Category Archives: Catching
Being a coach sometimes can feel like you’re stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. You offer a correction, the player makes it for a repetition or two, then goes back to what she was doing before. So you offer the correction again and the cycle repeats.
This pattern particularly shows up with younger players, but it can happen to anyone anytime. Obviously, two good repetitions followed by a few incorrect ones isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.
So how do you provide a little extra incentive to focus on doing it right every time? This is where taking advantage of the competitive nature of fastpitch softball players can come in handy.
Fastpitch softball is a tough sport full of difficulties and disappointments, so players really have to have some competitive fire to keep going with it. They also have to love a challenge. As soon as you press the “compete” button you almost always have their full and undivided attention.
One way I’ve done this is to borrow from the playground basketball game of HORSE. You know the one. You take a shot, then the player after you has to take the same shot. If he/she doesn’t make it, he/she gets a letter. You keep going until only one player hasn’t spelled out HORSE.
For Katie, the girl in the photo at the top of the post, the challenge was getting her to bring her back leg into her front leg to finish the pitch. She had the very common tendency of throwing the front leg out without using the back leg. As a result, the back leg was more of an anchor dragging behind her and cutting back on her speed and accuracy.
So I challenged her to a game of HORSE. The rules were simple. If her back leg finished by closing into her front leg (more or less) no letter was assigned. If, however, she finished with her legs spread apart (which usually caused her to bend forward as well) she received a letter.
Once we established those simple rules, it was game on! Suddenly, instead of the Groundhog Day loop of me telling her to finish, she was more on top of it. She still ended up getting an H-O, as I recall, but that was all in the 10 minutes we spent on it.
That was pretty good improvement, because it meant in all the pitches she threw she only failed twice. More importantly, rather than me telling her to fix the issue she was now dedicated to fixing it herself – because she didn’t want to lose the game!
I knew it really got through to her, though, when at her next lesson she asked if we could play HORSE again. I think she wanted to play because she knew she could win; she’d worked on it between lessons to gain the advantage.
But that’s ok with me – I want her to win, because then she’s improving her mechanics and using her body more effectively. By the way, there was no prize for winning or avoiding getting HORSE, although there certainly could’ve been. The game simply appealed to her competitive nature and got her attention.
In reality, this is a game/technique you can use to drive improvement for all kinds of techniques. Have a hitter who is dropping her hands or swinging bat-first? Play HORSE.
Have a fielder who isn’t getting her glove down on ground balls, or a catcher who isn’t keeping her glove on the ground while blocking? Play HORSE.
(I’m not just saying this to you, by the way. I am also making this as notes to myself, as I am definitely under-utilizing this idea.)
The one thing I would caution is focus the game on the process/skills, not the results. So use it to help a first baseman learn to scoop a ball in the dirt properly, but not to keep track of whether she actually got it or not. Or use it to help a hitter learn to swing hips-first rather than giving her a letter if she swings and misses.
If she learns the skill, the results will take care of themselves. But if you focus on the outcomes, you won’t drive the skills. Instead, you’ll probably reinforce bad habits as the player tries to avoid the error/failure instead of learning and internalizing the technique.
In any case, if you find yourself in a Groundhog Day-like loop, give HORSE a try. And if you do, or you’ve done the same thing yourself, let me know how it works for you in the comments below.
One of a catcher’s responsibilities, whether in fastpitch softball or baseball, is playing the bunts that stay close to home. The catcher has to realize the situation, react quickly, pick up the ball cleanly, set her body, and make an accurate throw under pressure.
The first step in this process, of course, is to teach the core techniques, such as surrounding the ball and how to pick it up when it’s moving versus sitting versus spinning. From there, most move to tossing the ball from behind the catcher and having her pick it up.
Here’s another way you can reinforce the techniques while adding pressure, repetition, and conditioning. I call it the “Minesweeper” drill after the old computer game that used to come with Microsoft Windows.
What you want to do is set several balls at different positions in front of the catcher that she will actually be responsible for. The catcher starts from a runners on base stance, and when say go or blow the whistle, she runs out, fields the first bunt, makes the throw, then comes back and does the next, as Jasmine demonstrates here:
You can use as many balls as you like, although try to space them so the catcher doesn’t accidentally step on one and roll her ankle. For added pressure (and some competitive fun), have her work against a stopwatch. You can even have multiple catchers competing against one another to see who can get the best time.
As you can see, this is a drill you can do in a batting cage as well as outdoors. The cage we used in the video is a little short of the full distance, but that’s okay as long as you’re measuring times the same way. When you move outside to full distance, just set the baseline again.
Watch to be sure the catcher returns to a good stance each time before going after the next ball. She doesn’t have to stay there long. Just long enough to get established.
Not only is this drill good for building and reinforcing technique. It’s also a great way to help catchers get some conditioning work in without realizing it. They’ll be so focused on clearing the “mines,” especially if you’re timing them, that they won’t notice how much work it is.
If you’re looking for a fun way to help your catchers improve their bunt coverage, give the Minesweeper drill a try.
Anyone who has seen a gladiator movie, or a movie with gladiators in it, is familiar with this scenario: Two warriors do battle until one bests the other. The victor stands over the fallen loser, weapon at the ready, and looks to the Emperor (or highest-ranking official in attendance). The Emperor holds out his hand with his thumb extended sideways, then either turns it up to spare the fallen warrior or down to indicate he should be killed.
Never mind that this is just a dramatic fiction of the movies. In reality, gladiators were too expensive to acquire and train to be wasted in such a manner. The idea of the thumbs-up/thumbs down creates a scenario to help fastpitch softball as well as baseball catchers.
Like hitters moving from the cage to games, catchers often have a tough time making the transition from practice to the field. They may be great at blocking in practice, when they know it’s coming, or scrambling to their feet to chase a popup. But in an actual game, all that training sometimes seems to go out the window.
That’s where we can borrow from the Roman Empire of the movies, and have some fun besides.
Line your catchers up in front of you, with your arm extended and your thumb to the side. They should all be in their runners on base stance.
Then either turn your thumb up for them to react to an imaginary popup or base stealer, or down to block a pitch in the dirt.
The key is that they don’t know which they’re going to have to do, so they’re going to have to read and react quickly and appropriately.
For added challenge, you can tell anyone who goes the wrong way that they have to sit out. You can also tell the catchers that the last one up or down is out as well. That creates a little competition and gives them some skin in the game.
When the catchers go into a blocking position, check to make sure they are in the position you want and not just flopping onto the ground. They should be up and over the imaginary ball, with their shoulders further forward than their knees and their chins tucked in – as opposed to the ones who sit on their calves like they’re getting ready to watch TV.
For the popup position, first tell them where the ball will be – in front of them or behind them. Then emphasize getting their backs turned to the infield so the imaginary ball doesn’t drift away from them.
If you want to go with steals, make sure they’re coming up into a good throwing position rather than just getting to their feet. If you have the space, you can even have them make the throw. Just be aware of a stray ball or two.
The objective, again, is getting them to read the situation and react more quickly.
Here’s the last part to making a successful transition. Your catchers may get good at Roman Empire, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll carry it with them onto the field. What you want to tell them is when they’re in a game, they need to approach it like they’re doing the Roman Empire drill.
They need to get themselves ready to read and react, rather than not thinking about it at all and then reacting too late. By being mentally ready on the field they’ll put themselves in a position to use all that training and find greater success.
Ok, I’ll admit it. The headline was my opportunity to offer a tribute to one of my favorite Blue Oyster Cult albums. But it does have relevance for fastpitch catchers as well as coaches when it comes to making throws to various bases.
There is certainly a perception in some circles that to be a high-level catcher you have to be able to throw from your knees. Of course, like many of these so-called “absolutes” that is simply not true.
Throwing out runners on a steal is basically a math problem. Since it’s summer let’s make the math easy to start.
Let’s say the runner can go from first to second in 3.0 seconds and the pitcher is throwing 60 mph, which means it takes 0.4 seconds from the time leaves her hand until it reaches the plate. Simple subtraction says 3.0 – 0.4 = 2.6.
That’s the amount of time the catcher has from the moment the ball hits her glove to the moment it must be at second base to catch that runner: 2.6 seconds, aka her “pop” time. Notice that nowhere in that simple mathematical formula does it say anything about how the ball is thrown, because it doesn’t matter. It just has to get there on time.
So if the catcher can throw hard enough to get the ball to the base in 1.5 seconds, that means she has 1.1 second to receive the ball, get into position, transfer the ball to her throwing hand and get it on her way.
If it takes less time to throw the ball, she has more time for the other stuff. If it takes her more time to throw, the transfer and positioning time goes down.
Of course, when you’re talking about high-level catching, such as at the D1 college level, 2.6 seconds is a terrible pop time. You won’t be catching if that’s what it takes. They’re looking for sub-2.0 times, the faster the better.
So using our simple math again, if the runner has 2.6 speed and the pitch is still taking 0.4 seconds to reach the plate, the pop time is 2.2 seconds. Allow for a little variance and you’re looking at, say, 1.8 seconds.
Now the throw must get there much faster, but it still doesn’t matter how it gets there as long as it gets there on time. There are no style points in softball. It either works or it doesn’t.
As I’ve been watching the D1 Regionals and Super Regionals I’ve seen both. Some catchers have thrown from their knees, while others popped up. Why the difference?
Sometimes it’s dictated by where the pitch comes in. A high pitch, whether it’s intentional with a rise ball or some other pitch that got away from the pitcher will lead to a throw from your feet. It would be silly to throw from your knees in that situation.
On low pitches it’s a little different. For some catchers, going to their knees feels right. For others, especially those who lack speed or mobility, it may be too difficult to get to their feet in time to make the throw. They simply don’t have the agility so they must go to their knees. Those who are quicker and more agile, on the other hand, can get up, get into position, and make the throw with time to spare.
Ultimately it comes down to 1) what it takes to get the job done and 2) personal preference. As long as the ball beats the runner to the bag in time to make the tag and get the out, how it got there doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit.
I’ll take a catcher who throws from her feet and gets people out over one who throws from knees and doesn’t, or gets very few, any day of the week, and for a double header on Sunday. I’m sure any college coach would agree, because only a fool would think otherwise.
First of all, a quick hello to any students from Mr. Nikolich’s Marketing 470 class at NIU who decided to stop by and see if I was as full of it as I seemed the other day. If any of you come by, please leave a comment below and I’ll see if I can wrangle a little extra credit for you. Ok, now on to fastpitch catchers and their needs.
What I’m talking about today is actually a fairly common issue, especially with young catchers, baseball as well as fastpitch. We talk a lot about “pop” times and the importance of getting the ball down to the base quickly on a steal.
So what happens? As catchers come up from a squat to a throwing position, often times in their haste they don’t get their bodies turned properly. When that happens they lose both power and accuracy on the throw. They wind up more like one of those yard sprinklers, spray balls all over the place.
With some training they can learn to get into the proper position when they’re not making the throw, or they’re under pressure. But sometimes they just can’t make the transition, no matter how much you yell at them. 🙂 That’s when you need to get a little creative.
In some recent catching clinics with the Midwest Glory, I had been having the catcher work on their foot quickness with a speed ladder. They would straddle the ladder, then “jump on the skateboard” to get in place, going as rapidly as they could. Then we moved to real throws.
Some were ok, but others had some trouble. When they popped up they would wind up with their feet at a 45 degree angle to the target rather than being fully turned. That’s when it hit me.
That speed ladder I’d just been using would work perfectly as a guide to get the feet aligned. So I dragged it over, set it up and voila! Great positioning and better throws.
In the photos, Brinn McNeill is demonstrating how it works. The first photo shows Brinn in a runners on base stance, straddling one of the opening on the ladder. The second photo shows her after popping up into a good throwing position – shoulders, hips and knees aligned toward second, elbow pointed forward, knees still slightly bent.
She could now make an accurate throw blindfolded – and in fact has done just that. But that’s a story for another day.
If you have catchers who are having trouble getting lined up properly, give this technique a try. By the way, if you don’t have a speed ladder you can draw one in the dirt. If you’re indoors and don’t have dirt, use tape (with light adhesive), or sticks, or anything you can find to create two boxes for the feet.
And if you do try it, let me know how it goes in the comments below.
One of the best parts of my job as a fastpitch softball instructor – actually THE best part – is seeing them succeed. That’s why I was so excited and honored to watch as Taylor Danielson signed her National Letter of Intent to play softball at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy). Go Greyhounds!
I’ve written about Taylor a couple of times before, most recently just a couple of weeks ago. She is an amazing catcher who can frame and block with the best of them. She’s also very vocal, the types coaches love because she takes command on the field.
She’s a great hitter as well (as the post about the knee injury attests) and when she’s healthy she has 2.8 speed from home to first – a pretty rare skill for a catcher. It’s no wonder the UIndy coaches verballed her more than a year ago and are excited for her to come over.
Taylor is also a high quality human being. For all her talent on the field she is very humble off of it. I’ve never heard her say a mean word about anyone, even people who probably deserved it. She is kind and caring, and always has a smile on her face. She’s also very polite, which seems to be more and more rare in our me-first world. Definitely credit her parents Chris and Tracy for that.
I actually first met Taylor when she came to catch for a pitching and hitting student of mine named Kate Kiser – before Kate wound up going to volleyball full time. While she was catching I used to give her a tip here or there, which I tend to do with catchers. Something must have clicked, because her dad asked if I would give her full-time catching lessons. We also did hitting together, and Taylor was a sponge with both.
I couldn’t be happier that Taylor has this opportunity. UIndy is a high-quality program, and I’m sure Taylor will help them become even better. So Taylor, congratulations. I know you will continue to be awesome. Looking forward to catching a couple of games in your senior high school season, and at UIndy as well.
Earlier this year I blogged about a fantastic fastpitch pitching event held, of all places, in Southeastern Indiana. Put on by Rick Pauly, hosted by Indiana United Elite Fastpitch and Coach James Clark, and featuring an array of top-level pitching coaches, it was an incredible learning experience for players, parents and coaches alike.
Never one to be content to rest on his laurels, Coach James has outdone himself with the latest iteration. The 2017 clinic, again in Richmond, Indiana, has expanded in its scope to not only offer top-level pitching instruction but also clinics on hitting, catching, the short game/slapping and defense.
This year’s instructor lineup is impressive once again, with college coaches and former college and NPF players offering hands-on instruction. The nice thing about these clinics is they’re not like so many, where they show a big name who is the “face” but then have very little interaction. The faces you see on the flyer will all be actively participating in or leading the instruction.
Throughout the weekend there will be plenty of time for discussions and questions too. One of the highlights for me last time was many of the instructors gathered together in a room tossing around ideas and opinions until the wee hours of the morning – all part of an impromptu session that began with a simple question. Those little side conversations alone are worth the price of admission.
Coach James promises it will be bigger and better than ever, and I believe it! The clinic runs the weekend of January 6,7 and 8, 2017 – timed this time to both make sure it didn’t interfere with high school and college seasons and to give players time to lock down what they learn before tryouts begin for spring high school ball.
Click here to register, and here to schedule the sessions you want and to pay. Most sessions are $70 each and run an hour and 15 minutes. The exceptions are the recruiting discussion that costs $25, and the beginning and advanced pitching sessions with Rick and Sara Pauly which cost $150 and are scheduled for 3 hours, although last year Rick was having such a great time he ran a bit long on both sessions.
Download the flyer for complete information, and then be sure you sign up now. Slots are filling fast. I’m sure you’ll find it’s a great investment in your softball future.
Last Sunday I was doing another in a series of catching clinics for players ages 10-14. We had some pitchers come in so they could practice the skills they’d been working on all winter – receiving, framing, blocking, throwing down to second – while gaining experience on learning to recognize when to do which.
As it was going along, though, I noticed something – an unbelievable amount of silence. I called one group of catchers together and asked them “What’s the difference between softball and church?” The girls all stared blankly at me until finally the light bulb came on for one of them and she meekly said, “You’re supposed to be quiet in church?”
Exactly. While many positions on the field can get by with the silent treatment, catcher is not one of them. Catchers need to constantly be chattering for a variety of reasons.
One of the biggest is to make sure their pitchers stay confident. Pitching is a tough position mentally. Everything that happens on the field starts with a pitch. That puts a lot of pressure on pitchers to get it right.
As I often say, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside but it can be a dark and lonely place on the inside.
Support from the catcher can make it far less lonely. If the pitcher throws a strike, the catcher can tell her “good pitch” or “that’s my girl” or “you’re the one.” Any sort of positive reinforcement. If the pitcher misses, she can say “you’ve got this” or “c’mon just you and me” or something of the sort. Anything to help the pitcher stay up and focused.
It’s not just pitchers who can get help from catchers, though. High-enthusiasm, chattering catchers (Taylor Danielson, I’m thinking of you) can energize the entire team. The obvious responsibility is to make sure everyone knows how many outs there are and what the next play is.
But catchers can also provide encouragement to teams, help panicking teammates regain control and pick up a teammate who made an error. On the other side, they can also call out a player who is slacking or doesn’t have her head in the game.
One of my first catchers had those qualities. Her name was Katie Swanson, and she was definitely vocal. She could be positive, for sure, but she definitely didn’t hesitate to kick butt when necessary. No team was ever going to be low energy when she was behind the plate, and it was a definitely a difference-maker for our team.
For players like Katie, chattering comes naturally. For those who aren’t gifted with that ability it can be developed.
You may feel silly at first, but next time you’re at practice, or working with a pitcher, just start talking. Develop your own patter, things you like to say that come naturally out of your personality.
If you’re funny, use it. If you’re serious, use it. But like any other skill, you have to practice it. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it and the more naturally it will come. Before you know it you’ll have command of the field – and you’ll capture the attention not just of your teammates and coaches, but perhaps a college coach or two as well.
Now it’s your turn. If you’re a catcher, have you learned to be vocal on the field? If you’re a catcher’s parent or coach, how have you helped your catcher learn to speak up? Or have you?
Last Sunday I had the pleasure, nay, the privilege of working with one of my catching students – a girl named Taylor Danielson. Before I get into the specifics let me just say Taylor is a coach’s dream.
Not only is she incredibly athletic and talented, but she’s also one of the most coachable players you’d ever want to meet. You give her a good piece of advice that will help her and she’s all over it.
Taylor is also very self-aware of what she’s doing at all times. She may not always know the fix, but she definitely knows when something just ain’t right.
That was the case on Sunday. After addressing an issue she felt she was having with proper transfer of the ball on throws I asked her if she wanted to go over anything else. “Blocking.” she said. “I always want to work on blocking.”
Understand that blocking is already one of her strengths. You watch her do it and it’s pretty much textbook. She doesn’t try to catch the ball like most catchers. She makes sure she gets in the path of the ball and keeps it from getting behind her. Just one of the many reasons she’s already verballed to the University of Indianapolis.
I tossed a couple of balls at her and noticed something right away. When she went to block, especially side to side, she made a slight movement up before going down. That can be dangerous, especially with a pitcher throwing some heat. I mentioned it and she said she felt it too.
So I asked her to get ready again, and that’s when I spotted the problem. She had gotten into a habit of being more vertical than is desirable in her runners on base stance. Ideally, with runners on base your back is parallel to the ground and your butt and hips are up, close to even with your thighs. That way you don’t have to lift your center of gravity up to move.
But because she was sitting more upright she was having to lift her butt (and her body) before going down.
That was an easy fix. Once back into a proper stance she was once again pouncing on balls directly and quickly, like a cat on a catnip toy.
So if you have a catcher going up before going down give that a look. One simple change can make a world of difference.
People often use the phrase “it’s like riding a bike” To refer to how easy it is to pick up a skill again when you’ve been away from it for a while. When it comes to softball training, however, there’s another use.
Players will often get impatient with themselves when they don’t pick up a skill right away. Pitchers will be wild when trying a new pitch). Hitters will swing and miss while working on improving their swings, or hit a popup or soft dribbler. Catchers will go for a block only to have the ball go between their legs. Lots of different things can happen.
When they do, I will often ask if they can ride a bike. I have yet to run into one who can’t. I’ll ask them if they have to think about how to ride a bike. They always respond no.
Then I ask them if it was always that way. What happened when they first took off the training wheels? Usually mom or dad held onto the seat and ran behind them until they were ready to take a few tentative pedals on their own.
Eventually, though, they figured it out. And once they did, they probably never gave it much thought again.
The same goes for softball skills. At first they can be difficult, and require a lot of thought (as well as a lot of trial and error). The success rate may be fairly low. But the more they do it, and really go after it, the less they will have to think (or worry) about it.
It’s a thought that seems to resonate. They know there were scraped knees and elbows at first on the bike, but today the only remarkable thing would be if they fell off.
When players get frustrated, remind them of their experience riding a bike. It might help them get back on track.
How do you help players learn patience while they’re learning a new skill? Any tips or tricks you’ve found helps them understand?