The Common Flaw In Female Pitchers’ Mechanics You May Not Even Realize Is There

Written By Carly Schonberg

The Common Flaw In Female Pitchers' Mechanics You May Not Even Realize Is There

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If you look carefully when instructing or watching many female windmill pitchers, especially young ones, you will begin to see a tiny mechanical flaw that is becoming so common I’d almost call it an epidemic.

I see it in my own students, in others during games, even in online videos of pitchers from all over the country: a small pivot of the push-off foot that takes place prior to the load.

It's often so slight and quick that it may go unnoticed by many pitching coaches. It took me several years of teaching to discover that it may be the single most ubiquitous mechanical problem. Though this turn of the push foot seems so small—insignificant even—it can trigger a domino effect that results in a much larger breakdown of the pitching mechanics.

First and foremost, the poor foot alignment weakens the push off the rubber, limiting the potential velocity of the entire pitch (think of trying to steal a base with your feet turned out like a duck—my bet is you'll be thrown out). It can prevent the push leg from achieving the full extension needed for explosive results. It can also cause premature opening of the upper body as the torso attempts to realign itself with the support leg. Very often, it leads to common drive through issues such as the dreaded illegal crow hop or the power-draining “anchor leg,” when the instep of the foot is dragged hard through the dirt.

Popular training aids like the Power Push (an attachment for the pitching rubber that sandwiches the pitcher's foot between two small barricades, preventing turning) and the Power Drive (a pedal-like device that tilts the push foot downward) have been developed to discourage this very problem and help facilitate a proper push off the rubber. They do not, however, address the key issue: WHY are so many girls prematurely pivoting their feet in the first place?

The answer is pretty simple: turning the foot out is a natural compensation for key weaknesses elsewhere in the body. While the exact cause can vary from pitcher to pitcher and should always be determined on an individual basis with the combined help of a pitching coach and a strength training professional, it is typically one—or a combination—of three culprits: hip instability, ankle immobility, and lack of core strength.

Hip instability is extremely common in young female athletes who are just beginning or have not yet begun a serious strength training regimen. When asked to perform initial diagnostic physical movements such as squatting or lunging, many girls will find that their knees naturally want to move inward toward each other. This is a counter-reaction to the hip's natural tendency to pop outward. If you could ask a subject to stand on one leg and then allow his or her body to go limp like a rag doll, you'd see this in the collapse of the leg: the hip would pop out and the knee would fall in.

A proper load in windmill pitching is a strong weight-bearing action—not unlike the diagnostic squatting and lunging exercises—followed by an explosive push. When a pitcher does not have the hip stability to support that action, she turns out her foot in anticipation of the load in order to counterbalance the knee's inclination to collapse inward.

Ankle immobility (or inflexibility) can cause a similar reaction. In order for a pitcher to load deeply, her ankle must be flexible enough to allow her knee to come straight out comfortably over her foot. When this capacity is not present, the knee again seeks that inward angle where it can bend farther and move more freely. The foot, again, pivots outward to compensate.

Core weakness can contribute in a couple of ways. For one, it is extremely common for girls to stand naturally with a sway (an arch) in their lower backs. If a pitcher assumes this posture on the pitching rubber—as opposed to tucking the pelvis forward and engaging the core, straightening the back—it can encourage the hip's natural tendency to pop outward, as explained above. Additionally, in an ideal pitching motion, the torso opens up to the side after a strong forward push has taken place, as the arms are transitioning from being lined up together at eye level to assuming the “K” position. It takes incredible core strength to be able to make this transition in the middle of the pitch—basically, in mid-air. The average female windmill pitcher, especially in the early stages of her development, does not have enough core strength to accomplish this consistently. Subconsciously, she begins to pivot her push foot outward so that the opening of her torso occurs gradually as she pushes off the rubber, while the upper body strives to realign itself with the support leg. She successfully opens her torso, but she loses power and stability as a result.

So what's the solution? Adopting a strength training program that addresses ALL of these areas will make a pitcher better, whether she is affected by all, some, or even none of the aforementioned weaknesses. The athlete should never feel discouraged or inferior for having these weaknesses. In fact, it is more common for young females to have them than not to have them. This information should merely stress the importance of supplementing pitching practice and knowledge of the proper pitching mechanics with regular, productive strength workouts.

It is entirely possible that the use of a training aid, or even just specific focus on keeping the push foot and knee forward during pitching workouts, will be necessary if the outward pivot has become an ingrained habit independent of other body weaknesses. For best results, however, address the underlying cause first.

 

Overcoming Overthrowing

Written By Carly Schonberg

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Overcoming Overthrowing

 

The phrases, “you’re overthrowing,” and, “you're trying too hard” get thrown around a lot in pitching instruction. If you are a pitcher and you're not entirely sure what that means, or don’t know how it feels to fix it, you’re not alone. If you're a coach or a parent trying to help a pitcher overcome her overthrowing tendencies, it will be helpful to understand precisely what goes on in the body when a pitcher overthrows, and how to use more concrete terms to explain it.

So what does “overthrowing” mean to a pitcher? There is really no such thing as throwing the ball too hard or fast; everyone is always in search of more pitch speed. Yet overthrowing has a definite negative connotation. Why?

I was watching a baseball game the Baltimore Orioles were playing in. Brian Matusz was pitching and Jim Palmer was commentating. Palmer said of Matusz that he’d seen him overthrow and hit 90mph, but relax and hit 92. The implication was that when Matusz dialed back his effort level, he actually achieved greater pitch velocity. But there is a bit more to it than that.

Overthrowing usually refers to robbing yourself of speed by inappropriately attempting to get more speed. It involves an inefficient use of your muscles during the pitch delivery. Your muscles can do many different things. Actions such as lifting a heavy box and sprinting really fast both require a lot of muscular strength, yet they are wildly different from each other.

When you aren’t pitching as fast as you’d like to, often your natural reaction is to put forth more effort, however, the type of effort you put forth is very important.

Many pitchers, especially ones who are learning, will end up clenching their muscles. This will feel like more effort, and truthfully it really is more effort, but it isn’t the right kind of effort. It may be the type of effort you would use to lift that heavy box, but if you think about it, you probably wouldn’t want to clench all your muscles before attempting to steal second base. That type of muscle activity slows you down.

What would you want to do if you were trying to beat your best time between first and second? You’d relax. You’d probably try to pump your arms a little faster, and you’d try to push off the ground a little harder. This is a lot closer to the type of effort you want to use when you’re trying to increase your pitch speed. Relaxation is key to speed. Think faster, not more muscular, when pitching.

Sometimes, the term “overthrowing” is also used in reference to a pitcher who may be losing accuracy in favor of gaining speed. This is NOT the same thing; in fact, I don't even think it's bad. Rather, I always encourage speed above accuracy in a learning pitcher. Pitchers should never slow down to try to get the ball into the strike zone. Instead, always put forth maximum effort and work on your accuracy by strengthening your body and solidifying your mechanics. Just make sure that your effort is the right kind of effort.

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Is Running the Best Workout for Softball Players?

Written By Carly Schonberg

Is Running The Best Workout For A Softball Player

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Softball players seem to run a lot, and I'm not talking about around the bases. Many college coaches require their players to run miles in addition to strength training and practicing skills. At the high school, middle school, and travel levels, running is often the ONLY organized team workout promoted by coaches.

Let's stop and really think about running for a minute.

Softball and baseball require a tremendous number of sport-specific skills—more than most sports. Sprinting around the bases, fielding with range and agility, throwing and catching, hitting, and pitching are all distinctly different skills with their own set of mechanics, supported by certain physical capacities. Each skill requires strength, stability, and flexibility/mobility. And every softball player wants to be able to perform these skills with more speed and more power.

Sustained slow to moderately paced running—which is what you get when you jog for miles— does not improve strength, stability, flexibility, speed, or power. Additionally, hitting the ground repeatedly with poor posture and leg alignment can lead to shin, knee, hip, and back pain. I've never seen a softball coach go running with his or her players to keep a constant watchful eye on their running form, and players who start the season without prior physical conditioning are usually weak and susceptible to poor running mechanics. Nevertheless, many believe that running long distances with little to no real supervision or mechanical correction will get players into shape. Not so. Instead, players should work to strengthen the specific capacities and components that contribute most directly to softball performance.

What physical capacities actually contribute to speed and power? Your running speed, as well as your pitching, hitting, and throwing power, come from how hard you can push off the ground with your legs. When you're sprinting around the bases or running down a fly ball, your feet are pushing off the ground one at a time. When you pitch, you're pushing with one leg off the pitching rubber. When you hit, your swing is initiated by a quick push in your back leg. When you throw, you set your foot on your throwing side and push off of it to initiate the throwing motion.

Here is a little physics lesson: the ground is enormous and by comparison you are very small. Because of this, when you push into the ground, the earth pushes you back and you are propelled away from it.

The more force you apply to the ground through your legs and feet, the faster and farther you'll propel yourself. When you're sprinting, you want to use that energy to keep moving forward as powerfully as possible. When pitching and hitting, you want to collect all that force and then use a strong, stable front leg and core to redirect the energy into your bat or pitching arm.

How do you push harder into the ground? By making your legs stronger. Specifically, you need tremendous strength in your gluteal muscles and tremendous stability in your hips and core for each of softball's required skills/components that long-distance running does not address. So what's the most effective way to make your legs stronger? Exercises like squats, dead lifts, lunges, step-ups, and jumping activities are a good choice. If you were to slow down video of a fast runner taking off into a sprint or a great windmill pitcher pushing off the rubber, and then compare it to a slow-motion Olympic lift, you'd see that the explosive action of pushing off the ground actually shares many similarities with the acceleration phase of the lift—more similarities than that action shares with jogging.

Athletes can begin doing these exercises using just their own body weight and gradually increase with weights as they become stronger, ALWAYS with supervision for proper form. If you must run, run on hills. In contrast to running with low resistance on flat ground, you will need to push hard and use your gluteal and abdominal muscles to stabilize your hips and core—strengths which, as I mentioned above, are necessary for softball skills.

Long distance running does have one notable benefit: cardiovascular endurance. Endurance is absolutely necessary for overall fitness, and running has long been the most popular choice for achieving this because it's easy and free.

However, running is not the only way to achieve cardiovascular endurance. Performing the above-mentioned exercises in rapid circuits (never sacrificing form!) will provide you with a great cardio workout, one that can be even more challenging than running. It's also more efficient than running and weight training separately, because you're working on both strength and endurance at the same time, all the while constantly developing softball-specific physical abilities.

As the legs get stronger, running speed along with power in other skills will come naturally. You wouldn't try to improve a hitter's poor swing by having her swing over and over again hoping something clicks; you'd break it down with specific drills to address the components that need to be improved. The same holds true for running: endurance aside, repeating it over and over doesn't even make you much better at RUNNING, never mind softball. Strengthen the various capacities that contribute to the skills, and improvement will surely follow.

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