Walk to a nearby little league field, or attend a local travel-ball showcase or tournament, and attempt to identify the most talented ballplayers. It shouldn’t take you too long. It will quickly become evident which young players are a cut above the rest just by their physical or athletic abilities.
Discrepancies in baseball prowess are not difficult to observe at the lower amateur levels, as talent is generally the greatest determinant of success at that point in time. It is probably not the 11 year-old who eats the best pre-game meal, sleeps the best, or brings a foam roller to the field that is going to dominate. No, it is the kid that throws the hardest or hits the best that will most likely leave the victor that day, even if they arrived rate before game time after having scarfed down three hot dogs and a soda.
On the other hand, go to your local Minor League or Major League Baseball game and try to pick out the “best” player, or the one who will have the most success that day. This will undoubtedly be a much harder task.
At the higher levels of sport talent becomes less of a differentiator and more of a prerequisite. Instead, it is the athlete’s ability to prepare better, more efficiently, and more consistently than their competition and peers that separates these great ballplayers.
Preparation, when it comes to baseball, is comprised of many facets; off-season training, weekly and daily recovery and training, scouting and studying of the opponent, and pre-game routines.
Today we will discuss the latter, as we consider how the starting pitcher can develop their own pre-game routine – a routine in which they can trust, have confidence, and find strength.
Too often high school pitchers arrive at the field 30 minutes prior to game-time, or idly sit in the dugout until it is time to go to the bullpen, paying no mind to ways in which they can prepare themselves for competition. Oftentimes you may run a pitcher simply run foul pole to foul pole and back, only to start throwing without any other measures taken. Even at the professional level, many younger players lack a solid pre-game routine.
The circumstances surrounding each outing are forever-changing; the weather will vary, the stadium/ballpark and its fans will create many different types of environments and backdrops, and a pitcher’s “stuff” may be there in full-force one outing, while severely lacking the next.
The pre-game routine, seeks to flatten these variables by providing a source of consistency. When all things go awry, the pre-game routine should hold strong.
Goals of the Pre-Game Routine for the Starting Pitcher
First, let’s consider some of the goals of the pre-game routine.
1.Transition from a passive state to an active one; “feeling ready”
In amateur baseball starting pitchers generally are transitioning from lengthy spans of time sitting – whether in a classroom, car or bus, or on a couch – before arriving to the field before the game. In professional baseball, starting pitchers lounge around the clubhouse much of the day – they are not usually required to change out of street clothes until an hour prior to game-time.
The pre-game routine serves as a means of getting out of this sedentary state and into an active one. Muscles that are transiently shortened and joints that ache from long bus rides and long classroom hours can be lengthened out and restored to a more ready state. The goal is to “wake up” (literally or metaphorically), get moving, and feel ready. More importantly, it’s important not to try to do so in the shortest time possible, but rather in a controlled, progressive manner.
The body and mind of a pitcher will be thankful when the pitcher stops asking it to go from zero to 100 in less than 10 minutes.
2.Kick-start the physiological response to activity
Just like any warm-up, there are several bodily functions that we are trying to catalyze with a proper warm-up. This includes raising core body temperature, increasing heart rate, and redistributing the flow of blood (and thus oxygen and nutrients) to the working skeletal muscles.
The warm-up also seeks to prepare the body and its joints for the actions it is about to perform in a methodical and progressive manner that culminates in game-speed movements. The nervous system, too, should be primed to deliver outputs to the muscles as fast as possible, and the joints need to be progressively moved through full ranges of motion, especially those required during the game.
3.Gradually prepare the competitive mindset
As mentioned above, the pregame routine for the a starting pitcher should level out the many variables that surround an outing. Essentially, the goal is to quiet the potential noise that can hinder performance.
Athletes are people. As such, they have lives outside of the white lines. Even Cy Young winners have relationship struggles, experience separation anxiety from home and their families, and get sick. Likewise, student-athletes have academics and relationships to worry about. No one is immune to adversity. Situations like these can create added pressure or distractions leading up to first pitch.
A thorough pre-game routine can help ease these anxieties by gradually shifting focus to the task at hand. Rather than attempting to rush into action 20-30 minutes prior to game time and abruptly clear the mind, the pitcher can instead move from one step to the next, slowly transitioning their mind toward first pitch.
I am certainly not a psychologist, but I have seen solid and consistent pre-game routines become a vital part of the mental preparation process for many pitchers.
A Sample Routine
The following routine is not included with the intention that every pitcher who reads this should insert it verbatim into their own processes. Rather, it should give the pitcher an idea of structure and aspects that can be considered when developing a pre-game routine.
The following example will be based on a 7:05pm first pitch in the high school setting…
6:00pm – Dressed and ready in dugout
“Why so early?” you might be asking. I personally like to be way ahead of schedule so the pitcher can “slow-cook” the routine and take his time. If he wants to slow-play any section of the warm-up, extend any portion, or take any breaks (due to heat, humidity, etc.), there is plenty of time. Have you ever rushed to get a school assignment done and forgot to hit spellcheck? Ever been running late to work and forgot something at home or stubbed your toe during the rush? This is exactly what we don’t want prior to an outing.
6:05pm – Down the foul line; Light dynamic warm-up (~3-4 minutes)
Time to get the blood flowing, joints moving, and heart rate up. I like to split the “dynamic warm-up” section into two, with this being the first half. The idea is to move from a passive state to an active one, and to get some blood flow and core temperature rise before moving on to the next phase. Also, by splitting the warm-up in two, if it happens to be hotter or more humid than usual, the pitcher doesn’t have to worry about over exerting themselves in the warm-up.
6:10pm – Partner- or band-assisted stretch; SMR/Foam Roll (~5 minutes)
Personally, I could take this section or leave it. If my pitcher would prefer to cut this out and start the whole routine 5 minutes later, I wouldn’t mind. But, many athletes feel that some short-hold or dynamic effort passive stretches (or actively facilitated stretches) help them feel more ready to play. They “feel better.” As subjective as this is, I am not the one performing, they are. Therefore, as long as I don’t see it as a potential hindrance to performance then we include it if they so desire. This is also a great time for some light foam rolling. Again, if the athlete perceives that their state of readiness has been enhanced, and it isn’t harmful to performance, then I don’t mind it one bit.
6:15pm – Water and break
6:20pm – Down the foul line; Light dynamic warm-up (~3-4 minutes)
Now that the athlete has spent ~5 minutes laying on the ground and ~5 minutes on break, it is time to “reheat” the cooled-off body. The second half of the dynamic warm-up is used to again increase core body temperature and increase circulation. Now, more ballistic movements can be utilized to prepare the body and its joints for the action it will see on the field.
6:25pm – Band-work/tubing/cuff activation
If a “cuff routine” is used at all, this is where I would implement it. It is strategically placed here to be close to the time of throwing, yet not right before throwing so that fatigue doesn’t become a problem.
6:30pm – High-intensity movement
Here the athlete can “prime” the nervous system by performing some very low–volume, but high intensity movements. Imagine the track sprinter doing knee-tuck jumps prior to stepping into the blocks for the 100m event. For the pitcher this could equate to some lightly loaded medicine ball rotational scoop tosses or some very low volume and carefully performed lateral jumping (caution with poor field conditions). This portion also serves as a buffer between the previous cuff routine and the following throwing for reasons stated above.
6:35pm – Short break
Rest as needed prior to throwing. We want a body prepared to throw, not a fatigued body.
~6:37pm – Begin throwing program
~6:45pm – Move to bullpen
~6:57pm – Break
7:05pm – First Pitch
The sample routine above is just that – a sample. The first point to note is that every pitcher is different. Therefore, one pitcher may need 15 minutes in the bullpen, while another needs seven minutes.
Some pitcher may not need breaks, thus can begin their routine a few minutes later.
Certain pitchers may not be as well conditioned or trained (such as younger amateur pitchers) and thus shouldn’t be concerned with the “High-intensity movements” section, as it may cause more harm than good.
And, some may want to do their entire dynamic warm-up at once rather than split in two.
To be completely honest, preparation is fully up to the individual so long as the following criteria are met:
- It does not predispose the athlete to injury – not during the warm-up itself, nor during competition
- It can be performed consistently and with compliance, and isn’t such a process that the pitcher despises it
- It is goal-oriented, and actually achieves those goals for preparation
- It is a routine that the pitch believes in
This, though, may be the greatest point of all: a good pre-game routine that can be individually adapted and utilized successfully is not one copied and pasted from a blog post.
Rather, it is the routine that is developed and honed over time through cumulative experiences as a pitcher and forged through trial and error. It is imperative that a pitcher take the time to start this long-term process of developing a pre-game routine relatively early in competitive baseball out of desire and enjoyment, rather than later out of necessity.
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