The Magic of Mental Focus for Hitters
The Mental Approach to Hitting Series
Baseball and Fastpitch Softball
The Magic of Mental Focus for Hitters article is excerpted from our new drills book, The Ultimate Hitting Training Guide (click for over 140 functional drills containing 500 step-by-step mini-goals).
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Introduction to Mental Focus for Hitters
Hitting focus is a little magical! But the longer coaches coach, the more they come to appreciate the “power of the mind.”
Hitters often struggle in both practice and games, with their minds wandering everywhere but where it should be. Baseball and fastpitch softball players will be amazed at how shifting hitting focus can dramatically affect results.
Building Rome Series identifies four ways a hitter can focus their attention. Some attention focuses help hitters get the most out of practice and increase their chances of recalling that learning later. Other focuses can more directly impact game performance.
Internal Hitting Focus (Old School “Muscle Memory”)
Internal hitting focus is a focus on a specific body movement(s). This kind of attention involves a lot of conscious effort, but the body moves itself once the habit is obtained. 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 it 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/
When to Use an Internal Focus
Especially for developing hitters, when the desire is to improve movement mechanics, an internal focus remains a proven and effective method. This method can build new motor patterns and get rid of old, deeply ingrained, unwanted habits (click the link for a step-by-step describing how to change a hitting habit). Even accomplished athletes (baseball, softball, golf, gymnastics) sometimes use an internal focus to improve a very targeted segment of a specific skill.
Building a swing, piece by piece, utilizing an internal focus, requires focusing on specific body movements and positions. Just as learning to type on a keyboard, there must be a blueprint or model to follow. An internally focused, “ground-up” swing build should be guided by an experienced hitting coach. The coach should have a strong understanding of the transfer of energy up the kinetic links – they must know how the body works as a whole to build speed. An internal focus can be a powerful tool for building a fundamentally sound swing.
The Building Rome Series of books, Building the High-Level Swing Series (click the link to learn more about our fundamentals and drills book), provides a functional step-by-step guide, or roadmap, for this type of training.
Shortcomings of Internal Mental Focus for Hitters
Internal focus may not always result in improvements in skills or game performance. This is a consequence of:
- The vast complexity of movements.
As demonstrated by the veritable smorgasbord of movement patterns identified in successful hitters, there is no perfect swing. Internal focus can’t address all of these.
- Internal focus slows down reaction times.
- The body never has a chance to self-organize movements (click the link for how to train to hit using recent discoveries in motor cognition).
What if the movements being driven into muscle memory are not a good fit for the hitter, or worse, are never demonstrated by any successful hitter? Then, the hitter is simply getting better at the wrong things.
Due to these issues, internal focus should be seen as a supplement and not the be-all-end-all. Internal focus can be best used during the early learning stages. Combining internal focus with other focuses is usually more effective for training hitting.
During games, it is usually best to avoid internal focus. The only exception might be in the case of the young or beginning hitter. For example, the new hitter has a swing fault, which “wreaks havoc” on their contact rate. In this case, focusing on the movements required for the swing fix may help the youth hitter improve performance.
Knowing when to use an internal focus is vital to most rapidly grow and perform as a hitter.
External Process Mental Focus for Hitters
External process focus is a focus on external equipment, such as the bat or the ball. Here are some examples:
- Focus on the ball from the pitcher’s release to contact.
- Attention on making contact with the ball on the sweet spot of the bat.
- Focus on the path of the bat.
With an external process focus, the athlete focuses on achieving the task rather than how to move. Thus, the hitter is not being forced into a specific position by their own conscious mind. Instead, movements can self-organize (click the link for an article describing two effective training methods) to accomplish the required process.
Studies have shown external process focus to be very beneficial for speed of learning as well as performance.
For example, a hitter may more quickly perfect an inside-out swing path by thinking about, visualizing, and observing the barrel’s path. Compare this to an internal focus where the hitter actively tries to slot the rear elbow and then extend arms and release hands.
The hitter perceives the concept and improves the action by intentionally striving to reproduce the concept – it is vital hitters have productive concepts.
External Result Hitting Focus (Targeting)
External result focus is a focus on the ball flight result. A hitter may be unaware of their movement, yet through a pure focus on the desired result or target, movement responds accordingly.
An example is throwing a ball when playing catch. Complicated data regarding weight, muscle force, angles in wrist and arm, and precise release points are required. The concept is to get the ball the correct distance and direction. Yet your brain somehow figures these out instinctively and improves them through practice.
Often, experienced hitters can learn and perform much better with external result focus. Allow the hitter to first “feel” what it will take to hit the ball at the desired target. This type of focus is effective and efficient, allowing body movements to self-organize to achieve the goal.
Targeting should be used to some extent in all practices – pick a target and have the hitter hit to it.
Neutral Mental Focus for Hitters
With a neutral focus, hitters allow actions to occur automatically.
Hitters try to enter “zombie” mode, where nothing matters. They are completely relaxed, simply seeing the ball and reacting.
Neutral focus can be beneficial when distractions or too much thinking about results cause most poor at-bats. This focus is desirable when hitters have good fundamentals but need to draw them out more consistently.
For the still developing hitter, a neutral focus often results in reverting to previous unproductive habits.
Neutral focus will not raise the ceiling of the hitter’s potential, but this attention focus may help them reach that ceiling more often.
Coaches and players experiment with different focuses. Changing attention focus can have a surprising effect on outcomes in practice and games.
When practicing, determine which focus helps you get the most benefit out of practice reps. Go back and forth between focuses. Maybe try combining two focuses at the same time.
During games, try various approaches to see which is more effective for relaxing and seeing the ball (click the link for our article describing 16 steps to improve the hitter’s vision).
Remember, every hitter is different. Therefore, a mental approach that is successful for one hitter may reduce productivity for another.
Have fun with hitting focus!
If you are inclined to read further on these subjects, click on the list below to shop for informative books on sports psychology and motor cognition available on amazon.com. They are packed with useful training and performance tips valuable for all coaches and athletes.
Building Rome Series Blog: The Mental Approach to Hitting Series
Click the links below for more free articles in The Mental Approach to Hitting Series:
Building Rome Series Books: Building the High-Level Swing Series
Click Building the High-Level Swing Series to learn more about our new two-book hitting series containing a detailed and comprehensive description of 100 hitting fundamentals and 140 step-by-step drills that efficiently construct the batting swing from the ground up.
In the Building Rome Series of books, the construction of skills are in functional order, providing a “roadmap” to becoming a great hitter.
All baseball and fastpitch softball players can “climb the Roman Coliseum steps” to become a powerful and productive hitter.
Enjoy the quest!