Practice makes permanent
Since our earliest days of athletic competition, coaches have convincingly reinforced to us that “practice makes perfect." And while there is nothing wrong with preaching the values of hard work and extra reps, this oft-quoted statement by itself falls a bit short. For someone living in the world of mechanical skills training like myself, however, the better message would be that "practice makes permanent."
It may sound crazy, but all of those extra reps in the batting cage can ultimately have a negative effect.
THE POTENTIAL DOWNSIDE OF REPETITION-BASED TRAINING
Every rep of whatever movement that we are practicing (a baseball swing, for instance) brings us that much closer to developing a muscle memory for that movement. If a player is taking some swings off of a tee and that particular player’s swing is NOT mechanically sound, he is only reinforcing that mechanically flawed swing further into muscle memory.
Muscle Memory - The Body Learns What You Teach It
When you move your body, your brain tries to remember that movement so that it can perform it again, when called upon to do so. Some of the simpler movements, like fielding a ground ball can be learned rather quickly, as it involves basic human body movements (like a squat) with minor adjustments or alterations (having your glove out in front, etc.). But other movements, like the golf swing, or baseball swing, are far more involved and complex, and demand hundreds, if not thousands of reps to develop into muscle memory.
Developing the muscle memory of a mechanically sound baseball swing requires a good level of neuromuscular communication - where the brain tells a particular body part to move, and it moves. Those who possess extraordinary neuromuscular communication can be given instruction to move several parts of his body in any given sequential order and do so rather easily. These are your “fast learners” - those athletes who seem to pick up on mechanics quickly.
Where Muscle Memory Becomes A Factor
Hitting is a reactive skill. It is widely known that we have under a second to react to a fastball and put a good swing on it - “good swing” being the key. This is where muscle memory comes into play. We all know that, as hitters, we do not have the time to think about what part of the body is moving at any particular point in time when we are facing a live pitch. We just decide whether to swing (or not) and react. Exactly HOW we swing in that moment - the appropriate parts of the body moving in a sequential order - is developed in the training tunnels, during the off-season. That is, assuming we have taken enough mechanically proper swings to develop a “good swing” into muscle memory.
It takes a long time to develop a muscle memory, some say as many as 10,000 repetitions (I believe that it depends on the individual). Every single rep that you take, that is EVERY swing off of a tee, front toss swings, dry swings, overhand, etc., is one rep closer to THAT swing becoming muscle memory. It will simply become “your swing” - good or bad.
Work Smarter, Not Harder!
Hitters should constantly be in pursuit of the perfect swing. Every hitter, no matter his age or skill level, but especially younger hitters (as they are in their “prime” in regard to *myelination production) should focus on proper mechanics with every swing that they take, outside of a game. This is the only way to develop the muscle memory for a mechanically sound swing in the shortest amount of time. It is even possible, with an unwavering dedication to mechanical development, to turn an average swing into one of the best in a single off-season!
So Where Does The Problem Lie?
The problem that I see with the training programs today is that there are far too many unchecked swings being taken in baseball training facilities. There are too many coaches out there that are driven by repetition. They focus more on the quantity of swings, instead of the quality of the swings. I hear coaches tell their players to “remember to take 50-100 swings a day”. Well, that is all well and good if the player is taking controlled, focused swings with proper mechanics. If they are not - if they are just swinging for the sake of swinging, with poor mechanics, then all that they are doing is reinforcing those poor mechanics into muscle memory.
What Is The “Fix”?
To avoid reinforcing poor mechanics in your baseball swing as a player.......
First off, find a good hitting coach. A good hitting coach understands the ins and outs of not only “good mechanics”, but what “bad mechanics” look like as well. A good hitting coach understands that developing a strong, mechanically sound swing is a process (often a long one) and comes along in progressive stages. He should acknowledge and celebrate the small improvements with you. A good baseball swing takes a TON of patience and failure management. Good coaches should recognize this and be willing to view the success of his student as a journey, not a “quick fix.”
Try to avoid hitting coaches who:
- Say things like “go do some tee work” without giving you at least 3 mechanical cues to focus and work on.
- Tell you to “take 100 swings per day” without citing something mechanical for you to focus on.
- Don't say much in the way of mechanics in a lesson and is okay with being your “BP pitcher”
- Tell you that “all swings are different” and “you should NOT to try to emulate big league hitters”
These coaches either do not hold YOUR best interests and success in high regard, and/or do not fully understand the mechanics of a professional swing - a “good swing.”
In summary, make no mistake, self-motivation, a strong work ethic and drive are ALL great qualities to possess, especially as a competitive athlete. Repetitions can and should be critical to the overall success of your athletic endeavor, particularly when it comes to such a mechanical skill like hitting. Just remember that it is imperative that those repetitions are being performed with mechanical improvement in mind. Stay focused on the QUALITY of your swing and NOT the quantity!
Director, Player Skill Development
The Farm BPI
Originally printed November 5, 2014
Reprinted April 29, 2022