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My mind has been on this topic for a long time now. Like football, can softball games be won by superior defense? How important is it to have a solid defensive culture in a game that typically values homeruns and RBI? Do we tend to place more emphasis on individual victors such as the winning pitcher or the clutch hitter who knocked in the game-winning run? If so, how loud is the voice of the unsung heroes who seldom get the spotlight but are a part of each constant out made as a collective defensive unit?
If you are like me and have played college softball or even beyond into the pros, then you have had many coaches in your life. Although they all had different coaching styles and offered their own unique lessons of wisdom, there is always one cliché that gets mention on the field: “the team that makes the less errors, is the team that wins.” Yea, yea coach I’ve heard that so many times before. We all know it’s true though. For some reason, maybe we are just resistant to accepting coaching advice that places emphasis on the importance of defense. If so, why is that? I believe it is because solid defense can’t be achieved alone, but is dependent on the entire team unit. Even if you can sit back and ride on the talent of your Ace pitcher, she can’t pitch every game. When it comes to hitting, there is only one batter standing in the box at a time. For that moment, all of the pressure is on her shoulders, while everyone else chomps on sunflower seeds in the dugout to calm their nerves. On defense, however, no one can relax ever! The second you sit back on your heels is the exact moment when the ball is hit to you and you’ve missed your hop. Knowing that you are responsible for the unknowing, pitch by pitch throughout the course of a half inning can be stressful. As one person can hit the ball over the fence to win a game, a defense needs to rely on each other to execute each play from the pitch, to fielding and throwing the ball, to receiving the ball for an out. Therefore as a defensive unit, we need to ask ourselves if we are ready to work together and only be as strong as our weakest link. If we want to turn double plays, are we ready to make eye contact and communicate about base coverage and where to throw? Although offense allows more space for players to bask in the sun of their own batting average, defense does not offer an immediate statistic for teamwork, short of a championship.
To achieve Game Speed Defense we need to be sure our team has a Defensive Culture. We will be more likely to win by having a vision of winning. In order to execute a win, our team needs to value each of the mundane defensive plays just as much as we value the clutch hitting or individual performances. I have seen so many fastpitch softball games that were lost by an overthrow or a fielding error. If your team can walk off the field with no errors on the scoreboard, you have given the offense less opportunity to score. Repeat that over the course of a season, and I would say your odds at winning are high. Just because most post-game interviews usually involve one microphone and a close-up camera angle, never forget that you have chosen to play a team sport.
The winter training season is often filled with drills. Practicing the correct movement patterns to develop solid muscle memory. As we build up our form we become confident in our readiness for game play in time for the Spring season. However, are we really ready to play? Although the physical reps have been taken, what have we done to prepare ourselves as a team in a mental capacity? When stepping onto the field to face a team that is quick and strong, what have we done to know how we respond to pressure?
Being athletic is only one piece of Game Speed Defense. Is your team a squad that can play ball at the unpredictable fluctuating speed of the game? Are you a reactive team or are you a proactive team? Does game time feel as though your feet are on the ground or more as though you are free falling? If your team, as a whole, can answer these questions affirmatively, then you are a team that can move at the speed of the game. On the other hand, if your team has a more passive attitude, then your eventual opponents will possess more mental toughness than you.
There is always room to grow and to be coached. However in order to know how far your team can develop, you first need to recognize the areas where your team is lacking. As a team, ask yourselves how you respond to pressure. Is pressure something that you ignore all preseason in practice until bases are loaded in the bottom of the seventh of the championship game? If so, understand that your brain is a muscle too and that mental toughness needs to be practiced in order for the mind to respond under pressure in a game.
I am a fastpitch softball trainer by trade. Training young ball players is a rewarding job. The pay off is knowing that I can be a part of a player’s gain of confidence through something as fun as hitting a ball. People say I can get very technical, breaking down quick movements like a swing into many tiny pieces so that players can develop a holistic understanding of their swing. In doing so, great swings make me happy as well as solid throws straight to the chest. However mechanics are just a piece of the game in itself. The physical components need to be there so that players know how to move on the field. After that, we need to develop the same confidence in our movements under pressure situations. The game is 7 innings of a pressure situation and some innings are more intense than others. Therefore we need to learn how to welcome pressure in games and also during practice. Feeling pressure is the moment when this game really becomes something beyond fun. Something worth practicing all off-season for, 7 innings filled with surprise.
Sometimes I sit and think about it for a second. All of my friends and colleagues that have played professional softball, understand that it was our job to welcome surprise every night that we went to work. Imagine going to a job everyday not knowing what was going to happen. For us, you could strike out or go 3 for 3. You could fall asleep on defense and let the ball play you, or you could make a diving leap to take away a base hit. You could win or you could lose. Some people don’t like being in unpredictable situations. Yet to be paid professionally to face the unpredictable at work everyday, you my as well learn to welcome the unknowing.
To become more comfortable with playing under pressure, it all starts in practice. In practice we need to move at the speed of the game and make sure we are putting our players in pressure situations once they have the physical foundation to respond. There are drills, like the Continuous Rundown Drill or the Star Throwing Dill, that put the defense under pressure to throw out runners. I often notice that my players can perform mechanically, but once I put runners on base or start a stopwatch, everything falls apart. The throws become wild and we forget to communicate as teammates. Suddenly, my defense is chasing runners around the bases with throws instead of throwing them out. I could get upset when this happens, however I know that there is no need. When this breakdown happens, I am more intrigued by the change in the small mechanics of the game. It is not like sudden grandiose occurrences are happening, like players tripping over their cleats or throws are sailing over the backstop. There are just subtle shifts happening like low overthrows from not getting into a postured throwing position. Or pulling our head out and not seeing the ball before strike three. Basically, pressure makes the basic mechanics of the game go out the window. If we look at it this way, it is possible that we can learn to manage pressure. All we are doing is the same catch and throw routine, we are just doing it quickly versus rushed. Runners on base can distract us from our basic fielding and throwing movements, in which overthrows occur. So I’m telling you, don’t let it. If you anticipate the speed of the runners on base before the pitcher goes into her wind up, they will no longer be a distraction but something that you have already thought about and planned for.
Welcome the pressure and just let it fly. Turn pressure into something that excites you. The game is not meant to be controlled as we never know where the ball is going to be hit. Therefore, anticipate the ball and react to it. Just be ready and move to it at the very first opportunity that you can. Rely on teammates to be your second pair of eyes when you need to know where to make a throw when your eyes are focused on fielding the ball.
Pressure can be something that gets in your way of executing a play if you let it. On the other hand, it is also the same ingredient for a taste of success that you could have never anticipated.
When playing defense at the speed of the game we talk about quick throws around the diamond and charging the ball. We coach our defensive squad to move the ball quickly from glove to glove when turning two. However, runners reaching first base in 2.6 – 2.8 seconds still have the competitive edge. In order to rely on quickness as a part of playing Game Speed Defense, we need to address the areas of the game where we can feel its momentum.
You’re on defense and you are anticipating the play. The batter swats a hard hit ground ball down the third base line and you have a split second to react. In this scenario I’ve commonly seen a fielder misplay the ball, thrusting her glove downward at the backhand play as the ball pops out, rolling into foul territory. This type of fielder does not understand an important aspect of the game that will be the difference of having soft hands versus hard hands to the ball. Since it all happens so fast, many fielders overlook the importance of fielding the ball along its directional momentum.
There are also infrequent moments when I watch a fielder who understands momentum as natural as having common sense for the game. These moments are less frequent which makes my mind recall former pro star Jackie Pasquerella, AKA “JP.”
JP graduated from Villanova University and continued to play the hot corner for the NPF New England Riptide and NY/(NJ) Juggernaut. At times she was called “Spidey”, short for Spiderman to describe how low she would get when fielding made. The best time to feel this is during practice. After our basic throwing warm-up, infielders should take a step in to work on quick and short throws. The goal of this is to keep the ball in momentum back and forth from glove to glove. Keep the ball moving for at least ten throws under a stopwatch and work for your best time as a pair. Throwing partners will soon realize that they can work to shave a couple of seconds from the drill if they hit each other in the chest each time, and also pull the ball into their chest as they receive it. Using the glove to pull the ball in keeps the momentum of the ball moving into the next throw. Some fielders don’t notice this concept and stab their glove outward towards the ball. This causes hard hands and will either increase the risk of the ball popping out of the glove, or it will add to the time that it takes to transfer from catch to throw. Instead of receiving against the momentum of the throw, fielders with finesse know how to bring the ball in and use efficient footwork to get rid of the ball quicker.
Although I have spent most of my ball-playing years in the infield, there were a few games I played the outfield. Out in the vast green grass, things were a bit more quiet than the charged up infield where six chatty people shared the dirt. There were only three of us to cover the large span of green, with nothing behind us but the fence. The signs from the catcher had to be relayed out to me so I could see them, like a silent code passing. The initial transition from infield to outfield felt like being casted into the unnoticed shadows. However, by the time of the first pitch I felt a new identity crash into me like a wave. I felt the gravitational pull of the strong current of responsibility.
As an outfielder, you are the last line of defense. “First step back” and “nothing gets by” are along your list of coach’s clichés. It is your job to make sure that everything in front of you runs smoothly. Since you have a view of the entire field, let’s assume that’s a big responsibility. Think of it as being a General Manager who is responsible for the entire functioning of a team and event. Your job is not to handle each pitch like the pitcher and catcher. However, your duties include each pitch as well as an entire overview of the happenings on the field. If this truth seems overwhelming, let’s break it down to first manage the Three B’s.
The Three B’s stand for ball, base, and back up. In the outfield, it is often easy to assume that you are not in the play. For example a routine ground ball hit to an ambitious short stop can turn into a potential double play. Beyond this infield play, there are multiple anticipative tasks on behalf of the outfielder. For example, the left and center fielders first play the ball in case it passes the short stop. The right fielder immediately knows the ball and bases are covered by others, and quickly looks to back up a throw to second and first base during a double play. That’s a lot of coverage for the right fielder if she knows to be responsible for even the most routine ground balls hit to the infield. When we think in terms of the Three B’s, we realize that every person on the field is always involved in each play in some way. Once a responsible outfielder knows how to anticipate possible mishaps within the infield, overthrows can be converted into put outs at the next base.
As for playing the ball hit to the outfield, this is where the fun begins. The next time you are standing out in the outfield, take a look all around you. Before the pitcher gets into the circle, measure the distance between you and the infielders in front of you and the other outfielders beside you. Take a mental calculation of the distance between you and the fence behind you and the foul territory fence that contains areas that are in play. Once you have a solid sense of your spatial orientation, then your mind is locked in to anticipate which type of balls you will be able to make a play on, versus need assistance with. For example a shallow fly ball, between you moving in and an infielder moving back, will typically be an easier catch by you. The outfielder has a quicker running path with throwing momentum moving in towards the field.
If you already have a sense of space before the ball is hit, you will move more explosively to the ball at the crack of the bat.
Since you are the last line of defense, covering a long span of green, you need to move through the outfield quickly without hesitation. A drop step is a safer immediate movement to make if you are trying to decipher the direction of a fly ball. It is easier to recover in towards the field versus back towards the fence. Remember the momentum of our body moving forward into our throw is just as important as our arm strength. Whenever you have the choice, let’s instinctively create momentum by “beating” the ball to it’s location and moving forward into a throw, versus “meeting” the ball.
The other rule of thumb you will learn to follow in the outfield is “drop step, turn, and go!” The message is simple and to be followed with immediacy. There is no room for second-guessing or last minute calculations. Since you already have a measure of space, now it’s time to drop step to turn your body and pump your arms like you are in a full on sprint. Keeping your focus on the ball, your teammates should be your eyes to warn you of the fence approaching. Take pride in knowing what it feels like to be an outfielder, when the seconds build upon each explosive stride across the green within each pounding beat of your heart. Prepare to make the play off the fence as the words “nothing gets by you” repeat in your mind. Let the leather of your glove enclose the solid circumference as you take your final leap towards the ball. When you come down crashing against the outfield wall, hold that ball tightly in your glove as you come jogging in. With a glance to your pitcher and infielders peering back at you, they will hear the comfort of your silence say, “I got your back.”
I love judging other teams, watching their warm-ups to predict how sharp and quick they will be at game time. I watch the outfield throw long to home to estimate how much time I will have as a coach to score my runner from second on a base hit. Even if all looks solid during pregame, I look forward to judging the character of an opposing team/coach by testing out their first and third play options.
The First and Third Play to me, is the most defining moment of a team’s physical ability and mental decision to make outs and furthermore win. It asks the question, are you here to play or are you here to play to win? If you are here to win, it is definite that your team has throw down options to ensure outs when a risky offensive threat tries to run on you.
As coaches, you know you have seen it too. Maybe you have ignored it or maybe you have capitalized on the mistake of the opposing coach and team. It is just a sense you get when you run on a team and you watch the defense do one of the following:
The defense will allow the runner from first base to steal second, without making a throw down or fake throw attempt. The sense I get when I see this happen is that the coach is not confident in the team’s overall throwing, quick footwork/glove work, communication, and/or ability to execute under pressure. As a coach, I try to run a first and third play option early in the game so I can learn the defense. If I see this type of reactive defense, then I know I can take more risks by manufacturing runs on the base paths.
Another classic example is when the defense will call a pre-planned cut play that is independent of what the offense decides to do. For example, the catcher will flash a sign to the defense calling for a throw down and cut by the middle infielder, often the second basemen. This play will work to pick off the runner at third base, however if she doesn’t break home, then the defense allows the trail runner to advance to second base while the runner at third base stays put. Now the offense has two runners in scoring position! As the opposing coach, if I see this type of play design, I instantly know that the defensive team does not think in terms of making outs. Instead, they think in terms of “if” which is a gamble and up to chance. For example, the thinking that we will get an out “if” the offense steals home on the cut throw. Similar to playing cards in Vegas, I will win “if” I score the luck of the draw. If I lose, I suppose it was all up to the law of probability. When that “if” mentality shows up on a softball field, I know as a coach that the defense believes in the myth that the First and Third Play is up for grabs, an unpredictable play of havoc about to unravel. That team does not view any of my base running initiations or rundown situations as a mistake in which my offense deserves to be out. Therefore, I know to run on them since they do not have a counter option designed for my specific attack. They are just sitting at the Black Jack table, hoping they get the right cards. Hey, drinks on me!
If either of the two examples above sound familiar to you, let’s talk about how we can change the First and Third Play from an “if” game into a battlefield of strategic certainties. To do so, let’s first unveil the mental uncertainties that come up in a shaky first and third play:
As a defensive team, we are uncertain…
1. if the runner at first base is going to steal second base or stop and draw a rundown to bait a long throw down.
2. if the runner at third base is going to break for home if we throw down to second base.
3. if the runner at third base doesn’t break for home, then we might allow the trail runner to advance to second base.
4. if the runner at third base is fast enough to break home on the catcher’s release to beat a cut throw from the second basemen.
These uncertainties are all valid as a defensive team will most likely not know what the offense is going to do until the play is already in motion. Now let’s stay in numerical order to switch each uncertainty into a certainty so we are ready to counter the offense.
As a defensive team, we are certain…
1. that we can throw out a base runner attempting to steal second base.
2. that our second basemen will run in behind the pitcher’s circle to cover and make the cut should the runner at third base break for home.
3. that the second basemen can make a quick last second decision not to cut the throw down to second should the runner at third base not pose a threat to advance. This way we can guarantee an out at second base!
4. that we know what type of speed the runner has from observing how she got to third base in the first place. The catcher can also do a quick head check glance to third before making a throw down to second base. If the runner at third is breaking home, the catcher can fake throw to second and pick off or rundown the runner trying to score.
Already we can see that much of successfully executing a first and third play is by letting go of a myth in softball. The myth in which people conceive the First and Third Play as an unpredictable moment of the game that is mutually up to chance and the luck of the draw between the offense and the defense.
This thinking leads us to become uncertain of how the play will unravel. However, let’s break that myth and choose to believe that the First and Third Play will work in favor of the defense. In any situation in which the offense gets into a rundown between bases, interpret that moment as a base-running mistake. Anytime a base runner gets into a rundown either intentionally or unintentionally, consider it an error deserving of an out.
After you have broken ties with the myth, begin to create counter play options that are designed for any of the possible running mistakes that the offense can choose to take a risk on. Now we are in the moment. We are coaching in the moment, we are playing in the moment, and we are ready for whatever comes at us!
So far we’ve patched up our mentality towards the First and Third Play, now let’s talk about the physical execution that must be present to come out on top of this tricky play.
1. First and foremost, our catcher needs to make a rocket of a throw down to second base that is low enough to possibly be cut by the middle infielder. If the throw is too high, low, or wide, that is likely just enough for the runner to score at home. All throws around the diamond need to be sharp for that matter. In order to play to win, the fundamentals need to be there.
2. The designated middle infielder cut (typically the second basemen) needs to appear at the cut position in order to make a last second decision to cut the throw or not, based on the movement of the runner at third base.
3. The third basemen needs to be vocal and loud to inform the second basemen on how far the runner is drifting from third base. If the runner is just off the base, shout “off” so the cut can let the throw continue down to second for a tag out. If the runner at third is drifting almost half way to home, yell “half” so the cut knows to forget the trail runner and focus on the priority runner trying to score. Lastly, yell “going” if the runner at third has her head down, racing into home!
4. There is a lot going on in this play and each out will only take place within a step. Let’s be sure not to get ahead of ourselves and miss the ball entirely because we are making tags before securing the ball. Always remember, ball first!
5. To the middle infielder in the cut, likely the second basemen, this is your play! Position yourself right in the cut with momentum moving in towards home, watch the ball, and listen for your third basemen. Open up your peripheral vision to watch the ball yet know the position of the lead runner. Trust your last second instincts to either fake a cut, or cut and counter attack. Be a baller!
Have you ever felt at one with something that you are really good at? Like a guitarist is at one with their guitar, while strumming related chords into an unpredictable solo before returning to the melody of a song. “It's like riding a bike” is a phrase we use to explain the everyday habits requiring skill that is overlooked because we've mastered it and have moved onto the next challenge. The same sense of mastery takes place on a softball field when a player has become at one with their glove. Many of our previous articles have been an effort to explain on paper how to play Game Speed Defense, however like any habit, constant repetition is a key component. You can attend instructional clinics and learn from coaches along the way, yet if you want to increase your fielding percentage, your determination to hone your own skill is upon you. During practice and the constant repetition of good movement, you will become more natural with how to field ground balls on the short or long hop. You will know how to make better decisions on when to leave your feet or when to run through to throw on the run. Before you know it, the way you field routine ground balls becomes less of a step by step process between fielding and throwing, but a synchronous rhythm in which you feel like you are gliding across the field.
After you have learned the correct movements of fielding forehands, backhands, shallow and deep fly balls, and throws on the run, it is important to repeat these movements under the time it will take to throw a runner out in a game. Basically, whenever you have is no set number of how many reps are needed, just go until you feel good about it or when you feel you would be ready to field anything hit at you in a game. The idea is to have intention each time you step onto a softball field for practice. There is no point to practice just to practice, be sure to get better each time you go out.
Make it a game and tell yourself that you are going to successfully field and throw out the shadow runner for 90% of the balls in the bucket. Once you achieve your goal, keeping raising the bar to field more successfully. Hold yourself to a high personal standard at practice. The second you miss a ground ball is the perfect time to self-assess what you learned from the misplay. Whether it's charging the ball more aggressively or staying low, make that correction for the very next play. This is just one simple example of how you can practice with intention. You can get it done quickly if you work hard and bring your focus.
The reason why I am explaining something as simple as how to focus in practice is because there are times that the most you will ever learn in this sport will come from yourself. Self assessment is so important because only you can establish your personal best. Your coaches can give you feedback on what they see however there is no need for them to become a broken record, cuing constant improvements that you can make for yourself. When it comes down to it, your coach, your parents, or your teammates will not be responsible for the play when the ball is hit to you. The more you are prepared personally to correct your own movements, the more likely you will be able to make quick adjustments on the field since there is minimal time for coaching once the game starts.
Synchronicity on the field is when everything falls into place for the defense. It can happen individually when you see a slick short stop fielding deep in the 5-6 hole and quickly turning to make a cross-field throw off one foot to first base. That type of performance happens in the moment out of habit and experience from the work done at practice. Synchronicity also shows with advanced defensive teams who are very familiar with each other. After hours, weeks, and months of practicing plays for every situation that can take place in a game, players will become familiar with how one another operate. For example, a short stop will begin to understand the personality of her catcher. If an aggressive runner takes a gigantic lead off from second, the short stop can predict a bullet throw down for a pick off following the next pitch. These type of plays are not called plays by the coach, but a synchronous understanding of how each player demands an out on the field. The best plays are surprise plays that sneak behind the offense. Another example is when there is an aggressive runner on third base and the ball is hit to the third baseman. A small short stop will hustle over to cover third base in case the third basemen makes a fake throw to first and quickly tosses the ball to her short stop for a back door tag at third base. The fake throw is intended to bait the runner to take a bigger lead, just enough for a quick tag out. These are the types of plays that happen when you are in sync with your teammates on the field. You can almost predict what your teammates are going to do, if your team has done the preparation to play at game speed. Of course you cannot wait for the ball to be hit to think this all up. You have to recognize the opportunity for such a play each time an over-aggressive runner gets on base. You may have to give a nod or some type of subtle communication to your surrounding teammates so they see the opportunity too. Before that same play, the short stop can give a look to the left fielder so she knows the back door throw down to third base may happen. It is always good to think of back up so that bad throws don't turned into unearned runs.
Teams that play defense with synchronicity and familiarity with each other are teams that are at one with their game. The game will go beyond balls, strikes, and outs but will also present the element of surprise. Back door throws will lead to pick offs and trail runner outs. When a solid defensive team plays at Game Speed, seven innings fly by and fans and opponents are surprised by the outcome.