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Throwing a softball fast.

Almost 20 years ago I sat in a gym along with three or four dozen other parents on the last day of a six-week softball-pitching clinic.


For six consecutive Saturdays all of us had made the morning trek to the local pitching guru in hopes of gaining some advantage in our local leagues. Of course, all of our daughters had shown some talent, a glimmer of promise, and that was why we were here.

Good parents all, not wanting to deny our kids a chance at success.

Now on the last day of the clinic it was "timing" day. In the world of fast-pitch, the final exam.

The 40 or so participants got timed for five pitches each. They pitched in turn while a very serious looking man crouched behind the catcher pointing a radar gun at them.

And after each pitch, he shouted out the time that was duly recorded by yet another very serious looking man. He shouted loud enough that everyone in the gym could hear.

And you could always tell who the parents of the pitcher were. Their faces grimaced with every throw as if by some telepathy they could coax another couple of miles an hour.

It was, for all of us in that gym, the beginning of a very confusing and often painful road.

Little has changed. Today I am a pitching instructor ... one of many local pitching gurus that preach and peddle our wares like evangelists. And while we all are nice enough guys and gals, our experience varies and our methods are oftentimes very different.

Pitching instruction is a lot like asking five different people for directions ... while all of us may get you where you want to go, we each may get you there a little differently.

Still, despite the bevy of techniques, catch phrases, drills and videos; one would expect that there cannot be that many different ways to throw a ball and thus whatever instruction is received, should at least have a similarity.

But does it?

And so in the beginning as I struggled, like you, to make sense of all this instruction it occurred to me that certain things had to be true. That no matter what you called it or how you wrapped it, throwing was a physical act and therefore was ruled by the laws of physics.

If you can suspend what you know about pitching and think of it simply, all of this is true:

1. The goal is to throw the ball as fast and as straight as possible to a target. Therefore everything you do should be straight and fast toward your target.

2. The goal is to get batters out. And so it is important to know why batters succeed or fail.

3. The goal is to throw in a manner that is not physically harmful.

Regardless of how complex pitching can become (and it will), we must always return to those three things. And so when we talk about throwing a softball fast, we have to return to these pitching "truths."

While pitching may appear to be one motion it is actually several motions put together in a specific sequence. And while there are a number of names for them and others may have more steps, to pitch you simply have to take a stride, swing your arm, release the ball, and follow through.

Simplicity here is by design. I want our pitchers to understand why things work and be able to use the information we give them. My belief is that winning is generally a question of making adjustments throughout the game ... how to succeed when your pitches may not be working perfectly ... pitching to strong hitters, fast hitters, weak hitters, and succeeding in all cases.

More steps or complex explanations only make those adjustments more difficult.

Knowing that we want to ball to go straight to our target, it only makes sense that in order for the ball to go straight we should do those four things straight. And in order to make the ball go fast, we should do those four things fast.

Ah ... if it were only that easy!

Speed becomes our obsession because early on it will succeed regardless of control. If you can throw the ball fast in the general direction of the plate, you will find that most batters will swing or the inexperienced umpires (generally someone's older brother or sister) will call strikes. But as hitters and umpires improve, speed is not as important as location. A three hundred mile an hour fastball will not matter if you can't find the target.

There are two ways a pitcher can miss a target: side to side or up and down. Missing side to side is an indication of a "line" problem. Or, more simply, if one of the four parts of the pitch does not go straight, the ball will not go straight.

The second way to miss is up or down and that is a release problem: you simply held on to the ball too long or let it go too soon.

With every pitch, adjustments may be necessary and knowing how and what to fix may be the difference between winning and losing.

So even as we talk about speed, we must always keep in mind proper mechanics, control, and how to make adjustments.

Want to throw faster? Here's how:

1. Your stride generates much of the power necessary to throw fast. A long, aggressive stride generates power. Increase your stride and you will increase your speed. Think about an outfielder throwing home ... is her stride long or short? What would be the result of taking a short stride? There has been a lot of debate about a short "walking" stride when pitching. But there is simply no way to argue that a long stride produces power. Remember that what is true overhand, has to be true underhand. The rules of physics don't change. A long stride, if balanced will produce speed under control.

2. A fast arm circle will produce speed. If you ever put water in a bucket and swung the bucket around in a circle, you could prove this. Swing your arm fast and the water stays in the bottom of the bucket. Slow your arm down and you get wet. The reason is inertia or that the water is "pushing" at the bottom of the bucket. The faster your arm goes, the more the water pushes. A ball held in your hand and swung in a circle does the same thing. It always wants to leave, the reason it doesn't is because you hold on to it. And the faster your arm goes, the more energy or the faster it wants to leave. Increasing your arm swing speed increases ball speed.

3. A good wrist snap increases speed. A great stride and fast arm swing can be undone by a poor wrist snap. The ball in the end will only go as fast as the last part touching it. The speed of the hand at the point of release will determine speed and that's that. Everything else aids in the production of energy. It is the wrist that releases it.

4. A fast powerful follow through will make the ball go faster. Think of the follow through when you bat. Why do you follow through? The ball doesn't care does it? It's already gone. The reason we follow through when we hit is because we want to hit "through" the ball. Or more simply we want to be sure that we are moving our fastest at the point of contact and if that's true than we don't slow down until after the ball is gone, thus the follow through. When we see a pitcher that stops at the release, commonsense tells us that she had to slow down before that. A pitcher that didn't slow down until after the ball was gone should have her arm up in a "making a muscle" pose. A follow-through also includes closing your hips. Every pitcher at some point has been told to snap her hips. The debate is when and how. The hips close after the hand passes. Why? Because again, speed without control is useless and in order to make a straight line, the hand must pass first. So, while the hips aid in the production of speed, they do after the fact.

This will not end the debate on how to increase speed I'm sure. As long as there are coaches and parents and pitchers, there will be opinions. However I urge you to consider what makes sense scientifically. You can argue with me and second-guess my calls, but you cannot argue with physics.

And while every parent and every pitcher wants more speed, the ability to throw a ball fast is to a large extent genetic. Our goal as instructors shouldn't be to throw the fastest, but for our students to throw as fast as they are capable of throwing.

There is so much more to pitching that speed. Over and over again in 20 years of coaching, playing and watching this game, I've seen fast dominant pitchers at 10-years-old become outfielders or spectators at 18.

Of utmost concern should always be the safety of our players. As you continue down the treacherous road of fast-pitch softball, remember that this is, has been, and will always be a game. In 20 years no one will remember how many you struck out except you, but hopefully you will still be able to lift your arms and find pleasure in a game of catch.

Keep your training sensible and safe.

By Gil Arzola, Head Coach, Indiana Bulldogs, Valparaiso, IN
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Title Annotation:pitching instruction
Author:Arzola, Gil
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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