Train the Brain the Right Way for the Best Baseball Results.
In 1994, at the age of 31, perhaps the greatest basketball player of that generation and maybe of all generations decided to quit the NBA and become a professional baseball player. Yes, Michael Jordan, an extraordinarily gifted athlete retired (for the first time) from the NBA and gave everything he had in order to get a shot at the Big Leagues.
Certainly someone with such amazing athleticism and a legendary will to succeed could find his way on to a Major League roster…nope, it didn’t happen. Jordan’s .202 batting average for the AA Birmingham Barons was the beginning and end of his pro baseball “odyssey.”
You see, hitting successfully is not like lifting weights or even running a marathon. Hitting is a complex visual-motor skill that has to be learned. Picking up spin, speed and identifying direction of a pitched ball and then getting the bat to the right spot at the right time requires a skill set that doesn’t happen by accident.
When Michael Jordan’s brain was most receptive to making all the amazing neurological connections necessary to be a skilled baseball player, he was busy learning another sport. The bottom line is that at age 31, Jordan was too old for his brain to make the complex adjustments to play baseball at a high level.
So, you say, “Coach Tim, where are you going with this?” We need to understand there is a time in the life of our brain when it is better suited to learn. Ever wonder why kids can pick up a second language so much easier than us old fogies? The young brain is craving new stimuli and responds accordingly. The older brain is still growing but not with nearly the same appetite as it once had.
That’s pretty much why we work so hard on correct fundamentals at the Reds Baseball/Softball Camps. I swear we can almost hear the brain cells multiplying when we’re around young players. The brain is a blank canvass or as some neurologists call it; an “engram.” Think of the brain as a blank DVD that only records what we send to it. That’s why it is so critical to not only learn the game at a young age, but to learn to play it correctly.
In my opinion and it’s an opinion shared by many others, what separates great baseball players from the rest of us mere mortals is their ability to collect and process data. Fielding thousands of ground balls, throwing thousands of pitches and seeing pitch after pitch after pitch is the data that our brain must collect and process in order for it to learn.
I can’t even imagine how many complex and nearly simultaneous pieces of data a hitter must process as a 95mph heater is hurled at him. To top it off, the body has about as much time as it takes to strike a match to act on the data. And yet, they do it. And they do it because they have observed and processed so much data over their baseball lives that they have achieved a level of “unconscious competency.”
Since data collection and processing is vital in acquiring fine motor skills, it is important that we try to reach game speed when we practice. I know what I am saying is very difficult to achieve at the youth level. But there are things we can do to send the right training messages to our brain.
For starters, use a stopwatch liberally. It’s easy to figure out how fast a typical runner gets down the line so when you are doing infield, put a stopwatch on your fielders and challenge them to get the ball to first base under that time. Turn double plays with a stopwatch and watch the pace of your practices pick up. Practices will not only be more fun but the “data” your players collect will be far more valuable for their developing baseball brains.
Another “data collecting” idea I’ve employed in the past is the use of a bat speed measuring device at indoor practices. Here’s a picture of one that I really like and that we use at camp. Wait until you see how much faster your kids swing the bat when each swing is being measured against their last swing as well as their teammates’.
Again, the point is to approach game speed in your training whenever possible so that learning can be optimized. It’s not hocus pocus. There is a scientific, neurological basis for learning baseball at a young age and it is paramount that the training messages we send to the brain are mechanically correct and approach the intensity that the brain/body will be asked to achieve in competition.
In short…Train Young. Train right. Play right.
Until next time, “If you’re gonna swing, might as well swing hard.”