Monthly Archives: March 2019

Product Review: Queen of the Hill Helps Fastpitch Pitchers Improve Leg Drive

QotH side view

Leg drive for fastpitch pitchers often falls into that category of “I know it when I see it.” But explaining how to get it if it doesn’t come naturally to a pitcher is a whole other challenge.

That’s where a new product called the Queen of the Hill (QotH) from Ground Force Sports can be – shall I say it? – a game changer. Instead of explaining to pitchers that they need to push off harder from the pitching rubber, the QotH lets them experience whether they are doing it or not – not just with their sense of feel, but with sound.

The product itself is pretty simple on the surface. It consists of a base plate, plus a spring-loaded top plate that has pitching rubber attached to it. The front of the pitching rubber QotH top viewhas a 45 degree angle to it, which right away encourages pitchers to get into a better drive position before they ever throw a pitch. (Leaving your foot flat on the ground is no way to achieve a powerful leg drive.)

To use it you can lay the QotH on the flat ground, or place it in front of the pitching rubber on an indoor mat or field. Then, using the included Allen wrench that is held on the back of the rubber, you set the tension level on the QotH.

NOTE: The Allen wrench is designed to be held very securely after you insert it into the hole in the back of the rubber. That’s a good thing for transport, so you don’t lose it, but not so good if you’re in the middle of a pitching session and you want to make a quick change of tension. After my first time using it in lessons I discovered the best approach is to stick it in your pocket after the first use, then return it to the holder when you’re completely done with it.

The tension spring has a handy scale from 0 to 8 so you can set the proper level at the qoth-gauge.jpgbeginning, and then increase the tension to keep it challenging as the pitcher gets better. It only takes a few seconds to increase the tension. If your pitcher gets so powerful that even the highest tension level is too easy, there’s a second heavier-duty spring that you can use to keep it challenging. These guys have thought of everything!

Once the QotH is set up the fun begins. Make sure the pitcher places the sole of her foot against the angled surface on the front of the pitching rubber. She then goes through her normal windup and throws a pitch.

If she uses her legs to explode with a powerful push-off, you’ll hear a “click-click” as the top plate slides back then comes forward again. If she just throws her stride leg forward without getting a good push, you’ll hear nothing.

And that’s the beauty of the QotH. The pitcher doesn’t just feel the movement of the top plate – she can hear whether she was successful.

That audible cue tells her (and everyone else) right away if she got into her legs or not. If not, she knows she needs to work harder, helping her build the good habits that will result in better drive mechanics.

Of course, you also must be sure to set the level properly. Asking a 70-lb. 10 year old to make the QotH click at Level 8 is unrealistic, no matter how hard she tries.

What I have found works is to set the level light in the beginning, in the 2-4 range depending on the age and size of the pitcher, then work your way up from there. The tension should be set so the pitcher can get the “click-click” with strong effort, but not with anything less than that. When she is getting a “click-click” every time, it’s time to increase the tension level. I usually move it up by one number, so say from 5 to 6.

The product itself appears to be very solid and well-built, so it should last a long time. It’s very heavy – I believe it weighs about 25 lbs. – which is good, because that means a strong pitcher won’t be pushing it backward as she drives out. But it can be a shock if someone tries to pick it up without realizing how much effort it takes.

My only quibble with the design is with the carrying handle. The inside part has very square edges that make it a bit painful to carry, especially over a longer distance. I’m sure a little duct tape would take care of it, but it would be nice if those edges were rounded out a bit more.

So far, the reaction from the pitchers I’ve tried it with has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the first, a high school pitcher named Allison, smiled and said “I want one!” after just a few pitches. She could feel the extra launch she was getting right away – almost as if the spring was pushing her out (which it wasn’t).

Other pitching students who have tried it, whether they are 10 or 18, both said they liked it and that they could feel the difference. I also know a couple of dads who have either purchased it or are in the process of considering it.

I haven’t seen any quick speed jumps just yet, but I know others have reported gains of 1 to 3 mph after just a few sessions. I think those gains will come as the pitchers get used to the timing, and get used to getting into their legs more.

So how much does all this wonderfulness cost? It’s not cheap. The Ground Force Sports website has it listed at $329, although if you type in the coupon code Coach James (a friend of mine who is the one who originally told me about it) you can save $25.

But look at it this way. How much do you spend on a bat that may last a season, or two if you’re lucky? The benefits from the QotH will last throughout a pitcher’s career – and may even help prolong that career by helping her continue to play in college.

One last story about it. A couple of weeks ago I brought it to a pitching clinic where I was working with a few 10U pitchers. I used it to help them get the feel of driving instead of stepping.

When I was done, one of the young male instructors from the facility approached me and said he’d been using the baseball version (King of the Hill) with his pitchers and that it had done a lot to reveal to them just how little they were using their legs.

We chatted about it for a few minutes. Then it occurred to me: Using the QotH kind of puts you in an exclusive, “in-the-know” club. So on top of everything else there’s that benefit if you’re interested.

Overall, I’m not much of a gadget guy. I see a lot of stuff out there that just makes me shake my head and ask “why?”

But if you want to help fastpitch softball pitchers learn to use their legs powerfully and efficiently, the Queen of the Hill is definitely worth the investment. Can’t wait ’til that first pitcher needs the other spring!

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Adding A Little “Pop” to Catcher Pop Times

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When I work with catchers, I often tell them two of the most important things they will be judged on by coaches is their ability to block pitches in the dirt, and their ability to throw runners out. Obviously there are a lot of other aspects to catching as well, but these are two of the most visible – and most glaring if a catcher isn’t good at them.

Of the two, the second one (ability to throw runners out) is the more easily measurable. At least in theory.

You can throw balls in the dirt to catchers all day long in a tryout or practice situation and they can look like champs. Especially if they know ahead of time the balls are going in the dirt. But put them in a game and the question is whether they can recognize that random ball headed for the dirt fast enough to block. Tough to simulate that randomness.

Throwing runners out, however, mostly comes down to one thing: pop time, or the time between when the ball pops the catcher’s glove to the time it pops the receiver’s glove at the base.

Really, it’s a numbers game. For the sake of simplicity (since I am generally math-challenged), we’ll use 3.0 as the time it takes a base runner to advance 60 feet. That’s a pretty good number at most levels outside the top of NCAA Division 1 college softball, so it’s one where you can expect to see the majority of runners. Well, that and above.

So if we’re using 3.0 seconds as the standard, let’s assume the pitch gets to the plate in 0.5 seconds. Not super fast, but not super slow either, and easy to do the math. So if we assume 3.0 and subtract the time it takes for the ball to pop the catcher’s glove, that leaves 2.5 seconds to make the throw and apply the tag in time.

Of course, getting there exactly at the same time leaves it up to an umpire’s judgment, which you never want to do, so let’s take off a couple tenths of a second to make the ball beating the runner there more obvious. Now we’re at, say, 2.3 seconds.

Of course, most teams will have at least one or two runners who are faster than 3.0 between bases. And some will push the envelope and attempt to leave a little early, so we’d best knock off a couple more tenths. Which means our pop team needs to be in the 2.0 to 2.1 range. Yeah, that feels right.

So if your catcher is hovering around 2.5 (or longer), or is sitting at 2.2 but playing higher-level ball where she needs to get the ball to the base in 1.9 or 1.8 seconds, how do you get that time down?

For any decently skilled catcher there is no one thing that will do it. Instead, it’s a combination of little things that will add up. Shave off a little here, a little there, and before you know it your pop time meets the standard for US national team tryouts.

Here are some ways to do it.

  1. Adopt a better “runners on base” stance. When I see catchers squatting on their toes in any situation it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. But it’s especially bothersome when there are runners on base, because you can’t move very well side-to-side, and you can’t exactly spring up either. The reason is the weight distribution in our bodies, and our center of gravity – which for a female generally sits low in the hips and toward the back. If the catcher’s butt is below her knees, sheRachael catcher stance pretty much has to lift her entire body weight to get up. But if it starts around knee-level, with the thighs parallel to the ground and the back close to parallel to the ground, most of the heavy lifting is already done. You can get up a lot quicker – and last longer. Which is not only good for throwing runners out, but for chasing down bunts as well.
  2. Learn to pop up instead of run up. I see this one so often. Catchers will come up out of their crouches, take a step forward with their right foot, then take a step forward with their left foot, then throw. Too much wasted time! Because while you’re running up, what’s the base runner doing? Running to the base. Instead, catchers should work on popping up and jumping into a good stance, with their throwing-side foot dropping back and their weight starting out on that foot. Much, much faster. They can also learn to throw from their knees if they arm, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  3. Speed up the transfer of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand. Another thing you’ll often see with catchers, even older ones who should know better, is a tendency to reach forward to grab the ball after it’s caught, make the transfer in front of them, then pull the arm back to throw. The problem is their throwing hand starts off by going in the wrong direction. If they fumble with the transfer at all they have a long way to go (relatively speaking) before they are in position to make the throw. A better approach is to bring the ball back to the hand with the glove. The hand will be waiting around the throwing-side shoulder or ear. As the ball goes into the hand, the hand is then pulled back into a throwing position, essentially making the throw a part of the transfer instead of a separate event. To work on this, by the way, have the catcher start with nothing on or in either hand and just pull the glove hand back to slap the throwing hand. Then add a ball, still barehanded, then add the glove. Just stand sideways and continue to work on the transfer. Once you have that down, toss the ball to the catcher and have her practice the transfer that way. It’s repetitive and boring, but it works.
  4. Rake the ball back instead of catching it. This technique is a bit more advanced, but it can definitely help shave off some time. Typically, the catcher will catch the ball on a steal the same way she catches it for a frame, i.e., get the glove behind the ball, stop its forward progress, then pull it back. Rather than doing that, have the catcher work on catching the side of the ball while starting to pull her glove back, in essence raking the ball back toward her throwing hand as she receives it. Eliminating the stop-and-start of receiving the back of the ball helps get it in place faster to make a throw. Combine this with #3 and you’ll have a catcher who is lightning fast on her release. Then she just has to make sure her body keeps up with what her arms and feet are doing so she can get the throw off with full power.
  5. Know where the base is instinctively. Whether a catcher is popping up or throwing from her knees, she shouldn’t have to wait until she sees the base to make a throw. She should just know where it is and throw. To work on this, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her make the throw. For extra fun, place an object like a stuffed animal on top of a bucket (a second bucket will also work) and have her work on knocking it off. Even if she doesn’t succeed right away, she will build awareness of where the base is and what she needs to do to get the ball there.
  6. Learn to just throw. This isn’t a technique as much as a mental approach, so it doesn’t necessarily show up in a pop time measurement. But it can have a profound effect on the catcher’s success in a game. All too often catchers want to make sure there is someone at the base to receive the ball when they throw, so they will hesitate, even slightly, before throwing. That is the wrong way to go. The catcher should be focused on getting the ball to the base as fast as she possibly can, and trust that someone will get there to receive it. If they don’t, coaches should make sure to tell catchers they did the right thing and then proceed to work with whoever is supposed to be receiving to get there in time to make the play. I always wanted my catchers to push the limits of the receiving fielder. You should too.

If each of those ideas take just one half of one tenth of a second off, the catcher will end up shaving 3/10 of a second from her pop time. That could be the difference between the bases looking like a merry-go-round for the opposing team and your catcher showing there’s a new sheriff in town. Add in some ladder work for agility and a throwing program to increase overhand throw velocity and you’ll have a star on your hands.

The other thing to keep in mind is coaches rarely use their slowest runner to test the catcher’s throw. Instead, they usually use their fastest. So even if that runner does manage to squeak in ahead of the throw, if it’s close it sends a message not try it with anyone who isn’t a super-rabbit.

Keeping runners from advancing for free on bases should be a huge point of pride for catchers. If you want to make yours deadly, give these ideas a try.

Staying Focused on the Process, Not the Outcome

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Photo by Drew Rae on Pexels.com

Recently I flew down to Nashville with my wife to visit my daughter (yes, a former fastpitch pitcher), her boyfriend Andrew, and their new house. Since it wasn’t non-stop we had a lot of time in airports and on planes.

Along the way I got tired of reading the dense book I’m into right now (finally reading a textbook I was supposed to go through my freshman year of college, and I am remembering why I never finished it) so I decided to play with a Blackjack trainer I have instead. Blackjack is the only casino game I tend to play, so I’m trying to make sure if I ever go back to a casino that I have my basic game down pat.

I used to have a different trainer, one that you would play online. It was kind of fun because you could place bets and track your progress. It was also valuable because it showed even if you make all the right moves you could still lose.

This one didn’t. You simply made decisions based on the cards that were dealt, and if you made a mistake a little pop-up would tell you what you should have done instead.

At first I didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t a way to track how I was doing money-wise. Then I came to see the brilliance in the way it was set up.

Without that running total of whether I was ahead or behind, I no longer was thinking in terms of outcomes. Instead, I was 100% focused on the process, i.e., selecting the right move based on the well-established odds for the game.

We talk about this a lot with softball players – focus on the process, not the outcomes. Or as I heard it put at the NFCA Convention, master the movement not the drill.

But how often do we really live it? If you’re working with a player who has been struggling at the plate and she finally makes contact, she’s probably rewarded with a “good job!” even if it was an ugly swing. But was it really a good job?

In the batting cages, when I’m pitching front toss, I will tell hitters that I don’t care if they swing and miss 100 times as long as they’re working on what we’re working on. I would rather see a good swing and miss than a bad swing and hit.

Not because a great technical swing by itself means anything. Again, there are no style points awarded during a game.

But working on getting the swing right – mastering the movement, focusing on the process – will lead to more long-term success. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in practicing it?

The same with a pitcher. I’m ok if they’re throwing the ball all over the place if they’re working on getting the mechanics right. Because I know if they do get the mechanics right the accuracy part will take care of itself. Accuracy is an outcome, not a goal unto itself.

When I work with fielders on throwing, again I want them to focus on learning the proper mechanics so when they need to make a quick, hard throw to get a runner out they can be sure of where it’s going.

If you have to think about how you’re throwing, or guide the ball to get it to where you want it to go, you’re an error waiting to happen. Probably at a key point in the game.

To get to that point in each of these cases, however, you have to take the outcome out of it. Just like the Blackjack trainer did for me.

Yes, it’s difficult. It’s a lot easier to recognize and reward a ball that’s hit hard (no matter how it was hit) or a pitch that goes in for a strike, or a throw that reaches its target than it is to focus on the way those outcomes happened. But it’s critical if you want to be successful.

Take the outcomes out of the training in the short term and just focus on the process and the movements. Give players the opportunity to “fail up,” i.e., do the right things now so that when those habits become ingrained they have far greater success than they had just doing whatever to get by.

Learning the basic game in Blackjack doesn’t guarantee success. The odds still favor the house, and you could still quickly drop a couple of hundred dollars even if you make the right moves 100% of the time. But it does help reduce that edge considerably, which is what makes it worth the effort.

The same is true in softball. You can still strike out, or walk a batter, or throw away a ball at a critical point in a game no matter how hard you work. But you cut the odds of it considerably, which is what makes focusing on the process your best bet for long-term success.

Fixing Timing Problems In Live Hitting

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Tell me if you’ve seen (or personally experienced) this before. A hitter looks great on the tee. All her mechanics are correct and her movements are correctly sequenced. She’s pounding the ball so hard you’re afraid it’s going to break the back of the cage.

Then you move her into a live hitting situation – doesn’t have to be a full pitch, it could be easy front toss from a short distance – and suddenly that potential game-winning swing all falls apart.

Instead of driving the ball, the hitter is popping up, especially to the opposite field, or hitting weak dribblers back to the pitcher. What the heck happened?

Odds are she’s late getting to the bat to the ball. And no matter how soon she starts, she continues to be late.

You’ve probably heard it said on many occasions that hitting is all about timing. Well, that’s true, but not always in the way you think.

It’s not just about the start time. It’s really about where the hitter’s front foot is when it’s time to swing.

The front foot landing should be the trigger for the swing (i.e., the launch of the hips) to begin. Which means it has to be down on time. If it’s not, there’s no time to execute the rest of the swing and what you’ll end up with is essentially an arm swing, with the body following afterwards.

Ok, you understand this can help when the hitter doesn’t get going on time. But your hitter, if anything, was early and yet she still was behind the actual pitch.

I call this syndrome “early to be late.” What happens is the hitter sees the pitcher go into her motion and she begins her load. Then she realizes she started too early, so she stays back in the loaded position and waits for the pitcher to release the ball.

At that point it’s game over, advantage pitcher. There is simply not going to be enough time to stride/weight shift properly, launch the hips (without the shoulders), turn the shoulders, and bring the bat to the ball.

Getting stuck on the back side during the load is deadly to hitters. What they need to do instead is “bounce off” of it. In other words, they need to “load and go” right away rather than sitting and waiting for the pitch to be thrown.

Ideally, they will adjust their start time to make that happen. But if they can’t break the habit of being early they should learn to eat up the time difference by striding/weight shifting slower to be sure the front foot is down on time so the rest of the swing can be executed.

I’ve personally seen the difference this seemingly slight change makes. Rather than struggling to get to the ball (and feeling overwhelmed, which leads to arm swings), hitters suddenly feel more in command.

They get to that “oh yeah moment,” where the ball looks like a beach ball and they’re ready to jump on it, more consistently. And avoid that “oh crap moment” where they realize right before the swing that nothing good is going to happen.

How do you get there? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

Ok, seriously, hitters have to train themselves to overcome their basic instincts to wait on the pitch and start striding/weight shifting, even if they feel like it’s too soon. Once they can get to that point, and see the results, they’ll be more inclined to replace the old habit with a new one.

On the tee, or even at home in a bedroom, have hitters consciously work on their “load and go” mindset. Then do front toss and look for that hesitation.

If they still can’t break the habit, stand in front of them without the ball and go through the motion, encouraging them to get off that back side and start their forward movement at the right time. Then go back to front toss, and finally to full-length pitching.

It may take some time – the mind is a powerful thing, and once it latches onto something it doesn’t always like to let go. But sooner or later a willing hitter can overcome it.

Once she does, she’ll be well on her way to becoming the hitter she wants to be. And that you want her to be.

 

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