Season Prep: See the Ball

Written By Charity Butler

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Season Prep See The Ball

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The start of a new season is upon us. At this point, hitters must prioritize performance over perfecting the swing. Learn a simple adjustment in tracking that can drastically increase performance for hitters of all experience levels. See it in and drive it out!

The spring season is finally here! As hitters in preparation for spring play, the focus must shift from off-season detail work to in-season performance prep. The beginning of a new season is not the time to introduce radically new approaches to hitting. The best players will implement major changes in the off-season. Now is the time to make broadly focused tweaks that will improve performance.

To perform well, hitters must see the ball. Sometimes hitters work so hard to master mechanics that they forget to actually watch the ball from the pitcher’s release to contact. No matter the age or skill level, a hitter will only generate consistent positive results when she is tracking the ball effectively.

When it comes to tracking (watching the ball), two main obstacles exist: (1) physical breakdowns and (2) focus breakdowns.

In this article, we will focus on the key physical components to effective tracking. Physical breakdowns are seemingly minor fundamental mistakes that when corrected drastically increase the likelihood of success. In order to track the ball, a hitter must send the brain the best information possible. Utilizing the most accurate information requires hitters to effectively use both eyes.

Many hitters while in their stances are looking at the pitcher out of the corners of their eyes. The back eye (right for righties and left for lefties) is often straining to look past the bridge of the nose. This mistake is subtle and relatively easy to fix. The improved results are absolutely worth the slight discomfort necessary to make the adjustment.

While in the stance, be sure the head is turned completely toward the pitcher, so the pitcher is clearly seen out of both eyes. The head must stay level, as well. If the neck is not flexible enough to turn both eyes directly toward the pitcher, stretching daily will increase the neck’s range of motion.

Once the ball is released and begins traveling toward the plate, follow the ball with the nose. If the nose is pointing toward the ball, both eyes will have a clear line of sight and will be providing the brain the best available information.

At the point of contact, the hitter should take a mental picture. The ball is in focus and everything else fades away. In the words of an eight year old hitting student, “When you are hitting, the only world is you and the ball.”

How profound! Everything surrounding a hitter becomes faint, except the bright yellow ball.

The head should stay down and “locked in” at the point of contact. The hitter will follow the ball in with her nose and eyes and then keep the nose and eyes down all the way through contact. If performed correctly, she will see the ball leave the point of contact in her peripheral vision.

Following the ball with the head after contact causes two major problems: Decreased consistency and decreased power.

Concerning consistency, most hitters anticipate where the ball is going to be after contact and dart the eyes toward the field before even connecting with the ball. As a result, the eyes do not follow the ball all the way to contact and the likelihood of consistent connection decreases.

When it comes to power, keeping the head down at the point of contact creates a stronger body position. Try this test: With a bat in hand, go to the point of contact with head down and freeze. Then, lift the chin and look out toward center field (while the bat stays at contact). Which posture feels strongest? Keeping the head down and creating a strong, balanced posture will help increase the ability to drive the ball with authority.

When executed correctly, the head will follow the ball from the pitcher’s hand to the point of contact and then stay at contact during the follow through. Developing muscle memory for this motion requires focused repetition. Begin by practicing on a tee.

Even when hitting in the cage or at a small net station, the hitter assumes her typical game-like stance position, with head and eyes fully facing the pitcher. She then visualizes release and in her mind’s eye sees the ball traveling toward home plate. She begins her negative movement (load) and proceeds smoothly through the swing.

Once her eyes reach the ball and tee, however, she “locks in”. She becomes determined to keep her head in this position throughout the remainder of the swing. The hitter should explode through the ball while her head, nose and eyes stay fixed on the tee. As she connects, the ball should leave her site.

Incorporating this minor change in every practice swing will build game-like routines that will increase performance. Players will consistently practice the head movement required to track the pitch from the pitcher’s release. They will also create a habit of head stability, which is needed at contact to increase power and consistency.

To take tracking to the next level, watch the short Ubersense video “Avoid Pulling Out” by clicking the image provided. Most hitters, when left unchecked, tend to pull away from home plate, which causes the head to pull out and the body to pull up and away from the ball. The simple drill provided helps players feel their direction and builds muscle memory that will increase both power and consistency.

See the ball in, and drive the ball out!

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Extension Increases Batting Averages

Written By Charity Butler

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Extension Increases Batting Averages

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Extend—to stretch out; draw out to full length

A key component for consistent and powerful hitting is extension. The majority of hitters rarely reach full, maximized extension.

Extension in the context of hitting means keeping the meat of the barrel in the hitting zone as long as possible. The hitting zone begins at the point where the hitter can first reach the incoming pitch to the point that the ball completely passes the hitter on its way to the catcher’s mitt.

Extension creates whip! For inspiration, watch Willow Smith’s music video “Whip My Hair.” The video is fun and provides a valuable visual. Go ahead and watch it on YouTube now.

Whip is created by reaching full extension, and extension requires letting go. As hitters, we have to trust our hands. Like whipping your hair, trusting your hands is uncomfortable at first. The improved results produced by full extension, however, are well worth the momentary awkwardness.

To keep the topic simple, we will begin by focusing on pitches thrown down the middle of home plate. These same concepts can be easily adjusted to apply to pitches of any location.

For pitches thrown down the middle of the plate, the hitting zone extends toward the pitcher. Therefore, hitters should keep the bat barrel whipping toward the pitcher for as long as possible.

With my students, the first concept we solidify is the Power Line, an imaginary line drawn from the back tip of home plate all the way through center field.

Once a hitter reaches full extension, her barrel will actually point down her Power Line toward center field, before any roll of the wrist or finish takes place.

Many hitters are so concerned with finishing hard that they pull themselves away from their Power Line before reaching full extension. When this happens, hitters physically work hard, but they will not experience maximum results.

They are working against themselves and cutting the swing short. The barrel does not stay in the hitting zone as long as it should. This decreases consistency.

Consistency is quite simple: when the bat stays where the ball is going to be for a longer period of time, the hitter is more likely to make good contact.

The opposite is also true. When the bat only stays where the ball crosses (hitting zone) for a short period of time, the hitter’s likelihood of solid connection decreases.

In short, maximizing extension increases batting averages.

Pull hitters may hit the ball hard but, typically, do not maximize their consistency. Pulling the ball often is a sign of ineffective extension. If a hitter pulls pitches that are thrown outside or over the middle of home plate, her extension is usually misdirected. When a pull hitter reaches full extension, the point of her bat is usually directed more toward the foul line than toward center field.

On the other hand, some pull hitters never reach extension. The arms stay bent throughout the entire swing, and the hands are never fully released. This mistake, also known as “alligator arms,” is quite common.

Overcoming alligator arms, like whipping your hair, requires getting uncomfortable. Throwing the hands away from the body through center field demands trust. Letting go through the power line can be awkward and unnerving.

To whip your hair, you must release it away from the body. This requires “letting your hair down”… literally. This seeming silliness can also prove a bit uncomfortable at first but can mimic the trust required to develop full extension. Try it right now! Seriously. Whip your hair!

Feel the release required to whip your hair and now apply that feeling to the swing. Let go through the Power Line. Release the hands and the bat head to whip through the zone. For a video example and drill to help achieve this whip, click the Charity’s Drill icon.

Although adjusting extension is initially uncomfortable for hitters, the dividends pay huge rewards. Hitters can gain both power and consistency in a matter of minutes.

Misdirected extension or lack of extension altogether keeps the bat barrel from staying long through the hitting zone. Making the adjustment allows players to immediately hit the ball harder and more often.

To simplify the concept, picture the Power Line. Think about starting the swing through the Power Line and staying on the line as long as possible.

Hitting more ground balls is sometimes an initial result of this change. If the length and direction of extension is improving, the ground balls should be hit toward the middle of the field. Allow time and practice reps for the changes to become more natural.

Once the hitter is comfortable with the extension adjustment, simply add the concept of punching through the pitcher. Repeated ground balls are usually the result of the hands rolling too soon. If a hitter punches through the pitcher, keeping hands palm up/palm down as long as possible through the hitting zone and all the way to full extension, those ground balls up the middle become line drives that burn the center fielder.

To achieve full extension, generate whip and increase the batting average get comfortable with being uncomfortable!

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Strengths vs. Weaknesses:
Where to Spend Your Time

Written By Charity Butler

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Strengths Vs Weaknesses Where To Spend Your Time

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The 2013 NFCA Convention was absolutely incredible! The best and brightest in the fastpitch world come together annually for this action-packed event.

This  convention featured a talk by University of Florida Head Coach, Tim Walton, entitled “The Working Relationship Between Coaches and Hitters”. His words of wisdom were not focused on the fundamentals of hitting but on communication: communication between hitters and coaches and hitters’ internal conversations with themselves.

Many of his statements were simple, yet quite profound! I will share his thoughts and expand with some of my own.

“Work on strengths, not only on weaknesses.” –Tim Walton

ESPN the Magazine has analyzed high profile athletes, seeking to determine if top level competitors are, as most would claim, over-paid. Through pages and pages of statistical analysis and explanation, the experts concluded that top athletes are actually under, not over-paid.

Rationalizing that someone can be underpaid by $ millions per year to hit a baseball or catch a football sounds absurd. The answer, however, lies in the basic principles of economics: supply and demand.

You see, ESPN Magazine determined, “the more unusual the skill and the harder it is to replace, the higher its price will be.”

No one can consistently execute at the level which top-paid athletes perform. Their skills generate billions of dollars throughout the US and around the world, and no one can consistently do what they do.

The demand for professional sports is ever-increasing and the supply of top athletes is comparatively small. Therefore, top athletes earn top salaries.

Granted, the dollars paid and generated in female athletics are many times laughable compared to equally skilled male competitors, but do not miss the point chasing political rabbits!

Top performing athletes are usually very good at one skill or a set of related skills. A center in the NBA may hang its hat on rebounds and blocks, while a point guard earns his money handling the ball and a 3 guard finds his value in stellar 3-point shooting.

Sure, all of these players can perform all skills required in the game: dribbling, shooting, passing, rebounding, defense etc. NBA players can perform these skills at a comparatively high level. It is definitely valuable to be a well-rounded player and all around athlete. This concept applies to fastpitch softball, as well.

However, the best players have found their niche, their wheelhouse. They have fully developed their strengths.

The best quarterbacks in the world are not simultaneously the best kickers. Each player has his role and has developed his ability in one particular area to its fullest.

As hitters, we sometimes become too perfectionistic. We want every pitch to be our best pitch. We want to be the power hitter, the hitter for high average, a short game player and the base on balls leader… all at the same time! It is as if we want to be the quarterback and kicker all in one.

Yes, fundamentals are important, and yes there is a time and place to develop our weaknesses and improve skills in multiple areas. Ultimately, however, hitters must understand their strengths and develop them relentlessly.

In areas of natural advantage, cultivate those strengths to the point that no one can duplicate them. Even in the world of college recruiting for fastpitch players, “the more unusual the skill and the harder it is to replace, the higher its price will be.” –ESPN Magazine

Focusing on strengths more than weaknesses is counterintuitive but will allow players to increase their price. Hitters who can hit the ball 300 feet may strike out more than those who lead the team in on base percentage, and that is ok!

When hitters can do one thing better than anyone else, they create their niche. They make themselves irreplaceable. Riches are in niches (metaphorically speaking)! Most hitters cannot be the best at everything, but they can work to be better than anyone else at something. That area of strength could be a player’s ticket to great success.

Coach Walton pointed out that when using video analysis, most hitters are looking for mistakes in the video. Hitters can be so focused on their weaknesses that they forget to hone the strengths! When using video, be sure to look for the good in the swing, in addition to the bad.

Visualize and feel the good. File away the good aspects of the swing for recall and mental practice.

“It is not necessary to always work on something [negative],” Tim says. “Sometimes hitters can just get their reps and feel the timing.” This can allow players to fine-tune their strengths and really feel their swings.

Feeling the swing is absolutely necessary! I almost jumped out of my seat when Tim declared, “If they can’t feel it, they can’t fix it”! My Fi Hitting™ System was designed to help players feel it so they can fix it.

Hitting is not about looking like someone else or trying to fit some stereotypical mold. Hitting is about finding each individual player’s best swing. She must know herself, including her strengths and weaknesses. She must find her best swing and feel the thrill of truly turning it loose at the plate.

“If I tell a hitter what to do, they may not be as good. They know themselves better!” –Tim Walton

Absolutely, there is a time and place for coaches to guide, direct and coach, but all too often hitters become caught up doing what they are told. They try desperately to improve their areas of weakness, while ignoring their God-given advantages.

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Pop Flies: Dropping Hands Are NOT The Problem

Written By Charity Butler

Pop Flies Dropping Hands Is Not The Problem

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When interviewing a new hitting student, I ask a series of quick-fire questions to understand as much about each player as possible before working on new hitting ideas or techniques. Most hitters can articulate at least three weaknesses or struggles they possess, and have difficulty recalling any of their strengths.

Players are so constantly told what not-to-do or what to avoid that they become fixated on the negative. Many of my new students describe themselves pessimistically by saying, “I drop my hands a lot.”

Hitting a fastpitch softball is one of the most difficult skills to perform in any sport. The reaction time allotted a hitter from the pitcher’s release to contact with the ball is almost instantaneous. Trying to decipher the hands’ path during this rapid succession of movements is seemingly impossible.

As hitters, thinking too much about our hands is a source of frustration and stress. This causes tension in the mind and body and creates additional problems. To be successful, hitters cannot guide or aim the bat barrel with rigid movements. They must be free to trust the hands and let them fly through the hitting zone.

Further, when the focus in a hitter’s mind becomes, “Don’t drop my hands,” she is mentally practicing what she wants to avoid. Our minds work visually, disregarding the “don’t”. When a hitter hears or internally repeats, “Don’t drop.” What is she seeing in her mind? Dropping her hands!

Dropping and hitting pop flies as a result is a common problem at most every level of play. The solution, however, is quite simple. Dropping the hands is usually a symptom of a different problem: poor posture. Changing a hitter’s posture quite often eliminates or dropping.

Watch this 47 second video for a quick explanation of Punching Posture at Contact:

http://www.ubersense.com/video/view/VAVX6ywt

When hitters feel for themselves the power and consistency generated through a tall, strong and balanced punching posture, they can visualize proper form and work toward achieving it.

Rarely will a hitter drop her hands while maintaining a strong punching posture. Most often, the hands drop as a result of the entire upper body leaning (or dropping) back toward the catcher.

Correcting a posture problem is much less tedious than changing hand movements. Hitters tend to feel the difference in strong and weak posture immediately and can make the adjustment with ease. Once posture is corrected, the hands begin to work more effectively without additional thought or worry.

Another beneficial visual for hitters is what I call, “the pole”. While in her hitting stance, I encourage a hitter to picture in her mind a pole running vertically through her body, from the crown of her head to the dirt or turf beneath. I then challenge the hitter to keep her body in line with the pole throughout her entire swing.

Staying in line with the pole only applies to leaning forward toward the pitcher or backward toward the catcher. A nature body tilt down and in toward the hitting zone is natural and necessary. This tilt, though, will happen naturally.

Much like the idea of punching posture if a hitter can picture, and more importantly feel, staying in line with the pole she is much less likely to drop her hands and hit pop flies.

A focus on punching posture or staying within the pole equips a hitter to picture proper form. As she adopts the new concepts, “Swing like I’m punching,” or “Keep my pole,” she is visualizing a more fundamentally sound swing. She is training her mind to lead the way, so her body executes more effectively.

The top athletes in the world make intentional visualization a part of their regular training routines. We use the same part of the brain to practice mentally that we use when physically performing. Visualization does affect performance, both positively and negatively. The words we repeat and the resulting mental images they create are powerful.

In addition, a punching posture mind-set emphasizes aggression. Although improving as hitters does sometimes require scrutinizing minute details, players often shut down when overloaded with too many particulars to process. Over-thinking creates unwelcome caution. Training cautiously does not equip hitters to maximize their potential.

The best hitters build solid fundamental muscle memory and then execute with reckless abandon. Caution is not welcome! The punching posture mindset allows hitters freedom to read the pitch and react without hesitation.

Concisely, punching posture produces competent and confident hitters!

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Hot Hitting Topic: Linear vs. Rotational Hitting

Written By Charity Butler

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Hot Hitting Topic- Linear vs. Rotational Hitting

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As a hitting instructor, I am regularly asked, “What is your hitting philosophy?” Most of the time, players, parents and coaches who ask this question want to know, “Do you teach linear or rotational hitting?”

As hitters and hitting coaches, we cling tightly to our hitting philosophies. Most people are protective of their approach and their swing. As a player, I certainly did not want anyone to mess up my swing! To me, “mess up” meant changing my philosophy. Although I definitely desired to work hard and improve, I did not want anyone to drastically change my swing or my approach. Most hitters share this same protective impulse.

Before debating hitting philosophies, players must implement certain key fundamentals and practice to the extent that proper mechanics become habit. No two hitters must look the same in the box, but all highly successful hitters share mastery of some common fundamental skills.

Understand that the principles below only apply after a hitter has established a fundamentally sound swing. To answer the initial question, I do not cling to one specific hitting philosophy. As an instructor, my job is to help each hitter find her best swing.

Before discussing the two approaches in detail, we must first understand some basic terms.

Rotational Hitting focuses on Torque. Torque is a turning or twisting force. It is also classified as any force or system of forces that causes rotation.

Linear Hitting prioritizes the need for straight lines when swinging. A line is a set of points that have one dimension-length-but not the dimensions of width or height. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

To maximize we need both torque (rotational approach) and proper direction (linear approach). Keeping the bat head level and long through the hitting zone on the same plane as the softball constitutes proper direction. To utilize all the power generated by torque, hitters must properly direct that energy through the ball.

The ball travels from the pitcher toward the catcher on a line. When hitters swing and miss or miss-hit a ball, they have pulled off the line of the ball. Connecting squarely with a pitch is basically finding the line of the ball's core and staying through it. Missing wide, high or low introduces dimensions inconsistent with a line. Lines consist of length only; width and height do not exist in a line.

I have worked with hitters who take a more rotational approach and those who are comfortable with a more linear philosophy. Since hitters from both backgrounds have experienced equally successful results, why must we choose between linear and rotational hitting?

We will individually examine the two seemingly contradictory styles.

Rotational Hitting

The rotational approach generates incredible power. In my experience, however, many rotational hitters also experience decreased consistency. Hitters using this philosophy may log more home runs than the average hitter but usually collect more strike outs, as well.

When swinging with a sole focus on rotation, the bat tends to slice through the hitting zone and cut the extension short. In addition, when the focus becomes too rotational the hitter will tend to spin instead of driving through. This spinning action does generate a great deal of power, but often this power is wasted because it spins the hitter away from the ball. In many cases the head follows and tends to fly out more frequently. The upper body may also open away from the ball. If timing is not perfect, the power created is not actually used.

Linear Hitting

The linear philosophy tends to prize consistency over increased power. Linear approach hitters may tend to post higher batting averages and lower slugging percentages than many rotational hitters.

On the other hand, linear hitting allows a hitter to more efficiently and effectively use the power she generates because her movements are directed through the ball. When executed correctly, a linear swing will keep the hitters barrel in the zone much longer. The head and front shoulder can also stay locked-in on the ball. The compact swing path to contact and the increased extension in the proper direction after contact drastically increase a hitter's consistency.

Conclusion

Hitting gurus can endlessly debate hitting approaches and philosophies. Ultimately, however, it is important that a hitter understands her own swing and feels the necessary adjustments for her as an individual. Using highly technical verbiage can confuse and stifle players. Great hitters possess buy-in. They are not trying to look like another hitter but are working to implement fundamental concepts in a fashion that develops their best swing.

Instead of thinking linear or rotational, think linear and rotational! Tap into the power of rotational hitting and the consistency of the linear approach to maximize the swing. It is possible to increase both power and consistency at the same time. And is better than or!

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Should I Learn To Slap?

Written By Charity Butler

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Should I Learn To Slap

It seems everyone in the fastpitch softball world has questions about slapping: “I am pretty fast. Should I learn to slap?” “I hit left handed, so I need to slap, right?” “Am I too old to start slapping?”

Today we will help determine whether you or your athlete should learn to slap.

First of all, what is slapping? A running slap is performed from the left batter's box. The hitter moves her feet up the box (toward the pitcher) while the pitch is being delivered. She then strategically places the ball on or through the infield and takes off running to first base.

Slapping is part of the “short game” of fastpitch. The smaller diamond and shorter base distances compared to baseball make the short game, which includes both slapping and bunting, a very effective offensive weapon.

Secondly, why do players slap? Slapping is an offensive skill of finesse, rather than power. Based on individual speed capabilities, slappers attempt to place the ball in areas of the field that make it literally impossible for the defense to secure an out. Great slappers boast impressive batting averages and on base percentages.

If a slapper is quick and skilled enough, she only makes outs when she does not execute her plan. The closer left-side position, the running start, a little speed and proper placement of the ball can render a defense helpless.

Now we can address the real question: Who should learn to slap? To provide an appropriate answer, we must consider several criteria.

Speed – Is the player gifted with some natural speed? Is her speed likely to increase or decrease with age?

Young players experience variations in speed and overall coordination as they encounter growth spurts. If the player has had more speed in the past but seems to have slowed due to a growth spurt, the speed may return once her coordination catches up with her body's growth.

If a player is fast or has the promise of being fast in the future, slapping may be a valuable weapon to include in her offensive arsenal. Hitters with no speed advantage will not benefit from slapping.

Regardless of any other factors discussed, hitters with blazing speed can definitely gain an edge by learning to slap. Hitters with average to above average speed may want to consider the other ideal-slapper components below.

Right vs. Left Handed – Does the player naturally hit from the right or left side of the plate?

Natural lefties have an advantage when learning to slap. The learning curve is less steep, so the skill is usually mastered more quickly.

In addition, when a left-handed hitter/slapper steps to the plate, the defense does not know which outcome to expect. The player can utilize the short-game when the defense plays deep and swing away when they shift to cover the slap. This versatility is a powerful advantage.

On the other hand, if a player hits from the right side and only slaps/bunts from the left, the element of surprise is non-existent. The defense will know she is slapping or bunting from the left side, so the extra step gained when the defense must guess her approach does not exist. Players who hit from the right and slap from the left should possess impressive speed.

Let it also be clear that not all left-handed hitters should attempt to slap. Power hitters who have no speed will take time away from hitting practice to develop the skill of slapping. Without decent speed, slapping is ineffective.

Age – How old is the player?

It is never too young for exposure to the skill of slapping. When players are very young it is difficult to know how they will develop. Exposing them to new skills early in their softball experience can be beneficial, but they must be comfortable and possess some solid hitting and bunting fundamentals before devoting focused practice time to slapping. Do not overwhelm them with too much information too soon!

One of the greatest pieces of advice I offer players who are starting their playing careers is to hit from the left side of the plate. In the game of fastpitch, being a left-handed hitter provides many benefits. Unlike the game of baseball, hitting from the right side on the softball diamond does not provide any strategic advantages.

On the other end of the spectrum, players who choose to pursue slapping later in their careers should either be established left-handed hitters or have very impressive speed. Right handed hitters with average speed will not be super-effective slappers. Wasting time learning a marginal skill late in a playing career is not the most effective use of time or focus.

Goals – How long does the player want to stay in the game? What level of play does she desire to achieve?

If a player simply enjoys playing fastpitch softball with no prospects of playing high level travel ball or collegiate softball, she may find slapping a beneficial skill. Younger ages and lower levels of play typically struggle to effectively defend skilled slappers.

Players who desire to compete at a high level must be more focused and efficient with their training time. They should possess outstanding speed or in addition to slapping have the willingness to attempt hitting from the left side.

Is slapping the right fit for you?

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