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Risk-Reward in Training Athletes and Clients

Written on June 10, 2009 at 7:12 am, by Eric Cressey

Risk-Reward in Training Athletes and Clients

This week, approximately 1,500 players will be drafted in the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft.  Historically, a whopping 2-3% of these players will ever actually make it to the big leagues.  In fact, only about 2/3 of all first-round draft picks – seemingly the most qualified candidates – ever make it to the major leagues.

For this reason, many have labeled competing in the professional baseball ranks a “War of Attrition.”  High-round picks get preferentially escorted through the minor leagues, while a lot of the late-round picks fight for their positions in the minors – especially since they know a brand new class of 40-50 draft picks and a bunch of free agent signees will line up to take their jobs each year.  Along the way, loads of guys incur career-ending injuries.

Here, we come to several decisions in how to train athletes.

First, all athletes have unique movement inefficiencies, so we screen these issues and address them individually.  Nothing remarkable there.

Second, some athletes have bigger contracts, so you have to be more conservative with their programming.  Sure, they might get benefits out of more aggressive programming, but it also increases the likelihood that you’ll mess up an athlete with multi-million dollar contracts in his immediate future.

Take, for instance, Cressey Performance athlete Shawn Haviland. Shawn was drafted out of Harvard by the Oakland A’s in the 33rd Round of the 2008 Draft after being named Ivy League Pitcher of the Year.  As Shawn himself has said, he “would have signed for a plane ticket to Arizona.”  In other words, he didn’t get an $8 million signing bonus; he’s a very low-risk investment.  Life goes on for his organization if he doesn’t work out because they can just draft another 50 guys the following year.  After all, he’s just another 6-0 right-hander in the system – a dime a dozen, if you will.


This is the exact conversation Shawn and I had last October when we first met up.  He’d been 86-88mph on the radar gun most of last year, and that really isn’t going to earn you a long stay in professional baseball.  So, we decided to be more aggressive with his off-season programming than we would with someone who’d just become a first-round pick.

All off-season, he lifted, sprinted, accumulated 80-120 medicine ball throws three times a week, did some extreme long-toss, threw the weighted balls around, and consistently worked on his flexibility and tissue quality.  It flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that says: a) we shouldn’t long toss more than 120 feet, b) weighted balls are the devil, c) only distance running and steady-state cardio will “build leg strength” in pitchers, d) lifting will ruin flexibility, and e) medicine ball throwing will cause oblique strains (yes, I’ve really heard that one).  However, it worked.

Now, seven months later, Shawn was just named a Midwest League All-Star.  He is consistently 91-94mph and has completely changed his body.  In short, he took a chance, worked his butt off, and got better.

Shawn’s program wasn’t “unsafe;” it was just “less conservative.”  It was at a different point on the continuum on which every strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer works on a daily basis.  This program was obviously different than what I’d do with, say, a 40-year-old marathon runner, but it’s also different than I’d do with a first-round pick with Shawn’s exact build, competitive demands, and inefficiencies.  And, if I had a pitcher with those exact same characteristics and an extensive injury history, we’d be even more conservative.  Otherwise, the risk: reward would be completely out of whack.

Often, in our industry, we get far too caught up in numbers – whether it’s the weight one lifts or his/her body fat percentage.  In reality, I look at what I do as a means to an end.  People train with us first and foremost to stay healthy, whether they’re pitching in the professional baseball ranks or just carrying their kids around.  What you do in the gym should improve quality of life first and foremost, and any activity that carries a high likelihood of injury is very rarely worth the risk.

Why pick up a stone – which demands compression and lumbar flexion – when you’re not a strongman competitor and could just as easily do a more controlled trap bar deadlift?

Why behind-the-neck overhead press – which puts the shoulder at one of its most at-risk position – when you’ve already had four shoulder surgeries and still have hunchback posture?

When it really comes down to it, you have to fit the program to the athlete, and not the athlete to the program.  For more information, a few resources I’d recommend:

1. My article, 6 Mistakes: Fitting Round Pegs into Square Holes

2. The Building the Efficient Athlete DVD Set

3. The 2008 Indianapolis Performance Enhancement DVD Set

4. For those of you interested in a bit of what we did with Shawn, check out this Athlete Profile on him.

New Article at T-Nation

For those who missed it, Part 3 of my “Lower Back Savers” series was posted at T-Nation last week.  You can check it out HERE (and be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them in previous weeks).

New Blog Content

Random Friday Thoughts
Bogus Workouts and the Official Blog of…
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Friday Night Journals

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8 Responses to “Risk-Reward in Training Athletes and Clients”

  1. Robert Kaufer Says:

    I had been in and around baseball for most of my life (not anymore) and this is by far the most intelligent writing I have ever seen on this topic.

    Maybe, just maybe with the results you are getting you will pull others from the dark ages of training for baseball.


    Bob Kaufer

  2. Kevin Larrabee Says:

    Great stuff Eric. Puts a lot of things into perspective when it comes to programming for clients.

    And great job Shawn!

  3. shama Says:

    guess at the end of the day coaches have to do whatever it takes to get the results.then every means towards achieving that end is justified. confuses the hell out of me. heavy object throwing and all what about the book on motor leaning say about altering motor learning patterns
    you stirred a hornest*s nest eric. but cant dispute the results you got with shawn

  4. Mike T Nelson Says:

    Weight room numbers don’t decide who plays and who sits on the bench—field performance is what matters for athletes. The goal of the couch is to find what has the greatest positive transfer from the weight room to the field within an agreed upon risk.

    Rock on!
    Mike T Nelson
    PhD(c), CSCS

  5. charlie Lamana Says:

    Your thoughts on the ends of training and the idea of improving health is to me the essence( if i can talk that way) of fitness.If a trainer or coach really is out to help the individual then given individual differences its the responsiblity of the former to keep his/her knowledge base growing. Hence the more tools one has in the tool box the better able to meet individual needs.

  6. Bob Parr Says:

    The ideas you present are what sets you apart as one of the best and brightest. I’m often amazed at the lack of common sense I see when it comes to some (certainly not all) of the strength and conditioning coaching for pro athletes. I once read a magazine feature on the S&C coach of a well-known Yankee. I could not believe he had this ballplayer doing bodypart splits with a dedicated arm day, lots of isolation exercises, ab crunches, etc. He’s a baseball player, not a bodybuilder for God’s sake! I guess it’s little wonder that average gymgoers get bad information when a lot of the pros do.

  7. Doug Fioranelli Says:

    Thanks for his article. Very reassuring and insightful. I tend to think i am too conservative sometimes but the main thing it to never hurt your athletes or make their current injuries worse.

  8. Tim Says:

    “you have to fit the program to the athlete, and not the athlete to the program”…. Eric it’s great to see this word is getting out. I worked with alot of minor league players that where happy with safe, conservative get paid to play ball.

    Nice to read the ones that really put it on the line.

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