Why Your Batting Practice Stinks (part 2)

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How are you feeling?

Did you get any sleep at all last night or were you tossing and turning, staring at the ceiling and eventually pacing the floor in anticipation of the release of today’s blog?

You’re eyes look a little bloodshot.

It’s ok.  I got your back.

Yesterday I released a blog that challenged the effectiveness of batting cages and pitching machines based on a motor learning concept called representative design.  Click here if you didn’t get a chance to read it.

In yesterday’s article, I promised I would reveal an idea that would rock the college baseball recruiting world but before I get to that, I think we should discuss a few more areas where motor learning science is in direct conflict with our traditional approach to hitter instruction.

First, let me make it very clear that it is not my intention to disparage or criticize anyone.

I have the utmost respect for any coach or instructor willing to use their knowledge and experience to help players chase their dreams.  We’re all trying to do the best we can and I certainly don’t claim to have it all figured out.  However, as I compare the teaching methods of even the most progressive and successful hitting instructors to the emerging research on skill acquisition and motor learning, I see at several significant disconnections that I believe are making hitting way more difficult than it needs to be.

For starters, I think we’re getting lost in “The Swing.”

It’s like we’re on this Holy Grail crusade, searching for the characteristics that define the “perfect” swing.  We study the swings of elite professionals in hopes of finding an “ideal model.”  We post video and still photos of high perfromers on Twitter and Instagram inferring that if we can teach our players to move like the experts, they’ll be able to achieve similar results.  But, there’s a problem here.  The ideal model does not exist.  Every hitter is different.  Every pitch is different.  Every swing is different.  It’s impossible for our athletes to repeat the same swing twice.

For the record, I think that studying commonalities among high performers is a reasonable starting point for identifying attractors (components of the movement that must be stable) in the swing.  However, as coaches and instructors, we must be careful not to view these attractors as absolutes that must be rigidly adhered to at all times.  For more on attractors, check out my previous blog called “A New Way Of Looking At Mechanical Efficiency in Pitching”

As I have often discussed in pitching, a closed skill, where the demand for a reaction to external stimulus is comparatively low, “repeatable mechanics” are unattainable. Instead of creating swings that are repeatable, we should be striving to create swings that are adjustable.  I’ve studied the educational material and listened to presentations made by many highly regarded and incredibly successful hitting instructors.  Most of them agree that if a hitter is to excel in this game, he must have a swing that is adjustable.  But what does that really mean?

The prevailing wisdom among top hitting instructors is that an elite swing should contain certain physical cogs of adjustability that can serve as gears or triggers to allow a hitter to adjust his swing to the timing of different pitches.  That sounds reasonable to me.  But frequently, the way we go about teaching those qualities is in conflict with what motor learning science suggests.

As hitting instructors and coaches, many of us over-utilize cognitive and verbal cues to direct the swing changes we desire. Essentially,  we tell them how to swing.  We watch them swing.  Then we tell them how to swing better.

“On your next swing, I want you to think about __________.”

When you make your swing, I need you to focus on _________.

Here’s the flaw in this approach:

We have established that an elite swing must be adjustable.  Well, those adjustments have to occur in real time in response to a pitch. We can measure the time it takes for a neurological impulse to travel from the brain to the muscles and then for sensory information to be transmitted back to the brain where that information is interpreted before sending a message of adjustment back down to the muscles. When you do the math, it becomes clear that there isn’t enough time in a swing for any of those adjustments to happen by way of conscious thought.

Our students are being asked to perform a skill that doesn’t allow them enough time to think about what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. But, we’re training them with an approach that frequently demands conscious thought.

Skill acquisition experts call this method “explicit learning” and it is largely ineffective in teaching skills that are characterized by time pressure or psychological stress. And, I think we can all agree that attempting to hit 100 mph fastball or a 92 mph slider in front of 40,000 hostile fans offers both time pressure and psychological stress.

As described by Terry McMorris, in his book Acquisition and Performance of Sport Skills, “To most people learning a skill is explicit, i.e. we consciously set out to perform something that we have seen or are told to do. However, learning can also occur implicitly or subconsciously. We often acquire skills without instruction, by simply setting out to achieve a goal. With regard to motor skills, this involves the individual learning to carry out a skill without understanding how they perform that skill. They cannot articulate any rules. The learning is subconscious.”

McMorris goes on to note report, “Research has shown that skills learned implicitly withstand stress better than those learned explicitly. This is probably because the lack of involvement of the prefrontal cortex in this type of learning may make them less vulnerable to stress.”

In other words, athletes trained implicitly are less likely to be paralyzed by thought.  Implicitly trained athletes are highly adaptable and immune to psychological pressure.

Some forward-thinking instructors, realizing the importance of self-organization and the futility of verbal or cognitive cues, have switched to a more “drills-based” approach. It’s almost like we’ve shifted from looking for the ideal mechanical model to looking for the ideal drill that will elicit the desired changes in swing patterns.

It’s an improvement from the pervasive “verbal vomit” technique but in many cases, the activities chosen are isolated, and non-contextual (see yesterday’s blog on representative design). When swing practice is condensed to isolated, non-contextual drills, it is doomed to failure.  The chance of positive transfer of training to elite performance is low because this kind of practice design violates one the most important precepts of skill acquisition— the coupling of perception and action.

In game competition, a hitter must organize his swing subconsciously.

As the pitcher begins his motion, the hitter collects an immeasurable number of subtle sensory cues.  The pitcher continues his delivery the hitter starts his swing. Sensors in the hitter’s joints, tendons and ligaments provide information about the location, speed and direction of his body parts and his eyes add information about ball flight characteristics. Using predictive reflexes (preflexes) that happen faster than a knee-jerk reflex and miles ahead of any conscious thought, the hitter selects, executes, and adjusts a swing that gives him the greatest chance of matching the barrel to the ball.  Perception dictates movement and movement impacts perception.  Perception-Action:  It’s an inseparable union.   When this union is decoupled in practice, learning and performance are inhibited.

Ranch Guys are trained implicitly through a combination of a constraints-led approach, differential learning, and representative design (more on those topics in a future blog). We use tons of tech to provide objective knowledge of results (KR) on just about every swing. V-Flex helps them implicitly learn strike zone discipline.  Our implicit training style makes our athletes virtually immune to time pressure or psychological pressure. Ranch Guys swing at strikes, turn around fastballs and preflexively adjust to off-speed pitches. Ranch Guys often perform better in games than in practice.

And, because they learn implicitly, Ranch Guys Don’t Choke.

As I said before I believe that batting practice as we know it is probably making hitting far more difficult than it should be.  Traditional hitter training violates the vital motor learning concepts of internal vs external focus, explicit vs implicit learning, perception-action coupling, and representative design.

So, what does this mean for a college coach trying to find an edge?

Here is the nuclear idea I promised.

Recall from yesterday’s blog that most baseball programs have access to several non-baseball related scholarship programs to help players in need. In my opinion, college coaches need to get creative about how they use their “funny money.”

I have a plan.

I call it The Redshirt Brigade and in my humble opinion, it’s the most innovative and (ahem) brilliant plan ever devised.

Here are the step-by-step instructions to execute this magnificent plan:

  1. While you’re on the recruiting circuit, observe, make connections and build a database of around 30 pitching prospects that are just on the edge of being good enough to compete at your level.
  2. Record and store video of these prospects a private YouTube playlist.
  3. Be sure the list can be indexed and searched by key indicators such as height/weight, handedness, velocity, command, secondary stuff, arm slot, pace of delivery, and the top 2 or 3 limitations you feel are keeping them from being ready to contribute to for your program right now – my guess is the that the most common entry in this column will be “velocity.”
  4. Now survey the landscape of your in conference competition and make a list of the toughest pitchers you’ll face in your conference next year.
  5. Match the tough opponents with the prospects in your recruit database and get on the phone with your list of prospects.
  6. Offer 8-10 guys one of your funny money scholarships and tell them they’ll be red-shirted for the first season.
  7. If they accept, explain to them that they will be part of an 8-man batting practice rotation.They’ll each throw live to your hitters twice per week.
  8. Plant a batting practice rubber about 55 feet from home plate to compensate for the velocity deficits most of your Brigade members have.
  9. Explain to the redshirt brigade that they have one job – get your hitters out.
  10. Incorporate a velocity enhancement program into the Brigade members’ training.
  11. As Brigade members’ fastballs improve, move them back to regulation distance.
  12. Inform the members of the Brigade that every time they toe the rubber, their position is on the line.  If they can’t get outs, you’ll send them packing.  If they prove that they can get your hitters out on a regular basis, they’ll have a spot on the team next season.
  13. This process goes on all year (even in season) during every on the field batting practice.
  14. Chart everything about your pitchers and hitters and use that information to modify the Brigade rotation or to address any variables that appear to be weaknesses on your team.

There you go college baseball!

The Redshirt Brigade!!!

It’s beauty is that it solves the representative design problem and creates an environment of competition.   It gives coaches a unique opportunity to develop a deeper pitching staff.  It gives 8-10 young men a chance to live out their dreams of playing college baseball.

It creates adaptable hitters who are able to “preflexively” respond to any kind of pitch or pitcher they might face — hitters who do serious damage!!!

(Might want to check with your compliance officer before you get started).

You’re welcome.


Randy Sullivan. MPT, CSCS
CEO, The Florida Baseball Ranch

Hitters!  How would you like develop your arm strength, improve your bat speed and exit velocity and get as many live at-bats off high caliber Ranch pitchers in 2 hours as you might see in a week of summer league competition.   Come to our Complete Game Summer Training Program .  Add bat speed, build power and see live pitching as often as you want. Call us at 866-787-4533 and we’ll get you scheduled.

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