Training and Transfer (Part III) 

Coaching Absolutes
By Dave Turgeon

In Training and Transfer Part II, we discussed on how to add layers to the simple applications to take your on-field training to another level by allowing players to engage in deeper learning and more ownership skills. In the final part, we will discuss the final and critical aspects on how to educate our players.


There was a study done in 1994 by Hall, Dominguez, and Cavazos entitled “Contextual Interference Effects With Skilled Baseball Players” that shows the benefits of Random vs Block training but before we get into it lets clarify what this is. A great example of Block Training is traditional batting practice. You get a set number of same speed and soft pitches out over the middle of the plate. You know what pitch is coming and to a high degree what speed and location as well. If you know what is coming and where it is coming to, the pitch recognition and decision-making involved in true hitting (like in a game) has been eliminated. Basically, the player is on autopilot and it is swing practice as opposed to hitting practice. Another example of Block Training could be traditional ground ball work. The old “5 right at them, 5 to their left and 5 to their right” routine tells the defender where the ball is going and that it is definitely coming to them. The part of having to read a ball off a bat that may or may not come to them and not having knowledge of where or how hard has been removed. The equation of what is the speed of the ball, the speed of the runner, and “where will I go with this ball” has been removed. Essentially it is skill practice of fielding and throwing a ball only. Now, how could we turn each one of these into a random training session? The batting practice can become random by simply mixing in off-speed pitches and changing locations of those pitches as well as throwing balls out of the strike zone on purpose. By this one change, the batter now has to read and recognize the type of pitch and make a decision on whether to swing or not. The one adjustment got the hitter one foot out of the zoo and one foot into the jungle. To turn the defensive segment from block to random, we now hit the ground balls to any infielder at any time, so the fielder has to be engaged even though the ball may or may not come to him. Add to this a stopwatch of runner’s speed now every groundball (balls are hit anywhere and everywhere) has a speed of ball and speed of runner component to it. Decision making and problem-solving as opposed to mindless skill work have now been achieved. We have gone from zoo to jungle with one simple adjustment. The greatest example I have heard on this was laid out by colleague and friend Andy Bass. In a PowerPoint presentation on “Action Reconstruction” (motor learning term), he asked all of us to solve the math equation he flashed on the board. The math problem was 21 divided by 3, to which we all answered 7. He then flashes the same problem 6 more times to which the answers were quick and easy as expected. He then goes to another block of math problems only this time, every problem is different. The problems were easy but each different. Examples like 12 divided by 2, 18 divided by 9, 12 divided by 3, etc. It was blatantly obvious that the speed at which the problems were solved was quick but markedly slower than the first block. The second block of problems forced us to recognize each problem before solving it in a completely random fashion.  Just like the game! Baseball is constant problem solving done with athletic movements, so we need to practice this all the time. The math exercise is actually much easier than the game because we have more parts to the equations in the game and the added pressure of competition, crowds, weather, and many other moving parts that impact the execution of any and all plays. Our training methods will determine whether or not we are developing good problem solvers or not. Now to put some meat on the bone here let’s break down this study I mentioned earlier. 

The study involves 3 groups of hitters. The first group only does block training in the context of the team practice. The second group does block training the same as the first group but is given extra hitting beyond what the first group did. The third group is trained in a random fashion and is given additional training like group 2 but their additional training is random as well. The study showed as follows: Group 1 improved 6.2 percent, Group 2 improved 24.8 percent, and Group 3 improved 56.7 percent. Now given the small sample size and add in the human element these numbers could be skewed in measuring the actual transfer into games. It still jumps out at me so dramatically that it cannot be ignored. It shows there is value in block practice and that you will improve but more importantly it shows we are lowering the bar of transfer if we train only this way. Get out of the zoo and get in the jungle!


“Observational Learning” is another way we learn and create the transfer. A great example of this would be how a baby learns how to walk. We do not coach our kids up and comment on their gate or foot strike, we simply encourage them to get back up. The child is building strength and at the same time figuring out how to walk. Classic watch and do learning. I think back at how I learned things in the game I probably “watched” more than I “did.” I had 6 older siblings that I watched and learned from on a daily basis. I watched baseball on television. I was a bat boy on multiple teams. Thousands of visual reps allowed me to learn and eventually transfer my skills to the game. Colleague Andy Bass broke down this concept to me in an interesting study done by Gaby Wulf. They had one group shoot 30 free throws and another group shoot 15 and observe another 15. The observation group practiced half as many shots. When they brought the groups back for retention and transfer testing the observation group was as good as the first group in retention but even better during the transfer test! The study suggests that having athletes observe while also practicing will deepen learning and processing. Now, discussing this with Andy made my creative juices flow. Obviously, this happens organically in batting practice and defensive practice as the off infielders or hitters are watching others perform the tasks. And educating our players will make them more intentional in watching the off reps. I thought we could be more intentional with this, so we came up with bunting and hitting montages with lots of different bunters and hitters for off hitters to watch on a computer between rounds. I found the most difference with the bunters in terms of speed of learning and will continue to push this concept of learning and transfer. Besides all of these benefits, it is also creating reps that will not wear the body down. In a professional season, the reps mount and the energy wanes over a long season. This is a great way to create and deepen skills and create transfer while saving energy.  


How we create and develop skills into our players will largely impact how they are able to let them out in a game setting. Step one for us as coaches is that we will need to surrender some of our thinking to move our training forward. Remember, even after Christopher Columbus discovered the world was not flat and for many years after there were those who went to their grave believing it was flat still. Baseball teachers let’s adopt the mantra “truth over tradition!” There is a ton of low hanging fruit out there that will force players to Respect The Rep such as demanding it and letting players know the goal and expectation of whatever work you will be doing at that time. The next big one would be creating a challenging work environment that in and of itself requires a player to have focus and intent on every rep which will, in turn, create the transfer. Add the layer of competition and scoring will create the focus we are also looking for. This leads us to a huge one of Training to the Truth. This simply means we are training and making decisions at least to the speed of the game with whatever we are doing. Traditional baseball training is famous for crawling and walking in the workday and then wondering why we cannot run well at game time. Which leads us to Training Beyond the Truth. Shrinking down workspaces to create an even faster decision-making process is a great way of speeding up the game in order to slow the game down for them come game time. Although this make gets messy at times, we have to understand how messy learning can look and be ok with this. If the work is clean, they “have it” and need more challenge and different looks! A couple of new techniques that are big on developing a deeper learning and more transfer is having the players teach different parts of the game. I have heard so many times you never really get to know something until you have taught it and this is true. They are so much more engaged in the work it is amazing! The terms of Random vs Block Training are the latest buzzwords out there in our training and without getting bogged down with scientific definitions just think in terms of zoo vs jungle. You really get more of what you train. Observational learning may be the lowest hanging fruit in this whole discussion. Let’s not forget this is how we learn best. That said I find it critical that we educate our players on why we are training the way we are and that it works. The big hurdle you will face is fewer success rates and more messiness in the workday and players not “feeling” good all the time. The simple question I pose to players is this. Would you rather “feel good” in practice every day or “perform” come game time? The answer will be performed of course and then we must continue to educate them on how we learn, what it looks like, and how we are going to train to get them to perform. This education and the selling of the training is all pivotal on one thing. Does the player trust you? We have hit this element before in that the foundation of all coaching comes back to our ability to connect and develop our relationships with our players. 


• Drop ball ground ball work. Groundballs that are hit off a flip from another coach and randomly done. The defender can get rhythm and timing off of the flipper. Add a stopwatch to this you are now training reps where the ball is not hit to them. The 12-15 seconds between reps now comes into play as it does in the game. This becomes a drill in being present for every pitch. 

• Training in 10-minute blocks is something that I have played with more and more. The ebb and flow of offense and defense are like this and I have mimicked this in the training with good success come game time. This is jungle training while training to the truth of the game.

•More low hanging fruit in creating a work environment: Remove the turtle for batting practice. Do we hit with one in the game? Hitting with a helmet on at all times. Practicing in pants/uniform.  Think of how differently you feel wearing shorts and a t-shirt vs wearing a tuxedo to a function? Wearing pants also allows us to include the fundamental art of sliding into our jungle work. What we wear impacts the mind and the environment. Using music to create a more chaotic environment and make them more reliant on their eyes and reading situations rather than verbal communication. It also puts our brain in a better state to learn as well as create energy.
•Baserunning work is done with a complete defensive shell. The machine at home and runners at different bases are given the number of outs and the inning. The machine fires balls into random parts of the field either on a line or high in the air. The defense is forced to be in spots and make reads and the baserunners are making reads based off of information and real jungle environment. Plays are competed, and slides are in play. With all the decisions and reads that are going on this would qualify as a Fundamedley in the Jungle! The possibilities you can add to this are limitless.

•Pitching PFP should be done randomly and with a stopwatch. Instead of doing things in order like cover plays, comebackers, and fielding bunts do all of them out of order and with a different situation called out. You now have reading and decision making as part of the training. Better yet you could have some element of this while performing a bullpen session with counts and a coach in the box with a fungo. Sometimes balls being put in play and a pitcher being forced to run to cover a base or field a bunt and then return to pitch just as they do in a game. The heart rate going up just as it does in the game simulating stress to the work.
Put them in the jungle as much as you can to create a ROBUST learning environment and then, in the end, help them make sense of it. This involves question asking and feedback and allowing them to search for and give answers.

Turgeon is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is the Coordinator of Instruction for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Turgeon played in the New York Yankees farm system from 1987-1990 under Stump Merrill and Buck Showalter after being drafted out of Davidson College. Before playing for the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA affiliate in 1998 he spent eight years playing abroad. From 2000-2001 Turgeon began coaching in the Cleveland Indians organization before entering the college ranks where he coached with Boston College, the University of Connecticut, Duke University and Virginia Tech.