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.

Taking Charge of the Rundown

Written By Lisa Iancin

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Taking Charge of the Rundown

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I watch so many youth defensive teams get caught up “in a pickle” over a situation that is considered a base-running mistake. A Rundown situation should be taken literally, “run her down!” If a base runner is caught off the bases from either an accidental pickoff or an intentional first and third play, the defense needs to predetermine that runner as an out expected to happen. Over our articles on Game Speed Defense we talk about a proactive defense versus a reactive defense. Let's go over the common areas of mistake for reactive defensive teams in order to make adjustments needed to take charge of the rundown situation.

Do you ever see a runner go back before a base and stop, just to watch the player chasing her with the ball slow down and also come to a stop?

Why does that always happen? If the base runner slows down, that is the very moment the player holding the ball should speed up to make the tag. It seems like common sense, yet I realize that everything in this game of softball is a mass of common sense lessons that have been taught to us by the right coaches. Yet I believe there is something about the rundown play that brings confusion and unpredictability in which the defense begins to think too long and forgets the common sense elements of the game. In fastpitch softball we are taught to be quick. Everything happens so fast in this game. Ball one, strike two, line out, you're out, well at least I didn't have time to think about it. When our minds and body movements get used to operating within the frame of milliseconds, I suppose having time to think can get in the way. Therefore, let's first talk about the mental approach to a rundown situation so that our pre-planning can help us execute the out.

Anytime the runner is stranded between the base path, have the understanding that she has made a base running mistake and as a defense, we will get her out. Next, let's plan to get the runner out closer to the smaller bag versus the bigger bag, if we must choose. For example, if the catcher with the ball sees a runner stranded right between first and second base, the catcher should run at her at an angle so that she pushes her back to first base. If the runner somehow comes away safe at first base, technically no error counts towards the defense for pushing the runner back to where she came from.

When it comes to timing of throws, let's cut the 60 feet base path into quarters and go back to our scenario between first and second base. If the runner is stranded right in the middle of the two bases, the catcher should charge the runner to push her back towards first. After the runner commits her direction and momentum, the catcher should wait for the first basemen to call for the ball “now” and then make the throw. Communication is key to a solid defense, so let's talk instead of making fake pump throws that confuse the runner and your own teammate while you're at it. The receiver at first base should call “now” for ·the ball just in time to make one pinch step in and drop a solid two hand tag down on the runner. This is a bang bang play close to first base because we prefer to make the out at the lesser base. We want to call for the ball “now” later near the lesser base and earlier near the bigger base to be sure the runner doesn't advance or score on a possible overthrow or missed tag.

As far as the throw is concerned, keep in mind that you are throwing on the run. Account for the momentum of your body running forward as your throwing length is shortening. Many overthrows occur because the receiver says “now” and the throw buzzes passed them and out of play. The throws are too hard, therefore be sure to charge at the runner with your elbow shoulder height and facing your target similar to how you would throw a dart. A dart throw only uses the small joints and muscles in the wrist and forearms which is all you need to get the ball there since your momentum is already doing most of the work. Pointing the elbow towards your target as you run may seem awkward, however it takes away the overpowering muscles surrounding the shoulder complex. This can prevent many overthrows as you can rely on the speed of your run versus the overbearing strength of your throw. In rundown situation, run hard, throw soft.

To be sure the rundown throws do not hit the base runner, let's all get on the same page and elect the receiver to side step and create a throwing lane with the player holding the ball. After making an accurate throw with finesse, clear out of the running lane and cover the back-up position of the base you are moving to.

This way the runner will not collide into you and you can contribute to the Rule of the 3 B's: Ball, Base, and Back-up. An efficient defensive team executes the rundown in minimal throws. More than two throws increases the risk of overthrow when the rundown is more about timing of throws, communication, and running hard.

Once you make an out, don't settle .. .let's get the trail runner!

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Throwing Behind the Runner

Written By Lisa Iancin

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Throwing Behind the Runner

 

With a runner on base, we are always taught to be quick enough with our throws to get the lead out. However there are times that instead of throwing in front of the runner, it is best to throw behind the runner to find the extra out.

A classic scenario of throwing behind the runner is a pick off from the catcher to the base that the runner is leading off from just after a pitch. The idea is to make a quick throw to that base while their momentum is still leaving towards the next base. By the time the runner realizes she is being picked off, it is too late for her to stop her momentum, and regain momentum back in the direction she came from. Hence, throwing behind the runner can be effective since the speed of a quick throw can be much faster than the change in direction of the runner. As our articles are not just about defense, but Game-Speed-Defense, I would like readers to begin to understand the intricate elements of the game such as momentum. If you can predict moments in the game when the runner is about to make a directional shift in their momentum, then that is a good time to throw behind the runner. However catching them off balance means that you have to be quick. You have to understand where these opportunities are likely to occur so that you have the sense to find them before they actually happen. Once you are in that zone of thinking, it is hard to get out of it.

There are also opportunities to mimic a pick off during a routine ground ball play. For example, let's look at a situation with a runner on first base. An infield ground ball is hit and the lead runner is safely advancing to second in which the defense chooses to throw the batted runner out at one. Once the defense throws the runner out at first, the second basemen receiving the throw should pop her feet towards second base to look for an opportunity to throw behind the runner advancing to second. It is not mandatory to make the second throw, however being in a position to make the next play is important in case the runner decides to overrun the base. If the runner begins to lean into the diamond as she is passing second base, BOOM, pick her off! By the time the runner is just a couple of steps beyond the base, the ball is in your short stop's glove for the tag and it is all done in no time.

Keep in mind the personality and tendencies of the base runner as well. The more information you have on your opponent, the more you can predict what they will do. For example, is the base runner an aggressive type who likes to look for the extra base? Is she also a smart base runner? A smart base runner will predict a pick-off throw from behind and may be less likely to overrun a base. However you might catch an aggressive runner who isn't smart, off guard . If that runner is only focused on gaining the extra base in frontal view, she might not expect a throw from behind her. Know your opponents!

Another great opportunity to throw behind the runner is by utilizing a fake throw. For example, let's say you are the third basemen and you have a super aggressive runner at third base who you think you can trick. If a ground ball is hit to you at third base, you may opt to make a full on fake throw to first base to draw an aggressive, but not smart, runner off third base. At the end of your fake throw motion, quickly pivot towards third base and toss the ball to your short stop for a pick off play at third base. This play is especially good to use when the batted runner has exceptional speed and may have hit the ball soft enough to be safe at first. This way you are using your throws wisely and towards the base that you have a better chance to make an out. Remember, every offensive threat opens up another defensive opportunity. You just have to know where those holes in a team's offense are, and think of them before the pitcher gets into her motion. Think of them before they happen.

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Throwing On The Run

Written By Lisa Iancin

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Throwing On The Run

As a former pro infielder, I do miss throwing out lefty slappers the most. Nothing feels better. It's a foot race to the base for the runner and to the ball for the fielder. As the slapper is creeping up towards the edge of the batter's box for contact point, the defense is closing in, tightening the edges of the diamond. Everyone standing on dirt is waiting to go into a full sprint. Once bat meets ball, it is green light GO!

The reason why I loved defending the short game is because it is your chance as an infielder to race the offense. I liked the challenge. The batted-runner has the easy job after the ball has been hit, just run to first! The defense, however, has to sprint to the ball, catch, and throw all in one. In fastpitch this crucial combination of movement is called throwing on the run.

When choosing to throw on the run versus getting into a standard fielding and throwing position, it is important to only use it when you absolutely need to. Solid defense is about eliminating risks. For example, there are less risks of a ball hitting a dirt pebble and taking a bad hop around you if you are setting your feet and fielding wide and low. However, if you are facing a lefty slapping who is 2.9 down the line, then you may not be in position to play it safe. Instead, you may just have to accept the risks and field in a narrow sprinting position to have any chance of throwing the runner out in time. As mentioned in our previous articles on Game Speed Defense, much of this decision making process needs to take place as the batter is getting into the box. If she is a speedy slap per on the left side of the box then we already know there is a good chance we will be throwing on the run once the ball is hit. In general, the softer the ball is hit, the harder we sprint.

An important aspect of being able to run hard on defense is to build momentum in each step. However we have to be careful not to crash in too hard too soon.

A lefty slapper's repertoire is to mix speed with the element of surprise. Until the last second we do not know if the slapper is going to drill a power slap through us or drop a soft slap or drag bunt into the shallow defensive holes. Therefore, until the point of contact, let's creep in to slowly build momentum within each step while maintaining our defensive range.

Now that the ball has been hit, let's talk about how to get low and field the ball so that our throw is in sync with our feet while running. Speaking from my own experience, I am going to explain this from a right-handed short stop's point of view. The first thing you have to do is sprint up as close to the short hop as possible so the likelihood of the ball bouncing over your glove is small. We prefer short hops or long hops over middle hops as they are easier to predict where our glove needs to be. Once you are close to the short hop, the best approach is to time your steps so that your glove foot is forward while you are catching the ball with the glove just in front and outside of that same foot. As we scoop our glove through the short hop, we pull the ball out of our glove in a very low throwing position with our hands still just near the ground we fielded from. As the hands are transferring from catch into a throwing wind up, our back right foot is continuing our forward run. By the time the right foot plants, we are ready to use a side-arm throw to first base, while our shoulders are slanted diagonally towards the ground and the sky. This is called throwing from low to high since if we took the time to stand up and throw with level shoulders like normal, we would be too late to get the runner in time. As a brief synopsis for a right-handed fielder, catch off of your left foot and throw off of your right foot! Get rid of the ball from that low fielding position and you can stand up to catch your balance after. Like hot potato, the ball is in and out!

Another important piece of the puzzle is to speed up your run throughout the throw. I see many fielders who try to slow their feet down from catch to throw since that is what we normally do when we have more time. However if we want to beat a lefty slapper in 2.9 seconds, we have to combine the catch, throw and run into one fluid nonstop motion. Therefore, maintain your run through the ball in the same direction that you are headed. There is no need to set your feet towards first base, just keep running towards home. Remember, it is a foot race between you and the batted runner so challenge her to the sprint.

Lastly, anticipate an altered direction of your throw since you are throwing towards first base while you are building a running momentum towards home. You don't want the momentum to push your throw wide and out towards foul territory. In this case, use your wrist more to hook the throw in. This will keep the ball inside the diamond as you are throwing on the run!

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In Time For The Double Play

Written By Lisa Iancin

In Time For The Double Play

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When turning a double play, you can't wait for the ball to be in your glove. You have to know that you are going to get the lead out before even attempting to go two. You need to anticipate. On top of that, can you double off the batted runner at first? As seldom as it takes place, a double play will happen in just a hair after 3 seconds. In that short duration of time, how is it possible to field one ground ball and make two accurate throws? Teams that know how to turn double plays are teams that understand the concept of Game Speed Defense.

Last week we talked about the idea of when Fastpitch happens. Since the game moves so quickly, we described how the intricacies of Fastpitch happen in the anticipatory phase versus the reaction phase of fielding. In the example of turning a double play, let's use a third basemen's perspective. With a runner at first base and less than two outs, a hard ball hit to the third basemen is a great time to consider turning a double play. The reason why is because the third basemen plays inside the baseline, closer to home plate than middle infielders who play deeper. Also, most hitters are right-handed and tend to drill hard ground balls to the pull side of the field. If a hard ground ball goes to the direction of the third basemen, chances are the ball will be in her glove in less than one second's time. Now we have two thirds of our time left to use for gunning out runners. After all, that's why they call third base “The Hot Comer.” Most everything comes that way hard and quick and you are reacting more than thinking. If you are the third basemen of your team, thinking that you got stuck there because your arm is not as strong as the short stop's, don't worry because you have likely been placed there for having more guts than anyone!

Getting back to it, let's back it up a few notches. Ok so the ball has not been hit to the third basemen yet, but we are beginning our double play thinking as of now. Before the batter walks into the box, let's take a glance at the runner at first base and determine is she has wheels or not. Is she the lead-off lefty slapper possessing the most speed on the team? Or is she a hitter known more for power and clean-up than a high stolen base percentage? After assessing the runner at first, let's talk about the speed of the batter getting into the box. Now, if you think you have a shot, give your second basemen the nod to say “let's get her at two.” This communication is just as important as the physical motions of turning a double play. By the time the ball is hit into your glove, you already know that your second basemen will be there on time since the conversation took place before the play. Now we allow our physical skills that we work on every day at practice do their job. At practice, the physical skills have to be designed into drills that set a standard for perfection. For example, the throw from the third basemen to the second basemen has to be right on the base and more specifically at the chest of the second basemen. This will allow for a quick transfer from catch to throw for the second basemen's throw to one. In practice, we work for a high standard of perfection so that in the game we trust our mechanics are solid so we can let loose and just play!

The double play still yet goes beyond communication and physical skill. There is a third factor called expectation. Teams that turn double plays as routine have a high expectation for executing the second out. This means that they are not happy with just one out, but they are always looking for making two outs any opportunity with runners on base. You may not always get two outs, but you never know unless you are looking for it. I see many young fielders place a tag on a runner and look up to hear the umpire's call. Often during that time, there is a second trail runner advancing to the next base. Again, the game of Fastpitch happens too fast in general. There is no time to wait for one umpire's determination while the second umpire is already in position for the second play at another base. Having said that, let's look for the third out while we're at it!

From all of this discussion, I hope we can catch a glimpse of the lessons we learn from the game. Be aggressive and get the lead out and don't settle for just one when you can get more. That is the winning attitude that it takes to win, and as a fastpitch softball player that is what you are signing up for. At the same time, throws are to be used wisely. There is no point in throwing to second base for a double play when the runner is already there as now you have given up the out at one just to risk overthrows. The mental needs to come prior to the physical as Fastpitch happens before the actual play. If you are in doubt and need a second opinion, communicate with your teammates on the field as they are the ones who you are going to need to tum this double play.

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