I’ll never forget it. There I was in my High School Spanish class (boy that seems like a long time ago!) and we had a foreign exchange student from Mexico in the class. I think he took Spanish for an “easy class” that he could just cruise through. Boy was he wrong! You would think that coming from a Spanish speaking nation and having known nothing but Spanish all his life, he’d be a wiz at the language right? Well, not according to the teacher.
Nevermind that, with full admission, the teacher had not been to Mexico, Spain, or any other Spanish speaking country… she was in charge and had all the answers. Afterall, she learned it from HER professors and teachers. Therefore, her information must be correct, right? Afterall, someone must’ve actually learned Spanish and passed it down from generation to generation, right? Before this exchange student got into the class, we all thought our teacher knew Spanish. She could speak it and say just about anything in the foreign language, the same way James Bond asks for Martinis in every country of the world. But, when this student came into class and began correcting the teacher on things, needless to say it wasn’t well recieved! The teacher became stunned and was in disbelief that what she was teaching apparently wasn’t correct. Well, let me back up a little first and say… the initial reaction was defiance. This foreign exchange student was wrong, SHE knew correct grammer, not him. Now, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this was amusing to a bunch of rebelling high school kids who disliked the teacher anyway. As an ending to the story, I don’t know what grade the student ended up with on his exams but… isn’t it kind of amusing that someone like this teacher, who could not speak the language herself, was grading papers and trying to teach someone that could?
In my travels of coaching softball pitching, I come across this very same concept all the time. Sure, that teachers intentions were the best but, to actually try to tell someone who is a native of a Spanish speaking country that they are wrong in their grammer is just silly. The same way that many pitching coaches today who have not pitched before try teaching things. Their intentions are honorable and they mean well but, the problem is if bad habits in pitching are started from the beginning, they can be brutal to fix later on. It’d be like having to relearn how to pronouce words!
One of the more common types of emails I rountinely get is from parents and “pitching coaches” who say “I can get them started but that’s about it”. However, there really shouldn’t be a beginners way to pitch and an advanced way. Mechanics is mechanics, regardless of gender or age. Naturally, there are different ways to teach beginners but the overall mechanics are the same. When I hear pitching coaches tell me they’ve got their pitchers started and have reached their limit with teaching… I usually cringe. This means they’ve taught them a certain way and the pitchers are not progressing to the next level. WHY AREN’T THEY PROGRESSING? It’s probably because what was taught from the start was incorrect. It simply makes NO sense to teach pitchers one way, then have to change as they get older. I see this a lot! Nothing is harder to do than break muscle memory, especially when that muscle memory is incorrect. Not only is it incredibly difficult for many but, it confuses and angers many kids. Just imagine something: You’ve played a sport your whole life and learned to throw a ball a certain way. Then you find out you’re not throwing correctly and have to learn it all over again. It’s an unreal concept yet, it occurs almost everytime I do clinics.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that your pitching coach should’ve pitched on the National team or travel the world pitching for teams. Nobody with a brain in their head will tell you that the best and most talented players turn into the best coaches. But, from a personal standpoint, one of the things that has really helped me transition myself into a pitching coach is the ability to demonstrate EVERYTHING I’m talking about. There are just far too many people teaching pitchers things that have NO IDEA why they are teaching a certain thing or what it’s supposed to do. What basis or experience is this person teaching from? Because their daughter went to college? Because they watched Michelle Smith or Bill Hillhouse’s videos? These are great training aids to help but, watching them is a far cry from qualifying someone as a coach of pitching. Videos should be used as an aid and guide to get someone on the right path, they do not substitute for someone who can teach pitching. And since everyone is different, there are a lot of variables that every pitcher has. While the mechanics of pitching should be the same for everyone, mistakes and troubleshooting for every individual is unique.
There are 2 types of people in the world. Those that believe a pitching coach should have been a pitcher in his/her life and those that feel it’s not necessary. They site Magic Johnson or Eddie Murray as examples of great players who didn’t turn out to be very good coaches. After all, Magic Johnson (NBA superstar) didn’t turn out to be a very good coach. Eddie Murray (3,000 hit club) didn’t turn out to be a great hitting coach. The list could go on and on of exceptional talents who didn’t turn out to be great coaches. Some even site Mike Candrea as an example. To my knowledge, Mike has not played men’s fastpitch at the World level… yet his success in coaching is 2nd to none.
But, the obvious argument to this line of thinking is… Magic, Eddie, and even Mike have fallen victim to semantics. The words ‘coach’ and ‘manager’ are often mixed up by people. Do we really think Magic Johnson taught any of the LA Lakers how to shoot a ball? Or was the talent/skills of that player, regardless of how good or bad it was, already set in stone by the time Magic got him? Think about it… is Phil Garner who manages the Houston Astros really going to tell Roger Clemens how to pitch? NO. But, he will impliment his game strategy. When players reach a certain stage, are we really coaching them? Sure, there are some college coaches who spend time TEACHING someone how to bunt. But, by and large, the ability (or lack of) to bunt is already there when that coach recruits that person. We cannot confuse strategy with coaching. I mean, teaching someone how to throw a riseball is not easy… teaching them WHEN to throw it is pretty simple. (This is usually what separates good catchers from great ones! Except when coaches call the pitches for the catcher, another thing that is insane to me but is a subject for another time!) So, would you want to learn how to throw a riseball from someone who can do it or from someone who cannot?
It all goes back to understanding the absolutes and styles that pitchers need and have. Often times, young girls want to immitate their hero pitcher and have no idea of the difference between the absolutes and styles. This can lead to problems. It’s compounded when someone else reinforces they styles of a certain pitcher and teaches them as absolutes. They style of pitching Jennie Finch has adapted may not be successful for Jane Doe. But, Jane Doe has to have the same absolutes as Finch. This is where knowing the difference is critical.
It’s not only physical but mental. Pitching requires twice as much mental toughness as just about anything else in sports. Almost the entire game is riding on the pitcher and we often have to content with: 1. umpires who are squeezing the zone. 2. holes and soft dirt that gives instability and a lack of solid footing. 3. the balls can feel different. While every ball is supposed to be equal size and weight, there is almost always one ball that feels lighter or less slippery. Sometimes, one feels bigger or has better seams for pitches. These are all things that NEED to be taught to a pitcher from someone who has been there and faced the same obsticles. More and more MLB teams are hiring former pitchers as pitching coaches for some of these very same reasons.
What it boils down to is there, you cannot be too cautious when selecting your pitching coach. Even getting one that was a pitcher does not guarantee they pitched with correct mechanics themselves. It takes homework to study what’s right and wrong and the understanding that there IS right and wrong. If you study the top pitchers in the world, both genders, you’ll see the same absolutes. I guarantee it. It’s also about knowing absolutes and styles and the difference between the two. Knowing if your pitching coach knows the difference is your responsiblity. Ask questions but, don’t just follow the leader. Study people who are actually pitching and having the most success. Find out what they do and WHY they do it. It’ll pay off in the end.
By the way, to this day when I travel to Latin countries for coaching, I use the Spanish I learned from my classmate. Without him, I may never have learned how to ask for a beer in Guatemala! Boy do I owe him, big time!