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Athleticism What Coaches Want and How to Improve It

Athleticism What Coaches Want andHow to Improve It

By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E

All coaches from MLB, college, high school, travel, and rec league say - “Our players need to be more athletic.” Before you can begin to make players more athletic, you must understand what “athletic” means and what physical qualities contribute to athleticism.

The NSCA says: “Athleticism is the ability to repeatedly perform a range of movements with precision and confidence in a variety of environments, which require competent levels of motor skills, strength, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and endurance.”

According to experts in sports performance, there are at least eight specific physical qualities that go into making a player more athletic. These include strength, speed, power, agility, coordination, flexibility, and balance.

While each of these physical qualities is an essential component of athleticism, recording a high score on one or some will not guarantee success in any sport. An important underlying concept when discussing how becoming more athletic will make you a better baseball or softball player is the assumption that “you possess the ability to effectively throw, hit, run, and catch.”

Getting stronger in the weight room, for example, might help improve throwing velocity, but it won’t improve your ERA if you can’t throw strikes. Likewise, doing plyometrics might improve power, but it won’t improve batting average, exit velocity, or slugging percentage if you can’t make contact. Getting faster won’t improve fielding percentage if you can’t catch and throw the ball.

Specific physical qualities of athleticism:

Strength is the base for movement. There are, for example, no fast weak runners. Strength is essential, but it must have carryover value to the sport. Effective power hitters and power pitchers are strong, but not Olympic weightlifting strong. The ball weighs 5 oz and most bats are no more than 34 oz so, as Tony Gwynn said, “You don’t have to bench press or squat 300 pounds to hit .300.”

You can improve total body strength from the ground up with Olympic or Olympic-type lifts, but most of these improvements are in one plane of movement while baseball is a rotary sport with dynamic movement in three planes. If you spend most of your time training in one plane, your effort will not transfer to improved movements in other planes on the field. Effective off-season, pre-season, and in-season resistance training programs for high school, college, and professional baseball players can be found in the NSCA’s Strength Training for Baseball.

Speed. Speed is one of the 5 tools that scouts and coaches look for. It’s the only tool that is used on both offense and defense. Speed comes in three basic forms – acceleration, top speed, and speed endurance. Because most sprints in baseball are 30 yards or less and most plays are over in 5-seconds or less, acceleration is more important than top speed or speed endurance. Top speed in baseball is usually reached after 30-40 yards which means that it is reached only in doubles or when athletes go first to third or second to home. Speed endurance, the ability to maintain top speed, is usually reached on triples and inside-the-park home runs, which rarely occur at higher levels.

Players who want to become more athletic by getting faster, would be wise to spend most of his/her time working on acceleration. And, since the keys to rapid acceleration are a proper set-up (you can’t recover from a bad start), first step, and the first 10 yards, players should spend most of their time working on the first 10 yards to improve acceleration and flying 10–20-yard sprints to transition from acceleration to top speed. They should also increase relative strength (strength/body weight) and single-leg strength to be able to put more force into the ground on the start and first 7-8 steps.

While some scouts and coaches record time in the 60, most professional baseball organizations don’t see the carryover to on-field play. Baseball players never run 60-yards in a straight line in game situations. Running the bases requires straight line speed plus the ability to make sharp turns to the left quickly and under control without losing balance. Base running requires more coordination than running in a straight line.

Endurance or aerobic fitness does not improve acceleration or speed. Endurance fitness is important for recovery between pitches, at bats, innings, and games, but it is not the primary energy system used in baseball. Movements in baseball are fueled primarily the APT-PC system (does not require oxygen). Endurance training uses the aerobic or oxygen transport system which can also be improved by running interval sprints. Distance running trains the wrong energy system, trains the wrong muscle fiber type (slow twitch vs. fast twitch) and elicits the wrong hormonal response (catabolic vs. anabolic). The bottom line is – “If you spend most of your time jogging, you are spending most of your time practicing to be slow.”

Power. Strength and speed are important, but power is a major factor in athletic performance. Power, the rate at which you can apply force, is the product of strength x speed. Weak athletes can’t produce as much power as strong athletes and slow athletes can’t produce as much power as fast athletes. Athletes need both strength and speed to improve power. Players don’t have to perform Olympic or Olympic-type lifts to improve power. Once they have a base level of strength, they can do high-speed plyometric jumps, hops, bounds, MD ball throws/slams, etc. to convert the strength developed in the weight room to power on the field. MD ball throws and slams can be performed in several planes to increase rotary power in throwing and swinging.

Agility, Balance, and Coordination. These qualities are often linked together because they complement each other, i.e., what affects one affects all, and one does not exist without the other. Agility refers to the ability to move and change direction and position of the body quickly and effectively while remaining balanced and under control. It requires quick reflexes, coordination, balance, strength, speed, and correct responses to changing situations.

Agility is a middle-infielder avoiding the runner when turning a double play, outfielders making the play and avoiding collisions, catchers blocking balls in the dirt with a runner on third, etc. Agility is not possible if there is a deficiency in strength, balance, and coordination.

Balance can be static or dynamic. It is the ability to maintain equilibrium when stationary or moving through the coordinated actions of sensory functions (eyes, ears, and proprioceptive organs in joints). Pitchers need static balance to maintain their center of mass above their base of support during leg lift. Dynamic balance, the ability to maintain balance during movement, is essential when swinging the bat, getting over the lead leg when pitching, moving to field a ball, changing direction, rounding the bag under control, etc.

Coordination is the ability to move the body to accomplish a task and requires both timing and technique. It requires the coordination of the body’s sensory functions when throwing, catching, hitting, changing directions, etc. When the body is working in sync (coordination), movements are efficient and transitions are fluid. An infielder going behind the bag or in the hole requires efficient, fluid movements. Executing a perfect swing requires efficient, fluid movements. Performing a drop step, rounding the bag, sliding to avoid a tag, etc., require efficient, fluid movements (coordination).

When performed correctly, agility drills can help improve flexibility, balance and control and help the body learn to maintain correct body alignment and posture during movement. Agility training involves more than doing the “Icky shuffle” and other drills on a speed/agility ladder. It trains the body to move efficiently, balanced and under control when moving forward, backwards, side-ways (lateral), diagonally and when changing directions quickly in response to various stimuli. An infielder, for example, often must move diagonally to get in position to field a ground ball, stop under control, set up, shift his/her weight (change position of the center of mass), make, and follow the throw.  And, they must do all this while maintaining their center of mass over their base of support without thinking about it.

Flexibility. Flexibility is the ability to maintain an acceptable range of motion at all joints. Note the word “acceptable.” Acceptable implies normal range of motion, not gymnastic range of motion. Baseball and softball players need stable joints that allow them to apply force through a full, acceptable range of motion. Unstable, hypermobile joints are not stable and can result in energy leaks and increased risk of injury during repeated high-velocity movements.

Flexibility or stretching exercises are not the same thing as warm-up. Warm-up increases body temperature and prepares the body and joints for the more intense activity to follow. Stretching increases tissue elasticity and range of motion. You warm-up to stretch. You don’t stretch to warm-up. Effective performance requires a dynamic warm-up using movements required in practice and game situations followed by sport- and joint-specific static stretching exercises.

 Success in baseball and softball requires athleticism. Baseball and softball players may not appear to be as athletic as some NFL or NBA players, but different sports require different skills and different degrees of athleticism. Michael Jordan was one of the most athletic and productive players in the NBA, but his athleticism and skills in basketball did not carry over into pro baseball. Training for athleticism needs to be integrated with sports skill training. You can’t do either in isolation. Successful coaches and athletes find ways to integrate relative and single-leg strength, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and flexibility into their daily warm-up, conditioning, skill sessions, and game situations.

Reference

  1. Strength Training for Baseball. Human Kinetics, 2022.

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Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM has over four decades as a head strength and conditioning coach (Astros 1978-2012) and strength and conditioning consultant (Rangers 2013-2020). He is Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager pbsccs.org.

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