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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.

 

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The “Dummkopf” Drill for Fastpitch Hitters

Abbey B

Ok, before anyone gets their undies in a grundy, I’m not calling players name or saying this fastpitch hitting drill is only for stupid people. It’s merely a device I’m using to make what could otherwise be boring a little more fun.

The purpose of the drill is to teach hitters to lead with their hips, then release the hands. All too often hitters will either start the swing with their hands, or will start with their hips but then let the hands take over too early.

Ideally, you’ll want a sequence of hips-shoulders-bat/hands, where the hips start a powerful rotation, then you add on the shoulders, then you finally get the hands involved. When you go in that order you use the big muscles to develop more power and batspeed so when you do make contact you hit the ball harder/farther.

Going hips-first also gives the hitter more time to see the ball before she commits, enables a shorter swing to the ball, and puts the bat into the green zone at contact. Lots of great reasons to go hips-first.

While that may be easy to say it can be tougher to execute. You want to hit the ball with the bat, and the bat is held in the hands, so for many hitters (especially young ones) it makes more sense to lead with the bat. They may try to hold it back, but it’s just so tempting.

So I came up with the “dummkopf drill.” Here’s how it works:

The reason for the name of the drill is it’s based on WWII movies where one of the German soldiers is asked a question, answers it, and then is slapped in the head and called “dummkopf” by his superior. (SIDE NOTE: All the German I know comes from WWII movies, so it’s a pretty limited vocabulary. And not very useful in everyday conversation unless I were to find myself in a WWII prison camp.)

In this case, there were two purposes. One was to get the sequence right. The other was to help Abbey, who is pictured here, get the feeling of transferring her weight into the front leg instead of spinning on the back leg. As you can see, it accomplished both missions.

We could have done the drill without adding the callout “dummkopf” at the end. But it wouldn’t be as much fun. Using the word also helped her focus more on the point of contact, since she was trying to slap the rubber part of the tee upside its virtual head.

So if you have a hitter who is having trouble leading with her hips instead of her bat, give this one a try. And be sure to leave a comment below letting me know how it goes.

Another good reason to hit hips-first

Visualization of the optimal contact point for good, strong hits

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.

Adjusting inside-out

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.

General view of the hitting zone

Exact placement of the hitting zone depends on where the hitter stands in the box, height, and other factors. This is just a general idea.

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.

 

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