In part one of this blog, we talked about the difference between internal and external cues when coaching hitters. Here we’ll dive into to application of coaching baseball swing mechanics. As a review.
- Internal cue: having the athlete think about the movement of their body.
- External cue: having the athlete think about the effect of their movement.
In summary, internal cues can have a detrimental effect on the movement quality and reaction time of an athlete, and external cues are more effective when coaching movement (Wulf & Shea, 2004).
Now, how do we apply this information to our coaching?
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Using Research to Coach Baseball Swing Mechanics
This is a complex topic, but I will try to summarize my thoughts on how the intention-action model fits into training hitters.
When coaching the movement of athletes, it is critical to understand how the body regulates movements. The intention-action model is heavily supported by research and suggests that the intention of the movement is the first thing processed by the brain.
Examples of intention:
- Where do I want to hit this baseball?
- What ball flight do I want to see?
- How do I want to move this object [bat] through space?
So, very simply put, the intention (external focus) is initially processed, and the movement is then self-organized accordingly. For example, if I asked you to make a figure-8 shape with your fingers, you could do this quite easily. If I then asked you to do the same with your hand, then elbow, then foot, you could do these movements with very little difficulty. All these movements would require a wide variety of complex kinetics, likely unbeknownst to the mover.
What the mover is consciously visualizing is the outward-movement pattern and then allowing self-organization in order to achieve this movement optimally. (Frans Bosch covers this topic in his book Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach.) This is a very simple example, but the same principle applies to more difficult movement.
This is a very brief explanation of a complex model. However, an important takeaway is this: the muscles used by the athlete are selected at the last moment, they are likely recruited subconsciously, and the conscious focus of the athlete is on the outward-movement pattern.
As a matter of fact, asking an athlete to focus on the movement of a joint or contraction of a muscle (internal focus) is working backwards, and it goes against the fundamental principles of movement design. It is not the way the human body operates. This can explain the detrimental effects of internal cueing per the research: inefficient movement patterns (Wulf, Su), decreased balance, decreased power, decreased reaction time (Castaneda), decreased adaptability to variability (especially in open skills) and decreased performance under pressure (Gray, 2004; Masters and Maxwell, 2004).
So, when attempting to make mechanical adjustments with hitters, we don’t directly coach the movement itself, because this would go against the natural route of movement design and “drive the wrong way” on the motor-control route (Bosch 149). Recognizing a mechanical flaw and simply asking a hitter to fix it is not enough. That is where the coaching comes into play.
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So what is our approach to coaching baseball swing mechanics?
We coach the intention and manipulate the training environment to force a player’s baseball swing mechanics towards a positive adaptation. I’ve found this method to be much more effective than coaching the internal movement itself. For one, this method allows athletes to develop their own style.
What’s primarily important to me as the coach is that the hitter is quick to contact, adjustable, and swinging with force. The coach can create a training environment that forces these adaptations, which can be achieved in slightly different ways with each athlete’s body.
Once we have established a mechanical deficiency in a swing pattern, we use this information regarding movement design to prescribe appropriate drills to the athlete. In my experience, there is no one particular magic drill. Every athlete I’ve worked with is unique and has required creativity from the coach and trial and error in drill implementation. We observe the positive and negative transfer of every drill, and we use data to ensure that we are moving in the right direction.
These training principles are far from new and have been understood and applied in other sports for many years—and in baseball by some of the best coaches in the country. Understanding how the brain works in regards to human movement is critical to the coaching of athletes.
Application of Research
So considering the way movements are organized, specifically for baseball swing mechanics, how can we help coach an athlete towards positive adaptations?
Here are a few methods we use at Driveline that we have found effective.
Coach the intention
The intention of the athlete is the driving force that regulates all movement (more on its role in pitching velocity here). This is, without question, the biggest issue I find with young hitters. Far too often are hitters moving in very inefficient patterns, and when asked about their intention, they are “just trying to put the ball in play.”
There is, in my opinion, a cultural issue in developmental baseball regarding the coaching of the athlete’s intention. Hitters are conditioned to believe that they are being selfish by intending to throw or swing fast.
Bernstein’s principle suggests that the body will adapt to accomplish the desired task/goal, and coaches have a profound effect on establishing what that goal is for a young athlete. For example, children in the Dominican Republic are well aware of what it requires to play professional baseball: they need to hit the ball very hard, and their bodies learn to move according to that task/goal.
However, a trip to your local youth baseball field is likely to reveal many kids who are coached into “just putting the ball in play,” and their bodies adapt accordingly. Unfortunately, that likely won’t get you a college scholarship or a pro contract. The data is undeniable: the harder you hit the ball, the more success you will have and the further you will advance in this game.
Shifting a hitter’s intention to simply hitting the ball hard with a good trajectory can drastically and rapidly cause positive movement adaptations, and a great way to create this environment is to provide objective feedback.
Provide objective feedback
Our eyes can and will deceive us. The swing is a rapid movement, and it is near impossible to filter things from our own biases.
Two types of feedback are knowledge of performance (KP) and knowledge of result (KR):
- KP is information about movement characteristics, which leads to internal focus.
- KR is information about the outcome of a movement, which leads to external focus.
Research suggests that KR feedback is significantly more effective, and KP feedback can be detrimental if overused or used incorrectly (Wulf & Shea, 2004).
Measured, accurate results are an extremely powerful tool to coaching movement, and many studies have been done on this subject. Most KP feedback is not stored in the motor-memory system, as the body is only interested in its perceived execution of a movement pattern and the result it acquired. So when coaching hitters, we must provide feedback for our athletes.
We provide this feedback in the form of batted-ball exit velocity, distance traveled, launch angle, and bat speed. The feedback, especially when made public in a competitive-training environment, is a powerful coaching tool.
Using the Hitting Environment to Coach Baseball Swing Mechanics
An athlete being placed in a feedback environment can quickly cause movement adaptations, and the adaptations will be designed by the body in order to perform optimally within the particular training environment. With that being said, it is critical that we are creating an environment that promotes positive adaptations. For example, if the athlete is getting his exit velocity on every swing, and he hits every day off a tee and a 25mph front toss, his movement patterns will adapt to become very good at hitting off a tee and hitting a 25mph front toss.
Gunner Pollman hitting 53 MPH batting practice from 33 feet away.
Breaking balls are thrown as well.
We attempt to create a training environment that encourages mechanical adjustments beneficial to in-game hitting. I can assure you that the environment you create as a coach is far more influential than any KP feedback that you give your athletes.
Is the training environment challenging? "A smooth sea never made a great sailor" -FDR pic.twitter.com/yG75RKLpky
— Jason Ochart (@JasonOchart) February 10, 2017
Effective coaching can be seen in the manipulation of the training environment as much as anything else, and subsequently allowing your athletes to be free, athletic, and compete within that environment encourages positive adaptations.
This allows athletes to develop their own “feel” when training, as this is something unique to each athlete. For example, when we hit high-spin-rate fastballs, I’ve had two athletes who feel like they must swing to the top of the ball to counter for the perceived “rise.” In the past, I would never tell a hitter to aim for the top of the ball because I have bias, and hearing them say that made me cringe. But for these hitters, that is the adjustment they need to make to hit that pitch consistently.
As a coach, we coach the intention, provide feedback, and manipulate the training environment to allow the athlete to develop their own feel.
Using the Environment to Create Drills to Improve Baseball Swing Mechanics
Considering the power of a training environment, an environmental constraint is a powerful coaching method. Simply put, a manipulation of the environment will shift the intention of the athlete and can force positive skill development.
For example, my high school coach was a huge proponent of using the middle of the field. We played a game two to three times a week where he placed cones from home plate to left center and home plate to right center, essentially making the fair territory much smaller. We then played five-inning BP scrimmages at the end of practice. Over time, we became very good at hitting the ball up the middle, and at good launch angles(the L screen was a foul ball) because the environmental constraint created a shift in intention which then allowed the self-organization of our swings (and pitch selection) to hit baseballs in the middle of the field. This method is far more effective than talking to an athlete about the mechanics of a swing that would result in a hit up the middle.
Environmental constraints are used by many coaches in a wide variety of sports including some of the best in baseball. Here are a few more examples (with athletes using our Bat Speed Trainers to vary the load):
Purpose of drill: eliminate a downhill, choppy swing.
Cues: Drive this baseball at a good launch angle without hitting the rear ball.
Purpose of drill: teach athlete to drive the baseball to the opposite field.
Cues: hit it hard, but don’t kill the soft tosser (wiffle balls recommended)
Purpose of the Drill: help athlete learn to generate deep bat speed and drive baseballs to the opposite field. Bat on the ground is used as a constraint to resist the urge to step in.
Purpose of the Drill: teach athlete to pull the baseball without hook or topspin.
This is a great example- Coach Pete Lauritsen utilized a environmental constraint to promote positive launch angles with his hitters. I encourage you all to look into his body of work.
Adaptations, especially further along down the kinetic chain, can be expedited via a physical constraint. Challenging the body to perform the same task/intention, while moving through various constraints can be a powerful tool in coaching movement.
Monotony is the enemy of growth, and variability is critical in training the athlete and challenging the motor system. Creating a stable movement is not done by training in a stable environment; rather it’s the contrary. Our goal is to train movements that are “battle tested” and able to adapt and perform in game conditions.
Again, the body will adapt to the training environment. In-game at-bats throughout the course of the season are extremely variable in a number of ways: pitch speed, spin rate, movement, location, and even the individual athlete deals with variability in his perceived movement pattern related to fatigue and injury, among other things. Here are some examples of a variable training environment:
Drill: Underhand adjustability front toss. The tosser mixes up the speed of the toss in order to promote adjustability in the swing. A simple drill that can add some variability to the training environment.
Drill: Overhand Mixed Front Toss. The tosser throws fastballs at a relatively high velocity, while mixing in off-speed pitches. The variance in pitch movement will obviously be minimal, but enough to create a challenging training environment for the athlete.
A valuable tool in creating stable movements is the development of kinesthetic awareness, or “touch.” Overload and underload implements are a great tool for this.
Using implements of different weights/distributions (end v hand loaded) gives the athlete more information to refine the movement. He will develop “touch” and “feel” and simply learn how to move objects through space. This method of training has been tested and researched many times and is here to stay.
It is no coincidence then that the better hitters (relatively speaking) who have hit at our facility are able to pick up any bat of any weight and hit moving objects with very little time needed for adjusting. They pick it up, feel how it moves through space, and can hit with it. Training with overload and underload implements can train this proprioception. Furthermore, the difference in weight can expose the lack of stability in a movement and reveal mechanical deficiencies in the swing. Here are a few examples of our implementation of Axe Speed Trainers with individual athletes:
This athlete’s swing path was not on plane with the ball
Swinging the 36oz Axe End Loaded bat made him feel “more connected” and his swing plane improved.
The 24oz Axe Underload bat made his swing feel very “handsy” and exposed the flaw that he was trying to fix. Our goal with him became to develop a training program that would ensure correct movement with all implements, thus stabilizing the movement. Over time, he was able to maintain a quality swing plane with all bats, while hitting pitches at varying speeds and locations.
Another example is with this athlete who was not optimally using his lower half to generate force. Swinging the Axe Overload bats with intent proposed a new challenge, and his body adapted accordingly.
The overload and underload bats have been very helpful in coaching the movement of our athletes.
In conclusion, we have attempted to create an ideal training environment here to coach baseball swing mechanics, and we look to continue to grow and improve as we learn more. (If you would like to train here, more information is here.)
We start with coaching the intention of the athlete. We couple that with constant, objective feedback for nearly every swing while creating an environment that forces positive adaptations for the athlete. We use constraints, variability, and overload/underload implements as methods to speed up the refinement of movement and stabilize quality movement.
The hitting program is designed considering the latest in sports science and motor learning, and my loyalty is to the research and data. With that being said, it is constantly being refined as we continue to research, collect more data, and expand our understanding. Thanks for reading!
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You can work on these concepts with your own set of overload/underload bats. We partnered with Axe Bat to develop a durable set of bats combined with in-season and off-season programming.