|Hey Coach, “What’s your point of view on Strength and Conditioning for Prospective High School Baseball Players?”
Brian Niswender MA, CSCS, Founder and Owner of Performance Baseball Training, Former Arizona Diamondbacks Minor League Director of Strength & Conditioning has worked with many baseball players at every level from the Arizona Diamondbacks, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, New York Yankees and the Colorado Rockies. We wanted his expert opinion and point of view on this topic for you.
Here is a partial list of professional baseball players that have improved their performance under his direction; Alex Cintron - White Sox, Chad Tracy - Diamondbacks, Brandon Webb - Diamondbacks, Edger Gonzales - Diamondbacks, Brandon Meeders - Diamondbacks, Jose Valverde - Diamondbacks, Robbie Hamock - Diamondbacks, Casey Diagle - Diamondbacks, Andy Green - Diamondbacks, Brian Bruney - Yankees, Scott Hairston - Padres, Lance Cormier - Braves, Oscar Villarreal - Braves, Mike Gosling - Reds, Jerry Gil - Reds, Chris Capuano - Brewers, Matt Kata - Pirates, Enrique Gonzales - Nationals and so on ...
WBP: Brian can you tell our readers how long you have been working in Baseball as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist?
Coach B: I really started getting interested in strength and conditioning for baseball back in high school. I was looking for an edge, so that I could keep my arm strong and increase my running speed and bat speed. I started to look for any information I could get my hands on, I also hired a personal trainer to help get me started. This interest crossed over into my college baseball training. The college I attended did not have a, strength and conditioning coach for baseball and the program the coach had put together was still very basic. Since I was studying exercise physiology I decided to make many of my projects related to baseball strength and conditioning. The programs I designed progressed through the years and by the time I was done with my undergraduate degree most of the players were following some form of the programs that I was using. I then started my graduate work, where again most of my projects were geared towards baseball strength and conditioning. During this time I was also coaching at a local high school, as well as working at Colorado State University as a strength coach. I continued to research and learn as much as possible about how I could increase performance on the baseball field. When I finished my graduate degree I started to look for jobs in baseball. I had my first chance to really get into the game when the Arizona Diamondbacks hired me as a strength and conditioning coach.
The staff was hired for two purposes, first to decrease injuries, and second to increase performance on the field. In the first season we decreased injuries by 40% and increased the overall team’s strength and speed by 25%. In baseball, a sport that is slow to change, these results were huge. These results led to the team allowing me to become the Minor League Director of Strength and Conditioning. I was with Arizona for 3 years; I then started Performance Dynamics in Colorado. I have been running Performance Dynamics and now Performance Baseball Training for 5 years. I have many high schools, college and a few professional teams call me time to time to see how they can make their program better. So in total I have been working as a baseball strength and conditioning professional for 10 years and have been interested in the aspects of baseball specific training for 15 years.
WBP: When did you become the Acting Minor League Director for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Strength and Conditioning Program? What was the experience like working with these types of professional athlete’s?
Coach B: As mentioned above, I became the Minor League Director of Strength and Conditioning after they one the World Series in 2001. I loved working with minor league players because many of them had the “drive” because they were not in the bigs yet. I had the opportunity to push many players to find strengths and fortitude they never knew they had and that was very rewarding when these players finally realized their dream.
Working with professionals is not always fun, you will always have players that think they do not need help, and for many of these players they recognize they need help when it is too late. As the minor league director my work with the big league guys was minimal. I was able to work with them during spring training and any time they ended up with an injury, but the big league players at that time were very self motivated and had outstanding work ethics. If you remember the players on the World Series team, Randy Johnson, Curt Shilling, Luis Gonzales and many others, you will understand that these guys are hard workers that push themselves everyday.
I give much credit to the success of the programs I designed for Arizona to the fact that many of the players loved to work and would be willing to learn how I could help them with baseball specific strength and conditioning.
WBP: Brian in your opinion, what is the difference, “generally speaking”, between a Gym or High School trainer and a sport specific strength and conditioning trainer in this case baseball?
Coach B: I consider there to be in general a difference in all the categories, remember this is in general and a bit of background checking will help clarify any trainer’s qualification.
The thing to watch for in a local gym type setting is a trainer that has not participated in any sports at a competitive level. I have met many trainers that claim to be sport specific but have not played a sport ever.
How is that person really going to understand what you are going through as an athlete if they have not experienced it for themselves?
These days it is not hard to get certified, so just because they have a certification does not mean they know what they are doing. Remember, in general, there is a reason they are at the local gym, they wanted to work with the general public. I don’t consider athletes the general public. Now remember what I said, this is in general. I have worked with a couple of trainers that were great strength coaches that worked at the college level, but would supplement there income by working at the local gym. There are a couple of things to look for if all you have is the local gym to use. Check to see if the trainer has played sports at a competitive level, the trainer has a degree in exercise/sports training, they are certified and they have athletes that you can talk to for reference. This will at least help you make an educated decision.
The high school coach that helps in the weight room or football coach that makes everyone’s programs is one of the scariest categories to me personally. Just because they are a coach, does not mean they know how to train athletes. Just because they lifted some weights does not make them qualified to coach young athletes on how to train. Don’t get me wrong there are many fine coaches that have spent the time, learning how to make athletes better and many that have taken special courses on training to help their school. I am not talking about these great coaches.
I am talking about the coach that thinks he knows everything and will not ask for help from anyone when he does not. About a year ago I was volunteering at a local high school as the strength and conditioning coach. At first I was welcomed and many coaches would come to me for help. At the time they did not have a football coach and so I was taking care of all the athletes.
Things changed rapidly when the school hired a new football coach. This coach did not want help from anyone. He started the football team on new program that he used in the past.
A few weeks went by and slowly I started seeing less and less of the other athletes. I later came to find out this coach was getting the other coaches to do his training.
This was funny to me because it was one of the scariest programs that I have ever seen. I reached my breaking point after about 3 weeks of watching young athletes fall down while doing cleans, and players actually loosing their strength. The strength program at the school has now fallen apart and many of the sports don’t even get into the weight room any more, because there athletes are actually getting hurt more. This is a sad but true reality in many schools because a coach that is not qualified to train athletes is to proud, that he will not get help and will drag everyone down with him. You should hold a coach to the same standards that you hold a trainer at the local gym.
A Strength and Conditioning Coach that has specialization in a specific sport like baseball would be the best choice, but a strength coach that specializes in athletes will usually do just fine. The reason I say this is because, a strength coach that is worth his salt will be able to analyze any sport and build a program that is very effective and specific to that sport. I will always recommend a strength and conditioning coach over any of the above categories because this person has dedicated there time to help athletes and that mentality will usually give you the best results as an athlete. Remember to always talk to the trainer to check why they are qualified and make sure they fit with your goals and what you wish to accomplish.
WBP: Before any High School baseball player starts a program, what types of specific questions should they ask a trainer to qualify them so that players and parents can see if they are a good fit for a players needs?
1) What level of competition did you reach?
(at least college level)
2) What is your educational background?
3) Are you certified and by who?
4) What experience do you have in baseball?
5) Do you evaluate your players?
6) Are your programs designed for me specifically?
7) What is included in your program?
8) Do you have any references I can contact?
WBP: Can you describe to our readers some of the advantages of taking time off playing baseball?
Coach B: Taking time off from baseball can have many favorable effects. These effects are realized because the body is allowed to recover and repair. Playing the game and training to play can be very demanding on the athlete’s body. That work can have very beneficial results in performance, but only if the athlete is doing everything possible to take care of the body. The athlete must make sure they are eating the right nutrition, taking the right supplements and resting to allow the body to regenerate. Rest and sleep are two the easiest and cheapest ways the athlete can increase there performance. Rest allows the athletes body to repair any tissue that has been broken down while training, this breakdown can take place in one hard training session or over the course of a season. Rest also allows the mind to get away from the day to day grind, or go on vacation, which reduces stress. The body will not be able to function properly without the right amount of rest and sleep. In the last few years more and more research has been done on the effects of rest and has shown that when an athlete gets the proper rest, they can increase their performance through increased reaction time, decreased fatigue and increased strength and power output. A well planned training program will include rest periods so the athlete can continually increase there performance from year to year.
WBP: Coach we hear this saying a lot in reference to building or designing a Strength and Conditioning Program, “the Cookie Cutter approach.” What is meant by this and can you tell our readers why this does or does not work in their favor?
Coach B: The cookie cutter approach to training is when a program or trainer uses the same program for everyone. This can include a program for all sports or a program that is designed for all baseball players or all pitchers, etc.
Can an athlete get results from this type of program, well of course, but what happens is that after the athlete masters that program they will decrease their results over time and will not be going in a positive direction. Being on some kind of program is better then not being on any program, but ask yourself, if you wanted to throw the ball harder would you start a throwing program or would you go and put on the boxing gloves and hit the heavy bag. Hitting the heavy bag might make you stronger that could help you throw harder but it would take you a lot longer to achieve your goal then if you started the throwing program. You will see this type of mentality in many programs where they will take the football program and use it for every sport. They figure if it is good enough for football then it is good enough for everyone else, when this is not true at all. I have taken many baseball players and trained them to be ball players and have had such great success that many of these players will go in and out perform the football players in the gym in exercises that we don’t even train on a consistent bases.
WBP: Why is it important to strength and condition for baseball?
Coach B: The most obvious answer to the question above is to increase the players performance on the baseball field, but what skills do we need to increase and why? Baseball is a unique sport in that it requires players to be explosive in all movements, but at the same time control their movements. Take hitting as an example, a player is required to hit a ball that is 5 ½ inches in diameter with a bat that is 5 ¾ inches in diameter, but that is not all, the ball is also traveling at a high velocity, and will move and dive if the pitcher chooses. This is why many experts consider hitting to be one of the greatest sport skills to master, and why a successful hitter will only be successful 30% of the time.
Now our job as baseball trainers is to not only to help a player to hit the ball, but to hit the ball hard and be able to control their bat. This requires a player to explode maximally
while controlling balance and stability. Can these aspects of the players swing be improved with strength and conditioning?
The answer is a most definite, YES! For a player to be successful at this game they must be fast, explosive, quick, agile, strong, reactive, dynamically flexible, stable, and powerful. They must also be able to put all of these characteristics together to control a specific baseball skill. A good strength and conditioning program is designed specifically for baseball and allows the player to develop these characteristics which are necessary to excel in the game.
WBP: What are the qualities that a great baseball player posses and what can we do with a Strength and Conditioning program to enhance these qualities?
Coach B: Great players have speed, and there are two parts to speed that baseball players strive for. One is a high top speed and the other is quickness. In most cases quickness is the quality that that is most important in baseball because of the nature of the game. If you think about the game in most cases a play is made within about 30 yards or 90 feet. So a player that can get up to or close to top speed in a very short distance will have greater success in the game. In training we must focus on short sprinting distances as well as short explosive starts that teach the player to explode and get up to speed fast.
Great players also have explosive bat speed. A great hitter will use both his lower body and upper body to generate bat speed. Getting these two parts of the body to work together and be synergistic is the trick. In a training program the athlete needs to do explosive multi plane movements that challenge all aspects of the swing and ask the player to be balanced and explosive. A medicine ball is a great tool because of the versatility and ability to throw the object.
Great players also throw with great velocity well maintaining accuracy. This goes for pitchers and position players. There are different exercises and drills that will be completed for pitchers and position players but the principle of velocity and how to generate it are the same. Again throwing just like hitting is a total body skill and so exercises should be total body in nature and the closer the exercise is to the skill the better cross over to the field. Again a medicine ball is a great tool that provides many directions of movement and stability. Throwing at a high velocity also requires the body to decelerate the arm, and many times is over looked in a program. There are a many programs out there that focus on the rotator cuff, but remember the rotator cuff is used to hang on to the arm and keep it in place, and has a smaller role in deceleration.
Deceleration of the arm comes from much of the musculature of the back side, including the scapula, shoulder and back. As we have seen in many cases when a player is able to decelerate the arm more efficiently, the greater the player is able to generate velocity.
Baseball is also a game of reaction time and the faster we can react the better we will be able to play. This goes for hitters as well as position players. If a player is able to recognize a pitch or read the bat he will be able to choose the best path to the ball and then make the hard plays look easy and the impossible plays routine. There are many drills and skills that can be used to increase reaction time as well as very expensive equipment, but there is a new piece of equipment out on the market today which we got at reactionpro that has allowed the players in our programs to raise there game level almost immediately.
The piece of equipment is called the ReactionPro Defensive Training System and is one of the best new pieces of defensive training equipment out for all baseball players in years. Everyone has seen the reaction ball now imagine a complete defensive training system that you can take anywhere and use any ball on it hard or soft. We are able to bounce game balls in all directions and at all speeds all the while the player fields and throws the ball just like in game situations. You want quick hands and fast reaction time, its time to get on the pro and utilize the defensive training system.
All of the reasons so far for strength and conditioning have been about improving performance, but what about preventing injury. As a player you never want to be out of the game and heaven forbid you have an injury you want to get back as fast as possible. A well planned strength and conditioning program has the power to decrease the chance of injury as well as decrease down time if an injury occurs. Injuries in baseball usually occur because of fatigue, either mental or physical. Mental fatigue in baseball is many times over looked so let me explain.
Baseball is a long game where a player may not see any action all game and then the ninth inning roles around and the player has 2 hits to him or finds away out of his slump and all of a sudden they have to go 100%. Sometimes in this situation the brain is not functioning fully and the body makes mistakes, these mistakes lead to misfires or balance checks and the next thing you know, the player steps wrong and the ankle is sprained. I would consider this mental fatigue specific to sports.
More recognizable would be physical fatigue, a sore arm, heavy legs, any of those nagging pains from hours of practice and preparation. Now a player that has spent his time preparing to play will decrease the chance for fatigue, which will decrease his chances for injury. A player that has built a strong aerobic base will be able to concentrate and focus more clearly because he is able to transport and utilize more oxygen both in the brain and muscles. That same player that has pushed himself in the weight room will have increased his strength and muscle power which allows him to run faster and swing harder with less effort, which in turn allows him to conserve energy for explosive movements throughout the game. The player that has trained his muscle to be reactive and powerful will also react to unexpected situations like a dip in the field, a bad hop or cleat loosing grip. The muscles that have been trained to be more reactive will save the player and allow him to make a play that might have ended in injury in a weaker player.
A strength and conditioning program also builds work ethic and discipline. As the player gets older and more skilled many times the gap between players’ abilities narrows and the player that moves on is the player that is willing to pay the price to reach the next level. Strength training, speed work or conditioning is not flashy and many times not fun, but the player that is able to focus on the goal will also be able to stay focused on the field. Remember this game is about failure and the player that is able to overcome those failures is the player that will reach any goal they set.
WBP: What is the goal of a good strength and conditioning program for baseball?
Coach B: The easy answer is to increase a player’s performance on the baseball field, but let’s get a little more in depth. I like to think a program will allow a player to discover his true potential as a ball player and then provide that player the means to accomplish, or exceed the goals they have set. If you are not strong you will not be able to run fast enough, throw hard enough or hit consistently enough to excel and beat that player next to you. As a player you should want to be the best, I mean really the best. If your goal is to play in college, than you need to do everything in your power to get there. Many players only focus on there skills, and that is what gets you noticed, but these skills will never reach there full potential if you do not train them to function properly and train the body to be strong and stable. I have had the chance to work with many players, with all abilities and have always found that the player that is willing to put in the time to get strong and condition there body to work at full capacity will always out perform the player that just wants to get by.
WBP: Can you reiterate why it is important to pick a trainer versed in baseball specific training?
Coach B: Think of it this way, if your shoulder was in pain would you go to a dentist to fix your shoulder or would you go to an orthopedic doctor specializing in shoulder injuries. I hope the answer is the orthopedic doctor, but so many times I see players and parents choosing trainers that have no experience in baseball what so ever. This frustrates and annoys me more then you know. It all comes down to the old question, how bad do you want to play this game at the next level and what are you willing to sacrifice to reach that goal. I advise players and parents to find a trainer that has played the game at a high level, college or above. This trainer has been there; they know what it takes and many times, have the passion to help others get there. Not only has the trainer been there, they also have helped players already in that situation which helps them understand how to plan and implement a strong training program. This type to trainer will usually have a degree in the field of strength and conditioning, as well as be certified. Education and certification are important because the trainer will at least have some background in physiology and biomechanics. To put it simply you want to find the best trainer you can, because it is your future and dreams at stake.
WBP: How many seasons does a player have and how do they change as the level of play changes?
Coach B: In general, a player has four seasons: in season, post season, off season and prep season. This is true even if the player is playing fall ball. Every program must first look at the year as a whole which would be the example given above. The in-season would be the playing time that will give the player the best chance to move on to the next level. This will depend on the strength of your high school program, and if recruiting occurs in competitive ball. The in-season program allows the player to keep his skills at the highest level during the most important playing time. The post season will be the time after the most competitive playing time. This is when the player takes some time off and recovers. This will be followed by an off season. At this time the player makes the greatest gains in strength, speed and power. The last season is the prep season and is where the player converts all the new strength and power into useable skills and ability. This would be the most basic of outlines. In many cases there are multiple seasons within a season. An example would be, in the off season the player might be playing fall ball, so is in-season as well. In many cases we will train this player hard like a normal off season with consideration for days that have games scheduled. The player must always remember that to make gains they must train hard, and so will have to weight the importance of the season and what the training can improve in the bigger picture of becoming a great ball player. As you can see preparing a program can get very complicated and is just another reason to have a professional baseball trainer guiding you on your journey. As the player gets older and the level of play increases and the different seasons become more important. At the youth level a player will generally have one in-season, this will increase the time they have in the off season. The youths off season will consist of skill development, and basic movement skills. Once we reach the middle school age most players will be playing in the spring/summer, and the fall. With two in-seasons the player will have two off seasons and so should spend that time training to increase strength and speed. This is an important time because the players body is going though many changes that allow the player to increase size and strength, so setting a strong foundation with good techniques and training habits is very important at this time. At the high school level, if the player has been training, the player has the chance to see great gains in strength and power, and so will choose a block of time that they can commit to a serious training program. I have found that the summer and late fall is the best time for most high school players to have these high intense seasons. During the summer the player is out of school so has more time to commit to training, the late fall provides a time when baseball usually takes a break so the player does not need to worry about their performance on the field. The player will have to choose which fits best into his schedule. The college player will have a similar schedule as the high school player, but the coaches at the college level will push there athletes into a less aggressive fall program, with a higher intensity winter session. In most cases this leaves the summer for the college player to make there biggest gains.
Don’t get overwhelmed, find someone creditable to help you build a program for your physical and mental make-up, and then sit down and start to plan and take action. If you need to talk about it, email us we would enjoy hearing from you.
Dear Parents, Players and Coaches,
You’ve probably heard a lot about the “drive” that premier athletes have on their way to the top. That drive is perseverance and persistence. It separates winners form the losers, in life and in sports. When winners want to achieve something in life, they set a goal and persevere. They put in 100% effort and they don’t quit. They find a way to overcome all their problems as they focus on the goal. Of course, there’ll be problems. Nothing in life is perfect. Successful people have the perseverance and persistence to keep struggling toward their goal, regardless of the roadblocks in the way. I like to think of these roadblocks as tests to see just how badly I really want my goal. If I pass these tests, I’ll be a stronger person and my goal will be worth more. If I reach a goal without a few good fights along the way it seems too easy. Set your goal higher than you can reach, then reach them. When you do, you’ll feel you’ve deserved them. The true test of an athlete’s character comes when he of she is literally buried under problems and obstacles, and there seems no possible way to reach the set goals. The main objective is surviving. If athletes find their inner strength in tough times, they’ll persevere and come out winners. When you get older, you’ll look back and today’s goals will be only memories. It’s one of the saddest feelings in life to think back over the years to what might have been. Regret leaves you with a big empty feeling in the pit of your stomach. It drives some people crazy thinking, “what if…?” If you’ve already reached this point in your life, then you’re a proud member of the “should have, would have, and could have club.” “I should have been a professional basketball player BUT…” “I would have played in the major leagues, BUT” or “I could have been a state champion, BUT…” You always have choices. You can sit around the house in your old age “talking about the good old days.” If that’s what you want in life, fine. Your other option is to keep working until you have reached all of your goals. If you don’t achieve your goals today, you need them for tomorrow, or the next day, it’s that simple. It’s not where you are now that counts; it’s where you’re going that matters. So reach for the stars and don’t give up. When you’re taking a break from your workout, talk about what you’re going to do “tomorrow”.
Coach Brian Niswender MA, CSCS,
Brian is the former Director of Strength and Performance for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
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