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COLUMN: Training and Playing in the Real World



The offseason is ending, and players and coaches are busy sifting through the valuable science, skill metrics and new drills that will hopefully lead to an improved 2023 season. Clearly, baseball is in the middle of a Renaissance era, with the vast inventory of observational and teaching tools available to improve performance.  

Here is some advice to all coaches and players:

  • Let the new information digest for a few days before the new concept, cue or drill rocks your world.
  • Don't be fooled by logos and pretty presentations. Listening to someone on a stage doesn't make all that they believe and present the gospel.
  • Does the new info align with your core beliefs?  Unless you were way down the wrong rabbit hole on a topic, don't do a complete reversal with the "new stuff" you just ingested.
  • Question the science. Just because they use fancy words and relied on studies from a "science guy" doesn't make the content the absolute holy grail. For every scientist that supports a theory, a handful of other scientists can be found to refute the study. Look for peer review, third-party publications and potential conflicts of interest with the "experts" who recommend a product or service.
  • Can you explain it to your most stubborn player? If you can't explain it in language and cues that players can understand, don't share it. Take the time to personalize the new stuff so that others can understand it without you showing off with large words and technical language. The master teacher takes the complex and creates words, images and feelings for his students to embrace and own.

Dr. Dan Laby, MD, from the Sports and Performance Vision Center in New York, agrees:

“One of the greatest challenges for those of us who research, test, and train baseball performance is translating the science into real-world action and words of explanation. In general, if one can explain a complicated topic in real terms then they truly understand it. The use of big words and complicated terms implies a lack of understanding. Having scientific information is of little use if it can't be used to improve lives or in this case sports performance. It is truly a skill to be able to convey scientific discoveries to athletes in a way that they are relevant and materially of value.” 

The wisdom of several sources that have helped coaches sift through the “candy store” are worth sharing as, perhaps, a confirmation or questioning of your own teaching toolbox. For ease of reading and length for this article, I have taken the key takeaways from the sources below that I believe can provide insight into why or what teaching tools and cues you may need to tweak. For those that want to dig deeper into the experts below, Google awaits them. 

The work of James (J.J.) Gibson is the gold standard in visual and space perception today. His theories on affordances and environment-centered orientations have been the platform on which the implied-training advocates teach. Gibson’s concept of “ecological optics” attempts to explain how space is invisible to the outside world, but within the brain, it provides valuable information to predict time to collision.

Gibson’s words are relevant to baseball training protocol:

"Experiments need to be performed outdoors. The stimuli to be judged ought to be of a natural environment …The light reaching the eye has already been organized into complex structures by its interaction with the environment. 

"People do not live in an abstract space. They live on the surface of the earth. There is no such thing as a perception of space without the perception of a continuous background surface: ground Theory."

Arizona State sports science researcher Robert Gray spoke recently and echoed the same thoughts Gibson’s findings supported.

“The starting point for vision is the environment (this ambient optic array) NOT the retinal image. The stimulus is in the environment, not the eye."

Gray’s work, particularly, in action control, is insightful in developing a training protocol for athletes, especially hitters.

Because the information from the environment is specific, there is no need to generate a prediction. The performer just needs to educate their attention to this information and control the action using an information-movement coupling. Intelligence is not just in the head but in the performer-environment interaction.

The top swing doctors would agree with Gray’s take on online control:

"The good variability results suggest that successful batting, does not involve the use of low variability repeatable swings ... Instead it suggests that batting involves “repetition without Repetition ( Bernstein) repeating the outcome of barreling the ball up not repeating the same swing."

Lastly, Gray has been clear in voicing his skepticism on the many brain-training equipment in the industry in which he calls “pseudoscience."

Neuro-Skills developer Tim Nicely (V-Flex founder) provides more insight on how to improve training protocols that may better transfer to real world competition. Since we see with our brain, not our eyes, his perspective on training strategies is unique. His view is that perception is predictive and that by manipulating Gibson's and Gray's organized external invisible space implicitly he believes the brain can become a better predictor of time relative to the collision with the ball.

Nicely’s tool, V-Flex, uses the Gestalt laws of organization to develop implicit tools that alter the perception of space and time for hitters and pitchers.  

The laws include: 

1. Closure—tendency for a roughly circular pattern of dots to be seen as belonging to and forming an object.  
2. 
Common Fate—parts moving together are seen as an object.
3. Contiguity of close-together features and a preference for smooth curves—These laws are commonly used by the (AI) artificial intelligence community. They assist programmers in building computers that recognize patterns and objects.

On the topics of modern occlusion and pitch recognition programs, Nicely says coaches are at liberty to believe what they want to—he simply views them as lacking basic physics and science foundations.

The reasons why he believes most modern occlusion and pitch recognition programs are lacking are listed below.

  • No adherence to established Principles of light and electromagnetic radiation.
  • Both involve (CLA) constraint-led approaches that use time and view time for constraints. Unfortunately, those aren’t actual constraints because of the method of application. They aren't constraining the neurons making space/time. They're essentially just abstract obstacles.
  • Each requires cognition and decision-making. Both consume enormous amounts of time and energy.   Therefore, they violate the Laws of Conservation of Energy.
  • Hitters are learning a skill their brain can’t use in the game because of the specialized nature of the training. Visible pictorial patterns on a TV screen are as far from the real environment as you can get when it comes to actual batting practice. The hitter's brain is processing raw but well-organized interference patterns within the electromagnetic field during a hitting episode.
  • Faster swing decisions aren’t the answer. Light (electromagnetic waves or visual information) travels 186,000 mps. The speed of thought (cognition) travels 284 mph. Do the math! Cognitive exercise won't help hitters overcome that undeniable discrepancy in time.
  • Blocking out peripheral distractions … ? There are 300 million more peripheral neurons than central vision neurons. They are the gatherers of pertinent information relative to any task. They are instrumental in the prediction process of perception. It makes no sense to arbitrarily omit interference patterns relative to a pitch in flight. If occlusion multiplied or amplified the interference patterns the hitter's brain is processing then that would be a good thing, but it doesn't. People with ADHD might benefit on a cognitive level with less information, but not the normal athlete. The law of physics, space and time are one and the same. You can’t arbitrarily just randomly isolate time. Time and space are pre-coupled. It becomes an omission/redaction of vital information.

A lot of science and interesting theories to ponder.

The article began with one premise. Stay curious and challenge and embrace the “science.” Knowledge is without power if conveyed to the wrong person at the wrong time with the wrong intentions.

LSU Baseball head coach Jay Johnson on my recent visit with his team summed it up best:

  • “If you fix your eyes, you fix your swing."
  • "It's either a ball or it’s a line drive.” 

Tony Abbatine is a Performance Coach for several NCAA baseball programs in the area of vision and mental skills and lectures across the country on the same topic. He has consulted with over 12 MLB teams and hundreds of players over the last decade in the area of visual psychology. 

Max Clark Mikejanesfourseam

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