Whenever I sit near the on-deck circle at a baseball or softball game, I enjoy watching hitters go through their unique rituals before entering the batter’s box. Some practice their entire swing, while others focus only on a small aspect of their swing. Sometimes, these swings look very unorthodox and nothing like their game swing, which I don’t quite understand. I can only guess they are trying to work on something they believe will help them when it is their turn to bat.
I also get a kick out of the hitters who spend their time in the on-deck circle meticulously preparing their bat for battle. They will apply pine tar or rosin in just the right places and they will check the bat for imperfections like a jeweler inspecting diamonds. Finally, I often observe hitters who stand or kneel relatively motionless, as they mentally prepare for their turn to hit.
Here are some tips I give to my hitters to help them make the most of their brief time in the on-deck circle:
The first thing most hitters do upon entering the on-deck circle is place a weight on their bat or swing some type of weighted bat. Many hitters believe swinging a weighted bat will boost their bat speed temporarily. I don’t believe this is the case, but it does feel like the bat is lighter, which can provide a psychological boost. Using a weighted bat may not improve bat speed, but it does help hitters stretch and get loose. Swinging and stretching with this added weight will quickly wake up the muscles that have been dormant between at bats.
I think whenever possible, hitters should try to leave the dugout to stretch and swing if they are third or fourth to bat in an inning. Major League baseball players will actually hit off a tee or take live swings in the batting cages near their dugout before they are summoned to the field. Warming up before entering the on-deck circle allows hitters more time to focus on the game situation and to visualize success.
Assess the game situation
Understanding what is happening in the game is critical for on-deck hitters. The game situation will dictate how hitters should prepare. For example, with a runner on first or second base, hitters should begin preparing to hit the ball to right field. Or, with a runner on third base with less than two outs, hitters should be thinking about driving the ball to the outfield to score the run. The situation may change by the time hitters reach the batter’s box, so it is also important to consider multiple scenarios. The key is to have a plan of attack before stepping into the batter’s box.
Develop a swing thought
It is imperative for hitters to enter the on-deck circle with a clear mind. Whatever just happened in the field or during a previous at-bat needs to be forgotten. Depending on the game situation, hitters should quickly develop a “swing thought”, which is simply one or two hitting keys to focus on during the upcoming at-bat. Some of the swing thoughts my hitters have to choose from include, focusing on keeping their hands back until the rotation of the lower body is complete, a powerful load to initiate the proper swing sequence, maintaining extension as long as possible for optimum power, the correct swing angle for leverage, or a high finish to maintain bat speed. The picture above is one of my high school hitters who likes to focus on maintaining her extension during practice swings. She will hold her extension until she gets to the position in the picture and then will hold it there for a moment. This ritual is her way of teaching her body what ideal extension feels like.
Visualize the desired outcome
After hitters understand the game situation and determine the most appropriate swing thought for that particular situation, they should visualize success. Visualization is an important concept in any sport. I won’t spend time now discussing my thoughts on effective visualization techniques, except to say that visualizing how and where to hit the ball is as important as focusing on the physical hitting mechanics needed to be successful. Great hitters do both.
Simulate the at-bat
The final preparation step in the on-deck circle is actually taking full practice swings. This is important for two reasons. First, assessing the game situation, developing and practicing the swing thought, and visualizing the desired outcome, can be done during the first few moments in the on-deck circle. Hitters should quickly get to the point where they are actually practicing the swing that will get the job done. This connection between what hitters want to do and how they are going to accomplish it, is very important. Each practice swing should incorporate the swing thought and the visualization of the desired outcome.
Hitters should also take these full practice swings while watching the pitcher throw the ball for timing purposes. Analyzing the rhythm of a pitcher and observing the release point are keys to successful preparation. I ask my hitters to pretend they are actually in the batter’s box, instead of the on-deck circle when they make these full practice swings. In between pitches, I encourage hitters to make the same swing, but in ultra slow motion. When hitters take a slow motion swing, they become keenly aware of the proper sequence they will soon use in the batter’s box. I believe this awareness allows hitters to make the critical connection between the mind (swing thoughts and visualization of a successful outcome) and the body (hitting mechanics).
Entering the on-deck circle from the privacy of the dugout is like an actor coming out from behind the curtain. Hitters are not in the spotlight yet, but they are in view of everyone in the park. To avoid “stage fright”, I encourage hitters to take deep, relaxing breaths. If a hitter becomes nervous upon entering the on-deck circle, it is unlikely they will be able to complete the routine I have described above. Here is a previous post about the importance of breathing to remain relaxed and focused.
Enter the batter’s box confidently
Finally, I challenge hitters to leave the on-deck circle determined to succeed. Pitchers may not readily acknowledge this, but they all take a peek at hitters who are approaching the batter’s box. If they see a hitter walking confidently and briskly to the plate, that sends a message. When hitters take aggressive practice swings or perfect slow motion swings right before entering the batter’s box, that sends a message. Finally, when hitters “dig in” the batter’s box and sets up in a powerful and confident stance, that sends a message.
Hitters who use their precious time in the on-deck circle to develop a plan of attack, and practice executing that plan, will enjoy more success than hitters who merely view the on-deck circle as a holding pen or staging area. So, the next time you are at a baseball or softball game, observe the hitters in the on-deck circle. You will quickly be able to determine which hitters are on-deck for success.