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Hitting: keep it basic.

The objective of every practice is to develop muscle memory - the ability to make that grooved swing without thinking

I have read at least 10 books and studied at least 20 videos on how to hit a softball. I have also listened to any number of coaches and clinicians and, perhaps most important, I have watched a lot of hitters over the past 10 years.

And I have come to this conclusion: There are as many ways of teaching hitting as there are coaches, and I am astonished at how complex many of them are.

Just listen to the steady flow of instruction from coaches and parents, all meaning well but often confusing a subject that is difficult enough to begin with: Hold your elbows high! Keep your elbows down! Don't lunge! Keep your weight on your back foot! Crush the bug! Keep your head down! Line up your knuckles! Snap your wrists!

The basic thing that should be understood in coaching is that the goal of every practice should be to develop muscle memory - the ability to react efficiently without thinking.

In hitting, the objective would be to develop the batter's ability to produce a good grooved swing instantly and instinctively.

I realize that a hitter has to make adjustments based on the pitcher's skill, situation (runners on base, score, count, inning, etc.), and that these adjustments often have to be made in the batter's box or after stepping out and taking the sign. But even these adjustments must be kept simple and practical enough to be made quickly.

WHY HITTERS FAIL

I have been approached many times by forlorn parents wanting to know why their daughter cannot hit.

In the beginning, I didn't have any answers, and so I would mumble some cliche about a level swing, still head, or short stride. I soon learned better. The only way to truly know what a hitter is doing is by video-taping her and analyzing her swing in slow motion.

In the heat of battle, we can only see the obvious things, and these do not always provide the cause of the difficulty. We need a simpler method of analysis and, just as important, a simpler way of correcting mistakes during a game.

After much thought and many years of watching and listening, I have arrived at three reasons why a hitter fails:

1. She is not timing the ball. She is either swinging too late or too early, and if the pitcher happens to be gifted at changing speeds, the hitter may not be adjusting.

2. She is not seeing the ball. She is losing track of the ball too soon. And, again, if the pitcher is good at moving the ball, the hitter will have to make adjustments in order to give herself more time to see the ball. She may be swinging at the right time, but simply missing the ball.

3. She is not in a position to succeed. Her initial position in the batter's box (stance) is not giving her the best chance to succeed. Her bat and her strategy of hitting may also require study.

After arriving at these general concepts, we began investigating the habits needed to succeed and the way to make adjustments during a game.

We believe that by minimizing our instruction during the game we helped them react better and play relatively stress-free.

We also made a point of assuring them that going hitless didn't necessarily mean that they had failed. They may have done just one thing wrong, and all they needed to do was fix it.

Every player, particularly on the higher levels, has the physical tools to be a good hitter. What they have to do is understand hitting and always keep focused - never letting down after a bad at-bat and having the confidence in their ability to fix anything that goes wrong.

At this juncture, our three keys to hitting become a little more involved:

TIMING THE BALL

Regardless of the pitcher's speed, the hitter must time the pitch. The first adjustment in the batter's box is to make the pitcher either faster or slower. I always want the hitter to use a light bat, but comfort is the primary consideration in bat selection.

Some players are stronger than others. What may be light to one may not be so to another. However, we always choose contact over power. Putting the ball into play is primary.

After getting comfortable in the box, the hitter has to start her swing either sooner or later, depending on the pitcher. All hitters are not created equal. Some have very quick hands, others do not. That doesn't mean that one of them is going to be a better hitter than the other. Each has to make her own adaptation.

The hitter has to cue the pitcher for a triggering action. Question: At what point in the pitcher's windup should the hitter bring her weight back?

Every hitting instructor will tell you that "you have to go back to come forward." Being late or early is simply a matter of timing the weight shift.

We use the pitcher's windup for our cue to go back. A hitter with slow hands might go back at the top of the arm swing, whereas a hitter with fast hands might choose to wait until the pitcher gets to the three-quarter position.

All of this is fine until you come up against a pitcher with a great change of speed or good movement. That's when you need that light bat and/or shortened stride to make you quicker. The logic is simple: The quicker you are, the more time you'll have to watch (or wait upon) the ball.

SEEING THE BALL

Obviously, you can't hit what you can't see. The simplest advice for the hitter is to keep her eyes on the ball. It's easy enough to do, yet even on the highest level of play you see hitters staring out on the field.

Our drills exaggerate the skill. To develop the habit of watching the pitch as long as possible, we have the hitter follow the pitch all the way into the catcher's mitt or, after swinging and missing, we want her to keep staring at the plate.

GETTING INTO POSITION TO SUCCEED

Thanks to our different builds, strength, and idiosyncrasies, we can't all have the same stance. What is most important is for the batter to feel comfortable and relaxed, and, upon reaching the launching position, to have her weight shifted back in preparation for the swing.

In the stance, the batter has to see the ball. She must be looking at the pitcher with both eyes and have her head upright, not cocked. She must also keep her stride short, or not stride at all!

There are countless theories on the length of the stride. My premise is this:

1. If it is essential to keep a "still" head, any stride that causes the head to move has to be bad.

2. Since the quicker we are, the more time we have to wait on the pitcher, any motion (such as a stride or an unnecessary bat movement) that takes our eyes off the ball or retards our reaction to it, is also bad.

3. Because the more parts we move, the more chances there are of something going wrong, we encourage a no-stride swing.

The grip on the bat is also left to the individual. We simply emphasize a relaxed grip. As long as the hitter goes into launching position with the hands close to the body and at the top of the strike zone, we will have no quarrel with the stance.

We also encourage the hitter to keep the bat at a 45-degree angle. Since this is neither upright nor flat, the angle cannot be exploited by the pitcher. Another point: The 45-degree angle puts the bat on the plane (horizontal) at which most pitches are delivered.

However, we do not dwell excessively on the angle of the bat. We are satisfied as long as the bat is in the right position when the weight is brought back.

I have said that there are only three essentials in hitting. But there is a fourth facet that may be considered just as important. I call it "having a plan."

This can be as simple as moving in the box. But it is usually more than that. It involves the exploitation of the little things that are happening to your teammates and the other guys, especially in the mental side of the game.

STRIKING THE STRIKE ZONE

Every umpire has his or her own strike zone. I will never complain about it as long as it is consistent.

Batters should never complain either, because they have to adjust to it. They can beef all they want as they walk back to the bench after a called third strike that looked high. But if the ump called it a strike - it was a strike, period.

Batters should try to learn two things at the start of the game: the umps' strike zone and the quality of the pitcher's control. If the ump calls strikes at the knees, you don't swing at shoulder-high pitches. If the pitcher is throwing everything outside, you don't swing until she proves she can throw a strike.

Very seldom do umpires go by the book definition of strike zone - from the shoulder (or armpits) to the knees. That kind of strike zone gives the pitcher a big advantage. So the batter has to know what the ump is calling strikes. If the ump is shrinking the strike zone, the batter has to be smart enough to take advantage of it.

If the batter doesn't swing at bad pitches, the pitcher is going to have two choices: walk her or throw strikes.

If the batter swings at an outside pitch that is a ball, a good pitcher is going to give her another pitch just like it - only a little farther outside.

If the batter doesn't swing at the first or second outside pitch, the pitcher is going to have to bring the ball in to get a strike.

ZONING THE PITCH

A hitter with no strikes on her should think of zoning the next pitch - look for her favorite pitch, letting any other pitch go by.

With one strike on her, the hitter should be thinking of making contact with anything in the ump's strike zone.

With two strikes, the hitter must protect the plate - and I mean protect it.

Until the hitter gets better at judging the pitch, she should swing at anything she can reach. And she should also choke up on the bat, since a shorter lever is easier to handle than a longer one - and quicker.

We believe that the use of such strategy will enable the batter to hit any pitcher, regardless of her speed and skill.

I have coached all levels from t-ball to high school and traveling teams. At the lower levels, we have had to work on good basics. At the highest levels, we can spend more time on the mental side of hitting, as we may assume that the hitters have acquired pretty good physical skills.

It now becomes essential to teach confidence - and that has to come from the coach.

Remember, a bad at-bat is not failure. It may be due to doing just one little thing wrong. You must get the player to want to fix it; have the discipline to practice the correction, and then be mentally tough enough to make adjustments while the fans are screaming and the game is on the line.

There are many ways to teach hitting. I believe in our method because it has always worked. Simplicity is the key, and you must get your hitters to understand. If they don't understand what you are telling them, nothing is going to work.

Before you ply them with any advanced concepts, you must get them to understand the basics.
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Title Annotation:baseball
Author:Arzola, Gil
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Words:2007
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