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The Train Doesn’t Wait for the Passenger

black train on rail and showing smoke

One of the most common issues among young, developing pitchers (and even a few older ones) is waiting too long to get their momentum moving forward. When they do that, their timing gets all messed up and they are unable to transfer as much energy as they could from their bodies into the ball.

For example, what you will often see in a pitcher with a backswing is that she will stand on her back foot as her arm swings back and wait for it to reach its farthest point. Then she will start her body moving forward as her arm begins to swing forward.

The problem here is that the arm can move forward a lot faster and more easily than the body, so it gets ahead.

A key checkpoint in the pitch is that the drive foot should begin detaching from the pitching rubber when the arms reach the 3 o’clock position, i.e., straight out in front. That’s not going to happen, however, if the arm is racing ahead of the body.

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

The pitcher has reached the 3 o’clock position and her arm is already pulling away from the pitching rubber.

Instead, the arm will either have to slow down so the body can catch up or it will continue on ahead with the result the ball is thrown before energy transfer fully commences. No matter which way it happens, the result is a loss of speed.

The challenge here, of course, is explaining it to a pitcher in a way that makes sense. One way I do that is to tell her that the train (her body) doesn’t wait for the passenger (her arm or the ball), so she needs to get the train moving as her arm swings back and the passenger then has to make sure it jumps on the moving train. Like this:

What about a pitcher who doesn’t use a backswing? The concept still works.

If she comes out of the glove on her side, she’ll need to get her body moving forward before her hands start moving. If she drops out of the glove she’ll again need to do it after she’s started moving forward.

No matter which method she uses the key is to get her drive and momentum developing – her center of gravity moving forward, out ahead of the pitching rubber – before she starts into the arm circle. That way the whole body is moving together, in harmony, giving her the ability to deliver the pitch with maximum force.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling with the timing of her arm relative to her body, give this explanation a try. Train whistle sounds optional.

Train photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Fastpitch Pitchers: Make Your Arm Like Feel Like a Piece of Rope

rope dew brown beige

I have talked for years about how the pitching arm on a fastpitch pitcher should be loose at it goes through the circle. But lately, for whatever reason, I have had a lot of success with one very simple instruction: your arm should feel like it’s a piece of rope.

I usually then tell the pitcher to imagine holding onto a piece of rope and twirling it around with their hand. Now picture their hand is their shoulder and the rope is their arm.

So far it has worked like magic on every pitcher I’ve said this to. Before that instruction you could see that the pitcher was trying to throw hard – and tensing up as a result.

Afterwards, you could see the arm go loose – like a piece of rope – and the ball fly out of her hand. It’s very visible when you’re doing an online lesson, by the way!

Several parents have commented that they could see the difference in the arm immediately. But my favorite comment was from Beth, the mom of a pitcher named Katie.

She was catching during an online lesson and heard me say something but couldn’t make out what it was. Then Katie threw the next pitch and it stung Beth’s hand. At which point Beth said, “I don’t know what you just told Katie but it sure worked.”

I have tried lots of different ways to explain this concept in the past. I’ve said the standard “stay loose,” “make it like a piece of cooked spaghetti instead of uncooked spaghetti like it is now,” and “it should feel like Harry Potter’s arm after Professor Lockhart tries to fix it.” Those phrases would work sometimes and not others.

I’ve also tried different physical approaches, such as having the pitcher swing her arm around in circles multiple times or pitching without a ball or with a light ball. There would be some progress, but it would often be lost once we went back to regular pitching.

But “your arm should be like a piece of rope” seems to work pretty consistently and pretty well.

So if you have a pitcher who is having trouble letting her arm be loose give that a try. Maybe even have a piece of rope handy to try if you and the pitcher are in the same place.

It just might be the key to unlocking both speed and accuracy. And if you do try it, let me know how it works in the comments below!

And as they say on YouTube, if you found this post helpful be sure to leave a like, share it with others and use the box in the upper left to subscribe so every time there’s a new post you’re notified instantly.

Thanks, hang in there, and keep washing your hands!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Overhand Throwing May Be the Most Under-Taught Skill in Fastpitch Softball

Kennedy throwing

If there is one universal truth in fastpitch softball it has to be this: basic overhand throwing is the most under-taught part of the game.

It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a local high school or middle school game, a travel ball tournament, or even a college game on TV. You can almost guarantee that many of the throwing motions will be questionable, and some will be downright abysmal.

I see this all the time when I give individual lessons or conduct clinics with a group of players. The mechanics that are used to get a softball from player A to player B – which constitutes a good part of the game when a strikeout doesn’t occur – are often just awful.

So why, exactly, is that? I mean, throwing is certainly a part of every practice. It’s often one of the first things players do at practice or before a game, occurs throughout, and then is often one of the last things that happens at the end.

The only conclusion I can come to is that it’s not being taught. Throwing may be part of warm-ups, but it apparently isn’t a skill anyone thinks about working on. It’s more of a prelude to the “important stuff,” like fielding or hitting or running the bases.

That’s a huge oversight, especially when you consider the often-quoted figure that 80% of all errors are throwing errors. Which means teams could cut out 80% of their errors by learning to throw better.

Where else can you get so much payoff for paying attention to one specific area? Certainly not hitting. It’s highly unlikely you will improve your hitting by 80% no matter how much you practice. Yet teams and individuals will spend hour upon hour working on their hitting mechanics.

Throwing? Nah. Just get loosened up throwing however you feel like it and then we’ll get down to the serious work.

Just imagine, though, if teams would say hey, wait a minute. Let’s take a half hour today and try to learn to throw better. Not only would they be likely to throw harder and improve accuracy; they might also cut down on the arm injuries plaguing so many players these days.

Throwing basics

While there is obviously more to it than I can get into right now, here are a few basics of what you should see players doing when they throw – even (especially) in warm-ups.

  1. Stand sideways to the target with glove arms in front, hands together in front of you.
  2. Begin your stride, stepping the front foot so it will land at a 45 degree angle and separate the hands by pulling the elbows apart, with more emphasis in the beginning on the glove-hand elbow. The motion should be like stretching a rubber band.
  3. As the throwing hand goes back, turn the hand palm-down and start to make a circle. How big of a circle depends on the position and distance you will have to throw. Small circle for catchers and infielders, larger circle for outfielders.
  4. Land the front foot, which should be about when the glove-side elbow gets as far as it can. Then start pulling the elbow back like you’re trying to elbow someone behind you in the gut. (Be careful not to just swing it around like you’re elbowing someone in the head.)
  5. As the glove-side elbow begins to pulls back, rotate the hips the hips, which will help pull the shoulders in. You should feel a stretch around the stomach area if the hips are leading the shoulders properly. By now the arm should have completed the circle and be in a position to come forward.
  6. Continue pulling with the body, bringing the arm forward with the elbow leading, at or slightly above shoulder height.
  7. Drive through, allow the wrist to snap (don’t “snap” it on purpose, just keep it relaxed and allow it to happen), allow the back leg to drag up naturally, and finish with the throwing-side shoulder facing the target. That shoulder should now be lower than the glove-side shoulder.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but those seven steps should give you a pretty good start. There’s lots of good information out on the Internet that can give you more details too, although it’s important to remember to keep it simple for your players.

Teaching it purposefully

Here comes the tough part. You need to make time to work on these mechanics during practice, and they’re probably going to take a lot more time than you realize. You also need to make sure your players understand how important it is, because in our “instant-everything’ age, with its seven second attention span, it will be easy for players to complain about being bored long before they’re executing anything that looks even close to what I’ve described above. But you have to keep after them.

Once your players have achieved at least a minimal level of confidence, it’s time to bring out the stopwatch. Tell them you want them to throw and catch from 40 feet or 60 feet (depending on their age) with no throw-aways and no drops for one minute. Then start the stopwatch, and call out the elapsed time or the time to go in 15 second increments.

Sounds easy, right? There’s no minimum number of throws and catches required, no time pressure. Just a limit on how long they have to do it.

Allow about a half hour minimum, especially if your team’s mechanics aren’t so hot at first. Just the fact that there is no room for error will create some problems. But any flaws in the throwing motion will be amplified under pressure, and pretty soon even your best players may be throwing balls that hit the dirt or go sailing over their partners’ head.

Calling out the time puts even more pressure on them – again, even though there are no minimums to hit. Knowing that only 15 seconds has gone by gets in their heads. So does knowing there are 30 or 15 seconds left, because they start thinking “don’t make a mistake” instead of focusing on their mechanics.

It can be frustrating. It can be maddening. But it will be worth it when you don’t have to hold your breath every time one of your players winds up to make a quick throw. With good mechanics the ball will go where it’s supposed to. When that happens on a regular basis, you make things easier on the defense, pitcher, and even the offense, and you’ll win a lot more games as a result.

Don’t be one of those coaches who skips over teaching throwing. Put emphasis on it, demand excellence, and it will pay off for you big time.

 

Fastpitch softball pitching: understanding the back side of the circle

In fastpitch pitching, the ball faces forward, not toward second base, at the top of the circle

I can’t believe we’re still having this discussion in 2018 (as I write this, for those of you finding it in the future as you ride along in your self-driving, flying cars) but it’s amazing to me how many players, parents, team coaches, and yes, even pitching coaches, don’t understand what the arm throwing arm should be doing on the back side of the circle. That’s the part where the ball goes from directly overhead to down and through release.

I see it when I’m walking through a facility or past a field where someone is giving a pitching lesson. I hear it from parents of my students telling me horror stories about their daughter’s first practice with the new team coach. I get emails from around the country about it.

The story is pretty much the same. Whoever is offering the “instruction” says the following: “At the top of the circle, point the ball toward second base, with your arm stretched high. Then push the ball face down through the back side of the circle, until you get to the bottom. Then snap your wrist and finish high, with your elbow pointed at the catcher.” That last part is often referred to as a “hello elbow.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. I could tell you all the technical reasons why it’s not a good idea – how it hurts speed and accuracy, how it works against the way our bodies are designed, and so forth. But probably the best reason not to do it is this: NO HIGH-PERFORMING PITCHER DOES THAT. Not even the ones who tell you to do it.

Why? Because it hurts speed and accuracy, works against the way our bodies are designed, etc. And ultimately limits your ability to do your very best.

No need to debate the point, however. Let’s just take a look at what a few very high-level, successful pitchers do when they pitch. Run the videos, then pause them at the top and see which way the ball is facing. Then take a look at what they do through the rest of the circle – bent elbow v. straight arm, whipping the ball through the zone from back to front, long, loose, natural release instead of a forced arm raise. HINT: Once the video is paused, you can step through it by pressing the “,” key to move backwards and the “.” to go forwards.

Yukiko Ueno

Amanda Scarborough

Monica Abbott

Kelly Barnhill

Sarah Pauly

I could point to more, but you get the point. Of course, if you want to see more, go to YouTube, search for a top pitcher and watch the video. You’ll find they do the same thing (more or less, depending on the pitch).

Now, I realize I’m running the risk of the Backfire Effect. Parents who are investing money in their kids being taught those poor mechanics, or pitching coaches who are making money teaching them, may decide to double down on their beliefs. No one likes to admit they’re wrong.

But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case in the videos.

If you’re a parent taking your daughter to pitching lessons, and you hear her being told to turn the ball toward second and push it face-down through the back of the circle, my advice to you is to politely stop the lesson, feign a family emergency, and run (not walk) away. Then find a pitching coach who teaches what you see in the videos above.

If you’re a pitching coach teaching that stuff, it’s time to refresh your knowledge so you can be sure you’re helping your students become the best they can be. Presumably, that’s what you’re in it for, so use the tools we have available today to find out what makes the best the best, and teach to that standard. It’s not easy changing what you’re doing – I’ve had to do it before – but it’s worth the effort.

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