Footwork Is Critical

Written By Sherry Werner

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Footwork is Critical

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The importance of initial Foot Position

Footwork is a critical element in the windmill softball pitch. Considering that your feet are the only body part to make contact with an external source (the ground), the force used to propel the ball ultimately starts with the feet as they press against the resistance of the ground. Force is generated through the feet and moves through the ankles, knees, hips, trunk, shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingertips and is eventually transferred to the ball. Forces are passed through the joints via the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bombs of the limbs and trunk. Efficient flow of the forces is enhanced by smooth and coordinated movement patterns.

The feet form the foundation or base of support for the body in most athletic movements, softball included. This foundation is the fundamental component of balance, rhythm and timing, which are all necessary for safe and efficient pitching. A wide base of support (i.e. standing with feet spread wider than shoulder-width apart) creates a very stable position. The drawback of a wide base of support is that it can restrict proper joint action and make it difficult to initiate movement. For example, forward striding, walking, or jumping motions are more difficult to execute when the feet are spread wider than shoulder-width apart.

Conversely, a narrow base of support, with the feet to close together (or in the extreme, standing on one foot), allows for easier body movement, but body balance is compromised. An unstable foundation makes coordination of force production very difficult. If a pitcher begins off balance, force generation at the ground will not be optimal and force flow through the joints will not be well coordinated. This combination of reduced leg drive and poor joint interaction could result in shoulder injuries because arm stress is increased.

A suggested pitching stance for young pitchers is one with the feet about shoulder-width apart and the legs are relaxed and comfortable. This allows for freedom of joint movement, yet still maintains sufficient balance and stability. Staggering the feet on the rubber provides additional stability. Figure 1 shows a staggered position with the toes of the stride foot (the left foot for a right-handed pitcher) in contact with the back edge of the pitching rubber and the pivot (non-stride) foot extending over the front edge of the rubber.

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Footwork and the Initial Weight Shift

Once the pitcher find a comfortable position with her feet staggered on the rubber, most of her weight should be centered over her back foot. First movement of the pitch is a weight shift or transfer forward over the pivot (non-stride) foot. The placement of this foot, extending over the front edge of the rubber, enables the foot to push more efficiently during the stride. You may have heard the Physics adage, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is exactly what happens between the ground and the pitcher's feet. As the feet push against the ground (and the rubber, which is fixed to the ground), the ground pushes back with an equal and opposite reaction. This is the origination of much of the initial force which moves the body forward and which is ultimately transferred to the ball. Ball velocity is highly dependent on how quickly the non-stride foot pushes backward against the ground/rubber. The quick, backward push results in an explosive stride towards the target.

With the pivot foot out over the front edge of the rubber, the ankle can extend somewhat, putting the foot in a better position to push against rubber and ground with the ball of the foot. Although “digging a hole” with the pivot foot allows the foot to generate more force backward, it is not advisable since it can hinder the foot's ability to pivot effectively.

In Biomechanics there is a term “degrees of freedom” (DOF). This refers to the number of body parts or joints allowed to move in a skill. The more DOF, the more difficult it is to control and coordinate body movement.

Extraneous motion makes the movement pattern more complicated and in a sense the brain becomes overloaded, resulting in diminished performance. When accuracy is an issue, as it is in pitching, coordination and control are extremely important. Pitchers with a lot of pre-pitch “pump” motion are those who start with their stride foot far behind the rubber, requiring more body part to move in order to initiate the pitch, are many times more susceptible to balance, control and accuracy problems.

It is clear that the lower body plays a vital role in pitching. The muscles of the legs push the feet against the ground to generate force which is passed through the trunk to the throwing arm and eventually to the ball. Foot placement, proper weight transfer to the ball of the pivot foot and explosive push towards the target are paramount in order for leg power to be produced efficiently.

Next month I will talk more about the stride and the importance of the legs in pitching.

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Sherry Werner: PhD is currently a biomechanics consultant with TMI Sports Medicine, and Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine, and a pitching instructor at the Sherry Werner Fastpitch Academy. She has held research positions at the United States Olympic Training Center. She received a MS degree in Biomechanics from Indiana University, and a PhD in Biomechanics from The Pennsylvania State University.
Dr. Werner's research has focused on the effects of throwing motions at the shoulder, elbow and wrist. Past projects include data collection and analysis of elite softball pitchers during the 1996 Olympic Games. Sherry also released an instructional pitching DVD with Jennie Finch in 2011.

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