Thought for the Week: “Silent and listen share the same letters.” – Fred Corral, Missouri pitching coach
What does it mean to be symmetrical in an asymmetrical sport?
Building symmetrical baseball athletes is kind of a paradox when you think about it; we’re trying to build balance when our skill largely forces us to be out of balance. Throwing or hitting a baseball is an asymmetrical skill. Aside from the ambidextrous population, all players are going to have a dominant side from which they work out of for the entirety of their career. Every swing or throw is going to be done from one side of the plate or the rubber – we don’t really go to the other side and “balance” things out. However, this doesn’t mean that symmetry isn’t important. We want to build symmetry in baseball athletes – but before we can build it, we need to define it.
Our extracellular matrix (ECM) system plays a crucial role in human movement because it deals with the fascial system. Any conversation about how the body moves must start here because fascia is involved in it all. The easiest way to think about fascia is to think of it as a giant spiderweb that is strong as steel, flexible as thread, and is woven through all of our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and everything else inside of our body. It is the bridge that connects everything in our body into one integrated system. No movement in our system happens in isolation; everything is interconnected through fascia. To talk about muscles and bones without talking about fascia would be like eating a Klondike bar without the shell – we’re ignoring the very thing that’s holding it all together.
Fascia, just like connective tissue, is going to organize in accordance to the stressors under which the system is placed. These adaptations help us execute tasks with increased levels of strength, stability, and efficiency. If you were to cut open elite rotary athletes and look at their fascial patterns, you would find thick, dark X’s that run across the anterior and posterior midsection. These X’s run from the anterior shoulder, down across the torso to the opposite hip, and continue to wrap around the opposite leg. We see these X’s in elite rotary athletes because they play a huge role in developing elite rotational power. More specifically, these X’s form what we call the engine and the brakes of the system. The interaction between these two lines is where we can start our definition of symmetry.
The engine line is going to run across the front functional line. It starts closest to the dominant shoulder on the upper part of the trunk, runs down across the torso to the non dominant hip, and continues to spiral down the opposite leg. The brakes follow the same pattern but start at the opposite part of the upper trunk. In terms of the skill, the engine works to get us off the starting line and creates power for the movement while the brakes give us the ability to stop, transfer force, and make sure we don’t slam into the wall after the race. In an efficient system, we need the power from the engine coupled with a strong set of brakes to keep it in check. This is where symmetrical comes from: “Symmetrical” baseball athletes are the ones who have balance between these two fascial slings. Asymmetrical athletes have lost this balance through compensatory patterns. You wouldn’t want the brakes of a Toyota Prius on your brand new Ferrari – and you definitely wouldn’t want the engine of the Prius under the hood of the Ferrari.
Balance between the engine and the brakes creates even tension that we need for an efficient sequence. If we one of these lines is weaker than the other, the other side of the system has to pick up the slack. This opens the door for compensations. Our body is going to gravitate towards the areas where we are strongest. If we favor our strong side and neglect our weak side, we’ve created a compensatory pattern. Compensations make it difficult for us to produce an efficient sequence, perform at a high level, and stay healthy doing it.
To give you feel for what uneven tension looks like, below is a video of Michael Kopech prior to his injury in 2018. Kopech is a great example of someone with an insane engine (check out a video of him pulling down 110 mph) but doesn’t have the brakes to keep it in check.
When we assess for brakes, we’re simply looking at how well an athlete is able to stop. This is a critical piece when we look at how well a hitter or pitcher is able to capture energy and transfer it up the chain to the implement. The first thing that must stop in the sequence is the pelvis. If we look at Kopech, we see his pelvis fly open and drag as he rotates to throw the ball. His front hip acceps force late in the sequence and his rear hip continues to dump forward into ball release. This is a great recipe for lower back pain – and might have been part of the reason why he got hurt.
Below is another example of a player with a stronger engine and a weaker set of brakes (as shown in the video). Notice a similar pattern where he’s late accepting force in his front hip, the pelvis flies open, and the back hip continues to dump forward, and his center of mass continues to drift forward after release.
If we look at someone who has a strong set of brakes, we notice a completely different sequence after ball release. Check out Trevor Bauer, Marcus Stroman, and Gerrit Cole below. You’re going to notice how they are able to keep their pelvis closed into landing, immediately accept force with the lead hip, and hold tension in the back hip. Instead of dumping forward, they use the back foot as an anchor point so they can get across their body. In fact, you’re going to notice their back foot never even crosses their front foot.
Now let’s revisit the athlete from above.
If we compare this pitch to the one from above, we notice a totally different deceleration sequence. In this delivery, the athlete is able to stop much more quickly and efficiently. Notice how his backside doesn’t continue to drag through after ball release and he’s able to get across his body better towards the catcher. This gives him the ability to produce the most amount of force with the least amount of energy because he’s restored balance by creating even tension in the system.
When you take an elite engine and pair it with an elite set of brakes, you can unlock some pretty special moves. Sure, we want to build a strong engine and teach our guys how to punch the accelerator but we don’t want to do it while neglecting the brakes. If you wouldn’t feel safe in a car that can’t stop at a red light, we shouldn’t feel safe when athletes our athletes can’t decelerate when they need to.
If we’re talking about symmetry in baseball athletes, the conversation must start with the X’s. While we’ll never be completely symmetrical in theory, we need to be able to find balance between the engine and brake fascial lines to optimize performance. If you’re only training one side of the equation, you’re neglecting the other side that is just as important. Like anything in life – if you don’t use it, you lose it. When you lose your brakes, you usually don’t realize it before it’s too late. Don’t wait until it’s too late to build symmetry.
Communication is Connection
I was able to sit in on an awesome zoom conversation last weekend that featured some of the best hitting minds in the game which included Bobby Tewskbary, Andy McKay, Jerry Weinstein, Don Wakamatsu, Darin Everson, and Rick Strickland. The conversation dug into the weeds of player development and tackled different types of problems that we all face when coaching hitters. Out of all the things I learned throughout the five hour conversation, there was one reoccurring theme that really stuck out to me – and it didn’t involve the swing.
When Wakamatsu worked in pro ball with Brian Butterfield, current third base coach for the Angels, one of the things he picked up on was how Brian placed a premium on building relationships. In spring training, Butterfield took the time to get to know each one of his players on a personal level. He figured out where they were from, what high school they went to, previous coaches they had, information about their family, and their interests outside of baseball. He always tried to find something they had in common so he could use that as a tool to connect and strike up a future conversation. By placing a premium on his communication with his players, Brian increased his ability to influence them because they knew he cared about them. Ken Ravizza said it best when he said, “Your players won’t care about what you know until they know you care.”
Ken Crenshaw – Director of Sports Medicine and Performance for the Arizona Diamondbacks – talked about this on a more tactical level saying, “There are plenty of people that can talk but can’t connect. If you didn’t connect with that guy on the “why,” it’s going to be harder for them to make that change.”
If we break this down in a baseball context, let’s think about the process of making a swing change. As a coach, just telling the player what they need to do is not enough – you need to start with a shared understanding of where that athlete is in that moment of time. There’s a really good chance you aren’t the first coach that has worked with that hitter. Because of this, you need to do some homework before you start teaching. This includes how they’ve trained in the past, what’s worked for them, what hasn’t worked, injuries they’ve had, what problems they’re currently trying to solve, and what aspirations they have for the future. You need to understand their perception of a good swing, their swing, and what they need to feel to get their best swing off. You can’t change perception of the model if you don’t know what the model looks like in the first place.
When you’ve got all the pieces you need, you can use the pieces you already have and combine them to start putting together the entire puzzle. Any gaps in understanding will create a hole in your finished product. The more holes you have, the tougher it is going to be to build buy in. If players don’t believe in what you’re doing you don’t have a chance to create any sort of significant changes. Our goal should be to put together the entire picture – not just the part of the puzzle we want to drive home.
When you can create this shared understanding, it’s important to maintain an open line of communication throughout the swing design process. Some things you say or do will work, others won’t, and some might work if the athlete better understood what you were trying to say. You need to uncover these gaps in understanding by asking a lot of questions, seeking real time feedback, and adjusting on the fly based on what they’re comprehending or missing. We can’t just assume our players know what we’re talking about it. If they can’t explain it in their words and describe how it relates to their swing, they don’t understand it well enough.
When you think about “staying closed,” you might think about your pelvis while someone else thinks about their trunk or hands. Your perception of staying anchored could help you stay connected to the ground longer while others may actually get out of the ground sooner because they don’t operate well when focused on the extremities. If you’re trying to drill home a point and the player can’t understand exactly what you’re trying to communicate, you’re not going to get the results you want – and it’s not the player’s fault. If the communication channels aren’t crystal clear, you only have yourself to blame. We connect when we communicate; we lose connection when we lose communication. If you don’t make it a priority, your message won’t get any further than your perception of it.