The 3D Printer Approach to Softball Success

3D printer

A few years ago, one of my day job clients took me out back onto the shop floor to show me this cool new technology they were using to create prototypes of products in development.

“It’s a 3D printer,” the client told me. “We program in what we want based on CAD drawings, and then it produces a complete sample, down to every nook and cranny.” Then she showed me how it worked.

Basically, the head on the printer would slide along at high speed, depositing thin layer after thin layer of plastic (or whatever substance they used). At first, it looked like an indistinguishable blob, but slowly, over time, whatever it was they were making began to take shape until a finished product finally came out.

That is very similar to the way building a successful softball player works. You start out with some raw materials and an idea of what the finished product will be. But then you have to build the player, layer by layer, which takes time and patience.

I think it’s the second half of that equation – patience – that tends to make people stop the “machine” before the finished product is created. These days in our instant-everything world, everyone wants what they want right the heck now.

They don’t want to put in hours and hours of practice just to realize a slight improvement, such as adding one mile an hour as a pitcher or hitting the ball another 20 feet as a batter. They want a magic drill or technique that will enable them to go from throwing 48 mph to 60+ mph in a couple of weeks, or turn them from a .225 hitter to a .440 hitter with an OPS over 1.0.

That would be nice, but it simply doesn’t work that way. As I always say, if I could make you a star in one lesson every lesson would cost $1,000 and there would be a line a mile long down the street to get that lesson.

Instead, you have to operate like the 3D printer. If you stand there and watch it as it works, you’re likely to get bored and maybe fall asleep. It just keeps on grinding away.

Over time, however, it produces something beautiful and useful. Of course, if all you see is the end product you have no idea how much work, how many passes of the print head went into it. You can just admire the result.

It’s the same with players. If you just look at the player shining on the field you have no concept of the number of pitches, swings, ground balls, fly balls, etc. that player did before you ever saw the bright, shiny player she is now.

I know, because I’ve seen it. Parents will tell me how funny it is when someone says about their daughter, “Wow, it must be nice to be so talented that it just comes naturally to her.”

Those people making that comment weren’t there when that same girl was sitting on the bench because her coaches didn’t think she was good enough to be on the field. They weren’t there when she struggled to get a hit, or to find the plate when she was pitching, or making awful errors on easy fielding plays. They weren’t there when she left a practice or lesson on the verge of tears because she couldn’t quite get a skill.

But they also weren’t there when she was in the back yard throwing pitches or hitting off a tee into a net, determine to get better. And get better she did, little by little, layer by layer, until her skills equaled and then surpassed her less-dedicated teammates and she came into her own.

It’s easy to look at who a player is today and assume that’s always who she has been – i.e., she has always been a star. But more often than not, most great players have a story of struggle to share.

The key, however, is understanding that any deficiencies someone may have now don’t have to define who they are in the future. With a fair helping of dedication and determination, along with a little knowledgeable guidance, players can build their skills, mental approach and confidence to become the fastpitch softball players (and people) they are meant to be.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Please share your stories in the comments of your daughters, or kids you’ve coached, who may have started out on the low end but eventually went on to great softball success.

Oh, and here’s a cool time lapse video of some things being made with a 3D printer.

3D printer photo © 2011 Keith Kissel.

Book Review: Spanking the Yankees – 366 Days of Bronx Bummers

Spanking the Yankees

AUTHOR’S NOTE: While technically this post isn’t about fastpitch softball, I know many softball coaches, players, parents and fans are also followers of our sport’s older, slower cousin so once again I diverge slightly from the usual path to bring you what I’m sure many will find to be a fun read. 

There is probably no sports franchise that is more storied than the New York Yankees. Love ’em or hate ’em (and there are plenty on both sides) you have to admit that they have long been considered the Gold Standard for success.

In fact, often the best or most dominant teams in other sports are referred to as “The New York Yankees of (FILL IN THE BLANK).”

With all that adoration/hype, it’s tempting to believe the myth that the Yankees have achieved this rarefied status by being able to avoid the missteps, boneheaded plays, under-performing superstars and other issues that plague the rest of the league.

Spanking the Yankees – 366 Days of Bronx Bummers” by Gabriel Schechter busts that myth wide open. It turns out they’ve made just as many untimely errors, had as many failed saves and critical strikeouts, secured as many draft day and free agent busts, and suffered through as many poor management decisions (looking at you George Steinbrenner) as anyone else. They’ve just managed to win 27 World Series rings in spite of it all.

The author makes no bones about his point of view or reason for writing the book; he has hated the Yankees his entire life, and thus takes particular delight in documenting every misstep in the 318-page tome. Yet you can also detect his grudging respect for what the Yankees have accomplished since they began to play more than 100 years ago.

(Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, so when my Yankees-loving friend Ray Minchew complains that the Yankees haven’t won a World Series in eight years I have zero sympathy for him. That’s the perspective I come from.)

The book is actually a quick and easy read. It is set up like a journal, walking readers through a day-by-day accounting of the worst thing that happened to the Yankees on a particular day, regardless of the year. Here’s an excerpt from May 8, 1990:

The Yankees lose to the A’s for the fifth time already this season, a 5-0 pasting in Oakland. “This is tough,” admits Yankees manager Bucky Dent. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Get used to it, Bucky. The A’s sweep all 12 games from the Yankees this season, outscoring them 62-12 in the process (0-2-0-1-0-1-0-1-1-1-2-3). On second thought, Bucky, never mind. Four weeks later, he is liberated from his Bronx bondage, ending his managing tenure with a record of 36-53. Some guy they call “Stump” takes his place, and the Yankees finish dead last in their division with a 67-95 record.

Hilarious.

This short format, by the way, makes it ideal for bathroom reading, airplanes and other travel, waiting rooms and other places where you need to be able to get into and out of it easily. Although once you get hooked you’ll probably want to keep going anyway.

Its three sections begin with Opening Day (which occurs on different days) and the regular season, followed by postseason play (with loving emphasis on World Series losses – yes the Yankees have lost more World Series than most teams have played in) and then the offseason. Anecdotes go all the way back to the days when the Yankees were known as the New York Highlanders and played at the Polo Grounds.

So by now you’re probably thinking this is a great gift for a Yankees-hater or the casual baseball fan. You might also want to pick it up to needle your Yankees-loving friend. But funny thing about that.

The Yankees fans I know have a love-hate relationship with the ballclub, and they like to wallow in the misery as much as anyone else.

Yankees fans may actually find the book cathartic, opening up old wounds and letting them once again wonder why certain players never seemed to come through in the postseason, why a particular manager couldn’t handle a bullpen very well, why management paid so much for a free agent that was a star before and after their time in New York but was a total bust while wearing pinstripes and about dozens of other issues that have made their blood boil through the years.

If you love baseball, love or hate the Yankees, or just want a quick, fun read to take your mind off of whatever is bothering you in your real life, give “Spanking the Yankees” a look. I think you’ll find it’s time well-spent.

For Better Hitting, Use Your Shoulder Eye

While it might sound like this is a post specifically for mutants, “shoulder eye” is a concept I came up with to help hitters stop dropping their back shoulders toward the catcher before they begin to rotate their hips to fire the swing. The premise is you want the imaginary eye on your shoulder to turn and get a look at the ball before you start to tilt into the swing.

This is an issue I see all the time, especially on low pitches. As soon as a hitter spots that the pitch is low, he/she will start dropping the shoulder to get down to the ball. That’s just wrong on so many levels.

For example, if you drop the shoulder back and down instead of bringing it forward first you lose the ability to fully adjust to pitch locations. You’re kind of locked into a zone, and if you guessed wrong there isn’t much you can do about it except swing and miss or hit a weak ground ball or popup.

If you turn first, keeping the shoulder up, you can then take a little more time (even if it’s just a couple hundredths of a second, everything helps) to see where the ball is, then tilt only as much as is needed. You can work from high to low, enabling you to cover more of the strike zone AND get a better bat angle.

Another issue with dropping back is that it tends to restrict your ability to move the hips forward effectively. All your weight is pressing down on your back side making it difficult rotate quickly and efficiently. Even if you get your hips to turn you won’t be generating much power out of them.

If you turn your shoulder eye forward first, you can unweight your back side so it can drive quickly around your front side and generate power. You can then get a proper hips-shoulders-bat swing that will help you drive balls into the gap or over the fence rather than seeing most of your contacts end up staying in the infield.

The idea of not dropping the back shoulder toward the catcher before rotation isn’t new, by the way. It’s a fairly standard instruction.

Hitters are told to land with their front shoulder lower than the back, turn a certain way, and do all sorts of other things. But they don’t always understand the instruction in a way that makes it easy to execute.

The shoulder eye concept does. Telling a hitter he/she has an eye on the shoulder, and it has to look forward before the shoulder drops, is visual (no pun intended) and easy to understand.

Originally I would tell hitters just to visualize the shoulder eye. But then one day it occurred to me – why not give them an actual shoulder eye?

A few bucks on Amazon later I had enough stickers to teach a small army of hitters. With 4,000 of them I’m guessing it’s a lifetime supply, even with my habit of giving a few to hitters who want to use them at home or at practice as well.

And why not? It’s fun and effective. Even my students who are college players like the stickers and find the concept valuable in helping them hit bombs.

So if you have a hitter who just loves to drop that back shoulder and sit on the back side, open his/her eyes to the shoulder eye. In my experience it’s a real difference-maker.

The Sneaky Pick Play at First

Catcher squatting

Picking off a runner at first is a tough play for a right-handed catcher – especially one who isn’t comfortable or doesn’t have the arm strength to throw quickly from her knees.

By the time the catcher gets up, spins toward first, pulls her arm back and makes the throw there probably isn’t anyone in the tri-county area who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Even if she does throw from her knees, the amount of movement that is required to make a strong, accurate throw will likely be a pretty big tipoff to all but the sleepiest of base runners. And any first base coach who doesn’t pick up on what she’s doing should be relegated to the bench immediately.

There is another way to approach it, however, that can help disguise what the catcher is doing until it’s too late. It’s designed for when you have multiple runners on base and need an out to get out of an inning.

First let’s set up the situation. Preferably you have bases loaded and two outs, although you can run this play with runners on first and second and one or two outs.

What you’re looking for is the runner on first who figures no one cares about her (poor girl!). She takes a big lead, kind of stands there nonchalantly while the catcher has the ball, and then when the catcher goes to throw it back to the pitcher the runner drops her head and walks back to the base. Bonus if the first base coach is hyper-focused on seeing whether the girl on third will score soon.

When the pitch is delivered, the catcher catches it and runs out to chase the runner on third back to the base. Once the runner on third looks like she is committed to going back, the catcher turns to throw the ball to the pitcher, just like normal.

As she pulls her arm back, however, she uses her eyes to sneak a peek at the runner on first. If she is walking back not paying attention the catcher adjusts her shoulders without looking and fires to first instead.

By the time the first base coach and runner react, the ball is already in the first baseman’s hands for an easy tag. Inning over.

Sounds simple, right? It’s not. It actually requires a fair amount of practice because the catcher can’t do anything to indicate that she will be throwing to first until the ball is close to leaving her hand.

For example, this is a no-look throw. The catcher’s head can’t turn toward first at all, which is a tougher habit to break than you might think. It takes some discipline to keep her head pointed toward the pitcher, even if her eyes are looking toward first.

The catcher must also be able to throw with a decent amount of velocity without lining her entire body up toward the target. In effect she is stepping to her left and then throwing about 30 degrees to her right. That takes some practice so she doesn’t throw it into right field – or the parking lot!

Finally, the catcher has to be casual about the throw until it’s time to actually bring the ball forward in the throwing motion. She has to pull her arm back as if to throw it 20-30 feet to a waiting pitcher. Any sudden movement until the ball is about to be launched could again give it away.

Of course the first baseman has to be aware the play is happening, and can’t be fooled by the motion being used to fool the runner. She just has to accept that the ball could be coming while remaining more casual as well. If she looks like she’s ready for a play it could spoil the whole thing.

So yes, there’s a lot that could go wrong. Instead of getting the third out you could end up giving up a couple of runs and putting another runner in scoring position.

That’s why it requires a lot of practice, and a lot of confidence not just on the part of the catcher and first baseman but also the coach to allow this play to occur.

When it works, though, it’s a thing of beauty. And it really takes the wind out of the sails of the opposing team because A) it took them out of a good scoring opportunity where the pressure was on the defense and B) it made them look foolish.

Even if you never use it in a game, this is the type of play that can spark a defense and get them feeling good. But if you do use it, and you execute it properly, it’s something everyone on the team, and everyone in the stands, will remember for a long time to come.

So if you’re feeling adventurous or just want to give your team a little extra energy, give this sneaky little play a try. It could be the thing that turns a game around for you.

10 Things to Consider When Looking for a New Team

Ways to succeed at fastpitch softball tryouts

Hard to believe since we have barely been playing summer ball again, but the 2020 season is nearly over. Some of the alphabet organizations are already holding Nationals (or “Nationals”), and in a couple of weeks this year will be in the books.

For some, maybe many, this is also the time of year when players and their families start thinking about where they want to play in 2021. There can be many reasons for changing teams.

Some are looking for a more challenging environment. Some are hoping to increase their playing time, either overall or at a specific position. Some want more games while others want fewer. (I’m sure no one was happy with that this season.) Some want to play with their friends, and some don’t like their current coaches and want to move on.

Whatever the driver, the tryout season (which follows immediately on the heels of the current season, unfortunately) will no doubt find a lot of folks seeking greener pastures.

If you’re in that category, be sure you remember these wise Latin words: caveat emptor, which essentially translates to “let the buyer beware.” Because what may look like a good opportunity at first glance may not look so good once you’re in the middle of it.

There are no guarantees in this process. But I do have some tips, based on my many years of coaching, that could help guide you to a better decision.

This isn’t a post on how to have a great tryout by the way. You can find those tips here. This is about considerations when selecting a new team.

  1. Talk to parents or players already on teams you’re considering. Preferably you will do this before you even get to tryouts. You probably know some of the teams you might be considering. It’s likely you play against them regularly. If you’re at a tournament this weekend, introduce yourself and talk to parents whose kids are on that team. They’ll help you get a feel for how it’s run, what the coaches are like, and whether all the positions are set already or you/your daughter will have an opportunity to see the field (or a particular position) regularly.
  2. Silently listen to those same parents. This is a bit sneakier, but there’s nothing like sideline chatter to give you a feel for what people really think of a team. Go stand by one or more groups of parents and casually listen to their comments and discussions. You’ll get an unvarnished idea of how happy or unhappy they are overall and whether the team atmosphere will be a pleasant or trying one. You could end up saving yourself a lot of time and heartache in the long run.
  3. Look downmarket for opportunities. Yes it sure is nice to be on a team that’s winning the big trophies all the time. But for many the luster fades when you realize you/your daughter was more of a glorified spectator than active participant in all those wins. Sometimes your best opportunity to develop into an A-level player is to play with a B-level team with a year so you can gain the experience you need. For example, pitchers need to be in the circle if they’re going to develop. If you’re on a team with two or three Ace pitchers, and you’re not at that level yet, you’re not going to get the ball much. That’s just life. Yes, you could keep working on your game to try to beat them out, but if the die is already cast you may not get a chance to show what you can do even if you do pass them by. You would be better-served by being a #1 or #2 on a lower-level team, and gaining lots of game experience than pitching two token innings of pool play and then sitting the bench or playing a field position the rest of the time. If you’re going to be successful you have to want and get the ball on a regular basis. The same is true for other positions, but it particularly applies to pitchers.
  4. If your are moving up, try not to walk in #1. If you’re used to being the best player on your team and you are looking for new challenges, you want to go somewhere where you start out behind some of the other players. In our pitching example, you want to go in as #2 or #3. As a hitter you want to start out in the lower half of the lineup rather than being anointed to the 3-slot or cleanup. Being viewed as being behind someone else should fire up your competitive juices and cause you to work that much harder. There is nothing more satisfying than be brought in as a backup and then taking over the top spot.
  5. Prioritize what’s important to you. For some people money and distance are no object. They are most interested in a level of play, or an opportunity to play, or whatever else is important to them. For others it may be convenience, time/distance to practice, availability of other parents to transport you/your daughter to practice or games or a host of other parameters. Before you waste your time or the coaching staff’s time at a tryout, be sure you know what’s acceptable to you and what is not. Then select potential teams accordingly. If you want time to work in a family vacation in late June, playing on a team that goes to PGF qualifiers all summer is probably not for you. If you have transportation challenges, joining a team that is an hour away and practices three nights a week probably won’t work out for anyone. Decide what’s important and choose accordingly.
  6. Seek like-minded players. Your/your daughter’s best experience will be on a team where players have comparable skill levels and goals. That doesn’t mean they all have to be BFFs, but they should at least all be pulling in the same direction. If you see bullying or prima donna behavior, especially from a coach’s kid, keep in mind that this is likely the best they’re going to act. It’s not going to get better over time. On the other hand if you/your daughter looks like a good fit skill- and personality-wise, it will probably be the experience you’re looking for.
  7. Watch how the coaches coach. Again, theoretically everyone is showing their best selves at a tryout. Players are trying to sell themselves, but so are coaches. If they’re yelling and screaming during tryouts, that’s probably going to carry over to practice and games. If you like that sort of thing – the old “command and control” style of coaching – have at it. If that’s not what you’re looking for keeping looking. One thing I will say is during tryouts I would often make a suggestion on how to approach a skill with a player, not just to help her do better but to see how coachable she seemed. If I got back attitude she was cut no matter how skilled. You should audition coaches the same way. Ask them some meaningful questions and see how they answer. Not just what they say but how they say it. You’ll learn a lot in a few minutes.
  8. Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. Ok I stole that from Edgar Allen Poe by way of Bruce Springsteen, but it’s still good advice. When you’re a prospect you’re likely to hear all kinds of promises. Coaches have rosters to fill, and they want to fill them as quickly as possible – especially if there is a lot of competition for players in an area. But just because you or your daughter have been told she’ll play shortstop during tryouts doesn’t mean it will actually happen once games roll around. This is where the research you did earlier (see tips #1 and #2) will pay off. Is the coach a man of his/her word? If not, don’t get sucked in by tissue paper promises. It may still happen but it’s not a given.
  9. Don’t rush the decision. Unless you/your daughter is trying out for her dream team, and you know there is an opening at her position, resist the pressure to decide on the spot whether to accept a particular team’s offer. I’m not sure when this became a thing, but it seems like a lot of programs have gone this way. Especially programs that like to pretend they’re high-level when they’re really more mid-level. This is a decision you will either have to live with for a year or that will create a very uncomfortable situation down the road if you decide you have to leave before the season ends. If that team really wants you, it will wait. If the coach is just trying to fill roster spots so he/she doesn’t have to think about tryouts anymore, you probably don’t want to be there anyway.
  10. Trust your gut. This one is simple. If something doesn’t feel right about the tryouts you’re probably right. Don’t try to convince yourself things will get better later because they probably won’t. Either finish it out and don’t look back, or just excuse yourself and leave. Nothing good will come from prolonging a bad experience.

The whole tryout process can be gut-wrenching for everyone, but the more effort you put into looking at all the factors the better of a decision you’ll be able to make. The good news, however, is that even if you choose poorly, you’re not getting married.

It’s a year’s commitment at most. Then you get to do it all over again.

Good luck, and go get ’em!

Product Review: Portolite Short Spiked Softball Mat

Pitching rubber top

One of the things I have always found challenging when working with pitchers is getting a good surface to work from out on the field.

In a gym or practice facility you have a large selection of roll-up mats. But if there isn’t a permanent pitcher’s plate out on the field, what most people end up doing is throwing down a hunk of rubber purchased at the local sporting goods store. Or going without.

With those throw-down types of rubbers you either have to be willing to pound them in with stakes or nails and pull them out again or skip the stakes entirely. If you pound them in, the stakes that come with them last about three times (less if you’re trying to pound them into hard ground). Then you have to purchase long nails at the hardware store with big washers to keep them from going through the rubber.

Need to change distances to accommodate pitchers of different ages? You have to pull the stakes or nails up to move the rubber, then go through the entire process again.

Of course, if you decide not to stake the rubber down at all it will go slipping and sliding from under the pitcher’s feet, making matters worse, not better. Eventually the pitcher will probably just kick it out of the way.

That’s why I was excited to come across the Portolite company when I was helping at a Rick Pauly clinic in Minnesota put on by JohnnyO. Johnny had a couple of their products there, and said they had a few different models for softball, including one with short spikes on it.

Portolite mat on dirt

This was the picture that convinced me it could work on dirt.

When I got home I checked it out and decided to give it a try. I needed one anyway for some indoor work on a turf field so figured that alone would be worth it. But I was really looking forward to trying it on the dusty fields I use during the summer.

First thing I wondered was would the spikes actually catch in the ground and hold it in place? The short spike mat isn’t cheap, so I was definitely rolling the dice on that count.

Pitching rubber bottom

The website shows the bottom is green but this is how mine looks.

I am happy to report, however, that it actually holds pretty well, especially if the field isn’t rock-hard due to a lack of rain. Hard to say if all the little rubber (or whatever material they are) spikes catch, but certainly enough of them do to hold it in place even with strong, powerful pitchers. As they push in, the spikes dig in.

I was also concerned about how it would hold up with pitchers using metal cleats as many of my students do. As you can see, the mat isn’t necessarily pretty after a month’s worth of use, but I don’t need it for photographs. It actually seems to be holding up pretty well. I expect to get a few years’ worth of use out of it.

Pitching rubber top

The edges of the rubber are a bit chewed up but the mat itself is holding up well.

Using a pitching mat like this one has some added benefits. For example, it’s easy to pick it up and move it when I have different age students come in. In just a few seconds I can go from being set up for a 10U pitcher at 35 feet to an 18U pitcher at 43.

This portability also helps in terms of giving my students a good overall surface to use.

One of the fields I camp out on regularly isn’t particularly well-designed or maintained. After a few lessons there can be a big hole at the permanent pitcher’s plate, with a trough leading away from it. (I doubt there are any bricks or anything else you’re supposed to use to stabilize the area.)

When that happens it can get pretty tough to pitch straight from the pitcher’s plate. I try to fill in the area by raking it out, but that doesn’t do a whole lot of good, especially when it might be a few weeks before it’s dragged again.

With the Portolite mat, however, I can either move the pitcher forward or off to the side where the ground is less worn. She gets a flatter surface to pitch from so she doesn’t have to worry about catching herself in someone else’s divot. Or trough.

And when I’m done for the day I can just pick it up, knock the dust off as best I can and throw it in the trunk for the next day.

The website says it can be used on turf, dirt or grass. I’ve done all three and can attest that it works equally well on all.

Again it’s not cheap at $235. But if you’re looking for a solution that helps provide a stable surface for your pitcher(s) in an easy-to-use, very portable format, be sure to check it out. I think you’ll be as pleased as I am.

Also available at:

Anytime Baseball Supply

Pro Sports Equip

First Impressions Aren’t Always Right

woman looking at sea while sitting on beach

Most people have probably heard the old cliche “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” And while that’s technically true, it doesn’t mean you should always cling to your first impression of a player (or coach for that matter) because you may find there’s more there than is on the surface.

That was my experience recently with a young 12U player named Jazmin. Her mom contacted me after getting a recommendation from the father of a teammate.

She told me Jazmin was brand new to softball, and that she would like to get her some hitting lessons. That alone is pretty interesting.

Usually parents don’t look into lessons until after a few games, or maybe even a couple of seasons, so that fact that she wanted to start with lessons right away was surprising but in a good way. I think she was a little concerned that everything would be so new with her daughter but I reassured her it could be a good thing because she wouldn’t have any bad habits to unlearn.

Then came Saturday morning and the day of our first lesson. Jazmin walked up and right away my Spidey-sense started tingling, because honestly I have seen happier looking faces in a hostage photo.

We started the lesson and things didn’t get any better. She seemed very unhappy to be there and as a result it was a struggle to get her to do anything.

I finally stopped and asked her if she wanted to be there. I wasn’t trying to be mean, I was actually trying to be kind, because there is no sense in making yourself miserable just to do something. That’s what work is for.

She mumbled something or other, which may have been “yes” but meant no. Finally her mom, who had been watching her from behind the backstop, called her over and talked to her for a while. Mom did not like that attitude at all and let her know.

I think we tried going on a little more but nothing had really changed so I suggested we stop about halfway through the scheduled lesson. I told her mom there would be no charge – we tried it, it didn’t work.

But mom asked if we could try again the next Tuesday. I give her a lot of credit for that, by the way. A lot of parents would have just chalked it up to a bad idea and been done with it.

I agreed, a little reluctantly, but told her if we had to stop again I would be charging for that lesson. It was only fair, she agreed.

Then came Tuesday. Admittedly I was a bit concerned about how things would go this time given the last experience, but I was willing to give it one more try.

Mom reminded Jazmin to start by apologizing for her prior attitude, which she did, and from that point on it was like aliens had come to Earth, taken away the Jazmin I’d met on Saturday, and replaced her with a new and improved version.

What I discovered was Jazmin is a blast to teach. She has a great sense of humor, and not only laughs at my jokes but throws a few in on her own too – including a couple of good-natured digs at me, which I appreciate.

She’s been all smiles at every lesson since (we’ve only done a few) and has thrown herself into learning how to hit. We’ve only been working on the tee so far but she is coming right along and should be ready to start front toss in the next lesson or two.

Not bad for a totally inexperienced beginner. Hopefully we have a long instructor/student relationship and someday we will have a good laugh about it when she comes back from her college team for a tune-up.

So that’s the lesson for today. Had I assumed that first impression was all there was to Jazmin I would never have booked the second lesson and I would have missed out on a wonderful new student. That would have been a shame for both of us.

On the other side, players, you need to understand that the first impression you make with a coach at a tryout or a conversation after a game or other event could cause you to miss out on an opportunity.

Sure, you could just be having a bad day (as Jazmin apparently was). But you may not get the chance to correct the coach’s impression later. I was very close to saying “no” to the second lesson because I had serious doubts anything would change. Fortunately I was wrong.

In our hyperspeed world, it’s easy to make quick judgments and move on. But every now and then it’s worth taking a chance that your first impression wasn’t the correct one. You never know what you’ll find on the other side.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Stop Chasing Rainbows on Technique

crop field under rainbow and cloudy skies at dayime

Let me start by saying I am a fan of continuous learning. I believe it is every coach’s responsibility to constantly question what they already “know,” look for new information and innovation, and keep up with the latest advances in our sport.

This is one of the reasons I pursued and attained Elite certification in the High Performance Pitching program back in the December/January timeframe, and continue to participate in weekly calls with other accomplished pitching coaches from across the country. I’ve been doing this for a long time and could easily decide to be comfortable with what I already knew. But if there is a chance I can do better in helping the athletes I coach you can bet I will look into it.

All that said, there is another side to this mostly positive coin – what I would term as “chasing rainbows.” A coach who is chasing rainbows isn’t really looking to add to their knowledge and synthesize what they believe so they can teach it in an organized manner.

Instead, this is a coach with no set of firm beliefs to challenge. Instead, he/she merely adopts and repeats whatever he/she heard most recently from someone perceived as being smarter than the coach. Here’s an example.

A hitting coach attends a coach’s clinic where the presenter explains why you want a slight uppercut swing with the hips leading the hands. So she takes furious notes, highlights the handout, and runs back to her team to show them this “new” way to hit.

Note that she doesn’t take time to compare the information to what high-level hitters do, or to think through how it applies to the players on her team. She simply parrots the talking points and hopes for the best.

A few months later, she attends another clinic where the presenter talks about starting with the hands and swinging down on the ball to create backspin. Again, she takes furious notes, highlights the handout, and guess what? Now her team is learning an entirely new way to swing (and an incorrect one, I might add) before the players have had a chance to master the previous way.

What you end up with is a team caught somewhere between their original swings, the techniques of the first clinic and the techniques of the second clinic. Then the head coach wonders why the team has a collective batting average of .257 and can’t seem to produce runs on any sort of scale.

A better approach would be to start with a firm set of beliefs about hitting, preferably based on the teachings of someone who has been successful coaching hitters along with a close study of high-speed video of high-level softball and baseball players actually swinging the bat.

Note that I didn’t say a study of what those high-level players say. Just because they can hit doesn’t mean they know how to explain what they do. You’d be surprised how many of them say one thing and do something else.

Once the coach has a starting point, then start taking in information and comparing it to those beliefs in the same manner. For example the conflict between whether to swing down on the ball or swing with a slight uppercut at contact.

Whichever side the coach starts on, look at information from the opposite side and see how it compares to those high-level swings. If what is being said matches what is being seen, the coach will probably want to re-evaluate her beliefs. If it doesn’t, the coach is probably already on the right track.

When a coach can attend a clinic or other presentation and critically evaluate the material being presented she can be fairly confident that her decision on whether to adopt what is being taught there or discard it will be a good one.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a binary choice. The coach may find that 95% of what is being presented is just old thinking, but that the other 5% has some value, if not for the whole team at least for one player.

This is especially true when it comes to drills. People talk about “good drills” and “bad drills.” But with rare exceptions, any drill is good that can help a player get to where she needs to go, even if it’s not the best course for everyone.

This idea of working to adopt a firm philosophy doesn’t just apply to hitter. It can apply to any skill within fastpitch softball, even if what you’ve been doing has been successful.

Heck, I’ve taught throwing a certain way for a number of years, based on the best information I had available to me at the time. After being exposed to Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing program I’ve changed what I teach to some extent. Not because it’s the flavor du jour, but because what he says makes sense in the context of what I already understand about throwing.

For many of us, change can be difficult. But for some it actually comes too easily.

Find something or a set of somethings you believe in after careful consideration, then work to build from there. Because the funny thing about chasing rainbows is that while you may feel you’re getting closer, you’ll never catch them. And you may actually take yourself farther away from your preferred destination.

Rainbow photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Catchers: Tips for Throwing from Your Knees

IMG_0228

For most of fastpitch softball’s (and baseball’s) history, the gold standard for catches attempting to throw out runners stealing a base was to pop up and throw from your feet. A quick catcher could be up in an instant, and use the power of their legs and bodies to power the ball toward said base.

Over the last decade, however, there has been a significant shift. These days it seems like all the cool kids are throwing from their knees.

In fact, throwing from your knees has become so pervasive that there are coaches who will tell you that if you have to go to your feet to throw you’ll never play at a high level or in college. That is absolutely untrue, by the way.

I know top-notch catchers who prefer to throw from the feet and do play high-level college and travel ball, but you know how it is when people get something stuck in their minds.  The ONLY thing that truly matters is the pop time – how much time it takes from when the ball hits the catcher’s glove to when it hits the glove of the person covering the base. If your pop time is better from your feet, have at it.

That said, throwing from your knees is also a perfectly viable option. Personally, I like to teach both methods so A) catchers can decide what works best for them overall and B) they have options depending on the pitch.

For example, if you’re catching a riseball it may make more sense to follow it up and throw from your feet, whereas a good dropball lends itself more to a throw from the knees. It doesn’t make much sense to go back down to throw if the ball carries you high or vice versa.

If you are going to throw from your knees, you should learn to do it properly. Here are some suggestions that can help you maximize both your ability to get the ball to the base quickly and hit your target.

  1. No falling trees. This is the most common mistake I see. The catcher gets the ball and immediately starts falling forward toward the base as she makes the transfer.

    IMG_0227

    Timber!

    As a result, while she may be quick to get into position she ends up throwing all (or mostly) arm, losing velocity over her normal throw. So whatever advantage she gains by not popping up she loses through reduced arm speed. A better approach is to get the body in position and drop the glove-side knee straight down under the shoulder.This loads the weight on the back side and allows the catcher to get more body into the throw.

    IMG_0237

    Loaded and ready to fire.

    She can get resistance out of the front side rather than chasing it forward and throwing off-balance. With a little practice she can be quicker to release than with the falling tree method, with the added bonus of more velocity on the throw. What’s not to like?

  2. Get aligned with your target. Another common flaw is the desire to just drop down to the knees and throw. This will work (sort of) for a right-handed catcher throwing to third base or a lefty throwing to first because her body is naturally aligned that way anyway. For a throw to second, or a throw to the other side (e.g., righty throwing to first) it can be disastrous. The first move, as the ball is being transferred from the glove to hand, is to set the shoulders and hips in a straight line with the target. A good way to do this is to pull the throwing-side knee into position.

    IMG_0238

    Be sure to get the hips and shoulders aligned with the target.

    Again, as it swings around it should end up under the throwing-side shoulder. This move should be quick and urgent, with the rotation of the body occurring in as tight a circle as possible. (The further out the knee or leg swings, the slower the movement will be.) From this position the throw will once again be strong and accurate.

  3. Work the transfer. Whether they’re throwing from their feet or their knees, this is an aspect many catchers fail to develop enough. They’ll do long toss and other arm strength drills until their arms turn to putty, but they’ll gloss right over the transfer. That’s a mistake, because the transfer dictates how quickly the rest of the throw can happen, and whether it will be powerful and well-timed. The first key is never, ever, reach forward to get the ball out of the glove. Instead, bring the throwing hand up near the shoulder and bring the ball to it. That way the transfer becomes part of the throwing motion instead of a separate operation. Also, you don’t want to squeeze the ball too hard in the glove because that will make it more difficult to pull out. Use the minimal pressure necessary to secure the ball. For more advanced catchers, instead of “catching” the ball and pulling it back, learn to rake it back. That means starting to pull the glove in before you catch it so you’re already taking the glove back toward the hand. You may lose a strike here or there, but if it means you throw out Ms. Rabbit trying to steal second I’m sure your coach (and your pitcher) will forgive you.
  4. Be sure to follow through. A lot of catchers, when they throw from their knees, will tend to stop short. When that happens they end up with their bellybuttons facing the target. That’s a great way to develop shoulder and elbow problems, especially if they’re trying to throw out a very fast runner. Catchers should unleash the full power of their body in a way that causes a natural follow-through. The result will be their throwing side shoulder ends up facing the target. Many catchers will fall when they do that. That’s ok – in fact it’s desirable. It means they got the full force of their bodies behind the ball.

Here’s the beauty. While none of these tips individually will likely make a huge difference in your pop time (except maybe the first one), their cumulative effect can be substantial.

Let’s do the math. (What, there’s math? No one said anything about doing math.)

Let’s assume the runner can get from base to base in 2.8 seconds and the catcher has a pop time of 2.0 second – enough to qualify for a Team USA tryout, by the way. She takes off at release from the pitcher and the ball takes 0.4 seconds to get from the pitcher to the catcher. That leaves just 2.4 seconds to get the ball to second.

Since the catcher has a top pop time of 2.0, the margin of error is .4 seconds. Try to record .4 seconds on a stopwatch or your phone’s stopwatch. It’s not easy. You’ve made the umpire’s job very difficult.

Now imagine each of the tips above can each shave 0.025 of a second off your pop time. Now your margin for error is .5 seconds, which means if the play was close before it’s not nearly as close as it was and you’re more likely to get that runner out. You’ve also demonstrated you can throw out a baserunner with 2.8 speed, sending a message to the opposing coach about sending anyone who runs slower than that.

The bottom line is throwing from your knees alone isn’t enough. In fact, it can actually slow it down if you do it wrong.

Do it right, however, and you’ll earn your reputation as a force to be reckoned with behind the plate – and a place on many coaches’ short lists.

The Hips Are the Key to Body Movement

Ally launch

Here’s a quick experiment for you to try at home (or wherever you’re reading this blog). Try to move your arm away from the rest of your body. Pretty easy, right?

Now try a leg. Either one will do. Again, pretty easy.

Now do your head. If you go forward you can get it out there pretty far, and even side-to-side or backwards will work if you’re more flexible than I am.

Ok, here comes the key part: try moving your hips away. Aha! You can maybe get them out a couple of inches but that’s about it.

So basically, if your hips move away the rest of the body has to go with it.

This is a key concept for any fastpitch softball player to understand, but especially for pitchers. Many pitchers, when they are trying to get leg drive, will just run their stride leg past their drive leg and kick it forward. The result is that the stride leg pulls them off the pitching rubber – which is like trying to drag a wagon full of concrete behind you.

That’s because a lot of your weight (some of us more than others) and strength is carried in the hip area, which includes the lower torso. If it is stationary (more or less) it’s going to take a lot of effort to get it in motion so it can contribute to the pitch.

If the hips are already moving smartly forward as the pitcher drives out, however, instead of holding her back they add to the power. The difference (or delta as they like to say in the business world) can be huge.

The challenge is when pitchers think about moving forward, they tend to focus on their stride leg and where it lands. This leads to them doing more of a kicking motion instead of focusing their attention on where it should be – on the hips.

One way to help them get the feel of moving the hips forward (and how much effort it takes) is to have them do a standing broad jump. That is all about getting the hips and torso to fly forward.

Another way is to have them stand on one leg and then hop a short distance to the other. this can be front-to-back or side-to-side.

I say a short distance because as soon as you say long distance they’re going to go right back to reach out with the leg/foot instead of moving the middle.

A harness around their hips tied to a bungy cord or surgical tube will give them that feeling. Have them put the connector in the front, stretch the tube out as much as they can, then go through their pitching motion, letting the tube pull them forward.

You can also get behind them, place your hand on their lower back and give them a small push as they get read to go out. Just be careful that it’s a small push. You don’t want to push a pitcher who’s having trouble moving down to the ground (as I once did).

Ultimately, though, the best thing to do is get them to figure out how to get their hips moving forward to become part of the drive without all the artificial helpers.

As they start to get the feel of moving the hips properly, have them start pitching from a short distance into a net or screen. Keep them there until they can do it without thinking. then slowly move them back a few feet at a time and ensure they can maintain that hip-centered approach.

Only move to the next distance when they appear to have mastered the previous one. If they go back to being leg-oriented when they move back, move up to the previous position again. Repeat until they can throw properly at a full distance.

Incidentally, what I have found is that this is very easy and natural for some and very difficult and alien for others. I have no idea why, because it comes naturally to me.

What I do know, however, is that it is essential to maximize speed. The more momentum you can crash into a firm front leg the more the arm whip will be accelerated, creating more energy to transfer into the ball. A pitcher who is being held back by her hips will struggle to attain her very best speed.

The best way to check this is using video, either on a dedicated camera or your phone set to a high speed (60 frames per second or more). The naked eye can be easily fooled, especially if the pitcher is doing whatever she does quickly.

But with video, you can see if the hips are passing quickly over the pitching rubber on their way forward or whether they hover over it as the arms and legs move forward. (The first one is correct.)

Once you can see what’s going on you can work to correct it. It probably won’t be easy, but the results will be worth it.

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