Diving is a skill that is often assumed in most high level softball players. Very rarely, if ever, are softball players taught how to dive. This causes unathletic plays, missed opportunities for SportsCenter, and even injury. Personally, I view it as the most genuine display of athleticism within the game (slapping is a close second, and no, I am clearly not biased). Diving is also one of my FAVORITE things about this sport, and it is often undervalued and overlooked in the prep careers and even collegiate careers of athletes. It is a play that catches the eyes not only of teammates and fans, but coaches at higher levels of softball. Learning the proper way to dive takes your defensive game to the next level. And if you make it to the Top 10 plays on ESPN, it really is a win-win for everyone.
In this post, I have broken the dive down into what I believe to be the 4 essential phases: Approach, Launch, Secure, and Brace. I have also provided tips and drills to better develop each phase if it is the particular phase in which you observe the most weaknesses.
Phase 1: Approach. Phase 1 of the dive is the approach. This entails getting the right read as soon as the ball makes contact with the bat. The approach should consist of a correct, explosive first step, followed by the controlled, calculated steps before the dive. Typically in this phase the athlete knows that diving for the ball is going to be necessary. It is vital that these steps are under control and going in the direction of the anticipated landing point. Similar to a sprinter, proper running form is crucial. As phase 2 nears, steps start to get smaller as the body prepares for take off.
Phase 2: Launch. Perhaps the most important phase of the dive is the launch, and this is where a lot of softball players lack the diving range we see with baseball players. At this phase the athlete should take the last step and gain ground by pushing the foot forcefully into the ground. A dive is a horizontal jump, not simply falling to the knees or to the ground to get level with the ball. Force production into the ground propels the athlete towards the ball as the ankles, knees, and hip all extend to gain as much range as possible. The athlete extends the arms as much as he or she deems necessary based off the balls anticipated landing point.
This post in a sentence: DO NOT LET YOUR KNEES HIT THE GROUND UNLESS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. It looks awkward and it definitely won't feel good.
Phase 3: Secure. After you have launched, the ball should land in your glove as it is open. Opening the glove during the launch phase will allow the secure phase to proceed. Once the ball makes contact with the web (glove open), the athlete must squeeze the hand to ensure the ball stays in place as the ground approaches.
Phase 4: Brace. This is the landing phase of the dive and is also the phase in which most injury occurs. Land on your core with arms outstretched (should be feasible if you have executed the launch phase). Often times, injury occurs when the arms get wrapped underneath the body, so the athlete should keep them extended as long as possible.
So, what phases are your weakest? For the longest time, I had a hard time with my brace. I would consistently get a sense of whiplash when I hit the ground because my body was not strong enough to handle the impact from a big launch. Below I have included drills for each phase that will further develop your dive.
If you need to work on your Approach: Develop your body awareness and strength with multidirectional jumps and balance exercises. In addition, practice catching balls on the run and adding a dive in at the end, just for fun. This will get your body familiar with the overall diving movement.
If you need to work on your Launch: First, get in the weight room and get more explosive. While diving makes you feel like superman, we as humans without superpowers need to consistently develop our ability to fly. This starts by adding single leg jumps and single leg resistance exercises into your training regimen. Second, if you are already in the weight room consistently but still having issues with your launch, try the half kneeling diving drill. Start on one knee and have a coach or teammate throw you ball that you have to dive for. As you start to dive, think about driving UP on the ground instead of out. Getting some hang time (like superman).
If you need to work on Secure: Work on developing soft hands by catching tennis balls both stationary and on the run barehanded. Sounds easy, but it's actually extremely difficult. In the weight room, develop your grip strength with exercises like farmer walks and plate pinches.
If you need to work on your Brace: Develop core strength (again, get in the weight room). Work on anti-rotation and isometric exercises such as planks, palloff presses, and dead bugs that force you to fully engage your core in a bracing fashion. In your pre-game or pre-practice warm up, make sure your core is activated and engaged by also doing some core stability work.
When it comes to diving, as with anything in the sport of softball, it is important to know your strengths and weaknesses. You will only develop a skill that you consistently practice. Put in the work and make some highlight plays!