Running an Offense in 2020 Part II: Performance Environment

Performance Environment

Guest Post By Nick Ascue

In Part I of the series I shared offensive performance goals specific to one division I baseball conference. In Part II of “Running An Offense in 2020” I briefly cover (1) skilled motor behavior and (2) Identifying the right problems and solutions.

Questions:

  1. What is my position on motor skill expertise?
  2. What are the implications for my position?
  3. Where to search to find the right problem?
  4. What is the right problem to be solved by Division I hitters?
  5. What information is present in this problem?
  6. What information is most specifying to hitters?
  7. What is the right solution to the right problem?

How we answer “what is skilled motor behavior” has significant implications for how we coach. Our answer to that question will not only influence how we answer the remaining questions, but it will also influence all coaching behavior related to improving performance. To be more specific, it will underpin our course of action or the strategy we employ to achieve our performance goals in part I.

What is my position on motor skill expertise?

My position or my “stance” on this topic is based on Ecological Psychology. According to Jacobs and Michaels (2007), motor skill expertise is “the functional relationship between an individual organism and its environment, characterized by attunement to relevant perceptual variables and the concomitant calibration of actions.” Attunement being perceptually sensitive to the most specifying informational variables for achieving a task goal.

  • Skilled individuals are connected to their environment and the information within it. NOT disconnected from it and acting independent of the information within it.
  • Skilled performers are highly sensitized to the most specifying information in their environment through direct perception and adjust or adapt their action according to that information.
  • Skilled performers perceive to act and act to perceive (Gibson, 1979).
  • Skilled performers interact with the existing constraints and organize their actions according to how they are connecting to that information within their environment.

If this is motor skill expertise, what are the implications for me as a coach? In other words, what is my role and what are my responsibilities for helping athletes become motor skill experts?

  1. Design representative tasks/problems to be solved by the learner. Tasks or problems can be thought of as an “assignment” or “hurdle”. Include information and movement:
  • Functionality. Perceptual information that is available for pick-up in the game is similar to the information presented in practice tasks. This information is scaled and based on a few factors (Msyzka & Yearby, 2019).
  • Action Fidelity. Actions are practiced in full/whole versus in parts. Actions accurately reflect those in the game (Msyzka & Yearby, 2019).The main idea is that skills are more likely to transfer to the game context if the practice context is identical (Krause et al., 2017).

2. Direct learning of attention, intention and calibration by manipulating constraints  (Msyzka & Yearby, 2019). Once we have represented the performance environment, we want to educate the individual’s attention (attending), intention (determining) and calibration (adjusting) by manipulating constraints. Direct learning is guiding the attunement or pick-up of information that is available in the designed representative task  (Msyzka & Yearby, 2019). Constraint manipulation directs an individual’s attention to relevant variables and invites opportunities for regulating action. Repetitions are variable or differential to promote attunement, calibration, and recalibration. We have to be careful with constraints and the information they can connect to, we do not want to direct individuals to irrelevant information or create a dependency on them.

Before we can holistically represent the performance environment, the information within it, and properly constrain to afford, we need to know what exactly it is that we are trying to represent and exactly what information is most specific to hitting.

Where to search to find the right problem?

There might be all kinds of ways to answer this question. My search was delimited to or focused only on information about the pitcher. These technologies can provide informative information about the problem(s) hitters may face in competition.

  • TrackMan: What can this tool tell me that could help represent the game environment in practice? The pitch characteristics of pitched balls by the average, below league average and above league average Division I pitcher.
  • Synergy: Information about the pitcher’s kinematics and pitch tendencies can be taken from this source. Kinematic information may include anything specific to his pitching delivery such as the rocker step or arm action. Tendencies may include information specific to pitch type and location frequencies per count and per batter handiness. Pairing this information with TrackMan can help you prepare for the opposing team’s pitchers in the upcoming week/weekend. Similar to representing the opposing team’s Quarterback in scout team offense.
  • Rapsodo: For organizations that do not have TrackMan, use Rapsodo Pitching to help represent the similar types of pitchers your hitters face. Take the pitch characteristics data and combine it with his kinematics. Have the one throwing overhand in batting practice to throw according to that information.

If we do not find and create the right problems, our hitters will likely not find the right solutions or never meet their fullest potential.

What is the right problem to be solved by Division I hitters?

Below is the TrackMan and Synergy data that I have decided to share from the 2019 Division I baseball season.

Pitch Tracking Basics

Rel Height Rel Side Extension
RHP 5.9’ 1.7’ 6.2’
LHP 5.9’ -1.9’ 6.1’

Division I Fastball Characteristics

RelSpeed Spin Rate Tilt IndVertBreak HorzBreak
RHP 89.3 2129.84 1:00 14.63″ 8.42″
LHP 87.6 2127.86 11:00 15.76″ -11.68″

Division I Curveball Characteristics

RelSpeed Spin Rate Tilt IndVertBreak HorzBreak
RHP 76.0 2287.98 8:30 -3.27 -12.06”
LHP 74.8 2291.21 5:00 -6.42” 7.63”

Division I Slider Characteristics

RelSpeed Spin Rate Tilt IndVertBreak HorzBreak
RHP 81.1 2288.16 10:00 2.89” -4.48”
LHP 78.4 2261.48 2:15 1.44” 3.52”

Division I Changeup Characteristics

RelSpeed Spin Rate Tilt IndVertBreak HorzBreak
RHP 80.3 1734.65 1:30 9.72” 11.05”
LHP 78.0 1570.52 10:30 10.37” -11.20”

Good pitching is hard to hit. We don’t see Average pitching in every plate appearance.

The problem for Division I hitters on average is what you see above. This is what we want to represent in practice, not drills that decouple perception and action. We want it to have functionality and action fidelity. How would you describe this problem? I would describe it as difficult, dynamic and variable. As a hitting coach, this is how I want to spend most of my time with hitters, not in drills isolated from the game environment. This difficult, dynamic and variable problem is what I want my hitters to solve, not a decontextualized drill missing key perceptual information. Additionally, this is only the ‘league average’ problem. We don’t see average pitching in every plate appearance.

If we are not trying to solve these problems, how can hitters possibly learn how to become skilled hitters?

What information is present in the problem?

What information about the pitcher can be used against him? In essence what information can hitters become attuned to exploit? Pinder, Renshaw, and Davids said it well in their 2009 cricket batsman study, “It has become clear how performers can exploit information to regulate action from movements of other players.” For example, a hitter attuning to a pitcher tipping his pitches by where he holds his hands.

The perceptual information has been delimited to the pitcher. TrackMan and Synergy are excellent tools that can be used for designing functionality and fidelity in tasks (i.e. visual information). TrackMan and synergy objectively tells us about some of the most specifying visual information within the performance environment that is used for specifying action.These include but not limited to:

  1. Perceptual Information before release, specific to the pitcher’s kinematics:
    • Glove digging*
    • Height of hands*
    • Emotions*
    • Arm action*
    • Arm speed*
    • Hand Position on ball at release*
    • Release Height (TrackMan)
    • Release Side (TrackMan)
    • Extension (TrackMan)
    • More…

  1. Perceptual Information after release, specific to the pitched ball:
    • Release speed
    • Tilt
    • Spin (4S, 2S, CB, SL, CB, CH, etc.)
    • Spin rate
    • Induced Vertical Break
    • Horizontal Break
    • More…

*Information not in TrackMan

This information is vital to representing the game in practice but does it tell us all the information about the game environment? Not quite. Other perceptual information about the game environment that specifies affordances such as defensive positioning, lighting, weather and more are not discussed in this blog but you get the idea.

What information is most specifying to hitters?

The answer to this question can likely be found in the research on the gaze behavior of expert hitters. Kato and Fukuda (2002) found that skilled hitters focused their attention to a smaller area of the pitcher’s movements indicating that specifying information contributes to expert performance. Simply, if one’s attention and intention has been directed to the most relevant information, the achievement of performance goals are more likely. Unfortunately, the baseball community does not know exactly how hitters track pitched balls but when we find out, there will be significant implications on Motor Learning. We have limited scientific evidence to confirm what informational variables are higher-order variables.

From an ecological framework perspective, directing a hitter’s attention and intention to characteristics of the pitcher’s kinematics before release such as arm slot or characteristics about the pitched ball after release such as spin could potentially enhance one’s batting performance. The question then becomes, how do we design constraints that direct a hitter’s attention and intention to these variables? I have ideas about how this may be possible and will share a couple of them in the next blog.

“A movement is correct when it perfectly fits a motor problem just as a key easily opens a lock.” Nikolai Bernstein

What is the right solution to the right problem?

According to Siff and Verkhoshansky (2009), “sport is a problem-solving activity in which movements are used to produce the necessary solutions.”A solution is one in which motor behavior fits the motor problem. The motor problem is dynamic and variable and if the motor problem is dynamic and variable then so should be our solutions. Like a swiss army knife, we want hitters to express attunement, adjustability, and dexterity under any set of circumstances. Not only can they solve any problems, they can solve a single problem in multiple ways.

To be more specific, solutions are those that can adjust to any form of league pitching. No matter the pitcher and pitch characteristics, the hitter’s batted-balls meet our goals mentioned in Part I of this series. Hitter expresses motor skill expertise in that context by attending to the relevant information (the pitchers kinematics, pitched ball characteristics, his bat, etc.) within the problem and organizes their movement in a way that produces the desired batted balls. Given the nuances of the performance environment, they express the ability to calibrate and recalibrate to the pitcher and pitch characteristics. That skilled movement emerges through the interaction of constraints, perception and action. The more an athlete is exposed to information that will be available for pick-up in the game (through representative task design in practice), the more attuned they will be to the information found in the game. This helps with the development of relevant information-movement couplings, which helps the athlete to solve problems in adaptive and creative ways.

“The highest technique is to have no technique. My technique is a result of your technique; my movement is a result of your movement.” Bruce Lee

I am not against technique nor am I disregarding biomechanical truths about the swing. There are swing characteristics that I believe to FIT well in the game environment. What I am opposed to is the teaching of technique outside of the context of the game. As I have highlighted, my approach is to facilitate movement by representing the game and manipulating constraints. It is here where hitters learn how to move and when to move. Movement emerges according to the problem, the information that they are connecting to and their action capabilities. Context gives meaning to movement.

This blog post was intended to briefly answer the questions listed above. A big shoutout and thank you to good friends like Chad, Tyler Yearby and Garrett Boyum for their assistance in putting this together! If you are interested in learning more about Ecological Dynamics and the application of this theoretical framework in your sport context, you can click here to find their most recent course called “Underpinnings”. In the next blog I will answer questions like, “How I represent the performance environment in practice” and “How I direct learning by manipulating constraints.”

Reflective Questions:

  1. What is your view of sport movement skill?
  2. How does your view of sport movement skill influence the way you coach?
  3. What problems are your hitters trying to solve?
  4. How are you helping them solve those problems?

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References

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Jacobs, D, and Michaels, C. (2007). Direct Learning. Ecological Psychology.

Krause, L., Farrow, D., Machar, R., Buszar, T., Pinder, R. (2017). Helping coaches apply the principles of representative learning design: validation of a tennis specific practice assessment tool. Psychology of Sport and Exercise

Kato, T., Fukunda, T. (2002). Visual search strategies of baseball batters: eye movements during the preparatory phase of batting. Perceptual Motor Skills. 94(2):380-6.

Myszka, S., Yearby, T. (2019). Underpinnings: Concepts that live and breath within an ecological dynamics framework. Emergence. https://emergentmvmt.com/underpinnings/

Pinder, R. A., Renshaw, I., & Davids, K. (2009). Information–movement coupling in developing cricketers under changing ecological practice constraints. Human Movement Science, 28(4), 468–479.

Siff, M, and Verkhoshansky, Y. (2009). Supertraining.

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