The following is an excerpt from Softball Skills & Drills, Second Edition (Human Kinetics, 2011), written by Judi Garman, one of the most successful coaches in college softball history and the winner of 7 national championships as a player and coach; and Michelle Gromacki, the head coach of Cal State Fullerton softball, one of the most prestigious programs in the nation.
Softball Skills & Drills
The stride is a step toward the pitcher with the front foot as the pitch is delivered (see attached figure). It serves as a timing mechanism for the swing and brings the body to a balanced foundation to hit from. During the stride, the batter must maintain balance. Therefore, the step is short—only 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm)! The hitter does not want her center of gravity or head to move. The stride should be a glide or slide forward toward the pitcher. Key words for the stride are stay centered, short, soft, and eyebrows level. The front toe stays closed, with soft pressure on the inside ball of the foot, and the head moves little or not at all. During the stride, the hips are cocked slightly; the front shoulder, hip, and knee are turned slightly toward the catcher. The player can think of her belly button as the lens of a camera that is pointed at the catcher. Weight remains on the inside of the back foot. Have batters hold the bat on their belly button to check their turn back. On the stride, the weight stays on the back leg. The knee is over the back foot and does not turn. The player can practice the correct form by placing a chair against the back side of the back knee. She strides while making sure that the back leg stays in contact with the chair. The batter must focus on the release point during the stride. The stride must be consistent and to the same spot on every pitch, regardless of pitch location, because the player starts the stride before she can identify what pitch is coming.
Timing determines when the batter steps. The step should be initiated early enough to be slow and deliberate, not jerky. As the pitcher goes forward (or the front knee goes up), the hitter lifts the front heel, the front knee turns in, and the weight and hands go back. The stepping foot should be down right before the pitch is released, allowing enough time for the batter to feel balanced and to complete the swing. The front heel must be down before the ball is within 10 feet (3 m) of the batter. The batter can still hit the ball if she steps too early, but she cannot hit it if she steps too late. Beginners often commit during the windup. As players practice and develop quicker hands, they learn to delay their commitment to the stride until they can clearly see the ball. Remember that once the batter strides forward and plants the front toe, the toe will start to open up on its own when the batter starts her swing. It is natural then for the hips, knees, and toe to follow each other. Coaches should videotape their players and show them the timing element and what it means to be late or early. The coach may ask a batter, “Where are you getting late?” and “How can you get on time?”
On the stride, the hands go back to the launch position so that the bat is behind the back leg. As when using a hammer, golf club, or tennis racket, the player must first go back in order to generate the stretch (referred to as loading) and power needed to go forward (think of winding a rubber band to create torque). The torso, hands, and arms go back as one unit. In softball, the hands go back only 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm). The farther the hands go from center, the longer and slower the swing. The batter cannot hit a ball above the hands, so the hands stay at the top of the strike zone. (If hitters drop their hands, they can never hit a rise ball.) As the hands go back, they cock as if preparing to hammer a nail with the top hand. Cocking is not a hitch (i.e., a drop of the hands). The end of the bat will come close to the head, but the player must be careful not to wrap the bat around behind her. If the hitter takes the bat back too far, her body will twist, and her shoulders will come off line. The arms are bent in a 90-degree position with both elbows pointed down. The head does not move, and the shoulders remain level. The hands stay close to the body. The closer the hands are to the body (and the center of gravity), the faster the body can rotate, producing faster bat speed. Think of a figure skater making a fast, tight spin.
Some hitters perform better with the no-stride method of hitting. This method is simple, and it eliminates the problems created by poor striding mechanics. With this method, the batter begins in a balanced position with the feet about bat-length apart and the front toe closed. The batter rotates her torso slightly rearward (belly button to catcher) as she stretches the rubber band. As the batter brings her front knee inward, the front foot stays at the same angle and does not move from the starting position. This rotation will cause the front heel to rise up, putting the hitter in the same position as the batter who strides. The heel is then dropped to trigger the swing. (The batter should not just lift her foot up and put it down in one motion.) The rest of the swing is identical to the stride method. The no-stride method makes it easy for the hitter to maintain good balance, to keep the heels in line, and to achieve optimum stride length. Because there is little head movement and because good balance is maintained, hitters who use the no-stride method are not easily fooled by an off-speed pitch.
Hip Rotation and Pivot
The batter strides first and then rotates the hips. Dropping the front heel triggers the swing. These are two movements—a stride and then a pivot. The batter pushes hard against the inside of the back foot, then pivots hard on the ball of the back foot and drives (pops) the back hip into and against a rigid front side. As the front foot starts to receive the weight transfer, the front leg stiffens. This phase is a ballistic and aggressive rotational push forward with movement slightly up and out. The back heel comes up, the foot releases, and the weight goes forward off the back leg. The lower the back heel is, the more weight stays back; coaches must emphasize getting the back heel up (while guarding against overrotation)! The back foot and back knee pivot toward the pitcher with the back leg in an L position. The hands do not move. The body rotates around an imaginary pole running through the middle of the body. The belly button rotates from looking at the catcher to looking directly at the contact spot and no farther. Contrary to what many a young player has been told, the batter does not squish a bug with the back foot; doing so does not allow the back foot to transfer the weight to the front foot.
The batter must stay connected and flow into the ball as she sequentially unlocks her body parts. The back hip moves into the firm front side, then the hands follow and the bat lags behind. Note that the hands do not come forward first to drive into the ball. The stronger leg muscles yank the smaller muscles (hands and arms) through the strike zone. The chest is on the ball. The goal is to go from slow loading to quick explosion. The hitter must be in a balanced position (50 percent of weight on each foot) to exert maximum force at contact. A straight line running down from the back ear to the pivot foot should pass through the shoulder, hip, and knee. If a hitter does not rotate around this stationary axis, she is lunging.
Called “a must-have for every player” by Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Cup champion Jenny Topping, Softball Skills & Drills, Second Edition is now available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at www.HumanKinetics.com. The book is packed with new content, including more than 200 full-color photos and illustrations.