Monthly Archives: February 2020

See Your Way Clear to Better Pitching Mechanics

beautiful blue eyes close up dhyamis kleber

Photo by Dhyamis Kleber on Pexels.com

When I have a young student who is having difficulty making the transition from close-up drills to full-distance (or nearly full distance) pitching, I will often tell her to close her eyes and picture that she is still throwing into the screen, net, tarp, backstop or whatever else we were just using. By taking the distraction of how far away the plate is she is then able to focus on the only end she can control – the end she is on.

It is amazing how often that works. Which is why, by the way, I am always amused at coaches who yell at catchers to “give her a bigger target” when the pitcher is having control trouble. I want to yell back “the catcher isn’t the problem; right now your pitcher couldn’t hit an archery target.”

But there is another side to this story. A pitcher’s eyes can be an important contributor to improving her mechanics if she learns how to use them correctly. That doesn’t mean staring down the target with a laser-like focus, however.

To the contrary, it often means doing the opposite, i.e., looking away from where she’s throwing to help her see what she can’t feel right now. Many of us our visual learners, and being able to see what we’re trying to do can help us get there faster and more effectively.

Here’s a good example. Many pitchers are taught that they should turn the ball toward second base at the top of the circle and have the hand on top of the ball as they come down the back side of the circle. That’s just flat-out wrong as you will see if you watch videos of what elite-level pitchers do.

But after months or years of drilling from the “T” position (both arms outstretched completely from the shoulders) with their hands facing down it can be a tough habit to break. They may be trying to keep the hand under the ball at 3:00 and pull it down into release, but they are unaware that they are first turning it over to start the motion.

Here’s where the eyes come in. From the “W” position (arms again outstretched, but this time with the hands shoulder-high and the elbows bent below to form a sort of W) have her turn her head back and watch her hand as she begins the throw. That way she can see immediately whether her hand turns over so she can learn to stop doing it.

Placing the focus of her vision on her hand also places the focus of her mind on staying palm-up, which helps shorten that learning curve. Once she starts down that way she is likely to stay that way into release, or at least close to it. If necessary she can always watch her hand all the way down.

If you do it from a short distance into a net or fence (instead of throwing to a catcher) you take out any concerns about accuracy which again lets her concentrate on the movement. Of course, if she gets the movement right her accuracy will improve anyway so it’s a win-win.

Another way to use the eyes in a creative way is with pitchers who are having trouble going straight down the power line. They launch out and end up either way to the right or way to the left, neither of which is conducive to great pitching.

If you’re using a pitching mat that already has a line in it, or you’ve drawn a power line in the dirt outdoors, have your pitcher look at the line instead of at the catcher.

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Like this one, only without the worn-out spot.

 

Remember that one of the big reasons for going down the power line is so the pitcher can throw the ball where she is supposed to instead of going all over the place. By using her eyes to go down the line you just might find that her accuracy improves even though she’s not looking at the target at all.

This is much the same principle you’re supposed to use in bowling, incidentally. Great bowlers don’t look at the pins. They look at those little arrows on the lanes and try to throw the ball there. (I can hear some of you already saying “Oh, THAT’S what those arrows are for.”)

They know if they get the ball in just the right place on the arrows, the far end (where the pins are) will take care of itself. So it is with pitchers and the power line.

Mirrors (or any reflective surface such as a window) can also be very helpful in correcting pitching issues. Do you have a pitcher who struggles to maintain good left-right posture at release (i.e., she leans out to her throwing-hand side)?

Put a vertical line on a mirror with masking or painter’s tape, have the pitcher line her center up with it, and then have her throw a rolled up pair of socks or a Nerf ball into the mirror. As she gets to release, she should see whether she is vertical or leaning out to the side. A few dozen repetitions should have her feeling when she has good posture and when she is leaning.

The mirror is also a great way to see if her hips are remaining stacked up under her shoulders or if she is clearing space to the side or making a “monkey butt” move. If the hips aren’t stacked up under the shoulders and turned in 45 degrees or so to the plate it’s difficult if not impossible to get a brush trigger.

By checking her hip position in the mirror, the pitcher can make sure she has the optimal posture to deliver the ball with the greatest velocity and accuracy.

These are just a few examples. The key takeaway is that the pitcher’s eyes don’t have to be locked on to the catcher’s glove or some other target to be effective.

If she is having trouble learning a move, apply visual learning principles and have her use her eyes to see what she needs to do and whether she’s actually doing it. It can make all the difference in the world.

And if you’ve had a pitcher use her eyes to watch a part of the pitch to make a correction please be sure to share what you did in the comments below so the rest of us can learn.

 

Main image by Dhyamis Kleber on Pexels.com

Announcing a New Softball Success Service

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For the past 20+ years (can I really be that old?) I have been a private coach, primarily working with pitchers, hitters and catchers. During that time I have had an opportunity to teach many wonderful young women, helping them to achieve success and realize their dreams – whatever those dreams may be.

But through that time I have also come to recognize that there is an under-served constituency out there that is aching for someone to fill their needs. So today I am proud to announce a new service through Softball Success that I am calling “Parent and Player Validation,” or PPV for short.

The way it works is you bring your daughter to me, but rather than trying to teach her anything I just stand there for a half hour and tell you how awesome she is.

I will walk around and view her from different angles, put my hand on my chin, look serious, nod a few times, maybe whistle or say “whoa!” (although that costs extra) and even shoot a video or two and use it to show you why she’s so great. What I won’t do, however, is offer any of those bothersome suggestions or critiques because if you’re coming for this service I know you’re not interested in any of that claptrap. You just want to hear she’s perfect the way she is.

Now, I know this service won’t be of interest to any of my current students or their parents because they are all on-board with working hard and trying to improve themselves. I’m actually fortunate to work with an outstanding group of students.

Still, I realize there are people out there who can use this new service. I’ve run into them in the past.

I could tell because when I would tell a pitcher she needs to lock her shoulders in at release, or relax and whip her arm, or stay more upright instead of leaning forward the only reaction I would get is a stinkeye from both the parent and the student.

Or if I told a hitter she needed to lead with her hips, or keep her hands from dropping to her ribcage, or drive her back shoulder around the front instead of pulling the front shoulder out both parent and daughter look at me like I told them they smelled of elderberries.

Clearly, they weren’t interested in my honest opinion, or in changing anything. They simply wanted me, as a professional softball instructor, to validate what they already believed.

Of course, the core of great customer service is to give the people what they want (to paraphrase Marshall Field). So rather than fighting the tide, I’ve decided this could be a tremendous money-making opportunity.

With that in mind, I am thinking of a fee structure along the lines of:

  • Saying she is perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing – $100/half hour
  • Saying she is an incredible talent and one of the best I have ever seen – $200/half hour
  • Saying she is without a doubt the best I have ever seen in-person – $500/half hour
  • Saying she could possibly be the greatest player who ever played the game – $1,000/half hour

I haven’t locked into the actual dollar amount, but I’m figuring with as desperate as some people are for this type of validation this is probably a good starting point. I may also offer a discount if you just want to come in and have me say it without actually having to watch the player do anything since I would be able to squeeze another actual lesson in during the rest of the time. Or if you want to send me a 30 second video and have me email my effusive praise back to you.

I can see where this could lead to other services as well. For example, I can set aside a radar gun with a series of impressively high readings and let you take a picture with your daughter showing whatever reading matches what you think she’s throwing. I’m thinking $50 for that, at least to start. The possibilities are endless.

So let me know. If you’re looking for someone to tell you how awesome your daughter is without all the inconvenience of being told she needs to work on this or that, this new service should fit the bill.

Just remember that being told what you want to hear doesn’t mean she’ll perform well on the field, especially when she faces competition of equal or better ability. That actually takes work.

But if you just want to have your ego, and your daughter’s ego, stroked I am prepared to accommodate. All lines are now open…

The Up and Down Side of Modeling Elite Players

woman working girl sitting

One of the first (and most important) pieces of advice I give to parents who are trying to decide on a path for instruction for their daughters is to look at what elite-level players do. If you’re not being taught that, you should re-think what you’re doing.

Take pitchers for example. If you want to know whether you should turn the ball toward second base at the top of the circle and push it down the back side of the circle or turn it toward home and then pull it down with your palm face-up, video of elite players will give you the answer.

(SPOILER ALERT: The correct answer is pull it down. Ten points for Gryffindor if you got it right.)

Then there are hitters. Some people will tell you to swing with your bat and/or shoulders level at contact. But again, a quick Internet search of great hitters in both Major League Baseball and Power 25 fastpitch softball will show you that just ain’t so.

So does that mean you should just pick an elite-level player and model yourself after her (or him)? Not necessarily.

The thing you have to keep in mind is that elite-level players get to that level by virtue of more than their mechanics alone. There are a whole lot of other factors, beginning with their DNA, that go into making an elite player.

The hard reality is some players succeed despite their mechanics. Their athletic ability, focus, dedication, etc. is such that they can overcome even significant mechanical flaws.

Some pitchers will be hunched over and will throw their shoulders forward as they throw, even though biomechanics says they would be better off keeping their shoulder locked in around 45 degrees. But when they’re throwing 70+ mph doing what they’re doing, and racking up the Ks and Ws, most coaches aren’t going to worry it until it becomes a problem.

Does that mean you should follow their example? In a word, no. That player is succeeding in spite of her mechanics, not because of them. Us ordinary mortals can’t count on getting the same results.

The same goes for hitters who primarily rely on their upper body strength to hit for power. Somehow they have managed to make it work for them.

Most of us, however, will find if we are upper-body dominant we won’t be able to adjust to pitch speeds/location/movement. We’ll hit the ball a mile if it’s pitched where we’re swinging. But if it’s not – and the whole strategy behind pitching is to NOT pitch to a hitter’s strengths – we will likely swing and miss. A lot.

So what’s the answer? Should we try to understand and follow the mechanics of elite-level players or not?

For an answer, I would look to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson. Yes, he died long before the first fastpitch softball game was played, but he had a pretty practical view of the world.

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Jefferson could call for a sac bunt with just a twitch of his eyebrow.

One of my favorite quotes from good ol’ Tom was “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” In other words, know what’s important and what’s not.

When looking at mechanics, don’t just look at what one or two elite level players does. Look for the common threads between all of them, and see what the majority tend to do.

Also, look at what other factors may affect the success certain players are having. If your daughter is a 78 lb. stick, modeling the mechanics of a preternaturally strong, thick-bodied beast of a player probably won’t deliver the same level of success.

Your daughter is going to need incredibly clean, efficient mechanics because she needs to get every bit of her body generating energy to transfer into the ball.

If your daughter isn’t an amazing athlete – that’s ok, you can admit it – she’s probably not going to be able to get by with too many standard deviations from what is biomechanically optimal. Again, you’ll want to stick with the things elite players do that are alike rather than excusing non-standard mechanics because so-and-so does the same thing.

Seeing what elite players do and following their example is a good thing – until it’s not.

Use video of elite players to see generally what all (or at least most) tend to do so you have a path to follow. But avoid techniques or mechanics in those players that appears to be outliers.

It’s your fastest path to success.

Main photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com
Photo of Thomas Jefferson via Good Free Photos

Re-thinking How to Use a Radar Unit

Ally pitching

I am going to admit right up-front that I have always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with radar guns/units for pitchers.

At first it wasn’t too bad. I bought a Glove Radar and attached it to my catcher’s glove to check my own daughter’s speed. It was fine for that purpose, especially since we weren’t really caught up in the absolute number but rather just looking to see whether she was making progress.

Once I started teaching pitching lessons and was no longer catching, I purchased a series of other units, including an early Bushnell (which I ultimately gave away) a Jugs Gun (an earlier model than the one in the link, which I still own) and then all the iterations of the Pocket Radar.

I tended not to use the radar units much, however, because of one simple phenomenon. Whenever I would pull out the unit, no matter which one it was, the pitcher would tighten up and start throwing visibly slower than she had before.

Inevitably the readings were disappointing and what had started out as an energetic lesson would kind of fall into a sort of funk. Consequently, while I had all this technology at my disposal I didn’t really take advantage of it.

That changed after I took the High Performance Pitching certification courses from Paulygirl Fastpitch and had a chance to observe how Rick Pauly was doing it. He had a radar unit permanently set up in the cage he uses for lessons, with a big readout the pitcher could see after every pitch.

As you would watch him teach lessons in the course, the speed was always there in the background. As a result, it no longer became a “thing” to be trotted out. It was just part of the background, like the net or the posters he has hung up.

That brought me to my epiphany. If every pitch is measured, the pitcher just might learn to get over her fear of being measured.

Of course, one of the differences between my situation and Rick’s is that all his students come to him at a single location, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, while I work out of at least three different facilities on a regular basis, plus some other locations when I am working with several pitchers on a team. I am a softball gypsy.

So I started thinking how I could duplicate that experience when it hit me. I have a Pocket Radar Smart Coach unit. I could mount it to a tripod, place it behind the catcher, and pull up the readings on my iPhone.

Good idea in theory, except it became a problem when I wanted to video a student to point out something to work on. Luckily technology again came to the rescue and in a better way.

I still set up the Smart Coach on the tripod in Continuous mode. But then I connect it via Bluetooth to my iPad, which sits on the floor, off to the side, in front of the pitcher. Every pitch gets registered in big numbers that we both can see, and my phone remains free for video.

From a logistic standpoint, this setup has worked out well. I also quickly discovered that an evening’s worth of lessons will drain the batteries pretty quickly. But luckily the Smart Coach has a port that lets you connect a power block to it.

The power block I have lasts for several hours. When I get home I recharge it and it’s ready for the next evening’s lessons.

The big question, of course, would be the effect it had on the students. Would they tense up and freak out over having every pitch measured?

Not at all. In fact, the opposite has happened. I find that the big, red numbers inspire them to work harder to increase their speed.

There’s no slacking off in a lesson, because it becomes obvious. The numbers don’t lie. And they all want to do a little better than they did before, so they keep working at it.

But rather than tensing up they kind of find their own way to relaxing and throwing better.

Since I’ve started using it, I think every pitcher who has done it has achieved at least one person best if not more. By personal best I mean her highest reading on my set-up.

It also gives me a way to push them that’s fun for them. If a girl throws 51, I’ll ask her to throw 52. It’s just one mph more, but stack up enough of those and you get a nice speed increase.

The setup I use isn’t perfect. Pocket Radar says the unit works best when it’s a few feet away and directly behind the catcher/in line with the pitch. The cages I use don’t allow for that type of setup; I usually have to put it a foot or two to the side of the catcher, sometimes right behind him or her.

No matter, however. The objective isn’t to get an absolute speed measurement. It’s to track (and encourage) progress.

Having a pitcher improve speed during a drill, or work to get to a new high speed from the pitching plate, gets us where we want to go. We can always get the more accurate measurement when we can set it up properly.

So if your experience has been like mine, where bringing out the radar unit becomes a momentum killer, try making it “part of the furniture” instead. You will probably like what you discover.

 

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