Category Archives: Pitching

Learning to Fix One Issue at a Time

mokup smartphone technology phone

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

One of the best AND worst things to ever happen to fastpitch softball training has to be the ready availability of instructional videos on sources such as YouTube.

It’s one of the best things because it has made a whole world of knowledge available to parents (and coaches) that was never available before. Personally, I think it’s one of the big reasons there is far more parity in the sport than there used to be.

Prior to YouTube, much of the best knowledge was concentrated in Southern California among a small group of coaches. If you were lucky enough to live near one, you received high-level coaching. If you were on the other side of the country, maybe not so much.

But once better information started becoming more available on YouTube (and through the Internet generally), enthusiastic players, parents and coaches were able to learn from the best no matter where they lived. Not saying everyone took advantage of it – there’s still a lot of bad coaching out there – but at least the information became available.

So why do I think it’s also one of the worst things that happened? Because parents and coaches could see how their kids/players looked compared to the examples, and the top-level players, and many became obsessed with trying to get their kids/players to look like the ones they saw on video.

That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing either. But where it became a problem is they wanted to make it happen instantly. So rather than addressing one issue at a time, they started trying to fix everything at once. That is probably the least effective way to learn anything.

What does that mean? Take a pitcher for example. The parent/coach sees the pitcher doesn’t have enough leg drive, so he/she starts working on that. Then he/she notices the arm seems a little stiff. So rather than continuing to focus attention on the leg drive, the pitcher now starts focusing on keeping the arm loose.

Then the parent/coach sees the glove swimming out and… well, you get the idea.

All of those are valid corrections. But it’s difficult, if not impossible to make all of them at once. Or even all in one session.

(DISCLAIMER: I know about this from direct experience because I used to do it too. Probably still do now and then, but I try to catch myself before it gets out of hand.)

A better approach is to set priorities, and then work on those priorities – even if other parts of the skill aren’t up to par. Or even if they are affected by the changes you’re making right now.

The reason is despite all the talk and hype about it, science has shown us that there is no such thing as multitasking. (Sorry all you people who think you’re good at it.)

The human brain can only pay attention to one task at a time. And making corrections to softball mechanics, or anything else for that matter, takes time, no matter how much we wish that wasn’t true.

Enabling players to remain focused on making a single correction, then moving to the next, will produce far better results than trying to fix everything at once.

But what about the discussions on how random practice (doing different things each time) is better than block practice (doing the same thing over and over)? That is true after a certain point, once the player has acquired a certain level of proficiency in the skill. For example, fielding ground balls to the left, right and center, hard and soft without establishing a set pattern will help translate those infield skills to a game better than doing 10 to the left, then 10 to the right, etc. 

But that presumes the player already knows how to field ground balls to the left, center and right, hard and soft. If not, the fielder must first acquire that skill, which is best accomplished through repetition and focus.

Giving players who are learning new skills, or replacing old skills with new ones, an opportunity to focus on one specific piece at a time (and without pressure for overall results, such as pitchers throwing strikes or fielders not making any errors) will create a better foundation and ultimately shorten the learning curve. Then, once the player has reached a certain level of at least conscious competence you can start moving into ensuring all the pieces are working the way they should.

Yes, there is a lot of great information out there (and plenty of bad too). And yes, it would be nice if you could just say things once and your kids/players would grasp it all right away. But that’s not how things work.

Avoid the temptation to “correction jump” (the coaching version of task jumping) and you’ll find you produce better long-term results – with far less frustration for you and your kids/players.

 

Great Time to Hit the Reset Button

img_0044-e1572626308764.png

The summer is a distant memory. Especially for those of us who got snow on Halloween! Can you believe that? Sticking-to-the-ground-over-your-ankles snow on Halloween.

Fall ball is either behind us already as well, or there is one more weekend to go. Then there’s a lull before it all starts again.

It’s definitely a great time of the softball year to take some time off. Rest and recovery is a good thing, and now that we have joined the indoor sports in playing practically year-round it’s tough to find a few weeks you can string together to let your body (and mind) heal from the grind.

For some, however, this might be a great time for something else – i.e., hitting the reset button and either correcting major flaws or making major upgrades in mechanics and approach.

There is never a bad time to work on improving yourself and your game. But making major changes carries some risks when you’re also expected to play at your most effective level during the week or on the weekend.

Let’s take pitchers for example. To achieve all she’s capable of, a pitcher may need to work on her posture, or her leg drive, or her ability to whip the ball through the release zone. But it can be difficult to work on those things if doing so causes her to be wilder than when she sticks with her old habits.

Most coaches would rather have their pitcher bend forward and throw consistent strikes than work on staying upright and throwing too high, or too low, or too wide. Especially if that pitcher is their #1. That’s just the nature of things, and it’s very understandable.

Still, every pitch the pitcher throws bent forward so she can throw a strike is another step in the wrong long-term direction. And it will take her that much longer to get to where she needs to be to reach her potential.

It’s the same for hitters. Working on developing a better swing that will make a hitter more effective at higher levels doesn’t always yield great results at first. Anything that’s different is uncomfortable at first, and hitting is so dependent on quick reactions that walking the line between the old and new swings may throw the hitter off entirely.

Again, most coaches will take a good hit with an ugly swing over strikeout or weak ground ball or pop-up with a good swing. They’re not interested in how many home runs that hitter will hit in two years with her new and improved swing. They’re focused on getting her on base, or scoring that runner on third, now. Can’t say I blame them. I would be too.

Once upon a time there were three distinct parts to the season. There was the off-season, which lasted a few months, then the pre-season for a month or two, then the actual season.

That’s not the case anymore. Fall ball has gone from being a time of once-a-week practices and a game here or there to almost the equivalent of the summer season. Some of the tournaments in the fall are arguably more important than many in the summer for those who play in college, because college coaches are in attendance in droves. You don’t want to look bad in front of a gaggle of college coaches.

So right now, from the beginning of November to the end of December, is about the only time for players to make major changes in a safe environment. Pitchers can work on improving their drive mechanics, or their posture, or other core fundamentals without having to worry about the results of the pitch.

They can throw the ball all over the place for now, as long as they do it with the correct mechanics. It’s a form of failing up. Not to be confused with the version where someone sucks without trying to get better but gets rewarded anyway. As they replace old habits with new ones the control will come back – and be better than ever.

Hitters can work on developing their swings without having to worry about the consequences. As they move from conscious competence (having to think about how to move correctly) to unconscious competence (not thinking about what they’re doing but doing it right anyway) they can shift 100% of their focus to seeing the ball and hitting it hard. Suddenly all those cage pop-ups and ground balls start turning into rising line drives that smack off the back of the cage – and rebound back at the hitter if there is a solid wall behind the far end.

Everyone can work on their throwing mechanics – still one of the most under-taught parts of the game. Instead of measuring success by “the ball got to where they were throwing” fielders can develop mechanics that will help them throw harder and faster while protecting their arms and shoulders from injuries.

Most times of the year the pressure to perform in games out-ranks the desire to make improvements. Not right now.

For those who know they need to make major changes, this is the ideal time. Get to work, either on your own or with a qualified instructor, so by the time you start up again you’re ready to play (and show) better than ever.

And if you’re not in need of major rework, enjoy your time off. You’ve earned it.

Softball Pitchers: Leave the Ice in the Cooler (Mostly)

Leave the ice in the cooler

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s always interesting (at least to me) when you discovered something you thought you “knew” is actually incorrect. I’ve had several of those moments along the years.

I used to have pitchers start their warm-ups by performing wrist flips. Not anymore – they’re useless at best, and at worst counter-productive to what you’re trying to get to happen.

I used to have players do static stretches – the ones where you stand and pull on a muscle to stretch it, like that one everyone loves where you place one arm across your chest, place the other just above the elbow, and pull. Or where you bend down and try to touch your toes without moving. Then I found out dynamic stretching is far more effective at preparing players to play and prevent injury, because it turns the nervous system on instead of turning it off like static stretches.

Now the latest revelation is that automatically icing after pitching (or any sports activity where there is normal wear-and-tear) may not be such a hot idea (pardon the pun) after all.

This article from Stack, a company focused on training and conditioning, talks about baseball pitchers, but the principle is the same.

The conventional wisdom has always been to ice arms, elbows and shoulders after pitching to help them heal faster and get ready for the next game. But it turns out ice may actually have the opposite effect, slowing the healing process and making a pitcher more prone to ongoing soreness and injury.

The reason is that ice constricts the flow of blood to the affected area, yet blood flow is what is needed to bring healing nutrients to the site, and carry away waste products that get in the way of healing. Again, the article goes into much more detail into the science behind it.

What’s interesting is that most of us have probably heard the acronym R.I.C.E. for treating an injury. It stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Yet now even the physician who coined the acronym, Dr. Gabe Mirkin, has retracted his support for using ice to treat injuries after seeing the research. He’s also retracted his recommendation for rest, preferring movement instead.

It’s the same for “preventive” icing as many pitchers still do after a game, or a day at a tournament in the case of youth sports players. While ice may temporarily relieve pain, it will also slow down recovery. So just automatically icing an arm, shoulder, elbow or other body part for that matter should be removed from a player’s routine.

This makes sense to me because I remember one time when I was in high school and went to the weight room (something I didn’t take advantage of nearly enough when it was free!). One day I overdid it on curls, and a couple of hours later I couldn’t move my arms. Literally.

I thought they were going to be stuck that way forever. What finally helped was taking a very light pole and going through the curling motion. It hurt at first, but it helped break down whatever was happening in my biceps and forearms and I was finally able to move my arms again – mostly pain-free.

So what should you do instead to help arms heal properly? It ain’t rocket science.

Basically, according to the Stack article, the three keys are light activity/exercise, proper nutrition and getting enough sleep. So when your daughter falls asleep in the car on the ride home she’s not being lazy or tuning out your expert post-game evaluation. She’s healing.

You may also want to speak with a physician, trainer or other professional who is up on the latest information and can give you more specific advice. They’ll know a lot more about it than I will, or Dr. Internet for that matter.

But based on the research, the one solid recommendation I will give is that going forward, leave the ice in the cooler. It’ll be better for everyone.

Time To Take Some Time Off From Throwing

photo of two women lying on grass

Photo by Rendy Maulana Yusup on Pexels.com

The season is over. Tryouts are over (at least for the most part.) What to do now?

Gung-ho fastpitch softball families (are there any other kind?) might be tempted to start going at it hard and heavy to get ready for fall ball and the upcoming spring season. After all, if you’re not working to get better, your opponents probably are.

But I have another idea. Take a break. Not just lighten up the workload to three days a week, but take an actual break.

Give your body a chance to rest, recover and build itself back up. Give your brain a chance to let go of whatever was happening before and get rejuvenated.

But it’s not just psychological. It’s also physical.

These days it seems like there is a secret prize for the team that plays the most games in the shortest period of time, and everyone is going for that prize. You’ll see programs bragging that their teams play 100 or even 150 games in a year (with a 12-player roster). Much of that playing time is compressed into September and October in the fall, and then April-July in the summer.

High school-age players may even have a heavier workload, because they have their school season and then their travel/summer season. Except Iowa, where high school is the summer season for whatever reason.

What all this has led to is a rash of overuse injuries. Not just for pitchers, although we are seeing more and more of it as this article points out. A pitching staff that throws 90 pitches a game (a conservative number for most) across 100 games will have thrown 9,000 pitches. Divide that by a three-person rotation and it’s roughly 3,000 pitches each.

That’s a lot of pitches – especially when you consider that typical college pitchers in one study, who have the benefit of daily weight training and conditioning run by a professional staff, threw an average of just 1,243 pitches during the season.

Now, Rachel Garcia, the NCAA D1 player of the year and winner of this year’s Women’s College World Series did throw 3,178 pitches total this season. But do you really think the 12 or 14 year olds you know are comparable in strength and conditioning to Rachel Garcia? Doubtful.

It’s not just about pitchers, however. Position players can also get overworked, especially when it comes to throwing. Even if you have great mechanics, the effort and stress placed on the shoulder throwing overhand a hundred times a day every day in practice can cause wear and tear that needs to be addressed.

Overuse injuries such as tendinitis and small tears in soft tissue can easily build up over time. They may not be bad enough to require surgery, but they can cause pain. And as the pain builds, the mechanics break down to work around the pain.

Over the course of a season things can get pretty sloppy. If you just launch right into the next season those issues aren’t going to magically get better. They’re going to get worse.

Finally there’s the mental side. If you’re working hard (as you should), it’s easy to become mentally fatigued as well. That’s not good either.

Taking a little time off – like professional players in all sports do, incidentally – can help recharge the ol’ batteries and get you ready to tackle new challenges.

So my advice to you is to walk away from the practice field (or area) for a bit and let your body heal itself. See a doctor or a physical therapist if you need to. But one way or another, give yourself a break and go do something else for a little while. You (and your body) will really be glad you did.

Helping Fastpitch Pitchers Feel Their Legs Working Together

paige-rubber-band-still.jpg

One of the most common flaws with fastpitch pitchers is a tendency to reach out aggressively with their front leg instead of getting both legs involved. Essentially, the front leg is active and ends up pulling the rest of the body along.

The problem, however, isn’t just in the legs. It’s really that the center of the body – the center of gravity if you will – never gets driven off the pitcher’s plate, so when the pitcher lands her front leg (left leg on a right-handed pitcher) there isn’t a whole lot of momentum to stop.

In fact, you’ll see many of these pitchers wasting a lot of energy trying to drag that back leg forward instead of having it glide effortlessly. That lack of power from the right side often results in bad (forward posture), a tendency to want to over-use the throwing shoulder (the power has to come from somewhere) and a host of other problems.

You can tell players to keep their legs under them, and have them work together. But I find that’s more difficult for some than others. So I came up with a little drill for the former group, to help them learn to use their legs together instead of one at a time.

All you need is one of those workout rubber bands like the one in this photo that you canRubber band find at pretty much any sporting goods store. Or at your house in the pile of exercise equipment you bought with all good intentions of using but is now just gathering dust in a corner of the rec room or bedroom.

Of course, it will be way too big to be of much use, so double it up and then have the pitcher slide it up until it is about midway up her thighs. Then have her pitch.

What she’ll find, as Paige here did the first time she tried it, is if don’t use your “push” leg it gets yanked forward by the effort of your front leg anyway. (She’s better at it now.)

The goal is for the pitcher to be able to drive out with full force and energy while feeling like she’s gliding on her back leg, with her knee pretty close to being underneath her hip. When she lands, she should have a lot more energy going into her firm front side. Maybe so much she can’t quite contain it all at first.

But she should feel how much less effort it takes to get into a good, strong, upright position. And how easy it is for the pitching arm to whip through the zone because the whole body is working more as a unit instead of a collection of independent pieces.

Of course, the real test comes when she takes off the rubber band and tries it without the tactile aid. It may require a bit of rinse and repeat at first. But I’ve found it’s pretty effective helping those who tend to run away from the back leg to keep the legs working together.

So if you have a pitcher with this issue, give it a try and see if it helps. Either way, be sure to leave a comment down below!

How To Build A Reputation As A Warrior

Maddy leg closeup

Last weekend once I was done with lessons I went out to watch a tournament where some of my students were playing. It was a gorgeous day for softball and I had plenty of time, so clearly life was good that day!

I arrived in the middle of a game where one of my students, Ally, was pitching, and she did a masterful job. Which, of course, always makes it fun to watch. I also enjoyed watching a couple of other students, Abby and Kylie, during the game as well.

During that game, though, one of the parents mentioned that another student, Maddy, had been pitching in a game earlier and had taken a hard line drive to her right shin. I learned later she’d thrown roughly two or three pitches, got hit, and had to come out of the game it hurt so bad. (Good incentive, by the way, to keep the ball off the middle of the Maddy full pictureplate.)

Once that game concluded with a win, the next game started up (after some time to re-set the field). Maddy came out to pitch that game, which I was glad to see. It’s not often I get to see two students pitch the same day.

Maddy struggled a bit in the first inning, and her team struggled to field the onslaught of bunts their opponents unleashed on them early-on. They ended up down 6-0 before they ever got a chance to hit.

After that rough start, however, Maddy took control, didn’t give up any more runs, and ended up with 7 Ks over 5 innings as I recall. Gotta love time limits.

While she was pitching, however, I did mention that she looked a bit uncomfortable physically. Nothing major, but if you were paying attention you could see something was not quite right.

After the game (which her team ended up losing, eliminating them) I stuck around to talk to her a bit afterward. That’s when I saw what she had just accomplish.

The poor girl couldn’t put much weight on her right foot. She was limping pretty badly too. What I saw as “kind of uncomfortable” actually turned out to be pretty painful. I actually asked if she needed me to carry her to the car but she just laughed and said no.

That’s how you get a reputation as a warrior, though. It had to be incredibly painful, especially as the game wore on. She also had to be at least a little worried about having it hit again too. I know I would’ve been.

But she just gritted her teeth, said “The team needs me” and gutted it out.

I’m not big on players playing on injuries where they can make things worse. If you sprain your ankle, or pull a muscle, or get a concussion, or do something else that would make it dangerous to your health to continue, don’t.

Sometimes, though, it’s not dangerous, just painful. If you can “rub some dirt on it” as we used to say and fight your way through it, you clearly have ample helpings of mental toughness. And that’s going to serve you well not just in softball, but throughout your life.

And sometimes, parents can be a little quick to try to keep their daughters from experiencing adversity. Luckily, Maddy’s parents aren’t, and gave her the opportunity to show what she can do.

Congrats, Maddy, on a job well done!

 

Update: Thought I would share this photo of Maddy’s leg from a week later. It reminds me of a saying I saw on a t-shirt once: scars are tattoos with better stories. Although I Maddy week laterexpect this one will heal eventually. Still, you could see the knot through her sock. It should probably come with one of those disclaimers they have before TV shows about not being appropriate for younger or more sensitive viewers!

Take the Back Leg Suitcase on the Trip

Suitcase

Last night, as I often do, I was doing a pitching lesson. The pitcher in question was also doing what many pitcher do – reaching out with her stride leg instead of driving her whole body forward.

That’s a very easy habit for pitcher to fall into. We tell them to get off the pitching rubber, so they throw their stride leg forward to pull them off. The problem is, that often leaves the other leg stuck right where it started – at least until the pitcher makes a conscious, labored effort to pull it into the back leg.

That’s one of the things the Queen of the Hill is designed to correct. But you may not always have one of those handy, and even if you do you’re probably not going to allow a pitcher to take it home with her unless she’s your daughter. So last night I came up with a different explanation.

I told the pitcher it’s like she wants to take a trip, and her pivot or push-off leg is her suitcase. If she was going to go far away for a few days, would she leave her suitcase behind?

Of course not. So rather than reaching with the stride leg and then extending the other leg until it straightens out and THEN trying to bring it forward, she should be sure she takes her suitcase with her when she leaves on the trip – i.e., as her center of gravity moves forward.

That seemed to resonate with her, and actually with the new student who came afterwards. More specifically, I told her to try to keep her pivot/push leg knee under her hip as she goes forward.

Why even worry about it? Well, for one thing if the other leg is being left behind it’s acting like an anchor, preventing the full momentum from going forward and slamming into the stride leg. Which would throw your body forward faster – hitting a tree in a car at 20 mph or 60 mph? (Kids, don’t try this at home.)

Leaving the leg behind also tends to put the pitcher into a forward-leaning position, which not only hurts speed and accuracy but can also put stress on the pitcher’s back.

Finally, it wastes a lot of energy that should be going into the pitch. When pitchers make this correction they feel ever so much lighter during the stride phase of the pitch. That’s because they don’t have the friction of a heavy back foot working against them.

If you’re working with a pitcher who is having that issue, give the trip/suitcase idea a try. And if you do, let me know in the comments if it works for you.

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!

Practice Doesn’t Always Have to Mean Going to a Field or Facility

Paige-pitching.jpg

When someone says “it’s time to practice” what’s the first thing that springs to mind? For most of us involved in fastpitch softball the answer is probably grabbing some equipment, running out to a field or facility, and then spending the next 30, 60, or more minutes hard at work (as Paige is doing in the photo above).

While that approach is generally a good thing, it also has a downside (doesn’t everything?). When we’re in that mindset, we tend to think if we can’t do those things (get to a field or facility, spend 30-60 minutes) then we are unable to practice. In fact, “practice” kind of becomes an activity unto itself that requires special effort.

That’s unfortunate because for some players it could mean going a week or more without making any progress to get better. For others, especially those who are trying to learn new skills, it could even mean they get worse, or regress all the way back to step one.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Practice doesn’t have to involve going somewhere or making a special effort. And it certainly doesn’t have to be tied to a set amount of time.

Working on fastpitch softball skills anytime, anywhere, for any length of time can help players get better (or at least maintain their gains) versus doing nothing at all. The key is for players to know what they need to focus on and work those movements.

Take pitching, for example. Perhaps a player is having a tough time learning to relax the arm in the circle so she can whip the hand through at the end. In a full practice session with a catcher, she may be too focused on throwing strikes – double if the catcher is her dad. in that case she may continue to lock out the elbow and “guide” the ball to the plate.

But at home in her bedroom, or standing outside waiting for the bus, or marching through the house she can make arm circles and focus on staying relaxed throughout. No ball, field, facility, or catcher required. Learning to make the proper arm movement will help her know what it feels like when she’s actually pitching so she can carry the improvement forward there.

She doesn’t need to spend a half hour doing it either. If she takes 5 or 10 minutes it will help. Do that three random times during the day and she’ll have put in 15-30 minutes without even realizing it.

The same goes for hitters. Maybe the hitter is having trouble learning to lead with her hips, or is having a problem with barring out her front arm during the swing. She can practice the correct movements wherever she happens to be standing, whenever she has the chance.

The more she makes those movements the more natural they will become – and the easier they will be to execute when she’s actually up to bat.

Practicing in small increments may even have some benefits over longer sessions, especially if the longer sessions are focused on one thing. It’s similar to block practice v randomized practice.

In block practice you focus on one thing for a long time. With randomized practice you don’t linger on a single skill for any length of time. You essentially go from skill to skill. Studies have shown that the skills transfer better in game situations when practice is more randomized, at least in part because you get too used to doing the same thing over and over – an opportunity you don’t have in a game.

The other benefit to the shorter sessions in random locations is it lets players concentrate on the specific movements they need to improve on rather than the outcomes of those movements. And as we all know, in the end if you do the right things in the right way the outcomes will take care of themselves.

This isn’t to say longer, more formal practice sessions aren’t necessary. They absolutely are. But they’re not the only way to practice.

Taking advantage of whatever time and space is available is a great way to ensure players continue to improve. And it definitely beats using “I don’t have the time/I can’t get to the field or gym” as an excuse to do nothing.

Another Approach to Improving Pitchers’ Ability to Hit Spots

Juliana noodles spots drill

A few months ago I put up a post that showed a way to help fastpitch softball pitchers who were struggling with hitting their inside and outside spots by exaggerating the locations. The idea is that by making the adjustments larger you can help them get a feel for what it takes to move the ball from side-to-side.

Here’s another way to do it, using kind of the polar opposite approach. This is more for fine-tuning, when the pitcher is already pretty good at going inside/outside but you want to make it more precise and reliable.

All it takes is some scrap wood and a couple of pool noodles. What you want to do is create two narrow barriers, then have the pitcher attempt to throw the ball between them. Here’s how it looks from the back side:

What you’re trying to do is create a visual that helps the pitcher home in on exactly where the ball needs to go. Sometimes, when they’re looking at a catcher against a background, it’s hard to focus on that small spot. This setup helps narrow the field so to speak.

Holder top

Pretty fancy, huh?

The holders for the pool noodles were a couple of scraps of 1×6 pine board with a hole drilled partially through them. The holes should be just slightly larger than the diameter of the dowel rod.

Once you cut the dowel rod to size, glue it in place and then drive a screw in from the underside. That should hold it securely.

Holder bottom

This side looks even better.

As you can see in the photo and the video, I didn’t use a very long dowel rod, which means the pool noodles aren’t very straight. I could have gone longer, but if the pitcher hits the noodle (as she is likely to do) and it is rigid the deflection could hurt whoever is catching if they’re not wearing equipment.

Besides, when they’re hanging over like this you can create some interesting holes to throw through, such as having the tops touch to work on keeping the ball low as well as on the corner.

You can do it from a 45 degree angle, like Juliana is doing here (due to a sore knee) or from a full pitch position. You may want to start with the former just to get the feel down before moving on to the latter, which will be more challenging.

Once the pitcher is becoming more consistent you can even make a game out of it, challenging her to make 7 out of 10 to win a prize or suffer a consequence – whichever fits your coaching style. That will add a little more game pressure too.

Or, if you have two or more pitchers there have them compete for who can do the most.

The overall idea is to aim small and miss small. So if you have a pitcher who needs to gain more precision in hitting her spots, give this drill a try.

%d bloggers like this: