As someone who runs a training facility in Seattle with three batting cages attached to it, I’m in a unique position to see hoards of people coming in to “practice” with their high school, college, select, or Little League teams. Every single team practice I’ve seen has been a complete failure. Yes, every single one. The general outline of a team practice goes like this:
- Kids show up, mill around, do some arm circles and static stretching to warm up
- Kids take turns in the batting cages throwing a bullpen, hitting off a machine, or whacking baseballs off a tee
- Coach does some non-specific “agility” drill for them (running ladders, jumping exercises)
- Everyone goes home, happy that they got their work in
Well, they just wasted an hour of their lives for a very marginal training effect (if any). Simply taking a ton of hacks or throwing off a mound isn’t going to get you anywhere. That’s not practice. That’s babysitting.
What is Practice?
Real practice is deliberate. It means multiple short-term goals that make up a larger goal with specific achievements along the way. Practice as we know it is nothing more than a bad conditioning effect and a hobby. Yet we have the audacity to wonder why American talent is quickly becoming outpaced by Dominican, Puerto Rican, and other foreign competitors in Major League Baseball?
The truth is that we all know what real practice is – just like we know how to lose fat and add muscle. The problem, of course, is that it’s not fun, it’s very hard, and it’s boring.
I understand that taking rounds of batting practice mashing middle-of-the-plate meatballs at 65 MPH with your metal bat is a lot of fun. You get to show off to your teammates, parents, and girlfriends, purporting to be a decent hitter. Or maybe you throw your pitches off a mound and wow your catcher with your fastball velocity and the break of your slider you learned last year. Yeah, that’s fun. But you’re not learning anything.
The key to success is deliberate practice. This has been outlined in many talent research books like Talent is Overrated, Outliers, and The Talent Code, just to name a few. In nearly all studies done on the “best performers” in a given discipline, they found that the statistically significant variable that matters the most is deliberate practice. Not some innate talent or genetic gifts, but rather good old fashioned hard work.
In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin outlines the deliberate practice and furious pace that so-called virtuosos displayed – Mozart and Tiger Woods, specifically. Tiger was playing full rounds of golf at age 3 and put in thousands of hours before he even hit high school. Genetically gifted? Maybe. Expert due to countless hours of hard work with a very specific purpose in mind? Definitely.
Translating Deliberate Practice to Baseball
There’s one major thing you can do to become a better baseball player, regardless of position: You can videotape yourself. By taping yourself swinging a bat or throwing your best fastball, you can compare your mechanics to the best in the world and see how you match up. Chances are good that you don’t; not even close. Here’s the second biggest problem with training Americans: They have big egos and are taught at a young age that they are special. Well, I have bad news for you: You aren’t. Everyone has to put in a ton of hard work to reach the ultimate goal: Playing in the big leagues in front of tens of thousands of fans.
The end goals can be reached by those without supreme genetic gifts – just look at baseball athletes like David Eckstein, Dustin Pedroia, and Tim Collins – but you aren’t going to get there without busting your ass.
Here’s part of a typical practice that our pitchers will go through at Driveline Baseball in the off-season:
- Dynamic warm-up (foam rolling, self-myofascial release, movement prep)
- Throwing-specific warm-up (incrementing intensity over various throwing drills)
- Arm action optimization (throwing at 100% off flat ground into a net)
- Video review
- Arm action optimization
- Video review
- Arm action optimization
- Video review
- Strength training (barbell lifts)
- Rotational power development (medicine ball work)
- Metabolic conditioning
Nothing about this is fun, save for gains the pitcher gets in his fastball velocity. He will throw standard or under/overloaded baseballs off flat ground while being taped at 30 FPS and 210 FPS for review. We’ll talk about the arm action, compare it to professionals, and repeat. After enough trials of this (typically three in a given session), we’ll move on to general strength/power development. This is something that is done every week when developing amateur talent, and the pitchers who have the best work ethic will be in the facility at least four times in a given week.
A typical high school pitcher who wants to compete at the college level will need to be in my facility four times per week, following a good diet, training his ass off for about three years. I wouldn’t dare to say that this is “hard work” – the minute you start to think you work hard, just look at what Dominican kids do to make their dreams come true. The truth is that it’s hard enough to find dedicated kids who will show up four times per week to work out in the off-season to even give their lofty dreams a shot. Most would rather play MLB The Show on their PS3 and dream about having god-given fastball velocity.
Why You Fail: You Don’t Want to Succeed
If you don’t compete at the level you want to, it’s easy to blame it on exogenous factors – I’m not genetically gifted, I have to balance work/school with training, the facility I train at is too far away, and other “good” excuses. Just admit it to yourself: You don’t want to succeed. You don’t want to put in the thousands of hours necessary to even get a shot at the higher levels of baseball, because the very real possibility of failure. You aren’t alone.
But at Driveline Baseball, we have an athlete who was a former top prep outfielder in Seattle playing at one of the best schools in the area. He failed to make the cut at the University of Washington because he spiraled into drug and alcohol use. He lost two years of training time and gave up on his dream – playing Division-I baseball and getting a shot in the pros. He currently has a kid, a long-term girlfriend, is still enrolled in school full-time while working a job, and came to me a few months ago saying that he was dedicated to playing professionally again.
He’s been in the facility four times per week training hard and earned a spot on the Everett Merchants, a local semi-pro / summer team. He has JUCO schools recruiting him to play center field, but he’s going to play a year of summer ball and train hard to see if he can play D-I baseball again. And from there, who knows?
Tell him that you don’t have the time to train hard because of school, or because you’re out of shape, or because you have too much going on in your life. Good luck with that.
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