Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Specificity in Performance: The Actual Analysis

Postural analysis indicates supination of the right foot, tibial external rotation of the lower leg (the shin rotated outward), knee valgus (knee caves in), and hip external rotation. The left foot is close to normal so I will focus on just the right foot in this post. There is tightness on both sides in the anterior hip musculature (the hip flexors primarily), quadriceps, and calves. Since the left side functions close to normal and the right does not we can see that flexibility alone is not the problem.

Dynamically, the right foot stays supinated essentially rendering itself useless (no toe-off) and the loading it should have helped create up the chain is lost (reducing performance of all subsequent links). This centers loading on the quadricep group (referred to as quad dominance) and because the foot/ankle is not in proper use (gripping the floor with the foot and eccentrically/spring loading the foot/plantar flexors) there is limited use of the glutes/hamstrings. There has to be an anterior/forward movement of the tibia/shin (the spring loading/gripping of the floor) to create a posterior/backward movement of the femur/upper leg. Because the shin stays relatively neutral (any forward movement of the shin here is more of a collapse of the foot/ankle and not representative of true loading of the foot/ankle musculature) the femur follows creating an anterior weight shift which further reduces loading to the glute/hamstrings.

On take-off and landing there is a lateral shift of the pelvis (on the right leg the hip shifts out to the right) which also indicates the lack of stability created by the breakdown in the kinetic chain and anterior loading of the quads (also the lack of loading to the glutes/hamstrings which would help to stabilize the leg).

There is a relationship to the core/trunk musculature but that will have to be addressed later as this post is focused on the foot/ankle, and by extension, the lower body. It is important to note that stability refers out from the core/trunk, as a pebble does in water creating ripples, so any analysis would be incomplete (which this will have to be for the sake of brevity) without analyzing the two and their interdependence.

Technical/Physical Adjustments:
The foot should be centered with loading focused on the medial side of the foot with good contact and stability felt from mid-foot to heel. The shin and knee should be aligned vertically over the foot. This will allow for appropriate loading up from the lower leg increasing balance and movement efficiency, correcting the tibial external rotation, knee valgus, and hip external rotation present before. The first 3 reps of the split squat demo below are demonstrated inappropriately and the next 3 reps make a slight correction that positionally makes a great deal of difference.

If the problem is merely positioning, this change should correct technique. This is typically not the case.

In single leg stance, as shown on the single-leg jumps, there has to be a lateral shift of the pelvis because of the change in center of mass (position of the body, specifically the hips, over the legs). However, this rotation should be slight. If the rotation is excessive, there is a breakdown in the chain as presented earlier. This is often the case with female athletes as their quadricep-angle (the angle of the femur from the hip to the knee resembles the line through the bottom right of a Q) is more distinct from the start. Differences in q-angle are attributed to wider hips in females and in single-leg stance the differences compound as female athletes often display quad-dominance with lack of recruitment to the glute/hamstring musculature. This makes female athletes more susceptible to knee problems, specifically ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) injury.

Quad Dominant (Compromised Performance):

Quad Dominance

Not Quad Dominant (High Performance, specifically a 182-kilo Clean and Jerk):


Also an important thing to consider here is how an overhead goal changes landing mechanics as demonstrated on the 2-legged jumps. If the athlete must change position to adjust to a ball or other player, whether that be through a simple rotation, holding their jump longer, or otherwise, there will be a definite change in the ability to land "properly". Landing properly is not limited to landing in a perfect athletic position as many describe. Landing properly is the ability to decelerate and place appropriate loading to the body's active supports, primarily muscles, while minimizing stress to passive supports (ligaments and other joint structures). In short, it's a best case scenario for a worst possible situation. This requires a great deal of coordination, spatial awareness, muscle stiffness, and elasticity.

Corrections to posture and movement mechanics will help athletes better express their physical abilities with a reduced incidence of injury. It is important that coaches and athletes analyze general and specific movement mechanics and address strengths and weaknesses appropriately to drive performance enhancement further. There are no new movements for the body so it is important that we maximize what movement we have available.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

If You Aren't First, You're Last

First Link or Last?

I lack the knowledge and experience to speak in absolutes regarding a joint's functionality so when I wrote in the last post that the ankle and foot were the last link in the chain that is only specific to the toe-off action. In reality there is an initiation of kinetic energy that starts with the eccentric loading (spring loading if timing is appropriate) through the ankle and foot musculature and works its way up through muscular, tendon, and fascial connections into the quads, glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, etc.

Many colleagues will refer to ankle issues as hip issues, however, I always see and try to think of general and specific factors and their relevance to the problem and solution so we will analyze both. This is not to say that colleagues do not go through the same process but that needed to be said. So even with a more global or general view of the problem, most problems still require a specific intervention to truly ingrain a correction to motor programming and movement. Andy Twellman's staff at Train 4 The Game in Austin, Texas, in following Todd Wright's lead and Gary Gray methodology term this "groove the move".

Relevant to creating and correcting movement patterns and positioning is the relationship between static and dynamic balance and the impact on slow and fast movement. Static balance is simply posture and the maintenance of stability. Limitations in static balance are limitations in static posture as this is what our original design and structural framework is meant to support. Dynamic balance is static balance applied, or simply put, the interaction of body position with an external environment. Properly applied body posture in space/movement is dynamic balance. It is important to note the differences between the dynamics of movement and the postures our bodies are capable of creating, especially regarding mechanical law. Geoffrey Dyson, in his landmark text The Mechanics of Athletics, described the relationship beautifully when he wrote, "here, too, principles applicable to rigid bodies are being applied to bodies that are far from rigid." That text was first published in 1962.

This introduces a paradoxical relationship between body positioning and performance: proper position may sometimes encourage poor performance if the athlete is not physically capable of supporting such a position leading to the creation of dreaded compensation patterns. The track and field example is the introduction of starting blocks to a still developing runner. If that runner is lacking the strength and mobility to use the starting blocks effectively the athlete will learn how to not use the starting blocks effectively. This athlete will stand up instead of push off the blocks.

Because of the high demand for technical skill in volleyball many tasks present the same limitations based on physical weaknesses. It may be poor performance in the approach jump, defensive position, blocking, etc. If a coach has no concept or understanding of proper progression regarding the introduction of specific movement that requires a high degree of coordination, strength, and mobility, the athlete will often do their best to perform that movement as accurately as possible but often with a high degree of compensation. I tell athletes they are faking the skill performance.

A good rule for the introduction of skill development, taken from strength coach Michael Boyle, is to learn the movement:

1) Correct
2) Slow
3) Then fast

This works very well with beginner and intermediate athletes but as athletes near the high performance level skill development often goes beyond major technical and positional adjustments, although they may very well require minor technical corrections to further improve performance. This is the complexity of elite athletics. These athletes often require true improvements in speed, strength, and power to further their development. I say true improvements here as the distinction between speed, strength, and power and their interaction at the beginner and intermediate level is difficult to distinguish and improvements are often centered in coordination that merely bring the athlete to the point of improvement upon which they must truly become faster, stronger, and more powerful. I tell my athletes that initial improvements are our push to the body to improve this skill and that this is the point where the skill pushes back.

As a more specific example, I can often get my female volleyball players to improve on the front squat from the bar (33-45 pounds) to around 100 pounds in 8-12 training sessions (assuming no serious problems with injury history or schedule). Before this point the weight is relatively comfortable on the chest and shoulders, but past this point the weight literally pushes the athlete down, unless they have learned to focus their body position properly (from heel to head).

Olympic weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay of Wichita Falls Weightlifting Club describes the limit most athletes reach, whether physical or technical, as the same limit many people reach in their professional careers: the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His/Her Level of Incompetence." Put simply, you cannot progress past your own stupidity (or your coach's). Whether that incompetence is physical or technical, it requires a focused intervention to develop further. In my next posting I will specifically analyze the leg mechanics from the jump video.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Med Ball Throws and Box Jumps

Nothing incredibly fascinating about this but perhaps a couple of things are noteworthy:

1. The acceleration of the body (trunk/torso specifically) into the legs, driven by the arm and shoulder drive, is of primary importance to loading the legs properly on the med ball throws and the box jumps. Often an athlete will attempt to over control their torso and resist the drop limiting the elastic energy stored in the legs. This is a mistake! Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction so a faster downward movement of the torso (the action) increases the speed/power of the jump (the reaction). This is pivotal as it is very difficult to rapidly accelerate, and therefore jump high, if the athlete has not loaded their spring (their legs and trunk) properly.

2. On the box jumps, the critical factor is hip height. Many believe that a 42" box jump is equivalent to a 42" vertical jump but this is simply not true. It's the change in center of mass, at the hips, that indicates true jump performance. This jump specifically is probably in the range of 32 to 34". A good rule of thumb is to jump and land in the same position and this goes way back to Coach Jimmy Radcliffe at the University of Oregon. Landing in too deep of a squat position, as I am guilty of in my chase for a 52" box jump, should not be encouraged in training. It is still a reasonable display of athleticism but not a practice common to great training programs where the best interests of the athlete, and not of puffed up box jump or other performance numbers, are the focus.

A good guideline for selecting box jump height is not to go beyond a 10-20% difference than the athlete's best vertical jump. So for an athlete who jumps 20" high, a 20", 22" (10%), or 24" (20%) box is appropriate.

3. There is nothing magical about box jumping. Jumping onto a box is not a secret to superior sports performance. Jumping onto a box simply saves the athletes legs from landings. So considering good quality jump performance the only difference between jumping over a 42" hurdle and jumping onto a 42" box is the height of the landing. I will often have a box at about 50% of the height of the box we are jumping for the athlete to step down onto to save the legs.

As you can see I'm quite the rebel and do not step down onto another box. But you can see that I do pay attention to how I am landing. It's not the fall that kills ya, it's the landing!

3. Look at the foot/ankle mechanics closely on the med ball throws and box jumps. The ankle stays relatively neutral, and to a certain extent the foot is not loaded properly and the ankle resists any dorsiflexion which will limit successful toe off on the jump. This same toe off is critical to great sprinting and jumping as this represents the last link in the kinetic chain. This is a relatively minor detail but when the difference between 1st and 2nd place is often percentage points on percentage points we owe it to the athlete to look everywhere for improvements. In this case, I am the athlete demonstrating and outside of box jumps and med ball throws I am not focused on these improvements although I will certainly address them in my training. My primary focus is improvement on the snatch and clean and jerk movements from olympic weightlifting. Keeping things in context is important as well for this is no reason to focus on one detail that will give you a percentage point on a percentage point when there may be other details (in my case maximum strength, olympic weightlifting technique, and bodyweight) that will give you ten points.

4. This is really an aside but this kind of thing is common in my thinking so deal with it: Any coach training athletes should have athletes capable of performing any portion of their training program at a high level. I can't stand things that my athletes cannot do well. Whether it's a coaching limitation or an athlete limitation, if I can't correct the skill and improve the athlete's proficiency in said skill then I either need to move back in the progression or focus on something else entirely until training such a skill is more appropriate. I'm demonstrating the med ball throws and box jumps here because I don't video a lot of my athletes training and haven't asked permission to use the video I do have (although I will certainly do so in the future). Video allows for a different kind of feedback and with so many athletes learning and developing in so many different ways more feedback is almost always better than less (although there are reasons to reduce external feedback as well but more on that later).

Big shout out to Coach Turner at Vanderbilt University Strength and Conditioning. Super bright coach focused on the best interests of the athletes in his care. Thanks for the shirt!


Monday, November 10, 2008

Conference Champs

Trinity volleyball won the SCAC Conference Championship and Megan Dudley won the Tournament MVP. Dudley was the one Trinity volleyball athlete training with me this summer and while her hard work there certainly helped it was the VOLLEYBALL coaching staff and team that really helped her to excel. There is no doubt about it: speed and power training helps volleyball players access their ability but there is no substitution for high quality, high performance volleyball coaching. Coach Julie Jenkins and April Fricke are a couple of the best and their success record substantiates that. Substance is a good thing.

This is my first year working with the Trinity volleyball program and I'm happy to be able to learn from the coaching staff and athletes there. Trinity is often referred to as the "Ivy League of the South" so there's no doubt that all of the girls are smarter than I am.

So as to not leave out any details that might be helpful to some, here were the things we did focus on this summer:

1. Improving Power and Speed

2, Improving Relative Strength (Strength to Bodyweight Ratio)

3. Decreasing Bodyweight

Dudley had a great starting point as her fitness was/is top notch. This allowed us to focus on the program qualities that would maximize her abilities and not simply guarantee that she could perform healthy. Often I have to spend a good deal of time retraining movement and addressing poor mobility/coordination relationships, especially with more seasoned volleyball players as the compensation path is an incredible one. Take note: a broad range of physical abilities focused on early in athlete development will allow an athlete to maximally express specific abilities further down the road with less physical wear and tear. Early specialization is a stupid concept but so is not exercising/training at all (more on that soon).

Dudley also felt like she needed to lose around 5-pounds and I agreed it would not hurt, especially if we could concurrently increase her power/strength numbers. She is a very muscular-lean athlete and started training this summer with a 28" approach jump. Her approach jump ended up improving to 31", which we both felt was a great improvement considering she had a solid 3 years of training under her belt prior. To get there, we focused on:

1-Improving her stretch-loading for jumps and increasing her power via the hang snatch

Jump/speed work was a variety of medicine ball throws, fast-SSC (Stretch-Shortening Cycle) transitional jumps focused on rapid ground contact in a stretch-loaded position combined with full extension. Med ball throws were vertical jump tosses, caber tosses (granny tosses do not sound athletic. Caber tossing! Now that screams aggression!), and med ball slams. I think often people are so caught up on rapid ground contact (less than .25 seconds and really focused on around .10 which is essentially the snap of your fingers) that they forget about what the body should do after initial contact. We focus on rapid ground contact and the mechanisms that create good extension (jumping from a power position and extending through the hip/knee/ankle). Otherwise the athlete is just bouncing, which in the complexity of athletic performance and volleyball, simply won't cut it. The timing mechanisms and rhythms of fast stretch-shortening cycle activity contribute beautifully to jumps common to volleyball, namely the approach jump and block jump.

Hang snatch work was highly technical at first as Dudley needed improvement on her technique. She had experience with cleans before but snatches were relatively new to her. We were very conservative with loading as the coordination improvements I see with people new to oly lifts and variations are often enough to drive the force-velocity curve towards positive change without the traditional power loads. As an aside, I often view the percentage recommendations as plain fiction, seeing as working off a percentage of intensity always assumes several things:

A-That the lifters 100% effort was of high quality. With olympic lifting this is a big problem as often it is only maximum loads that expose the athletes weak points in the same way as a faster/more powerful or technical team exposes a volleyball teams weak links.

B-That the athlete is capable of reproducing the same effort and technique on a very consistent basis. Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect, so there will be no assumptions about proper technique being ingrained so early in the training process at my house. Technical mastery of complex skill, whether it be olympic lifting or volleyball, requires thousands of hours of practice and training with constant attention to detail. There is no, "This is the snatch. Now let's get after it!"

2-Eliminating unnecessary volume from the training and focusing on the front squat and chin-up as the primary relative strength indicators

Front squat improved over the summer from a 60-kilo (133 lb) triple to 75-kilo (165 lb) training doubles performed for multiple sets (we never went beyond 4).
Chin-ups improved from band assisted work to bodyweight triples for multiple sets. Given a bit more time, I'm sure we would have progressed quickly into loaded chin-ups. Dudley represents that athlete who is ready for improvements if given an appropriate training structure.

3-Decreasing Bodyweight

This change was quite simple and was simply an extension of the training process. We performed much less total volume than she was used to and Dudley was very disciplined on her nutritional program. Dudley continued to perform the Trinity conditioning work on off-days and had a great summer of preparation to improve her confidence and performance for the competitive season.

With that said, I hope my thought process helps others to see how complexity and simplicity can be successfully interwoven for a great training result. Every athlete presents unique challenges but all can benefit if their energy and talent can be focused successfully.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Evening Training

After waiting for a plumber for the better part of yesterday and waiting for my coach to be free today, I am itching to get in there and lift some bloody weights. Training has gone well this week and I'm hoping to continue that process tonight.

Trinity volleyball is in the championship game this evening and I'm going to try and follow it live when I get back in.