Youth Hitting – Part 2 – Swing Fast

Under the post Hitting Part 1, I explained why swinging faster is what I consider to be the most important when training/developing youth hitting so lets big deeper.

Swing Fast – Build a Better Engine

The first thing to understand is knowing what intent basically means in terms of training/developing. Intent is short for intention – what are you trying to do? From a psychological and physical stand point, intent is a very powerful tool. It may be the most fundamental aspect in development – it should never be taken for granted. Yet sadly, in youth sports it is often either knowingly or unknowingly ignored, demeaned or used incorrectly; all of which is to the detriment to the player.

Swinging fast does not mean the player should try to lose their balance or fall down although this may very well happen early in training/development of the very young. “Swing fast while keeping your balance” or “swing as hard as you can and hit the ball” often work as a cue. The point of telling a youth player to swing fast is not just trying to create the physical external feeling of bat speed. It is not just the classic, funny saying “swing fast in case you hit it” – I like that saying by the way. But when a player is told to “swing fast” the brain subconsciously kicks in and activates the central nervous system to recruit the big muscles to become more involved in producing the desired intent – to move the bat faster. Getting the bigger muscles to fire faster is development. Speed can and should be developed in youth. Not only is there anecdotal evidence of intent being very powerful development tool but also piles of scientific evidence going back decades.

The next important concept in developing a faster swing is swinging more. There are no quick “fixes” in development. Want to get better at reading? Guess what? Reading more gets you better at reading. In the context of building a better engine, better hitters tend to become better hitters because they spend more time hitting/swinging than their average piers. And for the record, swinging at a wiffle ball on a T into a net or fence can work at the youth level. I’m not saying that hitting a wiffle ball off a T is the only way to get better. A player has to start where they are at and with the tools available. And no, that does not mean a 10-year-old needs to take 10,000 hacks over a period of 3 months. Think of it this way, take two youth players (Burt and Ernie) that are identical in all aspects physically, in playing experience, and currently have the same average bat speed. Bert spends the next 6 weeks, not swinging a bat. Ernie spends the next 6 weeks doing this homemade bat speed program: trains at least 2 – 3 times a week taking 50 fast swings at a ball sitting on a T for 3 weeks. The next 3 weeks Ernie increases the number of fast swings to 75 each session. Over those 6 weeks this would total approximately 700 – 800 swings. Guess what happens to Ernie’s bat speed as compared to Burt? Now, what if Ernie did this 6 week bat speed training twice a calendar year? Now keep in mind, the numbers I’m using above are scalable, up or down, to the player’s age or physical ability.

Related to swinging more is the concept of swinging at balls in different locations of the strike zone. If hitting off a T, move it either up, down, left or right every 5 – 10 swings. Getting better at hitting is about bat control – “know” where the barrel is – creating a feel for barrel control. Grooving a swing to hit a ball in the same spot will look good on video but that does mean it will pay in a game. Hitting better in-game is the only standard that matters. Hitting a ball that was tossed under hand (soft toss), overhand (pitched) or from a machine is better batting practice than off a T. The benefits of hitting a moving ball, even if moving relatively slow, should not be underestimated. Of course practicing/training should include hitting a ball at game speed but there is physical developmental benefit to “getting your swings in”. The best hitters on the planet warm up using a batting T. They also train hitting a moving ball. Hitting in games is a very dynamic environment. No two pitchers are the same, no two pitch types are the same, and locations vary from one pitch to the next – train dynamically according to the players capability/level. So what happens if we take Ernie from the previous paragraph and during his 6 weeks of bat speed training we moved the T every 10 swings or so. So that after 10 swings with the ball and T sitting in the same position, we moved it to a different spot in the strike zone (up, down, left or right). After the next 10 swings we moved it again and continued this process while still having the focus to “swing fast and hit the ball” on every swing. Do you think this may help Ernie get better at hitting? Stay with me – we’ll put things together at the end.

Snapshot 3 (12-14-2018 8-51 AM)

The final concept to discuss in developing swing speed is swing more than just one bat. In fact, swing more than just a bat. This is not as complicated and nor as expensive as most think. There are weighted bat training programs available and products available commercially. If you have the means, I suggest you check into them. If not, here is some fundamental training tools you can use to build your own you hitting system:

  • Your child’s “old” bat that’s too small or beat up – keep it.
  • Look for cheap bats at your local big box store that’s doesn’t have any pop or is a bit too heavy or a bit too light or is at a discount during the off-season or find a used/second-hand one.
  • Youth wooden bats are excellent for training.
  • Buying tip: Every year from October – November is the best time of year to buy baseball equipment. Manufacturers are clearing inventory for next years products and warranties for new products begin at purchase date, not the date made.
  • A roll of athletic tape. The athletic tape can be used as bat grip or used to add weight to a bat.
  • If you don’t have access to one for free, go at a local hardware, home improvement store purchase (or find) 8 foot of 3/4 inch or 1 inch PVC pipe.

If you purchase everything above brand new, you should be able keep it under $75. For less than the cost of a couple of lessons you now have 2 – 3 bats (includes your game bat), and a piece of PVC pipe that you can cut to fit your player. I go into greater detail on this concept including videos/demonstrations on a previous post: CLICK HERE

The next piece in improving youth swing speed is the basic, broad concept of swing mechanics. Improving a players individual swing mechanics has two big impacts: 1) it unleashes more bat speed a player already has inside of them (swing efficiency), 2) it produces a better chance of making solid contact (more line drives). These two concepts of an individuals best swing mechanics and hitting more line drives is so interrelated they will be covered in greater detail in my post Youth Hitting Part 3.

To summarize increasing youth bat speed:

  1. Intent to swing fast
  2. Swing/hit more often, this includes more than just “in season”
  3. Swing/hit at balls in different locations
  4. Swing/hit with different items/bats

In my next youth hitting post we will put it all together and show an example of a youth hitting program using the concepts above while combining it with mechanics that you can scale up as needed.

Get Better.

Best Player Development? – You Need A Passport

Don’t pack just yet but numbers tell a story.

There is no doubt historically that the odds of developing from youth ball to a professional baseball player were greatly enhanced if the child was actually born in and/or was raised in the USA. Baseball is America’s pastime; this is where you learned to become a better player. But what if I told you that currently a child born and raised in some other country has a 6 – 10 times more likely a chance to become a professional baseball player than one born and raised in the USA?

Regardless if you or your child has any desire to play ball beyond the high school or college level, the point is there are countries presently during a better job of developing youth players than the USA. How is this connected at the youth level? The totality of athletic development (structured and unstructured) of a future college or professional athlete is not just a year or two. We could be talking a decade or more of overall physical activity to develop that level of athleticism. The point is something different either is or isn’t happening in these countries at the youth level that has impacted the numbers. Now don’t knee jerk your response that these players/parents from other countries just want the “American dream” – that dynamic has existed longer than baseball. So something has changed and you don’t have to take my word for it …

A blog post on Thread Athletics website includes these quotes: (Click For Full Post)

“In 2015, 83 out of 750 players on opening day were Dominican (compared to 520 US-born), accounting for roughly 11 percent of the major leagues. To put this in perspective, there is one Dominican big leaguer for every 63,000 people, compared to one American big leaguer for every 307,000.”

“In the minor leagues, it’s not uncommon to see even higher numbers. By my count, 44% of players in the first two levels of the White Sox minor league organization are Dominican-born, and that number climbs to well over 60% at these early levels if you take into account other foreign-born players as well (Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, etc…).”

“However you slice it, these numbers are staggering, especially when you consider the sheer amount of resources and coaching available to the majority of American-born athletes.”

“So how does the Dominican Republic produce MLB talent at 5 times the rate of the US (and pro talent at closer to 10 times the rate), all while spending easily 10 times (and probably more like 20 or 30x) less per year on the athletes’ development?”

A March of 2018 article on Major League Baseball’s website has the following information: (Click Here For Full Article)

“A total of 254 players represented an all-time record 21 different countries and territories outside of the 50 United States on 2018 Opening Day 25-man rosters … the Dominican Republic again leads the Major Leagues with 84 players born outside the United States. Venezuela ranks second with 74 players, while Puerto Rico places third with 19 players, its highest total since there were 20 in 2011. Rounding out the totals are Cuba (17); Mexico (11); Japan (8); Canada (6); South Korea (6); Colombia (5) …”

Here is a comment from a current professional infielder from Dominican Republic talking to kids and parents at a youth camp in the USA. The player is responding to a question about the difference between youth ball in the USA and the Dominican Republic. He responded, “USA kids spend way more time and money playing and traveling to games. We played one game a week on the same field and practiced or did some kind of fun physical activity 4 – 5 days a week my whole childhood – this is the norm in my country.”

The why and how this has happened might be subjective but the reality of the current youth sports culture in the USA is not – and therein might be an answer. If you are over the age of 40 and have at least a current passing interest in youth baseball or softball in the USA, there is a good chance you have a good idea of at least one thing that has changed. Two best-selling books on player development entitled “The Talent Code” and “Outliers” both recommend a practice to game model that is roughly 85% practice/free play/develop athleticism to 15% games(includes travel time to and from games). The current norm in youth ball in the USA basically reverses these proportions. A kid under the age of 13 playing 50 – 100 games over a year is not exactly rare these days. While this level of repetitions annually does increase visible game skill it does so at the expense of overall athleticism over the course of time – which is the difference maker after a player starts shaving. Less than 15 years ago it was nearly possible for most youth kids in the USA to play the same sport (official/formal games) 10+ months every year. Now a great many parents have “bought into” the though this has to be the norm or their child will fall behind or need to keep up with the Jones. Athletic early bloomers will always be more dominant in youth sports no matter how many more games they play but it this late bloomers that dominate when things matters most.

So the question may not be how these other countries have “passed up” the USA in youth player development but more about how the current USA youth culture has regressed in long-term player development. Maybe back-in-the-day when more USA kids experienced varies types of free play, spent less time doing the same structured activity over the course of a year, played different sports, and so forth was actually the better way to increase long-term athletic development – in any sport.

Get Better.

Youth Hitting – Part 1 – Know the Why

Hitting a moving round ball with a round bat is not easy. But getting better at the youth level does not have to be hard or expensive. It is not uncommon for parents to view development of youth hitting (and pitching for that matter) in extremes: 1) do basically nothing or next to nothing or 2) over coach, over talk, frustrate the child, etc. Neither extreme is ideal and 2) is most likely the worst option over the long-term. But the training/development focus at the youth level should only come down to 2 basic components and both are highly teachable/trainable:

  • Swing Fast
  • Hit line drives over the infield

I did not say “swing level”. I’m not sure what swing level means. I know what most people think it means but practically speaking how do you “swing level” at a low strike? Swing level to what? The ground? In baseball, you will never see a pitched ball that travels level to the ground – more on that later.

Swing Fast

It is not an accident that I put swing fast as #1. At the youth level, developing/training bat speed is the most important element in hitting. Nothing adds more fun to playing the game than driving a ball into the outfield and there is no feeling quite like hitting the hard and on the sweet spot. The facts are clear, the faster a ball comes off the bat, the better chance it has of being a hit.

Of course “how fast” is relevant to the age of the player. Naturally, the average bat speed of a 7-year-old is less than the average bat speed of a 15-year-old. But increasing the body’s ability to generate more bat speed is always relevant.

There are two basic ways to increase bat speed: 1) increase the players physical ability to generate bat speed and 2) move better (basic swing mechanics) to make better use of a players current ability to generate more bat speed. Even though 2) sounds easier or faster to produce on the surface, in reality 1) is simpler to train and normally produces faster results. Here is the best part, a player can do both at the same time. Stay with me.

First, let’s go ahead and address some of the normal negative comments some will say about youth training/developing to swing fast. All push backs to training this way tends to sound like one of these: strike outs from over swinging, players hit better when you swing at 80% (or some such percentage).

In both of these cases the person saying these things is viewing training/development through the same lens as playing in a game. That is known as moving the goal post – changing the environment and the context of the point being made. On game day, it is time to play the game, compete, if its close to a strike, hit it. In short, the player has to react. Training and development happens before game day, in most cases weeks if not months before game day. The end goal is when a player plays the game (is reacting) his/her previous development/training (swing fast, hit line drives) is more likely to be the natural reaction. Playing in a game is about winning THAT game, development/training is about getting better at THE game – there is a big difference.

Also, a player may hit better in a game or team practice by feeling like they are swinging 80%, 50%, or whatever. If a youth player has developed the ability to swing faster, then regardless of the feel or percentage they will be swinging faster. Example, 80% of a 65 mph max swing is faster than 80% of a 55 mph max swing. All things being equal for an individual youth player, the faster the bat is moving at contact, the harder the ball will be hit. Hitting the ball harder over the course of a season is always better than not hitting it harder over the course of a season.

In the short-term, a player may swing and miss more often when they begin developing/training to increase bat speed. That’s ok – you gotta break some eggs to make an omelet. That’s why you don’t start developing/training for the first time an hour before a game. It helps if the youth player and parent think in terms of several weeks or a few months. If the desire is to truly get better at hitting a single hour of training is not going to help over the course of a season. But spending an hour (at home or batting cage or both), maybe 2 – 3 times a week, over a period of two or three months can and often does make a big difference when game day occurs.

Hit Line Drives Over The Infield

What is a line drive? Did you know Major League Baseball (MLB) actually characterizes EVERY ball that is hit in the field of play? And yes, they track and measure it. Per MLB – “Each ball that is hit into the field of play is characterized as a line drive, a fly ball, a ground ball or a pop-up.” The main thing most youth players and parents need to understand is a line drive is not just a ball hit relatively hard 5 feet off the ground. A line drive has a wider range (trajectory) than most people think. Visually, the range of line drives over the infield looks something like this:

LineDriveImage

A common negative push back on this is “youth players are not major leaguers”. Well, no kidding. But if you are implying that a 50 pound 7-year-old can’t hit a line drive in a youth game – you are simply wrong. If you are implying that any kid can’t train/develop to get better at hitting line drives – you are simply wrong. Another common argument is youth games can be won by hitting a ground ball or a bunt or “situational hitting”. Well, thanks for the news flash but once again that is moving the goal post.

'We can't discuss anything fairly - He just keeps moving the goalposts!'

Of course, taking advantage of poor fielding and throwing errors at the youth level wins most games. But why it is often used as an excuse to not get better at things that matter most over the long-term? Answer: it is easy, lazy thinking that is often sold to parents. There is no debate that being able to swing faster and hit more line drives during a season makes the game more fun to play and more enjoyable for parents to watch. There is no debate that increasing bat speed and the ability to hit more line drives helps win games.

I hope this gives you some understanding “why” developing a faster swing and hitting more line drives matters. The next post (Part 2) will be recommendations, pics, and videos of how to help a player get better at hitting. I’ll leave you with this vid of a line drive, wait for the slow motion of the hit/swing. Until next time, get better!

Hitting – What does a good hit look like?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to make various post related to hitting. Everyone has opinions on hitting mechanics. But before we can discuss hitting mechanics/movements we first have to agree on what a good hit looks like.

I’m not limited this to whether or not a hit ball is technically a “base hit”. From a training/development point of view we need a standard higher than just the result of making contact. I’m talking about a well struck/solidly hit ball produced by a swing that is efficient. An efficient swing is defined as repeatable, adjustable (player knows/feels where the bat is going), and is powerful relatively to the player. Example of 2 youth players:

  1. Player 1 swings: is a reaching or lunging or “push” swing creating a bat path that strikes the ball with descending blow, ball bounces several times and no infielder gets a glove on it for any number of reasons, ball rolls out to the outfield, hitter running to first base safely, outfielder fields the ground ball and throws the ball towards second base, makes a bad throw, hitter runs to second base and is safe. This result is the classic example of what is known as a “little league double”.
  2. Player 2 swings: makes a well-balanced, powerful swing, barrel makes solid contact with the ball, the ball hits the sweet spot of the barrel, the batted ball is a line drive into the outfield that happens to be hit right at an outfielder, the outfielder catches it, batter is out.

Which one of the two hits above is better?

It seems obvious to me that swing 2 above is the better hit even though it resulted in the hitter getting out but there are people who teach and argue that swing 1 will produce at the lower levels of baseball. In other words, there are people who teach, train, or will argue for swing 1 above because it takes advantage of youth field/throwing errors. This kind of thinking is not only at the youth level.

Here’s my take. I get the concept of swing 1 above from a trying to win a youth game standpoint. Even at the high school level fielding and throwing errors happen all the time and it’s “easy” to take advantage of these errors. My question is do you want a youth player to get better by being able to hit for damage (hit it harder/better, line drives) or by taking advantage of bad defenses? I promise you, if they want to play the game for as long as possible then it is no question training to do more damage at the plate is the childs ticket to playing the game as far as their talent allows. Defenses get better, more and more ground balls become outs.

This kind of “just put it in play” mindset goes beyond the youth level. Here is a video by the director of hitting for Driveline Baseball. They train players from youth to the professional level. This video is only about 4 mins and mostly about using physical assessment and tech to help players get better but play close attention to the first 60 seconds:

Of course making contact when a player swings is important but why is it sometimes thought of as one extreme or the other? Why can’t a player train/develop to do damage AND train to make better/more solid contact at the same time? The answer is of course they can, but that takes more time and effort. Is it worth it? Well, that depends on what you want out of the sport. Until next time, happy hitting.

You Will Choose A Tiger. But Which One?

The attached video applies to way more than just youth sports and that is its true greatness. While the vid is easy to understand be sure to listen closely for the context of these phrases:

  • never struggles
  • same tools – different environment
  • no matter what we trying to learn … at the edge of our ability, a little outside of our comfort zone is where development (getting better) takes place
  • our comfort zone is the zoo … limits development
  • everybody knows this
  • understand fear

In less time then it takes to drive 20 miles, you can learn the benefits of being a jungle tiger. Enjoy!

Parents Sanity Hack – Short-term & Long-term Thinking

I know you love your kid. I know you will do what you think is best. I understand. It can be very difficult for those who don’t understand that baseball and softball is by their very nature a game of managing “failure”. It is a humbling game. Similar to golf, it is the ones that manage or view failure the “best” are often the most successful. The best pitchers on the planet throw bad pitches, lose games and give up home runs. The best hitters on the planet strike out, hit into double plays and swing & miss the ball by 2 feet. Umpires make bad calls. A parent(s) reaction to these type of short-term “failures” is CRITICAL as it relates to how your child views the game as well as how your child reacts personally to these events. How a parent reacts and what they say does impact how well a child plays, their confidence and for how long they continue to play the game in the future.

Steve Springer of Quality At Bats put out this video on the Biggest Mistake Parents Make:

So let me suggest a way of viewing a youths journey through sports. If adopted, this view will help you manage how you react and what you say or don’t say. No, this is not some mind control thing. It’s more about the parent acknowledging and reacting to the reality that the in-games results of any youth baseball or softball game is not that important in the grand scheme of things. I know it sounds obvious but most parents actions and words say differently.

A parents short-term vision should not be pitch-to-pitch, day-to day or even month-to-month. Twelve consecutive months, a full calendar year, should be every youth parents short-term window. “I can’t do that” – yes, you can. Ask yourself, if you are willing to do “anything for the benefit of my child” then what is the excuse not to decide to change your short-term view for a youth sport?

How does this benefit you and your child? Glad you asked.

  • Do you currently say something after every pitch? Even if it is a good pitch?
  • Do you give advice after every at-bat that results in an out? or every swing & miss?
  • Do you talk more during the game than at practice?
  • Do you say anything directly to the umpire when you are sitting on the other side of the fence?
  • Do you talk, give advice or ask “what happen” to your child during the game?
  • Do you talk about the mistakes, errors after the game or on the ride home?

All of these things would NOT happen if your short-term view was longer than that moment. I can promise you nobody feels worse than the player when a mistake or bad play occurs. Build a kid up. React positively. “You’ll get’em next time.”

I’m not saying you should constantly tell a player how great they are – that’s patronizing and the child knows better. If they want to talk about it, that’s fine. Just remind them you love watching them play and that making your best effort is what’s important.

A youth parents long-term view should be 3 – 5 years. First, what seems obvious but often not the reality in ones immediate actions is this fact – The long-term relationship with your child is far more important than any sport. Living for your child is part of a parents job, living through your child often ends badly for the parent and the child.

The primary focus of the long-term is an increase in overall athleticism. Do not fall for the trap that your child will grow into power. Pro tip: EVERY youth kid is growing/getting older. They grow at different rates at different ages but they are all getting older & stronger, assuming there is a medical reason that prevents it. The point is, getting better is relative to your child’s age/level. Getting older is not getting stronger/more athletic in the sense that all youth are getting older – including the competition.

When you begin viewing youth games or outcomes from a perspective that 12 months is your short-term and that several years is playing the long game, then what happened in the last game doesn’t seem like the end of the world. Am I saying the game stats or the win/loss record from your child’s 12-year-old season doesn’t matter when they get to high school? That’s exactly what I’m saying. “My child may not be playing the game in 3 – 5 years!” Your child may very well be finished playing competitive sports in 3 – 5 years. So the question is why were so mad about that bad call during the last game? …. See how this works? 🙂

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