Over the last several years, there’s been a massive growth in the demand for “sport-specific training programs.” While I believe the intent of people seeking these programs and those who propagate them is good, the premise behind sport-specific training programs is flawed, and it wastes time. We can attribute the boom in demand partly to the visibility granted by social media. We are living in the Golden Age of Social Media. Anyone can create and post content regarding anything. This ability has generated an issue within the performance sphere: visibility and accessibility give the illusion of credibility to those who are not credible in the slightest.
To strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on this trend, “trainers” and “gurus” advertise training that will make an athlete better at a specific sport. Often, these training methods are ineffective and downright dangerous. So why are people wasting their money? In short, they’re looking for an edge. We live in a world that doesn’t like to wait. We live in a microwave society of instant gratification. Why is this a problem? Training is like a crockpot. It takes some time. Changes occur slowly and in small increments. For coaches, parents, and athletes who want results in a hurry, these trainers and gurus seem like the answer they’ve been seeking. Often, the program is nothing more than a waste of time and money. In this post, I’ll discuss why your energy is better focused on training foundational movements and qualities that create long term improvements in overall strength and athleticism.
All athletes, regardless of sport, benefit from certain physical traits and qualities. All athletes benefit from being stronger. All athletes benefit from being faster. All athletes benefit from increasing agility. All athletes benefit from being more resilient to injury. All athletes benefit from increased confidence. These are the qualities that I take into consideration, no matter what the sport is: strength, speed, agility, resilience, and confidence.
All of these are trainable and translate from the weight room to the field of play. Isn’t that the goal? To have what we do in training show up during competition? Of course it is. And it’s why strength coaches get so frustrated when they see trainers placing athletes in harm’s way. The problem? Most people don’t realize they’re putting the players in a position to get hurt—but they are. They take the training they see on social media and try to apply it to their athletes. Or they take specific movements performed during competition and load these movements. Both of these tactics are unsafe. Focusing on the five qualities mentioned above is a much better use of time and energy.
Trainable Qualities that Translate from the Weight Room to the Field
I use six basic categories of movements when programming for strength: pressing, pulling, hinging, squatting, bracing, and rotating. These categories cover all the movements that any athlete will encounter during their sport. Using simple and effective training principles to address each of these is the best way to increase your athlete’s strength. No BOSU balls or circus acts required. We can facilitate training these categories with just a bar, dumbbells, and a few bands.
Be careful, though. It can be easy to confuse the purpose of training. Athletes do not need to be strong for the sake of being strong. Athletes need to be strong to be successful in their sport. When we establish our measure of strength as nothing more than how much weight an athlete can move in one rep, we’re in danger of realizing Goodhart’s law. According to Goodhart’s law, when a measure becomes a target, it is no longer a good measure. When we make one-rep maxes our end all be all, we create a conflict of interest with the rest of the training. The athlete is tempted to focus only on excelling at the one-rep max, which is a recipe for disaster unless your sport is powerlifting or weightlifting.
Speed kills. We’ve all heard this, and it’s absolutely true. You can tell when one team is just flat-out faster than the other. Speed creates advantageous situations in team sports. No coach in the history of the world has ever watched their athletes and thought, “Geez fellas, I wish we were not so fast.” That said, speed training is one of the most mismanaged aspects of athletic development.Speed is tied to how much force an athlete produces, not how fast their feet move. Sprint maximally & time it to track changes, says @CoachTQuick. Click To Tweet
Speed is directly tied to how much force an athlete can produce. Speed does not depend at all upon how fast an athlete can move their feet. The phrase “slow feet don’t eat” has caused more athletes to waste time and money than almost anything else. Seeing athletes spend hours running through speed ladder drills in the hopes of getting faster is becoming more and more commonplace. These things do not make you faster. They simply make you proficient at doing the drill. If athletes truly want to increase their speed, they need to sprint maximally and time it so they can track changes. Sprinting is one of the most taxing activities on the CNS that athletes perform. And it offers an easy way to monitor whether they’re getting faster or doing too much training and damage is occurring.
People get very confused here. To some, agility is doing change of direction and footwork drills. Just like speed ladders, this does not help. Performing drills with set parameters over and over only makes you better at doing the drill. While change of direction is a part of agility, we often overemphasize the change of direction component and underemphasize the response to outside stimulus.Drills will improve agility if they require athletes to process unknown and unexpected information, says @CoachTQuick. Click To Tweet
To truly train agility, an athlete needs to respond to an unknown and unanticipated stimulus. Changing directions on a line or at a cone does not help increase this skill. Having to change directions accurately on a verbal or visual cue does much more for the athlete’s agility skills. The ability to process information quickly and react to it translates directly to the field of play. This is why people often loop speed and agility together. Sports other than track require athletes to be fast while processing information and reacting to their environment. Going through drills that don’t require athletes to process unexpected information will not improve agility.
Two of the biggest buzz words in the industry right now are injury prevention. While preventing injury is a noble undertaking, it’s impossible to avoid injury completely. It is possible to mitigate the risk of injury through training. In fact, a 2014 study by Lauersen et al.1 stated that strength training could reduce injury rates by as much as 69%. That’s a massive reduction rate, especially when compared to stretching. According to the study, stretching reduces injury risk by 4%. The final findings showed that strength training “reduced sport injuries to less than ⅓ and overuse injuries could almost be halved.” 1Reducing the risk of injury by 70% is a huge plus for any program.There's a difference between reducing injury & mitigating risk: the goal of strength training is to decrease the severity of injuries when they occur. Click To Tweet
Understanding the difference between reducing or mitigating risk and reducing injuries is essential. There are obviously extenuating circumstances that we can’t account for—freak accidents happen. The goal with strength training is to decrease the severity of injuries when they do occur.
“The number one transferrable quality from the weight room to the field is confidence.” This quote is from none other than Joe Kenn, the longtime NFL strength coach and founder of Big House Power. This could not be more accurate. Consistent strength training yields results. The results allow athletes to increase the loads they lift. When athletes begin to see increases in their ability to handle heavier loads, their confidence grows with it. When confidence rises, athletes play faster and more “loose.” For lack of a better term, they play with more swagger. Some refer to this as the tight jersey effect. When the sleeves on their jersey and shirts fit a little tighter, they feel stronger. When they feel stronger, they play stronger.
So what do these five qualities have to do with sport-specific programming? So glad you asked. These qualities should shape all of your programming. When we address the qualities consistently, improvements occur, making the athlete a better overall athlete. A better overall athlete will make a better baseball player, football player, soccer player, cheerleader, etc. Balancing one-legged on a BOSU ball while curling a Tsunami Bar and singing “We are the Champions” does nothing more than make them better at this activity. Build your base from the basics. There is a reason that the basics are the basics. They are time-tested and proven.
So how do you sell this? I’m a former collegiate football player. I played offensive line and am still a pretty big person. Because of this, the biggest concern I hear from sport coaches, parents, and athletes is: “Are you going to just do a football workout with them?” That question is often driven by previous bad experiences or content they considered sport-specific. Coaches and parents want the best for their athletes. I understand completely. I have to take time with these parents and coaches to explain my system and training process so they feel comfortable.I take time with parents and coaches to explain my system and training process so they feel comfortable, says @CoachTQuick. Click To Tweet
Communication is a foundational building block for effective coaching. It’s essential to address the concerns of sport coaches and parents. From this point, I will discuss how to get these people on board with a training-centered approach that increases athletic ability while dispelling their concerns and fears in a respectful and soothing way.
What is the number one job of a sport coach? To win. Period. Their job is to take a team or individual and win. The vast majority of sport coaches I’ve had contact with understood that the weight room is important, but they know this only in the context of it helping them win. They often don’t care to hear about the science behind what we do and don’t want to know the withertos and whyfores. All they want to know is if Johnny is getting stronger, faster, and staying healthy. If this happens because of the strength program or despite it is irrelevant to them.
When it comes to training philosophies, there’s often friction between the sport coach and the strength coach. Sport coaches are usually perfectly happy to do things as they’ve always been done. To point out flaws in their methods can be taken as a personal insult to any success they’ve had doing so. Coaches may also credit their process for their success on the field. But sometimes, coaches and programs are successful in spite of their process because talented players adjust and overcome them. For someone to examine all aspects of their program to discover that it’s not causing the team’s success takes incredible ability and humility. If it’s not broken, they often don’t try to fix it. Why would a sport coach want to change things if they’re winning?Discussing biomechanics, bioenergetics, & kinematics with sport coaches often gets you nowhere. Speak their language, says @CoachTQuick. Click To Tweet
One last piece of advice is to understand how to talk to sport coaches in their language. This is paramount. Trying to discuss biomechanics, bioenergetics, and kinematics often gets you nowhere. They don’t care about what’s behind the curtain. Learn to speak their language so you can effectively communicate what you’re doing and why it will help them win. After all, that’s their job. To win. If you can show them how you help them win, the friction often dissipates.
This may be the hardest group to engage. Parents want what’s best for their kids—plain and simple. Parents are also some of the most informed people on the planet. Is that information always correct? No. But they’re informed nonetheless. In our society, professional athletes are the height of celebrity. Fame and fortune come with being the best at a sport. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child? Often, parents go to extreme lengths to provide their children with every opportunity to succeed, and this has bled into sports performance. Parents want to give their child a leg up on their competition. Of course, they want them to have the advantage.
Seizing the opportunity are private trainers and gurus who wax poetic and expound about their secret sauce that will make Little Johnny into the next Mike Trout, LeBron James, or Patrick Mahomes. The problem? None of these guys are the athletes they are because of the training that they did when they were 12. Did the training help? Of course it did. But their genetics are the biggest reason they are who they are. And this can be a hard pill for parents for swallow. It doesn’t mean that their child cannot be great at a sport, but a 5’9″ 165lb senior in high school probably won’t start at quarterback in the Super Bowl one day. No matter how hard they try or how much money they spend on gimmicky training and gurus, there is no way to make an athlete grow taller than what their genetics will allow. Sorry, Mom and Dad, the height thing is kind of predetermined.
So how do we, as performance coaches, navigate these waters with parents? I’ve found that the answer is often, “It depends.” Some parents welcome the education and want to know why the information they’ve known to be a commonly held belief is wrong. Others do not. It doesn’t matter what we say or how we say it; they’ll think we just haven’t figured out how to do sport-specific training yet. If you’re lucky enough to encounter parents who genuinely want to learn, great. Educate them. Get them involved. Invite them to watch the training sessions. When parents are involved in a positive way, athletes benefit.
However, if you come across parents who don’t want to learn, sometimes telling them what they want to hear goes a long way. When they ask if your training is sport-specific to whatever sport, just say yes. Technically, it is. Saying yes doesn’t mean you have to start putting the kid on a BOSU ball to juggle kettlebells. At the end of the day, remember that they also want what’s best for their child. Variances in understanding and use of terminology are insufficient reasons not to train their child.
For the most part, athletes are much more active on social platforms than their parents. They’re exposed to limitless information daily. Some of that information is great. Some is horrible. Athletes can regularly find videos of the professional players they aspire to imitate performing terrible nonsensical movements that are often dangerous and negligent on their trainer’s part. Or they see their athletic idols performing advanced level movements and using high tech gadgets and equipment. Obviously, they want to imitate these athletes. They naturally assume that because a professional athlete is doing something, it must be from the best training money can buy. The thing is, it may be.
It does not, however, mean it applies to an adolescent athlete. With videos of advanced movement, what’s not shown is the many years of training it took to earn the right to perform those movements. We don’t start our kids in calculus doing differential equations. We begin learning to count single-digit numbers. Training is the same. Athletes have to prove they’re ready for the next level by mastering the basics and advancing from there. In the case of gimmicky training that’s nonsensical and dangerous, there’s often lots of wow factor that looks cool on Twitter or TikTok. The wow factor and ability to go viral is almost literally currency to our young athletes today.To get athletes to buy in to your training principles, video them performing well and post to social media with positive comments, says @CoachTQuick. Click To Tweet
One way to get them to buy in to your training principles is to use social media to your advantage. Video your athletes as they own ranges of motion or execute a perfect technique. And post it. Tag them and explain how and why what they’re doing is so great. The basics are simple, and that’s not sexy to the masses. However, there is a large audience that needs to see sound training principles, and using your athletes to do so will create some great buy-in. Always remember, simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.
Next, answer them honestly when they ask why. If an athlete asks why they are doing a specific movement or a certain amount of reps, tell them. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they aren’t disrespectful when they ask. They are simply what their world has made them. When I was growing up—and all the generations before me—we relied on adults to provide us with the truth. We did not have social media and limitless information literally in the palm of our hands. Athletes today have been able to find answers to their questions whenever they wanted. They’ve never had to trust that the adults in their lives were always honest. And they genuinely want to understand. If you don’t know why or cannot explain why to them, you need to reevaluate the movement. Never program something you cannot defend to anyone who asks you. Don’t speak science jargon. Explain in terms they understand that relate to their sport.
For example, I had an athlete ask me why we performed lateral lunges. I could have answered with science jargon, names of muscles, and kinesthetic principles. Instead, I explained how the lateral lunge would improve his cuts. He was a running back, and he had to make lateral movements quickly. Having the ability to produce force laterally was essential. The lightbulb turned on, and he attacked those reps with great attention to detail from that point on. I also overheard him telling other athletes how the lateral lunges would help them, encouraging them to perfect the movement. Are lateral lunges sexy? Nope. They are not. Did that kid get excited about lateral lunges when he realized they made him a better football player? Absolutely.
Communication is key. Learning how to speak your athlete’s language and connect with them is so important. One more piece of advice—when they ask why you don’t program certain movements or exercises, be honest. They’re excited about training and want to share that with you. Explain the principles of your program. Don’t belittle the specific movements. They don’t need us to make them feel stupid. It’s much more productive to say something like, “That’s cool. We do such and such to achieve the exact same thing.” Your athletes are our most precious resource and the sole reason we have jobs. Without them, there’s no need for us. Don’t isolate them by being the know-it-all coach who reminds them all the time that you are far more intelligent than they are.If training causes adaptations and enhances qualities that make athletes better at their sport, it's sport-specific, says @CoachTQuick. Click To Tweet
Sport-specific training is just training. If the training causes adaptations and enhances qualities that make athletes better at their sport, it is sport-specific. How we understand this and relate it to those who employ us and those in charge is everything. The desire for sport-specific training is not going away anytime soon. It’s our job to educate people respectfully and consistently. Bashing them over the head with textbooks, research studies, and jargon will do nothing more than drive them to other sources for information and training. We can all agree, that’s less than desirable. Let’s all be leaders by taking the first step meeting in the middle with sport coaches, parents, and athletes.
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1. Lauersen JB, Bertelsen DM, and Andersen, LB. “The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials” British Journal of Sports Medicine 48, no.11 (June 2014): 871-77.