Nov 2, 2017Better Together
The Coastal Carolina University baseball program recently revamped its structure to unite the coaches, athletic trainers, and strength staff. The result? A collaboration that has reaped rewards on and off the field.
This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Following the 2015 season, the entire Coastal Carolina University baseball staff met to review and process the year we’d just finished and plan improvements for the upcoming season. Of primary concern was an issue we’d been having for years-by the end of the season, our best players were either underperforming due to chronic breakdown or sidelined by injury. We determined that in order to resolve these problems once and for all, we had to completely overhaul the team’s training and sports medicine practices.
To start, we wanted to change the approach of the athletic training staff. A study done by the NATA in 2013 found that collegiate athletic trainers devoted insufficient time to rehab and therapeutic exercise because of their time spent at practices and on administrative duties. As a result, prevention of injury was found to be hyperemphasized but underutilized. Athletes whose recovery entailed doing a few quick tubing exercises and getting in the cold whirlpool were lacking true understanding and leadership from overwhelmed, uncoordinated team staff. We also did not want the role of the strength and conditioning coach in a student-athlete’s health care to be lost or understated anymore.
Instead, our vision was to create a combined sport performance team, one that allowed all staff members to focus on the student-athlete as a whole by collaborating more efficiently and effectively. We wanted a system that merged the athletic trainer, strength coach, and baseball coaches into one central command for sports performance to maximize strengths, fill in gaps, and address dysfunction before it became symptomatic.
Our administration and Head Coach Gary Gilmore believe in empowering staff to have the largest circle of influence possible in their area of expertise. Therefore, I was tasked with leading the change in program structure. In some ways, it reminded me of when I served as the foreperson on a jury trial. All members of the jury had agendas that influenced their thinking and decision-making, which made it incredibly challenging for us to agree on anything.
Similarly, all members of the baseball team staff brought different motivations and backgrounds to the job of developing players. My assignment was to unify these modes of thinking for the benefit of the student-athlete. Together, we came up with four main goals for our new sports performance model:
• Hire a strength and conditioning coach exclusively for baseball who would share our collaborative vision.
• Develop effective, individualized sports performance plans for each athlete.
• Have remarkable synergy.
• Pursue relentless attention to detail and student-athlete education.
The 2016 season was the first year for reorganization, and the results were more than promising. The squad led the nation in home runs, scoring, and total wins that year. Instead of players getting injured before the end of the season, each athlete made strength gains while maintaining range of motion and energy levels. Every game in the postseason was fought with the same four pitchers and the same 10 position players, and we accomplished the team’s mission of competing in the College World Series and brought back the program’s first NCAA Division I national title.
This success was a testament to our players who bought into the philosophy, Coach Gilmore for leading the change and not being comfortable with the status quo, and the complete trust our administration put into everyone working together, which is uncommon. Each win was earned well ahead of time with preparation in all phases of sport performance.
To accomplish our first goal, I needed to hire the right strength and conditioning professional to work exclusively with our team. It was important to find a coach who could appreciate what we were trying to do and why. I wanted someone who truly understood and was passionate about baseball, as well as someone who had a strong grasp of anatomy. The coach also had to exemplify the team’s core covenants of relentlessness and selflessness. These principles are the foundation of our culture and guide all of our actions and processes.
I did my graduate work at Georgia Tech and remained close with the department. That connection led me to Nick White, MS, CSCS, USAW. Around the time we were looking for a strength coach, White was finishing his graduate degree in sport administration at Georgia Tech, and he had played collegiate baseball as an undergrad.
To determine whether White was the right fit for our new system, I had to make sure he thoroughly understood our plan. From the start, we were very careful to lay out all of our expectations and goals. He spent almost all of his interview day with me and a few of our players, and it was obvious he had the qualities we desired. After White was hired, the collaboration hit the ground running.
There is one important detail about our model to make clear: It does not involve anyone operating outside their scope of practice. White is never in the athletic training room performing modalities like dry needling or joint mobilization. And although players report to White on how their bodies are functioning, he never assesses injury. On the flip side, I supervise and record speed and agility sessions, but White coaches all technique. Here are some other examples of ways we divvy up responsibilities while still working together effectively:
• In the weightroom, I start incoming groups with movement prep and core work, so White can focus on coaching the previous group. This allows me to sneak in additional preparation work for players who are predisposed to certain issues, based on what lifts they are doing that day.
• At our fueling station during the summer, White and I alternate nutrition “topic of the day” presentations over breakfast with the team.
• During the season, a team training session involves me working with the starting nine on extra soft-tissue mobilization, active recovery, core, and maintenance strength, so White can focus on continuing high-volume lifts with the developmental players.
• Before practices, White may take a group of athletes through speed training on the field while I take a different group through scapular work, and then we’ll switch.
• Between games, White can be found at our therapy pool putting the starting pitcher from the previous game through our underwater recovery routine and low-impact work capacity session. Meanwhile, I assist in getting position players ready for the next contest.
With White on our performance staff, we could accomplish our second goal for the collaboration: creating effective training plans to meet each individual player’s needs. We believe investing in this area makes us healthier and more efficient, ultimately decreasing time players spend in rehab.
Individual plans are especially important for baseball because the game involves the fastest motions in sports, which affect each player differently. For example, the athlete who has decreased hip, shoulder, or thoracic spine range of motion can’t have the same goals as the athlete with an unstable shoulder and a lack of core control.
Likewise, athletes need to be taught and cued individually in the weightroom. If we blindly yell to the full team to squat lower without any consideration of players’ unique ankle mobilities or femur alignments, we are inviting lower-back problems.
In the past, the biggest obstacle we faced in attacking each player’s needs was time constraints. Developing plans for 35 to 45 players was tedious and took a while to complete. However, our new model enables White and me to combine our strengths of player assessment and goal setting and then take a holistic approach to the program.
Together, White and I determined which players should do which exercises by putting them through a multijoint and multimovement evaluation. Then, we developed an Excel workbook that relies on formulas to automatically insert exercises into each player’s unique workout sheet, organizing them by experience level, injury history, and position. This lets the computer do as much of the organizational work as possible, eliminating the hours that White or I would have had to spend planning and discussing workouts. Before our change in organizational structure and philosophy, we did not have this opportunity. We also share a Dropbox file that sends alerts when changes are made to the plan.
The third goal of the collaboration-increasing synergy among all involved parties-is important to the program at many levels. For instance, without it, I might do extra rotator cuff work with a pitcher before practice, White might incorporate rotator cuff exercises in the weightroom, and our pitching coach might assign a 45-minute shoulder-dominant routine in the bullpen-then we’d get frustrated when the rotator cuff showed overuse symptoms. The model we developed keeps everything the players do on the field, in the weightroom, in the athletic training room, during bullpens, and even in the dining hall together. There are no assumptions about what is or is not happening.
Communication is, of course, a huge component of ensuring synergy. This begins with staff members speaking the same language. We use the same names for movements and exercises. This way, all sport performance information is disseminated consistently.
Further, members of the collaboration communicate constantly. Formal meetings among our staff are very rare because they are not necessary. Instead, we have constant “mini meetings” throughout the day and week. These exchanges keep information fresh and organized, as the scope of our operation is large and has a lot of moving pieces.
To keep communication flowing between White and me specifically, we are roommates on the road and work out together whenever possible. These opportunities allow us uninterrupted time to listen to each other and share concerns. In addition, White makes it a point to be in the athletic training room during high volume times to take athletes through game preparation and rehab routines. This shows the players we are all connected and enables both White and me to expand our skill sets.
On the sport-specific side, White and I are very close with our pitching coach, and we are always talking about ways to reform our approach. And I can’t forget about Coach Gilmore. Every morning, I chat with him about player health and how workouts are going, occasionally offering suggestions for when he can push the players a little harder on the field.
To further enhance synergy, every member of our team recently downloaded a communication app on their phones. This allows all staff to view the players’ Excel workbooks, keep up with their training schedules, and monitor their body composition and performance metrics. Now, when White or I explain each week’s plan to the sport coaches, they can view it on their phones and make sure all the pieces fit together.
When players know that all members of the coaching staff are on the same page, it keeps engagement high, sends a consistent message, and increases accountability. Most importantly, it prevents an athlete trying to pit one coach against the other. They know they can’t manipulate our system just to get what they want.
As the last goal of our collaboration, having a relentless attention to detail and educating players means being “others-focused” and understanding we are teachers above all else. We practice the old saying, “Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.” By the time players leave our program, we want them to have all the tools necessary to fish abundantly.
To hold up our end of the bargain, it is imperative that White, our student assistants, sport coaches, and I agree on the details we set out to teach. During White’s first few months on the job, he put me through workouts as if I was a player, so we could decide on the details and educational points we wanted to emphasize. From these sessions, we developed a list of “The Coastal Way”- which describes the finer points of good training-and shared it with all staff members. (See “Core Values” below.)
Then, we distributed those details to the players. From the start, we give them an almost overwhelming amount of instruction on perfect exercise execution. For us, quality of movement, posture, and positioning are more important than chasing weight on the bar. Players must do exercises correctly before they can do them at high volumes or under fatigue. This allows us to address dysfunction before it becomes symptomatic.
Once we’ve established good technique with players, we reinforce it by ensuring that nothing goes unnoticed-we now have four eyes observing athletes in the weightroom (mine and White’s) where there used to be two. We also minimize the number of athletes who train at one time by having smaller groups hit the weightroom in overlapping cycles throughout the day. This enables us to connect with each player individually, which allows for proper kinesthetic awareness and grooving correct movement patterns.
CHALLENGES & REWARDS
Now that the collaboration has been up and running for about two years, we’ve had a chance to reflect on how the setup has been working. It would be disingenuous to imply the system has always been seamless or that it has been accepted by every member of the team.
One challenge we’ve faced has related to player attitudes. Not every athlete can handle our culture, which can cause animosity. After all, it can be hard for young people to alter bad habits they grew up with and accept change.
For example, young college players are always measuring themselves against their buddies. But that doesn’t always work within our system because our workouts are so individualized. When athletes are on a different exercise than a teammate next to them, the competitiveness clicks in and they might try to outdo him. So we remind them of the reasons we operate the way that we do.
When an athlete is struggling to adapt to the collaboration, my position allows me to defuse the situation before it becomes systemic and hurts the process. Players can bring their frustrations to me, and I can defend the coaches, make adjustments, or counsel them on different viewpoints. And the teamwork inherent in our structure helps us remain consistent and productive during the very long, repetitive, demanding season.
Another challenge with our model is increased pressure and accountability. In the past, if chronic injuries increased, fingers were often pointed at the strength coach first. But our new system eliminates the ability to place blame on another person or department and forces all parties to take ownership and responsibility for decision-making. If something is wrong, we must talk and brainstorm solutions to fix it. There’s no longer an, “It’s not my job, so I won’t worry about it,” mentality.
On the flip side, if no one person is getting blamed, no one person gets all the credit, either. We all maintain the selfless attitude of service first, eliminating any vanity. People don’t always buy into this, but it’s a team philosophy that is laid out during the hiring process and reinforced during meetings. All coaches have a mutual level of respect for each other, and the players’ development is celebrated equally throughout the entire staff.
Of course, many elements of the collaboration have been positive, as well. Besides the role it played in Coastal Carolina’s 2016 national championship, the success of the philosophy has become a competitive advantage in recruiting. It is a key subject highlighted during every prospect’s visit, selling the fact that the highest level of player development occurs at Coastal Carolina.
In addition, our model has started to spread throughout the Coastal Carolina athletic department. Recently, a dual athletic trainer/strength coach was hired as Director of Strength and Conditioning to head sports performance for the football team, and our golf and soccer squads have evaluated their approach and adjusted to operate similarly.
Put simply, program-wide co-management of the athlete is in the best interest of the player and sports performance as a whole. When all staffers from various backgrounds are working under the same umbrella, the entire team is elevated with a continued spectrum of learning. Creating a high level of focus and purpose that ends with an attitude of service is the ultimate accomplishment.
Below are the components that make up “The Coastal Way” for the Coastal Carolina University baseball team.
1. The three guiding philosophies-individuality, synergy, and attention to detail.
2. Teaching anterior pelvic tilt and/or abdominal bracing with all appropriate exercises. For example, when completing a prone plank, hips should be slightly rolled forward with decreased lordotic curve, activating the lower back’s protective mechanisms and compressive pattern versus shear pattern of erector spinae.
3. Incorporating shoulder flexion stretches whenever performing pull-up variations. This prevents shoulder flexion restrictions, which cause rib cage flare and excessive back extension.
4. Emphasizing ears over shoulders and making a double chin during all exercises, namely farmer’s walks and pulling variations. No neck hyperextension or protrusion is permitted.
5. Absolutely no lumbar extension exercises are completed and only limited spinal flexion exercises. All extension needs to come from the hips and thoracic spine. The spine is similar to a credit card-there are only so many bends before it breaks.
6. Very little, if any, lumbar rotation is allowed and absolutely no weighted torque rotation. Rotation should be centered around the hips, not the spine. To achieve this, cue back foot rotation.
7. High amounts of anti-rotation and anti-extension exercises are almost always done in the vertical position. Example exercises include Pallof presses, planks, rollouts, ball throws from a variety of stances, and lunge variations.
8. Limited overhead shoulder compression exercises (i.e., military presses, snatches, push jerks, dips, etc.) are permitted for position players and none for pitchers. These exercises compress and grind the labrum, create valgus extension overload to the elbow, and cause impingement at the shoulder.
9. Performing at least twice the amount of upper-body pulling than pushing exercises.
10. Including all three planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, and transverse) in all sessions.
11. Including closed-chain horizontal push exercises in upper-dominant work. This greatly increases activation of the scapular stabilizers and increases anti-extension core stabilization.
12. Each individual athlete must demonstrate appropriate alignment, muscle control, and breathing pattern in a given exercise before advancing to that movement’s more advanced level.