Sunday, July 24, 2016

Imagery: Mental At-Bats (redux)


                                                                                                (photo credit: adoramatv.com)

A mental at-bat is a simulation, a visualization of an actual at-bat, and may include any number of real or imagined stimuli: bat in hand or imagined, uniform on or street clothes, in the dugout during a game or in your living room on a Tuesday night.

Mental ABs use the power of imagery, visualization and the mind's eye, to enhance confidence and emulate the experience gained of having a live at-bat. The power in this practice is in the power of imagery. In relation to confidence from experiences, the mind cannot separate what is real experience from what is imagined.

At Lee University, our lineup card has our game lineup on the left, and our "Mental ABs" lineup on the right. Non-starting hitters practice and go through their in the hole, on deck and pre-AB routines just as they would live in the game.

If a hitter is a part-time player and only gets four at-bats this week, he does not have but four opportunities for focused thought, approach planning and adjustment making. If that same hitter got 16 mental ABs from the four games he in which he did not play, he now has 20 at bats of experience.

Cold outside? Hitting facility closed? Got to the field earlier than anyone else? Tired of studying for your business finance test? GET YOUR MENTAL ABs IN.

Here's an explanation of what imagery is and how to best use it:
http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/resource-center/resources-for-athletes/sport-imagery-training/

And here's a great article on Olympic athletes and their experiences with imagery: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Monday, July 18, 2016

Success in Summer Ball


                                                                                               (photo credit: photos.oregonlive.com)

It's July 18th, and summer ball is all around. I mean, it's everywhere. Travel ball has 18u, 17u, 16u...heck they go all the way down to 8u. Little Johnny and Tommy are getting shuttled all around the country to play the best teams their tournament fees can buy.

At the collegiate level, summer wood bat leagues are knee deep into the hot summer grind. While some hitters try to continue their hot streak from their spring seasons, others were happy to have a second Opening Day.

Let's get this straight: the summer is about development. 

No matter what age you are, it's not about as much about winning a summer championship (those are nice, too), as it is about personal development of your skills, your craft and developing committed hitting approaches.

Summer ball often provides an opportunity to see better pitching. Whatever league you are invited to play in will have an assembly line of pitchers who were among the best on their respective high school or collegiate teams. If you're a travel baller or high school hitter, you're likely seeing pitchers who have been bused or flown in just to face your team in pool play.

Facing pitchers that you have no scouting report on, in sizzling hot and muggy climates where exhaustion can creep in, with new teammates and coaches to prove yourself in front of, and a high school or college to represent...can create a lot of challenges and pressures. And as a collegian, your coaches have asked for you to improve on a skill or approach over the summer. Whew.

If you want to dominate this summer, heed this advice.

1.) Show up early. Earlier than everyone. Every day. Get better in the cages before the coaches ever show up for BP.

2.) Be process oriented. Focus on seeing the ball well and getting good pitches to hit.

3.) Play aggressively. No one plays well when timid or passive, especially against better competition.

4.) Develop self-awareness. The summer provides a more relaxed atmosphere for focusing on your thoughts, making adjustments and finding a way to improve. No one has homework in July. Become your own best teacher. If you can teach a skill, you can master it.

5.) Invest your time. Buy a couple of good books. Buy a notebook and take notes on your at bats, pre-game and during game thoughts, etc. There are a lot of long road trips in the summer, and an iPhone, Xbox or Men's Fitness magazine are really just a short-sighted waste of time. Everyone should have some down time, but summer ball provides an enormous amount of down time. Invest that time into something that will give you dividends upon your return to school ball.

6.) Work out. Hard. So many players waste their opportunity to improve their strength, flexibility and athleticism because they are afraid of playing sore or just flat can't get off the couch. You should be sore while playing in summer ball, that means you're lifting hard, too. Great achievement requires great sacrifice. Set a plan into action with an aggressive growth goal and attack the weights or yoga !

7.) Have fun! Everyone wants an opportunity to play pro ball, and this is as close to playing every day as many will get. Enjoy the opportunity to play in front of big crowds at night, meet new teammates, invent new rain delay antics and learn more about this beautiful game and about yourself!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Solving Problems: Focus on Rhythm and Tempo


                                                                                                         (photo credit: m.mlb.com)


So many hitters focus on their hands, their hips, their posture, their stride. These are integral chains in the kinetic function of the swing. However, often these problems are not problems, rather they are symptoms of the problem.

When you have a cough, the cough is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem. You have a virus or perhaps even allergies, and your body responds by producing mucus that drains into your throat. Gross.

A doctor knows he can help you manage the symptoms of the virus, but ultimately, you cannot get rid of a virus with cough syrup or throat lozenges. A doctor would tell you to eat well, exercise, and wash your hands frequently.

To best avoid viruses (or weak contact), you have to focus on the first step in the chain of events, your body's inability to fight the virus efficiently.

The same is true of hitting. We must attack the problem, which often requires understanding a body's ability to operate as efficiently as possible. That is, we want to maximize power (force and acceleration) translating into the ball. Sounds complicated.

You want complicated? Check out this swing.

Fangraphs recently had an intriguing article on Jason Howard's inefficiency. The article clearly showcases his weaknesses, and how they have actually shifted, though they are exacerbated.

Heyward has attempted to make adjustments to his approaches and swing. It seems as though he is attempting to hit more pitches that are elevated in the zone (a positive concept), without creating a swing, and most importantly, a rhythm, that will allow for him to do so efficiently. The Fangraphs article presents symptoms of the problem.

Regardless, Heyward has always had a problem: he has poor rhythm at the plate. His pre-swing movements are short and quick, violent almost. His hands move quickly away from the pitcher and snap forward with average control. While I am not a fan of Heyward's swing path, he could immediately make himself a better hitter, with more consistent barrel contact, by only changing this load rhythm and tempo.

                                                                                                   (photo credit: chronicle.augusta.com)

RHYTHM

Rhythm: a strong, regular and repeated pattern of movement.

If you watch highlights of Heyward hitting, he has problematic rhythm. His load and stride conclude at the same time. This is bad. When the front foot HEEL lands, a hitter must hit. For Heyward, his load rhythm is the first place the kinetic chain breaks down.

Great hitters finish the negative motion of their load (while continually moving, allowing the barrel to turn) prior to their stride foot HEEL hitting the ground.

Watch these dudes:

Josh Donaldson

Barry Bonds

Andrew McCutcheon

Miguel Cabrera

TEMPO

To have the ability to consistently square the ball up, we must have consistent, regular and repeated patterns of movement. Secondarily, we must have excellent tempo. Few hitters pay attention to their tempo.

Tempo is speed or pace and usually is related to music.The tempo of a hitter's load is the speed of movement between when hand or arm movements change direction. Many hitters have a circular load, while others bounce up and down. The speed with which those movements cycle is the tempo of the load. Within a swing, we want our tempo to be more Jack Johnson than AC/DC.

We can pick apart any hitter, including Jason Heyward, and find faults in their stance, grip, stride, slotting, barrel turn, hand path, etc., but first, we must evaluate the speed of their load.

Learn a consistent load rhythm and tempo, and you will be amazed at how many of the problems found in the kinetic chain of the swing stay in sync.

(photo credit: baseball-cards-and-collectibles.com)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hitting Off-Speed Pitches (redux)


      (photo credit: hubpages.com)


I always laugh when I hear a scouting report that says a hitter “can’t hit a good slider.”

No kidding. Most of the time, neither can Miguel Cabrera.

What coaches likely mean to say is, “this kid has no clue how to look for an off-speed pitch, analyze what tunnel the ball has come out of, decipher if this pitch will be a good pitch to hit, and put an aggressive swing on it.”

To be a strong hitting team against strong pitching, our hitters must understand when, how and why to look for an off-speed pitch. Bat speed is a talent that can be maximized. Hitting a curve ball is a skill that can be mastered.

We have to practice, daily, hitting breaking balls on the field, in the cage and visualizing off-speed pitches when hitting off of a tee.  If we expect our hitters to improve a skill, we must work SMART. Give them the toolbox from which to draw the proper tool.

There are several mis-analyses in coaching jargon. Let’s take a look at two of them.

OFF-SPEED COACHING MIS-ANALYSIS #1: “He can't see spin.”

First, as coaches, we are responsible for knowing whether our players have good eyesight. Do they wear contacts? What type of vision do they have? Making assumptions often makes…well you know.

Secondly, most hitters can see the spin of the ball. They can describe what each pitch looks like. Developing this awareness starts with dialogue, with questions, and an open conversation of what the pitches looked like, and what they did. Having hitters stand in on bullpens is a terrific way to develop this dialogue and for them to practice rhythm and timing.

Make a game out of the bullpens by having hitters call out “1” or “2” for fastball or off-speed, or “strike” or “ball” as soon as they recognize tunnel and spin. Keep a chart. Measurement of a skill equals motivation to improve the skill.

OFF-SPEED COACHING MIS-ANALYSIS #2: “He only wants to hit fastballs.”

Loosely paraphrasing John Wooden, “there are no bad students, only teachers who don't reach them.”

Every thought, every choice, every decision a human makes is either in pursuit of pleasure or in avoidance of pain. Many athletes spend more time avoiding pain than seeking pleasure. Hitters will avoid swinging at off-speed pitches early in counts because they do not know how or why to look for them, or how to stay in sequence while the ball decelerates towards the plate with downward movement. You have to TEACH them how to hit off-speed pitches.

Front toss is the simplest way to teach the timing of hitting a breaking ball or change-up. We teach our hitters to front toss to one another at two different speeds. When we are front tossing, we are hunting fastballs and adjusting to slower pitches that are elevated, or we are hunting slower pitches that are elevated and taking all fastballs.

We teach our hitters, when “aggressive to off-speed,” to slightly delay the timing of the load and the stride. Watch a big leaguer, and you’ll see how their timing on some off-speed pitches is impeccable, like they “were looking for it.” That’s because they were.

When you see a big leaguer with fastball timing, keeping his hands in a loaded position, he has retained separation between his load and his stride, creating a tension or resistance in his posterior core that creates stored energy.

When our hands or “load” float forward, we lose early-swing bat speed and can only pull the baseball with authority.

Most hitters can pull an off-speed pitch down the pull-side line, way out in front. We want our hitters able to drive a good off-speed pitch to the middle and slight-oppo side of the field.