Let’s face it, I am getting older. So are you. As we age, we put more and more miles on our bodies. As athletes, these miles can be pretty strenuous compared to the average person’s miles. And as a beach vb athlete, well let’s just say the sand is a bit less forgiving than we think.
Over time we develop overuse injuries. Good thing about these is that they are great indicators of where we are lacking technique efficiency and where we can optimize our performance. Let’s just say that I am no stranger to these types of injuries.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I have had shoulder problems since around 2008. Through the years of rehab and surgery, I have learned some really effective ways of dealing with shoulder pain, and some very ineffective ways. At the end of the day. The most effective method is the preventative one. You can do physical therapy, stretching, lifting all you want but if it is your motor pattern, the technique you use to generate force, that is causing the pain, it will never go away until you change it.
One thing I learned coaching college this past year was there is a lot of bad technique out there. Notice I didn’t say bad coaches. I think coaches, for the most part, have good intentions, but at the end of the day, most technique is just passed down from the previous coach or colleague. When I came to this realization I started to question every little thing that we were teaching. And I can tell you there is a lot of false reasoning out there, a lot of bad technique, and a lot of overuse injuries because of it.
Take attacking (spiking) for example. The traditional method, or at least the one I have heard from the most coaches, follow the baseball pitching methodology and teaches an athlete how to swing from a standing position.
In this technique, a coach uses the analogy of a whip cracking (creating a sonic boom) where the handle starts at the hips and the velocity travels up to the shoulder and down to the wrist. I still think this is a great analogy for most players and like to use it when my athletes are getting stiff with their arm-swings and need to loosen up a bit. The hips start perpendicular (as in the gif above) to the target. The athlete is instructed to start with her opposite hip pointing toward the target, (left hip for rightys) then step with her left leg while she rotates her right hip forward which will, in turn, rotate her right shoulder, then elbow, then wrist and release. This is for the most part how you throw a baseball. And this technique (with small variations) has been used since I was a player, and probably even earlier than then, to hit a volleyball. Even some strength coaches like Austin Einhorn follow this methodology to a certain extent. (Austin has a very comprehensive blog on the biomechanics of the volleyball attack and I suggest you all read it.) Other coaches even go so far as to over exaggerate the hip rotation by finishing the movement with a step of the right foot. (Not too far off from baseball pitchers whose right foot comes up in the air after release due to the momentum that is created.)
Herein lies the problem.
WE ARE NOT BASEBALL PITCHERS!!!!
We are not tennis players.
We are not golfers.
We are rotational athletes, yes. But we are AIRBORNE rotational athletes.
I will say this again. We are AIRBORNE when we rotate. We do not have the luxury of ground forces to help with our swing. What does this mean? Well, I challenge you. Go to youtube. Search “volleyball spikes” watch some highlight videos. The best players in the world DO NOT rotate their hips in midair. Want to know why? Physics.
There are only 2 ways to rotate an object in the air. 1: a force is applied to it – meaning ground forces. A gymnast can create what is called angular momentum to rotate in the air by jumping off one foot and driving the opposite leg up. Sounds familiar huh. That is because this is exactly what we do when we perform a slide approach, and that is the only time you will ever see a volleyball attacker rotate their hips in midair.
2: The other way to rotate in the air is called a cat flip. It’s called this because cats use their flexibility and limbs to land on their feet by rotating their upper body away from their lower body, generating a whip-like force to bring both of their feet underneath them by the time they hit the ground.
Problem with the cat flip is that our spines are not as flexible as cats, nor are most athletes in the air long enough to be able to utilize this motion. If you don’t believe me, do what I did and hang from a squat rack with a climbing harness. Try to rotate your hips. Besides looking like a crazy in the middle of your gym and annoying the dude bros for tying up the squat rack that they were looking forward to using for their bicep curls, you will also realize that being in midair is an entirely different experience than being grounded. Better yet, try to hit a volleyball from this position. See what I mean?
At this point, you are all probably thinking well so what, volleyball players don’t rotate their hips in the air, what’s your point?
Well my point, nuanced as it may seem, is that because the average coach is teaching her players to rotate her hips to initiate her arm-swing, she is NOT EMPHASIZING the proper key to generating a powerful swing in the air and therefore enabling the very tendency we are all trying to prevent: a swing that is “all shoulder.” And if you are like me and are teaching young female beach volleyball athletes who are in the air a fraction of the time of some of these indoor players, this point is even more important.
*Or maybe you are an indoor coach and are thinking, maybe we should be teaching our athletes to generate angular momentum by jumping off of one foot all the time. I think for indoor it would make a lot of sense depending on the side of attack and the arm that was being used to generate the attack. Of course, the slide approach already exists, but what would it look like to create angular momentum from the left side? Well, I will leave that for you indoor coaches to figure out.
But if you are a beach athlete, and you need to jump off of two feet to even be able to get out of the sand, what is the solution? Well, think back to the whip. What is the next in sequence in the chain? Just like a cat uses its torso to get its feet back underneath him, so must a volleyball player in midair use her core muscles: her oblique’s, her intercostal, her small spinal stabilizers to rotate her mid-back (thoracic spine) in SPACE and generate force. And we do see this to a certain extent in some of the best jumpers of the indoor game because they have the time to make that full rotation, but it’s missing in our beach athletes, and in my opinion, it’s because we don’t train it efficiently. As a result, we see players like Kerri Walsh who has had shoulder issues since she was in college because she lacks THORACIC SPINE ROTATION.
Austin will argue that her shoulder issues are a result of a high elbow in this blog post. Though I do agree that a low relaxed elbow is one key to creating a whip-like arm-swing and saving the shoulder, I would also argue that it is only a node in the system, and another important node is training thoracic spine rotation properly.
I’ll use a few of Austin’s photos to make the conversation consistent as well as add some of my own. Notice Kerri in both her attacking and serving technique. There is no thoracic spine rotation, no stretch recoil going on, so to generate force she is going to rely on her shoulder. (Maybe a little arching of the back and piking as well.)
Contrast this to Austin’s photo sequence of Maxim Mikhaylov below, and as you can see the elbow trajectory is really not very different. Maxim’s elbow is in line with his ear, just like Kerri’s, however, what he does have that she doesn’t is some pretty massive thoracic spine rotation.
Here’s an experiment. Stand up straight and take a tape measure. Fix one end to your left hip (if you are right-handed) and take the other end to diagonally to your right shoulder and measure. My length is 25 inches. Now do the same thing, but now reach back with your elbow as far back as you can go. Don’t move your feet, your thoracic spine should be rotating and you should feel a big stretch both along with your core as well as your spine. Now measure the distance. You should gain at least 5 inches if not more range of motion. Now think about this. This is a game of inches. If you know anything about generating speed, then you should know that distance between targets plays a huge role i.e: It’s much easier to get to top speed in a 100-yard sprint than it is 40 yards. So If I am giving myself 20% more runway on my arm-swing by rotating my spine, imagine what that translates to in terms of velocity. It’s like giving myself 10 extra yards on my sprint. And this notion doesn’t even take into consideration the stretch/recoil that is happening with your neuromuscular system.
If I have convinced you at this point, now you must be thinking, so how do you train it? Well, I’m not going to give you all my secrets! Anyway, this is where the art of coaching comes in. I always start my practice planning with a problem, a solution, then work backward from there. Ok, I’ll give you a hint. Your athletes need to have a mobile thoracic spine. This is why I don’t necessarily agree with the folks in the “the game teaches the game” camp. To build this motor pattern we are going to need to isolate the movement because taking a lot of jumps is probably not going to be the most productive tactic. So how do you isolate a movement that relies on having zero ground forces without creating undue impact to the player? This is what I love about coaching! Happy practice planning 🙂