Week Two – Diving into what makes elite athletes elite

The Two Biggest Constraints

As a coach, the two biggest constraints you’re going to have to work around are a hard wired Central Nervous System (CNS) and a preconceived notion on how a task should be completed. Our nervous system controls human movement by creating pathways that guide how a movement should be executed. Repetition strengthens and increases the speed of these pathways so they can become automated. As a result, automating the wrong way to do a skill becomes a tough challenge for a coach when trying to create a new pattern. If you’ve squished the bug ever since you were nine years old, it’s going to take a lot of time to break that habit when you’re a junior in high school.  

Misconceptions on how to achieve a certain task are just as tricky. Kids can cling to bad information and misinterpret certain cues that can influence bad movements. Thinking about throwing over the top is alright until you create an excessive amount of arm tilt that pulls you out of the plane of rotation. Trying to create a lot of force in your swing may work until you create big moves that don’t play against a live arm. As a coach, you need to be able to explain what kids are doing wrong, why it’s not ideal, how you can create a more beneficial pattern, and why that pattern is better than the one they currently have. Kids today have more information than ever. If you can’t articulate exactly what you need them to do and why, you’re going to have a tough time building buy in.  

Kids that don’t have a hard wired CNS or a variety of misconceptions about how to perform a task are going to be easier to mold because their clay is fresh. The more clay gets molded, the tougher it is to create a new shape. Making meaningful movement changes requires time for a lot of athletes. Guide the exploration from the top and teach athletes the importance of patience. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, your delivery isn’t going to get overhauled in a day either.

What elite athletes do better than anyone else

I was in a discussion with Eugene and I asked him what he thinks separates elite athletes from everyone else. His response: The brakes. The best athletes in the world are able to stop better than anyone else. NFL running backs and NBA point guards need an elite set of brakes to make quick cuts, change direction, and create space. Baseball players need these same brakes to produce and accept force quickly and efficiently. If there is a time constraint involved, there needs to be a set of brakes to operate in that window of time. The only thing that changes is the task.

Saquon Barkley is able to throw on the brakes and get back up to top speed quickly to make sharp cuts and avoid defenders. (source)
Luka Doncic’s ability to decelerate tests in the 90th percentile of all NBA players – making his step back jumper a deadly weapon to create space.(source)
Justin Jefferson slips by a couple of Clemson defenders by throwing on the brakes (source)

If we break down a hitter or pitcher, the first thing that must stop is the pelvis. Since movement is initiated from the midsection of our body, stopping movement must also start there. When the pelvis stops, the torso is able to takeover and pick up speed so it can eventually accelerate the arms and then the bat or ball. An easy way to think about this is to think about cracking a whip. For you to make the whip crack, you need to bring your arm to an abrupt stop so the energy can be transferred into the whip. If you drag your arm through and never bring it to a stop, you won’t be able to snap the whip through.    

If you’re trying to see if a hitter slows down his pelvis, watch what happens after contact. In a good decel, the pelvis should actually counterrotate towards the catcher to provide a stable base for energy transfer up the chain. If we go back to cracking the whip, your hand is going to reflexively move up after you move it down to crack the whip. This countermove helps you accelerate the whip and gives it direction to travel through space. Your pelvis does the same exact thing to accelerate the torso and give your barrel direction through space.  

An example of a drag vs. decel, from 108 Hitting Course. Notice how the primary mover counterrotates in the opposite direction after stopping to accelerate the secondary mover. 
Watch Harper’s hips counterrotate after contact – indication of a good pelvis decel, from 108 Hitting Course

When you can teach your body how to throw on the brakes quickly and efficiently, it’ll look something like this: Effortless pop. The best do it better than anyone else. 

The Brain Maps Backwards

When executing a specific skill or task, it is advantageous to focus on the end because of our brain’s ability to map backwards. If your brain can see what it looks like at the end of the movement, it can learn how to piece together everything that happens before it. It’s much easier to build a Lego house when you have a picture of what it should look like in front of you.

In a baseball context, Eugene likes to back chain the delivery by getting kids to recoil or “pimp the finish.” The arm recoil is a muscle spindle reflex (see conversation with C.J. Gillam for more on this) where posterior musculature in the shoulder contracts to protect itself after being fully lengthened into ball release. This move helps decelerate the arm safely by absorbing and dissipating a large amount of tension at the end of the throw. You cannot create this kind of tension unless the pelvis stays closed and the hips and torso throw on the brakes. In essence, focusing on recoiling and decelerating the throwing arm can help the rest of the sequence throw on the brakes.

From the hitting side, something Eugene has had a lot of success with is trying to get hitters to emulate this move from Mike Trout:

Notice how Mike Trout steps across with his front foot right after finishing his swing. This is the move Eugene was fascinated with. For Trout to pull this move off, he needs to be able to work into the ground, keep his pelvis closed, stop his pelvis, stop his trunk, and rotate in a tight window. Knowing this, Eugene told some of his hitters to try stepping across just like Trout after contact – and he’s had a lot of success with it.

Understanding how to tap into key moments at the end of a sequence can unlock a multitude of moves before it. If you know what to look for, you can make your job as a coach so much easier.

Finding “It”

Discovering and consistently recreating a player’s most optimal movement solution is synonymous to drawing five perfect circles – we’re working to get as close as we possibly can without ever actually achieving it. While it’s important for athletes to extrapolate a wide range of movement solutions early on, they need to eventually hone in on one where they have the most success and can consistently recreate it through feel. We know no athlete has ever swung the bat the same exact way twice, but we also know that really good athletes work within a narrow bandwidth of movement solutions. Not everyone moves the same way, but everyone has an optimal way to move. Unlocking this move is what Eugene calls the process of discovering “it.” 

Sue Enquist, former head softball coach at UCLA, told a story about what separated her All-Americans from the rest of the hitters on her team. She said how some hitters would swing better in drills and others would swing better in games than in drills. Her All-Americans swung the same way all the time. They got their best swing off regardless of the context or the situation. They didn’t use a wide range of different swings – they narrowed in on one that made sense for them. They got as close to their perfect circle as they possibly could.

As coaches, we’re trying to get athletes to draw five perfect circles as best as they possibly can – we’re helping them unlock “it.” We’re searching for that move where everything clicks and it unlocks the most power and the best results with the least amount of effort possible. We’re trying to find ways to replicate that move when conditions inevitably change around them. When they lose that move, we’re trying to find the quickest ways to get them back on track. Everyday is a research project where all roads traveled lead towards “it.” We may not ever achieve it in full totality, but we’re going to work to get as close to it as humanly possible.

Adaptations are not Limitations

Athletes are going to acquire specific adaptations over time that are beneficial to success in their respective sport. These adaptations depend on the task required and the environment in which it is accomplished. For example, kids who spend a lot of time throwing when they’re younger will acquire retroversion in their throwing shoulder to allow for more external rotation. These kinds of adaptations are totally normal and necessary to optimize performance, but it becomes a problem when we look at these adaptations through the lense of the general population. If we don’t take into context the demands of the specific activity, we’re likely to look at these adaptations as limitations (i.e. GIRD in this case) and ultimately take away what probably made them so good in the first place.   

Stuart McMillan, CEO of ALTIS, collected information on some of the best sprinters in the world and found most of them had tight hips, low backs, hamstrings, ankles, and occasionally some anterior pelvic tilt. If someone with no context for the demands of the sprinting examined one of these athletes, they’d throw red flags all over the place. They’d claim that tightness in those areas puts them at risk for injury and most likely put them on mobility programs designed to open up some of those areas. However, these adaptations are not detrimental – they’re beneficial. Years of running, leaping, bounding, and sprinting turned their legs into tightly bound springs (I don’t know about you, but I’d want springs for legs if my job was to run fast). Comparing the body of a Joe Schmo to the body of an elite sprinter is as apples to oranges as it can possibly get. Joe Schmo does not need a tight low back, hips, hamstrings, or ankles because he does not sprint for a living. Treating a Joe Schmo and an elite sprinter the same way is a recipe for disaster – but we do it too often in sports.

Eugene has collected information on some of the best athletes that have walked into his facility and he has found a large number of them present with tight hips – specifically, a lack of internal rotation (IR) in the rear hip. The average physician would see this as a problem and prescribe a plan to open them up, but Eugene would argue the opposite. Just the way sprinters developed tightness in specific areas to develop human springs, he thinks baseball players have developed similar adaptations that are beneficial to their success. He talked about this in his book Old School vs. New School: The Application of Data and Technology into Baseball saying:

“Movement is created through the combination of constraints placed on a system, the neurological pathways that have been patterned into the system, and the human body’s limitations or ability to create those movements. From our vantage point, more often than not, the movement a player creates is more likely to be the cause of injury than how the body is designed. . . Perhaps if we stopped comparing baseball bodies to normal individuals, and we started comparing them to a cross-section of elite baseball players, we may actually figure some things out.”

Adaptations are not limitations – adaptations are created to optimize performance. We’re more likely to create problems by undoing some of these adaptations rather than addressing the movement that’s created. Instead, we should strive to work so our coaching utilizes those adaptations to maximize their success. If you have a guy who lacks IR in the back hip, just tell them to toe out like someone who’s squatting. If you have a guy who lacks IR in the lead hip, tell them to stride more open. Who says that giving them more IR is going to be a good idea to start with? If you give a raft tied to a boat 30 more feet of slack, what’s going to happen when the boat cranks on the accelerator?

Justin Verlander has had a lot of success with zero IR in his back leg

Assessing for adaptations is a crucial starting point so you can understand the context behind the movement being created. However, throwing red flags all over the place because their numbers don’t stack up against the general population isn’t a great plan. Every athlete is different and some might need to mobilize specific areas that have become tight from poor movement. However, it’s important to use common sense before jumping to conclusions about a population that represents less than one percent of the world. If you have a bunch of athletes who throw all 95 and present with tight hips, maybe tight hips aren’t an issue after all. 

Why you should rethink telling your players not to “roll their wrists”

“Don’t roll your wrists” is a common cue you’ll hear after a hitter rolls over a ground ball to the pull side. The cue is used to prevent players from cutting off their swing and losing direction to the middle of the field. The intention behind the cue is good, but the application doesn’t match up to what a lot of the best players in the game do. If we want to deliver the barrel into contact, we need to “roll” the top hand over – not keep it inside the ball.

Hank Aaron “rolling his wrists” (source)

Players who don’t want to roll their wrists are going to commonly think about staying inside the ball longer. Staying inside the ball is good until your barrel gets stuck and you can’t deliver it to the baseball. Because the athlete is so worried about rolling over, they lose space and put themselves in a position where they can’t put force into the baseball. This leads to more ground balls (kind of the whole point of not rolling over), opposite field flairs, and pop ups.

Eugene has worked with athletes who had issues delivering the barrel because they were worried about rolling over. To create a better move, he has cued athletes to do what they’ve been told not to do: Roll over out in front as hard as you can. See the difference below:

Before
After being cued to “roll the wrists as hard as you can out in front”

If you have a hitter who’s killing gophers in batting practice, try a new approach and get him to roll his hands over out in front. You’d be surprised what a difference it could make.  

The only thing you can do wrong as a coach

The options you have as a coach to influence good movement are limitless. Bad drills or cues don’t exist. As Eugene says best, everything works and everything sucks. The only thing you can do wrong as a coach is make everyone do the same thing. Different players have different needs – you cannot possibly satisfy them all through one training program. Moves are constantly changing, evolving, and adapting to constraints placed on the system. If you’re not evolving with them, you’re playing from behind.

One size fits all programs will generally follow the shape a bell curve – 20 percent will get better, 20 percent will get worse, and 60 percent won’t see any change at all. If you’re okay knowing 80 percent of your kids won’t see any improvement, feel free to use the same program with everyone. If you’re not, take the time to tailor one to each individual.

Conversations with Coaches

Jerry Weinstein

Jerry Weinstein is currently a professional baseball coach with the Colorado Rockies. He has spent over six decades coaching at the collegiate and professional levels. He has received numerous awards throughout the course of his career and has been inducted into the Hall of Fame at Sacramento City College, California Community College, and the ABCA.  

Below are some highlights from Eugene’s conversation with him.

Fred Corral

Fred Corral is currently the pitching coach at the University of Missouri. Corral has spent close to 30 years coaching with the bulk of them coming at the collegiate level. Some of his previous stops include Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, Sacramento City, Memphis, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Montreal Expos.

Below are some highlights from his conversation with Eugene.

 

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