Monthly Archives: January 2010

Put the emphasis on basic throwing and catching

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about this, but once again as I work with girls on various skills I am struck by how little time seems to be spent on the basic skills of throwing and catching.

I don’t know why that is. I suspect that coaches are in a hurry to get into drills, hitting, trick plays and the like. But throwing and catching are such an important part of our game it’s hard to imagine you wouldn’t want to have your players’ throwing and catching skills be highly developed before moving into other aspects.

Among the things I see, either out of pitchers I work with or kids I see practicing a cage or two over, are:

  • Throwing arm wrapping around their head
  • No turning of the body; they throw with their shoulders squared up to the target the whole time
  • Elbow dropping to the rib cage (typically called “throwing like a girl” although I’ve seen boys do it too)
  • Striding off-line
  • Glove arm hanging down at the side like it’s broken
  • Glove arm swinging out to the side (swimming)
  • No use of the legs — all arm throw
  • Arm weakly making a throwing motion causing the ball to float or arc
  • Catching with one hand while the throwing hand hangs down limp
  • Throwing hand plastered to the webbing of the glove as if the glove is too hard to close with one hand

That’s just a sampling. There are more, too, but space prohibits me listing everything.

All of the above are likely to create errors — errors that can cost you runs, and even games. There’s no need for that to happen.

Instead of letting your players warm up by chucking balls to a partner any which way while they talk to each other (and you talk to the parents or other coaches), make that time about quality catch. Spend hours if you have to in order to make the point, but give your players instruction and teach them the proper way to throw and catch. Based on what I’ve seen recently, it will be a huge advantage for your team, and one that doesn’t require any special talent to accomplish.

Remember, the fewer runs you allow, the fewer runs you have to score to win. It all starts with quality throwing and catching skills.


Your body can lie to you

While it’s important for athletes to listen to their bodies to receive feedback on how they’re doing, it’s also possible for your body to lie to you. Specifically I’m talking about what “feels” strong and powerful versus what is strong and powerful.

Young pitchers and hitters are especially prone to this paradox. They will tense up their muscles when they go to throw or swing the bat because it feels strong. Their muscles are working hard, so they must be generating a lot of power, right?

Actually, that’s wrong. Tense or tight muscles are slow muscles, and slow muscles reduce the amount of power you can generate. Instead, you want to keep your muscles loose and relaxed so they can fire quickly and accelerate through the critical zone.

Don’t believe it? Try this.

Hold your hand up in front of your face, tense up your wrist muscles, then try to fan yourself using only the wrist muscles to move the hand as fast as you can. You won’t get much air, and if you do it long enough it will probably start to hurt.

Now relax the wrist muscles and use your forearm to make your hand move. You’ll feel a distinct breeze because your hand is moving much faster. That’s the power of loose muscles. 

Another great benefit, as you may have already seen, is that loose muscles don’t tire as easily as tight ones. Loose muscles also help you keep your head from getting in the way, because the more relaxed you are the more confident you’ll feel — and the more likely you are to find a groove that makes a good motion repeatable. 

The only caution is don’t equate loose with slow. You still want to be quick in your approach, attacking a pitch or swing with the intent to give it all you’ve got. Once you find the way to do both you’ll be well on your way to reaching your potential. 

So while you want to listen to your body when it comes to things like pain and overuse, remember it can also lie to you. Take Frankie’s advice and relax. You’ll do much better.  

The heavy ball reveals all

As I may have mentioned in the past, this year I have made overload/underload training with over- and under-weighted balls a regular part of pitching instruction. This was not a decision I came to lightly. I have used them sparingly in the past, but have been a little reluctant to go fully into them since I’d seen objections that they could lead to injury. Critics of weighted balls would say you can do the same with long toss. But since the facilities where I teach don’t really have the kind of distance required for worthwhile long toss, that wasn’t an option. Neither was going outside given that I live in the Chicago area.

I was finally convinced by two things. One was the endorsement by people such as Cheri Kempf of ClubK . Both know what they’re talking about, believe in weighted balls, and include workouts for them in their materials. The other was a summary of anarticle on injury prevention in softball pitchers that appeared in Marc’s blog. The article originally in a magazine for professional trainers, and said overload/underload training with weighted balls not only helps increase speed; it also helps prevent injury. Sold!

What I’ve come to find, though, is there is another less obvious benefit, which I call “The weighted ball reveals all.” (Hence the title of this post.)

When pitchers throw the heavier ball (it’s an 8 oz. ball, which is the most I will go over), any flaws in their technique or any letup as they throw is rewarded by seeing the ball immediately go into the dirt floor. In a previous post I talked about the upper arm being pulled down by the shoulder muscles, and the hand being pulled through release by the forearm muscles. It’s the latter where a lack of effort shows up mostly.

The added weight of the ball requires pitchers to give a little more effort to propel the ball forward. It also lets pitchers feel a letup at any point through the circle. So far I am seeing very good results not only in strength increases but improvement in technique.

It’s something to keep in mind, especially if you feel a pitcher is not accelerating through release. Again, though, I’d caution to go only 1 oz. above a normal ball, and be sure to use a lighter ball (6 oz.) to maximize the benefit.

Choosing tournaments that are appropriate

As I write this it is early January, and all over North America travel ball coaches are starting to look at tournament listings to decide where they’ll be playing in the spring and summer. There are lots of considerations to take into account, not the least of which is budget in this economy.

Of course, one of the major decisions that has to be made is what level to play. If you’re a top-level team that’s easy. You go into the best tournaments and try for a bid to whatever National tournament floats your boat. For others, though, it’s not so simple. Those are the folks who need to carefully consider more than a “desire to be and play the best,” and really think about what will best suit their players.

Let’s face it. Every coach wants to think he/she is coaching an A level team, or at least a team that’s on the verge of being A level. But there’s a reason most sanctioning organizations offer a B level, too. There is no shame in playing a B level schedule if that’s the team you have, and you may find it’s better for your team’s long-term satisfaction.

There’s an old saw that says “to be the best you have to play the best.” That’s true to some extent. Yes, there are definitely things you can learn by playing teams that are better than yours. But there’s also a law of diminishing returns to that. If you are consistently playing tournaments where you team is getting run ruled in the minimum amount of time, and being driven out in the minimum number of games, about all you’re players will learn is they’re not very good. It’s tough to learn much about playing the game when you’re only playing three innings at a time. You would be better served to maybe stretch in one tournament, then go into the rest where the level of competition will allow you to get more innings and games in.

Some coaches worry about getting their kids college exposure. They want to play in the big tournaments so their kids have an opportunity to play in college. I don’t claim to be an expert in this area, but from everyone I’ve spoken to it doesn’t work that way.

Your chances of being “discovered” out of the blue at a college exposure are about the same as actresses being discovered hanging around the corner drugstore in Hollywood. Yes, it has happened. Yes, it still happens every now and then. But if you want to increase your chances of being a successful actress you need to take classes, get an agent, and audition like crazy.
The same goes for softball players. Their best best for playing college ball is to contact coaches directly, send a DVD, participate in their camps, and otherwise be proactive. (I know some recruiting experts read this blog, so please feel free to add more advice and your contact info in the comments section.) If your players aren’t doing that, you don’t need to worry about appearing in exposure tournaments.

Then there’s the player/parent perspective. Some coaches will feel they need to play in A level tournaments to please the parents, or show them their kids are in a top-flight program. But the parents are there and watching the games, and they can see what’s going on. Truth is, if you ask them whether they’d rather go to high-level tournaments and see their kids get the stuffing kicked out of them or lower-level tournaments where the team stands a chance of winning some hardware, most would opt for the latter. The ones who don’t probably won’t be coming back next year anyway, as they will seek a team that can be more competitive when it plays. And the rest will get discouraged and leave too since it isn’t much fun to get a butt kicking weekend after weekend.

So far, I’ve mostly talked about playing B instead of A. But there’s the other side of the coin too. If your team is consistently in the top two in every tournament it plays, you’re probably not seeking out good enough competition. Winning a tournament should be an accomplishment, not business as usual. If you’re always clearly the best team in every tournament, it’s time to seek out a level of competition that will stretch your players’ ability and help them grow. Just as no one learns much by getting run ruled all the time, no one learns much by run ruling the competition all the time either. 

When it comes to choosing tournaments, use the diamond theory — you can’t make a diamond out of lump of coal without pressure, but if you add too much pressure too soon your lump of coal will turn to dust. Seek out the competitive level that will challenge your team without overwhelming it and your players will gain all the benefits you’re hoping to give them.

Batting cages

Apparently there is a requirement that batting cages be located in an area that’s difficult to find. I’m not sure but I think it’s a law.

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