We have been running a coaches training and development program for youth leagues for nearly 6 years now. The most common skill we get asked about is hitting. Players are having trouble hitting in the games and it is causing them to be less successful.
From doing what we do for the past 6 years, we know the answer without even seeing a team practice:
The load is by far the most common hitting mistake in youth baseball today. Some might agree and some might disagree. You can work all you want on swing path and extension, but if you are not “ready” to hit the ball, the swing really doesn’t matter.
When we make our way to each team in the league to complete the program, we only spend about 15-20 minutes on hitting. We put a couple balls on the tee and have the players swing away while explaining tee location (another common coaching mistake). We then point out to the coaches how each player will rare back (load) and then hit the ball.
Next, we follow tee work up with underhand front toss. We put the coaches behind the net, and this is where they begin to see the issue. I will start my motion to toss the ball and what do we see at the plate?
The VAST majority of players just stand there stagnant until they actually see the ball in the air. Because there is no move back (load) they typically jump forward to the ball. They might be able to get away with this at the beginning, but once there is some speed to the pitch you will start to see a big drop off in their hitting.
So, what do you want to see in a load?
You want to see a slight weight shift to the hitters back side, or back leg. All this is occurring BEFORE THE PITCHER THROWS THE BALL. Everyone’s load is different. Some have a long and slow load, like Evan Longoria. While others have a short a quick load, like Albert Pujols. Length of load usually depends on stance. Not to get into too much detail, but if your stance is far away from your launch position, you will have a longer load (and vice versa).
How To Fix The Load
You always start by training simple, no matter the age.
STEP 1: We would initially start by doing our half tennis ball drill without a player swinging, or even holding a bat. The objective here is to feel the proper way to load into their back side.
It is always amusing to us when we tell a coach and player this is how you start and they look at you thinking: “Really, that’s like what you do for tee ballers.” But if we were to tell them that a player who makes $25 million a year does this very same thing in a mirror, do you think it would change their mind? Remember, it is the simple, “boring” things that typically get us better.
STEP 2: We would then move to adding a swing to it. At first you can do dry swings. After a few dry swings, starting hitting the ball off the tee. Players usually don’t have an issue with step 1 and 2.
STEP 3: We now move to front toss utilizing the same half tennis ball drill. Front toss means that the coach puts a screen in front of him/her while the hitter is standing at the plate. The coach then firmly underhands the ball to the hitter while making sure they are staying behind the screen for protection. The only exception here is that you do not want them to swing yet. This is called Tracking. Typically tracking is done off of live pitching, but in this case we will do it in toss to get the individual to feel the proper timing of the load. When do we load? We like to say: “When my arm goes back, you go back (load).”
STEP 4: You can then move to a swing at this point. At the beginning, I usually do not throw the ball if I do not see the hitter load. Coaches, you can always help adjust the players timing at this point, telling them to load later or earlier.
STEP 5: Then we move to live player pitch WITHOUT a bat: Tracking. At this point you will see a good amount of players forget what they have learned and become statues again. This is due to fear of the baseball. What I do in this situation is stand right behind the batter with a glove and my throwing hand on their shirt. As the pitcher starts to throw, I start to pull them back into a load using their shirt. Then I have the glove to catch the baseball in case it is coming at the batter. This gives the batter confidence and peace of mind. Again I usually do this when there is a fear of the baseball. If there is no fear, you can let the player do it by him or herself.
STEP 6: Finally, we move into live coach pitch with a swing. We treat this the same as toss. As a coach, if I don’t see them load as my arm goes back, I don’t throw it. You can also help individuals at this point by verbally telling them to load when they should. This helps them to understand the timing of it.
This process has helped many individual players and coaches. It might be a lot, but if you can get a player fully ready to swing, they will be more successful, and therefore have more fun.