Many of you have probably heard, like I did, about deep practice through Daniel Coyle's book - The Talent Code. In the first and second chapter it will mention things like the 10,000 hour rule, 10 year rule and deep practice. While it is surely understandable what it is, how can we ensure we are partaking in deep practice for our hitters.
First of all, what is the purpose of "deep practice"? That answer takes you to the neurological side of the athlete (another great example that you need to know more than just how to swing a bat efficiently to be a great hitting coach). Deep practice takes you through a process called "myelination". Myelination is when myelin, a living tissue, forms a whitish insulating sheath around many of the nerve fibers in the brain. This increases the speed at which impulses are conducted. Like a muscle, myelin must be exercised to stay healthy and grow. The more you use the axons, or nerve fibers, in your brain, the fatter the myelin around them gets. Which in turn makes it easier to perform the skill you participate in when those particular neurons fire.
Now in order to partake in deep practice it is imperative that we fail or make mistakes. More importantly we need to pay attention to those mistakes and understand why we failed. We then need to repeat the task that we failed to make a correction. Once you make that correction is when myelin grows in the brain and allows the skill to get hardwired into your body and brain.
How can we incorporate this into our practice?
One thing I can guarantee you is that your traditional 4 rounds of 5 swings without any purpose and no coach conducting the rounds is the furthest thing from deep practice. It is more like turning the switch on to your toy train and watch in go around the tracks round and round. It for damn sure isn't happening when you shout an internal cue in the middle of the hitters BP round such as, keep your head still", "stay on your backside" or "keep your front shoulder in". Even if we put a focus on the particular rounds it isn't quite hitting the deep practice setting. It is one step closer but it isn't allowing us to call out the mistakes and correct them immediately.
How I have incorporated this into practice before is by having shorter rounds of on field BP. Have a firm focus on the task. Example:
Round 1 (2 pitches): 2-0 count, nobody on, no outs. Always have the player tell you what his objective is. For every round.
I will have more fastballs thrown here because I want the law of averages to simulate the game. They will most likely see fastballs in this count.
I believe by having the hitter tell you what his objective should be allows him to be more engaged and invested in his outcome. I think it makes him more focused because his desired outcome wasn't chosen for him.
The reason for 2 pitches is to give him a chance to succeed. If he does, then give him a chance to succeed again.
If he fails on the first pitch, he will need to exit and talk with the coach as to why he thinks he may have missed or didn't execute. I really believe it is important the the coach is more of a guide and not the almighty power that has all the answers. When the player exits after failing and goes to break it down with the coach, it shouldn't be the coach saying "you chased there" or "dropped your back shoulder". WOW THANKS COACH!
The conversation from the coach needs to be more along the lines of "what did you see?" "What did you feel?". Get the player to do the thinking, that is what is going to happen in the game. He needs to learn how to come to his own conclusions and make adjustments on his own in the box. The coach can't stop the game and come talk to him after every pitch.
Round 2 (3 pitches): 1-1 count, runner on 3rd, 2 outs.
We want to try and have a 50/50 mix of off-speed and fastballs here because this is a 50/50 count at college. Again we want the situation to simulate a game.
I love hearing these personal responses on what the player wants here as their objective. I have heard anywhere from "to get a hit" to "drive him in" to "stay patient". It is great to hear the different responses, because as we should know as coaches, EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT.
I will say I believe it is important to not shut down the hitters first response before he gets in the box. Their desired outcome may not sound like exactly what you want to hear as a coach, but it may bring the desired result. So watch it go to work and see if we need to make an adjustment from there.
Round 3 (1 pitch): 3-2 count, bases loaded, 2 outs.
I am throwing the kitchen sink at them. I want this to be the toughest round for them. When we have these rounds you'll see guys start to get more pumped up or see guys hone in just a little bit more. Because everyone knows this is a big situation, these type of situations can break a game open or bring you back in if you're down big. So why would you not practice it? It's great to see the hitter execute in this round, his teammates celebrate with him on this round. There is camaraderie.
I absolutely love this situation. Hearing the responses to the hitters objective and watching them battle. Believe me when I say this will absolutely translate to the game. Your hitters will win these situations more often because I don't believe pitchers are really working on this as often as we have the luxury as hitters to do.
If the hitter fouls off the pitch, treat it just like a game, they stay in.
Now when we get into the cage (usually off hack attack facing velo or sharp breaking ball) I like to just have guys swing until a hard hit ball. Get out after each hard hit ball. I want them coming out after a win, so they can get back in with confidence. I always want a coach there to breakdown each round. Very common answers after a hard hit ball is "I saw it well" or "My timing felt good". I know, weird right?
This gets treated just like on field BP in a sense that there will be situations the hitter is put in. But here I like to create more chaos and quick thinking/processing for the hitter.
As the hitter is walking into the cage the coach will call out the situation. Then once the hitter is in the box, the player or coach feeds the machine and off to work. It's great to watch guys slow the game down on their own here because this isn't a situation written on a sheet of paper where you can mentally prepare for outside of the cage. Again, you will see this translate to the game in hitters slowing the game down and prepping themselves for the situation.
I do make sure I am careful here at times because if we have it set on breaking balls, I rarely want to call out a 3-0 or 2-0 count because I do want to practice to the law of averages. So myself or any other coach needs to be cognizant of that.
These are just a few examples, as coaches we need to present an environment for accelerated learning and prompt decision making. The game of baseball is faster than the outside eye thinks. There is a reason there is so much down time in the game. Players/coaches are processing information, preparing themselves to make a decision and hope to put themselves in a situation to succeed.
I get it though, you have bunt plays and 1st and 3rd plays to go over, plus individual defense. You don't have time to have a slower more individualized batting practice. The amount of plate appearances vs. 1st and 3rd plays is pretty skewed in one direction. All I can say to that is the choice is yours.