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Accuracy Without Speed = Batting Practice

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.

Maybe this guy can help.

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.

And she starts to feel something like this.

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.

Actual coach demonstrating sliding with style.

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.

Cue to Help Fastpitch Pitchers Gain an Explosive Release

One of the most common issues among fastpitch pitchers is a tendency to try to add speed to a pitch by forcing it out with a lot of forward effort. You see them get ready to deliver the ball, and suddenly instead of whipping it from back to front and letting go they hang onto the ball and try to purposefully push it out of their throwing hand.

This motion is often accompanied by pushing the throwing side shoulder forward as well. While the intention is to make the pitch faster, it actually ends up having the opposite effect.

In other words, while it may feel strong, it isn’t very effective, biomechanically speaking.

I was facing that very dilemma with a younger student this week, so I came up with a new way to explain what she should do. I’ve since tried it with several with great success (so far).

The way I explained it was in the arm circle there is a point where you have developed all the speed you can get. That point is essentially at the bottom – six o’clock on an analog clock if you’re using the clock face as a visualization device.

Anything that happens after that not only doesn’t contribute to more speed, it actually starts taking away speed. So, since there’s nothing to be gained but much to be lost you might as well just let go right at the bottom, which will be roughly around the back leg.

Putting it this way seems to make sense, probably because it addresses the main reason the pitcher started pushing in the first place – to gain speed. Explaining it hurts their speed instead seems to break through the clutter of ingrained patterns and helps them find their release point.

For the pitchers where I had a radar set up, which was almost all of them, getting the ball out at the right point resulted in an immediate speed increase of 2-3 mph with no additional effort on their part. In fact, for most of them we were just working a drill where they weren’t trying to go all-out, just standing at a 45-degree angle and taking an easy step or medium-speed push.

What was really interesting about it was speed wasn’t the only aspect of their pitches to benefit. Suddenly balls that had been flying all over the place were going straight and low in the strike zone, even though we weren’t focused on accuracy at all.

I did point out the accuracy to the pitchers after a while, however, to give them one more reason not to force the ball forward. Just let it go at the right time, in the right place, and accuracy takes care of itself.

For some pitchers you may need to show them exactly where the ball needs to come out by having them get into their release position, bring the ball from 7:00 to 6:00, and then show them where it should be coming off their thumbs and their fingertips. I did this with one pitcher in particular last night and she immediately improved her speed and accuracy. She thanked me for it, because she said she now understood exactly what she needed to do.

So if you have a pitcher who is struggling to whip and release the ball, and is instead trying to force or push it forward before letting go, give this cue a try. It could be an instant difference-maker.

Big Issues Don’t Always Require Big Solutions

Toward the end of the summer 2020 season (if you can call that a season), one of my pitching students, a terrific lefty named Sammie, developed some control trouble. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she started throwing everything off the plate to her throwing hand side.

We got together and we worked on it. I thought she might be going across her body instead of straight so we set up a couple of giant cones to try to steer her back down the straight and narrow as it were.

It helped a little, but not enough. She still struggled in her next game, and in her practice sessions.

This was definitely a problem that needed to be corrected so I racked my brain on what the probable root cause might have been. As it turned out, however, I didn’t need to think so hard.

I simply needed to remember my own advice, given about a year ago, regarding Occam’s Razor: If there is a simple solution and a complex one, the simple solution is usually the best.

In this case, I only needed to remember the opening song from “Les Miserables” – look down.

When I looked down at Sammie’s feet on the pitching rubber I knew exactly what the problem was. She was like this:

Notice her left foot way to the left. Ignore the dirty mat and rough ground around her.

We have been working on her sliding her foot over the center of her body and I thought she had that down. But somewhere along the way she stopped centering, and instead would only slide her foot slightly. As a result, everything was going down the left side, often off the plate.

So we worked once again on the proper slide across, placing her left foot more in this position before driving off:

Ah, that’s better! How long do you think those shoes will stay that white in those conditions?

Once she got her foot more in this position all her problems with being off the plate went away, as if by magic. Control was regained and she once again began dominating hitters.

So there’s the lesson for today. Sometimes a pitcher’s (or any athlete’s for that matter) issues aren’t being driven by some horrible breakdown in mechanics.

As we coaches work to acquire knowledge and hone our craft, we can get caught up in over-thinking the issues and the solutions. This is a good reminder that often a simple adjustment on a pitcher who has been doing well can get her right back on track.

William of Ockham may have been born in 1287. But he would have made a heck of a pitching coach.

In Hitting, the Arms Can Only Do One Thing; Choose Wisely

Kayleigh hitting

As fastpitch softball hitters begin to experience some success with making contact, their next natural evolution is to want to hit the ball harder. Often what that amounts to is trying to swing the bat harder with their arms.

It makes sense in a way. You’re holding the bat in your hands, which are attached to the arms. The faster the bat moves the harder the ball will be hit (theoretically). So…

The natural tendency is to try to make the bat move faster with the arms and shoulders. There’s just one problem: once you try to maximize batspeed with your arms you lose all ability to adjust the bat to the flight of the ball.

That’s because the arms can only do one job. They can either supply power or they can lag a bit behind the body and then deliver the bat accurately and properly in the path of the ball.

So where does the power come from? The strong rotation of the lower half of the body, which most people refer to as driving the hips.

That’s where the biggest muscles of the body are located, so that’s where you can generate the most power. If you’re trying to push a car out of the snow or mud, you either use your legs or it doesn’t go anywhere.

The problem is, if you don’t develop the power from your lower half it has to come from somewhere. So the body will instinctively try to get it out of the part of the body that’s holding the bat.

And now we’re back to the original issue. With no (or little) hip rotation, the bat has to travel a longer distance to get to the contact zone. That means you have to start developing the power and applying it before you really know where the ball will be.

It’s like trying to throw a dart without knowing where the dartboard is until you’re about ready to release it. Sure, you might get lucky and hit the bullseye. But you’re far more likely to wind up on the edge, or miss the target entirely.

Starting with the lower body gives you a little more time (not much, but every hundredth of a second helps) to see the path of the pitch. It also helps carry the bat closer to the contact point before you actually release it into the ball, creating a shorter path to the ball (as in “short to, long through”).

Just as important, though, when it comes time to launch the bat you are able to control it much more effectively so you can take it right to where it needs to go.

The arms (and shoulders) can only do one job – supply the power or guide the bat in a way that’s adjustable. If they try to supply the power, that will override bat control.

Let the power come from the lower body so the arms and shoulders can do their proper job. It’ll make for a much more successful 2020 at the plate.

And speaking of 2020, happy holidays to everyone, no matter which holiday(s) you celebrate, and best wishes for the New Year. I appreciate you reading Life in the Fastpitch Lane and look forward to sharing more about the fastpitch journey next year.

 

No need to sacrifice speed for accuracy in fastpitch pitching

Speed or accuracy in fastpitch pitching? The answer is mechanics.

One of the most widespread, ongoing debates in fastpitch pitching is: which comes first – speed or accuracy? In other words, should pitchers focus on developing all the speed they can and worry about accuracy later? Or should they first make sure they can throw the ball for a strike, then try to add speed later?

Part of the answer, of course, is driven by the needs of whoever is in the debate. Instructors tend to like to focus on speed, because in the long term the pitcher’s best opportunities will come when speed is maximized. You don’t see too many accurate pitchers throwing 48 mph getting offered scholarships.

Team coaches tend to want accuracy first, because they don’t want their pitcher walking too many hitters. “We can’t defend a walk,” they often say. Although some of their teams can’t defend a ground ball or a pop-up either.

So what’s the answer? In my mind, neither. Focusing on either speed or accuracy is the answer to the wrong question. What you really want to focus on is the mechanics.

The ball doesn’t care where it’s thrown. It’s an inanimate object, so it will go wherever the pitcher sends it. Which means accuracy isn’t a goal, it’s a result. If you do the right set of movements, you will throw a strike. Lock in those movements and you will throw strikes repeatedly.

Focusing on accuracy usually gets in the way of a good pitch. It causes pitchers to slow their arms down, or let the ball get ahead of the elbow on going into release so they can “guide” the ball at release. Neither of those options is conducive to accuracy or speed.

When you slow the arm down, you allow more time for something to go wrong. Not only that, but slowing the arm down causes a loss of momentum, letting you change where the arm is headed. Whereas if you’re using good mechanics and maintaining arm speed the arm will be carried toward the right direction automatically by the momentum that has been generated.

Letting the hand get ahead of the elbow at release prevents the whipping motion that creates speed. It also requires the pitcher to think too much, because pushing the ball through release means you can push it in nearly any direction. If you’re pulling it through release your options narrow considerably.

Having good mechanics makes the direction of the pitch far more automatic while enabling the speed to be maximized. You shouldn’t need to guide the pitch, or force it to go anywhere. If you really have your mechanics on lockdown you should be able to pitch blindfolded – a challenge I put forth to every pitcher sooner or later.

When you let go of your conscious thoughts of trying to guide the ball and just focus on doing the right things at the right time and in the right order, good things happen. You can then place your focus where it belongs – on maximizing the amount of energy delivered to the ball at release.

The result is speed AND accuracy, all in one nice, neat package.

What about a pitcher’s confidence, you say? If she’s struggling to throw strikes in a game won’t she lose confidence? Probably. But if she’s getting pummeled in a game she’s going to lose confidence too. Confidence comes from knowing you put in the work and doing what you do to the maximum of your abilities. The more you are able to take command of the game as a pitcher, rather than just surviving by pushing strikes across the plate, the more your confidence will grow. Because you will feel like you’ve created success rather than avoided failure.

For any pitcher, the objective should be to optimize the mechanics. Don’t worry about where the balls goes at first, except to use that as a way of diagnosing problems with mechanics. Fix the mechanics, and the ball will go where you want it to, as fast as you’re capable of throwing it.

With that mindset, you will have a solid foundation to build from.

Tip to help with throwing the outside pitch

A couple of weeks ago I was working with a new student named Jasmine. She is a high school pitcher who had received some good training previously, but still needs some refinement in a few areas. Pitching outside

One thing we were working on was throwing to locations – inside and outside. She was doing fine with inside – I find most pitchers have a side that comes easily and a side they struggle with, and for most the easy side is inside – but having trouble with the outside pitch.

Each time she tried the ball either went down the middle or off to the right. She just couldn’t quite seem to hone in on the mechanics to go left.

The cage we were working in had a protective screen for pitchers (or coaches) to duck behind when throwing batting practice. And that’s when the idea hit me. I dragged the screen about 15-20 feet in front of her and basically cut off everything from the center to the right.

Jasmine gave me a nervous smile at first but gamely decided to give it a try. With the right half cut off she was able to focus on the left and get the feel of throwing properly outside. After a few successful pitches with the screen in place we removed the visual aid. Lo and behold, she started popping the glove right on the spot.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling with hitting a spot, give this a try. Just be sure to set the screen up far enough away that if the pitcher does hit it the ball doesn’t bounce back into her. (Don’t be fooled by the photo – objects in picture are farther away than they appear.)

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