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.