By Carl Valle
If you start a discussion about sport-specific training, you’re bound to hear arguments on both sides. Although the enduring debate over how athletes should train won’t end soon, it’s time to make progress forward.We shouldn’t be discussing sport-specific training, but what works best to make an athlete better. Click To Tweet
This blog does what should have been done earlier—it kills a straw man argument and uncovers the true issue: The problem is really about what transfers, and what is just a set of wise programming decisions. The discussion of how much sport-specific training is needed is a shallow and intellectually lazy one, so it’s time to drill down to the bedrock on training athletes. Reading this article will give you an understanding of why the debate is foolish. The real discussion is not about sport-specific training; it’s about what works best to make an athlete better.
Sport Specific: What Is It Really?
I don’t know what “sport specific” is, since the term is a vague one. I am sure everyone has their own definition, but I think it’s a slang term created by a jaded team coach. The same coach who hired a conditioning coach who utilized stereotypical methods from a sport outside of the comfort zone of their colleagues. “Specific adaptations to imposed demands” (the SAID principle) was probably taken too far by someone as well, and now here we are.
Is sport specific an exercise that mimics the movement patterns of athletes? Is sport specific a way of practicing, such as training with or without a ball? Is squatting with a specific depth or with one leg sport specific? As you can see, this is messy and it won’t be easy to nail down, but here is the soul of the argument. Coaches want to know how best to train the athlete as a whole, not just replicate what they do on the field or in the weight room. Athletes need the best package of training, not the best lifting program. If you believe that sport specific is about how similar the training looks to playing a sport, then you should start from scratch and think about how the training may help an athlete, either directly or indirectly.The soul of the argument is that coaches want to know how best to train the athlete as a whole. Click To Tweet
For decades, some coaches made fun of athletes mimicking sport movements and attaching elastic bands to kick faster, but these days we see research supporting the effects of warming up with a cord. I’m not saying that I think you should use it; I’m pointing out that we need to be careful of attacking things too quickly. I see a lot of talk about coaches claiming they are more “long term athletic development” than SAID, but when I see someone rehearsing sports movements with overload on Instagram, it’s a case of “Do what I say, but not what I do.”
For example, how many pitchers throw medicine balls or weighted balls with or without their strength coach? How many swimmers do arm care exercises? Just because you squat heavy doesn’t make you “anti-sport-specific,” it just shows that you added heavy lower-body training. If you clean and snatch your offensive lineman but not your quarterback, isn’t that sport specific at its highest level—being position specific? We just need to be careful.
The SAID principle is an amoeba: while it has a shape, it’s not very firm and this needs to change. With the struggle to define sport specific, the science can sometimes make the SAID principle very difficult to apply in sport. I would shy away from considering a specific (ironically enough) definition for SAID, and recommend a continuum so coaches don’t fret over hitting an exact target.
Specificity and overload are two concepts we should give Frans Bosch credit for, as his illustrations and discussions of the topic can be read in his various works. The body is very plastic, but replicating movements that are similar to sport may not be ideal for preparing for it. For example, the specificity of needing 90 minutes of fitness for a soccer player may be essential during the season, but before the season, speed or even finishing rehabilitation may be a priority. Perhaps a better way to address the sport-specific debate is to ask what sport success looks like, and when certain qualities need to be in place. Just playing the game helps do most of the work, and adding complementary training tends to complete the mission.Ask what sport success looks like, and when certain qualities need to be in place. Click To Tweet
Many strength and conditioning coaches use a cookie-cutter template because they know that general training, especially with youth athletes or during the off-season, works well. True, a foundational set of movements with very vanilla programming does help most athletes. In fact, great athletes respond to nearly any safe program, so before we start patting ourselves on the back because a program appears to work—with or without being sport specific—we need to know how it compares to alternatives. As Bob Alejo repeatedly says, it’s not what works, it’s what works best. If the training was so great, every athlete would be great. When coaches list who (star athletes) they are working with, we should also list those who struggle to play at the junior varsity level.
Sport-specific training is a nebulous term, and so is how much training is unique to that sport. I would make the case that team or sport practice is specific, and the rest of the training is complementary or supportive. Theoretically, the most important competition is the most specific, as it represents the culmination of everything, including the preparation for the season. It’s hard to say that a specific exercise, phase of training, style of practicing, and even recovery technique is sport specific.
Does it matter though? Instead of thinking about sport specific, we need to start asking how we should support athletes holistically. That means every single input imaginable, including training outside of the weight room. Coaches should simply think about what is best for the athlete, instead of thinking about their style of training being a priority.
Say Goodbye to Sport-Specific Training
In 1997, I heard the concept of “athlete supportive” from Vern Gambetta. I gravitated to it quickly because nobody was using the term, and it was athlete-centered. A decade later, it resurfaced as “sport appropriate,” thanks to Steve Myrland. A combination of the two terms—“athlete appropriate”—is what I prefer today. We need more reasoning for what is best for the individual, not for the style of training. To me, sport specific is a lousy term, since something not specific could be very beneficial, and it’s really about the individual rather than the sport.
A simple example could be a great athlete with a rich training background needing more time on the court playing and practicing, or an athlete who needs a break and is underpowered. So many individualized needs of training should be talked about more, but we can get into that area after we focus on both terminology changes and methodology advances. If you extract one concept from this article, it should be that coaches must do a better job of individualizing the training instead of picking a concept that is conveniently used as a lazy way to program. If everyone does the same program, it’s easy to administer it and train large groups without skilled coaching. On the other hand, overzealous individualized training too early is also unnecessary, because many athletes need general training at the beginning of training or the beginning of the season (GPP).Coaches must do a better job of individualizing the training instead of just picking a concept. Click To Tweet
Sport specific is very incomplete generally, as it accounts for athlete demands but doesn’t focus on an athlete’s unique needs. Sport scientists and coaches have discussed profiling individual needs, as even athletes on the same team may need a different training program. Those difference needs may be met with exercises, sets and reps, seasonal progression, and even teaching styles. All of these individual components are appropriate.
Athletes and sports may even have different goals—for instance, Roger Federer may have an appropriate strength goal for his needs in elite tennis that is far different than Rafael Nadal’s. Even more specific, if you will, is what a program looks like in the beginning of the journey rather than the end. A group of 6-year-olds doing skipping drills is not representative of a training program for an elite athlete (pros may have their program change often as they mature, and again when they are at the end of their careers).
My recommendation is to kill off sport specific and just focus on athlete appropriate, and have sports demands be a major influence but not something held as sacred. To keep balance, let’s look at the problems with the sport more than we have in the past, as we tend to look at what makes the sport great with performance rather than see the injury patterns and toxic impairments that stymied the sports evolution.My recommendation is to kill off sport specific and just focus on athlete appropriate. Click To Tweet
Take swimming, for example: The sport was obsessed with dry-land training and focused on circuit-style redundant conditioning rather than circuit-organized strength training. The elastic bands that simulated strokes weren’t the problem, but they also weren’t the antidote to overuse syndromes that needed higher platforms of maximal strength or joint integrity. From now on, my goal is to move away from sport specific as it’s really not the true problem. The ability to get athletes a better training program when resources such as time, expertise, and equipment are not easily accessible is the bigger issue.
Beyond Sets and Reps
Strength coaches need to decide that they are responsible outside of the weight room. If you are influential with the athlete, this could mean getting them to move on from a sport to get better at the two remaining ones, or convincing an athlete to join a new team or sport because it’s best for them as a whole. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about LTAD or other areas outside sport specific too much, but is impossible not to talk about the big picture.
Sport specific is a direct pipeline for rehearsal of the sport or just general training that is closer to demands than other options. After we talk about those big-ticket items, we can start focusing on training in the weight room and on the field that isn’t practice. As an athlete advances, LTAD becomes “what have you done for me lately,” and not about banking for the future. Higher-level sports care becomes about winning today, not about what may happen down the road.
When coaches devise training programs for athletes, they first get into what they feel is effective for their own circumstances. I agree that the core fundamentals of getting athletes to do a well-rounded, structurally balanced program are great, but unmotivated coaches seem to hate doing more than just recycling the same template year after year. I don’t blame coaches who work long hours in the weight room pit grinding away, as it’s a lot of work to customize training and write workouts.
When we have to administer different training programs, it’s even more difficult, as the athletes tend to scatter around and it’s hard to see everyone at the same time. Many athletes benefit from following the same program every year in a group, but that doesn’t mean that training one on one doesn’t help from time to time. The issue is that there are not enough qualified coaches or coaching hours, and not enough time to design training. Some software programs are good at making it easier for coaches, but nobody has shown me anything that is a game changer. What’s left is usually an old Excel template from a few years ago, just with current dates and new athlete names.
Solutions won’t be popular. If you are a private sector coach, beyond software that automates the process, you won’t be able to change much if you want to keep the profits up. The public sector has the same challenge, but sometimes it’s worse, as a high school strength coach working with 6-8 teams is a nightmare. You can’t deliver the same quality of coaching when the coach-to-athlete ratio is low, or when the amount of time to write workouts is compromised.
This is the reason automation is everything with AMS products; automation allows coaches to enhance their vision and thinking, not replace them. The reality is to accept that you will miss out on slightly better results by not programming deeper or just accept that private coaches will get better results simply because they have the time advantages.
What About Transfer or Carryover?
The transfer of training is a muse for many researchers and coaches. A classic question coaches want to know is will it make the boat go faster? Instead of asking how much or how little sport-specific training is needed, let’s cut to the chase. What type of training is likely to be more effective, and how does this evolve over a course of a career? A young athlete doing a strength circuit of simple bodyweight training may see an advantage early, but in a year’s time it’s not going to work well, if at all. Some athletes following the exact same program will respond differently—that’s why a record board is so valuable. Some athletes make progress and some don’t, and the challenge is in measuring it.
Even if a variable transfers to a part or whole of a performance, a better question is whether it’s better in the long run. For example, if you want to get an immediate ROI (return on investment), some specific training like resisted sprints is gold. Yet, what happens after a few years is also important, because athletes with poor training backgrounds who just piecemeal Nordic hamstring curls, Copenhagen adduction exercises, and a few specific strength exercises may reduce their ceiling in year three and on. This is why I care about general training and total training exposure metrics more than just team testing. Those who train better, even if it does not transfer that much, develop capacity that means something.
Resilience and robustness are buzzwords, but we should probably think about capacity as the ability to rebound from high stress instead of managing training load like a scared gatekeeper. I am not advocating a reckless baptism by fire, but you can’t stay in the shallow end of the pool all the time and expect to be durable and prepared. In fact, I think the coaches who are afraid of injury are the ones likely to hold back an athlete from being their best or create injuries because their fears are contagious to the athlete.
If training does transfer it may come with problems, specifically baggage with injuries. The SAID principle is a double-edged sword—it helps and harms. It seems that for every specific strength exercise, a sport-specific injury pattern emerges. Things that transfer may carry over, but be careful of what may be hitching a ride. Often, what doesn’t transfer still helps.
An example? Neck training rarely makes someone a better athlete, but it may keep someone in the game longer, especially in collision and combat sports. Not all training improves performance, and some training that doesn’t transfer may help with reducing injuries. General resistance training gives athletes a chance, specific training may give them a better chance in some conditions, and better programming as whole gives them the best chance.It’s about balancing the needs of today with a vision of what’s best for the athlete tomorrow. Click To Tweet
Purposely not being specific or making sure you are very specific both help athletes evolve—a polarized approach if you will. If athletes take too much time off from playing or practicing, they will miss out on career improvement, no matter how great the preparation is. Conversely, too much competition will hurt performance, as athletes will decay their reserves and capacities. As you can see, all of this is about balancing the needs of today with a vision of what is best for the athlete tomorrow.
LTAD and Maintaining Strength?
What is best for the athlete in the long term and what is best for them now are often two competing notions. Coaches must think like politicians to plan for the future while meeting the emergencies of today. A focus on long-term athletic development may be great, but if an athlete has ignored preparation for sport and is in the middle of the fire, skill development could be counterproductive.
We see a lot of simple interventions, hex bar exercises, and belt squats being used as a direct way to manage the bleeding, if you will. This is both necessary and a sign of bad things, as it shows that even in 2019, coaches are catering or reacting to the problem of LTAD instead of finding a better way. A good example of LTAD support is to just stop showcasing an athlete’s talent and simply improve upon it, especially with baseball. My bet is that pitching athletes who are resting their ligaments and joints see more benefits than with “arm care” or correctives.
Now comes the controversy, as I am frankly annoyed at the coaches who think that the best athletes are the best because they play multiple sports. It’s likely the best talents are just good at sports to begin with, as I doubt distance swimming in the winter will result in a great pole vaulter in the spring. I support playing and trying different sports when you’re a kid, but there’s a gray area around the age of 13 or 14, where you kind of know who has the stuff and who doesn’t. Sure, a few college athletes are late bloomers, but we love those stories because the long shots are inspiring, and rare.
Early bloomers don’t necessarily fizzle out; they may just have a head start that won’t matter in a few years. To prepare and succeed, athletes need to put in the time or get really good coaching with the time you are putting in. Not all kids have great club and high school coaching. While some of the best teachers are in the scholastic trenches, not everyone is an all-star coach.
Sometimes, coaches will take risks or play it safe with training. I prefer diversification, but some coaches know that if you want to go far, you may need to bank on the future and hope the current needs work out. In my opinion, 8- to 12-year-olds should not worry about strength levels, but high school and late middle school athletes should be exploring organized strength training. Adult athletes are different than developing athletes, as they need to defend their health with a program that hits very tangible goals.
Sports specific isn’t just how an exercise looks—it’s how it helps. Click To Tweet
On the other side of the spectrum, coaches should put as many resources as possible into making an athlete athletic with motor skill development until they are biologically mature. It’s not that you shouldn’t lift an athlete too early, it’s just that you shouldn’t focus on resistance training at the expense of locomotor skills and general game exposure.
Sport specific isn’t just how the exercise looks—it’s how it helps. Functional training had the same stigma as sport specific when it gained momentum in the early 2000s, and we can learn the same lessons as from its older predecessor, sport-specific training. Focus on training outcomes, not on whether it’s on one leg or two, or whether it looks athletic.
Isometrics don’t look athletic, but they help athletes with sports medicine requirements or with coaches who know how to use them. True, most of the time training needs to look like it has a chance to transfer, and I am not against the eyeball test. My only gripe is that we should look at the program in its entirety and the results of the program over years, not just what the training appears to be in one moment in time.
Train and Coach the Individual, Group, and Team
I didn’t write this article to be clickbait, but I am sure that an article about sport-specific training, complete with cool videos and progressions, was what you wanted at first. If you read the article in its entirety, you will likely never want to use the term “sport specific” again, as it’s not very helpful and it’s very unclear.
I’d like you to move away from thinking how the weight room resembles the sport and instead think about a more comprehensive way of preparing athletes. If we can think about what is appropriate, including the type of training, the specifics in teaching and coaching, and even the exercises used, we will all be better off.Our athletes need to be both more and less specific, not just follow a one-size-fits-all template. Click To Tweet
Our athletes need to be both more specific and less specific, not just follow a template that is a one-size-fits-all solution. The more decisions we can make to individualize training and customize it to what they need, the better the result. The best training systems are not systems at all—they just make the right decisions for an athlete based on the athlete’s needs, and that is something we can all agree on.