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Coaching Softball Pitching

By Dave Pearce

Coaching pitchers is not that difficult. All you need is a little interest and a little information to understand what you’re doing. The interest has to come from you, while the purpose of this paper is to provide the information.

What follows then, is a summary of an 8 hour clinic, designed to help you develop young pitchers. But it is only a summary. It should get you started in the right direction, and give you the confidence you need to do some constructive work with your pitchers. Hopefully, it will also wet your appetite to increase your knowledge and skill in this area.

Coaching softball pitching is not that difficult - you just need to reinforce the fundamentalsCoaching Roles

In terms of developing pitchers, a team coach has two predominant roles. Both require some basic knowledge, but neither is very complex. Nor is it necessary to have been a pitcher to carry them out. But your effectiveness with your pitchers depends on your understanding of the concepts. Here are the roles:

1) Teach Basic Mechanics

This is your primary role as a coach. It is critical for young pitchers, because basic throwing mechanics are the foundation of future development. Without good mechanics, potential for complete development is restricted. In fact my experience tells me that the most physical problem in pitching can be traced back to basic mechanics. Your job as a coach is to teach these mechanics, monitor their progress and make corrections as required. This means you need to know and understand the principles involved, and be able to recognize the right technique from the wrong.


2) Supervise Development of Advanced Skills

To carry out this second role you need to know what these advanced skills are. Then you should know how to develop them to maximize the player’s potential. In simple terms, this really means being able to advise your pitchers on what to practice and how to practice it. The alternative is to leave the development of your pitchers to chance.

The remainder of this paper will focus on the first of these two roles, and provide a framework of ideas you can use directly with your pitchers. Everything suggested here has been proven over a number of years with literally thousands of pitchers, and they will work for you, too, if you apply them appropriately.

Teaching the Mechanics

One cannot over-emphasize the importance of sound mechanics in pitching. Future development depends on it. Many pitchers fail to reach their full potential because they either don’t or can’t execute the basics. As often as not, learning them is simply a matter of getting the proper help at the right time.

There are four basic mechanics a pitcher must be aware of and execute. While they can be learned individually, they have to be combined into a smooth, fluid motion in order to generate maximum power and speed on the pitch. It is the manner of coordinating these mechanics that dictates an individual’s pitching “style”. So let’s look at these mechanics briefly.

The Four Basic Elements of Mechanics

1) Stride
2) Arm Circle
3) Arm/Hip coordination
4) Follow-through

The following analysis will clarify each of these, and help you pinpoint where you should be directing your attention for best results. While teaching these mechanics it is important to utilize in order to maximize power.

The Force Funnel

Pitchers should try to visualize themselves standing at the end of a long tube or funnel. The small end of the funnel is at the catcher’s mitt, and it extends out to the pitcher. The basic idea is that every movement by the pitcher should be directed straight down the tube, to focus and maximize power.

Any movement of the arm, leg or body on another direction will divert energy away from the tube and dilute the eventual force generated. This concept of a Force Tube or Force Funnel will help your pitcher develop the feeling of exploding, ie, directing her total energy and force at the catcher, as they learn to execute the mechanics.

1) Stride

Always taken with the foot opposite to the pitching hand. (left foot for right handers). Length is individual, but it should be a long walking step with a hard push off the rubber. Look for energy in the stride. The pitcher should explode off the mound.

Stride foot should land directly in front of the pivot foot, ie, in a straight line towards the target. There is a tolerance of about 4 inches or 10 cm to either side of that straight line.

Stride foot should land with the toe roughly pointing towards the catcher. Accomplished pitcher’s tend to toe inward slightly; accepted tolerance is about 40 degrees.

2) Arm Circle

Arm should be extended but relaxed. The circle must be full and lined up with the direction of force. The arm should travel straight up the front, be close to the head at the top, and straight down the back. Look for the shoulder to rotate open at the back side of the circle.

The arm should be close to the body as it passes the hip to release the ball. In fact there can be slight contact between the forearm and the hip at release.

3) Hip Thrust

Most difficult part of the coordination. As the pitching hand approached the point of release, the hip should drive forward to add body momentum to the pitch. This is achieved by the pitcher keeping the weight back, and pushing hard against the pivot foot. At the point of release, the head can be lined up over the hips.

4) Follow-Through

The arm should continue to about shoulder or eye height, then come to a natural stop. The body should continue to move forward from the push off.  To complete the follow through, the pivot foot swings forward and is planted to the side, allowing the pitcher to regain balance and be in a defensive position.

Individuality

While teaching these mechanics, and helping your young pitcher develop her pitching style, focus on the principles involved. Allow the pitcher to apply them in their own individual way. It is not necessary that all pitchers look the same, although there will be some similarity if the principles are applied as intended.

Coaching Cues

Based on the descriptions of the mechanics, there are some key points you can focus on to monitor progress and identify errors. These “cues” are preliminary indicators of improper execution, and should trigger immediate corrective or remedial action by you. Watch for these cues every time your pitchers throw. Learning to recognize them will lead to early identification of faulty technique, and keep your pitchers on track.

These cues are:

  1. Stride foot: Make sure the stride foot lands in front of the pivot foot, and that it is pointing within 40 degrees of straight towards the catcher.

  2. Arm circle: Make sure the arm is close to the head at the top of the circle, and is fully extended.

  3. Hip thrust: Listen for the brushing sound of the arm against hip. If you don’t hear it, check the arm-hip coordination closely.

Caution:

When making corrections with your pitcher, try to keep things simple. Emphasize the notion of the “force funnel” to facilitate body alignment, encourage them to develop a “feel” for the correct motion.

Also, work on one thing at a time. Nothing is more frustrating to a young athlete than to  be bombarded with four or five different instructions at the same time. By focusing on one thing only, you will accelerate the adjustment and further motivate the pitcher for the next step.

When you get impatient with your pitcher, try doing the action yourself. You may discover some of the obstacles your pitcher is trying to overcome.

Developing Smoothness

What you are looking for as a coach is a style that is smooth, or flowing, with no wasted effort. Economy of motion comes from applying the principles of each mechanic to maximum efficiency.

Smoothness and economy of motion are the products of many hours of practice and many repetitions of the movement.

Softball pitching is a skill, which by definition is a masterpiece of repetition. Like any other physical skill, the more you repeat the action, the more comfortable it feels and the easier it becomes.

Smoothness also comes with learning to relax during the pitch. This promotes coordination, enabling the pitcher to throw harder with less effort. By the same token, relaxation is tied to proper breathing, another essential in sports. Teach your pitchers to control their breathing on the mound so they don’t throw a pitch with their lungs full of air.

Here’s the best sequence for breathing while pitching:

  1. Take a few deep breaths before stepping onto the rubber.

  2. Step on the rubber with lungs ¾ full.

  3. Breathe out slowly through the nose while taking the signal, or before pitcing.

  4. Pitch with lungs almost depleated of air. This relaxes the shoulders and chest.

  5. Inhale immediately following the pitch.

One of the problems with young pitchers is they tend not to throw enough pitches to develop their technique quickly.

There are two things to do about this:

  1. After you have taught the proper mechanics, encourage the pitcher to practice as often as they can. A workload of 600 to 800 pitches per week is not too much for a 12 year old. Once they have finished growing, they should be throwing 1,000 to 1,500 pitches per week to reach full potential.

  2. Introduce the pitcher to the series of drills described in the next section. These will increase their repetitions and consume less time.

Pitching Drills

Pitching drills are probably the most common and important means through which athletes learn the skills of their sport, and softball pitching is no exception. An effective drill offers two distinct advantages to the athlete. First, the purpose of a drill is to isolate key parts of motion so the athlete can concentrate on just that part. This accelerates learning. Second, drills permit more repetitions per unit of time, so the movement can be mastered more quickly. The following drills are progressive in nature, although all are easy to teach and learn. But if performed regularly, and with proper form, they will accelerate development and mastery of the pitching mechanics. Remember however, form is critical, all drills must be performed as perfectly as possible, otherwise the pitcher will simply master the wrong technique.

  1. Pendulum Drill -  This drill is designed to develop the feeling of throwing with the whole body rather than with the arm.  Start with a long step forward, with the stride foot well in front of the pivot foot. The pitching hand is at the top of the down-swing, or back half of the circle. Bring the pitching arm down to the release point, and hold it tight against the body for a second. The weight should be on the back foot. Complete the movement by pushing hard with the pivot foot, forcing the body and hips to rotate forward. The arm then continues. As the motion becomes more natural with repetitions, allow the arm to swing right through without a pause. But ensure the arm slightly brushes the hip each time.

  2. Dry Pitching – This drill is designed to develop a perfect circle and promote arm/hip coordination. Start in the pitching position – long step forward – stride foot in front of pivot foot. Pitching arm performs continuous full circles at rate of about 1/sec. Circle must be aligned with target, with arm close to head at top. Arm must brush hip at point of release on each repetition.

  3. Static Pitching - This drill promotes upper body rotation to increase power. The pitcher will throw a ball so a catcher is required. Start with the feet spread sideways, about shoulder width apart. Pitcher is facing the catcher about 8 to 10 meters (24 to 30 feet) distance. Pitcher throws with windmill motion, while feet remain in place (static). Work on full rotation of upper body with each point. Start at easy pace, and increase speed gradually as motion becomes more comfortable.

  4. Hip Pitching - This drill will improve hip thrust and coordination. Pitcher throws ball to catcher about 8 M. distance. Similar to Static: Pitching except feet are in pitching position – stride foot in front of pivot foot. Pitcher must use strong hip thrust as pitching hand releases ball. Try to develop a sense of power without using arm strength. Keep weight back.  Start easy; increase speed as motion becomes more comfortable.

  5. Hip Thrust Drill -  Drill designed to refine arm/hip coordination and improve power of hip thrust.

Teach this drill in three phases:

Phase 1: No stride – no ball. Pitcher starts standing sideways to catcher, stride foot forward. Practice accelerating hip thrust by using stride leg to push back while pivot leg pushes forward. Counteraction of both legs accelerates rotation and increases power of hip thrust.

Phase 2: With stride – still no ball. Start with feet together, standing sideways to catcher. Take stride and use both legs to produce hip thrust as in Phase 1. When motion is smooth, add arm circle without ball. Coordinate arm action with hip thrust.

Phase 3: With stride – throwing ball. Same as Phase 2, except now throw ball to catcher about 8 to 10 M. distance. Start easy, increase speed gradually. Make contact with hip on every pitch. Keep weight back- head over hips. Focus on feeling of power without using arm strength.

Basic Stance and Grip

These are not critical issues at the beginner stage, but as pitchers develop higher level skills, they take on increased importance. As a coach you should simply explain the options and then let your pitcher develop the technique most comfortable and effective for them.

Stance: There are two basic methods here. One has the feet close together (narrow stance), while in the other, the feet are spread wider across the width of the rubber (wide stance). Each has its advantage, but the most important factor is, what’s comfortable for the pitcher.

The narrow stance offers a strategic advantage in that it permits some lateral adjustment in the rubber. If the pitcher is missing a bit on the left side for example, they can move to the right slightly to adjust, and vice versa.

The wide stance takes up most of the rubber which limits any lateral adjustment. It does provide a wider base of support which is preferred by most.

In both cases, the rear or stride foot should be placed with the toe just touching the back rubber. The pivot foot (front) overlaps the front edge of the rubber enough to avoid the spikes and cleats of the shoe digging in. This places the front foot in a good position to pivot and push against the edge of the rubber.

Grip:  Depending on the size of the hand, the ball can be held in 2, 3, 4 fingers. The main thing is that the grip be firm and comfortable. It is a good idea to teach the pitcher to hold the ball across the seams and to release the pitch directly off the ends of the fingers. This produces a downward spin which will come in handy at a later stage of development.


 
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