Updated: Aug 16, 2019
As of today - August 14, 2019 - pitching development is way ahead of hitting development. And in many ways, that makes sense. Pitchers have the advantage of starting the action. They don't really need to react to anything. The perception piece of their perception/action task basically just involves accounting for the slight variations of each baseball they use and the environment - such as the mound, the air, and the wind. Meanwhile, hitters have less than half a second to react to and hit pitches. Dirty, nasty, dark, disgusting pitches. It's no wonder the pitchers are winning.
Yet there exists one very real advantage to being a hitter: The number of full intent practice reps they can take is not nearly as limited as that of a pitcher. Hitters can literally take hundreds of game intensity swings per day, allowing them the opportunity to improve far more rapidly at their specific skill than a pitcher who is limited to maybe one hundred high intensity pitches per week. Because of this, as we learn more and more about the swing - and more and more about how to pair that swing to whatever it is a hitter sees - we will see hitting rapidly catch up to pitching.
Which brings us to these questions: How can pitchers stay ahead of hitters? And are there ways for pitchers to increase the amount of game intent reps their bodies can handle? It also brings us to the point of this post, which is visualization - or more specifically - mind shaping.
(Side Note: I'm not entirely convinced that a well prepared pitcher couldn't throw game intensity pitches more frequently and with greater volume than most currently do. In fact pitchers used to throw more than they do now. Yes, they threw slower, but I would not be surprised if average pitching volume increases as we get a better handle on creating efficient biomechanics and understanding how to manipulate workloads. But that's a topic for another post.)
So…mind shaping. Basically what we're talking about here is first person visualization where every detail of a scenario is envisioned. If someone were to mindshape a scene in which they executed a perfectly located fastball at the top of the zone, they wouldn't watch themselves do it. Instead, they would take in their surroundings. They'd hear the fans, feel the dirt under their cleats, see the sign from the catcher, and feel the grip of the baseball as they located the seams. They'd feel their body move down the mound and the baseball rip out of their hand towards the plate. They'd hear the pop of the catcher's glove and see the pathetic swing of the overmatched hitter.
By envisioning the entire scenario and feeling the act of the pitch, the brain winds up sending signals through the body as if the event were actually happening. Yes, it will take just as long to mindshape an inning as it would to actually pitch one, but the benefit of throwing just one mental inning per day - another 365 innings per year - with zero extra stress on the arm is without question a gigantic hack.
The concept of mind shaping as we've discussed it is referenced repeatedly - as mind sculpture - in Robert Maurer's One Small Step Can Change Your Life. Maurer explains that during the act of mind sculpture, “the brain doesn’t understand that it’s not really performing the imagined activity.” He goes on to explain that these mental reps produce real physical changes in the brain’s neural connections, allowing one to develop new skills.
And there are actual scientific studies that show this. One such study looked at finger strength. After taking baseline measurements, the participants were split up into three groups. Those in the control group would just keep on living their lives. Those in the training group invested time physically training their fingers. (Basically they lifted finger weights) And those in the mental training group visualized themselves doing the finger training. The results were staggering.
While the control group expectedly made no significant changes, both other groups saw significant increases in finger strength. The finger training group increased their strength by 53% while the visualization group increased theirs by 35%. Notably, both the group that physically trained and the group that mentally trained saw “ significant increases in electroencephalogram-derived cortical potential, a measure previously shown to be directly related to control of voluntary muscle contractions.”
This study produced similar results.
Another study I always mention seems not to be a study at all. Instead, there is a likely apocryphal story about a Vietnam War veteran who mentally rehearsed 18 holes of golf every day for 8 years while in a POW camp. Upon release he supposedly shot a lifetime best round of 74. But I won't tell you about that. This is an article about science!
So more science: This study looked at ankle plantar flexion, again comparing three groups, and found similar results. Looking at dorsi flexion this time - this study again saw positive adaptations as a result of mental workouts.
In another study, using the same three group set up but this time looking at training movement patterns instead of simple muscular strength, researchers found a noticeable increase in skill from both the training and the mental training groups. Interestingly the study reported that the mental training group saw, “an increase (in) muscle strength, power, and work, but changes in reactivity were not observed.”
While the majority of what I have been able to find on the subject seems to indicate that physical changes can occur as the result of mental training, this meta analysis says that there is insufficient evidence to claim that mental work alone can improve muscular output.
But mixed results don't necessarily mean that mind shaping doesn't work. There are countless examples of professional athletes who visualize.
Michael Phelps is famous for his visualization routine. This video explains how he uses both standard visualization and mind shaping techniques to prepare for a race.
Adam Nelson - an Olympic Gold Medal winning shot putter - talks in this podcast (start at 13:30 and listen for about 10 minutes) about how he used mind shaping for years to help him become his best. He goes into detail about the importance of visualizing in the first person and really learning to work through overcoming adverse scenarios.
Thanks to @PitchingNinja we have some great examples of pitchers describing how they use mind shaping. Clayton Kershaw casually mentions visualization here. David Price talks about his mental preparation here. Jake Arrieta mentions visualization here. And Chris Archer makes my exact argument here.
At Haverford we devoted a small portion of many practices to mindshaping, and I encouraged the pitchers to find time on their own to practice the skill. We'd typically begin with a centering exercise, designed to help connect to the breath and the moment, find stillness, and enter a positive mental state.
(In the past we would invest a few minutes every day doing this 'lock in.’ But I felt that the guys were beginning to use it as a crutch instead of a tool, so we moved to a new model where we would sometimes jump right into the mindshaping scenario or skip the exercise completely. Instead the guys would be tasked to simply focus on the moment and win each rep as they would anyway, using their breath as a reset when they found their focus drifting from the task at hand.)
While most sessions don't include everything that I go through in this clip, this is an example of how a mindshaping session might go. Most sessions would be significantly shorter and only include a few of the components mentioned in the video.
Since coming to the Twins I have had the chance to direct a few mind shaping sessions with individual pitchers, and the early reactions are promising.
There is a lot more independence in professional baseball, and the players are ... professional, so just giving them the tool of mind-shaping has allowed several pitchers to win countless 'free' reps on the mound without any oversight.
Several of the pitchers have even taken to the daily practice mind shaping while standing on the mound and going through dry reps.
To recap: The hitters are coming. But as pitchers we can utilize mindshaping to help offset the hitters’ ability to take hundreds of daily reps by taking mental reps of our own. This will hopefully allow the inherent advantage we have as pitchers - that of being the actors and not the reactors - to continue to offset hitters’ ability to take tons of swings, making it damn hard to hit our nasty, nasty stuff.