This article is aimed at increasing awareness for the mental side of hitting. The longer I coach the more I come to appreciate the “power of the mind”.
In this “mental approach” article, I will identify various ways a hitter can focus their attention. As we go through each method, it will be good to keep in mind some attention focuses help hitters get the most out of practice and increase their chances of recalling that learning later during games, while other focuses improve game performance.
Developing hitters often fall apart in games with their minds wandering everywhere but where it should be. Each hitter will be different for what focus works best in practice and what works best in games, but dramatic improvement is possible when athletes learn how to intentionally shift the focus of their attention.
Internal Focus (Old School “Muscle Memory”)
Internal focus is a focus on specific body movement(s). Internal focus involves a lot of conscious effort, but once habit is obtained the body moves itself. This can be gratifying.
“Physiologists know that any skeletal muscle activity that is learned can become essentially automatic with practice. Muscle memory is therefore a common term for neuromuscular facilitation, which is the process of the neuromuscular system memorizing motor skills. We know that repetition is the mother of skill and that practice makes permanent. After repeating the same movement over and over again, the movement seemingly becomes second nature. It’s like we’re not paying attention but of course it’s all coming from the same region of the brain that controls everything.” https://thetrainingfloor.org/myth-muscle-memory/
For both developing hitters when the desire is to improve movement mechanics, an internal focus remains a proven and effective method of building new motor patterns as well as getting rid of old, deeply-ingrained, unwanted patterns. Even accomplished athletes in many sports (baseball, softball, golf, gymnastics, etc) will sometimes use an internal focus.
Building a swing piece by piece, utilizing an internal focus, requires focusing on specific positions and the kinetic links between various movements. Just as in learning to type on a keyboard, there must be a blueprint or model to follow. When utilized in this manner, internal focus can be a powerful tool for building a fundamentally sound swing.
But there are valid concerns with internal focus:
- Vast complexity of movements. There is no perfect swing as demonstrated by the veritable smorgasbord of movement patterns identified in successful hitters. Internal focus can’t usually address all of these.
- Internal focus slows down reaction times.
- What if the movements being driven into muscle memory are not a good fit for the hitter, or worse, are never demonstrated by any high level hitter? The hitter is simply getting better at the wrong things.
Due to these issues, internal focus must be seen as a supplement and not the be-all-end-all. Knowing when to use internal focus, during the learning stages, and when not to use them, during performance stages, is vital to success and ability to both grow and perform as a hitter.
External Process Focus
External process focus is a focus on external equipment, such as the bat or the ball. Here are some examples:
- Attention on the ball from the pitcher’s release to contact.
- Attention on making contact with the ball on the sweet spot of the bat.
- Attention on the path of the bat.
Focus is on the process involved to achieve the task, rather than how to move. The hitter is not being forced into a specific position by their own conscious mind. Movements are allowed to self-organize (see my upcoming article, “Self-Organizing Movements”) to accomplish the required process. The hitter perceives the concept and improves the action.
Studies have shown external process focus to be very beneficial for speed of learning as well as performance. For example, the hitter may more quickly perfect an inside-out swing path by thinking about and visualizing the path of the barrel rather than by actively trying to slot rear elbow, then extend arms and release hands.
External Result Focus
External result focus is a focus on the ball flight result. A hitter may be very unaware of their movement, yet through a pure focus on the end result, movement can respond accordingly.
An example is throwing a ball when playing catch. Complicated data regarding weight of the object, trajectory, and muscle force required, angles in wrist and arm with precise release points are needed to get the ball the correct distance and direction. Yet your brain somehow figures these out instinctively and improves it through practice.
Often, experienced hitters can learn and perform much better with external result focus. This type of focus is great for being able to self-organize body movements to achieve the desired goal. External result focus is a common focus for experienced golfers and in many other sports.
With a neutral focus, hitters allow actions to occur automatically.
This can take some mental practice. Hitters try to enter “zombie” mode where nothing matters. They are completely relaxed, simply seeing the ball and reacting.
This type of focus can be beneficial when distractions/mental issues are the cause of most poor at bats.
Unfortunately, neutral focus tends to make players revert to their tendencies. Neutral focus can be desirable when hitters have good fundamentals and mechanics and need to draw them out more consistently.
Neutral focus will not raise the ceiling of the hitter’s potential, but this type of attention focus may help them reach that ceiling more often.
Stay tuned for upcoming articles detailing how hitters can adjust their attention focus during practices to gain the most benefit and try different focuses in games to increase performance.
If you are inclined to further reading on these fascinating subjects, here is a list of great books on sports psychology and motor cognition available on amazon.com. They are packed with useful concepts for baseball and softball players:
“The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How” by Daniel Coyle.
“Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.
“Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericsson.
“Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell.