Gunnar Cederberg is the baseball strength coach and an Applied Sports Scientist at Stanford University. He earned three letters in both baseball and football at Linfield University before moving on to Central Washington University for his master's degree. He has held posts as an assistant football, basketball and baseball coach at the high school level and as the Director of Strength and Conditioning at multiple Portland Metro Area High Schools before moving to Birmingham, Alabama due to his wife Katie's acceptance to Graduate School at UAB where she obtained her Doctoral in Rehabilitation Sciences. During his stint with the Blazers, Cederberg worked with baseball, football, indoor volleyball and bowling. He relocated to the Bay Area and worked at Santa Clara for a short time before beginning his post at Stanford.
Inside Pitch: We know that strength and conditioning has become a mainstay in college baseball, but what are some ways you set goals in the weight room? What are your biggest challenges?
Gunnar Cederberg: It all starts with the ability to help athletes create force and from a kinematic standpoint, getting better through lifting weights and getting stronger. The question we are trying to answer is “how can we match the demands of what they’re doing on the field to what they’re doing year-round?” Maybe we really need a guy to get a bit stronger or faster. We’d like all of our guys to get a little bit stronger and faster, right? The challenge isn’t necessarily whether we can do it, it’s whether we can control when those gains happen. Being able to influence the time of year we see those jumps is an exciting thing for people in my industry.
IP: How is tech helping manage that?
GC: Everybody’s looking at data and analytics and metrics and numbers, on the field and off the field. It may be exit velocities, spin rates, biomechanics, but there’s something for everybody depending on what you’re wanting to get better at. And there are ways to get quick results, but the key is safety. You really have to micro-dose specific things and work them in gradually, which is hard because a lot of guys these days see the quick gains and want to be part of it. But it’s a really, really delicate game of trial-and-error. Once we find something that works, we slowly build on that movement pattern or training methodology and sort of scaffold those ideas on top of each other.
IP: How do you use the weight room to teach players how to compete?
GC: My dad used to say “the best way to see where you’re at is to stack yourself up against somebody that can beat you.” And there are only a few sports in which you can do that—tennis, wrestling, ju jistu—where it’s one-on-one and you win or you lose. So the nice thing about strength and conditioning is you either do it or you don’t. There’s not much “Hey, it kind of looked like you could make X amount of weight instead of what you lifted.” It’s more of “Today you need to move the bar at 0.9 meters per second with 120 kilos on your back.”
In terms of attainable goals, it allows us to instruct and teach failure, which is vitally important. You’re going through so much as a collegiate athlete in terms of social life, school, all these different stressors. We want to preach success and make sure our guys are going the right direction, but it’s okay to fail. Success isn’t always linear, but as long as you're consistent and you’re putting your best foot forward every single day, you're going to see yourself getting better. That helps build confidence, something we all know in baseball is fleeting.
IP: How much is “too much” in the weight room?
GC: Our guys spend a ton of time rotating and if I came into the weight room and just made us all a bunch of really good rotators, that’s probably not the most effective way to keep a guy healthy. The only way that they perform athletically is if they’re available to play. The best stat of any kind of college baseball team is not really stolen bases or base hits or anything like that, it’s availability. If you have a high level of availability, your coaches can do their job at the highest level they can, the players can play at a high level and then you let the chips fall where they may.
IP: How much can strength and conditioning really help to prevent injuries?
GC: I personally take a lot of pride in making sure that our guys are mentally and physically ready to go, but at the end of the day you can only control so much. I’ve been caught up in some situations where I put too much onus on whether we were doing the right thing in training. Sometimes it’s just dumb luck, for the good or the bad, when a guy makes huge strides and another guy breaks his hand. The goal of strength and conditioning isn’t going to be 100 percent injury prevention, it’s going to be creating the highest level of injury mitigation, just to make sure we are prepared in a way that allows them to absorb the demands of the game from a mental and physical standpoint.
IP: What is your coaching philosophy?
GC: The “grit and toughness” culture I was raised in has faded, and that’s probably for the best. I’m in my mid-thirties, so we were just on the tail end of getting dog-cussed to “make us tough” during our playing days. Now we’re more reliant on performance coaches to try to build that culture of mental toughness, learning “backbone” that way.
The greatest part about working at Stanford is we have some of the most motivated people in the world. Many of them are going to be making six figures out of college whether they get to pro ball or not, so my job as a motivator is really just keeping them on the tracks.
IP: How big are your groups?
GC: I like starting the season off in larger groups. We do a developmental group here in the first quarter where we put all the newcomers together with the upperclassmen that have really bought in and know what they’re doing. We have those two or three larger groups to start off the fall and we divide it up into smaller groups from there. I had a group today that was four guys and another one with 18 guys, position players and some pitchers that didn't throw or whatever.
I’m not going to win over Psych 350 here at Stanford, so we really try to make sure that those groups are defined by the guys. There are some times it’s like grade school and we don’t want certain guys lifting together because they’re not going to get anything done, but it’s really about getting things as individualized as possible. And I like both styles, I enjoy trying to establish culture and expectations in large groups and getting into the weeds with the smaller groups.
IP: Tell the story of how you ended up at Stanford.
GC: The short version? Marry somebody way smarter than you! But I played baseball and football at Linfield College [now Linfield University]. Thanks to advice from my dad, who told me to pick a lifestyle and then try to find a career that matched it, I wanted to be involved in athletics, I wanted to be a strength coach. Then I look up in Anatomy 305 and I’m surrounded by a bunch of people who want to be doctors, trying to get test answers from a good looking girl I sat next to and another long story short, 16 years later we have two kids and have moved across the country and back together.
I got my master’s and I started teaching at a local high school and I’m set for life. But one day my wife came home and said, “Gunnar, I’m not happy.” And so I thought, “Great, we're three years in a marriage and I messed it up already.” But she just said “I just think I can be more, I think I can do more. I want to get my doctorate.” So now I’m thinking alright, she’ll do that at Oregon or Oregon State and I’ll keep working and we’ll be fine. But instead she says “I think I need to go across the country for what I want to do.” I had never left the Pacific Northwest, so now I’m unsure. But she was so convicted and rock-solid, that really helped me through.
We ended up with jobs at the University of Illinois; she had her doctorate all lined up and I was going to be an assistant strength coach. We moved in July of that particular summer and in the middle of June my wife got a call from her mentor about how they were going to Alabama-Birmingham to start their own lab and wanted us (my wife) to be a part of it. Now Katie was a little bit shaken and I don’t have a job. I felt kind of useless in terms of being able to help support her. And I was like, "You know what? I think this is a good Lord telling me that a collegiate setting is maybe not what it’s going to be. Maybe I shouldn't do this, if we're going to be moving around this much. Maybe I’m not good enough.”
I wallowed in self-pity for a couple days before I got around to emailing all the high schools in the Birmingham area. All of them. And I didn’t get one phone call. Nobody even emailed me back. I was basically just looking to be a substitute teacher and coach. Out of the blue I emailed UAB and the assistant director called me and said, “We’d like to hire you for like, five grand a year.” I got to be a part of bringing football back to UAB and I got to work for Coach Shoop and the baseball team. As time went on I was lucky to earn a full-time position and we got things rolling in Birmingham.
Then my wife up and did the same thing, “Hey, I got a job at Stanford. We’re going to leave.” So we went through it all again. I got a job at Santa Clara for a couple months and then COVID hit and they furloughed everybody. My wife was doing research and teaching at Stanford and I was back to feeling useless again, and we really needed the money.
Blake Klotz, a good friend at UAB, reached out after a bit and mentioned that Stanford had a strength coach opening. I was like, “there’s no way. They have to have somebody in mind, probably a list of people in mind.” Blake convinced me to apply and reach out and I told the same story I’m telling you. I e-mailed our director, Tyler Friedrich, “here’s what I got, here’s my resume, here are my references. I’m living in Redwood City if you want to have a cup of coffee or get a beer or whatever.” And literally five minutes later he emailed me back and said, “Let’s meet up and talk about this job. I live right down the road from you.”
Looking back I’m sure there was a higher being putting me right where I was supposed to be all along. I’m really, really blessed to be in the position I am in and I’m lucky to have this perspective where I’ll never take it for granted, because you just never know when it could all change...again!