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6 Key Qualities for Long-Term Athletic Development

This past week was the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft, and we watched the three days excitedly, as 18 Cressey Sports Performance athletes were selected - including six of the top 100 picks. Among these 18 picks, there were actually several kids who spent their entire high school careers training with us, and one even started with us in middle school. With these guys in mind, I got to thinking a lot about factors I believe helped them to be successful over the long haul. Here are a few that came to mind:

1. They were all multi-sport athletes for at least part of high school.

There's a common misconception that professional athletes have been destined to be professional athletes from the time that they were six years old, so that should be all they should do. It's simply not the case. Time and time again, when I ask our pro guys what sports they played growing up, they share that they did everything. In this group of draft picks, we had basketball captains, great golfers, a D1-caliber football quarterback, a potential NHL draft pick, a long snapper, and one that even started out as a better tennis player, then switched over to baseball. The point? You have to be a good athlete before you can be a good baseball player.

Where does strength and conditioning fit in?  Well, to some degree, I see it as another sport that guys can play even after they specialize. Among other things, it affords them the variety they lose in their daily movement patterns.

2. They were "likable" guys and could roll with different social circles.

This might sound weird, but I think the ability to make friends easily is important for long-term athletic success.  If you're someone who can't get along easily with others, you'll always be distracted in a team environment, and never able to put full focus on training. Unless they're unbelievably skilled, the guys who say and do the wrong things invariably wind up weeding themselves out.

As a funny example, check out this video of Adam Ravenelle and Tyler Beede. They first met and became friends in 2008 at Cressey Sports Performance. They were from different towns, but actually both wound up committing to Vanderbilt in 2010.

Both were drafted out of high school, but chose to honor their commitments to Vanderbilt - where they were roommates. And, look who was sitting next to Ty as his name was called in the first round of the draft last week:

 

Adam was drafted in the 4th round a day later, and I know Ty was his biggest fan.  Both these guys made friends easily, and it allowed them to benefit more from the environments they were in. They could bounce ideas off of big leaguers who trained at the facility, find throwing and lifting partners to push them. Perhaps most importantly, their likable demeanors made it possible to treat CSP as an "escape" for a few hours when other parts of their lives were distracting or chaotic. When you're a self-centered ego-maniac jerk, you can never escape. With few exceptions, you have to be a good person before you can be a good baseball player.

3. They wanted to be part of something bigger.

One of our 18 players came from a troubled family life about which few people know, and it was a huge step for him to fill us in on the struggles with which he'd dealt. As a sophomore in high school, he did his initial evaluation with Brian St. Pierre (our first employee). About a year later, Brian moved to Maine to go back to school, and the athlete opened up to me about how bummed out he was about it because Brian was one of the few who "knew his story." In short, the coaches at CSP had become more of an extended family than just a bunch of coaches.

Since then, he's been one our biggest advocates, referring several teammates from high school, summer, and college ball to train at Cressey Sports Performance. Much like he's always been a great teammate on the baseball field, he's been a valued part of the CSP Family. You have to be a good teammate before you can be a good baseball player.

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4. They never put the carriage in front of the horse.

Looking back on the initial evaluation day for each of these athletes, I can honestly say that not a single one of them ever told me that professional baseball was their goal. As an interesting story, I'll never forget the day I evaluated Forrest Wall, the 35th overall pick this year by the Rockies. It was literally weeks before I had any idea that Forrest was a very established prospect - and I only found out that was the case when someone else "in the know" encouraged me to look him up in more detail. Here was a family that had every reason to brag about how talented their son was, and they went out of their way to avoid it, staying incredible humble the entire time.

Wall

Had they told him and everyone around him how great he was all along, would have ended up with the same outstanding character and work ethic that he has today? And, would he have been drafted the other night? It's impossible to say, but what I can tell you that my experience has been that there is generally an inverse relationship between how much a parent brags about his kid, and how hard that kid works.

Looking at our 18 guys, I can honestly say that on their first day at CSP, some didn't even comment that they wanted to play college baseball (even though it was obvious they did). Rather, they all talked about wanting to be bigger, stronger, healthier, or something to that effect. They wanted to find the means to their ends - but not talk about the ends. You've got to be patient, humble, and process-driven before you can be a good baseball player.

5. They all were very consistent.

This is something I really noticed in hindsight.  This collection of guys were always good about getting their training in not only during the off-season, but during the in-season period as well.  It's always frustrating when guys put in great work in the off-season, only to put it on cruise control during the season, which inevitably leads to them coming back lighter and weaker at the end of the long season; it's just one step forward, and one step back.  For these guys, they were at least maintaining - but more often than not, improving during the season.  Slow and steady improvements with no hiccups is the name of the game. With such a long competitive season and challenging calendar, you've got to make taking care of your body an "all the time" job to be a good baseball player.

6. They came from strong developmental programs.

While there are a lot of tremendous coaches involved with these 18 players, I want to highlight the one with which I'm the most familiar: Sudbury, MA. In Adam Ravenelle (4th round), Carl Anderson (19th round), and Billy Bereszniewicz (30th round), Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School had three players drafted - all after successful Division 1 Baseball careers. While there may be a few other high schools schools in the country who can boast this, I doubt they're in northern states, where the talent may be thinned out from lacrosse or hockey.

It starts with good feeder programs at the youth levels; Sudbury Little League does a good job of emphasizing development over winning and showcasing talent, and kids don't show up to high school overused or injured. In high school, these three played for Kirk Fredericks, one of the best coaches I've seen at any level of baseball. He hammers home fundamentals, respects the game, and establishing a culture of winning (13 of the last 14 league titles, with three state championships worked in). Perhaps most importantly, the accountability he emphasizes prepares kids for college ball - or whatever the next step in their journey is. At the end of his freshman year of college, one of them actually said to me, "I never really appreciated how good Coach Fredericks was until I got to college and felt more prepared than everyone around me." That's what good coaches do; make it about the team by patiently cultivating habits in impressionable young minds over the long haul.

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These three also played for the New England Ruffnecks, one of the premier baseball organizations in the country, and certainly the Northeast. Again, the emphasis is development and playing challenging teams to get kids out of their comfort zones. They aren't just trying to rack up an impressive win-loss record or accumulate trophies. And, the trains always run on time, so players know what is expected of them.

It all comes down to clear and consistent messages. Everyone these guys played for expected quality effort from them every time out, and these coaches all modeled positive behavior. You can't expect kids to develop when coaches show up late, smoke butts in the parking lot, cheat on their wives, and completely disrespect the game.  It's about habits more than it is outcomes, so you have to make sure the right person is teaching those habits. You have to be around good people with good skill sets before you can be a good baseball player.

Wrap-up

What you might have noticed is that all of these key qualities related to habits and not outcomes.  It's not just about being able to deadlift 400 pounds or long toss 300 feet; it's about having the traits that allow for consistent, high-quality effort in the right environments to make the most of the coaching you have at your fingertips, and the natural abilities with which you've been blessed. If you take care of the habits, the outcomes tend to take care of themselves.

Congratulations to not only the 18 CSP draft picks, but also the many other players reading this post who've had this great experience as well. You've surely done a lot of these things right along the way, too.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 6/8/14

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading/viewing/listening:

An Interview with Matt Blake - This was a good podcast with CP Pitching Coordinator, Matt Blake. They discuss long-term pitching development and the interaction between our strength and conditioning work with his mechanical coaching.

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Elite Training Mentorship - For this month's update, I did a business webinar - The Top 10 Financial Mistakes Trainers Make - as well as two exercise demonstrations and an article. You'll also find content from Vaughn Bethel and Tyler English.

Assisted Jump Variations - Ben Bruno introduces some good ideas on regressing power training exercises for general fitness populations who may not be ready for more complex, high-impact options.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 58

It's time for the latest installment of Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better. Here are five tips for you to put into action right away:

1. Try homemade arm sleeves for cranky elbows.

I actually have a subluxating ulnar nerve, which basically means that it sometimes snaps back and forth over the medial epicondyle (funny bone) as my arm goes through flexion and extension. At time, when I'm lifting and playing catch a lot, it'll get a bit cranky. One of the strategies I've employed in the past is simply cutting the end off of a tube sock, then sliding it on from mid-forearm to mid-biceps.

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Just like a knee sleeve can help with keeping the knees warm and compressed, a simple sock can make a pretty big difference at the elbow. We're learning more and more about how useful compression can be with facilitating recovery, too, so I actually have a lot of pitchers who'll do this between pitching outings to help them bounce back faster. You certainly can't beat the price, either! If your elbows are cranky with heavy lifting, you should first and foremost seek out treatment for it - but this might help expedite the healing process and help you to maintain a training effect while you're on the mend.

2. Make core stability exercises harder by exhaling at the fully lengthened position.

Athletes will often complain that they can't make core stability exercises harder without adding external loading. That's not true at all!  One way we can increase the challenge - and improve the training effect - is to add an exhale at the fully "lengthened" position on anterior core exercises. 

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So, when you're stretched all the way out on a rollout, fallout, inchworm, or other drill, blow your air out; the ribs will come down a bit as you activate your external obliques and rectus abdominus. Then, give it a 2-3 second pause before inhaling again as you return to the starting position. As I discuss in my Understanding and Coaching the Anterior Core presentation, manipulating breathing alone will increase your time under tension dramatically.

3. When struggling to teach a new technique, coach the toughest position first.

In a past installment of this series, Greg Robins talked about the value of teaching the finish position first on certain exercises, with the TRX inverted row being an example:

Sometimes, though, I find that the quickest way to get a client to learn a tough movement is to put them in the most challenging position to acquire first.  This works extremely well with good athletes who are kinesthetic learners; they do best when they feel the positions they need to get. I've started employing this strategy with the Turkish get-up, as a lot of athletes struggle to find the hip hinge pattern it takes to go from the hip bridge position to this part:

Get-up hip hinge

Seriously, with those who struggle to pick up this transition during the movement, try just putting an athletes into this position so that they can feel it prior to teaching the entire movement. It works like a charm - and it makes sense to them, as you're putting them in a good position to support the load overhead.

4. Rock some grilled zucchini this summer.

Everyone knows that summer is grilling season.  One thing I actually hate about this time of year is that I have to be in two places when I'm cooking dinner. The grill is outside, and the oven/stove is indoors, so I invariably find myself bouncing back and forth between the two spots while I'm cooking. A quick and easy solution to this problem is to just grill your vegetables right alongside the meat - and there is no easier option on this front than zucchini, which just so happens to be "in season."  Simply cut the zucchini length-wise into 3-4 strips, then grill it like you would a hot dog.  You can throw some basil, rosemary, or other spices on it, too.

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5. Value professional collaborations just like you value training partners.

Everyone knows that having a good training partner can make a huge difference with strength and conditioning success. However, not many strength and conditioning professionals realize that the same strategy can be applied to your continuing education work.  You'll get better if you have others constantly pushing you to do so as they share ideas and ask questions.  I benefit tremendously from our weekly staff inservices, where our coaches discuss various topics. I also find that seminars are more beneficial when I'm attending with a colleague with whom I can discuss different topics that are covered by the speaker.  I actually know of several training facilities where the staff watches Elite Training Mentorship presentations together so that they can best digest the information and put it into practice.

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Just like "going it alone" makes it tougher to progress in the gym, flying solo in your quest to improve as a coach minimizes your professional "upside." So, as lame as it sounds, find a study buddy!

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Should You Wear Olympic Lifting Shoes?

I received the following question the other day, and thought it'd make for a good Q&A to post here. Enjoy!

Q: I was hoping to get your thoughts on whether or not I should incorporate Olympic lifting shoes with my training. I tried them out the other day, and they helped me to squat pretty deep, which is pretty significant, as I've always struggled to even make it to parallel without the "butt-wink" happening. Would you recommend I make them a part of my training so that I can get the benefits of squatting?

A: This is a great question; unfortunately, it's not a simple answer - so bear with me!

First and foremost, if you're an Olympic lifter, by all means, wear Olympic lifting shoes. It's how you compete and specificity is important. And, as we know, competing at the highest level of athletics always suggests an element of assuming a greater risk to achieve a greater reward - at least as compared to "simply" training.

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If, however, you're an athlete in a different sport - or just a general fitness enthusiast - I don't think they're necessary. And, they may even be problematic if long-term improvements to your movement quality and health are goals of yours.  I'll explain - but first, we need to understand the two primary reasons folks wear them.

First, there is the firmness factor. O-lifting shoes have a very solid heel without "give;" this makes them a better platform against which to produce force, as compared to normal sneakers. This firmness isn't exclusive to O-lifting shoes; you'll also find it in some minimalist shoes, Chuck Taylors, or no shoes at all. Most powerlifters know this, and it's why they generally lift in "firm" footwear that allows better heel contact with the floor.  This leads us to point #2...

There is a prominent heel-lift in these shoes. I've seen heel lifts ranging from everything from a 0.5 to 1.25 inches. In the sneaker world, however, everything is generally related in terms of heel-toe drop, or % grade.  For a long time, the standard running shoe was a 12mm heel-toe drop from 24mm (heel) to 12mm (toe), which creates a 8% grade. The tricky part about interpreting what this means in the context of Olympic lifting shoes is that I can't say that I've ever seen anyone list the height of the toe, so we don't really know the grade. The 0.5 inch lifts are surely pretty moderate, as 0.5 inches equates to 12.7mm, whereas the 1.25 inch ones would be 31.75mm, which is actually in excess of what you see with the much maligned Nike Shox (25mm).

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This obviously leads to the question, why isn't a firm shoe alone sufficient? What's the rationale for the massive heel lift? Effectively, it's a crutch that helps lifters with mobility or stability deficits reach squat depth easier.

To squat deep, you need to be proficient on a number of fronts, the foremost of which are:

1. You must have sufficient dorsiflexion range of motion (knee over toe ankle mobility).

2. You have to have sufficient hip internal rotation (can be limited by muscular, capsular, alignment, or bony issues).

3. You have to have sufficient hip flexion (can be limited by muscular, capsular, alignment, or bony issues; this typically isn't much of a problem).

4. You have to have adequate knee flexion (this is rarely an issue; you'd need to have brutally short quads to have an issue here).

5. You need to have adequate core control - specifically anterior core control - to be able to appropriately position the pelvis and lumbar spine. This is especially true if we're talking about an overhead squat, as it's harder to resist extension with the arms overhead.

If you lack ankle mobility, you either turn the feet out, go up on your toes, or rely on the crutch that a heel lift provides.  By elevating the heel, rather than going from neutral to dorsiflexion, you are going from plantarflexed to neutral.  Effectively, it brings you a few yards behind the starting line so that you don't false start, if that makes sense (if it doesn't, don't worry; I'll have more on this in the video below).

If you lack hip internal rotation, you turn the toes out so that you're internally rotating from an externally rotated position to neutral, as opposed to going from neutral to an internally rotated position.

I think that we all agree that these positional changes allow you to make up for a lack of mobility - but that doesn't mean they're necessary a good thing, as you're effectively loading an aberrant movement pattern. As Gray Cook has taught us, if you continue to pile fitness (strength) on top of dysfunction, bad things happen.

As you may have noticed, I've left out proficiency #5 from above: you have to have adequate anterior core control.  And, it's because I've saved the best for last; this is a HUGE issue.

I'm going to let the cat out of the bag and say that I think we've "over-diagnosed" ankle mobility restrictions. Most people automatically assume that if they have a poor squat pattern, it's because they have an ankle mobility problem. I'd estimate that in 90% of cases of people who think their ankle mobility stinks based on a bad squat pattern, they actually test pretty well when you look specifically at the joint, as opposed to relying solely on a gross movement pattern.  Why?  There is a tremendous interaction between mobility and stability. In this video, I elaborate:

As further proof of the fact that different athletes will demonstrate their patterns of insufficient control of extension differently, check out these four posture pictures of athletes who had poor squat patterns. In the first, you'll find a pretty "classic" extension posture that's distributed over multiple joints. Note the anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis, plus the relatively neutral knee and ankle positions.

Ext1

In the second, note the plantarflexed ankles; this athlete has shifted his "extension compensation" further down. Do you think he'll have much of a squat pattern with that resting presentation? He might have perfectly good ankle mobility, but he's completely unable to shut off his plantarflexors (calves); that's where he's "finding" his stability.

Ext2

In this third example, the athlete has dumped forward at the pelvis and lumbar spine to create what could be considered a swayback posture - even though his ankles actually look pretty neutral.

Ext3

Finally, we'll look more full-body for our fourth example. Obviously, this athlete is in a heavily extended pattern through the pelvis and lumbar spine, but note also the positioning of the arms; his lats are so "on" that he carries his elbow considerably behind his humeral head, and the scapula dives into anterior tilt. There's a forward head posture, and while you can't appreciate it well from this angle, this athlete also had a ton of "tone" in his scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and subclavius. He found his stability further up the chain.

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Every single one of these out-of-whack presentations is a way for the athletes to shift their faulty movement patterns around to "get by." Athletes are tremendous compensators - but they all do it differently. I think we can all agree that these are issues that should be addressed, right? Well, they were - and the athletes felt a lot better from the training interventions.

How does this relate back to Olympic lifting shoes, though?  Well, every single one of these athletes could demonstrate a perfect squat pattern if I put them in a pair of shoes with this dramatic a heel lift. It's like giving the most uncoordinated kid in the neighborhood training wheels...for good. At some point, you've got to lose the training wheels and learn to ride the bike. And, at some point you need to stop covering up your poor movement patterns and work to address them - rather than just loading them - if you want to stay healthy.

To me, squatting with a pronounced heel lift is really no different than squatting through a "butt-wink;" they are both compensations to allow a lifter to maintain the position of the center of mass within the base of support in the face of a gross extension pattern. Both fundamentally alter the ideal squat pattern, though. Conversely, if you use goblet squat or TRX overhead squats to train the pattern with a subtle counterbalance, though, you're keeping the movement intact, but reducing the challenge to the lifter.

In folks who have really poor squat patterns, I'd much rather see them work to improve the squat pattern for a bit, as opposed to considerable loading of the classic back squat. While they're working on improving the pattern (through these exercises and other breathing and core stabilization drills), they can train the heck out of the lower body with deadlift variations, single-leg drills, barbell supine bridges/hip thrusts, sled pushing/dragging, and a host of other exercises.  Once their squat pattern has improved, progressing to a front squat is a great first step, with the back squat coming a bit later on.

With all that said, before I get any hate emails, let me be abundantly clear: if you move well (i.e., have a good squat pattern to below parallel in bare feet), then by all means, feel free to use Olympic lifting shoes for your squatting and Olympic lifting, if it tickles your fancy. After all, it's only 5-10% of your training volume, most likely. Just make sure to a) only wear them for these exercises, b) maintain the underlying "heel-less" squat pattern, and c) pick the shoes with the smaller heel lift (0.5" instead of 1.25"). You might also consider wearing more minimalist footwear for the rest of your training sessions to "cancel" the O-lifting shoes out. And, again, if you're a competitive Olympic lifter, please feel free to rock whatever you want - and crush big weights doing so.

If, however, you're an athlete in another sport who uses squatting and Olympic lifting as part of your training, I don't think it's a useful addition. And, it's certainly not an appropriate initiative if you are just someone who is looking for a way to work around your poor mobility. Ignoring a fundamental movement flaw - and certainly loading it - will always come back to bite you in the butt.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 6/2/14

It's time for this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading.  With the MLB Draft this Thursday, I thought I'd rock a baseball-specific theme this week.

How to Hack the MLB Draft - Former big leaguer Dirk Hayhurst describes his experience with the MLB Draft - and how scouting can sometimes be a crap-shoot based on false assumptions.

Strength and Conditioning Program Success: The Little Things Matter - I wrote this up just after our big 2011 MLB draft, and the lessons still hold true.

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MLB Draft: Pitchers' health concerns becoming more and more prevalent - This USA Today article was well-written, and really sets the stage for anyone "in the know" to ask a great question: if this is such a big "concern," how come there isn't a single organization that is investing consider time and resources proactively to prevent these issues? They'll spend millions on a single player, but won't put an extra $200/day into feeding their minor leaguers nutritious food?

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LEARN HOW TO DEADLIFT
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