Category Archives: Fielding

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?

An exercise in communications

One of the challenges many teams face is getting players to communicate on the field. I saw it happen in a high school game yesterday. A throw came from right field to the second baseman, and she had no clue where to go with the ball. She turned toward third to make a throw, saw it wasn’t there, and then tried to throw to second from an off-balance position. Needless to say it didn’t work out too well, and a run scored and the runner on second advanced.

That’s not unusual. I’ve seen it happen on teams I’ve coached too. So today at practice we did a little experiment that I got from John Tschida at the University of St. Thomas. We sent the girls out into positions with one instruction: absolutely no talking. We then had a couple of coaches act as baserunner while I hit balls into the field.

The girls didn’t like it at all. It was very difficult to know where to make the play and there was a lot of confusion. After about 10 minutes we called them together and talked about it, then sent them back on the field while removing the “no talking” restriction.

It really made the point. We had a lot more talk — not all of it correct, but most of it — and they started making more plays successfully.

If a lack of communication is an issue you face, give this one a try. It probably won’t be a problem for long.

Face masks at the college level

Now that I have a more comprehensive sports package I have to admit I’ve been watching a lot more softball on TV. One thing I’ve noticed is the lack of face masks at the college level.

I’m surprised, really. Face masks have become very popular at the lower levels over the last few years. In fact, it’s more odd to see a player, especially a pitcher, without a face mask than with one these days. Even middle infielders and outfielders who probably don’t really need them are wearing them.

But in college, where the ball has the fastest exit speed and the players spend the most time in the weight room, you’re hard pressed to find a mask on the field. In fact, I can’t think of a single one.

Maybe this will be like the masks on batting helmets. A few years ago you never saw one. Now they’re more common.

Still, you have to wonder why you’re not seeing any. Is it that the culture is still too “macho” to allow it, i.e. peer pressure? Do the coaches discourage it?

The other thing I wonder is if when the current 12U and 14U players who have used masks their whole careers reach college, will they wear them, or will they stop?

What do you think? Why aren’t the current college players wearing them, and will the next generation do it?

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.

Use an air horn to add a little pressure

One of the continuing challenges in a fastpitch softball practice is simulating game pressure. You can tell your players about the need to execute quickly, and yell at them to speed up. You can even try using some of your players as baserunners to put it into context. But unless they have blazing speed, they may not create the type of gamelike pressure you need to make the point.

We often have players execute against a stopwatch, telling them the goal is to execute in three seconds or less from the time the ball hits the bat until the time it hits the fielder’s glove and calling out their actual times. Today we decided to up the ante.

We added an air horn to the mix. The stopwatch starts when the bat hits the ball. When you get to three seconds (or whatever target you’re going for) you sound the air horn. Players get immediate audible feedback that’s pretty annoying, pressuring them to field the ball and make the throw before the horn sounds.

We used a small horn today. One of the advantages is that it sets a limit on the drill. When you run out of juice to power the horn, the drill is done.

It’s pretty effective, and fun — especially for the person with the horn. Give it a try!

A drill to work on tosses

Well, it’s snowing like crazy here in Illinois, so teams won’t be moving outside anytime soon. That can be a drag for players. There’s a lot you can do in a gym, but it’s not quite the same. And coaches often run out of ideas after awhile, so they do the same things week after week, leading to even more player boredom.

I know. I’ve been that guy running that practice. Which is why I came up with the drill I’m about to describe. It’s good for working on multiple skills at once, including fielding ground balls, backhand tosses, forehand tosses, regular throws and catches.

Here’s the setup. You need three fielders across in a line, plus a coach and someone to catch – preferably another player.

Fielder 1                            Fielder 2                             Fielder 3

                                     Coach   Catcher

The coach hits a ground ball to Fielder 2. She does a backhand toss to Fielder 1, who then throws the ball home to the Catcher. The Coach hits another ground ball to Fielder 2, who fields it and does a forehand toss to Fielder 3, including following the throw. Fielder 3 throws to the Catcher, and follows the throw home, becoming the Catcher. The Catcher catches the ball, hands it off and goes to Fielder 1’s position. Fielder 1 moves to Fielder 2.

In addition to working on a variety of techniques, if you do the drill quickly it also provides some good conditioning and practice performing under pressure. For more advanced players add a second ball so you can hit one ball as soon as the other is tossed to Fielder 1 or 3. To really step up the pressure and get the competitive juices flowing, do it against a stopwatch with a prize for the foursome who goes all the way around quickest.

Getting into ground ball position

Watch the typical youth player working on fielding ground balls. More often than not, what you’ll see is a bend at the waist, with the arms hanging down like an orangutan and the ball being fielded at the feet.

There are any number of reasons for this poor technique. One is actually some of the coaching we do. We tell our fielders to get their gloves on the ground. So they follow those directions, taking the shortest distance between two points — a straight line. And that straight line is directly below her belt.

What we need to do instead is tell them to lower their hips. When their hips are lowered the glove will also get onto the ground, but a little more forward, forming the point of a triangle. (The feet are the base of the triangle.) Lowering the hips also allows the head to stay up so fielders can watch the ball all the way in — as opposed to bending at the waist, which causes the head to point down.

Try it. Get in the athletic position with the hands in front, then move down by lowering the hips. You’ll be in a much better position to both see and field the ball. And the nice thing is it’s a very specific instruction.

Choosing a glove

Sorry y’all, I’ve been a bit busy lately and have not been keeping Life in the Fastpitch Lane freshened up with new material. Guess that’s what happens when your day job expects you to actually be working at work. And your lesson schedule starts going crazy.

In any case, I was talking with my friend Frank Morelli a couple of weeks ago and he suggested I put up a post on how to select a new softball glove. I’ve done some stuff with bats in the past, but haven’t really addressed gloves. That’s interesting since you’ll probably keep your glove a lot longer than any particular bat, so you want to make a good choice. Thanks for the suggestion, Frank. Here we go.

Gloves tend to be items of individual preference. Just like bats, there’s no right one for everyone. Unlike bats, though, there’s not really a way of measuring which is better for you. In other words, if you’re a power hitter going for the long ball, you’ll probably like a RocketTech, whereas if you’re smaller and looking for singles a different bat might work better for you. There are some general rules regarding length and weight, which means there are some ways of narrowing down the choices, at least.

With gloves, not so much. So again, it’s a matter of preference. But here are some things to consider in any case.

First, if you’re a female player (or buying for one), get a glove (or mitt) designed for fastpitch softball. Cousin Billy’s old baseball glove, while it may be free, is probably not going to work for you. Fastpitch gloves are now designed for female hands, which means they have smaller finger stalls so they fit better. A lot of the manufacturers, realizing girls generally don’t have the same hand strength as boys, are using materials and designs that break in a little easier. Akadema, for instance, has only three finger stalls instead of the usual four. For years players have been stuffing their ring and little finger in the last finger stall to help the glove close easier. Akadema designed their glove that way to make it automatic, and to help out everyone who didn’t know that trick.

Glove size is another important consideration. Young kids will small hands playing with an 11″ ball can get away with an 11.5″ glove. My youngest daughter Kimmie had an 11.5 inch Mizuno at 10U that she absolutely loved. She would still be using it to this day if I’d let her. The look on her face when we told her she had to give it up was “You’ll get this glove when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.” But it was too small for a 12 inch ball — especially since her positions are pitcher and outfield. An infielder might be able to get away with a glove that small, but probably shouldn’t. When you go to a 12 inch ball, I’d say go at least 12.5 inches on the glove size. That’s good for infielders (who need a quick transfer) and players with small hands. Pitchers and outfielders are better off with a 12.75 or 13 inch glove, which is a bit more forgiving. It’s not absolute, though. Kimmie uses a 12.5 inch and does just fine with it.

There’s also something to the design. Outfielders will tend to use open webbing, whereas infielders and pitchers used closed or checkerboard webbing. You want closed webbing for pitchers so hitters and base coaches can’t see the grip through the glove. Not that most really look that much, but that’s the rule of thumb.

Then there are the different brands. A lot depends on the model and the materials used, but you can find some general tendencies. Growing up, I was always partial to Wilson gloves. They broke in quickly and lasted a long time with a little care. As an adult I found that Mizunos were very similar to the Wilsons in terms of quick break-in and quality. Lately I’ve been recommending Akadema gloves, partially because they made me a distributor for some reason. But mostly because every kid I’ve gotten one for has loved it — including my own Kimmie. Again, fast break-in, the ball secures easily, and it’s easy to care for. It’s the glove I use now, although a baseball model since the little finger stalls of a fastpitch glove don’t work with my fat fingers. I’ve heard Nokonas are nice too, but pretty expensive. I have no personal experience with them, although if a Nokona rep wants to send me one I’d be happy to try it out.

About the only brand I’ve never liked has been Rawlings. Those gloves always seemed stiff no matter what you do to break them in. Maybe they’re better now, but the ones I tried I didn’t like. Sort of like the difference between the old, stiff denim jeans and the ones they make now.

For the materials, you want genuine leather. The synthetic materails are easy to mass produce and durable, but they don’t have the same feel to them. Sure they may be cheaper, but they won’t yield the same results. If you buy your kid a synthetic glove don’t complain when she’s making errors.

Does it matter if you have a mitt or glove to play first base or catcher? Depends on who you talk to, but I say yes. If you’re committed to one of those positions, a mitt designed for it can help. A first baseman’s mitt is a little longer, helping you reach those high throws while keeping your foot on the bag. It also makes it a little easier to scoop and secure low throws. A catcher’s mitt generally has extra padding, and a rounded pattern that makes it easier catch fast-spinning pitches and frame the balls when you catch them. It’s definitely worth the investment in my opinion.

Speaking of patterns, that’s another quirk of gloves and mitts. They’re not all the same. The pocket and overall design of the gloves and mitts are different, depending on what you need. One of the hot new designs for infielders is a flared glove, i.e. one that is wider at the fingers than at the pocket. It creates a sort of funnel to secure the ball. I have no personal experience with it, but a lot of people seem to like it.

Most manufacturers will provided details on design and a guide as to which glove works best for a given position. Read several Web sites to get an overall view.

The last word of caution is yes, you get what you pay for. But at the same time, there can be a point of diminishing returns, just as there is with bats. Choose a glove that’s appropriate for the level you play. A 10U player at any level does not need a $200 glove. If you’re basically playing a dozen games a year in the local park district league you don’t need one either. If you’re a serious player, though, a quality glove can give you an edge over an old beat-up one.

Hope that helps!

Learning to catch with two hands

One of the most common refrains you’ll hear from coaches in practice is “two hands,” i.e. use two hands to catch the ball. While there are some cases where you really don’t want two hands — catching and some first base come to mind — generally speaking that’s good advice.

Yet getting players into the habit of catching with two hands takes more than just yelling “two hands” every time they don’t. Here’s one of my favorite drills for forcing the issue.

Have your players play catch using the back of the glove instead of the pocket to catch. When they do that, they’ll either have to use two hands or the ball will fall to the ground. They’ll get the picture very quickly.

This drill is also good for teaching soft hands; if the player makes a stabbing motion they’re likely to push the ball away before they can clamp down on it.

Remember that you’re not using two hands just because it’s more secure for catching. It also makes it easier to make a quick throw since the hand is already on the ball, instead of fumbling for it afterwards.

Tag ’em low

This is one of those little things that can make a huge difference in a game. It’s the sort of thing every fielder should know, but many either don’t know it or forget about it.

When you’re making a tag, always try to apply it low, down near the feet. You’re far more likely to get the call. From an umpire’s point of view, a high tag (around the head or shoulders of a sliding baserunner) often implies that the runner slid under the tag. Now, that may not be true — the player may have applied the tag before the runner reached base — but it doesn’t matter. That’s what the umpire will see.

If you apply the tag around the feet or ankles, however, the appearance is you got the runner before she got to the bag, and she’s out.

Wherever possible, apply a low tag. And don’t forget to sell it at the end. Hold the ball and glove up high, show it to the umpire to say “see, I got her!”

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