Since his retirement from professional cricket in 2011, former Derbyshire, Kent, Northamptonshire and Somerset seamer Steffan Jones has focused his efforts on coaching fast bowlers. He is currently Director of Sports Performance and Wellbeing at Wellington School, and has previously helped at Derbyshire in particular as a bowling coach. Here, he writes for LastWordOnSports about the technical work required in coaching seamers, and the idea of corrective strength training
Over the last 6 years of specialising in coaching fast bowlers I have experimented, implemented and introduced a number of novel and unique training methods to the cricket world. I have championed the importance of making the training specific to fast bowling using ‘special strength training.’ Over and underweighted implement training forms the basis of my special strength training. It’s effective, specific, well researched and safe for all ages to use. Providing they have the foundational base of general strength to make it effective.
I’m not against General preparation exercises (GPE) at all and they are key to an effective performance fast bowling programme. However, the volume of general exercises does depend on the training age of the bowler. My issue with the current training programmes for fast bowlers around the world is that 50% of the programme is in this general area. The squat, press, pull, lunge is all they do, with maybe a few medicine ball slams to potentiate the CNS in the warm up or as part of a contrast with pull ups. Yes I know the score.
In my opinion this isn’t good enough.
So how should a programme look ? How can we guarantee a positive transfer of training?
I use exercises that I know transfer to on field performance. My Key Performance Indicator [KPI] is the ‘speed gun’. These are the two points I adhere to when designing a programme:
1. Choose specialised developmental exercise that are closely related to the movement patterns and neural firing rates the athlete will find in competition
2. Perform these exercises at velocities that are slightly slower [heavy balls] or slightly faster [Light balls-tennis ball] than those found in competition.
“If a progression of these types of exercises isn’t used leading up to competition there will be little to no transfer observed”
As we know from my earlier articles there are four exercise categories [Classification]
- GENERAL PREPARATORY EXERCISES [GPE]Exercises that have different movement patterns and different systems [muscular and energy] to fast bowling.
- SPECIAL PREPARATORY EXERCISES [SPE]
These exercises use the same systems [energy and muscular] to fast bowling but through a different movement pattern. They stimulate the same major groups and physiological systems used in fast bowling.
- SPECIAL DEVELOPMENTAL EXERCISES [SDE]
Special developmental exercises use the same systems are fast bowling but not identical. They duplicate part of the movement but not the whole movement. The speed and the joint angles are the same as a key part of fast bowling.
- COMPETITIVE EXERCISES [CE]
Overload or under load training methods. Competition skill performed at velocities that are slightly slower [heavy balls] or slightly faster [light balls-tennis ball] than those found in competition.
With these categories in mind here is how I believe current , traditional programmes look around the world at whatever level compared with my own philosophy.
Current fast bowling training programmes:
• 50% general strength (GPE)
• 30% skill (technique, tactical and net bowling)
• 10% general strength (SPE)
• 10% specific strength (SDE) jumps, ballistic throws, sprints
Note: I include SPE in the general strength category because ultimately they can be used for another sport. They are a general tool to improve power in all sports; essential to bowling, but still a generic addition to an athletic programme.
My method (Speed demon and USD)
• 50% specific strength (CE, SDE and technical corrective strength and grooving strength skill)
• 30% general strength (SPE)
• 15% general strength (GPE)
• 5% skill work (tactical only)
Notice how I include technical work as part of the specific strength tier. The body is a complex system: things don’t work in isolation. This is called a reductionistic approach and doesn’t lend itself to positive transfer of training. We can’t think of physical attributes in isolation. All the qualities depend on coordination for their expression, and coordination is a specific skill. Fast bowling is more about coordination than any physical capacity in isolation.
In my system all capacities are trained in the same session. Only tactical work is performed in isolation on a separate day. This session is also dependant on the stage of the off-season. Early preparation phase would be a more ‘tempo bowling’ focus whilst late preparation tactic training will be more ‘game specific’, scenario-based and performed at match intensity. Technical work will also be performed during these sessions.
My technique work is different.
It’s called ‘corrective strength’ and ‘grooving strength skill’. Grooving strength is making use of the very reason some coaches don’t use overload skill training for bowling. It changes the biomechanics and alters technique if it’s too heavy. Well, turn it into a positive and utilise it for that very reason. To alter and groove a bowlers action. This uses a super heavy ball and is performed at a lower intensity. Key positions are literally ‘grooved’ in the correct most effective and efficient positions. It is essential to note this weight would never be used during the max. intent phase of the arm speed programme which is about speed and power.
As a coach, using strength as part of the corrective technical programme will actually do the technical coaching for you.
Remember that form is dictated by function. If a fast bowler has a poorly firing muscle pattern, or weakness, his/her technique will suffer. Internal or external queuing to fix the flaw will just be a conscious waste of effort on the part of the bowler. Little or no real improvement will occur, not to mention retention of that improvement.
This is why I believe most bowlers have a reluctance to perform repetitive ‘technical drills.’ They don’t have any success and will more often than not be due to the fact that they physically cannot hold the positions that’s required to bowl quickly. This can be termed as an ‘organismic constraint’. Bowlers end up not performing technical work and head to the gym to add to their ever increasing strength deficit! They make it even harder to bowl quickly. They build more absolute strength that they cannot use for fast bowling but they’ve moved up a place on that all important ‘gym white board’.
I think it’s obvious now how much I hate this ‘culture’ in cricket. Just as a side note, we cannot copy any NFL programme designed by the awesome J. Defranco or a quality rugby strength programme designed by the equally talented Keir Wenham-Flatt. Their sport is more about strength and strength-speed and specific to contact sport. Mass [M] is a vital component of ‘Newtons second law of motion’ [Force=Mass x Acceleration]. Fast bowling is all about speed-strength, absolute speed, technique and coordination; More of A less of M in a specific kinetic chain sequence.
Coaches should understand the difference between a technical fault and a mechanical disfunction. One is brain-driven – the bowlers technical understanding of the technique needed – while the other is limited by the musculoskeletal system – the body’s ability/inability to efficiently move into the positions fast bowling requires.
Technical is the software [the brain]. Mechanical is the hardware [physical limitations].
A fault in either requires an entirely different coping strategy. It’s beyond the scope of this article but if a flaw occurs only at one side of the body it’s normally mechanical, a physical limitation ,and ‘corrective strength’ training should be implemented. This is why fast bowling coaches need an broad range of understanding of anatomy, performance training, motor learning and biomechanics.
How do I correct a ‘mechanical flaw’. What is ‘corrective strength’ and how do I implement it?
This is what I call my ‘intervention continuum’. After the initial assessment session, both physical and technical. I go through a set of questions:
1. Can they get into the positions I ask them? No? Need Mobility-OCD programme
2. Can they repeat the positions? No? Need to drill. Is it physical or motor learning? Corrective strength
3. Can the hold the positions? No? Need more general strength training and corrective strength
4. Can they exert maximum force in these positions? No? Need more special strength training
Bowlers enter at the relevant level for them. Based on the physical tests and technical analysis a ‘flaw’ is identified, isolated, taken out and worked on. The action is constrained allowing a focus on the key area which is then overloaded with either external tools like bands and medicine balls [concentric] or manipulating the movement itself through slowing it down [eccentric] or holding in key positions [isometric]. They key is then repetition and allowing motor learning to take its course.
One thing I struggled with when I was playing at pro level was when coaches used to tell me to just “think of something” related to the technique of my action when bowling. I didn’t find it helpful at all using internal ques in delivering that ball quickly. ‘Try to delay the bowling arm longer’, ‘try to brace your leg’ was never a successful intervention in my mind.
What I now find helpful is doing drills related to the aspect of the action I need to improve in a strength training way. By adding resistance through bands or manipulating the tempo of the drill the correct positions are overloaded and repeated in the correct motor pattern. Mechanical or technical flaws are corrected in one technique.
A perfect example is the hip shoulder separation wall drill.
This process is followed throughout the programme. Whether as part of the strength programme or in the tactical session where bowlers would perform the same drill before every third ball during their net training. Performing ten to twelve reps of a hip/shoulder separation wall drill before bowling the next ball allows the subconscious mind to take more responsibility in self- organising (letting the sub-conscious arrange the movement) the technique as apposed to trying to just think of “one thing” consciously.
Bowlers are self-organising systems. Good movement and the correct motor pattern will emerge under the right conditions and the bowler will be attracted to the right technique with the correct practice. Corrective strength drills are the perfect condition to self-organise. You cannot get into the right positions if you don’t do the drill correctly. As coaches we should aim to show the ‘end result’ and put the bowler in the right environment and the learning system will organise correctly according to the bowlers end goal.
Fast bowlers around the world are becoming a rare beast and the current ones are decreasing in pace. We are spending thousands on biomechanics research, strength and conditioning coaches and PHDs performed free by students who want to make their way into professional sport but know nothing about fast bowling, they deal in numbers without various constraints. All are important but there still isn’t joined up thinking on what’s needed to increase bowling performances. Athletes are swimming faster, running quicker, running longer distances quicker, throwing further and lifting more. Just watch the Olympics. So why are bowlers losing pace?
I’m open to a healthy constructive discussion on the issue. I will be introducing a ‘round able discussion group’ this year and hopefully a varying level of coaches and trainers will welcome my invitation to get involved. It’s all about trying to make a difference.