I had the privilege to work with a fun group of college softball hitters this fall, including several talented freshmen. Before our first full team practice, I led my typical hitting clinic for these new players to the program. During this two-hour workout, I measured their bat speeds, observed their swings, and reviewed the hitting keys I teach all my hitters. As we worked through the fundamentals of this new kinetic swing sequence, these young players gave me interesting looks that ranged from excitement to skepticism.
I have been leading these team hitting clinics long enough to know that some hitters will welcome my every word and others will question why I’m trying to change their already “perfect” swing. The responses from this new crop of hitters was no exception. Most of these new hitters were eager to learn how to increase their bat speed, power, and consistency by making a few simple changes to their swings. Their “all in” attitude quickly paid dividends. After only sixteen short practices the NCAA allows teams to conduct during the fall season, each of these hitters increased their bat speeds between 8-10 mph, and they were all hitting with noticeably more power.
One hitter, who arguably is the most talented newcomer, wasn’t very excited to change her swing. She smiled politely during the initial hitting clinic and humored me as I recommended a more upright and balanced set-up position, suggested she move her hands back toward the catcher before initiating the swing sequence, asked her to transfer her weight more powerfully, encouraged her to maintain stiff wrists and arms to achieve powerful extension at the moment of impact with the ball, and challenged her to maintain that full extension as long as possible until the natural completion of her swing.
This young hitter enjoyed great success in high school and played on an elite travel team. She is blessed with natural softball abilities and instincts, but it was clear to me when I first observed her swing, she still had a ton of untapped potential. I knew this because her bat speed (not exit speed) during the clinic was only 63 mph, which is average for high school and college players (at all levels).
During the first individual session with this hitter, I began by acknowledging her obvious talent and her previous softball accomplishments. I also gave her my positive assessment of her potential as a college softball hitter, which could easily include All-Conference and All-Region recognition. My optimistic assessment came with one condition…she would have to change several aspects of her swing. More importantly, she would have to trust me. She agreed.
Over the next month, our hitting discussions were filled with healthy debate, laughter, good-natured teasing, openness, honesty, and more importantly…compromise. It was important for her to know that I would always listen to her and only recommend changes and improvements to her swing that could be objectively measured. I also agreed to accept some of her hitting habits that may not be ideal, but don’t materially affect her hitting performance.
Within a few practices, our work together started paying off. Her bat speed increased from 63 mph to 72 mph! When I awarded her my “70+ MPH Club” pin, we were both very pleased. We also knew that our work together and our commitment to compromise was just beginning. I expect this hitter’s bat speed to reach the mid-to-upper 70s by the time we begin our season next March. She is well on her way to realizing her potential as an elite college hitter.
I also awarded two “80+ Club” pins that I typically only give to my baseball hitters to two of our returning players. This only happens through hard work and a commitment to perfecting hitting keys in the swing sequence that are proven to increase power.
The story about this young hitter with great potential is important for me to tell, because I had two choices after I first observed her swing. I could be her hitting coach and accept that she is an above-average hitter who had solid coaching before she came to college. Being her hitting coach would require making general comments and suggestions for improvement, but most of our interaction would be focused on hitting strategies and motivation. Or, I could be her hitting instructor.
A true hitting instructor means much more to a team than merely a coach who organizes hitting practices, runs drills, and recommends a lineup to the head coach. Here are a few of the many activities good hitting instructors use to improve their hitters:
- Gather baseline information for each hitter at the beginning of the practice season, including bat speed, hand speed, time to impact with the ball, and swing angles using one of the popular bat sensors/apps on the market.
- Keep a detailed record for each hitter that starts with this baseline information. Ongoing entries should include the strengths of hitters to be further developed, and an ongoing list of swing improvements they need to address. Increases or decreases in bat speed should also be documented periodically.
- Use a hitting video app to analyze the swing sequence holistically and to identify any individual mechanical deficiencies. A good app will allow a hitting instructor to draw on the screen, narrate key observations, compare two hitters, and easily share the video with players and other coaches.
- Recommend only swing changes that can be measured to improve bat speed and power or consistency. Many hitting coaches are reluctant to use bat speed measuring devices as a tool to measure improvement. I believe they are not confident the changes they advocate will actually make a material difference or they want to avoid accountability.
- Devise an ongoing approach to the mental side of hitting. This should include learning and performing through self-awareness drills and mental conditioning. In my book, Hitting With Torque: For Baseball and Softball Hitters I describe some unique and unorthodox mental techniques that are highly effective, especially in pressure situations.
The Best of Both Worlds
I want to challenge hitting coaches at all levels of baseball and softball (including the professional level) to strive to be both a coach and an instructor. There are so many great resources for hitting coaches to learn how to incorporate active instruction into their overall responsibilities.
My advice to high school hitters who are evaluating colleges is to make sure the coaching staff either has a dedicated hitting coach/instructor or a head coach who is committed to instruction. Relying on coaches who they only see in the offseason or during school breaks is not enough. Too many hitters never reach their hitting potential due to the lack of intensive instruction at the college level.
Finally, I challenge hitting instructors at all levels to be good stewards with the hitters they are entrusted with by parents. I am always frustrated when I ask hitters why their previous hitting instructor taught them certain mechanics like how to grip the bat, where to position their hands at set-up, how to initiate the swing sequence, or where to finish the swing. The answer I frequently get is “That’s just what I was told to do”. I tell all of my hitters…If a hitting instructor is unable to quantify and prove the benefits of a proposed swing modification, they should be highly skeptical.
I’m proud to be a hitting coach, but I’m even more proud to be a hitting instructor!