Ah, the crisp warmth of springtime temperatures.
The birds are returning, chirruping their songs. The trees are starting to bloom.
And I can almost hear the glorious ping of aluminum bats from youth league baseball fields all over town.
I say “almost hear,” because for a lot of young players, they won’t produce that sound very often. Sadly, for many of them, they’ve been drilled with the worst five words ever spoken in youth baseball:
“Get your back elbow up!”
Volunteer coaches usually shout that because they heard it when they were kids. Some youngsters are athletic and strong enough to overcome such bad advice. However, for most kids who are just developing a feel for the game, “Get your back elbow up!” only makes the hardest thing in sports—hitting a moving ball with a round bat—that much harder.
Youth coaches, if you really want to develop the kids on your team, stop saying those words.
First, let’s start with the basics.
The only thing that connects a kid to a baseball bat is the grip. If that’s wrong, nothing works. However, the grip gets little to no attention from volunteer coaches (even though it’s the first thing that should be taught).
When you grip a baseball bat, you should hold it so the second knuckles (your “knocking knuckles” – the ones you use to knock on a door) should be aligned as much as possible. This grip allows a kid to pick up bat speed through the hitting zone, make better contact with the ball, and follow through to drive the ball deep into the field.
Take a moment and grip an imaginary bat, making sure to line up your “knocking knuckles.” Now, move your hands into the hitting position in front of your back shoulder. In that position, try following the archaic advice of “Get your back elbow up!”
As you lift your back elbow, watch as the knuckles on your top hand rotate out of position. Keep in mind, you’re an adult. You might be able to compensate with your adult-sized hands, almost keeping your grip in the right spot. Kids can’t do that.
In essence, “Get your back elbow up!” only handcuffs kids. It destroys their ability to use their wrists, swing the bat naturally, and pick up speed through the hitting zone—which is crucial to success at the plate.
“Get your back elbow up!” is a perfect example of how bad habits are formed, and bad habits are hard to break, driving a lot of kids away from the joy of the game.
Failure isn’t fun.
The whole “back elbow” thing came about decades ago when kids were forced to swing bats that were way too big and heavy for them (here’s a great piece on that subject). What our dads were really trying to tell us with their bad advice was, “Get your bat head up.” That’s not bad hitting instruction, but “Get your bat head up” doesn’t make a lot of sense to young kids, so coaches started chanting the elbow mantra … and unfortunately, it somehow stuck.
If you want to improve a kid’s ability to hit a baseball, stop using those five awful words and, instead, start using these instead:
“Line up your pointer fingers.”
Grab your imaginary bat one more time and line up your “knocking knuckles.” Now, while still holding your bat, point both of your index fingers. They should be pointing in the same direction.
Years ago, I coached a big, strong kid who was struggling at the plate. Even when he made contact, the ball barely dribbled through the infield. By now, you can probably guess why. He’d been coached to lift that back elbow. His grip was completely handcuffed, and he could do little more than slap at the ball.
“Barry,” I started reminding him as he stepped into the batter’s box, “line up your pointer fingers.” He did, rotating his hands into the proper position, and was soon crushing the ball.
Barry made the All-Star team that year and delivered some critical hits for his team … all because he unlearned the bad instruction that’s still being shouted on youth baseball fields all over America.
“Get your back elbow up!”
Psst. Hey, kid. Ignore that advice. Check your grip instead.
Line up your pointer fingers.
Now, swing away.
I can already hear that glorious ping!
Share this with the parents and coaches in your world. They’ll thank you!
Bert’s book, X-Plan Parenting is available wherever books are sold.