One of the worst feelings I remember as a player was when my team and I arrived to the field late. It was a scramble to get all the equipment off the bus, hustle to the bathrooms (which were usually not anywhere close the field), rushing through warm-ups, and we would end up skipping valuable routine drills. A routine is vital for both mental and physical preparation. When players don't have a plan in place, they end up feeling out of sync, they’re not in control, and they miss out on essential benefits that could lead to success on the mound. Here are 4 steps pitchers should implement to ensure they have an efficient pre-game routine in place.
Step 1: Improve Soft-tissue quality
Soft tissue quality is basically the tissue’s ability to perform optimally without the presence of pain or discomfort. Almost everything we do in life causes stress to the body; physical activity, school, and even your emotions (imagine any college athlete). This stress creates micro tears in your muscles called "microtrauma." This surplus of stress results in the tissue healing itself and getting stronger, which is good. The bad happens when we neglect to perform self-massage over a long period of time. These tears end up not healing as well and the muscles will begin to "stick" to other tissues which in return can lay down nasty "trigger points" that create the feeling of being “tight". Most of these "tight" spots are most commonly found on the backside of the shoulder and neck for softball players.
A 2005 study by Werner showed that it's not abnormal to find softball players racking up 1,200 to 1,500 pitches over a 3-day tournament weekend (compared to 100-150 for baseball pitchers). With this much pitching volume there is definitely going to be a significant amount of cumulative tissue trauma occurring.For softball players, I highly suggest blocking off 10 minutes before you hit the field to tackle these areas in the video below. A massage stick, softball, and even a small foam roller are essentaial tools to carry along to the field.
Step 2: Utilize a dynamic warm-up, not a static one
When I think of static stretching, I think of relaxing and so do your muscles. Using a static warm-up to prepare your body for an explosive movement won’t get the job done. Many youth softball teams have an ugly habit of huddling up in a circle and performing lazy static stretches that involve drills like the cross body stretch (posterior capsule stretch), arm circles, behind the head triceps stretch, hamstring, hip flexor, and quad stretches. Something we all have to keep in mind is that many (not all) of softball players have a considerable about of joint laxity. This meaning that we don't have to place mobility at the top of the priority list due to the fact they already have plenty of joint range of motion to work with. What we can do though is perform drills that teach players how to stabilize their body before performing an explosive and dynamic movement such as pitching.
Taking this into account, I do all my ground base activation drills first then gradually work to standing drills that take care of several things at once.
A sample warm-up for a "lax" youth softball pitcher may look something like this. (Watch the sample pre-game warm-up video below to see these drills in action).
1 Supine Glute Bridge March x8/side
2 Deadbug with Full Exhale x4/side
3 Rock back Quadruped Extension Rotation x8/side
4 Short Side Bridge with Full Exhale x3-4 Breaths/side
5 Walking Bowler Squats x5/side
6 High Knee Balance Lateral Lunge with Overhead Reach x5/side
7 1-Leg SLDL Walk x5/side
8 Spiderman Hip Lift with Overhead Reach x5/side
After you have done both ground-based and standing activation drills, spend 5 to 8 minutes getting players moving with various low-level plyometric drills to help increase body temperature and prime the body for the task at hand. With this in mind, a low-level part 2 dynamic warm-up might include these drills found in the video below.
Now that our body is primed and ready to go, let's talk about "turning on" our cuff prior to pitching and throwing.
Step 3: Activate not stretch the cuff
Many players mistake the cross body stretch (posterior capsule stretch) as a useful drill to get the shoulder prepared to throw. Bear this in mind, the last thing I want for my already loose softball athlete is to stretch out a structure that is so important for providing shoulder stability. Instead, performing variations of standing external rotations holds to a wall or banded external rotations can aid in creating stability in the posterior capsule, help teach true ball-in-socket external rotation, and helps the athlete stay away from anterior humeral glide while throwing. Here, Eric Cressey goes over common do's and don'ts when working to prepare your cuff for throwing.
Step 4: Ease into your long toss
Would it be safe to walk into the gym (no warm-up), load the hex bar up with 90% of your 1 rep max and attempt to pull it? Exactly, you wouldn't do it. We have to remind ourselves that game-speed windmill pitching is very similar from a CNS standpoint in the way that heavy deadlifts are to the body. Look to continually ease into your long-toss by gradually increasing intensity, building up arm speed, and getting your hips to move faster. Here is a quick example, once you hit 43 feet.
Stage 1 (Working back)
At 65 ft throw x5 pitches (focus on making each pitch looking exactly the same, also known as "pitch tunneling")
At 75 ft throw x5 pitches
At 85 ft throw x5 pitches (make 3 of these a change-up and throw it with the same if not more arm speed than your fastball.)
At each stage working back, recognizing and feeling the additional drive, rotational power, and extension needed to make it to the catcher.
Stage 2 (Working forward)
At 75 feet throw x2-3 pitches
At 65 feet throw x2-3 pitches (tempo, arm speed, and drive should look and feel powerful)
At 55 feet throw x2-3 pitches
Many of the best pitchers in the game still use longer warm-ups and long toss sessions to prepare both their mind and body for the upcoming task at hand. Use these 4 essential components to elevate your game to the next level and decrease your risk of injury.