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.
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).
Within a pre-pitch routine, there are three key components.
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.
Makinzy Herzog (FSU/ Texas A&M)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.