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WCWS Demonstrates the Value of Great Outfield Play

I have written in the past about how many parents of travel ball and high school players view the outfield as a punishment or a sign that their coach believes their child somehow doesn’t measure up to her teammates. They will tell anyone who will listen that their daughter “deserves” to be in the infield – I guess because the cool kids play infield and the nerds play outfield.

Yet as the recent Womens College World Series (WCWS) demonstrated once again great outfield play is often the difference between winning and losing – as well as advancing or going home.

The obvious ones are the spectacular catches – going up over the wall to rob an opposing hitter of a home run. Those are dramatic and make for great candidates for endless SportsCenter Top 10 replays.

Yet those are also the rarities. Often the difference-makers are more the everyday plays or even the approaches to the position that the best teams adopt to ensure their success.

Here’s a good example from my own observations. As I was watching one of the teams warm up I looked at how their outfielders were throwing the ball back to the coach hitting fungoes.

It is common practice among colleges to recruit the best athletes then put them into positions where they are expected to use their athleticism. (The stated exceptions are pitchers and catchers, who are recruited specifically by position.)

As a result, many college players at all positions were once shortstops on their travel and/or high school teams. The best defensive players out of that group will actually play shortstop, and the rest will be spread around to other positions based on need or their ability to hit.

As I watched those outfielders it was clear that was the case for this team. All their throws were that quick, low arm slot, almost sidearm throw that shortstops make. That type of throw is great within a certain range, but after that range it can be a liability.

Sure enough it was during the game. I remember at least two balls hit to medium-deep left or left center where the outfielder picked up the ball and “shortstopped” the throw to third as a speedy runner went for the extra base.

Understand these weren’t balls to the fence. They dropped in front of the fielders.

As expected, the throws took two or three hops to get to third. By that time the runners had already safely slid in and stood up – it wasn’t even close.

A better, stronger outfield throw would have at least given them a chance to get the out. But it didn’t happen and the runners ended up scoring later.

Another example came during one of the Oklahoma State/Texas games. It was the play that was shown endlessly with the miscues that pretty much let Texas back into the game.

If you watch closely, when the throw goes to second after being cut off, the center fielder and the left fielder are nowhere near the line of the throw. When it goes awry, the center fielder has to chase the ball down to the outfield fence, which allows the runners to keep running.

Had she moved to the line of the throw earlier the damage may have been minimized and perhaps we would have seen an all-Oklahoma WCWS instead. We’ll never know.

Throughout the whole NCAA tournament we also saw examples of outfielders diving for balls when they didn’t need to only to see the ball skip past them for extra bases. We saw outfielders lose a ball in the lights or the sun because they didn’t shade their eyes properly or were using a closed-web infielder glove instead of an open web outfielder glove.

We saw balls drop between two outfielders or out fielders and infielders because the outies weren’t forceful enough in calling off the innies (which is what they should do, because they have priority). We even saw simple catches botched because outfielders were trying to make a throw before they caught the ball or just didn’t track the ball well enough.

These types of plays happen every day at levels of competition. And unlike an error in the infield, where most play is self-contained, problems in the outfield can quickly be amplified because there is no one behind them to help minimize the damage.

All of this points to the importance of having a well-trained outfield that is focused on their own position instead of why they’re not playing in the infield. Taking enough pride in outfield play to learn how to read the ball off the bat, re-learn to throw for more power and distance, and develop the type of situational awareness and focus required when the ball comes your way just a few times a game is invaluable to a team’s overall success.

So if you/your daughter is assigned to the outfield, don’t feel like the coach is saying you are “less than.” Instead, look on it as an opportunity to make a huge contribution to your team’s success and be the best outfielder you can be.

In other words, make sure you’re a difference-maker.

Overhand Throwing May Be the Most Under-Taught Skill in Fastpitch Softball

Kennedy throwing

If there is one universal truth in fastpitch softball it has to be this: basic overhand throwing is the most under-taught part of the game.

It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a local high school or middle school game, a travel ball tournament, or even a college game on TV. You can almost guarantee that many of the throwing motions will be questionable, and some will be downright abysmal.

I see this all the time when I give individual lessons or conduct clinics with a group of players. The mechanics that are used to get a softball from player A to player B – which constitutes a good part of the game when a strikeout doesn’t occur – are often just awful.

So why, exactly, is that? I mean, throwing is certainly a part of every practice. It’s often one of the first things players do at practice or before a game, occurs throughout, and then is often one of the last things that happens at the end.

The only conclusion I can come to is that it’s not being taught. Throwing may be part of warm-ups, but it apparently isn’t a skill anyone thinks about working on. It’s more of a prelude to the “important stuff,” like fielding or hitting or running the bases.

That’s a huge oversight, especially when you consider the often-quoted figure that 80% of all errors are throwing errors. Which means teams could cut out 80% of their errors by learning to throw better.

Where else can you get so much payoff for paying attention to one specific area? Certainly not hitting. It’s highly unlikely you will improve your hitting by 80% no matter how much you practice. Yet teams and individuals will spend hour upon hour working on their hitting mechanics.

Throwing? Nah. Just get loosened up throwing however you feel like it and then we’ll get down to the serious work.

Just imagine, though, if teams would say hey, wait a minute. Let’s take a half hour today and try to learn to throw better. Not only would they be likely to throw harder and improve accuracy; they might also cut down on the arm injuries plaguing so many players these days.

Throwing basics

While there is obviously more to it than I can get into right now, here are a few basics of what you should see players doing when they throw – even (especially) in warm-ups.

  1. Stand sideways to the target with glove arms in front, hands together in front of you.
  2. Begin your stride, stepping the front foot so it will land at a 45 degree angle and separate the hands by pulling the elbows apart, with more emphasis in the beginning on the glove-hand elbow. The motion should be like stretching a rubber band.
  3. As the throwing hand goes back, turn the hand palm-down and start to make a circle. How big of a circle depends on the position and distance you will have to throw. Small circle for catchers and infielders, larger circle for outfielders.
  4. Land the front foot, which should be about when the glove-side elbow gets as far as it can. Then start pulling the elbow back like you’re trying to elbow someone behind you in the gut. (Be careful not to just swing it around like you’re elbowing someone in the head.)
  5. As the glove-side elbow begins to pulls back, rotate the hips the hips, which will help pull the shoulders in. You should feel a stretch around the stomach area if the hips are leading the shoulders properly. By now the arm should have completed the circle and be in a position to come forward.
  6. Continue pulling with the body, bringing the arm forward with the elbow leading, at or slightly above shoulder height.
  7. Drive through, allow the wrist to snap (don’t “snap” it on purpose, just keep it relaxed and allow it to happen), allow the back leg to drag up naturally, and finish with the throwing-side shoulder facing the target. That shoulder should now be lower than the glove-side shoulder.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but those seven steps should give you a pretty good start. There’s lots of good information out on the Internet that can give you more details too, although it’s important to remember to keep it simple for your players.

Teaching it purposefully

Here comes the tough part. You need to make time to work on these mechanics during practice, and they’re probably going to take a lot more time than you realize. You also need to make sure your players understand how important it is, because in our “instant-everything’ age, with its seven second attention span, it will be easy for players to complain about being bored long before they’re executing anything that looks even close to what I’ve described above. But you have to keep after them.

Once your players have achieved at least a minimal level of confidence, it’s time to bring out the stopwatch. Tell them you want them to throw and catch from 40 feet or 60 feet (depending on their age) with no throw-aways and no drops for one minute. Then start the stopwatch, and call out the elapsed time or the time to go in 15 second increments.

Sounds easy, right? There’s no minimum number of throws and catches required, no time pressure. Just a limit on how long they have to do it.

Allow about a half hour minimum, especially if your team’s mechanics aren’t so hot at first. Just the fact that there is no room for error will create some problems. But any flaws in the throwing motion will be amplified under pressure, and pretty soon even your best players may be throwing balls that hit the dirt or go sailing over their partners’ head.

Calling out the time puts even more pressure on them – again, even though there are no minimums to hit. Knowing that only 15 seconds has gone by gets in their heads. So does knowing there are 30 or 15 seconds left, because they start thinking “don’t make a mistake” instead of focusing on their mechanics.

It can be frustrating. It can be maddening. But it will be worth it when you don’t have to hold your breath every time one of your players winds up to make a quick throw. With good mechanics the ball will go where it’s supposed to. When that happens on a regular basis, you make things easier on the defense, pitcher, and even the offense, and you’ll win a lot more games as a result.

Don’t be one of those coaches who skips over teaching throwing. Put emphasis on it, demand excellence, and it will pay off for you big time.

 

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