Monthly Archives: September 2008

A common throwing problem — dipping the front shoulder

Maybe I’m just more acutely aware of it now because I’ve been working with a couple of players on this problem. But more and more I’m seeing an oddity in the throwing motion of some female softball players: they dip their front shoulders to initiate the throw.

They start out ok, i.e. they turn their bodies and take the ball back properly. But when it’s time to start moving forward, their first movement is to lower the glove-side shoulder instead of leaving it in place and driving the throwing shoulder through. When that happens, they tend to look like they’re throwing a hand grenade in a WWII movie instead of a softball. The back shoulder gets stuck right about the time they get to square, and the throw is mostly arm.

They may get the ball there, but it’s not very efficient. And it won’t be as hard as they can throw. If you see this, you need to get the player to keep her glove side shoulder to stay in place, then drive the throwing side shoulder through. I refer to it as replacing the front shoulder with the back one. When they’re finished, the throwing shoulder should be lower than the glove side. At minimum, they should be the same height.

Don’t be fooled by looking at videos of MLB pitchers, either. They are throwing off a high mound, and what looks like the front shoulder dropping down is really the whole body going down because of the hill. If they were on flat ground the glove shoulder would remain in place. That’s the way field players throw.

If your player can’t get the hang of leaving the shoulder up, trying having her raise her glove straight up over her head, and leave it there while she throws. You will see an immediate improvement. Then slowly have her lower it until she can make the proper movement with a full throwing motion.

It takes some time and practice to overcome this habit. But in the end it’s worth it.

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The state of education in this country

Over the past couple of days I have been trying to explain the effect of doing one thing right and one thing wrong on the drop ball to some of my students. These students have been seventh grade or above, and all seem intelligent, so I had a reasonable expectation that my explanation would work.

The issue, by the way, was body position v. release point. Like most pitching coaches, I like my students to get up and over the drop ball (forward posture), and start the release as they come toward the back of the leg. I would see that sometimes they’d start the release at the right time but not get over the top. Other times they would get over the top but would release too late. Essentially what you had was a correct movement being negated by an incorrect movement, and the pitch was flat.

So, to try to explain the effect I asked several “What do you get when you add -1 and +1 together?” Quick, before you read the answer, see if you can answer it yourself. Play “Are you smarter than a seventh grader?” Look below for the answer.

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Okay, the correct answer is zero. Believe me I was no math whiz, but integers in general were pretty simple.

I think perhaps one student got the answer correct. The rest did their best to guess, but usually came up with “two,” and a couple came up with some really wild answers.

That made me wonder what is going on in the education system. By the age of 12 I would think they would’ve been exposed to integers by now. The question isn’t a hard one — positive and negative of the same number cancel each other out — and I purposely chose the number one to keep it even simpler. Yet they struggled with it.

I dunno. Maybe it was the shock of having to do a math problem in a pitching lesson. But I was surprised it seemed so difficult. Really makes me wonder what that big chunk of my tax bill is going toward. Guess I’ll just have to leave the math example in the discard pile for teaching pitching too!

When it’s all said and done

Normally I work in the suburbs, which is where I live. I drive to work each along the same route, violating the Mafia Don’s strategy for avoiding a hit, but what can you do? Because it’s the same route I’m usually pretty oblivious to the scenery.

Today, though, I took the train into downtown Chicago, and once I finished reading the Redeye (the local GenX newspaper from the once-proud Chicago Tribune) I sat back and started looking out the window. As the train wound its way through the suburbs into the city, we passed by a rather large soccer complex. Suddenly I found myself whisked down memory lane.

While both of my sons played the game, only one was serious — my son Eric. He played both house league and travel soccer for many years before finally just settling on travel. He did that through high school, but decided not to try to walk on in college due to the course load for his chosen major (athletic training).

Maybe I’m just tired, but as we passed those fields I suddenly had a tinge of sadness realizing how much I missed watching Eric play soccer. He was always passionate about it and gave 100% whenever he was on the field. His passion more than his talent made him a difference-maker on whatever team he was on.

I coached him for a couple of years when he was very young, but for most of his career I was just a parent on the sidelines in his camp chair, and I was very content with that.

Ok, here’s where it applies to fastpitch softball if you haven’t figured it out yet. As I thought back on his playing career, I wasn’t really focused on any particular game, or record, or even any year. I just remember how much he loved playing the game, and how much I loved watching him do it. I often drove him to and from the games, and I remember quietly listening to music in the car on the way there (A Hard Day’s Night was his favorite psych-up song) and animatedly dicussing the game afterwards. We’d talk about how the team did, how he did, what went right, what went wrong, and how he felt about the whole thing overall. It wasn’t me coaching from the driver’s seat either. Just a fun discussion that prolonged the experience of the game.

I didn’t think about it much then. One game just sort of blended into the next. Often we were hard-pressed to get to the games due to the many activities of all my children, and when they were done we were on to something else. There was always another game to concern ourselves with.

Now there aren’t anymore. He plays on a team with his fraternity, but it’s not the same. And I don’t get to see it in any case. This morning I was thinking about what I would give to be able to relive one of those days, when my young son was out working his butt off to try and win a game that ultimately mattered to no one.

Winning and trophies and being 63-4 seems very important at the time. I get caught up in it too, especially when I coach. But when it’s all said and done, it’s doubtful you’re going to remember a whole lot about all that stuff, or savor it the way you think you might.

The important thing is the playing. What you’ll remember for the most part (most likely) is one sort of big, blurry game that spans years, not the individual games. And that’s why I believe it’s better to play on a team that’s not quite as good as to sit the bench on a great team. You don’t want your memories of your child to be primarily sitting on the bench watching her teammates win trophies.

And for those who are in a good situation, savor it. Take a little time before or after the game to look around, take in the sights, the sounds, even the smells of the ballfield. Because before you know it you may find yourself sitting on a train, looking wistfully at ballfields going by and wishing you’d worried about scholarships and trophies a little less, and enjoyed it a little more.

Be careful what you wish for

There are any number of reasons players leave one team and move on to another. Sometimes the old team just isn’t a very good fit — the player who’s leaving is experienced and the players who remain are not. Sometimes it’s a personality issue — either the player isn’t a good fit with the others, or the coach and the player just don’t mesh. Sometimes the issue is physical — the player is big and strong but slow, and the team’s philosophy is to be a quick, running team. Sometimes you have a player who is committed to her game, working all through the off-season to get better, on a team where most of the others can barely be bothered to show up for practice. Sometimes the player will simply get a better opportunity to play somewhere else.

Then there’s the issue of winning. This one tends to be more of a problem for parents than for the players, but it’s certainly an issue that causes players to leave one team and move to another.

Let’s face it. Everybody likes to win. No one goes out to the field hoping that they will lose a close one, or worse yet get blown out. I think most coaches do their best to teach their teams the things they need to know to win. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Some teams simply lack the experience or talent to win a lot of games, at least in the short term.

So parents who think their daughter is better than the team get frustrated, and start looking around for a team that wins more often. They want their kids to know the thrill of winning a tournament, or better yet tournament after tournament.

Unfortunately, one of the things they don’t consider is why those teams are winning all those tournaments. Simply put, they have the players to do it. Here’s why this might not be so good for the new player coming in.

Unless that new player is good enough to knock a starter out of the starting lineup, and good enough by a significant margin, she is going to be a sub. After all, the team has been winning tournaments, so the coach would be crazy to all of a sudden make a change without a good reason. He/she may be looking at the new player as an insurance policy — someone he/she can put into the game without “losing too much.”

What does that mean to the new player? It means she may not get to play as much as her parents are used to. She’ll play during the week in practice games, and she’ll get some time during pool play in tournaments. But if this team is as good as they were thinking, she may never do much more than warm up on Sunday unless there’s a blowout, an injury or an illness. Again, the coach is there to win the tournament, and thus will put the best nine players on the field. If the new player isn’t one of them, her parents will have no reason to pull out the video camera when the games really count.

That’s a factor both parents and players need to consider. Which is most important to them — being on a winning team, or getting the opportunity to play regularly?

In my mind winning is nice, but the reason you sign up for a team and pay all that money is to play. While you can certainly learn things watching from the bench, there is no substitute for actually playing the game.

So if you’re thinking how nice it would be to join that team that’s always winning, be careful what you wish for. They were winning without your daughter on the team. They may decide the best way to win is without your daughter on the field.

Choosing a bat – part two

This actually came up in the comments section in my earlier post about choosing a bat, and I thought it was interesting enough that it should be a post on its own. Thanks to Mike Hanscom for bringing it up.

Most of us have experienced that situation where a hitter is using a bat that’s too big for her. Young hitters will often grab the biggest bat they kind find instead of the biggest bat they can actually handle. I’ve seen 10U players try to swing bats that were almost as big as they are. Swinging a bat that’s too big will cause a slow swing, and lots of mechanical difficulties.                                                                                              

But what about going the other way? Instead of swinging a bat that’s too big, is it bad to swing a bat that’s too small? Certainly some people preach that when the pitching gets faster you should go from your normal bat to one that is shorter and lighter. I disagree. I think swinging a bat that’s too small can cause almost as many difficulties as one that’s too big. They’re just different difficulties.

I can definitely talk to the problems with a small bat. I am a big guy, and though I don’t work out much anymore (unfortunately) I retain a fair amount of natural strength. I also grew up swinging a wood bat. When it’s time to hit fungos in our clinics, I will sometimes grab one of the team bats we have lying around. If it’s a 32 inch/22 ounce bat, I have to admit it’s a bit difficult for me to use. Even worse is when I try to hit off a pitching machine with it. I find it difficult to control because there just isn’t enough mass per the effort I’m putting in. I will tend to over-swing. I would think the same would go for any hitter using a bat that’s too small.

The other problem with a bat that’s too short, of course, that it forces the hitter to stand closer to the plate in order to get full coverage. With a properly sized bat, she can move off a little bit, which makes it a little easier to fend off the inside pitch.

Again, the ideal bat is one that comes to the hitter’s wrist when she’s standing straight up. The proper drop depends on her strength, but except for the very young (9 or younger) it shouldn’t be more than a -10. Using the right size bat will help her take better advantage of all the other things you’re working on. 

Skip the wrist snap on the screwball

There is more than one way to throw any given pitch. Different coaches teach things different ways, so once agan I will say that what I write here is not the be-all and end-all of this pitch. But it is what I’ve found to be most effective.

One of the more challenging pitches to throw is the screwball. The challenge comes in the spin. It is difficult to get the 3:00 to 9:00 (or thereabouts) spin using regular pitching techniques (read: wrist snap) because the wrist doesn’t really move in that fashion.

Some coaches will teach a kind of reverse twisting motion with the fingers to get spin on the ball. The trouble is, it kind of works against the natural motion of the wrist, so pitchers tend to lose some speed. And more often than not they either throw with the opposite spin (more like a curve ball) or with a bullet spin — especially if the wrist snaps up as they try to turn the ball.

I’ve found a technique that seems to work better, or at least more naturally. Rather than trying to turn the ball, I teach my students to lock the wrist and allow the ball to peel off the first finger.

To make it happen, let the arm wander a little away from the body at the top of the circle, so it’s angling toward the center of the body on the downswing. As this happens, the palm of the hand faces away from the body. The effect is like a karate chop. At the bottom of the circle, as the elbow gets to a point between the bellybutton and back hip, and with the hand still facing away and the fingers pointing at the ground, allow the ball to peel off the first finger. You can give it a little finger pressure at release to help. Follow through up and around, just like you would on any other method of throwing the screwball.

A screwball thrown properly with this technique will angle in slightly, then break as it reaches the hitter. (As opposed to many “screwballs” I’ve seen that simply angle in.)

Thaat’s the big change. Like the common technique for screwballs you still need to stride out to your glove side, not a lot but a few inches to allow the ball to start around the center of the plate. Keeping the body open is essential — if you close too much you’ll wind up with more of bullet spin than a screwball. And again, no wrist snap. Let the whip of the arm and the position of the hand do the work.

If you’ve been having trouble getting good break with the screwball, give this a try. It’s not always easy to break habits, but if you can pull it off you’ll have one excellent pitch.

Choosing a bat

This is a question that comes up now and then. Parents will come to me and ask what size bat they should get their daughter.

What I’ve found to be the best way of choosing a bat is to have the hitter stand up straight. Then place her bat choices next to her leg, with the barrel down and the knob up. The knob should come up to the hitter’s wrist. That is the ideal bat length. It can go a little above there if she’s willing to choke up, but not too much.

From there it’s a matter of the bat drop — the difference between the length and weight. For most hitters a -10 will be the best choice, although at 10U if the hitter is small you might want to go with a -11 or even -12. (If you’re not familiar with it, a -10 means a 30 inch bat will weight 20 ounces.) If the hitter is bigger or stronger, you might want to go with a -9 or -8, although the latter might mean you have to go with a slowpitch bat.

For some reason a lot of girls seem to like to go with bats that are too long for them. A bat that’s too long can be dfficult for the hitter to swing, and the faster the pitching the more obvious it becomes. On the other hand, a bat that’s too short won’t provide the power and will force the hitter to stand closer to the plate than she needs to.

When selecting a bat, use the “wrist test.” It works.

The lost art of accountability

There is an interesting phenomenon going on generally in the Western world, and one that we’re seeing more of in fastpitch softball as well — a lack of personal accountability. By that I mean players standing up and saying “Hey it was my fault we lost/things didn’t go the way we wanted.” Instead, more and more are willing to blame someone else for their woes.

A good example is pitchers. They throw a ball in the dirt, well away from the plate, it goes to the backstop and the runner on third scores. Then later the pitcher blames the catcher for either not stopping the ball, not recovering it fast enough, or both. Never mind that had that “rise ball” not gone into the dirt in the first place it wouldn’t have been a problem.

The same thing with shortstop and third basemen (and coaches) blaming a first baseman for not scooping a ball out of the dirt on an errant throw. While perhaps the ball should’ve been caught, it wouldn’t have even been an issue had the throw been on-line and in the air in the first place.

Hitters blame umpires for ringing them up on a pitch they thought was too low or too far outside, even though the last four hitters had those same pitches called against them. Pitchers (and their coaches) blame an umpire for squeezing them when the strike zone isn’t as wide or deep as last game. Yes, sometimes pitchers do get squeezed by the Blue, but probably not as often as we think.

The key issue is players taking responsibility for themselves. Back in my playing days, I was the reverse. After every loss I would think about a pitch I didn’t hit well, a ball I didn’t field as well as I should’ve, a runner that was safe stealing a base, etc. that was the cause of our loss. Never mind we lost by eight runs. I was convinced that had I made whatever play was on my mind it could’ve turned the loss into a win.

Nowadays, more often than not, it just doesn’t happen. And so the same mistakes continue, game after game. Why would you work on not doing something (like throwing pitches into the dirt) when clearly the ball getting through was someone else’s fault?

I think one big driving force behind all this is the parents. We are in a child-rearing era where parents will do anything to avoid seeing their kids fail or get their feelings hurt. Parents take up a collect and buy them trophies for being on a team instead of letting them earn it. Parents will make excuses on the sidelines for a lack of performance, from “she doesn’t feel well today” to “she was up late doing homework and is tired now” to “she’s letting the other players drag her down.” Hey, how about the fact that Suzie Snowflake just plain sucks today, hasn’t picked up a ball or a glove or a bat in a week, and maybe isn’t quite as gifted as you’d like to think?

You even see this with equipment. At our tryouts recently, I couldn’t believe how many players coming in for a tryout, where they’re supposed to try to make a good impression, had their parents carrying their equipment bags. (When I saw it I would usually say “Must be nice to have your own caddy.”) If they didn’t bring their glove over to where we were doing fielding, it wasn’t the kid who would run back and get it. Mommy or Daddy would do it, like they forgot to bring it. I’ve actually seen players get mad at their parents because the parents didn’t check the equipment bag to make sure all their stuff was in there. That is just ridicuous.

Your equipment, your mental state, and everything you do is your responsibility, nobody else’s. It’s time today’s generation of players (as a whole) quits making excuses or looking for someone else to blame and starts becoming accountable for themselves and their own actions. Because someday, when you have a real job, no one is going to be interested in your excuses. If you can’t do it, the company will find someone who can.

POSTSCRIPT: I am actually fortunate that almost all of the players I’ve coached over the years understand this, and their parents understand it as well. It makes it a pleasure to work with them. Those few who didn’t really stood out like ants in a sugar bowl.

Learning to catch with two hands

One of the most common refrains you’ll hear from coaches in practice is “two hands,” i.e. use two hands to catch the ball. While there are some cases where you really don’t want two hands — catching and some first base come to mind — generally speaking that’s good advice.

Yet getting players into the habit of catching with two hands takes more than just yelling “two hands” every time they don’t. Here’s one of my favorite drills for forcing the issue.

Have your players play catch using the back of the glove instead of the pocket to catch. When they do that, they’ll either have to use two hands or the ball will fall to the ground. They’ll get the picture very quickly.

This drill is also good for teaching soft hands; if the player makes a stabbing motion they’re likely to push the ball away before they can clamp down on it.

Remember that you’re not using two hands just because it’s more secure for catching. It also makes it easier to make a quick throw since the hand is already on the ball, instead of fumbling for it afterwards.

For all those pitchers who aren’t strikeout queens

The popular view of pitching in our sport is that it’s critical to have a dominant pitcher — one who can strike out 10-15 hitters per game, every game.

While I agree that it certainly helps cover up other ills, and often makes coaches look better than they really are, not every pitcher is capable of such singular heroics. But the truth is, they don’t have to be. A pitcher’s job isn’t to strike everybody out. It’s to prevent the other team from hitting the ball well, so your fielders can help get the outs. Strikeouts are merely a bonus.

Don’t believe me? I just saw the stats on the Gold Medal game. Cat Osterman had nine strikeouts in five innings of work, while Monica Abbott had four in two innings. That’s a total of 13 strikeouts. In the seven innings she pitched, Yukiko Ueno for Team Japan had four strikeouts total. Her team won 3-1.

Mike Candrea is always saying that softball is an individual sport played in a team setting. That team part is the part a lot of people forget about. If you can play strong defense and scratch out a few runs you can win a lot of ballgames even if your pitcher isn’t throwing bullets by batters. Setting up hitters by changing speeds and moving the ball around can keep them off-balance enough to induce weak ground balls and simple pop-ups that turn into outs.

To a lot of people, a perfect inning for a pitcher is nine pitches, all strikes. To me, it’s three pitches/three outs. If you can do that you won’t have great personal stats. But you’ll take the heart out of the other team and rack up the most important stat — a lot of Ws.

So take heart all you undersized or less than gifted pitchers. You can still be effective. You just need to do your part and help the team. After all, they don’t hand out trophies for strikeouts.

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