Let me take you on a journey. It's about to get weird...
Over the past year, I have made some MAJOR changes to the way I train hitters. I have been a "hitting coach" since I started giving lessons in college 12 years ago. I have trained lots of different types of hitters, and learned lots of different things about mechanics from lots of different people. Over the course of those 12 years, no matter what "philosophy" I subscribed to at that time, the same thing kept happening over and over again. I would have several good athletes who hit very well, and several kids who just never seemed to get any better. Why was this? My first inkling was to blame the athletes for not "working hard" or not "getting it".
Nonetheless, the good athletes brought me more business and after a few years I started to have some kids come through my building who were good enough to play in college (cool). However, when I'd look at their stats online during their college seasons, I noticed they were STRUGGLING (not cool). Again, my first inkling was to play the blame-game and this time it was the coaches for "ruining them" and not "getting it".
Year after year, same old story. Then, about two years ago, I started to realize there was only one person to blame: myself. It was me who was not "getting it." I would get these kids in my building for 30 minutes a week, and expect miracles to happen. I also had no follow up process, I just sent them on their merry way after each lesson and essentially HOPED they'd work on their own to get better. They would leave the lesson feeling great after they crushed front toss (easy) and then wonder why they didn't produce in a game (hard). Something had to change.
I realized the environment in the cage was not the same as a game environment. I started looking at other sports like basketball, martial arts, etc. where the practice situations were often way more stressful, precise, and challenging than the competition/game environment. What was my cage environment like? It was easy, lacked challenge, and while hitters left feeling great, they didn't really get a lot better. Also, hitters became reliant on my instruction for adjustments, so when I wasn't around (games) they didn't know how to adjust on their own. So now, I was sending kids to high school and college, where they struggled for the first time and they were ill prepared to deal with failure. They would go 20 lessons and practices in a row without swinging and missing. Can you imagine what a strikeout felt like in a game? It probably felt awful, foreign, and left the hitters searching for ALL of the answers.
About two years ago, I got on Twitter and to my extreme benefit, I crossed paths with Chad Longworth (@clongbaseball), and was immediately attracted to his style of coaching. His kids swung heavy bats, did crazy movements and drills, and that stuff looked DIFFICULT. He (graciously) led me on a path to knowledge that I had never known, to hitting coaches who did stuff WAY different than I did, using PVC pipes, Jaeger Bands, medicine balls, etc. These coaches (and Chad) had 5 things in common:
1. They embraced failure as a pathway to success.
2. They incorporated pitching machine/high velo work regularly into their training.
3. Their training was based on human movement principles.
4. Their hitters had plans for more than one day a week.
5. They used technology to measure/track/organize development.
I did none of these things. These were high level hitting coaches, training major leaguers and kids, and they did it better than me. I didn't like that. So I tried to attack the failure principle first. I asked myself, what drills/activities did I hate doing most as a hitter? So I bought a Spinball Sports machine. I bought plyo balls, bat donuts, PVC pipes, Jaeger Bands and Rebel's Racks. I made my own gadgets when I thought I needed one. The failure came. Swings and misses and extreme frustration entered my cage for the very first time. I was inspired by Johansen Baseball (@RPJ1317) and modeled the training environment after what they did. Hitters would face the machine and sometimes go home without one solid hit. I HATED it, and so did my students. Now, I could actually see a hitter struggle RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME (bonus!). Previously, I had to hear about struggle in a story that happened 3-5 days ago when it wasn't fresh anymore. Now I had a front row seat to a game-like environment and could help them get through it ON THE SPOT. I could remind them what a good hit felt like and try to help get them back to that place. I could use my experience as a player to relate to their struggle and tell them what worked for me. I couldn't do that before because they crushed everything I threw at them from 25 ft away.
Next was human movement. I met Justin Stone (@elite_baseball) and Travis Kerber (@traviskerber) and started hanging around them and learning about the human body and how it interacts with the ground, how the kinetic sequence really works, and how to train each hitter individually based on their movement profile. I saw hitters take swings using K-Motion 3D and with a Bertec force plate beneath them. Soon after meeting them, it became a REQUIREMENT that hitters show up 30 min prior to their lesson and go through and individualized warm up based on how they move and their strengths/deficiencies. I thought it was that important. It was weird, difficult, and required more time/effort for the hitters. They hated that, too.
I still needed a way to stay engaged with the hitters outside of our lesson time. An hour a week of swing training was still not enough, and I didn't have the space to rent out a cage for use during the rest of the week. I decided to put ALL of the drills we use on video and put them on a website for my students to use as a resource when they practiced at home or away from me. FoldenFastpitchOnline.com was born, and it was a reference for me and my students to write up individualized training plans (and actually follow them). It is now offered remotely to clients who want to train with me from afar (check it out, sorry not sorry about the plug).
I bought a Pocket Radar and began using it to track exit velo. I used a Diamond Kinetics sensor more to measure swing metrics. I also started using and analyzing a TON more video. I was measuring progress (and sometimes regression) to see if hitters were ACTUALLY getting better, or if my rose colored glasses (that I wear daily) were lying to me. Each piece of data told a small part of each hitters' story that helped me tailor their lessons and plans to be as individual as possible.
A funny thing happened in the last year: the kids got better! And they got better in a hurry. Online, in-house, good athlete, subpar athlete, didn't matter, there was REAL PROGRESS! I still had the occasional outlier that all of us have, but there aren't NEARLY as many. It was a risky move to pivot from the traditional once a week, get-in get-out 30 minute lesson, since everyone was so comfortable with that format. It was a risky move to incorporate failure into a cage where everyone had previously left feeling great. It was risky to have kids look at me with disdain for the first time because they HATED warming up and facing the machine.
When I started looking internally and taking ownership for my players failures (like we often take credit for their success), I realized I couldn't send kids off to play without giving them the best possible chance to succeed and deal with failure. Failure was the crucial piece that was missing from our training. I had to change the culture in the building from "let's leave feeling good" to "let's get after it and get better at all costs." When things became a struggle to a hitter, we magnified it and created an environment that required adaptation. Hitting is hard and requires a ton of adjustments and the hitters who aren't afraid to make them, win.
I thought the kids would HATE me (a genuine fear of mine), leave, and find a coach who just simply made them feel good. I also thought there was a chance this stuff wouldn't work. But after a lot of research, help from other coaches, faith, and constant reassuring from my wife, I decided this HAD to happen.
Not only did the players get better, quickly, but their mindsets also changed. Cage conversations morphed from "I don't know what I'm doing" to "can we work on this? This is what I'm struggling with." Hitters began to self-diagnose and self-adjust. They began to take ownership of their own game and they asked way more questions. They started asking to do weird warm up drills and hit off the machine, because they knew that it helped them get better, despite being uncomfortable. They began to embrace how hard hitting is and expect challenge and difficulty.
In doing all of this, I stopped LYING to hitters. I never knew I was lying to them, but I was. I lied when I projected that I could "help" them in 30 minutes a week. I lied when I threw front toss flips, they hit .950, and expected that kind of success on the field. I lied when I coached them to swing like me, because they didn't move like me. I decided to be HONEST with them and expose them to how difficult hitting is. It beat them down at times, but built them back up in a way I hoped would happen (but never really knew if it would). They didn't leave, they wanted to come more often. They didn't hate me, they started engaging with me more than ever. They worked on their own more, just so they could show up at their lesson and "beat Ralph" (Ralph is what we named the pitching machine). By showing my vulnerability and willingness to accept change, they began to do the same. I stopped lying that I had all of the answers, when clearly I did not.
By changing the culture inside the building, I took the power from myself and gave it to the players. The less they needed me, the better they got. They were less dependent on me for instruction, and the training environment allowed them to find their own swing, their own style, and their own feel. They started taking pride in the fact that they did things differently than others, and that gave them confidence. They embraced struggle and adaptation, and learned how to get over an 0-4 game faster. The playing field was now level, because I had coached them to coach themselves.
If you are a coach and you are reading this, first of all, God bless you, and secondly, I challenge you to take a look internally at the methods and processes you use. Are they creating an environment of growth? Or are they creating an environment that avoids failure? If you focus on the former, your players WILL get better. Avoiding failure isn't success. Success is built on the foundation of failure. We learned to walk because we fell over and over and over again. Teach them to fail in a safe, judgement free environment and watch the growth happen. I must warn you though, you will see less cage bombs and you will feel helpless at times watching them struggle. But they will tell better stories, stories of success ON THE FIELD (where it counts), stories about crushing live pitching and moving up in lineups. And since they know you cared enough to help them reach their potential, they will still leave the cage feeling good.
PS. I can't wait to troll this post in 5 years when I learn all new stuff...