Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mechanics: What's Most Important?

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Mechanics are not the most important part of hitting, but they are important. There are so many successful hitters who have mechanical deficiencies or weaknesses. The best hitters at the highest levels often have something that could be more “ideal.” Great hitters have first-class approaches, work ethics, strength, bat speed and toughness. However, hitters who are still unseasoned in these skills should pay close attention to their mechanics as part of the development process.

There are infinite potential mechanical issues to think about. Some hitters are frozen in fear thinking too much about their mechanics. Let's keep it simple. 

Here are my two mechanical absolutes for a young hitter to focus on improving:

1.)    Stance and Stride

A hitter’s stance can begin in many places. Where you start is not nearly as important as where you end up or how you get there. A hitter needs to land, post-stride, in a position of strength. The term ‘balance’ is often misused. A flag pole is balanced, but it isn't very strong. A position of strength must have a low center of gravity. Think of a mid-squat technique or the position you would be in to guard LeBron James. We want to activate our quads without being so wide that we have lost athleticism. If we land in a position that is too upright, the swing will be propelled predominantly by the upper body, resulting in less than his max bat speed. A hitter’s height and leg length determines his proper squat depth, defensive position and hitting stride length.

Hitters who over-stride beyond their optimum stride length become momentum-driven front-foot hitters with timing issues and are susceptible to velocity inside, located off speed and elevated fastballs. Hitters who “stay back” and do not stride at all, or under stride, don’t drive the baseball. They lack bat speed. Hitters should desire a combination of the two: an aggressive movement for timing with a low center of gravity.

The coaching key is paying attention to a hitter's finish. If a hitter’s head rises immediately after a swing, their stride is likely too long for their height. If their swing sees their back foot quickly flattening out post-swing to balance (to keep them from falling over), the stride is too narrow and the body's energy is traveling up, instead of forward.

 2.) Separation

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Separation, defined as the distance between a hitter’s load and stride, is a major key to bat speed. Many mechanical deficiencies can be overcome with great separation.

Hitters who have serious grip wrapping, where the hands/knuckles are over rotated, can lengthen the time their swing is in the zone by creating separation. Hitters who have a vertical bat after loading (meaning the bat is pointed straight up) are low ball hitters and cannot stay on or through the baseball. Separation should occur without allowing a large gap between the hands and the chest. The further from the chest or back shoulder the hands end at the load position, the more exposure a hitter will have to being beat inside. To compensate for this gap, hitters usually take a very linear/handsy swing path. These hitters are not as challenging to get out.

Separation allows the necessary space needed to create bat speed. No hitter can create maximum bat speed over a shorter distance. Creating a greater distance between the stride and load maximizes bat speed, allowing hitters to wait longer to commit, have a flatter swing path (rather than steep) and maximize contact and extension opportunities. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Coaching Hitters with East Carolina University Head Coach Cliff Godwin

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Fresh off taking Ole Miss to the College World Series in 2014, Cliff Godwin is in his first year as head coach at his alma mater, East Carolina University. Coach Godwin is renowned for his relentless energy, teaching skills and passion for those he coaches.

He was kind enough to share his mindset and passion with us. Thanks, Cliff.

Q: How do you integrate the mental game into your offensive preparation in practice?

A: We talk about having quality at bats every single day! It's a lifestyle for us. Batting average is evil because we can't control it! We also perform our routines and release every day during BP.

Q: What do the best hitters in your program do well mentally?

A: Our best hitters have great routines daily which allows them to be confident from their preparation! Also, they think about their good swings and not their bad swings! They think about their good at bats and not their bad ones! You have to be positive to be a great consistent hitter!

Q: How do you coach the mental game differently now than you did five years ago?

A: I have always talked about quality at bats since I have been in the coaching ranks. I talk about it more! Now I post the results more, tweet it more, so our guys know it is important to us!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Implementing the Mental Game with University of Washington Hitting Coach Donegal Fergus

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I met Donegal Fergus on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco during a fall recruiting trip. Fergie is a light in the room: energetic, bright and ready to go all day. We share a passion for teaching the mental game, breathing, stretching the mind...and hitting. Fergie is a giver who grasps the mental game and, most importantly, knows how to implement it into an aggressive hitting style. He was generous enough to share with us all. Soak it in.

Thanks, Fergie.

Q: How do you integrate the mental game into your offensive preparation in practice?

A: We talk mental game every day. Principles of our beliefs: growth, mindset, learning how to learn, curiosity and openness to new concepts. We start practice with group breathing exercises. Guided meditation. Individual breathing techniques are honed in BP. As our guys transition from cage to main diamond for their rounds on field, they first spend one minute on their own practicing "quick transition" breathing techniques before starting their BP rounds.

We also frequently use the classroom to discuss themes like confidence, failure, and commitment. My guys know they can always come and talk privately about anything and that happens regularly. We call it the psychiatrist's couch.

Q: What do the best hitters in your program do well mentally?

A: Our best guys move on the fastest from down moments. They get frustrated and upset like everyone but they hit reset much quicker than the rest.

Q: How do you coach the mental game differently now than you did five years ago?

A: I'm more open with my guys. I explain the "why" much more than ever. I used to tell them just trust me that it's right. "Shut up and do what I tell you," in a way. Now I encourage them to challenge me and ask questions if they don't understand or think they have a better way.

I tell them from the beginning that it is a collaboration. We're in this together. All in. No turning back. I trust them to listen and learn and push their own limits and they trust me that I have nothing but their best interests at heart. We talk about that openly. Allows me to try just about anything with them. It also allows for greater buy-in because it's all "theirs."

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Hitting Excellence: Winners and Learners

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If you want to be a champion, you cannot lose.

Read that again. If you want to be a champion, you cannot lose.

There should be no such thing as "winners and losers." There should be "winners and learners."

Those who are defeated are quitters. Those who quit are defeated. Champions lose, learn, make quick adjustments and prepare again. This theory holds water not only in competition, but also in hitting.

So many hitters turn one at bat into four. One inopportune result, not necessarily a bad at bat, can lead to three more just the same. A bad game turns to four and there you have it...the dreaded slump.

Relentlessness and mental toughness are attitudes. Attitudes are chosen.

Feelings are not facts. They are not tangible, evident problems. If you are frustrated, that frustration is most likely born out of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear you did not prepare hard enough, etc. "Will I be as good as I hope to be? Will I have another good season? Maybe I should have taken more focused swings in the cage."

These are normal thoughts. Likely, they are common for many hitters. Average hitters.

Excellent hitters have a written or clear mental plan of how they want to prepare. They trust their preparation. They bust their tail so hard that they feel they have left others behind. Next, an excellent hitter has success and failure, just like the average hitter. But the excellent hitter has confidence in his preparation to go back to, like a fat storage in winter, that provides through tough times. Just a few ounces of extra confidence can spark a quality at bat to turn things around.

If confidence in preparation did not turn things around, an excellent hitter notes what he has been doing well, doing poorly, and how pitchers have been pitching him. He maintains perspective, an integral part of seeing in darkness. An excellent hitter ensures he is in control of himself; he breathes deeply and has aggressive and positive self-talk. He then makes sound adjustments and attacks the game with new information. He is a learner.