5 Tips for Throwing Out More Runners at Second

One of the most important skills a catcher can possess is the ability to throw a runner out at second base. It’s a long throw – 84 feet, 10.25 inches to be exact – which occurs after the runner has already gained an advantage by A) leaving when the ball is released by the pitcher (or sooner, depending on who you’re playing) and B) only having to travel 60 feet.

Just from that statement alone you can see that the odds are stacked against the catcher. If the runner has 3.0 speed, and it takes the ball .4 seconds to reach the plate, that only leaves 2.6 seconds at most to catch the ball cleanly, transfer it to the hand, make the throw and have it arrive in time to catch the runner and have the fielder can apply the tag.

More realistically, you want the ball to arrive ahead of the runner, so let’s shave .3 seconds off that time. If you want to know how short a time that is, try starting and stopping a stopwatch in that amount of time. It will probably take you a couple of tries.

Then the fielder has to catch the ball and apply the tag. If the ball isn’t directly where the runner is the ball will have to be brought to the runner. Take off another .3 seconds for that. Now we’re at 2.0.

If the runner is faster, like 2.7, or anything else goes wrong, like a pitch that goes way high and has to be brought down, there’s even less time. You get the picture.

You can see why it’s such a valued skill.

While there are some aspects that are beyond your control – like that high pitch – there are definitely things catchers can do to improve their chances of throwing out more runners and building their reputations as the biggest, baddest gunslingers on the diamond. Here are five of them.

Pop up and throw instead of running up.

Many catchers, especially young ones, are taught to take a couple of steps forward before they throw to second. The goal behind this thinking generally is to help them get more velocity on the throw, although some will also talk about closing the distance. This type of thinking, incidentally, comes from baseball where the bases are 90 feet apart, not 60, so you have more time to uncork a throw.

The problem with that advice is while the catcher is running across the plate what is the runner doing? Running! And she has a head start and a full head of steam.

By the time a catcher stands up, takes a couple of steps and throws the runner has gained significant ground toward second. Not good.

The better approach is to spring up with the weight on the back leg, shoulders aligned with your target, and make the throw immediately. Yes, you may lose a little velocity on the throw, but the reality is you don’t have to get the ball to the fielder on a fly. It can roll faster than someone can run.

Two other benefits to not running across the plate are A) you won’t get hit by a batter covering the steal with a late swing (thereby getting hurt AND being called for obstruction) and B) you don’t risk slipping on the plate if it is slick or wet. Learn to pop and throw and you’ll increase your chances of throwing out more runner significantly.

Bring the glove/ball to your hand

Something you will see many young catchers do is catch the ball then reach forward to take the ball out of their gloves. It makes sense on the surface – they need the ball in their hand to throw.

The problem is reaching forward takes time. Then you have to pull the ball back to get it into throwing position before making the throw. This little delay may end up being the difference between safe and out.

A better approach is to pull the glove back to the throwing-side shoulder and have the hand meet it there. That way the act of getting the ball to the hand is part of the throw instead of a separate, delayed operation.

Slam it back and work on making it a continuous motion from transfer to ready to throw. You’ll shave a couple of tenths off your time.

BONUS TIP: If your core receiving skills are good, try learning to get the glove on the side of the ball and catch it as it comes back. As opposed to having the glove behind the ball, stopping the ball’s flight, and then having to pull it back separately. This type of raking can take another tenth or two off your time.

Improve your transfer speed

The longer it takes you to get the ball from your glove to your hand, the longer it will take you to make the throw. This is where many otherwise advanced catchers lose time.

Making the transfer is something you need to be able to do in your sleep. You just have to know where the ball is in your glove, and where your hand is, instinctively.

To get there, start by practicing the transfer with no glove. Just put the ball in your bare glove hand, then pull it back and slam it into your throwing hand. Rinse and repeat, over and over, until you’re not even paying attention to it anymore.

Then put your glove on, put the ball in it, and do the same, again over and over.

Finally, have someone toss the ball to you and work it through again until your transfer is flawless. If you can, work on the raking technique above AND work on catching the ball a little lower in the hand rather that in the webbing.

Catching it lower lets it stick out a little more so it’s easier to grab. Just be careful not to sacrifice getting a secure grip on the ball with your glove for trying to get faster. You have to get the ball to your hand before you can transfer it.

Practice the transfer and throw blindfolded

This is one of my favorite activities to do when I run a catching clinic.

When a catcher goes to make the throw, she shouldn’t need to look for where the base is or how to get herself aligned. That wastes time.

Yet you see it all the time. That little hesitation before they’re sure of where they’re throwing.

So to get past that, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her pop up and make the throw to second. For extra fun you can place an object at second and have her try to knock it off the base with her throw, offering a prize if she succeeds.

If you have multiple catchers you can make a contest out of it. It could be the first to knock it off gets a prize, or everyone who does it gets a prize. Doing the latter, by the way, is a great way to build some team spirit as they start rooting for each other.

A catcher who can hit a small target 84 feet, 10.25 inches away blindfolded, after starting in a squat, is a catcher who can accomplish anything.

Follow through on the throw

A lot of catchers, and a lot of players really, tend to stop their bodies when they are fully facing their target. Of course, to stop you first must slow down, which is the worst thing you can do when trying to perform any ballistic activity.

Encourage your catchers to throw not just with their arms but with their whole bodies. That means you should see the throwing side come through once the throw is made. That extra burst of energy will help ensure they get the most “pop” on their throws.

Get ’em

A catcher that can erase a runner trying to move into scoring position is worth her weight in gold. And since coaches rarely send their turtles to try a catcher’s arm, even coming close to throwing out the first runner is a good way to send a message to that coach that his/her team better be able to hit because there will be no freebies today.

And as word gets around, you probably won’t have to make as many throws because teams just know better than to try to steal on you.

Work on these techniques and you’ll have yourself an MVP year.

A Former Collegiate Pitcher Tells Her Overuse Injury Story

I have talked in the past about the dangers of the “it’s a natural motion” myth and how it can lead to overuse injuries. A quick search on the term will turn up article after article from orthopedic surgeons who have to deal with the aftermath of overzealous coaches who love to win and enthusiastic parents who just love watching their daughters do what they love.

How common are overuse injuries? While this study of 181 NCAA collegiate pitchers across all divisions is admittedly pretty old, it shows that 70% of the reported injuries were due to overuse. With the increase in the number of games that are now being played at the youth levels of travel ball, starting at 10U or even earlier, plus the even greater emphasis on winning, it’s unlikely this situation has gotten better.

But all of that is pretty abstract. That’s why I wanted to share this Tik Tok video from my friend and fellow pitching coach Gina Furrey, who talks about the overuse injuries she suffered as a pitcher. It is actually the first in a series, so be sure to watch all of them.

Coach Gina doing what she loves!

Gina currently gives pitching lessons in the Nashville, Tennessee area under the business name Furrey Fastpitch. If you’re in that area and looking for a great coach who will teach you proper mechanics be sure to contact her. You can also find Furrey Fastpitch on Facebook and on Instagram at @furreyfastpitch.

Before that, though, she was a player who played travel ball at the highest levels before going on to pitch at St. Mary-of-the-Woods college. In her first video she describes how she can probably count on one hand the number of games she didn’t pitch for her various teams throughout her career. That’s a LOT of pitching.

She then goes on to tell how her collegiate career was cut short by an injury attributed to overuse – the cumulative effect of thousands of hours practicing and pitching in games, often with very little rest. I don’t want to go into too many details because it’s Gina’s story to tell.

The biggest reason I think every coach and every parent of a pitcher should watch Gina’s videos, however, is to see her demonstrate her range of motion today. When you see what she can do with her non-pitching arm versus her pitching arm it’s pretty scary.

Not to mention the pain she deals with every day. In my opinion, all the plastic trophies and gaudy rings and plaques and championship t-shirts in the world are not worth trading for an ability to move your arm and shoulder in a normal way.

One caveat I’d like to add is that this caution isn’t only limited to pitchers with poor mechanics. Yes, having very clean pitching mechanics can help prevent injury overall, but over use is over use. Repetitive motions, especially high-energy motions that depend on sudden accelerations and decelerations, can take a huge toll on muscles, ligaments, tendons and other body parts.

Do yourself a favor. Please, please, please, watch Gina’s videos and hear her story. It could save you or someone you love a lifetime of pain and limitations that can easily be avoided.

Drill for Learning the Riseball Spin

The riseball has been called the “scholarship pitch.” And for good reason.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t really break upward as it approaches the hitter (despite what you may have heard on TV) a well-thrown riseball often gives the illusion of doing so. It’s all about how our brains perceive the information they’re receiving – just as there are no dots in the grid below even though it appears there are.

This will drive you crazy for a little while.

The key to the riseball illusion is the backspin. The more you can achieve a 12-6 spin, i.e., the ball spinning from the bottom to the top as it approaches the hitter (versus a standard fastball or drop ball which spins from the top to the bottom) the better it works.

(Of course, being able to throw it 70 mph makes the direction of the spin less important, but that’s a story for another day.)

The challenge many pitchers face when they first start learning the riseball is that getting your hand into the proper position to throw it is not that easy. It’s a significant change, in fact, from the foundational mechanics most pitchers learn.

As I’ve posted many times, the best way to throw the fastball/drop ball is to keep the inside of the forearm facing toward first base with the fingers pointing down, then release it as the forearm and hand pronate inwards. But even if you’re a “hello elbow”-type pitcher, your fingers will be pointed down at release; you’re just doing it earlier than you should.

With a riseball, to achieve backspin you need to have your hand cupped under the ball, i.e., pointed toward third base. And you need to do that before getting to release so you’re not trying to bring the fingers up at the same time you’re trying to release the ball, which would create top-to-bottom, bullet/gyro or some other less-than-desirable spin.

Getting cupped under at the right time allows the ball to be released over the back thumb with a slicing motion. Yet getting to that position can be difficult as it is a different movement pattern than pitchers, especially younger ones, are used to.

Facing that issue myself, I came up with an idea to help pitchers feel the hand/wrist position better. You can see it here in the video.

Regular readers know I’m a fan of using walls, constraints and other things to create a more tactile experience for pitchers. You can say “get your hand under the ball” until you’re blue in the face, but if it’s not connecting you need to try something else.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. After a couple of minutes of slowly tracing the fingers on the wall, we went back to spinning an actual ball.

And whaddya know? It worked!

It wasn’t perfect every time, but whereas before she was getting top spin or bullet spin now she was starting to achieve backspin more often than not. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.

So if your pitcher is having trouble getting the hang of spinning the ball backwards give this a try. Hopefully you can get a breakthrough as well.

More Evidence that Wrist Snaps Are a Waste of Time

You see it on fields and in cages everywhere you go: one or more pitchers lined up five feet in front of their catchers (or a wall) forcibly pushing a ball out of their hands by snapping their wrists up. Meanwhile, the pitching coach talks about how important a hard wrist snap is to maximizing the speed of the pitch.

As I have discussed before, this way of thinking is a holdover from the days before high-speed video enabled us to see what was really going on during the release phase of the pitch. What people perceive as a hard wrist snap is really a reaction to other things happening in the pitching motion, especially the sudden deceleration of forearm due to internal rotation and brush contact.

Giving up old beliefs, however, is difficult. I know it, because I’ve had to do it numerous times and it didn’t come easily. Most of us hate to admit when we’re wrong about something (some more than others), so we fight tooth and nail to justify what we’ve been doing or teaching.

Heck, I taught wrist snaps for a few years too before I saw the truth, and it wasn’t like I flipped the light switch one day and stopped. But when I realized that at best they were a waste of time and at worst they were preventing my students from maximizing their speed I stopped.

Of course, it helps to have evidence of what you’re promoting. That’s why I was excited to see this video experiment pitching guru (and personal friend) Rick Pauly created. Rick is driving force behind High Performance Pitching (full disclosure: I am an Elite Level certified coach at HPP) as well as the father of a pretty darned good pitcher who has had a long and distinguished career, first in college and then as a pro in the U.S. and Japan.

In this experiment, Rick place a bowler’s wrist brace on the pitching hand of a pitcher. If you’re not familiar with them, these braces are used to prevent the wrist from moving during the delivery of a bowling ball. They basically freeze it in place, preventing any kind of a forward snapping motion to protect bowlers from injury.

Here’s a video of the pitcher throwing with the wrist brace in place:

Within four pitches, using the wrist brace for the first time, this pitcher was able to throw within a half mile per hour of her top speed for that lesson. My guess is with a little more time to get used to it, the brace would have had zero effect on her speed.

This is an experiment you may want to try yourself. Have your daughter or other pitcher throw a few pitches as she normally does, and get a speed reading with a reliable radar gun on a tripod.

Then put the wrist brace on and have her throw a few more pitches. If she’s trying to throw hard at all you will likely find the same results.

By the way, if you do perform this experiment let us know how it comes out. I plan to pick up a wrist brace and try it as well.

The state of knowledge is evolving all the time, so it’s important to keep up. You wouldn’t want your doctor to automatically bring out the leeches no matter what you went in for, would you?

The same is true for pitching. The more you seek out the latest information, such as the effect a hard, forced wrist snap really has on pitch speeds, the better you’ll be able to serve your pitchers.

More to Choosing an Instructor Than Mechanics

Back when I was a lad of about 7 or 8, my parents acquired a piano from a friend and decided I learn to play. That was fine – I have always loved music, and continue to until this day. Then I got to meet my teacher.

Her name was Sister Cecilia, and she was a nun at the Catholic church who looked to be about 150 years old. That wasn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem was with her approach.

Looking back on it I believe she was teaching me the correct techniques, and having an innate musical ability (I have played a dozen or so instruments through my life) I got to be pretty good at it. But it was a horrible drudge.

Being 150 year old, Sister Cecelia was very focused on scales and exercises – the musical equivalent of drills. It was pretty much all we did.

The few songs I got to play were nothing that interested me, just simplified classical pieces or maybe a Christmas standard around the holidays. Understand that this was during the 1960s, perhaps the greatest musical decade ever.

Yet instead of learning to play “Let It Be” or even “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” I was stuck inside on a nice day plugging away at songs I didn’t know and that were considered ancient even before I was born. Needless to say, I got out of it as soon as I could, which was still three years of misery.

I tell this story today because I know there are parents out there looking for softball instructors for their daughters. When they ask what to look for, the answers they frequently receive revolve around the mechanics of what they teach, or how many players they have placed in college, or what travel teams their students play for, etc.

All of those factors have a bearing on the decision. But one other element that should be observed and considered is whether that instructor will be able to light a spark in your daughter.

Will the instructor be able to relate to and engage your daughter? Will your daughter look forward to lessons and want to work at home, or will she sigh heavily when it’s time to head off to the lesson?

Because no matter what the instructor knows or how good his/her track record may be, if he/she doesn’t get your daughter excited to learn what he/she is teaching it’s unlikely much learning will take place. I can attest to that from first-hand experience.

So how do you know? One way to get a preview is to watch how the instructor teaches other players.

You know your daughter, how she relates to others and how she thinks. Does it seem like the way the instructor interacts with students will be helpful to your daughter?

Lessons don’t have to be a birthday party without the cake. But they shouldn’t feel like sitting for the Bar exam either.

There are all kinds of styles of learning and teaching, and not every one matches with everybody. If your daughter is meek and easily intimidated, a gruff instructor who is all business is probably not going to bring out the best in her. On the other hand, if your daughter is very serious and businesslike, a coach who likes to goof around and tell stories may not be a good fit either.

The ultimate test, of course, will be what happens when the two get together. You should always consider the first lesson or two as being on a trial basis. Take the instructor for a test drive and see how your daughter reacts.

If she enjoys it, great! You could be on your way to a lasting relationship. But if she clearly isn’t enjoying it or relating to the instructor (outside of perhaps being uncomfortable working with someone new) you should probably keep looking -even if your daughter doesn’t say anything about it. Kids are often afraid to speak up.

Ideally, what you want is an instructor who is A) knowledgeable B) keeps up with the game C) teaches skills that will maximize performance while protecting your daughter from in jury D) has a good track record and E) ultimately will inspire your daughter to fulfill her potential.

Most people tend to focus on A-D. But having E is just as important.

Take that little bit of extra effort to ensure the “soft stuff” is there, and that the instructor knows how to bring out the best in each student. You’ll be glad you did in the long run.

Old person photo by Luizmedeirosph on Pexels.com

Well, Thank Goodness THAT’s Over

And by that, of course, I mean 2020. Of all the steaming pile of cow pie years, 2020 had to be the steamiest.

No offense, ma’am.

But now it’s finally in the rear view mirror. Today is the first day of 2021 (not to mention the rest of your life if you’re into 1970s poster philosophy). And at the risk of having my optimism for the new year come back to bite me in a most ironic way – as in halfway through 2021 we’re longing for the good old, carefree days of 2021 – here are a few thoughts on how you can best take advantage of it.

First is to be grateful for the opportunity to play at all. In the middle of a long, grinding season it’s easy to fall into the trap of grumbling about how once again you have to get up at 6:00 am on a Saturday (or earlier) to play in an 8:00 am game. Or be away for the entire weekend when you have finals to study for. Or miss a party or event because you have practice.

One fewer error and we could’ve slept in ’til noon.

For much of 2020 that wasn’t a problem, and it wasn’t nearly as nice as you thought it might be. Every career has an expiration date on it.

Some are further out than others, but they all have one. And once it’s expired there’s no going back. Appreciate that you have the opportunity to play the greatest game in the world at a level that challenges you. Because you will miss it one day. I guarantee that.

Now that you’re in the right frame of mind it’s time to make the most of that opportunity. If your coach has taken the time and effort to evaluate your performance over the last several games (or the previous season) and offer suggestions on areas where you can improve, take it seriously and make an effort to improve them.

For example, if you are a middle infielder who has trouble going to her forehand side and making the play, get someone to hit you a few thousand balls to your forehand side. If you can’t find anyone who can hit them reliably, get someone to roll them that way.

Learn to “run the mountain” on hard-hit balls that might get through, and learn to bend your knees rather than your waist to get down to the ball when you’re close. When you get good at that, practice diving for balls.

Lay a nice, thick mat down to your glove side, have someone toss the ball across the mat, and dive in a way where you land on the mat. It will safely give you the practice you need, even inside, and it’s fun.

You can also improve on softball-specific conditioning. Yes, most people don’t like conditioning, or only like it when what they’re working on comes easily. But if your skills are strong, conditioning can make the difference between good and great.

Not all of this conditioning has to be in a formal setting with expensive equipment. Or even during a formal conditioning session.

If you’re just sitting around watching TV, listening to music, or hanging around at the beach, try doing it while planking or doing wall sits. If you’re watching TV, maybe start out trying to hold it for one commercial (30 seconds), then two commercials (one minute) an entire commercial break (roughly three minutes) and then through a segment of the show (which will vary).

The fact that she is smiling while doing this means we can never be friends.

The time will pass quickly with the added distraction, and you’ll get in shape rather than feeling like you’re wasting time. If you make a strong commitment to it you can even declare you’re going to work out when you flip on the TV.

Another good form of important but easy-to-execute-anywhere conditioning is grip strength improvement. You can squeeze a stress ball or some other grip strength improvement tool while you’re reading, or watching videos, or plotting to take over the world.

Better grip strength will help you transfer more energy into the ball as a pitcher, fielder or hitter, control the bat better during your swing, field more smoothly and a hundred other things. Multitasking on improving it will pay significant benefits in the long run.

It will also help you prepare for Festivus feats of strength.

Then, of course, there’s the outrageous idea of approaching every formal practice as an opportunity to get better rather than an obligation to be endured. So many players just show up and walk through whatever drills and skills the coach has laid out for the day rather than gaining any benefit.

Do your best to understand what the purpose of each drill is, and then go for it 100%. If you don’t know the purpose of the drill, ask what it is. You will probably find it easier to go all-out and get some benefits from it if you understand why you’re doing the drill.

Another good habit to get into is studying what the best players at your position do when they’re playing the game, and compare it to what you do.

Look for video clips of the best pitchers, catchers, fielders, hitters, base runners, etc. and save them to your phone or device. Then download an app such as Coach’s Eye or Kinovea and have someone capture clips of you, either in practice or in games.

The last step is to lay them side-by-side in your app and compare what they’re doing to what you’re doing. If there is a significant difference, such as you are leading your swing with your arms while they lead their swings with their hips/core, you may want to re-thinking what you’re doing.

You may be succeeding, but if you’re not matching up there’s a real chance you could do significantly better by more closely matching what top players do. That doesn’t mean you have to be a clone of any one player – we’re all different – but you at least want to resemble them overall.

Oh, and don’t match yourself to just one. Take what’s common across all or most of them and use that as your baseline. Then you can adjust those fundamentals to best suit your body type, strength level and personality.

We all have our fingers crossed that 2021 will be more of a return to “normal” for the softball world. But “normal” doesn’t have to mean “the same.”

Take what you’ve learned in 2020 about what a lack of softball means, and use that to help you get yourself ready to play at a higher level in 2021.

Good luck, happy new year, and have a great season!

Cow photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Planking photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com

Sleep photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Arm wrestling photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

Taking a Chess-Like Approach to Softball Skills Development

Every couple of decades or so, something comes along that increases the general public’s interest in chess.

In the 1970s it was Bobby Fischer and his rise to become World Chess Champion. His victory was important because it was during the Cold War, at a time the Russians were dominating the chess scene.

In the 1990s it was the development of Deep Blue, IBM’s supercomputer that became the first to win a chess game and a chess match against a reigning world champion, this time Garry Kasparov. If you like all the processing power you now get in a mobile phone, you can thank Deep Blue for some of it.

Of course, right now it’s the Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit that is making chess cool. Well, maybe not cool. Being captain of the high school chess club still isn’t nearly as good for your social standing as being captain of the football team or the cheerleading squad. But at least the show makes it a little less nerdy.

Or maybe not.

But whether you like chess or not (and you can count me in the “not” category for sure, since my idea of playing chess as a kid was to line up the big pieces and throw the pawns at them until they were all knocked off the board) there is a valuable lesson to be learned from how great players approach the game. The lesson is that to be successful in the long term in softball you have to have the right approach.

Beginners and your basic amateurs tend to be very transactional in their approach. They see a piece that’s vulnerable and they take it. If there’s nothing there, they make a move and hope something better shows up on their turn. It’s all about making something happen now.

Chess masters, however, take a different approach. They patiently work to get all the right pieces in all the right places so they can mount a powerful attack at the right time and win the game.

Sometimes that means sacrificing the most powerful piece on the board to gain an advantage. (That’s the queen for those who know even less than I do about chess.)

Now you know why this is funny.

But that process of putting all the pieces in place before striking is what makes them successful.

That same philosophy applies to improving softball skills. In our sport, we love to measure things. So, say, if a pitcher is increasing her speed on a regular basis there is a temptation to believe all is well. It’s a transactional approach based on immediate gratification.

But the success she’s experiencing right now may end up leading to long-term failure, or at least some unnecessary limitations, if she’s not improving her actual skills. Because poor technique, even when combined with great athleticism, can only take you so far.

To experience real growth and development, sometimes you first have to put all the pieces in place, i.e., break down the movements and replace them with better movements. That can be difficult for some, because it might actually mean regressing in terms of performance measures for a little while.

Take our pitcher again. She’s a big, strong girl who has managed to throw 55 mph by just muscling up and chucking the ball in there.

But she eventually wants to play at a higher level, against better competition, and knows she’s reached the limits of what she can do with what she has, so she decides she needs to improve her technique. What she will probably find, however, is that before her numbers go up they may go down some.

The reason, of course, is that when she was doing what she used to do, she was able to do it with all the enthusiasm and energy she could muster. Now that she’s trying to make changes she can no longer do that.

Her pitching motion may feel awkward and uncomfortable for a little while as she gets used to the new technique. Or maybe the only way she can learn to relax and execute the new motion is go at 70% energy for a little while. Either way, she goes from 55 to 51 and no doubt begins to wonder if she’s doing herself a favor.

If she’s done her homework, however, and selected a coach who knows what he/she is doing (not always a given, unfortunately), the payoff will come – once all the pieces are in place and she can once again put 100% into every pitch.

This approach isn’t just limited to pitching. It’s the same for pretty much anything in softball, and any athletic movement in any sport for that matter.

Making substantive changes is hard because we all want to fall back into our old habits. It takes time and repetition to replace old habits with new ones.

Yes, it would be nice if someone could just say “do this” or “do that” and improvement would come instantly. But it would be a whole lot less satisfying.

If you’re looking to make real improvement in your softball skills, follow the lead of great chess players. Get all your pieces in place, i.e., fix everything that needs fixing, then go for it with everything you’ve got using your new skills.

By keeping your eye on the long game you’ll ultimately experience far more success – and have a lot more fun in the process.

Chess pieces photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Nerd photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Right Now Is A Great Time to Work on the Mental Game

Ask any coach, especially one whose teams play at a high level, how important the mental game is on a scale from one to 10 and you’ll probably get an answer of between eight and 10. Of course if you then follow up by asking them what percentage of practice time they spend working on their team’s mental game, the answer will likely be 10% or less.

Because while everyone will agree the mental game is important, spending practice time fielding ground balls and doing hitting drills, or doing anything physically active, just “feels” more like practice.

Now that Zoom sessions have replaced physical practices in many areas, however, it may be time to re-think what you’re doing. It’s the “making lemonade out of lemons” approach.

When you think about it, Zoom (or whatever communication tool you use) sessions actually lend themselves even better to the mental game than the physical game. With the physical game you have to set up a camera or phone and hope the players stay in range as they move around, doing drills. But with the mental game, most of what you need to do can be accomplished while sitting comfortably in a chair.

For example, you can quiz your team to see how well they understand the rules. The quiz can be an oral quiz on the spot, or you can email a document to all your players, have them fill it out in advance, and then go over the answers on the call. Some technologies even have polling features that can be adapted to a live quiz.

Another way to work the mental game is by doing a screen share of diagramming software such as this one or this one or this one to go over various plays. You can show new plays, or describe the situation and the hit and then ask your players what their responsibilities are.

A Zoom call is also great for helping players learn how to manage stress. There are all kinds of techniques, such as those found in Heads Up Baseball (one of my favorite books on the subject) that you can go over and have your players practice applying. For example, you can teach them the stoplight analogy and how to do it to keep themselves from getting out of control.

Another way to use a Zoom call to good advantage is to have them work on visualization. Studies have shown that visualization can be as powerful as physical practice in helping players improve their physical skills, yet when was the last time you took time out of practice to help your players learn to visualize success? Now you can.

If you need more ideas, just do a quick Internet search on “mental game exercises,” or follow this link to the search I did. There are tons of ideas out there that can help you develop mentally tough players, even from a distance.

Of course, in addition to developing your players’ mental game you can also use Zoom calls to build cohesiveness within the team. There are plenty of games and exercises you can use to help your players get to know each other better and create the sort of bonds that keep high-level teams performing at a high level.

As Steve Martin says in the underrated movie My Blue Heaven, “You guys see a problem. I see an opportunity.”

Take some of those Zoom sessions where you’re struggling to find a way to run a regular practice and focus instead on the mental game. You’ll be amazingly pleased with the results come next spring – or whenever you start playing regularly again.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The Importance of Developing a Pitching Staff

Today’s post was inspired by a Zoom session with Rick Pauly of Paulygirl Fastpitch and High Performance Pitching. Always important to give credit where it’s due!

The overall topic of the session was on keeping pitchers healthy. But one of the points covered, in my mind, was of particular importance – the need to develop a pitching staff.

We’ve probably all heard the statement that fastpitch softball’s windmill pitching motion is “safe” and “natural.” Implied within that message is “therefore you can pitch the heck out of your pitchers, every inning of every game, without having to worry about them getting hurt.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s “safe.” Mushrooms are natural. But there are whole species of them that are anything but safe.

Could be deliciousness, could be death. Care to roll the dice, Karen?

Pitching a softball, at least when done correctly, requires a series of violent, ballistic movements. Over time, especially when there isn’t enough rest in-between sessions, those movements no matter how mechanically sound can take their toll on bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, etc.

When they do, you end up with injuries, some of which can be severe or even career-threatening. Even if they’re not bad enough to sit a pitcher down they can cause enough pain for her to change her mechanics to prevent that feeling, which can have further effects downstream.

The key to avoiding these types of overuse injuries is to abandon the old school approach of riding one pitcher’s arm for the entire season and instead developing a pitching staff. There are different ways you can do that.

The simplest is to bring on 3-5 pitchers who rotate starts, with the assumption they will pitch the whole game. In a travel ball weekend with seven games, where you have three pitchers, each would pitch two and the three could split the third one. Your choice whether that happens at the beginning or the end of the tournament.

In a high school season with one game per day Tuesday-Friday and two on Saturday, each would get two. In a college season with games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday or two on Saturday and one Sunday, each would get one game.

That, of course, assumes that all three pitchers are fairly comparable. If you have one Ace and two others who are just ok, you may have to look at splitting games between the two who are ok while letting the Ace pitch complete games.

But that’s not the only approach. You can also look at it more like baseball does, with pitchers who fill different roles depending on how the game goes.

You might have a girl who can throw unhittable gas for two innings then gets gassed herself. She might better serve the team as the “closer” who can protect tight leads toward the end of the game.

Your fair-to-middlin’ pitchers might do well as a bridge between a high-quality starter and the closer. You’re not expecting those pitchers to win the game for you; you just want them to keep the game manageable until it’s time to either bring in the closer or bring back the Ace, who now has more innings available without the risk of injury.

You can also do it by who matches up best to a particular team. While it’s probably less effective in the highest levels of D1, in many other levels throwing a pitcher who’s a little slower than average, or relies on movement rather than overpowering speed, might be enough to throw off a team that just finished a week and/or weekend facing high heat in every game. It all depends on the hitters’ ability to adjust.

I’ve seen that one work with my own daughter Stefanie back in the day. Her team was playing an opponent her coaches expected to blow them out. They even came over to where the parents were and warned us the game would be a rough one. (I was merely there as a parent for this game, by the way.)

So of course, rather than waste who they thought was their best pitcher on a blowout, they gave the game to Stefanie. Only instead of getting blown out she confounded them with a mix of drops, curves and changes and held them to two runs as I recall.

Unfortunately, sensing blood and a possible upset the head coach, who clearly had no idea why Stefanie was being effective decided to replace her with their Ace in the fourth inning. As you can probably guess, the Ace got lit up quickly and that was the end of that.

Which brings me to an important reminder: when your pitcher is doing well, just go with it. Don’t question it, don’t get clever or think you’re going to put something over on someone. As the saying goes, ride that horse ’til he bucks you.

Another good reason to have a staff is even if you have an Ace, somewhere out there is a team that practices hitting the way your Ace pitches. In other words, they’ll be all over her like stink on batting gloves.

If you have no other options it’s going to make for a long afternoon. And it could damage your Ace’s psyche a bit too, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season. But throwing in a change of pace pitcher might throw your opponents off while saving the Ace for a game where the other team doesn’t match up so well.

The days of riding one pitcher’s arm for the season are long gone. Everyone plays too many games, and the hitting has improved considerably in our sport since it first started getting population.

Develop a staff and give yourself options. It’s better for the pitchers (and their health). And it’s better for the team’s chances of success too.

Mushroom photo by Visually Us on Pexels.com

Chutes and Ladders…and Softball

Not too long ago I talked about how I love this time of the year because you have the ability to make big changes without the pressure of performing in games.

Pitchers can work on speed without worrying about accuracy. Hitters can work on driving the ball without worrying about striking out. Catchers can work on pop times without worrying about throwing the ball to the center field fence. And so on.

What’s not to like, right? With all that unfettered ability to go full bore at improvement you should be able to make tremendous improvement in a short time. Right?

Well, not exactly. The thing is, improvement isn’t always a straight line up. In softball, as in most sports, it’s more like the old children’s board game Chutes and Ladders.

You remember that one. You roll the die and move your piece the number of spaces shown on the space.

Sometimes it results in nothing. You just move forward that many spaces.

Sometimes it brings you to a ladder, and you get to skip a whole bunch of spaces by climbing the ladder. That’s great progress, and a quick shortcut to winning.

But sometimes, your roll of the die brings you to a chute. When that happens, you fall back down the board, a little or a lot, and then have to claw your way back to where you were before you can continue moving toward a win.

The same can happen with softball skills, especially if you’re trying to improve something fundamental.

Whether your mechanics are right or wrong, when you get comfortable with them you can use all your athletic ability to execute them. You’re at maximum energy and maximum speed.

All that goes out the window when you start making a fundamental change. You have to think about what you’re doing and it slows you down.

It probably feels a bit awkward too. Because if what you were doing before didn’t feel natural you probably would not have been doing it.

The result is your performance may go down the chute temporarily. If you’re a pitcher you may lose a little speed, or a pitch that was working pretty well may not work as well anymore.

If you’re a hitter you may swing and miss a little more, or might lose some bat speed.

But that’s ok. It’s normal and natural. You need to be patient and trust the plan.

Because one day, when you have internalized the changes, the payoff will be there. If you’re pursuing the right changes all the chutes you have to endure will be worth it. Because eventually you will hit a ladder and get that much closer to your goals.

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