Home 2024 May

Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training: Installment 40

I'm long overdue for a new installment of this long-term series, so hopefully I've got a bit of something for everyone in this.

1. Strength and conditioning is a supportive discipline.

Skill almost always trumps fitness, but fitness is what allows you to optimize skill. You can't get in high quality reps if you're broken, and we have evidence to suggest that regular exercise optimizes cognition and motor learning. I think this is actually one more avenue via which early sports specialization eventually falls short after the initial gains of specificity wears off: you need more general fitness capacity to get in higher quality specific work.

The absolute best strength and conditioning coaches I know are awesome at understanding their role is to set skill coaches up for success with athletes. However, at the same time, they know how to recognize when fitness is the limiting factor and speak up to advocate for the appropriate physiological adaptation to take an athlete to the next level.

2. Maybe your sleep habits aren't so terrible - or maybe everyone's actually are that terrible?

This Brazilian systemic review of 11 studies looking at the sleep quality of Olympic athletes was pretty eye-opening (bad pun, huh?). The takeaways begin with this: "over half of the athletes have poor sleep quality and complaints." More specifically:

  • Total sleep time averaged 6 hours, 10 minutes per night
  • Sleep efficiency averaged 84%
  • Sleep onset latency averaged 28 minutes
  • Awakenings after sleep onset averaged 49 minutes

After I got over my initial shock that so many Olympic athletes are this bad with their sleep, I had to admit that this made me feel a bit better about myself as a 43-year-old father of three who's trying to fight off the dad bod in spite of my lack of sleeping prowess. However, it didn't make me feel great about today's athletes' (not just Olympians) prioritization of sleep. Travel for Olympic athletes isn't nearly as extensive as it is for in-season professional athletes, so it's fascinating to me that this class of athletes could struggle so much while typically being in one place to train. That said, I'm sure there are other factors - most notably the economic hardship of being an amateur - that could impact this dynamic, but that's a discussion for another day.

With respect to sleep, there's some very low hanging fruit for athletes who want to pick it and get a massive competitive advantage over their competition:

  • Make your room cold and dark.
  • Limit heavy meals in the hours right before bed.
  • Stop staring at phones, tablets, computers, and TVs in the hour before bed.
  • Wind down in the hours before bed: meditate, read, etc.
  • Limit caffeine intake after noon.

If you're looking for a detailed podcast on this topic, here's a great listen:


3. Strength and conditioning "spacing" is a lot like soccer.

A lot of young coaches struggle to make the adjustment from one-on-one coaching to scenarios in which they need to handle more than one athlete at a time, especially in large facilities/spaces. If you're not careful, you can get locked in to one conversation with an athlete while there's chaos - poor weight selection, bad technique, insufficient effort, etc. - all around you. A cue I'll often give to younger coaches is one that was always shouted in my youth soccer days: find space.

In other words, go to where other players aren't, and you'll be able to see the field better and provide an open passing option for your teammates. When everyone bunches up, you miss the big picture and limit your options to contribute.

4. Adductors have far reaching implications.

I wish more people had a true appreciation for what massive implications adductor (groin) length and strength has on overall lower extremity and lumbopelvic health. Adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, pectineus, and gracilis make up a huge portion of the cross-sectional area of the thigh, but they also have direct attachments on the pelvis, entire length of the femur, and lower leg (gracilis insertion on pes anserine as a conjoined tendon with sartorius and semitendinosis):

We've got research that shows that folks can get hurt when adductors are weak (hockey players) and if they're too strong (relative to weaker abductors in knee patients). There are implications in terms of sports hernia challenges in light of the adductor longus insertion on the pubis, and adductor density/length restrictions are clearly part of the bigger challenge that is anterior pelvic tilt/limited hip internal rotation/femoroacetabular impingement. The solution for most people is relatively simple, though: spend more time in the frontal plane.

Roll them out (or get some decent manual therapy in there).

Add some mobility drills.

Build some strength through a sizable range-of-motion.

Note: I talk about this a lot in Functional Stability Training of the Lower Body.

Once you've done all that, mix in some "movement fun:" side shuffles, carioca, lateral runs, and sprinting and change-of-direction to preserve your frontal plane athleticism. Classic strength and conditioning programs spend far too much time in the sagittal plane, so the more you can mix it up with frontal and transverse plane work, the better your long-term health and performance outcomes will be.

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Individualization and the College Baseball Athlete

Training little kids - 9-12-year-olds - isn't that challenging. Most are hypermobile and weak, so the foundational programs can larger look the same. Keep things fun and maintain their attention, and good things happen. This population can do amazingly with one program on the dry erase board.

In the 13-15-year-old group, things can get a little tougher because some kids have hit a huge growth, spurt, and others look more like the "gumby" 11-year-old. Most kids do fine with twice a week strength and conditioning work.

At ages 16-18, the training frequency ramps up. By junior and senior years, we see kids who are at the facility 4-6 times per week in some capacity. If they've been consistent over the years, there should be a great strength foundation, so they can start to do some cool stuff with force-velocity profiling, prioritizing different aspects of speed and rotational development, etc. I wrote an entire article about this previously: Strength in the Teenage Years: An Overlooked Long-Term Athletic Development Competitive Advantage.

The previous three paragraphs shouldn't seem revolutionary to anyone, but what's often overlooked are the challenges that come on the college front in the years that follow. The 17-18 year-olds that report to a college campus are not a homogenous group. Some have no strength and conditioning experience, and others have a ton. A college strength coach who's on his/her own with 30+ athletes of all training and chronological ages has a tall task if individualization is the goal, especially if they have to all train in narrow scheduling windows (e.g., right after practice).

As a result, you'll often see players who thrive in the first year or two on campus. They put on 15 pounds, get a ton stronger, and start throwing harder. Then, in years 3-4, they actually regress. What initially worked great (often heavy, bilateral loading) shifts to diminishing and even negative returns, leaving athletes banged up and with a loss of range of motion. It's not a knock on college strength and conditioning coaches; it's actually more of an acknowledgement that they're put in a really hard situation with too many athletes with many different needs all in the same limited time windows.

My own research has shown that in pro ball across all levels, MLB organizations range from roughly 11 athletes per strength and conditioning coach to ~27 athletes per coach. In other words, the least staffed MLB organization still has a better ratio than the most well staffed college setup, and the somewhat "staggered" daily pro schedule is more accommodating to individualization with varied training times.

In the private sector (at least at Cressey Sports Performance), our athlete-to-coach ratios are even smaller, so we are able to chase a significant degree of individualization based on the results of evaluations across multiple departments.

There's a ton of flexibility on scheduling and adjusting training times on the fly. And, perhaps most importantly, it can take place across departments, with communication among strength and conditioning coaches, pitching coaches, hitting coaches, analysts, physical therapists, and massage therapists. When communication is streamlined, individualization success skyrockets.

I think this is one reason why you have seen more and more pitchers step away from playing summer baseball to chase development. During the school year, they get an education, high level competition, and dedicated skill development work while sacrificing a bit on the strength and conditioning side of things, as well as overall continuity (you don't necessarily know when you're going to pitch). With a summer of training, you get a high level of strength and conditioning individualization, continuity (predictable plans), and dedicated skill work (e.g., pitch design) while sacrificing on the competition and education sides of things (although I'd argue that it's a different kind of education).

Unfortunately, outside of very select opportunities, summer ball doesn't really give you a high level of anything: strength and conditioning, skill development, nutrition, travel dynamics, continuity, education, or even competition. Rather, you get a bit of each, and there may be some that fall well short of expectations.

If you want to develop more than the rest, you need to prioritize certain adaptations. Maybe that's gaining 20 pounds, developing an outlier pitch, adding 4mph, or building overall work capacity. If you chase five rabbits at once, they all get away.

This is one reason why we rolled out our 10-week college summer pitching development programs at our Florida and Massachusetts facilities. We saw a need to help college arms structure their summers in individualized ways that were more conducive to development - and the results have been outstanding, with participants averaging 4+ mph fastball velocity gains in both locations. You can learn more about how we attack development in these programs at the following links:

Florida: The CSP Pro Experience

Massachusetts: CSP Collegiate Elite Baseball Development


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