Thursday, January 19, 2012

Should We Really Be Trying To “Watch the Ball”?

“Watch the ball!”

It seems like the most basic and fundamental instruction that we, as parents and coaches, tell our young players. It makes sense right? If you don’t watch the ball, you can’t hit the ball. Did you know that the average collegiate hitter only tracks the ball to within 9 feet of contact? Or, that the most skilled hitters at the highest level of the game only track the ball to within 5 feet of contact? The reason…It is physiologically impossible to “watch the ball” all the way to contact.

When tracking objects, the brain / eyes uses several different scanning mechanisms to follow and intercept a moving target. Imagine looking into the sky and seeing an airplane traveling through the clouds. The plane may be travelling at several hundred miles per hour. However, it is also thousands of feet off the ground giving the illusion that it is moving slowly through the air. We are able to clearly and efficiently visually follow the airplane in the sky because we are using our slow pursuit tracking mechanism. Now imagine standing on an interstate overpass and looking down at the cars whipping underneath. In order to follow these faster moving objects, we use what’s called a saccadic eye movement. When these objects move at speeds faster than 90 degrees per second, they get blurred and we can no longer clearly track them.

In baseball, a hitter that faces a 90mph fastball has 0.4 seconds to see the ball, decide to swing, and then initiate the swing. Unfortunately, a baseball pitch travels at approximately 1000 degrees per second. Obviously, this is significantly greater than the eyes can physiologically track a ball using the saccadic tracking method. So, in order to help prevent blurring and attempt to follow objects at these much higher velocities, the brain / eyes use what is called a jump saccade eye movement. During a jump saccade, the picture input literally “turns off” while the eyes move to the next focal point and then “turn on”. The problem with this is that once the eyes “turn back on”, the ball has moved again. So, in theory, you’re not seeing the ball, you’re seeing where the ball used to be. This explains why even elite level hitters cannot track the ball all the way to contact. They are literally “watching behind the ball”.

In my practice and training of athletes over the years, I’ve developed a teaching method to help hitters learn to track “in front” of the ball. By understanding, the role of the visual system in hitting performance, athletes are able to have a clearer, earlier picture of the baseball giving them better pitch recognition, understanding of the strike zone, and more quality contact.

David Yeager, ATC, CSCS

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