“” Maslow, Bernoulli, and Baseball: The Pitching Hierarchy of Needs - Driveline Baseball

Maslow, Bernoulli, and Baseball: The Pitching Hierarchy of Needs

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Some of the most frequently had conversations at Driveline Baseball are those pertaining to pitching velocity, and velocity-centric training methods — which are, by their very nature, stressful and workload-intensive training phases for the athlete. Many athletes want to enter these training phases because they view them as the highest possible return on their investment due to a misinformed bias which leads them to believe that the method which most directly trains an output is the method which most effectively trains that output. More often than not, this is not the case and initiating that type of intensive training may — in fact — be more detrimental to the athlete than it is beneficial. The primary issue with immediately seeking out training phases which strain the athlete’s workload capacity and push their physical capabilities is that the athlete is often unequipped to actually handle the workloads and training intensities necessary to directly train velocity via exercises like pull-downs, and other similar intense means of throwing. In other words, these athletes often lack the necessary foundation on which these skills and subsequent high-levels of performance output can be built — thus entering the economics of training and the athletic hierarchy of needs.

The athletic hierarchy of needs, similar in its general structure to Maslow’s psychological hierarchy of needs, serves to outline the steps and effective sequence of those steps necessary for improvements in athletic performance, specifically regarding pitchers. This pyramid prioritizes training in the following steps: high performance, as measured via strength and power; recovery, as represented by one’s quality of sleep and nutrition; execution, as it pertains to one’s compliance with well-structured throwing programming; mechanics, as quantified by biomechanical assessments and supported by biomechanical correlates to ball velocity; and on top of this extensive and critically foundational base sits the performance of the athlete. In this hierarchy, each previous section underlies the subsequent section above it, and thus that subsequent section cannot effectively occur without the previous. Should the athlete engage in the direct training of one of these sections without addressing the foundational necessities of that skill, they risk their own ruin in the form of faltering performance and sub-maximal output during competition. In other words, by improperly sequencing one’s training, they create inefficiencies via their training decisions and, in turn, negatively impact their on-the-field performance.

Following the structure of this hierarchy, we can come to understand that an athlete who lacks sufficient levels of strength and power output should not be focused on their pitching mechanics as much as they should their work in the weight room, their body weight, and the improvement of those markers of strength and power.

Much the same, this hierarchy can be used inversely as well — if an athlete who meets the thresholds for strength and power output also displays quantifiably good mechanics when throwing, yet still does not meet their velocity expectations, we can then look lower down the hierarchy where we may come to find out that they are not sleeping enough because they work a second job, or they are not eating well because they have poor dietary habits. There are, of course, many factors at play in athletic performance — there is no univariate formula to training athletes — however, structuring these factors by means of a hierarchy allows for an established and easily-communicable framework by which we can better understand the sequential training needs of that athlete. An important last note to be made when utilizing this hierarchy and its underlying ideologies is that an athlete can still improve without following its structure in perfect sequence. By doing so, however, the athlete disregards the foundation necessary for engaging with higher-up skills and thus may leave themself more susceptible to risk via injury, poor performance, and other outcomes which deviate from their expectations. There is an inherent risk to throwing and training for throwing at high levels of output, and while that risk is not necessarily avoidable, following the proper procedures in one’s training can serve to mitigate that risk without compromising their desired improvements in performance.

Before diving head-first into the step-by-step utilization of this hierarchy and discussing how training can be approached from an economical perspective, one must first understand the means by which we can quantify and predict the on-the-field improvements of an athlete when working away from the competitive setting. In the case of pitching, velocity is the indicator which best combines accessibility in terms of our capacity to obtain and understand it, with predictability in terms of its relationship to competitive success. Velocity may not be the only indicator of performance that one should pursue, nor is it always a variable one should prioritize the improvement of, but it is — in this context — a relatively strong predictor of success and the most commonly needed improvement seen among athletes that walk through the door at Driveline. Moreover, to not clip the fruit which hangs the lowest for an athlete would be to ignore the most important lacking skill of that athlete, and thus the trainer responsible for that decision simultaneously makes their job more difficult, and the experience of the athlete poorer via ineffective training.

To briefly summarize and simplify that aforementioned point, velocity matters because it correlates to key markers of performance better than any other trainable variable, and thus it is the most effective quantifier of athletic improvement among pitchers — this is why we care so much about it.

Having now outlined the ideological foundations of this hierarchy, as well as the means by which we can quantify an athlete’s progression up the pyramid, we can now discuss the importance of the first section: high performance training. High performance training, as it pertains to pitchers, is most focused on body weight, force production, and power. At Driveline, all three of these metrics are effectively quantified via an extensive strength assessment. Force production, which can be best understood as the raw strength of the athlete measured in Newtons, is assessed via a mid-thigh pull which results in a net peak force value. Power, which is best defined as the rate at which peak forces are produced measured in Watts, is assessed via a squat jump on a force plate. By measuring and subsequently training these metrics, the athlete establishes a foundation on which more refined, and directly visible skills can be established.

The strength and quality of musculature that an athlete possesses is, as stated, foundational to the quality of their performance in competition and their ability to stay on the field. By strengthening the surrounding structures of critical regions for an athlete (i.e. structures around the shoulder, elbow, etc.), we allow not only for a more efficient transfer of energy via a less concentrated dispersal of forces on those critical regions, but also a (hypothetical) improvement in performance — thus we introduce, in this discussion, the first instance of optimization between performance improvements and injury-risk mitigation. Strength training is perhaps the most basic yet effective means by which we can improve performance without overexposing the athlete to risk, and thus it is critical to ensure that this type of training is the first in the hierarchy to be accounted for at a base level.

While strength and power are certainly important, they are a foundation and thus there are subsequent steps in the course of action necessary for an athlete to maximize the performance which results from their training. A critical subsequent step which facilitates the use and continued improvement of an athlete’s strength is their ability to recover from each training day as they roll into the next. There are a number of sufficient ways to gauge an athlete’s recovery on a day-to-day basis, however our recent proliferated use of armcare.com’s products has proven to be effective and sufficiently produces information pertaining to their “recovery score” which is easily communicable with athletes. Using the obtained metrics from each daily assessment, trainers are able to then identify whether an athlete is clear to execute their prescribed throwing program for the given day, or reduce the workload for that day such that they mitigate their risk for injury.

To put it simply, there will be days where even the best athletes are not physically equipped for the workloads they are being asked to accrue, and thus a series of tests like those offered by this application allows us to identify when those days occur so that the necessary and appropriate adjustments can be made in the interest of an athlete’s health and long-term success.

Quantifying recovery in such a manner is particularly important because without such a quantification, long-term accrual of unaccounted-for risk occurs, and thus leaves an athlete chronically susceptible to injuries and setbacks in their training, thus detracting from on-the-field performance. As is typically the case, quantification also allows for long-term tracking of rolling trends in an athlete’s recovery — and if that objective is to increase an athlete’s capacity for handling workloads, we should expect their recovery scores to fluctuate but improve over time. Should an athlete not execute upon the necessary steps to properly recover, then they are subject to not developing this capacity quickly enough to initiate certain phases of training and in certain cases, the athlete may not be prepared for the expected workloads of a full season.

A critical piece of recovery is the actual daily execution of one’s throwing program, as consistent variation in training allows for the athlete to properly time the so-called “peaks and valleys” of workloads in their training. In other words, this steady variation determines when athletes need to push their physical capabilities in pursuit of improving them, and when they need to execute less intensive training in the interest of recovery between workload-intensive days. At Driveline, a mix of high-intensity, medium-intensity, and low-intensity days are programmed to meet these workload-related needs. Using Driveline’s Pulse and newly formulated Smart Report system, we are also able to effectively approximate the recommended RPE (rate of perceived exertion), arm speeds (measured in RPM via a wearable sensor), and acute workload for the athlete on a given day.

Those recommendations are approximately as follows:

Hybrid A: 85–95% RPE, 800–1000 RPM, 16–20 WL

Hybrid B: 70–80% RPE, 700–800 RPM, 12–14 WL

Recovery: 50–60% RPE, 500–600 RPM, 4–10 WL

Using the aforementioned Smart Report system, we are also able to effectively grade the athlete’s execution of each throwing day. Using an adaptive and moldable set of guide rails, the athlete receives a report after each day of throwing which states whether their execution is one of three colors — red (poor), yellow (near poor), or green (properly executed).

These Smart Reports are generated mostly from data collected via Driveline’s Pulse — specifically acute workloads and arm speeds — and are then utilized to make determinations about the quality of the athlete’s program execution within the framework of what a good “Hybrid B”, “Hybrid A”, or “Recovery” would look like for that specific athlete via individualized parameters such as throwing fitness, throwing history, and top-end velocity outputs. Such a system was so important for Driveline to develop and remains so important for Driveline to utilize and iterate upon because each individual day in an athlete’s throwing program represents an opportunity to incrementally improve their capacity for handling workload-intensive training. Such a system ultimately allows for us to offer a set of guide rails to ensure that this progress is established over time.

Mechanics and movement are an often-discussed and equally-as-often mis-prioritized sub-sect of an athlete’s training program. An athlete’s internal desire for stimulus and training of the pitching movement commonly clouds their perception of the importance of other training sub-sects more foundational to the output of velocity. Having made such a note, and given that the athlete meets a certain determined threshold in the quality of strength, recovery, and ability to execute a throwing program (most typically a 4–6 week on-ramp), and given that they have displayed an increasing capacity for handling the progressing workloads of their throwing program, they are then at a point in their training where mechanical interventions are appropriate.

At Driveline, nearly every athlete begins their training with a biomechanical assessment (completed with a strength assessment as well) in which their mechanics — quantified via a series of kinematic velocities and bodily positions across various points of their motion — are graded and compared by means of percentile ranking to all other athletes that have been assessed in the Launch Pad (the not-so-technical name for Driveline’s motion-capture lab). The report which results from this assessment sections the pitching delivery into six different groups: arm action, center-of-gravity velocities, lead-leg block, rotational velocities, arm-rotational velocities, and hip-shoulder separation.

Each of these sections contain even smaller examinations of movement which are also graded via percentile, which then collectively culminate to produce a composite score of the athlete’s mechanics.

When discussing these assessments and subsequent scores with athletes, we — as in trainers at Driveline — often refer to the percentile ranking and strength of correlation to pitch velocity that each measurement has across our sample. These strengths are often used to determine whether an athlete needs to work on one thing over another, and thus plays a somewhat deterministic role in training decisions when an athlete has reached this echelon of the training hierarchy. For example, an athlete who possesses a 95th percentile lead-leg block, but 45th percentile center-of-gravity velocities may be trained in a manner that prioritizes the training of those COG velocities over the lead-leg block. Furthermore, we may even be incentivized to trade some of the quality of that lead-leg block in exchange for improved COG velocities since COG velocities relate more strongly to pitch velocities than the lead-leg block.

By quantifying these biomechanical metrics in such a manner, we can properly determine the degree to which these tradeoffs can be and should be made, but we can also — more broadly — set a precise and better-informed course of action for each individual athlete based on their needs.

It is, in all honesty, quite rare that an athlete — especially a young athlete — would walk through the doors at Driveline and immediately begin directly training mechanics or velocity because these are upper-echelon sections of training in the hierarchy, and thus rely on a multitude of other more important and arguably more trainable variables to be properly executed. This is, generally speaking, the purpose of the hierarchy however — to organize, structure, and effectively sequence the steps of training necessary to each individual athlete. While some athletes may become frustrated with the lack of direct training and stimulus in their every day training, it is important to outline the means by which they can progress up the hierarchy, and to outline the expectations of what is required to do so. Additionally, combatting the monotony of training during these foundational phases can be accomplished via tools like Pulse, Smart Reports, the Arm Care app, and other technological training tools which create infrastructure and organization to facilitate the athlete’s engagement with their training. If a trainer can engage an athlete with monotonous training on a daily basis, that athlete will then later possess the necessary foundation to execute and benefit from more workload-intensive training phases in a safe manner, thus further underscoring the necessity of such a hierarchy.

These tools, ideologies, and methods of training are all great in theory — but in practice, what is their purpose? Many paragraphs ago now, you may approximately recall a discussion of improving performance at a level that is optimized for an athlete’s injury risk — therein lies our purpose in taking such an extensive and strenuous series of steps; our objective is to improve the performance of an athlete while mitigating their risk of injury. To better outline what such a balance looks like in theory, we can utilize the economic concept of the expected utility. With this concept, we can account for variables like pitching velocity gained, strength gained, the intrinsic risk of injury, the decision-based risk of injury, and additional general training costs (time, money, other allocatable resources), and summarize them to outline the manner in which the execution of the aforementioned steps in training may affect an athlete’s probable gains or losses.

Using this framework, we can model the expected utility of a general athlete as follows:

Given that:

With the following assigned weights which indicate relative importance:

Using this model, we can then mathematically and therefore objectively compare the possible outcomes of two athletes — one who addresses his athletic needs sequentially and therefore creates a solid foundation on which he can then build his skills, and one who fails to do so, therefore undershooting his net gains in performance and overshooting his desired risk of injury.

Athlete #1:

Athlete #2:

Using this model of expected utilities, we can observe that even when two athletes gain the same amount of velocity, those who better mitigate their risk of injury will increase the probable utility of their training and thus they are more likely to yield a better return on the resources they invest into that training. Such a model explains why an established technological infrastructure is so important in training, as it allows for the quantification and subsequent tracking of these trainable variables, ultimately allowing for us — as trainers — to better understand the condition of our athletes. This also explains why not all gains in velocity are created equal — as is explained by the two athletes who gained 5 mph of throwing velocity. Just because an athlete has gained 5 mph does not necessarily mean their performance has improved, as longevity, sustainability, and applicability of training are all factors worth consideration in estimating the gained utility of an athlete.

One last worthwhile point of discussion in this greater discourse is that which surrounds the aforementioned variable of intrinsic risk, and the previously discussed topic of risk mitigation. Risk is something innate to engaging in an athletic activity, and as the economists would suggest, there are some activities which are riskier than others, as there are some individuals who behave in a manner more risky than others as well. Throwing at a high level — particularly in reference to pitchers — is innately a riskier athletic activity, as would be suggested by the ever-increasing number of arm injuries. Risk is something we should, with certainty, seek to mitigate — however, it is not something we can reasonably eliminate and thus such an objective should not be ours in training. To eliminate risk entirely would be adjacent and perhaps congruent to asking an athlete to not perform at a high level, as risk is something one must be willing to accrue in order to do so. To be a good pitcher at a high level, one will likely be required to throw the baseball quite hard, and in order to throw the baseball quite hard, one must place otherwise unprecedented stress on the body, and such a chain of necessities creates an ever-accruing risk of injury to the athlete — albeit, a necessary risk. In economics, there exists the concept of opportunity costs, defined as the value of the next best alternative that you give up when making a choice. Pertaining to gains in performance, the opportunity cost for choosing to eliminate risk would be to forgo improvements in performance, thereby making it a poor economic decision should we choose to think about our training economically (which we should).

We, as trainers, are not in the business of eliminating risk so much as we are in the business of mitigating it, regardless of how much one may wish for the former to be true. To strive for high levels of performance in any endeavor is innately risky, throwing being no different, so the job of the trainer is to facilitate success while simultaneously providing guide rails and safety nets as often and as best as possible for the athlete, thus further facilitating their success. Sometimes those safety nets look like a hierarchy of needs, sometimes they look like an added technological infrastructure, sometimes they look like improved communication between the athlete and their trainer. Regardless, the pursuit of improved athletic performance, particularly in the realm of pitching, is complex and multifaceted. By providing a hierarchy of needs, and by improving and further developing our safety nets, we ultimately look to lower the barriers to entry for athletes looking to improve via a robust foundation on which their skills can be effectively and safely developed.

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