Can a quarterback’s throwing motion be improved?

The following was written by Dub Maddox, coach at Jenks High School (Oklahoma). Dub has also co-authored a fantastic book on quarterbacking, From Headset To Helmet – Coaching the R4 Expert System: Accelerating Quarterback Decision-Making under pressure. – Ed. Note.

I use these techniques

From recruiting, to the NFL draft, to just day-to-day coaching, no position gets more scrutiny than the quarterback and no aspect of being a good quarterback is more difficult — or mystifying — than the quarterback’s throwing motion. the question remains: Can a quarterback’s throwing motion be improved?

While reading the article, The Pursuit of the Perfect Throwing Motion by David Flemming,  I was intrigued by some of the things he learned from his study.  In particular, he discovered throwing the football is the most complex motor skill in all of sports.  With most exercise scientists and kinesiologists agreeing, more people are finding out what most coaches have known for quite some time.  Changing a quarterbacks throwing motion is challenging and can be flat out intimidating.

Once most people come to this conclusion there tends to be two schools of thought as it relates to changing quarterback throwing mechanics.

  1. It’s all about the footwork (the feet are what throw the ball)
  2. You can’t change a quarterbacks mechanics (he can either throw or he can’t)

This is the dilemma I found myself in as a coach five years ago after getting upset in the first round of the playoffs.   Having to watch a very talented sophomore quarterback struggle with his mechanics that season pushed me to a path of pursuit on how to teach the perfect throwing motion.  As I began my research through clinics, DVD’s, books, college visits, and local guru’s, I had compiled a list of coaching points like, “Stand tall, step small”; “Flick the booger of the finger”;  “Pick the dollar out of the left pocket”;  “Turn the key”; “Answer the phone with ball”; “Crush pebbles with your feet” ; “Slap the wall”; “ watch how Brady, Montana, or Elway throw” and the list goes on and on.  At the end of it all I was left with a myriad of different philosophies and techniques and the same conclusions that Flemming had in his article.  As a result, I had almost submitted my belief on throwing mechanics to one of the two prevailing schools of thought.  It wasn’t until I came across a 3 DVD set on Passing Mechanics by Darin Slack that I knew that I had finally found someone who had cracked the code on how to teach and train the most complex motor skill in all of sports.   He was explaining the “Why” behind every motion and drill.  He was backing every movement up with science and biomechanics.  I felt like I had just discovered gold.

I no longer had to submit to the two schools of thought on mechanics and what I didn’t believe to be true.  After 5 years of coaching quarterbacks at Jenks High School and working for the Darin Slack Quarterback Academy here is what I have learned as it relates to the two prevailing schools of thought:

“It’s all about the footwork (the feet are what throw the ball)”

It seemed when I first started my pursuit of learning how to throw the football that everywhere I turned most coaches only focused on the feet.  Most of the material I came into contact with stated that the feet are what throw the ball.  My struggle with this concept stemmed from two pictures in my mind…a picture of a man with no arms and another picture of a man with no legs.  If the feet are what throw the ball then how does a man without legs throw?  At the NFL combine, Tim Tebow clocked a 4.7 forty time, 4.17 pro agility time, and a 38.5 inch vertical.  If I submit to the school of thought that footwork is the key to consistent power, accuracy, and velocity then Tebow should be the best pure passer coming out of the draft.   Yet he was the most scrutinized, Why?  In Flemming’s  article he states,  “Throwing the football well is not about doing one or two big things great. Instead, it’s about perfecting a thousand different parts of an intricate, complicated kinetic chain that starts in the toes and ends at the finger tips.” Through Flemmings article I am finding that people are starting to discover what I found through a set of 3 DVDs 5 years ago.   Throwing a football is more than mastering footwork; it’s about mastering the sequential movements in the kinetic chain through the entire throw.    If I only focus on footwork I am only focusing on half of the kinetic chain. What about the other half?  I go back to the picture with the man with no legs.  What does he use to throw the football?  It is his arm.  If the arm is the mechanism that throws the ball then wouldn’t it be important to understand how this mechanism controls proper ball flight?  To overcome the arm issue a quarterback must understand the 4 key positions of the arm motion in the kinetic chain.  (To demonstrate we will use Peyton Manning on the left and Jenks QB Sawyer Kollmorgen on the right.)

  • Pre Pass Triangle – The kinetic chain in the arm starts in the Pre Pass Triangle position.   With the elbows level at the base and a loaded wrist in the “cocked” position off the back shoulder,  the triangle shape provides for a powerful position to launch the football.  If the body was going to throw a punch it would load the arm instinctually in the same position.  The Pre Pass Triangle position reduces tendency to internally rotate (wind up) on the throw, aligns arm in a power position, and reduces wasted motion for faster a faster release.
  • “L” Transistion – The next position in the kinetic chain during the throw.  The move to this position is done by using the 4 rotator cuff muscles that surround the scapula.  The infrasprinatus and teres minor externally rotate the arm back into the “L” position.  When the arm is in the “L” position it elongates the suprasprinatus and subscapularis which allow the muscles to accelerate the elbow to the lead position.
  • Elevate to “Zero” – The lead position the elbow has to be in to support the wrist.  You may have heard coaches say “get the elbow up”.  The elbow only needs to go high enough to get over and ahead of the shoulder on the throw.   The smoothness and efficiency of this move is the key to consistent power and accuracy on a throw.  With the loading of the suprasprinatus and subscapularis muscles in the “L” position the elbow can now elevate and move ahead of the shoulder aided by the deltoid to get to “Zero”.  “Zero” is orthopedic term given to the elbow in the lead position because the rotator cuff muscles are neutral with no strain on them.  The “Zero” position places the elbow 6 inches ahead of the shoulder 45 degrees up and out and loads the tricep in a position to fire the ball down the target hallway.
  • Extension – The kinetic chain of power that occurs as the tricep fires energy up through arm and out through the wrist/fingers into the ball.  If the wrist fires early before the tricep the kinetic chain is out of order and the ball will sail or wobble.  A quarterback that pulls down on the football does not extend and therefore is not getting the full benefit of the tricep.   When trying to understand the power of extension on a throw, think of the difference between a pistol and a sniper rifle. Which one is more accurate and can shoot the bullet further?  The sniper rifle.   Why?  It has a longer barrel that allows the force and spin to act longer on the bullet which in turn puts more accuracy and velocity in the bullet as it comes out of the barrel.

When a coach and a quarterback get on the same page and understand the (How’s and Why’s) behind the most complex motion in all of sports it provides for a drastic advantage on the playing field.  However, getting your quarterback to understand the concepts of throwing mechanics will not support a change on its own, which leads us to the second school of thought.

“You can’t change a quarterbacks mechanics (he can either throw or he can’t).”

There are many coaches who know way more than I do about football  that have said you can’t change or quarterbacks throwing motion.  I have even heard some say to stay away from the quarterbacks arm entirely.  I have always struggled with this.  If I am in the weight room and I see a kid with 315 pounds on the squat rack and he has he is leaning over at the waist with his chest down and a curved lower back am I going to not try to fix him?  The argument could be made that teaching a proper squat is easier than teaching the most complex motion in all of sports.  But just because teaching a proper throw is more difficult does it mean that I am pardoned of having to teach it at all?  Maybe it just means that I need to put more effort into knowing my craft.   The key to changing any motion (especially the most difficult) is knowing how a quarterback learns to throw.  Most quarterbacks learn to throw by picking up a football at a young age and just chunking it.  This is called implicit learning.  Implicit learning is learning in the absence of proper instruction.  While learning to throw implicitly allows for a fluid motion it tends to produce bad mechanics.  The other type of learning is called explicit learning.  This is learning with proper instruction.  This type of learning focuses on the non-negotiables or rules of the task.  While learning to throw explicitly allows a quarterback to know all the (how’s and why’s) of throwing a football it tends to produce a mechanical and choppy motion.  This is the point where a coach becomes frustrated and gives up submitting to the second school of thought… you can’t change mechanics.  The secret to changing mechanics is in the power of a process and the formula is the lynch pin of The Quarterback Academy by Darin Slack.

In order to produce lasting change you have to take a quarterback and teach him the non-nogotiables (how’s and why’s).  Next, you build a battery of drills that isolate each mechanic and then build each drill sequentially on the previous mechanics (process).  Then you rep the movements  over and over until you are feeling the move instead of thinking about it.  Instead of muscle memory we call it the power of informed feel.  When a quarterback learns the (how’s and why’s) combined with the feel he now has the ability to Self-Correct, not Self-Destruct — advantage Offense.  To learn more about throwing mechanics and quarterback play come to a camp or visit www.quarterbackacademy.com.

  • Cromulent

    Is there anybody with this kind of clarity teaching youngsters how to pitch a baseball? My 9-year old has a pretty good arm but teaching him mechanics has mostly been a failure.

  • BK

    I’m most definitely in the 2nd camp.  While I didn’t play QB, I played enough football in a run-n-boot offense and baseball through college to know the quality of someone’s arm really is decided up as early as youth football.  

    There is not a kid or parent that doesn’t watch youth sports and immediately know which kids have the “guns” and which don’t.  Perhaps it’s hereditary?  Or, maybe some kids just starting throwing as soon as they were out of the crib.  What I do know is that kids that couldn’t throw as a kid, rarely, if ever, throw any better as they age.  

    I’ve heard Steve Young on the radio talk about the very thing.  He says a kid either can throw a spiral and is accurate or he can’t, but there isn’t much hope for him if he can do neither.  

  • BK

    long tossing across the outfield is a very good drill for baseball players.  He’s only 9, if he has a good arm now, just let it take care of itself.  

  • Cromulent

    Some of his throwing mechanics are bothersome. But I’m only interested in them to the extent they mess up his *pitching* mechanics. In the heat of the moment on the mound he’ll throw a ball or two, then start leaving his trailing leg behind, ostensibly to reduce the number of moving parts in his motion. It ends up making things much, much worse.

    I’ve counseled him on the leg, but I feel like I’m treating the symptom and not the cause.

    If we’re just playing catch, he has exceptional velocity. And he makes the ball move too, without any idea of what he’s doing.

    There has to be someone teaching pitching mechanics in the fashion mentioned in the article: as a series of small movements teaching non-negotiable parts in a kinetic chain backed by a solid understanding of biomechanics.

  • EH4

    I went to a clinic and listened to coach Maddox talk about this. I had played QB in college and have always had a strong arm albeit a low “sidearm” release. I took notes, went home and started forcing myself to throw using the “zero” position coach Maddox describes. Once the initial awkward feeling of changing your throwing motion goes away, your accuracy noticeably improves, especially on play where you are moving (Boots/scrambles). The distance of my long throws increased by nearly 10 yards, and I was no longer missing my target to the left or right.

    I now coach quarterbacks, and do all the drills Coach Maddox describes to have my players throw from the “Zero” position. But what I think is even more of testimate to how well it works, is I have taught two separate girlfriends who throw a football like a knuckle-ball no further than 5 yards, to throw 20 yard spirals in less than an hour.

    Needless to say, I was converted from thinking that “Kids can either throw a spiral and be accurate, or they cant”. If you get the chance to get your hands on the “C4 Self Correct System” DVDs and try it yourself. You will realize pretty quickly that you can change how well you throw a football no matter what skill of throwing is already at.

  • Anonymous

    Kids that can’t throw well at an early age never improve because they never get quality instruction. Even if they go to a “guru” all he’ll have him do is go through 20 different footwork drills. So after many sessions he might have the best feet in the world but still doesn’t have a clue about what his arm is supposed to be doing, so there’s no improvement. I have seen many kids that you would definitely not call “natural throwers” show immediate improvement once they start understanding the arm mechanics.

  • Lex

    he is just 9. work too hard on a pitcher that young and they’ll be thrown out by 22. 

  • Cromulent

    Ugh. I’m not force feeding the boy. If he could spend his birthday money on intravenous MLB channel he would.

    And I *don’t* like to spend much time instructing him because without a  sensible, comprehensive framework I’m afraid I’ll do more harm than good.

  • Shakinsouthlandhesouthland

    A good step by step book I used is “The Complete Book of Pitching”. Perhaps you could try that. It does break down the motion into components to work on.

    Hopefully you dont let him throw curveballs like I did to mess up my elbow.

  • Cromulent

    I’ll take a look.

  • Boz

    eh4
    thanks for the information on how the ”zero” position helped you.
     My son(who throws  right handed) is a sophmore back-up quarterback in High School,  his real  weekness is  running to his left and throwing to his left with accuracy. I hope the ‘zero’ position helps him like it has you, Ill give it a try with him for sure and really work with him on it.

    Thanks again,
    Boz

  • 34hawk

    Throwing a football is not the most complex motor skill in all of sports.  Serving a tennis ball is a much more complex movement.  In addition to the footwork, rotation, and arm movement, you’ve also got to toss a ball with your off  hand and time the intersection or ball and racket.  I had a decent arm for baseball and football, but picked up tennis late in life and so I had no bad habits. Thus I could apply the best science to building a serve from the ground up, which I did.  

    Since the serving motion has a lot in common with throwing a ball what I learned allowed me to think about throwing in much more sophisticated mechanical detail, and turned out to improve my throwing a great deal.  Not sure why there is more very sophisticated information publicly and cheaply available on how to serve a tennis ball than how to throw a football, but that seems to be the case.  I think the commonality is interesting, and the complexity of serving may make mastering the art of throwing seem a little simpler.  

  • Tsmith04

    I also would place myself into the camp that, yeah, while anyone can “throw” very well with appropriate instruction, there are those few who have that natural “feel” and have that uncanny ability to pass the ball around. The disparity is evident on any given autumn Saturday. Ssome QBs can, often regardless of mechanical soundness, just put the ball where it needs to be and make the trajectory look pretty in doing so; others, well, not so much. With something I justify largely with intuition, I’m not beyond convincing.

  • Thril43

    Little stretch on the throw vs. serve – A lot more goes into a throw in a football game than just a “throw” – lot of other things to factor in – like 300 lb D lineman, pocket movement avoiding the rush while reading a defense,  an so on…

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  • Tomas

    I have played football for ten years of my life, never as a quarterback. Now I coach. When I was introduced to the C4 system by Darin Slack I tried it and now I throw with god (far from perfect) accuracy and consistancy. But the reason I keept it and now use it with my kids is that it can answear the question “why?” for every little move I teach the kids I can answear that simple but very importan question. I played cb for almost all of my carrier and I can still ask the question “why?” without knowing the answear for most of the drills and stuff I did to try to get better. I got better doing some of them and some probably made me worse. I tell my kids to constantly challenge what I teach. They have to understand what they are doing to be able to self correct. I challenge my 11 year old qb as well as the older ones.

  • http://twitter.com/authrtyfootball Justin MacDonald

    I was training a 13 year old QB a few days ago, and his mom was amazed at the components of throwing the football, and made the same connection to tennis that you have.  Opening the  toe to the target to create torque from the rotation of the back hip to the front and the arm reaching triple extension for maximum power, as well as directing the arm path through the Saggital plane. Pretty neat observations. Athletic movements are athletic movements.

  • http://www.xufe.com/England-Npower-Championship/  Npower Championship

    Nice post.Of course a quarterbacks throwing motion can be
    improved by giving them quality instruction. Throwing a football is not the
    most complex motor skill in all of sports.  

  • http://www.tennisworldusa.org/ tennis news

    Really great to finally find a blog I can relate to just my kind of things.