Training our young arms

1 (4)by Dan Olear— Pitching Coach/Instructor Cranford, NJ

I started my coaching career when I was 23 years old, a varsity assistant in high school.  By the age of 29 I was a head coach at a St. Peter’s (NJ) College.  I knew nothing about pitching and had no money in the budget for a good pitching coach.  Pitching wins games, I had no choice but to learn all I could about it, and how to develop strong, reliable arms.  That was 1998. 18 years later, I no longer coach in college yet I am still learning all I can about pitching and pitchers themselves.

I now spend my time as a pitching/hitting instructor on the East Coast, and coach for my son’s 10U travel team.  Most of the players I instruct are 9-12 years old.  These are formative years for arm development.

What I believe should be happening (and what we promote) is targeting what specific players need and strengthen at appropriate ages. Most parents may feel that since they are paying for it, their player needs to do more baseball activities and less weight/strength training. Most young players are not strong enough to do what you want them to do, they will try, they will do it incorrectly, and they will increase the poor behavior with every rep they take.  This is a major issue!

I try to encourage coaches of travel organizations to pay attention to their pitchers the same way they pay attention to their hitters. For example, if they feel the hitters are struggling to hit a certain pitch or location, they will have hitters focus on that particular problem.

When we hit, we get loose by first hitting off the tee, followed by soft toss, short toss, and finally live throwing. Your pitchers can be treated in the same manner.

Our summer team emphasizes throwing strikes, which keeps our pitch counts down and keeps our defense in the game. Strikes produce contact and contact helps develop our defense. We build confidence in our pitchers and while they may not throw sliders or curves, they throw strikes, and strikes build confidence!

We train our pitchers through a series of drills prior to actually pitching off a mound. We do these drills all winter long and before every practice.  Some of the pitchers will choose a couple of drills to do before their starts during the season. These drills provide a foundation for our pitchers.

The idea in the winter is to improve athleticism.  These kids play other sports during the winter months- which are a great- but they use a different muscle group for each sport, so we try to get them together once a week for conditioning, arm care, and some weighted ball throwing.  The focus during the conditioning part is on drills that make the player understand how to move/control their body, to make them “aware” of what they’re trying to do.  We start with conditioning and try to focus on the legs and footwork as they pertain to body movement. Players will group up and move through stations (slideboard, box jumps, and med ball squat jumps), which helps get the blood flowing and loosens up the joints in the knees and ankles.

We then move onto the throwing portion of our workout. The first thing we do before breaking up into groups is a throwing exercise called the “Marshall Drill” (instructions for this drill can be found online). The players are again broken into groups for rotating drill stations.

The final segment of our training session is to “blend” the drills they did earlier into the delivery used in the game. This “blending” aspect is without a doubt the most important language I use.  The goal is to create a connection between drill and delivery, which takes coordination and strength. This is where I believe repetition needs to be the focus. If our pitchers buy into the fact that we are training their arms at the same time we’re working on them, we are able to create a learning thought process and give a real purpose to the drills we use.

Each pitcher we have learns differently and each have their own challenges they need to work on.  With that in mind, we set up two stations for “blending”- two mounds next to each other; one drill for each mound. The idea is to have one mound used for your game-speed delivery and the other for drill work. During this time, we encourage our pitchers to think about the drills we are do and blend them into the delivery. This is an ongoing process with each pitcher; once he gets comfortable with his delivery we will add a new drill into the blending process.

1 (2)During the season, we take each outing and evaluate it based on pitch count and command.  When our pitchers get into their post-game workout, we will add drills to fix any issues we may have seen.  This is what we feel is important to the ongoing learning and the desire to achieve more than we have.  We are not afraid to try new ways of development. Doing things over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity; and we refuse to go insane!

We want our pitchers to be athletic, so we ask them to do athletic things. We also strengthen parts of the body that are used to pitch, ankles, knees, joints and more.

We show them how and make them feel what they are doing; they will only learn if they “feel” what they are doing.

Additionally, we use a radar gun during the entire process.  We feel this brings about a bit of inner competition, the players see each other’s velocity and it creates a little competition and also helps them focus on the drill.  When they see a jump in velocity, it emphasizes the point we are trying to make.

The day after pitching, our players run a bit to get loose begin their daily protocol of tubing exercises, the Marshall drill, and reverse throws, followed by light tossing and finally 60-90-foot long-toss with fastballs and changeups. We then put them through a series of drills at a short distance (no catcher, just a fence for a target). They will throw a 30-35 pitch bullpen on day two, and throw according to need until their next outing.

We create practice situations where our pitchers compete against each other nearly every day. This typically results in our pitchers becoming a tight-knit group who root for each other to do well during games. Our ultimate goal is to build confidence, not win games. If we work hard, the winning will come.

At the ABCA convention in Nashville this past year, I met Dr. Michael Shepard, the team doctor for the Anaheim Angels. We sat outside waiting for a bus and started talking about pitching and Tommy John surgery. He was telling me how he had just performed Tommy John on three 10-year olds. That is when I realized that we need to keep training and developing rather than worrying about wins and losses.