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#AnythingButSoft: Optimal Body Composition for Softball Players

It is my wish to never hear anyone utter the word “ideal” when discussing body composition ever again. We could empower our girls so much more if we used the word “optimal” instead.

There is no “ideal” since we are all unique and very different physiologic beings. Optimal body composition is where the body performs the best in terms of endurance, power output and overall performance. The total weight raw number we see on the scale tells us very little about what compromises that weight. But a breakdown of bone mass, muscles mass, fat mass, percent of water content paints a very different picture. In the end nothing matters more than how an athlete feels when she is on the field and the impact she has on her stats and her team. That’s what an athlete will carry with them long after the field lights get turned off.

With all this being said body composition from an exercise physiology standpoint is an important indicator of sports performance, improvements in training and also a measure of effectiveness of sports nutrition tactics. We can also use it to assess total health. It's no secret that excess adipose tissue can slow an athlete down in terms of reaction time, speed of sprinting, power of hitting and accurateness of fielding. Even a pitcher's performance can suffer by a decrease in pitch speed and length of innings pitched (lack of endurance). Excess fat mass also leads to an inability to balance fluid levels which impacts hydration status. Simply stated- the body is less efficient in cooling itself.

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Quite the reverse situation occurs when we increase muscle mass (also referred to as fat free mass). With less adipose tissue and more muscle mass, softball athletes increase power production, strength, endurance, accuracy and reaction time.

Softball is considered a power sport. Each player must be able to perform what is called intermittent loading. What this means is each player must be able to perform high powered tasks such as sprinting to first base, sprinting to field a ball or hitting a ball with great force from a rested position-and they must do it again and again and again throughout each game.  It is also called a “stop and start” sport because they are literally constantly stopping and starting. Obviously this varies between positions but in general these tasks are required of each position at some point. 

In order to produce powerful and strong athletes, practice includes repetitive movements (throwing, batting, fielding etc…) along with strength training and plyometrics. The result is not only power, strength and increased reaction time, but also a well defined, stronger looking physique. This is where body composition and body acceptance come into “play." I put “play” in quotation marks because the mind and body are connected. Once an athlete accepts her body she will perform better. Acceptance is linked to confidence, belief in ability and improvements in performance. Many young females have been inundated with images of extremely lean supermodels- void of any muscle mass at all. We are now asking these same girls to accept their strong powerful gorgeous quads. Can you understand now what a difficult task this can be?

Here are a few ways to make this a reality:

  • Communicate supportive and healthy messages. This is where parents, coaches and teammates can make or break them. Girls who are told “strong and healthy is gorgeous” and that “muscles are awesome” fair much better than the ones who are told to lose weight.
  • Provide education about body composition. Girls who are educated about body composition are much more likely to be accepting and love the body they are in. When they realize that body weight is a culmination of bone mass, muscles mass, brain mass, blood volume, water storage, nutrient storage and organ weight-they are much more likely to realize that they have worked hard for their lean and powerful bodies and are less likely to deprive themselves of fuel or restrict calories. Eating disorders are kept at bay when education starts early and is reinforced over time.
  • Find success through sport: Being good at something has a string correlation to not only self esteem and sports performance but also to body acceptance.

An understanding and an acceptance of body composition, and an elimination of the words “ideal” and “weight” allows these talented and powerful athletes to build upon self esteem and hence become high level players and healthy women for a lifetime.

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles, MS RDN CSSD, is a former softball player, coach and parent.

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Softball, #AnythingButSoft