Improving Speed in Youth Baseball
By Jose Vazquez and Gene Coleman – Texas Rangers
In an attempt to better serve the coaches, players, and parents involved in youth and high school baseball, the PBSCCS periodically publishes information on factors that can affect conditioning and performance at these levels. Topics are selected from questions submitted by participants, coaches and parents involved in youth and high school sports.
The question for this posting was from the parent of a 12U baseball player who said – My 12-year son is a good hitter and can make most of the routine plays in the field, but he is one of the slowest players on the field. Over the next two years, the dimensions of the field will increase significantly. As a 13-year old, the bases will move from 70 to 80 feet, an increase of approximately 14%. The following year, the bases will move to 90-feet, an additional 12% increase. My son is getting thrown out by about 2-3 feet now and if he doesn’t get faster, I am worried that he will get thrown out by 3-4 feet next year, get discouraged and give up the sport.
Speed is one of the major keys to success in many sports including baseball. It’s one of the 5 Tools used by coaches and scouts to evaluate college and professional baseball players. Speed is a skill just like hitting, pitching, fielding, etc., that can be improved with proper training. Athletes can learn to become faster. The saying is – “we can make everyone faster, but we can’t make anyone fast.” Regardless of how slow an athlete is, he/she can get faster with proper training. Everyone, however, has genetic limitations. Those with lower genetic potential can become faster, but will probably not make the track team. The goal is to become faster on the field so that you can get to first base quicker, score more runs and make more plays on defense, not to make the track team.
When training for speed, it’s essential that you treat speed like any other skill that you are trying to improve. And, hard work is the first step in the process. There is not “magic drill” that will make you faster, only consistent, hard work. Players practice baseball skills and play games all the time, but most are rarely taught how to move properly. They are expected to know how as they advance up the ranks. If a player, regardless of his/her age, has never been shown how to do something, you can’t expect him/her to do it correctly? Most successful coaches will tell you that you can’t expect a player to be able to do something that he/she has not been taught how to do.
When training for speed, there are at least two critical factors that must be mastered. The first is running mechanics and the second is strength. Both are essential and neither is totally beneficial without the other. Strength is essential because you have to be able to apply force into the ground to propel your body forward. There are no weak, fast athletes. Mechanics are important because regardless of how strong you are or how much you stretch; you will run only as fast as your mechanics permit. When your mechanics break down, you will not be able to run faster. You can continue to run and make yourself tired, but you won’t get faster. Your goal is to get faster, not make yourself tired.
This post will be limited to a discussion of running mechanics. The role of strength in improving running speed will be addressed in a later post.
Running mechanics. While providing a comprehensive step-by-step plan for improving speed is beyond the scope of this post, there are a few basic things that athletes can do to initiate improvements in running mechanics. For additional information and training programs, coaches and parents are advised to consult a NSCA certified strength and conditioning coach and/or track coach with experience in speed training 1, 2, 4.
A good place to start when addressing running mechanics is the PAL system developed by Vern Gambetta3. PAL focuses on three basic components of good mechanics: posture (P); arm action (A) and leg action (L).
Posture. Posture (P) refers to the alignment of the body, especially the head position, eye focus and inclination of the body. The adult head weights approximately 10-11 pounds and slightly less for adolescents. Wherever your head goes, the rest of your body will follow. If you look down, your body will lean forward and if you look up, it will lean back. These two extremes are not good because too much lean in either direction will reduce speed. The same thing happens when you move your head side-to-side or lean it to one side. When you turn or lean your head, your body does not run in a straight line, distance increases and speed is reduced. Your head should be in-line with your trunk with eyes forward and focused on a spot on the ground about 6-10 feet in front of the body when starting and gradually rising to focus on the finish line after accelerating for about 10 yards (6-7 steps).
Body lean comes from the ankles, not the waist. To find proper body lean, stand tall and shift your weight toward your toes until your heels just leave the ground. The point at which your heels leave the ground is your proper body lean. Run the same way you walk, tall and relaxed, not hunched over. Keep your body tall and straight with your shoulders back, abs tight and hips forward. If you don’t run tall, you can’t drive your knee.
The following 3-photo sequence illustrates how to use the Rise, Fall and Run Drill to find proper body lean and starting angles when working on running mechanics. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart then rise up on your toes until your center of gravity falls outside your base of support (toes). When you lose your balance, step forward quickly with one foot (left), flex the opposite arm (right) forward and extend the same side arm (left) backwards. Drive off the lead leg and sprint straight ahead.
NOTE: After 2-3 steps, some athletes will tuck their chin to their chest and roll their shoulders forward to make it look like they are running with proper body lean. When you see this, running mechanics have broken down. Stop the drill and correct the problem before resuming training.
Also notice in the 3-sequence photo above that, with proper body lean and drive, the feet are behind the hips and the hips are behind the shoulders. These photos also illustrate that proper arm movement occurs from the shoulders and the elbow is flexed when the arm moves forward and extended when the arm moves backward. The photos also show that the hands are relaxed and move inward toward the mid-line of the body on shoulder flexion and move back past the pockets on shoulder extension.
Arm action. Arm action (A) involves the position and rate of movement of the arms and hands. Each arm should move as a whole with the elbow bent at about 900. The hands remain relaxed, coming up to about nose-level in front of the body and passing he buttocks in the back. Arm action is approximately “cheek to cheek” and always forward and backward, never side to side. Arm swing should originate from the shoulder and involve a limited amount of flexion and extension at the elbows. The arms flex on the way up and extend on the way down. The hands move up toward the mid-line of the body on the way up and down slightly outside and past the pockets on the way down. Assume that there is a wall behind your hips with a nail in it and that you have a hammer in your hand. You want to drive your hands back and drive the nail into the wall with the hammer. There should be daylight between your buttocks and hand. Also assume that there is a pane of glass running through the middle of your body from front to back. Your hands should move up and inward just grazing the glass on the way up. Your hands can be kept open or slightly closed, but always relaxed. The thumb side of the hand should be pointed forward and up at all times and the wrist does not move.
Your arms and legs work together. The driving action of your hand past your buttocks coincides with the triple extension of the opposite leg to help propel your forward. Your arms, not your legs control speed. Don’t believe it? Try this: jog slowly and check your arm action. Is it short and slow? Do your arms swing side-to-side across your body? Now look at your stride. Is it slow and choppy? Now pump your hands from cheek to cheek and watch your stride length increase. Want more speed? Pump your arms faster. As previously stated, your arms and legs work together. Your legs move longer (stride length) and faster (stride rate) to keep up with your arms. Pumping your arms cheek-to-cheek makes you take longer steps (stride length). Pumping them faster from cheek-to-cheek makes you take faster steps (stride rate). Speed is a function of stride length x stride rate. If you can increase one without decreasing the other, you will run faster. Increase both and you will run even faster.
Leg action. Leg action (L) focuses on the foot, ankle, knee and hip. Lift your knee forward, not up, and let your lower leg relax and hang down. Keep your toe up and snap your foot down and back to drive you forward. Your foot should strike the ground directly under your center of gravity and drive you forward. Ankle flexion occurs when you lift your toes up toward your shin. Extension occurs when you dive off or extend your foot. Make sure that you pull the toe up toward the shin as your lead or nonsupport leg comes forward during recovery to load the ankle just before your foot strikes the ground. An unloaded ankle can’t explode quickly on ground contact. You have to flex it while it’s on the ground before you can get it in position for explosive movements. Loading the ankle while it is on the ground wastes time and slows you down. Drive your foot into the ground with force. Don’t let your foot fall to the ground. Hit it hard. Drive your foot into the ground with force.
The phrase that many speed coaches use when cueing athletes is “toe up – heel up – knee up”. The first movement of the recovery leg when the foot leaves the ground is to bring the “toe up” (dorsiflex the foot). The second movement is to bring the heel up toward the buttocks followed by bringing the knee up (forward) as if punching it toward the finish line. Forget high knees and butt kicks when working on running mechanics. They are good warm-up exercises but not necessarily good sprint mechanic drills.
Don’t worry about stride length now. Reaching out to try to increase stride length causes you to over stride and slows you down. Also, forget about high knee lifts. When your foot strikes the ground, the rebound will drive you forward and push your knee up. Punch the knee forward and let the rebound push it up.
Drive the body forward! Place your foot on the ground and drive toward the direction you want to go. Don’t reach and pull. Drive down and back to create an angle from head to foot that will propel you forward.
Each component of PAL affects the other two. If one is off, compensation will occur in the other two. The first area to break down is usually posture. Most athletes lose their eye focus or stand up too straight too soon. Both conditions disrupt normal arm action, reduce stride rate and decrease stride length.
How to use the PAL system. Start by learning one of the three PAL components at a time. Work on the first component (Posture) at half-speed. Rise up on your toes, fall and sprint 30 yards at half-speed. Walk back and do it again. Do five reps over 30 yards at half-speed, rest one to two minutes and then do five more reps at three-quarters speed. Rest and repeat at full-speed. Then try the next component (Arm action). Move your hands “cheek to cheek” while running 30-yards at half speed. Walk back, rest and then do five reps at three-quarters speed. Finish “cheek to cheek” with five reps at full speed. Then work on the third component (Leg action) using the same sequence. Bring your toe up, punch your knee toward the finish line and snap the foot down under your center of gravity to drive you forward.
After learning each component in isolation, put two of them together (body lean and arm action) in a single 30-yard run at half-speed. Walk back and run again. Do five reps at half-speed. Rest and do five reps at three-quarters speed. Rest and repeat at full speed. Finish by putting the three PAL components together at half-, three-quarters and full-speed. Stop when you become tired and start to slow down. When you run slow, you are practicing being slow. You have to run fast to be fast.
Work on each component daily 3-4 times per week. Once you have effectively put them together at full speed, limit your speed workouts to every other day and begin to implement specific drills to continue to enhance each of the three PAL components. Some of the drills that you might consider adding to your speed mechanics workouts include:
- Wall run. http://baseballstrength.org/kinsler-wall-run/
- Resisted march and run and three step bound and run. http://baseballstrength.org/resisted-march-and-run-three-step-bound-and-run/
- Skipping progressions to improve speed. http://baseballstrength.org/skipping-progression-to-improve-speed/
- Half-kneeling arm swings. http://baseballstrength.org/half-kneeling-arm-swings/
- Short to long sprints. http://baseballstrength.org/short-to-long-sprint-training/
- Kneeling rotational starts for acceleration. http://baseballstrength.org/kneeling-rotational-starts-acceleration/
- Kneeling starts for acceleration. http://baseballstrength.org/kneeling-start-for-acceleration/
- Lateral drive and ground angle. http://baseballstrength.org/1315-2/
- Crossover start. http://baseballstrength.org/crossover/
- Acceleration drill progressions. http://baseballstrength.org/?s=adam+noel
Final thoughts. The following bullet points are directed at the adults (parents and coaches) responsible for initiating and monitoring the PAL program or any other valid speed training program.
- Always precede every speed workout with a proper warm-up. A good warm-up should take less than 10 minutes.
- Watch every rep of every drill and insist that every rep is performed with proper technique. You wouldn’t turn your back on a hitting, pitching or fielding drill and have a discussion with an assistant coach or parent. There is no coach’s time-off when training for speed. Be present. Be engaged. Coach. Don’t accept sloppy, slow, warm-up type effort. Quality effort is essential for improvement.
- Do not sacrifice drill quality. This is where the learning occurs, so make sure that every drill is performed properly.
- Record and rank every all-out run. You need data (times) to monitor progress and evaluate program effectiveness. Recording and posting times will help create a culture of speed and get your athletes to compete. In the end, the best speed drill is maximum velocity sprinting. Timing your players from home to first base every time that they hit the ball will help create a culture of speed and accountability.
- Exposure is essential. To get better at something, you must practice it frequently. There’s no use throwing a speed session in every four to six weeks and expecting to make progress.
- Work on speed early in the workout when players are fresh, not at the end when they are tired. Experience indicates that when players run at the end of practice, they tend to run at the same velocity but make an uglier face.
- Speed is best achieved with high-intensity low-volume sprinting. Your goal is to make your athletes faster, not make them tired. High volume sprinting, i.e., lots of reps and sets creates fatigue, not speed. Emphasize quality over quantity.
- Avoid anything that promotes slowness. No jogging, no warm-laps. Have players run onto and off the field. Avoid letting players walk or jog on or off the field. Do everything fast and with proper rest. Always sprint with the wind to encourage speed. Allow enough rest between reps and drills to ensure that players can recover enough to give max effort on the next rep and drill. Having players run when they are tired produces slow running and bad habits.
- For every 10 yards of max or near max sprinting in any rep, rest for at least 30-60 seconds. For a max or near-max 30-yard sprint, rest at least for 90 seconds.
- Good jumpers are good sprinters. Mix some simple plyometric skips, jumps and hops into your training program to encourage quick, powerful ground reaction force.
- Less-is-more when developing speed in team sport athletes. Total stress to the system can be immense for a team sport athlete, especially in season. Regular team practice sessions often include throwing, hitting, pitching, ground balls, bunt plays, cut-offs and relays and small-sided games. In addition, it is not uncommon to have two strength training sessions in a week. All these factors mean the fatigue/recovery glass can often be teetering on empty. Therefore, it’s essential we do the least we can get away with whenever we want to add any other additional training.
- Brown, LE and VA Ferrigno. Training for speed, agility and quickness, 2nd Edition, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 2005.
- Coleman, G. 52-Week baseball training. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 2000.
- Gambetta, V. Athletic development: The art & science of functional sports conditioning, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 2007.
- Hoffman, J and J Vazquez, Total fitness for baseball, Coaches Choice, Monterey, CA, 2008.
Jose Vazquez, PT, RSCC is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Texas Rangers. Gene Coleman was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a S&C consultant for the Texas Rangers, Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager baseballstrength.org.