Category Archives: Pitching
I wrote recently about things coaches should never say. But after talking to some parents and pitching coaches lately, I think the old standby of coaches telling pitchers who are struggling to throw strikes to slow down their motions requires its own blog post.
While I know the coaches are just trying to be helpful, telling a pitcher to slow down in order to produce more strikes is counter productive on several levels. Let’s look at a few.
What they’ve practiced
I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that no pitcher who is going to a pitching coach is being trained to throw slowly. The name of the game is FASTPITCH softball, so no matter what they’re teaching (and we can certainly debate on what the proper pitching mechanics are) pitching coaches are sincerely trying to get their student to throw with as much speed as they can.
At least if they want to keep those students.
That means they’ve been working on a developing a specific set of mechanics that they can execute quickly. After all, slow movements mean slow pitches.
So if you’re asking a pitcher to slow her movements down, you’re totally taking her away from what she’s being trained to do. In other words, you’ve now made it like she’s never had a pitching lesson and is just guess at what to do.
Fastpitch pitching requires a certain rhythm and flow. It’s a complex series of movements in all three planes of motion that require precise timing to do well.
Telling a pitcher to slow her motion down takes her away from all of that and actually makes it harder for her to do what you want her to do – throw strikes.
The longer it takes for a pitcher to go through her motion and deliver the ball, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong. It’s basic physics, coming out of Newton’s laws of motion.
If you apply enough force to an object in a particular direction, it will tend to continue moving in that direction unless some other force acts on it. As it moves it has momentum.
In a weightless vacuum, like in space, a small amount of effort will have that object going straight forever. But fastpitch softball isn’t played in a weightless vacuum.
So the pitcher has to apply enough force to overcome the friction of the air, any wind currents, and especially gravity.
Then there’s the path of the arm and position of the hand. If the hand and arm are moving all over the place it will be difficult to send the ball in a particular, desired direction. It becomes kind of a guess for the pitcher.
If the arm is going faster, however, its momentum will eliminate a lot of the wobbling and make it easier to throw the ball in the desired direction. Not easy, mind you, but easier than just pushing the ball out slowly.
Then it’s a matter of making sure the hand and arm are on-line at the time of release and that the release occurs at the proper time (not too early or too late).
Think about a bowling ball. If you roll it slowly, you are at the mercy of the lanes and how warped or slick they are. The ball will kind of meander back and forth along the path of least resistance until runs out of lane or hits the gutter.
But if you roll it quickly, it will overcome most if not all of the issues with the lane and take a direct path to wherever you sent it. Good or bad.
Look on the website of any program or even individual team and they will all profess that they are dedicated to player development. Uh huh.
Just once I’d like to see an honest website that says, “We are totally focused on winning as many tournaments as we can and will do whatever it takes, no matter what the consequences are or who suffers for it, to achieve this mission.”
But let’s assume the coach actually does want to help all of his/her players develop. That means letting them work at the top of their games, outside their comfort level, to develop the skills they’ll need to continue advancing in the sport.
In the case of pitchers, that means letting them throw hard so they can learn how to do so under pressure.
Ok, you say, but if the pitcher is walking everyone how do the rest of the players develop?
I agree they don’t. So if you want to stop the walks, don’t tell the pitcher to slow down her motion. Pull her and put someone else in.
If all you want is strikes, even if they’re slow and easy to hit, you can pretty much put in anyone. They can then come in and lob the ball toward the plate, and will likely give you the strikes you want.
Doing it that way isn’t that hard. And it might even be a thrill for that girl who has always wanted to pitch but never got the opportunity (because she hasn’t actually worked at it).
In the meantime, the pitcher will learn a lesson that she needs to work more at her craft so she can throw hard strikes with a fast motion if she wants more circle time.
Ok, you say, but I don’t want to pull her because she’s our best pitcher.
Not today. Otherwise you wouldn’t be telling her to slow her motion down.
Take her out and put in someone who can give you what you want – which will ultimately allow your best pitcher to continue developing. That will be best in the long run for her, and for the team.
Telling a pitcher to slow down her motion to throw strikes is not the way to produce the results you want. It’s far more likely to make her pitches worse while taking her further away from her goal of becoming a quality pitcher you can rely on.
Instead, encourage pitchers to keep their energy high and trust their mechanics. You’re more likely to get strikes out of them that way (assuming they’ve been working at learning how to pitch).
And if they still don’t it’s time for a circle visit.
Tell them it’s not their day, put someone else in, and then tell them to keep working because you’re going to give them another chance. It could be the biggest benefit you ever offer that pitcher.
Photo by Song Kaiyue on Pexels.com
As I write this we are not only in the beginning of the Christmas/New Year holiday vortex but also an actual polar vortex. Winter Storm Elliott is hammering much of the U.S., including parts that aren’t used to it, with snow, gale force winds, and bitter cold of the type that makes you run right back inside as soon as you feel it.
It’s so bad where I live that the facility I usually work out of has been closed for the last couple of days. No sense having people risk their health and/or their lives just to come to a lesson when there are no important games on the immediate horizon.
So does that mean all softball-related activities must come to a dead stop? Hardly.
In fact, times like this offer the perfect opportunity to really dig into mechanics and the mental game to work on the little things that can make a huge difference in a player’s overall performance.
It’s like when a player comes to a lesson and says they are feeling a little ill, or tired, or have an injury. I light up – not at their misfortune but at the chance to go deeper in aspects of the game that they might not want to spend so much time on ordinarily.
Not because it’s not necessary, but because it can be really boring to them. When it’s all they can do, however, those things become a lot more interesting.
So while it’s bitterly cold or snowy and you’re stuck at home (or even if it’s bright, sunny, and balmy for that matter) here are a few things to work on that don’t require a cage, a bat, a regular softball, or even much space.
Quick Pitching Release
I have yet to meet a pitcher who doesn’t want to be faster (including a few pretty famous ones). While speed alone isn’t everything, the more you have the better everything else seems to go. And the better you can get by until you can improve other aspects of your game.
One of the keys to speed is the ability to transfer as much of the energy the pitcher has generated through leg drive as possible into the ball. That requires a lightning-quick yet relaxed pronation of the forearm at release.
Building that pronation doesn’t require a lot of space or fancy equipment. You can:
- Throw a rolled up pair of socks into a wall or mirror
- Throw a plyo ball, foam ball, or regular ball into a net
- Walk around the house practicing releases, Ks, and full circles with nothing in your hand
- Perform various exercises (such as squeezing a stress ball) to build your grip strength
Focusing on that one little bit can pay huge dividends the next time you go to pitch at a full distance.
Leg/Body Drive and Timing Off the Rubber
Don’t worry non-pitchers, we’re getting to you. But this is another area that’s often under-trained when pitchers are left on their own.
A lot of pitchers have trouble generating effective leg/body drive off the pitching rubber. After they load they will start to reach forward with their stride (glove-side) leg while essentially standing on the drive (throwing-side) leg.
This type of movement is inefficient, even if it’s done quickly. To generate the kind of energy needed to throw hard you have to get the hips driving forward before the stride leg has gone out fully.
In other words, pitchers have to learn to use their legs together instead of one at a time. Fortunately, this is the same type of leg action used when you skip (or for you multi-sport athletes go for a layup).
Find a few feet of space and skip. Feel how the legs are working. Then try doing the same thing but adding a pitching motion to it.
Take video so you can see if you’re truly getting some spring in your step or if you’re just standing on the pitching rubber as the stride leg goes out.
You can also just stand on the ball of the foot of your drive leg, push forward, then “catch” yourself with your stride leg. This should all occur in a quick, short motion rather than trying to get out far.
Feel the legs working together, then start extending it until you can do it full speed, just as you would in a game.
You probably know from endless hours of lessons what you’re supposed to do at each phase of the swing. But are you actually doing those things?
Here’s a way to find out. Set yourself up in front of a full-length mirror and watch yourself take a swing. If space is limited substitute a curling iron or a short pool noodle for the bat.
Go through it slowly and see what position your body is in at each phase. Check to see that you are:
- Getting positive movement forward
- Leading with your hips
- Getting separation between your hips and shoulders
- Keeping your hands up instead of dropping them to launch the bat
- Driving your back side around your front side
Do it slowly, over and over, checking each aspect. Then do it a little faster, then a little faster, each time checking all those aspects.
While this doesn’t do much for your timing, it ensures that if you are on time you’ll greatly increase your chances of hitting the ball hard.
While this applies to any position, it especially applies to catchers. The faster you can transfer the ball from your glove to your throwing hand, the sooner you can get the ball on its way so you can throw out even the fastest of rabbits.
This is a skill that can be practiced in a bedroom or living room.
Start out barehanded, with the ball in your glove hand. Then transfer it to your throwing hand by slamming it from one to the other.
Then add a glove, doing the same thing. Do it over and over, each time trying to go a little faster.
Before you know it you’ll be able to move that ball from one hand to the other with the best of them.
Ask any coach or player how important the mental game is and they’ll likely tell you it’s hugely important. Then ask them what percentage of their practice time is spent on the mental game and, if they’re honest, they will probably tell you little or none.
That’s because physical practice seems like practice. Mental game practice feels like you missed something you should have been working on.
This is your chance. While you’re stuck inside, do some visualization, seeing yourself making great plays or slamming great hits.
Work on your positive self-talk. A kind word from yourself at the right time can work wonders.
Look online for various stress-relieving techniques you can use during a game. Examples include:
- Squeezing a stress ball or other device
- Grabbing a handful of dirt, squeezing it tightly, then throwing it away
- Inhaling deeply through your nose and blowing the air out slowly through your mouth
- Washing your hands with water
- Creating a pre-pitch routine or ritual
Turn on loud music or a talking podcast then try to do something unrelated such as a reading or math problems. It’s amazing what this exercise can do for your ability to focus.
Time invested now in your mental game can pay big dividends when it’s actually time to play.
No Justification Needed
Really, these things aren’t just for bad weather. They are things you should be doing any time if you want to get better.
But bad weather provides the perfect opportunity because there is little else you can do.
Don’t waste this chance. Get on it now and you’ll find you’re than much farther ahead in your goals once you hit the field again.
Photo by Ir Solyanaya on Pexels.com
Recently my friend and fellow pitching coach Linda Lensch, a trainer with the NJ Ruthless and owner of Greased Lightning Fastpitch High Performance Instruction LLC attended an online presentation about how new technologies are improving and changing the game.
Linda was kind enough to share the PowerPoint of the presentation with a few of us pitching coaches. Included was some data, presented by Florida State assistant coach Troy Cameron, that came out of pitching tracking by YakkerTech at five D1 schools.
One of the things I found most interesting was the heat map on changeup locations and results, which you can see on the far left.
Notice how both the vast majority of pitch locations AND the vast majority of whiffs (swings and misses) aren’t on the corners. Instead, they are dead red.
I have been preaching this for years based on my own observations and experience, and have heard many college coaches say the same thing. You don’t have to be clever or try to paint the corners if you have an effective changeup. Just throw it down the middle, mid-thigh-high or below, and you’ll get the desired effect – a whiff.
Now we have the data to prove it.
I’ll say it again a little louder for those in the back, and for those who have been coaching he same way for 20 years and don’t like new information: YOU DON’T NEED TO PAINT THE CORNERS WITH A CHANGEUP. JUST THROW IT DEAD RED.
What does this mean from a practical standpoint?
For one, pitchers can quit wasting time trying to lean how to paint the corners with a changeup and instead focus their time on disguising the fact that it IS a changeup.
Most pitchers start out learning to throw different pitches down the middle, and then once they can do that will move on to moving them out. In this case, once a pitcher can throw it low and slow without giving it away in her motion she can move on to other pitches.
It also means coaches can quit insisting until their hair is on fire that their pitchers must be able to spot their changeups inside and out. Less stress for the pitcher and the pitch caller.
The pitchers’ parents can also relax in the stands if they see their daughters throwing changeups down the middle. It’s fine, dude or dudette. That’s where it’s most effective.
Why is it most effective down the middle? Now we get into speculation and theories, but I have a pretty good suspicion on that topic based on 20+ years of teaching that pitch.
The whole point of a changeup is to either induce a hitter to swing well ahead of the ball arriving at the plate or confuse her on what she’s seeing to the point where she lets the pitch go by before she can process it. The way you do that is by bringing the body and arm at one speed while having the ball travel at a different, slower speed. Easier said than done, by the way.
It’s like a reverse pitching machine. With a machine, the feeder’s arm usually moves glacially slow (and may even fumble putting the ball in the chute) while the pitch is delivered at 55, 60, 65, etc. mph. The arm speed and the pitch speed don’t match up, so the hitter is perpetually behind the pitch unless she know the keys to hitting off a machine.
With the changeup the opposite is true. The body and especially the arm are traveling through space at a rate of speed that matches the pitcher’s fastest pitch (usually the fastball), but the design of the pitch allows it to be delivered 12-15 mph slower than the fastest pitch without any visible clues that it will be slower.
That’s why you see hitters’ knees buckle when a well-thrown change comes at them. The visual clues and the reality don’t match up and they contort themselves into a pretzel trying to adjust on the fly.
And if you can do that as a pitcher, down the middle works just fine. In fact it’s probably preferable because it can fool umpires too, so why not make it easier for them to call?
Now, before anyone starts saying “Oh, that only works at the lower levels” remember where this data comes from. It comes from five colleges that tracked every pitch of their pitchers and their opponents during home games.
And since these are not cheap systems by any means, you can bet that these were some pretty big schools, i.e., ones you see on TV all the time. They’re the only ones with the budgets to afford it.
So if it works at that level, you can be pretty sure it will work at yours.
The data doesn’t lie. It’s all there in black and white and red.
Quit wasting time focusing on painting the corners with changeups and just turn your pitchers loose to deliver them where they will be most effective based on the data: dead red.
You’ll get better results. And your pitchers will have one less thing to worry about.
There is a phenomenon I’ve noticed lately in my area and seemingly is happening across the country as I speak with other pitching instructors.
When I start lessons with a new pitcher I will ask her what pitches she throws. For pitchers under the age of 14 my expectation is fastball, change, and maybe a drop ball.
These days, however, I have been shocked at how many, even the 10 year olds, will include a “screwball” in their list of pitches. Especially when I then watch them pitch and they struggle to throw their basic fastball with any velocity or semblance of accuracy.
Who in the world thinks teaching a screwball to a 10 year old (or a 12 or 13 year old for that matter) is a good idea? Particularly the screwball that requires the pitcher to contort her arm and wrist outward in a twisting motion that includes the “hitchhiker” finish?
There is simply no good reason to be doing that. For one thing, most kids at that age have rather weak proprioception (body awareness of self movement), which means they often struggle to lock in a single movement pattern.
So, since the way you throw a screwball is in direct opposition to the way you throw a fastball (especially with internal rotation mechanics but it’s even true of hello elbow pitchers) why would you introduce a way of throwing that will interfere with development of core mechanics? Pitchers who are trying to learn both will be splitting their time between two opposing movements, pretty much ensuring they will master neither.
Then coaches and parents wonder why the poor kid can’t throw two strikes in a row in a game.
Just as important is the health and safety aspect of twisting your forearm and elbow against the way they’re designed to work. As my friend and fellow pitching coach Keeley Byrnes of Key Fundamentals points out, “Boys at that age are cautioned against throwing curve balls with a twisting action because of the stress it places on their elbow joints. Why would you encourage a softball pitcher to do the same thing?”
Keeley also points out that most 10 year olds don’t hit very well anyway, so developing a screwball at that age is unnecessary. You can get many hitters out by throwing a fastball over the plate with decent velocity (which means it’s not arcing in).
Tony Riello, a pitching coach, trainer, and licensed doctor of chiropractic, is also concerned about the effect throwing the twisty screwball can have on other body parts. He says, “To be that spread out left to then force the arm and shoulder right seems not healthy for either the back or the shoulder,” he says.
Then there’s the fact that in 99% of the cases a screwball isn’t really a screwball. It’s just a fastball that runs in on a hitter.
Why do I say that? Because if you look at the spin on 99% of so-called screwballs, especially among 10 year olds but even at the collegiate level, they don’t have the type of spin that would make them break. They have “bullet” spin, i.e., their axis of spin is facing the same direction as the direction of travel.
For a screwball to actually be a screwball the axis of spin would need to be on top of the ball, with spin direction going toward the throwing hand side. Just as a curve spins away from the throwing hand side.
So if you’re throwing a pitch that isn’t going to break anyway, why not just learn to throw an inside fastball instead? If you want it to run in a little more, stride out more to the glove side then let it run itself back in.
But again, you’re now giving that young pitcher who’s just trying to learn to throw the ball over the plate two different mechanics (stride straight, stride out) to use, which means she’s probably going to be half as effective on either one.
Oh, and that hitchhiker move that’s supposedly the “key” to the screwball and places all the stress on the elbow? It happens well after the ball is out of the pitcher’s hand, so it has no impact on the spin of the pitch whatsoever. Zero. None. Nada.
Finally, and perhaps most important, once a young pitcher can throw with decent velocity and locate her pitches (or at least throw 70% strikes) there are simply better pitches for her to learn first.
After the basic fastball, in my opinion (and in the opinion of most quality pitching coaches), the second pitch that should be learned is a changeup that can be thrown with the same arm and body speed as the fastball but resulting in a 10-15 mph speed differential. Throwing both the fastball and change at the right speeds for 70% strikes should be enough to keep the typical 10- or 12-year old pitcher busy for a while.
Next you would want to add a drop ball. The mechanics of a properly taught drop ball are very similar to the fastball. In fact, I like to say they are fraternal twins.
Making a ball drop at the right spot, especially given so many young hitters’ desire to stand up as they swing, will get you a lot more outs, either as strikeouts or groundouts. A good drop ball will still translate into more groundouts as you get older too – just ask Cat Osterman.
From there it’s a little less certain. You can go either rise ball or curve ball. I usually make the decision based on the pitcher’s tendencies.
A well-thrown rise ball is still an extremely effective pitch, even though it doesn’t actually break up. And a well-thrown curve will actually break either off the plate (traditional curve) or back onto it (backdoor curve). Either way it moves – unlike the screwball which mostly travels on the same line.
I would save the screwball for last – unless you happen to play in an area where slappers are predominant in the lineup. Which in the era of $500 bats and quality, year-round hitting instruction is about as scarce as screwballs that actually change direction.
There are simply better pitches to learn. And if you do work on a screwball, there are better ways to learn it than trying to twist your wrist and forearm off in a contorted move that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.
The bottom line is that, for the love of Gaia, there is no good reason to be teaching a screwball to a 10 year old – or any pitcher who hasn’t mastered her fastball and changeup first. Let’s make sure we’re giving our young pitchers the actual tools they need to succeed – and avoid those that can lead to injury and perhaps a career cut short.
One of the most important contributors to being successful in fastpitch softball pitching (and many other skills for that matter) is the ability to feel what your body is doing while it’s doing it.
The fancy word for that is “proprioception” – your ability to feel your body and the movement of your limbs in space. If you want to impress someone call it that. Otherwise you can just say body awareness.
Yet while it’s easy to say you should have body awareness, achieving it can be difficult for many pitchers, especially (but not limited to) younger ones. Keep in mind that it wasn’t all that long ago they were learning to walk, and many are still struggling to improve their fine motor skills.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to achieving body awareness, however, is our eyes. How often do we tell pitchers to focus on the target, or yell at catchers to “give her a bigger target” when a pitcher is struggling.
According to research, 90% of what our brains process is visual information. That leaves very little processing power for our other senses.
It makes sense from a survival point of view. We can see threats long before we can hear them, or smell them, or taste them.
But if your goal is oriented toward athletic performance instead of survival, all that visual information can get in the way of feeling what your body is doing.
The solution is as simple as it is obvious: if you can’t feel your body when you’re practicing, close your eyes. (I do not recommend the same during a game since there is a person with a $500 bat at the other end of the pitch waiting to drill you with a comebacker.)
With your eyes closed, you no longer have the distraction(s) of what your eyes see. You HAVE to become more aware of what your body is doing, and where its various parts are going, if you’re going to have any chance of getting it even near the plate.
I have done this with many pitchers over the years, and it has invariably helped to different degrees. Some start to feel whether their arms are stiffening up or they’re pushing the ball through release where they couldn’t before.
Some feel their bodies going off line, or gyrating in all kinds of crazy directions instead of just moving forward and stabilizing at release.
In some cases, girls who were struggling with control actually start throwing more strikes with their eyes closed than they did with their eyes open. Again, because they’re starting to FEEL the things we were talking about.
One thing I like to emphasize with eyes-closed pitching is for the pitcher to visualize where the catcher is before she starts the pitch. See it in her mind’s eye the way she would see it if her eyes were open.
Then, once she has it visualized, go ahead and throw the pitch.
Even if she struggles at first she will usually start to feel what her body is doing at a much deeper level, putting her in a position to start correcting it. Then, by the time she opens her eyes again she will be better prepared to deliver the type of results you’re hoping for.
If you have a pitcher who is struggling to feel what she’s doing, give this a try. It can be an eye-opening experience for pitchers – and their parents.
Ok yes, today’s title was purposely click baity. Because I don’t mean literally to sit around all day on the couch staring at a screen or eating Cheetohs (or doing both; I’m not here to judge).
Sorry all you players who hoped to use my blog to justify telling your parents to chill, or whatever you say nowadays.
What I’m actually talking about is learning to use your body the way it’s meant to be used rather than trying to do too much and getting in the way of your best performance.
A great example, and one I’ve talked about many times here, is using “hello elbow” (HE) mechanics for pitching.
With HE, you push the ball down the back side of the circle and try to get your hand behind the ball early going into the release zone. You then pull your arm through the release zone with your bicep while (supposedly) snapping your wrist hard as you let go of the ball, finishing with your elbow pointing at your catcher.
While this may seem like a way to add energy into the ball in theory, in practice the opposite is true. It actually slows down your arm, because your using the small bicep muscle instead of the larger back muscles to bring the arm down, and gets in the way of your arm’s natural movements as it passes your hip.
It’s also an unnatural movement pattern. To prove it, stand up, let your arms hang at your sides, and see which way your hand is facing. Unless you have something very odd going on your palm is in toward your thigh, not turned face-forward.
Your arm wants to turn in that way when you’re pitching too. In order for that to happen, all you have to do is NOTHING – don’t force it out, don’t force a follow through, really don’t do anything. The ball will come out as your hand turns and you will transfer way more energy into the ball than you would have if your tried to do something.
This, incidentally, is something I often use to help pitchers whose arms are naturally trying to do internal rotation (IR) but are also using an HE finish because that’s what has been drilled into them for the last three years gain a quick speed boost. They start out using their HE mechanics from the K position and we look at the speed reading.
I then have them lose the forced finish and just let the arm naturally pronate at it reaches the bottom of the circle. They can usually add 2-3 mph immediately just by doing nothing.
Or let’s look at hitting. Many young and inexperienced hitters will try to over-use their arms and shoulders when bringing the bat to the ball.
It makes sense on some level because the bat is in your hands and you want to hit the ball hard.
Yet that is the one of the worst things you can do. When you pull the bat with your arms and shoulders you have to start your swing before you know where the ball is going to be (never a good idea).
You will also lose your ability to adjust your swing to where the ball is going because you’ve built up so much momentum in whatever direction your started. Not to mention that muscles get smaller and weaker as you move away from your core so you’re not generating nearly as much energy as your body is capable of producing.
Again, the better choice is to do nothing with your arms early in the swing, and instead let your lower body and core muscles generate energy and start moving the bat toward the ball (while the bat is still near your shoulder). Then, once you’re well into your turn and you see where the ball is headed you can let the bat head launch, resulting in a much better hit, and a more reliable process.
Does doing nothing work for overhand throwing as well?
How many times have you seen players lined up across from each other, throwing arm elbow in their glove and wrists snapping furiously while their forearms don’t move? Probably more times than you can count.
This is a completely pointless drill because no one, and I mean NO ONE, purposely snaps their wrists when they throw overhand. Instead, they relax their wrists and allow the whipping action to snap their wrists for them – which is far more powerful.
To prove it, close your fingers up and try to fan yourself by snapping your wrist. Not much air there, right?
Now relax your wrist and move your forearm back and forth quickly. Ahh, that’s the stuff. That breeze you now feel is more energy being generated, which moves more air into your face.
So if that’s the case, why would you ever try to do something when you’re releasing the ball rather than doing nothing and letting biomechanics produce better results for you?
There are countless other examples but you get the picture. The point is, forcing unnatural movements onto your body, while they might make you “feel” like you’re working harder, are actually very inefficient.
If you want to maximize your performance, make sure the energy you’re producing is delivering the results you’re going for. Just doing nothing and watch your numbers climb.
Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com
You’ve probably seen the same Facebook posts I see: Internet pitching experts (I suppose taking a break from their other career of Internet virology or economics experts) complaining about coaches and parents posting when their pitcher daughter hits a new high speed.
They go into a whole rant about how pitching speed isn’t important, it’s more important to locate the pitch and spin it, blah blah blah. It reminds me of this clip from the Jim Carrey movie Liar, Liar:
I get their point to a point, though. Often times coaches become obsessed with raw speed to the point where they ignore other factors.
While it’s true that a pitcher who can overpower hitters with speed can rack up more Ks, that’s not the only way to get hitters out. I personally love a pitcher who can consistently close out an inning in 6-10 pitches – especially on a super hot, muggy day.
Let’s get the team off the hot plate infield as quickly as possible and into where the pop-up tents and sports drinks are.
So then why get so excited about new pitch speeds? It’s simple – it’s a way of measuring how well the pitcher is progressing toward locking down her mechanics.
The key is that these measurements should not be used to rank one pitcher over another. The value, at least the way I use them, is in ranking the pitcher relative to herself.
I have a Pocket Radar set up with a SmartDisplay at every lesson. The pitcher can see the speed results of every pitch. So can her catcher if he/she turns to look.
I call it my accountability meter. If the pitcher is slacking off from where her speed usually is I can see it right away and can “suggest” she put more effort in.
At the same time, it also clues me in to the fact that this pitcher just may not have it today.
Perhaps she just came from a two-hour basketball practice full of conditioning drills. Her legs are dead and she’s just not capable of generating max speed. So maybe we work on spins, or focus on her release point, or do other things that don’t rely on her legs.
Or maybe she’s starting to get sick, or nursing an injury. Whatever the issue is, the radar provides a quick clue that something isn’t quite optimal.
The important point is that we are measuring that pitcher relative to herself, not her teammates or some other random pitcher on the Internet. And I post the speeds to celebrate the individual’s achievement, whatever that may be.
If it was purely about speed, or promoting the pitching coach, those coaches would only post the new highs of their kids throwing 60+. I’ve certainly seen that.
But for me, I’m just as excited for the high school pitcher who came to me throwing 43 and is now throwing 48 as I am for the 60+ girls. Maybe even moreso.
You see, it takes a certain combination of factors (including genetics) to throw at higher velocities. Those who are athletically gifted can reach that level much more easily than those who are not.
But for some pitchers, especially those who are smaller and lighter, increasing their speed at all may take a lot more work than it does for the athletically gifted. So while in the pantheon of pitching prowess 48 may not sound like much, for that particular pitch it’s a huge deal, the culmination of a whole lot of effort and practice.
Achievements like that deserve to be celebrated.
Having a way of measuring progress, and celebrating it through social media, also provides some great incentive to those pitchers. Especially after they’ve been through it a couple of times.
They see the radar there. They want their picture taken and posted, and they want to be able to say they throw X, which is faster than they have before.
So I don’t have to do much to motivate them to work. They go for it themselves. And once they’ve hit it they work even harder to make it their baseline so they can move on to the next speed goal.
All of which helps them grow into the pitchers they’re meant to be.
Does that mean we focus on speed exclusively? Of course not!
Spot and spin are still incredibly important, as is the ability to throw a changeup that looks like it will be that fast while taking 12-15 mph off of the result. That’s pitching instead of just throwing.
But the name of the game is FASTpitch softball. Which to me means every pitcher should be doing all she can to wring every ounce of speed she can out of her body, because all those elements work better if you start from a higher baseline.
I tell my students we have four words to live by: faster is always better. That doesn’t just mean the speed of the pitch but also the approach taken to delivering it.
If you move faster your body will create and transfer more energy. That’s science (force=mass x acceleration). It will also disguise your changeup better.
So let the naysayers complain. In my mind, measuring the speed of every pitch helps keep pitchers focused and on upward trajectory.
Not so their parents or coaches can get bragging rights. But so they become the pitchers they’re meant to be.
Anyone who has read the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle has heard of the concept of “deep practice.” You may have blown right by it but you’ve heard of it.
Part of the key to deep practice is repeating movements over and over in ultra-slow motion. As I recall Coyle says movements should be so slow that someone passing by casually can’t tell what you’re trying to do.
This week I had a chance to test this idea out on several pitching students to see how much it would help. The short version (and spoiler alert): quite a bit.
Each of these students, whose ages varied from 10 to 16, was having trouble throwing her changeup. Specifically they were all having trouble getting their hand into the proper position at the right time to make it work.
When it happened the first time I remembered The Talent Code and told the pitcher to work through how to get her hand turned the right way at the right time going ultra-slowly. After about a dozen reps at that speed I told her to go back to the pitching rubber and throw it.
The pitch was spot-on. Not just once but every time she threw it.
Hmmm, I thought, that worked pretty well. But of course “one” is not a valid sample.
So, the next student who had trouble with her change was advised to do the same. And we got the same results!
As I recall I did this with half a dozen students and it worked every time. Not just a little bit but to the point where if the pitcher threw that pitch in a game it most likely would have resulted in either a swing and miss or a hitter frozen mid-swing.
Of course, six isn’t really a valid sample either so I plan to continue the experiment with students who are having trouble with the mechanics of any pitch. I fully expect I will get similar results regardless of the pitch.
I hesitate to say it’s a magic bullet. But so far, it’s about as close as I’ve found.
The good news is this technique isn’t just for pitchers. It can be applied to any skill where an athlete knows what to do at some level but isn’t quite able to do it.
Have a hitter who is having trouble keeping the bat head up until she turns the corner and then turning the bat over? Have her do it properly, very, very slowly, over and over.
Have a fielder who keeps dropping her elbow instead of getting into a good throwing position? Have her work on the proper technique, very, very slowly, over and over.
Have a catcher who is sitting back on her heels when she blocks instead of getting her shoulders out in front of her knees? Have shortstop who is having trouble transferring the ball for a double play? You get the idea.
Just one caution. I’m fairly certain the benefits we achieved so far were temporary. That’s why I’ve told the girls who did it to keep practicing that way, 20-50 times per day.
The beauty is they don’t need a field, or a ball, or a tee, or a catcher, or anything else. Just enough space to work on the proper movement patterns until they’re locked in – however long it takes.
If you have a player who is struggling to do something, especially something she’s shown she can do before, give the ultra-slow movement approach a try. And if you do, let us all know how it works out in the comments below!
Today’s blog post was suggested by my friend and fellow pitching coach Shaun Walker of Next Level Softball. Shaun is an incredible pitching coach and an innovative thinker who has opened me up to a whole new world around human movement and how it affects athletic performance at a core level.
Don’t let the West Virginia accent fool you either. He may talk funny (as he says) but you better pay attention when he’s doing it or you will miss something great. (If you’re in the Man, W. Va. area and are interested in quality instruction definitely look him up.)
In any case, Shaun told me about getting contacted by the parent of a prospective student who asked him the question I’m sure is on the minds of many parents: how many lessons will it take? The implied part, of course, is until my daughter is a star.
Wow, talk about a loaded question. As Shaun says, that’s like asking how many licks until you get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. There is no easy answer.
NOTE: While we will be talking about pitching specifically in this post, the principles apply to all skills, all positions, and all sports and activities.
One obvious reason is that different players have different builds, athletic abilities, work ethics, time available to them, levels of experience, practice spaces, levels of mental toughness, and other factors. They are also different ages which factors into it more than many of us might want to admit.
For example, an 8 year old will generally have a very different ability to focus for long periods of time than a 14 year old. That’s just biology.
Sure, there are plenty of distracted 14 years old, and the occasional hyper-focused 8 year old. But for the overall population this is true.
With the result that the 8 year old will be able to pay attention for part of the lesson until the circus in her head takes over whereas the 14 year old should be able to focus for the entire lesson. Particularly if she is personally motivated to learn.
Athletic build is a pretty obvious factor. A big, strong player will likely experience more success early than a scrawny little peanut who is in danger of being blown away by the next strong breeze.
That doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever, though. The peanut will grow and mature, and eventually gain the muscle mass needed – particularly if she works at it – to catch up to her larger peers. With the added benefit her mechanics may be cleaner because they had to be.
But it’s going to take her longer to achieve the same level of success. Again, that darned biology.
This brings us to work ethic, which I’m sure Shaun (and many others) would agree is the greatest X factor of them all.
Take two girls of similar native ability. The only time the first one picks up a ball is when she has a lesson. Or maybe an hour before she has that lesson.
The second one practices diligently. Not just putting in time, but actually working on the things that were assigned to her in her last lesson (whether that was with a live pitching coach, a team coach, a parent, or an online session).
Which one is more likely to advance faster? I think the answer is pretty obvious.
But there is no way the coach being asked “How long will it take” will know these players well enough to make that evaluation before ever working with them.
And even then, the lack of natural athletic ability or comfort with body movement may hold the harder worker back longer — for a while. Eventually, though, that work ethic will overcome just about any obstacle.
Another factor that can contribute is how long it takes to overcome previous bad teaching.
I’ve talked a lot, especially recently, about the benefits of internal rotation (IR) over hello elbow (HE) pitching, especially when it comes to using the body the way it’s designed to work. One of the biggest issues HE generates is teaching pitchers to turn the ball back toward second base, make the arm as straight as possible, and push the ball down the back side of the circle.
When you do that you lose any ability to accelerate (whip) the ball through the release zone, affecting both speed and accuracy. That’s why many pitchers who are taught HE, and do the HE drills, still manage to find their way to some form of IR when they actually pitch.
Still, those ingrained habits can be difficult to break. So a pitcher who has taken lessons for five years from an HE coach may find it takes her longer to unlearn those mechanics and get on the right path than one who has never had instruction before or maybe even who has never pitched.
So again, how long it takes to achieve the results you’re looking for is difficult to predict. It all depends on how long it takes to learn to face the ball forward, maintain a bend in the arm, and accelerate the ball into release by leading the little finger rather than pushing it from behind.
Last but definitely not least is the mental toughness factor. Many of the skills in softball are incredibly difficult to learn, and pitching is certainly no exception.
It can be frustrating, even soul-sucking at times. There will be days when nothing seems to work right, or weeks when it feels like zero progress is being made because the speed on the radar gun isn’t changing or the strike percentages aren’t going up significantly or the spin direction on the ball isn’t what it should be.
Pitchers need to have the mental toughness to accept it and keep working anyway. If they’re learning the right techniques, and practicing diligently, it will happen. As my favorite quote from Remember the Titans says, “It’s like Novocain. Give it time, it always works.”
Those who can hang in there when the going gets tough will see the rewards. Those who can’t will find it difficult to achieve their dreams.
Just like in life.
So how long will it take? As long as it takes.
There are things you can do to shorten the process, but it’s only shortening your process, because we’re all different.
Keep an eye on the prize, understand it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and all those other sports clichés. If you keep at it you will eventually reach the chewy center.
Oh, and if you have a topic you’d like me to address, feel free to suggest it in the comments below. I’m always looking for new ideas that will resonate with your interests and concerns.
One of the age-old controversies in fastpitch pitching is whether it’s more important to develop speed or accuracy first.
Of course my answer to that question is always “yes.” Because I don’t believe they are, or have to be, mutually exclusive.
But there are definitely those, including one of America’s most famous and beloved pitching coaches, who will tell you to learn to throw strikes first and then you can worry about speed later. Here’s my problem with that.
Take a look at Internet forums or Facebook groups and what is one of the most common pleas from pitcher parents? It goes something like this:
“My daughter has been pitching for X years and has always been great at throwing strikes. She led her rec league team to a championship when she was 10, and she is still the most accurate pitcher on her team. But her speed is below the other pitchers we see. I’d like to see her get faster. Please help.”
Then the parent posts a video of a kid pushing the ball toward the plate or otherwise forcing it to go where she wants it to go.
I’m sorry, but the best advice I could give that parent is to invent a time machine so he/she can have his/her daughter start learning to throw hard right from the beginning.
A lot of developing speed is about learning to move your body quickly – and having the intent to do so. In other words, you need to have athletic, ballistic movements in order to impart energy into the ball so it will go fast.
But if your focus is on learning to throw strikes, especially at young ages, you’re not going to learn to move ballistically because it’s harder to achieve the goal of throwing strikes. Fast-moving body parts are more difficult to control, which means fewer strikes. It’s much easier to “get the ball over the plate” if you slow down and find an effective way to lob it there.
The problem is that’s what you’re training your body to do – throw slow strikes. In the meantime, another girl who is learning to throw hard is going through all of the growing pains throwing hard requires while learning to move her body quickly.
Her body may be out of control for a little while, until she develops greater body awareness (proprioception for those of you who like the big words) and learns the proper mechanics as well as how to apply them.
As she continues, though, those fast-paced movements become easier to replicate. She then learns how to control them, and becomes not only fast but accurate.
In the meantime, Suzy Slow Strike Machine suddenly finds out that throwing the ball over the plate without speed is like volunteering to throw front toss without a screen as hitters mature.
So naturally she (and her parents) want her to learn to throw faster.
Unfortunately, now she has to go through the same growing pains that the hard throwers did three years ago. Which means she not only lacks speed but also her famous accuracy.
And who wants a slow, wild pitcher?
Or think of it this way: When players are running the bases do we teach them to run slowly first so they don’t overrun the base and tell them they can then add speed later? Of course not.
We tell them to run full out and teach them to stop or slide on time.
The same is true for pitchers. Putting an emphasis on accuracy at the expense of speed is a poor strategy.
It reminds me of the saying, “The race doesn’t always go the swiftest nor the contest to the strongest. But that’s the way to bet.”
As I said earlier, the reality is you don’t have to sacrifice speed development for accuracy – IF, and that’s a big IF, the pitcher is learning proper pitching mechanics. If you learn how to do things the right way, and practice enough to make those movements precisely repeatable, the ball will go where it should.
In my mind accuracy is not a goal. It is a result, just as speed is a result.
If you wait to develop speed you just may find you’ve painted yourself into a corner with no way out.
Yes, I get that throwing strikes is important. But it’s hardly a mystery.
By focusing on developing mechanically sound pitchers who throw with effort and intent rather than fear of failure, you can achieve both speed and accuracy pretty much simultaneously. Which is the key to a long, successful pitching career.