Training for One Play: Deliberate Practice


In training for sports skills, there is productive practice and there is non-productive practice.  The right practice strategy could take a player from good to great.  If you were to watch a high-level tennis or basketball player train for competition, you will notice that they work in “blocks” or “sets”.  This means they will work progressively, from simple to complex movement, on the same shot until the footwork and mechanics of that specific shot become natural.

Performing the same simple movement in a controlled setting, thousands of times, creates instinctual movement patterns that can go on “autopilot” in the fast pace of competition.  Starting slow, performing a simple movement with the correct form, then progressing to a more complex, faster version of the movement allows the mind and body to truly learn the movement pattern.

A great example is the process of fielding a back hand ground ball. The movement and positioning of fielding a backhand is not a natural movement. Through tons of simple to complex repetition, players can find the correct positioning and make this unnatural movement pattern easier to manage. Below is a simple 5-Step progression that sheds light on the learning phase of fielding a backhand correctly.

Step 1: Fielder sets up on both knees, sideways (backhand side) to a partner. Partner rolls ground balls and the fielder focuses solely on getting the glove in the correct position to field, with fingers down.

Step 2: Fielder is on one knee in the backhand position. Partner rolls easy ground balls in the same fashion as step 1. Fielder focuses on glove position, adding a focus on keeping a stable lower half through the fielding movement.

Step 3: Fielder starts in backhand position fielding position (similar to a sideways lunge), while partner rolls easy ground balls to the players glove. Fielder focuses on glove position, proper footwork, staying stable through the backhand position, keeping the back knee close to the ground in a low athletic position. This promotes strength and stability through the backhand positioning, which is something that many players must acquire over time through repetition.

Step 4: Fielder starts in standard fielding position, square to the partner. Partner rolls easy ground balls 2-3 steps to the backhand side of the fielder. Fielder works to find the correct footwork and backhand fielding position through a more dynamic movement.

Step 5: Fielder starts in standard fielding position, taking numerous backhand ground balls off of the bat. Focus is on finding the correct glove and body positioning for a backhand while also “reading the hop” in a more game-like simulation.

The real value in a progression like the one above is that each step graduates to the next. A player or coach that struggles with one particular step could move back and forth between the steps to find the correct positioning or movement pattern. Younger players may need to spend more time working in the earlier steps, while a more experienced player may work through the progression fairly quickly during work sessions.

This type of deliberate practice is the best way to teach the body what coaches and scouts call “baseball or softball actions”. We can apply this practice strategy to just about any skill in baseball or softball. A similar hitting progression would be a specific focus on “driving” the ball to the opposite field. Start with tee work, progress to soft toss, and then live hitting practice.   Every swing is focused on staying inside the ball, letting the ball travel farther into the hitting zone, and finding consistency with the correct contact position to hit the ball to the opposite field.   The progression from tee to batting practice with a specific focus on what it takes to hit the ball to the opposite field, every swing, is the key to improving that particular sub-skill of hitting mechanics.

In pitching, an example of this dedicated practice strategy is throwing what we call an 80% bullpen. An 80% bullpen is simply when 8 of 10 pitches are one pitch type to one location. This focused approach provides the structure for repeatable mechanics and release point necessary for proper command of the strike zone in game competition.

As we all know, the proper practice strategy and preparation leads to better performance on the field. Players who embrace the process of improvement are better able to find the right position at the right time, more often. These players can then go on auto-pilot in the game to make outstanding, instinctual plays in competition.

Brad Woodall
Owner, Woodall Baseball Academy


Managing “Pressure” in Competition

It seems like each year there are certain athletes who come to the forefront and excel on the biggest stage in sports. In my career as a professional baseball player, I had the unique opportunity to be a part of some very pressure filled situations. I also had the luxury of witnessing some of the best baseball players of all time succeed time after time under extreme pressure. My experiences and observations in playing with the best athletes in the world taught me keys to tame anxiety and succeed under pressure.

As you watch big sporting events such as the World Series, Super Bowl, the Masters, Wimbledon, or the Olympics, listen to what the heroes say in their interviews after they win. You will often hear them mention their preparation, game plan or strategy.  The key to their success was the process of executing that strategy. You rarely hear pitchers talk about how hard they were throwing or how well their curve ball was breaking. They typically mention that they were able to execute their pitches, stay ahead in the count, and utilize their game plan to win the game.

Whether it is Little League or the World Series, preparation begets confidence. If you feel confident in the preparation of your game plan, mechanics and fundamentals, it directly translates into better execution in intense situations. In more practical terms, think of what you do before taking a test or making a big presentation. If you are prepared, you feel confident. If you are confident, you are more likely to stay relaxed and focused in the moment. The bottom line: If you spend ample time preparing for that moment, you will feel more relaxed and confident when it comes time to perform under pressure.

The great coaches I had during my career always told me that I should never be surprised by a situation on the baseball field. The theory is that if you continually envision and practice putting yourself in big game situations, you will perform better in those situations. Make it a part of your daily practice to hit that game winning shot, or get the World Series winning hit. This will help you prepare for that moment and relax when everyone else is getting more tense.

Whether you are in game 7 of the World Series, in the first game of little league season, or the relay anchor on the US Olympic Swim Team, your job remains the same. Execute your fundamentals and strategy in that moment. As a pitcher, determine what pitch to throw and make that pitch. As a hitter, pick out a good pitch to hit and put a great swing on the ball. The situation is irrelevant to your task. Even if you are facing Mike Trout in the seventh game of the World Series, your task as a pitcher is to develop a plan and execute it.

Prepare for pressure and have the confidence to win!!