Shapes, Sequencing, & Context

Recapping Bridge the Gap 2020: Part I

Our fourth annual Bridge the Gap conference took place October 23-25 spanning three days of 28 information-packed presentations with 37 of the brightest minds in player development. Here is our first recap of 2020’s speaker highlights.

1. First up is Stuart McMillan, CEO and Sprint Coach for ALTIS. Stuart has coached 60 Olympians at six different Olympic Games with 30 athletes winning medals. Through his observations, he has noticed how his elite-level sprinters all share distinct patterns of shapes at key moments in space. And these shapes aren’t just recognizable among the eyes of trained coaches; out of the five shapes below, try identifying which one is from an elite sprinter:

That’s right. Number five.

The upright torso and neutral head/pelvis are typically recognized as good running mechanics. You were able to identify this because our brain is the ultimate pattern recognition system. We know what good movement looks like, even if we can’t exactly put our finger on what we’re seeing, because our brain is constantly cataloging patterns that we pick up subconsciously through our experiences. This is where shapes come into play.

If we want to understand sport-specific movement we need to first start with the most stable components of it. These are what Stuart refers to as shapes. They give us information on how an athlete organizes their body to accomplish motor tasks through space. Shapes are the foundation. From this foundation, we can build patterns – how the body navigates space and time to complete a motor task. Time thus becomes very important. All sports have some sort of a time constraint in which athletes must learn how to navigate. If the shapes hold steady independent of time but break down when a time is introduced, you’ve created a situation where training does not transfer to games.

So the question becomes this:

 

2. Dan Pfaff, Director of Education and Head Jumps Coach at ALTIS also joined us at Bridge the Gap 2020. Throughout his coaching career, he has trained 49 Olympians, 29 individual NCAA National Champions, and 150 NCAA All-Americans. Additionally, he served on five Olympic games coaching staffs. One of the things he talked about in this year’s presentation was the allowable bandwidth for movement. While we recognize there are fluctuations in movement signatures from player to player, Pfaff brought up a great point he picked up on through his observations retraining injured military veterans to walk again. What he realized was the gait cycles he studied were all very similar. “There aren’t 10,000 ways to walk,” said Pfaff. 

This brings up an interesting parallel to baseball. While we know everyone has their unique movement signature, there might not be many variations. The bandwidth might be a lot smaller. Throwing or hitting a baseball is much more complex than walking, but we know there are fundamental movements (i.e. shapes) that all elite throwers and hitters share. Starting here gives us a foundation that can help us understand the subtle nuances better, but we can’t just know what’s different. We also need to know the allowable bandwidth for what is different.

Pfaff also touched on Stephen Levin’s concept of biotensegrity: the human body is a tensegrity model where the collagen matrix (e.g. fascia) becomes the glue that keeps structural integrity in our body. Tension plus integrity is where tensegrity comes from. For Pfaff, knowing this is important because it gives us a completely different perspective on how the body operates as an interconnected, dynamic system. This helps us better understand how the body disperses stress, produces “free energy” through the fascial system, and how certain injuries can present as problems in different areas of the body. The more we look at the body as a living and breathing tensegrity unit, the better we can understand how to influence human movement.

3. The Biomechanics panel featured three influential doctors in the baseball community: Greg Rose of TPI and OnBaseU, Jimmy Buffi of Reboot Motion, and Emily Ferree of Movement First. One of the topics discussed was the idea of sequencing and how speed gains can be inflating. But instead of looking at the sequence of speed, Jimmy Buffi looks at the sequence of momentum because it also takes into account body mass. To accurately determine how much power an athlete creates, speed and mass must be considered. Of course, only looking at speed can give a false illusion for how a hitter produces power because athletes with less mass are going to have faster speeds. Pro range speed gains do not correlate to pro range outputs.

This is something that Bobby Tewksbary and Chris Colabello touched on in their presentations as they noticed how a lot of their youth hitters had peak speeds in the pro ranges. The highest exit velocity they ever recorded in their shop (108 mph) was from an athlete who had the lowest peak pelvic speed they had ever measured. This is exactly what Buffi was talking about.

4. Eugene Bleecker, Director of 108 Performance Academy spoke to his new understanding of a concept Greg Rose introduced him to: Torso acceleration drives pelvis deceleration. The muscles that are responsible for the rotation of the trunk are the oblique abdominals. These muscles attach from the rib cage down to the pelvis. For a muscle to mobilize one end of it must have stability. In this case, the oblique abdominals need stability from the pelvis to drive trunk rotation from the rib cage. One end must be stable for the other end to be mobile, which means one segment must accelerate for the other to decelerate. The pelvis doesn’t stop and drag the upper body along for the ride because the acceleration of the trunk helps the pelvis stop and decelerate. Teaching players how to move the middle shouldn’t just focus on the pelvis. To move the middle you need to teach the trunk how to fire around a stable pelvis. 

Teaching players how to move the middle shouldn’t just focus on the pelvis. To move in the middle you need to teach the trunk how to fire around a stable pelvis.

 

People have overlooked this largely because baseball biomechanics has focused primarily on “what” variables as opposed to “why” variables. Emily Ferree talked about this saying “It’s good to know the pelvis goes and stops first, but it’s even more important to understand why the pelvis stops first and that it might not have anything to do with the actual pelvis.” We can’t just know what happens, we more importantly need to understand why.

Eugene talked about this using his biomechanics analogy of combining A-Rod with Albert Einstein. If you could take someone like A-Rod with his experience and knowledge in the game and combine it with someone like Einstein who understood how to measure the things that were important to A-Rod, you’ve created a scenario where you’re measuring the things that matter. If we don’t want biomechanics to become just a bunch of numbers and data points, people with skin in the game must learn to drive the interventions. Giving scientists the task of dissecting a sport in which they have little to no knowledge is a great recipe for getting lost in data. Pairing them with an elite player – or coach – gives you the ability to filter that data.

If you could take someone like A-Rod with his experience and knowledge in the game and combine it with someone like Einstein who understood how to measure the things that were important to A-Rod, you’ve created a scenario where you’re measuring the things that matter.

And data was the main point behind Bobby Tewksbary and Chris Colabello’s presentation. If you’re looking at numbers without understanding the context behind those numbers, you’ve created a situation where you’ve become slavish to what is measurable. They explained this by using an analogy, “If you play stupid games you win stupid prizes.” Before we dive into data, we have to understand what the main goal is. The objective is not to add 3 mph of exit velocity or 10 degrees to your Vertical Bat Angle (VBA), it’s to get hits at 7 o’clock. Using information to help you accomplish this creates positive training interventions. The data you collect shouldn’t be an outcome in itself; it should be a way to influence positive outcomes in games.

 

Interested in learning more? Get full access to all 28 presentations from Bridge the Gap 2020.