Lessons Don’t Work… 

 

We live in a world today where unsupervised play doesn’t exist. Local parks have become “rentals” and local kids only play sport while Mom or Dad have a watchful eye on the process. Kids used to bike around their neighborhoods. They used to meet up at local parks and they used to organize sports amongst each other. There is a book called “Raising Empowered Athletes” by Kirsten Jones and she points to 2 major major things that drove kids away from unsupervised free play…

  1. Child Abduction and the circulation of wide spread news that it could happen.
  2. The onset of 2 income households. Gone were the days of a parent at the house while kid ran off to play.

Parents have dumped their kids into “after school programs” to accomplish both baby sitting and custom curation of a child’s play curriculum. Past the after school program we see a stark uptick in travel sports where it is obvious to see the continual focus on parent supervised play more routinely.

Parents want “better for their kid” and believe the way to give that to them is by designing a world for them where their attention is on a skill that the parent believes is useful. Most parents will tell you they want their kid to choose what they want to be in the future and that they want to be supportive of what ever the kid find “passion” in. Then you look at what the parent has signed the kid up for and the schedule the parent has created. It becomes obvious to what path the parent is pushing the kid down, in hopes the kid becomes “passionate”.

“Snow Plow Parents”, a term I once heard from Todd Bean who authored a book called “Clear Coaching”, is the term most useful to describe this parent. They are out in front of the kid trying to assure the pathway to “passion” and “success” is a smooth one that has no bumps along the way.

 

This “Snow Plowing” though is exactly what is leading the next generation to failure and internal struggles with confidence.

In pitching specifically today we can see the ramifications of a generation unable to explore freely or think outside the adult guidance in the room.

The coaching style, adopted by most in the game today, drives a wedge between opportunities of true individualized skill development and bias ideology of what a coach thinks is the “perfect form” for the athlete.

Coaching in baseball has largely been an oral tradition over the years. Coaches build bias based upon their own experiences playing or their own education from other coaches during their playing career. It’s like a game of telephone in many cases.

Coaching in baseball has largely been an oral tradition over the years. Coaches build bias based upon their own experiences playing or their own education from other coaches during their playing career. It’s like a game of telephone in… Share on X

A coach today teaches a philosophy that he learned from his coach 20 years ago. His coach learned that same philosophy from another coach 20 years prior to that. So on and so on, we begin to realize that information we are learning today in many cases has been passed down through 2, 3 and even 5 generations.

When seeking justification for a philosophy most coaches say something like “Well (enter player name) did it… if this was good enough for him then shouldn’t it be good enough for you!?”. This is a non answer and an attempt to deviate from the actual complexity of the issue. Many times coaches themselves haven’t considered that what they have learned, might be wrong. What they have taken to be reliable insight could in fact come from the unreliable opinions of others. Thus faced with questioning from their athlete they revert to a non answer in hopes to deter the conversation from expanding to substance.

Now before moving forward I want to be clear about something. This post isn’t to bash oral tradition or the way things have been done in the game. There are great things passed down generation to generation within the game. Many of these oral traditions or philosophies do carry merit and the true art of coaching should be highly praised . Experience in the game and learning how to translate those experiences is as stated, a true art.

Good “coaching” requires great buy in and the highest levels of relationship building. Some coaches change players lives through the art of story telling. They have a process that has impacted careers and many of these individuals are highly observational. Observation alone though isn’t enough in todays game. With continued advancements in skill acquisition research, growing technologies and a continued growth in snow plow parenting, the approach to coaching in baseball needs to change. Our athletes today find themselves in a divide. We call it the vicious cycle…

 

The Vicious Cycle

-Snow plow parenting.

-Finding a magic pill.

-The need for instant gratification coaching.

 

Snow Plow parenting…

-Kid never learns to fail

-Kid never learns to self explore physical skills

-Kid is behind the 8 ball by the age of 16 due to lack of skill diversity

-Parent is frustrated and starts seeking for ways to give their kid an edge as the kids peers mature and the game passes their kid by.

 

Finding the magic pill…

-Product marketing is aimed at the desperation of parents and players to improve the skills the player is most judged by… (ex. Velo, Exit Velo, Stuff…)

-Once parents buy into a product or philosophy the parent goes through magic pill over magic pill trying to boost performance and give their kid an edge… (ex. new bats, cleats, glove, training aids, supplements, instructional videos or books…)

 

The need for instant gratification coaching…

-The parent becomes desperate. The player needs to improve and they begin to feel opportunity to play the sport at a high level is coming to a close.

-The parent believes the kid needs the most elite level coach to solve the problem to why their kid is falling behind.

-The parent hands the kid off but the damage was already done. Due to the years of snow plow parenting and magic pill hope the kid doesn’t know how to be coached. The kid and parent come in with a noticeable desperation that permeates the undue pressure on the kids shoulders.

-The assessment gets done, the problems are identified, the process is set in place to fix the problem. The problem though? The kid cant self educate and they look to the coach to solve the problem for them. Why? Every coach they have ever had does this… gives instruction to every pitch, exclaims subjective successes through the session, makes the kid feel they are always having success and never letting them evaluate failure. When a good coach forces them to face failure, communicate and self explore, the kid is simply unable to do any of these things thus leading to quitting or blame of the coach for “not coaching”.

When a good coach forces them to face failure, communicate and self explore, the kid is simply unable to do any of these things thus leading to quitting or blame of the coach for “not coaching”. Share on X

 

So how do we fix this vicious cycle?

At KP we believe to solve this problem we have to reconstruct the skill development model within baseball. We have to rethink our system and set new standards for real, applicable instruction.

Today the lessons model permeates private coaching and private coaching is what influences/ markets the industries philosophies.

Lessons today go something like this… kid shows up, instructor has the parent or kid pay their money for the hour. Instructor has the kid throw a pen and barks some insights as the player goes through the pen. The coach is using their eyes to watch the ball move or how the players mechanics look. A pitch will be a bad pitch and the coach will say “no not that one!”, then another pitch will be a good one and you’ll without fail hear the coach say “yes that was it!”, as if the request of the coach has been met and the kid has somehow showed a sign of major improvement in a single pitch.

Pens last maybe 30 pitches and the coach finds some ways to be creative in filling the hour purchased. This could mean some story telling, some general conversation or some non specific drills. The kid ends the hour and thanks to all the success affirmations the kid leaves feeling successful. At the end of the day the coach wants the kid to come back next week so they feel they have to remind the kid of those successful affirmations and deter them from dwelling on the failure of the session.

The kid and the coach schedule again for the next week and the lessons repeat like this week over week. Every week something new to work on, every week the kid being told they are getting better over the 30 pitch session and ultimately the kid ends up with zero understanding of the process. If the kid struggles in season the parent or player will want to do a “little check up” with the private instructor because they feel any lack of success on field is just a lesson away from being fixed by the coach.

If you go out to a little league field we see this play out in the way of volunteer coaching at team practices. There is always a kid unable to hit the baseball during batting practice. You’ll watch a handful of parents offer an unending amount of insight to the 8 year old who cannot even tie his own shoes well yet.

“Elbow up”

“Make sure you keep your eye on the ball”

“Spread out your stance a little bit”

Pitch over pitch the poor kid gets a new “thing” to think about or a change to his batting stance. We want the kid to hit the ball so bad and we try everything we can to tell him how to do it. Sometimes it even comes to a parent running up to the plate and grabbing the bat with the kid only to hit the ball “with them” so that the kid can feel what it is like to hit the ball. To assure this moment isn’t awkward everyone cheers as if the kid “did it themselves” and without fail the kid stands there in confusion or disgust.

We struggle to let kids fail. We struggle to see the future in our actions when we don’t allow kids to fail. We don’t understand that by grabbing the bat and hitting the ball for the kid we aren’t helping that kid. We are actually telling that kid that we don’t believe that they can do it.

We struggle to let kids fail. We struggle to see the future in our actions when we don’t allow kids to fail. We don’t understand that by grabbing the bat and hitting the ball for the kid we aren’t helping that kid. We are actually… Share on X

By trying to give the kid a solution after every failure we remove the ability for the kid to self evaluate and problem solve to find his own success. Why do we do this?

The reality is that it takes repetition, lots of repetition. To wait long enough for the kid to problem solve how to hit the baseball might substantially stall practice. You might have a team of 8 year olds bored on the field and everyone catering to the need of 1 kids requirement of time to develop. We don’t get that and we all know what happens if a team of 8 year olds get bored.

The reality though kids need practice and lots of it in environments where they have ample time to fail and explore. They need safe places to challenge themselves and not be afraid to “do bad”. No parents reacting to a missed fly ball, no over coaching after swinging and missing 10 times, kids need free play and time to develop new skills.

See the problem with the lessons model yet?

Lessons allot 30 pitches or so, which is not nearly enough volume to improve any skill. Coaches want you to come back so their focus is not in letting you fail during all 30 pitches. They feel they have to show you progress and affirm some sort of success other wise you will go see someone else. These coaches tell you that you are doing great and find creative ways to express your improvement even though their was no measurable improvement. They over coach pitch to pitch because you are paying them to do something and you feel if they were just watching for an hour that you got ripped off.

This is the problem though. This structure leads to over coaching, it leads to no real understanding how to develop skills and ultimately it sets the kid up for a reliance on the pitching coaches magic wand for a lifetime. The reality is kids need REAL coaching, not a magic wand.

Real coaching isn’t always telling you what you want to hear, real coaching takes time and is done over large amounts of repetitions. Real coaching doesn’t happen once a week or even twice a week. Real coaching consumes the athlete and energizes the learning process 24/7. Real coaching is relational and not transactional. Real coaching is long term focused not seeking quick fixes along the way. Real coaching requires “Training”.

Kids need “training” not lessons.

Kids need training and training means time. Its easy to identify the weakness in the lessons model but lets talk about how training works and why the approach to training properly is the only actual way to yield results when discussing skill development.

We have a skill acquisition model at KP. It’s is Assess, Feel and Drill.

Most people walk into a training facility and think about it like a doctors office. You go in, you get assessed and you get prescribed some drills to “fix” your problem. The reality is that drills are worthless unless you can first understand the Assess and explore the Feel.

 

Assess

On assessment day a KP we bring our athletes in and objectively measure things such as, body comp, ball flight, biomechanics and throwing workload. From there our team sits with the athlete and reviews what we see as points of focus.

Now the key here is in the detail we go into when explaining the problem and educating the athlete on the reason it is a point of focus for us. Athletes generally just sit and listen to the analysis wide eyed and excited about the data. For most this moment of “getting evaluated” is something they felt they needed to do.

We explain to them at length the problem and don’t hold back on the research. At the end we always ask “any questions?” and without fail most athletes just shrug saying something like “no it all sounds great I’m just ready to get started”.

For these athletes that have no follow up its easy to see there is excitement for the process however there is no retention of the substance.

From our dialog we can always tell who understands how to train and who doesn’t. Without fail the guys that have no questions are the guys that most often expect we will “do it for them”. The guys that do actively look to ask questions to better understand, are the ones who are wrapping their heads around what they need to do before they dive into the training process with us.

In the assess phase of our skill acquisition model its critical the athlete asks questions and learns the requirements of the skill to the highest level of detail. Failure to fully comprehend the Assess phase of our model means that an athlete will be unable to think creatively about how to solve the problem at hand and they will be unable to identify right from wrong when attempting to put the skill into action.

Athletes that have been raised by a parent or coached since a young age by coaches who do not take the time to fully understand the skill put a kid in a tough position. A lot of parents or coaches bark orders or constantly recommend change in hopes their words somehow teach the kid how to do the skill. There is no deeper digestion of the complexity that is the skill. There is no aid in education on how to compartmentalize the the separate actions of the skill. The kid is unable to understand what to analyze or strive for.

Its the instructor that constantly leaves each session finding a silver lining in hopes to give the kid a feeling of success. This instructor is failing to teach the kid how to self analyze. The instructor has created an environment where the kid will see the instructor as a genie, not a coach. The difference is a genie can magically fix things and grants success session over session in a linear progression of made up success. A coach however allows his athletes to grow. We often identify growth by success but the reality is growth happens through failure. A good coach recognizes this and creates the environment or the tasks necessary to allow the athlete to experience failure in the right way to learn how to find success. Good coaches know this takes time and are ok with days, weeks, even months of failure.

Identifying genies from coaches is pretty easy. It often times just comes to substance. Do you fully understand the skill at hand or not. Assessing someones skills objectively is why technology in the training environment is so paramount. We need useable feedback. We need a way to understand on a deeper level the finer changes we make over long periods of time. Technology holds us accountable to bias. Its often that even a good coach wants their player to improve. They will sense their frustration and a good coach will want a player to grasp the skill in hopes to keep pushing this athlete. Reality is with technology you cannot hide the lack of change. Good coaches love technology because it holds no bias.

When we move through the Assess phase we must hold no bias. We must educate to the depth of the skill as coaches. Players have to be receptive. They have to seek the concept on a deeper level. They have to fully comprehend the goals and requirements of the skill before moving to the next phase. Once they grasp the skill from an educational perspective it is time for the Feel phase.

 

Feel

I will never forget walking down the cereal isle at our local grocery story when I saw a kid in baseball uniform pretending to throw. While his mom inspected the cereal label the maybe 13 year old was deep in thought considering his hand position when throwing. He would stride out and put his hand up by his ear. As he landed he would make “fangs” with his fingers and focus on pointing his hand away. Clearly he had been taught to turn his hand away at the time his front foot would hit the ground. Clearly this wasn’t natural for him as he would correct himself time and time again through various repetitions. Turning around his mom said “stop that” and the kid jumped on the front of the cart to get escorted down the isle for more shopping.

Think about that incident for a second. We can all relate to the kid right? I’m an avid golfer and guilty as charged you can find me just about anywhere with an invisible iron in hand focused on the position of my left wrist at the top of my swing.

In my head the dialog goes like this, “keep the palm flat, keep the palm flat, keep the palm flat” then I reach the top of my swing and decide if my swing felt comfortable or not. I try to decide if I can repeat that cue and accomplish the swing I want or not. This is what the 13 year old was doing at the grocery store. He wasn’t saying anything but you could almost read his mind, “fangs back, fangs back, fangs back”. He had a cue he was considering and was trying to associate that cue with a specific movement that would yield the throwing motion that his coach wanted.

The Feel phase is not an actual throw. It is the consideration of the throwing motion. Its a moment for our brain to work through the process of the throw and assign cues that will make the possible throw successful in change. “Feel’s” as we like to call them are non throws that help the athlete create an awareness for a cue that will translate to accomplishing the throw in the way we want. Most products such as water bags, belts, towels, pvc pipes… etc are all just items that we would assign to the Feel phase to help build awareness of a cue to translate to throwing. All of these items mimic the throw, they help an athlete consider the throw but they are not however the act of throwing.

An illustration of this comes from research showing the variance in mechanics when an athlete performed throws with a towel vs their actual throws with a baseball.

A research article labeled “Shadow pitching deviates ball release position: kinematic analysis in high school baseball pitchers” explains the following…

“Although shadow pitching, commonly called “towel drill,” is recommended to improve the throwing motion for the rehabilitation of pitching disorders before the initiation of a throwing program aimed at returning to throwing using a ball, the motion differs from that of normal throwing.”

These modalities like towel drill all elicit similarities to a throw and have their place in offering conceptual knowledge for an athlete to understand the skill deeper. These Feel’s offer some feedback and allow the athlete to conceptually begin to design cues that hopefully bring success in the early stages of the Drill phase.

This will be a controversial statement as many want to believe that certain modalities do more than this. When focused on mechanical patterning it is important to express the patterns we actually find in a throw. It has to be asked, if we aren’t getting into the same ranges of motion, we aren’t replicating the same timing and we aren’t moving segments in the same speeds as we find in the skill, then are we actually practicing the skill?

No. We are instead doing something similar to the skill in order to gain awareness for the actual Drill phase. There is nothing wrong with using modalities but once the athlete has grasped the basic conceptual cue the modalities can probably find a storage box for another athlete at another time.

There is nothing wrong with using modalities but once the athlete has grasped the basic conceptual cue the modalities can probably find a storage box for another athlete at another time. Share on X

Whether you are a kid in a grocery store doing dry reps behind your mom in the cereal isle or you are using a water bag to better understand lead leg at your teams practice, you are establishing a cue and practicing in the Feel phase. Your next step is to take your cue and apply it to the actual skill within the Drill phase.

 

Drill

A video came across my feed a few weeks ago and it showed a guy on a factory line sorting boxes faster than I believed was humanly possible. Hundreds of boxes coming at him sorted in lanes by color. Red to the right, green goes up, brown goes down and he repeated that cycle over and over and over for minutes at a time. It was unbelievable. He did it so effortlessly. It was second nature to him, like he wasn’t even thinking as he executed.

How many years must he have practiced this on this same line to become this fluent? In skill acquisition research there is a term for this. Its called being “autonomous”. Thats the ultimate goal for any skill. We want to be able to perform the skill without thinking about it, we want the skill to become “second nature” or “effortless”.

The Drill phase is the practice of the actual skill. To get here we have built the education of what the skill is supposed to look like and we have established a cue to put to the test. We want to work through constraints to assure we implement and test the cue in environments that allow for a successful progression of the skill to autonomy.

In the Drill phase we work from the most constrained drill to the least constrained drill.

We simplify the task or modify the environment to give the athlete the best chance at success when testing their first throws with a new cue. The drill begins and the cue from the Feel phase will be tested in these steps…

  1. The athlete will identify the task that is the drill and consider successful execution of the skill.
  2. The athlete will begin the throw using the adopted cue from the Feel phase.
  3. They will complete the throw and self evaluate “good” or “bad”, meaning success in the execution of the skill or failure.

Throw over throw this feedback loop permeates. Another throw, “good”. Another throw, “bad”. Dang. Another throw, “Good”. Ok we have it now. Another throw, “bad”. Ahhh!

If too many “bad” throws are made the athlete pauses. The athlete reverts back to the Feel phase. You can see them talking with the coach, doing dry reps, watching a video on youtube on how someone else does it do come all to come up with another cue that might yield more success. They know what they are trying to accomplish but are battling to find the right cue to execute it. Then a break through.

The new cue worked and now the athlete is “good” on every throw in this most constrained position. It’s time to move on to loosen the constraint. Maybe this is going to another drill. Maybe this is going to more of a full throw. This is where the art of coaching comes in. Setting up another environment or task to give this athlete a better chance at taking a step closer in success to achieving autonomy in time.

To master these constraints might take months of failure at times. It’s ok. Moving the athlete during that period from Feel to Drill, testing the process meticulously, and holding your standard up to success is all key to bring change to the skill.

To master these constraints might take months of failure at times. It’s ok. Moving the athlete during that period from Feel to Drill, testing the process meticulously, and holding your standard up to success is all key to bring change… Share on X

The least constrained “drill” we can have is a pitch off the mound. Our goal as coaches is to develop the path from most constrained to least constrained in the skill. We need to guide our players in the process allowing them to learn from failure each step of the way. We need to equip them with the tools necessary to not stall in failure. This stalling leads to many guys walking away from changes due to discomfort and failure.

I’ll never forget watching an MLB pitcher at KP try to improve a change up one year. The change was so simple. He had to move his index finger down on the baseball about a half inch to induce a bit more arm side run.

We stepped off to the side and I went through the process.

Assess- I showed him the Trackman data and the need for more arm side of the change up. I educated him on both what horizontal break was and how we would create more with a slight grip adjustment.

Feel- I got him with a baseball in hand. We set the grip and he played around with what it should feel like at release. We talked about cuing “stay inside of it”.

Drill- I had him start off throwing to an outfield screen to see the shape and remove the concern of command. Then we moved to catch play with me at 70 ft as a partner to exaggerate the feel of the movement. Lastly her got on the mound and started throwing it with a catcher.

It was in my mind the perfect progression and the MLB player was seemingly grasping the concepts quickly. Then the objective data came…

The Trackman data was ok but not quite where I hoped it would be. Then he threw about 5 balls glove side. I realized he got frustrated with the result even though we had only thrown a few. It dawned on me he was looking for immediate gratification. A few more pitches with the same result and he turned to me saying “I can’t do this I don’t feel comfortable”. Right there on the spot he reverted back to his old grip and proceeded to throw terrible change ups the rest of the session. He quit on the skill development and reverted back to his comfort zone.

Slight failure deterred an important change for this athlete. Maybe he was blind to his prior success, maybe it was a change up he was taught by another coach at an early age and he felt he needed to hold onto it, maybe he tuned out and just appeased me when I explained the importance of a better change up in the Assess phase. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

It is funny that sometimes we as coaches can set up the perfect process but yield no result. We are so hard on ourselves sometimes when an athlete “doesn’t get it”. There are so many factors that define success, especially as an athlete gets older.

For my MLB pitcher trying to learn a change up. I desperately wanted him to learn that change up and find success with it. During his failure I sat quiet and let him sort it out. Could I have jumped in to interject cue reminders? Sure. Could I have stopped his session to get hands on with the grip? Sure. Could I have completely adjusted the environment to give him the illusion of success with the pitch? Sure.

What I knew was that if we really wanted this change to last it would take a great volume of practice. What this player did in about an hour would have to be repeated daily for weeks to truly get “comfortable”. Quitting after 5 pitches meant this player just didn’t grasp how to learn and wasn’t really committed to making a change. He gave me a chance to do it for him but I couldn’t and I wasn’t going to pretend I could.

It doesn’t matter the level of the game. What players are taught at a young age goes with them through their career. They ride their talent and natural abilities until confronted with the idea that their career could come to an end. Then its panic, some spiral their career to its end and some reset with an open mind on change only to resurrect their career path.

It shouldn’t take the fear of a career ending to wake us up. The game needs change. We need to teach athletes at a young age how to learn. We need a better development model for skill.

Assess.

Feel.

Drill.

It takes days, weeks, months of practicing the skill.It’s time we train. It’s time we shift our perspective. It’s time we give our athletes the tools necessary to develop their skills.

True change has to happen with rigorous, consistent work. Not just 60 minute lessons with success affirmations from some genie once a week.


 

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