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Special Report: Is Head First Sliding More Dangerous?
Articles printed in April 20 & May 4, 2012 editions of Collegiate Baseball
 
By AL FIGONE, Ph.D
Collegiate Baseball Newspaper
(Special 2-Part Series)
 
FOLSOM, Calif. — How dangerous is the head first slide when comparing it to the feet first slide?
 
The devil lies in the details as some people believe that the head first is faster than the bent-leg when comparing the two in terms of speed to the next base. We don’t know if head first sliders experienced worse catastrophic injuries than the feet first sliders.
Isolated numbers don’t answer questions as:
 
• Differences between the two slides in terms of type of injury such as catastrophic or permanent paralysis.
• No functional disability.
• Types of body parts injured.
• Average practice and playing time lost by offensive and defensive players.
• Sliding into home.
• Breaking up a double play or base causing an injury to one or both players.
• Money spent at all levels of baseball to cure and rehabilitate individuals incurring sliding injuries.

Teaching and practice time spent on sliding during the course of a season at various levels of play, and similar questions. There also exists significant differences among coaches at all levels involving the correct and safest methods of teaching each slide, and a number of coaches at all levels have reported they allowed players to choose which slide they prefer to use. Reasons for choosing the head first slide vary.

Some believe it allows the runner to slide into the base faster. Players experienced in sliding head first might risk more injuries if forced to utilize the bent-leg or use some other feet first slides.
 
The choice between the two is not that big of a deal, according to many, allowing the head first if not used at first base, in breaking up a double play or at home plate, and citing Ricky Henderson and Pete Rose as two great players who successfully slid head first. There was no data that researcher Judy Karren and I could uncover that documented the usage rates of both slides except in United States’ Little Leagues where the head first is prohibited.
 
Fastest And Safest Sliding
For many former and active coaches, managers, scouts, MLB and high school and college players: "Head first sliding is like chewing tobacco. As many know, it’s risky, but (those in baseball) still continue to execute, advocate, and teach it," as stated in part by Los Angeles Times sports writer Mark DiGiovanna.
 
So, let’s assume we’re a 10 person committee with infinite powers to change sliding in baseball so it becomes no different from other skills in terms of probability of injury.
 
How do we proceed to find the best evidence on which to base our decision? Let me suggest five scenarios to accomplish this task.
 
1. We could peruse the scientific literature comparing the head first and feet first in terms of speed and injuries for the last 20 years.
 
2. We could determine how many of the top all-time base stealers were head first or feet first sliders?
 
3. We could find out how many players slide feet or head first depending on the situation (i.e., first base, breaking up a double play, sliding into home; head first, base stealing or base running (extra base hit).
 
4. We could use anecdotal evidence ranging from lower leagues to the majors involving reasons for the increasing trend towards head first, and importance of practicing sliding on regular basis similar to other skills.
 
5. We could ascertain sports medicine specialists’ opinions (i.e., orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, etc.) about both slides.
 
The following is a description of the evidence Judy and I uncovered regarding each slide.
 
1. There’s only one comparative study completed that demonstrates the head first is statistically faster than the feet first by 0.02 of a second or provides a five inch advantage. The reason for the difference, according to the author’s study, Dr. David Peters, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Washington University, has to do with angular momentum. By definition, when the arms go out first, the momentum is forward and when the feet move out first, the momentum is back.
 
Five other academic studies reported no statistical difference between the two. When I asked Dr. Peters "what if we could set a study of two perfectly match samples in terms of body weight, speed, reaction time, experience and skill level for both slides, height, etc., what did he predict regarding which of the would be the fastest?" His answer: No difference.
 
For injuries, we examined seven scientific studies and discovered an overwhelming number of upper body injuries to the fingers, hands, wrists, arms, stomach, chest, shoulders, face, head, and neck were related to the head first. As expected, the "feet first" was related to broken ankles, leg contusions, ankle sprains, and knee injuries. But in comparing time spent away from practice and games, the head first won hands down.
 
2. Of the top 50 career leaders in stolen bases, to the best of my knowledge, there have been four head first sliders as of 2012: Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Omar Moreno and Roberto Alomar. There may be more. (If so, please let know).
 
3. For the situational head first slide, an overwhelmingly number of "head firsters" reported anecdotally they do not slide into second to prevent a double play or home. One (Alomar) stated he "slides head first anywhere."
 
4. Responses to this issue included: "The art of sliding might be gone," "sliding is not practiced anymore," and "players want to mimic Henderson."
 
A 2003 study of MLB teams illustrated 10 teams spent one day practicing sliding. None practiced head first sliding, and two of the 10-teams placed mats on the grass and had players slide across them.
 
In 2011, after the head first commanded attention from all levels, including executives, players, coaches, and managers, a sampling of the prevailing opinions of each slide included: "A preference for feet first, but if one is comfortable executing the head first, let them do it," "It’s too risky to change them," "Managers preaching against the first slide, fining players who execute it," "Both slides have risks," "You can get hurt crossing the street," "Players should be allowed to slide the way they are good at," "I let my players slide any way they are comfortable," "I’m a feet first guy." Two former successful MLB head first sliders reported, "They will not teach their kids the head first."
 
5. Almost all of the medical professionals advise against the head first. But, they readily acknowledge that baseball players have their quirks, own ideas, preferences, and may not follow their recommendations.
This is the best evidence we have acquired. What’s your decision, committee member? Rendering a decision reflects baseball’s conundrum or difficulty in resolving the sliding issue.
 
In every area of baseball in 2012, science continues to trump conventional wisdom in catching, pitching, hitting, infield and outfield play, base running, base stealing and other performance-related areas such as functional strength and conditioning.
This trend assuredly will continue allowing for the application of the safest training and effective rehabilitation protocols and improvement in the mental and physical levels of performance in baseball.
 
Suggestions On Sliding
Here are some suggestions to consider:
 
1. If we say one or other is faster, we should ask, show us reliable evidence supporting your position.
 
2. If both are equally safe, then what has the evidence revealed thus far?
 
3. Why do we not routinely practice sliding during a season? What scientific evidence tells us it’s better and safer to practice sliding a few times during the early or preseason?
 
4. How can we expect players to processes multiple decisions on close plays when one will suffice? Are we today expecting players to master more than one slide when most players are not mastering one? As Bernie taught us, "If you want to be an aggressive slider, move to the next base fast, or avoid a tag, the bent-leg pop up fadeaway will serve all your purposes."

READ MORE ABOUT HEAD FIRST SLIDING: Al Figone explores injuries in Major League baseball during the 2011 season due to sliding, why the head first slide is riskier, the history of the head first and feet first slides and much more. This 2-part series appeared in the April 20 and May 4 editions of Collegiate Baseball. Call our subscription department at (520) 623-4530 weekdays from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mountain Time. A copy of each issue is available for $3 while a year’s subscription (14 issues) is $28.

 

 

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