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Chutes and Ladders…and Softball

Not too long ago I talked about how I love this time of the year because you have the ability to make big changes without the pressure of performing in games.

Pitchers can work on speed without worrying about accuracy. Hitters can work on driving the ball without worrying about striking out. Catchers can work on pop times without worrying about throwing the ball to the center field fence. And so on.

What’s not to like, right? With all that unfettered ability to go full bore at improvement you should be able to make tremendous improvement in a short time. Right?

Well, not exactly. The thing is, improvement isn’t always a straight line up. In softball, as in most sports, it’s more like the old children’s board game Chutes and Ladders.

You remember that one. You roll the die and move your piece the number of spaces shown on the space.

Sometimes it results in nothing. You just move forward that many spaces.

Sometimes it brings you to a ladder, and you get to skip a whole bunch of spaces by climbing the ladder. That’s great progress, and a quick shortcut to winning.

But sometimes, your roll of the die brings you to a chute. When that happens, you fall back down the board, a little or a lot, and then have to claw your way back to where you were before you can continue moving toward a win.

The same can happen with softball skills, especially if you’re trying to improve something fundamental.

Whether your mechanics are right or wrong, when you get comfortable with them you can use all your athletic ability to execute them. You’re at maximum energy and maximum speed.

All that goes out the window when you start making a fundamental change. You have to think about what you’re doing and it slows you down.

It probably feels a bit awkward too. Because if what you were doing before didn’t feel natural you probably would not have been doing it.

The result is your performance may go down the chute temporarily. If you’re a pitcher you may lose a little speed, or a pitch that was working pretty well may not work as well anymore.

If you’re a hitter you may swing and miss a little more, or might lose some bat speed.

But that’s ok. It’s normal and natural. You need to be patient and trust the plan.

Because one day, when you have internalized the changes, the payoff will be there. If you’re pursuing the right changes all the chutes you have to endure will be worth it. Because eventually you will hit a ladder and get that much closer to your goals.

Re-thinking How to Use a Radar Unit

Ally pitching

I am going to admit right up-front that I have always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with radar guns/units for pitchers.

At first it wasn’t too bad. I bought a Glove Radar and attached it to my catcher’s glove to check my own daughter’s speed. It was fine for that purpose, especially since we weren’t really caught up in the absolute number but rather just looking to see whether she was making progress.

Once I started teaching pitching lessons and was no longer catching, I purchased a series of other units, including an early Bushnell (which I ultimately gave away) a Jugs Gun (an earlier model than the one in the link, which I still own) and then all the iterations of the Pocket Radar.

I tended not to use the radar units much, however, because of one simple phenomenon. Whenever I would pull out the unit, no matter which one it was, the pitcher would tighten up and start throwing visibly slower than she had before.

Inevitably the readings were disappointing and what had started out as an energetic lesson would kind of fall into a sort of funk. Consequently, while I had all this technology at my disposal I didn’t really take advantage of it.

That changed after I took the High Performance Pitching certification courses from Paulygirl Fastpitch and had a chance to observe how Rick Pauly was doing it. He had a radar unit permanently set up in the cage he uses for lessons, with a big readout the pitcher could see after every pitch.

As you would watch him teach lessons in the course, the speed was always there in the background. As a result, it no longer became a “thing” to be trotted out. It was just part of the background, like the net or the posters he has hung up.

That brought me to my epiphany. If every pitch is measured, the pitcher just might learn to get over her fear of being measured.

Of course, one of the differences between my situation and Rick’s is that all his students come to him at a single location, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, while I work out of at least three different facilities on a regular basis, plus some other locations when I am working with several pitchers on a team. I am a softball gypsy.

So I started thinking how I could duplicate that experience when it hit me. I have a Pocket Radar Smart Coach unit. I could mount it to a tripod, place it behind the catcher, and pull up the readings on my iPhone.

Good idea in theory, except it became a problem when I wanted to video a student to point out something to work on. Luckily technology again came to the rescue and in a better way.

I still set up the Smart Coach on the tripod in Continuous mode. But then I connect it via Bluetooth to my iPad, which sits on the floor, off to the side, in front of the pitcher. Every pitch gets registered in big numbers that we both can see, and my phone remains free for video.

From a logistic standpoint, this setup has worked out well. I also quickly discovered that an evening’s worth of lessons will drain the batteries pretty quickly. But luckily the Smart Coach has a port that lets you connect a power block to it.

The power block I have lasts for several hours. When I get home I recharge it and it’s ready for the next evening’s lessons.

The big question, of course, would be the effect it had on the students. Would they tense up and freak out over having every pitch measured?

Not at all. In fact, the opposite has happened. I find that the big, red numbers inspire them to work harder to increase their speed.

There’s no slacking off in a lesson, because it becomes obvious. The numbers don’t lie. And they all want to do a little better than they did before, so they keep working at it.

But rather than tensing up they kind of find their own way to relaxing and throwing better.

Since I’ve started using it, I think every pitcher who has done it has achieved at least one person best if not more. By personal best I mean her highest reading on my set-up.

It also gives me a way to push them that’s fun for them. If a girl throws 51, I’ll ask her to throw 52. It’s just one mph more, but stack up enough of those and you get a nice speed increase.

The setup I use isn’t perfect. Pocket Radar says the unit works best when it’s a few feet away and directly behind the catcher/in line with the pitch. The cages I use don’t allow for that type of setup; I usually have to put it a foot or two to the side of the catcher, sometimes right behind him or her.

No matter, however. The objective isn’t to get an absolute speed measurement. It’s to track (and encourage) progress.

Having a pitcher improve speed during a drill, or work to get to a new high speed from the pitching plate, gets us where we want to go. We can always get the more accurate measurement when we can set it up properly.

So if your experience has been like mine, where bringing out the radar unit becomes a momentum killer, try making it “part of the furniture” instead. You will probably like what you discover.


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