Improve Skill Development by Practicing Smarter – Part 1

improving baseball and softball skill development by practicing smarter
An athlete’s mental and physical state during competition hinges on quality and type of practice. Even the way a practice is structured heavily influences how an athlete performs in competition.

In baseball, practice structure has remained largely stagnant since the beginning of the sport in 1839. Whether you are starting out in t-ball or playing in the major leagues, the common method of best practice, past and present, in baseball, is repetition.

This style of practice is the “tried, tested, and true” method, passed from coach to coach, player-to-player, generation-to-generation. Despite the dramatic change in available technology that allows for the biomechanical analysis of every motion, practice delivery has remained, at its core, the same.

Traditionally, baseball practice relies on three practice principles: massed, blocked, and constant. All these practice types demonstrate high amounts of repetition with little change in technique.

Motor learning theory suggests that blocked, massed, and constant practice styles are great for players acquiring a skill but should be used sparingly or avoided once the skill is achieved. Distributed, random, and variable practice allow for greater retention and recall of skills that transfer to gameplay. Below are examples of all practice types (Massed, blocked, constant, distributed, random, and variable practice that should be adopted by coaches who have more skilled athletes).

Massed Practice

Specifically, massed practice refers to the amount of rest between repetitions. In batting practice, we would observe the batter hitting 50 balls, taking a short ‘rest’ to collect the balls, and then repeating that sequence.

K. Anders Ericsson (2008) examines how training and improving individual tasks through deliberate practice can determine expertise. Ericsson’s work was interpreted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers as meaning a person must practice 10,000 hours in a given skill to become an expert. Both are examples of massed practice.

Blocked practice

Blocked practice refers to the development of a skill in one large block, as opposed to multiple times within a single practice session. We might see a fielder collect 10 ground balls, followed by 10 fly balls, followed by 10 line drives. Abraham & Collins (1998) stated that Blocked practice will allow an individual to exhibit quick and large gains in a certain skill in a short period of time, but these are generally short-lived.

Constant Practice

Constant practice refers to practicing a certain skill with little-to-no variation in that skill. A pitching machine represents constant practice; It can deliver 50 pitches in a row, with identical velocity and placement for every pitch. The stimulus is identical on every single trial.

Corrêa et al. (2010) outlined how constant practice provides rigidity in a task but does not allow for flexibility in the task.

For higher-level, elite players, additional practice principles need to be introduced to best improve their skills. These new principles mirror the traditional ones. Instead of massed practice, we have distributed practice. For blocked practice, there is random practice, and for constant practice, there is variable practice.

Distributed Practice

Distributed practice allows more rest between repetitions (or even sets) of a given skill (Seabrook et al. 2005).

Distributed practice also allows for more neural rest, reduces fatigue, and forces recall of the skill which allows for better retention (Benjamin & Tullis, 2010). Instead of hitting 50 balls continuously, the player might hit 10 balls, rest for a few minutes, and then hit 10 more.

Random Practice

Random practice removes the predictable element from a practice. The same task is therefore not executed consecutively.

That same fielder would practice ‘fielding’ 30 times, the same as before; however, a fly ball might follow a ground ball or a line drive – the order is randomized. Vickers et al. (1999), found that when using random practice with baseball batters that the participants “performed at lower levels in the acquisition phase but excelled in new, difficult, and challenging conditions” when using random practice.

Variable Practice

Variable practice changes one aspect of the skill in each repetition. The hitter still practices hitting 50 pitches, but some pitches are slower or faster; others are lower or higher and may include different directions of movement such as curveballs or sliders.

This type of practice adds contextual interference which provides the player with neural feedback resembling that of a game scenario (Hall et al. 1994).

Intuitively, these practice principles are much more ‘game-like’. A pitcher is unlikely to pitch 50 fastballs in a row with the same speed and placement. Further, a batter will see, at a maximum, 10 pitches before returning to the bottom of the lineup. Players are constantly switching from offense (batting) to defense (fielding and pitching) over the course of a game.

A game resembles the updated practice principles – random pitches, distributed batting, and variable conditions for fielding, for example. So why don’t we structure our practices like this? Practicing in more game-like conditions should better prepare athletes both physically and mentally for competition.

Breaking Tradition

The constraints of using motor learning theory have not been directly studied in baseball, but have been discussed in other articles using other sports. In one article by Willams & Hodges (2007), coaching traditions were challenged using motor learning theory in the game of soccer regarding the type and amount of practice that was offered.

What they found was that coaches spent more time focusing on biological sciences rather than behavioural or social sciences. Coaches understood the importance of motor learning theory but were possibly too conservative with how they structured practices and relied on the stability and security of traditional practice.

If you are a coach and interested in implementing a more scientific approach within your practices, you should consider how these different practice methods can affect your teams’ performance and skill development.

If you are an athlete looking to continue to improve your skills like hitting or fielding, you should consider how you are challenging yourself.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will provide examples of traditional vs. science-based practices specific to baseball or softball. I will also explain in further detail how you can begin to implement these ideas within your practice or training.

Lastly, I will reference a 3-year study that was conducted with the Victoria Eagles Premier team from 2014-2016. During this study team statistics using both styles of practice were tracked. Motor learning theory was used for team practices in year two, while traditional practices were used in years one and three.

The team batting average and league ranking drastically changed. Stay tuned for how and why they changed.