When I was in little league, using a wood bat to hit was my only option. Unlike the metal bats today that are made out of the most powerful, yet lightweight materials, wood bats were heavy and had relatively small “sweet spots”. If I was going to make solid contact and hit the ball with any authority, I was forced to employ sound hitting fundamentals. Even today, to be a successful hitter with a wood bat requires a precise swing and a great amount of bat speed. Conversely, with lightweight and forgiving metal bats, even weaker young hitters today can hit relatively well. How much better would young hitters be if they relied less on the power of the bat and more on the power generated by their bodies? At what age should young players learn the advanced fundamentals of hitting? I’ll try to answer both of these questions.
The youth baseball field I played on 40 years ago is still there and the dimensions of the field have not changed. With the advent of the metal bat, it would reason that all baseball fields should be larger today. I believe the reason the dimensions of youth baseball parks have not changed is due to the fact that whatever distance could have been gained by new bat technologies has been all but negated by poor youth hitting fundamentals. Sure, there are some young players today who hit the ball farther than similar hitters in my era, but these players are in the minority. Most young hitters today quickly learn they only have to generate marginal bat speed, without very much accuracy, to be successful.
The prevailing school of thought for young baseball and softball players (under 8 years-old) seems to be “just let them hit”. This only requires the young hitter to stand in the batters box with the bat in any reasonable position above the shoulders in order to take a “good cut” when the ball arrives in the hitting zone. Other instructions like “keep your eye on the ball”, “make good contact” and “swing hard” are nice sound bites, but they do little to actually increase bat speed and consistency.
The question is when should young hitters learn the fundamentals of a hitting technique that teaches the separation of the lower body and the upper body to generate maximum torque and bat speed? My experience working with young hitters has convinced me that as soon as players reach an age when they have an active interest in baseball or softball, and are willing to practice what they are taught, they should be encouraged to learn good hitting fundamentals. I have seen 5 year-olds who really wanted to hit the right way and I have worked with 13 year-olds who still were not ready or willing to learn what it takes to become a good hitter. Learning to hit a baseball or softball the right way requires the same commitment to as young golfers or tennis players.
To determine whether a young player is ready to learn the fundamentals of the baseball or softball swing, ask yourself whether it will improve or impair his or her love for the game. Forcing some players to “hit like the pros” too early may cause them to feel like baseball is too difficult and uninteresting. Other young players will be receptive to learning how to hit the right way and will exhibit a strong desire to practice and perfect the baseball swing.
If parents, coaches, and hitting instructors keep the “love of the game” in mind when working with young players, it should be obvious what route to take.