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By: Josh Staph
Burning down the basepaths propelled the 2005 Northwestern University softball team to the second best record in school history: 42-18. The Lady Wildcats' lightning-fast speed also helped them steal 59 bases in 69 attempts and advance in the NCAA tournament.
These notable feats resulted from Jason Pullara's softball-specific speed development program, which mimics how speed and acceleration are used on the diamond. Because softball fields are smaller than baseball fields, softball players don't often reach top speed running the bases. Thus Pullara, Northwestern's assistant director of strength and conditioning, trained his players to achieve short, powerful bursts of acceleration. The team translated this training into diamond domination.
Speed can change the game's dynamic, Pullara says. "It puts a lot of pressure on the defense. There are a lot more errors when a defense sees speed on the field. They start rushing plays and making bad throws."
Pullara relies on resisted running with elastic bungee cords to improve running strength, power and stride length. The improvements that result help softball players become better base runners. "The resistance forces the players' muscles to work harder," he explains.. "When the resistance is removed, it transfers into faster times from first to second and second to third base."
- Attach a bungee cord to yourself and a partner, who is standing behind you
- Start in base running stance so the cord has tension
- Turn and sprint while your partner runs behind you resisting at a constant rate the entire length
Use a 5:1 rest-to-work ratio; e.g., if it takes you 6 seconds to complete the sprint, rest for 30 seconds.
Pullara uses the following progression to get the most from the drill:
Week 1: 4 x 20 yards
Week 2: 6 x 20 yards
Week 3: 4 x 30 yards
Week 4: 6 x 30 yards
Week 5: 6 x 40 yards
Week 6: 8 x 40 yards
Overspeed training also improves linear speed, because muscles fire faster than they would without assistance. "We like to focus on this to train the neurological system to fire more quickly and increase stride frequency," Pullara says.
The drill's execution is the same as resisted sprints except your partner runs in front of you, providing a constant rate of pull over the entire length of the sprint. Use the same reps and recovery as the resisted sprints, but Pullara recommends keeping the distance between 20 and 30 yards throughout the cycle.
Change of Direction Training
According to Pullara, change of direction is one of the most important aspects of speed for a softball player. "The first step is where most of your time is made or lost in softball," he says. "We try to make the players react with minimal negative movements, so everything is moving in the right direction for the first step. This carries over to softball, because you can get to the ball a step quicker and make the play easier."
Pro Agility with Ball Roll
Pullara uses this drill to improve change of direction speed and acceleration over a short distance.
- Get in fielding stance facing a partner, with cones 5 yards to your left and right
- Have your partner roll a ball to one of the cones
- Without taking a false step, react by turning and sprinting 5 yards to the cone
- Field the ball and touch the ground at the base of the cone
- Have your partner roll another ball to the other cone
- Turn and sprint 10 yards to that cone
- Again, field the ball and touch the ground at the base of the cone
- Turn and sprint back to starting position
The Wildcats perform 6-8 reps of this drill with a 5:1 rest-to-work ratio.
"This training mimics the type of acceleration needed to run down a fly ball or get to a ground ball," Pullara says..
Speed Ladder and Burst
The Wildcats further improve softball-specific acceleration by adding speed development to foot work drills on the standard speed ladder.
- Perform specified drill through a speed ladder with a partner standing at the end
- Have your partner throw a ball over your shoulder or roll it past you upon completion of the ladder drill
- Accelerate after the ball to catch or field it
Perform 16-20 reps with a 5:1 rest-to-work ratio.
Pullara includes small doses of plyometrics in the softball team's speed workouts to improve explosive power. He has the women perform 3 sets of 6-10 reps of plyos.
Coaching Point: Go for maximum height and spend as little time as possible between jumps.
Split Squat Jumps
- Start with your legs in split jump position
- Squat down, then jump as high as possible
- Switch your back leg to the front position and front leg to the back quickly in mid-air
- Begin the next jump immediately upon landing
- Stand at the edge of a 12" x 24" box
- Step off the box and land on both feet
- Jump for maximum height immediately upon landing
Coaching Point: After a few weeks of doing Box Drops, jump for maximum distance instead of height.
Pro Agility with Ball Roll
Speed Ladder and Burst