As a baseball coach and a physical therapist, I’ve been trying to make players and patients to optimize their movement patterns for nearly 30 years, and there’s something I’ve recently realized …
I can’t make players or patients optimize their movement patterns.
The more I learn about James J. Gibson’s Direct Perception Theory, the more I realize that in movements involving time pressure, I can’tmake you move. Your coach can’t makeyou move. Even your own thoughts can’t make you move. The only thing that canmake you move is the sensory information from your environment.
For a long time, in my early days as a physical therapist and a coach, I had a gross misunderstanding of how humans perceive and move within their environment, and I wasn’t alone. As reported by authors Mark Williams, Keith Davids and John Williams in their book Visual Perception & Action in Sport (1999),
“Traditionally it was believed that a ‘homonculus’ (literally a little man in the brain) was needed to interpret the neurophysiological signals received on the retina, at the ear, or by the proprioceptive system. (p. 193).” If this were true, it would beg the infinitely regressing question as to who is mediating the perception of the “little man, and then who is watching him, and so on.?”
In 1979, James J. Gibson proposed a radically different idea. Under Gibson’s Direct Perception Theory, organisms move in immediate response to sensory information presented by their environment, and they move to seek information. “It’s a direct and cyclical relationship.” We move according to the information we receive and as we move, we gather more sensory information that in turn invites us to move.
Recent research has upheld a long-standing suspicion that humans possess two separate pathways for processing visual information. The ventral stream interprets simple information, operates on a conscious level and gives meaning to objects. The dorsal stream is a more primitive route that quickly and subconsciously processes complex information in the face of significant time pressure. In pitching and hitting, since the perception/action environment is under tight time constraints the dorsal stream is the dominant system. This finding aligns comfortably with Gibson’s Direct Perception Theory.
Here’s how it works:
Let’s say you’re in Seattle – for whatever reason you might want to be there :-), and you touch a slug with a stick. That slug moves immediately. He doesn’t; process the sensory information and then move, the stick makes him move. That’s how the dorsal stream of perception and action performs. Whenever the system is under significant time pressure or if the sensory information is exceptionally complex, the dorsal stream takes over and the organism moves in direct response to the sensory input. It’s a vital evolutionary advantage. Imagine if the slug had to process information before he moved. He’d be in pretty big trouble.
Suppose you’re walking through a field and a bird is flying toward your head. The traditional theory suggests that when you see the bird (actually, light form the bird would reflect onto your retina), and your eyes would send a message to your brain. Your brain would then process the information using data points like the size of the bird and the rate and angle of approach. Your brain would then send a message to the muscles of your body, telling them how to move you to avoid the bird. Unfortunately, if this were the case, mankind would have never been able to survive the evolutionary race. Thankfully we can depend on Direct Perception. When attacked by a kamikaze bird, we don’t look at the bird, process the information and then move. Instead, the bird makes us move.
It works the same way in baseball.
A hitter doesn’t see the pitcher’s movement, read information from the pitcher and the baseball, interpret it and then organize a swing. The pitcher’s movements and the ball make him move. Legendary ABCA Hall of Fame Coach, the late Auggie Garrido, was known to tell his players, “Let the ball tell you where to hit it.” Say what you want about Coach Garrido’s approach to offensive baseball or his proclivity for calling sacrifice bunts, but when it comes to perception-action coupling, Auggie was right.
Through the prism of Gibson’s Direct Perception theory, we can see that trying to create movement with a top-down, centrally controlled approach could be corruptive. Such a model would be too slow and too unadaptable for evolutionary survivability, and it would be ineffective for meeting the time pressure demands of hitting and pitching. Objective science upholds this fact. We can measure the amount of time it takes for a neurologic input to travel to the brain, to the spinal cord, out to the muscles and back up to the brain again. In any movement with significant time pressure such as hitting or throwing, all of this information can’t exchange hands in the method suggested by the cognitive perception theory.
When we coach players with the traditional top-down, cognitive cues in skills that present time pressure, we may be accessing the wrong perceptual stream to optimize training. The truth is, both the dorsal and ventral streams are probably in play at all times. The ventral stream may be involved in collecting physical, invariant environmental information, such as size, shape and texture of objects or surfaces. However in time crunched tasks, the movement must rely on light reflecting off of or being absorbed by objects or surfaces. And that information is more likely to elicit a dorsal pathway response which does not require cognitive processing. Some research on the
So, if we cannot produce or refine a movement in time constrained skills with cognitive or verbal cues, how are we supposed to coach? The short answer is: We can change their sensory information in their environment.
The long answer is more complex, but at The Florida Baseball Ranch®, we suggest starting with a movement assessment to identify the attractors (the parts of the movement that must be stable). From there, through meticulous physical and biomechanical evaluation of the athlete’s hardware (his physical structure) and software (the movement patterns his body chooses), we can identify areas where an athlete’s movement is unstable. Through proper, targeted exercise we can change any “changeable hardware”. Then we must manipulate the task, the environment, or the organism (the athlete) in creative ways to provide sensory information that encourages the athlete’s body to choose the most efficient pathway or movement pattern.
As many of you may know, my friend Eugene Bleecker (from 108 Performance) and I don’t always agree on everything (and that’s ok), but his recent book, Old School vs New School: The Application of Data & Technology Into Baseball, presents an important point. The race to be “data-driven and science-based” has many old-school traditionalists digging their heels in to resist while a legion of greenhorns, armed with the latest and greatest technology, arrogantly and flippantly cast aside the experiential knowledge of their predecessors. In my opinion, before we rush headlong into the technology-dependent teaching, we must pause and remember that coaches have been teaching movement for a long time and the good ones learned to elicit adaptations long before we had scientific data to show why they were right. In many cases, what the old-timers were doing intuitively was precisely what the science now shows. An important point to remember is that movement creates data, data does not create movement.
Williams et al (1999). also note that “Gibson underlined the fundamental flaw in cognitive theories of perception when he stated that ’psychologists assume that objects are composed of their qualities … what we perceive when we look at objects are their affordances, not their qualities. (p. 197).” This refers to another important part of Gibson’s theory — the concept of affordances. According to Gibson, objects are not viewed relative to the symbols they create in our minds. Instead, objects are viewed based on their invitation to act. For example, without prior experience, we would have no way of knowing the name assigned to an object we refer to as a chair. In the animal world, a chair is merely something that appears “sit-on-able.” Similarly, a stump in the woods might also be “sit-on-able.” This quality of assigning application or usability to sensory information is what Gibson dubbed “affordances.” The chair and the stump “afford” one the opportunity to sit on them.
Here’s another example:
On the training floor at the Ranch, we have a therapy treatment table which sits ready to use if a student needs treatment or testing. It’s a handy tool intended to help deliver any physical therapy treatment modality our students might need. I prefer the table to be clean and empty at all times so it is always available when needed. Nonetheless, every time I walk past it, there are drinks, keys, wallets, towels and folders all over it. It drives me nuts until I remember Gibson’s principle of affordances. Our students and staff aren’t being rebellious or contrarian by cluttering the treatment table. The fact is, our students and staff don’t view the treatment table as sacred therapeutic ground. Try as they might, not to put stuff on it, the table presents itself as attractively “put-on-able.” surface. I’ll bet that if you look around, you’ll see the same phenomenon on every horizontal surface in your house.
Affordances in athletic events are intimately intertwined with the individual’s athleticism and the player’s overall movement profile. For more on our view of “athleticism” CLICK HERE. Under the Direct Perception Theory, if a running back puts his foot in the ground and sees a hole, his body knows its ability. If the running back is extremely athletic, he is afforded a smaller hole than a less athletic guy. In the same manner, hitters who are elite movers are afforded more pitches that appear “hittable.” This explains how major league hitters can “slow the game down” and turn around 100 mph fastballs and filthy sliders. Because they are such fantastic movers, they are afforded more hittable pitches. As a hitter, if you aren’t able to get into positions that optimize your mechanical advantages while allowing for subconscious adjustability, you will not be afforded as many pitches that appear “hittable.” If you learn to move better, you will perceive better and as you perceive better you will move better.
“Bleeker-Linking” the old-school to the new school again, I recently heard an interview with Pete Rose in which he stated, “I would tell people that you do one of six things when you get into a lull. Do you know what they are? 1) Stand closer to the plate. 2) Stand further away from the plate. 3) Move up in the box. 4) Move back in the box. 5) Choke up on the bat more, or choke down on the bat more (to) make it heavier or make it lighter. Never change your swing. Your swing got you into the big leagues. You change your positioning in the batter’s box. Are curveballs getting to you? Move up on it. You’re not getting to it? Move back on it. They’re jamming you, move away from the plate.”
Do you hear what Pete is saying? Do you see what he is doing? Wake up and look outside!
The light is shining like a Bleekin’ Beacon! ????
He’s changing the sensory information!
The man who has recorded more hits than anyone in the history of the game is telling us that instead of getting in a player’s head and trying to change a movement from the top down, a more effective way to elicit an adaptation and subsequently influence the movement is to create a training experience that provides a player with sensory information (visual, vestibular, auditory, and/or kinesthetic) that encourages his body to choose a more effective movement pattern.
At The Florida Baseball Ranch®, we maintain that when trying to improve in any aspect of the game, HOW you learn may be as important (if not more so) than WHAT you learn. It’s a fundamental precept at the core of everything we do. We’re not teaching a new way to throw, pitch and hit. We’re teaching a new way to learn to throw, pitch and hit, and when you really think it through, it’s not new at all — it’s just better.
Attention coaches, trainers, physical therapists, chiropractors, instructors, strength and conditioning coordinators, academy owners, sport scientists, and player development and front office personnel:
If you want to give your players an overwhelming competitive edge, join us at the 2019 FBR/SOS Baseball Skill Acquisition Summit October 12th and 13th. We’ll teach you the most advanced evaluation and training techniques that motor learning and skill acquisition science has to offer. You’ll be equipped to design hyper-individualize training plans that will turbo-boost your player development process.
We are in an exciting time in baseball. For the first time in the history of the game, coaches, teams, and organizations are realizing that instead of being solely committed to finding and recruiting or selecting great players, we can find unparalleled value if we are equally invested in developing great players. The training techniques you’ll learn at the Skill Acquisition Summit will be a separator for you and your players and will be the transformational catalyst that ignites your career while helping your players achieve success beyond their wildest dreams.
In the sobering, yet inspiring words of legendary Indiana marksman and Hickory High School part-time Assistant Coach, Shooter Flatch …
“Don’t get caught watchin’ the paint dry.“
Get started by calling, our CFO/COO Amy, at 866-787-4533.
We’ll see you at The Ranch.
Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCSCEO, Florida Baseball Ranch