Tyler Rathke is a physical education teacher at Rogers Heritage High School in Rogers, Arkansas, where he coaches track and field and specializes in the throwing events. Coach Rathke has a passion for and specializes in neurological-based practices. He holds a USATF L2 certification in throws, a Reflexive Performance Reset Level 3 certification, and a Square One System Level 2 certification. Coach Rathke has been through the Pinnacle Performance Biomechanics program as well as the Functional Movement Screen Level 1.
Freelap USA: You have experience implementing a wide range of neurological concepts within a strength and conditioning setting—what are some low-hanging fruits that coaches can implement to improve nervous system function and positions with their athletes?
Tyler Rathke: It wasn’t long ago that I had no concept of how to maximize nervous system function and change posture with simple sensory inputs and reflex response options.
Reflexive Performance Reset (RPR) changed my life and led me to a neurological-focused approach. The low-hanging fruit that I’ve found starts with RPR Zone 1 prior to any session. The reason the hip flexion and extension reset points create immediate change in how the athlete feels and moves is that, within our primitive brain, much of what we need for survival stems from our ability to evade predators and hunt prey using those two patterns. The simple gait-related movement is necessary for us in everything we do.
When we activate our psoas and glutes with the RPR system, it gives our athletes an immediate shift in the way they feel and move. Another system that quickly changes the way the athlete feels in specific joint actions is Total Motion Release. We use a variety of those techniques on an individual basis, depending on the needs of the session or activity, to remove gross asymmetries and allow for greater ranges of motion.
Once we have reset our most integral patterns, we then move into a sensory input regimen aimed to maximize motor outputs up and down the flexion and extension chains. A simple approach to changing posture and maximizing performance is through the eyes. Each of our eye movement routines targets one of three cranial nerves found in our brain that innervate one of our six extraocular muscles.A simple approach to changing posture and maximizing performance is through the eyes…. Expanding an athlete’s peripheral vision is imperative to ensure quality movement, says @Coach_Rathke. Click To Tweet
It’s common for athletes to have an eye movement compensation in one of the cardinal directions, partly because so much of today’s athletes’ time is spent staring at a screen. The distance from a student’s eyes to a phone or computer, coupled with the amount of time spent on each every day (6+ hours), can wreak havoc on an athlete’s vision. Expanding an athlete’s peripheral vision is imperative to ensure quality movement.
The simplest sensory assessment is what I call a “pencil push-up.” Assessing the convergence and divergence of the eyes will tell you a lot about an athlete’s sensory input.
Freelap USA: What tests do you utilize to identify potential weak links in the nervous system?
Tyler Rathke: So much of performance is about assessing threats within the nervous system. You can identify threats through unilateral assessments like grip strength in the upper body and single-leg vertical jump performance in the lower body—the difference from left to right or anterior to posterior identifies a compensation pattern in the body.
I also take my assessment a little further through a variety of nervous system response tests after a given stimulus. This allows me to focus in on specific joint actions in the body that may be intolerant of load or find sensory inputs that may promote a threat response from the brain. I learned this more specific assessment protocol after going through Square 1 System Level 1 and Level 2.
It is difficult to understand how the brain demonstrates a threat response until you’ve felt or tested it. Most of the compensatory patterns in the body do not reveal themselves to the naked eye. If you want to find out what is affecting performance within the nervous system, you have to get the specific answers you seek. The Square 1 System has changed my ability to ask the right questions.
Freelap USA: What systems or methods do you have in place to address weakness in the nervous system?
Tyler Rathke: I have had great results by combining RPR and Square 1 to improve weaknesses in the nervous system through the reduction of threats. In addition, isometrics are a simple way to reduce threats and strengthen weaknesses due to their enormous impact on the nervous system. For example, when using an eye convergence test, there may be a discrepancy in the convergence ability of each eye. In this case, I would start by covering the efficient eye and forcing the athlete to use the eye that is not converging as well. The athlete would perform 4–5 reps of a single-eye convergence isometric.
The brain is unable to restrict the eye movement when it is isolated, and by spending time in the isometric, we retrain the nervous system to accept this pattern as normal and safe. The process of addressing weakness is all about creating an environment in which the brain perceives safety. This can be accomplished in a number of ways with exercise.The process of addressing weakness is all about creating an environment in which the brain perceives safety, says @Coach_Rathke. Click To Tweet
Isometric patterns performed above or below the restricted range in a squat or a press can strengthen the pattern around the limiting factor. In time, the brain will allow you to move into the previously restricted position as you have strengthened the area around which you could not previously move well. Isometrics and isolation practices are a huge part of what anyone could do to remove asymmetry, compensation, and threat.
Notice the movement of my left eye in the first video as it tries to converge. Does the movement of the left and right eyes look symmetrical to you as they converge? I could not feel the difference but noticed after watching the video that the left eye seems to lack the same ability to converge that the right eye possesses.
In the second video, you’ll see me cover the right eye and force the left eye into convergence through isolation. After doing so on several reps, I use a square one technique to remove the threat that my nervous system originally perceived during the first pencil push-up. This significantly improves my symmetry in the left eye’s convergence as I return to the pencil push-up assessment at the end of the second video (below). Without knowledge of the Square One System, you could simply perform the isolated convergence in an isometric hold and reset the nervous system over time that way.
Freelap USA: How do you utilize breathing patterns to help enhance musculoskeletal output?
Tyler Rathke: Breathing is the foundation of everything we do. It’s talked about all the time; however, I believe it’s under-coached. The athletes we see take 20,000–25,000 breaths a day, and almost all of them don’t understand how to make their breathing more efficient. We follow a pretty simple process to teach our athletes the importance of proper breathing:
Step 1 – How to breathe when not moving.
- We usually perform these breathing drills prior to and after intensive activity. If an athlete cannot perform proper diaphragmatic breathing while lying down, we have a problem. What I tend to see is athletes pushing a majority of their air into their chest and shoulders. This is problematic in its response and trigger of the sympathetic nervous system. I believe coaches would be shocked at the number of athletes they coach who cannot effectively breathe in a lying position, with or without cueing.
Step 2 – Learning how to breathe while moving during exercise.
- I teach athletes to breathe in with their nose on the lowering or lengthening phase (also referred to as the eccentric movement). I teach athletes to breathe out through their nose or mouth during the raising, shortening, or lifting phase (also referred to as concentric movement). Sit to stand, push-ups, and other foundational bodyweight movements are great vehicles to teach the athlete how to use breathing techniques to maximize output and increase speed of the bar or movement.
Step 3 – Learning how to relax under stress with breathing and how to stimulate the recovery process.
- This is a two-part process. During a workout, there are times when we spike our heart rate in response to stress or stimulus. The faster we can lower our heart rate in times of stress, the better we will be able to repeat similar outputs.
- The other part of this step is that the accumulation of an entire workout can cause a great deal of stress. This sympathetic response can be similar in theory to a bright light or annoying loud sound—without successfully returning the body to a parasympathetic state, you’ll continue to live in the bright-light, loud-sound world. The longer we spend in a sympathetic state, the more at risk we are for injury. The quicker we can shift our body into a parasympathetic state, the sooner we can begin the recovery process.
I explain it to my students in terms of light. We want to get the lights bright during our workout period, and when we are done, it is essential to turn them off or dim them before we move on throughout the rest of our day. We do this through a process of box breathing and other focused breathing techniques post activity or exercise.
Consistency is a crucial element of this process. I believe we can immediately start the recovery process through intentional breathing techniques. Box breathing, shown below, is a four-second inhale, four-second breath hold, four-second exhale, and four-second shallow breath hold. Repeat over five minutes.
Freelap USA: What are the most important items a sprint coach could learn from a throws coach?
Tyler Rathke: I think a sprint coach could learn that the training should not look a whole lot different. Throwers spend 1–8 seconds accelerating their body in preparation for an optimal throw. Whether we are discussing shot put, discus, javelin, or hammer, each involves accelerating and reaching an optimal velocity prior to an impact that sends the implement into orbit. Similarly, sprinters accelerate to an optimal speed over long periods yet still require much of the same aspects that throwers do for the beginning of the sprint.
Because of this, our throwers, sprinters, and jumpers all throw implements for power development. I train my throws, jumps, and short sprint groups together for everything but the technical event work during the entire off-season phase. We lift three days a week and have two days where we focus on either vertical force production or horizontal force production. All of my athletes complete the same activities, and the only thing we may modify is the volume of any given activity. For example, my throwers measured a 10m fly all fall, whereas the sprinters and jumpers all measured a 30m fly.
My challenge to sprint coaches would be to include more throws from a variety of non-specific and specific sprint-like positions. I believe power development can best be safely taught, learned, and expressed in throwing actions using medicine balls. I’ve included some of my favorite sprint power development exercises, from general to most specific.My challenge to sprint coaches would be to include more throws from a variety of non-specific and specific sprint-like positions, says @Coach_Rathke. Click To Tweet
I work from a bilateral stance to a split or staggered stance and finish with a single-leg stance. Vertical and horizontal force production is emphasized in each exercise using the constraints provided. We use medicine balls between 6 and 12 pounds throughout the season. In the videos below, a sophomore pole vaulter with a PR of 13 feet demonstrates the MB throws for height and distance.
I could almost certainly predict your best sprinters, jumpers, hurdlers, and vaulters all have the best throwing distances among their peers. Power is power in sprinting and throwing. The better you get at expressing it, the more you can utilize it in your performance!
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