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Becoming an "academic coach".

Elite coaches and athletes share a rare gift: the ability to simplify complex sports skills and movements. They can, in effect, see a fast game in slow motion.

Now, with the help of modern technology, so can the rest of us. A high-speed camera, for instance, can snap more than 1,000 pictures per second. Tools such as these have revolutionized the field of biomechanics.

While completing my Master's thesis on biomechanics at the U. of Delaware, I discovered the exciting coaching applications of the new technology. A research team in the Human Performance Lab had developed a motion capture and computer animation system that recorded and displayed animated figure-skating jumps from any angle and at any speed (Figure 1).

The experience goes beyond the benefits of visual feedback alone. The spin rates, jump heights, and inertial properties for each jump are instantly reported. And get this: The skaters are able to view their jumps and personal data again at home, as everything gets uploaded to the Internet!

Coaches should not be alarmed if their high school or college athletic program has yet to implement a high tech motion analysis system. Expense and obscurity have limited the use of this technology to research labs. But it is not too early for coaches and athletes to reap the benefits of this next big advancement in athletics.

After six years as a baseball pitching coach, I made the transition to pitching researcher by attending a graduate school in biomechanics. A study of the research literature and my own pitching research has revealed many valuable coaching insights that can be used in the pursuit of a professional title such as Academic Coach.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

REVIEWING THE RESEARCH:

I coached for six years before discovering the wealth of knowledge in the research literature. Basic coaching books helped me develop, and by my fifth year I was able to take on a college club team full of highly intelligent and experienced baseball players. But it took only two practices to reveal that I had plateaued as an instructor.

The literature could help me with a 16-year-old kid with obvious flaws, but provided little knowledge on how to deal with a college pitcher who needed fine-tuning. Several basic questions like this were just plain confusing to me.

A perfect example of my confusion was the stride leg action. After the pitcher strides toward the plate and his foot lands on the ground, how would I describe the proper stride leg behavior?

Should the pitcher flex (bend) the knee, lock the knee, extend (straighten) the knee, or use a combination of movements?

Was there one optimal pattern or did the pattern vary from pitcher to pitcher?

My books treated the subject in vague terms, focusing on the importance of a stable stride leg to promote balance.

So while conducting the drills, I would tell my pitchers, "Concentrate on keeping a locked stride leg. It will permit a stable base for rotation and promote balance." It gave the players a better awareness of body control, but not a complete knowledge of the activity. It made me restless.

My frustration peaked on a cool summer evening in the bullpen. While watching my pitcher stroll to the mound after our pregame warm-up, I leaned against the fence and wondered aloud, "There has got to be a way to measure this stuff." My frustration had gone far enough. I had to address this issue (and the fact that I had begun talking to myself ...).

The next fall I began searching the Internet in the hope of discovering a graduate degree that would prepare me for college coaching. I discovered biomechanics, a field in which the scientists used basic physics and mechanics to better understand the sports skills. Fortunately, the U. of Delaware accepted me--a small town coach--to do some high tech baseball pitching analysis.

I had never taken a biomechanics course and couldn't even turn on the high tech equipment. All I knew was that I had better do a thorough review of the research literature to see what had been done.

The first research paper I read was called, "Comparison of Kinematic and Temporal Parameters between Different Pitch Velocity Groups" by Matsuo et al. (2001).

The title was quite a mouthful and the methods section looked like Latin, but when I flipped the page to the results section I struck gold: Graphs displaying the stride leg knee patterns of high and low velocity pitchers, and the authors' interpretation of the results.

It was clear that high-velocity pitchers extended their stride-leg knee at a greater rate and through a greater range of motion than the low-velocity pitchers, how knee extension promotes trunk rotation and extension towards the plate, and how flexing the knee prior to ball release may hinder trunk rotation and cause the pitcher to throw more upright.

The next summer found me teaching my same old drills to a group of high school players in Delaware, but with a new insight and improved drill introduction.

To illustrate one of my main premises: You don't have to be formally trained in research to glean valuable information from research articles. And you don't have to understand the question at hand to have confidence in the authors who will answer them. Following is a summary of the steps you can take to familiarize yourself with research on performance enhancement and injury prevention.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

1. PERFORM A BASIC INTERNET SEARCH:

A search engine like Google (http://www.google.com) can reveal scientific journals, books, and websites devoted to research in athletics. Running a search on a phrase such as "baseball pitching research" will reveal hundreds of relevant results. Also run a search on MEDLINEplus (http:medlineplus.gov). This is a free website that will display reliable information on sports injuries, conditioning, and other useful topics.

2. EXPLORE A RESEARCH SEARCH ENGINE:

Pubmed (http://PubMed.gov) is a free research database that contains abstracts (summaries) from thousands of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. You'll be surprised by how much you can learn from the abstracts themselves.

Affiliates of universities should also check with their library to see if their institution subscribes to SPORT Discus, a leading sports bibliographic database.

3. OBTAIN RELEVANT RESEARCH ARTICLES:

You may want to obtain entire research articles after reading abstracts of particular interest. Coaches affiliated with universities often have access to such articles via a free university online subscription, hard copies of research journals at the library, or through an interlibrary loan system (free or small fare).

Other coaches will not have access to free online university subscriptions. However, they can generally travel to the nearest university or public library to obtain articles. Libraries can be avoided by purchasing articles and journals online. This alternative is generally quite expensive.

4. OBTAIN RELEVANT BOOKS:

Be aware that research-based coaching books exist (examples include "The Pitching Edge" by Tom House and "Biomechanics of Advanced Tennis" by the International Tennis Federation. Consider checking your local libraries before purchasing books on the Internet or at a bookstore.

5. GET A DEGREE, TAKE A COURSE, OR SELF-EDUCATE:

Of course more intensive academic approaches exist and are always an option. If you are interested in self-education, start with basic textbooks in research methods, biomechanics, exercise physiology, sports psychology, motor learning, etc.

COMMUNICATING WITH COACHES AND RESEARCHERS:

After reading that first research article, I thought I had it all figured out. As a coach, all I had to do was examine individual components of the pitching motion until I had mastered them. As a researcher, all I had to do was identify a specific pitching component that remained mysterious and, thus, worthy of study. After several hours at the university library, I stopped by my advisors' office and ended up learning two critical lessons: (1) I was way off; (2) Communicating about my ideas was essential.

During the first meeting with my advisor I spent about five minutes explaining some detailed ideas I had about the importance of foot orientations, while he continued computer programming.

As I neared the climax of my "revelations," I began to wonder if he was listening at all. When he finally spun around in his chair, there was a grin on his face. I quit talking as it had become obvious that I had failed to split the atom.

He leaned back, folded his hands, and said, "It's all about timing, I'm telling you, and it's all about timing." This simple comment created enough turbulence to blow the roof right off my six-year old dugout of details.

Why was this statement so powerful? Because it made me realize there were some very basic questions that I had failed to address. Examples included: How can overweight 40-year-olds in the majors and skinny sophomores in high school be throwing 90 mph? Why do pitchers throw the same speed from the windup and stretch?

Of course, the answers to these questions was great timing.

My mind went back to the stride-leg behavior again. I began to realize that energy created from stride leg was only relevant if it was properly timed. By extending the stride leg too early, you will waste energy. If you extend too late, you will allow the energy to go unused.

I proceeded to think about similar timing patterns between the hips and upper torso, upper torso and shoulder, shoulder and elbow, and elbow and wrist.

My advisor was right: The key ingredient of pitching was not age, a specific body type, or a specific detail within the motion. It was great timing.

We had a few conversations following my initial enlightenment. By the end of the semester I had developed a unique research idea and was ready to proceed with my project. I began recruiting research subjects by meeting with Delaware head baseball coach, Jim Sherman.

It took about 30 seconds to realize that I had met an experienced baseball guy who was more than willing to help me out.

[FIGURE OMITTED]

I showed him some pictures to illustrate my interest in the timing patterns used by pitchers. I told him how I was planning to examine the overall mechanics used by pitchers of varying hip rotation strategies.

I explained my ideas of early and late rotators (Figs. 2a and 2b). Coach Sherman, his pitching coach (Greg Mamula), and I had some useful conversation about the details of the study, but what really hit me was a comment he made near the end of my visit: "To me what's really important is being able to identify and get a pitcher to repeat his unique timing pattern."

Wow! Just when I had regrouped, another simple comment, uttered from the perspective that only comes from years of experience, invaded my logic. It really put matters in perspective for me, especially the focus on uniqueness.

I realized how important it is to respect the individuality of each player (or research subject). I could have taken the wrong turn by beginning to prematurely criticize players who didn't follow the trends I had identified.

I also thought about Coach Sherman's idea of repeating the timing pattern. I realized that I had to be selective with my coaching interventions. Introducing one minor mechanical adjustment could force a pitcher to develop an entirely new timing pattern.

I also noticed Coach Sherman's great respect for his players. He realized that his athletes chose a particular timing pattern that worked for them.

My new primary motivation as a Ph.D. student is to better understand why athletes choose their individual timing patterns. At the U. of Florida Biomechanics Lab, we are currently examining the extent to which shoulder flexibility drives the overall mechanics of the baseball pitch and tennis serve.

I strongly recommend talking with other coaches and researchers about your ideas. Of course since coaches and researchers are busy people, the opportunity for communication can sometimes be challenging.

Below are three ways to communicate with others in a manner that will help to improve your coaching logic.

1. ATTEND A CONFERENCE:

Conferences are probably the best opportunity for coach and researcher interaction. Many of them will display the latest and greatest presenters and athletic information in a friendly and accessible environment.

Be aware that the focuses of the conferences range from sports specific to athletics in general, and from strictly coaching to strictly research. A basic Internet search can help reveal the conferences in your area of interest and region of the country. You may also want to check whether your institution will help fund your conference trip.

2. CONTACT A RESEARCHER:

If you cannot attend a conference, consider contacting a researcher in your area of interest. Don't be shy; coaches are a tremendous asset for researchers. Researchers realize that coaches provide instant access to research subjects, other coaches, and years of insight.

Most universities have great department websites that clearly show the contact information, interests, and experience of professors that contribute to athletics.

Just like coaches, professors are great resources who seem to know everybody. In addition to answering questions, they can instantly reveal a book, paper, website, graduate student, or some other asset.

When contacting researchers clearly state:

1. The sport and level that you coach.

2. The potential for your players to participate as research subjects.

3. Specific questions.

Ask easily addressable questions such as, "I've noticed that my pitchers vary considerably in the time that they initiate hip rotation. Are you aware of any research on this subject?" Avoid open-ended questions such as, "What should I teach my players about hip rotation in pitching?"

3. FORMALLY PRESENT YOUR IDEAS:

Recently I spoke to the University of Florida Pitching Coach, Ross Jones, about his experiences speaking to hundreds of coaches across the country. He commented, "The thought process that goes into preparing to speak to large groups helps me to clarify personal thoughts and to develop creative new ideas that I am able to use with my players."

Finally, be aware of how easy it is for you to make contributions of immeasurable wealth:

* Share knowledge with athletes, coaches, and researchers.

* Communicate at conferences.

* Formally present ideas.

* Inform student athletes of exercise science fields and degrees.

* Allow players to serve as research subjects.

Reviewing the research literature and following these guidelines will help you become an Academic Coach!

By Jeff Wight, Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology College of Health and Human Performance, University of Florida
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Title Annotation:BASEBALL
Author:Wight, Jeff
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:2403
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