5 Tips to help young pitchers perform better and prevent injury!
Velocity vs control. I have heard the debate many times about which is more important for a young pitcher. The answer is neither. The most important consideration for a young pitcher is proper arm care so that they are still able to pitch as they get older. Lets take a look at some important practices to develop a young pitcher while keeping their long term health as the top priority.
1. Plan out your off-season
Nothing is more important to the development of a young pitcher than taking an extended break from throwing. If you are allowing kids in your charge to play baseball year round without a break from all throwing, then you are doing them a disservice. For more information on the importance of a break from throwing read this from Dr. James Andrews. The experts consensus is that a break of at least 90 days is beneficial for arm health. This break is a great opportunity to play other sports and develop as a more well rounded athlete.
As the Christmas decorations begin to come down, the arctic chill invades, and the youth of America get ready to return to school, baseball is the furthest thing from most people’s minds. The cold winter months, however, are a critical opportunity for young baseball players to hone their skills and develop proper mechanics. The winter cold makes Spring feel far away, but in reality, many baseball teams will start practicing for the upcoming season within the next few weeks. Performing a quality winter training regimen keeps committed players from falling behind the best of the competition, and will have them primed to maximize their performance in the Spring. All of this can be done without ever touching a ball.
Off-season training is especially important for pitchers. A quality winter training routine will refine throwing mechanics, reduce the risk of injury during the season, and can potentially increase a pitcher’s throwing velocity. Every pitching coach recommends different specific exercises, but the best programs have similar components. The ideal training program takes a well rounded approach to developing the pitcher as a total athlete, and emphasizes injury prevention.
Another often overlooked, yet essential, element of off-season athletic preparation is a focused, rigorous strength training program (Note: strength training is most beneficial for players in age groups from high school and up. Younger players would derive more benefit from cardio-focused activities.) Baseball players must view themselves as total athletes, and use their time when not out on the diamond to improve their physical ability. Players frequently equate physical strength with hitting power. In order for pitchers to develop velocity, control, and endurance, however, they too must dedicate appropriate time to strength training. Here are some tips for maximizing benefits of strength training while avoiding common pitfalls:
Avoid the Bench Press. Do Push Ups
The bench press isolates shoulders in a vulnerable position where they are at a greatly increased risk of injury. Push ups are a much safer alternative that will work out the shoulders, back, and chest at minimal risk of injury. Additionally, push ups are better for increasing muscle endurance, allowing pitchers to throw at pique velocity with optimal control for more pitches during a game.
Don’t Skip Leg Day
What do strong legs have to do with throwing a baseball? Everything. Solid leg strength allows the pitcher to store more potential energy during the wind-up and release more kinetic energy during the pitching stride and follow through. Two fantastic exercises for increasing beneficial leg strength are the squat and dead press. First, the squat can be works out multiple muscles including the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and core back and abdominal muscles. Also, squats are convenient, because they can be performed with or without weights. Air squats increase muscle endurance in the lower body similarly to how push ups do for the upper body. Like squats, deadlifts also target multiple muscle groups, specifically in the legs, core, and shoulders.
Spectators popularly complain that baseball is a slow game. In reality, the physical actions performed in baseball are not at all slow, but rather explosive. Pitching is an extremely explosive physical action that must be performed repeatedly during a game. Sprints are perfect for training the body to perform in repeated bursts of intense physical demand.
Don’t let the Weather slow you down
The weather during the first months of the year is rarely ideal for outdoor practice. Temperatures are cold, and are intensified by freezing arctic winds. Snow, sleet, and other precipitation make outdoor playing surfaces unmanageable. Furthermore, daylight hours are limited. Most people don’t even want to go outside, much less practice baseball.
Depending on where you live the weather conditions may not be much better during the heat of the summer. Here are some examples, from former professional pitcher John Madden of you go pro baseball, of drills you can do with very little space or equipment, and without braving the elements.
If outdoor practices are not a practical option for you or your team, then make arrangements to practice indoors. Any player or team can easily perform a strength training and conditioning program in a gym. Pitchers can also complete bullpen drills inside an open gym area where there is at least 60 feet of room.
We like to use resistance bands to work our pitchers arm when space is limited.
Another piece of equipment that makes all the difference for indoor bullpen sessions is a portable pitching mound. A pitching mound is essential for practicing proper pitching mechanics. A portable pitching mound like the ones featured here on our blog, conveniently allow a coach or pitcher to set up a realistic mound for bullpen drills or working on pitching mechanics in a temporary setting. They can also be moved between location if necessary, giving young players more opportunities to take full advantage of the limited training window before official Spring practice begins.
If you don’t want to purchase one of the pitching mounds featured above, building one yourself can be a fun father and son project assuming you have the tools and the time.
Now you have taken a solid break from throwing, but you are in good shape. At this point it’s important that you don’t jump directly from time off into hard throwing. There are a lot of programs available to gradually build up from light toss focused on form, to pitching safely in a game. A good program should take at least a few weeks to build a players arm up. Now that we have covered what precautions you need to take lets get fired up for some baseball!
2. Warming up and cooling down
It is important for pitcher of any age to take time to properly warm up before making any throws. Many players believe baseball players warm up by throwing, but this misconception can lead to injury. A good warm up begins general stretching followed by a minute or two of light jogging to get blood pumping oxygen to all the muscles. Next, perform stretches localized to the core muscles, arms, and shoulders. Do not rush through warm ups. Altogether, they should take about ten minutes. If done properly, warming up will minimize the risk of injury during workouts. Moreover, the pitcher’s arm and body will be loose and ready to make the most out of each pitch. Here is an example of what a warm up routine might look like:
-Hamstring stretch, calf stretch, quad stretch (30 sec each)
-Arm swings, both arms forward and backward (5 reps)
-Light jog (90 sec)
-Lunges (10 reps)
-Neck, truck, and hip rotations (5 reps each direction)
-Horizontal arm pull (30 sec each arm)
-Overhead arm pull (30 sec each arm)
-Arm, elbow, and wrist circles (10 reps each direction) 368
While proper warm up routines are followed by most experienced coaches, proper cool down is often overlooked. Pitching, catching , or any extensive throwing there is a build up of lactic acid that hinders the recovery process. check out topvelocity.net for more information on how lactic acid build up affects arm soreness. Their is a lot of information available if you want to read up on it, but the key take away that after throwing you need to do some light running to burn off the acid build up.
Another often used modality for arm care is icing. This can be a it of a touchy subject. Pitchers have been icing there arms for decades and their are hundreds if not thousands of proponents of the practice. Many of the advocates are well respected trainers who have worked at the highest levels.
However their is a growing belief school of thought that icing actually does more harm than good. This theory is backed up by science that is more complicated than I can go into here, but the debate is far from settled. All I can say is that I have looked into it, and I personally would advise against Icing.
3. Make Every Pitch Count
When it is time to throw the ball in bullpen exercises, focus on making each pitch valuable. Be intentional about what you want to accomplish by having a plan. Break the bullpen session up into 3 sets of 20 pitches, taking 5 minute breaks between each set.
For the first set, focus on achieving pique velocity with control in each throw. During the second set, switch focus from velocity to command. Mixing fastballs with breaking balls, focus on precision pitching. With the final set, combine velocity and command simulating a game-like scenario and rhythm.
The above bullpen exercise benefits young pitchers in a number of ways. First, the total pitch count is controlled. Limiting the number of pitches to sixty reduces the risk of injury for pitchers of most ages. After completing the bullpen drill, pitchers should rest their arms at least 3 days before performing the drill again. Required rest days mean that pitchers will most likely perform the drill once per week of training.
During a 10 week training program, pitchers will make 600 full speed throws. 600 throws sounds like a huge number, but they rack up quickly. A limited number of throws mean that every single pitch is a valuable opportunity to hone skills and mechanics. None of them can afford to be wasted. Therefore, pitchers must focus on making each individual pitch worth the energy expended.
By focusing on a single aspect such as velocity, command, or even ball movement provides a specific purpose to each set of throws that can more easily be monitored and adjusted.
4. Mechanics, Mechanics, Mechanics
For those of you that are more visual learners here is one of my favorite videos about pitching mechanics.
Off-season workouts are the perfect time for young ballplayers to focus on the fundamentals of game play. No matter what level of play, every ballplayer must master the mechanics of game play in order to maximize game time performance.
Proper throwing mechanics are the most crucial element of every pitcher’s skill set. Young players must devote time in practice to mastering these foundational building blocks.
It is often said, “Practice makes perfect,” but that is not exactly true. Practice can potentially make perfect. Practice can also potentially make poor. What coaches should emphasize instead is, “Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Repetition in practice will eventually train any player to perform an action by muscle memory. That does not guarantee, however, that they will perform it right.
Offseason training provides an opportunity for young players to slow down and methodically develop sound mechanics through intentional, consistent, and correct repetition until they become second nature.
Likewise, young pitchers can only develop proper throwing mechanics through deliberate, focused repetition. Coaches must closely monitor form and movement of a pitcher’s posture, wind-up, and delivery and make on the spot adjustments as needed. The following describes basic pitching mechanics for players and coaches to consider.
The pitching motion begins with the wind-up. The player begins with both feet on the rubber and body squared with home plate. During the wind-up motion, he then lifts his lead leg and rotates his body so that his shoulders are now aligned with home plate and second base at the apex of the wind-up, or “balance point.” Here, the pitcher’s body should be nearly vertical, balanced, and maintaining a stable center of gravity.
Coaches should monitor the player’s posture during the wind-up, and assist with adjustments if needed. Common mistakes to watch for include: continuing forward with the pitch before reaching the balance point, leaning too far backward or forward from the vertical position at the balance point, or poor balance resulting from inadequate lower body strength.
Half of pitching velocity comes from releasing stored energy from the wind-up during the stride. The stride occurs from when the body is at its balancing point until the lead foot hits the ground during movement toward the plate.
Pitchers can increase power by ensuring their strides are long enough. Short strides reduce pitch velocity, and are often caused by lack of flexibility in the hamstring of the lead leg and hip flexors. Again, this is where the benefits of a good warm up and strength training routine pay off.
Another common mistake young pitcher make that limits their stride length is rotating their core to face home plate before completing the stride. Additionally, at the end of the stride, the player’s lead foot should point in the direction of home plate. Simultaneously, during the stride, the throwing hand removes the ball from the glove, drops downward below the hip, and then rotates up in a clock-like motion with the elbow at or above shoulder level.
Proper form should be at the forefront of the pitcher’s mind during practice.
One great tool for improving the stride and creating more ground force is the king of the Hill trainer. It features an adjustable resistance spring that allows the you to customize it for players of all ages.
Arm Cocking Phase
Once the pitcher plants his lead foot at the end of his stride, he then begins to rotate his core toward the plate. He now begins to transfer balance from the back foot to the lead foot. This begins the chain reaction of moving kinetic energy from the lower body up to the throwing arm.
Immediately following the arm cocking phase is the acceleration phase. At this point in the pitch delivery, both feet are in contact with the ground. Energy quickly moves from the lower body to the throwing arm. According to a study by the National Institute of Health, youth pitchers actually generate more muscle activity in their biceps and shoulders than professional pitchers during this phase, which is likely a contributing factor to increased injury risk.
During the acceleration phase, the pitcher continues rotating his arm forward until he releases the ball. One incredibly common mistake young pitchers make is releasing the ball to high and too early. An early release decreases control and velocity.
After the ball is released, the pitcher continues to rotate his arm forward at a slowing speed. Muscle tension in the throwing arm declines. Here, the pitcher must allow the natural momentum of his delivery to carrying him forward into the follow-through.
During the follow through, the pitcher allows momentum to naturally guide his body forward until he is squared with the plate. The pitcher must immediately assume a fielding position. Lack of balance during the follow-through indicates that the pitcher’s lead foot direction during his stride was incorrect.
All of the above stages of pitching mechanics occur during every single throw. Good pitchers master the mechanics of pitching, and they execute good pitching mechanics consistently in games. Furthermore, young pitchers must take equal care not to learn improper pitching mechanics. Practice is where players build habits. Make sure they are good ones.
That probably seemed like a ton of information to digest, but its best to work on one aspect at a time while striving to allow a young pitcher to maintain some of the quirks that make them unique. Pitching is a complicated art form that is sometimes better taught by a professional if you are not an expert. Of course that can get expensive. One approach is to schedule a few sessions with a quality pitching coach who can point your young pitcher in the right direction, and give them drills and cues that are tailored specifically for their ability and style. Once this foundation is in place it easier to create a routine for more consistent mechanics.
5. Pitch counts and days of rest
High school, college, and professional pitchers are all held to a specific pitch counts followed by a set number of days or rest. Somehow a lot of parents and coaches of 9-12 year old travel ball players do not feel the need to do the same for their young pitchers. I don’t understand this mentality. This is an age group that where overuse needs to be closely monitored.
This doesn’t mean throw less. There is an important distinction that needs to be made between throwing and pitching. Throwing can build arm strength. Pitching on the other hand is a violent motion that can lead to injury without proper precautions.
The solution is to implement a quality throwing program like the one we linked to earlier to build up arm strength, and then pitch on a reasonable schedule. Several youth leagues and organizations have published charts with recommended pitch counts and days of rest in relation to the age of the player. I personally apply the Little league International pitching recommendations.
I know this was a lengthy article that could seem overwhelming, so I thought I would try to summarize all of the information down to a few key common sense points.
1. Take a break in the winter, they are kids not machines.
2. Get your body moving before and after pitching.
3. Use your practice time wisely
4. Find an expert to learn proper mechanics from
5. Don’t over do it.
And above all make sure you enjoy the ride.