by: Matthew de Marte – November 1st, 2018
This summer, when I came home from Colorado after my season ended, I made a small transition. I have worked with hitters for the past year-year and a half, but coming back to live at home for grad school meant I was going to finally start working with local hitters. In Colorado, I got my first taste of giving lessons to younger kids, but I was not working with anyone consistently. Prior to that, I had only worked with college hitters, mainly friends of mine who sought advice to varying degrees. We would learn from each other most of the time, and these were intelligent players who could make adjustments quickly. The past three months have been my introduction to working with young hitters as their primary hitting coach. This article is going to highlight some of the challenges I have faced in doing so, and what I have learned and how I try to overcome them.
I. The Fear of Failure
Almost every time I hit with a hitter for the first time, one the first things I pick up on is their fear of failure. These are middle school kids who swing cautiously because they have been taught to not strikeout and to fear failure, rather than chase success. Nearly every one of my hitters I have had to stop the lesson to talk about this. I tell them in games, the only way to succeed is to be fearless in their pursuit of excellence. Baseball is a game of failure. You cannot fear failure when it is inevitable. Rather, embrace it and try your best to limit it. To do this, the thing that I have found most successful in getting hitters out of this habit is: Swing so hard you swing and miss. Yes, I encourage my hitters to swing and miss sometimes. Most of my hitters came to me extremely robotic, with little chance to hit the ball into the outfield hard, consistently. These hitters are nervous to get out of their comfort zone and swing hard. Encouraging them to do so, even if it means they will fail, allows them to try something new and is often the first thing I focus on. Rome was not built in a day, neither is a 12 year old’s swing. Getting them to learn how to swing hard first, and not worry about swing and missing is a necessity for a hitter to be able to evolve.
II. Sick of Changing Things
Most kids today struggle if they get advice from a million different coaches. Of hitters I work with, each has hit with on average 4 private hitting coaches in 2018. That number does not include team coaches, parents, and others who all have their own ideas to help a hitter improve. When I teach hitting, I try to simplify everything to the best of my ability, and speak as little as possible, I expanded on those thoughts HERE. These hitters are often frustrated from a million people telling them a million different things to do. I have had hitters tell me they have no desire to make any changes because they are so tired of every coach and parent immediately telling them ten different things they need to do differently. Most of these hitters do need to make changes to improve. With hitters like this, I take a simple approach. Build a relationship first, so future changes can be made. No hitter will buy into your method of teaching if they do not trust you. To do this, I take a have fun at all costs approach at first. I do everything in my power to ensure the time a hitter spends with me is all about them enjoying themselves and having fun. If they learn something, that’s great, but I think it is more important for them to have fun, and remember why they enjoy playing baseball. Doing this, I have found, lays the foundation to start a relationship with hitters and they will trust you to help them make positive changes. You can be the best hitting coach in the world, but if your student does not trust you or buy in, they will not improve. With the frustrations some kids bring with them to new hitting coaches, sometimes it’s just better to let the hitter have fun and not focus on building a better swing. We, as hitting coaches, have a job to help hitters reach their potential, but we also have a job to keep the game fun and help foster a child’s long term interest in baseball. If we take the fun away from them, nothing matters, because we could be setting the player up to quit baseball, rather than further fall in love with the game.
III. Poor Work Ethic and Unrealistic Expectations
I think sometimes when players hit with private coaches, they, and their parents, expect every coach to almost be a miracle worker. They think that taking a hitter to hit one time a week will suddenly turn them into the next Mike Trout if they have a private coach. When I first started hitting with most of my hitters, most of them were NEVER hitting on their own. It is important to instill in these players and parents that hitting with a coach is great, but if the hitter does not go home and put the work in on their own, their improvements will be minimal at best. Breaking bad habits is hard, creating new ones can be even more difficult. To overcome this, I have started a new trend. For hitters who do not generally put work in on their own, I force them to be accountable. I give these hitters homework. After the lesson, I will give the hitter anywhere from 3-5 drills we did during the lesson and tell them they have to complete the assigned work a certain number of times on their own if they want to hit with me again. I reach out to their parents to monitor their work. Doing this gives hitters a better plan of what to do on their own, and helps them actually put in the work when you are not around. It also shows hitters you have faith in them, and are in this for more than the money and actually care about helping them improve. If you can show a hitter you believe in them, it helps them believe in them-self!
IV. Easily Confused
Physician Martin H. Fischer was quoted once saying, “Knowledge is a process of piling up facts, wisdom lies in their simplification.” By no means am I a physicist, but I think this quote applies directly to hitting. Great hitting coaches often get bad reps for possessing too much knowledge, but not possessing the ability to get out of their own way and simplify this knowledge for their hitters. I always thought this was odd, until I started working with kids and realized how difficult it is to simplify your thoughts to them. You can have the perfect plan for a hitter, but if they cannot understand or comprehend what you want them to do or are trying to get them to do, your plan is worthless. To do this, I work hard at trying to simplify my thoughts. In doing this, I have developed a system in which everything I do with each hitter follows a three step system. There is the objective at the hand. This is the drill, movement, or challenge I present them. For instance, if we are doing a simple step back drill I will explain the drill and perform it so they understand it. Then, I will give them their task to accomplish. The task is generally along the lines of hit the ball hard, swing as hard as you possibly can, and hit it above the L screen. Their goal is clear to them and they understand what a successful rep looks like. The task can be different depending on the drill or if it is a movement specific drill with no bat being used, but generally I try to simplify the task to swinging super hard, or hitting the ball hard above a certain threshold. The last step is to give them a cue. Not every drill requires a cue, but if a hitter struggles or if the drill is challenging, I will give him a cue. To go back to the step back example, if the hitter is struggling getting into their back hip properly a simple cue could be: “Create creases in your pants around your hip.” So, I use the following method of; Identify and explain the drill > Give hitter a task to accomplish > Incorporate external cue if necessary. Doing so helps the hitter focus on ONE thing at a time. It also creates a clear objective. If a hitter is struggling, it is easy to reinforce what they should be focusing on. When doing this, I make sure to ONLY focus on the one task I have assigned. Simplifying my thoughts and objectives for the hitter as best as I can, helps the hitter understand what they need to accomplish. So remember, most hitters we are talking to are not J.D. Martinez with an Ipad who understand everything they need to by themselves. These are kids who want to have fun. Keep it simple, keep it fun, keep the objective clear, and let them focus on accomplishing ONE external goal.
V. Making the Most of an Hour
The one hour hitting lesson is not the best way for a hitter to improve. Unfortunately, that is how I have to conduct my business most of the time, as that is how parents think it is how development works, but that is a topic for another time. Most of the time, I have one lesson a week to work with a hitter. This may be a hitter who needs to improve his movement quality, intent, swing pattern, timing, confidence, pitch recognition, to name a few areas they may need to improve without getting specific. So, how in one hour do I find a way to improve all of these areas? In short, it is pretty difficult. To do so, I incorporate as many tools as possible to help and use training exercises as much as possible. Each hitter does at least a half hour to 45 minutes of movement prep at the beginning of each session. I have no problem hitting for as long as possible, and this generally extends my lessons. So, I have replaced the tee with a focus on movement quality. Whether that is movement exercises with ties to hitting where the bat is taken away, mobility exercises, med ball tosses, or other drills. The more I learn, the more I see creating a better swing pattern, is just creating a better mover. A swing is a movement pattern that represents the hitter’s path of least resistance when performing the movement. So, I have put a huge focus on movement quality with every hitter I work with. After we work on movement, I try to progress into a moving ball and apply what we worked on with drills and challenges as quickly as possible. Most of these hitters are not challenged with velocity enough and have inconsistent timing that needs to be improved, so having them work with a moving ball where they are being challenged as much as possible is crucial. Using games and proper external constraints does a great job of enforcing what we worked on in out movement prep. From what I have learned, to get the most out of an hour it is important to help enhance movement, apply it with intent, and then challenge the movement. Every week I work with a hitter, I apply this structure, and evaluate their performance with the Blast Motion Sensor and ask them questions to receive feedback.
Hitting is hard. Coaching hitters is no easy task either. Mix in the challenges I listed above, and it leaves my mind racing every week how I can get the most out of my hitters. By no means is it easy, but by learning a little every week, and continuing to grow as a coach, the battle to help hitters reach their potential becomes a little easier. I do not know everything – not even close to i t- but I am always trying to learn as much as possible to help my hitters. I hope this piece can help hitting coaches going through similar challenges with their clients. If you would like to continue this dialogue, or just want to talk hitting, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org ! Thanks for reading, and as a hitting community, let’s continue to strive to be the best for our hitters!