Category Archives: Catching

Softball catchers need to chatter

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. Circle conference

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?

 

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Taking out the “jump up” when blocking

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.

Like Riding A Bike

Girl riding bike

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?

An inspirational story – one-armed softball player

We often talk about how difficult the sport of softball is to learn and play. It can take years for players to get the hang of the game, and coaches and parents frequently get frustrated when their players don’t “get it” right away.

And few positions demand more of a player than being a catcher – especially since one of the key ways to measure the effectiveness of a catcher is their ability to throw runners out when they’re trying to steal. It takes quick reactions, a strong arm, and a quick transfer of the ball from the glove to the free hand.

That’s what makes this video so inspirational. It’s about Jaide Bucher, a high school catcher from Denver, who does all of this while only having one hand – her left hand.

The good folks from Gatorade recently made one of her dreams come true when they arranged for her to fly to LA to meet her idol, former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott. Abbott played at the highest level of baseball (even pitching a no-hitter) while also only having one hand.

Give this inspirational video a look. It’ll give you a great idea of what determination and love for the sport can accomplish.

It’s fun to be impressed now and then

The other night I was doing a fastpitch softball pitching lesson with a girl named Kristi Gandy, a longtime student of mine and one of the pitching studettes in the area. Kristi is a high school senior who will be pitching at Lake Forest College next year, and will likely be spending lots of extra time playing in post-season tournaments with them.

For most of her lessons this year Kristi’s brother Jim has been enlisted to catch. (They have a reciprocity agreement, as she catches for his baseball pitching lessons too). But the other night, she had a new catcher, a girl named Amanda whom I’d met once before when she came out to observe one of our team practices.

Now, I have to admit that given what I do in my off-hours I tend to be pretty hyper-intensive about technique. I like things to be done a certain way, and while I don’t spend a lot of time with the catchers who come in to work with my pitching students I do notice what they do.

So it was a real pleasure to watch Amanda catch. Her stances were excellent, as was her glove work, her blocking, and just about anything else you’d care to observe. I was pleasantly impressed with her.

Afterwards I decided to let her know. I complimented her and asked her who her instructor was. She said it was Laura Matthews, one of the coaches at Lake Forest College, which is how she was hooked up with Kristi. Her hitting coach is Joe Kinsella, the head coach there, and one of his assistants works with her on catching.

I see a lot of bad technique taught by people who you think ought to know what they’re doing, so it’s nice to see excellent technique being taught now and then. What was most impressive was learning afterwards that Amanda is in 8th grade. Here she is, not even in high school, and doing a great job catching for one of the top pitchers in the area, and a senior to boot.

Can’t wait to see where she is as a player in four years!

First base a one-handed position

In the past I’ve written about catching as being a one-handed position. That idea also extends to playing first base.

The reason is the same. There’s a lot of reaching at first base. And it’s easier to reach farther when you’re only using one hand.

Sure, if the ball is coming right to your chest a two-handed catch is fine. But for nearly anything else — especially balls in the dirt — going with one hand makes far more sense. That’s the reason for the design of first basemans’ mitts. The ball is supposed to nestle itself in the pocket without the benefit of a second hand helping out.

If you’re a first baseman, or working with a first baseman, have her practice catching with one hand. And if you’re a coach of a team, for goodness’ sakes quit yelling at your first baseman to use two hands. She’ll snag a lot more balls with one, and you’ll win a lot more games.

Product review: A Coach’s Guide to Training Catchers DVD

Ok, I will admit I am a little behind the times on this one. A couple of years ago (at least I think it was a couple of years ago) I received a complementary copy of a video called A Coach’s Guide to Training Catchers from Dave Weaver, owner and head instructor of the New England Catching Camp.

I sat down to watch it then without realizing how long it was. I didn’t have enough time to complete it so I stopped it and set it aside, meaning to come back to it. But then life happened, and I didn’t get back to it. Until recently, that is. A change in my work schedule has me on a train three days a week, which gave me plenty of time to give it a look.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive resource for training catchers, this is it. The DVD is 2 hours and 40 minutes long (more on that later), and covers everything from stances to receiving the ball to blocking to fielding bunts to throwing out runners. It appears to be shot during one of Coach Weaver’s camps, so the kids demonstrating are not necessarily the “best of the best,” hand-picked athletes but instead regular players. Some of them may indeed be excellent catchers, but it doesn’t appear that the video was skewed toward it like so many are. Instead, their skills are the results of training, making what’s shown more relatable to the bulk of the people toward whom the video is aimed.  

I liked many of the techniques demonstrated by Coach Weaver. A good example is his take on displaying the ball for an umpire, aka framing the pitch. For many people, framing means catching the ball and then pulling it in toward the plate or making some other sort of move that is likely insulting to the umpire’s intelligence. Coach Weaver shows it as catching the part of the ball that’s furthest away from the plate, i.e. if the pitch is high, catch the top half of the ball.

The stances and blocking are pretty much the same as what I teach, so of course I like those as well. Catchers make their bones through their ability to block balls in the dirt, especially with a runner on third. All too often catchers want to “catch” those balls, which leads to disaster when the ball takes a bad hop and gets away. Coach Weaver shows how blocking the ball keeps it close, so runners (especially those on third) stay put. It takes some work to get catchers trained to let the ball hit their gear instead of trying to get it with their gloves, but it will definitely help you win a few more games.

One technique he advocates that I am not a fan of is having the throwing hand in a closed fist behind the glove with runners on base. His take is that it creates a faster transfer of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand. Honestly, I’m not convinced of that. And that comes from an ex-catcher who used to keep his throwing hand behind his glove at all times, because that’s how old I am. The Johnny Bench hand behind the shinguard didn’t come in until after I was pretty close to done. That being said, I wouldn’t stop a catcher from doing it if she’s comfortable. I’m just not sure it’s necessary. I’d need to see some hard numbers to convince me it’s the way to go.

The one thing I found as a negative to the video was it seemed a little ponderous to me. One of the reasons it runs 2 hours and 40 minutes is Coach Weaver has several kids, male and female, demonstrate the techniques. In a live setting it’s probably not a problem. On video it can feel like it’s taking forever. I actually found myself running it a 2X speed or more, which give Coach Weaver a bit of a chipmunk sound to his voice but speeds things along.

Here again, I will note that I’ve been teaching catchers for a while so a lot of the information wasn’t new to me. That may have colored my thinking as I watched it. If you’re coming at it new, all the repetition may be necessary so you can grasp the concepts. On the other hand, it’s video. If you need to see it again you can just run it back as many times as you want. A little judicious editing would be appealing in my book. Coach Weaver says he’s coming out with a new video soon, so perhaps he will incorporate that suggestion (which I have made to him directly).

It is definitely worth owning, though, especially at $39.99. Parents of young catchers, or coaches who understand the value a top-notch catcher can bring to their teams, will want to invest in this video. Catchers are the backbone of your team. Be sure that backbone is strong.

Throwing from your knees

Got an excited text tonight from a catcher (Lindsay) who played on the team I coached this summer. She wanted to let me know that she used a technique we worked on this summer and it worked — mostly, anyway.

The technique was a pickoff to third by dropping to her knees. It’s good to do on runners on third who are not paying attention, or who are looking to come home on a passed ball.

Essentially, you set up a little deeper behind the hitter than normal — just a foot or two, enough to clear a little extra room. The pitcher throws the pitch — something the catcher can grab easily, preferably to the inside on a right handed hitter — and the catcher receives it. Instead of throwing it back to the pitcher, or standing up, the catcher drops her left knee and throws as she “falls” to her left. The momentum of the knee dropping helps get a little something extra on the ball.

Here’s why it’s effective. When most catchers want to throw, they stand up, turn toward the base, and make a full throw. Everyone on the field can see it coming, and it gives the runner plenty of time to get back.

But when the catcher drops a knee and throws, the runner never sees it coming. The catcher is somewhat shielded by the hitter, and she doesn’t act the way the runner is expecting. All of a sudden here comes the ball and often it freezes and confuses the runner.

From what Lindsay said, that part of it worked like a charm. In fact, it worked so well it also caught the third baseman by surprise. (They hadn’t had a chance to practice it, so the timing wasn’t quite there.) She had little doubt it would work in the future.

Of course, it’s not for everyone. You need a catcher with a good arm, a quick release and the brains to know when the opportunity is there. But if you have a catcher like Lindsay, it’s a great play.

Catcher learns a lesson about tucking the chin

Sometimes when I am teaching pitching lessons, I also work with catchers. It’s not a paid thing, just a little something I enjoy doing.

One of those catchers is a young lady named Haley. We’ve worked on stances, framing, throws down to second, and of course blocking. We’ve talked a few times about getting into a good position, with the head forward and chin tucked in. She’s worked on it, but has had a tendency to lean back instead of forward when she drops to her knees. When that happens she tends to lift her head instead of tuck her chin.

Tonight she found out the hard way why it’s important to tuck the chin. The ball bounced up and hit her in the throat. Ouch!

It hurt, but she was fine and was able to continue. She told me afterwards she’s pretty sure she’ll remember to get that chin tucked from now on. Pain is a tough way to learn, but it’s a good teacher.

Catcher – a one-hand position

Lately I’ve been noticing an interesting phenomenon. For some reason, I’ve been seeing catchers trying to catch pitches with two hands. They start with their hand behind their back (also wrong) or behind their shinguard (correct position). Then as the pitch comes in, their throwing hand comes forward and they catch the ball with two hands.

That is not only poor technique, it’s dangerous to the catcher’s throwing hand. While we often stress two hands for catching in the field, catchers need to use one hand. There are a couple reasons for this.

One is foul tips. If the batter tips the ball it could deflect anywhere. If the throwing hand is coming up to help catch the ball, a foul tip can hit it. The result could be a jammed, sprained, or broken finger or thumb. None of those are very conducive to continuing to play.

The other is it it actually takes longer to throw the ball if the throwing hand is coming forward to help with the catch. In the field, using two hands helps both with securing the ball and making a quick transfer to throw. But at the catcher position, because the hand is starting behind the shin guard, you want to catch with one hand, then bring the glove (and ball) back to the throwing shoulder. The hand meets it there and the transfer is made.

So how do you get catchers to get in the habit of using just one hand? One way is to have them hook their thumb in the strap of their shinguards until after they make the catch while practicing. Then practice using one hand a lot.

It’s important for catchers to protect their throwing hands. Using one hand to catch will make that happen.

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