Putting in the Work: The Off-Season
By Cory Ritter, MS, CSCS, St. Louis Cardinals
It’s January, and that means a lot of us just finished traveling to celebrate with family. Time has flown and before you know it, a new baseball season will be here. No matter what level of baseball you are currently involved in, winter is a key time to make big improvements in your development. High school athletes are either currently playing another sport or training for the start of the baseball season that is just around the corner. Collegiate athletes have finished the fall semester and are returning from their turkey-induced hibernation to pre-season training and spring classes. Professional players know that spring training is just around the corner and should be midway through their off-season program. January is an important month. If approached right, it can help separate you from others.
High School Level Athletes. If you are a high school athlete, you are about to kick off the season in the coming semester, and if you think you have time to get bigger, faster and stronger, you need to wake up and hit the weights, and hit them hard. There have been a number of former players that have been and numerous current players that will be rudely awakened when they realize that the time spent on other things did nothing to improve performance when they were faced with clutch situations in the late innings and down one run. I know because I was one of them. It is a circle of life in baseball that continues to happen and will probably always happen among players that wait until it’s too late to get ready for the coming season.
My high school coach told me things to do and things to avoid, but I didn’t listen. Then, years later I became that same coach telling the new generation of players what to do and what not to do. You need to be the one that breaks the circle. Be one of the few that takes advice and applies it to become a better athlete and have more success. You are at such a monumental point in your athletic development that you can’t afford to take multiple days off. You are still growing and have a lot of things going on, but the one thing that needs to remain consistent is the day-to-day work that you put into getting better so that you give yourself a chance to develop into the player you want to be.
*Special Note* Success does not happen overnight. Development requires time. You can’t microwave improvement. The hardest thing you can do is not how much weight you lift or how many reps you do. The hardest thing, the thing that separates the players from the wannabes is putting in consistent effort day in and day out when no one is watching and when everyone else is having fun.
Successful MLB players have all of the intangibles. They are the first to workouts and practice and the last to leave. They don’t just work when things are going bad and slack off when things are good. They are consistent from day to day. They work every day in to make sure that they are prepared for what might come tomorrow.
Everyone at the professional level has talent. Some have more than others. Talent is your genetic potential. It’s a gift. Talent is something you are born with. You didn’t earn it – you inherited it. Having talent, however, even lots of it, is no guarantee of success. Success depends on how you use your gift. If you take it for granted and are content with being on the team and making an occasional contribution, you will never achieve your genetic potential. If you work on your talent, even if its marginal, you have a better chance of reaching your potential and being successful.
Collegiate Level. The fall semester is behind you and the holidays gave you some much needed R&R. But the holidays are no excuse to skip training and if you took it as such you are coming back to school way behind. The season is fast approaching, so you better stick to your program and clock in and out each day. Depending on your program, you should have been training hard all fall in preparation for a monster season. If you are on the bench behind an upper-classmen or battling for a position, that is even more reason to focus and put in the work every day. One day of squats in the weight room and one day of flips in the cage with the hitting coach is show, not growth. A week of driving the ball backside means you want to get better, but 10-15 minutes of prep work with the hitting, pitching, or strength coach every day shows that you’re willing to pay the price. If you want to become a leader, you have to be willing to put in the time when no one is watching.
Professional Players. To the professional players out there, you already know the grind. The reason I’m so picky on what professional level athletes do in their off-season is because this is the population that I work with. What a professional baseball player does at this point in programming could directly reflect my team or organization’s ability to win a championship. If its late in the season and you didn’t do a good job getting ready in the off-season, the chances are good that you will be in the training room nursing a nagging injury. If someone can’t put in the work in the off-season when there are no bus rides, flights or games, it’s unlikely they will after a 4-hour bus ride, 2 weeks without a day off, extra-inning games, rain delays, day games after night games, etc.
So, find a good strength and conditioning coach in your area, if you haven’t already, that has a solid educational background and understands what a professional baseball player goes through. There are some great coaches out there, but try to find one that’s worked in professional baseball. I mention that because it’s important that your strength and conditioning coach understands what bus rides, long flights, missed sleep, clubhouse food, crossing time zones, etc. can do to your body. He needs to know the toll that early batting and/or field practice can take, how important fun days are to recovery and how your body feels after a full season. If no one in your area meets those criteria, your organization’s strength and conditioning coordinator will help you find someone.
What does “Putting in the Work” mean? In order to explain this, I should start by explaining what “putting in the work” does not look like. It is not 20 minutes of easy cardio, followed by arm day, followed by abs and stretching. Putting in the work is not showing up to the gym and checking your email, Facebook or Instagram between sets and exercises. You have training goals for the off-season and you have training goals (local muscle endurance, strength, speed, power, etc.) every time that you enter the weight room. Athletes that know how to train and not “work out” are the ones that reach their goals at the end of the season because they reached their training goals every workout. Players that “work out” in the off-season are the ones that have the same goals next year because they didn’t reach them the previous year. You have to walk into the weight room or performance center with a laser focus ready to do whatever your coach has prescribed for that day, and you have to do it with a purpose. Set goals, train for them, and once you have crushed your goals, rinse and repeat the process. Someone else is training to take your position, so keep that in mind when you are slow to get out of bed in the morning.
Finish January strong and make it the reason you start the season hot. Separate yourself from your competition by grinding through the tougher parts of your off-season program and come into the new season with a body that will not fail you from opening day through the play-offs. I emphasizing this because, as a former player, I promise that you will not get those missed workouts back. As a strength and conditioning coach watching players be released and careers ended, its important to tell young and old players that you will time back. High school baseball is a blur, college flies by and professional careers can last only one season or less. One important thing that you can control in a sport where so much is uncontrollable is your effort. Effort does not require skill. Everyone’s career ends at some point, but the work that you put in today can help ensure that your career does not end too soon. When it’s the bottom of the ninth and you have a chance to win your school or organization a championship, did you do everything you could to be ready for that moment? Make sure that answer is yes. Remember, the only thing you can control is your preparation.
Cory Ritter is a minor league strength and conditioning coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.