Category Archives: Product Reviews

Product Review: The Softball Rope Trainer

Liv ROPE Trainer main

It doesn’t take too much time going through Life in the Fastpitch Lane to see that I am pretty fanatical about good throwing mechanics. I definitely feel overhand throwing is one of the most under-taught skills in the game, which is a shame because it’s such a big part of the game (unless you have a pitcher who strikes out 18 hitters a game, every game).

So that’s why I was excited to receive a new (to me) product to test – The Softball ROPE Trainer by Perfect Pitch and Throw. According to the manufacturer it is designed to help softball (and baseball) players learn the proper mechanics for a powerful, strong and safe throw by unlocking the joints in the proper sequence. From their website:

“Using The ROPE Trainer allows players to work the throwing muscles in all parts of the kinetic chain. Using The ROPE Trainer optimizes the mechanics of the throwing sequence by building the muscles and joints used during the throwing process. Over time, using The ROPE Trainer will allow for better muscle memory, improved strength and endurance without the excessive stress caused by releasing the ball.”

You can read more about the theory behind it and how it helps prevent injuries here.

The basic design is fairly straightforward. It’s basically a softball with a plug system that lets you attach one or two sets of ropes. By focusing on getting the ropes to work ROPE Softball Trainerproperly (and not smack the player on the head, legs or other body parts), The Rope Trainer helps players find the right path to slot their arms and follow-through properly.

You can add more resistance by using both sets of ropes to create more of a strength workout, although the grip will then not be the four-seam grip most players are used to. No worries, though. You’re not actually going to throw the ball anyway.

The manufacturer positions it as an upgrade over the old “towel drill,” where a player holds a small towel and goes through the throwing motion with the same goal in mind. In fact, here’s an article that tests The ROPE Trainer versus the towel drill. They tested the baseball version rather than the softball version, but I’m sure it’s the same.

One of the big differences in my eyes is that the ropes can swing around more than a towel, so the player has to be more precise in her arm and hand path to get the right results.

Ok, sounds good in theory. How did it work in practice?

The first girl I had try it was a terrific 14U catcher named Liv. She wanted to learn how to throw from her knees, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to check it out.

One of the big issues with catchers, especially young ones, learning to throw from their knees is that they tend to only use their arms. They don’t get into a good position to use their shoulders, torsos, glutes, and other big muscles, and they have a big tendency not to follow through after throwing.

So I put on one of the sets of ropes, handed Liv the ball, and had her get into a runners on base stance.  When I said “go” she reacted, getting into position and using The Rope Trainer as if she was actually making the throw.

As I said, Liv is awesome so after a couple of attempts she got the hang of getting the ropes to whip through to her left side at the end. Here’s a video of her as she’s using it:

Then we switched her to an actual ball. She immediately was able to make the throw with good juice on the ball, and with great accuracy too. Most important, she was using a strong throwing motion that will protect her arm and shoulder.

To give you an idea of how strong her throw was, this is what happened to her mom’s wedding ring after receiving a few at second then at first. Oops. Kari broken ring

Of course, it’s easy to get something to work when you have an excellent player using it. So for another test I went the other way.

I took a younger girl (who shall remain nameless) who did not have a particularly good throwing motion and had her try The Softball ROPE Trainer as well. While the results weren’t quite as instantaneous, she also showed improvement.

This particular girl was doing the classic “throw like a girl” of dropping her elbow below her shoulder and just sort of shoving the ball forward with her arm.

(NOTE: Don’t even bother telling me how horrible I am to use the phrase “throw like a girl” and wonder how such a nasty misogynist could ever work with female athletes. I encourage my students to throw like softball players, and will put them up against any male player their age – or any dad who doesn’t think girls can throw hard. So chill.)

After working with The Softball ROPE Trainer for about five minutes she was doing better with her overhand throws. I doubt that little session was permanent, but I wanted to see if it would make a difference.

I believe it did, and that with repetition at home and/or practice someone with poor throwing mechanics could re-learn how to throw properly, most likely within 2-4 weeks with regular work.

The other nice thing about The Softball ROPE Trainer is that it doesn’t cost very much. You can purchase it direct from the manufacturer for just $67.49. I know, weird price, right?

For that money you get the ball, two rope sets (I think – the website says one but mine came with two), instructions and a nice drawstring bag to hold it all. If you wear out the ball or one of the rope sets you can purchase new ones as well, which is always nice.

If you have or know players with poor throwing mechanics, or have someone with good mechanics who want to get better, give The Softball ROPE Trainer a try.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I don’t know how it is for fastpitch pitching yet. That’s next on my list to try. Seems like if you have mechanics that focus on whipping the ball through the release zone instead of pushing it The Softball ROPE Trainer might work. We’ll see.

If it works, I’ll do another post on that. If not, I’ll update this one.

Book Review: Let’s Play Two

Let's Play Two

Growing up in the Chicago area in the 1960s (yes, I’m that old) I was a rabid Cubs fan. I had posters from the newspaper on my walls, pennants from games I’d attended, and other various and sundry pieces of Cubs kitsch around the room. (I also begged my parents for a Cubs satin jacket that never came; I guess they figured I would need something to tell my psychiatrist someday.)

If you had asked me back then who my favorite player was I would probably have told you Billy Williams, mostly because he hit left-handed and threw right-handed as I did, which made him easy to identify with. But like all of us back then, there was one Cubs player who stood above them all: Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.

We all loved his sunny, “let’s play two” attitude, his fan-friendliness (more on that in a minute) and of course his powerful swing. By the time I became aware of the Cubs in the early 1960s Ernie had already made the switch to first base. I was surprised to discover later that he not only used to play shortstop but was the National League MVP two years in a row at that position on teams that lost more games than they won. Yes, he was that good.

So I was thrilled to get the opportunity to read a new book on his life, “Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks” by venerable Chicago sportswriter Ron Rapoport. Written in an easy, breezy style that makes it tough to put down, the book Let's Play Twoprovides incredible insights into Ernie’s life, from his time growing up as one of 12 children in a poor section of Dallas to his career in the old Negro Leagues to his move to Major League Baseball as the first black player on the Cubs, on through his playing career, and then his post-career life.

This is an amazing accomplishment, because unlike many of today’s athletes, Ernie was not the type to talk about himself or share his innermost thoughts, even with family and close friends. The book describes how he created this happy, upbeat persona and then did all he could to maintain it throughout his life.

It was his armor in a way, but it was also his way of connecting with people. Rapoport says he was genuinely interested in others – perhaps more interested in them than in himself – so any conversation about Ernie and his accomplishments quickly became a discussion about the life of whoever he was speaking with. It’s doubtful he would have had much interest in the narcissistic social media culture had it existed when he was younger.

The basic story

Rapoport paints a vivid picture of Ernie’s life growing up, pieced together from interviews of family and people who knew him then, and a little bit from Ernie himself during one long car ride after 9/11 when he finally shared some details about his life. An older sister in particular fills in a lot of the gaps about what life was like for the family then.

Ernie’s athletic abilities showed up early. He was recruited to play high school football, and despite his slight frame was quite successful – until his mother shut it down when she found out. Eventually he found baseball – his father’s favorite sport – and was brought into the Negro Leagues, playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, who were pretty much the New York Yankees of that league.

While Rapoport doesn’t get too far into the weeds on the social issues at any point in the book, the discussion of Ernie’s experiences with the Monarchs does provide some insight into what life was like for black players back then.

When Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947 it was viewed as a huge, positive event. But Rapoport also takes the time to describe its ripple effect on the Negro League teams, which had been thriving businesses mostly owned by African-Americans. We rarely think about those consequences, so it’s an interesting perspective to gain.

For the players, of course, it was tremendous. Even though they weren’t paid like today’s players (most regardless of race had to have jobs in the off-season to pay the bills), for the African-American ballplayers it was a definite step up in pay, and of course it was a huge contributor to the social changes still to come.

The book lays out the tribulations and triumph’s of Ernie’s early career with the Cubs, being an All-Star caliber player on a team that typically lost as many as 2/3 of its games. It also describes his close relationship with Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley, who gave Ernie business advice throughout his career, and who was an early innovator in baseball (for better or worse).

Ever the optimist, Ernie continued to believe the Cubs would get better each year despite all evidence to the contrary.

Until the mid-to-late 60s, that is. Suddenly the Cubs had accumulated a wealth of talent, including the pitching the ballclub never seemed to have, and suddenly they were contenders. By this point Ernie was heading toward the end of his career, but still contributing.

One thing I hadn’t been aware of was manager Leo Durocher’s animosity toward Ernie. According to the book, it was because Durocher craved the spotlight and felt Ernie stood in his way toward claiming it in Chicago. Durocher tried to retire or push him out several times, but Ernie persevered and kept winning the job back. The psychological damage was done, however.

One thing that kept Ernie hanging on was the possibility of playing in the World Series, the one accomplishment that had eluded him in his career. It looked like he would finally achieve that goal in 1969 until the Great Collapse, when the New York Mets overcame a huge deficit and won the pennant.

That’s an area where Rapoport kind of veers off the main path of telling the life story of Ernie Banks. He spends several chapters on that fateful season of 1969, discussing what happened with all the players.

At one point as I was reading I reminded myself it was supposed to be about Ernie, because he had all but disappeared from the book at that point. Eventually, it does come back to him and the effect it had on him.

The book then describes Ernie’s post-baseball life, including some rather sad details, his death in 2015, and the subsequent battles over his estate. By the end, while I can’t say I felt like I knew him well, I did feel like I knew him as well as anyone could given Ernie’s reluctance to talk about himself. For that I thank Rapoport immensely.

Personal thoughts

As someone who lived through much of the era being discussed, I was also able to match what was being described to my own experiences. Perhaps one of the most interesting pieces was the race issue.

In my neighborhood, we based our sports idols on team and performance, not race. We didn’t care if a Cubs player was white, black, Latino, Asian, Christian, Jewish, or any of the other ways we all tend to divide ourselves.

We would have been thrilled if any Cubs player had moved in next door. I honestly don’t remember thinking Ernie or any of the other African-American players were different – other than they were famous ballplayers and we were not.

My own personal contact with Ernie was limited but memorable. My mom heard one day that he would be at the local Kmart in Wheeling signing autographs, so she had my brother Rich and me grab a couple of the cleanest baseballs we owned and she took us there.

As I recall, Ernie was as nice and accommodating as any human being could be. He smiled, he spoke with us a little, and he signed the dirty old balls we’d brought with us with a ballpoint pen.

One of my few regrets in life is that a couple of years later, in a scene right out of The Sandlot, we needed a ball to play with so I grabbed the one Ernie had signed. I was aware of what I was doing, it wasn’t an accident; having a signed baseball just didn’t mean that much to me then. Wish I had it now.

I also remember going to Wrigley Field to see Ernie play in-person, and watching him on TV. Every time he stepped to the plate you had the feeling something monumental would happen. It did 512 times.

Recommended highly

Reading this book brought back all those memories. It really was a different era, when baseball (and professional sports generally) was a business, but not the Big Business it is today. I still remember hot dogs for 35 cents and buying the mandatory program and Cubs pencil (15 cents for the program, the pencil might have been free) so I could keep the book during the game.

More importantly, Ernie Banks was a one-of-a-kind player. He had prodigious talent, yet he seemed so approachable. This book brings out all of it.

If you were a Cubs fan back then like me, you’ll definitely want to read this book. If you are a latter-day Cubs fan, you really should read this book to understand the history of the club and why there is a statue to this man outside the Friendly Confines.

But even if you’re not particularly a Cubs fan, if you enjoy baseball I think you’ll enjoy reading it. The book will transport you to another time and place, and will likely bring a smile to your face as you read it. You might even find yourself saying “Let’s play two” the next time you’re at the ballpark.

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!

Product Review: Jugs Short T Comes Up Big for Working on the Low Pitch

Grace-Bradley-and-Jugs-Short-T.jpg

Most fastpitch softball (and baseball for that matter) hitting coaches agree that tee work is one of the most valuable ways hitters can spend their time. By taking the element of a moving ball out of the equation hitters can focus on developing the mechanics that will enable them to hit the ball harder, farther, at better launch angle, and with more consistency rather than simply trying to “make contact.”

The typical tee is great for simulating pitches from just above the knees up to the armpits on all but those on the most extreme ends of the height spectrum. But what about those extra low pitches that umpire strike zones sometimes dictate hitters must be able to cover?

Without understanding the adjustments that need to be made on shin-high, or just-below-the-knee pitches, hitters will be more likely to swing over the top of the ball resulting in a sinking line drive or a weak grounder. Which, of course, is exactly the result pitchers (and whoever is calling pitches) are hoping for when they throw it there in the first place.

This is where the Jugs Short T is such a great addition to your hitting toolbox. Built with Jugs Short Tthe same durable construction and materials as the regular Jugs T, which was previously reviewed here, the Short T makes it easy to get quality reps going after those pesky low pitches.

Getting down to it

The advantage of the Short T is that it can go as low as 16 inches off the ground, then extend up to 23 inches. (The standard Jugs T starts at 24 inches high.) That should cover the bottom of the zone (and then some) for just about any hitter.

The base is the same as that used for the standard Jugs T, which means if you’re tight on space and don’t mind putting in a little extra effort you can carry one base and two tee heights. They also sell a combo kit with both heights if you are so inclined.

The base itself is heavy enough to keep from getting knocked over even by strong hitters who swing under the ball – no need to carry an extra weight around. It also has a convenient carrying handle built in, making it easy to move from a shed, locker, car, etc. to wherever you plan to hit.

The tee section itself is solid enough to hold its height even after repeated use, yet still slides up and down easily. I’ve had my standard Jugs T for several years now and it holds as well as it did the day I got it – unlike some tees that eventually start sinking the minute you put a ball on them.

You can use it with multiple hitters, day after day, with no worries that it will lose its solid performance over time.

Greater versatility

While the primary reason anyone would purchase the Short T is to work on low pitches, it can also be used to address another issue that is common with fastpitch softball hitters – the desire to stand up straight as they make contact.

Part of that habit, I’m sure, is driven by well-meaning but poorly informed coaches who instruct their hitters to “swing level” or “keep your shoulders level.” That’s just not how good hitters hit. Instead, they tend to have a shoulder angle that tilts in toward the ball.

Or it could just be that they got into the habit of standing up straight and never learned anything different. No matter the cause, the desire to finish standing up with shoulders level is a problem.

When you think about how little surface of the bat and ball contact each other, even a deviation of an inch – say from starting to stand up, which pulls the bat up – can have a significant effect on the outcome of the swing. Demonstrate you can’t hit the low pitch well and you will see a steady diet of dropballs and low fastballs for the rest of the game – especially if you’re a big hitter.

A phrase I like to use is “get on it and stay on it.” In other words, adjust to the pitch and then stay there. The Jugs Short T helps train that behavior by forcing hitters to go lower and stay down. If they try to stand up as they swing they will either miss completely or just tap the ball.

That’s what Grace Bradley, a powerful hitter in her own right, is working on in this video.

She is building a pattern where she can go down and dig the ball out to get the kind of launch angle that helps create her high OPS.

After a few practice swings on the Jugs Short T we switched to front toss and she was digging out even the ankle-high stuff for line drives that move base runners and let her trot rather than sprint around the bases.

That’s bad news for pitchers too. Because if they can’t throw you high, and they can’t throw you low, you’re going to be an awfully tough out.

Worth the money

Whether you (or your team if you’re a coach) is struggling with the low pitch or you just want to train your hitters to adjust better overall, at $75 to $80 retail the Jugs Short T is a great investment. It will help you create better hitters this year. And for many years to come.

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.

Product Review: Softball Bound app makes the college search easier

Softball Bound logo

Unless you are one of those incredibly talented players who has famous softball coaches going out of their way to plan their weekends around watching your 12U/14U games, you’re probably going to have to devote a considerable amount of time researching potential opportunities and looking up the contact information for the coaches at schools you’re interested in.

Now a new app called Softball Bound,  which is available for the iOS and Android platforms, has made that part of the process a whole lot easier. Rather than having to spend hours looking up each school individually, and then clicking through to gather information about it and the softball program, Softball Bound puts all that information right at your fingertips. In fact, according to the counters on its website, it provides info on 996 NCAA and 196 NAIA 4-year institutions.

Finding the right schools

The interface is simplicity itself. The default view takes you to an address book-like listing of colleges, starting with the As of course.Softball Bound Schools

Down the right hand side is the entire alphabet, so you can click on a letter, based on the first letter in its name, and be taken right to all the schools that begin with that letter. So if you want to look up Baylor, you click on B and scroll down. For University of Whoever you click on U, which is probably more intuitive in the long run.

That’s not your only option, however. A little filter icon in the upper right hand corner lets you narrow down your choices by Division (NCAA 1,2, and 3, plus NAIA 1 and 2), Conference, State, or any combination of all three. If you have your heart set on Softball Bound Filtersplaying NCAA Division 1 in Tennessee, you can find all the schools that meet those criteria.

If you know exactly the school you want to look up, there’s also a search function. (You can only look up colleges, not coaches or conferences; use the filters for that.) The search function is intuitive, so as you type in your choice it starts showing suggestions.

Core information

Once you’re into a specific school there is a tremendous amount of information. The topic section offers the school’s name, address, and general website. The second section provides the name of the coach (usually the head coach, but sometimes an assistant who is involved in recruiting), along with the coach’s email address and phone number.

These are active links, so clicking on the email address or phone number will start an email or make a call, respectively. You will want to handle that with care. On the other hand, think of how impressed a college coach will be if 10 minutes after a game is over you send a messaging thanking him/her for stopping by to see you.Softball Bound individual school

There is also a link to the softball team’s website so you can easily learn more about the program or do your homework before you contact the coach. Never hurts to start an email or a call by congratulating a coach on a recent win, conference championship, or personal milestone.

Deeper details about the institution

Where Softball Bound really shines, however, is the additional information it gathers. The bottom section offers a wealth of statistics about the school, such as undergrad enrollment, the average yearly cost, graduation rate, and average salary after graduation. It also helps you determine whether you have the academics to qualify by offering the average SAT and ACT scores for students at that institution.

Be aware you have to scroll down to see all of the information. The basic school and coach information stay on the screen permanently, but you can scroll through the bottom section to get the rest.

The only negative I found was that I couldn’t read some of the information on my iPhone. If the line is too long it just disappears. Hopefully the developers will be fixing that, because knowing how much money the average salary after graduation or the freshman return rates could be very valuable in helping you narrow your choices.

Carrying relationships forward

Once you’ve made your selections, you can “favorite” them. They then appear on a short list so you don’t have to go through the entire search process each time. As you refine your list further you can remove schools with a click of button as well.

As you build the relationship with different college coaches you can also ask Softball Bound to add them to your regular contact list so you can call or email the coach without having to go into the app. That’s also a very handy feature.

One of the other advantages of the Softball Bound app is they are constantly updating the contact and other information, which means you don’t have to worry about working from an outdated list.

On the website, they also offer the option of purchasing their list for $250. Not sure why you’d want to do that, especially since college coaches frown greatly upon mass mailings. It’s much easier to just purchase the app for a few dollars – especially because if you buy the list it’s up to you to maintain it. Sounds like a lot of unnecessary work to me.

A wealth of helpful, additional information

Speaking of the Softball Bound website, they have more than just product information there. They also have a list of camps you may want to attend, as well as information about the academic side and how to get ready for college. Plenty of links to info on testing (SAT and ACT), creating a skills video, eligibility and so forth. It’s all freely available to anyone and worth checking out.

If you’re actively pursuing playing fastpitch softball in college, or even thinking you might want to, this app is definitely worth it. Especially at $3.99 in both the Apple App Store and Google Play. It can save you a lot of time and effort, and give you a tremendous advantage in your recruiting efforts.

Product Review: Jugs Tee – It’s All About That Base

Batting tees are one of the most important tools a hitter can own. They’re great for working on swing mechanics, pitch locations and other techniques. They’re also great for getting in a few warm-up swings before the game.Jugs T

There are all types of tees out there – all rubber, all plastic, a combination of the two. Lately, though, the most popular design has been a metal pipe-style with an inverted rubber cone on the top. You’ll typically find them in facilities with batting cages.
They’re not much to look at, and they often have a weight ring at the bottom of them to keep them from getting knocked over, but they get the job done.

The venerable Jugs Sports company is out to change all of that with their new professional style Jugs T. Retailing for $74.95, it improves on previous designs from other manufacturers in several ways, making it a great choice for facilities, coaches and individual hitters.

The first thing you’ll notice is how beautiful it looks. First-generation tee designs looked like they were built with steam fitting pipes and plywood from the local hardware store. The Jugs T appears to be made from highly polished aluminum with a solid metal base (more on the base in a minute). The bottom section is a deep, shiny blue, while the extension section is natural silver in color. You feel good just taking it out of the package.
It assembles in about 30 seconds – just screw the extension section into the base and you’re good to go. The rubber cone also feels thicker and more rigid than earlier tee models.

That comes in handy if you live up north like I do and leave the tee in the car during cold weather. With other tee designs if the cone is bent while it’s sitting in the trunk it takes a while before it holds a ball reliably.

Not the Jugs T. The thicker material bounces right back and is ready to go. I know – I tried it.

All of that is nice. But the real differentiator, in my opinion, is the base. It’s a solid metal plate instead of wood, and it is heavy – 10 lbs. according to the Jugs website. No need to put a 10 lb. barbell weight on this tee. In fact, the first couple of days I had it I kept handing it to people and telling them to feel the heft. It also has a pentagonal design that keeps it from going over the side if someone swings too low, and the entire base is coated in rubber so it won’t scuff gym floors.

Don’t worry about carting it around, however. The base also has a cutout that forms a convenient carrying handle. It’s easy to transport from cage to cage, or from the dugout to a practice area.

Another issue tees can sometimes develop is the inability to keep the ball at the desired height. You set the ball on it and the shaft starts to sink. So far that doesn’t seem like it will be a problem with this tee. It feels very solid when you raise and lower it, a good sign that it will continue to hold its ground even after repeated use. The adjustment range is a standard 23 inches to 46 inches – comparable to other tees I’ve used – making it ideal for your smallest players as well as your tallest ones.

Overall, like everything Jugs produces it’s a high-quality piece of equipment. If you’re looking for a professional style hitting tee that will stand up to tough use year after year, the Jugs T is a great choice.

Fast-Pitch Love swings for the fences with tale of self-discovery

These days it seems like the Young Adult book category is crowded with stories of dystopian futures and heroic main characters doing the near-impossible. While they make for fun (and profitable) adventures, they may be a little difficult for the average teen to identify with. Fast-Pitch Love

There are no such issues with Fast-Pitch Love, a sweet story of young love that takes place over the summer of 2000. Written by first-time author Clayton Cormany it uses the development of a 12U rec league fastpitch softball team as the centerpiece for self-discovery of several of its characters.

The book is essentially the story of Jason (Jace) Waldron, a central Ohio boy and cross country runner who will be entering his senior year in high school. Jace has a crush on new girl Stephanie Thornapple, whose blue eyes and auburn hair make her the prettiest girl he’s ever personally known. Unfortunately for Jace, she is the girlfriend of tough-guy nose tackle Carson Ealy, who threatens anyone who even looks at her for too long.

As classes empty out on the last day of school, Jace’s best friend Stick – who is quite aware of Jace’s not-so-secret crush on Stephanie – informs him that Carson will be away for quite a bit of the summer working in a lumber yard in Michigan and checking out colleges, creating an opportunity for Jace to try to get in with Stephanie. All he needs is an excuse.

That excuse seems to present itself when Jace goes to the library to make copies of the roster for the softball team his mother will be coaching and his sister Phoebe will be playing on that summer. One of the players is Tina Thornapple; even better, SJ Thornapple is listed as the assistant coach. Jace begs his mother to allow him to help out with the team, figuring it will provide the perfect atmosphere to get to know Stephanie and win her away from Carson. She agrees, gets league approval for an extra assistant coach, and the stage is apparently set.

At least until the first day of practice when SJ Thornapple turns out to be Sylvia, Stephanie’s slightly heavier and somewhat less attractive sister. Once Jace realizes his mistake he starts thinking of excuses to back out but agrees to stay until the first game. In the meantime, Sylvia immediately recognizes why Jace signed up and offers to help him start dating her sister, even if he leaves the team.

Then the games start up, and the young Valkyries take a pummeling. Although Jace was never big on baseball when he played he feels bad for the girls and decides to stick around a little longer to help them learn the game. He and Sylvia work closely together to teach them how to throw, catch, field balls and hit. Sylvia is true to her word and helps Jace land his first date with Stephanie. As the summer goes on the Valkyries begin to improve – but that isn’t the only change.

Soon Sylvia starts letting her hair down and wearing makeup to practice and Jace finds himself attracted to her, even as he continues to date Stephanie. The latter sets up a confrontation with Carson when Jace is spotted at a carnival with Stephanie by one of Carson’s friends – just at the time Jace is beginning to wonder whether he is dating the right sister.

While it takes a little while to get going at first, Cormany does a great job of creating characters you care about – and feel you know. As I got deeper into the book I found it difficult to put down. Adults who remember their youth fondly will relate to the uncertainty and mixed feelings of the characters, which create tension without getting too deep into teen angst. Their feelings seem real. The young adult audience will likely either identify personally with the primary characters or feel they have friends like them.

The softball games are described with accuracy for the level. Neither the Valkyries or their opponents are portrayed as top-level travel teams. In fact, players are told at the beginning of the season they’ll be playing 11 games through summer plus the league tournament. That’s like a week in a travel team schedule, so hard core travel players and parents need to get past that.

Given the level of play, the game descriptions themselves stay true to form. Cormany describes them in great detail, giving you the feeling you’re reading a recap of a real game. There are errors and difficulties for both teams, again true for the level of play, which helps ground it in reality.

As a long-time travel coach myself I’m not so sure that the practices Jace uses to help the team improve will really work, and one in particular goes against what would be considered a best practice. But really, that’s a quibble. The key is the relationships between the characters and the overall development of the team. Both of those ring true.

There aren’t many stories out there that have fastpitch softball at the center, so young players and their families should enjoy that part of the book particularly. If you’re looking for an enjoyable read that will have you rooting for the characters to succeed – and to do what you know is the right thing – give Fast-Pitch Love a look.

Fast-Pitch Love is currently available digitally from Barnes and Noble at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/fast-pitch-love-clay-cormany/1120679928?ean=29401503840 or at Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Fast-Pitch-Love-Clay-Cormany-ebook/dp/B00P744M7Q. The price is normally $4.99, but the author says he occasionally discounts it to $1.99 or even 99 cents so keep an eye out for that. There are also plans for it to come out in hard copy, although it hasn’t happened yet.

Do me one favor. Once you’ve had a chance to read it, let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Product Review: Pocket Radar Ball Coach

If you are into pitching at all, or work with pitchers, you’ve probably heard about the Pocket Radar. It’s a device about the size of a mobile phone that makes it easy to gun pitch speeds, overhand throws, exit speed of the ball off the bat and (allegedly) the speed of car wPocket Radar Ball Coachhizzing through your neighborhood.

I recently upgraded from the original Pocket Radar to the new Ball Coach version. While it’s an $100 more expensive than the original, I feel like it’s worth the extra money. The Pocket Radar Ball Coach retails for $299, which is still considerably less that a Jugs or Stalker gun – and it does a very comparable job.

The thing that got me to upgrade (other than a $100 rebate being offered for sending the old one back) was the ease of use. With the original Pocket Radar you had to time pushing the button just right to get the maximum speed. It was as much an art as it was a science.

The new version takes that timing issue out of it. In other words, it’s radar speed measurement for dummies. With the Ball Coach version, you point the unit at the source of the pitch, hold down the big blue button (as opposed to a red button on the original) and keep holding it until you get a speed reading. Nothing could be simpler.

When I first got the new version I immediately tried it next to my Jugs gun. While they didn’t always match exactly, they were always within 1 mph of one another. Sometimes the Pocket Radar read higher, sometimes the Jugs gun did. But close enough for my purposes.

The real acid test, though, came this past weekend when I took it to a couple of games and (somewhat) discretely timed the pitchers from behind the backstop. In one case I was well behind it. But it seemed to give me good readings on all the pitchers.

Another advantage to the Pocket Radar Ball Coach is the ability to have it automatically take up to 25 reading in automatic mode. You can set it up on a tripod or a mobile phone holder, click through to automatic mode, and it will give you the readings. You can then page through to see what the player got – which is great for batting practice, pitching practice or whatever.

If you’re reading this in Canada, or anywhere else that uses the metric system, you’ll be glad to know the Pocket Radar Ball Coach can be switched to read in kilometers per hour. The instructions explain how.

The Pocket Radar Ball Coach comes with a handy soft shell pouch that clips onto your belt. That’s another nice upgrade over the original, which came with a hard shell case you had to keep in your pocket. I still kept mine in my pocket, but it takes up less space. In addition to the case it also comes with a wrist strap and a pair of AA batteries (Eveready alkaline batteries, not those cheap no-name ones that often come with many electronics these days.

If you’re at all interested in measuring speed I can highly recommend the Pocket Radar Ball Coach. With its (relatively) low cost, high accuracy and ease of use it’s a great investment.

Jugs complete practice travel screen a great addition

I’ve been a big fan of products from Jugs Sports for several years. I own a Jugs pitching machine, a radar gun, a quick-snap protective screen and two of their original pop-up screens. I’ve used the screens for drills in practice, and for soft-toss before games. Jugs Complete Practice Travel Screen

Most of the time they work well. But as you know if you’ve ever tried using them in breezy conditions there is a bit of a challenge in keeping them upright.

That’s why I was excited to get a chance to check out the new Jugs Complete Practice Travel Screen. It’s a large (7′), durable, square screen with a base that keeps it upright both in the wind and hit after hit.

The Jugs Complete Practice Travel Screen is easy to put together once you’ve done it once. (I may lose my guy card for this, but I did have to look at the directions once to figure out how to attach the screen to the frame.)

The pieces of the base are bungied together, and only two require working with the quick-snap locking device. The sides and top of the frame are also bungied together, and slip together easily. The net is also easy to put in place, and stretches tight against the frame. One person can put it together in about five minutes; it’s even easier with two.

Despite its light weight it seems to be very durable. My team, the IOMT Castaways, has been using it all season at practice and games and it still looks brand-new. We not only use it for soft toss, but also as a temporary backstop for front toss to our hitters. The netting is thick and strong, and the vinyl appears to be very strong as well.

Taking it apart is even easier. Because all the pieces except two just slip together you can pull them apart and put them back into the carrying bag quickly.

The 7′ height is nice because it cuts down on those errant balls hit when your hitters drop their back shoulders and take a big upper cut swing.

The Jugs Complete Practice Travel Screen retails for $149. It’s well worth the money. If you’re looking for a screen that sets up easily and can handle a heavy load, give this one a look.



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