Demonizing Early Specialization – Flawed Research Interpretation

A generally-accepted tenet of youth sports training is to avoid early specialization – meaning that kids should have more unstructured play time and not get locked into a single sport at an early age. Trainers and pundits around the world have embraced this concept, demonizing parents and  coaches who suggest that single-sport specialization might be a reasonable decision. Just take the Google search engine for a spin and see it for yourself.

Unfortunately, these claims, while well-meaning, have little to no basis in actual sports science research. Here are the two most common claims used in the case against early specialization:

Most Professional Athletes Played Multiple Sports

Wayne Gretzky New York Rangers action hšjd portrŠtt

Wayne Gretzky New York Rangers action hšjd portrŠtt

This argument is made by many trainers, and Elsbeth Vainbo is just one example of many. (I have no particular ill-will towards her; this article is just often cited by other writers.) In Does Early Specialization Help?, Elsbeth makes the following point:

Do the best of the best get there by playing only one sport? Or do they develop athleticism across multiple sports? I decided to run a little test: I took lists of the top 10 players in 2012 from the four major team sports in North America, and let Google help me to see what sports were in each of their backgrounds. For the sake of consistency, I went with lists compiled by ESPN. You may not agree with their list, but I felt it was best to go with a single source for top 10 lists for the NBA, NFL, MLB, and the NHL; and ESPN seemed the best option.

Would you believe me if I told you 7 out of 40? Only 18% of the top professional athletes were single-sport athletes. Or to look at it another way, 82% played multiple sports.

This is a pretty clearly fallacious argument for multiple reasons, but the best one is simply this: More athletes play multiple sports than those who play a single sport. No attempt to control for youth participation across sports was done, so this simple argument should be thrown out. It seems to make sense on the surface, but what if 90% of ALL youth athletes played multiple sports growing up? Would 7/40 be a good argument then? Clearly not.

Elsbeth also goes on to talk about the idea that early specialization may be harmful, but quotes no research, merely anecdotal stories. We’ll look to others for this.

Early Specialization Increases Injury Risk

Injured Elbow

The vast majority of studies that link single-sport specialization to increased injury risk did not control for number of games played or seasons participated in. In fact, what “early specialization” meant to these researchers was increased games played and participated in by an athlete – year-round soccer, baseball, basketball, and so forth. Instead of playing 20 games of basketball, 20 games of baseball, and 20 matches of swimming, an example athlete would play 60 games of basketball instead.

I have zero qualms with this claim and it’s almost certainly true that participating in increased competitive games in a single sport year-round leads to increased injury risk. The same holds true for baseball – perhaps especially so, considering pitching off a mound at a young age is a very risky activity and should be limited by pitches, innings, and months on the diamond.

However, this is NOT the same as talking about early specialization while LIMITING competitive participation! Consider the example youth athlete that plays 20 games of baseball and loves the game so much that he trains year-round for baseball in an appropriate way that does not risk the growth plates and connective tissue. Would the results be the same? A big league pitcher that works with me specialized in baseball at 12 years old but his father kept him out of competitive leagues for much of the year, having him take lessons with a local pitching coach and throwing long toss and doing drills during the week. He played no more competitive games of baseball than the average multi-sport athlete, but got significantly better through additional exposure and repetition of sport-specific drills. He went on to get a full scholarship at a college, get drafted in the first round, and pitch in the big leagues just a few years later.

No attempt to control for these cases was done, and equating additional games played with the fault of a single sport is the incorrect conclusion to draw.

Our Recommendation: Stop Demonizing Parents

Let me make it clear, lest I be misquoted: I do NOT believe that youth athletes should play competitive games year-round. However, forcing a youth athlete to play multiple sports when all he wants to do is play baseball simply because you heard it was a good idea from “research posts on the Internet” has no basis in reality. Youth athletes should be held out of competition for an appropriate amount of time per year, but off-season training can be provided to confer both general fitness and sport-specific fitness without increasing the injury rate to the athlete.

Demonizing parents whose kids want to play one sport is not fair and has little to no real support when it comes to peer-reviewed research. Unfortunately, much of the research out there has significant holes in it and journalists take the conclusions in the wrong direction, fitting the “research” to their predefined narrative.

By |November 17th, 2014|Training|0 Comments

How to Transfer Weighted Baseball Velocity Gains to the Mound

We’ve uploaded a bunch of awesome videos in recent history on our YouTube channel of guys throwing 100+ MPH, so if you’ve missed out, here’s a pair to review:

Not too shabby, and we expect bigger gains going forward with more and more guys hitting 100+ MPH from a run and gun throw in due time. However there’s no shortage of questions about how this “transfers” to the mound. In an attempt to be brief, I’ll go over the short version and the long version of my answer to this question.

Short Version: How Does it Transfer? It Just DOES.

Caleb Cotham is one of the pitchers in the video above, throwing 100.2 MPH. He’s no stranger to run and gun throws, though – he played for Vanderbilt under Derek Johnson and throws with Lantz Wheeler in Tennessee, both of whom utilize high-output flat ground throwing in their development programs. His previous best before coming to Driveline Baseball for 4 weeks was 98 MPH, so he put 2.2 MPH on his best run and gun in just under a month. We only threw off the mound one time to a catcher before he went to the Arizona Fall League to get extra work in, and this was his last appearance on the PITCHf/x gun, courtesy of Brooks Baseball (click the image for the report):

Caleb PITCHfx

If you can’t read that, it shows that Caleb’s average velocity was 92.8 MPH and his best bolt was 93.6 MPH. Prior to coming to Driveline Baseball, Caleb was averaging just about 90 MPH in affiliate ball and topping 92-93, so he’s clearly gained a few ticks on his fastball.

But that’s not all – this is just the one game he played at Surprise, since PITCHf/x is not in every AFL stadium. According to Stalker radar readings, Caleb has been as high as 96 MPH in the AFL, with one game’s velocity range being 93-96 MPH.

So – the short answer: It simply transfers. The other Internet gurus out there who try to disclaim the idea that increased neuromuscular efficiency of training with weighted baseballs doesn’t transfer to the mound somehow are flat-out wrong, not that it will change their mind.

Long Version: How Does it Optimally Transfer? We Can Do Better.

While Caleb’s results were pretty good, we can do a lot better than that. Simply throwing PlyoCare balls and Driveline Elite Weighted Baseballs at full bore with mechanical cueing goes a long way, but backchaining the work to the mound can seriously increase velocity as well. Here’s what a general outline of how a backchained series of events looks like:

  • Pure neuromuscular adaptation: Vastly increased fitness, very minor primary skill improvement (throwing), negligible secondary skill improvement (pitching)
  • Neuromuscular blending: Minor increase in fitness, major primary skill improvement (throwing), minor secondary skill improvement (pitching)
  • Skill-specific blending: Negligible fitness gains, minor primary skill improvement (throwing), mediocre secondary skill improvement (pitching)
  • Low-output skill-intense training: No fitness gains (possible regression), no primary skill improvement (throwing, possible regression), major secondary skill improvement (pitching)

Caleb only ever got to the neuromuscular blending stage, and didn’t even complete that, yet saw gains on the mound. This is a testament to how hard he worked on his own, studying video and doing hundreds (if not thousands) of dry reps per day thinking about re-integrating what he’d learned unconsciously.

Most coaches start with the low-output skill-intense training phase, which is completely backwards unless the athlete is incredibly advanced (95+ MPH velocity, pitches at a very high level already with no command or injury problems). Some examples of this include low-speed throwing drills, towel drills, target throwing, or intent focusing on hitting the target rather than for maximum output. These are all useful concepts – except for the towel drill – at the appropriate stage of development, which is generally not until a serious base of fitness and adaptation has been implemented.

The very nature of backchaining demands that the low-skill high-output training methods are put before the high-skill low-output training concepts!

To make it a bit more specific, here’s what a general outline of our Elite Training Program might look like, assuming an athlete who has sufficiently reasonable levels of fitness and a set of mechanics that are not immediately at risk for injury (in which case, rehabilitative efforts have to occur first):

  • High-output ballistic flat ground work
  • High-output stationary flat ground work
  • High-output mound velocity work
  • Medium-output mound blend work
  • Medium-output mound control work
  • Low-output mound command work
  • Low-output mound pitchability work

For more information on how weighted baseball training works, check out this video I shot on Total vs. Peak Force:

Hope that helps you understand how weighted baseball training actually works to transfer velocity to the mound! If you’re looking for a sample program for weighted baseballs, we offer a free eBook titled Ballistic Training Methods for Pitchers. Grab your copy today!

By |November 2nd, 2014|Training|1 Comment

Driveline Seminar List for the 2014 Offseason

With the hiring of my new business partner Mike Rathwell, I’ve been able to get a lot more work done on my flagship velocity book and video set (due out December 1st), wrap up a lot of internal research projects, and generally clean house around the facility.

We’ve re-upped our lease at our 239 W. Stewart Ave location in Puyallup, WA, so we’re there for one more year! That’s a huge relief and a big chunk of work off the plate.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to speak at a number of seminars, half of which I’ve turned down for various reasons and the fact that my wife is 9 months pregnant (due date just passed a few days ago… yikes), so traveling abroad a lot is not necessarily ideal at this time of the year! I’m open to doing more in early 2015, so if your organization is interested, feel free to reach out.

Without further ado, here’s the Driveline seminar list for the remainder of the 2014 offseason – it’s a great list and I’m extremely excited to speak at all of the events:

Eastlake Chargers – Elkhart, IN – October 24th-26th

Eastlake Chargers

This will be a three-day event and my largest exclusive seminar with free access to my training methods, extensive Q&A sessions, and hands-on work with 60-80 athletes. It’s going to be the best Driveline training-specific seminar this off-season without question.

  • Friday, October 24th: Workshop for College and High School Coaches – 2-3 hours
  • Saturday, October 25th: Main Seminar + Hands-On Work – 5 hours, two sessions available
  • Sunday, October 26th: Strength and Conditioning Hands-On Training, Wrap-Up Lecture, Huge Q&A Blowout – 5 hours

You can read all about the details on this comprehensive write-up on the Eastlake Chargers website.

Justin Barber (Director of Operations) was gracious enough to open this up to the public and worked really hard to keep it price-sensitive, so to attend the three-day workshop it will cost you just $89 as a coach. I’m a little biased about my work, but that’s one hell of a price for a three-day seminar held at a world class facility with tons of athletes available for demonstration if you ask me!

Sign up for Elkhart, IN – October 24th-26th | Follow them on Twitter @IEChargerBSB

Pitch-A-Palooza – Franklin, TN – December 5th-7th

PitchAPalooza 2014

A few months ago, Lantz Wheeler tweeted out that Pitch-A-Palooza would make the ABCA lineup of speakers “look like a joke.” I was pretty sure he was blowing smoke… but I got wind of the final roster October 1st – and he made good on his promise. Here are the pitching instructors speaking at the event:

  • Paul Nyman, one of the first Internet pitching gurus and my occasional nemesis
  • Scott Brown, pitching coach of the 2014 College World Series champion Vanderbilt Commodores
  • Derek Johnson, former PC at Vanderbilt, current pitching coordinator for the Chicago Cubs
  • Matt Blake, director of pitching development at Cressey Performance
  • Graeme Lehman, research nerd and good friend of mine
  • Kevin Erminio, pitching coach at Kennesaw State University
  • Blake Herring, pitching coach at Carson Newman University
  • Lantz Wheeler, director of the whole shebang and owner of Baseball Think Tank
  • Me, some biomechanics hacker and velocity developer

That’s one hell of a lineup and will include time at a baseball facility for hands-on demonstrations. At $299, the conference is already a must-attend based on the speakers and itinerary I’ve outlined above.

Except, well… Lantz decided to include a full hitting program as well, including my favorite hitting coach based on approach alone – Matt Deggs of Sam Houston State, formerly the hitting coach at UL Lafayette. Don’t recall what the heck UL Lafayette did last year? They finished the regular season ranked #1, squeaking in ahead of Oregon State in the last week of the season. Oh yeah, and the hitting stats they put up were… decent…

Hitting at ULL

A conversation I had with a major Division-I pitching coach halfway through the 2014 season:

“Do you know who UL Lafayette is?”

I responded: “Yeah, I have bet on their football team a bunch and lost. Besides that, no.”

He said: “Take a look at their hitting stats. Particularly home runs across the board.”

A quick Google check later… “What the hell is this?!”

“I know, right? What is Deggs teaching there?”

Super excited to find out for myself. I suggest you do the same.

Get more information and sign up for Pitch-A-Palooza | Follow Lantz on Twitter @LantzWheeler

European Baseball Coaches Clinic – Rotterdam, Netherlands – December 12th-14th

Extremely excited to be speaking at my first overseas seminar where many greats in MLB have gone before me, including Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays, and Jerry Weinstein of the Colorado Rockies (who will be speaking at the same event as me). Many thanks go to Tom O’Connell and friend Steve Janssen (coach of the Dutch National Team) for setting this up.

More information will be available on the International Sports Group website soon!

And last, but certainly not least…

American Baseball Coaches Association – Orlando, FL – January 2nd – 5th

ABCA Convention

ABCA is the biggest conference for baseball coaches in the United States and probably the world. I’m extremely excited to attend for the first time, and I won’t be speaking here! We’ll actually be renting a huge 20 ft x 10 ft pavilion on the left in the first room at ABCA, where we plan to set up the following stuff:

  • Big-screen TV demonstrating tons of hands-on drills, research we’ve done, and various scheduled events we’ll be holding
  • A pitching screen with tarp cover to have live PlyoCare demos with current professional pitchers staffing our booth
  • Arm Recovery station to demo our partners’ equipment with special ABCA-only offers (PowerPlay Compression Ice Sleeves, Marc Pro EMS Units)
  • Unveiling a HUGE new product/service
  • Unveiling our flagship book and video set with a one-time HUGE discount available ONLY to current college pitching coaches
  • All of our products (PlyoCare, Driveline Elite Weighted Balls, new prototypes we’re keeping secret…) for sale
  • And tons, tons more….

We plan on having at least five full-time staffers on site including professional pitchers we train, former college pitchers who work for us, and the two business partners who are in charge of this crazy mess (Mike and me).

Oh, and by the way, did I mention that we’re the exclusive partner at ABCA of some company you may have heard of:

Jaeger Sports

That’s right – we’re going to be the exclusive partner and seller of Jaeger Sports J-Bands as well as other bonus equipment Alan will be supplying us with.

All of this is what’s currently firmed up – and we have a lot more potential opportunities in the pipeline. We can’t give away ALL the secrets, but we’ll be leaking it slowly to our mailing list – so sign up at the bottom of the page NOW if you haven’t – it’s free and you get a complimentary copy of our Weighted Baseball eBook. 

If you’re a current college or pro coach and plan to attend ABCA, we want to hear from you – contact us today. We have some special offers available for you!

By |October 1st, 2014|Camps, Seminars|3 Comments

Post-Activation Potentiation with Weighted Baseballs

Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP) is a controversial topic in exercise science, with research pointing in favor and against it working. PAP is not easy to describe, but the simplest way to put it is to think about testing your 60-yd dash time shortly after squatting 3-5 reps of heavy weight. The idea is that by “potentiating” the central nervous system (CNS) using heavy movements, performance increases in subsequent lighter and explosive movements.

Does it Work in Baseball?

First and foremost, it’s important to note that the most popular method of PAP in baseball does NOT work – using a donut or weighted bat sleeve in the on-deck circle before going up to hit.

Baseball - Donut

Dr. Coop DeRenne, a legend in the world of baseball performance science, studied this very phenomenon years ago. Donuts used prior to swinging a real bat show a marked decrease in bat speed, yet hitters use them all the time. The reason for this isn’t because athletes are smarter or more experienced than sports scientists running controlled experiments, of course, it’s just a mix of inertia, superstition, and fear.

Or you could ask the scholarly people in the comments of major news sites, who have stunning results to share with us all:

Average Internet Commenter

Thanks, Doctor.

The reason that PAP doesn’t work in the on-deck circle is because the use of the donut in an attempt to increase the bat weight makes no effort to grasp the significantly changed biomechanics of the swing by adding 200% or more of the weight to the bat in an uneven distribution. This makes the loaded donut swing a completely different motor pattern by drastically changing not only the mass of the bat, but the moment of inertia (MOI) of the bat as well.

In short, it doesn’t work. So if you use donuts in the on-deck circle (or at all, really), you should stop.

But What About Weighted Baseballs Prior to Pitching?

Ah, this is the million dollar question, isn’t it? What about throwing weighted baseballs prior to pitching to potentiate the CNS to increase output?

I think this is a rather fascinating concept, and as it so happens, we’ve studied this effect as best we can in the Driveline Sports Science lab. There are three generally-accepted methods of how PAP works, and the primary one we focused on was the idea that increased recruitment of higher order motor units would activate other motor units to allow for greater than average neuromuscular performance.

Study

Have athletes test run-and-gun velocities with a standard (5 oz) ball after a dynamic warm-up, then throw 6 oz and 7 oz overload balls for 3-5 reps each. After that, test run-and-gun velocities with the standard (5 oz) ball again and see if there are significant changes.

We also tested the OPPOSITE effect – we had athletes throw underload baseballs instead of overload to see if activation might work in a different manner.

Results

We split the athletes into two even groups as randomly as possible while controlling for age and skill level.

First we’ll discuss the underload group: It was a disaster. Subjectively the athletes overwhelmingly hated it when feedback was solicited, and objectively the data was clear as day – velocities went directly into the tank by 2+ standard deviations.

Some things said:

  • “It feels like I’m throwing a brick”
  • “I feel like I’m going to blow my elbow out”
  • “I don’t want to throw 5 oz balls as hard as possible after that”

Pretty clear loser there. We moved underload balls back to where they’ve always been – at the end of the velocity run-and-gun tests.

The overload group, on the other hand, had mixed but statistically insignificant results. No athletes complained about the grouping of the weighted ball throws (5-6-7-5-4-3 oz) and while the average of the group saw higher velocities, it wasn’t statistically significant – and some lost velocity after throwing the overload baseballs. Some statistically insignificant trends that seemed worthy of future study were found, however:

  • Professional pitchers are more likely to see the benefit of PAP with overload instruments
  • Pitchers with certain types of arm action flaws were predisposed to realizing better velocities post-potentiation (and kinematics of the throw did change significantly)
  • Amateur athletes who had trained under the Driveline system for some time saw little to no effect

So, What’s it All Mean?

Overall, I think the idea of PAP is very interesting and perhaps useful when it comes to weighted baseballs, but perhaps not prior to a game. Our study was a very limited trial that did not test one of the most important variables in a game – endurance.

It’s very possible that a comprehensive dynamic warm-up using proper tools captures enough of the “PAP” benefits, and athletes who do not warm-up and potentiate the CNS correctly prior to training or competing may see phantom benefits from what they think is truly PAP.

PlyoCare Balls

In that vein, however, we recommend all athletes use PlyoCare balls to warm-up alongside their dynamic warm-up that should feature resistance bands, foam rollers, and other techniques to properly prepare the body and mind for competing on the diamond.

By |September 28th, 2014|Research, Training|11 Comments