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
Here’s a quick experiment for you to try at home (or wherever you’re reading this blog). Try to move your arm away from the rest of your body. Pretty easy, right?
Now try a leg. Either one will do. Again, pretty easy.
Now do your head. If you go forward you can get it out there pretty far, and even side-to-side or backwards will work if you’re more flexible than I am.
Ok, here comes the key part: try moving your hips away. Aha! You can maybe get them out a couple of inches but that’s about it.
So basically, if your hips move away the rest of the body has to go with it.
This is a key concept for any fastpitch softball player to understand, but especially for pitchers. Many pitchers, when they are trying to get leg drive, will just run their stride leg past their drive leg and kick it forward. The result is that the stride leg pulls them off the pitching rubber – which is like trying to drag a wagon full of concrete behind you.
That’s because a lot of your weight (some of us more than others) and strength is carried in the hip area, which includes the lower torso. If it is stationary (more or less) it’s going to take a lot of effort to get it in motion so it can contribute to the pitch.
If the hips are already moving smartly forward as the pitcher drives out, however, instead of holding her back they add to the power. The difference (or delta as they like to say in the business world) can be huge.
The challenge is when pitchers think about moving forward, they tend to focus on their stride leg and where it lands. This leads to them doing more of a kicking motion instead of focusing their attention on where it should be – on the hips.
One way to help them get the feel of moving the hips forward (and how much effort it takes) is to have them do a standing broad jump. That is all about getting the hips and torso to fly forward.
Another way is to have them stand on one leg and then hop a short distance to the other. this can be front-to-back or side-to-side.
I say a short distance because as soon as you say long distance they’re going to go right back to reach out with the leg/foot instead of moving the middle.
A harness around their hips tied to a bungy cord or surgical tube will give them that feeling. Have them put the connector in the front, stretch the tube out as much as they can, then go through their pitching motion, letting the tube pull them forward.
You can also get behind them, place your hand on their lower back and give them a small push as they get read to go out. Just be careful that it’s a small push. You don’t want to push a pitcher who’s having trouble moving down to the ground (as I once did).
Ultimately, though, the best thing to do is get them to figure out how to get their hips moving forward to become part of the drive without all the artificial helpers.
As they start to get the feel of moving the hips properly, have them start pitching from a short distance into a net or screen. Keep them there until they can do it without thinking. then slowly move them back a few feet at a time and ensure they can maintain that hip-centered approach.
Only move to the next distance when they appear to have mastered the previous one. If they go back to being leg-oriented when they move back, move up to the previous position again. Repeat until they can throw properly at a full distance.
Incidentally, what I have found is that this is very easy and natural for some and very difficult and alien for others. I have no idea why, because it comes naturally to me.
What I do know, however, is that it is essential to maximize speed. The more momentum you can crash into a firm front leg the more the arm whip will be accelerated, creating more energy to transfer into the ball. A pitcher who is being held back by her hips will struggle to attain her very best speed.
The best way to check this is using video, either on a dedicated camera or your phone set to a high speed (60 frames per second or more). The naked eye can be easily fooled, especially if the pitcher is doing whatever she does quickly.
But with video, you can see if the hips are passing quickly over the pitching rubber on their way forward or whether they hover over it as the arms and legs move forward. (The first one is correct.)
Once you can see what’s going on you can work to correct it. It probably won’t be easy, but the results will be worth it.