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5 Distinctions Between the Robust and the Robotic Athlete: Why De-Programming Builds Winners

By Paul Cater

Chaos, feel, rhythm, intuition….. is it getting programmed out of athletes?

Inevitably, every spring training I see an army of robots marching towards the facility from all over the country from big name training centers. Well-versed in warm up protocols, mobility, and every sort of peripheral stabilizing exercise known to man. But… they are not robust, nor resilient.  They typically don’t know how to load eccentrically at speed and are very fearful timid creatures once outside their high dollar systems break down.

Teaching a player how to fish for themselves isn’t good business practice, as an intuitive, resourceful, educated player doesn’t need you in the end.  Of course I believe in metrics to mark improvement, but are these becoming too much of the focus to where they are a crutch?

Over the last 6 Spring Trainings there have been consistencies that relatively predict the robustness of the athlete: that is the ability to not only stay healthy, but to breakthrough and/or perform consistently at a high level.  The robotic players usually don’t last or break down, the robust players keep progressing.

There are a few tendencies I have notice that indicate who is robust and who is too robotic:

  1. Mentally hung up on routine of earlier success
  2. Relative time on the mobility mat
  3. Headphones in gym
  4. Predictive analysis dictating in season programming
  5. Integration of off season trainers with in season organizational staff

Let’s dig into each of these determinants.

Reliance on Routine

The good will be good anyhow; the guys on the cusp tend to look to routine to deliver them to the top, which will in fact become a downward spiral to injury and ineffectiveness. The promises of training facilities to deliver them to the promised land nullify the pyhsiological adaptations with forming a rigid mindset.  The set of variables in-season is usually too great to continue with a fixed programming set, and is usually too lo-fi to matter anyway.

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Training that can break the routine and infuse variability and unpredictability is valuable both as a screen and stimulus

Whereby early specialization may limit physical development, it may limit psychological robustness. The ability to adjust to new schedules, routines, movement patterns, energy systems must be practiced. Moreover, the age at which routine is determined to equal success may create an inability to adjust later in life. It is the definitive point where an athlete breaks through and feels success that may determine the link to routine; the feeling of confidence through control of a professional routine will fix the mindset around that very routine, ultimately dooming them later in the career progression.

Invariably, where the player experienced the most success will determine the routine they try to replicate.  Whatever they did the year they made the All Star game, will be what is stuck with until they get sent down to AAA or inevitably get injured. With the variables that exist in baseball, there has to be a certain open-mindedness and ability to adjust before the proverbial frog is boiled.

baseball is an extreme balance of routine and micro adjustment

Invariably, where the player experienced the most success will determine the routine they try to replicate

Because baseball is an extreme balance of routine and micro adjustment, those who can adjust their routines fastest excel. Primarily, those who don’t base their identity as a player on a routine usually succeed.

Time on the Mat

“Time on the Mat” is referring to the time doing mobility work. Mobility and recovery are probably the most marketable functions of training. They are scalable, have accompanying tools, and are automated. The problem is that so much time is done to achieve optimal mobility that there is less time to increase and maintain force capacity. Mobility work is introspective in nature and too much time being introspective in baseball is dangerous.

Some athletes are neuro-chemically geared for more “mat time” than others

Some athletes are neuro-chemically geared for more “mat time” than others, but it must never become a crutch, or overly introspective

Headphones in Gym

Supine or prone mobility work is akin to headphones in the gym: They say “don’t talk to me, I got this”.  The athletes desire to get the right feeling and head space- often returning to a time of success and confidence, can shut out needed input on movement patterns, loading and a general open social behavior.

Without diving too far deep into the sports psychology, sociology, and the state of the overall human condition, it can be assumed that athletes want control over outcomes. The training center often becomes a safe place where this control over situations can be felt; where there are too many variables in gameplay, the endeavor of training can become a safe place to gain mental and physical control- confidence and a feeling of peace when so many other aspects of sport are not predictable.

Paradoxically, this is where problems start to arise: the ability for an athlete to adjust to variables must be a practiced and programmed outcome. Too often the training venue and program is creating robotic athletes who are slow to mentally and physically adjust to inevitable chaos on the field of play.

The ability for an athlete to adjust to variables must be a practiced and programmed outcome.  Too many athletes are seeking control through traditional training routines.  Robotic powerlifting all-stars are not the types of athletes achieving the highlight reel performances

This desire for control is often fueled by coaches themselves. Because training in the United States- both in the private and ‘public’ sector (universities, high schools) is (often) based on volume and the ability to process bodies through expansive facilities and bloated team infrastructure, coaching techniques have adjusted to handle larger numbers. Teaching the major movement and loading patterns has become a PVC pipe indoctrination ceremony and athletes quickly become automated robots.

A coach doesn’t always have the luxury to coach one on one the technical aspects of the Olympic lifts. Yes, coaches have to be able to process numerous athletes, yet scalable systems collect big pools of varying abilities, driving athletes into automated worlds where the feeling of training takes precedent over the desired outcome: this is where music, personal motivational slogans, pre workout powders, and personal bests- though all valid and good motivators- take on a life of their own leading to less, not more, awareness of ultimate team and personal goals.

Is training becoming a self fulfilling prophecy whereby the outcomes, dictated by athlete/client volume, becomes a new reality separate from competitive reality. Moreover, are training methods dictating gameplay in undesirable ways?

“The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the beginning.”

~Merton, Robert K. (1948) “The Self Fulfilling Prophecy” Antioch Review, 8 (2(Summer)) 195

Therefore, the goal is to teach an athlete to have just the right amount of introspective feeling, while having soft or even hard focus on external queues from others.  Time separating oneself in the name of self awareness, in a place that’s designed for heightened awareness, can re enforce the robotic mindset less-able to adjust. What is beneficial as a means to an end, can become a crutch and self-defeating.

Predictive Analytics

The more stats that are added to training and the more they predict success, the less emphasis on success on field.

There is no doubt that creating competition within training paradigms increases intent and effort to illicit greater physiological adaptation. Yet, in beating numbers or other athletes in the gym, the right frame work must be applied for on field results. Numbers associated with the victories in the weight room or training pitch can become idolized, helping to craft the identity of the athlete whether they related to success in competition or not.

I’ve observed that often the least of performers in the gym are the best players. Is this because of God-given physical talent or a differing mindset or programming emphasis?  Because strength and conditioning coaches will usually reward like minded individuals, we must be aware to not re-enforce the identity of the weight room all stars; that is, coaches must temper the absolute statistical importance of the training environment to not create co-dependency for those who use it as a crutch, and not ostracize the innately talented who need the training environment more than anyone. The coach is just as much to blame as the athlete for stats driven incentives and rigid program design which can ultimately limit athlete development.

5 Distinctions Between the Robust and the Robotic Athlete: Why De-Programming Builds Winners.

Is the identity formed in achieving victory in the weightroom transferrable to the field?  Strength and conditioning coaches will usually re-enforce like minded individuals… but were strength coaches the best athletes on the field?

Competition, if too predictable, may not be not be as beneficial as simple game play in non-relative sports activities. Should the emphasis on weight room stats be replaced with other wins and losses?

Athletes learn to produce max force and velocity and “intent”(popular buzz word these days in baseball training) without visual data queueing)

 

What may be more of a false friend and self-fulfilling prophecy are predictive stats dictating the  programming itself. Functional movement screening of any kind, while beneficial in determining strength imbalances, if used to dictate pathway of exercises ultimately that should be performed or not, may have quite the opposite effect in creating injury resistant resilient,robust athletes. I have observed that barriers are placed in the minds of the athletes that they often never overcome. These athletes are usually the least receptive to coaching input, because of the overarching system that identifies what “type” they are and what they can or cannot perform.

Lebron James’ movement screen score was abysmal… yet it seems like he is doing just fine

Making decisions on exercise selection and pitching techniques because of data analytics is more commonplace in MLB as well as college strength and conditioning programs. And while assessment of movement inefficiencies may be valuable in for coaches to make decisions and to teach optimal technique, equal and opposite dangers may persist. Data takes on an authoritative presence and can even be bought and sold on which could determine an athletes value. Moreover, the athlete may by shoe-horned into an “optimal technique” that not translate to success. The irony is that the very technology which predicts resiliency and performance may be the very thing leading to athlete breakdown.

I’m not proposing throwing out all feedback, more information is good to allow the coach to make informed decisions.  What is happening, however, is that technology is hiding bad coaching, and not only driving biased systems, but imparting weak mindsets and bodies to robotic athletes who aren’t able to adapt and think for themselves. Coaches will gravitate towards what facilitates managing more players, which inevitably automates the training experience and programs out an athlete’s own intuitive process with his or her body.

Technology is hiding bad coaching

Technology is hiding bad coaching

With hyper focus on training stats, major holes are left with the athlete’s ability to be resilient, adjust to different stressors and ultimately be coachable at different levels.

Incongruent Off Season and In Season training planning

The difficulty to those organizing and implementing the off season training plan with those directing in-season physical wellness and development, may reside in reasons other than ego. Often geography creates just as much program incongruence than theoretical differences. On one extreme would be the shift of a high school baseball player shifting from a strength coach to a pitching coach. Both agree they need to be strong, but usually have different priorities, knowledge bases, backgrounds to do so. The young player usually gets their strength program shut down as soon as their throwing program starts so they don’t get “tight” or “risk injury”. Though this ill informed, old school way of thinking still persists at the Major League level, it thankfully is becoming less and less. What is an increasing issue, is not the move to shut down an a players strength program in season strength program, but the manner by which that drives strength and power development: rubber bands and weighted vests will probably not drive the neural adaptations to maintain force and power development.

Major League Baseball Spring Training is a microcosm embodying the issues of robotic athletes and ultimately their breakdown on the field. In no other training environment are there so many diverse training histories and methodologies allowed to be fully operating in one weight room.

What is unique in our weightroom is that the program isn’t forced or isn’t outlined in a guidebook. Robotic athletes who are used to having micro-management have to adjust to having freedom. Empowerment and honest discussions about what is best brings out vulnerability and forces complete isolationism or openness to coaching. Because baseball and its never-ending variability in schedule and game circumstances ferrets out those who cant adjust.

The players I have respected on either side of the All Star game, have been those who balance their personal preparation time well with their ability to take instruction and learn new things. Stretch time, though acting often as socializing with other teammates, is done at a separate time from the training itself.  Bonafide pros ditch the headphones early in Spring, if they have them at all. Young guys with routines communicate what has worked for them, but are open to adapting to environment, which in our case has been around higher force and velocity exercise. This in fact may simply answer the question: there is less time for lo-fi introspection and “crutch” work when danger exists.

Conclusion

All this being said, I understand the issue of scaling in the need to cover one’s overhead, and keep the lights on.  I also understand that systems are needed for athlete management when the resource of coaches on the gym floor aren’t as high as what is required.  At the end of the day, however, it comes down to understanding the art of coaching, and what really yields athletic success.

The temptation to predict, classify, program and scale performance training will always exist, yet, in the effort to create robust athletes, there must be an awareness of how programming can help or hinder athlete development and results on the field. Though there is great merit in determining individual type of personality, fiber arrangement loading sequences, the determined pathway needs to be relative to long-term outcomes of mental and physical robustness. Over programming can lead to mental and physical weakness and co-dependency on the system put in place.

Ironically, as training methods and technologies are being scaled for mass markets, subsequent systems based training is dangerously close to limiting the very players it has been built to help succeed. Are data driven programming and robotic sequential learning steps to exercise robbing athletes of decision making skills?  Ultimately it is these cognitive skills that will allow an athlete of lessor physical talent to compete and navigate the inevitable mental and physical variables of competition.

Stay Tuned for Part II: Applications in Deprogramming

Coach Paul CaterPAUL CATER, MSc, CSCS, PCIP I, II

Founder of The Alpha Project

Salinas High School, Varsity Baseball, Football 1995
UC Davis: Studied pre-law while playing UC Davis Varsity Football 2000
NSCA, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist 2001
Poliquin Certified Level, 2
Internships include UCLA, San Jose State, San Francisco 49ers
Graduate Degree Exercise Science, Human Performance, Brunel University, London 2010
MSC Strength & Conditioning from Middlesex University, London 2011

Over 15 years of experience as an International strength and conditioning coach working with London Wasps Premier Rugby, Baltimore Orioles, USA Rugby and consulting numerous other High School, College & Professional Athletes

Late Stage Rehab Specialist

USA ambassador for advanced training technology equipment including: Versapulley, Kbox, Gallileo.

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