Enhance your Pre-game Routine with Arm Care

How does your Pre-game Warm-up Impact your Health and Performance?

I've watched teams warm-up many times throughout the years as both a coach and a player. When I was growing up in travel ball, there was little knowledge about arm care or proper warm-ups in general, but times are changing. There is a wide variety of information on proper overhand throwing mechanics that both increase velocity and decrease injury. Although the information on underhand throwing is few and far between in comparison to overhand throwing, the amount of quality information is on the rise. If you are looking to further your career at the college level, maintain longevity, and remain healthy throughout your playing days, it is time to take your warm-up routine seriously.

Typical Team Warm-ups

All too often I see pitchers and position players begin their warm-up routine by simply starting to throw. Whether at an easy pace or firing up to full speed right away, jumping right into throwing should never be your first "warm-up". Studies have shown that completing a proper dynamic warm-up routine can reduce the risk of injury and improve performance in overhand and underhand throwers.

Despite this knowledge, there are many players who spend little to no time preparing their bodies to take on the stress of throwing. A lack of emphasis on a proper warm-up routine accompanied by lack of strength, poor throwing mechanics, and often playing numerous games throughout a two-day period, often lead to overuse injuries.

Warm-up Properly to Combat Injuries and Increase Performance

To combat injuries and take control of your warm-ups, start implementing a dynamic warm-up before every practice or game. For overhead sports like softball, this should also include an upper-body dynamic warm-up. You can use this lower body routine to begin your warm-up. As you progress into the upper body exercises, you have a few options. At Softball Rebellion, I have my pitchers go through a series of band work with Jaeger Bands. I learned this routine from The VeloLab throwing program.

J-Band Routine

Physical Cues:
  • Focus on maintaining your posture throughout each exercise.
  • Think about keeping your ribs down and core engaged.
  • Before each exercise pull your shoulders down and back.

Side Note: Two of these exercises are specific to underhand throwing. Overhand throwers can complete their overhand throwing motion while facing away from the band instead of the split stance arm circles.

I also mentioned, "engaging the scaps" in the video above. I misspoke here, as the scaps are bones and cannot be engaged. The scapular stabilizers (a grouping of muscles in the upper back that is mentioned below) are what the athlete should focus on engaging. To make this easier to understand,  you can ask the athlete to pretend they are squeezing a pencil between their shoulder blades.

Why should you complete these exercises?

Your shoulder relies heavily on muscles that make up your rotator cuff as well as the muscles in your upper back. The muscles in your upper back stabilize the shoulder and protect it from injury. "These muscles include the trapezius, levator scapulae, rhomboids, and serratus anterior, and they are referred to as the scapular stabilizers. They control the scapula and clavicle bones — called the shoulder girdle — which functions as the foundation for the shoulder joint."(Anderson).

Many of the exercises above are meant to strengthen your scapular stabilizers. At the same time, the athlete should also work to engage their core to provide stability and proper positioning through each exercise. Warming up with this upper body routine will help overhand and underhand throwers stabilize their shoulder and decrease their risk of injury.

No Bands, No Problem

Although I highly recommend band work, there are other upper body dynamic warm-ups that you can complete without bands. Check out this upper-body warm-up from the Strength and Conditioning Journal.

Creating a Solid Foundation

I am not an expert on the anatomy of the shoulder; however, I do understand the importance of a proper warm-up routine. I encourage you to continue to research ways to improve your warm-up routine and take care of your body. There is an excess of information to learn from at the tip of your fingers; use it. If you choose to ignore these simple steps to improve your overall health and performance, you are only hurting yourself.

References:

Anderson, Kyle. “Shoulder Injuries in the Throwing Athlete - OrthoInfo - AAOS.” OrthoInfo, Mar. 2013, https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/shoulder-injuries-in-the-throwing-athlete.

Naperalsky, Michael E, and John-Henry Anderson. “An Upper Extremity Active Dynamic Warm-Up for Sport... : Strength & Conditioning Journal.” Strength and Conditioning Journal, Feb. 2012, https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2012/02000/An_Upper_Extremity_Active_Dynamic_Warm_Up_for.8.aspx?trendmd-shared=0.

Four Drills to Improve your Dropball

After each initial installment of the Spin Series, I will provide a supplemental article the following week. Each secondary article will contain specific drills to help you master the pitch of the week. Last week, I introduced you to the dropball. If you read carefully, I didn't specify any one type of dropball as exceptional to another. Instead, I emphasized finger placement and wrist positioning at release.

Keys to a Devastating Dropball

You can complete the following drills with any type of dropball or even with your fastball. Continue to focus on the following aspects when completing each drill:

  • Create efficient topspin. I always recommend using a taped ball to easily identify your spin.
  • The index and middle finger should lead the pitch at release.
  • Stay long and loose as you finish the pitch, and avoid pulling up on the ball.
  • Maintain an upright posture. If you start to lean over the pitch, you will lose your release point and set your body into poor positions.

Recommended Tools

Dropball Tools

Finger and Wrist Positioning

Although pitching with a softball is sufficient, you can also use a variety of tools to emphasize the index and middle finger leading the pitch. I like to use baseballs, 14-inch softballs, and the Club K Spin-right spinner. Using these different tools doesn't turn bullet-spin into topspin, but they can help pitchers feel a difference in finger and wrist positioning.

String Work

When throwing movement pitches, It's helpful to focus on breakpoints. The strings provide an additional visual aid to recognize movement. For the dropball specifically, I like to use two strings, about eight feet apart to help pitchers understand if their pitch moved properly. You can check out this video for more information.

Pronation Bounce Drill

The pronation bounce drill helps pitchers emphasize positioning their hand behind the ball at release.

  • From a "K position" bounce the ball as high as you can without tightening at release.
  • Focus on maintaining external rotation in the throwing shoulder until release. After you release the pitch, your shoulder should internally rotate.

The Three Plate Drill

Use the three plate drill to work on executing chase pitches and pitches in the dirt.

  • If your pitch is in the dirt, it doesn't need to also be off the plate. To help pitchers visualize a more believable dirt pitch, I placed a small plate in front.
  • Your first plate also serves as an exaggerated location. It's not likely that you'll actually want to throw your pitch that far in front of the plate during a game, but it can be helpful to get comfortable with the concept of dirting pitches.
  • Use the last plate to focus on throwing chase pitches around or just below the ankles.
  • You can throw to each plate in order or alternate between the three.

Long Toss

Long toss helps pitchers emphasize a strong finish without overexaggerating body positioning.

  • I often see pitchers overemphasize leaning into their front side to try and manipulate movement.
  • Truthfully, leaning over your frontside makes it more difficult to find your release point and puts your body into poor positions.
  • Start at 70 percent of your full speed and slowly increase speed while maintaining your spin.

Choose your own Drills

Drills are individualized to each athlete. If you've tried a certain drill a few times and not felt or noticed a difference, it may not be the drill for you. Take ownership of your workouts and warm-ups so that you know what you need to work on to improve your dropball. You can have all the drills in the world, but if you don't complete them with a purpose and goal in mind, you're wasting your time.

Why is the Dropball an Effective Pitch?

As a pitcher, I lived on my dropball. Opposing players and coaches may say that my change-up was my defining pitch, but when it comes to the percentage of pitches thrown, I would estimate that 60-70 percent of pitches I threw during games were indeed dropballs, or fastballs depending on how you think of the pitch. The dropball is typically easy to learn, and it is one of the first pitches I like to teach pitchers after learning a fastball and change-up for a variety of reasons. 

Produce Weak Groundballs

I relied heavily on my defense. Yes, I struck out hitters with this pitch, but mostly I produced weak groundballs! A weak ground ball within the first pitch or two of an at-bat was my ideal start to a game. This is one of the reasons I love a great dropball: along with producing swings a misses, they often generate ground balls and mis-hits.

Pitch to Contact and Eliminate Long Innings

Essentially, the drop ball is a great tool when learning how to pitch to contact and eliminate long innings. Weak ground balls lead to easy outs, and easy outs lead to efficient innings. Efficient innings lower pitch counts, and lower pitch counts keep your arm healthy. They also keep a hitter from seeing more pitches throughout the course of a game.

Dropball - Weak Groundball
Pitch to your Defense

Your Fastball Should Drop

A dropball is a devastating tool if thrown well. Many pitchers already throw a dropball without even realizing it! If you’ve read my previous article, “Why the fastball is still important in softball” you’ll know I’m talking about a fastball. Yes, fastballs should produce downward movement when thrown correctly, however; you may want to produce additional movement, or maybe you have a hard time creating topspin on your fastball. This is where learning different types of dropballs come into play. 

How I Throw my Dropball

Key Tips and Tricks:

  • If you struggle to produce topspin on your fastball, try to overemphasize feeling your index and middle finger roll off the ball first.
    • Pitchers normally generate bullet spin if their pinky leads at release.
  • Check out your grip.
    • On a normal four-seam fastball grip, fingers are placed on the seams with the thumb on the opposite side of the ball.
    • I have had success throwing the dropball with my thumb placed on the side of the ball instead of underneath. This allows for more wrist dexterity.
  • Stay long and loose on your finish.
    • The throwing shoulder should internally rotate to slow the arm down after release. You don't want to fight against that by pulling up on the ball.

Three Levels of Success

I like to ask new more advanced clients what pitches they throw. Often, they mention that they throw a dropball, but they throw it only as a waste pitch or they only throw it as a chase. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest mistakes a pitcher can make. We never want to limit a pitch and only throw it for one purpose. Great hitters can recognize if you only throw a pitch for a ball, and eventually, they'll stop swinging.

To throw a pitch effectively, you need to throw it for a called strike and for a chase. Specifically with the dropball, a pitcher should practice throwing it at three different levels which include: a high strike, a low strike just above the knee, and for a chase at the ankle or even in the dirt.

High Drop
High Drop
Dropball at Knee
At the Knee
Low Drop
Low Drop - Chase Pitch

Three Level Drop Drill

Mastering the drop ball at three levels isn't easy, but you can accomplish it with diligent practice. Start by learning to throw your dropball for a strike while focusing on movement through the zone.

  • Find a focal point. If you're consistently throwing your dropball too low, look higher. It sounds simple because it is, but we often neglect to do the little things that make big things happen.
  • After you've mastered throwing your dropball for a strike, start to work on throwing it for a chase.
  • When you're first working on throwing your drop as a chase pitch, focus on your movement and the height of the pitch rather than hitting the corners of the plate.
  • As you get more experienced try the Three Level Drop Drill (below).
Focus on the Little Things

As you complete the three-level drop drill, you'll want to focus on a few things to make sure you're emphasizing movement.

  • Use a taped ball to check your spin.
    • Your downward movement is aided by maintaining topspin throughout your pitch. If you struggle to see your spin with a regular ball, utilize a taped ball.
  • Finish your pitch. I really like to emphasize a loose finish, as I mentioned before. To do this, focus on the high drop portion of the drill.
    • If you pull up on the ball or tense at release, you'll lose your spin and throw the pitch higher than you intended.
  • Maintain proper body positioning.
    • I see many pitchers overemphasizing leaning into their front side when attempting to throw a dropball.
    • Although you need to transfer your weight, leaning over makes it even more challenging to find a consistent release point. This also decreases the chances of you throwing your dropball consistently for a strike.
    • Instead, work on stacking your front side as you finish your pitch. It may help to think about keeping your head in line with your belly button and toes.
    • Avoid letting your head drift past your belly button at release.

Dropball Movement Patterns

There are many types of dropballs, and each generates a different type of movement pattern. A "drop-curve" will have a spin direction that lies somewhere between a straight curve and an over the top dropball. This in-between spin direction creates a little bit of movement to the glove-side while maintaining a downward movement pattern.  A true dropball will normally spin straight down with 12-6 spin. You can also throw a drop with a natural arm-side run. This happens when the wrist is slightly angled to the arm side at release.

Grip Adjustments

Finding a Grip that's Right for You

  • With a variety of dropball options as well as a few different movement profiles, your grip becomes an important tool in movement development.
    • For more side to side movement, try a two-seam grip with either your index finger and middle finger across the seams or your middle and ring finger across the seams.
    • You can also experiment with placing your index and middle finger closer together or adjusting pressure points.

Wrist Angle

  • Your wrist angle also factors heavily into a dropball's movement.
    • If your wrist is facing straight towards your target at release, you should generate 12-6 topspin.
    • When angled slightly to the inside of the back thigh, you can produce movement to the glove-side.
    • You may already naturally have a dropball with some arm-side run. This happens when your wrist isn't completely behind the ball at release.
    • In softball, it is difficult to generate true movement to the arm-side outside of a few inches.
    • Trying to generate arm-side run also fights against internal rotation, so try to stay away from extremely supinated hand angles at release.

Trial and Error

As you learn new pitches, it's important to keep an open mind and remain diligent through different phases of learning. The way I threw my dropball won't work for everyone, so if something isn't working for you after a while, do some research and experiment with different ideas. Whether you're trying a new grip or thinking about the pitch in a new light, find a way to experiment and invest in your development. Pitching is very individualized, so keep learning and find out what works for you. Stay tuned for more dropball drills coming your way next week!

What is a Hip Hinge?

If you want to hit for power, mastering the “hip hinge” is a crucial part of getting your body primed to hit.  At Softball Rebellion, we have found that many athletes don’t know what a hip hinge is, especially younger players, so we are here to help. Hip hinging requires flexion and extension at the hips while maintaining a neutral spine. For further explanation, check out the video below.

Points of Emphasis:

  • To adequately hip hinge, think of pushing your hips backward. This will load your glutes and hamstrings.
  • Avoid overexaggerating a bend of the knees. Bending your knee loads your quads.
  • Overloading the quad can at times lead to a hitter standing up as they begin to stride rather than staying loaded into the back hip.

How does Hinging at the Hips Produce Power?

Weight Room:

Before we begin analyzing how creating a hip hinge increases power in your swing, let's look at how hinging creates power in a few other athletic movements. According to Ken Grall of Johnson Fitness and Wellness, "the hip hinge offers many benefits:

  1. It opens up Hamstring flexibility and offers mobility through the hip joint
  2. Builds symmetry and reduces injury
  3. Shortens the learning curve when introducing more complex movements/exercises."

Grall is speaking of exercises like squats, deadlifts, and kettlebell swings, along with many more complex movements.

Hitting:

Similarly, when hitting, hinging at the hips opens up mobility through the hip joint, allowing you to load your back hip properly to produce more power. If you stand up out of your hinge early in your swing, you run the risk of pushing forward with your chest and hands, often producing pop-ups and mis-hits. Below, Softball Rebellion hitting instructor, Garret Gordon, explains how to apply the hip hinge to your swing.

Points of Emphasis:

  • As you start to stride, hinge at the hips. If you hinge properly, you should feel your weight loaded into your back hip.
  • While you load, your upper body should pull back, creating separation between your shoulders and hips.
  • Separation creates tension, which translates into power once the hitter begins to swing.
  • If you're having trouble loading into your back hip, check out this drill.

Creating a Proper Hip Hinge

Now that you understand the hip hinge, it's time to practice at home. Creating body awareness starts with creating proper movements. Make sure you're hinging properly with the dowel rod drill.

The Dowel Rod Drill

Points of Emphasis:

  • The dowel rod should remain in contact with your tailbone and your upper back throughout the drill.
  • If you start to bend with your back instead of hinging your hips, you will feel the dowel rod drift away from your body.

Efficient Movements Create Power

Great hitters create exceptional body movements. Understanding how to create separation between your upper and lower body, while hip hinging as you stride is directly related to your ability to drive the ball. If you want to be great, take control of your body and start to understand how you can move more efficiently and powerfully in your swing.

Shaking Pitches: A Lesson Learned

We were playing a tight game against Carolina, our toughest ACC foe, during my freshman year. Ahead by a run or two with runners at second and third, Coach Alameda called a curveball. I felt slightly hesitant. There was this inherent feeling that a curveball wasn’t the pitch I should throw, but I threw it anyway. I left the pitch right over the heart of the plate, the hitter doubled to right-center. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure we lost that game. What I do remember is coming into the dugout and saying that I didn’t want to throw that pitch. Coach Wilson responded with a quick “Then don’t throw it!”

I wish I could say I learned my lesson about shaking pitches that very day, but it took me a while longer. With Coach Alameda, shaking pitches was encouraged. Coacha (as we so affectionately call her) understood that shaking a pitch didn’t show distrust in her; instead, it showed growth in her pitchers’ ability to take control of every pitch. Failure is never a bad thing as long as you learn from it, and the lesson I started learning against UNC stuck with me through the remainder of my playing career and now as a coach. To throw an effective pitch, you have to trust it, one hundred percent.

Why Should you Shake a Pitch?

Trusting a pitch is the biggest weapon you have in the circle. Each time that trust is compromised, the likelihood of a positive result drops drastically. During the off-season, in practice, and in scrimmages are times to work on pitches that are sub-par. Yes, there may be times in a game you can throw a pitch that's in the works, but when the game is on the line and the moment is big, you have to trust your best stuff. Your "best stuff" might be one pitch or it could be two to three pitches that you can constantly rely on. Some of the best collegiate pitching coaches in the country encourage their pitchers to shake.

Shaking Pitches Quote - Chelsey

You will absolutely have times that the pitcher, catcher, and coach are all on the same page. The sign comes in, you smirk a little because that's exactly what you wanted to throw, a big swing and miss results in a strikeout. I hope you experience those situations repeatedly throughout your career, as you will cherish them later on.

You'll also have times where you receive the sign and you feel a little weary, a little unsure, these are potential moments of BIG TIME GROWTH. This is where you get to decide your fate. Do you shake the pitch, or do you convince yourself that it's the right pitch to throw? I hope you shake the pitch. It will be difficult at first, but you'll be glad you did. Small windows of doubt can result in big misses, so trust your pitch and have the courage to shake until you get what you want. You have the best view on the field, take advantage of the knowledge you gain from each swing the hitter takes.

Shaking Pitches Quote - Michelle

Who Controls the Game?

Pitchers are supposed to win. You're put on the field to excel and pump energy into your team. You are the only player that gets a win or a loss next to your name on the stat sheet. Take ownership of that! In the circle, you have a unique responsibility that others may not understand, but it's your job, so you take care of business, no questions asked. Typically, you desire an environment where you feel in control.

So, what happens when the control that a pitcher typically thrives on is taken away? What happens when a coach exercises their need for dominance by forcing a pitcher to throw the pitch they're told instead of teaching them to trust their instincts? Homeruns walks, hard hits, melt-downs, these are potential consequences when a pitcher throws a pitch they don't believe in. Pitchers, stand up for yourselves, have the courage to have a conversation about pitch calling. You won't fully trust your pitches until you understand why you're throwing them.

A few years ago while working at a camp, I started up a conversation with a player about situational pitching. I questioned her about her favorite pitches to throw and her routine. We stumbled upon the topic of shaking pitches, and she mentioned that her travel ball coach made her run if she ever shook a pitch during a game. I was mind-blown, frustrated, disappointed but most of all saddened that a coach whose purpose is to teach would instead prioritize his ego rather than the growth of his player. Unfortunately, I’ve heard similar stories more than once. Coaches, let your pitchers grow, let them fail, let them learn. You are not doing your job unless you're equipping them with life skills, and decision making is one of those skills.

What is the Coach's Job?

As a coach you’re called to teach, to develop, to inspire personal growth in your players. You coach because you have a passion for your sport and a passion for people. If you emphasize your importance as a coach over your player's growth, then you’ve stopped coaching all-together. It's not about feeling validation or a need for control, it's about developing players and helping them understand the sport and themselves at a higher level. If the situation in the section above sounds all too familiar, it may be time to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re really teaching your players. Are you developing people or are you creating robots?

How Pitchers and Coaches can Work Together

We all want the same thing. Winning is at the cornerstone of sports, but it's important to understand the processes that lead to wins. Pitchers are in a position of control on the field. Whenever they're feeling self-doubt or frustration they relinquish a little bit of that control and give it to the other team. This is where the coach comes in.

Great coaches encourage players to learn from failure. If a pitcher is afraid to fail due to the consequences placed on them by their coach, their parents or anyone else, they surrender their ability to learn and grow.

Tips for Coaches:

Allow pitchers and catchers to call their own games.
  • It may be nerve-wracking as a coach, but it's a great opportunity for growth.
  • Calling pitches creates a more dynamic learning environment.
  • Go over at-bats or pitch sequencing between innings.
Throw live at-bats during team practices.
  • During these practices, stand behind a net and talk through pitches and situations in between at-bats or in important counts.
  • You can also engage other pitchers and catchers in the conversation.
Watch other teams while you're at a tournament.
  • Watch other teams and talk about the game with your players.
  • Talk through the other team's pitch sequencing.
  • Ask your pitchers and catchers what they would call in certain situations and to specific hitters.
Start a group chat with your team during a college or NPF game.
  • Softball is on television more than ever! (Woohoo!)
  • Keep the conversation going even when you're not on the field.
  • Watching exceptional teams and players execute pitches provides a unique learning experience.
  • Watching Major League Baseball works as well. Pitching is pitching!

Tips for Pitchers:

Start the Conversation
  • Many coaches volunteer their time or have other jobs, but they are there to help you.
  • Ask about pitch calling during practices, and ask if you can try to call your own game in the future.
Take control of your practices.
  • If your coach continuously sees you just going through the motions at practice, it's harder to trust you to execute pitches or pitch calls during games.
  • Work on sequencing pitches and throwing in different counts during practice.
  • Stand-ins are also helpful to keep things game-like.
  • When your coach sees you working diligently, they develop trust in you, and that transfers to the game.
  •  
Take ownership of your performances.
  • Whether you missed a spot or decided to throw a pitch you weren't 100 percent sure about, it's still on you.
  • If you hold yourself accountable on the field and in practice, it proves you're responsible.
  • This doesn't mean beat yourself up after every hit. We are not perfect!
  • Hold your head high, and get after the next hitter pitch after pitch.
Be Decisive!
  • Once you commit to a pitch or an action, go all in.
  • If you only commit 50 percent, you'll get a 50 percent result.

Same Page or Suffer

Growth through shaking pitches will only happen if the coaches, pitchers, and catchers are on the same page in terms of development. You must all work together to enable personal growth for all parties. It starts with communication. Talk through everything, and get to know each other. The more capable you are of communicating effectively, the easier and faster you'll get on the same page. Trust between a coach and a player goes a long way, and that only happens by encouraging failure to promote growth.

NPF hitters Amanda Chidester and Abbey Cheek can destroy the ball

Abbey Cheek Swing
Abbey Cheek
Amanda Chidester Swing
Amanda Chidester

If you followed National Professional Fastpitch this summer, you probably already know the statement above is accurate. If you don't follow the NPF, it's time to start. College softball's best players have the ability to play the game at the highest level after graduation. Yes, there is USA Softball, but the NPF has housed some of the best players from college softball and former/ current Team USA members for years. Amanda Chidester and Abbey Cheek set the league on fire with their offensive numbers in 2019. Chidester was the 2019 NPF Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year. Cheek enjoyed early success as the 2019 NPF Rookie of the Year. Together, the two power hitters lead the Chicago Bandits to the 2019 NPF Championship Series.

Abbey Cheek

2019 Regular Season Statistics 

  • NPF Rookie of the Year 
  • All-NPF Selection
  • .378 Batting Average 
  • 9 Home Runs 
  • 28 RBIs

2019 Championship Series Statistics (3 Games) 

  • .500 Batting Average
  • 1.100 Slugging Percentage
  • 2 Home Runs 
  • 4 RBIs 
Amanda Chidester

2019 Regular Season Statistics 

  • Park Planet Player of the Year 
  • NPF Offensive Player of the Year
  • All-NPF Team Selection
  • .380 Batting Average
  • 15 Homeruns
  • 35 RBIs
  • .814 Slugging Percentage

As shown above, both Chidester and Cheek launched moon-shots well over the centerfield fence at Parkway Bank Sports Complex during the championship series. One of the largest fields in fastpitch softball, the stadium dimensions are measured at 220 feet to dead center and 210 feet to right and left field. If you're wondering how they generate so much power, check out these swing breakdowns by JK Whited.

Abbey Cheek

Amanda Chidester

Why is September 1st an Important Date?

As the 2021 class wraps up their summer schedule, college coaches narrow their list of potential recruits. The incoming junior class was heavily affected by the new recruiting rules. Many prospective student-athletes were beginning their recruiting process when communication shut down between PSA's and Division 1 college coaches before September 1st of their junior year. This legislation changed the game by decreasing the emphasis on early recruiting and providing athletes more time to evaluate the schools they're interested in attending. When the lines of communication re-open, what recruiting questions should you ask?

Things to Remember

You've dreamt of this day for months, and this is an impactful decision. For this reason, there are a few things you should think about before making a commitment.

Recruiting is not a race.

Take your time when making a decision. If you're worried about making the right choice, you're not alone. A coach who truly cares about you won't rush you into making a commitment. Evaluate the pros and cons of each program that you're interested in before making your final decision.

Division one is not your only option.

Although playing at a division one school may be your ultimate goal, do not discount schools at division two and three levels. Junior college is another option that can pay dividends in developing your skillset. In the past few years, junior college players have excelled at division one level. For example, Molly Jacobsen (Ole Miss), Kaitlin Lee (Ole Miss), and Krystal Goodman (Alabama) have all pitched successfully in the SEC after attending a JUCO at the beginning of their careers. 

One conversation can create numerous opportunities.

The coaching carousel is in constant motion. This summer alone there was over 30 head coaching changes at the division one level. As coaches continue to learn and improve their developmental skills, they can quickly move up the ladder in the coaching world. For this reason, you never know where a coach could end up in the next year or two. One great interaction or phone call with a coach could go a long way in creating opportunities for you in the future. Don't discount anyone based on the level they coach. There are many knowledgeable minds at every level of softball. Create opportunities for yourself by acknowledging and thanking every coach you come in contact with. 

Five Questions You Need to Ask During the Recruiting Process

  1. What role can I play in your program?

    Everyone dreams of earning a starting position in their Freshman campaign, but that may not be realistic. I will always believe that you are in control of your opportunities based on effort and hard work, but there are exceptions to this. Depending on a coach's current team layout, they may not recruit you to play your primary position. Remain open to the idea of playing anywhere on the field, and make a point to ask what role you can play to make an immediate impact.

    A coach worth playing for will be honest with you, and they may tell you they see you in supporting roles early on. This might mean pinch-hitting or playing time as a defensive specialist in your first year or two. If playing immediately is important to you, take this into consideration when making your decision.

  2. How do you develop your players?

    From sport-specific training in the weight room to data-driven information, advancements in player development are at an all-time high. Asking a coach how they develop their current players will give you an idea of what they value and how they intend to improve your skills. This also makes it apparent that you're interested in improving your level of play. Coaches need driven players to impact their program. There is no better way to show your interest in improvement than asking how they develop their players at the highest level.

  3. How would you describe your team culture?

    Team culture is quickly becoming a popular topic in interviews with both softball coaches and players. Culture is defined by the shared attitudes and values towards goals, competition, and relationships within a team. If a coach's philosophy matches up with the culture of the team, you usually have a recipe for success.

    You may hear repetitive and un-original themes when asking some coaches this question. That doesn't mean they don't live by those values, but it's worth doing some research. Scroll through each coach's and player's social media accounts to see if their team is upholding these values. Past players who had a great experience also tend to post about it.  The more you know, the easier it is to make an informed decision.

  4. What characteristics do you value the most in your players?

    This answer should be a reflection of their team culture. Every coach values hard work and dedication, but some of the other characteristics they mention may stand out to you. For example, do they value passionate players who ask questions, or do they prefer a, "do as I say" atmosphere? Some players are great at doing what they're told without asking questions. Others need to understand why they're working on a specific drill. It's important to understand how you learn and how a coach would coach you based on your personality.

  5. Are there any programs your players can't participate in as a collegiate athlete?

    This question is specific to those student-athletes who have a plan for after college. If you want to go into the medical field or engineering, it may be hard to schedule classes around your practice times. Therefore, it's important to understand how your academics could be affected by your sport. Many coaches will make exceptions if you can prove you're committed to both your studies and the team. However, it will be challenging, and there are programs who discourage certain majors. If this pertains to you, make sure you ask about academic arrangements in detail.

Enjoy the Process

Recruiting conversations may seem stressful, but they're worth the uncomfortable first phone call. Your ability to put yourself out there and open up is an investment in your future. As you continue to talk with different coaches, the decision making will take care of itself. As an added bonus you'll refine your communication skills and be better prepared for college and the workplace. Coaches are investing in you as the future of their program, so give them an idea of who you are and why you love the game. You'll be glad you did.

The Importance of Rhythm and Timing

Do you ever pitch and feel like you're working against your body? Are your arms and legs moving in one direction, or do they tend to divert from a straight path? This is where rhythm and timing come in.

Whether pitching, hitting or running, a body moving in sync will always out-perform a body moving inefficiently. For example, think about the pitching motion. Although the motion may seem strange initially, the body must work in a way that creates a force from the ground up. In this way, pitching is similar to every other athletic movement. The more efficiently the arms, legs, and trunk can work together to create this force, the more sound and powerful the movement will be.

Common Timing Inefficiencies

In young pitchers, I often notice a disconnect between the arms and legs when pushing off the mound. Ideally, the arms and legs move in a similar pattern and direction during the backswing. For example, as the pitcher begins her backswing, she should also be loading her glutes and hamstrings. As she begins to push forward off the mound, her arms should also swing forward. Below are two examples of loading and driving off the mound.

Good timing

Correct Timing

  • Arms and legs are pushing back together and driving forward together.
  • The glutes and hamstrings are loaded as opposed to only loading the quad.
Bad Timing

Incorrect Timing 

  • The arms are still swinging backward while the legs start their forward drive.
  • Getting into a "sprinter's position" too early decreases the load of the glutes and hamstrings. This is not a bad loading position, but it is quad dominant.

Improving your timing

The following drill will help you improve your balance, rhythm, and timing. This drill will also help you create efficient and consistent movements within each pitch.

Pendulum Swings

Key Takeaways:
  • Begin by balancing on your drive leg (right for a righty and left for a lefty).
  • Swing your arms and stride leg backward and forward three times.
  • After the third backswing, you will complete your pitching motion.
  • Your arms and stride leg should always work together and move in the same direction.
  • Maintain your balance throughout the drill.

Staying Detail Oriented Throughout the Drill

As you work to improve your timing early in your pitch, it is also important to focus on the details. When completing the drill, think of ways to improve your efficiency. Are both arms working together? Could you raise your stride leg higher as you push off the mound? There is always a way you can improve while working on the efficiency of your motion.

Why a Pre-pitch Routine is Important

Picture this: the count is two balls and two strikes. There are runners on the corners. During the top of the seventh inning, your team tied the game with an RBI double. It's now the bottom of the seventh, and you’re on the mound, trying to take this game into extra innings. The umpire has been squeezing the zone the entire game. You get set on the rubber, waiting for the sign. A change-up is called, and you’re pumped because you’ve been commanding your change-up all day.

As you release the ball, you can tell it’s going low, you’ve cut off your release a little too early. The ball bounces right in front of home plate, and thankfully your catcher blocks it, getting up quick enough to keep the runners at first and third. It’s now three and two, and your heart is racing. Things are happening too quickly, and your pace is starting to speed up. The opposing team’s best hitter is on deck, and you know you need to attack the hitter at the plate. You’re starting to think about how important this pitch is, how you can’t afford to walk this hitter, how the on-deck hitter hit a home run in her previous at-bat. How do you calm yourself down enough to trust your abilities at this moment?

Although the scenario above may seem cliché, it happens. That is what pitching feels like. Pitchers are constantly faced with pressure, and oftentimes, your performance in those moments can make or break a career. As a young pitcher and even at the highest level, big moments can start to get the best of you if you don’t have a solid, consistent pre-pitch routine.

What is a Pre-Pitch Routine?

A routine is defined as a sequence of actions regularly followed, or a fixed program. Some pitchers may think of their pre-pitch routine as something they do in the few seconds right before they throw their pitch, but I think a pre-pitch routine is everything you routinely do from the time you receive the ball back from the catcher until you throw your next pitch. Here is an example of a pre-pitch routine from Autumn Humes (Kentucky).

Break Down

Within a pre-pitch routine, there are three key components.

1. Breath

Breathing influences your emotional state. A Stanford study in 2017 found that there is a circuit of neurons in your brain that are affected by the pace of your breath. Whether your breath is fast and erratic or slow and controlled, this information is sent to the part of your brain that controls your state of mind.

Megan King

Makinzy Herzog (FSU/ Texas A&M)

How can breathing affect your pitching?

When you’re faced with pressure situations on the mound, you will likely begin breathing at a pace that’s far faster than normal, causing your brain to register stress and possibly negative thoughts. As you start to think about the past few pitches or even the next batter, you are not only stressed but you also aren’t focused on the present moment. Controlling your breathing can be one of the easiest ways to calm yourself down and remain focused, so it is a must in your pre-pitch routine.

How can you implement a calming breath?

With the help of sports psychologist Brian Cain and our Head Coach, Lonni Alameda, in college, I began to implement two separate breaths into my pre-pitch routine. I would take one big, deep, shoulder shrugging breath as I stepped on the mound before taking the sign, and oftentimes I would take another somewhat smaller breath right before throwing the pitch. These two breaths not only calmed me down, but they served as a last point of emphasis to be in the present moment and focus only on the pitch I was about to throw.

It's important to create a routine that is uniquely your own, so what I did may not specifically work for you. Find time before you throw each pitch to take one last calming breathe, or take a few before you toe the rubber. What's most important is that you commit to controlling your breathing, the timing and the amount is up to you.

2. Refocus/ Reset Routine

Between pitches, it is important to reset your thought process and focus on the present. If you are constantly thinking about past or future pitches and situations while you're on the mound, then you will have trouble focusing on the task at hand. For this reason, it's important to have a specific reset routine for when the moment starts to feel too big.

Before you start to cultivate a reset routine, it's important to think about what you already consistently do between pitches. In order to fully reset your focus, you may have to slightly step out of your normal routine. For example, a reset routine could include picking up dirt or rosin, finding a spot on the fence to focus on for a few seconds, talking to your teammates, or an additional breathe outside of the circle. Below, Jessica Burroughs, 2017 ACC Pitcher of the Year, deviates from her routine to reset between pitches.

What to look for in Jessica Burroughs' Routine
  1. Before each pitch, she is consistently taking a breath after getting the sign from her catcher.
  2. After the second pitch of this sequence, Burroughs receives the ball, then turns around and grabs a handful of dirt before returning to the mound. She does not do this after every pitch, which is why this would be considered a reset.
  3. After grabbing the dirt, Burroughs continues into her normal routine, keeping her same pace, and proceeds to throw a strike.
3. Pace

Each pitcher varies on how quickly they like to work between pitches, but when your tempo tends to vary pitch to pitch, it can be difficult to get into a rhythm. Working too quickly or too slowly can be a sign that a pitcher is starting to tire or feel the pressure of the situation, so it's important to be aware of your ideal pace. Below, Meghan King (Florida State) and Gabby Plain (Washington) work at their own pace. King likes to work quickly, while Plain tends to slow things down.

Meghan King - Fast Pace

You'll notice that after King receives the ball back from her catcher, she immediately returns to the rubber. Usually, pitchers who like to work at a fast pace take a more direct path back to the mound with very little deviation. Generally, a fast-paced pitcher will be set on the rubber ready to receive the sign before the batter re-enters the box.

Gabby Plain - Slow Pace

Plain not only takes more time between her pitches than King, but she also has a lengthy routine once she toes the rubber, incorporating one last deep breath before she's ready to throw another pitch. Although her pace is slower, Plain maintains consistency in her routine throughout the whole game and is still very much in control of her tempo.

Practice Makes Permanent

Practice makes permanent was one of my former pitching coach, Rita Lynn Gilman's, favorite phrases, and it holds true when considering a pre-pitch routine. A routine is not something you just do in a game. Although you should analyze the pace that you like to work at during a game to develop your routine, it takes consistent practice to make sure that your routine holds steady in any situation.

If you really want to start to become a next level pitcher, a strong routine is a good place to start. Next time you're throwing a bullpen at practice, work on your routine. Make it as game-like as possible, incorporating a reset after pitches you didn't like, and taking a consistent calming breath or two between each pitch. Create a routine that's comfortable and calming to you, and before you know it, you'll be executing 3-2 pitches with the game on the line like you've been there and done that before.

In my article last week, I touched on the importance of the fastball. All pitchers begin their venture into pitching by throwing a fastball, but many stop developing this pitch before truly understanding how to throw it properly with a downward movement. If you are looking to continue to develop your fastball mechanics and spin, check out the key mechanical techniques you need to work on first.

Arm Circle

One of the most important factors in throwing a fastball well is ensuring that your arm is rotating properly throughout your arm circle. The easiest way to perfect your arm circle at any age is to incorporate a stationary drill into your warm-up routine. Below, is a simple stationary drill that I have my pitching clients complete.

Key takeaways:
  • There are two main points of contact that a pitcher should focus on throughout their arm circle.
    • Maintain close proximity to your ear with your arm path
    • Create brush contact at the hip
      • If they have a backswing (arm works backward before beginning its path towards home plate), a pitcher should pass by their hip a total of three times throughout their pitch.
      • If the pitcher does not have a backswing and instead comes straight out of her glove, she will only pass her hip once, at release.
  • For younger pitchers, It is helpful to perform this stationary drill with a "snap flap" that attaches to their stride leg (right leg for a right-handed pitcher, left leg for a left-handed pitcher. The flap will give them a physical and auditory reminder to remain close to their hip during their backswing and at release.
Leg Drive / Footwork

Another common problem that keeps pitchers from throwing and spinning their fastball properly is incorrect drive off the mound. It is very common for a pitcher to turn their drive foot or their hips too early within their push off the mound, which can position the body incorrectly, leading to a variety of problems. An easy way to incorporate a proper push off the mound is to incorporate this drive and drag progression into your warm-up routine. 

Drive and Drag Progression

In the first step of your drive progression, you'll want to begin in a normal stance on the mound. From there, you will begin your pitching motion, but instead of completing a full pitch, you will only complete the initial drive off of the mound. You will also incorporate the beginning of your arm swing in the first part of the drill. Make sure that the pitcher completing the drill is swinging both arms forward rather than thrusting their arms straight out.

Points of Emphasis:

  • When driving off the mound, a pitcher’s push foot (right foot for a right-handed pitcher, left foot for a left-handed pitcher) should stay in a straight line until the drive leg is almost fully extended
  • A pitcher should try to keep their hips and shoulders square towards home plate during their initial push.
Front View Drive GIF

Front View of Initial Drive

Side View Drive GIF

Side View of Initial Drive

Stop-and-Go

The stop and go drill allows a pitcher to understand where their body is positioned in the midpoint of their pitch. At the midpoint of the pitch, a pitcher should have their heel in the air so that they can drag lightly on the inside top part of their toe. The pitcher should be slightly open at this point in their pitch, but not completely sideways. To finish their stop-and-go the pitcher would then complete a normal "K" drill, whipping their pitching arm down to finish their circle while dragging lightly with their back toe. Below is a video explanation of the stop and go drill.

Finally, the pitcher will complete a full pitch from the mound. It can be helpful to utilize a foot box, as seen below, to make sure that the pitcher's foot is not turning on the initial push.

Foot Box
Foot Box
Key takeaways:
  • Try to avoid an intentional turn or opening of the hips during the pitch. Intentionally opening the hips too early in the motion will lead to improper body alignment and possible injury.
  • Although pitchers will eventually turn sideways during a pitch, it tends to happen naturally by opening with the trunk and the shoulders rather than forcing the hips open.
  • When dragging the back foot, an emphasis should be placed on dragging lightly and quickly with the top, inside part of the dragging toe.
    • Try to avoid a heavy drag of the whole foot.
Improving Your Fastball Top Spin

Although there are many common issues that can arise within the mechanics of the softball pitching motion, the two techniques above can often impair a pitcher from creating an adequate topspin on their fastball. Now that we’ve addressed those mechanical issues, let’s define topspin and identify how to achieve it.

Topspin is the 12-6 (on a clock) rotation that is created by positioning the hand directly behind the ball at release. Constantly creating proper positioning behind the ball takes many repetitions to become common practice. For a young pitcher to begin to develop topspin, it is important that they are able to see the spin of each pitch they throw.  In order to adequately see spin, it is helpful to use a taped softball, spinner, or a similar tool that allows a player to easily see the type of rotation they’re getting. Below are some of my favorite tools to use when working on developing topspin.

Spinner

Spin Right Spinner 

When using a Spin-Right Spinner, if the hand is even slightly off in its positioning behind the ball, the spinner will not only wobble but also tail to the left or the right of the plate depending on how it’s released. In order to throw the spinner in a straight line with no wobble, a pitcher’s hand must be placed perfectly at release. I will warn you, using the spinner may be very frustrating at first, but if your pitcher is determined to improve, she will keep utilizing this tool until she gets the spin correct.

Spin Line Ball

Spin Line Softball 

It's important for younger pitchers to utilize a taped ball when throwing so that they can adequately see their spin. When gripped on the "C" of the softball, the pitcher's middle finger should be lined up with the black tape-line. Having a taped ball will give your pitcher immediate feedback on how the ball came out of their hand. If a pitcher starts to understand her spin, it will be easier for her to make quick adjustments within her pitch.

Getting a "Feel" for Topspin

It can also be helpful to utilize different sized objects in order for a pitcher to get a better feeling for how the ball comes out of her hand. I recommend using a 14-inch ball, baseball, basketball, or a combination of the three. For younger pitchers, it can also be helpful to roll any size ball on the ground to create the feeling of getting their hand behind the ball.

GIF Ball Roll

As I mentioned before, it can be helpful to have young pitchers roll a ball across the ground in order to help them understand how to get their hand behind the ball. When completing this drill, it's important to emphasize using the index and middle fingers to roll off the ball at release.

GIF baseball toss

When utilizing a different sized ball to enhance topspin, I like to start from a "K" position. In the "K" position the pitcher's hand should start facing their target and both their back leg and their glove side should be engaged as they start the whip or pull-down of their pitch.

Pronation

The hand should naturally pronate (turn so that the palm is facing downward) after the release of the pitch. This motion also occurs at the end of an overhand throw. Although there has been little research conducted on how pronation affects a softball pitch, there have been many studies conducted on the importance of pronation in the overhand throw. This article published by Brent Pourciau summarizes how proper pronation after release can lead to increased velocity while also decreasing injury in baseball pitchers. Since we know pronation also happens naturally after the release of an underhand pitch, I believe it is important to practice this within a pitch. Below is a drill that will help pitchers get their hand behind the ball and pronate at the end of their pitch, leading to better topspin.

Key Takeaways: 

  • The pronation drill will help the pitcher get a "feel" for getting their hand behind the ball at release.
  • The pitcher should try and bounce the ball high, emphasizing bouncing it close to her front foot.
  • It's also important to emphasize a long loose finish rather than trying to pull up on the ball or stop the hand at release.
Putting it all Together

Developing topspin requires an understanding and feel of how the fastball should be released and the execution of proper mechanics. As research expands on the biomechanics of softball pitching, we will begin to develop a more in-depth knowledge of how pitchers can adequately position their hand behind the ball, creating the desired spin.