Pain Management Guide For Athletes: By Coach Matt June

Coach Matt was a multisport athlete at Colonie High School in Albany, NY. He played Football, Basketball, Track, and Baseball. In college Matt studied Kinesiology and played second base for SUNY Cortland. He was a four year starter and two time captain.  He has some really good insight into pain management as an athlete. In this article goes into detail on how he believes there is a difference between discomfort and injury. Coach Matt states how discomfort is a part of sport and if he only participated when he felt 100%, he would have missed out on many opportunities to play.

The science of pain is not entirely understood. Regardless of how much research is done in the area, we’ve had trouble quantifying pain as something that is consistent across the human population. While pain manifests itself in the physical body, no two people experience it in the same way. This leads professionals to believe that much of pain management is associated with the mind. This is a theory that could potentially explain why some people experience identical dysfunction in completely different ways; and why some people may be able to play through certain discomfort that others can not.

Looking back, I have a very unique perspective on playing through some of my injuries. If I knew what I knew then… what I know now… I may not have played through certain things. However, being raised the way I was, pain was never automatically perceived as a threat. Growing up I was taught that pain was a part of sport. It was certainly not glorified, but it was simply part of the game. Only 2% of all college students have the opportunity to call themselves an NCAA athlete. Along with much of the hard work and time necessary to developing skills, often times one must pay the price of being in pain to consider themselves an athlete. As an athlete, as far as I was concerned pain is just part of the game.

Understanding the difference between discomfort and injury is a very important tool I used throughout my career. As a coach, I am a witness to a lot of athletes who are very quick to perceive their pain as an injury. We play sports in an era where athletes have tremendous ease of access to imaging technology, and therefore have a heightened focus on their internal structures which can create heightened symptomatology. No matter the athlete, we all have some degree of internal fear of injury. We identify with our sports and even just the fear of losing it due to injury can be debilitating in itself. In my experience, sometimes the more you know, the worse your symptoms. In college I remember having a relatively painful groin pull. While it was definitely a nagging injury, my approach was taking it day to day, rather than rushing to seek an immediate conclusion. If I only took the field when I was feeling 100%, I would never had the opportunity to play.

My advice to athletes is to always have the right healthcare resources available, however don’t be so quick to perceive your discomfort as an injury. Pain is a part of sports. It is incredibly important to check in with your body often, observing how you feel on a day to day basis. Understand that sports are taxing on the human body and each day you may feel different, but don’t be quick to judge it as an injury. At the beginning of the season you may feel 100%. It is very important to not believe this will be the case for the remainder of the season and therefore, check into your body regularly.

SATELLITE TRAINING

Satellite training is a service we offer to give athletes the chance to experience the Athletes Warehouse culture and training philosophy without having to physically come to our facility. In a perfect world, we would want everyone across the country to have the opportunity to be present in AW. Satellite training is an incredible option for athletes around the world to experience what Athletes Warehouse is all about.

A commonality between training in the facility vs. training satellite style is how customized the program is. This is beneficial to satellite athletes as the program can be tailored towards whatever equipment they have access to. We’ve had satellite athletes who have access to some of the top collegiate facilities in the country, as well as those who have had no equipment but a track and a set of resistance bands. There are so many creative ways our team of coaches can help an athlete achieve their performance goals.

Satellite training happens on the athlete’s time, and therefore we find great benefit in the number of training sessions an athlete can accumulate in a given week. With many commitments in an athlete’s schedule, we understand that it is not always easy to physically be in Athletes Warehouse more than 2-3x per week. Eventually, training even just 2-3 times per week is not going to be sufficient to push an athlete to elite status. We encourage many of our in-house athletes to take advantage of this service, as it can give an athlete supplemental training on days they are not physically in our facility. This can allow an athlete to realistically accumulate upwards of five to six training days per week.

For athlete’s who are currently training in Athletes Warehouse, beginning satellite training is simple. You can start by addressing interest with your primary coach. You and your coach can then discuss a program design to be completed outside of the facility. Your coach will adjust your program so that more complex and technical training will be completed with a coach’s eyes on you. Supplemental work can fill in the gaps in accordance with what type of equipment you have outside of the gym. This truly is the best way to maximize your training at Athletes Warehouse.

For athlete’s who do not currently train in Athletes Warehouse, there are several ways in which we can get started. First, we do an initial consultation and movement screening. Just like any of our athletes in the facility, we cannot begin to write a program for you if we do not take time to get to know you and how you move. For athletes who are within range, we encourage you to be in person for your initial consultation, where an athlete can talk with a coach about goals. The coach can put them through an in-person movement assessment. For those unable to be present in the facility, we can perform an initial consultation entirely via Skype or FaceTime. After the program is designed, athletes have total access to our video library, where each movement they are prescribed is demonstrated by one of our coaches. Utilization of video conference calls allow open communication between the athlete and the coach throughout their training process. Programs also encompass a large amount of testing and logging which allows the coach to track the progress of the athlete day to day. Satellite training is an amazing way to take a little piece of Athletes Warehouse everywhere you go. Not just do you receive a superior training program, but you have personal access to top coaches in the industry. If you are looking to take your training to the next level, reach out to team@athleteswarehouse.com to get started with you satellite training experience power by Athletes Warehouse.

THIRD PLACE

Many of us have come to know Athletes Warehouse as a sanctuary. Whatever your reason for coming, it’s safe to say that many of our athletes find assurance and safety coming through the doors. By allowing our athletes to feel such a level of comfort, we maximize what we get out of them. We break down the barriers pertaining to the stress of beginning off-season training for the first time, or potentially the last time. No matter what stage of an athlete’s career, this facility has become more than just a gym to so many. It has become a “third place.”

A third place refers to a third area in the student athlete’s life where they will find sanctuary. Creating such a sanctuary where athletes can come to improve themselves in so many different facets of life is an incredible way to maximize the potential of a young individual.

I have essentially grown up in Athletes Warehouse. As first an athlete and now as a coach. This facility has become a home to me. I can remember as an athlete, coming home from college, my first stop was my house to drop my bags off, my next stop was Athletes Warehouse for a training session. The coaches here became role models to me. I looked up to Nick, Matt, and Cassie. As a coach, it is my responsibility to create this environment for every athlete that walks into our building because I can reflect on how powerful an impact this facility had on my life.

When an athlete feels as though the training environment is their third place, it creates a motivation that is so purely intrinsic in the athlete. I am incredibly grateful that I had the ability to experience this as an athlete. It has given me a totally different perspective on how I treat my athletes to this day. Each athlete may have severely different reasons for training. Each athlete may have a different motivation for coming and some may even find trouble motivating themselves to walk in the building. Regardless, the team of coaches here at Athletes Warehouse have this incredible ability of making every athlete feel at home in the facility. I have experienced this, felt it change me as an athlete, and seen it change athletes each day as they come through the building.

In a society of sports that is so hierarchical where we program our athletes to respond to authority, it is so refreshing to be in an environment where a young athlete responds to a figure they truly trust and respect, rather than fear. Know that everyday the athlete walks in the building, a coach is greeting them with the utmost effort of developing a true and honest relationship with them. This is what creates a “third place”, a “safe haven”, a “second home”, for the athlete. This is merely one of the reasons that makes athletes warehouse special and why we will continue to produce phenomenal athletes.

Stay Strong,

Coach Jack

WHY WE FOCUS ON MOVEMENT PATTERNS BEFORE MAX EFFORT

Say you just bought a used car that you planned on fixing up as a weekend project. The car needs a ton of work. Regardless of your experience, intuitively, you may begin with getting the engine to run, change the brakes out, and change the tires. What you wouldn’t do is go directly to adding a turbo to the engine that doesn’t quite run yet. What we can come to realize from this article is that strength and conditioning can be thought of in a very similar way to working on a vehicle.

On “Just Fly Sports Performance Podcast”, I listened to Joel Smith interview French performance coach Jerome Simian on how he built a world record holding decathlete. There was one section of the interview where Jerome notes his viewpoint on how he is able to increase performance through movement rather than through strength and power maxes. While he would agree, there is a time and place for heavy strength lifts, I thought it was a fantastic point made that we can increase the performance of the athlete through creating better movement patterns. This can be thought of like the car mechanic. If we pursue max effort strength movements before addressing competent movement patterns, it’s as if we are increasing the horsepower of the engine while driving on bad brakes and tires. In both the human and the car, the expression of the engine’s horsepower must be facilitated by a structure that is optimal. If structure and movement is not addressed first, we are giving an athlete an engine that is way too powerful for what their frame can handle. This is how countless injuries occur in even the best athletes. Even for an athlete in a strength based training program, we must continually come back to movement focused work; just as we would bring our car in for an oil change and inspection from time to time.

Just yesterday on the training floor, Coach Matt was breaking down a lateral shuffle technique with one of our highest level athletes. I noticed him quietly observe the movement patterns of the athlete’s lower body and feet. I asked him what he was looking for. He noted how he did not like how this athlete was stacking their trail leg during a lateral shuffle as they went to change direction. He felt it placed the athlete in a compromised position. What they did was break down the movement into simple holds, allowing the athlete to feel the exact adjustment that they both agreed that her body should be in. Even though this was a very high level athlete, they struggled in making an adjustment to correctly aligning her body. I couldn’t help but think what a catch this was by Coach Matt. With the naked eye he was able to notice just the slightest leak in positioning of the athletes lower body during a high speed lateral shuffle.

Whether we admit it or not, many humans have this innate belief that more is better. Oftenly in the strength and conditioning field we fall into this trap of trying to squeeze more speed, more power, and more strength out of our athletes. After all, we call ourselves performance coaches. How can we know if we increase performance without a quantitative number to tell us that we are improving? The adjustment Matt made to his athlete’s lateral technique was more beneficial than any pro agility (a baseline agility test commonly used by strength and conditioning professionals) or sprint time. He facilitated a technique that increased the integrity of this athlete’s frame, allowing massive room for the addition of more horsepower. Like I said before, adding horsepower to a car that is out of alignment, is a recipe to end up back in the mechanics shop. When people come into our facility for the first time, this is not always what they want to hear. Most people come to us and say “I want to get faster”, “I want to build strength”, “I want to increase my agility”. Regardless of the athlete’s goal, it must be initiated with fantastic movement patterns. In turn we will develop a machine that runs reliably, efficiently, and will have a tremendous amount of room for after-market additions.  

RETURNING FROM INJURY

Fear had very rarely been a term I would have ever used when it came to playing sports. I loved them, had a passion for them; they became a safe haven for me as I got older. Between softball and basketball, I felt fearless while playing – like nothing could touch me. It created a sense of exhilaration that only those who played would truly understand. Hitting a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down or making the crazy, incredible play would have me feeling on top of the world. When I got to play college softball, that feeling was only exaggerated. The feeling of having a crowd of over 1,000 people cheering for you is incredible. Fear would have been the last word in my repertoire in this moment.

Fast-forward to my senior year. I was recovering from my second shoulder surgery with a small likelihood of ever being the same player I was before them.

Fearful was the only word I could think of to describe how I felt.  

For as long as I can remember, I had always been gifted with an exceptional arm. I started as a baseball pitcher and then slowly transferred into the sport of softball, around age 13, where I became a shortstop and catcher. If you ask any coach of mine, they would agree with the statement that I was not gifted with the power of speed (even if I felt like I was). Because of this, I was not always thought to have potential as a shortstop until a coach saw my arm strength. I was able to adapt to my lack of speed with deeper angles because I had the arm strength to make the play deep in the whole. When I got to college, throwing off my back foot or on the run became my staple play as the speed of the game was ridiculous. My arm strength became my safety mechanism.

The First Hurdle

After my shoulder labral repair surgery, I remember looking up the statistics on throwing velocity post surgery (probably not the smartest decision for anyone in this situation). Some of the studies said the athlete would only get 80% of their velocity back. 80 PERCENT! I felt defeated before I even started the rehabilitation process. While in the process of my throwing program, I had a moment of clarity with my assistant coach, Jessica Moore. I had begun the section of throwing a softball from 90 feet and I thought it was going to be the hardest thing in the world – mind you, in order to complete the program I had to throw from 150 feet. It had been so long that I was struggling to understand how far 90 feet was. She set me up like I was throwing down on a steal to second base and I went after the first throw – it flew over her head. Now, for anyone who knows Coach Jess, she is quite sarcastic. I will never forget the stare she gave me with the, “and you were freaking out for what, Boyle?” look. I thought that was it; I thought I had gotten over my major mental hurdle coming back from an injury. Then came February 9th….

February 9th

Game Day. First game back. Emotions are running high with excitement as the season is about to kick off. This team gets to start to define what they are about today. We go through warm-ups and batting practice then go back to the locker room to get ready. Down to the field, we walk and the nerves start to set in. What if my arm gives out again? What if the anchors don’t hold? It’s my senior year. I can’t go through this again.

Luckily, I run into Dr. Lee, our Behavioral Health Coordinator at USF. I have been working with him throughout the entire injury recovery process and at that moment, I knew I was beginning to freak out with fear and needed help to calm down.

“Cassidy, take it pitch by pitch and just breathe. You got this.”

First inning. No ground balls – awesome, we can do this. Second inning – pop up, great we are okay.

Third inning. Ground ball bouncing over the pitcher’s head. Bare-hand, throw on the run. No pop. No pain. The umpire calls out and a smile erupts across my face, my coaches faces, my teammate’s faces. I was back, in Cassidy Boyle fashion. But the true test was still to come. Two more innings pass. Ground ball in the 5-6 hole. Backhand, throw off the back foot. It was the moment we all were worried about; we didn’t know what was about to happen. An absolute cannon across the diamond and the girl is out by a step. WITH NO PAIN. Last out of the inning.

Moments.

There are moments in our career that we never forget. This was one of mine. It was the realization that not only my effort but the help and aid of those around me all paid off. I trotted off the field and was swarmed in a hug by my head coach, Ken Eriksen. My teammates were all around me in excitement because we had just gotten out of a huge inning. Amidst this, I looked into the crowd to find my dad. Grinning ear to ear, with his quivering lip of love and relief, I gave him the thumbs up sign that he always looked for when watching the games the past 4 years. I walk into the dugout, finishing up the high fives, and put my glove down and just took in the moment. I turned around to find my best friend just standing there. We didn’t say anything, just a quick hug with enough understanding that no words were necessary. Fear was no longer in my mind but instead family. These people went through my journey with me. They were there for the good days and the bad ones. They pushed me to get back on the field and made me want to be out there with them again.

You see, I was lucky. I was lucky to be at a University that understands the importance of Student-Athlete Mental Health enough to have a Behavioral Health Coordinator in the department. Lucky enough to have a coaching staff that allowed him, the team doctor, and Sports Medicine Staff in our dugout for moments like February 9th. We are all under the presumption that sports are 90% mental and 10% physical. That 90% is way too important not to take care of. Dr. Lee is one of the most influential individuals in our Athletic Department. Without him, this moment may not have occurred. Returning from an injury is almost all mental. The mental battle needs to start during the physical recovery, but it doesn’t stop when we get cleared physically. In fact, that is when that battle revs its engine. It is one thing to practice post injury where you always have in the back of your head that you aren’t ready to go all out yet; it is another thing to play in a game where you are going all out to the point where there is no second thought of “what if.” I am so grateful to have had an individual during my process dedicate a portion of their time specifically to this aspect of injury recovery.

Remain resilient,

Cassidy

WHAT COACH JACK IS LEARNING ABOUT THIS WEEK

While we have had the luxury of getting our athletes in the building multiple times per week, many of these athletes are practicing the specific skills of their sport simultaneously in the same week or even in the same day. We generally see two types of back dysfunction that are exposed during movements performed in the weight room.

Extension-Based Back Pain

This is usually a result of an aggravated joint in the lower back. Where this pain is usually exposed is during a Squat or Deadlift where the athlete experiences discomfort while setting their back. These are athletes that we commonly see as slightly lordotic, and therefore when setting their back before a lift tend to overemphasize extension. The athlete experiences pain in this position due to extension sensitivity, yet interestingly enough, these athletes also lack adequate ranges of flexion. What I have found to be a fantastic training tool for athletes like this is utilizing flexion exercises like a segmented rounding over to touch the toes (even with a light load in some of the stronger high level athletes), reverse hyper, or even many of our quadruped crawling drills that emphasize a global rounded position of the spine.

Flexion-Based Back Pain

This is much less common in many of our athletes as it is usually associated with a disk issue. Simply enough, these athletes usually lack sufficient extension capacity. These are athletes that a coach would see having the opposite problem as stated above. They would have difficulty even expressing any form of extension when setting themselves up for a lift. These athletes tend to benefit from extension based exercises. Movements like an active cobra pose, supermans, bird dogs, or even just a straight up back extension.

Some athletes come out of a long season with mild discomfort in the lower back. It’s important for us as the coach, and often times the first point of contact in identifying an athletes pain, to understand when an athlete must be referred out to see a specialist. Overall, I have found this to be a great guideline to prescribe proper exercise that avoids exacerbating dysfunction, and can even help an athlete build strength and range of motion in areas that they may be deficient.

STRENGTH FOR THE AREA BETWEEN THE EARS

Before we start, I want to encourage every single one of you to keep reading. Even when it seems like this is just “another one of those articles” or it seems like it just doesn’t pertain to you. This topic is one that we must continue to talk about even when it is hard or doesn’t feel like it applies to us.

In the past six months, the mental health initiative throughout the athletic community, and pretty much the human community, has exploded. There is a mix of compassion and empathy as well as misunderstandings and negative attitudes. With this being said, the athletic community finds themselves in a polar divide as strong as the current state of political affairs. Many find themselves in the ideal of being the strong individual who only needs to rely on themselves or the “expressing how they feel is weakness.” This mindset has developed by generational transference through the athletic community. Passed down from mentor to mentee and the persona we place amongst athletes that they are indeed that – an athlete. They are the best of the best, the strongest of the strong, the greatest creation of human evolution. Survival of the fittest with the elite athlete being comprised of every human’s ideal form. Yet, at the end of the day, we forget one simple fact – they are human, just like me and you. We, as a human society misconstrued emotional strength for physical strength. Emotional strength is not the ability to handle everything on our own but instead the ability to understand what we can and cannot do by ourselves and the courage to ask for help when we cannot.

Me, Personally

I want to pause here for a little anecdotal information. In my 22 years of life, I have found myself living most of it from the area in which I felt I did not need another individuals help, in anything. I felt that being strong meant keeping everything locked up and handling it myself, or in some cases, lock it up and throw away the key. When I got to college, this internal process of mine was exacerbated, even though the personal stressors were piling up between the school, softball and social aspects of my life. It was suggested by a coach and two close friends that I seek out our Behavioral Health Coordinator, Dr. Lee Dorpfeld, for a chat. I remember thinking, “HA, that will never happen. I don’t need a psychologist.” For the next two and a half years, he and I played, what he calls, a game of cat and mouse. I would come in one day and then disappear from his office for four to six months. I would see him around our athletic facility and we would always chat or have a conversation but I avoided his portion of the facility with the same determination as a softball player attempting to avoid a slump. (You can see where this is heading.) Now, I am probably one of the slowest shortstops to ever have played Division I softball. It was joked that if you wanted to make me run fast, just put Dr. Lee at the opposite place you wanted me to run. You see, I fell into the misconception that we all have – the “ist” phenomena. Psychologist, dermatologist, orthodontist, therapist, etc. We often feel that professions ending in “ist” are all related to fixing someone.

It wasn’t until I sustained the first of my two major injuries that I started going to talk to Dr. Lee on a more “consistent” basis (I place the quotations because it wasn’t really that consistent but it was more often than four to six months). I began to realize how much less stressed I was because I had someone to talk through my stressors, uncomforts, and fears relating to my injury process. Slowly and surely that started to transition into topics regarding graduate school and relationships with others. My natural tendencies to “lock up” into self-protection mode slowly began to dissipate. I was starting to have real relationships and great friendships with people who mean a lot to me. My ability on the field finally came to full fruition as well. I was able to remain focused and locked in. Simply put, I felt lighter in everything I tried to do. No, sadly I did not get physically faster by releasing these personal loads but I was mentally faster. Understand this, I didn’t have to be “fixed” or wasn’t diagnosed with a condition as everyone fears. But, I found a safe place to be vulnerable and release myself from unnecessary stress.

Start By Changing Your Definition

You see, the ability to open up and discuss what is on your mind, whether good or bad, is “strength.” It is the understanding that we all need that person to talk to. Often, we lock athletes into this bubble that places them on a pedestal above the standards of the normal human. In actuality, their competitive profession places them in an area of high stress and personal demands. We need to re-educate the athletic community, starting with the youth athlete all the way to the professional, that asking for help or admitting your stressed isn’t weakness, it IS strength.

I’d like to emphasize another point – this doesn’t have to happen with a psychologist. It can be a friend, a coach or teammate, a mentor – anyone who you feel comfortable expressing yourself too. If you are fearful of the “ist” phenomena then I encourage you to find someone in your circle. It can be powerful to hear that someone feels the same as you, that you are not alone, as we most often are not. I look to another personal example that occurred with one of my closest friends.

Honestly, it happens quite frequently between the two of us so I cannot remember the context of the first one specifically but it went as most of them do. I was feeling quite overwhelmed with something softball wise and I blurted out during dinner, “can I ask you something?” She responded with “oh boy,” as she’s come to associate that question with something of grand context. I stated my point, as normally is not a question but a statement, to which she responded, “Cass, I feel the exact same way and I haven’t told anyone either.” It was a moment of mutual appreciation and understanding, as we both finally felt legitimized in our thinking. Now, I am not saying that this is always going to happen. Sometimes, you are going to open up and someone won’t feel the same way or understand it. That does not mean you hunker down and lock up – as with anything like athletics, there is going to be “failure.” But I want to reframe this thought as well; opening up and having someone not understand or feel the same isn’t a failure – it is just the process of human connection. Not one person is going to have the same sequence of events in their life as you but they will have general experiences similar to you; it is in this that the bond is created. We might not have the same exact feelings, but they will be close and possible to relate to – that is where you must find the comfort.

Why Athletes Warehouse

Athletes Warehouse is a prime example of changing this part of the athletic culture. We strive to challenge our athletes from a physical and mental perspective. We often incorporate mental skills training into most of our classes and large groups as we deem it as important as the physical skill set we can provide. We thrive on relatability – as all of our staff consists of former collegiate athletes which is effective as I find there is a slight difference in the natural tendencies of an athlete. We strive to create a safe environment for our athletes to challenge themselves and test their limits. We encourage open communication and discussion amongst staff and through the coach-athlete relationship.

I encourage any athlete, coach, or head of an organization reading this to let this message sink in. We are all human, so why don’t we allow athletes to act like it? Change doesn’t occur overnight. It takes one person impacting another and then another and this cycling continuing over and over to perpetuate change.

Let’s start now,

Cassidy

WHY THE PRONE TRAP RAISE IS SO DIFFICULT FOR ATHLETES?

The prone trap raise is a fantastic exercise for not just any athlete but for most of the population as well. However, as alluded to in the title, the prone trap raise is a difficult exercise to master. The article below will touch on a few reasons why this exercise, that appears simple, is actually one of our more complex movements we complete with our athletes.

What is the prone trap raise?

In this video, you’ll see Coach Brandon completing a prone trap raise on an incline bench. The exercise can be done on a table as well where the athlete is laying flat. Coaching cues for the exercise:

    1. Begin by having the athlete lay flat on the incline bench and crush their anterior core into the bench (there should be no excessive extension at the lumbar spine.)

    1. Cue to keep the chin tucked and pressed into the bench. This will prevent excessive forward head push. If the athlete were on a table, they should have their head turned toward the direction of the arm being used in order to decrease activation of the upper trapezius musculature (more about which muscles we target below).

    1. Have the athlete ‘scap load’ meaning, they will pull their shoulder blade into a retracted and posteriorly tilted position. Most of the time, this will be done so with the aid of a coaches guidance in order to ensure the athlete is setting up properly.

  1. The athlete should then raise his or her arm up at approximately a 135-degree angle in order to activate the lower trapezius regions. See picture below for the pennation angle of the striations in the trapezius muscle.

*Due to the many areas of focus for this exercise, we will typically begin each athlete by just utilizing the weight of their arm.

Why is this all important?

Attention to detail with this exercise is paramount to making sure we as coaches are not just prescribing exercises because they make sense on paper. As an industry, we need to take pride in knowing the why behind everything we do. This will allow us as practitioners to provide the best for our athlete as well as be able to educate the athlete on the importance of taking pride in the finer details of the movement. The prone trap raise is an important exercise because the exercise works to put the scapula in the proper position by activating the lower trapezius muscle fibers. Many times, the body is used to relying on the upper trapezius in order to complete movements. The lower regions of the trapezius are important for balancing this dominance by the upper trapezius as well as allowing the shoulder to get into an upwardly rotated position. In addition, utilization of the lower trapezius will aid in stabilizing once in the overhead position. Most sports such as (but not limited to) baseball, softball, tennis, volleyball, lacrosse, and weightlifting involve a heavy reliance on the ability to raise the arm overhead. Understand that our body, especially as an overhead athlete, will not shut down once we fatigue. Even when improper muscle sequencing begins to take over, we will still find a way to throw, shoot, spike, and lift. As athletes, we will compensate and reach for a different part of our body that is less than optimal for completing the movement in order to get the job done. This repetitive compensation will overtime set us up for injury.

Why is this exercise is so difficult?

Posture

Not just as athletes, but as a society, our posture is pretty terrible. Take for example how we find ourselves in front of our electronic devices:

Typically, we have a very shortened and tight front side of our body. If we look at the upper body alone, the shortened pectoralis region can lead to an anteriorly tilted scapula. [insert picture of anteriorly tilted scapula]

This poor scapular position can lead to a multitude of dysfunctions with athletic movement. One of the more pressing issues is the inability to get into a proper upwardly rotated position. In order to help correct for this, we can add prone trap raises into the athletes exercise routine. Remember though, the very first thing we had to do in order to properly complete the prone trap raise was scap load our athlete into a posteriorly tilted position. But what if the athlete lives in an anterior position? What if the front side of his or her body is so shortened that they cannot get into the correct position in the first place? They’ll complete the prone trap raise but they’ll crank on their upper trapezius in order to get the job done. This is just further exacerbating their dysfunction! Instead of helping the athlete, we as coaches have put them in a position to hurt themselves. This is when a properly trained eye and guidance from a coach can aid in helping this athlete accomplish the purpose of the exercise.

Let’s take it one step further. So the athlete has a shorted front side of their chest. Why? What if there is a lower body dysfunction that is causing the upper body to compensate? In some cases, we observe individuals with extremely tight hip flexors. This tight hip flexor position pulls their low back into an extreme lordotic curvature. Over time, the body will compensate for this lordosis by developing a kyphotic curvature of the upper back (see image below). So, let’s say we as coaches try to get an athlete to posteriorly tilt their scapula by lengthening the front side of their chest but we are still missing the bigger picture which is that their lower half is a mess to start with. Working on releasing the tight hip flexors that are pulling the hips forward and causing thoracic flexion in the first place may be step one to correct these movement and posture deficiencies.

Posture is a bit of a rabbit hole and I hope I didn’t disrespect the topic too much by briefly going over general issues. It is important for someone who has chosen to study the human body as their career to keep in mind that there can always be more than one explanation for a movement dysfunction. Our role as coaches and specialists is to honor the complexities of the body and continue to educate our athletes on proper movement. By doing so, we will be able to better correct for issues in the human body and not only will you as a coach pay closer attention to movement but your athlete will too resulting in accelerated improvements.

WHY OUR ATHLETES TRAIN BAREFOOT

If you follow us on social media or have watched any of our Youtube videos lately, you will notice that many of our athletes have been training barefoot. I wanted to take a moment and explain why.

For some time now, podiatrists have termed shoes, “foot coffins” with the intention of highlighting the potentially damaging impact a sneaker can have on the musculature, connective tissue, and ultimately functionality of the foot/ankle complex. These damaging effects are resulting from a reduction in mechanical stress applied to the foot, as the sneaker works to alter the force absorption needs of the foot. Inherently, this should seem beneficial as the mechanical load on our biological system would then be less. However, our body is a master at being efficient, which is most illuminated through the conservation of energy. Therefore, when the musculature, tendons, and bones of the foot are not being stressed or utilized regularly, they will begin to decrease in functional capacity and ultimately become weaker. While this may seem like a trivial result to use of sneakers, we must heed the mounting research that suggests functional capacity issues at the foot/ankle complex can lead to several upchain issues such as altered kinematics at the knee and hip complexes leading to potential injury. To deconstruct this concept in a more comprehensible format, think of the sneaker as wearing a cast.  When it is time to remove the cast you will undoubtedly notice some muscular atrophy, movement deficiencies, and downright weakness. Now think about the damage if that cast is worn 365 days a year and for approximately 8-12 hours a day.

WHAT ABOUT THE INJURIES THAT CAN OCCUR BY BEING BAREFOOT?

The ramifications of going barefoot for walking, running, or training have been duly noted in several research studies; patients have complained about several issues such as plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, and several other bony and soft tissue injuries.  However, with almost all these instances of injury, the primary issue was not the forces being applied but the progression in the duration and intensity of these forces. Take Wolff’s Law of Adaptivity, which states that compressive forces applied to bony structures in a healthy system (person or animal) will respond to the load being applied to it. Thus, if the load increase the bone will remodel stronger over time, conversely, if the load decreases the bone will get weaker over time (remember the body is an efficiency master). While this explanation works well to explain the potential benefits of bone stress, the key term in the explanation is the word ‘respond.’  

The word choice of ‘respond’ is absent of definitives, as all it states is that the bone will produce a response, not whether that response will always be positive or negative. Therein lies the primary issue – the rate of progression and intensity to which this load is applied. Thus, the potential benefits of training barefoot (much like all things with the body) can only truly be realized if the progression to overload is acclimated accurately.  Several studies have indicated that benefits from training, walking or running barefoot may take several months to a have a meaningful impact.

SO, WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS TO TRAINING BAREFOOT?

Each athlete that enters our door is put through a thorough initial evaluation process that among many other kinematically based movement screens, includes an analysis of the foot at stance and in action (walking, running, landing, jumping, etc.).  It is extremely common for many of these athletes to present with issues relating to the foot and the way in which this will cascade to other issues up the chain towards the knee, such as valgus moments (the knee diving in), or the hip, such as asymmetrical shifts in jumping or landing.  These dysfunctions are a primary concern of our programming process and must be addressed as an integral part of increasing performance. It is with this that several new studies have begun looking at the potential benefits of training athletes barefoot.

One of the more recent studies found that over an 8-week period of barefoot training individuals were able to redevelop strength and connective tissue tension in the arch of the foot which allowed for great force production through the big toe.  If you have looked into any recent literature on sprint speed, agility, or power production, you will be aware of how significant the force production potential of the big toe is to these skill sets. Adding to this point another recent study (link) took several athletes through an 8-week barefoot training program and found that the athlete’s ankle stability, speed, and their agility all improved. What is interesting about this study is not so much the ankle stability as this inherently conceivable, or the speed development as it is probably easy to ascertain that improved foot mechanics, can lead to improved force production (as we just learned with the previous study) and thus faster speed times, but what is most interesting is the improvements in agility. Agility is a kinematic process that is highly dependent on the deceleration capacities of an athlete, which would imply that by training barefoot an athlete becomes better at not only creating force but absorbing force as well.  This concept is further illuminated by two studies (link) that looked at groups of athletes performing squat movements both with shoes and barefoot. What can be gleaned from both articles is that the eccentric portion of the squat resulted in greater musculature activation when barefoot and as a result of the barefoot training the athletes experienced an increase in stiffness at the knee joint and hamstring reflex activity. These two studies help provide some evidence as to perhaps why we may see improved agility based measures following barefoot training as the stiffness at the knee joint and improved hamstring reflex will greatly aid in safe and accurate deceleration movements.

MAJOR TAKEAWAYS:

  1. Barefoot training can improve foot dysfunction over time with the proper progression of exposure.
  1. Barefoot training can improve force production through the big toe which can have drastic implications in total system power output.
  1. Barefoot training can improve foot/ ankle stability, speed development, and agility based movements.

FINAL NOTES

Each of our athletes are progressed to training barefoot based on their responses to its exposure (like any other training modality) and are all (at least initially) provide foot strengthening, mobilizing, and stiffening exercises upon initial exposure.

WHAT COACH CASSIE IS LEARNING ABOUT THIS WEEK

As a performance coach, we focus so much on how our athletes move yet we don’t always get an opportunity to observe how the athlete responds to game-like stimuli. Due to this, I was provoked to dive into this deeper when an athlete of mine had every athletic tool necessary to be successful in their sport yet when we incorporated a game-like scenario where she was required to respond to a visual stimulus, it appeared there was a delay in her motor response. Too much time was taken to make a decision on how to move instead of relying on athleticism and instead of reacting. This made me feel like we as coaches may be missing a major piece to our athlete’s development. So much of my passion for this topic comes from my personal experience as an athlete. I have first hand experienced a ball looking as if it is moving in slow motion and being able to interpret the spin. Did that happen because of something I did in training? Was it more of a psychological response and was I instead just in a state of flow? Would I have ever experienced that visual acuity had I not faced great pitchers at a young age? Is there a way to measure someone’s capability for pitch interpretation? I ask all of these questions because the follow-up question to all of this becomes, how much does developing proper swing mechanics ACTUALLY matter with an athlete?

Therefore, this week I decided to dive deeper into how an athlete responds to their environment. Here is some major information I have come across: 

-The most important aspect of movement = the way it is initiated.

-As an object approaches an athlete OR as athlete approaches an object, the image on the retina gets progressively larger.

-The rate of dilation of the image on the retina may be the trigger for specific motor responses to athletics.

-The best athletes have a sequence of focuses (in response to a hitter facing a pitcher): 1. Soft focus – viewing the whole body of the pitcher, 2. Fine focus: Viewing something specific in the plane of the ball release (ie. outfield wall), 3. Specific Fine Focus: Looking at the area of the release (hip for softball or arm slot for football).

-The attention process in fastball sports is limited by three factors of the athlete: 1. Amount of information in the display, 2. The time available to take in the required information, 3. The ability of the player to then respond to this intake.

-Higher performance players are able to process critical information earlier in the opponent’s action. Thus giving themselves the feeling of, ‘having all the time in the world’ to respond.

This concept applies to all athletes. You can be the most athletic person but if you try and play your sport with your eyes closed and your hearing impaired, you are going to be at a severe disadvantage. In order to be able to use our athleticism that we’ve developed over our lifetime, we must also be in the correct mindset but consciously and subconsciously to respond to our environment.

Coach Cassie

INVISIBLE MAN

It’s 5:00 a.m. the alarm is going off, the first opportunity of the day presents itself; do you hit snooze or do you get up and move to the next stage of your day?  

It’s this moment; it’s in these seconds, these seconds before rolling over to address this obnoxious noise permeating from whatever device you utilize to reminder to your body that the day is upon us, that we hear thousands of conscious thoughts battling for center stage.

Many of you will hear thoughts stemming from fatigue, complacency, or even doubt.  They shower you with demands (are you kidding it’s too early), deceptive cries of comfort (it’s totally normal to be exhausted) all pleading to stay in bed, to hit the snooze button.  They even may go as far as illuminating the doubt we all have inside in the hopes of evoking fear, confusion or worse, apathy.  

-OR-

Maybe your thoughts are proud and they speak to you with positivity (it’s going to be a great day), with motivation (we have a head start on the day).  Maybe they make you think of mentors, honorable people who you would like to emulate; or maybe they begin to make you feel good about sacrificing sleep (see the hour your up; this is why you will be successful) and maybe, just maybe the voices will work.

BUT FOR HOW LONG?

You see, often times we rely on external forces to motivate us.  These forces may be extremely visible and palpable, like motivational books and speeches, or maybe even this article.  Other times, they could be more subconscious and manifest themselves through emotional pathways such as envy, greed, or competitiveness as we begin to compare our success to that of others.  In turn, our motivation becomes drawn from our desires to prove to ourselves, to them, to anyone really, that we can live up to the mirage that is the life they have chosen to share with the world (Instagram).

While you may be moderately (or briefly) successful with these tactics, they will eventually succumb to the pitfalls of a relying on a weakened quality of motivation.  Change, growth, and consistency require a deep allegiance towards intrinsically powered motivation that can sustain in times of weakness and propel in times of success.

Many of you reading this are athletes, former athletes even, which means competition is not just something you do or did, but its something that is woven into the fibers with which define your purpose in life; YOU NEED IT.  Great, then let’s that! You see, the problem is not the competition itself, the need to be competitive, or even the motivation you get from this competition. The problem lies in who the competition is with.

Intrinsic, especially when related to motivation, means to internalize or pull from within.  Thus, to be a truly self-motivated individual, the competition must lie within yourself. Regardless of how competitive you are, external inducements will eventually result in a fractured form of motivation.  

Look at athletes who have won it all.  Why is it so hard to repeat that accomplishment?  Maybe because they have fewer naysayers, fewer doubters, and fewer people to prove themselves to. As a result, it becomes increasingly more difficult to continue working when your external forces have evaporated.  

The key is to internalize the competition and compete against THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Simply put, THE INVISIBLE MAN is your best version of yourself.  He’s the version of you that get’s up at 4:59 a.m., and stares at the alarm clock chuckling as he waits for it to hit 5:00 a.m. He jumped out of bed, went right to the shower and was out the door in record time. He moves through your task list (that was set from the night before) with precision and purpose.  He got that workout in, read the chapter you wanted to read, and got the work you needed done; done. THE INVISIBLE MAN is you in your most perfect form and your goal, heck your privilege, is that you get to test the limits of that perfection and beat his !@#$%&* ass.

Every time you start your day by getting up and stopping that alarm, it’s a win.  When you get in and out of the shower in a reasonable time, it’s a win. When you get out the door and head off to school, to work, to whatever task is first on your list, it’s a win.  The more wins you compile in a day the more productive and powerful your motivation, confidence, and ultimately you will become.

BUT WE CAN’T ALWAYS BEAT HIM, CAN WE?  

Yes, at times, you will lose to the invisible man. But vow to beat him the next time.  Frequent losses need to be addressed immediately and your processes adjusted promptly. It is important in these instances to ensure that your routines, goals, and motivations are accurately aligned with realistic possibilities.  

As a disclaimer, I am aware that I opted to not discuss how those experiencing complacency, apathy, or even lacking motivation, can utilize this tactic to help prioritize their focus and execute their plans.  I chose to do this because this tactic or ideal is something they need to work towards attempting, as they most likely need to begin some substantial goal setting, routine, prioritizing, and reflection guidance first.  Attempting to go zero to a hundred can create greater anxiety, fear, or apathy; however, all individuals can take pieces of this concept and begin applying it to even just their morning routine, as the underlying principle is self-accountability.

SIX EXERCISES YOUR CATCHER NEEDS TO BE DOING

Catching is painful; from the bruises to the ever constant joint pain, it stays with you long after you catch your last pitch. It is a brutal position that is physically taxing on the body. So, before I continue with this article, I want to make a point – HAVE YOUR CATCHERS WEAR KNEE SAVERS. They do just that – save your knees. It is not weak, it is smart. Conceptually, most individuals and researchers will say that you should be strong enough to sit in that position. Research takes anecdotal perspectives in a given situation and not the whole experience. Instead, I challenge you to think about it from this perspective. One game is on average two hours. Split in half and estimate one hour is spent on defense. Now, multiply that by five to six games (at a minimum) a weekend for 32 weeks. That’s 160 hours of sitting in a squat position!! Now, multiply that by countless practices and training sessions and the hours pile up on the individual’s knees. When interpreting the studies conducted on this topic, researchers are just considering the one game, not all of the excess hours put into the craft. But here is the catch. Regardless of whether you utilize knee savers or not, catchers still tend to have hip, knee and lower back discomfort. So, how do we address this issue?

3 Stretching Activities Your Catcher Needs to Do

  1. Hip CARs (controlled articular rotations) – 
  1. Known as an FRC (Functional Range Conditioning) exercise, hip CARs challenge the athlete to go through the full range of motion at the hip joint. In concurrence with the “use it or lose it” mentality, when we do not challenge ourselves to go into certain ranges of motion, our body’s ability to get there deteriorates. Flexibility at the hip joint is imperative to a catcher’s physical health. As the range of motion breaks down, the body will adjust to an inferior position. Catchers tend to rotate their hips internally which places excess stress on the knees and lower back.
  1. Directions – Bring knee as high up as it can go. Open “the door” of the hip without rotating at the torso. Then rotate the foot at the knee joint (internal rotation). From this position, work the knee back with hip into extension. Reverse the process with as much control and precision as possible.

90/90 Switches – 

    1. Here we are focusing on opening up the hip joint and working on the internal and external rotational ability of the joint. Being able to control and move through this range of motion is imperative to full body health of a catcher. We are working postural awareness in conjunction with hip mobility. Another function of a healthy hip: taking pressure off of the lower back.  
      1. Directions – Driving the open leg down into the ground, try to lift the closed leg into the air. Drive both legs in the opposite direction and eventually switch.
  1. Talus Slide Lunge Stretch 
  1. Dorsiflexion is the ability to flex the foot in the upward direction thus allowing the shin angle to decrease to a more acute angle while squatting. Ankle mobility is extremely important in catchers. Often, they are stuck in an elevated position, similar to a calf raise, for a majority of their time catching. It is important to provide flexibility and the opposite range of motion to avoid extreme stiffness which can lead to injuries up the chain. If a catcher does not possess the adequate dorsiflexion needed to achieve the most effective position it is important to note that this will not inhibit the athlete from sitting in a squat but instead will cause the athlete to compensate into ineffective positions in order to get into that position.   
    1. Directions – While maintaining contact between the heel and the ground, go into a lunge position. Drive the shin forward while still maintaining heel contact with the ground. Work to avoid shifting hips and instead keep torso and hips in line while driving forward.

3 Strength Exercises Your Catcher Needs to Do

  1. Internal/External Hip Lift Offs 
  1. Mobility is one aspect of injury prevention, strength is the other. Being able to get through the full range of motion can be just as dangerous if you do not have the strength to stabilize the joint. These isometric holds at the hip joint provide strength to the hip abductors and adductors which are responsible for holding the ball and socket of the hip joint in place.  
    1. Directions – In the 90/90 position, lift the front knee and foot off of the ground. Hold for 10 seconds. Next, lift the back knee and foot off of the ground. Hold for 10 seconds. If actively achieving these positions is not possible, work to find a passive range of motion as well.
  1. Deadbug Variations 
  1. Core strength is important for every aspect of athletic movement. In catchers, it provides stabilization to the pelvis in a squatting position. The deadbug forces the athlete to contract their midline, activating erector muscles of their back into the ground, while either holding the position or going through small, controlled movements. The key here is to push your lower back into the ground while maintaining the ability to breathe. Being able to contract the core and breathe is important for athletes of all sports and positions as it ensures the muscles surrounding the diaphragm are responsible for breathing and not the muscles that are supposed to be stabilizing the spine.  
    1. Directions – While pushing hands  into the wall, drive the lower back into the ground while maintaining the 90-degree angle at the hips and knees. Drive one foot out, leading with the heel, work to breath while simultaneously maintaining ground contact with the lower back.
  1. Supermans 
  1. When constantly being positioned in lower back flexion, think about a catcher’s squat with a rounded back. In order to combat this, we need to strengthen the catcher’s back in the opposite end range – extension. Supermans provide posterior chain activation in the gluteal, hamstring, and spinal levator muscles along the posterior chain. Whether it is in the contracted hold or constant movement range, this exercise provides stabilization to the area catchers tend to be underactive in.  
    1. Directions – Driving the belly button into the floor – lift your arms, using your lower trap muscle structure, and your legs by flexing your glute and hamstrings. Hold for 3 seconds and then relax.

While there are far more exercises your catchers should be doing, these are ones they can do on their own at home. These should be done at least three times a week for both the stretches and the strength exercises. Before performing any catching activity, the stretches should be done. Providing flexibility and mobility to a position that generally results in extreme stiffness is imperative to preventing injury. But, as stated before, mobility should only be given with the intention of providing strength to stabilize the mobility. Finding the optimal balance between strength and mobility is the first step to preventing injury in any athlete.