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Softball Pitching - The Physical Nature of Pitching

By Cheri Kempf
Pitching Instructor - Worth/Club K Softball

Fastpitch pitching involves movement and motion of the total body. Efficient pitching should be taught from the very beginning as a total body motion. Unfortunately, many times it is assumed that pitching is predominately upper body motion with most emphasis placed on the pitching arm itself. This is a widely misunderstood concept. Whether it is taught incorrectly or simply picked up by the athlete incorrectly, it often continues throughout a pitcher’s career. The lower body and specifically the legs play a large part in the delivery of the ball. The legs should start the motion with a powerful drive. Many coaches emphasize the first part and ignore the last part, thus gaining an aggressive move out, but no finish. This concept is lacking in fastpitch pitching due to the ignorance of human movement along with the lack of leg and core strength of the average female softball pitcher. Even with players who use and know the proper techniques, lack of strength can diminish their abilities to perform the movements correctly when fatigued. Leg drive seems to be the first power movement to go when fatigue sets into a pitcher.

Softball pitching is physically demanding and requires a whole body involvementTo remedy this situation and prevent injury, especially in the lower back, strengthening the body, specifically the back, abdominal muscles, hips and legs becomes very important.

Concepts of Endurance in the Fastpitch Game

Endurance is necessary to be able to pitch multiple games in a day or weekend, which is sometimes routine for a Fastpitch softball pitcher. The No. 1 pitcher on staff during a weekend tournament typically will pitch three or four games in a Friday, Saturday, Sunday event. Depending on the circumstances, (winners or losers bracket), it is possible for a pitcher to even pitch several games in one day. That adds up to a lot of innings! Because of these circumstances, a pitcher will need endurance, stamina, and strength to handle these challenges. The work-to-rest sequence also should be factored in. Typically, the pitcher will throw 12 to 20 pitches in an inning, sit down to rest for five to 10 minutes while her team is on offense, and then pitch again. These on and off spurts create the need for power endurance to maintain velocity and good ball movement from inning to inning.

Concepts of Strength

As I mentioned in the introduction, total body strength is necessary. In addition to a strong core, the tendons, ligaments, and joint structures in the shoulders, arms and wrists are important to prevent injury. The key to successful fastpitch softball is movement. The key to movement is spinning the ball fast. Fast spinning will generate from the elbow down, with forearm and wrist snap. This is an area where females are not usually strong. For the female fastpitch pitcher to develop the ability for spinning the ball quickly, proper strengthening will be necessary. There are many methods in strengthening the particular area of the wrist and forearms, from simply spinning the ball repeatedly to body weight exercises, to traditional weight training. This is an area that requires attention and dedication from the pitcher.

What Pitchers Lack

Female softball players have a common weakness when it comes to training - body awareness. Players don’t understand their body in space (technically referred to as proprioception). They don’t understand how to perform movements that are different from whatever happens to be currently going on. We are seeing a whole generation of children growing up in environments that are largely non-physically active. Their recreation is on the computer with the Internet and video games. Added to this problem is the fact that many schools have done away with physical education programs.

Striding outward in a straight line is a basic fundamental, and in and of itself is not a difficult move. However, this movement will stump pitchers for several months and cause stagnation in their development. Since they lack body awareness, they are unable to move their arm in a large circular motion and step forward in a straight line at the same time! A lot of the problem is mental focusing, but it is directly related to a lack of strength and balance.

A player who is strong and well-balanced will be able to make adjustments on command, or on the fly, during a game. This is what pitching is all about. A coach can say, “Hey, you’re stepping two inches to the right of your power line, can you adjust to center?” The player who lacks body awareness, strength, and balance won’t be able to make the adjustment.

You see players who are naturally fast. At 12 years old they can throw 58 mph, when the average speed at this age is 48. Even with good ability, genetics, and natural speed, the one thing that will determine if that athlete will make it or not is the ability to adjust to coaching. One of the frustrating things that I have experienced as a coach is that often these gifted players cannot adjust because they lack core strength.

Some Common Mistakes

In fastpitch, the power line is created by the front foot that is placed on the rubber extends through the target. The pitcher will try to stride down the power line and drive the back leg in the same direction. The arm, the nose, the head, and the glove should all stay aligned with the power line. In concept, if you step to the left or the right of this power line, the pitcher is immediately thrown off balance. This will affect speed as well as control.

The arm dominates the fastpitch throwing motion, and unfortunately, as mentioned before, dominates the focus of many a pitcher. Sometimes, this dominance will cause the pitcher to lean toward the pitching arm with her head. For instance a right-handed pitcher will lean right and a left-handed pitcher will lean left. This lean causes the pitcher to be off balance again negatively affecting control and speed.

There is another common tendency of pitchers to pivot with their back foot to start the pitch. This is another technique that leads to gross inefficiency of the total body, specifically the leg drive and lower body. When the back foot pivots the hips and rear turns sideways, making a back leg drive before pitch release virtually impossible. Another negative resulting from the back foot pivot is the landing of the front stride foot at a 90 degree angle. This happens often with the back foot pivot, and can lead to injury of the knee ligaments due to the force of the body (approximately three times the pitcher’s weight) landing on the knee in a sideways position.

A common mistake made in the upper body mechanics is a straightening of the arm at the beginning and throughout the arm circle. Extension of the arm can be advantageous to some pitchers, if that is their natural motion, but the arm should not be locked within the circle. The circle of the fast pitching motion should be a whipping movement.

Another common mistake of the upper body is the glove flying to the side. (Right-handed pitchers’ gloves will go left and left-handed pitchers’ gloves will go right.) As mentioned above, the glove should stay over the power line. This tendency of the glove flying out to the side will prematurely rotate the upper body. I have seen women with red marks on the back of their legs from their glove flying around and slapping them. This mistake, again, is due to a lack of strength and integrity within the muscles to hold the correct position.

Finally, a mistake often made with the posture is the forward lean. Pitchers often start this habit in order to keep the ball from going wild high. This movement does help to avoid high pitches, but the lean is detrimental to other aspects of the motion, making it counterproductive.

Working Balance - Drilling the Power Line

Balance, a result of good core strength, is something we work on continuously. One of the things we do with our pitchers is work on their motion by throwing on a balance beam. This beam is a little wider than a gymnastics beam, but really makes them aware of where they are and how they should finish. We do this with our beginners, as well as our advanced athletes.

On the beam, with the beginners we emphasize stepping straight ahead and keeping the head over the power line, learning the fastball. For the advanced pitchers we do the same, only we may be working on the rise ball. Here, we want to center the head behind the front leg (instead of putting it to the left or right of the front leg), and be able to maintain open hips and shoulders throughout the pitch while also maintaining balance. If they lose balance on a rise ball, the hips and shoulders turn in, which will change the spin on the ball.

Working Strength

Some pitchers who participate in personalized training hope for some golden dust to fall on them that will quickly turn them into an all-star. The serious pitchers realize however, that commitment and dedication are required to get better. Practicing pitching techniques and working on overall strengthening are vital for advancement.

Strengthening can be done in a practical manner by pitching, or traditionally through body weight exercises or weight training. Pitchers and parents should be careful in routine workouts to not throw too many pitches. An average workout can consist of 100 - 150 pitches (after warm-up), and should be performed with maximum effort.

The only exception to the effort is when a pitcher is working half speed to develop a spin or to learn or correct a technique. Many younger pitchers practice non-stop for more than an hour at a time. The probability of the pitcher working at max effort throughout this time is low. A pitcher will pace if she knows she has to pitch for an hour and a half. Consequently, many of her pitches are thrown with less than full effort. If this happens frequently enough, the body will remember and the pitcher will actually lose speed. Workouts should be quality and not quantity. A 30 - 40 minute for younger pitchers is plenty of time.

Girls have a tendency to be perfectionists. They will sometimes compromise speed to gain perfect control. The preference is to establish proper mechanics with total effort - control will come. To throw fast in games, pitchers will have to throw fast in practice. Intensity is the key, not volume.

Harness Training

A useful overload/underload drill once a pitcher has proper mechanics is a pitching harness. The harness consists of a waist belt, rubber tubing, and a holding strap. A coach or parent can hold the tubing either behind or in front of the pitcher depending if you want to create assistance or resistance within the motion. When held from behind and performing the correct mechanics, the pitcher will develop strength within the pitching motion. When held from in front, the pitcher will be assisted throughout the motion utilizing the speed of the body to the maximum. Harness training regiments can be done occasionally to help a pitcher feel her body throughout the motion, or regularly to help train muscles for strength and muscle memory.

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