Category Archives: Hitting

Hitters: Never Get Stuck on Your Back Foot

Grace Bradley hitting

You see this all the time working with fastpitch hitters. They look great on the tee – good load and stride, good sequence of hips-shoulders-bat, and a powerful outcome.

Then you start front tossing to them, or having them hit off a pitching machine, and it’s as though some alien who has never swung a bat in its life has somehow possessed your hitters while you were setting up. They make short, jerky moves to stride and wildly swing their arms with barely any hip movement at all. You wonder what happened, and why they’ve lost everything you just spent so much time working on.

Actually, your hitters haven’t forgotten about all that hard work. They just don’t have time to execute that swing. Here’s what happens.

The “pitcher” gets ready to throw and the hitter loads. Then, since the pitch isn’t coming yet, she feels like she loaded too soon so she stops and stands on the back leg.

Then the ball comes and she starts to stride. But because the ball is coming from 20 feet away (on front toss) or at a high speed (since everyone cranks up the pitching machine to the max setting) it’s on her faster than she realized. So she just abandons all the body movement and just tries to get the bat to the ball any way she can, which usually produces some pretty poor results.

What really makes it tough is when the hitter realizes she was late getting to the ball so she starts even earlier! All that does is get her stuck on her back foot sooner, which only makes things worse.

Continuous motion

To truly be effective, hitters must remain in continuous motion. That means once the load happens, they must keep on going until that pitch reaches its conclusion with either a swing or take.

There is no hitting the pause button in the middle of the swing for everything to line up. Mostly because it won’t line up.

That pause on the back leg breaks the momentum that was being gathered with the load/negative move and essentially causes the hitter to have to break inertia all over again. That takes time, and when you’re dealing in hundredths of a second there is no time to waste trying to get the body going.

Hitting is about rhythm and timing. Putting in a pause in the middle of the swing throws that rhythm and timing out the window. You want to keep going in one smooth motion from beginning to end so you can reach that oh yeah moment.

Trust the swing

So, with that in mind, how do you break this vicious cycle of early-wait-late? It starts with getting the hitter to trust the swing, and the process of the swing.

I will usually tell a hitter that she needs to start her stride BEFORE I release the ball in front toss. (For machines it’s a little different, but I have some good tips on dealing with that in another blog post.)

Of course, just because I said it doesn’t mean it will happen. So I encourage her to trust the process, i.e., try to get that stride going early.

After a couple of attempts, she will usually start to get her front foot down on time, with enough time to fire the hips, bring the shoulders around and then launch the bat with confidence. She will find that anticipating the release, and trusting that it will happen, rather than waiting for visual confirmation that the ball is released enables her to execute the swing as we practiced it on the tee.

Verbal cue

While the above strategy works with most hitters it doesn’t necessarily work with everyone. Younger hitters especially may still have trouble figuring out when to start their positive move forward.

For them I have a simple solution: I just yell “Go!” as my arm comes down the back side of the circle. (I always use a full circle – because I can.)

They may be startled at first, but they’re usually obedient so they get started when I say. Again, after a couple of attempts they start gaining confidence in their approach, so when I say go they start attacking the ball.

Of course, I do like to point out to them that an actual pitcher isn’t going to tell them when to start their stride so they will have to learn to do it without the verbal cue. But if it helps them understand the concept and gain some experience with striding before the ball is released, I’m more than happy to do it for a little while.

Translating to an actual pitch

Right now there are probably some hitting fanatics who are saying “but high-level hitters don’t get their foot down before release.” That’s true.

But high-level hitters are also not hitting a pitch thrown from 20 feet away. Even with the new pitching rules.

When you’re throwing that short distance pitch to them, it’s the equivalent of the ball having traveled about 1/3 to 1/2 the distance from the pitching rubber to the plate. And that IS about the time high-level hitters get their front foot (feet?) down.

So once again, the idea of starting the stride before the pitch has been released is valid. You want to go calm-calm-explosion (aka load-stride-swing).

When exactly it happens depends on the pitcher, the hitter, and the hitter’s athletic ability. That last part is something to keep in mind too when you watch video of high-level hitters. The reason they’re high-level is they just might be able to do things, and get away with things, us ordinary mortals can’t do.

Keep it moving

Getting stuck on the back foot in the middle of the swing is just asking for trouble. It takes discipline and trust to break that habit but it can be done.

The more your hitters keep themselves in motion, from beginning to end, the more often -and the farther – they will hit the ball. Keep an eye out for the deadly pause and you’ll help your hitters succeed.

Be As Water

abstract background beach color

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the most well-known pieces of advice from the late, great Bruce Lee was a simple three-word statement: be as water. For those interested in more of what he meant, or who are just wondering who the heck Bruce Lee was, here’s a video:

 

While Lee’s advice was ostensibly meant to encourage martial artists to give up their old, rigid approach to movement in favor of one that was more free-flowing, I find it’s also great advice for fastpitch softball players. Here are a few examples.

Pitchers

When pitchers want to throw harder, they tend to tighten up their muscles and become very stiff. They also do it when they’re trying to guide the ball to a location (even if it’s just the general strike zone). Yet that’s the worst possible thing to do in each situation.

If you’re trying to gain speed, remember tight muscles are slow muscles. You can swing your arm around much faster if you relax and let it go versus trying to force it around.

Being stiff when trying to gain better control also works against you, and actually makes it more difficult. If you are tight and off-line somewhere in your circle, you will stay there and the ball will go somewhere you don’t want it to.

But if you are loose, a gentle nudge is all it takes to get back on-line. Plus, you have momentum working for you, because if you are loose and using good mechanics (i.e., those that follow the natural way the body moves) it’s a lot easier to follow the natural line.

To improve as a pitcher, be as water.

Hitters

The same things about tight versus loose apply to hitters. If you try to muscle up on the ball you’ll lose the whipping action of the bat into the hitting zone, costing you valuable bat speed.

Being tight also makes it difficult to react and adjust to pitch speeds, spins and locations. A rigid swing will tend to continue going wherever it started to go; a relaxed swing allows you to make adjustments without losing bat speed.

Then there’s the mental aspect. If you are uptight generally (aka in your own head) you are going to be worried about far too many outside factors, such as your last at bat or the fight you had with your mother before the game, to bring your swing thought down to “see ball, hit ball.”

There will be no flow to your swing, just a sort of panicked flail as the ball comes in. You may even start seeing things that aren’t there, or lose your perspective on exactly where the strike zone is. Much can happen.

To improve as a hitter, be as water.

Fielders

As a fielder, you want to be able to move smoothly to the ball. You want your throws to be easy and sure.

That’s going to be tough if you are tight and rigid. The word “flow” is frequently used to describe a great fielder. And what water does.

Being rigid or mechanical in your movements is a sure ticket to many more errors than you should be making. And if you are that way because you are AFRAID of making errors and being pulled out of the game, it only gets worse. Forget about all that.

To improve as a fielder, be as water.

Approach to the Game

Perhaps the area Bruce Lee’s advice applied to most is your general approach to the game. In the video, he says that if you pour water into a cup it becomes the cup. If you pour it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.

Fastpitch softball players need that type of flexibility as well. You may be asked to play a position that isn’t your usual one. You can either resist or go with it.

Yes, playing outfield rather than catcher or shortstop may not be your preference. But if you go with it and prove yourself in the role you were asked to play you are far more likely to get the opportunity to show what you can do in the position you want to play. I’ve seen it happen.

You may not like your coach’s coaching style. Understood – there are some bad coaches out there. But often it’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s just different than you prefer.

Rather than bracing yourself against it like a rock, be as water. Adjust your expectations and get as much as you can out of the experience. Everyone has something to teach – even if it’s just not to be like they are in the future.

You may not be getting the playing time you want or feel you deserve. That may be true. But before you just blame the coach and jump ship, ask yourself if you’re doing all you can do to earn the spot you want.

Are you diving for balls in practice? Are you displaying a positive attitude? Do you go to the weight room, take extra batting practice or bullpen work, ask for one more ground ball if you pooch one in practice, help clean up team equipment at the end of practice or a game, etc.?

Maybe the answer is yes and you’re just not getting a fair shot. It happens. But before you decide that, determine whether you have been trying to shape yourself to the program the way water shapes itself to the cup or wishing the program would shape itself to you.

Final Question

So after all of this, if I were to ask you which is stronger, the rock or the water, what would you answer?

Many would say the rock. Not a bad answer on the surface, because if you place a rock in a stream or river, the water will be forced to go around it.

Over time, however, the water will wear away the rock and any other obstacle in its path until it can once again flow smoothly.

So I ask you again: which is stronger, the rock or the water?

Be as water, my friend.

In Hitting, the Arms Can Only Do One Thing; Choose Wisely

Kayleigh hitting

As fastpitch softball hitters begin to experience some success with making contact, their next natural evolution is to want to hit the ball harder. Often what that amounts to is trying to swing the bat harder with their arms.

It makes sense in a way. You’re holding the bat in your hands, which are attached to the arms. The faster the bat moves the harder the ball will be hit (theoretically). So…

The natural tendency is to try to make the bat move faster with the arms and shoulders. There’s just one problem: once you try to maximize batspeed with your arms you lose all ability to adjust the bat to the flight of the ball.

That’s because the arms can only do one job. They can either supply power or they can lag a bit behind the body and then deliver the bat accurately and properly in the path of the ball.

So where does the power come from? The strong rotation of the lower half of the body, which most people refer to as driving the hips.

That’s where the biggest muscles of the body are located, so that’s where you can generate the most power. If you’re trying to push a car out of the snow or mud, you either use your legs or it doesn’t go anywhere.

The problem is, if you don’t develop the power from your lower half it has to come from somewhere. So the body will instinctively try to get it out of the part of the body that’s holding the bat.

And now we’re back to the original issue. With no (or little) hip rotation, the bat has to travel a longer distance to get to the contact zone. That means you have to start developing the power and applying it before you really know where the ball will be.

It’s like trying to throw a dart without knowing where the dartboard is until you’re about ready to release it. Sure, you might get lucky and hit the bullseye. But you’re far more likely to wind up on the edge, or miss the target entirely.

Starting with the lower body gives you a little more time (not much, but every hundredth of a second helps) to see the path of the pitch. It also helps carry the bat closer to the contact point before you actually release it into the ball, creating a shorter path to the ball (as in “short to, long through”).

Just as important, though, when it comes time to launch the bat you are able to control it much more effectively so you can take it right to where it needs to go.

The arms (and shoulders) can only do one job – supply the power or guide the bat in a way that’s adjustable. If they try to supply the power, that will override bat control.

Let the power come from the lower body so the arms and shoulders can do their proper job. It’ll make for a much more successful 2020 at the plate.

And speaking of 2020, happy holidays to everyone, no matter which holiday(s) you celebrate, and best wishes for the New Year. I appreciate you reading Life in the Fastpitch Lane and look forward to sharing more about the fastpitch journey next year.

 

Hit the Back of the Cage? I Don’t Think So

Emma cage at contact

This isn’t actually the topic I’d planned on writing about today, but an email hit my mailbox this morning that I thought was worth sharing. Especially since many of us have moved inside for the winter.

The author was Mike Ryan of Fastball USA, a facility and program located within fairly easy driving distance of my house. I don’t really know Mike, but I definitely know his brother Pat (shout out, dude) who used to coach for their softball program and has raised some pretty darned good fastpitch ballplayers himself.

Anyway, Mike’s email was talking about how deceiving a batting cage can be when judging the success of hits. Here’s an excerpt from the email:

Most balls hit on a line drive in a cage are actually ground balls.  

You need to aware of this, otherwise you will look like a powerful

hitter in the cage, and go outside and be a ground ball machine.

👉For example, in our batting cage at Fastball USA we figured out when the L screen is 35 feet away, a ball that hits the top of the screen is roughly at a 8-10 degree launch angle. 10 degrees if it makes it over.

Most hits in MLB happen between a 10-30 degree launch angle.

So common sense tells us, any ball flight below the top of the L screen produces a ground ball in a game.  

We also figured out that if a player hit a ball to the top of the net directly over our L screen it was roughly a 20 degree launch angle.

via GIPHY

I’m so glad to hear someone else say this. Fastpitch softball still seems to labor under some old beliefs about hitting, including the idea that a batted ball that hits the top of the cage instead of the back is bad.

In fact, I know players who have been dinged/yelled at/cajoled or whatever because their hits were going to the top of the cage toward the back. While I appreciate Mike doing the math to confirm it (evidence is always good) I don’t think you have to be a geometry expert to figure out that a hard-hit ball that hits the top of the net at around 40-50 feet is pretty likely to travel the distance needed to make it close to or over a fence 200 to 220 feet away from home. Or even less if you’re on a shorter field.

Balls going over the fence are good things because, well, they’re really hard to defend.  And they produce runs – as many as 4 with one hit.

Which means that if you’re rewarding hitters for hitting the back of the net (even if it’s low) and punishing them for hitting the top, you’re not making your team better. You’re actually killing your ability to score runs and win games.

Ok, that’s the long ones. But what about the balls that are only up to or even a little in front of that screen set at 35 feet?

Surely those must result in can of corn fly balls? Here’s what Mike had to say about that (and I know, don’t call you Shirley):

If the ball hits the top of the net about 5 feet in front of the screen you’re on about a 30 degree launch angle.

Remember that most MLB hits top out at 30 degrees, so you’re still in great shape. He then goes on to say that the lowest you want to hit the ball is the top of the L screen, and the highest is about 5 feet in front.

Of course, if you have your screen set closer to simulate faster pitching (as I usually do) that visual will change. But if you mark off roughly where 30 feet is in the cage you’ll have a pretty good idea of whether that contact was going to be an extra-base hit or an easy out.

So there you go. If you have a girl consistently hitting the top of the net 30-50 out, don’t punish her. Encourage her. She could wind up being a big bat for you next season.

By the way, if you want to see more from Mike, he posts at the Baseball Education Center. This particular article isn’t up there yet but I imagine it will be at some point. 

I got on his mailing list through Paul Reddick Baseball, so I imagine if you sign up for Paul’s emails you’ll start getting Mike’s too. (I didn’t see any direct way to sign up with Mike; maybe Mike can comment on how to get more info from him directly.) 

Mike’s stuff is oriented toward baseball and boys, but as we all know a swing is a swing so lots of value there for the parents and coaches of fastpitch softball players. 

 

Learning to Fix One Issue at a Time

mokup smartphone technology phone

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

One of the best AND worst things to ever happen to fastpitch softball training has to be the ready availability of instructional videos on sources such as YouTube.

It’s one of the best things because it has made a whole world of knowledge available to parents (and coaches) that was never available before. Personally, I think it’s one of the big reasons there is far more parity in the sport than there used to be.

Prior to YouTube, much of the best knowledge was concentrated in Southern California among a small group of coaches. If you were lucky enough to live near one, you received high-level coaching. If you were on the other side of the country, maybe not so much.

But once better information started becoming more available on YouTube (and through the Internet generally), enthusiastic players, parents and coaches were able to learn from the best no matter where they lived. Not saying everyone took advantage of it – there’s still a lot of bad coaching out there – but at least the information became available.

So why do I think it’s also one of the worst things that happened? Because parents and coaches could see how their kids/players looked compared to the examples, and the top-level players, and many became obsessed with trying to get their kids/players to look like the ones they saw on video.

That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing either. But where it became a problem is they wanted to make it happen instantly. So rather than addressing one issue at a time, they started trying to fix everything at once. That is probably the least effective way to learn anything.

What does that mean? Take a pitcher for example. The parent/coach sees the pitcher doesn’t have enough leg drive, so he/she starts working on that. Then he/she notices the arm seems a little stiff. So rather than continuing to focus attention on the leg drive, the pitcher now starts focusing on keeping the arm loose.

Then the parent/coach sees the glove swimming out and… well, you get the idea.

All of those are valid corrections. But it’s difficult, if not impossible to make all of them at once. Or even all in one session.

(DISCLAIMER: I know about this from direct experience because I used to do it too. Probably still do now and then, but I try to catch myself before it gets out of hand.)

A better approach is to set priorities, and then work on those priorities – even if other parts of the skill aren’t up to par. Or even if they are affected by the changes you’re making right now.

The reason is despite all the talk and hype about it, science has shown us that there is no such thing as multitasking. (Sorry all you people who think you’re good at it.)

The human brain can only pay attention to one task at a time. And making corrections to softball mechanics, or anything else for that matter, takes time, no matter how much we wish that wasn’t true.

Enabling players to remain focused on making a single correction, then moving to the next, will produce far better results than trying to fix everything at once.

But what about the discussions on how random practice (doing different things each time) is better than block practice (doing the same thing over and over)? That is true after a certain point, once the player has acquired a certain level of proficiency in the skill. For example, fielding ground balls to the left, right and center, hard and soft without establishing a set pattern will help translate those infield skills to a game better than doing 10 to the left, then 10 to the right, etc. 

But that presumes the player already knows how to field ground balls to the left, center and right, hard and soft. If not, the fielder must first acquire that skill, which is best accomplished through repetition and focus.

Giving players who are learning new skills, or replacing old skills with new ones, an opportunity to focus on one specific piece at a time (and without pressure for overall results, such as pitchers throwing strikes or fielders not making any errors) will create a better foundation and ultimately shorten the learning curve. Then, once the player has reached a certain level of at least conscious competence you can start moving into ensuring all the pieces are working the way they should.

Yes, there is a lot of great information out there (and plenty of bad too). And yes, it would be nice if you could just say things once and your kids/players would grasp it all right away. But that’s not how things work.

Avoid the temptation to “correction jump” (the coaching version of task jumping) and you’ll find you produce better long-term results – with far less frustration for you and your kids/players.

 

Great Time to Hit the Reset Button

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The summer is a distant memory. Especially for those of us who got snow on Halloween! Can you believe that? Sticking-to-the-ground-over-your-ankles snow on Halloween.

Fall ball is either behind us already as well, or there is one more weekend to go. Then there’s a lull before it all starts again.

It’s definitely a great time of the softball year to take some time off. Rest and recovery is a good thing, and now that we have joined the indoor sports in playing practically year-round it’s tough to find a few weeks you can string together to let your body (and mind) heal from the grind.

For some, however, this might be a great time for something else – i.e., hitting the reset button and either correcting major flaws or making major upgrades in mechanics and approach.

There is never a bad time to work on improving yourself and your game. But making major changes carries some risks when you’re also expected to play at your most effective level during the week or on the weekend.

Let’s take pitchers for example. To achieve all she’s capable of, a pitcher may need to work on her posture, or her leg drive, or her ability to whip the ball through the release zone. But it can be difficult to work on those things if doing so causes her to be wilder than when she sticks with her old habits.

Most coaches would rather have their pitcher bend forward and throw consistent strikes than work on staying upright and throwing too high, or too low, or too wide. Especially if that pitcher is their #1. That’s just the nature of things, and it’s very understandable.

Still, every pitch the pitcher throws bent forward so she can throw a strike is another step in the wrong long-term direction. And it will take her that much longer to get to where she needs to be to reach her potential.

It’s the same for hitters. Working on developing a better swing that will make a hitter more effective at higher levels doesn’t always yield great results at first. Anything that’s different is uncomfortable at first, and hitting is so dependent on quick reactions that walking the line between the old and new swings may throw the hitter off entirely.

Again, most coaches will take a good hit with an ugly swing over strikeout or weak ground ball or pop-up with a good swing. They’re not interested in how many home runs that hitter will hit in two years with her new and improved swing. They’re focused on getting her on base, or scoring that runner on third, now. Can’t say I blame them. I would be too.

Once upon a time there were three distinct parts to the season. There was the off-season, which lasted a few months, then the pre-season for a month or two, then the actual season.

That’s not the case anymore. Fall ball has gone from being a time of once-a-week practices and a game here or there to almost the equivalent of the summer season. Some of the tournaments in the fall are arguably more important than many in the summer for those who play in college, because college coaches are in attendance in droves. You don’t want to look bad in front of a gaggle of college coaches.

So right now, from the beginning of November to the end of December, is about the only time for players to make major changes in a safe environment. Pitchers can work on improving their drive mechanics, or their posture, or other core fundamentals without having to worry about the results of the pitch.

They can throw the ball all over the place for now, as long as they do it with the correct mechanics. It’s a form of failing up. Not to be confused with the version where someone sucks without trying to get better but gets rewarded anyway. As they replace old habits with new ones the control will come back – and be better than ever.

Hitters can work on developing their swings without having to worry about the consequences. As they move from conscious competence (having to think about how to move correctly) to unconscious competence (not thinking about what they’re doing but doing it right anyway) they can shift 100% of their focus to seeing the ball and hitting it hard. Suddenly all those cage pop-ups and ground balls start turning into rising line drives that smack off the back of the cage – and rebound back at the hitter if there is a solid wall behind the far end.

Everyone can work on their throwing mechanics – still one of the most under-taught parts of the game. Instead of measuring success by “the ball got to where they were throwing” fielders can develop mechanics that will help them throw harder and faster while protecting their arms and shoulders from injuries.

Most times of the year the pressure to perform in games out-ranks the desire to make improvements. Not right now.

For those who know they need to make major changes, this is the ideal time. Get to work, either on your own or with a qualified instructor, so by the time you start up again you’re ready to play (and show) better than ever.

And if you’re not in need of major rework, enjoy your time off. You’ve earned it.

No, Your Head Isn’t Pulling Out

Aggressive fastpitch softball swing

Hang around a softball field even for just a couple of games and you’re likely to hear a well-meaning third base coach tell a hitter “You’re pulling your head out!” The implication is that rather than watching the ball all the way into the hitting zone (or to the bat, which you’re actually unlikely to do due to a concept called angular velocity) the hitter is swinging her neck around in a way that takes her eyes away from the hitting zone.

Seeing the ball for as long as possible IS important, especially as those crafty pitchers develop late-breaking movement pitches. Hitters definitely want to follow the ball in rather than having their eyes looking up the baseline.

But the root cause of the problem isn’t the hitter’s head or neck. They actually have a fairly limited range of motion. The actual problem is that the front shoulder is pulling out, usually in an attempt to get the body to rotate as part of the swing.

Don’t believe me? Try this quick experiment. Stand up in a relaxed position, facing forward. Now, without moving your shoulders try turning your head/neck.

If you’re like me, about the best you can do comfortably is around 90 degrees, which is basically looking straight at the pitcher. It wouldn’t be too difficult from there to continue following the ball.

Now reset to your original position and pull your front shoulder out, allowing your head to go along with it. Now where are you looking? Probably somewhere between the shortstop and the third base line for a right handed hitter.

The only way to follow the ball now is to look back against the direction your shoulder and head are turning. That’s going to be difficult, because your head naturally wants to go in the same direction your torso is turning. Probably has something to do with our primitive survival instincts where we needed to see the danger and be in the best position to react to it.

So the reality is it’s not the head that’s the problem. It’s the front shoulder pulling away.

Of course, it’s not just the ability to see the ball that’s affected. When the front shoulder pulls out the bat’s angle of attack also changes. So instead of driving into the ball, the bat is more likely to deflect it to the opposite field, especially on inside pitches.

The hitter doesn’t fully engage the bat when contact is made either, which affects power. Again tough to drive the bat through the ball effectively when the upper body is pulling away from the ball.

The point is, drills to correct the head pulling out, such as the popular one where the hitter bites down on her jersey, aren’t going to be very effective on their own because you’re treating the symptom rather than the “disease.” In fact, if the front shoulder is pulling out instead of staying in place early in the swing, biting down on the jersey over that shoulder will actually encourage what you’re trying to correct.

The key, instead, is to get hitters to understand the importance of keeping the front shoulder in and driving the hips and then the shoulders, in sequence, around the front side. Take the back side into the ball, rather than pulling the front away, and the head/eyes problem will take care of itself.

Not only that, the hitter will be in a far better position to not only see the ball but attack it with all of her power, at the right time and the right position along its flight path from the pitcher to the plate. It’s a win all the way around.

Understand that when you’re trying to teach a hitter how to rotate the body into the ball it’s easier and more natural to pull the front side out, because that allows her to spin around her center. Just the way you would spin if you were playing “helicopter.”

It takes work and discipline to learn how to drive around the front side instead. But the effort will definitely be worth it.

To Hit Rockets, Be Like A Rocket

flight sky earth space

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Players, coaches, parents and fans all love them – those hits that take off like rockets. There’s nothing like seeing a well-struck, majestic line drive rising into the distance, especially if it clears a fence.

Learning to hit those awesome rockets, however, can be counter-intuitive. As I have pointed out before, because you want to hit the ball with the bat there is a natural tendency to focus on yanking the bat into the hitting zone with the shoulders and arms.

Players seem to believe (understandably) that the faster they pull the bat through with their arms, the farther the ball will go. This belief is often reinforced, incidentally, by the improper use of ball exit speed measurements that focus only on the numbers rather than looking at the technique as well. You can get better numbers off the tee, but that won’t necessarily translate into rockets off of live pitching for a variety of reasons.

During a lesson this week I was trying to explain how each of the body sections contributes to the swing when a thought occurred to me. To hit a rocket, a player should be like a rocket.

Think about it. Where does the power in a rocket come from? The bottom section. That has to fire first, with a lot of effort, to get the rocket going.

If you put all that power into the middle section, the rocket wouldn’t go anywhere because it needs to thrust against the ground to break free. Instead, it would just blow up on the launch pad.

Once you have things going, the secondary stage kicks in. It builds on the momentum created by the first stage to really start driving the rocket toward its destination.

Finally, there’s the payload section. That’s the part that carries the astronauts, or the satellite, or the exploratory vehicle, or the communications array that will alert our eventual alien overlords that we are here, we are too primitive to get to them, and thus we are ripe for exploitation and eventual elimination

In hitting, the lower body is the first stage of the rocket. It initiates the swing and supplies the bulk of the power that will be applied.

The shoulders and upper torso are the middle stage, adding on to the power of the first stage and providing guidance on where the rocket should go.

The bat is the payload stage – the point of the whole process. It takes advantage of everything that has gone before to deliver the final result, which is the hit.

Stick to that sequence and you will hit well. Do them out of order and the result will likely be a huge, fiery crash and burn.

So as you’re working with hitters, trying to explain how to properly sequence the swing, give this analogy a try. Maybe even show them this video:

Then send them out on the field for their own rocket launch.

 

Fixing Timing Problems In Live Hitting

emma-load-1.png

Tell me if you’ve seen (or personally experienced) this before. A hitter looks great on the tee. All her mechanics are correct and her movements are correctly sequenced. She’s pounding the ball so hard you’re afraid it’s going to break the back of the cage.

Then you move her into a live hitting situation – doesn’t have to be a full pitch, it could be easy front toss from a short distance – and suddenly that potential game-winning swing all falls apart.

Instead of driving the ball, the hitter is popping up, especially to the opposite field, or hitting weak dribblers back to the pitcher. What the heck happened?

Odds are she’s late getting to the bat to the ball. And no matter how soon she starts, she continues to be late.

You’ve probably heard it said on many occasions that hitting is all about timing. Well, that’s true, but not always in the way you think.

It’s not just about the start time. It’s really about where the hitter’s front foot is when it’s time to swing.

The front foot landing should be the trigger for the swing (i.e., the launch of the hips) to begin. Which means it has to be down on time. If it’s not, there’s no time to execute the rest of the swing and what you’ll end up with is essentially an arm swing, with the body following afterwards.

Ok, you understand this can help when the hitter doesn’t get going on time. But your hitter, if anything, was early and yet she still was behind the actual pitch.

I call this syndrome “early to be late.” What happens is the hitter sees the pitcher go into her motion and she begins her load. Then she realizes she started too early, so she stays back in the loaded position and waits for the pitcher to release the ball.

At that point it’s game over, advantage pitcher. There is simply not going to be enough time to stride/weight shift properly, launch the hips (without the shoulders), turn the shoulders, and bring the bat to the ball.

Getting stuck on the back side during the load is deadly to hitters. What they need to do instead is “bounce off” of it. In other words, they need to “load and go” right away rather than sitting and waiting for the pitch to be thrown.

Ideally, they will adjust their start time to make that happen. But if they can’t break the habit of being early they should learn to eat up the time difference by striding/weight shifting slower to be sure the front foot is down on time so the rest of the swing can be executed.

I’ve personally seen the difference this seemingly slight change makes. Rather than struggling to get to the ball (and feeling overwhelmed, which leads to arm swings), hitters suddenly feel more in command.

They get to that “oh yeah moment,” where the ball looks like a beach ball and they’re ready to jump on it, more consistently. And avoid that “oh crap moment” where they realize right before the swing that nothing good is going to happen.

How do you get there? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

Ok, seriously, hitters have to train themselves to overcome their basic instincts to wait on the pitch and start striding/weight shifting, even if they feel like it’s too soon. Once they can get to that point, and see the results, they’ll be more inclined to replace the old habit with a new one.

On the tee, or even at home in a bedroom, have hitters consciously work on their “load and go” mindset. Then do front toss and look for that hesitation.

If they still can’t break the habit, stand in front of them without the ball and go through the motion, encouraging them to get off that back side and start their forward movement at the right time. Then go back to front toss, and finally to full-length pitching.

It may take some time – the mind is a powerful thing, and once it latches onto something it doesn’t always like to let go. But sooner or later a willing hitter can overcome it.

Once she does, she’ll be well on her way to becoming the hitter she wants to be. And that you want her to be.

 

Put A Little Swagger In Your Swing

Taylor swing

Baseball legend Ted Williams once said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. I think it’s safe to say that not only does that statement extend to fastpitch softball, but it may apply even more given that the actual time to read, react to, and hit a pitch is comparable, but the pitchers stand closer and the ball can move both up and down through the zone (where a baseball is always traveling on a downward plane).

The point here, however, isn’t to argue that one is tougher than the other. It’s more to acknowledge that they’re both extremely difficult (as anyone who has ever done it can attest), which means any given at bat can be both exhilarating and frustrating.

That’s the reason why hitters (and their coaches) spend so much time studying the swing, and working on the swing, and sweating all the details. The goal is to create mechanics that enable hitters to get to the ball on time and hit it well and effortlessly when they do make contact.

Yet here’s the thing: while better mechanics definitely help you get to the ball more powerfully and efficiently, mechanics alone are not enough. After all, there are no style points in fastpitch softball. A beautiful swing and miss in a game is still a strike. An ugly swing that results in a fair ball no one catches is still a hit.

So yes, it takes more than good (or great) swing mechanics to be a successful hitter. You also have to have the right mental approach – one than enables you to walk to the plate with cool confidence, knowing that you are prepared to win the battle between the pitcher and you. I like to call it the “gunslinger mentality.”

And what better example of that mindset is there than Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday in the movie Tombstone? In the most tension-ridden situations he brings a sense of cool calm that not only helps him prepare for a possible gunfight but also helps avert the crisis by striking fear into the heart of his adversary.

If you haven’t seen the movie (or if you have and just want to enjoy it again), here’s a good example of Doc at his “I’ve got this situation under control” best:

And yes, the man with the rifle really is a very young (and a bit heavier) Billy Bob Thornton.

Here’s another fun example:

The movie is filled with them. In each you see that it isn’t just his reputed skill with a gun but his attitude that carries the day.

(In reality, incidentally, it’s generally believed that while Doc did have a fast draw he wasn’t exactly an accurate shot. He also killed far fewer men than he let on, probably so he wouldn’t actually have to be tested in a gunfight. But I digress.)

The key takeaway here is the swagger he brings when he walks into a tense situation, like the potential showdown with Johnny Ringo in the second clip. His “I’ve got this” attitude helps him prepare for whatever comes next.

That’s the kind of attitude hitters need to bring to the plate. Rather than worrying about the situation, or how good the pitcher is supposed to be, or whether coaches/parents/teammates will be mad at her if she fails, or any of the other doubts that can creep in when one steps into the batter’s box, hitters instead need to believe in themselves and their abilities.

If they’ve put in the work to develop their swings and learn how to see the ball well, it’s not them who should be worried. It’s the other team.

If you know (or are) a hitter who’s great in the cage but struggles in games, I recommend watching Tombstone, or at least the Doc Holliday clips on YouTube, to see what cool confidence looks like. (The whole movie is great, even if you don’t particularly care for Westerns, so it will be time well spent.)

Then encourage them to adopt a similar attitude as they step into the batter’s box. Stare down that pitcher. Give her a little smile. And finally, swing like they have everything under control. You’ll be amazed at the difference a little swagger can make.

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