One of the questions we receive most frequently from parents and coaches about our programs at Endeavor is “Is it sport-specific?” Hopefully, based on the discussions from last week, you recognize that there are a lot of things to consider when helping an athlete improve physically for their sport(s). If you missed the preceding posts, you can check them out here:

  1. Understanding Range of Motion: more is not better
  2. Dissecting Performance Limitations
  3. Assessing and Monitoring Performance Limitations

The interesting thing about the question “Is it sport-specific?” is I don’t think the person asking it really has a firm grasp on what that actually means. Instead, I think there’s this pervasive fear that all athletes will be “trained like football players”, and what they’re really asking is “will this training help better prepare my athlete(s) for their sport?”

As an aside, I think there are worse stereotypes to model on a widescale than football. Football players are known for being among the strongest and most explosive in all sports, they have the longest preparatory off-season, and they have the highest practice:game ratio of all the major sports. If I was going to make a blanket statement, which I understand will be inherently wrong in specific cases, I would say that almost every athlete in every sport would benefit from being stronger, quicker, and more powerful, and from an increased emphasis on preparation and a decreased emphasis on competition.

That notwithstanding, I also don’t know what the parents and coaches asking this question expect to hear as an answer…

“No, we throw a piece of paper for each sport in a hat and randomly draw one to decide what we’ll prepare your athlete for. Hopefully he doesn’t draw polo!”

Using football as an example, consider these questions?

  1. Do quarterbacks, running backs, and offensive lineman have the same needs?
  2. What if the above kids were all 12 years old?
  3. Does an overweight running back with poor fitness have the same needs as a lean running back with great fitness?
  4. Does an explosive running back with poor strength have the same needs as a strong running back with relatively poor power?
  5. Do football players have the same needs during the off- and in-season periods?

Painted in this light, maybe a better question is “will the training be specific to my athlete’s individual goals and needs?”

The reality is that there are several “layers of individualization” that all need to be kept in perspective when designing a program and making recommendations for a specific athlete. The discussion below will highlight several, and provide some insight into the hierarchy of when to prioritize certain qualities.

The first layer of individualization is where the athlete is within the long-term athletic development model. Different age groups are associated with the accelerated development of specific athletic qualities, so it’s important to include an emphasis on these qualities while the kids are in this window. Use the below graph from USA Hockey and the accompanying chart I made for a USA Hockey Level 4 Coaching Clinic presentation a few years back to help guide your decision making. The general thought process here should be selecting training methods to directly train the stage-specific target qualities or to train supporting qualities (e.g. sometimes strength is the limiting factor to speed, so strength training can be viewed as strength training).

Long-Term Athletic Development-Sensitivity to Training

LTAD Model from USA Hockey’s ADM

Sensitivity Periods

Simplified table of sensitive periods for specific qualities at various ages.

2) Gender
Male and female athletes, especially once puberty kicks in, have moderately different needs. While this really depends on the individual (as does everything), female athletes tend to have greater joint laxity, less strength, a greater tolerance for higher volumes of training, and have greater risk of non-contact knee injuries than their male counterparts. There are also differences in coaching methods and motivational sources between genders that need to be accounted for. From a programming standpoint, female athletes may need less flexibility work, more “stability” work, a mildly greater emphasis on strategies to prevent common knee injuries (e.g. ACL tears), and may be able to get away with one more set or 1-2 more reps for each set at any given load percentage. This doesn’t mean that females need an entirely different program, only that slight tweaks may make it more beneficial than using the same strategies for their male counterparts.

Valgus Collapse
This isn’t acceptable for anyone, but we see this type of inward collapse more frequently in female athletes.

3) Sport
Different sports have different movement pattern, neuromuscular drive/force, and energy system requirements that will need to be accounted for in the training process. As a general rule, off-season programs should progress from general to specific in all of these qualities, which will allow for a smooth transition to the pre-season of that sport.

Sumo Wrestling  Earl Boykins

Different training goals for different sports.

4) Position
While many sports share common characteristics among positions, there are also notable differences between some positions within a sport. For example, a football quarterback, kicker, offensive lineman, and cornerback have fairly different needs in terms of their speed, strength, and conditioning. Similarly, a soccer goalie has different needs than a midfielder.

5) Role Within Team
How an athlete is used within a team should influence the way that athlete prepares for the season. For example, if you take a 4th line NHL forward, depending on the team, this guy may play somewhat regular shifts and be used on penalty kills and amass close to 13-15 minutes on average each game. In contrast, another team (or another player on the same team) may only be used sporadically to give the team an energy boost. In the case of the latter, the player would need sufficient conditioning to tolerate the stresses associated with daily practice and travel, and the skill/work capacity to not get killed in a fight (the reality for players in these roles), but would likely benefit from more time spent developing their acceleration, speed, and alactic power. Quite simply, if you’re only on the ice for 15-25s once every 10-15 minutes, you don’t need to have the same conditioning profile as someone playing 30-45s shifts once every 5 minutes. When you play 5 minutes across 3 hours, you’ll probably have a larger impact if you can make a difference with your strength and speed during the 20s you’re out there, opposed to be a little slower, but able to repeat that effort with short rest.

6) Performance Characteristics
Instead of identifying these all separately, it’s fairly intuitive that different athletes will need to have different characteristics regarding acceleration, speed, power, strength, and conditioning to be successful in their sport. This idea is very much encompassed in all of the above ideas. What may not be as obvious, is that all of the above factors can be considered in light of what the athlete currently brings to the table to develop the program that most specifically develops the limiting factor. For example, if the primary limiting factor to be an athlete being more successful is his speed, it’s important to break down speed to the supporting physical qualities: Alignment, mobility, stability, movement pattern efficiency, strength, power/rate of force development. A thorough assessment should identify whether the athlete has an ankle mobility restriction that may be limiting his ability to absorb and transfer force into the ground, he doesn’t run with proper mechanics, his strength is insufficient to support faster running speeds, or he’s strong, but not powerful enough to translate that strength at the required speeds, among others limitations. Once a specific limitation is identified, it’s much easier to target that limitation through specific training.

7) Body Composition
Certain sports and certain positions within sports have certain body composition requirements. I’ve seen very good hockey players be written off as lazy and incompetent because their body fat was 11-12% instead of below the typical standard of 10%. This message has two important lessons: 1) Training programs can be designed to pursue specific body compositions. As a result, training to improve body composition can also be viewed through the lens of how it will improve other qualities (think speed, power, conditioning), not in terms of the training itself, but in terms of how much easier and more efficiently the athlete will move when they’re not carrying around excessive body fat.  2) The perception of an athlete’s work ethic can be tied to their performance strengths/weaknesses (e.g. faster athletes are less likely to be considered lazy in many cases than slower ones), and their body composition. This is interesting because, as with all scenarios, sometimes the athlete with the higher body comp and/or the slower speeds is actually lazy and this stereotype is accurate; sometimes it’s completely off-base and the athlete isn’t one of the fastest and/or leanest because of genetic predispositions. If I’m an athlete, however, I don’t want to give my coach any reason to assume that I’m lazy, which means if I’m not one of the fastest, I would be EXTRA sure to get my body fat below the team standard and make it clear that my performance would not in any way be limited by a lack of effort.

8) Injury History/Predisposition
Training programs can be written to specifically address past injuries to decrease the risk of future injuries. In most cases, this does not need to occur at the expense of other training goals, but simply must be a consideration within a broader program.

Clayton Kershaw  Alex Morgan

Likely to have very different injury predispositions/concerns.

9) Psychological Profile
Simply, the most talented player on the team that is too mentally soft to overcome the “targeting” from opponents and the stress of adverse circumstances common in big games will be of little use to a team. In this context, training that may not fit the physiologically specificity of the sport, but is hard and requires the athlete to dig deep and battle through the challenge may be very appropriate for that individual. Again, I don’t necessarily think this needs to be done at the expense of other training benefits, but I think you can include specific methods within a broader program to provide the athlete with regular opportunities to battle the voice in their head that wants to quit.

Wrapping Up
With all of these factors in mind, there is very clearly more to designing a training program than just considering the needs of a sport. Naturally, it’s not always possible to design the “perfect” program, but I think it’s important to recognize what’s optimal so you can make informed decisions about any compromises you need to make based on logistical factors. As a general rule, I think parents and coaches (and S&C coaches designing programs) should start to think more in terms of “How is this program going to benefit my athlete based on his/her individual needs?” opposed to “Is this sport-specific?” As always, if you have any comments or questions, please post them below!

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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Over the last several weeks, I’ve been very fortunate to have an opportunity to work in close conjunction with Ned Lenny, a really bright physical therapist with an office in Cherry Hill, NJ.  Ned has been doing some in-house work for us at Endeavor, which has been a great educational experience for me and our athletes.

Ned and I were talking about one of our hockey players, and we started talking about training strategies for muscles primarily considered stabilizers. The rotator cuff and the lateral hip musculature are two popular muscle groups that populate the stabilizer category.

Collectively, the rotator cuff muscles function to stabilize the humeral head within the glenohumeral joint and ensure proper tracking of these two bones on one another

The deep hip rotators (pictured) and the gluteus medius (not pictured) compromise the lateral hip musculature typically considered as serving a stabilization function

These muscle groups do in fact function primarily as stabilizers. In other words, they provide dynamic control of the surrounding joint and stability of the joint so that high levels of force can be generated by the extremities. At the risk of beating this analogy to death, attempting to express strength or power with poor stabilizer function is similar to attempting to shoot a cannon from a canoe. Stability creates the foundation for strength and power. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for the expression of these qualities.

This understanding is a huge step in the right direction from the textbook approach to training where external rotators are only trained in external rotation movements and internal rotators are only training in internal rotation movements without any focus on their co-contraction functions in the interest of more global movement. Instead of these isolated rotations, better exercise choices are:

Rotator Cuff: Partner-assisted dynamic stabilizations, farmer’s walks, waiter’s walks, 1-arm stability wall hold, etc.

Lateral Hip Musculature: Backward monster walks, lateral mini-band walks, all single-leg exercises

In these exercises, the aforementioned muscles function in concert with one another to promote stability. This would be the most functional/integrative way to approach training these muscle groups. In both the hockey and sports training industries, there are tendencies to utilize new information in an extreme fashion. In other words, pendulums tend to swing too far in one direction; too much black or white and not enough shades of gray.

Sometimes the training industry goes too far…

In this case, Ned pointed out that training and movement aren’t just about function, they’re also influential in tissue nutrition. In this vein, nutrition refers to fluid and nutrient circulation to tissue structures within the body. When muscle groups become too rigid, they lose nutrition, become fibrotic, and can even begin to calcify. Naturally, this results in a loss of mobility and proper function. Taking muscles through a full range of motion helps improve nutrient delivery to the structures and therefore can help improve their function. This line of logic indicates that, despite the lack of “functional” carryover, there is still a place for more isolationist exercises like pure internal and external rotations.

A more functional approach to training the rotator cuff

Of course, before the people that have only been recommending tubing exercises for rotator cuffs for the last decade celebrate, the isolationist approach, by itself, is still not the best way to go. The major take home here is that, as with all things training, there are shades of gray. There is a place for both modalities. This is also another example that sometimes the most sport-specific training solution is anti-sport-specific training!

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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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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