'Sport-Specific' Training May Not Be What You Think It Is

Many strength and conditioning coaches advertise 'sport-specific' training, but what exactly does that mean for the athlete?

It seems that every time I open Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, I see some new "Expert Performance Coach" leading an athlete through what can best be described as an off-stage-circus type of exercise and marketing it as "Sport-Specific Training."

You know the type of stuff I'm talking about.

The athlete standing on a BOSU Ball while holding a dumbbell in one hand and a trainer pulling and tugging on a band held in the athlete's other hand, for example.

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It seems that every time I open Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, I see some new "Expert Performance Coach" leading an athlete through what can best be described as an off-stage-circus type of exercise and marketing it as "Sport-Specific Training."

You know the type of stuff I'm talking about.

The athlete standing on a BOSU Ball while holding a dumbbell in one hand and a trainer pulling and tugging on a band held in the athlete's other hand, for example.

My first reaction is one of exasperation, but I'm a well-educated and highly certified strength and conditioning professional.

When the general populace sees something like that, the reactions tend to be more amazement and intrigue. Then they approach coaches and ask why they can't train like that.

Exacerbating the issue are professional athletes participating in these types of exercises. When their "trainers" post the videos of it on social media platforms, millions of people think they too should train that way. The term "sport specific" has been hijacked by private sector trainers who are seeking to entice clients with buzzwords and fad exercises. I would love to explain to you why this is not sport-specific training, and why falling for the eye wash and fad exercises that we see so often on social media could be detrimental to your performance.

This is not a new issue. It's just become more common and more visible due to the prevalence of social media.

We live in a time where we can connect with the entire world simply by the touch of the screen on a device constantly in our pocket. We have the ability to document any moment of our existence and broadcast it for the world to see in seconds. We have access to information at our fingertips at all hours of the day. This has been highly beneficial in many ways.

The problem we've run into, however, is that the ease of information creates the illusion of credibility. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can call himself a "Performance Coach" and post videos of the "training" he does with zero accountability to anyone or anything. While these trainers are absolutely allowed to do that, what is disconcerting is them pulling terminology from the strength and conditioning community in order to sell themselves and their product to athletes and parents who legitimately do not know any better.

To better understand the issue, let's look at the term Sport-Specific Training. To understand this term, we need to understand the three words that comprise it. For ease and the sake of general access, I will use the Dictionary.com definitions for these words that best describes them in this context.

  • Sport: an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.
  • Specific: peculiar or proper to somebody or something, as qualities, characteristics, effects, etc.
  • Training: the education, instruction, or discipline of a person.

Using only the definition of the words, it would seem that sport-specific training is the education, instruction or discipline of a person using qualities, characteristics and effects that are synonymous with an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess.

Strength and conditioning coaches understand that our job is to build the athlete. We should build strength, speed and durability that transfers to the athlete's field of play. In that regard, all the training we do is technically sport specific, but there are certain things that are universal across training for all sports and should look similar regardless of the sport the athlete participates in.

All athletes need strength. All athletes need to be fast. All athletes need to be resilient through extreme ranges of motion. We take that base and progress our athletes from there.

As an example, let's say I am training two high school athletes. Both are 15 years old. One is a male who plays baseball. The other is a female who plays soccer. Two very different sports, correct?

Their training will begin the same. They will both build a base of strength, resiliency and speed. After mastering the basic movements, they will progress to more complex ones.

At this point, their training will deviate to reflect their individual needs based on the demands their sport will place on their bodies. For example, baseball is an overhead sport. That will be taken into consideration when programming. That is as "sport specific" as training should ever get. We tailor the program to match the needs of the athlete. This in turn makes them better athletes. Better athletes perform their sport, you guessed it, better.

To be clear, all training can be "sport specific" if it creates adaptations that transfer to the field of play. Strength, speed, agility, mobility and resiliency all transfer to the field. The reality is that sound training for most team sport athletes will look quite similar regardless of their specific sport, so this current obsession with a program being "sport specific" is misguided.

A trainer heralding a specific program as "sport specific" to a single sport should be a red flag.

Here's what sport specific training is NOT.

It is not taking any movement from the field of play, loading it with weight or resistance, then having the athlete try to perform it. I saw a video a few months back of an offensive lineman performing a kick slide in the weight room exactly as he would on the field during pass protection, but his coach/trainer had him holding a loaded Tsunami Bar to his chest as he did it. That's a HARD NO.

Let me say that I am in no way speaking negatively about the Tsunami Bar. It is a fantastic tool when utilized correctly. Anything can become dangerous in the weight room if utilized improperly. This instance in particular was very dangerous. Anyone familiar with a Tsunami Bar knows exactly what happens when an athlete using it begins moving it. It flops. A lot.

This was incredibly dangerous for the athlete and for anyone else in the room. Had the clamps failed (and all of us have had a clamp fail before), plates would have been sent flying through the room. In addition, the athlete was unable to maintain proper posture through his movement. His technique was compromised. Why? Because there was a flapping bar of weight held against his chest.

This is just one example of "sport-specific training" gone wrong. Countless other illustrations can be pulled from social media. When coaches or trainers get overzealous in trying to make training "sport specific" and skip out on the basics that benefit every athlete, that's an issue.

Why don't I just mind my own business and let others do what they like while I train my athletes the way I believe they should be trained?

Great question. The overwhelming majority of parents have no clue about the differences between sound training principles and the flashy garbage that so many of these con men are advertising. So many people live under the belief that activity equals achievement. That could not be more incorrect. We should never ever perform movement just for movement's sake. That's a recipe for injury.

There should be a rhyme and a reason to everything you are doing when training. If your trainer cannot explain it to you with sound training principles, you need a new trainer. Many of those guys mean well. They really do. Many of them (wrongly) believe in their methods. And to make things more confusing, their athletes may make progress. But at the end of the day, it's not those methods that's making the typical high school athlete bigger, faster and stronger. The true cause is puberty. The majority of teenage athletes will see vast physical improvements from just about any type of training due to puberty and the associated factors like increased testosterone levels.

A trainer who takes all the credit for their methods improving the performance of a teenage athlete is like someone watering a garden of fertilized soil in an optimal environment with miracle grow then claiming they just have a green thumb.

Unless there are mitigating genetic factors, an 18-year-old is stronger and faster than their 14-year-old self. That will even happen without a single day of training.

So, how can you sort through the avalanche of training content released every day and identify good from bad?

First, don't believe that an exercise or drill is of sound design just because it's heralded by ESPN, Bleacher Report or another big media outlet. A lot of those outlets have zero knowledge of actual training principles and are quick to post eye-wash garbage.

Second, be patient. There's no fast track to success in training. Don't mistake fancy for efficient. Your body will adapt and adjust to the demands you place on it as it grows and moves through puberty.

Third, do your research. Before hiring a trainer, ask them some hard questions. Ask them about their process and their system. Ask them why they do what they do. Ask them how they collect data and make decisions on how to progress or regress their athletes. Ask them what their credentials are. Certifications do not make people good coaches and trainers, but it guarantees they at least have enough of a working knowledge to pass the test. Look for CSCCa, CSCS, USAW, FMS and CFSC, just to name a few. These are reputable certifications collegiate and professional teams look for when hiring strength coaches.

Additionally, having played the sport at a high level does NOT make someone a credible trainer. The best analogy I've heard on that topic is: brushing your teeth every day for 10 years doesn't make you a dentist. Just because they themselves were able to perform at a high level does not mean they know up from down when it comes to programming and training.

There are some PHENOMENAL private sector strength coaches out there who are absolutely killing it. Mike Boyle, Eric Cressey, Travis Mash, Gerry DeFilippo, Vernon Griffith and Ty Nordic are just a few of the names that come to mind. These guys are putting out quality content and engaging in training that is sound and improves the performance of their clients.

If you want to see what training athletes should look like, start by following those guys on social media and soak up what they put out. None of those guys are posting videos of the circus-act type exercises that draw so much ire from the strength and conditioning community and elicit so much confusion among athletes and parents who don't know any better.

Do your due diligence! If you need advice, reach out to me or any of the strength and conditioning coaches who are putting out solid content on their social media. There are hundreds of coaches who will gladly converse with you on any topic to help further the field and make you better!

Photo Credit: Halfpoint/iStock

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Topics: COACH | SPORTS