One complaint I often get from ex-catchers is how bad their knees feel after years of squatting down playing the position they love. Catchers are often seen as one of the toughest players on the diamond and are asked to catch game after game. Often, there will only be one day off a week to rest their legs. All those hours of game time, practice, bullpens, early work and having to block pitches and pop up to throw runners out; it is no secret that the position takes a heavy toll on the knees. With such a chronic long-term effect of catching the question must be asked, is there anything we can do to protect the health of our catchers’ knees after their playing days are over? I believe the answer could be improving the mobility of the hip and ankle joints to put them in a better position while giving targets and receiving pitches.
One of the many responsibilities of a catcher is to be able to get low enough in his stance to give the pitcher a target at the bottom of the strike zone. This helps keep the pitcher from elevating his pitches and giving the batter a better opportunity to really do some damage. Getting low in the receiving stance also helps with receiving that low pitch and keeping it in the zone to get a called strike. To get into this position many young catchers with immobile hips and ankles tend to sit on the inside of their feet, pushing their knees in and forward and putting them in a very compromising position. Another common flaw with a catcher that has tight hips and ankles is the tendency to sit to far on the balls of their feet. The lack of flexibility in the ankle joint stops them from being able to sit back in their stance and lower their hips to maintain balance. This forces them to sit forward on the balls of their feet, and again, the knees end up in front of the toes and with an enormous amount of stress on them. By improving mobility in both joints the catcher will be able to sit back in his stance more comfortably and allow his knees to track over, or stay behind, their toes. This position allows the catcher to sit lower in their stance. Presenting a lower target while giving them the ability to sway from side to side allowing him to receive pitches that are a little wide of the intended target.
Not only do mobile hips and ankles assist in the set up and receiving of pitches, it can also help with throwing down to second base and blocking wild pitches. When blocking pitches to the left or right the catcher must be able to push off with their opposite foot and slide out in the desired direction to get into the proper blocking position. Having mobile hips allows the catcher to clear the ground with their knee and avoid the leg from being caught underneath them. This will result in a loss of balance and may cause the catcher to fall. This is a very important aspect of the game. The ability to block pitches stops runners from advancing on wild pitches, and gives the pitcher the confidence to throw pitches below the strike zone to get hitters to chase bad pitches.
There is a myriad of ways to gain mobility within the hips and ankles through dynamic warmups, mobility exercises, resistance training and static stretching. The following exercises should be implemented in any catchers training regimen.
- Forward and reverse hurdle step-overs: The athlete should stand next to a row of hurdles, and by opening their hips, and picking up their knee, lifting the foot in a controlled manner, up and over the hurdles. Once the athlete has reached the end of the row of hurdles they reverse the movement by lifting the knee then opening the hips, and clearing the hurdle with the foot while moving backwards. This should be done 3-4 times with each leg. It is important to note that the movement should be coming from the abduction of the hip and not from rotating the complete body to clear the hurdles. The starting height of the hurdle is determined by the mobility of the athlete and should increase over time.
- Banded squatting side steps: The athletes begins with a resistance band around the middle of their thigh in a squatting position. In this position, the top of the thighs should be as close to parallel to the floor as possible, while keeping the chest up, and maintaining a neutral spine. Once in this position, the athlete should take small steps to the left or right by lifting the lead foot and pushing off with the opposite. Tension on the band should always be tight so the athlete should avoid bringing their feet to close together while stepping. It is important that the athlete maintains a tight core and to not allow the band to pull their knees inside their feet. If done correctly the athletes hips should be on fire by the end of the set.
- Banded ankle mobility: With a resistance band around the foot, the athlete should move his foot in a variety of directions. Have the athlete complete 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps of each major movement, dorsiflexion (bringing toes towards the shin), plantarflexion (pushing toes away from shin), eversion (rotate foot outwards) and inversion (rotate foot inwards)
- Kneeling banded hip abduction: With resistance band around the mid-thigh, have the athlete set up on their hands and knees. From this position, the athlete will raise one knee to the side in a controlled manner while keeping a tight core and a flat back. There should be no pelvic tilt to the right or left while this movement is being completed.
- Goblet Squat: The goblet squat is a resistance exercise where the athlete holds a dumbbell by the head of the weight close to their chest with their palms up, feet a little wider then their hips and toes pointed slightly outwards. The athlete will initiate the movement by sitting his hips back, keeping their heels on the floor, while keeping the chest up and a neutral spine, as if they were reaching for a seat. Once the athlete reaches a position of just below parallel with the top of the thighs, they will drive up through the heels and return to the starting position.
- Wall ankle stretch: The athlete will stand facing the wall in a staggered stance with one foot approximately 4 inches away from the wall. While keeping the foot flat on the floor the athlete will push their knee into the wall stretching the calf muscles and Achilles tendon. The athlete should complete 3-4 reps of 20-30 seconds on each foot.
Justin Neckles CSCS