For the last six or seven years, Dave Howard has used his favorite hitting drill to work with young players.
The Park City (Utah) High School assistant coach loves the soccer ball drill. It teaches bat path drive, some power drive, and it helps his players strive for the same ball rotation on every swing.
The drill is pretty simple. Players take cuts at soccer balls off the tee. But that one simple drill can speak volumes about a player’s swing.
“It’s instant gratification if you’re doing it right,” said Howard, who has been coaching for over a decade. “You can see it dead on.”
Generally for each practice, the Park City coaching staff breaks up its players into groups of two or three and has them cycle through four hitting stations. The players spend about 15 minutes at each station.
One of the stations is the soccer ball drill, which takes place in a batting cage. While one player is hitting off a tee, another player is retrieving the soccer balls and rolling them back to the third player who is setting up the tee.
The soccer balls — Howard usually uses four for the drill — are slightly deflated to soften them up.
“There’s a power stroke in there and it’s easier on your wrists and forearms and elbows than beating on a tire,” Howard said. “That was one of the reasons we kind of came up with that idea.”
Each player will get about four or five swings before allowing another group member to take some cuts.
“As the bat strikes the ball, as it leaves the tee, you can watch the rotation of the ball and see whether (the player) sliced it, hit it squared up or rolled over on it, just by the rotation of the ball,” Howard said. “If they hit it straight on, it gets back rotation and it rises. If they comes inside and they kind of pull off of it and slices it, well then for a right-handed batter it would spin toward right field. For a left-hander, it would spin toward left field. If they roll over on it, you’ll see overspin and it will hook on him.”
Howard will walk around to each station and offer advice after watching his hitters. He’ll make sure his players are swinging correctly.
“We work with them on how the hands are getting ahead of the ball so you strike it straight on and get into the bat plane early,” Howard said. “If you get in the bat plane early, the ball should rotate straight backwards.”
Howard really enjoys the drill because his players can know if they are swinging properly just by watching the ball.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, when kids especially can see what you’re talking about,” Howard said. “You’ll hit and say, ‘See it? Look at that rotation.’ And you see it, ‘That’s the one we want.’ Or it will spin off and you go, ‘OK, why did it spin that way? You tell me.’”
Howard is a big proponent of questioning kids to make sure they comprehend everything that is being taught to them by the coaches.
“I say, ‘What did you just do in that play?’” Howard asks. “They’ll tell me, ‘What do you mean?’ I tell them, ‘What did you do once you had the ball? Well, I checked the guy at second and I went to first. Is that the right thing to do? Yes.’ I want them to confirm with conviction that they did the right thing. ... A lot of times guys only question kids when they goof up.”
Howard tells his players that when they aren’t hitting and are either retrieving the soccer balls or setting them up they should watch their teammate’s swing.
“The best way to learn is to be an instructor,” Howard said. “‘Watch his hands, is they getting the nob through the ball? Are the hands going ahead or is they pulling off of it and rolling over? Watch him, and when they does it, make sure you don’t do it when your time comes up.’”
At the beginning of each season, Howard will purchase a bunch of small notebooks and hand them out to his players. they wants them to jot down notes as they go through practices about things they have done well and things they need to work on.
“‘I was dipping and cutting through the ball. Oh, I got my hands back and had a good bat path,’” Howard said. “Write it down. I tell the kids to go home, have their dinner, do your homework and when you lay down at night read through your notes from that day, turn out the lights and go to sleep. It’s just instilling that stuff.”