Thoughts from Cressey Sports Performance Fall Seminar

I was able to recently attend the Cressey Sports Performance Fall Seminar September 21-22. It was the first time I was able to make it up to their location in Massachusetts. Being someone who has followed their work for quite a while, it was a great opportunity to meet and collaborate with the staff, network with others, and learn a great deal throughout the weekend.

The topics of the sessions were quite diverse and covered everything from business, psychology, sports performance, general population, ACL rehab, pitching, and more. Below are some of my thoughts about what I learned and why I believe they’ve built an awesome culture at CSP.  

The first thing you could notice with the entire staff was the synergy that connected them. While everyone shared foundational knowledge about training, each staff member brought to the table a unique skill set and expertise. They were encouraged to be themselves and to train people as they saw fit while maintaining certain core principles (incorporating a push/pull, squat/hinge, etc.). The CSP staff didn’t utilize a step-by-step instruction manual – they had an adaptable toolbox which was suited towards their strengths

Considering the complexity of coaching human beings, being adaptable is one of the most important skills you can have as a coach. Some kids will respond to certain exercises, cues, or drills better than others. Your job as a coach is not to shove a style down someone’s throat, but to use feedback from the athlete to build their own. Several of the presenters mentioned the idea of autonomy – giving athletes some say in their training process. Nobody wants a dictator for a coach. By including athletes in their development plan, you’re able to get better buy in, more engagement, increased enthusiasm, and better results. 

This autonomy is delivered through relationship driven coaching. As a professional, you must put a premium on the personal relationships you have people. If you’re going to get the best out of someone, they need to know that you care about them as a human being. You need to know who the athlete is, what excites them, their interests outside of training, why they train, and what makes their personality unique. Whoever you are working with must be able to trust you – the single most important factor when building buy-in. If you go about this process transactionally, athletes are going to see right through you. If you take the time to slow cook your relationship and really get to know them as individuals, you are going to have far more success.

This coach-athlete relationship is more important than ever with the rise of anxiety and depression related issues. It’s estimated that 70 percent of teens state their peers show symptoms of anxiety and depression. People who suffer from anxiety have trouble concentrating, feel the need to be a perfectionist, and lack trust. This is a crucial component as the coach-athlete relationship depends heavily on trust. If your athletes do not perceive you as someone that cares about them and can help them, you will not be able to build sufficient buy-in. 

When dealing with athletes that show symptoms of anxiety, it’s important to be an active listener. Let the athlete share their thoughts and concerns. Aim to learn the true source of their anxiety and ultimately try to alter their perception of their limitations. If you can change an athlete’s thought process, you can help them develop the courage to overcome it through acknowledgement, positive feedback, and consistent support. As a result, your interactions on the playing field or training floor can have a profound impact on the life of that individual beyond sport – our ultimate goal. Athletic performance cannot be your main focus when dealing with young men and women. Above all else, coaches must strive to build optimal well-being within the individuals that they come into contact with. 

At the Saturday bonus session, John O’Neil and Kyle Driscoll talked about their summer collegiate pitcher development program that they ran for 10 weeks with just over 40 arms. The program had great success and helped numerous pitchers get stronger, more efficient, and gain more velocity. Aside from the technical components of the program, what I found really interesting was how they used competition to fuel greater returns this year. One of the things they did right out of the gate was pick everyone’s throwing partners. Since the athletes would spend a lot of time with their throwing partner, John and Kyle specifically chose partners that would get the most out of each other. Some of the factors they took into account were motivation levels, previous training experience, abilities, movement patterns, and personalities. When blended just right, they developed a tandem that worked every single day to get the most out of themselves and each other. 

This is something John and Kyle believed really helped the program this year as opposed to last year. By utilizing the dynamic systems theory and really placing a priority on creating a competitive environment, throwers in their program thrived seeing average velocity gains of 3-4 mph. I thought this was a great teaching point for coaches and athletes: If you want to really challenge yourself in catch play, pair yourself up with someone who will get the best out of you. Bounce ideas off of each other, try new things out, and compete your ass off to shove it down their throat every single day. You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with

This leads to another point that was driven throughout the clinic – master the basics before getting caught up in the details. The programs CSP writes for athletes and general population clients are largely the same. A lot of the exercises they describe are not exciting at all – they’re basic, fundamental movements. There’s nothing sexy about executing a quality hip hinge or snapdown into the athletic position, but it’s a prerequisite to establishing robust movement patterns that can eventually be loaded. Executing a prone trap raise is not as fun as doing 69 sets of biceps and triceps, but it’s a fundamental pattern that teaches people how to posterior tilt and move the scapula flush along the rib cage while keeping the humeral head in the glenoid socket. 

Athletes executing a hip hinge in our warm up before summer camp

If you want to throw a baseball hard and stay healthy while doing it, you must master the basics on the field before getting to the fun stuff. Catch play is a very basic and monotonous part of baseball, but it’s a foundational skill that must be taken seriously every single day. If you don’t strive to get the most out of your catch play every single time you touch a ball, you are wasting hours of precious development. Your window in this game is very limited. If you aren’t taking care of the basics on a consistent basis, your window will start to close sooner than you thought. 

This is a big reason why Eric’s initial assessment with athletes simply begins by looking at resting posture. While it seems basic on the outside, it gives a lot of information in terms of whether the athlete sits in flexion or extension, the alignment of their pelvis and shoulders, upper trap tone, the angle of their clavicle, and forward head posture – to name a few. Without getting deeper into the assessment (passive/active range of motion, basic joint movements, lunge, push up, overhead squat, etc.), a really simple position will give you a lot of information that can dictate the rest of the assessment. If you were to overlook this, you could put the athlete in a situation where exercise selection would feed the exact patterns you’re trying to avoid (ex: dumbbell loaded exercises for those with overactive lats that sit in downward rotation). 

When a baseline has been established through assessment, it’s important to start building a program with exercises that match up to your client. John and Kyle did a great job explaining this by laying out the following guidelines:

  1. Is an exercise, technically:
    1. Necessary? 
    2. Sufficient?
    3. Appropriate?
    4. Effective?
    5. Challenging? (or interesting, enjoyable?)
    6. Safe?
  2. Environmentally:
    1. Person (assessment/training history)
    2. Practitioner (coach?)
    3. Periodically/phase appropriate/time sensitive?
    4. Place appropriate? 
    5. Position appropriate?

While the first list is more of a general guideline, the second list is a little more individualized in terms of the client, the coach, the training location, and how it fits into their short and long term goals. Based on the client and their aspirations, there is great value in taking a conservative approach early on in order to build positive associations with training (think twice before making athletes do sprints/push ups for punishment). This list is also not static – some things may change in time. Being adaptable and being able to make adjustments is a critical piece in delivering an effective training program.  

Having the knowledge to eliminate certain exercises is also an important piece when designing programs. Depending on the sport the athlete plays, the calendar, their starting date, individual assessment, or position, certain exercises are not going to make sense. Giving an individual who lacks sufficient hip flexion a heavy dose of front squats is a disaster waiting to happen. If an athlete can’t move their scaps while executing a push up, placing them on a bench and doing horizontal press variations (bench press, dumbbell bench) is not a great way to get them moving correctly. 

This rule is also applicable in a baseball setting. Being able to choose and eliminate different inputs is a skill that requires a big toolbox – just the way program building is. Heavy bats can be great for loose movers to help create more efficient angles, but is a poor idea for someone who can’t control their barrel in the first place. Short bats can help some learn how to stay on the ball for a longer period of time, but don’t make sense when athletes start to cheat and lose angles over the plate. While it’s necessary to learn how to add certain drills/movements, it’s just as important to learn addition by subtraction

Using the short can be a great tool for athletes who pull off the ball prematurely 

Another concept John and Kyle talked about was utilizing a High/Low Central Nervous System (CNS) model – as made famous by Charlie Francis. This model balances structural and functional exercises as they relate to the increasing demands on the CNS. Developing an efficient CNS is integral in optimizing neuromuscular coordination – a big reason why multi-joint exercises should be the backbone of any training program.  The movements we make throughout the course of the day largely do not happen in isolation. They are the result of coordination between various joints and segments throughout the body. 

With this, certain exercises and tempos are going to create different demands on the CNS. Structural exercises (hypertrophy, low load/speed) are going to demand less on the CNS as opposed to functional exercises (endurance, strength, power – heavy and fast). 

High CNS movements:

  • Sprints
  • Heavy compound movements (deadlifts, front squats)
  • Medicine ball throws for speed
  • Watching the Buffalo Bills every Sunday for 22 years (I’m kidding)

Low CNS movements:

  • Low aerobic capacity work (elliptical, light jog)
  • Isolation strength training (biceps curls, leg extensions)
  • Low intensity dynamic warm up exercises (side shuffles, marches, carioca)
  • Angrily mowing the lawn after the Bills lose a heartbreaker (this happens too often)

Because of the strength and coordination required, high CNS exercises are going to typically be the best bang for your buck when training – as well as the most taxing. As a result, they should be executed when the athlete is the least fatigued. This can be accomplished by placing high CNS moves at the beginning of workouts and spacing your high CNS days between low CNS days (hence, the high/low model). A low CNS day can be any workout that does not place a heavy emphasis on endurance, strength, or power. While younger athletes can typically get away back-to-back higher CNS days because their CNS isn’t highly developed, older and more experienced lifters are going to need more time to recover.  

To create an example week utilizing the high/low model, Monday and Thursday could be high CNS lower body days. Tuesday and Friday could be moderate upper body days, Wednesday a lower CNS day, and Saturday a higher CNS day with a very low CNS day on Sunday. This can be modified or utilized in a variety of different ways – as long as you are allowing for recovery time between high CNS days. This same pattern should be utilized when developing a velocity program for pitchers. High CNS days would be velocity days and low CNS days would either be low intensity throwing/mapping or complete off days. By allowing for optimal recovery time between high CNS days, you can maximize your training without compromising the long term health of your athletes.

Early trainees are going to progress rather rapidly (linear progressive overload), while more experienced lifters are going to take more work to continue to progress and see performance gains. In either case, it’s important to always have a strong foundation with the basics (general physical preparation). Activities like baseball are going to generally pull athletes into beneficial asymmetrical patterns (ex: loss of internal rotation in back hip, gain of internal rotation in lead hip). John made a point to note throwing a baseball is going to require you to be asymmetrical – whether you had those qualities to begin with or developed them over time. Because of this, it’s important your training finds a way to neutralize some of these positions without going too far in one direction or the other (ex: anti-rotary exercises, non-dominant med ball throws to offset asymmetrical rotational demands). Less experience in the weight room is going to require less specificity on the training floor. More experience will require greater variety, but not without regards to basic movements. 

Certain qualities are going to be easier to develop and maintain than others. For example, research has shown aerobic capacity and low max strength work are pretty easy to develop and hold on to. On the other hand, power is going to be one of the first qualities to go if it is not maintained on a fairly regular basis. Considering the window of time needed to produce force in baseball, developing plane specific power should be a priority throughout programming. However, it should not come at the cost at developing general strength. General strength should be developed first before adding more explosive, power centered exercises into programs. As for some markers for general strength, CSP likes to see athletes trap bar deadlifting 405, lunging their bodyweight, and front squatting 1.5X their bodyweight. While these markers don’t necessarily dictate the health/performance of an athlete, they give some really basic information as to where their strengths, weaknesses, and greatest windows for opportunity are. 

This brings up another point discussed throughout the clinic – there is such a thing as “strong enough” when it comes to developing athletes in the weight room. Eric did a great job of explaining this in his presentation of the spine. The rotary athlete is going to require a thinner, more mobile spine in order to adapt to the constant rotation and extension you see throughout baseball. This spine is not going to fare well in the long term when constantly loaded axially (front/back squat) and bilaterally. Those with thicker spines (powerlifters, offensive linemen) are going to fair much better with these patterns as they’ve created more specific adaptations to their functional tasks. 

Using medicine balls is a great way to build rotational power

As a general rule of thumb, CSP feels pretty comfortable when an athlete can get into the upper 400 to lower 500 pound range. Since everyone’s training economy/timetable is limited, it’s important athletes are prioritizing sport specific training adaptations. Chasing a 600 pound deadlift as a baseball pitcher should not come at the expense of using medicine balls to develop rotary power. A 400 pound squat is no good if an athlete can’t reverse lunge 135. Research has shown power is largelyplane specific (e.g. why powerlifters typically don’t throw baseballs at a high level). If you aren’t getting strong in the positions and planes that your sport demands, you are wasting a good portion of your training economy. There is a time and place for loading up the bar on a deadlift, but there is also a limit as to how far you should really push to load the pattern. 

To help these gains in the weight room transfer to the playing field, John and Kyle emphasized the importance of working proximal to distal when addressing movement patterns. Much of what you see at the distal extremities (hands, feet) is going to mirror what is happening at the trunk, glutes, and pelvis. As a result, one of the first things they prioritize is creating some proximal stability. Stable positions are repeatable, unstable positions are tough to repeat. 

When athletes take their move out of balance, John and Kyle like to see some sort of rear hip stiffness. This is created by keeping the back foot in the ground and the rear glute behind the athlete’s heel (the hinge position). Instead of coaching athletes to push off the rubber, CSP likes to teach athletes how to hold angles and keep tension in their backside as they move down the mound. This gives the upper half the ability to mobilize and create separation. If the lower half is not able to create stability, the upper half won’t be able to separate and will work as one unit with the lower half. This throws off the rotary sequence and will result in a lack of velocity, health, and performance. 

Keeping the glove thumb down after hand break

Another key point John and Kyle discussed was direction to the plate. Through their observations, athletes tend to get very stiff (“muscling up”) and rotational (trying to create more separation) when trying to throw harder. This gives athletes the tendency to fly off their target through towards their glove side through early trunk rotation. Controlling the trunk throughout the delivery is a big piece in teaching athletes how to create adequate stiffness at key points. They like to teach athletes how to delay the trunk (in terms of its relationship to the pelvis) by keeping the glove thumb down (shoulder internal rotation). This helps the throwing arm retract (scap retraction) and eventually get into a slot at foot strike where the forearm/humerus and humerus/torso share about a 90 degree relationship. The throwing arm is then able to lay back and eventually deliver the ball through internal rotation and pronation. If the glove side is not able to hold angles and keep the torso stacked over the rear hip, athletes will go into early trunk rotation, lose the ability to retract the throwing scap, and spin off the ball (lack of direction) with diminished velocity. 

Getting to the 90/90 position at foot strike (general rule of thumb) with torso stacked over rear hip

Before telling pitchers to get their arm up or to keep from flying open with their lead leg, make sure you address what is going on proximally. See if they know how to hinge, turn their glutes on, and create/hold stiffness in their back hip. Make sure they’re able to create stability with their lower half before chasing separation with their upper half. Keep their direction going down the hill. You’ll never solve the issue distally if you fail to address it proximally. As John and Kyle say, “Proximal stability dictates distal performance.” 

On a final note, I think the most important fundamental takeaway was using a collaboration of several skill sets to build a sturdy, holistic business model. Everyone has their own strengths in terms of social skills, background knowledge, physical skill sets, or sport specific expertise. It’s important as a coach and athlete to know your strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for growth. Perform using your strengths and grow your weaknesses into tools and skills you can use down the road. Outsource when you can’t find information and network with people who can complement your skills. Nothing beats having a quality conversation with an expert in the area that you desire to learn about.

I really appreciate the time Eric, Pete Dupuis, and the rest of his staff put into making this clinic a possibility. I would highly recommend them to anyone who is interested in learning more about the information presented in this article.

Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns. Keep learning and growing.  

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