What Makes Elite Athletes Elite?

I was in a discussion with Eugene and I asked him what he thinks separates elite athletes from everyone else. His response: The brakes. The best athletes in the world are able to stop better than anyone else. NFL running backs and NBA point guards need an elite set of brakes to make quick cuts, change direction, and create space. Baseball players need these same brakes to produce and accept force quickly and efficiently. If there is a time constraint involved, there needs to be a set of brakes to operate in that window of time. The only thing that changes is the task.

Saquon Barkley is able to throw on the brakes and get back up to top speed quickly to make sharp cuts and avoid defenders. (source)
Luka Doncic’s ability to decelerate tests in the 90th percentile of all NBA players – making his step back jumper a deadly weapon to create space.(source)
Justin Jefferson slips by a couple of Clemson defenders by throwing on the brakes (source)

If we break down a hitter or pitcher, the first thing that must stop is the pelvis. Since movement is initiated from the midsection of our body, stopping movement must also start there. When the pelvis stops, the torso is able to takeover and pick up speed so it can eventually accelerate the arms and then the bat or ball. An easy way to think about this is to think about cracking a whip. For you to make the whip crack, you need to bring your arm to an abrupt stop so the energy can be transferred into the whip. If you drag your arm through and never bring it to a stop, you won’t be able to snap the whip through.    

If you’re trying to see if a hitter slows down his pelvis, watch what happens after contact. In a good decel, the pelvis should actually counterrotate towards the catcher to provide a stable base for energy transfer up the chain. If we go back to cracking the whip, your hand is going to reflexively move up after you move it down to crack the whip. This countermove helps you accelerate the whip and gives it direction to travel through space. Your pelvis does the same exact thing to accelerate the torso and give your barrel direction through space.  

Watch Harper’s hips counterrotate after contact – indication of a good pelvis decel, from 108 Hitting Course

When you can teach your body how to throw on the brakes quickly and efficiently, it’ll look something like this: Effortless pop. The best do it better than anyone else. 

The Brain Maps Backwards

When executing a specific skill or task, it is advantageous to focus on the end because of our brain’s ability to map backwards. If your brain can see what it looks like at the end of the movement, it can learn how to piece together everything that happens before it. It’s much easier to build a Lego house when you have a picture of what it should look like in front of you.

In a baseball context, Eugene likes to back chain the delivery by getting kids to recoil or “pimp the finish.” The arm recoil is a muscle spindle reflex (see conversation with C.J. Gillam for more on this) where posterior musculature in the shoulder contracts to protect itself after being fully lengthened into ball release. This move helps decelerate the arm safely by absorbing and dissipating a large amount of tension at the end of the throw. You cannot create this kind of tension unless the pelvis stays closed and the hips and torso throw on the brakes. In essence, focusing on recoiling and decelerating the throwing arm can help the rest of the sequence throw on the brakes.

From the hitting side, something Eugene has had a lot of success with is trying to get hitters to emulate this move from Mike Trout:

Notice how Mike Trout steps across with his front foot right after finishing his swing. This is the move Eugene was fascinated with. For Trout to pull this move off, he needs to be able to work into the ground, keep his pelvis closed, stop his pelvis, stop his trunk, and rotate in a tight window. Knowing this, Eugene told some of his hitters to try stepping across just like Trout after contact – and he’s had a lot of success with it.

Understanding how to tap into key moments at the end of a sequence can unlock a multitude of moves before it. If you know what to look for, you can make your job as a coach so much easier.

Finding “It”

Discovering and consistently recreating a player’s most optimal movement solution is synonymous to drawing five perfect circles – we’re working to get as close as we possibly can without ever actually achieving it. While it’s important for athletes to extrapolate a wide range of movement solutions early on, they need to eventually hone in on one where they have the most success and can consistently recreate it through feel. We know no athlete has ever swung the bat the same exact way twice, but we also know that really good athletes work within a narrow bandwidth of movement solutions. Not everyone moves the same way, but everyone has an optimal way to move. Unlocking this move is what Eugene calls the process of discovering “it.” 

Sue Enquist, former head softball coach at UCLA, told a story about what separated her All-Americans from the rest of the hitters on her team. She said how some hitters would swing better in drills and others would swing better in games than in drills. Her All-Americans swung the same way all the time. They got their best swing off regardless of the context or the situation. They didn’t use a wide range of different swings – they narrowed in on one that made sense for them. They got as close to their perfect circle as they possibly could.

As coaches, we’re trying to get athletes to draw five perfect circles as best as they possibly can – we’re helping them unlock “it.” We’re searching for that move where everything clicks and it unlocks the most power and the best results with the least amount of effort possible. We’re trying to find ways to replicate that move when conditions inevitably change around them. When they lose that move, we’re trying to find the quickest ways to get them back on track. Everyday is a research project where all roads traveled lead towards “it.” We may not ever achieve it in full totality, but we’re going to work to get as close to it as humanly possible.

Week 1 at 108 Performance

I’m going to document my thoughts on a weekly basis throughout the course of my internship at 108 Performance. Below are my thoughts from week one, the on boarding process, and some helpful tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Five Tools

The first thing that really stood out to me after my first appearance in the shop is the amount of stuff they have lying around. When these guys say everything works and everything sucks, they really mean it because they have tried it all. If there’s something Eugene thinks might help a player, he’s going to try it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a plyo ball, football, club, bowling pin, PVC pipe, swimming flipper, or floatie – it all works if it creates good movement. Everything they do is designed to create a specific movement. As Eugene says best, “I’ve never seen a bad hitter that moves well.”

Really good players move really well. Unfortunately, most kids have been taught how not to move well throughout their careers. As a result, a lot of what Eugene and his team do is uncoaching; the moves that we all need are already inside of us.  

An eight year old showing a clean arm spiral just like Max Scherzer

This prompted me to ask a question: “If you had to eliminate every training tool in this shop except for five, what would they be?” 

Below are the answers I got from Eugene and Will Marshall

Eugene – Pitching

  1. iPad 
  2. Baseball
  3. Heavy ball
  4. Light ball
  5. Water ball

If Eugene could eliminate everything else, he would keep the baseball and the iPad. There’s no better way to capture movement outside of your own two eyes than it is to video it. Two dimensional video gives you a lot of information about what’s going on and can give you a point of reference for future interventions. Eugene likes to use both full speed video and slow motion video. Full speed video helps you absorb the activity in its purest form and gives you a feel for rhythm, tempo, sequencing, fluidity, and efficiency. If you spot an energy leak through full speed video, slow motion video can be used to dive deeper into what’s going on.

Outside of the iPad, the regular ball, light ball, and heavy ball give Eugene the specificity he needs along with some slight variation to keep things fresh. Based on the needs of the athlete, a heavier or lighter implement could help create better movement solutions. Guys who need to pull out a lot of slack (loose movers) might benefit from throwing something heavier. Guys on the other end of the spectrum (tight movers) might need something lighter to prevent movement compensations.

Eugene loves water balls because they create instability that forces the co-contractions of muscles that are necessary for the production (rate of force development) and acceptance of force in small window. Athletes need to be able to create tension at the right moments of time in order to capture energy and efficiently transfer it to the bat or ball. Using water balls helps create feel for this.

Eugene – Hitting 

  1. Heavy long bat
  2. Light long bat
  3. Short bat
  4. Baseball
  5. Soccer ball

Eugene loves long bats with guys who struggle with creating space and bat path. The length forces hitters to clear space with their upper half to deliver the barrel and keep good direction through the middle of the field. The light and heavy versions are designed with the same intention of the heavy and light baseballs – some guys will do better with a heavier or lighter based on how they pull out slack. Short bats force adjustability through the zone and delivery of the barrel. If you have a guy who yanks balls and has a tough time decelerating, giving them a short bat is a great way to teach them how to deliver the bat head without pulling off.

The soccer ball is something Eugene loves to use to teach hitters how to strike balls. Pitchers and hitters have to create a lot of force in a short window of time. Hitters especially have to do this because they are at the constraint of the unpredictability of the incoming pitch. Thinking about “sticking the ball” helps create feel for when hitters should apply force in the swing. Doing too much too soon creates inefficient moves that become difficult to pull off when velocities increase. A cue Eugene likes to use when teaching hitters how to stick balls is “pretend the ball is 500 pounds.” While a soccer ball is not 500 pounds, it represents a constraint that forces athletes to learn how to brace and deliver their bodyweight into contact.

Will Marshall – Pitching

  1. PVC pipe
  2. Baseball
  3. Core Velocity Belt
  4. Waterbag
  5. 7 ounce ball

Will loves the PVC pipe to create feel for specific moves on the mound such as the plane of rotation, keeping posture, getting around the front hip, or teaching the shoulders to work with the hips to deliver the ball. The Core Velocity Belt helps create awareness for the hips and how they move down the mound. Eugene and Will talk a lot about how the extremities (arms, legs) should be slaves to the midsection. Trying to create tension in the arms or legs can create bad moves that expend a lot of energy. Using the belt teaches athletes how to bring focus to their hips so they can control their center of mass down the mound. All movement starts from the middle of the body. If you want to teach efficient movement, the hips are a great place to start.

Teeter Totter

Something Will talked about was how everything is on a teeter totter. Certain cues, feels, tools, and drills work to represent one of two ends on the teeter totter. For example, if thinking about getting on top is at one end thinking about throwing the ball sidearm is at the other end. Both of these cues work, but problems can arise when coaches or athletes spend too much time on one end of the teeter totter. Anything you overindulge in can hurt you. Some cues or drills may work really well right now, but they may not work so well in another training session. It doesn’t matter what you do – the only thing that matters is the movement created

Thinking about getting on top is great until the elbow climbs up and gets out of the plane of rotation. One day you might need to think about staying into your backside – another day you might need to think about getting out of it. Getting out and around your front hip works until you start spinning out of it. 

Don’t get married to certain drills or cues – they only work if they create the right moves. 

The Two Biggest Constraints

As a coach, the two biggest constraints you’re going to have to work around are a hard wired Central Nervous System (CNS) and a preconceived notion on how a task should be completed. Our nervous system controls human movement by creating pathways that guide how a movement should be executed. Repetition strengthens and increases the speed of these pathways so they can become automated. As a result, automating the wrong way to do a skill becomes a tough challenge for a coach when trying to create a new pattern. If you’ve squished the bug ever since you were nine years old, it’s going to take a lot of time to break that habit when you’re a junior in high school.  

Misconceptions on how to achieve a certain task are just as tricky. Kids can cling to bad information and misinterpret certain cues that can influence bad movements. Thinking about throwing over the top is alright until you create an excessive amount of arm tilt that pulls you out of the plane of rotation. Trying to create a lot of force in your swing may work until you create big moves that don’t play against a live arm. As a coach, you need to be able to explain what kids are doing wrong, why it’s not ideal, how you can create a more beneficial pattern, and why that pattern is better than the one they currently have. Kids today have more information than ever. If you can’t articulate exactly what you need them to do and why, you’re going to have a tough time building buy in.  

Kids that don’t have a hard wired CNS or a variety of misconceptions about how to perform a task are going to be easier to mold because their clay is fresh. The more clay gets molded, the tougher it is to create a new shape. Making meaningful movement changes requires time for a lot of athletes. Guide the exploration from the top and teach athletes the importance of patience. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, your delivery isn’t going to get overhauled in a day either.

We Don’t Write Programs

Something Eugene and Will talked about a lot was their stance on traditional throwing or hitting programs. In their opinion, general programs that prescribe specific exercises and rep ranges fall short because they neglect the main thing that matters – the movement created. If you give five different kids rocker throwers, two might do them really well and the other three might butcher them. General programs will tell you what to do and when, but they can’t monitor how they are being done. What athletes need is constantly changing based on how they’re moving and what they feel. Following a general program doesn’t allow for this freedom and creativity.

The only thing you can do wrong as a coach

The options you have as a coach to influence good movement are limitless. Bad drills or cues don’t exist. As Eugene says best, everything works and everything sucks. The only thing you can do wrong as a coach is make everyone do the same thing. Different players have different needs – you cannot possibly satisfy them all through one training program. Moves are constantly changing, evolving, and adapting to constraints placed on the system. If you’re not evolving with them, you’re playing from behind.

One size fits all programs will generally follow the shape a bell curve – 20 percent will get better, 20 percent will get worse, and 60 percent won’t see any change at all. If you’re okay knowing 80 percent of your kids won’t see any improvement, feel free to use the same program with everyone. If you’re not, take the time to tailor one to each individual.

Greatness is not a gift, it’s an Obsession

Some people like it, others love it, very few live it. The best players and coaches aren’t successful because they love it – they’re successful because they’re obsessed with it. When it turns into an obsession, nothing will stop you from getting what you want. There’s no doubt in my mind that Eugene, Will, and the rest of the 108 staff are obsessed with pushing this game forward. This next year is going to be a lot of fun.

The Process of Unlocking World Class Instincts

It’s the evening of October 13, 2001 and the New York Yankees are on the road playing the Oakland Athletics in game three of the American League Division Series. The Yankees have fallen behind in the series two games to none and are on the brink of elimination. Mike Mussina is in his seventh inning of work trying to preserve a 1-0 Yankees lead with two outs, Jeremy Giambi on first base, and Terrence Long at the plate.

Long connects on a mistake from Mussina sending the ball past a diving Tino Martinez and deep into the right field corner of the Coliseum. Giambi races around the bases to a roaring crowd as Shane Spencer races to the ball with the relay tandem of Alfonso Soriano and Martinez lined up to home. Spencer scoops the ball up and fires it high over the heads of Soriano and Martinez. Giambi is being waved around third base and all of a sudden seems he’s going to score off the errant throw – until Derek Jeter comes flying in from the infield.

Jeter handles the one hop on the run and makes a tabletop flip halfway up the line from foul territory. Jorge Posada receives the strike from Jeter and swings back to make a one handed tag on Giambi’s right leg just inches before his foot touches home. Giambi is called out and 55,000 cheers are turned to groans of disbelief. The Yankees would go on to win the game 1-0 and would take the next two to win the series in five games. Many believe Jeter’s heroics turned the tide in the series and helped propel New York to its fourth consecutive fall classic.

It is, to this day, one of the greatest plays in postseason history.

This situation was not new for Jeter – the Yankees practiced it every single year in spring training. As soon as the ball gets by Martinez and rolls towards the right field corner, the defense automatically concedes two bases to the batter and takes the next tick of strategy: A potential play at the plate. Soriano and Martinez quickly set up the tandem relay for home and Jeter hangs back around second base. His job is to see the play unfold, check where the runners are, and determine where they have the best chance of getting an out. If he sees that they do not have a chance at home and instead have a play at third, Jeter is to redirect the relay and go to third. If the play is at home, he lets the throw go through – if it’s a good throw.  

Before Jeter sprinted over to his position as third cut off man, he took a peek to see where Giambi was. Knowing the situation, Giambi’s speed (or in this case, lack of), and how far he was from home, Jeter knew they had a play at the plate before Spencer even scooped up the ball. He recognized the high throw right out of the hand and rushed to get in position to receive it – actually arriving a hair late. He knew he had a play at third base, but he also knew he had a chance to get Giambi at home. Unable to get his feet set, Jeter took a calculated risk and made a quick tabletop flip across his body. If the exchange and the flip are not perfect, Giambi is safe. 

The best part about Jeter’s flip was the Yankees never practiced going home in this situation. If Jeter touches the ball, the play is probably going to develop at third base. If you watch the play unfold, it’s pretty easy to see Giambi would have been out by 10 feet if Spencer made an accurate throw to Soriano or Martinez. However, some things just don’t work out according to plan. 

Jeter knew he had time and knew where he was going to go with the ball if he got it. The problem was that he should never have to touch the ball if the play develops at home. He had never practiced this play before in his life. With the game and series on the line, Jeter trusted his gut and made one of the most iconic plays of his career by trusting his instincts.

The rest is history. 



What are Instincts?

“Everything you need to be great is already inside you. All your ambitions and secrets, your darkest dreams… they’re waiting for you to just let go. What’s stopping you?” – Tim Grover, from Relentless

The word instincts is derived from the Latin word for “impulse.” They are, by definition, an organism’s innate pattern of behavior when presented with a specific stimulus. They are not a reaction but an inborn complex pattern of behavior that is beneficial for survival. Psychologist Sigmund Freud described instincts through his physical apparatus of the Id, Ego, and Superego. The “Id” – i.e. instincts – represents the deep, instinctual, and unconscious components of human behavior. These elements are rooted in sexual and aggressive desires and are in constant competition with the rational “Ego” through what is known as the pleasure principle: “The psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse.” In essence, we’re born with the Id and we learn the Ego. The Superego becomes the battleground where these two constantly fight for our attention.  

When we think of instincts as they pertain to sport, I think Tim Grover – trainer of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade – sums it up perfectly in his best-selling book Relentless: “No thinking. Just the gut reaction that comes from being so ready, so prepared, so confident, that there’s nothing to think about.” 

If Jeter thinks about what to do as Spencer’s throw comes in from right field, he’s too late. If he can’t anticipate the bad throw out of the hand and be in position (yeah he was late, but he still got there) to make a play on Giambi, the Yankees might not make it out of that series. This level of awareness cannot be measured or trained in ways that can be quantified. Great tools give you the opportunity to be a great player, but great instincts give your tools the ability to surface when the lights turn on. When the stakes rise, the best trust their instincts and elevate their game. Jeter was one of the best when it came to this – and he is in great company. 

Wayne Gretzky used his lack of physical ability to develop a style that helped him develop into one of the greatest players in NHL history (image source).

Wayne Gretzky was far from the average physical specimen of the average National Hockey League player. He wasn’t very big, fast, or strong – but he had instincts like no other. His lack of physical tools forced Gretzky to learn a different style of hockey and develop an incredible vision that helped him navigate the ice like an NFL quarterback. Gretzky talked about this in the documentary In Search of Greatness saying his style was necessary for survival. In other words, Gretzky’s greatest weaknesses forced him to develop his greatest strength: His instincts.

“Gretzky doesn’t look like a hockey player. . . . Gretzky’s gift, his genius even, is for seeing. To most fans, and sometimes even to the players on the ice, hockey frequently looks like chaos; sticks flailing, bodies falling, the puck ricocheting just out of reach. But amid the mayhem, Gretzky can discern the game’s underlying patterns and flow, and anticipate what’s going to happen faster and in more detail than anyone else in the building.” – from 1997 article, New York Times Magazine 

Jerry Rice was no different. Scouts today wouldn’t even bat an eye if they saw his 4.84 40 yard dash time, but it sure didn’t stop him from becoming one of the best receivers in NFL history. Steve Nash didn’t care that he stood four inches shorter than the average NBA player – you would have thought he was 6’9 the way he played. Rocky Marciano’s short arms looked like a disadvantage from the outside, but they instead influenced a style of boxing that helped him go 49-0 in the ring. Our jaws tend to drop when we marvel at the pure physical ability of athletes, but the reality is measurables don’t win games. David Epstein, author of bestselling books The Sports Gene and Range, said it best in the documentary In Search of Greatness: We have a tendency of making things important because we can measure them, not measuring them because they are important.”

Gretzky, Rice, and Nash didn’t fit the mold. They changed the mold and fit it to their style. They didn’t depend on others to figure it out for them – they trusted their instincts and found a way to make it work. Through years of hard work, preparation, and study, these athletes changed the game by understanding it at a level no one else was willing to go. Great physical tools get your foot in the door; great instincts use those tools to dominate. It’s easy to find guys with great physical tools that never panned out. It’s really tough to find a great player that didn’t have great instincts. 

“At some point, you stopped doing what came naturally and started doing what you were told. You took all your crazy urges and ideas and desires, and you stuffed them down where no one could see.” – Tim Grover, from Relentless

The paradox then becomes this: Instincts, by definition, are created in the absence of learning. They are pre programmed into our internal hardware as humans. No one teaches us how to walk or how to know when we’re hungry; they’re instinctual. However, I don’t think instincts in sports follow the same laws. Feel free to argue, but I don’t think Derek Jeter popped out of the womb and knew exactly how to execute his iconic flip. I’m pretty confident Tom Brady didn’t just intuitively know how to differentiate man coverage, zone defense, or a combination of the two. Wayne Gretzky probably didn’t just wake up one day and realize playing along the boards and behind the net would be an incredible advantage for him.

This nature/nurture argument manifests itself through an intriguing question: Can we teach athletes instincts?  

Through my research I think we can – but it’s not a black or white, yes or no answer. Below is why I think so.



Building the Foundation

“The player who knows WHY beats the player who knows HOW.” – John Kessel, USA Volleyball

To start off this debate, I don’t think there is a specific formula that can unlock world class instincts. If you were looking for the easy way out, don’t bother reading the rest of this. Sports are infinitely complex and will always be because they are played by human beings. If you give a piece of information to five different individuals, you might get five different interpretations. Some guys might take it and run to the library with it while others might leave it on the backburner with their two week old math homework. Some athletes have a drive and a passion just waiting to be unlocked; others are just worried about what they’re having for dinner after practice.  

This is where I think nature comes into play. No one told four-year-old Wayne Gretzky to draw a hockey rink on a notepad and trace the puck while watching Hockey Night in Canada. No one forced Trevor Bauer to ride to the park with buckets of baseballs on the handlebars of his bike and work out for up to four hours. You didn’t have to drag Pelé into the street to play pick up street soccer games that lasted all day long. When these guys were born, they had a burning passion for sports that was waiting for a spark to ignite it. When they found that spark, they took it and ran with it. None of what they did was work – they did it because they loved it. Their WHY was greater. 

If you can’t build or unlock a burning passion for the sport within kids, you might as well throw instincts out the window.

This is a great place to start as a coach and is something I’ve talked about with Eugene Bleecker, founder and director of player development at 108 Performance. If you can’t build or unlock a burning passion for the sport within kids, you might as well throw instincts out the window. “There is so much to learn that it’s going to take a lifetime to do it anyways,” said Bleecker. “If they don’t love the culture and if they don’t love the game, it’ll be hard for them to want to put the time in to see it.”

If you want to build a passion for sports at a young age, there are two things you can do to give them a pretty good head start: 1) Encourage them to watch games and 2) Encourage them to play unstructured pick up games with their friends.

Jared Wagner, standout basketball athlete at York College of Pennsylvania, talked about the importance of watching games saying, “I think (building instincts) comes from watching sports at a young age. I think it’s important for things to be taught and then you see them happening when you watch games on TV.” Wagner believes his early interest in basketball and baseball and watching guys like Nomar Garciaparra and Rajon Rondo drove his intrinsic desire to win. “You are intrinsically motivated by the sport and guys who are intrinsically motivated put in extra time, whether it be thought provoked or just naturally like watching games on TV,” said Wagner.

If we look at the science behind this, Daniel Coyle shared his formula for achieving deliberate practice in his best-selling book The Talent Code. Step one, called “chunk it,” requires athletes to absorb the entire skill. Absorbing the skill in its entirety builds an internal blueprint for what the skill should look like when executed correctly. This is the nurture part of the argument when it comes to instincts. We aren’t born with the blueprint for what a high level delivery looks like, but we start to piece it together when we watch some of the best athletes in our game. Kids are awesome imitators. If you give them a visual blueprint for success, they will start to connect the dots through experimentation. This is where part two comes into play.

When you can get kids to absorb the skill, the next step is to usually get out of the way and let them start to figure things out implicitly (i.e. without a dad coach barking at you every single swing). If you’ve ever picked up a wiffle bat and tried to imitate your favorite hitter, you’ve already done this without thinking about it. While unstructured backyard games seem innocent on the outside, I think they are a non-negotiable if you want to develop athletic instincts. It’s no coincidence Gretzky and Pelé spent their childhoods playing with their friends in the backyard. It ultimately became the foundation from which their creativity flowed as athletes. 

Researchers found players who made the 2014 German national soccer team spent more time playing in unstructured pick up games over those who just missed the cut (image source).

In the documentary In Search of Greatness, David Epstein brought up a study on the 2014 World Cup champion German national soccer team. Researchers looked at the development path of players who made the team, players who just missed the cut, and differences between the two groups of players. Of all the variables investigated, they found one difference: The players who made the national team had a lot more time in small sided unstructured play when they were younger and continued with more of it into their professional careers. In other words, they guys who made the national team played more backyard sports than the ones who didn’t. 

“What seems like pure, untainted, mystical creativity is, in fact, the consequence of a lifetime of devotion.” – Matthew Syed, from Bounce

Unstructured play allows for freedom, creativity, and imagination that cannot be replicated in a structured setting. If kids are placed into structured environments too young and too frequently, they lose the ability to develop their own style. Epstein talked about this saying, “We see this in chess. If kids study too rigidly, they literally become stuck in a certain pattern of playing and hit a plateau and never get better. They have to be given a certain amount of unstructured time to create and to find themselves.”

Gretzky believes we’ve lost this today. He said, “If you take 10 kids to a pond today and said to them ‘Alright go play,’ they’d say, ‘Alright, what do we do?’ Because they’re all so structured now. We’ve lost our creativity and imagination that we used to have in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.” If that doesn’t make you think, Ken Robinson – British author and speaker – brought up a pretty amazing fact in the documentary from a recent report: On average, kids today in urban settings have less unstructured time than the average high security prisoner.

I mean, those guys at least get to go outside for an hour every day.

Kobe Bryant used to look for one trait when he was hiring for his business team: curiosity. Kids cannot develop curiosity, creativity, and use their imagination when they’re constantly being told what to do. Don’t overlook the importance of the backyard growing up. If you can get kids to watch games and take what they see to the backyard, you have the chance to develop the passion required to compete at the highest levels of sports. The more diverse their game selection is, the better their instincts will be. Pick up basketball, football, wiffle ball, soccer, and other games all play an important role in long term athletic development. 

If you can get kids to watch games and take what they see to the backyard, you have the chance to develop the passion required to compete at the highest levels of sports.

If they don’t love it and do it on their own time, they’re never going to progress to a point where they can even scratch the surface of developing athletic instincts. 



How the Best Create an Edge 

“You can teach instincts if you can teach kids how to concentrate.” – Chuck Tanner, former manager Pittsburgh Pirates, 1979 World Series champions

Whenever I would talk about developing instincts with my good friend Carmen Fusco, we would always come back to this quote. Through Carmen’s experiences in Major League Baseball, he has become a firm believer that the conversation about instincts must start here. Players with great instincts learned how to build feel for the game through unparalleled focus and concentration. There are a lot of moving parts in a baseball game that must be taken into account in order to make quick, accurate decisions. If you can’t be alert and focus for two to three hours in a practice or game, you’re going to have a tough time gathering information and filtering through it to make good decisions.  

If we break this down from a baseball standpoint, let’s look at the role of a middle infielder. Throughout the course of a game your average shortstop must be aware of the inning, score, outs, count, who’s at the plate, their tendencies, the speed on the bases, what’s at stake, what possible plays could happen, and what to do if the ball is hit at them. They have to understand where to go with the ball if it’s hit hard, softly, to their forehand, backhand, or if they catch a line drive. They have to know where to be on a ball hit in the outfield gaps, down the line, or directly at the outfielder. If a mistake is made, they need to be able to adapt on the fly and figure out the next tick of strategy. They’re constantly anticipating and looking several steps ahead so they can be in position to make plays. As soon as the ball left Long’s bat, Jeter was already looking three bases ahead and anticipating a potential play at the plate. He didn’t have the time to react to what was going on – he had to anticipate.  

These types of decisions are made in every single sport. When I was talking with Kris Kruszka, assistant baseball coach at D’Youville College, he shared a story from when he played linebacker for his high school football team. To determine if the play was going to be a pass or a run, Kris was taught to look at the feet of the offensive linemen. If the first step was back, it was a pass play. If the first step was forward, it was a run play. This small detail gave Kris the ability to anticipate plays and stay one step ahead of the offense.

Being able to pick up these details requires a lot of time and experience – something you can’t teach in a few practices. It takes years and years of first hand experience to see past the chaos, observe the fine details, and use them to anticipate specific plays. Matthew Syed talked about this in his book Bounce sharing a story from Desmond Douglas – the greatest UK table tennis player in history. Douglas, known for his incredible speed and quick reactions on the table, was tested in 1984 to see how his reaction speed compared to his teammates. The tests revealed something spectacular: Douglas’ reactions were the slowest on the England national team – even slower than the team manager. The results were not wrong. Douglas didn’t have very good reactions at all, but he was a totally different animal when it came to table tennis. He didn’t need good reaction skills to develop lightning quick speed on the table – he needed to know where to look. 

Mark Williams, one of the world’s leading experts in perceptual expertise in sport, talked about this in Bounce saying, “Top tennis players look at the trunk and hips of their opponents on return in order to pick up on the visual clues governing where they are going to serve. If I was to stop the picture in advance of the ball being hit, they would still have a pretty good idea about where it was going to go.

“It’s not as simple as just knowing about where to look; it is also about grasping the meaning of what you are looking at. It is about looking at the subtle patterns of movement and postural cues and extracting information. Top tennis players make a small number of visual fixations and ‘chunk’ the key information.”

Through years of practice, Douglas was able to understand how to key in on specific parts of his opponent so he could anticipate what was to come. He built a large database of movement solutions through practice, figured out how to group the key information (i.e. chunking), and learned how to unconsciously pick up on certain cues that predicted specific movement outcomes. He was fast because of his knowledge – not his reactions.

Tim Grover, trainer of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade, on the importance of knowledge when it comes to developing instincts (image source).

This is the same process hitters use to determine what a pitcher is throwing. Every pitch hitters are extracting information that includes how pitchers come set and grip the ball, fluctuations in rhythm and tempo, arm action, arm slot, and ball flight initially out of the hand. Over time, hitters are able to pick up on certain cues that reveal information about what is coming. Some pitchers fumble with their grip if they’re throwing an offspeed pitch. Others drop or slow their arm if they’re throwing a breaking ball. There’s a reason why pitching coaches teach their pitchers not to “tip” their pitches; the more unpredictable they are, the more successful they’ll be.  

Syed talked about this in Bounce saying, “When Roger Federer returns a service, he is not demonstrating sharper reactions than you and I; what he is showing is that he can extract more information from the service action of his opponent and other visual clues, enabling him to move into position earlier and more efficiently than the rest of us, which in turn allows him to make the return. . . Top performers are not born with sharper instincts; instead, they possess enhanced awareness and anticipation.” 

To Syed, instincts in sports cannot be innate – they must be learned. He said:

“No, Federer’s advantage has been gathered from experience: more precisely, it has been gained from a painstaking process of encoding the meaning of subtle patterns of movement drawn from more than ten thousand hours of practice and competition. He is able to see the patterns in his opponent’s movements in the same way that chess players are able to discern the patterns in the arrangement of pieces on a chessboard.

“It is his regular practice that has given him this expertise, not his genes. Speed in sport is not based on innate reaction speed, but derived from highly specific practice.”  

As coaches, we have to understand knowledge is power when it comes to building instincts. Our practices need to have a high level of focus so kids start to observe more and build a large database of movement solutions. Through practice they’ll start to figure out how to group what’s important so they can recognize similar patterns in the future. They need to understand the importance of the details and know where to look so they can pick up on these subtle, but crucial, nuances. Understanding situations is a must. If the ball is in play, every player on the field must know where to be and why. You must teach them the game in order for them to build a feel for the game. This is impossible without specific, focused practice. 



Designing the Right Environment

As a coach, the environment and culture you create is everything. We are all products of our environment. The Toronto Blue Jays will likely open 2020 with a lineup that features three young men who all had fathers that had successful big league careers. This is no coincidence. From the time these guys were born they were in a big league environment and on a name to name basis with some of the best players in the world. To be in this kind of an environment is an incredibly powerful tool that, all genetics aside, more than likely had a significant impact on their journey to the big leagues.

Cavan Biggio, Vlad Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette all grew up watching their fathers tear it up in the big leagues (image source).

Kris Kruszka credits a lot of the success he had as a player to the environment he grew up in. All four of his brothers played baseball and competed in other sports such as basketball, football, and cross country. They commonly found themselves playing backyard hockey, wifflel ball, and any other sport they could get their hands on. These experiences helped Kris learn how to play the game and break it down so he could find a competitive advantage over his siblings. In essence, the environment he grew up in built the foundation for the competitive nature he took to the field as a player. For these reasons, he thinks the environment is everything when it comes to developing players with instincts. 

As for what this environment should look like, I think there are a few things you should focus on if you want to build players with instincts. First off, hard work must be the norm. Players with great instincts know they’re good at what they do. They know they’re good because they’ve spent hours and years studying the game and perfecting their craft. You don’t just all of a sudden develop a great feel for the game – you need to be around it for a long time. When people saw Joe Burrow take the field for LSU this past season, they saw one of the greatest seasons in college football history. What they didn’t see was the countless hours he spent off the field preparing, breaking down film, bouncing ideas off coaches, and finding ways to exploit the weaknesses of their upcoming opponent. He didn’t build the killer instinct required to captain a championship program overnight – he did it through a lifetime around the game. 

If you aren’t willing to work when no one is watching, you don’t have a chance. Preparation yields confidence; confidence breeds instincts.

If you want your players to work harder, make it more appealing. In other words, make it fun. John Wooden’s pyramid for success was built from the foundation of two cornerstones that remained unchanged throughout the course of his career: industriousness and enthusiasm. He spoke about this in his autobiography They Call Me Coach. Wooden said, “There is no substitute for work. And to really work hard at something you must enjoy it. If you’re not enthusiastic, you can’t work up to your maximum ability.”

One of the easiest ways to make your practices more fun is making them competitive. Roy Williams, Hall of Fame basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, makes his players compete in every single drill they run – something he got from his mentor and fellow Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith. Adding competition to your environment does a multitude of things for players – focus becomes razor sharp, intensity heightens, work ethic improves, and enthusiasm skyrockets. As a coach, a whiteboard, a marker, and a numbered list from 1-5 is a culture game changer. Every single day your players are now competing against each other in everything they do so they can own rights to the top of the list. Pulling a 405 deadlift takes on a completely new meaning when it means you can cross off your buddy’s name and write yours in their place. Falling from the leaderboards is more than enough motivation to work and get back to the top. The best athletes love competing and getting in the trenches with guys who want to shove it up their ass. If you want to create an environment where people love to work, use this burning obsession to your advantage.

Another way to make your practices fun is to practice the extraordinary. Baseball is a repetitive sport by nature and requires mastery of the monotony. However, this doesn’t mean practices always have to be monotonous. When you practice the extraordinary, you get a dual effect – kids love it because they’re having fun and they’re also getting better because they’re experimenting to find various solutions to motor problems in a proprioceptive rich environment. These kinds of plays might not happen all the time, but your kids will benefit from practicing them. Take your shortstops deep into the hole and have them make Jeter’s iconic jump throw across the diamond (yeah, he was a decent player). Try and get your outfielders to do their best impersonation of Mike Trout robbing a homerun. Have your middle infielders try some tricks from Brandon Crawford or Brandon Phillips’ famous behind the back flip to start a double play. If kids see something cool on TV from one of their favorite players, have them try it out at practice. This only adds to their curiosity, creativity, and enthusiasm for training.  

If you want to build a culture of lifelong learners, creating enthusiasm for curiosity and creativity is a great place to start.

Second, you need to create an environment that praises curiosity and creativity. Curious players become students of the game. Creativity helps them develop their own unique style for success. Kids who are curious are going to make time on their own to watch games, pick up on new things, and ask questions about what they don’t understand. They collaborate with others to get a different perspective on how to attack a problem. These guys are the ones that are constantly asking “Why?” and if they don’t get a sufficient answer they’re going to find it. If you want to build a culture of lifelong learners, creating enthusiasm for curiosity and creativity is a great place to start. You can only give kids so much as a coach. Your best results are going to happen when you empower kids to do it on their own.

Give them specific players to watch so they can learn from their style, how they move, and how they attack the game. Encourage them to incorporate what they see and investigate parts of their game that could use improvement. If you’re working with a player who struggles with their change up, have them study Pedro Martinez, Luis Sastillo, and Stephen Strasburg. If you have a kid who lacks physical ability, show them a player who’s excelled in spite of the same disadvantage. A lack of size didn’t stop Steve Nash, Steph Curry, or Allen Iverson. If you’re trying to teach a player a specific strategy, have them study the greats in action. There’s a reason why Kobe’s fadeaway looked oddly similar to Michael Jordan’s

When you can get kids who love the game and love to work, your next goal should be to prepare them for the game. Competing in games is hard. If you want to prepare kids for games, your practices need to be hard. Geno Auriemma, Hall of Fame basketball coach of the Connecticut women’s basketball team, constantly makes his practices difficult by changing the rules, score, adding players to the offense, or subtracting players from the defense. Whenever his players get comfortable with something, he adds an element to make it harder. This is how Auriemma sifts out the good players from the great ones – the good players break down; the greats ask for more.  

Luke Walton, current head coach of the Sacramento Kings, learned about this first hand from his experience coaching Kobe Bryant. “Kobe realized that practice should be as hard as games, if not harder,” said Walton. “Whatever drill there was, whatever scrimmage it was, he was talking trash to make everyone else step their level of play up—almost picking fights, because that brings out the edge in people. And you need that edge to win in this league.”

Researchers conducted a study in 1990 on elite level figure skaters to see what helped differentiate them from their less elite counterparts. The main difference researchers found was elite level skaters regularly attempted jumps slightly beyond their current capabilities. Practices from elite level skaters did not look as pretty as the routines they showcased. In fact, their training involved a lot of bumps and bruises – but it’s exactly what helped them become elite. Every time they fell they got right back up and tried it again. With time, patience, and a lot of hard work, they started to hit jumps, turns, and spins that used to put them on the ice. Great training sessions aren’t concerned with how good you look or feel. Learning is messy – building instincts is no different. 

“If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo 

Practicing at the edge of your abilities is not easy -it’s draining. It is normal and easy for us to gravitate towards the things we enjoy and excel at. We love practicing our favorite jump shot or spinning off our best breaking ball the same way we fall victim to our sweet tooth. Indulging in sweets neglects your diet; indulging in your strengths neglects your opportunities for growth. Practicing your strengths is a great way to make you feel good – it’s not a great way to prepare for games. 

It is very difficult to address an opportunity for growth, develop a process to attack it, and work relentlessly to turn it into a strength. Operating at the edge of your capabilities, getting outside of your comfort zone, and accepting the inevitability of failure is an arduous process. However, there is a price to pay for excellence. Michelangelo said it best: “If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”  

While there is much to dive into about the design of practice and the process of building a skill, the bottom line is this: Games are hard. Getting better is hard. Building instincts is hard. If your practices are easy, you aren’t helping kids do any of these – practice accordingly.   


Below are some thoughts from above when it comes to developing instincts in sports:

  • Kids need to start with a passion for the sport. Encourage them to watch games and play unstructured pick up games in the backyard when they’re young. It won’t ever feel like work if they love it. 
  • Creativity, curiosity, and imagination help kids develop a unique style to help them find their formula for success.
  • Focus and concentration enables kids to unconsciously chunk important information and use subtle nuances to anticipate specific plays. 
  • Knowledge is power. Guys with great instincts have spent a lifetime learning the game. 
  • Preparation yields confidence; confidence breeds instincts. 
  • Adding competition helps increase the enthusiasm for training.
  • Break the monotony by practicing the extraordinary. 
  • Practice must happen at the edge of one’s current abilities for optimal skill development.

Instincts may be innate by definition, but instincts in sports must be built through a lifetime of learning. If you can facilitate an environment where kids can do this, you give them a chance to do so.

Feel free to reach out with any questions or thoughts of your own.