Saturday, June 27, 2015

Why Harbaugh made these quarterbacks play baseball...

When folks ask me what I do for a living I tell them that I am an athletic development specialist and most don’t know what to make of that… Are you a trainer… a speed and agility guy… or a sport performance coach?

While I do all of what you would expect from the aforementioned disciplines athletic development is more than putting an athlete through a “tough” workout or “winning” that day’s game.

Athletic development is the process of guiding a young athlete through the inevitable peaks and valleys of growth and maturation from an athletic perspective, and ensuring that young athletes are exposed to the right things at the right times with the long-term in mind.

The emphasis is not on becoming the best 10-year old. Elite 10-year olds rarely become elite 18-21 year olds! While it may seem logical given their current trajectory, the “best” athletes at age 10 rarely survive the inevitable ebbs and flows that accompany athletic development.

Burn-out, over-use injury, changing interests are certainly contributing factors that stall many burgeoning athletic careers but in this day and age the most significant factor is poor overall athleticism.

The way youth sports are set up in America bears little resemblance to any type of developmental system. Survival of the fittest and pure luck (where and when you are born for example) are more apropos.

If a young athlete shows any kind of talent at a young age they are strongly encouraged to “pick” one sport and “specialize” early so that they can master their craft and thus set themselves apart from their competitors.

While specialists may gain an early advantage on the generalists this edge completely vanishes by the late teens years when more specialized training can actually make a difference over the long-term.

Why do the specialists lose their early advantage? Let’s visit Ann Arbor and new Michigan football coach Jim Harbuagh for a few clues.

Harbaugh last week hosted U-M's "Aerial Assault" quarterback camp.  Harbaugh exposed the young quarterbacks to a diverse array of athletic skills and challenges. The quarterbacks kicked field goals and fielded ground balls and even later in the day threw in some dodgeball and soccer.*

As the quarterbacks went through the drills, many in attendance were surprised how many looked so ordinary, like they had never caught a baseball, much less thrown one. Most of these “elite” young prospects were… not very athletic!

There is more to sports than mastering the technical skills. Playing quarterback, shortstop or goalie (really any position in team sports) demands athleticism and creativity. The "novel" drills at the U-M camp exposed who was an athlete versus a robot created by a quarterback guru.

"It's an athletic rep," Harbaugh said, of catching a baseball. "Field awareness. Spatial awareness. Hand-eye coordination. Throwing is throwing, whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, or a rock. It's the mechanics of throwing."*

In an age when so many athletes specialize in one sport, trying to find multi-sport athletes who can do it all has become very rare. "You can take athletic reps doing just about everything, even climbing a tree," Harbaugh said. "Climbing a tree would be balance."

Harbaugh reflected on a conversation he had with legendary NFL coach Bill Walsh whom groomed two Hall-Of-Fame quarterbacks (Joe Montana and Steve Young), both of whom were excellent all-around athletes:

"I asked him, 'How do you find a quarterback?' " Harbaugh said. "He said he looks for athletic talent, as one of the top three things. He said, 'they are the best athlete at their high school. They can catch a fly ball. They could go be on the track team. They can play soccer. They could be the sixth man on the basketball team, even if it's not their main sport.' "*

Several former Michigan quarterbacks helped Harbaugh out at the camp and their observations of the young athletes was also very insightful.

Elvis Grbac said it's easy to spot the athletes. But in this day and age of more specialized athleticism, like quarterbacks only playing one sport and working with personal coaches, it is good to see them perform even briefly in other disciplines.

"A bunch of us were all saying, we never did camps like this," Grbac said. "We were all playing different sports. I was playing baseball in the summer and basketball when it was in season. It's a little different now. I would like to see more kids playing multiple sports. I think it's better for them to be athletes."*

Todd Collins was another former Wolverine that was lending a hand at the camp and of the 11 high school quarterbacks he was assigned to, only two said they played baseball.

"You could tell some guys didn't know how to throw a baseball that well," Collins said. "I asked them what sports they play and some said they train for football. I played three sports. Most of us were multi-sport athletes. Training for one sport, I don't think is a good idea."*

Not baseball or football players but well-rounded athletes. The reason? They are more resilient both mentally and physically; they have a bigger window for adaptation (ability to improve) and they posses fertile soil to accept advanced coaching techniques and strategies.

High-level coaches know they can get kids bigger and stronger and can teach them sport specific techniques (that’s why they are coaching at those levels) but the thing they can’t teach is fundamental athleticism. This can only be attained during the developmental years when the young nervous system is extremely malleable and highly adaptive. It’s why kids can learn foreign languages more efficiently that we can as adults. Once our foundation has been laid it’s nearly impossible to make up for it later on.

I grew up on a farm and the area was well known for the extremely fertile soil. In this example imagine that a child’s movement experiences are the cultivation practices that dictate the quality of the soil. The more diverse the cultivation practices are the more robust and resilient the soil will become.

You could place lousy seeds (coaching/training) in that soil and it would still bear good fruit. However if the soil is bad it won’t matter if you have the best seeds (coaching/training) in the county the harvest will be mediocre at best.

And that is what Harbuagh was evaluating in these young quarterbacks! How fertile are these young men. Do they have the ability to take the things I am coaching and apply them? I think Harbaugh and his staff were disappointed to learn that many of them aren’t Michigan material.


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why Are These Vandy's So Dandy? How The Top College Baseball Program in the Country was Built...

Late spring is a “show-time” for amateur baseball. Whether it is high school state play-offs or the College World Series it’s an opportune time for these athletes to display their talent. And it just so happens that MLB will be looking to acquire many of these players in their upcoming draft starting June 8.

While the MLB draft isn’t a prime time event like the NFL version it could hold special significance for the state of Michigan in 2015.

Nick Plummer of Birmingham Brother Rice should become the second Michigan prep position player taken in the top three rounds since Billy Killian in 2004.* The other was DJ LeMahieu, a second round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2009. LeMahieu won the National League Gold Glove last season for his defense at second base and is hitting well over .300 for the Colorado Rockies this season. This week Daniel Fields made his major league debut for the Tigers; he was a 6th round pick out of UD Jesuit also in 2009.

But outside of LeMahieu (and know Fields) it’s been a dry period for baseball prospects that were prepped and raised in the great state of Michigan.

Of the top 200 draft prospects (according to for 2015 only 3 hail from Michigan. Not surprisingly warm weather states lead the charge Florida with 30 and California with 32 respectively.**

The best player available according to many “experts” is Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson.

It's also worth noting that Swanson was the captain of the basketball team at Marietta (Ga.) HS, and is third in school history in three-pointers made. In other words, he's a well-rounded athlete. ***

In 2014 the Vanderbilt Baseball team won the first men's national championship in any sport in school history.

While Vanderbilt baseball's 2014 season is an amazing story in itself, there's a sub-plot that warrants mention as well, and Adam Ravenelle (now a pitcher in the Tigers organization at West Michigan) serves as a perfect example. "Rav" was a 5-10, 125-pound 8th grader when he first timidly walked in to my colleagues athletic performance facility near Boston back in the summer of 2007.  At the time, he was a baseball player - but also a golfer, tennis player, and basketball player.

As a freshman and sophomore in high school, he played golf, basketball, and baseball. As a junior, he pared it down to basketball and baseball. Only when he was a high school senior did he trim things down to one sport - and even then, it was after he was already committed to play at Vanderbilt, and a serious MLB Draft prospect (he was drafted in the 44th round out of high school in 2011, and then again in the 4th round last year).

His teammate, Tyler Beede, is another athlete who trained at my colleague’s facility. “Ty” played football, basketball, and baseball as a freshman. He went to football and baseball as a sophomore, then down to baseball only as a junior. He regretted leaving football, and went back to playing his senior year - and was still a 1st round draft pick in 2011 (and again this year).

One of the things mentioned several times during the 2014 CWS broadcasts was that Virginia’s (National Runner-Up in 2014) coach actively recruits multi-sport athletes.

I recall an interview with Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin where talked about how he's always reluctant to recruit baseball-only guys. There are so many incredible benefits to playing multiple sports, from avoiding overuse, to developing general athleticism, to making friends in different social circles. If you look at the roster that won the 2014 College World Series for Vanderbilt, you'll see that recruiting perspective is readily apparent. Look at their roster, and only 9 of the 34 guys come from states that could be perceived as "year-round baseball" states: Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, etc. There are a heck of a lot more guys from Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky and (of course) Tennessee - all states where it gets cold and snows in the winter, making year-round baseball a lot tougher. Most of the guys on the Vanderbilt roster were great athletes in other sports as well. In fact, of the 9 to which I alluded above, two - Carson Fullmer (FL) and Swanson (GA) - were praised by the ESPN announcers for their success in other sports (karate and basketball, respectively).

Also relevant to this discussion is another Vanderbilt alum that just may be the bet right-handed starter in the American League right now… Sonny Gray of the Oakland A’s! Last Wednesday he completely shut down the Tigers and hopefully you were able to look beyond your frustration of the Tiger ailing offense to appreciate the Gray’s talent… Despite standing only 5’11 Gray more than make up for that with his renowned competitive spirit and tremendous overall athleticism. Back in his hometown of Smyrna, Tennessee Gray won lead his high school football team to back-to-back state titles as their quarter back and team captain.

Early specialization might work out for a small percentage of young athletes, but it fails miserably for the majority. And, you can never go wrong with finding and developing general athleticism. Look at Vanderbilt's track record of success over the past decade (and their significantly lower injury rates), and it's impossible to argue. Let kids play, and not just baseball...they might just "surprise" you by winning a national championship.

*Plummer should be only the 2nd player since 2004 taken in top three rounds.

**State-by-State Breakdown of top 200 draft prospects.

***Best of the 2015 class.