In today's article, Demetre Kokoris dives into the importance of prioritizing intentional catch play by breaking down the aspects of a successful day of catch. This process all starts before you ever touch a baseball, and continues long after your last throw.
“It takes 21 days to build a habit,” were the opening words given in a speech to our pitchers regarding catch play in the fall of 2010. “If it takes 21-days to build a habit, and you only work on your skills during your bullpen sessions, and you throw three bullpens a week, how many weeks will it take to form a habit?” This question was met with crickets, as pitchers prefer to avoid the math portion of practice. “The answer is seven. It will take seven weeks to build a new habit if you only work on it during bullpen sessions.”
“If it takes 21 days to build a habit, and you work on your skills everyday during catch play, and you play catch seven days a week, how many weeks will it take to form a habit?” At this point, the math portion of some pitchers’ brains had slowly started to crank up, with one pitcher building up enough courage to respond, “three?" The answer was met with a resounding, “yes, three weeks. It will take three weeks to build a new habit if you work on it everyday in catch play.”
“So if there are 21 weeks of practice, how many habits can you build if working on it everyday in catch play, versus waiting until bullpens? The answer is three habits if you wait until bullpens, and seven habits if you work on it catch play everyday. And when the two pitchers face off in competition, the guy with twice as many good habits will win.”
The idea that it takes 21-days to build a habit can be traced back to “Psycho-Cybernetics,” a book published in 1960 by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Maltz referenced this number as an observable metric in both himself and his patients at this time.
So what exactly makes an effective catch play session? For me, it all boils down to one thing: doing each thing with a purpose. Every portion of catch play should be performed with a purpose, a reason why performing this particular act will make one better at getting batters out. When watching a great catch play session, every act is performed with great intention.
Let's walk through what I believe would be a great day of catch.
quieting the mind - setting the intention
Before picking up a baseball or even moving the body, it's important to get the mind right. Two to five minutes of purposeful breathing, controlling inhales and exhales, combined with a body scan, help pitchers to “be where their feet are". This allows the athlete to forget about any troubles and worries that might be on their mind they can't control and shift their focus to one thing they can control: being in the present moment and dominating a great catch play session. This session is typically performed with the athletes eyes closed, standing on their feet, and led by someone other than the player.
DYNAMIC WARM-UP / FOAM ROLL / LAX BALL ROLL OUTS / JAEGER BANDS
general preparatory exercises [internal broad focus]
“You cannot make adjustments to muscles that are not awake.” This is a famous saying at the Texas Baseball Ranch. Before pitchers even pick-up a baseball, it is important for them to wake-up their bodies by going through a comprehensive dynamic warm-up. Every inch of their anatomy should be put into action, as heart rate should elevate to create blood flow and an internal physical awareness. They should feel their fingertips, scaps, shoulders, torso, glutes, hamstrings, quads, toes, and neck in action; connecting a calm mind to an active body.
The dynamic warm-up should also allow them to connect the moving pieces of the body to feel how each of the limbs interact with each other during movement (coordination). An example of this is “high knees” - my favorite exercise to watch an athlete perform during dynamic warm-up. The athlete is required to set their posture while pumping their arms and lifting knee up individually to belly button height. You can see who possesses rhythm and synchronization with all four limbs and which athletes are flailing around like a baby giraffe with each limb acting seemingly independent of each other. The right arm and the left leg should be in sync, rising and falling at a comparable pacing and angle, as should the left arm and right leg. Better movers on the mound typically perform this action better, as well.
Foam Roll and LAX Ball Roll Outs are great for soft tissue work. Jaeger Bands (a form of resistance bands) are a phenomenal tool for preparing the arm for activity, as well as a great prehab tool for shoulders.
WRIST WEIGHTS / PLYO BALLS
specific preparatory exercises [internal narrow focus]
Once the body has awoken, we will turn to more sport specific movements with weights. Focusing on sport specific movements allows the mind to focus on generating awareness to the nuances of the throwing pattern. Discovering degrees of freedom within a given movement is an important piece of athleticism, allowing the mind to identify possible movement solutions the body has available before performing a sport specific event.
We use wrist weights and plyo balls during these sport specific movements for the benefit of having additional weight. Performing a sport specific movement with heavier weighted implements enhances the body's ability to build proprioception and kinesthetic ability. Kinesthetic ability is simply understanding what the body is doing without conscious thought. Increased strike percentage can come from improving kinesthetic ability, as studies show elite athletes who have the best “control” in their ballistic sport of choice (be it baseball, football, tennis, darts, etc) have reduced activity in areas of the brain.
When performing plyo ball drills, it's important to have an emphasis on “chunking” and “backwards chaining”. Chunking is a series of drills that breaks down the delivery into simpler pieces. Backwards chaining is a series of drills that start with arm action and slowly incorporate more and more pieces of the body into the throw. An example would be starting with pivot-pick off drills (AKA Marshall 1’s). This constraint drill forces the athlete to only use their torso and arms to deliver the weighted ball.
The next drill might be “opposite foot forward”, which starts the athlete in a position with their feet stationary and staggered, their throwing arm leg closer to the target, their glove arm-leg positioned behind them, and all ten toes facing their target. This throw incorporates pelvic movement, torso rotation, elbow extension and shoulder rotation to deliver the weighted ball.
The next drill might be “foot-strike throws”, where the athlete gets into foot-strike (glove arm-leg staggered in front of throwing arm-leg while in the position an athlete gets into when their foot strikes the ground in their delivery). This frees up more degrees of movement in the pelvis in order to perform the throw.
The final might be “walking wind-ups”, a drill that has the athlete walk into their delivery to throw the weighted ball.
Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk's Classification of Exercises
CATCH PLAY WITH A BASEBALL (Constraint Drill Long Toss)
specific development exercises [external broad focus]
It's finally time for the athlete to pick-up a baseball and play catch with a partner. They might want to start off with a weighted baseball (10oz, 7oz, 6oz) to enhance kinesthetic ability, then slowly blend the weight to a regulation 5oz baseball. We typically go through the same “chunking” and “backwards chaining” drills used during plyo balls, except this time the emphasis is on hitting a target (an external focus). Athletes typically start around 60 feet while performing pivot pick-offs. The athlete slowly stretches out to the furthest distance they can possibly throw, while still performing the drill and hitting their target in the air on a lob. This is the truest form of a constraint drill, as the body has to self-organize in order to achieve the goal, forcing the body to discover the most efficient movements possible to sync-up the kinetic chain and propel the ball a maximum distance.
The more efficient the body becomes, the further distance the ball will travel. As the athlete improves their max distance in a particular constraint drill, it is a result of them self-discovering a more efficient method of delivering the baseball. This increased efficiency more often than not will find its way into the athletes delivery on the mound without them consciously having to make the adjustment.
A typical constraint drill long toss progression are pivot pickoffs, opposite foot forward, foot-strike throws, and double crow-hops. The goal is for the athlete to be able to long toss from foul pole to foul pole during double crow hops on a lob. Every so often, if an athlete is having trouble mixing their long toss delivery into their mound delivery, you might want to have them perform all of long toss out of the stretch position. This might help them generate a feel for how to get the ball out to max distance out of the stretch, in an attempt to more easily blend the results into their mound delivery.
Once the athlete has performed long toss to their max distance out on lob, they want to transition to attack (compression) throws and come back in throwing the baseball low and on a line (no higher than 8 ft), these are called attack throws. Have the athlete take their time coming back in while performing attack throws. A typical drill to perform during attack throws are “step-behinds with arm swings”. The athletes should perform these throws at max intensity. It might also help to bring a radar gun and announce the speed to the athlete as they perform each throw. This is another external focus that encourages athletes to self-organize and hold themselves accountable.
ALL THROWS MADE DURING CATCH PLAY SHOULD BE DONE SO WITH THE INTENT OF HITTING A SPECIFIC TARGET.
Having a specific external target provides the athlete with feedback on every throw. This feedback is neither “good” nor “bad." Rather, it should be specific information, such as “I missed my target by 10” up and 2’ to the left”, or “my throw was on line with my target, but 6” to the right”. Absorbing this information allows for the athlete's subconscious to collect information. The more throws an athlete makes, the more information the brain will receive about the body’s ability to perform a task. If the athlete is not paying attention to the result or is getting emotionally frustrated about it (from labeling it “good” or “bad”) their brain will not be able to process the feedback from each throw in a way that it beneficial to their development.
If an athlete is having a difficult time performing each throw purposefully, a breathing routine may be beneficial between throws. Once the athlete catches the ball, have them take a releasing breath to clear their mind. Then, once they have their eyes on the target, have them take a second “commitment” breath or “attacking” breath. Finally, have them throw the baseball and maintain eye contact with the flight of the ball and its relationship to the target to receive objective feedback.
Vladdy Guerrero Sr getting some long toss in during a game
COMPETITION - Pitching
competitive exercises [external narrow focus]
The final piece of catch play should be a competitive pitching event. Whether it be a bullpen, throwing against hitters in a competitive environment, or a flat ground, this event should be tracked and have a score. The pitcher should practice attacking a target with conviction, preferably utilizing all of their pitches. The percentage of each type of pitch thrown during a competitive event typically mirrors the percentage a pitcher will utilize that pitch within a game. That is, unless the pitcher is training to improve upon a particular pitch from their arsenal. Honestly, I could (and might) write an entirely separate blog on how to set-up competitive environments.
COOL DOWN - Unwind
recovery - unplug
Once the physical act of competing has come to a conclusion, the pitcher should have a way of unwinding, both physically and mentally. This takes in the form of arm-care, conditioning, lifting, and debriefing with coaches. The pitcher should have a way of analyzing their catch play and formulating a game plan for their next session. In addition, they should perform any arm-care routines or conditioning that might enhance their ability to maximize recovery. Ideally, the athlete will have an understanding as to why performing each exercise will improve their performance in the long-run.
For pitchers, I believe throwing is the most important part of their day. If a pitcher is on the path to greatness, you will see it in his catch play. Every part of it will be performed with a purpose. This starts well before he picks up a baseball. Having a thoughtful catch play session enhances a pitcher’s ability to maximize his daily work. I believe great pitchers have a meaningful purpose behind every part of their catch play session and an understanding of how what they are doing will enhance their ability to get batters out.