You Can’t “Try” to Hit a Baseball

“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”

Yoda Instructing Luke in The Empire Strikes Back

“If you try to cut wood like a master carpenter, you will only hurt your hand.”

Lao Tsu Chinese Philosopher Tao Te Ching 4th Century BC

“What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”

Kenzo Awa Japanese Archery Master Quoted in Zen in the Art of Archery

“You can’t make that ball go in that hole – you have to let it.”

Will Smith as Bagger Vance The Legend of Bagger Vance

I made one mistake. I went out and tried to hit .400 rather than just going out there and play.”

George Brett

A. Don’t try to hit. Allow yourself to hit! In the movie, THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, a mysterious caddy, Bagger Vance (played by Will Smith) advises a young Hardy Greaves on the art and science of putting a golf ball. Vance kept it simple saying, “You can’t make that ball go in that hole - you have to let it.” (THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE) That sounded simple but it wasn’t that simple. At first, it puzzled the young man and when he sank the putt, after closing his eyes at Vance’s instruction, it puzzled him even more. Hardy Greaves must have asked himself, how is it that when I try, I don’t do well but, when I don’t try, I do? Eventually, over the course of the movie it made sense to him. The same sage advice that Vance gave Hardy Greaves in that movie applies to hitting a baseball. One cannot hit a baseball well merely through the force of one’s own will, by trying to. If you are strong-willed, it can certainly be a disadvantage. You cannot simply try to hit. You have to allow yourself hit, though this can be a difficult message to get across. That is because such a truism just, “Doesn’t make sense to the conscious mind,” Stanford University neuroscientist and best-selling author Dr. David Eagleman explained in his PBS series, THE BRAIN. (THE BRAIN with Dr. David Eagleman, Episode 3) How is that? Rational human beings, in general, think that they can just do things as they do when turning on a light switch or hitting the channel selection button on the remote of their television to find another program more to their liking. Even worse, they think that more effort will lead to the desired results, when at first they don’t succeed in doing what they are trying to do. You can attribute it to the American can do spirit or simply human nature – people like to be in control of their lives, at least they like to think that they are in control. Whatever the cause, such a mindset has adversely affected too many hitters, who think that, to hit, they need to put more effort into their swing, in other words, try harder, but that is one of the worst things a hitter can do.

No one understood that better than Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame third baseman, George Brett (pictured above). Brett said that whenever he was in a batting slump, he did not need to try harder, he needed to try easier, not trying much at all. That is not all that easy for any athlete to do, let alone a Major League hitter. He meant that, prior to such a realization, when he was doing poorly, he tried to overcome it by the force of his own will. When that did not work, he painstakingly learned that he could get better results by trying easier. However, that, for him, was a lot easier said-than-done and Brett would admit that it did take him awhile to learn how to try easier. Why? He was very strong-willed, and a touch egotistical. As the Japanese archery master, Kenzo Awa, would have said, Brett had “a much too willful will.” (Herrigel, p 31).

Perhaps it was his strong will - I can do this mindset - that contributed to Brett not hitting .400 in 1980 and becoming the first Major League player to have done so since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941. (With a month to go in the 1980 season, Brett entered September hitting .403. On September 19, he was hitting an even .400. A five-game tailspin, in which he went three for 19, dropped his average to .384. Over his last six games of the season, he gathered himself and went 10 – 19 to bring his average up to .390, only to fall short of the revered mark of .400). Brett later explained his coming up short this way: “I made one mistake. I went out and tried to hit .400 rather than just going out there and play.” (“George Brett on Almost Hitting .400,” SlowTheGameDown, YouTube) Perhaps, since the Star Wars Saga, The Empire Strikes Back, came out in May of 1980, Brett could have learned from the advice that Yoda gave to Luke Skywalker, in one of the movie’s memorable scenes, when Yoda said to Luke, “Try Not. Do or do not. There is no try.” (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) To view that scene, click the link below:

I cannot say that Brett saw the movie that summer or, if he did, he picked-up on the wisdom and relevance of Yoda’s profound advice. Somehow, I do not think that either was the case. Therefore, it may have taken Brett some time to learn how to try easier but eventually he came to realize, as former Major League star and current television analyst, Alex Rodriguez, would eventually do as well, that he simply could NOT command or force himself to hit. Alex Rodriguez admitted so after hitting his 500th home run in early August of 2007, becoming the youngest Major League player to accomplish the feat. It wasn’t easy for him and his strong desire to reach such a milestone made it harder. After struggling for ten days to hit a home run between hitting his 499th home run and his 500th, Rodriguez confessed to trying “hard for about five days” prior to hitting his momentous home run. Things got so bad for him that even a base hit was hard to come by and, during one stretch in the ten day period, he suffered through an 0 for 22 spell. What was to blame? Based upon what Rodriguez said afterwards, it was likely because he was trying to hit #500. “I have conceded the fact,” he said after the game, “that you cannot will yourself to hit a home run.” (“Rodriguez Becomes the Youngest in Baseball History to Hit 500 Home Runs,”, 2007 August 4)

The examples of Brett and Rodriguez cannot be emphasized or analyzed, enough. Most hitters, particularly young hitters fall victim to trying too hard, trying to get themselves to hit through the force of their own will. The solution to this dilemma is a strategy that is as foreign to baseball players as any other mental aspect of the game they play, and that is surrender. Surrender, to what? Well, surrender to how your brain works and, more importantly, does not work. There will be much more to say about that in future posts.

B. Don’t be a control freak. There are those who think that an athlete can indeed control the situations they find themselves in. It involves a rational thought process calling for them to assess the situation, eliminate counter-productive thoughts, and develop a mindset that can lead to them being successful. It is very different from what is to be discussed here, which involves not thinking. We can circle back and consider that other mental approach in subsequent posts but, for now, let us continue to explore the concept of surrender. As you may guess, what we will now be delving into is NOT how to control the situation through the force of one’s own will or some logical mental strategy but, ironically, how to control the situations hitters face by giving up control. If that makes little sense, give it some time to understand what will follow. This can apply to other athletes, as well, but we will narrow our focus to just hitters.

This tendency to want to control our lives is perplexing. Though we would like to think that we can willfully or consciously control our lives, we are fooling ourselves. In matter of fact, we as humans actually control very little in our daily lives. This is especially true for just about everyone involved in masterfully performing a complex motor skill, particularly an intricately well-coordinated motor skill like hitting a baseball.

In his PBS television series, THE BRAIN…, David Eagleman (pictured below) had this to say about whether--or-not humans have much control over their lives:

Who’s in control of what you do? This sounds like a simple question but the facts might surprise you. Almost every action that you take, and every decision that you make, and every belief that you hold, these are driven by parts of your brain that y…

Who’s in control of what you do? This sounds like a simple question but the facts might surprise you. Almost every action that you take, and every decision that you make, and every belief that you hold, these are driven by parts of your brain that you have NO access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine

Eagleman explained how the brain, among other things, works to enable a ball player to hit a baseball. He explains how attempting to willfully, or consciously, control such an action prevents a ballplayer from doing so efficiently, and effectively, while, paradoxically, giving up control allows a ballplayer to do so fluidly, naturally, and freely. Eagleman states that our brain, mysteriously enough, acts “secretly” to help a ballplayer hit a ball just as it does with most about everything we do. Eagleman said that “…without our awareness, the brain controls the complex machinery of the body and makes decisions,” for our purposes here, like whether, or not, to swing at a particular pitch while in the batter’s box, something a hitter has a fraction of a second to do. There is just not enough time to think through the process, consciously, taking yourself through it, a step at a time, body part by body part. The notion that we can control such an intricate process, willfully or consciously, that “you are running the show,” Eagleman calls “the great deception.” He said that, “the conscious thinks that it is the captain of the ship but, in truth, it is nothing more than a stowaway” that is very much just along for the ride. The conscious part of the brain, the part you think controls your life “makes up the smallest bit of the activity of the brain,” according to Eagleman, whereas the unconscious is the “hidden activity inside our heads,” and is “something that most of us take for granted.” As for hitting a baseball well, it happens below the level of our conscious awareness, involving various parts of our brain and nervous system. (THE BRAIN with Dr. David Eagleman)

What is the lesson to be learned? Do not consciously try to control the process because you cannot. Trust yourself, your preparation, your brain, and nervous system, and, most importantly, your reactions. Your brain and body already know how to hit by the time you play in high school and beyond. When you try to control your hitting you are activating parts of the brain that will interfere with other parts of the brain, like the cerebellum, that has your swing in its memory.

In his article titled, “Finding the Zone,” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine way back on April 9, 1989, when this in the zone stuff was first making the rounds, though it may go back as far as 2,500 years (see my blog post, “The Conscious Brain vs. the Unconscious Brain”), author Lawrence Shainberg discussed how one comes to remember and execute fine motor movements that are involved in sports. Shainberg emphasized the critical role of forgetting, using the following catchy aphorism to explain such a process: “the better you are at what you do, the more you can forget it; the more you forget it, the better you do it.” Aware of the ambiguity in that statement, Shainberg attempted to clarify it by offering this explanation of the difference between the more recently developed parts of the upper brain (the conscious part) and the more primitive ones of the lower brain (the unconscious part) this way in “Finding the Zone:”

…The fact that such tasks as typing and baseball are not themselves wired into

the sensorimotor system. Complex and sophisticated, they are products of

the very reasoning process that is turned off when the primitive wiring system

takes over. In fact, as anthropologists point out, the complexity of the games we

play has increased with the complexity of our brains. The paradox is that the

higher – which is to say most recently evolved – cerebral regions that create games  

are precisely those circumvented when the game is played at its highest level.

To explain away “the paradox,” we will revisit Shainberg’s article in a subsequent post. For now, try to remember Shainberg’s statements, though they may in themselves seem at first contradictory. (Shainberg, “Finding the Zone”)

What is the takeaway for now? Once you have honed your swing through the necessary repetition, just let yourself hit! You cannot control it. How will you know when you are allowing yourself to hit? You are doing so when it seems your body is doing it on its own, without any conscious effort or interference from you. It’s like riding a bicycle. Once you learn how, you really don’t think of trying to, do you? You “just do it,” like the Nike advertisements say. Think of it as stepping outside of yourself and watching yourself hit, or, better yet, some other you hit. Be ready to hit the ball because you really cannot be sure what pitch you are going to get, though, through observation and experience, you can make an educated guess with some pitchers. When you get your pitch, you will hit it. Trust it. To be continued. In the meantime, read the article, “Finding the Zone,” just click the link below:

Screenshot 2021-09-09 11.58.48 AM.png

C. It’s only natural. Hitting is, or it eventually becomes, a natural process and involves the coordination of various parts of the brain and body. You simply cannot make it happen when you want to because your ego or pride demands it, or it is in some way imposed on you by external pressure – the demands of a coach, parent, or situation. Your swing will produce the desired results if you have the talent, understand what it is that you have to do to achieve success, do the necessary work beforehand, and burn it into your brain and nervous system. Then, you just let yourself go up there at the plate. Remember: You can’t try to hit a baseball!

D. Update:

“The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise.”

So instructed Kenzo Awa, the Japanese archery master who served as the teacher of Eugen Herrigel, the author of ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY (1953). Awa said this to Herrigel way back in the 1950s! What does it have to do with hitting a baseball today? Well, a lot. Fast forward to 2021. In a post-game interview on June 16, Christian Arroyo, an infielder for the Boston Red Sox, said just about the same thing as Awa said almost three-quarter of a century later. Arroyo was asked about the pinch-hit grand slam he had hit in the 7th inning that provided his team with the winning margin of their game in Atlanta versus the Braves. Arroyo was asked if he knew his grand slam travelled 467 feet as per Statcast. His response was, “What? What? 467, dang, I didn’t know I had it in me.” As Kenzo Awa would have said, Arroyo was “taken … by surprise” by what he had done. Why was that? One reason was the fact that the pitcher that Arroyo hit the home run off was A. J. Minter, a pitcher he had never faced before. However, perhaps the main reason, as Arroyo explained, was that he wasn’t trying to hit a home run, let alone one that went 467 feet! He admitted, “The time you hit the homer is the time you’re not trying (italics added) to hit the homer.” I am sure Alex Rodriguez can relate to that after finally hitting his 500th home run in 2007. Arroyo added, “You know, it’s just part of it. You know, it’s just one of those things. You go in there. You trust your ability. You trust yourself and you realize, you don’t have to do too much….” I am sure that George Brett, in trying to hit .400 in 1980, could relate to that.

There it is. Is there any need for more explanation? Arroyo wasn’t even aware of what he did until he did it. He certainly did not try to hit a 467-foot grand slam that day. I wonder if he saw THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK or THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE. I don’t think he did. I don’t think he read Lawrence Shainberg’s article, “Finding the Zone,” either. I think he is 0 for 3 in that regard. But his statements in that post-game interview implies that he knows about not trying, allowing yourself to hit, and “the paradox” referred to by Shainberg. You can too. (“Christian Arroyo – ‘Red Sox’ Post Game Interview…,” JJA1987, YouTube)


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