A traditional sign of Spring is the start of baseball/softball season. For those young and old who don’t just watch the game but play it, let’s look at some tips to help your play improve. Like many sports, baseball/softball is a mostly unilateral game, using one side of the body more than the other and making specific demands on your body, which can lead to overuse injuries.
Let’s start with hitting the ball. To swing a bat well, your spine must rotate and your rib cage muscles should be unrestricted. Your neck should also be free to rotate freely so that your chin can touch either shoulder. Tightness in any of these areas forces your body to compensate by using alternative motions or muscle groups to perform the swinging motion. Over time, this can lead to various inflammation-type injuries such as bursitis or tendonitis. Your shoulder girdle (which is made up of the collar bone or clavicle, shoulder blade or scapula, and the ball and socket joint of the arm) should also be free enough to allow your arms to cross in front as well as reach back in a ready-to-hit stance. Your wrists and hands should be able to grip the bat firmly and twist without pain to execute a smooth swinging motion.
Running the bases seems like a simple enough activity but because runners always run counter clockwise, the stress on the outside ligament of the right ankle tends to increase. This, in addition to the occasional sliding into base, makes your ankles vulnerable to injury. After checking with your medical doctor, you can try the following exercises to build more ankle stability and strength.
First, stand on one foot and try to keep your balance for as long as you can. If this is too easy, try closing your eyes. You may feel your ankle making tiny adjustments to keep your balance. This is an excellent way to build joint awareness. To make this exercise even more challenging, slowly raise your heel so that just the ball of your foot is on the ground.
If you suffer from repetitive ankle sprains, it is important to see your physical therapist so that “closed chain and proprioceptive” exercises can be taught. Alignment of the back and pelvis also often plays a role in the problem.
Next, in order to catch ground balls and make great plays, you need to get your hands to the ground quickly while you keep a good sense of balance. For this, your calves and hamstrings (back thigh muscles) must be relatively loose. Check your hamstrings by trying to touch your toes with your knees straight. Don’t force yourself. Working gradually and carefully toward being able to do this is important. If you can only reach your mid-shins, your tight hamstrings may indicate an imbalance in your pelvis and back. To check your calves, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and try to squat all the way down. If you are unable to keep your heels on the ground, you must compromise your balance when you squat quickly to field a grounder.
To stretch your calves and ankles, try these two exercises: First, place one leg 2 to 3 feet behind the other, keeping your heels flat. Point the back foot inward slightly. Now straighten the knee of the back leg and keep the body—shoulders and back—upright. Let the front knee bend, allowing the calf muscle of the back leg to stretch. Remember to keep the back heel down. This stretch tightens the gastrocnemius muscle or the more superficial calf muscle with the two distinct muscle bellies.
To stretch the deep calf muscle called the soleus, try this second stretch. Place one foot slightly in front of the other, toes pointing forward. Allow the forward knee to bend forward over your toes as far as possible while keeping the heel down.
Hold both stretches for about 30 seconds and repeat 2 to 3 times on each side. As always check with your medical doctor if you have questions about your ability to exercise.
Keeping your body loose, aligned, flexible and strong are the keys to decreasing the risk of injury. Play ball!