How We Use External Focus And Feedback To Train Our Athletes (Part 2)

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Earlier this week I released Part 1  of this article illuminating the value of external focus and knowledge of results. In the  second half we’ll discuss how we implement those concepts.

Instead of offering verbal cues or cognitive input, at The Florida Baseball Ranch, we use 5 primary methods to improve movement efficiency:


1) Eliminate time:

This posit was first introduced to the baseball world by Paul Nyman of Setpro and was presented to me by coach Ron Wolforth of the Texas Baseball Ranch®. It is a principle illuminated by Dr. Nikolai Bernstein, a Russian neurophysiologist in charge of the athlete development for all Soviet Olympic teams from the years of 1950-1966. He is considered “The Father of Motor Learning” and he coined the term “biomechanics.” He left a rich legacy in the field of motor learning that included 2 axioms we use every day. The first one, we’ll talk about in a little while, but the second one was this:

“Mechanical inefficiencies do not happen in a vacuum, they require two variables, time and tension.”

Mechanical inefficiencies are things that make you throw slow, things that make you throw scuds, and things that make you throw hurt. Tension could present as either physical and/or psychological tension. Adding time by slowing down a movement provides the opportunity for mechanical inefficiencies to intervene and to corrupt the execution. Try riding a bicycle very slowly. It’s pretty difficult. But speed up a little and the machine becomes more efficient and the movement improves. Tightrope walkers, when they begin to wobble tend to speed up to improve the efficiency of their movement. Shortstops and catchers usually have the cleanest arm action on the field. That’s because they’ve never had the luxury of time. They’ve always had to hurry in their movements so their bodies have organized themselves accordingly. The first line of defense in influencing a movement pattern is to eliminate time.

One example of eliminating time can be seen in our quick pick drill. In this self-organization experiment, the athlete stands with his back to his target, in an athletic position, hands together and his hips and knees flexed. On the “go” signal, as fast as he can move, the athlete drops his glove side foot behind him with the hip internally rotated. He pivots toward his glove side, breaking his hands only after he sees the target, and launches the ball toward the target. He must rapidly gain ground toward the target as he makes the move and he must ensure a complete rotational finish around his front leg.

This drill requires the athlete to execute his most efficient arm path to achieve the intended result.

2) Create feel:

About 94% of all athletes learn through feel and not via verbal/cognitive cues or words. In fact, the words get in the way. If we have an athlete who is having trouble executing desired movement pattern component, we create a drill (a self-organization experiment) to help his body kinesthetically understand what it feels like to move in a more efficient and/or powerful way.

For example, if the athlete is not getting into his backside glutes very well, we have him perform a box squat drill. Prior to executing a throw the athlete drops his lead leg at a 45-degree angle beside and behind him to squat like he’s sitting on a box. This places his butt behind his heel and his back knee inside of his back floor and allows him to feel the activation of his glutes. He then comes to his set position and attempts to drop his back sided glute toward the location that his lead foot was in at the starting position (45 degrees behind and beside him). With practice the athlete is able to blend that feeling into his normal pitching movement. Sometimes you have to be creative here. If we don’t have a drill that specifically addresses the appropriate feel, we have to invent one.

We must be careful that the drill we choose actually encourages feel and doesn’t act as a guide. Using devices or apparatus as guides for a movement pattern can be marginally effective in the very early stages of learning, but for proper retention, we must remove these guides as quickly as possible. We made this mistake a few years ago with a device we called “The lead leg connector.” We had a bunch of guys who disconnected their lead legs, so one of our dads created a device that required the athlete to glide a PVC pipe down a sloped metal pole to keep them connected longer. At first the results were encouraging, but then we noticed that very few of our guys were able to transfer that move onto the mound effectively. That’s because the lead leg connector became a guide or a crutch and didn’t allow the athlete to comprehend the feel of lead leg connection. We rarely use the lead leg connector any more. There is a fine line between when a device or implement facilitates “feel” and when it becomes a “guide” or a crutch.

3Feed the Mistake:

This is a concept I learned during my Functional Movement Systems and the Selective Functional Movement Assessment certification courses. In essence it says that when you have an athlete who is making an error in a movement pattern, you can improve it by making that error worse. Find a way to exaggerate the mistake and many times the athlete will subconsciously learn the feel of self-correction. Here’s an example from the FMS course: You have a guy doing squats in the gym and every time he squats his knees collapse together in a valgus (knock kneed) manner. If you put a heavy elastic band around his thighs just above his knees and crush him further into the error, his body learns to push against the resistance and he subconsciously improves his squatting pattern.

In our practice we use the concept often as way to improve a postural disconnection. If we have a player who leans aggressively toward his glove side at weight bearing foot plant, one might be tempted to have him throw against a fence or a wall, which would prevent him from leaning toward that side. But that essentially represents a guide and will do little in the long term to fix the problem. Instead, we tilt one of our temporary mounds about 45 degrees toward his glove side, exaggerating his error, forcing him to either fall on his head or self-correct. When blended in with regular mound pitches, the player rapidly learns to feel the new movement and without even knowing it’s happening, he integrates it into his normal pattern.

4) Change the goal:

Dr. Bernstein’s first rule of motor learning states, “The body will organize itself in accordance with the overall goal of the activity.” This concept is so heavily infused into our processes that we use it as a verb. To “Bernstein It” means to establish the goal, measure the results, provide knowledge of results and let the athlete figure it out through self-experimentation. The athlete’s delivery must be shaped by his intent and not by any intrinsic or extrinsic cognitive or verbal cues. If an athlete isn’t achieving the desired result, one strategy is to change the goal. Consider the example of hammering a nail into a log. If I asked you to pound a nail into a log but allowed you to do it with as many strokes as you wanted, you could simply tap lightly on the head of the nail until the head was imbedded in the log. But, if I told you to pound that nail in using only one swing, your body would organize itself in an entirely different pattern. We have a very simple example that demonstrates this concept frequently. When we have a player with a forearm flyout (forearm to humerus angle > 90 degrees at weight bearing foot plant) we use a connection ball placed between the forearm and the humerus to teach him to feel a more efficient move. When used correctly, the connection ball is released during the throw and should travel forward or toward his glove side. If his forearm flies out too early the connection ball will sail toward his arm side. A simple correction is to tell the athlete to make the yellow connection ball fly toward his glove side or even further in that direction. By changing the goal, we trick his body into a new, more connected movement pattern. If we add the associated emotional booster, he quickly transfers it and it becomes his new throwing pattern.

5) Stabilize Attractors :

Recall from my previous blog called “Any Moron Can Make You Sore” that in every human movement there are stable components and others that are variable. The stable components, known as “attractors” can be identified by finding movements that are commonly shown by performers of all levels of experience and ability. Movements containing time pressures, and those that put the athlete in “at-risk” positions can also be considered attractors.

The number of patterns available for any athlete to perform a movement is practically incalculable. The variable factors in any movement are known as fluctuators. To perform a movement most efficiently, attractors must be stable, but not too stable, and fluctuators must be limited, but still abundant enough to allow the body options for adjusting to dynamic stimulation or environmental changes. When the attractors of a movement are stable, fluctuators are automatically minimized. The best way to stabilize an attractor is to force co-contraction around a joint, that is, simultaneous isometric contraction of all the muscles surrounding a joint. Instability forces co-contraction, stabilizes attractors, and minimizes unnecessary fluctuators, thereby making the movement more efficient and more likely to achieve the desired result. Therefore, adding just the right amount of instability in training will allow the body to rehearse critical co-contraction maneuvers.

In the lower body, another way to force co-contraction n the hip and the knee is know as “foot plant from above. In this move, a flying foot landing on the ground, for example the lead foot in a pitching delivery or a swing, should approach the ground from above, as opposed to “sliding” in. Subtle but vital hip extension just before foot plant is also an attractor that forces a sort of “clawing” movement of the landing foot and automatically produces co-contraction in the landing hip and knee.

foot plant from above screensliding in screen

Like most components of the throwing or hitting motion, when observing foot plant from above, how you get there is just as important (if not more important) than getting there. I have seen pitchers who appear to demonstrate the clawinglong stride action of foot plant from above but it happens for the wrong reason. Lead hip extension just prior to foot plant should happen as the product of a synchronized dance with back hip internal rotation. However, back in the early 2000s I began to hear bloggers and reports insisting that every pitcher’s stride length should equal 120% of his body height. This was later revealed to be a flawed teaching precept, but as you now, in baseball disproven or inaccurate tenets die hard. Some pitchers are still taught to reach with their lead leg in a apparent attempt to achieve a long stride. In these cases the lead foot does come back toward the rubber at the end of its flight phase. But it only does so because if it didn’t the athlete would end up nearly “doing the splits”. This would be both mechanically inefficient and highly uncomfortable. The pitcher actively pulls the lead leg back under him. He gets to the “right place”, but for the wrong reasons.

So far, we’ve talked mostly about extrinsic KR (although stabilizing the attractors requires a certain level of intrinsic awareness), but Dr. Bosch suggests that intrinsic KR might be the Holy Grail in motor learning. It appears that the body monitors its performance not only by targeting external results, but also by subconsciously observing results within the body. Bosch offers the metaphor of an athlete subconsciously focusing on internal markers and like a traveler, moving from beacon to beacon until he reaches his destination. The system reasons back to the sensory information it should receive if it were to maneuver to a particular point in the movement. Once a beacon has been reached, the next one becomes the point to aim for as the movement progresses. Each beacon represents an internal landmark that guides the athlete’s movement. If he can subconsciously navigate from marker to marker, the results of each part of his movement serves as intrinsic feedback that optimizes his movement.

As Bosch notes, a pitcher who separates his hands and then taps the ball in his glove prior to beginning his arm swing might be using the ball tap as a first beacon to guide the rest of his delivery.

So, can a coach or instructor facilitate the identification of these intrinsic KR beacons?

I believe so… but it’s not easy.

At a SFMA certification class last year, Dr. Greg Rose presented a technique I have found to be very effective in helping high-level throwers find intrinsic beacons. Here’s how it goes:

You find the athlete performing a throw with a reasonably efficient pattern. Before the next pitch, you ask him to pay attention to his body and see if he can become aware of which muscle or muscle group he feels initiates the movement. Or, you might ask him to observe where his body feels “the most active” or “powerful” during the pitch. Another technique is to ask him what part of the bottom of his foot he feels the most pressure or weight on during his initial move toward the plate (i.e., the ball of the foot, the heel, or the middle). When the athlete offers his report, he has given you a cue (in his words) that identifies one or more of the beacons he can use to guide his movement. On the next pitch you ask him to make his body feel exactly what he described to you. This new, self-identified intrinsic piece of information can be very powerful in developing and refining his movement. I use this technique sparingly, mostly on athletes who appear to be highly in tune with their bodies. Occasionally, I have over-estimated a player’s kinesthetic awareness and been confronted with an open-mouthed blank stare. In those cases, there is only one option – move on.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve presented 4 articles on training that serve as the foundation for all of our training here at The Florida Baseball Ranch.

In “Any Moron Can Make You Sore” we discussed the difficulties in balancing specificity and load. The second article, “Weaving Motivation and Intention Into Your Strengthening and Throwing Programs” pointed out that the body is not interested in anything it finds familiar or mundane, and that it organizes itself differently in movements with clear intention.”How We Use External Focus and Feedback To Train Our Athletes (Part 1)” expressed the value of creating a training environment that uses external focus and a healthy dose of objective feedback  to maximize the natural flow of motor learning. And in this article we identified five ways to influence the development or adjustment of a movement pattern and offered a theory for helping an athlete find intrinsic markers to guid his movement.

As I stated in the first of these four articles, the purpose of training is to make you play better… period.

Training either makes you better or it makes you worse. Training is never neutral. And when you’re talking about training, better or worse copytransfer is everything! Transfer of training to improved performance starts with motivation. The stimulus must clear the reticular activating system before it can panic the body into adaptation. To force adaptation while maintaining adaptability, the training stimulus must include a healthy balance of specificity and load/variability. For optimization and the highest return on training, clear intention must be woven into every facet of an athlete’s individualized program and the training environment must present a rich and properly balanced blend of augmented KP, and augmented or intrinsic KR.

These concepts are woven into the fabric of every training session we perform at The Florida Baseball Ranch. We don’t always get it right, but we’re definitely getting closer every day.

To all the coaches, instructors and  reading this.  I welcome your feedback. Open, intellectual, respectful dialogue between critical thinkers and learners is the only way to move our profession forward.

In the end, the players and the game we all love will reap the rewards of our work.

To learn more about how we use these concepts every day, check out our Ultimate Summer Training Program. If you’re not able to join us for 2 weeks or more, come to one of our  weekend Elite Performer’s Boot Camps. Or, call us at 866-787-4533…  (866) STRIKE3 and schedule a Precision Strike One Day Evaluation and Training Sessions.

Hurry… spots are filling up fast.

Thank you.


Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS


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