Baseball and the Brain

Its April, so that means baseball diamonds all over the country are filling up with teams getting ready for another season. Pitching, fielding and batting skills are being tested, evaluated and trained. So, this is a logical place to start to dig into the theory, teachings and tips of three of the technical skills area I mentioned in the Sports Cognition Framework. As I've mentioned before, I'm learning as I go and rely heavily on the books and papers I read on these topics. This look at baseball is no exception.
At the top of my baseball list is "The Psychology of Baseball" by Mike Stadler, published by Gotham Books. Mike, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Missouri, does a great job of combining baseball stories with the cognitive theories used to explain his favorite sport. I highly recommend it.
Here's my game plan for this "World Series" of posts:
Part 1 - Pitching/Throwing: Pitching a 3" diameter baseball 46 feet (for Little League) or 60 feet, 6 inches over a target that is 8 inches wide requires an accuracy of 1/2 to 1 degree. Throwing it fast, with the pressure of a game situation makes this task one of the hardest in sports. In addition, a fielder throwing to another fielder from 40, 60 or 150 feet away, sometimes off balance or on the run, tests the brain-body connection for accuracy.
Part 2 - Hitting: As Ted Williams claimed many times, hitting a baseball thrown at 90+ MPH that may dip, curve or go in a straight line is "the hardest" sport skill in sports. As we'll see, its all about estimating speed and timing, with calculations far too difficult to be consciously calculated in the very short window of time between the pitcher's release and the ball crossing the plate (.4 to .6 seconds)
Part 3 - Fielding: Before the right fielder can make that deadly accurate throw to third base to nab the runner, he must first catch the flyball hit 50 feet to his right and slightly behind, with a swirling wind changing the fight path of the ball, while running across the field while keeping his eyes on the ball. Again, the eye-brain-muscular connection must make on the fly calculations to get that glove in the exact spot where the ball will land. Most of the time it seems so routine that we don't think of the effort involved. Other times, we are amazed at how a major league player, who has caught thousands of fly balls in his life can make the occassional error. Of course, at the Little League level, errors are more common. We'll learn that practice does improve performance over time, I would like to know how. And, once we understand the learning process, can we design better practices and teach better techniques to speed up that player's skill level.