The 2020 ABCA Convention was held in Nashville, TN. Throughout the weekend, thousands of coaches gathered to learn, teach, and share ideas to prepare for the upcoming season. Below are some of my thoughts from the experience, reoccurring themes, ideas that resonated, and tips you can take home to your teams and players.
Tech cannot replace the Teacher
The theme of balancing technology and teaching came up more than anything else this year at the ABCA. With the explosion of technology in baseball player development, we are starting to see the benefits of using tech tools – but also some of the pitfalls when it is mismanaged. More organizations today have access to a lot of the same information, but the difference maker is in what is collected, why it’s collected, and how it’s communicated to the athlete. Information is designed to increase your effectiveness as a coach by supplementing what you’re trying to teach. It should not be used to make yourself seem smarter. Application is key – not necessarily collection.
Bobby Tewksbary of Tewksbary Hitting explained how to navigate this problem by starting with what matters. Whether it’s hitting the ball harder, getting on plane earlier, or improving timing, you as a coach need to determine what is going to help that athlete become successful (works the same way with pitching). When you can establish what is important, you can start figuring out how you’re going to measure it. If it’s important, you can’t guess – you need to measure it. The process of collecting this information requires an implementation plan. You need to explain when and how information is going to be collected during training sessions. This involves getting a large enough sample size so you can get a feel for where that athlete is without any bias from small sample sizes. Bo Bichette’s father talked about how he feels kids need 5,000 at bats before they can start to figure out who they are as a hitter. If kids aren’t getting at bats in games, you need to find ways to get them at bats outside of their games.
Lastly, you need to have a plan for when and how you will retest athletes. This shows whether what you’re doing is working or not and ultimately keeps coaches accountable – numbers don’t lie. Some adjustments may be easier or tougher but you can’t determine if an athlete has mastered something if you don’t have the information to support it. Find what matters, learn how to measure it, create a plan for how you’re going to measure it, and retest to see if it’s working.
Building Better People
No matter who was speaking or what level they were representing, one theme seemed to shine through with everyone: Coaches are in the process of building better people. The amount of kids we will work with that will make it professionally is miniscule. Our best bet as a teacher and a mentor is to use baseball as a platform to teach life lessons that will help them beyond their playing days. What we can do for them as players is a bonus.
This begins with your ability to build relationships with your players. We as coaches spend a lot of time talking, teaching, and instructing, but some of the best moments we can spend with our athletes are when we don’t speak a word. In order for our athletes to trust us (we don’t have anything if we don’t have trust), we need to make sure they known their voice is heard. Get to know them outside the baseball field. Know the names of their parents, siblings, and their interests off the field. Know their story, why they play the game, and why they came to your school. This foundation gives us the ability to teach them, hold them accountable, and confront them when they aren’t doing what they said they would do. If you can’t love them on their worst day, you really don’t love them.
The baseball part is the small picture. Building better men should be your ultimate goal as a coach.
“I wouldn’t change a thing”
Smart people learn from their mistakes, but wise people learn from the mistakes of others. Being 23 years old, one of the questions I asked a lot of coaches was, “If you were to do it all over again, what would you change?” Most, if not all, gave me the same resounding answer: “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The experiences we go through as coaches shape who we become. The bad information we used to teach and the athletes we screw up are all a part of the process of becoming a better coach. There is no shame in looking back on what we’ve done before and realizing how differently we would do it today. The information gets better, we learn more from smarter people, and we learn from our experiences with kids. Those that continuously work to hone their craft will figure it out in time. If you aren’t transparent about where you’ve screwed up, you’re not confident in what you do.
We all want to give athletes our very best. We’ll help many, screw up some, and make plenty of mistakes along the way, but our greatest failure will only be if we fail to evolve. The greatest coaches have the humility to show others how they’ve changed, but they also don’t regret the steps in the journey. Own your story – no one started this thing with all the answers.
The best coaches are the ones that are able to navigate the emotions from the highs and the lows. They don’t let success get to their head or failure get to their heart. They keep their foot on the gas when things are going good because they know much work is to be done. They don’t demean their teams when they’re down and instead find ways to pick them up. This even keel demeanor is exactly what kids need to handle a sport deeply rooted in responding to adversity. If you can create that consistency at the top, kids will learn how to take it to their game. Anything that drags us away from the present moment is working against our ability to teach, play, or learn. Stay centered, quiet the drama, and don’t let the emotions of this game pull you off track.
Thoughts from Coaches
Tim Corbin – Vanderbilt University
Every single year, the head coach of the reigning Division I national champions kicks off the event with a speech Friday morning. Tim Corbin’s Commodores captured the national championship last June defeating the Michigan Wolverines for his second championship in five years. Corbin’s work at Vanderbilt is arguably the greatest coaching job in college baseball history. The program he’s built is a large testament to the strong culture he has created – hence, the title of his speech Culture is…
Corbin started his speech describing a story about a young man he wanted to bring to his program early on in his coaching career at Vanderbilt. The young man’s father actually was not interested in Vanderbilt at all (imagine saying that today in 2020), but the kid was very interested and ended up coming to the school. As a freshman, Corbin said you could tell the kid was uncomfortable early on. He didn’t talk much or engage with his teammates. In the fall of his freshman year, the kid had a really rough outing in a practice intersquad. When Corbin went to console him after practice, he couldn’t find him. The next time he saw him was the next morning in his office – eyes red and swollen from crying.
The young man proceeded to tell Corbin that he was going to quit the team, drop out of school, and start working. Sensing discouragement and fear, Corbin explained how he would be making the biggest mistake of his life and ended up persuading him to stay in school and on the team. That interaction was the last time Corbin has to convince David Price to stay in school. The rest is history.
As a coach, you’re in a position where you have the ability to mentor young kids and guide them through difficult decisions in their life. These conversations don’t usually end in both of you feeling good. They’re going to require you to confront the athlete, empathize with their situation, and give them what they need to hear – not what they want to hear. If you can give the kid consistency when everything else in his life seems inconsistent, you have the chance to get him back on track. Who knows – you might just save a big league career.
Culture has become a buzz word in sports today. When new coaches are hired, everyone talks about changing the culture or creating a better culture. It’s easy to talk about what the great cultures look like (hard work, no nonsense, etc.), but it’s really tough to create a sustainable one that aligns with your values. This isn’t done through reading books – it requires years of skin in the game. Patience from years of hard work helps give you wisdom and wisdom helps you see the simplicity of the game. The best cultures don’t do extraordinary things – they just do the ordinary things better than anyone else. As Corbin says best: “Do simple better.”
Culture is not static – it is dynamic and it’s constantly in motion. The things that you allow, encourage, and tolerate are being communicated through your words and actions every single day. As Corbin says, the best way to build your culture is to model it yourself. After you build it, the greatest compliment you can receive as a coach is when your players take the wheel and start to drive your culture. Your role is to facilitate an environment where you can empower players to make these kinds of decisions. Dictating an environment is a great way to build resentment towards the culture you’re trying to create.
On a final note, Corbin talked about how the journey of what you’re doing is greater than winning baseball games. Winning the final game of your season just isn’t practical. What you do as a coach can’t be just about winning the final game because your season is finite – it has an end. Building life lessons into your kids is infinite – it does not end the day your season ends. As coaches, we’re trying to play for the infinite game – not the finite game. Our kids are going to graduate our coaching at some point. What they take with them is what’s most important.
Be the teacher you would want your son or daughter to have
Derek Johnson – The Pitcher/Hitter confrontation and Youth Development
Derek Johnson – Reds pitching coach - was masterful at the convention diving into the pitcher/hitter confrontation and youth development. He started off his segment by illuminating the reality of baseball: Every single pitch is a war between the hitter and the pitcher. There is a winner and loser on every pitch – there is no gray area. This battle of skill and will comes down to the game between the ears. It’s the belief that I’m better than you and this is my opportunity to show you. It’s having the courage to strike first knowing the opponent who makes the first move outnumbers their opponent 9-1. It’s the ability to take punches, quickly recover, and counter with punches. Winning this war comes down to Sun Tzu’s main principle from his book The Art of War: Know thyself, know thy enemy.
Developing an approach on the mound or in the box starts with understanding who you are. What are your best pitches/locations for a strike, swing and miss, and ground ball? What pitches and zones do you hit the best? When you can grasp the things that make you successful, it’s then important to turn your attention to the other side of the battle. What are the tendencies of your opponent? Where are they most vulnerable? How have they been attacked before in the past? What have the results been?
The psychology of this battle lies within the count. The count dictates which side has the advantage going into the next pitch. This advantage is highly predictive of who is more likely to win the battle. This advantage is also constantly fluctuating – differences in just one pitch can swing batting averages over .150 points. If you don’t know who you are, who you’re facing, and if you can’t be present pitch to pitch, your odds at coming out on top are slim to none. At the end of the day, deliveries and swings don’t win games – competitors who are ready to shove It up your ass do. Let your approach dictate your mechanics. If you want to play baseball at a high level, get really good at competing pitch to pitch.
At the youth level, Derek talked about his three big rocks when working with pitchers just starting out: Eyes, tempo, and rhythm. Eyes will dictate your direction, rhythm will sync the moving pieces together, and tempo will determine the speed and efficiency of the movement. Having a strong connection to the ground is also another place to start with young athletes. The easiest way to do this is to teach kids how to tie their shoes and how to feel all six cleats in the ground with their back foot. A lot of energy is lost when kids fail to understand how to utilize their hips and trunk throughout the delivery. Attacking this issue starts with creating a stable platform to move from.
When it comes to developing efficient moves, Derek sees a lot of value in getting kids off of the mound and playing positions that require strong throws within time constraints (i.e. shortstop, catcher). Your best arm action is the one that you’ll use when you’re making a play from shortstop. There’s no conscious thought about where my arm, hand, or foot is. All we’re focused on is catching and throwing out the runner. When our instincts and our subconscious take over, we’re given the freedom to develop authentic and efficient movement patterns.
This is something I talked about with Twins infield coach Tucker Frawley. When a lot of kids come to Yale and become pitcher only players after spending years as an infielder, many complain about losing a lot of athleticism pretty quickly. He’s seen several infielders who can hop on the mound and throw the ball pretty hard after years of learning how to sling balls across the diamond. While he’s only seen a small sample size, Frawley sees a lot of value in giving pitchers the freedom to continue to take ground balls and make throws from infield positions. Pitching a 5 ounce baseball 90-100 times a game out of the same delivery doesn’t match the movement variability of a shortstop making several types of plays. You want to give kids the opportunity early on to explore a wider spectrum of movement solutions so you can maximize their window to develop their most optimal movement patterns. You have to learn how to throw before you learn how to pitch.
Derek finished his presentation on a great thought: “Most people know what to do and how to do it, but very few are willing to do it.” Discipline is the separator. If you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, people will see right through you. Show up, shut your mouth, and do the work. You only have yourself to blame if you don’t.
Buck Showalter – Perspective from a Life in Baseball
Considering the road that Buck Showalter has taken in baseball, this is one of the presentations I was really looking forward to. He started it off with arguably his best piece of advice from the presentation: “Design practices you would want to be a part of.” He described a situation where he was asked to help out someone he knew at a 15U baseball practice. Instead of setting the field up for a monotonous BP situation where players stand around and lose interest, Buck set up a field by asking kids where they wanted to play. He got a kid in the box, set a 0-2 count, and tried carving up kids with his best stuff. It didn’t even take 15 minutes before the kids were hooting, hollering, and having one of the best times they’ve ever had at practice. In the process, Buck was also able to create a game-like environment that was competitive, engaging, and realistic. After all, over half of our at-bats are going to get to two strikes.
On the scouting side, Buck placed a big emphasis on how kids interacted with their families when gauging if they would be a good fit for his ball club. He wanted to see if they treated their parents and siblings with respect or if they blew them off. He wanted to see if they were alert, present, and if their interactions were genuine. If a player couldn’t pass this test, he wasn’t interested in them.
On the field, Buck loved to watch guys off the ball. If there was a ball laced in the right center gap, he wanted to see if the left fielder was moving to the ball, if the pitcher was backing up third base, or if the first baseman was trailing the runner to second base. This helped give Buck a feel for a player’s alertness and understanding of situations. Not every ball is going to be hit your way in a game, but every single ball in play requires the defense to move as a unit. All nine have a role on every single batted ball. What you do when the ball isn’t hit your way reveals a lot about how you play the game.
On a final note, Buck explained the importance of a true heart. “Know who we want to be, how we want to do it, and stay true to it.”
Randy Sullivan and Eugene Bleeker – The Flaws of Intent Based Training
Randy Sullivan of the Florida Baseball Ranch gave a great presentation on his theory about dead arm. He started by explaining the dynamic systems theory and its importance in your training programs. In its most simplest form, dynamic systems theory states that everything affects everything within a system. Your body is constantly adapting and reorganizing based on the current state of the system and its interactions with the task and environment. Looking at just one or two variables would not account for the multitude of variables that can have an impact on the system. We like to look for cause and effect relationships because they’re easier to explain but our body is not this simple to navigate.
In a baseball context, saying a pitcher got hurt because of “bad mechanics” would be a small part of the equation – even if is true. To properly apply the dynamic systems theory, one would need to look at the pitcher’s injury history, training program, movement constraints, previous training history, his workload, recovery, nutrition, hydration, external factors potentially creating stress (i.e. breaking up with your girlfriend), sleep, mindset, field conditions, weather, warm up, and more. Jumping to one of these variables would be missing the bigger picture and would violate the dynamic systems theory – everything affects everything.
To understand movements as complex as throwing patterns, we need to look at the stable components of the system: Attractors. Attractors are created through the cocontractions of agaonist and antagonist muscles around joints to provide stability and optimize length tension relationships required for removing muscle slack. Removing muscle slack helps the system organize into positions where force can be produced and accepted (you can’t pull a sled with a rope attached until the rope is taught). Movement efficiency is not new – it’s how organisms have learned to adapt and evolve for survival. Our body craves to conserve energy by its biological nature. It’s why some of the best players in this game look effortless when they’re in competition. It’s not that they’re not trying – they’ve just found the easiest ways for them to produce and accept force.
This is something I talked about with Eugene Bleeker of 108 Performance. A lot of Bleeker’s training involves kids learning how to find their most optimal power output using the least amount of effort. Instead of trying to create a lot of tension early on in the sequence, Bleeker wants his athletes to create tension at the right moments in time. You have a small window in baseball to produce and accept force. If you can’t elicit the right amount of tension in these small windows of time, a lot of energy is subsequently lost.
To get a feel for the timing of this, Bleeker likes to cue his hitters to pretend to make contact with a 500 pound ball. This helps athletes create feel for bracing the trunk when energy is being transferred from the lower half through the midsection and eventually to the bat. This stable platform for the transfer of energy helps segments of the chain decelerate quickly and efficiently. Some of the best athletes in the world are able to decelerate (i.e. throwing on the brakes) much quicker than their counterparts. Hitters and pitchers must have a strong and well-timed set of brakes to prevent energy leakage throughout the movement. Inability to slow the movement down will prevent your body from reaching its top speed out of protection.
Coming back to Sullivan, athletes can start to get themselves out of sequence when misguided intent becomes thrown into the equation. When athletes try to create a lot of effort through intent based training, athletes have the tendency to find energy in the wrong places. High intensity throwing places a larger stress on the system. We know added proper amounts of stress is required to create certain adaptations within a system, but we also know that the body is not interested in conservation of energy within situations where there is a one-off emergency. When the efficiency of a pattern breaks down, tissues start to take on stresses that they are not capable of handling. This causes the body to go into self-preservation mode and save your degrading tissues by placing a governor on your ability to produce power. This is where Randy believes the idea of “dead arm” can come from: Your body is responding to the accumulation of burning too many calories through inefficient movements. Our body will not let us burn calories indefinitely without consequence.
Throwing with higher levels of intent has its place within a training program, but it should not be used to the point where it begins to compromise the efficiency of the system. If it doesn’t look natural, don’t waste your time. Our body craves efficiency – don’t work against it using poorly managed intent training.
David Franco and Alan Jaeger – Mastering the Game Between the Ears
David Franco of the Seattle Mariners performance staff spoke at the youth clinic session about developing a practical plan to help kids learn the mental game. He began by explaining the further away you get from your playing career, the tougher it is to remember how hard this game once was. As a coach, it’s easy to get frustrated when our kids aren’t executing the way we think they should be. However, we’re not too far removed from those games where we smoked three balls right at the center fielder and only had an 0-3 to show for it. Take the scoreboard out of it and get kids to become really good at their process. The younger you can do this, the earlier you can build a robust foundation that will impact their careers as the game becomes much harder.
This process comes down to developing simple, repeatable routines that help kids manage the 15 seconds between pitches. Every single pitch, kids should be able to learn from the last one, get control of their mind and body, create a specific plan for execution, and 100 percent commit to it. This process is used to help get the athlete external and into a state of mind where they are focused on competing with everything they have to win the next pitch. These routines should combine physical actions (stepping out, taking a breath) with mental cues (see ball/hit ball, next pitch) for ultimate effectiveness. Physical routines are of no use if they do not include mental components.
Routines help keep us grounded in competitive environments by giving us things we can do at any time and in any place. Unfortunately, kids don’t always stick to their routines and they can abandon them when they don’t trust in their training. When the results aren’t always there, most kids hit the panic button and lose sight of the process to achieve those results. Alan Jaeger of Jaeger Sports calls these distractions drama – the fans, scoreboard, weather, opponent, coaches, or anything else that you cannot control which is creating a distraction. Having a purposeful process helps eliminate these distractions and keep you focused on the task at hand. Failing to trust in your training or not having a plan/process is a great way to let these distractions get the best of you.
A really important question to ask your kids is what causes them to give away at-bats/pitches? What gets you out of the moment or keeps you from being the best version of yourself? Franco has had experience with minor league players who claimed they threw away a third of their at-bats because they didn’t trust in their process. A third of your at-bats could dictate the kind of season you and your team has. If you can create some awareness for moments that get you out of the present, you can start to recognize these feelings and eliminate moments where we get off track. Everyone knows what it feels like to lose control in these moments, but few have the ability to recognize what goes wrong, why, and how to get back to the present. Of all the skills you can teach kids, this is arguably the most important.
Alan dove deeper into the subject of the mental game by talking about the benefits of meditation for coaches and players. Alan has consulted with major league clubs, players, and some of the best colleges in the nation about the benefits of daily meditation practice. He firmly believes that players need to be able to control their breath, commit to their process, and block out the drama in competitive environments. Being able to meditate and deliberately slow things down is a great way to help block out the drama and connect with yourself on an intimate level.
As athletes and coaches, we’re constantly fighting to connect with our flow state. The flow state is a condition where humans find a balance between skill difficulty and arousal level. When you enter the flow state, you experience this calming sensation where you’re able to execute with precision in the absence of drama. This is what a lot of athletes describe when they’re in the midst of their best performances. There’s no conscious thought guiding them or any kind of distractions pulling them from the task at hand. It’s just them doing what they know how to do best in a relaxed state of mind.
Alan believes that the ability to connect with a flow state is always inside of us. We don’t just access it at certain moments – we always have the ability to find inner peace when everything around us may seem chaotic. This comes from practicing meditation on a consistent basis.
The one thing that Alan emphasizes a lot is you do not need to be a sports psychologist to teach athletes how to meditate. While it does take some practice, anyone can run their team through a guided meditation practice. See his youtube video for a 15 minute guided meditation practice that you can take home to your team. It’s not about creating the best practice possible – it’s doing it on a consistent basis.
On a final note, David Franco left on the quote: “Do everything on purpose with purpose.” Just showing up to practice does not mean you are going to get better. He proceeded to explain a story where Dee Gordon noticed some minor leaguers that were getting blown up on the slider machine. Instead of avoiding the possibility of looking bad, Dee hopped right in there and took the first slider as it missed towards his back foot. When the coach tried to adjust the machine, Dee wouldn’t let him because he knew that was a pitch he needed to work on laying off. In a round of 12 swings, Dee swung at three pitches and took nine. He walked out of the cage confident that he had successfully attacked a weakness he needed to work on.
When the best players in your organization are doing things like Dee Gordon did, you have a chance to build something pretty special.
Jeremy Sheetinger – Becoming a Transformational Leader
Jeremy Sheetinger shared a moving story about his journey as a coach and in the ABCA explaining who he used to be as a coach, why he had to change, and how he does things differently now as the head coach of Georgia Gwinnett College. As host of the ABCA Calls from the Clubhouse for the past three years, Sheets had the opportunity to interview and talk to some of the best minds in baseball. Through this process, he began to realize how his coaching used to be transactional. He valued wins more than developing men, his record became part of his identity, and his ego blurred him from seeing the bigger picture as a teacher.
Today, Sheets understands that baseball is just a game – a lesson he got from Augie Garrido, the second-most winningest coach in college baseball history. Instead of coaching for himself, Sheets learned the importance of empowering his kids and giving them the courage to make decisions on their own. You are going to become the person who you’re supposed to become. As a coach and a teacher, you have an opportunity to help kids discover who they truly are. You won’t go far if you don’t know who you are.
When you start to figure out your identity, you need to say it, mean it, and show it. Alan Jaeger talked about the importance of authenticity – being who you are and acting within your values. Kids can see right through you when the talk doesn’t match the walk. If you want to start somewhere as a coach, understand who you are as a teacher, model it on a daily basis, and keep it real with your kids. They’ll learn how to do the same.
The next point Sheets brought up reminds me of a moment from last year’s Super Bowl. When Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about what his some of his goals are to finish out his legacy as one of the greatest coaches of all time, he said, “Well, I’d like to have a good practice today.” Everyone wants to be great at the end of the tunnel, but few people realize that you need to be good over a consistent period of time before you achieve greatness. Belichick knew this more than anyone else. Instead of focusing on the end goal, he kept perspective to having a good practice that day. If you can do that day in and day out for a long time, you’ve got a chance to be great. Skipping steps on the ladder won’t get you to the top quicker.
One of the values that forms the backbone for Sheets’ program is vulnerability. As a coach, Sheets is not afraid for his kids to see him at his worst. He’s transparent about where he’s been and why he thinks the way he does now. He’s able to create this using the exercise hero, hardship, and highlight. Every single member of the team stands front and center and explains someone who’s helped them get to this point, a moment in time they had to overcome, and something they’re proud of. This creates some tough conversations and can bring emotions out of players and coaches, but in the end it makes the group stronger as a whole by creating a mutual understanding. As humans, we’re quick to make judgements about people who we know very little about. Sharing your story helps people understand you on a level where they can respect you and see things from your perspective.
Through his experiences on and off the field, Sheets has come to describe the bond between all coaches using the word fraternity: The state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group. We are all in this thing together and we all add value to each other. For us to continue to push this great game forward, we need to be in a constant state of support. As Tim Corbin said best, “Grow your craft – not your title.” The day you think you have this thing figured out is the day you don’t.
Every time you talk in front of your team you’re selling tickets to your funeral. The bigger the crowd, the bigger the impact.
Last year was my first experience at the ABCA. It was an incredible thing to be a part of, but it was also overwhelming. There were so many people I had never heard of and there was so much to learn that I did not know. Being alone as a 22 year old kid can be a humbling experience among 6,500 other coaches, but there was one interaction that really made me feel at home.
I was able to introduce myself to Alan Jaeger last year at the tail end of one of the hot stoves Saturday evening. It was a brief introduction and not much was said, but it was the way that Alan introduced himself that really made the difference. His words and his actions were genuine. You could tell he really cared about other people and he had this contagious energy that lifted your mood. When I saw how down to earth Alan was and what he meant to the baseball community, I knew I was in the right place.
As a coach, your words and your actions – big or small – have a profound impact on the people you come into contact with. Don’t ever think you’re too big to introduce yourself to someone that might just be getting started. They probably won’t remember what you say, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.
See you all in DC next year.
A common flaw we see with a lot of hitters is a very steep approach to contact where the hands go directly to the ball. Since we know the average pitch comes in at a roughly negative 6-10 degree angle, hitters need to match this plane for optimal contact with a slightly uphill swing. This maximizes the window for hitters to make hard contact and drive balls in the air. This is also not news - Ted Williams figured this out a long time ago in his book The Science of Hitting. Taking a steep approach to the ball minimizes this window and makes it very difficult to drive balls in the air. Most batted balls with this type of swing are hard ground balls or pop ups with excessive back spin.
From the Science of Hitting by Ted Williams
We believe this type of swing has become common due to a couple of things. For one, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is very high at younger levels of baseball. A lot of kids don’t catch and throw at a high enough level causing a lot of ground balls to become base hits or errors where players reach base. This positively reinforces movement patterns that help kids just put the ball in play as opposed to driving the ball in the air (kids feel good when they reach first base - they don’t care how). These patterns may work early on but they will not scale as the field becomes bigger and their ground balls no longer find holes. At the MLB level, the batting average on ground balls in 2016 was .239. Just putting the ball in play might work when you’re younger, but it’s not going to create movements that scale when the playing field gets much better.
Another reason why kids can develop a steep approach to the ball is the misinterpretation of what it means to be quick to contact. Conventional wisdom suggests the quickest route between two points is a straight line. However, this is not true for an object traveling through space between the same two points. In the famous Brachistochrone Curve, the ball that travels on the most direct route actually finishes last compared to the other two balls. The ball that gets to the end point first has a distinct curve which takes a steeper negative route but finishes on a slightly uphill path (sound familiar?). As a result, a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points - but it is not the path of least time.
The Brachistochrone Curve showing the path of least resistance, from @InertialObservr
In terms of the swing, hitters must be able to create early acceleration by turning the barrel back - not by taking the hands directly to the ball. This move helps maximize bat speed by keeping the stretch shortening cycle engaged. Turning the barrel helps pulls slack out of the system just the way you would pull slack out of a rope if you wanted to drag a sled. This keeps tension in the posterior shoulder and trunk in order to create elastic energy (think of the way you’d create energy when you pull a rubber band back). This elastic energy is then used to produce force required for the swing. If the hands run forward and take a direct route to the ball, hitters are not able to keep tension necessary for removal of slack for optimal energy production and transfer.
Stanton and Bonds turning the barrel back as opposed to pushing their hands forward, from Heefner 2018 ABCA Presentation
Here are a couple of really good visuals for this turn.
After this, the athlete must continue to accelerate the barrel and get it going on a slightly uphill plane. To optimize for ball flight, athletes should strive to catch the ball on the upswing. This would create what is known as a positive attack angle - where the bat reaches its lowest point before contact is made. A negative attack angle would be a situation where the barrel is traveling on a downhill (steep) plane at contact (i.e. taking your hands directly to the ball). To hit the ball hard and in the air, athletes should strive to create a positive attack angle. Maximum ball flight is going to occur when the bat is able to match the plane of the pitch with minimal spin off the bat. This is very hard to do when you take a downhill path to a ball traveling on a downward plane.
Altuve matching the plane of the pitch with a slightly uphill swing, from @HyattCraig
A lot of attack angle issues can be cleaned up by eliminating some bad cueing. As we’ve discussed before, our thought patterns have a direct correlation to our physical mechanics. Most kids have been taught to swing down on the ball their entire life. Finding the cues that helped establish these patterns (ex: swing down, hands to the ball, knob to the ball) can help create a mutual understanding for where they are and how they got there. From here, giving athletes the freedom to drive the ball in the air (external cueing) is a really easy way to unlock some athleticism where the athlete can discover more optimal patterns.
Based on how the athlete receives this, you can add in some other cues such as taking your hands to the sky, turning the barrel back, or slotting the elbow into the rib cage. Find which one resonates and incorporate it into your vocabulary with the athlete. A lot of our athletes tend to describe their best swings when making this adjustment as “smooth.” It’s worth using this cue with athletes who are trying to create a better swing plane. Steep bat paths can create a “choppy” feeling as the bat is moving through space.
Batted ball flight is going to be your best source of feedback when making this swing change. The athlete’s goal should be to hit balls hard and in the air with the least amount of spin possible. A lot of spin after contact is going to be indicative of a swing plane that has a tough time matching the plane of the incoming pitch. Early on, try to get athletes to feel the difference between a pushy swing plane (hands directly to the ball) and a more ideal swing plane (turning the barrel back). Hitters will only be able to make long term changes if they can feel the difference between certain movements. Create some routines that the athlete can use to create a feel for the movement you’re trying to create. Utilize film to understand how the “feel” relates to the “real.” At the same time, understand the feel might not always match up to the real. Every athlete is going to process things differently - adapt accordingly.
Jaden creating feel for an uphill swing plane between pitches
Posey and Carpenter feel moves vs. what their actual swing looks like, from @HyattCraig
Below are a few different drills Dan Heefner from Dallas Baptist University uses to create feel for a more optimal initial move to the ball (from 2018 ABCA Presentation).
Using a foam roller to hold angles as the bat moves into the hitting zone
Feeding the mistake from the front and trying to get the hands to slide forward prematurely
Creating feel for keeping the hands back while turning the barrel
Hitting plyos are a great place to start when working on this change in tee work and flips. The goal when using them is to square them up and hit them hard in the air with minimal spin. Hitters with a really steep path to the ball will struggle to square these up and drive them in the air. The ball itself will create an external focus to help the hitter organize into more efficient patterns using feedback from ball flight. Skills are best learned and retained implicitly rather than explicitly. Give the athlete parameters to work within but don’t overcoach the athleticism out of them.
Hitting plyoballs can help hitters get a better feel for their bat path
A drill you can use with hitting plyos is slow pitch softball styled underhand flips. By increasing the arc of the incoming pitch, hitters are forced to create a bat path that is going to match the exaggerated negative plane of the ball. This goal is obviously not to build a slow pitch softball hitter, but rather to create a feel for how the body should work to create a better attack angle. The goal is to drive the ball with minimum spin in the air. Below is an example of a hitter who we used this drill with to create a better path to the ball. The after video (top) was taken at the end of just one session with the athlete.
Notice Dallas creates better angles by tilting his shoulders and working into the ground (watch back knee) to help him square balls up and drive them as opposed to slicing underneath them (see bottom).
Another tool you can use with athletes is putting a longer bat (ex: fungo) in their hands and working the middle-in portion of the plate. The constraint of the longer bat and the pitch location forces the athlete to create a tighter turn that cannot be accomplished using a handsy/steep move to the ball. Heavier bats are also going to help create a more efficient path to the ball by keeping the barrel connected to the torso without excessive hand manipulation. Heavy bats act as constraints the same way weighted baseballs can constrain pitchers into more optimal arm actions (see our article on variable practice for more information about this.
For some athletes, teaching a better path to the ball starts from the ground up. Teaching better moves with the lower half can help clean up poor swing paths by creating a more efficient sequence. Below is an example of a college hitter who came in with bat path issues. Instead of jumping to the path path, I got him into a narrower stance and gave him the freedom to create more movement with his lower half. Using only the cue “hit a homer to center field,” you’ll notice a completely different sequence with both the lower half and upper half.
Notice how he does not lose a lot of space behind the white line in the bottom shot as opposed to the top shot. Negative sway gives athletes a tendency to get stuck on their backside and can have a subsequent impact on swing plane (ex: pulling off, slicing underneath balls). Athletes with wider bases tend to create this sway as they feel the need to go back to go forward. We like to cue this move using "down and out."
Notice Colin is able to turn the barrel in the bottom frame giving him more space for his hands to work on an uphill plane to the ball (see his front elbow work up in the bottom frame as opposed to down in the top frame). He's able to catch the ball on the upswing and stay through the zone longer as a result.
Jaden is another example of an athlete who worked hard to improve his swing plane. Notice the position of his hands after his initial move in both frames (see the white line). In the top frame, his hands slide forward and push. In the bottom frame, Jaden is able to turn the barrel back and hold angles like the Bonds and Stanton still shots from above (hands, rear hip/knee should align). For him, the things that clicked were trying to create feel for getting the barrel on an uphill plane (see feel move from above) and driving the ball in the air.
Hannah was someone who we started from the ground up to help create space for her hands to work on an uphill plane. Notice in the gif below how she creates very little movement in the top frame. This gave her a tendency to get stuck on her backside (i.e. squish the bug) and lose a lot of power. We used medicine ball work to help fix this and create a bigger base for her to fire from (see the difference in how far she travels beyond the white line in the bottom frame).
From here, we used some plyoball work and some external cueing to help create the desired ball flight which would indicate a much better approach to the ball. Notice the difference in hand positions after the initial move (white line) and contact positions. She's able to catch the ball on the upswing in the bottom shot as opposed to the downswing in the top shot. This helped her drive the ball in the air with minimal spin for optimal ball flight.
Creating a better path to the ball is an adjustment that athletes tend to pick up on pretty quickly with the right cueing and drill implementation. With this, don’t rush to progressions before seeing some early mastery. If you challenge the pattern too soon, it will break down. When adding progressions, make sure to film and reassess so you can be sure the pattern is sticking. Don’t guess if you don’t have to - confirm what your eyes are seeing as much as possible. Most kids today are visual learners. If they can see what they’re feeling and bridge that gap, they will be more likely to retain that pattern in the future.
Feel free to reach out with any questions, thoughts, or cases of your own. Keep learning, growing, and please don’t tell kids to swing down on the ball.
Our fielding roundtable discussion was built around the theme of mastering catch and throw. If you cannot execute the basics of catch and throw from your position, you will not play this game at a high level. Carmen talked about how one of the first things college coaches ask him when talking about prospective student athletes is if they can field their position. It’s very easy to get caught up in the swing and trying to launch balls into outer space, but nothing can replace catching and throwing exceptionally well. More games are lost rather than won. Teams who play great defense don’t beat themselves.
Mastering the Basics
Before grabbing the fungos, coaches must learn how to police catch play. We go into great detail about this in our blog article “Summer Camp Recap - Teaching Catch Play.” Carmen cannot emphasize enough that the time you play catch for is the most important part of your practice. If kids can’t make throws from 120 feet in catch play, don’t expect them to throw the ball across the diamond with precision. If you police it, it will improve with time.
A visual of the sweet spot of the glove, from Frawley/Correa ABCA Presentation
An important concept to emphasize early on with catch play is creating feel for the sweet spot in the glove. Just the way your bat has a sweet spot, your glove also has a sweet spot located between your thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger. You know if you’ve got one in the sweet spot if you hear a nice crisp pop on the catch. If you don’t hear this pop, you’ve missed the sweet spot. To create the proper sound, players should try to “stick” the ball out in front of their eyes. The ball shouldn’t take you back on the catch. If the ball takes you to your left or right, move your feet and catch it out front. Catch with your feet, throw with your feet.
All infielders should get into this position as the ball enters the hitting zone
When you start your ground ball work, it is important you put a premium on the set up/ready position. This should mirror the athletic position - knees bent, feet slightly wider than shoulder width, head over center of mass, arms slightly bent outside of hips. A lot of kids will start with their hands inside their hips almost pre-set in a catch position. This puts the athlete in a disadvantageous position and can inhibit range. Players must be able to get into this position every single pitch. Just like hitting, a poor set up position can throw off the events that follow.
Along with this, infielders must understand how to create pre-pitch movement. Through years in professional baseball, Carmen has learned that the most range is lost from this position. Kids with stagnant feet as the ball enters the hitting circle struggle to get good reads off the bat. Just as a football defensive end depends on his first two steps, infielders need their first two steps to be crisp. Your ability to do this largely depends on your pre pitch move.
Teaching a tennis style "hop" is a great move for infielders learning pre-pitch movement
We like to teach a tennis styled “hop” for infielders just learning the pre-pitch move. This helps get athletes on the balls of their feet as opposed to being flat on their heels. The timing of the move should happen right around where the ball meets the dirt/grass cutout. Athletes can hop from a narrow or wider base depending on what feels most comfortable. The right/left footwork prior to the hop should depend on which side of the field the athlete is covering. For example, third basemen should go right/left because they have the line covered to their right. First basemen should go left/right because they have the line covered to their left.
Jaden utilizing a split hop pre-pitch move
With this, the hop is not the only move you can make. You can step into it, sway into it, or even step back based on the position and type of athlete. The timing for the move remains the same. If you’re working with kids just getting a feel for the infield, a simple right/left step “into the circle” is a great place to start.
We have put a premium on this move in our team practices. Below are a few before and after examples of pre pitch moved with a few of our high school kids.Before
From here, we turn the emphasis to good catch positions. Some of the things we look for are a triangular position where the athlete gets a wide base and their head is over their center of mass. The right foot should be in the ground and the left toe should be up. The head, ball, and glove should be in line with the glove creating a ramp. The glove should be presented out in front of the athlete’s eyes as opposed to closer to their belly button. The glutes should be pushed out in a hinge position where the athlete’s back is tabletopped. The feet should be slightly staggered with the left foot slightly in front of the right (from right/left footwork).
Jeter showing a quality catch position
A good question we received was whether you should teach kids to funnel with two hands or play through with one. We think both are great options and the style is up to the individual. For kids just starting out, we find a lot of value in teaching kids how to catch one handed. Most coaches are going to teach kids to use two hands and get in front of everything, so reinforcing a position where the athlete is forced to use one hand can free up a lot of athleticism. Kids who funnel can also have a tendency to lose the fingers and funnel the ball too quickly towards the belly button. On the flip side, make sure kids keep a relaxed arm when playing with one hand. A straightened arm creates tension that limits freedom, quickness, and adjustability.
Progressions to a Moving Ball
After creating a feel for good catch positions, we like to incorporate the footwork by introducing right-lefting the ball. When the ball comes off the bat, infielders must be able to get to the right of the ball to read the incoming hop. To understand this, see the visual below. You don’t see the shape of the object until you’re able to tilt it slightly to the right. In the infield, you won’t be able to get an accurate read on the hops until you can get an angle on the batted ball. As a result, right-lefting the ball has a huge impact on hop selection.
You can teach this move to athletes using some basic constraint work. Place an object in front of the athlete and roll/hit fungos directly at the object. The constraint of the object forces the athlete to work to the right of the ball without taking a large “banana” route to the ball. Below is a video of one of our athletes practicing this move using a bucket as his constraint.
You can't see the shape of the object until you create a slight angle (get to the right of it)
Utilizing a bucket constraint can help kids get a feel for right-lefting the ball
Right-lefting the catch is also an important move to create good catch positions and direction towards the target. As Carmen says best, the ball always wants to gain ground. Being able to right/left the catch helps the athlete redirect energy as opposed to catching, stopping, and then starting back up again. It also helps athletes learn how to time up their glove presentation as their right foot plants. Just the way you walk, your left arm wants to work in tangent with your right leg. As the right leg plants, the glove should start to present and create a ramp for the ball. As the left leg lands, the heel drops first and the toe drops left. We call this a heel-toe move (see Lindor). It gives the infielder adjustability and helps them stay grounded in their right foot as opposed to leaking out.
Two drills that help teach the right/left footwork are toe up and leg up. The toe up drill helps create a feel for the heel-toe move with the left leg at catch. The athlete should plant the heel as they catch the ball and replace feet using a 2 step approach. Coaches can roll huggers and short hops to the athlete. See the video below from Tucker Frawley and Kainoa Correa’s 2019 ABCA Presentation for what this should look like.
The leg up drill is a progression off the toe up drill which reinforces the same right-left principles from a more dynamic position. The left leg should be back with the glove hand forward and the right leg planted in the ground. As the ball is rolled, the athlete begins to take his glove and left foot to the ground using the heel-toe technique. See video below from the Frawley and Correa presentation for what this should look like.
Teaching athletes how to cut down distance and play on an “x” are important concepts when infielders start to react to a moving ball. A drill you can use to teach cutting down distance is the line and circle drill. Draw a straight line from the athlete’s starting position and extend it anywhere from 5-8’ depending on the distance from the fungo hitter. At the end of the line, trace out a circle big enough that the athlete can get into a good catch position inside of it. Hit ground balls on the line at the athlete and try to get them to catch the ball inside the circle using good right/left footwork. If the athlete can’t catch the ball in the circle, they haven’t cut down enough distance. You can also use the line as a visual for athletes to get to the right of the ball.
When moving left and right, infielders should strive to play the ball and cut down angles on a “x” as opposed to a “t”. Playing on an x (see Bregman interview with A-Rod) forces athletes to take more direct routes to the ball as opposed to working predominantly east and west. This helps cut down distance and gives infielders more time to make throws. Certain types of batted balls will require different angles. Carmen says best: “The ball will dictate the play.” Get your kids to learn how to play balls on as many different angles as possible. No one has ever gotten the same exact ground ball in a game twice. Your practices should mirror that unpredictability (see our previous blog post for more on variable practice).
As Bregman alluded to in the interview, certain positions are going to have different concentrations of batted balls. Below is a heat map from Frawley and Correa’s ABCA Presentation showing the ground ball distribution between Andrelton Simmons and Nolan Arenado.
As a coach, the fungos you hit in practice should reflect the heat map above. Middle infielders should learn how to be comfortable catching and throwing when moving far to their left and right. Corner infielders should be able to catch and throw moving in and moving back. Some balls are going to require infielders to retreat so they can catch the big hop. See Anthony Rizzo for an example of this.
Catching and throwing on the run is an important skill for both types of infielders. To help athletes get a feel for this, start by rolling kids huggers/tossing short hops from 8-10’ away. Get kids to learn how to get to the right of the ball, catch off their glove foot, and throw off their post (right) foot. The post foot should be angled so the middle of the shoe is facing their target - also known as a toe in move. The shoulders should be angled so the athlete can transfer and deliver the ball from a lower slot. This move is similar to the action a hitter takes when they try to match the plane for a pitch down in the zone. Fielders cannot throw from just one angle - they need to be able to utilize a variety of angles to be most effective.
Infielders must be able to use a wide range of arm slots
When you can get kids to understand a variety of plays, teach them when to utilize each one using the four second pace. In 2019 at the MLB level, more than half the league got from home to first between 3.93 and 4.40 seconds. As an infielder, you need to be able to make plays within this time constraint. Building this internal clock is going to determine whether you take a four step pattern, two step, get rid of it right away, or play it on the run. The best way to get a feel for this is to us a stopwatch or live baserunners. If guys can’t consistently make plays within this time constraint, it’s worth examining their routes to the ball, footwork after the catch, or repositioning them to adjust for their arm/range.
Double plays are a great progression off basic infield work to teach various moves, feeds, and footwork. We work on these consistently at our team practices. Just like ground balls, different double play feeds are going to depend on the feed. At second base, you’re going to have three basic moves: step back, step across, and step behind. On all three feeds, the second baseman is going to take their left foot to the bag and their right foot to the ball (on the catch). Carmen also brought up second basemen should also try to finish their feed with their knees facing towards first base to help protect against awkward side collisions.
The step back is going to be your basic move on a good feed without any significant time constraints. The second baseman is simply going to step back to clear the base path and make the feed. The step behind is going to be for the feed that misses the second baseman arm side. On the throw, the second baseman should adjust and step behind the bag to make the feed. Infielders are protected behind the bag just the way they are protected outside the sliding lane. The step across feed is for the ball that takes the shortstop or third baseman away from the bag. By stepping across, second basemen are able to cut down distance and shorten the time for their feed given the time constraint of the batted ball. See our instagram post from the past to get a feel for what these should look like. Also see Jose Altuve for the step back/across moves in a game situation.
On plays where turning two isn’t likely, second baseman should turn into a first baseman and sell out to get the lead runner. In doing this, defenses are able to keep a runner out of scoring position and keep the double play in tact. If the infielder taking the ground ball bobbles a potential double play feed, the play should automatically go to one. Outs are a premium as a defense. Don’t give one away because you tried to rush a double play feed when you had a chance to get the guy at first.
At shortstop, it’s important to play behind the bag when receiving double play feeds. You don’t want to cheat towards the glove side part of the bag and get beat arm side on an errant throw. We always want to secure the out at second base (see Gleyber Torres secure the catch before making a feed to first). When turning double plays as a shortstop, the footwork is flipped. The left foot goes to the ball and the right foot swipes across the back of the bag. Footwork should be aligned as close to first base without impeding in the baseline. If the throw takes the shortstop far to their glove side, you can utilize a spin to get momentum back towards first base. If the ball misses arm side, have the athlete take their left foot to the back and right to the ball - just like a second baseman. See our previous instagram video for what these should look like.
Both middle infielders should learn how to deflect when receiving good feeds on double plays. Deflecting happens when the person catching transfers from glove to hand without closing their glove (see Altuve). This makes for a quicker transition that is necessary to make plays within a four second pace. Athletes should deflect on feeds that are within the framework of their body - chin to belt, shoulder width. If feeds take athletes outside of this framework, the athlete should catch one handed and transfer in the middle of their body. Taking two hands on a bad feed can limit range and create poor throw positions by taking the athlete away from their target.
Make the Exceptional Play
On a final note, too much of infield instruction is monotonous. Ground balls are hit right at kids and two hands need to be used for everything. This is simply not how the game is played. While mastering the basics is crucial, athletes need to learn how to make the exceptional play. They need to be able to dive and snag a ball heading down the left field line. They need to be able to make the spin six up the middle as a shortstop. They need to be able to make that Jeter play deep in the hole and cut down the lead runner at second.
If you don’t give kids the freedom to play with athleticism and make a variety of plays, you’ll never be able to do them in games. Your practices will either free your kids to be themselves or constrain them into a mold driven by fear. Keep things fun and make the extraordinary play.
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
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.