Young pitchers and catchers take up yoga

copyright the Chronicle February 12, 2014

by Richard Creaser

NEWPORT — Jay Gonyaw has operated a clinic through the Junior Legion Baseball Program for area pitchers and catchers for the past eight years, first at IROC and now at North Country Union High School.  His coaching experience, however, goes back even further.  Mr. Gonyaw is also the coach of the North Country Falcons junior varsity squad.

“I coached my first time when I was 18 years old,” Mr. Gonyaw told the Chronicle on Tuesday.  “So I’ve been around baseball and coaching baseball a long time.”

What Mr. Gonyaw has noticed lately is that his young athletes often aren’t quite in the condition they should be.  To remedy that, he’s introduced an unlikely new element to his coaching regimen — yoga.

A number of factors contribute to the fact that  kids aren’t as limber as they once were.  They range from the widespread use of technology to a more stringent focus on single or double sport athletic training.

“You see it when a kid transitions from playing in one sport season and switching over to a different one in the next season,” Mr. Gonyaw said.  “They have to be in great shape to play at a high level in one sport, but when they switch they end up sore.  They’re going from working one group of muscles to a completely different group of muscles, and their bodies just aren’t ready for that.”

The ability to adapt from one sport to the next has also declined as varsity athletes begin to focus more on a single sport instead of the two or three sports that athletes of his generation played, Mr. Gonyaw said.  Working on the muscle groups that are used most ignores the benefits that a more complete workout experience delivers to those muscle groups you use less frequently.

Back in the day when outdoor activities formed a major part of a child’s life, multiple muscle groups were always being tested.  Kids rode bikes through town, played soccer in the park, or swam at the local beach.  As “free-play” activities have diminished, so has exposure to different kinds of body workouts.  And that has affected the ability of athletes to meet the physical demands of their sports, Mr. Gonyaw said.

“I see a lot of kids coming into my clinic or at the start of the season and they are pretty stiff,” Mr. Gonyaw said.  “It got me to thinking that the traditional stretching routine maybe isn’t working as well as it used to.  So I started to think outside the box.”

So Mr. Gonyaw and his fellow trainer Eric LeBlanc arranged for yoga instructor Rebecca Marcotte of Barton to come in and work with his players.  The first 30 minutes of each weekly session are dedicated to yoga stretching and the final 60 minutes to pitching and catching.

“We’ve been at it for five weeks of our seven-week clinic and we’re already seeing a big difference,” Mr. Gonyaw said.  “I’ve had kids ask me why we didn’t do this sooner, so they’re really buying into it.  They’re seeing the value of what we’re doing.”

While the clinic focuses on pitchers and catchers, the benefits of yoga would apply equally across the diamond and the outfield, Mr. Gonyaw said.  Pitchers and catchers are the only players with direct interaction with every pitch but that doesn’t mean that the position players, or batters for that matter, wouldn’t benefit as well.

“A centerfielder or a left fielder might go a couple of innings without needing to do anything,” Mr. Gonyaw said.  “But then they need to be ready to run at full speed and make the catch or make a throw right away.  That puts a lot of strain on the body.”

Not only will yoga help players perform at a higher level of readiness, but it should also help to avoid some of the more common injuries that occur during the season.  As short as the high school baseball season is in Vermont, by the time an injury has healed the season is effectively over for that player.

“I think we will see some early results when we start the daily practices in the spring,” Mr. Gonyaw said.  “The real test will come at the end of the season when we see how many injuries we have or how many sore arms we have.  I really think that this is going to make a huge difference.”

Mr. Gonyaw intends to bring back yoga for his clinic in future years, and he also hopes to incorporate a ten- to 15-minute yoga routine in his daily practices and pre-game regimen.  As the student athletes become more comfortable with the yoga routines, he expects that players may also start to recognize the meditative benefits of yoga as well.

“I know of yoga mostly as a good way to stretch out your muscles and joints,” Mr. Gonyaw said.  “But I can see a time when a batter or pitcher can step back and refocus for the next at-bat.  The mental part will come.”

Mr. Gonyaw’s annual pitching and catching clinic is open to a wide range of ages from 12 years old to 17 years old and to kids from all over.  This year’s group includes four catchers and 13 pitchers who work with Mr. Gonyaw and Mr. LeBlanc, a former pro baseball player.

“Eric really has an amazing understanding of what it takes to pitch at all levels,” Mr. Gonyaw said.  “He understands the mechanics of each pitch and the benefits of a good stretching routine.  That really enhances the experience for everyone.”

The positive feedback from players so far indicates that Mr. Gonyaw’s unorthodox yoga regimen has hit a home run.  How well the yoga stretching philosophy extends beyond the kids in his clinic is yet to be seen.

“I definitely think there’s something here that would benefit all players in all sports,” Mr. Gonyaw said.  “If it helps them perform better and avoid injuries, it’s been totally worthwhile.”

 contact Richard Creaser at nek_scribbler@hotmail.com

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