Zach Dechant is the Senior Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at TCU, overseeing the development of both the baseball team and the quarterbacks for the Horned Frogs. Prior to his appointment in Fort Worth, Dechant spent two seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, two years at Missouri State University, and interned with the University of Washington. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Health and Wellness from Missouri State University in 2003, and is certified through the CSCCA, NSCA, FMS-1 and the USAW.
Inside Pitch: How did you first become involved in baseball strength and conditioning?
Zach Dechant: I believe not being a former baseball player has worked out to my advantage when it comes to being a strength coach specifically for baseball. I played college football at Missouri State and was a GA there after that. During my job search, the Angels had a minor league strength coach position available and I went for it. I really didn’t have an interest in baseball or love for the sport, but I felt comfortable accepting the job and playing the role that accompanied it. At the time I believed that training athletes was just that, training athletes, and that the sport wasn’t so important. After two years with the Angels I was planning on going to work with the University of Wyoming’s football team, but my then-fiancé (now wife) wasn’t exactly thrilled about that location, so I applied for a job at TCU instead.
IP: Why did you leave pro ball?
ZD: The reason I left professional baseball was because there was a lack of development of young men occurring. We simply were not out to develop anyone from an athletic or a human being standpoint. Our players were not improving strength, size, speed and most importantly, they were not developing as young men, future fathers, husbands and contributing members of society.
This is one of the main reasons we see such a drastic turnover in professional baseball—because there is such little autonomy these strength coaches are granted. There was this gigantic void of training information when it came to baseball players specifically, particularly when it came to allowing adequate time in the weight room, let alone perform weighted movements. Baseball players lifting weights at that point in time was considered a violation by many, and there was this stigma in pro ball that weight training led to injuries, tightness, and a decrease in performance. This could not be any further from the truth, and I was determined to break that mold.
IP: If you do have an athlete who you classify as “strong enough,” how will you begin to alter their training regime?
ZD: This is the million-dollar question. The rotational component and ability to rotate efficiently to produce the most force is the most important quality for a baseball player to possess, but there is no magic pill to teach the athlete to rotate most efficiently. It is incredibly challenging to quantify the effectiveness and efficiency of an athlete’s rotational capability. Pitchers with visibly poor rotational patterns are still able to throw with the greatest amount of velocity. As a coach, I sit back and say, “That should not be able to happen.” It is what makes the human body unique, and points to the genetic advantage some athletes possess over others. There will always be outliers who move inadequately and still seem to always find a way—no matter how unnatural it may look—to be the best player on the field.
IP: So what is something you can teach to young athletes to help them with their rotational ability?
ZD: One of the most common movements we use in the weight room is called a “hinge” (think deadlift/RDL), which is a vital component of ideal mechanics in pitching and hitting. When I teach this movement, I tell my athletes to imagine a piece of tape from the top of the ribs to the top of their pelvis. When the player goes into their hip-hinge pattern, I do not want to see that piece of tape break. This has been a tremendous way to teach core control as well, keeps stress from the lower back, which is a common area of discomfort.
IP: What do you tell coaches who run programs whose resources are limited when it comes to weight room accessibility and/or on-hand strength and conditioning experts?
ZD: The reality is that high school athletes will develop with just about anything in place. The “big rocks” need to be teaching and developing movement capabilities first and foremost. Strength will come if the athletes can move correctly first. Movement Over Maxes was specifically written for sport coaches who implement the strength and conditioning for their teams. It includes speed development, jump training, mastering the athletic position, and teaches the foundational movement patterns in the weight room.
IP: Is there such a thing as “sport-specific” training?
ZD: For the majority of coaches, getting caught up in the “sport-specific” language is a waste of time. The term should be retired from most coaches’ vocabulary. A majority of your novice athletes need to learn how to move properly first and then improve their maximal strength levels. The most common exercises these players will utilize to improve their strength levels aren’t sport-specific: goblet squat, front squat, dumbbell bench press, reverse lunge, pull-ups, dumbbell rows. The weight room is not meant to be sport-specific; it’s a resource we use to build general athleticism and robustness against breakdowns and injury.
IP: How does your strength training program alter for your players based upon the time of year?
ZD: In-season training is all about “filling buckets”—the qualities you do not train on the field must be trained and maintained in the weight room. As we know, during the season baseball players get a ton of rotational reps on the field through hitting and pitching, therefore I do not need to train rotation in the weight room at that time. The same goes with maximal speed work. Through our GPS monitoring at TCU we have determined that our athletes perform a lot of maximal speed work during the season by sprinting around the bases, tracking down balls in the outfield, and so forth, so I am not prioritizing maximal speed training on an off day or at practice.
My players will chase maximal strength in-season because it is not being trained on the field. Also, if we think about it, in-season training is our best opportunity to ensure the athletes follow a consistent training regimen. There is a tremendous amount of room for strength qualities to be developed in-season. Many high school athletes train vigorously in the off-season and then completely stop come the first day of spring practice. How many training sessions are they missing out on?
Another topic of priority during in-season training is ensuring intensity over volume at all times. Volume will fatigue, intensity will stimulate. That is an essential difference to comprehend. We know we are getting a ton of volume on the field with skill development— it is our bucket that contains the most water—and with an extensive level of volume comes a greater level of fatigue. When players are accumulating a high amount of volume and fatigue on the field, it is my job to ensure I am pushing intensity and decreasing volume in the weight room. During the season our compound lifts are usually in the 1-5 rep range with 3-6 sets. For all assistance exercises we usually perform 2 sets of 5-10 reps.
IP: There is no shortage of individuals looking to enter the industry as a baseball performance coach, and I would bet most of them are looking to follow in your footsteps. For those in the audience with such aspirations, what advice would you provide them? What mistakes did you make along the way that you would advise against?
ZD: You have to start coaching. Usually, internships are the first step in that process. The “X’s” and “O’s” of S&C can be taught, but what people often fail to comprehend when they first begin their career is that what we do is less about sets and reps, and more about connecting to the athlete and creating a relationship built on mutual trust. It becomes clear that the player is uninterested in your textbook knowledge, certifications or degrees—their biggest question will always remain, “how much does this coach care about me?” You cannot develop a relationship with an athlete by reading a book.
IP: What would your advice to your 25-year-old self be?
ZD: One of my biggest mistakes early on was trying to take pieces of various strength programs and combine them into one super program. The problem with this is that it is simply not manageable due to the immense amount of stress, volume and fatigue that is accumulated. From this, I learned that my job is to be a “stress manager,” managing weight room stress in addition to stress coming from other components of the players life such as baseball, school, and relationships. If one of my players comes into the weight room and their stress level is elevated due to a poor on-field performance, breakup with their partner, or challenging homework assignments, it is now on me to ensure I manage their level of stress and do not extend it beyond what the athlete is capable of handling.
IP: After an athlete leaves your care, what do you want their biggest takeaway to be?
ZD: Every facet of our program at TCU, and the most important component of my job, is built around constructing young men that are accountable, responsible and possess leadership qualities. The athletic development component of our program, the weight room components, and on-field activities, that is simply just how we serve those overarching principles of ensuring we develop loving husbands, wonderful fathers, and overall positive contributing members of society upon graduation. It is the relationship that I develop with each athlete that walks through the doors that I cherish the most.