Have you ever wondered what it would be like to swing at a 100 mph fastball? Do you feel like you’ll never be able to throw the ball over the plate with distractions all around you? Can’t figure out how you could have missed - were you too high, too low or too far away - with your swing? Wonder no more. Virtual reality (VR) can put you in those exact situations and make them, well, real. The system created by SportsImproVR will help you capture and analyze the results of your performance.
My name is Joost Bosschert, I am a passionate softball player and coach, and I’m an IT expert. I have played softball for over 20 years and have been a pitching coach for more than five years now. Two years ago I decided to use my IT experience to help softball players improve their game. I realized that the emerging technology of virtual reality (VR) would be a great tool. The result of combining my passions is SportsImproVR. In this article I will show you some on my favorite drills and what you can do to expand their benefits using our tools.
Let's start with a basic batting practice drill.
Have a coach or teammate throw balls to the hitter.
Use this drill to cover different aspects of hitting such as pitch location, decision moment and swing path.
It is important that a ball pitched to the outside of the plate be hit towards right field for a right-handed batter and left field for a left-handed batter. The reverse is true for a pitch that crosses on the inside of the plate. This is important to allow for optimal point of contact and follow through with the ball.
Timing Your Swing
A pitch on the outside part of the plate is hit later than a pitch on the inside part of the plate.
On outside pitches, the ideal point of contact is reached when the ball is halfway over the plate. If you hit an outside pitch in front of the plate (if you can reach it at all) it will be a soft popup to center field or to the infield.
For an inside pitch the point of contact should be in front of the plate. If you hit an inside pitch at the middle of the plate your hands are jammed and it will be a slow roller to the pitcher or second base.
Ideally, you hit an inside ball in front of the plate so that it goes to left field and an outside pitch at the middle of the plate so that it goes to right field.
To work on timing grab a tee. Place the tee on the spot where the player should make contact with the ball, either half a foot in front of the plate or on the outside corner where the home plate becomes a triangle. Have them work on their swing from the tee to help them learn to direct the ball from the proper point of contact.
In all these exercises it is important that the ball be pitched with consistency both in terms of location and speed. Using VR you can control the location and the speed of the ball. As the player gets better random variation to speed and/or location can be introduced.
Hitting a Breaking Pitch
Deciding whether or not to swing at a pitch should be done as late as possible in order to adjust to breaking pitches.
Breaking Pitch Drill
To practice this on the field place a cone at a certain distance from home plate, beginning closer to the pitcher and moving it closer to home plate as the hitter’s coordination improves. Instruct the hitter not to swing until the ball passes that cone.
For hitters it may be difficult to recognize when the ball passes the cone and they are likely to swing too early. Using the VR system we have made the ball invisible until it has passed the cone.
Swing path is the path that the bat follows when the hitter swings at a pitch. To be able to hit fast pitches the swing path must be short and straight to the ball.
If hitters drop their hands and then go to the ball the swing takes too long.
If hitters straighten their arms at the beginning of their swing they will have a wide swing and will not be able to hit pitches on the inside part of the plate.
Showing a hitter what their swing path looks like is usually done using video. The video is analyzed together with the coach and the player needs to remember the remarks until the next time s/he bats.
In VR the path can be made visible during the drill. The player can watch what s/he did and can adjust in real time on the next swing. Through the computer monitor the coach can see the same swing path and assist the player with the analysis. The player can also see an optimal path for them to follow and detection planes or boxes can make them aware of common mistakes such as dropping their hands too early or straightening their arms too early.
Purpose: Work on keeping your hands close to you to avoid reaching for the ball with your swing.
In this drill the player stands facing a wall. Have them holding the bat as they would in the batter’s box. Their hands should almost touch the wall.
Instruct the player to bring their hands and the bat forward, without touching the wall. This lets them feel what the shortest path to the ball is, preventing them from stretching their arms, because then they would hit the wall.
Finishing the motion with a full swing is, of course, not possible because the bat would hit the wall.
In VR the drill is extended with the possibility to actually hit the ball. The wall is still there and it will change color when the bat touches the wall. But now the player can finish the motion and hit a ball that is hanging in the air.
Reaction time is key in baseball and softball. Balls get to players quickly, especially in the infield, and they need to be ready.
A drill to work on this is to throw balls or other objects to a player at high intensity and have them bat them down with their hand.
Give each player a flat piece of cardboard or wood, approximately the size of a glove with something like a velcro strip so that it can be attached to their glove hand.
Pair up your players and place them 3-6 feet apart. Have player 1 throw the objects and player 2 bat them down. Make it a competition between them, counting how many they each bat down in 30 seconds with the most successful number of contacts being the winner.
In VR this drill works with stationary balls in front of the player. Randomly, one ball at a time lights up and the player has to touch it. The program measures the time the player takes to touch the ball. After 10 balls the average along with fastest and slowest times, are shown.
Another option is to have the balls come towards the player from about 15 feet distance at an adjustable speed. After 10 balls the program shows how many the player touched and how many s/he missed.
For softball pitchers it is very important that their arm makes a big circle and that it follows the plane of their powerline. The powerline is the straight line from the pitcher to the catcher, meaning it is the shortest, and thus fastest, path to the catcher.
Many pitching drills work with the powerline, both for the pitcher's feet and hands. In this drill the pitcher's arm should stay on the plane of the powerline, it should not bend over their head or make a short circle in front of them.
On the ground you can run a drill with the pitcher standing in front of a wall or a net. Have them face the wall holding a ball in their throwing hand. The pitcher puts their feet approximately shoulder width apart, with the back foot perpendicular to the wall and the front foot at 45 degrees in the pitching direction.
The wall represents the plane of the powerline, so the goal of this drill is to make a big circle with the throwing arm, while keeping the ball in contact with the wall.
Start with the ball at the bottom of the circle, in front of the front thigh with the ball touching the wall and the back of their hand towards the thigh.
Start slowly and accelerate once s/he becomes comfortable. Be aware that at the end of the circle, when the hand is at the back thigh s/he needs to turn their hand around to start a new circle. Make sure s/he takes their hand off the wall in this case, otherwise it will scrape the wall and the player will get hurt.
In VR the wall is replaced by a bicycle wheel. While doing the drill, the player can watch themselves from multiple sides, back, front, left or right. This real-time feedback makes it possible for the pitcher to see if their hand moves away from the wheel and s/he can adjust mid-drill.
Another important aspect of pitching is to have a strong push off the pitching rubber. Not only does this bring you closer to the batter, it also influences the speed of the pitch: the stronger the push, the faster the pitch.
On the field I would put a small cone in front of a pitcher and ask them to try and jump further than the cone. If they can, I put the cone a bit further away to challenge them.
In VR the pitcher is standing on the pitching rubber and needs to jump onto a rock in front of them. Just like the cone in real life, the rock can be moved further away from them to make the drill harder.
VR offers additional elements, changing the surface of the field to water, lava or an abyss around the pitching rubber. Now you are challenging the mental aspect – the pitcher’s ability to perform under pressure. Even though your brain rationally tells you that the water, lava or abyss is fake, your instincts tell you that if you fail you get hurt.
Mental aspects of the game can also be trained using VR. For pitchers it is essential to stay focused, regardless of what happens around you. In the real world this is very difficult to train. You can put on loud music, flashing lights and have the rest of team yell at the pitcher, but still they will feel that it is only practice.
VR provides tools to improve focus including a virtual tunnel. The roar of the crowd begins. Planes are flying overhead and the atmosphere is simply electric. When the player is set to pitch, they hit a button that blurs the environment, dims the sounds, and creates a focal point for their line of vision to the plate. The act of hitting a button helps pitchers literally click into their ready position.
Benefits of VR beyond the field
Personal progress monitoring
The computer tracks, monitors and records your player’s progress. This provides them with instant feedback when you can’t be on-hand. It also allows you to review their work and find ways to help improve their progress.
VR training can be done alone and in any type of weather. More than just hitting a ball from a tee, they can use VR for fielding drills as well. This means players can get more repetitions to help them improve faster.
Try it yourself
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a demo or for more information. European Baseball & Softball Magazine readers receive a 10% discount on demo's or purchases when you mention the promotional code EBMVR. The program is also available for tennis training, making it a welcome addition to a multi-sport training facility. I'm looking forward to hearing from you!