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Some Softball Hitting Tips

by Dave
Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Hitting a softball or baseball is among the most difficult exercises in sport. There are a couple of important fundamental considerations when you are teaching hitting. The head must be as still as possible. The eyes must judge the ball perfectly. The feet must accomplish a perfect weight shift. The hands must be in the right position throughout the whole process. The hips and shoulders must remain closed until exactly the right moment. It is a far more difficult thing to teach than almost any other skill. So let's break it down.

Keep Your Head Still


The first, most important consideration is the stillness of the head. The head must be as still as possible because judging the speed, spin and vector of the ball is an extremely complicated mental activity. Your vision is really made up of two visions which your brain pieces together into a single image. Your right eye sees one thing, your left another. Piecing these two together allows you to have depth perception, as well as judge the velocity and direction of objects. To prove the point, spin around or move your head in random directions. At some points, you will perceive two images simultaneously. Your brain takes time to orient itself and piece the two images together. But if you ever see two images while you are batting, you have no hope of hitting the ball. So head stillness is your absolute goal when hitting.

When we speak of many sports, it is a forgone conclusion that your body follows your head. In a softball swing, almost the exact opposite is true. Your head moves because of actions of the rest of your body. Because you don't want your head to move, you need to minimize the impact of movement of the rest of your body on your head. In short, minimization of movement is critical. Keep this one principal in mind when teaching the rest of the motion.

Take A Small Step


The second element of a good swing has to do with weight shift. Most good hitting instructors speak of the 60-40, 40-60 rule. This refers to the fact that a hitter has 60% of her weight on her back foot and 40% on her front at the beginning of a swing, and after swinging, 60% should be on the front and 40% on the back. Stand up and get a feel for this. You can easily approximate these numbers with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Now stand up and try this while taking a step. Not so easy, is it? Now try this while taking a big step. It is nearly impossible to accomplish 60-40, 40-60 when you take a big step.

I remember some years back I taught my youngest daughter to swing using this weight shift principle. Then she played what we call "clinic ball" in which the coaches pitch and are right out on the field. My daughter's coach saw that she was a pretty good hitter but he was displeased with how hard she hit the ball. He was a men's slow pitch player so he encouraged her to lift her front foot up and take an enormous step followed by swinging with all her might. She missed about 90% of pitches thrown to her after that. It took me 6 months to get her swing back to where it was before that moment. As an aside, it takes a long time to establish a good swing and mere moments to destroy it. But that's an issue for another day. The point here is a big step is the wrong thing to teach. If your kid is really young, her step should be almost imperceptible. Forget what you learned about swinging either as a kid or as an adult slow-pitch player. Smaller is better. Also, please try not to get very excited about how hard your kid hits the ball. As she locks down the rest of the swing, she will hit the ball harder and harder. Don't be in such a rush.

The short step involved in swinging occurs right before the pitcher releases the ball. It is more of a timing mechanism than it is an energy creator. You do not really create much torque by stepping. Basically while standing with your weight spread 50-50, you step or shuffle which puts a little more weight on the back foot, the object being to get about 60% there. Then as your hands come forward, the 10% of your weight you put on the back foot plus another 10% gets shifted to the front foot. The object is to shift that weight right at the moment of impact.

Relaxed, Comfortable Stance


Now that we've discussed the head being still and the feet performing 60-40, 40-60, the next thing to discuss is the hands. But we cannot discuss the hands without discussing the arms to which they are attached. And we cannot discuss the arms without getting into the stance as a whole because the arms are where they are mostly as a factor of the rest of the body. The stance is very important but I discuss it after the head and the weight shift because those are absolutes. Every hitter must keep her head still. Every hitter must shift her weight in basically the same manner. But every hitter seems to have a different stance. This is because the stance depends on the body of the individual. Everybody feels comfortable in slightly different positions. But there are some important fundamentals.

The stance of the hitter must be a balanced one. Like I said before, she has to be able to accomplish the weight shift while keeping her head motionless. If she is not comfortable, those two are nearly impossible. Basically the feet should be about shoulder distance apart. Some like more distance, some prefer less. As long as she is close to shoulder distance, good enough. The back foot should be slightly behind the front foot. A good rule of thumb is the big toe of the back foot should be in line with the instep of the front. Again, personal preference is important to comfort so don't get too carried away here. Close is good enough. As an aside, when you hear other refer to a "closed" or "open" stance, this refers to the positioning of the feet. A closed stance occurs when the big toe of the back foot is further back than the instep. An open stance occurs when the alignment of the feet is reversed - the big toe of the front foot is aligned with the instep of the back. There are degrees of this and if you watch any big time baseball or softball, you know what I mean. But don't let your daughter or the hitters you coach fall into habits of an exaggerated (open or closed) stance. It may be a habit they can never break. A little variety is OK but stick to good fundamentals.

The knees should be bent. The degree is not all that important. But you do not want a hitter to stand with knees cocked and you do not want the her to be in a catchers crouch. Right around three quarters of totally straight legged is correct. If your knees are at 90 degrees when sitting with your feet flat on the ground and 180 degrees when standing, the right position for hitting would be described as 135 to 150 degrees. Again, personal preference is important but you want some bend because that aids in creating torque and also helps in adjusting to the thrown ball.

The position of the back is a factor of where the knees and feet are. A hitter should be leaning forward, towards home plate. This is somewhat pronounced but not exaggerated. A hitter should not have her head in the strike zone but it should be out in front of her toes. This is the area where I allow the greatest variability. When I hit, I like to be pretty straight up. One of my daughters likes to bend over quite a bit. My other one prefers to be right about in between the two of us. But none of us is rigidly straight up and none of us is stooped over. If you have your back perpendicular to the ground - straight up, let's call that 180 degrees. If you are perfectly bent at the waist, let's call that 90 degrees, the right position is about three quarters to perpendicular or 135 degrees. Allow for variation. Comfort is key because as the swing commences, it is important to keep the back in the same position as it was in the stance. If you start out stooped and immediately move to perpendicular, you immediately move your head far too much and you've lost the pitch.

Arms Bent And Parallel


Now that your hitter has taken the right body stance for her, the next thing is the arms. If you've had similar experiences as I have, you may have been taught to bring your back elbow up so that your two arms are at almost a 90 degree angle to each other. This is wrong. The way to get the right stance with the arms is to take a pole such as another bat or some sort of stick and place it on the inside of the two elbows. The pole must be level. And it should not slide off the arms until really the very last instance of the swing. Some would say it should never slide off but I believe in lowering the back hand and then rolling the hands at the point of impact. So, for me, it's just not possible to keep a pole between my arms during the entire swing.

Obviously, it is just not practical to have your child swing a bat with a pole balanced on her arms. I do suggest this is a good exercise for older girls who are serious about hitting. But when dealing with younger girls, it is probably more something you would want to demonstrate for them so intellectually they nform a picture in their minds of how to hold their elbows. Also, you want to keep this image in your mind when you are teaching or correcting hitting.

Elbows Locked At Point Of Impact


Another arm consideration of hitting is you want to make sure that the elbows lock at the point of impact. Locking too early causes the hitter to appear to be dragging the bat through the strike zone. Not locking is a great way to flub a foul ball off to your back side. Locking just at the point of impact along with shifting the weight at that instant while keeping your head straight is the key to driving the ball. This takes time and practice but make sure that your hitters know that locking the elbows is crucial. We'll get to drilling this a little later but the point must not be lost.

Hands Low


Regarding the hands, they are almost an afterthought but not quite. The hands follow the body and arms. The knuckles have to be lined up the way they will be when contact is made. Some folks like to teach that the first knuckles are lined up with the second but I prefer lining up the second knuckles right from the get-go because this is where your hands will be at the point of impact. Lining up the second knuckles at the start helps the hitter to have a nice, short swing and to flex the elbows at the right point of the swing.

The final consideration about the hands is they must be below the head of the bat. You may think of this as keeping the head of the bat up but I prefer to think of it as keeping the hands down while not over-extending the wrists. Keeping the hands lower than the end of the bat is the only way to transfer your weight and the motion of your arms to the head of the bat at impact. It is important to have a "level swing" but a level swing is not actually level. The plane of the bat is basically level but the hands must keep the bat head up.

Hips, Shoulders, And Feet


After the hands, we go back to the body. But when we go to the body, we need to discuss the feet again. Going back to the second element discussed above, the short step, the front foot actually performs a slight turn as you step forward. If, at the start, your instep is facing the catcher, once you step, you want your toes to be facing the first baseman, if you are righty. You don't want a complete turn of the foot but rather a short, slight turn. The degree doesn't matter so much but you should neither keep it in the same profile nor turn it sharply.

As you step forward, moving 10% of your weight to your back foot, and bring your hands forward, you will notice that both your hips and shoulder begin to open. Good hitters like to delay this opening as much as possible. You do not want your hitter to "fly open" right at the beginning of the swing. Rather, the "flying open" is accomplished just before the point of impact. And simultaneous with this, the back foot twists in the dirt, ultimately facing the pitcher more than the front foot does. To explain this a little more clearly, on the step, the front foot points to the first baseman. On the "fly open" point, the toes of the back foot are actually pointing at the pitcher and the back knee should be bent. I think you can best see this with a still photograph of a big time softball or baseball hitter at the point of impact. If you look just at that moment in time, most big time hitters are in the same position. The front foot is extended, the back foot has just twisted, the hands are at the waist with the bat head up, and the weight is shifting right at the moment of impact.

Judging The Speed And Location Of The Ball


Probably the most difficult aspect of hitting is judging the speed and location of the ball. But this is really an experiential thing. If you focus on all the other fundamentals first and don't get too excited about how frequently or hard your hitter hits the ball, things will work out. Great young hitters are seldom great when they hit high school. Their success tends to breed over-confidence and bad habits. And average hitters with good fundamentals often become great hitters once they face better, faster pitching. If your hitter works on the fundamentals and gets enough opportunity to face good pitching, she will eventually make good contact.

There have been a number of studies which show that human beings do better judging fast objects than they do slow ones. This is because millennia of adaptation have made us better at judging moving objects than still ones. Your hitter may have trouble making contact with slow pitches but in later years when she is facing better pitching, she may knock the ball around the diamond. I just endured a year in which my two daughters had tremendous difficulty making contact with the ball. Even when they made contact, most often the ball was pulled way into foul territory down the left field line. They'd foul off a couple and then strike out. Actually, most often they walked - maybe as much as 60% of their at bats. And then in frustration, they would begin swinging at bad pitches. My older girl got the opportunity to play in a much more advanced league. I was apprehensive in her first couple of at bats because the pitching was far better. But she drilled the ball almost every time up. She could not judge the slow pitches in her rec league. She had no trouble with better pitching.

Just to reiterate, focus on solid fundamentals of hitting and don't get overly excited about how well your hitter hits. Hitting is like most other quality products. It results from long periods of hard work where emphasis is placed on the little things. If you doubt any of this, make a point of watching one kid who is a good young hitter. If she has solid instruction, chances are she'll be a good hitter for a long time but if she does not, watch as she gets into one bad habit after another and crumbles as the pitching gets tougher and tougher. Then you can come back here and tell me I was right.

Drilling


The most under-rated piece of equipment is the batting tee. Don't agree with me? Ask yourself this question, who uses a batting tee more, a ten year old boy or girl or MLB player with a million dollar contract and lifetime .300 batting average? The answer is pretty clearly the lifetime .300 MLB player. Colleges use batting tees all the time. And most major leaguers would not even bother getting into the cage to face live pitches without first spending significant amounts of time at the batting tee. The reason for this is the batting tee is unforgiving. You must swing level, keep your head still, shift your weight at the right moment, etc. to hit the ball well off the tee. And, as I said above, it is easier to hit a fast moving object than it is a stationary one.

The batting tee requires the hitter to take a good swing. Use it often. I dare say you shouldn't actually do much teaching except when you are using the batting tee. That is because you can much more closely watch the interplay between body parts when you are kneeling next to the tee and feeding balls. You need to be close to a hitter to see errors and correct them. You really cannot do this easily when you are throwing batting practice. It is also easier for a hitter to correct mistakes when just hitting off the tee because she does not have to perform the actions of judging the pitch while working on keeping her body aligned.

To vary hitting practice up a little bit while using a batting tee. Have your hitter adjust where she is standing relative to the tee. She can practice driving the ball to right or left by moving up and back. She can practice hitting outside strikes by moving away from the tee and inside ones by moving closer. Most tees are adjustable so you can easily vary things up by working on high pitches as well as low ones.

As a final hitting drill, I suggest you use soft toss hitting practice before you go to live pitching. Live pitching has its place but after you've done the stationary tee for a time, hitting a moving ball need not be accomplished by having pitchers stand at 35 or 40 feet. You should make use of a net screen if you have one available, or if you do not, try using whiffle balls of varying sizes to throw a batting practice from 10 or 15 feet. Get down on one knee and always throw underhand. There is no point to throwing a softball batting practice overhand as the purpose of facing live pitching is the act of picking up the ball as it comes out of the pitcher's hand. Speed of throw has almost no bearing on this drill so do not throw overhand just because you are faster or more accurate.

Conclusion


In writing this, I realized that I got a little long-winded and things appeared to be a little disjointed. But after re-writing it a number of times I realized that there is no perfect order in which to teach hitting. I started with the head because it is absolutely critical to teach this to every hitter from a first year player to a world class athlete. The next most important aspect has to be the minimization of movement, starting with the step. Then I moved through the stance and the other aspects because if I were teaching you how to hit, that is the order in which I would emphasize things. Finally I cannot over-emphasize the importance of using a tee to drill hitters. My baseball life was filled with "live pitching" which was of a very low quality. My coaches would yell corrections to me. Most times I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about so I seldom made any correction. I was astounded when I learned from a major league friend of mine just how high a percentage of his time was spent on the tee as opposed to live pitching. He is a big time coach now and almost any conversation you can have with him about hitting boils down to fundamentals.

If you are a player, focus on fundamentals. If you are a parent, work through this piece several times, returning after working with your daughter. Be patient and try to emphasize one thing at a time beginning with her head stillness. If you are a coach, please leave your glory days at the door and try teaching your kids some solid hitting skills rather than trying to win the world championship. Hitting is complex. You must break it down and practice skills slowly and carefully. Hitting involves a complex use of muscle memory so you need to put last things first. If you get nothing else out of this, please remember that it takes a long time to establish good hitting technique yet only a moment to develop a really bad habit.

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