Inside Pitch Magazine, November/December 2020

Quick Pitch: Coaching Focus of Attention

Shifting from Internal to External

By Mike Huber
Mike HuberModern day baseball has become a data analytics laboratory of sorts. Coaches at all levels are utilizing a wide array of data to improve player performance. As a self-proclaimed student of the game, I believe that using data to improve performance is a critical part of the game’s evolution. However, as a mental performance coach, I question whether overemphasis on performance data is leading to inefficient coaching methods, particularly among more experienced players.

A Driveline Baseball blog post from October 2016 suggests that “hitters are more obsessed with hitting mechanics than ever before.” I would argue hitters, pitchers, and their coaches are often hyper-focused on the most minute of mechanical nuances when analyzing performance.

It seems that baseball players’ focus on mechanics is at least partially attributable to coaching instruction that is often highly mechanical in nature. As the aforementioned Driveline article mentions, coaches often use verbal cues such as “stay inside” and “sit back” that stress the players to monitor their movements while trying to execute a very difficult skill. This often leads to tentative movement patterns and even cognitive performance anxiety that may inhibit optimal performance.

Interestingly, two research studies suggest that highly skilled baseball players – such as those playing at the high school, college, and professional levels – benefit from maintaining an external focus of attention rather than an internal focus of attention.

Van der Graaff and colleagues (2018) found that pitchers’ performance may benefit from focusing on an external target, such as the catcher’s mitt, rather than focusing on physical movements. Castaneda and Gray (2007) suggest that highly skilled hitters’ performance may increase if focused on something external, such as the movement of the bat. In both cases, directing attention away from mechanics allows the expert players to allow the body to execute the mechanics that the players’ have learned through deliberate skill practice over many years.

So, what does this mean for high school and college baseball coaches? Frankly, I would say that these research findings will challenge how coaches may instinctively instruct their players. Many coaches my age (mid-40s) and older have received baseball instruction from coaches with a “command and control” style in which players are micro-managed through nuanced mechanical instructions rather than allowing physical problem solving by the athletes themselves. While not easy, coaches may benefit from challenging themselves to modify their instructional styles for their players’ benefit.

Here are three practical suggestions for coaches that can use to help improve their players’ performance:
  1. Less is more. Limit the amount of mechanical feedback you are providing to a player, particularly during a game. Allow players the opportunity to make their own adjustments.

  2. Emphasize an attacking mindset. Use verbal cues for motivation rather than correcting mechanics. Using a word such as a “attack” can create external emphasis and may allow players to get out of their bodies (and heads) to trust their natural athletic movement patterns.

  3. De-emphasize aesthetics. Sure, we all appreciate a pretty swing or perfect pitching mechanics. However, there have been plenty of “ugly” players that are highly successful. Emphasize the problem-solving elements of baseball to allow players to improve performance.

Castaneda, B. & Gray, R. (2007). Effects of focus of attention on baseball batting performance in players of differing skill levels. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 60-77.

Driveline Baseball (2016 October 13). Coaching Hitting Mechanics. Retrieved from: 6/10/coaching-hitting-mechanics

van der Graaff, E., Hoozemans, M., Pasteuning, M., Veeger, D., & Beek, P.J. (2018). Focus of attention instructions during baseball pitching training. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 13(3), 391-397.

Mike Huber is an ABCA member and the owner of Follow The Ball LLC, a mental performance coaching practice based in New Jersey.

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.