How to Structure Your Bullpens – Beginner Edition

Written By: Lacey Waldrop

Whether a pitcher is attending weekly pitching lessons or monthly pitching lessons, what she does outside of her instruction times will ultimately determine how quickly she improves. 

The instruction that a pitcher receives will only be beneficial if she continues to implement fundamental changes on her own time so that she can continue to progress each time she sees an instructor. A pitcher's practice and focus each day should also be determined by age and talent level. Each week, I will highlight a specific age and talent level, starting with beginners. If you have a pitcher who is a little more advanced than most of her age group, more variety in bullpen sessions can always be implemented sooner.

How often should she pitch?

With young pitchers, I often like to use the phrase “a little a lot instead of a lot a little”. In other words, it can be more beneficial to have younger pitchers practice for shorter periods of time, multiple days throughout the week instead of one or two times a week for longer periods of time. Shorter practices will allow your pitcher to stay focused and complete quality repetitions rather than getting lazy with their mechanics. As your pitcher becomes more engaged in her practices, you can start to lengthen the amount of time they throw for or the number of pitches they throw. Below is an example of a monthly calendar for a beginner pitcher detailing how long they’re throwing and how often. Keep in mind this calendar is for beginners who are just learning to pitch. I have kept games off of the schedule because it's best for your pitcher to create a solid foundation before jumping right into games. 

Mock Calendar Beginner pitchers

This is just one example of how often a young pitcher should be throwing if she wants to progress relatively quickly. Practices can be shuffled around to different days depending on your schedule, but there are a few key points on the calendar that are important to take note of.

  • Each week, there are four practices on the schedule. This does not include lessons, but if your pitcher is completing weekly lessons, you could substitute a lesson for a practice day.
  • There is one time during the week that has back-to-back pitching days. This is to get your pitcher in a habit of throwing for two days in a row, similar to a weekend of games or a tournament. After these two days, it's important to take a day off.
  • The time of each practice increases week to week. When you get to the 30-minute mark, your pitcher will spend two weeks practicing for the same amount of time before progressing.
  • On the last practice day of each week, I have added five additional minutes to the practice. In this time, try to spend time starting to work on something new that your pitcher will focus on during the following week. For example, you could introduce a new drill into their practice.
What should she work on during practice?

At the beginning stages of pitching it is important to focus on creating consistent mechanics and body awareness, as many young pitchers are going to struggle to figure out how to use their body efficiently.

Arguably the most important and likely the most difficult aspect of pitching is creating consistency. For young pitchers, the emphasis on consistency should be placed on creating proper movement patterns and mechanics rather than consistency of location. In order to reduce injury and help increase a pitcher's abilities, encourage your pitcher to remain focused on their mechanics rather than the outcome of each pitch. 

For a few mechanical tips and drills, check out my recent article, "How Proper Mechanics can Improve your Topspin".

How to Improve Consistency and Body Awareness

Now that I've addressed the importance of body awareness and consistency, let's think about how to implement those in your pitcher's everyday practice. Below are a few reminders and tips for beginner pitchers that will help them make adjustments and create awareness and consistency from pitch to pitch. 

1. Throw into a net

Net Toss GIF - Eden

Although it may be fun to catch for younger pitchers, watch them develop, and give feedback, the early stages aren’t always about throwing a perfect strike. Instead, it’s important for young pitchers to learn how to focus on certain parts of their motion while learning to work at full speed. If they are constantly worried about where the ball goes, they may have a tendency to slow down and aim rather than creating the right mechanics at full speed. Slowing down too much can also have a negative impact on a young pitcher finding the proper timing for each pitch as they progress.

For beginners, I recommend spending most of their practice time throwing at close distances or into a net and then spending the last five to ten minutes working on full distance pitches. I like to have my lessons throw to a very close net when we are working on a small mechanical change, as shown in the gif above. After working on the small change into the close net, we then transition into throwing to a pocket net 10-20 feet away, as seen below. 

Pocket GIF 2

        2. Complete air-throughs when trying to make a mechanical change 

An air-through is simply practicing a pitch or a certain pitching mechanic without using a ball. When working with a young pitcher, we are trying to teach good habits through repetition. Practicing an air through helps to reinforce good mechanical habits within the pitch before actually adding a ball to the equation. Much like throwing to a net, an air through can be a great tool to help a young pitcher make mechanical changes without worrying about the outcome of the pitch. During lessons, I like to have my pitchers complete three air-throughs with good mechanics between each full pitch.

Air through B
Air through F

     3. Practice in front of a mirror

At a young age, it may be easier for a pitcher to learn based on visual cues rather than telling her the adjustments that need to be made. When throwing in front of a mirror, it will be easier for a pitcher to see if her arms and legs are working together rather than away from the midline of her body.  The more she completes air-throughs in front of a mirror and sees some of the things she needs to improve, the easier it will be for her to make adjustments on her own. This will also give the young pitcher some responsibility in understanding what she’s doing rather than relying on someone else to give her a cue. If you don’t have a mirror in your practice space, you can record video on your phone and share it with your pitcher instead.

4. Ask your pitcher what she thinks she can improve on after a few repetitions

It’s your pitching instructor’s job to help your pitcher understand and implement good mechanics within the pitching motion, but it’s important that a pitcher understands what adjustments need to be made when she’s practicing on her own. We don’t want to create robots. If a pitcher or player is just waiting on their next cue without having to think about it themselves, they will have trouble adjusting during a game. Instead of handing out coaching cues after each pitch, take the time to ask your pitcher what they think they need to improve on over the next few pitches. Even if their answer doesn’t match up with exactly what you’re seeing, it will be beneficial for the pitcher to have to think through her adjustments in the long run.

Putting Together a Practice Plan

Now that you're equipped with a few tips to help your young pitcher and an idea of how often she should practice, let's talk about what her practices should look like. Below, are a few examples of basic practice plans that I put together.

25 Minute Practice

25 minute practice - beginner

I like to have beginners spend most of their practice time completing what I would consider warm-up exercises. At the younger stages, a lot of detail and focus should be placed on creating proper movements during warm-up progressions so that those same movements will translate into their full pitch. For proper execution of the K and stationary drills, check out the tweets below.

30 Minute Practice

30 Minute practice - beginner

As your pitcher progresses, it's important that you start to implement new focuses during each practice as you add additional time. This will keep your pitcher engaged and allow her to experiment and get out of her comfort zone as she works to get better. At the end of the 30-minute lesson, I have added five minutes to just focus on speed. I like to do this at the end of the lesson so that they have already worked on mechanics, and are properly warmed up. If you're looking to create more body awareness and mix things up, I added an optional knee drill for the speed component. For tips on the knee drill, watch the video below.

35 Minute Practice

35 minute practice

The more comfortable and advanced your pitcher becomes with her mechanics, the more specific drills and movements she can start to add to her practices. Above, I have added ten minutes to work on leg drive, which as I mentioned can be one of the hardest skills for a young pitcher to do well. The biggest emphasis should be placed on your pitcher striding out properly, which will also help her maximize her stride length. One of the best ways to ensure your pitcher is striding out properly is to utilize a foot box as seen below. For more tips on leg drive and other drills, check out our social media pages on Instagram and Twitter, @sb_rebellion.

Foot Box
Enjoy the journey

For a beginner pitcher and her family, learning the pitching motion can be confusing, but remember, the beginning stages won't last as long as you think. Make sure to provide plenty of encouragement so that your young one views pitching as something she enjoys and wants to continue to improve on. Keep small goals in mind, as it's easy to get caught up looking at many different aspects of pitching all at once. Learning the motion and perfecting it is a neverending journey, but it is well worth the time spent.

Next week, I will be sharing an intermediate bullpen structure, with more drills and additional ideas to keep your pitcher engaged in the process.

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