Summer Travel-Ball: Optimizing Performance and Maintaining Health

Here in Florida, summer baseball is already underway and will be hitting full swing in the coming weeks.

Travel-ball used to mean an entire summer’s worth of weekends were allotted to travel tournaments, leaving weekdays for kids to be kids, go on vacation, and kick it on the block. But, in today’s youth baseball culture, summer ball now takes on quite a bit more, including many week-long tournaments – especially for the travel ball programs that advance deeper into the bracket.

What’s more, many of the organizations that put on these tournaments (e.g. PerfectGame) now have their own facilities or tie-ins with the cities in which they play, giving them the capability of hosting major events with hundreds of teams. Take PerfectGame’s World Wood Bat tournament in East Cobb, GA, where literally hundreds of teams from across the nation compete at PerfectGame’s own Lake Point complex, as well as local high schools around the Atlanta-area. With such a grand operation,  participating teams often play seven to ten games in the span of a five to ten days.

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With the workload, demands, and expectations of travel baseball becoming greater with each passing summer, it is important that the high school ballplayer take measures to not only optimize their performance at these pressure-packed venues, but to also maintain overall health and physical well-being.

Today I provide you with four tips to put you in the best position to maximize your play on the field, while also staying as healthy as possible this summer:

1. Pitchers: Manage Your Workload

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Today – more than ever – it seems that the travel-ball season buds right up against the high school season, especially in the south. Just as many players complete a playoff run with their high school clubs, many of the same players are beginning to pack their bags for the first tournament of the summer.

It would be preferable that all high school arms get at least some period of time in between seasons with the ball out of their hand. This couldn’t be more true for the ace or workhorse of each high school program, as in many instances, the top innings-eater for any program might amass 50 to 100 innings in a given spring season.

Unfortunately, complete rest from competitive pitching just does not happen enough. And without appropriate scaling and management of innings during the summer, this same pitcher might end up throwing another 30-plus innings. Combine the chronic fatigue that accumulates from this kind of workload with the heat, humidity, and long hours of exposure on the field, and the athlete is most likely at a greater disposition for injury.

As much as we’d love for the travel-ball and high school coach to take these factors in consideration when determining spring and summer rotations and workload (as in, collaborating to create a long-term plan that best benefits the athlete), it must be acknowledged that, unfortunately, the lines of communication between an athlete’s high school and travel coaches aren’t always open, and in some cases aren’t even existent. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it’s for this reason that the pitcher himself must be proactive in the innings-management process.

Actionable Steps:

  • Take stock of innings logged in the Spring. Although innings aren’t the definitive or only way to quantify fatigue or workload (as it does not take into consideration the number of pitches, the stress of each pitch/inning/game, or the recovery in between outings), it still gives you something to work with.
  • If you were a relatively high-workload pitcher, it might be in your best interest to distribute your innings this summer differently than a pitcher who accumulated less innings in the spring. Perhaps this means less innings earlier in the summer to give yourself more rest after the spring season. Or perhaps it means requesting that you only pitch in the couple of tournaments that you deem “matter the most” and simply play a position for the rest of the tournaments (if you’re a two-way player).

2. Continue (Or Begin) to Train in the Weight Room

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Considering how hard many ballplayers work during the spring, between baseball, school, and any in-season training, it’s easy to let something “fall back” a little bit in the summer. Obviously it isn’t the game-load that will fall back. Combine this with the fact that much of the summer will be spent in a hotel room with limited access to weight training equipment, and you can understand why training and lifting often is the first to get forgotten.

With all of this in mind, I often get the question as to whether a ballplayer should be training hard during the summer, or simply focusing all of their efforts on performing well on the field. To this I have two responses which show my support for both legitimate training during the summer and a focus on baseball performance…

For starters, I’m certainly a proponent of training during the summer because, in my mind, no matter how important the travel-ball circuit may be to an athlete, the summer should be considered part of the off-season. Therefore physical development should be prioritized high up on the athlete’s hierarchy of needs during the summer.

Don’t believe that the spring season is still “in-season” (or in other words, the most important competition phase of the year)? Consider the “next-level” – where every player is trying to go. At the college level, in-season (spring) is the time of year in which the team comes together with the sole purpose of winning championships. Professional baseball is no different. Thus, the high school spring season, where winning as a team is the foremost goal, should be considered in-season, and everything else “off-season”.

Note: Sure, there is team pride in travel baseball, and everyone still wants to win (especially considering winning means playing more games in front of more cameras, radar guns, and clipboards), but at the end of the day it is still about “exposure” and talent evaluation.

Regardless of what season you call it (let’s not get caught up in the semantics), there is no reason why a ballplayer can’t participate in significant training while playing throughout the summer. While in-season and off-season training should certainly differ, when it comes to whether or not to train at all when the athlete is competing, the answer is a resounding yes. In the very least we need to address the many qualities in the weight room, such as strength, power, and mobility in order to optimize athletic-performance and off-set all of the sport-specific work we are getting on the field in practice and in games.

Did your high school program opt out of training during the spring season? Even more of a reason to start the training process during the summer. Either way, to ensure health, safety, and optimal performance, players can and should plan their training sessions around when they are scheduled to pitch or play.

Actionable Steps:

  • For pitchers, ask your travel coaches for a rough outlook for the summer rotation and when you may be pitching. For position players, simply lay out your entire game schedule as far as you can determine. From there, plan out your training to maximize the number of days you can train while you’re not in a hotel or playing games. Also account for the “important” tournaments. It might be wise to give yourself an “unload” week leading up to that specific tournament or outing.
  • For extended tournaments, plan to bring some equipment with you on the trip to help maximize the hotel’s fitness room, as you may need to utilize it at some point to maintain some semblance of consistency in your training. Some suggested pieces of equipment include bands (stretch/resistance bands for adding resistance to bodyweight movements), tubing (for shoulder/cuff work), a foam roller or lacrosse ball (to work out the kinks from travel and competition), and a TRX if possible (although this can be costly, I know).

3. Adequate Nutrition and Hydration

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It’s hard enough to keep a high school athlete adequately fueled and hydrated during the school year when their scheduled don’t include double-headers, hotel-stays, and long car-rides. Add these into the mix and you’re asking for an under-nourished athlete.

An under-fed athlete can see performance decrements in multiple ways. For starters, a lack of food consumption means a lack of energy intake. Long days on the ball-field competing leave little time for adequate meals, yet places an extreme demand on the body. Macronutrients are burned through activity, and our bodies will also lose electrolytes from sweating. Adequate food intake not only provides the body with fuel, but it also restores the electrolyte balance. Likewise, food intake can also help maintain hydration.

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Credit: Coach Jason Spray, Middle Tennessee State University – Twitter: @JasonSpray

To that end, it is also vital to maintain hydration. If you have been outside in the south during the summer, you will undoubtedly know that just standing can work up a tremendous amount of sweat thanks to the extreme heat and humidity. If these fluids aren’t replaced performance will suffer, and in extreme – yet very realistic – instances, serious health consequences can be experienced. Also, a pitcher must consider a loss of body weight (from either fluids or tissues), as this can impact velocity and performance.

In a sport that utilizes high-intensity repetitive muscle-action, and is played in extremely hot climates for extended periods of time on a daily basis, it is vital that nutrition and hydration are accounted for and taken seriously, from both a performance and recovery standpoint. If not, acute and chronic injury are risked, and performance will suffer, both over the course of a single day and an entire summer.

Actionable Steps:

4. Maintain Pre-Game Preparation Routines

 

When it comes to travel-ball, show-and-go’s are often the norm. While it is the very nature of the hurry up and wait scheduling, rainouts, and double-headers that makes this most conducive, it is important that the ballplayer not accept these as excuses to not adequately prepare for each game or outing.

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Much like the tips mentioned above, adequate preparation for each game ensures both performance quality and injury reduction. Although you may feel warm because of the southern heat and humidity, this is only really accomplishing one goal of an extensive warm-up (elevating body temperature). You may be sweating, but the body has yet to have its joints put through any ranges of motion, nor has the nervous system been stimulated, which are two additional goals of a proper warm-up.

Even if your travel ball team decides that they’d rather “show-and-go”, you can still make the decision to take your performance – and ultimately your career – into your own hands and thoroughly prepare. If anybody faults you for that they probably don’t have much of a future in the game of baseball, anyway.

Actionable Steps:

  • Know when you are scheduled to pitch or play in a tournament. Then, give yourself ample time (15-30 minutes) to prepare before the game so that you can not only get fully warmed-up, but so that you also do not have to rush.
  • In between double-headers, make sure you warm-up again as needed. This may not necessarily mean you need to reiterate the entire warm-up after the first game, but an an abbreviated version may still be necessary.
  • Stick to the routine that works for you, regardless of the season. If your pre-game routine works during the spring, why would you change it for the summer?

 


These four tips all have two things in common: they require you to be proactive, and they require you to look ahead at your travel ball schedule and do some planning. This takes a level of responsibility that may be new to you as a young athlete, but will ultimately benefit your baseball career, as well as many other aspects of your life.

By being proactive and planning ahead you can manage your workload, implement physical development during the summer, stay adequately nourished and hydrated, and prepare for each outing or game like a professional. And, by doing all four of these things, you can ultimately put yourself in the best position to perform well and stay healthy during the long, grueling summer season.

Respectfully,

RJF

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