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We are a country divided, and we aren’t talking about politics. We’re talking baseball coaching philosophies. You don’t have to be on Twitter very long to see a pronounced split between many baseball coaches. On one side, you have the old-school mentality and traditional coaching values: small ball, err on hitting the ball hard on the ground, and stick with the hundred year-old plan for success. On the other side, you have a new-age coach, embracing data driven analysis and different ways of developing players and winning strategies. Nothing encapsulates this split better than swing plane. You have the swing down on the ball crowd versus the swing up on the ball crowd and neither side is pulling any punches. Jump on social media and you’ll quickly be inundated with the strong opinions in this debate and many others. The aim of this article is to appeal to both sides to consider how inflexible language and coaching cues can get in the way of player development. We’ll also cover why it’s important to remain flexible with our instruction and pay attention to the movements they elicit in our players.
For the sake of this article, we will stick with swing plane as our example. Let’s say your coaching beliefs are that hitters should “swing on plane with the pitch”. So in your coaching, you explain to your hitters why swinging on plane is the best way to hit. Getting on plane with a pitch gives you the biggest margin for error and will allow you to hit the ball hard more often, and so on and so forth. When you are watching batting practice, however, you notice that Hitter 1’s swing is really chopping down hard at the ball. You tell the hitter he needs to “level out his swing and try to hit the ball right back where it came from.” The result is that his swing becomes an even more rigid chop. The more you say “level out the swing”, the worse it becomes. Hitter 2 comes up and he is swinging with a huge uppercut. You give him the same “level” cue, and his swing becomes even more uphill. The more you say “level out the swing” the more uphill it becomes.
That’s two hitters, the same verbal cue, and two polar opposite physical responses, neither of which helps the player be successful. This is a simple and extreme example, but it helps drive home an important point: the same verbal cue or language to different players is likely to create different physical responses. As a coach, if you remain stubborn and attached to your preferred language because “it’s the right way,” who benefits? You certainly aren’t doing either player any favors if they continue to get worse by applying your verbal cue. You are just missing an opportunity to get two players better. Instead of focusing on the “right” language, focus on using language that creates understanding and the right physical response for each individual player. That may mean you tell Hitter 1 to “swing up to the ball”, you tell Hitter 2 to “swing down on the ball”, and you tell the rest of the hitters to “swing level or on plane”. By being flexible with your verbal cues, you help everyone get better and make yourself a more successful coach.
The idea of being flexible with language and finding verbal cues that work for each guy means you will have to set your ego (and perhaps stubbornness) aside. Doing so does not mean that you don’t know what you are talking about or that you teach the wrong things, in fact it’s the opposite. A multidimensional approach to coaching is a sign that you are committed to teaching and helping your players develop the movement patterns they need to be successful. That’s what coaching is all about. Coaching is about player development, not proving your way is the only way. If you still aren’t ready to give up your preferred verbal cue for something that doesn’t resonate as well with you, think about this: Mike Trout trains his swing thinking about swinging down on the ball and Chris Bryant trains his by thinking about swinging up. Should one of these MVPs change his training cue because it’s wrong? No! There are many paths to success! Moving forward, prioritize helping your players find their own paths to success by using language and verbal cues that work for them.