It was a late-night phone call Patricia Smith was happy to be on.
A freshman catcher was going through a slump at the plate during summer baseball, and he wanted the opinion of his high school coach. Cue Smith, who is the junior varsity baseball coach at Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Virginia.
“He’s a 4.2 GPA student, so he’s overthinking for one,” Smith said.
Smith, who isn’t coaching this summer, had watched her player the game before he contacted her. She knew the struggles he was going through. The player’s posture was all out of whack and his shoulders were leaning over and out of place.
“Every motion that he makes moving forward is affecting the muscle memory that he had already developed, but worse than that, it’s causing weaknesses and other movements of muscles to occur,” Smith said. “For example, leaning over too forward, then his head’s going to automatically move because he’s only using one eye in order to see the ball on the contact point. He’s got to move his head, so he has to rush to do that. When he rushes to do that, now the head’s coming up past the shoulder and he’s not seeing the ball at all.”
Smith and the player spoke until 2:30 a.m. trying to hash out the issues. The kid sent Smith some photos his dad had snapped of his swing.
“He called me this afternoon at 3 o’clock and he had went out to the batting cages. He had talked to his dad and told him everything we had talked about,” Smith said. “He said, ‘Coach, you got me through it.’ I said, ‘No. You got yourself through it.’ You’ve got to let these kids think they’re doing it for themselves.”
Smith, who has coached for 44 years, had to get her player back to the swing he was used to. The swing his body was used to. Smith uses muscle memory as a major component for player development on her team. Muscle memory is especially important in hitting, Smith said.
For about the first three weeks of every season, Smith has her players go through hitting stages. Smith works for about seven minutes at a time with each player individually.
First, Smith wants to make sure the player’s posture is correct and the stomach muscles are being engaged, because that’s what holds the core tight. The player has to feel their posture and keep their head up.
“We start out with that primary posture positioning and then we work the swing until I see their posture stays consistent,” Smith said. “Once the swing moves through that, walking it through, then we’ll move to a slow swing.”
It’s a repetitive swinging motion before moving over to a tee. Smith adjusts the tee to the optimal hitting height for each individual player.
“I’m consistently watching, so whenever they alter anything in their process, I point it out to them,” Smith said. “I don’t just say what you did. I ask them, ‘What do you think changed?’ So I cause them to think. In order to think they also have to feel, so they can actually identify, because there’s different muscle groups as we know.”
From the tee, the player moves to a Hit-A-Away swing trainer. Smith loves having her players use that device.
“The ball coming back is not as quick of course as the pitch coming in, but it gives them timing and it forces them to react a little quicker,” Smith said. “If they follow their swing through and complete their swing and drive the ball, they know the ball’s coming back. Now they have to get back into a position, and if they quickly react, let the muscle memory carry it back to where it left. Once they feel that occur, then they become very confident in their motion and their swing becomes a little more consistent.”
After finishing up on the Hit-A-Away, the player is ready to face live pitching. When a player moves to pitching off the mound, Smith begins to work with the next kid. However, Smith is in a location where she can witness how the hitter is doing at the plate.
Smith will have her players cycle through the hitting stages daily. The only time Smith will revisit the stages is if a player changes something in his swing and he needs to get back on track.
“There’s a lot of things that occur with watching a game,” Smith said. “People will watch another hitter, especially a pro hitter and they’ll adjust their stance or change their position of legs or hands or something because they saw someone else do it.”