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Get with the Program: Strategies for Individualizing Baseball Development

Written on September 26, 2014 at 7:39 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from physical therapist Eric Schoenberg, who is an integral part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team. Enjoy! -EC

Regardless of your profession with respect to the baseball world, chances are that you spend a good portion of your days writing programs. Whether it is a home exercise program for a physical therapist, a training program for the strength and conditioning specialist, a throwing program for the pitching instructor, or a practice plan for a head coach, the quality of your programs can differentiate you from your competition. As opposed to writing a daily “workout,” a detailed, individualized program gives the athlete structure and sets expectations similar to a curriculum in education.

Each time we host an Elite Baseball Mentorship, the topic of programming comes up in our wrap-up roundtable discussion. As professionals, our job is to add value to our services and give our athletes a competitive advantage over their peers. A big way in which we can do this is by writing great programs for our athletes. It should be noted that writing such detailed and specific programs takes a lot of time and effort, but the athletes that we work with deserve nothing less. A “one size fits all” program with empty promises may sell well online, but most are a disservice to the athlete. This article will outline examples of different programs that we write on a daily basis.

There are many ways to subdivide programs to suit the needs of your athletes. For the purposes of this article, I’ve divided programs into three different categories: Temporal (length of program), Age, and Time of year/Season.

Within each category, athletes are divided into into three sub-categories: Lax, “Middle of the road”, and Stiff. Determining an athlete’s degree of laxity or stiffness is critical to determine whether an athlete needs to focus on mobility (“loosen up”) or stability (“tighten up”).

In addition, it serves as a more logical way to group athletes together when an individualized program is not possible based on time, space, and resources – most notably in the high school or college team settings.

Let’s take a look at each category, starting with temporal, and hit on some different points worth considering when designing programs for your athletes.

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Daily programming:
• Practice vs. Gameday
• Prehab/Rehab
• Pre-game warm-up
• Pre-throwing
• Throwing (Long toss, bullpen, in-game)
• In-game (between innings, reliever warm-up)
• Nutrition
• Post-game/Recovery

Weekly:
• Strength and Conditioning – frequency of strength and mobility sessions
• Rehab/Physical Therapy treatments (includes soft tissue work)
• Home exercise programs
• Throwing (5-day, 7-day, Reliever)
• Recovery work

Monthly/Season:
• Early season vs. late season (adaptive changes will require change in programming)

Year:
• Pre-season, in-season, post-season, time off

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Next, age must be appreciated when considering program design. There are major differences between these age groups in terms of laxity, injury history, injury predisposition, activity tolerance, recovery time, and a host of other factors that must be considered when programming for your athletes. As an athlete gets older, the number of games played in a season dramatically increases and must be accounted for in their programs. The table below illustrates a breakdown of the age category:

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Lastly, we need to pay attention to season when designing programs. An interesting study by Posner et al, found that MLB injuries were 10x more likely to occur in April than September. It is critical to appreciate that exercise selection needs to change based on season out of respect for throwing volume. In addition, the importance of adaptive changes such as decreased (or increased) ROM, pain, fatigue, weight loss, among others must be appreciated. Also, competing demands such as multiple sports in season, travel, schoolwork, and family commitments need to be taken into consideration as we create programs for our athletes.

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Other considerations for varying volume, duration, and intensity in your programs include:
• Position (pitcher, catcher, IF, OF)
• History of injury in past year
• Multi-Sport vs. Early Specialized (include multi-sports in same season – high school athlete)
• Geography: Athletes from the Northeast will have a shorter competitive season with less games vs. their southern counterparts.

In conclusion, once you determine an athlete’s degree of laxity and define time, age, and seasonal considerations, you can use these templates in combination to help organize your programming and become more efficient.
For example:

➢ A daily in-season program for a lax 17 year old left-handed pitcher (and 3-sport high school athlete) with a history of medial elbow pain.

It is important to appreciate that this program design will vary greatly from:

➢ A weekly off-season program for a stiff 30 year old RHP (big leaguer) with a medical history of 2 shoulder surgeries and currently experiencing left knee pain.

If you found this information helpful in organizing your thoughts when it comes to managing the baseball players with whom you work, we encourage you to sign up for one of our upcoming Elite Baseball Mentorships. We have events in both October and November, and you won't find a more intensive baseball educational course.

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The 5 Most Common Errors Athletes Make With Yoga

Written on May 2, 2014 at 12:42 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from yoga expert, Dana Santas. Dana has built up an impressive client roster of professional athletes and teams, and it's no surprise, given how educated she is in applying yoga the right way. Enjoy! -EC

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Yoga is a popular topic in the sports world these days. Undeniably, yoga can offer some amazing benefits for athletes. However, those benefits can only be realized when it’s taught correctly and adapted specifically with the goal of increasing sports performance. Otherwise, at best, yoga can be marginally helpful in sports, and, at worst, can actually be dangerous.

These are the five biggest mistakes I see athletes, coaches and trainers making with yoga:

1. Viewing Yoga as a Harmless “Stretch Class”

The most prevalent misconception about yoga that I encounter is that it’s best used for “stretching.” In my opinion, yoga applied for sheer flexibility has no place in sports. Flexibility without stability is nothing more than a recipe for injury. If you only use yoga to “stretch out” athletes without understanding and addressing the cause of the tension, you’re only applying yoga for temporary relief and can actually do more damage than good. A perfect example is the typical complaint: “I need to stretch my hamstrings because I can’t touch my toes.” When the hamstring tension is caused by an anterior pelvic tilt pulling the hamstrings into a lengthened yet inhibited position, attempting to stretch the hamstrings without correcting the pelvic tilt will only lead to tearing the hamstrings.

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Most tension in athletes is caused by dysfunction or compensatory movement patterns. Fix the pattern and you release the tension--without unnecessary static stretching (like in the hamstrings example above).That’s why I never call what I do “increasing flexibility.” Is it a byproduct? Certainly. But I focus on using yoga for mobility, which--to me--means increasing stable, functional range of motion.

2. Not Understanding the Differences (and Dangers) of Yoga Styles

Saying “I do yoga” is like saying “I drive a car.” Really, what kind? There’s a big difference between a Hyundai and a Ferrari. When it comes to yoga, the variety of styles goes on and on...Hatha vs. Ashtanga vs. Bikram vs. Yin vs. Power vs. Blah Blah (everyone is making up their own version); I even have my own style! Athletes, coaches and trainers have to take the time to educate themselves about the techniques and rationales of the different styles before jumping into a class.

Personally, I believe some styles should be entirely contraindicated for athletes. I realize I’m going to piss off all the hot-yoga disciples by saying this, but one such style is Bikram, where the heat is turned up to an obnoxious 105 degrees. Yes, I know this is popular with athletes because they love to sweat. Great--push yourself properly in 75 degrees to sweat (or go to the sauna), but steer clear of a yoga style that teaches its instructors to shout commands like “lock your knees” while you slip and slide in sweat over the course of 90 minutes. Of the 26 poses used in Bikram, there are two I don’t think most athletes should attempt because of stress on the knees (Reclined Hero) and cervical spine (Rabbit). Another style that I’m not crazy about – Yin yoga – is widely marketed to athletes. The deep, static stretches of Yin are intended to stretch out the connective tissue--including ligaments. I don’t agree with encouraging athletes to stretch out areas that provide joint stability.

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3. Not Vetting The Yoga Instructor

Most people don’t realize that yoga instruction is almost entirely unregulated. As such, there's no law requiring any specific certification to teach yoga. So, anyone can buy a certification online. Consequently, there isn’t a requirement for any anatomy training at all. In fact, even the current gold standard of certification through Yoga Alliance only includes a limited number of anatomy hours, which can be entirely comprised of energy anatomy (chakras, nadis, etc.) rather than muscle and joint function.

Despite this, yoga teachers are encouraged to manually adjust their students in postures. If you’re asking yourself how anyone without anatomy and biomechanics training can properly adjust someone into alignment in complicated yoga poses, you’re contemplating a very valid question. What happens when ill-advised instructors adjust students in classes? Well, injuries aren’t uncommon. One of my MLB clients suffered a cervical spine injury when an instructor in a gym placed a strap around his neck and did “traction” to help him “rest comfortably” while supine at the end of class. Yikes!

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4. Trying to Become a Yogi

Simply learning to do a particular style of yoga as a form of cross training is like a baseball player playing basketball in the off-season. He may benefit from the cardiovascular exercise and even improve his agility, but nothing he does playing basketball is specific to him becoming a better baseball player. And, it could even put him at a greater risk of injury as he feeds into existing dysfunctional patterns within the movements of the new sport. The same logic applies to athletes learning to be yogis.

Consider this: a MLB player came to me as a new client after practicing yoga the two previous off-seasons. His movement across the transverse plane was poor and his right SI joint was jammed due to pelvic rotation left to right. He knew how to do yoga sun salutations (albeit while employing myriad compensatory movement patterns), but he lacked the ability to shift appropriately into his left hip and tap into core power and hip mobility for powerful, fluid rotation. He was a left-handed DH, not a yogi, and should’ve approached his yoga practice as such. Consequently, I designed a custom yoga practice for him that focused on establishing the ability to properly shift into his left hip while increasing fluid movement of his pelvis and hips supported by integrated core strength. That’s the kind of yoga he needed!

Another point I have to make about athletes not striving to become yogis is regarding learning advanced inversions and arm balances. Yes, standing on your head looks really cool, but, can easily cause disc herniations when done incorrectly. And arm balances are awe-inspiring, but offer no benefit to athletes (especially throwing athletes) that outweigh the risks. When pressed by clients to teach these poses, I ask them: “Are you an athlete who wants to reach the top of your game or would you rather join Cirque du Soleil?”

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5. Wasting Hours in Yoga Classes

The standard format for a yoga class is a 60- to 90-minute class. With grueling training and game schedules, athletes have limited time to get the best possible training and have any semblance of a life outside of their sport, so every second counts. In my opinion, spending an hour-plus in a generic yoga class is not time well spent.

When taught athlete- and sport-specifically, yoga can be applied in a variety of ways that require little time commitment (i.e., a yoga mobility warm-up can be done before a workout or game, restorative yoga and/or deeper stretches can be done after games and/or on off days, yoga moves used as corrective exercise or functional training can be added into workouts in between sets of complementary moves). My clients’ in-season programs never include anything more than 20 minutes at a time and are also broken down into individual movements intended for integration into other parts of their strength and conditioning programs.

The bottom line is that all of these mistakes and potential dangers can be avoided by practicing due diligence. When athletes are smart about why and how they add yoga to their training, they can use it tap into another level of function, awareness and control that will help them move, breathe and focus in ways that directly translate to enhanced sports performance and decreased injury.

About the Author

Dana Santas is creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga-based mobility and sports-training style designed specifically to help athletes move, breathe and focus in ways that enhance performance and decrease injury. Nicknamed the “Mobility Maker,” she's currently the team yoga trainer for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Philadelphia Phillies, as well as sports mobility consultant to more than half a dozen other teams and hundreds of MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL and MLS pros. You can learn more about her and get information about her upcoming workshop in Waltham, MA at www.RadiusYoga.com.

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Destroying Baseball Dogma: Installment 1

Written on April 21, 2014 at 7:48 am, by Eric Cressey

Today, I'm going to kick off a new series about common myths from the baseball world.  I'll tackle one of these each month.  In this first installment, we're going to have some fun with this quote that I hear all too often:

       "Guys are working too hard in the off-season,
    and all this strength training is leading to injuries."

I've heard this muttered hundreds of times, but this is this quote by Lou Piniella in the NY Times last year stands out for me:

“The season is so long now and so strenuous, you need to rest your body for two-three months after it’s over,” said Sweet Lou. “But today, these players all have their personal trainers and they work out all winter and put on more muscle. When I played, we didn’t have a weight room or a strength coach and everybody took the team bus to the ballpark. We never heard of an oblique. Now guys are going out on their own, five or six hours before the game, going right to the batting cages and taking hundreds of swings a day. It’s overdone. The body can’t take it. If you ask me, that’s where all these oblique injuries are coming from.

I'm going to respond to this in bullet point fashion, as I think there are a lot of gems in here:

1. You'll be surprised to know that I partially agree with Piniella on a few different fronts.  First, the season is absurdly long.  Guys may play 200 games in 230 days - with a lot of travel mixed in - and that makes it incredibly hard to maintain strength, tissue quality, and mobility. Interestingly, though, a lot more injuries occur at the beginning of a season than at the end. It makes you wonder if some guys are showing up unprepared and then benefiting from the adherence the team environment forces.

Second, setting the lazy off-season guys aside, there are a lot of players who are doing absolutely idiotic stuff with their training. As recently as a few years ago, a few teams were still recommending P90X to MLB players for off-season conditioning.  I'm not making that up.  How can we say strength training is the problem if most organizations still haven't even made it a priority?

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Third, guys getting bigger and stronger is leading to injuries...but doing so in an indirect.  You see, average body weight in Major League Baseball increased by 12% from 1990 to 2010; this time period parallels the rise in popularity of strength training. With the increase has come a huge increase in average fastball velocity, too - especially over the past 6-7 years.  And, the aforementioned body weight study also showed that offensive leaders were more likely to be heavier than their "normal" MLB counterparts. Obviously, the steroid era played into this, but the message doesn't change: being stronger increases your likelihood of success - even if it means you are playing with fire with respect to injuries.  Swinging quicker, throwing harder, and running faster will increase your likelihood of injury - regardless of whether you strength trained to get to that point in the first place.

The alternative, unfortunately, is to throw 88mph or have subpar bat speed - neither of which will help you compete in the modern game.  At the highest level, sports will always be a balancing act between high performance and injury risk.  To this point, I'd also subjectively note that most of the guys who have wound up with injuries this spring were not massive dudes; I'd argue that they really weren't that strong or heavy

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2. With respect to the comment about taking 2-3 months off at the end of the season, one has to really do the math on this to realize how silly it would be. The big league season ends in early October for most teams, whereas playoff teams will play all the way through the month of October. If a player takes off all of October, November, and December, he wouldn't do anything until January 1.  If he make the playoffs, he wouldn't do anything until (potentially) February 1.  If players report in mid-February, that would give them 2-6 weeks to prepare. 

If you think that's enough, good luck dealing with the media scrutiny that comes when a load of the players are on the disabled list, and all the pitchers' fastball velocities are down.

I'd also ask: is it healthy for anyone to take 2-3 months off from exercise altogether?  Let's just make them obese in hopes of cutting back on our oblique strains!

3. I think it's important to recognize that not all lifting is created equal.  The problems usually stem from incorrect technique, poor exercise selection, excessive loading, or a number of other common mistakes. If one athlete burns himself on a cup of coffee because he wasn't careful with how he prepared or drank it, do you vilify coffee for an entire team? Of course not!  So, why vilify strength training because there are some idiots out there applying it incorrectly?

Taking it a step further, lifting sometimes "displaces" other important components of a successful training program - because lifting heavy stuff is "sexier" to many athletes. You simply can't lift at the exclusion of other key physical preparation strategies; it has to complement them.

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4. To build on the last point, in many cases, lifting may become a problem because it's "ingraining" poor movement quality.  As Gray Cook has often said, "you can't put fitness on top of dysfunction."

The key word here is "fitness."  Many things - not just lifting - could bring these issues to threshold.  Throwing, swinging, and sprinting could all bring movement flaws to a painful threshold, too.  However, unlike strength training, these approaches can't be used to correct the fundamental problem - even if they're implemented perfectly. General training can correct movement dysfunction, whereas specific training usually exacerbates it.

5. Most obviously, if lifting was really the only problem, wouldn't we see a lot more guys getting hurt while lifting? Truth be told, the injury rates in strength training participation are remarkably low - even with crappy programming.

Bringing all these points together, the truth is that injuries have always been, are, and will continue to be multi-factorial.  Short of traumatic instances like being hit by a pitch, or fouling a ball off your foot, everything is something that has built for days, weeks, months, or years.  There are far too many different variables involved that have constantly changed over the past few decades to truly determine what causes injuries, so it's short-sighted to make strength training the scapegoat - especially when we know the value it has in enhancing performance, reducing injury risk, and facilitating injury rehabilitation.

Destroying Baseball Dogma is one reason we introduced our Cressey Performance Elite Baseball Mentorships; we want to teach baseball coaches, strength and conditioning professionals, and rehabilitation specialists to learn more about how to best prepare players to handle the unique demands involved in baseball. Our next Upper Extremity course will be in June; to learn more, click here.

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Baseball Strength and Conditioning: In-Season Insights

Written on February 24, 2014 at 8:50 am, by Eric Cressey

Spring training is underway. College baseball has two weekends in the books. High school teams in warm weather climates have been going for a month, and some schools in the Northeast actually start today. So, it should come as no surprise that we're now getting a lot of inquiries about what to do for in-season training.

With that in mind, rather than reinvent the wheel, I wanted to reincarnate a series I wrote on in-season baseball strength and conditioning.  Check it out!

In-Season Baseball Strength and Conditioning – Part 1: What You Need to Know

In-Season Baseball Strength and Conditioning – Part 2: High School Baseball

In-Season Baseball Strength and Conditioning – Part 3: College Baseball

In-Season Baseball Strength and Conditioning – Part 4: Professional Baseball

Put these tips into action and you'll be healthy and high-performing throughout the season.

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8 Tips for Not Wasting Away During Summer Baseball

Written on June 4, 2013 at 8:09 am, by Eric Cressey

This week marks the start of the summer baseball travel season for a lot of the travel baseball programs up here in the Northeast.  This is a really important experience for the majority of players up in this neck of the woods, as it's when they get in front of the most college coaches for the sake of recruiting, and they often head south to face more talented opponents.  There are more college camps taking place, as well as tryouts for the East Coast Pro and Area Code teams.  In short, summer ball is important, and you don't want to screw up in how you approach it, as doing so can mean that you'll miss out on both skill development and opportunites to get "seen" by a coach who'll have you playing at the next level.

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Unfortunately, though, this is also a time of year when a lot of things change for young baseball players.  Instead of five minute drive to school for practice and games, they're hopping on 15-hour bus rides to get to a weekend tournament. Instead sleeping in their own beds and eating Mom's home cooking, they're staying in hotels and stopping for fast food. Instead of having a predictable weekly schedule of MoWeFr games, they might play five in three days. Instead of enjoying moderate Northeast spring weather of 50 degrees in the morning and evening and 75 degrees in the afternoon, they get East Cobb in July, when it's 95 degree weather with 95% humidity. In short, they get a taste of what minor league baseball will be like if they make it that far in their careers!

The end result, unfortunately, is that many players wind up coasting into July and August on fumes because they've lost weight, strength, throwing velocity, bat speed, ninja skills, and overall manliness.  They expected their biggest challenge to be "simply" pitching against a 5-tool hitter or hitting a 95mph fastball, but instead, they get absolutely dominated by the lifestyle off the field. 

Guys who don't handle the summer season well are the ones who stumble back in to Cressey Performance at the end of August, making their first appearance since February.  And, in spite of the great off-season of training they put in before the high school season began, they usually look like they've never trained before, and they're often asking me to help them bounce back from some injury.  Sound familiar?  If so, read on.

Below, I've listed seven tips for avoiding this common summer baseball deterioriation.  You'll notice that many of them are completely to do with maintaining body weight; as I've written before, weight loss is a big reason why performance drops in baseball players both acutely (dehydration) and chronically (loss of muscle mass).  Also worthy of note is the fact that the majority of these tips could also apply to professional baseball.  Anyway, let's get to it.

1. Make breakfast big.

When traveling, breakfast is the only meal over which you have complete control.  You can wake up earlier to make sure that you have a big and complete one, or you can sleep in and grab a stale bagel on the way out the door.  When I travel to give seminars, I intentionally pick hotels that have all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets and I absolutely crush them.  Basically, I'll eat omelets (with veggies), scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit until I'm so full that I contemplate renting a fork lift to get me back to my room.

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This is because things always get hectic at mid-day.  Seminar attendees want to ask questions, get assessed, or just "pick my brain" during the lunch hour.  So, if I get something, it's usually quick and not really that big.  Does this sound similar to how you eat prior to games? You don't want to eat too much, but know you've got to have something or else you'll be dragging by the 7th inning.

If I've packed away a big breakfast, I can power through the day pretty well regardless of what lunch looks like.  Traveling baseball players with day games can do the exact same thing.

As an interesting aside to this, I'm always amazed at how many young baseball players talk about how nobody outworks them, and how they're always in "beast mode."  Yet, across the board, very few players will be "beastly" enough to wake up a few minutes earlier to eat a quality breakfast, always complaining that they don't like to get up early, or that they aren't hungry at that time of day.  Well, just because your stomach doesn't like food at that time of day doesn't mean that it won't benefit from having it.  You think your shoulder and elbow like throwing a baseball? Nope...but they do it. 

Working hard isn't just about the hitting cage or weight room; it's also about the kitchen. 

I'll get off my soap box now.

2. Appreciate convenient calories.

Remember that in the quest to keep your weight up, your body doesn't really care if you're sitting down for an "official" meal.  Rather, you might be better off grazing all day.  Mixed nuts, shakes, bars, and fruit will be your best friends when it comes to convenience foods out on the field - or on a long bus ride when you have no idea when you'll be stopping for food.

3. Make the most of hotel gyms.

Let's face it: most hotel gyms are woefully under-equipped.  You've usually got dumbbells up to 40 pounds and a treadmill, if you're lucky.  That should be plenty, though, as you're not trying to make a ton of progress in these training sessions; you're just trying to create a training stimulus to maintain what you already have.  Here's an easy example of a hotel gym workout you can use in a pinch:

A1) DB Bulgarian Split Squat from Deficit: 3x8/side

A2) Prone 1-arm Trap Raise: 3x8/side (can do this bent-over if no table is available, or do it off the edge of your hotel room bed)

 

B1) 1-leg DB RDL: 3x8/side

B2) 1-arm KB (or DB) Turkish Get-up: 3x3/side

C1) Yoga Push-up: 3x10

C1) 1-arm DB Row: 3x10/side

D1) Prone Bridge Arm March: 3x8/side

 

D2) Standing External Rotation to Wall: 3x5 (five second hold on each rep)

Another option, obviously, is to try to find a gym near your hotel while you're on the road.  That can obviously be tough if you don't have a car handy, though, so it's always good to have these "back-up" minimalist equipment options at your fingertips.  And, of course, you can always rock body weight only exercises.

4. Have portable training equipment.

You aren't allowed to complain about the lack of equipment in the typical hotel gym if you haven't put any thought into what training implements you can bring on the road with you.  Things like bands, a foam roller, a TRX, and a number of other implements can make your life easier.  I've brought my TRX on numerous vacations with me and it always proves useful. The scenery usually isn't bad, either.

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5. Pack quality training into short bursts.

If you know you're going to be on the road for week-long trips here and there throughout the summer, it's important to get your quality training in when you're at home in your "consistent" environment.  Think of it as managing a bank account.  You make deposits when you're at home with good equipment and quality nutrition, and you're taking withdrawals when you're on the road and the circumstances are less than stellar.

6. Bring noise-canceling headphones.

There's nothing better than when you're dreading a long flight or bus/train ride, and then you fall asleep the second the trip begins, and you wake up to find out that you're at your destination.  That's awesome.

What's not awesome is that every single team in the history of baseball has at least one schmuck who likes to blare music, yell, and dance around at 6AM when everyone else is trying to sleep. Dropping him off and leaving him for dead in the middle of nowhere isn't an option, so you're better off rocking some noise-canceling headphones.

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7. Bring a neck pillow.

Falling asleep on a plane or bus and then waking up with a stiff neck is no fun.  Doing so and then having to go out and throw 90 pitches the next day will be absolutely miserable. And, this cool article about research at Vanderbilt University on the negative effects of fatigue on strike zone management over the course of a baseball season should get hitters' attention, too! A neck pillow will cost you less than $20.  It's an absolute no brainer.  Besides, you probably spent double that amount on the 15 silly Power Balance bracelets you own.*

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*And while you're at it, take the stupid sticker off your hat.  You look like a clown.

8. Hydrate!

You know the old saying about how if you sense thirst, you're already dehydrated?  It's especially true when you're out on the field at 1PM in the middle of July in Florida. So, drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.  We know that dehydration reduces strength and power - so you can bet that fastball velocity and bat speed will dip - but did you know that it also negatively affects cognitive performance? In a 2012 review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Adan wrote, "Being dehydrated by just 2% impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills."  So, if you're a guy who is always missing signs, ignoring your cutoff man, or forgetting how many outs there are, it might be wise to evaluate your hydration status.

Wrap-up

These are just eight tips to guide you as you approach this important summer season, and there are surely many more strategies athletes have employed to make it as productive a time of year as it should be.  That said, I'd encourage you to monitor your body weight on a regular basis to make sure that it's not dropping.  If it is, it's time to get in more calories, hydrate better, and hit the gym.  Good luck!

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College Baseball: Is Summer Ball Worth It?

Written on April 24, 2013 at 3:24 pm, by Eric Cressey

The words "baseball" and "summer" have traditionally been virtually synonymous.  While the phrase "The Boys of Summer" initially referred to the Brooklyn Dodgers, it's now a term that is applied to all baseball players.  If you play baseball, you do so in the summer; that's just how it's always been.

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However, as you may have noticed, the game has changed dramatically since the Brooklyn Dodgers took the field.  Arm injury rates are sky-high at all levels of baseball. Average fastball velocities are at all-time high, too. Pitchers don't just throw fastball/curveball/change-up anymore; we're also seeing cutters, sliders, and splitters now.  And, perhaps most significantly, baseball players are specializing in this one sport alone earlier and earlier - meaning they're showing up to college with more accumulated wear and tear on their bodies, even if that wear and tear is only a blip on a MRI or x-ray, as opposed to actual symptoms.

These factors all build to the question: is it time for a paradigm shift with respect to the baseball calendar?

Both professional and high school baseball players align well with respect to high school ball, as neither of them play fall baseball. The minor league season runs March-September, with the big league season extended by a few weeks on both ends.  The high school season generally begins in February/March (with warm weather high school teams starting in January) and wraps up in August. The college season, however, is an incredible challenge.  Why?  I think this email I received last year from a well respected college pitching coach sums it up their unique scheduling challenges extremely well.

College training schedules and NCAA limitations make it very hard to develop kids properly:

-We have roughly 6 weeks of fall practice – team building, evaluation, some scrimmage

-After that, we have roughly 6-7 more weeks of training time before Thanksgiving and Christmas. We are limited to 2 hours of skill instruction per week: hardly enough time to make good adjustments.

-A 4-week break for Christmas – usually training takes a back seat to holidays, travel, and general laziness.

-We have a 2-week period once school starts to get back into the flow, followed by a 4 week period of practice before 1st game. Biggest goal here is to build a pitch count/base.

-We play 4-5 games per week from February to hopefully June

-Summer ball, for those who need it: this is where it would be great to take time off, get back into the weight room, skill building. BUT, it costs money for summer school AND the NCAA does not allow us to work with our players (skill-wise) during summer school. Plus, we are usually out working hard on recruiting.

Essentially, I am saying that the rules and demands of HS, college, and pro ball are all quite different, yet coaches at each level strive to develop their players. It’s hard to know, based on the unique qualities of each level, what is right and wrong [in terms of time off from throwing].

If it is complete shutdown, then let’s use a hypothetical situation. If I have a pitcher for 4 years and give him 3 months off from throwing per year, I have lost 1 full year of developing his pitching. That seems like a lot of time off…

Here, we realize the challenges that college pitching coaches and their pitchers face:

When does a college pitcher get time off? 

The fall is a crucial developmental period for all pitchers, but particularly for incoming freshmen.  Most of these freshmen pitchers are coming off "career" highs in innings from their senior years (and subsequent summer ball, in many cases).  This is one of many reasons that you see so many schools encouraging freshmen to arrive early; it's not just so that they can take summer courses, but also so that they can't get overused in summer leagues.  With the premier prospects who are drafted, there used to be incentive to pitch in the summer to "raise their price tag," but with Major League Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement moving the signing deadline up to approximately July 15 (from August 15) and players signing much more quickly as a result, there really isn't much benefit to playing summer ball, if you're an incoming freshman stud. 

This is a particularly important decision to make, as many freshmen struggle during fall ball.  I've had lengthy conversations with two of the best college pitching coaches in the country about how they absolutely expect all their freshmen pitchers to see significant velocity drops during the fall.  They're adjusting to the increased throwing workload, as well as life on a new campus and a more rigorous academic challenge.  Effectively, they take a step back in order to take two steps forward when the winter/spring rolls around.  It's important that freshmen show up to campus expecting this drop-off, so it helps to show up fresh rather than dragging before the challenges begin.

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What about the summers between freshman/sophomore, sophomore/junior, and junior/senior years, though?  I think it goes without saying that there are a number of factors that must be considered:

1. How many innings did a pitcher throw during the spring?

Tyler Beede has been a Cressey Performance athlete since his early high school years, and one of the many reasons he was a first-round draft pick in 2011 was the fact that he'd never thrown more than 80 innings in a year.  In his first season at Vanderbilt, he threw 71.2 innings - but he also put in a lot of work in the fall season to prepare for that season.  He long tossed, threw bullpens, and worked on a curveball at a time of year when he would have normally been playing football or just training. This was "necessary volume" that helped him develop as a pitcher, but it also dictated that some innings probably ought to be subtracted off the tail end of his competitive year, so he opted not to play at the Cape.

Instead, he put in a great summer of training at CP, gaining 18 pounds of good weight and lots of usable strength. He started his fall throwing program in mid-August and had a great velocity jump during fall ball. Thus far this season, he's 10-0 with a 1.51 ERA, compared to last season's 4.52 ERA. There are a ton of factors that contributed to these improvements - fantastic pitching coaches, unique throwing programs, an additional year of experience in the SEC, adjustments to living on campus, etc - but the work he put in last summer was definitely a big contributing factor.

Had Tyler sat on the bench for most of the spring season of 2012, though, he would have been a great fit for summer ball, as the spring season would have effectively constituted "time off."  Everyone is different.

2. What is the development potential at the summer ball option?

This is the big white elephant in the room that no college coaches will ever talk about publicly.  While there are some outstanding opportunities to improve at summer baseball options, there are also a lot of places that are just a field and a bunch of players and coaches.  In other words, players sometimes don't exactly thrive. One prominent pitching coach told me last spring, "Summer ball is getting less and less developmental every year. We're sending guys out for it less and less."

Think about it: you have a combination of new coaches, new (host) families, new geographic regions, new teammates, and long bus rides.  There are rarely athletic trainers on hand for games, and only a select few teams carry strength and conditioning coaches. Even still, players may want to execute their strength and conditioning programs, but have no gym access in a remote geographic region where they don't have their own transportation.  Roughly half of their meals will be pre-game PB&J sandwiches and post-game pizza while on the bus. In short, I'd argue that it's a lot easier for things to go wrong than it is for them to go right.

What's actually somewhat comical is that most college coaches will tell recruits who are drafted that they'll develop better in a college program than they would in minor league baseball if they decide to sign. Yet, that previous paragraph essentially describes minor league baseball to a T, and players are sent in that direction all the time!

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Long story short, if you're going to ship off to play in a league and location unfamiliar to you, you and your coach better do your homework. All that said, please don't take the preceding paragraphs as a gross stereotype; there are a lot of fantastic summer ball coaches and experiences out there.  You just have to find them and make sure they're in the right system and matched up to the right kids if you're going to call it a great developmental option.

3. What is a player's risk tolerance?

Mark Appel was selected eighth overall in the 2012 draft, but opted to return to Stanford for his senior season.  While he'd played summer ball after his freshman and sophomore seasons, Appel opted not to after his junior year. Why not? His risk tolerance changed.  He only threw 69 innings as a freshman in 2010 and needed to pitch in the summer that followed to continue to improve. In 2011, he got more innings, but also needed to demonstrate he could be effective against the best college hitters in the country that summer to improve his draft stock.  Once you've already been a top 10 overall pick and the NCBWA National Pitcher of the Year, though, there isn't much more to prove in the college game, so summer ball would pose an unnecessary risk.

Obviously, this is a unique case, as very few throwers will reach this level of success.  However, it is a great perspective from which we can appreciate it's not always appropriate to just "ride the horse that got you here." Baseball development is an exception.  Summer ball might be a great option for a pitcher with a clean injury history, but not someone with a partial ulnar collateral ligament injury in his recent history. A lot of smart baseball people believe you only have a certain number of pitches in your arm, so you should use them wisely.

4. What are a player's long-term aspirations with baseball: experience or outcome?

Not everyone is going to be a Mark Appel or Tyler Beede.  In other words, college baseball may be the end of organized, non-beer-league baseball for a lot of pitchers.  In these cases, summer ball is about having fun and enjoying the game before you run out of time to do so. I'm all for it for these individuals. One has to decide whether it's about experience (having fun playing summer ball) or outcome (becoming a better player).  These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, though.

5. Does a player need to pitch or throw?

Some pitchers need in-game pitching experience to develop, while others simply need to build up arm speed.  There is a big difference.  The former dictates the summer ball is likely a necessity, while the latter can be accomplished via a number of different means.  Building arm speed might be a function of long toss, weighted balls, or just taking time off from throwing to build up strength, power, and mobility.

6. Does a player have adequate size and strength?

Taking the summer off from baseball is becoming an increasingly population option for players who are undersized or weak, but more polished on the baseball skill side of things.  If you're bigger and stronger, you can withstand a longer season. If you're not, you need to work to address your biggest window of adaptation.  More and more coaches seem to be moving in this direction in recent years, as we have dozens of players who move to Massachusetts for the summer just to train, and the numbers grow considerably each year.

7. What's a player's mental state at the end of the college season?

It might surprise some of you to hear that regardless of talent level, most college and professional players are essentially sick of baseball by the time the last few weeks of the season roll around (assuming they aren't in a playoff scenario). You never want a player to burn out on baseball, so college players need to ask themselves whether they'd rather be on buses in the middle of nowhere in mid-July with their arms dragging, or at home with their families and friends, training and possibly even pursuing an internship. What seems like a great idea in May often winds up being a miserable reality two months later. It all depends on the player and his frame of reference.

Increasing Your Options

In their book, Decisive, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss how we often make bad decisions because we try to turn each one we encounter into "this OR that."  Instead, they argue, we should be trying to determine how to have "this AND that." I think this same logic can be applied to summer baseball.

decisive--jacket

Coaches and players can dramatically improve the likelihood of a summer ball experience being productive by making players are placed on teams where they can thrive.  There needs to be good coaching and access to gyms to keep training during the summer season. And, they need to monitor innings and pitch counts, and educate players on staying out of trouble and on task.  Showing up in the fall unprepared is not an option.  And, just as importantly, it may mean these players need to start a bit more slowly with fall ball after taking the month of August off from throwing.

Players can also play a portion of the season, or opt to find a league where they might only pitch 3-4 innings once a week.  The rest of the week can be planned around training to prepare for the fall season.  This is a very popular option among those players who have moved to Massachusetts to train at Cressey Performance during the summer, as the Boston area has a lot of summer baseball leagues in which pitchers can get innings. The days are free for training, and all the games are at night; it's a great developmental set-up.

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Players might also opt to simply take the summer off altogether, giving themselves two months off from late May or early June (depending on post-season play) through the middle of August.  They'd then start a throwing program to be ready for the start of fall ball, effectively making their "throwing year" September-May/June.  The summer months would effectively be an off-season devoted to strength and conditioning that would prepare them for the 8-10 months of throwing that would follow.  This option affords two significant, but often overlooked benefits:

a. The overwhelming majority of throwing would be done with the college pitching coach, so players wouldn't be as likely to learn bad habits in the summer while on their own.

b. The most intensive strength and conditioning work would take place when a pitcher isn't throwing.  This would ensure that mobility, rotator cuff strength, and scapular control would improve as fast as possible.  Improving in these three regards is generally always going to be at odds with throwing.

This final option seems to have some statistical backing, too.  Of the college first round draft picks (including supplemental rounds) from 2010-2012, only 68% (50/73) played summer ball (typically Cape Cod League or Team USA) in the previous summer.*  And, I suspect that we may have even had some players who would have been first rounders, but slipped in the draft after an injury that may have been exacerbated during summer ball. Conversely, I'm sure there are guys (particularly hitters) who helped their draft stocks by playing summer ball the year before they were draft eligible, as well as ones who benefited greatly from playing in previous years.  There is no one right way to approach the decision, and deciding to play likely affords greater benefits to hitters than pitchers.

We really don't know the answers, but these numbers certainly lead us to wondering if we've been asking the right questions. The big one is clearly, "If you're already throwing from September through June, is there really much to gain from continuing to throw in July and August?"  When I hear it phrased that way, the answer is a big fat "NO," but I also realize that not all throwing during that September-June window is created equal.

Wrap-up

Managing the college pitcher is one of the more challenging responsibilities in the baseball world, as the competitive season is a series of hills and valleys in the life of a student athlete.  Additionally, there are numerous NCAA regulations and traditions to keep in mind.  As examples, Cape Cod League Baseball might be the single-best example of what baseball really should be like, and many players have always dreamed of playing for Team USA in the summertime.  So, we have decisions that must be made on not just physiological factors, but also emotional ones as well. 

The truth is that I've seen players make dramatic improvements via each of these three proposed avenues, and I've seen them select these courses of actions based on a number of factors, from burnout, to injuries, to family issues, to academic endeavors. 

This article proposed some answers, but more importantly, I hope it introduced some questions that need to be asked to arrive at the right answers for each player.

*A big thanks to CP intern Rob Sutton for helping to pull together these numbers for me

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21 Reasons You’re Not Tim Collins

Written on January 23, 2013 at 6:33 pm, by Eric Cressey

On March 31, 2011, Cressey Performance athlete Tim Collins made his major league debut on opening day for the Kansas City Royals.  As one of the shortest players in Major League Baseball, Tim made for a great story, especially considering he was an undrafted free agent sign who never received interest from any college baseball programs, let alone Division 1 schools.  In light of this unlikely ascent to baseball’s biggest stage, Tim’s story was featured on Yahoo Sports, MLB.com, and Men’s Health, and I also wrote up this post, which was among my most popular of all time.  By the end of the day, Tim was trending worldwide on Twitter when my business partner and I went out to dinner with Tim and his folks to celebrate his big-league debut – even though nobody in downtown Kansas City recognized him outside of his uniform.

Not surprisingly, Tim’s phone was bombarded by text messages and phone calls all that afternoon and evening. However, I never could have imagined that we, too, would get bombarded with requests after Tim got to the show.  Since that date, we’ve received hundreds of emails (in addition to some phone calls to the office, one of whom asked to speak with Tim – in the middle of July while he was in-season) that all essentially go like this (this is copied and pasted):

“Hi, I am a 5-7 lefty pitcher that also weights 170lb but only throws 80 mph. I read the articles about Tim Collins and was wondering if you could send me the workouts that he does in the off-season with you because I’m just like him. What leg exercises/lifts did he perform. Also did he just focus on legs, core and light upper body. If I lifted upper body I get really stiff because I have a similar stature like Collins, so did he basically avoid upper body lifts or did he just perform light lifts on the upper body. Finally after I lift I have been running a mile after that to loosen up my muscle to stay flexible, is that a good or bad idea. Thanks.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I think it’s absolutely awesome that Tim’s story has inspired guys to want to work hard to achieve their goals in spite of their stature – and we’ve certainly received loads of comments from folks who always put a smile on my face in this regard.  However, it frustrates (and entertains) me to think that some guys assume that they are just a program (actually, five year worth of programs) away from throwing 97mph and pitching in the big leagues.  Programs are just a bunch of words and numbers typed into Microsoft Excel and printed out; it’s how they’re carried out that really matters.  Additionally, there is a lot more to long-term baseball success than just following a strength and conditioning program; you also have to prepare on the baseball side of things and attain a skill set that differentiates you.  To that end, I thought I’d take this time to highlight 21 reasons you’re not Tim Collins.

1. You don’t have Tim’s training partners.

Tim’s had some of the same training partners since back in 2007, and in addition to pushing him in the gym, they’ve also served as a network for him to share ideas and solicit feedback.  If you just do “his programs” in a commercial gym by yourself (with obnoxious Nicky Minaj music in the background), you’re not going to get the same outcome. True story: in the fall of 2009, Tim trained alongside Paul Bunyan. This experience gave him the size, strength, and courage needed to grow a beard that would become a beacon for humanity in Kansas City and beyond.

2. Your beard is not this good.

Everyone knows that beards improve the likelihood of baseball success, not to mention all-around happiness in the rest of one’s life. I can’t send you a strength and conditioning program that will make your facial hair grow.

3. You don’t put calories in the right place like Tim does.

Tim can eat a ton of food and a LOT more of it goes to muscle than fat.  Just because you’re 5-7, 150 pounds and left-handed doesn’t mean you won’t become a fat slob if you crush 8,000 calories a day.  Sorry.

4. You don’t have Tim’s awesome support network.

Tim is fortunate to have a great family, from his parents, to his sisters, to his fiance.  This is especially important for an undrafted free agent who didn’t get much of a signing bonus.  His parents put a roof over his head and fed him while he worked his way through the minor leagues.

More significantly, though, people don’t realize that the foundation of becoming a big leaguer doesn’t come from a training program; it comes from the values that are instilled in you by those around you when you’re young.  As a perfect example, Tim’s father, Larry, is one of the hardest-working guys you’ll ever meet.  He teaches, has a painting business, and even just accepted a prestigious award for outstanding community service in the Worcester area.  A few sheets of paper with exercises, sets, and reps written on them won’t foster the kind of habits that will get you to “the show.”

5. You probably don’t enjoy the process like Tim does.

Tim likes training.  In fact, all of our clients knew Tim well before he made it to the big leagues, as he was always at the gym. He has been putting in eight hour days of hanging around the office (on top of his training) for five years now.  If you don’t enjoy training, you probably around going to become a gym rat.  And, if you don’t teach yourself to enjoy the training process, your chance of getting to your ideal destination will surely be diminished.  This was taken at 7pm on a Tuesday night, as a frame of reference:

6. You might not have Tim’s luck.

Then Blue Jays general manager JP Ricciardi “discovered” Tim by accident when he was out to scout another player.  How many of you have GMs just “pop in” to your Legion games – and conveniently do it on a day when you strike out 12 straight guys?

7. Your name isn’t Matt O’Connor.

Meet Matt O’Connor, Cressey Performance athlete and student at Emory University. He is sometimes mistaken for Tim when he’s at CP.

If we were going to pick anyone to be “just like Tim Collins,” it would be Matt – purely for efficiency’s sake.

8. You might not have a switch you can flip on and off.

One of the things most folks don’t know about many high level lifters is that they joke around all the time during training sessions.  When I was lifting at one of the best powerlifting gyms in the world, guys were always busting each other’s chops between sets. However, when the time comes to move weights, they get very serious very quickly.  They know how to flip the switch on at will. 

However, they also know how to turn the switch off when they don’t need it.  This is true of a lot of the most successful baseball players I’ve encountered; they leave work at work.  The guys who are constantly “on” and let the game consume their lives often have bad relationships with teammates and stress themselves into bad results.

I think part of what has made Tim successful – especially as a relief pitcher – is that he can turn his brain and his body on at a moment’s notice, but knows how to go back to “normal Tim” when the time is right.

9. You probably don’t even have a bulldog, and if you do, I guarantee you that his underbite isn’t this awesome.

10. You don’t have Tim’s curveball.

I actually remember reading somewhere that Tim’s curveball had more top-to-bottom depth than any other curveball in Major League Baseball, and I spoke to one MLB advanced scout who said he rated it as an 80.  Keep in mind that average fastball velocity is higher in Low A than it is in the big leagues.  Tim’s velocity improvements might have been a big part of him advancing through the minor leagues, but he doesn’t even get his first opportunity unless he has a great curveball.  And, no, I don’t have his “curveball program” to send you.

11. You don’t have Tim’s change-up.

If Tim’s curveball is what got him to the big leagues, it was his change-up that has kept him there.  Interesting fact: he threw two change-ups in the 2010 season – and both led to home runs. It took a lot of work to develop the change-up he has now.  But you just need his programs.  Riiiight.

12. You can’t ride a unicycle.

I don’t know of the correlation between unicycling ability and pitching success, but there has to be something there.

13. You might not respond to success like Tim has.

I often see one of two things happens when guys are successful in pro sports, and everyone comes out of the woodwork asking for something.  They either a) trust everybody or b) trust nobody.  I think Tim’s done a great job of finding a happy medium.  He puts his trust in others and doesn’t second guess them, but still guards his network carefully.

14. You might not be as willing to make sacrifices as he is.

This might come as a surprise, but Hudson, MA really isn’t that beautiful in the winter.  Most pro guys move to Arizona, Florida, or California in the off-season, but Tim sacrifices that lifestyle to train with us and be close to the support network I mentioned earlier. Asking to just have a program (actually, 50+ programs) emailed to you means that you aren’t willing to make sacrifices on that level, which leads to…

15. You wouldn’t be doing your program in the same training environment.

I know a lot of pro guys who struggle to find a throwing partner in the off-season.  If that’s an issue, it’s a safe assumption that they don’t exactly have many (if any) training partners or a good training environment in which to execute the program, either.  You don’t just need the right people; you need quite a few of them, with the right equipment at your fingertips. At risk of sounding arrogant, I think we’ve done a great job of creating that at CP.

16. You don’t have just the right amount of laxity.

Congenital laxity is a big consideration in training throwing athletes.  Some guys have naturally looser joints, while others tend to be very stiff.  The really “loose” guys need more stability training and little to not flexibility work, while the tight guys need a hearty dose of mobility drills.  Generally speaking, the best place to be (in my opinion, at least) is middle-of-the-road.  Tim falls right there, with a small tendency toward being a bit more loose, which favors his aggressive delivery.

17. You don’t throw to a left-handed catcher in the off-season.

And, even if you do, your left-handed catcher probably doesn’t have a mitt with his name on it. It’s definitely a crucial part of the Tim Collins developmental experience.

18. You probably can’t score a 21 on the Functional Movement Screen.

Many of you are probably familiar with Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen, a seven-part assessment approach used in a number of fitness and strength and conditioning settings nowadays.  A perfect score is a 21, but you don’t see it very often – usually because everyone gets dominated by the rotary stability test, where a perfect score (3) is essentially a same-sided birddog. The first time I saw Tim drop to the floor and do this effortlessly, my jaw just about hit the floor.  Luckily, he can repeat it on command like it’s nothing, so I snapped a video (this was the first try, with no warm-up).

He’s scored a 21 on this two spring trainings in a row – and that implies that he actually moves quite well.  Most people don’t need his program, as they have a lot more movement quality issues to address.

19. You ice after you throw.

Tim iced after pitching one time, and hated it; he’ll never do it again.  Not everyone is the same, though; some guys swear by it.  You might be one of those guys.

20. You’ve never personal trained a nine-week old puppy.

21. You “muscle” everything.

One of the traits you’ll see in a lot of elite athletes is that they don’t get overly tense when they don’t have to do so.  If you’re squatting 500 pounds, you want to establish a lot more rigidity, but if you’re participating in the vast majority of athletic endeavors, you want effortless, fluid movement – almost as if you aren’t trying.  If you just tense up and try to muscle everything, it becomes harder to take advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle.  Teaching an athlete to relax is challenging – but I never had to even address it with Tim; it was something he just “had.”

There’s a saying in the strength and conditioning world that “it’s easier to make a fast guy strong than it is to make a strong guy fast.”  I think this quote applies perfectly to Tim’s development.  Not everyone has that natural reactive ability from the get-go, so different training approaches are needed for different individuals. 

Again, in closing, I should emphasize that it’s great that Tim has become an inspiration to shorter pitchers to pursue their dreams.  However, as is always the case, young athletes simply following the exact training programs of professional athletes is a bad idea, as these programs may not be appropriate for their bodies or point on the athletic development continuum.  To that end, I encourage all young athletes to educate themselves on how they are unique – and find the right people and programs to pursue their dreams in accordance with those findings. And, for the record, Tim agrees!

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Simplicity and Individualization: The Hallmarks of Every Successful Program

Written on January 21, 2013 at 7:01 pm, by Eric Cressey

This past weekend, I spoke at a baseball conference that featured an outstanding lineup.  Sharing the stage were:

  • Lloyd McClendon (former MLB player and current Detroit Tigers hitting coach)
  • Jerry Weinstein (Colorado Rockies catching coach)
  • Gary Gilmore (Coastal Carolina head Coach)
  • Rich Maloney (Ball State head coach)
  • Shaun Cole (University of Arizona pitching coach)
  • Gary Picone (former Lewis & Clark head coach)

I picked up some great insights over the weekend, but the two themes that seemed to resound with me over and over again were that all of these guys emphasized simplicity and individualization.

On the simplicity side of things, all of these coaches emphasized not making things more elaborate than they needed to be.  Paraphrasing Hall-of-Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, Coach Maloney hammered home “making the routine play routinely.”  This really hit home with me, as many baseball players I encounter are looking for the latest and greatest throwing program, supplement, or training gadget to take them to the next level.  Meanwhile, the simple answer is just that they need train a little harder, eat a little better, and be a little more patient and attentive.

On the individualization side of things, McClendon, for instance, emphasized that while all great hitters get to the same important positions, many of them start at different positions.  And, they each require different drills to “get right,” and different players do better with shorter sessions in the cage than others.

In one way or another, every single speaker touched on – and, in most cases, specifically mentioned – keeping things simple and individualized.  To that end, I thought I’d post five random thoughts on both of these factors:

Simplifying Baseball Strength and Conditioning Programs

1. Magical things happen when you get stronger.  Learn to put more force into the ground and you will throw harder, swing faster, jump higher, and run faster.

2. Don’t miss sessions. The off-season is never as long as you want it to be, and it’s your time to “put money in the bank” from a training adaptation standpoint.  And, in-season, it’s easy to put things off until tomorrow – but that doesn’t mean that you should, as there is a tomorrow for tomorrow, too, and that’s a slippery slope.

3. Do what you need, not just what you’re good at doing. If you throw hard, but can’t throw strikes, do more bullpen work.  If you throw strikes, but can’t throw hard, do more velocity drills: long toss, weighted ball work, etc.

4. Don’t add more volume without taking something away.  You can’t do high volume strength training, high volume medicine ball work, high volume throwing, high volume hitting, and high volume sprint work all at once.  If you add something new, take something away.

5. Don’t power through bad technique or pain. If you can’t do something with good technique, slow it down and practice it at an easier pace. If that still doesn’t work, regress the drill/exercise.

Individualizing Baseball Strength and Conditioning Programs

1. Coach the same exercises differently. Different players respond to different cues, but they often mandate different cues as well.  For instance, a wall slide with overhead shrug would be cued differently for someone with scapular depression and anterior tilt than in someone with scapular elevation and adduction. The goal is to make the movement look right, but there are different roads to get to this point.

2. Assess for congenital laxity. If someone has crazy loose joints, don’t stretch them. If they’re stiff as a board, include more mobility drills and static stretching.

3. Inquire about innings pitched. The more innings a pitcher has thrown, the more down-time he’ll need and the longer it’ll take to get his rotator cuff and scapular control back to a suitable level in the off-season.

4. Master the sagittal plane first.  If you can’t do a body weight squat or lunge, then you probably aren’t going to have the rotary stability necessary to do aggressive rotational medicine ball throws or plyos in the frontal plane.

5. Appreciate each player’s injury history and find out where they usually get soreness/pain.  Simply asking these questions and reviewing a health history can tell you a lot about where a player might break down moving forward.  If you aren’t asking or assessing, you’re just guessing.

These five thoughts on individualization might seem obvious, but it never ceases to amaze me just how many people in the industry simply throw a one-size-fits-all program up on the dry erase board and expect everyone to do it exactly the same.  Some folks might thrive, but others might wind up injured or regressing in their fitness levels in some capacity.  This is where we begin to appreciate the incredibly essential interaction between individualization and simplicity.  Nothing is more simple than this:

Determine an athlete’s unique needs, and then write a program and provide coaching cues to address them.

There is nothing more basic and simple than a needs evaluation.  You can’t determine that something is too complex if you have no idea where an athlete stands in the first place!

Why then, do we have entire teams doing the same program with the same coaching cues?  Usually, it’s because it makes someone’s job easier, or it allows them to get more athletes through the babysitting service to make more money.  That’s not how you keep athletes healthy, win games, or educate athletes about how their bodies are unique.

So with all that in mind, remember to keep things simple – and that begins with an assessment so that you can create an individualized training experience.

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Hip Extension and Rotation in the Baseball Swing

Written on January 5, 2013 at 7:33 am, by Eric Cressey

Today’s guest blog comes to us from Jeff Albert, one of the bright minds in the world of hitting instruction. I’ve enjoyed Jeff’s stuff for years, and I think you’ll like it, too.

Hip extension is a getting a lot of attention in the fitness world these days. Eric Cressey was asking us to get our butts in gear back in ’04, ESPN recently made a Call of Booty, and we now have our very own glute guy, Bret Contreras. Kettlebell swings, hip thrusts, deadlifts, and squats are staples of exercise programs for athletes for good reason: they make the posterior chain stronger and more explosive. This, in turn, makes it easier for athletes to do things athletes are supposed to do – like run faster and jump higher.

But how is this going to help with your actual skills? What is the role of hip extension in the baseball swing?

EMG studies in both baseball (Shaffer et al 1993) and golf (Belcher et al 1995) report highest muscle activity of the primary movers of the posterior chain – the hamstrings, glutes and low back – happens during the beginning of the forward swing. The exercises listed above are often programmed because they target the same muscles. Very conveniently, those muscles are also responsible for creating rotation in the swing.

Here’s the key point: good hip rotation has an element of hip extension!

This is what it looks like from the front and side in the swing:

Check out the belt line as the hitter transitions from landing with his stride foot to making contact. This is the actual unloading of the hips during the forward swing. You should be able to see how the hips (belt line) lower into flexion (load) and then actually come up a bit as the hips extend (unload).

Unfortunately, the baseball EMG study only measured muscle activity on the back leg. The golf EMG study, however, measured both legs. An interesting point from this golf study is that in the initial forward swing (from the loaded position to horizontal lag position), activity in the quads (vastus lateralis was measured) of the lead leg was higher than the posterior side (glutes, biceps femoris, semimembranosus). This makes sense because the front side is accepting some shifting weight during this time. But, when the club is being moved from the horizontal lag position to contact, the hip extenders again become more active. Baseball instruction commonly refers to having a “firm front side”, but we haven’t talked much about how that happens. This golf EMG suggests that extension at the hip, rather than knee, is more responsible for creating this effect.

Keep this in mind if and when you are working on the lower half in your swing. Very often players can show a nice, powerful hip rotation and extension pattern in the gym (throwing medicine balls, for example), but look much different when they pick up a bat in the cage. Differences in terminology that you’ll find between the gym and the batting cage can often be a cause of this, and sometimes players just don’t make the connection between their physical conditioning and their actual swing.

If you do struggle with rotation of your lower half, give some thought to the hip extension and rotational work that you do in the weight room and pay attention to the patterns that you’re developing there. First of all, make sure your hip extension and rotation are good in the first place, and then see if you can repeat the movement pattern when swinging the bat. The whole point in creating strong, explosive hip rotation in the weight room is so you can actually use it to create more power when you finally have the bat in your hands.

Happy Hacking!

About the Author

Jeff Albert is a CSCS with a MS in Exercise Science from Louisiana Tech University. Jeff is entering his 6th season as a coach in professional baseball, now serving as a roving hitting instructor in the Houston Astros organization. He works with players of all ages during the off-season in Palm Beach, Florida and can be contacted through his website, SwingTraining.net, or follow him on twitter (@swingtraining).

References

1. Bechler JR, Jobe FW, Pink M, Perry J, Ruwe PA. Electromyographic analysis of the hip and knee during the golf swing. Clin J Sport Med. 1995 Jul;5(3):162-6.

2. Shaffer B, Jobe FW, Pink M, Perry J. Baseball Batting: An Electromyographic study. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 1993 Jul;(292):285-93.

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Baseball Strength Training Programs: Are Dips Safe and Effective?

Written on December 12, 2012 at 9:52 am, by Eric Cressey

I received the following question from a baseball dad earlier today, so I thought I'd turn it into a quick Q&A, as I think my response will be valuable information for many players - as well as those in the general population who want to avoid shoulder problems.

Q: What's your opinion on bar dips for baseball players? My son's high school coach has a strength training program that includes bar dips and I was wondering about the safety and effectiveness of the exercises for baseball players. 

A: I'll occasionally include dips in strength training programs for general fitness clients, but I'll never put them in programs for baseball players.

You see, when you do a dip, you start in a "neutral" position of the humerus with respect to the scapula; the arm is at the side (neither flexed nor extended):

The eccentric (lowering) portion of the exercise takes the lifter into humeral extension far past neutral.

This is an extremely vulnerable position for many shoulders, but particularly in overhead throwing athletes.  You see, overhead athletes like swimmers and baseball, volleyball, cricket, and tennis players will acquire something we call anterior instability from going through full shoulder external rotation over and over again.  Essentially, as one lays the arm back (external rotation = osteokinematics), there is a tendency of the humeral head to glide forward (arthrokinematics). 

If the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers aren't perfectly strong and completely on time, the only things available to prevent the humeral head from popping forward in this position are the long head of the biceps tendon and the glenohumeral ligaments at the front of the shoulder.  Over time, these ligaments can get excessively stretched out, leading to a loose anterior capsule and a biceps tendon that moves all over the place or simply becomes degenerative from overuse.  And, anyone who's ever had a cranky biceps tendon will tell you that you don't want to overuse that sucker.

As a quick digression, this is one reason why you're seeing more anterior capsule plication (capsular tightening) procedures being done, with Johan Santana probably being the most noteworthy one. The problem is that after a surgeon tightens up a capsule, it takes a considerably amount of time for it to stretch out so that a pitcher will regain his "feel" for the lay-back portion of throwing.  Additionally, anecdotally, I've seen more biceps tenodesis surgeries in the past year on throwers and non-throwers alike, which tells me that surgeons are seeing uglier biceps tendons when they get in there to do labral repairs.  These are tough rehabilitation projects without much long-term success/failure data in throwers, as they fundamentally change shoulder anatomy (whereas a traditional labral repair restores it) and call into question: "Does a pitcher need a biceps tendon?"  Mike Reinold wrote an excellent blog on this subject, if you're interested in learning more.

Bringing this back to dips, we make sure that all of our pushing and pulling exercises take place in the neutral-to-flexed arc of motion, meaning we try to keep the humerus even with or in front of the body.  This is because humeral extension past neutral (as we see with dips) has a similar effect on increasing anterior instability as throwing does.  For those who are visual learners, check out the first few minutes of this rowing technique video tutorial:

I'd argue that the negative effects of bench dips are even more excessive, as they don't allow an individual to even work from a neutral position to start, as the bench must be positioned behind the body, whereas the parallel bars can be directly at one's side.

So, to recap...

1. No dip is a good idea for an overhead throwing population. Bench dips - which are probably used more because they are more convenient for coaches out on the field - are especially awful.

2. Regular dips probably aren't a great idea for the majority of the population, especially those with bad posture, weak scapular stabilizers, poor rotator cuff function, or current or previous shoulder pain.

3. In particular, anyone with a history of acromioclavicular joint injuries or chronic pain in this area (e.g. osteolysis of the distal clavicle) should stay away from dips (and another other exercise that puts the elbow behind the body).

4. Bench dips are really awful for everyone.

Looking for a program that trains the upper body safely and effectively - and without dips? Check out The High Performance Handbook, the most versatile strength and conditioning program on the market.

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