In this “mental approach” article, I will discuss how to most quickly change a long ingrained, unproductive hitting habit to one which will lead to a higher slugging percentage or increased batting average.
This article is the fourth in a series aimed at increasing awareness for the mental side of hitting. It might be best to first read “How Changing Focus Will Improve Hitting”, “How and When to Use Self-Organizing Movements”, and “How Swinging a Bat Affects the Brain”. Some of the terminology defined in these previous articles will be referred to here.
Frustration is reduced for the developing hitter when they understand the obstacles they face when striving to create new habits. They are more patient and learn to trust the process when they know what they battling:
- Our bodies will strongly resist something which has become habit and is seen to sometimes work. But that doesn’t mean it is the most productive and consistent way to hit a baseball or softball.
- What the hitter thinks they do is often not what they actually do. Feel is not always real.
- Incorrect intention or concept. The intention of the athlete is the driving force that regulates all movement. For example, far too often hitters are moving in very inefficient patterns, and when asked about their intention, they are “just trying to put the ball in play.”
- Change is not easy. “Habits are hard to break. Myelin cannot be un-insulated. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors — by myelinating new circuits.” (The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, by Daniel Coyle.)
When a hitter is trying to improve they could either:
- Change what they do to make it better.
- Take what they currently do and make it more consistent.
To be a high batting average hitter requires the ability to make quality changes and at the same time produce consistent performances.
One Approach — Utilizing Internal Focus
A hitter has the power to make choices. They can use an internal focus to make a movement change, and then repeat the change until it is ingrained and automatic. This requires constructing new myelin circuits by:
- Breaking the skill into small pieces (see a “precise system” below).
Break the fundamental into small parts and practice each part slowly and accurately. It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.
- Linking the pieces together in progressively larger groups (see a “precise system” below).
By thinking of progression as fitting pieces together, it helps hitters realize that while setbacks may occur as pieces are added, constant progress is being made toward the goal.
- Take away the result.
The hitter is looking to improve specific movements.
Focus is key during this stage of training. Many hitters inefficiently make technical changes because their attention focus is split between the desire to make a technique change and the desire for a solid hit. These two focuses, internal body movements and external result, do not mix well.
First, take away the result then gradually bring it back as the new movement becomes increasingly ingrained.
- A precise system.
The process of internalizing hitting fundamentals, or any sports related movement, is quite like learning a musical instrument. Here is a precise system which works well for musicians faced with learning a new song:
Step 1 – Divide the song (or swing) into smaller pieces.
Step 2 – Practice the first small piece slowly.
Step 3 – Practice the second small piece slowly.
Step 4 – Practice the first and second small pieces together slowly.
Step 5 – Practice the first and second small pieces together at speed until it flows smoothly and is performed correctly.
Step 6 – Practice the third small piece slowly.
Step 7 – Practice the second and third small pieces together slowly.
Step 8 – Practice the second and third small pieces together at speed.
Step 9 – Practice the first, second, and third small pieces together slowly.
Step 10 – Practice the first, second, and third small pieces together at speed.
Continue adding one piece at a time until the entire song, or specific swing mechanic(s), can be done smoothly and at speed.
Another Approach — External Result Focus
How can we help a hitter more quickly achieve sound swing techniques? Here are some powerful concepts:
- Frequently simulate the game environment.
Perception and action are coupled in live games, so it is essential practice plans frequently include simulated game at bats.
Making practice as specific to reality as possible is crucial in order to stimulate development of the hitter’s perception of various types and locations of pitches and the action required, for example, an effective swing path or a check swing.
Create drills that require bat speed, driving the ball deep, hitting to all fields, adjusting for off speed, recognizing the off plate movement pitch, or whatever the hitter’s goal is, and challenge hitters.
Boost the developing hitter’s rate of gaining experience by frequently simulating the game environment in practice.
- Establish an environmental constraint.
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 skill development in a specific area.
Here is an example. For more experienced hitters, reduce fair territory during batting practice and scrimmages by placing cones from home plate to left center and home plate to right center. The screen in front of the pitcher also becomes a foul ball. Then, ask one outfielder to play the fair area and catch flies. These environmental constraints dramatically shift the intention of the hitter, requiring the ball to be driven hard on a line drive and gap to gap. With this external result focus, hitters will adapt to become very good at hitting the ball hard up the middle into the outfield. Count and record the number of base hits, out of 25 swings for example, to measure progress over time. Or, divide the team and make it a hitting competition.
Effective coaching can be seen in the manipulation of the training environment. Allowing your athletes to be free, athletic, and compete within that environment encourages positive adaptations and promotes developing a style which is most productive for the individual hitter.
- Be creative with drills and fit to the experience level of the hitter.
There are no specific magic drills. Every hitter is unique. Drill implementation requires imagination and trial and error.
For example, the external result focus drill outlined in the previous check point would likely be ineffective when used with less experienced hitters. Usually younger hitters will need the environmental constraint to be less constrained, for example, hit the ball hard somewhere.
Here are a more beneficial concepts to keep in mind when making a swing change:
- Don’t always trust feel.
What the hitter thinks they do is often not what they actually do. Feel is not always real.
- Delayed learning.
A patient hitter who is able realize what is difficult today becomes easy tomorrow can overcome many obstacles.
- Going backwards.
Sometimes there is regression. Often a hitter may feel like they go back three steps to go four forward. Players who are not willing to make that sacrifice often stagnate, never getting where they want. This is even truer the more ingrained a swing is. Remember, the hitter can sometimes be performing their worst when they are learning the most. This is vital to understand if the hitter is to improve and reach their potential.
The hitter may reach plateaus which are seemingly impossible to overcome. Yet when they do reach a new level of performance this experience allows them never to revert to old ways.
- Must feel different.
If the hitter is make a change to their swing, it must feel very dramatic. Normally, if it doesn’t feel strange, uncomfortable or vastly different, the hitter is probably not changing enough.
“Initially, the new way feels very strange and awkward because you are moving against old habit. But in a short period of time, through deliberate repetition, the new way feels normal, and moving back to the old way would feel strange.” (The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, by Daniel Coyle.)
- Be patient.
The brain will try to direct the body in old, tried and tested patterns. But each time practicing the desired new movement or result, this state gets a little weaker. Eventually this state “snaps” and the hitter is free of old unproductive techniques.
New habits are formed by routine practice. For the average athlete, 60 times per day, 21 days to a new habit. Enjoy the quest and the rewards!