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