The Athletic Position – It’s Hard to Recover from a Bad Start
Strength and Conditioning Coach for Baseball at TCU
The athletic position is a fundamental position for all athletes, whether on the field or in the weight room. It is an essential position of movement initiation in virtually all sport. Speed, power, and movement begin with a solid foundation and that is the athletic position. It is often taken for granted as so basic that many coaches don’t even teach it. To me, it’s the most basic and fundamental aspect of movement and should be the first thing taught to any athlete. Teaching this position transfers over to the rest of the foundational movement positions seamlessly.
The athletic position, just like all others, should be developed around the premise of a braced spine with motion initiated at the hip. Without this ability, power leaks exist and movement, force application, and absorption will all be compromised. Imagine performing a vertical jump, a sprint start, or a squat with a rounded spine. The hips are unable to express their full ability as the spine will give upon force application. A spine made of steel rods can transmit forces. A spine made of Jell-O does nothing of the sort.
If we’ve done our job with the athletic position, the rest of the positions can begin to blend seamlessly into the athlete’s movement bank. The athletic position is truly the most basic of the basics. Many young athletes simply have no body awareness to align themselves in the most proper angles to initiate movement to begin with. The athletic position serves as the basis for:
- Position of Sport. Virtually every position in sports starts around a solid base to move in any direction. This is especially true on the baseball field, as every position except for the pitcher starts from the basic athletic position. The ability to sprint forward, lateral, crossover, backward run, jump, etc. all start from the basis of this position to react to a stimulus.
- Squat / Hip Hinge Patterns. You will find that big patterns in the weight room are especially easier to teach when the athlete has previously been taught a fundamental athletic position.
- Force Absorption and Jump Training. Athletes must be able to receive force before displaying it. Teaching athletes how to control their body when landing and/or stopping is a priority before teaching them to accelerate. Cars aren’t built to drive first, with the brakes added later. The inability to control the body when landing or stopping is often the cause of devastating injuries, namely tearing the ACL. Train and teach athletes to control their body and absorb force first. Once that ability has been developed, athletes can learn to display force.
- Deceleration and Agility Development. Deceleration ties into the idea of force absorption first. Controlling the body into a stop and, ultimately, a change of direction mainly requires athletes to lower their center of mass into a position of efficiency. This athletic position allows for athletes to redirect force and propel themselves in another direction. Again, this basic athletic principle of stopping is often overlooked by many coaches. This is the reason you see athletes out of position when the time comes to stop and/or change direction. Athletes are outside of their frame and struggle to control their body into the direction they want it to go.
One of the best examples on a baseball field is a pitcher fielding a bunt. How many times have you seen a pitcher sprint off the mound to field a bunt and slip as he goes to pick up the ball? His feet come out from under him and he takes a seat as the runner finds himself easily at first base. As the pitcher goes to stop, his weight shifts back and his feet are in front of his body. His body is outside of the frame of a quality athletic position, where the weight is centered over the feet. A poor position of not being able to stop under control is a real-life example of teaching and training athletes the ability to decelerate correctly in the athletic position.
The athletic position we want is a hip-dominant position. It loads the hips and not the knees. Many athletes want to shift forward with their knees to lower themselves down while keeping a vertical spine. The pattern we want is one of shifting the hips back. This posterior weight shift moves the hips back and keeps the knees over the foot path, versus a knee-dominant pattern where the knees shift beyond the toes. Loading the hips results in potentially greater power output, stronger positions, and less chance of overloading the knee, especially in younger athletes. With the hips shifted posteriorly, athletes now find their chest out over their knees and their body weight centered.
The athletic position is about movement. How can coaches expect an athlete to find the athletic position during movement when he can’t find the athletic position to begin with? Without a starting point, how well can he finish? Developing the pattern gives the athlete the awareness and ability to perform foundational movement patterns in any given sport. All too often, coaches skip the basics in lieu of more advanced training when the basics are truly where the most advancement will occur. Advanced tools like velocity-based training are sexier than teaching the athletic position, but the majority of youth and teen athletes need to develop better basic positions. Advancing beyond an athlete’s trainability is a recipe for failure down the road. Using up advanced training before he is ready leaves an athlete nowhere to progress.
- Feet should be shoulder-width apart and facing forward with knees inside the feet.
- Weight should be on front 2/3rds of the foot.
- The biggest key is teaching the athlete to reach his hips back and not shift forward with his knees. Have the athlete stand 6-inches in front of a wall for cueing if needed.
- Knees should be bent and above the foot print; not in front of the toes.
- Back is flat and in a neutral position
- Chest and shoulders should be out over the knees and not behind them.
- A good coaching cue is to hang the arms relaxed from the athletic position. If they contact the upper thighs, they are in an incorrect position. The arms should hang loosely out in front of the legs.
- Head is neutral.
- Shoulders are pulled back.
- Arms bent at 900 in front.
Zach Dechant, BS, CSCS, USAW, SCCS is Senior Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at TCU in Ft. Worth, Tx. For more information visit https://www.zachdechant.com/