5 Flawed Assumptions Holding Us Back From Real Progress In Baseball Training

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Back in the early 15th century, the science of cartography, or mapmaking, was emerging as a new and important piece of the scientific community. At that time, mapmakers were very successful in making precisely accurate two-dimensional (planar) maps of local areas. However, when they extended those maps out to larger areas, it was discovered that the maps became increasingly inaccurate. as the region being mapped grew larger. Additionally, planar maps of smaller areas could not be combined into a larger such map. Ultimately, of course, they realized that their struggles arose because the surface they were mapping was not planar, but was indeed represented by a shape which was at that time unfamiliar to map makers — a sphere.

Try as they might to refine, expand, and document the smaller components of a world-wide topography system, they soon realized that, because of a flawed initial assumption — that the earth was flat — they were unable to solve the problem.

And so it was with a vast majority (myself included) of pitching coaches, instructors, and researchers, up until as recently as 5-10 years ago. Deceived by the pervasive myth that highly effective pitchers should have a “repeatable delivery”, We began “eliminating moving parts” and isolating movements. Less movement meant less opportunity for error. We slowed our athletes’ natural tempo and demanded rigid compliance to a “paint by the numbers” model of mechanical efficiency.

Like the wise sensei of beginning karate students, we lorded over our athletes incessantly regurgitating verbal/cognitive cues as they rehearsed our choreographed, cookie cutter movements. The result was a generation of young pitchers who possessed neither the intent nor the ability to express power and/or explosiveness on the mound. They could throw strikes, and since most of the hitters they faced were being trained with the same archaic and inane approach, they could get outs.

Out of the dark ages of mere speculation, the pursuit of athleticism and objective measurement emerged as an important component of the development and rehabilitation of throwing athletes. We showed our athletes novel and exciting exercise systems to build the bigger motor we to hoped would be the foundation to better, more efficient and more powerful movement. And we measured … everything. As the value of objective measurement in shaping intent and documenting progress became more evident, we collected data on anything that moved. Soon, “science-based” and “data-driven” became industry buzzwords as engineers, self-appointed gurus and experts in the physical sciences began developing predictive models for throwing that were grounded in the precepts of contemporary Newtonian physics.

Across an entire nation of well-intentioned coaches, instructors, and researchers (myself included), leaning on the pillars of the scientific method, searched for linear cause and effect relationships between a narrow range of variables believed to influence performance and injury outcomes. We unleashed an impressive arsenal of technology such as wearable biomarkers, force plates, EMG sensors, gyrometers, dynamometers, and accelerometers to measure a seemingly infinite number of variables such as force vectors, moment arms, angular momentum, ground reaction forces, torque, and other Newtonian metrics. It was a rational, systematic attempt to unlock the secrets of “optimal mechanics.”

Meanwhile, on the medical side, esteemed and compassionate practitioners (myself included) held firm to an insufficient interpretation of clinical evidence that indicted “overuse” as the primary cause of most throwing injuries. Based on this singular, incomplete assumption, we advocated limiting workload and avoiding connective tissue stress. Rest, anti-inflammatory medication and steroid injections became the gold standard for managing arm pain and treating an injury. By following such a path, it is likely that we created a new generation of fragile athletes, ill-equipped to withstand the rigors of high-level throwing.

Concurrently, coaches, instructors, and researchers began learning, experimenting with and implementing hot button training modalities such as weighted-ball programs, running crow-hop throws, and long toss. Various studies concluded that these products and techniques, executed in a balanced individualized plan could be highly effective in assisting an athlete to gain velocity and were judged to be reasonable training tools for adding variability and enhancing development. However, in some cases, these techniques, examined by the standards of the physical sciences, were reported to increase connective tissue stress and alter mechanics. To some, those conclusions suggested an inherent and unpalatable risk of injury. But again, the flaw in our process was in placing blind faith in the much heralded “scientific method” and “peer-reviewed research.”

Many of the failures and obstacles we face in the baseball training industry are rooted in a list of flawed assumptions. This list includes ideas like the following:

We can find linear “cause and effect solutions in complex systems
• “Overuse” is the primary cause of all throwing injuries
• Traditional strengthening is the key to improved performance, injury prevention, and rehabilitation
• Manual therapy and conventional physical therapy can aid in organizing tissue from the outside
• We can direct the organization of a movement pattern with top-down, cognitive cueing.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be expounding upon this list, discussing one flawed assumption at a time. I’ll start with assumption number one.

Finding Linear Relationships in Complex Systems:

As my good friend, Dr. Ed Fehrenger has noted, “Science hates variability, and humans are infinitely variable.”  The scientific method attempts to change only one factor at a time while controlling all other variables and then it makes conclusions about direct cause and effect relationships or strong correlations. However, in complex systems like the ecological systems, economies, political systems, weather patterns and the complex biological system of the human body, linear relationships rarely exist. Science assumes it can ignore many variables as insignificant noise, but in complex systems, there is no “noise.” All variables matter. Linear systems adhere to a concept known as The Superposition Principle which states, “For all linear systems the net response at a given place and time caused by two or more stimuli is the sum of the responses that would have caused each stimulus.” However, whenever parts of a system interfere, cooperate, or compete, the superposition argument fails spectacularly.

Analyzing and predicting the behavior of components of complex systems requires a deeper kind of investigation. Our best hope is to draw from our knowledge of anatomy, physiology, neurology, medical science, biomechanics, exercise science, behavioral psychology, motor learning, and dynamic systems theory (which finds its roots in differential calculus). We must combine all this information and view it through the lens of common sense and the eyes of an experienced master teacher/coach. In every dynamic system, some components are stable. These are known as attractors. The variable parts of a system are called fluctuations. In any human movement, the attractors can be discovered using three basic criteria: 1) If a preponderance of high-level performers execute a part of the movement in a similar fashion, 2) If executing that part of the movement inefficiently would lead to a disruption in timing and 3) If performing a part of the movement would result in significant risk of injury.

In pitching, we have identified seven key biomechanical attractors:

For more on our unique dynamic systems view of pitching mechanics  CLICK HERE.

In our next post, we’ll discuss the second flawed assumption on the list: The indictment of “overuse” as the primary cause of most throwing injuries.

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Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS
CEO, Florida Baseball Ranch

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