If you’re like most of the people across the globe right now you’re spending a lot of time at home. Quarantine life has certainly thrown a wrinkle in our day to day routine and many hitters are feeling like their development is in a holding pattern. Like most things in life however this is merely a matter of perspective. Sure, you probably can’t get in the batting cage as often as you used to, unless of course you’re one of the lucky ones with a cage in the backyard. You might not even have access to a tee and a net. Yet this doesn’t mean you can’t still be developing and improving. In fact, this could be the very opportunity you need to focus on some of the more detailed, and frankly more important aspects of hitting that maybe you’ve been neglecting.
As hitters it’s fun to jump into the cage and take swings. Sometimes the most beneficial things we can be doing are the things that seem, well, boring. It’s these more tedious exercises that contain the most value, however. With our current situation being what it is we have the opportunity to dive into some of these exercises and really transform ourselves into the hitter we want to become. So what are some things we can do that require minimal equipment but give us a ton of value in terms of development?
1. Breath Work
If you’ve worked with me before you know how important I believe breath work to be. It’s the foundational skill I teach for both mental and physical performance. It has the incredible power to transform both our psychology and our physiology placing us in a powerful position to be successful pitch to pitch. I’ve seen amazing things happen once a hitter becomes serious about mastering their breathing in the batter’s box. I’ve seen hitters who’ve struggled mentally become more present, confident hitters. I’ve seen hitters who’ve struggle to transfer their cage swing into a game suddenly become much more repeatable. I’ve even seen hitters entire swings transform. Their swing became much more simple, efficient, and powerful just by becoming better at their breathing. As crazy as it may sound spending time each day working on our breathing could quite possibly be the most important thing we can do. Mastering our breath is a skill and having the ability to utilize this skill when we need it most takes practice. So why not get off of social media or Netflix for a few minutes and spend a little time practicing the most important skill in hitting?
How do we work on it? First, we want to make sure that we are engaging in nasal only breathing. Breathing through our mouth actually activates our stress response which inhibits our ability to execute mechanically. By breathing in and out through our nose it forces us to be more conscious of our breath, breathing more slowly which helps to calm our nervous system and allow us to be in a more optimal state both mentally and physically on each pitch. Secondly, we want to make sure we are breathing diagphramatically which basically means we want to feel our belly expanding on each inhale as opposed to breathing into our chest. Breathing in this way has multiple benefits that I won’t go into in this post but just know that this is an additional way to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system and minimize our stress response which gives us more access to higher performance states mentally and physically. Lastly, the rate of our breathing is important. I like all of my hitters to begin with a 5-5 breath rate. That means a slow 5 second/count inhale and a 5 second/count exhale. This breath rate slows our breathing to around 6 breaths/minute which is ideal for maintaining a relaxed but focused state.
On September 27th, 1965 Colonel George Hall was shot down over Vietnam and taken to a POW camp where he lived for another 7 years. During that time he experienced some of the most horrific things a human being can experience. An avid golfer, Colonel Hall began to visualize himself playing rounds of golf as a means too mentally escape his torture. Upon his release, after over 7 years of captivity and not swing a golf club once in that amount of time, Colonel Hall was able to shoot his handicap in a tournament just 6 weeks later. His experience demonstrates the power of visualization and how it can help improve our performance at the plate.
Our mind can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what we imagine. When we visualize or imagine ourselves in a particular situation or executing a particular skill the same neural pathways required to physical execute the skill fire just as they would if we are actually in the situation or performing the skill. This can be extremely beneficial. Let’s say there is a particular aspect of your mechanics that you are trying to master. Typically progress in the beginning is very slow. We go into the cage, we take a good swing which is then followed by 2-3 bad swings. So not only are we strengthening the pathways needed to execute the new skill but we are also strengthening the old pathways at the same time. With visualization however, we have the power to NEVER execute a bad swing. During this downtime we can use this to our advantage. If there’s a mechanical issue you were working through before the quarantine use this time to build those good pathways by consistently visualizing good, quality execution.
We can also visualize any situation we might find ourselves in. Is there a pitch type, location or count you struggle in? Visualize it and see yourself having the success you’re trying to achieve. Do you struggle mentally in a given situation? Visualize that situation over and over again, see and feel yourself thinking and feeling in a more positive way. Apply the mental tool you’re going to apply the next time you’re physically in that situation and see yourself having success. You can also go outside or to the garage with your bat in hand and take physical swings while imagining a pitcher throwing to you. Try to see every detail. See the spin, the location, tracking the pitch into the hitting zone and then go ahead and execute a quality swing. Seeing multiple pitches in multiple locations can be hugely beneficial especially the pitches or locations you struggle with.
Finally, I’m also a big fan of video. An incredibly powerful visualization technique is seeing yourself executing properly or having success in the game. What I recommend is for hitters to make a compilation video of either their success at the plate or quality swings in the batting cage and then watch this over and over again. There’s an old saying of “What we focus on expands”. When we’re constantly looking at all the things we do “wrong” we’re increasing the likelihood that we repeat what’s “wrong”. Conversely when we focus on what we want to achieve or the swing we want to execute then we’re increasing the likelihood of good swing execution when we need it most. Most players today have access to a ton of video. The iPhone has made it incredibly easy to capture footage, edit a movie and then save it in your camera roll. Now is a perfect time to take advantage of this technology. Below is a video I created to give you an example.
3. Mirror Work
If you’ve never heard me say it before, I’m saying it now… I LOVE the mirror. I loved it as a player and I love it at a coach. No other tool allows us to see what we’re feeling and gives us immediate feedback on any adjustments we need to make. Contrary to what many hitting guys of today might think hitting is all about FEEL. You have to be aware of what you’re feeling in your swing so that you can make real adjustments pitch to pitch. What we feel is also an important indicator into our current mental state and therefore allows us to make mental adjustments when needed. The ability to see what we’re feeling accelerates skill development and skill mastery. As a player I used the mirror daily and not just for hitting. I used it to make sure my throwing mechanics were dialed in, I’d watch my footwork and posture during ground balls and double play turns. I literally spent hours in front of the mirror each week and I’m not the only one. In his book “Sadaharo Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball” Japanese slugger (also known as the Japanese Babe Ruth), and the current all-time home run leader in professional baseball, Sadaharo Oh talks about using the mirror for hours each day during his off season training program. During the off season much of his training was spent in a room, in front of a mirror, focusing and ultimately repeating the detailed aspects of his swing for up to 6 hours each day! This helped foster the repeatability he needed to hit over 800 home runs during his career!
There’s literally no aspect of your swing that you can’t work on in front of the mirror. Do you want to improve your posture? Stand in front of the mirror with the mirror to your side so that you can see the front of your body. Execute your swing in slow motion and see yourself maintaining good posture. Need to work on head stability? Stand in the same set up and work on your stride/load phase while maintaining good posture and head stability. Need to work on bath path and extension? Face the mirror as though the mirror was the pitcher and see yourself executing an efficient path to contact and extending through the hitting zone. Your options are literally limitless and you’ll be performing one of the most powerful drills you can engage in.
4. Improve Hip and Thoracic Mobility
As hitters our hips are notoriously tight. The constant internal rotation we experience during hitting causes a muscle imbalance that limits the performance of our hips. The health and performance of our pelvis is critical to everything we do athletically. From hitting to fielding to throwing it’s imperative that we maintain good pelvic health. Now I know that nobody likes to stretch. However, with the time we now have why not see it as an opportunity to get your body performing as efficiently as possible? Improving our hip mobility isn’t just about stretching. It’s about bring balance back to an already unbalanced system. What does that mean? It means that instead of just loading up the back squat or deadlift take some time to focus on the postural muscles that hold everything in place and allow it to function optimally.
Think of it this way, If the alignment in your car is off and it’s limiting it’s performance you wouldn’t just drop a bigger engine in it right? All you would be doing is accelerating it breaking down. Instead, you can instantly improve the performance of your car tremendously by simply realigning the wheels and bringing back to an optimal state. For hitters this means taking time to stretch the internal rotators of the hip (adductors longus, brevis, magnus, ie: your groin), your psoas (hip flexors), and strengthening your external rotators (gluteus medius). This can be accomplished through lateral band walks or even side lying leg lifts. Now keep in mind, these are postural muscles which means they need A LOT of reps to strengthen. Shoot for sets of 20 reps and spend time stretching your inner thighs by holding each stretch for multiple sets of 30-60 seconds.
In hitting our thoracic spine is hugely important. Big words right? Ok, the thoracic spine is that part of our spine that runs from just above our belly button to just below our neck. The ability for this region of the body to rotate and move is vital for us for a couple of reasons: 1) it allows us to maximize hip separation. If you’ve heard me talk over the past 20 plus years you’ll know that hip separation is important for power production and bat path efficiency. Immobility in this region doesn’t allow a hitter to maximize their degrees of separation and therefore inhibits the amount of power they are capable of producing. 2) we need good thoracic mobility in order to maximize our efficiency to contact and our extension through the hitting zone. Hitters without good thoracic mobility will be too rotational in their upper body which creates a longer path to contact and a shorter path through the hitting zone limiting both power and contact. Unfortunately for many hitters we’re losing mobility in our thoracic spine due the amount of swings we take, heavy lifting (especially bench press or having a less than optimal push/pul ratio), and modern day living (ie: sitting, time on the computer, etc.). Now is the perfect opportunity to spend some time regaining any lost mobility in this region. Tools like the foam roller, a swiss ball or lacrosse ball can really help. Stretching the lats and pecs are also very important for regaining mobility in this region. Here is an article and videos of a few exercises you can do at home to help regain mobility in this region. One of my favorite ways is through a series of exercises called ELDOAs which I will share in a future post.
Let’s face it, the situation we’re in is not ideal. It’s not what any of us would hope for or were expecting. But that doesn’t mean your development as a hitter needs to stop. It’s a perfect time to work on some other aspects of hitting development that provide you with some good results once we’re able to get back on the field. Instead of focusing on all the things you wish you were doing right now shift your perspective. See this for the opportunity it is to further your development as a hitter and gain a deeper understanding of how to master your craft!