Balancing Physical Development & Skill Development in High School Baseball – A Yearly Approach

I often find that it’s easiest and most simple to view athletic development through two different pathways or processes:

  1. Physical Development – stressing the body in order to create adaptations in terms of strength, power, range of motion, stability, etc.
  2. Athletic Skill Development – developing the coordination and movement patterns, through repetition, that will lead to successful sport-specific skill acquisition.

If we are always focused on practicing skills on the field and in the cage, and are reiterating these skills during games (Skill Development) we will certainly see specific sporting skills develop. The principle of specificity tells us so – to get better at a skill we must train for that skill.

But, just because we must practice a skill in order to improve upon it doesn’t mean that we need to exclude the development of physical qualities, such as strength, as those qualities have the ability to exponentially further the development of the skills we are looking to improve. Thus, physical development is every bit as important as skill development, yet oftentimes at the high school level it is athletic skill development that takes vast precedent over physical development. We subject our ballplayers to hours upon hours of ground balls, throwing programs, soft-toss, front-toss, tee-work, dry swings, bullpens, flat grounds, short boxes, and live cuts, but relatively few hours of physical development like weight training sessions.

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Yet if we are constantly practicing and competing on the field at the exclusion of physical deveopemnt (managing nutrition, tissue quality, strength, etc.) we are actually encouraging – whether we mean to or not – physical decrement, and leaving a lot on the table.

In baseball we tend to lose weight, strength, tissue quality, and range of motion in certain areas as the year goes on. Though some of these adaptions to year-round baseball may initially improve performance, they can eventually predispose our athletes to injury and decreased outputs. And, without proper physical development in the off-season that is then carried on in-season, these bodily changes will go on undeterred.

So, how do we get in our Physical Development, while still keeping up with the Jones’s on the field?

My Proposal – Commit to Physical Development during the Fall and Spring

Ideally summer training should be a given with high school ballplayers. But, due to travel baseball, thinking in terms of ideals just isn’t realistic. The best that most coaches can do in the summer is offer optional training sessions or provide our players with programs to do on their own.

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Continuing with this realistic approach, we’ve got to understand that gains will be modest at best in the summer anyway, since it’s hard to train in hotels, meals are usually scarce during summer tournaments, and kids just want to “kick it” in their free time during the summer. We can offer the best program imaginable, but at the end of the day it’s up to the player to decide how important physical development is to them during the summer. And unfortunately the pull of travel baseball and “exposure” is just too strong. This is something I, personally, can live with though. If your high school program is competing deep in the playoffs and/or held in-season training sessions during the spring, chances are your kids need a reduction in training/playing frequency anyway. This unload period of sorts is essentially achieved in the summer.

In contrast to the summer, the fall can serve as a perfect start for your team’s physical development program. Of course, a player can still opt to compete in travel ball in the fall, but if a player does choose to take part in the fall high school program, we have a ton of control. It’s up to us to schedule training sessions with the school and to inject that physical development into our fall game plan with priority. Unlike the summer, it’s up to the coaches to decide how important physical development is to the player during the fall.

In the summer the player decides how important physical development is to them. In the fall the coach decides this for the player.

The past few years that I have coached high school baseball, our programs (thanks to our great Head Coach and staff) have taken a different approach than most high school programs – one which emphasizes physical development, as athletic skill development reigns supreme the rest of the year.

Our approach was to cut the games back to one game per week for each of teams (“A” and “B” squads). We also only “practice” four days per week – less if we have a game. And, we will train in the weight room 3 times per week. Here’s a sample schedule:

Monday – Lift/Conditioning and Practice (A & B)

Tuesday – Game (A); Lift/Conditioning (B)

Wednesday – Lift/Conditioning and Practice (A & B)

Thursday – Game (B); Lift and Conditioning (A)

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I’m fortunate to have a head coach that completely buys into the importance of structured and frequent strength training, so we commit to it. But, how do we “get better” if we aren’t playing all the time and only practicing 4 days per week?

We have 6 coaches, so athletic skill development is happening every minute of every practice for the players who buy in. Add that to the consistent physical development and education we are hammering every week, and I assure you we will get better.

The physical development and education our players receive acts as an amplifier for the athletic skill development we are ultimately seeking to enhance.

Spring is where we have the most control as coaches, and the most time with our players. Since we had optional lifts in the summer, 12 or so weeks of steady training in the fall, and then 2-3 weeks of competitions and training in the winter, we aren’t afraid to train in the spring. Our players are familiar with the lifts by this point, understand the expectations, and understand their bodies better. Workouts are also efficient and quick.

In years past we would practice 5-6 days per week (depending on the game load) and lift 2-3 times per week. Usually the lifts are all full-body, and often times the 2nd or 3rd “lift” was actually a mobility circuit. Saturday lifts were the “constant” lift day, since we don’t play Saturday or Sunday, and the other 1-2 lifts were variable based upon the game load and how the players felt.

Again, we are definitely developing athletic skill  during the spring through 5-6 practices per week, as well as games, but we are still also addressing physical development by staying committed to our training.

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What Works Best

Is this fall and spring model perfect, or the only model that works? Of course not. But, we’ve seen positive results. Regardless of the specific logistics, the spring and fall seasons can serve as great opportunities for coaches to emphasize physical development as we have the most control over what our players are doing during these periods, as opposed to the summer when travel baseball becomes all-consuming.

As long as you’re committing to physical development and stress its importance to your players, you’re on the right track toward optimized performance and decreased risk of injury.

Respectfully,

RJF

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One thought on “Balancing Physical Development & Skill Development in High School Baseball – A Yearly Approach

  1. Regards
    My name is Cesar Gutierrez and I’m from venezuela. I love what you do with the ballplayers and I’d like to be in touch with you in order to promote our knowledge, I’ve work with the tampa bay rays since 2012 as a strength and conditioning with Latin players Thanks in advance.

    Like

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