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Wanted: A Better Strategy for Developing Young Pitchers

The other day I was talking with Rick Pauly of Pauly Girl Fastpitch about the challenges of developing young fastpitch pitchers – especially those in the the 8-10 year old range.

Rick said it’s something that has been on his mind for a while, but really came home after completing another of his successful pitching clinics, this time in Fairmont, Minnesota.

The Beginner session included several very young pitchers who worked very hard at the drills and techniques being taught. But clearly they were going to take a while before they were ready to go out and dominate.

The problem is most of them, even the rec league players, often don’t have “a while” before they have to be game ready. It can easily take several months to a year or more for young players to throw strikes on a regular basis.

Most have limited proprioception (body awareness), which means that they can’t feel where various body parts are in space. They may be trying to mimic the movements they’ve been taught or the instructions they’re receiving, but can’t quite feel whether they are successful or not in that moment.

Don’t even get me started on attention span for most of them.

If they continue to work at it they will eventually get it and no doubt become very good at their craft. They’ll be the pitchers who are mowing down the competition left and right, whether it’s racking up tons of Ks or regularly getting out of innings after throwing only 10 or 12 pitches.

The problem is that future competence is not what their youth teams need right now. They need pitchers who can get the ball over the plate.

So what happens? The most valuable pitchers on those young teams are the ones who can throw strikes, no matter how they throw them.

As a result, those girls tend to get the bulk of the innings while those who are taking lessons and practicing all the time get very little circle time. Which means some who might be quite good one day get discouraged and quit pitching while parents who are taking time out of their schedules and paying for lessons begin to wonder whether that investment is worth it.

Look, I get it. While pitching to a large extent may be an individual effort, it’s still performed in the context of a team sport. It’s no fun for everyone if pitchers on both sides are throwing walkfests, and the other eight players on the field (not to mention the team that’s batting) don’t learn much if none of the hitters have an opportunity to hit the ball.

You want there to be some sort of activity on the field that resembles actual softball.

But at the same time, the future of the game isn’t with the lobbers. It’s with those few who are trying to learn how to pitch the right way.

There has to be some sort of solution. I’m sure some of you are thinking “We let the pitchers pitch until they load the bases, then a coach steps in after three balls to pitch.”

That’s ok in theory, but the reality is the coach who’s pitching isn’t helping the hitters much at all. They’re probably not throwing with a realistic motion, and since most want to win the game (because nothing is more important in the world than a $30 plastic trophy) they’re more throwing where the hitter is swinging than teaching hitters to take the bat to wherever the ball is.

It just seems there has to be a better way. I don’t know what it is, but maybe we can all put on our collective thinking caps and figure out how we can enable young pitchers to develop while still making the game fun for everyone else.

One idea is to put restrictions on when pitchers can be pulled. Give them a chance to find their way in a game rather than getting yanked after two or three walks.

Perhaps the pitcher is required to pitch to the full lineup, or half of it until she can be taken out. That might remove some of the pressure she may feel and give her a chance to find her groove, even if momentarily.

Or perhaps we formally loosen up the strike zone to the tops of the shoulders to the tops of the ankles. (I don’t think widening it will help because, well, short bats and short arms.) A bigger zone will also give hitters encouragement to swing more rather than just waiting for the walk, or for the coach to come in and pitch targeted meatballs.

Another idea is to cut the number of outs a team is given at the plate if their opponents are using pitchers who are seeing a recognized pitching coach. In other words, if I am pitching a girl who is taking lessons but struggling, we only have to get two outs to flip the inning. That one might be a little tough to enforce but if the goal is to develop pitchers for the long term hopefully it won’t be abused.

Those are just a few thoughts on our part. Not saying they’re the right way, or the best way, but they might provide a solution.

How about you? Especially those of you who are closer to that age level.

What ideas do you have to encourage young pitchers to keep learning to pitch the right way while not penalizing everyone else on the field? I know we have smart readers here, so leave your comments below and let’s start developing that next generation of pitchers to realize their full potential.

Cue to Help Fastpitch Pitchers Gain an Explosive Release

One of the most common issues among fastpitch pitchers is a tendency to try to add speed to a pitch by forcing it out with a lot of forward effort. You see them get ready to deliver the ball, and suddenly instead of whipping it from back to front and letting go they hang onto the ball and try to purposefully push it out of their throwing hand.

This motion is often accompanied by pushing the throwing side shoulder forward as well. While the intention is to make the pitch faster, it actually ends up having the opposite effect.

In other words, while it may feel strong, it isn’t very effective, biomechanically speaking.

I was facing that very dilemma with a younger student this week, so I came up with a new way to explain what she should do. I’ve since tried it with several with great success (so far).

The way I explained it was in the arm circle there is a point where you have developed all the speed you can get. That point is essentially at the bottom – six o’clock on an analog clock if you’re using the clock face as a visualization device.

Anything that happens after that not only doesn’t contribute to more speed, it actually starts taking away speed. So, since there’s nothing to be gained but much to be lost you might as well just let go right at the bottom, which will be roughly around the back leg.

Putting it this way seems to make sense, probably because it addresses the main reason the pitcher started pushing in the first place – to gain speed. Explaining it hurts their speed instead seems to break through the clutter of ingrained patterns and helps them find their release point.

For the pitchers where I had a radar set up, which was almost all of them, getting the ball out at the right point resulted in an immediate speed increase of 2-3 mph with no additional effort on their part. In fact, for most of them we were just working a drill where they weren’t trying to go all-out, just standing at a 45-degree angle and taking an easy step or medium-speed push.

What was really interesting about it was speed wasn’t the only aspect of their pitches to benefit. Suddenly balls that had been flying all over the place were going straight and low in the strike zone, even though we weren’t focused on accuracy at all.

I did point out the accuracy to the pitchers after a while, however, to give them one more reason not to force the ball forward. Just let it go at the right time, in the right place, and accuracy takes care of itself.

For some pitchers you may need to show them exactly where the ball needs to come out by having them get into their release position, bring the ball from 7:00 to 6:00, and then show them where it should be coming off their thumbs and their fingertips. I did this with one pitcher in particular last night and she immediately improved her speed and accuracy. She thanked me for it, because she said she now understood exactly what she needed to do.

So if you have a pitcher who is struggling to whip and release the ball, and is instead trying to force or push it forward before letting go, give this cue a try. It could be an instant difference-maker.

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