Did you see the recent article on Bryce Harper in the Washington Post? If you haven’t read it yet, check it out online (there are some pretty cool interactive graphics).

Bryce Harper: A Swing of Beauty

Now I’m all about pitching here, but like I said in my interview with hitting coach, Mark Brooks, you can learn a lot from a hitter.

If you’ve ever had a chance to watch Bryce Harper hit, you know how much power he gets into his swing. He absolutely attacks the baseball – it’s the perfect example of “controlled aggression.”

In the article, Adam Kilgore does a great job examining the mechanics that produce that power (many similarities between hitting/pitching mechanics), but even more importantly, HOW he developed that swing (hint: it’s not all about mechanics).

When you read it you’ll see there are a lot of lessons that carry over to pitching (and really any athletic pursuit). Specifically, there are some great lessons here for parents and coaches when it comes to working with young athletes…

Including what I consider the single biggest mistake most people make when teaching young pitchers.

For parents, it also shows how the right approach, support and encouragement can go a long way towards helping your child maximize their potential.

(Side note: I have to thank my own dad for bringing this article to my attention… he’s always had a way of putting good info in front of me and letting me take the reins from there – thanks Dad).

[hr] [h5]Some key excerpts with lessons for pitchers, parents and coaches:[/h5]

 
Bryce Harper: “I don’t know how I got my swing or what I did. I know I worked every single day. I know I did as much as I could with my dad. But I never really looked at anything mechanical.”

Lesson 1: It’s about hard work
Read those words again, “I worked every single day.” There are no shortcuts. Nothing beats hard work and persistence.

Lesson 2: It’s not all mechanics!
Read that last part, “I never really looked at anything mechanical.” Don’t make it all about mechanics! Mechanics are important, but sometimes the best thing you can do is just focus on what you’re trying to accomplish (hitting or throwing the ball hard), and let that goal/intention guide you. In time, the body will figure out how to organize itself to get the job done.

 
“When his father returned home from his job as an ironworker, Harper begged him to pitch to him or feed him soft toss. Ron Harper erected a net in the garage.”

Lesson: Follow your inclination… Nurture it, develop it.
We all have things we’re inclined towards from an early age. That’s what you’re most likely to do well. Bryce used to beg his dad to work on his hitting. Not all kids will do that. If your son shows that kind of love for pitching, listen to him. Encourage it, even if it means just getting a net and a bucket of baseballs and letting him get after it.

 
Bryce Harper could not fathom how many soft tosses or batting practice pitches his father threw him. “Millions,” he said. “Absolutely millions.”

Lesson: You’re not just born with it.
Early in the article, Bryce talks about his swing being “God given.” But when you read that last statement, it should be clear that while there’s little doubt he was born with unusual talent, that power swing and his success today are the byproducts of hours of deliberate practice. As he says, millions of reps.

 
When he played football in high school, he would sneak into the batting cage between the end of class and practice, taking swings while wearing fully padded football pants.

Lesson: You have to have Passion!
If you study high achievers in any field, there’s one thing that stands out again and again. Almost without exception, their success was fueled by a burning passion bordering on obsession. If you want to be the best you can be, if you really want it, nothing will get in your way.

Side note: in this day of early specialization, take notice… he played multiple sports!

 
Ron coached his son with small reminders and large bullet points… he never bogged down Bryce with detailed instruction. “I’ve always been a big believer in, there’s times when you got to let people go and let them figure it out themselves,” Ron Harper said.

Lesson: Don’t over-coach! Give the athlete the freedom to develop their own feel.
This is probably the biggest mistake people make when coaching young pitchers. They think it’s all about mechanics. So they give the pitcher 15 different things to think about mechanically… this doesn’t work!

Athletic performance is predominantly right-brained activity (your feeling, sensing side). When you start over-analyzing you interfere with that process by bringing in the more analytical left side of your brain. The result? Paralysis by analysis. Kids become stiff, mechanical, and things get out of sync.

Mechanics are important, but don’t bog the young pitcher down with too much information. Make some suggestions, nudge them in the right direction, then let them go to work and figure it out.

 
But Harper has made modifications. Nationals officials say he actually was swinging harder when they drafted him — so hard, Schu said, his head would move as much as two feet during a swing. The “head travel” prevented Harper from recognizing pitches and led to misses.

“He knows how to shorten up and get the barrel to the ball,” Schu said. “And then he’ll pick some counts where he’ll let the big dog eat.”

Lesson: Train the intent to throw hard… then learn to dial it back.
Developing a powerful swing or pitching delivery comes from hard work and a lot of high intensity training. If you just practice having a nice, clean delivery, you’ll end up with a nice pitching motion that’s easy on the eyes… but without that intention to throw hard you’ll never reach your full potential.

Bonus lesson: Keep learning, keep growing.
It’s equally important to note, just because he’s reached the big leagues that doesn’t mean he’s stopped learning. The best athletes are always looking to make adjustments, find ways to improve.

As a pitcher, developing power and velocity is important, but you’ll have better command and success if you learn to operate at 90%. Then you can pick your spots and crank it up when you want to blow them away.

 
So that’s a lot of pitching lessons from just one article on hitting. Believe it or not, I even left out some things to try to keep this post from getting too long! So go check out the article, and if you’re a parent or coach, I hope this piece makes you think a little differently about how you’re working with your young pitchers.

And if you’ve read this far, I hope you can do two more things…
[h5]Share this post with your friends and leave your comments in the box below![/h5] [h5]Thanks![/h5]

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m doing things a little different today. As I look at where I am today with my coaching and the work I do with young pitchers, I can’t help but think back to the first pitching lesson I ever gave…

[h5]My mother was my first student[/h5]

I don’t remember my exact age, but I must have been 8, maybe 9 years old. My brother and I used to give her kind of a hard time (in a loving, joking way) for “throwing like a girl.” I’m not sure what prompted me, but I guess I felt bad, and one day I decided I would try to help her out.

I still remember throwing the ball back and forth, sharing some of my 8 year old pitching wisdom, and watching her gradually get better. I think the reason this memory is so indelible has to do with the obvious role reversal… Like most kids growing up, my mother was my biggest teacher… and here I was actually teaching her something!

So with Mother’s Day coming up, today I’m going to share just a small sampling of the many lessons I learned from my mother over the years.

[h4]4 things my mom taught me that made me a better pitcher & coach[/h4] [h5]1. Do your daily duty[/h5]

Whenever things got tough, my mom had a way of putting things in perspective… She’d remind me that there were people a lot worse off, that we had a responsibility of sorts…

In life, you can’t always control the circumstances that surround you. The important thing is to face life head-on, and do what you can in your current situation to move forward in a positive way.

She called this “doing your daily duty.” What are you in a position to do right now that can have a positive impact on your life and others? This could mean all sorts of things… focusing on your training, doing your school work, or lending a helping hand to someone who needs it.

The lesson for pitchers is simple: Stop making excuses, start taking action.

[h5]2. Treat people with respect[/h5]

This is something that was basically just bred in me from the time I was a small boy. I can’t really point to a specific moment or incident where my mom imparted this lesson to me; it was more just the cumulative effect of her words and actions, again and again. But regardless, the message was always clear:

Other peoples’ feelings matter. Treat them with respect.

For pitchers, this means treating your coaches with respect (even if you don’t see eye to eye), treating your teammates with respect (pick them up, don’t knock them down), and even treating the umpire with respect (that’s right, they’re people, too).

I know I sometimes I fall short of this ideal, but I do my best… and as she would probably tell me, that’s all you can do.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – attributed to Plato

[h5]3. Keep learning, keep growing[/h5]

My mom is one of the most curious people I know (my dad’s right up there, too, actually… probably why they’re such a good team). If you ever asked her something and she wasn’t sure the answer, she wouldn’t just shrug her shoulders or try to come up with some incomplete answer to appease me.

More often than not we’d head over to the Encyclopedia (remember those?), and she wouldn’t rest until we’d found the answer, and we’d learned something together.

That approach had a big impact on me. It told me that it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers… the world is a fascinating place, keep learning, keep growing… That’s the approach I took with my pitching and I apply it every day with my work as a coach.

The lesson for pitchers: Keep Learning. Keep Growing. Get Better.

[h5]4. “Have Fun!”[/h5]

I think we all know playing baseball’s supposed to be fun – it is a game, after all. This was my mother’s send-off to me before every game I ever played: “Have fun!”

As I got older, I’d tell her that my goal wasn’t just to go out there and “have fun.” I wanted to go out and play well! Playing well was fun. But that didn’t stop her, and I’m thankful for that. It reminded me that my mother didn’t really care if I was a star pitcher; that’s not what mattered to her. All she cared about was having a happy, healthy son.

And at the end of the day, I knew that whether I pitched lights out or got lit up, my mom would be right there with a big hug and a warm heart. And nothing that ever happened out there playing a game could change the way she felt about me.

[h5]Thanks for all the lessons, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day![/h5] [hr] photo source: hardballtalk.nbcsports.com

*This article is adapted from a response I initially gave over at online pitching forum, letstalkpitching.com.
[hr] One thing that stands out when you watch major league pitchers is just how much whip (for lack of a better word) you see in their throwing arms. And it makes a lot of sense that greater external rotation in your throwing shoulder would contribute to higher velocity. The research supports this, and all you have to do is take a look at photos of hard throwing pitchers at max external rotation (MER) or full arm “lay back” to see it.

Max-External-Rotation-Chapman-Wagner

And if you don’t have the range of motion in your shoulder to get your forearm near parallel with the ground at MER you’re not going to get the same catapult effect in the elbow extension/acceleration phase of your throw.

But before you go stretching your arm ‘til it falls off, some things to consider:

[h5]1. How old are you and how long have you been pitching:[/h5] A good part of it is skeletal, and has to do with what’s known as Osseous Adaptation (basically bone adaptation). It depends on how much you threw/pitched in your adolescent years before your growth plates closed.

Studies have shown that both college and pro pitchers exhibit greater than average external shoulder rotation than non-throwers. The same studies also show these pitchers have greater external rotation in their throwing arms than their non-throwing arms, so it’s not just something they were born with.

At the same time, pitchers show below average internal rotation, and this tends to get worse immediately after pitching and over the course of a season. For more on this, do some research on GIRD (Glenohumeral Internal Rotation Deficit)…

GIRD has been linked to increased risk of shoulder injuries (click here for one such study), but proper stretching protocols can help improve and maintain internal range of motion in pitchers. Here is one commonly recommended post-throwing stretch for improving/maintaining internal rotation:

The Sleeper Stretch

The more I discuss with industry professionals, the more I learn that it’s all about the individual. Many, including Mike Reinold (another fantastic resource), feel that too much sleeper stretch can actually work against you. He does a great job explaining and demonstrating the stretch in this article.

[h5]2. What is Humeral Head Retroversion?[/h5] The main thing the studies find is what’s called humeral head retroversion. This basically means the head of your humerus (upper arm where it fits in your shoulder socket) has twisted slightly over the years with the repeated stress of throwing.

– Humeral head retroversion in competitive baseball players and its relationship to glenohumeral rotation range of motion (click here for the study).

– Osseous adaptation and range of motion at the glenohumeral joint in professional baseball pitchers (click here for the study).

I’m not a doctor (didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn last night), but that’s my understanding based on my research and discussions with those in the medical/physical therapy fields. Sounds pretty crazy, but it’s actually a positive adaption that works in a pitcher’s favor. I know I still have way more external rotation in my throwing arm than my non-throwing arm.

[h5]3. Pitchers tend to gain external rotation over the course of a season:[/h5] Probably the best way to improve external rotation is just good old fashioned throwing… lots and lots of it (within reason, of course). Over the course a season, it’s normal for pitchers to develop greater external rotation as a result of the repetitive act of throwing.

Glenohumeral rotational range of motion in collegiate overhead-throwing athletes during an athletic season (click here for the study).

So when you think about it, actively stretching your arm where it’s already getting loose on its own doesn’t make much sense. You’re just creating more instability in the joint, putting you at greater risk of injury.

[h5]4. Flexibility and Stability in all the right places:[/h5] Increased flexibility and range of motion are good, but only if accompanied by increased strength and stability. If you just stretch the [bleep] out of your arm and don’t work on strengthening the muscles around the joints (scapular stabilization, in particular) you’re asking for a trip to the DL.

For a better understanding, looking at Gray Cook’s joint-by-joint approach is a good starting point. An in-depth discussion goes beyond the scope of this article, but the basic premise is simple: certain joints tend to be tight and can benefit from greater flexibility; others tend to be unstable and can benefit from greater stability.

For example, we generally want flexibility in our ankles and more stability in our knees… working up the body, we want mobility in our hips, stability in our lumbar spine (lower back). In our throwing arm, greater range of motion in our shoulder is good, but we want to accompany that with stability in the scapular region.

[h5]5. You can increase total “Range of Motion” with better thoracic mobility:[/h5] The main benefit of increased external rotation is increased distance over which a pitcher can accelerate the arm into ball release (velocity = distance/time). You can also increase that distance through greater chest thrust and thoracic mobility (think of an archer pulling back on a bow).

Andrew-Bailey-Chest-Thrust-Thoracic-Mobility
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Photo source: Jason O. Watson, US PRESSWIRE

Bottom line: If you’re 20 years old and have never thrown a baseball in your life, no amount of stretching is going to get you the kind of natural external rotation found in college and pro pitchers who have been throwing a baseball since they were kids. And if you’re a 13 yr old pitcher you aren’t likely to have as much external rotation in your shoulder as you will when you’re 18.

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