Champions Look At It This Way

Written By Aaron Weintraub

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Champions Look At It This Way

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An unhealthy perspective in sports says “win at all costs; the score is the only concern.” If you do not win, does this make you a loser? Absolutely not, but socialization into 21st Century America teaches many athletes to feel this way. Our culture consistently promotes the false premise that winning is all that matters. The idea that your self-worth depends on your achievement is a distorted belief. Your value as a person does not fluctuate at all based on your daily sport performances. It is immeasurably immense, a birthright that can never be diminished.

Perspective is the “ability to see things in a true relationship” to one another. It can also mean, “a specific point of view in understanding things or events.” Is your way of looking at events honest? Is it the most useful way to look at the truth? Athletes find all sorts of ways to keep themselves from performing at their best and all of them are related in one way or another to a flawed perspective. To improve faster, lead effectively, and perform well through adversity and pressure, athletes need to look at life in a way that is both true and useful. True, because you will not be able to lie to yourself; useful, because there are two sides to every coin. While both sides of the coin are true, only one way of explaining life is the most useful for creating confidence and an ideal internal state.

The first step to a healthy perspective about sports is to recognize that it is just a game. Sports pose no life-or-death propositions. Parents will not stop loving because of what happens today. Athletes in “big” moments on television may have literally millions of eyes on them, and they are sometimes “tough” enough to perform as though they have not a care in the world. Attend a little league game and you are likely to see a few nine-year-olds carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. The source of these polar opposites is not the situation, but the way the athlete perceives the situation. A healthy perspective will empower you with the freedom to be totally engrossed in the moment.

An ideal perspective recognizes that how things go in competition today is important, but it is not nearly as important as knowing who I am. Performance outcomes provide feedback. They reveal the truth about what works and what does not work. However, no single outcome should ever be given too much importance. No loss should ever be seen as a catastrophe. No “failure” should be allowed to carry an emotional scar of inadequacy. Fear of failure, which everyone has to some degree, should not interfere with performance because when you have a healthy perspective on the game, you know that by putting forth great effort, you cannot fail. In fact, you are already successful if you design, practice, and execute your plans (routines) to the best of your ability.

Winning is far better than the alternative, but the “winning is everything” perspective is a problem because it does not encourage effort if the victory can be obtained easily. It also does not encourage effort if maximum effort is not perceived to be likely to lead to winning. Not giving your best effort is not only easier, it is also typically perceived to be safer. Most athletes need and keep this safety net for their psyche. They do not go all out because they do not know what would happen and they fear that their best is not good enough. Leaders do not know what will happen either, but because of their perspective on success, they do not fear the unknown. They do not need a safety net. They share John Wooden’s definition of success: “the peace of mind that comes from knowing you did your best.” They know that their best effort is always good enough. Golfer Greg Norman said it well when he reported after a tough loss, “I am a winner. I just didn’t win today.”

An attitude of gratitude is a key perspective for success in sports, as in life. Being thankful improves the heart's rhythmic functioning, which reduces stress, promotes clarity of thought, and aids the healing process. It is physiologically impossible to feel stressful and grateful at the same time. Grateful athletes are more relaxed, more coachable, more forgiving, more present to the task at hand, and generally more positive than their counterparts. They are less likely to complain. Author Jon Gordon says, “Remember that complaining is like vomiting. Afterwards you feel better but everyone around you feels sick.” Leaders live out the words of John Wooden, “Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t make excuses.” Leaders are consistently grateful.

It is not difficult to maintain an attitude of gratitude, even through adversity on the diamond, because you and I won the lottery when we were born. That’s right, based on nothing but luck, we beat the odds at greater than 10,000,000:1 and we are rich as a result. And healthy and free, too. Think about it. If we could have been born at any time in any place in history, it is likely that we would have either not survived infancy, died in a war, been a slave, or perhaps struggled in poverty through a relatively long life into our thirties or forties. It’s more common, of course, to compare our lives to our neighbors’ lives. The grass typically appears greener on the other side, but comparison is a choice. Choosing to count our blessings every day is wise.

When you are off track from where you want to be during a contest (perhaps you are angry with yourself or someone else for making a mistake), the first step to getting back on track is awareness. Then, it is your responsibility to gather yourself to get back on track. A pre-planned gathering routine to make this happen is a great idea. One step of this plan that may be very powerful for you is a power phrase or image that fills you with gratitude or reminds you that softball is just a game that provides you with challenges. Perhaps you think, “This is a great opportunity to not only play softball, but also work on my toughness and consistency.” Perhaps you imagine a grandparent watching over you. It is your job to find the tools that work for you.

Every athlete experiences many challenges and setbacks along the journey to find out how good he can be. With a healthy perspective, you will remember to think like a scientist racing to perform your best and view each obstacle as a stepping-stone to success. You will compete, with yourself first and foremost, freely. Challenges and pitfalls provide motivation for you to get better, faster; they should not be viewed negatively. You are finding out which things work so you can repeat them and which things could be done better so you can change those. Outcomes are no longer bad or good, they are both bad and good. They give you a chance to learn, and also to demonstrate your ability to avoid the negative snowball effect. Clearly, if you and your teammates use mistakes rather than letting them use you, this will give your team an edge over your competition. Yes, mistakes are good. Because of your healthy perspective, you improve at asking and answering the ultimate questions of life: Where am I? Where do I want to go? And, how do I get there?

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Protect Your Booty

Written By Dalton Ruer

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Now that’s not something you read very often, nor something I’ve ever written before. However, I thought it was a great attention getter and pretty much sums up this month’s video.

Last month you’ll recall we looked at all of the ways that players are injured while attempting to slide and how they can be avoided. The number one safety issue is keeping your extended knee bent so your leg can give. After that it all comes down to distributing your body weight so that you can over come friction and actually slide.

Perhaps you’ve been part of a team or seen pictures/videos online of teams that practice sliding using a slip and slide. They are fun and certainly work well with the concept of team building and a cookout perhaps I don’t really like idea of practicing sliding in that way. Nor do I like the cardboard box and socks approach. I’m not scroogish against players having fun it’s just that both of those techniques allow you to slide anyway you want including ways that on a ball field will cause a lot of friction or cause serious injury.

My fundamental philosophy for anything is to practice the way you expect to play in the game. So this month Caitlin and Walker and of course YOU will be doing lots of sliding on the field. In a game you may end up sliding 2-3 times at most. During the course of a tournament you might slide 10 times. During the filming of this video the girls probably slid 60+ times. That’s a lot of friction that they incurred. That’s a lot of friction that you will incur as you put in the time learning how to truly distribute your weight. So my best advice … you guessed … is to protect your booty. I want your body to feel the friction. Get stuck in it if need be. But I don’t want you to needlessly burn yourself from the repetitiveness of what you’ll be doing this month.

Unlike most other drills I’ve asked you to practice the ones this month are going to require you to have 2 people who can help you and they will need a bat. Coaches if you are watching this is the perfect type of practice to involve as many parents as possible. As long as you let them know to bend their knees and hold the bat below their waist just about anyone can do the holding.

Practice is the best teacher has never been more true than for what you’ll be working on this month. In the first drill players will be on the ground in their figure 4 position and will reach up to hold the bat. The first thing I want you to learn this month is how to truly distribute your weight and that involves arching your back and extending at the same time. You will need to use the bat as leverage just like you would swing on the monkey bars or something. Now you know why I have the players with me … you will understand much better when you watch them. What you’ll find is that eventually you will get the timing correct and you’ll be exploding forward even though you have to overcome an enormous amount of friction because your booty is glued to the ground to start with. It may take you 3 times to get it, or it may take you 20 times to get it. Don’t move on until you do.

Once you have that I’m going to do you a huge favor I’m going to let you start without any friction holding you. But don’t get to excited because again it’s hard for me to explain with just words. You are going to start out standing up and holding the bat. The leg you extend for sliding is going to be leaned way back and then you are going to swing it under the bat and go into a slide. That had to be painful to read, because it was painful to write. If you email me I will thank Caitlin and Walker for you because when you see them it will make total sense. The purpose of this drill should be really obvious … help you realize that once you can overcome friction sliding becomes really easy. As with the first drill please don’t move on until you really have it and can repeat it several times without messing up. That’s called building muscle memory.

The next step in your progression this month is realizing that with speed this drill becomes so much easier. For this drill you will stand about 5 feet from the bat, run at it, grab it and then do your slide. Don’t cheat this part of the drill. If I wanted you to be in a stopped position before your slide I would have had you just do drill number 2 for the rest of your life. As you go faster and faster to the bat if you don’t slow down you are going to feel yourself actually sliding across the ground. As you get more and more comfortable then feel free to step back about 10 feet from the bat instead of just 5 and go full speed.

Be sure as you are doing these drills that you hold onto the bat. Don’t let go until you are stopped and ready to stand back up. If you are doing them correctly you will feel yourself jerking to a stop because your hands are on the bat. Instead of doing a seat drop you are now actually sliding across the ground and your arms are holding you back. Here is the cool part … you are just getting started with the weight distribution. Once you let go you are going to sail across the ground. Oh baby that’s going to be fun.

But wait I’m getting ahead of myself. I need you to have a helmet on before we get to that. So next month have your helmet ready so that we can finish this up. Wooo hooo.

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Shoulder Stress

Written By Sherry L. Werner

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Shoulder Stress

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In 1996, I was lucky enough to lead a research team in collecting high-speed video of the pitchers participating at the first ever Olympic softball competition in Columbus, GA. From the high-speed (120 frames per second) video we were able to calculate kinematic (i.e. location, speed, acceleration) and kinetic (i.e. joint forces and torques) parameters of the pitches. In Biomechanics we use these parameters to better understand human movement. Sport Biomechanics strives to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury through such analyses. Not much quantitative information is available in softball, especially on highly-skilled pitchers, so this was an important study. This month I will share with you some of the relevant findings of our study.

From the video data we sought to better understand the mechanics and joint stresses in windmill pitching. Average ball speed for the riseballs thrown by the 24 pitchers we studied was 60 mph. We chose to study riseballs because all of the pitchers threw that particular pitch. If the ball was released 38 feet (it's probably more like 35 feet!) from home plate, the batter would have approximately 0.40 second (just under one half of a second) to react to the ball once it was released. The shortest time in which a human can react to a stimulus is 0.12 second!

The main emphasis of the Olympic study was to quantify joint stress. In particular, we were interested in elbow and shoulder loads in windmill pitching. A joint force is a representation of a “push” or “pull” on the joint. In Biomechanics we line these forces up with axes of the body to provide a more meaningful interpretation. For example, a force oriented along the upper arm tends to either push the upper arm into the shoulder joint (compression) or pull it away from the joint (distraction).

Forces are calculated as a percentage of body weight so that all pitchers, regardless of size, can be compared to one another. Maximum shoulder distraction force for the Olympic pitchers was 80% body weight. This corresponded to approximately 150 pounds of force acting to pull the upper arm away from the shoulder joint at ball release.

A distraction force was also found at the elbow near ball release. This force was directed along the forearm, and therefore acted to “pull” the forearm away from the elbow. Average elbow distraction force was 61% body weight. The average elbow angle at release was 30 degrees short of full extension.

Based on this data it seems that elbow and shoulder stresses are high during the windmill pitch. Over time, the loads that these pitchers are taking on their arms will certainly affect the muscles, tendons and ligaments of these joints. Although we need to carry out more research to be able to make more generalizable conclusions, it seems that pitching mechanics can affect these joint stresses. In particular, using the trunk and lower body to generate and transfer energy during the pitch to assist in propelling the ball can reduce the load on the arm. Proper follow through also aids in dissipating these loads after ball release.

For a long time it has been said that softball pitching is a “natural” motion and that it was much easier on the arm than overhand throwing. The joint stresses found for the Olympic pitchers do not support this contention. At this point we are just beginning to understand what goes on in pitching. Until we get more concrete conclusions it is important for young pitchers to learn pitching styles based on sound mechanical principles and to understand the importance of strengthening the arms, legs and trunk.

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Confidence Always Comes from Preparation…

Written By Jen Croneberger

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Confidence Always Comes From Preparation

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The great baseball pitcher Tom Seaver once said, “My confidence isn’t in my talent, it’s in my preparation.” We practice, we tweak, we continually improve. But the aspect that grows the most is our confidence in what we are able to do given that preparation. How it affects the inner self is an interesting process to watch unfold.

There are two main places from which we draw confidence: Past performance and preparation. For many of you who have read my articles and blogs, this is not at all new I speak about confidence all the time. It is what fuels an athlete’s success. I strongly believe it’s the main reason athletes crumble when the pressure is on, or are heroes when the game is hanging in the balance.

I have seen so many athletes who tried to focus solely on the physical preparation in the off-season. The endless sprints and weights, the conditioning, the stairs, the climbs, all amount to nothing if the trust and confidence in it all is lacking. This preparation can be so critical to the success of an athlete. It can also be one’s demise.

We reap only what we sow. No more, no less. The seeds we drop today, whether haplessly spilling out of the palm of our hands, or carefully placed one by one in rows neat and tidy, will yield our future success and failures. What we do today will always impact our future. Always.

I spent some time a few summers ago working with a pro baseball player who was on his way to spring training. We often talked about confidence. What it meant to build it and how quickly it could be shattered. He never wanted to be famous or be put on a pedestal. That just wasn’t his way. He always told me how much he didn’t want to be “that guy.” The one everyone looked up to. He shunned that and just wanted to play the game he loved quietly, and with little “hoopla.” He was good. And I had to remind him that when he hit homeruns every game, there was going to be a little “hoopla…” whether he liked it or not.

He talked about holding back because of it. How he often was afraid to prepare too well so that he didn’t stand out. He was a pro, classy to the highest extent. He wanted his teammates to get the glory. Those who struggled to succeed… the ones who had to claw and scratch their way through the farm system. For him, it just kind of came naturally. He had some major league call-ups that season. Playing against the guys he only ever dreamed about meeting. He still never wanted to be “that guy.”

But still, he prepared. Often working on the physical to an extent that he grew tired and fatigued. He realized quickly if he was going to stay at that level, he would need to find his mental strengths and put just as much time into preparing those.

We made a list. A long one. Something I love to do with the athletes I work with. But this time, I made sure he didn’t just list physical strengths. I wanted him to find all that he does well. Mentally, he found that he prepares better than he ever did before. Because of that, he was more confident than ever. I remember sitting on the phone as he talked about that. I just quietly nodded my head. That was the day I understood that Tom Seaver quote I had scribbled at the top of a notebook from 2002 when I got certified in sports hypnosis and mind/body connection. It hit me. I got it.

I remember being in high school, a good student, but often would procrastinate studying for tests. I remember what it felt like to walk into a test I wasn’t really prepared for. I wasn’t at all confident except in the fact that I probably wouldn’t get an A. Yet my confidence would soar when I knew I was completely ready.

Preparation could truly be the key to confidence.

In the off-season, it’s easy to lift and run more, to get stronger and faster and think you are doing everything you can. Yes. Do this…. But to mentally prepare is just as important.

Focus on the things that make you feel prepared. Confidence always follows quickly behind.

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The Essential Equation for Maximum Pitching Velocity

Written By Carly Schonberg

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The Essential Equation For Maximum Pitching Velocity

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Ah, the unquenchable thirst for more speed…every pitcher has it, as does every pitching coach. Achieving it, however, takes more than desire, more than solid pitching mechanics; it takes highly developed physical capacities and a true understanding of how the body works. Underneath each pitcher's unique flair and each coach’s pitching style, there are some very specific things that a windmill pitcher's body MUST be able to in order to generate maximum pitch velocity.

Reaching that coveted 65 to 70+ mph speed range is all about generating as much lower body force as possible at the beginning of the pitch, then stabilizing the body in a way that allows that force to be transferred through the torso to the pitching arm. Think of the whole pitching motion as the crack of a whip: first there is a forceful forward movement, followed by a sudden stabilization of the handle which sends a shockwave through the body of the whip to produce a sharp, high speed crack at the end. We're going to take a look at how the muscles in the human body produce force, and exactly how these forces need to align to produce a fastball that lights up a radar gun.

Muscles can work in three ways: eccentrically (stretching and lengthening), concentrically (shortening to overcome an external force, i.e. lifting or pushing), and isometrically (stabilizing, or holding the body in place). All three of these muscle capacities are absolutely crucial to performing an optimal windmill pitch, and they must be highly and equally developed in order to reach maximum velocity.

Additionally, ground reaction force (GRF) has an enormous role in the windmill pitch. This is where Newton's Third Law—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—comes into play: when you push off the ground to begin a pitch, the earth pushes back into your leg with equal force. Since the earth is immovable, that force propels you away from it.

A pitcher must begin by rapidly accelerating forward away from the pitching rubber generating as much lower body force as possible right from the beginning—initiating the “whip.” In their study, Characteristic Ground Reaction Forces in Softball Pitching, researchers Chenfu Huang, Li-I Wang and Chen-Ju Chien used force plates— devices designed to measure forces exerted by athletes during jumping and stepping actions—to measure GRF in a group of windmill pitchers. They determined that the pitchers who pushed off the ground with the greatest impulse (most force applied in the least amount of time) recorded the highest pitching velocities. If we think about it simply, this makes perfect sense: the harder and faster you push into the earth, the more force the earth transfers back into your body. Pushing off the ground engages concentric muscle action in the legs, and developing that capacity will improve the force with which you can propel yourself forward.

Next comes the stabilization phase. A tremendous transfer of force needs to take place the moment the stride foot hits the ground—the stabilization of the handle followed by the “shockwave” in the whip analogy. The pitcher needs a strong, sudden engagement of eccentric and isometric muscles to rapidly decelerate and stabilize the lower body and torso in a way that allows the force already in the body, along with the additional GRF generated by the impact of the stride foot, to be redirected from the stride leg, up through the torso, and out the pitching arm into the ball.

A lot can go wrong in the instants following stride leg impact. In order for all the force to be properly redirected into the pitching arm, the pitcher must achieve optimal body alignment. The hip of the stride leg must remain stacked over the knee, and the torso must be able to stop its forward momentum and support itself in a natural upright posture. If this posture breaks down in any way—a lean forward, a bend at the waist, a collapse of the drive leg, etc. (all common faults in windmill pitching mechanics)—the force is misdirected and the pitcher loses velocity. Therefore, a pitcher MUST develop the stabilizing power of her core muscles, and especially her gluteal muscles, in order to achieve maximum velocity.

Finally, the “crack” at the end: the transfer of force from the lower body up through the torso must trigger the acceleration of the pitching arm. Optimal body mechanics add up to nothing if the pitcher slows down her arm in any way leading up to the release of the ball.

The whip analogy not only describes the transfer of energy from the push off the rubber to the stride foot impact up through the body and into the arm, but also the action of the arm itself, which has its own secondary whip. As the hand approaches the release zone, the upper arm begins to stabilize, sending a shockwave of force through the forearm, to the wrist and hand, and out into the ball.

A hard the push off the ground + a quick, well-aligned stabilization of the body upon landing + arm acceleration = Maximum Pitch Velocity.

Practice alone, however, will not get a pitcher all the way to her speed goal. Strength training to develop the three muscular capacities—eccentric, concentric, and isometric action— must be part of the equation if pitchers want to raise the numbers on the radar gun.

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