Category Archives: Fielding

To Track the Ball, Think Video Not Photo

Learn to see in video, not photo

While the ready availability of modern technology (think: screens) has given us many marvelous advantages, it has also created some issues. One of the most profound is our increasingly short attention span.

You see it all the time – especially us coaches as we try to explain something important to our players even as we watch their eyes glaze over or pay attention to everything but us after about a minute. (Still, we persist in talking for 10, 15, 20 minutes anyway, especially if we just lost a game.)

That’s bad enough, because of course we’re imparting not just tremendous softball instruction but also life wisdom. 🙂 But where this short attention span can really hurt players is in how they track the ball during the game.

Often it seems like player tend to view the ball (and make decisions) based on a point in time. It’s like their brains take a photograph of where the ball is at a particular moment, then their movements and reactions are based on what they see in that moment.

The problem, of course, is that one point in time doesn’t give us enough information about what will happen going forward. For example, a photo of a player diving for a ball doesn’t necessarily tell us whether she successfully made the catch or not.

Erin Yazel catch

The ball may be in her glove, but will it stay there?

What they need instead is to take more of a video approach, i.e., see the flight of the ball as a series of points moving through space. (For those who don’t know, video is made up of a series of individual photos that play rapidly in succession, creating the illusion of motion. You learned something today.)

This “photographic” approach to seeing where the ball is going hurts several areas. Take catchers, for example.

They see the ball is going down and will need to be blocked. But they don’t wait long enough to see the flight of the ball in space, they just react to wherever it is 10 feet in front of the pitcher.

So they drop to block, only to watch the ball careen past their right shoulders. A little more information and they could’ve centered their bodies on the flight of the ball. Instead, it gets by and a run scores.

Hitters also need that type of spatial information. In fact, they need to track the ball as long as they can to get a feel for whether it will be inside or outside, high or low, and whether it may have some movement to it. All of that information can have a huge impact on when they bring the bat to the ball as well as where they take it to.

If they just take a mental photo they’re unlikely to take the bat to where it needs to go unless they’ve been specifically trained to recognize the ball’s flight earlier. But by tracking the ball through space the way they would watch it come in on video, hitters can make the adjustments they need to achieve greater success.

This principle also applies to fielding ground balls and fly balls. Ground balls can take detours due to field conditions (rock, divots, a lost helmet) and fly balls can go all over the place due to spin and wind. Using a “mental photo” to judge where they’re headed, and then checking out, is a fast track to an error. Seeing the whole travel of the ball, including where it’s going, will be much more effective.

Yes, in our short attention span theater world it gets increasingly difficult for players to learn to focus for more than a few seconds at a time. But if they can learn to watch the video instead of looking at the photo, they’ll be a lot more successful.

Advertisements

A quick rundown on why you should regularly practice rundowns

Practicing rundowns can pay off on both sides of the ball

A few years ago, when I was still coaching teams, I heard through the grapevine that one of the parents was griping about how much we practiced rundowns. He was a “baseball guy,” and as such was of the belief that rundowns didn’t happen very often. He couldn’t figure out why we would spend so much time on them.

Forget about the fact that if he’s opened his eyes a little more he would’ve seen that in fastpitch softball, rundowns tend to happen a little more often. It’s a faster game than baseball, with shorter distances between bases (60 feet v 90 feet for those who don’t know) and a smaller field overall.

As a result, baserunning tends to be somewhat more aggressive, and runners (as well as coaches) are more likely to take chances. Especially if they’re not sure they’re going to have many opportunities to score.

But even if that wasn’t the case, there are a lot of other things your team can gain from practicing rundowns other than the specific skill of handling rundowns. Here are a few.

Precision

Rundowns occur over shorter distances overall, and they tend to squeeze in more as they go on. That means there isn’t a lot of room for error. Throwers learn to throw to a specific spot instead of a general direction, and receivers learn to focus intensely – especially when the throw may be coming from an odd angle because the thrower didn’t maintain a good line of sight.

Grace under pressure

This goes along with precision. Things happen quickly in a rundown, and they can go wrong very quickly. If you panic, you’re likely to pull the glove down early and miss a throw, or make a throw you don’t need to make, or hold the ball too long. Rundowns help players learn to handle pressure and stay focused on the task instead of the outcome. By the way, that goes for the person running too. Their job is to stay alive until the defense makes a mistake. Can’t do that if you’re in panic mode.

Communication and teamwork

The ideal rundown has zero throws: the ball gets ahead of the runner, and the fielder chases her down until she makes the tag. But that doesn’t happen too often, so fielders need to be able to communicate effectively to coordinate their efforts. I’m not a believer in the receiver calling “ball” and the thrower holding the ball until they hear that, but if one side isn’t doing their job the other side needs to be able to tell them. Or if the thrower is running with the runner between her and the receiver, blocking the line of site, one of them needs to tell the other to move over so she can see. Or think about a first-and-third situation, with a runner caught between first and second. The team needs to know how to communicate effectively if the runner on third starts heading for home, so the team can break off the rundown on the trail runner and get the lead runner. So much going on!

Conditioning and agility

Yeah, you could have your team line up on the baseline and run a bunch of sprints to build up their speed and recovery time. But why not have them practice rundowns instead? They can get the same level of conditioning – especially if you limit the number of runners who can sub in – and you don’t have to listen to all the complaining. Create a little competition with a prize at the end and they’ll practically kill themselves trying to win. They’ll also learn how to change directions quicker – a valuable skill in several aspects of the game.

It’s fun

When I was a kid, we used to call it “running bases.” Others call it “pickle,” and I’m sure there are other names. But the basic rundown was something we used to do for fun when there weren’t enough kids around or we didn’t have enough time to play a regular game. All you need is a couple of gloves, a ball, something to use for bases, and some space. Instead of treating it like a drill, treat it like a reward – something fun to do at the end of practice.

The beautiful thing is if your team gets really, really good at executing rundowns, they can generate more outs in the field. They’ll look for opportunities, and will be more confident in going after the lead runner in tag situations. On the offensive side, they’ll be more comfortable if they do wind up in one, helping you avoid some outs on the basepaths.

Don’t take rundowns for granted. Make them a regular part of your practice routine and watch the difference they make.

Now it’s your turn. How often do you practice rundowns? How good is your team at executing them? And if you played running bases/pickle as a kid, what did you call it?

What fastpitch softball coaches can learn from HGTV shows

Sometimes you have to take fastpitch softball players down to the studs.

As a fastpitch softball coach , when you’re looking for ways to improve your players, it’s likely you think of DVDs, YouTube videos, books, and sites like the Discuss Fastpitch Forum as your go-to resources. Yet there is another, kind of out-of-the-box option that might help you from a philosophical point of view: HGTV.

No, they haven’t suddenly started running fastpitch softball content there, although that would be nice. But what they do a lot of is shows such as Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop Atlanta that take an older, cramped-looking, out-of-date house and turn it into an amazing showplace home with giant, airy rooms, lots of sunlight and picture-perfect furnishings.

Of course any of you with kids (or who are players who are part of a family) know that about 10 minutes after the cameras leave the new owners are going to crap it up with all kinds of stuff that doesn’t fit the decorating theme laying everywhere. But for those few brief, shining moments it’s practically a palace.

What’s fun about those shows is seeing how they do it. Sometimes the house they finally pick (usually from two or three options) is just old and outdated. It has gold or avocado appliances, yellowing linoleum floors, a bunch of small rooms, a tiny kitchen, etc. Every now and then, though, they get the big challenge – a house where there is actual garbage (or worse) in every room, the siding is missing, the shingles are coming off, the ceiling is falling apart, and there are holes in the walls.

Whatever the current state of the house, that’s what they work with. Just like a fastpitch softball coach getting a player.

The first step, of course, is evaluating what needs to be done to get the house to its ultimate state. Sometimes that just means some tweaks here or there, such as tearing out a wall or two, adding a fresh coat of paint, and updating cabinets and fixtures in the kitchen and bathrooms. Of course, even their “tweaks” cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Other times, however, the only solution is to tear the house down to the studs and foundation, inside and out, and start over.

That’s what fastpitch softball coaches face too. Sometimes a player comes in with a pretty good swing, or decent throwing technique, or a good pitching motion, etc. and just needs a few tweaks to up their game.

Other times, it doesn’t take long to see that a swing looks like an unmade bed (unorganized, no particular sequence or purpose to the movements). Or the throwing technique makes you wonder how they get the ball anywhere at all. Or the pitching motion was learned at the bowling alley.

In cases like that, it’s not time to be shy. You just have to tear it down to the studs and start over.

Of course, just like on HGTV you first have to get buy-in from the owner – in this case from the player. On the house programs, they draw up plans on the computer and show the owners what they plan to do. As a coach you can also use a computer to show examples of high-level players  to demonstrate the swing/technique/motion you’re going for.

But you need to go beyond that as well. You need to paint the picture for them in their minds about what their softball life will be like once they make the fix. You also need to explain it’s not something they can master in a week or two.

The HGTV shows are compressed to fit into an hour, but really they’re like a Rocky training montage. A lot of people put in a lot of work to make the changes happen.

In the case of fastpitch softball players, only one person can really put in the work – the player. Can’t subcontract out drills or practice and expect any improvements to be made. Which is another reason the player needs to be on-board.

The climax of the HGTV shows is the Big Reveal – the point where they walk the owners through their new, way better than before home. Many happy tears are shed and high fives exchanged.

The Big Reveal for players is when they finally get back on the field, and suddenly things that were difficult or nerve-wracking become easy and relaxed. Hitters go to the plate with confidence, knowing they can take the pitcher deep. Fielders can make quick, sharp plays and throws because they’re not worried about whether they’ll catch it or where the ball will go. Pitchers can focus on dominating hitters rather than wondering where the ball will go or if it will do what it’s supposed to do.

Take your cue from HGTV. Figure out what your players need to make them showplace-worthy (or showcase-worthy I suppose) and put your plan together from there. If you do have to take one down to the studs, be kind. It will be worth it in the end.

Photo credit: chumlee10 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Defense can make a fastpitch pitcher look good – or bad

While it may same rather obvious on the surface, after watching the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) championship game on TV I thought it might be worthwhile to bring it up again. It, of course, being the effect defense has on making a fastpitch pitcher look good or bad.

(By the way, kudos to my hometown team, the Chicago Bandits, for taking the title for the second year in a row.)

Normally at the NPF level you expect to see a lot of dominant pitching. While the pitching was good in this game, I wouldn’t call it dominant. The definition of dominant being a lot of strikeouts or weak infield hits. Fastpitch defense can make a pitcher look good or bad

There were some of each, but there were also plenty of balls that got tagged pretty well; all three runs came off of solo home runs.

So in the absence of huge numbers of Ks, it becomes pretty obvious that the other 7 players who are not part of the battery had to step up to keep this a 2-1 game. If you watched the game you certainly saw that.

Which brings me to my point. The game ended 2-1, but the score could have easily been much higher were it not for some spectacular plays on both sides, both in the infield and outfield.

Those defenders made their pitchers look awfully good. And that’s ok, because I really believe the pitcher’s job isn’t to strike everyone out. That’s just fortunate when it happens. Instead, a pitcher’s job is to induce weak contacts that are easy to field.

In other words, the perfect inning isn’t 9 pitches for three Ks. It’s 3 pitches, all easy popups to 1st base so the first baseman can just pick up the ball and step on the bag if she drops it.

So contrast that defensive performance with others I’ve seen or heard about over the years, where the pitcher does her job. But instead of weak grounders or popups resulting in outs, they result in runners on base because of errors or lack of effort on the fielders’ part.

And what happens after a few of those? The coach calls time, heads out to the circle, and replaces the pitcher (who hasn’t made an error yet). It’s clearly not the pitcher’s fault, but I guess it’s easier to replace one pitcher than four defensive players.

So in the stats as well as in live action the pitcher ends up looking bad. Especially if those errors get marked as hits. (Anyone ever seen a box score that showed one error when you know there were at least 6? I sure have, especially in high school games.)

The thing is, having a porous defense doesn’t just have a short-term effect on the team, i.e., losing a game or a tournament. It also has a long-term effect. Because good pitchers don’t want to look bad, or have to work overtime every game to get three outs. So what happens? Good pitchers will leave, and tell other good pitchers why. Then it gets tough to get good pitchers, so the team has to settle for lesser pitchers, who give up more contacts that turn into even more baserunners. Then you’re in the death spiral.

Here’s another way to think of it. What coach would sign up for a tournament where the rules stated certain teams would be given 6 offensive outs per inning while theirs only got 3? You’d have to be crazy to agree to that. But that’s what happens when the team can’t play good defense behind their pitcher. And that makes it tough to win.

So while it’s easy to blame the pitcher, or give too much credit for that matter, the reality is the better your defense is the better your pitching will look. Just ask the world champion Bandits.

Softball skills are analog, not digital

stereo-1221157_1920

All of the players, and probably most of the parents by now, are too young to remember when radio dials were analog. Getting your favorite station tuned in was an art. You’d move the dial quickly to get it close, then move it very slowly until it sounded just right. Better radios also had a “fine tuning” knob that let you make smaller adjustments.

Where it really compares to softball is that once you had the station tuned in perfectly, there was no guarantee it would stay tuned in. The analog signal could “drift” a bit, at which point you’d have to re-tune it in. As compared to today’s digital radios where you set the correct numbers and they radio does all the work to lock it in and keep it locked in.

That’s why I say softball skills are analog. It would be nice if they were digital – you tune them in and they stay with you automatically. But the reality is your technique can slip just a bit, especially during the long season when there may not be time to practice and hone things as much as you’d like. You get off a bit, you start to worry and guess at corrections, and before you know it you’re further off than before. Soon it’s nothing but static.

That’s where a little in-season correction can help. Whether you do it yourself or go to see your coach for that particular skill, taking a little time to re-tune the skills can make a huge difference.

The value of using a private coach is he/she can take a look from the outside and compare what you’re doing to what you ought to be doing. It’s a little faster and easier than trying to diagnose it yourself. But the key is that comparison.

If you’re trying to do it on your own, don’t think about what you’re doing. Think about what you should be doing, and try to get back to that. Find the sweet spot on the “dial” and tune your skills to that. Before you know it you’ll be back on track.

Again, it would be nice if softball skills were digital. But they’re not. Everyone needs a little fine tuning now and then. Understand that they’re analog and make adjustments accordingly. You’ll have a much happier season.

Dailies: softball improvement comes little by little

For some of you softball veterans this may be old hat. But for the rest, I want to tell you about a routine called “dailies” that can make a huge improvement in your fielding.

Basically, dailies consist of short hop practice. There are different variations, but the routine we used this past summer consisted of 10-20 short hops right in front, then 10-20 to the forehand side and 10-20 to the backhand side.



The purpose is to work on your glove skills. You can do them on one or two knees, or from a standing (but low) position. I’ll talk about the mechanics a little more in a moment.

As the name implies, you do these exercises daily. With my team this past summer, we would do them at the start of every practice, and thanks to my assistant coaches they became part of our routine before every game.

What was interesting is it wasn’t necessarily the coaches who said the girls got better. The players themselves felt like their skills had improved. Not with the first or second time, but as a result of doing them over and over. They felt more confident fielding balls on the ground, and were more sure-handed as a result. Doesn’t mean we never made any errors. But we made very few on ground balls.

Ok, now for a little more on the mechanics. Dailies are something you do with a partner. Have the partners set up about 10 feet apart facing each other. We always started with straight-in balls. Most of the time the players were kneeling facing each other, although they can also do it from a fielding position on their feet.

The partner with the ball throws it to the partner across from her, making the ball bounce about a foot or so in front of her. The fielding partner reaches out to get the ball, and attempts to catch the bottom. This is as opposed to catching the back of the ball and giving with it. Reaching out to catch the bottom of the ball right after it bounces allows the player to play the ball instead of the other way around.

After completing the ones straight in, the partners turn with their throwing side knee down. They can either be to the forehand or backhand side first. Assuming both partners throw with the same hand, have them line up with their glove-side feet across from each other. In other words, if both are right-handed, they should line up their left feet across from each other. They then bounce the ball to the outside of their partner’s foot.

Something to emphasize on the forehand and backhand work is to use one hand, not two. When you’re reaching for a ball, you can reach farther by extending your glove hand and keeping your throwing hand back.

Dailies take a little time during practice – I usually allowed 10 minutes – but they’re worth it. Incorporate them into your routine, and emphasize quality repetitions, and watch your fielding improve.

Now I want to hear from you. Have your tried dailies? If so did you get the same results? And if any of my coaches are reading this, please share your impressions of them!

Device to help fastpitch infielders learn to have soft, quiet hands

We often hear that fastpitch softball infielders should have soft and quiet hands when fielding ground balls. But sometimes they build habits that make it difficult to make to keep their hands soft and quiet.

That was the case for one of my infielders. Somewhere along the way she’d picked up a habit I’ve seen in a number of players. As the ball came to her, she would raise her throwing hand up and then make a slapping motion down toward her glove to finish fielding the ball. Only it seemed like every time she did that it became distracted by the extraneous motion, and often she’d have trouble actually securing the ball.

The result was more errors than a player of her caliber should be making. Balls would hit her glove and end up on the ground – or sometimes would take a little hop and end up getting past her. Not all the time, but enough to be of concern.

That was the problem. We tried explaining what she was doing and showing it to her, but she wasn’t able  to feel it when it happened. That’s when I came up with a solution.

The solution

What she needed was something that would keep her hands in close proximity while fielding, Fastpitch softball fielding handcuffsand give her instant feedback when she started pulling them apart to slap the glove. After improvising something on the spot to start her, I made a little trip to Ace Hardware and created the device you see here for just under $20.

It’s made with a couple of Velcro straps that have a D-ring on them held together with some latext tubing. Honestly, I couldn’t believe I found the perfect straps just off the shelf – I was sure I would have to build straps with the attachment rings on them. But they’re stock items, and even come in two lengths so you can adjust for players with larger wrists.


The results

My player has been using the “handcuffs” for a few weeks now on both rolled and batted balls, and the improvement has been noticeable. It didn’t take long to have an effect either; we played a double header a week after I made them and she went error-free with softer hands.

She’s continuing to use them as she doesn’t think she’s quite past the glove slapping just yet. But when I talked to her about the handcuffs today she said they definitely helped, because she can feel when her hands start separating too far. She likes the tubing because it provides just enough “tug” to help her feel the problem, acting as a reminder without being so restrictive that it becomes a crutch.

So if you have a player with the issue, take a trip to the hardware store. You may be just as pleased at the results it produces.

Glove angle and pop-ups

Somewhere along the way at a fastpitch softball clinic I remember hearing a college coach saying that the proper way to catch a pop-up (or fly ball for that matter) is with the fingers pointing straight up. This is another one of those mysteries that seem to come up in our sport.

Why would anyone in their right mind want to do that? I’m here to tell you that’s bad advice.

This past summer we had a few girls who apparently had been taught that way. Of course, we kept dropping easy pop-up after easy pop-up. I had told and shown our girls a better technique, but old habits are hard to break. Not impossible, however.

After another loss due to a couple of easy drops, we spent a good part of practice working on a small but important change. Instead of holding the fingers straight up, turn the glove to the side and put the palm up. That creates a basket that the ball falls into naturally.

Of course, there was more to it than just practicing. I made it very clear that I no longer wanted to see the fingers up, and if another error was made using that technique there would be serious consequences.

The good news is there were no more drops the rest of the season. Every pop-up was fielded cleanly and we got the outs we were supposed to get.

Little things often make a big difference. Turn the glove sideways and palm up for those pop-ups and you’ll put an end to the drops.

Great softball defensive game/challenge

First of all let me state that this training game for fastpitch softball wasn’t my idea. I got it at a clinic a few years ago.

The game is called 21 outs. It’s pretty simple. You put your team on the field, at least one person per position. Then you start hitting the ball to different locations. The object is to get 21 outs in a row. If someone makes an error, either fielding or throwing, the count gets re-set to zero and you start over.

You can do it with or without runners, depending on how many players you have. Because I have my kids play at least two positions, I will have them switch positions after seven outs. (You can also do that to give your subs an opportunity to participate.)

The other rule I put in is when the ball comes back to the plate for the next play, even though the play is dead, it has to be a good throw. Otherwise we go back to zero again.

One of the fun aspects of this game is that the coach “mis-hit” makes it more realistic. Say you’re trying to hit a fly ball and you just dink a spinner off the end of the bat. They still have to read, react and get the out.

The final rule is that the ball has to be “getable.” If I hit a clean shot in the gap that could never have been fielded, it’s a neutral. On the other hand, if it’s a clean single to the outfield and the ball gets behind the outfielder, it’s an error and we start over.

As a coach you can make the game as challenging as you want. You can vary the types of hits, how hard they’re hit, etc. You can also say things such as “only two more to go” to add a little extra pressure.

Just make sure you allow enough time. You may think it would be easy, but it can be tough to get 21 outs in a row.

Softball practice game

Tonight for our last practice before our next fastpitch softball tournament we decided to do something a little different. After warmups and throwing we played a game that worked on both defense and hand-eye coordination for hitters. It also exposed the girls to a skill most of them rarely practice.

We divided the team up into four groups of three players each. Nine went onto the field, and the other three were up to bat. But instead of live pitching — which pitchers often have trouble doing with their own team — we had the girls fungo the ball instead. (For those who don’t know the term, fungoing is throwing the ball up and hitting it yourself.)

The overall objective was to introduce some unpredictability into the game for the defense. Although the girls struggled with fungoing at first, as they got the hang of it they started looking for holes and placing the ball. That made it tougher on the defense, challenging them, because unlike coaches hitting balls they really didn’t know where it was going to go.

If the hitters got on base they continued as baserunners. That automatically set up situations for the defense to handle, and put pressure on them to perform. About the only thing we couldn’t work on were steals since the hitter controlled the ball. We kept score, and three outs brought in the next team of three.

Why not go with live pitching? We’ve done that before. But it takes longer and less action occurs. In addition, it’s tougher to move the ball around the field. Fungoing keeps the game moving, creating more situations for the defense to handle and more opportunities for the offense.

If you’re looking for a way to spice up practice, get some quality work in, and introduce some competition give the fungo game a try.

Now it’s your turn. How do you get some competition going in practice?

%d bloggers like this: