Hitting instruction and mechanics training is insanely technical in nature. When I’m working with a team, I can spend 5 hours on just the lower body alone to get the athletes to where I want them to be – that is to recognize if the movements they are making are correct or not and to learn how to fix them.
The amount of time it takes to teach new movements to hitters naturally creates athletes who want to “think” about how their swing is supposed to be prior to each swing. This is exactly opposite of my desired end result of my mechanics training. I want hitters to learn how to take a swing and then “feel” if their balance was accurate, or if their hands extended through the zone in the correct manner. Athletes who can “feel” their mechanics instead of “think” about their mechanics are those who are on the fast track for becoming a good hitter. Let’s look a little more closely at the differences between thinking and feeling with the following examples.
I played baseball with a kid in college who had a bit of a temper and didn’t like to fail. (I do realize that this describes many of us if the conditions are right.( This kid would strike out and take it so heavy that he would storm back to the dugout throwing his helmet on the way. Afterward, we’d sometimes chat out in the field while we were shagging balls. He’d say, ‘Nate, what’s going on with my swing? Why am I not making contact?” I’d usually respond with a couple small things I could see and he’d tell me thanks and off he’d go. Then I’d see him working later on some of the things we had talked about; except it looked weird and overly-mechanical when he did it. Now that I look back it was clear that he was spending so much mental energy THINKING about the mechanics problems he was having that he failed to really let his body remember how the movements were supposed to be. Therefore, his muscle memory always took a back seat to his brain. He never did have success because he never could figure out how to turn his brain off for a bit and let his body do the work.
To contrast the above example, I played pro ball with a kid named Chris Snelling. Chris was a young Australian who wore sandals, shopped at Value Village, and phoned his dog (back home in Australia) to see how he was doing on a weekly basis. Even though he was quirky, he put in some serious time working on his swing. He knew it well and was confident that he could hit. I remember distinctly a warm late summer night game where we faced this young kid by the name of Francisco Rodriguez. None of us knew this guy, but we could watch him warm up down the left field line and knew that his fastball was something special. Snelling led off the game with a strike out against K-Rod’s 101 mph fastball. We couldn’t wait until Chris came back to the dugout to report on his at bat. Someone asked, “How’d he look, Snell?” His answer was, “I’ll get him next time, you watch”. Most of us chuckled at this. But sure enough, the next at bat he hammered a fastball off the right-center wall.
Each of the hitters I discussed above dealt with their failure differently. My college teammate would process and process why he was not having success each time he struggled. So much so that he paralyzed his body from working as it had been trained to do. Was this guy really as bad as many of his at bats indicated? Not at all. But his brain would never trust his body long enough to let it work as it had been trained to do year after year. As he thought about what he would do differently during the next at bat, all he was doing was making his muscles tense. No hitter can have success if he’s tense. His thinking won out, and he lost because of it.
Chris Snelling on the other hand was able to feel what went wrong in that first at bat against Rodriguez. His timing was off and he wasn’t getting his stride foot down in time. After acknowledging what minor mechanical adjustment that needed to take place, he relaxed and let his body respond differently next time. Because he chose this method, he stayed calm and his quick twitch muscles were able to activate and crush the ball into the outfield. Had Chris beat himself up over the poor first at bat, he would have spent too much time thinking over and over how he failed and what caused the lack of success. In doing this he would have made himself more frustrated, muscles would have tensed, and his mechanics he worked so hard on would have been ineffective.
The question then remains, what can you do to reduce the amount of thinking you do up at bat and increase the amount of feeling you are doing when you play? The first step is to learn correct hitting mechanics. You must understand what movements are necessary to have the best results up at bat. There is not substitute for this; you cannot rely on a coach to fix things for you for the rest of your career. Think of it this way. You would never claim to be a mechanic and not really understand how to fix cars. You would never say you are a dentist but not be very good at finding cavities in the mouths of your patients. Similarly, you should never claim you are a hitter if you do not work on fully understanding the art of hitting. Nor can you expect consistent results over the course of a season if you are unaware of what is causing the inconsistencies. Seems reasonable doesn’t it?
The second thing you can do to promote your body working automatically without your brain being involved too much is to evaluate your successes differently. Instead of placing your self-worth as an athlete on whether or not you got a hit, why not evaluate your performances based on the choices you made up to bat. Swinging at a pitch in your wheelhouse is a good choice. Watching a pitch down the middle of the plate on a full count is not a good choice. You can control good choices but you cannot control outcomes. You have little control over if an outfielder dives and flags down the ball you smashed into the gap. Let the results go, focus instead on the quality of your at bats. Once you begin to do this, you will learn to relax more and begin to identify what needs to be adjusted mechanically. If you are an emotional roller coaster you will never truly be in tune with your swing because your energy will be spent thinking about why you suck. You’ll miss the cause of the problem because your focus is elsewhere. Do yourself a favor and shut your brain down, you’ll be a better athlete for it.