Myelin & how it relates to hitting
We have all heard the cliche saying: "If you don't use it, you lose it." Even though this is often said in a humorous way, there is far more truth and science behind it. This summer I read the amazing book, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. The book looks at how the greatest artists, athletes, writers, and minds in the history of our world have cultivated and nurtured their immense talents. Coyle, using nine talent hotbeds around the world as examples, shows the reader how extreme talent is developed - by using deep practice, ignition, and master coaching (I highly suggest you get the book to learn more each). If a person uses all three elements in their practice and works at them consistently, a person's brain to forms something called myelin. Myelin is a microscopic neural substance that increases the speed and accuracy of a person's movements and thoughts. Connecting this back to hitting, we all know a player who moves in a way that makes it look effortless. Not surprisingly, their movements are ingrained because their body and brain are working in unison due to vast amounts of practice. So, as hitters, what can we do to increase our talent and get our bodies to learn, move, and adapt in more efficient ways?
Virtually every hitter that comes in to work with me has a lofty goal. Maybe one wants to play in college, another wants to make their high school varsity team as a freshman, or they say that want to play in the Major Leagues. Although many have similar goals that they say they would like to accomplish, almost all are unwilling to put in the time, work, and consistency that those goals demand. For the 1% who are willing to put in the work and really develop their skills, the work they put in literally changes their body at the cellular level. In The Talent Code, Coyle explains that: "Every human skill, whether it's playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse—basically, a signal traveling through a circuit. Myelin's vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we wire our circuits in the right way—when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note—our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become." When trying to hit a 95mph fastball, having the ability to make quicker decisions and move fluidly is absolutely essential. Now, will just hitting off the tee for 500 swings a day help you immediately become a better hitter during the game? No, that will just help you hit a ball off the tee. Seeing hard velocity, breaking balls, and competing in a tough environment ultimately challenges the hitters and prepares them for the stressors of the game. While a time commitment needs to be devoted to developing a skill, working on the right mechanics and implementing them in game-like scenarios is vital.
From an article titled, "Neuroplasticity" by Ian Dobbs on scienceforsport.com, he explains the need for continuous practice in order to build and maintain a certain motor skill. Dobbs explains: "When learning new motor skills, there is a 'fast-stage' and 'slow-stage' of learning. Our brain tends to learn new motor skills quickly, then a plateau is reached at which more practice is needed to maintain that same motor skill." When a new client comes in for a lesson, they usually progress rather quickly with some movement work and constraint drills. However, if the hitter only works on these skills when they see me once or twice a week, their development does not produce the end results that they are looking for because they are not consistently working on their own.
A popular excuse that young hitters have is that "they don't have enough time to practice every day." While I can't stand excuses, does a hitter need to hit or workout for 2 hours a day? What about 4 hours? Absolutely not. Fifteen minutes of focused practice can be FAR MORE beneficial than hours of mindless practice. Going through movement work is one of my favorite "homework assignments" to give my hitters. This movement work takes maybe five minutes. If I haven't seen a hitter in a week, I can instantly tell if they have been doing their "homework." On top of movement work, research has shown that just watching someone like Mike Trout hit helps our bodies and minds improve. The whole goal of practice is to work smart as well as work hard. Through trial and error, a hitter will hopefully learn what works best for them.
To summarize all the scientific talk above, our brain controls how we move through electric signals sent to our muscles from our brains. The more that we use and work on a skill, the faster and more efficient these signals move. Bottom line for hitters, if you want to be great, you need to work your butt off day in and day out. That means finding a coach or instructor who can help you learn how to move in a more efficient manner, develop a process that you will devote yourself to, track your data to ensure you're making progress, and spend time every day continuing to develop your swing in as a game-like environment as possible. If this talent development article sparked some interest, I highly encourage you to go read The Talent Code.