Former MLB Strength & Conditioning Coaches
Steve Odgers, CSCS, RSCC
Chicago White Sox 1989-2003
The position of full-time strength and conditioning coach in professional baseball has been around for approximately 50 years. The first full-time strength and conditioning coach in MLB was hired in 1978. Fifteen years later (1993), the PBSCCS was formed. Fifteen years after that (2008), as a result of the Mitchell Report, the MLB Players Association requested that every team have one full-time strength and conditioning coach at the Major League level and a full-time minor league coach at AAA and AA teams. One year later (2009), MLB and the Players Association mandated that there should be a NSCA registered strength and conditioning coach at every level in professional baseball. What started with one coach has grown tremendously, but most of the growth has occurred in the last 12 years - between 2009 and 2021.
In an attempt to help current and future PBSCCS members understand the evolution of the position of strength and conditioning coach in professional baseball, the PBSSC will interview former strength and conditioning coaches in the field. The first interview was with Steve Odgers, one of the three founding fathers of the PBSCCS and former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. Odgers joined the White Sox in 1989 after a distinguished career as a collegiate (University of California Irvine) and Team USA Track Athlete (decathlon). He was an assistant to legendary strength and conditioning coach, Vern Gambetta, in 1989 and promoted to Director of Conditioning in 1990, a position he held for 14 years. Steve left the Sox after the 2003 season to become Executive Director at Boras Sports Training Institute in Aliso Viejo, California, a position he has held for 18 years.
PBSCCS caught up with Steve a few weeks ago and asked him the following questions:
PBSCCS. What was it like working with legendary coach, Vern Gambetta? What did I you learn that helped shape your coaching philosophy? How did your background in track and field help you transition into working with professional baseball players?
ODGERS. Gene, first let me say 'Thank you' to you for all of the many contributions you have made to the Strength and Conditioning profession and the influences you have had in the training and preparation of MLB athletes.
I appreciate these questions and the opportunity to connect and share with other PBSCCS coaches and members.
Vern Gambetta was a tremendous mentor, coach and friend; and, he continues to be a great coach and teacher through his platforms. We first started working together in 1985 when Vern coached me post collegiately (1985-1989) in Irvine, CA and Chicago. Training with Vern was like being in a classroom everyday. It was where I first learned the principles of periodization and the fundamentals of coaching. Vern's office and home were a library of information and I was hungry to learn, train and compete. All training was planned with attention to detail, recorded and documented. Micro-cyles, Macro-cycles and Annual plans were all clearly defined. Long term planning was organized by objectives over years.
Track and Field backgrounds gave us rich knowledge of sprinting, jumping and throwing and the biomechanics of human movement. The planning was a bit more tedious then and the path was far less explored and tested. In our first instructional league in 1985, I recall rolling out two-foot rolls of paper around all the walls of our rooms at the Sarasota Days Inn and hand writing out the methods and modes and progressions, of speed development, plyometrics and strength training that we were planning to introduce to meet baseball sport demands.
PBSCCS: What facilities and equipment did you have access to at home and on the road in the early 90's and what adjustments did you have to make in your daily training programs? How receptive were the players to strength and conditioning in the early 90's?
ODGERS: When I arrived in Chicago in 1990 with the big-league club, we had a small weight room in a storage area off of the concourse. You had to access this space by taking an old spiral staircase up a level and across the concourse. The equipment was quite basic, squat rack, benches, dumbbells and some early Cybex Eagle selectorized machines. There were teams with visiting weight rooms that were accessed pre-game and post-game by scheduling with the home club. We frequently set up training spaces on the road in the clubhouse and carried our own tubing, medballs, slideboards etc. That first year I had veterans, Carlton Fisk and Jerry Reuss, on the club and often carried weights and built a squat rack for Pudge and assembled a Versa Climber for Reuss in the road clubhouse.
I found the players very receptive to training. We had a very young core group of players that I had coached in the minor leagues and they had experience with our programming. We had a very defined plan, but we also often switched up micro cycle objectives when we knew we would be limited on the road by facilities and equipment. We spent more time training speed, agility and power on the road and more strength training at home when had consistent access to facilities.
I was also very fortunate to have Jeff Torborg as my first manager. Jeff was very supportive of all we were trying to do in Strength and Conditioning. In 1991, New Comiskey Park was built with a weight room in the home clubhouse, and upgrades to equipment and the weight room then became a place players wanted to access.
PBSCCS: Which player(s) were most receptive to what you were trying to accomplish and helped advance the program with their teammates?
ODGERS: We had a very young and hungry group of pitchers in my early years. They trained as a group and they trained hard. They were leaders on the team, Jack McDowell, James Baldwin, Wilson Alvarez and Alex Fernandez. They conditioned with intent in their running programs and in the weight room. Carlton Fisk was a veteran on the team and provided leadership by example and in voice. Robin Ventura was also part of strong clubhouse that liked to work.
PBSCCS: You had a record low number of injuries in the 90's. What did you do that helped reduce the risk of injury and do you think these would work in today's game? What were the basics of your training program?
ODGERS: The program was based on improving or sharpening each players athleticism, and building resilience to their individual performance demands. There was solid foundation built with many players over many years with a consistent in-season, off-season and annual plan of training. Every player had individualized training modifications and there was good communication with players on their weekly objectives.
I had frequent meetings with Herm Schneider, ATC and the athletic training staff and we had a good knowledge of what performance, training loads and roles each player needed served. We were cautious of total training volumes in-season, and emphasized intensity. I never use the word 'maintenance' in-season. I consistently had athletes that could improve some bio-motor quality or training objective in-season. In general, we trained on split routines in the weight room, with four strength days per week. However, strength training sessions were rarely longer than 30 minutes. We ran and implemented other forms of conditioning, for example, bike and slide board circuits, 4-6 days per week. Med ball and plyometric power training or 'elastic equivalents' were usually trained 2 times per week. I was fortunate to have some workhorses who were consistent with routines and not afraid to train hard. Collectively, we were a very competitive group in training and competition.
Consistency of routine, style and manner of coaching has been consistent for more than three decades. I believe it may be unique in pro sports to have just two strength coaches run a program over this span under very similar philosophy. The White Sox are fortunate to have had Allan Thomas, my former assistant, leading their strength and conditioning program for the last 18 years.
PBSCCS: What similarities and differences do you see between the players that you worked with in the 90's and those you work with now at Boras?
ODGERS: Players today have usually had a much earlier introduction to training and conditioning, and more 'early specialization'. They work with 'specialists' but may be missing some of what the 'generalists' offer in comprehensive programming of all bio- motor qualities in order of importance- Speed, Power, Strength, Flexibility and Endurance.
Movement patterns are more narrowly trained today. It seems there is more emphasis on strength training, and much of the strength training volume is concentrated into the off-season period, November to January. I'm a very big believer in distribution of the strength training across an annual training cycle. I like to see programming for baseball players with off-season emphasis on running conditioning, speed and power development and consistent progressive dosing of strength over the entire off-season. There is quite a bit of dialogue about durability of athletes in our game. Durability is primarily a look back over time of a players 'availability and productivity'. Injuries have been climbing. Reversing these trends will be hard, but I think most achievable by rethinking annual periodization models in baseball and placing emphasis on athlete 'resilience' in the day-to-day, week-to-week programming around each athlete's key result area or deficiency, and training up to the demand of game and position.
PBSCCS: You had the opportunity to work with Olympic athletes and two of the most famous dual-sport professional athletes in the 80s and early 90's. What was it like working with Olympic athletes and with Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan?
I was very fortunate in the late 80's and early 90's to work and train with three athletes who I would consider among the greatest of all time
in their sports. I trained with the Decathlon Olympic Champion and World Record holder Daley Thompson, and his teammates on the British team, in the spring and summer for four years. I worked with the Bulls and went to my first training camp in the Fall of 1985. The Bulls were being rebuilt into the dynasty that they were to become. We had Bo Jackson on our club with the White Sox in the winter of '1992 and the 1993 season. It was a great moment in September of '93 when Bo hit the game
winning home run in a game that clinched the division, and I believe it may have alsobeen his mother's birthday! In 1994, Michael Jordan was in the White Sox major league spring training camp and spent the full year playing for Birmingham Barons managed by Terry Francona. Michael was the first to the ballpark every day that Spring, first in the cage and then right to the weight room. It was an absolute privilege to have the opportunity to train with and work with these athletes. All had great physical ability, they respected and listened to the coaches and worked every day. They didn't take days off. All had great discipline, supreme confidence and a love of competition. The bigger the game or moment the better.
PBSCCS: What do you know now that you wish you had known in the 90's?
ODGERS: Interesting question. In my first few years in Chicago, I was very new to the game. I was learning on the job. I'm certain I learned more from many of my players than they may have learned from me. From my time as an athlete, I was very disciplined and learned to follow a training regimen and model. I had less flexibility as a young coach. It took many years of observation and experience to see and understand the subtleties and differences from athlete-to-athlete to really understand the whole athlete and understand the objectives: physically, technically, tactically and from a mental standpoint.
I try to be more patient now with the process and think more about building and sustaining careers and all that that entails. Working for our athletes at Boras Corp is challenging in that you're not frequently able to observe training. I also think this has made me aware of the importance of listening more and be very mindful and thoughtful in understanding our athletes and serving their needs.
From a career standpoint, it is important to determine: where is the athlete in development; what are the experiences they have had with coaches; and, how have these experiences shaped their foundational belief structures. I'm more focused now on identifying opportunities to improve excellence, to be direct in communication, build confidence, and be patient.
PBSCCS: What do you see as the next big thing in training baseball players?
ODGERS: We are in the middle of a dramatic increase in the use of technology and performance analytics. This will continue to be sure, but I also believe we as coaches and analytics personnel will get better at the translational science. What does it all mean? As with all trends I think we will also see shifts back... same with conditioning. It is a sprint, jump, throw and hit game. I think we will have to see refinements in the training programs to turn the tide on injuries.
Technology is great; it makes evident something we may 'think' about an athlete's performance. In the area of strength and conditioning, I have three primary questions or objectives for the use of technology, cameras, wearable's, biomechanics, motion capture, etc.:
- Does the information provided help my coaches be better coaches in the gym and on the field?
- Does the data help to educate the athlete, to become better informed and is it actionable in training or performance?
- Does the data or information gained surveil or overlay your training program and validate training response and periodization or annual training plan objectives?
PBSCCS: As a former Olympic-level athlete with a daughter who has participated in two Olympic Trials, how do you handle the dual role of professional strength and conditioning coach and parent in her preparation and competition? How involved are you in her preparation?
ODGERS: Thank you for this question. All three of our children are D1 swimmers. My oldest daughter, Isabelle, has been swimming at the national level for the last 5 years. Swimming is such a great sport and I have enjoyed learning about it technically, tactically and from a long-term training and planning perspective. Swim parents are very invested in commitment of time and resources. When it comes to competition and the bigger meets, I try to stay out of the way and just enjoy watching. If anything, I try to be a good observer, and may see things that the coaches or kids aren't noticing; and, try to have a unique idea from time to time.
It is a delicate balance to be a parent and then also see things from the coaching perspective that may be helpful. We have discussions about training philosophy and I have written some dryland training programs when they were younger, but now that they are in collegiate programs, I am much less involved. Where I have really tried to interact in swimming is with the friendships that I have made with the kids' coaches, and creating opportunities to share ideas around swim training and their dryland programming. I think it would be fascinating to have the opportunity to work in high performance, elite swimmers and an integrated support team.
PBSCCS: Any closing comments, suggestions, etc. that you would like to share?
ODGERS: Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this Q&A. I enjoyed it.