Ahead in the Count

Hey Swinger, Swinger!

written by Sean Flikke

My kid hits great in cages and then he/she gets in the games and struggles, sometimes just to make contact. What’s going on? How can I help them?”

This is a common scenario for coaches and families of young ballplayers, and the one I get asked about most frequently as a hitting instructor. While fear of the ball can certainly be crippling (especially for younger players), I do not think that ball fear is the biggest problem keeping young hitters from succeeding in games. It is only a symptom of a larger problem. I believe the primary problem is that young players know more and more about how to take a swing but less and less about how to compete as a hitter. The reason for this is simple: THEY DO NOT HIT COMPETITIVELY ENOUGH.

“How can this be true? I spend hours with my son/daughter/players throwing BP and working on their hitting…more than I ever got as a kid.”

This is true for most young players in the U.S. today. They have access to more resources and tools for improving their swings than any players in any era anywhere in the world – from cages and great equipment to private instructors and camp opportunities. However, what they do not have that those of us who grew up playing in prior generations did have is that dinosaur known as the neighborhood game (see also: sandlot).

These games, which usually lasted for about 12 years (with interruptions), involved playing with and against kids of different ages and ability levels. Learning how to hit in these games meant learning how to compete against bigger kids and older kids and kids who began shaving at 11 and kids who threw (GASP!) breaking balls.  These games thrust us into levels of competition that we may not have been ready for, but the advantages to reaching beyond our ability levels became obvious when our seasons would start and we would return to our own age groups.

With no swing coaches around, I learned how to shorten my hand path to the ball by swinging through Kenny Timm’s fastball 650 times one Summer when he was 10 and I was 7. I learned about balance and head discipline when neighborhood ace Keith Schmidt developed a nasty straight change to go along with his already potent hammer (see also: curveball) when he was 13 and I was 11. But more important than these swing aspects were the invaluable – and unteachable – lessons I learned about how to be an OFFENSIVE hitter.

A great hitter is an offensive threat when the chalk is on the field, a fierce competitor at the plate who finds a way to help his/her team score runs. Like the predators on a Discovery Channel show (See also: Big Cat Week or Shark Week), they have an attacking mindset that can only be developed in competitive situations. Overemphasis on hitting in non-competitive environments – like cages – with machines or coaches consistently putting the ball in the strike zone allows young players to develop a false sense of themselves as offensive players. Having not practiced enough with the “juice” of competition flowing through them and the pitcher, they get into games and look like completely different hitters – marked by quicker, jerkier movements and defensive swings (if they swing at all). In nature, there is a term for these nervous, twitchy creatures…they are called prey.

At the youth level up through high school baseball, the pitcher will be one of – if not THE – best athlete on the field. They often are selected to pitch based on arm strength and may not have great control (usually this is an inverse relationship: harder throwers = less control). So, it stands to reason that young hitters often are afraid that they are going to get hit. ALL hitters, to one degree or another, are conscious of the same possibility. It is hard-wired into our brains the same way that our tendency to move away from large snakes or spiders is…as a survival mechanism.

Great offensive players step through this fear, however, in order to compete and to help their team. Having shown themselves that they can, if necessary, get out of the way of a good fastball in competitive situations gives a young hitter the confidence to be offensive-minded. Over time, they actually learn the energetic lift that getting hit by a pitch and sprinting to first can give their team, in addition to taking away the intimidation factor that pitchers often rely upon.

“So, what’s the solution? There are no games in our neighborhoods and we’re afraid to let our kids ride their bike to a park…too many crazies out there.”

I won’t get into my feeling that the 24-hour news media has created a culture of fear in the U.S. or flaunt the fact that on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I counted 5 sandlot games being played in a two-mile stretch of highway (author’s note: 1 in 3.5 professional baseball players in a Major League system is a Dominican). I will offer only that your players need to find a way way to hit competitively more often.

For the younger players, I recommend whiffle ball “battle royales.” Use practice time and create space for them to develop some kind of 1 on 1 game format with whiffles (tape ’em up for added velocity) where they are competing with the pitcher. Kids are very creative so allow them to develop rules – just shepherd them through the process. Then put on tournaments before or after practice where they get to umpire, score and compete. You’ll be amazed at how quickly their offensive mindsets improve.

For older players, in addition to whiffle ball battles, more competitive BP against live pitching is a great teaching tool. Utilize bullpen time for your pitchers in competitive hitting situations. It will certainly make both your pitchers and your hitters better equipped for competition. This can even be done in cages, if necessary, with pitchers behind L-screens. Develop scoring systems and/or competitive consequences. You can even simulate “pressure” by having the other players around the cages, cheering and/or jeering to get the energy flowing.

If you can help you player cultivate a predator’s mindset at the plate and couple it with a well-trained swing, then that mirage out on the mound may start to look less like a pitcher and more like an antelope on the Serengeti.

December 29, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized, written by Sean Flikke

2 Comments »

  1. STICK BALL. STICK BALL. STICK BALL.

    Comment by Damien Gray | December 30, 2008

  2. Thanks Coach Flikke. This was an eye-opener as a Little League coach. As a kid, I grew up biking home from school at full speed so I could get a game of stick ball going with my neighborhood buddies. We would play a competitive game, keeping score until it was time for dinner. Some 3 hours of competition, pretending to be our favorite players with each at bat. Always feeling the pressure with each AB, wanting to beat our friends like the World Series was on the line.

    Quite a contrast with today’s kids. When they come home, they do an hour or more of homework. Something we didn’t have in elementary school when I grew up. If it is a baseball practice day, then it is drills, drills, and more drills. Batting cage hitting, tee hitting, soft toss hitting, but nothing competitive. Don’t step in the bucket, keep your head still, get your load right…

    I have personally seen these “MVP batting cage hitters” put up 0-fer after 0-fer in the games and wonder why the cage hitting doesn’t translate to the games. Coach Flikke’s comments seem to provide a viable answer. From now on I am going to make whiffle ball games a reward at the end of practice. Yes we will keep a running score. Yes I will put as much pressure as possible on them, in a fun way. I love the predator mindset and see the need to cultivate it along with proper technique.

    Thanks again Coach.

    Mike Mallano
    Rolling Hills Little League
    L.A. CA

    Comment by Mike Mallano | January 28, 2009


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