Copyright 2000 John T. Reed
Jim Wohlford, a Major League outfielder who played in the '70s and '80s said, "Baseball is ninety percent mental half the time." He was talking about Major League baseball. Youth baseball is ninety percent mental, period.
Ted Williams said, "Hitting is 50% from the neck up." He was talking about Major League hitting, where the ball players have nothing else to do all year. In youth baseball, where practice time is a tiny fraction of what a Major Leaguer has, you cannot make much progress on anything but the mental aspects.
Why? There are only about 40.5 hours of practice in the entire season of a youth baseball team. After the first year or two of a player's career, typically around age five and six, physical things like batting and pitching mechanics change only at a glacial pace. Pro hitting consultant Oscar Miller says it takes 10,000 swings the new way to change your swing. That's because your swing must be instinctive. Since you have already grooved the "wrong" way be swinging 10,000 times, you have to swing thousands of times to get rid of the old way and thousands more to groove the new way. Does a youth baseball coach have time to closely supervise 10,000 swings of each of his players? Not even close.
It takes at least ten seconds to do one swing against a ball on a tee or shadow swing (no ball). 10,000 x 10 = 100,000 seconds. That's 100,000 ÷ 60 = 1,667 minutes or 1,667 ÷ 60 = 27.8 hours---per player! That does not include warm-ups or breaks.
Not only do you not have enough time to closely supervise 27.8 hours of swings every ten seconds for each of your twelve to fourteen players, your players simply do not want to swing the bat in a drill 10,000 times.
Finally, even if you had the time and your players had the motivation, doing so would probably hardly change their success at all and might even make them less successful batters. That's what happened to me. I did do the 10,000 swings. More actually. I had a prettier swing afterward. Got lots of compliments. But my hitting seemed to be a little worse! My original, unprofessionally trained swing used a shorter stroke. Switching to the traditional longer stroke seemed to have a bigger negative effect on my hitting than achieving optimum mechanics had a good effect.
Arizona State University head baseball coach Pat Murphy said, in the 11/99 issue of the American Baseball Coaching Association's Coaching Digest, "I believe coaches tend to overcoach and overanalyze the mechanics of the swing. I believe the mental side of hitting makes all the difference."
People reading this probably know a player with a tremendous work ethic or a youth player with a "stage" father who got his son tons of professional lessons. The typical result is that the kid looks great when he swings, but he doesn't hit that much better after all the lessons.
In the pros, they have both the time and motivation to work on both their mechanics and their mental attitude. Thus Wohlford's comment that "[Major League] baseball is ninety percent mental half the time." Because of the far less time and motivation, "Youth baseball is ninety percent mental all of the time." In youth baseball, you absolutely do not have the time to work on batting mechanics and few, if any, of your players have the motivation to do the necessary amount of swings to make a change.
Conclusion #1: Do not mess with your players' mechanics.
This applies mainly to hitting and to a lesser extent to pitching and fielding of grounders and throwing by fielders.
Self-confidence is crucial to success in hitting, pitching, and fielding grounders.
Conclusion #2: If you do not have time to fix "incorrect" mechanics, you must not breathe a word about them, because if you do, you will hurt your players' confidence.
It may take ten thousand swings to improve your mechanics, but it only takes ten seconds to destroy a kid's confidence. Just one "You're pulling your head" should do it. To put it another way, if you are not going to get them to do it "right," you must not tell them they are doing it "wrong."
Conclusion #3: If you cannot devote any effort to mechanics, you must spend your coaching effort on the only thing that is left, the MENTAL aspects.
All of which leads me to my initial statement: youth baseball is 90% mental. There are some things, like sliding or the catcher's throw to second, where many practice repetitions are necessary and effective. There are many other skills, like knowing where to go when the ball is not hit to you, that require both chalk talk and at least a few physical repetitions to learn. These things constitute the 10% of youth baseball that is physical.
In my hardball career, which started around age six and continued until I was 46, there were several times when my hitting took a quantum leap upward. I do not recall my hitting ever improving gradually except when I first started playing at age six. Here are the events that caused my hitting to improve dramatically overnight starting at age ten:
Note that each of these is mental. None involve subtle changes in mechanics. I hasten to add that I tried many subtle changes in my mechanics over the years. They had little or no effect.
Initially as a coach, I learned all the "right" mechanics and taught them to my players. To my amazement, I found that my highly-trained players hit worse than our opponents and probably worse than they did before all my training. Although we did get compliments about how pretty our swings were. Then, in a subsequent season, I tried doing absolutely no drilling of mechanics all season. As I suspected, we did great!
About all I did regarding those three areas was talk. Experienced teachers know that what they do mainly is try to find as many ways as possible to explain something because each individual seems to need a different explanation for the light bulb to go on. I explained in as many ways as I could dream up why it was crucial to only swing at pitches right down the pipe on the first and second strike. I proved to my players that this was correct by charting every pitch thrown in each of our games and going over each at bat for every player with the whole team. After about ten days to two weeks, they were convinced and concentrated on only using their first two strikes to swing at choice pitches. Our team batting average, on-base, slugging etc. jumped up dramatically.
Once, when I was a semi-pro player-coach, I chewed my team out in the team newsletter for not getting walks 25% of the time like our best player in that department. (My walk percentage was 22% at the time.) Our team had a dramatic upswing in our walks percentage instantly, starting with the very next game.
If you think back over your own playing career, I'll bet you will find that your own progress in hitting came not as a gradual upward slope, but rather in distinct steps like a stairway. Furthermore, those steps stemmed from mental breakthrough insights or large changes in your approach. This happens to Major Leaguers when they break out of slumps. Mark McGwire says he broke out of a slump, not gradually, but overnight, because of a piece of good advice yelled at him by a fan in the stadium as he was going into the tunnel to the locker room.
I once invented a training device to teach kids to keep their head down when they swung the bat. I simply took a large, old, batting helmet and attached a steel shelf support to top of the brim with two bolts. When you wore the helmet, the steel rod stuck out about three feet to the front. I would squat down and hold the rod while the kid wearing the helmet hit poly balls off a tee. Kids wanted to turn their head, but the helmet would not let them. They were quite uncomfortable at first, but they quickly got used to the fact that they could not pull their head.
So none of my Little Leaguers ever pulled their heads again after I invented this, right? No, they kept pulling their heads in games. The device worked, but slowly. I simply did not have time to let them take the necessary thousands of swings with the device on their head. If I were a year-round batting instructor who got the same kids for hundreds of hours, I would use the device.
So if you want to optimize your players' performance in hitting, pitching, and fielding grounders, focus almost entirely on the mental aspects of those skills. Teach, encourage, persuade, cajole, coax, remind. That goes 180 degrees against the traditional belief---that you learn by doing, not by talking. But this is baseball, the world's weirdest sport. Furthermore, in youth baseball, you only have time for the mental approach in the three areas of hitting, pitching/throwing, and fielding grounders.
I highly recommend that youth baseball coaches read two books: The Mental Game of Baseball by H. A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl and The Mental ABC's of Pitching by H.A. Dorfman. Also, most good baseball books devote a chapter or much space within other chapters to the mental aspects of the game. As far as hitting, pitching/throwing, and fielding grounders are concerned, the mental game should be the main focus of youth coaches who are trying to learn how to coach their teams better.
John T. Reed