As I have mentioned plenty of times in the past, “A League of Their Own” is one of my favorite movies. Not just sports movies but movies in general.
A particular highlight (at least for me) is Jon Lovitz as Ernie Capidino, the scout assigned to find players for the new women’s professional baseball league. He has many hilarious lines, including this one as he tries to hustle new recruit Marla Hooch onto the train so they can get on their way:
Maybe I had this in the back of my mind as I was working with some young pitchers tonight, because the idea of a train came to me as I was trying to explain how to get more drive out of the lower half of the body instead of just lurching forward with the upper body.
I told them that everything from the waist down is the train, and everything from the waist up is the passenger. In order for the passenger to reach her destination the train has to move and carry the passenger. If the passenger is what moves, or primarily moves, it’s unlikely that it will be able to carry the train out of the station.
In other words, it’s the lower body that drives out, with both feet moving forward at the same time, rather than the head and shoulders leading the way. With the former you get power, good posture and stability. With the latter you get all kinds of problems, including reduced speed, a lack of consistency and ultimately pitches that fly all over the place.
Once the pitcher understands, the goal is to get the train in motion and let the passenger just go along for the ride. That comes with getting a bit of a push from the stride leg and then a good push from the drive leg instead of letting the stride leg just run past and reach out.
The drive leg has to actively push/thrust out. This is made easier, of course, if the core is already over or even slightly in front of the pitching rubber instead of behind it as the legs begin to push.
The more there is a feeling of motion and coordinated effort between the feet, the hips and the rest of the core, the more efficiently and effectively the pitcher will drive forward. That movement creates more energy that can be transferred into the ball.
But if the passenger, i.e., the upper body, is what initiates the drive forward, a ton of energy will be left behind and it will feel like the passenger is dragging the train behind her. Which is as much wasted effort as it sounds.
So if you have a pitcher who is leading with the upper body, try having her picture the train and the passenger. It might be just what she needs to improve her overall drive.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
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.
One of the most widespread, ongoing debates in fastpitch pitching is: which comes first – speed or accuracy? In other words, should pitchers focus on developing all the speed they can and worry about accuracy later? Or should they first make sure they can throw the ball for a strike, then try to add speed later?
Part of the answer, of course, is driven by the needs of whoever is in the debate. Instructors tend to like to focus on speed, because in the long term the pitcher’s best opportunities will come when speed is maximized. You don’t see too many accurate pitchers throwing 48 mph getting offered scholarships.
Team coaches tend to want accuracy first, because they don’t want their pitcher walking too many hitters. “We can’t defend a walk,” they often say. Although some of their teams can’t defend a ground ball or a pop-up either.
So what’s the answer? In my mind, neither. Focusing on either speed or accuracy is the answer to the wrong question. What you really want to focus on is the mechanics.
The ball doesn’t care where it’s thrown. It’s an inanimate object, so it will go wherever the pitcher sends it. Which means accuracy isn’t a goal, it’s a result. If you do the right set of movements, you will throw a strike. Lock in those movements and you will throw strikes repeatedly.
Focusing on accuracy usually gets in the way of a good pitch. It causes pitchers to slow their arms down, or let the ball get ahead of the elbow on going into release so they can “guide” the ball at release. Neither of those options is conducive to accuracy or speed.
When you slow the arm down, you allow more time for something to go wrong. Not only that, but slowing the arm down causes a loss of momentum, letting you change where the arm is headed. Whereas if you’re using good mechanics and maintaining arm speed the arm will be carried toward the right direction automatically by the momentum that has been generated.
Letting the hand get ahead of the elbow at release prevents the whipping motion that creates speed. It also requires the pitcher to think too much, because pushing the ball through release means you can push it in nearly any direction. If you’re pulling it through release your options narrow considerably.
Having good mechanics makes the direction of the pitch far more automatic while enabling the speed to be maximized. You shouldn’t need to guide the pitch, or force it to go anywhere. If you really have your mechanics on lockdown you should be able to pitch blindfolded – a challenge I put forth to every pitcher sooner or later.
When you let go of your conscious thoughts of trying to guide the ball and just focus on doing the right things at the right time and in the right order, good things happen. You can then place your focus where it belongs – on maximizing the amount of energy delivered to the ball at release.
The result is speed AND accuracy, all in one nice, neat package.
What about a pitcher’s confidence, you say? If she’s struggling to throw strikes in a game won’t she lose confidence? Probably. But if she’s getting pummeled in a game she’s going to lose confidence too. Confidence comes from knowing you put in the work and doing what you do to the maximum of your abilities. The more you are able to take command of the game as a pitcher, rather than just surviving by pushing strikes across the plate, the more your confidence will grow. Because you will feel like you’ve created success rather than avoided failure.
For any pitcher, the objective should be to optimize the mechanics. Don’t worry about where the balls goes at first, except to use that as a way of diagnosing problems with mechanics. Fix the mechanics, and the ball will go where you want it to, as fast as you’re capable of throwing it.
With that mindset, you will have a solid foundation to build from.
One of the things that keeps being a fastpitch softball instructor fun and interesting is that there is always some new puzzle to solve. That was certainly the case with a girl named Kate and her pitching.
I started working with Kate on her pitching late in the summer last year. Once the weather turned cold I didn’t see her for a while – schedules just didn’t match up – but she continued to work on her own.
When we did get together earlier in the year her speed just wasn’t quite where it should have been. She was working hard, and putting in plenty of effort, but when the ball came out it sort of floated toward the plate. It was almost as if every pitch was a changeup.
That just didn’t sit well with me, of course. Kate is a terrific girl, always smiling and very polite. If I say “good job” she invariably says “thank you.” I’ve actually told her she doesn’t have to thank me every time I say something nice, but it’s tough to overcome good upbringing.
Anyway, I knew here was more speed in Kate, but we were having trouble finding it. It just didn’t seem like she was driving her arm/hand through release.
I tried a couple of different drills, and even gave her a Jugs Lite Flite ball to practice with, thinking the lighter weight might help her feel acceleration into release a little better. The light ball helped a little, but there was still something not working in her delivery.
The other night she came in for a lesson, and I could see during warmups she still wasn’t getting the ball out properly. So I decided to try the towel drill. This is a drill where the player holds a towel, goes into a K position, then whips the towel through. If you do it right you’ll it snap forward somewhat.
Well, that wasn’t working either. After a couple of attempts I wasn’t seeing what I wanted. Then I had an inspiration. I told Kate rather than holding onto the towel she should bring it down and throw it to her dad, Mark, who was about 10 feet in front of her.
The first time she tried it the towel didn’t go anywhere. The second time it went straight to the top of the cage we were working in. But then she started to get it, and the towel went forward. A few more reps and she was easily throwing it quickly to her dad.
So I backed her up and put a ball in her hand. Sure enough, there was a visible speed jump from before. She did it again and had the same result. We finished normal warm-ups and went into full pitches and whaddya know? Suddenly the ball was hitting the catcher’s glove with a nice “thwack!”
She was a bit wild, but I told her don’t worry about that right now. Let’s just focus on your newfound speed. She was able to maintain it throughout the lesson and we were all happy about the breakthrough.
Still, you never know. Sometimes these gains are only temporary. That’s why I was so delighted to receive this text from Mark a couple of days later:
“(W)e can hardly contain our excitement!!!! We just finished our team practice and Kate absolutely rocked it. IT being the pitching part. Her speed is nearly matching the other girl. Perhaps just a few mph difference, and that’s negligible in pitching speak.
On the way home Kate said the sweetest thing to a dad’s ear. ‘I’m so happy.’ I asked her ‘about what, Kate?’ ‘That you found our coach, Ken.'”
I believe what was happening with Kate was that she was twisting her wrist as she released – probably the result of all those wrist flips she used to do before starting with me. Once I had her throw the towel she couldn’t do that anymore if she wanted it to go anywhere, and that gave her the feeling of how to get the ball through the release zone properly.
So if you have a pitcher who is struggling with speed – especially if it looks like she’s in permanent changeup mode relative to her effort level – give this drill a try. Maybe you’ll get a nice text too!
One of the keys to maximizing both speed and control for fastpitch pitchers is driving straight down the powerline (more or less). That is the direct line that starts at the middle of the pitcher’s rubber and continues straight until it intersects the center of home plate.
Wander too far off the line and your power will be spread across too wide an area to be effective. Think about a laser versus a flashlight. Both send light out from the source. One (the flashlight) spreads its energy across a wide area; the other (the laser, obviously) focuses all its energy in one direction, and on a very small area. Which is powerful enough to cut through metal?
Still, it’s one thing to tell a pitcher to go straight down the powerline, even when there is one drawn right in front of them. It’s another to get them to do it, especially when they’re working hard to maximize their leg drive.
If you’re indoors and using a pitching mat, here’s a way to help pitchers learn to take a more direct route. Either move the mat or the pitcher so she is standing with her throwing-side foot next to the mat as Jenna is here. Then have her execute the pitch.
She will receive instant feedback as to whether she stayed straight, and the long line of the pitching mat will serve as a visual guide as to where her foot should go.It seems to be more effective than the simple drawn line, because there is dimension to it. And it’s safer than using a larger obstacle such as a bat bag – just in case the pitcher makes a mistake.
As a bonus, the long line of the mat will also give her a guide for her throwing-side foot, helping pitchers who tend to let that foot swing too much out behind their glove-side foot. If your goal is for the throwing-side foot to drive straight down the line, she can just trace the side of the mat with that foot to get the feel.
For those who are outside, a narrow roll of foam from the hardware store will serve a similar purpose. Just be sure to anchor it down so it doesn’t blow away.
If you have a pitcher who’s having trouble staying on the straight and narrow, give this a try. And as always, let me know how it works for you.