Jun 6, 2018Perfectly Positioned
A year-round training regimen that develops strength, power, speed, and agility ensures the University of Oregon softball team is ready to lead the field during the season.
With the increasing popularity of softball, the higher-quality athletes at the collegiate level continue to make the game more and more competitive. At the University of Oregon, this has made our climb toward becoming a consistent national contender no easy task.
Yet we’ve been fortunate to have had great success in recent years. We won four straight Pac-12 Conference titles from 2013 to 2016 and advanced to the NCAA Division I Women’s College World Series four times in the past six seasons.
The most important contributors to these accomplishments have been:
1. Talent acquisition
2. Talent development
3. Talent retention.
Our coaching staff works tirelessly on the first and third elements, while our strength and conditioning program plays a vital role in the second.
To develop talent, our postseason, offseason, and preseason training approach comprises basic, simple, and time-tested principles. The goal through each phase is to maximize athletic ability by increasing strength, power, speed, and agility through a wide variety of methodologies.
But a truly comprehensive developmental program is more than just the exercises and drills we choose. Even more important is the way we structure our training so the exercises and drills fit together like pieces of a puzzle. For this reason, our year-round training utilizes a progression-based model and loading schemes designed to optimize on-field performance. Ultimately, it’s the athletes’ grit and commitment to the process that determines the team’s potential, but the training plan helps guide us along the way.
Strength, power, speed, and agility are the fundamental prerequisites for the development of performance-related skills. Therefore, these elements are the pillars of our strength and conditioning program.
Building sport-specific strength and power, while reducing the chances of injury, are our main objectives. However, this doesn’t mean we mimic softball movements in the weightroom. Research has shown that this has negative effects on the kinematic and kinetic profiles of actual sport movements.
Rather, we utilize exercises that include similar joint actions, muscular activation patterns, kinetic chain sequences, and contraction/movement velocities to those found in softball. These include multi-joint, multi-planar, ground-based, closed kinetic chain exercises.
Building strength and power in the weightroom transfers to our speed work because maximum force strongly influences an athlete’s ability to accelerate. First, we master sound starting and acceleration mechanics, progressing from shorter to longer distances. Next, we advance into top-speed development, moving from shorter to longer distances. Eventually, this leads us into speed maintenance development.
Training for our last pillar, agility, involves building proper postural position and control, neuromuscular skill, acceleration, deceleration, elastic strength, muscular power, coordination, mobility, and cognitive and reactive abilities. Our goal is to enhance all of these traits by mastering change of direction in closed-skill practice environments first, prior to progressing to unpredictable and chaotic open-skill work.
The pillars of strength, power, speed, and agility are all represented in our annual training plan. We follow a periodization model to help us reach our goals in each of these areas.
Our approach to periodizing athletes follows a “how well,” “how much,” and “how fast” framework. Movement competency must first be assured via an appropriate mobility and stability program that requires athletes to demonstrate quality fundamental movement patterns (how well). Then, load can be applied to build strength levels (how much). Once load can be incorporated without compromising movement quality, speed can be added to build power (how fast).
Throughout each of these steps, we never forget that athletic development is a long-term process. We stress the importance of training smarter, not just harder.
In addition, we always remember that each athlete is different, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach will do more harm than good. For this reason, we utilize a quadrennial periodization model with four progressive training levels (base, developmental, intermediate, and advanced) to assure continued progress of our athletes. Our goal is to use the proper selection of exercises and the minimum effective training dose possible to achieve the adaptations we want.
Following the last game of the season, the postseason phase begins. Depending on when the competitive season ends, this stage lasts three to six weeks from June to the end of July.
During the postseason, we utilize a three-day split in the weightroom (Monday/Wednesday/Friday) that focuses on the total body, with plyometric, speed, and agility development performed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The first two lifting days of the week consist of basic entry-level movements from our exercise progressions that develop mobility, stability, and skill acquisition. These may include:
• Lower-body, knee-dominant: Overhead and front squat variations
• Lower-body, unilateral/single-leg: Split and lateral squat variations, step-downs, and step-up variations
• Lower-body, hip-dominant: Elevated/pin clean dead lifts, trap bar dead lifts, good mornings, stiff-leg dead lifts, hip thrusters, and reverse hyperextensions
• Upper-body, vertical push: Military presses and dumbbell military press variations
• Upper-body, horizontal push: Push-ups, dumbbell presses, barbell benches, and incline presses
• Upper-body, vertical pull: Lat pulldowns, straight-arm cable pulldowns, chin-ups, and neutral grip pull-ups
• Upper-body, horizontal pull: Seated low cable rows, chest-supported rows, dumbbell rows, and inverted rows.
These movements are performed in moderate-to-high volumes (three or four sets of 10 to 12 reps) at moderate intensities. Depending on the individual athlete’s technique and movement competency, we may utilize accentuated eccentrics and positional isometrics with any of these exercises to improve postural and movement control, address positional weaknesses, and increase time under tension. We will also utilize reactive neuromuscular training techniques to improve joint stability, neuromuscular coordination, and kinesthetic and proprioceptive awareness.
Olympic lifting is introduced during the postseason, utilizing exercises such as clean/snatch pulls and high pull variations from blocks or the hang position, eventually progressing to the platform, and push presses. Olympic movements are performed at moderate volume (four or five sets of four or five reps) and low-to-moderate intensities to emphasize technique.
On Fridays, we perform stage circuits to build the work capacity, structural durability, and muscle-joint integrity that will be necessary to handle more intense training later in the upcoming phases. These circuits consist of three or four stages, each including a lower-body, upper-body push, and upper-body pull exercise. A field activity (e.g., jump rope, slide board, or medicine ball toss) is performed between each stage. The majority of the exercises used in our stage circuits are performed with bodyweight or light loads for three or four sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
Plyometric work begins with low-intensity bilateral in-place jump (i.e., pogo, depth drop, and single-response box jump exercises) and skip/bound (i.e., prance, gallop, and ankle flip) progression work. Exercises focusing first on postural control and lower leg (ankle and foot) positioning are performed to teach and reinforce correct take-off, in-flight, and landing mechanics. As technique is mastered, we progress to exercises of higher intensities and complexities, such as squat, rocket, tuck, split jumps, and power skips. Exercises are first performed single-response, progressing to multiple-response with a pause, and eventually multiple-response. Plyometric work performed on Tuesdays has a vertical hip projection emphasis, while Thursday is more horizontal.
Since speed, particularly acceleration, is such an important factor in softball, we invest much of our time developing it throughout the year. Although softball doesn’t require a great deal of max velocity sprinting, we incorporate top-speed sprint work into our program because of the effect it has on the entire acceleration profile and speed reserve. Drills during the postseason assist in teaching the postural positions necessary to:
• Execute the appropriate movement pattern of “push-punch” (acceleration) and “whip-paw” (top speed) mechanics
• Enhance proper direction of force application with active push/paw against the ground
• Generate the horizontal and vertical impulses of sprinting against resistance of closed environments.
The specific drills we use for our speed work in the postseason include wall sprint variations, unloaded and resisted “A” series march/skip/runs, and sled push march/runs. To focus on top speed, we use fast paw, wall slides, “B” series march/skip/runs, and cadence fast legs.
In addition, the ability to push and project the hips in any direction without taking false steps can be a great advantage in any sport, so we make this a part of our speed work. Specifically, we target four stances: squared, staggered, open step, and drop step. Using a technically sound staggered stance while taking off from a base, a properly executed open step to field a grounder, or an efficient drop step to track down fly balls can be the difference between winning and losing a game. The exercises we use to target the required hip hinge for these starts include Romanian dead lifts and good morning variations.
Our focus on hip movement extends to postseason agility drills. We prescribe drills that enhance our athletes’ abilities to shift or sway the hips, which is critical for change of direction.
One activity we use to teach this concept is the Oregon Sway Drill. It begins with an athlete standing directly between two cones placed approximately four-and-a-half feet apart. While maintaining an athletic position, she must touch each cone by shifting or swaying her hips from side to side. Next, we move the cones out on each side by the length of the athlete’s foot, and she must use a step-out-and-push-back maneuver to touch them. The cones continue to move out by the length of the athlete’s foot on each side as she progresses and performs pivot step maneuvers, shuffle steps, and a two-step run, turn, and cut sequence to touch them.
The offseason period runs from August to December and is comprised of two phases: the early/summer offseason (August to October) and late/fall offseason (October to December). The summer period is much more general, while the fall involves higher intensities and becomes more sport specific to prepare athletes for the preseason.
We utilize a four-day training split during the summer offseason. This period consists of a trio of three-week blocks. During the first two blocks, Mondays and Thursdays have an upper-body emphasis, and Tuesdays and Fridays have a lower-body emphasis. For the last summer block, we keep a four-day split. However, the emphasis for Mondays and Thursdays becomes speed and power development, and the emphasis is strength on Tuesdays and Fridays.
The first phase is for general preparation/accumulation. This is when we emphasize skill refinement and strength build-up to ready the athletes for more intensive work later in the offseason. We use many of the same exercises in this summer offseason phase that we used in the postseason.
Regarding the Olympic lifts, it is in this phase that veteran players begin receiving cleans/snatches for the first time, which are performed from hang and block positions. The push press also progresses to the push jerk. All of the Olympic movements are completed using moderate volume (four or five sets of three to five reps) and low-to-moderate intensities to ensure correct technique is mastered. Upon the conclusion of the general preparation/accumulation phase, we schedule a planned active rest and recovery week.
Our second summer offseason phase is for maximum strength/transmutation, where we shift the focus toward maximum strength development. During this time, the exercises are similar to the ones used in previous phases, but the primary multi-joint compound exercises are performed at higher intensities. In this phase, we will start incorporating loaded lunge variations as we progress from the Bulgarian squat.
Depending on the athlete’s position, training level, and technique mastery, we progress the Olympic lifts into snatch, clean, and jerk variations from the platform. The volume is relatively low (four to six sets of two or three reps), and we use higher intensities to develop strength-speed.
Our final summer offseason phase is for power conversion/realization. We continue to enhance maximum strength-utilizing primary Olympic, lower-body hip-dominant/knee-dominant, and upper-body push/pull exercises-but we also incorporate dynamic strength development. This consists of explosive work and speed overloads, utilizing exercises such as squat/broad jump variations, trap bar dead lift jumps, explosive step-up variations, depth jump progressions, and medicine ball passes using low-to-moderate weights.
Summer off-season plyometric work is performed on Monday (vertical emphasis) and Thursday (horizontal emphasis). This includes in-place jumping progressing into spatial (split and scissor) and single-leg work (pogo, slide, tuck). Hill/stairs are utilized for broad jumps to decrease horizontal eccentric forces and reinforce landing mechanics. Bilateral hops with cyclic leg action are performed starting with single and progressing to multiple-response. Alternating leg bounds, as well as single-response lateral bounds, are performed.
For summer offseason speed, we build upon the starting abilities and acceleration developed during the postseason. We perform progressions of starts and acceleration mechanics with added resistance to emphasize hip projection and active foot drive into the ground.
Our agility training in the summer offseason focuses on speed and power cuts. The speed cut is a lateral movement that consists of a rolling crossover pivot action off of the inside leg. Speed cutting is critical for many softball skills, particularly base running. We use drills such as hoop sprints, cone speed weave variations, and figure-eight cone drills to teach this movement.
The power cut requires the ability to make cuts off of the outside leg. This is key for when a softball player is caught in a rundown situation, redirected back to a base, or must reposition her body defensively. The activities we perform to enhance this cut include simple shuttle drills and star drill variations.
We conclude our summer offseason with a week of performance evaluations and an active rest and recovery week. Then, we begin the fall offseason period, which coincides with the beginning of fall team practices.
Due to the players’ increased on-field demands and academic schedules during the fall, we transition to lifting three days per week (Monday/Wednesday/Friday). Tuesdays and Thursdays are utilized for plyometric, speed, and agility work. We also perform conditioning on Fridays consisting of tempo and sprint interval variations upon completion of lifting. Like the summer offseason, the fall block consists of three mesocycles, each three weeks long: a general preparation/accumulation phase, a maximum strength/transmutation phase, and a power conversion/realization phase.
During the fall general preparation/accumulation phase, we reassess our intermediate and advanced athletes’ movement skills and exercise techniques to determine if they can advance to more complex exercises and training methods.
Our base and developmental-level athletes stick to basic lower-body and upper-body push/pull progression exercises in this stage for continued facilitation of correct technique and to gain basic strength in these movement patterns. They typically complete four sets of six to eight reps.
The fall maximum strength/transmutation phase involves more intensive loading of the prescribed primary exercises. For our more advanced athletes, we utilize clean and snatch complexes and combinations where reps are performed from different positions. We also progress from push-press variations to more dynamic overhead movements, such as push jerks.
Exercises for squatting, pushing/pressing, and pulling strength are prescribed based on training level and individual deficiencies. This may come in the form of eccentric stripping, off-set loading, oscillatory, partial range of motion, dead stop, and bottom-up/pin exercise variations.
During this phase, athletes use low volumes and high intensities-about 80 to 90 percent of one-repetition maximum (1RM). We assign four to six sets of five reps and drop to three reps as loads increase.
The goal of the fall offseason power conversion/realization phase is to take the strength built thus far and add movement speed to enhance general accelerative abilities and rate of force development. Our veteran athletes begin full-scale Olympic lifting, progressing from push jerks to split jerks and performing cleans and snatches from the ground. Methods of accommodated resistance, such as the use of chains and bands, are used with our more advanced athletes.
Contrast and complex methods and cluster sets may also be used during this phase. Our developmental and intermediate-level athletes complete modified versions of complex and contrast methods, which consist of plyometric exercises that are lower on the stress continuum.
Fall offseason plyometric training progresses into higher-impact exercises, such as single-leg hops, bilateral side hops, and multiple-response broad jumps and lateral bounds. Combination in-place (i.e., squat to tuck jump and pogo to tuck jump) and over-distance (squat to broad jump) jump sequences are performed in the early fall phases. In the late fall phases. we progress to hurdle hop combination sequences (i.e., low- and high-, diagonal, and forward-lateral hops). Combination sequences aid to manipulate intra-set jump intensities, challenge transitions between long and short amortization phases, challenge the ability to maximally project the hips horizontally immediately following vertical hip projection (and vice versa), and challenge the ability to transition from various take-off, flight, and landing positions within the same set.
The primary focus of our fall offseason speed work is to foster continued acceleration development. Rhythmic, cadence, and coordination drills are integrated within technical warm-ups, and sprint resistance in the form of incline/hill sprints and sled towing is employed. For top-speed development, build-ups and 10- to 20-yard “fly” sprints are performed.
To hone agility during the fall offseason, we progress into open-skill environments. We incorporate various reactionary ball drop and wall ball drills, as well as tag and mirror drills. These challenge and enhance the cognitive abilities necessary for success in softball, such as reacting to a ball hit off of a bat or an opponent stealing a base.
The preseason period begins at the conclusion of the offseason and lasts until the first game. It usually spans December and January and is made up of two three- or four-week phases. The weightroom emphasis during the preseason shifts from maximal strength development to power development.
The first preseason phase occurs during the month of December, which is our winter break. This presents challenges because most of our athletes are out of town at this time. For this reason, we keep our programming simple by utilizing basic exercises from our progressions. We give athletes the option of performing exercises with a traditional barbell, dumbbells, or bodyweight in order to accommodate any equipment issues they encounter while away from campus.
After winter break, the second preseason phase occurs during January. This is a power conversion/realization phase. We utilize the same weekly training schedule used during the fall, with each day being total body. The objective for this stage is to refine specific capacities in strength and power to enhance maximal power output and rate of force development. The emphasis for our Olympic lifting shifts toward movement velocity, utilizing loads that range between 30 to 80 percent of 1RM or velocities between 0.75 to 1.5 meters per second.
In this stage, we once again incorporate contrast methods. Our athletes utilize the French contrast method, although we modify it for the developmental and intermediate athletes. This requires using very simple and basic contrasts (i.e., pairing front squat and squat jump or dead lift and broad jump).
Preseason plyometric work continues with high-impact exercises progressing into shock methods. This takes shape in the form of multiple-response box jumps, depth jumps/leaps, and lateral and diagonal hopping (bilateral and single-leg), and bounding. Depending on individual training levels and skill mastery, we progress into plyometric sequences, such as box jumps and hurdle hops, hops to bounds, jumps to throw, and jumps/hops to sprint combinations.
The aim during our preseason speed work is to develop acceleration, speed, and movement abilities that closely mimic competition intervals. For instance, at least once a week, we have athletes perform a few sets of position-specific pattern sprints. These comprise of a series of starts specific to those performed during softball, such as a catcher popping up out of her stance to track a foul ball or a third baseman charging forward to field a bunt. Base running drills are also utilized to develop specific angular speed. To peak acceleration, we utilize sprint contrasting involving a 10- to 20-yard weighted sled tow sprint followed by a 10- to 20-yard unloaded sprint.
Our agility work becomes more softball/position specific in the preseason, as well. One example is the touch-and-go drill, which requires athletes to accelerate in a straight line or at angles for distances of 20 yards. Every five yards, they lean over to touch the ground, as if to field a ground ball. Activities involving crossover, hip flip, and spin sprints are performed to train the actions needed to track down fly balls. In addition, tag games are incorporated to simulate rundown situations.
That brings us to the in-season, where all of the training we’ve done over the previous seven or eight months comes together on the field. I would be doing a great disservice if I didn’t mention the incredible hard work and effort that our coaching staff, support staff, and athletes put in throughout the year. I am incredibly grateful for their trust and belief in our strength and conditioning program, and their buy-in has helped make our team all the more successful.
In the annual program for University of Oregon softball, most players adhere to the same basic exercises and movements. However, two position groups require special training attention because of the unique demands they face: catchers and pitchers.
A catcher must be able to squat comfortably for long periods of time, but common issues with limited hip, ankle, and thoracic spine mobility can make this very difficult. To address each of these deficiencies, our catchers perform a wide variety of mobility drills. Along with basic bodyweight mobility exercises, we incorporate loaded/gravity-assisted stretching, banded joint distraction, and eccentric quasi-isometric exercises.
For pitchers, we know their throwing motion requires a great deal of timing, synchronization, and coordination in the kinetic chain. Therefore, the aim of their training program is to enhance the segmental sequencing of this structure.
To do this, single-leg versions of good mornings, stiff-leg dead lifts, back extensions, and reverse hyperextensions are performed with the bottom of the non-weight-bearing foot pressed flat and low against a block or wall to utilize co-contraction, reduce muscle slack, and enhance pre-tension for lumbo-pelvic hip stability for push-off power. These exercises may also be combined with lunge or step-up variations, both of which are similar to the actions at the hip during the pitching sequence.
We also utilize Olympic movements, such as the clean, snatch, and jerk variations, for strengthening and developing closed kinetic chain function, synchronization, and coordination. The segmental sequencing of the kinetic chain during these movements closely resembles that of the windmill pitching motion. However, we do closely monitor the amount our pitchers receive cleans and snatches and perform jerks, especially in-season.
Our pitchers perform resisted pitching stride sled tows, as well as a variety of single-leg medicine ball passes/throws/tosses. These aid to improve elastic-reactive strength and push-off power of the drive leg and balance and stability needed by the stride/post leg.
This article appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.