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Effective Tools For Batting Practice

by Dave
Friday, July 01, 2005

girl swinging batBatting has been called the single most difficult athletic activity in sports. The reason for this is because it combines the same kind of muscle memory elements of, for example, a correct golf swing or basketball jump shot with the complex eye-brain activity of judging the speed and directional attributes of a thrown ball. There is so much going on in the body and brain of a batter that it boggles the mind. But as with any complex activity, the trick to mastering it (if that is really possible) is breaking it down to its simple elements. The choice of practice aids is critical to learning to hit well.

In order to bat properly, a batter must accomplish a couple things. First off, she must have a smooth swing without a hitch. Secondly, she must accomplish proper weight shifting at the moment of impact between bat and ball. Third she must accomplish the smooth swing and weight shift while keeping her head "quiet." A "quiet head" refers less to not being distracted by other thoughts and more to keeping the head motionless. It is certainly necessary to concentrate but it is more important to keep the head as still as possible. This is due to the complex nature of vision. Your vision involves your brain putting together two pictures, one from your left eye and one from your right. That is what gives us depth perception and allows us to judge speed. Batting makes this process more complicated because you stand with one side closer to the pitcher than the other. If you constantly move your head, your brain has to go into overdrive to judge the vector of the ball. So ideally your head would not move at all during a swing.

In order to teach proper batting skills, it is not necessary to have a couple dozen balls, go to the park and pitch to your child until your arm drops off and you are in dire need of traction. In fact, this is a bad idea because you spend too much time and energy trying to throw strikes at the right speed and chasing down balls in the field, not to mention finding a good unoccupied location. Repetition is critical and the greater the number of swings taken, the better your daughter will hit. The tools I like to work with are 1) the Hit-N-Stik, 2) the batting T, and 3) a variety of different types and sizes of balls.


Batting T


It really makes no difference whether your child is a 7 year old playing her first year of t-ball or the star cleanup hitter on your local championship ASA team. The batting T is her best friend when it comes to batting practice. I recall a conversation I once had in which the parent of a really good player was frustrated about his team's batting practice. He complained that all they ever did was hit off a T. He wanted his daughter to face live pitching as much as possible. I pointed out to him that even the major leaguers do the vast majority of batting work off of the T. I recently watched a show about the manager of the NCAA champion University of Texas baseball team. Almost every shot of him was done to the backdrop of 20 guys hitting off Ts. Sure they hit live pitching sometimes but most of that involves a machine or coach throwing slow, flat pitches. That is not really meant to prepare them for live, jumping fastballs, drop off the table curves, etc. Hitting live pitching is just another drill which complements hitting off a T and other methods. The real work of developing, maintaining and even correcting a major league swing is done with a T.

If you want to make a small investment in your child's enjoyment of the game, go right now to Sports Authority or Softball Junk and purchase a good, adjustable batting T with a couple dozen whiffle balls. The whiffle balls are not the classic ones with which you can throw all sorts of curves, risers and drops, but rather are durable softball sized plastic balls with holes all around. If you can get them in different sizes, great but we'll get to that later.

The hidden value of using a batting T and plastic balls is that you can use them almost anywhere. You can use them on a field at a team practice without the danger of someone doing a fielding drill getting hit by an errant hit ball. You can use them in your yard without needing very much space or breaking anyone's windows. You can even use them in your basement without worrying about broken lights. They are very handy tools.

Before figuring out where to place a batting T, have your daughter swing a few times and see where a good place for her to make contact is. Then mark the spots where she is standing and to place the T. If you are lucky enough to have another person with you, have them put the balls on the T for you so you can focus on your daughter's swing. Keep the end of the tee in the strike zone or just outside of it and after a lot of repetition, you can begin moving the height around. To spice things up, have her hit to each of the three fields by adjusting where she stands in relation to the T. This will teach her proper weight shift to hit the ball to right on outside pitches and to left on inside ones. If you don't have a good place to practice on rainy days, you can also use a T without a ball on it by having your daughter swing and just hit the top of the T.


Hit-N-Stik


The Hit-N-Stik is a long, flexible wand with an object at the end of it which resembles a small ball. It typically costs around $50 and is better than some of the hitting practice aids you often see advertised on TV. If can be attached to a stand with a recoil mechanism but you do not need this. The wand will do just nicely.

The reasons why the Hit-N-Stik is such a good aid is because there is no reason to chase balls and you stand just six feet away from your daughter when you use it. This allows you to get tons of repetitions and to be in a perfect position to see and correct errors in her swing. Also, very little space is needed to practice hitting with this device. You can use it in your garage or basement assuming you have one and your car or other junk is not completely occupying the space.

To use the Hit-N-Stik, basically you hold the end of the wand in one hand and part of the shaft in your other while bracing for impact. The device comes with instructions about how to stand while holding it. Place the wand at a good point of impact within the strike zone and your girl swings away. The trick is not so much to hit the ball but rather to take good swings. After some practice both will be accomplished but in the beginning, remember that swing mechanics are more important. Don't get frustrated because your daughter continually makes contact with the shaft.

Good swings are important regardless of where the pitched ball is, assuming it is in or close to the strike zone. You should vary where in the zone you place the wand so your daughter can learn to hit inside and outside, high and low pitches. She must maintain good swing mechanics when adjusting but it is necessary for her to learn how to hit pitches in a variety of areas.

If you or your daughter becomes bored or find hitting this way too easy, you can do a number of things to spice it up a little. The company which sells Hit-N-Stik does not advocate this but moving the stick around a little, so that the batter has to hit a moving ball, can make the experience more interesting. A slight wobble mimics risers, sinkers and curves pretty well.

Another drill is to have the batter stand it hitting position and then close her eyes. You then place the ball into the strike zone and have her simultaneously open her eyes and swing. This teaches fast recognition of where the ball is and how to adjust your swing to location.

I think you will find this device an invaluable tool which may become your favorite practice aid. The only potential problem with it is that it does tend to break but only if you use it a lot. You may want to get yourself the most expensive version, the one intended for older kids, in order to save some money on buying replacements. If you absolutely must buy the stand because you think it is helpful, fine, but remember, the stand is no substitute for you. The stand does not correct errant swinging technique. And allowing your daughter to practice swinging by herself, especially in the early years is a great way for her to develop critical mechanical mistakes which will not go away easily.

If you use the Hit-N-Stik, you will quickly see that a high quality batting practice can be had in less time than it takes to drive to the batting cages or field. Your daughter will get more swings this way than any other. And it is not only a great practice aid, it is also a great way to warm up before a game. You can run a whole team through a quick batting practice or warm up drill in fifteen minutes.


Different Sized Balls


World class softball players and major league baseball players use any number of different drills to practice hitting. When they want to improve their reaction to a pitched ball, they often use pitching machines but these are expensive and not practical for the parents of a junior player to purchase. Even some ljunior teams own them but many do not.

When top softball and baseball batters practice they often use small balls to improve their hand-eye coordination. I do not advocate using different sized balls to pitch to a first year player but as your daughter moves up, it is certainly something to consider. If your daughter's league plays with a 12-inch ball, consider throwing batting practice with an 11 inch one. This will make the ball seem that much larger come game time.

You can also consider using very small balls such as tennis balls (although these can be dangerous to your eyes. I was once hit in the eye with a thrown baseball and the emergency room doctor told me how lucky I was that it wasn't a tennis ball. Tennis balls bounce back so when you get hit in the eye, it pushes your eye back in as it bounces off. Also, tennis balls have fuzz on them which is very effective for scratching the cornea of your eye. Tennis balls are most often used from pitching machines where there is little danger of anyone getting hit in the eye.

I suppose baseball are a decent alternative to tennis balls but you may want to have special bats for this kind of practice since they may do damage to softball bats. And you do not want a bunch of girls standing in the field if you are pitching batting practice with baseball. The ball will generally come off the bat much more quickly than a softball does. If your girls are acclimated to practicing with a hard ball, fine but if not, I suggest you use them only within a netted area.

Another alternative is the very small whiffle type balls you sometimes see golfers practice with. These balls are very hard to pick up when they are thrown or even tossed. They can, therefore, be a great tool to help your daughter or teammates pick up balls thrown by a fast pitcher. If you paint the balls different colors, you can throw two or three simultaneously and have the batter focus on hitting one specific color. This further trains the eye to quickly recognize pitches.


Whatever you do to teach your child hitting, please remember that it is possibly the most complex athletic skill in all of sports. Practice is critical because this skill involves a high degree of muscle memory. The greater number of quality swings your daughter takes, the faster she will take good swings in games. It is fun to hit balls with a bat so it should be easy to convince your junior girl to practice. Focus on fundamentals and eventually your girl will start smacking the cover off the ball.

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