There’s an old saying that hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports. It makes sense: Batters are essentially asked to slap at a ball with a thin piece of wood. Throw in the fear of getting nailed by said hurling rock, and you can understand the challenges coaches face trying to coax young Little Leaguers into the batter’s box.
As with almost everything in life, though, the earlier you learn to swing a bat the easier it is. But how do you go about introducing the hardest thing to do in sports to a pre-schooler? It turns out, there’s an easy process to hitting, and it starts with building a foundation of simple movements. To learn that process, and break down how to teach a kid to hit, Fatherly talked to AJ Arroyo, a hitting coach at The Baseball Center in New York.
Start With a Plastic Bat and Softer Ball
Much as you would when teaching a kid to catch, it’s best to start with a softer (even plastic) ball that won’t hurt if they get hit. Same goes for swinging a bat ⏤ no need to break out the aluminum Easton just yet. Start with a plastic tee- or Wiffle-ball bat that’s light and (relatively) harmless to swing . You don’t want a toddler swinging a metal bat at hardballs right away.
Demonstrate the Proper Grip
Most kids have no idea how to hold a baseball bat when they first pick one up. They grab the barrel, they spread their hands far apart, they swing it like an ax. Demonstrating the proper grip is key. Show them how to hold the bat with two hands near the base, so that the front of their fists are lined up, with their dominant hand on top. The bat should be held over their back shoulder (but not touching it) at about a 45-degree angle from the ground, and both their elbows should be out — the old “chicken wing” move. Keeping the elbows up helps them load up a swing and come down at the right angle. Spend a few minutes swinging the bat — both in slow motion and at full speed — so they can see the action firsthand before trying it themselves.
Focus on Footwork
The most important parts of hitting are the simple mechanics that make up a swing, says Arroyo. Handing a kid a bat and telling them to whack away at things won’t help much. Instead, you’ve got to take it slow. Arroyo first teaches a kid where to stand in the batter’s box. The classic mistake is to stand right over the plate, or even on top of it. For a good stance, though, make sure their feet are shoulder-width apart, and they’re standing roughly in the middle of the box. If they’re hitting off a tee, which they should be to start, have the ball lined up roughly with their front foot, or a little behind it. Make sure their knees are bent, and they’re standing square to the plate, not off at an angle. When their arms are extended, the sweet spot of the bat should be lined up with the ball. Once they’re positioned correctly, Arroyo makes sure that they’re keeping their balance.
Lock and Load
If you’re working with a 3-year-old this is a good time to let them swing away. They’ll likely use all arms but you want them to at least make contact and get excited about hitting it. Remind them to keep their eyes on the ball and hands together as they swing. If the plastic bat’s still a bit too big or unwieldy, have them choke up.
For older kids, focus on mechanics. At the start of an at-bat, most of a player’s weight should be on their back foot, as the front one will take a step forward. Arroyo says you should teach a batter to load their weight onto their back foot, shifting their hands back to “load” or “cock” their body to eventually release a swing. As always, you’ll want to demonstrate this a few times so they can follow your lead.
Stride and Swing
The next part of the swing is a simple step forward. Some batters leg kick, some batters just slide their foot forward. The step forward from the front foot (left foot for a right-handed hitter, right foot for a lefty) shifts the weight forward as your hips rotate and hands swing around. Arroyo says to focus on getting the batter to bring their hands to the ball. The swing should take the bat from over their back shoulder, all the way through, and around to over their front shoulder. The follow-through is important, as that’s what’ll get the ball off the ground (and eventually, out of the park). Here’s a good instructional video to walk you through it.
Use the Tee
All of the beginning mechanics, Arroyo says, should be practiced on a tee. “This gives them a good start to try to master and control those movements.” You should focus on getting your kids to hit consistently off the tee without knocking it over, using proper swing mechanics. Make sure they’re not chopping down on the ball and finishing high, over their lead shoulder on the swing. If your kid is hacking down the tee too often, it means their swing is coming up on the baseball too much, like a golf swing. Have them focus on keeping that back elbow up, and swinging their hands down and flat through the ball — not chopping it like an ax. This video shows a really cool two-tee exercise to help train kids out of this. Focus on flattening out that swing if they’re coming under the ball too much.
Move to Soft Toss
Once they can hit consistently off the tee, you can move into soft toss and other drills before eventually graduating into full batting practice. Standing close to the opposite side of the plate, lightly toss underhanded balls to the batter. It’s best to use a softball or a Wiffle ball for this so don’t get whacked by a comebacker, and you’ll generally want to keep them waist high ⏤ about where the top of the tee was positioned.
Consistency is Key
From there, it’s all about practice and consistency. Baseball is all about contact: even the best hitters only really get hits 30 percent of the time. But the more often you’re making contact with the ball, the more often those hits will come. And if you drill the simple mechanics, you’re kid will have the bat cracking in no time, just like this 2-year-old hitting phenom.