What You Should Know About Sport Specific Training by Jared Saavedra
The question I get asked the most from athletes, sport coaches and parents is “How do you train athletes of different sports together and still make their program sport-specific? I will usually follow up that question with a question. What does a sport-specific program look like to you? What would you think that consists of? I will get answers such as “well they need to be in shape for soccer, they need to get faster, stronger” but they are unable to explain what that means. However, it may not be their fault.
The term “sport-specific training” is wildly circulating the industry of strength and conditioning but collectively, we are unable to pin point what it means exactly. Let’s look at it. The term is simply defined as training that enhances and improves the specific demands of a sport. This means that every exercise within a program directly improves an outcome of what the sport requires. This is where it gets muddy. There seems to have been a new wave of training where you add resistance to very specific and intricate skills to mimic the actual sport. Examples would be mimicking a punch with heavy dumbbells, hitting a golf ball with a weighted golf club, shooting a medicine ball that weighs more than a basketball to get those body parts stronger when it can actually do a lot more harm by making the athlete compensate and turn to bad mechanics and technique. Fatigue does that. I have also seen kids run through an obstacle course full of cones, hurdles and other things then catch a football at the end and that is considered sport specific. If you want to get better at your sport, practice your sport. If you want to be a better shooter in hoops, practice shooting. If you want to develop specific skills in a sport, practice those skills (skill development). Do not add weight or resistance to them to the point where the mechanics change. You defeat the purpose.
So if all soccer, football and lacrosse athletes accelerate and sprint in their sport that means we should plan exercises that develop and strengthen those movement patterns. When an athlete jumps in a vertical fashion, they exhibit explosive triple extension (which is the same movement pattern when you are in the acceleration phase of a sprint). Exercises such as dead lifts and squats both strengthen this movement. How about when an athlete changes direction? They must load (eccentrically) on one leg, display proper ankle stability to line up joints correctly to push off the planted leg to optimize muscle recruitment from the glutes, hamstrings and quads extending the knee and hips violently to change direction. A lateral lunge or a split squat provides similar movements. Single leg strength is very important for any sport. It just does not look as sexy when you cannot load nearly as much weight for single leg work but the benefits are ten fold for athletic performance.
As strength coaches we should know better. We should understand the demands and movement qualities of the various sports our athletes participate in but keeping in mind the bigger picture; total athletic development. A few years ago, I began training a youth female soccer athlete. On our second day she asked me “why are we lifting upper body when I play soccer?” I talked to her about the importance of what we call building the armor for our bodies to endure a long season and how the stronger you are the less likely you will be injured. She broke her collarbone the next week. She never asked me that again. I bring up this experience for parents, athletes and sport coaches to look at the bigger when creating a program for an athlete. Just because an athlete may use their upper bodies sparingly through out a competition does not mean that they should not train their upper body. Every athlete should be able to squat, hinge, push, pull, carry things and sprint. Do not confuse skill development and sport specific training and understand their differences. Look at the athlete as a whole for long-term success.
Here are some great tips for those working with young athletes created by Coach Fred Fornicola.
- Implement a safe, efficient, and effective full-body strength program two to three times per week. Have them work on all the major muscle groups and include exercises specific to strengthening the hands, calves, and in particular, the neck. Use a high level of effort with controlled movement. Include 7-10 exercises per workout and have them move quickly between exercises.
- Additional conditioning work is optional when the athlete is strength training intensely a couple times per week and practicing his or her sport. Conditioning, if needed and included, should be broken down properly. Over conditioning an athlete can lead to injuries and burnout very easily.
- Practice, practice, practice, but make sure the athlete is practicing properly. You can practice all day long that 2+2=5, but you’d be wrong every single time. Make sure what your athletes are practicing is correct.
- Have them become a student of the sport. Make sure they watch other athletes on all levels so they can learn more about the game and particular situations, so they can further their understanding of the sport.
- Have your athletes work on their auditory and visual skills as well. Being able to watch plays unfold and communicate will improve their skill set and effectiveness tremendously.
Jared Saavedra, MS, CSCS, PES