Category Archives: Vision Training
Teaching Hitters to Track the Ball More Effectively
Go to any facility where there are teams or individuals hitting in batting cages and sooner or later you’re likely to hear the phrase, “Track the ball all the way into the catcher’s glove.” While it’s doubtful that hitters can actually see the ball hit the bat at the point of contact, the idea of trying to track the ball as long as you can is a good one.
The problem most coaches face when trying to get their hitters to track the ball longer (instead of getting a glimpse then swinging) is that there are no consequences for not doing it. Well, other than not hitting well. But as soon as the coach’s back is turned, hitters are likely to go back to not following the ball all the way to the catcher’s glove.
But, dear blog follower, I have a solution for the dilemma. It actually came up by accident, but I noticed how the pattern had changed so I’m taking credit!
All you need is a batting cage with a tight protective net at the back of it.
For the past few months I’ve been throwing front toss to hitters in a cage that has a very tight net at the back. When one of my errant pitches (and there are many of them) would hit the net, it would bounce back at the hitter with enough velocity to be annoying.
What I noticed was a lot of the hitters would watch the ball all the way to that net so they could get out of the way when the ball bounced back. Some of them then made a game of trying to catch the ball when it popped up off the net, and they got pretty good at it.
Since their first priority was hitting any good pitches I managed to throw, it took some effort to see the ball coming back and catch it.
But today I was in a different cage that didn’t have such a tight net. And that’s where I saw the effect take place.
One of the hitters who liked to catch the ball was still following it to the back screen, even though it wasn’t going to bounce back. She’d built a habit of it in the other cage to the point where she now automatically watches the ball all the way back.
Between that and the Reynaldo drill, which she has become very good at, she is seeing the ball much better – and hitting the heck out of it.
So I guess the lesson here is if you want to encourage your hitters to watch the ball longer, find a nice, tight net and put it behind the plate when you front toss to them. They’ll definitely learn to keep an eye on it all the way in.
(And yes, I know the hitter in the top photo is hitting off a tee. It’s tough to throw front toss and take a picture at the same time. Deal with it.)
To Track the Ball, Think Video Not Photo
While the ready availability of modern technology (think: screens) has given us many marvelous advantages, it has also created some issues. One of the most profound is our increasingly short attention span.
You see it all the time – especially us coaches as we try to explain something important to our players even as we watch their eyes glaze over or pay attention to everything but us after about a minute. (Still, we persist in talking for 10, 15, 20 minutes anyway, especially if we just lost a game.)
That’s bad enough, because of course we’re imparting not just tremendous softball instruction but also life wisdom. 🙂 But where this short attention span can really hurt players is in how they track the ball during the game.
Often it seems like player tend to view the ball (and make decisions) based on a point in time. It’s like their brains take a photograph of where the ball is at a particular moment, then their movements and reactions are based on what they see in that moment.
The problem, of course, is that one point in time doesn’t give us enough information about what will happen going forward. For example, a photo of a player diving for a ball doesn’t necessarily tell us whether she successfully made the catch or not.
The ball may be in her glove, but will it stay there?
What they need instead is to take more of a video approach, i.e., see the flight of the ball as a series of points moving through space. (For those who don’t know, video is made up of a series of individual photos that play rapidly in succession, creating the illusion of motion. You learned something today.)
This “photographic” approach to seeing where the ball is going hurts several areas. Take catchers, for example.
They see the ball is going down and will need to be blocked. But they don’t wait long enough to see the flight of the ball in space, they just react to wherever it is 10 feet in front of the pitcher.
So they drop to block, only to watch the ball careen past their right shoulders. A little more information and they could’ve centered their bodies on the flight of the ball. Instead, it gets by and a run scores.
Hitters also need that type of spatial information. In fact, they need to track the ball as long as they can to get a feel for whether it will be inside or outside, high or low, and whether it may have some movement to it. All of that information can have a huge impact on when they bring the bat to the ball as well as where they take it to.
If they just take a mental photo they’re unlikely to take the bat to where it needs to go unless they’ve been specifically trained to recognize the ball’s flight earlier. But by tracking the ball through space the way they would watch it come in on video, hitters can make the adjustments they need to achieve greater success.
This principle also applies to fielding ground balls and fly balls. Ground balls can take detours due to field conditions (rock, divots, a lost helmet) and fly balls can go all over the place due to spin and wind. Using a “mental photo” to judge where they’re headed, and then checking out, is a fast track to an error. Seeing the whole travel of the ball, including where it’s going, will be much more effective.
Yes, in our short attention span theater world it gets increasingly difficult for players to learn to focus for more than a few seconds at a time. But if they can learn to watch the video instead of looking at the photo, they’ll be a lot more successful.
Study shows Vizual Edge makes a difference
A while back I wrote about a computer-based visual training system called Vizual Edge Performance Trainer (VEPT) that helps fastpitch softball players (among others) improve their ability to see the ball. While it can apply to any part of the game, of course it’s particularly important to hitters. After all, the better you can see and track the ball, the better chance you have of hitting it.
At the time, much of the discussion was anecdotal. I had a couple of players who used it regularly and saw improvement in their performance at the plate, but that’s hardly a scientific sample.
Now there is more evidence. <A href="/files/55650-48775/MLB_VEPT.pdf”>This study investigated the relationship between improving visual skills and the hitting performance of 352 minor league baseball players who used VEPT during the 2013 season.
The results support the fact that players with higher VEPT scores also had higher batting averages, on-base percentages, on base plus slugging percentages and lower incidences of striking out. Who wouldn’t like to add 15 points to their batting average while having fun?
With the high school season coming up in many states in less than a month, and summer softball just around the corner, it’s not too early to start working on your vision. Check out the study, and if you like what you see (no pun intended) head on over to Vizual Edge.
Demonstration of seeing and anticipating the ball
The example I’m providing today isn’t from fastpitch softball. It’s from soccer. But it really does a great job of showing how the eyes and the brain work together to provide athletes with important information. Softball players who understand this principle can use it to help them hit better.
So, check out this video from Sports Science, which shows Cristiano Reynaldo, arguably the greatest soccer player in the world at this time, demonstrating his prowess. Skip the first part, and advance it forward to around the 5:30 mark. That’s where it gets interesting.
The Sports Science folks set up a test to understand how his brain helps him score goals. In the test, he is set up in front of a net in an indoor facility. They have the ball off to the side. So far nothing unusual. But immediately after the ball is kicked the lights are turned off and Ronaldo has to try to knock the ball in the goal in pitch darkness.
First you see his attempts normally, which means the screen goes black. Then they show it with night vision video.
He does it every time, which is simply amazing. Then they run one more test which will blow your mind. In the last one, the lights go out right before the ball is kicked. It’s not a great kick, but he still manages to get a shoulder on the ball and knock it in the goal.
You have to see it to believe it. But in the analysis they talk about what’s going on, and how he’s able to do it.
The short version is he has a ton of experience, so he can recognize patterns. He can see where the ball is going to go before it goes by seeing the approach, the angle of the foot, where the ball is being contacted and so on.
Fastpitch hitters can learn a lot from this. Despite all the talk about watching the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, most hitters really don’t do that great a job of it. And those that do still may not be using what they see properly.
By watching more intensely, and training your brain to recognize the patterns of arm circles, hand positions, body leans, etc. you can get a better idea of where the ball is headed before it’s even thrown. It would be practically like hitting it off a tee.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But how do you do it? I will be the first to admit I don’t have all the answers. But here are a few tips:
- Make a real effort to see the ball as it’s being pitched. Pay attention to the details. If you notice certain things about certain pitchers, write them down in a notebook so you can remember those little “tells” the next time you face her.
- See as much live pitching as you can. It doesn’t have to be from an actual pitcher, although that is certainly preferable. But the more you see the ball from a pitcher’s hand, the more you’ll be building up that little pile of reference cards that will help you know where the ball is going to go by the way the pitcher’s arm, hand, etc. are going.
- Test yourself by hitting front toss with your eyes closed. You don’t want to do this with a full-on pitch, but with a slower front toss close your eyes when the ball is about half way in and see if you can hit it. If you have some success, close them sooner. This may take quite a while to do successfully. Ultimately you’re going to want to track the ball in as long as you can. But if you can tell where a basic pitch is headed by the way it’s being thrown, you’ll have a great advantage when you can watch it much longer.
Take a look at the video to see what’s humanly possible. Then start training yourself to “see” better.
Fun drill for softball hitting vision training
Got this softball hitting vision training drill when I was the NFCA Coaches College in Minneapolis back in November. We tried it today and it was a lot of fun, both for the girls and the parents who participated.
The only equipment you need is a bucket of wiffle balls. You need at least two colors, although the balls should be predominently one color. It’s really easy to do this in batting cage because you can go from side to side. Here’s how it works.
Have a player stand with her back to one side of the cage. Set the wiffle balls on the ground on the other side of the cage, with one or two people kneeling. I used two parents today, which allowed them to be involved while freeing me to work with other players.
The tossers begin tossing a barrage of balls at the player. She knocks away all but one color of ball. Those she catches, and tosses back into the mix. The faster the barrage of balls goes, the more difficult (and fun it is). Having two tossers makes the barrage come faster, and from more directions, adding to the challenge.
For ours today, I had white, blue, purple and yellow balls. The girls had to catch the four yellow balls out of the two dozen coming at them.
It really forces hitters to ignore distractions and focus on the ball — exactly what you want to have happen at the plate. It also helps them work on their hand-eye coordination, as catching the ball under those conditions isn’t easy.
It’s definitely a way to energize your practices too. Give it a try!
VizualEdge launches new website, online sessions
A few weeks ago I jumped the gun a bit in promoting the new website for VizualEdge vision training. I’ve now been notified that the new site and product offering is live. For real, this time!
If you’re not familiar with it, VizualEdge is computer-based training to help athletes see better — see the ball, see the field, see plays develop, etc. Their positioning line is “weight training for the eyes.” If you perform the exercises regularly (they say three times a week for six weeks is the norm to see results) you will find you have improved your ability to track the ball coming toward you and going away, pick it up quicker, and generally see better.
I think it’s pretty obvious how that will help. Tracking a ball coming toward you, for example, comes in handy in fielding, and especially in hitting. Picking things up quicker is definitely helpful in fielding, whether it’s a hard shot in the infield or a fly ball in the outfield.
As I’ve mentioned before, the season we introduced it we found that the two hitters who were most diligent in using VizualEdge were also the two that led our team in every offensive category. Neither was viewed as your classic “standout athlete” where you would say they would’ve done that well with or without it. The training definitely made a difference for them, and for the team.
The website includes some flash animation that gives you a better idea of how the software works. You get a little sampling of what you’ll see, along with explanation of how each part works. There’s lots of detail to help you make a decision.
The most significant change, though, is the training is now web-based. When we originally used it, it was CD-based, tied to a particular computer. That meant for a team to use it they either had to come to your house, or you had to put the software on a laptop and carry it with you. If your laptop crapped out, as they all do eventually (and mine once did) you had to contact VizualEdge to get any remaining sessions transferred.
Now, it’s all on the web. You can login from any computer, so if you want to use your giant 24″ LCD monitor instead of the screen on your 14.5 inch laptop you can. As long as you have enough of the 3D glasses your entire team can do it at their leisure, making it a lot more likely that more players will use it. As a coach, you can login to check the progress of each of your players; as a parent, you can check if the sessions are being used and improvement is being realized. And there’s no worrying about losing sessions due to a computer giving up the ghost. It’s all online now so the sessions are always available as long as you have an Internet connection.
It’s not cheap, but think about it this way. The cost for 50 sessions that can be used between one or two athletes is $225. That’s about half the cost of a top-quality bat. Yet if you do the VizualEdge training, you’re far more likely to get your money’s worth out of that expensive bat.
I definitely find it to be a worthwhile investment. They are also a good company to work with — their customer support is outstanding. To learn more, check out http://vizualedge.com.