The Yips and the Will to Persevere

The Long-lasting Effects of the Yips

Although I did find solace during my last collegiate game, my experience with the yips was far from over. I mean that in both a physical way, as I have still struggled with the yips as a coach, when throwing BP as well as in other circumstances, but also in understanding that it will always be a part of me and a part of my story. 

As someone who has felt the helplessness of losing control and also the freedom of escaping that hopeless state, I know there are many others who are still searching for the ability to throw freely again. If a few words of advice or shared experience can help, I want to be the one to share. After a wonderful response from my initial article, I wanted to continue telling my story and the different "fixes" and mindset that helped me through it.

Take it Day to Day

As I mentioned above, my experience with the yips did not last just one season. Despite finding myself comfortable in the circle again in my NPF career, there were still pitches that felt a little off. Specifically, when I threw inside dropballs to right-handed hitters, I never quite had the same control that I once did. I sometimes battled the “please don’t hit them” thought in the back of my head, but other times, I knew I was fully in control. 

To me, after the first go-around, this experience was a day to day occurrence, and I imagine it’s very similar for others. Some days may feel like a breakthrough while others feel neverending. This is why I feel the worst thing you can do when you’re in the thick of it, is give up or give in to that hopeless feeling. 

You Don't have to Quit

I know you might feel like quitting. You might think, I’ll be okay without softball, or I can play another position where it won’t affect me. And you’re right, you will be okay without softball. We all will have to let the game go at some time or another, but this experience is about so much more than just softball.

If you give up now, when things feel dreadful, you’ll never know the joy of picking up a ball and throwing freely again. You won’t experience that ah-ha moment of triumph once you overcome your current obstacle. Most importantly, you may face another circumstance in your life where you feel like quitting, and you will not have this experience in your back pocket to remind you to persevere.

You are Capable

The thing is, you’re still capable of doing all of the things you’ve done before. You’re still physically capable of throwing the ball just as hard, and you can still spin it. All those years of practice have not gone to waste. They did not disappear. Physically, nothing about you has changed, which can be refreshing when you think about it. You did not lose the ability to do what you enjoy, but it feels like you did, and I understand that. I had to will myself into thinking that things would be okay, that I would not let the yips beat me. I knew I was stronger than this obstacle and I had to prove that to myself over and over and over again by continuing to try. So, all I ask is that you give yourself the same chance because one day you’ll be glad you did. 

Imagine all of the things you can overcome, if you can overcome this feeling of embarrassment, of letting others down, of letting yourself down. Even if it never feels quite the same, it’s important that you understand that you are good enough and you have to believe in yourself enough and be willing to fight your negative thoughts to try and get through it.

I Thought About Quitting

I can’t imagine if I would have quit altogether, but I did consider it. It was my senior season, and I hoped to continue playing in the NPF. Then, the yips happened, and I thought, would I be happier if I stopped playing after this season? Would I be happier if I never pitched a softball again? Will teams even want to draft me after seeing that something was off? Even worse, what if they did draft me and I couldn’t even throw a strike?

Well, they still took a chance on me, and I am so thankful that I did not give up on the sport I’ve loved for well over a decade. If I would have given up, I wouldn’t have met so many wonderful teammates, coaches, and competitors who I admire and who have taught me many life lessons.  If I would have quit, I wouldn’t have been able to share this experience and speak with many other athletes who are contemplating quitting right now, and I also wouldn’t have been able to overcome the second time that I experienced the yips on a large scale.

There's Something About the Final Season

You heard that right, the yips found me again, and once again it was in my final season, this time as a professional athlete. It was the same dread, the thought of “not again, I thought this was over”, but this time I had experience, and I knew I could figure things out. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that the yips did not always affect every pitch I threw. Granted, prior to these struggles, I probably threw my fastball 60-70 percent of the time, so it still affected a lot, but I could still normally throw my curveball and my change-up for strikes.

That is how I got by during my second round with the yips, I threw offspeed (my curveball is also offspeed) nearly every pitch, and when I needed to, I loosened my grip on my fastball and just let it fly. Sometimes the loose grip would help me get the ball somewhere near the plate, enough to make it enticing, but I didn’t know what side of the plate it would go to or if it would be a little high or low. It wasn’t a guaranteed strike by any means, but it was enough to give me a small spark of confidence.

It's Worth a Shot

Luckily, a few days after, we had a week-long break. During that week, I went to work on finding a solution. Normally I throw my fastball with a four-seam grip, so I thought, what if I try to grip it like my curveball? I did just that, and it did help. I think somehow, a different grip eased my mind into thinking that it was okay to throw the ball because when I normally gripped the ball this way, I didn’t have the same jello-like arm. After working on it for a little bit, the pitch became more natural, and eventually, I then started throwing my fastball with a 2-seam grip. Slowly but surely, I gained some confidence back throwing hard strikes again, and since then, things have been closer to normal when I throw to hitters.

What can You Rely On?

So, if you’re going through this, is there a pitch you can still rely on? Often, I find that many pitchers I’ve spoken with can still throw their change-up, so why not make the pitch you can throw great. It might just give you the confidence boost to keep going. Finding that first step, that first boost of confidence is a huge key to freeing up your mind to enjoy pitching again. That’s the big key, you have to find joy in what you’re doing. It’s so hard to find joy in this situation, but you can! Small victories lead to big victories, but you can't have small victories without an initial attempt. Quitting is not your answer, and you owe it to yourself to keep trying to find your solution. It won’t be easy, but I can promise you’ll learn so much more about yourself through the journey.

The Yips: Losing Control

Wanting to pitch every game quickly turned to hoping that I wasn’t in the starting line-up. Could I ever feel confident in the circle again? Would pitching ever be the same? Each day, I questioned which version of myself would show up. Will I have control of my arm today or will my hopes of pitching well quickly turn to dread? All of a sudden, what once felt commonplace to me felt so foreign. My arm felt like jello as it went into a whip (the last half of the arm circle). My release felt forced and stiff, and I had to hope and pray that the ball might land somewhere near the strike zone. 

I often returned to my apartment, crying in my car after games. How could this happen? In the previous season, I had pitched the best in my life, and I felt confident beyond belief. Nothing could stop me. Then, after one game, and two hit batters against Georgia Southern, everything changed.

High Hopes, Small Victories, and Frustration

This was my reality in my senior season, the season I had hopes of helping my team return to the World Series, the season I hoped would be my best yet. Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards. Looking from the outside, you might not have realized anything was wrong. My stats were still good, and I pitched often. Watching certain games, you may have even seen a strong performance in the circle because there were still a few great games thrown in the mix. That was the hardest part, there were games of success, of feeling completely myself, and there were games where I had no idea where the ball would land once it left my hand. One of the great games I remember from that season was driven by anger and frustration, two things I was not much accustomed to in my collegiate career. 

Don’t get me wrong, I experienced plenty of frustration in my bullpens and in games early in my college years, but many opponents knew me as the pitcher who smiled through the good and the bad. That season, I had to learn to pitch with a different kind of concentration and a different motivation.

How did this Happen?

If I had the answer, I’d surely write about it in hopes that it would help every player ever affected by the yips, but the truth is, I don’t have the answers. Honestly, I don’t think anyone does because every player’s experience with the yips is individualized. I still question what it was that brought it about. I have a few ideas, but I don’t think I’ll ever know what the true cause was, or what specific moments lead up to it, but let’s start with pressure. 

Unreasonable Expectations

I have always put unneeded pressure on myself. Even in high school, if I had twelve strikeouts, I would question why I didn’t have fifteen. It seems so silly now, but it’s the truth. No one had higher expectations of me than, well, me. Now, there were certainly times where I didn’t believe in myself as much as I should have. Confidence is an interesting thing. You could have the highest expectations of yourself, and sometimes you could even meet those expectations but still, somehow you don't feel good enough. This was part of my problem. 

Let’s rewind to May of 2014, I was named ASA/USA National Player of the Year, and I couldn’t believe it! In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought about being in the same category as the previous nominees, let alone winners. 

Ally Carda, Sierra Romero, and Myself - 2014 USA/ASA POY Finalists
Yips - 2014 POY Finalists

Am I good enough? Do I belong?

Do you want to know what one of the first things I felt was after the excitement and emotion wore off? I felt like I still had to prove that I was good enough. Think about that, we were at the World Series for the first time in ten years, I had already won the award. Yet somehow, I still felt like I didn’t belong. I still felt that I had to show people I deserved the award I was just handed. 

Outside Negativity

After winning, of course, I opened up social media. Along with many congratulations and positivity, I also found criticism. “She doesn’t deserve that award after losing 17-2 against Michigan in game one of super regionals.” “She’s over-rated.” “Sierra Romero should have won.” The negative comments continued, and I gave into them. I agreed, I wasn’t as good as the other nominees, and I didn’t deserve this award. Once again, the pressure built, but this time it happened because I was trying to prove to other people, outsiders, that I belonged. 

My thoughts turned into reality in our World Series games. I only made it a few innings against both Oregon and Baylor, and we went two and barbeque. That might be where my yips problems all started. The pressure to succeed, driven by my personal perception, remained a constant burden. I proved to myself that I wasn’t good enough, but I was going to change that. My mission for my senior season was to help guide us back to the World Series. 

USA Trials

Fast forward to January 2015. I was invited to Team USA try-outs after not making the team in the summer of 2014. During one session of the try-out, the pitchers were asked to throw live to bunters. I threw every single ball into the dirt. I could not make an adjustment, and my arm had a jello-like feeling each time I released the ball. A coach asked me, “haven’t you thrown BP before, don’t you do this at practice?” I had never had a problem throwing to bunters before, but each time the ball bounced into the dirt, my embarrassment multiplied. I felt fine for the remainder of tryouts, and I thought I pitched well, but I was devastated when I didn’t make the team, and I couldn’t help but return to the embarrassment I felt in that moment.

Later on, I learned that the yips are at times caused by a traumatic event. Would I really consider that traumatic? No, but the embarrassment was real. When thinking of how this process started, I always return to that moment, when I had the first sense that something was off. 

Sharing the Burden - Opening Up

After our home opener during my senior season, the same problem started to show up in games. I couldn't throw a strike with my fastball/ dropball. I would throw the ball in the dirt, over the catchers head, I hit batters, and I even threw the ball behind a hitter on a few occasions.

Support System

With the help of my coaches, we went to work combatting my yips. We reached out to specialists, and sports psychologists as well as former players who battled similar circumstances. I even spoke with a sports psychologist that specialized in the Emotional Freedom Technique involving tapping to alleviate stress, but I couldn’t buy into it. Although I wanted to work through the problem, it didn’t feel like that was the right route for me. It wasn’t until I started opening up to teammates and others about what I was feeling, that pitching started to feel less like work and more like fun again. 

Shared Experience

Once I admitted to myself and to my teammates that something was off, I no longer felt the need to hide. That's when things started to lighten up. I spoke with Eileen Canney, a former pitcher at Northwestern who once experienced the yips throwing overhand. I felt the biggest sense of relief after speaking with someone who shared a similar experience. Knowing that I wasn't alone meant the world to me, and I believe it might be one of the toughest parts of the yips. You can't explain the feeling to anyone who hasn't experienced it. It's not the same as simply walking batters or missing your spots, it's a complete loss of control. It's feeling helpless in a sport that once felt like home. 

Victory in Defeat

Throughout the remainder of the season, things were far from perfect, but they did get better. After starting the first game of our Regional opener, I was pulled after the 4th inning or so after walking multiple batters. After that, I didn't pitch again until game three of our Super Regional against Tennessee.

Sitting on the bench was far different than competing in the circle, but I'm thankful I got to experience moments of huge growth during the regionals and super regionals for my battery mate, Jessica Burroughs. Eventually, I got my chance to pitch in game three of our super regional.

Feeling Free

I'm not sure if it was the weight of possibly pitching the final game of my career as a Seminole, or knowing my team needed a strong performance in the circle to advance, but I finally found some normalcy in the circle. As the game wore on, my arm felt less like jello and more natural. I was confident in my pitches and knew exactly what I wanted to throw. We lost the game 2-1, and I was devastated that our season was over. I would never pitch again in a Florida State jersey, but I finally felt like myself in the circle, and I knew there was more softball in my future.

Growth Through Struggle

If you asked me to change the circumstances, to go back and redo my senior year without this speed bump, I'm not sure if I would. Half of me still wonders what could have been had I thrown normally and naturally during my senior year. Would my collegiate career have ended differently? Would I have performed better in the NPF?

Impacting Others

I'll be honest, I don't think I ever got back the exact same confidence in the circle that I once had, but I don't think I'd choose to go back if I could. I learned so much about myself and my identity through my struggles. Sharing my story with others who've experienced something similar is so special, and as I mentioned before, a shared experience can make all the difference. I'm not done sharing, and I know there are far more players that I can help in the future. Most importantly, I hope I can encourage others to share their stories and know that perfection is not the goal. Be okay with 98% perfect in whatever you do. Searching for that last 2% might be what's getting in your way.

Developing a Devastating Change-up

If you want to dominate in the circle, I suggest you start mastering your change-up. To do so, it's important to practice your change-up regularly. In my previous spin series article, I mentioned the importance of selling your change-up and creating deception. To do so effectively, you'll want to throw this pitch for a called strike, and generate swings and misses. Below are some of my favorite drills to develop a devastating change-up. I almost hesitate to call them drills, as these exercises are more about changing visuals and using constraints to improve the trajectory of the pitch.

Strings

By now, you've probably realized that I love using strings to work on pitch depth and movement. For the change-up, there are two exercises that I love to use the strings for. Both will involve a mid-distance string, and the exercises can be used interchangeably, as they're relatively the same. I have found that some pitchers respond better to different goals, so try out the thought process for both and see which works best for you.

Pitching Under the String

Points of Emphasis:

  • Your goal is to throw your change-up underneath the string.
  • Set the string directly between the rubber and home plate around 3 and a half feet high.
  • This may seem a little high initially, but you'll find that you can still throw the pitch for a low strike if you focus on maintaining a strong finish with your legs and your release.
  • This drill is helpful for a pitcher that throws a "floaty" change-up, as they'll be forced to throw the pitch on a line with late movement to accomplish the task.

Pitching Through the String

I originally used this video for other movement pitches like drop and rise, but you should try to tunnel each pitch you throw. If every pitch looks similar as it's on the way to the plate, the hitter will find it difficult to hold back their swing. This drill is ideal for chase pitches or creating swings and misses with your change-up.

Points of Emphasis:

  • Hang the string around hip height directly between the rubber and home plate.
  • Alternate both your change-up and your fastball.
  • You can also alternate each pitch separately with your change-up. You need to be able to throw it following any pitch in a game, so it's helpful to do the same in practice.
  • Your goal is to throw each pitch through the string.
  • Make a mental note of where the pitches that hit the string cross the plate.
  • This will give you an idea of where you need to start your pitch to have it cross the plate for either a strike or a chase.

Long Distance Change-ups

Points of Emphasis:

  • Complete this exercise from 55-60 ft.
    • For younger pitchers (10u-12u) adjust the distance accordingly.
  • The goal of this exercise is to maintain the same effort level as a fastball.
  • Without proper leg drive and a strong finish, the pitch will not make it all the way to the plate.
  • For added emphasis on creating the same body movements, alternate fastball, and change-up.
  • If the pitcher is still having trouble selling her change-up, take a video of both pitches so that she can see the visual for herself.

14" Ball

Points of Emphasis:

  • The 14" ball can help pitchers get a better feel for their release.
  • This drill may be difficult for younger pitchers, as their hands may not be big enough to grip the ball, but I like to use it for older pitchers who struggle with change-up consistency.
  • Start throwing the 14" ball with your normal progression at a closer distance then work back to throwing it from a full distance.
  • You can also alternate between throwing the normal ball and throwing the 14" ball.

Putting it all Together

Change-ups are unique to the individual, and what works for someone else might not work for you. Take the time to find the change-up that's right for you, and practice it CONSTANTLY. In the same way, you have to find out which drills and exercises work for your specific change-up, so take the time to try out a few. Once you find something that works for you, stick with it and make it part of your daily bullpen routine.

Why you Need a Change-up

Hitting is all about timing. Of course, there are other components, but if you're on time with a pitch, you have a good chance of doing some damage even if your swing isn't perfect. As a pitcher, our goal is to disrupt the timing of the hitter and produce weak contact or swings and misses. Sure we have other goals: movement, location, etc. but changing speeds is the easiest way to disrupt timing, and a change-up gives you a more drastic speed change than simply locating a fastball at different parts of the zone. Yes, fastballs and other pitches located in different zones can change a hitter's timing as well. For more on this, check out this article on Effective Velocity.

Effectively Changing Speeds

So, how can you effectively change speeds? Let's look first at a few of the best change-ups and off-speed pitches in the game of softball right now.

G Juarez - Offspeed Drop
G Juarez Change-up
Makinzy Herzog - Change-up
Herzog Change-up
Sydney Nester - Change-up
Nester Change-up

Location

What do you notice about the locations of these three pitches? Are they all perfectly located? I would say no, as two out of the three are thrown over the middle of the plate, but what you should notice is that each pitch is located at or below the knees. Don't get me wrong, I think it's important to locate your change-up, but it's also important to understand the intention or goal of the pitch.

Quality Change-up Locations

In my article on quality pitches, I mentioned that counts can also dictate the quality of a pitch. Each pitch location above directly corresponds with the count the pitch was thrown in. If the pitcher needed a strike, they threw their change-up over the plate, if they needed a chase, it was below the knees. Despite two of the pitches being thrown over the middle, the height of each pitch made up for their location on the plate. Two out of the three pitches also demonstrated quality movement, another aspect of a quality pitch.

Deception

Along with a change of speed and proper location, a change-up must also display deception. First, you MUST sell your change-up. As a pitcher, you've probably heard this 1000 times, but I feel it's still often overlooked at a young age. As you grow older, any tells in your change-up (shortening your stride, slowing down your finish, different grip, etc.) will not go unnoticed, specifically at the college level.

For true deception, it's also helpful to have your change-up move in a similar pattern to another pitch. For example, let's look at a comparison of G. Juarez' change-up and curveball.

Offspeed - 56 mph
G Juarez Change-up
Curveball - 66 mph
G Juarez Curve

It's very easy to see that these two pitches are similar, especially when placed side-by-side. Now let's look at the overlay of her curve and off-speed to truly understand how similar Juarez keeps her pitching motion while throwing these two pitches.

Curveball and Change-up Overlay

Clearly, Juarez knows a thing or two about deception. Her body positioning stays exactly the same on both pitches, and both pitches move in a similar direction, to a similar location. As a hitter, it's nearly impossible to recognize the 10 mph change of speed until it's too late.

How Slow is Too Slow?

If you watch a great deal of college softball or softball in general, you'll notice there are a variety of change-ups and offspeed pitches. Different pitchers throw different change-ups at various speeds. As I've grown through the game, I have certainly seen change-ups that are "too slow". Personally, some may have considered my change-up (backhand flip) too slow. At times it would come in 15-18 mph slower than my fastball.

Meet in the Middle

I agree that most of the time a 15+ mph difference is too slow; however, I also threw two other offspeed pitches. My curveball and my rise ball were offspeed (50-54 mph) while my change-up was (40-44) and my fastball/drop ball (60-64). I would aim for a 10-12 mph difference in your fastball and change-up, but if you already have a change-up that you can command that's a bit "too slow" it's worth developing an offspeed. For more on offspeed pitches:

Patience

A great change-up takes time to develop, so don't give up on it if the pitch isn't perfect right away. Try a few different grips and types of change-ups if you're struggling to create the right speed change. Once you master your change of speed, work on throwing this pitch in any count for both a strike and a chase.

Look out for more information on different types of change-ups and a few drills to help you perfect your change-up next Friday.

Developing Body Awareness and Self-Adjustments in Young Pitchers

So often, we are quick to instruct young pitchers and softball players in general through a step-by-step process. I am guilty of this myself. With an idea of what a pitch or drill should look like, I often find myself wanting to provide feedback nearly every pitch. Clearly, it's easy to over-instruct, and often this can lead to an overload of information for young pitchers. Below are a few key tips to help your young pitcher self-adjust and create body awareness without over instructing.

Improving Consistency and Body Awareness

Arguably the most important and likely the most difficult aspect of pitching is creating consistency. For young pitchers, the emphasis on consistency should be placed on creating proper movement patterns and mechanics rather than consistency of location. If she moves at full-speed and in sequence or "on time", her location should improve as well. In order to reduce injury and help increase a pitcher's abilities, encourage your pitcher to remain focused on their mechanics rather than the outcome of each pitch. 

For a few mechanical tips and drills, check out my article, "How Proper Mechanics can Improve your Topspin".

Practice Tips

Now that I've addressed the importance of body awareness and consistency, let's think about how to implement those in your pitcher's everyday practice. Below are a few reminders and tips for beginner pitchers that will help them make adjustments and create awareness and consistency from pitch to pitch. 

1. Throw into a net
Beginner Pitching - Close Toss

For beginners, I recommend spending most of their practice time throwing at a close distance and into a net before spending the last five to ten minutes working on full distance pitches. I like to have my lessons throw to a very close net when we are working on a small mechanical change, as shown in the gif above. After working on the small change into the close net, we then transition into throwing to a pocket net 10-20 feet away, as seen below. 

Process Oriented vs. Outcome Oriented

Although it may be fun to catch for younger pitchers, watch them develop, and give feedback, the early stages aren’t always about throwing a perfect strike. Instead, it’s important for young pitchers to learn how to focus on certain parts of their motion while learning to work at full speed. If they are constantly worried about where the ball goes, they may have a tendency to slow down and aim rather than creating the right mechanics at full speed. Slowing down too much can also have a negative impact on a young pitcher finding the proper timing for each pitch as they progress.

Beginner Pitching - Net Toss
        2. Complete air-throughs when trying to make a mechanical change 

An air-through is simply practicing a pitch without using a ball. When working with a young pitcher, we are trying to teach good habits through repetition. Practicing air-throughs helps reinforce good mechanical habits within the pitch before actually adding a ball to the equation. Much like throwing to a net, an air through can be a great tool to help a young pitcher make mechanical changes without worrying about the outcome of the pitch. During lessons, I like to have my pitchers complete three air-throughs with good mechanics between each full pitch. As the pitchers advance, they should need fewer air-throughs.

Beginner - Air-through
Air-through Back view
   3. Practice in front of a mirror

At a young age, it may be easier for a pitcher to learn based on visual cues rather than telling her the adjustments that need to be made. When throwing in front of a mirror, it will be easier for a pitcher to see if her arms and legs are working together rather than away from the midline of her body.  The more she completes air-throughs in front of a mirror and sees some of the things she needs to improve, the easier it will be for her to make adjustments on her own. This will also give the young pitcher some responsibility in understanding what she’s doing rather than relying on someone else to give her a cue. If you don’t have a mirror in your practice space, you can record video on your phone and share it with your pitcher instead.

4. Ask your pitcher what she thinks she can improve on after a few repetitions

It’s your pitching instructor’s job to help your pitcher understand and implement good mechanics within the pitching motion, but it’s important that a pitcher understands what adjustments need to be made when she’s practicing on her own. We don’t want to create robots. If a pitcher or player is just waiting on their next cue without having to think about it themselves, they will have trouble adjusting during a game. Instead of handing out coaching cues after each pitch, take the time to ask your pitcher what they feel and what they can improve on. Even if their answer doesn’t match up with exactly what you’re seeing, it will be beneficial for the pitcher to have to think through her adjustments in the long run.

Enjoy the Journey

For a beginner pitcher and her family, learning the pitching motion can be confusing, but remember, the beginning stages won't last as long as you think. Make sure to provide plenty of encouragement so that your young one views pitching as something she enjoys and wants to continue to improve on. Keep small goals in mind, as it's easy to get caught up looking at many different aspects of pitching all at once. Learning the motion and perfecting it is a neverending journey, but it is well worth the time spent.

Control the Controllables. Throw Quality Pitches.

During a lesson with one of my younger pitchers, we started having a conversation about different counts and the importance of quality pitches. When I asked her what her goal was in a 0-0 count, she answered: "To throw three strikes?". Although everyone would love to throw three strikes during an at-bat, no one is capable of completing this feat with just one pitch. I then went on to explain that in a 0-0 count we are simply trying to throw a quality pitch.

Are we trying to get ahead of the batter? Absolutely! Can we always control getting ahead in the count? Not quite. We can't control whether the umpire calls the pitch a ball or a strike. Similarly, we can't control whether the hitter swings or not, but we can control the quality of the pitch thrown. So, especially with my younger lessons, I emphasize the importance of throwing quality pitches.

What is a Quality Pitch?

A quality pitch could be defined in a few different ways depending on who you ask. The idea of a quality pitch might also change depending upon a few different factors. When defining a quality pitch, I like to think about these six aspects:

  1. Movement: Is the ball moving vertically, horizontally, or both?
Barnhill Rise - Movement

2. Location - Is the pitch thrown to the correct zone? High and inside, low and inside etc.

Plain - Location

3. Speed: Was the pitch thrown at an adequate speed? This doesn't always mean was the pitch fast enough. We also want to make sure change-ups and off-speed pitches slow down enough to change the hitter's timing.

Speed - Keilani Change-up

4. Count: A quality pitch in a 0-0 count and a quality pitch in an 0-2 count might look very different.

5. Hitter: A quality pitch to one hitter may not be the same as a quality pitch to a different hitter.

6. Situation: With runners in scoring position, you might pitch more situationally to generate an intended outcome. For example, with a runner on third with less than two outs, you might consider throwing low and inside to induce a ground ball to the left side to hold the runner at third.

Movement, Location, and Speed

Let's consider the first three factors: speed, movement, and location. These are factors that pitchers can control within their pitch. Although every pitch isn't going to come out of your hand exactly how you want it to, you can control your probability of throwing quality pitches with diligent and focused practice. Generally, I define a quality pitch as having two out of those three factors. So, if the pitch generates a lot of movement and is also well located, it's considered a quality pitch. The same goes for speed and location and so on. If the pitch has one of those factors, you may still get an out, but we always want to aim for at least 2/3 factors.

Count, Hitter, and Situation

These three factors are not directly controlled by the pitcher, but they are important aspects to think about when considering pitch execution. Below are three different game-like situations to consider:

  • Situation 1: The leadoff hitter who is hitting .312 with 2 Homeruns and 32 walks on the season, is up to bat to start off the game. The count is 0-0.

From the statistics, we can generally determine that this is a solid hitter who gets on base regularly and has some power. In this situation, it's important that the pitcher gets ahead. Although we may not have specific statistics on the percentage of first pitches this hitter swings at, the amount of walks on the season gives us an idea that she's a patient hitter. For this reason, this is a hitter that the pitcher should "go right at" in a 0-0 count. Therefore, a pitch within the strike zone is likely a quality pitch, even if it's not perfectly located. Although we can't completely control balls and strikes, the pitcher can control and understand her intention with every pitch.

  • Situation 2: With the clean-up hitter up to bat and runners on first and second, the pitcher has worked her way into a 1-2 count. This hitter has already hit a double on an inside pitch earlier in the game. The pitch is thrown just below the knee and just off the plate on the inner half, but it's hit down the line for another double.

In this situation, the pitch location might have been considered quality if thrown to another hitter or in another count. Sometimes hitters hit great pitches, but in this instance, it may have been the wrong pitch to throw. This hitter had already demonstrated that they could hit the inside pitch. Although this doesn't always mean you can no longer throw to that side of the plate, you do have to be smart about what zone you're throwing to. Big hitters often want to be the hero, make them get themselves out by chasing pitches out of the zone.

  • Situation 3: You're 0-2 on a hitter that swung through two outside pitches that were on the corner. You throw an 0-2 pitch in the other batter's box at ankle height and the count is now 1-2.

At times pitchers can over-analyze or overthink and 0-2 count. Oftentimes people even call an 0-2 pitch a waste pitch, which I disagree with. If I already have someone in an 0-2 count, I want to get them out as quickly as possible without wasting any extra pitches to do so. After watching a hitter take two ugly swings through the same pitch, there is no need to go much further, if any further off the plate. In this instance, an 0-2 pitch way off the plate is not considered a quality pitch, as it did not affect the batter's thought process, but instead allowed them to time up one extra pitch.

Quality Pitch Mindset

As you progress as a pitcher, the mental game becomes more and more important. Fixing your mindset on throwing quality pitches is a great way to simplify your thought process while also fully committing to each pitch. Great pitchers have a purpose for each pitch they throw. Start considering different situations, counts, and hitters when thinking through pitch sequencing in practice and it will become second nature in games.

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.