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Tricks and Tips for Developing Higher-Performing Catchers

Ashley catching

Ask most people (especially their parents) and they will agree that catchers are the backbone of a quality fastpitch softball team. While pitchers get all the glory and the accolades, without a great catcher your team is likely to under-perform and lose more games than it should.

Great catchers don’t just grow on trees, however. Even the best often need to be built. In fact, I’m often amused when I hear someone talk about what a “natural” a particular catcher is, because I know what they were like originally and how much work went into making them look like a “natural.”

So for those of you with a daughter who wants to strap on the ol’ tools of ignorance and spend her career squatting in the heat, or for you coaches who understand the value of a quality catcher and need to develop one or two, here are some ways I’ve found to make it happen.

Desire

All the joking around aside, catcher is a tough position to play. Probably the toughest on the field, all things considered. You can put gear on a player and stick her behind the plate, but that doesn’t make her a catcher (except in the scorebook).

To be any good at all as a catcher, you have to have a desire to play the position. If that desire isn’t there, the rest of it isn’t going to work no matter how hard you push.

I’ll take a kid who isn’t as athletic but wants to be back there over a great athlete who looks like someone shot her puppy every time she goes behind the plate any day of the week. And all day Championship Sunday. (That’s an expression only. No catcher should have to catch five or six games in a row unless there is simply no other option.)

Find the kid who wants to do it and the rest of it will go much faster.

Learning to block

One of the challenges with learning to block balls in the dirt is the basic fear of getting hit with the ball. There is a natural, human tendency to want to turn your head when a ball bounces at you, especially if you’re only used to fielding ground balls.

But that makes no sense for a catcher, because all of her protection is in the front. Turning her head (or body) actually exposes her to more potential pain and injury.

One way I’ve found to get past that fear is to walk up to the catcher, speaking in a friendly voice, and start tossing the ball at her face mask. Ask her “How’s that?” or “Does that hurt?” The answer you’ll usually get is “no” surrounded by giggles.

What your catcher fears is anticipated pain, not a memory of pain. Give her the experience of taking a ball to the face mask, or chest protector, or shin guards and she’ll be able to overcome that fear.

The one caveat, however, is to check to make sure her equipment actually will protector. I recently had a 10U catcher named Erin who finally told her parents and me that it hurt when she blocked a ball with her chest protector. One new, stiffer chest protector later and it was no problem. So be sure when you say it won’t hurt that you know whereof you speaketh.

Making throw-downs

The other area where catchers really “make their bones” (besides blocking) is throwing runners out. There is plenty of great information out there about the mechanics of throwing runners out. But here are a couple of things you don’t normally find in those discussions.

One, surprisingly, is to make sure your catcher has good basic throwing mechanics. Not sure why that aspect is overlooked, but it often is. And all the fancy footwork and ball transfer drills won’t do you much good if the core motion is too weak or too slow.

If your catcher doesn’t have a good throwing motion to start, work with her on it. Insist on it. Drill it into her until she can’t use poor mechanics. That alone will make everything you do more effective.

Another key point is to stop your catcher from running up to make the throw. She should just pop up and throw without appreciably moving forward. Doing it that way will not only save time (because while she’s running up the base runner is running to the base) but it will also protect her from late swings (accidental or intentional to cover the runner) and slipping on a slick plate.

But she’s young and can’t get it to second on a fly without running up? Who cares? A decently thrown ball will roll a lot faster than a runner can run, and if it’s on-line it will be right where the tag needs to be made when it reaches whoever is covering the bag.

Get that ball on its way quickly and you’ll throw out more runners. And remember – most coaches like to test the water first with their fastest runner. Throw her out, or even make it close, and the opposing coach will think twice about trying to steal the other girls.

Get vocal

There are two aspects to this. One is pure volume. Your catcher can be the shyest, most soft-spoken player on the team when she’s not on the field. But behind the plate, she needs to be loud, proud and confident.

Catchers should be directing the rest of the team while plays are going on, and insisting everyone else simply repeats what she says when calling out which base to throw to or where a player should go. Otherwise, you’ll have chaos on the field.

The catcher is the only player on the field who can see everything that’s going on, so it’s natural for her to be calling out what to do. That means A) she needs to know what to do in every situation and B) she has to call it out loudly enough for at least her infielders to hear on a noisy field.

Getting to point A is going to take a fair amount of practice and study. But point B can be accomplished with a little training. Have her work on yelling things – anything. It could be base calls, it could just be numbers, it could be her name. Anything to teach her to be heard.

If possible, take her somewhere where there is a wall a good distance away and have her practice creating a loud echo off the wall.

The other key is to get her comfortable telling her teammates what to do. This is not the time to be shy, and catchers shouldn’t worry about winning popularity contests. They need to take command on the field, hold their teammates accountable for doing the right things, and pick up the entire team when it gets down.

That’s a tall order, especially for a young catcher. But give them the leeway, authority and encouragement to become that player and you might just see a little magic happen.

Final thoughts

Catching isn’t just about skills. A lot of it is about attitude.

Catchers have to think in a way that differs from the rest of the team. They have to know the game at a deeper level than their peers (since they are basically the coach on the field), and they have to have a little swagger to them.

Help develop those qualities in your catcher(s) and you’ll find yourself on the winning side of a lot more ballgames.

And oh, for you parents who would like to see your daughter play softball in college: college coaches at all levels are always on the lookout for great catchers. They’d prefer to find them rather than try to build them.

The closer you can get your daughter to that ideal, the better chance she has of playing in college and getting some or all of her schooling costs covered. Just remember what I said in point #1!

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Taking out the “jump up” when blocking

Last Sunday I had the pleasure, nay, the privilege of working with one of my catching students – a girl named Taylor Danielson. Before I get into the specifics let me just say Taylor is a coach’s dream.

Not only is she incredibly athletic and talented, but she’s also one of the most coachable players you’d ever want to meet. You give her a good piece of advice that will help her and she’s all over it.

Taylor is also very self-aware of what she’s doing at all times. She may not always know the fix, but she definitely knows when something just ain’t right.

That was the case on Sunday. After addressing an issue she felt she was having with proper transfer of the ball on throws I asked her if she wanted to go over anything else. “Blocking.” she said. “I always want to work on blocking.”

Understand that blocking is already one of her strengths. You watch her do it and it’s pretty much textbook. She doesn’t try to catch the ball like most catchers. She makes sure she gets in the path of the ball and keeps it from getting behind her. Just one of the many reasons she’s already verballed to the University of Indianapolis.

I tossed a couple of balls at her and noticed something right away. When she went to block, especially side to side, she made a slight movement up before going down. That can be dangerous, especially with a pitcher throwing some heat. I mentioned it and she said she felt it too.

So I asked her to get ready again, and that’s when I spotted the problem. She had gotten into a habit of being more vertical than is desirable in her runners on base stance. Ideally, with runners on base your back is parallel to the ground and your butt and hips are up, close to even with your thighs. That way you don’t have to lift your center of gravity up to move.

But because she was sitting more upright she was having to lift her butt (and her body) before going down.

That was an easy fix. Once back into a proper stance she was once again pouncing on balls directly and quickly, like a cat on a catnip toy.

So if you have a catcher going up before going down give that a look. One simple change can make a world of difference.

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