In a Slump? Adding Variation Can Help

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

Slumps at the plate are an inevitable part of baseball and softball. We have all seen them or experienced them. From the All-American to the bench player—everyone goes through those stretches when they couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. It is important to recognize that slumps are natural and inevitable. But what can we do as coaches to help players going through a slump?

As coaches, most of the time our natural reaction is to go physical and mechanical. “What is going wrong with the swing?” “Let’s look at video to break down where the issues are.” Let’s get in the cage and talk about what needs to change.” “Let’s try to repeat the same swing over and over again.” Unfortunately, though offered with the best intentions, these mechanical suggestions and blocked drills are just not helpful.

Why not? First, we know that the most effective learning occurs with variation not repetition. It is physically impossible to repeat a movement pattern (Bernstein's Repetition without Repetition). We learn most effectively when we engage in variation not repetition. We are not asking our body to do the impossible: replicating a movement. We are asking it to address the same problem (making contact with the baseball) using numerous different methods (swinging from different stances, different velocities of pitch, location, etc.).

Second, and most important to the idea of a slump, is that variation helps the player “get out of his own head.” How many times have we heard the complaint, “I’m so in my head right now, I don’t know how to get out?” This is paralysis by analysis. When we ask our players to perform significant variations of their “normal” hitting stances, different areas of their brain engage and others disengage. Because these stances require different ways to stay balanced in order to make contact with the ball the vestibular system (responsible for balance) and dorsal stream (visual system responsible for balance) are kicked into high gear. Because these areas are engaged to a greater level, the player’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for conscious thought, has to disengage slightly. The variation helps drown out the conscious thoughts and the player begins to “get out of his own head.” (See generally Hypofrontality Hypothesis.)

Remember the variation is to help the athlete mentally work through a slump. It is not a corrective skill as we are NOT asking them to then go into a game and swing from these different stances. Ask players to swing from different stances in the cage (thrown ball, not off a tee”). Feet slightly closed, slightly open, very open, closer together, further apart, off one foot, criss-crossed, etc. Just ask them to have fun with it. For 10-20 swings ask them to try and hit the ball using a different stance each time.

Slumps will happen—it is inevitable. As coaches we want to do what we can to help players work through those slumps as quickly as possible. We should avoid going mechanical or trying to tinker with them physically (nobody just suddenly forgets how to swing a bat). What can help them get back on track, and out of their own head, is to add variability into their drill work. Swinging from different stances, and even different sized and weighted bats, can help players move past the ‘paralysis by analysis’ that often accompanies slumps. There is a reason for the phrase ‘variety is the spice of life’!

Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.