by: Matthew de Marte – July 25th, 2018
Working with hitters of a wide range of ages requires various approaches. Working with a youth hitter and an advanced college or professional will provide the instructor with different challenges. In this article, I want to explain my approach to working with young hitters.
I am inspired to write about this topic because of the troubling methods I see coaches and parents using to assist youth hitters in their development. Often, you will see a young ballplayer practicing, and after every swing there is instruction about a piece of the swing, and an order to do something differently or make an immediate change if the desired result is not achieved. In my opinion, this is counterintuitive to a players development and their swing growth. Young hitters in my opinion should be developed naturally. Cues and swing mechanics should play a minimal role in the development of a young hitter compared to intent and letting the game provide entertainment and “fun” for the athlete.
I believe it can be harmful to “over-cue” and “over-coach” young hitters for the following reasons:
First, they probably do not fully understand what they are being asked to do, and if they do, they probably do not know how to accomplish it. I have already shared my thoughts on internal cues in this article, but I will reference them again here. Asking a young hitter to follow an internal cue can be difficult because they most likely lack the body awareness to “figure it out” on their own. Young kids probably do not understand how their body moves, and how to translate these movements to the optimal baseball swing path. For that matter, most baseball players do not understand the above concept, and this is perfectly fine. The correlation between movement patterning specific to a sport and anatomy is extremely difficult to understand. I do not understand this topic as much as I would like to. If it is difficult for a 9 year old athlete to process a cue or mechanical adjustment a coach wants to see in their swing, it is supposed to be this way.
Another potential harm of overcoaching young hitters is taking the natural athlete out of their baseball movements. When you watch the best hitters of any age hit, they showcase free-flowing athletic movements in their swings. In young hitters (who are overcoached), you often see choppy, unathletic, weak swings, whose purpose is to accomplish and comply with a few instructions given by a coach or parent. These weak swings have been developed to try and find a short-term fix to make the hitter successful. In the long run it may not be beneficial. Doing so creates inefficient swings, and young athletes, as they mature, need to shed themselves of all bad habits they have created, and then figure out how to create a proper swing pattern for their specific body. Instead of over-cueing and over-coaching young hitters, what is my approach to instructing/coaching hitters? Simple, let intent rule over everything and make sure the activities performed are fun.
We hear the phrase, “throwing with intent” quite often. I don’t often hear the term, “swinging with intent.” The following video highlights Brady Hirsh, an 8 year old from Denver, Colorado. Brady’s father, Jason Hirsh, a former big league pitcher and owner of FAST Arm Care in Denver is the man responsible for teaching Brady how to hit. This video shows Brady hitting:
After watching Brady swing, I was amazed at how good of a swing he possessed for such a young kid. I asked Jason how he taught Brady to swing, his response: “All I have ever told him is to swing as hard as he can.”
If swinging as hard as he can will create a pattern like this for Brady, it can surely work for other young athletes, and it has before. With young ballplayers, in my opinion, development of true movement deficiencies has yet to occur, so their bodies do not need to compensate to find a pattern that works for them.
When I work with young hitters, I make sure to not take the intent, conviction, and athleticism out of their swing. I try and find ways to make my time with young hitters fun and enjoyable, while allowing them to find an optimal movement pattern. No young hitter wants to be told to place his hands in “spot – x”, his elbow in “spot – y”, to load a specific way, and try and make their barrel work through contact point a certain way. That can be extremely confusing and lead to a disgruntled young hitter with lost interest in what is being said. Instead, if you see a problem and want to introduce a solution, I find it best to have the hitter play a game or have a competition. Here are two game methodologies I have found to be extremely beneficial when working with young hitters:
- Create a game where the objective remains the same, but the variables constantly change. For instance, I can tell a hitter he has to hit the ball solid and hit the ball over the L screen to achieve the desired result. The hitter gets five swings. He must succeed on three out of five swings. During these five swings, I can give the hitter a different bat and different position to start in each time (hop on one foot, step across, no stride, jump back etc.). All the hitter is trying to do is make sure they win the game, while I am constantly changing the variables that are challenging the hitter. Using different bats and different constraints can help the hitter naturally find a better pattern than other methods. A big reason for this is the hitter does not even realize they are developing good habits. All they care about is making sure they win the game.
- Using objective data-driven tools is my favorite form of feedback when coaching hitters. I often like to say, “people lie, numbers don’t,” when questioned why I believe in analytics so much. Every hitter loves using a HitTrax or a Rapsodo that gives them objective feedback. Young hitters tend to have smiles that light up when seeing their exit velocity and being able to utilize the same tools their favorite Major League players have access to. When I have access to these units, I love gauging what a hitters numbers are, and then based off the data, doing simulated at-bats where the hitter has an exit velocity, or distance threshold to surpass in order to succeed. During this time I will pitch to the hitter like I am pitching in a game. I will throw hard fastballs, off-speed pitches, and compete with the hitter like I am trying to strike him out. Each at-bat the hitter has a different goal to hit the ball a certain velocity or distance. I have observed that doing this helps a hitter in the following ways:
- Allows them to get over their fear of failure. Since the objective is changed from getting a hit to a different goal, the hitter cannot fear striking out as much, because weak contact is just as poor a result as striking out. They have to swing as hard as they possibly can to reach the desired goal.
- Learn to swing and miss. Yes I said this. Young hitters are often coached out of swinging hard and believe they must make contact all the time, where striking out is the end of the world. In this situation, since hitters are challenged by the task at hand and encouraged to swing as hard as they can, and given the space to fail they are going to swing and miss, which is fine. For most hitters, they have to strike out a little bit to ensure they are taking their ‘A’ swing as often as possible. Understanding this can go a long way in a hitters approach and confidence.
- Adjustability. Most young hitters do not get to practice against anything that is more challenging or as challenging that they see in games. Having them practice against velocity and off-speed similar to what they see in games is important. Practicing in an environment that is harder than what a hitter sees in games is not just valuable for older hitters, it forces them to adjust and adapt to their competition quickly to complete their desired goals.
- The most important takeaway is young hitters have fun and are given an enormous confidence boost when they succeed in this environment! It is our job as hitting coaches to build hitters up, not tear them down, and watching a hitter succeed in this setting is a gigantic boost of confidence.
When working with young hitters, create a fun environment that allows them to take swings that work for them. Specific movements and patterns can be developed naturally if the proper instruction is given. The goal is to ensure that hitters have fun when they are hitting and build confidence that they will use to translate to in-game success. Some aspects of the swing can be taught as a ballplayer gets older. No young hitter needs to be forced into one way of thinking. They need to be given the tools to find a swing that works for them and build the qualities that will help them flourish as they continue to develop! I hope you enjoyed this article, as always if you would like to continue the dialogue, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org !