Monthly Archives: December 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War

Ok, this has nothing to do with softball, but I think it’s worth passing along. I just got back from seeing the movie Charlie Wilson’s War and have to say I highly recommend it. It’s an amazing study in politics and how things get done in Washington.

My first reaction walking out of the theater was “wow!” If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s about how a Congressman from Texas named Charlie Wilson helped obtain funding for the CIA to supply arms to Afghani freedom fighters battling against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Since America couldn’t supply arms directly, or even give the appearance of doing it, he had to cut a deal to funnel Soviet-made weapons from Israel to Egypt to Pakistan. He also had to get the Saudis to help fund it. All of which he was able to do despite being a minor politician.

It’s definitely a story worth seeing. It shows how the world really works, despite what you may read in the newspapers. It’s also a movie the people working on getting fastpitch softball back in the Olympics should see. Little petitions and letters and such are nice, but they won’t get the job done. These things happen in back rooms by people with the passion, and the connections, to get things done.

Is the elite athlete the proper standard to measure by?

Often times on various Web sites and forums you’ll see reference to the elite athlete. Generally the comments are in comparison to regular players. Experts and wannabe experts alike will talk about how elite athletes do this, or elite athletes do that. Or they’ll say every player should do X because that’s what elite athletes do. Most of all, they’ll imply that anyone who doesn’t approach the game like an elite athlete is doing things wrong.

The assumption is that everyone who plays the game wants to be an elite athlete. The truth is, they don’t. I’d guess the vast majority of players want to be good, and want to be successful within the area or level in which they play. But that’s not the same as being an elite athlete.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Being an elite athlete requires a few things, not the least of which is some outstanding DNA. It also requires an incredible level of dedication — the kind that has pitchers pitching every day not because they’re told to, but because they want to. The kind that has athletes following tough training regiments because it’s their means to the end they desire, not because their coach or parent tells them to.

Think of it this way: all soldiers in the military undergo a tremendous amount of training. Yet even within the military there are elite units, such as Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, etc. These soliders and sailors volunteer to undergo a higher level of training and sacrifice more because of a deep drive within them. That doesn’t mean the standard line soldier is less valuable or not worthwhile. Not at all. They just have different goals and drives.

Being an elite player isn’t for everyone. That’s ok. Each player needs to find his/her own level, and do what it takes to meet his/her own goals. It doesn’t mean it’s ok to slack off completely or let your team down. If that’s your attitude you shouldn’t be in a team sport. But it does mean that if your training regimine falls short of the elite athlete, it’s ok. Do what it takes to achieve your goals.

Getting rid of bat drag

A while back I wrote about a condition called bat drag. It’s a problem caused by the back elbow getting ahead of the hands during the swing. This causes the hitter to have to literally drag the bat (usually late) through the hitting zone. It creates a very weak hitting position, robbing the hitter of power.

I see this a lot with female hitters for some reason. What I haven’t seen much of is a way to fix it. At least nothing that has been very effective. It’s something that has been on my mind for a while.

I think I may have the cure. I say I think because I’ve just started experimenting with it. So far so good, but you never know until you’ve had a chance to try it on a variety of hitters. But here’s where I am so far.

One of the key points that’s often listed in discussions of hitting mechanics is having the front shoulder lower than the back shoulder at toe touch. It’s something you’ll see in all good hitters. I got to wondering why, and decided to try moving into that position. That’s when it occured to me — I wonder if it has an effect on bat drag.

It does. If you lower your front shoulder, and keep it there, it is pretty much impossible to get your back elbow ahead of your hands. Even if you can, you have to work so hard at it that you’re unlikely to do it.

After toe touch, if you drop your heel and launch from that position the bat will come from the top and you will come through in a powerful position.

We are still experimenting with it, but it seems to be working. I’ll keep you posted, and will try to post a couple of photos to help illustrate things better.

Turning the ball backwards

Sorry about the lack of recent posts. I’ve been traveling a lot for business the last few weeks, which sounds like fun but really isn’t. Fortunately, both time in the last two weeks that I was stuck on the tarmac for a couple of hours there was no one in the seat beside me so I could relax and invade that space without feeling bad about it.

Traveling has also cost me a fair amount of lesson time. I haven’t seen most of my Tuesday students since November, which I feel very bad about. But as long as my day job pays most of the bills there’s not a lot I can do about it. Sort of the real world version of a bad umpire.

Mixed into all of that was a couple of days at the National Sports Clinics watching presentations by several high-level coaches. One of them was Deb Hartwig, a former top catcher and D1 coach who now has her own instructional business. Nobody makes her take non-softball business trips, that’s for sure!

In any case, she brought up something very interesting about throwing. The conventional way of teaching throwing is to have the player bring the ball back behind the body, turn it to face backwards (ball to the wall), and then bring it forward. I know I’ve taught that for years. But she said if you watch video you’ll see nobody really throws that way. According to Coach Hartwig, what really happens is the ball faces down when the arm goes back, then comes up and forward as the throw occurs.

It certainly makes sense. If you think about making a quick throw, you’re going to want the wrist to stay loose. As the arm comes back a loose wrist will tend to make the ball face down. You’d have to use some tension to actually pull it up to face the “wall.” The ball facing down would actually seem more efficient.

Of course, I hate to take anything on face value, so I’m going to work on finding some video of baseball and softball players throwing, slow it down, and see what they actually do. Although I’ve taught “ball to the wall” for years, if there’s a better way I’m all for it! Especially if it helps create a few more outs.

Happy birthday to Life in the Fastpitch Lane

This isn’t much of any importance, but Life in the Fastpitch Lane is now one year old. In fact, it was a year old as of December 7.

Considering how many blogs get started and don’t hang around for long, it’s somewhat of an accomplishment. Thanks to all who stop by now and then, whether it’s to learn something, voice an opinion, or just kill time at work.

Ok, enough self-congratulation. The next post will be on an actual softball topic again.

Catchers calling their own games

Went to the National Sports Clinics Advanced Clinic in Chicago over the weekend. One of the topics of discussion was catchers calling pitches instead of the coach from the dugout.

That’s a topic I find very interesting. There seems to be a lot of resistance in a lot of circles to allowing catchers to call pitches. From my own personal experience I’ve seen a lot of coaches squatting on buckets at the front of the dugout, frantically signaling pitches. When I’ve watched on TV in the Women’s College World Series I’ve seen the same thing — coaches calling the pitches. 
 
In the college game I suppose the rationale is that they have all the charts on the opposing hitters, that they know all the weaknesses and thus can make better decisions. I guess you can make an argument for that. Yet often it seems like the person in the dugout calling the pitches used to be a player. If her coaches never let her call pitches when she played, when exactly did she learn? How did she become such an expert between the time she played and now? Or was she maybe, just maybe, perfectly capable of doing it before, only she wasn’t allowed to?

In the youth game the thinking must be that the catchers don’t know enough to call pitches. How could a mere kid know more than the coach? Forget the fact that the coach is most likely not a professional coach with tons of experience in it. It’s just too important of a function to leave to a player.

Either way, that’s bunk. Calling pitches is not rocket science. It’s a skillset that can be learned like anything else. Coaches who don’t allow catchers to call the game are doing them a disservice. As long as the signals are coming in from the dugout the catcher is never going to learn the nuances of the game. She’s merely going to throw down the number of fingers she’s told to throw down, without learning why.
 
That doesn’t mean you have to stop cold turkey and throw your catchers to the wolves. If your catcher has never called a game before, start her with an inning. Go over what you want — how you want to mix fastballs and changes if that’s all your pitcher has. If the pitcher has more pitches, give her some ideas of what to throw when.

Why bother? Because the catcher can see things the coach can’t. She knows (or should know) what the umpire is calling. She knows whether the curve ball that got crushed was hit because the hitter hit well or the curve ball didn’t break. She can probably also tell where the pitcher’s head is because she’s looking right at her.

If that’s not enough, here’s a nother good reason: you want your players to think. Coaches who try to control every aspect of the game and their players wind up with a lot of brain dead players. Then they get mad when their players make mistakes. How are they going to learn to think for themselves if they never get the chance?

The answer is they won’t. Coaches, give your catchers the opportunity to start calling their own games. They just might surprise you.

The Law of Opposites

Anyone who has seen the Ben Stiller movie Mystery Men probably remembers the part in the middle where the wannabe heroes meet up with their “spiritual guru” — the vaguely Native American guy who offers to take them under his wing. Like the typical mystical guy in these types of movies he is constantly making cryptic quotes. At one point Stiller finally calls him on it, saying there’s nothing profound in what he says. He simply says that to do one thing you must first do the opposite, like to become strong you must first become weak.

While that is just a bit in the movie, it definitely has an application in pitching. I call it the Law of Opposites. Essentially, it states that in order to perform any movement pitch, you need to take your body in the opposite direction from the way you want the ball to move.

There’s nothing new per se in this idea. For example, pretty much everyone teaches that to throw a curve ball the pitcher should step across the power line. What’s new here is a way of explaining it so it makes more sense, especially to youth players. In my experience they seem to be able to grasp the concept better as a universal law rather than a separate set of instructions for each pitch.

According to the Law of Opposites:



  • To make the ball go left (as in a curve ball from a right handed pitcher) you must first go right.

  • To make the ball go right, (as in a screwball from a right handed pitcher) you must first go left.

  • To make the ball go down, you must first go up (get on top of the drop ball).

  • To make the ball go up, you must first go down (get under the rise ball).

Simple, isn’t it? Yet by showing the opposites relationship on all pitches, it seems to make it easier for kids to understand. There’s just a core logic there that helps.

I’ve been getting good results with the Law of Opposites. And it allows me to walk around like the Mystery Men guru, sounding wise. What could be better?

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