Sport Specific Training vs. Sports-Specific Training

For the last decade or so, the words “sport specific training” have frequented the marketing of people with services claiming (sometimes accurately) to develop athletes. The “sport-specific” movement was initially characterized by people taking identical movement found in sports (e.g. a baseball swing, a hockey shot, etc.) and providing some sort of resistance to the pattern.

The “Sport-Specific Training” Mistake
Unfortunately, the approach of loading skilled movement patterns is counterproductive. Whether or not you get stronger from doing these loaded repeated movements is somewhat debatable, but in the interest of optimism, let’s suppose that there is a strengthening effect. The problem is that the skilled pattern itself is negatively affected. The loaded movements ruin the movement pattern; usually in terms of both neuromuscular timing and outcome accuracy. This is just a fancy way of saying that the way your muscles control the movement and the accuracy of the movement are negatively affected. Think of the implications this has for ice hockey. Altered shooting form and accuracy can make a HUGE difference since most players only get a shot or two a game!

The other, less frequently acknowledged downside of this comes back to the idea of tissue stress accumulation I discussed a couple weeks back (Long Term Hockey Development and Injury Prevention). The more you move through a pattern, the larger the amount of stress the involved muscles and surrounding tissue take. Because we are a stimulus driven society and typically focus little, if at all, on recovery, doing extra work on top of playing your sport in these sport specific patterns can push you closer or over your injury threshold.

Do We Need “Sport-Specific Training” At All?
While the training was a bit off, the intention was great and it made a lot more people in the sports arena aware of the necessity of physically preparing to play. With that though, it gave the allusion that every sport had it’s own secret training protocol and that athletes need highly sport-specific training in order to get the results they deserve. In other words, hockeyplayers needed “hockey-specific” training, soccer players needed “soccer-specific” training, and so on.

In reality, most popular sports (soccer, baseball, hockey, football, lacrosse, basketball, field hockey, and volleyball, amongst others) share more athletic qualities than people realize. Maximizing athletic performance in any of these areas requires training to ensure:

  1. Appropriate multi-planar joint stability of the ankles, hips, thoracic spine (upper spine), and glenohumeral joint (shoulder).
  2. Appropriate stability of the knee, lumbar spine (lower back), scapulothoracic joint (shoulder blade), and elbow
  3. Improved full body power
  4. Improved strength of all major muscle groups in FUNCTIONAL movement patterns (e.g. lunge and squatting patterns, NOT machine work!)

With this in mind, over 80% of training will be almost identical for athletes of all the above sports. I remember hearing Mike Boyle joke once that he created the Boston University Field Hockey program by taking the Ice Hockey program, deleting “Ice”, and adding “Field”. I’m not sure if he actually did that or not, but his point was clear. The major differences in training programs between sports are:

  1. The proportion of work in the areas outlined above. For example, a lacrosse player may need more explosive upper body work than a soccer player because of the physicality and shooting in lacrosse
  2. The direction of the training stresses. For example, sports like volleyball and basketball necessitate more vertical power training (e.g. vertical jumping) than sports like soccer and ice hockey, which are predominantly (although not entirely) horizontal-based. Similarly, sports like baseball, golf, hockey, and lacrosse will necessitate more horizontal rotational power training than sports like football because of the importance of shooting in these sports.
  3. Conditioning. The metabolic demands between sports like football, volleyball, and soccer are completely different. As a result, so is the emphasis on conditioning. While almost all conditioning for sports should be interval-based, the frequency, intensity, and duration of the conditioning should be specific to the sport.

Sport- vs. Sports-Specific Training
The major take home from all of this is that athletes and parents should be actively seeking out “sports-specific” training, not “sport-specific” training. Sports-specific training creates separation from the largely irrelevant personal training and body building alternatives out there, but encompasses the important idea of training in the interest of athletic development.

Training for athletic development is the key to experiencing a long, successful sports career while avoiding the injuries imposed by so-called “sport-specific” training programs.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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