The Words Get In The Way-Pitchers Learn Through Feel
A few years ago I was seeing a 75 year-old physical therapy patient
with Parkinson’s and early Alzheimer’s.
We’ll call him Bob.
I performed the visit in his home,
since he was completely bedridden and homebound.
According to his family he hadn’t been able to stand,
walk, or talk for over a year.
Parkinson’s causes an erosion of motor skills, and Alzheimer’s
degrades cognitive abilities, so Bob had a bad combination.
As he lay in the hospital bed in his living room
I could tell he was a big guy,
about 6’3″…maybe 220 lbs.
When I interviewed his daughter, she reported her biggest problem
was getting from his bed to the garage, which was about 40 feet away,
so she could put him in the car for Doctors’ appointments.
She also mentioned he had been a ballplayer in the Negro Leagues
when he was a young man–a power hitting first baseman.
I was immediately intrigued.
She had me at “ballplayer.”
He could make eye contact but couldn’t respond when I asked him
questions or requested him to move his body parts.
Since I couldn’t really test his strength in the pure sense,
I decided to see if I could just get him moving.
Wrestling him to the edge of the bed, I pulled him to a sitting position,
feet dangling to the floor.
After helping him gain his sitting balance I said,
“Well, lets see if you can stand up.”
I secured a safety belt around his torso and positioned myself in front of him,
my feet spread in a staggered stance offering a wide base of support.
I reached around and placed my hands on the belt behind him
and rocked his body forward so he could get a feel for moving
his center of gravity forward–a crucial component of the sit to stand maneuver.
After 3-4 rocks I helped him lift his bottom off the bed
and noticed him using his legs to bear his weight
and lift his body into the standing position.
Once standing, I helped him begin to shift his weight from side to side.
You have to be able shift your weight from one leg to the other
if you’re going to walk.
We began taking steps toward the garage.
Actually, I began dragging him toward the garage.
It’s what’s known in physical therapy as maximum assistance.
His stride length was short, and he shuffled his feet.
He was very unsteady and if not for my hands on the safety belt,
he would have fallen several times.
His daughter was thrilled to see him up.
Apparently there had been other therapists out to the home over the past year,
but intimidated by his size, all were afraid to attempt to stand or walk him.
With immense difficulty we managed to overcome the doorway threshold.
In the garage we both began to fatigue,
so I leaned him against a workbench to rest.
On the bench I saw an old worn out baseball glove
like they used in the 1940s or 50s.
It was made in a classic style with wide padded fingers
and 2 strips of leather for the web.
It reminded me of an oven mitt.
I picked it up to admire it, and Bob reached feebly toward me.
“Is this your glove?”, I asked as I placed it on his left hand.
His eyes twinkled like someone who is smiling,
but his facial expression remained flat (a classic symptom of Parkinson’s.).
Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Wait here.” I told him and scurried off toward my truck in the driveway.
After 3 steps, I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to his daughter
“Don’t let him fall.”
He was still propped against the workbench.
I sprinted out to the bed of my truck, opened the tailgate
and grabbed a catcher’s mitt and a ball….
(Of course I had a mitt and a ball in my truck!
Do you know who I am?)
I then hustled back into the garage and positioned myself
about 5 feet in front of him.
I held the ball in my bare hand, bobbed it up and down a few times
with an underhand motion, and said the only thing I could think of.
His hands came together and his eyes widened.
I lobbed the ball in a low arc toward his glove
as if I were playing ring toss at the carnival.
He lurched slightly as the ball approached his glove….
And he caught it.
I was shocked!
I let out a “Woo!” and gave an overzealous fist pump.
The corners of Bob’s mouth twitched slightly upwards in the beginnings if a smile.
I glanced over to see his daughter’s eyes welling up with tears.
After a moment of silence, none of us really knowing what to do next,
I pounded my glove a few times, flexed into a ready position. And said,
“Throw it back!”
It was an awful throw!
It bounced off my right foot and rolled under the Chevy Malibu behind me.
I gleefully dropped to my knees and crawled under the car,
dodging an old oil spill to retrieve the ball.
We played catch for about 10 minutes, and eventually he was able to stand
without the support of the workbench.
We repeated the catch and toss over and over again, his balance improving
with every turn.
At one point I tried to give him a high five.
But he couldn’t raise his arms above his shoulders,
So after an awkward attempt we compromised and settled on a man hug.
I’m pretty sure I heard him chuckle a little during that exchange.
By now his daughter was laughing through her tears.
Bob walked back into his house with only hand held assist.
We both sat on the bed, and his daughter squeezed between us.
She flipped through a scrapbook of pictures and newspaper articles
of him during his playing days.
It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
This man had given so much to the game of baseball, and now baseball was
rescuing him from his darkness and pulling him into the light.
I saw Bob several more times, and he eventually learned to walk out to the car
with a wheeled walker and only standby assistance.
I think about this story often when I’m working with pitchers at The ARMory.
It keeps me aware of one of the scientific fundamentals of our program:
THE MOTOR LEARNING DOMAIN IS BEST ACCESSED THROUGH KINESTHETIC,
NOT COGNITIVE PATHWAYS.
Words and/or verbal cues are extremely weak
and ineffective tools for teaching motor skills.
In fact, more often than not, the words get in the way
and inhibit performance.
We’ve all seen and heard it.
“Get on top of the ball”,
“Your arm is dragging”
To most athletes, those words don’t mean anything.
Empty words just create kinesthetic confusion.
Pitchers don’t learn through words,
THEY LEARN THROUGH FEEL
My job as an instructor is to recognize a possible constraint
or inefficiency, and then find a drill to fix it.
THE DRILLS DO THE TEACHING, NOT THE WORDS.
Next week I will discuss the neurophysiology behind this approach.
It’s called myelin, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.
Meanwhile, if you want to learn whet it FEELS like to be a
dominant rocket-launching stud on the mound, come train with us at The ARMory.