One of my favorite things to do is to go out and catch a game where one (or more) of my students is playing. It can be a bit nerve-wracking at times – especially if a pitching student is facing a hitting student since by default one of them is about to fail – but overall I find it highly valuable.
One of the best parts, of course, is seeing how they perform in context. It’s one thing for hitters to be banging balls all over the batting cage, or pitchers to be racking up the Ks in bullpen sessions. It’s another to see what they do in an actual game situation. It’s like Han Solo says:
About a week ago I had one of those rare opportunities. I didn’t have lessons until later, and high school softball starts pretty early (usually 4:30 during the weekdays) so I ran out to a local school to watch a hitting student named Ella play at least part of a game.
She came to bat twice against what I would characterize as a pretty good pitcher, and she struck out both times. As I watched her struggle I switched from “just here to enjoy a game” mode to “coach/analyst” mode.
I noticed something in her swing. Much as I would have liked to have run down to the dugout and told her about it I would never actually do such a thing. So I did the next best thing. I texted her mom, who was out of town, and asked her to share the information with Ella when the game was over.
Ella’s mom responded that she would, but then I had to leave in the middle of the game to go teach some lessons.
Later I got another text from Ella’s mom. Apparently after I left Ella hit a home run and a double. So she ended up 2-4 that day accumulating 6 total bases. Her mom did say she would pass my message along anyway.
But it figures. I don’t know if this happens to others, but I feel like it always happens to me. I go out to watch a student play and she seems to have a rough time. But I’ll hear before I got there she did awesome, or after I left she got it together and played like a champion.
It wasn’t just Ella either. A couple of days later I watched a 12U pitcher named Sammie for a bit in her first outdoor game of the season. It wasn’t pretty. In the first inning she pitched, which I was there to see, she gave up something like 6 walks, which is uncharacteristic for her and a total surprise after the great off-season she had. She also had 2 Ks, but it wasn’t exactly an offset.
Then I left for lessons, but continued to follow along on GameChanger. Of course, once I was gone she proceeded to strike out the side in the next inning, only giving up one meaningless walk.
It’s enough to make you wonder, “Is it me?” Now, I have heard from parents before that their daughters admit to being nervous when they see me at a game. They want to perform well when I come out to see them, and sometimes it makes them uptight.
Which I find strange since who is going to be a bigger fan and cheerleader for them than me? No reason to be nervous, go have fun. But just in case, I’ve started trying to find places to hide so they don’t know I’m there.
I do know I’m not alone in this. I remember the mom of another hitting student named Emma telling me she never got to see her daughter hit a home run. That was quite an accomplishment because her senior season in high school she hit 15 of them. But when mom was there nothing. She eventually did see one, but it was notable for being the exception.
Now, sometimes I go out to watch a game because I know a student is struggling. I consider that a fact-finding mission so we can get her back on track as quickly as possible, so I don’t even count those games in this post.
The ones I’m talking about is where I see or hear the player is doing well, and I go out with the intention of enjoying the show only to see her under-perform. Luckily no one has flat-out asked me not to come to a game yet, but frankly I sometimes wonder why.
The good news for my students is my lesson schedule (not to mention my wife) keeps me busy so I don’t have a lot of time to get out to games. But if you are one of my students and I do show up, please do me a favor. Relax, have a good time, and just play the way you play when I’m not there. We’ll all be happier for that.
So how about you? Ever have that experience when your student/daughter/whoever plays well EXCEPT when you’re there? Share your stories in the comments below!
As a youngster and then even later as an adult, sports for me was a way to get my mind off of bigger troubles. No matter what else may have been happening in my life, when I was in the middle of a game the only thing that mattered was the game, which was often a welcome relief.
To me, that’s one of the biggest purposes youth sports should serve – a pleasant diversion from the trials and tribulations of growing up. But for many young people today, especially teens, apparently the opposite is happening. Rather than being lifted up, more young athletes than ever are suffering from depression as a result of their participation in youth sports (including fastpitch softball). Thanks to my friend Tim Boivin for pointing out this article to me, incidentally.
One of the major changes from days past the article points out is how so many high school-age teams are now training like college teams. I certainly know that to be true, because I hear stories all the time along those lines.
I remember a few years ago hearing about a 14U travel team that at tryouts promised “brutal conditioning” for its players. I just shook my head. Truly, do 13 and 14 year olds really need brutal conditioning? And while they may have followed through on that promise, I saw that team play and they weren’t any better than anyone else around the area.
I’ve seen messages on the websites of high school-age travel teams talking about how demanding their coaches are and how they will yell and scream at you if you make a mistake, as if that’s a good thing and something to aspire to. All constant yelling and screaming does is make players tentative and lead to more errors. There’s a huge difference between holding players accountable and making them shrivel up inside until they hate going to practice games.
Now, I know some of the Internet tough guys are going to say kids today are soft. But that’s not true. I see a lot of grit and determination in today’s players, probably moreso than back in the “good old days.”
But the difference is back then most of us weren’t chasing scholarships from the age of 12. Pitchers weren’t expected to have the same level of pinpoint accuracy as the college seniors playing on TV – or professional athletes. Hitters weren’t constantly being harangued about their slash lines and how their last at-bat looked to any potential college scouts in the stands. Fielders weren’t being told their chances at a scholarship were done because they booted a ground ball in the third inning of a showcase.
And most of us weren’t training as if the end goal was to become a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger. We’d show up, warm up, practice, do some running, then get on with our lives.
What ends up happening is that all of the joy gets sucked out of the game. Instead of playing for fun, too many kids end up playing “for their futures.” The valuable lessons of teamwork and overcoming obstacles are replaced with feelings that they will never be enough, or will never do enough to please the coach.
It’s no wonder kids playing youth sports today are more depressed than ever.
The only thing about sports that should make a player sad is that the season is over. What’s important to remember, as I’ve said many times, is that kids are not just short adults. They don’t view the world the same way adults do, and they don’t process information – especially negative input – the same way adults do.
Coaches will do themselves a huge favor by remembering why they started playing sports when they were young, and trying to bring some of that fun and wonder to their teams.
It’s fun learning new things. It’s fun discovering you can do something today you couldn’t do last week (including things that require tough condition). It’s fun working together toward a common goal and being part of something that’s bigger than just you. And when it comes to winning, it’s a lot more fun to be a part of it and a contributor to it than always watching it from the bench.
Softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Keep that approach in mind and maybe we can start to reverse the trend of depression among youth athletes. It has to start somewhere. Let it start with you.
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 provides 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.
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.
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.
If there is one universal truth in fastpitch softball it has to be this: basic overhand throwing is the most under-taught part of the game.
It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a local high school or middle school game, a travel ball tournament, or even a college game on TV. You can almost guarantee that many of the throwing motions will be questionable, and some will be downright abysmal.
I see this all the time when I give individual lessons or conduct clinics with a group of players. The mechanics that are used to get a softball from player A to player B – which constitutes a good part of the game when a strikeout doesn’t occur – are often just awful.
So why, exactly, is that? I mean, throwing is certainly a part of every practice. It’s often one of the first things players do at practice or before a game, occurs throughout, and then is often one of the last things that happens at the end.
The only conclusion I can come to is that it’s not being taught. Throwing may be part of warm-ups, but it apparently isn’t a skill anyone thinks about working on. It’s more of a prelude to the “important stuff,” like fielding or hitting or running the bases.
That’s a huge oversight, especially when you consider the often-quoted figure that 80% of all errors are throwing errors. Which means teams could cut out 80% of their errors by learning to throw better.
Where else can you get so much payoff for paying attention to one specific area? Certainly not hitting. It’s highly unlikely you will improve your hitting by 80% no matter how much you practice. Yet teams and individuals will spend hour upon hour working on their hitting mechanics.
Throwing? Nah. Just get loosened up throwing however you feel like it and then we’ll get down to the serious work.
Just imagine, though, if teams would say hey, wait a minute. Let’s take a half hour today and try to learn to throw better. Not only would they be likely to throw harder and improve accuracy; they might also cut down on the arm injuries plaguing so many players these days.
While there is obviously more to it than I can get into right now, here are a few basics of what you should see players doing when they throw – even (especially) in warm-ups.
- Stand sideways to the target with glove arms in front, hands together in front of you.
- Begin your stride, stepping the front foot so it will land at a 45 degree angle and separate the hands by pulling the elbows apart, with more emphasis in the beginning on the glove-hand elbow. The motion should be like stretching a rubber band.
- As the throwing hand goes back, turn the hand palm-down and start to make a circle. How big of a circle depends on the position and distance you will have to throw. Small circle for catchers and infielders, larger circle for outfielders.
- Land the front foot, which should be about when the glove-side elbow gets as far as it can. Then start pulling the elbow back like you’re trying to elbow someone behind you in the gut. (Be careful not to just swing it around like you’re elbowing someone in the head.)
- As the glove-side elbow begins to pulls back, rotate the hips the hips, which will help pull the shoulders in. You should feel a stretch around the stomach area if the hips are leading the shoulders properly. By now the arm should have completed the circle and be in a position to come forward.
- Continue pulling with the body, bringing the arm forward with the elbow leading, at or slightly above shoulder height.
- Drive through, allow the wrist to snap (don’t “snap” it on purpose, just keep it relaxed and allow it to happen), allow the back leg to drag up naturally, and finish with the throwing-side shoulder facing the target. That shoulder should now be lower than the glove-side shoulder.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but those seven steps should give you a pretty good start. There’s lots of good information out on the Internet that can give you more details too, although it’s important to remember to keep it simple for your players.
Teaching it purposefully
Here comes the tough part. You need to make time to work on these mechanics during practice, and they’re probably going to take a lot more time than you realize. You also need to make sure your players understand how important it is, because in our “instant-everything’ age, with its seven second attention span, it will be easy for players to complain about being bored long before they’re executing anything that looks even close to what I’ve described above. But you have to keep after them.
Once your players have achieved at least a minimal level of confidence, it’s time to bring out the stopwatch. Tell them you want them to throw and catch from 40 feet or 60 feet (depending on their age) with no throw-aways and no drops for one minute. Then start the stopwatch, and call out the elapsed time or the time to go in 15 second increments.
Sounds easy, right? There’s no minimum number of throws and catches required, no time pressure. Just a limit on how long they have to do it.
Allow about a half hour minimum, especially if your team’s mechanics aren’t so hot at first. Just the fact that there is no room for error will create some problems. But any flaws in the throwing motion will be amplified under pressure, and pretty soon even your best players may be throwing balls that hit the dirt or go sailing over their partners’ head.
Calling out the time puts even more pressure on them – again, even though there are no minimums to hit. Knowing that only 15 seconds has gone by gets in their heads. So does knowing there are 30 or 15 seconds left, because they start thinking “don’t make a mistake” instead of focusing on their mechanics.
It can be frustrating. It can be maddening. But it will be worth it when you don’t have to hold your breath every time one of your players winds up to make a quick throw. With good mechanics the ball will go where it’s supposed to. When that happens on a regular basis, you make things easier on the defense, pitcher, and even the offense, and you’ll win a lot more games as a result.
Don’t be one of those coaches who skips over teaching throwing. Put emphasis on it, demand excellence, and it will pay off for you big time.
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.
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 has 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 beginning, 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!
When I work with catchers, I often tell them two of the most important things they will be judged on by coaches is their ability to block pitches in the dirt, and their ability to throw runners out. Obviously there are a lot of other aspects to catching as well, but these are two of the most visible – and most glaring if a catcher isn’t good at them.
Of the two, the second one (ability to throw runners out) is the more easily measurable. At least in theory.
You can throw balls in the dirt to catchers all day long in a tryout or practice situation and they can look like champs. Especially if they know ahead of time the balls are going in the dirt. But put them in a game and the question is whether they can recognize that random ball headed for the dirt fast enough to block. Tough to simulate that randomness.
Throwing runners out, however, mostly comes down to one thing: pop time, or the time between when the ball pops the catcher’s glove to the time it pops the receiver’s glove at the base.
Really, it’s a numbers game. For the sake of simplicity (since I am generally math-challenged), we’ll use 3.0 as the time it takes a base runner to advance 60 feet. That’s a pretty good number at most levels outside the top of NCAA Division 1 college softball, so it’s one where you can expect to see the majority of runners. Well, that and above.
So if we’re using 3.0 seconds as the standard, let’s assume the pitch gets to the plate in 0.5 seconds. Not super fast, but not super slow either, and easy to do the math. So if we assume 3.0 and subtract the time it takes for the ball to pop the catcher’s glove, that leaves 2.5 seconds to make the throw and apply the tag in time.
Of course, getting there exactly at the same time leaves it up to an umpire’s judgment, which you never want to do, so let’s take off a couple tenths of a second to make the ball beating the runner there more obvious. Now we’re at, say, 2.3 seconds.
Of course, most teams will have at least one or two runners who are faster than 3.0 between bases. And some will push the envelope and attempt to leave a little early, so we’d best knock off a couple more tenths. Which means our pop team needs to be in the 2.0 to 2.1 range. Yeah, that feels right.
So if your catcher is hovering around 2.5 (or longer), or is sitting at 2.2 but playing higher-level ball where she needs to get the ball to the base in 1.9 or 1.8 seconds, how do you get that time down?
For any decently skilled catcher there is no one thing that will do it. Instead, it’s a combination of little things that will add up. Shave off a little here, a little there, and before you know it your pop time meets the standard for US national team tryouts.
Here are some ways to do it.
- Adopt a better “runners on base” stance. When I see catchers squatting on their toes in any situation it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. But it’s especially bothersome when there are runners on base, because you can’t move very well side-to-side, and you can’t exactly spring up either. The reason is the weight distribution in our bodies, and our center of gravity – which for a female generally sits low in the hips and toward the back. If the catcher’s butt is below her knees, she pretty much has to lift her entire body weight to get up. But if it starts around knee-level, with the thighs parallel to the ground and the back close to parallel to the ground, most of the heavy lifting is already done. You can get up a lot quicker – and last longer. Which is not only good for throwing runners out, but for chasing down bunts as well.
- Learn to pop up instead of run up. I see this one so often. Catchers will come up out of their crouches, take a step forward with their right foot, then take a step forward with their left foot, then throw. Too much wasted time! Because while you’re running up, what’s the base runner doing? Running to the base. Instead, catchers should work on popping up and jumping into a good stance, with their throwing-side foot dropping back and their weight starting out on that foot. Much, much faster. They can also learn to throw from their knees if they arm, but that’s a discussion for another day.
- Speed up the transfer of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand. Another thing you’ll often see with catchers, even older ones who should know better, is a tendency to reach forward to grab the ball after it’s caught, make the transfer in front of them, then pull the arm back to throw. The problem is their throwing hand starts off by going in the wrong direction. If they fumble with the transfer at all they have a long way to go (relatively speaking) before they are in position to make the throw. A better approach is to bring the ball back to the hand with the glove. The hand will be waiting around the throwing-side shoulder or ear. As the ball goes into the hand, the hand is then pulled back into a throwing position, essentially making the throw a part of the transfer instead of a separate event. To work on this, by the way, have the catcher start with nothing on or in either hand and just pull the glove hand back to slap the throwing hand. Then add a ball, still barehanded, then add the glove. Just stand sideways and continue to work on the transfer. Once you have that down, toss the ball to the catcher and have her practice the transfer that way. It’s repetitive and boring, but it works.
- Rake the ball back instead of catching it. This technique is a bit more advanced, but it can definitely help shave off some time. Typically, the catcher will catch the ball on a steal the same way she catches it for a frame, i.e., get the glove behind the ball, stop its forward progress, then pull it back. Rather than doing that, have the catcher work on catching the side of the ball while starting to pull her glove back, in essence raking the ball back toward her throwing hand as she receives it. Eliminating the stop-and-start of receiving the back of the ball helps get it in place faster to make a throw. Combine this with #3 and you’ll have a catcher who is lightning fast on her release. Then she just has to make sure her body keeps up with what her arms and feet are doing so she can get the throw off with full power.
- Know where the base is instinctively. Whether a catcher is popping up or throwing from her knees, she shouldn’t have to wait until she sees the base to make a throw. She should just know where it is and throw. To work on this, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her make the throw. For extra fun, place an object like a stuffed animal on top of a bucket (a second bucket will also work) and have her work on knocking it off. Even if she doesn’t succeed right away, she will build awareness of where the base is and what she needs to do to get the ball there.
- Learn to just throw. This isn’t a technique as much as a mental approach, so it doesn’t necessarily show up in a pop time measurement. But it can have a profound effect on the catcher’s success in a game. All too often catchers want to make sure there is someone at the base to receive the ball when they throw, so they will hesitate, even slightly, before throwing. That is the wrong way to go. The catcher should be focused on getting the ball to the base as fast as she possibly can, and trust that someone will get there to receive it. If they don’t, coaches should make sure to tell catchers they did the right thing and then proceed to work with whoever is supposed to be receiving to get there in time to make the play. I always wanted my catchers to push the limits of the receiving fielder. You should too.
If each of those ideas take just one half of one tenth of a second off, the catcher will end up shaving 3/10 of a second from her pop time. That could be the difference between the bases looking like a merry-go-round for the opposing team and your catcher showing there’s a new sheriff in town. Add in some ladder work for agility and a throwing program to increase overhand throw velocity and you’ll have a star on your hands.
The other thing to keep in mind is coaches rarely use their slowest runner to test the catcher’s throw. Instead, they usually use their fastest. So even if that runner does manage to squeak in ahead of the throw, if it’s close it sends a message not try it with anyone who isn’t a super-rabbit.
Keeping runners from advancing for free on bases should be a huge point of pride for catchers. If you want to make yours deadly, give these ideas a try.
Recently I flew down to Nashville with my wife to visit my daughter (yes, a former fastpitch pitcher), her boyfriend Andrew, and their new house. Since it wasn’t non-stop we had a lot of time in airports and on planes.
Along the way I got tired of reading the dense book I’m into right now (finally reading a textbook I was supposed to go through my freshman year of college, and I am remembering why I never finished it) so I decided to play with a Blackjack trainer I have instead. Blackjack is the only casino game I tend to play, so I’m trying to make sure if I ever go back to a casino that I have my basic game down pat.
I used to have a different trainer, one that you would play online. It was kind of fun because you could place bets and track your progress. It was also valuable because it showed even if you make all the right moves you could still lose.
This one didn’t. You simply made decisions based on the cards that were dealt, and if you made a mistake a little pop-up would tell you what you should have done instead.
At first I didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t a way to track how I was doing money-wise. Then I came to see the brilliance in the way it was set up.
Without that running total of whether I was ahead or behind, I no longer was thinking in terms of outcomes. Instead, I was 100% focused on the process, i.e., selecting the right move based on the well-established odds for the game.
We talk about this a lot with softball players – focus on the process, not the outcomes. Or as I heard it put at the NFCA Convention, master the movement not the drill.
But how often do we really live it? If you’re working with a player who has been struggling at the plate and she finally makes contact, she’s probably rewarded with a “good job!” even if it was an ugly swing. But was it really a good job?
In the batting cages, when I’m pitching front toss, I will tell hitters that I don’t care if they swing and miss 100 times as long as they’re working on what we’re working on. I would rather see a good swing and miss than a bad swing and hit.
Not because a great technical swing by itself means anything. Again, there are no style points awarded during a game.
But working on getting the swing right – mastering the movement, focusing on the process – will lead to more long-term success. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in practicing it?
The same with a pitcher. I’m ok if they’re throwing the ball all over the place if they’re working on getting the mechanics right. Because I know if they do get the mechanics right the accuracy part will take care of itself. Accuracy is an outcome, not a goal unto itself.
When I work with fielders on throwing, again I want them to focus on learning the proper mechanics so when they need to make a quick, hard throw to get a runner out they can be sure of where it’s going.
If you have to think about how you’re throwing, or guide the ball to get it to where you want it to go, you’re an error waiting to happen. Probably at a key point in the game.
To get to that point in each of these cases, however, you have to take the outcome out of it. Just like the Blackjack trainer did for me.
Yes, it’s difficult. It’s a lot easier to recognize and reward a ball that’s hit hard (no matter how it was hit) or a pitch that goes in for a strike, or a throw that reaches its target than it is to focus on the way those outcomes happened. But it’s critical if you want to be successful.
Take the outcomes out of the training in the short term and just focus on the process and the movements. Give players the opportunity to “fail up,” i.e., do the right things now so that when those habits become ingrained they have far greater success than they had just doing whatever to get by.
Learning the basic game in Blackjack doesn’t guarantee success. The odds still favor the house, and you could still quickly drop a couple of hundred dollars even if you make the right moves 100% of the time. But it does help reduce that edge considerably, which is what makes it worth the effort.
The same is true in softball. You can still strike out, or walk a batter, or throw away a ball at a critical point in a game no matter how hard you work. But you cut the odds of it considerably, which is what makes focusing on the process your best bet for long-term success.
Tell me if you’ve seen (or personally experienced) this before. A hitter looks great on the tee. All her mechanics are correct and her movements are correctly sequenced. She’s pounding the ball so hard you’re afraid it’s going to break the back of the cage.
Then you move her into a live hitting situation – doesn’t have to be a full pitch, it could be easy front toss from a short distance – and suddenly that potential game-winning swing all falls apart.
Instead of driving the ball, the hitter is popping up, especially to the opposite field, or hitting weak dribblers back to the pitcher. What the heck happened?
Odds are she’s late getting to the bat to the ball. And no matter how soon she starts, she continues to be late.
You’ve probably heard it said on many occasions that hitting is all about timing. Well, that’s true, but not always in the way you think.
It’s not just about the start time. It’s really about where the hitter’s front foot is when it’s time to swing.
The front foot landing should be the trigger for the swing (i.e., the launch of the hips) to begin. Which means it has to be down on time. If it’s not, there’s no time to execute the rest of the swing and what you’ll end up with is essentially an arm swing, with the body following afterwards.
Ok, you understand this can help when the hitter doesn’t get going on time. But your hitter, if anything, was early and yet she still was behind the actual pitch.
I call this syndrome “early to be late.” What happens is the hitter sees the pitcher go into her motion and she begins her load. Then she realizes she started too early, so she stays back in the loaded position and waits for the pitcher to release the ball.
At that point it’s game over, advantage pitcher. There is simply not going to be enough time to stride/weight shift properly, launch the hips (without the shoulders), turn the shoulders, and bring the bat to the ball.
Getting stuck on the back side during the load is deadly to hitters. What they need to do instead is “bounce off” of it. In other words, they need to “load and go” right away rather than sitting and waiting for the pitch to be thrown.
Ideally, they will adjust their start time to make that happen. But if they can’t break the habit of being early they should learn to eat up the time difference by striding/weight shifting slower to be sure the front foot is down on time so the rest of the swing can be executed.
I’ve personally seen the difference this seemingly slight change makes. Rather than struggling to get to the ball (and feeling overwhelmed, which leads to arm swings), hitters suddenly feel more in command.
They get to that “oh yeah moment,” where the ball looks like a beach ball and they’re ready to jump on it, more consistently. And avoid that “oh crap moment” where they realize right before the swing that nothing good is going to happen.
How do you get there? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall.
Ok, seriously, hitters have to train themselves to overcome their basic instincts to wait on the pitch and start striding/weight shifting, even if they feel like it’s too soon. Once they can get to that point, and see the results, they’ll be more inclined to replace the old habit with a new one.
On the tee, or even at home in a bedroom, have hitters consciously work on their “load and go” mindset. Then do front toss and look for that hesitation.
If they still can’t break the habit, stand in front of them without the ball and go through the motion, encouraging them to get off that back side and start their forward movement at the right time. Then go back to front toss, and finally to full-length pitching.
It may take some time – the mind is a powerful thing, and once it latches onto something it doesn’t always like to let go. But sooner or later a willing hitter can overcome it.
Once she does, she’ll be well on her way to becoming the hitter she wants to be. And that you want her to be.
Baseball legend Ted Williams once said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. I think it’s safe to say that not only does that statement extend to fastpitch softball, but it may apply even more given that the actual time to read, react to, and hit a pitch is comparable, but the pitchers stand closer and the ball can move both up and down through the zone (where a baseball is always traveling on a downward plane).
The point here, however, isn’t to argue that one is tougher than the other. It’s more to acknowledge that they’re both extremely difficult (as anyone who has ever done it can attest), which means any given at bat can be both exhilarating and frustrating.
That’s the reason why hitters (and their coaches) spend so much time studying the swing, and working on the swing, and sweating all the details. The goal is to create mechanics that enable hitters to get to the ball on time and hit it well and effortlessly when they do make contact.
Yet here’s the thing: while better mechanics definitely help you get to the ball more powerfully and efficiently, mechanics alone are not enough. After all, there are no style points in fastpitch softball. A beautiful swing and miss in a game is still a strike. An ugly swing that results in a fair ball no one catches is still a hit.
So yes, it takes more than good (or great) swing mechanics to be a successful hitter. You also have to have the right mental approach – one than enables you to walk to the plate with cool confidence, knowing that you are prepared to win the battle between the pitcher and you. I like to call it the “gunslinger mentality.”
And what better example of that mindset is there than Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday in the movie Tombstone? In the most tension-ridden situations he brings a sense of cool calm that not only helps him prepare for a possible gunfight but also helps avert the crisis by striking fear into the heart of his adversary.
If you haven’t seen the movie (or if you have and just want to enjoy it again), here’s a good example of Doc at his “I’ve got this situation under control” best:
And yes, the man with the rifle really is a very young (and a bit heavier) Billy Bob Thornton.
Here’s another fun example:
The movie is filled with them. In each you see that it isn’t just his reputed skill with a gun but his attitude that carries the day.
(In reality, incidentally, it’s generally believed that while Doc did have a fast draw he wasn’t exactly an accurate shot. He also killed far fewer men than he let on, probably so he wouldn’t actually have to be tested in a gunfight. But I digress.)
The key takeaway here is the swagger he brings when he walks into a tense situation, like the potential showdown with Johnny Ringo in the second clip. His “I’ve got this” attitude helps him prepare for whatever comes next.
That’s the kind of attitude hitters need to bring to the plate. Rather than worrying about the situation, or how good the pitcher is supposed to be, or whether coaches/parents/teammates will be mad at her if she fails, or any of the other doubts that can creep in when one steps into the batter’s box, hitters instead need to believe in themselves and their abilities.
If they’ve put in the work to develop their swings and learn how to see the ball well, it’s not them who should be worried. It’s the other team.
If you know (or are) a hitter who’s great in the cage but struggles in games, I recommend watching Tombstone, or at least the Doc Holliday clips on YouTube, to see what cool confidence looks like. (The whole movie is great, even if you don’t particularly care for Westerns, so it will be time well spent.)
Then encourage them to adopt a similar attitude as they step into the batter’s box. Stare down that pitcher. Give her a little smile. And finally, swing like they have everything under control. You’ll be amazed at the difference a little swagger can make.