by Steffan Jones

Fast bowling is a Central Nervous System [CNS] dominant activity. It’s less to do with the muscles but more to do with the brain telling the body to exert maximum force behind the ball in an all-out effort. It’s essential to realise this when training to bowl fast. Developing the CNS is all about motor learning, not structural reconstruction. In an athletic performance like fast bowling developing the CNS could be simplified into “learning to use the muscles you have to bowl fast optimally.”

For motor learning to occur effectively and successfully repetition and practice are necessary to get better. However, the quality not quantity of the practice is key. If it leads to monotony and reduces motivation, learning will suffer. Performance training requires variation and variability for motor learning and improvements in strength coordination to be successful.

Based on my own experience, both as a professional player and now as a coach of differing ages and ability I would say this statement is the most important. The 10,000 hour/ repetition mindset has led to a generation of athletes simply performing closed repetitive drills without improvement. In turn, this failure leads to a negative opinion on “technical drilling” and a shift towards more strength training to mask over poor technical models. This has a detrimental impact in itself and I’ve been quite vocal on my views on the “gym whiteboard syndrome” dominating modern sport. Gym work is now used to negate poor technique as opposed to support it. Now that is madness.

Keeping it guessing and remaining fresh is key to achieving high performance. If you keep repeating a skill without any variability, especially overloading it I believe it will ultimately lead to failure in learning a new skill.

Frans Bosch states that movement must have degrees of freedom to promote learning and progression. In other words, there must be some level of chaos or room for the CNS to self-organize movement, to reach a goal. When exercises offer no degrees of freedom (such as a heavy barbell squat), the athlete’s CNS is in a “straightjacket,” and no motor learning is possible.

John Keily describes training a skill as a trek through a densely under grown path. The more you train the skill, the more you narrow the path, making it harder to keep walking along it. The more variable you train that skill, the wider you keep the path. The wider the path, the more easily you can move through it, but if it becomes too narrow, continued progress is difficult. Hence, a certain level of variability is vital to continue to make training progress and stay injury-free.

The aim of any bowling coach is to create anti-fragile bowlers and not fragile bowlers. Bowlers who simply specialise and perform strength sessions and bowl in indoor centers all off-season without exposing themselves to other sports become fragile bowlers. They excel when environments are constant like indoor centers or fitness testing but break down when things are constantly changing. They are fine on narrow paths but ultimately get lost when the path gets wider. There are also bowlers who are great with the drills but when that new framework is put into a game environment it breaks down. How do we improve technique and movement patterns?

“The common mantra is that perfect practice makes perfect performance, but in reality, movement is improved not by exploring its core (i.e. perfect technique), but by exploring its limits (i.e. where it breaks down).”Stuart McMillan

 

You have to constantly test and push the body to its limits in order to improve. Fast bowlers will fail in this zone, but in the right environment, they can also learn to do things better in the process. Training needs to explore the limits of biomechanics and performance ceilings and floors.

The key point to remember with skill acquisition is that once a stage of learning has been achieved bowlers need to progress as quickly as possible to the next stage. Continually doing static drills or walk through’s serves no purpose if you’ve already mastered that stage. It encourages stagnation. Progress to technical drilling at 80% intensity as quickly as possible. This is the business end. According to the most successful track and field throwing coach Anatoliy Bondarchuk, this is where technical modifications are positively transferred to performance. Anything less than 80% the brain discards as a totally different “motor engram”.

“Former Soviet Olympic lifting coaches also determined that lifts below 80% of an athlete’s maximum effort have a different recruitment pattern than maximal lifts. This means that to maximize motor learning in the context of performance improvements, lifts must be at or near 80% of an athlete’s best effort in the practiced lift.”Christian Thibaudeau

 

There are 4 stages of learning and skill acquisition:

  • UNSKILLED-UNCONSCIOUS
  • UNSKILLED-CONSCIOUS
  • SKILLED-CONSCIOUS
  • SKILLED-UNCONSCIOUS

Each stage will have to be mastered for every drill. Spending the least amount of time on the early stages [static skill stability drills, iso-hold, iso-push] is preferable and to achieve those bowlers need to start technical drilling early in their development and also adhere to the “perfect repetition rule”. Get those quality reps in wherever and whenever possible. Remember:

“The frequency of practice is the key to assimilating a skill.”

This is called “synaptic facilitation”.

Synaptic facilitation is something that’s seen when a certain motor task is repeated frequently. The more a task is repeated the more efficient your neuromuscular system becomes at executing that task. There are 3 major reasons why this occurs:

  1. The nervous impulse (transmission) is more important, thus activating more motor units.
  2. The motor units become more sensitive to a given impulse, thus being more easily activated (lowered activation threshold).
  3. The nervous system organizes the motor command faster and more efficiently.

In simple terms, the more we practice an exercise, the faster we’ll improve in that exercise.  Where the CNS is concerned, frequency not volume is king! It’s better to do four sets of an exercise for three small sessions per day rather than twelve sets of the exercises in 1 longer session

Adding variability into the learning process will also enable the fast bowler to progress more effectively and efficiently through the stages of learning.

Skill acquisition is about performing “perfect repetition” in an environment that encourages adaptation and progression by constantly asking different questions of your subconscious system.

You can't polish a turd

 

“Mastery is the key here. In the rush to performance and hoped for success, many coaches and athletes skip over mastery in the part / whole learning curve. It’s human nature to be in a rush just as it’s human nature to spend minimal time on that which is perceived to be of lesser importance. This is flawed logic as the performance chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”Dave Kerin

 

So, the question is why don’t the normal technical intervention methods work? An organism isn’t interested in a stimulus it considers mundane. Boredom stifles technique. For effective learning to occur all non-reflexive stimuli must clear the RAS [Reticular Activating System]. This, in simple terms, is the “ON” button for brain and motor learning.


Coaches: We must understand how the brain works and how we can stimulate it. Most technical/tactical coaches and strength and conditioning coaches understand how to stimulate the musculoskeletal system through weight training and energy system work but do we understand how motor learning occurs which is a bigger part of the picture. We must never forget fast bowling is more about coordination than physicality.

“For adaptation and a change in technique to occur, all non-reflexive stimuli must clear the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is a small collection of neurons in the brain that serves as the initial filter for all sensory information. The RAS is sort of an “On” button for the brain. If it feels any skill is mundane, not challenging, habitual and something it’s done a number of times adaptation will not occur.”Randy Sullivan

This is why differential learning is so important. I’m passionate about fast bowling and making a difference. This is why I believe skill-stability work and OU weighted ball bowling for all fast bowlers are a must. With the variability of the training method, the RAS has to stay vigilant which avoids stagnation and habituation. This leads to adaptation and ultimately progression towards the ideal technical and physical framework of bowling quickly.

So many technical drills fail. Bowlers are asked to do the same drill over and over and lack the motivation and intention to improve due to boredom. With overload training, the bowler has a different mind-set in that they feel they are training, not “drilling”. This shift makes adaptation more likely due to “buy-in” from the bowler. However, once a stage is mastered and the stages of learning respected progression need to occur otherwise you’ll lose them as fast bowlers. They will lack motivation and ultimately drop out.

Doing the same mundane non-stimulating drills without progression will never turn on the “ON” button. This is why a lot of fast bowlers fall out of favour with technical work. The drill isn’t the issue, it’s the lack of understanding from the coach on how the brain works and what’s needed to encourage adaptation and progression.


 

“Movement must have degrees of freedom to promote learning and progression. In other words, there must be some level of chaos, or room for the CNS to self-organize movement, to reach a goal. When exercises offer no degrees of freedom (such as a heavy barbell lunge), the athlete’s CNS is in a ‘straightjacket,’ and no motor learning is possible.”Frans Bosch

 


The key to mastery is adding VARIABILITY into your training. There are 5 ways to add variability to your fast bowling coaching.

1. Complex and Contrast Training

Complex and contrast training is a training method that involves training the whole force-velocity curve [or part of it] in one training session/set.

Each training method has a positive and potentiating effect on the next one. Pace increase can be seen between each set to a certain point. However, a bowler’s ceiling and floor will always be the same until continued stimulation and adaptation occurs. An addition of a Complex training phase will improve every bowler’s ceiling and floor. The key point to adhere to is the fact that the highly coordinative bio-motor task like fast bowling needs to be performed within the complex to guarantee a positive transfer of training.

Identifying what method and what routine works for each bowler is essential. What works for a hip dominant /tendon drive bowler will not necessarily work for a knee/muscle driven bowler or thrower. It’s also essential that you understand the value of Neurotyping. Complex sessions work brilliantly for type 2 athletes but will fatigue type 1 athletes who would do better with a lesser volume but more intense contrast method. Just another example of knowing your athletes.


2. Same but Different

Over and underload [OU] weighted ball-bowling falls in the “same but different category.” I am a huge advocate of OU weighted ball bowling. It provides the ideal balance of specific strength and power to the bowling action and also provides the optimum level of variability to the training program and technical work.

Fast bowling training pyramid

The “Pacelab fast bowling pyramid” incorporates the classifications and provides a structure to the training of fast bowlers. The first 3 classifications should provide the foundation of all your training sessions [MP is part of the warm up]. They are the competitive exercises [OU weighted ball work] and the special developmental exercises [medicine ball throws]. They train, in part or as a whole the bowling action but are performed in subtly different skill acquisition constraints. Bowling under different and variable constraints helps the CNS to form a better motor pattern over time.

As stated earlier continually performing the same skill doesn’t provide the bowlers’ nervous system room to adapt and over time will lead to neural burnout. With the repetitive nature of fast bowling, the physiological demands are massive. It is therefore important that subtle variability is added to the training program. OU weighted ball bowling provides that.

 

“The essence of same but different retains specificity under new biomechanical, environmental, and psychological constraints. The psychological constraints may be the most underrated and often are not considered when creating training variation.”Joel Smith

 

A.  How and Why Bowl Heavier and Lighter Balls

I’m a firm believer in OU weighted ball bowling but it still remains a method that has its doubters, which leads to many bowlers not experiencing is huge potential. So, it is essential at this part of the article I explain how, why and when OU weighted ball bowling/throwing should be used.

Ok so let’s get to the nuts and bolts of it.  Built on a strong foundation of general strength I truly believe bowling with weighted balls in various ways is the best way for fast bowlers to train. There I’ve said it. There are studies out there that conclude that there is no pace increase whatsoever, there are some who prove there is and there are others who say bowling with underload balls doesn’t have any impact on pace improvement.  I’ve read them all.

What I will say is, these studies are in isolation. They set out to prove or disprove. They don’t set out to improve. Just getting a bowler to bowl 3 sets of 6 balls with a heavy ball for 6 weeks will make little or no difference. I don’t argue with that. It needs to be looked at as a whole, and as part of a proper periodised programme.

It’s not the method that’s the problem; it’s the programming of it.  Like previously mentioned there are 100’s of studies that prove it works by the way!


I use the OU weighted ball training technique in three main ways.

  1. Testing, monitoring and assessing limiting factors
  2. Velocity training, pace enhancement and RFD training
  3. Corrective tool and technical intervention method.

B.  1- MONITOR,  2- CORRECT,  3- ENHANCE

OU Weighted ball bowling can be seen as “specific speed-strength training” for the bowling arm.  Like strength training in the gym, the above methods of stressing the action can be seen in more traditional terms as:

  1. Hypertrophy
  2. Strength
  3. Power/speed
  4. Stability training

Weighted balls are simply another tool to encourage velocity development through the stress response cycle, utilizing super-compensation and the body’s adaptation to training stimulus. The timing of when and where to integrate the method can determine its success.

Weighted balls are used all offseason but at various times, using various methods, utilizing various loads, varying techniques with a specific training stimulus in mind. So simply casting aside the concept of weighted ball bowling based on lab studies is both wrong and irrational. There’s more to it!

Using an over or underloaded implement is more than just about adding velocity. That’s just a small part of the programme. Supra-maximal loading can be the best technical coach available.


C.  Supramaximal Load – Grooving Strength Skill Bowling/Throwing

Weighted balls change a bowler technique simply by bowling them and overloading the action. They re-map the bowling arm. They help build a new proprioceptive map that the bowler will subconsciously follow. Weighted balls are fast bowling coaches; they alter the biomechanics of a bowler subtly without the bowler having to internalize everything. They simply put you in the right position!

From experience, I believe that basic technical patterning using their own body weight and basic drill work will only work for novice bowlers/throwers. Those that are really in need of help and their kinetic chain is badly leaking. These drills, which require external verbal instructions, have been shown in other fields to be ineffective in motor learning. The methods I use, which include super heavy ball bowling and ‘chunking’ part training has proved to be very effective.

Fast bowlers learn best when they can internalize motor patterns without being specifically instructed to do so. By giving them a super heavy ball, it helps them get outside their standard mechanical model and actually focus on the training method and knowledge of results [KR] it provides. Over time this training effect will give the bowler a physiological stimulus, neurological stimulus, improve the bowling mechanics and also build a more robust fast bowler.

Super-heavy ball forms the main part of my corrective strength toolbox and is a great example of constraint fast bowling drills. Based on experience and research I believe bowling a weighted ball beyond 40% [220-300g] of the regulation weight [Experts in baseball believe 20%] cause significant changes in biomechanics.  I believe it can be heavier in fast bowling as there are fewer forces placed on the elbow, which is a more “fragile” joint. The key is keeping in mind they are used for submaximal bowling and general arm strengthening.  They are not meant to be used for out and out speed enhancement; although they will ultimately impact speed/power as part of the whole programme.

It’s also essential to note these balls are bigger than a cricket ball, which removes the tactile connection to a normal cricket ball and creates a big disconnection from a normal cricket ball and therefore the desire to bowl them flat out! The further it is away from the actual ball the better as it creates a greater change in technique in the actual constraint drill.  It slows and breaks everything down. Motor learning is therefore enhanced.

Super heavy ball bowling is a strength skill grooving method where the bowling technique is ‘forced into the right positions subconsciously. The outdated anti-weighted ball advocates are adamant that it is bad because it changes technique. Well, that’s what this training modality is aimed at doing!

Unless a coach overloads the bowler’s technique and encourages adaptation though stress in some form or another, all external queuing intervention methods are worthless. The changes simply don’t stick. The body and the brain have no desire or need to change!

When the mass of the ball is increased, the acceleration is much lower, and the bowler can “feel” the correct positions.

Strength skill grooving is a perfect way of introducing stress into the bowling action and encourages adaptation. The drill cannot work if the technique isn’t perfect.

The whole sequence can be overloaded by using various pieces of equipment, like Run Rocket, 1080 sprint or Exergenie.

 

“Let the IMPLEMENT become your subconscious coach.”

 

Experience tells me that once the bowler internalizes and masters the new movement pattern (synchronizes his hips, torso, etc. as he continues strengthening those new neural pathways), more velocity is up for grabs. They are now ready for the full arm speed programme.

Of course, this weighted ball technique of grooving a skill isn’t the only way to modify or clean a bowling action but it is the most specific way. Super heavy weighted balls allowed the bowler to “feel” the correct kinematic sequence and speeds up the coaching/instruction process ten-fold.

Intent is one of the most important things to bowl quickly.  Bowling varying weighted balls encourages the bowler to put everything into it. That’s the purpose of the drill. I genuinely believe you can’t switch the mind-set to bowl quickly on or off. You can turn it down but not off!

Weighted ball throwing

Here are some researches on the effectiveness of weighted ball throwing for speed enhancement. There are more studies. Just a simple Google search will reveal plenty. Yes, most are for baseball, but the principle is the same.

Effects of General, Special, and Specific Resistance Training on Throwing Velocity in Baseball: A Brief Review (DeRenne et al, 2001)

Effects of Baseball Weighted Implement Training: A Brief Review (DeRenne et al, 2009)

Increasing Throwing Velocity (DeRenne, 1985)

Effects of Under-and Over-Weighted Implement Training and Pitching Velocity (1994)

I tend to give 1 external cue to bowlers during a technical session. The reason for this is due to athletes’ attentional focus capabilities, by providing just one cue it allows for the athlete to fully focus on that single technical flaw. Attention has a limit, if many cues are provided the athlete begins to cycle through cues in their head, this ruins the fluidity and flow of a bowler’s action.

 

“That which the bowler cannot focus on they cannot learn.”Nick Winkelman

 

This is why it is so important to find the key technical flaw so that this single cue has the most impact. The reason external cues work so well is they make information memorable, use novelty to capture all senses, and allows a coach to say the most with the least.  The key to a good cue is making it specific to the individual, to do this have a structure of cueing, the three key focus areas of a good cue are:

  • Distance (proximal, distal)
  • Direction (toward/away, up/down)
  • Description (Action word)

Following this framework allows for cues to resonate with the bowler and have a more significant impact.

Providing one conscious cue! Bowl with maximum intent using weighted ball- RUN and Gun session.

 


3. Wearable Resistance [WR]- Create Feel and Overload

The ultimate goal of any coach, whether strength-based or technical focused [although in my view this should be covered by one coach- governing dynamics of coaching] is the transfer of training! Is the training actually benefiting on-field performance?

Wearable resistance

The purpose of every resistance programme is to encourage a permanent and positive change to performance. Positive transfer occurs when the training method replicates part or whole of the kinematic and kinetic sequencing that occurs on game day. To achieve transfer, the load cannot change the biodynamic, biomotor or bioenergetic capacities in the body. The body mustn’t be able to differentiate between a load that is alien to the body and the kinematic sequence of the skill if it’s to transfer.

LILA EXOGEN wearable resistance sleeves can be used in two ways:

“Developmental Corrective” tool or “Performance velocity enhancement” tool. In terms of creating change as a corrective tool, the EXOGEN suit by its internal mechanical loading [IML] focused design creates feel and allows the subconscious grooving of a movement pattern. EXOGEN allows the athlete to simply focus on completing the skill- that’s their one conscious cue. The coach has less need to provide verbal cueing. The drill itself is the subconscious coach. The pattern of the Fusiforms can overload or groove the new pattern. It really is revolutionary and needs to be tried to be believed.

(As the global master affiliate cricket coach for Lila Movement I firmly believe in its effectiveness. For those looking to purchase, use code STEFFAN10 when you order to get 10% off your purchase.)

Here is one of my fast bowlers explaining how he believes it has helped change his technique. It’s a long video by shows its application in the athlete’s own words perfectly.

Wearable Resistance is the future of fast bowling training. The future cannot be found under a barbell. It’s specific, overloaded and variable. “Although non-specific resistance training can induce neural adaptations and increase the power production of individual muscles, it appears that to maximize transfer to specific sports skills, training should be as specific as possible, especially with regard to movement pattern and contraction velocity. This type of training can be expected to enhance intermuscular coordination and ensure that muscles are “tuned” to any newly acquired force-generating capacity. Adding a load to a sports movement would seem to be a suitable strategy to achieve this specificity, although the amount and direction of added resistance would need to be considered.”(Young, 2006, p.80)

movementrevolution.com

 

“One of our primary challenges as strength and conditioning coaches and technical coaches is that a great deal of gym-based strength increases is non-specific, and transference to speed for sporting performance is less than optimal. I maintain that it is easy to develop a better athlete—as, by definition, if you make them stronger, fitter, or more agile, you have improved athleticism. However, and more importantly, do these increases translate to being a better player, with improved on-field or on-court performance? In many circumstances, the answer is, sadly, no.”

“Therefore, our challenge is to find training methods that improve strength and power specific to each of our unique training and performance situations. This is called ‘optimizing transference,’ and in terms of speed development, a new training tool that optimizes transference is wearable resistance (WR), also known as light variable resistance training (LVRT).”John Cronin – Simplifaster Article

 

Once again, my revolutionary classification category of hip or knee dominance will dictate how the Fusiforms are placed on the body. Does the bowler who is hip dominant need to overload the anterior chain to stimulate the accelerator muscles due to an over-active posterior chain? Does the knee dominant fast bowler need to groove a pivot pattern on their back-foot contact [BFC] by horizontally loading the calf muscles with the heavier belly of the Fusiforms grooving an internal rotation at the hip? This will add velocity to the bowling via the ability to generate more torque in the kinetic sequence. This is all part of the understanding that individuals are just that. Individual and unique. NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL!

 


4. Fatigue Induced Learning

 

“Fatigue can play an important role when building better motor patterns in sport.”Frans Bosch

 

Don’t be afraid of fatigue. Fatiguing efforts in bowling offer a unique motor stimulus that improves the interaction of muscle and tendon in conjunction with maintaining an athlete’s optimal bowling technique

I believe that fatigue activates fast-twitch fibers and stimulates enhanced muscle responsiveness to power, speed, muscle growth, and recovery.

When particular muscles are fatigued in a movement, other muscle groups must work harder to complete the movement.  In this end, I’ve realized the possibilities of things like endurance bounding and jumping (forces a greater requirement on the elastic elements of the jump, as the frictional elements fatigue over the course of the exercise), as well as the idea of fatiguing antagonistic muscles prior to a skill session (such as doing fatiguing arm curls prior to jumping in the pool for a swim workout).

 

“The possibilities of utilizing fatigue to create a better motor pattern in athletic performance are nearly endless.”Joel Smith

 

I don’t have any scientific research to back my theories, just my own experiences of bowling in a fatigue state throughout my career both in training sessions and in games. There was always an optimum level of fatigue where I felt strong physically, mentally and technically. If I went past this stage my performance levels dropped and my technique fell away. It was also the same with residual fatigue built up over the day. My 3rd bowling spell was always my quickest and the most “effortless”.

Only in recent years have I begun to understand this is a physiological phenomenon. When muscle fatigue rises, the body relies more on the elastic elements of the muscle to continue the specific movement patterns. I believe by bowling in a controlled fatigue state the nervous system sends a more powerful motor recruitment signal.

 

“The muscle fatigue (contractile elements) forces the body to formulate a greater contribution of elastic elements in subsequent balls.”Frans Bosch

So, to a point, the more you bowl the quicker you get! The key is delaying the “technique ruining fatigue” for as long as possible. Bowling quickly for longer separates the very best form everyone else.

Fatiguing efforts in bowling offer a unique motor stimulus that improves the interaction of muscle and tendon in conjunction with maintaining an athlete’s optimal bowling technique.

However, careful periodising of the fatigue method is essential. In the early process of technical intervention, fatigue is the enemy. Early-stage intervention needs to be performed when fresh away from lactic build-up and fatigue. Only in late-stage intervention should fatigue induced learning be introduced when variability is needed to encourage progression.

Oxidative bowling is a perfect example of a late-stage intervention method using the fatigue induced learning technique.

Remember it’s about adding layers and not using every method all at once. If layer one stops working, then you add layer 2 and so forth. Whichever method you want to start on is entirely up to you.


5. Induced Randomness/Chaos

 

“Induced randomness is a sound method of adding variability into a more specific skill path and works by making a movement subtly different while maintaining most other competitive constraints. In other words, you give an athlete a small error in the movement to provide the nervous system a chance to correct it. It has been postulated that motor learning is actually more about fixing errors than perfecting technique.”Joel Smith

 

Bernstein’s theory of motor learning- “repetition without repetition”. For me, this theory underpins everything. Which is why I believe the aqua bags work and encourage technical change. Due to the natural flow of the water, every repetition is slightly different. The RAS will always be engaged!

Induced Randomness

 

As coaches, we are guides to the athletes’ subconscious systems. The athletes cannot consciously control how their brains shuffle through the adaptive systems of training nor can coaches control the exact way in which their nervous systems process stimuli and the exact mechanical manifestations from that process. The best we can do is to put an athlete in an environment that helps to promote the way we want them to adapt.

Conclusion

These are the 4 training techniques I use that introduce “variability” to a fast bowler’s program. Programs need to be specific but also provide small changes that keep the CNS guessing, encourage adaptation, progression, and stimulation. It’s no good just doing the same things over and over. Drills performed in the skill-stability paradigm, in one plane of movement are great to a point but you need to ask questions of your CNS. Bowling fast is all about the CNS, keeping it guessing and remaining fresh is key to achieving high performance. If you keep repeating a skill without any variability, I believe it will lead to neural burnout and ultimate failure in learning a new skill.

About Steffan Jones

Steffan Jones is the former Somerset, Northamptonshire, Kent and Derbyshire fast bowler who forged a career out of getting the best out of himself physically.  He is an ex-pro cricketer of 20 years and is the last dual pro between rugby & cricket.  Steffan is recognized as a global Fast-bowling performance expert.

Steffan is currently one of the small number of people in the world who hold an ECB level 3 qualification as well as a UKSCA accreditation in strength & conditioning.  He is the leading coach in England on teaching and using heavy ball contrast training for fast bowler development.