I apologize for such a long time lapse between my last blog and this one but the last few weeks have been quite busy. The Oates took a trip to Hawaii to learn more about the Tennis and Golf Speed Chains, which Oates Specialties will begin to carry soon. We are excited about this opportunity to begin working with athletes in new sports and I will have more information about these products in upcoming blogs.

In my last blog, I discussed the importance of only focusing on the things you can control. This motto leads me to what I want to talk about in this blog: deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is something that is certainly not new, as many of the greats have done it for centuries. But, as is no surprise, most people don’t really understand what deliberate practice is all about.

I think an example is probably the best way to describe why deliberate practice sets pros apart from the rest of us. Take me as a golfer for example. I have played golf since I was around 10 or 11 years old. I love to play and do it somewhat frequently. Some days I don’t have time to play an entire round so I decide to head out to the driving range to hit a bucket or two of balls. I start with my pitching wedge and hit a few balls until I get a good feel and the ball has the type of flight I am accustomed to my wedge producing. Then I move to my 7 iron, then my 5 iron, then my 3, then perhaps move on to my woods and finish with my driver. I might even end up on the putting green to get a feel for the greens and my putting stroke.

I might have just spent an hour or two at the range, but how do you think my time at the range compared to Tiger Woods’ time on the range, for example. The primary difference (besides an overwhelming amount of skill and talent) was the focus and goal of my time at the range versus Tiger Woods. Do you think he goes to the range just to get a “good feel” for striking the ball? Do you think he just wants to move through his clubs so that he can say he is hitting the ball cleanly with each of them? Of course not. Tiger goes to the driving range with a specific goal in mind and tries to execute or reach that goal with EACH swing he takes. Brian Oates on the range is probably not thinking about much of anything other than to not top the ball and embarrass himself.

Both Brian and Tiger could have spent the exact same amount of time “practicing,” but they did so with completely different intent and, as a result, they will over time receive completely different results from such practice. This extra focus that Tiger had during his time at the range, where he had a specific intent with each swing of his golf club—whether it was to shape the ball a certain way, land the ball at a certain spot, or create a certain amount or type of spin when it landed—that is deliberate practice.

Now let’s transition back to a typical baseball practice. Take a pitcher who is about to long toss for example. He goes out there and begins to throw with his partner and as he loosens up he backs up slowly until he reaches 300 feet. Each time he goes to throw the baseball he should have some kind of goal. Maybe it is to throw the ball to his partner’s chest. Perhaps it is really work on the deceleration of his arm and make sure his torso continues rotating so that his arm never straightens out. Or maybe today his goal is to throw further and harder than ever before. The problem is, though, that most pitchers think of little (if anything) during the 20-30 minutes they spend stretching it out. I know there were plenty of times in high school and college when I was throwing that I was as close to brain dead as a human being could be while playing catch. There was nothing occurring in my brain as I threw. This is not the way to become the best—it’s not the way that the truly elite practice.

When you long toss, if your goal is to hit your partners chest with the ball then before every throw you should be concentrating and figuring out how you will accomplish that feat. If you miss high and to the left, your next throw should be spent concentrating on making the proper adjustment to get the ball back to your partner’s chest. The same mantra should apply when you are throwing a bullpen. You should have identified one goal (perhaps in some situations two) that you want to accomplish during that bullpen session. Is it to locate your fastball on the inside corner? Throw your breaking ball for a strike? Whatever it is, that should be a burning desire and should consume your practice time.

There are plenty of examples of deliberate practice by some of the all-time great players. Tony Gwynn, had the same batting practice routine every single day of his career. He would start the round hitting every ball to the opposite side of the field. But it was more specific than even that. His goal was to hit the ball to the opposite side of the field on the ground or on a line drive—nothing in the air. Then after he did that for his usual number of swings, he would change his goal to hitting the ball up the middle—ground balls and line drives only. That was followed by pulling balls down the right field line. Only after he had worked his way from left field to right would he then allow himself to try and truly drive the ball. He took batting practice like this every day and because of this he had a specific goal during each round of BP before each swing of what he wanted to do with the pitch. How does this compare to your average player who takes BP mindlessly swinging at balls?

Another example, is Cal Ripken, Jr. Ripken had a running game with the other infielders on the Orioles that between each inning, during the warm up throws to the 1st baseman, they would see who could throw the ball to the 1st baseman’s belt buckle the most. In fact, Ripken offered money to the winner of each inning—although story has it that he hardly ever lost the game. This is a perfect example of deliberate practice. How many infielders, especially in between innings, field the ball and just flip it over to the first baseman? A whole lot do. They don’t think much about the throw other than going through the motion because it is a type of ritual that you do between innings. Ripken, on the other hand, made this into a deliberate practice type game, making him intensely focused on each throw between innings.

Examples like these are why some players are able to perform at such a high level while others, who might be similarly as talented, do not. Now, we all know that deliberate practice is easier said than done. It takes a lot of mental focus and energy in order to ensure that you are doing everything with a pre-ordained intent and not simply going through the motions. But there are things you can do to help instill in yourself or your players to practice with deliberate intent. The primary example is to measure everything that you do. Whether it is velocity, command, the number of reps in a workout set, or the time it took to complete a sprint, if you measure it then you will know what you have to do to beat your previous best. Positions players can focus on their throwing accuracy during drills, hitters can focus on where they hit the ball like Tony Gwynn, and pitchers can do a whole number of things in and out of the bullpen. This automatically sets a goal for you to achieve and is an easy way to get you or your players to practice with the deliberate intent necessary to achieve great strides during practice.

If you can really focus on the small task at hand each day and practice with the intent to accomplish that goal then you will improve each and every day. If you don’t do that, sure you might get better, but it will be a much slower improvement with less gains. Deliberate practice is truly the key to stepping up your game to the next level. The quicker that you are able to incorporate deliberate practice into your life the sooner you will see the results.

Until next time,

Brian Oates