Shadow Bullpens: The number one drill you can do to develop mentally tough pitchers

by Brian Cain, MPM

The number one drill you can do to develop mentally tough pitchers is what we call Shadow Bullpens. Shadow Bullpens are how a pitcher practices their process/routine and visualization, two essential skills pitchers need to compete one pitch at a time and give themselves the best chance for success at slowing the game down and executing pitches.


Shadow Bullpens are a purely mental game training drill. 

The pitchers focus is (#1) External and on the imaginary glove. 

They are practice a (#2) competitive and trusting mindset.  In dry mechanic drills when the focus is on mechanics the pitchers focus is internal, on their body and what they are feeling mechanically.  This is a training mindset.  When pitchers compete, they need to be externally focused on the task at hand and competing, not internally focused thinking about mechanics.  The problem in pitcher development is that most of the training is internally focused and on mechanics.  They have a pitching coach in their ear every pitch about “staying closed” or “getting extension” and then when the pitcher goes into the game, they are focused on mechanics and forget to compete because like all athletes we sink to our training, we don’t rise to the occasion and most pitchers training is internally focused and mechanical, NOT externally focused and competitive. Thus the need for daily shadow bullpen work.


#1 – Body Language – One of the goals of shadow bullpens is that the pitcher practices body language, getting big, projecting confidence and controlling the mound or owning the island.

#2 – Tempo / Rhythm – We also want the pitcher to practice their in game tempo and rhythm so that they are used to pitching quickly and suffocating the hitter.  If as a coach you want your staff to compete with a good tempo, you must practice pitching with good tempo and the routine sets the tempo for the pitcher.  After the pitch the pitcher should work back to the rubber and not walk down the mound towards the catcher to get the ball, but work backwards to the rubber to get the ball and then attack as quickly as possible to make the hitter uncomfortable.  The pitcher must be sure to stay in control as they work to speed up the tempo and force the action on the hitter.

#3 Mental Imagery + Visualization – Mental Imagery is an active process in which the pitcher is simulating the game situations in his mind.  The pitcher is trying to replicate the game as clearly as possible.  Seeing the catcher and his signs whether day or night signs, seeing the umpire, the hitter, feeling the crowd and energy of the moment.  Seeing if the hitter is on top or off of the plate.  Holding runners, fielding his position, practicing pick offs.  Making it as real as he can.  Seeing himself pounding strikes, umpires calling pitches balls, getting hitters out and giving up hits.  Practicing it all, because it all will happen in a game.  The pitcher also wants to experience teammates making errors behind him, the other team in the other dugout talking $h!t.  Experiencing his signal lights and preparing for everything he will experience in that outing.  The pitcher wants to build in all of the senses as well being able to see, feel, hear, smell, taste and experience the shadow bullpen to be as game like as possible.

#4 Routines – The pitcher is also simulating and practicing his routines. 

He is simulating his (#1) Pre-Inning Routine which is from when he comes out of the dugout till he gets the ball back from the 3B after the catcher throws the last pitch to 2B. 

The pitcher is also then practicing the (#2) Pre-Batter Routine where he will take a breath on a focal point (such as the CF wall as you will see in the video below) before he gets on the rubber to face a new batter. 

The pitcher is also practicing the (#3) Pre-Pitch Routine which is to take a deep breath on a focal point and have a final pitch through before starting his delivery to the plate.  The pre-pitch routine should be practiced from both the wind-up and the stretch.  Typically you will see a pitcher take a pre-pitch breath in one, two or three common areas.  (#1) Before he steps on the rubber.  (#2) On the rubber before getting the sign.  (#3) On the rubber after the sign.  

#5 Red and Yellow Light Releases – The fifth part of why we do shadow bullpens is to train the red and yellow light release.  When a pitcher starts losing control or has lost control, they need something to go to and that thing to go to is their 3 step release. The 3 steps to a release are: (#1) Make a physical action with an association such as rubbing up the ball, taking off your hat and wiping your face, going to the rosin bag or cleat cleaner, wiping the rubber off with your foot.  Step #2 of the release is to take a breath on a focal point.  A focal point is a place that you look and gather yourself for a moment by oxygenating your brain and slowing your heart rate down with a 6-2-8 belly breath, or a simple good breath.  Looking at a LF foul pole or the CF wall, or the wire above home plate at the top of the backstop can be a good focal point because it will always be there no matter where you are playing. Step #3 is to have a verbal trigger to move on such as, “Good”, “So what next pitch” etc.  This verbal trigger is like a guillotine for the past and reconnects you to the present.


#1 – Independent – Pitcher decides the situation and what pitches they are going to throw.

#2 – Dictated – Someone tells the pitcher what the situation is that they are in such as a teammate or a pitching coach.

#3 – Scripted – The situation is written down on a wrist band or a clipboard and pitcher follows.  This is good when we have a very clear game plan of who we are facing or what situation the pitcher will most likely come into the game in.

#4 – Synchronized – The situation is dictated by what happens in the game.  You will see this in the TCU vs. UCLA portion of the video below.  When we do the synchronized shadow bullpen during an intra-squad game or real game, we go pitch for pitch with the person in the game.


We will generally have pitchers throw a shadow bullpen on the days they are not throwing a live bullpen or pitching in a game. Some pitchers like to do the shadow as part of their warm up even on days when they are throwing a pen or in a game.  We will have them start in their pre-inning routine and face 3-5 batters, simulating a yellow/red light at least once a hitter so that they get practice at working their release. Let’s take a look at some shadow bullpens from TCU baseball at the top of this page.