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If You Can Train Two Pigeons To Play Ping-Pong, Then YES You Can Train “Normal” Young Athletes To Step Sideways & Hit A Moving Ball

This is a follow up to the post I recently published titled,  “WHY ‘Squishing The Bug’ Is So Dumb”.

I had a couple coaches reach out over email and social media,

Saying although they agreed with not teaching older hitters to ‘squish the bug’, they disagreed that it’s okay to teach younger hitters.

Let me be clear, I don’t typically get into weight transfer with hitters less than 7-years-old.  HOWEVER, it can be done, and that’s what this post is all about.

So, is it the young hitter that’s incapable of learning how to do what the best do?

OR…

2 Pigeons Playing Ping Pong

Two pigeons were taught to play ping-pong using primary and secondary reinforcers. Photo courtesy: LiveLeak.com

Is the instructor incapable of teaching what the best do?

The answer will become clear in following.

We’ll discuss:

  • What science of learning says, and
  • Regression to progression models for teaching.

 

What Science of Learning Says…

One Facebook reader shared that he has 12-years in the child development field, in addition to having 8-years of coaching at different levels.

He agreed with the aforementioned ‘squishing bugs is dumb’ post, but said what he’s seen in child development research is that the majority of 6-year-olds are incapable of shifting their weight and hitting a pitched ball.  He added that only the top 1% of kids can.

He also referenced a kid with what he called “no athletic” ability as an example.

This is an interesting comment coming from someone with his professional background.  And I asked myself, okay, what am I missing because my experience has been much different.

First of all, to reference the bottom 1% of kids in “train-ability” throws up a yellow flag for me (“train-ability” was referenced in the book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science Of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein in the Heritage Study).

Since this gentleman is convinced “normal” 6yos can’t be taught to weight shift and hit a ball (exclude mutants and bottom 1% from the equation), then…

I asked if he’d read The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Made.  It’s Grown.  Here’s How. by Daniel Coyle.  And what his thoughts were on Daniel Coyle’s findings of the following athletic “hotbeds”:

  • 3yo females learning gymnastics in China?
  • 3yo females learning tennis in Russia?
  • Young females learning golf in Korea?
  • Young boys learning baseball in Curacao?
  • Young boys learning soccer in Brazil?

He responded with, well it’s different in Russia because they’re more disciplined.

Wa??!

I said oh, so if the kids practice, then it’s possible for “normal” athletes?

No response from him on that.

I then went on to talk about how the International Youth & Conditioning Association, which I am a certified member of, shared their own child development research that children between the ages of two to five years old should developmentally be able to run, hop, jump, forward skip, and sideways skip.

Weight shifting, like in a stride, is very similar to side skipping.  Think about throwing a Frisbee as far as you can.  And, Pitchers do this all the time, in addition to first baseman when stretching to receive a throw from an infielder (okay, this is more of a front step, but you get the idea).

This gentleman said although this may be true, normal kids cannot side step AND hit a moving pitch.

We’ll get into the progression I used with my own boy when he was 2-years-old, at the end of this post.  But hey, maybe he’s part of the top 1%…I dunno 😛 lol  You be the judge.

Back to the child development expert, I mentioned the following book to him Don’t Shoot The Dog: The New Art Of Teaching And Training, by Karen Pryor, which is about using positive and negative reinforcers in behavioral conditioning.  Basically, it’s a dog training book (worst title ever by the way!!), but the info is just as applicable to humans, horses, dolphins, and any other thing that has flippers, 2-4 legs, and breathes air.  Also, this is what was used to train the two ping-pong pigeons in the video above.

PIGEONS!  I’ve also read somewhere, might have been in the Don’t Shoot The Dog book, that a scientist once taught a chicken to turn the pages of a book…a CHICKEN!!!

Let that sink in for a moment…

Here’s what I took away from the conversation with Mr. Child Development Expert…

The brain and eyes have a contract with each other…the eyes are only suppose to look for what the brain wants to see.  You can read about that in the book Stumbling Upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

And this child development expert was biased towards information confirming his belief that “normal” 6yos cannot side step and hit a moving ball.

BREAKING NEWS!!

I’m biased too!  But on the opposite side of the spectrum.  I operate from the perspective that if the young athlete isn’t getting what I want him or her to do, then I’m NOT doing something right.  Not the other way around.  I find a way, and look for information validated by science to support my claim.

So which coach would you rather work with?

Let me repeat,

Teaching hitters to ‘squish the bug’ has NOTHING to do with what the best do.  And an instructor that defaults to this when teaching young hitters is like a grade school teacher teaching his 1st Grade students that 2 +2 = 5, because they’re incapable of learning that the real answer is 4.

Look, some of you may be thinking that ‘squishing the bug’ is about “getting the hips through”.  My good friends Matt Nokes AND Homer Bush dispelled this myth in the following posts:

I was told this is a BOLD statement…to say teaching ‘bug squishing’ is WRONG.

It is wrong.

You may feel I’m judging you, but I’m not.  I have an issue with what you’re teaching and WHY.  NOT with you.

I think you’re better than that.  It’s not personal. 

But be honest with yourself.  It’s not what the best do, but I do understand you’re frustrated working with these younger hitters.

…And may have a solution…

 

Regression to Progression Models for Teaching

I’m not going to get into how to teach side stepping in this post.  If your kid can side skip, or side step, then they’re fully capable of a weight shift.

The question is how to get them to hit a moving ball.

And before I get there, I wanted to share a quick story I read in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, that highlights the learning process.

Remember this scene in the movie Terminator 2…? (video should start there, but watch at about the 5:00 min. mark)…

In the book, Arnold discussed how he learned to load a shotgun with one hand, while riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and at the same time shooting the padlock off a chain-link fence.

According to him, this was his process:

  • NOTE: He spent time in the Austrian Army as a tank driver in his younger days, so he knew how to shoot a weapon beforehand.
  • He spent many repetitions loading this particular shot gun with one hand, seated on the Harley.
  • He spent many repetitions loading the shotgun, seated on the Harley, shooting a small target.
  • He spent many repetitions loading the shotgun while riding the motorcycle.
  • He spent many repetitions loading the shotgun, riding the Harley, and shooting the target.

His whole thing was “reps, reps, reps”, until the action he practiced became second nature.

This is also what Josh Waitzkin calls “making small circles”, in his book The Art Of Learning: A Journey in Pursuit of Excellence. Josh was a young chess prodigy, and his life was the basis for the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”.

How did I teach my 2-year-old son how to hit a moving ball?  Here’s the process:

  • Starting at about 1.5 years old, we practiced hitting different sized balls off a little tee with a big plastic blue bat,
  • A few months before he turned two years old, I started throwing a big beach ball at him while he hit it with his big plastic bat,
  • We then started slowly shrinking the ball down until after a few months past his second birthday, he was hitting baseball sized whiffle balls with his big plastic bat, and then
  • We shrunk the bat down to a conventional yellow whiffle ball bat, so at about 2.5-3 years old, he was able to hit a baseball sized whiffle ball with the slim yellow bat.

Truth be told at 3yo, he wasn’t hitting every pitch I threw at him, but he was hitting the ball harder more often, other than just ‘tipping it’ or totally swinging and missing like most his age or older, who didn’t have the prior progressions.

 

The Bottom Line…

Coaches,

If 3 year old girls are learning tennis in Russia, golf in Korea, and gymnastics in China, then your hitters can learn how to step sideways and hit a moving ball.  If discipline is an issue, use the Minimum Effective Dosage Rule, practice only 4-5 days per week, for only 5-mins each day.  It’s not about length of time, but frequency of reviewing the material.

If you can teach a chicken to turn the pages of a book, and train two pigeons to play ping-pong, then YES you can train “normal” kids to step sideways and hit a moving ball.

If you cannot, then the fault most likely falls – I know this may be hard to swallow for some – with the instructor, not the child.  Set the ego aside.  Every day, ask yourself the question:

“What don’t I know?”

Early Sport Specialization

Photo courtesy: ExpertTableTennis.com

I may be shooting myself in the foot on this one…

But I feel it is my duty to educate parents and coaches,

That today, early sport specialization is an epidemic among younger athletes.

And it’s caused by a paper tiger need to stay competitive.

Nothing fires me up more than coaches NOT allowing their players to play other sports throughout the year.

In this post, I’ll address these three things:

  • Smart Coaches Focus on Long Term Athlete Development,
  • Stop Early Sport Specialization, and
  • Why Early Specialization in Baseball or Softball May Be Dangerous to an Athlete’s Health.

 

Smart Coaches Focus on Long Term Athlete Development

I feel bad for oblivious parents in youth baseball and softball nowadays.  Their motivation to “catch-up” to the competition is HUGE because they don’t want to see their child sitting on the bench.  And rightfully so.

So, what is a parent to do?  Spend $100-200 per month on a travel team that promises tournament play every weekend, plus three practices during the week…all year long!  The goal is reps, reps, reps.  That’s how they see getting to the 10,000 hour mark of sport mastery.

I’m here to tell you this approach is VERY misled.

When I hear this, I see these parents spinning their tires.  Sure, they may get to those 10,000 hours, but at what cost?

And does it really take 10,000 hours?

You’ll find out shortly…

Be honest with yourself,

Do you subscribe to the 10,000 hour rule of “the more reps the better”, I talked about earlier?  You’ve read The Talent Code right?

Well, like 3-times NY Times best selling author, Tim Ferriss, says in the video above, most of the time people are spending their 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice”, practicing the wrong things.  In this since, it’s not how you study, but what you study that counts.

What do we study then?

Human movement rules that are validated by science.

It’s doing the right things, and then doing those things correctly.

So, what does Long-Term Athletic Development look like?

It’s diversifying an athlete’s movement background early on.  Let’s look at a Scandinavian Study that will shock you…

 

Stop Early Sport Specialization

Early Sport Specialization

Photo courtesy: IYCA.org

Wil Fleming from the International Youth & Conditioning Association (IYCA), which I’m a member of, put out a post that highlighted a recent Scandinavian Study that several researchers (Moesch, Elbe, Haube and Wikman) published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Sport Science.

The researchers asked elite athletes and near elite athletes to answer questions about their experiences in athletics regarding their training and practice throughout their career:

  • The near-elite athletes actually accumulated more hours of training than the elite athletes prior to age 15.
  • By age 18 the elite athletes had accumulated an equal number of hours training to the near elite athletes.
  • From age 18-21 elite athletes accumulate more training hours than near elite athletes.
  • Elite athletes said that they passed significant points in their career (first competition, starting a sport) at later dates than the near elite athletes.

What the Scandinavian Study suggests is early sport specialization was found to be a likely predictor of classification as a near-elite athlete.  According to the aforementioned IYCA article link,

“Despite much evidence that early specialization can lead to higher levels of burnout and dropout, many coaches still believe that the only way athletes can reach 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is to begin specialization at an extremely early age.”

What’s more…

According to David Epstein, in his book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletes, it’s a hardware AND software issue.  Not just nature OR nurture, but both!  You can’t have the latest greatest software on a 5 year old computer, just like you can’t have the latest greatest computer running Windows ’98.

Young athletes MUST develop the hardware early, between ages 10 and 15 years of age, which means playing other sports that aren’t one-side dominant like baseball/softball, golf, or tennis.  Ideally, Martial Arts, Dance, Gymnastics, Swimming, Football, Basketball, etc.

This updates the hardware.

Then, from 16 to 18 years of age or so, it’s smart to start specializing, so the athlete can update their software for that sport.  From David Epstein’s research, athletes that generalized early on, did better at the sport they specialized in later, than athletes that specialized in the same sport early on.  The latter may have more sophisticated software, but their running it on a 5 year old computer.

Here’s evidence, validated by science, that the 10,000 hour deliberate practice rule can be misleading.  The key is a well-rounded movement experience for young athletes, at least if you want to give them a better shot at achieving the elite athlete status.

This is Long-Term Athlete Development in a nutshell.

 

Why Early Specialization in Baseball or Softball May Be Dangerous to an Athlete’s Health

Tommy John Surgery

Photo courtesy: Health.HowStuffWorks.com

This was my story with baseball…

I played 17 years of baseball as a right handed hitter and right handed thrower.

At the time, taking reps on my left side, to me, was a complete waste of time.

Imagine going to the gym everyday and doing one hundred-fifty bicep curls with a 30-pound dumbbell using your right arm only.

This next statement will get me in A LOT of hot water with my switch-hitting teammates…

But switch-hitting DOES NOT give as big a competitive advantage that everyone thinks.  Of course, switch hitting from the standpoint of a coach writing a competitive lineup, or that switch-hitters are more balanced athletes from a human movement perspective, sure.  But not to the performance of the individual hitter.

Before you get upset, think about it…

Did Babe Ruth feel the need to switch hit?  How about Ted Williams?  Do you think Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, or Andrew McCutchen feel the need to see a breaking ball “come into” them?

No.

A hitter will collect data and make adjustments accordingly, whether they’re facing a righty or lefty pitcher.

Not only is baseball or softball one of the most imbalanced sports you can play, but it’s also one of the least active, next to golf.  I read or heard a study somewhere that analyzed the action in a 7-inning baseball game, and on average, a player will have 4-minutes of real activity.

Now, that’s saying something about the state of this sport!

Heck, want to know my thoughts on the increase in pitcher Tommy John surgeries?

Check out this post from Grantland.com titled, “The Tommy John Epidemic: What’s Behind the Rapid Increase of Pitchers Undergoing Elbow Surgery?”

Is the cause:

  • Low/high pitch counts?
  • The move to the 5-man rotation?
  • Faster arm speeds?
  • The angle of the elbow during the throw?  OR,
  • “Unnatural” torque produced by the body in an overhand throwing position (versus underhand)?

In the grand scheme of things, I believe it’s none of these.  The damage is being done much sooner than this.

The damage is being done when young athletes are choosing (or being forced, in the case of less informed High School coaches) to specialize in one sport.  The above bullet points are just the straws that break the camel’s back…or ahem, elbow.

I ask all my new hitters what other sports they play or participate during their hitting evaluation.  Here is a list of sports developing a diversified (GOOD) or specialized (BAD) movement athlete…

GOOD (well rounded sports):

  • Gymnastics (recommended),
  • Dance (recommended),
  • Martial Arts (recommended),
  • Soccer,
  • Football (everyone but kickers and quarterbacks), and
  • Basketball.

BAD (one-sided sports):

  • Baseball/Softball,
  • Football: kickers and quarterbacks,
  • Tennis,
  • Golf,
  • Volleyball (serves and spikes), and
  • Olympic Throwers & Shot Putters.

Okay, so what can you do if you’re a parent or coach stuck in this rat-trap?  Three things:

  1. On the 10,000 hour deliberate practice rule – it’s not about reps, reps, reps.  It’s not how you study, but what you study that counts.  Make sure the hitting information you’re learning is validated by science.  For coaching resources, look into the IYCA I mentioned earlier, and the Positive Coaching Alliance.
  2. Early Sport Specialization – DON’T do it!  The Scandinavian Study proved that young athletes who specialize early will most likely experience burnout and dropout, along with limit the level they can achieve in their sport.
  3. Higher Injury Rates – you’re making a BIG mistake when you decide to play only baseball or softball.  Make sure to play other balanced sports that I mentioned in the “GOOD (well rounded sports)” section above.