Coach Doug McKeen: Helping Young Athletes Develop Their Super Power!
A lifetime of experience has created an approach to brain-based instruction, and it is changing the way young baseball athletes approach performance.
Coach Doug McKeen loads up his bucket of balls, a few tools of the trade and a ton of knowledge into his car and heads out to meet a young hitter. It could be in Guelph, Burlington, Toronto, Mississauga and all areas in between. In between his coaching sessions he is answering texts from hitters all over the world, he is hosting weekly zoom calls where young athletes can share their experiences with others and get some feedback from the coach. Most of all Coach McKeen is consumed with trying to help young athletes navigate the very, very difficult task of consistently hitting and pitching a baseball in a competitive situation.
This week we jump into the world of brain based coaching as applied to baseball hitting. For baseball athletes, parents and coaches this will be a treat. For those in other sports there is a lot here to consume as well. This is not just about baseball, it is about the power of the mind. The battle between the thinking brain and the unconscious brain. Coach McKeen focuses on the power of the unconscious brain in skill execution, what gets in the way, how do we address.
By understanding this concept, the power of the brain contributes to execution in one of the hardest skills there is in sport: hitting a baseball from a pitcher who is doing everything to trick the batter and his/her brain.
This is not sports psychology. This is brain-based skill execution.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Coach Doug McKeen has been working with young baseball players for over 30 years. First with his own son and his teammates and now with countless young players both in person and digitally all over the world.
Doug, the Dad has been there done that. His son Colin played for the Oakville Royals growing up and became one of only a handful of players to win 2 junior college World Series rings for 2 different schools. In 2009, Colin was named second team shortstop to the 2009 All-Canadian College all-star team.
His experience and infinite curiosity has led him down the path of supporting players with a brain-based approach.
Recently, The Physical Movement sat down with Coach McKeen, to talk how understanding how the brain works can open doors for coaches and athletes in finding success in competition.
The below had been edited from our recent conversation. The full 40 minute interview is posted below.
TPM: When did the mental side become an area of focus of your coaching?
Coach McKeen: Coaching started 30+ years ago throwing BP to my son and his teammates. I became very interested in how different athletes were doing with hitting the ball. I am a careful observer, and became infinitely curious as to why some were having so much more success than others.
My coaching started like most, trying to help with mechanics, the common belief being good mechanics belies success because the bat will meet the ball and success will follow.
I quickly found that good mechanics with good batting practice (BP) did not always translate to performing well in a game situation.
About 15 years ago, thanks to the power of the internet, I connected with a coach in France, a tennis coach and player. High level coach and player and ophthalmologist, and I learned a lot about the power of tracking of the ball to contact. I started looking at how the brain works and its involvement in picking up the ball, monitoring it and successfully hitting.
About 8 years ago I then connected with neuroscientist who taught me about the brain, what parts athletes were required to use. Finding this out became a game changer.
With this newfound knowledge, and developing some drills I could have a student, after 1-2 sessions, almost immediately enjoy a better level of success. Just by focusing on clearing the brain, and focusing on ball flight. By contrast, changing mechanics in a swing may take months and months to yield positive traction.
Don’t get me wrong, mechanics are greatly important. They are the foundation for the skill. Without sound mechanics, progress can be limited. But what makes 1 hitter perform better over another when they have similar skills? The ability to have a clear mind, and focus only on one thing: seeing the ball to the bat and having the barrel make contact.
This is how I developed a brain-based coaching approach.
TPM: What has been most satisfying in seeing athletes progress this way?
Coach McKeen: Exactly that. Seeing them progress.
A recent example is this. I worked with a great young 13 year old hitter. A very high level of skill, but before our sessions he would strike out frequently. I offered a different point of focus, and next game went 3-3 with 2 home runs.
This is not necessarily typical, but seeing that progress is very satisfying. By the way, for that level of success to happen, a number of things have to line up.
1. As mentioned, he must have good mechanics.
2. The athlete must be willing to Listen to coach, be open enough to absorb.
3. Then apply to the concepts to game play immediately. This often happens as a consequence of previous struggle.
4. The pitching has to be within a range that he can handle.
TPM: What is missing from our coaches, what can they do to help?
Coach McKeen: First thing is, coaches on teams have a very difficult task. They have to manage a lot of things with limited time. A hitting coach (if there is a coach focused on hitting) may have an hour with 14 kids. That is limited time with each one.
Having said that, understanding how the mind works was a game changer for me as a coach and for the athletes I work with.
Understanding what the thinking brain does and how it searches to protect and find certainty is very important.
What does the unconscious brain do for us humans?
Understanding those 2 components of the brain is massive.
Here is an example. I have a neighbor with a young toddler, maybe 2 years old. Still in diapers. He watches dad play. Then dad throws the ball and hits it. At 2. Yet, we say hitting is hardest thing in the world. But this little guy can do it.
He was not taught how to swing, he is not verbal yet. Just like learning to walk. We don’t tell the toddler to take 1 step in front of the other, shift weight etc.
But how do we coach?
We turn to mechanics . Move the elbow, the feet a certain way etc etc. With this increased focus on the mechanics of the swing, the thinking brain gets involved and the body becomes tighter and slower.
TPM: Teaching how to relax, how do we let the unconscious brain do its work?
Fluidity at the plate vs being tight. How can we as coaches help with that?
Coach McKeen: Muscle memory. Let the unconscious brain control the motion.
The thinking brain has a tremendous ability to interfere with the unconscious brain.
The hitter has all kinds of thoughts: What will the coach think? Will I lose my spot in the order or lineup? The game is on the line, people are depending on me. Your brain starts to talk to you like in kindergarten: move elbow, lead with hips or whatever.
It’s like having 5 files open on your computer, slowing down its performance.
Teaching the thinking brain how to go blank and focus on one thing: watching the ball becomes the sole focus of our work.
In an age of distraction, in an age of multi-tasking, in an age of smart phones this is no easy task. However, the ability to calm the brain and focus on what is most important has never been more difficult. We live in an age in a distracted brain.
The main focus of most coaching and evaluating is the mechanics, because that is what we see. What would you say Greg is the %? Greg L(TPM): over 90 %.
What about the vision/tracking/mental skill side? GL/TPM: less than 10%.
The brain has fractions of a second to see the ball out of the pitchers hand , the first portion of the sequence, follow the ball , send signals to brain. The brain has to decide when the ball will get to me, where will get to me, when and if to start swing , where to get barrel meet the ball.
That is an awful lot in a short time and happens in the first half of the sequence from pitch release to batters swing.
Helping hitters with this first sequence around tracking, anticipation, and, vision (mental) is the focus of Doug’s work.
The swing execution is a byproduct of how well the athlete does in the first portion of the sequence, the tracking from the hand of the pitcher to the bat.
Coach McKeen sees many young hitters do great in batting practice but can’t apply in games and others who have a mediocre swing but do great in games become they win the tracking portion.
Some of the drills to help with this process is to manage the time between pitches. This is the time that the thinking brain can unravel the unconscious brain.
The brain is designed to keep us safe. It keeps us safe by worrying about future events. When a batter swings and misses, the brain gets worried and body tightens up. This makes it worse for the next pitch. It carries over.
The skill of staying calm. This is the essence of Doug’s work.
TPM: Let’s touch on batting practice, because I see so many reps over and over again with the purpose of developing muscle memory but yet, there is little translation often to game performance. How is batting practice leading to amplifying the challenge of hitting well in a game?
Coach McKeen: First of all, the goal for many in batting practice is to hit the ball hard.
That sets the expectation to your brain that all is good. Hit the ball hard, the brain checks the box and all is good.
Now the hitter faces live pitching. Changing speeds, locations, trying to fool your eyes. This is very different than the BP when it was coming straight down the middle same speed every time.
Batting practice is creating a false sense of security that all will go well as opposed to preparing the athlete for the challenge of the game.
Coach Doug’s BP practice is only focused on how well the hitter is tracking the ball.
Understanding that 4-5 swings is all that is needed to check timing and tracking. There are drills for this and that becomes the purpose of BP. The mindset then needs to be preparation for the challenge of hitting live pitching, rather than convincing the brain all is good.
TPM editor note:
There is so much to unpack here. More than 1800 words can describe. First, the full interview is posted below. 2nd , this is so much more than just about baseball. With so much on the physical preparation, and so much distraction in the world, these lessons can be applied to any sport and, of course, life.
Applying this outside of baseball example, this will be of interest. Brain studies of Norwegian athletes who medaled reveals that they go to a different place in their brain than other athletes. These athletes who master the brain side, are not necessarily the most gifted, but perform better. One small example on how the science backs this brain-based model up. Here is the study.
Note: If you are a baseball athlete and/or parent or coach, you will want to hear the full 40 minute interview with Coach Doug. Some of the most powerful insights are right through at the end of the interview.
More information and connecting with Coach Doug McKeen http://epfsports.com/index.html
Coach Doug’s Youtube channel