Monthly Archives: April 2010

Catcher learns a lesson about tucking the chin

Sometimes when I am teaching pitching lessons, I also work with catchers. It’s not a paid thing, just a little something I enjoy doing.

One of those catchers is a young lady named Haley. We’ve worked on stances, framing, throws down to second, and of course blocking. We’ve talked a few times about getting into a good position, with the head forward and chin tucked in. She’s worked on it, but has had a tendency to lean back instead of forward when she drops to her knees. When that happens she tends to lift her head instead of tuck her chin.

Tonight she found out the hard way why it’s important to tuck the chin. The ball bounced up and hit her in the throat. Ouch!

It hurt, but she was fine and was able to continue. She told me afterwards she’s pretty sure she’ll remember to get that chin tucked from now on. Pain is a tough way to learn, but it’s a good teacher.

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Once again, the dreaded tunnel

It’s been a while since I’ve written about this, and quite frankly I thought it was gone for good. But a couple of weekends ago I was out at a game, watching, not participating in any way, and at the end something horrible reared its ugly head for the first time in a long time (at least that I know of). It was the dreaded “tunnel.”

For those not familiar with it, it’s something the winning team does after the game. The players divide themselves into two lines facing each other, and raise their arms above their heads. They then start banging hands with the person across from them, all the while chanting “We are proud of you, we are proud of you.”

That in and of itself doesn’t sound so bad. But it’s where they do it. They stand at the entrance of their opponent’s dugout, and force the losing team to walk through this tunnel of arms and bodies to get back to their stuff.

Coaches who do it like to claim it’s a tribute to their opponents. But everyone (including them) knows it’s really not. In fact, it’s a way of celebrating your own victory while rubbing it in the noses of the team that just lost. They may be chanting “We are proud of you” but what they’re really saying is “We just kicked your butts, we just kicked your butts.”

I have no problem with a team celebrating its victory. But you don’t do it on your opponent’s side of the field. You do it on your own side, and leave your opponents completely out of it. To hold your celebration on the other side is a direct insult. If you don’t believe that, imagine if the University of Washington had run to Arizona’s dugout a couple of weeks ago, made a tunnel, and started chanting how proud they were of their defeated opponents. Likely you would’ve seen a full-on fistfight break out.

If I am the losing coach (and again I had nothing to do with this particular game), I don’t really care if you are proud of me. Your opinion means nothing to me. My team and I want to clean up the dugout, leave the area, and go do whatever it is we do after a game. To have to walk through your outstreteched arms is not on my list of things to do.

When my son Eric was in soccer, there was a tunnel there too. But in that case it was created by his team’s parents, and our own players would run under it. It was created in front of his team’s bench. I have no problem with that, and had no problem with it when other teams did the same thing. That was a self-contained celebration instead of an “in-your-face” show of superiority. Again, the boys probably knew better than to try doing that on someone else’s side.

Getting back to softball, I’ve always hated the tunnel. We didn’t do it, and quite frankly when it was more popular I told my girls to walk around it rather than go through it. Some of the parents on our team thought it was poor sportsmanship on my part at first until I explained about celebrating on your own side of the field. They got it, and supported the decision going forward.

One year at a meeting of the weekday travel league we played in I made it clear to the other coaches I didn’t want to see it and wouldn’t let my players go through it, so don’t bother. They all agreed it really wasn’t a good thing, and I thought it had finally disappeared. Until last weekend.

You can try to justify it all you want. But it’s just not sportsmanlike to rub your opponent’s face in a loss — which is what you’re really doing. If you’re doing it, stop. If you’re faced with it, you can make your own decision. But I recommend walking around/ignoring it. It’s the only way to make it stop for good.

Theory on why it’s so hard to move from the cage to the field

Every fastpitch player and coach knows this experience. You’ve been working hard in the batting cage all season. You’ve hit thousands of balls off the tee, and thousands more off a machine, front toss or even full-out pitching. You’ve been ripping the ball every time. Then you get into a game and it’s nothing but pop-ups, weak dribblers to the pitcher, and whiffs.

Yes, it’s certainly frustrating, especially because you were expecting to do so well. But somehow the swing you had in the cage didn’t quite translate to the field.

There can be a lot of contributing factors, many of which have been discussed before. Certainly there’s an element of nervousness in a game situation that you don’t have in practice. You have lots of chances to hit in practice situations, and if you mess one up you just take another. But in a game if you mess up, that’s it. Your time at bat is over.

There’s also worrying about consequences instead of focusing on the process. There’s the pressure of parents, friends, coaches, teammates. In fact, there are all kinds of things that might be the cause.
Fastpitch batting cage
Yet it even happens to otherwise mentally tough players for reasons no one has ever been able to explain. But I have a theory.

Think about the environment in a batting cage. It’s very closed and very tight. You can see the top/ceiling, sides, and usually even a back wall. If the cage is 70 feet long and eight feet wide, it’s still a pretty narrow space, as shown in the first photo.

Now think about what you see when you stand at home plate. The world is a lot bigger on the field. Instead of a 12 foot ceiling you have infinite space above — the sky. Instead of a back wall you have 180 feet or more to the end — way too far to be of concern. There is a ton of space, plus a ton of distractions. The second photo shows an empty field, but in a real game you’ll have eight players from the other team in front of you, plus a couple of coaches. And baserunners if you’re lucky. You have an opponent and an umpire behind you. And the always “helpful” fans in the stands.
Fastpitch view from home plate
With all that going on, the ball looks pretty small — certainly a lot smaller than it does in a closed cage. It’s the same phenomenon that makes the moon look bigger when it’s low in the sky. When you see the moon near trees or buildings your mind gets the idea of proportion. When it’s overhead, there is no reference point to measure it against so it gets lost against the background of the night sky. In the case of a softball, your reference points to the ball in a cage are a lot closer so it seems bigger, or more important in the space. On the field, the ball takes up a very tiny portion of your field of vision and thus is much tougher to pick out.

Think about how you hit in a cage too. Because it’s a long tunnel, hitters tend to try to hit the ball up the middle. After all, if you hit a screaming line drive down the first or third base line in a cage, it goes about 10 feet, hits a side net and dies. That isn’t much fun. But if you drive it to center, the ball goes the length of the cage. That feels good, so you focus on driving it down the center. On a field, though, there’s a lot of space ot hit the ball, so it tends to go all over.

Anyway, that’s my theory about the problem. So what’s the cure? You have to visualize the cage on the field, as shown in the third photo. Essentially you have to create a small space in your mind where the ball is bigger relative to the backgCreating the cage in your mind on a fastpitch softball fieldround so you can see it better, and you can stay focused on driving it into a gap.

If you can “see” the cage in your mind, it should help you look where you ought to be looking, and see better than if you’re taking in the entire field plus sidelines.

Give it a try, and give me your feedback on how it worked. If you’re a coach, feel free to copy the photos and show them to your team. I’ll be interested in hearing if this theory proves itself to be true.

The 43 ft. HS distance appears to be having the desired effect

Back when the National Federation announced it was moving the high school pitching distance to 43 ft., the main reason cited by most pundits was they wanted to get more offense in the game. At 40 ft. the pitchers were dominating, and it was believed that moving the pitching rubber back three feet might change that. While the change doesn’t go into effect officially until the 2011 season, many states adopted it immediately, including Illinois, where I live.

Now that we’re a couple of weeks into the season it looks like the move is having the desired effect. Where normally pitchers are ahead of the hitters in the early part of the season, I’ve been seeing a lot of double-digit scores in games in the Chicago suburbs. Certainly a lot more than in the past.

What’s really been interesting is it seems to have had the most profound effect on the “power” pitchers — the girls who relied primarily on their speed to get them by. It doesn’t seem to have affected the ones who can top 60 mph regularly, but they are few and far between. For those in the mid-to-upper 50s, however, it’s made a big difference.

I can think of one in particular. She has been a stud on varsity since she was a freshman. She was highly touted in the newspapers, and always racked up great numbers for strikeouts and ERA. I never quite understood how, since I saw little movement on her ball and while she threw hard she didn’t throw that hard. Apparently, though, she threw hard enough to dominate at 40 ft.

Now, maybe she has something else going on too and this is just a coincidence. But as I look in the box scores and summaries in the local paper, her numbers have inflated considerably. She is giving up 10-12 runs per game, and maybe striking out one or two hitters most of the time. It’s not all errors either. I see double-digit hits and maybe a couple of errors in the box score. She just doesn’t seem to be as effective now that she’s a senior.

That seems odd to me. If anything, you’d think she’d be better now than her freshman year. Again, maybe there’s an injury or something going on. But my guess is it’s the distance. She just can’t blow it by the hitters as easily as she used to.

What’s really unfortunate for the team is they have one of those coaches who never bothered to develop anyone else. If her team played 250 innings, she pitched 250 innings. Now, when she could use a little help, there’s no one there to help her. If the other team catches on to her, she has to stand there and take the beating. You would figure a change of pace of any sort ought to at least slow things down for a bit. But they don’t have that option, so there have been a lot of lopsided scores.

This seems pretty consistent throughout our area. Scores are rising, ERAs are rising, and strikeout numbers are falling. The fans are definitely seeing more offense (except from the really poor hitting teams), and more players are involved throughout the game. Time will tell if this is a good thing. In the meantime, pitchers start working more on your movement. You’re going to need it.

Kodak Playsport an excellent teaching tool for fastpitch players

I’ve talked before about the value of video as a teaching tool for fastpitch players. Different people learn differently — some are best at reading information, some are best at hearing instructions, and some are visual learners. Actually, in my experience most can comprehend what they’re doing (versus what they think they’re doing) best when they see it.

The problem is video can be difficult to work with. Setting up a camera to a computer to provide analysis takes a while, and often limits you as far as what you can show. I know personally it’s a pain to have to drag a table with a computer and a camera on a tripod around to various angles. True, you can use the camera’s display screen without a computer, but it doesn’t lend itself very well to stepping back and forth through the video or showing specific points in the movement.

That’s why I’ve been waiting so excitedly for the Kodak Playsport personal video camera to come out. And after using it this weekend that excitement was definitely justified. But before I get into specifics, here’s a little background.

I first came across news about the Playsport when I was on the Discuss Fastpitch Forum site. One poster had talked about using the Kodak Zi8 personal video camera. What attracted me was the idea of shooting 60 frames per second (fps) video. That was a capability I’ve always wanted but never had. So I was getting ready to buy it when I saw someone else post something about the Playsport, which would do what the Zi8 did, but came in a more rugged package and would cost $30 – $50 less. I dialed down my impatience and elected to wait for that camera. I’m glad I did.

The Kodak Playsport is ideal for doing spot checks during lessons or grabbing a quick video of a game swing. Usually during lessons I use my cell phone’s ability to shoot video, but it is really tough to get the video to stop at a certain point. The Playsport, which is actually the size of a smallish cell phone, solves that. You can set it up to shoot 720p HD video at 60fps, which gives you plenty of stopping points along the way to show exactly what you want — such as a pitcher releasing a changeup a little too early or a hitter dropping her hands before swinging.

What really makes it a great teaching tool, though, is you can get to that point by stepping through the frames one at a time. You can go back and forth so you can get to the exact point you want, and rapidly step through to simulate slow motion. The LCD screen is a little small — only 2 inches square — but it’s good enough to see what you need to see. I used it Friday night to show a pitcher that her release on the changeup was a little early, and she was able to see the blur of the ball. More importantly, it helped her make an immediate correction.

The basic operation is simple. Turn it on — it comes up immediately — point it at the subject, hit the large center button to start and stop the recording. A 4X digital zoom lets you move in somewhat closer if needed, although if you’re used to the 20X zoom of regular video cameras it won’t seem like all that much.

When you want to watch the playback, you hit one of four buttons arrayed around the edge of the center wheel and it switches to playback mode. You can then play the current video or scroll through to find the one you want using the four-way wheel on the outside of the center button. If you want to step through a video, hit the play button, then hit it again to pause, then use the left and right arrows to step through frame by frame, forward or backward. 

If you want to watch the video in a larger format, you can hook it up to your computer through the supplied USB connector, or to an HD TV using the supplied HDMI cable. I did download the video to my computer, though, and it looks great. The only caveat is that it records in QuickTime’s .mov format, so if you use video analysis software that requires .avi format you won’t be able to use it with that. But the free QuickTime player will be find to step back and forth through the video. You just can’t draw on it or use other analysis tools. The included software also makes it easy to upload your video to Facebook, YouTube and MySpace.

One of the other things that attracted me to the Playsport, as I mentioned, was the ruggedness. It is designed to be used during activities. One of the big selling points is that it is waterproof down to 10 feet. Now, I don’t anticipate taking it under water. But if I have it in my bag and it starts to rain, it’s nice to know I don’t have to worry about whether it will get damaged. I’ve also read in other reviews that people have tried dropping it and it still worked fine. I don’t plan on trying that since I purchased mine out of my own money and would hate to find out it didn’t work, but it sounds like it ought to hold up to the softball environment. Just to be safe, though, I also purchased the two-year product replacement plan at Best Buy.

Again, as a teaching tool the Playsport seems ideal. You can easily slip it in your pocket, and pull it out as needed. If you’re outdoors on a sunny day, you can change the display to use a glare shield. I used it for both hitting and pitching this weekend, and it was effective in helping those players see what they were doing and make quick corrections. And now here’s the really good news: all of this capability comes for just $149.

If you’re looking for a great little pocket video camera that can help you make a difference with your players, check out the Kodak Playsport. It packs a lot of capability for the money.

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