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Week Nine: Why one of baseball’s generational athletes has lived up to the hype – and the other has not

If I think about what it means to be a “generational athlete,” some of the words that come to my mind include:

  • Game changer
  • Excellence 
  • Cold-blooded
  • Intense
  • Clutch
  • Timeless
  • Rare
  • Pioneer
  • Precise
  • Graceful

Here’s what that list would look like if I were to eliminate all of those words except for one:

  • Game changer

Generational athletes get their name because their impact on the game transcends generations. They took something so complex, boiled it down to its most simplest form, and used their ability to put their own unique touch on it. They’re creators, inventors, and pioneers. They opened our eyes to a skill set and style of play we had never seen before – and the game, as we know it, was never the same after them. It was powerful, it was precise, and it was done with such grace – almost making us forget how difficult it was.  

Jordan’s iconic free throw dunk from the 1987 Dunk Contest

These types of players don’t come around too often, but when they’re here they’re difficult to miss. It’s the Jordans and Birds in basketball, it’s the Gretzkys and Crosbys in hockey, it’s the Montanas and Bradys in football, and it’s the Griffeys and Bonds in baseball. What they did on the playing field was so raw and unique it couldn’t possibly be replicated by any ordinary athlete. When everyone was stuck trying to make blue, they were two steps ahead making green. They’re the types of players we tell our grandkids about because it’s one thing to read about them in the history books – it’s another to be lucky enough to have actually seen them with your own eyes. 

In 2012, baseball got their first real look at two players who had this kind of potential.

The comparisons were impressive.

Ken Griffey Jr.
Alex Rodriguez

People were calling them the Mays & Mantle, the Ruth & Gehrig, and the Griffey & A-Rod of this generation of baseball. They had the bat to ball skills to spray line drives at command, the power to make ballparks look small, the range and arm to take away bases, and the confidence in their abilities to go toe-to-toe with the best in the game. Both were destined to make the bigs as teenagers and they weren’t going anywhere once they got there. When it was all said and done, the sky was the limit for what they both could achieve. It wasn’t a question of if they were going to Cooperstown; it was a question of who would have the best resume when they were eligible.

Their names were Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. 

 

Now let’s fast forward the clocks to 2020. Harper and Trout both have had seven full big league seasons under their belt. They’ve both inked multimillion dollar deals worth in excess of $300 million, won an MVP award, and solidified themselves as cornerstone franchise players.

But, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Both Harper and Trout had the ceilings to become generational athletes, but only one has had the production to match it. The other has largely been a disappointment.

Trout hasn’t just surpassed Harper as the better player – he’s blown him out of the water.

This is what Trout’s numbers look like:

This is what Harper’s look like:

Through seven full seasons, Trout has outperformed Harper in just about every single statistical category possible. He’s collected 253 more hits, belted 66 more homers, stolen 110 more bags, and boasts an OPS that is 103 points higher. He’s won seven silver sluggers, three MVPs (he probably should have three more), and when he hasn’t won the MVP he’s finished second every single year except for his rookie year and 2017 (he missed a good chunk of the year to injury). Harper has had just one silver slugger, one MVP award, and hasn’t received top 10 MVP votes in any other season.

In 2019, Trout finished third in the MLB in WAR with 8.3. Harper finished tied for 59th – and he made more money than 58 of the players in front of him. In fact, Trout’s 10.5 WAR from his rookie season exceeds Harper’s 9.7 WAR from his 2015 MVP season – his best statistical season to date. Just think about that: At 20 years old, Mike Trout put together a better season in terms of WAR than Bryce Harper has put together in his entire career.

If that doesn’t convince you of Trout’s dominance, Harper has failed to bat above .274 or post an OPS north of .900 in every single season outside of 2015 and 2017. Trout hasn’t posted an OPS under .900 in his entire career. In 2014, Trout set career lows in batting average at .287, OPS at .939, and struck out a career-high 184 times.

He won the MVP that year. 

Harper on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16 year old (source)

Here’s the thing: Bryce Harper should be doing what Mike Trout already is. He was the one who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, won the Golden Spikes award at 17, and became the third youngest player ever to be selected number one overall. He should be in the MVP conversation every single season and churning out numbers that put him right next to Trout as one of the best hitters in the game. Instead, he isn’t even in the conversation – let alone one of the top 10 hitters in the game.

Bryce Harper isn’t “Baseball’s LeBron James” – Mike Trout is.

However, this doesn’t mean Bryce Harper can’t be as good as Mike Trout. In fact, he should be matching Trout’s production – possibly even exceeding it – because we’ve seen what he looks like when he’s on. We’ve seen the spurts of dominance in ’15 and ’17 and we know he’s capable of putting together seasons where he belts 40 homers, drives in over 90, and bats above .300. We’ve seen the raw power and the way he can impact the game at the plate with just one swing of the bat. We just haven’t seen it nearly as much as Trout – and Father Time is ticking. 

Harper from 2012 (left) and 2015 (right)
Harper from 2018 (left) and 2019 (right)

If we look at the Harper clips above from the four different seasons, we notice four different moves. While every player is going to have some sort of variability built into their swing, the best work within a narrow bandwidth. Harper’s bandwidth is monstrous. When your bandwidth gets bigger, it becomes more difficult to manage variability because you have a wider range of movement solutions to pick from. If you’re presented with various choices to go out to dinner, you’re going to make a much quicker decision when presented with two restaurants as opposed to five. Harper’s constantly choosing from seven different restaurants when he should really narrow in on the two he enjoys the most. He’s failed to find consistency because his bandwidth makes it really difficult for him to find consistency; and his numbers reflect it. 

If Harper really wants to become the best player this game has ever seen, he doesn’t need any more tinkering, adjusting, forcing, and compensating. He needs to get back to the basics and figure out how to create his best move more often. We’ve only seen his best moves two out of the seven seasons he’s been in the league so far. While he’s done well enough to earn himself a pretty good pay day, he hasn’t nearly lived up to his prophecy as a “once-in-a-lifetime” player. 

Trout, on the other hand, has met those expectations and exceeded them. If you want to know why, the proof is in the tape. 

Trout from 2012 (left) to 2019 (right)

If we look at his moves from his rookie year and compare them to how he moved in 2019, we notice two really efficient swings that are nearly identical. Trout doesn’t just move really well – he moves really well consistently. He’s not changing, tinkering, or finding new ways to reinvent the wheel the way Harper has. He’s found really efficient moves that he replicates more than anyone else. He doesn’t get off three different swings; he gets off one – and it’s almost always his best one.

When you can consistently get your A swing off, you give yourself the biggest window possible to do damage on pitches in your hammer zone. When your moves are constantly changing, it’s difficult to find your A swing and repeat it because there’s no consistency. If you can’t get your best swings off on pitches in your hammer zone, you cripple your ability to consistently do damage at the plate. You will always be at the mercy of the moves you bring to the plate. The best hitters don’t just move well – they move well more often than anyone else. 

Trout has had consistent success because he has found consistent movement solutions at the plate. Harper has not had consistent success because his moves aren’t even close to consistent – but the right ones he needs are already there.

If only he could figure out what he does when he’s on, what he has trouble with when he gets off track, and what he needs to think about to get his A swing off more often. 

We might have some ideas on this – but they’ll have to wait for next week. One blog doesn’t do this project enough justice. 

Week Eight: A Tale of Dynamic Adjustability – Bear Bryant’s wishbone and Gerrit Cole’s heater

“The only constant in life is change.” – Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

It’s the summer of 1971 and Bear Bryant has called all of his Alabama football staff together for a meeting. They were less than three months away from their opener against USC – a team that beat them by 21 last year. It was an unusual time to hold a staff meeting, but Alabama football was dealing with some unusual circumstances. The air on campus was about as thick as it could get – and it wasn’t from the hot southern sun. Bryant’s perennial powerhouse hasn’t won 10 games since 1966. Last season was the second consecutive year in which the Crimson Tide failed to surpass six wins. Bryant had lost 17 games in his first 11 seasons with the Tide. They’ve lost 10 the past two years. Alabama’s fall from grace wasn’t just a disappointment; it was a complete disaster.

Bryant was feeling the heat just about everywhere he went. Critics claimed he had lost his fastball and his time at Alabama – despite winning three national championships – was dwindling down to an end. Recruits were becoming skeptical as rumors were swirling around that Bryant’s 35th season on the sidelines was going to be his last. The auroa of dominance that once oozed from the walls of Denny (now Bryant-Denny) Stadium was replaced with frustration, disappointment, and despair. Programs like Alabama don’t lose ten games in two years – especially programs ran under the Bryant.

Something had to change. If Alabama’s win-loss record didn’t, Bryant had a feeling he would become the replaceable part.

Bryant walked up to the white board in front of his staff and started draw out just about any offensive formation you could think of: The wedge, the old Notre Dame box, power I, T formation, and splitbacks – to name a few. He then explained what most everyone in that room already knew: They had one of the best running backs in the nation in Johnny Musso and they had a quarterback in Terry Davis who could run the option but couldn’t throw the ball. If they were going to win games in 1971, it wasn’t going to be through the air. They needed to change their approach.

Bryant proceeded to draw a new formation up on the board that completely changed Alabama football for the next 12 years. It looked something like this:

The wishbone offense (source)

The wishbone offense was not new to college football. Teams like Texas and Oklahoma had started to implement it throughout the 1960s and they were having a lot of success with it. The wishbone was much different than the traditional offensive set up because it added another tailback to the mix. Instead of just having one fullback and one running back like a traditional power I, you now had one fullback and two running backs split off side by side in the backfield. This gave offenses a completely new level of complexity because you had multiple options for two different skill players behind center. This made it difficult for defenses to pick up the ball, anticipate where the play was going, and cut it off before it developed.

Wishbone offenses used a variety of hand offs, pitches, options, screens, fakes, and reverses to disguise their schemes, keep defenses on their heels, and get guys up the field to make space for their playmakers. Instead of just attacking hitters with a fastball and a curveball, adding the wishbone gave you a two seam, four seam, two different variations of a curve, a smaller cutter that can be turned into a bigger slider, and three different variations of a change up. You had more pitches, more variations of each pitch, and ultimately more strategies to keep hitters off balance.  

There were a couple of key elements you needed to make the wishbone work. For one, you needed to have a quarterback who could make quick and accurate decisions with the football. Just because they weren’t throwing the ball as much didn’t mean it was any less important to read defenses. If anything, it was more important – the wrong decision or a decision made too late could be the difference between points or no points.

Similar to today’s triple option, quarterbacks in the wishbone operated primarily out of the option running game. They had to be able to keep their head on a swivel so they could read the defense, know where their backs were at any moment in time, and use what they saw from the defense to determine whether they needed to keep the ball, pitch it, or bait the defense using a fake pitch. Just like a baseball hitter, quarterbacks had to be able to operate under a significant time constraint. They had to gather a lot of information from the defense, chunk familiar patterns, and anticipate how the defense was going to play the ball based on what they recognized from previous experience. The precision and speed of these decisions determined whether the offense would move the ball or get stalled out behind the line of scrimmage. Having a really good athlete behind center was only a part of the equation; decision making separated the best from the rest.   

Both running backs also played a crucial role in the system because they were touching the ball on almost every single play. The offense heavily relied on their ability to make plays in space, throw blocks, and stretch the defense vertically and horizontally. They had to be able to get yards outside the tackles, inside the tackles, and clear space to help get guys up the field. If the quarterback was the driver of the race car, the running back was the engine. You couldn’t win the race without a strong engine, but you also couldn’t win it with a driver that didn’t know how to maneuver the track.

Alabama had their driver in Terry Davis and they had a strong engine in Johnny Musso – they just needed to build the rest of the vehicle. They had about 20 practices to do it and not a soul outside of the clubhouse was to find out about it.

It was Zero Dark Wishbone the summer of ’71 in Tuscaloosa.    

On September 10, 1971, America finally got their first taste of the best kept secret in college football. Reporters who covered Alabama preseason practices only saw Bryant’s smoke screen offense. They saw the power I, the splitbacks, and the rest of the formations Alabama traditionally used in the past. They didn’t get a sniff of what was to come that season.

When Alabama broke the huddle with two running backs in the backfield instead of one, USC was completely caught off guard. They spent the entire summer studying up on their algebra only to find the test was filled with calculus. All Bryant’s team had to do was execute what they had been working on relentlessly over the summer.  

Execute it, they did.

Alabama’s stunning upset over USC in 1971 set the tone for what was to come that season (source)

Alabama got revenge from their bitter loss last year and topped the Trojans 17-10 in one of the biggest upsets of the 1971 season. Many look back on the game as one of the most significant victories in the history of Alabama football. After two of the worst seasons in program history, Alabama’s revamped offense showed America that they were back – and they weren’t backing down, either.

Lead by consensus All-American Musso, Bryant’s group would go on to win their next 10 games averaging 324.1 rushing yards per game, 3.1 rushing touchdowns per game, and scoring more than 30 points in nine of those victories. They averaged just 58.5 yards/game through the air – a 138 yard decrease from ’70. It didn’t hurt their offense one bit. Alabama scored 34 more points in ’71 which helped them win five more games, reclaim their pedestal at the top of the SEC, and propelled them to their first national championship game since 1965. While they took a beating from the Cornhuskers of Nebraska, the buzz was back in Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s offensive overhaul and transition to the wishbone was the spark it needed to reestablish themselves as one of the premier teams in college football. It wasn’t going anywhere, either.

Alabama running the wishbone for a touchdown in the 1980 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas

Over the next decade, Bryant would cement his legacy as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. His Crimson Tide went on to win 103 games, claimed eight SEC championships, and added three national titles before stepping down for good in 1982. He finished his career with 323 wins, six national championships, 14 SEC championships, three coach of the year awards, and 14 SEC coach of the year awards. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

When skeptics thought Bryant had lost his fastball back in 1970, they were right – they just didn’t realize he was working on a curveball up his sleeve. In his 35th season as a head coach, Bear Bryant took a leap of faith by completely overhauling the offense that helped him win three national championships at Alabama and implementing something totally new that had no guarantee of working. A heavy dose of spinners was exactly what Bryant needed to make his fastball effective again.

When the scenery in college football changed, Bryant didn’t continue to pound a square peg into a round hole. He honestly evaluated what he had and found a way to make the most of it by completely reinvented everything he knew about running an offense. He kept his success in the rearview and made the current success of his team his only priority. With his future in Tuscaloosa on the line, Bear Bryant took a page out of the book of dynamic adjustability and resurrected Alabama football. The rest is history.   

Who said an old bear can’t learn new tricks?

 

Going into 2018, Gerrit Cole was coming off the worst season of his career. After making his first All-Star appearance in 2015 – just four years after being selected number one overall by Pittsburgh – Cole couldn’t quite return to form. Elbow issues sidelined Cole for a good chunk of 2016 and only allowed him to make 21 starts. In the starts he did make he wasn’t very good. He allowed 131 hits in 116 innings to go along with a career-worst 3.88 ERA after posting a 2.60 ERA just a year ago.

2017 didn’t get any better. In 33 starts, Cole surrendered 96 runs in 203 innings for a 4.26 ERA; a new career-worst. Hitters were teeing off on his fastball slugging .474 on his four seamer which had averaged 95.9 mph in 2017 – a tick below his rookie average of 96.8. It was inducing whiffs just 19.8 percent of the time. Being someone who ran it up to triple digits as a high schooler, Cole wasn’t used to not missing bats with his heater. It was the glue that kept the rest of his arsenal together – and it was falling apart quickly.

A big reason why the numbers weren’t there anymore was because Cole wasn’t the same pitcher he used to be. If we go back to UCLA, Cole showcased an unorthodox delivery where he started on the first base side of the rubber, picked his left knee up to his chest, worked across the mound towards the other side of the rubber, landed significantly closed with his lead foot, and worked back across his body with a lower arm slot. To pull off this move, he had to kick back with his right foot and anchor in the air at release – just like a PGA bowler. This gave him the ability to create stability with his lower half so he could stop his pelvis and work reciprocally to get across his body. It worked out pretty well for him.

Gerrit Cole striking out 13 in the 2011 College World Series (source)

After being taken number one overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, Cole quickly ascended through the minor leagues and made his Major League debut in 2013. Below is a clip from his first big league strikeout – courtesy of a 99 mph fastball.   

Not bad for a rookie, huh? (source)

Notice how the moves had changed – including his positioning on the rubber. He’s eliminated his previous starting position far to the first base side and now starts with his back foot flush in the middle. He no longer creates the same angles or lands as closed as he once did, but he still lands slightly closed, anchors with his backside (in the ground as opposed to the air), captures energy deep, works efficiently around his trunk, and moves reciprocally across his body. While it was different, it was still effective.

Now let’s go to Cole’s 2015 All-Star season. While it was his best season to date statistically, his moves continued to change – and they weren’t exactly good changes.

Cole in 2015 firing a 95 mph fastball (source)

Notice the change in his arm slot from 2013 to 2015. Instead of efficiently capturing energy around his trunk from a lower slot (see left), Cole’s arm slot has started to shift up vertically out of the plane of rotation (see right).

Cole’s arm slot from 2013 (left) to 2015 (right)

A shift in release is not always bad if the trunk can adjust with it, but in Cole’s situation his new release was not matching the angle of his trunk (notice the hand above the shoulder plane). He might have gotten away with it in 2015, but it eventually caught up to him in 2016. Taking the arm out of its natural plane of rotation is a great recipe to piss off your elbow – and it sure did with Cole.

Cole pitching in 2016 (source)

This side view from 2016 gives you a pretty good look of what was going on in his delivery.

Cole pitching in 2016 (source)

Notice how Cole’s arm isn’t able to completely lay back because his slot has been forced up out of its natural slot. This prevents him from capturing energy deep and working in a geodesic (circular) path around his trunk.

Cole from 2013 (left) vs. 2016 (right)

This could have been created to achieve a desired arm slot (more over the top) or to potentially manipulate the ball a specific way (trying to get more depth or run on his sinker). In either case, Cole had sacrificed his arm’s natural ability to efficiently capture energy and it cost him a trip to the 60-day IL. 

Cole’s upper half wasn’t the only thing that ended up changing, either. If we go to the next season and see how 2017 compared to 2011 at UCLA and his big league debut in 2013, we notice a huge difference at foot strike.

Cole from 2011 (far left), 2013 (middle), and 2016 (far right)

In 2017, Cole was no longer striding closed and working across his body. Just like Jake Arrieta, Cole’s front foot now landed closer to a direct line from his back foot to the plate. It is a significant difference from 2013 and it is a huge change from what he used to do at UCLA. Taking away Cole’s crossfire delivery caused his pelvis to open up too soon and drag his torso along for the ride. He wasn’t able to consistently get to the outside of his front foot after foot strike and get around his front side because he had no tension to work against.

If we look back at Cole’s evolution from 2011 – 2017, It shouldn’t be a surprise why his numbers started to fall off. Cole had changed a lot and there’s a good chance he lost feel for the things that made him so good in the first place. It was a big problem for the former number one pick – and it didn’t make it easier to know his name was on the trading block with two years left on his rookie deal.

To put it bluntly: If Cole didn’t change what he was doing, he wasn’t going to have much of a future in any uniform. He didn’t have control over what had happened and the games he wished he had back, but he had complete control over what he did next.

Well, not quite all of it.

On January 13, 2018 the Houston Astros traded pitcher Joe Musgrove, third baseman Colin Moran, relief pitcher Michael Felix, and outfield prospect Jason Martin to Pittsburgh in exchange for Cole. After five seasons with the Bucs from the Burgh, Cole was heading south to join the 2017 World Champion Astros. He now shared lockers with one of the best rotations in baseball that included Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton, and Dallas Keuchel. He also had access to one of the best pitching coaches in the game in Brent Strom and the most advanced analytics department in baseball.

Houston had their eyes on Cole for a while and they knew he had only scratched the surface of his potential. Given what they saw, they had a feeling the right hander could develop into one of the best pitchers in the game – but he was a few adjustments away. If Cole wanted to dominate hitters again and help the Astros compete for a championship in 2018, he was going to have to change his approach and take a page out of the book of dynamic adjustability. Houston had the text picked out and the pages for him were bookmarked; they just needed to make a deal before they let him rent it out.

When Cole met with Houston for the first time, one of the biggest things they brought to his attention was the decline of his four seam fastball. While Cole’s heater struggled in 2017, the top 15% of them were actually really, really good. He already had one of the game’s hardest fastballs for starting pitchers at 95.9 mph – he just didn’t get off his best version of that pitch on a consistent basis. Getting your best swing off 15% of the time isn’t a great plan when pitches are landing in your hammer zone 50% of the time. 

To give you a feel for what some of his better heaters looked like, here is what Cole’s four seamer looked like April 3 in his first start of 2017. It averaged out at 96.8 mph and a season-high 2289 RPM – 125 RPMs better than his season average of 2164 RPM.

Cole from April 3, 2017 – 96.8 mph, 2289 RPM (source)

Now let’s take a look at his outing from May 6 of the same season. In this outing, Cole’s fastball averaged at 95.4 mph and spun at a season-low 2065 RPM.

Cole pitching May 6, 2017 – 95.4 mph, 2065 RPM

If we break down the moves, Cole’s outing from May looked much more similar to when he got hurt in 2016. He loses posture towards the third base dugout, doesn’t have space to get across his body at foot strike, tries to overcorrect to do so, and fails to capture energy around his trunk creating a significant amount of climb out of the plane of rotation.

Cole May 6, 2017 (left) vs. 2016 (right)
Similar – but not good – moves

Houston wanted Cole to something closer to what he looked like April 3. It wasn’t exactly it, but these types of fastballs were the 15% that caught their eye initially. Cole just needed to figure out how to create them more consistently.

They had the perfect guy to help him out.

When Justin Verlander came to Houston in September 2017, he already had a unicorn high spin fastball at 2,551 RPM. They just wanted him to get a little more ride out of the pitch. They made a slight adjustment to his axis and got him to stay behind it a little longer which improved its spin rate to 2,618 RPM in 2018 and its vertical movement from 13.5 inches of 11.0 inches (+21% above league average). Along with an adjustment in strategy (using the middle up part of the zone more deliberately), Verlander improved his whiff rate on the pitch from 20.2% in 2017 to 29.3% in 2018.

While the front office had the data, Verlander had the experience, eyes, and feel to create it on the field. When him and Cole started to play catch, Verlander would pepper the former Pirate with questions and try to figure out exactly what he was trying to do with the ball. He asked him what kind of action he was trying to create and how he was trying to do it. This is how he introduced the idea of adding some more “hop” to his fastball. He encouraged Cole to try and alter his axis for the pitch so he could stay behind the ball longer and create more backspin. This would help him get more carry, or rise, on the pitch. When Cole would throw a good one, Verlander would give him affirmation through a nod or other subtle body language.

Slowly but surely, the two were rebuilding Cole’s four seamer – and making Verlander’s even better.  

In 2017, Cole’s four seamer spun at just 2,164 RPM. In 2018, it increased to 2,379 RPM. He improved the vertical movement on the pitch from 14 inches in 2017 to 12.5 inches in 2018 – where the perceived “rise” comes from. He ditched the ineffective sinker and primarily used his four seamer throwing it at a 50.3% clip (+2.9% from 2017). Instead of pounding the strings and beating around the bush, Cole went right after guys maximizing his margin of error by utilizing the middle up part of the strike zone. Hitters batted just .185 against it and whiffed at it 29.7% of the time – 9th in MLB minimum 200 pitches.

Cole’s 2017 four seam distribution (left) and four seam whiffs (right) – source
Cole’s 2018 four seam distribution (left) and four seam whiffs (right) – source

By getting his best fastball off more often and throwing it where it was most effective, Cole reinvented his dying heater and made it his most effective pitch again. This is what it looked like:

Cole throwing a 99 mph fastball in 2018 (source)

This is how it compared to his outing May 6, 2017:

Cole 2017 (left) vs. 2018 (right)

Now we start to see some better adjustments. In 2018, Cole did a better job hinging and creating tension in his rear glute. This helped him utilize the bigger muscles in his posterior chain for a longer period of time which improved his direction, helped him keep his pelvis and torso closed longer, and created stability so he could consistently repeat the pattern. 

Notice how Cole does a better job hinging in 2018 (left) than 2017 (right)

His arm slot also changed for the better. Instead of getting stuck and being forced to climb up out of his natural slot, Cole’s arm now had space (thanks to a better lower half) to efficiently capture energy and work around his trunk. This more than likely helped Cole learn how to spin the ball better – something he could have picked up on in his catch play sessions with Verlander. 

Cole at release 2017 (left) vs. 2018 (right)

When the movement solutions improve, health and performance improves. Cole exploded in Houston because he was getting into better positions more consistently which allowed him move more powerfully and efficiently for a longer period of time. It also helped him do things like throw 101 on his 110th pitch of the game.

I mean, are you kidding me?

Houston didn’t want him to nibble, pound the strings, and pitch to contact. They wanted him to leverage his best stuff, go right after guys, and get whiffs. It wasn’t exactly a tough sell considering ’16 and ’17, but it was a big adjustment for Cole. He had never pitched this way before in his career – at least not in a long time. He could have easily told the Astros to screw off and just tried to get back to what he knew how to do at UCLA, but he was willing enough to change the plan and try a different approach. His ability got him to the bigs; his adaptability helped him stay in the bigs.

 

Now the important part about this story is that Bear Bryant didn’t invent the wishbone offense. He merely observed it in action, saw how it could fit their offense, understand where his offense lacked, and consulted with a fellow coach to figure out how he could best implement it. He adapted based on what made the most sense for his football team.  

Houston didn’t invent the high spin fastball. They also didn’t invent the idea of pitching up in the zone, scrapping ineffective sinkers, or teaching guys how to add “hop” to their fastball. This stuff has been around as long as the game has been played. Like Bryant, they started with observation and figured out what players with a lot of success were doing. When they discovered how unique the top 15% of Cole’s four seam fastballs were, they decided to take a chance based on what they knew and how a change in approach could make sense for him. They helped him adapt based on how his delivery had adapted throughout the years.

Bryant had the ability to bounce ideas and talk things through with some of the brightest coaches in the game. Cole had the ability to bounce ideas off one of the best pitching coaches in the game and a future Hall of Famer who presented with a similar arsenal. It was the perfect storm to reinvent his delivery – he just had to open himself to new ideas by putting his previous success in the past. Necessity breeds innovation. Innovation requires change. Dynamic adjustability creates change.

Necessity breeds innovation. Innovation requires change. Dynamic adjustability creates change.

Bryant and Cole both resurrected their careers using dynamic adjustability. For everything they had accomplished so far, they knew there was a lot more they hadn’t tapped into. If they didn’t give themselves the ability to see past their previous successes and open themselves to new ideas, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. Neither would have achieved what they did if they didn’t toss the square peg to the side, find the round one, and start building a newer and better house. The plan is everything and the plan is nothing. The only thing you can do wrong is stick to a plan that’s not working.

Dynamic adjustability is the key.

The willingness to change saved the career of Gerrit Cole just the way it saved Bear Bryant’s future at Alabama. While Bryant’s legacy is cemented, Cole is still writing his – and he’s just getting started.  

Now a question to leave you on: Where do you need to use dynamic adjustability in your career?

Week Seven: Why it took a 2013 deadline deal to resurrect the dying career of Jake Arrieta

The date is August 30, 2015. The Cubs are holding on to a 2-0 lead against the Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth and Jake Arrieta is on the cusp of his first ever no-hitter. Chase Utley – potential future Hall of Famer – is at the plate fighting to keep hopes alive for the crowd on their feet at Dodger Stadium. The count is 1-2. Arrieta gets the signal from his catcher Miguel Montero, calmly gathers himself, and proceeds to rip off a nasty 88 mph slider that starts right down the heart of the plate. Utley reads fastball out of the hand and starts his swing – only to realize it’s a backfoot slider too late. Utley swings over top of it for Arrieta’s 13thstrikeout of the evening and Montero rushes out to embrace Arrieta as Cubs players pour out from the bench and mob him in celebration of the second no hitter in franchise history. He was – in the words of Rob Friedman – the filthiest pitcher on the planet that evening. If you don’t believe him, just check it out for yourself.  

Arrieta wasn’t just the filthiest pitcher on the planet August 30, 2015 – he was the filthiest pitcher on the planet the rest of the season. Over his next six starts Arrieta would toss 46 innings, allow just two earned runs, and win five of those decisions to help propel Chicago to the NL Wild Card game. He wouldn’t give up a run at home until 2016 setting a Wrigley Field record for 52.2 consecutive scoreless innings at home. He finished out the season with a MLB-best 22 wins, a league second-best 1.77 ERA, and his first ever NL Cy Young award. Oh, and he also threw nine shutout innings, striking out 11, and outdueling Gerrit Cole in the NL Wild Card. It was as dominant as dominant could get.

Here’s the catch: Jake Arrieta wasn’t even on a big league roster two years ago.   

Let’s turn the clocks back to 2012. Arrieta opened the season as Baltimore’s opening day starter showing spurts of dominance in his first two years despite being wildly inconsistent. His first three starts of the season showed what he was capable of: 1-0, 20.1 IP, 8 ER, 16 K, 4 BB, and a 2.66 ERA. After throwing eight shutout innings against the Yankees May 2, Arrieta never returned to form. His ERA ballooned to 6.23 after surrendering nine earned in four innings to Philadelphia June 8. He was sent back down to Triple A Norfolk in July and didn’t make much of an impression throwing 56 innings, walking 28, and allowing 25 earned runs for a 4.02 ERA. He was called back up to the Baltimore bullpen in September and racked up 20 punch outs in 13.1 IP but also surrendered 10 runs. Arrieta finished the season with a disappointing 6.20 ERA.  

2013 didn’t get any better. After a rough April Arrieta returned to Norfolk and continued to put up mediocre numbers. He got one more chance with the Orioles June 17 and was dreadful giving up 10 hits and 5 runs in 4.2 IP to Detroit. His ERA skyrocketed to a career-worst 7.23. Two weeks later he was traded to Chicago in a deal that shipped him and Pedro Strop off for starting pitcher Scott Feldman.

If you were to describe Arrieta’s time in Baltimore, some words that come to mind include promising, disappointing, inconsistent, and failure. To put it bluntly, he stunk.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. After changing uniforms and adjusting to the new scenery in Chicago, Arrieta started to show signs of promise again. He made 9 starts for the big league club in 2013 and won four posting a 3.66 ERA ERA in 51.2 IP. In his last two starts, Arrieta won both throwing 13 innings and allowing just two earned runs to lower his ERA to 4.78. While it was a small sample size, Arrieta’s encouraging September showed signs that he might have something left in the tank that he couldn’t quite tap into in Baltimore. Then 2014 happened. 

A seemingly overnight success, Arrieta exploded onto the scene in his first full year with the Cubs throwing 156.2 innings and winning 10 of his 15 decisions. He set career-highs in just about every statistical category dropping ERA to 2.53, shaving his BB/9 down to 2.4, and increasing his K/9 to 9.06. His 5.3 WAR was good for top 10 in the league. A once after thought in a 2013 deadline deal, Arrieta started to not only make others believe in him again – he started to believe in himself. Arrieta was no longer fighting for innings by the end of 2014 – he solidified himself as Chicago’s number one arm. He also wasn’t done yet. Over the next three seasons Arrieta made 94 starts for Chicago winning 54 of them and averaging 198 IP per season, 196 K, and a 2.80 ERA. He won his first Cy Young award, made his first All-Star appearance, and helped Chicago break a 108-year drought and win the 2016 World Series.

Arrieta went from being on the verge of quitting baseball to being on top of the baseball world in just three short years. His rags to riches story is one we can all learn from – especially since he had everything he needed all along. He just needed the freedom to tap into it.  

In a 2016 Sports Illustrated article, Arrieta opened up to Tom Verducci about his frustrating stint with Baltimore sharing his constant “tug-o-war” battle with pitching coach Rick Adair. Adair took over the role of pitching coach mid-season in 2011 after Mark Connor stepped down for personal reasons. Arrieta’s description of Adair gives you everything you need to know about him: “(A) my way or highway guy with a cookie cutter approach.” The coach reportedly was constantly fiddling with Arrieta’s mechanics and tinkering with things that made the right hander uncomfortable in his own skin. Verducci described these tweaks in the article saying:

“At the time, Arrieta pitched with his crossfire style from the first base side of the rubber and started his delivery with his hands at his belt. A month later he was pitching from the middle of the rubber and swinging his hands over his head. A few months later the Orioles forbade their pitchers to use the cutter for fear that it sapped fastball velocity.

“By the next April, Arrieta still pitched from the middle of the rubber, but his hands were back at his belt. By May he was back on the first base side of the rubber. By September he had trimmed his windup to a modified stretch position. By the next year he was back to the middle of the rubber with a huge change: Adair took away his crossfire step in favor of a stride directly to the plate.”

Below is what Arrieta looked like in Baltimore.

Below is what Arrieta looked like when he threw his first no hitter in 2015.

Here’s what they look like side by side.

When Adair took away Arrieta’s ability to stride closed, Arrieta lost his ability to work across his body. In order for Arrieta to stride straight, he had to swing his pelvis wide open causing him to lose the ground early (see back foot). This put his pelvis in a position where it couldn’t anchor down and create stability for his upper half to rotate around. When the pelvis loses stability, it drags the midsection through and creates a huge energy leak that can impact velocity, command, health, and performance. Instead of anchoring down, capturing energy, and throwing his punch from deep, Arrieta was forced to fly open and throw his punch too soon – and there wasn’t anything behind it.

His performances were inconsistent because he couldn’t create any consistency in his delivery; he was working from a base with zero stability. The constant tinkering, adjusting, and compensating caused Arrieta to become a “mechanic-addict” constantly worried about what his coaches were thinking. He was no longer worried about competing and going to war with his best stuff – he was worried about where his foot was when he landed, where his glove was when he moved down the mound, or where he finished after releasing the ball. He knew he didn’t feel right and he knew he needed to do something else, but he didn’t have the support from his coaches to explore other options. He had about as much power as a puppet on strings.  

Arrieta spoke about this in the article saying:

“I feel like I was playing a constant tug-of-war, trying to make the adjustments I was being told to make and knowing in the back of my mind that I can do things differently and be better. It was such a tremendous struggle for me because as a second and third-year player, you want to be coachable. I knew I got [to the majors] for a reason, and I was confused about why I was changing that now. You feel everybody has your best interests in mind, but you come to find out that’s not necessarily the case.”

Arrieta wasn’t the only one who had issues with Adair, either

“I had struggles with my pitching coach. A lot of guys did. Three or four guys—Tillman, Matusz, [Zach] Britton—were just really uncomfortable in their own skins at the time, trying to be the guys they weren’t. You can attest how difficult it is to try to reinvent your mechanics against the best competition in the world.”

Minor league Chris Tillman vs. MLB Chris Tillman – notice any themes?

When Arrieta got to Chicago, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to last if he kept on doing what he was forced to do with the Orioles. He knew he could do it differently and all he needed was the support to make it happen. The good news for him was his new pitching coach Chris Bosio wasn’t interested in taking Baltimore’s approach; he just wanted Arrieta to be himself. Bosio – a cross-body guy himself – started to mend the lack of distrust Arrieta had by getting him back to doing what he used to do all along: Striding closed and working across his body.

“I was able to not hold anything back or feel like I was judged,” said Arrieta. “People had lost faith in me in Baltimore, and rightfully so. I knew that was not the guy I was. I was letting it out as hard as I could in a controlled way. I was across my body. I felt strong. I felt explosive.”

Arrieta no longer had to worry about whether he was balanced, where his foot was landing, or if his glove side was where it needed to be. He finally had the freedom to figure out who he was as a pitcher. The sky was the limit from here.

Oh, and the Cubs also let him use the cutter Baltimore took away from him because it would “hurt his fastball velocity” (they did the same thing to Dylan Bundy – worked really well for them). It turned out to be one of the best pitches in baseball. While Baseball Savant groups his slider and cutter together, hitters batted .184/.210/.266 off of it in 2015. Here’s a pretty good look at it:

Imagine telling someone they can’t throw that. 

So now let’s get to the point of this story: Why did Baltimore force Arrieta to be something he clearly wasn’t? Why did Adair take away the things that helped Arrieta become a really good pitcher in the first place? Why did he have such a different experience in Chicago? 

Let’s start by talking about lemon juice.

 

 

On April 19, 1995, MacArthur Wheeler was sentenced to prison for one of the most infamous crimes in United States history. Earlier that day, he robbed two Pittsburgh banks at gunpoint in broad daylight – and didn’t even wear a mask. At 6’6” 270 pounds, MacArthur needed all the help he could get to prevent police from catching on to his trail. Instead, he made it nearly impossible for police not to catch him even smiling and waving to the surveillance cameras as he left the banks. Tapes from the robbings were shown on the the 11 o’clock news and police had a lead within a few minutes. When Wheeler found the police at his door step later that evening, he couldn’t believe they figured out he did it.

“But I wore the juice,” he said.  

The “juice” Wheeler claimed to have worn was lemon juice – a substance known to be used for invisible ink. Since Wheeler knew lemon juice could conceal secret messages, he used deductive reasoning and decided it could conceal anything – even his face. He tested it on himself, “confirmed” his findings through a series of photographs, and decided to leverage this breakthrough to help him get away with a series of bank robberies. In his mind it was the perfect plan – no one would ever identify him if his faced was hidden via lemon juice. He wasn’t delusional, on drugs, or mentally insane – just incredibly mistaken.

Wheeler’s incredulous story caught the eye of Cornell psychology professor David Dunning. Being someone who studied human behavior, Dunning was fascinated with how Wheeler came up with such a stupid idea (stupid is an understatement) and believed it so much that he put it to the test in a situation that was bound to end in jail time. What could possibly drive behavior as irrational as robbing multiple banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask and honestly believing it was possible to get away with? Was Wheeler a one-of-a-kind or was everyone susceptible to this kind of thinking? Dunning wanted to know so he set out with graduate student Justin Kruger and designed a series of experiments that forever changed how we look at human behavior.

To put Wheeler’s infamous crime to the test, Dunning and Kruger gathered a group of undergraduate psychology students and quizzed them on their abilities in grammar, logic, and humor. They then asked the students to estimate their scores and how well they think they did relative to the rest of the participants. What they discovered is what we know today as the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Those who had the lowest amount of ability significantly overestimated their abilities while those who had the most amount of ability slightly underestimated their abilities.

Wheeler, if you couldn’t tell, would fall at the end of the spectrum of people who overestimated their lack of ability. He was very confident in the little that he did know (lemon juice is used for invisible ink) but he was horribly wrong when it came to the extent and application of it (lemon juice can make my face invisible to surveillance cameras). There was a huge gap between what he actually knew and what he thought he knew. This gap is what Dunning and Kruger discovered and it is real – our perception of ability and actual ability do not share a linear correlation. If anything, they are the opposite.   

If we look at the other end of the spectrum, the wisest people are the ones who work against our inclination to feel good and assume what we know is correct. They don’t sit in the comfort of their current thoughts and block out contradicting ones – they embrace what they don’t know and they actively seek it. The reason why they underestimate their abilities is because they need to in order to continuously learn. It’s not just uncomfortable; it’s necessary

(source)

Recognizing we don’t know much at all is great motivation to learn; thinking we know it all is great motivation to stop learning. If we stop learning, we don’t realize there’s more out there to know because we’re either not looking for it or we’re ignoring what’s in front of us. This creates the gap in perception and ability: Our incompetence makes us feel competent because we’re too incompetent to know we’re incompetent. In other words, we’re too dumb to realize how dumb we are. If you want to know what this looks like, just scroll through Twitter and sift through all the “five minute Youtube video experts.” Why waste years of actually doing things and researching when you can just learn everything you need to know in just five minutes? 

The thing about the Dunning-Kreuger Effect is that it’s not reserved for a selective few; we are all susceptible to overestimating our abilities. In fact, we’re most vulnerable when we first venture out into a specific area because it’s the one point in time when we know the least (hopefully, at least). When we don’t know anything else, we make ourselves believe that we actually know something because there’s nothing to contradict what we know. This is why it’s so tough to shake bad information that we learn early on in our career – what we learn when we first start out creates the foundation from which we build upon. Taking a Jenga block out from the bottom is a whole lot risker than skimming one off the top.

For some people, it’s a lot easier to just leave the Jenga blocks where they are and continue to build on top of it – to a point of diminishing returns. This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The ones who avoid Dunning-Kruger are the ones who aren’t afraid of the Jenga blocks falling to the ground. Every time it gets knocked down, they build one back up that is stronger than the one before. We can only do this if we drop our agenda at the door and realize we don’t know anything at all; our ultimate antidote to Dunning-Kruger.

“One of the great challenges in this world is knowing enough about a subject to think you’re right – but not enough about the subject to know you’re wrong.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

When we coach out of fear for knocking over the Jenga blocks, we create “this is how we’ve always done it” coaches. These kinds of coaches epitomize the Dunning-Kruger Effect because what they know has been shaped through the n=1 approach. If they didn’t hear it as a player or learn it from one of their coaches growing up, it doesn’t make a difference to them. They’re not concerned with expanding their base of knowledge because they could discover things that would contradict what they firmly believe in. What they believe in is really important to them because it created their foundation of knowledge growing up. The problem with this is a foundation built on limited knowledge makes for a really weak foundation. You can only build up so high before the entire structure becomes dangerously unstable.

If we go back to the issues between Arrieta and Adair, this absolutely could have been why the two were constantly butting heads. Adair more than likely developed his perception of what a high level delivery should like based on a narrow scope of his experiences as a player and early on as a coach. When he found something that made sense to him, he took it and ran with it. He wasn’t concerned whether it was wrong or not because he already decided it was right. What he didn’t realize is the model he developed an emotional attachment to had a limited bandwidth. When he saw movements that didn’t fit into his model, he didn’t think the model was wrong – he thought the player was wrong. This is what happens when we have a negative correlation between our ability and perception of ability: We try to change the player when the mold was the thing that we needed to change.   

This is what happens when we have a negative correlation between our ability and perception of ability: We try to change the player when the mold was the thing that we needed to change.   

There will come a point for everyone where we have to wrestle with the unknown and handle thoughts that challenge what we currently believe to be true. The more we believe in what we already think, the more rigid our mold becomes and the less likely it is to change when presented with better information. The less we believe in what we already know, the easier it is to change our mold when presented with something that makes more sense. Adair’s mold of a high level delivery was akin to hardened clay – it’s not going to change and he’s not going to risk breaking it. This fragility is where Dunning-Kruger takes a firm grasp on our perceptions and beliefs and it’s a big reason why Adair lost Arrieta’s trust. Adair force fed Arrieta a mold that he wasn’t built for it. Stripping him of his cross-fire delivery and cutter was like sending him to war without his sword, shield, and armor. Chicago, on the other hand, made sure he never ventured into enemy territory unprepared. To put it bluntly: Baltimore screwed him up. Chicago unscrewed him up. 

Arrieta already had what he needed to succeed and that’s the sad part about this whole thing. If he didn’t spend three years of his career trying to do something he wasn’t made to do, he could had a lot more success, made a whole lot more money, and helped Baltimore win a lot more games. Being a Yankees fan I’m not too upset about this – but as a baseball coach it makes me really upset because this isn’t a one time scenario. There are plenty of more Jake Arrietas out there searching for answers, head butting with coaches, and battling to find success on the mound. Player development isn’t about driving agendas and being right – it’s about helping players and getting it right.  

We don’t develop players when we overestimate our abilities as a coach; we break them.  

 

 

Now let’s go back to square one and do this the right way. Instead of just jumping to aesthetics and rigid preconceived notions of a high-level delivery, step one should have been understanding what makes Jake Arrieta really good. Dr. Greg Rose of Titleist Performance Institute talks about how one of the most important questions he asks his golfers is, “Why are you on tour?” If their long drive is the thing that separates them from the rest of the field, maintaining that skill – at the very least – must be a priority. Spending time on the putting green should not come at the expense of your ability to drive the ball with power and precision. If we forget about the areas that make players elite – or just ignore them altogether – we make it impossible for that athlete to compete at a high level. Constantly addressing weaknesses isn’t coaching – it’s nit-picking. Teaching players how to leverage their strengths is coaching. Steve Kerr could give a shit that Steph Curry doesn’t have a polished baby hook – he impacts the game in so many other ways that addressing that weakness would be a colossal waste of time.  

If we look at Chicago Arrieta, we get a pretty good feel for the stuff that made him really nasty. For one, he needed to stride closed and work across his body. It helped him create optimal length-tension relationships that helped him stay in the ground longer and keep his pelvis closed so he could get to his max point of tension just after release. When he strided closed and kept his pelvis from opening up too soon, he gave himself the ability to throw on the brakes after foot plant. This created an efficient deceleration sequence which had a significant impact on his velocity, command, arm health (his elbow killed him in Baltimore), and performance. When he tried to stride straight, he lost the ground and flew open with his pelvis the way you would open up a gate. This caused everything else to drag through instead of stopping, capturing energy, and efficiently transferring it up the chain.

The second notable thing he brought back in Chicago was his cut-fastball. When Baltimore took this away out of fear it would hurt his fastball velocity (wtf lol), they stripped Arrieta of arguably the nastiest pitch in his arsenal.  Coming in at anywhere from 90-93 mph, Arrieta’s cutter paired beautifully off his two seam fastball to make for a devastating duo. One pitch is running in on your hands while the other pitch runs away – and they both look the same coming out of the hand. Most hitters can’t pick up on the difference until it’s too late. One pitch by itself is still a good pitch, but blending the two movement profiles made it so much more powerful for Arrieta. He now had a weapon that could complete the other half of his X – almost like he was trying to build an even biotensegrity system (lol).  

Arrieta’s story is something we should all learn from as coaches and players because these kinds of stories are real. There are plenty of “coaches” out there who have made up their mind on how they are going to teach and it ends up hurting a lot more players than it helps. If kids come up and don’t have a great feel for the things that make them elite, they can easily be deterred when they don’t have success right off the bat. Arrieta was in a vulnerable spot because he didn’t have consistent success and he wanted to be coachable – he just didn’t know what to believe in. It took hitting rock bottom and a change of scenery for him to finally get on the right track. Our goal as coaches should be to never push players to a depth from which they can’t begin to crawl out – and they definitely shouldn’t need a change of scenery, either. When we overestimate what we think we know, we run the risk of turning players into something they’re not. Arrieta was fortunate enough to find a group of coaches that helped get him back on track; others aren’t so fortunate. 

If Arrieta was brought up in a system that understood him as a player, worked to leverage his strengths, encouraged him to offer feedback, and made him an active part of his development process, he might have been able to do what he did in 2015 in 2012. He didn’t need a rigid system to tell him where he fit in; he needed the freedom and support to do what he already knew how to do really well. He didn’t need coaches who overestimated their abilities, stripped him of the things that made him elite, and constantly made tweaks to his delivery; he needed mentors who were there to nudge him in the right direction. He had everything he needed to succeed – he just needed to separate himself from people who thought they knew more about him than he did. Great coaches build their kids up; bad coaches break them down. Jake Arrieta was down to his last brick when he switched uniforms in 2013. He was fortunate to find a group of guys who knew a thing or two about building a house – but at the same time didn’t think they knew a thing.

The age old wisdom of Socrates is our ultimate antidote to the Dunning-Kruger Effect and could be our most powerful tool when it comes to developing players: “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”

When we don’t let what we think we know get in the way of developing players, we get something like this:

 

The date is October 6, 2013 and the Baltimore Orioles are clinging to a two run lead over the Oakland Athletics in the AL Wild Card game. Jake Arrieta – one of the leading candidates for the AL Cy Young award – is one strike away from finishing off his masterpiece allowing just five hits and no earned runs. Josh Donaldson is at the plate battling in a 1-2 count to try and keep hopes alive for the fans on their feet at the Collesium. Arrieta gets the signal from catcher Matt Weiters – cutter away – and nods in agreement. It’s been one of the best pitches in baseball this season; now seems like a great time to use it.

He calmly gathers himself and begins his windup striding towards the third base side of the rubber. After his foot lands, he powerfully works across his body and delivers a 93 mph cutter that starts right down the middle of the plate. Donaldson reads it initially as the two seam fastball he just saw two pitches ago and starts his swing – but realizes it’s Arrieta’s devastating cutter a few feet too late. The pitch darts out the strike zone, misses Donaldson’s bat, and finishes in the glove of Wieters just off the outside corner. Orioles players come pouring out of the dugout to mob Arrieta and Wieters in celebration just beyond the mound. Arrieta – a 20 game winner in the regular season – has come up with his biggest win of the year and has helped the birds punch their ticket to the ALDS against Detroit. Baseball’s feel good story will play at least another three games in 2015; all Arrieta needs is for them to find a way to get to game four. 

 

Oh, what could have been, Baltimore. 

Week Six – The paradox of symmetry, the problem with pictures, and the why behind Matt Harvey’s 2018 resurgence

Thought for the Week: “Silent and listen share the same letters.” – Fred Corral, Missouri pitching coach 

What does it mean to be symmetrical in an asymmetrical sport?

Building symmetrical baseball athletes is kind of a paradox when you think about it; we’re trying to build balance when our skill largely forces us to be out of balance. Throwing or hitting a baseball is an asymmetrical skill. Aside from the ambidextrous population, all players are going to have a dominant side from which they work out of for the entirety of their career. Every swing or throw is going to be done from one side of the plate or the rubber – we don’t really go to the other side and “balance” things out. However, this doesn’t mean that symmetry isn’t important. We want to build symmetry in baseball athletes – but before we can build it, we need to define it.

Our extracellular matrix (ECM) system plays a crucial role in human movement because it deals with the fascial system. Any conversation about how the body moves must start here because fascia is involved in it all. The easiest way to think about fascia is to think of it as a giant spiderweb that is strong as steel, flexible as thread, and is woven through all of our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and everything else inside of our body. It is the bridge that connects everything in our body into one integrated system. No movement in our system happens in isolation; everything is interconnected through fascia. To talk about muscles and bones without talking about fascia would be like eating a Klondike bar without the shell – we’re ignoring the very thing that’s holding it all together.

Fascia, just like connective tissue, is going to organize in accordance to the stressors under which the system is placed. These adaptations help us execute tasks with increased levels of strength, stability, and efficiency.  If you were to cut open elite rotary athletes and look at their fascial patterns, you would find thick, dark X’s that run across the anterior and posterior midsection. These X’s run from the anterior shoulder, down across the torso to the opposite hip, and continue to wrap around the opposite leg. We see these X’s in elite rotary athletes because they play a huge role in developing elite rotational power. More specifically, these X’s form what we call the engine and the brakes of the system. The interaction between these two lines is where we can start our definition of symmetry. 

The engine line is going to run across the front functional line. It starts closest to the dominant shoulder on the upper part of the trunk, runs down across the torso to the non dominant hip, and continues to spiral down the opposite leg.  The brakes follow the same pattern but start at the opposite part of the upper trunk. In terms of the skill, the engine works to get us off the starting line and creates power for the movement while the brakes give us the ability to stop, transfer force, and make sure we don’t slam into the wall after the race. In an efficient system, we need the power from the engine coupled with a strong set of brakes to keep it in check. This is where symmetrical comes from: “Symmetrical” baseball athletes are the ones who have balance between these two fascial slings. Asymmetrical athletes have lost this balance through compensatory patterns. You wouldn’t want the brakes of a Toyota Prius on your brand new Ferrari – and you definitely wouldn’t want the engine of the Prius under the hood of the Ferrari.  

The engine fascial line, from 108 Performance courses
The brakes fascial line, from 108 Performance course

Balance between the engine and the brakes creates even tension that we need for an efficient sequence. If we one of these lines is weaker than the other, the other side of the system has to pick up the slack. This opens the door for compensations. Our body is going to gravitate towards the areas where we are strongest. If we favor our strong side and neglect our weak side, we’ve created a compensatory pattern. Compensations make it difficult for us to produce an efficient sequence, perform at a high level, and stay healthy doing it.

To give you feel for what uneven tension looks like, below is a video of Michael Kopech prior to his injury in 2018. Kopech is a great example of someone with an insane engine (check out a video of him pulling down 110 mph) but doesn’t have the brakes to keep it in check.

When we assess for brakes, we’re simply looking at how well an athlete is able to stop. This is a critical piece when we look at how well a hitter or pitcher is able to capture energy and transfer it up the chain to the implement. The first thing that must stop in the sequence is the pelvis. If we look at Kopech, we see his pelvis fly open and drag as he rotates to throw the ball. His front hip acceps force late in the sequence and his rear hip continues to dump forward into ball release. This is a great recipe for lower back pain – and might have been part of the reason why he got hurt.

Kopech pitching in a minor league game in 2018 (source)

Below is another example of a player with a stronger engine and a weaker set of brakes (as shown in the video). Notice a similar pattern where he’s late accepting force in his front hip, the pelvis flies open, and the back hip continues to dump forward, and his center of mass continues to drift forward after release.

If we look at someone who has a strong set of brakes, we notice a completely different sequence after ball release. Check out Trevor Bauer, Marcus Stroman, and Gerrit Cole below. You’re going to notice how they are able to keep their pelvis closed into landing, immediately accept force with the lead hip, and hold tension in the back hip. Instead of dumping forward, they use the back foot as an anchor point so they can get across their body. In fact, you’re going to notice their back foot never even crosses their front foot.

The pitch was 101, by the way.

Now let’s revisit the athlete from above. 

If we compare this pitch to the one from above, we notice a totally different deceleration sequence. In this delivery, the athlete is able to stop much more quickly and efficiently. Notice how his backside doesn’t continue to drag through after ball release and he’s able to get across his body better towards the catcher. This gives him the ability to produce the most amount of force with the least amount of energy because he’s restored balance by creating even tension in the system. 

When you take an elite engine and pair it with an elite set of brakes, you can unlock some pretty special moves. Sure, we want to build a strong engine and teach our guys how to punch the accelerator but we don’t want to do it while neglecting the brakes. If you wouldn’t feel safe in a car that can’t stop at a red light, we shouldn’t feel safe when athletes our athletes can’t decelerate when they need to.

If we’re talking about symmetry in baseball athletes, the conversation must start with the X’s. While we’ll never be completely symmetrical in theory, we need to be able to find balance between the engine and brake fascial lines to optimize performance.  If you’re only training one side of the equation, you’re neglecting the other side that is just as important. Like anything in life – if you don’t use it, you lose it. When you lose your brakes, you usually don’t realize it before it’s too late. Don’t wait until it’s too late to build symmetry. 

Communication is Connection

I was able to sit in on an awesome zoom conversation last weekend that featured some of the best hitting minds in the game which included Bobby Tewskbary, Andy McKay, Jerry Weinstein, Don Wakamatsu, Darin Everson, and Rick Strickland. The conversation dug into the weeds of player development and tackled different types of problems that we all face when coaching hitters. Out of all the things I learned throughout the five hour conversation, there was one reoccurring theme that really stuck out to me – and it didn’t involve the swing. 

When Wakamatsu worked in pro ball with Brian Butterfield, current third base coach for the Angels, one of the things he picked up on was how Brian placed a premium on building relationships. In spring training, Butterfield took the time to get to know each one of his players on a personal level. He figured out where they were from, what high school they went to, previous coaches they had, information about their family, and their interests outside of baseball. He always tried to find something they had in common so he could use that as a tool to connect and strike up a future conversation. By placing a premium on his communication with his players, Brian increased his ability to influence them because they knew he cared about them. Ken Ravizza said it best when he said, “Your players won’t care about what you know until they know you care.”

Ken Crenshaw – Director of Sports Medicine and Performance for the Arizona Diamondbacks – talked about this on a more tactical level saying, “There are plenty of people that can talk but can’t connect. If you didn’t connect with that guy on the “why,” it’s going to be harder for them to make that change.”

If we break this down in a baseball context, let’s think about the process of making a swing change. As a coach, just telling the player what they need to do is not enough – you need to start with a shared understanding of where that athlete is in that moment of time. There’s a really good chance you aren’t the first coach that has worked with that hitter. Because of this, you need to do some homework before you start teaching. This includes how they’ve trained in the past, what’s worked for them, what hasn’t worked, injuries they’ve had, what problems they’re currently trying to solve, and what aspirations they have for the future. You need to understand their perception of a good swing, their swing, and what they need to feel to get their best swing off. You can’t change perception of the model if you don’t know what the model looks like in the first place. 

When you’ve got all the pieces you need, you can use the pieces you already have and combine them to start putting together the entire puzzle. Any gaps in understanding will create a hole in your finished product. The more holes you have, the tougher it is going to be to build buy in. If players don’t believe in what you’re doing you don’t have a chance to create any sort of significant changes. Our goal should be to put together the entire picture – not just the part of the puzzle we want to drive home. 

When you can create this shared understanding, it’s important to maintain an open line of communication throughout the swing design process. Some things you say or do will work, others won’t, and some might work if the athlete better understood what you were trying to say. You need to uncover these gaps in understanding by asking a lot of questions, seeking real time feedback, and adjusting on the fly based on what they’re comprehending or missing. We can’t just assume our players know what we’re talking about it. If they can’t explain it in their words and describe how it relates to their swing, they don’t understand it well enough.

When you think about “staying closed,” you might think about your pelvis while someone else thinks about their trunk or hands. Your perception of staying anchored could help you stay connected to the ground longer while others may actually get out of the ground sooner because they don’t operate well when focused on the extremities. If you’re trying to drill home a point and the player can’t understand exactly what you’re trying to communicate, you’re not going to get the results you want – and it’s not the player’s fault. If the communication channels aren’t crystal clear, you only have yourself to blame. We connect when we communicate; we lose connection when we lose communication. If you don’t make it a priority, your message won’t get any further than your perception of it. 

The problem with our current education system 

“If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” – Ken Robinson, British author, speaker, and international education advisor 

If I look back on the most influential classes I took growing up in high school, there’s one that stands alone: AP Calculus. If you know anything about me, you’d probably be a little surprised by that answer because 1) I didn’t major in math in college 2) coaches aren’t typically known for their understanding of calculus, and 3) It was the last calculus class I took in my life (and I have no interest in taking another, either). I couldn’t really tell you a thing about derivatives, the chain rule, or whatever else we learned about in that class – probably because I didn’t really understand it that well when I was actually in the class. However, there was one thing I learned from that class that I use every single day – and it has nothing to do with equations, graphs, or formulas. AP Calculus was the best class I ever took in high school because it equipped me with the ability to not just memorize information – but to think. Here’s the problem: It took my until my junior year of high school to figure that one out; and many don’t even figure it out by then. It’s also not their fault – it’s the fault of the education system we’re brought up in.  

Curiosity, thinking differently, seeing the big picture, understanding different perspectives, finding common ground, admitting faults, recognizing bias/blindspots, and developing a filter are all crucial components to learning how to think

If we think about the average math class up until calculus, success pretty much depends on your ability to memorize a series of formulas, recognize which problems to use these formulas for, and hang on to this information until you can throw it out the window after the last day. Instead of learning how to problem solve, we learn how to memorize and regurgitate. This may have worked in Algebra 1, but it didn’t work for me in calculus. Instead of just searching for the magic formula that I needed, I had to understand context of the problem, what information I have, what information I needed, and how create a plan to find what I needed. There wasn’t one route I could consistently rely on to solve problems. Because of this, I started to figure out exactly what I needed to do to solve problems. I didn’t worry about a specific process I was told to execute or the steps that I needed to follow – I just used what I had and collected what I needed using strategies that best suited my strengths. In other words, my biggest breakthrough in AP Calculus happened when I stopped focusing on memorizing and started focusing on problem solving. It took an ass kicking early on to really figure that one out – and by the grace of God I was able to make it out of the class with a B. However, the grade I got in that class didn’t reflect the value I got out of it. Great grades don’t mean you learned a great deal. 

Here’s the problem: Kids today think of math – and pretty much all other subjects that have sapped us of creativity – as a checklist of procedures instead of a robust system for problem solving. There is no thought, focus, or concentration when we’re blazing through a checklist and plugging in formulas based on our short term recall. The magic is in building systems – but seldom are kids taught to think and build their own. Memorizing your times tables is great when you’re working through a series of multiplication problems, but it’s not so great when we switch it up and throw division in the mix. When we’re faced with new situations, we don’t rise to our level of current procedures; we fall to the level of our systems. Systems aren’t built through memorization and regurgitation – they’re built through problem solving and slow, deep learning. Most classrooms today are teaching kids how to follow procedure; very few are teaching kids how to grapple with problems and build robust problem solving skills. 

If we want to flip this equation and start building problem solvers that are better prepared to take on the dynamics of life, we have to be careful we don’t get caught up in the result. The journey should be the reward; not the destination. Memorizing procedures might help you get really good grades, but they don’t make you a really good problem solver. If anything, they probably hurt your ability to solve problems because you’re not solving anything new; you’re just regurgitating what you already know. Part of the solution to this, in my opinion, is all about tapping into our inborn childlike curiosity. We are all inherently fascinated with the world and making sense of things that are unfamiliar; no one is born with a closed mind. However – when our education system drills us with procedures and forces us to succeed through memorization and regurgitation of meaningless information, we’re stripped of our curiosity and creativity. When these two areas suffer, our ability to solve problems is crippled. 

If we want to build an education system that will prepare our youth for the unpredictability of the world, we cannot praise those who excel at memorizing and regurgitating. We have to encourage kids to tap into their childlike curiosity, think problems through, experiment with different solutions, find different applications, and help them discover their own optimal way to problem solve. Throw out the formula sheets and instead hand out “how to think” sheets. They’ll forget the formulas – they won’t forget how to think (hopefully, at least).

What we miss when we focus on still shots

“If someone hands you a picture and shows you a picture and says “here’s their stance,” “here’s their negative move,” “here’s contact,” – If you give them any advice on what they’re doing wrong, you are taking such a gamble because you have no idea how they got to those positions.” – Dr. Greg Rose, from Elite Development Baseball Podcast

When I first got into coaching, I knew I had to build a better understanding for what a good swing or delivery looked like. To do this, I tried to simplify the complexity of a swing or delivery by breaking it down into a series of still shots. I collected and sorted these shots based on critical moments in time that I believed were important. For example, the categories I used for hitters were stance, move out of balance, foot plant, initial move to the ball, contact, extension, and finish. For pitchers I liked to look at their move out of balance (leg lift), glute load/move down the mound, foot plant, ball release, deceleration, and “finishing in a fielding position” (it’s in quotes for a reason).

When I started to collect still shots from a lot of different players, I started to see see where guys had similarities and where they presented with slight variations. For example, I noticed how a lot of hitters at foot plant tended to be in a 50/50 position where their feet were spread outside of their shoulders, both heels were in the ground, their head was over their center of mass, and their hands were back behind their belly button. All of them landed in an athletic position where they had equal bend in the knees, some degree of posture (chest over the plate), and their glutes sat behind their heels. As for differences, some guys had different hand positions (lower vs. higher, father back vs. more out front), bases (wider vs. shorter), and some landed a little more closed (Stanton) or open (Khris Davis). This was important for me early on because it helped give me a feel for things to look for and things not to get over obsessed with. If I knew certain positions had more variation, I didn’t really coach those as much directly. I tried to get the big rocks in line (i.e. posture, balance) before figuring out how the other pieces came into play.

Three really good hitters – three similar. but slightly different, positions

While these still shots helped increase my understanding of the swing or throw, they didn’t tell the entire story. To explain this, let’s think about why balance points become popular. If we look at these snapshots of Justin Verlander from behind and in front, it would appear that he is in a position of balance where he’s keeping his center of mass over his rear leg.

Now let’s take a look at how he gets to the position. Let’s look at Verlander from the side.

Here’s what he looks like specifically into peak leg lift:

Gifs from 108 way membership site

If we look at how Justin Verlander moves to this position of “balance,” we notice a totally different move than what the snap shots might initially suggest. Notice how his center of mass never stays over his rear leg and he never gets to a true balanced position where he is creating zero lateral movement. Instead, he starts to drift down the mound slightly as he gets to his peak leg lift. If we just look at the picture of him at leg lift, we miss out on the fact that how he got to that position is totally different than the perception of the initial still shots.

Now let’s look at a different scenario. Below are two still shots of Kershaw side by side at two different points of his career. The shots are taken as Kershaw starts to move down the mound after peak leg lift.

To the untrained eye, these two pictures from two different moments in time look pretty similar. However, they’re not as similar as you think. Let’s look at the movements side by side. 

Now the differences become much more clear. If we look at the delivery on the left, we notice Kershaw shifts his weight towards the front part of his foot after leg lift and comes out of the ground early. This video was taken from Kershaw’s rookie year in 2008. If we look at the video on the right, we notice a completely different sequence. Instead of shifting towards the front part of his foot, Kershaw stays into his glutes longer, keeps his back foot connected to the ground for a longer period of time, and creates a more efficient sequence with his lower half. This video was taken from Kershaw’s perfect game in 2014. Kershaw had issues with giving up free passes his first few years in the league walking 4.33/9 in 2008. He didn’t have this problem in 2014 – he walked 1.4/9. While there are plenty of other factors to take into the equation, more efficient moves definitely played a role in his improved command of the strike zone.  

When we look beyond the pictures and look at the movement that created them, we create the  context we need to make accurate decisions on what that player needs. If we look at the pictures without looking at the movement, we’re forced to assume how they got to those positions. Two guys can get to the picture-perfect contact position, but it doesn’t mean they took the same route to get there. If you just check a box based on how they look at contact, you’re neglecting the one thing that matters: How they got there. 

Pictures can be a great way to slow things down and bring awareness to certain parts of the movement, but they can’t paint the whole story. If we wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we definitely shouldn’t judge a player based on a snap shot in time. Good moves play; good pictures don’t always play. 

Case Study: Why Matt Harvey lost his fastball velocity in 2018 – and eventually found it again in Cincinnati 

It’s the evening of November 1, 2015 and the New York Mets are fighting for their lives in a do or die Game 5 against the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. On the brink of elimination, Terry Collins turned to Matt Harvey – baseball’s feel good story winning NL Comeback Player of the Year after missing 2014 to Tommy John. Harvey was not just good on that November evening – he was masterful. In peak “Dark Knight” form, Harvey held the dangerous Royals offense to zero runs through eight innings running his electric heater up to 98 mph. When Terry Collins thought it was a good idea to go to the bullpen after eight, Harvey didn’t ask Collins to go back out; he told him he wasn’t finished. Up 2-0 with three outs to go, Harvey sprinted out to the mound to the roar of the Citi Field crowd determined to finish off his masterpiece. It was the picture perfect story for the 2015 NL Comeback player of the Year, but it didn’t quite finish the way Mets fans had hoped. After a leadoff walk and a Eric Hosmer double, Matt Harvey was forced to watch the rest of his lead slip away from the Mets dugout. The Royals would go on to put up a 5 spot in the 12th to finish off the Mets in five games to put an abrupt ending to their magical pennant run. It’s tough to predict what could have happened if Collins had dismissed Harvey and sent out his closer Jeurys Familia for the ninth, but there is one thing we can know for sure – Harvey’s heroics through eight were his last shining moment as a New York Met.

If we fast forward the clocks to April 25, 2018, Matt Harvey no longer owns a spot in the Mets starting rotation. The former 2013 All-Star was demoted to the bullpen after owning an ERA north of 6.00 and suffering from the lowest fastball velocity of his career (93 mph). Less than three years ago, Harvey was pounding his chest to a roaring crowd and overruling his manager’s decision to go out for the ninth inning of an elimination game in the World Series. To say this was an unexpected turn of events would be an understatement.

Harvey sputtering off a 91 mph fastball in April 2018

Now here’s where the story gets interesting. Just two weeks after Harvey’s demotion to the bullpen, New York decided to ship him off to Cincinnati for catcher Devin Mesoraco. Over the next five months, Harvey would start 24 games for the Reds winning seven and dropping his ERA down to 4.50 (not great, but it’s not the whole story). In his short stint with the Mets, Harvey’s fastball averaged out at a career low 93.3 mph. After changing uniforms, his fastball jumped back up to 94.8 – his fastest since 2015. Along with this, Harvey’s K/9 improved from 6.7 to 7.8, he dropped his BB/9 from 3.0 to 2.0, he doubled his K/BB from 2.22 to 3.96, his WHIP dropped from 1.556 to 1.250, and his H/9 improved from 11.0 to 9.3. The video below is from September of 2018 – four months after struggling to touch 94 on the gun. This pitch was 97. 

Harvey slinging a 97 mph fastball in September of 2018

If we look at Harvey’s 91 mph fastball from April and compare him to September of the same year, we notice two completely different moves that could explain why he started to have some success after his trade to Cincinnati. For one, Harvey’s arm slot lowered in Cincinnati. When he was in New York, his arm was climbing above the plane of rotation around his shoulders. This position creates an inefficient arm action and could have played a pretty significant role in his diminished velocity, health, and durability.

Harvey’s arm slot in April 2018 (left – 91 mph) vs September 2018 (right – 97 mph)

If we slow it down, this is what we looks like synced up to release in both frames.

If you were to draw a straight line out from the shoulders perpendicular to the trunk at ball release, the throwing arm should be on that line (i.e. the plane of rotation). When Harvey was struggling for velocity early on in the year, his arm was climbing above the plane of rotation into an inefficient position. When he rediscovered his velocity in Cincinnati, his arm slot started to lower into a position much more favorable in relationship to his trunk. 

Now let’s break down another glaring difference: Harvey stops significantly better in Cincinnati. In the clip with New York, you’ll notice how Harvey’s arm yanks down after release and bangs against his torso. When guys climb above the plane of rotation into release, they have to come back down after ball release. This climbing and sudden yanking down creates a poor deceleration pattern that can impact velocity, command, and arm health. On the right, you notice a completely different move. Instead of yanking his arm through, Harvey stops his arm much better and actually “pimps the finish” (better known as an arm recoil).  

This move is not forced like the one from the left. Instead, it is a muscle spindle reflex created to dissipate a large amount of tension in the system after ball release. It’s something you see from some of the hardest throwers on the planet; and it’s not by coincidence. It’s not just an indication that someone is trying to throw smoke – it’s indicator of awesome decelerator strength. When we stop better, we transfer force better, throw harder, and command the ball with more precision (see 0:20 in video below).

Matt Harvey may not ever completely return to Dark Knight form, but his 2018 resurgence is a great example of how moves can change, evolve, and either positively impact performance or deteriorate it. The goal then becomes to catch when things go wrong and get athletes back on track as quickly as possible. Matt Harvey won seven games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2018. While those seven games might not have meant much to the Mets or Reds in 2018, they would have meant a hell of a lot to four other teams fighting for division titles that year that had to settle things in game 163. Good player development takes guys like Harvey who get off track, helps them create the adjustments they need, and puts them in situations where they can help their team win championships. When you boil a 162 game season down, the differences between good and bad players and winning and losing ball clubs are much smaller than you’d think. Failure to take advantage of these critical moments of time can ruin careers, cut seasons short, and prevent you from making the most with what you have.  

Harvey wasn’t the same guy in 2018 that he was in 2013, but he definitely still had something left in him. When players have something left in the tank that they can’t access on their own, it’s our responsibility as coaches to help bring it out of them. Harvey will always be an unfortunate example of what could have been, but he’s also a great example of how a change of scenery and some better moves can completely change your season.  Continue reading “Week Six – The paradox of symmetry, the problem with pictures, and the why behind Matt Harvey’s 2018 resurgence”

Week Five – Rethinking assessments, the mobility myth, and why falling behind can actually get you ahead

Thought for the Week: The Rules of Everything – by Steve Magness

  1. The Hype Cycle: When an idea is new or gains popularity, it follows a cycle of initial overemphasis before eventually leveling off into its rightful place
  2. Research is only as good as its measurement
  3. We overemphasize the importance of what we can measure and already know while ignoring what we cannot measure and know very little about  
  4. We think in absolutes and either/or instead of the spectrum that is really present 
  5. We underestimate the complexity of the human body (and almost everything else)
  6. We look at and analyze things from our perspective, overemphasizing what our knowledge base strength is 
  7. Everything is cyclical

Reverse Engineering from the Skill

Assessments are something I’ve been interested in for a while because of the role they play in designing individualized training programs. Being able to individualize is a critical skill as a coach because your players are akin to snowflakes; not one is ever going to be the same. Being able to give them exactly what they need at that moment of time is an art. Each kid is going to need different thoughts, feelings, cues, drills, and actionable strategies molded into a unified plan that is constantly changing based on their needs. Step one to building this plan begins with a thorough assessment of where they’re currently at, what problems they’re trying to solve, and what’s preventing them from getting to where they want to be.

A good assessment is like an interrogation process; you’re constantly observing, asking questions, and inquiring to find information you need to make accurate decisions about what they are currently going through. If you’re interrogating someone, there is no such thing as a stone left unturned; assessments should be no different. If there is something that is preventing that athlete from becoming the best version of themselves on the diamond, you need to find out about it. You will always be at the constraint of what you don’t know. A thorough assessment makes sure there is nothing you need to know that you don’t.

The recent push in baseball to individualize has helped create some awesome strategies and tools to help build a better understanding of what problems athletes are having and why. High speed video, 3D motion capture systems, movement screening, Rapsodo/Yakkertech, Hittrax, KVest, and force plates have all given us the ability to improve our understanding of exactly where that athlete is at that moment of time. The process of swinging a bat or throwing a pitch has not changed – we’ve just eliminated guess work when it comes to breaking it down. When we eliminate guessing, we improve our ability to make accurate decisions that help us individualize our coaching. Guessing and checking may seem like a good algebra strategy until you’re through your 10th guess and you still don’t have an answer – or, better yet, a plan. When we assess, we skip guess and check and get right to the meat of it. Time is the most precious resource we have. Assessing may seem like a lot of time early on, but having the discipline to do it the right way will save you the extra time and head scratching later down the road. There’s a reason why Abe Lincoln spent four of his five hours sharpening the axe before actually cutting down the tree.     

Out of all the tools introduced for assessments, the one I became really interested in was movement screening. When I heard that your ability to swing or throw was at the constraint of the limitations of your body, I became really interested because I wondered what kind of impact they could have had on my playing career. I’ve personally since been through the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and I thought it provided a lot of valuable information, but it wasn’t quite it. I knew understanding the body was something that needed to be taken into account when building an individualized training program, but I also knew passing the FMS shoulder mobility test with flying colors actually meant you were more susceptible to injury. New assessments like TPI and OnBaseU peaked my interest but I needed to know more about them before I decided to dive in and get certified. 

When I read through Old School vs. New School and learned about Eugene’s thoughts when it came to physical “limitations” (he prefers the word “adaptations”), I had a feeling he was on to something. When he explained to me at the ABCA that using these “limitations” to your advantage was a much easier – and potentially more effective – way to coach, I knew I had to look at movement screens through a different lens. If Eugene had done research and found a large majority of “hip mobility programs” actually increased your chances of getting hurt, what does the role of movement screening actually play?  If some of the best sprinters in the world (maybe the best rotators in the world) all have tight hips, ankles, hamstrings, lower backs, and flat feet, that’s the point in assessing for mobility in these areas? Are movement screens driving the right kind of interventions or are they inspiring counterproductive work? 

If we think about the role of movement screens in the assessment process, we need to understand that all they are is information. What we do with that information is what is most important. If we want to leverage that information for effective interventions, we need to look at it within the context of the skill. The skill is not only the most important part about the assessment process; it is the assessment. The athletes that come to us are not concerned about whether their hips are too tight or whether they don’t have enough dorsiflexion in their right ankle – they just want to get better at baseball. Understanding how they’re physically structured can help give you information on how to help them get better, but it must be used within the context of the skill. If you don’t understand the why behind the screen, you lose your ability to make accurate decisions because you become so lost in the details that you forget the most important things: The swing or the throw.

If you can thoroughly and accurately define what the skill looks like, what it should look like, and how to bridge that gap, the new and flashy tools become a slave to the person who should be driving the intervention: The coach. If you don’t understand the skill, you become a slave to the data; and that never ends well. The assessment then turns into a crap shoot where you collect a bunch of data, get lost searching for something that might correlate, and maybe throw some shit at the wall to show off your “expertise.” If you don’t treat the skill as the assessment, you get lost chasing information trying to find something that matters. If you know what matters in the skill you know what data you need to collect, how to collect it, and how to communicate it to so you can help that player improve. Movement screens create awareness for where that athlete is starting, but it is not the mold. 

When the skill is not where it needs to be, it can create the illusion that something physically is off and needs to be changed. This is where the movement screens can come into play – but not necessarily for the right reasons. Zach Dechant, head strength coach at TCU, described a situation on a recent zoom call with Eugene where he was working with an athlete that showed below average shoulder maximum external rotation (MER) throughout his delivery on their motion capture system. If execution of the skill is not taken into context, this can drive some unnecessary (and time consuming) interventions. In this case, just looking at poor MER and not understanding how it was created will make you falsely think there is some sort of constraint preventing them from creating MER. In this case – along with many others – the athlete did not need more MER. They had plenty of it; they just didn’t know how to unlock it in their delivery. When Zach made a few tweaks to the delivery, he unlocked another 10-15 degrees within a matter of a couple throws. He didn’t need mobility work to open up his shoulder; he just need to teach the kid how to tap into what he already had. 

The important thing to understand from this is the data was not wrong; the athlete did need to improve his MER. How you unlock this MER is where the importance of good coaching comes into play. Movement screens provide you with really valuable information; how you use that information is far more valuable. Just looking at someone’s IR deficit in their rear hip is not only stupid (you don’t really need it), it’s neglecting the main thing: The skill. Measuring it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to change it – you just need to know how it affects the movement. Getting stuck on your backside because you have no IR is a problem, but just getting the athlete to toe out (think like a squat) is a much simpler solution than giving the athlete a mobility program they probably don’t need in the first place.  

By the way, how much mobility do elite rotary athletes really need in the first place?

The Mobility Myth – Why we probably don’t need as much as what we think

Before I get ostracized for this one, let’s pull out the common sense card and start with what we know about baseball. We know that a swing or throw requires the creation and dissipation of force in a small window of time. We know that players are competing in narrow windows of time where they don’t have the affordance to gradually create energy; they’ve got to get off their best punch without getting knocked on their ass. Yes I know pitching isn’t reactionary, but I also know you can’t get a 20 foot running head start before throwing a pitch. By deductive reasoning, success in baseball is largely going to depend on your ability to create the most amount of force (rate of force development) within the smallest window of time.

Now let’s get away from the baseball thing and say you’re jumping on a trampoline. If you wanted to create the most amount of air using the least amount of time, what would you want those springs to look like? How taught would you want the jumping mat? Would you want springs that were looser or more tightly bound? Would you want a lot of give or not a lot of give when you landed on the mat? I don’t know about you, but I would want tightly bound springs and I’d want the jumping mat pulled as taught as possible without becoming rigid. If I’m trying to get as high as I can in the least amount of time, I don’t want a lot of slack in the trampoline; I want to redirect energy as quickly and efficiently as possible. The guys who we think “lack mobility” are just like the best sprinters in the world; they have the tightest springs. The guys who have plenty of mobility have much looser springs. Just because the springs are looser doesn’t mean you can’t create the same/more air time, but at what time cost does it come at? If the fittest of a species is able to do the most with the least, are guys with looser springs maximizing their ability to do this? Are guys with tighter springs better suited for this?

Now let’s revisit the baseball thing: Are you sure your guys need more mobility, or do they just need a better movement solution so they make can better use of their current mobility?

One of Eugene’s favorite one liners is, “Things become a thing when we do the opposite.” When strength and conditioning started to become popular in baseball, a lot of experts noticed how tightly bound some of the best players in the game were. The initial response to this was to try and open them up so they can increase the window in which they can produce force and prevent them from developing injuries. While it was well intentioned, the performance results were not uniform across the board; some guys got better, many saw no change at all, and plenty others got worse or hurt. Mobility programs became a thing when we did the opposite of what we were observing in the field – a lot of really tight guys. The questions then becomes this: Were some of the best players tight by accident or by design? When in doubt, I try to use logic. Logic would tell us the best players in the game are probably really good for a reason. In other words, they probably didn’t have tight hips for the hell of it.

The game of baseball hasn’t really changed that much. We still like guys who throw the ball hard, hit it far, and run fast. Players who are really good at these are some of the tightest, twitchiest guys on the planet. They don’t use a whole lot of mobility because they probably don’t need it for elite rate of force development. This is part of the reason why strength training took such a long time to gain traction in baseball – some of the best players were already naturally tight and didn’t like the feeling of adding muscle mass and getting even tighter. Their springs were already tightly bound enough; throwing a blanket strength training program into the mix probably didn’t help the cause.

I do think that opening up some guys can be a good idea in certain cases, but I also know opening up ranges of motion without assessing the individual can add slack that the system doesn’t really need in the first place. This is not a great strategy for long term health and performance. We know that the spine doesn’t like aggressive rotation in the first place. Why would we want to open up the lower extremities so we can rotate over a greater arc? What do we think happens to the raft when we add 30 feet of slack to the rope and have the boat take off at full speed? Did guys develop tighter hips because it was a more beneficial movement solution hat allowed them to produce the most amount of force without placing their body in compromised positions? Did executing the skill under a time constraint influence this? I don’t know about you, but I think these all played a role. 

Tight may not be bad after all – tight may be a beneficial adaptation that we started to get away from when we started to dive into mobility. Just like anything, the sweet spot is usually somewhere in the middle. Everything is great until it becomes the only thing.   

If we go back and pull out the common sense card, the whole reason behind adding mobility is so we can get better at either throwing or hitting a baseball. If adding mobility helps you do either of this, it is beneficial; if it doesn’t, it’s not. If you’re looking at mobility without doing it in the context of the skill you’re trying to hit the dartboard blindfolded; you might hit it every once in a while, but it’s a largely ineffective strategy. Certain areas are going to need to stabilize and mobilize throughout the course of an efficient sequence. If the sequence isn’t where it needs to be, the athlete can’t possibly tap into the mobility they already have. This is why you have to work backwards from the skill: You can’t determine an athlete lacks something if they don’t really know how to use it in the first place. If the pelvis can’t anchor down and create stability for the upper half, adding thoracic mobility is not going to fix the problem; creating a better sequence will.

You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe – unless it’s anchored down from both sides
Luis Severino using his feet as anchor points for his pelvis so his trunk can mobilize and throw the ball

Now this doesn’t mean we should throw mobility out the window with cookie cutter training programs – we just need to understand it a lot better. Some guys may present with mobility constraints that impact the way they are able to sequence and those must be addressed in coordination with the skill. Everything we do off the field must transfer to what we do on the field. If guys who are increasing their hip mobility are becoming more prone to injury, we need to rethink how we assess athletes and determine how much mobility is sufficient for them. Elite rotary athletes are different; there’s a reason why they represent less than one percent of the world’s population. Trying to fit them into a mold based on how they perform in some bullshit movement screen isn’t enough. We need to understand how those ranges of motion influence efficient movement patterns. I don’t know if we’ve really figure that one out yet – but it’s something we need to figure out if we want guys to perform and stay healthy for a long period of time.

For now, do yourself a favor and think before you start adding mobility – it might do a lot more harm than good if you’re wrong.  

When the Risk becomes the Reward: What we all can learn about skill acquisition from skateboarders

“Rarely is it a question of talent or technique at those levels, it’s just one of belief.” – Rodney Mullen, former professional skateboarder

I was able to catch up with Lantz Wheeler earlier this week and pick his brain on a couple of things Eugene and I have been talking about over the past several weeks. One of the things that Lantz shared was the brilliance of skateboarding when it comes to learning new skills. Watching these guys in action is a brilliant insight into the skill acquisition process: There’s a goal in reach, a methodical process to get there, trial and error, experimentation, failure, resilience, palpable belief, and a relentless drive to make it happen. Feedback is required, it’s immediate, and a lot of the times it is painful. However, it doesn’t deter these guys one bit.  

To me, that is one of the things that makes skateboarding truly unique: Failure is really painful. When these guys miss, they get hit hard. Every fall puts wear and tear on their bones, limbs, and challenges them in ways that are impossible to describe without actually ever experiencing it. However, none of these falls prove to be fatal. The resilience that these guys have created through years of trial and error is so much that they are willing to put their body through great lengths of pain in order to achieve a desired goal, objective, or outcome. When the guy in the video from above fell, he didn’t complain about how it was too hard or how he was too tired or in too much pain. He got right back up, dusted himself off, and reaffirmed his belief by using phrases such as “next try is it” and “I’ve finally got it.” There was no doubt in his mind he was going to nail the trick; it was only a matter of how much time it was going to take him. The risk of falling didn’t create fear – it fueled his belief. The risk no longer became the thing he was trying to avoid. It became the reward.  

When we’re building a skill, we have to treat the consequences of failure just like skateboarders: We need to turn the risk into the reward. Instead of avoiding the thing that seems fatal, we need to crave them because they give us rich feedback to perform the skill better next time. If skateboarders can put their body on the line with every single move they make, we can do the same thing as baseball players; especially since we’re not worried about breaking bones if we fail.

If you can create an environment in skill development where the risk becomes the reward, adversity no longer becomes an obstacle – the obstacle becomes the way (pretty good book, by the way). The returns on this are limitless.

How falling behind can help you get ahead

“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyper specialization.” – David Epstein, from Range 

Tiger Woods was seven months old when he first picked up a golf club. By two, he entered his first tournament and won the 10U division. By three, he was shooting 48 on par nine and practicing in sand traps. Just one year later he was spending his entire days on the golf course without the supervision of his father and hustling grown men. He could beat his father by eight and by 18 he was a standout golf athlete at Stanford University. After two years at Stanford, Woods joined the PGA tour in 1996 and started his professional career. By 21 years old he was the best golfer in the entire world. At 44 years old he is one of the greatest golfers this game has ever seen and has amassed 109 professional victories in 24 years on the tour. Tiger’s destined story to greatness is the epitome of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule: Mastery of any domain requires 10,000 hours of focused practice. Tiger’s dad sure didn’t waste any time getting him started.

Now let’s look at a different story. This young man wasn’t really interested in sticking to a specific sport early on. In fact, there aren’t too many sports that he didn’t try – as long as they involved a ball. While his mother coached tennis, she wasn’t really interested in teaching him because his return serves weren’t normal. In fact, the only advice she really gave him was to stop taking it so seriously. When his tennis coaches asked him to move up a level to play with the older boys, he declined because he was more interested in hanging out with his friends afterward and talking about pro wrestling. When he finally gave up the other sports, his competitive peer group had long been working and refining their craft with performance coaches, strength coaches, and nutritionists. However, starting late didn’t really seem to hamper this young man’s long-term development. In fact, Roger Federer managed to develop into a fine tennis player; he’s not too worried his peers got a head start on him. 

The comparison of specialist’s path (Tiger) to the path of a generalist. Don’t think the path below doesn’t work – we see it more often than the one above (from Epstein’s TED talk).

While many know about Tiger’s destined route to greatness, very few known about Federer’s unique path to stardom. When we look at both paths, Woods and Federer represent two opposite poles when it comes to the development of mastery. Woods is the poster boy for early sport specialization; Federer is the example of the benefits of late specialization. Both represent the elite of the elite in their respective sport, but each took a completely different route to the top. While it’s easy to romanticize with Tiger’s story, it doesn’t mean his route is the most optimal path for everyone. In fact, some would argue that Federer’s path to the top is more practical and optimal. One of these guys is David Epstein.

In his recent book Range, Epstein dove into Federer’s unlikely path to excellence by examining the amount of deliberate practice elite performers engaged in growing up as compared to their non elite counterparts. When he looked at the research, he found that elite athletes actually performed less deliberate practice early on. The elites only surpassed them when they reached 15-18 years old.

Deliberate practice of elites compared to near elites (from Epstein’s TED Talk)

Instead of diving into deliberate practice earlier, elite athletes underwent what researchers call a “sampling period.” This sampling period is where kids tried a lot of different sports in an unstructured/lightly structured environment in which they were able to gain a wide range of physical proficiencies, get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses, and use these experiences to eventually narrow in one something later in their life (remember the study on the 2014 German World Cup team?). This sampling period is not just specific to sports; Epstein found it in plenty of other fields too.

When researchers compared the earnings of postgraduate students from England who early specialized in a specific field and students from Scotland who delayed their route to specialization, they found the English students had a short-lasting head start. The English students earned more early on because of the advantages of their specialized knowledge base, but the Scotts surpassed them in the long run as they were more likely to figure out a field that best matched their interests and strengths. When they found an environment they were more likely to succeed in, they showed higher interest levels, were more likely to persist through challenges, and ended up making more money in the long run. The English students who were forced into a career path early on could not sustain their head start – they hadn’t given themselves enough range to figure out what best made sense for them.

The Scottish students and Federer are not the only ones who have had success using the generalist/late specialization model. Vincent van Gogh had gone through five different careers – all unsuccessfully – prior to his 30th birthday. It wasn’t until he picked up a book in his late twenties called The Guide to the ABCs of Drawing that he started to figure out his true career path. Gunpei Yokoi used his passion for various hobbies to develop lateral thinking that lead to the creation of the cutting-edge technology behind the Nintendo Gameboy. When researchers examined what separated the best comic book creators from the rest, they found the amount of comics created, experience, and the resources at their disposal all had no impact at all. The only thing that mattered was how many different genres they worked in. “Where length of experience did not differentiate creators,” said Epstein, “Breadth of experience did.”  

“Parents want their kids doing what the Olympians are doing right now, not what the Olympians were doing when they were twelve or thirteen.” – Ian Yates, British sports scientist and professional sports coach

So if the majority of fields need an early sampling period for success later on, why did Tiger’s route work? Epstein explained this by dividing learning environments into two different categories: kind learning environments and wicked learning environments. Kind learning environments deal with consistent and repeatable patterns where the feedback is immediate, extremely accurate, and rapid. There are defined boundaries, consequences are quickly apparent, and similar challenges occur repeatedly. Examples of kind learning environments include golf and chess. They’re coined as “kind” because learning is pretty straight forward. Improving your short game isn’t too complex – just grab your club, a bucket of balls, and head out to the green. The more you practice it, the better you are going to get at it (assuming the practice is focused). When you combine a generational talent with an insatiable work ethic, a clear route to the top, and thousands of hours of practice, you get Tiger Woods.

Wicked learning environments are the opposite; the rules are unclear, there aren’t repetitive patterns performers can consistently rely on, feedback isn’t always obvious, can be delayed, or is inaccurate as a whole. Entrepreneurship is a great example of this – there aren’t any rules or boundaries you need to work within, your efforts early on won’t always yield subsequent results, and you don’t have any previous patterns to rely on to guide your future decisions. It’s demanding, it’s chaotic, and it’s anything but kind. It’s also what most learning environments actually look like. Golf and chess don’t turn out to be the majority; they are the exceptions.

Very seldom do we engage in activities where there is a clear and defined route to the top. Most learning environments are very challenging (not saying golf or chess aren’t), unpredictable, unforgiving, and they require more than just deliberate practice to figure out. Some of the greatest discoveries we’ve ever seen happened in the absence of prior knowledge, patterns, and thoughts. Kepler didn’t have any previous research to help guide his theory that planets further away from the sun moved slower. He had a hunch that he brought to life using empirical observation, logic, thinking across different disciplines, and connecting the gaps in his understanding through the use of analogies. If your understanding isn’t robust enough to withstand the rigors of a wicked environment, it will be exposed when you’re placed into a situation that is unfamiliar. The best chess players in the world perform no better than novices when they’re placed in situations they don’t recognize from previous experience. Learning isn’t about going through a checklist of procedures; learning is what happens when those procedures get thrown out the window.

While learning in wicked environments is difficult and can be frustrating early on, it provides great long term returns. To understand this, let’s think about the differences between learning math in a blocked/repetitive environment (kind) and in a variable/unpredictable environment (wicked). When learning in kind/predictable environments, you’re able to lean on previous experience through pattern recognition. It’s easy to figure out 6×6 using previous recall when all you’ve been doing lately is hammering down on your multiplication tables. When learning in variable and unpredictable environments, you can’t rely on previous recall. Going from addition to division to multiplication is a hair trickier than just honing in on your times tables. Instead of just spitting out information from your short term memory, you need to actually create a strategy where you differentiate types of problems and design actionable strategies to attack them individually. Instead of memorizing procedures, you have to build long term strategies. The returns on these strategies are significant; especially when the conditions for the problem inevitably change.

So what’s the point of all this?

The point is this: Deep learning is slow. It takes time to build a robust skill set and a thorough base of knowledge required to become an effective problem solver. We praise the Tiger Woods of the world who get off to an early head start, but what we don’t realize is how rare these cases actually work out. Imagine if you forced Roger Federer to just play tennis as a kid and stripped him of his ability to play other sports and spend his free time hanging with his buddies after practice. He’d probably grow to hate tennis so much that he’d quit before he even got into high school (hint: parent-induced burnout is real). The generalists and the late specializers who take their time to dabble in different fields early on are the ones who usually find the best fit in the long run. 

If we think about it, our greatest advantage as a species over machine learning is not the ability to narrowly specialize; it’s the ability to integrate broadly. When we’re dealing with open-ended real world problems, we crush machines. Machines can specialize in ways that we cannot but they also cannot browse through a wide range of fields, draw parallels between them, and find ways to solve problems by using experiences from other domains. Our ability to navigate various disciplines and make connections between them is a large part of what makes our learning systems incredibly unique – you’d be wise if you took advantage of it.

“Some tools work fantastically in certain situations, advancing technology in smaller but important ways, and those tools are well known and practiced. Those same tools will also pull you away from a breakthrough innovation into an incremental one.” – Andy Ouderkirk, material engineer at Oculus Research

While some activities like golf and chess have more direct routes to success, the majority of careers do not. Our ability to navigate wicked learning environments comes back to our ability to effectively solve problems. Building a wide range of knowledge from multiple domains gives you the framework you need to see the big picture, break things down, and defer to other domains who can provide you with more detailed expertise. Specializing in one area early on may delude you into thinking you have a head start, but in reality it blinds you from other areas of benefit and ultimately prevents you from getting out of your own way. Charles Darwin’s greatest breakthroughs represented “interpretative compilations of facts first gathered by others.” He was, in Epstein’s words, “A lateral-thinking integrator.” When the path is no longer clear, the same routines will no longer suffice. This is where the generalists reign king.   

Epstein’s greatest piece of advice can be summed up in three words: “Don’t feel behind.” He said, “Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.

“Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise. Research on creators in domains from technological innovation to comic books shows that a diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contributions of broad individuals. Even when you move on from an area of work or an entire domain, that experience is not wasted.”  

Conversations with Coaches

Lantz Wheeler

Why interpretation trumps information 

Why prescribing drills isn’t enough 

Week Four – The Pitfalls of Separation, Research, and Forcing Movement Solutions

Thought for the Week: Parallax: “The effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions.” 

Why teaching “Separation” can do more harm than good 

Separation is something Eugene talks about all the time when it comes to pitching and hitting – but not for the reasons you’d think. In his current opinion, the majority of teaching around “hip shoulder separation” is butchered – and athletes are paying for it. If you’ve read his book Old School vs. New School, you’d know how important this was to him because he dedicated an entire chapter to describing fallacies when it comes to hip shoulder separation. Before we get into that, let’s start on some common ground.

We know that really good hitters and pitchers create some degree of separation between segments that are required for the production and dissipation of force. We understand that athletes are going to create some sort of stretch (i.e. separation) that pulls slack out of the system before a swing or throw. We know that the pelvis should probably reach its peak speed before the arms do – there is going to be a slight delay, or separation, between certain segments as they pick up speed. However, this doesn’t explain hip shoulder separation in a vacuum. For one, how much separation do we really need? Why do some guys create a lot of separation but others get away with smaller amounts of separation? If someone doesn’t present with an “optimal” amount of separation, is it a mobility problem or is it a movement solution problem? How much mobility do we even need in the first place? 

Mike Trout has had a lot of success without creating a great degree of separation

When we think about creating a lot of separation, the goal becomes creating the biggest stretch you can possibly make. This is usually done from a position where the hips are opened up while the shoulders are working back against them in the opposite direction. By creating more distance between the pelvis and the shoulders, the athlete has appeared to have created more “separation” and might get some more juice in the process, but it doesn’t mean it is an effective or efficient movement solution.

To explain this, let’s pretend you have a raft tied to a boat 15 yards away and the boat takes off full speed. Now let’s pretend you take that same raft and add 30 yards of slack to it. If that same boat takes off full speed with the extra slack of rope, it’s probably going to be bad news for the raft. When we try to artificially add more separation to a player’s movement solutions, we are adding more slack in the rope. The raft then becomes lumbar spine – and it doesn’t usually end well. The trick then becomes understanding how long each player’s rope actually is; then learning when and how to take out unnecessary slack. 

So how do we create separation that is efficient and effective? 

Let’s start the conversation here: Elite players have an exceptional ability to create a large amount of force in a small window of time. The ability to do this depends on their rate of force development (RFD). Your ability to create a lot of force in a small window is crucial when working under time constraints. Both pitchers and hitters have to operate under time constraints (hitting is obviously a little more difficult because of its reactive nature). If your delivery or swing can’t operate within this constraint, it’s not going to play in a game environment. Creating an insane amount of separation might work in a long drive competition, but it’s not going to work when you have to worry about barreling a 95 mph fastball. It’s not about how fast the Ferrari can go at top speed – it’s about how quickly it can get off the line. 

In hitting, the goal is to compress as much force as possible into the baseball in the smallest window of time. The bat should be reaching its peak speed into contact – not well before it. Creating a lot of separation and delaying your barrel into contact to pick up bat speed might create a bigger stretch that helps with force production, but it works against you when you’re trying to barrel up game velocity. This is a big reason why Eugene believes bat speed reaches a point of diminishing returns – we don’t have a large window of time to accelerate the barrel. If the middle is moving and the barrel isn’t, your barrel is dragging. By focusing on separating your hands from your hips, you’ve sacrificed your ability to efficiently strike the ball, made it tougher to barrel up any kind of game (emphasis on game) velocity, and sapped yourself of any adjustability. While pitchers don’t have to operate under the time constraint of a hitter, the sequence to produce velocity is no different – the only thing that changes is the implement. The separation in the sequence doesn’t happen early – it happens late. Separation is not about creating gaps – it’s about learning how to close those gaps as quickly as possible.

When the middle starts to move, the barrel moves in unison.

A really good analogy about separation is to think about how you would rotate a cable or a flywheel (see video below). It becomes very difficult to move the load if you open up your hips, close off your shoulders, and try to create a lot of separation early in the sequence. It becomes much easier to move the load when you stack your shoulders over your hips and move it as one interconnected unit. While you may not appear to have a lot of separation, you’re creating a better sequence by putting your body in better positions (pelvis closed and anchored, midsection braced) so the separation can happen later. Separation should not be viewed as an active move early in the sequence; it should be viewed as a passive move as the result of a good sequence. 

Separation is important, but how we create that separation is just as important. If creating separation prevents us from delivering a large amount of force in a small window of time, it’s not beneficial – it’s a barrier to performance.

What we can learn from Neil deGrasse Tyson

Eugene and I took the time to go through Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass the other evening and it was worth every penny. Through a series of videos, Neil explained the engine that drives how he thinks, interprets information, and determines truth amidst varying perspectives, clutter, and bias. When we can’t rely on previous information to solve problems, we must rely on how we think. Mastering your ability to think gives you range – relying on what you already know creates rigidity. Below are some oh his thoughts from the video series.

“Wisdom is distilled knowledge once you’ve forgotten all the details.”

The best thinkers of this world have gone into the weeds, dove into complexity, and returned with simplicity. They went both feet into a topic, researched it from several different angles, and spread it as thin as they possibly could. This enhanced understanding gave them the ability to see things more simply by looking at them through a different lens. The details are there to help create this understanding – not cloud it. Wise people don’t need to say much because they’ve acquired distilled knowledge through years and years of diving into the complexity. Their journey through the weeds helped them return to the surface with simplicity; not the other way around.

The best teachers are able to take a complex subject and communicate it as simply as possible. As Albert Einstein says it best, “If you don’t know it simply enough, you don’t know it well enough.” If you can’t teach what you know to the dumbest person in the room, you don’t understand it thoroughly. The goal is simplicity but simplicity cannot be achieved without going feet first into the never-ending web of complexity. The wisest people to ever walk this earth have traveled that road; and they’ll be the first ones to tell you there are no shortcuts. Simplicity creates understanding, understanding builds knowledge, knowledge gives you the ability to build wisdom. The best thinkers of our time had unparalleled wisdom – Neil is no different. 

“It’s not good enough to be right – you also need to be effective.”

In a world where we’re all seeking objective truth, knowing what is true is only part of the equation. If you can’t effectively relay what you know, why it works, and how to make it work, what you know is useless. Knowledge is power until it isn’t. If you’re not actively applying what you know, testing your theories, and finding ways to get results, you can’t be effective. Everyone wants to be right in an argument – not everyone has the results to back it up.

This brings up another point Neil discussed: If you have results to back it up, the quickest way to lose your effectiveness is to tell someone else they’re wrong. Disagreements typically happen when two people are so emotionally invested in a certain perspective that they will go to great lengths to protect it – and they’re not interested in changing their mind. The best way to win these arguments is to avoid them, but the second best way to win them is to get on their side. Instead of telling them they’re wrong, figure out why they think the way they do. If you show genuine interest in their way of thinking, you’ve given yourself the ability to open them up to a new perspective. People want to be heard. If you make them feel heard, you’ve given yourself a chance to win them over.

Now you also have to explain your point of view carefully. If you force feed it to them, you’re going to wind back up at square one. Spark some interest by saying, “Have you ever thought of it this way?” or “Have you considered thinking about this?” You don’t need to say your stuff works – you just need to suggest that what you do might work. If you can inspire people to research what they do from a different point of view, you’ve created an incredible environment for collaboration. You can’t build a system of beliefs without knowing what’s on the other side. This is why Neil believes search engines are the epitome of bias: You’re one search away from confirming what you already “know.”

The most important thing you can be in this world is curious. Curious people aren’t concerned with agendas – they’re concerned about finding what is true. Effective leaders inspire curiosity; ineffective ones demand conformity.  

The more frequent the better

Eugene has since decided to use his spare time being quarantined to learn how to play the piano – and he is about as novice as novice gets when it comes to music. The only advantage he really has is he doesn’t have hard wired CNS to do it the wrong way. This process has spurred some insightful conversations about the process of acquiring a skill by tapping into exactly what helps him improve and what creates challenges for him. While he’s only a couple weeks in, there is one thing that has really helped Eugene early on: Frequency.

Eugene may practice for up to two hours a day, but those two hours are not spent all at once. He can figure out how to master a specific note or a song with time, but the game totally changes when he takes a break and has to repeat the same skill after a period of not doing it. Whenever he takes a break and comes back to it, his learning systems go all the way back to square one. This can create some frustrating moments, but it’s really helped Eugene because it’s forced him to understand the skill inside out. He can’t rely on previous practice nearly as well when he has to pick up the skill and start fresh after a dormant period. While he can’t exactly pick up where he left off at, he’s able to start at a baseline that exceeds his previous practice session. It’s a great reminder that progress is not linear.  

Every time Eugene picks up the piano and starts playing, his CNS is firing to create pathways required for execution of the skill. These pathways become stronger with repetition – a process known as myelin sheathing. Myelin is the fatty substance that wraps around the pathways between neurons that are required for execution of a skill. When these pathways are used more frequently, more myelin is created to insulate these circuits. Denser sheets of myelin help accelerate the distance and speed impulses can travel between neurons across a specific pathway. This is where the idea of practice becomes perfect comes from: The more you practice, the more myelin your brain creates, the more the skill becomes automated, the better you get at it. 

This is where I think frequency comes into play. If we think about the resources and attention we can allocate to learning a specific skill, more practice eventually gets to a point of diminishing returns. We all know the feeling when we’ve been working on something for a while but feel like nothing is getting done. Some guys might benefit more from longer sessions, but only if the learning systems are actively engaged. If your brain goes on autopilot when practicing a skill, no new learning is occurring. For these reasons, breaking up your practice sessions and instead doing them more frequently throughout the day or week can be of huge benefit. Don’t force yourself to hammer our three straight hours of writing if half of that time is going to be spent staring at a blank page. Space it out, put together quality work when you’re focused, and learn when to step away. Doing it more isn’t always better – doing it more frequently might be a better idea.

Let the Research catch up to us

“When you don’t have any data, you have to use sense.” – Richard Feynman, physicist and Nobel laureate

This topic has been fascinating to dive into because of the current state of player development. I think we have developed a tendency to gravitate towards peer reviewed research. Since we can measure it and write a conclusion about it, it comes off as factual and as something we can trust – but that’s not always the case. Reading and understanding the research is very important, but taking it as absolute truth is a huge mistake. There are plenty of coaches that do things that aren’t validated by research, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work. Every day in the trenches is a research project. Using a lack of research as a barrier to actually coaching is a problem because the best coaches are doing research every single day. They just don’t need to know it’s peer reviewed to know it works. 

There are plenty of coaches that do things that aren’t validated by research, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work. Every day in the trenches is a research project. 

If we look to the strength and conditioning field, Michael Boyle – owner of Boyle Strength & Conditioning – explained the fallacies of research in the Muscles and Management podcast by bringing up how much it’s changed. When research came out arguing against static stretching, Boyle jumped on the trend and eliminated all of the static stretching in his programs – until he started to see more injuries. When he discovered a lot of the physical therapy work being prescribed to injured clients included a lot of stretching, he rethought his stance and decided to incorporate static stretching again. Sure enough, injuries started to go down.

Boyle does plenty of stuff in his gym that doesn’t have any “evidence” behind it, but he argues he actually has plenty of evidence: The people he actually trains. He doesn’t really care there isn’t any peer reviewed research that supports foam rolling because he has plenty of clients who feel better after foam rolling. He’s not interested in rethinking his stance against bilateral back squatting just because some study used it to test for lower body strength; a deadlift, split squat, or front squat could have proved the same point without throwing the L5 under the bus. Invalidating someone’s experience because there isn’t any “research” to support it is not only stupid; it’s a lazy way to poke holes in someone else’s training.

“A wise man once said research is sports history. The researchers study what we’ve already done to figure out why we did it.” – Michael Boyle, from Muscles and Management podcast episode 57

Eugene didn’t need a research study to figure out the arm recoil and kick back were good ideas. He used common sense. If basically all guys who throw fuel recoil, why would recoiling be a bad thing? If some of the best hitters in the world kick back with their back leg, why wouldn’t we try to teach it? Better yet, why would we take it away from someone who naturally does it?

“We have to consider the research process and what it entails to even get things out,” said Eugene. “While they are busy trying to get large enough samples for their work and making sure they eliminate variables, boots on the ground are figuring out stuff considerably faster. After seeing exit velocities improve 10+ mph in as little as 20 minutes by adding a kick back, and seeing similar improvements in others, I knew it needed to be tested. After testing it with like 30 players and seeing ridiculous differences, I didn’t need to wait for some bullshit study to tell me it’s good.

“I’m trying to get results today, not wait for someone to give me the okay. We should always be 20 years ahead of the research. Let them catch up to us; not the other way around.”  

Before we pull out the research card, let’s start by using common sense card. New information is going to come out that will shape our beliefs and change how we train, but it cannot be used to confirm agendas, discredit experience, or ignore empirical observation. Research is used to enhance our understanding of why things work and why they don’t work; it should not be a barrier to actually coaching. It you want to be right rather than be helpful, do us a favor and don’t research.

The Case against Pitch Design

Pitch design is something that has gained a lot of traction recently – and rightfully so. Seeing exactly how the ball comes out of your hand helps significantly accelerate the learning curve for a new pitch by enhancing awareness and understanding for how to create a desired movement profile. Pitchers have always been interested in building a new pitch or finding ways to get their ball to move a little more in a specific direction. It’s fun, it’s sexy, and it’s effective if done in the right populations; but it’s not always necessary.

Will and Eugene worked with several professional arms this past offseason that saw huge improvements in offspeed stuff after training. Here’s the catch: They didn’t do any pitch design work. The only thing they did was learned how to move better. When the movement improved, the secondary stuff became significantly sharper – and it’s not a coincidence.

To explain this, check out a couple of 2018 sliders from Marc Rzepczynski – one of their pro clients from this past offseason. In an outing in April 2018, Marc spun off a 2152 rpm floater that was a pretty easy take for Matt Joyce – largely because it wasn’t too far from his head. It looked something like this:

Just four weeks later, he ripped off a 2535 rpm hammer that sent Joey Gallo back to the dugout. It looked something like this:

If we look into the difference between the pitches, we could theorize plenty of things which include his feel for the pitch that day, the cues he was thinking about, or the visuals he was using. However, the one glaring difference between both pitches is the movement solutions he created when throwing both. Let’s take a closer look.

Notice Rzepczynski’s lower half. On the Joyce slider, Marc comes out of his backside pretty quickly causing his pelvis to drag his arm through. This prevents Marc from getting into good positions so he can rip off a nasty slider (it’s tough to get to the front of the ball if your arm is playing catch up). Now let’s look at the good slider on the right. Notice how Marc stays into his backside much longer which helps him create a better and more efficient sequence. This gives him the ability to get into better positions where his arm is on time at foot strike so he can rip off a better breaking ball. As you could guess, this is something Marc worked on this past offseason.

Marc didn’t necessarily need a new grip or a new cue to create a better breaking ball; he just needed to move better. When the movement improved, his stuff improved. This is a great lesson for anyone looking to add or refine a a pitch from their arsenal: Before you start tinkering with the fun stuff, start by looking at your movement solutions. Trying to refine Marc’s bad slider through pitch design would be putting the cart before the horse. He didn’t need pitch design work – he needed movement work. If you have a kid who moves like shit, working on adding a new curveball isn’t going to solve the problem – moving better will. If you have a kid who consistently throws cement mixers and has played around with 69 different grips, working on grip #70 probably isn’t a great idea. As you can see with Marc, how you move creates the movement profile. Chasing rpms without addressing the movement is going to send you swimming upstream. 

With this, being able to throw a good secondary pitch is a learned skill that requires practice and experimentation. If you’re learning how to throw a breaking ball, just dedicating all of your training economy to throwing fastballs isn’t a great idea. The magic then becomes using the movement work to be in good positions so you can start creating feel for how to rip off a proper breaking ball. If we become a slave to the movement profile of the pitch, we neglect the thing that’s creating it: The movement. Good movement creates good secondary stuff; bad movement creates bad secondary stuff. 

Pitch design is not a bad thing – it’s a really good thing; just know when and who to use it with. 

Case Studies: What happens when you take players out of their natural moves 

Mike Soroka

Mike Soroka was a nice free agent addition to my fantasy baseball team last year – and it’s because his shit is nasty. He’ll slice and dice you with 95 mph sinkers, upper 80s sliders, and does it with pinpoint precision – only walking 2.5 batters per nine while striking out 7.3 en route to his first All-Star selection in 2019. He’s part of a young group of arms that are going to be really exciting to watch over the next decade – well, if he stays healthy over the next 10 years. 

Something Eugene talks about a lot is keeping the elbow in the plane of rotation. When throwers get to foot strike, the throwing elbow is going to be up in a position that is roughly in line or slightly below the throwing shoulder (above creates impingement in the rotator cuff). As the pitcher starts to internally rotate the shoulder to throw the ball, the throwing elbow wants to travel on a clear path through it’s natural slot around the plane of rotation; about 90 degrees to the trunk. This relationship is where a thrower’s “natural” slot comes from. Everyone throws from a low slot – some people just do it with more or less trunk tilt. Guys who throw “over the top” are able to create more lateral trunk tilt towards their glove side to create a higher release point. Guys who throw appear to throw “sidearm” don’t create nearly as much tilt. 

When we look at Soroka from the side (below), I want you to look at where his elbow is at foot strike and how is travels after foot strike. If he maintains a clean, natural slot throughout the course of his delivery, the elbow should maintain a relatively straight line horizontal line towards his target. Instead, you’re going to notice his elbow “scoop” up and climb above the plane of rotation as his shoulders start to rotate forward. This is not good. Instead of letting his arm naturally unwind around his trunk, his elbow is being forced to climb up so he can throw “over the top.” When athletes are forced to move in positions that are not natural or efficient, we tend to see injuries. 

For reference, here is Soroka compared to Trevor Bauer’s arm action. Notice how Trevor’s arm rotates around his trunk and his elbow maintains a clean line towards his target. Instead of scooping up, it works around the shoulders to efficiently deliver the baseball. Soroka’s climbs up and slams back down to throw the ball – it doesn’t maintain a clean path to the plate. 

An inefficient arm action (left) vs. an efficient arm action (right)

The best part about this? Soroka didn’t always look like this. Below is a clip of him throwing a pitch as a standout high school prospect in the Area Code games before being taken in the first round by Atlanta.

Mike Soroka, one of baseball’s top high school prospects, throwing a pitch at the Area Code games (source)

For reference, this is what he looked like last year from the same camera angle.

Mike Soroka throwing a pitch in a MLB game last year (from @pitchingninja)

Now let’s look at them side by side.

Yikes. 

Well, that’s a hair different from what he used to do. Notice how on the left Soroka strides closed and his arm unwinds naturally and effortlessly from a lower arm slot. It’s loose, relaxed, and efficient. If you look at his delivery on the right, notice how he has to force his body to create more trunk tilt so his arm can move from a higher slot. Instead of unwinding around his body, his arm yanks down and abruptly bangs against his torso after release. Since he had to yank his elbow up to get on top, it has to yank back down to throw the ball. This doesn’t create a healthy deceleration pattern for the arm and can place a lot of stress on the elbow and anterior shoulder. This isn’t ideal. 

In essence, Soroka was most likely coached out of the movement solutions that made him really, really good (figure that one out) and was forced to throw from a more over the top slot. While it hasn’t really impacted his performance so far, I’m not confident he can sustain this delivery over a longer period of time. There’s a reason why he threw from a lower slot in high school – it was his natural slot. Guys who get forced out of positions that made them really good tend to get hurt – kind of like the guy below. 

Tyler Kolek 

Tyler Kolek was drafted by the Miami Marlins #2 overall in the 2014 MLB Draft. Kolek was a highly coveted draft prospect at 6’5″ 250 lbs. featuring a fastball that he consistently ran into the mid to upper 90s – touching triple digits – that paired well with a devastating breaking ball. His stuff was absolutely filthy coming out of high school – but there’s a reason why you probably don’t know his name. 

Just so we have a reference point, this is what Kolek looked like in high school at the Area Code games.

Tyler Kolek pitching in the Area Code games (source)

This is what he looked like two years later in spring training. 

Kolek pitching in spring training 2016 (source)

Kolek didn’t throw a pitch in 2016. He missed the entire season and most of 2017 to Tommy John Surgery. For an even better look at the changes Kolek made, check out what he looked like in 2018 in instructs. His fastball topped out at 92. 

Kolek pitching in instructs in 2018 (source)

The first thing I noticed right off the bat when it came to Kolek’s delivery was his tempo. In high school, Kolek utilized an up tempo delivery where he got his center of mass going down the mound as soon as he picked up his left leg. When Kolek got to pro ball, I noticed a significant change in his tempo. In the spring training shot, notice how Kolek gets to more of a balance point and keeps his center of mass over his back leg at peak leg lift. There isn’t a continuous flow of energy the way his delivery used to look when he was one of the top high school prospects in the country. It’s abrupt, it looks forced, and it could be part of the reason why he started to fall off. 

The second thing that significantly changed in Kolek’s delivery was where his front foot landed. In high school, Kolek strided closed. In pro ball, that changed; he now strides much more open. The second shot makes this pretty easy to see. Instead of keeping his pelvis closed and getting across his body, Kolek’s pelvis swings wide open and drags his arm through. Trying to stride more open prevented Kolek from creating the cross-body tension he was once able to create when he landed closed with his front foot. His fastball lost his zip, his command went to hell, he got sent to the surgery table twice (later for thoracic outlet), and his chances of getting to the bigs now are about as slim as they could possibly be. 

While this evaluation doesn’t take into account a myriad of variables such as throwing routines, strength programs, or workload, the movement paints a pretty glaring picture. The Kolek you saw throwing in high school is completely different than the Kolek from pro ball in 2016 and 2018; and it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s struggled a lot. What some coaches may have seen as flaws turned out to be some of the things that made Kolek such a special draft prospect. While the changes made were well intentioned, I think they ended up becoming the worst thing possible for Kolek. He didn’t run it up to triple digits as a high school kid by mistake. The movement patterns he developed were vital to his success on the diamond growing up. Taking them away from him, in my current opinion, was the start of his downfall.

The worst part about Kolek’s situation is this isn’t a one time thing – it happens all the time. Careers are ruined because players either get away or are forced away from the things that made them so good in the first place. Soroka didn’t throw from a lower slot because he wanted to hurt himself. He did it because it was the best way for him to efficiently and effectively transfer force into the baseball. Kolek didn’t stride closed because he thought it would hurt his command or velocity. He did it because it helped him throw 100 mph at 18 years old. It comes back to the fallacies of research: Let’s start with the common sense card before we start putting together some bullshit plan for all the changes a guy needs to make so he “won’t get hurt.” Better yet, let’s try to understand WHY these guys move the way they do before we decide to pull out the stride straight/throw over the top/finish in a fielding position card. 

If we want to protect kids going forward and give them their best chance at getting to the show, we need to seek to understand before we seek to be understood. More and more careers are going to be put at risk until we do. 

Week Three – Finding the Source, Common Ground, and Sprinting is… Rotational?

Thought for the Week: We’ve all been dealt some pretty crappy groceries over the past month. How can we use these groceries to make a five star meal? 

Finding Common Ground

Back at the ABCA in January, Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin spoke about the importance of staying centered. From winning national championships to experiencing the death of current players, Corbin’s groups have seen it all. They’ve been at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows as a program – but they’ve never lived in those moments for long. Emotions such as jubilation and devastation are a part of life, but they are not sustainable. In other words, no one can survive at the peaks or valleys of life; they must find a middle ground where they can navigate the emotional highs and lows of life.

This idea of staying centered could not be more applicable to player development. Andy McKay – Director of Player Development with the Seattle Mariners – spoke about this at the Bridge the Gap seminar saying how we tend to gravitate towards one end of the spectrum when it comes to training players. We’re either old school or new school, launch angle or swing down, self organization or internal cueing, and intent or slow is fast. Instead of seeing both sides of the argument, we tend to jump to one side of the teeter totter and plant our roots there. We become so sure of what we’re doing that we become blind to what’s on the other side. 

One of Eugene’s biggest breakthroughs as a coach was when he stopped jumping to one end of the spectrum and decided to see both ends of it. Instead of just rolling with the new school trends of swinging up, throwing hard, and using external cueing, he decided to dive into the old school and see why cues like “swing down” or “be easy” worked for guys. This is how he came to the realization that everything works and everything sucks. When you boil it down, there is a time and place for everything in player development. It’s all about application. 

If we spend all out time on one end of the spectrum, we lose the ability to influence players that need the other end of it.

If we gravitate towards one end of the spectrum, we lose feel for the importance of what’s on the other side of the spectrum. Some guys might need to think easy, other guys might need to think about throwing the piss out of it. Some players need to think to swing down, others might need to think the opposite. If we spend all out time on one end of the spectrum, we lose the ability to influence players that need the other end of it.

As coaches, we need to find common ground when it comes to player development. If you want to influence as many players as you can, you need to keep an open mind and see things from both sides. Instead of jumping on new trends and clinging to the latest research, let’s see things for what they are and try to stay centered.

Sprinting is a … rotational move?

Both Altuve and OBJ step closed and kick back with their back foot – and it’s not by coincidence.

Pitching and hitting a baseball requires requires movement from multiple planes of motion – most notably the transverse plane which deals with rotation. Elite baseball athletes are really good in this plane of motion because they are training in it all the time. As a result, it should be no surprise when we see guys like Nelson Cruz and Mike Trout launch golf balls into orbit.Good rotation is good rotation.  

However, it is a little different when we see someone like Odell Beckham Jr. – who has no recent or notable background in baseball – pick up a bat and launch baseballs in batting practice. As a wide receiver, you’re doing a lot of cutting, leaping, bounding, and sprinting – but not a lot of rotating. Since we know power is plane specific and is quick to go if it’s not trained, how in the world is OBJ able to barrel balls over 350 feet with little to no baseball training? How can he get really good at rotating without ever really needing it on the football field?

Well, he does train rotation – and he trains it A LOT.

To understand this, let’s go back to reciprocal movement. All human beings are pre-programmed for reciprocal cross-body movement. The easiest way to explain this is to think about how all humans walk. When we step forward with our left leg, our upper body counterrotates around our pelvis and moves the right arm forward. When the right leg goes forward, the upper body counterrotates and sends the left arm forward. This counterrotation creates optimal length-tension relationships that store potential energy which is used to create movement through assistance from the fascial system. The constant counterrotation of the torso around the pelvis is reciprocal cross-body movement. We also don’t just see it when we walk – we see it in all human movement. 

As the bowler extends his right arm forward to bowl the ball, his right leg kicks back to give his pelvis a stable base for his torso to rotate around (source).
Jack Eichel uses reciprocal movement (see back leg kick back as stick moves across his body) to get off a wrist shot (source). This kick back move is very common in hockey – and it’s the same exact move Altuve uses to get his swing off. 

When our upper body works one way, our lower body anchors us down by moving reciprocally in the opposite direction. The lower half stabilizes and gives our upper half the ability to mobilize around it. This helps create efficiency, force, and direction required for human movement. If we want to rinse out a wash cloth, we can’t move both of our hands in the same direction. One hand needs to twist in one direction while the other counterrotates and twists in the other direction. Our upper half represents one hand and the lower half represents the other hand. To efficiently remove water from the wash cloth, both sides need to work in opposition of each other. This is exactly what our body does to create reciprocal cross-body movement.

If we look at baseball players, we are going to see reciprocal movement as they rotate to swing or throw. When the upper half mobilizes and works to get across the body to deliver the bat or ball, the pelvis anchors down and stabilizes. This move does not need to be taught – it’s already inside of us. Altuve and OBJ don’t both step closed and kick back by coincidence; we’re all pre-programmed for cross-body reciprocal movement. If anything, we coach most kids out of it. Don’t believe me? Check out how the lower half of an uncoached kid compares to one of the best hitters in the game. 

Lower half looks pretty similar, huh?

It’s also not just a hitting thing, either. 

Notice how Max Scherzer’s back foot kicks back and re-anchors after ball release so he can get across his body (source).
Darren O’Day is also able to create an anchor point using his back leg – even though it is not connected to the ground. Think about the action a bowler uses to get across his body (source).

So since we have an understanding of what reciprocal movement is and the importance of it when it comes to rotation, let’s go back to sprinting. Just like walking, when we sprint our pelvis and torso are constantly counterrotating against each other with every stride we take. When the left leg drives forward, the pelvis rotates so the left side is slightly in front of the right side. The torso counterrotates by driving the right shoulder slightly in front of the left shoulder. In essence, both the trunk and pelvis must ROTATE around the spine and against each other to produce force, direction, and efficiency. This is exactly what happens throughout the course of a baseball swing or throw. When a hitter or pitcher makes their move out of balance, the torso slightly counterrotates against the pelvis as it moves forward to remove slack going into foot strike.  After foot strike, the pelvis counterrotates against the torso as athletes work to get across their body.  

Notice how in elite sprinters how the pelvis and the trunk are counterrotating against each other with every single stride they take. The pelvis and torso do not drive forward in a straight line – they are rotating towards the midline of the body. This is our body’s reciprocal engine at work (source).

Sprinters might not look like they’re rotating, but when we break it down it becomes more and more clear they’re actually rotating in tight windows around their spine with every single stride. Without even thinking about it, OBJ become really good at rotating by sprinting. We just happened to see how good he was at it when he picked up a bat and took some cuts. 

Why looking at the problem may prevent you from actually solving out the problem

“He who treats the site of pain is often lost.” – Karel Lewit

When I was thinking about metaphors to describe this one, I couldn’t think of a more perfect metaphor than my recent struggles with ant infestations. If you’ve dealt with a swarm of ants before in your house, you know it becomes tiring work when you kill ant after ant and they just keep coming back. After days of killing ants on tops of ants, you probably get a little smarter and pick up some ant traps from the local store. However – picking up the traps and just placing them anywhere isn’t enough. You need to scout out where the ants are coming from and place these traps in the locations where you think they’ll appear most often. If you pick the right spots, your ant problems usually become a thing of the past – until they get smarter and find a new way in.

If you know anything about ant traps, you know they’re not the same as insect traps. In fact, they can’t be the same as insect traps – they wouldn’t work. The ants that become a problem in your house are known as the worker ants. These guys have the very important job of finding food and bringing it back to the queen ant of the colony. The queen ant is responsible for reproducing more and more ants – and if you couldn’t tell, they’re pretty good at it. If you’re working to kill the worker ants, you’re fighting an uphill battle because more are inevitably going to come as long as the queen is still around. Insect traps bait pests in with poisonous food so they can kill them at the source, but using this strategy for ants wouldn’t work because they don’t target the real source of the problem: The queen ant. Worker ants are just pawns that disguise the real problem.

Ant traps work because they don’t kill the worker ants when they enter. Instead, they let worker ants in so they can harvest what they think is “food” and bring it back to the queen. If the queen consumes the poisonous food brought back by her worker ants, the queen will die and the reproduction cycle will cease. The rest of the colony will begin to die off and they will have no immediate means for reproduction – thus, solving your ant issues. 

When you’re solving a problem, you have to look past the chaos of the worker ants. You need to analyze the ENTIRE situation, find the source of the colony, and make a plan to bring down the queen ant. If you can’t accurately find the source of the problem, whatever you try will only temporarily solve your issues. Problem solving must start by finding the source of it – not the symptoms you see as a result of the problem. 

In baseball, we tend to skip the whole “analyze the ENTIRE situation” thing and jump right to what we can easily sense. In other words, we treat the worker ants without ever addressing the queen ant. If someone comes in with shoulder pain, we jump right to the shoulder and find ways to treat it by resting, strengthening, or mobilizing it. We don’t take a step back and consider that our queen ant may be in an area that is completely separate from the shoulder. We’re so consumed by the worker ants that we forget to look at the big picture and see how weak glutes, a nagging left oblique, or a previously broken big toe could be the reason why our right shoulder is barking. Only by examining the system as whole can we actually start to diagnose the “why” behind pain; knowing the “what” is only where we start. In most cases, where we start is not where we finish. 

“Targeting best in class and possibly build ROI. Funneling user stories so that as an end result, we create a better customer experience.”

 

If there’s anything we know about the human body, we know it’s 1) infinitely complex and 2) everything affects everything. If we want to thoroughly and accurate evaluate why a certain area is in pain, we need to evaluate the entire system before narrowing in on a specific area. Our body is an excellent compensator. If it senses pain or danger, it will find ways to avoid what is harmful to execute a specific task. This is why injury histories are a huge part of the equation when solving current ailments – if you never gave a specific area time to heal properly, your body more than likely had to produce a different movement solution to execute the same task. When your movement solutions change, different areas of your body all of a sudden have to take on loads they are not accustomed to. This is where injuries can happen. 

If we go back to the example from above, your glutes and hamstrings play a crucial role in shoulder health because of their role in the production and dissipation of force. Guys who have a pushy and quad-dominant move down the mound aren’t going to be able to produce much force from the lower half because the quads are primarily an extensor; they’re not very good at rotating. If your lower half isn’t able to produce a sufficient amount of force, areas like the shoulder are going to be forced to pick up the extra slack. Your shoulder may be able to handle the force early on, but it is likely to break down over time and eventually present as shoulder pain. If we just treat the shoulder, we blind ourselves from the source of the problem: An inefficient lower half.

When you’re dealing with pain, you can’t just treat the pain – you need to treat the entire system. If you can’t thoroughly examine the situation as a whole, your odds at finding the source of your problem are slim – and you’re going to be swimming upstream until you can. 

Exaggerate the problem to solve the problem

“Feeding the mistake” is an effective strategy coaches can use when trying to build a new movement pattern. The goal of feeding the mistake is to force athletes into the patterns they want to avoid so they can create feel for a newer and better pattern. By exaggerating what they do bad, you’re able to heighten awareness for bad moves and accelerate the learning curve for better moves by teaching them how to resist the bad.

For example, if you have someone who has a big negative move and gets stuck on their back side you could attach a band to their waist and pull them back as they take their move out of balance. By feeding their bad habit of making a big move back, you force them to create a better move to the ball or they’ll fall backwards.

An example of feeding the mistake from Dan Heefner at Dallas Baptist University, from 2018 ABCA Presentation. The hitter is instructed to keep the coach from pulling his hands forward as he starts to rotate.

While drill selection and design is primarily used to feed the mistake, you can also feed the mistake using specific verbal cueing. In other words, telling a kid who has a pushy move to the ball to “push his hands as hard as he can” is a way to potentially transform a bad move into a better move. It may seem contradictory on the outside because you’re feeding him exactly what you don’t want him to do, but it’s something that can work if used in the right context. It all comes down to perception and awareness. 

How athletes perceive cues is a critical part to how they are designed. Lantz Wheeler has spoke about this and will dive into it in great detail in his upcoming book Transfer. He likens it to how you’d combine two colors to create a new color. One of the colors deals with the information, the other color deals with the perception of that information, and the resulting color is the movement created. You can’t make green if you just use blue and don’t use any the yellow. In other words, it becomes really tough to create the move you want if you just feed kids information and ignore how that information is perceived. Five different guys can perceive the cue “push your hands as hard as you can” in five different ways. Someone who’s more of a literal learner will create a really bad move where their hands go directly the ball and their lead elbow gets pinned against their body. Other guys may actually create a move where they learn how to get across their body quicker and actually deliver the barrel. The cue seems bad on the outside because we know it’s not exactly what happens in the swing, but we also don’t know how the athlete thinks, interprets information, and uses those interpretations to create specific movements. Understanding the cue is only part of the equation. For you to understand the effectiveness the cue, you need to understand how athletes perceive it. 

“Understanding the cue is only part of the equation. For you to understand the effectiveness of the cue, you need to understand how athletes perceive it.”

Awareness is the other critical component when designing cues. When we’re building a new skill, there is a lot of value in breaking it down and bringing awareness to specific parts of the movement. Awareness creates brain-body connections that help build proprioception and feel within the system. Athletes must be able to feel right from wrong if they want to be able to build a new pattern and repeat it. Cueing an athlete to “push their hands” may create awareness for the hands in a way that they never had before so they can learn how to build a better move. Just because you’re cueing an athlete a specific way doesn’t mean he can actually feel what you want him to. Telling them to do what they actually shouldn’t do may help bridge this gap. If it creates the right move, it’s a great cue. If it doesn’t, don’t try to pound a square nail through a round hole – just find a new one that works. 

Coaching is as much of an art as it is a science. Understanding how a player thinks and perceives information is critical if you want to design the cues that they need at that moment in time. There are no magic words when it comes to coaching – everything works and everything sucks. Telling a kid to do exactly what you don’t want him to do can become a huge unlock if you use it in the right context. It won’t work for everyone, but it might work for some. 

Training Videos

Will Marshall – Why Training Barefoot and Blindfolded works! 

Troubleshooting Quarantine Training Problems – Throwing too far out in front 

Eugene Bleecker – What does training with “intent” even mean?

Eugene Bleecker – The pitfalls of letting kids become their own best coach 

If you’re interested in more training videos like the ones above, make sure to check out the 108 Membership page for training content, player GIFs, and more! 

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.

 

Week 1 at 108 Performance

I’m going to document my thoughts on a weekly basis throughout the course of my internship at 108 Performance. Below are my thoughts from week one, the on boarding process, and some helpful tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Five Tools

The first thing that really stood out to me after my first appearance in the shop is the amount of stuff they have lying around. When these guys say everything works and everything sucks, they really mean it because they have tried it all. If there’s something Eugene thinks might help a player, he’s going to try it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a plyo ball, football, club, bowling pin, PVC pipe, swimming flipper, or floatie – it all works if it creates good movement. Everything they do is designed to create a specific movement. As Eugene says best, “I’ve never seen a bad hitter that moves well.”

Really good players move really well. Unfortunately, most kids have been taught how not to move well throughout their careers. As a result, a lot of what Eugene and his team do is uncoaching; the moves that we all need are already inside of us.  

An eight year old showing a clean arm spiral just like Max Scherzer

This prompted me to ask a question: “If you had to eliminate every training tool in this shop except for five, what would they be?” 

Below are the answers I got from Eugene and Will Marshall

Eugene – Pitching

  1. iPad 
  2. Baseball
  3. Heavy ball
  4. Light ball
  5. Water ball

If Eugene could eliminate everything else, he would keep the baseball and the iPad. There’s no better way to capture movement outside of your own two eyes than it is to video it. Two dimensional video gives you a lot of information about what’s going on and can give you a point of reference for future interventions. Eugene likes to use both full speed video and slow motion video. Full speed video helps you absorb the activity in its purest form and gives you a feel for rhythm, tempo, sequencing, fluidity, and efficiency. If you spot an energy leak through full speed video, slow motion video can be used to dive deeper into what’s going on.

Outside of the iPad, the regular ball, light ball, and heavy ball give Eugene the specificity he needs along with some slight variation to keep things fresh. Based on the needs of the athlete, a heavier or lighter implement could help create better movement solutions. Guys who need to pull out a lot of slack (loose movers) might benefit from throwing something heavier. Guys on the other end of the spectrum (tight movers) might need something lighter to prevent movement compensations.

Eugene loves water balls because they create instability that forces the co-contractions of muscles that are necessary for the production (rate of force development) and acceptance of force in small window. Athletes need to be able to create tension at the right moments of time in order to capture energy and efficiently transfer it to the bat or ball. Using water balls helps create feel for this.

Eugene – Hitting 

  1. Heavy long bat
  2. Light long bat
  3. Short bat
  4. Baseball
  5. Soccer ball

Eugene loves long bats with guys who struggle with creating space and bat path. The length forces hitters to clear space with their upper half to deliver the barrel and keep good direction through the middle of the field. The light and heavy versions are designed with the same intention of the heavy and light baseballs – some guys will do better with a heavier or lighter based on how they pull out slack. Short bats force adjustability through the zone and delivery of the barrel. If you have a guy who yanks balls and has a tough time decelerating, giving them a short bat is a great way to teach them how to deliver the bat head without pulling off.

The soccer ball is something Eugene loves to use to teach hitters how to strike balls. Pitchers and hitters have to create a lot of force in a short window of time. Hitters especially have to do this because they are at the constraint of the unpredictability of the incoming pitch. Thinking about “sticking the ball” helps create feel for when hitters should apply force in the swing. Doing too much too soon creates inefficient moves that become difficult to pull off when velocities increase. A cue Eugene likes to use when teaching hitters how to stick balls is “pretend the ball is 500 pounds.” While a soccer ball is not 500 pounds, it represents a constraint that forces athletes to learn how to brace and deliver their bodyweight into contact.

Will Marshall – Pitching

  1. PVC pipe
  2. Baseball
  3. Core Velocity Belt
  4. Waterbag
  5. 7 ounce ball

Will loves the PVC pipe to create feel for specific moves on the mound such as the plane of rotation, keeping posture, getting around the front hip, or teaching the shoulders to work with the hips to deliver the ball. The Core Velocity Belt helps create awareness for the hips and how they move down the mound. Eugene and Will talk a lot about how the extremities (arms, legs) should be slaves to the midsection. Trying to create tension in the arms or legs can create bad moves that expend a lot of energy. Using the belt teaches athletes how to bring focus to their hips so they can control their center of mass down the mound. All movement starts from the middle of the body. If you want to teach efficient movement, the hips are a great place to start.

Teeter Totter

Something Will talked about was how everything is on a teeter totter. Certain cues, feels, tools, and drills work to represent one of two ends on the teeter totter. For example, if thinking about getting on top is at one end thinking about throwing the ball sidearm is at the other end. Both of these cues work, but problems can arise when coaches or athletes spend too much time on one end of the teeter totter. Anything you overindulge in can hurt you. Some cues or drills may work really well right now, but they may not work so well in another training session. It doesn’t matter what you do – the only thing that matters is the movement created

Thinking about getting on top is great until the elbow climbs up and gets out of the plane of rotation. One day you might need to think about staying into your backside – another day you might need to think about getting out of it. Getting out and around your front hip works until you start spinning out of it. 

Don’t get married to certain drills or cues – they only work if they create the right moves. 

Sequencing vs. Efficiency

I picked up on this from a conversation with Will when talking about the idea of efficiency. When it comes to movement, efficiency is what we’re trying to create. Serge Gracovetsky talked about the importance of efficiency in his 1988 book The Spinal Engine suggesting that as a biological system, we strive for the conservation of energy as a means for survival. In essence, the species that does the most with the least is most primed for survival. There’s a reason why the best athletes in this world seem to make really tough things look incredibly easy. They’re producing the most amount of force with the least amount of energy. This is efficiency in its simplest form.

DeGrom is able to run it up into the upper 90s while making it look effortless because of his efficiency

Being able to maximize efficiency requires athletes to properly segment how that energy is captured and transferred up the chain. K Motion is a popular sports technology product that helps visualize this transfer of energy from the pelvis, trunk, arms, and eventually to the bat/ball. In a good sequence, all four segments should accelerate and decelerate in a steep peak where each segment overtakes the next after it reaches its max speed. The correct order of this sequence should be pelvis first followed by the trunk, arms, and then bat or ball. If the sequence is off or if the segments do not accelerate/decelerate sharply, it is going to be very hard for the athlete to efficiently transfer energy. However, being in sequence does not mean the athlete is efficient. 

An example of a good K motion sequence (from Driveline)

To determine efficiency, Will talked about the importance of using full speed video. Looking at a sequencing graph can show you what is happening, but it does not reveal how it is happening. This is why Eugene places so much importance in capturing video. An athlete can have a really good sequence, but how he got there does not mean he did it efficiently. Sequencing graphs don’t quite tell you the entire story. Efficiency comes down to making the most economical use of the resources athletes have at their disposal. You can have a pitcher who’s coming at you with arms and legs that’s in sequence, but it doesn’t mean they are efficient. If you want to determine whether a sequence is efficient or not, watch the film and see how easy (or not so easy) they are capturing energy. There’s a reason why the “old school” guys used to cue less is more – it’s because it works. Understanding sequencing is an important piece of the puzzle, but it is not to be confused for efficiency.

The Brakes and the Rubber Band

The human body is one interconnected system of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints that are intertwined through a giant spider web known as fascia. Fascia plays a crucial role in human movement because it strings everything together, thus playing a role in the transfer of energy. Throughout our body we have four major fascial slings which work like rubber bands to create movement by pulling out slack at optimal moments of time. The best way to describe this is to think about if you were to pull a car with a rope, you would need to first pull the rope taught before you could begin to pull the car. When you pull the rope tight you have removed slack just the way your muscles do when you create movement. However, not every player has the same length of rope. Guys who have to pull more slack out (ex: Donaldson, Chapman) are known as loose movers. Guys who have to pull less slack out (ex: Verlander, Trout) are known as tight movers. Both types of players need different strategies to learn how to most optimally tighten their rope so they can produce efficient movement (see five tools from above on more about this).

A visual of the fascial lines that represent the brakes, from 108 Performance pitching course

This is where the importance of the brakes comes in. The brakes work by using the fascial slings to create tension so energy from the movement can be dissipated. Inability to turn on the brakes leads to movement compensations that can impact force production, movement efficiency, performance, and health. For example, a hitter who lacks breaks is going to be more prone to yanking balls and pulling off offspeed pitches. They don’t have the ability to stop rotation after the swing which impacts their ability to keep good direction through the middle of the field. This yanking motion prevents segments from decelerating resulting in an inefficient sequence. It also can create lower back pain due to the aggressive rotation and lack of stability throughout the movement. If we look at the pitching side, a pitcher with weak brakes might have a tendency to spin out of their front side causing them to pull pitches to their glove side. This creates a poor decel pattern that causes the pelvis to drag the torso and the arm. This prevents the arm from capturing energy and puts it in a position where it cannot slow down safely. If the muscles needed for deceleration cannot be turned on, areas such as the elbow and shoulder are going to take a beating.  

A large engine cannot work efficiently without a strong set of brakes. Placing the engine of a Ferrari into the frame of a Prius is a recipe for disaster. Your body is constantly working to protect you; it will not put you in a position where your decelerators can’t counteract your accelerators. If you’re only teaching the engine, you’re missing out on a huge piece for your athletes. 

We Don’t Write Programs

Something Eugene and Will talked about a lot was their stance on traditional throwing or hitting programs. In their opinion, general programs that prescribe specific exercises and rep ranges fall short because they neglect the main thing that matters – the movement created. If you give five different kids rocker throwers, two might do them really well and the other three might butcher them. General programs will tell you what to do and when, but they can’t monitor how they are being done. What athletes need is constantly changing based on how they’re moving and what they feel. Following a general program doesn’t allow for this freedom and creativity.

Greatness is not a gift, it’s an Obsession

Some people like it, others love it, very few live it. The best players and coaches aren’t successful because they love it – they’re successful because they’re obsessed with it. When it turns into an obsession, nothing will stop you from getting what you want. There’s no doubt in my mind that Eugene, Will, and the rest of the 108 staff are obsessed with pushing this game forward. This next year is going to be a lot of fun.

The Process of Unlocking World Class Instincts

It’s the evening of October 13, 2001 and the New York Yankees are on the road playing the Oakland Athletics in game three of the American League Division Series. The Yankees have fallen behind in the series two games to none and are on the brink of elimination. Mike Mussina is in his seventh inning of work trying to preserve a 1-0 Yankees lead with two outs, Jeremy Giambi on first base, and Terrence Long at the plate. Long connects on a mistake from Mussina sending the ball past a diving Tino Martinez and deep into the right field corner of the Coliseum. Giambi races around the bases to a roaring crowd as Shane Spencer races to the ball with the relay tandem of Alfonso Soriano and Martinez lined up to home. 

Spencer scoops the ball up and fires it high over the heads of Soriano and Martinez. Giambi is being waved around third base and all of a sudden seems he’s going to score off the errant throw – until Derek Jeter comes flying in from the infield. Jeter handles the one hop on the run and makes a tabletop flip halfway up the line from foul territory. Jorge Posada receives the strike from Jeter and swings back to make a one handed tag on Giambi’s right leg just inches before his foot touches home. Giambi is called out and 55,000 cheers are turned to groans of disbelief. The Yankees would go on to win the game 1-0 and would take the next two to win the series in five games. Many believe Jeter’s heroics turned the tide in the series and helped propel New York to its fourth consecutive fall classic. It is, to this day, one of the greatest plays in postseason history.

This situation was not new for Jeter – the Yankees practiced it every single year in spring training. As soon as the ball gets by Martinez and rolls towards the right field corner, the defense automatically concedes two bases to the batter and takes the next tick of strategy: A potential play at the plate. Soriano and Martinez quickly set up the tandem relay for home and Jeter hangs back around second base. His job is to see the play unfold, check where the runners are, and determine where they have the best chance of getting an out. If he sees that they do not have a chance at home and instead have a play at third, Jeter is to redirect the relay and go to third. If the play is at home, he lets the throw go through – if it’s a good throw.  

Before Jeter sprinted over to his position as third cut off man, he took a peek to see where Giambi was. Knowing the situation, Giambi’s speed (or in this case, lack of), and how far he was from home, Jeter knew they had a play at the plate before Spencer even scooped up the ball. He recognized the high throw right out of the hand and rushed to get in position to receive it – actually arriving a hair late. He knew he had a play at third base, but he also knew he had a chance to get Giambi at home. Unable to get his feet set, Jeter took a calculated risk and made a quick tabletop flip across his body. If the exchange and the flip are not perfect, Giambi is safe. 

The best part about Jeter’s flip was the Yankees never practiced going home in this situation. If Jeter touches the ball, the play is probably going to develop at third base. If you watch the play unfold, it’s pretty easy to see Giambi would have been out by 10 feet if Spencer made an accurate throw to Soriano or Martinez. However, some things just don’t work out according to plan. 

Jeter knew he had time and knew where he was going to go with the ball if he got it. The problem was that he should never have to touch the ball if the play develops at home. He had never practiced this play before in his life. With the game and series on the line, Jeter trusted his gut and made one of the most iconic plays of his career by trusting his instincts.

The rest is history. 

 

 

What are Instincts?

“Everything you need to be great is already inside you. All your ambitions and secrets, your darkest dreams… they’re waiting for you to just let go. What’s stopping you?” – Tim Grover, from Relentless

The word instincts is derived from the Latin word for “impulse.” They are, by definition, an organism’s innate pattern of behavior when presented with a specific stimulus. They are not a reaction but an inborn complex pattern of behavior that is beneficial for survival. Psychologist Sigmund Freud described instincts through his physical apparatus of the Id, Ego, and Superego. The “Id” – i.e. instincts – represents the deep, instinctual, and unconscious components of human behavior. These elements are rooted in sexual and aggressive desires and are in constant competition with the rational “Ego” through what is known as the pleasure principle: “The psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse.” In essence, we’re born with the Id and we learn the Ego. The Superego becomes the battleground where these two constantly fight for our attention.  

When we think of instincts as they pertain to sport, I think Tim Grover – trainer of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade – sums it up perfectly in his best-selling book Relentless: “No thinking. Just the gut reaction that comes from being so ready, so prepared, so confident, that there’s nothing to think about.” 

If Jeter thinks about what to do as Spencer’s throw comes in from right field, he’s too late. If he can’t anticipate the bad throw out of the hand and be in position (yeah he was late, but he still got there) to make a play on Giambi, the Yankees might not make it out of that series. This level of awareness cannot be measured or trained in ways that can be quantified. Great tools give you the opportunity to be a great player, but great instincts give your tools the ability to surface when the lights turn on. When the stakes rise, the best trust their instincts and elevate their game. Jeter was one of the best when it came to this – and he is in great company. 

Wayne Gretzky used his lack of physical ability to develop a style that helped him develop into one of the greatest players in NHL history (image source).

Wayne Gretzky was far from the average physical specimen of the average National Hockey League player. He wasn’t very big, fast, or strong – but he had instincts like no other. His lack of physical tools forced Gretzky to learn a different style of hockey and develop an incredible vision that helped him navigate the ice like an NFL quarterback. Gretzky talked about this in the documentary In Search of Greatness saying his style was necessary for survival. In other words, Gretzky’s greatest weaknesses forced him to develop his greatest strength: His instincts.

“Gretzky doesn’t look like a hockey player. . . . Gretzky’s gift, his genius even, is for seeing. To most fans, and sometimes even to the players on the ice, hockey frequently looks like chaos; sticks flailing, bodies falling, the puck ricocheting just out of reach. But amid the mayhem, Gretzky can discern the game’s underlying patterns and flow, and anticipate what’s going to happen faster and in more detail than anyone else in the building.” – from 1997 article, New York Times Magazine 

Jerry Rice was no different. Scouts today wouldn’t even bat an eye if they saw his 4.84 40 yard dash time, but it sure didn’t stop him from becoming one of the best receivers in NFL history. Steve Nash didn’t care that he stood four inches shorter than the average NBA player – you would have thought he was 6’9 the way he played. Rocky Marciano’s short arms looked like a disadvantage from the outside, but they instead influenced a style of boxing that helped him go 49-0 in the ring. Our jaws tend to drop when we marvel at the pure physical ability of athletes, but the reality is measurables don’t win games. David Epstein, author of bestselling books The Sports Gene and Range, said it best in the documentary In Search of Greatness: We have a tendency of making things important because we can measure them, not measuring them because they are important.”

Gretzky, Rice, and Nash didn’t fit the mold. They changed the mold and fit it to their style. They didn’t depend on others to figure it out for them – they trusted their instincts and found a way to make it work. Through years of hard work, preparation, and study, these athletes changed the game by understanding it at a level no one else was willing to go. Great physical tools get your foot in the door; great instincts use those tools to dominate. It’s easy to find guys with great physical tools that never panned out. It’s really tough to find a great player that didn’t have great instincts. 

“At some point, you stopped doing what came naturally and started doing what you were told. You took all your crazy urges and ideas and desires, and you stuffed them down where no one could see.” – Tim Grover, from Relentless

The paradox then becomes this: Instincts, by definition, are created in the absence of learning. They are pre programmed into our internal hardware as humans. No one teaches us how to walk or how to know when we’re hungry; they’re instinctual. However, I don’t think instincts in sports follow the same laws. Feel free to argue, but I don’t think Derek Jeter popped out of the womb and knew exactly how to execute his iconic flip. I’m pretty confident Tom Brady didn’t just intuitively know how to differentiate man coverage, zone defense, or a combination of the two. Wayne Gretzky probably didn’t just wake up one day and realize playing along the boards and behind the net would be an incredible advantage for him.

This nature/nurture argument manifests itself through an intriguing question: Can we teach athletes instincts?  

Through my research I think we can – but it’s not a black or white, yes or no answer. Below is why I think so.

 

 

Building the Foundation

“The player who knows WHY beats the player who knows HOW.” – John Kessel, USA Volleyball

To start off this debate, I don’t think there is a specific formula that can unlock world class instincts. If you were looking for the easy way out, don’t bother reading the rest of this. Sports are infinitely complex and will always be because they are played by human beings. If you give a piece of information to five different individuals, you might get five different interpretations. Some guys might take it and run to the library with it while others might leave it on the backburner with their two week old math homework. Some athletes have a drive and a passion just waiting to be unlocked; others are just worried about what they’re having for dinner after practice.  

This is where I think nature comes into play. No one told four-year-old Wayne Gretzky to draw a hockey rink on a notepad and trace the puck while watching Hockey Night in Canada. No one forced Trevor Bauer to ride to the park with buckets of baseballs on the handlebars of his bike and work out for up to four hours. You didn’t have to drag Pelé into the street to play pick up street soccer games that lasted all day long. When these guys were born, they had a burning passion for sports that was waiting for a spark to ignite it. When they found that spark, they took it and ran with it. None of what they did was work – they did it because they loved it. Their WHY was greater. 

If you can’t build or unlock a burning passion for the sport within kids, you might as well throw instincts out the window.

This is a great place to start as a coach and is something I’ve talked about with Eugene Bleecker, founder and director of player development at 108 Performance. If you can’t build or unlock a burning passion for the sport within kids, you might as well throw instincts out the window. “There is so much to learn that it’s going to take a lifetime to do it anyways,” said Bleecker. “If they don’t love the culture and if they don’t love the game, it’ll be hard for them to want to put the time in to see it.”

If you want to build a passion for sports at a young age, there are two things you can do to give them a pretty good head start: 1) Encourage them to watch games and 2) Encourage them to play unstructured pick up games with their friends.

Jared Wagner, standout basketball athlete at York College of Pennsylvania, talked about the importance of watching games saying, “I think (building instincts) comes from watching sports at a young age. I think it’s important for things to be taught and then you see them happening when you watch games on TV.” Wagner believes his early interest in basketball and baseball and watching guys like Nomar Garciaparra and Rajon Rondo drove his intrinsic desire to win. “You are intrinsically motivated by the sport and guys who are intrinsically motivated put in extra time, whether it be thought provoked or just naturally like watching games on TV,” said Wagner.

If we look at the science behind this, Daniel Coyle shared his formula for achieving deliberate practice in his best-selling book The Talent Code. Step one, called “chunk it,” requires athletes to absorb the entire skill. Absorbing the skill in its entirety builds an internal blueprint for what the skill should look like when executed correctly. This is the nurture part of the argument when it comes to instincts. We aren’t born with the blueprint for what a high level delivery looks like, but we start to piece it together when we watch some of the best athletes in our game. Kids are awesome imitators. If you give them a visual blueprint for success, they will start to connect the dots through experimentation. This is where part two comes into play.

When you can get kids to absorb the skill, the next step is to usually get out of the way and let them start to figure things out implicitly (i.e. without a dad coach barking at you every single swing). If you’ve ever picked up a wiffle bat and tried to imitate your favorite hitter, you’ve already done this without thinking about it. While unstructured backyard games seem innocent on the outside, I think they are a non-negotiable if you want to develop athletic instincts. It’s no coincidence Gretzky and Pelé spent their childhoods playing with their friends in the backyard. It ultimately became the foundation from which their creativity flowed as athletes. 

Researchers found players who made the 2014 German national soccer team spent more time playing in unstructured pick up games over those who just missed the cut (image source).

In the documentary In Search of Greatness, David Epstein brought up a study on the 2014 World Cup champion German national soccer team. Researchers looked at the development path of players who made the team, players who just missed the cut, and differences between the two groups of players. Of all the variables investigated, they found one difference: The players who made the national team had a lot more time in small sided unstructured play when they were younger and continued with more of it into their professional careers. In other words, they guys who made the national team played more backyard sports than the ones who didn’t. 

“What seems like pure, untainted, mystical creativity is, in fact, the consequence of a lifetime of devotion.” – Matthew Syed, from Bounce

Unstructured play allows for freedom, creativity, and imagination that cannot be replicated in a structured setting. If kids are placed into structured environments too young and too frequently, they lose the ability to develop their own style. Epstein talked about this saying, “We see this in chess. If kids study too rigidly, they literally become stuck in a certain pattern of playing and hit a plateau and never get better. They have to be given a certain amount of unstructured time to create and to find themselves.”

Gretzky believes we’ve lost this today. He said, “If you take 10 kids to a pond today and said to them ‘Alright go play,’ they’d say, ‘Alright, what do we do?’ Because they’re all so structured now. We’ve lost our creativity and imagination that we used to have in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.” If that doesn’t make you think, Ken Robinson – British author and speaker – brought up a pretty amazing fact in the documentary from a recent report: On average, kids today in urban settings have less unstructured time than the average high security prisoner.

I mean, those guys at least get to go outside for an hour every day.

Kobe Bryant used to look for one trait when he was hiring for his business team: curiosity. Kids cannot develop curiosity, creativity, and use their imagination when they’re constantly being told what to do. Don’t overlook the importance of the backyard growing up. If you can get kids to watch games and take what they see to the backyard, you have the chance to develop the passion required to compete at the highest levels of sports. The more diverse their game selection is, the better their instincts will be. Pick up basketball, football, wiffle ball, soccer, and other games all play an important role in long term athletic development. 

If you can get kids to watch games and take what they see to the backyard, you have the chance to develop the passion required to compete at the highest levels of sports.

If they don’t love it and do it on their own time, they’re never going to progress to a point where they can even scratch the surface of developing athletic instincts. 

 

 

How the Best Create an Edge 

“You can teach instincts if you can teach kids how to concentrate.” – Chuck Tanner, former manager Pittsburgh Pirates, 1979 World Series champions

Whenever I would talk about developing instincts with my good friend Carmen Fusco, we would always come back to this quote. Through Carmen’s experiences in Major League Baseball, he has become a firm believer that the conversation about instincts must start here. Players with great instincts learned how to build feel for the game through unparalleled focus and concentration. There are a lot of moving parts in a baseball game that must be taken into account in order to make quick, accurate decisions. If you can’t be alert and focus for two to three hours in a practice or game, you’re going to have a tough time gathering information and filtering through it to make good decisions.  

If we break this down from a baseball standpoint, let’s look at the role of a middle infielder. Throughout the course of a game your average shortstop must be aware of the inning, score, outs, count, who’s at the plate, their tendencies, the speed on the bases, what’s at stake, what possible plays could happen, and what to do if the ball is hit at them. They have to understand where to go with the ball if it’s hit hard, softly, to their forehand, backhand, or if they catch a line drive. They have to know where to be on a ball hit in the outfield gaps, down the line, or directly at the outfielder. If a mistake is made, they need to be able to adapt on the fly and figure out the next tick of strategy. They’re constantly anticipating and looking several steps ahead so they can be in position to make plays. As soon as the ball left Long’s bat, Jeter was already looking three bases ahead and anticipating a potential play at the plate. He didn’t have the time to react to what was going on – he had to anticipate.  

These types of decisions are made in every single sport. When I was talking with Kris Kruszka, assistant baseball coach at D’Youville College, he shared a story from when he played linebacker for his high school football team. To determine if the play was going to be a pass or a run, Kris was taught to look at the feet of the offensive linemen. If the first step was back, it was a pass play. If the first step was forward, it was a run play. This small detail gave Kris the ability to anticipate plays and stay one step ahead of the offense.

Being able to pick up these details requires a lot of time and experience – something you can’t teach in a few practices. It takes years and years of first hand experience to see past the chaos, observe the fine details, and use them to anticipate specific plays. Matthew Syed talked about this in his book Bounce sharing a story from Desmond Douglas – the greatest UK table tennis player in history. Douglas, known for his incredible speed and quick reactions on the table, was tested in 1984 to see how his reaction speed compared to his teammates. The tests revealed something spectacular: Douglas’ reactions were the slowest on the England national team – even slower than the team manager. The results were not wrong. Douglas didn’t have very good reactions at all, but he was a totally different animal when it came to table tennis. He didn’t need good reaction skills to develop lightning quick speed on the table – he needed to know where to look. 

Mark Williams, one of the world’s leading experts in perceptual expertise in sport, talked about this in Bounce saying, “Top tennis players look at the trunk and hips of their opponents on return in order to pick up on the visual clues governing where they are going to serve. If I was to stop the picture in advance of the ball being hit, they would still have a pretty good idea about where it was going to go.

“It’s not as simple as just knowing about where to look; it is also about grasping the meaning of what you are looking at. It is about looking at the subtle patterns of movement and postural cues and extracting information. Top tennis players make a small number of visual fixations and ‘chunk’ the key information.”

Through years of practice, Douglas was able to understand how to key in on specific parts of his opponent so he could anticipate what was to come. He built a large database of movement solutions through practice, figured out how to group the key information (i.e. chunking), and learned how to unconsciously pick up on certain cues that predicted specific movement outcomes. He was fast because of his knowledge – not his reactions.

Tim Grover, trainer of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade, on the importance of knowledge when it comes to developing instincts (image source).

This is the same process hitters use to determine what a pitcher is throwing. Every pitch hitters are extracting information that includes how pitchers come set and grip the ball, fluctuations in rhythm and tempo, arm action, arm slot, and ball flight initially out of the hand. Over time, hitters are able to pick up on certain cues that reveal information about what is coming. Some pitchers fumble with their grip if they’re throwing an offspeed pitch. Others drop or slow their arm if they’re throwing a breaking ball. There’s a reason why pitching coaches teach their pitchers not to “tip” their pitches; the more unpredictable they are, the more successful they’ll be.  

Syed talked about this in Bounce saying, “When Roger Federer returns a service, he is not demonstrating sharper reactions than you and I; what he is showing is that he can extract more information from the service action of his opponent and other visual clues, enabling him to move into position earlier and more efficiently than the rest of us, which in turn allows him to make the return. . . Top performers are not born with sharper instincts; instead, they possess enhanced awareness and anticipation.” 

To Syed, instincts in sports cannot be innate – they must be learned. He said:

“No, Federer’s advantage has been gathered from experience: more precisely, it has been gained from a painstaking process of encoding the meaning of subtle patterns of movement drawn from more than ten thousand hours of practice and competition. He is able to see the patterns in his opponent’s movements in the same way that chess players are able to discern the patterns in the arrangement of pieces on a chessboard.

“It is his regular practice that has given him this expertise, not his genes. Speed in sport is not based on innate reaction speed, but derived from highly specific practice.”  

As coaches, we have to understand knowledge is power when it comes to building instincts. Our practices need to have a high level of focus so kids start to observe more and build a large database of movement solutions. Through practice they’ll start to figure out how to group what’s important so they can recognize similar patterns in the future. They need to understand the importance of the details and know where to look so they can pick up on these subtle, but crucial, nuances. Understanding situations is a must. If the ball is in play, every player on the field must know where to be and why. You must teach them the game in order for them to build a feel for the game. This is impossible without specific, focused practice. 

 

 

Designing the Right Environment

As a coach, the environment and culture you create is everything. We are all products of our environment. The Toronto Blue Jays will likely open 2020 with a lineup that features three young men who all had fathers that had successful big league careers. This is no coincidence. From the time these guys were born they were in a big league environment and on a name to name basis with some of the best players in the world. To be in this kind of an environment is an incredibly powerful tool that, all genetics aside, more than likely had a significant impact on their journey to the big leagues.

Cavan Biggio, Vlad Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette all grew up watching their fathers tear it up in the big leagues (image source).

Kris Kruszka credits a lot of the success he had as a player to the environment he grew up in. All four of his brothers played baseball and competed in other sports such as basketball, football, and cross country. They commonly found themselves playing backyard hockey, wifflel ball, and any other sport they could get their hands on. These experiences helped Kris learn how to play the game and break it down so he could find a competitive advantage over his siblings. In essence, the environment he grew up in built the foundation for the competitive nature he took to the field as a player. For these reasons, he thinks the environment is everything when it comes to developing players with instincts. 

As for what this environment should look like, I think there are a few things you should focus on if you want to build players with instincts. First off, hard work must be the norm. Players with great instincts know they’re good at what they do. They know they’re good because they’ve spent hours and years studying the game and perfecting their craft. You don’t just all of a sudden develop a great feel for the game – you need to be around it for a long time. When people saw Joe Burrow take the field for LSU this past season, they saw one of the greatest seasons in college football history. What they didn’t see was the countless hours he spent off the field preparing, breaking down film, bouncing ideas off coaches, and finding ways to exploit the weaknesses of their upcoming opponent. He didn’t build the killer instinct required to captain a championship program overnight – he did it through a lifetime around the game. 

If you aren’t willing to work when no one is watching, you don’t have a chance. Preparation yields confidence; confidence breeds instincts.

If you want your players to work harder, make it more appealing. In other words, make it fun. John Wooden’s pyramid for success was built from the foundation of two cornerstones that remained unchanged throughout the course of his career: industriousness and enthusiasm. He spoke about this in his autobiography They Call Me Coach. Wooden said, “There is no substitute for work. And to really work hard at something you must enjoy it. If you’re not enthusiastic, you can’t work up to your maximum ability.”

One of the easiest ways to make your practices more fun is making them competitive. Roy Williams, Hall of Fame basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, makes his players compete in every single drill they run – something he got from his mentor and fellow Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith. Adding competition to your environment does a multitude of things for players – focus becomes razor sharp, intensity heightens, work ethic improves, and enthusiasm skyrockets. As a coach, a whiteboard, a marker, and a numbered list from 1-5 is a culture game changer. Every single day your players are now competing against each other in everything they do so they can own rights to the top of the list. Pulling a 405 deadlift takes on a completely new meaning when it means you can cross off your buddy’s name and write yours in their place. Falling from the leaderboards is more than enough motivation to work and get back to the top. The best athletes love competing and getting in the trenches with guys who want to shove it up their ass. If you want to create an environment where people love to work, use this burning obsession to your advantage.

Another way to make your practices fun is to practice the extraordinary. Baseball is a repetitive sport by nature and requires mastery of the monotony. However, this doesn’t mean practices always have to be monotonous. When you practice the extraordinary, you get a dual effect – kids love it because they’re having fun and they’re also getting better because they’re experimenting to find various solutions to motor problems in a proprioceptive rich environment. These kinds of plays might not happen all the time, but your kids will benefit from practicing them. Take your shortstops deep into the hole and have them make Jeter’s iconic jump throw across the diamond (yeah, he was a decent player). Try and get your outfielders to do their best impersonation of Mike Trout robbing a homerun. Have your middle infielders try some tricks from Brandon Crawford or Brandon Phillips’ famous behind the back flip to start a double play. If kids see something cool on TV from one of their favorite players, have them try it out at practice. This only adds to their curiosity, creativity, and enthusiasm for training.  

If you want to build a culture of lifelong learners, creating enthusiasm for curiosity and creativity is a great place to start.

Second, you need to create an environment that praises curiosity and creativity. Curious players become students of the game. Creativity helps them develop their own unique style for success. Kids who are curious are going to make time on their own to watch games, pick up on new things, and ask questions about what they don’t understand. They collaborate with others to get a different perspective on how to attack a problem. These guys are the ones that are constantly asking “Why?” and if they don’t get a sufficient answer they’re going to find it. If you want to build a culture of lifelong learners, creating enthusiasm for curiosity and creativity is a great place to start. You can only give kids so much as a coach. Your best results are going to happen when you empower kids to do it on their own.

Give them specific players to watch so they can learn from their style, how they move, and how they attack the game. Encourage them to incorporate what they see and investigate parts of their game that could use improvement. If you’re working with a player who struggles with their change up, have them study Pedro Martinez, Luis Sastillo, and Stephen Strasburg. If you have a kid who lacks physical ability, show them a player who’s excelled in spite of the same disadvantage. A lack of size didn’t stop Steve Nash, Steph Curry, or Allen Iverson. If you’re trying to teach a player a specific strategy, have them study the greats in action. There’s a reason why Kobe’s fadeaway looked oddly similar to Michael Jordan’s

When you can get kids who love the game and love to work, your next goal should be to prepare them for the game. Competing in games is hard. If you want to prepare kids for games, your practices need to be hard. Geno Auriemma, Hall of Fame basketball coach of the Connecticut women’s basketball team, constantly makes his practices difficult by changing the rules, score, adding players to the offense, or subtracting players from the defense. Whenever his players get comfortable with something, he adds an element to make it harder. This is how Auriemma sifts out the good players from the great ones – the good players break down; the greats ask for more.  

Luke Walton, current head coach of the Sacramento Kings, learned about this first hand from his experience coaching Kobe Bryant. “Kobe realized that practice should be as hard as games, if not harder,” said Walton. “Whatever drill there was, whatever scrimmage it was, he was talking trash to make everyone else step their level of play up—almost picking fights, because that brings out the edge in people. And you need that edge to win in this league.”

Researchers conducted a study in 1990 on elite level figure skaters to see what helped differentiate them from their less elite counterparts. The main difference researchers found was elite level skaters regularly attempted jumps slightly beyond their current capabilities. Practices from elite level skaters did not look as pretty as the routines they showcased. In fact, their training involved a lot of bumps and bruises – but it’s exactly what helped them become elite. Every time they fell they got right back up and tried it again. With time, patience, and a lot of hard work, they started to hit jumps, turns, and spins that used to put them on the ice. Great training sessions aren’t concerned with how good you look or feel. Learning is messy – building instincts is no different. 

“If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo 

Practicing at the edge of your abilities is not easy -it’s draining. It is normal and easy for us to gravitate towards the things we enjoy and excel at. We love practicing our favorite jump shot or spinning off our best breaking ball the same way we fall victim to our sweet tooth. Indulging in sweets neglects your diet; indulging in your strengths neglects your opportunities for growth. Practicing your strengths is a great way to make you feel good – it’s not a great way to prepare for games. 

It is very difficult to address an opportunity for growth, develop a process to attack it, and work relentlessly to turn it into a strength. Operating at the edge of your capabilities, getting outside of your comfort zone, and accepting the inevitability of failure is an arduous process. However, there is a price to pay for excellence. Michelangelo said it best: “If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”  

While there is much to dive into about the design of practice and the process of building a skill, the bottom line is this: Games are hard. Getting better is hard. Building instincts is hard. If your practices are easy, you aren’t helping kids do any of these – practice accordingly.   

Conclusion

Below are some thoughts from above when it comes to developing instincts in sports:

  • Kids need to start with a passion for the sport. Encourage them to watch games and play unstructured pick up games in the backyard when they’re young. It won’t ever feel like work if they love it. 
  • Creativity, curiosity, and imagination help kids develop a unique style to help them find their formula for success.
  • Focus and concentration enables kids to unconsciously chunk important information and use subtle nuances to anticipate specific plays. 
  • Knowledge is power. Guys with great instincts have spent a lifetime learning the game. 
  • Preparation yields confidence; confidence breeds instincts. 
  • Adding competition helps increase the enthusiasm for training.
  • Break the monotony by practicing the extraordinary. 
  • Practice must happen at the edge of one’s current abilities for optimal skill development.

Instincts may be innate by definition, but instincts in sports must be built through a lifetime of learning. If you can facilitate an environment where kids can do this, you give them a chance to do so.

Feel free to reach out with any questions or thoughts of your own.