Momentum

Written By Lisa Iancin "LI"

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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.

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Covering The Green

Written By Lisa Iansin "LI"

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Covering The Green

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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.”

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The Certainties Behind The Uncertain First And Third Play

Written By Lisa Iancin

The Certainties Behind The Uncertain First And Third Play

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!

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Synchronicity

Written By Lisa Iancin "LI"

Synchronicity

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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.

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Game Speed Coaching

Written by Lisa Iancin "Li"

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Game Speed Coaching

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All of our previous articles have been about how to play Game Speed Defense by describing how communication, anticipation and correct movements come together for athletes to play at the speed of the game. These concepts sound great on paper, however as coaches, we know that how you practice is how you play. Therefore this month's article talks about Game Speed Coaching, or ways to structure practice so that players develop correct habits and a quick paced tempo to move at the speed of the game.

A seven inning softball game can move very slowly if you let it. Fielders can fall asleep in the scorching heat in the middle of the 5th inning and BOOM, the ball is hit right through the defense when they're not ready for it.

There is no constant movement and action like running up and down a basketball court. Therefore the most challenging part of fastpitch sofball is being mentally tough enough to focus throughout seven innings of play. As you develop an understanding of the intricacies of the game, you begin to realize that there is a tone of information to concentrate on between every single pitch. Once your mind is locked in and focused, the game starts to move rather quickly, deserving of its name, fastpitch softball.

As coaches it is our job to educate our players on the types of things they can center their focus on throughout the game. Since changes are not made during the game, practice is the best opportunity to teach this. For example, at practice a coach can hit ground balls to an infield and have them make through around the horn. If there is no communication amongst the players on the infield of where throws should be made, that is the exact time when a coach can pause the drill and make the team start again with audible communication around the diamond. Practice is only worthwhile if it reinforces good habits, therefore let's keep drilling until it's done the right way. Some players are loud and out-going, others will be shy and can go unheard throughout the entire season. The coach can repeat the drill until all players are heard, even the shy ones. There is nothing wrong with having a quiet and calm personality, however everyone's voice needs to be heard on a softball field in order for a team to make plays so let's ingrain this standard at every practice.

Once we have our entire team communicating, let's spruce up our infield ground ball drill with a little more action. Coaches should never hit ground balls to a single line of fielders in practice. This gets players standing around waiting with nothing to do, which is usually when the loss of focus happens. Instead, get the ground ball reps done in a few rounds of Crossfire in which two separate coaches and receivers on each side of home plate hit ground balls to the opposite middle infielders, now standing in shorter lines. As long as you keep the ground balls hard and deep, the middle infielders can make a catch and throw without getting hit by the ball from the other coach in the Crossfire Drill. Now we have eliminated waiting in long lines for ground ball reps. You can advance this drill by having the fielders rotate in between lines after their rep to add in a cardio workout. Adding constant movement to the tempo of practice is the best way to develop a standard of hustle amongst players.

A team that hustles on and off the field in between innings is usually a team that has an intent to play hard and win. Often times we see teams sluggishly walk in and out of the dugout in between innings which equates less time to warm up arms and lest time to prepare for an at-bat. That loss of time holds value and we need to utilize that time wisely for preparation within a short seven inning game that moves quickly. Therefore as coaches, let's incorporate a drill at practice that makes the defense hustle off the field after three outs. To make it interesting, we can include base runners, situations and outs. The Three Out Drill, for example, is when a coach hits various ground balls and pop flies to the defense as two or three runners round the bases. After three successful outs are made, the defense has 15 seconds to sprint back to home plate, communicate to elect new base-runners, and sprint back out to a new defensive position before the coach completes the 15 second countdown and repeats the drill.
The drill continues for the next cycle of three outs in which the defense sprints back in before switching again. After three (3) or four (4) rounds of the Three Out Drill, the offense and defense has had an opportunity to make many plays in continuous game speed tempo. Again as coaches, we can make a rule that the out does not count if there is one player on the field that is not communicating during the play. Once everyone is talking, let's push them further and incorporate the three (3) B's which stand for Ball, Base and Back-up. In other words, the out does not count if there is a player on the field that is not either fielding the ball, covering a base, or backing up a throw or a potential throw. Once we instill the three (3) B's, we will realize that every person on the field is somehow involved in each and every play.

A drill such as the Three Out Drill eliminates standing around and down time. The best satisfaction comes when the team takes this hustle on and off the field during games. As coaches, it sure feels great to not have to yell at the players to run hard during game time because suddenly there is no difference between game speed and practice speed. It is all the same. Once the cleats hit the dirt it is time to fly!

Practice doesn't always have to move quickly. Batting practice, for example, should not be rushed. However small rotating hitting groups and stations can keep the players constantly focused on different tasks. The more goal oriented and focused we become at practice, the more likely we will be communicating in between every pitch and seeking for opportunities to score during competition. In the end, most athletes want to be challenged, to be in top physical shape, and want to stay focused. It is our job as coaches to create a challenging learning environment at practice that gets their minds and bodies moving at the same speeds they will face in the game.
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The Priority Position

Written By Lisa Iancin "Li"

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The Priority Position

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What is the Priority Position in Fastpitch Softball? It is a general understanding what our individual roles are and how that communal decision bonds the united strength of a team. Sounds like a metaphor for many things in life right? Really though, it is a mental concept that dictates how each person on the field physically moves through their defensive positions to cover the entire field. This way, we can cover balls hit to us without colliding into one another. Better yet, as a defensive team, we can avoid having “holes” in our defense.

Take for example a routine fly ball hit to the outfield between the left fielder and the center fielder. As both players sprint back towards the fence to cover the ball, a moment takes places where they stop to look at one another to see who should make the catch and boom, the ball hits the grass between them and a defensive hole is made.

Unfortunately, I've seen this happen time and time again from the youth level, all the way up to recently in the pros. This shows that this common mistake is not a matter of physical ability or talent, but a symbol of mental elements that are missing from some defensive teams. The concept left behind is called, establishing the primary position.

Let's rewind and replay this scenario with a better ending. Here are the steps needed to take place before the ball is even hit to make sure that the fly ball is caught. In practice, coaches need to identify the various primary positions that exist on a softball field. Let's begin with the infield and work out. If a ball is bunted between the catcher, pitcher, third and first basemen, the catcher or the third baseman have priority over fielding the bunt. This means that if the ball dies right in the middle of everyone and all players are aggressively charging and shouting “I got it,” it is likely that the third baseman has the best angle to charge the ball and make a throw to first base. Based on the angles of her position, she can charge, field, and throw without changing direction, especially if she is right -handed. The catcher may have a similar advantage as opposed to the pitcher or first baseman that may have to run, stop, field, and change the direction of their momentum in order to make the throw. In order to get things done quickly in time for the runner, we need to establish an agreement of who should be fielding all zones of the field so that there is no hesitation for decision making during the actual play. The common theme we have been discussing in our Game Speed articles is that everything happens before it actually happens. Rely on forethought and pre-planning in order to move at the speed of the game.

Let's find an example involving our middle infield, corner, and outfield. Classic scenario of a right -handed batter walking up to the plate as the catcher gives out the curve ball signal to the pitcher. As a second baseman, you should be passing along the curve ball signal to your right fielder and maybe give a subtle nod and glance. This affirms an agreement that the second baseman is ready to go back on an anticipated shallow flare and the right fielder is ready to pinch in. Why is this? It's because hitters often get under outside pitches that they have to wait on. Once that shallow pop fly is hit, if both the second baseman and the right fielder are calling for the ball, the second baseman should let her take the ball because in general, the outfield has priority over the infield when it comes to fly balls. The reason is because it is much harder to make a catch on a fly ball while running back as opposed to running forward. Also, let's say there is a runner on third tagging up. The outfielder can make the catch and go right into a crow hop and throw in time for the runner without breaking momentum. Also, let's try to keep the first basemen out of these difficult pop ups going back so she doesn't trip over the base!

Ok, let's go back to our first scenario with our center fielder and our left fielder. If the outfield has priority over the infield on fly balls, then who holds the Priority Position within the outfield? The answer is the center fielder. The outfield is tricky because you are the last line of defense so you are expected to catch everything without colliding into each other and injuring yourself by the fence. If that ball takes you back towards the outfield fence and both outfielders are calling for the ball, the left fielder needs to shout “take it” so the center fielder can continue towards the ball without fear of collision. In order to make the catch, she has to keep her eyes on the ball so the left fielder now becomes her eyes for her. Shout “fence” or “you got it all the way” so she knows about her spatial orientation on the field while her eyes are on the ball. This is the only way outfielders move at full speeds to cover the entire range of the outfield. With trust, communication, and a general understanding of the Primary Position a solid defensive team can accelerate into making those diving catches that you will always remember.