Perfect Practice Makes Perfect Sense in a Perfect World

Posted: June 25, 2013 in Baseball, Softball
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When I was younger, around 10 or 11, I remember always hearing my Little League coaches say “practice makes perfect.” Sometime around 1998, the phrase morphed into “PERFECT practice makes perfect,” because practicing like garbage clearly isn’t going to positively impact your game, but if you practice having perfect form and giving 100% on every rep, you will move along the line in the long, slow trudge towards perfection. Now obviously, perfection is not really attainable. Therefore, there is no such thing as “perfect practice.” But there is something to be said for maintaining a certain level of purpose and concentration during practice, as repetition will contribute to establishing muscle memory and thoughtless good mechanics. If you have to think about what you’re doing during a throw or swing, your attention will be divided and your performance will suffer as a result. By performing thousands of reps with good mechanics, you build a base of muscle memory so that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing.

So what happened at my Little League practices after our coach had just finished telling us about the importance of perfect practice? We went into the outfield to throw knuckleballs at each other during warmups. Of course.

And that didn’t stop with Little League. In high school I would always screw around with throwing different pitches with my teammates in warmups. Keep in mind the fact that I was not even a pitcher, let alone a knuckleballer, so there was a 0.0% chance I would ever throw a knuckleball, slider, or changeup in competition. Was snapping off curveballs and burying splitters in the outfield grass during warmups productive? About as productive as imitating Tony Batista’s catastrophe of a baseball swing in the batting cage, which I also did from time to time.

I can't even imagine the amount of trial-and-error that must have taken place to lead to this.

I can’t even imagine the amount of trial-and-error that must have taken place to lead to this.

Eventually I wised up and significantly reduced the amount of grabassery present in my warmups and practice sessions, but I would still buckle my throwing partner’s knees with an unexpected knuckler from time to time just to keep things loose.

" you just hold it like this and then throw at as hard as you can at your throwing partner without warning. It's hilarious."

“…so you just hold it like this and then throw at as hard as you can at your throwing partner without warning. It’s hilarious.”

The bottom line is no matter how much you (or I) yell at young athletes to take practice seriously, there will always be those times when they don’t. And I’ve come to realize that this is O.K. some of the time. People aren’t robots. If you try to turn an athlete into  Practice-Bot 4000 there’s a good chance he’ll get sick of his sport in a hurry. That said, there needs to be a well-struck balance between having fun and goofing off, and flipping the switch and going into “I’m at work” mode. Because that’s really what practice is; it’s work. Let’s not kid ourselves. Hitting a baseball is fun, but when you do it 1,000 times a day, even the most baseball-loving kids will get sick of it eventually. This holds true for any sport or activity. The amount of mental focus one needs to take 1,000 mechanically perfect swings every day is enough to drive a person to mental exhaustion, if not insanity.

Would I like to see the young athletes I train and coach go through their practices with 100% focus on everything they do? Hell yes I would. Like I said, the more you perform a movement, the more you ingrain that movement in your muscle memory. But it’s just unrealistic to expect kids to have that kind of focus. Collegiate and professional athletes can do that, but most kids just can’t.

But even though I know I’m never going to see kids take practice 100% seriously the way most collegiate and professional athletes do, I still make sure that they realize the importance of everything they do during practice. You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule that states that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. Over the course of 10 years of competition (assuming an athlete starts playing a sport at age 8 and plays through high school), all those practice throws add up and contribute to that 10,000 hour goal. One theory about why so many draft picks come from places like Florida and California is the fact that it’s warm year-round in those parts, which allows athletes to play more baseball games and have more practices than their baseball brethren up North. More reps leads to more well-honed skills.

I’ve found the best approach to take with younger athletes is to let them know that you expect them to focus and work hard while in practice, but keep in mind that there’s a 100% chance that they’ll forget about this from time to time. And while you might not want to see kids dropping down and trying out a sidearm motion during warmups, one time isn’t really going to hurt them. If kids are constantly half-assing it, however, they should be reprimanded. But blowing kids up for having a little fun once in a while isn’t super wise. You have to learn to pick your battles. Otherwise you’ll end up with a bunch of kids with an Allen Iverson complex, and nobody wants that.



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