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Mental game of hitting begins in practice

By Judi Garman

Hitting is adjusting—adjusting to the pitch, the type of pitcher, the count, the umpire, and the situation. The mental game of hitting begins in practice. In a game, it begins on the bench, continues in the on-deck circle and on the approach to the plate, and reaches its greatest intensity when the batter steps into the batter’s box.

Success requires discipline, concentration, and quickness. Successful hitters are always prepared and ready to hit. They learn from every swing, obtain immediate feedback, and make the adjustments necessary for success. Players should understand that the difference between a .200 hitter and a .300 hitter is only 1 hit in 10 at bats.

Hitting is an attitude. It is confidence. Players should believe that they are always going to get a hit. They let the pitcher know that they are the best and that the pitcher has her hands full. They never let up. If they are 4 for 4, they strive to go 5 for 5. Successful hitters visualize success. They see themselves getting the winning hit. They live for the moment when the bases are loaded and they step to the plate with the game on the line.

Good hitters are aggressive, prepared to hit every pitch. The batter should stride to every pitch with the intention of hitting the ball. She should hold up on the swing only when she recognizes that the pitch location makes it a poor pitch to hit. The adjustment to hold up the swing should be made at the last moment. To do this, the player squeezes the bat and tenses up, stopping the swing before the bat goes through the strike zone. The approach to the pitch is “Yes, yes, yes, no” or “Yes, yes, yes, yes.” If the batter does not prepare to swing at every pitch, she will not be able to pull the trigger when she really wants to swing. Hitters should focus only on the ball, not its location over the plate. If the ball is around home plate and the hitter is confident that she can hit it, then she should go after it! Players should focus on their strengths and jump on any mistakes made by the pitcher.

Hitters should know their best pitches to hit and their hitting zone. They should understand their strengths and hit their pitch. Good hitters consistently hit balls within their hitting zone (strength area), whereas weak hitters hit too many pitches in their weak area.

The Count
The pitcher is trying to get ahead in the count by throwing the first pitch for a strike. If she gets the strike, the next pitch will not be as good. The pitcher hopes the batter will chase the ball or that the umpire will call a strike if the pitch is close to the plate. The best pitch batters will likely see is that first pitch! Yet how many hitters take the first pitch with the justification that they want to see what the pitcher throws or that they want to get comfortable? Hitters can watch the pitcher warm up to see what she throws and become comfortable before that first pitch.

Hitting sometimes seems as difficult as winning the lottery. Our odds improve with three attempts, or chances, compared with one or two. So batters should get their money’s worth by using all three opportunities. If they swing and miss, at least they can gather information to make adjustments on the next swing (too fast? too slow?). Hitters learn nothing by taking a good pitch and only decrease the odds.

If the pitcher is behind on the count, batters should expect to see the pitcher’s best control pitch, usually a fastball, right over the plate. They should be ready to jump all over this pitch! With a runner on third and less than two out, batters should look for a drop ball. The pitcher does not want to throw an up ball that can easily be hit in the air. Batters should try to think like a pitcher as they look for a pitch to hit. The pitch selection charts in chapter 6 offer valuable information about what the pitcher and catcher are thinking and how they plan to set up the hitter. Pitchers generally establish a pattern during a game. By looking for this pattern, batters know what pitch to expect. If they know what pitch is likely to be coming, they can more easily recognize and adjust to it.

Umpire’s Strike Zone
The size and shape of the umpire’s strike zone may require hitters to make adjustments for the pitcher they are facing. If the umpire has a wide strike zone, the hitters must move closer to the plate to hit the outside pitch with the sweet spot of the bat. Alternatively, they may choose to lay off that pitch completely. With two strikes and a high-pitch umpire, hitters must enlarge the top of the strike zone. A stubborn batter who refuses to adjust will strike out often and not be successful.

Two-Strike Adjustment
With two strikes the goal is just to make contact. Hitters should recognize that the pitcher will throw a marginal or waste pitch and that they have to make some adjustments. But they should not drastically alter their swing and stance. The goal is to avoid striking out and to put the ball in play so that the defense must make the out. Batters should expect no sympathy on taking a called third strike. Players can practice these two-strike adjustments in the batting cage:

  • Move closer to the plate to protect the outside corner and be able to reach outside pitches to drive to the opposite field.
  • Enlarge the strike zone and swing at anything close to a strike. Don’t let the umpire call you out.
  • Wait on the ball to see it more clearly.
  • Focus on just meeting the ball and using a compact swing to put the ball in play. Don’t swing for the fence.

Slump Busting
Everyone has slumps. When a player is struggling, she should fine-tune her mechanics, not perform a complete overhaul. Slumps often start in the head, beginning with a loss of confidence. A mechanical breakdown can also lead to bad days.

Here are some suggestions for breaking a slump:

  • The player should try to see the ball better and longer. She should concentrate on hitting the ball up the middle or to the opposite field.
  • Opening up the stance can help. An open stance shortens the swing, and the head position makes it easier to keep both eyes on the ball.
  • The player can choke up for better bat control.
  • Self-examination of her mental approach may be useful.
  • The player should relax and avoid overswinging.
  • The player can work on her mechanics off a T.
  • A day off may permit the player to get away from the pressure.

Game Situations
Hitters have a job to do in each at bat. While in the hole, they should review what situations are likely to arise and prepare mentally for those possibilities. The situation, position of the base runners, and the score will dictate the batter’s goal. Although batters cannot control whether the batted ball is a hit or an error (unless it is a home run), good batters do have some control over where they hit the ball and what type of hit they make—bunt, ground ball, fly ball, and so on.

The Defense
Smart hitters survey the defensive setup and try to hit the ball where the defense is weakest. For example, if the outfield has shifted radically, expecting the batter to pull the ball, she should step back from the plate so that pitches are farther away from her body. More pitches are now outside, making it easier to take a pitch to the opposite-field gap created by the shift. If the outfield is playing so deep that the hitter cannot possibly hit the ball over their heads, she can choke up on the bat and drop the ball in front of the outfield. When the infield moves in on top of the batter, she looks to drive the ball by them.

This is an excerpt from Softball Skills & Drills.

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