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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!

Product Review: The Softball Rope Trainer

Liv ROPE Trainer main

It doesn’t take too much time going through Life in the Fastpitch Lane to see that I am pretty fanatical about good throwing mechanics. I definitely feel overhand throwing is one of the most under-taught skills in the game, which is a shame because it’s such a big part of the game (unless you have a pitcher who strikes out 18 hitters a game, every game).

So that’s why I was excited to receive a new (to me) product to test – The Softball ROPE Trainer by Perfect Pitch and Throw. According to the manufacturer it is designed to help softball (and baseball) players learn the proper mechanics for a powerful, strong and safe throw by unlocking the joints in the proper sequence. From their website:

“Using The ROPE Trainer allows players to work the throwing muscles in all parts of the kinetic chain. Using The ROPE Trainer optimizes the mechanics of the throwing sequence by building the muscles and joints used during the throwing process. Over time, using The ROPE Trainer will allow for better muscle memory, improved strength and endurance without the excessive stress caused by releasing the ball.”

You can read more about the theory behind it and how it helps prevent injuries here.

The basic design is fairly straightforward. It’s basically a softball with a plug system that lets you attach one or two sets of ropes. By focusing on getting the ropes to work ROPE Softball Trainerproperly (and not smack the player on the head, legs or other body parts), The Rope Trainer helps players find the right path to slot their arms and follow-through properly.

You can add more resistance by using both sets of ropes to create more of a strength workout, although the grip will then not be the four-seam grip most players are used to. No worries, though. You’re not actually going to throw the ball anyway.

The manufacturer positions it as an upgrade over the old “towel drill,” where a player holds a small towel and goes through the throwing motion with the same goal in mind. In fact, here’s an article that tests The ROPE Trainer versus the towel drill. They tested the baseball version rather than the softball version, but I’m sure it’s the same.

One of the big differences in my eyes is that the ropes can swing around more than a towel, so the player has to be more precise in her arm and hand path to get the right results.

Ok, sounds good in theory. How did it work in practice?

The first girl I had try it was a terrific 14U catcher named Liv. She wanted to learn how to throw from her knees, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to check it out.

One of the big issues with catchers, especially young ones, learning to throw from their knees is that they tend to only use their arms. They don’t get into a good position to use their shoulders, torsos, glutes, and other big muscles, and they have a big tendency not to follow through after throwing.

So I put on one of the sets of ropes, handed Liv the ball, and had her get into a runners on base stance.  When I said “go” she reacted, getting into position and using The Rope Trainer as if she was actually making the throw.

As I said, Liv is awesome so after a couple of attempts she got the hang of getting the ropes to whip through to her left side at the end. Here’s a video of her as she’s using it:

Then we switched her to an actual ball. She immediately was able to make the throw with good juice on the ball, and with great accuracy too. Most important, she was using a strong throwing motion that will protect her arm and shoulder.

To give you an idea of how strong her throw was, this is what happened to her mom’s wedding ring after receiving a few at second then at first. Oops. Kari broken ring

Of course, it’s easy to get something to work when you have an excellent player using it. So for another test I went the other way.

I took a younger girl (who shall remain nameless) who did not have a particularly good throwing motion and had her try The Softball ROPE Trainer as well. While the results weren’t quite as instantaneous, she also showed improvement.

This particular girl was doing the classic “throw like a girl” of dropping her elbow below her shoulder and just sort of shoving the ball forward with her arm.

(NOTE: Don’t even bother telling me how horrible I am to use the phrase “throw like a girl” and wonder how such a nasty misogynist could ever work with female athletes. I encourage my students to throw like softball players, and will put them up against any male player their age – or any dad who doesn’t think girls can throw hard. So chill.)

After working with The Softball ROPE Trainer for about five minutes she was doing better with her overhand throws. I doubt that little session was permanent, but I wanted to see if it would make a difference.

I believe it did, and that with repetition at home and/or practice someone with poor throwing mechanics could re-learn how to throw properly, most likely within 2-4 weeks with regular work.

The other nice thing about The Softball ROPE Trainer is that it doesn’t cost very much. You can purchase it direct from the manufacturer for just $67.49. I know, weird price, right?

For that money you get the ball, two rope sets (I think – the website says one but mine came with two), instructions and a nice drawstring bag to hold it all. If you wear out the ball or one of the rope sets you can purchase new ones as well, which is always nice.

If you have or know players with poor throwing mechanics, or have someone with good mechanics who want to get better, give The Softball ROPE Trainer a try.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I don’t know how it is for fastpitch pitching yet. That’s next on my list to try. Seems like if you have mechanics that focus on whipping the ball through the release zone instead of pushing it The Softball ROPE Trainer might work. We’ll see.

If it works, I’ll do another post on that. If not, I’ll update this one.

Adding A Little “Pop” to Catcher Pop Times

Rachael catching

When I work with catchers, I often tell them two of the most important things they will be judged on by coaches is their ability to block pitches in the dirt, and their ability to throw runners out. Obviously there are a lot of other aspects to catching as well, but these are two of the most visible – and most glaring if a catcher isn’t good at them.

Of the two, the second one (ability to throw runners out) is the more easily measurable. At least in theory.

You can throw balls in the dirt to catchers all day long in a tryout or practice situation and they can look like champs. Especially if they know ahead of time the balls are going in the dirt. But put them in a game and the question is whether they can recognize that random ball headed for the dirt fast enough to block. Tough to simulate that randomness.

Throwing runners out, however, mostly comes down to one thing: pop time, or the time between when the ball pops the catcher’s glove to the time it pops the receiver’s glove at the base.

Really, it’s a numbers game. For the sake of simplicity (since I am generally math-challenged), we’ll use 3.0 as the time it takes a base runner to advance 60 feet. That’s a pretty good number at most levels outside the top of NCAA Division 1 college softball, so it’s one where you can expect to see the majority of runners. Well, that and above.

So if we’re using 3.0 seconds as the standard, let’s assume the pitch gets to the plate in 0.5 seconds. Not super fast, but not super slow either, and easy to do the math. So if we assume 3.0 and subtract the time it takes for the ball to pop the catcher’s glove, that leaves 2.5 seconds to make the throw and apply the tag in time.

Of course, getting there exactly at the same time leaves it up to an umpire’s judgment, which you never want to do, so let’s take off a couple tenths of a second to make the ball beating the runner there more obvious. Now we’re at, say, 2.3 seconds.

Of course, most teams will have at least one or two runners who are faster than 3.0 between bases. And some will push the envelope and attempt to leave a little early, so we’d best knock off a couple more tenths. Which means our pop team needs to be in the 2.0 to 2.1 range. Yeah, that feels right.

So if your catcher is hovering around 2.5 (or longer), or is sitting at 2.2 but playing higher-level ball where she needs to get the ball to the base in 1.9 or 1.8 seconds, how do you get that time down?

For any decently skilled catcher there is no one thing that will do it. Instead, it’s a combination of little things that will add up. Shave off a little here, a little there, and before you know it your pop time meets the standard for US national team tryouts.

Here are some ways to do it.

  1. Adopt a better “runners on base” stance. When I see catchers squatting on their toes in any situation it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. But it’s especially bothersome when there are runners on base, because you can’t move very well side-to-side, and you can’t exactly spring up either. The reason is the weight distribution in our bodies, and our center of gravity – which for a female generally sits low in the hips and toward the back. If the catcher’s butt is below her knees, sheRachael catcher stance pretty much has to lift her entire body weight to get up. But if it starts around knee-level, with the thighs parallel to the ground and the back close to parallel to the ground, most of the heavy lifting is already done. You can get up a lot quicker – and last longer. Which is not only good for throwing runners out, but for chasing down bunts as well.
  2. Learn to pop up instead of run up. I see this one so often. Catchers will come up out of their crouches, take a step forward with their right foot, then take a step forward with their left foot, then throw. Too much wasted time! Because while you’re running up, what’s the base runner doing? Running to the base. Instead, catchers should work on popping up and jumping into a good stance, with their throwing-side foot dropping back and their weight starting out on that foot. Much, much faster. They can also learn to throw from their knees if they arm, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  3. Speed up the transfer of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand. Another thing you’ll often see with catchers, even older ones who should know better, is a tendency to reach forward to grab the ball after it’s caught, make the transfer in front of them, then pull the arm back to throw. The problem is their throwing hand starts off by going in the wrong direction. If they fumble with the transfer at all they have a long way to go (relatively speaking) before they are in position to make the throw. A better approach is to bring the ball back to the hand with the glove. The hand will be waiting around the throwing-side shoulder or ear. As the ball goes into the hand, the hand is then pulled back into a throwing position, essentially making the throw a part of the transfer instead of a separate event. To work on this, by the way, have the catcher start with nothing on or in either hand and just pull the glove hand back to slap the throwing hand. Then add a ball, still barehanded, then add the glove. Just stand sideways and continue to work on the transfer. Once you have that down, toss the ball to the catcher and have her practice the transfer that way. It’s repetitive and boring, but it works.
  4. Rake the ball back instead of catching it. This technique is a bit more advanced, but it can definitely help shave off some time. Typically, the catcher will catch the ball on a steal the same way she catches it for a frame, i.e., get the glove behind the ball, stop its forward progress, then pull it back. Rather than doing that, have the catcher work on catching the side of the ball while starting to pull her glove back, in essence raking the ball back toward her throwing hand as she receives it. Eliminating the stop-and-start of receiving the back of the ball helps get it in place faster to make a throw. Combine this with #3 and you’ll have a catcher who is lightning fast on her release. Then she just has to make sure her body keeps up with what her arms and feet are doing so she can get the throw off with full power.
  5. Know where the base is instinctively. Whether a catcher is popping up or throwing from her knees, she shouldn’t have to wait until she sees the base to make a throw. She should just know where it is and throw. To work on this, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her make the throw. For extra fun, place an object like a stuffed animal on top of a bucket (a second bucket will also work) and have her work on knocking it off. Even if she doesn’t succeed right away, she will build awareness of where the base is and what she needs to do to get the ball there.
  6. Learn to just throw. This isn’t a technique as much as a mental approach, so it doesn’t necessarily show up in a pop time measurement. But it can have a profound effect on the catcher’s success in a game. All too often catchers want to make sure there is someone at the base to receive the ball when they throw, so they will hesitate, even slightly, before throwing. That is the wrong way to go. The catcher should be focused on getting the ball to the base as fast as she possibly can, and trust that someone will get there to receive it. If they don’t, coaches should make sure to tell catchers they did the right thing and then proceed to work with whoever is supposed to be receiving to get there in time to make the play. I always wanted my catchers to push the limits of the receiving fielder. You should too.

If each of those ideas take just one half of one tenth of a second off, the catcher will end up shaving 3/10 of a second from her pop time. That could be the difference between the bases looking like a merry-go-round for the opposing team and your catcher showing there’s a new sheriff in town. Add in some ladder work for agility and a throwing program to increase overhand throw velocity and you’ll have a star on your hands.

The other thing to keep in mind is coaches rarely use their slowest runner to test the catcher’s throw. Instead, they usually use their fastest. So even if that runner does manage to squeak in ahead of the throw, if it’s close it sends a message not try it with anyone who isn’t a super-rabbit.

Keeping runners from advancing for free on bases should be a huge point of pride for catchers. If you want to make yours deadly, give these ideas a try.

Training catchers with the Roman Empire drill

Thumb neutral

Anyone who has seen a gladiator movie, or a movie with gladiators in it, is familiar with this scenario: Two warriors do battle until one bests the other. The victor stands over the fallen loser, weapon at the ready, and looks to the Emperor (or highest-ranking official in attendance). The Emperor holds out his hand with his thumb extended sideways, then either turns it up to spare the fallen warrior or down to indicate he should be killed.

Never mind that this is just a dramatic fiction of the movies. In reality, gladiators were too expensive to acquire and train to be wasted in such a manner. The idea of the thumbs-up/thumbs down creates a scenario to help fastpitch softball as well as baseball catchers.

Like hitters moving from the cage to games, catchers often have a tough time making the transition from practice to the field. They may be great at blocking in practice, when they know it’s coming, or scrambling to their feet to chase a popup. But in an actual game, all that training sometimes seems to go out the window.

That’s where we can borrow from the Roman Empire of the movies, and have some fun besides.

Line your catchers up in front of you, with your arm extended and your thumb to the side. They should all be in their runners on base stance.

Then either turn your thumb up for them to react to an imaginary popup or base stealer, or down to block a pitch in the dirt. Thumb up

The key is that they don’t know which they’re going to have to do, so they’re going to have to read and react quickly and appropriately.

For added challenge, you can tell anyone who goes the wrong way that they have to sit out. You can also tell the catchers that the last one up or down is out as well. That creates a little competition and gives them some skin in the game.

Thumb downWhen the catchers go into a blocking position, check to make sure they are in the position you want and not just flopping onto the ground. They should be up and over the imaginary ball, with their shoulders further forward than their knees and their chins tucked in – as opposed to the ones who sit on their calves like they’re getting ready to watch TV.

For the popup position, first tell them where the ball will be – in front of them or behind them. Then emphasize getting their backs turned to the infield so the imaginary ball doesn’t drift away from them.

If you want to go with steals, make sure they’re coming up into a good throwing position rather than just getting to their feet. If you have the space, you can even have them make the throw. Just be aware of a stray ball or two.

The objective, again, is getting them to read the situation and react more quickly.

Here’s the last part to making a successful transition. Your catchers may get good at Roman Empire, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll carry it with them onto the field. What you want to tell them is when they’re in a game, they need to approach it like they’re doing the Roman Empire drill.

They need to get themselves ready to read and react, rather than not thinking about it at all and then reacting too late. By being mentally ready on the field they’ll put themselves in a position to use all that training and find greater success.

Fastpitch catchers: On your feet or on your knees

Throwing from your feet or your knees doesn't matter, as long as you get the job done

University of Minnesota vs. Oklahoma State University Women’s softball.

Ok, I’ll admit it. The headline was my opportunity to offer a tribute to one of my favorite Blue Oyster Cult albums. But it does have relevance for fastpitch catchers as well as coaches when it comes to making throws to various bases.

There is certainly a perception in some circles that to be a high-level catcher you have to be able to throw from your knees. Of course, like many of these so-called “absolutes” that is simply not true.

Throwing out runners on a steal is basically a math problem. Since it’s summer let’s make the math easy to start.

Let’s say the runner can go from first to second in 3.0 seconds and the pitcher is throwing 60 mph, which means it takes 0.4 seconds from the time leaves her hand until it reaches the plate. Simple subtraction says 3.0 – 0.4 = 2.6.

That’s the amount of time the catcher has from the moment the ball hits her glove to the moment it must be at second base to catch that runner: 2.6 seconds, aka her “pop” time. Notice that nowhere in that simple mathematical formula does it say anything about how the ball is thrown, because it doesn’t matter. It just has to get there on time.

So if the catcher can throw hard enough to get the ball to the base in 1.5 seconds, that means she has 1.1 second to receive the ball, get into position, transfer the ball to her throwing hand and get it on her way.

If it takes less time to throw the ball, she has more time for the other stuff. If it takes her more time to throw, the transfer and positioning time goes down.

Of course, when you’re talking about high-level catching, such as at the D1 college level, 2.6 seconds is a terrible pop time. You won’t be catching if that’s what it takes. They’re looking for sub-2.0 times, the faster the better.

So using our simple math again, if the runner has 2.6 speed and the pitch is still taking 0.4 seconds to reach the plate, the pop time is 2.2 seconds. Allow for a little variance and you’re looking at, say, 1.8 seconds.

Now the throw must get there much faster, but it still doesn’t matter how it gets there as long as it gets there on time. There are no style points in softball. It either works or it doesn’t.

As I’ve been watching the D1 Regionals and Super Regionals I’ve seen both. Some catchers have thrown from their knees, while others popped up. Why the difference?

Sometimes it’s dictated by where the pitch comes in. A high pitch, whether it’s intentional with a rise ball or some other pitch that got away from the pitcher will lead to a throw from your feet. It would be silly to throw from your knees in that situation.

On low pitches it’s a little different. For some catchers, going to their knees feels right. For others, especially those who lack speed or mobility, it may be too difficult to get to their feet in time to make the throw. They simply don’t have the agility so they must go to their knees. Those who are quicker and more agile, on the other hand, can get up, get into position, and make the throw with time to spare.

Ultimately it comes down to 1) what it takes to get the job done and 2) personal preference. As long as the ball beats the runner to the bag in time to make the tag and get the out, how it got there doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit.

I’ll take a catcher who throws from her feet and gets people out over one who throws from knees and doesn’t, or gets very few, any day of the week, and for a double header on Sunday. I’m sure any college coach would agree, because only a fool would think otherwise.

Giving fastpitch catchers a ladder to success on throwdowns

First of all, a quick hello to any students from Mr. Nikolich’s Marketing 470 class at NIU who decided to stop by and see if I was as full of it as I seemed the other day. If any of you come by, please leave a comment below and I’ll see if I can wrangle a little extra credit for you. Ok, now on to fastpitch catchers and their needs.

What I’m talking about today is actually a fairly common issue, especially with young catchers, baseball as well as fastpitch. We talk a lot about “pop” times and the importance of getting the ball down to the base quickly on a steal.

So what happens? As catchers come up from a squat to a throwing position, often times in their haste they don’t get their bodies turned properly. When that happens they lose both power and accuracy on the throw. They wind up more like one of those yard sprinklers, spray balls all over the place.

With some training they can learn to get into the proper position when they’re not making the throw, or they’re under pressure. But sometimes they just can’t make the transition, no matter how much you yell at them. 🙂 That’s when you need to get a little creative.

Fastpitch catcher in runners on base stance for ladder drillIn some recent catching clinics with the Midwest Glory, I had been having the catcher work on their foot quickness with a speed ladder. They would straddle the ladder, then “jump on the skateboard” to get in place, going as rapidly as they could. Then we moved to real throws.

Some were ok, but others had some trouble. When they popped up they would wind up with their feet at a 45 degree angle to the target rather than being fully turned. That’s when it hit me.

That speed ladder I’d just been using would work perfectly as a guide to get the feet aligned. So I dragged it over, set it up and voila! Great positioning and better throws.

In the photos, Brinn McNeill is demonstrating how it works. The first photo shows Brinn in a runners on base stance, straddling one of the opening on the ladder. The second photo shows her after popping up into a good throwing position – shoulders, hips and knees Fastpitch catcher jumping into the ladder to get alignedaligned toward second, elbow pointed forward, knees still slightly bent.

She could now make an accurate throw blindfolded – and in fact has done just that. But that’s a story for another day.

If you have catchers who are having trouble getting lined up properly, give this technique a try. By the way, if you don’t have a speed ladder you can draw one in the dirt. If you’re indoors and don’t have dirt, use tape (with light adhesive), or sticks, or anything you can find to create two boxes for the feet.

And if you do try it, let me know how it goes in the comments below.

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