I am going to admit right up-front that I have always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with radar guns/units for pitchers.
At first it wasn’t too bad. I bought a Glove Radar and attached it to my catcher’s glove to check my own daughter’s speed. It was fine for that purpose, especially since we weren’t really caught up in the absolute number but rather just looking to see whether she was making progress.
Once I started teaching pitching lessons and was no longer catching, I purchased a series of other units, including an early Bushnell (which I ultimately gave away) a Jugs Gun (an earlier model than the one in the link, which I still own) and then all the iterations of the Pocket Radar.
I tended not to use the radar units much, however, because of one simple phenomenon. Whenever I would pull out the unit, no matter which one it was, the pitcher would tighten up and start throwing visibly slower than she had before.
Inevitably the readings were disappointing and what had started out as an energetic lesson would kind of fall into a sort of funk. Consequently, while I had all this technology at my disposal I didn’t really take advantage of it.
That changed after I took the High Performance Pitching certification courses from Paulygirl Fastpitch and had a chance to observe how Rick Pauly was doing it. He had a radar unit permanently set up in the cage he uses for lessons, with a big readout the pitcher could see after every pitch.
As you would watch him teach lessons in the course, the speed was always there in the background. As a result, it no longer became a “thing” to be trotted out. It was just part of the background, like the net or the posters he has hung up.
That brought me to my epiphany. If every pitch is measured, the pitcher just might learn to get over her fear of being measured.
Of course, one of the differences between my situation and Rick’s is that all his students come to him at a single location, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, while I work out of at least three different facilities on a regular basis, plus some other locations when I am working with several pitchers on a team. I am a softball gypsy.
So I started thinking how I could duplicate that experience when it hit me. I have a Pocket Radar Smart Coach unit. I could mount it to a tripod, place it behind the catcher, and pull up the readings on my iPhone.
Good idea in theory, except it became a problem when I wanted to video a student to point out something to work on. Luckily technology again came to the rescue and in a better way.
I still set up the Smart Coach on the tripod in Continuous mode. But then I connect it via Bluetooth to my iPad, which sits on the floor, off to the side, in front of the pitcher. Every pitch gets registered in big numbers that we both can see, and my phone remains free for video.
From a logistic standpoint, this setup has worked out well. I also quickly discovered that an evening’s worth of lessons will drain the batteries pretty quickly. But luckily the Smart Coach has a port that lets you connect a power block to it.
The power block I have lasts for several hours. When I get home I recharge it and it’s ready for the next evening’s lessons.
The big question, of course, would be the effect it had on the students. Would they tense up and freak out over having every pitch measured?
Not at all. In fact, the opposite has happened. I find that the big, red numbers inspire them to work harder to increase their speed.
There’s no slacking off in a lesson, because it becomes obvious. The numbers don’t lie. And they all want to do a little better than they did before, so they keep working at it.
But rather than tensing up they kind of find their own way to relaxing and throwing better.
Since I’ve started using it, I think every pitcher who has done it has achieved at least one person best if not more. By personal best I mean her highest reading on my set-up.
It also gives me a way to push them that’s fun for them. If a girl throws 51, I’ll ask her to throw 52. It’s just one mph more, but stack up enough of those and you get a nice speed increase.
The setup I use isn’t perfect. Pocket Radar says the unit works best when it’s a few feet away and directly behind the catcher/in line with the pitch. The cages I use don’t allow for that type of setup; I usually have to put it a foot or two to the side of the catcher, sometimes right behind him or her.
No matter, however. The objective isn’t to get an absolute speed measurement. It’s to track (and encourage) progress.
Having a pitcher improve speed during a drill, or work to get to a new high speed from the pitching plate, gets us where we want to go. We can always get the more accurate measurement when we can set it up properly.
So if your experience has been like mine, where bringing out the radar unit becomes a momentum killer, try making it “part of the furniture” instead. You will probably like what you discover.
One of the common flaws you will see even in otherwise strong pitchers is a tendency to stick their butts out toward first base (right handed pitcher) or third base (left handed pitcher) after they land. I call it monkey butt, since that’s how many primates “present,” while Rick Pauly calls it the “ninja” position.
No matter what you call it, what you end up with is a posture issue where the shoulders are not stacked up on top of the hips. Instead, the hips are cleared out of the way so the arm can come through the release zone unimpeded rather than making brush contact.
You can tell pitchers they need to stay stacked, hips under shoulders, but they can’t always feel what that means. In other words, they don’t realize they are sticking their butts back; that makes it pretty tough to correct.
One description I’ve heard of how to encourage them to keep the hips under the shoulder is to imagine cracking a walnut between the butt cheeks. If you do that, you will tend to bring the hips/butt in rather than sticking it out.
The problem with that is younger pitchers in particular may not have much experience cracking a walnut with their hands. So while they may nod and say ok, they may not quite be able to understand what you actually want them to do or how much pressure they need to apply.
The other night, however, I found a good cue that not only relates to a fairly common human experience; it also has the benefit of being one of those funny things you don’t ordinarily talk about, especially in a pitching lesson. It feels like you’re conspiring on a secret.
What I told a couple of pitchers with this issue was “Imagine you have a little gas getting ready to come out, but you don’t want to let it out. As you land, do what you need to do to hold it in.”
The pitchers immediately got the concept, and went from monkey butt to upright posture immediately.
I won’t say it’s a miracle cure. After a while they would get back into monkey butt position again. But by saying “hold the gas in” they’d immediately get back to better posture. I expect as they gain more experience they will learn to get the right position automatically – just like anything else.
If you have a pitcher who just can’t seem to avoid pushing her hips/butt back, give this cue a try. You may get some strange looks at first, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the results you’re looking for quickly.
As anyone who has gone through the process knows, selecting a pitching coach is a bit like entering the Wild West. There are all these conflicting ideas out there, covered in articles, social media posts, YouTube videos and the like.
Some are good, some are great, and some, quite frankly, are downright dangerous to the pitcher’s health. But how does a parent who wants to do right by his/her daughter, or a coach who wants to give his team’s pitchers their best chance of succeeding, sift through all the muck to find the diamonds in teaching?
A new online education program called High Performance Pitching was introduced over the holidays to address this glaring need. It offers detailed instruction from Rick Pauly of Paulygirl Fastpitch, along with demonstrations of certain drills by his daughter and 8-time NPF All-Pro Sarah Pauly, that explains the mechanics used by every elite pitcher in the game today and how to achieve them, step-by-step.
High Performance Pitching is structured to serve several needs. For those who know little or nothing but want to learn the best way to pitch a softball in fastpitch, there is the Beginner level program. It offers three courses (one free, plus two others for $29.95 each) that cover the basic mechanics and key checkpoints to look for.
All courses are video-based so you can see each piece in action. It’s ideal for the parent whose daughter thinks she may want to pitch, a team coach who wants to help his/her pitchers get started, or anyone who is interested in finding a pitching coach and wants to know what to look for in what the coach teaches.
There is also an Intermediate program that gets far more in-depth into the mechanics of pitching. It consists of 12 courses, each roughly an hour long, that break down various aspects of basic mechanics and offer drills. It is designed both for pitching coaches who are interested in learning the mechanics of high-level pitching as well as anyone who is looking for help in a specific area.
To participate in the certification program you must first complete a background check and pass an online course about preventing sexual abuse. You must then sign and return the Standards of Instruction Affirmation and Code of Ethics for Coaches documents.
One of the best parts is there are also videos that show Rick Pauly working on these principles with different students. You get to be the proverbial fly on the wall as Rick works with a pitcher. That means you can see the individual repetition failures as well as the successes and how Rick approaches corrections.
In fact, for many pitching coaches these “live” sessions may be the best part as it enables you to see how a very successful pitching coach works. All too often we are stuck in our bubbles, with just our own approach to go by. These videos provide a unique and valuable perspective.
At the end of each course there is also a quiz to test your knowledge. If you are going for High Performance Pitching certification you must take and pass these tests. If you are not, or you are just cherry-picking certain videos, the quiz is optional.
You must also complete a personal interview with Rick or Sarah, either in-person or online, before you can be certified.
Finally, there is the Elite program which focuses more on advanced movement pitches, increasing speed, changing speeds, improving location of pitching and other topics. You must first take and pass the Intermediate certification program as a prerequisite to taking the Elite certification program.
(Full disclosure: I have completed both and am now Elite-level certified.)
The Elite program includes 10 courses, again each of them running roughly an hour. To achieve certification you must again take all the courses and pass all the quizzes. I believe you also have the ability to cherry-pick certain courses if you don’t want to follow the entire program.
In all, to become Elite level certified you will complete 22 courses, 150 lessons and 22 quizzes. It is all self-paced so you can do it when you have time.
For the Intermediate and Elite levels there is a $200 registration fee. You must then pay $29.95 for each of the individual courses. It is definitely an investment of money as well as time.
But is it worth that level of investment? Absolutely. I’ve been teaching pitchers for 20 years using the same approach yet I learned some nuances and concepts that will affect the way I teach going forward.
For someone who was brought up in the “hello elbow, paint your way through the release zone, slam the door” school (including former pitchers) it will be even more valuable because you will learn a way of teaching that produces better results for your students while keeping their shoulders, arms, knees and other body parts safer.
The goal of High Performance Pitching is to revolutionize the way fastpitch pitching is taught. In speaking with Rick, his main concern is all the harm that is being done to pitchers through poor instruction.
He wants to inform and educate parents and coaches, and offer an accessible, definitive resource that makes it easier to develop high quality, healthy fastpitch pitchers.
If you are involved in pitching in any way, at any level, it’s worth checking out.
And if you are a parent seeking a certified coach who follows the High Performance Pitching principles, be sure to check out the Certified Coach Locator. It lets you know who in your area you can turn to for high-level instruction.
One of the most common problems I see when trying to teach fastpitch pitchers to learn to whip the arm through the release zone is overcoming the urge to aim.
They’ll be doing a good job of bending at the elbow and letting the upper arm lead through the back of the circle (rather than pushing the ball down with their hands). But then, right before they get to that critical moment where the upper arm slows down naturally and the lower arm passes it to create the whipping action, they will instead let the ball get ahead too early and defeat the whip.
I’m pretty convinced the reason they do this is they’re trying to make sure they throw a strike. So what do they do? They tighten up and try to direct the ball at the plate rather than allowing the arm to finish its natural motion.
Not only is this a speed killer, it actually works against their original goal of throwing a strike. If you stay relaxed and let the joints in the shoulder and arm do their job, it’s actually fairly easy to throw a strike.
As long as you direct the momentum that’s been built up toward the plate, the ball will go there. Like I often say, the ball doesn’t care where it goes, so it will go anywhere you tell it to go.
But when you tighten up before the whip can happen, now you’re pushing the ball through the release zone. Momentum is no longer helping you, so it’s very easy for the arm to get off-course and send the ball in the wrong direction. If you’re off even just a few degrees from where you want to go, or you twist your hand funny, suddenly the ball is not going where you want it to.
For pitchers with this issue, a pattern usually develops. Say she throws low and way inside on the first pitch. On the next one, she will try to correct and direct the ball toward the outside, often going high and well out. Then you’re on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, with balls careening all over the place.
So while the goal was to “just throw strikes” (a phrase I really dislike, by the way), instead control becomes more difficult than ever.
Making the fix
How do you overcome this tendency? First, the pitcher has to understand that strikes are a result, not a goal. Consciously focusing on the far end rather than herself is the wrong thing to do.
With that in mind, have her move up close and just work on the finishing action to get the feel of the whip. As Rick Pauly says, if you can’t hit the target from close up you won’t hit it from far away. A good place to start that motion is with the ball about shoulder high, with the palm facing up.
One of the things the pitcher should focus on is feeling her upper arm pull all the way into her ribcage, with the ball trailing behind the whole way. If needed, you can even isolate that motion, i.e., eliminate the actual throw until she gets the feel of the upper arm leading.
Once she has that down, have her continue through and throw. The goal is to feel relaxed and let it happen naturally. Check to be sure she isn’t trying to throw the ball too early. There should be a definite pendulum (or two-piece) movement rather than the whole arm coming through at once.
As the pitcher gets the feel of it from that starting point, work your way back, first starting at 12:00 and then making a full arm circle, but still without a full windup or much leg drive. Only when she can execute the full circle and get the whip should she be allowed to pitch from a windup position.
The catcher dilemma
One other thing you may need to do is have the pitcher throw into a screen or net rather than to a catcher. The reason is psychological.
If there is a catcher there, the pitcher will focus on throwing the ball to her rather than on what her arm is doing. Double that if the catcher is Dad or Mom. That defeats the purpose of what you’re trying to do. So if the pitcher isn’t willing to make mistakes when there’s a catcher involved, remove the catcher so it’s no longer an issue.
Admittedly, sometimes it’s tough to see whether the pitcher is getting the ball ahead a little too early with the naked eye. That’s where video is so helpful.
There are plenty of inexpensive mobile apps that will help you capture and analyze video to see what’s happening in “the last mile” of the pitch. Even regular high-speed video on a smartphone or tablet will do in a pinch. Not only does capturing the motion on video let you see it. It also lets the pitcher see it, which is often very helpful in encouraging her to correct it.
Aim not to aim
It’s easy for pitchers, especially those who are just developing their mechanics, to want to measure their success in terms of balls and strikes. After all, that’s how it’s often measured in a game.
Yet real development comes when pitchers are able to stop consciously aiming the ball and learn to use a proper whipping motion instead. It will lead to far greater success in the long run.
I know the title sounds like a tongue twister (how much wood can a woodchuck chuck), but the question of how many pitches a fastpitch pitcher should have is an important one. Mostly because it determines how pitchers will be spending their valuable practice time.
The “old school” approach is that a pitcher only needs three pitches – drop, changeup and riseball. And that approach has served many pitchers well for a lot of years.
That may be outdated thinking, however. Over the weekend I again was one of the supporting instructors at the Indiana United Fastpitch Elite clinic, which was led by Rick and Sarah Pauly. On Friday night, Rick presented a PowerPoint talking about the overall mechanics of pitching, and then took questions both during and after the presentation.
One of the questions, from my friend Mike Borelli, was how many pitches should a pitcher have. Rick turned to Sarah, the winningest pitcher in National Pro Fastpitch history, and asked her how many she had.
Her reply wasn’t three. It was seven. As I recall she named drop, change, rise, two curves, backdoor curve and a screwball.
Rick and Sarah then went on to talk about how with today’s hitters you need to have more weapons.
Think about why that is. In the old days in women’s fastpitch, the ball was white, with white seams, and pitchers even at the international level stood 40 feet away. Pitchers put in way more time learning their craft in the off-season than hitters did. That might have been a good thing because what most people were teaching about hitting was pretty bad. Hitters are smarter, too, spending more time studying pitchers and looking for patterns. Also, there is no doubt today’s bats are much hotter than those back in the day.
You put all that together and having more than three ways to attack a hitter starts to make sense. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I have quite a bit of confirmation bias in this way of thinking because I’ve been saying it for years.)
If all you have is three pitches, even if they’re great ones, you become more predictable. And predictability is deadly. Just ask any pitcher who has a coach who likes to favor certain pitches. It’s a lot easier to dig in and hit if you know what’s coming.
Now, no doubt some of your pitches will be better than others. No doubt you will throw them more than others. But if that’s all you throw, it’s easier to prepare to hit against you. Throwing in something a little different, even now and then, keeps hitters off balance and uncomfortable, which is the key to great pitching.
It was great to hear this philosophy confirmed by someone who has been around the women’s game, and played the men’s game, for a long time. If you’ve been restricting yourself/your daughter/your students to three pitches, you might want to give this a little thought. Perhaps it’s time to add a new pitch.