Looking to maximize your pre-game preparation? Having difficulty translating practice into performance? The first question I commonly ask is: How "hard" do you train? By hard I don't necessarily mean hitting until your hands bleed but more specifically how much stress are you putting your swing under.
We use the term "range" to describe the degree of difficulty a particular practice technique presents itself to be. In a "closed" practice setting where an athlete is focused on practicing a particular skill in a predictable manner, what is the range of effort we are using to build that skill? Often times, athletes (especially baseball players) have a hard time re-creating the amount of stress that is required to repeat the swing in competition. By stress I am not simply referring to the external conditions of the game (score, opponent, crowd, etc.) but the literal stress that is present each time a pitch is thrown in the direction of a hitter. Recognizing release point, spin, depth all within a .25 second window of time to react is extremely stressful. As it relates to the swing, it is a violent act. To be successful requires a hitter to control the violence. So, how do we build routines that translates to on field performance? We have to appropriately mirror those stressful conditions in practice.
Build, Reinforce, React!
Before we go further, I am not suggesting that athletes go into the tunnel, set the machine to 100 MPH and swing uncontrollably until they make contact. The process I am describing is an evolution of training principles that I used during my collegiate and professional career and how that has shaped the information but more importantly the style to which I coach today.
What I prefer to do is implement training that begins with some level of highly controlled practice that leads up to stressful repetitions each day. Some days, the controlled work is stressful enough and the consistent "closed", predictable training repetitions are most important. Other days, we schedule "high stress" day in which the hitter undergoes a more randomized training session with varying velocity, pitch types and or recognition drills.
For my hitters, it may be as simple as exaggerated "slow" or 30-second swings focusing on complete control and discipline through the swing sequence. This allows the hitter to move through their swing completely aware of each subtle movement through precise impact on the baseball (I recently came across an article discussing the Feldenkrais Method on bettermovement.org entitled, "Why Slow Movement Builds Coordination"). This leads to a heightened awareness on the areas of the swing that feel "choppy" as the athletes mental concentration peaks at those points in the swing. You can visually see where athletes have to either change their pattern or in our case, swing direction, to achieve their precise point of contact. It requires an immense amount of focus. Thus, this is the foundation our swing is built upon.
As we progress through practice, we want to challenge our athletes with ways to test their recall of the movements in our building phase. This may be in a practice method that implements a specific constraint or a drill that is designed to reinforce the patterns with some stimulus (the ball moving). Ultimately, the athlete needs to be challenged enough each day so that they are put in a position to react. This is a part of practice where we typically alter the intensity of the training to mirror what the athlete will have to do in a game setting either mentally or physically. Be it swings from 1/2 the distance to the plate at high speed, variable plate distances or pitches in general. The key here is managing the effort and relative intensity of each repetition, essentially slowing down and reinforcing the feel we gained during our building phase.
Conclusion: Athletes Adapt
It's pretty amazing. When I first lay out the progressions for a new athlete and discuss the max stress we are looking to work towards for the day, hitters don't believe they will be able to have success. I can remember vividly having a potential MLB Draft Pick walk into the cage and as soon as I mentioned doing his "top hand swing progression" off of the machine, he looked at me as if I had 2-heads. "Coach, there is no way that I can do that. That thing is throwing hard". I then proceed to get one of my 13-year old clients, who was on a foam roller on the same machine working with the same speed as the potential pro. The young hitter after taking a few minutes to adjust begins barreling top hand repetitions, swing after swing. Followed by a brief moment of disbelief, the hitter himself gets in and begins to push through barriers he thought existed. Within 5-minutes, the seemingly impossible becomes competition.
As a coach, it's all about pushing the athlete (within reason!) through levels of stress that they did not know existed. This is especially the case as when athletes are able to recall under high stress, they build more confidence! That 13-year old kid with limited preparation did not hesitate for one second to jump in the cage and recall the feel needed to compete off of the machine.
Optimizing your in game performance comes from a combination of the appropriate training measures and the right training environment. Build yours today!