Category Archives: General Thoughts

Product Review: Queen of the Hill Helps Fastpitch Pitchers Improve Leg Drive

QotH side view

Leg drive for fastpitch pitchers often falls into that category of “I know it when I see it.” But explaining how to get it if it doesn’t come naturally to a pitcher is a whole other challenge.

That’s where a new product called the Queen of the Hill (QotH) from Ground Force Sports can be – shall I say it? – a game changer. Instead of explaining to pitchers that they need to push off harder from the pitching rubber, the QotH lets them experience whether they are doing it or not – not just with their sense of feel, but with sound.

The product itself is pretty simple on the surface. It consists of a base plate, plus a spring-loaded top plate that has pitching rubber attached to it. The front of the pitching rubber QotH top viewhas a 45 degree angle to it, which right away encourages pitchers to get into a better drive position before they ever throw a pitch. (Leaving your foot flat on the ground is no way to achieve a powerful leg drive.)

To use it you can lay the QotH on the flat ground, or place it in front of the pitching rubber on an indoor mat or field. Then, using the included Allen wrench that is held on the back of the rubber, you set the tension level on the QotH.

NOTE: The Allen wrench is designed to be held very securely after you insert it into the hole in the back of the rubber. That’s a good thing for transport, so you don’t lose it, but not so good if you’re in the middle of a pitching session and you want to make a quick change of tension. After my first time using it in lessons I discovered the best approach is to stick it in your pocket after the first use, then return it to the holder when you’re completely done with it.

The tension spring has a handy scale from 0 to 8 so you can set the proper level at the qoth-gauge.jpgbeginning, and then increase the tension to keep it challenging as the pitcher gets better. It only takes a few seconds to increase the tension. If your pitcher gets so powerful that even the highest tension level is too easy, there’s a second heavier-duty spring that you can use to keep it challenging. These guys have thought of everything!

Once the QotH is set up the fun begins. Make sure the pitcher places the sole of her foot against the angled surface on the front of the pitching rubber. She then goes through her normal windup and throws a pitch.

If she uses her legs to explode with a powerful push-off, you’ll hear a “click-click” as the top plate slides back then comes forward again. If she just throws her stride leg forward without getting a good push, you’ll hear nothing.

And that’s the beauty of the QotH. The pitcher doesn’t just feel the movement of the top plate – she can hear whether she was successful.

That audible cue tells her (and everyone else) right away if she got into her legs or not. If not, she knows she needs to work harder, helping her build the good habits that will result in better drive mechanics.

Of course, you also must be sure to set the level properly. Asking a 70-lb. 10 year old to make the QotH click at Level 8 is unrealistic, no matter how hard she tries.

What I have found works is to set the level light in the beginning, in the 2-4 range depending on the age and size of the pitcher, then work your way up from there. The tension should be set so the pitcher can get the “click-click” with strong effort, but not with anything less than that. When she is getting a “click-click” every time, it’s time to increase the tension level. I usually move it up by one number, so say from 5 to 6.

The product itself appears to be very solid and well-built, so it should last a long time. It’s very heavy – I believe it weighs about 25 lbs. – which is good, because that means a strong pitcher won’t be pushing it backward as she drives out. But it can be a shock if someone tries to pick it up without realizing how much effort it takes.

My only quibble with the design is with the carrying handle. The inside part has very square edges that make it a bit painful to carry, especially over a longer distance. I’m sure a little duct tape would take care of it, but it would be nice if those edges were rounded out a bit more.

So far, the reaction from the pitchers I’ve tried it with has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the first, a high school pitcher named Allison, smiled and said “I want one!” after just a few pitches. She could feel the extra launch she was getting right away – almost as if the spring was pushing her out (which it wasn’t).

Other pitching students who have tried it, whether they are 10 or 18, both said they liked it and that they could feel the difference. I also know a couple of dads who have either purchased it or are in the process of considering it.

I haven’t seen any quick speed jumps just yet, but I know others have reported gains of 1 to 3 mph after just a few sessions. I think those gains will come as the pitchers get used to the timing, and get used to getting into their legs more.

So how much does all this wonderfulness cost? It’s not cheap. The Ground Force Sports website has it listed at $329, although if you type in the coupon code Coach James (a friend of mine who is the one who originally told me about it) you can save $25.

But look at it this way. How much do you spend on a bat that may last a season, or two if you’re lucky? The benefits from the QotH will last throughout a pitcher’s career – and may even help prolong that career by helping her continue to play in college.

One last story about it. A couple of weeks ago I brought it to a pitching clinic where I was working with a few 10U pitchers. I used it to help them get the feel of driving instead of stepping.

When I was done, one of the young male instructors from the facility approached me and said he’d been using the baseball version (King of the Hill) with his pitchers and that it had done a lot to reveal to them just how little they were using their legs.

We chatted about it for a few minutes. Then it occurred to me: Using the QotH kind of puts you in an exclusive, “in-the-know” club. So on top of everything else there’s that benefit if you’re interested.

Overall, I’m not much of a gadget guy. I see a lot of stuff out there that just makes me shake my head and ask “why?”

But if you want to help fastpitch softball pitchers learn to use their legs powerfully and efficiently, the Queen of the Hill is definitely worth the investment. Can’t wait ’til that first pitcher needs the other spring!

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Eating the Elephant

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A question I will often pose to my fastpitch softball students is “How do you eat an elephant?” Regardless of age, the first time they hear it they tend to look at me as if I have completely lost my mind.

The correct answer, of course, is “One bite at a time.”* That’s a critical lesson for anyone trying to learn a new skill, or even make improvements to existing skills.

What it means in realistic terms is you don’t have to learn (or master) the skill all in one big gulp. You’re far more likely to have success (and far less likely to give up too soon) if you give yourself permission to learn whatever you’re trying to learn a little bit at a time.

This is particularly true of complex skills such as hitting and pitching that have a lot of moving parts. Trying to learn all the mechanics (or fix all the problems) at once is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Our brains simply don’t function that way.

But breaking the skill into smaller components,  prioritizing them so you know what to work on first, and then focusing on each of those areas in order will enable you to create a progression where success builds on success.

For example, when I’m working with a new pitching student I like to use a technique called “backward chaining.” That’s a more sophisticated way of saying you start at the end of the skill and work your way backwards, because if you don’t get the end right nothing else you’ve done up until then matters.

So for pitchers we’ll work on starting the ball overhead, palm facing the catcher, bringing the upper arm down until it contacts the ribcage, and pulling the ball through into the release zone so the lower arm whips and the wrist snaps itself. (That’s a simplified version of what goes on and what I look for, but will suffice for now.)

Most young pitchers will tend to want to bring the entire arm through at once, get behind the ball too early, and push it through the release zone. Heck, some have even been taught to turn the ball backwards and push it down the back side of the circle, which is definitely what you don’t want to do.

So it takes a bit for them to learn to relax and let the arm work in two pieces. That’s why we focus on helping them get that feel, because it will serve them well as they get into the full pitch.

But if we tried to do that, plus get a proper launch, plus worry about getting into the right position at each point during the motion, etc. the odds are they wouldn’t learn anything. Especially how to whip the ball through.

The other element that enters this discussion, of course, is the impatience of players themselves. It’s understandable.

They are growing up in a world where they have instant access to everything – information (via smartphones and the Internet), food (microwave and fast food meals), transportation (no need to walk, we’ll drive you!) and so forth. The idea of having to wait for something they want is often foreign to them.

So, they try to eat the elephant like a python – unhinge the jaw and try to swallow it whole.

Again, it doesn’t work that way. As a result, realistic expectations have to be set.

They have to understand that doing this drill or taking a couple of lessons here and there won’t turn them into instant superstars who are mechanically perfect. Progress will come incrementally. Sometimes in increments so small it’s hard to tell it’s being made.

But if they keep working at it, the cumulative effect will take hold and eventually that big ol’ elephant will be gone.

The lesson for coaches (and parents) is don’t try to fix everything at once. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work.

Focus on one thing at a time, adding each new piece to what you’ve already done, and you’ll save a lot of heartache for you and the player.

For players, the lesson is to be patient and, as Bobby Simpson says, get a little better each day. Remember if you want to walk a mile you just need to start putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually you’ll get there.

So grab a fork and dig in! The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll reach your goals.

*Please don’t leave me nasty comments. I am not advocating eating, or causing any other harm to, actual elephants. They are beautiful, magnificent creatures. It’s simply a metaphor.

The Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

There's more to playing than measurables

While I was tooling around on the Internet I came across this video that I thought was worth sharing. While again it isn’t specific to fastpitch softball (second week in a row, I know) it tells a great story – and one that is particularly timely these days.

Thanks to the ready access to all sorts of measurement devices, our sport is becoming increasingly obsessed with numbers. I get why that is; in theory, having objective measurements of throwing speeds, ball exit speeds, spin rates, grip strength and a lot of other parameters make it easy to compare one player to another.

Basing decisions on the numbers feels “safe.” You take all the personal opinions and favoritism out of it, and just evaluate everyone on the basis of the numbers they produce as measured by the machines.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. There’s also something to be said for having game sense. For example, player A has a home-to-first time of 2.7 seconds, while player B has a home-to-first time of 3.1 seconds.

The natural conclusion? Player A is more desirable, because her speed will make her the better base runner. What those numbers don’t show is that Player A has no idea how to read a pitch, or defense, and take advantage of opportunities while Player B does.

So in an actual game, Player A will run station-to-station very quickly, while Player B will take advantage of a defensive miscue or a fielder who isn’t paying attention to take an extra base when the opportunity arises. She also won’t run herself into trouble, even if the third based coach is “encouraging” her to. Now which one would you prefer?

A lot of those “game smarts” qualities don’t show up in a tryout, because in softball tryouts are primarily about looking at skills. They also don’t show up against a stopwatch or a radar gun. But when the game is on the line, again who would you rather have? The pitcher with the highest speed/spin rates, or the pitcher who knows how to get hitters out?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-measurement. Taking those readings is important, especially when measuring a player’s progress. There’s also something satisfying about achieving a goal you set for yourself, like a pitcher reaching 50 or 60 mph, a runner going home to first in less than 3 seconds, a hitter reaching a new high for bat speed or ball exit speed, etc. But the empirical number itself is not the be-all and end-all of who will add the most value to your team.

Which brings us back to the video, which is well worth watching. It talks about the 2000 NFL draft (some of you now know where this is going, I’m sure, but read on anyway).

There was a lanky, skinny quarterback at the NFL Combine who produced terrible scores. (If you’re not familiar with it, the Combine is where they do all these types of speed and performance measurements for football to help teams with their draft selections.)

For example, in the 40 yard dash the kid ran a 5-something. For perspective, between 5 and 5.5 is now considered the norm for an offensive lineman. For a quarterback, it’s ugly.

He didn’t have great arm strength either – average at best. Not much of a vertical leap. In the video they said it looked like he had never seen a weight room. So pretty much by any measure, this was a guy who wasn’t much of a prospect to become a backup in the NFL, much less a starter worth spending a draft choice on. Oh, and by the way, the word was his college team (Michigan) had spent his whole senior year trying to put someone in the lineup who they thought would perform better – probably a better athlete.

Still, the quarterback was hopeful. His wish was to play for his hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers, but they passed on him in the third round to take another player with better numbers. Who it was doesn’t matter because that guy was ultimately gone pretty quickly.

Finally, in the sixth round, with the 199th pick, the New England Patriots figured what the heck and selected Tom Brady. You know the rest of the story.

So while the numbers and measurables can tell you some things about a player, they can’t tell you everything. If you’re a player who maybe doesn’t throw the hardest, or hit the farthest, or run the fastest, that’s ok.

Accept that you will have to prove yourself in every new situation, embrace the challenge, and get out there and show everyone what you can do. And remember that the two essential qualities a radar gun or a stopwatch or a strength machine can’t measure are your smarts and your heart.

Just ask Tom Brady.

Keeping the Joy in Youth Sports

Keep the joy in the game

By now I’m sure many of you have seen this video (below) that went viral after last weekend (January 2019 for those reading this much later). It’s UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi scoring a perfect 10 on her floor routine during a competition.

If you haven’t, stop right now and watch this video. You will be glad you did.

While the sheer athleticism and artistry of her performance are incredible, that’s not what drew me to writing about it. After all, this is a fastpitch softball blog, so not much of what she does applies to hitting or throwing a softball.

But if you didn’t notice it the first time, go back and watch it again. Only this time watch her face and see how much fun she is having. (And how much fun her teammates seem to be having watching her.)

That is an element that seems to be missing from a lot of youth and school sports these days – fun. Everyone is so focused on winning, and improving their rankings, and securing the almighty scholarship, and all the other things that seem to go with “getting to the next level” that they forget to be in the moment.

That all-consuming drive to win (or for coaches to prove that they’re better than everyone else) is a lot of what causes the yelling and screaming that takes place on fields all across the country at every level – even with the youngest players. It’s what causes coaches to belittle and humiliate their players in the middle of a game, not to mention the postgame speech.

As I’ve quoted many times, softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. But it’s kind of hard to have fun if you’re trying your best only to be told you’re not good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough, or whatever enough.

And who is someone who knows that feeling all too well? Katelyn Ohashi herself. The other side of this feelgood story is that she almost quit gymnastics entirely.

She was on a path to go to the Olympics, but the pressure from her coaches, and the negativity from fans and observers, simply sucked all of the enjoyment out of it. Fortunately for all of us, getting off the Olympic path, and going to UCLA, helped revitalize her love for her sport, culminating in a gift to all of us.

Studies have shown that the #1 reason players quit youth sports is that it isn’t fun anymore. In fact, a poll from the National Youth Sports Alliance says 70 percent quit by age 13 for that very reason.

That doesn’t mean practices and games have to be a “birthday party without the cake” as one of my former players once described her high school practice. Working hard toward a common goal with people you value can be fun. Working hard to improve yourself so you can perform better than you did before can be fun.

There is a lot of personal satisfaction in setting a goal and then achieving it.

What’s not fun, however, is working hard and never getting on the field. What’s not fun is constantly feeling like you need to look over your shoulder because if you make one mistake you’re done for the game, and maybe the day.

What’s not fun is receiving a constant barrage of criticism over everything you do, even when you’re giving your best effort. What’s not fun is being embarrassed in front of your friends, teammates, family, etc.

Players need encouragement and support. They need to feel like they can stretch themselves to the edge of their abilities someone constantly coming down on them, even if they fail.

Most importantly, they need the opportunity to get out on the field and try, even if their skills aren’t quite as good as the player next to them yet. Because that’s the reason they signed up in the first place.

When you think about what participating in a sport should look like, remember this video of Katelyn Ohashi. She is the definition of taking joy in what you’re doing. And oh by the way, she was rewarded with an almost impossible to achieve perfect 10 for her efforts.

Then look at your own team. If you’re not seeing the same look from everyone there maybe it’s time to start thinking about how you can make it the kind of experience everyone there – players, coaches, parents, family, and fans – will cherish forever.

Every Expert Was Once a Beginner

Every expert was once a beginner

One of the most intimidating things we can do as human beings is start something new. Especially when that something has been around for a while like, say, fastpitch softball.

We look at ourselves and see how ill-prepared we are. Then we look at others and see how much better they are – some are even experts – and we wonder how we’re ever going to survive.

The good news we all have to remember is that no matter how great others are at something, every single one of them was once a beginner. Just like us.

Arizona coach Mike Candrea didn’t start out with 1,500+ wins. He started with one, and probably felt fortunate to get it.

So if you’re a brand new head coach taking a team onto the field for the first time, remember you share that experience with one of the winningest fastpitch softball coaches ever.

If you’re a pitcher (or the parent of a pitcher) who is just trying to learn how to get her arms and legs going in the same direction and get the ball over the plate with arcing (or putting anyone around you in danger) take heart. Some of the game’s best pitchers ever had their struggles as well.

If you’re a hitter who is providing more on-field air conditioning than excitement with her bat, or a fielder who seems like she wouldn’t be able to pick up a ground ball in a game even if it had a handle…

Well, you get the idea.

Everyone has to start somewhere. The ones who go places, however, are the ones who don’t give up, even when learning takes a little longer, or it feels like others have more natural ability, or have a head start because they started at a younger age.

After all, it isn’t where you start the race. It’s where you finish that counts.

I remember as a beginning coach thinking how much better I would (hopefully) be in five years, when I had some experience and had learned more. But that thought didn’t do my first team much good.

So I buckled down, did the best I could, contributed where I knew things, and just faked the rest.

I was once amazed that other coaches could come up with the drills or explanations i would use. To know so much that you could think that way seemed like a hill too great for me to climb. Now, 800 blog posts and roughly 20 years of coaching later I come up with different ideas all the time.

So to all of you beginners and first-timers out there, I say don’t be intimidated. Don’t be concerned about your lack of experience, or get overwhelmed thinking about how much you don’t know.

Just buckle down, get after it, and remember every expert was once a beginner. But it’s only the dedicated beginners who become an expert.

New Year, New You

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I know the headline sounds like an ad for a diet product or a health club, but there really is something to taking advantage of the turn of the calendar to start making improvements in our lives.

As humans we tend to like to have a clean break from the old when we start something new. The most obvious example is most people like to take a little time off between the time they end their old jobs and the time they start new ones. That little space in-between, even if it’s just a couple of days, helps us decompress and let go of the past so we can focus on the present – and the future.

That’s what’s often magical about the start of a new year. While in reality it’s just another day on the calendar, it feels like the start of something different.

So how can you take advantage of this artificially imposed fresh start? By (dare I say it?) resolving to do one or more things differently this year.

If you’re a coach, spend some time studying new techniques or approaches to the game. Challenge yourself by looking into information that conflicts with your current beliefs – especially if you’ve held those beliefs for a while.

Attend a coaching clinic with an open mind. Watch a current video or read a new book. Not just on fastpitch softball specifically, but also on coaching principles in general. In short, look for ways to be better than you are now.

If you’re a player, think about what a great year would be for you, then think about whether you can get there with what you’re doing now. A good way to do that is to write a letter to your future self describing the awesome season you just had.

If the season you want to have isn’t achievable with your current approach, figure out what you need to change to make it achievable. It could be something as simple as practicing for five more minutes during a session, or finding ways to sneak in an extra 5-10 minutes of practice per week when you can’t get to a field.

It could also mean being willing to change something you’ve been doing for a long time to see if the new way will work better. After all, no one ever created an innovation by continuing to do the same old thing.

If you’re a parent, think about how you can be more supportive, both to your player and to the team. Hopefully you’re already one who cheers in a positive way. But if you’re not sure, maybe set up a video camera and record yourself during your child’s next game to see what you think. Would you want to sit next to you? Or be with you on the ride home?

You might even want to do the same for someone else you may know, assuming they would take the information in the spirit it is intended. Learning to relax and enjoy the game makes it a lot more pleasurable for everyone – including the person who usually gets so upset.

You can also try watching a game where you have no stake to see what you think of how the spectators are reacting. The compare that to how you feel during your child’s game. It can be an interesting perspective.

One other thing you can do as a parent is to educate yourself on what the latest thinking is regarding various skills and see if that matches up with what your player is being taught. Don’t just assume a coach or instructor knows what he/she is doing, or is keeping up with the sport. Learn what to look for so you know whether you’re investing your hard-earned money in the best way possible.

It’s a new year. Why settle for the same old same old?

Take advantage of the energy that comes with a fresh start and use it to create a new, even better you. Best of luck for the upcoming year!

Send A Letter to Your Future Self

Future Ken note

A couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing for my annual battle with putting Christmas lights on the roof of my house, I came across the note pictured above. It was a message from myself last spring, when I took the lights down, alerting me to a potential issue with some of the strings.

(By the way, a tip of the Hatlo Hat to the TV show How I Met Your Mother for the whole Future Ken/Past Ken thing.)

I had completely forgotten the lights had fallen off the roof (better them than me!), so I was glad I’d done it. I was also quite amused by the whole concept.

Then last week at the NFCA convention I heard a speaker talk about how players should do the exact same thing prior to their season, to be opened at the end. In her case it was to be opened upon winning an NCAA D1 championship (which didn’t happen), but the concept is still a good one.

For players who are serious about their game, what better way is there to end a season than to look at the perspective of their (slightly) younger selves to see how it matched up to reality?

Here’s the idea. Before the season, the player sits down and imagines what the season will be like. Not just the quantifiable goals, but maybe how things went, what the experience was like, what they accomplished, what they liked and disliked, etc.

It should be a personal letter from Past (Player) to Future (Player). It could include encouragement, consolation, congratulations or whatever the player happens to be feeling at the time.

Then seal it up and put it away, not to be opened until after the season. Now that they player has gone through the entire season experience, she can compare what she thought would happen, and how she thought she’d feel, to what actually happened.

An exercise like this can help put things into perspective. For example, if the player is on the fence about whether to stay with this team or look for another, she can compare what her expectations were to what actually happened.

If she had a tough season, she can look back on how hard she expected to work and compare that to how hard she actually worked. If she was feeling awkward around new teammates in the beginning, she can compare that to how she feels about her teammates now. Maybe she made some great new friends and is just grateful to have been part of such an awesome group.

There are so many things to be gained from this exercise. If you’re a parent, try having your favorite player do it. If you’re a coach, have your team do it and hold the envelopes until the end of the season banquet/party.

By the way, this isn’t just for players. Coaches can do the same exercise as well.

I’ve had great seasons where you hated to see them end, and I’ve had seasons where it all couldn’t end soon enough. If nothing else it would have been fun to see how my earlier self viewed what was coming and whether it matched up to what actually occurred.

In our hyper-fast world we tend to only look at what’s right in front of us. In doing so we miss the benefits of a longer-term view.

By taking the time to write out this letter to their future selves, players and coaches can gain a longer-term view, and perhaps use that to change their next future.

So what do you think of this idea? Have you ever tried it? If so, how did it turn out? Leave your experiences below in the comments.

Patience the Key to Making Fundamental Changes

 

Hailey HI know I’ve talked about this many times before but one of the problems fastpitch softball players face in our “instant-everything” world is an expectation that they can fix major issues, or go from good to great, with just a few repetitions.

I see it all the time. The coach or instructor explains what needs to change in order to improve, the player tries it a few times, and then is disappointed when whatever it is doesn’t work right away.

The reality is it’s just like healing from an injury – it requires patience. Anyone who has ever been hurt (which I imagine includes everyone on the planet) knows what it’s like.

First comes the injury and usually a lot of pain. But as the constant pain begins to subside the player starts testing the injured part to see if it’s ok now, even though the doctor said it would take four weeks to heal completely. Then, by constantly stressing it to see if it still hurts, the recovery period is extended out even further.

Making a change, especially a fundamental change in mechanics takes time – along with many steps and missteps.

A good way to think about it is how you go from home to first. Anyone who tries to get there in a single bound (unless they are from Krypton) is going to be disappointed. No matter how hard you try, or how long you work at it, you’re never going to go 60 feet in a single bound.

Instead, it takes many, many steps. There’s simply no way around it. You can do things to minimize the number of steps, or accelerate the time it takes to go from home to first. But it’s still going to take many steps.

And that takes patience. Replacing old habits with new ones usually requires following a process where you master the first step (or at least become pretty competent with it) before you move on to the next one. Otherwise it’s too easy to slide right back into the old habits.

Take learning to throw overhand properly, for example. Many girls will tend to drop their elbows to their ribcage when they throw, creating more of a pushing motion. That’s a huge issue that will limit both velocity and distance, and needs to be corrected.

Usually that means breaking down the throwing motion and focusing on getting the arm to slot properly. There are many different ways to do it, and programs that can help.

But what often happens is after a few repetitions the player immediately wants to go back to full throws. And what happens? The elbow starts dropping back down again, which means all the work that was put in before takes a couple of steps back. That desire to jump right to the finish now means it will take even longer to get to a real finish.

Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one that can be tough to come by. Especially in today’s world where everyone wants results now. And feels they have to get results now because there’s always another game coming up.

Still, patience is something that’s worth developing. If players (and their parents) can take their time to truly replace old habits with new ones rather than just trying to get to the finish line right away, or going straight back into full reps, they’ll find it actually takes less time overall – and the results will be more permanent.

So the next time you’re working with a player who wants to try to get from home to first in one bound – or even two, three, or four – help her put on the brakes and stick to the plan. The results will be worth the effort.

Practice the Key to Reaching Your Destination Faster

US Map with Cities

For those who are also geography-challenged, Los Angeles is roughly in the circle on the left, and New York is roughly in the circle on the right.

Sometimes getting a player to understand the value of practice can be difficult. Those who aren’t the most dedicated to fastpitch softball can find a hundred excuses not to practice. So here’s a fun way of explaining how they will benefit.

Whenever I start lessons with a new student, toward the end I like to ask them if they know where New York City and Los Angeles are on a map. Most the time they do – or at least say they do. I hear today’s students are a bit geography-challenged.

Anyway, once we’ve established they know where each is, I will ask them how many different ways there are to get from New York to LA. The student will then start naming off various modes of travel – plane, train, car, bicycle, jog, walk, etc. Some will even suggest a boat, which is possible but certainly not easy.

I then ask them which is the fastest way to make the trip, at which point they will almost always answer “plane.” Which is correct, at least until Star Trek transporters become a reality.

I will then explain if they practice regularly, and with their minds on what they’re doing, that’s like going from New York to Los Angeles in a plane. But if they only pick up a ball, bat, glove, etc. when they’re at a lesson, it’s like walking from New York to LA. You can still get there, but it’s going to take a whole lot longer and be a lot more painful.

At some point or another, if they want to be successful players must put in the time. There’s no way around that. They can either do it in a concentrated way, such as practicing 3-4 times per week, or they can stretch the same amount of practice over many weeks.

The thing is, if they choose the latter they may find they haven’t quite gotten to where they want to be by the time the season starts. At which point it will be difficult to make up the rest of the ground that was lost.

There’s also the retention issue. The more time that passes between attempts at a new skill, the more likely players are to forget exactly what they’re supposed to do or how they’re supposed to do it. That means at least part of the time of their next attempt is going to be spent trying to regain ground they’d already covered.

As General Patton says (at least in the movie) “I don’t like to pay for the same real estate twice.” But that’s exactly what you’re doing if you have to keep relearning things you already should know.

Whether you’re in-season or in the off-season, it’s in the player’s best interest to work regularly on learning whatever it is she’s trying to learn. Otherwise she should probably make sure she has a good pair of walking shoes – and a nice cushion for sitting on the bench.

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Product Review: Pocket Radar Smart Coach Radar Device and App

Smart Coach Picture

The Pocket Radar company has made a great name for itself in the fastpitch softball (and baseball) worlds over the last few years.

Its original model (previously called Pocket Radar as I recall but now called Classic) was the first reasonably priced radar that could fit in your pocket yet give you readings as accurate as a traditional radar gun costing 4X to 6X as much. Its form factor was also great for coaches and parents at tournaments who wanted to check out the competition surreptitiously because it looked more like a cell phone than a radar device.

Then came the next great upgrade – the Ball Coach RadarTM. The beauty of this product was it was much easier to use. Rather than having to time the pitch, any dummy (even me) could just point the device, push and hold the button, and get a super accurate reading. There were other advantages as well but that one sticks out.

Now Pocket Radar has come out with an even newer and better version of its flagship product – the Smart Coach RadarTM. This one really ups the game (so to speak) because it’s no longer a stand-alone device to capture radar speeds, although it can also be used that way.

No, its real advantage is that there is a free companion app (currently only available for iPhones and iPads, although Android versions are coming so be patient) that greatly extends how you can use it for training. The Pocket Radar app allows you to do a number of things you couldn’t before, but most notably shoot video of the player and have the recorded speed embedded in the video. Like this:

That’s perfect not only for training but for sharing with college coaches. Because rather than taking a separate reading (which may or may not be of that actual pitch) and then holding it up to the camera, the speed reading comes from a trusted source. After all, plenty of college coaches use it themselves.

Easy set-up

The Smart Coach Radar is very easy to use from the start. After downloading the app, you’re asked to pair it to your Smart Coach via Bluetooth. Now, if you’ve ever tried to connect a Bluetooth device like a set of wireless speakers you know how cumbersome and difficult that can be, especially if you’re not technology-savvy. (I am, actually, but I know plenty who aren’t.)

The Smart Coach Radar takes care of all of that for you. You don’t even have to go into your iPhone or iPad’s settings. The Smart Coach Radar takes care of everything under the hood. You just hold down two buttons when the app tells you to, answer a few questions about how you plan to use it (such as for which sport) and you’re ready to roll. Nice!

Oh, and after that first time it automatically pairs so you never have to do that again. And it keeps the connection for 30 minutes even if there is no activity and the radar turns itself off to save batteries. As soon as you hit Start on the app it will come back on.

Once you’re in, you have the ability to set up some parameters. For example, you can narrow down the range of speeds you want to measure. The default is 25 to 130, except for softball which is 30-130. But if you know the player you want to measure throws between 40 and 60 mph, you can narrow that range so you’re not capturing passing vehicles or whatever else might wander in the path of the radar. I set mine to 35 to 65 for now.

There is also an option for auto-stop versus continuous capture. It comes with auto-stop enabled right now, but based on user feedback Pocket Radar will be changing that to continuous. If you’re planning to capture multiple pitches, hits, throws, etc. you’re better off on continuous so you don’t have to manually trigger each reading from the app. The Smart Coach Radar will detect it and capture it automatically.

You don’t have to worry about long videos clogging up your phone’s memory either. In the Auto-Edit mode  the Smart Coach Radar will automatically edit each video you capture into 8 second bites – 6 before the reading is captured and 2 after as I recall – so you have all the good stuff without the time in-between.

Another setting allows you to decide whether to have your device audibly announce the speed that was captured, which is great if you’re an athlete using it by yourself. I turned it off, because I find if players don’t like the reading they got on one pitch they tend to try to muscle up and make it even worse on the next.

There’s also a Dual Mode which is again great for those working by themselves. Normally when you capture video that’s what you see on your phone’s screen. If someone else is shooting it that’s fine. But if you want to capture the video for later study but want to see the speed now that would be difficult. In dual mode, the full screen shows the speed reading (making it much more visible) while still enabling the video to be captured.

The final major setting allows you to preview speeds while you’re in video mode without actually capturing the video. According to Pocket Radar, this feature was added at the request of scouts who wanted to have the app ready to capture a video when they saw something they liked, but otherwise just wanted to take speed readings. That way they wouldn’t fill their phone’s memory with video they didn’t want.

Finally, in the Advanced Settings window you can select whether to measure miles or kilometers per hour, and whether your phone should use cellular data.

Video capture

This is the cool thing. You have two options in the main capture screen. The default is just the pitch/hit/throw/whatever speed as you would typically expect with a radar device. I’m just going to say pitch speed going forward, but what I say will apply to all.

If you’re in that mode, after you hit the start button and the speed is captured it will show in the Smart Coach Radar’s LCD window as well as in large red numbers on the iPhone/iPad screen for a few seconds. That’s great if you’re just trying to see speeds. For players working by themselves it’s particularly handy. Just set up an iPad off to the side and you’ll get instant feedback.

When you use the icon to select video mode, you can capture actual video of the event as well as the speed. What you’ll do here is mount the Smart Coach Radar to a tripod or fence using an optional holder, directly behind the pitcher or catcher at the height of the ball when it’s released and at least 15-20 feet away from the pitcher if that’s possible to get the best readings.  Like its predecessors it will capture speeds from up to 120 feet away. Then you can stand anywhere you want to capture whatever video you need.

The video is captured using your iPhone/iPad’s camera, and is stored in your regular video folder. That makes it easy to sort through, review and delete without having to open the Pocket Radar app.

As I mentioned earlier, the speed that’s captured will automatically be embedded in the video. You can then run through it, either at normal speed or stepping through it by scrubbing, to look at the technique (good or bad) that created that speed, just as you would in an analysis app such as Coach’s Eye or RightViewPro.

What it doesn’t allow you to do, at least at the moment is draw on the video to illustrate certain points of emphasis like you can in those other apps. That’s the beauty of having an app, though. I’ve talked to the manufacturer and it’s likely a couple of basic drawing tools will be added in the future.

Even if they’re not, though, it’s no big deal. You can share the Smart Coach Radar video to one of those other apps literally in seconds, and then draw to your heart’s content as though the video was captured in that app. Although it has the added bonus of the speed reading being embedded too.

Viewing the history

As each video or speed reading is captured it is added to the history, which you can access by tapping the clock-like icon on the left side of the screen or the icon with the horizontal lines in the upper right hand corner. The data that’s captured is organized by day, and indicates whether there is video or just a speed reading. You can expand or collapse the days, making it easier to scroll through many readings to find the ones you want.

When used with an individual player that level of organization is no big deal. All readings relate to her. When you’re using it across multiple players like I do, however, that’s not ideal. Fortunately, there is a workaround for that. You have the ability to add or edit as many tags as you like.

To do so, you can tap the tag at the top center of the screen that reads whatever you set it too originally. Presumably that’s Softball since this is a softball blog.

That action will take you to a screen with a button that says Edit List. Tap the button and you can add whatever tag you like. Submit it and save, and that tag is now there, and will show up to the right of the main Softball tag. Tap the new tag and you can continue to add more so you can see which readings apply to which players.

The only issue right now is you have to remember to do all of that before you take the reading – you can’t go back and add a tag retroactively to the history. Pocket Radar also says they’re adding a more advanced tagging feature to the app to make this entire process even easier, and retroactive tagging in the history is expected to be a part of it. If you do need to keep tabs on who did what when, however, you can always export your history into an Excel spreadsheet, then add names or otherwise manipulate it however you want.

As with previous versions, there is also a mode/recall button on the Smart Coach Radar itself that allows you to quickly scroll through past readings if you’re not using the app.

More power

Here’s another clever addition Pocket Radar has made to the Smart Coach Radar. There’s nothing worse than being set up on a field or in a cage only to find that your radar device’s batteries have run out.

The Smart Coach Radar has a port that lets you plug in one of those outboard batteries people often use when their cell phone batteries run low. It uses the same micro USB connection that comes standard on the charger cables. If your battery is running low (as Portshown by the battery indicator in the lower left corner of the Smart Coach Radar’s screen) just plug in the outboard unit and you’re good to go for another few hours.

By the way, that same USB port can be used to connect the Smart Coach Radar with their new Smart Display, a large-number readout that is visible from more than 100 feet away even in bright sunlight. If you’re a training facility, or a college, or someone who runs camps, that’s a nice added bonus.

Trade-in deal

The Smart Coach Radar isn’t cheap. As of this writing it’s $399, which is still anywhere from 2/3 to less than half of the cost of more traditional high-quality radar guns. As in the past, though, if you already own a previous Pocket Radar Classic or Ball Coach and want to trade it in for a Smart Coach Radar, Pocket Radar will take $100 off the price. That’s a great deal no matter who you are, and one you won’t find too many manufacturers in any field equallng.

But then, the company has always been great about customer service. Where else do you find a CEO who will answer customer inquiries and walk you through any technical issues himself?

Bottom line

After having tried it, I can definitely recommend the Smart Coach Radar, especially for any coaches, parents, or players who want video tied to their speed readings. It’s a great, durable product with a lot of great features, backed by a company that has proven the quality and accuracy of its technology time after time.

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