Why sprinters might be some of the best rotational athletes in the world

Below are my thoughts from week three that include our tendency to gravitate too far in one direction, becoming a better problem solver, the importance of the art of coaching, and why sprinters might be some of the best rotational athletes in the world. 

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.

Sprinting is a … rotational move? 

Both Altuve and OBJ step closed and kick back with their back foot – and it’s not by coincidence.

Pitching and hitting a baseball requires requires movement from multiple planes of motion – most notably the transverse plane which deals with rotation. Elite baseball athletes are really good in this plane of motion because they are training in it all the time. As a result, it should be no surprise when we see guys like Nelson Cruz and Mike Trout launch golf balls into orbit.Good rotation is good rotation.  

However, it is a little different when we see someone like Odell Beckham Jr. – who has no recent or notable background in baseball – pick up a bat and launch baseballs in batting practice. As a wide receiver, you’re doing a lot of cutting, leaping, bounding, and sprinting – but not a lot of rotating. Since we know power is plane specific and is quick to go if it’s not trained, how in the world is OBJ able to barrel balls over 350 feet with little to no baseball training? How can he get really good at rotating without ever really needing it on the football field?

Well, he does train rotation – and he trains it A LOT.

To understand this, let’s go back to reciprocal movement. All human beings are pre-programmed for reciprocal cross-body movement. The easiest way to explain this is to think about how all humans walk. When we step forward with our left leg, our upper body counterrotates around our pelvis and moves the right arm forward. When the right leg goes forward, the upper body counterrotates and sends the left arm forward. This counterrotation creates optimal length-tension relationships that store potential energy which is used to create movement through assistance from the fascial system. The constant counterrotation of the torso around the pelvis is reciprocal cross-body movement. We also don’t just see it when we walk – we see it in all human movement. 

 As the bowler extends his right arm forward to bowl the ball, his right leg kicks back to give his pelvis a stable base for his torso to rotate around(source). 
 Jack Eichel uses reciprocal movement (see back leg kick back as stick moves across his body) to get off a wrist shot (source). This kick back move is very common in hockey – and it’s the same exact move Altuve uses to get his swing off. 

When our upper body works one way, our lower body anchors us down by moving reciprocally in the opposite direction. The lower half stabilizes and gives our upper half the ability to mobilize around it. This helps create efficiency, force, and direction required for human movement. If we want to rinse out a wash cloth, we can’t move both of our hands in the same direction. One hand needs to twist in one direction while the other counterrotates and twists in the other direction. Our upper half represents one hand and the lower half represents the other hand. To efficiently remove water from the wash cloth, both sides need to work in opposition of each other. This is exactly what our body does to create reciprocal cross-body movement.

If we look at baseball players, we are going to see reciprocal movement as they rotate to swing or throw. When the upper half mobilizes and works to get across the body to deliver the bat or ball, the pelvis anchors down and stabilizes. This move does not need to be taught – it’s already inside of us. Altuve and OBJ don’t both step closed and kick back by coincidence; we’re all pre-programmed for cross-body reciprocal movement. If anything, we coach most kids out of it.Don’t believe me? Check out how the lower half of an uncoached kid compares to one of the best hitters in the game. 

Lower half looks pretty similar, huh?

It’s also not just a hitting thing, either. 

 Notice how Max Scherzer’s back foot kicks back and re-anchors after ball release so he can get across his body (source).
 Darren O’Day is also able to create an anchor point using his back leg – even though it is not connected to the ground. Think about the action a bowler uses to get across his body (source).

So since we have an understanding of what reciprocal movement is and the importance of it when it comes to rotation, let’s go back to sprinting. Just like walking, when we sprint our pelvis and torso are constantly counterrotating against each other with every stride we take. When the left leg drives forward, the pelvis rotates so the left side is slightly in front of the right side. The torso counterrotates by driving the right shoulder slightly in front of the left shoulder. In essence, both the trunk and pelvis must ROTATE around the spine and against each other to produce force, direction, and efficiency. This is exactly what happens throughout the course of a baseball swing or throw. When a hitter or pitcher makes their move out of balance, the torso slightly counterrotates against the pelvis as it moves forward to remove slack going into foot strike.  After foot strike, the pelvis counterrotates against the torso as athletes work to get across their body.  

 Notice how in elite sprinters how the pelvis and the trunk are counterrotating against each other with every single stride they take. The pelvis and torso do not drive forward in a straight line – they are rotating towards the midline of the body. This is our body’s reciprocal engine at work (source).

Sprinters might not look like they’re rotating, but when we break it down it becomes more and more clear they’re actually rotating in tight windows around their spine with every single stride. Without even thinking about it, OBJ become really good at rotating by sprinting. We just happened to see how good he was at it when he picked up a bat and took some cuts. 

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.