Monthly Archives: January 2021
I have talked in the past about the dangers of the “it’s a natural motion” myth and how it can lead to overuse injuries. A quick search on the term will turn up article after article from orthopedic surgeons who have to deal with the aftermath of overzealous coaches who love to win and enthusiastic parents who just love watching their daughters do what they love.
How common are overuse injuries? While this study of 181 NCAA collegiate pitchers across all divisions is admittedly pretty old, it shows that 70% of the reported injuries were due to overuse. With the increase in the number of games that are now being played at the youth levels of travel ball, starting at 10U or even earlier, plus the even greater emphasis on winning, it’s unlikely this situation has gotten better.
But all of that is pretty abstract. That’s why I wanted to share this Tik Tok video from my friend and fellow pitching coach Gina Furrey, who talks about the overuse injuries she suffered as a pitcher. It is actually the first in a series, so be sure to watch all of them.
Gina currently gives pitching lessons in the Nashville, Tennessee area under the business name Furrey Fastpitch. If you’re in that area and looking for a great coach who will teach you proper mechanics be sure to contact her. You can also find Furrey Fastpitch on Facebook and on Instagram at @furreyfastpitch.
Before that, though, she was a player who played travel ball at the highest levels before going on to pitch at St. Mary-of-the-Woods college. In her first video she describes how she can probably count on one hand the number of games she didn’t pitch for her various teams throughout her career. That’s a LOT of pitching.
She then goes on to tell how her collegiate career was cut short by an injury attributed to overuse – the cumulative effect of thousands of hours practicing and pitching in games, often with very little rest. I don’t want to go into too many details because it’s Gina’s story to tell.
The biggest reason I think every coach and every parent of a pitcher should watch Gina’s videos, however, is to see her demonstrate her range of motion today. When you see what she can do with her non-pitching arm versus her pitching arm it’s pretty scary.
Not to mention the pain she deals with every day. In my opinion, all the plastic trophies and gaudy rings and plaques and championship t-shirts in the world are not worth trading for an ability to move your arm and shoulder in a normal way.
One caveat I’d like to add is that this caution isn’t only limited to pitchers with poor mechanics. Yes, having very clean pitching mechanics can help prevent injury overall, but over use is over use. Repetitive motions, especially high-energy motions that depend on sudden accelerations and decelerations, can take a huge toll on muscles, ligaments, tendons and other body parts.
Do yourself a favor. Please, please, please, watch Gina’s videos and hear her story. It could save you or someone you love a lifetime of pain and limitations that can easily be avoided.
The riseball has been called the “scholarship pitch.” And for good reason.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t really break upward as it approaches the hitter (despite what you may have heard on TV) a well-thrown riseball often gives the illusion of doing so. It’s all about how our brains perceive the information they’re receiving – just as there are no dots in the grid below even though it appears there are.
The key to the riseball illusion is the backspin. The more you can achieve a 12-6 spin, i.e., the ball spinning from the bottom to the top as it approaches the hitter (versus a standard fastball or drop ball which spins from the top to the bottom) the better it works.
(Of course, being able to throw it 70 mph makes the direction of the spin less important, but that’s a story for another day.)
The challenge many pitchers face when they first start learning the riseball is that getting your hand into the proper position to throw it is not that easy. It’s a significant change, in fact, from the foundational mechanics most pitchers learn.
As I’ve posted many times, the best way to throw the fastball/drop ball is to keep the inside of the forearm facing toward first base with the fingers pointing down, then release it as the forearm and hand pronate inwards. But even if you’re a “hello elbow”-type pitcher, your fingers will be pointed down at release; you’re just doing it earlier than you should.
With a riseball, to achieve backspin you need to have your hand cupped under the ball, i.e., pointed toward third base. And you need to do that before getting to release so you’re not trying to bring the fingers up at the same time you’re trying to release the ball, which would create top-to-bottom, bullet/gyro or some other less-than-desirable spin.
Getting cupped under at the right time allows the ball to be released over the back thumb with a slicing motion. Yet getting to that position can be difficult as it is a different movement pattern than pitchers, especially younger ones, are used to.
Facing that issue myself, I came up with an idea to help pitchers feel the hand/wrist position better. You can see it here in the video.
Regular readers know I’m a fan of using walls, constraints and other things to create a more tactile experience for pitchers. You can say “get your hand under the ball” until you’re blue in the face, but if it’s not connecting you need to try something else.
Of course, the proof is in the pudding. After a couple of minutes of slowly tracing the fingers on the wall, we went back to spinning an actual ball.
And whaddya know? It worked!
It wasn’t perfect every time, but whereas before she was getting top spin or bullet spin now she was starting to achieve backspin more often than not. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.
So if your pitcher is having trouble getting the hang of spinning the ball backwards give this a try. Hopefully you can get a breakthrough as well.
You see it on fields and in cages everywhere you go: one or more pitchers lined up five feet in front of their catchers (or a wall) forcibly pushing a ball out of their hands by snapping their wrists up. Meanwhile, the pitching coach talks about how important a hard wrist snap is to maximizing the speed of the pitch.
As I have discussed before, this way of thinking is a holdover from the days before high-speed video enabled us to see what was really going on during the release phase of the pitch. What people perceive as a hard wrist snap is really a reaction to other things happening in the pitching motion, especially the sudden deceleration of forearm due to internal rotation and brush contact.
Giving up old beliefs, however, is difficult. I know it, because I’ve had to do it numerous times and it didn’t come easily. Most of us hate to admit when we’re wrong about something (some more than others), so we fight tooth and nail to justify what we’ve been doing or teaching.
Heck, I taught wrist snaps for a few years too before I saw the truth, and it wasn’t like I flipped the light switch one day and stopped. But when I realized that at best they were a waste of time and at worst they were preventing my students from maximizing their speed I stopped.
Of course, it helps to have evidence of what you’re promoting. That’s why I was excited to see this video experiment pitching guru (and personal friend) Rick Pauly created. Rick is driving force behind High Performance Pitching (full disclosure: I am an Elite Level certified coach at HPP) as well as the father of a pretty darned good pitcher who has had a long and distinguished career, first in college and then as a pro in the U.S. and Japan.
In this experiment, Rick place a bowler’s wrist brace on the pitching hand of a pitcher. If you’re not familiar with them, these braces are used to prevent the wrist from moving during the delivery of a bowling ball. They basically freeze it in place, preventing any kind of a forward snapping motion to protect bowlers from injury.
Here’s a video of the pitcher throwing with the wrist brace in place:
Within four pitches, using the wrist brace for the first time, this pitcher was able to throw within a half mile per hour of her top speed for that lesson. My guess is with a little more time to get used to it, the brace would have had zero effect on her speed.
This is an experiment you may want to try yourself. Have your daughter or other pitcher throw a few pitches as she normally does, and get a speed reading with a reliable radar gun on a tripod.
Then put the wrist brace on and have her throw a few more pitches. If she’s trying to throw hard at all you will likely find the same results.
By the way, if you do perform this experiment let us know how it comes out. I plan to pick up a wrist brace and try it as well.
The state of knowledge is evolving all the time, so it’s important to keep up. You wouldn’t want your doctor to automatically bring out the leeches no matter what you went in for, would you?
The same is true for pitching. The more you seek out the latest information, such as the effect a hard, forced wrist snap really has on pitch speeds, the better you’ll be able to serve your pitchers.
Back when I was a lad of about 7 or 8, my parents acquired a piano from a friend and decided I learn to play. That was fine – I have always loved music, and continue to until this day. Then I got to meet my teacher.
Her name was Sister Cecilia, and she was a nun at the Catholic church who looked to be about 150 years old. That wasn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem was with her approach.
Looking back on it I believe she was teaching me the correct techniques, and having an innate musical ability (I have played a dozen or so instruments through my life) I got to be pretty good at it. But it was a horrible drudge.
Being 150 year old, Sister Cecelia was very focused on scales and exercises – the musical equivalent of drills. It was pretty much all we did.
The few songs I got to play were nothing that interested me, just simplified classical pieces or maybe a Christmas standard around the holidays. Understand that this was during the 1960s, perhaps the greatest musical decade ever.
Yet instead of learning to play “Let It Be” or even “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” I was stuck inside on a nice day plugging away at songs I didn’t know and that were considered ancient even before I was born. Needless to say, I got out of it as soon as I could, which was still three years of misery.
I tell this story today because I know there are parents out there looking for softball instructors for their daughters. When they ask what to look for, the answers they frequently receive revolve around the mechanics of what they teach, or how many players they have placed in college, or what travel teams their students play for, etc.
All of those factors have a bearing on the decision. But one other element that should be observed and considered is whether that instructor will be able to light a spark in your daughter.
Will the instructor be able to relate to and engage your daughter? Will your daughter look forward to lessons and want to work at home, or will she sigh heavily when it’s time to head off to the lesson?
Because no matter what the instructor knows or how good his/her track record may be, if he/she doesn’t get your daughter excited to learn what he/she is teaching it’s unlikely much learning will take place. I can attest to that from first-hand experience.
So how do you know? One way to get a preview is to watch how the instructor teaches other players.
You know your daughter, how she relates to others and how she thinks. Does it seem like the way the instructor interacts with students will be helpful to your daughter?
Lessons don’t have to be a birthday party without the cake. But they shouldn’t feel like sitting for the Bar exam either.
There are all kinds of styles of learning and teaching, and not every one matches with everybody. If your daughter is meek and easily intimidated, a gruff instructor who is all business is probably not going to bring out the best in her. On the other hand, if your daughter is very serious and businesslike, a coach who likes to goof around and tell stories may not be a good fit either.
The ultimate test, of course, will be what happens when the two get together. You should always consider the first lesson or two as being on a trial basis. Take the instructor for a test drive and see how your daughter reacts.
If she enjoys it, great! You could be on your way to a lasting relationship. But if she clearly isn’t enjoying it or relating to the instructor (outside of perhaps being uncomfortable working with someone new) you should probably keep looking -even if your daughter doesn’t say anything about it. Kids are often afraid to speak up.
Ideally, what you want is an instructor who is A) knowledgeable B) keeps up with the game C) teaches skills that will maximize performance while protecting your daughter from in jury D) has a good track record and E) ultimately will inspire your daughter to fulfill her potential.
Most people tend to focus on A-D. But having E is just as important.
Take that little bit of extra effort to ensure the “soft stuff” is there, and that the instructor knows how to bring out the best in each student. You’ll be glad you did in the long run.
Old person photo by Luizmedeirosph on Pexels.com
And by that, of course, I mean 2020. Of all the steaming pile of cow pie years, 2020 had to be the steamiest.
But now it’s finally in the rear view mirror. Today is the first day of 2021 (not to mention the rest of your life if you’re into 1970s poster philosophy). And at the risk of having my optimism for the new year come back to bite me in a most ironic way – as in halfway through 2021 we’re longing for the good old, carefree days of 2021 – here are a few thoughts on how you can best take advantage of it.
First is to be grateful for the opportunity to play at all. In the middle of a long, grinding season it’s easy to fall into the trap of grumbling about how once again you have to get up at 6:00 am on a Saturday (or earlier) to play in an 8:00 am game. Or be away for the entire weekend when you have finals to study for. Or miss a party or event because you have practice.
For much of 2020 that wasn’t a problem, and it wasn’t nearly as nice as you thought it might be. Every career has an expiration date on it.
Some are further out than others, but they all have one. And once it’s expired there’s no going back. Appreciate that you have the opportunity to play the greatest game in the world at a level that challenges you. Because you will miss it one day. I guarantee that.
Now that you’re in the right frame of mind it’s time to make the most of that opportunity. If your coach has taken the time and effort to evaluate your performance over the last several games (or the previous season) and offer suggestions on areas where you can improve, take it seriously and make an effort to improve them.
For example, if you are a middle infielder who has trouble going to her forehand side and making the play, get someone to hit you a few thousand balls to your forehand side. If you can’t find anyone who can hit them reliably, get someone to roll them that way.
Learn to “run the mountain” on hard-hit balls that might get through, and learn to bend your knees rather than your waist to get down to the ball when you’re close. When you get good at that, practice diving for balls.
Lay a nice, thick mat down to your glove side, have someone toss the ball across the mat, and dive in a way where you land on the mat. It will safely give you the practice you need, even inside, and it’s fun.
You can also improve on softball-specific conditioning. Yes, most people don’t like conditioning, or only like it when what they’re working on comes easily. But if your skills are strong, conditioning can make the difference between good and great.
Not all of this conditioning has to be in a formal setting with expensive equipment. Or even during a formal conditioning session.
If you’re just sitting around watching TV, listening to music, or hanging around at the beach, try doing it while planking or doing wall sits. If you’re watching TV, maybe start out trying to hold it for one commercial (30 seconds), then two commercials (one minute) an entire commercial break (roughly three minutes) and then through a segment of the show (which will vary).
The time will pass quickly with the added distraction, and you’ll get in shape rather than feeling like you’re wasting time. If you make a strong commitment to it you can even declare you’re going to work out when you flip on the TV.
Another good form of important but easy-to-execute-anywhere conditioning is grip strength improvement. You can squeeze a stress ball or some other grip strength improvement tool while you’re reading, or watching videos, or plotting to take over the world.
Better grip strength will help you transfer more energy into the ball as a pitcher, fielder or hitter, control the bat better during your swing, field more smoothly and a hundred other things. Multitasking on improving it will pay significant benefits in the long run.
Then, of course, there’s the outrageous idea of approaching every formal practice as an opportunity to get better rather than an obligation to be endured. So many players just show up and walk through whatever drills and skills the coach has laid out for the day rather than gaining any benefit.
Do your best to understand what the purpose of each drill is, and then go for it 100%. If you don’t know the purpose of the drill, ask what it is. You will probably find it easier to go all-out and get some benefits from it if you understand why you’re doing the drill.
Another good habit to get into is studying what the best players at your position do when they’re playing the game, and compare it to what you do.
Look for video clips of the best pitchers, catchers, fielders, hitters, base runners, etc. and save them to your phone or device. Then download an app such as Coach’s Eye or Kinovea and have someone capture clips of you, either in practice or in games.
The last step is to lay them side-by-side in your app and compare what they’re doing to what you’re doing. If there is a significant difference, such as you are leading your swing with your arms while they lead their swings with their hips/core, you may want to re-thinking what you’re doing.
You may be succeeding, but if you’re not matching up there’s a real chance you could do significantly better by more closely matching what top players do. That doesn’t mean you have to be a clone of any one player – we’re all different – but you at least want to resemble them overall.
Oh, and don’t match yourself to just one. Take what’s common across all or most of them and use that as your baseline. Then you can adjust those fundamentals to best suit your body type, strength level and personality.
We all have our fingers crossed that 2021 will be more of a return to “normal” for the softball world. But “normal” doesn’t have to mean “the same.”
Take what you’ve learned in 2020 about what a lack of softball means, and use that to help you get yourself ready to play at a higher level in 2021.
Good luck, happy new year, and have a great season!
Cow photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Planking photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com
Sleep photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Arm wrestling photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com