One of the biggest challenges in developing healthy elite pitchers is mastering the counter movement pitching or also called hip to shoulder separation. This occurs at front foot strike when the front foot lands. Evidence suggests that high-velocity pitchers have a larger margin between when their hip speeds peak to when their shoulder speeds peak which is defined as separation-timing (Fortenbaugh, Fleisig, & Andrews, 2009). It is also called a counter movement pitching because there is a point in time just before front foot strike when the hips are rotating forward and the shoulders are rotating back. In my experience, I find that there is a moment in a pitcher’s young career where this movement advances the performance of the pitcher and those that achieve this motor control early in their careers usually have more success than those who take longer to master.
Developing the Counter Movement Pitching
I have worked with many young pitchers struggling to master this motor control. It is one of the hardest movements to teach a young pitcher. I have even had to help injured MLB pitchers relearn the movement. I will never forget when 10 year MLB pitcher David Aardsma yelled at me that I was trying to teach him two things at once which he said wasn’t helping him get better. I then told him when it comes to hip to shoulder separation or the counter movement pitching you can’t separate it any less than in the two movements. I found the best approach to helping a pitcher master a movement that is probably one of the most advanced movements in sports is first understanding what it takes to program new motor patterns.
There are two perspectives to learn when defining motor control which is Motor Program-Based Theory and Dynamic Systems Theory. Motor Program-Based Theory is a memory based construct that controls coordinated movement (Magill, & Anderson, 2017). Schmidt (1975) proposed that a generalized motor program controls a class of actions rather than specific movements or sequences. He stated these actions had common features he called invariant features which are stored in memory. These features are consistent with each action and are used with another performance-based feature called parameters which vary from one performance to another. Examples of these parameters are relative time and order or sequence of movement.
Dynamic Systems Theory is a multidisciplinary perspective involving physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics (Magill, & Anderson, 2017). The foundation of this theory is that the body is always working to establish the stability of the system. This allows the system to conserve energy. When the system is thrown off it works to re-establish stability which is referred to a phase shift. To best describe the phase shift is when the system goes from in-phase to out-of-phase or anti-phase then back to in-phase. To illustrate this description, observe a horse speeding up from a walk to a trot then to a gallop. The motor control changes in and out of phase as the horse uses different motor patterns at different speeds.
The problem with both these theories is they struggle to work together. Dynamic System Theory was developed outside of the frustration of using the Motor Program Based Theory to define the intrinsic dynamics of structural and functional constraints that shape movement output. In my efforts to learn these two theories it has helped me to better understand the bodies function to create movement but falls very short of establishing the finer details of elite movement. I share similar feelings of Alexander et al.’s (1992) appraisal of the concept: In its most general form, the concept of the motor program is relatively unassailable. At best, ‘‘motor program” is a convenient but misleading label that serves mainly to obscure our ignorance of the brain’s actual approach to motor processing. We suspect that widespread, uncritical usage of this poorly defined term may, in fact, have impeded progress in understanding the neural substrates of motor control.
Drills for Training the Counter Movement Pitching
Even with these far from complete theories of the conception of human movement it still helps me as a coach to train my pitchers to develop elite motor control. In the case of mastering hip to shoulder separation, I use both theories together. I use these theories interchangeably with different athletes. Some athletes I can purely work on programming new motor control through teaching by educating and demonstrating the biomechanics of the movement. With the others, I must use a more dynamic systems approach by using constraints in the form of tools and drills to challenge their system to phase shift into the more stable movement because teaching them isn’t working.
For example, many low-velocity pitchers power the stride of the pitching delivery with the landing leg and the glove arm which works against the biomechanics of the counter movement pitching. If they do not learn from me teaching them to stay loaded into the ground of the drive leg until just before front foot strike then to generate maximum force production through the extension and rotation of the drive leg, as the throwing shoulders rotate counterclockwise to the hips, while the throwing arm scapula loads back and the arm moves into the cocked position, then I will use constraints to force a phase shift in the motor control. These constraints include putting a resistance band on their drive leg ankle to hip to force the drive leg to hold flexion to create later extension torque through ankle, knee, and hip flexor. Also, using ankle weights on the lift leg to prevent the leg from trying to swing and kick to create the stride momentum which causes everything to fly open early and kill the counter movement pitching. Finally, I will use a front drive sled or a back pulling sled on the hips to force the legs to power their center of mass longer and farther before rotation. If these constraints work it also creates a stable based on the lower half for the shoulders to counter rotate away from the hip rotation which optimizes hip to shoulder separation.
It is the coach’s job to not only completely understand the biomechanics of an optimized kinetic chain for the pitcher but also the constraints that are limiting a pitcher’s optimization of the kinetic chain causing the pathomechanics. If the coach doesn’t have this understanding, then he will struggle to either educate the athlete on the biomechanics improvements or to find constraints to create a phase shift into the optimal movement pattern.
Counter Movement Pitching Reference
Alexander, G. E., DeLong, M. R., & Crutcher, M. D. (1992). Do cortical and basal ganglionic motor areas use ‘‘motor programs” to control movement? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 656–665.
Fortenbaugh, D., Fleisig, G., & Andrews, J. (2009). Baseball pitching biomechanics in relation to injury risk and performance. Sports Health. 1(4), 314-320
Magill, R. A., & Anderson, D. I. (2017). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Schmidt, R. A. (1975). A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychological Review, 82, 225–260.