Softball Pitching: How You Start Learning Matters
One of the hot topics in the fastpitch softball world is the debate over pitching mechanics. If you haven’t been following any of the dozens of Facebook pages devoted to softball, it essentially breaks down into two camps: internal rotation (IR) and hello elbow (HE). (Full disclosure: I am firmly in the IR camp.)
Instead I will just briefly summarize that IR is characterized by a bent elbow on the back side of the circle that allows the humerus (upper arm) and elbow to lead down the circle until it is “trapped” by the ribcage, which enables the lower arm to whip past the upper arm and the forearm to pronate into release as it brushes against the hip with a low, natural follow-through. Whereas HE relies on a straight arm and a pushing movement down the back side of the circle with no contact against other body parts until finally the wrist is snapped up purposefully and the hand is pulled up forcefully, usually resulting the hand touching the shoulder (or coming close) and the elbow pointing at the catcher (hence the name).
What’s interesting in this debate is it seems like many defending the HE approach are actually conceding that IR is a better mechanic and that it’s what 99.999% of elite level pitchers use. But they say that HE is a good way to start pitchers, and then they can find their way to IR mechanics when they are older and more mature.
As long-time pitching instructor I can tell you that’s not true. And here’s why.
We are all creatures of our habits. Whatever behavior is ingrained into us early is often difficult to break, even if the old approach is forced and the new approach works more naturally with the body.
A good example is handwriting. Back in less enlightened days, left handers were often forced in school to write with their right hands, either with the intention of helping them fit into the world better or to enforce conformity.
In their later years, as they discovered their left-handedness, they might try to write with that hand but many found it difficult. Moving back to the left hand often took a tremendous amount of work, essentially sending them back to starting from scratch.
In my experience, pitching is the same way. Not always – pitchers who were resistant to the whole HE approach, or who didn’t do it for very long, have been able to make the switch fairly quickly.
But for plenty of others it was incredibly different. Not with the finish where they pull their hands up – that part is so forced that it’s relatively easy to stop, or they will do it well after the ball is gone as a sort of separate movement.
The real culprit is the instruction to turn the ball backwards toward second base, lock out the elbow, and push the ball down the back side of the circle into release. THAT habit has proved incredibly difficult for some to break, especially if whoever taught them originally was adamant about it.
Unfortunately, locking out the elbow and pushing the ball down removes any possibility of whipping the lower arm through the release zone or achieving brush contact. Which means there is no multiplication of energy at release, which limits speed.
Pitchers who are smaller, slimmer, not blessed with a ton of fast twitch muscles or lack other compensating factors really struggle to increase their speed past a certain basic level – no matter how hard they work at it. Until they learn to accelerate the ball by achieving a whipping motion they will not achieve their potential.
And that’s why saying “It’s ok to start them with HE” is a bad idea. Well-meaning coaches or parents will set an artificial cap on speed (as well as their ability to throw movement pitches) that will be difficult to overcome.
Think of it this way: if you want your child to be a kind, well-mannered person, it’s not a good idea to let them start their lives by being rude and disrespectful.
You want to ingrain the desired behaviors early in their lives, setting a good foundation for their eventual entry into society.
The same is true of pitching mechanics. If you want to ensure a pitcher reaches her full potential (and don’t we all?), don’t just start them with any old approach. Teach them right from the start and they’ll achieve more throughout their careers.