Mission: Accomplished

January 29, 2015
At the University of Mississippi, a new strength and conditioning program challenged the baseball players to get tougher and more competitive, and they responded with a record-breaking year.
By Ben Fleming

Ben Fleming, MS, SCCC, is entering his second year as Assistant Coordinator of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Mississippi, where he works primarily with the baseball team. Previously, he trained the baseball teams at the University of Central Florida and Kansas State University. He can be reached at:
[email protected] or on Twitter @StrengthBen.


Prior to this past year, the last time the University of Mississippi's baseball team made it to the College World Series (CWS) was 1972. Since Head Coach Mike Bianco came on board in 2000, the squad had been close to getting back, advancing to the NCAA Division I Regionals 10 times. In 2014, we finally got over the hump. Not only did the Rebels make it to the CWS in Omaha, Neb., they advanced to the semifinals and won 48 games along the way, tying a school record.

As I stood in dugout watching the team celebrate after eliminating the University of Louisiana-Lafayette in the Super Regional, it brought me back to the beginning of our journey--the offseason work the players put in during the summer and fall of 2013. With a focus on building toughness, our offseason strength and conditioning program mentally and physically prepared the squad to bypass negativity, brush off expectations, and focus on what needed to be done to succeed on the field.

Hired in July 2013 as the program's new strength and conditioning coach, I embraced this concept immediately. My approach to offseason development was based on training position-specific movements, while also reinforcing determination and accountability through daily competitions. Ultimately, this strategy was a key factor in returning the program to Omaha after a 42-year drought.

PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATION
Soon after I arrived, I sat down with the coaching staff to discuss their goals for the 2014 season. We decided to emphasize toughness due to the 2013 team's inability to win close games, which kept them from hosting a Regional. To instill this mentality, we took an aggressive approach to summer and fall training in order to push the players physically, build them up mentally, and develop a team identity centered around competitiveness.

My approach to the offseason is to build powerful and explosive athletes. I try to work the players like they have never been worked before, which prepares them to endure the grind of the long season ahead.

How players get through this grueling period of physical activity reveals their levels of mental toughness. I often tell the team that there are many talented baseball programs in the country, and at the end of the day, success comes to the squad that has mentally prepared and truly believes it is the best. When the body becomes fatigued, the athletes must convince themselves that their weeks and months of training have prepared them to compete at the highest level.

Individually, I work with each player on the necessary skill development to meet his position's demands and increase his confidence, while also enhancing his explosiveness, power, and agility. I add a little competitive fire to offseason work by reminding the athletes that playing time is earned and challenging guys who play the same position to out-work each other. The result is the older guys help bring the younger guys along, and the younger guys try to show the upperclassmen how eager they are to start. Putting these physical, mental, and competitive skills together in the offseason produces a stronger team for the competitive slate.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM
Previous offseason Ole Miss baseball workouts consisted of training three days a week. Once I arrived, I upped it to four because I felt the athletes needed the extra strength work. I hold 90-minute sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, spending the first hour in the weightroom and the final 30 minutes doing conditioning work on the football field.

During the summer, we train position players and pitchers similarly because the pitchers haven't started throwing yet. But once intrasquad practice begins in the fall, the pitchers break off and move toward a training regimen that better mimics their in-season workload.

My style of training is fast-paced, and the players are constantly moving throughout the workout. This approach helps develop physical and mental toughness--it's not easy to push a heavy load, recover quickly, and then repeat the action.

However, I do not reinvent the wheel. Each training session begins with a warm-up designed to elevate the players' heart rates and get their bodies ready for work. Warm-ups usually start with a jump rope or med ball drill. Once their bodies are warm and loose, we transition to the mobility warm-up portion of the workout. Lower-body dominant exercises are done on Monday and Thursday, so the warm-up on these days includes ground hip mobility, hurdles, and hip bridges. Tuesdays and Thursdays are upper-body days in the weightroom, so the players complete shoulder mobility activities with an elastic band or 2.5-pound plates during the warm-up.

Because baseball players--especially pitchers--are often plagued by arm and shoulder issues, I address the importance of proper mechanics and scapular control every day in our warm-up. For example, our band exercises are similar to the crossover symmetry that all of our pitchers complete before throwing. We also do ITYW movements on incline benches, with a controlled scapular retraction before each rep. Our athletes understand that these activities are not only designed for strength, but also for body control and injury prevention. They know that the smallest details are vital when it comes to taking care of their bodies.

After completing the warm-up, the athletes begin weight training work. Our main exercises include clean pulls, front squats, Romanian dead lifts, pull-ups, and different lunge variations. The players lift between 75 and 80 percent of their one-rep max during the offseason workouts. This helps them maintain their strength gains deep into the season. Most of the guys can still bench and squat heavy even into the postseason.

As a baseball-specific strength coach, a big area of debate I've encountered throughout my career is whether or not to utilize Olympic lifts. For most baseball coaches, this is a touchy subject. Many view Olympic lifts unfavorably because they are concerned players will develop wrist and forearm problems from catching the bar.

To balance getting the best strength results with wrist and forearm health, I have the players do clean pulls from the ground or blocks. When the Ole Miss coaches heard that the players were not performing the catching portion of the lift, they were completely on board with what I was doing.

I pay close attention to each player's overall technique at each station before I allow him to add weight. I find it works best to have pitchers and position players lift together on lower-body days to build team cohesion, but I split them up on upper-body days because their workouts are different.

Once I am comfortable with the athletes' fundamental strength base, I increase the intensity and pace of weightroom sessions through super sets. Often, I add upper-body or lower-body plyometric moves after a bench press or front squat to build endurance and muscular strength. I also like to pair strength-based movements with power movements. For example, I might have players do five clap push-ups after a heavy set of bench presses.

With baseball players, this approach directly replicates the in-game experience. When a batter swings and misses, he only has a few seconds to recover and repeat that motion. In the same way, a pitcher has to throw with strength and power, pitch after pitch. Given the relatively short amount of time I have with each player while they are in college, I am able to gain the fastest results utilizing this training method. (See "Training for Toughness" for a sample offseason week in the weightroom.)

Our 30-minute conditioning sessions run at the same pace as our work in the weightroom. For example, I'll have the athletes lunge walk for 200 yards on the football field, complete an up-down or squat jump every five yards for the length of the field, and then have them run 110-yard sprints on a 1:2 work-to-rest ratio. We don't do the bodyweight exercises during every session, so they are a surprise at the end of the workout and make the running more difficult.

Overall, the key to the success of our offseason program is that I make the players believe they are working harder than every other Division I program. This help builds the physical and mental toughness we are shooting for and develops a winning mentality that the athletes take with them to the field.

OMAHA CHALLENGE
Another way I instill a team-wide identity of toughness in our offseason work is through constant competition. I know I have to make the players compete often if I want this mindset to carry over into the season, so regardless of whether the team is in the weightroom or on the football field conditioning, we are always trying to see who can lift the most or run the fastest.

Perhaps the best example of this is when we cap off our offseason work with our version of the Omaha Challenge, a popular competition that involves splitting a squad up into groups and putting them through a grueling schedule of nontraditional physical activities. Individuals can earn points for their team based on how they perform in each challenge, and at the end, the team with the most points is crowned the winner. It's a great way to wrap up offseason work and get players focused on the upcoming competitive slate.

The events of our Omaha Challenge are made to challenge the body, but more importantly, challenge the mind. I believe that when you put young athletes in a competitive environment, no matter how bad they hurt, their minds will block out the pain and push through to win.

We split the squad up into four teams based on our school colors--red, blue, white, and black. One unique aspect of Ole Miss's Challenge is that it lasts a whole week, with different events each day, whereas some schools only hold a single-day event.

Here's a weekly schedule from our 2013-14 Omaha Challenge:

Monday:
- Towel hang for time
- 15-kilo single-hand plate hold for time
- Inverted rows for reps in one minute
- Block bench for reps in one minute
- 200-yard timed board push with a weighted vest

Tuesday:
- Swim relay
- Dodgeball tournament
- 300-yard shuttle relay while carrying a 45-pound plate
- Timed super shuttle

Wednesday:
- Tug-of-war in the sand pit
- Timed shuttle run in the sand with 16-pound med ball
- Prowler relay race for time

Thursday:
- 200-yard sled pull team relay
- 200-yard tire flip team relay
- Ultimate Frisbee tournament

Friday:
- Obstacle course.

The obstacle course starts in our football stadium. The players snake their way up and down the stadium stairs until they go all the way around the lower bowl. Once they finish the stairs, they come onto the field, where they have to complete nine different challenges that run sideline to sideline, such as bear crawls, sled pushes, and a 45-pound plate carry. Next, players do an up-down or burpee at five-yard intervals down the length of the field. Finally, the players run a half-mile from the football stadium to the baseball diamond, where they finish the course by stepping on home plate.

After the obstacle course, we finish our week with a breakfast buffet, and Coach Bianco addresses the team. The biggest lesson he tries to instill is to not dwell on the past. Even if a player didn't score any points for his team on a particular day or came in last during a race, Coach Bianco reminds them that tomorrow is a new day and a new competition, so they better be ready to go. This directly translates to what the players face during the season. We have a lot of games on back-to-back days, and whether the team wins or loses on a Friday, Saturday is a new game, and they need to remain focused.

Ultimately, I believe that our Omaha Challenge in the offseason helped propel the Rebels all the way to the CWS's semifinal round in June. Looking back at the year, it is incredible to think about every challenge the team overcame due to the players' toughness. They put in so much hard work and fully utilized the tools I gave them in putting Ole Miss over the Regional hump. In return, they gave me the most rewarding season of my career. Offseason strength and conditioning was just one piece of the puzzle that made last year's team so great, and as we move forward with the same level of intensity, I can see the trip to Omaha becoming an annual journey.


SIDEBAR: TRAINING FOR TOUGHNESS
Here's what a sample offseason week in the weightroom looks like for the University of Mississippi baseball team:

Monday:
Emphasis: Lower body, posterior auxiliary, grip
Intensity: Heavy load, moderate volume
Sample lifts: Clean pulls, front squats, Romanian dead lifts, glute-ham raises, pull-ups, TRX rows, fat bar curls, power shrugs
Conditioning: Sprint progression

Tuesday:
Emphasis: Upper body, scapular and shoulder auxiliary
Intensity: Heavy load, high volume
Sample lifts:
Position players: Bench presses, incline presses, lateral raises, face pulls
Pitchers: Block bench presses, push-ups, rows, incline scapular raises, one-arm dumbbell presses
Conditioning: 110-yard sprints and gassers

Thursday:
Emphasis: Lower body, posterior auxiliary, grip
Intensity: Moderate weight, high volume
Sample lifts: Barbell step-ups, barbell lunges, bent-over rows, face pulls, rice buckets, farmer's walks
Conditioning: Sprint progression

Friday:
Emphasis: Upper body, rotational strength
Intensity: Moderate weight, high volume
Sample lifts:
Position players: Close-grip bench presses, one-arm dumbbell incline presses, dips, plyo push-ups, med ball wall slams
Pitchers: TRX push-ups, knee tucks, T-raises, band pull aparts, med ball wall slams
Conditioning: 300-yard shuttles.


SIDEBAR: REBEL RECOVERY
A frequent misconception among baseball players is that weightroom training and going to practice are the two most important aspects of becoming a better team. We preach a third component: recovery. At the University of Mississippi, we utilize different forms of recovery to keep our players fresh and ready to work hard.

After weightroom workouts, the players use cold tubs and contrast baths to reduce swelling from muscle tissue breakdown and decrease inflammation. There is evidence that cold-water immersion can cut down on muscle soreness for up to 96 hours after exercise, compared with passive treatments.

Nutrition has also become a huge part of our program. Working with our team's registered dietitian, the baseball coaching staff and I monitor the players' body compositions weekly, and they meet with the dietitian one-on-one if we feel they need an individualized meal plan. The athletes also do Bod Pod scans up to four times a year to analyze their body compositions and address areas of concern.

I like to get directly involved with the players' nutrition by going grocery shopping with them, especially the underclassmen. It's something I have done since I started as a strength coach. Not only does it help me get to know the athletes more personally, it also provides an opportunity to educate them about how to reach and maintain bodyweight goals.

It can be especially hard for our young players to obtain ideal body composition while living in the dorms. Many have never done meal prep before, so unless the dining halls are open, they have no means of fueling themselves. For example, I show them how easy it is to make five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at once, put them in their mini fridge, and have easy access to protein for the rest of the week. Tips like this help them keep a tighter handle on their nutrition habits.
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