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Fastpitch Player’s Holiday Gift Guide

Ok, I know I’m a little late on this for Hanukkah but who knew it would be so early this year? I guess just bookmark it and have it ready for next year.

For those with holidays still coming up, however, here are a few ideas for gifts that I think will not only be good for immediate satisfaction but could potentially have an impact on your favorite player’s entire career. I am not including gloves or bats since you probably have already thought of those. I wanted to go a little outside the box.

And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being compensated by any of the companies mentioned or linked to for including them (or anything else for that matter). These are just products or services I’ve found to be valuable and think you will do.

Enough preamble. Let’s go shopping.

High-quality batting tee

This is an essential piece of equipment for any player. Even non-hitting pitchers can use it to practice locations as I showed in this post.

The typical use, of course, is for hitting. Tee hitting is for working on mechanics without the challenges of timing a moving ball. If you’re trying to get the proper sequence (hips-shoulders-bat), fix your bat path, learn to tilt properly or solve any other mechanics issues a tee is your best friend.

That said, there are a lot of choices for tees out there. I prefer one that doesn’t have a base that looks like home plate, because when it does look like home plate hitters tend to line up on the tee in a way that is not conducive to great hitting.

Tanner Tees were the original to develop the particular design I favor, although for durability (and resistance to getting easily knocked over) I really like the Jugs T. For younger players, or older players who have trouble with low pitches, the Jugs Short T is also a great choice. You can read more about the Short T in my product review here.

Jugs is also apparently coming out with a combo package that includes both heights. Doesn’t look like it will be available until next year, though, so maybe save it for a birthday or graduation gift.

Large, easy-to-set-up net

If you are getting a tee you’ll probably want to get a net to hit into. That way you can hit in the back yard, basement, garage, or other space without damaging your home or having to chase after the balls.

Bownet is probably the best-known brand at this point. You see their distinctive orange nets at pretty much every game and tournament (although they have a variety of colors available now). But Tanner, Jugs and others also have nets that will do just fine.

Of course, it’s not just hitters who can use a net like this. Pitchers can use one to practice their mechanics from a short distance. Field players and catchers can use them to develop their overhand throw velocity. And so on.

A net like this will pay for itself many times over. And when you’re done with it, if you’ve bought a good quality one you’ll be able to sell it and recoup part of your investment in cash. Pretty good deal overall.

Quality softballs

There’s something about working with nice, bright, shiny new softballs that helps players feel better about their practice time. After all, it’s a lot easier to take pride in your practice time if you’re not using crappy old, beat-up, dirty softballs.

That said, there are all kinds of softballs from many different manufacturers, from the really cheap to the really nice. It’s hard to know which ones to purchase.

My ball of choice right now is the Mark One NFHS 12″ softball. They are real leather balls with a .47 COR and raised seams, among other features.

What I like about them is they are comparable in quality to Worth Dream Seams but generally cost less. I use them for hours a day, nearly every day (including having hitters beat them into metal backstops on a regular basis) and they hold up well. They also have great grip so pitchers like to use them.

But check around the Internet and you can find several high-quality softballs to make your favorite player happy.

Video analysis app

I recently did an extensive product review on a video analysis app called OnForm. It has a lot of great features, including an auto-detect function that would allow a player to set up a device on a tripod and then have it record pitches, swings, throws, etc. when it sees motion.

But there are others out there as well. Kinovea is one that comes to mind, although you can only use it with a computer, not a phone or tablet.

With this type of software a player can record herself and scrub through it to see if what she’s doing is what she thinks she’s doing. Or she can send the video to a coach who can help her with it.

The value of being able to see yourself in slow or stop motion cannot be overestimated. In fact, high speed video analysis has been crucial to busting many myths and mis-teachings that grew up over the years.

If you can’t find a free version, find something you can afford. It’s worth it.

Polyballs

These are the pliable balls with different weights that you can use for a variety of different types of arm training. They’re great for pitchers, catchers and field players to help develop safe throwing mechanics and improve overall arm and shoulder strength.

Polyballs have grown in popularity over the last couple of years so there are a variety of sources from which you can obtain them. I personally use the balls from Velolab Softball, which comes with a free training program. Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing is another source, where they are called Lightning Balls.

One of the great things about them is you can throw them into concrete walls, or plywood, or pretty much any solid wall without damaging the wall or the balls. They make an audible “slam” sound too, so the harder you throw the more satisfying the sound. The lighter ones might even be able to be thrown into drywall, although I would test that theory in an out-of-the-way place first before tossing one in the living room.

Radar device

In my opinion, having some way to measure speed is critical to the development of pitchers, extremely helpful for overhand throwing, and even has some benefits for hitters. I like to call the radar the “pitcher’s accountability meter” because if she takes a pitch or two off, or goes the other way and tries to over-throw/over-muscle the ball, the radar calls her out immediately.

I am personally a huge fan of PocketRadar devices. The Ball Coach is good, but the Smart Coach is worth the extra money if you can swing it because it will not only capture the speed but enable you to embed it in a video capture at the same time. You can read my review of the Smart Coach here.

(If you use your PocketRadar often you’ll also probably make up for the cost difference pretty quickly with the money you’ll save using power blocks instead of alkaline batteries.)

Whatever brand you decide to get, however, my suggestion is to do it often rather than just bringing the radar out now and then.

If you only use it occasionally it becomes a big deal and the pitcher tends to tense up. If it’s part of a regular routine she will not be as intimidated and you’ll ultimately get better readings. I learned that lesson the hard way!

Pitching mat

There are a few good reasons to give your pitcher a good quality pitching mat for the holidays. One of which is saving wear-and-tear on your floors, especially if your pitcher has a heavy drag.

But beyond that, a pitching mat with a built-in pitchers plate can help pitchers learn to use the plate as part of their launch. A center white stripe can help them feel whether they’re going straight or striding out to the side.

If you do decide to get a mat one thing to check into is the type of backing it has. Some are better than others for different types of surfaces.

For example, a rubber backing will be great on a gym floor or other wood floor but may tend slip on turf. There are mats specifically designed for turf surfaces (although not all turf will hold the mat equally well), but they don’t translate too well to a fieldhouse or gym floor.

They have varying lengths as well. Some will extend roughly eight feel in front, pretty much covering the whole stride, while others are just designed to hold the pitcher’s plate itself. A little Internet research will turn up many options and sellers at various price points.

And for outdoors or long turf, the Portolite Mat with the spike backing will hold in conditions where other won’t. You can read my review of this product here.

Pitcher launch aids

One of the greatest challenges many pitchers face is getting a strong launch/leg drive. While some come by it naturally, most have to have it trained into them at some level.

The key is to get pitchers to get their hips moving out in front of the pitching rubber as they go into launch rather than sitting down on it. Three devices I’ve used to help them feel it are the Power Pod, the Softball Power Drive, and the Queen of the Hill.

Each of these goes about it in different ways. The Power Pod from Softball Excellence adds a little springiness to the initial move to go out, helping get away from “dead leg syndrome.” As a bonus, I also find it pretty handy for helping pitchers learn how to spin the curve and rise (although it wasn’t designed for that) and for teaching hitters to stride straight instead of away from the plate.

The Softball Power Drive, which is endorsed by Amanda Scarborough, helps pitchers feel the sprinter’s lean and forward angle of the body rather than sitting straight down on the pitching rubber. If they’re dragging the drive leg like an anchor they’ll feel it pretty quickly.

Then there’s the Queen of the Hill, which I’ve reviewed previously. Its sliding plate is great for teaching pitchers to drive their drive foot back instead of just running past it. If you push into it you’ll hear a “click-click” which tells you you did it right. If you don’t, no click.

You can also use these devices in combination. For example, put the Queen of the Hill behind the stride foot to encourage that foot to engage the ground before moving forward, and then the Softball Power Drive or Power Pod on the drive foot to encourage more drive as you come through.

Generating forward energy is critical to maximizing pitch speed. These devices can help.

PaulyGirl Fastpitch/High Performance Pitching online program

So, this is probably more of a secondary gift. I’d guess 99% of pitchers wouldn’t be interested in doing the training themselves, but if a parent or coach did the worked through the High Performance Pitching training program he/she could convey the information to the pitcher – at which point she would benefit greatly in my opinion.

Renowned pitching coach Rick Pauly has put together an extensive, detailed program broken into Beginner, Intermediate, Elite, and Professional levels. It’s all video-based and self-paced, which means you can go as slowly or as quickly as your time budget allow.

You can also pick and choose what you want. So if you just want help with the curveball you can take that module without having to go through the entire Elite level course.

If you’re interested in more information you can read this blog post which goes into much greater detail.

That’s a wrap

So there you have it – fairly exhaustive list. I could probably do more but if you’ve made it this far you’re already made of stern stuff. Have to stop somewhere.

Of course, for other ideas, you can use the search function in the left column and put in “Product Review.” You’ll no doubt find a few other ideas.

In any case, happy holiday shopping! Just remember, no matter what you buy it’s the archer, not the arrow, that really makes the difference.

Even the best fastpitch players weren’t always the best players

Never give up, never surrender

As I write this, it’s the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics. The NCAA Division I tournament is underway, and the airwaves (or cable waves) are filled with a seemingly endless diet of games.

You can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere over the next few weekends. That’s good news for the families of younger softball players, because it gives them a chance to see how many of the top players play the game.

Yet as you watch, it’s tempting to think that all those high performers were just naturally gifted, and always played the way they play now (more or less). The fact is in many cases it isn’t true.

If you talked to them you’d find out that many of these players started out as benchwarmers who were just happy to get a few innings in here or there. Or that the awesome pitcher you’re watching lead her team to victory in Regionals, Super Regionals, or even the Women’s College World Series wasn’t always the #1 player on her travel or even high school team.

Many top players, in fact, had to work their way into the positions they are in today. That’s nothing new, either. It’s always been that way.

For evidence, I’m going to point you to a couple of good stories of personal struggle. The first two come from Amanda Scarborough.

I’m sure many of you recognize that name. She was an All American pitcher at Texas A&M, runs pitching clinics all over the U.S. as part of The Packaged Deal, and is now a commentator on ESPN. Pretty good resume, I’d say.

Yet Amanda will tell you she wasn’t always on the fast track to stardom. In fact, in this blog post she talks about how on her first travel team, she was the #4 or #5 pitcher, and rarely saw the plate or the field when she wasn’t pitching. Not exactly the start you’d expect for someone who has done as much as she’s done.

Yet she kept working at it, and didn’t let her lack of opportunity discourage her.

But surely by the time she got high school she was the star, right? No, and don’t call me Shirley!

In this blog post, she talks about being the #2 pitcher behind an older girl until that girl graduated. So the reality is you don’t have to be the starter as a freshman to do great things.

Another pitcher you may have heard of is Cat Osterman. She set all kinds of records as a pitcher while at the University of Texas at Austin, including strikeout ratio, WHIP, and perfect games. She won a gold and silver medal in two Olympic games (2004 and 2008), and had a stellar career in National Pro Fastpitch league. Sounds like a natural, right?

Actually, not. According to this story, she was short, scrawny, and uncoordinated as a youngster. When she tried out for the Little League All-Star team she was the only player they cut. Doesn’t sound like a future Olympian in the making does it?

After that season she went to a travel team, and spent a lot of time watching games from the bench.

But again, she didn’t let it get her down. She just kept working, and eventually become the pitcher she was capable of becoming.

I share all of this because it’s easy to think that today’s stars were yesterday’s stars too. That’s not always the case, however. Players who start with natural advantages in size, strength or athleticism can be passed by those who work harder – especially when nature takes its course and the late bloomers begin to grow.

You can’t control how people perceive you. But you can control how hard you work to get better.

As I always like to say, it doesn’t matter where you start the race – only where you finish it. Take heart in knowing that even some of the best who ever played the game started out just like you – fighting for scraps, and working their way up the depth chart. And remember it’s not how good you are but how badly you want it that will make the difference.

Or, as they say in “Galaxy Quest:”

Ok, now it’s your turn. Do you have a story about a player, famous or not, who overcame a slower start and became successful? Share your story in the comments below.

Fastpitch softball pitching: understanding the back side of the circle

In fastpitch pitching, the ball faces forward, not toward second base, at the top of the circle

I can’t believe we’re still having this discussion in 2018 (as I write this, for those of you finding it in the future as you ride along in your self-driving, flying cars) but it’s amazing to me how many players, parents, team coaches, and yes, even pitching coaches, don’t understand what the arm throwing arm should be doing on the back side of the circle. That’s the part where the ball goes from directly overhead to down and through release.

I see it when I’m walking through a facility or past a field where someone is giving a pitching lesson. I hear it from parents of my students telling me horror stories about their daughter’s first practice with the new team coach. I get emails from around the country about it.

The story is pretty much the same. Whoever is offering the “instruction” says the following: “At the top of the circle, point the ball toward second base, with your arm stretched high. Then push the ball face down through the back side of the circle, until you get to the bottom. Then snap your wrist and finish high, with your elbow pointed at the catcher.” That last part is often referred to as a “hello elbow.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. I could tell you all the technical reasons why it’s not a good idea – how it hurts speed and accuracy, how it works against the way our bodies are designed, and so forth. But probably the best reason not to do it is this: NO HIGH-PERFORMING PITCHER DOES THAT. Not even the ones who tell you to do it.

Why? Because it hurts speed and accuracy, works against the way our bodies are designed, etc. And ultimately limits your ability to do your very best.

No need to debate the point, however. Let’s just take a look at what a few very high-level, successful pitchers do when they pitch. Run the videos, then pause them at the top and see which way the ball is facing. Then take a look at what they do through the rest of the circle – bent elbow v. straight arm, whipping the ball through the zone from back to front, long, loose, natural release instead of a forced arm raise. HINT: Once the video is paused, you can step through it by pressing the “,” key to move backwards and the “.” to go forwards.

Yukiko Ueno

Amanda Scarborough

Monica Abbott

Kelly Barnhill

Sarah Pauly

I could point to more, but you get the point. Of course, if you want to see more, go to YouTube, search for a top pitcher and watch the video. You’ll find they do the same thing (more or less, depending on the pitch).

Now, I realize I’m running the risk of the Backfire Effect. Parents who are investing money in their kids being taught those poor mechanics, or pitching coaches who are making money teaching them, may decide to double down on their beliefs. No one likes to admit they’re wrong.

But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case in the videos.

If you’re a parent taking your daughter to pitching lessons, and you hear her being told to turn the ball toward second and push it face-down through the back of the circle, my advice to you is to politely stop the lesson, feign a family emergency, and run (not walk) away. Then find a pitching coach who teaches what you see in the videos above.

If you’re a pitching coach teaching that stuff, it’s time to refresh your knowledge so you can be sure you’re helping your students become the best they can be. Presumably, that’s what you’re in it for, so use the tools we have available today to find out what makes the best the best, and teach to that standard. It’s not easy changing what you’re doing – I’ve had to do it before – but it’s worth the effort.

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