Your brain will learn to quickly recognize pitch types and accurately track pitch movements and pitch endpoints even if you are unaware the brain is doing it!
The above statement is a staple of our hitting program that we have strongly believed in, vehemently pursued, and regularly accomplished even though we
weren’t always sure HOW we did it and weren’t always quite sure how to measure it. I based this statement on observational data gathered through years of deliberate batting practice and successful results on the field.
This statement seemed to be the best way to explain to our hitters on day 1 of the season what I knew their capabilities would be by the end of the season. Although I could never fully explain how their brain would be able to acquire skills such as identifying hand positions of pitches at full speed or how hitters would be able to lay off borderline breaking balls, I KNEW the hitters would be able to acquire these skills even if I couldn’t fully explain to the hitters WHY they were going to acquire the skills.
What I did know is a plan for HOW to arrive at gaining these skills. I have always been convinced that the best way to teach timing and pitch recognition to a hitter is to have the hitter engage in live arm batting practice at equivalent game speed while mixing pitch types thrown to hitters. Our program has been doing numerous versions of this batting practice since 2013 and what has always rung true for our teams is that by the time playoffs roll around we were indeed able to quickly identify pitches and lay off nasty pitches against some of the best pitching we had seen all year.
The learning ENVIRONMENT plays a key role in acquiring advanced skills with the magic lying in the coaching staff’s ability to finding a way to make inherently dull implicit learning come to life in a fun and meaningful way. I refer to any complex skill that is improved or acquired without the learner being able to explain HOW they have acquired a skill as implicit learning. Even though I knew our implicit learning was occurring due to what I was seeing on the field, it always bothered me that I could never explain to our hitters WHY they were improving through implicit learning. I spent much time researching this phenomenon (and still do) to see which parts of our training are the pieces that ingrain these abilities the most.
What I have come to find is the following things:
1st – Mental representation are ABSOLUTEY ESSENTIAL!
- The book PEAK by Anders Ericsson discusses that for athletes to perform a skill at their best, they have to be able to build a mental picture of what it is you are asking them to do. If the athletes can picture a complex skill, then they are able to attempt the skill and figure out which part of the skill broke down during times of failure. To know whether a hitter has a good mental representation for what you are asking them to do they should be able to explain the representation to the coaching staff. Once the learner has a solid representation for what the finished product is supposed to be, smaller elements within the whole representation can be “chunked” and practiced in small parts to improve the intricacies of the representation.
Example: 0K approach
A hitter should be able to explain to the staff the pitch they are looking for, the goal for what they will do with the pitch and how the hitter will do this.
Elements that can be “chunked”
- Pitch recognition
- 0 strike “doubles” swing
- Strike zone recognition
- Contact point
- Bat path
2nd – DELIBERATE PRACTICE IS THE BASIS FOR SUCCESS
- Personal improvement is the name of the game and a challenging environment where failure may happen is essential! Anders Ericsson and Daniel Coyle (Talent Code) both discuss this concept with Coyle going into depth on Carol Dweck’s growth mindset as being a crucial tool for succeeding at deliberate practice. Deliberate practice needs to be as close to the game situation as you can possibly create. Players must be trained that failure is a tool to assist in mastery rather than something to be avoided.
3RD - STREGTHEN YOUR MYELIN
- The more times we perform a repetition, the better our brain gets a reproducing this action. What action are you wishing to produce? In terms of pitch recognition and timing, EVERY pitch your brain sees strengthens the pitch recognition myelin. The more live arm pitches we see, the quicker our brain is able to process pitches. Myelination is discussed in depth in “Talent Code”. Here is a short explanation of myelination: Growing Talent With a Hands Off Approach | by Jason Esposito | Medium
4th - IF THE EYES DON’T WORK PROPERLY, WE CANNOT HIT OPTIMALLY
Eye patterns matter! The more of the pitch the batter sees, the more data they have to utilize when swinging or taking. It is imperative that hitters KNOW how they are utilizing their eyes pre-pitch and at release so we can know if they are maximizing their ability for the brain to collect data. The eye can track the pitch in to the point where the swing is initiated, but after that, it seems that the brain utilizes its predictive capabilities to place the bat in the proper place for contact.
Practicing and evaluating eye patterns has been instrumental for our hitting approach. Practicing this off a live pitcher allows hitters to develop a rhythm for their saccades and head rotation during a live pitch. Also, by seeing live pitches, this also theoretically strengthens the myelin of pitch endpoint prediction.
THE BRAIN IS CAPABLE OF DOING ALL THESE THINGS AS IT IS LITERALLY BUILT TO DO THIS! This stands to reason that if the brain is capable than improvement MUST be possible. The key is designing drills that create improvement in the areas listed above and being able to explain the goal of the drill while keeping instructions simple and digestible for hitters.
Myelination of the brain is an EXTREMELY hard thing to measure and we attempt to do so in the following ways.
1. We do a variety of pitch recognition drills that we create a game out of and assign scores with “winners” and “losers”. By creating a game out of the drill players really lock in and compete to defeat one another and players can track their scores over time to see if they are improving.
2. In game, we track 0 strike “excellence” by evaluating swing decision in their 0K count. By tracking 0 strike excellence we are able to evaluate the hitters decision making ability on 0 strikes and then reverse engineer our results into figuring out if the hitter is struggling in an area such as having a poor working mental representation, poor focus during practice drills, or improper eye usage (or in some cases, the need for corrective lenses).
Lastly, because a pitch happens at such a high rate of speed, I believe the brain subconsciously logs much of the information and learns from it creating myelin and improving conscious skills by helping a hitter to SIGNIFICANTLY improve at pitch identification and K zone awareness even if the hitters is in denial of the blossoming ability and unaware of the improvement in ability.