We’ve heard about the Pittsburgh Pirates putting their players through Navy SEAL training. We heard the original story, the repeat of the story, the re-repeat of the story, and all of the national attention that the story has received. We’ve heard from anonymous players, coaches, parents, agents, and members of other organizations who have spoken out against the reports of the training. There is one group we haven’t heard from: The Acumen Performance Group; the group that conducted the training.
There’s a reason we haven’t heard from them. No one has contacted them. Throughout the initial investigating of the story, no one contacted them to get more details on the training, or on the goals of the training. Despite national attention and local and national articles written by the Tribune Review, NBC Sports, Yahoo, and almost every other outlet, no one got in touch with APG to find out more details. The guys at APG have been sitting back and reading all of the articles that have been written on this subject. They were amazed at how far off some of the articles were. And yet no one called. Everyone was taking the story and running with it, but no one, not even the originators of the story, called to get the details on the company, the training, and what other clients they work with.
As a result, we were presented with a story where the Pirates were going through this extreme training that was completely unheard of in sports. We were led to believe that dangerous drills were being conducted against the will of players in the system, and that the risk of injury was high in each drill. When Pirates Prospects contacted the Acumen Performance Group this week, not only did we find out that no one else had bothered to contact them, but we also found out that a lot of what has been reported on the drills and the training has either been exaggerated, or completely uninformed.
I interviewed three of six founding members of Acumen Performance Group (APG): William Hart, Scott Brauer, and Mark Walker. APG is a veteran owned small business with over 115 combined years of cutting-edge experience and expertise from several retired Navy SEALs, Special Operations personnel and an Olympic sports psychologist.
Hart spent 20 years with the teams, and in that time had six overseas deployments. He worked as an instructor for several years at the SEAL Qualification Training Course, and is currently going into his sixth year in a Ph.D. in General Psychology. Walker recently retired after 20 and a half years with the teams, in which he had seven combat deployments total, serving in Iraq, South America, Asia, and Africa. Brauer has 21 years of service, and 20 with the teams where he deployed primarily to the Middle East throughout his time in the service.
The Navy wanted to research historical attrition issues with people making it through SEAL training. They started looking at the stats of guys who were successful making it through the training, and the stats of guys who weren’t successful. In that research they started identifying the ideal candidates to make it through the training. A lot of those candidates were high school and college athletes. Brauer, Hart, and Walker began working with those athletes, doing some mental toughness and leadership skill exercises.
Prior to forming APG, the members of the group were contacted through the US Navy by the United States Olympians for the 2008 Olympics. The training got on the map after working with the men’s water polo team. The team was ranked 10th in the world and had their fourth coach in four years. After going through the training, the US men’s water polo team went on to win the silver medal. Following the win, the group started getting media attention, including a three-part series on The Today Show.
APG wasn’t officially formed until later. The group started getting calls from professional teams about the training. The Navy said there was no return on investment working with professional teams, and thus decided training those teams wasn’t worthwhile. The professional teams started offering for APG to come in during their off time and be paid for the training. The group put together a business, teamed with a sports psychologist they worked with during the Olympics, and APG was born.
Brauer, Hart, Walker, and APG’s other founders have worked with many clients across several sports both before and after APG was formed. Their experience even goes to sports where you wouldn’t think SEAL training would apply, such as BMX biking, rowing, lacrosse, and field hockey. Through the US Navy they worked with the USA men’s swimming team for the World championships, and have worked with the US men’s water polo team three times. That team took the gold this year. They’ve worked with many other teams as APG. Their clients aren’t limited to college teams and the amateur sports. APG has also worked with professional teams, such as the Buffalo Sabres.
The work with the Pirates didn’t begin during the Fall Instructional League. Prior to the three-day training in September, APG worked with the Pirates for five days during extended Spring Training. Most of the players in that training went on to the Gulf Coast League and the State College Spikes.
APG has been contacted by other MLB teams. Some of those teams have been referred by the Pirates after hearing about the training. Other teams have been referred through other sources. Due to confidentiality reasons, APG wouldn’t say which teams contacted them.
When the story first came out about the Pirates going through this training, many people read it as the Pirates going through training to try and turn their players into Navy SEALs. The focus of the training isn’t to create Navy SEALs, and the training isn’t exactly like the training that one would go through to become a Navy SEAL.
“We’re not putting these guys through SEAL training,” William Hart explained. “We’re using some tools that we have used going through training to meet the client’s expectations and their problem areas.”
A Google search on the subject will show plenty of results of teams going through SEAL training, or something similar. Most of that is APG, although there are other groups that offer similar training.
“There are a lot of guys, a lot of retired team guys out there, that are offering some version of SEAL related training,” William Hart said. “Some of it is pretty good stuff. Some of it is ‘hey, come on out here and I’ll beat you down for a few hours’. That’s not our deal. Our program is built around getting the kind of results that you see when you see a SEAL platoon deployed overseas for a purpose. You would never say ‘Oh, I hope they come out alright’, because you know these guys are tuned up to a level of excellence where they’re going to perform well. Those are the qualities that we try to capture, not just the physical beat down portions.”
One key difference between APG and the rest is that they take a doctoral psychologist approach, focusing on the neck up. The training involves carrying logs, flipping tires, and getting wet and covered in sand. You might ask what that has to do with baseball. None of those activities have anything to do with the actual game of baseball. In the same way, none of those activities have anything to do with shooting a gun, yet the SEALs go through the activities for a purpose. That purpose is to focus on being in the right mindset to succeed, paying attention to detail, and using the right strategies and coping mechanisms needed to get through a tough situation.
If you go back a hundred years, things like sprinting or weight lifting would have been viewed as a waste of time that had nothing to do with getting better at playing baseball. Now we know that these activities lead to being a better baseball player. APG believes that focusing on making someone stronger in mind can have the same benefits, and while it may not be viewed as something that can help swing a bat or throw a ball right now, down the line we could view it in the same way we currently view exercise and training.
“When we do these programs, we’re not looking at giving them a workout,” Brauer said. “We’re looking at developing their mind and how they cope with things with tough situations.”
Most professional baseball players have been playing the game since they were kids. By now they know the basics of the game. There’s a difference between executing those skills in practice, and executing in a game in front of tens of thousands of people in a key situation. It’s impossible to simulate the big game atmosphere, especially at Pirate City where a busy day has less than 100 fans in attendance. To create that type of situation, APG focuses on getting players out of their comfort zone, to a point where they are uncomfortable and stressed, and then working with them to achieve goals in that mindset. That last part is key. The training is useless if players are only getting stressed and uncomfortable. The goal is to get them comfortable achieving tasks in that uncomfortable setting.
Many of the drills you’ve heard about are meant to get the players out of their comfort zone. The reason the training goes for so long is because it takes professional athletes so long to get uncomfortable. APG provides the athletes with tools and strategies, so that once they’re at this uncomfortable point, they can employ those tools to get through the situation in a successful manner. Ideally that would carry over to a stressful situation in the actual game, where they use the same tools and strategies to come through in a key situation.
One of the strategies used is visualization. That’s a process where players see themselves doing what it is they want to do. After seeing it in their mind, they go out and try to do it on the field. This applies during the drills, but also carries over to situations in the actual game. If a player needs to execute a bunt, the focus is visualizing the bunt being executed, then making that become a reality. This isn’t a new concept in sports, and it’s not a new concept to the Pirates, but some would argue that it is an important strategy to be successful, especially in high stress situations.
The training is accomplished over a short period, which raises some questions as to whether it can be retained over the long-term. After APG leaves, it is up to the coaches and the players to continue using the tools that were given during the training.
“This is not like an immunization, where you show up, you have the experience, and then you walk away and you understand how your head works,” Brauer said. “This is just like working out. You have to get introduced to it. You have to stay at it, you have to keep it sharp. It’s a perishable skill.”
Safety is the Number One Concern
The controversy surrounding this training has been the fear of prospects being injured. The drills have been described in a manner where it sounds like players are being beaten and abused, with the potential for injury around every turn. In getting the details of the drills, they don’t sound nearly as sensational as they’ve been previously described.
As an example, Gregory Polanco is reported to have been injured during a drill where players “sprinted across the outfield, through an above-ground pool of ice water, then leaped into a sand pit”. Here is the actual drill.
The players sprint across the outfield to a kiddie pool of ice water. Because it is hot in Florida, most of the ice in the pool melts immediately, although it is still cold. Once they arrive at the pool, players are instructed to go to their knees, then lay down on their belly and slide through the pool. Someone is stationed at the pool to make sure this happens, and make sure no one is entering the pool while running or diving. After the pool they go to a pile of sand, where they once again slow down, then enter the pile and roll around in the sand.
The focus of the drill is similar to the focus of a lot of drills. It is meant to get players wet and covered in sand, which helps to make them uncomfortable. That’s much different from a situation where they’re warm, clean, and dry. APG noted that no players were injured during the training, and in knowing the details of the “water and sand” drill, it’s hard to imagine how that could be an injury risk to any athlete.
You’ve probably also heard about players being sprayed with a hose. That hose is a simple garden hose that hooks up behind the pitcher’s mound, and is normally used to water the infield. Again, the purpose here is to get players uncomfortable, then get players used to being uncomfortable to the point where it isn’t an issue.
Water is a great tool that is used by APG. It’s safe and doesn’t cause injuries, but it also makes people uncomfortable. Water can trigger an uncomfortable response, whether it’s getting caught in the rain without an umbrella, being sprayed with a hose, or having to slide through a pool of cold water. Aside from making players uncomfortable, water is used for safety reasons. Players are out training in the heat for several hours. The main focus of the water drills is to make sure players avoid heat injuries, while keeping the training going. APG monitors what the weather will be like that day, and considers the activities the players are doing. Before a player can reach a point where he could suffer a heat injury, they will put him in a water activity, allowing him to cool down while also keeping him in an uncomfortable mindset to continue the training.
These activities have been presented as something that happens against the will of the players. We’ve heard anonymous players, parents, and agents complaining about this training. What we haven’t heard is the most important aspect in that discussion: this training is fully optional. That is made very clear to the players all throughout the training.
APG spends the entire first day and the night before with the coaches and the players, explaining what is going to happen. They do this so that there’s no shock once the training begins.
“The first night we tell them, and we tell them before every training block,” Hart explained. “We say ‘this is a voluntary block of training. If you are not interested in participating in this, you can stand off to the side and watch. You can see your team get stronger. And when you see them start to work together as a team, start to get stronger, you feel free to contact your training staff, they’ll let us know, we’ll put you back in. But if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here.’”
“We also tell them that ‘if any time you see something that appears unsafe, you have concerns that you or another player might get hurt, raise your hand, let us know. We’ll stop training, we’ll address the concern, and we’ll move on.’”
Throughout the training, APG eats with the players during every meal, and talk to the players like regular guys, answering any questions they may have. They make it clear that no one has to do the activities if they don’t want to. In the past they’ve had some situations where players sat out.
One example they gave was when they were working with a football team. A star player on the team felt the training was beneath him, and sat out of a drill. On the sidelines he watched the six man team he was with performing better a man down without him. When he saw this he got back in.
The training has been presented as dangerous and an injury risk, but that’s not the case. In fact, this training hasn’t been limited to sports teams. APG also works with corporate settings, including working with government employees who spend their days in cubicles. The exercises are tailored to each individual client’s needs, so a sports team and a corporate office wouldn’t go through the exact same exercises. However, the only focus of the exercises is getting people uncomfortable, then getting those people comfortable in that uncomfortable mindset, to the point where they’re comfortable achieving tasks in stressful situations. Safety is a huge concern, and none of the drills are designed in a way which would cause injuries. If middle-aged corporate employees who spent eight hours a day in a cubicle can do the training, then professional athletes should have no issues. The Pirates even had injured players who wanted to participate in the drills, but couldn’t as they weren’t cleared by their trainers.
The focus in all of this is to get players to an uncomfortable place, knocking them down, and then helping them to get back up. The focus of the criticism has been on the “knocking down” part. That part doesn’t work without helping the players get back up by achieving goals in an uncomfortable and stressful setting. Once they’ve achieved this, some players can be changed for the long-term, to the point where they can emerge as leaders.
“One of the things that we teach guys is leadership at every level. We force guys to lead,” Walker said. “We see a lot of younger guys who are ready to step up. Coaches come to us and say ‘That guy surprised me.’ And it was just that he was waiting for an opportunity. So we teach guys that it’s their responsibility to lead at every level.”
When you actually look at this training, what you’ll find is that the exercises are safe, the training is optional for the players, and the focus is on teaching players how to succeed in stressful situations, while building leadership and communication skills. The training represents a different method to approach these goals, focusing on strengthening the mind of an athlete. That method is being adopted by more and more teams, and other MLB teams are starting to show interest in this training. The actual story is informative, but it’s not going to draw a national reaction without sensationalized details. A story where players are constantly at risk for injuries while being forced to do extreme training drills against their will is going to draw a lot of attention. The real story is that the drills are optional, safety is a huge concern, and the training drills aren’t nearly as extreme as they’ve been described. Unfortunately, that story probably doesn’t get a lot of attention.