Practice Habits Part 1: An Introduction to Productive Practice

The overarching concern for athletes looking to maximize success on the baseball field is typically centered around one thing in particular, "practice habits". What we first must come to realize is that perfect practice does not equate to perfect results in game. This seems extremely counter intuitive in a sense that there is high demand for athletes to practice and pattern regularly. Why would I continue to practice and train for countless of hours if the way I am training is not yielding the best results for me on the field? Moreover, is there a more effective and efficient way to prepare?

As athletes and player development personnel we are all familiar with the "10,000-hour rule" that was made mainstream by Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers. The premise was centered around a study In 1993 conducted by Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer in which they published the results of a study on a group of violin students in a music academy in Berlin. It stated that the most accomplished students had put in an average of 10,000 hours of practice by their 20th birthday. That paper would go on to become a major part of the scientific literature on expert performers. While there have since been evidence against the support of 10,000-hours to achieve mastery, we are still left with the task of managing better and more efficient practice habits. In this introduction to practice principles, we examine a few key elements to traditional and non-traditional practice as a means to further our understanding of what "optimal" practice is for each hitter.

Pattern Predictability

Let us begin to look at our practice habits through the lens of predictability. With most conventional baseball practice we train ourselves with the ball stationary, flipped or thrown from half the distance to the pitchers mound. The goal of this practice is to "succeed" (hit the ball hard, at the right angle, in the right direction) at a high frequency. We are not looking at this element of our training as a way to "test" the skill we are developing but more as a way to refine the skill. We see this a lot in athletes looking to make changes to their movement patterns. To simply throw a hitter into the cage without the ability to focus on their movement is not efficient.

The goal of productive practice must be to blend the skill with the appropriate level of stress as a means to recall on that skill in the form of reaction. The primary difference between reaction and reflex is that reactions are voluntary while reflex is unintentional. Our bodies are programmed as a means to respond under stress in certain situations and through practice it is necessary to allow our bodies to program effectively by moving in a controlled state. We build our reaction based on what we choose to replicate in practice. However, we can not simply rest on this methodology as we compete in a game with inconsistent variables. We must have the ability to practice this variability (swing flexibility) as a means to help us better adjust to in game situations.

Swing Flexibility

So much of this game is out of our control when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. Breaking down the strike zone into a 9-zone grid, if the average pitcher has 3-pitches, that's 27 potential pitch location and pitch type combinations we have to account for. While we know pitchers have tendencies, we do not control the arm slot, location, velocity or spin of the incoming ball. We are playing a game that is dependent on what the opposition decides to throw, it is all external stimulus. Our job as hitters is to create the greatest chance to hit the baseball hard based off of what pitches we are looking to hit. So when we discuss the concept of productive practice it is important to understand that hitters need to have the ability and athleticism to adjust to what they see.

For those of you that have not had the chance to hear/see Joey Votto's interview pertaining to launch angle and judging ball flight, it's a fantastic piece. One element that I really enjoyed listening to him speak on was this concept of the "golf bag" analogy to which he suggests these elite hitters can shape a variety of results based on their desired outcome. "The best hitters can do anything," Votto says in his interview be that a ground ball to second base, a fly ball or a line drive to the opposite field gap. While the goal of every swing is not to simply hit the ball on the ground to the right side, Votto explains that he believes the ability to control what the ball is doing is the missing link between what the elite do and those striving for better success with swing elevation. They have an element of control, both body control and barrel control that allows them to maximize their production when they seek to elevate. As we develop hitters it's important to tap into those elements of control so that we can yield better long term results.

Applying Stress

The missing link in swing development pertains to the amount of stress that we choose to put on our swings. As noted above with respect to "patterning predictability", if all we are doing is practicing our swing with little stress, we can get really good at doing something that may not translate to in-game performance. Think of it in this light, you can be phenomenal at driving the baseball to the opposite field gap during your pregame batting practice but how do we prepare to face that same dynamic with a runner on third base in the ninth inning against the best closer in the league? What are we looking to recall in that moment? Furthermore, if we want to raise the bar to what we believe our "game speed" is, we must constantly evaluate the stress we put on our swing in practice. If we are always practicing with limited "stress" (either physically or mentally) then we are never able to raise that bar.

The application of stress can come in a variety of forms from the implements or weights of the objects we use to swing, velocity of the ball coming in or additional constraints used to help our bodies organize to produce the best outcomes. The common ground between the two concepts in practice, Predictability and Stress, is that we need to use these in a way that will be replicated in game like situations and we must practice deliberately.