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Finding the Source, Common Ground, & Exaggerating the Problem

Thought for the Week: We’ve all been dealt some pretty crappy groceries over the past month. How can we use these groceries to make a five star meal? 

Finding Common Ground

Back at the ABCA in January, Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin spoke about the importance of staying centered. From winning national championships to experiencing the death of current players, Corbin’s groups have seen it all. They’ve been at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows as a program – but they’ve never lived in those moments for long. Emotions such as jubilation and devastation are a part of life, but they are not sustainable. In other words, no one can survive at the peaks or valleys of life; they must find a middle ground where they can navigate the emotional highs and lows of life.

This idea of staying centered could not be more applicable to player development. Andy McKay – Director of Player Development with the Seattle Mariners – spoke about this at the Bridge the Gap seminar saying how we tend to gravitate towards one end of the spectrum when it comes to training players. We’re either old school or new school, launch angle or swing down, self organization or internal cueing, and intent or slow is fast. Instead of seeing both sides of the argument, we tend to jump to one side of the teeter totter and plant our roots there. We become so sure of what we’re doing that we become blind to what’s on the other side. 

One of Eugene’s biggest breakthroughs as a coach was when he stopped jumping to one end of the spectrum and decided to see both ends of it. Instead of just rolling with the new school trends of swinging up, throwing hard, and using external cueing, he decided to dive into the old school and see why cues like “swing down” or “be easy” worked for guys. This is how he came to the realization that everything works and everything sucks. When you boil it down, there is a time and place for everything in player development. It’s all about application. 

If we spend all out time on one end of the spectrum, we lose the ability to influence players that need the other end of it.

If we gravitate towards one end of the spectrum, we lose feel for the importance of what’s on the other side of the spectrum. Some guys might need to think easy, other guys might need to think about throwing the piss out of it. Some players need to think to swing down, others might need to think the opposite. If we spend all out time on one end of the spectrum, we lose the ability to influence players that need the other end of it.

As coaches, we need to find common ground when it comes to player development. If you want to influence as many players as you can, you need to keep an open mind and see things from both sides. Instead of jumping on new trends and clinging to the latest research, let’s see things for what they are and try to stay centered.

Why looking at the problem may prevent you from actually solving out the problem

“He who treats the site of pain is often lost.” – Karel Lewit

When I was thinking about metaphors to describe this one, I couldn’t think of a more perfect metaphor than my recent struggles with ant infestations. If you’ve dealt with a swarm of ants before in your house, you know it becomes tiring work when you kill ant after ant and they just keep coming back. After days of killing ants on tops of ants, you probably get a little smarter and pick up some ant traps from the local store. However – picking up the traps and just placing them anywhere isn’t enough. You need to scout out where the ants are coming from and place these traps in the locations where you think they’ll appear most often. If you pick the right spots, your ant problems usually become a thing of the past – until they get smarter and find a new way in.

If you know anything about ant traps, you know they’re not the same as insect traps. In fact, they can’t be the same as insect traps – they wouldn’t work. The ants that become a problem in your house are known as the worker ants. These guys have the very important job of finding food and bringing it back to the queen ant of the colony. The queen ant is responsible for reproducing more and more ants – and if you couldn’t tell, they’re pretty good at it. If you’re working to kill the worker ants, you’re fighting an uphill battle because more are inevitably going to come as long as the queen is still around. Insect traps bait pests in with poisonous food so they can kill them at the source, but using this strategy for ants wouldn’t work because they don’t target the real source of the problem: The queen ant. Worker ants are just pawns that disguise the real problem.

Ant traps work because they don’t kill the worker ants when they enter. Instead, they let worker ants in so they can harvest what they think is “food” and bring it back to the queen. If the queen consumes the poisonous food brought back by her worker ants, the queen will die and the reproduction cycle will cease. The rest of the colony will begin to die off and they will have no immediate means for reproduction – thus, solving your ant issues. 

When you’re solving a problem, you have to look past the chaos of the worker ants. You need to analyze the ENTIRE situation, find the source of the colony, and make a plan to bring down the queen ant. If you can’t accurately find the source of the problem, whatever you try will only temporarily solve your issues. Problem solving must start by finding the source of it – not the symptoms you see as a result of the problem. 

In baseball, we tend to skip the whole “analyze the ENTIRE situation” thing and jump right to what we can easily sense. In other words, we treat the worker ants without ever addressing the queen ant. If someone comes in with shoulder pain, we jump right to the shoulder and find ways to treat it by resting, strengthening, or mobilizing it. We don’t take a step back and consider that our queen ant may be in an area that is completely separate from the shoulder. We’re so consumed by the worker ants that we forget to look at the big picture and see how weak glutes, a nagging left oblique, or a previously broken big toe could be the reason why our right shoulder is barking. Only by examining the system as whole can we actually start to diagnose the “why” behind pain; knowing the “what” is only where we start. In most cases, where we start is not where we finish. 

More times than not, your ailing shoulder isn’t the actual problem – shoulder pain is just the vessel in which your body is able to tell you something is wrong.

If there’s anything we know about the human body, we know it’s 1) infinitely complex and 2) everything affects everything. If we want to thoroughly and accurate evaluate why a certain area is in pain, we need to evaluate the entire system before narrowing in on a specific area. Our body is an excellent compensator. If it senses pain or danger, it will find ways to avoid what is harmful to execute a specific task. This is why injury histories are a huge part of the equation when solving current ailments – if you never gave a specific area time to heal properly, your body more than likely had to produce a different movement solution to execute the same task. When your movement solutions change, different areas of your body all of a sudden have to take on loads they are not accustomed to. This is where injuries can happen. 

If we go back to the example from above, your glutes and hamstrings play a crucial role in shoulder health because of their role in the production and dissipation of force. Guys who have a pushy and quad-dominant move down the mound aren’t going to be able to produce much force from the lower half because the quads are primarily an extensor; they’re not very good at rotating. If your lower half isn’t able to produce a sufficient amount of force, areas like the shoulder are going to be forced to pick up the extra slack. Your shoulder may be able to handle the force early on, but it is likely to break down over time and eventually present as shoulder pain. If we just treat the shoulder, we blind ourselves from the source of the problem: An inefficient lower half.

When you’re dealing with pain, you can’t just treat the pain – you need to treat the entire system. If you can’t thoroughly examine the situation as a whole, your odds at finding the source of your problem are slim – and you’re going to be swimming upstream until you can. 

Exaggerate the problem to solve the problem

“Feeding the mistake” is an effective strategy coaches can use when trying to build a new movement pattern. The goal of feeding the mistake is to force athletes into the patterns they want to avoid so they can create feel for a newer and better pattern. By exaggerating what they do bad, you’re able to heighten awareness for bad moves and accelerate the learning curve for better moves by teaching them how to resist the bad.

For example, if you have someone who has a big negative move and gets stuck on their back side you could attach a band to their waist and pull them back as they take their move out of balance. By feeding their bad habit of making a big move back, you force them to create a better move to the ball or they’ll fall backwards.

 An example of feeding the mistake from Dan Heefner at Dallas Baptist University, from 2018 ABCA Presentation. The hitter is instructed to keep the coach from pulling his hands forward as he starts to rotate.

While drill selection and design is primarily used to feed the mistake, you can also feed the mistake using specific verbal cueing. In other words, telling a kid who has a pushy move to the ball to “push his hands as hard as he can” is a way to potentially transform a bad move into a better move. It may seem contradictory on the outside because you’re feeding him exactly what you don’t want him to do, but it’s something that can work if used in the right context. It all comes down to perception and awareness. 

How athletes perceive cues is a critical part to how they are designed. Lantz Wheeler has spoke about this and will dive into it in great detail in his upcoming book Transfer. He likens it to how you’d combine two colors to create a new color. One of the colors deals with the information, the other color deals with the perception of that information, and the resulting color is the movement created. You can’t make green if you just use blue and don’t use any the yellow. In other words, it becomes really tough to create the move you want if you just feed kids information and ignore how that information is perceived. Five different guys can perceive the cue “push your hands as hard as you can” in five different ways. Someone who’s more of a literal learner will create a really bad move where their hands go directly the ball and their lead elbow gets pinned against their body. Other guys may actually create a move where they learn how to get across their body quicker and actually deliver the barrel. The cue seems bad on the outside because we know it’s not exactly what happens in the swing, but we also don’t know how the athlete thinks, interprets information, and uses those interpretations to create specific movements. Understanding the cue is only part of the equation. For you to understand the effectiveness the cue, you need to understand how athletes perceive it. 

Understanding the cue is only part of the equation. For you to understand the effectiveness of the cue, you need to understand how athletes perceive it.

Awareness is the other critical component when designing cues. When we’re building a new skill, there is a lot of value in breaking it down and bringing awareness to specific parts of the movement. Awareness creates brain-body connectionsthat help build proprioception and feel within the system. Athletes must be able to feel right from wrong if they want to be able to build a new pattern and repeat it. Cueing an athlete to “push their hands” may create awareness for the hands in a way that they never had before so they can learn how to build a better move. Just because you’re cueing an athlete a specific way doesn’t mean he can actually feel what you want him to. Telling them to do what they actually shouldn’t do may help bridge this gap. If it creates the right move, it’s a great cue. If it doesn’t, don’t try to pound a square nail through a round hole – just find a new one that works. 

Coaching is as much of an art as it is a science. Understanding how a player thinks and perceives information is critical if you want to design the cues that they need at that moment in time. There are no magic words when it comes to coaching – everything works and everything sucks. Telling a kid to do exactly what you don’t want him to do can become a huge unlock if you use it in the right context. It won’t work for everyone, but it might work for some.