Help me build a little league murder's row!
March 1, 2012 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Need suggestions for improving hitting skills for 9-10 year old little leaguers.

I'm an assistant coach for my son's little league baseball team. 9-10 year-old kids, first or second year of fast pitch for them. They are all fairly athletic and coordinated and can hit the ball in practice but are often paralyzed at the plate in games. They are thinking too much and taking alot of called third strikes. Clearly some of them are deciding mid-pitch whether to swing and that's too late.

I have talked to the head coach and he's offered to let me try to improve their mental approach. I want to simply their approach to always be swinging, then deciding not to swing at the last minute. Just visualize every pitch down the middle and crank it. Only if the pitch is bad do they then not swing.

The difficulty for me is that I think I know how to explain this, but I don't know any drills or techniques to reinforce it. I never really played baseball growing up, but I did play competitive tennis and to me hitting is like returning a fast serve, so I can relate to something there. Our team does alot of hitting practice -- soft toss, heavy balls, live hitting -- but it's mostly physical without much mental stuff.

Give me your ideas!
posted by ldenneau to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How often are you slinging shit in practice? They're going to need to not just learn how to swing at the good stuff but also to avoid the crap pitches that will come their way. Try letting a kid at the plate for a good 10 pitches or so and get him used to *not* swinging at bad pitches. At this stage of their development it's going to be more about actual practice than their mental game.
posted by Loto at 1:33 PM on March 1, 2012

I'll pass along, with a caveat, a small piece of non-traditional hitting advice that was given to me first at the high-school level that had a dramatic effect: "Open your eyes". Not in any jocular sense, but in the sense of: you know your everyday walking-around level of eyelid opening (the one you're using right now)? Open them a bit wider than that.

Our hitting coach was borderline zealot on this point; saying it got eyelashes out of the way, allowed you to see more and better, etc. I have no idea whatsoever about the merits of those claims, but I did it and it had a huge effect -- whether because of the stated reasons or some psychosomatic reason, I can not tell you.

I think that it appealed to me because it seemed rooted in some type of falsifiable science... that it was more than just the horrible aphorisms that youth coaches had repeated. It also probably served to remind me that hitting is about seeing; at this level there were more (and better-thrown) pitches being thrown, and seeing things was important. Don't know why, but advice that stayed away from nebulous concepts like "feel" or "rhythm" and stayed close to the physical feat I was attempting made me feel like the process was one that my attentiveness and practice could positively effect, rather than a voodoo that I couldn't control.

It was my game-face, and when I (we?) stepped to the plate and opened our eyes that extra millimeter it meant, for me, that it was time to hit, and that it was time to be serious. And I can't say why it worked, but only that, for me, it worked.

(Now in my mid-30s I only make it to batting cages a few times a year, and play a few beer-league softball games a summer... but I still open my eyes an extra smidge while I dig in, and if you'll pardon my boast, I still consistently knock the living shit out of any ball thrown in my direction -- to the amazement of physically larger, or noticeably younger and more in-shape men. Is it the eye trick? Probably not. But, well, if it helps the kids when you re-tell this story, tell them "yes, it was the eye trick".)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 1:37 PM on March 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, and speaking as someone who has had 4 years of little league coaching experience (though with slightly older kids), I'll tell you that a unified approach will not resonate with all kids. Some swing too much and too freely, some too erratically, and some not at all. They each will need different inducements to correct their problem.

Also: I'm confused about some of the things you're saying... this might be me being dense but:
Clearly some of them are deciding mid-pitch whether to swing and that's too late
I mean, no, that's not "too late"... that's exactly when they have to make that decision. They shouldn't decide before the pitch, they have to decide while the pitch is in-flight and on its way. Deciding to swing at any other time than "mid-pitch" is foolish.

Are they late on the pitch? That might be a strength issue or a bat weight issue, or they might be overmatched. But it's not a "decision timing" issue. They have something like a tenth of a second to pull the trigger. It's very difficult to do well.
Just visualize every pitch down the middle and crank it.
This isn't a good approach, because, well, the best pitches aren't down the middle, of course, and what is to be gained by preparing for something unlikely to happen?

It's like when a pitcher has control issues and a helpful parent will say "Don't try to aim it" and I'm thinking: "No. Do try to aim it. As a matter of fact, try a hell of a lot harder to aim it. You need to aim it better."
I want to simply their approach to always be swinging
Here's the meat of the question. Some kids love swinging, some hate it. I've found it to be correlative with their confidence and popularity to some degree, but some kids don't like swinging. If you want them to swing more, you gotta incentivize it. Called third strike means a lap next practice? Give extra praise or a ice-cream gift certificate to a kid that needs inducement to swing? Dunno. But the psychology of kids swinging the bat has much less to do with preparedness than it does with, for example, his or her self-perception or their comfort.

I've got some strange insight into this courtesy of an obsessive stat-hound CPA dad who kept the most detailed stats one could imagine. The stories I could tell thanks to what he could do with these numbers.
Only if the pitch is bad do they then not swing.
Well, that's the trick, innit? If you could figure out how to do this you'd have job offers from the MLB. This is very hard to do. They have a tenth of a second to figure that out.

You mention that you didn't have a background in baseball, and so I'm suggesting this entirely in good faith and with an eye towards putting you in the state of mind that these kids are in: take a trip to the batting cages and stand in against challenging pitching. I think that the lessons you take away from that experience would positively inform the instruction that you could provide the kids.

Good luck: I found it to be challenging but occasionally very rewarding work.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 2:04 PM on March 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've heard it said that a surprising number of little league players don't actually know how to keep track of the ball with their eyes. Thus, training them to literally keep their eye on the ball the entire time it's flying through the air will likely do wonders for their hitting ability.

(Upon hearing this advice, I realized that I had been doing it wrong too, and I'm a full-grown adult! What I was doing was keeping my eye on the ball's starting point, but not actually following its motion through the air. I thought that that's what "keep your eye on the ball" meant, and no one had ever told me otherwise. When I trained myself to look away from the starting point and literally follow the ball with my eyes the whole time it's in the air, I got a lot better at catching/hitting games!)

You might have success with this technique even if you already tell them to keep their eye on the ball. Like me, they might not know exactly what that means, or they might think they're doing it right when they're not. Try different wording, like "track the ball as it flies towards you" or "focus on the ball at the top of the arc." Learning to do this may help with the paralysis issue as well, since it gives the players a routine to do for every pitch, and eventually they will learn which pitches look/feel right and which ones don't.
posted by danceswithlight at 5:32 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think they simply need more batting practice with the kids pitching to them. I coached from the time my son was 6 until 14. I suspect your coach, in the interest of expediency, is throwing too much batting practice himself. It's an easy trap to fall into. However, the kids tend to relax because they trust to coach to not hit them. More practice hitting against kid pitchers who have no idea where the next pitch is going is what they need.,

Agreed on the importance of following the ball. Have them stand at the plate without a bat and simply follow the ball all the way into the catchers mitt.
posted by COD at 6:14 PM on March 1, 2012

Soft toss and lots
Of it.
posted by pianomover at 4:01 AM on March 2, 2012

Thanks for the answers folks. I should have mentioned that the head coaches are experienced baseball players and have done everything that's already been suggested -- soft toss each practice, hitting against each other instead of coach-pitch, batting without a bat to track the ball (against their own pitching), lots of reps of live pitching, etc. They tattoo the ball in practice, but some of our kids are lost at the plate during games. I am trying to apply a mental approach used by other successful coaches in our league and at the high school level around here so that our kids can hit at game time. So I'm asking for tips on how to improve this focus during a game.
posted by ldenneau at 10:32 AM on March 2, 2012

This is a general performance practice tip that would work from any kind of performance-based skill, from playing a musical instrument, to ballet, to test-taking--

Learning is situational. A typical example: People will test better if they take the test in the room where they studied the material.

"Situational" for humans means far more than the physical surroundings--it is how you are thinking, how you are feeling (both in the physical and emotional senses), what you are seeing, what you are wearing, what daylight conditions are, etc etc etc etc.

So one trick is, practice (at least some times) in a situation as near as possible to actual game-day situation--in the same ball park, at the same home plate, same time of day, same clothing, same lighting, have an umpire, a catcher, and so on.

Obviously that is not always possible. So as a (pretty darn good) second-best, close your eyes for even just 5-10 seconds before starting batting practice and imagine that you are in that "real life game" situation. Imagine the ballpark, the uniforms, the light, the uniforms, the spectators, every detail. Then open your eyes and do your practice as usual, but in your imagination, you're still at a real game in the real ballpark. This is a little routine you could run the players through before they practice. Again--no need to spend 5-10 minutes thinking this through, just 10-15 seconds to put yourself mentally in that place is all that's needed, especially once you've explained the concept to them and they already know what to do.

As third-best, spend some time visualizing yourself at game day, every detail as closely as you can imagine it, see and feel the ballpark in your mind. Then visualize yourself going up to the plate, see the pitcher, catcher, all the other players, the lights, whatever. Then visualize yourself preparing for a pitch, hitting the ball exactly as you do in batting practice, everything is flowing well, you feel comfortable, you are relaxed, you are doing it exactly as in practice sessions, etc. Take yourself through an entire at-bat this way, imagining as well and in as much detail as you can everything you see, feel, or do--and also simultaneously feeling yourself as relaxed, confident, "in the zone", etc.

That is an exercise you could take your players through once in a while and then encourage them to do it on their own as well.

I can't hit a baseball worth a darn (one of my little league coaches probably missed his chance to change my life forever . . . ) but I used to do classical music performances at a professional level and I can tell you that this trick of spending 5 minutes a day visualizing yourself through a relaxed, confident performance really does work. (This is a skill, too, a mental skill, so just practicing once won't do much good--you need to practice regularly so that you develop new mental habits.)

It boils down to, we spend a lot of time practicing our physical skills, but our mental skills need practice and honing as well. Left to our own devices we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how nervous we are going to be, how things are going to go wrong (catastrophizing), and so on, and if we don't counter that with a different and better way of thinking, the nervous thoughts will win every time in a stressful situation.

Also, we tend to think certain thoughts when we are practicing and then different thoughts when we are doing it "for real"--oftentimes because we start to think, "Aha, THIS is important, now I need to focus, now I need to do it RIGHT."

If you want to perform the same way each time, you have to think the same thoughts each time. If you're thinking different thoughts, you're going to act and react differently. (My piano teacher used to say, "If you're daydreaming about your girlfriend while you're practicing you'd better daydream about here when you're performing too--or else you'll have a disaster!") So in practice, but yourself mentally in the same place you'll be in a real game--and then in the real game, but yourself mentally back in that same place you are when you practice.

If you're looking for more along these lines, "performance anxiety" would be a good search term to start with--there have been a ton of research, experiments, and techniques developed.
posted by flug at 11:14 AM on March 2, 2012

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