In this “mental approach” article, I will discuss how and when to allow the hitter’s movements to self-organize.
To a large extent, a hitter can develop high level techniques without thought awareness or being taught specific mechanics. By setting the right external processes or results, and encouraging experimentation with different variables, they can utilize their body’s instinctive intelligence to refine the combination of movements which work best for them. This refining happens sub-consciously.
Coaches, parents, and players have this “self-organizing tool” at their disposal, and if they haven’t utilized it in the past, will be amazed at the results.
This article is the second in a series aimed at increasing awareness for the mental side of hitting. It might be best to first read “How to Changing Focus Can Improve Hitting” . Some of the terminology defined in this previous article will be referred to here.
Perception Action (PA) Coupling
The theory of Perception Action Coupling has important implications for the best method to most rapidly improve hitting performance.
The theory of Perception Action (PA) Coupling argues that perception and action processes are functionally intertwined. When PA Coupling occurs, there is no thinking or deliberate decisions made. Much like a computer program, the environment is perceived (release point, velocity, spin) and then the physical action (swing path) is subconsciously initiated based on the perception.
“Performing a movement leaves behind a bidirectional association between the motor pattern and the sensory effects that it produces.” (PA Coupling, Wikopedia, 2017)
The theory suggests that hitters can train PA Coupling. The best way to train would be to experience live pitching as often as possible in a game-like situation.
Here is a key point. Live pitching must entail a competitive environment where the pitcher is trying to strike out the batter using off speed, movement, and off-plate “chase” pitches. A game like environment allows the hitter to hone their abilities to check swing on breaking pitches which just miss, get their swing on plane with a dropping change, curve, or slider, learn to adjust timing to the off speed pitch, and practice their plan at the plate (see article “Preparing a Hitter’s Plan at the Plate”).
As any baseball or softball coach knows, this type of practice relies on available live arms, a catcher in gear, and someone calling balls and strikes. It is time consuming and depending on the ability of the pitchers can easily result in a hitting practice with few quality reps. But if the theory of PA Coupling is true, maybe we as coaches should try harder to allocate time for live scrimmages on a more frequent basis.
Possibly, in the future, computers will be used to train PA Coupling. Two scientists have created visual training software based on their research called the uHIT software, where players can train PA Coupling by watching pitches on a screen and pressing a button if they would swing. While this is an alternative to seeing live pitching, further research is needed to improve and evaluate this type of training (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/scientists-examine-what-happens-in-the-brain-when-bat-tries-to-meet-ball/2016/08/29/d32e9d4e-4d14-11e6-a7d8-13d06b37f256_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4794d7d4b4cc).
How to Allow Technique to Self-Organize
Research supports that the intention of the movement is the first thing processed by the brain. What the hitter is consciously visualizing is the outward-movement pattern and then allowing self-organization to achieve this movement optimally.
Setting any limits on freedom of movement, via coaching commands or ques, can cause massive disruption to the hitter’s ability to self-organize.
While this opens the door for a much larger discussion, to summarize, productive hitting techniques can be self-organized given the right:
- Physical capabilities.
- Amount and quality of practice.
Purely by setting an appropriate task, the hitter can allow the body to self-organize in a way which is conducive to effectively completing the task.
To get you thinking, here is an example of adjusting the list of variables (above) to help the hitter rapidly develop skills.
Teach a developing hitter how to hit the middle, low pitch location, with a line drive up the middle.
- Step 1 – Hit the Ball Up the Middle
Place a batting tee set for a knee high (low) pitch in a middle plate location and just past the front foot (after stride). Put a six foot high net just in front of where the pitcher’s mound would be. Ask the hitter to hit the ball into the net.
Most inexperienced hitters are around the ball and pulling the pitch, so typically very few hits will go into the net to begin with. With a slow swing, ask the hitter to observe where the barrel is traveling.
The hitter may need a little guidance here to help them see how the barrel must remain inside the path of the ball until just before the contact point. Ask them where the barrel is traveling after contact. Is the barrel following through to middle of the field?
We want the hitter to develop hands tight with arm extension and release up the middle, but at this time we don’t want them to focus on these movements. Rather, an external focus on the path of the barrel and on the path of the hit ball is what we want the hitter to observe and then let their movements automatically adjust to accomplish the task.
- Step 2 – Get Ball in the Air
When the hitter is consistent with targeting their hits into the net, ask them to hit a line drive over the six foot high target, again off the low, knee-high tee location.
As the level of competition increases, pitchers will most often keep the ball low to avoid hits driven hard to the outfield, and to increase the likely hood of double plays. With good concepts, baseball and fast pitch softball players can become great low ball sluggers and high average low ball hitters (just like Mike Trout!).
Again, ask the hitter to swing slowing and observe the path of the barrel at contact. Is the barrel moving down to the ball or slightly up through the ball? If it is down on the ball, ask the hitter to show and observe a swing path slightly up. Use a very slow swing.
Here again the hitter may need a little guidance, a moment of internal focus, to help them feel the solution. Ask them to keep their head centered between their feet (stay back on the ball). Then ask them to get more athletic and point their nose at the dirt (increase spine angle) but not overdo it. Let them feel this position. Now ask them to check their barrel path to see if it is slightly up at contact.
Then resume an external result focus on hitting the ball over the target. This is the point where most hitters start to successfully self-organize and feel what it takes to hit the low pitch location in a line drive to the outfield.
In my teaching of developing hitters, I often incorporate an internal focus to help the hitter along. But primarily learning takes place via self adjusting external focus.
When to Allow Technique to Self-Organize
I find students are surprised at how much their fundamentals can improve without ever directly working on individual mechanics. The developing hitter can make productive improvements in the kinematic sequence of body movements, in swing plane, in weight shift patterns, etc., without ever directly thinking about mechanics.
In my experience, the best progress is made when hitters balance self-organizing and directly (internally) learned techniques. This is where coaching comes into play to guide the hitter in finding the most effective and efficient way to make swing adjustments.
While not specifically named and defined in the past, these training concepts have been understood and applied in other sports for many years—and in baseball by some of the best coaches in the country.
A better understanding of how the brain works when it comes to regulating human movement will speed up the learning curve for athletes of all ages.