Internal Vs. External Cues

by: Matthew de Marte – April 18th, 2018

How hitters and pitchers are training in baseball today is currently undergoing a revolution. If the way we play the game is shifting and evolving, then the way we coach and instruct players should evolve as well. Manager of the World Series champion Houston Astros A.J. Hinch had this to say on the matter:

In hitting, this is becoming especially true. As the way coaches teach hitting has evolved, there has been an ideological debate between the use of two different coaching styles. For decades, hitting instruction was ruled by internal cues, and now the best hitting coaches rely heavily on external cues to create better hitters. Internal and external cues are defined as the following:

Internal: asking the athlete to focus on his own body and movement

External: having the athlete focus on the effect of his movement

As I mentioned earlier, coaching has to evolve to stay consistent with the development of players’ training methods. Hitters now focus on lifting the ball rather than trying to stay on top of the ball. For many coaches who have not evolved and for hitters who do not understand the evolution in how hitting is taught, it is important to understand the pros and cons of each method and why it is important to have an externally driven approach to hitting. An external cue-based approach is more effective to teach hitters to elevate baseballs for the following reasons:

  1. Constraints can be placed that force a hitter to elevate the ball to have success in a particular drill or setting. External cues lead to a constraint-based approach where an athlete has to focus on something affecting his environment. For instance, this tweet from the Rays provides a great example of an external cue. To have success, players must hit it over the screens in the infield! External cues can become more complex, but it is easy to see they force a hitter to adapt to his environment to have success.
  2. External cues make hitters figure things out for themselves. A coach can tell hitters the best information in the world, but that does not mean the hitter will adjust his swing accordingly. A few professional players SOTG has been fortunate enough to speak with emphasized the benefits of being given tools to figure stuff out on their own. They explained that while they had great coaches who showed them the way, it was ultimately on them to figure things out. External cues allow a hitter freedom to find what works for him and forces him to figure things out when given a constraint to overcome.
  3. By using an external cue led approach, you lessen the risk of being “over-coached.” It is becoming more and more common for hitters to be over-coached. Now, young hitters get instruction from parents, school coaches, travel coaches, private hitting instructors, and potentially other outside sources. Receiving advice from this many outside sources is potentially damaging and could provide the hitter with information overload if five different sources are each telling a player a different thing they need to focus on to improve. The goal of teaching hitting is to simplify things to help a hitter find the best swing, not to over-complicate matters. External cues take the advice and instruction out of the equation by providing problems hitters must find solutions to.

I do not want to devalue internal cues completely. When used correctly, they can be extremely valuable and help a hitter immensely. In our interview with Chris Taylor, he spoke of the importance for him to stay stacked. You can read more about that here. I want to highlight the fact that Taylor used the term ‘staying stacked.’ The term staying stacked was an internal cue used to help Taylor keep his weight in his back hip while loading. This is an example of implementing internal cues successfully.

One big problem with internal cues does not have to do with the actual cues used, but instead, it deals with how they are used. Driveline Baseball’s head of hitting Jason Ochart discussed the manner and said, “Lots of research has been done on this subject in sports, and it is an imperative part of coaching. It seems that great coaches know how to use cues. They know what to say and when to say it. Early in my coaching career, I used them all the time; I was always there and eager to provide my feedback. After a while, I realized I was often doing more harm than good, and causing more confusion than correction. Surely, athletes need feedback. But sometimes, less is more.” With internal cues, more is not better. If a coach is working with a hitter to fix a problem and he needs an internal cue he should not be drilling cues that are designated to other parts of the swing/ approach/ etc. Doing this can become overwhelming and confusing to a hitter. Less is more in this aspect as a coach should focus solely on fixing the problem at hand.

Another potential negative of internal cues is which ones are used. Walker Buehler spoke with SOTG and noted how important it was for him to find cues that helped him get to the different checkpoints in his delivery. The same can be said for hitting. Finding the cues that click for you are huge. Knowing that each hitter is different and needs to hear different cues is critical for how to use them. It is important also to know your cue applies to a hitter. Telling a hitter to stay on top of the ball or swing down probably is not going to create a better hitter. Also, repeating the same cue after every swing is going to frustrate the hitter so knowing not to repeat it a hundred times during a session is smart as well. Make sure the internal cues you use actually apply and resonate with the hitter you are telling them to.

I believe external cues are more effective in producing better hitters than internal cues. However, that does not mean internal cues have no place or use in teaching hitting, but the application of them can cause negative consequences. If you are a hitting coach, it is important to develop an approach to teaching hitters that does not overwhelm them and gives them the tools to find their optimal swings. A coach who knows how to optimize the two strategies is one who probably will help develop better hitters. If any coaches are interested in how I use these tools to teach hitters, feel free to contact me at studentsofbaseball@gmail.com. I hope this insight is useful to you!

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