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In the latest in his ongoing series for the Leaders Performance Institute, Michael A. Chernow, Pittsburgh Pirate Fellow of Minor League Operations, shines a light on elite performance across elite sport. His previous feature can be found here.
We become narrow minded if we are strictly measuring development based on performance results, when in reality, there are multitudes of people with different disciplines who contribute to the growth of an athlete before he or she gets the chance to perform in their respective arenas.
For an athlete to perform at their best, their bodies need to be performing at peak levels, and mentally they have to possess the ability to establish, train, and maintain a championship caliber mindset. While the athlete’s skill may be what we are witnessing on the playing surface, the importance of the mind and body cannot be understated.
I had an opportunity to speak with two experts in their respective fields for this two-part series. Part I was a conversation with Mental Skills Coach Andy Bass, PhD, about developing mental skills and creating better training methods with higher degrees of transfer.
Part II, looks at how Jeremy Loftice, a Biomechanical Pitching Consultant, uses his experience and background to evaluate the anatomy and physiology for developing athletes.
‘We’ve lost the patience to allow a natural progression of arm strength’
Jeremy grew up in a highly athletic family where he played multiple sports as a youth. His senior year of high school, during the last game of his basketball season he broke his left arm and was forced to miss the baseball season of his senior year. Prior to the injury, NCAA Division I programs were recruiting him; however, he ultimately ended up attending a junior college. Although he wound up being drafted out of junior college, he decided to accept a scholarship to attend Louisiana State University (LSU) following his sophomore season.
While attending LSU, Jeremy gained 45 ‘good’ pounds, which he pointed out to be significant.
“The reason this is significant, is that a lot of younger guys now are looking to build velocity on their pitches, they’ll do weighted ball programs and other programs designed to build velocity,” says Jeremy. “From my perspective, the body is where velocity comes from. We’ve lost the patience to allow a more natural progression of arm strength.”
Like any other right-handed pitcher that threw 88-92 miles per hour, the staff wanted him to throw harder, but he was often sidelined by injuries. He pitched a little bit during his junior and senior seasons, however as he shares:
“I couldn’t feel my arm.”
He had been pushing to get checked out by a doctor for some time, and when he finally went and was evaluated, it was discovered that he had a 50% tear in his Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) and he had bone spurs.
Faced with the difficult decision of surgery to continue playing or to focus on school, his decision to select school became increasingly challenging when a couple months into his decision he realized he didn’t have a specific focus nor did he know what exactly he was going to do. Fortuitously, he was a good student, and he was studying kinesiology with an emphasis on biomechanics.
Almost by chance, during a conversation with an orthopedic surgeon who was conducting a knee evaluation for Jeremy’s father, it was discovered that the renowned Dr. James Andrews at the American Sports Medicine Institute, had a clinical research opening. Fortunately, for Jeremy, he proved to be a great fit for this position.
While at the American Sports Medicine Institute Jeremy’s responsibilities included: keeping data on surgeries the doctors were performing, and following rehabilitation statistics post operations. In addition, he examined the types of anchors and instruments used during procedures, and how successful they are, as well as tracking the implementation of new techniques while examining whether they were productive or counter-productive.
Another area he was involved in was the work done in the Institutes’ Biomechanics lab, originally focusing on golf and exercise. Increasingly, the institute turned its attention to baseball, where Jeremy proved valuable, as he was able to incorporate his knowledge of the game to help implement a biomechanical pitching analysis program.
Around 2002, the institute began working with professional teams. Jeremy’s role involved providing analysis and interpreting the results, as well as providing numbers, percentages and angular velocities – things players at the time normally would not use.
“A function of my job was to interpret what this information meant, and explain it to the organization and inform them if there were any movement adjustments that would optimize pitching efficiency according to the world of physics and anatomy.” he explains. “For about six years, I analyzed the actions players would do that caused injuries to muscles, joints and ligaments. The purpose was to determine the best modality to decrease these injuries, while increasing fluid body ability.”
While they analyzed hundreds of younger little league pitchers, and other amateur players, it was missing an accurate representation of pitchers who were playing in the professional ranks.
“I knew pitchers were throwing upwards of 98 mph in games, so while we analyzed a lot of pitchers, none threw over 90 mph, meaning we weren’t getting what we needed to get out of it.”
This realization led to Jeremy’s idea.
Where could he have the ability to evaluate these athletes in a real, game-like setting when factors like adrenaline would come into play with the pitchers?
Spending the majority of his life as an athlete, Jeremy was beginning to get the itch to get back on the field, so when he called a contact of his within Major League Baseball, that person thought it would be a great idea and could add a lot of value.
“They allowed me to be on the field and to be hands on during Spring Training and fall instructional league. In addition to my on-field contributions, I was asked to preemptively examine some of the players who were under consideration to be drafted,” he continues, “I’d evaluate what adjustments could be made within the pitchers mechanics to maximize their body’s ability to function more optimally through each phase of the pitching motion. While there may not be a concrete correlation to injury, we can hypothesize on what more injurious movements are based on anatomy and physics of the body.”
For Jeremy, being able to package what he is seeing from an anatomical perspective into translatable conversations within a baseball context is a valuable, but is often a dying art in today’s game.
“It’s a lost skill and it can become extremely difficult and dangerous if you’re not well informed on both sides of the conversation,” he observes. “What’s been beneficial to my career has been this being something that comes natural to me. Growing up as a pitcher and playing the game, the baseball part of this is an area I have been involved in for most of my life. Learning came natural to me as well, and considering that I spent six years learning under Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig in a biomechanics lab, it was essentially a PhD in on-the-job training.”
Pitchers vs quarterbacks
It proved to be an exceptional education. “We know the intricacies across multiple sports are different. However, while there may be many similarities to actions within rotational sports such as baseball, football, javelin, tennis and golf, there are nuances within each action that are, in some cases, drastically different,” explains Jeremy. “To analyze the athlete, you’re always going to be examining the kinetic chain and how the movements are connected, ending in whatever output being used to release or impact the ball.”
He continues: “There are many factors involved, with none being more important than the other. Some actions athletes make will involve using momentum when you are making that act while others do not. The locations of the movements will take place in different areas of the body. You may see actions taking place in the frontal plane of the body, sagittal plane; ultimately the analysis will come via which axis the body rotates around.”
Having worked with and analyzed American football passers before, Jeremy’s research compared many of these sports, and specific body actions to each other.
“In evaluating baseball and football, my research found football passers don’t use momentum in the same manner that baseball players do, nor do football players have as many ‘aggressive throws’ over the durations of the games,” he reveals. “Additionally, quarterbacks do not suffer arm injuries as often as baseball players do. In football, a quarterback generally does a better job of keeping their center of gravity and keeping body movements closer to center of body. This allows for better control of the external parts of their body.”
When asked about ways to decrease injuries that pitchers may suffer, Jeremy jokingly replies: “Have them make less aggressive throws, decrease throwing, and decrease intensity… but obviously, that can’t happen. In football, there are more throws with a decreased intensity. Over the course of the games, a quarterback will have sub-maximum effort throws made with a shorter step and shorter arm actions. These nuisances are dictated by the game you play.”
While it’s unrealistic to decrease the intensity of which a pitcher throws a baseball, as the game progresses forward, an area that can help to minimize injures will be in how the athlete utilizes rest and recovery, as Jeremy explains. “More of an emphasis of recognizing fatigue and maximizing recovery time. If a pitcher throws 100 pitches in his last outing, fatigue will be a determining factor to whether or not he can maintain health over the course of the following game and ultimately the full competitive season.
“It’s my belief that we can combat fatigue-created injuries by examining the pre-competition, post-competition, and off-season training programs an athlete partakes in. What are you doing off the field, what does your recovery program look like?” As Jeremy continued, he even took it a step further when he mentioned how it can be crucial to know what a pitcher’s recovery program looked like before they competed at the professional level and to compare it to while competing at that level.
“Studying the pitching biomechanics and understanding which joints, muscles, tendons, or ligaments are being exposed to increased stress allows us to know where fatigue may be targeted. We can then add to that the information we know about their exercise and recovery practices so we can allow for an appropriate time for the muscles, ligaments and joints to recover.”
Still, there are an uncomfortable amount of throwing related injuries in the game of baseball. Considering that the best alternative to stay healthy is to not play, there must be a rationale as to why these pitchers are suffering injuries at an alarming rate.
When discussing potential causes for these injuries, and asked about the biggest changes he has seen in his field during his career, Jeremy says, is the size of the athletes themselves.
“The physical change in pitchers’ bodies. I have zero data to back up this claim, although I am working on it, I feel as if our society’s thirst for making food faster and making food bigger has incorporated more hormones into the actual production of the food. Now, these hormones are rearing their head within our athletes. The hormones in food have changed the physiology of the body, and the increased hormone levels in humans have made people bigger. The bodies of 19 and 20-year-olds are now the bodies of 16-year-olds. Combine this with an extra emphasis on weight training and getting more powerful and faster through changes in lifting programs, you’re seeing higher velocity in earlier ages.”
These athletes are growing in size, but additional components to velocity that occur earlier in life lies within the anatomy of an athlete.
Jeremy explains: “As your body grows, your bones are growing right up until you have completed puberty, during that time, your bones are more malleable than when they are finished growing. When an athlete throws a baseball while they are younger, their bones will twist, similarly to as if you are wringing water from a wet towel. This allows for more flexibility and more throwing shoulder external rotation, which are correlative components to kids throwing harder. With the growing specialization in sports, as they throw more often, they are retroverting their humeral bone, and the accumulating effect of throwing over and over at a high effort creates more flexibility, which ultimate turns into more velocity at younger ages.”
Training methods for younger baseball players and athletes are also changing as more information continually becomes available. Jeremy discusses the marriage between off the field preparation and training and body results on the field.
“The lifting patterns of younger athletes have changed. There is a ‘job-like’ atmosphere to training becoming a key ingredient for you being a baseball player. A ‘more is always better’ mantra has taken hold, resulting in these athletes throwing and lifting more often. As a by-product, you are seeing more injuries earlier in their amateur careers. At the professional ranks, the spikes in injuries we are experiencing are the result the entire cumulative effect. The precursors to injuries began long before professional teams were able to get the athlete in house.”
Professional organizations continue to utilize body specialists as a means of analyzing amateur athletes prior to and after acquiring them. But, as Jeremy points out, while this is necessary … there are obstacles to the science.
“We are restricted with one of the biggest obstacles being the inability to know the exact physiology of the athletes we work with or examine. Our DNA is substantially different; there will be athletes with more fast-twitch muscle fibers who will throw harder, while conversely you will have athletes with more slow-twitch muscle fibers who possess more strength.”
Although you cannot outwardly see the athlete’s DNA, there are ways to make a well-educated decision.
“Not knowing the exact physiology of athletes forces me to infer things like range of motion deficits that I am able to see functionally with my eyes. There is additional information available within the static range of motion tests as well. When I see an action that may be a cause for concern, you have to consider the athlete may have anatomical issues, specific anomalies or abnormalities in their bones and joint structure. These are some of the areas of focus when trying to identify physical limitation that could be a detriment to a productive career.”
When we consider the development of an athlete, the actual creation and implementation of a development plan is an extensive undertaking. You have to be incredibly thorough in your process to maximize the potential ability of the athlete. While there is a degree of needed buy-in from the athlete, it is safe to assume that if provided with a detailed and comprehensive development program, there will be an added likelihood of buy-in.
For Jeremy, being able to contribute to this comprehensive program is one of the benefits to his job.
“When I make a recommendation, the organization’s front office and development staff should examine all the factors in front of them to make an official determination. You will see many players come into organizations and perform well, and get the job done effectively on the field. From a body standpoint, if you provide a recommendation about enacting a slight change, what is the cost? For example, does it limit the pitcher’s deception that made him harder to hit? You have to fight the mindset of … ‘well, I’m successful now doing it this way’ … and an added challenge the organizations deal with, is the consideration of the very real, financial investment in this player. The conversations are tough, but they are fun. It’s just like anything else in this game, you have to prove its real and backed up by hefty data and science, and not just a whimsical idea you think up.”
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