Just Breath by Ryan Brownlee

This Blog comes from a place of winning, development and love.  Coach Ope and I come from the same place where it is okay and healthy to argue about baseball.  I am in the twitterverse as much as anybody.  I love what twitter brings to the table as long as you are okay that even if we disagree, we hug it out at the end and go our own way.

 

Bear with me because I am going to try and intersect two stories into one concept.  I guess it seems appropriate that I am writing this on New Year’s Day when we are heading into “Resolution Time.”   The topics I am going to discuss are not fads.  Yoga originated 4000 years ago and most of the styles that are around today are from the 70’s.  Autogenic Relaxation was started in 1932 by German Psychiatrist, Johannes Schultz.

 

I come from a research and science based background.  But with my psychology undergraduate from the University of Evansville, I also understand that there is gray area in certain things.  I will get back to this later, but Baseball instruction and development lives in the Gray area because we are dealing with human beings.   My interests growing up were all over the map, sports were a big part, but so was theatre, speech and reading authors like Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Morrison, William S. Burroughs, and Jean Paul Sartre.  Reading preferences have changed over the years heading to personal finance, sports psychology, child rearing, Michael Lewis and rock and roll biographies.

 

I also come from a baseball family.  We moved to Evansville, IN in 1979 when I was 5 years old so my father, Jim, could take over the University of Evansville baseball program.  I saw first-hand what being inquisitive as a coach would do for that person and his players.  I got to see what that type of willingness to adjust did for guys like Andy Benes, Rob Mauer, Sal Fasano and Jamey Carroll.  Not to mention the numerous other guys that went on to play professional baseball and are successful out in the real world.  My older brother Tim also played and coached with my dad.   This type of development/winning coaching allowed guys to get out of their comfort zone and improve.

 

This has carried over into my coaching.  I have had 52 players drafted now that weren’t drafted out of high school.  Dan Meyer, pitched for us at JMU and had a nice MLB career and coaches for the Braves now.  I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Khalil Greene, Kevin Cash, Joe Thatcher and Luke Scott in summer ball.  Again, I mention all of this because it seems like that is the only thing the twitter baseball community wants to pay attention to.  I am proud of all of my players that went on to make it through playing college baseball and went on to have productive lives after they were finished playing.

 

All of your experiences growing up lead you to what you are as you are older.  I played high school baseball for Quentin Merkel at Memorial High School.  Coach Merkel was the baseball coach for 45 years at Memorial.  He won 3 state Championships (all in the old single class system of “Hoosiers” fame) and is the second on career wins list in the State of Indiana.  He was your typical Old School coach (Bobby Knight in a baseball uniform).  I am thankful that I got a chance to play for him on a variety of levels.  You were going to get mentally tougher playing for Coach.  You would be forced to get out of your comfort zone.  My junior year, I did not handle that well.  I played, but was not an everyday player.  We lost in the day game of the State Finals that year and ended the year 29-1.  The following year we went 36-2 and won the State Championship.  My brother’s team in 1989 also won a State Championship.  The year before we moved to Evansville in 1978, Don Mattingly led Memorial to a State Championship.

 

Now what does any of this have to do with autogenic training and yoga?   My senior year of high school, Coach Merkel told our team he had an audio cassette tape that he wanted us to check out, copy and bring it back.  He wanted us to listen to the tape at night.  It was a 40 minute audio that had autogenic techniques (deep breathing with tensing and relaxing of your muscles) and mental imagery.  Our loss in the State semifinals the year before was very disappointing.  We had a very talented senior class that almost every guy was going to play college baseball at some level.  In a one and done tournament, you have to play well every game or you are going home.  We had a good nucleus of players coming back for my senior year but with all the talent we had from the year before a lot of my class hadn’t played that much as juniors.  I was floored by Coach Merkel, being the militaristic coach that he was that he would introduce something that nobody was doing in high school baseball at the time.  Olympic training was way ahead of everything from a mental training standpoint.

 

The audio that Coach Merkel had us listen to, opened up a whole new world of performance for me.  That year I also stumbled upon the book “The Mental Game of Baseball” by H.A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl.  The book also referenced a pamphlet “Winning Isn’t Normal” which I also bought, it was the handbook given to Olympic swimmers.  My disappointing junior year performance wise also forced me to make adjustments if I wanted to get on the field full time.  I still have the audio cassette in a box under my desk.  Those tools went on to teach me how to approach the game differently and how to prepare mentally to play the game.

 

I carried both of them with me to college.  My senior year of college I had an experimental psychology class.  At this point, there wasn’t a ton of Sports psychology research out there.  I wanted to test and see if the audio could help other athletes.  I did a research project with baseball, softball, men’s and women soccer.  I did pre and post self-inventories with all four teams.  I would have the teams listen to the audio to see if their attitudes about themselves improved.  There were positive findings with my research.

 

I went on to get my Master’s at JMU and did another research project with the audio with teams there, again, with positive results.  My third year at JMU we broke the school record for wins and we had quite a few guys go on to play professional baseball and have success in the real world outside of baseball.  Stress management is a life skill that transcends sports.

 

From JMU I went to coach at Iowa.  I took the audio cassette to our audio visual department on campus and they converted it to CD’s.  It is something that we would give to our players each Fall.  After having used this with players and personally over the last 24 years it has lasting benefits on and off the field.  We also started to work with Brian Cain in my time at Iowa.  He has gone onto have a very successful career as a Mental training/ life skills coach.

 

In my time at Iowa we also had a husband and wife strength coach combo, Skipp and Keysha Benzing.  We only had them for one Fall but their affects were profound.  Keysha was an Olympic sprinter so she ran the speed and agility portion.  Skipp had played professional baseball and was a certified yoga instructor.  Our Sunday workouts with them were a combination of team building events that would finish with yoga as a recovery.  I had heard of yoga but had never participated in it.  I was intrigued by it. I went to Barnes and Noble and bought “Moving Toward Balance” by Rodney Yee.  It is an 8 week training manual for yoga.  Anyone that is considering yoga personally or as a coach I would highly recommend it as a place to start.

 

Flash forward to the present.  Twitter has become an open/closed discussion on player development.  Some view it as open (this is where I fall) some as my way or the highway.  Coach Ope’s last blog, he put out his non absolutes, yoga being one of them.

Coach Ope’s Yoga Post

I tweeted at him to take it easy on us yoga enthusiasts.  I then text him “Yoga may be the most individualized form of exercise there is.  No one person’s path on the mat is the same.”  For me yoga is about getting in tune with your breath, getting in the present moment and dropping your ego.  There is no black and white with yoga, which equates well to player development.

 

When I took over here at Western, my family stayed in Iowa City the first year.  I got the job in October and it was not in our family’s best interest to move them in the middle of the year.  My wife teaches so the timing was not good for her to find a job here and Jackson was in 4th grade and Norah was in 2nd grade.  Because of that I had time to get out in the community, we also have yoga classes offered in our REC building on campus.  Dawn Piper ran our yoga classes in the REC.  After that first year, she moved out on her own.  But in our time together that first year, we discussed her coming to work with our team.  Personally, I experienced the benefits mentally and physically of yoga.

 

In the Fall of 2014 she would come on Friday’s and work with the team.  She did a fantastic job and it opened our player’s minds up to being okay with doing different things and taking instruction from someone who is not your coach.  Last year, I took our players through it one day a week during the Fall and Spring and that has continued into this year.  We did this because it was cheaper for the program, not because I am better as a yoga instructor.  Full disclosure, I go through my own yoga practice 3-5 days a week now usually early mornings.  I still attend classes in the REC and have started to do Pilates because of Jake Arrieta.     Alan Jaeger has also been a proponent of baseball players doing yoga for a while now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for all of us in baseball there is trial and error with teaching/coaching.  At the end of the day this helps your athletes and can you implement it.  Personally, I was an over thinker at times as a player so the autogenic training helped me be able to control my physiology.  Doing yoga as a coach has added another avenue to help players train to get into the present moment.  The 5 minutes of breathing focus before and after is just as important as the 30 minutes of activity.  There are many different types of yoga.  The one I feel is most beneficial for athletes is vinyasa.  It is one breath one movement.  We discuss with our players that it is not about being perfect.  You will be put in positions that will get you out of your comfort zone.  I feel it helps our athletes handle the ups and downs of playing the game.  To play the game of baseball at a high level, you will have to be okay with getting embarrassed sometimes.  I once swung through 9 Seth Etherton straight change ups in a row for 3 strikeouts in a Cape League game.  Can you move onto the next pitch regardless if the outcome was good or bad.

 

Yoga is not about being perfect.   It is about your path on the mat, which equates well to your time in the cage, at the plate or on the mound.   It trains you to center in and breathe properly.  It also speeds up the recovery process by allowing muscles to get back to a resting state.  Yoga breath comes from the belly and goes up through the chest.  When the game speeds up on players/coaches, the breath gets short and starts in the chest, which is the start of hyperventilation.

 

Autogenic techniques allow you to be able to control your breathing and feel if your muscles are getting tense.  It trains you to be able to feel where you are tense and free those muscles up to perform.  Scan your body and focus on tightening and relaxing different body parts.

 

Lay on your back put a finger on your belly button, inhale through your nose and feel your stomach expand then your chest, exhale through your nose.  Do that ten times in a row and let me know if you don’t feel better.

 

 

I look forward to responses on this.  In growing up around the game, I understand that I don’t have it all figured out and am willing to listen and adjust if it will help our players.  We use driveline and core velocity belts.  Our pitching coach, Shane Davis, and I used both of them before we introduced them to our players (our position players do the pre throwing protocol).  Not all of our pitchers use every part of these.  Our hitters use different styles, some have leg kicks others get their foot down early.  We try to introduce things to our players to let them find their own path.  After coaching for 20 years at the D1 level (and I would not have said this as a 23 year old coach), I view coaching as facilitating for your players.  The player/coach relationship needs to be filled with open communication. The last thing I want is for them to feel like we are getting in their way to being their best.  All of these are topics for another blog.  I want to thank Coach Ope for allowing me to do this.  It takes maturity to allow someone on your blog that may not believe everything you do.

 

Yours in Baseball,

Ryan

 

Ryan is in his sixth year as the Head Baseball Coach at Western Illinois University.  WIU is a Division I program located in Macomb, IL that competes in the Summit League.  Here is a link to his bio: Coach Brownlee Bio WIU Website

You can follow him on Twitter: @CoachBNecks11

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