Updated: Sep 13, 2019
I think we all have been there as coaches, where you just aren't sure if we are really improving. It's been a couple weeks and you have seen some flashes of what you want to see from your players in practice and in game. You see some guys make impressive gains in their game, only to see them regress the following week and/or the next. Did they get worse? Did they change something? Did I change something? Did he even really learn anything that I think I have taught him? Well he told me knows it, he answers the questions correctly. Yet, it doesn't consistently show up on the field.
Can we track our players knowledge and growth? Short answer, yes. But how exactly? Also, what? Those are very important to know, especially if this is information you plan on sharing with the player. What is it that each player is going to experience? Players need to explore with great intent and helpful resources widely available across any level of baseball (some more than others). Experiment with different training environments, different training tools, slightly unorthodox towards traditional training, or ramp up the traditional training with how performance in practice is measured. How performance in practice is actually defined. Rather than simply making it the basis of the game. Whether we like it or not we do this very often and is a common practice in our sport. Especially with the constant failure within the task of hitting a baseball. So we keep looking for slight tweaks within training environments or mechanics to find success. We can put our players through challenging environments, day in and day out, making sure it is more challenging in practice than in the game. We can make it as extreme as possible in terms of variability and randomness. Does that mean they are learning?
We must understand that most of us are working with athletes that are in their most influential stages of their lives. There are only so many coaches that can work with the top 750 players in the world. Doesn't mean we can't work each day to reach that level. But the way that top 750 player learns and works, is not going to be the same as a 17 high school player. And that 17 high school player is not going to learn the same way as a 17 DSL player. I pulled this quote from an article about the learning ability of adolescences. "The imbalance between aroused dopamine systems and self-regulation systems sounds like a scary story, but it also represents a unique opportunity to reach adolescents with positive stimuli that will be hard-wired in high definition years later." It's incredibly important to know that athletes in these age groups seek pleasurable experiences over being exploited for their inabilities to complete a task. This also means that these players are prepared to be molded with what they learn. Who is to say that 18, 19, 20, 21 year old athletes aren't that much different in the way they learn?
WHAT STRATEGIES TO DEPLOY
How can we make them learn? First things first, make them think. Athletes need to be challenged cognitively, and asking them questions then providing hints towards the answer is not cognitive challenge. I like to use guided discovery for any setting where the athlete needs to solve a problem (cages, classroom, video session, etc.). You need to ask them questions, and reword the question if they can't provide a solution or answer. Ask their opinion on the matter. For example, when working through a swing analysis, don't tell them right away what you like and what they did well or poorly. Put the ball in their court, ask them what they see, what they think. Then challenge them to lead the session. Ask them what they need in the cage, or what they want to improve and why.
We should all understand how important feedback is, I touched on it in my last blog post. It should be noted there are different types of feedback and many different ways to deliver feedback. Bandwidth feedback is a technique that reduces the relative frequency of feedback.For instance, error information on movement technique. We want to focus only on the key elements, to prevent the athlete from getting overwhelmed. It is well documented that bandwidth feedback is highly effective for learning simple motor skills during physical practice ( Butler et al., 1996 ; Cauraugh et al., 1993 ; Lee and Carnahan 1990 ; Park et al., 2000 ; Sherwood, 1988 ; Smith et al., 1997 ) and observational practice ( Badets and Blandin, 2005 ; Badets and Blandin, 2010 ). When working with a hitter on his rear hip load, it is crucial to solely focus on his HIP LOAD. The opposite of bandwidth feedback would be to begin to work on his bat path to pair with his hip load, or his move forward and also his hip load. We want to keep our feedback acute, reducing the frequency of feedback. More so when we want the athlete exploring in his own right, rather than us dictating whether he did a good job or not. When deploying feedback that is too precise it's as useless as feedback that is too vague ( Wright et al., 1997 ).
This is really a sub-type of bandwidth feedback. While we still want to keep our feedback acute, we want to keep it in a specified or acceptable range of error. This is huge for hitting, when error and failure are so common. Many of a technical and tactical strategies are to put us in a position to perform within an acceptable range of failure/error. This is especially important when dealing with situational hitting for a hitter. Where younger hitters may be so engulfed in performing to their maximum capabilities, while they may not get a hit with a runner on second they still hit a deep fly ball hard enough to advance the runner. Which is important for keeping their cognitive well-being at a healthy enough level to continue competing with a positive mindset. When it comes to the practice environment, a perfect example is trying to get a particular athlete to elevate the ball more, produce more productive launch angles. Don't focus on the mechanical aspect of the correction, the correct form of deploying augmented feedback would be to positively reinforce the hitter if the barrel is working in the right direction. If it's simply coming down to a contact or timing flaw, this would be the perfect example of an acceptable range of error. Everything was right, the hitter just missed it, by a matter of an inch probably.
Knowledge of Results (KR):
First things first, we must acknowledge is that frequent knowledge of results can be detrimental (Schmidt, 1991) and lead the learner to make too many corrections during the task. It may also lead inability to produce stable behavior and intrinsic learning. How will you deliver knowledge of results? What results is the learner actively seeking? I believe that is the reality we must acknowledge at times. If the learner doesn't understand why those typical results will lead to more success in their field, they are more susceptible correcting their movement in a detrimental fashion. Introducing information without context will clutter the mind of the learner rather than myelinate the learning process by building an opportunity to set a goal. I would use this as the statistics portion that could be exposed between the spectators and players, to understand how players are judged. In baseball the number of data points for statistics to gauge better performance are growing every year. It's important to lead the players to the stats the truly correlate to individuals and team success.
Knowledge of Performance (KP):
Knowledge of performance is going to provide context on how the skill was performed. It's simply the data points that lead to the results. Before providing data on performance, the learners must understand what that data represents. So if we are chasing particular launch angles, or body metric positions, the learners need to understand why it is going to lead to success on the field. I think this is where the wave of sports science is taking over. Where we can track just about everything in today's game, where can inform players of their bio-mechanical components of performance, their in game and practice performance with tools that measure batted ball events and slow motion video.
There are many different plans to ensure learning, but when in doubt, keep sending the right message to your players and encourage them! As coaches, we should know what truly leads to success. If we aren't aware and knowledgeable, then our players can't receive the proper information. Once we have gathered the correct information, we must understand how to deliver that information. With the methods above, I won't say your players will become savants in performing skill, but we can ensure that the right messages are being presented to them and we are allowing them to create their own thoughts to come up with their own answers. To rap all of your sessions up, whether one on one with the player, team practice, meeting, etc. One of the best strategies I learned about was from Marc Manella (previously of The KIPP Schools) about the primacy and recency effect. Which I'll describe below AND make it simple.
You remember what you talked about first or introduced first. In learning, this means that we remember best what we learn first.
You remember what was last spoken about last, the end of the learning session.
We all fail and results will fluctuate. Deliver the right message through proven methods of learning.