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The Ballhawk-Specific Off-Season Training Regimen

It's playoff time, and if you're a diehard baseball fan there's no better time of the year. Over the next month, the best eight teams in baseball will battle it out to become the 2011 MLB Champions. For the record, I predict that the Texas Rangers will prove everyone wrong and capture this year's title against all odds. But that's not what this column is about.

The excitement of the playoffs begins today, but for 80-90 percent of the members of this website it is bittersweet. That's because unless we live in a playoff town, ballhawking in 2010 is officially over. Instead of snagging balls at the ballpark, we'll be taking in the game on our couch with a bag of chips.

With the early release of the 2011 schedule, ballhawks are already looking ahead to next year. In preparation for the 2011 season, today I'd like to introduce a concept that will seem ridiculous to many: an off-season ballhawk-specific training regimen.

It does seem a little crazy, but after all, many on this website have argued that ballhawking is a sport. So if it's a sport, then ballhawks are athletes, and it's time that ballhawks start training like athletes. A few years ago as a high school coach I helped to design off-season sport-specific workout programs, so for me it really wasn't too much of a stretch to sit down and come up with a ballhawk-specific program.

Rather than try to devise a day-by-day workout schedule, I decided to just list all of the different aspects of physical fitness that any serious ballhawk should work on this off-season. It's up to you to take these general principles and draw up a day-by-day routine that works for you. So here's the list, and of course here's the obligatory disclaimer: Always consult a physician before beginning a new workout program.

Agility Ladder: Ballhawking requires more agility than perhaps any major sport. Like football, there are constantly people that you need to maneuver past, but unlike football you have to avoid bumping into them or knocking them over. Not to mention the solid stationary objects like seats and railings that you have to slip by without banging a shin or a knee. Ballhawking requires very quick feet, the ability to stop and/or change direction on a dime, and the ability to move forward, backward, or laterally in swift and concise movements. Nothing can train your footwork better than an Agility Ladder, which athletes of all sports use to increase fast-twitch muscle fibers in the lower body. There are lots of them on the market, but here's one that comes with a set of drills to help you become quicker and lighter on your feet. Do the drills 4-5 times per week and in a couple months you'll notice a significant improvement in your overall agility.

Strength Training: Overall strength is important for effective ballhawking, especially when there's a lot of competition. While intentional pushing or bumping is clearly against ballhawking etiquette, incidental contact is often unavoidable and strong muscles will help you stand your ground when there is some contact in a scrum. A strong upper body, particularly in the shoulders and arms, will help your glove hand stay in place while reaching up for a home run ball in a crowd. Likewise, a strong lower body will help you to avoid falling over if you get bumped by someone in the crowd. Consult a local fitness expert to work out a strength training plan that matches your age, experience level, and goals. More than likely, you'll need at least 2-3 days per week of strength training in order to achieve noticeable gains in strength.

Core Training: There's a lot of twisting, turning, bending, and reaching involved in ballhawking, so the abdominals and lower back need to be strong and stable. There's literally hundreds of core training exercises you can do, so do some research and find some that work for you. Be sure to give proper attention to upper, lower, and side (oblique) abdominal muscles. Also take note that abdominal muscles recover quicker than any other muscles, so they can be trained as many as five or six days per week without overworking them.

Running Stairs: Chasing down balls often requires sprinting up or down stairs. The key word here is sprinting -- the ballhawk who merely jogs through stairs most often loses out to a ballhawk who moves more explosively. This explosive movement can be learned through consistent stair-running workouts. Find a high school football stadium with a sizeable set of bleachers and practice running the stairs. Run in a figure-eight shape using the left, middle, and right aisles. Jog at a medium pace when moving laterally, but when it comes time to go up the stairs kick it into high gear and explode to the top of the bleachers. If you've never done this before, start off with a short, five minute workout, and gradually increase until you can do 30 minutes. Do this twice a week throughout the off-season and next spring you'll be blowing by the other ballhawks as they struggle to make their way up and down the stairs.

Long Distance Running: Batting practice lasts an hour and a half, and for the serious ballhawk it involves constant running, often in 90-plus degree heat. Strong cardiovascular endurance is absolutely essential for maintaining a high energy level throughout BP. Ever had to sit down for 10 minutes in the middle of BP because you got too tired? Ever just flat out quit with 20 minutes left in BP because you got sluggish and unmotivated? This off-season, make it a priority to get in great cardiovascular shape and be able to stay on top of your game throughout the entire duration of BP. If you're currently way out of shape, start with a simple half mile run twice a week, and then each week add a quarter mile to the routine. By week 12 you'll be running three miles twice a week.

Jump Training: How many times have you jumped for a home run ball and come just a few inches from making the grab? A good jump training workout program this off-season can add those few inches to your vertical leap, ensuring that all those balls you've consistently come up short on will now start smacking into the pocket of your mitt. Do each of the following exercises for 30 seconds each (do 2 sets and repeat 2-3 times per week):

  • Box Jumps: Use a box or platform that is within your jumping range (but near the upper limit of that range) and explosively jump into the air and land on the box. Step down and repeat.
  • Tuck Jumps: Squat slightly and then jump as high as you can and at the top of your flight tuck your knees into your chest.
  • Lunge Jumps: Put one forward and one foot behind, then squat down and jump as high as you can. Land with the feet in opposite positions, so that the foot that was behind is now in front.
  • 180 Degree Jumps: Squat slightly and jump as high as you can. As you move through the jump, turn your body a half turn so that when you land you are facing the opposite direction.

Ballhawking skill drills: It won't matter how great a shape you're in if you don't have the athletic skills needed to ballhawk effectively. Play catch regularly to keep your catching skills sharp. If you can get outside to a baseball field, have a friend hit you some fly balls. Grounders are good too, since you've got to be able to play balls off the bounce and adjust to bad hops. Also, be creative and come up with some drills that will help you keep your skills sharp.

If you work consistently on all the items on this list, I guarantee you'll be a better ballhawk when next Spring rolls around. Good luck, and train hard!

Alan Schuster is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com.

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