What Playing Basketball Can Teach You about Pitching

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This summer I was sitting outside watching my two year old play in our front yard. She’d given me one of her toys to hold, a little plastic animal, and noticing her bucket (she’d been playing with a pail and shovel) about 15 feet away, I decided to play around and take a shot. To my surprise, it went right in on my first try (it gave her a good laugh, too).

I’m a strong believer that there’s far too much early specialization when it comes to youth sports today. But that’s a bigger discussion and probably warrants an entire series of articles all its own.

Today I just want to discuss how playing other sports as a child can make you a better pitcher. I’m focusing on basketball because a) it’s what I know, and b) it relates directly to the way most people think about accuracy and good mechanics.

With pitching, we as coaches and parents tend to place a lot of emphasis on mechanics. And for good reason… you need good mechanics to throw hard with consistency. But when it comes to accuracy, thinking too much about mechanics is a recipe for disaster. It’s tough to throw strikes when you have 5 people yelling at you:

“Bend your back!”    “You’re flying open!”    “Get your arm up!”

How are you supposed to focus on hitting the glove
when you’re thinking about where your arm is?
Growing up I played a lot of basketball, and I kept playing all the way through high school. The age of specialization was coming, but hadn’t fully arrived. We had a hoop out back, and I spent countless hours out there taking shots from all over the blacktop. And I developed a pretty good outside shot.

Are good mechanics important in basketball?

Sure. Good form certainly helps, it just isn’t emphasized the way it is in baseball. When a player misses a shot, how often do you hear a coach blame poor mechanics? A coach might have you practice hitting 50 free throws, but he’s not critiquing you after each miss. “Bend your knees! Use your legs! Get your elbow in! Extend your arm!” …at least not if he’s a good coach.

Focus on the desired result: When you practice a shot in basketball, focusing on the path you want the ball to take, imagining it go through the net, is usually a lot more effective that thinking about having good form. Repeating a shot over and over allows you to get the feel for it. Sure, a mechanical adjustment might help if you are wildly inconsistent. But overall, just finding what works and getting that feel and repeating it is the better approach. Why should pitching be any different?

Why are some players such awful free throw shooters?

Free throws are the only time you shoot when the game is stopped. You’re not in your natural rhythm. In short, there’s too much time to think. Players start thinking about things like mechanics and past negative outcomes and get into what I call right-brained thinking. But often, you see the same player make that shot in the natural flow of the game, no problem.

The same principles apply in pitching… You’re out there alone on the mound, nothing happens until you throw the ball. If you can stay loose and in flow, you give yourself the best shot at executing a quality pitch. If you start worrying and obsessing about mechanics, you don’t have a shot.

Now I’d never practiced that shot with the toy outside before that moment, so how did my body know what to do? Simple. I wasn’t worried about mechanics.

I’ve been throwing, tossing, shooting things all my life – baseballs, basketballs, footballs (heck, you can also throw in there tennis balls, apples, rocks, snowballs and a slew of other objects light enough to hold and toss). I know what throwing a heavy object feels like, I know what throwing a light object feels like.

Now if I took that same shot 20 times, would I make it every time? Not a chance. Was luck involved? Maybe. But the point is, I made the shot without giving an ounce of thought to mechanics or where my release point needed to be. I just felt the weight of the toy, and my mind told my body exactly what it needed to do to throw it in the bucket.

You’ve probably had experiences like this before. Ever make a wild basketball shot, or throw a crumpled up paper into a trash can? How did your body learn how to do that?

The mind/body connection is more powerful than most people realize. Doctors and scientists don’t even completely understand how it works, but there’s no denying it. And you enhance this connection when you play more than one sport.

This is also one of the benefits of long toss. You learn how to hit a target from different distances. It takes you out of the confines of the pitching delivery – you can stop thinking “I need to have perfect mechanics” – and gives you instant feedback. You can read more about that here: The Long Toss Debate (Part II): The Benefits.

So are good mechanics important for pitching? Absolutely. Are mechanics the biggest cause for control problems? Not exactly, but they’re certainly a factor.

But here’s the bigger question: Will thinking about mechanics make it easier to throw strikes?

Absolutely not.

Mechanics are important for power and consistency. But once you commit to making the pitch, you have to just trust your mechanics, focus on your target, and execute the pitch.

Here are some quick tips for developing a solid, repeatable delivery, so that when it comes time to compete, you’re not thinking about mechanics.

  • Use good drills: Drills are helpful for training different aspects of the pitching delivery. BUT, and this is important…
  • Stick with drills that train good movement patterns (rather than focusing on positions!) There are a ton of bad pitching drills out there.
  • Repeat your delivery: Repetition breeds consistency. This can include mound work (bullpen work) or what’s sometimes referred to as dry work or shadow work (basically practicing your delivery without a ball). If using a towel helps give you the feel for practicing your delivery with something in your hand, that’s fine too, just make sure you use it this way.

Bonus tip: Practice your delivery with your eyes closed.
It will really help you hone in on what your body is feeling.

When working on control and command, emphasize FEEL over mechanics.
Throw one low and away – how did that feel? Repeat it. Now throw one inside – how did it feel? Repeat. The same way repeating your delivery improves consistency with your mechanics, repetitive “target practice,” so to speak, will improve control and command.

Instead of focusing entirely on one specific skill like pitching, I encourage young athletes to play other sports. The challenges and unique demands of each sport will improve motor coordination, body awareness, and make you an all around better athlete. And being a better athlete will make you a better pitcher.

Special note: While I’ve had the idea for this article for a while, aspects of it were heavily influenced by an article I read recently on BaseballThinkTank.com. Lantz and his team do a great job – if you’re not familiar with it, you should add it to your list. After going back to re-read that article, I’m embarrassed by some of the similarities, so wanted to make special note of that here. Here is the link: Discover Why Pitchers Can’t Throw Strikes And How It Can Be Fixed In 5 Minutes!