Whether the goal is hitting farther, throwing harder, pitching faster or executing some other movement at a higher level, the first place many of us go is energy generation. Let’s take pitching, for example.
Pitchers will be encouraged to spend a lot of time on improving their drive mechanics. They’ll be told to do endless box jumps, lunges, dead lifts and other exercises to build more explosiveness into their legs. They’ll be put on devices such as the Queen of the Hill to help them learn to drive out even harder.
Yet improving the amount of drive is only half the battle. What often gets ignored in all this heavy lifting is the importance of being able to transfer the energy they’re generating into the ball efficiently, i.e., with as little energy loss as possible.
Here’s why that’s important. Imagine you need to move 20 gallons of water from point A to point B, but all you have available is a one gallon bucket. It’s going to take a lot of little trips to move all that water.
Not very efficient.
Now imagine you have a 10 gallon bucket instead. You’ll be able to take a lot more water in each trip while minimizing the number of trips you need to make to accomplish the same task.
The same is true for fastpitch softball skills. No matter how much energy you generate on the front end, that energy is only as useful as your ability to transfer/apply it to the skill you’re performing.
Of course in softball it’s not just about how much energy you can transfer but how quickly you can do it. A sudden transfer will delivery more of the energy into the ball versus a slow one. That’s just physics.
In hitting that means a quick swing that rapidly accelerates the bat to meet the ball at the optimum contact point. In throwing and pitching, that means a rapid series of accelerations and decelerations into the release point.
This, by the way, is one of several reasons why “hello elbow” pitching prevents pitchers from reaching their maximum levels of velocity.
Hello elbow finishes, where you try to muscle the ball through release by straightening out the arm as it goes around the circle, deliberately snap the wrist and then yank up on the arm (mostly after the ball is already gone), are slow, forced movements.
There is no sudden acceleration and deceleration sequence that enables the upper and lower arms, as well as the wrist, to move at different speeds at different times. It’s all one big forced movement, which prevents energy from being transferred – as opposed to internal rotation which accelerates and decelerates the upper and lower arm in sequence and allows the wrist to react to what the arm is doing, amplifying the energy instead of limiting it.
The point is spending all your time on learning how to generate maximum energy isn’t enough. You need to spend an equal amount of time, or maybe even more, on learning how to transfer that energy you’re generating efficiently. Otherwise it’s a lot of wasted effort.
Build yourself a bigger energy “bucket” and you’ll maximize your results with whatever your bring to the table today – and tomorrow.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Leg drive for fastpitch pitchers often falls into that category of “I know it when I see it.” But explaining how to get it if it doesn’t come naturally to a pitcher is a whole other challenge.
That’s where a new product called the Queen of the Hill (QotH) from Ground Force Sports can be – shall I say it? – a game changer. Instead of explaining to pitchers that they need to push off harder from the pitching rubber, the QotH lets them experience whether they are doing it or not – not just with their sense of feel, but with sound.
The product itself is pretty simple on the surface. It consists of a base plate, plus a spring-loaded top plate that has pitching rubber attached to it. The front of the pitching rubber has a 45 degree angle to it, which right away encourages pitchers to get into a better drive position before they ever throw a pitch. (Leaving your foot flat on the ground is no way to achieve a powerful leg drive.)
To use it you can lay the QotH on the flat ground, or place it in front of the pitching rubber on an indoor mat or field. Then, using the included Allen wrench that is held on the back of the rubber, you set the tension level on the QotH.
NOTE: The Allen wrench is designed to be held very securely after you insert it into the hole in the back of the rubber. That’s a good thing for transport, so you don’t lose it, but not so good if you’re in the middle of a pitching session and you want to make a quick change of tension. After my first time using it in lessons I discovered the best approach is to stick it in your pocket after the first use, then return it to the holder when you’re completely done with it.
The tension spring has a handy scale from 0 to 8 so you can set the proper level at the beginning, and then increase the tension to keep it challenging as the pitcher gets better. It only takes a few seconds to increase the tension. If your pitcher gets so powerful that even the highest tension level is too easy, there’s a second heavier-duty spring that you can use to keep it challenging. These guys have thought of everything!
Once the QotH is set up the fun begins. Make sure the pitcher places the sole of her foot against the angled surface on the front of the pitching rubber. She then goes through her normal windup and throws a pitch.
If she uses her legs to explode with a powerful push-off, you’ll hear a “click-click” as the top plate slides back then comes forward again. If she just throws her stride leg forward without getting a good push, you’ll hear nothing.
And that’s the beauty of the QotH. The pitcher doesn’t just feel the movement of the top plate – she can hear whether she was successful.
That audible cue tells her (and everyone else) right away if she got into her legs or not. If not, she knows she needs to work harder, helping her build the good habits that will result in better drive mechanics.
Of course, you also must be sure to set the level properly. Asking a 70-lb. 10 year old to make the QotH click at Level 8 is unrealistic, no matter how hard she tries.
What I have found works is to set the level light in the beginning, in the 2-4 range depending on the age and size of the pitcher, then work your way up from there. The tension should be set so the pitcher can get the “click-click” with strong effort, but not with anything less than that. When she is getting a “click-click” every time, it’s time to increase the tension level. I usually move it up by one number, so say from 5 to 6.
The product itself appears to be very solid and well-built, so it should last a long time. It’s very heavy – I believe it weighs about 25 lbs. – which is good, because that means a strong pitcher won’t be pushing it backward as she drives out. But it can be a shock if someone tries to pick it up without realizing how much effort it takes.
My only quibble with the design is with the carrying handle. The inside part has very square edges that make it a bit painful to carry, especially over a longer distance. I’m sure a little duct tape would take care of it, but it would be nice if those edges were rounded out a bit more.
So far, the reaction from the pitchers I’ve tried it with has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the first, a high school pitcher named Allison, smiled and said “I want one!” after just a few pitches. She could feel the extra launch she was getting right away – almost as if the spring was pushing her out (which it wasn’t).
Other pitching students who have tried it, whether they are 10 or 18, both said they liked it and that they could feel the difference. I also know a couple of dads who have either purchased it or are in the process of considering it.
I haven’t seen any quick speed jumps just yet, but I know others have reported gains of 1 to 3 mph after just a few sessions. I think those gains will come as the pitchers get used to the timing, and get used to getting into their legs more.
So how much does all this wonderfulness cost? It’s not cheap. The Ground Force Sports website has it listed at $329, although if you type in the coupon code Coach James (a friend of mine who is the one who originally told me about it) you can save $25.
But look at it this way. How much do you spend on a bat that may last a season, or two if you’re lucky? The benefits from the QotH will last throughout a pitcher’s career – and may even help prolong that career by helping her continue to play in college.
One last story about it. A couple of weeks ago I brought it to a pitching clinic where I was working with a few 10U pitchers. I used it to help them get the feel of driving instead of stepping.
When I was done, one of the young male instructors from the facility approached me and said he’d been using the baseball version (King of the Hill) with his pitchers and that it had done a lot to reveal to them just how little they were using their legs.
We chatted about it for a few minutes. Then it occurred to me: Using the QotH kind of puts you in an exclusive, “in-the-know” club. So on top of everything else there’s that benefit if you’re interested.
Overall, I’m not much of a gadget guy. I see a lot of stuff out there that just makes me shake my head and ask “why?”
But if you want to help fastpitch softball pitchers learn to use their legs powerfully and efficiently, the Queen of the Hill is definitely worth the investment. Can’t wait ’til that first pitcher needs the other spring!