Efficiency Is the Secret Sauce to Improving Performance
Everyone is always looking for that one magical drill, or technique, or exercise, or something else that will help them improve their level of performance in games.
Building strength is often where players and coaches turn when they don’t know what else to do. And yes, you can definitely drive some level of improvement through strength or speed and agility training. But often the results don’t match the expectations – or at least the hopes.
That’s because there’s another element to the whole process: efficiency, or the ability to improve output without increasing the level of input.
Take a look at these two illustrations. The first one shows a player whose mechanics are inefficient, such as a hitter who only uses her arms or a pitcher who pushes the ball through release with a forced wrist snap.
Let’s say she is working hard but not seeing the results. Increasing her input is only going to raise her performance slightly, because the rather flat relationship between input and output remains the same.
When you have high efficiency, however, as seen in this chart, the difference between input and output is much greater
Both players are putting in the same level of effort. But the second is getting much more out of it. In fact, while the first player’s performance is below the midline of the chart, the second player’s performance is already above it.
Which means if player one wants to reach the same level she is going to have to somehow double her input. Yet if player two only increases her input a little more, her output goes to the top of the chart.
Now, all of the objects and their placement here are arbitrary; they’re not based on a specific set of numbers but rather just an illustration of the principle. But the correlation is real.
It’s essentially a great example of the coaching phrase “Work smarter, not harder.”
When you are inefficient, increasing your effort (strength building, practice time, and so forth) even to a significant level often only results in a small, incremental improvement in overall performance. If you are highly efficient, however, the effect of putting in even a little extra effort is multiplied and you can make significant gains toward your performance goals.
Think of it this way: if you were running a 100 meter dash race with a prize of the latest, greatest smartphone would you rather be on the starting line with everyone else or 10 meters ahead of the pack? I know which one I’d choose.
Being more efficient through mechanics that are proven to be superior gives you that head start on the race to the top. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll stay there – you still have to keep working or the less efficient players could pass you eventually – but having a head start is definitely a significant advantage in anything where there’s competition for success.
That’s why it’s important for players, coaches, and parents to understand what efficient mechanics are for every skill – hitting, pitching, throwing, fielding, base running. There are plenty of great resources out there that can point the way, starting with where you are right now on Life in the Fastpitch Lane.
For pitchers you might want to also check out Rick Pauly’s Pauly Girl Fastpitch website as well as Keeley Byrnes’ Key Fundamentals Softball blog. The Discuss Fastpitch Forum is also a great resource for a wide variety of topics.
Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have some great content (along with a lot of not-so-great content so you need to be discerning about who and what you follow).
If you’re not sure if you’re using efficient mechanics right now, a great way to check is to watch high-level college and pro games to see what those players do, and compare it to what you (or your daughter/player) is being taught. If you don’t see the same things, you’re probably not learning efficient mechanics.
All you need is a smartphone and a TV and you can capture your own clips. Throw them in some sort of video analysis software and you are ready to spend hours upon hours going down the rabbit hole. But at least you’ll be informed.
The bottom line is working harder always works better when you work smarter too. Focus on improving your efficiency rather than just your input and you’ll see your output rise dramatically.
Light Bulb Moment: Athletic Efficiency
One of the concepts that can be tough for a young athlete (not to mention many adults) to understand is that stronger is not always better.
What I mean by that is that in their desire to throw harder, hit harder, run faster, etc. fastpitch softball players will often equate muscling up or tightening up with improved performance. They tend to take a brute force approach to their movements, assuming that if they work harder or produce more energy then they will ipso facto see better results.
Yet that isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes the attempt at creating more energy through brute force works in the opposite manner by locking up joints or slowing down movements which reduces the amount of that energy that can be transferred into the activity.
In other words, despite the increase in energy the overall usage of energy becomes less efficient.
The reality is there are two key elements to maximizing athletic performance in ballistic movements such as pitching, throwing, hitting, and running.
First you have to create energy. Then you have to transfer that energy.
The brute force approach may work with part one. But it often gets in the way of part two, which means much of the energy the player worked so hard to create is wasted.
Makes sense, right? But how do you explain that to a player without making it sound like a science class lecture – at which point your voice starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher?
The light bulb moment for me came when I was thinking about a light bulb I needed to replace during a lesson. Perhaps this will help you too.
Think about two types of light bulbs: the standard, traditional incandescent bulbs most of us grew up with (and that are now difficult to find) and LED bulbs.
If turn an old-school incandescent bulb on and leave it on for a few minutes, what happens to its surface? It gets hot. Very hot. As in don’t touch it or you will get burned.
That’s because while an incandescent bulb may be labeled 60 watts, not all of that wattage is going into creating light. In fact, much of it is being wasted in the form of heat.
Now think about an LED bulb. You can leave a 60 watt LED bulb on for an hour, then go over and put your hand on it without feeling much of anything. (DISCLAIMER: Don’t actually do that, just in case.)
The reason is that 60 watt LED bulb isn’t actually drawing 60 watts. That’s just a label the manufacturers use to help consumers know which bulb will give them the light level they’re used to.
In fact, that 60 watt equivalent bulb may be drawing as little as 8 actual watts to deliver the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent bulb. Since its purpose is to create light, not heat, the LED bulb is almost eight times as efficient as the incandescent bulb.
Now that’s apply that to softball. A pitcher who is nearly eight times as efficient in her mechanics as the next player will throw much harder with the same level of effort.
Conversely, she can perform at the same level as the other pitcher with almost no apparent effort at all. She is just much better at harnessing whatever level of energy she is creating and delivering it into the ball.
The same is true for hitters. Most of the time when you see a home run hit it doesn’t look like the hitter was trying to go yard. She just looks smooth as the ball “jumps” off her bat.
This is not to say strength isn’t important. It is.
Remember part one of the formula: you have to generate energy. Great training in mechanics along with intelligent sport-specific or even activity-specific training is critical to achieving higher levels of success.
But it’s not enough.
Understanding how the body moves naturally, and using those movements to take full advantage of the energy being created, will help players deliver higher levels of performance that enable them to achieve their goals and play to their greatest potential.
Hope this has been a light bulb moment for you. Have a great holiday, and take some time to relax. You’ve earned it.
Turning On A Light Bulb About Efficiency In Movement
Achieving efficiency in athletic movements is one of the most important principles in maximizing performance. Yet it’s also a concept that’s difficult to grasp, especially for younger players.
The drive to efficiency isn’t “fun.” It’s actually a lot of work, and usually starts with a lot more failure than success.
It also often requires breaking down a skill and working on a particular element until you get it right. Only when you can do it well is it inserted back into the overall skill.
Take pitching, for example. A pitcher may be over to throw the ball over the plate with decent speed, getting hitters out and winning MVP awards. A physically stronger pitcher may even be able to bring impressive speed naturally.
But until that pitcher develops a more efficient approach to how she throws the ball she will never find where her ceiling is.
While parents or coaches may understand that, players may not. Efficiency is kind of an abstract concept for them, especially these days when everyone is more focused on outcomes (Did we win? Did I perform well?) than development.
So, here’s a way of explaining explaining efficiency in terms they can understand.
Tell them to think about an LED light versus a traditional incandescent light bulb. (Depending on age, by the way, players may not know what “incandescent” means so you may need to reference an actual bulb at your home or somewhere else. Remember, they’re growing up in a world of compact florescents and LEDs.)
Let’s assume both lights are throwing out an equal amount of light into the room. Ask them what would it feel like if they walk up and touch the LED light. The correct answer, of course, is nothing. It’s like touching a table.
But what happens if they try to touch an old-fashioned light bulb? They’re going to get burned.
Then ask them if they know why one is hot and the other is not. It’s because 90% of the energy being consumed by the LED is being converted into light, while 10% is being lost as heat; the incandescent bulb is the opposite – 10% light, with 90% lost to heat.
In other words, the LED is very efficient because almost all of its power is being used for the purpose intended, while the traditional light bulb is very inefficient since most of its power is being wasted on something that is non-productive.
It’s the same with athletic skills. The more extraneous movements an athlete has, or the more things she does that get in the way of efficient movement, the less powerful she is. Even if she is trying as hard as she can.
But if she works on becoming efficient in the way she transfers the energy she has developed into the skill she is performing, she will maximize her power and effectiveness.
If you’re challenged with explaining the need to be efficient, give this analogy a try. Hopefully it turns into a light bulb moment for your player.
Helping Fastpitch Pitchers Feel Their Legs Working Together
One of the most common flaws with fastpitch pitchers is a tendency to reach out aggressively with their front leg instead of getting both legs involved. Essentially, the front leg is active and ends up pulling the rest of the body along.
The problem, however, isn’t just in the legs. It’s really that the center of the body – the center of gravity if you will – never gets driven off the pitcher’s plate, so when the pitcher lands her front leg (left leg on a right-handed pitcher) there isn’t a whole lot of momentum to stop.
In fact, you’ll see many of these pitchers wasting a lot of energy trying to drag that back leg forward instead of having it glide effortlessly. That lack of power from the right side often results in bad (forward posture), a tendency to want to over-use the throwing shoulder (the power has to come from somewhere) and a host of other problems.
You can tell players to keep their legs under them, and have them work together. But I find that’s more difficult for some than others. So I came up with a little drill for the former group, to help them learn to use their legs together instead of one at a time.
All you need is one of those workout rubber bands like the one in this photo that you can find at pretty much any sporting goods store. Or at your house in the pile of exercise equipment you bought with all good intentions of using but is now just gathering dust in a corner of the rec room or bedroom.
Of course, it will be way too big to be of much use, so double it up and then have the pitcher slide it up until it is about midway up her thighs. Then have her pitch.
What she’ll find, as Paige here did the first time she tried it, is if don’t use your “push” leg it gets yanked forward by the effort of your front leg anyway. (She’s better at it now.)
The goal is for the pitcher to be able to drive out with full force and energy while feeling like she’s gliding on her back leg, with her knee pretty close to being underneath her hip. When she lands, she should have a lot more energy going into her firm front side. Maybe so much she can’t quite contain it all at first.
But she should feel how much less effort it takes to get into a good, strong, upright position. And how easy it is for the pitching arm to whip through the zone because the whole body is working more as a unit instead of a collection of independent pieces.
Of course, the real test comes when she takes off the rubber band and tries it without the tactile aid. It may require a bit of rinse and repeat at first. But I’ve found it’s pretty effective helping those who tend to run away from the back leg to keep the legs working together.
So if you have a pitcher with this issue, give it a try and see if it helps. Either way, be sure to leave a comment down below!