Monthly Archives: March 2018
When I work with fastpitch softball hitters, one of the things I will drill into them (incessantly, if you listen to some) is the sequence “hips-shoulders-bat.” It’s the order in which body parts should be fired if you’re going to be successful.
(Yes, I know “bat” isn’t a body part but I try to distinguish that from the “hands to the ball” teaching that used to be so prevalent.)
It’s basically a mantra we use. If the hitter only gives a partial turn, or leads with her hands, or swings everything at once like a gate, I will ask her “What’s your sequence?”
The correct answer is “hips-shoulders-bat.” Repeating it over and over helps drill the point across.
There are several reasons “hips-shoulders-bat” is the optimal sequence. For one, it allows the largest, strongest muscles to get the body moving and create the power that will drive the ball into gaps and over fences.
Another is that it gives the hitter more time to see the ball before committing her bat. If you swing hands/bat-first, you have to start moving the bat into the hitting zone before you know where it will be, or how it’s spinning (for more advanced hitters).
But if you drive the hips first, then add on the shoulders, then finally launch the bat, you will have a couple tenths of a second more time to gather information about the pitch and recognize patterns. Doesn’t sound like much, but to a hitter in fastpitch, where the pitcher is throwing at high speeds anywhere from 35-43 feet away as a starting point, it’s an eternity.
Working hips-shoulders-bat also makes it easier to avoid the dreaded “dropping of the hands.” If you swing hands-first, it’s much easier to take the hands down to your waist and swing level to the ground rather than keeping a good bat path.
Getting to the optimal hitting zone
One important reason that doesn’t seem to be talked about as much, however, is the effect a good hips-shoulders-bat sequence has making contact in the optimal hitting zone.
The photo at the top of the post illustrates what I mean. The red, green, and yellow bars represent the quality of contact you can expect to achieve if you hit the ball in each of those areas. (It’s a general illustration, so don’t hold me to the exact placement of each color.)
If Kayleigh started the swing with her hands, her bat would have a long way to travel from the load position to where it will make contact with the ball. This gives her the opportunity to make contact somewhere in the red zone. In fact, there is a pretty good likelihood she will because of the issues of time and distance.
The red zone is red for a reason – which is, you don’t want to make contact there if you can avoid it. The swing hasn’t fully developed yet, and you’re only using the smaller muscles of the arms to move the bat, so you’re probably not going to hit the ball very hard. Your more likely outcome is a popup or a weak ground ball.
If you turn your hips first, then add your shoulders onto that turn before you launch the bat, you will have done a couple of things. One is you will have recruited the big muscles of the legs, butt/glutes, abdominals, chest and shoulders to create power. Now your bat can jump on that moving train and be accelerated into the pitch.
The other is that you will have carried the bat further forward before launch. Now you can’t help but make contact in the green zone (or the yellow zone if you’re a little early) because your bat has effectively bypassed the red zone in the pre-launch phase.
Like Kayleigh here, you will be a great position to take the bat to the ball and give it a ride.
Of course, like other things relating to softball hitting there are always exceptions. For example, the optimal hitting zone changes depending on how close the pitch is to the hitter.
The more inside the pitch, the further out-front it needs to be hit in order to drive it. Looking from the top, the optimal hitting zone will tend to look more like the photo inset (for a right-handed hitter). Again, this is an approximation; your mileage may vary.
But for a basic concept, I think this works pretty well.
If you are a hitter, the more you understand where you need to make contact with the ball the more likely you will be to adopt a hips-shoulders-bat sequence.
If you are a coach, use the photo at the top of the post to help your hitters understand where they want to contact the ball – and why. Many of us are visual learners, so a picture will be worth the proverbial thousand words.
Either way, it’s one more incentive to learn the body sequence for hitting that will drive greater success. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes in the comments.
If there’s one thing I think nearly everyone in the softball world can agree on these days it’s that softball private instruction isn’t cheap. Especially in areas where you have to be indoors for at least part of the year.
The facility costs alone can get quite expensive. Then add in the cost for the instructor and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart – or wallet.
A dedicated family can easily spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars by the time it’s all added up, particularly if the instruction goes on for a few years.
That’s why it often shocks me how little effort so many parents seem to put into the decision. If they were buying a new lawn mower, or a refrigerator, or a set of tires for their car they’d probably do tons of research.
They’d look for professional reviews, they’d look for user ratings, they’d compare specs, and maybe even go to a store and look the item over.
That’s why items in this price range (and above) are called “considered purchases.” You don’t just buy them on a whim. You put some thought into the decision because it’s going to put a dent into your wallet and you’re probably going to have to live with whatever you choose for a while.
The cost of softball private instruction can easily surpass all of those items. You’re just doing it on a per-lesson “payment plan.” Yet based on what I’ve seen so many people accept, it seems they go into that expensive purchase that can have so much impact on their daughter’s softball career blind.
Here in the digital age, with a world of knowledge just a few clicks away at most, there’s simply no reason to get anything less than a full return on your softball investment. Here are some ways to make sure you do.
Do your homework on what is good
This is probably the easiest and yet most-ignored piece of advice. I think many parents start out by looking for an instructor who is close to them. To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse.
Before you go looking for instructors, do some homework on what you want your daughter’s instructor to teach. Put in some time to learn what is currently considered the state of the art for hitting, pitching, catching, throwing, fielding, etc.
See what well-known, high-level instructors and coaches are saying. Many of them generously share their knowledge on YouTube, or on sites such as the Discuss Fastpitch Forum. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am also the administrator at the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, but it is a free resource with open discussions, not a selling site.)
There are plenty of quality paid sites as well, and some with a mixture of free and paid information such as Cindy Bristow’s Softball Excellence, and (hopefully soon) Fastpitch Foundations for pitching.
Once you start getting your feet wet into it, the other thing you can do is look at what high-level players do and see how that lines up with what you’re reading/watching in the instructional materials. You’d be amazed at how many people, even the players themselves, don’t actually understand how high-level players execute their skills.
Check them out on YouTube and other sites, and watch as many high-level games on TV as you can. You’ll start to see the similarities.
Many myths abound, so it’s important to gain as much understanding as you can before you go into it. That way, when you’re evaluating instructors you’ll have a better chance of selecting one who is teaching the techniques actually being used by high-level players.
Watch other local players
Once you have a decent understanding of the instruction you’re looking for, it’s time to start investigating your options. A good way to do that is to observe players, either in games or a practice session, who look to have the techniques you want your daughter to acquire. Then ask them (or their parents) who their instructor is.
Be careful, however, not to confuse “good” with “well-trained.” A gifted athlete – one loaded with lots of fast-twitch muscles and/or exceptional hand/eye coordination, for example – can be successful with no training or even poor training.
(In the latter case, they usually end up not doing anything they instructor says because their body just figures out what do. But they still think they’re doing what they’ve been told.)
That, incidentally, is why looking at an instructor’s record of developing high-level players (think: college) isn’t always an accurate indicator of his/her quality. It’s tough to know how many of them would have succeeded without that coach – or did succeed in spite of him/her. It takes a lot more than “the right instructor” to reach that level.
What you’re looking for instead are players who execute the skills properly, as you understand them from your research. If they don’t appear to be the greatest natural athletes so much the better, because then you know their success is due to their training and dedication.
Last summer I had a perfect case study of how this works. I received a call out of the blue from a father whose daughter is a catcher. They live about an hour’s drive away (with traffic), so it wasn’t a decision he was entering into lightly.
But he said he’d seen a really outstanding catcher in one of their tournament games and he asked where she learned her skills. The parents referred him to me, and I’ve been working with his daughter ever since.
I’m sure he passes a whole host of instructors to get to me, but it doesn’t matter. Because he knows his daughter is being trained in a way that matches his expectations.
Have a conversation
Once you think you’re on the right track, have a conversation with any potential instructors. Get a feel for their knowledge level and what they teach.
One thing you want to determine is whether they take a “cookie cutter” approach, using the same drills and progressions for everyone, or whether they customize the instruction to the student.
It will take some players longer to grasp certain concepts or movements. A good instructor will keep them working to become at least competent at those skills before moving them on to the next one.
Others will grasp the concepts or movements right away. In those cases there is no sense in lingering on them because the stock lesson plan says “on lesson 7 we do this.” Move on.
Do what you can to determine how much the instructor customizes the instruction. Again, a good instructor will teach the same things to all of his/her students. But he/she will do it differently for each.
That conversation is also the time to ask questions. If you know you don’t want your daughter learning certain techniques, such as “hello elbow” for pitching or “squish the bug” for hitting, ask the instructor about it. An informed parent is a smart parent.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for the “why” behind what the instructor teaches. If there isn’t a “why,” I suggest you politely excuse yourself and move on to the next instructor. Everything should have a purpose.
Do a chemistry test
So you think you’ve found an instructor who has the knowledge and experience to train your daughter properly. The last test is to see what the chemistry is like between the instructor and your daughter.
We all have different personalities and ways of learning. And sometimes people just rub us the wrong way for no apparent reason. That’s life.
If there is a chemistry mismatch, lessons are going to be a drudge for both the instructor and student. You and your daughter will presumably be spending a lot of time working with this instructor, so you want to be sure they are working together as a team.
Also, you know your daughter better than the instructor ever will. You should be able to read her body language and enthusiasm level. A good coach will inspire her to do her best and help her feel good about the learning process.
If that’s not what you’re seeing in a conversation between the instructor and your daughter, or a sample lesson, you may want to continue your search.
Once you’ve made a selection, you’re not done. Keep monitoring to see how things are going.
Is your daughter getting better? Is her technique moving toward what you saw on TV from those high-level players? Is she gaining confidence in herself and her abilities?
The change is unlikely to be instant. It’s more likely to be incremental, with some frustrations and setbacks along the way. But over time you should be seeing speed and accuracy increases in pitcher, better blocking from catchers, stronger and more frequent hits from hitters, etc.
And perhaps someday some random parent will come up to you at a game or tournament and say, “Your daughter is really good. Do you mind telling me who her instructor is?”
Ultimately, however, the best ROI is the smile on your daughter’s face when she is successful and feeling good about herself. That’s when you’ll know it’s all been worthwhile.
One of the challenges of working with younger fastpitch softball pitchers is getting them to understand the importance of maintaining good posture during the pitch.
You want them to be upright, with a firm, straight posture and plenty of front side resistance. But what you get instead is more of a hunched over look.
There can be a variety of reasons for it. One is that they don’t have the core strength to maintain good posture, especially at the younger ages.
More often than not, though, it’s either inexperience or a desire to keep the pitch from going high. They figure if they schlump their shoulders down, or bend at the waist, that will help them keep the ball down.
Unfortunately, the opposite will most likely occur due to Coach Ken’s law of opposites, i.e., to make a ball go down you must first go up.
Now, you can tell them to stay up straight, but the words alone aren’t always meaningful. Sometimes you need to illustrate it more for them.
To do that I will tell the pitcher that she has the choice of being a servant or a queen. A servant stands with her shoulders bowed and head down. A queen stands up straight, with her head up. Then I ask her – which would you rather be, a servant or a queen?
I have yet to have anyone answer servant. So I tell them if you want to be a queen, finish like one. If they bend over while pitching, I can then ask them if they were a servant or a queen? That’s something they understand.
(Another way to make the same point, by the way, is to compare a chimpanzee or baboon to a giraffe. The primate hunches over. The giraffe stands tall.)
So if you’re having trouble getting a pitcher to stay up straight, give this idea a try.