June 2012

Out on a Limb: Down the habit hole

Jordana Bieze Foster, Editor

Much of sports medicine research focuses on what’s never been done before: new techniques, new procedures, and new theories. Less sexy, but equally important, is the research that takes a fresh look at old practices, the ones that have somehow become standard simply because they’ve never been questioned.

Take, for example, baseball pitching. For as long as most people can remember, pitchers have been using a wind-up motion with the bases empty and throwing from the stretch with men on base. The logical assumption is that a wind-up pitch is more effective and therefore should only be abandoned when keeping runners honest becomes an issue.

But a study from Pepperdine University presented last month at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests there’s actually no advantage to the wind up at all. Eight collegiate baseball pitchers threw off an indoor mound instrumented to measure ground reaction forces (GRFs), completing five pitches for each of four combinations of pitch type (fastball, change up) and delivery type (wind up, stretch).

Pitch delivery had no effect on ball velocity for either the fastball or change up, nor did delivery affect GRFs in the direction of the pitch. The wind up was associated with larger GRFs in the mediolateral direction than the stretch delivery, which, at least intuitively, would not seem to be an advantage.

Now, if you think baseball players are set in their ways, try talking to a figure skater. Footwear in most sports has undergone dramatic technical advances over time, but figure skating boots are still the same unforgiving leather contraptions they’ve always been.

A second ACSM presentation, this one from The Ohio State University, suggests all that time spent in stiff boots weakens a skater’s ankle musculature in the same way that cast immobilization would. The Ohio State researchers found that skaters took longer than nonskaters to stabilize after a barefoot single leg landing, and also landed with greater GRFs in all three directions. Given the prevalence of landing in skating, this would seem to be a bad thing.

Will pitchers ever ditch the wind up? Some will. Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, for one, has said he wouldn’t hesitate to have a player pitch only from the stretch. But Bobby Valentine doesn’t exactly speak for the majority of baseball minds.

Will skaters ever give the boot to stiff boots? Some have tried. About 10 years ago skate manufacturer Jackson Ultima developed a boot with an articulated ankle that had something of a cult following, primarily with skaters battling injuries. Nevertheless, the boots were discontinued in 2009.

In sports, old habits die hard. But it’s no coincidence that some of the greatest advances in sports performance — the jump shot, the Fosbury Flop, the Klap skate — happened when someone decided that just because something had always been done a certain way didn’t mean it couldn’t be done better.

Those types of innovations draw their inspiration from a multitude of sources, and there’s no reason why sports medicine research can’t be one of them. But be patient, because it might take a while.

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One Response to Out on a Limb: Down the habit hole

  1. Hi Jordana- Another of your interesting articles. Having put orthotics in figure skates for decades, including current Olympic Gold Medalist Evan Lysacek, I’ve often paid attention to ” big time ankle strengthening”being so important, partially because of your point re. Stiff cast like boots. Also concerned about zero shock absorption of skate boots. Had few skaters who had some success with “hinged ” ankle boots but you are so right- changing so long time ” that’s the way it’s done” stuff ain’t easy whether it’s pitching motions or figure skating boots. Interesting!… Cheers, … Dr. Bob Weil

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