Risk v Reward

An elite softball player must demonstrate superior explosive power by producing force in a very short period of time (e.g. hitting, sprinting for a ball in the outfield). In order for force production to be efficient and maximized, the underlying movements must also be efficient.    We often use the term “elite mover” to describe an athlete capable of this combination.

While many athletes possess natural athleticism thanks to their parents, athleticism does not always translate into the characteristic of an elite mover. Becoming an elite mover means unlocking the body’s ability to (1) stabilize (2) mobilize and (3) accelerate/ decelerate the body in both high and low velocity conditions. At S2 Breakthrough, our athletes work their way through our level system based off their performance in our Threshold Assessment. Power focus in training is not implemented until an athlete is in our top level (4), ensuring she has mastered the foundations first.

Strength coaches often attempt to train power movements through Olympic lift variations (snatches, clean and jerks, power cleans, etc.) and plyometric box exercises. When programmed appropriately and thoroughly progressed, these activities can be effective for their purpose. If the goal, however, is to mitigate risk of injury, then we must consider the risk versus reward of these types of lifts and exercises. Snatches, cleans, box jumps, etc. require highly coordinated movements and with that comes great responsibility for both the coach and athlete. If these movements are performed without proper form and/or excessive load, the door to compensation opens and the risk for future injury increases.

When it comes to long-term athletic development in softball, we must take a step back and analyze the tools we are handing our athletes to be successful. When developing training plans for our athletes, I am motivated by exercises that are both effective and practical, weighing the risk versus reward carefully. For example, all of the following exercises create the same reward: improving force production and explosiveness through the hips. The risks of each should be weighed against the reward based on the maturity level and training age of the athlete:

Exercise Risk Reward
Box Jump Falling off box

Inappropriate box height

Poor landing mechanics

Explosiveness / Force Production: Hips
Snatches Improper pull mechanics Explosiveness/ Force Production: Hips
Hang Cleans “The catch” – wrist mobility Explosiveness / Force Production: Hips
Barbell Reverse Lunge Loss of balance Explosiveness/ Force Production: Hips
Body Weight (or weighted) Split Squat Jumps Loss of balance

Poor landing mechanics

Explosiveness /Force Production: Hips

Establishing a Player’s Capacity for Softball Skills

Our Threshold Assessment was developed specifically for softball athletes to effectively identify a player’s performance potential and build a physical training and development plan uniquely tailored to her.

The first step is to perform a health history review. We have adopted and modified the Pre-Participation Exam from our state high school association. Any previous musculoskeletal injury history is important for us to understand to be able to write an effective performance plan to mitigate their risk of re-injury. Face-to-face review of the player’s responses also allows an opportunity to review menstrual history and identify signs of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).

Next, we perform our range of motion and mobility evaluation. Our first stop is passive range of motion which means we evaluate how far the player can move through hip and shoulder rotation by moving her leg/arm for her. From there, we assess active mobility. We focus on hip/leg interaction, scapular movement, thoracic rotation, ankle dorsiflexion and hamstrings. Evaluating both passive and active mobility gives us a clear picture of her body’s capabilities for movement and potential impact to her training potential and exercise prescription.

Once we have evaluated the player’s mobility, we evaluate movement and strength. This part of the process identifies how the player performs on tasks critical for optimal performance: pelvic control, chest-pelvis dissociation, and ground force transfer. It is progressive, establishing the athlete’s ability to perform under stable and low velocity conditions to inform both strength and skills coaches if the athlete possesses movement competency for high velocity, sport-specific skills and verbal instruction cues. It is not a measure of athleticism or absolute strength.  

We finish up our process with a biomechanical assessment of the player’s softball skills (hitting, pitching, overhand throwing), which includes use of body, shoe, and bat sensors, Rapsodo, and high-speed video. 

From the athlete’s results on our Threshold Assessment, we place her in a Training Level and develop a Performance Plan. This system provides a framework and direction for the athlete and her parents; how much to train, what to train, and what drills to add to compliment her developing movement patterns. The levels ensure our athletes’ training regimen gives them the tools to achieve their full potential.

Friday Brain Food

Friday Brain Food is a weekly feature of a research publication, with a summary and key findings provided. 

Werner SL, Jones DG, Guido JA, Brunet ME. Kinematics and kinetics of elite windmill softball pitching. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2006;34(4):597–603. doi:10.1177/0363546505281796

Direct link to article

Compared to baseball pitching, little information is available regarding shoulder stress during softball pitching despite time-loss injuries reported as a direct result of the pitching motion. Pitch counts, while popular in youth baseball, are not present in youth softball. The purpose of this study was to determine the relationship between kinematic (displacement, velocity, acceleration) variables and shoulder distraction force. The authors hypothesized that shoulder joint stress experienced by elite softball pitchers would be similar to those experienced by professional baseball pitchers. Additionally, the authors sought to compare joint forces obtained in the current study to previously reported data. During the 1996 Olympic Games, 24 pitchers volunteered to participate in the study. Researchers captured video from 3 high-speed cameras, placed in right and left field and behind and above home plate, during live game play. They then analyzed the highest velocity rise ball thrown for a strike from each participant; manually evaluating game film frame-by-frame to identify movement of anatomical landmarks during the delivery phase (top of backswing (TOB) → stride foot contact (SFC) → ball release (REL)). The table at the end summarizes key variables discussed in the results section. The variables with an asterisk (*) were correlated with shoulder compression force. The higher the value of shoulder compression force, the more distraction force the shoulder experienced. Professional baseball pitchers experience shoulder compression/distraction forces of 108 ± 16%BW, based on a similar study performed by the same lead author. High distraction loads at the shoulder are linked to labral tears and issues with the long-head of the biceps brachii. The authors propose that softball pitchers are also at risk, as shoulder compression/distraction forces in the current study were 80 ± 22%BW, with a range of 50%BW to 149%BW. They conclude with the recommendation that pitching mechanics should be honed to reduce shoulder compression/distraction force specific to the 7 variables correlated from their findings. Specifically, shoulder compression force would be decreased (reducing distraction force) with increased shoulder abduction at SFC and an increased stride angle. Shoulder compression force would be increased with landing in more knee flexion at SFC, higher degrees of shoulder flexion at SFC, a longer stride length, increased elbow flexion at REL, and a more open position of the hips at ball release.

Taking the Guesswork out of Player Development

My (Karli’s) journey through softball was not a linear progression by any means. It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that my mom opted to send me to a strength coach for individual workouts, which encouraged me to embark down my path in player development. Ultimately, this is what sparked my passion for strength and conditioning; from that moment on I was obsessed with being stronger, faster, and harder to beat.

However, that mindset and approach to be “stronger” did not provide a positive correlation with my on field performance. I believed, and hoped, that because of being “strong” my statistics would improve — unfortunately, being strong is only a small portion of it. My mechanics, in both hitting and throwing were far from perfect, but I didn’t understand why. “How could my swing not be perfect with working out five times a week and attending hitting lessons twice a week?” is what I used to think to myself all the time. Nowadays, I think, “how could that have possibly been it?”

Going into my senior season of college — my last season — I finally figured it out, I had too many blind spots in my training. Everything matters, you can never neglect any one thing in training for softball, but, it is also impossible to excel in your skills if you are not aware of your movement deficiencies. It finally made sense why “simple mechanical fixes” I had been trying to make the previous years in college were not possible for me — my body was not physically capable of moving in the ways those fixes required. After seeking a way to combat these deficiencies through a strength program; changes in skill, and skill acquisition began to happen one by one.

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Karli’s story is one that all of our coaches have echoed when we were developing our player development platform – a search for ensuring that our training platform does not have any “blind spots”.  

Our Threshold Assessment was developed specifically for softball athletes and is part of a larger process to effectively identify a player’s performance capacity. It is not a measure of athleticism or absolute strength; rather tasks critical for optimal performance: pelvic control, dissociation, and force transfer. It is progressive, establishing the athlete’s ability to perform under stable and low velocity conditions to inform both strength and skills coaches if the athlete possesses movement competency for high velocity, sport-specific skills and verbal instruction cues.

From the athlete’s results on our Threshold Assessment we place her in a Training Level and develop a Performance Plan. This system provides a framework and direction for the athlete and her parents; how much to train, what to train, and what drills to add to compliment her developing movement patterns. The levels ensure our athletes’ training regimen gives them the tools to achieve their full potential. 

When an athlete is placed in Level 1, it indicates that she is still mastering fundamental movements and struggles with overall pelvic stability and a hinge pattern. Without the requisite stability, chest-pelvis dissociation is not possible. The primary goal for athletes at this level is to master fundamental movement patterns (push, pull, rolling, landing, etc.)  and develop neuromuscular efficiency in these patterns.

A Level 2 athlete demonstrates basic stability and competency in unloaded fundamental movements. Dissociation is still developing, but not mastered quite yet. With the athlete’s baseline ability to perform fundamental movement, training focuses on challenging these movements through appropriate external load. We also focus on the development of coordination but keep tasks low velocity and emphasize postural control.

At Level 3, we have determined from our Threshold Assessment that the athlete can maintain stability and generate dissociation under low velocity conditions; they have awareness of their body in space and can control its movement effectively. Training emphasizes challenging the athlete to generate more complex movements, introduces plyometric exercise in a single plane and low velocity, more traditional compound lifts.

Once an athlete reaches Level 4, mobility under load and the development of velocity in compound lifts compliments challenges to core stability and plyometrics. 

We regularly reassess our athletes, based on components of the Threshold Assessment, to determine if they are ready to level up.

 

My Journey From Pitching Lessons to Player Development: Why Growing as a Coach Matters Too

I have loved pitching all of my life. As a young athlete, it taught me to be a leader and a warrior, and now as a coach, wife, mother, business owner, not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for how the circle prepared me for life.
When I decided to follow my heart about 10 years ago and pursue coaching as a full time career, I imagined spending my days with young pitchers, showing them all the ways the circle could empower them as well. After opening S2 Breakthrough my work very much modeled what I expected, but as time went on, I realized that I was simply feeding into a broken system.
It began with the realization that coaching my pitchers in a traditional lesson format felt like I was micro-managing their performance. They were relying on me and my cues to perform. Parents loved my energetic, passionate approach but to me, something was missing – the passion and energy from the athletes. When I would go to games to watch some of my pitchers compete, they often looked like a very different version of the pitcher I knew in “lessons”. It became obvious to me that I had built a setup that prompted pitching as instant progress and the need for constant short-term success. When my pitchers were not experiencing that in competition, they were lost.
What I loved about my own journey as a pitcher was that it was just that – a journey. For as many highs as I experienced, I felt just as many lows. I had coaches and mentors, of course, but what the circle really taught me was that when you’re out there in competition, you rely on your belief in yourself, your experiences with both failure and success, and the resilience you progressively built in order to climb your way to the top.
The first major change I made to my lesson format was to move from individual to small group sessions. I thought that would teach my athletes how to accept ownership and accountability over their training and ultimately their journey as a pitcher. I felt like I was providing my athletes with a better way to train but something was still missing. It wasn’t the best. I knew I was falling short, but didn’t really understand why.
I was watching my business partner Krista evolve as a hitting coach. As MLB began investing in tech and research, hitting began to progress and softball, of course, benefited from that trickle down effect. Around the same time, we had our first clinic and presentation with Austin Wasserman of High Level Throwing. I quickly noticed a trend. Both Austin and Krista were looking at throwing/hitting in a very similar manner. It seemed obvious that teaching pitching should follow the same principles of human movement and energy transfer, but it wasn’t. Instead, we were passing on the same drills and workouts we had taught/been taught for decades.
I wanted to seek more knowledge, better knowledge about how to train pitchers. I started attending high level conferences with high level coaches/speakers and to be perfectly honest, it all felt stagnant. The talks surrounding training mimicked exactly what I was doing at S2, which mimicked exactly what I did as a pitcher 20 years ago. This couldn’t be right. I started to question things like overhand throwing as a sufficient warm-up, sprinting while pitching as a means to promote better mechanics, and why pitch counts were never discussed in softball.
This led me to start trying different approaches at S2 Breakthrough. It had become a mini lab for me. We started with prioritizing movement. Dynamic warm-ups, arm care and movement prep kicked off every training session. I chose movements that paralleled the pitching motion and began to talk to my athletes about the connection between the two. I felt like I was moving in the right direction with training but as soon as pitchers would begin pitching, I was still modeling what I had always done – the same drills, the same cues. So I started to question myself. How do I actually know that this stuff works? How do I know if these drills are effective or even correct?
About a year and a half ago Krista and I started to invest in some tech. We wanted data to challenge us and change the way we trained, coached and thought. And so the journey began.
S2 Breakthrough now houses a platform to build great movers in order to build great pitchers. Movement work doesn’t just supplement training, movement and strength work are the training. We now understand that pitching is just a sequence of highly coordinated movements. We’ve pulled those movements apart into their fundamental pieces and attack our athletes’ inefficiencies through individualized training. This is player development. You cannot pitch if you cannot move well, and you cannot maximize movement capability if you’re never assessed. To make your pitchers great, start from the bottom and build. Simply forcing pitchers into positions and drills they cannot manage is not the answer. Encourage the journey, not instant success or a secret formula. Be willing to change how you see and do things. It’s not about ego or being “right”. It’s about seeking more for our athletes and for the game we all love so much.