All athletes, regardless of their sport, ultimately seek to become a more athletic version of their current self. They want to be able to run faster, jump higher, throw it harder, and hit it further. One of the most important factors that will help athletes achieve this is to become more efficient with their movements. Efficiency is critical because in order to become a superior athlete, there can’t be any wasted movements. Every single movement that an athlete makes during any activity should be contributing directly to helping that athlete achieve the intended goal of the movement. Efficiency in an athlete’s mechanics has two great nemeses—time and tension. These two factors, if allowed to creep into an athlete’s movements, will prevent an athlete from being as mechanically sound as he could be, and will result in decreased performance levels. Let me address time and tension separately.

Time is an interesting thing. We all like having time to perform an activity. No one likes to be rushed, and the human body is no different. But time has a detrimental effect on movement. Time allows for your body to make movements that are not critical to the intended action. When your body has extra time to perform a movement it is going to do something to fill that additional time—essentially it will make itself busy until it is time to “perform.” For example, think about when you have a project or assignment due in two weeks. It can be difficult to work diligently on that assignment knowing that there is plenty of time to finish it. Therefore, people have a tendency to procrastinate and to do anything other than that project or assignment. This is obviously an inefficient use of that person’s energy and effort. The human body is really no different. If it has extra time it will fill that time with movements that don’t contribute to the goal of the activity.

For a pitcher, there can be inefficiencies in many parts of the pitching motion, but primarily—or at least where I think it shows up the most—is a pitcher’s arm action. When a pitcher has too much time, his arm action will not be as “tight” and efficient as it could be. This can lead to arm injuries and decreased velocities. This is why you want to make sure your body and arm has no excess time at all. You want it to be making only the necessary, critical movements that are going to contribute to throwing hard with command.

How can you help to decrease the amount of time your arm has during your delivery? The key is momentum. The more momentum you build during your delivery the less time your arm will have to just “hang out.” Instead, your arm will be forced to keep up with your body, which will require it to stay short and compact. However, as soon as a pitcher begins to slow his momentum down, which can occur if the pitcher pauses at the top of his delivery, or if there is too much counter-rotation back toward 2nd base, the arm will find that it is not in a rush because the body is not moving down the mound. As the body hangs back over the rubber, the arm can’t simply stay still, but instead it will fill this waiting period with extraneous movements. These movements will generally result in a inefficient arm action, as they do nothing to help build velocity.

This is why some of the best throwing drills to help improve an arm action are those where the athlete has no time due to exaggerated momentum. Such drills include step-behinds, step-intos, walking torques, and double plays. The more momentum a throwing drill has the better it is at teaching arm action. It is forcing the arm to perform with as little time as possible, which results in a short, tight, and efficient arm action.

The second enemy of efficient mechanics is tension. Of course, any athletic movement requires tension, as muscles must contract in order to perform the intended movement. But just as muscles must tense up as they contract, they must also relax when they are not being used. I have heard coordination described as the right muscles firing at the right time, and having great coordination simply means an individual demonstrates great athleticism. If the right muscles fire at the right time in order to create athleticism, then the other (“non-right” if you will) muscles better not be firing. They better be relaxing—free of any tension.

The reason tension in the wrong muscles is a bad thing is because it will change the way the body moves. Instead of simply letting the energy that has been building throughout the delivery to move through the body in the desired direction with the least amount of resistance, the tension will interfere with this chain reaction of energy, and will actually consume some of the energy. This means energy is lost while traveling through the body. The tension essentially destroys the ability for the energy to transfer efficiently through the body. Sprinters have learned the importance of relaxation perhaps better than athletes in any other sport. Watch an Olympic sprinter’s face in the middle of a race. It is usually quite relaxed compared to the rest of his/her body. But if you watch many amateur runners they are gritting their teeth and have a strained and stressed look on their face. In terms of pitching, unneeded tension throughout the arm, shoulders, and body can lead to less velocity and reduces the ability to repeat mechanics and have superior command.

Throughout my career, as I tried to improve my velocity, I often struggled with being too tense during my delivery. I often heard the suggestion, “Try to throw as hard as possible as easy as possible.” Essentially, coaches were trying to tell me to be smooth and easy while generating 90+mph fastballs. The reason people say this is because so many major-leaguers make it look so effortless when throwing hard. This is because they are ultra-efficient with their movements and know how to fire the right muscles at the right time.

So what is the best solution to try and be tension free before each pitch? Big, deep breaths before each pitch can be helpful to reduce tension. Even yoga and meditation techniques can be helpful as they can teach an athlete how to release some of the tension that builds up throughout a game or season. But probably the best and most effective way is to simply practice each throw during practice being as loose and free as possible. If an athlete makes it a habit every single throw to be loose and tension free then over time his body will become conditioned to firing the right muscles at the right time, which will lead to much better results.

If you can reduce the amount of time and tension during your pitching delivery you will be able to be more efficient in your movements, resulting in added athleticism, which is the key to throwing harder and getting better results day in and day out.

Until next time,

Brian Oates