Performance Principles: Intent and Self-Discovery
This is how I learned to hit.
When I was a kid, I had never taken a lesson or attended a baseball camp. The majority of baseball instruction I received came from a simple phrase my father used to say repeatedly, "hips...2...3" where the hips fired first with a slight delay before "two" or point of contact and then through the "three" or finish. We would go through swing after swing, "fire the hips..2...3!" It wasn't enough just to fire the hips but to do it faster and then faster. Do it right and then do it better!
I don't think I took a round of formal batting practice until I got to college where I first learned what an "oppo-round" meant. My rationale for hitting at a younger age was simple. If there was a fence, hit it over. No fence, hit it far enough so the outfielders had to chase it. I can remember being 11-years old and walking 200-feet from a stone wall on my families property throwing baseballs up to myself trying to hit the ball over into the trees. My rationale was that if I could hit the ball that distance, which was the distance of the fence our local team played on, I would surely be able to hit the ball out of the park once it was pitched to me. Of course at first I managed to hit a few to or off of the wall but as the weeks went by I started putting balls over the fence, literally getting excited and eventually working on my trot to first base. I'm pretty sure there were times I would annotate as if there were sports broadcasters! I would do this for literally hours on end, hitting the 6 or so baseballs I had and then picking them up to conduct my training all over again. I was completely immersed in visualization that I had no clue I was conducting.
(Side note, I have always wondered if someone on our street saw what was going on with this 11-year old kid hitting balls and talking to himself. I'm sure it would have been pretty amusing!)
So, why do I tell this story? Believe me, it's not to tout my baseball prowess. I was (still am) a 5'9" 175lb. utility player that spent 4-years in minor league baseball. I tell this story as a means to explain two extremely important features that I believe were responsible for my development as a baseball player and how it has helped shape my direction as a coach:
It is no secret that intent is a driving factor in performance. We see it all of the time in our training facilities with athetes looking to throw harder, swing faster or shoot quicker. While there are obvious stress and recovery cycles that are vital to performing at high levels, athletes that approach both their active training, rest and recovery with good intent maintain the necessary balance to achieve their highest levels of performance.
For me, it's about short cycles of being completely immersed in what you are doing. Within those cycles, creating an environment that is challenging enough to incite emotion. Said differently, training where when you have success you feel genuine excitement and when you fail there is an eagerness to figure it out! Of course, you can't completely train with only levels of high success (although periods of this are important) just as you can't train under completely stressful conditions all of the time. The importance of intent is to drive athletes to a place where they find themselves competing to be their best within the given task. Once they have achieved the desired result, the goal should be to repeat thus raising the bar for their performance expectations.
I ask my athletes all of the time, "How do you know what your 'game speed' is?"
I take it a step further, "What happens when the game speeds up, players get better, stronger, faster... How are you going to elevate your performance to compete?" While this will be a topic that deserves more insight, the short answer is training through stress. Stress (the right balance) drives adaptation, adaptation requires focus/intent. To elevate your perception of what "game speed" is, you must challenge yourself on the brink of failure. Success at these points in training breeds confidence and confidence breeds competition. This is where we elevate our ability to perform at "game speed".
This concept is not limited to one "piece" of the athletes training but must encompass a mindset that crosses over to other areas of their life and interest. For example, I thought I was going to play in the NHL. When hockey season was in full swing, I was Sergi Sampsonov (For those of you that remember AIM, my instant messenger name was "Fatsov18"... really.) I would literally shoot for hours in our basement at a time ruining the drywall and coming up for dinner in a cloud of white smoke. While I can't believe my parents were excited about the deconstruction of our basement, I can say that they always fostered my desire to work and create (we will talk about self-discovery in a minute). My mother would hang old rugs behind a goal in my basement to absorb some of the force from the pucks.
Now again, I don't tell this story in a "back in my day" light, I do it to paint a picture of intent and how intent/focus drives training. When I was in hockey mode, I wanted to be the best. I would shoot and shoot, building targets and working on my technique. When it was baseball season, I was outside looking to try and hit the ball as far as I could. Was it perfect design? I don't think so. I'm sure that I did a lot of things "incorrectly" in the process but one thing was for certain: my end picture or desired outcome drove my training.
If I wanted to hit the ball over the fence or drive the ball consistently, there was an "end result" that I needed to achieve. If I wanted to hit the corners or get a shot off quickly, there was an "end result" I needed to achieve.
The Importance of "Self-Discovery"
My belief is that many athletes today lack "self-discovery" meaning that they don't fully understand the desired result they are looking to achieve or they simply don't practice it with full intent. As it concerns me in the baseball world, launch angle has been a "buzz word" around many baseball players/coaches as of the past few years. Understanding the swing and most optimal approach to hitting the baseball has been analyzed, dissected and discussed at length. With the rise of social media content is readily available at the push of a button (which is a really good thing IMO). However, at times this can limit self-discovery. Athletes are pushed to drills that dissect key swing features as opposed to going into the backyard, throwing up a baseball and trying to achieve a desired result. With that being said, I think that there are tremendous benefits to the drills, "feel work" and instruction available BUT it starts with the athletes desire to apply the information.
My personal belief is that I want to introduce concepts to the athlete once they have shown a competency to understand and repeat. Once they can do it under low-stress, we put them in a stressful environment by adding in a constraint like limited information (reinforcing recall and decision making, Senaptec) or by adding velocity (machine work). In those environments, we compete. We focus on the desired outcome and work within the lane we have created. Again, there are a lot of dynamics at play here but I find that by keeping the focus on few elements, patterning them and them testing them through stress/failure we see optimal growth but most importantly retention!
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