Keeping fastpitch pitchers on the straight and narrow

One of the keys to maximizing both speed and control for fastpitch pitchers is driving straight down the powerline (more or less). That is the direct line that starts at the middle of the pitcher’s rubber and continues straight until it intersects the center of home plate.img_0924

Wander too far off the line and your power will be spread across too wide an area to be effective. Think about a laser versus a flashlight. Both send light out from the source. One (the flashlight) spreads its energy across a wide area; the other (the laser, obviously) focuses all its energy in one direction, and on a very small area. Which is powerful enough to cut through metal?

Still, it’s one thing to tell a pitcher to go straight down the powerline, even when there is one drawn right in front of them. It’s another to get them to do it, especially when they’re working hard to maximize their leg drive.

If you’re indoors and using a pitching mat, here’s a way to help pitchers learn to take a more direct route. Either move the mat or the pitcher so she is standing with her throwing-side foot next to the mat as Jenna is here. Then have her execute the pitch.

She will receive instant feedback as to whether she stayed straight, and the long line of the pitching mat will serve as a visual guide as to where her foot should go.It seems to be more effective than the simple drawn line, because there is dimension to it. And it’s safer than using a larger obstacle such as a bat bag – just in case the pitcher makes a mistake.

As a bonus, the long line of the mat will also give her a guide for her throwing-side foot, helping pitchers who tend to let that foot swing too much out behind their glove-side foot. If your goal is for the throwing-side foot to drive straight down the line, she can just trace the side of the mat with that foot to get the feel.

For those who are outside, a narrow roll of foam from the hardware store will serve a similar purpose. Just be sure to anchor it down so it doesn’t blow away.

If you have a pitcher who’s having trouble staying on the straight and narrow, give this a try. And as always, let me know how it works for you.

How many pitches should a fastpitch pitcher have?

I know the title sounds like a tongue twister (how much wood can a woodchuck chuck), but the question of how many pitches a fastpitch pitcher should have is an important one. Mostly because it determines how pitchers will be spending their valuable practice time.Sarah Pauly demonstrates a pitch

The “old school” approach is that a pitcher only needs three pitches – drop, changeup and riseball. And that approach has served many pitchers well for a lot of years.

That may be outdated thinking, however. Over the weekend I again was one of the supporting instructors at the Indiana United Fastpitch Elite clinic, which was led by Rick and Sarah Pauly. On Friday night, Rick presented a PowerPoint talking about the overall mechanics of pitching, and then took questions both during and after the presentation.

One of the questions, from my friend Mike Borelli, was how many pitches should a pitcher have. Rick turned to Sarah, the winningest pitcher in National Pro Fastpitch history, and asked her how many she had.

Her reply wasn’t three. It was seven. As I recall she named drop, change, rise, two curves, backdoor curve and a screwball.

Rick and Sarah then went on to talk about how with today’s hitters you need to have more weapons.

Think about why that is. In the old days in women’s fastpitch, the ball was white, with white seams, and pitchers even at the international level stood 40 feet away. Pitchers put in way more time learning their craft in the off-season than hitters did. That might have been a good thing because what most people were teaching about hitting was pretty bad. Hitters are smarter, too, spending more time studying pitchers and looking for patterns. Also, there is no doubt today’s bats are much hotter than those back in the day.

You put all that together and having more than three ways to attack a hitter starts to make sense. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I have quite a bit of confirmation bias in this way of thinking because I’ve been saying it for years.)

If all you have is three pitches, even if they’re great ones, you become more predictable. And predictability is deadly. Just ask any pitcher who has a coach who likes to favor certain pitches. It’s a lot easier to dig in and hit if you know what’s coming.

Now, no doubt some of your pitches will be better than others. No doubt you will throw them more than others. But if that’s all you throw, it’s easier to prepare to hit against you. Throwing in something a little different, even now and then, keeps hitters off balance and uncomfortable, which is the key to great pitching.

It was great to hear this philosophy confirmed by someone who has been around the women’s game, and played the men’s game, for a long time. If you’ve been restricting yourself/your daughter/your students to three pitches, you might want to give this a little thought. Perhaps it’s time to add a new pitch.

Trick for helping fastpitch hitters adjust their timing

As important as it is, timing is one of the most challenging things for fastpitch hitters to work on. You can build your swing on the tee all day every day. But it isn’t until you have to actually face a moving ball that it really becomes game-like hitting.For fastpitch hitters with timing problems, try placing a second plate in front of the first one.

What you’re really trying to do with timing is find the ball in space. What I mean is that you have to deliver the bat not only to the right height, as you do on the tee, but also in a plane that extends from where the pitcher releases the ball to the optimal (hopefully) point near you that yields the best contact.

For many hitters, figuring out where that point is can be difficult. Many tend to wait too long, letting the ball get too deep. When that happens they may make contact, but it probably won’t be strong contact.

At best, especially if the pitch is on the outside half of the plate, they make get a sharp ground ball to the opposite field. But even then they won’t really be driving it. And forget about crushing an inside pitch over the fence on their pull side, no matter how strong they may be.

The problem isn’t a lack of conscious understanding. I’ve worked with plenty of hitters who understood exactly where they needed to make contact. If you asked them they could quickly give you the right answer. But put them up against a moving ball and they just can’t pull the trigger on time to do what they just told you they should do.

Speed doesn’t matter either. They get the same results whether they’re facing a 60+ mph fireballer in a game or a coach lobbing meatballs in front toss. It’s not a question of when so much as where.

If you have (or are) one of those, here’s a trick to try. Place a second plate immediately out in front of the one you’ve been using. (It helps if the two plates are different colors.)

Tell the hitter to line up with the back plate, but base her hitting off the front one. Then have her take a few swings.

What you will probably find is that she is suddenly able to get the bat to the ball on time. Honestly, I’m not sure why that is; perhaps a psychologist could explain it.Then again, I never saw a pitch I didn’t like. The simple act of placing that second visual seems to help. It certainly did with Emma, who is pictured here. (In case you’re wondering, that’s her dad Mike lurking in the background. :-))

Once that second plate went down she not only started hitting the ball better, but actually started pulling front toss pitches that were inside. The visual helped break whatever was locked into her mind so she could cut loose and attack the ball instead of taking a more defensive, don’t let the ball get through approach.

The next step is to take the front plate away to see if she can maintain the “hit it out-front” mindset. If not, put it back and keep working. Then try it again next practice. Eventually her brain will re-calibrate and associate that space just in front of her with where the contact point should be.

I prefer the “all or nothing” approach with the second plate to moving it back slowly. I’m just afraid with most hitters, if you move the front plate back a little, you’ll drag the hitting zone back along with it because the front of that plate will still be a reference point. Better to take it away entirely and see whether it has translated yet or not.

By the way, I have my theories as to why hitters get into the mindset of waiting until the ball is practically on top of them to swing. One idea is that when they are playing rec ball early in their careers, they’re not sure of where the strike zone is (or if the pitcher can hit it), so they wait until they’re absolutely sure they know where the ball is.

Since most kids don’t hit the ball particularly hard at that age, the bad placement isn’t really noticeable. But as they progress in the game and hitting gets better, those who don’t make the adjustment get left behind. .

My other thought has to do with tee placement. How many times have you seen a player (or a well-meaning but under-informed coach) plop the tee right in the center of the plate, which places the ball right about at their bellybutton? Those ubiquitous tees with the plate for a base certainly help reinforce that concept.

So after hours of practicing that way, where do you think a hitter is going to expect to hit the ball? And once that mindset is locked in, it can be tough to break.

So give the second plate idea a try and see if it helps. Then let me know your results in the comments below. Also, if you’ve found other successful tricks to help hitters understand how to hit the ball in the proper space as it’s moving, please be sure to share them with everyone here.

Life in the Fastpitch Lane Makes the List

Had to share this with all of you, because it’s always nice to be included. This blog, Life in the Fastpitch Lane, was recently featured in a blog post from Decker Sports highlighting their picks for the  7 Best Softball Blogs to Follow. Wow, that’s a lot of “blogs” in one paragraph. decker_logo3

It really does feel good to be selected to the list, especially looking at some of the others that made it. Unlike coaching, where you can see and measure the results with each session, blogging is kind of a solitary activity. You throw things out there you find interesting and/or helpful, and hope it resonates with at least one other person. But unless someone leaves a comment (hint, hint) you just never know for sure.

So it’s great to see the kind words the folks at Decker Sports shared. From the beginning, my goal has been to make Life in the Fastpitch Lane helpful and informative. Despite the fact that I’ve been coaching girls fastpitch softball for more than 20 years now, I still learn new things every day.

I credit not only other coaches in the field but also my students. They’re constantly driving me to come up with new ways to explain something, or to create new drills and ideas to help them learn. One of the biggest challenges is trying to get into the head of each individual to understand why she is (or isn’t) doing what she’s doing, what it feels like or looks like or sounds like to her, so I can teach her in a way that will work for her and more importantly help her achieve success on the field.

That can be challenging enough with an older player. It can be mind-boggling for an old coot like me to try to think like an 8 year old girl. Yet that’s what also keeps it fun and exciting. I hope I never get to the point where everything just works automatically the first time all the time. How boring would that be?

So as I discover new ideas and approaches, I will continue to share those insights with you. If each post helps just one softball player achieve success and feel better about herself, it’s more than worth the time and electrons.

And thank you again to the folks at Decker Sports. Be sure to check out their website for the softballs and training products they offer, and their blog for more training tips.

Helping pitchers understand pulling the ball through release whipping instead of pushing

The other night I was working with a very young pitcher named Kaitlyn on her basic mechanics. She’d been off pitching for a few weeks and was just getting back into it.

As we were working I noticed she was cutting her arm circle off toward the bottom, with the result that she was pushing the ball through release. As you can imagine, the result was the pitches were slower and rather erratic.

I wanted to help her get back on track and get into a position to whip the ball through release as she should. But one of the challenges of working with pitchers who are 8 or 9 years old is figuring out a way to communicate what you want (and why) to them.

As I and others have said before, young children are not just short adults. They think differently and have a different frame of references than adults. So it’s important to come up with ways of explaining things to them that make sense.

In this case, saying “you need to whip the ball through the zone” wouldn’t have meant much. So I thought, “what would help her understand?” That’s when I came up with this idea. Punching through at release

I knelt down in front of her, held my hand out, and told her to punch my hand. (That’s not me in the photo, obviously. That’s her mom, who is much more photogenic than I am. You’re welcome.) She made a fist and pushed her hand into my hand.

I then told her to pull her hand back again, and this time slap my hand instead of punching it. This time she used a motion that was more like whipping the ball. Slapping to get the feel of a whipping motion.

After one more punch and a few more repetitions of slapping, we went back to pitching. Bingo! She started coming through with a whip, and the ball started coming faster and more accurately.

So if you have a pitcher who struggling to feel that acceleration of the lower arm past the upper arm, give this one a try. And if you do, let me know how it works in the comments below.

Evidence of the value of team sports

Those of us involved in team sports such as fastpitch softball like to talk about all the benefits they provide. Most of the time, however, it has been more opinion and belief than anything that could be proved.

The folks at Ohio University have done some research and put together an infographic that shows both the value of participating in team sports (based on survey information) as well as some data on an apparent decline in participation in team sports in high school. The culprits, as you might suspect, include obesity, spending too much time in front of screens (TV, texting, surfing the Internet, etc.) and aggressive coaches who created a poor experience.

The full infographic is below. Definitely worth a look – including the evaluation at the end.


Ohio University Online

Helping fastpitch catchers learn to throw to bases faster

In fastpitch softball, as in baseball, catchers tend to make their bones in two areas above all else. One is their ability to block pitches in the dirt. The other is their ability to throw out baserunners, either on steals or pickoffs.

Key to the latter is the ability to make a quick throw. While having a strong arm is important, a strong arm can be offset by requiring a slow, deliberate release. And for catcher-throwingcatchers whose arms are not the strongest, having a quick release becomes even more critical.

One of the ways you can speed up a catcher’s release is by getting rid of the need to “find” the base first. In other words, when the catcher goes to throw the ball – either on a steal or a pick – she shouldn’t have to look at where the base is and process the information.

Instead, she should just know instinctively where it is. The tenth of a second or two she saves by not having to “find” the base first can make the difference between safe and out.

Even the runner is safe, if it’s just by a hair it will serve as a warning to the other team’s coach not to get too adventurous on the basepaths. After all, coaches generally don’t test the catcher’s arm/release with their slowest runners – they use their fastest. If you can make it a photo finish with the fastest runner, it’s unlikely the coach will be anxious to send the rest.

So how do you get catchers to throw with more instinct? One of my favorite methods is by using a blindfold. Here’s how it works.

First, you must have already trained your catchers on proper technique, including the need for urgency. If you haven’t done that first, stop now and do that, then come back to this idea.

If you have, however, then it’s time to bring out the blindfold. The catcher starts with the ball in her glove and the blindfold in place. Make sure she’s in line with where she would normally set up, then have her get into her runners on base stance. Tell her to visualize where the base you’re throwing to is. I usually like to start with throws to second.

When she’s ready, either blow a whistle or yell “she’s going.” At that point the catcher pops to her feet (or drops to her knees if she can throw that way) and executes the throw as quickly as possible.

If she has a good feel for where the base is without seeing it, and good technique, she should be able to make the throw reasonably close. If she doesn’t, it could go anywhere and you’ll know you have some work to do.

If the throw goes offline, be sure to tell the catcher where it went so she can get a feeling for the difference between where she thinks it is and where it actually is. Also be sure to watch as she makes her throw for mechanical flaws (such as not pointing the front shoulder at the target) that can throw her off.

One way to make it more interesting is to offer a prize. This is particularly effective if you’re working with multiple catchers at once, since once one of them is successful it will spur the others. I’ve used a stick of Chapstick, a pack of gum or a roll of Mentos as prizes. You can select whatever you want.

Having a competition for a prize is a great way to end a training session, by the way. I like using this type because everyone has a shot at it (versus having only one winner) if they execute properly.

To add a degree of difficulty, have the receiver sit on a bucket or a chair. That cuts the adjustability of the receiver, so the throws really have to be spot-on. If you’re working with multiple catchers, you can add in some conditioning by having one be the thrower, one the receiver, and another chasing down errant throws. Give the thrower one shot, then she sprints down to become the receiver, carrying the ball with her. The running not only helps them build their legs but also fatigues them, helping simulate the feeling of having played a couple of games already.

This drill/game can be used for any base. It can be particularly interesting for right-handed catchers to learn to throw to first base on a pickoff attempt since the moves will have to be stealthy and they must rotate beyond the 90 degrees required to throw to second. It can get pretty random, especially outdoors, so your “chaser” will get a good workout in.

Throwing to bases blindfolded can be pretty challenging at first, so keep them encouraged. Let them know there is a degree of difficulty involved, and there’s no shame in not being able to do it at first.

But if they CAN learn to throw to bases instinctively, without seeing, the whole process will become a whole lot easier when they’re not blindfolded.

Don’t be surprised, by the way, if this quickly becomes your catchers’ favorite drill/game. The ones I’ve used it with usually will ask if they can do it, or will select it if given a choice of how to close out practice.

Truth is it’s not only challenging – it’s fun. And a point of pride when they’re able to make the throw.

Tossing out baserunners takes a lot of instinctual play. This is a great way of helping to build those instincts.

 

 

Congratulations to Taylor Danielson for signing with UIndy

One of the best parts of my job as a fastpitch softball instructor – actually THE best part – is seeing them succeed. That’s why I was so excited and honored to watch as Taylor Danielson signed her National Letter of Intent to play softball at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy). Go Greyhounds!

Signing a National Letter of Intent

Taylor Danielson signs her National Letter of Intent for UIndy as her parents Chris and Tracy watch.

I’ve written about Taylor a couple of times before, most recently just a couple of weeks ago. She is an amazing catcher who can frame and block with the best of them. She’s also very vocal, the types coaches love because she takes command on the field.

She’s a great hitter as well (as the post about the knee injury attests) and when she’s healthy she has 2.8 speed from home to first – a pretty rare skill for a catcher. It’s no wonder the UIndy coaches verballed her more than a year ago and are excited for her to come over.

Taylor is also a high quality human being. For all her talent on the field she is very humble off of it. I’ve never heard her say a mean word about anyone, even people who probably deserved it. She is kind and caring, and always has a smile on her face. She’s also very polite, which seems to be more and more rare in our me-first world. Definitely credit her parents Chris and Tracy for that.

img_0883I actually first met Taylor when she came to catch for a pitching and hitting student of mine named Kate Kiser – before Kate wound up going to volleyball full time. While she was catching I used to give her a tip here or there, which I tend to do with catchers. Something must have clicked, because her dad asked if I would give her full-time catching lessons. We also did hitting together, and Taylor was a sponge with both.

I couldn’t be happier that Taylor has this opportunity. UIndy is a high-quality program, and I’m sure Taylor will help them become even better. So Taylor, congratulations. I know you will continue to be awesome. Looking forward to catching a couple of games in your senior high school season, and at UIndy as well.

Return of the Indiana United Fastpitch Elite/Rick Pauly Clinics

Earlier this year I blogged about a fantastic fastpitch pitching event held, of all places, in Southeastern Indiana. Put on by Rick Pauly, hosted by Indiana United Elite Fastpitch and Coach James Clark, and featuring an array of top-level pitching coaches, it was an incredible learning experience for players, parents and coaches alike.img_0764

Never one to be content to rest on his laurels, Coach James has outdone himself with the latest iteration. The 2017 clinic, again in Richmond, Indiana, has expanded in its scope to not only offer top-level pitching instruction but also clinics on hitting, catching, the short game/slapping and defense.

This year’s instructor lineup is impressive once again, with college coaches and former college and NPF players offering hands-on instruction. The nice thing about these clinics is they’re not like so many, where they show a big name who is the “face” but then have very little interaction. The faces you see on the flyer will all be actively participating in or leading the instruction.

Throughout the weekend there will be plenty of time for discussions and questions too. One of the highlights for me last time was many of the instructors gathered together in a room tossing around ideas and opinions until the wee hours of the morning – all part of an impromptu session that began with a simple question. Those little side conversations alone are worth the price of admission.

Coach James promises it will be bigger and better than ever, and I believe it! The clinic runs the weekend of January 6,7 and 8, 2017 – timed this time to both make sure it didn’t interfere with high school and college seasons and to give players time to lock down what they learn before tryouts begin for spring high school ball.

Click here to register, and here to schedule the sessions you want and to pay. Most sessions are $70 each and run an hour and 15 minutes. The exceptions are the recruiting discussion that costs $25, and the beginning and advanced pitching sessions with Rick and Sara Pauly which cost $150 and are scheduled for 3 hours, although last year Rick was having such a great time he ran a bit long on both sessions.

Download the flyer for complete information, and then be sure you sign up now. Slots are filling fast. I’m sure you’ll find it’s a great investment in your softball future.

indiana-united-fastpitch-elite-clinic-2017

One way to avoid re-injuring a knee

The #KyleSchwarber coming back from a knee injury storyline is getting a lot of coverage right now during the World Series. But I think I have a fastpitch softball story that can top it.

Taylor Danielson, whom I have written about before, hurt her knee playing high school softball back in the spring and wound up missing the whole summer. This would have been more worrisome since this was to be the summer between her junior and senior year, but fortunately she had already verballed to a college. (I won’t say which quite yet due to superstition, but check back in a couple of weeks.)

When the injury occurred she was told she wouldn’t get back on the field until 2017. While that is a good prognosis for an ordinary person, Taylor is hardly an ordinary player. She worked her butt off rehabbing her knee, and was finally cleared for limited action for the end of the fall ball season.

There were some caveats. No catching (she’s an awesome catcher), and while she could hit, she couldn’t run full out. No stretching a single into a double, or going from first to third. She was under strict orders to run base to base and that’s it – a shame since she has 2.8 speed from home to first.

Since she couldn’t run like she wanted, Taylor decided to address it her own way. The video shows how – she hit the ball so far she was able to jog her way around the bases. All of them.

Just goes to show where there’s a will there’s a way. And you can’t keep a great player down.

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