Part I: Walden

I used a Demarini Voodoo bat in college and felt it gave me the best chance of success – even if an Easton or TPX would produce the exact same results. I absolutely loved this bat. So to preface this post, I wholeheartedly understand the psychology – and necessity – of good equipment.

I see student-athletes come into the Compete Academy with the best equipment money can buy. The most technologically advanced bats, EvoShield arm gear, enough swag to break the 140 character Twitter limit with all flame emojis. And when I see all these resources, I think of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was a leading poet in the mid 19th century when he spent over two years – relatively isolated – living in a cabin by Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He produced “Walden” as a reflection of his introspective living while in the cabin. A paragraph that underlies his work (enjoy):

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

While in the cabin, Thoreau sought to live a “Spartan” like existence – living life without any modern convenience. While “living,” if things got tough then he would accept the toughness. Experiencing the struggle, overcoming the “meanness” of life – that was part of living. To that end, Thoreau believed modern conveniences take the substance out of living because they limit the true toughness of life as people seek to simply maximize the sublime. Instead, Thoreau equally welcomed the meanness as well as the sublime. Because experiencing both without the assistance of modern conveniences – and accepting life’s meanness and its sublime – was truly living.

Deep.

Although Thoreau was probably not thinking about a game that had yet to be invented, I generally apply the premise of his reflection to the sport of baseball and the conventional means of training.

Walden and Baseball

In “Walden,” Thoreau examines modern conveniences and their impact on our lives. Counterintuitively, these conveniences can make things easier while simultaneously making us weaker and more dependent on them. In terms of baseball, the modern conveniences of our equipment has undoubtedly made a generation of weak hitters and weak throwers. An aluminum bat that has a trampoline effect has created an entire industry of well paid hitting “gurus” that have never truly studied high level swings. They are making a lot of money teaching highly ineffective athletic movements because the innovations in our equipment allow for it. When kids are young, success is measured by contact. Any contact. To that end, well-paid hitting instructors teach methods that facilitate any contact. This process, combined with the modern convenience of the aluminum bat, sends false signals to players, parents, and coaches. They witness – contact and conclude – success. Unfortunately, as the players mature, the mechanically flawed swing that facilitated the contact with the assistance of the aluminum bat is exposed. Consequently, the players that were simply bigger, stronger more physically developed begin to fail despite their little league All-Star pedigree and shelf full of trophies. These players have been shielded from the “meanness” of the game by modern conveniences.

Naturally, this flaw doesn’t just apply to little leaguers. In college, I was in a batting cage with a teammate during our winter workouts. He was 5’9, 185 lbs of muscle and could bench and squat more than the entire team. He hit line drive after line drive off front toss in which the “ping” from the bat echoed throughout the facility. My head coach remarked: “What unbelievable power he has! All the scouts think he’ll hit for power at the next level too.” I reflect on this now – his mechanics were fundamentally flawed (as were mine) – which effectively prevented any translation of his physical strength to baseball strength. After the conversion to BBCOR bats, the stats aligned with the true mechanics behind his swing. The player’s career numbers include 0 home runs, 10 doubles, and a very low OPS in over 400 plate appearances. Visually, the player was a monster; but the aluminum bat helped build this facade of a player that he certainly was not. Modern conveniences provided a false signal to a seasoned Division I coach.

In both examples, the players were perceived by others as successful hitters – until they weren’t. They were insulated from “failure” by modern conveniences and their sudden malperformance surprised everyone. As usual, the finger pointing started. My teammate would complain to me about our coach changing his stance, his vision, his wrist. It’s what we humans do – shield ourselves from pain/failure. Youth players and parents are no different. They all try to shield themselves from the collapsing facade that was created by modern advances and poor instruction – jumping from program to program, instructor to instructor looking for the easy fix. Unfortunately, the easy fix never comes; because growth is not linear and can not be attained simply by “getting a new bat.” Growth is not how many trophies you own or how expensive your bat is. Growth is simply a process. A process in which sometimes you have to go into the woods as Thoreau did and grind.

Thoreau believed by going into the woods, he put substance back into living. We need to put substance back into athletics. Every once in awhile, we need to get into Rocky IV mode and shed the Evoshield gear, remove the batting gloves, and drop the $300 Demarini. We need to stop using our tournament trophies or our instructors self-serving praise as a crutch. We need to stop insulating ourselves from failure by using modern conveniences. We need to realize that there will be easy times and hard times in games, in training, and in life. We cannot shield ourselves from a strikeout, an error, a loss. You will strikeout. You will make an error. You will lose a game. It will take you YEARS to be even an average player no matter how many trophies you win. It’s all a process marked by minor successes and a lot of failures. Do not run and hide from this process by idolizing your trophies; by excusing your failures; or by thinking better equipment is a cure all. Do not try to shield yourselves from the process by blaming your coach, your teammate, your bat, your girlfiend, the sun.

Instead, as Thoreau sought, train deliberately – without the false signals of success – and celebrate the meanness of the game while embracing your failures and triumphs. In the end, you will succeed because of this process and you will be able to put substance behind the trophies that everyone too often seeks.

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