At some point, nearly every kid that plays baseball will want to step on the mound. But it’s not easy ⏤ the skill and calm under pressure it takes to fire a ball 60 feet past a swinging batter takes practice and talent that plenty of great ballplayers don’t have. But when your kid is ready to step up, there are some specific things you can do to help them learn the ropes.
To help, we chatted with Mike Belmont, camp director at The Baseball Center NYC, a full-field camp, rec center, and Little League organization. Belmont specializes in pitching and fielding, so he knows his way around the mound. Here are his five biggest tips.
By the time players hit kid-pitch leagues, typically around the age of 8, they’ve got the basics of throwing and catching down. If you’re working with a kid with a good arm, put them on the mound and have them start tossing. Belmont says he never teaches a new pitcher a full windup. Rather, he has them start from the stretch, taking a small leg kick and step with their lead leg and pushing off from the back.
“Slow it down, control the mechanics, look for good arm slots,” he said. “Focus on their landing and follow through.”
Keep an Eye on Posture
There are few common mistakes all coaches see in young pitchers. Chief among them: pitching posture. Often, per Belmont, new pitchers don’t bend their body in the follow through, which means the ball often goes way high. He suggests getting them to stress a natural arm motion and full follow through, which will help keep the ball down and in the strike zone. Even more important: focusing on engaging the lower body will help prevent young pitchers from injuring their arms.
Focus on Strikes, Not Strikeouts
The first thing a talented kid wants to do on the mound is throw heat. Invariably, per Belmont, they’re going to over-throw the ball and lose control. To avoid this, he says to reinforce again and again that they should be throwing strikes, not going for speed. The most consistent pitchers will be the most successful ones.
Focus on Two Pitches Only ⏤ No Junk Allowed
When a kid starts pitching at eight or nine, there should not be thinking about anything other than a four-seam fastball. It’s the most consistent and easiest pitch to throw, and when a kid is learning, Belmont says there’s no need for them to throw anything else. When they’re ready, they can learn the two-seam fastball. The motion and windup should be the same for both. If a young kids’ throwing consistent strikes, Belmont says he’ll teach a change-up, but certainly no breaking balls.
“We don’t teach curveballs until you’ve got some hair on your face or under your arms,” Belmont said, echoing a sentiment shared by coaches and orthopedists alike. Breaking balls put too much strain on the arm and can lead to serious injuries in young players and even the need for Tommy John surgery. Breaking balls should not be thrown, per experts, until girls are 11 and boys are 13.
Watch the Pitch Count Closely
Pitching is all about repetition, so if you’re trying to teach a kid, they’re going to have to throw a lot of pitches. But throwing too many is a sure way to wear out an arm, no matter how much they want to go back on the mound. Most little leagues have a maximum pitch-count for a player in the game: for TBC’s 8 and 9-year-olds, it’s 65. For the upper divisions (the 10-12s), it’s 85. Belmont said that if games are on Saturdays, they’ll have the kids throwing a lot of pitches on Tuesday and Wednesday in practice, but then slacking off on that rate later in the week so they’re fresh for the game. Even in the majors, starting pitchers rarely pitch more than once every five days, so keep that in mind for your kids too.
Here’s an equation for pitch count, per Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the team doctor for the Cincinnati Reds and youth sports physician who’s performed more than 1,000 Tommy John surgeries: Six times the kid’s age, not including a warm up. So, for instance, an 8-year-old should toss no more than 48 pitches per game. A healthy arm is worth far more than a W in the books.