4 Factors that Make or Break a Baseball Strength and Conditioning Program

About the Author: Eric Cressey

At Cressey Performance, we’re getting to the time of the year when things gradually start to slow down for us.  For many business owners, this is a source of frustration, as they worry about paying the bills when things get quieter.  I, on the other hand, view it as a source of excitement, as it signifies that the beginning of baseball season is at hand, and our athletes will have an opportunity to put all their off-season hard work into action on the baseball field.

You’d be surprised, however, at how many collegiate and professional players get genuinely worried about how they’ll be managed once they get back to school or their organizations.  In the private sector, we can individually manage guys with their unique needs in mind, but in collegiate and professional, because of the larger volume of athletes (and fewer coaches per athlete), limited training time, and additional competing demands (i.e., practicing and playing games), player development can be quickly stunted.  Believe it or not, 2012 was the first year that Major League Baseball mandated that every minor league affiliate have a strength coach on staff; many teams didn’t have anyone (in-person, at least) watching over their highly-touted prospects during critical minor league development periods.

That said, though, there are some colleges and professional organizations who are doing a solid job of managing guys – and I wanted to use today’s post to highlight four areas in which they’re getting the job done effectively.

1. Synergy – As I outlined in Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding, we have a limited recovery capacity, so if you’re going to add something to a program, you have to take something away.  Unfortunately, this “give and take” gets overlooked in some team settings.  As an example, a strength and conditioning coach, athletic trainer, and pitching coach might all prescribe different rotator cuff exercises for their players without knowing that an overlap is taking place. Or, a strength coach might prescribe a challenging lower body lift, then have a pitching coach send his players to run poles – only to have the head coach tack a very taxing practice on top of an already hefty workload.  If you’re always adding, but never taking away, it’s only a matter of time until athletes break down.  As such, communication among coaches, medical and strength and conditioning staffs, and players is absolutely essential for optimal synergy.

2. Individualization – I’m constantly amazed at how – even at the highest levels – players aren’t managed on a case-by-case basis.  That is, of course, until they get hurt and need unique rehabilitation prescriptions.  Just imagine how much less rehabilitation would be needed if players were simply managed more individually on a proactive basis so that injuries didn’t occur nearly as often.  Additionally, we’d be much more likely to see late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents become MLB superstars if they were managed differently than already-talented players who are just coddled on their way to the big leagues. I think you’d see more stories like Tim Collins’.

I also see this as a huge competitive advantage for college coaches on the recruiting side of things.  Not everyone can boast beautiful weather, an amazing baseball complex, a pristine academic reputation, and beautiful girls everywhere when recruiting prospects, but being able to guarantee an individualized approach to development goes a long way in making up the difference.

3. Specificity – You’d be amazed at how many folks in the baseball world have absolutely no knowledge of exercise physiology or the unique demands of baseball – but are still prescribing strength and conditioning programs for baseball players.  Some of what I have seen is so atrocious that the players would have been better off doing absolutely nothing.  I’ve seen programs with 10+ mile runs, kipping pull-ups to failure, 1-rep max bench presses, and high rep clean and presses.  I seriously can’t make this stuff up.

The most common justification for this type of garbage is that coaches want to build mental toughness.  Well, I’m here to tell you that there are much better ways of doing that, as your mental toughness won’t mean much when your pitchers are having surgeries or throwing 74mph and well on their way to those surgeries.

When we discuss throwing a baseball, we are talking about the single fastest motion in all of sports. General training is absolutely valuable, but if you don’t have the specific nature of that throwing motion – and the adaptations it creates – in mind when we implement that general training, you’re asking for problems.

4. Effort – The best program on the planet won’t do any good if it isn’t executed with loads of effort and attention to detail.  If you have issues like players skipping warm-ups, athletic trainers refusing to do manual therapy, and coaches showing up late to practice, whatever is written on the paper doesn’t matter at all.

At the end of the day, these four factors are just a few of many that will ultimately determine how effective a baseball strength and conditioning program is.  Unfortunately, many of these factors are outside of a player’s control, so what do you do?

Very simply, control what you can control.

Educate yourself so that you can be your own best coach.  Optimize your nutrition and get plenty of sleep. Write down what has and hasn’t worked for you so that you can refer back to it down the road and avoid making the same mistakes twice.

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