Monthly Archives: September 2019

Avoiding the “Hot in Cleveland” Syndrome

Hailey Hull pitching

On the TV show “Hot in Cleveland,” the basic premise is that three women from LA are on a flight to Paris when their plane gets stranded in Cleveland. After being approached by several men, they suddenly realize that while they may just considered be average-looking among the many beautiful people in the City of Angels, here in Cleveland they are considered hot, and they decide to stay there instead.

(Full disclosure: I have never actually watched the show, or even a part of it. But the premise works for this blog post so there you go. Oh, and apologies to readers in Cleveland. I didn’t pick the show’s title.)

Fastpitch softball players (along with their coaches and parents) are very susceptible to what I call the “Hot in Cleveland Syndrome.” Because they are successful in the small pond they play in, and maybe even the best player in the area, they can get an oversized view of exactly how good they are.

This is one of the reasons it’s important, if you are serious about playing and especially about playing in college, to venture out past the comfort of your local area and match up your skills against higher-level teams. You can either find out that A) yes, you’re every bit as good as you thought you were or B) while you may be a 10 locally you are maybe only a 6 in the bigger scheme. Either way, that’s important information to have.

Here’s an example. You’re a strong pitcher who accumulates 10+ strikeouts consistently in a seven-inning game. You mostly do it by throwing fastballs, because most of the hitters can’t catch up to your speed. Why bother developing other pitches when you’re already dominating?

Because once you stand in against better hitters who are used to seeing speed and can hit it consistently, your strikeouts per game will probably go way down and the number of hits against you will grow. If you don’t have something else to throw at those hitters you’re in for a rough time. But you won’t know it until you face hitters of that quality.

Or take a catcher who can gun down every girl in the league or conference when she tries to steal second. Is it because she is so awesome, or because the base runners are average instead of speedy?

You put some rabbits on those bases – girls who can get from first to second in 2.8 or 2.9 seconds at the younger levels, or a team with a view players with legit 2.6 speed at the older levels – and suddenly the game turns into a track meet.

The reverse is also true, of course. Is a bigtime base stealer really that good, or are the catchers she’s facing just that weak?

Then there’s the big hitter with the loopy swing who is crushing the ball against the competition she normally sees. Put her up against a pitcher bringing the heat and she may find she’s striking out all day – and looking bad while doing it.

Now, if you have no aspirations beyond the level you’re currently playing at, being Hot in Cleveland is fine. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with playing at a lower/easy level if softball is something you do solely as a recreational activity with a hint of competition versus playing at a highly competitive level.

But if you’re looking to play in college, be named all-state in high school, win a travel ball national championship or have some other lofty ambition, you need to get a true measure of how your skills compare to all those with whom you’ll be competing for those spots. The sooner the better.

Break away from the Hot in Cleveland Syndrome and test your skills against the best players you can find. It will give you a truer picture of where you really stand.

Tricks and Tips for Developing Higher-Performing Catchers

Ashley catching

Ask most people (especially their parents) and they will agree that catchers are the backbone of a quality fastpitch softball team. While pitchers get all the glory and the accolades, without a great catcher your team is likely to under-perform and lose more games than it should.

Great catchers don’t just grow on trees, however. Even the best often need to be built. In fact, I’m often amused when I hear someone talk about what a “natural” a particular catcher is, because I know what they were like originally and how much work went into making them look like a “natural.”

So for those of you with a daughter who wants to strap on the ol’ tools of ignorance and spend her career squatting in the heat, or for you coaches who understand the value of a quality catcher and need to develop one or two, here are some ways I’ve found to make it happen.

Desire

All the joking around aside, catcher is a tough position to play. Probably the toughest on the field, all things considered. You can put gear on a player and stick her behind the plate, but that doesn’t make her a catcher (except in the scorebook).

To be any good at all as a catcher, you have to have a desire to play the position. If that desire isn’t there, the rest of it isn’t going to work no matter how hard you push.

I’ll take a kid who isn’t as athletic but wants to be back there over a great athlete who looks like someone shot her puppy every time she goes behind the plate any day of the week. And all day Championship Sunday. (That’s an expression only. No catcher should have to catch five or six games in a row unless there is simply no other option.)

Find the kid who wants to do it and the rest of it will go much faster.

Learning to block

One of the challenges with learning to block balls in the dirt is the basic fear of getting hit with the ball. There is a natural, human tendency to want to turn your head when a ball bounces at you, especially if you’re only used to fielding ground balls.

But that makes no sense for a catcher, because all of her protection is in the front. Turning her head (or body) actually exposes her to more potential pain and injury.

One way I’ve found to get past that fear is to walk up to the catcher, speaking in a friendly voice, and start tossing the ball at her face mask. Ask her “How’s that?” or “Does that hurt?” The answer you’ll usually get is “no” surrounded by giggles.

What your catcher fears is anticipated pain, not a memory of pain. Give her the experience of taking a ball to the face mask, or chest protector, or shin guards and she’ll be able to overcome that fear.

The one caveat, however, is to check to make sure her equipment actually will protector. I recently had a 10U catcher named Erin who finally told her parents and me that it hurt when she blocked a ball with her chest protector. One new, stiffer chest protector later and it was no problem. So be sure when you say it won’t hurt that you know whereof you speaketh.

Making throw-downs

The other area where catchers really “make their bones” (besides blocking) is throwing runners out. There is plenty of great information out there about the mechanics of throwing runners out. But here are a couple of things you don’t normally find in those discussions.

One, surprisingly, is to make sure your catcher has good basic throwing mechanics. Not sure why that aspect is overlooked, but it often is. And all the fancy footwork and ball transfer drills won’t do you much good if the core motion is too weak or too slow.

If your catcher doesn’t have a good throwing motion to start, work with her on it. Insist on it. Drill it into her until she can’t use poor mechanics. That alone will make everything you do more effective.

Another key point is to stop your catcher from running up to make the throw. She should just pop up and throw without appreciably moving forward. Doing it that way will not only save time (because while she’s running up the base runner is running to the base) but it will also protect her from late swings (accidental or intentional to cover the runner) and slipping on a slick plate.

But she’s young and can’t get it to second on a fly without running up? Who cares? A decently thrown ball will roll a lot faster than a runner can run, and if it’s on-line it will be right where the tag needs to be made when it reaches whoever is covering the bag.

Get that ball on its way quickly and you’ll throw out more runners. And remember – most coaches like to test the water first with their fastest runner. Throw her out, or even make it close, and the opposing coach will think twice about trying to steal the other girls.

Get vocal

There are two aspects to this. One is pure volume. Your catcher can be the shyest, most soft-spoken player on the team when she’s not on the field. But behind the plate, she needs to be loud, proud and confident.

Catchers should be directing the rest of the team while plays are going on, and insisting everyone else simply repeats what she says when calling out which base to throw to or where a player should go. Otherwise, you’ll have chaos on the field.

The catcher is the only player on the field who can see everything that’s going on, so it’s natural for her to be calling out what to do. That means A) she needs to know what to do in every situation and B) she has to call it out loudly enough for at least her infielders to hear on a noisy field.

Getting to point A is going to take a fair amount of practice and study. But point B can be accomplished with a little training. Have her work on yelling things – anything. It could be base calls, it could just be numbers, it could be her name. Anything to teach her to be heard.

If possible, take her somewhere where there is a wall a good distance away and have her practice creating a loud echo off the wall.

The other key is to get her comfortable telling her teammates what to do. This is not the time to be shy, and catchers shouldn’t worry about winning popularity contests. They need to take command on the field, hold their teammates accountable for doing the right things, and pick up the entire team when it gets down.

That’s a tall order, especially for a young catcher. But give them the leeway, authority and encouragement to become that player and you might just see a little magic happen.

Final thoughts

Catching isn’t just about skills. A lot of it is about attitude.

Catchers have to think in a way that differs from the rest of the team. They have to know the game at a deeper level than their peers (since they are basically the coach on the field), and they have to have a little swagger to them.

Help develop those qualities in your catcher(s) and you’ll find yourself on the winning side of a lot more ballgames.

And oh, for you parents who would like to see your daughter play softball in college: college coaches at all levels are always on the lookout for great catchers. They’d prefer to find them rather than try to build them.

The closer you can get your daughter to that ideal, the better chance she has of playing in college and getting some or all of her schooling costs covered. Just remember what I said in point #1!

Nothing Like Starting with a Clean Slate

Sabrina hitting

Fall ball is beginning to ramp up, at least in my area. A couple of teams I know played last week, and a whole bunch more are scheduled to play tournaments and/or round robins this weekend.

(That’s fascinating to an old coach like me, by the way, since for most of my coaching career fall ball meant playing a friendly or two on a couple of Sunday afternoons. Now it’s a regular part of the overall softball season.)

For players who stayed with the team they were on in the previous season it’s probably no big deal. They know the coaches and (most of) their teammates, and the coaches and teammates know them. It’s a pretty comfortable situation.

For those who are on new teams, however, it’s an incredible opportunity. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, players on new teams can create a whole new impression of who they are and what they can do. That new impression will be how the new team sees them.

Take a hitter who had a rough summer. She struck out a lot, and when she did hit it was mostly popups and weak ground balls.

Then toward the middle of the season she took some hitting lessons and started driving the ball. Unfortunately, her coaches already had a picture of her as a hitter in their minds, and didn’t trust that what she was showing was what she had become. So she stayed at the bottom of the batting order.

With the new team, however, all bets are off. They liked something about her at tryouts, which presumably is why they took her. Those are their only preconceived notions about who she is as a player.

All she has to do is what she was doing at the end of the last season – hitting consistently, with plenty of extra base hits – and she’ll be at the top of the batting order on her new team. Because these coaches’ impressions of who she is will be based on today forward instead of her far less productive past.

The same is true for every position. If she was a pitchers who struggled with control early on but got it together later, the starting point today is a pitcher with control. Error-prone fielder? Not anymore.

The only ones on this team who know she struggled in the past are the player and her parents. And hopefully they’re not saying anything!

It isn’t often in life that you get a real, live do-over. But this is one of those situations.

If you’re starting up with a new team, leave the past in the past. Forget about any struggles you may have had before, and play the way you’re capable of playing today.

Now go be awesome!

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