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To Track the Ball, Think Video Not Photo

Learn to see in 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.

Erin Yazel catch

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.

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Another hitting myth: Keeping the head steady

Hitting at impact

When you spend as much time as I do around batting cages, one of the things you’re bound to hear is a coach telling a hitter about the importance of keeping his/her head steady. What the coach means by this is that you should set your body in a position, and then the head should stay there throughout the entire swing.

The rationale is that if the head is moving then the eyes are moving, and it’s too hard to see the ball that way. With a steady head – presumably one where if you had a video and put your cursor on the head it stays in one place throughout the swing – you should get a better look at the ball and be able to hit it.

Only one problem with that theory. That’s now how high-level hitters hit, as this video shows. While in some cases the camera is moving and therefore you can’t really mark it and watch, in others it’s rock steady. If you place your cursor on the starting position you’ll see a couple of things.

First, in most cases the head moves from back to front. That’s because as the hitter strides there is a linear movement forward with the core of the body, carrying the head (and eyes) along with it. Unless you stand still and spin for the swing, which is not a good idea, the head is going to have to move forward.

The other thing you’ll see on lower pitches is that the head moves downward as the hitter follows the ball down. That makes sense.

You don’t want to stand upright and drop your hands to hit a lower pitch. You want to go down with it, both to get a better look at the ball and to be able to use your entire body to hit it.

If you stand up tall, with your head frozen in place, you’re far more likely to hit a weak ground ball. But if you let your body (and head) move, you can lift that low pitch into the outfield – and perhaps even over the fence.

Think about this, too. In the rest of our lives, our head and eyes are moving all the time. If you’re driving, your head is moving forward, perhaps being bounced around by the road, and maybe even bobbing to the music. But you can still see just fine.

Tennis players are constantly on the move, returning sometimes high speed volleys with a ball that’s substantially smaller than a softball. They can see it just fine.

Infielders have to move left or right, up or back, to field hard grounders and pop-ups. Doesn’t seem to hurt their ability to see.

The fact is our eyes (and brains) have an amazing ability to adjust to our surroundings, and to take in and process information while we are on the move. If they didn’t our species would have died off a long time ago.

Clearly you don’t want the head swinging all over the place for no reason. But trying to force the head to stay “steady” is attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. To hit well, the body needs to adjust, and the head with it. Otherwise you’ll wind up with a disconnected swing – and a stiff hitter. And no one wants that.

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