Movement, Command, & Creating a Competitive Advantage: Recapping BTG20 Part II

See Part I of our recap from Bridge the Gap 2020 here.

Our very own Will Marshall took the stage at Bridge for the first time breaking down the last eight months at 108 Performance. With the shutdown in March, we were forced to close the doors at our Tustin shop and had to migrate towards an online training model. Will’s presentation dove into exactly how we were able to create the best possible experience for our athletes despite being unable to train in person.

To approach it the same way we would in the shop, Will kept five things in mind:

  1. Create a shared understanding between the coach and player
  2. Promote creativity and collaboration
  3. Teach athletes how to problem solve and think for themselves
  4. Empower our players to take ownership of their careers
  5. Get real on field results

When breaking down film, Will broke down all of the things they looked at into three big buckets.

  1. Is the player able to move sideways?

The forward move in hitting or pitching is where we tend to see a lot of energy leaks take root. A lot of these leaks get cleaned up when kids learn how to hinge, stay centered, and gain ground keeping their pelvis closed. Success in baseball comes down to how well we move a weight through space. Getting into positions of leverage at foot strike is a great place to start.

  1. Can the player stop?

Baseball is a rotational sport. In order to rotate well, players must be able to stop their forward momentum and create a stable platform for the pelvis. Stability down low gives us the ability to rotate well up top. Guys who can’t stop well when their front foot comes back down to earth have a tough time producing force in small windows.

  1. Does the player rotate well?

As mentioned above, baseball is a rotational sport. Really good players rotate really well. Teaching guys how to get their pelvis, trunk, and arm all rotating in unison around their center of axis is a pre-requisite for performing at a high level. Guys who can’t don’t typically perform very well.

Interested in hearing more from Will’s presentation? You can get free access to it here.

Our MLB Executives and Coaches Panel was a big hit from the weekend and featured Bobby Basham – Director of Player Development Chicago Cubs, Josh Boyd – Assistant General Manager Texas Rangers, Donnie Ecker – MLB Hitting Coach San Francisco Giants, Brian DeLunas – previous Bullpen Coach Seattle Mariners, and Don Wakamatsu – Bench Coach Texas Rangers.

During the conversation, something talked about was the integration of scouting and player development within Major League organizations. Basham made a really good point about this by referencing a statement from Erik Spoelstra – head coach of the Miami Heat. Spoelstra credited a lot of the team’s success this year to the fact that their organization is aligned really well top to bottom. This is where Basham believes baseball organizations can create a competitive advantage going forward. Drafting won’t be about just picking the best players. It will come down to finding the right players that you know your coaches will be able to get the most out of with their current skill set.

“Gaining trust isn’t about knowing what their grandmother’s first name is. It’s about showing that player you can help them get better.” – Donnie Ecker, MLB Hitting Coach San Francisco Giants

Getting the most out of players is something Donnie Ecker has had a track record of since first entering professional baseball. For him, one of the biggest things that’s helped is the ability to build trust with his players. That trust is largely earned by showing each hitter how he can help them solve a problem. “Gaining trust isn’t about knowing what their grandmother’s first name is,” said Ecker. “It’s about showing that player you can help them get better. If I can’t help them get better they’re not going to trust me.”  

Don Wakamatsu added to the conversation by talking about the importance of building a winning culture at the minor leagues. Instead of just viewing AA and AAA as stepping stones to the big leagues, Don believes minor league teams should strive to develop championship caliber clubs. The focus shouldn’t just be on developing individuals. Players need to know winning is important from the moment they first sign a big league contract. If the expectation is to win in the minor leagues, that expectation is going to be ingrained by the time they reach the big leagues.

On the strength side, Zach Dechant, Baseball Director of Strength and Conditioning at TCU, spoke about the integration of the weight room with game performance. Of note, Dechant spoke to how the nervous system doesn’t always select the right muscles for the skill and as a result, muscles end up doing the wrong jobs and become inhibited. “Being strong biomechanically in a muscle doesn’t mean it’s neurologically preferred by the body,” said Dechant.

Athletes who struggle swinging or throwing but run 6.7 60s and can ‘squat a house’ know how to turn their glutes on. They just can’t do it when it comes to the skill. It’s not an activation problem – it’s a movement problem. As a result, movement remapping can’t just focus on activating certain muscles. It must also involve building a new model for the movement in the central nervous system so the right muscles can be activated during the skill.

“Being strong biomechanically in a muscle doesn’t mean it’s neurologically preferred by the body.” Zach Dechant, Baseball Director of Strength and Conditioning TCU

Zach also explained that through his observations he’s found his best athletes are the best compensators. At TCU, some of the elite athletes Zach works with struggle with basic movement competency such as pelvic control and rotation. They might be really good at throwing or swinging, but it doesn’t mean they do it optimally. Our bodies are hardwired to find a movement solution for any given task. The problem is we’re only really concerned with task completion – not necessarily task efficiency. Your best athletes are really good at solving problems in the context of sport, but they’re not always good at coming up with the best solutions. This is where good coaches must be able to step in and define what is optimal, allowable, and not optimal for that athlete. 

On the field, Fred Corral, Pitching Coach at the University of Missouri, shared how his pitching staff has made big strides using their unique process to measure command. Prior to each bullpen, Corral will set up a small yellow ball that is located in a specific part of the strike zone. Pitchers are instructed to try and locate pitches as close to that yellow ball as possible. During the bullpen Corral uses Trackman to collect data on every single pitch and see how far each one missed the yellow ball. After each session, they’ll sift through all of the pitches thrown and come up with an average miss for that day. This gives them a benchmark number to improve on for their next training session. While command has typically been quantified using strike percentage, Corral’s system goes even deeper by measuring exactly where a pitch was in relationship to a specific target. This gives pitchers much better feedback on their ability to locate the baseball and if their training is helping them improve this. 

Corral’s command system he implemented to track the progress of his staff

Additionally, Corral has rethought his perception of home plate. Instead of looking at it as a pentagon, Corral likes to view it as a circle. Viewing the plate as a circle as opposed to a pentagon helps his players understand they can throw their stuff across the plate from different angles as opposed to just the front of the plate. This is especially beneficial for players who throw from the arm side portion of the rubber. Corral sees tremendous in moving to the arm side part of the rubber because it creates a difficult angle for hitters to pick up the ball. It’s either being released at them or slightly behind them. When you can teach these guys they don’t have to throw their stuff across the front part of the plate, you’ve given them the freedom to use their slot to their advantage.

With the current trend to sell out for velocity, Corral’s presentation is a great reminder that pitching is much more than just lighting up a number on a radar gun. Great pitchers are able to command the baseball, throw from different angles, and find as many ways as possible to keep hitters off balance. Velocity it just one of these.

Interested in more? Check out all of these full presentations and more here.

Shapes, Sequencing, & Context: Recapping BTG20 Part I

At 108 Performance we recently held our fourth annual Bridge the Gap (BTG) conference the weekend of October 23-25. Over the course of three days we were able to gather 37 of the brightest minds in player development who put together 27 information packed presentations. For those of you who missed out, we went back through and decided to recap highlights from some of the presentations throughout the weekend.

First up is Stuart McMillan, CEO and Sprint Coach for ALTIS. Stuart has had the ability to coach 60 Olympians at six different Olympic Games with 30 of those athletes winning medals. Through his observations he has noticed how his elite level sprinters all share distinct patterns of shapes at key moments in space. What’s interesting about these shapes is they aren’t just recognizable among the eyes of trained coaches. Out of the five shapes below, try picking out which one is from an elite sprinter:

See if you can pick out which shape is from an elite sprinter

Did you pick number five? Odds are, you probably did.

Without having any other context you picked up on certain features (e.g. upright torso, neutral head/pelvis) that we typically recognize as synonymous with good running mechanics. This happens because our brain is the ultimate pattern recognition system. We know what good movement looks like – even if we can’t exactly put our finger on what we’re seeing – because our brain is constantly cataloging patterns that we pick up subconsciously through our experiences. This is where shapes come into play.

If we want to understand sport specific movement we need to first start with the most stable components of it. These are what Stuart refers to as shapes. They give us information for how an athlete organizes their body to accomplish motor tasks through space. To put it very simply, shapes are the foundation. From this foundation we can build patterns – how the body navigates space and time to complete a motor task. Time thus becomes very important. All sports have some sort of a time constraint in which athletes must learn how to navigate. If the shapes hold steady independent of time but break down when a time is introduced, you’ve created a situation where training does not transfer to games.  

So, the question becomes this:

Dan Pfaff – Director of Education and Head Jumps Coach at ALTIS – was also able to join us for Bridge 2020. Throughout his coaching career he has coached 49 Olympians, 29 individual NCAA National Champions, 150 NCAA All-Americans, and has served on five Olympic games coaching staffs. One of the things he talked about was the allowable bandwidth for movement. While we recognize there are fluctuations in movement signatures from player to player, Pfaff brought up a great point he picked up on through his observations retraining injured military veterans to walk again. What he realized was the gait cycles he studied were all very similar. “There aren’t 10,000 ways to walk,” said Pfaff. 

This brings up an interesting parallel to baseball. While we know everyone has their own unique movement signature, there might not be as much variation as what we originally thought. The bandwidth might be a lot smaller. Throwing or hitting a baseball is much more complex than walking, but we know there are fundamental movements (i.e. shapes) that all elite throwers and hitters share. Starting here gives us a foundation that can help us understand the subtle nuances better, but we can’t just know what’s different. We also need to know the allowable bandwidth for what is different.

Pfaff also touched on Stephen Levin’s concept of biotensegrity – something he feels isn’t talked about enough. The human body is a tensegrity model where the collagen matrix (e.g. fascia) becomes the glue that keeps structural integrity in our body. Tension plus integrity is where tensegrity comes from. For Pfaff, knowing this is important because gives us a completely different perspective on how the body operates as an interconnected, dynamic system. This helps us better understand how the body disperses stress, produces “free energy” through the fascial system, and how certain injuries can present as problems in different areas of the body. The more we look at the body as a living and breathing tensegrity unit, the better we can understand how to influence human movement.

One of the most exciting part of the weekend was the Biomechanics panel Friday evening that featured three influential doctors in the baseball community: Greg Rose of TPI and OnBaseU, Jimmy Buffi of Reboot Motion, and Emily Ferree of Movement First. One of the topics discussed was the idea of sequencing and how speed gains can be inflating. Instead of looking at the sequence of speed, Jimmy Buffi likes to look at the sequence of momentum because it takes into account mass. In order to determine how much power an athlete creates speed and mass must be taken into account. Just looking at speed by itself can give us a false illusion for how a hitter produces power because athletes with less mass are going to have faster speeds. Pro range speed gains do not correlate to pro range outputs.

This is something that Bobby Tewksbary and Chris Colabello touched on in their presentation because they noticed how a lot of their youth hitters had peak speeds in the pro ranges. In fact, the highest exit velocity they ever recorded in their shop (108 mph) was from an athlete who had the lowest peak pelvic speed they had ever measured. This is exactly what Buffi was talking about.

Teaching players how to move the middle shouldn’t just focus on the pelvis. To really move in the middle you need to teach the trunk how to fire around a stable pelvis.

Something else Eugene brought up was his new understanding of a concept Greg Rose introduced him to: Torso acceleration drives pelvis deceleration. The muscles that are responsible for the rotation of the trunk are the oblique abdominals. These muscles attach from the rib cage down to the pelvis. For a muscle to mobilize one end of it must have stability. In this case, the oblique abdominals need stability from the pelvis to drive trunk rotation from the rib cage. One end must be stable for the other end to be mobile, which means one segment must accelerate for the other to decelerate. The pelvis doesn’t stop and drag the upper body along for the ride. The acceleration of the trunk helps the pelvis stop and decelerate. Teaching players how to move the middle shouldn’t just focus on the pelvis. To really move the middle you need to teach the trunk how to fire around a stable pelvis.

The trunk needs a stable platform to fire from (more on this here)

People have overlooked this largely because baseball biomechanics has focused primarily on “what” variables as opposed to “why” variables. Emily Ferree talked about this saying it’s one thing to know the pelvis goes and stops first. It’s another to understand the reason why the pelvis stops first might have nothing to do with the pelvis. Focusing on the end product causes us to lose touch with the process to get to the end product. We can’t just know what happens – we also need to understand why.

Eugene Bleecker talked about this using his biomechanics analogy of combining A-Rod with Albert Einstein. If you could take someone like A-Rod with his experience and knowledge in the game and combine it with someone like Einstein who understood how to measure the things that were really important to A-Rod, you’ve created a scenario where you’re measuring the things that matter. If we don’t want biomechanics to become just a bunch of numbers and data points, people with skin in the game must learn to drive the interventions. Giving scientists the task of dissecting a sport in which they have little to no knowledge of is a great recipe for getting lost in data. Pairing them with an elite player – or coach – gives you the ability to filter that data.

If you could take someone like A-Rod with his experience and knowledge in the game and combine it with someone like Einstein who understood how to measure the things that were really important to A-Rod, you’ve created a scenario where you’re measuring the things that matter.

This was the main point behind Bobby Tewksbary and Chris Colabello’s presentation. If you’re looking at numbers without understanding the context behind those numbers, you’ve created a situation where you’ve become slavish to what is measurable. They explain this by using an analogy: “If you play stupid games you win stupid prizes.” Before we dive into data, we have to understand what the main goal is. The objective is not to add 3 mph of exit velocity or 10 degrees to your Vertical Bat Angle (VBA). It’s to get hits at 7 o’clock. Using information to help you accomplish this creates positive training interventions. The data you collect shouldn’t be an outcome in itself. It should be a way to influence positive outcomes in games.

Interested in more? You can get full access to all 28 presentations from Bridge the Gap 2020 using the link below.