May 12, 2022
Coaches who enjoy the process and results of medicine ball training sometimes wish to upgrade their training with an additional layer of quantification. Whether or not you decide to invest in technology, if you train with medicine balls, you should review this guide and get started. If you are a veteran coach and feel that this is just another medicine ball article talking about the same points over and over again, you will be surprised.
This blog post covers details that really haven’t been fully explained or even mentioned much in the past, mainly because it takes a lot of time to break down events in training that we take for granted. My argument is simple: If you are not testing throws with a very strict protocol, you are missing out on the wealth of information the Ballistic Ball offers. Spend a few minutes reading what we discovered this spring, and you will be amazed how much more you can learn from this wonderful modality.
I’d rather be upfront and filter out who should not even consider using a ballistic instrument than disappoint a coach after they realize it’s not for everyone. If you don’t have a good handle on your athletes, don’t bother. What I mean by this is if you are in a bad position with a group of athletes who may not be focused, disciplined, or hungry to get better. You may work with an elite athlete who is super-talented, but if they don’t respect you and they’re lazy, they won’t be a good candidate. Sure, the freaks of nature will blow up your Instagram page, but they will not see mature improvement in their training.
A great candidate is actually a team coach, if you think about it. While I like strength coaches or even sports medicine professionals to be proficient in using the system, there are more high school coaches than performance and medical staff who need to properly value medicine ball throws. The reason I like team coaches is that they usually decide who plays or competes, so athletes are typically far more receptive to them. Support staff may be the secret weapon to success, but when it comes to attitude, athletes will always give more effort to the coach who decides their fate in playing or competing.
Table 1. Decades ago, the Germans had excellent record keeping and their tables are nearly timeless. Some exercises have relationships, but a true cause and effect is still unknown (Adapted from Dichwach 1994).
Generally, athletes with good characters are great for using the Ballistic Ball in repeated testing, because they give honest effort and follow directions. Bad attitudes just compound the logistics of any type of training, and the Ballistic Ball doesn’t build discipline or character—it reveals it. In my experience, if you have existing challenges and struggle with an undisciplined team, a Ballistic Ball doesn’t make sense. As with any promising tool that can’t be used effectively, it will likely disappoint you. If you have a bunch of good athletes who want to get the most out of their training, however, the Ballistic Ball is a wonderful teaching device.
The Ballistic Ball is simply a medicine ball with an internal IMU that lets it calculate velocity. Due to the accelerometer and gyro, it can also sense movement before the actual throw, making it a great tool to get deep sight beyond just peak speed. The Ballistic Ball connects wirelessly to an Apple device, so it’s great for displaying performance immediately after each throw and for recording that performance as well.
With no pun intended, the Ball launched about five years ago and has evolved multiple times, from its humble beginnings resembling a bumblebee with a primitive app to the present-day streamlined model. The ball comes in 1-kilogram increments, ranging from 2-7 kilograms. The smaller balls have 9-inch diameters, while the larger weight balls have 14-inch diameters. With a price tag of about $500, you basically have a medicine ball with a radar gun inside. The current ball is rugged and validated (by three studies, currently), but does require a coach who knows what they are doing.
Shane Davenport wrote a good primer on the Ballistic Ball and how to do throws correctly, several months ago. Even if you are not a Ballistic Ball user, you can see how they standardized the throws for testing. And even if you don’t measure, you should have a template of how a movement pattern is classified and taught.
Shane and the other coaches at Exceed treat medicine balls like any other exercise and respect the quality of movement and the selection of proper loading. I have mentioned the Ballistic Ball myself a few times casually, but due to its niche in the market, dedicating an article before now wasn’t great timing. Today, the ball is getting traction with researchers, specifically for heavy chest throws for athlete profiling and testing. While I do use that movement for testing, I find the overhead back throw to be the most widely used exercise of choice in my program.
Christopher Glaeser, the owner of SimpliFaster, wanted to make available an option to monitor the throw speed of medicine balls, so he went with the Assess2Perform product a year ago. As a medicine ball junkie myself, I had already amassed years of experience with the early models, and felt the timing was right because the ball was scientifically valid for key throws, and was constantly refined for better function and workflow.
The purpose of this section is to help illustrate the functionality of the device and serve as a preventative measure for user errors or need for tech support. The instruction guide included in the box with the product is good, but sometimes coaches need more conversational-style exchanges and not traditional approaches. This section covers getting started quickly and efficiently, and reviews the workflow details so coaches can decide if the ball is right for them or if they need to use something else.
If you are already a ball user or just purchased the device, you can read this section as an adjunct or even replacement to the guide included in the box. The next set of paragraphs get you started with the ball, and the rest of the article ensures that you use the system properly. The ball is far from perfect and is certainly limited, but it’s extremely useful if you are aware of its strengths and weaknesses.
The ball includes a charging cable and a patch covering the connection point of the device. Without making things sound complicated, the ball is simply a traditional medicine ball with a set of sensors relaying the data to a tablet or smartphone. It’s durable, but can only handle the normal velocities of throwing the ball up and down, and will not support slams unless you are throwing it down to a high jump crash pad. I personally don’t find a use for throwing a ball downward, as very little transfer to sport is documented with this pattern of motion. If someone can prove otherwise, I will gladly change my mind.
Even if the ball is charged, I recommend plugging the ball into a working outlet and making sure that it’s ready to go. Don’t touch the ball until you make an account—that’s the first mistake most coaches make with the system. Slow down and make sure you create a coach’s account, meaning you need to specifically select the option first or you will need to start over later.
After you create the username and password, you need to input your roster manually. This is the only part of the app I think they need to revamp, as schools may have hundreds of users. Most of the time a team coach only needs to place in two dozen names, and that is a breeze.
Coaches may find the “throw to go” functionality a godsend, as the ball won’t work at all unless it’s purposely woken up with movement. In order to do this, grab the ball like a giant snow globe and violently shake it for a few seconds. Then, after you wake up the IMU, connect the ball to your iPad or iPhone. You can rename the sensor so it’s organized, but make sure you keep the name short so it can be written on the ball.
The ball doesn’t start collecting data until you press start and the ready light and sound alerts the user. The inventor calls this “the ding,” as the sound and flash certainly connect to the term. Athletes can use the tablet’s screen as a reaction starter or just go from a verbal cue or when they are simply ready to throw. It’s important that coaches know that the repeated signal is not an error or malfunction if an athlete is not throwing—it’s just a subtle reminder that it’s ready to go. Treat the throb of the ding like a red light during a session at a recording studio.
Reading the performance is actually simple; in fact, easier than using the Bar Sensei, since the velocity of a projectile is narrower and focused around peak velocity. Most of the information you will get is the speed of the action, and if it’s a countermovement, it will look at the loading period to see how the velocity was created. To me, the key differentiation from radar and video apps is how the throwing speed was generated. You can tap through athletes, scan the data, and export the information via .CSV file. Those who have TeamBuildr or CoachMePlus can use the API.
The reason I am so demanding with companies having an efficient software experience is that using anything during training is far different than using a system during testing. With testing, the standard is low, usually occurring at a snail’s pace and requiring the coach to be trained. As soon as I hear a company offering “complimentary training,” I hang up the phone after a polite “no, thank you” and look for an alternative. If your product isn’t intuitive and requires excessive education to operate, then you failed.
As I am sure I mentioned somewhere in past writing, the design of the product was influenced by the self-serve experience of the gas station, minus the financial transaction of the credit card or cash deposit. The goals were to be simple, efficient, and visually clear, and the company succeeded.
The app anticipated workflow needs by giving athletes the ability to see their name and have their essential data points visible for shared use in a squat rack. This makes it extremely easy to use with something more constrained, such as a shared medicine ball. The app can be used for both the Bar Sensei and the Ballistic Ball, making it a great option for those with smaller budgets and/or those who want to add velocity-based training into their program. It’s possible to set up kiosk stations with the device if you wish to train in group settings with multiple balls. I have witnessed a few programs use the same concept of shared resources in the weight room and literally bring it outside. I would not train in the rain, but the product is perfect for indoor tracks or other facilities because of the lighting and having a wall to mount the tablet.
My choice is to train with regular balls that are similar in weight and size, and test with the ball 4-6 times a year. If you have roughly 25 athletes and get 600-800 scores, the product is somewhere near five cents a throw for a few years. Expect that the product will eventually need to be replaced as the ball, while made from very industrial materials, will break down. I have 3,000 landings and the product still functions, but again, I throw on the grass and not against a wall. If you do plan to throw against a wall, use a padded area or make sure the throw is descending so the peak speed is lower than the throw selected.
A few small but important nuances exist with testing the most popular throws, and this is not a fault, but actually an opportunity. Coaches can’t have a tight protocol with jump testing and find themselves wanting a loose procedure with throws because the exercise is a different model. Respect the throws just as much as the jumps with regard to assessment.
Once you are willing to treat the ball with the same respect as a force plate, you can test throws with more confidence in the data later. An accelerometer is not a direct measure of velocity, but it’s a reasonable way to see some trends with athlete performance provided you know how to test and interpret the data. If you can coach the Olympic lifts properly, you will find the same approach to be invaluable in testing the Ballistic Ball throws.
Knowing about countermovement, joint position, and intent of the exercise can make small differences with the throws. If you are not familiar or skilled with medicine ball training, testing is pretty much pointless outside of exploratory learning. Some exercises are general pattern classifications, meaning you can insert an exercise that may be different, and the velocity will read correctly. However, be warned: Not all exercises can be tested.
The algorithms do allow for some idiosyncratic motions and individual style, but if you purposely abuse the motion or accidently deviate, the score will not be valid and/or accurate. That’s the nature of the beast. I remember jumping from a static position with the Contemplas force plate years ago, and the squat jump protocol was so tight it exhausted me with all the attempts to start with a true silent period. You want a reasonable and honest effort with the ball, not a feeling that the athlete is afraid to be human. Tightly wound robots are great for old black-and-white Hollywood movies, but lousy for athletic performance.
A fair takeaway is that athletes need to know how to start a throw, the primary way to accelerate the ball, and sound ways to follow through. As soon as the ball projects away from the fingertips, it has already technically measured the speed. It may not display during the event, but it will within a fraction of a second after the ball stops accelerating. As long as you cut out unnecessary dancing or posturing before the throw, a solid vanilla action staying true to the purpose of the exercise will be valid and explosive.
The strongest value of Ballistic Ball testing is the train of thought it constructs with coaches in regard to process. When a useful measurement is liberated from a complex movement, coaches are now empowered to push the envelope with training and return to play strategies. For years, this website has had guest articles from myself and other coaches explaining how to train with medicine balls from an instructional standpoint, but nobody really went over the selection of exercises using a scientific process. Even elementary components, such as proper load selection, were always an educated guess with coaches, but now it’s nearly an exact science.
The four areas I have found to have an immediate impact on training are: choosing the size and weight of a ball, movement selection, athlete profiling, and biofeedback. Down the road, I want to see how specific joint strength scores interact with the interpretation of throw performance, but for now I want the low-hanging fruit to be convenient for us all.
Ballistic load choice is not just about adjusting the weight of the ball; it’s also about knowing when to add in movement expression and modify the demand of the exercise. One example is granny tosses, a movement I only use 2-kilogram balls for, for several reasons. The first is that a countermovement requires far more work for tall and weaker athletes, as the paraspinals are not developed with most athletes outside of rugby and football. A lighter ball that is larger may be inappropriate for small athletes, so consider the diameter as well. Generally, the athlete should feel more like jumping than lifting, so if one joint system is working too much, reduce the load. You can then easily observe the improvement with velocity.
Table 2. You can turn a simple table into a checklist for teaching and testing if you know what to look for. When I program the throws, I have clear goals besides speed and distance.
Joint kinematics is basically knowing what a good throw looks like and knowing why it’s working for most athletes. Generally, a good throw provides great distance, or an efficient way to throw the ball safely and consistently. I, as well as other coaches, have posted videos on various throws, and I try to copy the positions I have observed from Brad DeWeese. The reason I emulate him is simply because the throws are orthopedically sound and express power safely.
I utilize the concepts of Håkan Andersson as well, as he always shows exercises that have purpose behind them. While surface electromyography is limited, it does show some insight into why various athletes do well with blocks and why some simply need more specific training. Field sports such as soccer and American football are more vertical with skill positions, but keepers and linemen could benefit from working with their unfolding movement patterns, especially with the hip and spine.
Athlete profiling with medicine balls is more about skills than the lower body F-V patterns promoted by Morin and colleagues. If you are good at simple movements such as jumping and lifting, it shows you have capacity, but for throws forward and behind, it demonstrates transfer potential. Note the word “potential,” as no throw can truly predict that you will have early acceleration ability—it just means it’s likely you won’t score poorly in short sprints.
The gods of data visualization will warn coaches not to use spider or radar plots, but if you are looking at maps of past performance with translucent layering, it may be a good idea to break the rules for skill profiling. Building on the information in the joint kinematics paragraph above, a lot of athletes have good extension abilities but poor unfolding or explosive hinging expression. Those who have good forward squat throws with poor granny toss scores tend to be talented, but not trained well. It’s perfectly normal to be able to sprint fast without a good set of throws, but I know that being well-rounded gives athletes a better chance.
Great articles on feedback and biofeedback can already be found on SimpliFaster, so the question is how to use ball speed to keep the teaching and loading process on the right track. If athletes are counting numbers instead of pursuing development, they will rush the technique process for a better score. In that situation, it’s good to use feedback to reinforce quality movement rather than compete against pure velocity. Second, if you are looking for fatigue management, I would emulate the principles of barbell tracking and jump assessment and shut down the training when throws drop around 4-6%.
Putting all the information together requires a realistic plan and experience working with athletes over time. The beauty of track and field, especially at the high school level, is you can see a kid grow over multiple seasons and multiple years. In most team sports, that observation is limited because most of the resources are spent practicing the game rather than just training full-time.
I wish I had more to say here, but the problem with analysis is that without data to ponder over, you will be stuck for years getting lost in your head. Track ball velocity performance and you will be fine, provided you add context and record-keeping to determine how the throws were performed in relation to the other training.
I made a big effort to make sure this article didn’t rehash much from the other articles I wrote in the past. I am simply amazed, and you should be too, by how much we can do to improve medicine ball training, testing, and teaching. It’s likely that the core of your program isn’t changing, but realistically, you should see a small opportunity to refine your craft. I certainly learned how much more and how much better I can do with ballistic throws, thanks to the Ballistic Ball and other technology.
You don’t need a Ballistic Ball to measure distance or velocity, but adding one to your program just to pilot the concepts listed above is worth the time and money. Twenty years ago, I thought that I knew enough to feel competent with medicine ball training, but now I realize we have so much to explore. Experiment with what I covered above and share your findings with other professionals by contributing a tip or even submitting an article.
May 20, 2023
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