Making athletes better by making them...worse?

What would you say if I told you that you can make someone better by intentionally making them worse?

Before you call me crazy, try this trick out.

Let’s create a situation where you’re working with a pitcher. On this day, they’re struggling to find their optimal arm slot. This is a pretty common issue we see when kids first come into the shop. There are a lot of different ways we could find a solution to this problem. We could do an athletic throw variation and see if that helps them work back into a more natural position. We could show them a visual of where they’re at and explain where they need to be. Maybe the problem isn’t even with the arm. Maybe the pelvis and trunk need to get into better positions so the arm can sync up and match planes for a more efficient movement.

Here’s the problem: If the thrower doesn’t have great feel for their arm slot, all of these solutions will fall short. If we want to create a long term solution, we can’t just focus on the position of the arm. We need to focus on what can, or cannot, feel. Going against the grain is a great way to accomplish this.

If we go back to our situation above, we could try a different strategy. Instead of focusing on making the arm slot feel good, we could intentionally make it bad. Ask the thrower to make three consecutive throws. The first throw should be from a slot that feels uncomfortably high. The second throw should be from a slot that feels uncomfortable low. The third throw is the key. Ask the pitcher to find somewhere right in the middle between their first two throws.

More times than not, this will get them exactly where they need to be. 

If you’re struggling to make a specific adjustment stick, there’s a good chance you have a feedback error. In other words, a disconnect exists between the athlete’s intention (what they want to do) and execution (how well they’re able to do it). The quality and quantity of our feedback plays a big role in bridging this disconnect.

Our players need feedback that is clear (you either succeeded or failed), immediate (I know exactly what I did after each rep), and loud (I can notice the difference between a good and bad one). If you can’t check these boxes, there’s a good chance your message is being lost in translation. A great way to avoid falling into this trap is by tapping into the power of contrast. 

The trick from above works because it magnifies a specific movement error. It’s taking something that was on low volume (subtle arm slot inefficiencies) and cranks it all the way up to the max (drastic arm slot changes). The feedback between reps, as a result, becomes much more clear. You have a point of reference for what’s bad so you can hone in on what’s better.

After all, Goldilocks didn’t know the right temperature for her porridge until she tried it just too hot and just too cold. We’re trying to do the same exact thing with our players. They need to know what’s too much, but what’s not quite enough, before they know exactly how much they need. 

As my good friend Lantz Wheeler always says: Contrast is the key to learning. If it’s not noticeable, it won’t make a noticeable difference.

Action Item: If you’re working with an athlete who struggles with:

  • Stride direction
  • Command
  • Over rotating 
  • Stacking on their back side

have them experiment on both ends of the spectrum. Make throws from extremely open and closed positions. Teach them how to intentionally throw pitchers out of the strike zone. Try to rotate too much, and then try not to rotate at all. Push off the rubber as hard as you can, and then don’t use your back leg at all. When we become buried in minutia, we need strategies to create clarity. Contrast helps us do this.

Athletes can’t just know what it feels like when it’s right. They need to know what it feels like when it’s wrong before they can figure out how to get it right.

Feel free to share if you find success with this!