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You Get 3 Strikes For A Reason!

Posted on 06-02-2017

I’ve written quite a bit about the mental side of hitting in youth baseball (please feel free to browse through old blogs), but today I want to talk about important things parents and coaches can do to make sure ballplayers have an attitude at the plate that gives them the best chance of success.

First, let’s start by all agreeing on a few things that are 100% true:
1) Hitting is extremely difficult for every player, at every level.
2) Players don’t want to strike out.
3) Players, especially young players, get nervous in games.
4) Players, especially young players, feel pressure to not make mistakes (this is different than nerves).
In Little League, players are far more aware, even if only subconsciously, of #2, #3, and #4 than they are of #1, so that’s what this blog will focus on.  
To put it another way, if you asked 1000 eight year olds what they’re trying to accomplish with their at-bat, how many do you think would answer, “Don’t strike out?”  A LOT.
The problem with the “don’t strike out” hitting attitude is that it robs them of all their ability to become a great, or even a good hitter.
A “don’t strike out” attitude usually looks like this:
1) “Billy” won’t even swing the bat out of fear of swinging and missing, and he’s hoping for a walk.
2) “Billy” won’t even swing the bat out of fear of making a mistake (swinging at a bad pitch).
3) “Billy” swings the bat really really slowly, so as to make sure he “just hits it.”
Sound familiar?
Let’s break it down further.
Billy in example #1 knows that swinging and missing feels horrible emotionally, and also knows that striking out is a bad thing.  Even adults in the real world use the term “strike out” when a sales pitch went bad or they got turned down asking a girl out on a date, so Billy knows that it should be avoided at all costs.   Not trying is the easiest way to avoid failing.   (This is true in life beyond baseball too!)
Billy in example #2 swung at a pitch over his head one time and everyone yelled “Ah! No! Come one! What are you doing?!?! Don’t swing at that!!!”  So, to make sure that he never makes such a horrible mistake again that leads to adults yelling at him, he just decides not to swing – that’s much safer than doing anything that might get him yelled at.
Billy in example #3 can make contact, which is great, and just wants to keep making contact.  Hitting it hard doesn’t matter to him and getting out at 1st base every time doesn’t matter to him either; he just knows if he takes a really safe swing that he can make contact and avoid the horrible feelings of #1 and #2 described above.
To truly develop as hitters, players must have the confidence to swing the bat HARD.  They must have the confidence to take the enormous risk of swinging the bat fast, where the upside is crushing the ball and the downside is swinging and missing.  Unfortunately for most kids, the pain of swinging of missing is greater than the joy of hitting the ball hard, so they always choose to play it safe.
So where does the necessary confidence to swing hard come from?
Part of it will come from working on their swing so that they’re mechanically able to hit the ball with the sweet spot of the bat on a semi-consistent basis.
But having a mechanically correct swing is only half the battle.
They must take a mechanically correct swing  AND make the bat go fast through the hitting zone!
The confidence to do the second part, with 100% certainty comes from us, his parents and coaches.  
If we:
1) Encourage him to take risks
2) Celebrate aggressive swings and misses
3) Celebrate competitive at-bats, even ones that end in striking out
4) NEVER make him feel bad about swinging at a bad pitch…
then we are putting him in the correct mindset to give himself a chance to become a good, or even, great hitter.
This is NOT a “way to go, you struck out, everybody gets a trophy” coaching technique designed to make sure our kids never feel failure. Rather, it’s actually a completely new definition of “failure.” We need them to understand that swinging aggressively and striking out is in fact NOT failure and there’s nothing to feel bad about when it does happen.  Failure, in youth hitting, is simply defined as “not trying.”
Of course we want them to hit the ball hard every at bat, but that’s just not realistic; please reference back to the first “truth” I said in this blog…”Hitting is extremely difficult for every player, at every level.”

What we really want is for them to give themselves the best chance to hit the ball hard every bat.  And that happens when they take aggressive swings that are free of fear from missing and striking out.  

That aggressive attitude is absolutely one we can teach by helping them look at their at-bat the right way.  It is also an attitude that we can rob them of by reacting in ways that reinforce their own fears about the emotional pain of swinging and missing / striking out.

As as I say to my lesson students, “If you were supposed to hit the ball every time you swing, they would change the rules to ‘One Strike And You’re Out!”  
Let’s make 2017 a season free of fear and full of risk taking!

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