The competitive baseball universe is very akin in many ways to our Western Culture at large, trends and fads are always in motion. As we all know from life experience, trends and fads simply come and go. In 2018, ‘weighted balls’ and velocity enhancement programs are decidedly in vogue. Even as I travel around the world to places like Italy, The Netherlands and Australia, I see weighted ball programs coupled with their promises of fantastic jumps in velocity. If you are a relative newcomer to the world of competitive baseball, you may not be aware that this was certainly not always the case.
In 1993, I started my first instructional academy in Langley British Columbia, Canada. For nearly the next 10 years, the utilization of weighted balls was decidedly not mainstream. Although a couple of very unique places were utilizing over-weighted implements, the baseball universe at large was decidedly against the use of anything other than a regulation baseball for throwing. The process of throwing balls weighing more and/or less than a regulation baseball was almost universally thought of as risky, perilous, crazy, fraught with danger and an exponential increase in the risk of injury.
Today, 2018, weighted ball velocity enhancement programs are commonplace on the internet, at high schools, colleges and in instructional academies across the country. Today it seems everybody has a velocity enhancement process. That represents a significant change in the training culture in just 25 years. That’s great news, right?
The answer, yes and no. We’ve obviously come a long way in reducing our irrational fear of a simple tool. That’s a good thing.
On the flip side, hardly a week goes by that we don’t get an email or a phone call at the Texas Baseball Ranch® saying something along the lines of, “Our son has never had arm trouble before and this last offseason/month/week etc. his trainer/coach put him on this new weighted ball program… and now he is hurt/out and needs surgery. We heard you are the ‘supposed’ weighted ball/arm health people… why is this happening? Is this common? What do you suggest going forward?”
Randy Sullivan at the Florida Baseball Ranch also gets regular questions along these same lines. As we also know, typically, for every call or email you receive there are many, many more who have similar issues but are not calling or are calling someone else. Suffice to say, with all the new velocity enhancement programs out there today, arm injuries are on the increase and weighted balls are, in our opinion, often getting an unfair bad rap.
From Randy Sullivan- Florida Baseball Ranch,
“We field 3-5 calls per week from parents of players ranging in age from 12-24 who most often have tried a mail ordered, one-size-fits-all weighted ball program and are now experiencing arm pain. It’s sad really, for many it was their first attempt at improving their ability to throw and they often regret trying the cheapest, simplest route. One-size-fits-all anything often becomes a dangerous shortcut.”
Let me start by giving you a short history of the Ranch’s utilization of weighted balls and possibly assist people in understanding the role that a well-designed weighted ball program can play on arm health, durability and performance.
Weighted Balls Are Simply a Tool. They are NOT a Panacea or a Quick Fix for Anything. They Can Be Beneficial, or They Can Be Utilized Inappropriately and Have Deleterious Effects.
The Ranch History of Our Utilization of Weighted Balls
In 2002, inspired by the work and research on weighted bats by Dr. Coop DeRenne, we began in earnest using underload and overload principles in the training of our throwers. In other words, we began utilizing weighted balls. We started with 3 weights: a one-pound ball (16 oz),1/2-pound ball (8 oz) and an underload ball (4 oz). The balls we used were called ‘D-Balls’. They were a hollow yellow rubber ball and filled with a type of black graphite with a black cork stopper. I’m not even sure if they even make them anymore. The balls simply were not very functional for the punishment we were placing them through.
Eventually, Mr. Robert Oates of Oates Specialties began to work with us to customize the balls to withstand the rigor in which we took them through. That evolution and innovation between Oates Specialties and the Ranch remain constant even today.
It is important to point out that the baseball universe even in 2002 was much different than the one of today. In 2002 we were seen, of course, initially as heretics, crazy and dangerous in using weighted balls in any matter, shape or form. We were regularly excoriated publicly on websites, message boards and blog posts for our ‘reckless’ behavior and ‘placing the athletes in our care at unnecessary risk just to gain a few miles per hour’.
In hindsight, all this scrutiny was actually a blessing. Every day when we went to work we had no doubt that the world was watching, just waiting to pounce on our ‘dangerous’ and ‘ineffective’ training methods.
Several times I actually had rather influential baseball people get me in private and say, “Ron, just between you and me… off the record… how many TJ’s did you have at the Ranch?” Apparently, many people thought it impossible that we could do both… arm health/durability AND performance enhancement.The baseball universe at that time simply believed it impossible to thread the needle between those two outcomes.
Ah Ha #1. Prehab vs. Rehab
The first thing we did was make weighted balls initially the cornerstone of our Arm Care Program. We didn’t race to velocity enhancement initially because quite frankly we didn’t know what we were going to find, so we started slowly with arm care.
By that time (2002) I had attended for several years in a row the ASMI Injuries in Baseball Conference in Birmingham Alabama. The impetus of the conferences was not performance enhancement; however, I found the symposiums to be exceptional on the topic of rehabilitation. Strangely enough, in the area of ‘rehab’ there appeared to be widespread acceptance on the use of weighted poly balls and rebounders.
It occurred to me…THIS is exactly where we are going to begin with weighted implements. Weighted balls would be utilized first as a prehab/arm car process allowing our athlete’s soft tissue to first become accustomed to the stimulus/load and then… after a period of assessment… see where we go after that.
Ah Ha #2. The Reformation-The Engineer and Pushing the Performance Envelope.
In 2003, we invited a man by the name of Paul Nyman to speak at our Coaches Boot Camp. He was an engineer with a track background but a love of baseball. He gave two presentations that fundamentally and forever changed the way we trained at our facility. For several years we had been in search of a training process that rejected the conventional paradigms and antiquated, ineffective training methods. In Paul Nyman we found exactly that.
Paul Nyman gave us a new paradigm and a new perspective. We referred to our personal iteration of Nyman’s dynamic systems paradigms as “The Athletic Pitcher Program”. Even publicly, I have long described Nyman’s work as essentially the ‘Reformation’ in baseball training. Today, Nyman remains the single greatest outside influence upon the Ranch and its fundamental training processes in our history.
In 2003, Nyman proposed the unthinkable. He offered a structured, incremental weighted ball throwing program coupled with radar as objective feedback. To Nyman and his engineering/ track background, it was basic common sense. To the baseball elite, it was heresy.
Ah Ha #3. Deceleration Is as Important as Acceleration
Dr. Mike Marshall won the National League Cy Young Award in 1974 and set a Major League record for most appearances by a relief pitcher in 1974, appearing in a mind-blowing 106 games. He is the holder of two Major League records, both of which he set in the 1974 season: most appearances (games pitched) in a season (106), and most consecutive team games with a relief appearance (13). In his record-setting 1974 season, he pitched 208.3 innings, all of which came in relief appearances.
Those statistics alone should force any logical trainer/coach/athlete to sit up and take notice and to ask questions. Dr. Marshall endorses a very unique movement pattern that in many ways is the antithesis of the current orthodoxy. Many people simply could not grasp his nonconventional approach and/or Dr. Marshall’s often bombastic and acerbic manner.
We brought Dr. Mike Marshall in as a keynote presenter to our annual Coaches Symposium and just as advertised, he challenged the status quo and turned the preverbal instructional apple cart upside down, taking no prisoners with regard to his absolute disdain for contemporary methods of pitcher development. In our opinion, Dr. Marshall made a very compelling argument giving evidence that not only were the current standard training processes ineffective, in fact, they were complicit in the influx of injuries and surgical interventions.
While Dr. Marshall had very, very few complimentary things to say about our training or our approach, we in turn learned a great deal from him regarding the critical importance of systematically preparing soft tissue for the rigors of pitching in competition, as well as the often-overlooked nature of the efficiency of an athlete’s pattern of deceleration.
Dr. Marshall was the first person we ever heard articulate the connection between deceleration and acceleration, “The body and arm will only accelerate itself as efficiently as it can decelerate itself.”
So, from Dr. Marshal we took two very critical pieces to our current training protocols:
#1) That our process of preparing our athlete’s soft tissue for throwing needed to be far more robust than our previous methods.
#2) That the efficiency of our athlete’s patterns of deceleration not only matters with regards to health, durability and recovery but also are influential with regards to velocity enhancement.
In other words, if my soft tissue isn’t sufficiently prepared for the push or my pattern of dissipating energy and slowing down my arm is inefficient, a velocity enhancement program almost certainly needs to be postponed until those areas are adequately addressed, or injury will all too often be the result. At the very least, any efforts at velocity enhancements will be constrained or hampered if these areas are deficient.
Unfortunately, this description of inadequate preparation of soft tissue and/or inefficient patterns of deceleration is far more common than most people think. It’s yet another reason young men get injured while embarking on a velocity building program. In our opinion, weighted balls too often serve as a diversion to the root contributors of injury. Ah-Ha #3 is a classic case in point.
Ah Ha #4. Start with the Pain and Hyper-Personalize
Fresh off the presentations of Paul Nyman and Mike Marshall, we began to experiment with weighted balls as a velocity enhancement process. However, we did so with two crucially important caveats:
A. The athlete currently does not have arm/shoulder/elbow issues
B. The athlete had a minimum of 6 weeks throwing weighted balls in our arm care process
If the athlete passed out of that basic 2 step criteria, they were eligible for our initial velocity enhancement process. We referred to this process as “Starting with the Pain”.
As an important side note, every single session would end with an arm health self-re-assessment. In other words, when each athlete would finish a session, we would immediately check with them on the status of their arm. If they rated their discomfort as a 4 or higher, they would automatically be withheld from the next scheduled session until their arm health returns to normal. If, at any time during the session, their arm discomfort rises above a 4 on a 0-10 scale or anything feels odd or strange, they were to immediately suspend their training session.
This basic process remains standard operating procedure almost 15 years later.
First- always prepare the soft tissue for 4-6 weeks prior to our initial push.
Second- closely monitor every athlete’s arm health each session and adjust their processes based on the individual.
Third- never hesitate in delaying or suspending the process if the arm is not responding well. Learn to train your pitchers to be intimate with their arm and understand that some days it is simply time to shut it down and decide to fight another day. In other words, if you’re ‘not feeling it’today, many times the right call is to suspend your push for today and come at it again later in the week or the next week. Injury will certainly place a REAL delay in your development. It is never a good idea to push to the point you become injured.
Ah Ha #5. Mechanical Efficiency (Connection) Matters… A lot
In 2005, I watched a sports medicine TV program about an orthopedic doctor who specializes in treating world class elite long-distance running athletes. His comments regarding injuries in this very specific population of athletes really resonated with me.
He basically said that most doctors treat the injuries to elite long-distance runners from a faulty paradigm. This was the gist of his comments:
Of course, world-class distance runners have incredibly high workloads, that’s the very reason why they are world class, so if your instinct is to treat the injury primarily or exclusively by the simple reduction of their workload, you will be of little practical use to your athletes. They run, that’s what they do. They run a great deal and that’s why they are elite.
Instead, he urged the doctors to look deeper and closer, and not be so plastic in their perspective. Elite long-distance runners are far from normal. Therefore, he concluded a conventional approach to injury reduction for the general population will not typically be beneficial to the elite long-distance runner.
If, he argued, the elite runner has an inefficiency in his running form or their shoes do not fully support their feet, under any considerable workloads of course injury is eventually going to often be the result. Therefore, he proposed, in many cases, the workload was only a symptom or an ancillary contributor to injury and not the cause itself.
For example, if a runner actually ran on the side of his/her feet, would managing his/her workload be a sufficient solution? The obvious answer is absolutely not. Reducing his/ her workload may delay the final breakdown but would do NOTHING toward a solution. The only solution would be to improve the efficiency in which he runs.
That made absolutely perfect sense to me. Applying this orthopod’s logic to throwing athletes, it became obvious to us at the Ranch that mechanical efficiency also really matters when it came to deciding who was approved to take part in our velocity enhancement programs. Over the past 12 years, we have identified 12 primary movement pattern disconnections that have the potential to add stress to soft tissue.
So, when we initially assess athletes and find a significant level of one or more of the 12 disconnections, coupled with arm pain or difficulty recovering from throwing sessions, that indicates to us that we must first reduce the disconnection, reduce the discomfort of the arm and increase their ability to recover and bounce back before we throw them into a velocity enhancement program.
To us at the Ranch, this simply is common sense. If I have some arm discomfort on a regular basis currently and NOW I’m going to really ramp up the stress, load, and intensity, why should I be surprised when injury or shut down is the result?
Bottom line: In our opinion, this is one of the most common reasons so many young arms are injured from weighted ball programs and velocity enhancement programs. They are already on the edge of injury right now. The weighted ball just simply was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Ah Ha #6. Holism- Everything Matters. The Continual Search for the Simplicity on the Far Side of Complexity
Many players and their parents desperately want development and performance enhancement to be simple. They want their coaches or instructors/trainers to explain the incredible complexity of human performance with catchy phases, teaching cues and/or one-size-fits-all recipes to success.
In the privacy of quiet reflection, most of us would realize this type of process is simply fool’s gold.
Need velocity? Just get on the internet and obtain a good weighted ball program.
Need arm health? Just get on YouTube and watch a good arm care process.
Need command? Throw more frequent bullpens.
Need better secondary stuff? Ask your instructor/coach for a new grip. Maybe find out how Clayton Kershaw holds it.
In our estimation, these suggestions are not bad in and of themselves, they are simply endemic of a much bigger problem. Most people routinely underestimate the complexity and difficulty of consistently performing well at highest levels of competition. At the Texas Baseball Ranch®, we have run head first into that reality, again and again, ourselves over the past 15 years.
In 2010 to give our team at the Texas Baseball Ranch® a foundation to understand and deal with that complexity, I created a chart to guide us. It has since been edited and slightly improved upon, but the foundation remains unchanged in 8 years and is a fixture in our core philosophy.
This chart was my effort to remind myself and my staff to continually recognize and appreciate the complexity of high performance, to refrain from the constant lure of trying to explain the unexplainable to a client and yet create a sensible foundation from which we could make valid and sound decisions and judgments.
The 6 Primary Contributors to Substandard Performance
What is keeping you from having a healthy, durable, electric arm?
Why is this chart so important? What does it have to do with the efficacy of a weighted ball program? Simple…
For example, the belief at the Ranch consortium is:
If the athlete’s physical structure, alignment, strength, balance, mobility/flexibility or stability is considerably limited, constrained, compromised or deficient, a weighted ball velocity enhancement program is contraindicated and will have to wait until those issues are addressed.
If the athlete’s mechanical efficiency is questionable or marginal and has manifested abject pain or difficulties in recovery, then a weighted ball velocity enhancement program is contraindicated and will have to wait until those issues are addressed.
If the athlete hasn’t built a minimum of a 6-week foundation of preparation for their soft tissue, a weighted ball velocity enhancement program is contraindicated and will have to wait until those issues are addressed.
We have taken our share of criticism from some corners of the baseball universe that we overly hype pain and for our ‘overzealous need’ for multiple assessments before engaging on a velocity program. We truly don’t mind the criticism. Everyone should be free to come to their own conclusions. However, that doesn’t necessarily make the criticism cogent.
As I alluded to previously, we have been attempting to tread the needle between arm health/durability and performance for the past 16 years. In that time, we have found some really good news that we wish everybody in the baseball universe would understand and take advantage of, and that good news is this…
The Really Good News
#1. We have found that if we can simply assist each athlete in reducing or eliminating any regular discomfort of his elbow or shoulder and/or significantly improve his ability to recover/bounce back, that athlete will in fact nearly always (85% of the time) experience a slight but notable uptick of 1-3 mph in velocity in 4 weeks of his improvement in his arm health and durability.
This should only make sense. If the athlete’s arm feels better…he will naturally ‘step on the accelerator’.If his arm is more durable, he can throw more often and for longer stretches of time. Do those behaviors appear to support enhanced velocity? The answer is without question… yes!
#2. We have found that as the athlete improves his mechanical efficiency and builds his throwing foundation, any weighted ball program we place him under in the future will be far more effective.
The fact many people often forget is that ALL balls are ‘weighted’. Every ball ever created has weight. The common vernacular of ‘weighted balls’ infers that the balls they are utilizing are typically heavier than the 5 ¼ounce regulation baseballs. Coop DeRenne used the terms ‘overload’ and ‘underload’ to help further clarify his process. We of course are shaped by the works of DeRenne and Nyman and use similar language.
I do believe it is a rather foolish and antiquated position to take that a 5 ¼ounce ball is somehow a ‘safe’ weight but 3 ounces or 7 ounces are dangerous.
We suggest viewing the weight and size of the balls in your training as a specific type of stimulus, and just like dosage/time/frequency in medicine matters, so does the specific stimulus in training. Sometimes the individual is ready for and indeed should have ‘more’. Other times, ‘more’ would be dangerous.
It will take customization, communication, testing, assessment and constant monitoring to maximizes it’s affects and minimize its risks. One thing is for certain, the one-size-fits-all processes that I see firsthand out there now does none of those. They are simple, but they are often far from benign.
We have indeed come a long way from the 1990’s in terms of our perspective on weighted balls. That’s a great thing. However, in my opinion, until and unless we can move past the desire to obtain a universal, monolithic, catchall weighted ball throwing program, we as a baseball universe will keep running head first into the unintended consequences of inappropriate and misapplied training, with injury and surgical intervention as the much too frequent outcomes.
But of course, it’s not weighted balls that are the problem. The problem is how they are utilized. As my late father was frequent to remind me when I complained about my equipment, “It’s rarely the bow that’s the problem…it’s the skill of the Indian warrior using it that matters.”
A Steven Covey quote that I think is the perfect way to end our discussion of weighted ball training,
“If there is no gardener, there is no garden.”
Our advice at the Ranch Consortium, when it comes to weighted balls and velocity enhancement programs, become the gardener. It’s the difference maker.
The 2020 Vandy commit from Boca Raton, FL was a low to mid 80s lefty when I met him on September 23, 2016. He and his father made the 3-hour drive to the Florida Baseball Ranch® for a Precision Strike One Day One-On-One Evaluation and Training session. We conducted a full head-to-toe physical assessment and a video analysis of his movement pattern. We noted a few mobility issues and a slightly elevated distal humerus and crafted a customized multi-dimensional training plan. Nelson “bought in” to the process completely and diligently executed his program. After a few tweaks, a little work on his mobility, and some power building, it wasn’t long before he was touching 88 mph.
Nelson and his Dad returned to the Ranch for a pre-season check up in December of 2016, upon which I noted that his mobility had improved significantly. His dad Ross Berkwich, a lifetime Yoga instructor, had seen to that! His video analysis showed that he was much more biomechanically efficient and essentially free from gross constraints. More importantly, he was pain free and ready to have a great year.
He entered his high school season with high hopes and even higher expectations. Things seemed to be progressing well. Nelson was his usual dominant self on the mound. But then one cool night in April, during a routine district game a couple of weeks before the high school playoffs were to begin, Nelson’s elbow started to hurt. The next day it was worse, and even after several days of rest, he still couldn’t muster up a full effort throw without experiencing pain. The location of the pain was right over his UCL. Fearing the worst, local coaches and medical acquaintances advised him to seek a MRI.
Instead, Nelson’s father called the Florida Baseball Ranch®.
After discussing the young lefty’s playing and training activities over the last 4 months, his father sent me video of Nelson making a sub-maximal flat-ground throw in an unidentified hotel parking lot. It wasn’t optimal but it was the best we could do since we needed to act quickly. Nelson’s high school playoffs, summer season and a tryout with Team USA were approaching rapidly.
When I reviewed the video, I noticed that during the past 4 months, which had consisted primarily of pitching in games, resting, and throwing bullpens, his former arm action disconnection — the elevated distal humerus — had returned. But, more importantly, he had become quad dominant in his first move, projecting him toward the first base on-deck circle. In an attempt to compensate, he opened his lead leg early but still found himself landing across his body. This prevented him from adequately rotating around his front hip, causing his deceleration pattern to become linear, which resulted in a valgus stress on the medial elbow when he reached full extension. Click here to read more about the dangers of a linear deceleration pattern. In my view, it wasn’t one thing causing his pain… it was probably a little of all of the above.
I felt certain we could help him if we could improve his arm action and his lower half efficiency. But, how were we going to change his movement pattern during the season, especially if he couldn’t throw a baseball without pain?
I texted Nelson and asked him if he had his sock with him. He said he did so I told him to go back outside to the parking and make a few throws with a 7-ounce ball in the sock and let me know how it felt.
Within 5 minutes I received his reply:
In our Start With The Pain system Nelson would be classified as a Level 2 intervention. This would typically involve a 25-day return to throwing program that would include sock throws, a connection ball, and a series of corrective throwing drills. As his movement pattern improved and his pain subsided, we would gradually wean him from the sock and the connection ball and then ramp up to full intent baseball throws.
But, Nelson didn’t have 25 days. His high school playoffs were set to begin in less than 2 weeks and I knew he really wanted to be there for his team.
Since Nelson had trained with us extensively and had demonstrated heightened body awareness for a player his age, I felt he would be able to make the necessary changes more quickly than most. I immediately went to work and wrote a 10-day return to throwing plan. He would spend the first 3 days performing 8 different corrective throwing drills in the training sock at 5 reps each (no baseball throws). Then each day he continue with his drills, shifting the ratio of sock throws to baseball throws to 4:1, 3:2, 2:3, 1:4, and 0:5. He would also taper his use of the connection ball until it was no longer needed. As always, Nelson’s pain would be our guide. He was instructed to keep the intensity of his throws below the pain threshold and to check in with me every day with a report on his progress. By the 10th day, Nelson was pain free with all his drill throws, so we decided to try the mound. He threw a 15-pitch bullpen without pain, and by the time the playoffs rolled around, he was ready to answer the bell.
Nelson continued to have a fantastic year on the summer travel ball circuit. And then last week, I got a text from his dad who was elated to report that Nelson had touched 89 mph, made the final cut and been placed on the roster for 15u Team USA. At the time of the text Nelson was on a plane to Columbia with his teammates on a mission to claim the title of World Champions.
We couldn’t be happier for Nelson and his family. This young man exemplifies the qualities of integrity, passion for the game, perseverance and the relentless pursuit of excellence we espouse. He is truly a “Ranch Guy.”
From fearing a Tommy John injury to representing his country on the world’s biggest stage… what a ride that must have been for Nelson and his family!
Proud of you dude!!!
Now go bring home the Gold!!!
And here we go again. The long toss and weighted ball police are back at it.
I was perusing through twitter last week and saw this blast.
“Study. Max Distance Throwing Changes Mechanics and Puts More Stress On The Arm.”
It was accompanied by this infograph.
First of all… that study is not news. It came out in 2011.
But since we’re getting into it again, I guess I can engage.
The longstanding argument against long toss is as follows: 1)It increases joint stress in the elbow and the shoulder, and 2) throwing mechanics change with increased distance of throws.
Both are true…
And that is exactly why I like long toss… as a training tool.
Ok. So lets go through this again:
We’ll start with the “increases stress” argument.
People in the throwing universe tend to fall into one of 2 categories. You have the “there are only so many bullets in the gun so you should save them” crowd, and then there are those who believe you can load as many bullets as you need.
Here’s the deal. A physiologic principle known as Davis’s Law states that all connective tissue organizes itself to resist the stresses under which it is placed. Davis’s law applies to nearly ALL connective tissue — at least any tissue with a blood supply. Human tissue does not have a free will. It cannot decide not to participate. It can only respond to the stresses we put on it. Therefore, adding stress to a connective tissue will always force an adaptation that can make that tissue more resilient.
People in the “save your bullets” camp – some of them esteemed medical professionals – seem to believe that somehow, the UCL, the labrum, and the rotator cuff are “special” tissues not subject to the laws of nature and therefore cannot be made to become more robust. I would submit that you must add stress to those tissues if you plan to be a high level thrower. If you completely avoid stress you get weak, fragile connective tissue that could be vulnerable to injury. The key is to add stress incrementally over time, gradually increasing the tissue’s ability to resist. If you add stress too rapidly, the tissue fails. If you add it too often or for too long, the body begins to lay down the strongest tissue it knows (bone) and that becomes a calcification.
Opponents of long toss argue that increased stress on the elbow and shoulder makes it a dangerous practice. I would suggest that not “feeding the arm” with gradually increasing controlled stress as presented in Alan Jaeger’s well known long toss protocol could be even more dangerous.
Now let’s shift gears and tackle the second point of contention… “biomechanics change with increased distance”. You’ll get no objection from me on that one either. The biomechanics of long toss clearly change with every throw… and that’sthe beauty of it.
Let me explain.
In every human movement, there are components that must be stable and others that may vary. The stable components are known as “attractors”. The variable components of a movement are considered “fluctuators”. Attractors can be identified by The variable components of a movement are considered “fluctuators”. Attractors can be identified by finding patterns that are commonly demonstrated by performers across all levels and experience and ability. For example, ask a baby to throw a ball and he will usually lift his arm to about 90 degrees of shoulder abduction.
The same pattern is seen among the most elite and experienced throwers in baseball.
Movements with significant time pressures and those that put the athlete in “at risk” positions if not stable can also be attractors.
Three key attractors I have found in throwing are:
1) Isometric co-contraction of the trail hip musculature at the peak of lead leg lift. 2) Isometric co-contraction of the rotator cuff and peri-scapular musculature with the humerus abducted to about 90 degrees at lead leg weight bearing foot plant. And 3) Isometric co-contraction of the quads, hamstrings, calf, and hip musculature of the lead leg at weight bearing foot plant.
Fluxuators on the other hand are components of the movement that can vary between athletes and even between repetitions by a given athlete.
Examples of fluctuators might include differences in stride length, depth of back knee flexion, arm slot, lead leg action, tempo, or postural tilt. An adequate number or fluxuators are necessary, but having too many could be detrimental to performance and safety.
When movement attractors are stable, the body automatically begins to eliminates some fluxuators until only a few remain. With less options to choose from, the efficiency and effectiveness of the movement improves. However, if too many fluxuators are removed, the athlete loses adjustability. This can result in rigidity and lack or flow in his movement.
The “Anti-Long Toss” crowd apparently fails to recognize the neurophysiologic dynamics and variability demands of human movement. They’re hooked on the “SAID” principle. That’s an acronym for “Specific Adaptation To an Imposed Demand”. It’s a concept commonly referenced in gyms and physical therapy practices and it means that the body will adapt specifically to the exact demands placed on it. In other words, you don’t learn to putt golf balls by shooting baskets and you don’t strengthen your hamstrings by doing biceps curls. The SAID principle would suggest that the pitchers should only train with 5 oz baseball mound throws at 60’6”, because that represents the exact demand required in a game.
It seems logical until you understand the “degrees of freedom problem” as it relates to attractors and fluxuators.
Dr. Nikolai Bernstein first presented the degrees of freedom problem with his famous “blacksmith experiment”. In this investigation, he showed that the number of motor pattern options for performing any movement is virtually limitless and therefore rigidly repeating a movement is an impossibility.
The “repeatable delivery” does not exist.
Every single throw will present a unique set of subtle deviations or errors. Additionally a pitch doesn’t follow one specific pre-established motor pathway from start to finish. Instead, the neuromuscular system subconsciously adjusts that pattern’s pathway, intensity, timing and synergy throughout the throw. Instead of seeking a “repeatable delivery” we should be going after world-class, real time adjustability of movement.
To optimize movement efficiency you need some fluxuators (but not too many). If your training involves throwing only mound pitches from 60’ 6”, you engrain the attractors so deeply that all of the necessary fluxuators are eliminated and you have no adjustability. Now, when your arm begins to drift outside the rigid boundaries you’ve created, you have no pre-rehearsed motor plan to bring it back. With no capacity for adjustment, the arm could wander into areas beyond tissue failure thresholds, and injury could occur.
The key to safe and efficient throwing is to make sure your attractors are stable, but not too stable and to have just enough fluxuators available to allow sufficient choices for adjustment.
That is the beauty of long toss!
Every throw is a different distance with a different release point and a different coordinative demand. This variability allows you to practice the necessary adjustments subconsciously in a controlled environment, thereby becoming a more efficient and effective thrower.
This is also one reason weighted ball training can be an important tool – especially the way we use it at The Baseball Ranch®. A typical weighted ball protocol in our practice would involve performing 4 different deceleration/connection drills, 5-8 feet from a target pad while sequentially progressing downward in weight from a 2-pound ball, to a 21-ounce ball, to a 14-ounce ball, to a 7-ounce ball, to a 5-ounce baseball and finally to 3-ounce underload ball. Note: in our process, when making full arm action throws, we never go above a 7 ounce ball. In a recent study, Fleisig et al, noted that “pitching with slight variations in ball mass challenges the athlete’s neuromuscular awareness and coordination… and therefore seems like a reasonable variation for training pitchers.”
So does that mean I am encouraging every throwing athlete to go out today, purchase as set of weighted balls, find a football field and start chucking? Absolutely not! But once your delivery is connected, you are free from massive physical constraints, and you’ve have had an adequate ramp up period, then long toss and weighted ball throwing may be an essential addition to your overall training program.
The variable stimulus presented by long toss and weighted ball training could help you develop adaptable, adjustable movement patterns that add velo, improve command and decrease your risk of injury.
So actually, despite claims to the contrary by the long toss and weighted ball Gestapo, not using long toss and weighted balls could increase the likelihood of getting hurt.
@ me if you want.
Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS
CEO, Florida Baseball Ranch
It seems like every kid that comes in to see me – especially the ones who have had lots of pitching lessons – does one thing in almost EXACTLY the same way.
What is it you ask?
It’s this wasteful, cookie cutter little side step windup. Or maybe I should call it a non-step. I mean it’s kind of a step without stepping.
Look I’m not against it totally. I mean, I see a bunch of MLB guys doing it too. But does it have to be done by EVERY SINGLE AMATEUR PITCHER WHO EVER TOOK A PITCHING LESSON?
Many of the guys that come to see me are looking for increased velocity. Yet when I start the video rolling, nearly all of them do the same thing.
Tiny step to the side.
Lift the leg.
Pause at the top.
Put the leg down.
Try desperately to come up with some sort of momentum to home plate.
And chuck it up there about 78 mph.
I’ve seen guys get 2-3 mph bumps by simply starting with a bit of a back step and increasing their tempo to get moving toward home plate with some intent.
Remember back in the day when big leaguers would take those awesome “I’m about to ram this white thing down your throat” massive windups?
So where did this ridiculous little robotic, cloned side step come from?
My guess is that it’s the result of well-meaning yet uninformed pitching coaches with incomplete understanding of motor learning attempting to achieve the ubiquitous yet ever elusive unicorn known as the “repeatable delivery”.
(How’s that for unnecessary flowery language?)
They’re trying to simplify the delivery to make it “repeatable.”
Nikolai Bernstein killed that theory with his famous blacksmith experiment that first introduced what motor learning scientists call the degrees of freedom problem.
Every pitch is an individual snowflake and will result in its own set of deviations or errors. Instead of trying to become mechanical repeaters, we should be trying to create world-class in-flight adjusters to all of those deviations.
But in attempt to achieve the unachievable, pitching coaches across the country have fallen prey to the mistaken assumption that the key to consistency is to “simplify” a pitcher’s mechanics. “There’s too many moving parts in that delivery,” they say. So they start taking things away.
But many times, when you simplify the delivery, you suppress athleticism and you stifle adjustability.
One of the finest pitching coaches I’ve ever seen is Flint Wallace. He coached both of my older sons at Weatherford College, a JUCO outside of Ft. Worth, TX, where he churned out D1 and MLB drafted pitchers like butter from a milk cow. Flint is now the Director of Player Development at the Texas Baseball Ranch where hyper-individualization reigns. But there is one thing Flint would never let any of his pitchers do…
He always demanded that every pitcher’s first move in the windup was to step behind the rubber.
So what’s the potential problem with the side step?
When you step 90 degrees to the side of the rubber, you move your center of mass weight distribution toward the heel of the foot. Then you reverse direction and head forward toward the arm side dugout. To stop your momentum from taking you too far forward, you have to shift your weight to the ball of the foot. Some guys are able to accomplish this and make it back to a more neutral position with their weight distributed across the entire foot. But many guys just keep on going. When you do this, the knee slides forward of the toe forcing your quads to become more dominant than your glutes and projecting you toward the on deck circle.
Now your body knows it can’t throw the ball to the on deck circle so you have 3 choices:
So here’s the deal.
I’m not saying you have to take a back step, but let’s at least take it for a spin. Be willing to be a little different for a change.
Step back, or maybe even at a 45-degree angle, gain some momentum and see what happens. It might be a little uncomfortable at first. And of course, if it hurts you should bag it and move on. But I’m guessing you might be surprised at the results.
We still have some spots available for our Elite Performer’s Boot Camp July 15/16.
Add some velo. We just had 185th 90 mph guy… you could be next.
Solve your arm pain. We literally just wrote the book on arm pain management. It’s call Start With The Pain
When you attend an Elite Performer’s Boot Camp, you’ll get a personalized plan to get you on track for greatness beyond your wildest imagination.
See you at The Ranch
Randy Sullivan, MPT
CEO, Florida Baseball Ranch
Having on-the-field success is the ultimate goal for all athletes. But how is that achieved? The vast majority of people focus on (1) sport specific training and/or (2) athletic abilities, such as strength and speed. Yet, there are more factors that contribute to success than just those two. We all know people with tremendous physical abilities that never achieve success on the field. I think the following graphic is a great example of the building block components that make up a successful athletic performance.
Seems the rage these days is about these new weighted ball things and how they increase velocity.
When we started using weighted balls as part of our process in 2009, in my community you
would have thought I was Jack the Ripper! Naysayers unfairly blasted me privately, and publicly to the point that I finally gave in and stopped using them for a few months.
I soon came to the realization that critics will be critics and accepting their slings and arrows is simply the price I must pay for the privilege of working with all the fine young men in my care.
Whenever a young man breaks a record at the Texas Baseball Ranch, I will as a habit, make the comment... "Wow... just think, if you can improve that much every week, by the time you are X (typically I add 10 years to their current age) you'll throw it 132 mph... and that'll be a record!"
Everyone laughs. But my point is made. Big jumps in velocity or bat speed, while nice, can't be expected every single week or month. While we all know that intellectually... emotionally we just can't seem to get our head around a plateau. We just assume we must improve from yesterday and give it no more thought than that.
Given the amount of research available on the topic, I am always amazed in a camp when I say,
“Raise your hand if part of your practice involves running poles.”
Incredibly, approximately 60% of the attendees still raise their hands.
“Just throw strikes.
Don’t worry about velocity.
Just get lots of out…
Win lots of games…
And the college recruiters will see you’re a winner and they’ll want you to be a part of their program.”
That’s what I told my son, Ty.
I couldn’t have been more wrong...
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