Monthly Archives: July 2016

Fastpitch tip for learning the finish of a backhand changeup

One of the most important pitches in fastpitch softball is an effective changeup. By effective I mean one where the pitcher can go through her motion and appear to throw it hard while having the ball come out much slower than expected.

This is as opposed to a changeup where the only thing that changes from the fastball is the grip, or one where in order to get the ball to go slower the pitcher slows her arm down. Those aren’t changeups. Those are just bad fastballs.

While I teach a few different types depending on the pitcher, the one I teach most often is Drill for learning the finish on a changeupthe backhand change. Essentially, that is one where the back side of the hand leads the ball through the release zone.

Note that this is not a “flip” change. There is no flipping of the wrist at the end; I want the pitch to be dragged throw the release zone and thrown in a way that still has 12 to 6 forward spin. Flipping it puts backward spin on the ball, and often results in a pitch that comes in around belt high before traveling about 220 feet in the opposite direction.

The key to the finish of the backhand change as I teach it is to bend the elbow slightly and (again) drag the ball forward through the release zone until the pitcher’s arm is fully extended. After a momentary stop the ball comes out about hip high, immediately loses a bit of altitude to thigh high and then tails down around the plate. To do that the pitcher has to keep her hand moving forward and low until release rather than pulling it up as many like to do.

One cue I’ve used before is “punch your catcher in the nose.” In other words, go straight out instead up up and out. It’s worked pretty well, but it still requires the pitcher to do a little visualization.

So here’s another option. Have the pitcher line up sideways to a backstop with stride foot (left foot for a righty) right against the bottom of the screen. Then have her get her arm in the proper position (without the ball), pick out a spot on the screen that’s the right height and have her stab her fingers straight into the chain link fencing.

You might not want to have her go full speed, especially at first, to avoid jammed fingers.If you can’t get to a field, you can also do it into a tarp or even a shower curtain at home, as long as there is something specific to move the fingers toward.

Have the pitcher do it multiple times, until she starts to get the feel of what it’s like to go out straight instead of up. Then you can back her off the screen a bit and try the finish, or go back out to the pitching plate and see if there is improvement.

It’s simple yet effective. I only came up with this idea recently and so far it’s helped every pitcher I’ve tried it with.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling to keep her hand going out directly instead of bending the elbow or otherwise pulling up, give this a try. It just might work.

What are some other ideas you’ve tried to accomplish the same thing? How effective have they been? Anything you’ve tried that failed horribly? Go ahead and share – you’re among friends.

The Neverending Softball Story

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I was talking with a couple of fastpitch hitting and pitching students this week about their schedules for the next couple of weeks. They were explaining that they probably wouldn’t be coming out for lessons because “we have Nationals next week, then tryouts when we get back.”

That just seems crazy to me. I know it’s the way things are but I can’t help but think they shouldn’t be.

Why couldn’t there be a couple of weeks at least between the end of this season and the beginning of the next? What is so all-fired important about getting started on next season that it has to happen before players have had a chance to clean the dust off their equipment from the last one? Especially since many schools start classes around the middle of August now. Not much of a chance for the family of a softball player to take a week off for a little R&R that doesn’t involve getting to a field at 7:00 am on a Saturday.

Where it really gets crazy is how all the different alphabet soup of organizations have their so-called Nationals. Some are done already. Some are going on right now. Some will happen next week. Programs that went to one of the early ones often have their tryouts going on while some of the players who might like to play for them are away at other Nationals.

I guess it’s all about the race to capture the best players before someone else gets to them. When players go to these early tryouts, there is a lot of pressure (especially on the better players) to make a decision now – sometimes before they leave the first day of tryouts. They’re told if they don’t decide RIGHT NOW there may not be a roster spot available to them later.

Again, that seems crazy when the actual, important season for these teams doesn’t start for another 8-10 months (depending on their age). But of course, if you can secure those players now your team is set, and there’s no risk of some other team, especially a close rival, getting them instead.

The problem is the solution is the same as early recruiting for colleges. Programs would have to bring some sanity to the process by voluntarily holding off on tryouts until at least mid-August, and preferably a little later. But who wants to be the first?

If it’s going to work, it would have to start with the most desirable teams – the ones everyone would love to play for. If they didn’t start until later (secure in the knowledge players would join their teams (even if they had “committed” under pressure elsewhere first) there would be less incentive for the next tier to be early, and perhaps then it would trickle all the way down.

I don’t think the world would come to an end if tryouts didn’t happen until mid- or late August. So what do you say top tier teams? Will you be the first to start bringing a little sanity to the process, and give committed softball families a window to take a non-softball vacation before school starts (assuming they can afford one after all the travel)?

 

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

A player gives back to the game

Been meaning to write this post for a little while because I just find this story to be so cool. It’s about a player named Ashley Lambert who clearly appreciates the opportunity she’s been given to play fastpitch softball. Ashley Lambert gives back to the game by becoming an umpire.

First a little background. Ashley definitely comes from a softball family. She’s been playing since she was tiny, strongly supported by her parents Drew and Tricia. Dan was her summer coach for all but I think one season (when she played for me), and you can keep up with Ashley’s softball exploits by following Tricia on Facebook. That’s where I learned about this story, in fact.

Ashley is in college now, playing third base and catching for Beloit College in Wisconsin. She’s #15 in this photo. Often college players will stay involved over the summer by helping coach a younger team, or maybe doing some teaching or clinics. But Ashley went a different route – she decided to become an umpire!

How cool is that? Umpiring is a tough job. I did it as a kid, and have done it in a pinch as an adult when there wasn’t anyone more qualified to do it. But being a real umpire is both physically and mentally wearing.

The physical side probably isn’t so bad for Ashley. As a catcher she’s used to wearing all that gear in 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Heck, it probably feels like home to her.

But then there’s the other side – putting up with coaches, parents and fans who all think they know better but have no interest in gearing up and getting out there themselves. She’s a sweet girl, but I’m guessing when she has the uniform on she doesn’t take a lot of guff. I’ve heard umpires say if both sides think they’ve favored the other team at the end of the game they know they’ve done a good job.

I think it’s great that Ashley is spending her summer making sure that when younger girls want to play a little softball that the game is played safely and fairly. I’m very impressed and proud to know her. I wish more former players would consider donning the gear while they’re playing or when their careers are done.

As a player, you might get a whole new appreciation and respect for the role umpires play; they really aren’t going out of their way to call you out. My guess is you’d certainly know the rules better because you’d have to.

If you’re done playing it’s a way to stay involved in the game, and as the title of this post says give a little something back to the game that gave you so much.

So kudos to Ashley for skipping the more fun and easy route of coaching and instead filling a very pressing need. You are an inspiration and a credit to your coaches, the game, and most of all your parents!

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