Baseball is all about timing. For a hitter that means shoulders, hips, knees and wrists must flow and connect at just the right instant. For the pitcher, all that seemingly convulsive body movement must generate the right spin, velocity and direction on the ball to play the corners of the strike zone.
Baseball players are not alone in their need to master timing and subsequently master the game. All sports require the training of individual muscles and joints to meet that moment of truth with purity, whether it's the release of the basketball, the foot to the soccer ball or racquet to tennis ball.
The Kinetic Way
Bragg Stockton has been teaching his method of kinetic baseball to kids for 40 years, evolving into the variety of residence and day camp programs now called the Skills and Drills School of Baseball, based in Houston. His qualifications to mold minds and bodies for this demanding sport are sterling.
His pedigree includes a stint in pro ball with the Colt .45s, a long-lasting tenure as the University of Houston head baseball coach, and he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the practical applications of kinetics in teaching baseball skills.
"It took a few years to get everything to where it would be pure, in terms of reliability and validity," says Stockton. "We can say with confidence that this kinetic system will produce better skills than the hodge-podge that's often being taught."
Stockton says he's a "big believer that a picture's worth a thousand words," and has developed visual training aids to teach and enforce correct body movement.
At camp, the player's body is divided into quadrants and subsequently subdivided into 10 more body check spots. From there, seven "critical" body positions are identified.
"We pin seven baseball cards on them and number the cards," explains Stockton. "Those seven cards have certain responsibilities for a hitter -- certain cards start the loading process and certain ones finish at contact -- and this is where you develop the timing concept."
Stockton employs a plywood triangle, holding it to the body to represent three parts -- front shoulder, front knee and back hip. Then a plywood square is brought in to demonstrate how these parts interact with the hitter's box (the way he holds the bat) -- what Stockton calls "slamming the door" of the triangle to throw the box.
To further the hitter's awareness of where his body is at certain moments, "eyes" are placed on the knees so that they look at the plate, then look at the pitcher. Half-and-half colored balls are used to show how the axis rotates when the pitch is delivered.
"We just do a ton of drills, and the drill itself becomes a picture of a part of the overall scheme of your hitting, pitching or fielding," says Stockton. "If you'll master the drill then it's gonna help you with that overall game skill."
Stockton likens it to 10 ladders lined up on the side of a building, each representing a different game skill, and each rung on each ladder representing a drill.
"The problem is when you leave a bunch of those rungs out, it just doesn't make sense to the kid, and when he falls into a slump he doesn't know how to get himself out of it," says Stockton. "People often don't understand how easily you can slide into erroneous movement patterns and all of the sudden they're killin' you. The idea is to break movement down to a meaningful set of power positions, kinetic checkpoints and timing factors, which will lock the player in as long as he wants to play the game. These drills must be practiced on a regular basis -- a routine of repetition."
To make this happen, Stockton and his staff strip away all pretense and practice body movement sans baseball equipment. The fielding motion, for example, is broken down step-by-step without a glove.
Equipment, at this point in the training, is used merely as a prop. Once the basics are taught, the equipment is brought back into play and drills with live balls are employed that go methodically from the simple soft grounder to the short-hop line drive. This methodology leaves no stone unturned, or rung un-stepped.
Another important part of this kinetic teaching process is getting the kids to evaluate, not only themselves, but their peers. It's part of the picture that Stockton tries to paint, a picture that's incomplete if it's only muscle memory.
"We're teaching that 7, 8 or 9 year old to diagnose, evaluate and synthesize change," says Stockton. "They gotta learn why. That's a huge word. Why do I do this? Everything I teach has a cause-and-effect relationship, and we work really hard to paint that kinetic picture in their mind. We show pictures of major league players, we get into those body positions and do a lot of simulating."
Stockton even employs some remedial fitness training if it's needed because he's finding more kids who are used to the sedate lifestyle offered by Nintendo and television.
"We try to get them stronger and more coordinated with the jump rope, rollie and different types of movement patterns that increase strength and coordination," says Stockton. "You have to do that or otherwise they can't execute the skills."
Stockton's Skills and Drills School of Baseball is certainly not your typical sports camp, and it was born of a certain frustration in the formative years of his baseball life. He deviated from the typical sports camp model out of what he felt was necessity -- a necessity to hone lifelong habits and skills.
"When I was a little guy I used to hang out with the Dallas Eagles of the old Texas League, and I would ask these guys what I had to do to get better," recalls Stockton. "They'd look at me and watch me do it, and they'd say, 'Well, if you get your timing down you're gonna be okay.' I'd say, 'What's timing?' Then they'd look at me and say, 'I don't know, but when you get it you'll know it.' I got tired of that stuff, even in pro ball when I played a little with the Colt .45s I couldn't get anybody to answer any questions legitimately."