Ten years after Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson made his MLB debut and blazed that memorable Bo Knows trajectory from the gridiron to the diamond (and back again), Steffan Jones straddled a similar crossroads in professional rugby and cricket. Football and baseball, rugby and cricket, wildly different sports at the technical, tactical, and psychological levels, but all four hinge on the physical ability to deliver explosive force at a precise moment in time.
Ultimately, Jones gave up rugby for cricket, applying the physical tools from that contact sport during a long career as a fast bowler and powerful batsman, retiring from the pitch in 2011 to pursuing a teaching and coaching career. In addition to taking a new position as the Fast Bowling Coach for the Rajasthan Royals in 2018, Jones also operates the Pacelab Academy, devoted to training resilient young athletes capable of bowling at top velocities. With these developing bowlers—while always keeping his training geared specifically toward the skill itself—Jones also works to train the movements and physical qualities that allow for elite success at the position.
“Young bowlers are forced to specialize before they reach peak high velocity and miss out on the large amount of neural benefits that comes from simply playing other sports,” Jones explained in an ESPN Article. “The modern-day bowlers are clones and look clunky and robotic in their bowling actions. This is a direct consequence of a lack of athleticism.”
True to the name of his academy, Jones’s mission is to improve pace. Sprint faster, bowl faster. In this quest to develop complete athletes who can challenge opposing batsman with velocity, Jones has formulated a process he terms the Skill Stability Paradigm. Within this overarching framework, he first identifies three key nodes of the bowling action:
1. Back foot contact
2. Front foot contact
In order to train the three crucial components of the motion, Jones adopts a philosophy based on traditional notions of progressive overload, targeting those elements to provoke a corresponding physical adaptation.
“It’s six levels,” Jones says of his programming directed toward these goals. “There’s an isometric hold, there’s an iso-push, iso-switch, iso-catch, iso-dynamic, and iso-react. Those are the six tiers, and then we perform exercise, so it’s like holding a position, pushing, overcoming isometric, pushing against pins, it’s about allowing the drill to be your coach, to be your subconscious coach. So the bowler is fixed in key positions, and is overloaded in one of those six ways. And this allows the bowler to go through the four stages of motor learning and they don’t have to think. The drill itself takes away from their conscious mind, the drill does the coaching for them, and that’s why it works.”
“For me, it’s about putting as much force into the ground as possible,” Jones explains. “Research shows—especially as a fast bowler—that the more ground reaction force on the front leg correlates with ball velocity. So, the more force you put into the ground on front foot contact, the faster the ball.”
Transference and Specificity
“Ultimately my aim is transferable training,” Jones says, when asked about the neural qualities he seeks to impact with his athletes. “So my main question for every session is, is what I’m about to prescribe to my fast bowler going to transfer to on-field performance? That is ultimately my KPI—or, actually, the KPI is the speed gun.”
In position-specific training sessions, Jones measures and manages speed in two primary ways:
1. Establishing a baseline of running speed with his athletes towing a near-zero amount of weight on the 1080 Sprint.
2. Tracking their bowling velocity in-session with the Stalker radar gun.
Like a sprint coach who recognizes that sprinting at less than 95% of top speed will not make that athlete faster, Jones uses a 5% drop-off in bowling speed as a cutoff for when to end a pace-oriented session—at that point, they are no longer developing velocity in their bowling.
“1080 obviously provides the most specific, transferrable training method there is. I can overload or I can underload, so I can assist or resist,” Jones says. “Fast bowling is all about the CNS. It’s all about desensitizing the golgi tendon organ, it’s about tolerating lots of forces—lots of eccentric work is essential. It’s about coordination, it’s about efficiency. Intra-and inter-muscular coordination is essential. That’s why a lot of my training involves bowling itself.”
Within this speed training, Jones keys on how force is created and delivered in the specific movements of the bowling action. While working to improve all-around athleticism, he also highlights the unique elements of fast bowling.
“There is a direct relationship between ball velocity and the time to peak ground reaction force, especially on the breaking leg, which is the front foot contact,” Jones says. “But they need to be able to cope with their bodyweight, so if they have a large mass and are able to cope with the dynamic complexity of the skill itself, then that’s going to correlate with a faster delivery. But most cricketers are not strong enough to cope with it, because there’s ten times your bodyweight that goes through front foot contact, and four-to-five times your bodyweight goes through back foot contact as you land in the delivery.”
Knee Dominance vs Hip Dominance
To individualize training for his fast bowlers, Jones first identifies them as either knee-dominant or hip-dominant based on the angle of their back knee during this aforementioned landing phase. For Jones, the distinction is critical: When prescribing sessions with the 1080 Sprint, the particular way that the athletes transfer and absorb force are deciding factors in whether he focuses more on applying resistance versus assistance.
“Based on the profile we do and based on their bowling type, whether they are knee dominant or hip dominant, will determine how we train them, whether it’s assisted or resisted,” Jones says. “A knee-dominant bowler needs time, they’re more strength and static (oriented) and it’s all about the muscle for them, so they need time, time is their friend. When they land on their back foot, there’s lots of movement in terms of knee flexion.”
For athletes with the knee-dominant motor pattern, Jones believes that inefficiency in back foot contact time is a limiting factor for improving velocity, so he tends to target more assisted work to groove in a pattern of executing the motion at a slightly more rapid pace. For those he classifies as hip-dominant, the opposite is the case.
“Because [hip-dominant bowlers] go from back foot to front foot really quickly, they cheat technique. Their technique is not perfect, because their body, their tendons, allow them to cheat,” Jones says. “Sometimes a hip dominant bowler will actually collapse because they just go through the crease so quickly they don’t give the segments of their bowling action time to stack up, so that’s when we use the resisted work on the 1080. So we slow the movement down. And again, we do it separately, we can do a proper sort of 10 kilograms and above to groove in strength and skill, like an Olympic lifter would at 80%.”
“Bowlers put force into the floor in a different way,” Jones continues. “It’s understanding the individuality of it, and the key then is making it transferable to bowling without any resistance on it.”
A Data-Based Decision Making Process
Whether working with professional bowlers in globe-trotting stints with the Hobart Hurricanes (Australia) and the Rajasthan Royals (India), or training younger academy athletes in the UK, Jones applies a similar approach in using data to eliminate the guesswork from his decisions.
“We assess with 1080 in four different ways,” Jones says. “We’re testing the running speed of the approach, we’re testing the meters per second at back foot contact, we’re testing the peak and average force across the whole run up and delivery, and then the difference in stride pattern, the rhythm and the force application. So we have some data on those four key points.”
Just as he uses the 1080 and the speed gun to measure dropoff in workouts targeting velocity, he applies both again when targeting other qualities, such as performing tempo-driven sessions to target work capacity.
“I [might] want them to work at 70% of their running speed and 70% of their bowling velocity,” Jones says. “So without the 1080, you’re just guessing. My big thing is assessing, not guessing. So I’ll be able to manipulate the resistance to make sure they’re only giving 70% (although they’re giving max intent), but the forces are less because I’ve overloaded it. Then the ball velocity is also 70% of their max. That’s about work capacity there, so they could bowl six overs, they bowl six deliveries in that one. They sprint with an overload, bowl, walk back, 20 seconds rest. It depends whether it’s an oxidative bowl, they bowl nonstop for three minutes and jog back—with the 1080 they’d sprint overload with it, and then it’ll pull them back a bit quicker as well, so the less rest time they’d do that.”
“So we work on grooving, which is technique, we work on max velocity, whether that’s assisted or resisted, and then we work on tempo, building work capacity, whether that’s oxidative or glycolytic bowling. That’s how we use it, it’s all based on data, and I can’t recommend 1080 enough.”