Three Must-Have Cognitive Skills for Fast-Paced Sports

Eric Rynston-Lobel, a young journalism student at Northwestern University recently published an interesting article, “Hitting a baseball is the hardest skill to pull off in sports. Here’s why,” in the magazine Popular Science. We asked our own, Leonard Zaichkowsky, PH.D., and gameSense Co-Founder and Director of Sport Science to add his insights on this topic. His thoughts are below…

Through his scientific research and interviews with experts in physics, Dr. David Kagan, neuroscience, Dr. Paul Sajda, and hitting coaches, Eric accurately portrayed the fact that the skill of hitting a baseball is complex and unlike any other sport skill. It involves more than sheer physical athleticism. In his article, he points out the classical example of how the great Michael Jordon, who ruled the basketball world, failed in his attempt to play professional baseball. Jordan failed primarily because he could not execute one specific skill: hit the 90-mile an hour baseball. This reminded me of when I had my graduate students read a motor learning explanation of the Jordan phenomenon in the book “Why Michael  Couldn’t Hit: And Other Tales of the Neurology of Sports,” written by Harold Klawans. 

Like Professor Sajda, I studied, taught, and wrote about the brain processes that are involved in rapid decision-making by athletes. Sajda, according to Eric, believes exceptional hitters have two important cognitive qualities: 

  1. The ability to stop themselves from swinging at certain pitches in a fraction of a second.
  2. The ability to identify pitches.

I call the first point “impulse control or response override”, an important cognitive skill to be sure.  But the most important attribute hitters must have is the ability to identify pitches or what gameSense refers to as pitch recognition.  In the book I co-authored with Dan Peterson, “The Playmakers Advantage”, published in 2018, we discuss the three critical perceptual-cognitive skills needed in fast-paced sports or in hitting of a baseball or softball.  They are: 

  1. The ability to visually focus on and read important cues early. For example, great hitters with their excellent visual acuity learn to read a pitcher’s grip of the ball and their release point.

  2. Anticipate and decide the type of pitch and location.  If a baseball pitcher throws at 90 miles per hour, from 55 feet the hitter needs to decide in .440 seconds whether the pitch will be a strike or a ball; to swing or not swing (where impulse control is needed); and decide whether the pitch is going to be a fastball, breaking ball or changeup, etc. Hitting a fastpitch softball is even more difficult.  A 70 mph fastball released  37 feet from home plate requires .35 seconds of reaction time for the batter or 20% less time.

  3. Execute the skill of putting the bat on the ball.  All of this perceptual-cognitive activity plus muscle/limb movement to hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat takes less than half a second.  In sum, hitting a baseball or softball requires incredible coordination of the hitter’s eyes, brain, nervous system, and muscles of the body.

Until recently, the only way hitters
could develop this important perceptual cognitive skill was through getting at-bats
in a batting cage or in game situations, which is not an efficient method of
training. Today, the visual temporal occlusion method of brain training
developed by GameSense Sports,
allows hitters at all levels to get many “at bats” by simply viewing a variety
of pitchers on their mobile phone, iPad, or desktop computer. 

About Leonard Zaichkowsky, PH.D., gameSense Co-Founder and Director of Sport Science

Dr. Zaichkowsky is a widely known sport and performance scientist whose specialty is the psychophysiology of human performance. For 37 years, he was a professor at Boston University with a joint appointment in the School of Education and School of Medicine.

He has published 6 books and more than 100 scientific papers on sport psychology, sport science, biofeedback, and research methods and made more than 300 presentations world-wide. Currently, Len is a science consultant for a number of sports, medical, military, and business organizations. Dr. Zaichkowsky is a licensed psychologist, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), and 2016 recipient of APA’s award for “Distinguished Contributions to Professional Practice”. He is a past-president and Fellow of the Association for Applied Sport  Psychology (1997-99), a former member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, and currently section editor on psychology for the International Journal of Health & Sport Science. Len has consulted with U.S., Canadian, and Australian Olympic organizations, Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL, NHL, Spanish World Cup Soccer, Real Madrid, and numerous other elite sport organizations.

Why College and Travel Teams now Test Hitters’ Pitch Recognition


By Dr. Peter Fadde, Chief Science Officer, gameSense Sports

A hitter’s statistics betray the symptoms of poor pitch recognition: strikeouts, low on-base percentage, and even groundouts (afterall, weakly putting the ball into play is a win for the pitcher, not the hitter!). There are also some hitters that appear asymptomatic. Their stats can be described as “just fine” … for now. These hitters may have good vision, good eye-hand coordination, sound swing mechanics, and an aggressive approach in their hitting arsenal. But if they don’t have good pitch recognition they will eventually run into pitchers that expose their deficiencies.

Athletes who ignore the symptoms of poor pitch recognition jeopardize their chances of high-level hitting success. College coaches know this, and many are starting to insist that players have their pitch recognition tested before being considered for their programs.

Fortunately, there is a reliable and valid pitch recognition test available for baseball and softball hitters. It is called the Standardized Recognition Test, or SRT. The SRT uses the video-occlusion method that sports scientists have used for 40 years to research seemingly-impossible sports skills such as: blocking penalty shots, returning 130 mile-per-hour tennis serves, and split-second hitting decisions in baseball, softball, and cricket. 

In a video-occlusion test, the athlete watches video of a pitcher from the point-of-view of a batter. The pitcher winds up and throws; the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand, and then the video cuts to black. The athlete needs to choose what type of pitch it was: Fastball? Curve? Rise? Slider? Wicked Googly? Pitch zone recognition is also tested:  Ball or Strike? Time of ball flight that the athlete gets to see varies: sometimes they see about one-third of ball flight, sometimes less, and sometimes the video cuts to black right at release of the
pitch. Decades of research prove that expert hitters can “read” pitches better and earlier, thereby having more time to decide if and where to swing. 

The SRT- developed by gameSense Sports – has three scores: Pitch Type, Pitch Location:Ball/Strike, and PR (or Pitch Recognition)  score. Hitters that are especially good at Pitch Type often have high stats in Slugging Percentage; They see the ball early and adjust their swing. Hitters with high Ball/Strike scores have a good eye for the zone. Hitters with a high overall PR Score often occupy the three-hole in the batting lineup when they are also strong hitters (strong mechanics, vision, confidence, approach, etc.)

It is important to remember that the SRT does not test hitting ability. Some players with high PR Scores still struggle at the plate due to other factors such as poor hitting mechanics, strength, vision, confidence, or approach. What SRT does test is how well an athlete can read pitches, which becomes of higher importance as the athlete progress into more elite levels of play.  

Over 700 minor league players and hundreds of college players – including players in the Cape Cod Baseball League – have taken the
gameSense SRT for Pro/College baseball. The college softball SRT is breaking into prominence and now required by several teams, notably in the formidable SEC. And gameSense now has SRTs for High School/Travel baseball and softball.  Teams use SRT scores in recruiting, coaches and instructors use SRT scores to reveal pitch recognition strengths and weaknesses, and players use SRT scores to see how much they have improved when they train their pitch recognition.

As a science-based test is expected to be, the SRT is trustworthy and valid; It measures what it says it measures. It is reliable. And in order to increase scores, the actual work must be put in first: If an athlete takes an SRT today and again next month, they will score about the same if they have not practiced their pitch recognition.

The best way to improve hitting health and stats are to heed the symptoms of poor pitch recognition and take the test. More  information on the SRT can be found at:

Training the Brain to be a Better Hitter

Hitting a small round ball moving at high velocity with a thin round stick should be impossible, yet millions of batters successfully hit baseballs each year. The mere act of hitting a ball is well beyond the normal realm of human perceptual cognitive decision-making, which is the process by which the brain combines the various types of sensory information it receives to decide how to behave. A batter that can hit three out of ten is considered good; only Ted Williams hit .400 in a single season.

Batting .300 goes beyond simple reaction time – the hitter’s brain needs to make countless decisions in the blink of an eye.

A baseball or softball pitch is incredibly fast, particularly when thrown by an elite athlete. A mere 400 milliseconds (ms) pass between the moment a pitcher releases a baseball to the moment it crosses the plate. The batter’s decision-making process occurs within the first 175 ms of the pitch – in the blink of an eye, the batter evaluates the movement of the ball then decides if and how he will swing the bat in response. Some hitters begin decision making before the pitcher releases the ball, judging by arm angle and the expression on the pitcher’s face.

While physical training helps give professional athletes the strength they need to hit a ball out of the park and to round the bases quickly, brain training helps batters connect with the ball more often and with more control.

About Brain Training

Brain training develops pitch recognition, improves quality at-bats, boosts on-base percentages, and ultimately increases runs. Quality brain training helps batters deflate a pitcher’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) by increasing the hitter’s ability to contact every ball that enters the strike zone.

Brain training amplifies performance by practicing cognitive skills that affect athletic performance, such as visual processing speed and reaction time.

The human brain consists of special cells, known as neurons, which connect to one another to create a network. Fibers, known as dendrites and axons, connect the neurons. Dendrites bring information to the body of the neuron, while axons carry the information away from the neuron body. Repetition strengthens these connections to improve the way brain cells transmit information.

Repetition is the Basis of Learning

“Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.” (Zig Ziglar)

Being good at sports is nothing more than pattern recognition – a batter’s brain looks for patterns in the way a pitcher’s arm moves to predict how the ball will fly through the air. To recognize these patterns well enough to hit a baseball, though, batters must repeat the experience of hitting a baseball thousands of times.

Drill and practice is disciplined and repetitious exercise. Repetition improves speed, increases confidence and strengthens the connections in the brain. Strong connections allow information to move from the eyes to the brain to the rest of the body quickly.

Other types of cognitive training for baseball/softball help players respond to these patterns in ways that improve play. Stimulus response training can help players develop an automatic response to the patterns they see. This type of training improves motor imagery, a state in which the athlete imagines him- or herself performing a movement without actually moving. Stimulus response training can improve movement execution and baseball/softball reaction time. Repetition takes all the thinking out of it.

Training the brain and the body separately allows players to train each up independently. A player that has hit a plateau with physical training, for example, can advance his or her game through brain training.

New Technologies

Technology is now ubiquitous, seeping into every aspect of human health and activity. Since the day Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 Cooperstown, NY, scientists and engineers have looked for new baseball/softball training aids, techniques and technologies to improve performance. Players have had to learn how to adapt to the evolution of baseball, and many use science to help them do that. The first few batters struggled to learn how to hit Candy Cumming’s curveballs, for example, but training and repetition taught the players how to recognize a curveball long before it leaves the pitcher’s hand. Training drills, particularly hitting and bunting drills, became mainstays in the NBA because they strengthen the fundamental skill sets that set a professional athlete apart from the rest.

Many of the basic training techniques and batting aids developed in the earliest days of baseball are still in use today. Players still use eye exercises, for example, in hopes of enhancing pitch recognition. A number of new technologies try to improve upon these basic training drills. Some add eye tracking to eye exercises, for example, while others offer fastball trainers that show you the dot in the slider. Technologies such as virtual reality (VR), video games and simulations in particular are sweeping through baseball and softball.

Not all tech is created equal, however – much of today’s technology is long on eye-catching graphics but short on substance. More realism does not translate into more learning. In fact, because the professional batter’s brain already has a reliable cognitive map of the batter’s box experience, realism may not even be necessary for effective brain training.

Furthermore, there is scant evidence that eye exercises, virtual reality or other modern training techniques actually improve performance behind the plate. Virtual reality in particular is a very young technology, so while VR is fun, its long-term benefits as batting aids are unclear. It is also expensive. Research may someday substantiate the use of these tools for baseball players, but there is currently no proof that many of the games and apps in use today work.

What researchers do know is that humans do not need to recreate every detail of an experience to learn. Sports specialists also know that tried-and-true testing and training methods, such as temporal occlusion, actually help hitters connect with the ball. These methods come highly vetted for all kinds of sport and non-sport specific tasks.

The long and short of it is, players should stick with those established baseball/softball training aids that work and are efficient, reliable, convenient and much less expensive.