As I write this we are in the middle of summer vacation time here in the U.S. Families all over America are packing themselves up from wherever they live and traveling to a different area, state, time zone, etc. in search of a little R&R.
Even softball families are in that process. Some have already finished their seasons, while others are fitting in a little vacation time before or after tournaments.
For me, when I think of vacations I am reminded of taking my family to a lake for some serious downtime. Originally that meant the North Woods of Wisconsin, where we and various members of my wife’s family would rent cabins.
As part of the rental, we would get motorized row boats that we could use to go fishing. I’ve never been much of a fisherman, and didn’t grow up rowing boats so I found that a bit of a challenge at first, but when in Rome…
Now years later I’ve come to realize that those motorized row boats are the perfect analogy for the role of the back leg in pitching and hitting. Because it can either be a propeller or an anchor when you’re trying to be explosive.
A propeller will help you get where you’re going faster. Being fairly incompetent at rowing a boat, at least at first, I found the propeller to be a much easier way to get from point A to point B, even if those two points weren’t that far apart.
As long as you can fire up the motor (not always easy in a free rental), you can open the throttle and steer your way there while relaxing. That’s a lot easier than using oars to move through the water, especially if you’re using one oar more than the other, in which case you tend to make more of a circle than a straight line.
An anchor, on the other hand, is designed to hold you in place once you get to where you’re going. If you leave the anchor down, even with a motor, it will be much hard to get to your destination.
So it is in softball. In pitching, you want the “drive” leg to propel your center forward, enabling you to glide lightly along the ground until your front leg lands. Do it quick and powerfully enough and the sudden stop will help sling/whip your arm through the release zone.
But if you don’t engage your drive leg, and instead just run past it with your stride leg, the drive leg will turn into an anchor, lifelessly dragging behind you and slowing you down. When that happens, the drive leg doesn’t drive at all, but instead gets pulled along in the classic zombie walk. This is why it’s often called “zombie leg.”
Clearly one is better and more effective than the other in creating speed and enabling stability at release. Hopefully I don’t have to tell you which one that is.
While not quite as obvious or debilitating, the same effect occurs in overhand throwing. If the throwing side isn’t engaged actively as a propeller it becomes an anchor, which affects both speed and accuracy.
What about hitting? The same is true, although in a different way.
In hitting, you want the lower body to create the power. While that is really more of the core than the legs themselves, the rear leg contributes by having its knee start pulling toward the front knee, unweighting the leg so the hips can fire forward at maximum velocity.
If the hitter doesn’t get off the back foot the hips are unable to rotate rapidly or fully, and you wind up with more of an upper body swing that pulls the contact point further back. You’re then not hitting in the green zone.
The bottom line (no pun intended) is the back leg can either be an aid or a hindrance in making athletic movements in softball. Which it is depends entirely on the player.
Get it actively engaged, doing what it should do, and it becomes a propeller that helps drive better performance. Leave it behind and it will be an anchor, slowing the player down and creating a huge drag on performance.
Photo by Mount Polley on Pexels.com
Here’s a quick experiment for you to try at home (or wherever you’re reading this blog). Try to move your arm away from the rest of your body. Pretty easy, right?
Now try a leg. Either one will do. Again, pretty easy.
Now do your head. If you go forward you can get it out there pretty far, and even side-to-side or backwards will work if you’re more flexible than I am.
Ok, here comes the key part: try moving your hips away. Aha! You can maybe get them out a couple of inches but that’s about it.
So basically, if your hips move away the rest of the body has to go with it.
This is a key concept for any fastpitch softball player to understand, but especially for pitchers. Many pitchers, when they are trying to get leg drive, will just run their stride leg past their drive leg and kick it forward. The result is that the stride leg pulls them off the pitching rubber – which is like trying to drag a wagon full of concrete behind you.
That’s because a lot of your weight (some of us more than others) and strength is carried in the hip area, which includes the lower torso. If it is stationary (more or less) it’s going to take a lot of effort to get it in motion so it can contribute to the pitch.
If the hips are already moving smartly forward as the pitcher drives out, however, instead of holding her back they add to the power. The difference (or delta as they like to say in the business world) can be huge.
The challenge is when pitchers think about moving forward, they tend to focus on their stride leg and where it lands. This leads to them doing more of a kicking motion instead of focusing their attention on where it should be – on the hips.
One way to help them get the feel of moving the hips forward (and how much effort it takes) is to have them do a standing broad jump. That is all about getting the hips and torso to fly forward.
Another way is to have them stand on one leg and then hop a short distance to the other. this can be front-to-back or side-to-side.
I say a short distance because as soon as you say long distance they’re going to go right back to reach out with the leg/foot instead of moving the middle.
A harness around their hips tied to a bungy cord or surgical tube will give them that feeling. Have them put the connector in the front, stretch the tube out as much as they can, then go through their pitching motion, letting the tube pull them forward.
You can also get behind them, place your hand on their lower back and give them a small push as they get read to go out. Just be careful that it’s a small push. You don’t want to push a pitcher who’s having trouble moving down to the ground (as I once did).
Ultimately, though, the best thing to do is get them to figure out how to get their hips moving forward to become part of the drive without all the artificial helpers.
As they start to get the feel of moving the hips properly, have them start pitching from a short distance into a net or screen. Keep them there until they can do it without thinking. then slowly move them back a few feet at a time and ensure they can maintain that hip-centered approach.
Only move to the next distance when they appear to have mastered the previous one. If they go back to being leg-oriented when they move back, move up to the previous position again. Repeat until they can throw properly at a full distance.
Incidentally, what I have found is that this is very easy and natural for some and very difficult and alien for others. I have no idea why, because it comes naturally to me.
What I do know, however, is that it is essential to maximize speed. The more momentum you can crash into a firm front leg the more the arm whip will be accelerated, creating more energy to transfer into the ball. A pitcher who is being held back by her hips will struggle to attain her very best speed.
The best way to check this is using video, either on a dedicated camera or your phone set to a high speed (60 frames per second or more). The naked eye can be easily fooled, especially if the pitcher is doing whatever she does quickly.
But with video, you can see if the hips are passing quickly over the pitching rubber on their way forward or whether they hover over it as the arms and legs move forward. (The first one is correct.)
Once you can see what’s going on you can work to correct it. It probably won’t be easy, but the results will be worth it.
Last night, as I often do, I was doing a pitching lesson. The pitcher in question was also doing what many pitcher do – reaching out with her stride leg instead of driving her whole body forward.
That’s a very easy habit for pitcher to fall into. We tell them to get off the pitching rubber, so they throw their stride leg forward to pull them off. The problem is, that often leaves the other leg stuck right where it started – at least until the pitcher makes a conscious, labored effort to pull it into the back leg.
That’s one of the things the Queen of the Hill is designed to correct. But you may not always have one of those handy, and even if you do you’re probably not going to allow a pitcher to take it home with her unless she’s your daughter. So last night I came up with a different explanation.
I told the pitcher it’s like she wants to take a trip, and her pivot or push-off leg is her suitcase. If she was going to go far away for a few days, would she leave her suitcase behind?
Of course not. So rather than reaching with the stride leg and then extending the other leg until it straightens out and THEN trying to bring it forward, she should be sure she takes her suitcase with her when she leaves on the trip – i.e., as her center of gravity moves forward.
That seemed to resonate with her, and actually with the new student who came afterwards. More specifically, I told her to try to keep her pivot/push leg knee under her hip as she goes forward.
Why even worry about it? Well, for one thing if the other leg is being left behind it’s acting like an anchor, preventing the full momentum from going forward and slamming into the stride leg. Which would throw your body forward faster – hitting a tree in a car at 20 mph or 60 mph? (Kids, don’t try this at home.)
Leaving the leg behind also tends to put the pitcher into a forward-leaning position, which not only hurts speed and accuracy but can also put stress on the pitcher’s back.
Finally, it wastes a lot of energy that should be going into the pitch. When pitchers make this correction they feel ever so much lighter during the stride phase of the pitch. That’s because they don’t have the friction of a heavy back foot working against them.
If you’re working with a pitcher who is having that issue, give the trip/suitcase idea a try. And if you do, let me know in the comments if it works for you.