Alabama stands tall at WCWS
Roll Tide focuses on posture to help build strength, confidence
OKLAHOMA CITY – Take one look and you can see it. The swagger. The confidence. The poise.
Alabama players file into a room or run onto the field standing taller, prouder almost. They enter knowing they’re ready to walk the line, to talk the talk. It’s something all the really good teams have.
The Crimson Tide has ‘it’ thanks to a little planning.
Last summer, coach Patrick Murphy formulated the end result. As he does before every season, he met with his strength coach. The difference this time was the charge he gave her: not only did he want to lead the country in home runs but also in stolen bases, two nearly opposite statistical categories that require dissimilar training.
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Crazy? Maybe. Or maybe it was just a way to plant a seed that his team could reach lofty goals that really seem unrelated at first.
As you dive in more, it’s not so hard to see it. Michelle Diltz, the Tide’s strength and conditioning coach for the past seven years, can break it down quickly. And it all starts with posture.
The players bought in quickly because it made sense. Some people can be strong in their lower body, Diltz said, but they need to learn to transition that strength, need a way to transfer it while keeping the form to provide the maximum result. They need it to start in their core.
Putting it in softball terms is easy for Diltz. For example, explaining the need for keeping form while driving off a base comes as second nature to her after playing the sport for years, including four seasons at Division II Texas Women’s University. She also honed her background in strength and conditioning as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M, another school known for its strength program before starting with the Tide.
The posture aspect builds confidence too, Diltz said.
“I’m all about their posture. You can ask any of them, I’m always telling them, ‘If you can hear me, get your traps out of your ears, get your belly in tight,’ those kind of things,” Diltz said. “If you are up tall and confident, you have that swagger. If you look good, you feel good, you’re going to play good I think all the way from the weight room onto the field. The weight room is the transition between the two.”
You have to be on your toes with Diltz around. She knows what she’s talking about. She even is writing an article for publication about the topic. And she expects everyone to buy into the plan, even those not hitting the field.
“I will correct my interns’ [posture]. I walk around fixing them, the athletic trainers. I’ll fix anybody in my path,” Diltz said with a laugh. “Pretty much if you can hear me, you better fix it.”
To reach the goal the head coach set, she focused more on the speed aspect because, “Murphy brings me some amazing athletes and all I’m there doing is a tiny little help them just a little bit on their way.”
That tweaking included more conjugate training, a combination of power, strength and speed. There is no specific season for each; she trains the players in all aspects throughout the year, but focuses on different areas daily. For instance, Mondays may be speed training with a light Olympic lift. When it’s followed by a squad with heavy weights, she will have the players finish with a vertical jump or medicine ball throw, “so that after that after their heavy squats, their last feeling is speed. It’s not slow under weight, it’s more fast explosion.”
When asked who made the most progression with the new plan, neither Murphy nor Diltz hesitated. It was an easy choice: sophomore Kaila Hunt.
From 2011 to now, Hunt has doubled her home run production, improving from 10 a year ago to an SEC-leading 20 this season. She also more than doubled her RBI production from 36 in her initial college season to a team-best 74 in 2012. Joined by senior Amanda Locke, the duo has 38 home runs this year, the most by a pair of Tide players since 1998.
Diltz said the biggest reason for the production increase was Hunt maturing mentally in her approach and buying into the things they were teaching, like the affect of posture.
“In the weight room she attacked it, she went after it, she knew what she needed to do,” Diltz said. “Last year she was more ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m a freshman at Alabama.’ But this year she really worked hard, she stepped it up a notch, she stepped her game up, she stepped her weight room work up, she stepped her practice up.
“Everything just kind of fell into place. And I think that with the addition of speed, because she’s one of those athletes that came in, she’s strong, she’s going to be strong, so the addition of the speed workouts with her led her to be able to increase her power.”
Hunt, like the rest of the players, loved the idea of having a goal to lead the nation. Putting home runs and stolen bases together? It was unusual but not surprising considering their coach.
“To play for a coach that expects that of us, it’s exciting because it gives us something to work toward,” Hunt said.
Diltz noted the plan became easier to build because all the athletes Murphy recruits already have a strong muscle base. Senior Jennifer Fenton, who leads the team with a .390 batting average this spring, fits the mold perfectly, even if she only stands 5-foot-4.
In her career Fenton has 20 home runs to go with 132 stolen bases, including 43 this year. Against Mississippi State in late March, she collected steal No. 74 in a row without being caught, an NCAA record.
Fenton’s speed, combined with Murphy’s free-wheeling nature, are a perfect fit.
“I really do appreciate how aggressive he is and his ability to want to use all of our strengths because we do have strengths in running and being able to use the longball as well,” Fenton said. “Even the smaller, fast girls, we can all hit home runs. Me being a faster person, I like the challenge of seeing how many stolen bases we can get and it’s a great goal for us as a team.”
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Not everyone is like Fenton, blessed with natural blazing speed. For them, Diltz concentrated on adding speed work in the running and conditioning workouts. Hunt said she noticed the little tweaks, like adding more 5-, 10- and 5-yard dash combinations, although the team did not know about Murphy and Diltz’s overall goals until late in the regular season.
“The main thing I focused on was our starts. I added more broad jumps, vertical jumps, just the one step explosion off [moves],” Diltz said. “We do power pulls, or Olympic lifting, but I added to it to go more with speed. We didn’t go as heavy, we didn’t go for the strength component. We went more for the speed. And I think that’s what helped them learn how to fire their muscles at a higher rate without losing any kind of mass because we’re still doing our strength and mass, our power exercise but I was able to add the speed dynamics to it.”
In the end, Alabama is close. Both Murphy and Diltz are pleased with the team’s progress even if it is just a little short from the hoped outcome. The Crimson Tide enter Sunday’s winner’s bracket contest ranked second nationally in stolen bases with 139. They are also third in home runs with 94, trailing only Oklahoma (97) and New Mexico (95).
They’ll need to back every bit of those statistics if they are going to avoid a repeat of last season. The Tide were in the same position, having won their first two games before being handed a pair of Sunday losses to SEC rival Florida, who finished as the national runner up.
No matter how it ends this time, it’s obvious that the Tide will walk out of ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in the next few days with their heads high and shoulders back.