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Core Competency

by Dave
Friday, March 23, 2007

Scientists have determined that Neanderthal Man had one very strong arm which was one major reason for his (and her) success.   He lived in the forest and supported himself by killing large game with a short spear.   But when forests began to disappear, he was unable to make a living out in the open fields.   His short spear was not well suited to distance throwing.   His strong arm wasn't enough for him to get by.   And he couldn't run very well, especially over longer distances.   There's a lesson in there someplace for fastpitch softballers.

I read on a forum that the new rage in our sport is strength and agility training.   Rage, perhaps but new?   There's nothing new about strength and agility training.   Every sport makes intelligent use of this training technique.   And if softballers are just now jumping on the bandwagon as several posters to that forum indicated, they are either the last human athletes on Earth or it is only because athletes and coaches in that particular area are not aware they should be doing this.

Football linemen run through agility ropes to quicken their step.   Wide receivers and basketball players go to dance classes to improve core strength, agility, and flexibility.   Baseball players spend the entire off season doing exercise routines to work their large muscle groups as well as the little ones.   It really doesn't matter which sport you're talking about or interested in.   There is some sort of regimen which the top athletes do before during and after their other, sport specific work.   If you're playing softball and not doing some sort of strength work, agility training, or conditioning, it's time to start.

It isn't rocket or biomechanical science to understand the need to do more than work on throwing or swinging the bat.   A casual review of the motions involved show anyone with their eyes open that major muscle groups are involved in all the major motions a softballer needs to make.   These major muscle groups are more important to long term success than the smaller ones.

You do need "a strong arm" to throw well but that doesn't preclude the need for a strong back, abdomen, etc.   You throw overhand with your upper legs, hips, back, etc. muscles at least as much as you do using your arm and shoulder muscles.   Truthfully, the shoulder and arm muscles are used more for maintaining the mechanical position than they are for generating the force of the throw.   If you have a really "strong arm" but a weak back, torso, stomach, you are not going to be able to throw hard for long.   Over emphasis on the shoulder and arm muscles will weaken your throwing and lead to injury eventually.

In order to swing a bat properly, obviously, you've got to rotate your hips.   The better your hip rotation, the better your swing.   The more in shape your abdomen and lower back are, the stronger your hip rotation, the better your swing.   It's really that easy.   And it's certainly not only the hips and abdomen.   The upper and lower back have to be strong too.   That's not to say all you need to do is strengthen your major muscle groups and you'll be a star hitter.   But you cannot reach anywhere near your potential without doing exercise of the major muscle groups.

Take a good look at any important motion in the game and you'll see the same thing.   The windmill pitcher doesn't pop that ball just by rotating her arm.   She pushes off with her legs and rotates her body around the axis to generate force.   A good infielder uses a lot of major muscles to move laterally to the ball, to position for an accurate throw and to make that throw.   Similarly outfielders running diagonally to catch up with the flight of the ball have to have strong legs, back, abdomen, etc.   What about the catcher?   Her movements are not as large as those of other players.   Sure, she can get away without doing other forms of exercise, can't she?   Maybe if she doesn't want to get quicker or maybe if she wants to spend the season nursing a sick back, she can.   There is no place on the softball diamond including designated hitter which requires no conditioning, strengthening, and agility work.   That's true to improve one's game, to avoid injury and to just plain get better.

I just alluded to it but one major reason for doing such training is the avoidance of injury.   Having suffered with lower back pain as a young catcher, I feel uniquely qualified to acknowledge this.   My abs were not nearly in as good a shape as they should have been.   Catching relies on the stomach muscles perhaps more than many other positions.   You're in that painful crouch, you catch the pitch and the runner goes!   You spring up to make the throw with as little motion as possible.   Your throw absolutely relies on the strength of your abdomen and leg muscles.   Never even mind the wear and tear your body takes back there with the constant shifting around.

If you wonder about hitting, just try taking a swing when your back or stomach muscles hurts.   You can't do it.   When you're feeling better try taking a swing again.   Take 200 swings.   Where do you feel muscle burn?   If you don;t feel it in your legs, back, and stomach at least as much as in your arms, you probably are not swinging properly.   And if you perform the sort of repetitive motion you need to really work your swing without doing a regular routine of exercise, at some point you;re going to end up with an injury.

So you do this exercise regimen in order to make important muscle groups stronger and in order to avoid injury.   That's fine but there's an ancillary benefit you weren't counting on.   If you get yourself in really good condition, you may not notice it but others surely will.   All of a sudden your reaction speeds will pick up.   You'll find you move to the ball much faster than previously.   Your swing is quicker and more powerful, and you don't need to commit quite as fast.   When you get fooled on a pitch, you are able to adjust quickly and hold up more easily.   Everything about your game has improved!

Now I've convinced you of the need to perform a regular routine of exercise in order to really step up your game.   You want to know what you should do.   I'm sorry but I can't tell you.   I'm not an exercise expert.   But what I can tell you is that you should seek out a broad array of exercise which works all of the major muscle groups.   I can tell you that it should involve flexibility and agility.   It should make you sweat and there should be an emphasis on performing exercises properly.   You should be able to do this on your own by consulting with exercise books available in your library, especially those written by sports coaches and trainers.   if that's too much work or above your head, you can seek out a personal trainer.   I'd stay away from the ones who work those gyms for adults and stick to sports places.   There's a growing number of those popping up all over the place.

The world seems to graduate "personal trainers" more each day.   But any old personal trainer is not necessarily the right answer.   There are at least as many incompetent trainers out there as there are incompetent anythings.   If you are trying to find someone to train you for softball, you should ask lots of questions about their qualifications, experience, maybe how you should train to avoid a particular kind of injury and anything else you can come up with.

Do not engage in a regular routine of exercise which does not seem to work all major muscle groups equally.   This is a path to injury.   And if some nascent personal trainer thinks he needs to adapt an exercise program to isolate certain muscles just for softball, there may be something wrong with his or her approach.   There are certain exercises for softballers but no program needs to emphasize these to the exclusion of other more general types of exercise.   A correct program should contain some general stretching, strength exercises, cardio-vascular, agility work, and some limited sport-specific exercise.   The sport specific stuff is the least of your worry.   You're looking to strengthen all your muscles and to get in generally better shape.   Windmiller's do not want an hour routine which involves 30 minutes on the Finch machine or similar device.

Many of the free exercises you and I grew up with are appropriate to improved conditioning.   Push ups help softballers in a number of ways.   Ladder work is good for the torso and legs, not to mention a player's quickness.   A comprehensive set of abdominal muscle exercises is as important as anything else.   There should be some work on a bike, treadmill, elliptical bike, or anything else which works the heart and some major muscle groups.   Sprinting can be a good exercise especially when worked into an agility course.

One hour per session should be sufficient to perform a good workout.   I suggest working out two to three times each week.   Less than two doesn't help much at all, it may hurt.   Two will help some by that third day yields exponentially greater results.   Tha doesn't mean you need to run out to the local sports gym three times each week at inconvenient times leaving school work as the last priority.   It means you should get some sort of a program from the trainer or emulate what you do while with her or him, yourself.   Anyone who spends time with an exercise instructor can repeat much of what is done there and replace anything involving expensive equipment with other similar exercise like running or riding a bicycle.   If you can afford to go one day each week, plan out the rest of the week to fit in a similar hour on your own on two other days.

Do not get into a habit of performing your exercise routine on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.   Space the days apart and make sure you always leave at least one day open between sessions.   This allows your muscles to recoup and avoids the tendency we have to do exercises improperly when fatigued.   Also, consider trying to perform different though similar exercises on different days in order to keep some variety going.   if you're content to do exactly the same set of exercises each of your workout days, fine.   But if boredom sets in, I suggest you try different exercises out to spice it up.   Talk to your trainer about which ones can be substituted for which.

That's about the best advice I can give you.   Understand that what I want you to take away from this little piece is: 1) a recognition that softballers do need an exercise regime in order to strengthen important muscle groups, avoid injury and reach their potential.   2) You can put together an exercise program yourself or get a personal trainer.   3) If you go to a trainer, ask lots of questions and look for reasonable responses.   4) Whether you put together a program or a trainer does it, do not use a bunch of sport specific exercises.   General exercise should fill at least 75% of the overall program.   5) Do this routine several times a week with a full day off between sessions.   6) Mix it up to avoid boredom - think of yourself as making an interesting salad.   7) Don't allow yourself to become a Neanderthal, known only for having a great throwing arm! 8) Enjoy the much better softball player you have become as a result of a little hard work!!

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