Becoming a Jungle Tiger In and Out of the Cage
A few weeks ago I came across Trevor Ragan's TrainUgly.com and his podcast, "The Learner Lab." The timing couldn't have been better because I've been diving into reading and research on motor learning, skill acquisition, and retention. If you haven't heard about Trevor and all the great work he's doing, GET ON IT!
The first thing that made the lightbulb go off while listening to Trevor was his example of the jungle tiger and the zoo tiger and its perfect relation to training hitters. So, there are two tigers. The first one lives in the zoo - he will be our zoo tiger. He gets his food at the same time every day from the zookeeper, he is safe from all enemies, his cage is cleaned for him, and he has unlimited water. All of his basic necessities are taken care of so he has nothing to make him feel uncomfortable. Each day is essentially the same. Life is good...but is it really?
The second tiger is our jungle tiger. He lives out in the wild. He has to protect himself from predators. If he wants food, he has to go out and hunt. Each day brings new problems for the jungle tiger to solve. Everything he gets, he has to earn. Life is certainly not easy.
Now, what would happen if the zoo tiger was let out of his cage and put out into the wild with the jungle tiger? Which one would be able to survive and thrive? Of course, the jungle tiger because he has lived in this environment. The zoo tiger - although he is a tiger - is not prepared for all that the wild is about to throw at him. He is going to be eaten up - quite literally - in no time.
What is the relation to hitting? Think about how most players "train" in the off-season. They go to the cage, hit off the tee, and have meatballs thrown to them for batting practice. Everything is controlled, they square most balls up, and they are filled with a false sense of confidence that they are ready for the season. They are the zoo tigers. What is going to happen to them when the season comes around and they step into the box and the pitcher is bringing it with a nice mix of offspeed pitches? We all know the answer.
Now that we are in the off-season, how do we become a jungle tiger? To begin, we have to shift our mindset from fixed to growth. Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor and leader in growth mindset, perfectly talks about the benefits of a growth mindset: "Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives."
I love that. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable and struggle to find new levels. In hitting, success means failing 70% of the time. It means swinging and missing a lot. However, in the cage, we shy away from swinging and missing or going against tough velocity off of the machine because we don't want to look bad. But, as Carol Dweck states, we need to find ways to push ourselves and problem solve in difficult situations because that is where growth comes from. To boil it down, we need to be willing to struggle to grow.
With this growth mindset, we now need to create a practice environment that helps us make meaningful changes that will show up when the season comes around. This is where blocked vs. random training comes in. To get us on the same page, blocked practice is when the learner performs a single skill over and over again for a specified amount of repetitions. There are no variations and the environment is very controlled. Once the particular skill is completed, the learner repeats the same process. This type of practice is great for hitters who are just beginning to hit or a player that is making big changes. Another time that blocked practice is beneficial is right before a performance/game. However, only utilizing blocked practice tends to lead to that false sense of confidence we talked about earlier. If we do the same drills and practice progressions all off-season, of course, we will get good at them. We will be able to square most balls up and confidence will be high. But blocked practice does not allow the hitter constant problem-solving opportunities that the actual game demands.
Enter random practice. Random practice is the exact opposite of blocked practice. Each repetition is different and forces the learner to constantly problem-solve. There is no set number of repetitions. The learner is never doing the same thing twice. Study after study has found that random practice beats out blocked practice when it comes to transfer. What exactly is transfer? Transfer is the improvements and work put in during practice transferring over to the actual competition. Although blocked practice makes it seem like the hitter is getting better because they look good in the cage, their performance is nowhere near as close to the random practice hitters once the lights come on.
Below is a great graphic that illustrates a 1994 study on random vs. blocked training with baseball players. Each group was given 45 pitches made up of 15 fastballs, 15 curveballs, and 15 change-ups. The goal was to see which group had the highest amount of solid hits based on the type of training over six weeks. The difference between the blocked and random groups was the order in which the types of pitches were thrown. The blocked group had the same pitch thrown within the 15 rep blocks. So, 15 fastballs, then 15 curveballs, then 15 change-ups. They always knew the order, the reps, and what was coming. As you can see from the graph below, the blocked training group did well in the acquisition phase when things were controlled, but their performance significantly dropped when they had the transfer test at the end when the pitches were randomly thrown.
In the random group's training, they never had the same pitch thrown more than twice and never knew what was coming. Although they progressed at a slower rate during the acquisition (practice) phase compared to the blocked group, their performance jumped up when they had to perform and show transfer.
This study's findings perfectly relate to the textbook I'm currently reading by Dr. Richard Schmidt and Dr. Timothy Lee: Motor Control and Learning, A Behavioral Emphasis. In the chapter on conditions of practice, their conclusions on blocked vs random training were similar to the 1994 study - random practice leads to higher retention and transfer: "The 'traditional' methods of continuous drill on a particular action (i.e., practicing one skill repeatedly until it is correct) are probably not the most effective way to learn. Rather, the evidence suggests that practicing a number of tasks in some nearly randomized order will be the most successful means of achieving the goal of stable retention and transfer" (Schmidt & Lee, 381).
With all of this information now in mind, how can we implement random training into our time in the cage this off-season? Below are just a few ideas to create a more randomized training environment.
When throwing batting practice, randomize the pitches so the hitter is always unsure of what is coming. For a round of six, the sequence would be randomized: fastball, fastball, curveball, fastball, curveball, curveball.
Change the timing for the hitter with each repetition. If they square the pitch up, have them take a step closer to the L-screen. If they mishit the ball, have them take a step back. The same idea can be used for different bats. I love mixing in overload, underload, short, and long bats into training because each asks the hitter to accomplish the task with a new implement. If a player squares a ball up, have them pick up a new bat.
If you are lucky enough to have two pitching machines, set one up with a fastball and the other with a slider (or any other pitch you like). Put the machines next to each other, but on an angle to simulate a righty and lefty arm slot. Have the coach act like he is putting balls into both machines until the very last second. Players will not be able to get comfortable as they don't know if the pitch will be a fastball or slider. Once the players start to get a feel for the pitches, mix up the speeds, pitches, and locations.
Set up different angles and distances in the cage with the L-screens. Below, you can see the setup that we created for two of my college guys. One player was angled to the opposite field and threw in plyo balls with soft toss. Right after that, the hitter transitioned to a pull-side angle and over the top arm slot from a different distance. The types of balls, distances, and angles can be changed with each rep. The hitter is constantly adjusting.
Final word: Both blocked and randomized training has their time and place. However, if you want to truly prepare for the demands of the game, the science tells us that randomized training will be more beneficial. There is no doubt that randomized training is uglier and more difficult, but this is how we become jungle tigers that will be in attack mode once we are out in the wild.