This Batting Practice Experiment Exposes Our False Assumptions About Learning

Batting practice

Batting practice is one of the most humdrum parts of baseball. Players step up to home plate and hit the standard sets of fastballs, curveballs, and change-ups. “It’s a pregame ritual that is far older than most teams that engage in it,” writes the New York Times.

Yet for all its tradition, advances in cognitive science and innovations in sports show that teams are going about batting practice in the wrong way. While the standard approach is to take the same pitch until you’ve mastered it, like you might reread a paragraph until you understand it, research shows that you need to vary your inputs to get the most learning possible.

As authors Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel argue in “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” this misapprehension reveals our cultural misunderstanding of how learning really works.

First, let’s take a moment to appreciate how much knowledge goes into hitting a pitch. It’s one of the hardest skills in sports, the authors write, since it takes half a second or less for a ball to reach home plate.

In that half-second, the batter must mix a cocktail of perceptual, cognitive, and motor skills to connect bat with ball, such as:

• Determining the type of pitch

• Anticipating the ball’s movement

• Aiming and timing the swing to meet the ball in the exact same place and moment

“The chain of perceptions and responses must be so deeply entrenched as to become automatic,” the authors write, “because the ball is in the catcher’s mitt long before you can even begin to think your way through how to connect with it.”

A recent experiment in batting practice by the team at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, showed how the conventional method of training these skills gets it all wrong.

As part of the experiment, players took two extra batting sessions a week using two different approaches.

One group did the standard practice of 45 pitches divided into three sets: 15 fastballs followed by 15 curveballs followed by 15 change-ups.

“For each set of 15 pitches, as the batter saw more of that type, he got gratifyingly better at anticipating the balls, timing his swings, and connecting,” the authors write. “Learning seemed easy.”

The other group mixed it up: three types of pitches were randomly distributed across the whole 45 throw session.

“For each pitch, the batter had no idea what to expect,” the authors write, noting that players were still having a tough time connecting by the end of the 45-pitch session. “These players didn’t seem to be developing the proficiency their teammates were showing. The interleaving and spacing of different pitches made learning arduous and feel slower.”

After six weeks of training in this way, both groups were evaluated for their hitting effectiveness.

Guess who did better? The group that faced randomly distributed pitches — and struggled more during practice.

There are two big lessons to be taken:

Tactics that force you to slow down and struggle actually produce more durable learning.

• Just because practice feels easy doesn’t mean that you’re actually getting durably better at the skill; it might just be an illusion of mastery.

The “Make It Stick” authors explain what’s going on here:

When the players “practiced curveball after curveball over fifteen pitches, it became easier for them to remember the perceptions nad responses they needed for that type of pitch: the look of the ball’s spin, how the ball changed direction, how fast its direction changed, and how long to wait for it to curve. Performance improved, but the growing ease of recalling these perceptions and responses led to little durable learning. It’s one skill to hit a curveball when you know a curveball will be thrown, it’s different skill to hit a curveball when you don’t know it’s coming.”

To actually master a subject or learn how to hit a pitch reliably, the authors argue that you need to give yourself “desirable difficulties” in learning. You don’t just reread the same text again and again, you teach yourself how to recognise and recall information, which feels harder in the moment but produces better results over the long-term, whether you’re hitting curveballs or studying for the LSAT.

Because, as the research shows, that’s how you turn temporary understanding into long-term knowledge.