Monthly Archives: June 2020

First Impressions Aren’t Always Right

woman looking at sea while sitting on beach

Most people have probably heard the old cliche “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” And while that’s technically true, it doesn’t mean you should always cling to your first impression of a player (or coach for that matter) because you may find there’s more there than is on the surface.

That was my experience recently with a young 12U player named Jazmin. Her mom contacted me after getting a recommendation from the father of a teammate.

She told me Jazmin was brand new to softball, and that she would like to get her some hitting lessons. That alone is pretty interesting.

Usually parents don’t look into lessons until after a few games, or maybe even a couple of seasons, so that fact that she wanted to start with lessons right away was surprising but in a good way. I think she was a little concerned that everything would be so new with her daughter but I reassured her it could be a good thing because she wouldn’t have any bad habits to unlearn.

Then came Saturday morning and the day of our first lesson. Jazmin walked up and right away my Spidey-sense started tingling, because honestly I have seen happier looking faces in a hostage photo.

We started the lesson and things didn’t get any better. She seemed very unhappy to be there and as a result it was a struggle to get her to do anything.

I finally stopped and asked her if she wanted to be there. I wasn’t trying to be mean, I was actually trying to be kind, because there is no sense in making yourself miserable just to do something. That’s what work is for.

She mumbled something or other, which may have been “yes” but meant no. Finally her mom, who had been watching her from behind the backstop, called her over and talked to her for a while. Mom did not like that attitude at all and let her know.

I think we tried going on a little more but nothing had really changed so I suggested we stop about halfway through the scheduled lesson. I told her mom there would be no charge – we tried it, it didn’t work.

But mom asked if we could try again the next Tuesday. I give her a lot of credit for that, by the way. A lot of parents would have just chalked it up to a bad idea and been done with it.

I agreed, a little reluctantly, but told her if we had to stop again I would be charging for that lesson. It was only fair, she agreed.

Then came Tuesday. Admittedly I was a bit concerned about how things would go this time given the last experience, but I was willing to give it one more try.

Mom reminded Jazmin to start by apologizing for her prior attitude, which she did, and from that point on it was like aliens had come to Earth, taken away the Jazmin I’d met on Saturday, and replaced her with a new and improved version.

What I discovered was Jazmin is a blast to teach. She has a great sense of humor, and not only laughs at my jokes but throws a few in on her own too – including a couple of good-natured digs at me, which I appreciate.

She’s been all smiles at every lesson since (we’ve only done a few) and has thrown herself into learning how to hit. We’ve only been working on the tee so far but she is coming right along and should be ready to start front toss in the next lesson or two.

Not bad for a totally inexperienced beginner. Hopefully we have a long instructor/student relationship and someday we will have a good laugh about it when she comes back from her college team for a tune-up.

So that’s the lesson for today. Had I assumed that first impression was all there was to Jazmin I would never have booked the second lesson and I would have missed out on a wonderful new student. That would have been a shame for both of us.

On the other side, players, you need to understand that the first impression you make with a coach at a tryout or a conversation after a game or other event could cause you to miss out on an opportunity.

Sure, you could just be having a bad day (as Jazmin apparently was). But you may not get the chance to correct the coach’s impression later. I was very close to saying “no” to the second lesson because I had serious doubts anything would change. Fortunately I was wrong.

In our hyperspeed world, it’s easy to make quick judgments and move on. But every now and then it’s worth taking a chance that your first impression wasn’t the correct one. You never know what you’ll find on the other side.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Stop Chasing Rainbows on Technique

crop field under rainbow and cloudy skies at dayime

Let me start by saying I am a fan of continuous learning. I believe it is every coach’s responsibility to constantly question what they already “know,” look for new information and innovation, and keep up with the latest advances in our sport.

This is one of the reasons I pursued and attained Elite certification in the High Performance Pitching program back in the December/January timeframe, and continue to participate in weekly calls with other accomplished pitching coaches from across the country. I’ve been doing this for a long time and could easily decide to be comfortable with what I already knew. But if there is a chance I can do better in helping the athletes I coach you can bet I will look into it.

All that said, there is another side to this mostly positive coin – what I would term as “chasing rainbows.” A coach who is chasing rainbows isn’t really looking to add to their knowledge and synthesize what they believe so they can teach it in an organized manner.

Instead, this is a coach with no set of firm beliefs to challenge. Instead, he/she merely adopts and repeats whatever he/she heard most recently from someone perceived as being smarter than the coach. Here’s an example.

A hitting coach attends a coach’s clinic where the presenter explains why you want a slight uppercut swing with the hips leading the hands. So she takes furious notes, highlights the handout, and runs back to her team to show them this “new” way to hit.

Note that she doesn’t take time to compare the information to what high-level hitters do, or to think through how it applies to the players on her team. She simply parrots the talking points and hopes for the best.

A few months later, she attends another clinic where the presenter talks about starting with the hands and swinging down on the ball to create backspin. Again, she takes furious notes, highlights the handout, and guess what? Now her team is learning an entirely new way to swing (and an incorrect one, I might add) before the players have had a chance to master the previous way.

What you end up with is a team caught somewhere between their original swings, the techniques of the first clinic and the techniques of the second clinic. Then the head coach wonders why the team has a collective batting average of .257 and can’t seem to produce runs on any sort of scale.

A better approach would be to start with a firm set of beliefs about hitting, preferably based on the teachings of someone who has been successful coaching hitters along with a close study of high-speed video of high-level softball and baseball players actually swinging the bat.

Note that I didn’t say a study of what those high-level players say. Just because they can hit doesn’t mean they know how to explain what they do. You’d be surprised how many of them say one thing and do something else.

Once the coach has a starting point, then start taking in information and comparing it to those beliefs in the same manner. For example the conflict between whether to swing down on the ball or swing with a slight uppercut at contact.

Whichever side the coach starts on, look at information from the opposite side and see how it compares to those high-level swings. If what is being said matches what is being seen, the coach will probably want to re-evaluate her beliefs. If it doesn’t, the coach is probably already on the right track.

When a coach can attend a clinic or other presentation and critically evaluate the material being presented she can be fairly confident that her decision on whether to adopt what is being taught there or discard it will be a good one.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a binary choice. The coach may find that 95% of what is being presented is just old thinking, but that the other 5% has some value, if not for the whole team at least for one player.

This is especially true when it comes to drills. People talk about “good drills” and “bad drills.” But with rare exceptions, any drill is good that can help a player get to where she needs to go, even if it’s not the best course for everyone.

This idea of working to adopt a firm philosophy doesn’t just apply to hitter. It can apply to any skill within fastpitch softball, even if what you’ve been doing has been successful.

Heck, I’ve taught throwing a certain way for a number of years, based on the best information I had available to me at the time. After being exposed to Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing program I’ve changed what I teach to some extent. Not because it’s the flavor du jour, but because what he says makes sense in the context of what I already understand about throwing.

For many of us, change can be difficult. But for some it actually comes too easily.

Find something or a set of somethings you believe in after careful consideration, then work to build from there. Because the funny thing about chasing rainbows is that while you may feel you’re getting closer, you’ll never catch them. And you may actually take yourself farther away from your preferred destination.

Rainbow photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Catchers: Tips for Throwing from Your Knees

IMG_0228

For most of fastpitch softball’s (and baseball’s) history, the gold standard for catches attempting to throw out runners stealing a base was to pop up and throw from your feet. A quick catcher could be up in an instant, and use the power of their legs and bodies to power the ball toward said base.

Over the last decade, however, there has been a significant shift. These days it seems like all the cool kids are throwing from their knees.

In fact, throwing from your knees has become so pervasive that there are coaches who will tell you that if you have to go to your feet to throw you’ll never play at a high level or in college. That is absolutely untrue, by the way.

I know top-notch catchers who prefer to throw from the feet and do play high-level college and travel ball, but you know how it is when people get something stuck in their minds.  The ONLY thing that truly matters is the pop time – how much time it takes from when the ball hits the catcher’s glove to when it hits the glove of the person covering the base. If your pop time is better from your feet, have at it.

That said, throwing from your knees is also a perfectly viable option. Personally, I like to teach both methods so A) catchers can decide what works best for them overall and B) they have options depending on the pitch.

For example, if you’re catching a riseball it may make more sense to follow it up and throw from your feet, whereas a good dropball lends itself more to a throw from the knees. It doesn’t make much sense to go back down to throw if the ball carries you high or vice versa.

If you are going to throw from your knees, you should learn to do it properly. Here are some suggestions that can help you maximize both your ability to get the ball to the base quickly and hit your target.

  1. No falling trees. This is the most common mistake I see. The catcher gets the ball and immediately starts falling forward toward the base as she makes the transfer.
    IMG_0227

    Timber!

    As a result, while she may be quick to get into position she ends up throwing all (or mostly) arm, losing velocity over her normal throw. So whatever advantage she gains by not popping up she loses through reduced arm speed. A better approach is to get the body in position and drop the glove-side knee straight down under the shoulder.This loads the weight on the back side and allows the catcher to get more body into the throw.

    IMG_0237

    Loaded and ready to fire.

    She can get resistance out of the front side rather than chasing it forward and throwing off-balance. With a little practice she can be quicker to release than with the falling tree method, with the added bonus of more velocity on the throw. What’s not to like?

  2. Get aligned with your target. Another common flaw is the desire to just drop down to the knees and throw. This will work (sort of) for a right-handed catcher throwing to third base or a lefty throwing to first because her body is naturally aligned that way anyway. For a throw to second, or a throw to the other side (e.g., righty throwing to first) it can be disastrous. The first move, as the ball is being transferred from the glove to hand, is to set the shoulders and hips in a straight line with the target. A good way to do this is to pull the throwing-side knee into position.
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    Be sure to get the hips and shoulders aligned with the target.

    Again, as it swings around it should end up under the throwing-side shoulder. This move should be quick and urgent, with the rotation of the body occurring in as tight a circle as possible. (The further out the knee or leg swings, the slower the movement will be.) From this position the throw will once again be strong and accurate.

  3. Work the transfer. Whether they’re throwing from their feet or their knees, this is an aspect many catchers fail to develop enough. They’ll do long toss and other arm strength drills until their arms turn to putty, but they’ll gloss right over the transfer. That’s a mistake, because the transfer dictates how quickly the rest of the throw can happen, and whether it will be powerful and well-timed. The first key is never, ever, reach forward to get the ball out of the glove. Instead, bring the throwing hand up near the shoulder and bring the ball to it. That way the transfer becomes part of the throwing motion instead of a separate operation. Also, you don’t want to squeeze the ball too hard in the glove because that will make it more difficult to pull out. Use the minimal pressure necessary to secure the ball. For more advanced catchers, instead of “catching” the ball and pulling it back, learn to rake it back. That means starting to pull the glove in before you catch it so you’re already taking the glove back toward the hand. You may lose a strike here or there, but if it means you throw out Ms. Rabbit trying to steal second I’m sure your coach (and your pitcher) will forgive you.
  4. Be sure to follow through. A lot of catchers, when they throw from their knees, will tend to stop short. When that happens they end up with their bellybuttons facing the target. That’s a great way to develop shoulder and elbow problems, especially if they’re trying to throw out a very fast runner. Catchers should unleash the full power of their body in a way that causes a natural follow-through. The result will be their throwing side shoulder ends up facing the target. Many catchers will fall when they do that. That’s ok – in fact it’s desirable. It means they got the full force of their bodies behind the ball.

Here’s the beauty. While none of these tips individually will likely make a huge difference in your pop time (except maybe the first one), their cumulative effect can be substantial.

Let’s do the math. (What, there’s math? No one said anything about doing math.)

Let’s assume the runner can get from base to base in 2.8 seconds and the catcher has a pop time of 2.0 second – enough to qualify for a Team USA tryout, by the way. She takes off at release from the pitcher and the ball takes 0.4 seconds to get from the pitcher to the catcher. That leaves just 2.4 seconds to get the ball to second.

Since the catcher has a top pop time of 2.0, the margin of error is .4 seconds. Try to record .4 seconds on a stopwatch or your phone’s stopwatch. It’s not easy. You’ve made the umpire’s job very difficult.

Now imagine each of the tips above can each shave 0.025 of a second off your pop time. Now your margin for error is .5 seconds, which means if the play was close before it’s not nearly as close as it was and you’re more likely to get that runner out. You’ve also demonstrated you can throw out a baserunner with 2.8 speed, sending a message to the opposing coach about sending anyone who runs slower than that.

The bottom line is throwing from your knees alone isn’t enough. In fact, it can actually slow it down if you do it wrong.

Do it right, however, and you’ll earn your reputation as a force to be reckoned with behind the plate – and a place on many coaches’ short lists.

The Hips Are the Key to Body Movement

Ally launch

Here’s a quick experiment for you to try at home (or wherever you’re reading this blog). Try to move your arm away from the rest of your body. Pretty easy, right?

Now try a leg. Either one will do. Again, pretty easy.

Now do your head. If you go forward you can get it out there pretty far, and even side-to-side or backwards will work if you’re more flexible than I am.

Ok, here comes the key part: try moving your hips away. Aha! You can maybe get them out a couple of inches but that’s about it.

So basically, if your hips move away the rest of the body has to go with it.

This is a key concept for any fastpitch softball player to understand, but especially for pitchers. Many pitchers, when they are trying to get leg drive, will just run their stride leg past their drive leg and kick it forward. The result is that the stride leg pulls them off the pitching rubber – which is like trying to drag a wagon full of concrete behind you.

That’s because a lot of your weight (some of us more than others) and strength is carried in the hip area, which includes the lower torso. If it is stationary (more or less) it’s going to take a lot of effort to get it in motion so it can contribute to the pitch.

If the hips are already moving smartly forward as the pitcher drives out, however, instead of holding her back they add to the power. The difference (or delta as they like to say in the business world) can be huge.

The challenge is when pitchers think about moving forward, they tend to focus on their stride leg and where it lands. This leads to them doing more of a kicking motion instead of focusing their attention on where it should be – on the hips.

One way to help them get the feel of moving the hips forward (and how much effort it takes) is to have them do a standing broad jump. That is all about getting the hips and torso to fly forward.

Another way is to have them stand on one leg and then hop a short distance to the other. this can be front-to-back or side-to-side.

I say a short distance because as soon as you say long distance they’re going to go right back to reach out with the leg/foot instead of moving the middle.

A harness around their hips tied to a bungy cord or surgical tube will give them that feeling. Have them put the connector in the front, stretch the tube out as much as they can, then go through their pitching motion, letting the tube pull them forward.

You can also get behind them, place your hand on their lower back and give them a small push as they get read to go out. Just be careful that it’s a small push. You don’t want to push a pitcher who’s having trouble moving down to the ground (as I once did).

Ultimately, though, the best thing to do is get them to figure out how to get their hips moving forward to become part of the drive without all the artificial helpers.

As they start to get the feel of moving the hips properly, have them start pitching from a short distance into a net or screen. Keep them there until they can do it without thinking. then slowly move them back a few feet at a time and ensure they can maintain that hip-centered approach.

Only move to the next distance when they appear to have mastered the previous one. If they go back to being leg-oriented when they move back, move up to the previous position again. Repeat until they can throw properly at a full distance.

Incidentally, what I have found is that this is very easy and natural for some and very difficult and alien for others. I have no idea why, because it comes naturally to me.

What I do know, however, is that it is essential to maximize speed. The more momentum you can crash into a firm front leg the more the arm whip will be accelerated, creating more energy to transfer into the ball. A pitcher who is being held back by her hips will struggle to attain her very best speed.

The best way to check this is using video, either on a dedicated camera or your phone set to a high speed (60 frames per second or more). The naked eye can be easily fooled, especially if the pitcher is doing whatever she does quickly.

But with video, you can see if the hips are passing quickly over the pitching rubber on their way forward or whether they hover over it as the arms and legs move forward. (The first one is correct.)

Once you can see what’s going on you can work to correct it. It probably won’t be easy, but the results will be worth it.

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