Before we get too heavy into what we are doing this year, I think it only helps to reflect upon what we did last year so that we can set a baseline and we can easily look at some of the improvements we are making.
More routines and progressions, less generalization
Last year was my first year back at Union after a two-year stint in Frisco, Texas. I also coached football last fall and so trying to juggle not knowing the players and getting to baseball so late led to a less than ideal situation to start the season. In my first article, I talked about knowing the players why before anything else. Not having (or making) the time and getting to know what each player did well and wanted to work on led to the generalization of a lot of drill work. When we generalize anything, we will have some that get a lot better, some that get slightly better, and several that don’t get any better.
It’s obvious that we want to avoid this as much as possible if we are focusing on each player’s individual development. Our off season last year (and this year) consisted of one hour per day until December 1. That includes everything with a ball (strength and conditioning not included) and we were able to practice as long as we wanted from December-May. So, when I got to baseball in the second week of November, I felt like I was way behind and we only had a short time (30 minutes a day, every other day) for hitting with around 40 players.
So what did we do?
We have a beautiful indoor with 6 cages and a full turf infield. We also have an “old indoor” which includes 3 full size cages. We share both with softball and so every other day we would be in one or the other.
I wanted try and get a feel of how each player moved and set up front toss constraints, PVC pipe swing design work, and movement prep along with an Exit Velo station with overload and underload bats. There is a lot to be said about creativity and it’s role in player development but last year was very choppy and didn’t allow for deliberate practice/flow. Progression also relies on knowing each persons optimal challenge point rather than assuming equal learning across the board. There were many times that players were having to rethink a movement pattern (good) and the next training session we would try something completely different. The drill work itself wasn't necessarily the problem, the problem was my time constraint (every other day) and progressing too fast. We do want to create new activities that players aren’t used to doing. By challenging the brain and making it a variable environment, we better prepare the player for in game situations and will help the player create new solutions to the infinite amount of problems they will face. But I also believe that we want to find the “right” routine to prime the players swing into mastering the skill we are trying to teach. This is, in effect, the blocked vs random debate. I do think there is validity to blocked when introducing a new skill and refining an existing one. In skill acquisition, we want to keep the brain engaged and learning a new movement or new drill does that. With each player there will be a varying degree of engagement and that is when having a feel for each players engagement is critical. When our brain gets bored it goes into autopilot and that is when we need to tweak something. It can be as simple as putting attention to something external or changing the implement. We can also make it a game or competition. This is a skill that’s hard to master, but one we need to keep in mind when we are planning practices. The more engaged our players are, the better.
We also tried to incorporate a lot of technology. We got a Flightscope in January and Blast bat sensors in February. Trying to learn how to use all of these things efficiently during the season is definitely not recommended. We also tried to track all overload, underload and regular exit velocities. When dealing with technology, there will be times it won’t work and do not make the mistake of taking more than a few minutes to fix it. I made this mistake a few times last year and the last thing I want to do is take time away from the players. If it doesn’t work, move on and help the kids get better. Then after practice problem solve and find solutions for the next time.
What went well?
The players did have an increase in overall understanding of what better patterns look like and were not afraid to experiment. We also built a higher level of trust. We also had an increase in average exit velocity program wide which was 8.4 mph.
So what specifically am I changing?
I would rather be really good at a few things that matter than marginally better (or worse in some cases) at a lot of things. Let me be clear when I say that we will still take time to be creative and try new things. There has to be a balance in skill acquisition between creativity (what fires when learning a new skill) and routine (what helps hone in and feel that skill to get it right)
So here are some things were simplifying.
We are what we repeatedly do. — Aristotle
Small changes added up over time lead to long term successes. This is well documented in both Darren Hardys’ The Compound Effect and in James Clear’s Atomic Habits. We will be using the first two months to establish the why, while building routines based on our meetings. We are going to start the year with some general drills and then the closer we get to the season, meet with each player to establish a routine and movement prep based on what fits their athletic and swing profile. We will also go over last season’s data which includes: stats, flightscope in game data, practice data which includes blast and Exit Velo. As well as discussing their swing or approach played a part in how last season went for them. Early on, a large emphasis for our players will be setup, forward move to balance and better hand/bat path for swing design. We will also be taking baseline bat-speed and exit velo tests to see how they compared to the last time that we saw them (June).
Last year I was still trying to figure out what each metric was, how it works, and why they were important. This season I will narrow the focus on a few things, find each players limiting factor and work on that specifically. We will be tracking bat speed, Attack Angle but depending on the player we may also use time to contact or on plane percentage.
Movement prep based on ONBASEU screen.
After getting certified with OnBaseU this summer, we will be screening each of our players. This not only helped me hone in some body/swing connection issues, but it will also help us to individualize our warm up and movement prep before we train. For those not certified, last year we generally hit t-spine and hip mobility, which was fine. I don’t necessarily like generality but most could use some form or another with these two.
As I stated above, we do have Flightscope and using that as a way to track Exit Velo trends over time with the most important, to me, being average Exit Velo from live or a machine. Not only does is provide accountability to swing at hittable pitches (decision making) but it also shows how frequently you can find barrels (barrel accuracy).
If you don’t have something similar, we can track regular Exit Velo with a radar and iPad with google docs or on a printed out sheet with pre-written names. You’ll need it, trust me.
Bat speed development
Bat speed is something that can be developed.
We used Axe trainers last year but we’re also making a few that are a little lighter, say 15% within regular bat weight. Pennies and tape is a well documented way to do this for cheap. We will also be using more medicine balls for warm up. I’ll go more into this in the near future.
Every day drills which include progressions from movement prep, to med ball, to tee, to front toss/machine work. With only having 30–40 minutes every other day, a large part of that will be learning and refining swing patterns. The closer we get to the season, the more this will be catered to each individual hitter, with more of a focus on decision training and competition.
One of my favorite things to do is to have a daily game or competition. No matter the age, baseball players are all the same, we love to compete. This can seem like a daunting task, but coming up with daily competitions should be a must in any learning environment. I’ll do a future post over what competitions we are doing, and why competitions can help make training “stick.”
These are some of the adjustments we are making, the plan is to do a few posts on each of these to help outline the time we have and include some specific drills.
Here’s your homework for the week
- What are you changing from last year to this year?
- What’s your favorite challenge or competition you do in practice?
I’d love to hear about it.