Traditionally, conditioning has not played a big role in softball and most of the conditioning programs followed by softball players are too general and don't really address their specific needs. Softball incorporates many skills and one of the most important is the ability to react efficiently to every aspect of the game. A softball specific training program will maximize this ability. To be able to design a training program that meets the demands of the game, one must understand the game and that is what this article is all about: the specific demands of the game of softball.
Movement Training Analysis
The body functions mechanically with all parts working together to produce efficient movement. Throwing does not involve just the shoulder; hitting doesn't involve the hands alone - both skills require whole-body coordination. Functional training that emphasizes all of the sport's elements raises player performance to the highest level. Sports is all about training the movements, not the muscles.
Base running, fielding and some throwing movements are comprised primarily of "sagittal-plane" or forward/backward motion. This dominant direction of motion produces locomotion and propulsion, enabling a softball player to make an accurate throw or run quickly to a base or ball.
"Frontal plane," or side-to-side motions occur during catching, throwing, hitting and running. This plane of motion is the least dominant softball skill component, and frontal plane exercises are frequently the last to be included in training programs. As a result, joints and soft tissues are vulnerable to low-level injuries.
Pitching, throwing, hitting and fielding involve a considerable amount of transverse plane of rotational motion. Power and speed in the transverse plane enable the player to hit the ball harder. Balance and coordination through the transverse plane, coupled with hand-eye coordination, enable the player to make consistent, solid contact with the ball.
This means that players needs to train in all three planes, use three dimensional movements and work on multi-directional speed and quickness.
Performance Factors and Physiological Analysis
The action in a single play averages less than 7 seconds in length and most plays last 5 seconds or less. Therefore, it is the powerful ATP-CP energy system also known as "anaerobic alactic system" that mostly fuels every action in softball. While any athlete might benefit from a good "cardio", the aerobic system does not play a big role in softball. A good base in aerobic endurance will serve as a foundation to develop the anaerobic system. Some sport scientists suggest that it could help recover quickly from fatigue.
In terms of metabolic training, softball players should spend some time developing a base of aerobic endurance in the off-season but the most important thing to train is the ability to move explosively for a short period of time. Training should focus on many brief all-out actions, full-out short-duration speed activities and other drills exercising the ATP-CP system.
Every single action in softball is an explosive action. Hitting, throwing, quick lateral movements, jumps off the bases and others are all explosive. The need is for muscular power. Power is a function of speed and strength. More specifically, softball players need throwing power and acceleration power. A base in overall body strength and maximal strength is also important; it serves as a foundation to build muscular power. Some muscular endurance is also beneficial, especially for pitchers.
Because of the variety of skills and movements in the sport of softball, most body parts need to be trained. They all contribute in one way or another to enhance performance in softball. Shoulder and back strength as well as the rotator cuff muscle group are important to throwing but the legs and the core (hips and abdominals) also contribute to the throwing motion. The legs and the core are even more important for hitting since the power comes from the middle and lower body.
Softball players need strong stabilizers to keep them injury free and a lot of them have weak stabilizers (mostly shoulder, trunk and knee stabilizers). There is an important need to work on shoulder, core and knee stability. The most neglected area in sport performance training is core training and it is one of the most important. Core training will enable the athlete to achieve better performance, increase torso power and joint stability, improve posture and neuromuscular coordination, reduce injuries and enhance movement efficiency. Floor-based crunches and sit-ups do little for core stability and trunk power. Stability ball training will develop the deep abdominal muscles needed to stabilize the trunk while medicine ball exercises will develop the power of the trunk.
In short, softball players need to develop a base of strength and then concentrate on developing muscular power with explosive training (plyometrics, explosive tempo weight training and olympic lifting). They also require strong stabilizers. Lots of time should be spent on core training.
Flexibility is defined as the range of motion around a joint. Softball players require dynamic flexibility, which is the ability to move through a full range of motion. A greater range of motion contributes to improved athletic performance and is associated with a reduced risk of injury.
Overall flexibility is important in softball but it is especially important to increase flexibility in the tight areas. Some of the common tight muscles or muscle groups among softball players are hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and chest area (pectoralis minor more specifically). This tightness greatly increases the risk of injury.
Flexibility needs to be developed prior to the beginning of the season with a good stretching program that focuses on the major muscle groups and thigh muscles. Stretching should be done after every workout as part of the cool-down when your muscles are warm and most receptive to stretching. Static stretching prior to exercise has been shown to decrease performance and to have no impact on the incidence of injury, which is contrary to the popular belief. A proper "active" warm-up is still essential to minimize injury and to prepare the body to perform prior to any physical activity.
Speed, Quickness and Agility:
Softball is a quick game. Everything needs to be done as fast as possible. To be successful, softball players need multi-directional quickness, first step quickness, lateral movement, acceleration and linear speed. These performance factors must be trained and developed as much as possible. Just a slight improvement can make a huge difference. Training sessions should include footwork, running form drills, agility drills, lateral movements, sprints and lots of quick explosive actions.
All athletes require a base of general coordination which is the ability to perform movements of various degree of difficulty quickly, with great precision and efficiency. In the case of softball, the specific movements that require coordination are hitting and fielding a moving ball, throwing to a specific target and executing plays while in motion. Hand-eye coordination is especially important.
There are not too many specific methods of training coordination compared to other biomotor abilities. Coordination is a natural, inherited ability. To successfully develop coordination, it is important to develop and acquire a high variety of skills. The practice of a variety of sports helps the development of coordination. Coordination can be achieved in sport-specific training by employing exercises with progressively increased complexity.
Gifted athletes have good balance. Balance is closely associated with coordination and is important in softball since many plays are executed off-balance. Good balance will enhance performance and reduce the risk of injury. Balance training, also known as proprioception training, will also build a strong back and abdominals, and improve coordination.
Balance should be trained using stability balls and balance boards. To improve balance, the body needs to be put in unstable environments so the muscles will react and produce the appropriate action to maintain stability. Not only is balance training important, but it is also fun and challenging.
Injury Factors Analysis
As in any other sport, there is always a risk of injury. In softball, there are different levels of injury risk and they can also vary by specialized position or role. Most injuries incurred by athletes are related to the joints.
Commonly Injured Joints:
Softball players, because of their particular role, must spend more time protecting the joints and maintaining a high degree of integrity within the joint. Some of the most commonly injured joints in softball are:
Major Cause Of Injuries:
One reason why softball players suffer a high degree of joint injury is the "ballistic" nature of the game. With the exception of the pitcher and catcher, the ball player is idle on the field until the ball is hit toward them. Then a sudden movement is required as they respond to the ball. The sudden reaction involves a fast contraction of the muscle around the joint and great shearing forces on the joint itself.
Ballistic moves are dangerous. The forces applied to a joint and the associated muscles, tendons and ligaments require muscular contractions that are by themselves dangerous. Outfielders often suffer hamstring pulls as they go after a ball. The sudden start to a full-speed dash places enormous stress on the muscle insertions.
In an ordinary game, pre-game warm-ups are rarely performed adequately. Then, the athlete, for the most part, remains fairly idle and cools down. The "warmed" state is not maintained. The reaction to a ball or a hit, then requires "cold" muscles to forcibly contract.
They must be aware of the knee. Their reaction to a ball often requires lateral movement. There are few knee injuries that occur in a forward motion, but lateral moves place unnatural and high levels of stress on the joint. Add to this a "cold" state of condition within the muscle, then the athlete is subject to a high risk for injury. Proper leg training, especially focusing around the knee can at least strengthen the area and reduce risk.
They need the proper balance in the legs just for the fact that they must react like a sprinter to chase down a ball. Consider that sprinters are "very warmed-up" before a race. Now imagine an outfielder, standing around, cooling off and they are required to "sprint" to a ball. The risk is high for injury.
This also puts softball players at risk of injury. Softball players perform many throws during the course of a season and this can lead to tendonitis and rotator cuff problems. They can also get injured during a game where they have to throw in a rush. Proper conditioning of the shoulder and the rotator cuff is essential.
During these brief, explosive periods of action, there is a constant interplay of force production and force reduction. Most injuries occur during the force reduction, or deceleration phase of throwing, hitting, fielding and running. Consequently, to remain healthy during the softball season and to increase skills and performance levels, training should emphasize speed, power and the ability to decelerate safely.
To train deceleration, eccentric training also known as "negative training" should be emphasized. Examples of eccentric movements are: deceleration phase of a sprint, landing phase of jump, follow-through phases of hitting and throwing, etc. Eccentric training can be done by emphasizing the lowering phase of any resistance training exercises.
A successful sport-specific training program will take into consideration the specific demands of the game, the level of fitness and training experience of an athlete, their position, their rehabilitation needs and the potential injury factors.
To improve their game, athletes must train with a "specific plan". The training programs that individuals who are looking to remain fit and healthy do or the ones that bodybuilders follow will provide very little results. Once again, the principle of specificity is the golden rule.
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3. Murphy, Pat., Forney, Jeff. Complete Conditioning for Baseball. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics Publishers, 1997.
4. NSCA, Baechle, Thomas R., Editor. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics Publisher, 1994.
5. Twist, Peter. Balance Your Workout. Sportswest Digest, February 2000.
6. Twist, Peter. Baseball Preparation: Getting a Leg Up. Sportswest Digest, May 2000.
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