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Helping fastpitch catchers learn to throw to bases faster

In fastpitch softball, as in baseball, catchers tend to make their bones in two areas above all else. One is their ability to block pitches in the dirt. The other is their ability to throw out baserunners, either on steals or pickoffs.

Key to the latter is the ability to make a quick throw. While having a strong arm is important, a strong arm can be offset by requiring a slow, deliberate release. And for catcher-throwingcatchers whose arms are not the strongest, having a quick release becomes even more critical.

One of the ways you can speed up a catcher’s release is by getting rid of the need to “find” the base first. In other words, when the catcher goes to throw the ball – either on a steal or a pick – she shouldn’t have to look at where the base is and process the information.

Instead, she should just know instinctively where it is. The tenth of a second or two she saves by not having to “find” the base first can make the difference between safe and out.

Even the runner is safe, if it’s just by a hair it will serve as a warning to the other team’s coach not to get too adventurous on the basepaths. After all, coaches generally don’t test the catcher’s arm/release with their slowest runners – they use their fastest. If you can make it a photo finish with the fastest runner, it’s unlikely the coach will be anxious to send the rest.

So how do you get catchers to throw with more instinct? One of my favorite methods is by using a blindfold. Here’s how it works.

First, you must have already trained your catchers on proper technique, including the need for urgency. If you haven’t done that first, stop now and do that, then come back to this idea.

If you have, however, then it’s time to bring out the blindfold. The catcher starts with the ball in her glove and the blindfold in place. Make sure she’s in line with where she would normally set up, then have her get into her runners on base stance. Tell her to visualize where the base you’re throwing to is. I usually like to start with throws to second.

When she’s ready, either blow a whistle or yell “she’s going.” At that point the catcher pops to her feet (or drops to her knees if she can throw that way) and executes the throw as quickly as possible.

If she has a good feel for where the base is without seeing it, and good technique, she should be able to make the throw reasonably close. If she doesn’t, it could go anywhere and you’ll know you have some work to do.

If the throw goes offline, be sure to tell the catcher where it went so she can get a feeling for the difference between where she thinks it is and where it actually is. Also be sure to watch as she makes her throw for mechanical flaws (such as not pointing the front shoulder at the target) that can throw her off.

One way to make it more interesting is to offer a prize. This is particularly effective if you’re working with multiple catchers at once, since once one of them is successful it will spur the others. I’ve used a stick of Chapstick, a pack of gum or a roll of Mentos as prizes. You can select whatever you want.

Having a competition for a prize is a great way to end a training session, by the way. I like using this type because everyone has a shot at it (versus having only one winner) if they execute properly.

To add a degree of difficulty, have the receiver sit on a bucket or a chair. That cuts the adjustability of the receiver, so the throws really have to be spot-on. If you’re working with multiple catchers, you can add in some conditioning by having one be the thrower, one the receiver, and another chasing down errant throws. Give the thrower one shot, then she sprints down to become the receiver, carrying the ball with her. The running not only helps them build their legs but also fatigues them, helping simulate the feeling of having played a couple of games already.

This drill/game can be used for any base. It can be particularly interesting for right-handed catchers to learn to throw to first base on a pickoff attempt since the moves will have to be stealthy and they must rotate beyond the 90 degrees required to throw to second. It can get pretty random, especially outdoors, so your “chaser” will get a good workout in.

Throwing to bases blindfolded can be pretty challenging at first, so keep them encouraged. Let them know there is a degree of difficulty involved, and there’s no shame in not being able to do it at first.

But if they CAN learn to throw to bases instinctively, without seeing, the whole process will become a whole lot easier when they’re not blindfolded.

Don’t be surprised, by the way, if this quickly becomes your catchers’ favorite drill/game. The ones I’ve used it with usually will ask if they can do it, or will select it if given a choice of how to close out practice.

Truth is it’s not only challenging – it’s fun. And a point of pride when they’re able to make the throw.

Tossing out baserunners takes a lot of instinctual play. This is a great way of helping to build those instincts.

 

 

Congratulations to Taylor Danielson for signing with UIndy

One of the best parts of my job as a fastpitch softball instructor – actually THE best part – is seeing them succeed. That’s why I was so excited and honored to watch as Taylor Danielson signed her National Letter of Intent to play softball at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy). Go Greyhounds!

Signing a National Letter of Intent

Taylor Danielson signs her National Letter of Intent for UIndy as her parents Chris and Tracy watch.

I’ve written about Taylor a couple of times before, most recently just a couple of weeks ago. She is an amazing catcher who can frame and block with the best of them. She’s also very vocal, the types coaches love because she takes command on the field.

She’s a great hitter as well (as the post about the knee injury attests) and when she’s healthy she has 2.8 speed from home to first – a pretty rare skill for a catcher. It’s no wonder the UIndy coaches verballed her more than a year ago and are excited for her to come over.

Taylor is also a high quality human being. For all her talent on the field she is very humble off of it. I’ve never heard her say a mean word about anyone, even people who probably deserved it. She is kind and caring, and always has a smile on her face. She’s also very polite, which seems to be more and more rare in our me-first world. Definitely credit her parents Chris and Tracy for that.

img_0883I actually first met Taylor when she came to catch for a pitching and hitting student of mine named Kate Kiser – before Kate wound up going to volleyball full time. While she was catching I used to give her a tip here or there, which I tend to do with catchers. Something must have clicked, because her dad asked if I would give her full-time catching lessons. We also did hitting together, and Taylor was a sponge with both.

I couldn’t be happier that Taylor has this opportunity. UIndy is a high-quality program, and I’m sure Taylor will help them become even better. So Taylor, congratulations. I know you will continue to be awesome. Looking forward to catching a couple of games in your senior high school season, and at UIndy as well.

Return of the Indiana United Fastpitch Elite/Rick Pauly Clinics

Earlier this year I blogged about a fantastic fastpitch pitching event held, of all places, in Southeastern Indiana. Put on by Rick Pauly, hosted by Indiana United Elite Fastpitch and Coach James Clark, and featuring an array of top-level pitching coaches, it was an incredible learning experience for players, parents and coaches alike.img_0764

Never one to be content to rest on his laurels, Coach James has outdone himself with the latest iteration. The 2017 clinic, again in Richmond, Indiana, has expanded in its scope to not only offer top-level pitching instruction but also clinics on hitting, catching, the short game/slapping and defense.

This year’s instructor lineup is impressive once again, with college coaches and former college and NPF players offering hands-on instruction. The nice thing about these clinics is they’re not like so many, where they show a big name who is the “face” but then have very little interaction. The faces you see on the flyer will all be actively participating in or leading the instruction.

Throughout the weekend there will be plenty of time for discussions and questions too. One of the highlights for me last time was many of the instructors gathered together in a room tossing around ideas and opinions until the wee hours of the morning – all part of an impromptu session that began with a simple question. Those little side conversations alone are worth the price of admission.

Coach James promises it will be bigger and better than ever, and I believe it! The clinic runs the weekend of January 6,7 and 8, 2017 – timed this time to both make sure it didn’t interfere with high school and college seasons and to give players time to lock down what they learn before tryouts begin for spring high school ball.

Click here to register, and here to schedule the sessions you want and to pay. Most sessions are $70 each and run an hour and 15 minutes. The exceptions are the recruiting discussion that costs $25, and the beginning and advanced pitching sessions with Rick and Sara Pauly which cost $150 and are scheduled for 3 hours, although last year Rick was having such a great time he ran a bit long on both sessions.

Download the flyer for complete information, and then be sure you sign up now. Slots are filling fast. I’m sure you’ll find it’s a great investment in your softball future.

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Softball catchers need to chatter

Last Sunday I was doing another in a series of catching clinics for players ages 10-14. We had some pitchers come in so they could practice the skills they’d been working on all winter – receiving, framing, blocking, throwing down to second – while gaining experience on learning to recognize when to do which. Circle conference

As it was going along, though, I noticed something – an unbelievable amount of silence. I called one group of catchers together and asked them “What’s the difference between softball and church?” The girls all stared blankly at me until finally the light bulb came on for one of them and she meekly said, “You’re supposed to be quiet in church?”

Exactly. While many positions on the field can get by with the silent treatment, catcher is not one of them. Catchers need to constantly be chattering for a variety of reasons.

One of the biggest is to make sure their pitchers stay confident. Pitching is a tough position mentally. Everything that happens on the field starts with a pitch. That puts a lot of pressure on pitchers to get it right.

As I often say, the circle looks bright and shiny from the outside but it can be a dark and lonely place on the inside.

Support from the catcher can make it  far less lonely. If the pitcher throws a strike, the catcher can tell her “good pitch” or “that’s my girl” or “you’re the one.” Any sort of positive reinforcement. If the pitcher misses, she can say “you’ve got this” or “c’mon just you and me” or something of the sort. Anything to help the pitcher stay up and focused.

It’s not just pitchers who can get help from catchers, though. High-enthusiasm, chattering catchers (Taylor Danielson, I’m thinking of you) can energize the entire team. The obvious responsibility is to make sure everyone knows how many outs there are and what the next play is.

But catchers can also provide encouragement to teams, help panicking teammates regain control and pick up a teammate who made an error. On the other side, they can also call out a player who is slacking or doesn’t have her head in the game.

One of my first catchers had those qualities. Her name was Katie Swanson, and she was definitely vocal. She could be positive, for sure, but she definitely didn’t hesitate to kick butt when necessary. No team was ever going to be low energy when she was behind the plate, and it was a definitely a difference-maker for our team.

For players like Katie, chattering comes naturally. For those who aren’t gifted with that ability it can be developed.

You may feel silly at first, but next time you’re at practice, or working with a pitcher, just start talking. Develop your own patter, things you like to say that come naturally out of your personality.

If you’re funny, use it. If you’re serious, use it. But like any other skill, you have to practice it. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it and the more naturally it will come. Before you know it you’ll have command of the field – and you’ll capture the attention not just of your teammates and coaches, but perhaps a college coach or two as well.

Now it’s your turn. If you’re a catcher, have you learned to be vocal on the field? If you’re a catcher’s parent or coach, how have you helped your catcher learn to speak up? Or have you?

 

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.

An inspirational story – one-armed softball player

We often talk about how difficult the sport of softball is to learn and play. It can take years for players to get the hang of the game, and coaches and parents frequently get frustrated when their players don’t “get it” right away.

And few positions demand more of a player than being a catcher – especially since one of the key ways to measure the effectiveness of a catcher is their ability to throw runners out when they’re trying to steal. It takes quick reactions, a strong arm, and a quick transfer of the ball from the glove to the free hand.

That’s what makes this video so inspirational. It’s about Jaide Bucher, a high school catcher from Denver, who does all of this while only having one hand – her left hand.

The good folks from Gatorade recently made one of her dreams come true when they arranged for her to fly to LA to meet her idol, former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott. Abbott played at the highest level of baseball (even pitching a no-hitter) while also only having one hand.

Give this inspirational video a look. It’ll give you a great idea of what determination and love for the sport can accomplish.

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