Jan 29, 2015Path Less Traveled
The Florida State University softball team takes an unconventional route to offseason training, focusing as much on speed and agility as on power.
By Caitlin Quinn
Caitlin Quinn, CSCS, RSCC, is Assistant Strength and Speed Coach at Florida State University, where she works with the softball and indoor volleyball teams. She was named the 2013 NSCA Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year and can be reached at: [email protected].
In each of my seven years of working with the Florida State University softball team, we’ve started our offseason training program with a mission. Early on, we aspired to win conference championships, but as the squad has become more competitive, we’ve set our sights on loftier goals.
For the 2014 season, our battle cry was “Today for June,” or 2D4J for short. This reflected our aim to earn a berth in the NCAA Division I Women’s College World Series (WCWS) that June for the first time since 2004.
The motto sent a simple message to our players: Everything you do each day affects the outcome of the season. The coaching staff and I connected every drill, lift, throw, hit, practice, and scrimmage all year long to the team’s goals for June.
Fortunately, our strategy worked. A walk-off home run helped us win our Super Regional, and we punched our ticket to the WCWS.
Of course, it took more than a motto for the squad to get there. The softball coaching staff works diligently to create a unified team, and I put the players through a vigorous and unique offseason routine.
Some people say we don’t look like a typical softball team, and that’s probably because we don’t train like one. The coaching staff aims to develop players who can generate power without losing the ability to cover ground quickly, and I designed our offseason strength and conditioning program to do just that. My goal is to create lean, mean, softball machines, and I accomplish this by placing a premium on quality lifts and conditioning.
Our offseason regimen begins with teaching. I walk players through our pre-lift routine, which involves muscle activation and inhibition and breathing techniques designed to achieve optimal hip and shoulder positioning. I also prescribe the players basic exercises, such as dumbbell presses in a half-kneeling position and overhead squats. These movements help with mobility and stabilization and reinforce proper technique for later lifts.
In these early phases of offseason training, I keep the weights light and constantly preach the importance of correct form. No one is allowed to progress to heavier loads until I am confident she can do so while maintaining proper form. I’m a stickler about this for safety’s sake. When an athlete attempts a movement she cannot perform correctly, the risk of injury increases. My focus on form is also about instilling attention to detail and discipline in the players–if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
Once we shift to the meat of our offseason plan, I hold lifts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I split the team into three groups of eight to 10 athletes, so I can more effectively watch, instruct, and correct each individual.
Every session in the weightroom starts with an Olympic lift, typically supplemented with a prehab movement. Next, I usually pair multi-joint, lower-body lifts with upper-body pulls and upper-body overhead presses with lower-body pulls. These lifts are all completed using free weights to better utilize ground-based, multi-joint actions. I’ll also occasionally add glute-ham raises or reverse hypers for posterior chain work. (See “Seminole Strength” below for a sample week of exercises.)
One of the unique things about Florida State softball’s strength and conditioning program is that the players press exclusively overhead. I stopped using the bench press a few years ago because a large portion of the force exerted during this exercise comes from the reactant nature of the bench itself, removing the legs and torso from the equation. This creates athletes whose upper bodies can exert forces that their legs and torsos are incapable of supporting. To me, this puts them at risk for injury. As a result, we only use push-ups for horizontal pressing.
An additional reason we switched to overhead pressing is that it helps improve overall shoulder health, which is vital for softball players. Horizontal pressing forces the pec minor to tighten and pulls the shoulder forward. An anteriorly rotated shoulder creates an imbalance of space, leading to impingement. With overhead pressing, we’ve seen a decrease in these nagging shoulder injuries.
Some of the overhead variations I use include push jerks, push presses, alternating dumbbell presses, and single-arm half-kneeling overhead dumbbell presses. It’s important to remember proper pelvis positioning when practicing this method of training. Cuing proper pelvic tilt begins on the ground and is emphasized in our pre-lift routine. Later, athletes learn this control while standing and using light weights. Eventually, the athlete will achieve proper position on her own, and a cue during a lift will be all it takes to get her back in line. Without setting her core and eliminating excessive lumbar extension, overhead pressing can go from being helpful to harmful.
Besides my views on overhead pressing, I also have a different approach to teaching the squat. Early in my career, I would tell my players to keep their bodyweight on their heels and reach back with their butts. However, I’ve recently discovered a few coaching cues that have proven to be more effective: – Push your knees away from each other and out in front. – Put your weight in the middle of your foot and glide straight down. – Maintain close to a vertical torso. – On the way up, push your hips forward using your glutes.
Teaching new breathing patterns while squatting has proven to be beneficial, as well. I instruct athletes to exhale completely at the beginning of the lift to activate the proper abdominal muscles, inhale to obtain intra-abdominal pressure, and then descend. As soon as they get out of the hole, I tell them to exhale. These squat tweaks have produced more vertical torsos, deeper squats, and large jumps in maxes.
One of the most recent changes to our offseason regimen came in the fall of 2013, after I heard Ron Hruska, PT, MPA, Director of the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI), speak at the NSCA Coaches Conference. The more I thought about what Hruska said regarding specialized posture and breathing patterns, the more I realized he was really on to something. Since then, I have implemented 90/90 balloon breathing and all-four belly lifts with my players and have seen positive results.
OFF AND RUNNING
Our approach to offseason conditioning takes many forms. We began fall 2013 with long conditioning workouts, such as stadium stairs and 100-yard shuttles. As we progressed, we moved toward short, 30-minute sessions that focused more on agility and plyos. I found it most effective to keep these high-intensity, high-skill workouts short to ward off fatigue, which also ensures quality reps. A little truly goes a long way.
Typically, I break the team into three groups for conditioning to increase the quality of supervision I can provide. In addition, I find it most beneficial to mix conditioning work in with other stations during practice. Besides our more traditional conditioning work, I’ve been exploring the idea of conditioning through lifting for the past few years by ending each offseason training session with a “finisher” activity. This usually involves a circuit of three to five exercises, such as burpee pull-ups, Russian plate twists, dumbbell reverse lunges, and jumping rope. The finisher can take as little as four minutes or as many as 15 depending on time limitations and the energy level of the athletes.
In some ways, the team’s finishing activities are related to those done in CrossFit, and I do this for both recruiting and training purposes. With the growing popularity of CrossFit, a number of recruits and returning athletes have asked me about it. The finishers show players how a mix of traditional strength training and bioenergetics can help them develop their softball skills.
This method of training doesn’t always get a lot of support from the strength and conditioning community, but it works for our program. I design the exercises, volume, and intensity of the finishers with our team’s big-picture goals in mind. Brief periods of training the phosphagen and glycolytic systems are very useful for maintaining a lean body and working the energy systems used most frequently during softball. I don’t believe an effective lift needs to leave an athlete feeling beat down, so I design finishers to let the players work at their own max capacity and end the session with a sense of sweaty accomplishment.
ART OF COMMUNICATION
Apart from our conditioning and weightroom work, there is another secret to the success of Florida State softball: everyone works together. This approach is a testament to the way Head Coach Alana Alameda runs the program.
When Coach A–or “Coacha” as we have dubbed her–first came to Florida State prior to the 2009 season, she told the athletes to call me Coach Quinn. From that day forward, I was not just a strength coach assigned to her team but an important part of her staff. I am involved with recruiting visits, team-building activities, community service, promoting academic success, and constantly upholding the ideals of our program.
Over the years, our level of trust in each other has deepened. Coacha and I plan the team’s strength and conditioning goals together at weekly meetings, striving to improve on previous experiences and providing honest feedback to each other. Though Coacha airs concerns or asks me to use specific drills at times, she always defers to my expertise. This has allowed me a great deal of freedom in my programming and given me the chance to take calculated risks with our athletes.
In addition, weekly meetings with Coacha always include Assistant Athletic Trainer Eunice Hernandez, MS, ATC, LAT. The relationship between strength coaches and athletic trainers can be tenuous for some programs, but mutual humility and trust can go a long way toward developing a positive relationship.
Eunice and I have been working together with the softball squad since the fall of 2008, and our relationship has been forged and fine-tuned over time. Through the years, we have done a lot of growing and evolving together, which has resulted in a strong and ever-improving partnership based on mutual respect. I must trust Eunice to do her job, as she must trust me to do mine.
On any given day, there are a lot of moving parts: athletes meeting with coaches, lifting, performing rehab, extra work on the field, and so on. Eunice and I communicate constantly to update one another on specific athletes and make sure we stay on the same page.
In my experience, the secret to having a good relationship with your athletic trainer is striving to understand before you strive to be understood. When having a discussion with Eunice, I try to see where she is coming from first. If I know how she is interpreting my programming, I can speak to her specific concerns more effectively.
More than anything else, the key to success when working with sports coaches and the sports medicine staff is communication. We all put in the time to prevent any mixed messages from sidetracking our team. E-mails, texts, and phone calls can be quick and easy ways to get your point across, but we discuss anything of substance face to face.
Collaboration, cooperation, and innovation within the Florida State softball program are the reasons we were able to ultimately reach our 2D4J goal. Following our elimination at the WCWS, I was reminded of how special this job is. I looked around the locker room at all the teary-eyed faces, heartbroken at the result, but extremely proud of all they had accomplished together. It was remarkable to feel like I contributed to their success in even the tiniest way. It’s why I am a strength coach–to make a difference in the lives of collegiate athletes and contribute to something larger than myself.
To read a previously published article in T&C on PRI, look for “Finding Balance” at: www.Training-Conditioning.com/tc2402/.
SIDEBAR: SEMINOLE STRENGTH
Here’s a look at a sample offseason week in the weightroom for the Florida State University softball team.
Day One Power clean 6×2 Terminal knee extension 5×4 Front squat 5×3 Push press 5×3 Pull-up 5×3 Dumbbell single-leg RDL 5×4 Finisher: Dumbbell reverse lunge Plate Russian twist Jump rope V ups
Day Two Hang snatch 5×3 Overhead squat 5×3 Push-up 5×5 HKR 3×6 Barbell rollout 3×6 Hitchhikers 3×4 Finisher: Jump rope Treadmill or bike
Day Three Clean pull 5×3 Single-leg squat to box 5×3 Chin-up 5×3 Kneeling alternating shoulder press 5×4 Reverse hyper 2×6 Hyper to ham on GHD machine 2×6 Finisher: Medicine ball ceiling rebound Mountain climbers Lateral hurdle jumps Push-ups
SIDEBAR: OUTSIDE THE BOX
In addition to designing a strength and conditioning program that helps the team succeed on the field, the approach I take with the Florida State University softball team includes helping them become well-rounded young women. Growing up, I participated in many different activities. As an undergrad at Springfield College, I studied applied exercise science, aimed to be the toughest defender in intramural indoor soccer, performed with the dance team, sang, and acted.
I’ve used these different interests at Florida State and encourage the players to broaden their horizons and join me. For example, we dress up to perform a skit at our 6 a.m. Halloween workout, and we have an indoor soccer game together before everyone breaks for Thanksgiving. I’ve even choreographed a dance for them to complete during halftime at Seminole basketball games to promote fan interest in our team. Though unconventional, these activities push the athletes out of their comfort zone and get them to try something away from softball.
I also help the players develop by being someone they can count on. On any given day, I do more counseling than coaching. I am the only coaching staff member who is constantly around the student-athletes but does not control their playing time. Because of this, they often feel more at ease discussing certain topics or letting their guard down with me. I have been granted many unique opportunities over the years to weigh in on life issues, turning points, and key moments on players’ journeys to graduation, which are just as valuable to me as any achievement in the weightroom.