Nov 26, 2015Form & Function
A keen attention to detail during offseason training has helped the University of Florida baseball team develop the physical and mental discipline needed to earn six consecutive NCAA Division I tournament berths.
The following article appears in the December 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Over the past decade, the University of Florida baseball program has established itself as one of the country’s elite. Since I started working with the team in 2010, the squad has won three Southeastern Conference championships and made the NCAA tournament six consecutive years, including trips to the College World Series (CWS) in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2015.
One of the reasons for the team’s success is an offseason strength and conditioning regimen that holds players to the highest standards and demands excellence from them each and every day. As the Florida baseball strength coach, I have three main priorities for the offseason: 1) making the athletes mentally tough, 2) helping them become more injury resilient, and 3) building athletes’ strength. Combined, these goals form the backbone of our work in and out of the weightroom.
Of course, it’s one thing to list a set of priorities and another to actually enact them. At Florida, I’ve done this by developing a set of weightroom rules to instill a disciplined culture, creating innovative pool workouts to keep my pitchers fresh, and focusing on the details in the weightroom to maximize strength gains.
CREATING A CULTURE
Forming a culture is important for any offseason strength and conditioning program because it establishes a set of standards that players are expected to meet. The three tenets to our culture are discipline, mental toughness, and team chemistry.
To foster discipline, we enforce a set of clearly defined weightroom guidelines from day one. A lot of strength coaches overlook this step, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. I use three rules, which have evolved over my years as a strength coach thanks to the input of different mentors in the profession. They are basic, easy to enforce, and quickly create an atmosphere of accountability.
1. No sitting in the weightroom. Why? Constant movement creates a more serious work environment.
2. No yawning in the weightroom. Once again, the weightroom is a place where our athletes should come to work, and yawning is a sign of boredom and apathy.
3. All players must wear the same gear to strength and conditioning sessions. Although this may seem like an insignificant detail in the grand scheme of a training program, making sure everyone dresses the same is an exercise in accountability, helps build team unity, and instills team pride.
The second tenet of our culture is building athletes’ mental toughness, which is reflected in our weightroom guidelines. It’s also an especially important trait to build in baseball players because of the mentally demanding nature of their sport.
One of the ways we build mental toughness is by making players understand that baseball is a game of failure. Even a hitter with a good batting average of .300 fails 70 percent of the time. To help players overcome adversity and cope with failure, we design a strength program that has built-in consequences for any deviation from established workout protocols.
For example, when an athlete is observed yawning in the weightroom, we bring it to his attention and immediately instruct him to do 10 pushups. Once the player follows through with this consequence, he resumes team workouts. Each player knows that mistakes will happen, so they need to learn to treat them as teachable moments and move on from them.
I also get players comfortable with failure by putting them in stressful situations where they will not always succeed. For instance, a player will “fail” at some point during a wall sit because he won’t be able to hold the position forever. When a player fails, they understand that there will be a next time. This is similar to moving on to the next play after an error in games.
Another way we develop mental toughness is by making training competitive. When working with high-
level athletes, it’s important to constantly challenge them. Our players were the leaders of their high school teams and often the most accomplished in their regions. But at Florida, they are competing with the very best of the best. It is important that they have been tested before they ever step foot on the field, so they know they are ready for the challenges of a grueling season.
The last component of building a culture is developing team chemistry. One way I facilitate this is by partnering upperclassmen with freshmen and sophomores during offseason weightroom work. The younger players learn from the older players, and the veterans get a chance to improve their leadership skills, which creates a sense of ownership within the team.
The workout pairs are rotated every two weeks to ensure a wide range of connections amongst teammates. My hope is that the players are also forging friendships that will last a lifetime.
Collegiate baseball players are at an increased risk for overuse injuries due to a number of factors, including the length of the season, the frequency of games, and the fact that most of them compete year-round. Therefore, a major focus of my offseason strength and conditioning program is helping them become more injury resilient.
A big component of this is keeping a close eye on athletes’ overall workloads. If I don’t factor in the physical toll of the work done on the practice field, in the bullpen, or in the batting cages when planning my training sessions, I could leave players vulnerable to overuse injuries. I try to be flexible as a college baseball strength coach and understand that I may have to modify the workload or exercise selection for the well-being of the players. For example, I adjust the lifting volume of freshman pitchers depending on their throwing schedule.
An important focus of my injury prevention program is keeping pitchers healthy. With the rise of UCL injuries, everyone is looking for new ways to keep hurlers from season- or career-ending injuries. At Florida, our solution is to throw them in the pool.
During one of the first meetings I had with Head Coach Kevin O’Sullivan, he mentioned that he’d always been interested in using pool workouts to keep pitchers healthy. Since I have more than a decade of experience as a competitive swimmer and a swim coach at the high school and club levels, I developed a pool workout for pitchers called Pitcher Velocity Conditioning (PVC).
PVC workouts are done in a 25-yard pool and last approximately 30 minutes. When first starting out, the pitchers are taught, or reintroduced to, the basics of freestyle swimming and then progress to backstroke. They complete PVC workouts twice a week in the offseason and once a week during the season, in addition to the team’s standard strength and conditioning program. (See “Strokes for Strikes” below for a sample PVC session.)
The point of the pool training is to keep pitchers healthy by making sure they have equal strength and flexibility in their shoulders. Other benefits include improved thoracic spine mobility, hip and arm linking, balance in the obliques, arm flexibility, general conditioning, and decreased inflammation. These traits allow pitchers to maintain a consistent velocity in their throws as games progress.
We also use the PVC workouts to help pitchers recover between outings. After a session in the water, many report that their shoulder soreness is gone, and they feel stretched out and loose.
As pitchers progress in their skill with each stroke, I place a greater emphasis on rhythmic breathing based on stroke count. When a pitcher is under stress during a game, he experiences increased heart rate and anxiety, which can cause him to breathe heavier and erratically. The rhythmic breathing learned in PVC training makes him more aware of his breathing, enabling him to stay focused.
One final note on the PVC program: it cannot be arbitrarily added to every team. The coach in charge must be able to ensure that each stroke is being performed correctly. Like any exercise, a strength coach must be knowledgeable and comfortable not only in teaching and explaining the strokes but also in demonstrating them when necessary.
When it comes to our offseason strength training regimen, I place more emphasis on the way exercises are performed than on which exercises the athletes do. This approach requires meticulous attention to detail in all movements. I supervise each athlete’s reps and am always available to give immediate feedback or corrections.
The athletes must understand that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to execute each exercise. To help them learn proper technique, we have a coach or older player demonstrate a lifting motion and then show the athletes video of themselves completing the same movements. The goal is to give them a clear mental picture of how every repetition should be performed, which will prevent them from developing bad movement patterns.
Additionally, I provide the athletes no more than three focus points for each lift. For example, with a back squat, I instruct them to focus on their head position, bar placement, and depth. Obviously, there are other possible coaching cues, but this gives the players enough detail to learn the lift correctly without overwhelming them.
My detail-oriented approach to strength training aids in the development of athletes’ overall focus, which has benefits on the field. Regardless of their position, baseball players must learn how to “lock in” mentally. When they are accustomed to doing this during lifts, it makes it easier and more natural to do during games.
Because my athletes are taught to hone in on the specifics of each lift, I make the overall structure of the workouts straightforward. This makes it easier to coach techniques and encourages constant effort from the first rep to the last. When weightroom sessions are complex and lengthy, it’s hard for even the most focused and hard-working athlete to be accountable for every element.
Regarding exercise selection, as long as the athletes are advancing in weight or skill without risking injury and balancing upper- and lower-body training, I don’t place much emphasis on what rep scheme or exercise they use. It does not matter to a muscle which exercise is being performed-the muscle will produce force to move the given resistance, regardless of the implement used.
In addition, the details of a specific exercise are often more important than the weight of the lift. Load is not the only measure of progress. A player’s physical development can be measured in a myriad of ways, whether it is increasing the efficiency of the movement pattern, getting one rep better, or increasing the weight used to complete the last set from week to week.
That being said, the general makeup of our offseason program is that athletes lift four days a week, and we condition on the fifth day. Rep and load progressions are set at my discretion. We do a lot of bodyweight, band, and dumbbell work, and we commonly include exercises such as dumbbell bench presses, rows, chin-ups, push-ups, pulldowns, squats, lunges, Romanian dead lifts, and hip lifts. (See “Plan of Attack” below for a sample offseason workout.)
One style of exercise you will not find in our strength program is Olympic lifting. I cannot stress how strongly I feel about not having baseball players perform these movements. They are rarely used at the professional levels, and they are not safe, effective ways to train baseball players given the stresses of the game. There are other methods to develop players that carry less risk for injury.
Florida baseball’s offseason strength and conditioning program is vital to the mental toughness, health, and physical development of the players. It serves as a critical support while they maintain their physical and mental states throughout the course of a 56-game regular season. When implemented correctly and consistently, my three priorities will translate to success on the baseball field, from the first game of the preseason to the championship game in the CWS.
STROKES FOR STRIKES
University of Florida pitchers complete Pitcher Velocity Conditioning workouts in the pool twice a week during the offseason. Each session includes a 200-yard warm-up and cool down using the athletes’ choice of stroke. Here’s a sample week:
Front, back, side, side kick – x 200 each direction
Odds, evens* (freestyle) – 8 x 25 yards
Blowout sprints (freestyle) – 8 x 25 yards
Kicking with a kickboard – x 200 yards
Odds, evens* (backstroke) – 8 x 25 yards
Backstroke down/freestyle back – 6 x 50 yards
(breathing every five strokes)
*Every odd number lap is a drill and every even lap is a swim
Sidebar: PLAN OF ATTACK
Below is a sample workout from the University of Florida baseball team’s offseason plan.
Hurdles – 1 x 6
Ladders – 1 x 10
Windmills – 1 x 10
Pizza pies (arm care-rotator) – 1 x 10
Two-way raise (arm care-rotator) – 1 x 20
Dumbbell bench or floor press (pitchers) – 3 x 6
Dumbbell bench press (position players) – 1 x 8, 1 x 6, 1 x 4
Fat grip V-pulldown – 3 x 8
Platform push-ups – 3 x 8
TRX row – 3 x 8
Biceps, triceps, forearm work – Coach’s discretion
Bridging abs – 3 x 15 sec.
Competition: Dumbbell holds for time