Updated: Aug 20, 2020
So, I’ve decided to write a case study on a big leaguer I worked with recently. Now normally I specialize in working with pitchers, but this particular athlete is a hitter/fielder. I’ll preface this whole case study by letting you know he was an opening day starter last year, so he’s not someone that’s still fresh and trying to work his way up. He’s good enough to play in the big leagues. This is important for perspective.
Going into the assessment I was told that his hips are tight, and it affects his swing and that the organization is working to change that. It also should be noted that this is a switch hitter that is working more on hitting from the right side which was the side he was hoping to improve on.
I start the assessment with my own personal movement and medical assessment that I’ve built up over years of experience using trial and error as well as the latest research findings. The goal is to use the assessment to build a story around the way the athlete moves. The assessment is different for hitters and pitchers, so it should be meant to unveil different layers to the athlete’s specific tasks in that sport.
We used a specific recipe of tests looking at mobility, stability, endurance, function, and posture. Each one of these is important for painting the whole picture to how this athlete moves or uses their body to perform a sport-specific task. The first big thing I find out is, believe it or not, he has no mobility restrictions in his hips. You could argue that there is some restriction in his left hip, but his hip mobility was excellent in comparison to the baseball population. So, we already know that his problem that he was labeled with actually isn’t the case at all.
His functional stability tests looked great, movement looked really good, he maybe had a little bit of movement dysfunction in his right shoulder but nothing that some good stability training can’t work out.
The one thing that we found that eventually opened up more movement clues was with left lumbar spine lateral flexion we saw a decrease in range of motion that demonstrated a pinch at end range of the motion that was felt in the left flank area, where the QL (Quadratus Lumborum) sits. I realize that description sounds too clinical but it’s important. Just know that when he bent to the left his left low back felt a pinch. I wanted to rule out some movement organization issues with how he stabilizes to move. Remember, any powerful movement and pretty much any movement at all needs a good foundation of stability to move off of.
So, my next step was to check his ability to create intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). This will create a near-equal co-contraction of the muscles around the abdomen, sides, and back. After cueing him on how to perform the task of creating IAP, we integrated it with the range of motion check. This time while creating IAP, the athlete showed a greater range of motion with left side bend and no more pinch in the left flank. So now we can label that as a dysfunction in his stabilization strategy which could be a possible reason for his swing issues.
I wanted to dive deeper into his ability to create IAP and breathe using his diaphragm, so I tested him in a seated position and in a 90-90 position on his back. He passed the seated test with flying colors, but in the 90-90 position he struggled which tells me he needs work. Once he establishes a better neuromuscular understanding of the movement, we’d integrate it with multiple dynamic lifts and other movements such as hitting drills to help better ingrain the movement.
Well, another interesting thing happened when we watched him take some swings in the cage. We noticed by using video and 4D motion data that he tends to fire his hands too fast and too early. We also were able to see that when batting from the right side, his left hip extends up to initiate his swing instead of getting into the hip and rotating or hinging which harnesses the power of that back hip. He wasn't pre-loading or hinging in his back hip enough which lead him to create energy elsewhere (ie leaking energy by extending his hip up on initiation.)
Now, we can start putting all of these puzzles pieces together to create a better picture. This athletes inability to create trunk stabilization through IAP has tasked his body by adapting to firing his back hip in a way that doesn’t create enough power and leaks energy through his body which then causes his brain to need to rush his hands so that the bat could meet the ball before it got by him. This is the body adapting through its constraints to achieve a task. This is another example of how sometimes it takes a good program to train the body to get around certain constraints.
The information on his deficiencies are sent back to the organization along with recommended training both in exercises and hitting/movement drills. We may find that once his movement is cleaned up that he develops new inefficient movement strategies that need to be cleaned up, but that is all a part of the process… Ideally, he would be re-examined every week to measure progress both through his hitting and his movement in general.
This professional athlete has established habits and strategies over his career to get to the level that he's at. The difficult aspect of this is making small changes to stabilization strategy, or what the skill acquisition community refers to as the attractor state, but also not tweaking it so much that he has a severe drop in performance. This athlete was told he has tight hips during his swing, but upon assessment, his hips move great by themselves, but it's the way that the hips and the trunk/core/spine work together in function is the real problem. Teaching him better IAP and bracing along with hip hinging and the generation of power from his hips could potentially be a career shifting change for him. Read our previous blog post on how we work in the hip hinging! Remember, you need a stable foundation to move from and generate force from!