Thursday 9 August 2012

Sport-Specific Training?

When it comes to the world of training for athletic performance, a phrase that is often used is “Sport-Specific”. Young athletes, parents and coaches love being told that this “special” program is “(fill in your sport here) specific.” And this phrase has been used to sell many training sessions, books, DVD’s and special training programs. While specificity is a fundamental training principle, it is often misunderstood – especially in the context of team-sport training. Here are some things that every team-sport athlete and coach needs to understand about sport-specific training.
Uniqueness of team-sport training
Usain Bolt: 100m Specialist
Compared to a sport like Track & Field, team-sports are a different ball game (sorry for the pun). Track is all about being the best in the world and one or two skills (e.g. sprinting in a straight line). This allows training to be focused specifically on that skill. Team sports on the other hand are about being incredibly skilled at the actual sport and possessing a good level of many different physical skills (e.g. starting, stopping, running, cutting, jumping, multi-directional movement, strength, collision with other athletes, power, stability, body control, etc).

The definition of sport-specific training
True sport-specific training for the team sport athlete is the actual practice and playing of their sport. Nothing makes you better at your sport than playing it and practicing it under the watchful eye of an experienced sport coach. The coach of the team-sport athlete is the ultimate sport-specific trainer.

General Physical Preparation vs. Sport-Specific Preparation
All athletes should start with what the Russians call general physical preparation. The Russian model for developing athletes was to put young kids into a general athletic development program where they would work on general work capacity, strength and athletic movement. Then after making these youngsters into real athletes they would make them specialists in specific sports. The typical North American model is the inferior opposite. We take young kids and make them specialists at sports right from the start. As a result by the time they get to university they are very skilled at their sport (which is obviously very important), but they are often weak, un-athletic, unbalanced and injury-prone (or already injured).

Earn the need for special strength exercises
When an athlete first starts real performance-based strength training, it should be a general program. Getting stronger on basic exercises while diligently practicing your sport will take you a long way. An athlete who is healthy (i.e. no nagging injuries, scoring at least 14 on the FMS, no asymmetries, etc.) has good technique and strength on basic lifts (e.g. weightlifting variations, full squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls, loaded carries) and has good movement quality, speed and power with basic athletic movements (e.g. sprinting, cutting, stopping, jumping, landing, throwing, etc.) has earned special strength exercises.

A healthy balance of special strength exercises
Good illustration for special exercises
When sport-specific training first became popular, it often involved trying to mimic sport skills in the weight room. This can often be a bad idea as it can mess up sport skill and over-use already-over-used areas. Special strength exercises need to addressed appropriately. Dan John, One of the wisest coaches in the industry has a great illustration of this using the ying-yang symbol. Think of the white part as training and the black part as the practice/playing of your sport. The majority of your training time (the white) should be focused on getting stronger and more powerful in the weight room. The majority of your sport time should be playing and practicing your sport. Then, there is a small part (the small black circle in the white side) where we do sporting movements in the weight room (e.g. acceleration sprints pulling a light sled). There can also be a time where resistance is brought into the sport practice (e.g. doing sport-specific jumping technique with a weighted vest). Note: where this illustration doesn’t work is that is shows equal size of the white and black. In reality if white is the weight room and black is the athletics field, the black would be way bigger.

Truly Elite Athletes and Sport-Specificity
The late legendary Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis also explains in his excellent video Weights for Speed, that as an athlete moves from good to elite, the trend shifts back to more general lifting. In the context of sprinting, at the elite level, the stress on the body to do a 100m sprint in 9.69 is so great that one cannot handle this stress plus special exercises. I believe the same concept can be applied for high level athletes – especially those who have many years of cumulative stress on their bodies from the sport. At this level, the athlete may return to more of a basic training program as a compliment to intense sport practice and competition.

Time of year
Where an athlete is in their competitive season also needs to be addressed. I use tools such as plyometrics and special exercises the most in the off-season. In-season these sport-specific needs are taken care of with practices and competitions of the sport. Adding a bunch of “sport-specific” exercises at this point in the year is both unnecessary and poses unnecessary risks for over-use injuries (which are already a big concern at that time). During the in-season the program should emphasize basic exercises, a gradual increase in strength (in most cases) and maintenance of lean muscle mass. It should address the specific structural balance needs of the sport (e.g. volleyball players need lots of chest stretching and upper back strengthening) as this reduces the risk of injury.

Need specific & common needs
If you were to line up the programs I have written side-by side, you would definitely see similarities. One reason for this is shared specific needs. For example, volleyball and basketball athletes both need to jump high, football and hockey athletes both need to be conditioned to handle collisions, soccer and hockey both have groin issues, volleyball, swimming and baseball all have similar shoulder issues and most sports need explosive acceleration speed. Once I find the best ways to increase vertical jump, speed, shoulder health, etc, I may use the same thing with different sports that share the same need.

Common needs of all athletes
Another thing to consider with specificity is that there are some things that virtually all athletes need, just to have a healthy, injury-resistant, properly functioning body. I'll expand on this in another post.

In conclusion:
I hope this helps you understand this area better. Remember, spend most of your time practicing your sport. Get into the weight room and get stronger on basic exercises. Address the specific imbalance issues that your sport creates. Do appropriate conditioning for your sport. Don't get too focused on trying to make everything in your training too "sport specific".

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