Training

Hitting Drills That You May Want To Reconsider | Tossing Behind

We received A TON of messages after posting about striding early (which you can read HERE if you missed it) and all of which were very receptive and everyone agreed. However, we were asked about several different drills and so we figured that we would discuss what drills to avoid and why. After reminiscing on the glory days and thinking back on all the crazy drills that we had to do as a player, we all agreed that THIS drill would have to be #1 on our list of drills to avoid.

We’ve all seen some crazy drills, but even in some of the bad ones you can find a break in the clouds that could benefit a hitter in some fashion. However, we can honestly say that there is not a single benefit other than developing a sliver of hand eye coordination to the following drill for any hitter in any situation. This drill was made up to take up time and it can make a hitter significantly worse with every repetition. If an instructor is trying new drills, this should not be one of them and if you ever question a drill, don’t be afraid to ask how it benefits a hitter. As a player, parent, coach or even fan of the game, always ask why certain drills are being done and how it develops the player; not only are you educating yourself, you’re making sure the instructor knows what they’re doing.

As we continue on, maybe someone will reach out to us and tell us differently about this drill, but we’ll be sure to explain why you should want to avoid this drill and share some videos to prove it.

Not So Pretty After All…

Firstly, we all love the Ripken family but we couldn’t believe that we found this clip from 2013 with Bill Ripken going over “soft toss from behind”. He even says that this drill is to basically mix things up a bit rather than doing your traditional drills; which proves that this drill practically does nothing. His point behind this drill is to work on hand eye coordination, which is great in theory but if you notice, the hitter performing the drill is very rotational, keeps majority of his weight on his backside, rarely squares the ball up and doesn’t look so pretty swinging.

Now this guy says that this drill is to keep your weight back and stay through the ball. Which is true, but just not in reference to what a real hitting instructor means by saying that. Just watch his swings later in the video, you’ll see what we mean and you’ll see the same thing in the first video….

And if you thought those were bad.  It gets even worse… This last one the hitter is not only getting tossed from behind but also not tracking the ball!

**WARNING** Prepare your eyes, this might hurt a little…

 

Now that we’ve all watched some terrible swings, I think it’s time to weigh in on the matter of this drill….

1. Forward Momentum/Load

First and foremost, when the ball is tossed from behind, the hitter is forced to wait on the ball to pass them before contact can be made which is the EXACT opposite of what a hitter does when facing a pitcher. In order to optimize power and hit an opposing force that is coming toward us, a hitter must gain forward momentum/ground (otherwise we wouldn’t stride or get our weight moving forward). In this drill a hitter has to either A. keep the weight on their backside and spin/be rotational or B. lunge very drastically far out on their frontside (depending on who’s tossing and where the ball is tossed).

As we all witnessed, this drill typically teaches hitters to not gain forward momentum, thus leaving a lot of power on the table and neglecting hitting mechanics all together. The hitters performing the drill aren’t getting ready in time to attempt a good swing.  They are forced to pick the ball up and swing from the wrists to hit away (which is why they’re able to hit away decently well) and be very rotational/long to be able to pull (which is why the inside pitches weren’t hit very well or rolled over).  From a power generation standpoint, the last thing a hitter should be thinking about is focusing their efforts on developing quick wrists in order to generate bat speed. Once again this drill can really hinder this portion of a high quality swing.

Here are a couple great examples of baseball and softball hitters demonstrating great forward momentum, gaining ground and transferring their weight off their back side as they swing.

2.  Bat Acceleration and Extension

No matter how you look at how to generate power,  the goal of a hitter can be simply put as developing the ability to allow the barrel of the bat to obtain maximum speed in the shortest amount of time possible. And although bat speed varies from hitter to hitter due to talent level, size and athletic ability, the concept of developing maximum bat speed should always be the goal for a hitter.

Unfortunately, this drill also promotes bat “lag/drag” and decreases barrel acceleration from happening more than any other drill due to the hitter having give with the ball rather than having to hit against the ball. The hitter is forced to ease the barrel into a flat position and then pull the knob across their body without barely if any shoulder rotation. This is the typical knob to the ball approach, which is great for slap hitters but not typical hitting. Once again this over emphasizes on the wrists in order to create any barrel speed late in the swing.

Along with the rotation of the shoulders, the shoulder angle is also lost in this drill. A critical component to the swing when creating direct force and striking the ball well, the barrel must get in the path of the ball.  With the ball coming from behind the hitter, there is an entirely different ball trajectory.  Teaching a player to get a proper bat path and shoulder tilt while doing this drill is impossible.

3. Solid Contact = Improved Mental Approach

For every hitter, to hit the ball harder is a HUGE deal. This drill is a “hope to make solid contact” drill. With what we’ve already touched on, this drill in no way encourages kids to create a more aggressive swing and therefore inhibits an aggressive swing mentality. We always talk about developing a good approach at the plate, well approach can only mirror the hitters solid contact output. If a hitter knows that they can drive the ball with authority, then their approach will be directly correlate to being a more confident power hitter as apposed to a hitter thinking that the best they can do is flair a single over the infield dirt.

Summary

In summary, drills are meant to focus on training one particular element of whatever it is we’re working on while still maintaining and helping establishing proper mechanics. However, if we’re working on improving and developing one particular element (in regards to this drill, hand eye coordination) isn’t it a bit counterintuitive to neglect everything else while also promoting poor mechanics?

To put things into perspective, let’s just hear what MLB power hitter Josh Donaldson has to say about what we touched on in regards to some of the mechanics we’ve just discussed.

Why Combine Testing Has Its Place In Softball

It’s a question that we at Top Recruit hear all the time, “do combine measurables actually matter in softball?”. The simple answer is YES, but the point of this post is to educate the softball community as to why combines are important for athletes and what makes our combines at Top Recruit such a valuable resource for exposure and developing athletes.

In order to make sure we touch all the bases for any questions that may arise, we’ll be covering:

  1. Why Combines?
  2. At What Age Should An Athlete Attend A Combine
  3. Which Measurables Should Be Performed At A Combine
  4. Combine Testing Equipment
  5. The Top Recruit Difference

1. Why Combines?

To start, because college athletics are becoming extremely competitive at every level, today’s college coaches have to find the “top recruits” for their program before anyone else. For softball, today’s Division 1 collegiate coaches are beginning to recruit and evaluate players as soon as athletes start their High School careers (typically around 13-14 years of age). Besides the obvious of coaches evaluating actual play and how a player carries themselves (which we will cover in a future post), coaches are observing the overall athleticism and projectability of the athletes they are evaluating. There are 5 main tools that softball players need to develop and that college coaches look into when evaluating a players athleticism; which are…

5 Tools That Every Softball Players Needs To Develop:

  • Running Speed
  • Hitting for Power
  • Hitting for Average
  • Arm Strength
  • Fielding Ability

Unfortunately, due to the nature of softball, coaches may not be able to evaluate all of these tools when observing a game. This is one of the primary reasons as to why an athlete would want to participate at a combine. By performing at a combine, a player and/or coach are able to determine how the player ranks at each tool and can predict how a player may develop in the future.

The second reason why an athlete would want to participate at a combine is so that they can assess which tools to further develop in addition to understanding their areas of strength and weakness. The areas of weakness will of course naturally develop as they continue to grow, but if an athlete can work on further developing those weaknesses at an early age, they will be able to advance their game quicker and have a much greater advantage when a coach comes to reevaluate and scout them.

Lastly, as we mentioned earlier, since coaches have a lot of recruiting to do in a little amount of time, these measurables can be sent to a coach and will catch the coaches attention if the measurables stand out. The only issue here is that reliable state of the art equipment should be used when obtaining measurables and should be conducted by professionals that can verify the legitimacy of a players results (which we will cover in the “Top Recruit Difference” section of this blog).

We highlight the words “reliable” and “verify” here due to combines being ran with improper measurement equipment (e.g. stopwatches which provide inaccurate times due the variable of human reaction time) which creates a great level of uncertainty for college coaches as to if the numbers that they are being presented with hold any validity to them (which is why we are covering “Combine Testing Equipment” later in this blog as well). That is why it is imperative that when attending a combine, players, parents as well as coaches should know that there is going to be reliable and accurate measurement equipment being used by combine professionals so that they can be provided the most accurate representation of an athlete.

2. At What Age Should An Athlete Attend A Combine

An athlete can attend a combine at any age, it will certainly do no harm for them to participate. However, we recommend that softball athletes should participate at a combine the summer of entering their freshman year of High School. We suggest this because this is a time where learning majority of the games fundamentals should already be known, they’re about to go through their final stages of puberty and this is a very critical time for college coaches to begin watching, observing and taking note of athletes.

Again, combines can be used as a great assessment tool in order to better understand which tools a player needs to further develop; the sooner an athlete knows what to work on, the quicker they will be able to advance their game.

Alternatively, just because a athlete is entering their senior year of High School, it doesn’t mean that they should not attend a combine. In fact, it provides them with a last chance to provide college coaches with “what they’re made of” and could very well be the missing piece to the puzzle that they’ve been looking to recruit.

In summery, any time a player can participate at a combine is great; the sooner the better. But no matter the age, athletes and college coaches alike are provided with a general perception of an athletes athleticism and assist in the development of enhancing a players skills.

3. What Measurables Should Be Performed At A Combine

Again, there are 5 main tools that college coaches evaluate and that every softball player should be looking to develop day in and day out. In order to figure out how to develop these tools, an athlete must understand their body and determine which areas need to be strengthened. So it is imperative that a combine reflects exactly which areas an athlete needs to improve upon.

Here we will review the 5 tools and the measurables associated that will provide insight for evaluating each individual tool:

  • Running Speed
    • 20 yard dash
    • Pro Agility / 5-10-5 Shuttle Run
      • We make players run a straight 20 yard dash to simulate a player running from home to first. The pro agility / shuttle run assists in evaluating overall agility and fast twitch (type II) muscles.
  • Hitting for Power
    • Bat Exit Velocity
    • Grip Strength
      • Bat exit velocity is the speed at which the ball leaves the bat which provides evaluators with a general idea of how hard and far a ball can be hit after contact. Grip strength is evaluated to provide insight on upper body strength which directly correlates with how powerful a player can hit and extend through a ball being hit with minimal kickback from the pitch at the time of impact.
  • Hitting for Average
    • Bat Speed
      • Bat speed provides us with how quickly a player can get their bat to the point of impact; which in turn correlates with reaction time, ability to locate and recognize pitches, and swing efficiency.
  • Arm Strength
    • Throwing Velocities
    • Catcher Pop Times
    • Pitcher Fastball Velocity & Spin Rate
      • By measuring throwing velocity, an evaluator can determine how far and quick a player can throw a ball.
      • When measuring catcher pop times, we can determine how efficient and quick a catcher is while throwing. At Top Recruit, we also measure the throwing velocity while measuring pop time so that an evaluator can determine if a player has proper throwing mechanics from behind the plate.
      • Pitcher fastball velocity allows us to see how hard a pitcher can throw certain pitches; but by also measuring spin rate we can determine how much movement is associated with each pitch.
  • Fielding Ability
    • 20 yard dash
    • Pro Agility / 5-10-5 Shuttle Run
    • Vertical & Broad Jump
      • We can also use the pro agility / shuttle run and 20 yard dash to determine how quickly a player can react to a ball being hit as well as fielding range. By measuring a vertical and broad jump, we can assess fielding range, diving distances,  and jumping distances along with how powerful a players first step is.

4. Combine Testing Equipment

Proper testing equipment is CRITICAL when measuring and evaluating a player. Because softball is a game of inches and most every play has a fraction of a second (from determining if a player is safe or out, to the ability to time a diving catch, to being able to come in the clutch at the plate and getting that game winning hit), combine testing equipment must provide evaluators and coaches with the most precise and accurate measurements. By using equipment that is even a tenth of a fraction off provides us with a misrepresentation of the player being evaluated and can make a tremendous difference when it comes to game time. Therefore, testing equipment needs to be extremely accurate; which is a big reason why we at Top Recruit are are the difference maker when providing combine testing.

5. The Top Recruit Difference

At Top Recruit, we are a proud US Certified partner of the only NCAA certified player assessment system solution featured in Fastpitch Softball testing events.

This means coaches can TRUST the data collection and integration process of our combine score recording.  No other combine testing host in exposure fastpitch events can claim this.

These technological capabilities allow us to remove the human error element of record keeping.  Yes, that means we are tossing out the clipboards with paper and pens at our combines; everything is done electronically.  In addition we have the capabilities of hosting scalable events and post scores in real-time.

We have integrated all necessary sport-specific tests (as mentioned previously) associated with Fastpitch Softball of which are currently being viewed with relevancy by NCAA, NFCA, collegiate programs from NAIA as well as NJCAA, and many others nationwide.

All of our participating players receive a comprehensive report on their own scores in relation to those tested throughout the entire combine. We provide player’s with an in depth report in relation to the entire combine high, low and median scores in addition to providing a full combine report that separates objective data by position and cumulatively lists players by position and overall ranking.

Furthermore, we have developed our own online player profile platform where combine scores will be featured and verified by our professional combine staff. Now with an easily searchable player database and verified measurables, collegiate coaches can quickly find the right player for their program in the matter of seconds and don’t have to waste precious recruiting hours seeking after their next “Top Recruit”.

Use Resistance Sprints to Improve Speed!

Improving stride length can be achieved by resistance sprinting. Having weight behind you allows you to lean forward and maintain a proper acceleration lean. The forward lean creates a proper shin angle, otherwise known as “positive shin angle” which allows the knee to be in front of the toe. When the knee is in front of the toe as the foot strikes the ground, this allows the athlete to apply force into the ground and drive forward. There are several tools and mechanisms available in sporting goods to facilitate the need for resistance training. Some of these methods consist of sleds, parachutes, tubing, bands, bags etc. and can often times be very costly. Therefore, the cheapest method and just as effective method for resistance sprinting is to find a hill with a small incline and sprint up it. The small incline will be enough to force the athlete to shorten stride length a bit in order to achieve the “positive shin angle.”

One of the biggest things to remember any time when using resistance sprinting is to not overload the athlete with too much weight. Trying to sprint with too much weight will result in an altered running form and possible injury. It’s always best to start with a very light weight and gradually increase the amount of resistance as the athlete becomes more accustomed. When the athlete is able to complete the sprint programs outlined in table 5.2 (younger athlete) or table 5.4 (older athlete), then you can begin to incorporate resisted sprints. Resisted sprints should be done once a week alongside a regular sprint program.

Strengthen the low-back to help prevent injuries!

The low-back is an area that often gets overlooked in favor of training the abs. When this happens a muscular imbalance occurs making you more susceptible to injury. There are several exercises that can effectively strengthen the lower back. Some of them can even double as solid abdominal and oblique exercises as well killing two birds with one stone. Some of the exercises that will be discussed in this section are: supermans, plank/side plank variations, quadruped series, and dead bugs.

• Supermans – lay on your stomach with arms pointed straight ahead and feet pointed straight behind. From here try to raise your arms and legs off the ground as much as possible squeezing the back muscles. At first raise them enough off the ground to feel the contraction then lower back down. Start with 2 sets of 10 repetitions and build up to 3 sets of 15 repetitions. From here you can begin to hold each repetition for a couple of seconds. Progress the same as previous and slowly increase the amount of time holding the arms and legs off the ground.

• Plank/Side Plank Variations – the starting position for the plank is very similar to the starting position of a push up except instead of being on the hands with arms extended, the elbows are bent and resting on the forearms. With the hips off the ground, form a straight line from the head down to the hips. Try to avoid letting the hips sag towards the ground, or sticking them up towards the sky. Start by holding this position as long as possible, being sure to pull the bellybutton in and focus on steady controlled breathing. Continue to progress as long as possible. Variations can include raising one arm or one foot at a time off the ground, or raising alternate arm and leg off the ground. The side plank is performed similar to the regular plank except balancing on one forearm while sideways off the ground. This exercise is much more difficult and will take time to work up to. Progress in time the same as the regular plank alternating back and forth on both sides.

• Quadruped Series – the starting position for this exercise resembles that of a dog, in that you are on your hands and knees. The main objective throughout any movement in this series is to ALWAYS keep the shoulders and hips square to the ground. Start by extending one arm at a time straight out in front of you parallel to the ground while keeping the shoulders level to the ground. Hold this position for a couple seconds then return the arm to the ground. Perform the same movement with the other arm. Then extend one leg at a time straight out behind you while keeping the hips level to the ground. Hold for a few seconds then return the knee to the ground. Perform the same movement with the other leg. When you are able to do this movement with all limbs without having to lift your shoulders and hips to the sky then you can progress to alternate arm and leg. Start by raising the right arm and left leg in the same movements as before really trying to keep the shoulders and hips level with the ground. Hold it for a few seconds then return to the starting position. Perform the same movement with the Left arm and Right leg.

• Dead Bug – lay on your back and place your arms and legs in the same position as they were for the quadruped series. The main objective for this movement is to keep the shoulders, hips, and low back on the ground the whole time. Start by lowering one arm straight behind you towards the ground. Stop a few inches above the ground and hold for a few seconds being sure to keep the shoulders flat against the ground. Return the arm to the starting position and perform the same movement with the other side. Then extend one leg so it is parallel to the ground holding a couple inches off the ground. Maintain this form for a few seconds then return the leg to the starting position and perform the same movement with the other side. After you have perfected these basic movements then you can progress to alternate arm and leg. Start by extending the right arm and left leg in the same movements as before and hold for a few seconds. Be sure that the shoulders and hips are against the ground and you are not arching your low back. Return to the starting position and perform the same movement with the left arm and right leg.

Utilize Myofascial Release to Help Recover and Relieve Tightness Part 2…

In an earlier post I discussed the idea of myofascial release and using foam rollers to relieve tightness and help the recovery process. In this post I will discuss other methods that can be used to achieve the same goal.

Various balls such as lacrosse, tennis, racquet, softball, or a baseball can also be used as myofascial release techniques. These all serve the same benefit as a foam roller but can be used to locate one specific area at a time. To put things in perspective when comparing the different devices; the foam roller acts more like a “shotgun” in that it covers a larger area, and the various balls are more like a “bullet” because it’s more specifically located and precise. There are 3 different ways to utilize the different balls: the ground, a wall, self/partner. Lying on the ball similar to a foam roller allows you to use body weight to apply pressure. Since the ball is much smaller than the foam roller it will be more painful at first so gradually build up to it. Standing or leaning against a wall will allow you to press against the wall with the ball in between to distribute the pressure. This method would be better to start with before progressing to the ground because it is less painful. The last method is using either yourself or a partner. Depending on the location you are working on you will need a partner for help (i.e. most anywhere on the back).

Another useful form of myofascial release is a massage stick. A massage stick is exactly what it sounds like, a stick to roll out an area similar to a massage and foam roller. It’s usually a hard surface that allows it to roll freely when moving along the surface being massaged. The massage stick can be used either by yourself or with the help of a partner depending on the location.

IMPORTANT REMINDER!!! Do not shy away from knots and tight areas because of discomfort. Focus on that area and apply pressure to loosen the tightness.

Utilize Myofascial Release to Help Recover and Relieve Tightness

Scar tissue is an issue that affects every athlete and person in some way or another. It can form as a result of an injury, lack of enough oxygen to muscles, intense workout, or repetitive wear and tear. It binds up and ties down tissues that need to move freely. As scar tissue continues to build up, muscles can become shorter and weaker. Several different problems can occur as a result such as tendinosis and pinched nerves which can both lead to reduced range of motion, pain, weakness, numbness, and loss of strength.

Myofascial release is a concept that is practiced to help get rid of built up scar tissue. It involves applying pressure to specific areas in order to allow the fascia to receive oxygen and blood flow to elongate. It is very similar to receiving a deep tissue massage except these techniques can be practiced on your own….and cheaper!

Foam rollers are the most popular form of myofascial release. They can be found in sizes ranging from 12 inches up to 36 inches. The foam roller works by locating an area that has sustained built up scar tissue and then using your body weight to apply pressure to the area. For example, if you have a tight hamstring, you would lay on the foam roller with it under your hamstring and slowly roll back on forth over the area using your own body weight. As you become more and more accustomed to the pressure and using the foam roller you can increase the amount of pressure that’s desired. The foam roller can be used on any area of muscles that are tight or have built up scar tissue. Some of the most popular areas to roll out are the calves, shins, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, low & upper back, lats, shoulders, and pecs.

In later segments I will cover alternative ways to use myofascial release!

How to Choose a Qualified Strength & Conditioning Coach

As the field of sports performance becomes more and more popular, and given the fact that everyone wants to work with athletes, there are tons of people with suboptimal qualifications educating young athletes. Many certifications for personal trainers can be completed in one weekend or less and do not require any former education in an exercise related field. I am not writing this article to bash personal trainers because my resume lists quite a few instances when I held that position working with the general population to achieve optimal health goals. More advanced personal training certifications require former education and take place over a couple of weeks, but still only teach the basics necessary to help someone shed some body fat and put on a little lean muscle to look better in a swimming suit. These certifications still do not provide half of the information necessary to take an athlete regardless of sport and design a program to improve performance before the season while educating on the areas of nutrition, supplementation, and injury prevention.

A few of the most sought out and widely accepted certifications in the strength and conditioning world are:

• Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA)
• Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa)
• USA Weightlifting Coaches Certifications

There are several other certifications that will aide a strength coach but these are a few of the most respected organizations that are required by various collegiate and professional organizations. These certifications also require formal education in an exercise related field as well as time spent in either an internship or working under a qualified strength coach. They are also required to maintain their certifications and increase knowledge and education by completing CEU’s (continuing education credits) on a regular basis.

The reason why it is important to seek out a qualified strength coach as opposed to an average personal trainer or self-proclaimed sports performance specialist is because of the amount of knowledge that goes into athletes. Most often an athlete will be on a strict time frame where they need to be in shape or improve performance by a certain date. A strength coach will design a periodized program that can safely and realistically help the athlete get where they need to be or as close as possible. Since more advanced movements are utilized in sports, and injuries are a taboo word that will certainly get you a bad reputation, certain instruction must be provided that will not move an athlete to slow or fast while teaching proper form. A strength coach will also perform functional assessments on athletes to determine imbalances and weak areas for improvement to create a well-rounded athlete. Nutrition and supplementation are different for athletes as well and often more closely monitored than the general population. Therefore, strength coaches should be up to date on regulations to educate their athletes within their scope on how to fuel their bodies.

Do not be afraid to ask a sports performance coach about his/her credentials, experience, and education. Also inquire about their personal philosophies and methods of training. After all you are interviewing the person who will be training your son/daughter or yourself so you need to do the necessary research to ensure you are getting a qualified individual.

How Can I Put on Size and Get Bigger?

There are several factors that come into play in regards to increasing mass and becoming physically bigger. The first and foremost response I will always give is you have to resistance train. That doesn’t mean using bands a few times a week and doing rotator cuff exercises. Now these are great and will help prevent injury but they aren’t going to make you stronger. You have to get into the gym and lift heavy things. Now while that does sound outdated, it is the most efficient way (that is natural and healthy for the body). If you don’t believe me go back and watch any Rocky movie during the training montages. I’m not saying you need to find a barn in the middle of the Russian tundra and run through knee deep snow…unless you want to, but nothing beats good old fashioned weight training. Find yourself a qualified sports performance coach to design a program for you to follow under there instruction.

Once you’ve established a resistance training program it’s time to tackle the nutrition side of things. After all, what good is building muscle without the fuel to keep it growing? Protein is the building block for muscle, so every meal should contain adequate amounts. The quality of the protein and fat can play a big role as well. Great sources are Omega-3 hormone free eggs, grass-fed beef, free range hormone free chicken, wild-caught fish, nuts/seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, and hummus to name a few. Whole food options should always take priority in a meal plan when compared to shakes and bars. Protein shakes and bars make great alternatives and quick replacements but also contain a lot of sugar and artificial sweeteners. If you are going to use a protein for after workouts I suggest using a whey protein that is sweetened with stevia.

Foods such as cereals, waffles, pizza, pasta, breads, junk foods etc. do not provide us with the protein and/or fat that we need to create the size we desire. A solid weight training program is only as good as the fuel you are utilizing before and after. The above mentioned foods are not adequate when compared to chicken, beef, eggs, fish, nuts, and healthy oils. Consuming adequate fibrous vegetables will also ensure you get proper nutrients and vitamins.

You should aim for about 30-35g (6oz) of protein at every meal. It takes the body approximately 3.5 hours to metabolize 30g so this is a good time frame to shoot for when considering protein intake for increased mass. A good daily range for active people to aim for is roughly 0.8g protein/lb bodyweight. Pairing quality protein with an adequately designed resistance training program will optimize your ability to add lean muscle and increase size.

Perform High-Intensity Sprints to Achieve Optimal Results

In last week’s article I wrote about how distance running is becoming a thing of the past. This week I am going to write about the positive benefits of high-intensity sprints. The effects range all over from increased fat loss, elevated growth hormone production, improve speed, and promotes anaerobic conditioning. For a ball player sprinting distances ranging from 20 yards to 100 yards will correlate much more than longer distance, slow paced jogs. Softball, like football is played in short bursts of all-out effort that that requires the body to accelerate as fast as possible, reaching top speed and then braking suddenly while changing direction at times.

Anaerobic (without oxygen) training refers to performing high-intensity sprints at approx. 85% VO2max or higher for repetitive intervals. When you enter the anaerobic zone during training the body starts utilizing sugar as its main energy source. Think of sugar as high-octane fuel in that it will provide tremendous performance but terrible gas mileage. Depending on training level a person can stay anaerobic anywhere from 1 second to 2 minutes before sugar stores are depleted. The more time you spend anaerobic by performing multiple intervals, the body creates what is called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) which you can think of as an oxygen debt. If you were to go run one 100 yard sprint as fast as possible your heart rate would be elevated and your breathing would be increased for several minutes following the sprint. That is called EPOC, and the more debt you can create will lead to increased fat burning long after you are done working out.

High-intensity sprints produce a significant amount of lactic acid accumulation, which produces a large release of growth hormone which itself carries fat burning ability. This same response does not occur when training at lighter intensities. The production of growth hormone raises insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) which can help create lean muscle and burn fat.

In the article I wrote about improving speed I emphasized the importance of sprinting. As mentioned earlier high-intensity sprints produce lactic acid, which for untrained athletes begins quickly, and can result in fatigue and stopping early. The more you perform sprint training with limited rest periods, the more lactic acid is released into the muscles. Constantly training like this will condition the body to become more efficient at removing the lactic acid prolonging its onset, in return increasing the conditioning level of the athlete.

It’s also worth mentioning that high-intensity sprints improve pulmonary lung capacity and is effective for lowering cholesterol and improving cardiovascular health. Insulin sensitivity is improved in all subjects ranging from young healthy people to older overweight subjects.

Sprinting, as demonstrated in this article can elicit tremendous benefits all over the body. It improves athletic performance and can help achieve optimal body fat and lipid levels. When starting a sprinting program it’s best to start off with shorter distances focusing on perfect technique and allowing yourself enough rest time. As you become more conditioned you can progressively increase the number of sprints you perform, the distance you are sprinting, and decrease the amount of rest you take.

Is Distance Running Becoming a Thing of the Past???

For years the common practice for a pitcher after throwing is to run long distances, sometimes several miles as a form of recovery. More and more information is being published refuting this practice in favor for short high-intensity sprinting. When we perform longer distance running at a slow pace we expose ourselves to a wide range of risk factors from decreased immune and endocrine response to reduced strength and power outputs. In this article I will tackle the negative effects of distance running. I will then proceed to cover the positive effects of sprinting along with effective conditioning drills between starts in future articles.

Elevated cortisol levels, systemic inflammation, and increased oxidative damage

Aerobic training raises cortisol (stress) levels which in turn promotes fat storage leading to visceral belly fat gain, which increases inflammation in the body. High cortisol increases oxidative substances in the body that can inflame the heart, brain, GI tract, and reproductive organs. There are two types of inflammation: chronic and acute. Chronic inflammation can lead to a plethora of health issues such as insulin resistance and diabetes, fat gain, arthritis, stomach problems, and heart disease. Acute inflammation such as that following resistance training or injury has a protective effect on the body by localizing blood to the damaged tissue. Even acute inflammation that is not cleared and is allowed to build up for long periods of time will lead to negative side-effects. Therefore training sessions should not be performed for extended periods of times, and rest should be factored based off of the volume of a workout. The Journal of Sports Sciences published a review article stating that strenuous aerobic exercise induces oxidative stress which can overwhelm antioxidant defenses.

Decreased immune and endocrine response

There is an abundant amount of evidence in the literature that aerobic training leads to suppression of the immune system. In turn, putting athletes that endurance train at a greater risk for infection, especially upper respiratory. Once again returning to the issue involving inflammation and can cause your athletes to be more susceptible to sickness and colds.

There are several factors that influence our natural production of testosterone and growth hormone. Bouts of resistance training and high intensity sprint training, adequate and uninterrupted sleep, low-glycemic nutritional approach, low sugar intake can all promote positive responses in these very important hormones. When you factor in long road trips in uncomfortably crammed vans, absurd sleeping routines filled with sodas and greasy fried foods (sound familiar to anyone reading), you are doing everything you can to lower testosterone and growth hormone. On top of this lifestyle, you go to the ballpark and partake in distance running which is directly responsible for lower testosterone levels.

Strength and power reductions

Ever heard the phrase “practice like you play?” The last time I watched a pitcher toss a blazing fastball, it was done so displaying tremendous amounts of power and strength to create that kind of velocity. It’s a motion completed in a fraction of a second as the arm whips through at a nearly blinding speed. So where is the reasoning to take this same pitcher and have her train at a pace exactly opposite? I’m not usually a big fan of using rhetorical questions but I had to bring it up. It makes as much sense to have your outfielders run long distances with the intent to improve their base stealing.

When you train explosively and produce significant amounts of power, which is displayed as the product of strength times speed, we further develop the Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC). The SSC which involves mechanical (muscle & tendon architecture) and neuromuscular (motor unit recruitment) factors, is the basis of almost all human movement intended to maximize efficiency. The SSC can be described as what happens when you compress a spring momentarily and then release it. When the spring is compressed it is storing tremendous amounts of energy just waiting to be released. Exactly the same when an infielder dips down just before accelerating upwards to snag a line drive.

The best way to improve strength and power is not through distance running which can in fact negate these effects, but to train high intensity sprints and short bursts of power. A study by McCarthy et al noted that strength and power loss became an issue when the intensity of endurance exercise was approximately 75% max heart rate. The unfortunate part is this is the consistent pace most people run at for longer distances. Once again, reinforcing short all-out sprints with ample rest allowing, the heart rate to recover below 75% max.

Limits mobility

A pitcher relies on maintaining superb flexibility all over to help prevent injury and generate as much power and force as possible. When you watch someone like Jennie Finch as she plants her left foot releasing the ball towards the plate, she is demonstrating outrageous hip flexion and extension at the same time. Her left side is flexed with the right side extended. This would be very difficult and or lead to injury without a high level of mobility. Stride length is vastly different when comparing an all-out sprint to a leisurely jog. When you sprint, you are training at a maximum level while increasing power and dynamic flexibility in the hips. This is negated during distance running, which limits you to insufficient hip flexion.

And last but not least which goes without saying, distance running is boring!! Hopefully this article provides adequate information to begin transitioning away from distance running in favor of sprints and power movements. Check back for future articles supporting high intensity sprints and effective drills to implement into your program!

References:

McCarthy JP, Agre JC, Graf BK, Pozniak MA, Vailas AC. Compatibility of adaptive responses with combining strength and endurance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1995 Mar; 27(3):429-36.

Packer L. Oxidants, antioxidant nutrients and the athlete. Journal of Sports Sciences. 1997; 15(3):353-363.

Catchers: Better To Be Quick Or Fast?

It goes without question that catchers don’t have the best reputation for burning up the base paths. They are often associated as being the slowest ones on the field. In fact Yogi Berra once said, “The wind always seems to blow against catchers when they are running.” But does a catcher really need to be the fastest, or is it better to be quick? A fast catcher makes for a better base runner but not necessarily a better catcher. A quick catcher can block a fastball in the dirt, or a curveball that’s 3 feet to the side. They can pounce on a bunt and pirouette, firing a strike to first base. Or spring from a crouch to gun down a would-be base stealer.

But how can I get quicker you ask? You have to train that way.

By going through blocking and throwing drills as quick as you can while wearing your gear. Working as hard as you can during bullpens to make yourself better. Killing it in the weight room to make yourself stronger and more flexible. Even running some sprints while wearing your gear will add artificial weight to your body and get you accustomed to moving in it so that it becomes second nature during games. It’s very important to train specifically for your position to give yourself the best opportunity to improve. So don’t stress over not being a fast catcher (cheers to you if you are because you’re one of the few) and focus more on making yourself quicker.

How do I know if I am training too much?

Am I training too much?

At one point or another an athlete may experience a period when performance plateaus or even begins to decline.  Energy levels fall, fatigue sets in more frequently, lack of sleep, mood disturbances, and feeling “burnt out” sets in.  These are the typical beginning symptoms of what is known as overtraining.  Unfortunately it is possible to train too much…and as the adage goes, “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.”

There is a fine line between overreaching and overtraining.  In order to gain strength, improve speed, develop arm strength you have to periodically increase volume and intensity.  This is done by what is called overreaching which essentially shocks the body into making strength and size gains.  However, these increases can only last so long before the body reaches a peaking level and overtraining begins to settle in.

There are several key factors that can happen when a body is pushed too far and starts overtraining:

  • Energy levels fall and fatigue sets in quicker than normal.
  • There is a decreased desire to train when an athlete feels they are “burnt out.”
  • Concentration declines which can lead to becoming irritated, frustrated and other mood disturbances which can be a result from an exhausted central nervous system.
  • Experiencing altered sleep patterns and unable to get enough sleep.
  • Decrease in athletic performance.
  • Decrease in appetite

 

An effective way to prevent overtraining is to plan and monitor the volume of workouts to ensure you are not progressing too quick, and providing adequate rest and recovery (this is where it’s very beneficial to have a qualified strength coach with the knowledge to design a properly periodized workout to avoid overtraining).

Decreasing volume once a week or every other week as well as providing a day off can also help prevent overtraining.  One of the more effective ways to prevent overtraining from an athlete’s standpoint is to listen to your body.  Your body will let you know when it is doing too much and needs some time to recover.  This might mean skipping a workout every once in a while or taking a lighter day instead.  And don’t be afraid to speak up to your coach if you feel you need to go lighter every once in a while, and your coach should be understanding because one day off from practice is much better than missing several weeks because you were injured or trained too much.

Static stretching for the athlete

When should I static stretch?

The main purpose of static stretching (a technique that lengthens a muscle for an extended period of time, usually 30 seconds) is to improve and increase flexibility. The best time to perform static stretches should be at the end of a workout or practice.  With increased blood flow to the muscles the body is able to relax more which will help improve flexibility. The best times to perform static stretches can be after you have completed the dynamic warm-up, at the end of a practice, workout, or game.  Stretching at the end of an activity is a great time to “cool-down” and let the body recover.  Use the time to focus on breathing techniques with nice slow deep breathes.  With each breath try to relax the area being stretched and move a little farther.  Each stretch should be held a minimum of 30 seconds to allow enough time for the brain to tell the muscle it’s OK to relax.  Work on areas that are typically tight such as the hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, shoulders, and back.

Warm-Up Tips: before a practice or game

A good warm-up should do what it sounds like and actually “warm” you up. You want to increase blood flow and oxygen consumption making you sweat by using various movements and stretches. This is called a Dynamic Warm-Up, and is different from the traditional Static Stretching in that you will not hold a stretch for more than a couple of seconds. By the time you are done with the warm-up you should be sweating, breathing heavy, and ready to go full steam into practice. It will also help increase coordination, flexibility, functional movement, and even your conditioning. You should utilize about 5-10 yards and even as much as 30 yards. An example of a dynamic warm-up is as follows:

Walking Lunges – Step out a comfortable distance and lower back knee until it almost touches the ground while making sure the front knee stays behind the toes. Bring back leg up and repeat with other leg.

Straight Leg Kicks – keeping the leg straight kick out as high as possible. Bring foot down and step forward kicking the other foot as high as possible keeping the leg straight. You can leave your hands straight out in front of you as a target to try and kick. The movement will look like a combination of Frankenstein and a funny march.

Walking Quad Stretch – this movement is very similar to the traditional standing quadriceps stretch. Instead of balancing for 30 seconds holding your foot, you will grab your foot and pull for 1-2 seconds then step forward and repeat with the other foot. Continue this movement alternating between both legs for the designated distance.

Side Lunge – facing sideways step out as far as is comfortable and keeping the weight on your heel, lower down as far as you can making sure to keep your chest upright. You should feel the pull on the inside of your leg and groin. Stand up and repeat the movement again for 5 yards. Facing the same way do the same thing going back with the other leg.

Side Shuffles – shuffle laterally while keeping hips low and eyes looking up and ahead. Make sure the feet do not touch during the movement.

Carioca – moving sideways to the right, move the hips forward bringing the left leg across the body. Turn the hips backward, stepping behind with the left leg. Start slow and slowly increase speed as you get used to the movement. Perform this for the designated distance then repeat going to the left swinging the right leg in front and behind. Make sure to keep the shoulders and head facing forward using the hips to provide the turning motion.

High Knees – mark off 5-10 yards and perform movement of raising knees up to hip height mimicking a running motion trying to maximize the number of repetitions in the distance allotted.

Heel Ups – using the same 5-10 yards as for high knees, imitate running motion bringing heels up higher than normal as if to kick yourself in the butt.

Arm Circles – keep palms up and arms straight out. Make small circles with your arms 10 times in each direction progressively making the circles bigger.

Arm Swings – keep arms and shoulder height and using a full controlled range of motion, swing the arms backward and forward letting your arms wrap around the torso.

After you have finished these movements, start with a light jog of about half speed for 20 yards. With each repetition increase the speed until you are going full speed. You should be nice and loose ready to go after this warm-up!

Quick warm-up routine, great results

While it is always important to make sure you give yourself enough time to warm-up and get loose before playing, sometimes you are required to get going quicker than you would like. When this situation arises, use dynamic stretches, jogging and compound movements to get going. This will increase blood flow and oxygen to the muscles much better than traditional static stretching (holding a stretch for an extended period of time). Some examples of dynamic stretches and compound movements are:

    • High Knees – mark off 5-10 yards and perform movement of raising knees up to hip height mimicking a running motion trying to maximize the number of repetitions in the distance allotted.
    • Heel Ups – using the same 5-10 yards as for high knees, imitate running motion bringing heels up higher than normal as if to kick yourself in the butt.
    • Walking Lunges – Step out a comfortable distance and lower back knee until it almost touches the ground while making sure the front knee stays behind the toes. Bring back leg up and repeat with other leg.
    • Side Shuffles – shuffle laterally while keeping hips low and eyes looking up and ahead. Make sure the feet do not touch during the movement.
    • Arm Circles – keep palms up and arms straight out. Make small circles with your arms 10 times in each direction progressively making the circles bigger.
    • Arm Swings – keep arms and shoulder height and using a full controlled range of motion, swing the arms backward and forward letting your arms wrap around the torso.
    • Straight Leg Kicks – keeping the leg straight kick out as high as possible. Bring foot down and step forward kicking the other foot as high as possible keeping the leg straight. You can leave your hands straight out in front of you as a target to try and kick. The movement will look like a combination of Frankenstein and a funny march.
    • Carioca – moving sideways to the right, move the hips forward bringing the left leg across the body.  Turn the hips backward, stepping behind with the left leg.  Start slow and slowly increase speed as you get used to the movement.  Perform this for the designated distance then repeat going to the left swinging the right leg in front and behind.  Make sure to keep the shoulders and head facing forward using the hips to provide the turning motion.
    • Backpedal – keeping the feet low to the ground, shuffle backwards as quick as possible for a set distance.  Be sure to keep the eyes straight ahead of you, avoiding looking over your shoulder as much as possible.  Maintain a light bend in the knees and hips, with the chest out over your toes.
Improve running speed

Sprint, sprint, sprint and then sprint some more.

With the plethora of equipment and videos available promising to “improve speed” it’s easy to get caught up in how fancy it all is.  However, it’s very important to remember the K.I.S.S. acronym which is Keep It Simple Smart (I know I changed it slightly from Stupid to Smart but it’s all about being positive!).

We take for granted the effect of good old fashioned wind sprints.  I like to suggest taking the typical distance you might sprint, which for softball is probably 60 ft, and adding 20-30 ft to the end.  So look to set up a distance of 80-90 ft to use for your sprints.  You can start in either your base stealing stance or immitate your batting stance and take a swing.  Sprint through the marked distance being sure to start your deceleration after you’re through the line.  Walk all the way back to the start to serve as recovery and repeat.

Work on good running form through the entire sprint.  Key points to remember on running form:

  • Keep the arms tight to the body and moving fast, avoid flailing away from the body.
  • Drive the legs
  • Push the ground away from you
  • Try to relax the body and not tense

Running sprints acts very similar to how throwing long toss increases arm strength.  Start with roughly 5-7 sprints being sure to not be too fatigued that your form breaks down.  As your endurance and strength builds add sprints to the total.

Other ways to improve speed are to gain more leg strength by utilizing exercises such as squats, lunges and explosive jumps.

Simple ways to improve agility and quickness

In a game where every inch matters it’s important to be quick and agile in order to execute close plays.  While it’s not always feasible to have expensive equipment such as foot ladders to work on this, there is still plenty of opportunity to improve your agility and quickness.

Lateral Hops:  Using the foul line or your hat perform the movement of quick jumps side to side over these items.  Don’t worry about jumping as high as you can, instead focus on spending as little time as possible in contact with the ground.  Start with 10 jumps each side with a minute rest and repeat.

Lateral Shuffles:  Set up 2 hats, gloves, balls, or bats (really any combination of equipment you have, remember we are trying to be cost effective) approximately 10 ft apart.  Start in an athletic position (bend in the knees, weight balanced slightly on the ball of the foot) shuffle quickly back and forth between the designated items.  Start with 10 shuffles each way.  Tip to add more skill work is with a partner rolling ground balls to each direction as you shuffle flipping it back.

Stair Work:  For this drill locate a set of stairs, we are really just focusing on the bottom stair for this drill.  For the first drill perform a quick jump with both feet onto the bottom stair and hop quickly back down.  Repeat this as quick as possible (without losing control) for 10 jumps resting 1 minute and repeating.  Focus on staying in contact with the ground and stair for as little time as possible.

The next alternative for the drill is doing the same movement except with 1 foot at a time.  So start by using the right foot only jumping to the first stair and back down as quick as possible (without losing control) spending as little time in contact with the ground as possible.

The last alternative is starting with one foot on the bottom step and quickly alternating feet as fast as possible (staying in control) focusing on contacting the ground as little as possible.  Start with 10 each foot and rest for 1 minute then repeat.