Blocked and variable practice are two main practice styles coaches can use to design the layout of their practices. Both styles have a distinct mold which ultimately influences how athletes learn skills, retain them, and refine them with practice. While research tends to favor variable practice for long term skill acquisition, both styles of practice can help accelerate the learning curve. As a coach, knowing how to use both is a fundamental component when it comes to designing engaging practices and maximizing the time you have with your athletes.
Blocked practice is the most common and traditional method of practice. It involves predictable, consecutive repetitions of a specific skill. There is little to no variance between repetitions. Motivation behind blocked practice usually involves a desire to perfect a certain technique. Variance in patterns is minimal, but less skilled athletes can show more unintended fluctuations in technique.
It is very common to see examples of blocked practice when athletes are first learning a skill. In a baseball setting, an example of this would be fielding 10 ground balls in a row hit right at you or taking 10 consecutive swings off the tee in the same place. Because of the lack of variation, blocked practice tends to be the easiest to set up and execute - part of the reason why it is very common.
Variable practice is a type of practice in which consecutive repetitions differ through slight fluctuations. In true variable practice, repetitions of the skill are unpredictable (performing predictable fluctuations of a skill falls under a hybrid variation of blocked practice). The variability of repetitions is designed to try and create a more game-like environment in which the athlete is challenged to find various movement solutions as opposed to just one in blocked practice.
This type of practice is more difficult because athletes are not able to rely on their most recent solution to execute the next rep. Each rep presents a new challenge which forces the athlete to build a large database of movement solutions. Variable practice is most effective when done at the edge of an athlete’s current abilities. Too big of a challenge creates helplessness while too small of a challenge lacks necessary stimulation for learning.
The Shea and Morgan experiment of 1979 was one of the first studies that dove into the effectiveness of blocked and variable practice style. Participants for the study were grouped into a blocked practice group and a variable practice group. Both groups learned a skill and were tested for skill retention using a 10 minute post test and a 10 day post test. Researchers found that participants in the blocked group outperformed the variable group in the initial acquisition trials but were significantly outperformed by the variable group in the 10 minute and 10 day post test. In other words, the participants in the blocked group could not retain the skill they had just learned only 10 minutes after doing it. Ever feel like you’re starting all over with an athlete every time you see them? It might be worth going over the practice environment before you blame it on their lack of dedication.
Frans Bosch, Dutch neurophysiologist and leading expert in motor learning principles, explains this phenomenon using the terms “adaptable” and “adapted” athletes. Athletes in blocked practice settings haven’t really learned anything - they’ve simply adapted to the task at hand. It may look good or feel good in the short term, but the monotony of it does not engage the physical and motor learning systems in a meaningful way that promotes long term retention of skills. On the contrary, athletes in the variable practice setting have become adaptable by grappling with problems and implicitly discovering new solutions within the context of various internal and external constraints (ex: physical limitations). It may look ugly early on but the athlete is actually learning at a much faster rate than his counterparts in blocked practice.
Chad Longworth, hitting instructor and creator of LPD+, further dives into the effectiveness of variable practice by explaining the role of the Central Nervous System (CNS) in human movement. When solving movement problems, the CNS uses sensory information from the environment to construct a “roadmap” of neural pathways that guide the body to perform a specific skill (i.e. hitting a baseball). As the pathways strengthen with time and experience, the skills become much easier to execute and the roadway created becomes an ingrained manual the athlete can consistently recall. This process effectively puts skills on “autopilot” meaning minimal conscious thought is required to repeat the skill in the future. This process is a natural human phenomenon to conserve mental energy and save it for more demanding tasks in life. We all have a limited amount of energy that we can use throughout the course of the day so it would be a great disadvantage to us if we spent a large portion of it doing things like breathing, walking, or driving.
While throwing a baseball is not as second nature as breathing, it is a skill that becomes more automated with practice - and it must be to perform in competitive environments. The double-edged sword to the automation of skills is no new learning occurs when the skill is on autopilot. The CNS is not forced to adapt to any new information because of its familiarity with the skill. The learning systems once heavily involved in the skill acquisition process are no longer necessary. If practice fails to engage the learning systems, athletes are merely going through the motions. This is why more practice is not always better. The quality of your practice will always outweigh the quantity of it (see “Deliberate Practice” for more information on this).
When athletes are faced with new challenges through variable practice, autopilot is turned off and the brain is forced to adapt by creating newer and better skill pathways. This process helps create positive adaptations that supercede their previous skill level. These adaptations help athletes solve complex motor tasks by challenging its physical capabilities and neuromuscular efficiency. If challenges do not push athletes beyond their current skill level, their body will sit in its ideal state of homeostasis - the body’s natural mechanism to provide stability and resist change. When acquiring and refining skills, we are fighting against homeostasis.
Plenty of research (see more) since the Shea and Morgan experiment has been published and collectively suggests athletes are better able to learn and retain skills through variable practice over blocked practice. With this, variable practice is not the end-all be-all way to train your athletes. Being able to use both styles of practice is critical to maximizing the effectiveness of your coaching to all athletes - but the scale definitely should not be tipped in favor of blocked practice.
Blocked practice is going to be your most basic tool for teaching new skills. It is effective with novice athletes that lack experience, body control, and awareness. It is also effective with athletes that have built an ingrained CNS map of how to do a specific skill the wrong way. The CNS maps for bad patterns do not just go away when you do the skill correctly. As a result, it is important to give athletes time to practice the skill so they can construct and strengthen the new CNS maps. With enough practice, these maps can become strong enough to automate the skill and make it usable in game environments. This process does not happen overnight, but using blocked practice can be an effective way to build an early foundation for the skill that you can build on top of.
Keep things simple early on when utilizing blocked practice. Get athletes to build competency in one area before trying to move to three different areas. If you’re looking at a couple of different things, start with what will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Give the athlete some basic parameters to work within, but don’t get caught up in the aesthetics. Three different athletes might accomplish a certain task three different ways. Understand your non-negotiables and give the athlete space to individualize. You’re not trying to create clones.
When a certain level of competency has been reached, it is crucial you challenge the pattern using variable practice. This is a continuous process that must happen in order to facilitate future learning and refinement of skills. It’s also something that should be done sooner rather than later. Since we know athletes don’t retain information very well in blocked practice, it would be a disservice to the athlete to spend most of your training time in blocked environments. Learning is messy. If you want kids to look good, tell them to join a beauty pageant.
As you add difficulty to the task, monitor to see where the pattern breaks down. Variable practice is tougher to introduce because it’s much more difficult for kids. This can be discouraging at first and if you’re not careful can create negative associations with helpful training processes. You don’t necessarily have to explain the science behind it, but kids need to know what variable practice looks like and why it is important. No one feels good when they try something challenging and fail. As a coach, you need to be a strong mentor and give kids the psychological safety to try new things, fail, and use feedback so they can learn from their mistakes. The challenges you introduce should be enough to stimulate them but not enough to crush them. This process is difficult and requires a lot of trial and error, but don’t be afraid to regress if you’re not getting what you want from the athlete. It will be better for them in the long run.
Below are some examples of variable practice that you can implement with your athletes:
- Overload/Underload Bats
Overload and underload training goes back to Soviet experimentation in the early 1970s and is one of the most researched forms of variable practice. Overload bats are going to be any bat weighted heavier than the athlete’s game sized bat, while underload bats are any bat that is lighter. Overload bats are great for mechanical patterning by constraining the body to move more efficiently. Underload bats are a great tool to build bat speed by allowing the athlete to move faster than they normally do. Utilizing a combination of the two is a pretty effective way to improve your exit velocity off the bat - something we know correlates very highly to success.
Research has studied bats with weight variations that range from +/- 20 percent, so this is a pretty good place to start with most athletes. If you’re struggling to find an underload bat, a fungo is a great option (you also get a couple of different training effects that I’ll discuss underneath). Whiffel ball bats are also great underload options for young kids. Popular progressions include heavier overload bats (up to 100 percent in some studies) and varying the overload portion of the bat (ex: end loaded, handle loaded, etc.). If you have some old bats that you don’t use anymore, turn them into weighted bats using some duct/bat tape, pennies, and a scale. The more variation the better.
- Different sized bats/barrels
Really good hitters have a great feel for the barrel of the bat. Building barrel awareness is an important skill to help hitters make consistent hard contact. This can be trained using bats that are longer, shorter, and barrels that are smaller. Each bat presents a movement problem in which the hitter must reorganize to find a new movement solution. While long and short bats are great for general barrel awareness, they can also be utilized to help influence a certain movement pattern. For example, short bats can help athletes who pull off the ball prematurely and long bats can help athletes who have a steep (hands directly to the ball) attack angle to the ball. This is why the fungo bat can present a variety of training effects - the length, size of barrel, and weight all create a unique combination for the motor learning systems to navigate.
- Weighted baseballs
Weighted baseballs follow the same training principles as the overload/underload bats. Overload balls - such as plyo balls - constrain the system to influence more efficient movement patterns. Underload balls help train arm speed by allowing the arm to accelerate faster. Utilizing both training effects is a great way to develop velocity the same way overload/underload bats improve exit velocity. Oh, and we also know throwing velocity correlates highly to success.
Another huge benefit to weighted baseballs is the proprioceptive (“feel”) adaptations it creates for throwers. Each weighted ball presents a new challenge in which the athlete implicitly learns an optimal solution for each throw. This can help the body reorganize into more advantageous positions by using feedback from each rep to make adjustments for the next. This can have positive impacts on velocity, command, secondary stuff, and arm health.
American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) research has shown heavier weighted implements (in comparison to the 5 ounce regulation ball) are actually going to be less stressful on the arm as opposed to lighter implements (the study looked at implements thrown off the mound that were 4-7 ounces). As a result, the majority of your weighted ball work should be done using overload implements. If you are planning on starting a weighted baseball program, make sure you consult with a knowledgeable coach or professional for an individualized plan to ensure maximal results.
- Different sized baseballs
Similar to weighted baseballs, different sized balls can have create proprioceptive adaptations for throwers. Different sizes and weights are going to create tendencies to miss in similar areas (ex: athletes are more prone to miss arm side with heavier, bigger baseballs). This forces athletes to implicitly learn how to make adjustments by using feedback from ball flight of their previous repetition. This helps build a larger database of movement solutions for the athlete that can positively impact command, for example.
- Variable sloped mounds
Every mound is going to have slight fluctuations that creates some external variability for pitchers. Some will be higher, lower, slope off steeper, or have more clay/dirt. Your job as an athlete is not to demand perfect playing conditions - it’s to adapt to the cards you’re dealt with. Having athletes pitch off a variety of dirt mounds is a great way to teach pitchers how to make adjustments and cope with less than ideal conditions. Coaches can also manipulate portable mounds by tilting them to the left, right, or having athletes throw up the slope to create certain movement adaptations.
For hitters, the use of slopes can help make batting practice or machine work more realistic by increasing the downhill angle the ball travels on. Throwing BP off mounds or placing pitching machines on mounds can help create a ball flight that mirrors a pitcher throwing off a mound.
- Different distances
Manipulating the distance from the rubber to home plate can help pitchers who have trouble making adjustments vertically in the strike zone. Coaches can narrow the distance for guys who miss up and lengthen the distance for guys who miss high. Coaches can also narrow the distance to help guys tighten up their breaking stuff.
Moving hitters closer to and farther away from the thrower is a great tool to simulate variances in timing. Moving them closer to the pitcher can simulate higher velocities while moving them further away can create the feel of adjusting to a breaking pitch. A popular drill for this is the three plate drill where hitters take a swing at three different plates which vary in distance from the thrower. Progressions include further distances, less pitches to move between plates, and different bats for different plates (ex: using a heavier bat when closer to the thrower, lighter bat when further away).
- Fatigue induced learning
Inducing fatigue in your training sessions can be a great way to create awareness for specific parts of a movement pattern. It can also simulate moments late in games when athletes are competing with higher levels of fatigue. If your bullpens are only executed when you feel freshest, don’t be surprised if your stuff starts to fall apart later in the game. Be careful with this one - patterns will break down under fatigue. Your brain is more concerned about task completion over task efficiency. Use this with athletes that have a more refined skill set and higher training maturity.
- Hitting plyo balls
Using heavy/plyo balls for hitting can help athletes get a better feel for positions at contact and overall swing plane. Different sizes and weights can also add another element of variable practice to the mix.
- Random pitching machine sequences
The variance in pitch location from basic machine work can create an element of variable practice, but the overall structure of it represents more of a blocked practice style. To make it variable, eliminate predictability in pitch sequences. Some more advanced machines can program variable pitch sequences. If you don’t have one, you can create variable machine practice by using multiple machines or by varying the tempo in which you feed baseballs.
In a multiple machine set up, you would have one person feeding both machines. The two machines would be set up from slightly different positions and can simulate either the same pitch or different pitches. The person feeding would pretend to feed both machines simultaneously but would ultimately drop the baseball into one machine. The batter is forced to adapt to the incoming pitch with no knowledge of what is coming. The variance in pitches, angles, and the unpredictability of the task creates a chaotic environment that better simulates a game.
If working with one machine, the person feeding can vary the tempo of how the baseballs are fed through the machine. Use a normal tempo for a fastball and use a slight hesitation for an offspeed pitch. Have the hitter gear up for a fastball and adjust if faced with the simulated breaking ball. Vary the sequence in which you feed fastballs and offspeed pitches.
Competition is the ultimate form of variable practice. The arousal levels athletes experience when competing against others are unparalleled. Being able to confront an opponent, take punches, and return punches is unpredictable, difficult, and demands a high level of focus and concentration. This is exactly what variable practice demands.
For more information on how to maximize competition in your practices, see our previous blog post “Compete!”
Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns. Keep learning and growing.
Before all of our team practices, we’ll spend 10-15 minutes in a classroom setting where we will share life lessons and sport specific information of interest. Kids are instructed to take notes and jot down things that they find valuable. Below are some of the lessons we’ve shared in the past few weeks that you can take home and share with your teams.
Clemson Football - We Play the Toughest Schedule in America
Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney shared a really powerful quote the other day that I thought was a great message for any team and player. Facing criticism for Clemson’s strength of schedule, Swinney fired back saying, “We play the toughest schedule in America. Every week, we have to play against the standard of Clemson football.” Every time Clemson laces up their cleats, they are competing against the toughest opponent they’ll ever face: The standard for Clemson football. They just don’t do this against Alabama or Ohio State - this is the expectation for every single game and practice.
Their opponent does not determine the effort, intensity, or attitude they bring to the field. Everyone in that locker room knows what is expected of them to play to the standard of Clemson football. Wins and losses don’t determine whether they were able to do this or not. Rather, the scoreboard is a byproduct of a relentless effort to play to the standard they have created.
As a player or a coach, there are a few huge takeaways from this message. For one, you need to create a standard of excellence to hold yourself accountable to. Your standard should drive how you attack your training and how you compete in games. If you don’t have a standard to measure yourself again, your success will lie in the hands of the scoreboard. Wins can very easily stagnate progress by blinding you from unnoticed errors and losses can make you feel as if actual progress isn’t being made.
As a coach, this standard must be how you measure your team. There’s a reason why John Wooden didn’t think too much of scouting reports. He knew that if they played to the standard of UCLA basketball, they would be in good shape regardless of the opponent. Internal scouting is much more important than external scouting. Competing in games should be a great source of feedback for your teams, but preparing for a specific opponent should not consume your time. Create the standard, compete against the standard, and hold everyone accountable to the standard. As Bill Walsh says, “The scoreboard will take care of itself.”
Joe Burrow - The Universal Language
ESPN Reporter Marty Smith sat down with LSU Quarterback Joe Burrow prior to the team’s matchup with Alabama. In the interview, Marty asked about how Joe was able to transition from growing up in Athens, OH, spending 3 years at Ohio State, to ultimately transferring to LSU where he had to compete for the starting QB job. Joe responded by saying he believes the universal language is toughness and hard work. “If you’re a hard worker, people are going to respect you and that’s all I try to bring to the table,” said Burrow.
As a coach or player, you’re going to experience different environments where you have to learn how to manage the unfamiliar. If you work hard at what you do and show resilience when faced with adversity, people are going to notice. You are always making an impression and people are always evaluating you. If people see you as someone who’s willing to give it your all and get back up if it doesn’t work, you’re going to fit right in wherever you go. However, you can’t fake hard work or toughness. If you talk the talk but can’t walk the walk, people are going to see right through you.
Work your ass off and show resilience when faced with adversity. It will take you far.
Kobe Bryant - Curiosity
Kobe Bryant recently did a podcast with Alex Rodriguez and Dan Katz on The Corp. In the podcast, Alex asked what characteristics Kobe looks for (3:15) when bringing people in to his investment team. Kobe responded, “The most important thing is curiosity first. I want curious people that ask questions, figure things out, and want to figure out new ways to do things.”
One of the most valuable qualities you can build into young athletes is curiosity that has no bounds. Having an inquisitive drive to figure things out and ask the right questions - just like Kobe said - is an invaluable asset in your development. As a player, you are ultimately trying to become your own best coach. Nobody can see the things you see or feel the things you feel. At the end of the day, you are going to have to figure out what makes the most sense for you. The best coaches are the ones who guide you towards this.
However, curiosity is not peppering people with vague questions that could have been answered using google.com. Curiosity is investigating a problem, researching it from several different angles, and using your research to come up with specific questions. Curiosity is finding the best in the world at the topic you seek and offering compensation to help you answer your questions. Curiosity is collaborating with others who share the same problems, learning from their mistakes, and asking for their advice. Curiosity is not demanding answers to vague questions that could have been answered using a 10 second google search. There is such a thing as a stupid question if you don’t do your homework.
Encourage your kids to become resourceful problem solvers. Commend them for asking great questions and give them as much information as you can - but don’t solve their problems for them. Foster curiosity by modeling it yourself. The best way to stop learning is to think you already know it.
The answers you seek are the right questions away. Curiosity will help you find those questions.
While great players are busy training and preparing for this coming spring, great coaches have their noses buried in books and other resources in preparation as well. The winter is a big chunk of time for coaches to soak up information, refine their training methods from previous seasons, and formulate a plan to gain an edge on their opponents.
Below are some great resources all coaches should check out before this spring. I’ve divided them into three categories: Human Behavior, Mental Game, and Training. Coaches cannot just lean on their tactical knowledge of the sport. They must learn how to manage themselves and other people in order to maximize their effectiveness on the field. These resources will help you do just that.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Carnegie was well ahead of his time when he wrote this one over 80 years ago. Throughout the book, Carnegie shares the basics of human motivation and provides practical strategies on how to appeal to other people’s interests, gain their attention, and ultimately increase your ability to influence them. These strategies are applicable for all fields that are highly dependent on interactions with other human beings. Regardless of your tactical knowledge in sport, this is a great book to start with for any coach. Read it, reread it, and take feverish notes.
Conscious Coaching by Brett Bartholomew
Brett’s book is incredibly unique as it breaks down the relational component of coaching like no other - and from the perspective of a strength coach. Brett unpacks the art of coaching and explains why it is so important for coaches to understand themselves before attempting to influence others. He then goes into the archetypes part of the book where he provides examples of different types of athletes and practical solutions to deal with them. Brett’s authenticity and willingness to share his story creates a compelling read that will leave you with a greater understanding of yourself, your athletes, and various patterns of behavior.
Heads Up Baseball 2.0 by Tom Hanson and Ken Ravizza
If you’re just starting out and need a place to start when it comes to the mental game, look no further than this one. Hanson and Ravizza deliver an easy-to-read book that is loaded with information that coaches can implement immediately with their players. Quotes from some of the game’s best coaches and players litter the pages and make for great teaching points when building early engagement for the mental game (why listen to me when Mike Trout can tell you why the mental game is so important?). The book also has interactive sections where athletes are encouraged to journal and answer questions that help build awareness for their process. This book can be utilized in the team setting and is a must read for any baseball coach or player.
The Mental ABCs of Pitching by Harvey Dorfman
Dorfman has written numerous books on the mental game and was one of the early pioneers that helped bring the mental game into big league clubhouses. I chose this one out of all of his texts for similar reasons to Heads Up Baseball - it’s a very easy read with invaluable information. The chapters in this book follow the theme of the alphabet and cover concepts in the mental game from A all the way through Z. Chapters aren’t more than 5-6 pages and can serve as great refreshers for athletes in and out of season. This one is tailored towards the player but coaches need to read it as well. It is also not just specific to pitchers - the same concepts also apply in the batter’s box. You’re making a big mistake if Dorfman isn’t on your reading list this winter.
Old School vs. New School by Eugene Bleeker
If you are a baseball coach, you need to read this one. Bleeker does a masterful job as a middle ground between conflicting views on player development. He shows how technology and other “new school” concepts can enhance the “old school” concepts that have made the game what it is today. Bleeker emphasizes that the two cannot exist in vacuums - they must complement each other. He includes concepts, tips, and drills that coaches can implement immediately with their players to help create certain movement solutions. He also brings an interesting points of view to controversial subjects in baseball such as the “recoil” of the arm in the pitching delivery. Bleeker and his team are doing some impressive work at 108 Performance. You would be very wise to pick this one up and read it this winter if you haven’t already.
Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
In search of the source for the world’s hotbeds of talent, Daniel Coyle goes all in to find how the greatest athletes in the world became so good at what they do. This search explores how both nature and nurture both play a role in the development of world class athletes. Coyle dives into deliberate practice, myelin sheathing, and other techniques that help accelerate the skill acquisition curve. These concepts build the framework for how you can introduce new skills, refine them with practice, and master them so you can transfer them to the playing field. As a coach, you must place a premium on the quality of your practice. Coyle’s work helps you make every second count.
Hitting a baseball is arguably the hardest feat to do in all of sports - and teaching it is even tougher. At our most recent baseball roundtable discussion, we tackled the subject of hitting and dissected it from several different angles. With everything we have to offer, there is still quite a lot we don’t know and having conversations with players and coaches from the area is a great way to create a collaborative learning environment. These discussions really push our organization forward and it is a great joy to be able to share our experiences with others while also learning from theirs.
Being in the private sector has given us the opportunity to see different swings, work with different kinds of players, absorb different ideas, and experiment with various tools, cues, and drills. Through this, we have ultimately learned that there is no “cookie cutter” model when teaching hitting. As a coach, it is crucial that you learn how to work with different athletes by building a large toolbox. Certain athletes are going to respond to different cues, drills, or implements you use with them. Your effectiveness as a coach is going to be minimal if you don’t have the ability to find something that works for several different athletes. Speak multiple languages with your hitters. Know how they think, what they feel, and what they need to be successful in the box.
From a player’s perspective, it is imperative you understand one language - your own. Know what helps you feel good in the box and what you need to do to create those feelings. Understand your strengths and use them to compensate for what you don’t do so well. Know your routines, mindset, and approach down to a tee. Know the bad habits we tend to fall into and how we can make adjustments from game to game. You’re going to experience different coaches, training environments, and situations throughout your playing career. If you want to be able to navigate these with consistent success, start to take ownership of your training. With all the information out today, there is no excuse for you to become a victim of your circumstances. Do your homework, know thyself.
A quote Carmen always comes back to is: “You either like it, love it, or live it.” You as a player are the only one that can answer that question for yourself. To play this game at a high level requires discipline, sacrifice, and an uncommon commitment to greatness. For you to get to the levels you want to go, you need to be honest with yourself. You need to know exactly where you are as a player, where you want to go, and what you need to do to get there. This is why it is crucial you have the right coaches around you. Don’t seek a coach that tells you how good you are - find someone who can be honest with you and tell you things you don’t want to hear. If we lie to kids because we want them to feel good, we are doing them a disservice. Be honest with your kids and be willing to have difficult conversations. It’s only going to help them in the long run.
As talked about before, one thing we always come back to when training hitters is putting a premium on your practice. An idea Carmen brought up from Bobby Valentine to reinforce this was Bobby’s 6 P’s: “Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” The success - or lack of - that you have on the field is going to reflect the quality and consistency of your training. If you aren’t having the success you think you should be in games, it’s worth revisiting how you’re preparing for competition. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharping the ax.”
With the conclusion of the World Series happening this week, we decided to tie in the Nationals impressive series victory by bringing up a recent article talking about Juan Soto’s unique approach in the box. The thing that really stuck out to us was how his father Juan Sr. trained him to become a big league caliber player. Check out this excerpt from Juan Sr. in the article below:
It's like I always told him -- when you get into the batter's box to hit, you own that space. Nobody can intimidate you. On the contrary, those guys [the pitchers] are the ones who should be afraid of you. And you have to show them why.
We love this approach because it emphasizes the importance of competing with confidence. If you don’t have a strong belief in yourself and your abilities as a hitter, you will crumble when faced with adversity. Confidence is something Soto never lacked growing up - and it’s a big reason why he’s been able to have success at the MLB level in some of the game’s biggest stages.
Another theme that drove our conversation was the idea of “mechanics cure all.” If players aren’t having success on the field, most coaches jump right to the mechanics part and try to make tricky mechanical adjustments in the middle of the competitive season. While most of these coaches are well intentioned, we don’t agree with this approach at all. We believe there is a checklist of boxes you need to go through before you try to change a player’s movement patterns. We do this because:
- It is very hard to make meaningful mechanical changes.
- Our thoughts are going to have a direct correlation to our physical movement patterns. Think about how your swing is going to look like when swinging for the fences vs. trying to hit a ground ball.
- Everyone is different. How do you know the changes you’re trying to create are optimal for that athlete?
- Research consistently shows players with an external focus of attention (over an internal focus of attention) perform better in game situations. Making mechanical changes creates a tendency to focus internally as opposed to externally.
There is a time and place to focus on movement patterns, but this cannot be your only tool as a coach. Kids need to learn and practice tools that help them compete in the batter’s box. If a player is struggling in the batter’s box, we suggest you go through this checklist before even thinking about touching their mechanics:
- How is the player seeing the ball? Visual misreads can account for a large array of physical mistakes which include timing, pitch recognition, premature weight shift, wrist roll, poor direction, and knowledge of the strike zone. If you have kids struggling with vision, make sure they’re getting two eyes on the pitcher in their stance. Kids who really close off their front shoulder will have a difficult time doing this. There are seven muscles in each eye - use them to your advantage. Sandy Koufax illustrated this idea best when he said the best hitters he ever saw all picked him up with two eyes.
- Do they have a plan/approach at the plate? How are they managing the strike zone? In the article from above, Juan Soto talked about hunting one pitch in one location. If hitters are looking for everything, they’re not ready for anything. A lot of the “funks” we get ourselves into are because we’re lost our ability to manage the strike zone. The strike zone is to baseball is what the line of scrimmage is to football - teams that win both win games. See our previous blog post for more information about how to build an approach in the box.
- How are they breathing? The belly breath does a multitude of things to help get us in a state of mind where we can relax and trust in our training. If you have an athlete who can’t control their nerves, teaching them how to breathe is a great place to start.
- What are their thought patterns when playing? The best athletes in the world think very little in competition. Considering the reactionary nature of sports, players simply don’t have time to think. Confident players play with their eyes. Players who lack confidence become victim of their negative thought patterns. If you have an athlete struggling with this, it’s worth developing some positive self-talk.
- What do they see/feel when they’re having success? Some simple awareness can provide players with a strong foundation for how to get back on track. If you can reconnect with times where the player was at their best through visuals (pictures/film), helpful cues, or drills, you can get them back on their feet much quicker without any mechanical interventions.
- Are they feeling any external pressure from coaches, parents, teammates, or scouts? The last thing you want to do is turn games into a three-hour timeout. Games should be exciting for kids - it’s their opportunity to show the hard work they’ve put in to refine their skills. Give them the freedom to compete, make mistakes, ultimately be themselves on the field. Players will never be able to let their abilities shine if they’re constantly worried about screwing up.
When looking at movement patterns in athletes, it’s important to understand principles vs. styles. Principles are key movements that all high level hitters share while styles are slight variations in swings that help different hitters be successful. For example, a principle for hitters would be the front leg firming and bracing after landing while a style would be a leg kick vs. toe tap timing mechanism. As a coach, you want to be able to teach the principles of the swing while allowing for room for individualization. You don’t want to try to teach styles as if they’re principles - you’re more likely to coach athletes out of beneficial patterns. We all have a unique fingerprint as to how we move - don’t coach kids out of these movements.
Two positions we try to put a premium on with hitters are the stance and foot plant. In a hitter’s stance, the athlete should be in a position of balance where their head is over their belly button and they have a slight bend in their knees. They should have two eyes on the pitcher and be in a position where they can get a clear visual of the ball coming in. Athletes should also have some sort of movement/rhythm in their stance whether it be their barrel or feet. We don’t want to stand still like a statue in the box - we want to match the movement the pitcher is creating.
Stances allow for quite a bit of variation between athletes. Some examples include the width of your base, standing taller/lower, starting open or closed, the position of your hands/bat, and the angle of your back foot. Give kids the freedom to experiment with different things, but always make sure the big rocks are in play when trying new moves. As for common faults, we see a lot of athletes who are very still in the box, start with their weight heavily on their backside, and close off their front shoulder quite a bit. A helpful cue we like to use to help create good head/eye positions is “try to watch your favorite TV show in centerfield.”
At foot plant, athletes should again land in balance with their head over their center of mass (belly button). They should be in a hinge position where their glutes are behind their heels and their chest is over the plate. Both heels hold the ground and knees stay between the athlete’s feet. Visual field for the athlete is in front of the ball. Hands are inside elbows with the top hand angled slightly in front of the bottom hand. The hands remain down the line of the pitch and do not get lost far behind the athlete’s torso. The barrel is angled over the athlete’s center of mass and roughly shares a vertical relationship to the ground.
The shoulders are going to be in an attacking position where the back shoulder is slightly higher than the front shoulder and the back elbow is up (some guys slot a little sooner than others). The shoulders are also going to remain closed while the hips slightly open - creating hip/shoulder separation. This gives the athlete the ability to store energy just the way you would when pulling a rubber band back. The anchor point to pull back from would be the lower half and the rubber band pulling back would be the upper half.
While these are some general rules of thumb, there are plenty of athletes that do things differently (see below). While we wouldn’t necessarily teach some of these positions, we definitely wouldn’t coach them out of kids if they had a lot of success with them. Some moves are going to be easier to get away with when the velocity isn’t as demanding, so keep an eye on how patterns fair against better competition. Adjust accordingly, but don’t jump to make changes if they don’t look aesthetically pleasing. Mechanics don’t win baseball games - competitors do.
Kyle Tucker "keeping his knob to the catcher"
As for some common flaws, we see kids over rotate their shoulders, lose balance and get stuck on their backside, dive into the plate and lose their hinge, land with their torso vertical to the ground, and lose angles with their upper half. As for teaching points, we like to start with the lower half and see how everything organizes itself from there. Teach kids how to hinge, create a positive move forward, get a bigger base, and work the hip line into the ground while keeping weight distribution in the middle of both feet. Kids will seek to create tension in bad places (ex: counter-rotating the shoulders) if they can’t create it with the lower half.
As for the upper half, give kids a general rule of thumb and let them experiment by picking up different bats and getting a feel for how the hands and barrel want to work. For example, long bats can help guys who lose angles over the plate and short bats can help kids who lose their hands behind their torso. Take note of what works and be as creative as you’d like. The less verbal cueing the better.
Below are some other thoughts about the swing that were brought up throughout our discussion:
- Get kids to work on creating a slightly uphill swing plane. A lot of kids that we see come in with really steep attack angle (hands directly to ball) that makes it very difficult to square up pitches in the air. A lot of this can be cleaned up in kids with good cueing (ex: hit it high and hard).
From The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams
- Be careful when teaching kids to “keep their weight back.” Our intention is to move forward. The load is not going to be a move where the athlete shifts their weight towards the catcher. Get kids to gain ground and create a positive move towards the pitcher. See our past blog post for more information about this.
- Where your head goes, your body will follow. If the head cannot stabilize after foot plant, the athlete’s body will continue to drift forward and out of contact. After foot plant, you want athletes to rotate around an imaginary steel rod that runs from their midsection out through the top of their head. If the torso rotates above this line, athletes will have the tendency to “pull off” the ball.
- Contact should come out in front off of the lead leg. When working on the tee, make sure it is set up in front of the athlete so they can catch the ball out in front. If you have an athlete that can’t get the ball off the ground, give them a visual in front of the plate where contact should happen.
- The back knee should create an inside move after foot plant where it works down and in as the rear hip starts to rotate forward and the front hip firms/braces. The ground is your best friend as a hitter - use it to your advantage.
- Beware of “one plane swings.” Athletes are going to have to make adjustments to a multitude of pitches in games. Don’t just let them tee off on a pitch middle-middle belt down - get them to learn how to drive a variety of pitches.
Posture varies based on the location of the pitch
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Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns. Keep learning, growing, and doing damage in the box.
We live in an age where there is an abundance of information that is more accessible than ever before. This is a great asset when it comes to making quality information more available to larger crowds. Great information drives better engagement, development, and results as it empowers coaches and athletes to take on more effective training methods. Instead of guessing what is good or bad, we now have a large network of people in constant pursuit of awesome information - and they are more than willing to share it.
On the flip side, having more information at the tip of your fingers makes it more likely that you’ll run into bad information. All information is not created equal. People have different opinions, viewpoints, and interpret things differently than others. Information changes with time and old training regimes can become outdated with new and improved research. Some of the best coaches out there have published things that they no longer agree with. Others aren’t as well-intentioned and publish thoughts claiming their “expertise” as the reason why you should trust them. Either way, you are always going to run into conflicting information.
As a result, it is more important than ever to have a strong filter when sifting through information. The amount of information published is not going to slow down and the quality of that information cannot be guaranteed. You’re always going to have to work through some bad stuff in order to find something that can really help you. Quite honestly, it’s a good idea to collect some bad information early on. You can’t decipher what’s good or bad if you haven’t collected anything that contradicts what you currently think - and what you think is “bad” might actually be exactly what you need to hear.
Below are some tips on how you can learn where to get great information from, who to trust, and how to determine what is useful or detrimental.
- Collect as much information as you can early on. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, bad, or indifferent. Understand a variety of perspectives and learn both sides of the conflicts that you find. When it comes down to it, people are going to generally agree on roughly 90 percent of what you see. The other 10 percent is where you start to see differences in training philosophies. Odds are, you can probably learn something from almost all of the people you come into contact with. Only by interacting with a wide variety of ideas do you really start to build your own opinions and formulate what you believe is true.
- Don’t just look to confirm what you already believe (confirmation bias). Michael Boyle, strength trainer in Massachusetts, made a great point of this saying, “People don’t call for advice, they call for agreement.” Most people are going to search for things that they already believe to be so. It’s uncomfortable to face the facts and objectively look at the validity of what you think is true. If you can put your biases to the side and seek information that contradicts what you believe, you’ll have a large competitive advantage over your peers. You’ll either find a new perspective you never thought of or you’ll only strengthen your argument for what you already know. One of the best ways to build a strong argument is to thoroughly understand the other side of it.
- Beware of self-proclaimed “experts.” Expertise is built through years of experience, skin in the game, and positive impacts on other people. If anyone should call you on expert, it should be the clients and colleagues you work with. If you’re taking the time and energy to validate yourself as an expert online, you probably aren’t one. You’re most likely masking an insecurity where you feel people will only respect you if you have some sort of title next to your name.
- There are no “secrets.” In fact, some of the smartest people/organizations out there share the most amount of free content. If you find someone who claims that have the secret sauce that you can access for $19.99, it probably isn’t worth your time. Don’t waste your time or money with someone who isn’t willing to share their work without a price tag on a public platform.
- There are no free lunches. Don’t be the guy who is always asking for a free-bee. You’re not being thrifty - you’re being a cheapass that no one wants to deal with. Respect other people’s time and put money into resources from people you get a lot from. The free content they put together for you comes at an expense to them. Begging them for more free stuff is another way to tell them you don’t respect their time. Don’t be afraid to spend the dollar - think of it as an investment into your future.
- Beware of jargon. Fluffing up your vocabulary to make yourself seem smarter may fool some, but it doesn’t actually make you smarter. The best in the world are able to take really complex material and break it down to the point where they could teach it to the dumbest person in the room. Using advanced terminology won’t help you do that. As Einstein says it best, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
- Context is key. As Eugene Bleeker says best in his book Old School vs. New School, “Everything is great and everything sucks.” Don’t just jump to conclusions when looking at research, experiments, or other outcome-based methodologies. Try to understand the method, who was involved, and how it was used before forming an opinion about it. A poorly executed weighted baseball program should not be rationale to demonize weighted baseballs.
- Seek transparency. Basic marketing concepts will make you believe everything is good and everyone always gets better with training. This just isn’t reality. While many will not go out of their way to publicize failures, the best in the business have no problem admitting them. If you’re thinking of training with someone who claims they’ve never made an athlete worse, don’t walk - run away. Get information from people who are willing to share their failures and shortcomings. Those who aren’t willing to do so are people you shouldn’t trust.
- There are no guarantees. There is no such thing as a weighted baseball program that guarantees 5-10 mph in x amount of weeks. Training with a certain guru will not guarantee you a Division I scholarship. If anything holds true, you are owed nothing from your training. If you find something that promises you an outcome-based goal, don’t trust it. There are steps you can take to improve your odds at doing something, but your training will never replicate an algebra equation. If anything, your progress is going to look a lot messier than you originally thought.
- Beware of those who spend the majority of their time attacking their competition. If you put together a quality product or service, your success should show for itself. You shouldn’t need to spend your time bashing others to make yourself seem like a better option. People who are secure about their value are going to refrain from going out of their way to stir up a storm. Steer clear of those who always find themselves in the middle of a Twitter controversy. Odds are, it’s the only way people will talk about them.
If you want a list of quality resources to get started, reach out and we can send something your way!
Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns. Keep learning, growing, and finding the best information out there.