Picture the walk back to the clubhouse after you’ve just finished a 4 game road series that included a late night extra inning marathon. The team is tired, the bullpen was maxed out, and nobody is looking forward to the five-hour bus ride back home. While you’re packing up your stuff and grabbing a bite to eat, you start wondering what is the best time to lift the starting pitcher from tonight. It will have to be late enough in the morning to give him time to sleep, but early enough to him the most possible rest time until his bullpen the next day. When you finally decide and give the news to the starter, who is completely gassed from working 6+ innings, you get a mixture of understanding and reluctance with a groan. The life of a minor league baseball player is rough, as we all know, but we have a job to do and it’s now our duty to prepare them to be ready to perform again in 5 days.
We have various methods to optimize performance for each player on our roster. Whether it’s conditioning, lifting weights, nutritional guidance, or flexibility/mobility drills, we implement everything we can to help the individual needs of our athletes. We focus so much of our time in strength & conditioning on learning to turn on and activate the body. Great coaches are those that can get athletes to increase their rate of force development, produce larger power outputs, and improve neural drive. But, this is minor league baseball. Programming for baseball sports, in my short time in this field, is much more frustrating than other sports. During such a grueling schedule, all kinds of things that pop up out of nowhere.
Many times I’ve had the “perfect program|” or the “ideal schedule” written down only to run into a problem that changes everything by the time the actual workout takes place. It’s important to keep in mind that the pitcher lifting tomorrow is about to hop on a bus and sleep in a terrible postural position for several hours. The chances you are going to have much effect on his rate of force development tomorrow are about as good as the chances of sleeping comfortably on that bus. One of most important things in becoming a better athlete aside from lifting and running is rest and recovery. Since the only opportunity for that pitcher is being on a cramped bus all night, maybe we need to add in more modes of recovery to account for a lack of quality sleep.
An angle we tend to miss
After a broad analysis of what a professional baseball player does in a single day, you see that it includes not only time spent on the diamond, but also time is spent on a bus, at their apartment, and in the clubhouse. When you add up all of the time that is spent off the diamond versus time between the white lines, it’s hard not to notice that a baseball player spends a great deal of time inactive. Now, it’s easy to think that because of this amount of inactivity, these athletes spend most of their day relaxing. But as anyone who has worked in this game knows, the amount of stress involved with this lifestyle can be tremendous. Contracts, homesickness, injuries, bad performance, an argument with a teammate, or relationship problems can be stressful all on their own. Some of these players are dealing with more than one of those things at a time and still have months to go before they can go home.
While I have shown earlier that the amount of physical stress is relatively low compared to other professional athletes, I want to illustrate the amount of mental stress that exists within professional baseball. It is because of this extremely high level of psychological stress that I suggest that we focus our efforts towards improving and implementing more stress reduction/relaxation techniques into our programming.
The current emphasis in our strength & conditioning tends to center on getting the athlete’s muscle fiber to fire fast, to improve ”activation”, or “turn on” or produce action. Yet, when you look at baseball, only the pitcher performs a significantly high volume of firing and activation in one night. By no means am I undervaluing a baseball player’s improvement in power or force producing characteristics. I believe that by improving speed of movement and force capability is the number one goal when training someone in a power based sport. My goal is simply create awareness and dig deeper using what we see everyday to point out that it’s possible we might be missing out on doing more.
As July rolls around, what once was a clubhouse full of energy can dead silent regardless of your win-loss record. You can have a pep talk everyday to improve morale, yet still your team will be worn out. The day in and day out grind that is baseball
A quick look at the nervous system
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) can be useful in helping us get on the same page before we go further. Most, if not all strength/performance coaches should be well aware of the ANS and therefore this review will be very brief. The autonomic nervous system can be divided into 2 sections, the parasympathetic (PNS) and the sympathetic (SNS). The parasympathetic side deals with things like digestion and reducing your heart rate following activity, while the sympathetic will be responsible for activities that require athletic movements such as sprinting to first and swinging at a pitch. In other words, the parasympathetic is on full blast when you plop down on the couch after a huge dinner and the sympathetic side is reduced whereas the sympathetic is on full blast when someone is running away from a dangerous situation while the parasympathetic effect would be withdrawn.
We can assume that the high level athletes on our roster have learned to express the sympathetic side effectively. However, we can’t assume that with all of the stressors involved in a professional athlete’s life that they are very effective at tapping in the parasympathetic side effectively. Sleep quality is very low in minor league baseball due to sleeping on air mattresses cramped with 4 other teammates in an apartment in an effort to save money. Stressful situations like unsuccessfully trying to go to sleep on a leaky mattress can cause the sympathetic side to be increased in a situation where it should be dominated by the parasympathetic. Overall, it can be a autonomic roller coaster full of up’s and down’s typically dominated by a highly sympathetic state.
Physical therapist and author of “Supple Leopard”, Kelly Starrett, has said in several interviews that a major issue among people is the ability to activate and “turn on” the sympathetic system in combination with an inability to turn it off and allow the parasympathetic system to take over. One key factor causing this is a stressful lifestyle. A stressful lifestyle can be anything from a trader on Wall Street to a barista at Starbucks. It’s very difficult to simply define and label exactly what stress is. To paraphrase a professor I had in college, the term stress is so easily misunderstood because it is so simply and falsely accepted. People think of stress and associate it with as one specific form. However, stress can come in both physical and mental forms. For example, if your shortstop is running to first to beat a throw, he is experiencing physical stress on his body. But if he is hitless in his last twelve at bats, he might also be experiencing mental stress from the pressures to break his slump. Both forms are still stressful to the body regardless of which type, but it’s important to know that the impact from non-physical stressors can still wreak havoc.
In the book “Why zebra’s don’t get ulcers”, author Robert Spolasky, mentions that a specific hormonal response, often referred to as the automatic stress response, can be activated even if the brain just thinks of something stressful. That means that the shift to sympathetic dominance can happen not only from physical activity on the field or in the weight room, but also from a player just thinking about striking out his next at bat in a close game.
Now, most of us in this line of work have already come to understand most of this, but I wanted to preface those points to briefly illustrate my purpose of this article. In professional baseball, with the lifestyle that it creates, we need to focus more attention on teaching players how reduce stress rather than creating more. There are so many stressors involved already that it becomes a fine line on where to implement our own things. It’s possible that by adding in things to help shift the athletes into a parasympathetic state during some parts of the day, we could be helping reduce secondary effects of stress like lowered immunity and fatigue. I’ve found that many athletes, including myself, find it much harder to get into a relaxed state. I’ve also found that people in that category need to be taught how to relax rather than being told to simply relax.
Teaching an athlete to relax quicker can help to balance the work we already do that is mainly focused on sympathetic activity. An outside perspective from people might view baseball as much less physically demanding than other sports, such as basketball or American football. But a common fan can’t see behind the scenes in the clubhouse or at the hotel. Rarely do people in the stands understand how much time and effort is put into the nine inning show they are watching.
Young players with a dream making barely enough to get by, travel hours on buses, only to wake up the next day to perform again for your viewing pleasure for 6 consecutive months with only a few days off. Even as the Strength & Conditioning Coach you feel the mental stress of the schedule and lifestyle. I find myself completely zapped of energy at the end of the day even when physically I wasn’t very active that day. It’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the stressors in this sport are mental and can still affect the body just as much as a physical stressor can. Things like lowered immune function and sleep deprivation can be extremely detrimental to players when combined with the daily schedule they have. I believe that we can implement strategies to reduce the amount of stress by planning things that will put the athlete into a more parasympathetic state and avoiding shifting the players in sympathetic states too often. The sympathetic system is extremely useful for this sport. But it’s possible to teach the athletes how to achieve allostatic balance and when to use which.