If you have read any of my previous posts, you know that ‘efficiency’ is a cornerstone of my training philosophy. As coaches, we have all developed a personal foundation to our training approach. This is the tenant on which we focus our energy and encourage ‘buy-in’ from our athletes. A problem with this, however, is that our foundation needs to evolve.
What we once thought to be ‘gospel’, can change over the course of our careers. I’m not sure who said it, but this quote hits the nail on the head, “If two people always agree in conversations, one of them is not needed.” Throughout my career, I have taken great pride in teaching proper set up and execution to perform locomotion tasks. Regardless of whether the movement task is linear or multi-directional, I make sure that my athletes execute movement with as little waste as possible. About 6 years ago, I began to change my thinking, as it related to on-the-field movement patterns of locomotion.
A question was recently posed to me, “What is the quickest way to initiate stealing a base in baseball?” In the past, my answer was always quite simple, ‘the path of most efficiency’ and I recommend that the athlete would take quick crossover step into acceleration. But this time, I really thought long and hard about my answer in an attempt, not to just agree with the practitioner I was talking with, but to be truly objective to the situation and the body’s ability.
With speed and agility training, we coaches try to create the ideal environment in which the athlete can learn the skill and avoid false movements. But the more I evaluated sports, I realized there was always a glaring preparatory movement that athletes seem to do.
If you watch a baseball player prior to a pitch, a linebacker or defensive back prior to the snap of the ball, a tennis player prior to the return of a serve or whatever the sport you choose, you’ll see subtle movements that I have started calling “rhythm steps”.
At the core of my philosophy of ‘efficiency’, I believe that sports are played in a domain of rhythm and timing. The best defense to any great offense is to disrupt timing. We see this all the time with strategic timeouts, hurry up offenses, purposeful penalties, “faking injuries”, anything that can slow down or change the timing of the opposition. The unique thing about the human body is we have a natural tendency for tempo as long as we stay out of our own way.
So going back to base stealing, as a runner takes his lead, there will be indicators from the pitcher and status of the count that will determine if the coach will give him the steal sign or not. That being said, the pitcher will keep the runner honest, and throw back to the bag when the runner gets too aggressive.
Here’s why this scenario is important to bring up. I see coaches all the time teaching heavy weight distribution on the lead leg to allow for a quick crossover of the trail leg. This may work in training, but not in game situations. In game situations, the runner needs to have an equal ability to sprint to second or get back to first base. So, I’ll teach equal weight distribution. Then, once the athlete settles into his lead, I watch the slight rocking back and forth rhythm (rhythm step) that helps him initiate the athletic action that follows.
Now for the initial step. I teach what I call a “jab step” with the lead leg. It is a quick punch up with an aggressive drive slightly backward. Essentially, we are trading inches for angles. See, the lead leg is not taking me any closer to second base, and honestly it goes away from it. But, by doing this, I am able to change the angle of the shin to put the athlete in a better position to achieve acceleration for the subsequent steps, which in turn, makes the crossover of the trail leg more effective in how it produces force into the ground. The more I examined this, and the more sports I watched, (if you ever watch sports with me, I typically watch from the hips down, and put most of my attention in what the angles of the feet and shins are with the ground, relative to the hips) I was seeing this innate trade off of inches to angles that was happening so fast, there is no way that it was taught! Think about it, the human body is an adaptive mechanism for survival. I doubt our subconscious ability to get out of harm’s way, or to evade our opposition was truly more inefficient.
Again, as coaches we can get too good a breaking down movement and trying to make everything as “efficient” as possible, but at what point are we disrupting the timing, and the body’s natural ability to figure out positions of leverage? Our goals should be to help provide the tools of efficiency without suppressing the athlete’s reactive abilities.