The three-pitch challenge
One of the continuing challenges of learning the game of fastpitch softball is transferring skills from practice to a game. That’s because they’re often two different experiences.
In practice, you get multiple repetitions to execute the same skills. If you miss one, no worries – you have the opportunity to try it again. That makes for a (generally) more relaxed atmosphere.
In games it’s a different story. You fail, and you often pay the consequences for it. That adds a lot of pressure, which makes it even more difficult to execute the skill correctly.
I call it the three-pitch challenge, and it’s a great way to end a good session. Here are the basics: You tell the pitcher you’re going to call three pitches. If she executes all three in a row properly – i.e., right location, right break on a breaking pitch, right speed for a change, etc. – she’s done for the day. But she can’t stop until she gets three in a row. Throw two good ones and blow the third and you start back at zero.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it can get in a pitcher’s head pretty quickly.
One of the pitchers I like to do this with is a very talented girl named Katie. I like doing it because she hates it, by the way, so I know it’s accomplishing what I want it to do. I will say she has gotten better at it over time, which has also translated into her on-field pitching. She is so driven and such a perfectionist that she’d get herself all wound up if a couple of pitches didn’t go right. Now she’s learned to re-channel that energy into making the next pitch better rather than worrying about what the last pitch didn’t do.
When I do this with pitchers I often try to get them an early win. I’ll pick a pitch that I’m pretty confident they’re going to throw properly. I might even go with two high-confidence pitches for the first two. Then I’ll select one that was either a struggle or perhaps was the focus for the day.
For example, let’s say she’s been spotting her fastball for a strike, but wanted to work on her drop ball because it wasn’t working the last game. I’ll go with fastball low and out for pitch one (must be a strike to count). Then perhaps a change for the second pitch, assuming it’s been working pretty well. Then I’ll ask for the drop on the third pitch. That’s going to tell us whether the gains she made that day are going to hold up under pressure.
As a variation you can let the pitcher choose which pitches she’s going to throw. The only caveat is she can’t throw the same pitch twice in a sequence of three. That may seem like it’s easier for the pitcher, but it actually adds more pressure. Since she made the decision of what to throw, the sole responsibility is on her. You’d be surprised what that can do to confidence. Or maybe not if you’ve experienced it.
No matter who is calling the pitches, you have to watch for the point of no return – that point where the pitcher is too deep in her own head. At that point I’ll change the pitch calls to presumably make it easier to get out of this particular session without giving up totally, and be a little liberal on what I’ll accept for the pitch – such as a drop that drops a little, or a fastball that’s a borderline strike.
Three pitches doesn’t sound like much, but when there’s something at stake (like being done with a lesson) it can have a significant impact. Next time you’re looking for an exclamation point on a pitching session, give the three-pitch challenge a try.