When I’m talking to athletes about playing softball in college, I often hear groans and see rolling eyeballs when I bring up the importance of conditioning. Kids who play two or three sports in high school often assume they’re already getting enough exercise and therefore don’t need to do anything extra or special in the area of conditioning.
But these are the very students who often find themselves in great misery when they begin their freshman workouts at college. When I first started working as a recruiting coach, conditioning—weight training, running, etc.—was relatively common at Div. I programs, and it was becoming more common at other levels of competition as well. But it wasn’t yet considered a must. At schools where the coach was part-time, or that didn’t have any fall softball season, conditioning was sometimes an afterthought or was sporadic at best. Players might be told to run three times a week or to go to the training room and do a circuit every other day.
In today’s collegiate athletics, however, conditioning is considered by most to be as important to good performance on the field as are drills and practices. Many if not most, college softball teams start with conditioning in the fall before they start practice. Running, whether distance or sprints, weight training and other exercises designed to improve speed, agility and stamina are done on a regular basis, usually throughout the year.
Why is this conditioning so important? The answer is a simple one. If you watched the Olympics, you heard frequent references to the Team USA’s strenuous training, including working out with Navy Seals. If you watched the 2005 College World Series, the commentators regularly referred to conditioning, it’s effect on stamina, and how it helps players to survive the long college season.
If you’re in peak physical condition, you’re better prepared to deliver a peak performance. And your body can better withstand the stress of tough competition. Many college teams play as many as 60-70 games over the course of their season. These are usually double-headers, and they may have several doubleheaders scheduled in a row. Although travel ball teams may play a lot of games, and may see a few weekends where they play six or seven games, it’s usually in the summer when school is out, and they usually get a break during the week.
Some high school athletic programs are forward thinking (or well funded) enough to offer conditioning classes or to integrate them into their individual sports teams. But many do not. And kids who aren’t in top shape often show the effects of this lack of conditioning. They are at increased risk for injury, fatigue and burnout.
College coaches know the benefits of a team in top shape. They’re less injury-prone, recover faster from slight injuries and perhaps most importantly, they’ll still be going strong in May when post-season play rolls around. I always encourage athletes to start conditioning by the time they are juniors. This gives them two years before they start college, and it allows them time to “ease” into a good training program. There are a lot of resources you can investigate to find out what specific training program is right for you. An excellent way to start is to write several college coaches or athletic trainers and ask them what type of conditioning program their softball players follow.
There are health clubs or gyms that specialize in training for athletes. And it is a very good idea to have expert supervision when you start because your body is still growing and changing, and you don’t want to overdo it. You also want to be sure you’re doing it correctly.
But before you start to groan and complain that you’re already in shape or you already run or you do year-round sports, think of this. Since it’s likely that wherever you go to college, conditioning will be the first thing you start, wouldn’t you like to have a head start? Wouldn’t you like to be the player coach singles out because you’re already ahead of the other freshmen on the team?
If there’s a chance you’ll be walking on somewhere, or challenging a starter for a spot, you can be ahead of the game by starting college with stamina and strength already going for you! Being able to handle the demanding college conditioning program may not be the single factor that wins you a walk-on or starting spot, but it certainly could be a major factor.
Whether you love or hate “training”, it’s going to be part of your college athletic experience. So why not get a head start on the competition? Do your homework now, and you’ll pass the test when it counts. Consult expert resources, plan a program you can manage, start slowly and stick to it. By the summer of your senior year, you’ll not only be in great shape physically, but you’ll start college confident in the knowledge that you can handle whatever coach asks of you!
By Cathi Aradi