The Pitfalls of Separation

Thought for the Week: Parallax: “The effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions.”  

Separation is something Eugene talks about all the time when it comes to pitching and hitting – but not for the reasons you’d think. In his current opinion, the majority of teaching around “hip shoulder separation” is butchered – and athletes are paying for it. If you’ve read his book Old School vs. New School, you’d know how important this was to him because he dedicated an entire chapter to describing fallacies when it comes to hip shoulder separation. Before we get into that, let’s start on some common ground.

We know that really good hitters and pitchers create some degree of separation between segments that are required for the production and dissipation of force. We understand that athletes are going to create some sort of stretch (i.e. separation) that pulls slack out of the system before a swing or throw. We know that the pelvis should probably reach its peak speed before the arms do – there is going to be a slight delay, or separation, between certain segments as they pick up speed. However, this doesn’t explain hip shoulder separation in a vacuum. For one, how much separation do we really need?Why do some guys create a lot of separation but others get away with smaller amounts of separation? If someone doesn’t present with an “optimal” amount of separation, is it a mobility problem or is it a movement solution problem? How much mobility do we even need in the first place? 

 Mike Trout has had a lot of success without creating a great degree of separation

When we think about creating a lot of separation, the goal becomes creating the biggest stretch you can possibly make. This is usually done from a position where the hips are opened up while the shoulders are working back against them in the opposite direction. By creating more distance between the pelvis and the shoulders, the athlete has appeared to have created more “separation” and might get some more juice in the process, but it doesn’t mean it is an effective or efficient movement solution.

To explain this, let’s pretend you have a raft tied to a boat 15 yards away and the boat takes off full speed. Now let’s pretend you take that same raft and add 30 yards of slack to it. If that same boat takes off full speed with the extra slack of rope, it’s probably going to be bad news for the raft. When we try to artificially add more separation to a player’s movement solutions, we are adding more slack in the rope. The raft then becomes lumbar spine – and it doesn’t usually end well. The trick then becomes understanding how long each player’s rope actually is; then learning when and how to take out unnecessary slack. 

So how do we create separation that is efficient and effective? 

Let’s start the conversation here: Elite players have an exceptional ability to create a large amount of force in a small window of time. The ability to do this depends on their rate of force development (RFD). Your ability to create a lot of force in a small window is crucial when working under time constraints. Both pitchers and hitters have to operate under time constraints (hitting is obviously a little more difficult because of its reactive nature). If your delivery or swing can’t operate within this constraint, it’s not going to play in a game environment. Creating an insane amount of separation might work in a long drive competition, but it’s not going to work when you have to worry about barreling a 95 mph fastball. It’s not about how fast the Ferrari can go at top speed – it’s about how quickly it can get off the line. 

In hitting, the goal is to compress as much force as possible into the baseball in the smallest window of time. The bat should be reaching its peak speed into contact – not well before it. Creating a lot of separation and delaying your barrel into contact to pick up bat speed might create a bigger stretch that helps with force production, but it works against you when you’re trying to barrel up game velocity. This is a big reason why Eugene believes bat speed reaches a point of diminishing returns – we don’t have a large window of time to accelerate the barrel. If the middle is moving and the barrel isn’t, your barrel is dragging. By focusing on separating your hands from your hips, you’ve sacrificed your ability to efficiently strike the ball, made it tougher to barrel up any kind of game (emphasis on game) velocity, and sapped yourself of any adjustability. While pitchers don’t have to operate under the time constraint of a hitter, the sequence to produce velocity is no different – the only thing that changes is the implement. The separation in the sequence doesn’t happen early – it happens late. Separation is not about creating gaps – it’s about learning how to close those gaps as quickly as possible.

 When the middle starts to move, the barrel moves in unison.

A really good analogy about separation is to think about how you would rotate a cable or a flywheel (see video below). It becomes very difficult to move the load if you open up your hips, close off your shoulders, and try to create a lot of separation early in the sequence. It becomes much easier to move the load when you stack your shoulders over your hips and move it as one interconnected unit. While you may not appear to have a lot of separation, you’re creating a better sequence by putting your body in better positions (pelvis closed and anchored, midsection braced) so the separation can happen later. Separation should not be viewed as an active move early in the sequence; it should be viewed as a passive move as the result of a good sequence. 

Separation is important, but how we create that separation is just as important. If creating separation prevents us from delivering a large amount of force in a small window of time, it’s not beneficial – it’s a barrier to performance.

The more frequent the better

Eugene has since decided to use his spare time being quarantined to learn how to play the piano – and he is about as novice as novice gets when it comes to music. The only advantage he really has is he doesn’t have hard wired CNS to do it the wrong way. This process has spurred some insightful conversations about the process of acquiring a skill by tapping into exactly what helps him improve and what creates challenges for him. While he’s only a couple weeks in, there is one thing that has really helped Eugene early on: Frequency.

Eugene may practice for up to two hours a day, but those two hours are not spent all at once. He can figure out how to master a specific note or a song with time, but the game totally changes when he takes a break and has to repeat the same skill after a period of not doing it. Whenever he takes a break and comes back to it, his learning systems go all the way back to square one. This can create some frustrating moments, but it’s really helped Eugene because it’s forced him to understand the skill inside out. He can’t rely on previous practice nearly as well when he has to pick up the skill and start fresh after a dormant period. While he can’t exactly pick up where he lef
t off at, he’s able to start at a baseline that exceeds his previous practice session. It’s a great reminder that progress is not linear.  

Every time Eugene picks up the piano and starts playing, his CNS is firing to create pathways required for execution of the skill. These pathways become stronger with repetition – a process known as myelin sheathing. Myelin is the fatty substance that wraps around the pathways between neurons that are required for execution of a skill. When these pathways are used more frequently, more myelin is created to insulate these circuits. Denser sheets of myelin help accelerate the distance and speed impulses can travel between neurons across a specific pathway. This is where the idea of practice becomes perfect comes from: The more you practice, the more myelin your brain creates, the more the skill becomes automated, the better you get at it. 

This is where I think frequency comes into play. If we think about the resources and attention we can allocate to learning a specific skill, more practice eventually gets to a point of diminishing returns. We all know the feeling when we’ve been working on something for a while but feel like nothing is getting done. Some guys might benefit more from longer sessions, but only if the learning systems are actively engaged. If your brain goes on autopilot when practicing a skill, no new learning is occurring. For these reasons, breaking up your practice sessions and instead doing them more frequently throughout the day or week can be of huge benefit. Don’t force yourself to hammer our three straight hours of writing if half of that time is going to be spent staring at a blank page. Space it out, put together quality work when you’re focused, and learn when to step away. Doing it more isn’t always better – doing it more frequently might be a better idea.