Why Ask Why

Anyone who has, or has been around, a young child, knows what his/her favorite question is: why.

Why is the sky blue? Why does a dog bark? Why do I have to wear a hat and gloves? Etc., etc.

Asking “why?” is innate to a youngster. For adults, the persistent questions are enjoyable at first, but can eventually become draining. Little by little, as many youngsters mature, the questions come out less and less — as if they feel their parents’ impatience or maybe feel they are “too old” to be asking why.

However, you can never be too old to ask “why?”, and when it comes to learning — and teaching — baseball, you should always be asking “why?”.

When you ask “why?”, you learn something new, and you have a more complete understanding of the task at hand. (Note: the purpose of “why” is not to challenge an instructor; rather, it is to better comprehend what the coach wants you to do.) For example, a coach may tell a pitcher to land with a more open toe. If the pitcher simply plays good soldier and does as he’s told, without asking why, he’ll never understand that the purpose of landing more open is to allow his hips to rotate, add more torque to the pitch, and prevent arm injuries caused by throwing across the body. Human beings are not robots, and therefore should not take directions as if they are brainless machines. Understanding the reason you are doing something will help you succeed at the specific task, and more importantly, give you an overall picture or image of the entire action — be it throwing, catching, or hitting a baseball. Comprehensive understanding will result in faster, longer-lasting results.

Likewise, it is just as important for the coach to ask “why?”. For example, before you start telling a hitter to keep his hands inside the ball, understand exactly what that means and why it is important. If you don’t know, ASK. Anytime you pick up a catchphrase, learn a new drill, or hear about a specific mechanical action, ask what it means and why it is important to your ballplayers. This may sound obvious, but I can tell you from experience that there are plenty of baseball coaches preaching all kinds of philosophies, yet have no idea why those philosophies are important.

As a case in point, I can remember being 13 years old and my Babe Ruth League coach giving me all kinds of hitting instructions. “Get you elbow up!” “Keep the bat still!” “Don’t hitch!” were just a few of his commands. At the time, I had no idea why he was telling me these things, but to prevent from looking stupid, I never asked. I simply presumed that he knew better than me, and if I did what he said, I’d be a better hitter. As it turned out, all of his instructions were detrimental to my style of hitting, and my refusal to ask kept me in the dark as far as the hitting process went — I learned nothing in that year other than to take orders. But I didn’t find that out until years later, when I stopped worrying about looking dumb and starting asking “why” again.

Again, I’ll reiterate: the point of asking why is not to challenge, but to understand. When I got to college, my coach Bruce Sabatini instructed me to “hit down to the ball”. I asked why, and he answered, “it’s a shorter path to the ball. A short path means quicker hands, which means you have more time to decide on whether to swing.” He also asked ME WHY I kept my elbow so high. I responded, “I don’t know, someone told me to do that so I did it.” He considered this, and then suggested, “if you keep your elbow up there, it’s going to promote a long, loopy swing,” and he proceeded to show me the difference between a swing started with the elbow up and the elbow down. The light went off in my head, and finally I understood something about hitting. Had I asked when I was 13 why I must keep the elbow up, my coach might have given something to the equivalent of “because that’s the way it’s done” — in other words, he never asked why, and therefore never fully understood the mechanics of hitting a baseball.

At the same time, my Babe Ruth League might not necessarily have been wrong — there might have been a good reason to keep the elbow up. But since I never asked, I’ll never know. Maybe he thought a big kid like me would benefit from a loopy swing; after all it would enable me to get under and lift the ball — as in over the fence. But for five or six years I never knew why I was keeping my elbow up there.

The point is, if you are a coach, and you are presenting a mechanical change to a player, you should have a full understanding of why you’re doing it, for two reasons. First, because you need to know that what you’re changing is going to help that particular player. If you don’t know the reasoning behind a specific “absolute”, then you have no business applying it to a player — for all you know it might make things worse. Secondly, if you do know why, then you can explain the reason to the player, and he will 1) have a better understanding of the concept; 2) buy into the idea; and 3) trust you as an authority. All three of these factors lead to quicker progress and long-lasting, positive effect on performance.

Think about the last time you went to the doctor or dentist. He/she gave you a diagnosis of your problem and a recommended cure / solution. Then, you likely received a detailed explanation why that course of action was recommended — in some cases, a little too detailed for a weak stomach! This is a tactic to get you more comfortable with the procedure or medication being prescribed. As a result you “buy in” because there is logic behind the plan — a reason WHY. And naturally you’re going to trust a doctor who is so thorough with his analysis and recommendation. It’s a very similar situation between player and coach. You, as coach, need to have full understanding of the player’s current condition, and the proper “cure” for any malady. When both the coach and the player understand the issue, and the “why” behind the solution is easily accepted, and quickly adopted — a win-win situation for everyone.

Players, the next time a coach tells you to do something that alters the way you throw, catch, or hit, ask why — with politeness and passion to learn. Coaches, the next time you learn something from a clinic, video, or book, ask why that’s the right way. Remember, this is a kid’s game, and often it’s good to employ some of those instincts (such as asking why) you had as a kid.