, throwing from your knees is also a perfectly viable option. Personally, I like to teach both methods so A) catchers can decide what works best for them overall and B) they have options depending on the pitch.

For example, if you’re catching a riseball it may make more sense to follow it up and throw from your feet, whereas a good dropball lends itself more to a throw from the knees. It doesn’t make much sense to go back down to throw if the ball carries you high or vice versa.

If you are going to throw from your knees, you should learn to do it properly. Here are some suggestions that can help you maximize both your ability to get the ball to the base quickly and hit your target.

  1. No falling trees. This is the most common mistake I see. The catcher gets the ball and immediately starts falling forward toward the base as she makes the transfer.
    IMG_0227

    Timber!

    As a result, while she may be quick to get into position she ends up throwing all (or mostly) arm, losing velocity over her normal throw. So whatever advantage she gains by not popping up she loses through reduced arm speed. A better approach is to get the body in position and drop the glove-side knee straight down under the shoulder.This loads the weight on the back side and allows the catcher to get more body into the throw.

    IMG_0237

    Loaded and ready to fire.

    She can get resistance out of the front side rather than chasing it forward and throwing off-balance. With a little practice she can be quicker to release than with the falling tree method, with the added bonus of more velocity on the throw. What’s not to like?

  2. Get aligned with your target. Another common flaw is the desire to just drop down to the knees and throw. This will work (sort of) for a right-handed catcher throwing to third base or a lefty throwing to first because her body is naturally aligned that way anyway. For a throw to second, or a throw to the other side (e.g., righty throwing to first) it can be disastrous. The first move, as the ball is being transferred from the glove to hand, is to set the shoulders and hips in a straight line with the target. A good way to do this is to pull the throwing-side knee into position.
    IMG_0238

    Be sure to get the hips and shoulders aligned with the target.

    Again, as it swings around it should end up under the throwing-side shoulder. This move should be quick and urgent, with the rotation of the body occurring in as tight a circle as possible. (The further out the knee or leg swings, the slower the movement will be.) From this position the throw will once again be strong and accurate.

  3. Work the transfer. Whether they’re throwing from their feet or their knees, this is an aspect many catchers fail to develop enough. They’ll do long toss and other arm strength drills until their arms turn to putty, but they’ll gloss right over the transfer. That’s a mistake, because the transfer dictates how quickly the rest of the throw can happen, and whether it will be powerful and well-timed. The first key is never, ever, reach forward to get the ball out of the glove. Instead, bring the throwing hand up near the shoulder and bring the ball to it. That way the transfer becomes part of the throwing motion instead of a separate operation. Also, you don’t want to squeeze the ball too hard in the glove because that will make it more difficult to pull out. Use the minimal pressure necessary to secure the ball. For more advanced catchers, instead of “catching” the ball and pulling it back, learn to rake it back. That means starting to pull the glove in before you catch it so you’re already taking the glove back toward the hand. You may lose a strike here or there, but if it means you throw out Ms. Rabbit trying to steal second I’m sure your coach (and your pitcher) will forgive you.
  4. Be sure to follow through. A lot of catchers, when they throw from their knees, will tend to stop short. When that happens they end up with their bellybuttons facing the target. That’s a great way to develop shoulder and elbow problems, especially if they’re trying to throw out a very fast runner. Catchers should unleash the full power of their body in a way that causes a natural follow-through. The result will be their throwing side shoulder ends up facing the target. Many catchers will fall when they do that. That’s ok – in fact it’s desirable. It means they got the full force of their bodies behind the ball.

Here’s the beauty. While none of these tips individually will likely make a huge difference in your pop time (except maybe the first one), their cumulative effect can be substantial.

Let’s do the math. (What, there’s math? No one said anything about doing math.)

Let’s assume the runner can get from base to base in 2.8 seconds and the catcher has a pop time of 2.0 second – enough to qualify for a Team USA tryout, by the way. She takes off at release from the pitcher and the ball takes 0.4 seconds to get from the pitcher to the catcher. That leaves just 2.4 seconds to get the ball to second.

Since the catcher has a top pop time of 2.0, the margin of error is .4 seconds. Try to record .4 seconds on a stopwatch or your phone’s stopwatch. It’s not easy. You’ve made the umpire’s job very difficult.

Now imagine each of the tips above can each shave 0.025 of a second off your pop time. Now your margin for error is .5 seconds, which means if the play was close before it’s not nearly as close as it was and you’re more likely to get that runner out. You’ve also demonstrated you can throw out a baserunner with 2.8 speed, sending a message to the opposing coach about sending anyone who runs slower than that.

The bottom line is throwing from your knees alone isn’t enough. In fact, it can actually slow it down if you do it wrong.

Do it right, however, and you’ll earn your reputation as a force to be reckoned with behind the plate – and a place on many coaches’ short lists.

The Hips Are the Key to Body Movement

Ally launch

Here’s a quick experiment for you to try at home (or wherever you’re reading this blog). Try to move your arm away from the rest of your body. Pretty easy, right?

Now try a leg. Either one will do. Again, pretty easy.

Now do your head. If you go forward you can get it out there pretty far, and even side-to-side or backwards will work if you’re more flexible than I am.

Ok, here comes the key part: try moving your hips away. Aha! You can maybe get them out a couple of inches but that’s about it.

So basically, if your hips move away the rest of the body has to go with it.

This is a key concept for any fastpitch softball player to understand, but especially for pitchers. Many pitchers, when they are trying to get leg drive, will just run their stride leg past their drive leg and kick it forward. The result is that the stride leg pulls them off the pitching rubber – which is like trying to drag a wagon full of concrete behind you.

That’s because a lot of your weight (some of us more than others) and strength is carried in the hip area, which includes the lower torso. If it is stationary (more or less) it’s going to take a lot of effort to get it in motion so it can contribute to the pitch.

If the hips are already moving smartly forward as the pitcher drives out, however, instead of holding her back they add to the power. The difference (or delta as they like to say in the business world) can be huge.

The challenge is when pitchers think about moving forward, they tend to focus on their stride leg and where it lands. This leads to them doing more of a kicking motion instead of focusing their attention on where it should be – on the hips.

One way to help them get the feel of moving the hips forward (and how much effort it takes) is to have them do a standing broad jump. That is all about getting the hips and torso to fly forward.

Another way is to have them stand on one leg and then hop a short distance to the other. this can be front-to-back or side-to-side.

I say a short distance because as soon as you say long distance they’re going to go right back to reach out with the leg/foot instead of moving the middle.

A harness around their hips tied to a bungy cord or surgical tube will give them that feeling. Have them put the connector in the front, stretch the tube out as much as they can, then go through their pitching motion, letting the tube pull them forward.

You can also get behind them, place your hand on their lower back and give them a small push as they get read to go out. Just be careful that it’s a small push. You don’t want to push a pitcher who’s having trouble moving down to the ground (as I once did).

Ultimately, though, the best thing to do is get them to figure out how to get their hips moving forward to become part of the drive without all the artificial helpers.

As they start to get the feel of moving the hips properly, have them start pitching from a short distance into a net or screen. Keep them there until they can do it without thinking. then slowly move them back a few feet at a time and ensure they can maintain that hip-centered approach.

Only move to the next distance when they appear to have mastered the previous one. If they go back to being leg-oriented when they move back, move up to the previous position again. Repeat until they can throw properly at a full distance.

Incidentally, what I have found is that this is very easy and natural for some and very difficult and alien for others. I have no idea why, because it comes naturally to me.

What I do know, however, is that it is essential to maximize speed. The more momentum you can crash into a firm front leg the more the arm whip will be accelerated, creating more energy to transfer into the ball. A pitcher who is being held back by her hips will struggle to attain her very best speed.

The best way to check this is using video, either on a dedicated camera or your phone set to a high speed (60 frames per second or more). The naked eye can be easily fooled, especially if the pitcher is doing whatever she does quickly.

But with video, you can see if the hips are passing quickly over the pitching rubber on their way forward or whether they hover over it as the arms and legs move forward. (The first one is correct.)

Once you can see what’s going on you can work to correct it. It probably won’t be easy, but the results will be worth it.

The Train Doesn’t Wait for the Passenger

black train on rail and showing smoke

One of the most common issues among young, developing pitchers (and even a few older ones) is waiting too long to get their momentum moving forward. When they do that, their timing gets all messed up and they are unable to transfer as much energy as they could from their bodies into the ball.

For example, what you will often see in a pitcher with a backswing is that she will stand on her back foot as her arm swings back and wait for it to reach its farthest point. Then she will start her body moving forward as her arm begins to swing forward.

The problem here is that the arm can move forward a lot faster and more easily than the body, so it gets ahead.

A key checkpoint in the pitch is that the drive foot should begin detaching from the pitching rubber when the arms reach the 3 o’clock position, i.e., straight out in front. That’s not going to happen, however, if the arm is racing ahead of the body.

Speed or accuracy in fastpitch pitching? The answer is mechanics.

The pitcher has reached the 3 o’clock position and her arm is already pulling away from the pitching rubber.

Instead, the arm will either have to slow down so the body can catch up or it will continue on ahead with the result the ball is thrown before energy transfer fully commences. No matter which way it happens, the result is a loss of speed.

The challenge here, of course, is explaining it to a pitcher in a way that makes sense. One way I do that is to tell her that the train (her body) doesn’t wait for the passenger (her arm or the ball), so she needs to get the train moving as her arm swings back and the passenger then has to make sure it jumps on the moving train. Like this:

What about a pitcher who doesn’t use a backswing? The concept still works.

If she comes out of the glove on her side, she’ll need to get her body moving forward before her hands start moving. If she drops out of the glove she’ll again need to do it after she’s started moving forward.

No matter which method she uses the key is to get her drive and momentum developing – her center of gravity moving forward, out ahead of the pitching rubber – before she starts into the arm circle. That way the whole body is moving together, in harmony, giving her the ability to deliver the pitch with maximum force.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling with the timing of her arm relative to her body, give this explanation a try. Train whistle sounds optional.

Train photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

10 Items That Should Always Be In Your Coach’s Bag

Coach's bag

Ask most fastpitch softball coaches what they carry in their bags or backpacks and you’ll likely get the usual answers.

They have their glove, of course, and probably a ball or two. They have stopwatches, whistles, lineup cards, pencils/pens, the chart for arm band signals (if they’re using those systems), a clipboard, maybe a Pocket Radar and a few other assorted items they expect to need.

But effective coaching is really about being ready to deal with the unexpected. Any number of little emergencies can crop up during a game or practice that may seem minor but can have a big impact – especially for their players. It doesn’t take much to throw someone off their game, and you know once they are off the ball is going to find them in the field, or they are going to come up to bat at a crucial moment.

So, the better your ability to solve all those little issues, the better of a chance you have to win.

With that in mind, here are 10-problem solving items you should be sure to have in your bag at all times.

  1. Duct tape. My Southern friends can tell you that duct tape can fix just about anything. Your pitcher has a hole in her shoe from dragging her toe? Duct tape it. The strap on a backpack broke? Duct tape it. The grip on a bat is coming off? Duct tape it. Your only hitting tee is falling apart or won’t stay extended? Duct tape it. Your clipboard with the lineup card is banging all over the dugout because of the wind? Duct tape it to the wall. A water bottle is leaking? Duct tape it. You get the idea. If you get nothing else out of this article, understand that duct tape is your friend that can repair just about anything. I suggest you grab a roll right now and throw it in your bag. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
  2. Glove repair kit. This is why I said duct tape could fix “just about” anything. While you can try it on a glove it probably won’t be very successful. For those issues you’re better off having a little kit that includes tools and spare lacing, preferably with black and brown laces. If it hasn’t happened already, some player is going to come to you show that either the lacing on their glove broke entirely, or it pulled out. Either way, the glove is now flapping in the breeze and you’ll need to be able to fix it quickly. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to hold together. Having the tools will save you a whole lot of heartache – especially if it’s your shortstop or catcher with the broken glove.
  3. Spare set of sunglasses. At some point one of your outfielders is going to be staring directly into the sun. Of course she didn’t bring sunglasses, and yelling at her that she should have thought of it before isn’t going to help right now. Keep a spare pair on-hand in a little bag so when that big fly ball heads her way she has a chance of catching it.
  4. Batting gloves, assorted sizes. Again, something players should already have, but most only have one pair at most. If a player loses one or both, or a glove develops a giant hole, or the gloves get soaked with Gatorade, or any of a dozen other things happen to them the player may have her mental game thrown off. Having a spare handy (no pun intended) takes care of that. It’s also good for the player who never wears batting gloves but suddenly needs them due to blisters or other injuries.
  5. Towel. A good towel can serve a couple of purposes. The most obvious is to wipe off a wet ball so it becomes playable again. In 2020 that becomes more important than ever because there’s a lot of pent-up demand to get games in. Unless the lightning detector goes off, or someone spots a tornado, they’re going to be trying to get games in. Having a towel in your bag will help keep the ball from slipping out of your pitcher’s hand. But a towel is also good for absorbing blood from a bloody nose, a large cut or scrape or other injuries. It can also be used as a tourniquet if it comes to that, but hopefully you’ll never find that out.
  6. Poncho or fold-up waterproof jacket with hood. I personally recommend the jacket because it can also help if you if the temperature takes a sudden dive, but either way you’ll want something available to keep the rain off of you. Especially if you’re sitting around between games. Whichever you choose, throw it in your bag and just leave it there until it’s needed. You’ll thank me one day.
  7. 100 foot measuring tape. Best-case scenario you need the measuring tape to mark off the distance so your pitcher(s) can warm up properly. Worse-case scenario, you’ll need it to prove to the umpires that when Bubba and Billy Bob set up the field they used the wrong base markers, and the baselines are currently 50 feet or 75 feet long, or the nail-down pitching rubber is not set at the proper distance for your level of play. If you’re really feeling lucky you can also use it to point out that the chalk lines for the batter’s box are not the proper dimensions (especially if you have slappers), but that might be pushing it a bit. If you don’t want to carry a full measuring tape you can also cut a length of mason string to size and mark off all the key dimensions.
  8. Hair ties. I’ll admit I was kind of late to the party on this one. But I can guarantee there will come a time when you have a player whose hair is bothering her and who doesn’t have any hair ties of her own. They only cost a couple of bucks for a whole bunch of them. Pick some up and throw them in your bag. It’s worth it.
  9. Travel sewing kit. Sliding in particular can be rough on uniforms. While a small hole here or there isn’t a problem, a larger tear could become an issue. Especially if it’s in an inopportune place. A small travel sewing kit can help make quick repairs until the situation can be dealt with more permanently. Do yourself a favor – find a parent on the team who can help with these sorts of uniform malfunctions, especially if the player’s parents aren’t there.
  10. Throw-down home plate. Whether you’re warming up pitchers, having hitters take a few swings off the tee before heading into the batter’s box, working with catchers on blocking, etc. it always helps to have a visual available. A throw-down home plate can turn any available space into an instant practice area. It can also substitute for a different base – or cover a small puddle in the dugout in a pinch.

So, did any of those surprise you? Did I miss anything? Add your suggestions in the comments below.

And if you have a topic you’d like to see me cover you put that in the comments as well.

6 Tips for Easing Back Into Softball Mode

Diamonds warmup

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join in on an NFCAonline mentoring session. While several of the topics that came up were more oriented toward college programs, there was one in particular that was pretty universal: how to get players back into softball mode.

For many, these past three months may have been the longest layoff they’ve had from a formal practice/workout routine since they were pre-teens. That’s especially true for players above the Mason-Dixon line (not to be confused with the Mendoza line, which is a whole different issue), where the weather has been spotty at best, and sometimes downright uncooperative.

With not just indoor facilities but many parks closed, it’s likely many players have spent far more time than they would have otherwise making Tik Tok videos, streaming movies and TV shows, sleeping, eating junk food and doing whatever else is popular among young people these days.

I get that, too. It’s tough to get motivated when you don’t know whether your next game will be next month, next fall, or next year.

Sure, teams have been doing Zoom meetings to try to hang together, and various activities such as the Facebook videos where it looks like they’re throwing the ball from one player to the next. But none of that requires a whole lot of physical exertion or delivers much preparation to get out and play.

Now that summer leagues and travel ball is beginning to open up again, however, it’s important to ensure players who have been idle for the last few months are given the opportunity to ease their way back into playing. Otherwise there is a risk of even more time off due to injuries.

Here are six tips to help ensure players stay healthy as they start working to shake off the rust.

  • Limit overhand throwing for the first few weeks. Arm and shoulder injuries due to improper throwing mechanics were already a problem, even before the Great Layoff. It’s unlikely the underlying issues have magically gotten better. While the time off was good for healing old injuries, it also means players can be highly prone to new ones. That’s why it’s important to ease them back into throwing overhand. Pay even closer attention to throwing mechanics during warmups, and spend a little more time than normal on shorter, lighter throws. (If you don’t know what to look for in terms of mechanics, check out Austin Wasserman’s excellent High Level Throwing programs.) During fielding drills, save arms by having players toss the ball to the side or drop it in a bucket at times rather than throwing the ball to a base. When you do start having players throw full-out, set a limit and stick to it. This is especially true for catchers practicing throwdowns. Remember it’s been a while. Do maybe 10-12 at most to start, and work your way up from there.
  • Put more emphasis on stretching. I shouldn’t have to say this but I’m going to anyway. Players who have been largely inactive for the last couple of months likely have tight muscles. Even those who have been putting in some practice time on their own are probably not as limber as they were when they were more active with school, other sports and activities or anything that required more effort than shifting positions on the couch. They need to get those muscles, tendons and ligaments working properly again. For the first few practices be sure you plan extra time for dynamic stretches to begin practice, and watch to make sure they’re doing those stretches properly. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched teams slop their way through various stretches and then expect they’re ready to play.) When you’re approaching the end of practice, be sure to leave a little time for cool-down stretches too. This is important at any time, but especially right now. Get those muscles, tendons and ligaments loosened up properly now and you’ll face far fewer injury issues down the road.
  • Condition intelligently. There’s a good kind of sore, where you know you fatigued the muscles well so they can strengthen and improve, and there is a bad kind of sore where you over-worked the muscles and now it’s going to take some time to recover. Unless you are a certified strength and conditioning coach you probably aren’t sure of the where that line is. It’s going to be tempting to try to get your team into peak game shape in one or two practices. Don’t succumb to that temptation. Remember that young people can have all kinds of stuff going on beneath the surface – Osgood-Schlatter Disease, growth plates, chronic tendonitis, etc. – that can affect their performance and cause pain. Overconditioning early on can exacerbate these conditions. While there may be a desire to get them into mid-season shape right now, resist it. Ease them in and build to it, just as you would in any other season. It will pay off in the long term.
  • Limit repetitions. One of the keys to all of the above is to limit repetitions in the early rounds. Overuse injuries are essentially caused by performing more repetitions than the body is capable of safely handling. After a period of inactivity that number may be a lot lower than you’re used to in a practice setting. Deal with it. There are actually two benefits to it. First, variety in activities helps work different muscle groups. That’s why so many college coaches say they like multi-sport athletes. The kids they get are in better shape and less likely to be damaged. The second benefit is that you have a lot of ground to make up. Focusing too much in any one area means other areas are being ignored, and you know those other areas will come back to bite you. Fewer reps means less time spent, which means you have time for other areas.
  • Hydrate early and often. If your players have mostly been laying around doing nothing they probably aren’t going to be used to the physical exertion of stretches, much less a full-fledged practice. As a result they can dehydrate quickly. Be sure to take frequent water breaks, especially for the first couple of weeks, and keep an eye out for signs of dehydration. Better yet, let them bring their water with them from station to station or area to area. After all, it’s unlikely that 12 or 14 or whatever number of players on a team will all need the same amount of water at the same time(s).
  • Remember the mental side. While the most obvious challenges will be physical, the mental side of the game will also need to be worked on if your players are going to be game-ready when it’s time to go. You may be all softball all the time, but most (if not all) of your players are not. That means they may have forgotten things you expect them to know (especially in the younger age groups), so be sure to go through those mental aspects as well. Walking through coverages, backups, special plays, rules and rule changes, etc. helps get their minds back in softball mode while saving their bodies. If players aren’t performing at the level they remember themselves being at before, they may experience stress or anxiety on top of what they’re already experiencing. Pay attention to those aspects as well, because they may not be able to compartmentalize their worries and concerns as well as you wish they would. Keep them focused, keep them positive and keep them engaged and they will bounce back to where they should be much faster.

Once you get back on the field it’s going to be tempting to just jam down the accelerator and take off right away. Resist that temptation.

If you ease into it instead, with an intelligent plan that builds on itself, you’re far more likely to find success in both the short and long term. Good luck!

My Hope for Once Fastpitch Softball Resumes

KR huddle

Today’s post is inspired partially by this blog post from February at Softball Is for Girls, partially by some of the discussions I’ve seen on Facebook and the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, and maybe a little bit by this song from hair metal band Cinderella.

There’s no doubt it’s been unfortunate that we’ve had to hit the “pause” button on fastpitch softball over the last couple of months. It probably seems like longer because a lot of teams haven’t played outdoors since the fall, but in reality it’s really only been March through the beginning of May so far.

Still, if anything good can come out of it, I hope it’s that more people have a greater appreciation for the sport and what it means to them. Perhaps things that seemed more life-and-death before all of this aren’t taken quite as seriously. (Parents getting into fistfights on the sidelines, I’m looking at you.)

As the Cinderella song says, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. We’ve had it taken away from us, and in some areas it’s still not back yet. Although hopefully that will change soon.

Even where it is back, it’s not really back like it was before. Social distancing and additional rules are going to make it a very different experience, at least for a while.

Whenever you get to watch your next game, here are some of the things I hope for you:

  • At your first game or tournament, you take a few moments before or after just to soak up the atmosphere. We always seem to be in a rush to run from one thing to the next, and over a long season all the games and tournaments tend to blur together. So just take a moment to appreciate that you have the opportunity to do this again. Take in the sights, the sounds, the sun and the breeze on your skin, even the smells (as long as you’re not standing next to the Port-o-let. Remember that none of it is guaranteed, as we have just learned. Appreciate it.
  • Be a little kinder to the umpires. They have been through what you have been through, and yet they’re back on the field even though they don’t have any kids of their own to watch. They are here so your kids have an opportunity to play the sport we all love. Maybe stop and thank them – from a safe distance, of course.
  • Throw a little appreciation the coaches’ way as well. They now have all kinds of new challenges to deal with that weren’t there back in October. It’s not as easy as it looks. And yes, the coaches are going to make some poor decisions from time to time. Try not to take it so seriously. A bad day at the ballpark is better than a good day just about anywhere else.
  • Coaches, cut your parents a little slack too. At least most of them. Remember that they have been chomping at the bit to see their kids play again. They may be a bit overly enthusiastic at times. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with rude jerks – no one should – but try to recognize that the demand has been pent-up for a while and make take a bit before it levels out again.
  • Players, try not to take it all so seriously. You just got a taste of what life is like without softball, and what a real crisis looks like. Hopefully going 0-for-4 or giving up the game-winning hit doesn’t look quite so devastating anymore. Not that you want to settle for a poor performance, but you can’t let it define you either. Now that you’re back on the ballfield, try to enjoy every minute of it.
  • Perhaps most of all, parents please, please, please lighten up on your kids. You just got a taste of what life is like without softball. And so did your kids. If you turn it into a miserable experience for them they’re going to end up hating softball and probably quitting. THEN what will you do? Keep in mind that the shelter-in-place orders have made up a MUCH larger percentage of their lives, especially for 7-10 year olds, than they have for yours. For many, this was the first major world event that directly affected them. It may take them a while to fully adjust to being back on the field, or to get their skills back up to where they were. Deal with it. Enjoy seeing your kid(s) play, because one day it will all be taken away for good. Try to put that day off as long as you can, because I can tell you from first-hand experience you will miss it deeply.

For all the teams starting up again, good luck. For those who are still waiting on the go-ahead, I hope it comes quickly for you.

Whenever you get back there, however, I hope you have a little more appreciation for the opportunities you have and that you take advantage of them fully. For tomorrow is promised to no one.

Guide to the New Rules of Post-Pandemic Softball

Emma hitting virus

ARRR! Caution – there be satirical content here. 

It looks like softball is back on for 2020! That’s great news for everyone who has been itching to get out and see some ball played. And their kids.

But of course, we’re not out of the woods yet. Testing is still woefully lacking, and there is no vaccine or cure yet. According to healthcare nursing leaders, hospitals are really still just treating symptoms, not necessarily providing any cures.

So with that in mind, various organizations have started issuing some new rules to address the ongoing need to continue social distancing while being in a team setting.

The thing is, any new rule set can be confusing at first. It’s hard to know exactly what all should apply. So to help out with that I’m going to look at some of the rules – and the issues around the rules – and give you my interpretation of what needs to, or will, happen.

No need to thank me. All part of the service.

Rule #1 – no more than three players in the dugout. Ok, that should work in most dugouts. They’re wide enough to allow at least six feet between players. But who gets to be in the dugout?

That’s easy. One will be the hitter in the hole, so she is ready to go into the on-deck circle. The other two are the head coach’s kid and her best friend on the team. Extra incentive to becomes BFFs with the head coach’s kid.

What about when the head coach’s kid or her BFF is hitting and/or in the on-deck circle? Who goes in then?

That’s easy. No one. Because it wouldn’t be fair.

Rule #1A – players not in the dugout must congregate in a socially distant way in the area behind the backstop near the dugout. This is actually one of the more popular rule changes among the parents. Now they can have unfettered access to their daughters so they can critique their defense, coach up their hitting and tell them what idiots the coaches are in real time.

This new rule also gives helicopter parents an opportunity to check if their daughters need water, sunflower seeds, a cool rag, sun lotion, antibacterial wipes, ice cream from the snack bar or anything else during the game. Players in the 16U and 18U levels will particularly appreciate their parents being able to check on them throughout the 75 minutes they normally would have been away from them.

Rule #2 – Parents may not sit behind the backstop or within six feet of the dugout. They are required to sit in a line, a minimum of six feet per family unit, along the sidelines past the dugout or behind the outfield fence. Or even better in the parking lot or the seating area at the local Subway until the game is over.

The ruling bodies understand this rule will make it more difficult for them to coach their kid while she is at bat, and thus recommend establishing a series of large pantomime gestures so their daughters don’t miss out on this valuable, timely information. Wearing white makeup is optional but encouraged.

This rule will be strictly enforced, incidentally. Local biker gangs have been hired to take care of any disputes. We’ve seen how belligerent you parents can get.

Rule #3 – Direct contact should be avoided whenever possible. Of course, that’s already in the rules, which some teams ignore because hey, if you can give the best player on the other team a concussion and you don’t take advantage of it you’re not trying.

But there are other types of contact as well, so we must look at use cases.

  • Use case #1 – tag plays. You’ve heard of the phantom tag of second base in a double play. Now all tags will be phantom tags. If the defensive player catches the ball and makes a motion toward the runner before the runner crosses a line directly in front of and six feet to the side of a base, the runner is out.
  • Use case #2 – safety base. Orange safety bases will still be in use. But they will now be placed in foul territory a minimum of six feet away from the white base. The first base coach’s box will now be moved to the other side of the fence (or a line extending from the fence) which is okay because the first base coach is mostly useless on a play at first anyway. If the ball gets away from the fielders, from six feet away the batter runner should know, but if not all the parents sitting along the sidelines are welcome to advise the player on what she should do next by screaming at her like her hair is on fire.
  • Use case #3 – runner on first base. The first baseman must stay a minimum of six feet away from first base when there is a runner on that base. Like maybe up the line where she should be anyway.
  • Use case #4 – short blooping fly balls into the shallow outfield. No real rule change here. All three players going for the ball should pull up and let it fall between them. Like they always do.

Rule #4 – Social distancing behind the plate. Catchers are required to position themselves a minimum of six feet behind the back foot of the hitter, which will not be a huge change for some. Umpires should then position themselves six feet behind the catcher.

As a result of the distance between the plate and the umpire, balls and strikes will now be decided by a flip of a coin after every pitch. Again, not a big change for some.

Rule #5 – No gathering at the circle between each out. There is no need for the entire team to gather up to congratulate itself for every routine out. This is just a giant waste of time, especially when there are time limits anyway.

If you still must huddle up, all field players must remain outside the circle, which provides eight feet of distance from the pitcher (which is good because her health is far more important than the health of the rest of you put together). You must also maintain at least six feet from the player on either side. If you set up in a square pattern you should meet the minimum, although don’t ask us to do the geometry on that to prove it.

Rule #6 – No outside coolers or snacks of any kind will be allowed in the facility. This is not really a social distancing thing. It’s just we are not hosting these tournaments for our health, or because we like spending our entire weekend raking dirt and lining fields (if you’re lucky).

We are here to make money, and we’re already behind with the season starting in May (or June). So buy your food and drinks at the snack bar and help us give our organization’s treasurer an account worth embezzling.

Rule #7 – Personal protective equipment. All players should carry a large supply of antibacterial wipes (if you can find them, good luck with that!) in their bat bags at all times, and should use a new wipe each time they touch another person (accidentally or on purpose) or anything another person has touched (including the ground) or well, hell, anything. They should also wipe themselves off if they get dirty. A clean player is a happy player.

Latex gloves (or similar) are recommended, even though the minute you touch anything that might be infected those gloves are now useless to you. Hand sanitizer is also highly recommended, especially if you use the washroom facilities. Which is good advice even after there is a vaccine.

Masks are not required but are encouraged. We mean the cloth or surgical masks, not the hard protective face masks, because only players with weak skills need those, right? Nothing will make players feel better than wearing a cloth or paper mask over their mouth and nose in 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity from 8:00 am until 8:00 pm.

Rule #8 – Check-in. In addition to the usual documents (signed roster, proof of insurance, birth certificates, etc.) all coaches must now produce a waiver signed by each player (or their legal guardian) stating that if they end up catching COVID-19 or any other horrific disease after playing they will not hold the organization or the facility responsible.

Of course, this is America so you can still sue whoever you want whenever you want for whatever you want. But we’re hoping it at least discourages a few people.

Rule #9 – Post-game celebrations. There will be absolutely NO high-fiving, handshakes, or other direct contacts between two teams after a game. A friendly wave is allowed if performed from a safe distance.

Better still, use the old cheer, “2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate?” as seen in the Bad News Bears (original version) and millions of tee-ball games across the country.

Rule #10 – Gathering under canopies between games. Only one person per corner is allowed in each 10′ canopy, so plan accordingly to ensure you have enough canopies for the entire team, plus parents and siblings. Maybe every family unit should bring its own canopy so it looks like a Renaissance Faire has broken out. You work it out.

If these strict guidelines are not followed, see Rule #2 for enforcement procedures.

Rule #11 – Awarding of trophies/medals, t-shirts or other prizes. Trophies, awards and other prizes will be scattered six feet apart on the outfield grass, where teams can pick them up as-appropriate. The tournament directors are not taking any chances on coming into contact with your little petri dishes.

Rule #12 – Come, play, get the hell out. Do not loiter after games. When your team is out, no half-hour long speeches by the coaches, no hanging around the field soaking up the atmosphere, no parents going over the game play-by-play to discuss what an idiot the coach is.

Just pack your crap and leave. We have your money, you got to play. We don’t love you anymore. Go home where it’s (presumably) safe.

Hope that helps everyone! Have fun playing this season!

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