Giving fastpitch catchers a ladder to success on throwdowns

First of all, a quick hello to any students from Mr. Nikolich’s Marketing 470 class at NIU who decided to stop by and see if I was as full of it as I seemed the other day. If any of you come by, please leave a comment below and I’ll see if I can wrangle a little extra credit for you. Ok, now on to fastpitch catchers and their needs.

What I’m talking about today is actually a fairly common issue, especially with young catchers, baseball as well as fastpitch. We talk a lot about “pop” times and the importance of getting the ball down to the base quickly on a steal.

So what happens? As catchers come up from a squat to a throwing position, often times in their haste they don’t get their bodies turned properly. When that happens they lose both power and accuracy on the throw. They wind up more like one of those yard sprinklers, spray balls all over the place.

With some training they can learn to get into the proper position when they’re not making the throw, or they’re under pressure. But sometimes they just can’t make the transition, no matter how much you yell at them. 🙂 That’s when you need to get a little creative.

Fastpitch catcher in runners on base stance for ladder drillIn some recent catching clinics with the Midwest Glory, I had been having the catcher work on their foot quickness with a speed ladder. They would straddle the ladder, then “jump on the skateboard” to get in place, going as rapidly as they could. Then we moved to real throws.

Some were ok, but others had some trouble. When they popped up they would wind up with their feet at a 45 degree angle to the target rather than being fully turned. That’s when it hit me.

That speed ladder I’d just been using would work perfectly as a guide to get the feet aligned. So I dragged it over, set it up and voila! Great positioning and better throws.

In the photos, Brinn McNeill is demonstrating how it works. The first photo shows Brinn in a runners on base stance, straddling one of the opening on the ladder. The second photo shows her after popping up into a good throwing position – shoulders, hips and knees Fastpitch catcher jumping into the ladder to get alignedaligned toward second, elbow pointed forward, knees still slightly bent.

She could now make an accurate throw blindfolded – and in fact has done just that. But that’s a story for another day.

If you have catchers who are having trouble getting lined up properly, give this technique a try. By the way, if you don’t have a speed ladder you can draw one in the dirt. If you’re indoors and don’t have dirt, use tape (with light adhesive), or sticks, or anything you can find to create two boxes for the feet.

And if you do try it, let me know how it goes in the comments below.

Smart baserunning pays off in fastpitch softball

This post was prompted by a play I saw yesterday on TV during the Oklahoma/Auburn game. It points out both the need for fastpitch softball baserunners to be smart on the bases, and how even the highest level players can make bad decisions.

Fastpitch softball players should never run into a tag. Ever.Oklahoma was up to bat, trailing by two or three runs, with a runner on first. The hitter hits a hard ground ball that goes straight to the second baseman, who is just a few steps from second base. What should the runner going from first to second have done? And what do you think she did?

Let’s answer the second question first. She ran a straight path between the bases, directly in front of the second baseman, who promptly tagged her and threw to first for the double play. I just cringed watching that.

One of the cardinal rules of baseball and softball baserunning is that you never, ever, run into a tag. Make the fielder work for it – she might miss.

In this situation it becomes doubly important because, of course, it leads to a double play.

So what should the runner have done instead? She had several options. One was to dive head-first to try to get under the tag. Or feet first. Or do a tuck-and-roll.

She may have been close enough to get to the bag if the fielder missed. But even if she wasn’t, she might have taken the second baseman by surprise and had enough time to scramble forward to the base. She would either have been safe or would have drawn the throw to protect the batter/runner and avoid the DP.

Another option would have been to stop short and make the second baseman chase her to get the tag, or stop and throw to second. Either of those choices would have once again protected the batter/runner by eating time. While she’s running, the batter/runner is as well.

A third option would have been to divert behind the second baseman, out of arm’s reach, so the second baseman would have to turn away from first to chase her, which – everyone say it with me now – would have protected the batter/runner and avoided the double play.

This last one is the option I would teach baserunners when I was coaching teams. Go beyond and make the second baseman chase you. If necessary, run into the outfield yelling “Woob woob woob” like Curly of the Three Stooges. If you can see you’re going to be out anyway, make sure you’re protecting the batter/runner, and maybe have a little fun while you’re doing it.

No need to worry about the “baseline” either. That’s a very misunderstood concept. There isn’t a single baseline you have to stick to as a runner. You establish your baseline as you run from base to base. So if you’re diverting behind to avoid interfering with the fielder’s ability to field the ball (and that’s the story you’re sticking to) a new baseline is established, which gives you some leeway. Not to the outfield, exactly, but at least some wiggle room. Running to the outfield is only for when you’re sure you will be out anyway.

There are probably more good choices as well. If you have one, please share it in the comments. But there is only one bad option in my experience: running into the tag so your batter/runner can be doubled up at first.

As I’ve always said you don’t have to be the fastest player to be a great baserunner. You just have to be the smartest.The earlier you learn your responsibilities on the bases, the more value you’ll bring to your team and the more success it will have.

By the way, I imagine Coach Gasso will be running some baserunning drills at the next practice to make sure her players remember not to run into a tag the next time. Even those who play for the top D1 seed right now have things to learn.

Yes, there can be such a thing as winning too much

Let’s face it. Whether your activity of choice is fastpitch softball, soccer, basketball, auto racing, marching band competitions, tiddlywinks or something else, everyone loves winning. As Nuke LaLoosh says in Bull Durham, “I love winning. It’s so much better than losing.” (Warning: the full quote is NSFW so turn down the volume.)Winning is fun, but there can be a thing as winning too often

Yet there can be a thing as winning too much. This is something a lot of parents (and some coaches) don’t seem to understand.

In America in particular, we tend to measure success in terms of wins and losses. The more you win, the better you are, right?

Not necessarily, because there’s another factor that comes into play – the level of competition. Think about it this way: how much satisfaction do you get out of winning a game of tic-tac-toe? Probably not much, because once you learn a few basic moves is only possible if your opponent makes a really, really stupid mistake.

Or if you are an adult, how much satisfaction would you get out of beating a 6 year old at one-on-one basketball, or chess, or ping pong, or pretty much anything else? Not much, because there’s no challenge.

And that’s the key to what I’m saying. If your team wins every tournament it goes to, especially if it goes undefeated every weekend (or even worse dominates every game) it’s not that the team is so great. It’s that you’re not playing the right level of competition.

You don’t get better if you’re not challenged. Winning a tournament shouldn’t be easy. It should be really hard. If you’re winning more than 60% of your games, 75% at most, you’re playing the wrong teams.

Sure, it’s fun to get those shiny plastic trophies, or medals, or t-shirts, or whatever they’re handing out these days as prizes. You have the big ceremony at the end, everyone takes pictures and maybe goes out for dinner afterward. But how special is it if it happens every weekend? Not very.

Keep in mind that iron is forged in fire. That’s what shapes it into something useful. Fastpitch softball players are the same way.

In order for them to get better, they need to play competition that is either at their skill level or better. It’s what will challenge them and force them to go beyond their current skill level. It’s also what keeps it interesting and makes the wins when they come extra satisfying.

Because you’ll know you didn’t just beat up on some lesser team. Instead, you put something on the line – the very real possibility of losing – and came out the other side on top. Your players probably learned a little something along the way, too.

The same goes for making it to every championship game, by the way, even if you don’t win. That just means one other team was probably in the wrong tournament too.

It can be tough to lose. Another of my favorite baseball movie quotes comes from Moneyball: “I hate losing. I hate losing even more than I wanna win.”

But that’s a good thing. If you’re concerned about losing, you will work harder to make sure it doesn’t happen. And you will get better. If losing isn’t a real concern, however, you’ll probably let up and your skills won’t develop. And that will catch up with you one day.

Parents, especially today’s parents, like to see their children succeed. But that doesn’t mean they should shelter them from losing, which is what you’re doing when winning becomes so important that failure to win every game at every tournament means you start looking for a new team that will.

Again, shoot for that 60-75% winning percentage and you can be pretty sure your favorite player is being challenged and growing as player. It will also mean that the fruits of victory will taste ever so much sweeter.

The long road to fastpitch excellence

The other night, as I was finishing up the paperwork for that night’s lessons, one of the baseball pitching instructors (who coincidentally also happens to be named Ken) walked into the office area sighing and shaking his head. The reason for his consternation was the expectations of some of the players he’d just finished working with. There's no quick road to success in fastpitch

“These guys are ridiculous,” Ken said (more or less, and perhaps a bit more colorfully). “They walk in here and expect to be throwing 20 mph faster in three weeks. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Amen, brother, I told him. I know the feeling.

The problem is we live in a microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, 24-hour news cycle world. That has set an unrealistic expectation in many people’s minds of the way everything should work.

All too often kids will walk in and expect (or their parents will expect) that if they take a handful of lessons that suddenly they will be stars. More likely that’s just enough time to mess them up pretty good, especially if they had a lot of bad habits before.

Bobby Simpson has the mantra “Getting better every day.” That’s a great way to think about it. The goal isn’t to take a few lessons and solve every issue. The goal is to be better walking out than when you walked in, whether that’s at a lesson or at practice.

The goal after that is to walk into the next lesson or practice either better than the last one, or at least picking up where you left off.

The old cliche “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” definitely applies. Whether you take the 10,000 hour rule as gospel or more as an allegory, the reality is it takes some length of time and constant work to see meaningful results.

Think about learning to play the piano. How good do you think you will be after four lessons? Maybe you’ll be able to play a credible version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” but you won’t be taking Chopin on anytime soon.

Or what about ballroom dancing lessons? Do you think four half hour sessions spent on the Foxtrot will have you dancing like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers? (Kids, follow the link to see who they were. They set the standard for dance in Hollywood musicals.)

Even if you’re not coming in with zero experience, if you’ve had a long layoff from practicing you’re not going to see a huge jump in three or four weeks. It takes time. Lots of time.

Typically, I find once I get a hitter mechanically sound that it takes about a year for them to see the real benefits. There is so much going on with hitting that it’s easy to be hesitant or get knocked off-track, especially in a game. With a year’s worth of using those mechanics and seeing live pitching, hitters start to get to the point where they can just go with it subconsciously, allowing them to spend their conscious brainpower on where the ball is and when it will arrive.

Fastpitch pitchers often have the same timeline. It’s one thing to be zinging the ball to your spots in practice. It’s another to do it when there are live hitters, umpires, coaches, teammates, opponents, parents and other spectators around and you’re playing for something meaningful.

As I always tell my pitching students, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside, but it can be a cold, dark place on the inside.

None of that happens, however, without first putting in the work up-front. If it could, i.e., if some coach or instructor could add 20 mph or otherwise reach some great goal in three sessions, those sessions would cost $1,000 apiece or more, and there would be a line a mile long to get some of it.

That’s the dream. But it’s not reality. I wish there was a shortcut, but as far as I and everyone else I’ve ever met knows there isn’t one.

Instead, the key is to set realistic expectations and work on little improvements that add up over time. Approach it any other way and you’re sure to be disappointed. And guys like poor Ken will continue to pull their hair out.

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

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