A Basic Approach to Youth Hitting (Ancaster Baseball)

PrintA Basic Approach to Youth Hitting

1. Background.
As a coach, it's important to recognize you typically have two types of kids. In the first group are kids that have Dads that work with their kids and know enough about hitting and put enough work into it. In this group are also kids who are fortunate enough to receive frequent instruction from professional or semi-professional trainers. For the most part these kids can be allowed to continue unhindered with some minor tips and encouragement. In the second group, are kids who receive no quality instruction and very little practice except that provided by you--the coach.

Usually, the kids in the first group will produce more than the kids in the second group. However, the kids in the second group can become more important than you think. A kid in this group may be incapable of batting over 300--however, there is a major difference between a 150 batting average and a 250-300 average. If you can get this group to provide even a marginal increase in offensive production it's the difference between winning and losing games, and it's more fun for the group as a whole when there isn't such a wide disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots".
I have deliberately left out much of the detail typically covered in batting theories for a specific reason. It's the concept of "staying-on-point" or "staying-on-message". It's a method of getting a point across by constant repetition of a simple message. It's used effectively by Madison Avenue marketing firms, and presidential campaigns. Keep it simple is the key. Realize that everything is not as important as everything else--come up with a short list of keys and ignore what are not keys. Those few things that are keys will be hammered home intensely and you cannot get bogged down in details and issues of lesser importance. 
When I coached youth football--I used this approach. We came up with 5 plays and that was all. But that gave us time to develop perfect execution of those 5 plays. We did very well that year when we faced coaches that tried to run a much bigger subset of plays.I see that as the concept here. I have identified 8 key issues for batting mechanics (really there are 5 key-key issues) that if hammered home on a constant basis I believe would improve the results. I would exclude most other less-important issues unless they are found to be a root cause of the key issues--an example would be if an excessive width of stance prevented adequate hip-turn. Otherwise, I don't consider minor differences in width of stance to be important and even worth discussing. That is my feeling on most of the stance issues. I feel that way about the grip too.

2. Main Stance Issue: Bending at the waist 
Most kids don't have a problem bending at the knees. Where they do have a problem is bending at the waist. All professionals either start in that position--or get there as part of the loading process. The slight forward bend of the upper body naturally positions weight in the athletic position on the "balls of the feet". A big problem in hitting is mechanics that take you away from the ball. Weight properly positioned this way and retained through the swing will naturally help prevent stepping-out, lunging, and trouble with outside pitches. It also provides a closer match between the shoulder angle and the bat angle at the point of contact. This is a good first place to look when a normally good hitter starts struggling.

Method: Drills and Cues
--Constant reminders to bend at waist
--Work on low tee position--work on hitting low balls by bending at waist a little more.

3. Lack of pre-swing loading 
Many kids don't load the swing at all. They just step and swing. Loading accomplishes a couple things. It gets weight back that can be used during the swing and it coils the body for more power. Both the upper and lower body should be loaded prior to the pitch. My recommended method is related to the Ted Williams approach....The knee should be cocked in a little toward the back while simultaneously the lead shoulder comes in and down a little. I call this the "C" position and a good way to think about it is "closing the gap" between the lead elbow and the knee. 
The front heel should naturally rise. There should be a natural feeling of weight moving to the rear foot. The lifting of the heel (or the entire foot) also puts the foot into position to start the stride. Note: during the loading the hands may drop a little, if it's excessive it's called a hitch and should be avoided.
For some, cocking in the knee and lifting the heel may include lifting the entire foot. You see pros doing this more frequently than ever. It is definitely a guarantee that weight shift will in fact occur. However, some kids don't have the balance for it and in that case this method should be avoided. But I've got to tell you, if I was starting from scratch with a group of kids I would be teaching it. Results? Never another problem with getting weight back.

Method: Constant reminders during all swing practice including soft toss and other drills.

4. Kid's don't start to load the swing early enough 
Once again, many kids just step and swing once they have made a decision to swing. Most pros time their pre-swing cocking action to the pitcher. By the time the pitcher has reached the high-cocked position and before the ball is released, most pros have already started lifting the lead heel and the inward cocking motions have initiated. Once a consistent pre-swing movement is established--it must be timed to start just before the pitch is released.

Method: As the coach is pitching (or underhand or overhand tossing) he should be looking for signs of the movement before ball release. Periodically he should either i) freeze before finishing the pitch to get a better look, or ii) throw a very bad pitch and see if the stride was still taken. Video from behind can be used to check the quality of the timing and cocking motions.

5. Hands drifting forward-not keeping the front shoulder down and in 

As the stride foot comes down and forward, it's important that the coiling continue (the feeling is it's continued, the reality is often more that it is retained). The hands move to the launch position during the stride. Once the lead foot is down, the upper body should remain coiled while the lower body and hips may have opened a little. This creates what Williams and others have called a "stretch position". Excess slack is taken out of the linkage between the upper and lower torso so that the aggressive hip-turn at launch translates immediately into rotation of the upper body.
Often kids don't keep the front shoulder (down and in) and open up, along with the lower body as the stride is taken. This undoes any power benefit from the cocking action and often the raising of the lead shoulder prior to launch starts two other negative actions (an excessively upward swing, and a pulling out of the lead shoulder leading to problems with middle to outside pitches.

Method: This problem is difficult to see with the naked eye. During practice use cues such as turn-in your shoulders a little more as you are stepping--the turn-in may not actually occur but the thought will help keep the shoulder in and down longer

6. Dropping barrel just before swing and bat lag
Kids often don't start the bat at the correct angle (about 45 degrees) or the barrel drops horizontal or even lower just as the swing starts. This causes the barrel to immediately loop out of the intended arc of the swing--less accuracy and power. A good fix is often to hold the bat more vertical in the stance in the hope that it will fall into the correct position. If it starts flat, it is more difficult to bring it up to the correct position.
However, this doesn't resolve the basic problem. The problem is when kids are younger and have weak arms, they get into the habit of whipping the bat. As the body rotates, they pull the bat through the zone and the arms stretch out prematurely. You'll often see the rear elbow get way ahead of the hands and the lead arm barring. The hands and the bat "lag" behind. This lag allows the bat barrel to drop because the bat is not being constantly torqued (powered) from initiation.Ideally, the upper body and the arms would act as a unit and the relative position of the arms, hands, and shoulders would stay the same until later, when extension occurs just before, during, and after contact. 
A fix is to use cues to keep the hands ahead of the rear elbow at all costs, without extending the rear elbow. I don't like the cue to throw the hands at the ball because it can cause premature extension (casting and sweeping) and reduce the benefit of rotational force. Essentially, in the early part of the swing you want the elbow coming into the side but you want to keep the rear elbow from getting ahead of the hands. The stronger the player becomes, the easier he should be able to perform this technique correctly.

Method: Work on hands/elbow/shoulder starting together--don't let the rear elbow lead. A good swing thought is getting the knob pointed from the catcher to the incoming ball as quickly as possible when starting the swing.
One note, leading a little with the elbow is not a killer flaw for a youth hitter unless there is little or no hip rotation as well. In fact, the majority of kids do it. Some kids with weak arms may be better off whipping the bat but make sure they keep their rear elbow from extending early. 

7. Extending arms too early
Pre-extension of the arms (and especially the rear arm) is called "casting". This results in a long and slow sweeping swing. It often occurs when the dragging discussed in section 6 is combined with inadequate body rotation (especially in the hips).The fix is to work on lower body action (hip-turn) coupled with keeping the rear elbow from flying out. The rear elbow needs to remain along the side until the extension at contact occurs. Also, the fixes from section 6 apply here as well--keeping the hands ahead of the rear elbow.

Method: The soccer ball drill helps in developing a once-piece swing and keeping the arms closer to the body until proper extension occurs.

8. Lack of Hip Turn--Not starting rear knee with hands 
The swing starts from the ground up. Most kids don't use their lower torso correctly. The cocking in of the lead knee-discussed earlier, starts the kid on a path of feeling the lower body at work. The rear leg needs to turn in (pivot) at the same time the hands, elbow and shoulder start the swing. The kid on the right doesn't turn the hips--he slides them forward.
Also, during the stride, the lead leg should not land straight. It should retain some of the bend that the initial cocking motion gave it. After the lead leg lands, it forcefully straightens as the rear leg turns down and in by pushing from the ball of the rear foot --that's how hip rotation occurs. Many coaches look at the front leg as performing a "passive" action (blocking) when in reality it provides much of the power for rotating the lower and then upper torso. Look at the front knee action of most pros just before and during contact. Like Aaron left. The boy on the right landed with a stiff leg--reducing rotational power.

Method: Frequent hip-turn drills will improve this action. Focus on landing with some bend in the front knee and then use both the front leg extension and back leg turning down and in, to pivot the hips.
9. Lack of extension through the contact zone 
Some kids with decent rotational swings have problems hitting the ball consistently and hard unless the ball is inside--in just the right spot. Often, the ball is hit but doesn't go anywhere. It may be hit with a lot of spin--and frequent pop-ups, weak grounders or bloopers to the opposite field may result. The fact is, the hand-path can sometimes be too curved with rotational hitters. Or the shoulders over-rotate.The hands may be pulled in too much around the body at the point some extension should occur. This over-rotation can pull the bat head across the ball's path in a slashing manner. If contact is made at all--a slight spin can be imparted that can kill the benefits of the additional bat speed provided by good rotation. This possibility is increased on middle to outside pitches.It's very much like throwing a rock with a sling. Rotation gets it going early but extension allows the hands to finally be flung forward so the bat barrel can collide in a direct path to the ball without slashing across the ball. On an inside pitch the hands should extend a bit later to bring the barrel around more before the arms are released to full extension. The arms should be released (extended) earlier on an outside pitch.
Kids with this problem need to work on extending the hands in sort of a line parallel to the path of the incoming ball but start the swing in the same manner as before. Extension can be taught by telling the batter to focus on it. The batter needs to feel the hands continuing to travel in the direction of the ball before coming around the body in the finish. The extension should occur at the end of the swing just before, during, and after contact.
Another way is to make sure they feel their rear shoulder come in contact with their chin. The old saying "Ike to Mike" applies with Mike being important for extension. The head should turn down toward the incoming ball and the chin and rear shoulder end up touching each other. 
There are other drills--such as hitting a flat basketball or hitting tennis balls that show the negative impact of hitting the ball less than directly. A tennis ball hit less than square has a tendency to spin more than a regular baseball

10a. Recap
Do--Bend at the waist--not just the knees.
Do--Load the swing by slightly cocking in lead knee--and shoulder slightly down and in.
Do--Start the loading before the pitch is released.
Do--Continue slight inward shoulder turn and move hands to launch as 
step is taken.Do--Keep lead shoulder angled down to path of ball until swing starts.
Do--Start the hands, rear elbow and shoulder together. Push hands slightly ahead.
Do--Get the knob turned from the catcher to the ball quickly.
Don't--Extend the elbow too early in the swing.
Do--Extend the elbow late in the swing--just before contact.
Do--Turn your head toward the ball and feel your rear shoulder touch chin.
Do--Land with slightly bent front leg and straighten it to power your hips as you are pivoting your knee toward the pitcher.

10b. Drills and Suggestions
Underhand soft-toss from behind net at 20 feet. Note: If overhand must be done right or will cause drilling on high pitches that drop down at a steep angle. This will reinforce uppercut swings. 3-4 weeks before season starts move to full-length overhand pitching and phase out underhand toss. During underhand toss, focus on:
    •Loading--do they have a pre-swing loading action?
    •Timing--does the load start before you release the ball?. 

You tell them to start even earlier--when the hand starts coming forward. Fake them out sometimes and see if they still stride.
    •Low pitches--does posture change (more back bend and a little more knee bend) or do they     just reach out more?
    •Outside pitches and offspeed--do they wait longer or lunge?
    •Do they follow the pitch with their head and does there chin touch their rear shoulder?
    •Do they rotate their hips?
Tape the above every couple weeks for evaluation. Share analysis (negative and positives) with kids and focus on weaknesses.

Other station drills…

Hip-turns with bat behind back--work on entire swing ritual and make sure there is enough flex in lead knee to assist in aggressive rotation. 

General Tee work--focus on all locations high and low and inside and outside. Set tee deeper for outside pitches. Make sure pre-swing is used, and there is bend in back. Make sure hands stay in and extend through the ball.

Hit flat basketball off tee with upside-down funnel to teach extending through the ball.

Hit off tee or soft-toss using a soccer ball on the shoulder to teach proper bat angle and one-piece start of swing. Definitely for Josh. Keep elbow from starting swing and getting ahead of hands.

Soft-toss with tennis balls. Helps to learn extension and not slashing across ball. Also waiting on outside pitches and staying on top of 
them--not sliding under and hitting flares.

Station to promote bat speed. Setup tee just in front of net--place speedcheck unit behind net and hit into it. Measured speed counts on solid hits only. Each kid should try to beat previous scoreswith good solid mechanics.

Extra soft-toss, or tees to work on as appropriate (one-arm drills?)

Soft toss with golf whiffles. Heavy bat drills and dryswings.

Self-toss, toss with one-hand and hit ball into net with both. Teaches coordination and staying behind the ball--not lunging.
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Printed from ancasterbaseball.ca on Sunday, December 17, 2017 at 8:58 AM