The Next Generation of Youth Softball Training by Dr. Laura McDonald

It’s a story we’ve heard many times here at OGX: an athlete schedules an initial assessment where we review her health history and performance goals. During this review, a parent will recall some version of the following statement: “She was really good at 12U, one of the best pitchers, velocity in the upper 50’s but now she’s gotten worse/she’s hurt/we just don’t know how to help her get better.” The solution is not as simple as getting her into the right softball training program. The problem actually began back before she even hit puberty.

In traditional learning models, it’s common to break down a complex topic into easier-to-understand chunks of information. It’s not hard to see why this learning model has dominated softball training: we are all familiar with it from our school days. Learning complex movements isn’t so simple and traditional softball training models are built around the assumptions that:

An optimal set of mechanics exists and every player should adopt them; and

The long-term development of a player is both uniform and linear.

Let’s address the first assumption with a bold statement: there is no one set of optimal mechanics. The human body is WAY too complex to ever derive a single, ideal way that it should move. What it CAN do is self-organize, or problem-solve. There are many, many ways for the body to complete a coordinated movement. Self-organization is an athlete’s way of finding the coordinated movements that are most efficient for her. It is continuous trial-and-error as movements are refined. This variability, getting it “right” but also getting it “wrong”, is the body’s way of exploring the boundaries of all possible solutions and increases an athlete’s ability to solve movement problems. Variability is not an error. If you want an athlete to have the ability to “adjust” her movements, she must have the freedom to explore them.

One way our bodies cope with all the different movement solutions available is to limit how much a part of the body can move. This concept is evident when learning a new skill: novice athletes will look very rigid and stiff compared to advanced athletes who appear fluid and effortless. Developing this fluidity requires the athlete to solve movement problems in order to find the best solutions. Asking a young player to fit herself to a box of mechanics or form, especially when she hasn’t had time to be exposed to movement diversity, makes the fluidity harder to achieve. What’s worse is that she will hit puberty with these rigid, ingrained patterns and they will stick. That’s when we see her in our facility and a parent makes the introductory statement.

The second assumption, the linearity of player development, introduces a whole different landscape of issues. Instructional methods, in addition to breaking skills down into smaller parts, assume that there’s a specific order in which to learn the pieces. Again, this is leftover from our formal education days; it’s essentially a curriculum. This is great for learning about topics external to us, but when it comes to internal learning, it’s not that neat and tidy. Chaos reigns for young athletes learning a new sport-specific skill but this chaos HAS to be dealt with by her, not through verbal cues or breaking down a skill into unrealistic body positions and drills. Asking athletes to start in the middle of skill (for example, a K drill for pitching) denies her brain the information necessary to solve movement problems. She needs to repeat the skill (swing, pitch, throw) in its entirety because that’s the problem she has to solve in a game. 

Our Next Gen program is designed specifically for pre-puberty athletes and those just beyond hitting puberty. It is critical, in a world of early sport specialization, that young players have as much opportunity to solve movement problems outside the game. This training should not look like what older, more developed athletes do, which is often a point of friction with new parents to our Next Gen program. They want this training to look like lessons, which is the opposite of what these young players need. Freedom of movement, opportunities for play, minimal verbal cues, and no static drills will aid her in learning to control the chaos of information she’s experiencing.