Monthly Archives: September 2022

Spice Up Your Games with Some “Trick” Plays – Part One

As about every third online ad tells us, we are in the middle of pumpkin spice season.

Now, for those who love it this is the best time of the year, at least culinary-wise. And for those who hate it (there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground on this), hang in there; the holidays and all their sweet goodies are just around the corner.

Pretty easy to tell which side this guy falls on.

I think what those who are into it (including me and especially my daughter Stefanie) love about pumpkin spice season is that it’s something a little different.

We might not be so excited about it if it was available all year long. But since it’s outside the norm we can definitely appreciate it when it comes along.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to today’s topic: “trick” plays on defense and offense in fastpitch softball.

I am definitely a proponent of getting your fundamentals together first. It is absolutely critical for individuals and teams to learn how to field routine ground balls, make simple throws, cover bases, run the bases, swing the bat, etc. with near-100% reliability.

If you can’t do the fundamental things, no amount of trick plays is going to save you.

But if you can do those things, having a few trick plays in your arsenal can not only spice up practices and get your players pumped during games, they can also help you turn the momentum of a game around.

Following are a few of my favorites. Today’s post is focusing on defensive plays. Next week we’ll look at some on offense.

You can pick and choose one or two you think your team might like and be able to handle. Or you can try to incorporate them all to help you get out of a jam – or put the other team in one.

Again, just be sure you don’t spend so much time on them in practice that you neglect the fundamentals. It doesn’t take much to get the wheels to fall off the wagon – at which point the townspeople (parents) will be coming for you with torches and pitchforks.

How coaches see parents.

Defensive Trick Plays

Third Base Sucker Play

My formers players will recognize this one as “code blue” or just simply blue. It’s great for getting a critical out in a tight game with minimal risk.

The situation is there is a runner on third with fewer than two outs and it’s important that the runner on third doesn’t score. It should be a called play so everyone on the defense is prepared for what happens.

If a ground ball is hit to the third baseman (or the pitcher if the pitcher is a good fielder, or dropped right in front of the catcher), the fielder picks up the ball, LOOKS THE RUNNER BACK, then pretends to throw to first. Looking the runner back is critical to convincing her that once the fielder turns toward first she will throw.

Only she doesn’t. She pulls the ball down and immediately spins around to see where the runner on third is.

If she bites on the fake throw and takes off for home, the fielder can either tag the runner or get her into a rundown. If your team is any good at rundowns they should get the out while erasing a scoring threat from 60 feet away.

(The counter on this for the offense, by the way, is for the batter/runner to keep running as soon as she realizes the defense is focused on the runner on third. If she’s fast enough, or the runner on third stays alive long enough, she might even go all the way to third figuring the original runner on third will be out sooner or later anyway.)

You want to run this against an aggressive baserunning team – the type that is looking to take advantage of every opportunity to score. It doesn’t work so well against the cautious, the slow, or the ones who just don’t pay attention.

If you are worried about the ball slipping out of the fielder’s hand on the fake throw, have her keep the ball in her glove and throw with an empty hand. At most levels the runner is looking at the arm motion, not whether the fielder has a ball in her hand, and will go as soon as the throwing motion is complete.

Third Base Sucker Play with Real Throw

Ok, so your opponent got fooled once, either in this game or another, and has cautioned their runners to make sure of the throw before taking off from third. Does that mean you’re done?

Not at all. Same situation – aggressive runner on third with fewer than two outs.

This one works best on a ball hit to the third baseman, and again presents minimal risk.

When the ball is hit, the third baseman fields the ball, looks the runner back, and proceeds to throw it to the first baseman. Except the first baseman isn’t at first base; she is halfway up the first base line, in the perfect position to begin a rundown.

It’s rare that anyone pays attention to where the first baseman is, or where the throw is pointed. From the runner’s (and third base coach’s) point of view, the throw from the third baseman is going toward first.

It isn’t until the rundown starts that they realize it didn’t. Again, if your team is good at rundowns it should result in an out (versus just holding the ball, which will rarely produce an out), but worst case it will prevent the runner from scoring.

Pickoff to Third

For this one you need a catcher who has a quick transfer and is good at throwing from her knees. And by good I mean she not only throws hard but is accurate.

Most coaches will teach their baserunners on third to lead off as far as the third baseman. Makes sense, because the closer they can get to home the better chance they have to score on a ground ball.

You can take advantage of that. When the ball is pitched, assuming it’s not hit the catcher makes and immediate transfer and quick throw to third.

The third baseman gets the ball and immediately sweeps a tag to her right, preferably all in one motion. The suddenness of the moves can catch a runner napping and allow her to be tagged before she can react. And the presence of a right-handed batter helps cover the catcher’s movements, making it hard to tell that she’s throwing down to third.

If you execute it well it can be a game-changer. One time I was coaching a game where we were clinging to a one-run lead.

In the seventh inning the leadoff batter on the other team hit a triple, completely changing the momentum of the game. But we ran this play and she never even moved. Got the out, wiped her off the board, and the momentum shifted back to us for the win.

Understand, though, this can be a medium-to-high risk play. Because if your catcher chucks the ball into left field instead of to the third baseman, well, see the graphic above.

But if you do it right it’s a thing of beauty.

Pick Behind the Runner at First

This is a great way to get a quick out in a tough situation, such as when bases are loaded. The lowest-risk version is when there are two outs, because if you execute it successfully you’re out of the inning.

But you can run it on any number of outs, especially if you’re willing to trade an out for a run.

As I said, the situation is bases are loaded. You notice that the runner on first is taking a decent leadoff but not really paying attention to what happens after the pitch if the ball isn’t hit.

For example, she drops her head and turns around to walk back to the base figuring no one is paying attention to her.

For this play you want to have your first baseman move up the line so the runner (and first base coach) figure the runner is totally safe. You call an outside pitch so the catcher is moving a bit toward first and the hitter doesn’t hit it.

That last part is important because as soon as the pitch is thrown and all eyes are on home, the second baseman is going to sneak in behind the runner to cover first. The catcher then throws down immediately to first, the first baseman gets out of the way, and the second baseman places the tag. She may even have to walk out to the runner to do it because the runner is so shocked (I’ve seen it happen).

There is a risk, of course, of the catcher chucking the ball into right field and allowing one or even multiple runners to score. But if you work at it you can pull this one off and have some fun doing it.

Sneaky Catcher Pick to First

This is a variation of the last play. It relies a lot on deception and definitely requires a catcher to practice it diligently. But again you can catch a runner napping pretty easily if you can execute it.

The lowest-risk situation is bases loaded with two outs to prevent the runner on first from just taking off. But you can do it in a first-and-third situation if you think either the runner on third won’t go on the throw or she’s slow enough that you can recover if she does.

Here’s how it works. The pitch is thrown, the catcher receives it, and she starts running the runner on third back to the base.

Once that runner goes back, the catcher CASUALLY turns toward the pitcher and takes a step toward her to throw. She also looks right at the pitcher – all’s quiet on the Western Front.

But instead of throwing back to the pitcher, she opens her shoulders a little more and fires to first without ever looking. If it is done correctly it will catch the runner and first base coach off-guard enabling an easy tag.

Of course, done incorrectly it will either tip off the runner to hurry back or sail into foul territory in right field starting up the merry-go-round of baserunners.

This is why catchers have to spend some quality time learning to make this no-look, awkward throw. But if they can learn to do it properly they can catch a baserunner even if she knows it’s coming. I’ve seen it happen.

Continuation Play

This is one of those things that I’m sure most coaches love when their teams do it and are really annoyed when other teams do it. You know the one.

There is a runner on third and the batter walks. She starts trotting down to first base, and as she gets there she takes off for second base.

Your team is confused, you as a coach are embarrassed, and your opponents now have runners at second and third.

Indeed.

How bad it actually is kind of depends on your team’s skill and level of play. In many cases it’s not really that bad because the batter/runner was just going to steal second on the next pitch anyway. It just made you look bad that she did it.

But if you do want to try to prevent it you have a couple of options.

The first is to have your catcher throw the ball to the first baseman instead of the pitcher when the walk occurs. The first baseman then stands between first and second so if the runner tries to go she will be tagged out immediately.

She just has to keep an eye on the runner on third (and be able to make a good throw home if she goes).

The second is to have your pitcher walk to the back of the circle with the ball and stand there. Your shortstop then covers second and your second baseman stands about 10-15 feet to the first base side of second.

Under the Look Back rule, once the ball is in the circle and the batter/runner reaches first, the runner on third either has to go forward or go back. This is providing the pitcher doesn’t make any moves toward either runner.

If the batter/runner takes off for second, the pitcher waits until the batter/runner is fairly close to the second baseman and then turns to throw. In the meantime, the catcher is laser-focused on the runner on third in case she decides to take off, which she can do once the pitcher turns toward the batter/runner.

If the runner on third stays put the second baseman puts the tag on the batter/runner. If the runner on third tries to score, the second baseman starts running in to get a rundown started and throws ahead of the runner if necessary. If she can put the tag on the batter/runner first even better.

There are a few variables in play here. For example, if your team is up by a few runs forget the runner on third and get the batter/runner.

The same goes for if there are two outs and you can get the batter/runner quickly, before the runner on third scores.

But in a close game the runner on third remains your priority. Even if you don’t get the out at second this time you’ve at least given the other team’s coach something to think about.

The Dreaded First and Third Situation

In this situation there are runners at first and third with fewer than two outs. You know the other team is going to try to move that runner on first up to scoring position and you’d like to get her out if you can. But you need to keep the runner on third from scoring too.

There are a few different plays you can try. One is the fake throw from the catcher. It doesn’t work most of the time but if you have an aggressive (and probably inexperienced) runner on third she may fall for it.

You can also try just throwing the runner out at second. Teams have gotten so good about being aware of the runner at third and trying to fake her into running into an out that most are pretty cautious these days.

That hesitation can cause her not to run, even if you do throw.

But if you really want to play with the big kids here’s what you do. On the steal, the shortstop goes to cover second and the second baseman moves up to a cut position between the pitcher’s rubber and second base.

This is sometimes called a “Pattern Defense.” Here’s a diagram to help make it clearer.

I drew this myself. No, really.

The catcher throws down to try to throw out the runner going from first to second. You now have a couple of options.

The easier, safer play is that the second baseman steps in to cut the ball off as a planned play. If the runner on third takes off she throws home and either a tag or rundown ensues. If not the runner stole second just as if you did nothing.

The bigtime play is that the second baseman ONLY cuts the ball if the runner on third takes off for home. This requires someone to keep an eye on the runner on third and to call it out if she’s going.

A logical choice is the third baseman but it could also be the first baseman. Or both.

You need some smart players with strong arms and quick reactions to pull this off. But if you can it can be a thing of beauty.

Plenty to Work On

These plays should give you some fun things to work on at practice. I wouldn’t start with them, but they can definitely help you change a game. And even if you never use them in a game they can inject a little extra fun into your practices.

Next week we’ll be looking at some offensive plays to help you generate more runs when you can’t just bash the ball. In the meantime, if you have any defensive plays you’d like to share leave them in the comments below.

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The Kids Aren’t Alright. They’re Exhausted.

You see it all the time. Kids are at practice/lesson, or in a game, or in a tournament, etc. and they’re just not performing to the level at which they’re capable.

“C’mon Erin (or Lily or Leticia)!” parents or coaches yell. “Put some effort in. Quit dogging it and get your rear in gear.”

But the reality is Erin (or Lily or Leticia) may actually be giving all she has and more. Because the problem isn’t effort or intention. It could be fatigue.

According to a 2020 survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a little more than 10% of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 reported being tired every day or almost every day. Now, 10% doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’ll bet if you added in kids who report being tired at least some days during the week the number would go much higher.

What’s causing all this fatigue? One thing could be the crazy level of commitment that pretty much every activity (including fastpitch softball) demands throughout the year – and particularly through the school year.

In a lot of area, maybe most, kids have to wake up at 6:00 or 6:30 to get ready for school. They’re then there to say, roughly, 3:30. Once school is over they may have a school sport practice or game, one of which will happen every day during the week and often on Saturdays as well.

Once they’re done with school sports they rush to a team practice, sometimes in the same sport and sometimes in another. For example, they play volleyball at school and then head to softball practice, or strength and conditioning.

Now, if the other practice is happening once a week it has a minor impact. But a lot of teams these days practice 3-4 times a week IN THE OFFSEASON!

So now maybe that kid is being expected to go all-out physically and mentally for 4, 5, maybe even 6 hours with barely time to eat a little something for dinner.

By now it’s 8:00, 8:30, 9:00 or even later and the child who gave his/her all on the field and/or in practice still has to do a couple of hours of homework. Maybe more if there is a big project due or all the teachers loaded him/her up.

Then it’s brush your teeth and off to bed by 11:00 pm so you’re ready to start the cycle all over again.

Here’s where the problem comes in. Take a look at the chart below, which shows what time kids should be going to be based on the times they wake up for school.

Notice a discrepancy here? That 12 year old who wakes up at 6:30 am should be in bed by 8:45 pm, not 11:00 pm. When it happens night after night the sleep bank gets drained.

Ok, but surely kids older than 12 can operate on less sleep? True, but not as much as you might think.

The CDC recommends that kids 13-18 should get a minimum of 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Every night.

I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math. To get 8 hours of sleep, that teen who wakes up at 6:30 am for school should be going to bed no later than 10:30. If he/she needs a little more sleep to function well, bedtime should get pushed earlier.

But it’s not just the sleep that is causing the problem. It’s also the lack of downtime.

Running from school to practice/game to practice/lesson/conditioning to whatever else is going on day after day after day takes a toll.

Pretty soon there’s very little left in the tank. Performance suffers and the risk of injury increases.

Ok, that’s the problem. What’s the solution?

I don’t have a final, definitive answer. But I do have a few suggestions.

Cut back on offseason practices – This applies to every sport, not just fastpitch softball. I firmly believe in the value of being a multi-sport athlete. But teams don’t need to maintain an in-season practice schedule during the offseason.

In reality, the fastpitch softball season is either February until the end of July(ish) or June until the end of October, depending on when your state plays school ball. During that time practice all you want.

Outside of it, there is no real reason to go more than once a week. If players want more, have them do it on their own, where they can focus their efforts for a half hour instead of enduring a two-to-three hour team practice.

That schedule includes the fall ball “season.” If you’re in a state that plays high school softball in the spring, fall ball is offseason so treat it that way.

If you just feel you must practice more than once a week, keep practices shorter, focusing on the single thing you want to accomplish.

Parents, make some hard choices – I get that many kids want to do everything. But there is a cumulative effect in trying to do all of that, especially if everything is at a high level.

A better solution might be for your child to play one sport at a high level (such as A-level travel softball) and other sports, if they want them, at more of a recreational level where the schedule demands aren’t so high.

There will always be exceptions, or course. Some kids are capable of playing more than one sport at a high level. Most are not, however, at least not without suffering some sort of consequences.

Parents need to take off the parent goggles and really look at how their kids are doing. If they’re always tired maybe it’s time to take some things off of their plates so they also have time to rest and recover.

Take sleep needs seriously – Although I shared them, I think the sleep guidelines above are tough to manage. They’re also kind of generic, because some kids will need less – and some will need more.

But going to bed late and getting only five or six hours of sleep on a regular basis isn’t good for anyone. Parents, be sure your kids are getting the opportunity to sleep, even if that means opting out of practice on a heavy homework night.

As an aside, teachers may want to re-think the homework loads they’re assigning as well. The recommendation from the National Parent-Teacher Association and the National Education Association is 10 minutes per grade level, i.e., 10 minutes for first grade, 20 for second grade.

That’s total, not per-class. In addition, research indicates that more than two hours of homework total may be counterproductive.

Teachers should work together to keep homework focused and productive. Parents should work with teachers when they see excessive amounts of homework being assigned to ensure there is awareness of this fact and that a solution is created.

The bottom line is many kids are tired – physically, mentally, emotionally. They are over-scheduled and their time is micromanaged to a ridiculous degree, often as a result of adults seeking validation through the performance of those kids.

It’s unlikely this situation is going to improve on its own. It’s time to recognize the symptoms before they start getting more out of hand and taking steps to reduce the strain.

In the process, you’ll probably find those kids are closer to providing the performance level you desire.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

Rick and Sarah Pauly Pitching Clinic Coming to Northern Illinois Suburbs

Here’s some great news for everyone in the Midwest who has ever wanted to bring their daughters to a clinic with Rick and Sarah Pauly but were held back by the distance.

For the first time ever, Rick and Sarah are coming to the far north suburbs of Illinois – McHenry specifically! They will be at Pro Player on October 15 for two sessions. 

The morning session will be more beginner/intermediate going over the basics of IR pitching. Great opportunity to try it out if you’ve never been exposed to it, or to get the core movements reinforced if you are already going down that path. Most likely that session will also cover the changeup. 

The afternoon session is the advanced group covering movement pitches, including the rise and drop, along with the change. Pitchers in this group should already have strong fundamentals in internal rotation pitching, with the ability to throw hard with great control. 

More information is available in the downloadable flyer below. This is a great opportunity for anyone to work with two of the best pitching coaches out there, but especially pitchers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the UP. Take advantage of this opportunity while you can. 

To Improve Pitching Mechanics Try Closing Your Eyes

One of the most important contributors to being successful in fastpitch softball pitching (and many other skills for that matter) is the ability to feel what your body is doing while it’s doing it.

The fancy word for that is “proprioception” – your ability to feel your body and the movement of your limbs in space. If you want to impress someone call it that. Otherwise you can just say body awareness.

Yet while it’s easy to say you should have body awareness, achieving it can be difficult for many pitchers, especially (but not limited to) younger ones. Keep in mind that it wasn’t all that long ago they were learning to walk, and many are still struggling to improve their fine motor skills.

They end up looking like that.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to achieving body awareness, however, is our eyes. How often do we tell pitchers to focus on the target, or yell at catchers to “give her a bigger target” when a pitcher is struggling.

According to research, 90% of what our brains process is visual information. That leaves very little processing power for our other senses.

It makes sense from a survival point of view. We can see threats long before we can hear them, or smell them, or taste them.

Or they get close enough to taste us.

But if your goal is oriented toward athletic performance instead of survival, all that visual information can get in the way of feeling what your body is doing.

The solution is as simple as it is obvious: if you can’t feel your body when you’re practicing, close your eyes. (I do not recommend the same during a game since there is a person with a $500 bat at the other end of the pitch waiting to drill you with a comebacker.)

With your eyes closed, you no longer have the distraction(s) of what your eyes see. You HAVE to become more aware of what your body is doing, and where its various parts are going, if you’re going to have any chance of getting it even near the plate.

I have done this with many pitchers over the years, and it has invariably helped to different degrees. Some start to feel whether their arms are stiffening up or they’re pushing the ball through release where they couldn’t before.

Some feel their bodies going off line, or gyrating in all kinds of crazy directions instead of just moving forward and stabilizing at release.

In some cases, girls who were struggling with control actually start throwing more strikes with their eyes closed than they did with their eyes open. Again, because they’re starting to FEEL the things we were talking about.

One thing I like to emphasize with eyes-closed pitching is for the pitcher to visualize where the catcher is before she starts the pitch. See it in her mind’s eye the way she would see it if her eyes were open.

Then, once she has it visualized, go ahead and throw the pitch.

Even if she struggles at first she will usually start to feel what her body is doing at a much deeper level, putting her in a position to start correcting it. Then, by the time she opens her eyes again she will be better prepared to deliver the type of results you’re hoping for.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling to feel what she’s doing, give this a try. It can be an eye-opening experience for pitchers – and their parents.

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