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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.

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.

 

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