Baseball superstition exists today due to a simple form of training the skills of pitching and hitting. This simple form of training is using blocked order practice for player development. It is common at the MLB level for pitchers especially to have a very poor understanding of the biomechanics of the pitching delivery. When asked how they learned to pitch the way they do the answer is usually I trained a specific pattern of movement in the segment of the pitching delivery for a high amount of reps and it got me to the Big Leagues. They may also say I made a big jump in velocity or consistency when I changed a segment of the pitching delivery with a new pattern of movement that I reinforced through repetition and it worked for me. They rarely can explain why it worked biomechanically. I believe this is why baseball superstition is so prevalent.
The Cause of Baseball Superstition
Turk Wendell is a famous MLB pitcher who was known more for his superstitions than his ability. He would chew exactly four pieces of black licorice while on the mound and brushed his teeth in between innings. He made umpires roll new baseballs back to him and leaped high over the foul line at the end of each inning. The question is why would he do this? The answer is the result of years of blocked order practice. Blocked order practice is when a learner performs a single skill over and over, with repetition being the key (Magill & Anderson, 2017). The reason this can lead to superstition is proven in Jacoby’s analogy which is the understanding that after solving one math problem if asked to solve it again in a short amount of time, the person just repeats the answer (Lee, Swanson & Hall, 1991). Doesn’t go through the process of solving the problem. Blocked order practice works the same way as the analogy. Much of the problem solving goes away as the trial continues with more repetition.
Turk Wendell had success as he was learning to pitch while using blocked order practice using repetition to train segments of the delivery. He then took this strategy into the game, applying blocked order practice into how he waited in the dugout in between innings of pitching and how he started each inning. Brushing his teeth repeatedly or jumping the foul line before he took the mound was repetitions that he obviously correlated to improvements in the results of the game. Blocked order practice can take away the problem solving or the science behind the process and can create the illusion that repeating certain behaviors is what is influencing the knowledge of results on the field. If he used random-order practice or never let himself fall into mindless repetition his superstitions would have seemed a waste of time as perceived by most.
This is what happens to many professional pitchers that I have worked with. They get hurt or they are not the pitcher they once were and they have no idea what has happened. Mainly because they stopped challenging themselves cognitively in their training and atrophied their talent in blocked order practice. MLB pitcher Jake Peavy once asked one of the greatest pitchers in the MLB for some advice in his young career Roger Clemens and he said: “Never Comfortable.” This means never let your brain stop solving problems or never let yourself get comfortable in your training because you have stopped solving problems. This is a common flaw in baseball. Skill acquisition is an undulated process of perfection and when you stop challenging the brain the body stops adapting to the next level.
Baseball Superstition Reference
Lee, T. D., Swanson, L. R., & Hall, A. L. (1991). What is repeated in a repetition? Effects of practice conditions on motor skill acquisition. Physical Therapy, 71(2), 150-156.
Magill, R. A., & Anderson, D. I. (2017). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.