We have a Part 2 to this series that demonstrates how we use constraint drills and overload/underload concepts.
We get asked often, “How do you guys teach hitting mechanics?”
“What movement patterns do you teach?”
“What’s your philosophy?”
Well, our approach is different, I suppose, but likely much simpler than you’d expect. I’ll open with this: what we don’t teach is just as important as what we do.
“Adapt or Die”: Coaching Hitting Mechanics in the Tech Age
Before I go into our approach, I want to talk about an important aspect of the hitting world. Like anything, our understanding of baseball is always changing. Darwin once said “the only thing constant is change.” I’m a young coach, but I’ve witnessed quite the change in my lifetime.
Growing up, I didn’t really have access to video. I rarely saw slow motion video of professionals, or of myself. My only coach was the coach of my current team. Nowadays, it’s typical for a player to receive coaching tips and cues from a wide variety of sources. Kids have Instagram coaches, Twitter coaches, YouTube coaches, etc. And everyone is a “genius.”
This access to information has been great for coaches and players. Many of the myths about the swings have been debunked and the young generation is relatively aware. The data has begun to force coaches to “adapt or die.” When we teach kids a certain movement, they are likely going to go on YouTube immediately after the discussion and “fact check” you, creating a sort of accountability. Some of the gray areas of hitting theory are becoming more and more black and white. For example, most 13 year olds with a smartphone know that big leaguers don’t chop down, or “squish the bug.”
With that being said, I think hitters are more obsessed with hitting mechanics than ever before. A search of “baseball swing breakdown” on YouTube leads you to over 26,000 videos. Most of these videos consist of a coach talking swing mechanics and drawing lines and talking about angles in the swing, and I’m afraid that this has brought about some negative side effects. Many hitters have become internalized in their approach, and I’ll get into what I mean by that below and more in-depth in part 2.
I believe that comprehension of elite swing mechanics and movement is a crucial part of being a hitting coach. This blog is not about understanding hitting, its about coaching hitting, and there is a difference.
Cueing the Right Hitting Mechanics
If you go into any batting cage lesson or training session, you are likely to hear verbal cues. “Stay back,” “stay inside” “drive the ball the other way” “sit back” and “see it deep” are just a few examples of common cues given to a hitter. Cues can be internal or external.
Internal: asking the athlete to focus on their own body and movement
External: having the athlete focus on the effect of their movement
Lots of research has been done on this subject in sports and it is an imperative part of coaching. It seems that great coaches know how to use cues. They know what to say and when to say it. Early in my coaching career, I used them all the time; I was always there and eager to provide my feedback. After a while, I realized I was often doing more harm than good, and causing more confusion than correction. Surely, athletes need feedback. But sometimes, less is more.
So what type of cues should we use?
Studies suggest that athletes produce more force and sequence more efficiently when they focus externally versus internally. EMG activity showed that when the athlete focused on their body movement, there was a higher output of muscles that are not supposed to be activated, thus slowing down the body (Wulf, Su). I see far too many young hitters who’ve been over-cued and coached out of natural movement patterns.
Furthermore, and maybe even more relevant for training hitters, is internal focus’s effect on reaction time. First and foremost, research has suggested that internally and externally generated movement uses different parts of the brain. (Internal v. External Generation of Movement).
What happens when an athlete moves while conscious of his body? The athlete “constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control processes that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement”. So, when an athlete is thinking about their body, they are interfering with the part of the brain that deals with reaction and subconscious movement (Castaneda) . A pitched ball between 80-90 mph takes roughly .42-.48 to reach home plate. As far as I’m concerned, any focus that isn’t on the ball is wasted.
So, how often should we give cues to our hitters? Every mishit doesn’t need feedback. Hitting has way too much failure to do this. Try to avoid the common practice of “result-based diagnoses.”
Result-based Diagnosis: telling a hitter what his body did, based solely on the outcome of the swing
|Pop Up||Dipped the shoulder|
|Roll over||Didn’t stay inside|
|Late||Didn’t get the foot down|
As a college hitting coach, this really bothered me. When a hitter gets out because he was late, he would come to me and ask about his front foot and what his shoulders were doing and whatever else, and my response was often “You were late. Don’t be late next time, stop blaming your body” Blaming the body for a mishit is almost always a misdiagnoses. The vast majority of the time it is due to timing, vision or approach. It is dangerous for a hitter to think he needs to go make mechanical changes every time he doesn’t square up a baseball.
Furthermore, many coaches, myself included, fall into the trap of using result based diagnoses to validate their concepts. Every time a hitter produces a good result, its “See? I told him to do ____ with his hands? Did you see that? IF only he would listen!” There are so many variables involved in hitting, and the human eye is very limited in what it can see during a swing. Don’t make it about you.
I am not suggesting abandoning mechanical adjustments, which would be absurd. What I am suggesting is that we question the approach we take towards making these adjustments. In a game-setting, I strongly advise against internalizing a hitter’s process. The great Yogi Berra once said “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” There might be some truth to that.
In a practice setting, tread carefully. Before asking a hitter to make a physical adjustment, try putting him in a training environment that requires that skill, and see if he makes the adjustment. The human body is a miraculous thing, and its ability to organize itself and its movements shouldn’t be underestimated, especially when dealing with exceptional athletes (more on our approach to this in Part 2).
I far too often see hitters who have been over-coached, and their movement is unathletic and lacking flow or rhythm. When I recruited at prospect camps, the coaches would quickly label the “lesson baby” who usually gets his foot down absurdly early and chops down while staying closed, while struggling to not fall over. The hitter is so concerned with his movement that he isn’t allowing himself to be an athlete.
When developing a practice routine, try to best simulate the game environment. This seems like an obvious statement, but you’d be surprised at the absurd things people do to train hitters. I suggest the creation of drills that require bat speed, consistent contact, adjustability or whatever your goal is, and challenge your hitters.
Example: I’m working with a hitter who has a “long swing” and is getting beat by velocity or anything inside. Long before I would talk with him about his body, I would simply put him in an environment that requires game-like reaction time. It seems simple but many hitters wonder why they can’t catch up to velocity, while 95% of their practice swings are against 40 mph batting practice, 15 mph front toss, or off a tee. So, how do we simulate game-like reaction time? Use this chart to help:
If I throw 59 mph from 35 feet, we are simulating the reaction time of a 95 MPH fastball being released at 55 feet. The vast majority of the time, the hitter makes the physical adjustment required to hit it. I’ve found that using drills to correct movement is much more effective than talking about the movement itself with the athlete.
Embrace Differences in Style
Furthermore, if you watch a major league game, you’re likely to notice a wide variability in style. Forcing all your hitters to move the same way is a catastrophe and in my opinion, a strange form of narcissism. Rather, we put hitters in drills that require quickness and adjustability, and by allowing them to compete and be natural, they discover their optimal load and stride. I would never tell everyone to leg kick, or toe tap, or get the foot down early. That is unique to each hitter and their body probably knows how to move better than you or I think it should. As a matter of fact, the majority of the coaching I’ve done in my life is actually un-coaching a hitter out of the unnatural movement that he was taught at some point.
So, do we teach hitting mechanics? Yes, but not in the way most do. Taking video/biomechanics, and diagnosing mechanical flaws is the easy part of coaching hitters. Helping the hitter actually make the correction is the difficult part. Our approach? We attempt to develop ideal movement patterns with our hitters by putting them in a specific training environment to force adaptations. We put them in a challenging environment and use competition to raise arousal level. They receive constant objective feedback(exit velocity, launch angle) and we allow them to move freely and discover their swing. Future blogs will go into further detail on common mechanical issues and the drills we use in an attempt to fix those issues.
We are training with overload and underload bats of different weights (buy a set for yourself here); they are hitting weighted balls, doing constraint drills to discover ideal movement patterns, and numerous other drills designed for the refinement of hitting skill. We are testing these procedures and will do our best to figure out what is and isn’t working. I’ve been wrong before and will be again. It’s all about learning and getting better. As you know, this stuff takes time if you’re going to do it correctly, and we will share all this information with you guys. But for now, I ask :
Are you putting your hitters in a training environment that simulates the game environment?
Are you internalizing your hitters to a detrimental point?
Are you allowing your hitters to be athletic? Do you let them swing with intent?
They say hitting is the hardest thing to do in sports. Coaching it isn’t much easier. As technology has its effect on coaching hitting, lets be sure we are using and applying it correctly. As I reflect on my coaching career, I have unintentionally internalized hitters. I feel terrible about it, but I feel solace in knowing I’ve learned from that failure. If we expect our players to learn and continue to get better, so should we. Thank you for reading!