For the Love of Gaia, Please Stop Teaching Screwballs to 10 Year Olds
There is a phenomenon I’ve noticed lately in my area and seemingly is happening across the country as I speak with other pitching instructors.
When I start lessons with a new pitcher I will ask her what pitches she throws. For pitchers under the age of 14 my expectation is fastball, change, and maybe a drop ball.
These days, however, I have been shocked at how many, even the 10 year olds, will include a “screwball” in their list of pitches. Especially when I then watch them pitch and they struggle to throw their basic fastball with any velocity or semblance of accuracy.
Who in the world thinks teaching a screwball to a 10 year old (or a 12 or 13 year old for that matter) is a good idea? Particularly the screwball that requires the pitcher to contort her arm and wrist outward in a twisting motion that includes the “hitchhiker” finish?
There is simply no good reason to be doing that. For one thing, most kids at that age have rather weak proprioception (body awareness of self movement), which means they often struggle to lock in a single movement pattern.
So, since the way you throw a screwball is in direct opposition to the way you throw a fastball (especially with internal rotation mechanics but it’s even true of hello elbow pitchers) why would you introduce a way of throwing that will interfere with development of core mechanics? Pitchers who are trying to learn both will be splitting their time between two opposing movements, pretty much ensuring they will master neither.
Then coaches and parents wonder why the poor kid can’t throw two strikes in a row in a game.
Just as important is the health and safety aspect of twisting your forearm and elbow against the way they’re designed to work. As my friend and fellow pitching coach Keeley Byrnes of Key Fundamentals points out, “Boys at that age are cautioned against throwing curve balls with a twisting action because of the stress it places on their elbow joints. Why would you encourage a softball pitcher to do the same thing?”
Keeley also points out that most 10 year olds don’t hit very well anyway, so developing a screwball at that age is unnecessary. You can get many hitters out by throwing a fastball over the plate with decent velocity (which means it’s not arcing in).
Tony Riello, a pitching coach, trainer, and licensed doctor of chiropractic, is also concerned about the effect throwing the twisty screwball can have on other body parts. He says, “To be that spread out left to then force the arm and shoulder right seems not healthy for either the back or the shoulder,” he says.
Then there’s the fact that in 99% of the cases a screwball isn’t really a screwball. It’s just a fastball that runs in on a hitter.
Why do I say that? Because if you look at the spin on 99% of so-called screwballs, especially among 10 year olds but even at the collegiate level, they don’t have the type of spin that would make them break. They have “bullet” spin, i.e., their axis of spin is facing the same direction as the direction of travel.
For a screwball to actually be a screwball the axis of spin would need to be on top of the ball, with spin direction going toward the throwing hand side. Just as a curve spins away from the throwing hand side.
So if you’re throwing a pitch that isn’t going to break anyway, why not just learn to throw an inside fastball instead? If you want it to run in a little more, stride out more to the glove side then let it run itself back in.
But again, you’re now giving that young pitcher who’s just trying to learn to throw the ball over the plate two different mechanics (stride straight, stride out) to use, which means she’s probably going to be half as effective on either one.
Oh, and that hitchhiker move that’s supposedly the “key” to the screwball and places all the stress on the elbow? It happens well after the ball is out of the pitcher’s hand, so it has no impact on the spin of the pitch whatsoever. Zero. None. Nada.
Finally, and perhaps most important, once a young pitcher can throw with decent velocity and locate her pitches (or at least throw 70% strikes) there are simply better pitches for her to learn first.
After the basic fastball, in my opinion (and in the opinion of most quality pitching coaches), the second pitch that should be learned is a changeup that can be thrown with the same arm and body speed as the fastball but resulting in a 10-15 mph speed differential. Throwing both the fastball and change at the right speeds for 70% strikes should be enough to keep the typical 10- or 12-year old pitcher busy for a while.
Next you would want to add a drop ball. The mechanics of a properly taught drop ball are very similar to the fastball. In fact, I like to say they are fraternal twins.
Making a ball drop at the right spot, especially given so many young hitters’ desire to stand up as they swing, will get you a lot more outs, either as strikeouts or groundouts. A good drop ball will still translate into more groundouts as you get older too – just ask Cat Osterman.
From there it’s a little less certain. You can go either rise ball or curve ball. I usually make the decision based on the pitcher’s tendencies.
A well-thrown rise ball is still an extremely effective pitch, even though it doesn’t actually break up. And a well-thrown curve will actually break either off the plate (traditional curve) or back onto it (backdoor curve). Either way it moves – unlike the screwball which mostly travels on the same line.
I would save the screwball for last – unless you happen to play in an area where slappers are predominant in the lineup. Which in the era of $500 bats and quality, year-round hitting instruction is about as scarce as screwballs that actually change direction.
There are simply better pitches to learn. And if you do work on a screwball, there are better ways to learn it than trying to twist your wrist and forearm off in a contorted move that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.
The bottom line is that, for the love of Gaia, there is no good reason to be teaching a screwball to a 10 year old – or any pitcher who hasn’t mastered her fastball and changeup first. Let’s make sure we’re giving our young pitchers the actual tools they need to succeed – and avoid those that can lead to injury and perhaps a career cut short.
The Challenge of Making Changes
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” This quote, generally attributed to car magnate Henry Ford, explains in a nutshell why fastpitch players, parents and coaches should constantly be seeking new information and new techniques. After all, who doesn’t want to get better?
What’s hidden underneath the surface, however, is a fairly large obstacle: change is (or at least can be) difficult. Which means even if you’re making the right changes for the right reasons it doesn’t always work right away.
How many times have you watched a pitcher attempt to improve her mechanics and seen her speed go down a little instead of up? How many times have you watched a hitter take her swing from looking like an unmade bed to a well-organized attack and yet she suddenly struggles to hit the ball as hard as she did?
At that point its tempting to wonder if you’re actually helping her, or if she is helping herself. Why is she losing ground instead of gaining it?
To answer that question I have a little challenge for you. If you are over the age of 5 I presume you know how to use a fork and a spoon competently enough to feed yourself without making a mess. You can probably do so fairly quickly, without thinking about it.
Now try switching hands and doing the same. In other words, if you normally eat with your right hand, try eating with your left. (For extra challenge, try it with chopsticks, especially if you are not native to them.)
Suddenly, something you do every day without even thinking about it becomes more awkward and difficult. You have to think about how to scoop/stab the food to keep it on the spoon/fork/chopsticks, the angle of the utensil as it approaches your mouth, keeping the utensil steady as you get close to your mouth and a few other things you probably haven’t considered since you were a toddler.
And if you go long enough, or try to go too fast, you will probably find some of that food dribbling down your chin or dropping into your lap. You will probably also take longer than if you had used your usual hand.
It’s not that you don’t know how to eat. It’s that you’re doing it in a way that is unfamiliar.
That is the same experience athletes typically have when they are trying to make changes or learn something new. The technique they were using previously may not have been ideal, but they were comfortable with it and could execute it quickly and without thinking.
Now, as they try something unfamiliar, those same movements feel awkward and uncomfortable. They actually have to think about what they’re doing, and that slows the entire process.
So rather than quick, energy-driven, ballistic body movements they’re making movements that are labored – slowed by the conscious thought of trying to do what they’re now supposed to do.
So what’s the solution? Time. You know, that thing that all of us try to rush through to get to the great results.
Essentially what has to happen is the new movements have to be able to be performed with the same comfort level as the old ones to see the gains. That doesn’t usually happen right away, even with elite athletes.
Instead, it takes conscious work and effort to learn the new movements properly and build the confidence required to execute them with 100% energy.
The best way to do that is start slowly and work from short distances, preferably into a net, wall or other large surface. Get the feel of the new movements, then gradually increase the speed.
The coach or athlete should use video to check her movements and be sure she is not falling back into old habits as speed increases. If she is falling into old habits, slow it back down, get it right, then try increasing the speed again.
Once she is comfortable at a good speed, start moving toward a more game-like experience. For pitchers (and overhand throwing), that’s increasing the distance to see if the quick movements can be maintained.
For hitters, it’s moving off the tee into front toss – easy at first, then gradually increasing the speed. If you have access to a pitching machine and can feed it competently, you can use that as another step before having the hitter face a live pitcher.
This gradual, stepped progression will give the athlete an opportunity to replace old habits with new in a way that allows her to focus on the process, not the outcomes. By the time outcomes come into play she should be able to execute the skill with full energy and attack – at which point you will see the gains you’re looking for.
It’s not easy to do this. Most athletes just want to do the full skill rather than step through progressions, at least a first. But it’s worth it in the long run.
If you have an athlete who is working to make changes but not seeing the benefits yet, be patient and trust the process. If she’s working on the right changes, and working diligently, it will happen.
In the meantime, grab that carton of chow mein and try eating it with the opposite hand. It will give you a greater appreciation of just how difficult it can be to do something old in a new way.
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com
Great Time to Hit the Reset Button
The summer is a distant memory. Especially for those of us who got snow on Halloween! Can you believe that? Sticking-to-the-ground-over-your-ankles snow on Halloween.
Fall ball is either behind us already as well, or there is one more weekend to go. Then there’s a lull before it all starts again.
It’s definitely a great time of the softball year to take some time off. Rest and recovery is a good thing, and now that we have joined the indoor sports in playing practically year-round it’s tough to find a few weeks you can string together to let your body (and mind) heal from the grind.
For some, however, this might be a great time for something else – i.e., hitting the reset button and either correcting major flaws or making major upgrades in mechanics and approach.
There is never a bad time to work on improving yourself and your game. But making major changes carries some risks when you’re also expected to play at your most effective level during the week or on the weekend.
Let’s take pitchers for example. To achieve all she’s capable of, a pitcher may need to work on her posture, or her leg drive, or her ability to whip the ball through the release zone. But it can be difficult to work on those things if doing so causes her to be wilder than when she sticks with her old habits.
Most coaches would rather have their pitcher bend forward and throw consistent strikes than work on staying upright and throwing too high, or too low, or too wide. Especially if that pitcher is their #1. That’s just the nature of things, and it’s very understandable.
Still, every pitch the pitcher throws bent forward so she can throw a strike is another step in the wrong long-term direction. And it will take her that much longer to get to where she needs to be to reach her potential.
It’s the same for hitters. Working on developing a better swing that will make a hitter more effective at higher levels doesn’t always yield great results at first. Anything that’s different is uncomfortable at first, and hitting is so dependent on quick reactions that walking the line between the old and new swings may throw the hitter off entirely.
Again, most coaches will take a good hit with an ugly swing over strikeout or weak ground ball or pop-up with a good swing. They’re not interested in how many home runs that hitter will hit in two years with her new and improved swing. They’re focused on getting her on base, or scoring that runner on third, now. Can’t say I blame them. I would be too.
Once upon a time there were three distinct parts to the season. There was the off-season, which lasted a few months, then the pre-season for a month or two, then the actual season.
That’s not the case anymore. Fall ball has gone from being a time of once-a-week practices and a game here or there to almost the equivalent of the summer season. Some of the tournaments in the fall are arguably more important than many in the summer for those who play in college, because college coaches are in attendance in droves. You don’t want to look bad in front of a gaggle of college coaches.
So right now, from the beginning of November to the end of December, is about the only time for players to make major changes in a safe environment. Pitchers can work on improving their drive mechanics, or their posture, or other core fundamentals without having to worry about the results of the pitch.
They can throw the ball all over the place for now, as long as they do it with the correct mechanics. It’s a form of failing up. Not to be confused with the version where someone sucks without trying to get better but gets rewarded anyway. As they replace old habits with new ones the control will come back – and be better than ever.
Hitters can work on developing their swings without having to worry about the consequences. As they move from conscious competence (having to think about how to move correctly) to unconscious competence (not thinking about what they’re doing but doing it right anyway) they can shift 100% of their focus to seeing the ball and hitting it hard. Suddenly all those cage pop-ups and ground balls start turning into rising line drives that smack off the back of the cage – and rebound back at the hitter if there is a solid wall behind the far end.
Everyone can work on their throwing mechanics – still one of the most under-taught parts of the game. Instead of measuring success by “the ball got to where they were throwing” fielders can develop mechanics that will help them throw harder and faster while protecting their arms and shoulders from injuries.
Most times of the year the pressure to perform in games out-ranks the desire to make improvements. Not right now.
For those who know they need to make major changes, this is the ideal time. Get to work, either on your own or with a qualified instructor, so by the time you start up again you’re ready to play (and show) better than ever.
And if you’re not in need of major rework, enjoy your time off. You’ve earned it.
The Three Little Pigs and Softball Pitching
Once upon a time there were three little pigs who wanted to become fastpitch softball pitchers.
“We should find someone to teach us how,” said one of the pigs to the others. “Because fastpitch pitching is a tough skill to learn, and a good coach can help us learn faster.”
The others agreed, but they all went about it differently.
The first little pig said, “Lessons are lessons, right? As long as I’m taking lessons from someone I should be fine. No need to look into it any further than that.”
So she went to a coach who didn’t keep up with the state of the art in softball pitching. She was taught to turn the ball toward second base at the top of the circle and push the ball down the back side of the circle. She was taught to point her elbow at the catcher when she was done, and slam the door. But as long as she didn’t play very good teams she managed to get by.
The second little pig said, “I know some mechanics are better than others, but the only coach around who teaches good mechanics is 45 minutes away. That’s too inconvenient for me. So I’ll just find someone closer. Certainly any lessons are better than none.”
So the second pig also learned to push the ball down the circle, point her elbow and slam the door. She realized it wasn’t what the high-level pitchers she saw on TV do, but it was a lot easier to get to those lessons than to the better coach so she decided to take the easy way.
The third little pig was also aware of what good mechanics are, and knew they were the key to becoming a high-level performer. So she looked and looked until she could find a coach who could teach her that way. And that’s who she went to.
It took up more time, and her coach insisted she practice regularly to learn exactly what he was teaching. The other two pigs laughed and laughed at the third one. They laughed because of how much extra time it took her to get to and from lessons, and how she didn’t do wrist flips as her first warm-up. They laughed because what she was learning was different.
While the third little pig was practicing her mechanics, the other two were busy doing other things, like playing on their phones or hanging out at the mall.
“As long as we can throw strikes, that’s all we really need to do,” they said. “We can already do that, so no need for the extra practice time.”
Then one day their team had a game scheduled against the Big Bad Wolves. The coach put the first little pig in to pitch, because she never walked anyone. “We can’t defend a walk,” she constantly reminded her team.
But the first little pig got rocked, because pushing fastballs down the middle against a team that can hit bombs like the Big Bad Wolves is a recipe for disaster.
So then he put in the second little pig. She had done well last week when they played the Little Chickadees so she should do well now. But she didn’t. The Big Bad Wolves feasted on the meatballs she was serving.
Finally, the coach turned the third little pig. “See if you can get us out of this jam.” she said.
So the third little pig went into the circle, and all her hard work paid off. She was able to relax and bring the heat, because her mechanics worked the way her body was designed to work. All the time she spent learning good mechanics, and in the car going to the coach who taught them, paid off.
She set down the Big Bad Wolves 1-2-3, and dominated from that point until the end of the game. Had they not given away so many runs in the beginning they might have even won! But they didn’t.
The morale of the story is that there is a difference in pitching mechanics. If you want to excel, just taking any old lessons won’t do it. Rather than settling for what’s easy or convenient, go where you’ll get the best value for your investment in time and money.