Dr. Gretchen D. Oliver, director of the Sports Medicine and Movement Laboratory in the College of Education’s School of Kinesiology, is a certified athletic trainer, a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, and a corrective exercise specialist. She is also a prolific researcher, having published 60 papers in the past five years, mostly on the biomechanics of throwing.
“It used to be that we only focused on enhancing performance and then treated the pain that came as a result,” she said. “But a better way is to focus on injury prevention in the first place. How do we do that? In regard to pitchers, which is my specialty, we work on biomechanics, or the total flow of the throw, which means increasing core strength, balance, and range of motion. My research focuses on the pelvic and scapula regions. It is these areas that actually help pitchers propel pitches. It’s certainly not all in the arm. You could say my motto is ‘stability for mobility.’”
This focus remains the same whether Oliver is working with her main clients, young baseball and softball pitchers, or with Major League baseball organizations that are coming around to understand that there’s more to pitching than being born with a golden arm.
Oliver received her Ph.D at Texas Woman’s University in 2002 and served on the faculty of the University of Arkansas from 2006-2012. She excelled there as the Clinical Coordinator of the Graduate Athletic Training Education Program and Director of the Sports Biomechanics Group.
“At Arkansas I was doing tons of research but we had no lab there to work in,” Oliver said. “Heidi Kleuss was in the molecular biology program at Arkansas and she left for Auburn’s School of Kinesiology. They asked me to come interview here, as well, and Dave Pascoe showed me the long corridor in the bottom of the brand new Kinesiology building. That’s when I saw my space! Just 24 hours later Mary (Rudisill, Kinesiology Director) asked me what I needed. I said, ‘a 120-foot long throwing lab, because that’s how far it is from home plate to second base!’ She gave me that environment, and it’s been perfect ever since. The only problem here is that I am 8 hours away from my family in Stuttgart, Arkansas.”
Oliver points out that Auburn’s throwing lab is bigger than the one at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI), which is considered the “gold standard” in sports medicine.
Auburn connections to MLB teams
“I got a call from the Tampa Bay Rays major league baseball team, who wanted to know more about my work,” Oliver said. “Whereas traditional sports medicine might do physical therapy for a sore shoulder and have a separate throwing coach, I can look at a pitcher or a catcher and see whether they have a core weakness. I am not a pitching coach. But I can see weakness of the lumbar-pelvic-hip complex, along with the biomechanics of the throwing motion, and suggest ways to remedy that deficit. For example, the glutes help stabilize the pelvis and I can provide a list of body-weight exercises that lead to stability, which leads to mobility, or an improved range of motion.”
The Houston Astros roving pitching coach also reached out to Oliver about revamping the team’s throwing program.
Even as she is advising MLB teams, Oliver focuses with equal intensity on young performers. In fact, most of her lab work here in Auburn involves young pitchers.
“A 10-year-old does not need to be doing rotator cuff exercises,” Oliver exclaims. “Instead, that young person must learn to throw correctly and not have a rotator cuff injury in the first place. Basically, to be a good pitcher you need good posture. If the shoulder is not in a good position the throwing motion will just not work.”
Oliver’s lab employs an electromagnetic motion capture system (called “the Flock of Birds”) via the MotionMonitorTM software system. This is a three-dimensional system that allows her to collect kinematic, kinetic, and EMG data for all her participants.
Connections to AU softball, community youth
Oliver and various Kinesiology students and faculty colleagues attended virtually every game for this year’s Auburn softball team that excelled in the College World Series and won the SEC Tournament. Oliver and her colleagues observed many practices throughout the year and had the players in the lab to apply the science to the sport. Several of the AU softballers, in fact, are College of Education majors, and Coach Clint Myers is a big advocate of the good work coming out of the lab.
Likewise, Oliver has worked with USA Team Handball athletes, in addition to serving as Medical Director of USA Team Handball and athletes from other sports, including lacrosse players. She has worked with NCAA All-American and Olympic Gold Medalist softball star Cat Osterman. She has been in the lab for analysis and continues to collaborate with Oliver on her throwing program.
“It’s all the same,” Oliver laughed. “Range of motion. Shoulder angle. Core strength. That’s what it always comes down to. Stability is mobility.”
Despite the star power of her program, Oliver’s most frequent lab subjects are local youth baseball and softball players. These youngsters receive the same motion analysis treatment as the pros. They get progressive reports from year to year after testing to see if the exercises are working. They almost always are.
“We give the young athletes and their parents a complete analysis, and the same principles apply here as they do in Major League Baseball. We always just explain that it’s about core strength and balance and we show them how to improve that. It’s great to see the appreciation we receive from athlete and family alike. We are really excited that we are starting affiliations with Auburn athletics and the big leagues, but we are just as passionate about our involvement with the youth baseball community. It’s about research, but it’s also about outreach and service. We’re in a great place here in Kinesiology to be able to offer so much to so many.”