Threshold Theory and Athletic Development: When Is "Good Enough" Good Enough?

Strength and power development is essential for all athletes in any sport. On the youth and and HS levels, the fastest and strongest athletes also tend to be the best players on the field.

However, on an elite level, there is a threshold when pushing strength limits actually becomes detrimental.

Before we go any further defining the athletic threshold, I’ll take a moment to introduce myself. My name is Christopher Gorres. I am a performance coach based in the Washington DC area and I’ve worked with professional athletes from all sports including the NFL, NBA, MLB, US Soccer, US Swimming and more. Like many of my pro athletes, clients of all ages and backgrounds reach out to me to help them perform better on the field or on the court.

That is why I don’t consider myself a strength and conditioning coach but a performance coach. There is so much more to an athletes game than strength and speed. Of course they are major components but elite players aren’t just strong and fast, they have great skills and instincts respective to their game.

Anything I do with an athlete must translate onto the field; weight room gains and personal records on the bench press mean nothing.

Now that you have a little insight on my perspective, lets go back to the threshold.

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The Threshold Theory - When Is "Good Enough" Good Enough?

In Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he highlights a social experiment in the 1920’s run by a man named Lewis Terman. Terman specialized in intelligence testing and had a theory that success was directly related to IQ. He was convinced that he could identify the future leaders of the country by simply finding individuals with the highest IQ.

Terman set out to find the very best students, selecting only the best of the best thru a series of tests that measured a student’s intelligence. He went on to track the achievements of his very selective group and there were no doubt some highlights in the beginning.

However, as those young students became adults, he started to see that the results of his experiment were not quite what he was expecting.

Many in the group went on to live ordinary lives with modestly successful careers. It was not the dynamic group of leaders and nobel prize winners that Terman had predicted.

In fact, many have stated that the results of that experiment would have yielded similar results if the group was selected based on social economic status instead of IQ. There was on very important concept that Terman overlooked called the Intelligence Threshold.

Theoretically, someone with a higher IQ was more likely to succeed than someone with a low IQ, but after a certain point, IQ no longer mattered.

So for instance if you are comparing an IQ of 100 to an IQ of 70, the person with the higher IQ is more likely to be successful. The same could be said when comparing 120 v 100. But after a certain point, the difference no longer becomes relevant.

If you are comparing two geniuses, one with an IQ of 140 and one with an IQ of 180, the difference in their score means nothing.

The law of thresholds don't end here.

Personal income and happiness is another good example. Its fair to say that making enough money to stay above the poverty line would be directly related to happiness. Its also fair to say that after a certain point, more money doesn’t necessarily equal more joy.

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Does The Threshold Theory Apply to Athletics? You Bet

This concept can certainly be applied to sports.

If you compare the deadlift 1RM of two football players of the same position, you’d choose the player who could lift 300lbs v 200lbs, as that player is more likely to succeed.

However, if both players have a deadlift 1RM of above 500, deadlift is no longer a good way to differentiate the potential of those two players.

Here’s a great example of the “speed threshold” using the famous 40 yard dash, the premier event at the NFL Combine every year.

Below is a chart of the top 10 NFL rushers in the last 10 years (note that I took out repeat performances from Adrian Peterson). 

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The 40 yard dash times range from 4.24 (Chris Johnson) all the way to 4.68 (Arian Foster). Other than Johnson, no one ran below 4.4 seconds and the average of these 10 players is 4.5 seconds. The leading all-time rusher in the NFL for a career is Emmitt Smith (4.52).

Now let’s look at the fastest combine times over the last 10 years for running backs.

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After digesting both of those lists, you'll notice that the only player to appear on both lists is Chris Johnson. That is to say, out of the top 10 NFL Combine 40-yard dash times, only 1 player made the top 10 in rushing yards.

In addition to these 10 running backs there were 34 others that ran under 4.4 seconds. Thats a total of 44 running backs that tested faster than all but 1 running back in the from the first list. There were also over 100 running backs who from list 1.

This proves that although the 40 yard dash is a great measurement, after a certain point (around 4.5 seconds) it is no longer as relevant. If you are an NFL scout looking for a running back, the question is not necessarily about how fast someone can run, but if they can run fast enough.

That is why it is impossible to analyze someone’s player potential on traditional combine testing like the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, or bench press. Even testing skills, like 3pt shooting basketball, is irrelevant in an isolated situation.

These tests have nothing to do with a game situation. Sure these are great measurements but its impossible to predict the success of someone’s career based on combine numbers alone. They are only useful in testing whether an athlete is strong “enough” or fast “enough” to be over the Athletic Threshold.

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In Defense Of "Good Enough"

For training purposes, this is a game changer.

When I’m working with my athletes, I’m not training them to be the fastest, only fast enough. I’m not necessarily training them to be the strongest, only strong enough.

My goal with athletes is to train them past the threshold, and once they are there, to keep them there because once we reach a certain point, it no longer becomes beneficial to continue developing certain qualities.

Lets take a look at this threshold concept in real life.

A few years ago I had the chance to train with one of the young stars in the NFL, someone who continues to be a big contributor for his team. It was clear that this person was strong enough to play in the league.

We needed to work on other things to help him maintain his performance on the field, things like mobility and core stability along with speed and agility. By changing his mindset and approach to strength, I was able to convince him that working on other things would help his game much more than squeezing out a few extra pounds on the bar.

The threshold doesn’t just apply to strength but to all athletic qualities like flexibility, core strength, speed, and even conditioning. We knew he was strong enough but we needed to improve in other areas.

Managing Risk Versus Reward In Athletic Development

Another very important concept in training an athlete past the threshold, is managing the risk v reward. We’ve already shown that after a certain point, the benefit of strength development is not significant.

But what about the risk?

When it comes to something like strength, the risk of that movement increases exponentially as you start to push the limit. If we already know that an athlete is strong, why take on the added risk of establishing a new 1RM?

If you are under the strength threshold, the reward is high and the risk is moderate because the weights are still relatively low. But above the threshold, it becomes an irresponsible gamble. The risk factor increases and the reward decreases to almost nothing.

So when it came to strength exercises like squat, deadlift, and bench, I would cap the amount of weight and reps in each workout. We never did more than 5 work sets and we kept the rep range no lower than 3 but no higher than 15 on a plus set.

My cap limit was 3x the plus set amount, so if we finished with a 3+, he would stop if he could get to 9. If he could get to 9, than we would increase the weight for the next week. If he stopped short, we would use the same weight until he could get to the number.

His strength numbers continued to improve from week to week until finally he asked, “how much do you think I can max squat?”.

My answer to him was simple.

“Enough”.

That year, Ryan Kerrigan was named to his first Pro Bowl.

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About The Author

Chris Gorres joins the TrainHeroic blog with a vast background, having worked with multiple NFL athletes and Olympic level athletes. Chris specializes in speed, power, strength, injury prevention, functional training, and rehab. He continues to work with high level athletes all across the globe and has become a trusted source for many athletes, parents, and coaches.

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