It is Thursday and typically we offer you one of our "Drill of the Week" installments. However this week we are going to take a step back...way back and take a scientific look at baseball drills, how they are typically conducted and offer up a new way of approaching and delivering them.
Whether you are a player or a coach, when you perform or prescribe a baseball drill it will have an attentional focus to it, even if you are not specifically aware of what it is or even consciously aware that you are designing it with one. Baseball drills will typically fall into one of these two categories: Internally Focused or Externally Focused.
So what do these mean? Whether it is the coach providing cues to the athlete or the athlete providing cues to themselves, they can be broken down like this:
Internal Focus - directed at the performer's own body movements, including the order, form and timing of various limb movements. Instructions that direct individuals' attention to their own movements induce an internal focus of attention, i.e. moving the hands a certain way, legs, feet, torso, etc.
External Focus - directed at the EFFECTS that the performer's body movements will have on the environment, such as an apparatus or implement, i.e. a bat or ball, as the case would typically be in baseball, or a hitting a target like the catcher's glove.
It is safe to say that the vast majority of coaching cues used by the vast majority of baseball coaches are internally focused, and subsequently the same would apply to the players themselves:
- Keep your shoulder closed
- Keep your front leg firm
- Loosen up (which is funny as it is bound to produce the opposite effect)
- Drive off the rubber with that back leg
- Move those hands quicker in your swing
- Keep your hands inside the ball
Most Coaches Provide Internal Focus
The list could go on. But whatever the case may be, I believe the first instinct, and often the last and only one, is to provide cues and create drills that are internally focused. A recent study of elite track and field coaches in the US (Porter/Wu/Partridge, 2010) found that athletes competing at the US Track and Field Nationals received instructions during practice that promoted an internal focus of attention 84.6% of the time. Further to this, the athletes reported they utilized internal focus cues 69% of the time during competition.
So it must be the better way, right? Well not according to most motor learning research conducted in the past 20 years. This research has changed what we KNOW about motor learning, such as learning baseball skills, but it is debatable if it has changed much of HOW we go about coaching or learning it.
Science Tells a Different Story
A number of studies have been conducted on various skills that have shown quite conclusively, with few exceptions, that an external focus of attention in the acquisition and enhancement of motor skills is superior to an internal one. This holds true not only for learning of the skill, but also for retention (automaticity), as well as holding true for experts and novices alike. Compelling stuff. Some of the sports/skills studied have been:
- Balance (focus on keeping feet horizontal [internal] vs. visual balance feedback [external])
- Golf (shot accuracy thinking about movement of the body [internal] vs. movement of the club [external])
- Basketball (shot accuracy with focus on shot motion [internal] vs. shot target [external])
- Darts (same as basketball)
- Field goal kicking (kick accuracy with focus on hitting the ball with a certain part of the foot [internal] vs. hitting a certain part of the ball [external])
- Long Jump (distance covered while focusing on exploding legs as fast and strong as possible [internal] vs. focus on jumping as far from the line as possible [external])
- Volleyball (serve quality while focusing on shifting weight from front foot to back foot [internal] vs. towards the target [external])
The theory behind this is called the Constrained Action Hypothesis which is summarized below:
The natural coaching intuition goes like this: I know what I want the athlete to do; I will teach it to them so they have a cognitive understanding; they will apply it with conscious effort until they can lock it away as automatic. However the Constrained Action Hypothesis is counter to that and seemingly counterintuitive. But we have to be open to our intuition being wrong - most don't know much about how the body works below its surface which puts a limit on the accuracy of our intuition. And we have to be open to evidence, which in this case seems to be pretty clearly pointing to this: The more you focus on a body part during movement, the more it serves to impede that movement (Vance et al, 2004).
What is also interesting is that muscle activation while performing skills with an external focus has been shown to be LESS THAN muscle activation using an internal focus. When the central nervous system is free to organize movements efficiently, without being burdened by an internal attentional focus, movements become fluid, effective, automatic and more efficient in their use of energy (Wulf and Dufek, 2009).
Where Do We Go In Baseball?
So the moral of the story here is that we have to be open to reviewing our methods. The straightest line from A to Z in coaching or learning a motor skill is not necessarily what we have always thought it to be. The intuitive application of consciously focusing on what we want our bodies to do doesn't have a lot going for it in terms of evidence of competence or effectiveness. We aren't giving our bodies enough credit to be able to organize themselves based on a more externally focused goal and it is time that we changed that.
The challenge for baseball coaches and players now is to step back and reconstruct our drills and our verbal cues with this information in mind. What can we come up with? New drills may not even look like new drills, but will instead have different approaches, different instructions, different foci. Are we up for it? Are we up for a paradigmatic change? Are we ready to let go of things that we have held on to for so long? Probably not - not quickly anyway. But the best coaches will and ultimately it is their athletes who will be best served because of it. Here is hoping your coach is one of them.
Mike McCarthy, Co-Founder - The Baseball Zone
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