Anyone who has seen a gladiator movie, or a movie with gladiators in it, is familiar with this scenario: Two warriors do battle until one bests the other. The victor stands over the fallen loser, weapon at the ready, and looks to the Emperor (or highest-ranking official in attendance). The Emperor holds out his hand with his thumb extended sideways, then either turns it up to spare the fallen warrior or down to indicate he should be killed.
Never mind that this is just a dramatic fiction of the movies. In reality, gladiators were too expensive to acquire and train to be wasted in such a manner. The idea of the thumbs-up/thumbs down creates a scenario to help fastpitch softball as well as baseball catchers.
Like hitters moving from the cage to games, catchers often have a tough time making the transition from practice to the field. They may be great at blocking in practice, when they know it’s coming, or scrambling to their feet to chase a popup. But in an actual game, all that training sometimes seems to go out the window.
That’s where we can borrow from the Roman Empire of the movies, and have some fun besides.
Line your catchers up in front of you, with your arm extended and your thumb to the side. They should all be in their runners on base stance.
Then either turn your thumb up for them to react to an imaginary popup or base stealer, or down to block a pitch in the dirt.
The key is that they don’t know which they’re going to have to do, so they’re going to have to read and react quickly and appropriately.
For added challenge, you can tell anyone who goes the wrong way that they have to sit out. You can also tell the catchers that the last one up or down is out as well. That creates a little competition and gives them some skin in the game.
When the catchers go into a blocking position, check to make sure they are in the position you want and not just flopping onto the ground. They should be up and over the imaginary ball, with their shoulders further forward than their knees and their chins tucked in – as opposed to the ones who sit on their calves like they’re getting ready to watch TV.
For the popup position, first tell them where the ball will be – in front of them or behind them. Then emphasize getting their backs turned to the infield so the imaginary ball doesn’t drift away from them.
If you want to go with steals, make sure they’re coming up into a good throwing position rather than just getting to their feet. If you have the space, you can even have them make the throw. Just be aware of a stray ball or two.
The objective, again, is getting them to read the situation and react more quickly.
Here’s the last part to making a successful transition. Your catchers may get good at Roman Empire, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll carry it with them onto the field. What you want to tell them is when they’re in a game, they need to approach it like they’re doing the Roman Empire drill.
They need to get themselves ready to read and react, rather than not thinking about it at all and then reacting too late. By being mentally ready on the field they’ll put themselves in a position to use all that training and find greater success.
Once a pitcher’s mechanics are strong, one of the most effective ways to improve speed is through long toss. The pitcher starts at her normal pitching distance, then moves back 5-8 feet and throws another pitch.
She keeps doing that until she can’t make it to the plate anymore, at which point she starts working her way back in. The goal, of course, is to get as far out as you can – eventually to the outfield grass. You need to be strong, with a quick, aggressive motion, to get there.
Of course, to perform long toss effectively you need to have the distance to throw it. Easy enough on the field, but not so easy when you’re in a 50′ batting cage or a gym with other players – as many of us in the Northern part of the world are right now.
That’s where having a set of properly weighted balls can come in very handy. With weighted balls, and a quality training program, you can work on both arm strength and arm speed where space is limited.
The key is having balls of the proper weight. In particular, you want to be sure the weighted ball isn’t too heavy – no more than 1.5 ounces more than a normal ball, which is roughly 6.5 ounces. Anything heavier and you risk putting undue stress on the shoulder.
That’s why I’ve come to like Decker Weighted Softballs from Decker Sports. The overload/underload variance is relatively small: 7.8 oz. for the heavy ball, 5.2 oz. for the light ball, plus a “normal” 6.5 oz. ball. Each ball is very clearly marked, with large numbers and color coding, so there is no risk of using the wrong ball for the particular purpose.
Another thing I like about the balls is they come with a line around the circumference going across the four seams, so you can easily see the spin on the ball. That will give you an idea of whether you’re maintaining good mechanics as you work with them.
I also like the feel of the balls. They have good “tack” on them with good seams. The previous set of weighted balls I had never had very good tack, and by now are positively shiny. It was definitely time to retire them. The Decker Sports balls feel more natural to the pitchers, helping them focus on what they’re doing rather than wondering whether the balls will slip out of their hands.
Decker Sports does more than sell you a product, however. The balls come with an off-season and in-season training program. You can see a preview here. There are also other training programs out there, so you can find one that fits your needs and time constraints.
That’s another good point to make. Working with weighted balls can take some time. In lessons, where we only have a half hour once a week, I will often expose players (and parents) to weighted balls but won’t continue to use them on a regular basis.
That’s the sort of thing that’s best done on your own. I feel the time spent with me can best be spent on other aspects – you don’t need a coach for that.
Studies have shown that using a good weighted ball protocol can help increase speed. If you’re looking to help your pitch pick up some velocity (and who isn’t), give these weighted balls a try. You may even want to carry on with them once you go back outside.
In my last blog post I talked about the value of practicing rundowns, and all the good it can do. But I didn’t get into the details of how to execute them successfully from a defensive point of view. So guess what we’re going over today?
Step one is to understand what makes for a good rundown. When you watch a rundown on a TV show or in the movies, you see a lot of running back and forth, faking throws, and actual throws.
While that makes for good drama, it’s pretty bad technique for a rundown. Here’s how to do it better.
The first rule of rundowns is the fewer the throws, the better. In fact, as I mentioned last time when I am working with teams I will ask them how many throws in the ideal rundown. The correct answer is zero.
When you make a throw, especially on the run, there are all sorts of things that can go wrong. You can throw the ball away (obviously) – high or wide. You can throw the ball into the runner. You can lose your grip on the ball and send it rolling or even behind you. You can throw too early or too late.
The better bet is to do what the technique says – run down the runner and apply the tag.
Run hard at the runner
The best explanation I’ve heard is when you run at the runner, you should put the “fear of God” in her. The mistake most defensive players make is running at the same pace as the runner. Why?
You want to put the tag on her if you can, so run at her as hard as you can. I used to love demonstrating this part. I’d take one side of a rundown, get the ball, and start chasing the runner like a monster in a horror movie – crazy eyes and a maniacal look on my face. The runner would usually freak out while the others laughed, but the point was made.
Leave no doubt. Make the runner think your plan is to tackle her before you tag her and she will start running full speed to get away. That’s a good thing because it takes a lot more effort, and a lot longer, to turn and run the other way if you’re running full speed.
Keep a Line of sight
Sometimes the speed mismatch doesn’t lend itself to just a run and tag. If you do have to make a throw or two, be sure you can see the person you’re throwing to, i.e., keep a line of sight to the other side.
Rather than running right behind the runner, run a bit off to your throwing-hand side. If the runner moves, you should move too. It’s a lot easier to make good throws if you’re not trying to throw over or around someone.
Use dart throws
Everyone says to use dart throws, but what does it really mean? To understand, get a dartboard and some darts and try to hit the bullseye.
Odds are you’re not going to wind up as throw as hard as you can. Instead, you will use more of a pushing motion, with no wrist snap.
It’s the same for rundowns. If you wind up and throw hard, especially as you get closer, there’s probably a better chance that the receiver will flinch than you will execute a successful throw and catch. Use that more direct push-type throw and you’ll put the ball where you want it.
Oh, and if you have to use more arm to make the throw, you’re not doing it right. Or you’re not in a rundown.
Another mistake teams will make is standing at the two bases and running back and forth between them. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Instead, both sides should start pinching in to shorten the distance the runner has to work with. If you run hard at the runner and get her to commit, as we said above, it will take her a little time to stop and reverse direction.
If the receiver on the other side is close, she can get the ball, run up, and make the tag before the runner has a chance to change direction. That’s way better than trying to run 60 feet back and forth each time.
Run the runner back
Whenever possible, get the ball ahead of the runner and try to run her back toward the base she’s coming from. While not as good as getting the out, keeping the runner at the base she started at is better than having her advance a base.
Time your throws
To make sure you’re running the runner back, anytime she gets more than halfway to the next base make the throw and get it in front of the runner. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but more of a rule of thumb.
The closer you let her get to the next base the more chance the runner has of advancing. So try to make sure you’re only working within the 30 feet between the last base and the next one whenever possible.
Peel off after the throw
Again, if you do have to make a throw, it’s important to know what to do next. Start by getting out of the way. Peel off to the side so you don’t interfere with the play going on. Then keep going and get in line on the other side, just in case you’re called on again. Although hopefully you won’t be.
Watch the trail runner
If there is more than one runner on base, don’t forget about the trail runner. As soon as you get the out on the lead runner, start looking for the trail runner.
When you get the runner, and the play is over, don’t forget to celebrate! You just got a free out.
Practice these techniques until they become automatic and you’ll win your unfair share of rundowns.
If you’ve been thinking lately that it’s a tough time for officials in a number of sports including fastpitch softball, you’d be right. As this infographic from Ohio University demonstrates, the number of officials nationwide is on a steady decline.
That’s bad news for everyone involved in youth sports, because even though you may not always like their calls, and in some cases may think they are biased/blind/complete idiots, umpires and referees are still essential for competitive sports. You could play without them, I suppose, but if you’re counting on all the coaches and players to be completely honest about close calls you’re bound to be sorely disappointed.
Where are they all going? Well, like the rest of the workforce, older officials are retiring. Unfortunately, not enough people are stepping up to replace them. It seems that players who are either finishing or have finished their playing careers aren’t exactly stepping up to stay involved in softball by becoming umpires. Although there are some exceptions.
The opportunities to advance from high school to college officiating aren’t exactly abundant either, which may discourage some. The pay isn’t exactly great, the hours can be long and inconvenient, and so forth.
Then there is the issue of the hostile environment these days. More and more, youth sports contests are beginning to sound like political debates on Facebook. This has led more than 85% of current officials to “consider terminating their services if (the) environment worsens.”
What’s the consequence? According to the infographic, potentially it could mean fewer games, fewer opportunities at the lower levels in high school, and perhaps some sports being dropped altogether at some schools.
While the infographic doesn’t get into travel/club ball, fewer officials could mean even shorter games in an effort to cover the same number of games, or perhaps bringing in unqualified or untrained volunteers to pick up the slack. Yes, I know there are some bad umpires out there even with training, but the situation could get a whole lot worse.
So what’s the solution? I can think of a couple of things.
One is to be sure coaches, parents, and players treat officials with respect rather than imitating the bad behavior they see on TV. That not only gives current officials a reason to stay in it; it also encourages current players to stay in the game by officiating when their careers are done.
As part of that, coaches and players should shake the officials’ hands after every game – even if you think they blew a call that cost you the game. Just that act alone can mean a lot.
Stiffer penalties for those who verbally or especially physically abuse or threaten officials should be put in place and enforced vigorously. No official should ever have to wonder if he/she will be confronted by an angry coach or parent after a game.
Officiating organizations should also make an effort to reach out to high school and college players (and their parents, for that matter), encouraging them to sign up when they’re done playing. Sometimes all it takes is asking someone. They should do more than send an email. They should actually show up in person and present, in my opinion.
Those are just a few ideas I had. What about you? What do you think we can do to turn the tide and swell the ranks of quality officials?
I could have sworn I have posted this before, but I just ran a bunch of searches and couldn’t find it so just in case here it goes again.
One of the keys to throwing an effective backhand change is to pull or drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first rather than pushing it ball first. Or snapping it like a fastball.
Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for pitchers to get that feeling. That’s what the drill shown at the top of this post is for, demonstrated by a former student of mine named Tayler Janda (helped by her mom Jennie) back when she was in high school.
Essentially, you set the pitcher up with her feet apart so they won’t move. Then have her grasp a swim noodle with her knuckles facing forward. When you say go, she pulls the noodle out of your hand and flings it forward. (NOTE: have her try to do it without spinning her shoulders like Tayler is doing in the video.)
The goal of this drill is to get the pitcher to feel what it’s like to hold onto the ball until she reaches forward as far as she can go before releasing, and to maintain speed all the way through.
A few repetitions and she should start to get the feel. The nice thing about this drill is you can do it indoors on a rainy day just as easily as you can on a field or in a cage.
If you have (or are) a pitcher who is having trouble finding the proper release on your change, give this one a try.
Talk to fastpitch softball coaches, parents, and players and the one thing you’ll find in common is everyone is looking for that one magic solution that will instantly up their games.
Pitchers (and their parents) are always hoping to find that one magical drill or method of teaching that will instantly take them from the low 50 mph range to 60+ mph.
Hitters (and their parents) are looking for that magical drill that will help them go from striking out a lot and hitting weak grounders to driving the ball over the fence. Failing that, they hope a new bat will do the trick.
Fielders, baserunners, everyone at every stage hopes they can discover that secret no one else knows and instantly claim a tremendous advantage over the competition. Instructors know this too, and either get frustrated by it or take advantage of it by giving their instruction method a cool-sounding name and then marketing it as though their version of sound mechanics is different from everyone else’s.
The reality is there are no magic beans in fastpitch softball – no secret drills or approaches no one else knows about. What there is is what many players and parents view as the last resort – hard work.
That’s not just my opinion. I’ve spoken with some of the top instructors in the country, people with tremendous resumes and a track record of developing quality players. Every one of them says the same thing.
I once had a chance to ask a well-known and well-respected pitching coach if he knew of any specific drill or technique to get a pitcher over 60 mph. He said, “I wish I did.” He then went on to say there are things you can do to help, but there are no guarantees.
In my experience, becoming an elite-level softball player requires a few things, some of which you can control and some of which you can’t:
- It definitely helps to have athletic DNA, the kind that develops fast twitch muscles in bulk. For that you have to choose your parents well. Great DNA makes up for a lot of other ills, by the way.
- For most, it also takes sound mechanics. That requires great instruction and a lot of long, boring hours developing those mechanics. Yes, there are players with terrible mechanics who succeed anyway, but they are not the norm. See point #1. For the rest, great mechanics will help make up for a lack of natural athletic ability. For the skill you want to develop, learn what great mechanics are by watching what great players do and learning as much as you can from credible sources, then seek out an instructor who teaches it.
- You need to have the mental game to keep working and trying to improve, even in the face of failure. Think of that old joke about the person who invented 6UP soda. Ooooh, so close! Being able to push through disappointment, or to keep cool and focused when every fiber of your being wants to panic or give up, is a huge asset. Not just in softball but in anything you pursue.
- You need to be in great softball shape. I put this at the end because I find it to be more like spice in the dish than the dish itself. If you have poor mechanics or a weak mental game it’s probably not going to matter if you’re in great shape or not. Lots of players have looked good getting off the bus in their shorts, only to fail repeatedly when they put on their uniforms. But if you’re already well on your way toward being mechanically and mentally sound, being in great softball shape is often a huge difference-maker. It can make up a lot for the lack of #1.
There’s no question it would be nice if there actually was some magic drill or method that could instantly make you better, or guarantee you’ll be successful without all that boring practice time. As I always tell my students, if I could just lay may hand on their head and say, “Go forth and play! You are healed” I’d be charging $1,000 per lesson and there would be a mile-long line to get some of that. Because that’s the dream.
But there isn’t – and don’t let anyone tell you there is. If you want to become the player you’re meant to be, don’t fall for fancy marketing lines and promises of instant or guaranteed greatness. Because no matter what you learn and who teaches you, the bulk of your success – like 90% of it – depends not on them but on you.
So while there are no magic beans that will make you an overnight success, there is a path to it. And the beauty is you can control a lot of that path. You just have to be willing to put in the effort.
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Sustainable sanitation at http://flickr.com/photos/23116228@N07/6908811713. It was reviewed on by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.
One of the toughest things for any fastpitch softball pitcher is keeping control over her emotions. Pitchers are very exposed, and face a lot of pressure on every pitch, so it’s easy for them to get too high or too low depending on the outcome of the pitcher. Neither is terribly good.
This high/low issue was very evident in one of my pitching students, a 12U pitcher named Sarah. She’d throw a great pitch during a lesson and have a wide grin on her face. Then she’d try another, it wouldn’t work right, and the sad face came out.
It wasn’t just a little bit of disappointment. Her spirits would visibly fall – exaggerated by how high the last high was.
I would talk to her about needing to “maintain an even strain,” and she would nod, but the next time it would happen she’d do the same thing. I kept trying to think of how I could explain it better.
Then it hit me: Halloween was coming up, and with it Halloween merchandise. I thought about the Mayor from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
If you’ve never seen it, the character is the Mayor of Halloween Town. He has two faces. One is a gigantic grin; the other is a sad face. (See the graphic at the top of the post.)
His head spins around to show the appropriate face, depending on his mood. There is no in-between. Just like Sarah, I thought!
I thought what better way to illustrate it than to pick up a Mayor doll of some sort and give it to Sarah. So I ran to Walgreen’s, and found the perfect representation. It was just the head, about the size of a Beanie Baby. It was the kind of thing she could keep in her bag as a reminder not to go into “Mayor mode.” And it was fun.
She got it immediately, and was happy to get the gift. But it’s what happened next that was most interesting.
In her next lesson, she was a lot more even in her moods. If something went wrong she was able to shrug it off pretty easily – much more so than before. When she did make a face, I’d just call her Mayor and she’d smile and come out of it. Seemed like the Mayor had done his job.
Fast forward to this past Monday. As she was putting her glove in her bag after her lesson she pulled out the Mayor, and that brought up a discussion. She said she had another girl on her team who would have even bigger mood swings, so she handed the girl the Mayor to help her pull out of a bad one.
Apparently the Mayor has become somewhat of a team mascot. Whenever someone gets down, they get the Mayor, and he helps them snap out of it. Fun to hear they’re all sharing him, and reaping the benefits.
Helping the mental game can be tough, because you never know what might work. But if you have a player, or a team, that is struggling with evening out their moods, get out and see if you can pick up a Mayor while Halloween is still going on. It just might do the trick.
As a fastpitch softball coach , when you’re looking for ways to improve your players, it’s likely you think of DVDs, YouTube videos, books, and sites like the Discuss Fastpitch Forum as your go-to resources. Yet there is another, kind of out-of-the-box option that might help you from a philosophical point of view: HGTV.
No, they haven’t suddenly started running fastpitch softball content there, although that would be nice. But what they do a lot of is shows such as Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop Atlanta that take an older, cramped-looking, out-of-date house and turn it into an amazing showplace home with giant, airy rooms, lots of sunlight and picture-perfect furnishings.
Of course any of you with kids (or who are players who are part of a family) know that about 10 minutes after the cameras leave the new owners are going to crap it up with all kinds of stuff that doesn’t fit the decorating theme laying everywhere. But for those few brief, shining moments it’s practically a palace.
What’s fun about those shows is seeing how they do it. Sometimes the house they finally pick (usually from two or three options) is just old and outdated. It has gold or avocado appliances, yellowing linoleum floors, a bunch of small rooms, a tiny kitchen, etc. Every now and then, though, they get the big challenge – a house where there is actual garbage (or worse) in every room, the siding is missing, the shingles are coming off, the ceiling is falling apart, and there are holes in the walls.
Whatever the current state of the house, that’s what they work with. Just like a fastpitch softball coach getting a player.
The first step, of course, is evaluating what needs to be done to get the house to its ultimate state. Sometimes that just means some tweaks here or there, such as tearing out a wall or two, adding a fresh coat of paint, and updating cabinets and fixtures in the kitchen and bathrooms. Of course, even their “tweaks” cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Other times, however, the only solution is to tear the house down to the studs and foundation, inside and out, and start over.
That’s what fastpitch softball coaches face too. Sometimes a player comes in with a pretty good swing, or decent throwing technique, or a good pitching motion, etc. and just needs a few tweaks to up their game.
Other times, it doesn’t take long to see that a swing looks like an unmade bed (unorganized, no particular sequence or purpose to the movements). Or the throwing technique makes you wonder how they get the ball anywhere at all. Or the pitching motion was learned at the bowling alley.
In cases like that, it’s not time to be shy. You just have to tear it down to the studs and start over.
Of course, just like on HGTV you first have to get buy-in from the owner – in this case from the player. On the house programs, they draw up plans on the computer and show the owners what they plan to do. As a coach you can also use a computer to show examples of high-level players to demonstrate the swing/technique/motion you’re going for.
But you need to go beyond that as well. You need to paint the picture for them in their minds about what their softball life will be like once they make the fix. You also need to explain it’s not something they can master in a week or two.
The HGTV shows are compressed to fit into an hour, but really they’re like a Rocky training montage. A lot of people put in a lot of work to make the changes happen.
In the case of fastpitch softball players, only one person can really put in the work – the player. Can’t subcontract out drills or practice and expect any improvements to be made. Which is another reason the player needs to be on-board.
The climax of the HGTV shows is the Big Reveal – the point where they walk the owners through their new, way better than before home. Many happy tears are shed and high fives exchanged.
The Big Reveal for players is when they finally get back on the field, and suddenly things that were difficult or nerve-wracking become easy and relaxed. Hitters go to the plate with confidence, knowing they can take the pitcher deep. Fielders can make quick, sharp plays and throws because they’re not worried about whether they’ll catch it or where the ball will go. Pitchers can focus on dominating hitters rather than wondering where the ball will go or if it will do what it’s supposed to do.
Take your cue from HGTV. Figure out what your players need to make them showplace-worthy (or showcase-worthy I suppose) and put your plan together from there. If you do have to take one down to the studs, be kind. It will be worth it in the end.
Over the last few years there has been a lot of debate over whether pitching machines are helpful or useless. Some say they’re not very realistic, while others realize it’s often the only means at their disposal to simulate a pitch coming in at full speed and distance.
Players also have their problems, saying they can’t hit off the machine, despite hitting well otherwise.
What I have found, however, is like anything else, the pitching machine is just a tool. It’s how you use it that’s the problem. This video goes into detail on where the issues arise and how to deal with them so you can incorporate machines into your practice – or if you’re a player, how you can get past the flaws.
This is my first vlog, by the way. In the future I’ll work on carrying a bit more friendly of a facial expression. 🙂