One of the things that probably holds more hitters back than anything is having a tentative approach at the plate. They stand nervously in the batter’s box, shifting from foot to foot, death grip on the bat as they await the next pitch.
Then it comes and they wait until they can wait no longer, then finally flail at the ball as it goes whizzing by them.
It isn’t that they don’t know how to hit, or that they haven’t practiced the physical act of hitting. The problem is that they don’t have the right mindset.
They may be worried that they will strike out, looking bad in the process. Or that they will pop up, or hit a weak ground ball, particularly if they have been doing that a lot lately.
They may also be looking at how many runners are on base and thinking about the possibility of stranding them. They may be thinking if they screw up the coach will yell at them or take them out of the game.
Whatever it is, they’re thinking about the possibility of negative outcomes and therefore not focusing on the task at hand – which is to see the ball and hit it.
What they should be doing instead is adopting the mindset of a predator. A predator doesn’t worry about what might happen if it doesn’t catch the prey. It simply goes for the prize.
In fact, as my friend and fellow coach Heather Cole once told me, the predator loves the hunt more than it loves the kill.
In softball terms, that means the hitter shouldn’t be so focused on the outcome. Great hitters are all about the process of the at-bat.
They are not trying to defend themselves or the plate against the pitch. They are there to attack the pitch.
They are on the hunt, and every pitch is an opportunity to drive the ball into a gap or over the fence. They don’t worry about whether it will happen or not. They place all their focus on making it happen.
The funny thing is when you approach every plate appearance like a predator you start walking to the plate with a bit of a swagger. When you have that swagger you have more confidence in your abilities, which lets you get even more aggressive.
Before you know it all those outcomes you were worried about start taking care of themselves.
In this world there are two options. You can either be the prey or the predator.
If you want to be a great hitter, start thinking (and acting) like a predator.
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.