- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

Christa Dalakis had been playing fast-pitch softball for years before instructor Jim Brackin suggested she change her approach.

By change, he meant turning the George Mason athlete from a right-handed batter into a left-handed one.

“I said, ‘I’m in college. Why now?’ ” Ms. Dalakis, now 31, recalls. “He said, ‘You’ll be fine.’ ”

A short time later, her hitting improved.

“My swing was better. It was more versatile. I became a very good hitter all because of him,” says the Falls Church resident, who currently plays for the Greek national team and will soon begin playing with the Washington Glory softball squad.

Not every instructor can bring such dramatic changes to a ballplayer, but it doesn’t hurt to have a trained eye watch over students who are trying to excel on the diamond.

Mr. Brackin, a fast-pitch softball instructor with Pinkman Academies in Virginia, helps students who have only a smattering of experience as well as those trying to play at the highest levels.

Between the U.S. Olympic softball squad’s dominance and Title IX legislation opening more doors for female athletes, softball’s popularity is on the rise, he says.

“In addition to having a love for the game, there’s also the opportunity for college scholarships,” Mr. Brackin says.

He starts his students with the basics, the fundamental mechanics behind pitching, throwing and fielding.

“It’s so important for the girls to learn basic, fundamental body mechanics,” Mr. Brackin says, like using one’s core for power and not just relying on arm strength.

He says players should make sure their body mechanics flow in the proper order, with their shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands acting in unison.

Technology makes his job a lot easier. Mr. Brackin uses digital video analysis to help show a batter if her swing is not as smooth as it should be.

“It’s such a great benefit to show the girls how the great players swing the bat and compare their swings to the U.S. Olympic team and the top college teams,” he says, adding that he learned to hit by watching Hank Aaron.

Bobby McKinney, owner of Chesapeake, Va.-based McKinney Baseball, says the biggest mistake ballplayers make is not setting themselves up in the right position to play.

“They’re more flat-footed and neutral. Then they try to engage their motor skills from there,” says Mr. McKinney, whose center has worked with elite pros like the New York Mets’ David Wright and Washington Nationals star Ryan Zimmerman. “There’s no quickness, no energy from their muscles [as a result].”

Mr. McKinney’s school trains all skill types, but more often it’s players trying to advance to the next level, be it the varsity team or the minor leagues. When you rise like that, “the game speeds up, both in the field and at the plate,” he says.

Once a player irons out his or her mechanics, the next step is to enhance speed and flexibility. The good thing is, he says, players can do that in their back yards as well as at any training camp.

Any overall speed training will do, be it jumping rope or creating slalom-style courses using a few orange cones.

If the slalom gets too easy, simply reposition the cones, Mr. McKinney says.

Outfielders can also work on their crossover steps for chasing fly balls over their heads, and potential base stealers should practice their footwork so they don’t trip on the way to second base.

Jerry Wargo, owner of the Southern Maryland Baseball Camp, headquartered in Huntington, Md., teaches more than just hitting and fielding at his school.

Mr. Wargo’s students learn about the effects of steroids and tobacco use and using baseball skills to score college scholarships.

“Our goal is to use baseball to get an education,” says Mr. Wargo, whose school started with 12 students 21 years ago. It taught 340 children during this last winter session.

The camp also instructs budding ballplayers to look the part.

“It’s part of the game,” he says. “You don’t see any college or pro players looking sloppy. Scouts look at you.”

Mr. Wargo teaches both the serious athlete and the novice. Potential prospects rub elbows with collegiate coaches and former professional ballplayers, but other parts of his courses teach children as young as 6.

Some youngsters are especially starved for quality instruction, he says.

“A lot of the coaches are just dads who might have played a little bit of baseball. You’re not getting the proper instruction,” Mr. Wargo says, and that can have a variety of consequences.

“They end up getting injuries; they get bored; and they move on,” he says.

The hardest part of the game for most students is the simple act of hitting.

“It’s a round ball coming at you, and you’re trying to hit it with a round bat,” Mr. Wargo says.

Even when that basic skill is understood, the student must know how to hit a variety of pitches.

“You’re taught how to hit the fastball. It’s a bigger challenge to hit a curveball, a change-up or a slider,” he says.

Ms. Dalakis, who co-owns Breakaway Fitness in McLean, says those looking for the best instruction should make sure their teachers know the game, be it softball or baseball.

“If they don’t, they’re doing you a big disservice,” she says. “Fast-pitch softball is a lot different than baseball.”

Ms. Dalakis still visits Mr. Brackin for an occasional tuneup.

“He’s helped me tremendously through the years,” she says. “If I take a couple months off, I start up again and I’m rusty. Things don’t seem right … he’ll tweak my swing a little bit.”

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