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Specificity and Skill Instruction

On ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, Fernando Vina broke down the skills of St. Louis Cardinals 2nd Baseman Skip Schumacher. Schumacher was an outfielder who moved to 2nd base, and Vina showed several clips to illustrate his smooth transition.

On the last clip, he showed Schumacher getting into a baseball position as the pitcher threw to home plate. They spotlighted Schumacher in the background behind the pitcher.

It was a line drive in the hole between the 1st baseman and the 2nd baseman which Schumacher fielded several steps onto the outfield grass.

Vina explained that Schumacher did a great job because he got into good position and then he took his first step toward the outfield. However, that depends on perspective.

However, as they showed the clip in slow motion, Schumacher used a hip turn on contact. On the hip turn, he did not take his first step toward the outfield; if anything, his right foot (he turned to move to his left, so his right foot was his trail foot) moved away from the outfield.

Now, Vina was correct. His footwork was excellent. However, when I illustrate the same footwork in a basketball context, some coaches dislike that my foot moved slightly away from my intended destination – the dreaded “false” step.

The problem with sports instruction is that two people can view the same movement and one (who naturally does the movement) sees a move toward the proper direction because the player turns his hips and pushes off in the direction of his movement with a hip turn, while another (one who favors a pivot not a hip turn) sees a negative or false step.

In truth, both are incorrect. When Vina said that his first step was to the outfield, I quickly disagreed. However, the hip turn is not a false step. Instead, Vina should have explained that on contact, Schmuacher immediately reacted to the flight of the ball and positioned his body to chase down the line drive and make the catch. Explaining the hip turn is probably beyond the scope of the :10 clip on ESPN, but until we describe actions consistently, we will struggle to teach skills consistently well.

A young coach may watch the Vina clip and hear Vina say that the 2nd baseman’s first step needs to be to the outfield and rather than teach the hip turn, he could reason that a pivot and step is the proper move. Therefore, the “expert” accidentally teaches a slower technique to the young coach – and his players – because the observation lacks specificity and consistency.

It is not Vina’s job to teach skills on Baseball Tonight though many coaches use the TV experts’ lessons. However, if the same thing happens at a clinic with an expert coach instructing hundreds of coaches – and it does – then the one coach perpetuates a less than optimal technique. How can we create an environment for better instruction when an expert coach perpetuates an old-fashioned technique?

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