« Sports

So You Think You Can Hit?

by Tom King

There is a fascinating book excerpt in this week's Sports Illustrated. The book is called The Sports Gene by David Epstein and it examines the reasons why top-notch athletes get to be that way. The research into why Aaron Rodgers and Albert Pujols got to be who they are has gotten very sophisticated. But it wasnt always that way.

The conventional thinking was that superb athletes like Pujols or Roger Federer had faster reflexes than a normal human being. That's what allowed them to intercept speeding objects so well. It was genetics that gave them more time to react to the ball. Except, as Epstein writes, it isn"t true.

He found that when people are tested for their simple reaction time...how fast they can press a button in response to light...most of them take around 200 milliseconds. or 1/5 of a second. That's everybody..butchers, bakers,candlestick makers and pro athletes. It takes that long for the retina to get the information and transmit it to the brain which in turn sends it to the spinal cord that puts the muscles in motion.

Here's the math on a major league pitch. A typical major league fastball goes about 10 feet in 75 milliseconds that the retina needs to confirm that a ball is coming and to tell the brain where is is going. he entire flight of the ball to the plate takes 400 milliseconds...so the batter needs to determine whether to swing or not shortly after the ball leaves the pitchers hand. We are told as youngsters to "keep your eye on the ball". The thing is...that is impossible. Humans dont have a visual system that can track the ball all the way in. You could close your eyes after the ball leaves the pitchers hand and have about the same chance of hitting it. So how do they do it?

Research has shown that top notch pros in almost every sport from baseball to vollyball to even chess can process information in chunks rather than focus on details...and years of practice at whatever craft thay are trying to get good at hones the skill of knowing where a ball is going with very little information to go on.

Its' known as the 10,000  hour rule...the idea that it takes that much practice at anything...to get suitably proficit at  that skill to be among the best. Many books have been written on the subject and it has led many parents into starting their children in intense workouts and practice routines at very early ages. 

The research in this area is fascinating and the article delves into many different ways that scientists have studied the phenomonom.

And remember, the next time youre at a baseball game and someone yells "keep your eye on the ball" to a struggling hitter...tell him to get in the box and try it....