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Cathi Aradi

A Strength and Conditioning Coach Perspective

There is a pronounced shift in emphasis within the evolution of softball for women and girls: Where the most noticeable element in this area was, for a long while, the surging level of participation, it is, now, the rapidly increasing level of competency and intensity of competition, itself. The step from club team to high school; high school to college; college to a regional or national team gets steeper every year, putting players into situations far more challenging (physically and mentally) than those they have known before. It is a predictable sequence of events: participation leads to visibility; visibility to expanded opportunity; opportunity to proficiency; and proficiency now feeds this ascending level of performance.

This shift in emphasis from simple participation to true competition requires more from every athlete - from aspiring hopeful, to established talent. It is no longer simply a matter of expressing a desire to be on the team, but one of truly preparing to compete at higher levels. To quote Vern Gambetta, a leading athletic performance coach: "You have to train to play; you can't just play to train, anymore."

So: here we are: trying to compete in competitions that are ever more......competitive. If all this sounds like a justification for the employment of strength and conditioning coaches...well...sorry; but suggesting that adding some expertise in physical development

might be a useful investment should not be a tough-sell to any coach.

 

A Training Overview

In evaluating the training priorities for softball, I begin with three simple ideas:

1) I want to reduce the possibility of injuries;

2) All the physical training and testing methods I employ must be relevant (to coaches and athletes).

3) Fitness wins.

 

Body Awareness

 

The reduction of injury potential in all players is (must be) the first priority of any functional conditioning program. Accomplishing this requires a critical-thinking approach to be certain we are actually training the athletes we have for the sport we are playing. Too often, strength coaches take refuge in the demonstration to coaches of strength gains in their athletes - even when those gains are of dubious functional value. Sports are about movement; so, movement is what we train. Balance is the focal point of our training system, and we are speaking of several types of balance, here:

1) Muscular balance (the dynamic quality of opposing muscles to stabilize, control, and, thereby, protect joints.

2) Static and dynamic balance, predicated on the above muscular balance, and body alignment.

One area deserving of special mention (if only for the sake of starting an argument) is "flexibility." Here we have a true waste-basket term that has mystified and intimidated coaches for time out of mind. And with good reason: try to define it. What, exactly, do we mean by flexibility? Are all increases in range of motion desirable? Is the team-stretching session an intelligent use of practice time? What are we actually accomplishing? Do the players have any notion of what they are doing?

The (heretical) approach I have adopted for use with all athletes is simply to put this waste-basket term where it belongs: in the trash. We don't stretch.Here are my reasons:

 

1) One size doesn't fit all.

2) The majority of the athletes I see (in all sports, but especially on the women's side) are already too mobile and unstable in their joints; "stretching" these bodies because of some long-held notion that "Well gee: ya gotta stretch" flies in the face of the easily seen physical reality of the athletes I look at each day. Look at the bodies arranged before you at a pre-practice chalk-talk: if they are standing, notice their knees: Most will be locked in a hyper-extended position. If they are seated on the floor, look at the arms extending behind them in support of their upper bodies: most elbows will also be in hyper-extension. (And these are the arms that must generate and tolerate immense eccentric and concentric forces when throwing the ball). Stretching these bodies seems an act of gross negligence.

3) Team stretch sessions are, in fact, team bull-sessions, and a waste of precious time. Nothing of any quality is accomplished, and the mental focus of preparing to train or compete is interrupted.

We have supplanted the team-stretch with a series of dynamic movements we call the "Alignment Sequence." It is based on Yoga, and is designed to come as close as possible to being appropriate for the majority of athletes (meaning it is designed, first, to cause no harm). It requires both mental and physical concentration on the part of all athletes to the sequence leader, and to each individual's own response to, and understanding of the required movements. The goal is body-awareness based on quality of motion. The pace increases as the athletes' core-temperature does. Three sets of the 35-movement sequence takes about eight to ten minutes and can accomplish the goals of generating core heat; and stimulating the muscular balance and body alignment required to maximize joint mobility and stability.

 

In the Weight Room

 

We encourage the development of body balance by beginning with static balance positions and progressing to dynamic force production - reduction drills that challenge a player to master her center of gravity over a wide range of situations and speeds. This can begin in the weight-room, and can also be a part of skill drills on the diamond. So many strength training exercises can be improved from a functional, athletic standpoint simply by performing them in a balanced position.

"Can we do that exercise on one foot?" is our constant question. Many accepted methods used to increase strength are without any balance or body-awareness demand. Our goal is to build athletic strength; strength that can be employed to improve performance; and balance is always a part of that equation.

 

On the Diamond

 

The gains in functional strength and balance achieved in the weight-room must be refined on the field of play. Breaking the game into trainable movement segments that are practical in terms of volume and intensity is a good mental exercise for the coach and can pay big dividends in competition. 

What are the physical demands of the game of softball? Endurance? Which fielding positions? Which energy systems? Speed? What kind? (In which direction[s]?) For how long? Power? When? Where? How much? How often?

Answering these questions can help you plan physical training sessions that are relevant, which is always an important consideration in motivating athletes to give a good effort.

As for endurance: pitchers and catchers require it more than the other positions, but it is the endurance of repetitive powerful, one-sided movements for pitchers; and the endurance of the crouch position, and repetitive, sub-maximal overhand throws for catchers.

Game-speed is all about acceleration. The longest sprint in a straight line in the game of softball is around 20 yards. This is the length of the base-path, and the length of the longest run a fielder will make (assuming good initial positioning). Focusing on improving acceleration mechanics (from as many game-start positions as possible) will make an enormous difference in all aspects of competition.

Power is required to hit, throw, and accelerate. It is also the key component of fielding reaction. The short distances from hitter to fielders make this a game of split-second reactions - more so than baseball, where the base paths are 10 yards longer. The ability to produce force (in the correct direction at the correct time); control force to eliminate errors; and then reduce force safely and efficiently is the essence of good fielding. Power movement training is a direct extension of the balance and body awareness training mentioned earlier. We use hills to add resistance to simple and complex softball movements to increase eccentric and concentric loading forces.

 

Conditioning

 

Fitness wins. You cannot allow players to suppose that because they have demonstrated a proficiency in hitting or pitching that they can allow themselves to take the conditioning portion of the program lightly. All players must be fit. Fit athletes are less prone to injury, and are mentally tougher. There is no limit to the methods you can use to get your players fit; however, the essential point to make, here, is simply this: Don't plod! There isn't a single example in all of sport where competitive success is based on improving one's ability to run slowly. If the prime directive of the game is to run fast in 20-yard bursts, why is it that so many players condition by tying on the running shoes and heading out for a long, slow, steady-state run. Long, slow steady-state anything is a good idea for active rest and recovery training; not functional conditioning for the game. 

Bring the level of your conditioning effort up to the level of intensity you must achieve in competition and then try to sustain it. Since softball is an episodic mixture of high and low intensity moments, devise conditioning drills that incorporate this mix. You can use jump-ropes; slide-boards; walk-jog-sprint combinations; obstacle-courses; agility ladders; or a mixture. Just don't mistake plodding for conditioning. The added benefit of achieving physical fitness by mixing in lots of high-intensity efforts is the mental toughness a situational game demands. If you can compete with yourself in training, the inclination to quit or relax during competition can be more easily suppressed.

 

Physical Evaluation of Players

 

How should you evaluate the physical abilities and needs of your players? An excellent question; and one that too often gets answered incorrectly. I believe it is wrong to employ tests that are not instantly relatable to the game. Having players scored on a 12-minute run may give you some notion of that factor variously described as "heart" or "work-ethic." More likely, it will tell you who is either genetically pre-disposed to be good at completing a run of that distance, or.......who has trained for that particular test. Remember: you don't want people training to be good at things that may compromise their ability to perform well in the game. If you plan to test them over a (relatively) long distance, you are forgetting that the functional distance in the game is 20 yards, and you are also providing incentive for the players to forget it, too.

A forty-yard dash test is also a poor choice, as it, again, ignores the fact that game-speed is all about acceleration. Some players will score well over 40 yards, but the result may hide the fact that they take 20 yards to get to speed. Those first 20 yards are the only yards we are concerned with; if they are slow to get going, they are slow for the game.

 

Developing a Program

 

1) Look at the game;

2) Identify the relative distances and movements you see most often; Devise tests that are easily completed (with the equipment and coaching resources you have available), and easily and accurately replicated;

3) Then, use the information you gather to direct both team and individual-player training efforts;

4) Mix the levels of training intensity, allowing for recovery from the most difficult sessions, and building work capacity and mental toughness by carefully increasing physical demands over time.

Use the identified movements and test results to help you focus your training on improving functional power, strength, agility, straight-ahead speed and stamina, all predicated on a correct balance of joint stability and mobility. Use this information to help you find resources (track coaches; dance instructors[?]; Yoga teachers[!]) and also to identify equipment that might be useful. 

This method will minimize your injury rate and will almost always make training to play more fun for your players than a non-sport-specific, "three-sets-of-10" approach. You will create bodies that are adaptable, rather than simply adapted. It works: you'll see.