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Drill for Learning the Riseball Spin

The riseball has been called the “scholarship pitch.” And for good reason.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t really break upward as it approaches the hitter (despite what you may have heard on TV) a well-thrown riseball often gives the illusion of doing so. It’s all about how our brains perceive the information they’re receiving – just as there are no dots in the grid below even though it appears there are.

This will drive you crazy for a little while.

The key to the riseball illusion is the backspin. The more you can achieve a 12-6 spin, i.e., the ball spinning from the bottom to the top as it approaches the hitter (versus a standard fastball or drop ball which spins from the top to the bottom) the better it works.

(Of course, being able to throw it 70 mph makes the direction of the spin less important, but that’s a story for another day.)

The challenge many pitchers face when they first start learning the riseball is that getting your hand into the proper position to throw it is not that easy. It’s a significant change, in fact, from the foundational mechanics most pitchers learn.

As I’ve posted many times, the best way to throw the fastball/drop ball is to keep the inside of the forearm facing toward first base with the fingers pointing down, then release it as the forearm and hand pronate inwards. But even if you’re a “hello elbow”-type pitcher, your fingers will be pointed down at release; you’re just doing it earlier than you should.

With a riseball, to achieve backspin you need to have your hand cupped under the ball, i.e., pointed toward third base. And you need to do that before getting to release so you’re not trying to bring the fingers up at the same time you’re trying to release the ball, which would create top-to-bottom, bullet/gyro or some other less-than-desirable spin.

Getting cupped under at the right time allows the ball to be released over the back thumb with a slicing motion. Yet getting to that position can be difficult as it is a different movement pattern than pitchers, especially younger ones, are used to.

Facing that issue myself, I came up with an idea to help pitchers feel the hand/wrist position better. You can see it here in the video.

Regular readers know I’m a fan of using walls, constraints and other things to create a more tactile experience for pitchers. You can say “get your hand under the ball” until you’re blue in the face, but if it’s not connecting you need to try something else.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. After a couple of minutes of slowly tracing the fingers on the wall, we went back to spinning an actual ball.

And whaddya know? It worked!

It wasn’t perfect every time, but whereas before she was getting top spin or bullet spin now she was starting to achieve backspin more often than not. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.

So if your pitcher is having trouble getting the hang of spinning the ball backwards give this a try. Hopefully you can get a breakthrough as well.

Helping young fastpitch pitchers learn to focus

Throwing to a target helps ratchet up the focus.

One of the fun but challenging aspects of working with very young fastpitch softball players (under about 10 years old) is getting them to focus for any length of time. There are usually lots of things going on in their heads at any given time, and the slightest activity anywhere else can distract them in a major way.

That can be a problem at any position. But it gets even more noticeable with pitchers. As a fastpitch pitcher you have to be able to dial in to the strike zone. Visualizing the pitch location before you throw it is helpful for improving accuracy. That’s tough to do, however, when the three ring circus is playing in your head.

This is where playing to the player’s competitive nature can be a real asset. Giving her something specific to do, with a prize attached, can help drive that focus level right up.

I actually stole this idea from Cindy Bristow at Softball Excellence. It came in one of her newsletters, which are a great source for drills and games.

Set up a tee on the plate, and place a ball on top of it. Then challenge the pitcher to knock the ball off the tee with a pitch. You’ll be amazed at how quickly she gets dialed in.

That’s what we did here with Kaitlyn, the girl in the accompanying video. She was having a bit of trouble focusing on this day, so I set up the tee and put a 14 inch ball on top of it. It probably would’ve been more fair to use a basketball or soccer ball, but I decided to challenge her.

In the beginning, I offered her a sucker if she knocked it off. Her mom immediately upped the ante and offered her a milkshake on the way home if she succeeded. We then spent the last 10 minutes of that lesson with her pitching balls at the tee. The rule was she had to hit it directly – no fair bouncing the ball into the tee so it falls off. Also she had to use good mechanics, not just aim the ball at the target any old way.

That first night she came close a bunch of times but didn’t quite get it. The following week her mom told me Kaitlyn was in a foul mood on the way home. She really wanted that milkshake.

The video is from that next lesson. We gave her 15 minutes this time. Kaitlyn ratcheted up the focus, and was right around it for much of that time. Thinking she needed a little extra help to succeed, I had her little sister stand directly behind the tee on the other side of the net. A few more throws and Bingo! Success!

Of course as Han Solo says, good against a remote is one thing. Good against the living is something else.

Today I heard Kaitlyn earned a game ball for her pitching. Two scoreless innings with a couple of strikeouts.

I wouldn’t say it was all in the drill. She put in a lot of hard work throughout the off-season. But I will say it helped.

If you have a pitcher who could use a little help zoning in during practice give this drill a try.

Getting the feel of the push off in fastpitch pitching

Leaping drill starting position - fastpitch pitching

Getting a strong push-off is essential to maximizing speed for fastpitch pitchers. You need to develop a lot of forward momentum so that when your front foot comes down the stop is very sudden, which helps accelerate or sling the lower arm through the release zone.

Unfortunately, young pitchers often have trouble getting the timing down to create an early push. Instead, they will kick the stride leg forward while just sitting on the drive leg, and then try to push at the end, which is too late.

I’ve had pitchers skip before, because that mimics the sequence, i.e., push off first then reach with the leg. It works for some but not others. So if you or someone you know is still having trouble getting the feel, here’s something to try.

Place an obstacle out in front of her, very low to the ground like the swim noodle Alyssa’s father Tony is holding here. Then have the pitcher jump over it, using a normal forward jumping motion rather than thinking about pitching.

When she does it, ask her what she feels. If she isn’t sure, have her do it again. What she should feel is the drive leg pushing first, then the stride leg reaching out. If she does it correctly you’ll see it, as shown in the photos here.

Yes, this motion would be illegal for a pitch – big time illegal – but that’s not what you’re going for right now. Because if she could get the push legally you wouldn’t be doing this drill.

You just want her to feel the push first. After she does it a few times, have her go back and now try to copy that feeling with an actual pitching motion. If she’s gained the feel, and is driving her body forward first, the back foot should pretty much take care of itself.

So far, every pitcher I’ve tried this with has made an immediate improvement in her drive mechanics. I’m not quite ready to pronounce it foolproof yet, but it’s looking good.

If you’re facing this issue give it a try, and let me know in the comments how it works out. And if you’ve done this before, share your experience and whether it worked for you too.

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