Mark Verstegen founded Athletes’ Performance in Tempe, Az. in 1999. Previously a coach at Washington State University, Verstegen also worked as Assistant Director of Player Development at Georgia Tech, where he built and implemented performance programs for football, men’s basketball and golf. He started the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, Fla. before moving to Arizona. Athletes’ Performance’s clients include numerous NFL players, professional golf, tennis, and basketball players, multiple amateur athletes, and an array of Major League Baseball players, including Nomar Garciaparra, Pat Burrell, and Adam Dunn. Verstegen recently chatted with BP about training methods for baseball players, the importance of injury prevention for athletes, and the challenges facing young athletes.
Baseball Prospectus: For those readers who aren’t familiar with your work, explain a little about what differentiates your facility from, say, the facilities normally available to professional athletes.
Mark Verstegen: Our main goal is to look at career longevity, and to get a decrease in injury potential. Then we focus on career productivity, in other words, performance. Finally, we teach motivation through education. In order to be a great ballplayer, you have to be fundamentally sound, have body and mind working at full capacity. We have a staff of 18 people, including PhDs in sports science, covering everything that has to do with an athlete’s life.
BP: So say you’re working with a professional baseball player, and he’s not generating enough bat speed. What can you do to help that problem?
MV: Losing bat speed can result from getting older, or a player just generally lacking elasticity. What we do is try to get everything moving properly. So we’ll work on flexibility, stability, and elasticity. We’ll have players train with medicine balls and cords. The idea is to have them feel how the body develops torque better and quicker. We’ll go through specific strengthening exercises, isolating each part of the swing. The goal is to get the body to work in sequence, as one unit, to develop the most power.
We’ve found that players really learn a lot from the process. For instance, just as the shoulder has a rotator cuff, there’s also a hip cuff. It can be interesting, just for them to understand hip cuff motion and how it works. Instead of just loading the back leg and transferring weight the way a lot of hitting instructors teach, it’s also about cocking the pelvis around the back leg to develop bat speed. You’re improving quickness through the strike zone, and also transfering force more efficiently.
BP: What about for a player trying to develop better range?
MV: For range, you start to talk about movement training. We’re teaching multidirectional speed and linear speed. When we talk about “innervation,” it’s about putting lean muscle mass on the body in a manner that’s consistent with performing baseball-related movements. So if a player wants to improve his range, and puts on one pound of lean muscle mass, we want to make sure they’re actually improving their rang–or their speed to first base, whatever the goal may be.
BP: We often hear talk of players putting on five, 10, 20 pounds of muscle in the off-season, and how that’s supposed to make them better ballplayers. Is it as simple as that–lift weights, put on a few pounds and you suddenly become a much better player?
MV: That’s the biggest misconception in baseball, where a player puts on a lot of weight in the off-season, then later they might come to us and say, ‘that didn’t help me a lot.’ There’s no direct correlation between lean muscle mass and baseball performance. Guys who get real big, they may have received no guidance into exactly how they need to perform better and what they need to do to get there. They might do bodybuilding exercises, get bigger arms and legs, and it might not help at all. It can become like adding 25% more weight to your car, but no more horsepower.
For us, it’s not about the superficial. For every pound a player puts on, he should become more explosive, with greater range, mobility, and stability–you get a healthier athlete that way as well. We look for results using hard numbers–time to first base, tangible results. The goal is not to look better in the uniform, though that will come too as a result.
BP: How does training a baseball player differ from, say, training a basketball player?
MV: We do extensive evaluations for each athlete, regardless of the sport. The idea is to provide prescription for each athlete to attack his limiting factors. What we want to do with every baseball player is help both offensively and defensively.
But we also need to go beyond that, to match up training to the athlete’s body, while also finding the optimal training methods to help players play their specific positions. So we go through it joint by joint. For example, if a player is using one hip capsule more, he can’t cut or field as well to one side. That same problem may appear in a basketball player. But with a basketball player you get a lot more running, so we’ll do a lot more soft tissue work, things like that. Still, there are a lot of common elements–lifestyle skills, learning how to manage recovery and regeneration techniques, plays a big role.
BP: What does proper recovery entail?
MV: It’s the single biggest limiting factor to performance, and it’s not nearly emphasized enough by most athletes. When a player wakes up, what does he do for nutrition? Is he doing the right warm-ups at the ballpark? We have a pre-hab protocol for each athlete, where we try to optimize that schedule every day. Get the player eating right, going through the right routines to avoid injuries, from early in the morning, before batting practice, through to game time. After the game, we want to influence what they do as soon as they walk off the field, before bed, then help them optimize their sleep patterns.
BP: Is it really realistic though, to expect every player to carry out every aspect of their training perfectly? Are they expected to never go for beers after the game, get to bed early every night, and do everything by the book?
MV: You have to be realistic. It’s one thing if a guy goes out after the game. But a lot of guys will drink after the game just to bring themselves down because of the highly-caffeinated products and other things they’re taking before the game to get themselves up. We look for different ways for them to come back down and optimize their sleep.
BP: Given the rigors of a 162-game season, what can an athlete do in the off-season to stay fresh for the long haul? What about a player who might have trouble keeping weight on during the year, who wears down into the summer months and loses 20-25 pounds?
MV: If someone’s losing 25 pounds during the year, something’s not right. There are systems and strategies these players have to adopt to minimize fatigue, weight loss, and the degrading of the system that can happen without proper maintenance. You have one side for work, one side for rest. If one part of that equation is deficient, that’s the outcome too.
BP: Looking through your baseball client list, you’ve got guys ranging from a slugger like Pat Burrell to a guy like Lou Merloni. What steps do you take to provide different regimens for guys with such different skills and goals?
MV: Lou is a 205-pound guy, but extremely lean. He’s a utility player, so he’s someone that has to be extremely versatile, fill any role his club needs. So he may spend more time working on things like multi-directional speed.
On the other hand, a club builds around Pat Burrell’s skills. He’s a strong offensive threat already, so we may work on things like maintaining balance and stability, plus working on ways to keep him healthy through an everyday workload.
BP: One of Athletes Performance’s priorities is “pre-hab,” a phrase we’ve really only heard from some of baseball’s more enlightened minds. How do you work with an athlete to train and prevent injury when they’ve suffered from, say, chronic hamstring or other problems?
MV: You go through a series of functional movement screens, elaborate biomechanical tests, and orthopedic exams. You’re looking at it from an optimization of performance standpoint. The system may be fine now, but if we don’t address things now, the player’s action could cause kinetic dysfunction and increased wear and tears. We know that about 65% of injuries in sports are overuse injuries, so we work to prevent those from happening in the first place. We stress muscle tone, flexibility, stability, addressing all the limiting factors. With a pitcher for instance, we look at pitching style to see where the body’s at today, how mechanics affect long-term health. Obviously we also want to see overuse limited…kind of like with a baby learning how to walk, you wrap Charmin around the knees and elbows to keep him safe.
BP: Can you trust teams to properly monitor overuse and pitch counts though? Will teams listen to what you have to say?
MV: It’s a case-by-case basis, where we gradually grow trust as players and teams get to know our programs. Our job is to support athletes and their organizations. We’re there as a resource. If teams see that, and we present good, sound reasoning for what we do, then we can have an influence. Baseball has this great heritage that we definitely want to hold onto, but there are so many more areas based on science that we can leverage to make the game better.
BP: Who typically signs the checks, the player or the team? What do you charge?
MV: Some of our junior programs, we might go 10 weeks, $1,500 for the summer, to collegiate stuff, to the top, which is something like $1,500 a week for the elite athlete, with intensive training for about six to eight weeks in the off-season. The average pro athlete will typically run anywhere from $750 to $1,500 a week.
A lot of times the player picks up the check–he’s looking for a way to invest in his career. Sometimes an agent will invest in a younger player. Also, a lot of times teams will send guys to us, especially if they’re protecting a couple million-dollar investment. We have a lot of interaction with certain teams like the Red Sox (Ed note: past and present Red Sox at Athletes Performance include Garciaparra, Merloni, Jeremy Giambi and others), where we’ll have close contact with strength and conditioning coaches and other staff.
BP: What types of studies do you perform to measure biomechanics, especially with pitchers?
MV: In-house we do our own biomechanical analysis, and we also have video systems look at our athletes from the outside. A lot of the biomechanical work done goes to joint function, and the ability to transfer force. There are basic principles people need to understand that get lost sometimes. We start from the moment we do our initial evaluation of the player, from warm-up, through the entire day, and not just during workouts. If someone’s having shoulder pain, the reason could be as simple as the way they walk, carrying a bag on one shoulder all the time, slouching, anything. There are biomechanical implications in everything that people do.
BP: What place should supplements have in elite-level training?
MV: One of my roles is as Director of Performance for the NFL Players Association. Right now we’re working on having companies meet very strict criteria with respect to accuracy in labeling, watching for banned substances, making sure legal supplements aren’t spiked or contaminated. There’s a rigorous testing program to go through to make sure each product can be approved.
BP: But obviously you can’t monitor players in any sport all the time…
MV: If you go to a ski resort and stay on marked trails, you know you’re safe. If you go out of bounds, you’re taking your own risk. We want to create a safe haven for athletes who choose to use ethical nutritional supplementation.
The majority of legal supplements athletes use and actually need are just food sources in different forms. You might have a post-workout recovery mix, some kind of a shake with protein, carbs, and fiber, just like a liquid meal. It’s a matter of convenience and optimizing the window for recovery. The stress of traveling, of an 160-game season, is cumulative, so any way they can get the proper nutrients in a safe manner helps.
BP: Many young athletes train and don’t see results, which often leads them to believe that they have to take HGH, for instance, or different kinds of banned substances to increase strength and get bigger and better. What kind of advice would you give prep athletes who might be looking to get an edge?
MV: Look at a player like Brandon Wood, one of the top high prospects in the country this year. When Brandon came to us he was 132 pounds. Now he’s 6’4″, 6’5″, about 190. We’ve worked with him over the course of the last three-and-a-half years, not by using tons of supplements, but just by giving him the right training plan, the right lifestyle skills.
When young people go through growth, you need to be patient, plant a seed and nurture it to grow, not demand that it grow. It’s a long-term strategy, where everything that you do is geared toward consistency. It’s getting out of bed during the school year and making sure you have a good breakfast every day, some oatmeal, egg whites, glass of juice. After second period, you grab a half of sandwich, or an energy bar. Eat a proper lunch. Before or after practice, grab a healthy snack, maybe a post-workout recovery mix. Shower and eat a healthy dinner, then before bed, have another healthy snack. If kids just follow a plan like the one I mentioned, over six weeks, their mood, their productivity, energy, body weight, all of that will be better.
If you’re serious about being good at what you do, turning to unethical means is a lazy, short-term approach for people wanting a quick fix. It doesn’t always provide the results you want, and the risks can be huge.