On a baseball field, deep in the South American countryside, lies a place where MLB hopes to discover a new talent pool in its effort to expand the game. This is not the Dominican or Venezuelan power houses that initially come to mind, but Brazil, a country previously only thought of for its world-renowned soccer. It is here, at the Brazilian Baseball Academy, that I spent 9 weeks of my off-season working with the national 18u baseball team. While I found similarities, the contrasts to my previous trips to France and Sweden were as grand as the distance between the countries and presented unique hurdles.
Despite oceans of separation, each of these countries shared a lack of knowledge of the game of baseball. This applied not only to situations and strategy but also to Hall of Fame players and teams going back more than 10 years. In Europe players asked me about Lorenzo Cain’s 60-yard sprint time but looked at me with blank stares when I mentioned Willy Mays as one of the greatest outfielders of all time. I encountered the same sentiment when I approached a kid about his workout shirt with a huge “Swingman” logo in the center. Asked who he thought it was, the player responded, a “golfer.” Being told that it was actually Ken Griffey Jr. drew the same blank stare that I received in France the year before.
As Dr. Fergus Connolly writes in Game Changer, “The truth is that understanding the game is the fundamental starting point for all winning teams. If the game is not understood, you’re just operating in isolation, and the progress of individual players as well as the team will be limited.”
Of no surprise, Brazil’s climate allows for much more on field activity than in Europe. Each day runs akin to a college or professional practice with pre-set blocks of individual work followed by team fundamentals and batting practice. However, like the Europeans, even though Brazilians perform drills with sound technique, their gameplay leaves much room for improvement, which can be attributed to a lack of baseball instinct and knowledge for the game. Because baseball games are rarely broadcast on TV, the players lack a source for viewing higher caliber play, which would expose them to better techniques, a faster style of play, and unique game situations that they have yet to encounter.
In terms of off the field training, the differences in styles and programs were evidently clear between Brazil and its European counterparts. While Europe holds a long history of strength training and resources, the strength training culture is newer to Brazil. In the midst of one of its longest depressions in history, Brazil is a developing country where modern equipment is not easily accessible. The resources in Europe allow for better facilities with more gym equipment, resulting in more opportunity. Stepping into the gym at the Brazilian Academy is like taking a trip back in time; complete with machines from the 80’s, rusted iron plates and skinny barbells that look more like ski poles.
Ultimately, the lifting program matched the timeframe of the equipment, with a traditional Muscle Beach bodybuilding split. What I witnessed was a basic program split into legs, back, chest and arm days. The main exercises were leg extensions, leg curls, lat pulldowns, bench presses on a smith machine and an incessant rotation of cable curls and rope triceps extensions. After my first four days, I asked the resident strength coach if curls and triceps extensions were part of the daily program, as they seemed to be all that the players did.
My objective, with the guidance of Jeff Krushell, was to focus on movement fundamentals during the daily warm-up, emphasize proper posture, and implement more compound exercises. Jeff, a former member of the Toronto Blue Jays organization, works for MLB to oversee the strength and conditioning of all the international academies. With his help, a standard dynamic warm up was created and implemented across all academies. We focused on basic motor patterns (linear, lateral, backwards), movement efficiency (keeping the eyes level during shuffles) and stability (unilateral movements for balance). Attention to detail was ingrained into every warm up, as we believed that this time could be used as an important teaching opportunity to reinforce proper movement mechanics.
Next on my to-do list was to correct postural concerns. Similar to coaching the warm-up mechanics, much was accomplished by simply making athletes aware of proper posture. We implemented exercises such as cable face pulls and emphasized form over weight. Even with exercises such as seated cable rows, it was necessary to coach players to maintain a neutral spine by keeping the head up.
Despite having limited access to equipment, I was able to implement exercises that produced good returns on simple movements. For lower body days, the revamped program consisted of single- and double-leg glute bridges, skater stability jumps, step-ups, and reverse and lateral lunges. Upper body days emphasized sound push-up technique, beginning with hands on a bench, face pulls, TRX supine rows, isometric planks and dead bugs for trunk stability.
While the game of baseball may be growing in Brazil, pieces of the puzzle are still missing. The physical abilities are present, yet it is the refinement of skills and mental game that MLB is hoping to develop. A sound training program, combined with a knowledgeable coaching staff are key to the transformation. Through this lens, it is easy to understand why Brazil’s best prospects are currently all pitchers. These players are able to develop the raw skills and abilities to throw a ball, where as being a good fielder or hitter may rely more on instincts and being able to mentally evaluate game situations. Over time though, this country may stand next to the Dominican and Venezuela on the world baseball stage.