Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Building a Portable Pitching Mound (for under $100)

It's a curse being an engineer. Your logical side won't let you buy anything that you can make (ask my wife about our home-made refrigerator).  Its especially difficult not to start drawing up blueprints when you can make the item for less than the cost of shipping. That turned out to be the case when I priced portable pitching mounds. Starting at $500 (with the good ones nearly double that), the shipping was $125.

That's more than the price I built one for. If you're building it for indoor use (or porting it), you could use non-treated wood and knock the price down another 30%.  I intend to level up a spot and leave it in the rain so I went with heavy treated wood.  Here's what I constructed.

The height is 10 inches, the height of a major league mound (it was 15" before 1969).  The length is conspicuous, the length of a standard piece of plywood. It sports a 2 foot level section and a 6 foot downhill slope.  The slope is about the full stride of a 6 foot major league pitcher.  Where some commercial mounds leave a 2" step, I wanted mine to gracefully merge into the ground in case my son starts striding like Mark Buehrle.  The mound is 4 feet wide - the width of the plywood.

Bill of Materials
(1)     4'x8' 3/4" Treated Plywood$38
(1)   16' 2"x10" Treated Lumber       $20
(2)10' 2"x10" Treated Lumber$34
(1)box of 2" galvanized nails$  3
(1)box of 3.5" galvanized nails$  4


So you start out with a piece of plywood and two boards but before you leave Home Depot, have them slice the 8 foot long plywood into a 2 and 6 foot section - easier to get home and a much straighter cut than you can do with your Black and Decker.  I also had them cut the 16' 2"x10" into a 10 foot and 6 foot section.  So you now have two pieces of plywood, three ten foot boards and a six footer.

Once home, take both of your ten foot planks, mark off the two foot level sections (on opposing ends) and make a line connecting them for cutting (see red line below).  I used the six foot side of my plywood as the straight edge for marking the cut line.
Once you rip the first board, you'll have the bookends of your frame.  The second plank will yield two more for the spine of the frame.  You could probably get away with three total but there's not much utility for the fourth piece other than another brace.  The repeated stride and landing down the ramp is bound to wear down the plywood if it's stretched over too wide a span.  In engineering speak, "more is better and too much is just enough". 

Lay your ramp spines out as a frame and you'll see that this thing is going to be a tank.  My treated boards were very wet and heavy compared to dried lumber.  One was so soggy that I had to cut it twice - once at half depth as my tired old Skil saw couldn't rip the full plank.

So here is my frame laid out and ready to hammer:

You can see that I've cut the remaining 6 foot piece into the four foot backing.  It's best to lay the plywood on it and mark it instead of measuring it to four feet as the plywood size can vary by a quarter to half inch.  I used the remaining two foot section and the ten foot board for a cross bracing.  I also tacked in a couple of 2x4s to cross brace the studs where they get thin.  I tried to predict where the weight would be applied in my son (a right hander) would land and beefed up in those areas.  Here's my fully framed skeleton.

I started to go with decking screws but opted at the last minute for ribbed nails.  You can go either way. One final tip; align and set your 6'x4' plywood section first.  When you mate the smaller section, it won't matter as much if you are three degrees off plum since it only runs two feet.  Do the inverse and you could have a half inch overhang at the end.

Pitching Rubber
I found the perfect pitching rubber on Amazon.  It has four corner nails instead of nails along the bottom of the rubber which made it easy to substitute bolts for the nails. 

Surfacing the Mound
My son only has metal spikes and they would chew up our handy-work pretty quickly.  We initially thought we'd go rubber spikes and the outdoor green carpet (astro-turf) from Home Depot.  It would have cost only $35 to cover it but frankly, the carpet looked pretty flimsy.  Thin and frail enough that even rubber spikes would quickly wear through it.  You never paint pressure treated lumber (though you can seal or stain it), so green paint is out.  Someone suggested a couple of large doormats as they're built tougher to handle the treading.  I'm still in the hunt and will let you know when I find the ideal surface.

If you go the indoor route, it would be easy to bolt on two wheels to the frame.  For a couple of dollars, I'd also screw in a couple of screen door handles to make it easy to hoss around.  

I hope this is helpful.  I'll upload videos to as we use it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Welcome to

Coaches, players, parents and fans -  Welcome to the kickoff of and to my blog.

It’s been three years in development but the announcement by Little League Baseball makes it official: - motion analysis for blue collar athletes - is here.

PowerChalk represents a lifetime of cross training.  It’s the answer to the question – “What do you get when you cross a programmer with a little league baseball coach?”

I’m Chaz Henry and I started writing the ChalkTalk telestrator after a week of golf school in Orlando where I saw my swing on video for the first time.  Weeks prior, in lessons with my local pro, he told me much of what I saw on tape but I didn’t make the suggested adjustments.

The key word is told as like many athletes and students, I’m more visual than auditory.  I didn’t believe how outside-in my swing was until I saw it.  Seeing my swing against the lines of the ideal swing plane did more for my golf game than any lesson I’ve taken before or since.

Once home, I knew that video analysis would be the perfect tool for the little league team that I coached.  I can see in the eyes of my kids that they don’t get much of what I try to show them on the field (much like me on the driving range).  When I priced the system they used in Orlando (V1 Golf), I found that it costs thousands of dollars.   That was hardly within the range of the average rec league baseball team.

It turns out that V1 and the other best seller, Dartfish are PC based.  You have to install the software and all of the necessary video codecs on your machine.  It’s a nightmare of configuration and when I tried the Dartfish demo (218 megabytes!), it locked up my machine.  As a thirty year programmer, I knew there was a better way.

Enter PowerChalk

I’ve wrote the ChalkTalk Telestrator - the markup and voiceover tool in PowerChalk - to bring video analysis to regular, rec-league athletes and coaches.  PowerChalk is web based.  It runs completely in a browser and it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars.  It’s my hope that it will reach recreational league coaches (like me) and will bring instruction and insights to kids all over the world.  Oddly enough, the first organization that licensed it was a Major League Baseball team.

I believe our job as coaches is to advance player skills and to transfer our knowledge and enthusiasm for the game.  As the first beta tester, PowerChalk has helped me do both.

I hope you find the site useful and I welcome your input.

Atta Boy, Jack!

whistleFrom day one of coaching I've tried to incorporate my parents into the practice sessions, drills and goals of the team. All of my baseball practices have stations with a parent (or two) manning it as the kids rotate through.

Stations have specific objectives towards using your glove, your bat or your feet. Getting parents involved minimizes lines (long lines are the mark of a poorly run practice) and maximizes play. We try many things in our stations and we hopefully create new pathways in the brain (i.e new skills).

I welcome participation and input from my parents at practice but I ask one thing of them in return. When we start the game - they hang up their coaching whistle.

I believe that there are two modes in sports. Practice mode and play mode. In practice mode you create new skills by getting kids on the edge of their ability. If a t-baller can catch an eight foot popup - throw them 12 foot popups. If he doesn't drop a few then you're not stretching him and creating greater range. If a skater can lean 20 degrees on a turn, set the cones to require a 30 degree lean. One of the values of races (which I love) is that it pushes athletes to do a skill at the edge of their control level. As they do, that edge expands.

My point to this (and I do have one), is that in Play Mode, you turn all of that practice theory off and just play. You don't learn to catch or hit during a game. I'll say that again for the parents - you don't learn to catch or hit during the game. So don't coach.

I ask my parents to tell me if they see something that they would like me to adjust. Of course, I'll line up a kids feet or switch their hands if they're cross-handed but even I try to minimize game time coaching. If we didn't get it done in practice, there's little we can do under the bright lights of game. I certainly don't want instructions and adjustment coming from the stands.

My favorite parent 'coaching' squall was "Watch the ball, Jack!". Seriously? You're interrupting his focus and play with that?

It took me a couple years of coaching to have this epiphany, but I now require my parents to not coach during games. It siphons joy from the kids. It conveys disapproval of their performance. And by the way - it doesn't work.

Help your kids advance their skills through repetition of proper technique in practice. In the games, they'll do what their muscle memory tells them and allows them to do.

Once the umpire says "Play Ball", the only thing a parent should yell is 'Atta boy, Jack!'.

Choosing a Golf Instructor

Interesting quote in this article by PGA instructor John Hughes, "If you are paying for instruction that does not include video review of your game, you should reconsider why you are paying for golf instruction."

I agree, its just not possible to see the important nuances of the swing without the aid of slow motion.  Even for the handful of pros who can see it, that doesn’t prove it to the player.  Getting him/her to acknowledge and fix the issues is job one.

Choosing an instructor By John Hughes

ChalkTalk Diagrams

Gary McDonald is the middle school baseball coach of Cary Academy (NC) and quite simply one of the best coaches I know. He’s a student of the game who is always working on new drills and plays. In the three seasons I've known him, I've watched him improve the game of a hundred kids while he's improved his game as a coach. I can testify that his players advance their skills and have fun doing so – the true measure of a youth sports coach.

Gary is also an early adopter and frequent contributor to the ChalkTalk telestrator. It was his travel team – the Cary Chargers - that first made the system a regular part of their drills and practice. So, its no surprise that when I showed Coach McDonald the baseball diagrams feature of PowerChalk, he immediately made it a part of his routine.

ChalkTalk Diagrams are interactive fields with a movable ball and players. Just like a video analysis, you can record your session while you comment and mark-up. Envisioned as an electronic clipboard that would allow the coach to build a library of plays and diagram, Gary saw another use for the diagrams – homework.

Instead of simply giving the players a video to watch and learn, he asked his players to echo the plays back to him via their own ChalkTalks. He could then assess their level of comprehension.

Cut 4 ChalkTalk by 13 year-old travel player

The results were game changing. “Our players were consistently in the right positions”, the coach told me. “Even the players coming off the bench." As a small-ball team, the execution and positioning became a signature of the team's play. They over-achieved coming in second in the state tournament. "This team developed as much in a single season as any team I've coached", said coach Gary.

At the season's end, when asked to vote for the parent that helped the team most, the players voted for me although I had been gone for a year. Effectively, they voted for PowerChalk. It's an honor I share with Coach McDonald. His persistence and innovation made PowerChalk more than it was. Impressive, but then again, that's what great coaches do.

Baseball is 60-40

I think a lot of us (self included) lose track of the fact that baseball is a 60-40 game. Even a superior team would lose 40+ games to a lesser team if they played one hundred times.

Pick any year and you'll see that the MLB division winners are .586. You can get beat 11-2 and the next day win 7-0. In golf, the pros have a 14 shot swing. Yes, it's 20 shots better than us mortals but they can shot 62 and 76 on two consecutive days (look at the Masters box scores). When we shoot 88 and then 102, we want to quit the game.

I'm writing this in response to a coach who was asking how to keep his 14U team focused.  He claimed that some days they are unbeatable and that the next day they can't make a play.  My contention coach, is that that's just baseball - that's just sports.  I'm not saying there aren't techniques to help bring focus and consistency, but in youth baseball, you never know if the bats, arms and brains will show up for each game.

Scrubbing the Playhead on Koufax's Pitching

I just finished "Sandy Koufax" by Jane Leavy. I didn't like her wandering style - she often confuses by jumping the time-line - but the story is a must read for true baseball fans. Koufax put together five of the most dominant years that baseball has seen and Leavy explores both the social and psychological side of that run. To a lesser degree, she also explores the mechanics of Koufax. It's not easy to do with words.

Needless to say, I believe you have to see it. YouTube has a couple of Koufax clips and I've pulled them in to PowerChalk and studied them. With little effort, I can also pull in current MLB pitchers and make comparisons to release points, stride lengths, etc. The more I study, the more I believe that Koufax had the perfect blend of all of those vitals.

Go to PowerChalk, find the color clip below in the Public videos and walk through his motion. One thing that will strike you is the late release of his torso. You'll see the late release all through sports - in the batter's box and in golf tee box. You'll see it with the body, with the arm and with the bat (and club). As an engineer I know that the longer you hold back the torque that you've stored by winding a lever that's in motion, the more force you'll have when you let it go.

Note in frame 503 of the PowerChalk session below that Koufax has already squared his hips but his chest still points towards first base. See the pull in the jersey near the belt at the right hip. Very few of the modern MLB pitchers store that much energy. Then again,there was only one Koufax.

Having said that, I'll show you a modern marvel of the mound. A pitcher that understands the mechanical leverage as Koufax did. A pitcher who had to fight to keep his mechanics in tact as he went from Little League to college to the MLB. Take a look at Tim Lincecum below.

Note the pull of the jersey. Note how square the hips are while the torso is still torqued orthogonal. Both pitchers have arched their back to the point that the abs are engaged as they drive out over the knee.

I personally would need a year of Pilate workouts to achieve the positions noted (try and point your chest 90 degrees from your hips!) but as a coach I can easy see where the average pitcher could find 4 more mph.

I was fortunate enough to work with the Dodger coaches as they implemented PowerChalk this spring in AZ. As we pulled up video clips to play with, time slowed down when I would load the Koufax video. Coaches are still struck by his grace and power.

Success leaves clues and scrubbing video is a great way to learn and inspire.