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NFCA Coaching Tip Of The Week

I am frequently asked by other coaches how I deal with pitchers. The questions come from coaches in all levels of competition, from local leagues through Division I collegiate softball. Surprisingly, the questions do not vary much between the different levels.

The first point I must stress is that there are no quick solutions to pitching problems. I realize that coaches prefer not to face this reality but it is one of the great truths of athletics -- things simply don't get wished away. In fact, it is so important, I will state it one more time: There are no quick solutions for pitching problems.

With this being said, I will now share with you my combined experiences as a player and a coach. It is my hope that by blending these two unique viewpoints, I will shed some light on an area of the game that seems complicated but can be made easier by using a little common sense and through having a predetermined plan prior to the beginning of each individual game, as well as the season as a whole.

Basically, I am expecting you, the coach, to put the same type of effort you demand of your pitchers into their development. Are you willing to put in extra time to learn about pitching outside of practice? Can you dedicate yourself to this task until you see improvement? Are you willing to fail; to be embarrassed, frustrated, and at times confused so many times over that you lose count as you go through your career? Are you prepared to have a loss attached to your name? I emphasize to pitchers, parents and coaches it takes years to become a good pitcher. Notice the word "years" is plural and I chose the wording "good," not "great." If it takes years to grasp the physical side of pitching, it takes at least that long to learn the mental and psychological sides of the game.

Plan ahead. Start thinking about developing a pitcher or staff in the fall or winter before your spring or summer season. This, of course, requires a commitment ahead of time on your part. If you wait until practice starts, you will have waited too long. Perhaps the most important skill to practice as a coach and pitcher is to be proactive and not reactive to the game. This philosophy can be applied to every facet of pitching. I will refer back to it quite often.

Think about how you can include pitchers in practice to address their needs and your own. Coaches often focus on situations they can't control such as the accuracy of a pitch and forget to help their pitchers become complete players with skills in overhand throwing, catching pop-ups, game situations, covering home plate and bunt coverage. Think of how many bad innings and situations you would eliminate if your pitchers were proficient in these areas of the game. It leaves less to fix at game time and allows you and the pitcher to focus on actually executing a pitch during competition.

Develop an organized practice schedule. Allow pitchers enough time to practice the skills they will need to succeed in a game. Fifteen minutes per practice doesnÕt cut it. Sending the pitchers off to the far corner of the field doesnÕt cut it. I realized at an early age that I needed to put in many hours beyond my team practices to be a winning pitcher. Most pitchers accept this fact. What we, as pitchers, resent is practicing every day after in-season practices have concluded because our coaches are too distracted to incorporate the pitcher more into the practice.

In my opinion, a pitcher needs three physical skills to win consistently. Successful pitchers have control over pitch location, control over ball movement or spin, and are able to change pitch speeds. A pitcher should address these skills every time she picks up the ball. Even beginning pitchers should address these areas while working on mechanics and fundamentals during the learning process. Study drills and talk to as many successful pitchers and coaches as you can. Note I said "successful." Successful is defined as someone that consistently succeeded as a pitcher at a high level or taught several athletes that have won at that same high level. Beware the expert who threw one game in 1978 and is a self-proclaimed expert and has all the answers. There are no absolutes to pitching. No single person has all the answers for every pitcher. Your research should allow you to accumulate several drills to address the three areas I mentioned above and any others you may deem important. This will provide you with ways to occupy your pitchers intelligently during practice. Through repetition, your homework will provide activities that will improve your pitcher's performance.

I have recently begun urging parents and coaches to actually learn how to pitch. Find a catcher who will commit on a daily/weekly basis. Start from square one and throw the ball. Learn the drills and become proficient at demonstrating anything you want your pitchers to do. Discover for yourself how long it takes to master various skills. Learn how to deal with the day-to-day challenges of learning how to pitch. This experience will give you some much needed perspective. As coaches, we know how frustrating it is to deal with pitchers. Just remember it is never as frustrating for us as it is for the player.

(Part two of this article will appear next week and will focus on in-season coaching and on the psychological aspects of pitching.)