Monthly Archives: November 2010

Least favorite softball hitting drills – Part one

There are a lot of great drills out there to help fastpitch softball hitters learn to hit more effectively. Then there are some that seem to have no purpose at all. They might appear to be a good idea, but in truth they work counter to what you’re probably trying to accomplish. Today I’m going to talk about one of them. Don’t bother looking for part two right away — it’ll happen when it happens.

Anyway, the drill is one I used to use. There are plenty of names for it, but I’m going to refer to it as rapid fire. Essentially, a coach gets down into soft toss position, and then starts tossing balls at the hitter in rapid succession. As soon as one ball is hit the next ball is tossed. Keep doing that for 10 or 15 tosses.

Theoretically, the drill is used to teach hitter to have a quick bat. Yet it’s completely useless for that, because the swing you end up taking has nothing to do with your game swing. All you really wind up doing is swatting madly at the ball in order to keep up. In fact, in my opinion this drill probably does more harm than good because it works against the principles of good hitting.

What is one of the keys to good hitting? It’s timing — recognizing the pitch speed and creating a controlled explosion into the ball. When you’re doing rapid fire soft toss you have no opportunity for timing whatsoever. There’s no load, no stride/weight shift, no connection, no rotation into the ball, no extentions after contact, nothing. You just use your hands and arms. Is it any wonder that players who are forced to do this drill repeatedly end up with wimpy arm swings? If your goal is to get your players to pop up and ground out, this is the drill for you!

Another thing it does is destroy any semblance of a good bat path to the ball. The hands go wherever they have to in order to make contact. Most of the time that’s somewhere other than where the hands should be when swinging. And the worse the coach is at tossing, the worse the bat path will be.

But what about batspeed? Doesn’t it at least help with that? Not really. Batspeed is the culmination of a number of things in the swing. Personally, I think the hands and wrists are one of the least important contributors. So a drill that isolates them isn’t going to do much. Except maybe encourage an early wrist roll.

Bottom line is any drill that sacrifices good hitting mechanics, and the core principles of hitting, for some isolated (and perceived) gain is a bad drill. If you’re using it, drop it from your practice plan. Now. Before you do the kind of damage hitting coaches have to spend weeks to undo.

If you want to develop batspeed, have your hitters learn to use their bodies more effectively. Make sure you understand the kinetic chain of hitting so each body part is firing in order, at the right time. Speed up the pitching machine or have your hitters stand closer while you front toss. Anything but fire ball after ball at them.

As I said, I used to use this drill too. Then I learned better. You can do the same.

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Product review: Jennie Finch Softball Powerline Pitching Mat

When you live North of the Mason-Dixon line, you tend to spend a good part of your fastpitch softball off-season training time indoors. While that certainly beats freezing your butt off in sub-zero temperatures, it also presents some interesting challenges — especially for pitchers.

For several years I have used a couple of different pitching mats rather than having students pitch off the floor. The mats have built-in pitching rubbers, which is good, and the one from Club K also had the powerline built into it. (The other one, a turf-type, did not, but I solved that with some line marking paint.) The trouble, though, was that they tended to slide on the turf surfaces used in batting cage facilities due to their rubber backing. I constantly had to adjust the mats to keep them lined up with the plate. I’m sure they work fine on a wood gym floor, but how many of us have access to those?

It’s not a problem anymore, though. I recently purchase two of the Jennie Finch Softball Powerline Pitching Mats with foam backs, and I have to say they’ve been acting as-advertised. The web listing claimed that the foam back would stick like Velcro to a turf surface, and by golly that’s exactly what has happened. After a week’s worth of using them in two different locations I can safely say that they have not moved an inch, even when used by some strong pitchers.

That alone made them worth the price ($215 plus $30 for shipping). But they are also good mats in other ways.

The turf surface itself is high-quality, and appears as though it will be very durable even under regular use. The bright green turf is split by a bright white powerline that makes it easy for students to see and keep themselves going straight. The mat is also thick, providing a little cushioning when landing versus the usual thin turf over concrete floors. My students have definitely appreciated that.

The transaction with On Deck Sports was smooth, and the mats were delivered within a few days. Incidentally, they come with a vinyl carrier that makes them easy to cart to and from a facility. The carrier was tucked into the center of the rolled-up mat, so you’ll want to grab it before you bring it somewhere.

Time will tell as far as durability goes. But if you’ve been struggling with keeping a pitching mat in place, I can definitely recommend this one. Just be sure you specify the foam backing.

One final word. If you watch the video demo, you’ll see Jennie Finch is illegal on every pitch she throws from it. That’s unfortunate, and I wish someone would notice and correct that. But don’t let that discourage you. It’s still a good product.

Day Three at the NFCA Coaches College

Ok, technically this is the day after Day Three. By the time I got home, a six hour drive after the class finished, I was too exhausted to do my final report. And since I knew I was taking Monday off from work anyway I figured I could let it go a day.

The final day was a relatively short (and relaxed) session, from 8:00 AM to Noon, which included getting our certificates of completion. We had covered a lot of ground in the last couple of days, so this day was really focused on pre-game, post-game, during-game situations and things like that. The instructors also answered a lot of questions from the students.

Of course, one of the cool things about this program is that it isn’t designed to be a strictly one-way lecture. There was a lot of the instructors asking us what we think, or what we would do (or have done) in such situations.

One thing I noticed is how reluctant a lot of these good coaches were to speak up, at least early on. I kind of felt bad because I was answering a lot of the questions throughout the weekend. But I also felt bad for the instructors, because I know the feeling. I think we all do. You ask your team a question, such as “What do you do when you are on first, there’s a runner on second, there is one out, and the hitter pops it up?” and all you get are blank stares. So when the silence got uncomfortable I’d chime in so the instructors weren’t left hanging. By the last day, though, more people started providing answers, which was good.

The funny thing is, there are answers, but not necessarily the RIGHT answer. Even when we looked at situations from the Womens College World Series it was tough. They’d have a still photo from the TV broadcast on-screen, say here’s the situation, what would you do? Then we’d break into groups of four or so to come up with answers.

Trouble was, there was still a lot we didn’t know. One I recall is it’s late in the game (fifth inning I believe), you’re the home team and you’re down two runs. You have runners on first and second with two outs after a hit. Do you use a pinch runner, and if so for whom?

Our group was thinking put in a rabbit for the runner on first, because she might be able to score on a ball in the gap. You figure the runner on second will already score, and she’s only one run, so it’s the trail runner who’s key. But what we didn’t know was A) do we have any real rabbits on the bench, can the next hitter (or a pinch hitter put a ball in the gap), C) how fast is the outfield (and how strong are their arms), etc. But hey, that’s just like a real game isn’t it?

The other cool thing in all of this is the relationship the students develop with the instructors. Carrie Dever-Boaz made a point of saying that every time she does one of these classes she’s writing down notes and learning as she goes. John Tschida and Jay Miller agreed. There is just so much to learn in our game, so many great ideas and ways to teach it, that you can’t possibly know it all. That’s what keeps it challenging.

I know I had fun. I always enjoy going to these classes, and always come out with new ideas, drills, approaches and the like. I also enjoy meeting coaches from all over and hearing about their challenges and triumphs.

But since I know some of my fellow students also are Life in the Fastpitch Lane readers and Discuss Fastpitch members, what did you-all think? What were your favorite parts of the classes? What was your experience like? If this was your first time, would you do it again?

As for me, it’s off to take my follow-on test. Wish me luck!

Day two at the NFCA Coaches College

Just got back from the NFCA Coaches College. Today was the long day. We started at 8:00 AM and finished up a little after 5:00. That’s a lot of softball talk, but it seemed to go by pretty quickly. Helps to have instructors who are polished presenters!

First off, one thing I forgot to mention yesterday is that I’ve run into a few Discuss Fastpitch Forum members. That was cool. So many of us go on there and “talk” anonymously with one another. It was nice to put faces with names, and to hear people find it valuable. If anyone else is there, stop by and say hello. I’m “Babe Ruth.” Attendees will know what that means.

For the last hour of the class today we got to watch each of the instructors run a mini practice. It’s fun to watch someone else do it, see how they approach things and how they relate to the players – all of whom are either middle school or high school age. Got a couple of good drills, a couple of variations on some old ones, and some neat vision training ideas.

At the end they had all us coaches do a little pitching with wiffle balls and a little fungo hitting. I can safely say I nailed the pitching part, which should be no surprise. In addition to teaching pitching I usually pitch BP before games — with wiffle balls. So the drills there were pretty easy.

Fungo hitting was another story. We were supposed to hit fungos and knock balls off of tees. I was horrible! I think we each got three shots. The first one I pulled and almost hit Carrie Dever-Boaz and a young lady named Morgan who was helping out. The second one I whiffed entirely. I finally got a decent ground ball my third try. Of course it was nowhere near any of the three tees. Good thing my players weren’t there to see it. I totally cracked under the pressure, I guess.

For the classroom part we covered a lot of ground on game-day types of things, including charting (which I always intend to do but never seem to get done), evaluating opponents, game planning, coaching on the bases, things like that. I picked up some interesting ideas on how to keep players who are not in the game involved.

Here’s one: have your pitchers who are not in the game try to steal the other team’s pitching signs, and reward them if they are successful. Or have other players try to steal bunt, steal, etc. signs. Even if you don’t use the information it gives them something to do and helps them learn the game.

It’s funny, because I have random notes all over my notebook as various topics and ideas come up. There’s a lot of material to absorb, but the key is how you can apply it. Even the instructors say they don’t do all of it. But there’s plenty there for any of us to choose from, all of which will help us get better.

Tomorrow we go from 8:00 AM to Noon. Thankfully, we get an extra hour of sleep tonight so it should be doable! Then I get to drive back home.

I know I say this all the time, but anyone who has been there will agree. These are awesome courses. If you’re serious about your coaching career and helping your players, get yourself to one. You’ll quickly get hooked.

Day one at the NFCA Coaches College

Well, I’m back at it again. I am up in Minnesota for the NFCA Coaches College course 407 on Game Day coaching. Our instructors this time are Jay Miller, John Tschida and Carrie Dever-Boaz.

Today was the first day – a five-hour session that combined classroom (actually auditorium) discussions with some live observation of some local players. Lots to think about as a result.

We opened the class talking about the DP/Flex rule and how coaches can use it for more than just getting an extra player in the game. The key takeaway for me was the DP should be a player who is expendable. In other words, you have a lot of what she can do. For example, if you have a lot of speed on the team, you can make the DP a speed player. When it’s her turn to bat, you let the Flex bat for her, which takes her out of the game. If the Flex gets on base, you re-enter the DP and let her run. Of course, if you do it again the DP will be out of the game. But that’s where the idea of what you have a lot of comes in. You just put in another speed player as a sub and keep going. The Flex can go in and out for the original DP as often as you want.

We looked at some of the considerations you might want to have when you get to the park, how to warm up a team and how to put together a lineup. Watching the players was fun. Jay, John and Carrie each demonstrated a drill they use with their teams. Too bad it’s probably going to be cold going forward in the Chicago area. I have some new stuff to try!

After the class, the instructors went out to dinner with anyone who wanted to go. That was fun too. I got to sit between Jay and John, and talk to them as well as several of the other coaches attending the class. It was a good time, although I think the Blue Moons started to get to me toward the end.

Tomorrow we have to be there at 8:00 for a very long day. But you know, when you’re learning cool stuff it doesn’t seem so long!

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