How I learned more from training 9-year olds than from training pro athletes
By Dr. Peter Gorman
As winter training slowly come to an end, athletes eagerly await the start of a new season. Nowhere is this more apparent, than in the sport of Baseball. The boys of summer are once again ready to set new records, and, hopefully, replace any previous disappointments with cheers and thrills. This goal of achievement relies heavily on the fact that, the winter training program was fundamentally sound and efficient in correcting weaknesses and forging new strengths.
The winter training program has to realize that, like most sports, Baseball is a "True Agility" sport. Every movement on the field is decision-based, which, in essence, is the definition of True Agility. This requires not just great physical ability, but also great cognitive ability. Decision-based movement requires that you:
- Recognize: The ball was hit left, the athlete must recognize that. Or, the pitch is coming, recognition again starts the process. Our mental engagement begins with recognition of the stimulus.
- Attend: Once the stimulus is recognized, the athlete must attend to it. This is the “think” part of the game, as you observe the target in motion, predicting where it is headed. The ability to do this is, arguably, more important than any physical attribute
- Decide: The athlete attends to the stimulus, while suppressing any distractors (no room to start right and then go left... too many moments would be wasted), and, then, decides what action is the right response.
- Accept: Once you decide, your mind and body have to accept that decision by having the brain tell the body what to do.
- React: once the stimulus is accepted, the athlete must now move and react to it. Yes, the reaction is physical, but it is based in a cognitive process. The efficiency of the athlete's cognitive process, from recognition to reaction, is known as the athlete’s Speed of Processing (SOP).
How many coaches or trainers know the actual SOP of their players. It is amazing that terms like “bat speed,” or “exit velocity,” or “60-yard time” are thrown around with oohs and aahs. If we do not know the athlete's SOP, then the fastest bat speed or 60-yard time might just be other wasted statistics. Remember SOP is the time between Recognition and Reaction. If SOP is slow, then Reaction is slow. If Reaction is slow, then the athlete plays slow, and “slow” is often “too late.” Fast bat speed, but slow in pulling the trigger... you are out. Fast 60-yard time, but the athlete is slow to react to the pitcher releasing the pitch... you are out.
The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) states this very clearly: “First move well, then move often. Moving well speaks to the quality of movement and speed of processing (cognitive function). While moving often is not simply quantity but rather the capacity and adaptation that allow brain and body to function cohesively and optimally for life and sport."
An efficient winter training program must understand the importance of cognition, and must be able to evaluate and correct any physical imbalances. It is well understood that all position players must be able and agile in all directions. The speed of left leg must equal speed of right leg. Left-to-right acceleration must equal right-to-left acceleration. Anything less than this would create a favored side, and the need to compensate. How erroneous would it be to tell a player he has better range in a given direction, without giving him the reason and the way to fix it?
This past winter I had the privilege of working with a baseball team of 9-year olds from my hometown of Mahopac NY. I say privilege because, in my 37 years of sport science I have had many professionals, Olympians, and World Champions come through my doors. The dedication these 9-year olds showed to learning and developing was second to none. At our first team meeting we discussed 3 important facts:
- Correct Imbalances. Physical evaluations would be aimed at correcting weaknesses and imbalances. An athlete is only as strong as the athlete’s weakest link, Fix weaknesses before developing strengths. This eliminates the need for the athlete to compensate. Train the true athlete, not the compensatory process.
- Train SOP. A fastball can reach the plate in 400 milliseconds, and the time to swing is approximately 175 milliseconds. This leaves only 225 milliseconds to recognize, attend, and react to the pitch. It was decided to train every athlete’s SOP, to faster than 200 milliseconds... quite a challenge for a ballplayer of every age and ability.
- Team first. Every athlete has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Help your teammate first... and create bonds that will last forever
Once the rules were set, we agreed on a Team statement: "Maybe no one on the Team will make it to MLB, but one thing is for certain... every athlete one day will graduate from the minor leagues of childhood to the major leagues of adulthood... Let’s help each other be the best at this."
Being a USA Baseball contributor, a BFS science board member, a certified Microgate trainer, and a certified BrainHQ trainer, I made sure each child was evaluated and trained according to their standards.
The incredible gold standard USA Baseball evaluation was performed for each athlete. This included game speed accelerations to determine the leg speed of each athlete, and the athlete’s accelerations (both right and left). Broad jump was performed, not just along a tape measure, but in a modular OptoJump system so that contact time could be measured. This gave us a reactive strength index, so that we could ensure that, with training, each athlete’s flight time was improving, while their contact time was going down. The DRIFT protocol by Microgate was performed so that the power, contact time, and most importantly dynamic control of each leg of the athlete could be recorded in a series of 5 unilateral jumps. Physical reaction time was recorded by pairing a Microgate WITTY SEM countdown system with WITTY timing photocells to produce results accurate to a millisecond. Each athlete had their gait tested – both shod and barefoot. This gave the examiners the ability to make sure that each athlete’s sneakers were actually helping to reduce or eliminate any asymmetries in the movement cycle.
We tested true agility by using Microgate WITTY Semiphores in a 4x4 box at two different levels of cognitive load. Total times were recorded and compared under each cognitive load. Any slowing of physical movement due to increased cognitive load was then baselined.
By employing validated published tests from BrainHQ.com, actual brain Speed of Processing was recorded for each athlete to show double decision, eye for detail and single decision ability. This is where we recorded the greatest changes in athletic ability. At the beginning of the program average SOP was approximately 600 milliseconds for each athlete. At the end of 12 weeks of training, average SOP improved to a super-fast 86 milliseconds. Remember what we said before, you need at least 200 milliseconds to see and attend to the fastball. The hitting coaches noticed the difference on the field. They reported that the athletes were understanding and picking up the ball sooner, and their “sense of game" was becoming clearer, which is a big advantage when called on to bat. Of great importance was the fact that BrainHQ, allowed us to track each athlete’s cognitive ability. If at any time, an athlete’s SOP slowed, questions were immediately raised about rest and fatigue. This same understanding of SOP could be applied to contact sports where words like “CTE” and “concussion return to play” still prevail at an alarmingly high rate. Monitoring SOP has to be standard procedure for all.
The BFS Science lab was used extensively. BFS 6 Absolutes were employed at all training stations, both static and dynamic. Stand tall, eyes on target, big chest, etc. helped everyone in performing their needed training tasks. The BFS balance protocol was performed and monitored for each athlete. This ensured improved balance over time, and the avoidance of over-training. BFS Absolutes were combined with FMS corrective movements through all arcs of motion. It was constantly emphasized to... train the true athlete, not the compensatory process.
We used a slant board to make determinations of strengths and weaknesses for each position of the foot strike. Proprioceptive ability was monitored, to ensure improvements in Ground Contact Time (GCT). Any athlete displaying any inefficiency was fitted with non-orthotic inserts from BarefootScience.com. We observed that this product helped with the balance ability of each athlete in an amazingly short amount of time. This led to improved performance that was objectively measured.
As strengths and weaknesses were determined, proper training interventions were employed for their correction. Knowing that you are only as strong as your weakest link, our athletes had a burning desire to understand their results and to improve upon them. No sense in building strength on an unstable foundation. Identifying and fixing weaknesses became the mantra of the program.
We started hearing from coaches parents and other observers that the players “hitting the cover off the ball’ or about how they were “reacting faster” and “getting to position faster.”, I was very proud of our Team when parents started to come to me and sais things like... “It’s no longer a struggle to get homework done,” “he seems to understand and get it better, “ behavior and bedtime are no longer a commotion” or “he is setting a better example for his younger siblings.” These comments struck home to the idea... we are preparing the children for the game of life…Baseball is just the vehicle we are using to do so.
I think head coach Sacco summed it up the best when he said... "You know you're doing something right when your boys would rather come to do their training than go to a birthday party or something else. They want to be here, they see the improvements they've made and they compete against each other here so intensely, while always understanding it’s Team first. I see the level of quickness when we go the batting cages and the tremendous agility when reacting to ground balls and other drills. I've talked to parents who tell me how much better the ir child is doing in the classroom and at home. With what I've seen in the short few months, I firmly believe every sports program at any level (boys & girls) should be doing this training. Just the brain training alone speaks volumes and is great for knowing when an athlete can or is able to return to play after an injury. I can't say enough how great I think this program is."
In summary, twelve 9-year old youth baseball players were trained for 12 weeks this winter at the Microgate USA headquarters. Seeing how the sport of Baseball is a True agility sport, it was decided that a comprehensive cognitive and physical training program had to be employed. Understanding cognition and speed of processing were very important to a successful program. Remember, what the mind perceives, the body eventually achieves. This gap delay between perception and achievement is the athlete’s reaction time. Yes, the athlete needs a great explosive ability to react, but if SOP is slow, the reaction will be slow — no matter how well trained the explosive part is.
Being able to evaluate and train at game speed was very important, for a successful program. The game should never be the trainer. Training at high demand must be closely monitored. Objectively understanding the movement ability of each athlete and correcting it, as needed, helps significantly in injury prevention and movement efficiency.
I would like to personally thank USA Baseball, Bigger Faster Stronger, Microgate, Barefoot Science, BrainHQ, FMS and my great staff for their involvements in this great program. Thank you to Anne Shadle PhD, whose understandings on the cognitive side of sport, makes everything blend so seamlessly. Most importantly I would like to thank the coaches and especially the athletes, whose dedication and determination made this the most enlightening training program I have ever seen at any level. Much was learned and many will be helped because of it.
As we all learn and share ideas, the impossibilities of today will fade, and the achievements of tomorrow will be greater than ever.