Nancy Newell is the Director of Sports Performance at The Strength House in Worcester, Massachusetts. She started her coaching career working with softball and baseball athletes in the high school, college, and professional ranks. She consults with various NCAA colleges, such as the University of Florida and University of Alabama, as well as local schools. Along with consulting, she is an active public speaker and was a presenter at the World Softball Coaches’ Convention. Coach Newell holds a bachelor’s degree in fitness development from the State University of New York at Cortland.
Freelap USA: You have vast experience with powerlifting, but you also seem to be very knowledgeable about teaching athletic sport actions. Can you go into how rhythm and fluid action with stiffness matter when preparing athletes?
Nancy Newell: When you look out onto a softball field, you can tell pretty quickly who the stud athlete is just by watching how each player gathers a ground ball, the rhythm of their feet, and the tempo at which they release the ball. Those qualities are the meat and potatoes of any sport. I have added various gallops, skips, shuffles, and catches into my softball dynamic warm-ups to help challenge flow, rhythm, and tempo.
Fast athletes experience ground reaction forces of three times their body weight. Lower leg stiffness is crucial for carryover to actual acceleration and sprinting, not to mention strengthening the ankle complex. Low-intensity, high-duration double and single leg continuous hops are a great addition to an athlete’s warm-up. With that in mind, this is a simple progression I use:
Lower Body Day 1
- Phase 1: Double leg in-place pogo jumps with dowel on back (helps maintain upright posture)
- Phase 2: Double leg in-place pogo jumps
- Phase 3: Double leg forward pogo jumps
- Phase 4: Contrast double leg forward pogo jumps
* Pogo jump with 5-pound weights in each hand, drop them after 5 meters
Lower Body Day 2
- Phase 1: Single leg in-place pogo jumps with dowel
- Phase 2: Single leg in-place pogo jumps
- Phase 3: Clockwise and counterclockwise pogo jumps
- Phase 4: Medial/lateral pogo jumps, 10-15 meters
At the end of the day, weight training is far removed from what my softball athletes are required to do on the field (sprinting, COD, fielding, throwing, jumping). If you focus all of your training sessions on movements that are slow and heavy, and don’t expose them to different qualities along the force velocity curve, it will not have the best transfer to the field.
For me, while I care about seeing their 0-10m sprint times get faster, I’d rather see their mechanical efficiency on their rotational med ball work improve. That’s what matters.While I care about seeing my softball athletes’ 0-10m sprint times get faster, I’d rather see their mechanical efficiency on rotational med ball work improve, says @NancyNewell2. Click To Tweet
Don’t get me wrong: I want my girls to be strong. However, they need to be able to translate that strength and power to the field of play. If they can’t do that, I didn’t do my job.
Freelap USA: Speed in softball matters. What do you do to prepare your athletes for both defensive and offensive performance? Obviously, a combination of both training and teaching is important, but how do you put it together?
Nancy Newell: Hill sprints are great, due to the fact they promote better sprinting mechanics. The step grade of the hill places athletes in a better “forward lean,” which leads to proper shin angles. I like to include uphill sprint work in the first block of a strength program. The grade forces them to keep outputs low coming off a long season and sets you up to build volume and work capacity.
Implementing various static starts from the prone, supine, and half-kneeling positions will force the girls to overcome their own body weight to get moving. Getting the girls stronger relative to their own body weight will help improve their ability to get going from a static start. It’s also worth spending time recording the girls from the side and breaking down their start mechanics.
Freelap USA: Sometimes running at slower velocities seems to hone technique better than just blasting maximal efforts. Can you share some of your observations of working with softball athletes who need better running mechanics, such as teaching arm carriage when necessary?
Nancy Newell: The demands of maximum sprinting for the high school athlete are usually very complex. Technique can look crisp at 80% effort, but as soon as I ask them to increase intensity, that’s where I start seeing technical breakdown (hips sink, arms aggressively cross the body, running with too much tension, etc.). For this reason, I encourage coaches to consolidate technique by accelerating the level of intensity.
For example, if the focus of the day is top speed work, I might have my softball girls run over wickets for the first 25 meters and then gradually accelerate to near maximal intensity over the next 50 meters. During those next 25 meters, they visualize those wickets under their feet to minimize backside heel recovery and increase frontside knee recovery.
The arms should open and close just as the legs open and close during sprinting. When their arm is in front of them, it should be around a hands-width away from their shoulder; as the arm drives down to their side, it should be straight. From there, it will start to close to around 130 degrees. If your athletes struggle getting to this position, it’s often due to built-up tension. Encourage them to sprint with a relaxed face to release tension and gain more range of motion.
Freelap USA: When doing a needs analysis of an athlete’s goals, what are the steps you take to do it properly? You have spent a lot of time with continuing education, studying some great track coaches. Could you get into how they helped you program better?
Nancy Newell: Spending the last few months diving into books and resources by five master coaches has really helped me understand the value of sprinting, how to coach sprinting, and how to enhance first-step quickness with my softball athletes.
One great resource outside of Francis and Pfaff is Frank Dick. Coach Dick was a former international coach who trained one of the best decathletes of all time. In 2007, he wrote the fifth edition of “Sports Training Principles,” which highlights topics including motor skill training, enhancing the biomotor abilities, and programming schemes. That book helped me juggle all of the requirements of LTAD and actually write better training programs in strength and conditioning.
Ask the athlete what the end goal is and what they need to do in order to get there. Those questions, and their answers, have helped me become a better programmer and coach.
For example, when it came to improving first-step quickness off the bag, I learned the following from Ralph Mann:
What is the end goal? Steal more bases this season.
What do I know:
- To maximize the start from the bag, the goal must be to produce maximum horizontal force while minimizing forces in all other directions (primarily vertical).
- If total force can be increased through either strength gain or efficiency improvement, the overall performance (time it takes to get to the next base) will improve.
Freelap USA: Individualizing catchers and outfielders isn’t easy. What factors do you look at with strength in the weight room and plyometrics? What about the ability to perform under pressure and not just in training?
Nancy Newell: One of the biggest limiting factors to improving first-step quickness off the bag is the athlete’s strength potential. There are three major types of strength that an athlete must possess to produce high levels of strength or force in a static, dynamic, and elastic situation.One of the biggest limiting factors to improving first-step quickness off the bag is the athlete’s strength potential, says @NancyNewell2. Click To Tweet
Traditional weight training can easily improve static strength. It’s picking 8-10 movements, ensuring their technique is crisp, and providing more overload via intensity, volume, tempo, intent, etc., week after week. Get your athletes strong enough to be able to move their own body weight with confidence.
In almost every sport, the athlete has to make decisions under pressure. If the athlete takes too long, they strike out, get tackled, or miss an opportunity to score. Rehearsing technique for acceleration and maximum speed is important and should be addressed up front. Once the athlete can demonstrate a degree of competence, you need to add pressure to the drill that is similar to what they will experience on the field.
For a softball player, this could be accelerating around an opponent within the first 2-3 steps off the bag or this could be simulating a run-down situation. Take a look at the chaos and challenges the athletes face in their sport and implement those variables in your programming.
From static strength, the next potential I want to challenge is dynamic strength. Dynamic strength is the ability to produce higher amounts of force when the body’s limbs are moving at higher velocities. Working with a heavier resisted sled that reduces velocity by more than 30% can be valuable at times. The body is still producing a high amount of force, while the limbs are moving faster than in the static phase. Movements such as heavier weighted sleds and various in-place repeated jumps can enhance the body’s ability to produce force faster.
The last phase to look at is the elastic phase. This phase is plyometric in nature, where the ground contact times are less than .15 seconds. This would be your true speed work: various depth drops and bounding.
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