Inside Pitch Magazine, September/October 2021

Coaches' Corner: Establishing Routines for Youth Hitters

By John Cissik, 13UAA Redhawks (Frisco Baseball and Softball Association) and Frisco Miracle League Cardinals head coach

Hitting principles are important because they are the foundation of your approach to coaching. There are three concepts I like to focus on with hitters in a team situation:

1. Kids want to hit the baseball
2. We’re not teaching hitting lessons
3. Establish your absolutes

Kids Want to Hit the Baseball

Coaches can forget something very important with young baseball players – they just want to hit! This is one of the things that makes baseball fun. Because it’s something they want to do, we need to emphasize this skill and give them lots of opportunities to do it. The more you get to hit the baseball the better you get at it, right?

I for one am not a fan of taking pitches for youth baseball players. I think the take sign is more about making the coach look smart than developing the players. If our role as youth baseball coaches is to our players to enjoy the sport, learn its skills, and learn about the game, then we’re best served by giving them every chance to hit the baseball, rather than discouraging it. This means opportunities in practice, off the tee, soft toss, and live pitching/BP, but it also means in games as well. Yes, some of your athletes will consistently strike out – but encouraging them to never swing in hopes that they walk robs them of the chance to do the one thing every ballplayer wants to do

We’re Not Teaching Hitting Lessons

Team practices are a terrible place to run hitting lessons! With a youth team that is practicing two to three times a week, there is not enough time in the day to go through hitting lessons for every player. Focusing on that means not being able to focus on pitching, catching, fielding, throwing, situational baseball, base running, etc. You have to establish your absolutes for hitting and focus on those in practices…

Establish Your Absolutes

It is natural for people, coaches included, to want to show off how much they know about the sport. The challenge is that most youth athletes aren’t ready to receive all that knowledge and put it into practice. This can lead to them processing so much information because they are overthinking things. “Absolutes” are the nonnegotiable things that baseball players should do while hitting. These should be coaches consistently across players, reinforced, and rewarded.
For me, my absolutes with youth baseball players are the three H’s:

  • Hips: I want our players to use their hips when they hit, as opposed to only swinging with their arms. This adds power to the swing.

  • Hands: Physics says we can swing a shorter lever faster. With this in mind, one of the things I try to emphasize is to keep the hands in towards the body when swinging the bat, so that it can be moved more quickly.

  • Head: If we can’t see the baseball then we can’t hit it, so I focus on keeping the batter’s eyes on the ball through contact.

The 'Three H's' for a youth hitter
There are some drills that I have found useful in a youth team setting to implement these absolutes:

  • Knob drill: done from the tee, set up is normal, but you hit the ball with the knob of the bat as opposed to the barrel. This helps teach the hitter to keep their hands in when swinging. See photo two for the finish of the knob drill.

  • Hammer time: another drill done from a tee (though it can also be done from soft toss). This drill teaches the use of the hands while reinforcing the hips and head in the swing. Set up is normal, only instead of using the bat to hit the ball, they use a mallet.

Hammer Time Drill
  • Live batting practice: not as much of a drill per se, but whenever possible, we try to train both offense and defense at the same time. It is valuable for pitchers to throw BP, and for catchers to catch it and call pitches. This gets really competitive in practice with the coaches focusing on ‘both sides of the ball.’

  • Call your shot: this is rarely done with certainty, but there are times when it is beneficial to hit the ball to a specific spot. We’ll mix in this drill with a tee or using soft toss, and with defenders or screens as targets. You can use a scoring system to make this very competitive!

  • Around the plate: we will move the tee around the plate so our hitters learn how to hit the ball with varying points of contact inside, outside, up or down in/around the strike zone. See photo four for an example of moving the tee around the plate.

Around the Plate Drill
In addition to having absolutes in terms of how you coach hitting, it’s important to implement any offensive strategies that you want to emphasize in a game during practice. A game is a terrible place to make mechanical or fundamental changes, so your strategies associated with how your team hits needs to be emphasized in practice. Here are a couple ours:

  • We’re going to hit: I don’t give take signs and I don’t like it when young players try to play the odds and just stay in the box without moving in the hopes of getting walked.

  • Two-strike strategy: when we get to two strikes, we crowd the plate, which has has turned many two-strike situations into walks. Changing the mindset as to who’s plate it is during a pitcher/hitter confrontation is huge, and without count leverage, moving up on the plate is one way the offense can fight back.

All practices need to reinforce your absolutes and your offensive strategies. Regardless of where or how you practice, it’s important to have a consistent warmup routine. For example, I like starting with the knob drill, moving to hammer time, swings off the tee, getting practice swings as the on-deck batter, then hitting off pitching. The batting cages are one of those places where teams can stand around and do a whole lot of nothing, or not:

Station 1: knob drill
Station 2: hammer time
Station 3: hit off the tee
Station 4: on deck batter
Station 5: hit live pitching (pitcher pitches, catcher catches, hitter hits)
Station 6: shag baseballs
Station 7: rest

When in the cages, your players can be kept moving by running a time (for example, every three minutes the athletes will switch stations). This keeps everyone busy and makes for a much more productive experience.

We divide the field into two parts for many of our team practices. One part emphasizes team situations that the coach feels are important – base running, situational baseball, etc. The second part emphasizes skills, which we execute in stations and typically divide players up by position. 

Lastly, for us, scrimmages and games are lumped together because scrimmages prepare us for games. Beforehand, players go through the same warm up routine that they see in practices, in hopes that eventually, their routines and motor patterns become developed enough to make a real, tangible difference when it matters the most.

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