Jun 6, 2017Set in Motion
Three founding principles launch an offseason training regimen for Louisiana State University softball that builds power, speed, and team cohesion.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
For more than a decade, I’ve been privileged to serve as a valued part of the Louisiana State University softball program. Through the years, I have worked with tremendous coaches and support staff to develop a system for maximizing our athletes’ potential.
The system for our fall offseason is constantly evolving, but it has always been based on three components: assessments, goals, and competitions. Then, we build on these features with structured strength programming to build full-body explosive strength and power and a heavy emphasis on speed, agility, and conditioning.
On the field, the results of this approach have been obvious. Since Head Coach Beth Torina came aboard in 2012, we’ve gone to five NCAA Division I Regionals, three Super Regionals, and three Women’s College World Series (WCWS), including back-to-back trips in 2015 and 2016. After another dedicated fall offseason of training, we opened the 2017 season ranked in the top five nationally, and we hope to return to the WCWS for a third straight year.
When the season ends, the players head home for a few months with their summer workout programs. Meanwhile, the LSU coaching and performance staffs dive right into planning our fall offseason assessments, goals, and competitions.
I begin the assessment process by meeting with the coaches and athletic trainer to discuss each player’s past performance on the field and in training, her injury history or risk, and what she needs to do to improve. We then evaluate the team as a whole, considering the players we are losing and gaining and how those changes will affect the dynamic of the team.
The assessments continue in late August when the players report to campus. During their first week back, the athletic training staff and I individually screen each athlete for injury risk. We use a web-based system called Fusionetics, which grades players’ functional movement through a series of tests, provides their total risk score, and offers interventions to incorporate into their training programs. The latter can range from activities like foam rolling for specific muscle groups to addressing weaknesses through strengthening exercises.
Players are also evaluated on a Cybex machine to assess imbalances in their lower-body strength. Cybex testing tells us if an athlete has a good hamstring-to-quadriceps ratio and points out any unilateral deficit. If the Cybex shows a poor hamstring-to-quadriceps ratio, extra exercises are programmed to improve it. Or if one leg is weaker than the other, extra work is done to strengthen it.
After these initial steps, we transition to the weightroom for assessments in the back squat, power clean, bench press, vertical jump, and 20-yard dash. This is when we introduce our team conditioning test, as well. Called “The Shuttle,” it consists of seven 180-yard shuttles. Each rep is performed as a 90-second interval. Upperclassmen are challenged to finish each shuttle in 35 to 42 seconds, while new players have a goal time of 43 seconds. Athletes then have the remainder of the 90-second block to recover.
If an athlete completes all seven shuttles within her goal time, she passes. If she misses one, she has three more chances to make up for it. Should any player fail the test, the whole team must repeat it in the following weeks until all players have passed. The Shuttle might be the most dreaded fall offseason activity for the team, but it’s been our best tool for improving mental toughness, accountability, and confidence.
The results of our assessment period play a large role when it comes to setting goals for the remaining fall offseason. Goals are established for each individual in every area we test. I take into account their previous years of training experience (the less developed they are, the greater gains they can make), the demands of their position (are they above or below what is expected of them), their injury risk and history (are they making a comeback, or are they at risk for a major injury), and their body type (do they develop strength and fitness easily). The goal for every athlete is to get better than they were when we started.
One of our fall offseason team goals every year is to seamlessly integrate new players into our strength and conditioning program. Their first week of training covers our major exercises and basic movement patterns, which reveals their strengths and weaknesses. During this time, they receive concentrated coaching from me and learn exactly what I expect of them.
Then, new players watch the veterans perform a team workout so they can see the tempo and proficiency of the experienced players. Observing the upperclassmen work out before they dive into training allows the new players to witness what a weightroom session should look like without trying to complete their own exercises at the same time.
New players are finally integrated into workout groups the following week. Even if they are somewhat behind the veterans, I still mix them in so they can be mentored by the upperclassmen. I find that a stronger culture is established when teammates teach teammates. The veterans show new players how we do things, and the group takes ownership of “The LSU Way.”
With our assessments done and goals set, we dive into competitive fall offseason activities. Competition is a large part of our team culture because it is the basis of sport and triggers some of our best performances. Further, experiencing the stress of competition within training emotionally prepares players to handle the big moments in games.
To instill this competitive fire, there is an organized rank to almost all of our major activities. For example, during team lifts, players are grouped in racks from weakest to strongest based on their performance the previous week, and the team lines up single file fastest to slowest for conditioning activities. Each player aims to get to the top rack or front of the line. However, since no one can be the best in every category, improvement from week to week is always celebrated.
The highly competitive nature of our training is kept in balance with a positive, fun, and supportive atmosphere. We play energetic music in the weightroom, frequently include relays and games in training, and even work out in costume on Halloween. We push the players hard, but our focus is on weekly gains and improvements, not setbacks. When athletes know they will have fun, they look forward to their next workout. When athletes are reminded of what they do well, they remember to repeat those actions. And when athletes know that you care about them, trust and loyalty are established.
Incorporating our building blocks of assessments, goals, and competitions, our fall offseason spans 14 consecutive weeks beginning in August and ending in November. This period is split into three phases.
The first includes weeks one through four. There’s one week of orientation, strength and conditioning performance assessments, and injury risk screening-as previously described-and then three loading weeks.
Phase two lasts from week five to week 10. Within this block, the team has a schedule of practices and scrimmages. Week five is an unloading week and the start of team practices. Weeks six through nine are loading weeks, and week 10 is an unloading week and the end of team practices. We don’t decrease our level of training intensity through this fall ball mini-season, although we may lose a session to our playing schedule or have to trim down our strength and conditioning hours to fit within the 20-hour weekly limit.
The third phase goes from week 11 to week 14. The first three weeks in this period are loading weeks, and then we dedicate the last week to our Oklahoma City Challenge, named for the site of the WCWS. The OKC Challenge is a seven-day competition of performance tests, relays, and fun events, and it reflects the multi-day structure of the WCWS. Players are drafted into four small teams and compete in different activities each day, with the winners earning bragging rights. Below is the schedule from our most recent OKC Challenge:
Day 1: Dance off
Day 2: Power clean
Day 3: Obstacle course
Day 4: Squat and bench press
Day 5: Timed stadium snake
Day 6: Tiger Olympics (swim relay, track relay, basketball shootout)
Day 7: The Shuttle
No matter what phase we’re in, team cohesion is emphasized throughout all of our fall offseason workouts. We train as a team after practices, and every segment of the workout is performed as a group. For our major exercises, two or three players are assigned to each platform. When the whistle is blown, the first player begins a set. We wait for everyone to finish, and then the whistle is blown for the start of the next set. This format keeps the team working at the same pace from beginning to end. It eliminates the possibility of forgetting or cheating sets and allows our staff to better supervise and coach our athletes.
Our accessory exercises are performed in a similar manner, although they are circuit-based. The players separate into small groups at four or five different stations, and the whistle is blown for the start of each set. When all the sets are complete, players rotate to the next exercise station. Using this method with our accessory exercises enables us to use a greater variety of equipment. No players have to share equipment or wait for a teammate to finish using an item, so the workout flows efficiently.
For most of our fall offseason, the week-to-week structure is the same. The team works out five days a week, Monday through Friday.
Mondays include a short set of incline sprints performed on ramps or steps in the football stadium. The sprints are conducted at a 15 percent incline and a length of 35 yards, with a work-to-rest ratio of 1:7. Players perform four reps at full speed.
The sprints are followed by a mostly lower-body workout and a circuit of accessory exercises. We do variations of cleans and back squats, as well as unilateral exercises like lunges, split squats, pistol squats, step-ups, or single-leg dumbbell Romanian dead lifts. We also do a couple of upper-body exercises with dumbbells or bodyweight resistance, such as TRX movements and push-up variations.
Tuesdays are used mostly for on-field linear speed, agility, and conditioning activities with an offensive emphasis. We work on starts, first steps, acceleration mechanics, and proper sprint form.
Over the course of the fall offseason, we gradually advance our linear work by incorporating resisted starts, contrast sprints with bullet belts, and overspeed bungee sprints-all completed on the base paths. We often pair these activities with a short set of 50- or 100-yard sprints along the outfield warning track. Goal times are challenging, and the work-to-rest ratio is 1:4.
We complete these drills on the softball field because I believe speed and agility work transfers best to sport performance when athletes train on the same surface that they compete on. This is especially true for running in cleats on dirt and grass, which is a different feeling than running on other surfaces.
Progress in our linear activities is monitored by testing and filming each player’s 20-yard dash at the beginning and end of fall offseason training. Athletes are timed every two weeks to track their progress.
Wednesdays bring another set of incline stadium sprints. We use a steeper incline and only go for 30 yards. Players perform four to six reps at full speed and use a work-to-rest ratio of 1:5.
These sprints are followed by a mostly upper-body workout and a circuit of accessory exercises. We do multi-joint movements like barbell or dumbbell bench presses, dumbbell incline presses, push-ups, rows, and assisted pull-ups, as well as single-joint exercises, such as shoulder flys, triceps extensions, and biceps curls. Wednesdays also involve a couple of lower-body exercises with a posterior chain and/or lateral emphasis, including Romanian dead lifts, glute-ham raises, lateral goblet lunges, or explosive lateral first steps with band resistance.
After three weeks of completing incline stadium sprints on Mondays and Wednesdays, the team is ready for a “timed snake.” This requires sprinting up the stadium steps, running between the aisles, and walking or jogging down the next set of stairs. Athletes perform six repetitions, and goal times for this drill range from 3.5 to 5.5 minutes.
Thursdays are for multidirectional speed, agility, and conditioning activities with a defensive emphasis. Softball defense is about explosive reaction in multiple directions, so we work on reactive first steps, reactive three-cone drills, footwork, and interval conditioning with various shuttles. I make sure players are using footwork consistent with what the coaching staff wants for their position in the field. Shuttle goal times are challenging, and the work-to-rest ratio is 1:1.25.
Fridays are dedicated to full-body workouts and strength training. We do lighter variations of cleans and front squats, as well as unilateral exercises like lunges, split squats, pistol squats, and step-ups. This is also when we do shoulder work, such as multidirectional shoulder flys, single-arm dumbbell shoulder presses, dumbbell snatches, dumbbell split jerks, and dumbbell squats to presses.
In addition, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays include a core circuit that varies session to session. I typically choose six exercises that hit all three planes of movement and include elements of rotation and anti-rotation, lower-body resistance and upper-body resistance, balance, and stabilization. (See “Five in a Row” below to see a sample week from our fall offseason training.)
I am frequently asked if I train pitchers any differently than position players during the fall offseason. The answer is yes and no.
For conditioning work, I look at the needs of our pitchers on an individual basis, just as I do for position players. This includes considering whether they are pitching and hitting or just pitching. If they are also hitting, they have the same need for speed development as position players and are included in those drills. If they are only pitching, they do interval conditioning rather than on-base sprint work.
When it comes to the weightroom, pitchers don’t have a separate set of demands than position players. After all, they have an equal need for full-body explosive strength and power as their teammates.
It is worth noting, however, that pitchers use their bodies differently, which leads to unique physical imbalances. For instance, their pitching arms are significantly larger and stronger. As a result, I avoid using barbell upper-body exercises with pitchers. While I don’t believe that barbell exercises are inherently detrimental to pitchers, I do believe two unequal arms are better trained unilaterally. So instead of barbell bench presses, I have pitchers do dumbbell bench presses. This way, each arm can strengthen and stabilize individually.
Similarly, to train triple extension without straining the wrists, I often prefer clean pulls over power cleans for pitchers. This is not the protocol for every pitcher-some are naturally great at receiving the bar with elbows high and have no issues with their wrist flexibility-but these are general trends.
Whether an athlete is a pitcher or position player, an All-American or a walk-on, they can be equally successful in our fall offseason strength and conditioning activities. This success includes psychological benefits, as well as physical. The players have to overcome obstacles in The Shuttle, our timed stadium snakes, and our OKC Challenge that they don’t face in practice. These experiences build character, toughness, and confidence in a unique way that carries through during the season.
FIVE IN A ROW
Below is a sample workout from week 11 of the Louisiana State University softball team’s fall offseason program.
4 incline sprints
Power clean, 5×2 at 75 to 95% 1RM
Back squat, 5×3 at 75 to 90% 1RM
Accessory exercise circuit, 4 sets of 4 to 5 exercises
Linear focus: Starts, first steps, accelerations, and sprints
Timed stadium snake
Romanian dead lift, 4×5 at 65 to 80% 1RM
Bench press, 5×3 at 75 to 90% 1RM
Accessory exercise circuit, 4 sets of 4 to 5 exercises
Multidirectional focus: Multi-directional starts, reactive drills, footwork, shuttles
Hang clean, 5×3 at 70 to 85% 1RM
Front squat, 4×5 at 60 to 75% 1RM
Accessory exercise circuit, 4 sets of 4 to 5 exercises