Focus on One Concept at a Time but Build as You Go
Having given individual lessons for many years, it has become obvious that there is a critical teaching key that allows a player to make progress toward improved throwing mechanics and that teaching key is working on only one aspect of throwing at a time. For several years, I was of the opinion that if you limited the subjects to about 3 per session the player could adequately grasp these few items and incorporate the changes.
But, in the last several years it has become more and more obvious that players can really only focus on and implement changes in one element at a time. This is mainly because all aspects of throwing are tied together and proper technique needs to build a piece at a time. If you don’t get started properly with the take away and reverse arm swing, it’s not going to be possible to get to a good balance point. If you don’t get to a good balance point you can’t expect to get to a good release point. So, each stage of the throwing motion is really built on the previous stage. The player needs to work on each aspect of throwing in sequence and build the technique one block at a time.
Each time another aspect of throwing is added to the mix, the prior concepts need to be re-emphasized. You can’t leave one concept, assuming it’s been mastered, even if the player appears to have made significant improvement. You need to continue to reinforce the early concepts to make sure there hasn’t been a regression in technique. It’s a constant battle with old muscle memory. The player has thrown a certain way for a long time and the muscles will remember how that was done until the player has completely replaced the old way with the new way. Regression will automatically be accepted by the player’s body as feeling right until the new technique has actually replaced the old muscle memory.
We’ve had many players say that a new technique feels awful at first. Then after hundreds or maybe thousands of reps with the new technique, the old way feels strange. But, after a new, additional concept is introduced it’s amazing how easily the earlier “muscle memory” problem can return.
A lot of improvement can result because a player is working on only one concept and that’s all he is thinking about. As a result of focused concentration he can make his body execute the specific desired action. However, after a new idea is added to the previous technique, the new concept now becomes the total focal point and the player finds that the earlier concept wasn’t as ingrained as he had thought. The prior concept was being executed properly because the player was thinking all the time about how to accomplish the action. It’s very difficult to focus that level of concentration on two different techniques.
The pitcher needs to begin by working on the proper start to the throwing motion and doing enough repetitions that he’s comfortable with the change to his old technique. Then, when the next element of the throwing sequence in introduced, the proper start again has to be reinforced at each workout session. There isn’t a lot of benefit to moving to new subject matter if poor technique is allowed to return for the earlier concept.
Using a Mirror
I’ve always thought photographs and video were helpful in allowing the player to see what was actually happening rather that what he thought was happening. However, the problem with video is that unless the pictures or individual frames are reviewed in the middle of the work out the pictures don’t provide direct and immediate feedback to the player. I’ve found that utilizing a large mirror is actually more useful. The mirror provides immediate feedback to the player so he can actually see where his reverse arm swing is going, how his body tilt is being implemented, where his elbow is when the stride foot lands, what his slot is at release, etc. Proper utilization of the mirror can guarantee the player “sees” exactly what is happening, independent of what it “feels” like is happening.
With the mirror, the instructor can work behind the player, both people in sight of the mirror and then the player can see that he is or isn’t implementing the same technique as the instructor. It’s a relatively simple concept to imitate the instructor and verify the positioning in the mirror and the visualization is excellent in correcting flaws. Most players have difficulty knowing what their body is actually doing, so the mirror removes that uncertainty.
Work Without the Ball
As strange as it may seem, the instant you put a baseball in most pitchers’ hands the tendency of the player is to revert to old throwing techniques. It seems like it’s the feel of the ball that reminds the muscles and recalls that old feeling that he is trying to remove. I’ve found that if you have the player work on throwing techniques without a ball, many times he can execute the techniques quite easily. As soon as you hand him a baseball the muscle memory can take over and old habits return.
So, a teaching technique I find helpful is to have the player go through the fundamental we are working on a couple times without a ball and then add the ball for one repetition. We repeat these “two dry moves” followed by “a real move” for a good while. It’s important for these “dry” drills to be done at a relatively easy pace (<50-60% effort) for a few reasons. First, when the pitcher begins to try to throw hard there’s a tendency to revert to old concepts. Second, when the pitcher’s arm is moving quickly it’s hard to see what’s actually happening in the mirror. Third, I’ve found it’s not a good idea to throw your empty hand at high velocity a large number of times.
Using a Tarp
In the barn/throwing tunnel that we use for pitching instruction, there is a large, heavy tarp that hangs from the rafters at one end. That tarp is the target for pitchers to throw against and in addition to having aiming points marked on it, the tarp also provides a very important training element. When a player throws into the tarp, as shown below with Max, the baseball makes a sound, much like a drumstick hitting a drum surface. You can see the impression in the tarp from the impact of the baseball.
The interesting thing about the noise developed by the tarp is that the harder you throw, the louder the sound. In the previous section on using the mirror, the benefit was described as the immediate feedback to the player. The tarp has exactly the same effect. When a pitcher hears the volume of the noise elevate he automatically knows he made a positive change to make the noise louder. By the same logic, a softer sound provides feedback that something was not as efficient.
Feedback to the senses of the pitcher is really a great asset when making changes and trying to implement new techniques.