In baseball, pitchers have to throw the ball through a small, invisible “zone” in front of the batter in order to pitch a strike. Once the ball is in motion, the batter will have to determine whether or not the ball is in that zone or if they can get away with not swinging. At the professional level, this determination is made within milliseconds! A good pitcher in the MLB can throw balls at 100 miles an hour.
No one is born with the ability to see whether an 100mph ball is going to make it into the strike zone. But it’s certainly possible for a good player to determine where the ball is going and what kind of swing will result in a home run. It’s not impossible for someone who has never played baseball to have this ability, but it’s certainly less likely that a person who has never seen a baseball will be able to follow it as it leaves a pitcher’s hand.
How does this happen? How does a professional baseball player acquire the skills to see flying balls?
The answer is perceptual learning.
What Is Perception?
Before we start talking about perceptual learning, let’s talk about perception. Perception is the process in which we identify, categorize, and make sense of sensory stimuli. When a baseball player is up to bat, they have a lot to see. They can see the green grass on the ground, the pitcher in front of them, and the structure of the stadium. All of these shapes and colors and forms don’t have meaning until we assign meaning to them through perception. Without perception, the pitcher would just be a strange set of colors and shapes!
Perception is not just one process of making meaning to stimuli. After all, our senses include sight, smell, taste, sound, and feel. We can break perception down even further as well. Visual perception consists of motion perception, depth perception, and form perception. This process helps us identify shapes on a page as letters or the size of a baseball that is coming our way.
You probably don’t have to think too hard about recognizing grass on the field or understanding that a baseball is coming right toward you! But the first time you saw a baseball, grass, or a person in a baseball uniform, you weren’t able to recognize what you saw.
With enough perceptual learning, perception happens at a subconscious level. And, with the right types of perceptual learning, making meaning of the things that you see can happen faster and faster.
What is Perceptual Learning?
Perceptual learning is the process of learning how to perceive the world around us. There is a lot of perception that happens between the first time you see a baseball and the first time you hit a home run. During that time, perceptual learning gives you the ability to recognize the ball’s form, the speed at which it’s coming, and how you need to move the bat to hit it.
The more you undergo perceptual learning, the more connections are made in the brain. The more you undergo perceptual learning, the faster the process of perception happens. With enough perceptual learning, the brain begins to recognize patterns, knows what to focus on, and can make meaning of stimuli more confidently.
When Does Perceptual Learning Happen?
Decades ago, psychologists thought that perceptual learning only took place at the early stages of development. They observed children playing and recognized it as perceptual learning. But psychologists have changed their tune. Perceptual learning doesn’t just occur in childhood. Adults can also undergo perceptual learning and build their skills. With the right types of perceptual learning, an adult can learn how to see a baseball moving at 100mph or distinguish between two different musical notes.
Forms of Perceptual Learning
If children play, adults practice. (Don’t worry, adults can play, too!) Perceptual learning is essentially the explanation behind the phrase “practice makes perfect.” As you continue to play baseball and practice these skills, you give yourself the opportunity to form new connections in your brain and improve the speed in which you make meaning of stimuli.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
For some people, four hours a day at the batting cages will tremendously help them hit a baseball. For others, four hours a day will help until the player reaches a plateau.
Vince Lombardi once said, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” And he’s right! Simply repeating an action over and over and over is not going to make those connections in the brain that are necessary for building skills. Other factors play into whether practice is perceptual learning.
Practice Vs. Perfect Practice
What makes practice “perfect?” Let’s explore a few different ways.
- Simply putting more focus and attention into practice is a form of perceptual learning. Mindlessly hitting baseballs while you think about your grocery list is not going to help you build skills. Focusing on each swing and your technique is going to give your mind more to process and more opportunities to build your skills.
- Intentionally trying new things is a form of perceptual learning. Have you ever heard the phrase, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?” That is also the definition of imperfect practice. There are many different ways to hit a baseball. There are many different ways to stand at the plate or grip the bat. Intentionally trying something new is more likely to yield a different, and hopefully better, result.
- Assessing the results of your batting practice is a different skill than stepping up to the plate and swinging. This creates more connections in the brain and gives you more information on your growth, skills, and where you are going.
What is the best way to practice the skills you want to learn? I can’t tell you in this video. If you have a goal you want to hit or a skill you want to build, it’s important to reach out to experts who have engaged in perceptual learning and can help you turn practice into perfect practice.