Softball: Game Changers to the Status Quo

It’s that time of year again, softball and baseball practices have begun. Each preparing for their respective seasons to be underway. While softball is essentially ths identical counterpart of baseball, these two sports both go about their “business” in very different ways. I have always found this an oddity as I stated before softball and baseball are essentially the same sport. In spite of this they don’t train the same, they don’t treat injuries the same, they don’t prevent injuries the same, and they pretty much do nothing the same. If softball adopted some of the principles baseball uses and geared them towards softball it’s players would benefit tremendously.

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Training: The Devil is in the Details
Prior to the season during “spring training” a program or individual athlete should take a look at how they go about training. The reason being, people assume a game with so much downtime would require athletes to perform a plethora of long distance training. However, down time is not synonymous to long distance at all. Softball is a very dynamic/explosive sport, by training athletes to run long distances it could have undesired effects. If coaches and athletes aren’t careful in how they go about training they run the risk of having slower home to first times, decreasing their bat speed, or decreasing pitching velocity. It would be wiser to implement dynamic/explosive movements mixed into these longer duration exercises with appropriate rest intervals and attention to quality of the movements. This will allow the athlete to increase their power for short bursts, decrease chance of early season injury, and give the athlete the ability to perform explosive actions in the later portion of the game with the same amount of output as they did in the beginning of the game.
The second thing to take into account is how highly rotational of a sport softball is. Everyday hundreds of times a day the softball player will rotate to ONE side and only that side. This leads to a high volume of deficits when compared left to right that often go unnoticed or completely ignored. It is important as a coach or an athlete to take into account how many times rotation to the one side occurs on a daily basis by tracking it, implementing exercises that integrate the opposite musculature, and develop appropriate flexibility in both sides of the body to decrease deficits the lead to dysfunction, loss of performance, and injury. Taking the time to create injury prevention programs/sports performance programs that address the issue of single side rotation can play a major role in the success of an individual athlete and a program as a whole.

Less this: Long distance running, junk lifting, and punishment spring-trainings

More this: Core stability/strength bi-lateral in all three planes, explosive drills, and functional training


 

Establish a Pitch Count
In the sport of baseball extensive research has been done to study how many pitches should be thrown before the risk of shoulder and elbow injury increases greatly. Over time they established that 100 pitches was their magic number for starting pitchers. Once their pitcher approaches this number or goes past this number their outing for the night is going to be over. Unlike baseball softball has yet to establish such a number for it’s pitchers. There is much controversy over the topic as most coaches do not see it as an issue regarding health or performance. This oversight is most often because:

  • Softball Games are Shorter
    As we all know a baseball game is nine innings while softball games are seven innings long. Due to the shorter length of the game a softball player may not throw a high volume of pitches in one outing, on a good day. The shorter game mindset is immediately negated once the starting pitcher is used in the second game of a double header. Utilizing the same pitcher back to back is commonplace in the world of softball. If that were even suggested in baseball a coach would be looked at like an insane person. By having a pitcher have repeat outings in one day this can increase their pitch count to double or even triple its original number. This also gives way to pitchers throwing repeat bouts like this in the same week. Many coaches find this to be alright mainly because of the following issues issues with establishing a pitch count, absence of tracking pitching velocity and the misconceptions about the underhand pitch.
  • Absence of Tracking Pitching Velocity
    The first of which is the absence of pitching velocity tracking. Before I continue I have to share a anecdote about this phenomenon. A few years ago I spent the better half of the year doing some independent research traveling to softball games tracking the velocity of various college pitchers. The idea of a radar gun in the stands was such a foreign concept to coaches, several games were stopped just to come question me about the legality of me using one during a game! If it were a baseball game no one would even bat an eye at seeing a radar gun. This 100 dollar investment gives coaches the ability to monitor any drop offs in their pitchers velocity, when it happens, how consistently they hit their average speed, and what speed they top out at. Because softball coaches do not utilize this simple piece of equipment and a simple chart to track this information, it becomes impossible to see the warning signs of overuse that leads to chronic injury/acute injury or in the case of performance if their pitcher has inconsistencies in pitch speeds.
  • Misconceptions About the “Underhand Pitch”
    If I had a dollar for how many times I have heard from a parent, coach, or an athlete, “Softball pitching is a natural motion so it places less stress on the shoulder, so softball pitching is safer. That’s why they don’t need a pitch count” I would be a very rich man. The reason this statement is important is, it is very untrue and is an unsafe perspective to have. While something may be “safer”, repeating it daily will still yield unsafe results when there are no systems of checks and balances in place. It is also important to note that a softball pitch is actually a windmill motion not an underhand motion. Comparing softball and baseball pitchers, the arm of a softball player will rotate at speeds of 5,000 degrees per second during a pitch while a baseball players arm rotates at 7,000 degrees per second. While this may seem like a significant difference take into account that the baseball player is throwing downhill and has much greater contribution from his kinetic chain than the softball player (which we will discuss later in this article) so strain on the shoulder is different. It is also important to note that compressive forces in certain areas of the shoulder and activity in biceps bracchii/biceps tendon is higher during the windmill throw than the overhand throw. Combining the speed of the arm and stresses placed upon structures specific to the posterior shoulder, would indicate that softball pitchers is capable of sustaining injuries to the rotator cuff, biceps tendon, and labrum at the same rate as those of baseball pitchers.

Focus on Pitching Mechanics

This is a great topic of debate in the world of softball, pitching mechanics. There are so many different ideas on what is right and what is wrong that even the general phases of softball pitching have so many different names; there is the utilization of the clock to describe where the arm is(6 to 3, 3 to 12, 12 to 9, and 9 to ball release), the traditional method (wind-up, cocking phase, late cocking phase, delivery, and follow through), and various others (stance phase, backswing, and delivery phase). No one has come to a general consensus on this as the amount of research on softball pitching is sparse in comparison to that of the baseball pitcher. I’m not going to go into gratuitous detail on the softball pitching mechanism, thats another article for another day, but I would like to make a few brief comparisons to illustrate the necessity to re-evaluate the way softball pitchers go about it.

  1. Starting position
    During the wind up phase the pitcher brings his leg up and across the midline of his body. This is done to load his hips in a tri-planar motion to achieve maximum acceleration to throw the ball. This phase sets up any of the following phases for success. If the pitcher has a restriction in trying to achieve this motion it will dramatically change their mechanics. In comparison to the softball player the reverse must happen. Instead of bringing the knee up and across the midline of the body, the torso must reach down and across the midline of the body to achieve this tri-planar loading of the hips. I feel that this mechanism in softball is often neglected to the overall success of the pitch. If this motion is evaluated and exploited to its full potential it could increase the softball pitchers success rate.
  2. Stride Length
    When it comes to baseball it is equated that a longer stride length will lead to greater pitching velocities. However, they have found that that only works to a certain point. Striding too far can also lead to loss of control, poor arm slot, and decreased velocity. Because of this understanding it has been shown that most high level pitchers strides should be between 80-85% of their height. These are the same pitchers who are throwing 80-90+ miles an hour. When we look at the softball pitcher more often than not they are striding 95-100% and more of their height and throwing 50-60+ miles an hour. Now i’m not saying correlation means causation however, it is very important to note that it is widely understood how over-striding leads to poor mechanics and loss of velocity. Maybe softball pitchers could adapt this approach to increase velocity or at the very least fix poor mechanics.
  3. Lower body position at delivery
    The point in which the pitchers front foot hits the ground during pitching is a critical moment. This is where all of the energy created during your wind up is lost in a wild/slower pitch or transmitted into a great controlled pitch. The reason this is so important is, if the the pitchers foot orientation is facing the plate ensuring his hips are open so his core is engaged and loaded this will stabilize, accelerate, and decelerate the shoulder properly. Without something as simple as loading the core by way of the lower extremity the shoulder has to do more work than it is prepared for and will eventually fail. When we look at the softball players foot orientation during delivery their hips are, more often than not, closed. This allows for the shoulder to do all the work during the throwing motion and the lower bodies job being shifted to only slowing itself down as to not step out of the pitching circle.

 

Focus on Throwing Mechanics
Pitchers are not the only members of a softball team at risk for shoulder and elbow injuries. Many softball position players’ throwing mechanics are never examined because often all that “matters” is they are able to catch the ball and deliver it to the desired base before the runner gets there. Just like pitching mechanics need to be evaluated the same needs to be done to address position players imporoper mechanics and corrected. These are a few examples of mechanic errors that should be addressed that softball players are infamous for:

-Leading with the elbow

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-Dropping the elbow below shoulder height

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-Leaning excessively to the side

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-“shotputting the ball”

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A little correction can go a long way when it comes to mechanics. By taking the time to  evaluate these details it can be game changer for an athletes health and career.


 

Injury Prevention 

While all of the above are approaches to prevent Injury there are still softball leaves much to be desired in the way of injury prevention in the realms of shoulder and elbow health. The two biggest culprits are:

Shoulder Maintenance
Baseball pitchers take extensive care of their shoulders on a daily basis. With the high volume of repetitions that pitchers perform on a daily basis it was discovered that a way to combat fatigue that leads to injury is to prevent it. Amongst the various baseball programs nationwide it is widely accepted that some sort of “Throwers 10 program” or scapular strengthening program is implemented. These exercises give pitchers the capability to successfully throw high volumes without minimal risk and allows maximal recovery between outing. To be successful as a pitcher it is understood that it is a basic requirement to do so. On the softball side, shoulder maintenance has yet to be accepted as a must for its’ pitchers. Softball pitchers complain of anterior shoulder pain/soreness all the time, yet the solution is always ice. This is something I have yet to understand as softball players have just as much demands on their bodies as baseball players do. If softball pitchers took the approach of prevention the wear and tear on their shoulders throughout their season, or better yet career, would be much less.

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Bullpen Depth
In the world of softball another interesting happening occurs. If you look at a baseball roster, the core group of pitchers has a relatively high number. This core consists of starts, short-relievers, long relievers, and closers. If you look at a softball roster the core group of pitchers might consist of two pitchers, three pitchers tops. On a number of rosters, especially in high school, there is often only one pitcher. As we established earlier that the same level of stress to the shoulder was evident in softball pitchers in comparison to baseball pitchers, why is it still commonplace to have softball pitchers throw so many outings per season? The better question is, why is it still acceptable? Softball games may be shorter, however, this argument only applies when a pitcher throws in one game. Most softball games are double headers taking the average outing from 7 innings to 14 innings. What is even worse is when their is a softball tournament some of these girls will pitch in up to 10 games within a three-day period. That is almost 1500-2000 pitches in a weekend! It would take a baseball pitcher a full season to reach that number. These staggering numbers are happening at all levels of the sport. In 2007 during the NCAA championship Taryne Mowatt pitched all 60 innings. Something as simple as having 3 starters and 2 relievers would change the wear and tear on pitchers dramaticaly.

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Baseball Bullpen (Pitching Depth)
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Softball Bullpen (empty)

 

Every sport has to evolve with the everchanging demands placed upon it. With the vast amount of information that has been accumulated about biomechanics, kinesiology, injury prevention, and sports performance, why has softball not “gotten with the times”? To a certain extent it is understood that softball is misrepresented in the realm of research in comparison to its’ counterpart baseball.  However, we know too much to keep breaking down softball athletes, especially pitchers. It is shortening seasons, and in many cases shortening careers. Maybe its time to re-evaluate the game, not how its done, but in how it treats its athletes.

Audric Warren

http://www.effort-performance.com

 

 

 

 

Softball: Game Changers to the Status Quo

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