The secret to becoming a good hitter? It starts between the ears

by Jeff Smith

Jessica varsity libero covering hitter.jpg

A few years ago my former club's 18U team had only six players available for a tournament. This meant everyone would need to play all six rotations around the court, including our libero.

Some liberos would cringe at the thought of playing on the front row. Our libero relished the opportunity. As much as she enjoyed passing and digging, she loved hitting even more in spite of her small stature. In practices, she seized the chance to hit any time she got, sometimes even asking me if she could play a couple of rotations at outside hitter. At the tournament, she didn't dominate by any means but delivered several timely kills, finding ways to terminate hits against much bigger blockers.

The team went on to win the tournament, and the libero's fearless attitude toward hitting on the front row was a key reason why.

Over the years I've trained hundreds of athletes, ranging from fourth to 12th grade and from about 4 feet 2 to 6 feet 2, how to hit with varying degrees of success. Yes, learning the technical skills for hitting is important. But, the most critical skill of all to becoming a good hitter is mental. Developing the mindset of a hitter is what separates great and good hitters from those who are sub-par and mediocre.

What does a standout hitter "look like" mentally? Here are four traits that are essential to hitting success. You'll quickly notice that none of these characteristics has anything to do with height or size. I've coached numerous tall athletes who couldn't become successful hitters because they couldn't develop the traits below as well as some players of a "smaller stature" who grew into some of the better hitters on our teams.

1. Love for hitting

Enjoyment of hitting can be an acquired skill, but in many cases it never happens. Some athletes never love hitting, even if they eventually develop the fundamentals to hit well.

Every good to great hitter loves to hit. This love for spiking is what drives them to work feverishly at improving their hitting. They love the feeling of pounding a high line shot or cross-court kill that bounces off the floor or knocks over a helpless back-row digger. And this love for hitting sometimes takes years to nurture and grow.

2. Unafraid to make mistakes

This will sound crazy at first, but it's true: Great hitters have no conscience. What I mean is they don't feel bad, sorry or guilty about belting an attack out of bounds or getting stuff blocked at the net. Good hitters have bad memories; they don't give a hitting error a second thought, quickly moving their focus on to the next rally and another opportunity to hit again.

3. Attack mentality

Great hitters are like an aggressive quarterback who loves to fire passes downfield looking for touchdowns instead of settling for shorter, safer passes, a baseball pitcher who looks for the strikeout or a boxer whose first instinct is to go for the knockout. When they receive a good or even decent or average set, they want to convert that set into a kill. They're not interested in safely delivering a roll shot to the middle of the court to keep the play alive; they approach, jump and swing hard and fast, then ask questions later.

And, before you ask if that perspective only applies to the best, most polished hitters, it doesn't. Three years ago I coached a small, wiry 14-year-old hitter who never met a set she didn't try to pulverize with every ounce of her 98-pound frame. From the first day of practice, Zoe swung at set after set as if the ball had personally insulted her family.

Initially most of her hits either landed 10 feet beyond the end line or violently shook the net. But, with a couple of tweaks to the contact point of her hitting hand on the ball and a slight adjustment to where she was set (sets farther off the net is ideal for shorter hitters), Zoe became not only one of the top hitters in the conference but one of the league's most effective jump servers as well.

It all started with Zoe's attack mentality.

4. Fearless approach to the biggest moments

Great hitters don't change their methods based on the score of the match. Whether it's 1-1 or match point, if they receive a quality set and the opposing blockers give them an open line to hit to, they swing with confidence and assertiveness every single time. If they're facing a tall double block but their coach tells them to pound the ball over, around or through the block, they don't think twice: They go for it. If their team trails 24-23 in the decisive set and they receive a good set, they attack the ball with zeal, even if their last three hits were blocked, went out of bounds or taped the net.

Some coaches believe hitters become fearless in big moments by building their confidence through success in such moments. Other coaches believe hitters develop fearlessness by forming the habit of hitting fearlessly all the time (with the consistent and constant encouragement of their coaches to hit fearlessly): in practices, scrimmages, warm-ups and throughout every match. Some call it a growth mindset and others refer to it as the pursuit of excellence -- the gradual result of always striving to do better.

This fearlessness can be learned at a young age. One of the best hitters I ever had the privilege to coach was Gigi Crescenzo. Even in eighth grade, Gigi would approach, jump and pound cross-court and high line hits with the same force no matter the score, earning the nickname G-Force from me. Early in her career she would occasionally tip or roll shot a great set near the end of a match, but after a few disapproving looks from me she quickly ditched that habit and developed an "assassin's" attitude.

This past fall she led St. Charles North to its first trip to the state finals, crushing kills over taller blockers throughout the season, a practice she began four years earlier.

5. Consistent steps forward

Great hitters keep pushing themselves. They're never satisfied with the status quo, always looking to take the next step in their development.

Once they learn and refine their basic hitting technique, these hitters work on hitting specific locations on the court (also known as lines of power). Once they are able to run (approach) and hit in a straight line (down the sideline, cross court, sharp angle), they work on mastering their hand placement on the ball. They figure out that hitting the bottom of the ball gives them loft for hitting over blockers and hitting the top of the ball drives the ball downward. Now they are able to control the height of their hits.

Then they work on how their hitting hand finishes, specifically "thumb down" and "thumb up." If they hit from outside and are right-handed, finishing their arm swing with their thumb up enables them to cut the ball down the sideline; finishing thumb down cuts the ball across the court to the corner or even the short angle. Now they are able to control how to hit the ball off their line of power to the left or the right.

Hitters then learn how to look one way and hit the opposite direction to fool the blockers and diggers, and the process continues for the hitter who wants to be great.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.