By Steffan Jones
Editor’s Note: Although this is article has directives towards the sporting skill of fast-bowling in cricket, applications are nearly universal. This gem of writing by Steffan Jones has implications to nearly any athlete and coach from track and field, to basketball, to volleyball, and even football, or anything in between. In my book “Vertical Foundations”, I spoke on the differences between a force and speed jumper. Steffan has taken this ideal, and training implications beyond anything I’ve ever seen before, and even though I’m personally not a cricket expert, reading and preparing this article for posting has made me a better coach in every arena. If I ever end up in a world where I’m working with cricket athletes, I’ll be infinitely more prepared. I trust you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
It is essential that coaches are aware of the limitations of the bowler based on their physiological profile. Making a change without knowing how the body will react may just set up a bowler for failure. There are tests that can be done to identify the physiology of the bowler which ultimately will guide the biomechanics. However, there are key traits that can be visually identifiable.
Ultimately, form will dictate function and to fix bowling form, the intervention methods needs to start from within. Providing conscious cues to correct form will be a fruitless task and may actually hinder the process of motor learning without knowing what happens within. It can add to frustration as the bowler may understand what is required but they physically just can’t do what’s asked. This is why I firmly believe my ‘skill-stability paradigm’ is the most transferable intervention method designed for fast bowlers. It’s about corrective strength training, neural rewiring and kinematic remapping. The subconscious becomes the coach as key nodes or attractors are isolated and grooved without any coach interference. The one internal cue is maximum intent. Whether pushing through the floor to increase ground reaction force [GRF] or throwing the medicine ball with maximum intent with a key focus on knowledge of results [KR] given from a velocity based training monitor like ‘the ballistic ball’ from Assess 2 Perform. That is their only focus of attention, the rest is taken care of by the exercise.
Isometrics form stage 1 of the skill stability paradigm and I will cover that in my next article. The two main types of isometrics I have used to improve technical remapping and overloading the attractors are short duration isometrics (6 seconds or less) and long duration isometrics (6 seconds or more). The way isometrics work to increase strength is not by strengthening the muscle but the nervous system and the motor pattern used in that particular position. Every repetition/isometric contraction of a ‘stage 1 exercise’ results in one layer of myelin (insulation) on that neuromuscular pathway. Make another and you get another layer. Keep repeating it and you’ve myelinated a circuit that becomes the identity of your movement pattern.
The skill-stability paradigm
Once the myelin is on the neuromuscular pathway it cannot be removed. You cannot eliminate a habit. You can only replace it with a more powerful habit. This is why by LOCKING THE POSITION in a skill stability isometric hold for the ‘perfect’ position the bowler guarantees the habit is the correct one. More on that in my next installment.
However, preparation training cannot be just about ‘one size’ fits all in terms of technique and physical training. It’s about anthropometrics and customizing mechanics.
There are 2 types of bowlers.
- Spring/speed bowlers who are hip dominant
- Static/force bowlers who are knee dominant.
So, what separates them? How can we tailor the technique to fit their needs?
Nature or nurture
Ultimately, fast bowlers are built, and subsequently, developed for a particular bowling style. Through their adolescent development, their neurons that fired together to form a particular platform of movement become wired together to make that movement more powerful in their maturity.
From the time, a child starts throwing their dummy out of the pram, the processes of neurophysiology are in play. To make a muscle work, the motor cortex of the brain initiates
an electrical impulse that travels down a nerve, connects with another nerve at the spinal cord, then activates a muscle contraction. In a complex movement like bowling, this occurs in a series of sequenced and synergistic events known as a neuromuscular pattern.
Every delivery of a cricket ball results in one layer of myelin (insulation) on that neuromuscular pathway. Make another delivery and you get another layer. Keep repeating it and you’ve myelinated a circuit that becomes the identity of your movement pattern. This pattern will follow anthropometry. Technique cannot follow a path which isn’t stable and functional. You cannot ask the body to do something which it fundamentally cannot do! Early decisions in a bowlers’ development need to be made. Does training need to match the technique or the technique need to match the physical profile?
‘Form is Dictated by Function, Technique Dictated by Strength’
I firmly believe coaching based on peak height velocity [PHV] and stages of maturation is the most effective way of developing fast bowlers. There is a key stage in their development where motor learning can occur more effectively due to a void in any other physical intervention techniques. This stage would be pre-pubertal. However, a child’s environment can dictate their future physiological profile. We are a product of our environment. Take the fast bowlers in the 70’s and 80’s in the West Indies who grew up by playing outside and playing constrained forms of cricket like ‘beach cricket’ with a wet tennis ball. They developed the base of resilience to fast bowling, become elastic, developed huge arm speed [light ball-over speed] and become hip dominant. Once “wired in”, those sequences generally represent the most powerful way that a bowler can move and apply force.
Those habits can be seen as snow tracks and are hard to deviate from so be conscious of how as coaches we develop and nurture fast bowlers when they are young. Yes, you know who you are. The stop trying to bowl too fast, slow down and be accurate brigade.
When a bowler learns to produce force in a particular manner through adolescence (this is usually done in accordance with the bowlers’ individual strengths) these patterns are wired in, and it becomes impossible to wire over it with another pattern. Kids sprint and jump from just a few years old, so these patterns are very hard wired. There are technical refinements that can and should be made to anyone but in general, wired movement patterns are hard to break. The correct pattern needs to be ‘wired’ early in the process.
Bowling technique will be dictated by how they move as kids. Some will utilize little knee bend and elasticity in jumping (hip dominant), while others use considerable knee bend (knee dominant). You can’t take either of these bowlers and expect them to jump like the other. In the same vein, you can’t take one bowler and expect the same training and the same technique to work for both. There are characteristics that need to be respected and embraced.
These characteristics can be seen in the bowling action. Simply observing the knee flexion on back foot contact will identify whether they are hip dominant or knee dominant bowlers?
Spring/ Speed/ Hip Dominant Bowler
Hip dominant bowlers can be seen as the ‘old fashioned’ stereotypical somatotype. How often have we heard the good old commentators from yesteryear discuss on TV, ‘to bowl fast you need big glutes!’ Well actually they weren’t far off but it’s only relevant to bowlers who are hip dominant.
So how do you identify the hip dominant bowlers? Yes, they have larger glutes compared to other parts of their body, but they also have smaller calf muscles because at no stage is the calf muscle being stretched when they walk during every day activities [large volume of repetition]. The shin angle never goes past 45 degrees and they sit back on their heels.
This clearly is evident when their centre of mass [COM] shifts as they bowl. As the COM shifts over the base of support [BOS] between back foot contact [BFC] and front foot contact [FFC] the heel doesn’t contact the floor as their lack of mobility in the soleus activates the GTO [Golgi tendon organ], the bodies protective organism which inhibits excess mobility beyond what they normally achieve. The GTO will dictate the depth of the drop /shin angle based on the bowlers’ mobility and stability in key musculature. This natural inhibition, the small shin angle and the stiffness on contact becomes a key determinant in the delivery of the cricket ball. The angle of the back leg on drop step pre-front foot contact still maintains the small shin angle but the drop step is determined by the length of the delivery stride which is a direct consequence of the crossed extensor reflex which occurs due to a stiff initial contact. More often than not a hip dominant bowler will have a large delivery stride and a braced front leg on FFC due to the above factors. So, as you can see there really are consequences to all actions however small and trivial some coaches may make them. ‘The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.’
The similarities in javelin and fast bowling are evident to see:
The strength in the posterior chain and the ability of the glutes to absorb the force and maintain stiffness is the key attribute to hip dominant bowler. There as so many positive bio-dynamic consequences to this ability. The probability of attaining the ‘3 main attractors’ is greatly enhanced when a bowler is hip dominant, and yes it can be trained, but earlier the better before those snow tracks/habit get too deep due to huge repetitions in everyday activities. Encourage change before ‘myelination’ gets too deep!
‘It is only sensible to intensify movement (speed up or increase resistance) after the athlete has developed biomechanical efficiency in its execution’
‘With this in mind it is essential that early in a bowler’s development when brain plasticity is at its peak and changes are easier to make that coaches provide the correct information. I’ve said it before, grassroots coaches are the most important coaches in a bowlers’ development.
‘In life people crawl before they can walk, aspiring writers must develop basic grammar skills before they advance to writing novels…. ‘ – James Smith
Hip dominant bowlers need momentum through the crease as they rely on the absorption and stiffness of contact as opposed to knee dominant bowlers who rely on a large knee flexion and extension to generate more power from the quads. This is easily attained as hip dominant bowlers have efficient running mechanics with tall hips and strong swing leg retraction. Hip dominant bowlers tend to be the athletic fielders /the boundary riders at the ‘death overs’ who more often than not also excel in track and field sports at school level. They’re not necessarily the most agile of team sport players as their Centre of Mass [COM] is higher and changing direction is a harder skill to master. Obviously, there are exceptions to every generalization.
Please bear in mind I am building the ‘ideal bowler’ in this article and there have clearly been bowlers over time who fall in both categories. The key decision needs to be whether changes need to happen biomechanically with the bowling action or physiologically in the physical preparation programme.
Mohammad Amir is a great example of a hip dominant bowler. His frame, arm speed and speed off back foot contact are key traits of a hip dominant bowler. He sits firmly at the spring end of the continuum.
The majority of ‘older generation’ fast bowlers were hip dominant bowlers. This is evident with only 1 ‘slinger’ coming from that era whereas now it’s becoming more common. I honestly believe that all bowlers who bowl with any pace around puberty are hip dominant.
When external loading occurs whether through weight training or excess body mass due to mother nature and environmental constraints most bowlers then become knee dominant. I have no data to prove it, just a hunch.
‘Change your technique or change your training. Make the decision early in the process’
Strength and conditioning coaches have only been employed in cricket for around 20 years. I have been open in my criticism of their impact in the highly coordinative skill of fast bowling and I will explain one of the main reason.
Fast bowling is highly dependent on the elastic power and the ability to absorb force, which doesn’t necessarily improve in the weight room. Creating the strength in connective tissues needed for bowling demands specificity and adequate repetition. The weight room doesn’t offer the specificity, nor the repetition of what can be done elsewhere.
Fast bowling involves a lot of tendon strength in the lower body. Strength training doesn’t train the rapid stretch loading mechanism that is involved on BFC [Back foot contact]. BFC is a key determinant of an effective bowling action. Modern day training doesn’t train this reactive ability.
The modern-day bowler has lost the ability to be reactive and elastic. No longer is it acceptable to be a generalist. External pressures, such as academies are discouraging young bowlers from participating in other sports due to fear of acute injuries. Which is ironic as it sets them up for a career blighted by chronic injuries, due to a lack of athleticism developed form a variation of sports and activities. Young bowlers are forced to specialise before they reach peak high velocity [PHV] and miss out on large amount of neural benefits that comes from simply playing other sports.
Adding extra volume of training for fast bowlers at district and county level also make it impossible for young bowlers to perform other sports. So, in fact it may be all in good intentions but adding more specialist help at a younger age causes a large workload spike and makes it impossible to access other sporting opportunities.
Young specialisation is creating a generation of knee dominant bowlers’ due to a lack exercises that create stiffness in the Achilles tendon. The neurological pattern of power and drive through the forefoot is a crucial element of performance. This pattern is why, when you watch someone who is hip dominant walk around, they tend to spend a lot of time on their toes. They bounce around. They are constantly in “drive” mode.
They want to get to the ball of the foot quickly, which also builds a lot of achilles tendon stiffness. Drive is a habit and hip dominant bowlers express it in every movement. Especially when they bowl and get off the back foot into front foot block as quickly as possible.
Arguably the finest demonstration of effective and efficient kinematic and kinetic sequencing ever seen in a fast bowler.
This extension off of the ball of the foot is easily lost when you stop bowlers from playing other sports, under bowling, a reluctance to do any repetitive running and also over relying on ‘strength training’. It happens due to a breakdown of both neurological and structural mechanisms. Most bowlers experience this heavily when they are pulled from other sports and asked to specialise.
The fact of the matter is that this capacity is needed to bowl quickly but modern-day approach to developing young fast bowlers detrains the quality.
Developing the ability to drive takes repetition, just like any other skill. And guess what? If you don’t keep practicing it, you will lose it. A good way to get strong through the hip and ankle is to bowl! Unfortunately, with the culture of under bowling due to over-monitoring, bowlers have not the ability to ‘drive’ and severely lack the stiffness, robustness and work capacity to bowl quickly when those ‘shackles’ of workload derivatives are removed. When this happens, there is a huge spike in their workload which causes injures or at least contributes to injuries.
Let me say it now. The most important node of fast bowling is BFC. What happens here determines the rest of the sequence. To build ankle/tendon strength, a good amount of repetitions in the short-contact range is required. Tempo bowling /running [70% effort/speed] and steady running are a pretty easy way to accomplish this.
This is one of the reasons that I like tempo bowling on ‘outdoor’ grass on “off-days” as the uneven surface adds an extra challenge for the foot and lower leg.
County or state academies can’t pull bowlers out from other sports and ask them to specialise but then not expose them to any higher repetitive reactive training. That is insane and bordering on negligence. I understand and respect the view of monitoring bowling workload around peak height velocity [PHV] but we need to find another way of getting repetition in in order to avoid workload spikes when they exit PHV and into post-puberty.
I’m a firm believer in introducing ‘bio-banding’ in cricket and introducing the concept of ‘synergistic adaptation’ to key stages of a bowlers’ development. E.g.; Introducing tape ball [light ball] as a form of overs-speed training during pre-PHV to utilize the heightened state of the nervous system
Long sprints, tempo running, tempo bowling or steady running and team sport play offers a significant volume of elastic repetition which helps maintain the reactive aspect of:
- Longer less CNS draining training also improve the ability to relax and make
- movement more efficient
Let me make it clear fast bowling is massively stressful. To bowl fast, above 100mph requires the body to behave in a way that isn’t natural.
Ground reaction forces on front foot contact [FFC] can be around 8 -10 x body weight. Brett Lee, arguably the most ‘perfect’ bowling action in the modern era had GRF of 15 x body weight! Fast bowlers have larger GRF and also separate their hips and shoulder later, just before FFC. The spine endures approximately 2 x greater GRF per leg on a 100mph bowler!
‘It’s the timing of the separation in relation to peak ground reaction forces, not the separation itself. Marc Portus wrote a great publication on this in 2004. Faster bowlers experience the separation later but it’s closer to or even after front foot contact which is when the greatest stress is experienced. The spine endures about 2x extra ground reaction force than the legs. If the spine is rotated at this point of peak force then it’s in a slightly compromised position. The real deal breaker for spinal injury is trunk flexion, lateral flexion and rotation combined. Repetitive loading causing micro damage finally leading to structural deformation in tissues. As with most techniques, the fastest traits usually lend themselves to greater injury risks. This can be somewhat combatted obviously by improving bowling workload in a slow and controlled manner and no doubt that whole-body strength and stability play a huge role too’ – Dr Simon Feros
So, in a nutshell we are coaching our bowlers to bowl faster based on their technique. However, this has added stress to their framework. At the same time, we are training the bowlers to be more fragile and less tolerant to external forces in preparation programmes.
Sorry but if I was bowling now I would be asking questions of the coach education programmes around the world.
The fast bowlers of yesteryear bowled with effortless grace with a natural bounce on approach. There was a reason for that. They moved around and bowled a lot outside games in every day life.
Their strength training was running, jumping, calisthenics and ‘bowling’. Their athleticism was built from being active children.
Michael Holding-90+ mph
Key traits of all the ‘West Indies’ fast bowlers where their athleticism and shear ‘springiness’ in their approach. Was this down to a lack of ‘overly knee dominant-strength’ training like squatting? Was this athletic framework developed from years of playing cricket on sandy beaches do develop achilles stiffness and a culture of bowling a large number of deliveries in a non-structured environment with their friends? I know what I think the answer is.
In the golden era of the Windies pace quartet the Strength/weight training sessions were bodyweight based if anything but they spent their childhood running, jumping and developing into elastic athletes. They developed great tendon stiffness in everyday life.
That culture has gone which is why I believe bowlers are now beginning to become too heavily knee dominant with the development of poor strength training programmes [too much squatting] built on a foundation of robotic ‘fragile’, unstable, mechanical and false athleticism. The ‘anti-fragile’ bowler is becoming the thing of the past.
Add variability such as, fatigue and chaos to their training or performance and problems like ‘lower back stress fractures’ become ever present in the vocabulary of physiotherapist world-wide. Things need to change.
Stay tuned for Part II.
About Steffan Jones
Steffan Jones is the former Somerset, Northamptonshire, Kent and Derbyshire fast bowler who forged a career out of getting the best out of himself physically. He is an ex-pro cricketer of 20yrs, and is the last dual pro between rugby & cricket. Steffan is recognized as a global Fast-bowling performance expert.
Steffan is currently one of the small number of people in the world who hold an ECB level 3 qualification as well as a UKSCA accreditation in strength & conditioning. He is the leading coach in England on teaching and using heavy ball contrast training for fast bowler development.
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