The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mimic as “to imitate closely.” Many people think of mimicking with a negative connotation. They think of somebody making fun of another person by impersonating them. But that is a very limited application of the word mimic. Mimicking is actually a great thing and is something we have all done innately since we were born. As a baby you learned to walk and talk by mimicking those around you. Think back to elementary school when you were being taught to write cursive. How did your teacher teach you to make those letters? I know in my class we were each handed small chalkboards and would copy the letter that the teacher wrote on the chalkboard at the front of class—which was essentially learning by mimicking. In fact, mimicking is one of the best and most effective ways to learn and we employ the method in all aspects of life.

Research has shown that people can learn complex movements by first watching others perform the same complex movement. When individuals observe the movements of others they actually stimulate the same brain circuitry responsible for executing that movement in their own actions. Therefore, by watching others move in an efficient way it can more quickly allow for the person watching to move in a similarly efficient way. Since research has shown it is effective, and we employ this method of learning throughout all stages of life, it seems like a no-brainer that it could be useful in training athletes. But somehow this method of learning is under-utilized when it comes to learning complex athletic movements.

How often do we teach athletes to perform a task by having them first watch an elite athlete perform the same task? Perhaps we have people familiar with an exercise demonstrate how to do it first, and this does teach by mimicking to a degree, but in all likelihood that person is not one we want to truly emulate in terms of their athleticism. If you were learning how to sprint would you learn more about how to move your body while running by watching me run a 100 meter sprint (I’m not known for speed in case you were wondering) or would you gain more by watching Usain Bolt sprint down the track? Of course you would learn more from Bolt because he has learned how to move efficiently in order to get as much speed out of his running motion as possible, but this is not the way we train many athletes. Coaches and trainers too often try to teach a movement by talking, essentially telling an athlete how he should move during a certain exercise, or maybe even by showing pictures of certain positions that should be reached during the movement (especially the hitting and pitching motions), but this conveys little benefit when it comes to the athlete actually being able to then make those same movements.

We have numerous examples of mimicking creating exceptional athletes if we only think about it. How many professional athletes have parents who were also gifted athletes in their own right? Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr, Cal Jr and Billy Ripken, and Prince Fielder just to name a few. And that short list is just a sampling from baseball. You could certainly look to football, basketball, and track and field to find more examples. If we dispense with the “freak” theory, which we should because it’s a cop-out, then it shouldn’t really be too surprising that there are so many second-generation professional athletes. As children, people like Bonds and Griffey were able to watch day in and day out major league hitters take batting practice and work on their swings. Therefore, everyday Bonds and Griffey were stimulating their brain circuitry by watching professional hitters swing the bat. By the time they picked up the bat to swing it themselves, they already had visions of athletes to mimic running through their brains, and unlike most of us, they were mimicking the best swings in the game.

I know when I was young and learning to hit I wasn’t watching other elite athletes swing in order to learn how to do so myself. Instead, I simply ended up teaching myself with instruction from my dad. This was more in the form of verbal instructions and learning by feel, which are both helpful, but don’t help teach the body complex movements as well as watching the movement be performed by the best in the world. It is really no wonder why second-generation athletes have a leg up on the rest of us—they watched the complex movement patterns at a much earlier age countless times, thereby helping their brains recreate that movement when they picked up a bat.

So how can those of us who don’t have parents or siblings in the major leagues use mimicking to our advantage to teach us the complex movements needed to be successful? I would recommend that every athlete find a truly elite athlete, presumably a professional athlete, who has a similar delivery (for a pitcher), or a swing (for a hitter), and watch that athlete over and over. Watch the athlete in regular speed, watch him in slow motion, just watch the movements he makes until you can close your eyes and see his swing or delivery. Ideally, an athlete would even watch the elite player’s movement before he pitches or hits a ball—even if this would require some type of screen with him during practice to do so. At the Texas Baseball Ranch, Coach Wolforth tries to identify MLB players who have similarities with each athlete—this is easier to do than you think—and tell that player to watch that similar athlete as often as possible. This helps to ingrain in that player’s mind the complex movement that he is watching. This in turn helps to stimulate the brain circuitry for that specific movement, which over time should help the athlete to perform that movement in a more efficient manner, thereby producing better results from that complex movement.

So if you are not already mimicking a great athlete I highly suggest you begin to do so. Of course, I’m not telling you to try and make your swing or your delivery the exact same as that elite athlete. But you will in all likelihood be able to find a player who shares similarities with your swing or delivery that you can relate to. By watching that player perform his movement at a world class level it will help to improve your own movement and will help put you on the track to success.

Until next time,

Brian Oates