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The Art and the Science of Softball Hitting

 By Martin Rubinoff

Where it starts in any athletic endeavor, balance is the underlying factor in achieving success as well as consistency. In any drill or learning skill associated with hitting, balance must first be established. The other key ingredient, when balance is achieved, puts the body in a state of relaxation. Being balanced and relaxed puts the mind in a “ready” state so all aspects of the mind and body are in tune. The art and the science of softball hitting.

The foundation of balance starts with the feet. Proper weight distribution on the balls of the feet is essential in your stance to maintain balance. The other important aspect that is overlooked in the stance is flexion of the knees. If the knees are not flexed this leads to tension throughout the power base. A quick definition of the power base is the hips, thighs, mid section, lower back, and your rear end.

When tension occurs in the lower body, this nullifies the power base which supplies the power necessary to drive the ball. The other points which are overlooked when there is tension in the lower part of the body is that it throws off the timing of the feet (pivot), hips, and hands. Balance is affected, for it allows weight distribution to be transferred outside the plane of the pitch rather than staying inside where the action occurs. For a definition of hitting, it is arriving on time, on plane, with accuracy and balance.

The upper part of the body supplies the speed factors in swinging the bat along with leverage. As the lower part of the body rotates, the upper part of the body follows almost simultaneously in a blending of the shoulders that turn, followed by the arms, wrists and hands, in a fluid and effortless manner. The shoulders must remain tension free because this greatly effects the plane of swing. If there is tension in the shoulders this will alter the plane of the bat. It will reduce bat speed by “muscling up” on the ball and will cause the hands to go around the ball rather than going to and through the ball.

The shoulders must turn in a 90 degree manner around the head (axis), allowing the hands to fire for speed and leverage. The arms, wrists and hands, which propel and accelerate the bat through the hitting zone, must always feel to the hitter to be explosive and lightning quick. The bottom hand, which pulls through, and the top hand, which pushes in the physical sense, must act together as well as staying independent of one another. In other words, the bottom hand snaps and the top hand drives the ball.

When the lower and upper part of the body are put into proper synchronization (timing), the head, which is the axis, will always stay on plane with the pitch. When there is tension in the lower and upper part of the body, the head will move off the path of the ball and so will visual contact. In baseball or softball terms this is called “seeing the ball.” It is an eighth-of-an-inch that is the difference between a line drive or ground ball or fly ball.

Breaking Down the Five Elements of the Swing

1)The Stance: The Stance is the foundation of the swing. When you are not centered or balanced, your consistency in attaining a balanced position in your stride and staying inside the plane of the ball, will reduce a blending of the upper and lower part of the body which produces power in driving the ball in a consistent manner. The stance should allow the hitter to be in a “centered” and ready position to attack the ball.

I feel the stance should be shoulder length or a slight variance of two to three inches in width. The knees must be flexed to cut down tension in the power muscles of the legs. This allows for a smooth transfer of weight. The arms remain in a flexed or “L” position so the hitter feels relaxed but ready. The head should be lightly brushing the front shoulder, focusing both eyes on the release point of the pitcher. (You can use soft centering to fine centering here). The hands should be set at the top of the strike zone. The bat, I feel should be at a 45 degree angle. This allows you to put the bat in the launching position when striding to the pitch. It allows the hitter the sensation of seeing the ball longer and not rushing to get to this position in the stride. The weight should be on the balls of the feet, so the hitter feels centered and ready.

2) The Stride: It is the first athletic movement in the swing and is the second balance point of the swing. I feel the stride should be between six and eight inches in length. However, it should not be so short in nature to allow the front side to straighten up and cause tension to hinder the swing. The front knee must still be flexed and the weight must remain on the inside of the front foot or ball of the foot. The stride must be smooth like sliding on glass. In terms of the foot, it should lightly brush the ground; upon landing it should be at a 45 degree angle. The front foot should go directly back at the pitcher. However, the hitter can allow a one to two inch variance inside or outside the path the front foot takes to the pitcher.

The hips, which lead the stride, will rotate inward as well as the front shoulder. This will allow the two firing mechanisms in the swing to be brought into play. Weight distribution is now on the back side and the hitter should feel her weight on the instep of the back foot as well as feel controlled pressure on the back hip.

As the front shoulder is rolled back into position, the bottom hand should be allowed to be cocked, just like holding a hammer which you are ready to use to drive a nail through a piece of wood. Also, the arms must remain in a flexed state and a tension free position but a firing position so the hitter feels triggered and explosive. The bat should be at a 45 degree angle ready to be propelled and accelerated through the hitting zone. The stride and the rolling of the front shoulder should be blended or timed as having a one piece movement.

The cocking of the bottom hand and wrist should be in relationship to the stride. The wrist cock should be in a short arc, always equal to the stride. (Upon landing of the front foot in the stride, the weight should be on the instep or the ball of the front foot). When all elements of the stride make the hitter feel triggered and explosive, the underlying factor of balance comes into play. This is the second balance position. The hitter should be in a balanced state; if the hitter would drop the bat this would put the body into a position to field a ground ball hit directly at them. Or the hitter should be able to jump straight up in the air and come down in a balanced state. These are the factors in the stride in determining a “timed” and triggered response.

3) The Initial Move: As the pitch is coming to the plate, the back hip and ankle are rotating to bring the “power muscles” into play. As the lower part of the body is rotating the arms, wrists and hands are simultaneously being accelerated through the hitting zone. The bottom hand will start the knob of the bat in a slightly downward plane. The firing mechanism of the lower part of the body is the ankle. The initial movement comes from the weight being inside the back foot (the instep).

As the lower part of the body is being rotated (or turning) this clears the arms which are still in a flexed state, which allows the shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands to accelerate the bat. As the bat is being brought to the contact point, the top hand will then supply the power and leverage necessary to get the barrel head of the bat to the ball. The shoulders will turn in a tension free manner, in effect the back side is knocking out the front side. Any tension of the shoulders will diminish bat speed, producing a long swing. The head, acting as the axis, should only drop between one to one and one-half inch. This allows for a centered and timed response from the upper and lower part of the body.

This movement of the lower and upper part of the body in attacking the ball must be in a one-piece movement. Any sequence that is out of timing will definitely bring about improper weight transfer, muscling with the upper body, loss of power and reduction of bat speed. In essence, a swing that allows the body to be timed and centered will be tension free, producing speed and power.

4) Contact Point: The Moment of Truth: At impact, the upper and lower parts of the body must unite to be in a two-piece movement. The ankle and back hip have rotated to the location of the pitch. For example, on an inside pitch the ankle and back hip will be at full rotation. The ankle and back hip should directly face the pitcher. The shoulders should directly face the pitcher. The shoulders have turned in a fluid and tension-free manner. Its motion should be a sweeping motion, scythe-like. The arms, wrists and hands have propelled and accelerated the bat through the hitting zone (the plane of the pitch).

At the moment of impact there should be flexion or “L’s” in two places. The back leg should be in flexed state (L position) and the top hand should be in a flexed state or L position. The lead arm should be flexed and appear to be in a soft position. The front leg has firmed up, creating a position of the upper part of the body to be behind the ball. (In terms of softball and baseball, staying back and turning). This allows the hands at contact to be in a position of palm down lead arm (speed) and the top hand palm up for power and leverage.

For hitting a rise ball, the top hand must have a slight downward rotation so the head of the bat will be slightly down, allowing the hitter the sense of getting on top of the ball. The head will be at the barrel end of the bat. At impact, the ball will only remain on the bat five-eighths of a second. The hand will go through the ball propelling the barrel of the bat to maximize extension of the swing after impact. The arms have stayed away from the body, but not so far away to allow for a sweeping motion or long swing. Also, the arms are not so inside so that the elbows are heavily brushing the back hip and mid section restricting the swing or getting jammed.

5) The Follow Through: After contact the hands and wrists will break (or roll over). The arms will be at maximum extension, followed by the shoulders still rotating. To allow for a state of balance in the follow through these factors must be in place. After maximizing extension, the arms should be broken down. In terms of broken down, they should be brought up to a flexed or “L” position as quickly as possible. In essence, the hands are knocking our the front shoulder. The lower part of the body as well as the front part of the body will be in a flexed state. The entire body assumes a crouched position to lower the center of gravity. This will lend itself for greater stability and support.

The head, which acts as the axis, will lightly brush the back shoulder. This allows the body position to always be centered, depending upon the plane of the pitch. There will be a slight variance in weight shift in effect of falling into the plate after contact. Again, the emphasis is on staying inside of the action. So in terms of your stance to the follow through, you are allowing your body position to be balanced by staying inside the pitch depending upon the location of the pitch.

Putting It Altogether

Making the Body Responsive: Hitting a softball calls for a finely synchronized interplay between the many muscles of the body, timed in the brain’s network controlling the body and hand-eye co-ordination. Hitting a softball on time, on plane, with accuracy and balance isn’t a skill that just happens - something you’re born with - you have to work daily at it. In defining this you have to pay your dues.

Knowing the basic mechanics of the swing can speed the learning process. Remember hitting occurs in five stages:

1) The Stance
2) The Stride
3) The Initial Move
4) Contact Point
5) The Follow Through

Going through the swing in a slow motion manner allows the body to memorize what position it should be in depending on the location of the pitch. To be able to control your body in a state of precision and calm, you should focus the mind on visualizing pitches in different locations. This will build upon the foundation of muscle memory as well a centering of your concentration. This will allow the mind and body to work in unison.

In coordinating the body to be in a state of balance and precision, the five stages of the swing must be repeated daily. Your stance is your foundation; if proper time and care is not given, being on time on plane with accuracy will lack consistency. The stride must be repeated daily in achieving a state of proper timing in the lower and upper part of the body. The hitter should feel her stride, in effect, building body awareness. The initial move should have the hitter in a kinetic state (body awareness), thus feeling the upper and lower part of the body working together in a tension free manner.

The contact point should be practiced on a batting tee. This allows the hitter to actually see herself in a tension-free manner. To visually see yourself in a tension-free manner builds upon the concept of the proper body position and technique at all times. This is allowing for speed, power and balance to be put in motion in a timed response. The follow through should be in a slow motion manner also, allowing the body to return to a balanced state. After achieving the balance and timed responses in your body, hitting softballs is the next phase. This will develop hand eye coordination as well as learning how all parts of the body and mind are put into proper timing as well as focus.

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