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Fastpitch pitchers: getting the feel of the whip

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!

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Quick tip on helping pitchers get whip

One of the keys to achieving maximum speed for a fastpitch pitcher is getting whip at the end – the sudden acceleration where the lower arm goes flying past a stable upper arm as you go into release (sometimes referred to as internal rotation). A quick survey of videos of top pitchers actually pitching in games will confirm that’s how they do it.

To make that happen, however, young pitchers must do something that makes no real logical sense to them. They must forget about (or at least quit worrying about) the ball.

Because when they are thinking about the ball, they have a tendency to try to get it to come through too early so they can guide it. As a result, at the most crucial point of the pitch where the ball should be trailing the upper arm, it instead starts to lead through.

That’s easy to say and maybe even do for an adult. We think differently. For a young player, especially one under age 14, they may understand what you’re saying consciously, but their subconscious mind is still more focused on making sure the ball goes where it’s supposed to go (especially if they’re being told to “just throw strikes”), and nothing feels like you’re in control like bringing the ball through first.

There are lots of ways to express explain what you want. But one that worked recently for me was simplicity itself: bring the ball through last. No talk of bending elbows, or rotating your arm this way or that, or making other complex movements. Just bring the ball through last.

Here’s why I think it works. If the pitcher is thinking of bringing the ball through last, she has to put her arm in a position where that can happen. That action naturally creates a little elbow bend. The idea of bringing the ball through last also helps separate the lower arm from the upper arm, giving the lower arm the opportunity to accelerate as it comes through.

That doesn’t mean it will accelerate automatically. You may have to encourage the pitcher to achieve that acceleration. But at least she’ll be in a position to make that happen.

There is one caveat to all of this: this tip won’t work if you’re telling the pitcher to turn the ball back toward second base and push it down the back side of the circle – an action which no high-level pitcher actually performs. If the pitcher is doing that the arm is going to come through all at once and there will be no opportunity for that extra bump of speed that comes with the whip.

If, however, she is learning to keep the ball facing forward/up or toward third base on the back side of the circle, lead the upper arm/elbow down, and then whip at the end, it will work. Or at least it has on the girls I’ve used it on.

If you’re facing that issue of the upper arm slowing down too soon and the ball leading through the finish, give this one a try. And let me know if it works for you too.

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