Why Sport-Specific Training Is A Bad Idea [Coaches Round Table]

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All strength coaches, whether in the private sector, high school, college, or professional level, have been asked the following question at some point…

“Do you do sport-specific training?”

This question is often asked by parents looking to get their son or daughter into training.

So why do they ask?

First and foremost, parents ask because they want what's best for their child and oftentimes the phrase “sport-specific” sounds like the best option for their athlete.

I also think another big reason has to do with what is pumped out on social media. It’s hard to go a day without seeing a video of gimmicky training being used by self-acclaimed guru trainers on their athletes.

The best part (kidding THE worst) is that they are often used on middle school or high school level athletes, hoping the “cool factor” will pump more kids through their doors.

To stop myself from ranting, I asked some of the most intelligent and respected coaches, trainers, and therapists I know to weigh in on the topic of sport-specific training: why you might want to think twice about training under this philosophy, and what you SHOULD be focusing on instead.

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Sexier Isn't Always Better

Tim DiFrancesco: TD Athletes Edge, Former Head Strength & Conditioning Coach, Los Angeles Lakers

One of the big problems in youth athlete development is the assumption that sexy training is good training. This idea has kids, parents, and trainers ignoring tried and true training methods in favor of altitude masks, bosu balls, and bands attached to baseball bats.

I've found that the sexier the exercise, the lower the chances are that it translates to sport function or performance.

Ignoring proven training methods while focusing on what looks cool might get you good at balancing on a half-dome ball while tossing a medicine ball, but that skill is unlikely to help you on the court, field, or track.

Youth athletes need to learn how to move well and then gain the strength to own those fundamental movements. Training which includes things like balancing on a half-dome ball while tossing a medicine ball only breeds compensation and bad movement habits.

Stick to fundamental movement training and strength development. Learn to squat, lunge, deadlift, pull-up, and push-up first. Then strengthen these movements with gradual load. This might not seem sexy or cool... but it will be cool when you see the results.

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Develop Strength, Master The Basics

Dr. Russ Manalastas: Doctor of Physical Therapy, Board Certified Sports Physical Therapist, Strength Coach

“Sport-specific training” has continued to boom over the past 10-15 years. Unfortunately, the classification of sport-specific training has been oversimplified in that people are using the term for anything and everything to catch the eye of athletes and parents.

But the biggest indicator to me as to what can help an athlete be successful is their ability to develop strength and master the basics.

Fundamental movement patterns need to be pristine and demonstrated consistently so athletes can have good body control to improve athleticism. Athleticism comes from being able to utilize their foundational strength, in addition to an athlete’s refined skill, and have it be expressed in sport.

Strength training in different planes, working on coordination, and improving stability during single leg tasks are most transferrable to sport without actually playing the sport.

Programming needs to be specific to the athlete, not necessarily the sport the athlete is playing, to yield a transferrable outcome.

Might you see some carryover if you give an athlete a baseball bat and practice rotational movements with it? Maybe. But I’d rather see my baseball athletes working with medicine ball throws and variations to improve rotational power and force generation that would be more applicable to them long term.

Overall, I think context needs to be given when discussing what sport-specific training is. If it doesn’t involve improving strength and building capacity in athletes to handle the stresses of sport, then maybe the term needs to be redefined in a manner that people would beter understand. 

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Train The Basic Human Movement Patterns

Matthew Ibrahim: Strength Coach, Licensed Massage Therapist

At the end of the day, movement is movement. The main tenets of movement come down to basic human movement patterns: squat, hip hinge, single leg, upper body push, upper body pull, upper body press, carry, run, jump, etc.

I’ve truly never understood the reasoning for the term ‘sport-specific’ in the realm of strength & conditioning and sports performance, other than the fact that someone was trying to make training look flashy or cool.

The reality in athletic development is that the recipe for building long-term health, resilience, and success for athletes is to train these basic human movement patterns.

If the goal is to increase the athlete’s availability and readiness to play, we must dial in on physical strength development in training. And we must help reduce the rate of injury in performance. The science and literature backs this all up with a high volume of research to prove it.

Instead of focusing on the next gimmick or fad, focus on keeping it simple. Cool does not equal good.

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What AREN'T They Getting On The Field?

Lori Lindsey: Strength Coach, Retired US Women’s Soccer Player

I always say that we're at the best and worst times of youth sports. There are so many opportunities, especially for female athletes, than ever before. But at same time, we are seeing the biggest push for early specialization than ever before as well.

Due to early specialization, the majority of injuries we see are overuse injuries stemming from the same repetitive movements being performed over and over.

As performance coaches, the last thing we want to do is have our athletes mimic the same movements off the field that they do on.

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The key is to give the athlete what they aren't getting on the field.

Focus on the basics: hinging, squatting, pushing, and pulling - nothing to do with ball. Purely focus on the movements that will make the athlete stronger and build a strong foundation that will allow them to express their skill on the field.

I know hinging and squatting doesn't sound fancy, but it doesn't have to be. The goal is build strong, durable, and efficient athletes. 

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Speed & Power > Mimicking Sports Skills

Joe Mascaretti: Owner of 3SixtyAthletics

Gyms across the country now advertise sport-specific training sessions. Soccer. Lax. Tennis. You name it. 

These ads portray that inside that gym, coaches and trainers plan to train athletes to better prepare for their sport. But the athlete is in a gym, not on the field.

It seems great in theory, but from someone who has been on the field as both a player and coach at a relatively high level, IT DOES NOT WORK.

You cannot duplicate sport skills and game-like scenarios effectively in a gym. Many of the drills introduced in these programs are silly, dangerous, and have zero impact on any crucial factors that contribute to athletic performance. 

I’m seeing too many coaches and personal trainers try and mimic in-game scenarios in the gym.

  • For example, I cringe every time I see a lacrosse player attach a band to a weighted stick and perform a shooting motion. Not only does this exercise not improve power output, but it screws up the player’s shooting mechanics, timing, and sensitivity. Bad all around.
  • Another example, is running through the agility ladder with a lacrosse stick in hand. This slows down the player’s ability to actually run through the ladder and improve foot speed (the point of the drill), while also reinforcing poor stick protection and cradling skills. Bad all around, again.

Rather than trying to mimic the exact sport skill, what we can do is train our athletes using explosive exercises that will improve speed and total body power output.

Use exercises like rotational medicine ball slams, rotational medicine ball throws, band resisted chops, etc. In skill practice, the athlete will then use that new power, and apply that power to his shooting technique. This results in a faster, more powerful shot without any disruption to shooting mechanics.

Going back to the agility ladder/stick example. A better idea is to spend time focusing on improving speed and agility with specific change-of-direction drills that emphasize the many different types of cuts we see during gameplay.

Then, in skill practice, allow the athlete to use that new speed while performing his actual sport skills, resulting in clean skills with power and speed behind them.  

The goal of training is to help the athlete improve their ability to play their sport through improving athletic attributes: building speed, agility, power, strength, conditioning, and flexibility.

If you can effectively improve the marker list above, it is fair to say an athlete will significantly improve and excel at their sport. Imagine a faster, more powerful, stronger athlete, who is more resistant to injury. They can then improve sport skills and team strategy with their sport coach.  

That is a prepared athlete I’d want on my team.

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You Are Not Another Sport-Specific Coach

Matthew Bousson: Director of Program Development & Athlete Performance

The law of specificity states: "To become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill." 

As strength & conditioning coaches, movement coaches, athlete performance coaches, (insert job title here), our job is to ensure that athletes can do what they are supposed to do: their sport.

Our main goal should be, first and foremost, to minimize risk and occurrence of injury. And then it's to build robust athletes who can sustain the physical and mental stress of training in their sport.

Our roles include basically everything (strength, speed, flexibility, mobility, durability, power etc) but the actual sport-specific skill itself.

Sport-specific training is the role of the sport specific coach. A pitching coach teaches pitching, a football position coach coaches the football position, and so on.

"Injury prevention precedes performance enhancement. Because if there is injury, there is no performance." - Hans Straub, Director of Olympic Sports, Stanford University.

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Sport-Specific Training Is Playing The Sport

Dr. Zak Gabor: Doctor of Physical, Strength Coach, Boston Physical Therapy & Wellness

As a sports physical therapist and strength coach who's been in the field for a few years now, I see A LOT of high school athletes. The whole notion of "sport-specific training" has good intensions, no doubt.

However, here are some of the issues I see with this model of training.

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Sport-specific training is playing the sport. But when it comes to improving strength and conditioning, you need to do exactly that: improve strength and conditioning.

Ruthlessly executing the basics is what truly gives you the foundation to perform on the field at a higher level and reduce chance of injury.

The other major issue I have with sport specific training is that it breeds specificity. We have now see, time and time again, that when teenage athletes play only one sport year round, they are more susceptible to injury!

Again, this is why mastering the basics of strength and conditioning is a superior option, because it has carryover to multiple sports, which is what we should be encouraging in our youth athletes.

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My Thoughts On Sport-Specific Training

I am so passionate about this topic because I used to be one of those athletes that was into the gimmicks. I was uneducated at the time, but I hope to now shed light and inform athletes, parents, and coaches.

I remember back to my summers where I spent hours doing “speed training” in the sand or with a soccer ball constantly at my feet... only to get discouraged when I didn’t get faster.

Looking back there is no question as to why I always had injuries in my career: I rarely stuck to the basics when it came to the weight room.

There is something to be said about working hard, and I will never discourage those who do. I only hope to point those who work hard in the right direction, so they can complement their hard work with smart and meaningful work.

I believe hard, smart work is the ingredients to a healthy successful career.

I sincerely hope the input from the coaches above have convinced you to critically think twice about the purpose behind your training. There have been common trends from the above coaches, and I think it’s clear to see why.

Gimmicky training does an excellent job of making people tired, sore, and not better.

Basics work. Always & forever!

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About The Author

Joseph Aratari is a strength & conditioning coach and manager at Next Level Strength & Conditioning in Rochester, New York. In addition to his role in the private sector, Joseph is also the head strength & conditioning coach at Penfield High School as well as the New York state director of high school strength & conditioning through the National High School Strength Coaches Association (NHSSCA). Joseph's biggest passion is working with the middle school and high school level athlete to offer them the highest possible training and mentoring he possible can.

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