By: Trent Calmer
A tool that often is underdeveloped within the baseball community is the ability to sprint and be fast in various baseball sprinting plays. Throughout my baseball career, if it wasn't for my ability to sprint, I would have had far less success. It complemented numerous facets of my game such as being able to beat out slow choppers, running down fly balls in the outfield, and my favorite which was running the bases and stealing bags. In field sports including baseball, being a successful runner requires more than just top end speed. A baseball player needs to be able to stop, react, and change directions at varying speeds. Not only do you need to move fast, you need to be able to control that speed at the drop of a hat. Due to the starting positions before engaging in sprinting, one needs to be able to produce force quickly outside the traditional sagittal plane.
Not only do field sport athletes need to be able to sprint/run and cut in an endless array of directions, acceleration is crucial because of the various short sprints that occur. When does a baseball player throughout the course of a game actually have to get to their top speed for an extended period of time? An outfielder running for a long fly ball perhaps. A triple in the gap could be another example. Seldom does a baseball player maintain top speed in a straight line for a long duration. Even a sport like football where top speed is arguably more important than baseball, rarely throughout the course of the game does that player reach that top speed and maintain it. A wide receiver running a streak down the field or a running back busting open a huge run are a few examples of times where extended top speed is critical, but how often does this happen during the course of a game?
Generally, the number of quick short burst/change of direction movements overshadows the number of times someone maintains top speed in a straight line. When designing a program to improve running performance in various field sports, focusing on drills that force the athlete to react and change directions quickly will be the primary focus. That doesn't mean to not focus on top speed work. Producing large amounts of force into the ground is crucial for speed development. With that being said, the majority of your focus should be directed towards getting these athletes moving in as many random directions as possible with them having to make a decision as to which path will be the most efficient. Baseball is a sport where whoever reacts the fastest tends to have the most success. Whether that's hitting a baseball or getting a good first step on a line drive hit near your general direction.
One of our drills that our staff utilizes with all of our baseball players is the "reaction ball." It is a ball with various sized prongs sticking out that causes the ball to take random hops/bounces when rolled to the athlete. As the coach, throwing the ball with varying speeds and at different angles will allow the reaction ball to take different hops forcing the athlete to be on their toes more so than a regular ground ball. Sometimes baseball players will take ground balls for granted and let their mechanics suffer because of it. The reaction ball will quickly expose their weaknesses so that you can adjust going back to regular ground balls. If an athlete attempts to field a ground ball bending their back instead of their hips, they will miss the reaction ball more than they would probably like. That will get the athletes attention to make the adjustment which is to get more in your legs/hips so that your head doesn't move so much.
Along with drills specifically working on running and reacting, various lower body lifts will be crucial to build that strength/resiliency to be able to sprint and not get injured. Squats, hinge movements, and lunges will be some of the main lifts to specifically aid in running/sprinting development. Playing into the theme of not just operating in one plane, exercises like lateral lunges should be implemented as well. A lateral lunge operates in the frontal plane which is similar to various baseball movements. Stealing a bag starts off in the frontal plane as the athlete transitions quickly to the sagittal plane to reach the bag safely. Another huge tool for sprinting development that is used at our facility is a loadable sled. The fact that our staff can load the sled with a wide spectrum of weight means that it is easily adjustable person to person. These training methods will get the athletes producing large amounts of force into the ground which will increase sprinting speed over time.
Just because a sprinting/running class is indoors doesn't mean improvements can't be made. Not only can the modalities mentioned above improve performance in a confined space, working on running mechanics can be huge for athletes and tends to result in the greatest improvements. A lot can get accomplished indoors and with the weather starting to get bad in the Pacific NW. It's time to get in and dominate your respective field sport. It doesn't matter which sport you play, at Athletes In Motion our staff is willing to adapt and work with athletes of all types.