Daily Archives: November 5, 2007

Keeping your head in

Sometimes in athletics there is a tendency to look at the symptom and assume it’s the disease. This is especially true with ballistic movements such as hitting.

A common statement coaches will make to hitters is “you’re pulling your head out.” This statement is usually made after the hitter swings and misses. What the coach sees is that head did not stay pointed in the direction of the hitting zone, but rather wound up looking out toward the pitcher, or perhaps even at the shortstop (for a right handed batter). The conclusion that’s drawn is because the eyes moved away the hitter didn’t see the ball well enough, which causes the miss.

It seems logicial. I know I used to say that to hitters as well. But if you talk to or read the research of the vision experts, they’ll all tell you that early recognition is the key to success in endeavors such as hitting. Most will also say that hitters don’t see the ball in the last 10 feet of travel either — certainly not unless they have followed a vision training program specifically designed to improve the ability to track the ball. So if the typical good hitter isn’t able to see the ball in the last 10 feet of its travel to the plate, what difference does keeping your head in on it make?

The answer is, it doesn’t make any difference at all as far as seeing the pitch. But that doesn’t mean the head coming out isn’t a valuable cue. It’s just not the one we tend to think. Instead, it’s a symptom of something else going on — the front shoulder pulling off the ball early instead of being “knocked” out of the way by the back shoulder driving through.

Try it. Getting in a batting stance and start going through a slow-motion swing. Let your front shoulder pull out on its own as soon as you start to swing. Now look where your head is. It followed right along. The symptom is the head pulling out, but the cause is the front shoulder, probably driven by an arm swing when it occurs in real time.

Now try that same slow motion swing, but keep the front side in until the back shoulder forces it out of the way. Your head will stay “in” longer, and you’ll more than likely wind up looking at the ground in front of or close to you. Odds are you wouldn’t see the ball any better. But you’re now in a better position to attack the ball. And when you’re in a better position to attack the ball you’re much more likely to hit it.

The next time you see a hitter pulling her head out, forget about the eyes. Look instead at what the upper body is doing to see whether the arms, shoulders, and head are working together as a unit, and if that unit is working with the lower body to create great swing mechanics. You’ll be much more likely to be treating the disease rather than the symptom.

Using your time efficiently

One of the concepts I’ve recently picked up is the idea of setting a standard and then training to that standard. It sounds simple, but it may not be what you think.

Often times we as coaches work on perfecting things that don’t require perfection. We want our players to be the best they possibly can be, so we relentlessly drill them, trying to push the envelope of what they can do. While there’s nothing wrong with trying to be the best, there is also a point of diminishing returns.

Here’s an example. On our team we set a standard of fielding ground balls in three seconds or less. The reason is that Division 1 colleges look for players who can run from home to first in three seconds. We figure if we complete the play from the time the bat hits the ball to the time the ball hits in the first baseman’s glove in three seconds or less we should be able to get most of the runners we face.

The revelation is that once we can execute to the standard there’s nothing to be gained by continuing to work to exceed that standard, i.e. to execute the same play in 2.5 seconds. There are plenty of other things to work on to prepare a softball team. Once you can meet the standard, it’s time to move on to the next thing.

The other thing is setting priorities. How much time have you spent working on the 6-4-3 (SS-2B-1 double play? The right answer should be not much. That’s a tough one to pull off with 60 foot bases. You need the right combination of things to go exactly right, e.g. a sharply hit ground ball to the SS and a pretty slow batter/runner. I’m not saying it’s impossible because I’ve seen it done. But the odds aren’t very good. So if you can pull that play off one time out of every 50 there’s a runner on first with fewer than two outs, it tells you that you shouldn’t spend more than 1/50th of your time working on it. If that. You’d be a lot better off working on plays you stand a much better chance of being able to complete with regularity.

There are only so many hours available to you to practice. The more time you spend on trying to exceed standards or on situations that don’t come up very often, the less time you have to spend on bringing other aspects of your game up to standard. It’s better to do a lot of things well than a few things great.

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