Friday, December 4, 2015

Five Ways an Incorrect Load Leads to an Incorrect Swing

A good coach I know and respect told me after one of our clinics last year that when he works with a group of kids learning to hit, the first thing he does is spread them around the room and have them practice setting up and loading correctly. It makes sense. You start from the beginning - the stance and load - and learn a correct starting point for the swing.

It seems the more I work with young hitters, the more I see a problem in this department. It is rare that I have a kid naturally load correctly and return to the proper hitting position. So I've started doing the same thing. My hitting clinics and initial lessons usually begin with working on how to correctly set up in an athletic stance, load the hips, and then return to a hitting position with the front foot down before any shoulder rotation or forward movement of the hands takes place. Boring stuff. But vitally important to the swing. And I'm always amazed at how difficult this seemingly simple act can be for young hitters.

Here is AL Rookie of the Year, Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros, doing it well:

Athletic stance, load the hips and return to a hitting (launch) position.

The batter loads to create energy. You go back to go forward. You have to do it if you want to hit the ball with any force. But so much can go wrong with young players' mechanics while loading. The head, wrists, elbows, shoulders, feet - anything - can move incorrectly during this time. It is very common with younger, physically weaker players. And it's a chain reaction. If one body part moves the wrong way during the load or return, it will likely be positioned incorrectly at contact.

As a youth instructor working with players ranging from about 7-15-years-old, I try to keep things pretty simple. Simple, meaning less moving parts, so less can go wrong and more can go right. It's very mechanical and scientific. To me, hitting is not an art. It's a science. It's physics. Force against force. I want to teach my players to have the best chance to put some direct force into the ball.

After a young hitter gets a simple, correct swing down, we dial back the mechanics talk a bit and try to loosen up and let the athleticism and energy flow. This energy is created in the load. But if the hitter has flaws in his load and doesn't return to the correct body positioning when the front heel plants, that energy won't be directed into the ball correctly. What follows will likely be a flawed swing.

Here are a few of the most common flaws I see in the load and return that will cause an incorrect swing. This assumes the player starts from an athletic stance, feet somewhat wide, hands near the back shoulder, knob pointing down at or in front of the catcher's feet...

1. Loading With the Head and Shoulders -  I teach a very simple load: shift or coil the back hip a few inches, then tap the front foot (or stride forward if needed). Pick it up, put it down. Unless it's necessary, I don't talk much about getting the hands back because I've found that most kids do that naturally. So it's load the hip, tap the foot. This helps to keep the head in front of the back knee, so the hitter can gain some momentum and apply some force into the ball. But many young players tend to load with the upper body - the shoulders and head shifting back - rather than loading with the hips. This causes a reduction in force meeting the baseball. There's no drive from the back leg. I believe it is sometimes caused by tension - the whole body goes back as one unit and tilts. The head gets above or behind the back knee and the front shoulder can become angled upward. If this happens, it is basically already flying out and not being used for momentum and direction into the ball. Many young players need to work on loosening up their body so they can load the hips back without moving the head and shoulders too much, and raise the front foot by bending and lifting the front knee and not the whole body.

2. Twisting the Shoulders / Wrapping the Bat  -  Although not quite as common as loading too far back with the head and shoulders, many young hitters tend to twist their upper body too much while loading and turn their back to the pitcher. Wrapping the bat too far behind the head often accompanies this motion, although each flaw can happen independent of the other. When a hitter returns from his load, I want to see his front shoulder have some forward movement going into contact before his front heel plants. This is hard to do when you are twisted up. In my experience, hitters who twist too much one way with the shoulders end up twisting the other way with not much movement toward the ball. Contact is more of a sideways slap with less direct force, or punch.

3. Collapsing the Barrel  -  One of the most common swing flaws I see in young players at the point of contact is rolling the wrists over too soon. This causes the barrel to jump toward the upper outside edge of the baseball, typically resulting in a topspin ground ball to the pull side. If a hitter correctly extends through contact in a palm up, palm down (flat hands) position, the result will more likely be a backspin line drive. The top hand should be positioned like its punching someone in the stomach with the thumb out and palm up (one of my favorite, but more painful drills). In order to have the hands positioned like this at (and after) contact, they can't get out of whack during the load. The knob of the bat needs to stay pointed down near the catcher's feet until the front foot lands. If the wrist of the top hand cocks, or bends too much under the outside of the thumb, and the barrel collapses down over the rear shoulder, the knob will be pointed high with those punching knuckles up to the sky. The only way to get the bat on the ball from this position is to basically throw the barrel at it. This often results in the rollover grounder mentioned before. So I want my hitters to all know - dropping that barrel causes rolling of the wrists at contact.

4. Hands Getting Away Too Early  -  Yes, the hands should separate from the body some before going forward. But that's a dangerous thing for a young hitter to think about. Most kids naturally allow their hands to get back, and unfortunately more of them actually shove them too far back. Others allow the hands to drift out in front of their chest too soon. And some just set up in their stance that way and never get them back near the shoulder. Regardless of where the hands go too early, the bat feels heavier when it's away from the body. The forearms and triceps are being used too much to support the weight of the barrel. When the hands stay close to the rear shoulder, the bat feels lighter because the hitter's whole body is supporting it, not just the arms. The arms can stay relaxed and be quicker to the ball. Relaxed muscles are quicker. The direction of the swing is also more correct coming from the shoulder. The hitter can lead with the knob and hands toward the inside edge of the ball, and then whip the barrel through to square it up. When the hands get away too soon, the arms are tense and slow, and the bat is stiffly swept, or dragged, though the hitting zone with a great reduction in bat speed. The approach is less direct as the barrel gets away and falls into a slow loop down and forward.

5. Front Shoulder Opening Up Too Early  -  This may be the most common flaw I see before the front heel plants. Many young hitters allow the front shoulder, or entire front side, to open up too soon. When a hitter returns from his load toward the ball and into his hitting position, I think it should look fairly similar to his original stance - feet wide, hands by the shoulder, knob to the catcher's feet and front shoulder closed up and aimed at the incoming pitch. This position causes the hands to move quickly toward (not away from) the ball. It's a direct punch, not a sideways slap. Force against force. But when the front shoulder flies out before it's time to hit, the hands often go with it, away from the ball. The lead arm is barred and again, the bat is dragged through the zone. Sometimes the shoulder flies out because of timing - the batter gets jumpy with the front foot and doesn't let the ball travel. I think one of the other main causes of this flaw, again, is tension. Many young players simply don't allow the arms to relax and can't release the hands to go toward the ball. They swing mainly with their shoulders. This is very common with kids. The shoulders and hands rotate with their hips as one unit - and the hands go the wrong direction, providing no punch.

These flaws in the load and return are not the only ones. They are just some of the more common ones that appear to me, especially during video analysis. They are mostly interlinked and cause additional problems when the ball is actually being hit. One thing leads to another.

But they're very fixable. I encourage young players to pay attention to and practice their stance, load and return. Get in front of a mirror at home and see what it looks like. Most players have no idea what they're physically doing. If players can see it and know what it should look like, they can coach themselves and build correct muscle memory. A good stance, load and return often leads to a pretty good swing. Most swing flaws are caused by something that happens before the front foot lands, before the bat is anywhere near the ball.

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