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4 Keys to Making the Most of Summer Baseball

Written on May 5, 2015 at 7:19 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance - Florida coach, Tim Geromini. Tim has seen summer baseball on both the collegiate and professional levels, and today, he shares his insights on how players can thrive between June and August. Enjoy! -EC

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The topic of whether or not to play summer league baseball has been debated quite a bit over the last few years. Eric wrote a great article about it (HERE). This article is not designed to make the case for or against playing summer league baseball, but rather to give some points on how to make the most out of your experience if you decide to play. With four seasons in summer league ball under my belt, I’ve heard the phrase “this was the best summer of my life” more times than I can count. Assuming it is the right timing and situation for you, here are four keys to making it the best summer of your life on and off the field.

1. Get your mindset right before you arrive, and stick with it.

This might seem like an easy one, but you’d be surprised how many guys come in with the wrong mindset every year. Summer league baseball should not be what it’s made out to be (party time!) in movies like Summer Catch. Rather, it’s a chance to become a better player and person. I’m not saying you have to be sound asleep in your bed right after the game ends, but you should understand the true reason you are there.

You are there to learn more about the game and become a more complete player. Some coaches will not do much teaching, but rather let you play your style and make some adjustments. Others will be incredibly critical and teach you until the day you leave. I’ve seen both coaching styles work. What are the common traits of players who’ve thrived under both circumstances? The players were open minded, incredibly positive, and wanted to get better. If you’re willing to accept another way of thinking, keep a good attitude about it, and do it with a determination to be better, you are doing everything you can to improve on and off the field.

2. Be part of your host-family.

Most players will live with a host family, and you are lucky to have that opportunity. Be part of that family for the summer and beyond. If you have a host-brother or host-sister, you have an opportunity to positively impact that person’s life. They look up to you, just as you would have when you were younger. Hang out with them, teach them, and learn something from them. I always loved seeing my players playing with their host families on the field after games. Whether its dinner with the host-parents, running the bases with their host-brother, or playing a round of mini-golf with them after the game, it’s a great way to spend your summer. On a related note, most of our Major League Baseball guys at Cressey Sports Performance keep in close contact with their host families from their college and minor league days, as they’ve built life-long friendships.

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Remember that you also represent the town for which you play. Be a gentleman on and off the field.

3. Rest and Recover.

In many cases, players are playing competitively 8-10 months out of the year. Summer league is at the tail end of this run, when your body is exhausted. Sleep and nutrition are your keys to be able to perform every day. It’s difficult to play your best and be mentally in the game on a few hours of sleep every night. A hidden form of recovery is to get yourself out of the sun when you can. Baseball camps, practices, and games can make for upwards of 8 hours in the sun all day. Get yourself in the shade or in a cool, dark area when you can. Some teams will have a rule where your host family provides a certain amount of meals for you each day. Take advantage of this to get your calories in and make healthy decisions. The most successful players I have seen took rest and recovery seriously.

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4. Train!

There’s no way I could write this article without highlighting the importance of training during the summer. If you follow this website, I trust you know the benefits of training and are proof of the results. I must say, however, that many athletes think the summer away from their college strength coach is their opportunity to not see a weight room. You don’t have to train every day. In fact, trying to train 6 days per week while playing 5-6 days per week can do more harm than good. I always shot for 2-3 training sessions per week for my guys, depending on their situation; this kept them fresh and strong. The non-training days are just as important to improving tissue quality and maintaining mobility. Whether it’s doing it yourself by foam rolling and going through some dynamic flexibility drills, or seeking manual therapy elsewhere, it’s important to get your work in on these fronts.

Conclusion

There are a number of ways to make summer league baseball an enormous success and something you will always remember. These four always stuck out to me and I hope it can help some of you in the future. I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts on other important factors in summer baseball in the comments section below.

About the Author

Tim Geromini is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Jupiter, FL. Prior to joining the CSP team; Tim spent time with the Lowell Spinners (Class A Affiliate of the Boston Red Sox), Nashua Silver Knights (Futures Collegiate Baseball League), Cotuit Kettleers of (Cape Cod Baseball League), and UMass-Lowell Sports Performance. You can contact him at timgero@gmail.com and on Twitter.

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Changing Baseball Culture: A Call to Action

Written on April 28, 2015 at 9:25 am, 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

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Baseball is a game of ritual and tradition: lucky socks, pre-game meals, stepping over lines, special handshakes, and on-deck habits are all part of the “rhythm” of the game. Unfortunately, other “old-school” traditions are still the norm when it comes to the management and prevention of injury on the diamond. It is clear that we are moving in the right direction with new technologies and smarter training; however, injuries continue to pile up. A difficult question to answer is: are any of these injuries avoidable or are players already “damaged goods” by the time they get to the professional ranks? Some things are out of our control, but clearly we can do better.

Here are four opportunities for us to make a difference:

1. Identify the signs before there are symptoms.

The best form of treatment is prevention. The best rehab for a pitcher is one that does not exist at all. To support this point, a sign is a warning that something bad is about to happen. Some examples of objective signs in an at-risk pitcher are a decrease in velocity, loss of location/command, and ROM changes. This might be a loss of total glenohumeral ROM, internal rotation, or shoulder flexion; scapular upward rotation; elbow extension; forearm supination; and hip rotation. Or, it may be a significant increase in shoulder external rotation (see here and here for details). Some examples of subjective signs are poor body language, lack of confidence, altered communication, and working slower on the mound – just to name a few. Once a pitcher does become symptomatic, we need to take it seriously. I am not implying that we need to baby our athletes (there is enough of that going on!), but on the flip side, the solution is not to ignore the pain and “pitch through it.” As always, the truth is often found somewhere in the middle. In 15 years, I have yet to come across a pitcher that ended up needing surgery that did not first have signs and symptoms that were either missed or ignored.

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2. There is no such thing as “normal soreness.”

To piggyback on point #1, the expectation is not that a pitcher will be pain-free 100% of the time. That is unrealistic. There is unavoidable stress and tissue breakdown associated with pitching. If there isn’t, my guess is the pitcher is not throwing very hard! However, I would like to make this point loud and clear: There is no such thing as “normal soreness.” By definition, if things were normal, then there would not be soreness (and certainly not pain). To this point, one could argue that throwing a baseball 100x at 85-100MPH is not “normal,” either, so what can we do about it? Let’s follow this rule: if a pitcher presents with pain, tightness, or fatigue in the front of his shoulder or the inside/outside of their elbow or forearm following an outing, then he needs an evaluation and treatment. If a pitcher presents with soreness in their glutes, core, and posterior cuff, then he needs some rest and a pat on the back for a job well done. Remember, just because the pain or soreness is common doesn’t make it right.

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3. One size never fits all.

I can’t think of a situation in baseball (or life) where one approach works for everyone. For example, not every baseball player needs to stretch or “loosen up.” Most players are already too loose or lax and need to gain stiffness and stability with their pre-game routine. They need to warm-up and activate. Yet, at every level, we see teams line up and stretch before games. This robs their bodies of the good stiffness that they have worked to develop in the gym and during the off-season. We need to warm the tissues up and take the body through the appropriate ranges of motion to prepare to play; however, we don’t need to stretch these tissues right before asking them to generate massive amounts of force. For these loose-jointed individuals, throwing, sprinting, and hitting will provide all of the “stretching” that’s needed.

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Another example that needs to be looked at is too many reps of strengthening or band exercises done right before activity on the field. If we don’t want to overstretch an athlete prior to playing, then we certainly don’t want to fatigue them. A fatigued pitcher has a 36x higher chance of getting injured than a non-fatigued pitcher. Let’s save the fatigue for the innings on the field and not with hundreds of band reps or a 50-pitch bullpen session before the 1st pitch is even thrown.

4. Avoid this question.

The worst question you can ever ask a pitcher on a mound visit or in the dugout is “How are you feeling?” This same question is asked every day on fields across the world and yields no valuable information. Any pitcher, at any level, will answer, “I’m good, coach.” If they don’t, they are playing the wrong sport.

Instead of asking this question, we should be using our experience as professionals to make unemotional decisions to best help our players stay healthy for the entire season.

It is our job is to acquire as much information as we can through experience and observation to make the best decision possible with the data that we have at that moment. Players lie. It is a way of showing their competitive spirit to stay in games and try to help their teams win. It’s called adrenaline. It’s not their fault. It is our fault for asking bad questions that have no good answers. The pitcher’s job is to get outs, not to decide what soreness is “normal.” That is what what we get paid to do.

Let’s close by comparing injury management in baseball to one of the world’s most successful companies. Apple talks about avoiding the “sameness trap.” This is the thought that if you ask a consumer what they want, they will tell you to do what other popular companies are doing. Steve Jobs worked to avoid this by not asking his customers what they wanted, but instead, giving them what they didn’t know they needed. So, let’s stop asking the same questions and getting the same generic answers and worked towards continuing to change the culture in baseball and help our athletes get better results.

If you are interested in learning more about our approach to managing baseball athletes, we'd love to see you at one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships. The next event is June 14-16, with an early-bird registration deadline of May 14th.

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The Best of 2014: Baseball Articles

Written on January 4, 2015 at 3:30 pm, by Eric Cressey

With baseball athletes being the largest segment of the Cressey Sports Performance athletic clientele, it seems only fitting to devote a "Best of 2014" feature to the top baseball posts from last year. Check them out:

1. No Specialization = National Championship? - I posted this article right after Vanderbilt won the College World Series, and it was my biggest "baseball hit" of the year. There are some great lessons on long-term athletic development in there.

2. 6 Key Qualities for Long-Term Athletic Development - I wrote this post right after 18 Cressey Sports Performance athletes were selected in the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft. As with our #1 baseball post from the year, long-term athletic development was a hot topic!

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3. Are Pitchers Really Getting "Babied?" - Many baseball "traditionalists" insist that pitchers are getting injured because we're babying them in the modern era. I disagree completely, and this article summarizes my thoughts on the subject.

4. Long-Term Success: What You Can Learn from Corey Kluber - Long-time CSP client Corey Kluber won the 2014 American League Cy Young, and a lot of the points I make in this article on his work ethic help to explain why. It was featured on Gabe Kapler's website.

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5. Draft Q&A with Eric Cressey: Part 1 and Part 2 - This two-part article was actually an interview of me for Baseball America. I think it delves into a lot of important topics for up-and-coming players as well as coaches and parents.

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Timing Adjustments and Their Impact on the Pitching Delivery: A Case Study

Written on October 16, 2014 at 9:04 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Matt Blake, the pitching coordinator at Cressey Sports Performance in Massachusetts. Matt is an integral part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team.

I recently Tweeted out a picture of some mechanical changes a pitcher had made and it received a lot of responses. As such, I decided I would follow up with a little more depth and context to this particular picture to help shed some light on the thought process that goes into making mechanical adjustments. So, for starters, here’s the picture in question, with the left side being the original delivery and the right side being the revised version.

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Typically, when discussing pitching mechanics, I avoid using still shots, because they can be very misleading. In this particular case, there were some substantial changes that were made in this landing position, which I thought encapsulated a lot about the enhanced movement quality of the delivery as a whole, which we’ll unpack in further detail here.

For those familiar with the pitching delivery, the first thing that should jump out at you is the extremely late arm action in the initial delivery. This could be classified as an “inverted arm action” at landing, where in this case, the elbow isn’t necessarily hyper-abducted (elevated) above the shoulder, but the hand is definitely below the elbow. In a Cliff's Notes version, this positioning is generally regarded as increasing stress on the shoulder and elbow. This is in part due to the orientation of the humeral head in the socket at landing, as it’s in a position of excessive internal rotation and pinned into the front of the socket. As a result, we’re not in an optimal position to get the rotator cuff to function to center the head for a clean ball in socket rotation.

This is coupled with the fact that we’re adding more torque to the joint since we have more range of motion involved in getting the hand to full lay-back before accelerating to release. That being said, there are plenty of pitchers who throw very hard and have successful big league careers pitching with an inverted pattern, and the reason they throw so hard may very well be due to their inverted pattern, so you have to constantly weigh the risk/reward of making mechanical adjustments for pitchers.

As an example, Billy Wagner had an inverted pattern and multiple injuries, but was hitting 100mph before it was industry standard to hit 100mph - and he accumulated 422 saves in a successful big league career.

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When weighing this potential risk/reward, some of the questions might include:

  • Where is this pitcher currently in the developmental process?
  • What type of stress does he currently report during or after throwing?
  • What can we gain by making adjustments?
  • What do we have to lose by adjusting this current delivery?

These are important questions to consider, because you’re obviously not going to take a big leaguer at the tail end of his career, and adjust what has got him to that point. Conversely, you might adjust a 15yr old high school pitcher, who throws hard, but has erratic command and reports a high level of stress after he’s done throwing.

In this particular case, we had a sophomore in college, who had a track record of success in high school, and was looking to establish his role in a very competitive program with a strong history of winning. His contributions as a freshman were limited in part due to command issues and his velocity would be erratic going anywhere from 82-90mph on any given day.

With these considerations in mind, it became apparent in looking at the the delivery in its current state, that these mechanics might be a limiting factor in commanding the ball at a competitive level, as well as sustaining his velocity on a consistent basis. On the flip side, though, if we reduce the inversion in his arm action, we may lose a mph or two of velocity initially, as we learn to “re-tension” the delivery and create force in a different manner. In order to fully comprehend these issues, let’s take a look at this delivery in full:

As I stated in the video, the crazy thing about this delivery is that for how extremely late that arm action looks in that still shot, it’s really a misrepresentation for how much I like the feel of this delivery as a whole. There’s a lot of quality movement that’s “loose” in nature, and this athlete has a good feel for creating “extension” in the throw, so we really don’t have to adjust the integrity of his movements, but more the timing associated with some of the actions, and at the crux of it, the athlete’s mindset for creating leverage in his throw.

If you look at where this delivery starts to break down, it’s in the excessive “counter-rotation” of his shoulders that creates too much length in the throwing arm and that couples with an exaggerated extension of the back leg into landing.

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As a result, the hand can’t catch up and “get on top of the ball” at landing and our pressure into the ground ends up being poor. This combines to create an issue for the stabilization pattern as a whole now, because the front leg can’t brace to create a fixed point of rotation to anchor the throw, as it has to allow for the torso to translate forward in an effort to create time for the hand to get into position behind the ball. So, as you can see, by the front knee ending up working into a more flexed position, we’re diffusing the ground force reaction we’re trying to convert into rotational power, and the pelvis loses its leverage on that front hip, flattening out our rotation. When this happens, you’ll notice that the path of the hand is actually diverted wide instead of keeping an efficient driveline through the target. Without a firm landing position that allows us to accept force properly, and keep the rhythm of our sequencing intact, our command and velocity will continue to be erratic in nature.

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Once we identified these issues, we had to rule out that there wasn’t a mobility or stability issue that was limiting our ability to move through more functional positions. In this particular case, mobility definitely wasn’t the issue, and even though the stabilization pattern was currently poor, the athlete did have the ability to stabilize. It really just came down to his awareness for what he was trying to accomplish. So, once we came to agreement that these were things that could be fixed and would be beneficial to his development in the long run, we had to start re-organizing the focus of his repetitions.

Anytime you’re making changes, it’s essential to understand root causes and not just symptoms. For me, the inverted arm action was a symptom of a misdirected focus in the delivery. We needed to make the focus less on length and extension in the throw and more on strength in the landing and properly sequencing his rotations through the chain. By creating a stronger stride pattern and tying the timing of the arm path into the lower half sequencing, we would have a more connected and repeatable delivery that had a more efficient stabilization pattern. Let’s take a look at what shook out over the next seven weeks and then we’ll discuss some of the altered components.

As discussed in the video, the first thing that should stand out in the revised delivery is the compactness of the arm action, and from there, the angle of the ball flight out of his hand. And, to be honest, I could run through every drill that we did to get him to this point, but I don’t know if it’s really the drills themselves that are important. I think we could have accomplished this in a multitude of ways, as long as we kept the focus on cueing him to be “strong into the floor.”

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Now, that being said, we definitely used versions of the “stride drill” to coordinate the rhythm of the back-hip rotation and arm action, and we did our share of step-behind shuffles to speed up his timing and learn to accept force properly upon landing, but if the focus on trying to create force into the ground and working from “top-to-bottom” on the baseball wasn’t in place, I don’t think either of those drills would have mattered.

Changing his focus and “pre-throw vision” for what his ball flight should look like helped him organize his body into this revised delivery. By placing the importance on being “strong into the floor”, it didn’t allow him to put himself into these overly extended positions, whether it be the lower half or the arm action, as he came to understand these weren’t “strong” positions. Ultimately, understanding the importance of landing in a position that allowed him to accept the force and transfer it up the chain was crucial in this process.

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At the end of the day, the most important part of making any type of delivery change is getting “buy-in” from the athlete himself. It doesn’t matter what I think a delivery should look like unless the athlete understands and accepts why it’s important for him to make these changes, because ultimately he’s the one who has to throw the baseball.

In this particular case, we had a college pitcher who is on the cusp of turning himself into an impact pitcher in a competitive college program. If getting himself into more efficient positions in his delivery allows him to command the baseball more consistently, and he can reduce the erratic nature of his velocity, he’ll give himself a real chance to be a reliable college performer and we can begin to entertain the possibility of becoming a pro prospect.

All in all, I’m really proud of the work this athlete put in over the summer and I think these rapid changes speak volumes about the level of commitment he has to his development, as changes of this magnitude aren’t common in this time frame and they certainly don’t happen by accident. Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done to “own” this remodeled delivery. It needs to become second nature and highly repeatable in order for this athlete to be able shift into a narrow-minded focus on just competing in the strike zone, but I’m certainly excited to see where his continued effort leads him.

For more pitching discussion, you can follow Matt on Twitter.

Looking for more video analysis and training insights like this? I'd encourage you to sign up for one of our upcoming Elite Baseball Mentorships. We have an upper extremity course in November, and you won't find a more intensive baseball educational experience.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 10/15/14

Written on October 15, 2014 at 6:47 am, by Eric Cressey

For this week's installment of "Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read," we've got something for just about every taste in the health and human performance industry: nutrition, sports performance, and psychology/mentality:

Blood Sugar Management: What Your Doctor Doesn't Know About Glucose Testing - Dr. Brian Walsh of Precision Nutrition discusses how monitoring blood glucose is more complex than one might think.

17 Helpful Things Hyper-Neurotic People Can Do for a Better Life - Miguel Aragoncillo is the newest edition to the Cressey Sports Performance team, and here, he talks about ways to relax instead of overanalyzing.

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Exercise of the Week: Heidens with External Rotation Stick - We were talking about this exercise in quite a bit of detail yesterday at our Elite Baseball Mentorship, as it's one I really like to work in with our pitchers to teach them to accept force. 

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How Can Pitchers Ever Be “Elite” If They Take Time Off from Throwing?

Written on October 1, 2014 at 8:42 am, by Eric Cressey

The other day, the following comment/question was posted as a reply to one of my articles:

"How does an elite pitcher take 2-3 months off from throwing and stay an elite pitcher? I can see shutting down for one month from any throwing, but any more than that and atrophy and loss of neuro patterns kick in."

The short answer is, "They just can - and have - for a long time." I absolutely appreciate the question, and think it's an excellent one. Unfortunately, high level throwers have shown time and time again that they can do it. I'll give you a few examples among Cressey Sports Performance guys who just finished the 2014 season.

Corey Kluber (Indians) made his last appearance of 2013 on September 27, and he didn't start his off-season throwing program until December 9. According to FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity was up from 92.9mph in 2013 to 93.2mph in 2014 - in spite of the fact that he threw 235 innings this year, which is 47 more than he's ever thrown in his career. Corey's seen his average fastball velocity increase in each of his four seasons in the big leagues - and he's taken 2-3 months off from throwing in each of these off-seasons. Clearly, the time off didn't hurt him, as he's a very deserving American League Cy Young candidate this year.

Sam Dyson (Marlins) made his last appearance of 2013 on September 22, and also didn't start a throwing program until mid-December. Check out his FanGraphs velocity improvement from 2013 to 2014 "in spite of" his lengthy time off in the fall/winter.

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Corey and Sam are just a few examples, and I've got dozens more. Elite pitchers don't struggle to stay elite; in fact, time off from throwing allows them to recharge and get their strength and mobility back to prepare for becoming "more elite" in the subsequent season.

With that point made, there are three perspectives I think are important to consider on this front.

1. Health vs. Mechanics

As I've written previously in 7 Reasons Pitchers Shouldn't Do Year-Round Throwing Programs - Part 1 and Part 2, there are a lot of physical adaptations that simply can't happen (at least not optimally) when an athlete is still throwing. You can't regain passive stiffness of the anterior shoulder capsule or ulnar collateral ligament. You can't make significant improvements to elbow and shoulder range-of-motion. You can't get rotator cuff strength/timing up, or improve scapular control. Trying to fix these things when a guy is always in-season is like trying to teach a 16-year-old to drive in the middle of the Daytona 500; things might get a little better, but don't expect great results when stressful situations are still in play.

Conversely, we can't optimize mechanics if a pitcher isn't throwing; we know that. However, I'd argue that having a healthy, strong, powerful, and mobile athlete is an important prerequisite to learning correct mechanics. Most players are really tired at this time of year - even if they don't appreciate it (more on this later). Motor learning never happens optimally under conditions of fatigue. I'm all for aggressive throwing programs and meticulous video analysis, but if mechanics and throwing programs are the only tools you have in your toolbox, then you're like a carpenter who only has a hammer: everything looks like a nail. If you understand structure, function, and adaptation, though, you've got a many resources at your fingertips to make an athlete better - and do so safely.

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2. The Psychological Component

An example likely best illustrates this point. I recently saw a minor league pitcher who had an outstanding season: an ERA under 3.00 and a career high of 170+ innings. You'd think a guy like that would be wildly enthusiastic about baseball after such an awesome season, and even want to continue playing in any way possible.

That wasn't the case, though. He told me that for the first five days after the season, he avoided everything baseball. In fact, he was so worn out on baseball that he didn't do anything except watch TV and relax for two days. Only after that did he even feel like going for walks with his girlfriend - and he just started up his off-season training three weeks later. This is not uncommon.

It might come as a surprise, but a lot of players are completely "over" baseball by this time of year, particularly if they played for a team that wasn't in a playoff race, or pitched a career high in innings. Forcing them to continue throwing is a quick way to make them really apathetic to baseball and your coaching. If you need proof, ask any minor leaguer how he feels about being sent to Instructional League. A lot of necessary work happens there, but that doesn't mean they enjoy it.

3. Athletes might not know the difference between feeling "good" and "bad."

I'd argue that there are a lot of pitchers who say they feel great at the end of the season, but actually present really poorly in their post-season evaluations. I think a big part of the problem is that we can't necessarily perceive the issues - mobility and stability deficits - that lead to baseball injuries on a daily basis, as most arm injuries involve mechanical pain. In other words, they usually don't hurt unless you're throwing. I've seen athletes who claim they feel awesome at the end of the season, but they actually have experienced big losses in range of motion, stability, and power.

To apply this to kids who play year-round baseball, I think it's safe to say that we have a generation of kids who legitimately have no idea what it's like to feel good/fresh. They've never thrown a baseball with excellent rotator cuff strength or full scapular upward rotation. They don't know how to effectively create separation because their hip and thoracic mobility is so subpar, and even if they actually had good mobility, their poor core control wouldn't allow them to make use of it. You could make the argument that it's a "subclinical epidemic;" we just have a lot of "unathletic athletes" who aren't willing to take a step back to set themselves up for many steps forward. Build a big foundation and stay healthy, and you'll always pick up the specific mechanics corrections much easier.

Wrap-up

This article was a long response that could have been summed up with the sentence, "Don't be afraid to take time off from throwing." The research is very much in support of it helping to keep pitchers healthy, but the anecdotal evidence also supports the notion that it supports the long-term baseball development process, too.

Are you an athlete looking to learn more about Cressey Sports Performance's services at our Hudson, MA or Jupiter, FL locations? Check out www.CresseySportsPerformance.com.

Are you a coach or rehabilitation specialist looking to learn more about our system of managing baseball players? Check out an Elite Baseball Mentorship; the early-bird registration deadline for our November 2-4 event is tomorrow at midnight.

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How Limited Shoulder Flexion Relates to Elbow Injuries in Pitchers

Written on August 28, 2014 at 8:14 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today, I want to introduce you to one of the screens we do with all our throwing athletes - and what the implications of "failing" this test are.  Check out this six-minute video:

If you're looking for more information along these lines, I'd encourage you to check out one of our upcoming Elite Baseball Mentorships, with events running in both October and November.

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Long-Term Baseball Development: Part 2

Written on May 10, 2014 at 12:40 am, by Eric Cressey

Today is the second part of Cressey Performance Pitching Coordinator Matt Blake's article on long-term athletic development for baseball players. In case you missed it, check out Part 1.

blakeindexIn the first installment of this two-part article, I outlined the problem with respect to youth baseball injuries, discussed some of the causes, and emphasized the need for age-appropriate, individualized training programs over the course of the "baseball lifespan." Today, I want to look closer at this step-by-step developmental process.

I think it’s paramount to first teach young pitchers about rhythm, tempo and direction in the throw, before they learn how to just “air it out.” If they understand how to play catch with intent and focus for every throw on a daily basis, the velocity will usually take care of itself. One way to do that is to use drill constraints to create feel for these qualities, such as in this stride drill progression below:

If the velocity doesn’t begin to develop as you matriculate into your adolescent and teenage years, you have to begin to ask why? Is it a problem with athleticism, strength, delivery issues, or something else? Typically speaking, it will be a little bit of all these, but it’s not usually because the kid isn’t trying to throw the ball hard enough. More often than not, the players that I see getting hurt at a young age have an excessive amount of effort in a poorly sequenced throw, and no awareness for how to take care of their body or how to explain to an adult/coach what they’re feeling when they throw. They need a larger framework to understand movement, so they can understand what feels good and what doesn’t outside of simply throwing to get better.

If you can teach these kids simple concepts regarding core control, how to do a proper lunge, or how to do a proper un-weighted shoulder external rotation, you’ll go a long way towards opening up pathways to throw the ball harder. A great example of this is the exercise demonstration below, which you could certainly use to help educate your athletes:

They don’t need to know what joint centration is, or why adhering to certain muscular length/tension relationships are essential in creating force and resisting fatigue, but they’ll be able to feel it and move towards these positions more frequently on their own. To be honest, we very rarely even use a radar gun at our facility, and without trying to sound conceited, we have some of the hardest throwers in the country at every level of development. It all starts with a foundation that adheres to movement quality over quantity. Owning a routine that allows you take care of your body on a daily basis by taking inventory of tissue quality and adhering to a thorough warm-up and recovery process every time we throw is essential at every level of baseball. Something as simple as implementing the use of a foam roller on a day-to-day basis could go a long way in aiding this process.

Once the athlete understands movement quality, then we can begin to layer on force production, whether it be through a more general application like strength training or a more ballistic action like throwing a baseball. They need to understand how the force is generated, and where it’s dissipated; if they can’t decelerate or disperse what they’re producing, it’s unusable. There’s a laundry list of athletes in every town who threw harder than their peers, but couldn’t use it because they couldn’t throw strikes or couldn’t avoid pain. And, it’s not unusual to see the guys who don’t throw strikes to be more likely to end up in pain, because it’s a byproduct of having reckless motor control, which creates more stress by hitting joint end ranges more frequently, and in turn, creates more tissue damage than you’d see with a strike-thrower with a higher level of coordination.

As the athlete continues to advance through the high school and college years, there only comes more societal pressure to perform at a high level, so, if you don’t have a sound base of movement, you better bear down now. This 16-20 age group is probably the most at-risk population because of how strength really begins to come into the mix, how the wear and tear of poor deliveries and overuse in the youth development systems start to reach threshold, and the increased level of exposure at year round events fuels the fire. This is usually when the majority of players begin to realize that they want to be baseball players and start to specialize in the sport at a higher rate, and with that comes an even more detrimental aspect: not clearly identifying your developmental calendar.

If baseball is the only sport you play in the HS/college years, it’s essential that you understand what the year-long developmental calendar looks like. If you don’t, and you live in a warm weather region, you could theoretically start playing “spring season” games in January for your HS or college team and play into May/June. Once that season’s done, you would naturally transition right into your summer season, whether it be travel ball or a collegiate summer league and play another 45-60 games through July/August.

Once that season is over, the HS players who would normally shut it down and play another sport are now inundated with showcases and camps from every different angle, as well as fall leagues that run into November. The college athlete has his fall season, which is usually another six weeks of competitive baseball activity somewhere between September and November, and that leaves us with the window of November to January. This is where we’d normally be dormant, but now we have showcases and tournaments to attend to make sure the scouts and schools know who we are. And, college coaches are reluctant to shut pitchers down less than 10-12 weeks out from the start of a season.

Is it really a surprise that pitchers are getting hurt?

If you don’t step back and be sensible about this developmental process, your train will get derailed somewhere, so you have to set some clear boundaries.

For all of our athletes, it starts by encouraging them to get the ball totally out of their hand for 8-12 weeks of no-throwing each year. Now, this might sound excessive to some, but it still leaves you approximately 300 days of the year to work on your throwing. If you can’t get better in the other 300 days, you’re probably misusing this other 8-12 weeks anyways!

Aside from that, we typically try to adhere to keeping our high school pitchers under 100 competitive innings on the mound, and hopefully more like 80. So, as a HS athlete, if you compete from Feb/March until July/August as your two main competitive seasons, that allows you to shape your September-Feb/March in a multitude of ways. If college camps/showcases are an important aspect of your development so you can reach the next level, then make sure you give yourself adequate time to prepare for them. Going 0-60mph in these events is a recipe for injury, as we know the kids who attend more showcases end up getting hurt at a higher rate. If you’re aware of this and use the lead-up time and structure your throwing schedule properly, and understand the drastically different warm-up component at these events, you can likely head off some of these issues.

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If you’re a college athlete, you have to consider where your most important development is going to come. Obviously, the spring is a constant, but depending on how many innings you throw, and what level of development your college team offers, the fall season may be more important than simply adding another 60 innings in a summer league. So, you have to weigh out what makes more sense. Take the summer months and work on your strength base, while allowing your body to recover from a heavy workload, so you can be ready to continue developing in the fall; Or, play competitively in the summer for increased exposure and in-game development in a competitive summer league and then take the fall off from throwing. Too many times guys will throw 80+ innings for their college team in the spring and then another 50+ in the summer and now you’re carrying 130+ innings into the fall, which is a crucial time for your college pitching coach to develop your throwing ability or work on pitching skills in a controlled environment unlike the spring schedule or even the consolidated winter build-up.

The pro side might be the most cut and dry schedule wise, because you’re typically starting spring training in Mid-Feb/March and playing until September/October. It only becomes a little murky when you consider that some prospects have to attend instructional leagues in September/Oct or play in the Arizona Fall league, leaving a smaller window of off-season development. They may also need to pay bills so a winter league becomes more attractive. With that said, they have a nice window of time from September through February, which is crucial for them to get the ball out of their hand for an extended period of time and get their cuff strength back, while working on a general foundation of movement before they start the slow build-up back towards the season.

Obviously, there are some different concerns in the world of professional development where you’re constantly weighing the risk/reward for implementing certain training stimuli on both the strength training front and throwing program design side of things since these guys are generally already very successful at their craft. But, with how long their season is, and how quick they ramp up bullpens in spring training, it becomes essential they make good use of their window from September through February to avoid being a victim of the early season wrath we see unfold every year, as depicted by the charts below (click to expand):

chart
Sources: Epidemiology of Major League Baseball Injuries and
Incidence of Injuries in High School Softball and Baseball Players, respectively.

We could obviously go on and on here and not cover all of our bases on specific developmental concerns, so it’s important we reiterate the main driver behind all of this.

We’re going to continue to have arm issues in the sport of baseball if we insist on pushing the boundaries of the human species to see how much performance we can get out of these players. The money in the game is so large, and velocity has become such a huge component of success for these players and organizations, that the industry of baseball from top to bottom will constantly be looking to develop more of it.

The only problem is that the means for attaining this beloved velocity needs to be individualized and it’s such a complex recipe that goes beyond what you’re looking at in the present moment. It keeps every outing on short rest or poor warm-up before a cold rainy start on file, so you need to follow the body of work as best as you can to know where the next step needs to be for each athlete. Too many people are treating this like it’s a sprint from one MPH checkpoint to the next.

Slow down, be sensible about the developmental process, and just realize that this day and age, if you want to throw hard, there’s enough information out there to point you in the right direction. The key to all of this though, isn’t necessarily who can simply throw hard anymore, it’s who can stay on the field the most consistently while doing it, and for some reason, people don’t seem to be as willing to listen to that information.

In the meantime, if you're looking for more detailed information on long-term management of throwing athletes, be sure to check out our Elite Baseball Mentorships. The early-bird price for our June mentorship is May 15.

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Long-Term Baseball Development: Part 1

Written on May 7, 2014 at 2:38 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post is the first half of a two-part article from Cressey Performance Pitching Coordinator, Matt Blake.  Matt is a key part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I assume you’ve heard that there seem to be a lot of pitchers getting hurt lately. Well, in light of the media spotlight recently shining on the injury epidemic we’ve been watching evolve over the last few years, I figured there’s no better time to contribute to this discussion.

This media attention has discussed a plethora of incredible information regarding some of the most relevant research and statistics pertaining to these arm injury rates. You can see experts call into question usage rates among amateur pitchers, pitch selection among youth/amateurs, recovery rates, mobility deficits, too much or too little strength, length of season, delivery flaws, and a host of other factors. In short, there’s clearly no one right answer in solving this issue, as there are just so many variables in this multi-factorial problem, and as a result, it is quickly making Tommy John the most famous pitcher of all time for all the wrong reasons.

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This is probably exacerbated by the fact that I can almost guarantee you every single MLB pitcher whoever existed would fall into one of the categories deemed “detrimental” to healthy development at one point or another during their career. I’m sure they’ve been at risk of throwing too much, pitching on short rest, having a red flag in their delivery, lacking necessary range of motion, etc. It’s all part of the game, unfortunately. Beautiful game, isn’t it?

So, if this is the case – and I’m sorry to sound so negative about the future of this game and the problem that we’re currently experiencing – but this injury issue has way more to do with our society at large and the values we’re pushing into the game of baseball than simply little Johnny throwing too many pitches in his Babe Ruth game or throwing 95mph when he’s 17.

It’s not too dissimilar from the global climate discussion we’re having (apologies in advance if you don’t believe in global warming), where we seem to understand what the problem is and potentially what some of the solutions are. However, because these issues have huge monetary implications and there are large organizations and cultures set in their ways behind a lot of this, it’s very hard to change the direction of this tsunami that’s been building out at sea and is now crashing onto our shores.

UCL
Percentage Growth of ASMI Youth/High School UCL Reconstruction Surgeries (Original Article)

In order to narrow the discussion, though, I’m going to try to pick a couple key points out to help give the general population something to chew on and digest without burying them in a sea of research, stats and mechanical jargon. In my mind, there are two main social factors that are fueling this:

1) the burning desire as a culture to see and reach for more velocity at every level of development

2) the digital age giving us enough information to be dangerous in so many different ways

I can promise you neither of these will be going away, so we better learn how to manage them effectively.

When I talk about this insatiable desire for velocity at every level of development and this information age, I’m encompassing a lot of different thoughts. It could be Johnny Rocket throwing 70mph in the Little League World Series at 12yrs old while being broadcasted to the world on ESPN, or it could be the fact that we have a generation of fathers armed with a Pocket Radar at the backstop, and an Ipad in the dugout with up-to-the-minute strike % rates at all of Little Billy’s games.

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Once these players get out on the travel ball circuit, online scouting resources do their fair share to rank every single player/team that comes through their tournaments and showcases, so every kid knows where he stands against his peers. Like it or not, this encourages them to make it to as many events as they can, regardless of the time of year, which we know from the research carries a larger injury risk as well. These issues are a microcosm of this media blitz, and are simultaneously creating our greatest strength and becoming our biggest weakness.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these same reasons can also be tremendous developmental qualities, by allowing for more information to be processed, we can speed up the developmental curve. We know that fastball velocity is an important predictor of strikeout rate and success at any level of baseball. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we want to speed up the developmental curve in an attempt to throw harder?

With that said, I’m sure there are people out there who point the injury bug finger at me in thinking I offer “Pitching Lessons” all year round, or point it at Eric Cressey for developing these athletes into physical monsters too soon, which allows them to throw the ball harder than the human species is supposed to do so. So, if we’re going to frame the discussion, we need to look at the process for how these athletes are being developed, because I think this becomes the crucial determinant.

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We have to have a big picture look at how we get Johnny Rocket to sustain his standard deviation of dominance at each level or how we get little Billy to have enough fastball so he can move from level to level and stay in the game he loves to play. But, if everything is causing problems, and you can’t play too much because you’ll get hurt, and if you don’t throw enough, you won’t be any good…How do we shepherd these athletes from level to level until they reach the promised land of the Big Leagues? Ultimately, it comes down to a few main principles for me.

At CP, we’ve had a lot of tremendous athletes and baseball players come through our doors ranging from Little Johnny Rocket at 10yrs old all the way to Curt Schilling on his last go round in the Big Leagues and everything in between. The three qualities that have resonated through all of the successful athletes regardless of level are – general athleticism, competitive instinct and an above average fastball that they can command.

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I’d also include a caveat that the ability to be consistent and adhere to a plan is the glue to these qualities. We’ve had good athletes who were great competitors who sucked at simply showing up, or following the program as it was written, etc…and, it’s ultimately what keeps them from being reliable performers. It’s what can separate a guy who doesn’t have natural athleticism from a guy who doesn’t make the most of his athletic talents. Our most diligent and successful athletes don’t just randomly disappear for three weeks, or skip their warm-up for the heck of it. This can be a major separator if you’re willing to show up day in and day out and be diligent about executing your process.

Now, this may sound overly generic, but I think it’s important to consider what falls in each bucket and how it affects each developmental stage.

If you’re looking at the youth level – say 10-14 year-olds – who ends up pitching the most? Typically, your best athletes (because they’re coordinated enough at that age to throw strikes), or the kids who throw the hardest (because they generally miss more bats). Often, these two categories occur in the same kids, too, so they’re extra likely to throw every inning of every game. I don’t think anyone would question that.

youthpitcher

The same begins to take shape when you look at who gets recognized at the high school and college level. The best pitchers again end up being the guys who throw the hardest and strike the most guys out, and ultimately, end up with the college scholarships and are drafted the highest.

At the minor league level, there’s less of an emphasis on winning games, but there is definitely a premium placed on competing in the strike zone with an above average fastball in order to advance at each level through the system, regardless of organization. Finally, you have your big leaguers, who have made it to where everyone wants to go, and in this day and age, its few and far between the guys that don’t have premium stuff or aren’t voracious competitors with at least “average” stuff. Mark Buerhle and Jamie Moyer are the 0.01% of professional pitchers who were able to compete with below average fastball velocities, but they were able to compete at every level – including the big leagues – by relying on good movement, changing speeds, and impeccable command. So how does this factor into our greater discussion? You have to find what each athlete does well and find a way to maintain those strengths while filling in the weaknesses. You’d be foolish to give guys on opposite ends of the spectrum - say, Aroldis Chapman and Jamie Moyer - the same developmental plan.

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If you bring that thought further down the developmental chain, and have a 12yr old who throws hard, but doesn’t have a “sound delivery” or isn’t a good athlete, he probably needs to work really hard on his general athleticism first to provide a sound movement base for him to repeat his delivery. This can mean playing another sport, such as basketball or soccer, or simply riding his bike or playing at the park with his friends. It doesn’t mean he needs to engage in the 10,000 hours theory and practice pitching more. Could this help? Sure, but is it the best long-term solution or does it attack the greatest window of adaptation? I doubt it. If anything, he just needs to keep playing catch with his dad, brother, or a buddy and continue throwing a lot on his own to learn more about himself, but pitching in more games is just going to exacerbate the problem. Games are fun, and obviously one of the principles of long term success is developing that competitive spirit, but with what we know about the stress of throwing a baseball and what happens to kids who throw hard at an early age, this kid is seriously at risk for hurting himself down the road, if he doesn’t find other ways to develop.

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Too often, we see parents who think that the best way to get Johnny to become Nolan Ryan is to bring him to the local pitching instructor and get him signed up on the local travel ball team. Also, obviously, he still has to play with his town buddies, so now he’s on multiple teams, etc. This is not the answer. Let Johnny figure out a world of movement and compete with different people in different venues and you’ll be surprised what that does for his confidence and motor control. Having the ability to relate to other social environments, and physically move through different patterns will drastically shape Johnny’s ability to repeat his delivery and create force in the throw in healthier ways. With that said, below, I’ve provided a “Developmental Lifespan” for how successful athletes have generally progressed in their athletic focus:

Up to Age 10 – Complete fun, wide variety of activities
Ages 11-15 – Multiple (3+) organized sports with “seasons,” integration of strength and conditioning
Age 16-17 – Hone in on 1-2 sports
Age 18+ - Specialization

When they do play baseball, let’s not worry so much about velocity just yet, but let’s focus on establishing good daily routines - sound warm-ups, arm-care processes, and movement patterns – as well as focusing on the yearly calendar. These will have long-term implications for the athlete’s health and continued progress – and I’ll focus specifically on these things in Part 2, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you're looking for more detailed information on long-term management of throwing athletes, be sure to check out our Elite Baseball Mentorships.  The early-bird price for our June mentorship is May 15.

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Exercise of the Week: Half-Kneeling 90/90 External Rotation Hold

Written on April 27, 2014 at 6:08 am, by Eric Cressey

Today’s guest post comes from my friend and colleague, physical therapist Eric Schoenberg. Eric is an integral part of our Elite Baseball Mentorships.

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I have yet to meet a high level baseball player that hasn’t done some form of rotator cuff strengthening exercise. The interesting part is that a high percentage of these athletes don’t actually know where their rotator cuff is and where they should be feeling these exercises. The most common response is the athlete will point to the front of their shoulder. This is also the same spot (biceps tendon, labrum) where all of their pain is when they throw!

In other words, the athlete is doing a “rotator cuff” exercise to help decrease or reduce the risk of shoulder pain, but in turn, ends up actually causing more stress and overuse to their already irritated anterior shoulder.

The ability to properly recruit the rotator cuff works hand in hand with being able to relax/shut down the posterior deltoid, latissimus, and lumbar extensors from overcompensating as an athlete “lays back” into external rotation.
We commonly see athletes/coaches performing the right exercises, but executing them improperly due to faulty recruitment, poor timing, or compensation. In these cases, the athlete looks the part and even appears stable and strong, but are not actually receiving the intended benefit of the exercise. In fact, more times than not, they are potentially making themselves worse.

Enter the ½ kneeling 90/90 External Rotation (ER) Hold. It is a great exercise to teach the baseball player (pitcher or position player) what they should feel and maybe more importantly, what they shouldn’t feel when attempting to build stability and proper alignment in their shoulder.

This exercise is one of many concepts that we discuss in our Elite Baseball Mentorships. With the continued rise in baseball injuries, we have made it our mission to help create an environment for collaborative learning among the leading strength coaches, health care professionals, and pitching instructors/coaches in the world.

Our next Upper Extremity course will be June 15-17, and the early-bird registration deadline is May 15; to learn more, click here

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